I never gave much thought to rhetoric and the history of poetic form until I came across the work of Stesichorus.
As far as the classics canon was concerned, when I was in college, Stesichorus did not exist. The classics included Aristotle, Aristophanes, Euripedes, Homer, Socrates and Plato. Maybe Virgil. The course where I learned ‘the Classics’ - Western Civilization and the Humanities, Part I - was created by some academic confab as a means of providing pre-meds and pre-engineers, of which I was neither, an easily-cribbed venue where they could fulfill their university humanities requirement and leave their weekend activities unhindered by homework.
Years later, the discovery of Stesichorus, changed my life. Stesichorus liberated me from my adjectives. The Greeks we learned about in college wrote plays and epic poetry in verse. They employed a weirdly narrow set of adjectives. Dawn was always pink. Never gray. Never green. Never penumbrous, opaque or bright. It never occurred to me back then to ask any of my professors about repetition of these self-same adjectives in every chapter. The Greeks wrote what they wrote and only God himself knew why.
Then, in about 600 B.C., along came Stesichorus. Stesichorus came after Homer but before the Apostles. Stesichorus engendered the poetic form that unglued definition: nouns that could shed adjectives like caducous skins.
Before Stesichorus started writing, all adjectives were firmly affixed to nouns. Poet and scholar Anne Carson who translated the work of Stesichorus wrote: “Homer’s epithets are a fixed diction with which Homer fastens every substance in the world to its aptest attribute...” Anyone else who cared to describe the dawn in his or her epic poetry was rhetorically compelled to describe in exactly the same way. In the Iliad, Homer described dawn as ‘rosy fingered.’ The dawn was never anything but ‘rosy fingered.’ Likewise, Helen of Troy was firmly attached to an adjectival tradition of whoredom. So much for human complexity. Helen was a whore. Don't even try to defend her. Stesichorus, for reasons no one really understands, allowed himself to apply poetic solvent to the super-glue affixing adjectives to nouns. Writes Carson: “Stesichorus released being. All the substances in the world went floating up. Suddenly there was nothing to interfere with horses being hollow hooved. Or a river being root silver.... Or hell as deep as the sun is high....”
When I discovered Stesichorus, something magical happened: my defining adjective vaporized. I became somebody else.
It is 1983, early in the morning. My phone rings. I live in Boston in a cockroach-infested apartment I share with a depressed woman who had wanted to be a violinist but now works for an investment management company. We get along barely – mostly by having wildly different schedules and avoiding each other with great care.
My younger sister Andrea’s voice greets me on the other end of the phone line. She is living in Washington, D.C. while she has an internship with Senator Norman Minnetta.
“Did you see the paper?”
“Not yet,” I say. “I usually read it at work. Why?”
“You should get a paper. Only don’t get a Globe. Get a Washington Post. Or the New York Times.”
“I read local papers. I don’t know why you’re calling me to tell me what paper to read.”
“Just take my word for it.”
Andrea’s elder siblings – myself included – passed judgment on her intellectual ability when she was very young. Andrea was, in the family universe, considered not quite up to snuff. She did not lack a mind – far from it. She just never cared to engage in the sort of intellectual idiocy the rest of us had – Josh and my labored discussion of “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” during one particularly boring phase; Deborah’s strident and hypocritical radical feminism. In human terms, Andrea was leagues ahead of us. Andrea believed in people. Andrea was a good friend to her friends. She had chosen a role consistent with the our sibling status chain of anti-definition, which went something like this:
If Deborah is going to be the doctor – and if everything she does is above reproof and she has her mitts on most, if not all, of the material goods my parents dangle in front of their children – and if Erica is the Bad Daughter who must always be punished, and Josh, as the only boy, is, like Deborah, considered above reproof, and also, by his own lights, the designated genius (who actually peaked in high school but we don’t talk about that), then who will I be if I want to be important?
Andrea had chosen politics.
