Arc: A Quest.
By the time I'd hit Paramus on the Garden State Parkway, I began to panic over my tooth, wondered how I'd bite into things without sending a seismic vault up through the enamel. I pulled off the Parkway and called my HMO, only to be informed that there was no coverage out of network for any dental condition that did not involve pain. I was due to arrive at the artists' colony and too far from home to drive back, so I revised my original plan and was now in search of both arc and a good dentist.
Because I had driven for the better part of a day, I was somewhat hallucinatory when I reached The Artists' Colony (TAC). Since I arrived mid-session, most residents had already been at TAC for a couple weeks, and I figured they were camped out in studios or their rooms where they were enmeshed in the fabulousness of creating their art. Surely they had long completed their quests for that which would make their art sing, and were hidden away in a celebratory euphoria only trumped by the euphoria they'd get when they'd reunite with the group in the dining hall to talk about all they had accomplished that day.
I could have joined my fellow residents at dinner my first night but, being new, delirious from the drive, and without any sensible explanation of what I was there to work on, I opted to sequester myself. My room was in an old Victorian house where several residents lived and shared bathrooms. When I first opened the door, I was assaulted by the teal and brown wallpaper in my room, over every square inch of the walls, a tiny, mind-bending floral, the pattern of which was made more incoherent by the hours of dashed highway lines still running through my head.
The right thing to do, I thought, was to set up my computer and printer, even though I knew there'd be no possibility of work that first night. After all the cables were sorted out and plugged in, I got ready for bed.
The bed was a twin, low to the ground, a single mattress on a handmade wooden slab that functioned as a platform. There was a scruffy blanket and worn white sheets, and two pillows flattened by many an artist's head. I climbed in and closed my eyes, attempting to evacuate the clutter of the drive and disjointedness I felt with regard to my fellow residents and get down to some serious contemplation about arc. Before I could even so much as let the word arc fire from one neuron to another in my brain, I convulsed first a leg, then an arm in response to the rapid-fire stings coming at me from under the covers. It seemed like there might either be a very industrious and blood-thirsty mosquito, or a colony of bed bugs on the attack, so I leapt up, flipped on the light, and threw back the sheets, sure that I'd see something scurry deep toward the innards of the bed.
Nothing was visible to the naked eye, so I got back in, figuring my mind was playing tricks, the result of too much map reading and tooth obsessing. This was not the case. Within seconds the nips and bites began again. I got fully dressed--socks, sweats, long-sleeve shirt--then recovered the bed and tucked the blanket under the mattress so that whatever was in there would be trapped in there, and lay on top, arms crossed, with all the lights on.
In the yellowish light of the room, the wallpaper came to life. The pattern was so tightly wound, my eyes had a hard time following it for even a few inches. That kind of intense scrutiny made it more complex, pulseworthy even, and its design had the blurred effect of an Impressionist painting when viewed too closely. I had to tear myself away from staring at that wallpaper and so I leafed through a file folder of lines from aborted poems. One page leapt from the stack:
This morning: the neighbor's dog loosening up the vocal cords, and me gripped by dream of man climbing into bed with woman who looks like me but isn't. It's a motel where the wallpaper is hands with missing fingers.
Then it came to me: here the wallpaper was fingers with missing hands. Since I couldn't sleep and didn't want to enter into the Dali-like painting that the wallpaper had become, I made a list of all the things I would search for when morning came. It began to read like a monologue from Steve Martin's The Jerk: "All I need is a good dentist. And a blanket. That's all I need. And a new pillow. A dentist, a blanket, a new pillow. That's all I need. And twin sheets. Not one more thing. A dentist, a blanket, a new pillow, twin sheets. And arc. That's all I need."
My preoccupation with arc began in the 1970s. Back then, girls in my class had posters of the important teen idols of the time on their bedroom walls--the Cassidys (Shaun and David), Leif Garrett, Davy ]ones, and the occasional Bobby Sherman. Though I recognized the appeal of these skinny, shaggy-haired fem-faced young men, my bedroom featured none of them; instead I had dipped and stuck on my walls every picture I could find of my girlhood idol and first mentor of arc, Willis Reed.
I became Reed's number one fan in 1970, when I was in second grade and he led the New York Knicks to the NBA finals. I'd inherited my father's love-of-sports gene and had come into both my tomboyishness and love of basketball around the age of 7, the spring of the 1970 NBA finals. No single player enthralled me as much as Willis Reed, the 6-foot-10-inch captain of the Knicks, and I'd huddle close to the television to examine his every move.
