Next weekend, I am off to write in Vermilion for a few days, thanks to a very generous invitation from a couple who have a beach house there. And thanks, too, to a poem I wrote in 1973, "Kindred" and published in my first book in 1980. I had forgotten that poem, and now I know that when I wrote it, I didn't know the half of it, as I have learned from a Cuyahoga County Librarian named Laurie.
Standing with my friend Kate Newland in the lobby at the Rita Dove reading in April, I struck up a conversation with Laurie and her husband, Tom, who said something about Vermilion, Ohio. I replied that I had lived there during my first teaching job out of college, on Ewa-Yea Street in "The Comas."
Tom's jaw dropped, and he said, "We have a house right across the street on Minnie Wawa." Oh man, I had forgotten Minnie Wawa, the next street over. A memory stirred, "I have a poem with Ewa-Yea in it in my first book," I said. But for the life of me, I couldn't recall which poem it was.
I had to come home and look it up.
"Kindred," of course, "Kindred." At first, I had felt so out of my element that year, 1972. I couldn't get a teaching job at home, where I wanted to come back to desperately, finally landed one at the last minute, just before Labor Day, in a tiny farm community, one of the only teachers in the school not "from there," and feeling like a goldfish out of the bowl, and not finding any water in Norwalk nor any apartments in Oberlin, where I would have fit in with all the neon tetras and zebra fish, I landed in a second floor studio apartment in a neighborhood on a beach of Lake Erie.
There in that wonderful, miserable first year of teaching, I was quite truly suicidal much of the year, so very lonely and overworked. But college friends visited, and my mother called to remind me that a clean apartment wasn't all that important just now, and squirrels came and banged on the screen when I hadn't put corn out early enough for them. When I wasn't at the high school or working or asleep, I walked the beach nervously, though the only way down to it was to shimmy down a cliff. In the winter, I walked in a long green cape I had made out of two army blankets and noticed how the lake waves froze in discs, like records piled up on shore. I noticed too someone taking photos of me. I must have looked like a tent coming across the icy sand. In the summer, I floated in very shallow water and recovered from the year. In August, I found an apartment in Oberlin for $30 less, and I moved, but Vermilion has always held a small strong place in my heart, a place I came to feel a kindred to, even though I had no connections to any humans there.
I sent a copy of "Kindred" off to Laurie:
Where does a page re- and re-read land in your genes--
as the car emptying oil finally throws a rod?
Somewhere you have never been. Painting through,
painting through, even the artist may see the color only
after, the way you glance and glance before noticing
the blue spruce has carved itself out around the spouting.
Things become kindred by heart tock and metronome.
Maybe you've seen Wyeth's picture thirty-ones times,
no connection, then thirty-two, you about face, and
Christina's flesh-colored sleeves are yours, your torso
is angling, touching your elbow, wrenching; in the bleached
expanse you were that desolate but unafraid.
There was no such line for the shore to cross
at Vermillion's beach front off Ewa-Yea Street,
no one number of times that the water lapped
but the sand moved. People
reappeared on your doorstep and ran through you,
an hourglass trying to give them an order.
Whole wedges are pie-cut, spatulaed off the clock,
handed over and not begrudged to what's not you
and then is.
(from A Tunnel of Flute Song, copyright 1980 Diane Kendig)
Like reading old diaries, reading old poems brings back more memories than are on the page. I recall now that that spring, I had actually driven a car, leaking oil, across I-70 to visit a friend in Indiana and the car had thrown a rod on the way home. "Throwm a rod" seemed to me such understatement for what had sounded like a hundred children under the hood, throwing rods, leaving me stranded far from anyone I knew, which was how I had been feeling every day anyhow. Also I had been to MOMA that year and had seen "Christina's World," for the first time, had felt my heart breaking in the left side of my chest when I first glanced up and saw it, felt how far away her home was across that wheaten-colored space.
So much had happened that first year away from home. And so little in the grander scheme of things. I was alive, though, and felt the opposite of Tennyson's Ulysses: that all I had met was a part of me: the downstairs neighborman with the cleft palate who had eight reeking, unfixed male cats and a suitcase of poems with opening lines like, "We love our little kitties, we do." New England accents in the Vermilion coffee shop in March, the amazing diaries my students kept, the stories they had of farm life and the orphanage some lived in across the street. It was almost too much to bear some days.
When Laurie received my poem, she emailed me back and said that all the streets in Vermilion's "Nokomis" (ahem) neighborhood were based on Longfellow's Hiawatha and that "Ewa-yea was the owlet, or the sound the owlet made." Oh my gosh, the people in my neighborhood in 1972 had said I was living in "The Comas," or I had misunderstood, so all along, I missed that I was living in a most literary neighborhood, living right on, as Laurie says, "The Crystal Shores." And yet, I have no doubt that it was those shores, that water, that kept me alive that year.
"Kindred" may be 40 years old, and yet, I see from it that, "I am still learning," as Michelangelo said, just as I learned last year about the first poem.I composed at age 3. (See "Language, Memory and Poem Acquisition.") I feel the poem has just been handed back to me, resurrected, and so I send it back out to the world again here as I head out this week, back to where the poem came from, hoping write a few more poems, to see what else I can learn about myself then and now, this time, accompanied by the person who has been most very kindred to me for 26 years.