As published in print magazine The Poker, spring 2007
“Thru the glass
With the ripple in it, past the sill
Which is dusty–If there is someone
In the garden!
Outside, and so beautiful.”
From “Image of the Engine,” George Oppen
Summer evening, Hill House porch, Eagle Island, Maine.
George, Mary, and Helene talk of something philosophical.
Helene stuffs a chicken. George lights a match for his pipe.
Tractor rests in sunlight.
And there, northeast of the outhouse, a triangle of ocean so blue it startles you.
I plant spinach with Helene, ocean on either side. Bob’s tractor sends up dandelion seeds. My head on Helene’s lap, on a couch, in the back of a lobster boat. We feel like queens on top of the protective plastic wrapping. Dirt under nails.
I listen to a book on tape as my mother does habitually. I slide into being her as we putter in gardens on separate coasts. We talk more often now, about once a month, and her voice comes in round shapes. I think spherical is glad.
Before and after taking the mail boat out to the island it is a tradition for me to stay in a roomy white bed in the roomy white house of a woman, Dindy, who met my mother in a college dorm in Oregon forty years ago. They hit it off immediately, downed a case of beer, Dindy’s dark hair already striped with white, my mother intelligent and stunning. We were very philosophical, says Dindy.
I remember this wandering at low tide: mollusk-ridden ridges. Plucking not one snail from the conglomeration of them. In blue soup with water and seaweed, those bubbles one can pop. A cold day in early June. Time bends. The rock is striped. Possible to read rocks for age, for events in their history. Life happened to my mother and Dindy; they correspond rarely. Forty years is but a trifle. Fire in grate thrums. Rain streaks. I have only ever known Dindy with hair pale and light as petals. I shook-shook a carrot with a peeler. Marked already by what is about to happen, by how life-gravity draws to place where hands deftly employ tools fashioned from sky, metal, regret. On the piano, pictures in frames. The tide is low. The moon is pulling.
The submerging is easy.
Sweet wind. I handle tender seedlings, ocean wherever I glance up. The garden-way cart has lost its back panel. A candle flickers on the dining room table, set for supper, Bob’s favorite spoon where it should be. The island groans as the wind kicks up. Full of Helene’s poppyseed muffins and skinned-kneed, I’d stare at the attic window, sure a pale woman would appear there, looking back.
For here ghosts are loosened.
The air upsets across open meadow and perplexes them into ruffling, acting. Helene never specifies when we ask her if anyone died in the farmhouse, in the attic rooms where we, her dish-washing, odd-job-doing “summer daughters,” sleep and hang stray pieces of frilled linen over the rafters.
But if there are ghosts, she says carefully, they manifest themselves as a benevolent presence.
The here-and-there baby sunflower plants must be moved to the north corner of the garden. What if we are god’s playthings indeed, his trinkets, his pendants? Earrings his mother left behind and loved, living in the smooth wood box. The box that never lost its rose-water smell. I loosen dirt with fingers that morph, wizen then soften, and the scent of dirt is then loosened in plumes and the worms loosened in violet haste, arching.
My mother calls hens “biddies.” Bob has built a handy sliding door with a nail or two and a board for collecting eggs. The biddies eat table scraps and line up like pumpkins when light falls away along the edge of the planet. “I’m learning to invite my daydreams in for chats,” I write.
The blackness of night is not the blackest there is. Nor of soil.
What forces work on that patch of ocean to lighten it so? Not sun, just. The flies group on that side of the rock for a reason. I take a walk after the morning routine to a currently tenant-less cottage called Little Camp, lie on top of the scratchy wool blankets. I look up from a book and between mothballs a sound like music swells with a heavy thing, a thing like love, unbalanced, webbed and diagonal. Outside things are ebbing.
Bleeding is supposed to be the loss of something.
Phoebe, another summer daughter, cuts my hair. Helene has gone ashore, so we are to act as satellites around the radio in case Bob needs something. Jaaron clicks the Rubix cube into place again. This is heaven, I think. This moment lives on. Sometime soon we will make cocoa. I am thinking of basil, and of participation. I scribble in my journal: “Isn’t participation in a moment the biggest thanks I can give for its arrival? And what about widening what that means? How can a daydream be outside of that if, during a moment, one daydreams?”
