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How to Teach a Nightmare

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When I find out that Galway Kinnell has passed away, I will read The Book of Nightmares in a library, tears coating my face like sweat.

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Wall of the Cathedral. Image by Kara Mullison.

In the silent zones/ of the brain, a specter, descendant/ of the ghostly forefathers, singing/ to you in the nighttime—/ not the songs/ of light said to wave/ through the bright hair of angels,/ but a blacker/ rasping flowering on that tongue.

—Galway Kinnell, “Under the Maud Moon,” from The Book of Nightmares

The caterpillar I just stepped on oozes like Nickelodeon slime, half-smashed. We crouch over it. I poke the now curling body with a stick, trying to move it off the trail so it doesn’t continue getting pulverized. I know better than to think that the cold air I feel for killing a bug is what’s wrong with me. I tell the student I am hiking behind that I’m scared.

This is my first time teaching for the New England Literature Program, affectionately referred to by participants as NELP, which you might think of as a study abroad program for English majors. Instead of going abroad, though, we go back in time—into the woods of New Hampshire without computers or cell phones. We have spent the last few weeks of spring reading authors like Thoreau, Dickinson, Douglass, and Emerson on the grounds of what normally functions as a boys’ summer camp. Students swim or canoe in the ice-cold waters of Lake Winnipesaukee. When we aren’t in class on the dock or at the fire pit or in the meadow, we cook and clean in teams. The only music we hear comes out of instruments. One student, Kara, later shares with me a description of the nightly serenade, recorded in her journal: “Danny is playing the piano and Nemo is next to him singing in a sweetly toneless voice like the world’s most mild lounge singer.”

At this point in the program instructors are to come up with a literary-themed adventure into some part of New England. My friend Mary has asked me to lead a trip with her that other NELPers have taken in years before. We will stay at the Bread and Puppet Theater Company in Glover, Vermont, for a couple of days. The founders, Peter and Elka Schumann, are close with the poet Galway Kinnell, and it is possible that we will be able to visit him, too.

One of the biggest fears of my life is that my mother will become unrecognizable to me, and I to her. That she will wander off in plain sight.

We have stopped along the way to take a hike. The day is particularly radiant. The student hiking in front of me is named Leela. She has eyes not quite as green as the crushed caterpillar but in the glow of these trees, what I’ve started to call the “Brazilian rain forests of Vermont,” she bears a certain authority. When we evaluate her work, I will describe her as a “forest sprite,” and the faculty will nod cautiously as if to say, “No more hippie shit.”

The reason that I am scared is because Galway Kinnell has Alzheimer’s disease. One of the biggest fears of my life is that my mother will become unrecognizable to me, and I to her. That she will wander off in plain sight. Each time she forgets a word or pauses, I unfurl into a kind of monster. There is nothing in the world that makes me more upset. I am bracing myself against the emotions this visit might spark, as if trying to keep myself upright. “It came to me that the presence was still there,” John Gardner once wrote, “somewhere deeper, much deeper, in the night. I had a feeling that if I let myself I could fall toward it, that it was pulling me, pulling the whole world in like a whirlpool.”

We have been climbing mountains every week, which intimidates me. Rather than hiding my unease, though, my pedagogy is not unlike a trust fall. I name my fears one by one, complain about the incline, request water breaks to catch my breath. To test our emergency response skills, we impersonate disaster at the cloud line, where I pretend to be unconscious. Cheek flat against the rock, I wink an eye open as they debate who will stay with me and who will return to the base of the mountain. It makes me happy to be the subject of this imaginary caregiving.

In the attempt to comfort me, Leela tells me about the time she went to India and handed her great aunt a pair of earphones, watching the old woman smile at the sound of a silent orchestra.

We hike in the direction of water. I bleed into a tiny cotton plug, which in the woods I’ve come to think of as a tracking device for bears. When I walk off to conduct my constitution in private, I notice that despite my effort to hide behind trees, a student might have seen me. Kate has the bemused eyes and wry stance of an actress from another era. Katherine Hepburn in Gore-Tex shorts. I was in her line of sight while I peed; while I folded aluminum foil around the tampon, put it into a Ziploc bag, and shoved it into my backpack; while I used a Nalgene to wash the blood from my hands. There is no room to feel mortified. A photographer friend has recently told me about women who managed to hold entire books in their heads for thirty years by refusing to think about anything extraneous.

