by Michael Abraham
She used to roll up to my house late at night, in her green pickup truck, smoking a Parliament out the window and blasting The Strokes. I was seventeen. I would climb in, and we would drive through my neighborhood much too fast, her weak, amber headlights illuminating only the nearest spot of road. We would talk about the day, about our friends at Catholic school, about whatever. It wasn’t so much about the talking. Even then, at that early time in our friendship, it was about the being together, often the being together in silence. We grew up outside of Seattle, and so there were woods aplenty, and we would pull off on some country highway, and she would take out her straight-tube bong, and we would rip it while Julian Casablancas crooned, Some people think they’re always right. Others are quiet and uptight. Others, they seem so very nice-nice-nice, oh! Inside they might feel sad and wrong, oh, no! We liked that song, probably because inside we felt so sad and so wrong, so unfit as subjects in the world we inhabited. Two misfit kids in a green pickup truck in the dead of night. Then, she would start the truck back up, and we would drive listlessly through the dark vigil of the trees on either side of the road, winding this way and that, singing along or lapsing into thought. I would stare out the window and watch the shadows roll by, and I would feel, for a moment, impossible and effervescent. I fell in love with her on these long, circuitous drives through the night. I came to believe very strongly in her, in the vibrancy of her presence, in some curious and ineffable extra that she had to her which other people did not have. She was imposing, even then, as she is now—but gentle inside, just.
For my birthday that year, she gave me a copy of Crush, Richard Siken’s first book of poetry. Years later, I would meet Siken at a signing in New York, and I would ask him to do something a bit odd, which was to sign the book, not on the title page, but under a poem called “Unfinished Duet.” He would ask why, and I would respond, “A dear friend gave me this book when I was seventeen, and I read ‘Unfinished Duet,’ and now I study poetry at NYU,” which was an entirely true genealogy. Siken smiled knowingly, and he wrote, beneath the poem, “I [illegible] like this [illegible] little poem. I couldn’t finish it so I wrote a whole ‘nother book. RS.” This was probably a gentle nudge to get me to buy the book for which the signing was being held, but I was a college student and broke, so I left with my newly signed copy of Crush and did not buy War of the Foxes until a long time after.
The year I met Richard Siken was also the year that she left Seattle to come live with me in New York. The summer before, we had gone on the worst mushroom trip imaginable at a nude beach in Seattle. In the wake of it, we spent every day on the porch of the little, blue house where she was then living with two friends, smoking weed and occasionally doing coke and talking endlessly of what a nightmare it had been. I remember very clearly that we hatched the plan for her to move to New York the following summer because we were both so verklempt, so unmoored, by this mushroom trip that we felt that we absolutely had to be together. But, in truth, it wasn’t the mushroom trip at all that had us so verklempt and so unmoored. We were, both of us, deeply lost, nineteen and twenty, respectively—deeply lost in that twilight of youth that comes like a last wave off the sun and swallows up everything in a deep blue. I wrote something for her, once we lived in New York, about that summer. It isn’t very good, but it is very honest, and there is something to say for that.
there is a number somewhere between 1 and 1000. I do not know it, but it’s the number of times we’ve gotten blue together. on the porch, which had no swing, but flowers and ashtrays so we were alright, with the bong and two packs or four packs or however many packs of Parliaments. we got blue. it wasn’t childhood, really, but I think about it that way. it was what late afternoon is to the length of the day, and what May is to springtime. that heavy thrum in the air that signifies something is coming: something, some June evening, coming to grab us by our pretty throats; something we’ll put in our mouths on a beach and then get so old so fast, looking at each other. and talking, talking about how blue it feels.
