The following is an excerpt from a larger project in which the author documents a journey inspired by her willingness to follow James Schuyler anywhere. She traveled 500 miles on bike to meet the mailboat that would take her to her island destination—Great Spruce Head Island—where Schuyler was regularly hosted by Fairfield Porter, along with John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara and others from the New York School. The author was a guest of Porter’s niece, Anina Fuller, and one of a handful of artists from varying disciplines invited to the island for an “Art Week.”
It is one of those cross days, where I go out with a pen, stub my toe (the one with the torn toenail) and am searching for words. They went out with the tide, left me holding a mass of devil’s apron.
July 24, 1966 in the early hours Frank O’Hara was struck by a dune buggy on Fire Island, a random accident—the next day he died of his injuries. Or what others termed: He disappeared. He was 46 years old. A bright star burns itself out. Frank O’Hara was the glue that united a universe, a constellation of friends.
At the time James Schuyler was on Great Spruce Head Island. Anne Porter received the telegram and decided not to immediately tell him—for fear he would tailspin into a breakdown. Thus, James did not make it to the funeral at Green River Cemetery, in Springs, New York, but instead composed an elegy.
Excerpt,“Buried at Springs”
The rapid running of the
lapping water a hollow knock
of someone shipping oars:
it’s eleven years since
Frank sat at this desk and
saw and heard it all
the incessant water the
immutable crickets only
not the same: new needles
on the spruce, new seaweed
on the low-tide rocks
other grass and other water
even the great gold lichen
on a granite boulder
even the boulder quite
literally is not the same
I sit at the same desk and write/pretend:
Wish you were here. The damp feels damp. The drawer on my secretary desk sticks. The dog hogs the rug in front of the hearth unless he is weaving around my legs with his wet fur. I tell him to go lay down—and he does on top of my shoes. We’re all a little despondent. Lizzie counts down the days until Koko arrives when they will have big goings-on. Joe can’t come out after all. You never met Joe. He’s great, a sweetie. You would have loved him. No really. He has a gap between his teeth just like you.
Whenever I listen to Rachmaninoff’s Third I think of you—and that send-off party for Jane.
Jane says hi. We all do.
Not a day goes by when you do not come to mind. All the life you packed in. I know in the end (what a word) we had drifted apart, yet all that I said in “Buried at Springs” is true. Since that day life has been jarringly different—we may never know how much—since you’ve been gone.
No one understands what I’m doing here. Least of all me. I’m sure they think I’m just sitting around—not like Peggy with her gazillion of watercolors cooling their heels on the back porch or Kate’s illustrations covering the estate-size dining room table or Sebastian’s oil canvases scattered around his easel. Visual art. There for all to see.
As a writer I explore the mystery of the ordinary. I write flash memoir, small pieces typically under a thousand words and sometimes as short as fifty. With flash I take a snapshot, freeze frame a particular memory, build a word collage, cast a prose haiku, hoping to distill the essence of whatever makes it valuable. Which isn’t always a lot.
The ordinary is what led me to James Schuyler’s poetry. Somehow he was able to capture a moment, a scene from his window, Korean mums, the light fading in the city sky. The every-day stuff of life.
The clouds have been piling up, blue on blue, azure upon cerulean, sky and sea meeting Mark Rothko-like along some arbitrary line. A storm is brewing.
When it rains all the blades of grass glisten—then we remember
The laundry left on the line.
I drive Anina’s Cadillac wheelbarrow to the docks to await the mailboat—it isn’t easy. Cobwebs of spruce roots trip me, slow the wheelbarrow’s progress.
I’m curious about island mythology, innate island instincts. At the dock I keep asking over and over at each sound—is that it! No a lobster boat. How can they tell the difference between alobster trawler and the motor of the mailboat? Is there some primitive native knowledge?
He’ll toot a horn. Ohhh.
Anina has a letter and leaves it in a goldenrod-colored pouch labelled GSHI. It’s our only link to the outside she says—as she sends a text. Carl the mailboat captain will also service Butter and Eagle Islands. Mail for Little Scrag and Bear can be left here. For me to come and go it costs $60. Next time put a stamp on me.
Who is my neighbor?—
an island out of reach.
At lunch Anina gives us a directive: Think about air.
I think of Jimmy: O Air
the clear, the soot-bearer, the unseen that rips
that kills and cures, that keeps
all that is empty filled, the bright invisible
I walk down to the Double Beaches.
Only minutes ago it was solid air.
—What happened here
between light and night?
This is tenacity:
a tree growing over a boulder,
the roots cascading down like melted wax.
A small snake wriggles into the underbrush,
camouflaged to look like a balsam sprig.
Jane Hertenstein is the author of over 80 published stories both macro and micro: fiction, creative non-fiction, and blurred genre. In addition she has published a YA novel, Beyond Paradise and a non-fiction project, Orphan Girl: The Memoir of a Chicago Bag Lady, which garnered national reviews. Jane is the recipient of a grant from the Illinois Arts Council. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in: Hunger Mountain, Rosebud, Word Riot, Flashquake, Fiction Fix, Frostwriting, and several themed anthologies. Her latest book is Cloud of Witnesses from Golden Alley Press. She teaches a workshop on Flash Memoir and can be found blogging at http://memoirouswrite.blogspot.com/ @memoirjane