This rain might wash away the seeds.
Look at all you’ve
Red top-grass. A black crow lining over billowing laundry. The pieces of your life, the ones reflected in the wiggling glass, the cracked glass—here where she digs mollusk shells from the compost heap that baby radishes might grow unhindered.
The summer you began to garden, the summer you again picked up your paintbrush.
She is thrilled I fit into her old clothes, the ones she saved. In the warmth of the attic my belly morphs with time’s erratic twinges, bulkens, softens after birth.
He was a fine sailor, is the first thing Bob has to say about George. Bob knows a number of sailors and does not say this about many of them—any of them, to my knowledge.
Next he says: he was on the fringes of keeping bad company.
Then heads out the door, slanted forward not with age but with purpose, to fix the propane tank. Helene turns to me, wiping hands on apron, explains: He hung out with Ezra Pound. In France. He and Mary drifted, went to Mexico. Bob, home for dinner and accosted by me on the couch, puts down the paper and says, they were like hippies but too early to be hippies. Bohemian, I think they were called.
One kind of night everyone loves: foggy, when candles are lit and Bob is persuaded to read rhyming, rhythmic poetry written by Robert Quin, Sr., and kept in an aging binder. His voice, and that of Helene, cradled by Down East accent, sounds itself like a prow through dark water, a rich growl.
The word I keep hearing from Bob, Helene, and their daughter Treena is gentle. They were gentle people, George and Mary. Helene pauses: highly evolved intellect. They went where the wind took them, loved their boat. Went, god knows why, way-the-hell-and-gone out to Metinicus—the farthest islet in the chain out from Deer Isle. Bob shakes his head about this in the same way he shook his head at that fact that I have been to Siberia. Bob knows his rock, knows it very well, stays there if he can. Couldn’t go out in storms because their boat was small and George and Mary were small too, wind would’ve knocked ‘em clean over.
Bob stayed on Eagle even after all of his siblings left, said get off that rock, Bob, go have a life somewhere. One day when I was thirteen Bob and I walked through the wood up to the farmhouse. I asked him what he did after high school. Bob served in the army. I learned how to shoot people, he said, and didn’t have much to say beyond that. Naturally he came right back to Eagle when it was over. On the way through the woods he pointed at a Maine Forest Association sign and indicated unhappiness at a mark made on it by a rock someone had thrown.
What I can’t stop thinking after Helene mentions that a poet came to Eagle summers of the 70’s, after she says he was named George Oppen, after she tells me that the typewriter he used and other things of his and his wife Mary’s are in the Hill House attic, after I am shocked that no one has ever wanted to go see them, after I find the key to the attic on the crowded ring that hangs next to the outgoing mail basket in the farmhouse, after I arrange to do the dinner dishes so as to have the afternoon off and daylight to see by, after I struggle with the door in the floor of the attic and heave myself up into its must and close heat and mouse shit and toys and clothes from the 70’s, after I realize that little light makes it in here anyway, what I can’t stop thinking is: is this anyone’s to unearth?
A Gulf of Maine map covers the top of a box bearing the markered label: “clothes: G & M.”
Between a rusted stove and a pile of 2×4’s, something over which is draped a blue polyester shirt covered in red paisleys.
It is gray. It says “Royal.” The Y, V, G, and H keys are stuck down.
I hit the tab button.
Breezes sneak up the eaves.
Summer evening, Hill House porch, Eagle Island, Maine.
George, Mary, and Helene talk of something philosophical.
Helene stuffs a chicken. George lights a match for his pipe,
Succumbs just then to consideration of topic, holds lit match.
The fringes of the tablecloth catch fire.
“We laughed about that one for a long time.”
