Fingerprint Postcards

Photo by LL Twistiti
Photo by LL Twistiti

 

I.

The woman in charge of fingerprinting my coworkers and me peered at my finger pads. Too dry, she said, and rubbed a clear substance on my hands. Then she led me to a small machine, a scanner, and placed the fingers of my right hand, just so, on a screen. She shook her head once. Then twice. The prints are too shallow, she said.

If I don’t have fingerprints, does it mean I don’t exist?

I felt most nonexistent in my early twenties, when it seemed the world had eaten me. I dissipated with each rent check, loan payment, electric bill. The empty parking space one morning where my old Pontiac was supposed to be. But wasn’t.

 

II.

T Fleischmann’s book-length essay, Syzygy, Beauty, isn’t about being stretched thin by money. The speaker is transient, free of material attachments. Instead, T is made nearly vaporous by longing and love.

Where have I been? Listen, I have been diffused by clouds, by everyone who has touched me …

A mistake had been made. My employer had hired someone whose fingers, years earlier in another state, were found by a court to have inappropriately touched a person, a young woman. My employer did not want to make the same error again. All of the employees were told to get fingerprinted.

A few weeks after the fingerprinting, a mistake with the mechanics of a lawn mower left a blood blister on my fourth finger, right hand. The black spot, the pinch, carries the continuity of the finger’s print. Through blackness, blacker lines curve like rivulets, like a terraced hillside. The pattern of combed hair on top of my daughter’s dark head.

 

III.

I want everyone I have touched to send me a postcard on which they describe their fingers …

Walking the other day down a small country road, I thought about Fleischmann’s book. If fingers are so powerful, what about the other parts of our bodies that touch the world? Were my feet at that moment diffusing into pavement, the hairs on my head into the newly emerged maple leaves?

When I saw two white horses in a field, I held up my thumb to see if I could blot the horses out. I could. They were just far enough away that I could make them disappear. But it felt all wrong. When I withdrew my thumb, the horses’ heads were raised and the animals looked in my direction. Recognition.

The thumb in the air would have looked to anyone else like a thumb’s up, an affirmation – not deletion.

Perhaps it’s too much to make an observation about the patch of skin stretched over a swell of blood, but the elasticity of skin, its knack for preservation of pattern even when damaged: there’s a resilience that reminds me of how we keep moving even when the world has rendered us invisible.

 

IV.

Touch is the conclusion of sight … To see an object, to consider its surface and texture, is to ignore all else.

I’ve been married twelve years. I won’t write much about it. Ink is not permanent enough for what I want and need this love to be. Perhaps Fleischmann could write of longing because love had come to an end. Longing often begins with an end.

I can’t and don’t want to know the end of love. But today I am enlarged when my husband’s fingers find me. When my daughter takes my hand. When my other daughter plays with my hair. It wasn’t always so. When the girls were babies and attached to my breasts, there were days I felt my soul disappear with the milk into their mouths. I couldn’t bear to be touched by anyone else because there was nothing left to give. Now, though, the pavement, the leaves, the horses, my husband, my daughters – we hold pieces of each other through sight and touch, all of us richer, fuller, rounder with the fingerprints of others on our skin.

 

(All quotes from T Fleischmann’s Syzygy, Beauty, Sarabande Books: Louisville, KY, 2012.)

 


Cate Hennessey’s work has appeared in The Gettysburg ReviewChester County Dwell, and Polish American Journal. Noted in Best American Essays, she has also been a finalist for the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction.

Passage

levineThe other day while I was driving, the radio announced the death of Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer. I saw behind my eyes the green and white cover of his collected poems on my shelf at home.

This same scene, but with a different book cover, occurred a few weeks earlier when I heard that Philip Levine had died. And in the months prior to that, the radio had announced the passing of many others: Stanislaw Baranczak, Claudia Emerson, Mark Strand, Galway Kinnell, Carolyn Kizer, Seamus Heaney, Maya Angelou.

And those are just the poets. Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez have left, too.

The rational part of me knows that artists whose work has mattered on a great and public scale are mortal. But the poets who have recently passed are those whose work I came of age with, and their collective departure seems a marquee announcing my entry into middle-age. It reminds me, too, that my friends are losing their parents, and our conversations and holiday cards always carry something of the quickening of mortality. In this, I have become more aware than ever of the fact of fiction: in death, everyone becomes a character steeped in legend, existing in a world apart from the one I watch and walk in.

angelouThe one comfort is that, when it comes to the loss of a writer, their books remain. Whether or not it is right, whether or not I know better, I often equate a writer’s books with their individual, real mind, and so a writer’s death does not feel so much a loss as it does a passage of the body. Even after their breath has ceased and their flesh has grayed, I can still enter a writer’s mind. In this way, the writer seems still of this world. The loss feels less sharply-edged.

But two deaths in the past year or so, both poets, caused me to weep. And when I take these writers’ books off my shelf, despite my best efforts, something tightens in the back of my throat.

