Wednesday, September 11, 2019

I apologize for the late post, but, ugh, stomach problems. I did eventually manage to eat some toast and drink some tea, and I'm feeling better now, though still delicate. It's a good thing I don't have any pressing obligations today; stomach problems are not always so well timed.

But let's not talk about stomachs anymore. Let's talk about John Barth's The Tidewater Tales, which, as I hinted in a previous post, has a backstory in my life. I first came across this novel when I was about 25 years old, living with Tom in Providence, not yet married but soon to be. I had never heard of it before but read it at his father Michael's suggestion, in a copy that Michael pulled off his own shelf and loaned to me. The novel is full of postmodern trickery, which I found hard going at 25 and not so difficult at 55. Nonetheless, it remains a handful: packed with melodrama, authorial interference, baby worship, nautical lingo, repartee, storytelling, time travel, magical realism, literary criticism, Cold War crime, and nudity. I enjoyed it at both readings, though it has the odd characteristic of feeling both light-weight and tome-like at the same time.

So here's the strange thing: I have read this book exactly twice, and my readings were 30 years apart. At the first reading I was 14 years younger than the main characters: without children, without a long-established partnership, without a vocation but wanting, somehow, in some way, to write. At the second reading I was 16 years older than the main characters: children grown, in the midst of a long marriage, with an established life as a poet.

The book itself is focused on two main anxieties: (1) that fraught moment in a couple's first pregnancy, in their last days of being a pair, as they sit on the cusp of becoming an entirely new familial entity, and (2) writer's block. At my first reading I was beginning to want children but only in the vaguest sort of way. In any case, the couple in the novel seemed impossibly old. Why would they be having children at such a late date? Still, I knew something about writer's block: at least an infant's version of it, when a would-be writer has no stamina and no material and no craft knowledge, just a facility with words and a lot of pent-up feelings and a whirlpool sense of dread and need. At my second reading I was stumbling backward, family-wise: the moment when the familial flurry retreats back to pair-hood, and one has to relearn the simple calculations of I see you; you see me. Imagine being 39 again, with a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old! But writer's block: today my entire conception of what that means has transformed. These days I hardly understand it as a proposition: even when I'm not writing, I'm consciously/unconsciously taking notes, stowing away material, experimenting, re-seeing. Being a poet is being me.

So in a way this book has worked as a peculiar sort of frame for my life as a mother/wife/lover/friend and for my life as a poet. It's odd, because Barth is not at all the sort of writer I'm naturally drawn to. In fact, I don't think I've ever read anything else he's written. But for some reason The Tidewater Tales has turned out to tell a little of my story too.

1 comment:

David (n of 49) said...

Apology? For yesterday's? Bah--I'll be scrutinizing the screen now during old movies for Ms. Birt. As for today's, it is very fine, and an inspiration/comfort. Thank you.