The Education of Henry Adams. Virgil: The Pastoral Poems. Basic Readings from the Kabbalah. Woolf: Between the Acts, Jacob’s Room, Letters of, Night and Day, The Death of the Moth, To the Lighthouse, The Waves. Koestler: Dialogue With Death. Maritain: Existence and the Existent: an Essay on Christian Existentialism. Brod: Franz Kafka Biography. Euripides III. Aeschylus I. Adams: The United Sates in 1800. Heidegger: An Introduction to Metaphysics. Jeffers: The Women of Big Sur and Other Poems. Helman: Scoundrel Time. The Canterbury Tales. Brown: The United States and India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Sayers: Gaudy Night. Bancroft: The Life of Washington. Polk: The United States and the Arab World.*
“…what has not been known. No one can help him, nothing can appease him. He was no gentleman & no kindness at all-.
If we can ask…and knock,
we…it is not home.
(Bugs?) could mean the fury of (walden?) and
His king of eternity.
fear of finding
the garden of what mass is
must always be taken in its
stands with being.
can be secure w order
It cannot contain us.
As we wanted
Oh, my will…Tails, tennis balls…walk!
“This is where” all truth is contained.
-the universe contains all truth-
it cannot be mastered
we are strange for we lose
the strangeness of death
if a man…full
fledged and alone
what would he feel?
What would he see? How would
He understand it?**
“The act of existence is
the fact of
being material. The
problem of metaphysics
is the existence of
denied. Man as an historical being is himself.
And if it
The statement, in…
…creates nothing new,
..gives realness to the real”***
The many islands constituting part of Maine’s unorganized territory boast two official year-long residents. Bob and Helene Quinn both come from families whose involvement with Eagle, a mile-by-half-mile swatch of land just off Deer Isle in the Penobscot Bay, goes back for generations. Bob went to school on the island in the white schoolhouse people can visit if they borrow the key with the bell attached from the farmhouse kitchen. The chalkboard is covered in signatures, and the maps are comically outdated. Most of Bob’s family is buried on Eagle in a small cemetery down the road from Haeni’s beach where fake flowers garnish white, moss-covered stone. Only one road goes down the middle of the island, and it’s called Highway 1. And what I mean when I say it’s called that is that people call it that, some people, with a smile in their throats.
Helene meets my mother while my mother is living with my half-sister in Blue Hill. My mother, Blue Hill Hospital’s first alcohol counselor, has advertised at Stonington High for a talk-to-your-youth-about-alcohol meeting. Helene, who works at the high school and has a youth (Treena), is one of the only four people to show up. They all troop back to someone’s place for tea. Fifteen years after that I see the island for the first time. Five years after that I return alone to work for Helene and Bob, and do so for the next six summers and counting.
The Oppens are doing their perfunctory exploring when Bob finds them on his island around 1970. A fan of George’s on the mainland has been a little too ever-present even for the kind and open-hearted Oppens, so the Oppens have sailed on, looking for a quieter spot. The Oppens stay on Eagle. Bob isn’t much for the kind of poetry George writes and has just won a Pulitzer for. The Quinns and the Oppens cherish the company they find in each other, and it isn’t poetry they talk about.
Very worthwhile people, says either Helene or Bob retrospectively. One of them says it right at the time sharp sunlight filters into the dining room to slice candlesticks and glass. I don’t remember which one says it. It is something either one would say.
Big Camp, a cheerful red cabin on the West side of the Island where a Swedish seamstress now stays every summer, didn’t used to be red. I don’t know what else about it was different when the Oppens called it home each summer. For however long it was their home, for whatever conditions made something home for them. By all accounts, the Oppen’s home was in each other. By all accounts, moving from place to place helps one to locate a space, a home inside oneself. By all accounts, the Quinns travel rarely. But by all accounts, the Quinns are at home.
I walk to Big Camp at sunset on my last day on Eagle summer 2004. Every summer I forget about the thorns in Big Camp’s yard and wander there barefoot. Big Camp is locked, just a modest three-room cabin catching the best of the dying light. There is a 1968 car, rusting between Big Camp and Little Camp, the neighboring cottage I sneaked into to read. As it turns out, the Oppens would put up their guests there. The guests were often literary types and fans. Before and after entertaining them, recalls either Bob or Helene, and between random stretches of days when boat and crew would disappear, the two small adventurers would return, walk up to the farmhouse, waving.