On the surface, Wanda Coleman and Maxine Kumin might seem as different as a subway and a horse-cart: Coleman an urban, black, Los Angeles poet, and Kumin, a rural, white, New Englander. Likewise, Coleman and Kumin’s subject matter and style seem to come from opposite ends of the earth. Coleman’s work is a study in the brutality and compassion of a city, and the racism and poverty endemic to her geography. Her work is often described as playful, experimental, edgy – but those are code words for outspoken, sexual, outraged. Until I read Coleman, poetry was pretty. She made poetry real, the way a woman should be real: “we belonged to the same club, you and i … the unrepentant women with strong loves & stronger woes /the women accused of & found guilty of / taking their spare lives too seriously, the women / who rudely refused to bend for the soulfuck // the women who live on the astonished wind.”[i]  

Kumin, on the other hand, is praised as a formalist, and her subjects include neighbors, family, her horses and garden, and the fraught yet natural cycle of life and death: “we can almost discuss it, good and harm. // Nature a catchment of sorrows. / We hug each other. No lesson drawn.”[ii]

Yet  both women were fiercely political, intensely aware of injustice in the lives of others both like and unlike themselves. They lived and wrote on their own terms, aspiring to what they wanted from their art. They made no compromises, no excuses, no complaints.

However, despite a prolific number of books and critical acclaim, Coleman for many years struggled to make a living from her art. And Kumin, despite a Pulitzer Prize and teaching positions at prestigious institutions, remained in the shadow of her short-lived and more anthologized friends, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. The steely resilience of Kumin and Coleman, in the face of the racism and sexism that permeated their personal and professional lives, remains for me one of the best lessons in what it means to live an honest and authentic life as a writer, yes, but also as a human being.

Coleman 284I met Wanda Coleman once, in the early 2000s. She came to Pittsburgh where I was a student, and in those years I didn’t know what to say to a writer whose work I admired (if I’m honest, ten years later, I have the same problem). So I sat and listened to her chat with the other fifteen or so writers in the room. I had expected a persona somewhat like that of her 2001 collection, Mercurochrome: raw, electric and inventive, by turns unruly and sorrowful. But her conversational voice was low and steady, her face open and calm. It wasn’t my first lesson in remembering not to equate the persona in the poems with the poet herself. But it was the first time that lesson made me sit up and listen. After Coleman died in November 2013, I went looking for her voice – that instrument that was both in her and her poems – to see if what I remembered about her voice, off the page, was as true as her poems. It was. I found it here, in her reading of “Requiem for a Nest.”

I never met Maxine Kumin. A dear professor introduced me to her work in the summer of 2000, with the book Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief (1982). I then read everything Kumin had written, and I considered, for over a decade, writing her a letter of admiration, one that described our shared love of horses and nature, and the way her work gave me a permission to write about motherhood and the natural world like no one else’s. But out of procrastination, nervousness, and self-doubt, I never did. Then, on my thirty-sixth birthday in 2014, her obituary appeared in The New York Times. Someone else, finally, had written her the love letter she deserved.

If someone had told me, in the earliest days of the twenty-first century, that I would in the space of a year encounter two mentors in language and thought; that the mentors would be two women from opposite ends of racial, economic, and geographic experience; that those same women would over the course of more than ten years become two of the greatest influences on my own writing and thinking; and that these women would die within three months of each other, I would have disbelieved them. When I was in my early twenties and thought I knew what it meant to live an artistic life, I really knew nothing about anything. I wouldn’t say I know much more now. But back then, more importantly, I had no idea what it meant to have a mentor, much less see the end to a mentor’s long novel of art.

As I finish writing this, downstairs my daughter plays the piano, and the keys under her fingers sing her soul, a person whose face I know as well as my own. When I hear my daughter make music like this, it is like touching the pages of Kumin and Coleman, the words of writers who came before me, the poems that will stay past my life and into my daughter’s. Words crafted by women who never knew I loved them, but they shared their gifts anyway. 

 

[i] “For All Your Flavorless Effort.” Mercurochrome, by Wanda Coleman. Black Sparrow Press: Santa Rosa, CA, 2001. 116-118.

[ii] “Catchment.” Selected Poems, 1960-1990. By Maxine Kumin. WW Norton: New York, 1997. 257-258.

 


Cate Hennessey’s work has appeared in The Gettysburg ReviewChester County Dwell, and Polish American Journal. Noted in Best American Essays, she has also been a finalist for the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction.

Car, Snow, Glass

Photo credit Jared Schmidt
Photo credit Jared Schmidt

 

I.

I’m fascinated by glass, how it’s made of sand and heat – elements of the world – yet the glass itself, when it’s formed, seems other-worldly. Indeed, it seems like a solid, but is more in its viscosity a liquid.

How can something transparent be both window and barrier, the thing that allows us to see beyond the confines of house, office, and car, yet separates us so fully from that same beyond?

To be able to see clearly but not touch. To be so close but yet not part of. It’s easier to want what you see but can’t touch. Can’t yet open.

 

II.

