A text by the 2012 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow Garth Greenwell
There's a porousness to these pages, which are written with a kind of fickleness or fecklessness, so that what happens in the present (in my current present, now, before it becomes a more vivid and significant past) as I think these retrospective thoughts can enter, pervade and shift the currents of retrospection. But it's also true that these pages, which accrue so slowly and with such effort, change in their turn the reception of the present, digging channels which determine how new experiences are processed and perceived. Not long ago, for instance, I found myself in Blagoevgrad, in the Pirin mountains, escorting a group of students to a conference on mathematical linguistics, a field in which I have little interest and no expertise. I had long hours, while they were in lectures, to explore the beautiful wooded park near our hotel, which followed a small river three kilometers or so toward the pedestrian city center, a haven of humane architecture almost untouched by the ravages of Soviet-era construction, though blemished here and there by gaudy new buildings, expensive apartments overlooking the river. It was spring, early yet, the asmi were still bare, the wooden trellises built over benches and tables for grape vines to climb, vines which now were still withered and dry; they clung to their wooden supports, vestiges of winter in a landscape already lush with the turned year. The trees were bright with fresh leaves and already obscene with flowers, extravagant and eager blossoms and buds and cones of flowers, a kind of elaborate drunkenness. Our hotel was at the edge of the town, where human habitation made a half-hearted charge further up the mountains, getting nowhere, so that past the hotel's vigorously mowed and always encroached upon lawn there was sheer wildness, impenetrable woods and thickets and, just a little further up, dramatic crags. Even in the park along the river, where I spent my mornings, there was a romantic wildness to the path between the great shorn face of the mountain and the river, which, though small, charged from the peaks, roaring as it beat against rocks already broken in its bed. Walking along that path, wondering at the profusion around me, I felt drawn from myself, elated, entirely engrossed and set free, struck stupidly good for a moment at the extravagant beauty of the world. The air was thick with movement, butterflies and day-moths and also, hanging iridescent in the sun, the tiny ephemerae shining and embalmed, pushed here and there by the light breeze, against the pressure of which they had no recourse, as against the pressure of that other element, time, which bears against us all and to which all of us give way. But the air bore also its inadequate answer to time, the grasses and trees having released in a great exhalation pods of seeds, the little generative grains each sheltered and propelled by a tuft of hair like a parachute or umbrella; they swarmed in my clothes and hair, as in the clothes and hair of everyone walking there, all of us feeling the same elation. I thought, as I stood watching this sowing of the earth, of Whitman, whose poems I had just been teaching to the students now flickering between boredom and interest as they listened to their lectures on mathematical linguistics, lectures they would recount to me over dinner in the little town, telling me also how they imagined my reaction to the arguments made about poetry and the structures of meter and rhyme, their numerical claims on our pleasure. Standing in that path, feeling on my skin the procreant threads seeking purchase, catching on my clothes to be carried who knows where, to what fertile or what barren ground, I thought of lines that had always seemed overreaching to me, audacious and enthusiastic, a source of minor embarrassment on my part and of joy to my students, of delighted laughter, lines in which the whole world stands sharpened to an erotic point, aimed at the poet lain bare before it. They had always mildly embarrassed me, as I say, and yet it was these lines that came to me on the path in Blagoevgrad watching seeds come down like snow, that determined and defined and enriched that moment, language as always interposing itself between ourselves and what we see. What were they, these seeds, if not the wind's soft-tickling genitals, the world's procreant urge; and finally it felt plausible to me, his desire to be bare before that urge, his madness, as he says, to be in contact with it. I felt something of that desire myself, though it was nothing like madness for me in my life pitched almost always beneath the pitch of poetry, a life of inhibition and perhaps missed chances and experiences, but also a bearable life, a life that to some extent I had chosen and continued to choose.