Sometimes we go ashore. Typically it is to grocery shop. Flour, milk, tomatoes. Helene’s informal Eagle Island Bakery has been a hit with people staying on Eagle, Barred, Great Spruce, etc. One thing I have done a few times is pick my way down the path to the shore slowly, holding a package in my hands firmly horizontal so as not to disturb the pie.
Sometimes Bob delivers, say, still-warm Anadama bread over to, say, Great Spruce Head and lets me lie on my stomach on the nose of his boat, TMII, staring at the churning white, glancing up to look for seals. I’m terrible at knotting rope, though Bob tries many times to show me, looping it around a spoke of the steering wheel, then undoing it for me to try. Bob carries the deep smell of lobster bait in with him at the end of the day. His lobster traps are furnished with buoys painted orange and black.
The path down to the shore is the same one Bob takes every day to his boat, and I have been with him as he stops and takes a gander at the view, the view that only for him and Helene is not a rare one. Not showily. Just looks.
Bob’s boat is named after his daughter. The last boat, Treena Marie, was totaled in a storm some years back. Helene described it once. Bob sensed what happened to his boat before they made it down to the shore. He could just tell.
Bob is having trouble with his teeth lately. It rankles him. Helene cooks up a lot of yams, boils vegetables until they are soft, prepares tender fish. A good guy, Helene says about him once as I sweep the kitchen floor. I have just asked her how does someone know when someone is right for them and she has boiled it down to whether you would feel okay taking care of them when they are sick. That’s not all of it, she says, but a necessary part.
Anna, another summer daughter, asks Bob once if he has any regrets. The only one he comes up with is keeping Helene from traveling with his homebodiness. He knows she loves to travel.
This summer I nap in the car while Bob and Helene do errands in Brewer. The inside of the little Swedish car is a yellowish brown. It is hot. When they get back, Bob reminds me to sit up for the car ride part because he could be fined $60. They’ve just been to see their accountant. Bob explains things in terms like “inheritance” and “entitlement” but I can’t understand on account of the lump in my throat. I’ve just learned what “imminent domain” means, and though the worst hasn’t happened, Eagle is on a list of islands the government would like to appropriate should the owners like to sell. Bob and Helene settle on a restaurant and inside it is beautifully cool. Helene asks what I’ll have and I think maybe just an appetizer. She straightens, her brown curls lifted with hours of heat. Don’t order something just because it costs less, you get whatever you want. Bob agrees. He is in his customary button-up plaid shirt, glasses clean, eyes twinkling. Helene beside him in a striped cotton T from Reny’s. Just warning you, Ming, I’m going to give you some money before you go to Boston, she says. You don’t have any money to give, I protest, I work for room and board. I have more money than you do, she says. This is the first day, alone with Bob and Helene away from the business of the island, that I know to ask harder questions. I have never heard Bob speak in terms of meaning. It’s simple. The meaning of the island to him outweighs the financial hardship of living there. The same goes for Helene. We could be millionaires if we wanted, Helene says. I glance up quickly: they look different to me. Sitting together. Spectacles gleaming. They could if they wanted, but they don’t. Side by side.
Wet-weather gear smelling of bird shit.
“Desk Materials: G & M”
Empty used manila envelopes, most addressed to the Oppens on Eagle. On 7/25/77 someone sent George a manuscript to look over from Blue Bird Press, called “Night Shift” by a Maria Someone. A can of smoking tobacco. A postcard or two from 1977. All well, how are you, etc. Can’t read name of sender. I begin to feel strange. My hands are separate from me, sorting through inky shrapnel. Looking at them sift through someone else’s things, I think, those can’t be mine. The things. The hands.
At the bottom of the box, one piece of yellow legal pad paper, folded. On the bottom half is written:
Sometimes I cannot move at all and will not either
I imagine myself looking over a group of hills
The trees begin
begin to sway and
as I watch I Turn
Turn Turn inward
And outward toward myself toward myself standing
Standing in entrances——-about to come in. When
when am I going to enter?
Come in come in I say to all the fragments
(written in pen; a graphite pencil line drawn across the page as if to discard it)
Helene recognizes Mary’s handwriting.