My father and I watched game after game in the finals between the Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers. Reed was a powerhouse, commanding the court against his Lakers' rival, Wilt Chamberlain. The Knicks were up 3-2 after Game 5, when Reed tore a muscle in his right thigh. The injury put him out of commission in Game 6, and without Reed on the floor to neutralize Chamberlain, the Lakers won the game and tied the series.
I was devastated. You could have told me there was no Santa Claus and no Easter Bunny in the same sentence, and it would have had less impact on me than Reed's torn muscle. When Game 7 started, I remember the announcers speculating on whether or not Reed would be able to play, saying he might take an injection to dull the pain, but that it didn't look good.
My father and I watched the pre-game warmup with nervous hopefulness, but Reed was not there with his teammates. Then, just moments before tipoff, the camera panned courtside to the bleachers and locked on a lone figure slowly emerging from the tunnel. Out came Willis Reed, from the very bowels of Madison Square Garden, dragging his right leg as he hobbled onto the court. The crowd went wild. The announcers stumbled over their words in all the excitement. I leapt up and jumped around in front of the TV. Prior to Reed's heroic entrance, I could not remember a single moment in my short life that brought me such abject joy. I cried, well, like a little girl.
Reed's injured leg prevented him from getting any height in the opening tipoff against Wilt Chamberlain, but when New York got control of the ball, Reed appeared at the high post position up along the free throw line, as a teammate passed him the ball. He pulled back, seemed to summon all the strength in his good left leg, and sank his famous jump shot, scoring the game's first two points. From every camera angle, you could see Reed dragging his right leg, yet he scored the Knicks' next basket as well, a 20-footer, which would be his last bucket of the game. Reed was pulled out in the first half and came back to play only part of the second half, but his short stint in Game 7 was enough to inspire the Knicks to victory, which was their first NBA championship in the history of the franchise. Reed was named Most Valuable Player of the 1970 NBA regular season, the All-Star Game, and the NBA finals.
My father explained that Reed was a rarity--at center he was a force from under the basket, but it was his outside jump shot that made him a true anomaly. He was somehow able to control all the bulk and strength of a center and sink the most delicate and beautiful shots from the top of the key, that semi-circular area up past the free throw line. His jumpers were aerialist feats, perfectly-curved trajectories from release to follow-through. One could plot the points of trigonometrical functions on the curve of the ball as it left his hands and arrived at the basket. Both in his Game 7 appearance and in his jump shot, Willis Reed was a master of arc.
The next morning, after a sleepless night of lying fully dressed on top of the fully-made bed, I woke up to begin my expedition for the items on my "All I Need" list. Since it was Sunday and TAC's office was not open for me to exchange bedding, I figured I'd drive to a store and buy the items rather than spend another night lying awake and following the forks and triangulations hidden within my wallpaper. Though The Artists' Colony was in a rural location nestled in a mountainside, I knew there was a town some miles back on the road I'd traveled to get there. Surely there was a Wal-Mart, Target, or K-Mart, some warehouse of a home store where I could get everything on my list.
I drove for a half hour through a windy, wooded terrain until I reached the town. I spotted a Dunkin' Donuts, so I pulled in to ask around and to get something to eat since I had now missed three meals at TAC, dinner and my second day's breakfast and lunch. The cashier at Dunkin' Donuts had heard of Target, but had never been in one. In fact, no such store existed within a one-hour radius; folks made special trips to get to the home stores, much the way one would plan a beach vacation. "We only go about once a year and stock up," she said. "All we need is right here in town."
The cashier directed me to the Family Dollar store in a strip mall on the outskirts of town. Family Dollar was not like the dollar stores I was used to, where all items indeed cost a dollar, but it had the same look and feel, featuring a hodgepodge of items displayed randomly without regard to breed or class. One by one I hunted down and checked items off my list. I found a pillow and blanket, then spotted an aisle with one shelf of sheets amidst pinwheels and odd glassblown objects that looked like gift store rejects. I rummaged through each package to find the only twin set in the entire store--a 7-year-old boy's delight--Spider-Man sheets. At this point I didn't care what the sheets looked like and was just happy to have brand spanking new bedding to climb into.
My list was now reduced back down to arc and a good dentist.
The crack in my front tooth was holding steady at the mid-way mark. I had a gut feeling that I'd probably skip dinner with the residents, so I went to a convenience store and stocked up on Pop-Tarts and cheese, foodstuff that was both adequate sustenance and soft enough to bite into.
Back in my room, I tore the existing sheets and blanket from the bed in one sweeping motion and stuffed it all into a large garbage bag that I tied closed and placed in the back of the closet. I figured that whatever was in my bed could go ahead and freely wander around inside that bag, build nests, lay eggs and spawn new creatures, so long as I didn't have to see or feel them.