consider it this way: God is a little boy and a little girl walking together, hand in hand, free hands have cigarettes, backpack’s got an eighth; God who is two people, two blonde kids, say, and God is going to the beach to paint the sky a color finally, because it’s time to finish playing and get down to business. and little God paints the sky, and the sky is blue, and then little God throws a rager because little God is never done playing for long. the little girl who is half of little God knows very well how to spin a party about herself, cool and collected, her eyes as of storm. the little boy who is half of little God watches her do this, and dreams of doing it himself. yes, he does dream of being like her, of having that immense manner she has, that way she’s got about her, stacked helter skelter and topsy turvy, standing like she’s always about to fall over, like gravity listens as she scoffs. she is authority itself when she chooses, powerful in herself, and you see it in the air that comes off her, electric, real as butter. he has his own power, but it is different. where she is a bottle of lightning, he spills everywhere, full of noise and thunder and much obviousness of feeling, always busy talking, and writing, always busy putting words to things. they’re an odd pair, these two which make up little God. but the secret of God is oddness, for nothing is stranger than God is. nothing is stranger than the friendship that God is, for God is a friendship between things that makes things happen: how the Sun grows tired every day and requires the waves to throw it back up into the sky, so it can make blue—how weedsmoke is blue and Parliament boxes are blue, how your eyes are also blue.
So, we moved in together, into a shitty apartment in Bedstuy infested with fruit flies, where we shared a bedroom for a summer with two mattresses on the floor, and then into a significantly less shitty apartment in Ridgewood, where we had our own bedrooms and where we stayed for two years. In those two years, my inner life came to resemble, with shocking accuracy, the affects given voice by Siken in “Unfinished Duet.” It is almost as if she had handed me, at seventeen, a prophecy of how it would feel to be twenty-one. And she bore witness to my transformation into the speakers of “Unfinished Duet.” And she is how I survived that transformation, for it was not a pleasant one. Let me explain in detail.
I think that the poem is supposed to be read as a conversation between lovers, for love and desire are deep at the heart of Crush. But I do not read it that way. Rather, I conceive of the poem as a conversation between a tormented subject and himself. The poem runs for fifty-four lines, heavily enjambed, in a tight column, and it oscillates back and forth between two speakers, one who speaks in plain text and another who speaks in italics.
It begins: “At first there were too many branches / so he cut them and then it was winter.” The poem begins with a kind of neurosis. Too many branches? Too much beauty in front of him? He can’t handle it, and so he delivers winter unto himself. Then, immediately, the other, italicized voice breaks in: “He meaning you. Yes …” The italicized voice won’t let the speaker escape into the safety of the third person. It pins the speaker down. It makes the speaker answer to the reality of the situation; it insists on responsibility for the winter that the speaker has made for himself because of his neurotic distaste for all the pretty branches, so many of them splayed out in front of him. The line continues and then breaks, but the sentence goes on and then spills into succeeding sentences, each jarringly line-broken:
He meaning you. Yes. He would look out
the window and stare at the trees that once
had too many branches and now seemed
to have too few. Is that all? No, there were
other attempts, breakfasts: plates served,
plates carried away. He doesn’t know
what to do with his hands. He likes the feel
of the coffeepot. More than the hacksaw?
Yes, and he likes flipping the chairs,
watching them fill with people. He likes
the orange juice and toast of it, and waxed
floors in any light. He wants to be tender
and merciful. That sounds overly valorous.
See, what has happened in this early section of the poem is that the speaker has done a kind of violence, a violence to the trees who did not deserve it, and he comes to regret it, or at least to judge it as overkill. But the other voice breaks in: “Is that all?” The speaker is not only his regret for his violence. He is trying; he is making “other attempts.” These other attempts all have to do with miring himself in work, and in the work of the hands. This will become important in the poem: the work of the hands. “He doesn’t know / what to do with his hands” the other voice insists, and this is true. But “He likes the feel / of the coffeepot,” for the coffeepot, when one is pouring from it to serve to others, is safe; it is productive. (I was a barista those years we lived in Ridgewood.) He likes it more than the hacksaw, the hacksaw with which he did such violence to the lovely trees with his unsafe hands. He wants to work, this man; he wants to bring pleasure to others, to witness the spectacle of brunch. He wants to make this spectacle with his hands, for this is a safe spectacle; it is so very unlike the dangerous spectacle he made with the hacksaw, so very unlike the violence he did against the trees. But, then, the other voice says something painfully true: “He wants to be tender / and merciful.” The speaker cannot handle this declaration of truth. He has to shove it away. He does want this, certainly: tenderness and mercy are why he has turned from the hacksaw to the coffeepot. He cannot admit it though. It is all too much to be tender and merciful. It sounds “overly valorous.” Where the italicized voice is cool and cutting, calculating, aware of all the nuances of the situation, the speaker is caught up in self-presentation, in humility, in trying and trying and trying.
The poem continues:
Sounds like penance. And his hands?
His hands keep turning into birds and
flying away from him. Him being you.
Yes. Do you love yourself? I don’t have to
answer that. It should matter. He has a
body but it doesn’t matter, clean sheets
on the bed but it doesn’t matter. This is
where he trots out his sadness. Little black
cloud, little black umbrella. You miss
the point: the face in the mirror is a little
traitor, the face in the mirror is a pale
and naked hostage and no one can tell
which room he’s being held in. He wants
in, he wants out, he wants the antidote.
He stands in front of the mirror with a net,
hoping to catch something. He wants to
move into the afternoon because
there is no other choice …
The first time I read the words, “His hands keep turning into birds and / flying away from him,” I was moved to the point of goosebumps. I have written about this endlessly, but beginning when I was seventeen, I lost control of my hands; my hands got a mind of their own. They seized drugs and men and all sorts of trouble; they flew away from me over and over again, every night seemingly. She was there for that. She was there for the beginning of it, and then she was there for the fever pitch of it, around nineteen, twenty, twenty-one—when we lived together in New York. Her own hands were flighty, too, but she worried over mine. I relied upon her worry. Her worry over me kept me grounded even if it could not ground my reckless, avian hands.
This section of the poem is where the other, italicized voice becomes like the voice in my head in those years. “Do you love yourself? I don’t have to / answer that. It should matter.” This was a conversation I had with myself in the bathroom mirror, late at night, high or drunk or whatever it was—a conversation I had with myself over and over. There was a part of me, an italicized part, that insisted that it was important that I find love for myself. But I couldn’t make it matter: the body didn’t matter; the clean sheets on the bed didn’t matter. I didn’t matter. The italicized voice in my head could also be sneering and unkind, was sneering and unkind even as it insisted upon my loving myself: “This is / where he trots out his sadness. Little black / cloud, little black umbrella.” The experience of being sad, of being profoundly and achingly sad, is an experience of splitting up into me and me: one side takes seriously how badly one feels, and the other cannot help but dismiss it as so much drama. But I was adamant about my abjection, just as the speaker in the poem is: the face in the mirror was a traitor; the face in the mirror was a hostage. It was not a little black cloud, little black umbrella kind of drama. It was the highest of stakes for me; my life was on the line. But then, of course, the little italicized voice in my head comes sneeringly back: “He stands in front of the mirror with a net, / hoping to catch something.” I take this to mean that the side of myself that saw this grandiose explosion of pain as nothing more than so much drama knew also that I was desperate to make a meaning out of the explosion of pain, looked over my shoulder while I wrote poem after poem about the fire inside my head. That voice was of the opinion that, because I was trying to make meaning of the pain, the pain must not have been so real; it must only have been a ploy to “catch something.” Caught in this split of self, I wanted only “to / move into the afternoon because / there is no other choice.”
We are nearing the end now:
… Everyone in this
room got here somehow and everyone in
this room will have to leave. So what’s left?
Sing a song about the room we’re in?
Hammer in the pegs that fix the meaning
to the landscape? The voice wants to be
a hand and the hand wants to do something
useful. What did you really want? Someone
to pass this with me. You wanted more.
I want what everyone wants. He raises
the moon on a crane for effect, cue the violins.
That’s what the violins are for. And yes,
he raises the moon on a crane and scrubs it
until it shines. So what does it shine on?
