Saturday, December 4, 2010
Daddy is an early riser. Always has been. Long before there was a fitness craze, he would jog a half hour before he’d eat his daily pan of oatmeal mush. As his knees aged, cycling replaced the morning run. Every day but the Sabbath. And on the Sabbath he’d complain: got too tired when he didn’t exercise. This seemed ridiculous. How could a man whose job as a mechanic, most of his work with buses and ranchers’ trucks, need any more physical exertion? He’d be at work at his shop, a mere three blocks away, before eight. Seemed to me if anybody could justify sleeping in, it’d be him. He was his own boss, those early hours made no sense.
Now that I’m a man, I get up at five most mornings, an hour earlier than my father ever did. It used to be I’d wake up that early so I’d have time to putter, drinking too much tea after a long shower. Eating fried eggs, masturbating and watching the BBC—simultaneously. By the time I’d leave for work, the bed would be piled high with outfits I’d tried on and rejected before settling on something in a panic. I’d catch a train that would inevitably get me 15 minutes late to my teaching gig an hour and forty minutes away.
As I’ve aged, thank goodness, the morning ritual has changed. Things are simpler now, especially since I started writing the novel. The alarm still goes off at 5 and I still multitask: I eat my cereal in the shower. I quit masturbating and the BBC. Instead I pack a Thermos in a backpack and pull out the yoga mat. By 6:33 I blow out the candles, put on a shirt and tie. I’m out the door in time to sit a couple before the 6:44 Brooklyn-bound B.
The trick of limiting the chaos and getting to work 40 minutes early is probably not the novel at all, but when I have my tea. My first steamy capful is the reward I get for making it to the train. Sipping, I open a Moleskine blankbook sideways. I draw a left margin across two pages. Then I pencil fourteen crossbeam lines shooting out from the margin right. I number them left. I aba bcb cdc ded ee them on the right. This is the scaffold I use to build my book.
I inherited, or rather was taught, my love of literature from Mother. The need to build, however, I get from Daddy. He comes from a line, his father and grandfather before him were tinkers. I don’t know what Grandpa Jensen did for a living, nothing steady besides trapping coyotes, odd repairs and carpentry. But our tumbleweed town has a couple of buildings worked on, not least among them, Daddy’s shop and the one-screen movie house. The tea-colored pattern of leaks on the ceiling were often as interesting to me as a child as any of the films the Valley Theater showed. Only when I was grown would I realize: those stains were Grandpa’s handiwork.
As if tinkering with cars is not enough, Daddy also builds. He built the second of our two family houses. It is located not in some picturesque remote location. Not that it wouldn’t fit such a locale: it’s painted in chocolate brown with turquoise scalloped trim. I’ve never been to Switzerland, but our second home looks like what I imagine chalets look like. Not that Swiss chalets are a-frames like ours. And the A-frame sits not by some Alpine lake, but in our backyard. Right behind our regular house. A hallway leads to it, crooks to the right and inclines. It opens to the A-frame’s family room. Its peaked open ceiling. South facing, full of light. The smell of pine dust from the unvarnished beams of the ceiling that slope down nearly to the floor.
So I’ve been writing this novel in sonnets going on two years. I don’t know when in the process I began thinking of it as the equivalent of Daddy’s A-frame. But the analogy doesn’t work very well, as you’ll see.
Our A-frame had no blueprint. Daddy built it over several years from a plan that existed in his head alone. He never even made a sketch.
Not so with Constance, Or (that’s the title of my novel). Each page of each draft scribbled over back and front, a 60,000 word Ur-Constance written in prose was printed off in 2006 as part of the National Novel Writing Month. At the end of the month I printed what I'd written, put it in a file and abandoned it.
The verse incarnation of Constance, Or is only 90 pages long to date, but my sketches for it could paper the walls of a cathedral.
That’s a lot of cutting, and a sawhorse is actually an a-frame. It needs to be to withstand the pressure. Something that stuck from high school geometry: triangles are the strongest shape. I guess that’s why the design is used so much for cabins: the roof steep and strong enough to bear a mountain’s snow. But if an a-frame’s strong, it’s also simple. No need for columns. Can’t get simpler than that.