In Galway Kinnell’s poem “The Bear,” which my co-teacher and I have included in a packet of supplementary materials for this trip, the narrator follows “splashes/ of blood wandering over the world.” He eats a blood-soaked turd. The moment sounds disgusting out of context, but in the poem it is one of adaptability. A sign that this man will do what it takes to survive.

As we approach the place where we’ll eat our lunch, Mary points up and says, “Look! It’s the night sky! An indigo cliff!” The rock wall is slick with a thin waterfall, black and long as outer space. The path disappears and some people go on ahead to find it. A few of us aren’t feeling athletic today and take a five-minute break “to meditate” until the trail gets found.

During the silence after lunch, we read our packets. In an article from the New York Times, Holland Cotter describes his visit to Bread and Puppet as the occasion of “the single most beautiful sight I’ve seen in a theater.” He recalls a performance during its annual, two-day festival, “Our Domestic Resurrection Circus,” when a fire was lit on the field used as a stage:

“As the fire burned, a half-dozen great white gulls or cranes—muslin kites carried on sticks by runners—soared up from the horizon and started flying in our direction. They came right to the flames and soared over them as if looking for signs of life. Then they circled back across the field, melting into darkness. It was fantastic. Only when they were out of sight did I see that night had fallen and stars were out. It felt like an impossible trick of stagecraft, a miracle. I had been simultaneously transported and pulled back to earth.”

He refers to another performance entitled “The Fight Against the End of the World,” which seems as good a way as any to articulate the theater company’s intentions. Its members function as a collective. For years, even while traveling, they have made bread in hastily constructed outdoor ovens as a gift to their audience.

In the car that day, we are quiet as Leela sings in the back seat. Kara writes in her journal, “her hair heavy with lake water and strung out over glistening shoulders. Like heartstrings or gold. Singing so under her breath (like borrowed breath), big lily pad eyes and we are lost but the trees burst to constellations as the tires turn, bent by the crowbar of her song.”

When we arrive at Glover, we know to turn onto our host’s property because of a painted school bus off to the side of the road. The museum and indoor performance space called “The Cathedral” exist within renovated barns. Maura, who welcomes us, seems to appear out of nowhere. “She received us in a rose print slip and croc clogs,” Rachel remembers. She is so beautiful, the students will dream of her that night. A modern-day Glinda the Good Witch. Prophesy of some future they didn’t know they wanted. She encourages us to wander around.

Something pulls us toward the line of trees on the horizon. Sunset leaks through. One by one, we pass through the threshold of forest and fall silent.

We immediately come up with a plan to practice cartwheels in the tick-infested tall grass across the street, where Bread and Puppet hosted “Our Domestic Resurrection Circus” for decades. This is the closest any of us will ever come to living in the seventies. We peer into trailers where actors or volunteers must live, which dot the path that leads to the field, and gasp at the perfectly made beds inside. I am gaping in the window of a tiny airstream when I realize there is someone in there. It’s not merely a stage set. The chicken strung up alongside the little home is newly dead. We start to feel the kind of camaraderie you experience when the lights go out on a subway.

Something pulls us toward the line of trees on the horizon. Sunset leaks through. One by one, we pass through the threshold of forest and fall silent.

It takes a while to realize where I am. I can sense from the students who have woven their way through the tiny houses built at the base of tall, thin trees that something somber is afoot, and my sense of anticipation grows. This is it. The shadow I’ve been waiting for.

There are wooden structures scattered among the trees. Photographs, trinkets, hanging things. One photograph in particular catches my attention. There is a birthdate and a death date, an image of a woman in outdated clothing holding a child. Then, another tiny house, this time with a letter in translation: a Polish woman addressing her children after she has been taken to a concentration camp. The shadow of mortality, this pool of feeling, is less offensive than I’d anticipated. It feels weirdly warm. There is a memorial for an actor. One for Grace Paley. There are poems about chickens. “Gravestones,” Kara writes, “are about permanence that has nothing to do with the way a life actually is. But these, even as they decay, as the memories of these people fade, they seem so peaceful out here in the open.”

That night Rachel will tell the same joke over and over again. Possibly at my request. We will laugh convulsively as rank humor slides, reckless, out from under her innocence like a car skidding sideways on a wet road.