“Andrea, I live in Boston,” I say. “I read the Globe because it’s the local paper. If I lived in Washington, I’d buy the Post. New York, likewise, I’d buy the Times.”
“I’ll just have to tell you then. You won an award. It was in the paper.”
“No one has said anything to me.”
“Well, you did. It’s in the Post and I called my friend Tom in New York and he already looked in the Times.”
“A national award or something for a short story. One of the North American Review ones.”
I am silent for a moment.
“So I wanted to congratulate you. Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” I say. A cockroach scurries down the cracking plaster wall, followed by what appears to be a tribe of offspring. I lurch to my feet, spilling my coffee. “I have to go. I have to walk the dog before I go to work.”
“Okay. I’ll save the paper for you. I’ll tell other people to save it too. I’ll send you the clippings.”
I arrive at work an hour later. I am working as a case study writer at the Harvard Business School. A man with whom I later share an office comes in holding the New York Times.
“I take it you’ve seen this?” says Daniel.
“Not really,” I answer, fighting off embarrassment. “I mean, my little sister called me.”
“Have a look.” He places the paper on my desk. I peer at the paper. There is a banner column listing the honorees and publications.
“Quite an achievement,” says Daniel.
“I don’t really know what it means,” I say. Then my boss enters. He is a shortish, balding man whom I adore.
“I don’t suppose you know what your secretary has done,” says Daniel.
“I do,” says Tom. “Someone told me at breakfast.” Everyone where I work reads the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Financial Times.
“Would you like the day off?” asks my boss.
“No, not really,” I say. “I wouldn’t know what to do.”
Throughout the day, people come into my office and congratulate me, even people I barely know. These days predate email. If someone had something to say, they either phoned or just came in.
Late in the day, my then-boyfriend Paul phones and asks if I want to have dinner. His own boss has told him about the award. He is grudgingly complimentary. We arrange to meet at his apartment after I go home and walk the dog.
I arrive home and am about to set out again, dog in tow – Paul has decided he wants to cook at his apartment – when the phone rings. I pick up the receiver. It is my mother, with whom I no longer communicate.
I sit down on one of two chairs in the hallway beside a battered gate-leg table.
“Hello, Mom.” It’s been at least a year since we’ve spoken. I don’t know, and I don’t ask, how she has gotten my phone number. I don’t want to incur her wrath. In fact, this means nothing. Her default modality is wrath. If I were to describe her in one sentence, it would be exactly this: she rages.
“I’m calling because there is something you need to take care of. Now.”
“What would that be?”
“Service announcements for Sarah’s car keep arriving here at the house.”
Sarah had been my roommate and closest friend during my college years. We had both lived at my mother’s one summer when my father went traveling without her.
“And? What do you want me to do?”
“I want it stopped.”
“It isn’t personal mail, is it? I’m sure she had her mail forwarded.”
“They’re ads. They don’t forward ads.”
“Throw them out with the rest of the junk mail.”
“Goddamn it, she’s your friend and they are your responsibility.”
I can hear her pull on a cigarette. She has a frenzied way of smoking when she’s angry. She is drunk as well. I can tell by her voice.
“I live 3,500 miles away. I don’t know what I can possibly do.”
“Call the dealer who is sending them.”
“Okay,” I say, knowing better than to prolong the conversation. “I’ll call them, or have Sarah call them.”
“Today,” she says.
“Today,” I repeat.
She takes another pull on the cigarette. “Another thing. I had a call from Andrea, and then a call from Bernadette Inkeles –” (the wife of a highly regarded Stanford sociology professor and friend of my parents), “You won something?”
A hollow forms in the pit of my stomach, an ache, a fear.
“Some sort of award?”
There is a slight pause, and I am holding my breath, in the panicked way I used to when I knew excoriation was imminent.
“Don’t forget who made it possible for you to write. Don’t forget all we’ve done for you.”
“Right,” I say.
“And don’t think you’re so important you’re not responsible for doing something about Sarah’s goddamn car ads.”
“Okay, bye Mom.”
