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Absolute beginners.

In the old days on the Cornell campus there thrived a literary oasis, now coarsely revamped, called the Temple of Zeus, where, amid mythic statuary and urns of parboiled coffee, litterateurs met and talked. (It should have been named the Temple of Nabokov, of course, but Cornell did not even buy his papers.) Often there were readings, and those who read heard from the front row of listeners the click of Alison Lurie's knitting needles and the gurglings of her tummy. Behind the reader would stand the poet A. R. Ammons making occasional faint gestures both cryptic and small.

For a couple of years, Diane Ackerman (Swan) ran these readings, prefacing each with gentle finitudes--appreciations, really, in the old nineteenth-century sense. I wrote a few of these myself, to help her out, and then of course met the speakers: Joseph McElroy, Frederick Busch, George Macbeth, and Josephine Jacobsen among them. There was something both pagan and holy about these Zeus readers, and a free-floating reverence for the literary act, there seen at its least pretentious and most overt. In the sense of the French verb assister (to be at a performance you "assist" at it), we were assisting one another beyond the range of most readings. Something inchoate and magical seemed afoot in those proceedings, serious without being pompous, and we learned from the very air as we foregathered under the stony gazes of Zeus and his frozen cronies.

Delusional? No doubt: sentimental reverie often brings down a deity to haunt an empty shrine, or the Zeitgeist bequeaths a special interval in which epiphany meets yearning, giving the mind a chase it will later deny. Perhaps the chase scene repeats itself at countless colleges with different personae and alternate statuary. In my eager, scenic way I half-imagined that we were at some salient exaltation of the spirit, lifted out of ourselves by the written-spoken-reverberant word, akin to the mise-en-scene created by Stravinsky's music depicting, aurally prefiguring, divine parturition in Apollon Musagete.

But then, as any matter-of-fact person would say, I was in a special state of mind myself, addicted to the young apparition of twenty-year-old Diane, already the author of The Planers: A Cosmic Pastoral, still the longest first book of poetry by an American. After a career of amorous flubs, guesses, lunges, and crushes, I was at last in the presence of something real. It had finally happened and in fact had been happening for almost a year since she graduated from elsewhere.

So I was not to be trusted: someone like a clone of Henry James's hero in The Aspern Papers, all romantic suppuration amid the greenstick gropings of a premature elite, whose names--Bolz, McAlevy, Goldbarth, Tapscott, Bertolino, Piasecki, Burke, Bullis, Dubos, Steinman, and Costello--chimed in my head as a Wellsian foretaste of things to come. My ideal lady, to put it in prim or formal terms, was at hand, forever disturbing and often captivating (my own work on a novel not getting done). After a while, I came back to life, no longer stunned by my captivity but galvanized by it at long last, perhaps when she stopped introducing speakers and dallying in the presence of white Greek effigies. Bloy's Toy, my novel, never saw the light of day, but stories from it did, one of which won The Paris Review Prize. Zeus was paying off.

The counterpoint to the rather staid Zeus-doings, and not in the least compulsory, were the literary gatherings Swan and I staged at home in the cheapish fixer-up ranch house we had moved into on Texas Lane, where we still live thirty-odd years later. These apres-midis of young fauns, for such they were, had begun in Diane's first apartment in Ithaca, on Spencer Road, a cramped hovel without air-conditioning where we all sat on the floor with cheap wine while the landlady's poodle barked downstairs. We post-mortemed the Zeus readings in both places, most of all around the broke-down swimming pool that came with the house. Anyone versed in the social history of the Bloomsbury set might have been forgiven for thinking that here was the infant version of a haute-culture picnic at Clivedon, or, indeed, demure Cornell parties for tuxedoed cellists. We had unflawed, pristine bodies splashing and mashing, lines of all kinds being tried out, and love rehearsed in a hundred hyperbolical piropos (rhetorical "eye-fire" from Latin America, imported along with the Boom of magical realism). It was here that poet Albert Goldbarth first felt the agenbite of inwit, the teeth of the green-eyed monster, for his pelvic sophomore, and had to be succored by the understanding group. Merely a baby lolling among our lettuces, she was promiscuous and gauche. There have been soirees, lundis, and Woolfian picnics, but these were piscinal, with a privileged view of Fred Busch polar-bearing about in the deep end, crying "Oh to be weightless at last!" Translations of Neruda; a father sliced in half by speedboats in some cold northern lake; blue movies in the caboose (another of this Cinderella house's features); and how to begin being homosexual: the boozy talk was of all of these and went on past sunset.