Before I put my new Spider-Man sheets on the bed, I pulled the platform away from the wall to sweep out the dust with a broom I'd found in a hallway closet. As soon as the platform broke contact with the wall, real spiders went running--not the one or two occasional arachnids you might find in the room of a Victorian house, but boatloads--tall brown daddy longlegs versions, mean black short-and-squat low-ground runners. All went scurrying. Some were able to jump ship from the platform and land on the baseboard as the bed pulled away, darting off into cracks where the shoe molding didn't quite meet the floor. Some disappeared into the thick vegetation of the wallpaper, while others just clung to the mattress hoping to go undetected if they remained still.
I batted at and chased down dozens of spiders with the broom, gave the whole area a good sweep, then put my new sheets and blanket on the bed and climbed in. The sheets were an aqua blue with a repeating pattern of mini Spider-Men each perched in the famous Spidey squat on a long, tangled thread. In the background perfectly formed cobwebs connected to one another and recurred over and over. Of all the possible colors and patterns that the sheets could be, and of all the superheroes ever created, the odds of having found sheets with Spider-Man that would serve as my fortress against spiders seemed somewhat astronomical. The Spider-Man sheets utterly clashed with the wallpaper, couldn't have been from more different eras or species, yet they had an arresting kinship, oddly sharing the ability to dismantle the mind if looked at too long, a real Sodom and Gomorrah effect where you knew not to look but did, thereby turning the brain back to the salt from which it came.
I'd been at TAC for two days and not only had I not gotten any writing done, I was no closer to unearthing the mysteries of arc. Tucked inside my Spider-Man sheets in my madly-wallpapered Victorian room, it might as well have been 1970, since I felt like a second-grader at an overnight stay at my grandparents' house.
After the 1970 NBA championship game I wrote to Willis Reed, my first and only fan letter, which my parents had promised to mail. If indeed they mailed it, and it somehow managed to get through managers, agents, coaches, and finally to Reed, he must have wondered why a 7-year-old girl from a small ex-coal-mining town in Northeastern Pennsylvania would be so interested in him. To the best of my memory, the letter went something like this:
Dear Mr. Reed, You are the greatest. I'm so happy you won the game. I couldn't believe it when you came out to play. I hope your leg feels better soon. I'm going to learn how to do the jump shot. Your pal and fan, Teresa, age 7
I started asking my parents for a backboard and hoop that year the Knicks won the NBA championship, but they must have thought my desire a fad, as on each successive birthday and Christmas I kept getting the girly gifts I so despised. It took two full years of cajoling and a particularly bad run of an Easy-Bake Oven, a Barbie Makeup Center, and several generic dolls with names I can't remember, but I finally received my hoop and backboard, the prized pony of my childhood.
I vowed to keep my promise to Willis Reed, to learn how to do the jump shot, the kind of high, vaulting curve that seemed to hang in the air before it penetrated the basket with a rimless swoosh. I wanted to learn the kind of shot that could inspire a team to victory. I wanted to know the secret of that shot. I would practice and practice. I would master that arc.
On Monday morning I headed to TAC's office to find out what my job assignment would be. I'd gotten a partial writer's grant from TAC, as well as work exchange to defray the cost of the residency. I found out I was on KP duty, Kitchen Patrol, and was starting my first shift later that day. While at the office, I asked one of the staff where I could find a good dentist locally. There was a dentist in the same town where I'd gotten my Spider-Man sheets, but beyond that, the next closest office was in that larger metropolitan area with all the home stores people visited once a year.
I called the dentist located in the closer town, but his machine said he was on vacation for two weeks, which would be after my residency had ended. Since the crack in my tooth had not, to my eye, grown in the last three days, I thought I could just exercise care and chew in the back when eating, and call my dentist when I returned home, especially since a dental visit out near TAC would not be covered under my health plan.
I changed into army green cargo shorts, a t-shirt, and hiking boots for my first shift in the kitchen. This outfit probably gave other residents the impression that I was going hiking in the nearby mountains, but that impression would quickly be dispelled when I entered the kitchen and was asked to add a water-resistant butcher's apron to the ensemble. With the butcher's apron came rubber gloves and an enormous stack of pots and pans. Pots and pans not only bulged from the stainless steel sink basins, but the ledge attached to the sink, and more still were piled on every visible surface of the kitchen.
I scrubbed one after another with a steel wool pad, and during my four-hour shift I might have come into intimate contact with every stirring and mixing utensil, bowl, cookie sheet, and soup crock TAC had ever acquired to cook meals for the residents. Apparently all the prep work for the day was done in the morning, so by the time my shift rolled around it looked like a tsunami of chefs had come through the kitchen, wielded their instruments, and vanished, leaving a heap of dirty and overturned cookware in their wake.
