Writing in Retrograde

Kendyl Harmeling, Writing Consultant

I remember sitting outside my old apartment with my best friend, smoking in the heat wave that broke Connecticut at the end of this past July, and talking about how the world felt like it was topsy-turvy.  We laughed about how Mercury was in retrograde, and how every little detail of being alive felt only slightly off-kilter, how our lives were noticeably ever just different.

Like we were still us, but not the us we had once so recently been. In the week leading up to my move, we sat outside our old apartment-home every night like that. Hazy and confused. We cried. Mostly, we laughed. Sometimes, we yelled at our neighbor for never having baked us the broccoli quiche he promised to. The night before I left, my friends and I went to the dive bar I had worked at that entire year, and sang, badly, our favorite classic rock karaoke songs.

But, “you-know-what-they-say about the young…” I woke up the next afternoon and was alone. My room full of everything I ever owned, packed, and pristinely kept. My dad had already left for work. I left a note on the counter that I was moving 816 miles in a few minutes, and I loved him so much. I drove first to New Haven to pick up my mom for our drive west, and then I left Connecticut. I would like to reach out my hand… I may see-you…and tellllll you to run!

I’ve lived here in Louisville for a month now. Over a month. Spent nights at friends’ houses, found the bars I like, coffee shops, bookstores. I’ve found all the things here that I thought made my life back home a home. A life. I thought it was in the minute, the things I did during the day, that comfort came, but I just feel vacationed.

It’s made me wonder about the qualities of home which transcend distance, the parts of who I am that were just parts of my old environment, and most of all, how uprooting myself from the only place I’ve ever called home has felt like more to me than just a “moving forward” but also feels very really like a “leaving behind.” No one told me that the bore weight of leaving someplace doesn’t lighten, quickly at least.
I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet this summer, in that other life I lead. His writing inspired and terrified. In it, Rilke writes about the importance of observational poetry, how being tragically human and trying to understand the profound are incongruent pursuits. How humans really can’t understand the profound, how we’re sentenced to living only in the momentary, the lovely, and the ugly. It’s in the making poetic these things that poetry can attempt to transform meaning from nothing into profundity.

Since moving here and trying to find that settlement of home in a thin crusted, forced routine, I write a poem every day. I started this practice the third night after my mom left and I was suddenly aware that I was alone, 816 miles from everything I love. The poems aren’t all good. Most of them, actually, are real bad. But they’re little homes, each one. The beginning observation of this new place, where I live and am, in fact, not vacationing. Rilke was right whenever he wrote that, that we can learn how to live just from looking around. Here are some observations that have helped me ground myself in this, a new home:

I sleep next to a street lamp, near the corner of Saint Catherine and Preston where that woman sits on a bench with her cat. It’s a yellow light.
I’m waiting for a crack of thunder again.
I’m waiting for tiredness to set in and put me to sleep.
I’m waiting for my body to stop moving and for that great unknowable to quiet.
It feels like the air here is static with wait, a pause, a moment before exhale.
Out my window is unrushed, cattle traffic and the eager unrest for the arrival of that great big thing…
I had a dream last night that the world would end in one searing-hot, pink instant.
Immediate and satisfying.
Unlike the visible end of the crumbled rock wall across from my apartment.
The one keeping the giant oak tree from cracking through the sidewalk we seldom use.
That end took time.
It’s the sort of decay which weathers into material.
The patient kind.
My someday bright-stop is restless.
Waiting for the oak fall, the sidewalk end, and my momentary to begin.

In my 18th century poetry class, my professor said, “Well… I suppose it never really feels like anything comes to a conclusion.” I know she was talking about Defoe’s lack of chapter division in Moll Flanders, but the fluidity of story reaches me, here, in Louisville, Kentucky. I am the same person, only further from home. But, maybe closer than I think.

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