Proust writes of young girls in flower, and there was certainly that to the fauna of our afternoons and evenings, but there was also a hint of William Langland's flora: a fair field full of folk, which I have always found a beguiling trope. Some of them were closer to fame or death than they would have believed, all with long unquenchable hair, the pliant sallow skin of the bookish, a pampered generation maybe, sowing their oats, counting pentameters or pages, gurgling and shrieking, unaware there was lire beyond the MFA. And the in-flower part reminded me of goblet-shaped amaryllises, full-bellied in the granary of memory. One is tempted to maudlin nostalgia, lamenting their perishability, their obligation to jump through the same old human hoops, but I, older than they, saw in them the fizz and want of a generation neither blest nor crushed by bad old Apollo in the facetious dayspring of their lives, my exquisite Swan among them, she who bought the book of everyone she met and still does. Of course, this was a summer set. I do not recall what we did as a group during the lethal Ithaca winter.

Then, one June, they were all gone, in a concerted bunk, and there we two were, confronting each other with stupefied smiles, alone at last after--what? Immersion in the amniotic fluid of creativity? Dipped in human dew? Savoring golden lads and lasses, heedless of dust? Prosper or flunk out. Up to us. It was denuding stuff, this aftermath. We had now to invent ourselves like all those old existentialists of previous generations. We brought out the full panoply of ourselves in the sullen privacy of a ramshackle house full of dead radios, tables with taxidermied deer legs, and pornographic magazines that kept on arriving for a dead former occupant, whose daughter showed up at the front door one day with a bunch of keys, demanding her birthright. We had no time to notice what we lived among, from filthy drapes to bloodstained rugs. I painted all wood white. Appalled, Swan's mother cried, "Scrub everything!" We did. Swan meanwhile created rya rugs for the walls, one whose title I still recall: "A Brain Cell in the Act of Imagining."

Cleaned up, we settled in and got to work. The pool was ours, and the uneven lawn. We hung bowls of purple peonies everywhere and painted the mailbox yellow for optimism. The house was gradually becoming ours, as it had never been during those gilded summers of apprenticeship. And I had had a belated, second apprenticeship among them. Awed to be Owners, we each chose a study, formerly a bedroom, thus converting a three-bedroomer into a one-. No dogs, no cats, but many ghosts. And no visitors, to begin with at least. Just typewriters clacking, Swan disturbed by the incessant bell at the end of the novelist's lines.

It is the novelist-detective who taxes her with oddball questions such as the one about the ring-pull on Florida Egg Beaters: "Surely the ring in Florida is tighter, won't go as far up the finger as in New York, and is more difficult to pull because you insert the forefinger not the brawny mainstem." That was a question even then verging on a natural-history finding. "Does that mean," I persist, "that ring sizes for all those diet-conscious Palm Beach ladies is smaller than up north? It makes sense, doesn't it?" She stares at me, wondering if I have nothing better to do; but, from repeated tugging over the days that follow, (I am committed to cooking my own "healthy" breakfast) I developed a sore finger with little ring-like indentations to prove my case. The difference amounts, I guess, to at least one ring size, maybe two, and it is Swan who knows all about rings and sizing, having indeed complained that her diet has thinned her fingers out, meaning that all her rings will have to be changed. This subject should interest her in extraordinary ways, but it does not, and I can see she does not respond to the idea of wearing an Egg Beaters' tug-tag on any of her fingers just to test things out. It is going to be up to me. All right, the case is made, and available to any wandering Hercule Poirot who passes through on his way to Monte Carlo. Someone's life could depend on this.

