Melita Schaum's poems, stories and literary essays have appeared in
such journals as The Colorado Review, The Notre Dame Review, The
Literary Review, Fugue, Briarcliff Review
and others. She is author
of a collection of memoir essays titled "A Sinner of Memory" and has
recently completed a collection of experimental fiction and prose
sketches titled "The Blind Sugar Lamb." She lives with her husband in
Michigan State University Press
The Literary Review
A woman is asked
to give a lecture on the essay as form.
She strolls down
to water. Sits on the shore, contemplating wrinkled surfaces, smooth depths.
She thinks of
design, pattern, rejects those easy figures. She wants to get at something
deeper. Discontinuities. The ley lines of things that cannot exist without
She casts in her
line; somewhere the subject waits to be caught. But it’s not the beadle who
interrupts her thoughts, or a warning to keep off the grass. These days the
library welcomes her, the tenure committee (for the moment) has sheathed its
claws, let the ears be scratched on its three heads. Instead, it’s the surf
that breaks her sentences into wet shards—rising, falling in on themselves.
What splits her
thoughts now is the space between stars.
The first time we
made love, afterwards, I tasted his skin. Sweet and metallic and unique—like
milk and grass, and something deeper, chemical, sharp and fleeting. He had
extremely soft skin for a man.
Later, when he had
gone to work, I went into his closets and stood among his shirts. His smell
lingered there, soft, the hangers clinking as if his wardrobe still kept
something of his spirit. His clothes were wrinkled—he never ironed. Muted
colors, soft fabrics, the occasional outrageous shirt. He looked good in
his one dark suit, which hung in drycleaning plastic and smelled of embalming
fluid—a suit for funerals and weddings, stiff and generic. A suit for when he
wasn’t being himself, but called on to assume the disguise of a relative or
best man. He wasn’t bad at roles, just indifferent. Donned them when he had
to. Shed them as quickly.
I saw him only
once in that suit. He looked like he’d been poured into it, molded to its
shape. Touching his arm was like touching upholstery. It wasn’t him.
We put people
together like dots—foreground the connections, ignore the discrepancies. Limn
a portrait, something consistent and recognizable, out of what are arbitrary
moments, gestures, intimations. Who is he? How is he? What is he like?
He is a man with
one dark suit and a copy of Bachelard on his TV set. He is a man who doesn’t
own a remote control. A piece of Murano glass on his countertop, a pile of
dried-out ballpoint pens, matchbooks from bars he’s never been to, a pair of
Birkenstocks under the bed, a pair of Josef Seibels. The white whale of
others—lovers it takes us a lifetime to understand and parse. He is a glimmer
of passion and a dark look of anger. Sullen and lovely and soft-skinned,
inscrutably deceptive and true.
A friend tries to
explain to me the principle of quantum mechanics. We are deep in the rain
forest, drinking rum and grilling Ahi over a black brazier, the coals glowing
red, rhyming with the big tropical sunset. Sitting on the warm, abraded deck
in the moist night air, he describes electrons moving from one energy band to
another without seeming to exist between the bands. The electron simply
disappears from one location and reappears in another. Discontinuous events
whose only explanation is that they must take place on continuous surfaces in a
plane we cannot perceive.
In the field
beyond our hut, six white egrets wheel and alight on the rumps of horses nosing
the meadow lazily for food. His unshaven face looks shadowed, and I wonder how
much of this is physics and how much is rum.
He takes my hands in
his, places them palm-down on the tabletop. Watch your hands, he says. If you
move them across the surface they are moving in two-dimensional space. If you
want to flip your right hand over, you can only do so by taking it off the
table. Viewed from the two-dimensional space of the tabletop, an
unexplainable, discontinuous event occurs. The hand appears spontaneously to
change from a right hand to a left. Viewed from three-dimensional space, the
event is easily connected.
Outside the cabin,
our view is serrated by green ridges, over which hangs a washed moon, big as a
chafing dish. It rains in spurts, waking the dreaming geckos that cling to the
walls like household deities. They move slightly, as in a dance, then are
still again. Much later, the stars come out, clinging to the sky like the
footprints of divine lizards on the black walls in the houses of the gods.
conceptions about age—that our twenties will be a certain way, our thirties
another. Looking back, we shape the plot of our lives, round off its entrances
and exits like numbers. Those were the years that . . . . That was a time
in which . . . .