I learned that the head chef had been on vacation, so his assistant chef had been cooking all morning with her helpers. Somewhere between hours three and four of my shift I'd surrendered to the job and entered The Zone, that place where the body settles into the task at hand and accurately performs a function over and over, with little or no variation, the old assembly-line effect. Though my body whizzed from one stainless steel entity to the next, my mind was free to wander. I mentally paged through my manuscript, thinking about the poems, their linkages and transitions, how, if in deed, each flowed to the next, and, if in all of this, there was arc.
It was at the dishwasher's station that I got the most work done on my manuscript up to that point. I'd been at The Artists' Colony for three days and had not actively worked on my art: I'd come all this way to hunt down bedding, build a fortress against spiders, perform gold-medal gymnastics of worry about my tooth, acquire a veritable pantry of Pop-Tarts in my room, and hone my dishwashing skills, the latter of which did not go unnoticed by the assistant chef.
I'd plowed through every last item she could throw at me, even snatched soiled spatulas right from her hands as she finished scraping mountains of mashed or saladed items from huge mixing bowls into their supper-serving containers. I'd gotten a real rhythm down in the kitchen and, like a well-executed full-court press in basketball, nothing could get past me to land in the sink before I'd intercept it and steal it away.
After my shift the assistant chef praised my speedy and thorough scrubbing ability, saying that I was "like a rock star" when it came to kitchen cleanup. Apparently I was the Willis Reed of pots and pans.
My father set up the backboard and hoop in our driveway the day after my ninth birthday. There was no easy spot to attach the backboard, so my father bolted it to a pole, then hoisted the pole and fixed it into a large tractor tire, which gave it stability. To say I practiced my jump shot regularly would be an understatement, like saying that Bruce Jenner trained by powerwalking around a mall with senior citizens. One might think my getting to the age of 10 depended on perfecting Willis Reed's jumper, so many hours did I bounce and shoot the ball, much to the chagrin of anyone who wished to park a car in our driveway.
I owe the fact that I never started my basketball career learning and having to unlearn a between-the-legs, underhanded alley-oop shot, which would be the natural first attempt at shooting for someone so small, to my cousin Gene, who was rive years older and who lived next door. He taught me to hold the ball properly, right hand positioned with fingers spread at the ball's center, wrist cocked back, left hand cupping from the side to hold it steady. From there we worked on finding strength from the knees up, using the whole body as a vehicle from which to draw the power my arms alone lacked. The jumper was like the inverse of a lightning strike; all the force came from the ground up through the knees, through the torso and shoulders, the elbows, and finally the right wrist, which had to snap the ball at precisely the right second before the body started its downward decline, the fingers left dangling in the air above the head simulating the arc the ball would take in its drive toward the basket.
At 9 years old it felt clumsy and awkward, unnatural even, to keep all this in my head and execute the shot properly. But still I shot and shot, shot until my arms ached, until they felt like they'd been punched, twisted, and squeezed, until there was no strength left and the muscles contracted down to little peas. My cousin Gene would stand under the basket and retrieve my wayward attempts and air balls, then tire the ball back at me to try again.
I took many a pass in the gut, got the wind knocked out, even toppled over backward from time to time, but weeks and months passed, and by my tenth birthday I could actually coordinate all the necessary body parts to channel the strength needed to get the ball in the vicinity of the rim. From there it was a matter of focusing on a mysterious spot above the hoop, really not looking at the hoop at all, but rather above it, and aiming at that invisible target. The first real swoosher happened when I was only a few feet away from the basket, but it might as well have been the opening bucket in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA finals, so dramatically did it change my life.
My first shift in TAC's kitchen ended at dinner, just about the time all the residents were piling into the dining hall. Despite having shielded my clothes with the butcher's apron, water I'd splashed in my pot-washing frenzy still managed to seep in around it and leave a soak stain that fashioned itself into the outline of the butcher's apron. I noticed other people in the dining hall with splatter stains on their clothes, but they were visual artists who had remnants of paint from hours of working in their studios.
The dining hall was menacing. There was seating for about 70 people, tables of various lengths and sizes crammed in an angular room with banks of windows on two sides. Since most of the residents had been together at TAC for several weeks already, they seemed to have a destination in mind after collecting their food from the serving line. Groups migrated according to type and kind--the young hipsters with nose rings and dyed hair, the elder group with sensible shorts and polo shirts with turned-up collars, the staff table, and the in-betweens who looked as if they could merge with any group except staff.