“Damn it, I’m not finished speaking to you.”
I stand, holding the phone away from my ear. Not that it matters, really. I listened to her for twenty-five years and have internalized everything she has said, intends to say, or is about to say. There will be nothing original here. I wait until I hear no more yapping from the receiver, and put it back to my ear.
“Okay, Mom, I’ll take care of it. I have to go out now. Bye.”
I hang up. I look at my dog. He is an elderly, disorganized golden retriever I have had since I was sixteen. Like all goldens, he is both loveable and dumb. I bury my face in his neck and wrap my arms around his middle. He stands tolerantly still, panting faintly. I don’t cry. I am long past crying.
A few months before, I had a dream about my mother:
I am in a stone building, like an abattoir, and am being led up into a room. I am feeling weak and tired as I often do when I’m at my parents’ house. There is a stone bier in the middle of a room, and I lie down on it. I am so tired. I somehow believe I am going to rest, or be given some sort of vitamins so I will feel better. Instead my mother enters the room. She is saying something but I do not know what. Somebody comes in to assist her with some tubing. Then they cut open my wrists. I watch my blood ooze out of my wrists into the tubing. I grow weaker and weaker. I want to leave, but I can’t – or maybe it’s not even that I can’t, just that I no longer have any free will left. I have no will to get up and leave.
I am jarred from thought by the phone. It is evening. Paul at the other end of the line wants to know if I’m coming over.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “My mother called. I just got off the phone with her.”
There is a pause. The unspoken truth forms like a cloud, an amoebic presence that neither of us can articulate. Its form changes and alters depending upon circumstance. Its composition has evolved as I have matured. It stands in my way, wetly, a bog creature from an unknowable bog. It comes forth whenever I have any contact with my parents. All of the men who have cared for me have learned this: the presence of the creature renders me impervious to feeling, my own, theirs, anybody’s. It causes me to become emotionally inert. I become passive. It takes me years to learn to describe the process – it is the process of dissociating, of moving out of body. Paul doesn’t need to ask what is wrong. He already knows. He has seen it before. I am not mature enough to be able to reassure him; that doesn’t happen for another ten years. By then, I have almost given up on being able to have relationships. I have begun to believe I will never be able to love, or be loved.
“I probably better stay home tonight,” I say woodenly – it is the same wooden voice Andrea will use twenty-two years hence when she is told chemotherapy will not cure her cancer. It is the voice of a person who has gone out of body and does not know how, or cannot bear to return.
“Okay,” he says. “But I already started cooking.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
We agree to meet later in the week.
I walk the dog. I go to bed. I do not dream.
It is 2006. Andrea has been dead for four months.
I place the blue Naugahyde folder containing the National Magazine Award for Fiction into my red New York Public Library bag, don my winter coat and set out into a bitter New York winter afternoon. The sky is gray. A few dark clouds hang heavily to the west on the other side of the Hudson. The folder I’m carrying has been in a filing cabinet for twenty-three years. It is one of the few possessions I have that survived an era of incessant moving. Fortunately, for most of the past fifteen years – while I was married – I lived in the same place, and the folder has been in the same drawer in the same wooden file cabinet. In some ways, I am amazed I know where it is.
I opened the folder once right after it arrived in the mail to look at the paper it contained. I opened it a few more times in the days that followed to place tidbits of newspaper clippings Andrea sent me from various newspapers between its covers. The Washington Post. The New York Times.
The only thing I noticed when the award arrived in the mail in 1983, and the first thing I notice when I open the folder again for the first time in years, is that the calligrapher inserted an extra “i” into the spelling of my name. Instead of “Erica” it says “Ericia.” I wonder how much the American Society of Magazine Editors paid the calligrapher back in 1983 to copy my name wrong.
