“We were approaching winter like an object which cannot be put between words. Behavior became simpler since we had dislocated our memories. Still, much was. A little confusion in the propositions will allow for this. Or truth can be so strenuous it makes you lean against the window frame. I thought of breathing deeply to find Venus reflected in the river. Then I would know if standing beside you leaves my lips dry. But I was really dissecting your name by means of definitions which would point the way to the missing copula where I could see the sky. Though the clouds could be uttered in a variety of tones, the stars formed constellations analyzed completely. You cried for the moon, which had started to wane in agreement with constant and variable. What this silver sliver failed to reveal, its expression between my thighs would clarify.”—Rosmarie Waldrop,from Curves to the Apples (New Directions, 2006)
“It sometimes seems to me that a pestilence has struck the human race in its most distinctive faculty—that is, the use of words. It is a plague afflicting language, revealing itself as a loss of cognition and immediacy, an automatism that tends to level out all expression into the most generic, anonymous, and abstract formulas, to dilute meanings, to blunt the edge of expressiveness, extinguishing the spark that shoots out from the collision of words and new circumstances.”—Italo Calvino, “Exactitude,” from Six Memos for the New Millennium
“More and more I have the sense of being present at a point of absence where crossing centuries may prove to be like crossing languages. Soundwaves. It’s the difference between one stillness and another stillness.”—Susan Howe, That This (via kelsfjord)
“It’s a quotidian, rambling letter about the weather and loneliness and stuff like that, but in it she repeatedly mentions writing—by which she means letter-writing, the only form of writing that ever occurred to her—as something essential to her life. I read this letter because I never sufficiently appreciated her while she was alive—I was too young and preoccupied—and because she clearly ‘got’ something essential about writing, writing in any form, and because letter-writing is actually secretly perhaps my favorite form of writing, and it is near extinction. And because I want to give her an audience. This is a quote from her letter, ‘Seems to me I did just write to you folks but I will mail this anyway. I get a thrill just sitting writing a letter, so will just keep it up.’ Which is exactly why, once having written a poem, we sit and write another. Which is why audience is of no import.”—Mary Ruefle, discussing her aunt’s letter-writing habit, in Music & Literature no. 4.
Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own. To say ‘going through the motions’—this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgment of the effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.
This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always arise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.
“Andy Warhol—I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this—would clear all his desktop objects into a carton, seal it, mark the date, and start over. How often I don’t know. Seasonally, let’s say. And I don’t know whether this was intended as an art project, or as a nostalgia project, or whether he was simply defeating clutter in a very reasonable way. But the thrill, maybe, is in aging ordinary objects into interesting things.”—Jason Schwartz interviewed at BOMB
“A desk, a chair, pens, pencils, a writing machine of one kind or another, and time, lots of time, more time than most people can stand to imagine, in some room or another: these are the writer’s tools. Add place, less easy to define, the where you came from, the where you were exiled from, the where you would rather be, and what is just out the window.”—Stanley Crawford, “A Writer’s Rooms”