In the very back of the room I spotted a long table with older women who looked like mothers. I figured this was the best bet since they might be the most forgiving and, like mothers, might not shun a child who looked lost and forlorn. So I bent my head and wove my way through the room, me and my butcher's apron-imprinted shirt, and asked if I could join them. I'd made the right choice; the mothers were indeed kind and welcoming, a mix of painters and writers, and so I huddled among them, tried to keep a low profile. This was a version of junior high all over again and, like junior high, the residents recognized my newness, eyeballing me as I quietly mashed my food into harmless little bites.
In 1977, when I was in junior high, the girls' varsity basketball team at my school won the state championship title. This was no small feat in my hometown; busloads of townspeople traveled to the game to cheer the team on and to be onsite to celebrate its victory. There were t-shirts, trophies, parties, school assemblies, reports on the 11 o'clock news, team jerseys enshrined forever in the glass case by the gym. To this day the team is immortalized by a sign on the school's lawn, "Home of the 1977 Girls' Basketball State Champions."
I was in 8th grade, one year away from trying out for the junior varsity (JV) squad. I'd already been practicing on my own for four years and I felt more than ready to play competitively. My jump shot had evolved to the point that I could now hit buckets consistently from the top of the key. I'd even found a hot spot to the left of the basket, right around the area where the left guard was positioned. I think this became my hot spot simply because of where my father had set up the backboard; from this location missed shots were less likely to ricochet toward the house and break windows.
In 9th grade I indeed made the JV squad, which I attributed to my jump shot. But playing JV girls' basketball at my school the year after its varsity team won the state title was what I imagine being a rookie on a WNBA team is like today. We were the next crop, being groomed to perfection for the coming years, like sweet potatoes planted in late spring for harvest the next fall. The coach for the number one varsity girls' basketball team in all of Pennsylvania, Miss E., was also the coach for my IV team, and she never let us forget for one moment that we'd come from the stock of champions and, like champions, we would learn discipline; we'd eat, drink, sleep, and breathe basketball.
I tried to discipline myself over the next couple days at The Artists' Colony by carving out time to look over my poems around my kitchen shifts and the three-meal-a-day feeding sessions, which both interrupted the day's flow in ways I was not used to with my haphazard eating patterns, and provided new and varied seating challenges I had to face. The writers were outnumbered by the visual artists six to one, and this was a curious thing: on the one hand it was refreshing to hear the artists talk about their work, the problems they had to solve, but on the other hand they were such a tightly-clad unit, it was akin to cracking the Da Vinci Code to infiltrate their group. I was looking forward to the arrival of the Visiting Writer who would add another person to our ranks. There at TAC, we writers were always a man down, like that sorry group of kids shooting around at the playground who were forever getting bumped from the basketball court, who had to defer to the suited-up groups of rive that arrived together for the pickup games.
We were given the option to have a conference with the Visiting Writer, which I took as an opportunity to discuss the concept of arc in the body of my manuscript, much the way an injured player would schedule an appointment with the team's trainer to work out the knots and twists in a strained rotator cuff. Something in my manuscript was off, limited in its range of motion, making the book as a whole come up short in the tale it told, making it miss its mark.
My conference with the Visiting Writer went well. She was both generous and down-to-earth, and kindness radiated from her very being. You could tell she was the type of teacher that students lined up for, so downright encouraging was she, and I enjoyed being in her company, even just to sit on the couch with her, which was calming. She gave me line edits on the packet of poems I'd submitted, but more than this we had a heart-to-heart talk about arc, like two girlfriends flopping down on a couch to debrief after one of them returns home from a date.
Having only seen a sampler from my manuscript, the Visiting Writer asked me what I thought my book was about. I'd described my manuscript before, had even written deep, literary manifestos, which I used as artist's statements on grant applications. I'd written things like:
The poems play on a believed rhetoric of equality between people that is rendered meaningless by invitation complicated by erasure, the desynchronization of desire, a power differential, a fractured narrative. The poems map this movement by identifying particular gestures and phrases--a story (or lovers) crippled by narration--and by capturing those moments in a relationship when possibility begins to shift to disappointment, when communication comes to stand for what's damaged, ruptured, missing, or lost.
Up there at TAC, high in the mountains, bounded by quaking aspen and cornfields, this seemed as senselessly complicated as the wallpaper in my room, just some rhetorical tomfoolery, bullshit by any other name.
The more honest description, the one I told the Visiting Writer, was:
Section 1: Girl done wrong by boy or boys. Section 2: Girl still wronged by boy or boys, but told with more attitude. Section 3: Girl reflects on life of choosing the wrong boys. Section 4: Mute improvisations on absence--the old "What falls away is always. And is near." (Roethke)
I jazzed up my description of section 4 on purpose, to impress the Visiting Writer. As I'd hoped, she'd chuckled over my stripped-down descriptions of sections 1 through 3. This was what my book was really about, and for better or worse, there was arc.