But there’s nothing simple to the structure of my verse novel. Would that it were so. It has flashbacks within flashbacks. Subplots, dozens of characters. Two years in and I’m just beginning to be able to understand why this story must be told in verse, but don’t ask me to explain that to you. I can’t vocalize it yet. I do know what the ending should be, but how (or when) I’ll ever get there is a mystery. And that’s where the analogy to the A-frame begins to fit.
Two of the greatest verse novels in the history of the sub-sub genre were never finished. Byron’s Don Juan (pronounced for comic effect “Joo-wan,” by the way) and Pushkin’s Evgenii Onegin (that's Eugene for those of you who want a similar Byronic spin) both only exist in fragments. Both consumed far more time than either of the short-lived poets had; Byron and Pushkin had untimely deaths to meet. I've outlived them both which is likely to be the only accomplishment I will ever have on them. And at the rate I'm writing Constance, Or, I may have to outlive them a very long time before I see it finished.
Daddy's A-frame will never be completed. Its rafters will remain unvarnished after my father is gone. It's just three rooms: the family room, then a loft reached by a winding, cold, iron stair, and a bathroom that never has (and never will have) plumbing. It's sturdy and I think it's lovely, but the house that Daddy built is a failure on many accounts. Because it's electric heat is too expensive and the wood-burning stove Daddy welded together from steel plates at his shop can't heat the place very well.
We visit it often, but only two people ever really lived there. My brother did through his high school years. When he left home and I wanted to take over the loft, I was told no. My room across from Mother would do.
The only other person who ever slept there regularly was a German exchange student I fell for first-sight my senior year. When his original homestay in a trailer with a family of six fell through, he moved in (after much conivving on my part). In the apex of the A-frame, he slept that winter in sweaters and heating bills were added to the list of things that were just not right about him being there.
Now the only thing that stays in the family's second home permanently is junk. The “bathroom” houses every outfit mother ever wore; the family room is crowded with yard-sale games her grandchildren will never play with.
See: a-frames are impractical once you’re inside. The first non-Mormon chapel I ever set foot in was an a-frame in Yellowstone, the Teton peaks beyond were its stained glass. A-frames might do for weddings, but not for living. The ceilings are the walls and that makes for a lot of wasted space. They’re hard to insulate because once you do, you lose the beauty of the frame. Those alpha rafters repeating themselves in wood, over and over again. It’s like living inside a window you can’t bring yourself to close the drapes on.
I hope it won’t seem like a bad case of “Stinkin’ Thinkin’” but this verse novel idea of mine is doomed to fail. In the age of Twitter, contemporary readers might struggle through one sonnet, but three hundred? That’s a challenge for even a hardboiled poetry reader. But impracticality won’t keep me from writing it. From spending almost every spare moment I have fashioning it. Daddy worked on the A-frame Saturdays when work at the shop didn’t keep him too long and when the weather wasn’t too nice enough to waterski. He tinkered on the thing for five years or more.
All poets are tinkers. “Poetry,” “poems,” “poet” all come from the Greek word “poi-oh” which means “I make,” but might as well mean, “I toy.” We poets fiddle with language, image and emotion. We tear apart the world to see its smallest mechanisms, its gears, springs and pulleys. Sometimes some poet like me gets an idea to toy with something giant. Not only to tear apart but build.
And I build what I call a novel in the backyard of my home: on New York subways, in parks, on nude beaches and Harlem laundries. Surrounded by porn stars and prostitutes in the gayest gym in Manhattan you’ll find me: counting stressed and unstressed syllables between weight-lifting sets. Stuffing my novel with discarded bits of family junk.
Sometimes on the Sabbath Daddy will go missing. You’ll find him in the A-frame. He can’t hear Mother raging from there. Daddy lays on the floor staring up into the stuttering alphabet he raised. I write best in the morning because Mother’s voice stuck in my mind, on constant loop, plays loudest then. Writing shuts her up. And so I write, building one sonnet two-by-four at a time a tribute of sorts to my father.
A tribute, I can only pray, he will never ever see.