I always expected my forties to be full of wonder.
Some hard apprenticeship over, years of trial and error (or, as it turned out,
years of trial followed by years of error), smoothed out by the calm hand of
experience. Writing would be infinitely easier. So would choice. And love.
Life is amused by
our desires. Gives us what we wish for, but in coded, unexpected ways.
Leaving clues for us to figure out the ironies. Or is the figuring only more
of the same wishful patterning, the rage for narrative that built our
expectations and fueled our plans?
curiosity “illuminating wonder.” The force that interrupts the mundane, lets
the message of the universe come through. An expansion of consciousness as we
suspend our expecations. A readiness to rupture the smooth circle of law.
I knew a poet at
an arts colony who had been working for nine years on a poem about astronomy,
imagining a meeting between Milton and Galileo. She showed me a scrap of paper
she’d found in her notes, one she could no longer recall writing. On it the
phrase “four moons of Jupiter.” A drift of words, shorn of context. She had
no idea what they meant.
At that same
colony I had been reading a book written in 1939 titled Pain, Sex and Time
by a man named Gerald Heard. I envied him his title, but not much more. Deaf
as Beethoven, he wrote passages like these:
The thwarted energy within us, which should have
gone into our further evolution, will disintegrate in us through increase of
sensualism, by an ever more febrile eroticism; through increase of algesia, by
hypersensitiveness to pain; through that overcharge of awareness which, not
permitted to transcend the body causes, in a degenerative succession,
hypochondria, functional derangement, and finally organic collapse.
But he also wrote
beautifully, cleanly, about inspiration (“Coerced, it recoils. Unattended it
dies down.”) In my notes I read—his words? mine?—it is a current that must
be watched carefully and taken at the flood.
A man I loved
visited me at a cabin by a lake, where I was spending a month writing. I
recall my blushing pleasure at his being there, at the same time feeling
awkward and a little intruded on—the subtle anxiety that he might perceive
these surroundings I loved so well as crude and rough, uninteresting.
We were sitting on
my small porch, where the afternoon broke into fragments through a tangle of
live oak trees. Suddenly, from benches near the water, came a woman’s
beautiful, bell-like trill of laughter. Just once, once more, then all was
I could feel in my
skin how her laugh had struck him, like an arrow right up to the hilt. That
seductive, anonymous, melodic girl-woman’s laugh that draws a man. I sensed at
that instant that this was part of his nature—of all men’s maybe—to chase down
that laugh and its girl (the laugh first, the girl second), like a nymph or
dryad of the woods. That it would always be a part, the lure of the unseen
laugh, no matter how much they contained their desire, no matter how much they
loved the seriously real women in their lives.
Like a wave, like
a tide worked by its own four moons—we float on the surface of desire and memory.
Later that night,
in bed, we named the constellations, those imagined connections between points
of light. Shape perceived in what is just an arbitrary scattering of stars.
The essay is a
constellation. Love. The mind. The direction of a life. The points between
people or moments, lines drawn or imagined. A migration across the dark. This
is where we are going. This is where we have been.
As I sit in my
study it is late afternoon, the sky sopping up the last of the light. It’s
nearly winter, and soon night will drop its impossibly blue curtain; already I
can see the outline of my reflection against the darkening glass.
I lift one hand
from the keyboard, turn it over slowly. I am looking for discontinuities,
watching for events that exist as shadows of events, trajectories of a higher
dimenstion. The gleam of firelight in a lover’s eyes. Blue dusk on a pillow.
Drops of water like jewels hanging from a barren tree reflecting light.
I think memory
casts a shadow on four planes, like the movement of a body through time.
I turn my hand
back to the keyboard and the light slides across the lawn, the way autumn slips
from the skin of summer. Grey-breasted birds wheel and land in the shuddering
branches of a pine. Their flashing wings hold the last husk of sunlight.
Their voices are full of rain.