We slept on two singles roped together, almost, I thought, as if we didn't want to drift apart during the night. A fitted blue rug warmed our morning and bedtime feet, and an air conditioner rescued from Spencer Road gave us a climate. Swan soon installed a portrait of her favorite movie actor, Jean Marais (the Beast or Bete of Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete) on her side of he bed. I set up a Hammacher Schlemmer white-noise machine on mine.

Yet, chaste as clouds, we had a heart still for any Icarian dreamer aimed at the sun, perhaps sensing that the vacant underside of our lives was soon to be filled by an astronomer, about whom and us I have written at length in Life with Swan. Carl Sagan entered and left our lives like a Renaissance wizard, gifting us with a universe we had already glimpsed, Swan especially. Sagan and I. S. Shklovskii, I should say, remembering their collaboration, Intelligent Life in the Universe.

These things said, it remains to establish the chronic quiddity of Swan's appeal--the whatness of it, excluding, I suppose, her constant alertness to the delights of the body. "Flesh!" she liked to whisper. "No more knitting at Knossos," I say, pronouncing the Ks. Swift as light she says, "Knucklehead," she too pronouncing the K. Her Aegean or Calabrian beauty is well known, but not her aloofness to money. She is loyal, brave, and a bit long-suffering (e.g., a colonoscopy without anesthesia because she didn't want the ensuing mind-blur).

Facially she resembles Colette, no doubt part of the eternal feminine. She claims a Polish heritage, but hails from Waukegan, Illinois. She also claims I put her on a pedestal, crediting her with what she lacks, but this only strengthens my role as a latter-day practitioner of courtly love, a follower of the medieval knights who both idealized and lusted (no doubt idealizing because they lusted). Through some ironic wrinkle of Schadenfreude, those venereal adorers honored their ladies all the more after illegally possessing them. Honi soit qui malypense, which I render as "to hell with slanderers." Perhaps amour courtois comes about because it's a way of cleansing what you think you've defiled (an oddly male chauvinistic way of doing things). It may help the lady regain her self-respect, at least as men see it (the lady may be just as lustful as they, probably more). Uxoriousness (wife-fervor) implies dependency as well as a stream of elegantly tendered piropos ("Your breasts have the eyes of a gazelle"). All erotic exaggerations, with an undertone of materialism, are bound to please. Between courtly love and the piropo there is only a continental drift: theirs towards ours. The smiler with the knife under the cloaca, as Chaucer almost says, is a universal badboy. There is a long tradition, surely, of sucking up sweetly. It both delights and irks Swan because she can see both sides of behavior, so I watch myself and my piropos, pushing into the distance the hypocritical bow, the hint that all women are whores, all men masters of monkey tricks.

Since I stopped teaching and commuting, I have been with Swan much more, so when I'm off alone somewhere I feel truly subtracted. A yawning gap forms, and I rebuke myself for being so dependent. Longstanding couples of the affable kind tend to inhabit a private world of codes, token animals, catchphrases, and deformed conventions (handle, we say for hand; slamon for salmon; rosenesses for roses). And suddenly a vacancy like a dumbwaiter's forms in the heart's brain, infantile and forlorn, and you wish you hadn't connected to the Omaha flight in Pitt, but had gone home to the thicket of idiot-yap where you orally belong, with Lewis Carroll and your doxy, where intimate idle chatter cements the thirty-year-old bond between you. I wonder, did Roman uxor apply to women without men?

What is this symbiosis like? Each is the other's child. When asked something, we say we do it for the children. Each is the other's guru too. If there's a true dividing line, it's wobbly like the Swan of Tuonela's, which shuttles back and forth over the line separating life from death. We call out mutually catalytic union "sibling chivalry" and leave it at that. Stylists, we do very different styles, have different agents and publishers, utterly different backgrounds and dissimilar degrees. Swan loves fruit, skiing, and vegan food, all of which I abhor. I love French fries, chocolate cake, and breakfast. Yet we fuse, she the gracious Ivy Leaguer, I the pretend barbarian from Oxford. She Cleopatra, I Caliban.

