Unreal Nature

May 27, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:27 am

… After graduating from a creative writing master’s program and knocking around for a few years I had enough publications in small journals to earn a short-term residency at Yaddo, a well-known writer’s colony. I remember I had the tower room a the top of the stairs in the big mansion. The rules were clear: we artists and writers were to stick to our studios and studies during the day and come out at night for supper and socializing. For lunch, we ate from lunchboxes that had been prepared for us that morning and put on a shelf for us to pick up. Nothing was to come between us and our work.

I sat up in that tower room and sweated bullets. All around me I could hear the typewriters going (those were the precomputer days) and all I had before me was a blank sheet of paper ready for the important work I had come here to write. People now had faith in me. They had given me this residency, this fine tower room. In fact, my fellow artists had all been impressed that I had gotten “the best room,” with 360 degree views of the elegant grounds. But I didn’t deserve this faith. I had nothing Important to say. I was a sham. Before me floated the face of the famous writer. “See,” he crooned, “I told you so!” I was ready to pack my bags and leave Yaddo, at the very least to leave my room and visit with another blocked writer. Together we could gripe about how our major oeuvre was going to come later in our lives when we were seasoned and interesting. But from the sounds of those typewriters clicking away in all the downstairs rooms, I realized those other writers were creating their major oeuvres now.

And then, hallelujah — I heard the vacuum going right outside my door. Of course, the Yaddo mansion and grounds were cared for by a crew of men and women. There were maids that cleaned the big house, a gardener who tended the grounds, and a wonderful old cook down in the kitchen who packed our lunches and made our sit-down dinner meal. Immersed in our own work and world, we writers and artists had assumed that our parnassus ran on automatic.

And so, during the first week at Yaddo, this became my routine: Along with the other artists and writers, I woke early, had my breakfast, picked up my lunchbox, headed for my studio, looking inspired and ready for work. I read for a few hours, and then, mid-morning, when the typewriters began their maddening clicking, I tiptoed downstairs to the kitchen and talked to the cook or helped the maid cart her heavy industrial vacuum cleaner up to the second floor or yakked with the gardener about what was doing well this year out in his vegetable garden. One day, while gossiping with the cook about the eating habits of some of my favorite writers who had been to Yaddo, I paged through her cookbook. It was one of those old, falling-apart cookbooks with mother’s day cards and holy cards for bookmarks, with corrections and deletions and additions to recipes, written in the margins, the whole held together with one of those thick rust-red post-office rubber bands. As I read through one of those recipes, I was struck by the musicality of cooking terms. I began writing down the names of cooking procedures: knead, poach, stew, whip, skirr, score, julienne, whisk, sauté, sift. Then the names of implements: cup, spoon, ladle, pot, kettle, grater, peeler, colander, corer, waffle iron. Hmm. I began hearing a music in these words. The names of spices: dill, fennel, loveage, angelica, anise, hyssop, paprika.

“You working on a poem there?” the cook asked me.

I shook my head. At that point, I didn’t know I was.

A little later, I went upstairs to the tower room and jotted down in my journal this beautiful vocabulary of my girlhood. As I wrote, I tapped my foot on the floor to a rhythm of the words. I could see my mother and my aunts in the kitchen bending their heads over a pot of habichuelas, arguing about what flavor was missing — what could it be they had missed putting in it? And then, the thought of those aunts and my mother led me through the house, the big furniture that needed dusting, the beds that needed making, the big bin of laundry that needed washing.

What had happened was that I had been reminded by my talks with the caretakers of Yaddo of where my material lay. Not on the shores of ancient Greece, and certainly not on the nearest coast of lightness bordering on light, and not up in the tower with Yeats, but down in the kitchen with my mothers and aunts and sisters. [ … ]

All of that is from an essay, A First Step with “Dusting”, by Julia Alvarez, in the book, Introspections: American Poets on One of Their Own Poems, eds. Robert Pack and Jay Parini. Here is the source poem:


Each morning I wrote my name
on the dusty cabinet, then crossed
the dining table in script, scrawled
in capitals on the backs of chairs,
practising signatures like scales
while Mother followed, squirting
linseed from a burping can
into a crumpled-up flannel.

She erased my fingerprints
from the bookshelf and rocker,
polished mirrors on the desk
scribbled with my alphabets.
My name was swallowed in the towel
with which she jeweled the table tops.
The grain surfaced in the oak
and the pine grew luminous.
But I refused with every mark
to be like her, anonymous.

She found her material down in the kitchen. I find mine in the woods. You find yours … wherever. Or maybe you don’t.

See this recent post for more on the art of cookery.




  1. linseed from a burping can

    I’m sorry to yet again lower the tone, but I think writers sometimes get so solemn that they fail to anticipate droll misreadings. I can’t see “a burping can” as anything but some kind of joke shop item.

    Comment by Ray GIrvan — May 28, 2009 @ 6:31 am

  2. I don’t think she’s being solemn at all. I think she’s ridiculing her mother — with her “squirting” and “burping” polish, and then obssessing about her shiny furniture. Ridiculing, mocking — but carefully.

    Don’t you remember what it’s like to be a little kid?

    Comment by unrealnature — May 28, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

  3. Oh, I do see that. It’s just that I think the juxtaposition doesn’t work, in that it gives the impression of a device called a “burping can” (akin to, say, a laughing bag or farting bag) rather than merely a oilcan that’s incidentally making a burping noise while dispensing oil. For me, it breaks the whole mood of the poem.

    Comment by Ray Girvan — May 28, 2009 @ 5:36 pm

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