Part One written in November 2010…continued here….
I promised to complete the story when I shared my reflections on the first letters exchanged between my mother and William Carlos Williams in an earlier post. It feels like the time is right to do that now. I still feel in a reflective mode about things and people that have passed and are passing; coupled with ongoing reflections on how we may get to know people through written exchanges and how close or distant that may be from really getting to know them in person. I feel that the end of a relationship or connection that has largely been based on an exchange of letters (or in today’s world – e-mails) can be as meaningful as a face-to-face relationship – that is, as significant for the psyche if not as obviously impactful on the fabric of everyday life. Yet it can also be perplexingly enigmatic, not least because we all create (maybe even craft) personas, whether consciously or unconsciously, through the way we present ourselves in writing and also, I think, on the internet. Of course we craft personas in our everyday lives too – but I am wondering whether it is easier to do this when the relationship is built merely on an exchange of written words; and also whether the temptation for the reader to project onto the writer is greater in these circumstances. I wonder whether other people have thoughts about this….
The second and last letter in the exchange between my mother and the famous American modernist poet William Carlos Williams happened only two weeks after the first. It was a short-lived connection. They wrote to each other in the July heat of 1953, he on the East Coast she on the West. Williams opened his second letter complaining of the heat, with a very English attitude: ‘Much that we experience in our lives depends on the weather.’
What did she tell him of herself? I imagine her describing her passion for English and American literature and for creative writing. She was an aspiring writer. She may have described herself as an intellectual, well-read mid-Western American of Norwegian descent – or maybe she disowned her origins from which she had fled. I would love to be able to read her self-portrait in these letters. She was always very good at describing herself and even laughingly hinting at some of her darker qualities, that side each of us is keen to disown. ‘Every real person casts a shadow,’ as the psychologist says.
On the face of it, Williams seems keen to develop the budding epistolary relationship:
‘I was glad to know more about you, it gave me at least a presumptive picture of the person to whom I was writing. I am sorry that you did not come down front to say hello when I spoke in California but I agree, what good [would] it have done? It is better this way when I have no visual image to interfere with my view of you whatever you may look like.’
How true this is –the mystery and romance is enhanced by the lack of real contact.
He gives his letter to her a bell-shaped curve. As the interest rises he then puts a brake on the mounting energy, with a touch of self-deprecation (real or feigned?):
‘You must have a sympathetic feeling for the old. It is to your credit but it has its dangers. A hundred years from now they may be discovering that there are unsuspected beauties in something I may have said but now is not the time to be talking of such things or to be interested in them. Today belongs to the generation which denies the validity of much that I have affirmed. You should be paying attention to them, not me – as your friend, your male friend, has no doubt warned you.’
Who is this unknown male friend? It could have been my father, but I feel it is more likely to have been another man – a young, original, offbeat, even maverick writer who fled the US and ended up in Paris, sending her long, complicated, angst-ridden letters in years to come.
Why did Williams to start to move away? What did my mother say to him about his work? What images did she choose to dwell upon and linger over? Did he perhaps feel she had come too close and, as he put it, that she was ‘making a claim’ on him? All questions that will remain unanswered and open to speculation.
Williams crafted his letter as if it were a poem. He provides an archetypal image as he approaches his denouement: ‘My three year old grandaughter…has just appeared in the garden below me, and is busily tearing a grape leaf into shreds. That gesture too is immortal.’ With this image as if of a statue or in today’s world a movie clip, he too starts to tear the grape leaf of their correspondence into shreds.
He begins to distance himself and as his letter ends, there is a feeling of finality:
‘I am glad to be hearing from you, an unknown young lady whom I have never known and yet has established a claim upon me. You say you are moved by ‘desire’. Be careful of such desires for they are close to denials. Better to find closer objects and especially something which presents itself as attainable. Not that I do not share your love of the unobtainable, that is perhaps our common bond of sympathy.’
This is a breathtakingly beautiful paragraph – and it so evocatively captures the essence of who my mother was. I remember the son of close family friends telling me when I was frustrated with her (as adolescent children often are with their mothers) that she was a dreamer and this was so true. She loved having dreams, and she was more than happy knowing they would never be fulfilled – as long as life was comfortable. In her latter days, life fell short of this basic requirement. Her final two years were spent bedridden in a nursing home, dreaming through the days in a kind of morphine-induced haze which always makes me think of another of her favourite writers Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse Pale Rider, a novella inspired by Porter’s near-fatal attack of flu during the 1918 pandemic, much of which is written in a stream-of-half-consciousness style to capture the feverish state she was in.
As Williams suggests, in unobtainable desire there is indeed denial. And I guess that my desire to get to the bottom of this story is itself a continuation of this unobtainable desire into perpetuity.
My mother was happy to live her life at a distance, and I would imagine that this letter provided a perfect closure to the correspondence she had initiated. It gave her enough to dream about without making any demands.