Is there no way out of the mind? — SYLVIA PLATH
from FEAR OF FLYING, by Erica Jong:
“‘I plunge into new experiences all the time. That’s just the trouble.’
‘Bullshit. You’re a scared little princess. I offer you an experience that could really change you, one you really could write about, and you run away. Back to Bennet and New York. Back to your safe little marital cubbyhole. Christ — I’m glad I’m not married anymore if this is what it leads to. I thought you had more guts than this. After reading all your ‘sensual and erotic’ poems—in inverted commas—I thought better of you than this.’ He gave me a disgusted look.
‘If I spent all my time being sensual and erotic, I’d be too tired to write about it,’ I pleaded.
‘You’re a fake,’ he said, ‘a total fake. You’ll never have anything worthwhile to write about if you don’t grow up. Courage is the first principle. You’re just scared.’
‘Don’t bully me.’
‘Who’s bullying you? I’m just leveling with you. You’ll never know fuck-all about writing if you don’t learn courage.’
‘What the hell do you know about it?’
‘I know that I’ve read some of your work and that you give out little bits and pieces of yourself in it. If you don’t watch out, you’ll become a fetish for all sorts of frustrated types. All the nuts in the world will fall into your basket.’
‘That’s already happened to some extent. My poems are a happy hunting ground for minds that have lost their balance.’ I was cribbing from Joyce, but Adrian wouldn’t know, being illiterate.”
I randomly pulled my FEAR OF FLYING book off the shelf today and was yet again delighted by Erica Jong, and the memory of how I felt back when I discovered Erica Jong. God, I loved when I first found this — my mom’s 1980 copy, the book jacket already peeling back at the corners even then, a paint swatch left inside that I assume she used as a bookmark. The book is mine now, because I took it off her shelf, which was no longer her shelf, and I put it on mine.
This was all around the time shortly after I moved to Chicago, when I was still earnestly outlining my essay collection idea and certain I was not only going to write it—but that it would be published, too. (“Back when everybody called me Baby, and it didn’t occur to me to mind.”)
I hadn’t yet failed at anything, quite. I would sit on my living room floor before my waitressing shifts, papers all around me, mapping out my mind. Telling myself I wouldn’t be waiting tables forever.
Whenever anyone would ask, “what do you do?” I’d reply, “I’m a writer.”
“But what do you do?”
I was on fire and had something to prove.
That was the spring of 2009, and I was drawn to Erica, spending my cash tips on a $4.50 used copy of HALF-LIVES, one of her poetry collections from the 1970s. It’s right there, my own writing in blue ink:
Alison Hamm, March 30, 2009.
It was someone else’s before, of course — someone who had received it as a gift. The transcript reads, in writing that reminds me of my grandmother’s:
Because — you are so special. Dee
Imagine! What a treasure. Who did Dee find so special, I wonder? Certainly that special person was or is less sentimental than I am, I think. Thanks for the book, Dee — and they get rid of it?! No.
I comfort myself with the thought that they must be dead.
Erica quoted Sylvia Plath and had lines in HALF-LIVES like:
“I have come to tell you I have survived.
I bring you chains of paper clips instead of emeralds.
I bring you lottery tickets instead of poems.
I bring you mucilage instead of love.
I lay my body out before you on the desk.
I spread my hair amid a maze of rubber stamps.
RUSH. SPECIAL DELIVERY. DO NOT BEND.
I am open — will you lick me like an envelope?
I am bleeding — will you kiss my paper cuts?”
I think up more wild stories about Dee and the recipient of the book. It smells like incense and my grandparents’ basement.
you are so special
I open mom’s/my FEAR OF FLYING book again, and feel the imprint of her “From the library of… RAH” book stamp underneath where she wrote her name, right there in black ink:
Rexanna Hamm, May 10, 1980.
I promise you, if you find this in a used bookstore, it is because I am dead.
Look for the paint swatch, page 153: Cameo White, Netural, Bamboo Beige, Mudstone, Tundra.
These days I am trying to go to the library more and stop buying so many books, even though I am no longer counting out my cash tips and wondering if I can afford pad thai takeout and also still justify another used poetry collection.
When anyone asks, what do you do? I am no longer defiant; I have nothing to prove. I almost never say I write.
But today I miss that version of me, if only a little.
I was a writer, because I said I was a writer. I was a writer and a waitress. I was learning how to be. I was mapping out a plan. My mother was gone and I was only alone if I stopped looking for her in Erica and Sylvia. It was right there in our own handwriting, because she was a woman and I was a woman who put our names on the front page of our books to say, This is mine.
Because — you are so special