Dana Levin
Pledge

a portion of days                                                                          

 

Santa Fe, January-April 2017

 

 

January 29, 2017

 

Still in bed, eying out the window a crow flying around the big pine that is their sentry, how they’ve stripped the needles from the very top branches—to see more clearly? To mark it “mine”?

 

A flash just now of sitting up in this bed in a whole new room come June, in Saint Louis.

 

In the living room here the roof still leaks even after two visits from the roofers. Put old cat litter buckets under leaks and went to sleep and woke up to a pace of thwocks—

 

Reminded me of N.’s final project for Hertel’s Art and Environment class all those years ago at Pitzer: how he’d made a drum and set it up under a pepper tree in the chaparral that bordered campus in those days and the whole class trooped out there to see it.

 

N. said something about Time, about man-invented time and the time the earth gave us, how he wanted time to naturally mark itself by the falling of leaves and other natural debris on the drum.

 

And I remember thinking: a falling leaf wouldn’t make very much sound on the skin of a drum—

 

THWOK—go the water drops from the roof into the kitty litter buckets THWOK—time dropping its little stones of passage—

 

My project had been getting T. to build me a free standing door in a frame, a door you could put anywhere, that could open and close. We set it up in the middle of the vast soccer field and the class trooped up there to see it—

 

Spontaneously the students formed a line and one by one opened the door, each announcing an intended destination—“I’m going to Hawaii!”—and stepping through—

 

As if declaring it could make it so. I’m going! and a portal opened through space, powered by wish and imagination—while Time beat time on the skin of the world.

 

 

 

 

January 31

 

Woke up and entirely skipped my pledge, skipped it all day, skipped it until after evening drinks and nachos with old student S., who is caught between the call of job security and the call to write—who is not writing. I told her about my own current difficulties with writing and said, “You know, my sister made me take this pledge—” and I told her to take it too.

 

Pledge: to write every day for twelve weeks about your feelings (blech).

 

Murray the Cat rubbing the edge of this journal so vigorously, to mark it his—while I write about skipping and extolling the pledge—

 

Venus so big and bright in the cold western sky as we walked out of Del Charros—every constellation bright in the cold dark sky as I walked to my front steps, even the Seven Sisters—

 

And then a mental flash: August’s imperium, enormous cumulonimbus clouds processing from the southwest in fleets.

 

 

February 4

 

Coffee with some old students. Talking about Fame, Ambition’s fickle glitzy paramour—

 

Remembering then the body that had knelt and the head that had bowed under the Lama’s hand.

 

Telling them about the Tibetan Buddhist relics we’d toured, my sister and I, years ago. Bending to peer at a tiny scrap of parchment said to feature the original written word of a woman saint. I remember that most clearly: the tiny scrap of parchment big as the pad of my thumb and the script on it, curl of black flame.

 

It was all that was left!—of her handwriting—

 

At the end of the touring line there sat the Lama. And you were to kneel and receive his blessing. What had I prayed for as I knelt, I prayed to be a messenger—to record whatever wanted to stream through, regardless of it being met with failure, silence or star—

 

Even though, like them, I wanted to be an acknowledged prophet. I’d prayed for it to be okay to be a vessel.

 

 

February 5

 

I wake up mid-thought, as if all night I’ve been in an 18th C. coffeehouse, arguing about the State.

 

As if I’ve been hunkered in a DC apartment with federal workers planning insurrection—

 

As if all night, in sleep, I’ve been arguing with fellow travelers about conspiracy vs. incompetence, about whether or not we can liken what’s going on to Germany, 1933—

 

Then Murray climbs up and settles inside my left arm, for his morning snuggle. I tell him he is a good cat, the best kitty ever, how sorry I am that he is sick, that he cannot come with me when I move, that I must hasten his end. Sometimes I wonder if I should just take him off all intervention now, so I can really get how sick he is—and feel less…guilt? Grief? About euthanizing him—

 

Or you, America—

 

 

February 10

 

How am I feeling.