When I think about glass, I also think about snow. Perhaps this is because I grew up in western New York, where people spend many months of each year looking out of windows at snow. Perhaps, too, snow is something like glass: snow makes a place seem other-worldly, and it is both beautiful and dangerous. Intricate in design, yet treacherous when it accumulates on surfaces.

One snowy night when I was fourteen, Lauren was driving her parents’ minivan to musical rehearsal with me and our friends, Sam and Pete, in the passenger seats. So much snow had come down, so fast, that Lake Shore Drive wasn’t yet plowed. The distance ahead of us stretched gray in the streetlight, and the few cars ahead crept along through what seemed a long passageway. Lauren’s hands gripped the wheel at ten and two. We leaned forward and peered out the windshield.

 

III.

Not long ago, nostalgic for my snowbound hometown, I re-read Davy Rothbart’s essay, “Human Snowball.” The story takes place in wintry Buffalo as the characters drive around the city in a stolen SUV. On every page, the reader is certain something awful will happen: a 101-year-old man will die; someone will lose their job; the police officer who pulls them over will discover the vehicle’s provenance; the protagonist will never find the girl he came to city for.

But in Rothbart’s story, for one snowy night, all is right with the world.

 

IV.

If such a snow as the night of the minivan fell where I live now, in southeastern Pennsylvania, everyone would stay home and the schools would be closed. But that night, and always it seemed in western New York, snow was excitement, a challenge, a new world to conquer. Sixteen-year-olds learned to drive in the snow, and everyone grew up watching their parents drive in weather that today makes me shudder. On Christmas Eve, my parents would drive my brothers and me an hour north, past Buffalo and into Grand Island, to my aunt’s house. The way there would be clear, but many years on the way home snow would be falling fast, the depth already halfway up our station wagon’s tires. My father steered slowly through the whiteness where abandoned cars lurked like whales, Moby Dicks, on the shoulder. As much as he and my mother voiced their concern and told us to sit back and be quiet, I never felt afraid. We had done this many times: warm and dark inside the vehicle, cold and white and night outside, and that thin sheet of glass in between.

Always, we made it home.

 

V.

The night Lauren drove her parents’ minivan, we were rehearsing for Grease; I was Sandy and Lauren was a Pink Lady, and Sam and Pete were Greasers. In real life, though, we were nothing so cool as Pink Ladies and Greasers. We were honor roll nerds who lived for band or chorus or both.

But the nights that our musical packed the high school auditorium, we were more than cool. The theatre lights illuminated us, and the audience applauded in the dark, and the crumbling town on Lake Erie felt, for a few nights, like possibility. We didn’t see how small the auditorium was, or consider how worn the fabric of the seats. How low the town’s buildings. How lonely a van on a snowy road.

For a few nights, most of us forgot that we wanted out of that rust-belt town. We were young and naïve, though of course we thought otherwise. We wanted to be people we weren’t, which explains why we spent so many nights devoted to musical theatre alter egos.

Like Davy Rothbart, us kids in the van, we were lucky.  We got home all right. Then we graduated from college, got jobs. Some of us got masters degrees or PhDs. Some of us left town for good. Some of us left and came back.

A few never left at all. I can’t remember any of my friends cracking up their parents’ cars in the snow. In our town, the trains destroyed more cars. Every few years, a car flew off the city pier and into the water. Several times, I knew the names. All small towns have their share of tragedy, and they hurt no less than tragedy anywhere. Sometimes they hurt more because the place is so small, because everyone knows everyone else, because the place is a place where it seems nothing of consequence can happen.

 

VI.

The night I was allowed out in a minivan with my seventeen-year-old neighbor driving while the snow came down seemed when it happened the most exciting moment of my life.  And in some ways, it still is:  heart in my throat, my eyes full of a tired, familiar beauty, and the question of will we make it hanging in the air. All of it cradled by the town I would later think let me down just because it was small and shabby and poor. But that night I didn’t think that way. Cynicism and the city hadn’t ruined home. The crumbling facades, empty storefronts, and small houses with plastic sheeting over the windows instead of curtains were just the way things were. As a child I accepted this as the world because I was part of it and hadn’t really been anywhere else. Later, in college, I saw that town through a new window. It looked like a hole of misery, and I felt somehow superior because I left it for good.

But the truth is I now live in a place where window treatments are discussed as a matter of utmost seriousness, and nearly all of the houses have been renovated to historic standards. The fabric on the seats of my children’s elementary school auditorium smells new, and the floor’s carpeting is never threadbare. Worn fabric, the parents would agree, would be an embarrassment.

We weren’t embarrassed in the van. We didn’t know how to be. We lived in shabby houses, we shoveled the driveways because no one’s parents could afford a snow blower, and we drove around in rusty, late-model cars.

It’s not my old home, the snowfall, or a rust-belt ethos I long for. But I do miss the kind of not-seeing that allows a child to be satisfied when she peers out the glass window at the world, a world she thinks she knows, a world often covered in snow.

 

*Names have been changed for privacy.

 


Cate Hennessey’s work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Chester County Dwell, and Polish American Journal. Noted in Best American Essays, she has also been a finalist for the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction.