Yepikhodov: How nice it is to play the mandolin.
Dunyasha: That’s not a mandolin. It’s a guitar.
Yepikhodov: To a man crazed with love it’s a mandolin.
On Saturday, for the second time this month, I thought of my brother when chopping up an onion and texted him a line from an unwritten poem about onions and some theme of love. It feels like the time to share these lines, and what they have become, more broadly. This time I won’t even attribute what is said in the back rooms of my mind when I’m craving breakfast to the writings of French author, as I have been known to do on occasion. For, as the French say, “Occupe-toi de tes oignons.” Mind your own onions. Yes, they really say this. And I am taking it to heart.
I could fall in love faster than I can cut up an onion
And when I hold the slices of my heart
I could cry more too
I could cry more too
After the Blues
Last night, I cut up an onion, and I didn’t feel any sting in my eyes. No tears flowed. I imagine this is what it was like for you when you broke my heart.
But did you still put it in the sauce–this onion, your clean work of five minutes? The light of the end of the afternoon coming through your kitchen, did you stand over your stove and empty, with one pass of the back of your knife across the cutting board, the pieces of onion into the pan? Or did you pick them apart one at a time, the roughly cut ones, the thick wedges, the slivers too tiny to withstand the heat, the cones and the spirals, and place them with your fingers into the burning oil?
Maybe it was too late in the day. Maybe it was already too dark for you to see the rush of steam rising from the pan. But you could hear the hissing because you stepped back from each flash of oil, for seconds at a time, when you lowered each new piece into the heat. Still your hands got pricked, didn’t they? For precious too many minutes, you made this music of singeing then waiting then singeing again until all the slices of onion were in the pan and the burner had brought the oil and onions to a gentle hum.
You flicked on the light. The fleshier cuts were translucent and already turning brown. The thinner ones were crisping at the edges. You could feel the glow of warmth on your cheeks as you gazed into the pan, now close enough almost to feel the heat in your eyes. Could you?
You stepped back to the counter and returned with handfuls of diced garlic and shavings of ginger, which you stirred in with the onions. This is the part of the recipe that everyone asks for but that everyone knows is a secret. In another bowl were freshly cut chiles, and you added them to the pan, sprinkling them with salt, with pepper, and with lime. And soon even the back rooms of the house were filled with the perfume of spices, and filled too, when you turned back up the heat, with the sounds of sobbing: the gaspings, and then again the sighs, coming from the onions, the garlic, the chiles, and the ginger, in ruffles of steam.
I wish that I could have been with you to smell this sadness, to taste with you this love we shared one last time.
I remember listening to a news story a couple years back about Japanese families returning to their homes in villages harmed by the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. For years, homeowners were only allowed one visit per month, and this not an overnight stay. They would use this time mostly to tend their gardens and take care of their houses.
This feels like the makings of a beautiful anime. It could show moments from before and after the Fukushima accident in the life of a family. It could show how generations of a family grow together and grow separately. It could show how we recover from tragedy and how we maintain our families in the loss of our home as it used to be.
My brother says that if you were writing a Japanese anime, you would have to start with the visual style. He says that this, rather than the verbal language, is the foundation of anime. I agree with him, but if I were to write a Japanese anime, I would write something like this. Here is my latest exploration of genre. Think of this as a scherzo.
UNCLE: This is none of your concern.
JIROU: Isn’t it uncle?
[Steam rises from UNCLE’S bowl of rice. He grunts. JIROU sits in silence.]
[Rays of sun fall on YOUNGER UNCLE and YOUNGER JIROU in their vegetable garden before the accident. YOUNGER JIROU struggles to pull up a weed stalk. YOUNGER UNCLE watches on with a smile of delight before placing one of his large hands over his nephew’s and the other further down at the root of the weed stalk. Together, they pull it up. It glints in the sun. YOUNGER JIROU’s eyes fill with water. His hands sting. But then he looks up at his uncle, his eyes shimmering through his tears with wonder. It really is a large weed stalk.]
YOUNGER UNCLE: In France, they have a saying. Occupez-vous de vos oignons.
YOUNGER JIROU: What does it mean?
[YOUNGER JIROU beats the weed stalk against the ground, casting off chunks of earth.]
YOUNGER UNCLE: It means, “Mind your onions.” It is, I suppose, what a woman might say to her neighbor when she catches her listening to her conversation over the garden fence. It means, “This is none of your concern.” Go back to your own garden.
[YOUNGER JIROU knocks more pieces of dirt off the weed stalk with increasing violence.]
YOUNGER UNCLE: But of all the plants in our garden, there is one that we should tend to with the greatest care.
[YOUNGER JIROU is distracted. YOUNGER UNCLE tugs at the root end of the weed stalk.]
YOUNGER UNCLE: One is the sweetest to taste. One is the most useful, when we are sick, for healing. When we are hungry, one is the most sure to fill us up with goodness. Jirou, do you not want to know what this plant is?
[He tickles YOUNGER JIROU. YOUNGER JIROU giggles. YOUNGER JIROU, curious, looks up into his uncle’s eyes.]
YOUNGER UNCLE: I am talking about the heart.
[JIROU grows silent. Gray clouds appear in the sky. Rain is coming.]
YOUNGER UNCLE: Above all else, we must occupy ourselves with the heart.
[YOUNGER UNCLE takes the weed stalk in his hands as YOUNGER JIROU releases it.]
YOUNGER UNCLE: If weeds take up root and choke the heart, even if the garden is filled with color and alive with the buzz of insects and replenished by its seasons of rain, even if we have all these, if we do not let the heart grow…
[He looks up at the sky]
YOUNGER UNCLE: …there is nothing left.
I get phrases stuck in my head.
Lines from poems that are unwritable. Bad moments of prayer. Bob Dylan lyrics. Psalms. Just glimpses. Just the words.
I was telling my friends today about the phrase I repeat, “I want slices of mango and avocado,” a line from a very sensual poem, a statement of something that she, that we all–let’s face it–profoundly desire.
But there’s another line I’ve been carrying with me. If I had to write a Valentine’s Day card, I think I would include it in the note. In the interest of being more romantic, I offer here a glimpse of my decidedly unromantic life.
I went on a sort of date once with a friend in college. It was the end of her senior year, and I was a sophomore. When we got in the car, she said, “You should feel special. I shaved my legs for you today.” I didn’t realize it in that moment–sitting in the car, parked, the spring wind still feeling cold in the trees, too early for fireflies, music playing in the grove–but that was the most provocative thing anyone had ever said to me. I did feel special but I guess I didn’t feel that special.
Tonight I broke the spell. My roommate asked me what I was doing later. Later. “What are you doing later tonight?” he said. He brought out a Chimay beer. “I thought we’d drink this. I’ve been saving this since you gave it to me.”
“I gave it to you?”
“Yes, when I drove you to the airport one time last year, you gave it to me as a gift.”
“Yes, I vaguely remember that now.” Then I said, “You should feel special. You’re the one person I’ve given a gift to in two years, and I’ve had a lot of people drive me to the airport.”
Sometimes I can’t tell if I’ve broken the spell or just doubled the force of the incantation. Blues poetry works the same way. “I’ll always be in love, it hurts me so bad. I’ll always be in love, it hurst me so bad.” Not demystifying but adding another layer of enchantment.
I’m still waiting for him to get back so we can drink that beer.
Sometimes when our friends get married–and I’m getting the negatives out of the way first–they act like their wedding is the first wedding we have ever attended.
“Now the couple,” they say, “would like to exchange rings. Rings are a symbol of their covenant. They will wear them on their fingers.”
“Vows are promises,” they explain. “The response is ‘I do.’ “
“Marriage involves love,” they tell us.
Sometimes when I go to weddings, I wonder, “How old do they think we all are?” And we all know that they know we are not children, right?, because they didn’t invite our kids to the ceremony. Still, I wonder.
Nevertheless, the wedding I attended this weekend awakened me, taught me something about the realness of marriage. And I was pleased and surprised.
Maybe it was because of the warm sun, visions of sparkling water from a grassy Santa Barbara bluff, the humming of cello music, some good cheese, candles and Persian poetry, the book of Numbers, really, the Avett brothers–American millennials can throw some good weddings; maybe it was loneliness: I had just written a poem about my drive down the night before, reimagining a meeting with someone in the concrete doorway of a Highway 101 rest stop bathroom as sheltering with them in their tenderness from the loneliness of the night. (Hey, I never said I wasn’t trashy.) And the full moon was rising. It must have had to do with that.
I had the idea that this marriage was a tree and that there are many jobs we must take on to care for our two friends. Some tend to the roots. Are they healthy? Are they reaching down into the almost unspeakable mystery, the darkness, the silence of the earth to find the water they need? Some prune its branches. Some pick and feast on its fruit, and others wait for the fruit to fall. Some lift their eyes wide through the leaves to the sky and bask in its shade. Some crunch on the fall leaves or count its buds then its blossoms in the spring. Someone, in the coldness of winter takes a shovel (so my grandfather would say–I know so little about caring for trees) and relieve the one branch that seems to bend a little lower under each season of snow.
And I felt that in some way when we tend to this marriage of our two friends we tend to every marriage. And that truly we tend to marriage itself–that tree in the resurrection garden whose gardener is also our savior who frees us. He welcomes us to walk with him in the garden paths, to participate in its rushing fragrance, to feed ourselves in its sweetness, to celebrate in its splashes of sunlight, to rest in its shades and its softness, to quiet ourselves in its morning dews and its evening hushes, to shelter ourselves together in its abundance.
And it is not the thought that messes us up, not that this is the only tree or the best tree or the most holy tree–only one tree can have this name, and it is the one our Lord was killed on, on which he suffered his agony–but that this marriage is the blessed tree that, together with all of its seed, strains towards what it hopes to symbolize–the marriage of our Lord with his people, of our time with God’s, of heaven with earth, of the river, the feast, and the city, Jerusalem, of the healing of the nations, in the last day and in that final and first new morning.
I’m just gonna jump right in.
50. There’s a moment in “Joy to the World,” my favorite Christmas hymn, when the whole congregation, the whole choir, and every voice track in the whole studio sings, without reflection, the lyrics–at once dazzlingly unsingable and gorgeously heartfelt:
The glo-or-ree-ees uhhhh-uh-uv
followed immediately by,
Yes, without time even to take a breath, we force every last dotted rhythm of “his righteousness” through our vocal chords. In this kind of music, there are no winners.
49. “With th’angelic hosts proclaim.” It’s like we’re not reading it right. This and every apostrophe we find in hymnody–“ev’ry,” “heav’n,” “fortress’s’rGodabulw’rkneverfailing.” But this “Hark the Herald” example is egregious because the syntax of other languages–Italian, French, maybe more–governs the familiar article-apostrophe contraction in the song of everyday. I would have expected someone so revolutionary as a Methodist writer to accept once and for all that English is not like its forebears and give up trying to follow their rules. I would have expected hymnbooks to recognize that all human beings are musical and that if we can read music (or read, or share a hymnal, or stay awake in a pew) we can omit syllables to fit a line.
But these are minor cases, blemishes, compared to what follows.
48. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
47. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
46. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
45. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
44. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
43. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
42. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
41. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
40. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
39. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
38. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
37. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
36. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
35. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
34. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
33. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
32. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
31. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
30. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
29. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
28. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”
27. “The angel did say.”
26. Not “the angel said” but “the angel did say.” And it gets worse.
25. “Was to certain poor shepherds.” There are (at least) three possibilities. First, there are many poor shepherds in the world and in the Judean countryside, and the angel did say to only certain of them. Another explanation arises from the impulse to give some insight into the character of the shepherds. They were poor–what else? Well, for one, they were certain. Not quite certain or very certain. But certain. Certain poor shepherds. It’s a possibility. And the third I dismiss but I can’t disregard because when I was a child I interpreted the line as the creation of a knew transitive verb: to certain. “The angel did say”–so I heard the line–“(in order) to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay (about the coming of the Messiah, finding him in Bethlehem, in cloths, in a manger, and this will be a sign, and on earth peace).” It almost works.