The Visiting Writer shifted my thinking about the whole arc business, since she'd originally thought I was asking about "ark" with a "k" and not with a "c." She talked about how poetry could function as an ark for your life, room for all of its inhabitants, a vehicle acting at once as shelter and transportation. More than the trajectory of the book, what I should be focused on was the vessel that each individual poem could become, that which carries and contains, that which serves to protect and save.
In the late 1970s, while other teens blissfully splashed about in pools in summer, hung out at the local pizzeria, or took trips with their families to beach locales, I was at basketball camp. My coach, Miss E., not only headed both the girls' JV and varsity basketball teams at my school, but she also directed a summer girls' basketball camp in the mountains of upstate Pennsylvania. All members of her team were expected to attend and did.
It was a veritable boot camp: up at the crack of dawn for ball handling and agility drills, "suicides"--sprints up to and back from various lines on the court--and press exercises, then scrimmage games in the afternoons, followed by free throws and more suicides before supper. To develop peripheral vision, Miss E. had a habit of throwing balls at you when you were not looking, and if you ever sat on a basketball for even a few seconds, she would sneak up from behind and punt-kick the ball out from under you, such blasphemy was it that you were caught both resting and defiling a ball.
Miss E. had a certain ritual at the end of every practice session. After several rounds of suicides, she called out one player who had to make two free throws in a row. Only when the two free throws were successfully completed in a row could practice end. For each shot missed, the shooter ran a lap, not just around the immediate court, but around an entire field (at basketball camp) or around the entire gym (three courts) at our school. If several girls in a row could not land the two shots, the whole team ran more suicides. This could go on for a good hour at the end of practice. What we lacked in talent or ability we made up for in discipline. We were so tired no amount of arc or good aim could save us; we shot and shot, and ran and ran.
Somewhere in the course of my career in TAC's kitchen, the head chef returned from vacation. And he returned with a vengeance--it was as though he was determined to make up for his absence by not only prepping the food items for the day's meals, but also preparing ingredients that could be stored and called upon for years to come. Since I'd done nothing but wash pots and pans in previous shifts, I was delighted at first when he handed me a knife, saying that I'd be chopping some "fun" vegetables as a warmup to my day. For each new vegetable he introduced, he'd quickly show me, in Culinary Institute of America fashion, how the chopping should be done, so quickly in fact that I had to ask to see the technique again, which rapidly got on the chef's nerves.
First came the potatoes, to be simply cut lengthwise in hall. Then came scallions, which would be chopped repeatedly down the stalk to produce little ringlets. Carrots were to be skinned, then halved with the ends cut off. Red onions had to be peeled, mushrooms sliced, and tomatoes diced.
All of this sounded harmless, like uncomplicated ingredients in a salad bar, but it was the amount of each vegetable that had to be sliced or diced that boggled the mind. It was not a handful of potatoes, it was a bushel full; mushrooms came in a crate, what looked like hundreds of them; scallions also came in a crate and were lined up in there like little soldiers in pre-battle formation. I'm not even sure what form of packaging the tomatoes came in as they were already divorced from their boxing, but all I knew was that there were mountains of them in strainers so massive they looked like they'd suffered some Chernobyl effect that had spawned freakishly large colanders. But the produce itself was unbelievably gorgeous; there was neither a molded mushroom nor a wilted tomato in the lot. After admiring it all, I buckled down to work and disappeared in a sea of gleaming vegetables.
My chopping ability, unlike my dishwashing skills, was downright dreadful. The head chef pretty much avoided watching me for too long, the way one might be compelled to glance briefly at a traffic accident, then look away in horror and disgust. It wasn't until I dragged the chopping knife on the cutting board to corral the diced tomatoes that the chef reappeared.
"No dragging the knife," he said, but two things conspired to make our first communication in hours not a good one. First, I'd already entered The Zone, which meant that any sentence spoken to me would inevitably need to be repeated, and second, I was so used to being ignored by the head chef I wasn't sure he was actually talking to me. I sort of caught a sound bite of what he'd said and it seemed like he might be explaining some key maneuver in the art of vegetable chopping to make me more productive, and that he'd used its Latinate word to describe the procedure. So I said, "I'm sorry, I don't understand the technical terms," to which the head chef spoke the words again, this time enunciating as though I were hard of hearing or rive years old.
"Do Not Drag The Knife On The Cutting Board, It Will Dull The Blade," he said, clearly and not without disgust.
