Last week I sat at a table with one of my students, I asked what she wanted to do first, she said, “Let’s read these poems.”
I said, “I like to read poems three times.”
This isn’t true, I much prefer to read things once, like a slob, but I have accepted the wisdom of reading a poem three times.
“Okay, we can take turns,” she said.
We took turns. One half of the cafeteria was packed. It was the first week of winter classes, all the kids were catching up with each other. In the other half, the tables were all set with braided rolls and bottles of grape juice, by the Jewish group, for Shabbat.
I’m not quite used to how instead of persuading, convincing, or steamrolling kids into doing what’s good for them, my tutoring students are ready and eager to do pretty much whatever I suggest.
It’s like I’m driving around in second gear, on the snow, when I used to be 70 on the interstate, in the rain.
It was a poem about a woman getting older and losing her beauty, which meant something to me. I don’t know what it might mean to my 19-year-old student.
The poem has “permanent blue stitches in her cheeks,” which reminded me of when I saw a tiny blood vessel showing through my cheek. Later that day, I walked into my mother’s house, and I said, “Look at this, I’m a monster.”
“No one can even see that,” they said.
The poem talked about “sucking in her stomach,” which was what I had been doing, it was my main comfort, after the election, doing ballet, a great part of which is sucking in your stomach. Not to look sexy, but to strengthen it, so someone can punch you, and he will hurt his hand.
It talks about a “dumb blonde,” which reminded me of how my uncles used to tease me about being a dumb blonde, when I was a little girl. In fact, being dumb about anything, even for a moment, improve my disposition.
They also used to put their elbows on my head and say, “You make a good armrest.”
Although I grew up in this family, I still held a strong notion that the way I looked was important. That at any event, holiday, having a great dress and being beautiful would impress everyone, and maybe more than that, they would understand me. I can’t separate the pleasure of being thought beautiful from the surge of love that comes from being understood.
“Something she had carried a long ways,/but had no use for anymore,” my student read.
“Saturday Night Live” did their duty improving our spirits by making laughs out of a lot of terrors this week. One of the lines was about how women reacted to DT: “every single one of the women was ovulating left and right,” which was maybe funnier to me because I don’t ovulate any more. So I have been told. It’s hard to think of anything less relaxing, less sensual, less arousing, than that man in his current incarnation.
“‘To wave their flags in the parade,'” my student quoted. “What is that about?”
We talked about flowers.
The other poem she had to read was “The Soul Selects Her Own Society.”
“That isn’t really the title,” I said. “She didn’t title her poems. They just gave them titles.”
“Well, I won’t read it like the title, then,” she said.
There were two women I wanted to be: Isak Dinesen and Emily Dickinson. I wanted to go far away, teach kids, plant things, throw beautiful parties, be tragic, hide at home, and write. It worked out.
“Unmoved– an Emperor be kneeling,” she read.
“She didn’t capitalize like that, either,” I said. “No one is sure how she capitalized.”
“Choose one,” he read.
Then I read it: “Close the valves of her attention.”
“I guess they knew about heart valves, then, they were confused about a lot of things, but they should know that, at least,” I said.
One of the earliest people to understand the heart was Galen, who lived in 2nd century Greece. He learned a lot about how the heart functioned by observing, and, at times, repairing, the wounds of gladiators. He got a lot right, saved a lot of gladiators, but like many biologists from way back, he had this obsession with the liver that led him astray. He thought the liver pumped the oxygenated blood.
It was Italian doctor Realdo Columbo who figured out that the four valves of the heart pump blood in one direction only.
Coincidentally, Columbo was also the first Westerner to suggest that the clitoris had something to do with making women feel good. It’s hard to imagine just how popular this made him in 1559. He tried to name it “the sweetness of Venus,” but unfortunately this did not catch on. Italian men, huh? I don’t know, when I went to Italy, I had a boyfriend back home and thus did no research.
What is there left in this thorny-news world mess? We do still have the clitoris.
I did get a little drunk in Italy, every day I was there. I wasn’t there very long. I had to go back to my hotel and take siestas, it was so hot, ninety, a hundred degrees. I wore dresses, always, they were cooler, and when I got back to my room, I pulled my dress off over my head and lay on the bed. Had I remembered to check if my hotel had air conditioning? I had. It was cool in my room, even on the top floor, under the eaves, the ceiling sloped low. I moved a chair right under it so I would remember to duck.
The coolest place I went was under, deep under, the church of San Clemente. Down many stairs, into where it was dark and echoey, past a room that was a temple to Mithros, down and around, into the deepest room, where there was nothing to see but a spring, and nothing to hear but our voices echoing with each other, and the running water.
Image: “Georgia O’Keefe- Hand and Breasts” by Alfred Stieglitz, Metropolitan Museum of Art