There is a curious disjuncture that begins this passage from the poem. There is, first of all, the plain fact that “Everyone in this / room got here somehow and everyone in / this room will have to leave”; in other words: everyone is the main character in their own story, buzzing about their own lives, their own pains. What makes you so special, asks the italicized voice. This leaves the speaker at a loss. What is there to do? There is a poem to be written perhaps, a little song that will “fix the meaning / to the landscape.” But that will not do. That will fix nothing. See, we are already in the confines of a poem as we encounter this argument between a young man and himself, and the poem isn’t making anything any better. I felt like that back then, like I was living in the confines of a poem, like everything was all voice, all speech and the shifting kaleidoscope of meaning and connotation. When everything is all voice, “The voice wants to be / a hand and the hand wants to do something / useful.” There is very little that is useful about living in a poem. It feels, in fact, quite useless and, also, quite lonely. And that is what comes up next, the loneliness of trying to make the meaning out of the grandiosity of the pain of a certain kind of youth: “What did you really want? Someone / to pass this with me.” Yes, that is what I really wanted back then. I was wildly hungry for love, for the solace of another’s arms. All my flighty, avian hands could give me were one-night stands, but I wanted someone to anchor me, to hold me down. The truth of the matter, though, is that I had someone. I had someone in her, but I couldn’t see that with any clarity; I could feel it; I leaned upon the fact of it, but I couldn’t see it with any clarity because I was busy chasing love. “You wanted more,” insists the italicized voice, more than just someone to pass this with you. I wanted what everyone wants: in addition to love, I wanted success and recognition and, more than these, I wanted a touch of peace, just a touch, just a moment of quiet from the screaming in my head. Everyone wants a touch of peace.
The fight between the speaker and the voice in his head gets particularly heated in the following lines. “He raises / the moon on a crane for effect, cue the violins.” Again, the italicized voice wants to demean the agon in which the speaker is fighting to find himself, to recover himself from the gnawing that so deeply unsettles him at his core. And, this time, the speaker doesn’t stand for it. He says something immensely true, which also gave me goosebumps when I first read it. “That’s what the violins are for.” So what, in other words, if I theatricalize my pain? So what if I spill everywhere with it, making a scene? Someone somewhere at some time invented a violin because they wanted to make others weep. And sometimes weeping is necessary; sometimes, making others weep with oneself is necessary. Yes, the speaker will have his drama: “he raises the moon on a crane and scrubs it / until it shines.” Yet, and this is important, this prop, this moon he has made and scrubbed in order to cry out to the wider world about the agon, will not deliver him any more meaning than the little song he might sing to hammer in the pegs of the room: it shines on “Nothing.” This fight I was having with myself about the obviousness of my struggling at this early time in my life, about the lacerating fact that everyone in college could tell I was going to bits, was a deep insecurity of mine where she was concerned since, of course, no one could tell with greater clarity than she could. I was not the best of friends at this time. I was, in fact, a great trial to live with and to know. In my spilling everywhere, I got her into a number of very sticky situations and a number of very embarrassing situations and a number of very frustrating situations. The real reason that I am performing a close reading of this poem in the context of an essay about her is that she never chose to take on the role of the italicized voice in “Unfinished Duet.” Even as I demeaned and degraded myself for my own inability to handle myself, even as I fought viciously and anxiously with myself over how I was conducting my own life, she did not abandon me, nor did she ever make me feel small. Never would she have said “cue the violins.” Indeed, I think she agreed that “That’s what the violins are for,” and I think she could sympathize with their music. Even though the moon on the crane shone on nothing, even though I was making a great show without a meaning, casting about for any special effect, she remained, steadfastly my friend.
The poem concludes:
… Was there no one else? Left-handed
truth, right-handed truth, there’s no pure
way to say it. The wind blows and it makes
a noise. Pain makes a noise. We bang on
the pipes and it makes a noise. Was there
no one else? His hands keep turning into
birds, and his hands keep flying away
from him. Eventually the birds must land.
It is these lines that make “Unfinished Duet” seem, at first blush, like a poem about two lovers, one of whom has cheated on the other—“Was there no one else?” But in my reading of the poem, this question implies something different. Was there no one else there with you as you suffered? Was there no one else you could have managed to be? Was there no one else that you trusted? Is it just us, just me and me, in this thing? The speaker evades the question. I evaded that question from myself because, in truth, there were many others. Plenty of people were impacted by my agon, by my struggle to become myself. There was “no pure / way to say it.” By that, I mean that I was not able to reconcile my loneliness. I was not able to put into words what I needed from someone. My relationship with myself was all smoke and mirrors, was all “Left-handed / truth, right-handed truth.” However, in my relationship with her, there was the possibility of a pure way to say it—the possibility, merely, because I don’t think I ever actually said it. I think I just trusted that she knew that I was split down the middle, and that between each side of the split there was all this hatred and acrimony.