Her mother described her with quizzical affection as "a chatterbox and clown," which I translate into fluent public speaker and puller of extraordinary faces, her best a raccoon with curled-up, "Junior Birdman" fingers for eyes.

Rehearsing French for a visit, we try things out.

"Peau de lapin," she says (Rabbit skin).

"Clin d'oeil," I answer (Wink).

It's going well. The bedlam of doggerel is ours alone and sois the Adamic profusion of nicknames, from Swan, Giant, Pi, Swanee, Solange, Kissel, Trout, Poet, to HB, Spoonbill, Etwas, Pablo, Buddy, Rabbit, and Chevy (for Chevalier). Oblique aliases, these, unrelated to our contact calls I personally find not that different from the old Queen Mary's resonant whistle blast, two octaves below middle C, audible ten miles away, and making us feel as much at home as the lucky dogs taken aboard the dog domain (hydrant, lamp-post) provided luxury passengers and their pets by the old Queen Elizabeth.

From ten miles away: "Are you okay?"

"Where are you?"

"Are you okay?"

Several times a day we hear and vent that unisex inquiry, really an altruistic generality inferior to the claptrap of our rhymes in the car, on the couch, in the bed. Such as:
 Solange the shoulder rabbit
 Has a cuddly little habit.

 Twinkling eyes and shiny teeth
 Above and [long pause] beneath.

You can live like this without using, or losing, your mind at all. It's an obeisance relief, uttered as I sometimes envision her in her teens, driving a Volkswagen in a bottle-green topcoat with tight high collar, her huge mop of serious hair rammed into a thick "bellrope," as we call it, plaited to picturesque thickness. You honor her presence by viewing her hair, recalling her successive selves: sexy, sashaying nymphet; deeply pensive graduate student, all Bachelard and Cioran; forthright poet shifting from planets to psychoanalysis--all as one, a kind of boustrophedon with selves superimposed on one another like crisscrossed lines of writing. Then diagonal. Like the old Greek gent plowing his field north-south, east-west, then at 45 degrees. It would be easier, certainly for tender recollection, to view her successively, not superimposed, but such is my simultaneous habit, what Robbe-Grillet called instantanes (an-stan-tan-ay), all the vowels plangent, all history in a snap. Girlette and mature woman merge and unsteadily peel apart in the mind's corrupted eye. I tremble, or fumble; I was once her teacher and must have been responsible here and there for some quirk or mannerism in her prose or gait, some leaning-out audacity in her bodily and poetic structure, like the one who writes on white paper sitting on a white table, then finds he's writing on the table itself. She intercepts a trouvaille, a quote, not aimed at her in particular, she who sat in complementary black oilskins in Modern British Fiction, silent next to a huge gleaming black portfolio in which she ferried her artwork from class to class. In her black sou'wester she looked the epitome of the doomed angler with creel, not the unspeakably able poet writing of the silence and the thrown knives in Anthropology 101. In later incarnations she stripped off, responding gamely to Sir Christopher Wrens architectural exhortation: Si momentum requiris, circumspice: joyfully refurbished as, "Be wowed, look around you." We did.

Among the scattered paperchase remnants of a superb education (two books of The Odyssey by heart in Greek), I find succor in certain terms I used to teach and said too much about. Symbol is one of these, best explained as from Greek sumbolon, from sun (together) and ballein (to throw). Stuff or things thrown together accidentally or on purpose. Swan and I had been thrown together for both reasons through a host of freakish mishaps, brought together by events. Were we then a symbol in some new theory of souls? And their metempsychosis? Crackpot as some may find me, especially those who say "if this is your cup of tea, then sup it," I have long detected in our dual some scary vigilance.