 

Bum tooth, sinus infection, the seemingly endless regimen of penicillin—and the whole shoulder/thoracic thing that’s been bothering me since November. Vise around the chest.

 

On Facebook we are taking turns alarming and exasperating and bolstering each other, helping and hindering each other, advising and scolding each other, every once in a while inspiring each other, deflating each other, frightening each other, encouraging each other, sharing action items and telephone numbers and horrible news articles and every once in a while someone still posts a picture of a baby or food.

 

 

February 16

 

Watching Murray uncommonly spry for the first time in a long while, tossing a rubberband under the kitchen table, playing his game of obstacle chair—

 

How can I possibly kill him when there is so much life in him?

 

Outside, the big sky—pinpoint diamonds in the clear black night. Orion, Pleiades, Big Dipper, Cassiopeia—

 

Cat Nation Sky Trump Stars

 

 

March 5

 

All last week in NoCal, walking on the haul road in Fort Bragg with C., stopping a moment to snap pics of vivid tiny blue flowers dotting the sides of the road—

 

Posting one close-up to Instagram, saying, “That to which I pledge allegiance.”

 

Thinking about pledge, the etymology, what was it? Anglo-norman: hostage, guarantor. Then security, bail, guarantee. “To be responsible for, to vouch for.” Then “a solemn commitment to do or to refrain from doing something: a promise, a vow.”

 

Thinking about this pledge journal—is everything I write about, then, that to which I pledge allegiance?

 

Writing, and a tiny blue flower, holding me hostage!

 

 

March 6

 

Sitting with C., drinking early morning coffee, talking about not being up for the task of being us in this post-Election environment, conflict-avoidant and inward and hermetic, burrowers, hiders—having come through childhood already exhausted, by the blasts and craters of a sky-god father.

 

Drinking coffee strong and thick and loaded with half n half the way we like it—getting to the dregs, and in my cup seeing that the oracular grounds had painted a scene: a figure at the base of a mountain, two pines at the pinnacle behind her, bent over a desk, or a sacrificial altar.

 

 

March 8

 

Yesterday I imagined setting up a Twitter account called LOVE, whose bio is LOVE, and all I do is tweet love at Donald J. Trump.

 

Examples:

 

You are enough.

 

Inclusivity = more applause, Donald J. Trump!

 

Benevolent rulers are loved even beyond the grave— #love

 

That the Republic holds. That the bombs stay in their bays in the earth’s deep pockets. That the bigots slink back into their dis-elected holes.

 

 

March 9

 

Visited M.'s class today. A student asked me about the shapes of my stanzas, their heavy indents, their short and long lines, and as I was talking, I realized: New Mexico! The vast page of its sky! For nineteen years, the open field—

 

in which thought and image have bloomed and chimneyed and changed and faded and bloomed…

 

Venturing out on very cold nights to go in the garage and put laundry in the dryer, giant Orion sharp and bright as if its stars were made of crystal ice—and before night, to the west, Venus and moon-sliver above extending lines: vermillion, purple, pink, green, gray, gold.

 

 

March 18

 

Sitting on the front porch with Murray, his last week on this earth, his breath is starting to stink and his back legs aren’t at all steady—the other day catching sight of him standing in the hallway and so startled: as if his face was sagging right off his skull.

 

 

March 20

 

I haven’t been sleeping well, but then last night I let myself object strenuously to this move, to leaving New Mexico, to killing my cat, to leaving my friends. I don’t want to, I don’t want to, hot hot tears—and then I slept.

 

 

March 23

 

Days of placid warmth and tree buds and blue blue sky every day a paradise of porch napping for Murray the Cat, today the martial Spring winds gusted in, now all stormy and even rain and the temp’s dropped 20 degrees in the last two hours.

 

Once I lived in a different part of town and Murray would walk the low adobe walls separating each studio apartment from its neighbor, sometimes even then a foot would slip—he was always kind of clumsy for a cat, though now I wonder if that was congenital, he was always an oddly shaped creature, with his barrel chest and hare-lip and fucked up jaw so he looked like a vampire, his two fangs hanging like icicles outside his mouth.