The first indication that we are in another country is that our logic begins to change. We have chosen the least comfortable of three sleeping options—bunk beds? camping?—to nestle our sleeping bags in a circle on a dirty floor. Perhaps it is the opulence of the name: “The Ballroom.” Or is it that we are living inside of a poem? We are no longer operating under the same grammatical rules. Kate writes in her journal, “it’s called The Ballroom, but there are old car seats—seat buckles still intact—scattered across the room.”

Mary and I want to hold class that night, even though it’s late. So we drag the sleepy bodies to “The Cathedral.” Kate writes, “There are hundreds—maybe more—of relatively petite, potentially medium-sized, puppets mod-lodged onto the walls in this big wooden barn. The benches are stadium style.” The automatic lights turn off when movement stops. We read from Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares, small pulses of lyric, then pause. “The last trace in us of wings,” someone reads. And the darkness falls. And we wave our arms. The moment is recorded like a passport stamp in our journals.

I once took a meditation class with a punk-rock cab driver turned Zen teacher, and we learned a form of meditation where you imagine yourself dying and dead, and then do the same for every person you love. Every step we take toward Galway Kinnell feels like a breath taken in the space of this corpse meditation. A morbid learning that leans toward brightness.

A moth in the darkness scares the shit out of somebody. There seems to be a collective gasp when, in “Under the Maud Moon,” the narrator tells of his baby daughter: “she who is born,/ she who sings and cries,/ she who begins the passage, her hair/ sprouting out,/ her gums budding for her first spring on earth,/ the mist still clinging about/ her face, puts/ her hand into her father’s mouth, to take hold of/ his song.” It is as if it is our first spring on earth, too. The poet is telling his daughter how to live by telling her that he is going to die. “This is the kind of poetry,” Leela writes, “that sticks to my ribs.”

I rise early out of fear that we’ve slept too late. The sun feels low in the sky for 6 a.m. I meditate on a workshop table labeled “Tongues.” Melissa had a dream of a parrot that came to life and gave her a hug, and I point to the photograph on the wall of a woman holding a falcon. We are about to work for the morning weeding the garden, singing a song that Rachel will teach us. First, we will meet the new chicks. First, Scott will prompt us to wonder whether or not Andy Goldsworthy is performing a public or private act with his art. Whether or not nature can act as a stage. In a photography book, black and white images from the field across the street show manifestations of power, longing, war and grief parading like giants across the sky.

On a tour of the Bread and Puppet barn-cum-museum, which Holland Cotter describes as “a coup de théâtre…intricate moral and narrative cosmology,” I feel constantly seized with the impulse to turn around, because I can see a puppet out of the corner of my eye. I am drawn to hold the hand or face of that puppet in a way I don’t feel toward actual humans. Our tour guide’s hands are enormous. She points up and we see a giant face gazing down from the ceiling.

A piece of paper on the wall reads: “The story of one who set out to study fear.” At a demonstration where they once performed, the actors carried the body of a wounded protester to the feet of an armed guard. I don’t imagine that repressive regimes train their soldiers to know how to respond when a book from their childhood comes alive. Pulling a gun on a protester may not be that different from screaming at the top of your lungs in the beat of your mother’s pause, terrified of her forgetfulness—so strong is the impulse to refuse that we are all only ever moving in one direction.

When we arrive at Galway Kinnell’s house, we discover that his dogs have just run away. “Hello,” he tells Rachel, shaking her hand. “My name is Galway.” The poet looks around, flickering between the role of the host and the role of the heartbroken, trying to explain his predicament as his son, Ferguson, completes the narrative. Kinnell wears blue sweat pants, tennis shoes, a red shirt, and a greenish sport coat. He speaks in fragments, but conveys his heart by saying the name of one of the dogs, “Willie,” and referring rather frankly to what he fears will be the dog’s “imminent death.” Rachel’s favorite section of his poem “Dear Stranger Extant in Memory by the Blue Juniata” is the part where he writes of “Tenderness toward Existence.” She hears him say of his labradoodle, “Oh, dearest one.”

“The time here has been full of observing how one interacts as a guest to strangers,” Leela writes in her journal. She particularly likes how Kinnell’s poetry “really and with genuineness draws from his true loves and combines, in this exquisite tango, the wild and what some might refer to as the ‘domestic.’” Kara has a similar feel for the work: “there’s something within it that feels ancient and dark and strong—an extinct animal in your living room, wildness in the domestic space.”