But then, I am somewhat superstitious, reared on Thomas de Quincey, to whom first and second childhood were seamlessly joined in poignant mystery. Swan is less so, but more spiritual. We both believe you make your own bed of roses from the ground up. If we are a symbol, which, pre-throw we would not be, we deal in something ineffable about each other, hence my pragmatic reverence for the adept who once upon a time looked up at me and said, "You raised me," thus circumventing the tutelary rages of her explosive father, who scanted his Inderal, and her rather envious mother, who could not fathom people's taking an interest in her daughter.

Yet her own interest caught fire when young Swan sallied forth as a New Yorker correspondent to the Amazon, French Frigate Shoals, Japanese albatrosses, and even the stinky dressing rooms of New York soccer teams, the Cosmos, out at the Meadowlands. Marcia believed in heroes and heroines, and here was a daughter, ready-made.

I groomed her only, having read her first book of poems, Victim of the Molecule (unpublished, though McCullough, my editor, tried to get it into print at Harper and Row). Swan was then seventeen. I preached structure to her, and style, that vital emanation from the personality, and then she wrote her first piece of prose, about Ellis Island, and she was launched, a phenomena.

To be sure, behind her creamy demeanor, the amiable banter of her private and public persona, there was the shadow of some childhood trauma only to be guessed at, but inferable from what she let slip about her mother's picky incredulity, her father's inability to cope with a daughter--or anybody at all. Over thirty-odd years have I ever managed to plumb that shadow? Not really, but I have glimpsed the doily in the mind, with gaps where the unparental laser burned through. Too, the balked altruist is his own worst enemy. She certainly is always trying to do her best for someone, a shameless meliorist who finds my own worldview stark.

Now she is writing a memoir of her first seven years--incunabula peered at and anatomized, and some things, such as "brilliance injured," as the I Ching puts it, are bound to come into the light, sealed by her approval. Otherwise, I doubt it. I have seen her wince, as when one of her poetry hooks, I Praise My Destroyer, tempted poet Goldbarth to say he thought it was a book about a battleship. We should have dumped him in the deep. When someone else said, "Vlad the Impaler," meaning Nabokov, she retorted "Tarzan the Impala." Sensitive and witty in combination.

In theory, you can extort from what people say all the stuff they keep back, but it's a dicey extrapolation, not to be played with imaginative authors. Beneath the boredom and the glory, there is always the horror, a thumbsucking atrocity perpetrated on a child and writ large ever after to the point of ineffability. This is de Quincey, of course, but opium was his catalyst, both for self-exposure and the scrutiny, the auscultation, of others, like Byron's bravado.

Uxoriousness may be a luxurious disease from which we suffer in delight. Uxor sounds like Egyptian Luxor, or Hypoluxo, Florida's neologistic stab at a resort. We mostly get it wrong, uxoriousness, whether assigning praise or blame to the various modes and degrees of doting. But of one thing I remain historically sure: years after I wrote a book called Life with Swan, Swan suggested that any sequel should be called Still Life with Swan. To the affirmative zeal of that proposal, matching the inertness of art with the endurance of kin, I say a jocund welcome. The title sires the book. I wonder what she'll suggest for Volume III.

If I set aside her compulsive well-meaningness, the practicum of the bienpensant, her spectacular good looks, and her full-fledged gifts, there is always that swiftness, honored at one end of some Dorothy Parker spectrum by her having a molecule named after her (dianeackerone), at the other end her crack about a certain music bulletin retrospectively given to Aldous Huxley: "After many a summer dies the Schwann." Such cracks enliven us even at tax time and, sometimes more than mere honorable qualities endear the speaker to us. You feel tethered, as uxor-ius suggests, lest you miss something in the illustrious byplay of her frontal lobes. Hence the mode of this sybaritic panegyric.
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Title Annotation:a group of college litterateurs who conducted readings at a place called Temple of Zeus
Author:West, Paul
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2008
Previous Article:The subtle genius of the novel.
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