24. “On a cold winter’s night”–brace yourselves–“that was so deep.”
23. “So deep.”
22. This is the kind of thing that we say today when a friend makes a particularly truthful comment or that we never quite believe when we try to be poetic and someone says it of us. It is not something we say in any kind of poetry or songwriting. If we were in first grade and brought home a picture we had drawn of that cold and starry Christmas night but that included this caption, our parents would be embarrassed. They would not have put it on the fridge.
21. And this line has been accepted. Decade after decade.
20. Which gets me thinking: is this the world’s worst writing or the world’s worst translation? Some Latin hymn maybe? Thomas Merton decried the bad translation of liturgical texts, calling them “transliterations of the French.” The lyrics of this song are so bad, this could almost explain everything wrong with it.
19. But then I got on wikipedia. And look at the history: 1823 as the first known publication date.
18. England. 1823.
17. So we know it’s not a Latin carol or Old French. It’s not even some wayward carol from the 12th century, some lost sheep making its way through Christmas as this newly codified language called English began to emerge like a retrograde sun in the western hills. Something we need Seamus Heaney to interpret for us.
16. This wasn’t even a song from the 18th-century book of carols that we trounce through with joy each Christmas. We had “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” We had Handel. We had the inspired Charles Wesley canon. And that’s just songwriting. We had Keats, Shelley, the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. Was this simply–and painstakingly so–a song meant to teach young children the Christmas story, picking the right parts, clipping their edges, and then pressing the folds into clunky rhyming lines?
15. Did the folk who inhabit our image of 19th-century London–we see them stepping into church for Mass, coats and hats on, songs in their hearts, we watch them returning home from the shops clutching parcels with bright ribbons, copies of The Pickwick Papers in hand–did the whole of respectable English, human, adult society simply shrug and say, “Oh well?”
14. In fact quite literally they did. Get on wikipedia. The Cornish songbook gives the chorus “O well, O well, O well, O well.” You can’t make this stuff up.
13. Cornwall, keeping it classy since the invention of the pasty. And, like, game hens.
12. But then, and perhaps first–and maybe this is the whole point–we listen to the music.
Noel, noel, noel, noel
Born is the King of Israel.
11. How is it that the very words of this song, if we take them at their word, will exacerbate and aggravate, will frustrate us at every turn, will ridicule our conceptions of childhood and Christmas and angels and stars and the robustness of an English literary culture, but that the music, if we listen–and we cannot help be listen–will radiate in our hearts and in our consciousness?
10. The music builds. First, there is the suggestion of good tidings. Shadows and whispers. There’s still darkness. The stiffness of slowly moving centuries in our muscles. Each layer being softly placed upon the next, the song grows. If the song soothes, it is not the large-scale events we recover from here, the mass destructions, brutality and cruelties. This music–this song–was never meant to help us respond to this.
9. But as we sing “Noel,” we hear rise within us the pure and full-throated lament of our daily miseries, quick agonies, friends lost, blank pages, loneliness, the same fears. We will sing the four glowing words, the same Noel, sung first, and then repeated three times, until we are freed.
8. And the bones of the song, the words, may haunt us, but we keep singing, and our lament fills the skies in the flesh and blood of music. The angels, if we follow our vision, have a different substance. Maybe theirs is starlight, “hope’s feathers.” A returning, the first new stirring. And as we join in, our sad song reaches–it does not strain–into joy. We hear the clamor of massbells, smell the sheltering of incense, feel the tenderness of a community awakened. The beautiful feet of the psalm’s messenger, the sprig of an olive branch. We can hear, after the famine, at last, the first hush of rain.
Born is the King of Israel
And all flesh will see it together.
7. And we learn that it is no longer the dark and the cold
6. but the full singing, the lush notes–a vibrating reed playing on a column of air, so high the last “Noel” soars
5. a crying together with one accord
4. which is, truly, so deep.
3. “So deep.”