When Borders went out of business, my Aunt Judy bought me a copy of Seven Notebooks: Poems by Campbell McGrath. Whether or not she sent it to me in Savannah, I don’t remember — but that’s where I read it. In our apartment on West Gwinnett Street (why do I always live on the West streets?), up in the trees. It was like a treehouse. I read it at my desk, in the corner of the kitchen/living-room/office (all one room), here:
You can tell my corner of the room because it’s overrun with books.
Today, I was missing Campbell McGrath’s work, and I almost convinced myself to buy another copy of Seven Notebooks to have here. I’m still not sure that I won’t actually do it. I just think his prose is the best example of a writer’s journal, and what it can evolve to become.
The backs of homes are more revealing than their faces, informal and unscripted, like people on vacation, like reality TV, and the city’s alleys compose an urban commons that is actually quite lovely on our block, backyards like a valley between the low cliffs of apartment buildings, the alley a babbling brook upon the valley floor, all the catkins bursting out of the bare branches, the forsythia not yet bloomed but already yellow, yellow like a clarion, like an Augustinian text. Color matters in Chicago, every shade and half-tone, silvery gray scale of the rain-wet trees, voluptuous green of tulip shoots, a world of color reassembling, reconfiguring its photons and pixels. Incipience! Clay at the river’s edge as the gods emerge from the water, the winged lion poised above the gates of the city at dawn.
– April 13, Campbell McGrath
I have so much to say tonight, so many thoughts running around in my head, so many observations, reflections, ideas, maps to be drawn, discoveries to be sketched. But, as I told you earlier, I am all written out tonight. Enough that these thoughts happened. Enough that I have planted the basic skeletons of them within my interactions today. Enough that they exist and that they may be borne.
I looked up another Campbell McGrath book. It isn’t hard; I’ve only ever read one. It’s a challenge to find American poets over here, so I might have to order more books online. What caught my eye in Road Atlas were some ruminations about Amsterdam.
I had no map, and so I navigated by a schematic outline of Holland on the back of an airline brochure, a strange game of connect the dots — Dordrecht, Leiden, den Haag — points of inconceivably ancient interest drawn together by the random wire of my motion. I had no clear idea where Amsterdam was, nor even why I was going there, only that I couldn’t stop now for fear of losing my momentum. And so three times through the Benelux tunnel, three times around that unlovely hub, and then a branching off at random across the countryside, peaceful lights of towns in the satin blackness, past Utrecht and picking up signs again, closing in now, into the suburbs and golden rings of Amsterdam, steering by feel into its ever-narrowing funnel, a place I’d never been, nothing I’d ever heard of and a language I did not know, deeper and deeper into the concentric labyrinth until, shivering with exhaustion, I parked as best I could at the foot of a bridge, climbed the Himalayan staircase of an over-priced hotel, crashed, and slept. In the morning: Light through the attic windows and a green diagonal of canal.
How much of this am I imagining and how much is imagining me? That houseboat, the poems I would write there, the tides, the coal barges, the epic investigations, painting the cabin with tiger stripes and crosses, mornings in the fog lugging barrels of diesel fuel for the generator, eros, Rembrandt, the abortion, the eviction, the trip to the Frisian islands where her father met us at the ferry, salt water and roses, skeins of wool, canvas, oil, flour, a painting of a man in a rusty sweater absorbed in his writing on the deck of a houseboat as dawn comes through the steeples and chimneys of Amsterdam. The zodiac, the ether, the crystal spheres sometimes align themselves so that there exists for a moment a portal into another reality, a door into another of the silent houses of existence. Several times I have seen that passage, hurried past heedless, without hesitation; twice, three times, I have found the courage to open it, to stand on the threshold and watch, but never to cross over. One step, one footfall, and then –. I do not mourn for the mansion of the past, already in flames as we travel its fugitive corridors, glorious and derelict, wreathed in lucent smoke. Let it burn. Let its ashes configure the constellations of memory, let its embers reside like dwarf stars in the night. Galaxies of darkness, galaxies of light…
Amsterdam, Campbell McGrath
I do miss it, Amsterdam. But I wasn’t ready for it to set me alight.
This is my evening:
Forms of Attention
Often writing is a kind of listening,
a form of deep attention.
Tuning the stations, fingering the dial.
From whence does that voice arise,
a spring in which foothills?
What will it say next?
The feeling of exhaustion
as one falls back upon the bed,
the sensation of thirst as water passes the lips —
are these forms of attention?
These are harmonies of fulfillment.