It’s Beckett’s birthday, and Beckett has always been lucky for me since I first saw Happy Days performed my freshman year of college and thought, That was strange and wonderful. I don’t remember any other play I saw that year; I only remember Winnie up to her neck in dirt and the gun inches away but unreachable. We bought our post-Katrina house on Beckett’s birthday, and soon after that spent the summer in Ireland teaching his plays on the grounds of Trinity, and nine months later gave birth to our daughter, Saoirse. So because it’s his birthday, I keep thinking the joke will finally play out today and my family will receive, at last, a letter of acceptance for our daughter to begin kindergarten this fall. So far we have received three letters from the three public schools to which we applied notifying us that she has been put on a waiting list, with no likely spots to become available.
Our hope today is that the school we moved for will send a second letter recognizing our recent residency and grant us a spot. Otherwise, it looks like we will be home schooling for another year. Friends all around the country share with me their nightmare stories about getting their kids in school. Trying to get your child into one of the miniscule number of good public schools in any city has become, at least for me, more stressful than completing my PhD and going into my defense. I think of what we want for our daughter, what we need. Access to a good school shouldn’t seem like a privilege and certainly shouldn’t depend on a lottery. I don’t even play the lottery for money. I, like everyone, resent having to do it, play this gamble, with my child’s life.
And so there I am thinking about what I want and what I need, and I’m transported back to before I had my daughter, to a night not long after our return to the city after Katrina, when we were newly married on the Brooklyn Bridge at sunrise as an even better idea to make up for our canceled wedding because of the hurricane. Very few people were back; the National Guard was still in place, as was curfew. My husband and I and our friends—about fifteen of us who seemed to be together every weekend—were in Miss Mae’s on Napoleon and Magazine, just down the block from Tipitina’s. The bar, which is large and well-lit and famous for its cheap and strong drinks and which had a fabulous jukebox at the time, was blasting “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” I think everyone in the bar felt the same way: We were back. We were giving it our best, trying to have faith, hope, keep up the fight and refuse to be suffocated even while we were up to our necks in the detritus, literal and metaphorical, of a city and life that had gone underwater and reemerged, but not really. (This might be an appropriate time to mention Lori Nix’s eerily gorgeous photographed dioramas of disaster aftermath featured in the spring issue.) This was before some of us from that night would finally give up, either by slipping away—the gun unfortunately not unreachable—on the levee of the Mississippi, or packing up a van and moving to another city, or signing papers. But that night we were weightless for the first time in months as we all bounded on top of our chairs and sang like angels, bouncing till it seemed either the chairs would break or the roof would burst open. We knew we could never get what we wanted—the lives and city we knew back—but in that moment we believed that we would get what we needed—a life from that point on where the greatest challenges and disappointments were now behind us. We were young.
The spring issue of The Southern Review opens with Carol Ann Davis’s poem “All You Know”: “Over time you discover all you know / fits into a thimble. Over time / you begin to see the folly of the vow . . . / you hear your mother / . . . saying not / for nothing in your ear.” With the rhythm of waves lapping in a dark to which our eyes are adjusting, Davis’s poem distills for us the knowledge that all of the experiences that flood our lives are not in vain, and the gems we save from them will remain, even if they do all fit into a space as small as a thimble or on the “point/of a needle.” They remain. The poem ends with the memory of the speaker’s father balancing precariously (the trick of life) on the legs of a chair in her childhood kitchen and her realization that “. . . this image in which he still moves—/ isn’t it good it stays, isn’t it / a miracle it holds / all you know?” How perspective changes as one gets older; how, sometimes, a truth can become so evident, so small, you can tuck it into a thimble or a single image of the past and carry it around with you.
Robert Cording’s “Studio” takes a look back over the speaker’s writing life and incorporates Robert Penn Warren’s declaration to Allen Tate that the only way Penn Warren knew of making sense of his life was through writing poetry. The speaker in the poem says he “used to worry / about running out of words for things. / Now I worry I won’t use up all the words / I’ve been given.” Again, we see the inevitable shift in perspective that comes with age and the universal fear that our time will end too soon when there’s still so much to say, the whole day gone and we have not sung.
If there’s a common theme to the poems and life of Jake Adam York, who died suddenly this December at the young age of forty, it is just that, that our time on this earth will end too soon, when there’s still so much to say. He was looking forward to appearing in the journal again, this time along with his colleague Nicky Beer, so they could make “a bigger noise on campus,” he said. The three poems that close the spring issue are part of his tribute to the martyrs of the civil rights movement, and as he wrote in “Postscript”: “This is not the afterimage / but the image of day / on paper, in its pores, / new light that shows the edges, / so that nothing can be hid.” His poems in this series sought to reveal a truth and to show that all lives have meaning and value, and for John Earl Reese who was shot while dancing in a café, “Inscription for Air” asks “not for what was lost, but what / was lived,” for the chance, once again, to “pull back the arm / and start this music once again.” A chance, sometimes, we get only in memory or in writing.
I like to start the music once again in my mind, dance on top of chairs and sing with abandon before the bell rings. And even though it should be a bittersweet memory now with the passage of time and change in perspective, it’s not. It’s like the first time I saw Beckett performed: it’s all awe. So the day has come to a close, and there’s been no letter from the school as we had anticipated the post would bring. We will wait another day, another happy day, with hope that we get what we need.
In the meantime, I will surround myself with beautiful sounds. Our audio gallery this season includes works by the terrific writers David Kirby, Alison Pelegrin, David Petruzelli, Corey Van Landingham, and M. Shahid Alam, who reads both his English translations of Ghalib’s ghazals and the Urdu originals. It’s as lovely as lying on the levee in the dark and listening to the waves wash over the rocks below while watching the night sky shift.