He extracted the knife from my hands and, like a magician, produced the knife sharpener, which he proceeded to use to give the blade back the life I'd taken from it. At that moment, he reminded me of Miss E. when she'd catch us sitting on the basketball. I half-expected him to punt-kick me out of the kitchen for defiling the knife or make me run suicides until I could execute a perfectly chopped carrot.
I knew that no amount of coaching could have made me a better chopper, and the head chef knew it too, since he benched me from vegetables immediately after the knife fiasco. I was back on pots and pans, a veritable ball boy for an all-star team, relegated to fetching and cleaning wayward pots, and putting them back on their racks in neat order for those who knew better how to handle them, these perfect arks that could contain only the most perfectly chopped vegetables.
Something terrible happened to me between my sophomore and junior years in high school, when I moved from the JV to the varsity basketball squad. Though I still had a remarkable ratio of attempted to successful jump shots from my position at left guard, something else vanished from my being.
I lost my nerve.
Perhaps it was my new, more womanly body with breasts and curves, or perhaps the fact that I was short and petite and seemed to stop growing at 5 feet 2 inches where most girls had sprouted into larger, reedlike structures, but all I knew was that I had enormous difficulty crashing the boards for rebounds. I got elbowed, trampled, kneed, and ribbed, and faced every means and manner of poking and prodding anytime I so much as inched a toe into the lane, that colored rectangle from baseline to foul line. It was the Bermuda Rectangle for guards as we seemed to disappear among the thick, muscled legs of the forwards and centers, who took to squishing us like June bugs every chance they got.
My hesitancy also masqueraded as a kind of politeness, so I was an easy mark, someone to blast into, someone who would rather hand over the ball to a defending opponent than go toe to toe in a tangle of elbows and grabbing hands. I could still shoot fine from the top of the key, but only if all defenders dropped back into a tight zone and gave me a wide berth, thinking that my smallness meant I could in no way sink a bucket from 20 feet out. Inevitably they'd change their tune after seeing me land one, such that the next time I got the ball my particular defender would be on me immediately.
Miss E. would not stand for such girly behavior; we were warriors after all, still managing to make it to the state championships or deep into the state playoffs during my time on the team. Though we would never win another state title, Miss E. always believed the next sweep was just around the corner, so someone like me was of no use to her, even with my ringer of an outside shot. I spent a lot of time on the bench my junior year, only to be inserted into the game in the fourth quarter if we were winning by a gargantuan margin.
Without a personality change, nothing could have saved my basketball career after junior year, so I chose not to come back to play as a senior. This was one of the toughest decisions of my life; not playing basketball made as much sense as not eating or breathing. Not eating or breathing would have hurt less than not playing basketball.
Although I had the same kind of trouble breaking into the tightly-bonded groups at The Artists' Colony that I did breaking into the lane under the hoop in basketball, at TAC I finally managed to get a toe in, without too much bodily or mental injury. We round things in common, like the woman in the room next to mine in the Victorian house, who was slowly but surely being eaten alive by spiders while she slept at night. Her note turned up in the maintenance request box in the dining hall:
I have many bites on one side. It's the side I sleep on. I wake up with more bites each day. I'm wondering if it's in the mattress. Is it possible to change it and get fresh liners?
Our building was sprayed for bugs. The woman got new bedding, but not the new mattress, and she took to sleeping in her painting studio or on the couch in the downstairs lounge, but we bonded nonetheless.
I found time to peruse my manuscript looking at both arc and ark, and by most definitions, there was arc with a "c," but I then became worried about ark with a "k." Since so much of the manuscript explored one topic (girl wronged by boy or boys), I wondered if it would come off to readers like a broken record. It's true that I had published individual poems from the manuscript, even had placed a couple in highly-regarded literary journals. But were they like the vegetables I'd chopped in TAC's kitchen, where the first few tomatoes that I'd diced seemed like an interesting and fresh experience, but by the 40th or 50th one I'd chopped, the novelty had worn off? Was I indeed just writing the same poem over and over again? Was I, in fact, not giving good ark?
Both Willis Reed and I were forced to give up basketball and move on to other things, but for very different reasons.
After Reed led the New York Knicks to victory in 1970, his knees were plagued with tendonitis and he had to sit out most of the 1971 and '72 seasons. He came back in '73, and some sports analysts would say that even though he was not in peak form, his very presence inspired the team to once again capture the NBA title. But in 1974, torn cartilage in Reed's knees forced him to retire from basketball, thus ending his phenomenal career.