 

Which is to say today he is alive and tomorrow he will not be, the week’s been warm and languid and now it’s cold and blustery, how after months of eying the Saint Louis poem notes with a mix of suspicion and helplessness and doubt I have suddenly whipped through a draft, when the sun was warm and Murray was dying—

 

All gates open to whatever energy is trying to flow through them—the way blood’s arrival and departure sluices through the heart.

 

 

March 25

 

BKF posting to my Facebook page, “There has been no greater cat in poetry since Christopher Smart’s Jeoffry.” Glorious epitaph!

 

Before the Vet came yesterday to help him die, I took the collar off Murray’s neck and said, “You’re free!” Upon which he climbed into my lap and fell asleep.

 

 

April 12

 

What makes a sound on the skin of a drum?  The collection of little stones and sea glass and shells on the shelf—

 

The way at some point I place them into a circle (emptiness in the middle)

 

But today I made a compass, with the heart-shaped quartz at the center and polished stones or sea glass raying off in four directions—

 

“Everything’s all dissolving,” I wrote to G.C.: cat, home, norms, nation?

 

Thinking about a walk I took with P. thirty years ago, down to the Piscataqua River—early spring, coats but no hats, talking earnestly about love and pain and being human beings with feelings—

 

“Thank you for being a human with feelings with me” I wrote today on P.’s Facebook page, her body dissolving—dying of cancer.

 

Sitting now on the front porch with only a ghost of a Murray, leaning against the wall warming in the sun, thinking, “I don’t want to feel that, I’m too tired and overwhelmed to feel that—” closing my eyes.

 

 

April 15

 

Cleaning out campus commences—all efforts to sell the college, save the college, failed. Writing to Ch.: “I want to get that wall-hanging you made me—hope it’s still outside my old office—” where I’d hung it up years ago, and left behind when I quit to start teaching half the year in Saint Louis. A little act of defiance, if the school overlords ever walked the halls of Benildus: how they’d encounter three vertical columns of FUCK cheerily printed 18 times amidst blooms and leaves on cloth.

 

 

April 17

 

Dozing. Hypnagogic flash: I’m instructing a young woman on the installation of enormous stenciled poems on a gallery wall. I tell her that when she’s finished each poem, she has to take up a handful of wet earth and punctuate the poem with two mud seals, perfectly round, at the upper left and right corners of the poem-field. “This way,” I say, “you are announcing: ‘I am here, and I am made of earth.’”

 

 

April 22

 

Opening the sliding glass door and screen to the back deck, everything looks so abandoned and lonely, no container garden this year, no cat on a mat amongst the Santa Fe flowers—

 

How I left all the doors open until winter wouldn’t let me, letting in pollen and seeds and dead leaves and dust and crawling bugs and flying bugs and even sometimes a bird, a mouse, some other cat, so Murray could come and go at will—

 

Texting with old student B. about this pledge journal—my twelve weeks done! Would I shape it, would I share it? Its nakedness thrills and troubles me—

 

What does it mean to be a messenger? What is dignity?

 

“Maybe what we need right now is not to be held at arm’s length,” B. said. “Maybe what we need is to feel a poet’s love for her dead cat. Haha! But seriously.”

 

“Love and grief never get old, Dana Levin! They change and reappear too much for that!”

 

Cat Nation Sky Trump Clouds

 

 

Found In Volume 49, No. 06
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  • dana levin
Dana Levin
About the Author

Dana Levin’s fourth book is Banana Palace (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), a finalist for the Rilke Prize. Previous books include In the Surgical Theatre, Wedding Day, and Sky Burial, which The New Yorker called “utterly her own and utterly riveting.” Her fellowships and awards include those from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Library of Congress, as well as from the Rona Jaffe, Whiting and Guggenheim Foundations. Levin currently serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis, where she lives.