Jan 3 1981
We are both well. George
is having trouble remembering—
This problem of age is hard to
place, hard to accept, hard to
understand. We are together which
is most important to us both—
almost all activity & decisions
devolve on me, this again
is hard on George who has been
forced to give up & give up
and give up—perfectly
conscious of his loss.
We will be here when
you come—a long time or
a short—just let us
know the dates. We have
two rooms for you—and
we will talk. We’ll show
off San Francisco, of course
Love to you all
we think of you so often, as
though time had not elapsed—
A family friend called Sally visits Mary at her house in Berkeley in 1989 and sends a report and photos back to Helene. We spoke of you a lot . One of the photos is of a painting Mary did on Eagle of the view. It stands on her mantelpiece.
Has decided with her doctor to continue therapy as needed to “contain” the cancer…behind her house she has a vegetable and flower garden—she has to work on it very slowly, a little at a time. Now it has been put to bed. She said she found narcissus blooming! She never knew they were there.
Only can say: I am unearthing something about the sixth sense.
What it senses.
In the red grassy field where children have played tag every summer for a century I see silhouettes, light pulsing.
Even in the photos, in old age, Mary’s eyes hasten blue.
After leaving the Island I read the 1975 George Oppen issue of “Ironwood 5,” Mary’s memoir, “Meaning a Life,” and “The Materials” on July days riding the subway to and from Russian class, marveling at the people, the words, the starts and stops, my first time living in a city, and alone, too. Sweat. Words. Sticking. I duck my head, read, look up.
It’s not that this does nothing. It’s that I double back, try to do it properly. Research.
No use. Before I even try to read a bibliography: the deed, or damage, is done. These were the Oppens I met.
Not mine to think, sifting through sweaters, undergarments, socks.
Sun has grayed the dock posts. June is still cold, sea-water wise. The boat’s motor idles.
Precedence dictates that the world will reconfigure like fluid around their absence and function on.
Their absence will probably come sooner than mine. It is the way they would have it. My calves are longer now when I dangle them over the edge of the float. My shoes triangulate.
After loading the sofa covered in plastic off of the dock into the back of her husband’s lobster boat, we sit on the sofa, my head on her lap. She mopped my vomit off of the attic stairs when I was thirteen at 1am; her mother radar went off, she knew something was wrong, came out of her bedroom. My vision is slanted, edge of boat, edge of her bosom, soft body I never knew when pre-child thin and sinewy. Now we talk of different things, unintended pregnancies. Land development. No point in dwelling. I only knew her soft.
I would like to soothe the ache of that hole where lived old friends who died, who keep dying, the hole where you number among the last. I won’t. Just as I’ll not be consoled when you go, just as nothing will fill or be there to be filled. You call yourself old, I call myself worn. By future losses whose shape I cannot paint. I would like always to be a pair. Like blue jeans. I would like to paint your shape and hold it there, in sunlight.
September does what it always does, red and receding.
Their shapes flicker and glisten, gesturing. They gesture for my head to turn, turn forward, to look down at my hands, lucid.
A clothesline. A wide tree. A baby garden bed, darkened with water lugged from the well.
Simple to describe: Two soft-spoken people choose a different life, a life close only to each other. They go about things quietly, grace thundering behind them. Wisdom gentle, light-catching: glass, fish, water.
No one positioned to inherit their place. Simple. No one will live how they lived; no one will be who they were. Simple. The home will sleep. Simple. The light won’t get up again.
*The books left behind by George and Mary, in order of their stacked-ness as I lifted them one by one out of the box.
** These are of all the words I could make out from George’s notes in the soft book cover of Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics.
***Same, for Maritain’s Existence and the Existent.
George’s handwriting is lively–his notes are scribbled over each other in faded pencil and pen, things are crossed out, exclamation marks here and there. He also had some things to say about Aeschylus 1 in the margins: “Crime,” “murder,” “Symbol,” etc. I guess Mary had been the one to take pencil to Adams’ The United States in 1800, as the underlines were clean and straight and the letters well-formed.