Unlike most things associated with my accomplishments from my younger years, I did not, thanks to some form of unknowable grace, in a Leiderman-induced fugue state, savage or otherwise wreck it. I did not, in other words, decide the misspelling was somehow emblematic of my inner flaws, and therefore prove that the outside world had somehow preternaturally seen and noted my inner flaws, which would then mean, of course, that my mother was right about me. I would then be forced to off myself in some way – by destroying the award, or otherwise annihilating myself. By the time I left the family fold for good, I had internalized these habits of abuse. I picked up where they left off.
The bus rumbles up and I climb aboard. I have already identified the frame shop where I will go. I have selected the wood for the frame. The frame will be burlwood. The matting would be black to highlight the now somewhat faded newsprint of the clippings. The clippings would be hard to mat, I know. They had been torn out of the paper rather than cut. Their edges are ragged.
The bus lets me off at Atlantic Avenue, and I walk down Court Street. Ice coats the edges of the sidewalk. Fortunately, it is not raining or snowing. The frame shop is on a corner. I enter and walk to the back of the store, to the layout counter, and set my red library bag on a Formica table. I take out the Naugahyde folder and place it on the table and open it to show the girl what I want to have done. She examines the newsprint, placing the aged clippings on a magnetic board with round magnets.
“These clippings are really old,” she says to me. “I’m going to have to cover some of the margin, or expose the ragged edge.”
I am suddenly overwhelmed with embarrassment.
“It doesn’t matter,” I mumble, looking down.
“Can I take this out of here?” she asks, her fingers on the top corners of the prize. “You don’t want the folder framed, do you?”
“No, no,” I say. I pull the paper out of the elastic corners that have held it in place inside the blue Naugahyde for twenty-three years and hand it to her. She puts it up on the board with a magnet, alongside the clippings. She slides the magnets around against the board, moving the clippings, arranging.
“This is yours, right?” she asks.
“Um, yes,” I say. A young man who had been helping someone else – a woman having a picture matted and framed, a subway train flying through a little boy’s dream – comes over and puts his hands on his hips.
“The National Magazine Award,” he reads. He looks at me. I look down. My left arm is tingling the way it used to when I sensed danger. I can feel the color rise in my face. My ears prick. The shame almost overwhelms me. I am torn between explaining how they wrote my name wrong and making something up about why it’s taken me twenty-three years to frame the thing, or simply snatching it up and running out with it. To hide it away again.
I don’t want to explain to anybody why I had to keep it hidden.
Why I had to keep myself hidden.
That I had to please my mother and not be really good at something.
That I had to conceal it from my father an encomium of my talent bestowed upon me by the outside world so he would not take it away from me and make it his.
I was about to follow in Stesichorus’s footsteps. Stesichorus undid definition, and in doing so, freed things of the earth to be redefined. Here, in the frame shop, I am unlatching myself from my definition. I am no longer bad. I am talented, and possibly even enviable.
Stesichorus is my man.
The girl is saying something about the layout of the bits of paper, the award, the cutting of the mat. I focus my attention on her.
“Yes,” I say. “Like that.”
She sets the layout on a piece of cardboard, takes out the burlwood I have chosen. Measures. We talk about glass. I choose the museum-quality anti-glare glass. I know the price tag is going to be huge, more than I can afford. She takes out an invoice pad, a calculator. She tallies, she totals. The young man has wandered off to help someone else.
“With tax, $355.50,” she says. I swallow. It is half the amount I will be paid for the article I’m working on. I debate for a moment whether to choose a cheaper wood for the frame. Then I amortize $355.50 over twenty-three years. It comes to $15.46 per year, rounded up to the nearest cent.
“When will it be ready?” I ask.
“Next week some time. I’ll give you a call.” There is a 50% deposit. I pay, take the receipt, recite my phone number, and leave.
Once outside, I find I am sweating profusely, despite the freezing temperature. I decide to walk home rather than take the bus. I feel as though I’ve just been let out of prison.
Six months later, the framed prize and accompanying clippings hang above my desk. Whenever I look up from my computer for a few moments, it is there in my line of sight, where I have to see it. An object, occupying space in the world. Something I did, unlatched from the rhetoric of ‘badness.’ Something good.