I followed Reed's life for a good 15 years after his retirement. He began coaching, even coached the Knicks in the late 1970s. When he moved on and jumped from team to team as either assistant coach or head coach through the 1980s, I moved with him, following him right up until the late '80s when he coached the New Jersey Nets. I rooted for the Nets during his tenure there, even though they were one of the worst teams in the league. But I will always remember Reed the player--a man whose fearlessness never wavered. He was not unnerved by rival powerhouses like Wilt Chamberlain, and even when physically compromised, something about his presence pushed his team to victory.
The arc of my story was far less inspired.
I channeled my lost basketball energy into running. Running didn't involve elbows or grabbing hands, and my lack of nerve thereby did not matter in the same way. Maybe it was all the physical year-round training my basketball coach demanded, or maybe it was the missed shots that led to laps or suicides, but I ended up becoming a champion long-distance runner as well as captain of the girls' track team at my high school. I was ranked as the number one two-miler in my high school league, set stadium records, even got offered a track scholarship to attend college. Running quenched some of the same desires as basketball, as I'm sure coaching did for Willis Reed, but it would never, ever feel as good as the boards underneath our feet, the way the body feels after nailing that shot.
In my last days of residency at The Artists' Colony, a Visiting Artist had joined our ranks, and in addition to studio visits for the resident artists, he gave a slide talk one night that was a retrospective of his work, which spanned 40 years.
During his slide talk, a series of paintings seized me. They were all ostensibly the same scene, painted over and over again, much the way I felt I was writing the same poem repeatedly in my manuscript. A lone, mysterious figure was approaching a door in a desolate alley of an unknown city. Both the door and the figure were crowded into the foreground, stage left, leaving the rest of the picture's background to fill with the angular, high-walled alley, a cobbled street, and other structures that jutted up into the distant night sky. It wasn't clear if the figure was male or female, and in each successive picture, the figure never quite reached the door, but was always captured on the approach, an eternity of near-arrival.
The Visiting Artist explained that this series of paintings was based on a line from a poem by Paul Celan, which he'd seen translated as "a person comes." Slide after slide the anonymous person came, each approach rendered with only slight variation.
I had to know what compelled the Visiting Artist to spend so much time painting the same picture repeatedly. I felt what he did visually over this series was what I was doing in my writing. Surely galleries and collectors were waiting for new work, yet from his slide talk I got the impression that for a long period of time the Visiting Artist could not stop painting this one scene. I imagined him alone in his studio surrounded by many persons coming, frozen in imminent arrival, strangers at the very precipice of entry, their stories always told in the middle with no beginning or end.
After his talk, I asked the Visiting Artist why he felt compelled to repeat the figure approaching the door in the alley over and over again. He said the series was not about repetition, but rather rehearsal. He told me that he was, in fact, not repeating the scene at all, but rather there was something continuous about the line "a person comes," and he was responding to that language. He felt that doing the work was a rehearsal for the work itself, and each rehearsal then became its own work. What was important was the chase, hunt, and pursuit of the image, and that the performance in the painting was rehearsed through the image, but he couldn't make the image feel like all was captured, and therefore he kept on rehearsing. In the end, the Visiting Artist never completed his response to "a person comes," so much more was there to explore, but he did stop painting it simply because other things got in the way and he was forced to move on.
If the Visiting Artist and I were characters in the Sunday comics, the reader would see a series of frames where his character's dialogue balloon filled with larger amounts of text in each successive frame and my character stared intently, only to have a light bulb appear in the last frame right over my head.
This was the explanation I'd been waiting for. I was like the person in the Visiting Artist's paintings; it was my story and it was a continuous one--forever on the approach in the alleys of my poems, propelled by what might be just ahead and through that door, informed by where I'd come from, the city just over my shoulder. I wasn't writing the same poem over and over again. Each poem was its own performance, each word part of a line to be rehearsed in that performance, each rehearsal an arc that became its own work, its own ark. What I did on the page was not unlike what I did in my parents' driveway, rehearsing the arc of the shot that became the ark of my life. In my poems, I was the person, and I was coming.
By the time I'd returned home after the residency, the crack halfway up my tooth had hooked a left and formed its own spectacular arc toward my back molars. My dentist examined it with interest, rotating his mirrored instrument to get a good view from every angle. He even called in dental students to take a look. If my dentist were a first-book judge, he might have selected my tooth as the grand prize winner for its complicated and inspired display of arc. While he worked to repair it, the dental students hung over the open book that was my mouth. "Watch," he said, "I'm going to seal this crack." And just like that, I had one less arc to worry about.
TERESA LEO'S first book of poems, The Halo Rule (Elixir Press, 2008), won the Elixir Press Editor's Prize. Her work has appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, The Women's Review of Books, New Orleans Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Painted Bride Quarterly, Xconnect, and elsewhere. She has received grants from the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, the Leeway Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. She works at the University of Pennsylvania.
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|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2007|