Then something happens in the poem which one would not expect: the italicized voice, for just a moment, joins the speaker in pain, sympathizes with it, understands it, feels it for themself. “The wind blows and it makes / a noise. Pain makes a noise. We bang on / the pipes and it makes a noise.” Again, goosebumps when I first read that. It contained within it the promise, for me, that the split might be undone or, better, repaired, that the hatred of my own pain might ease and transform into an empathy for myself. But the question still remains: “Was there / no one else,” to which the speaker can only answer with the one, clear fact we have about the speaker: “His hands keep turning into / birds, and his hands keep flying away / from him.” The poem concludes with a spare statement of the truth: “Eventually the birds must land.” In other words, this state of affairs is untenable. One day, at some point, the madness will have to come to a close, for what goes up must come down; what flies must land. And the madness did come to a close eventually, or, at least, it became manageable enough that I regained control over my hands. How that happened is a story for another time and one I have told before.
What I want to say most about the time in my life in which “Unfinished Duet” was my story is that it is impossible, for some of us anyway (but I have a sneaking suspicion that this is true of most of us), to experience the profundity of pain without a dramatic judgment of self, without a splitting up into one voice that insists that it actually hurts very badly and another voice that insists that this is all just noise and nonsense. Caught in the crosshairs of that conflict between me and me, one needs a very good friend. I tried to write a novel about my friends when I was in college, during this time, and it was to be titled A Wave Off the Sun, a phrase I have used in this very essay in fact, since the novel will never be written. All of my friends’ fictionalized names were heavily overdetermined in that novel, but no one’s was more loaded with connotation than hers. I called her “Shakti.” I did this because, like in the little snippet of writing about the blue little God, I saw, and see, her as immensely powerful in herself. Indeed, I know that she is, for I have seen her power first-hand, have been subject to it. One Mother’s Day, I made a joke on the internet about how I had to thank my own mother and her, since the one gave birth to me, and the other kept me going. It was a joke, but it only barely concealed the truth of the matter, which was that, in the midst of watching my hands fly away from me, I had a friend whose hands, though flighty themselves, reached over and helped me out. I don’t know particularly clearly what I did to contribute to her life in those years. Sometimes, it worries me: that I might have taken too much and been too entirely wrapped up in my own drama to give back. She expressed something very like that to me once, not so long ago, about those years. And, in some ways, this essay models that very dynamic: I have written quite a bit about myself in the context of writing about her. But, see, and this is the very important thing, I do not know myself very clearly without contextualizing myself, at least partly, through my relationship with her, for it is in that relationship that I have discovered so much of myself.
What I’m really saying (look at me start another paragraph that way; look at me try to hammer in the pegs that fix the meaning to the landscape) is that friendship both transforms and sustains us, that it makes us who we are even through the immense struggle of being a person with affects and feelings and a position in the world. The transition from my youth into my adulthood took place with this friend whom I once referred to in writing as Shakti, as the feminine power in the godhead that allows for the active creation of anything and everything. It is not only that she is a powerful person, possessed of great internal strength of character and wit and charm and intelligence. More importantly, I meant, in calling her Shakti, to underscore the idea that she made possible much of who I am, that she was a creative force in my becoming, that, in her green pickup truck in the dead of night in the woods outside of Seattle proper, I learned so much of how to be a person. In our shared bedroom in Bedstuy and then in our railroad-style apartment in Ridgewood, in the midst of the agon of fighting viciously with myself, in the midst of her own agon which was not so different, in the midst of these things, I became a self, a ruptured and unstable self, but a self all the same. And, though I have tried very hard not to speculate as to how she felt through all this time, I think I got the immense honor of witnessing, through the struggle and the pain of youth’s ending like a wave off the sun, her becoming a self as well.
Telling the story of oneself is also telling the story of one’s friends, and telling the story of one’s friends is also telling the story of oneself. I guess that is the ultimate point. Cue the violins.