Choosing My Words

Everywhere that year the same array it seemed of “semi-private” or see-through curtains for sale, every store offering pretty much the exact same (until you could walk in, give the shelves a glance and walk right out) “choices.” Or stand there a while with the other women, stalled and increasingly uncertain, trying to make the actual room — as held in mind — fit the moment’s, the country’s, evidently universally imagined or at least insisted-on room. There were basically two looks: references to the “war” or rather (a crucial difference) the site of the war in the (“exotic”) middle east (the harem look), or else to the permanent country or beach vacation (off- and off-off white with seashells or flowers) of the recently imprisoned designer’s ever popular “shabby chic.” The harem look bled over into other gestures (beaded, tasseled, sequined, heavily embroidered) toward seductive Orientalisms or rather Colonialisms, and, then there were occasional (astray from the pages of designer magazines) winks toward the institutional pastels or loud op-art ironies of the overtly urban: a daring move in the context of a city pretending it wasn’t one, like most American cities. How do you imagine the rooms you’d like to live in? How would you describe them? Do you know where those images came from? Where do you find the words for a state or change of mind or heart? The writer — first a reader (another shopper) — hesitates among fingered samples of language, gazes at the folded phrases in their gleaming plastic: “It isn’t you, it’s me…,” “I just need some space,” or, “I still love you but…”? The “actual” house I came in with — in mind — was built of older ideas, memories, pictures someone saw once, desire as reference…. The structure’s hardly (windows, walls and floor and roof) imagined fresh even if it isn’t — as mostly is the case — a version of another house: here of prose… less “fair,” (as Emily Dickinson says) than poetry — in every sense. But you can blow the poem apart, “from syllable to sound,” unless you think it too should shelter, unless you feel that someone has to be able to live in it (and if by “live” you mean accomplish certain tasks). It’s rare to have the opportunity to ask what it is we mean by “living,” and to consider how you might reinvent… All the available options are pretty expensive though you could spend more time (and money) on-line chasing down what you might hope to finally feel was an individual look. Which might not even, where you live now, communicate. What a luxury to be able to look for the right words — and to risk the lack of understanding: the person either not wanting you to move into their neighborhood or, best case, looking around your living room and saying with forced heartiness, “Well. That’s sure different!”? And then maybe slowly adding “But… you know….” “I hate,” the editor said, “poems that make me feel stupid.” It was the “make me feel” part that parted us: everything has to be said as it has already been said, for the sake of comfort. And there are huge, glaring (the war itself) areas of silence. Meanwhile it’s luxury open to anyone: to make some wonderful thing exceeding our usual grasp — out of plain English “which even cats and dogs can understand,” as Gertrude Stein put it, out of words whose meanings you can look up. Or you can live with the bare windows, black with night or darkly mirroring the rooms you open to inspection with each light? These seemed to be the options: let everyone look in or else pick out from among these packages one that seems less an imposition of someone else’s vision of your comfort; there must be one you think you could probably live with? And why not anyway enjoy this moment’s idea of what a “window treatment” is? Why make such a production out of a choice which really isn’t a…? Gauze from gazzatum, perhaps from Gaza; muslin from Mosul, damask from Damascus, Chintz from the Hindi term chint, and Taffeta probably coming from a Persian word meaning “to shine.” Coming to hand at the end of a long history of complex forces, emotional and economic, these veils and shades I reject originated elsewhere — shot through with a history of conflict — and the words I choose for these my feelings (I loved you once) are woven of the same stuff. The curtain lifts. The breath of wind that stirs the dust around the body of the fallen hero is my breath. I gulp at the air for words I think will move you, “fallen hero.” And then I say no: I put them back with the other words we have to somehow see through: “terror,” “enemy,” “sorrow.” The breath of wind that stirs the dust around the dead is my breath.

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