Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Keep on Moving it On

Last night, after looking over the accumulated notes and drafts for an essay I spent far too long writing, I could not escape the feeling that I had written the same thing over and over again, circling back over the same thoughts page after page and month after month.

I recently started a new job. My employer, a book dealer, is paying me to construct a narrative out of his family's papers - the snapshots, videos, certificates, cards a letters a family piles up during its first hundred years in the United States. At lunch on my first day of work, I was talking to one of the girls who helps run the book dealership when something she said off-hand made me realize that her father is a poet and professor who had interviewed me for a job just the week before. (Incidentally, the job with the poet would have involved sorting through some things - mostly manuscripts and books of poetry and accumulated correspondence - that still lay in boxes after his recent move.)

Taking a bus out of Manhattan about a month ago, having left the familiar circuits of downtown, we passed through a remote northern section of Harlem. It is a neighborhood I almost never visit. One building after another looked strange, out of place, inexplicable, and yet captivating. How had I never seen these places? I suddenly had a vision of a rat in a maze, the floors of which are made of sand, so that with each navigation of the maze (it is a small maze), the rat unwittingly digs deeper into the floor, while the walls, which were at first low enough that the rat could see over them if he had looked, quickly become so high that the rat forgets there is a way out of his downward spiral.

Just now, I was looking back through an essay by Emerson to find some quote I half-remembered. I hoped it would recapitulate a point I wanted to make about faith and science. I was unsuccessful. Instead I found this:

A character is like an acrostic or an Alexandrian stanza; read it forward, backward, or across, it still spells the same thing. In this pleasing, contrite wood-life which God allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, thought I mean it not and see it not.

These were the circles my thoughts had been running in when I heard about Odetta's death. My memory jumped to the evening of October 19, when I saw Odetta perform at Hudson Studios on West 26th Street. Before she took the stage, I had in mind pictures of the folk singer from the 1960s, so I was momentarily stunned by the shrunken, stooped women who sat in front of me, wrapped in shawls and furs, with something of a fortune teller's aspect. But there was no woodenness there - there was no looking back, for her. The first notes out of her mouth obliterated that other Odetta, the one in the black-and-white photographs I remembered. Her voice lifted up and carried high over her head the weights of a lifetime. It was only when she arrived at the chorus of that first song - "If you can't walk, crawl!" - that I realized she was seated in a wheelchair.

Some people in the audience seemed able to view her only through the prism of those former Odettas. "Isn't she amazing," I heard people say, "just imagine her in 196-..." As if now she were only the shadow of some more real presence that had already passed from view, instead of an accumulation and realization of all those former presences - the highest point on a rising spiral.

This was one of her last performances. She had hoped to sing at Barack Obama's inauguration. But I think something of Odetta's spirit - still lifting up, still looking beyond - will be there when we begin that new cycle.

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