Even at this advanced stage of Alzheimer’s, he sculpts the space, coaxes us to read, scolds us for soft-spokenness, congratulates us for good recitation.

There is a photograph of Muhammad Ali in the kitchen. Rachel and I have come inside the house to use the bathroom, which has a European-looking toilet. But neither of us wants to stop looking around. Ladysmith Black Mambazo is playing on the stereo, which feels like a cheap trick—both of us grew up with mothers obsessed by Graceland. So it is that we are swooning in front of the refrigerator magnets, cataloguing every detail, unsurprised by each new moment of synchronicity. The Marge Piercy quote on the poster that we encountered in an assignment a couple of weeks ago. The fact that Kinnell will choose to read “Under the Maud Moon.” At which point we’ll gasp like we did last night. And the dogs will come back home. “O, holy,” Rachel writes in her journal. “The whole thing seems desperately miraculous.”

At Kinnell’s house, we sit in a circle outside. When I pass him the ziplock bag of cookies he takes one and says, “Can I have another?” Even at this advanced stage of Alzheimer’s, he sculpts the space, coaxes us to read, scolds us for soft-spokenness, congratulates us for good recitation. “Wonderful,” Rachel hears him say after each poem is recited. Kara, with her head half-shaven and a gaze like windows, begins to speak a Keats poem she never knew she’d memorized upon our host’s request. It will move him, and it will make her feel “like I was a vessel, almost, with the words going through me.”

“Now,” Kinnell says, “does anyone want to read a poem?” It doesn’t matter that we are already reading one. It doesn’t matter that he is already reading his own. “That’s nice,” he’ll say, pronouncing his poetry as if for the first time. Kate notices that when he reads, it gets silent, and his voice changes—“deeper, raspier, and round.” His approximations of language cast the afternoon into something dreamlike. Ferguson points to a tree: “That’s where I fell when I was a boy.” Because this refers to one of his father’s poems, we titter, starstruck.

We sit on the stone table. We swim in the pond, or “baptize ourselves,” as Leela puts it, because “you can only swim in Galway’s pond once.” Rachel describes the landscape we are walking across as a “hill of clover, dandelion and grass going to seed.” Leela makes bouquets with dandelions for Mary and Kara and the flower stains her fingertips like paint. It has only been one day, but we are wilder, yellower than before. Our clothes are wet. Some of us are barefoot. And if you told us in this moment that we might one day be orphans, “emptied/ of all wind-singing, of light,” we might not turn our heads.

“Would you like to go down there?” Galway Kinnell asks, without announcing where “there” is. “We must proceed with reason.” I try to imitate an adult in my reply: “I should hope so.” But I am hopelessly a daughter. Sitting at his knee. Reaching into his mouth. I take both his hands in mine as if flinging myself into the arms of a puppet. I wonder from the sudden glint of a question in his gaze if I’ve overstepped my bounds. His eyes are globes of green in his face.

When I find out that he has passed away, I will read The Book of Nightmares in a library, tears coating my face like sweat, snot smeared across my cheeks and hanging from my nose, as I slide quickly back into that long-past wildness. I will know without needing to ask that I’m not the only one of us to feel the memory, that intimacy, encroach upon my day like weather.

Later, we will drive through the fog at night and eat Magnum bars from a gas station manned by a clerk who’ll say, “I’m so high right now.” The stories we’ll tell on the car ride toward our ballroom will get lost like brake lights in the thick moisture of the night, and then resurface. Of the trip, Kara will write, “this is a good moment of time in a strange space.”

Later, in the small home of the Schumanns’, we will eat apple fritters with coffee. “The apple fritters are the most important nourishment I’ve received these past few weeks,” Kate will write. Peter will tell of his next project: “We had an ice storm. It bent the birches.” Elka will sit beside him, rubbing the handle of a Christmas mug with her thumb.

How do you teach a generation how to visualize their future when words like “extinction” appear on the front page of the New York Times? “We must use these gateways,” Peter tells us. “We will build a king and queen to go through them.” Because there are gifts in the storm.

G

This essay was written with the help of Leela Denver, Rachel Pernick, Kathleen Harrington, and Kara Mullison.

Aisha Sloan has taught courses in composition, literature, and creative writing for the University of Arizona, Pima Community College, the University of Michigan’s New England Literature Program, and Carleton College. She is the author of an essay collection, The Fluency of Light, published by University of Iowa Press in 2013.

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