After crossing a little wooden footbridge, at the middle of which I stopped for a moment, peering at the churning waters and feeling their vibration in the structure that held me above them, I found a small café nestled in a bend in the river, on a plot of land the waters had spared. The café was a small structure, little more than a shack, but modern and well kept; the seating consisted of picnic tables arranged haphazardly by the water. Many of these were taken already, and I had to sit back from the river, though still well within the reach of the sound of it, that sound that has always, since my earliest childhood, soothed me and eased somewhat the anxieties and uncertainties and ceaseless churnings of the brain that have at times so overwhelmed and almost, as it seems, crippled me. From my table I could watch, as I sipped my cup of coffee and warm milk, the other tables, many of them taken by large groups about which there was a certain festivity, so that I remembered there was indeed a festival of some sort that day or weekend, there are too many here to keep track. Children were playing by the water, in pairs and groups, with balls and sticks and plastic guns emitting light and sound. As I watched them, ignoring the papers I had brought with me to review, my attention was caught by a younger child standing separate from the rest, perhaps three or four years old and kept company by a man I took to be her father. They were stationed at the very edge of the water, the girl standing and the man crouching behind her. Repeatedly, as I watched, this girl, anchored at the waist by the arm of the man behind her, leaned perilously forward (though there was no peril) over the sharp bank, looking down at the water rushing two or three feet beneath her. Repeatedly she leaned forward and repeatedly sprang back, returning to stability and certainty with delighted laughter. On the fourth or fifth repetition of this game, the child leaned out even farther than before, so far that the man had to extend his anchoring arm away from his body, almost as far as it would reach. She didn't laugh upon return this time, as if shocked and perhaps unnerved by her own audacity, the risk she took in leaning out so far, which of course wasn't a risk at all with her father's arm around her, permitting no incursion of doubt; instead of laughing, she thrust herself back against her father's body and, throwing her arms up to clasp his neck, pulled his head down (or perhaps she didn't have to pull it down), embracing it close to her own. Only then did she laugh, with her father's body folded around her; she laughed with a kind of joy it was difficult for me to recognize, so certain it seemed of a home among the things of the world. They embraced each other for a long time, a kind of physical contact seldom seen in public, maybe seen only between parents and their very young children, an intimacy free of the anxieties or urgencies of sex and confident of absolute possession. Perhaps here, I thought to myself, was a wholly untheatrical embrace. One could recognize it as a beautiful thing, even as one felt a certain melancholy of exclusion, and even as I reflected on the process by which, so soon and (it seemed to me) with such grief that intimacy would be rendered illegitimate, as the child grew older and began (entirely without intention or choice) to respond differently to these embraces, these touches and caresses, so that the same touch that here warmed our hearts (I was not the only one touched, others watched as well, smiling and wistful, envious perhaps of one of the parties or perhaps of both) would in just a year or two elicit our disapproval, our concern or even our scorn. And so it is, I thought then, as the man and his child released each other and retreated from the water and as I prepared finally to bend my head to my work, so it is that at the very moment we come into full consciousness of ourselves and begin gathering impressions with which to stock that consciousness, developing thereby the habitudes and expectations that will form the personalities we are graced or burdened by, at this very moment what we experience is leave-taking and loss, a pang and a wound that is then inextricable from who we are, a betrayal (if it is a betrayal) the size and the shape of which determine the size and the shape of what we ourselves become. Or perhaps it isn't like this at all; perhaps all I sketched out for myself, silently and with mingled bitterness and longing as I watched the man and his child return to their table to (I presumed) the child's mother and grandparents, who welcomed her too with embraces, perhaps all of this is (like so much else) mere fantasy and etiological myth, fantasy and myth having always been our preferred means of excavating the depths of ourselves and seeking out the sources of our discontent. For a moment, at least, it seemed plausible to me, the story I told about the sense of dislocation I so often feel and the pang that was eased for the few hours I slept embraced by Mitko, the embrace I returned to in my thoughts (as I have so often) as I watched the child and her father by the river in Blagoevgrad.
Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Literary Award. Greenwell's poetry and prose have appeared in Yale Review, Boston Review, Salmagundi, Poetry International, and Fourth Genre, among others, and he has received the Grolier Prize, the Rella Lossy Award, an award from the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation, and the Bechtel Prize for his work. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, he holds an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis and an MA from Harvard University, where he was an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow. For the last three years he has lived in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he teaches at the American College of Sofia.