Thursday, September 12, 2013

Meditation: On Tragic Appliances

The Apartment of Tragic Appliances is the title of Michael Snediker's new book of poems. I carry the book around with me, though I hardly ever open it. I'm at home in Kahalu`u listening to the rain and the fan and the deaf cat's random calls from my kitchen; Snediker's book remains in Honolulu at my office. More and more my cat's meows resemble appliances, though we cannot turn him on or off and he doesn't do the dishes. The phrase "tragic appliance" hums in my head like an unguided motor, all energy and nowhere to go. What might it mean for an appliance to be tragic, or for a tragic event to be an appliance?

Apply yourself.

An appliance makes my life easier: it does my dishes, washes my clothes, cools my food. Until it turns tragic, breaks, makes my life more difficult. The appliance is a metal box with an inside and an outside; it rumbles, hums, leaks, whirls like a dervish, emits steam, runs on a timer (it has beginnings and endings, punctuated by whooshes and knocks). My appliances are private; two of them reside in a dingy room whose door closes on a floor of dirty clothes. Other appliances are public; for years, I went to the Mānoa Laundromat to wash my clothes, drank coffee at the now defunct cafe. One laundry day I thought I met Paul Theroux. He said he wasn't, but added, "Theroux honors Hawai`i by living here." He said he'd met Theroux in Bali. I didn't believe him. The private appliance allows me to write (processing my words), while the public appliance takes me out of my home and head.

Appliances are automatic. They do their work without us, though we turn them on and empty them when they're finished. Genres too are automatic; we fill them in with words, turn them on, and out comes poem, story, song. A too-simple proposition, but let's start there. Tragedy is an appliance. Once its narrative begins, there's no shutting it off; the hero falls, the heroine dies, the accident cannot be stopped in traffic. We automate our lives in art, but that is much of its joy. If I put Alzheimer's patients in children's stories, a process proceeds without my intervention, except as scrivener of a story that cannot come out right. If you follow Antigone into the tomb, you know you can't get out as the same person who went in. If I am someone with a good memory who runs into a telephone pole at high speed, I become (or am becomed) someone other, someone clean of memory.

Memory is a tragic appliance. What I remember seems automatic, but what I forget is the spin cycle that disarms me. My memories turn and turn (in the laundromat there are windows to see undergarments spinning in public), but my memories also take flight as if there were no containers for them. Forgetting is what crosses the line, becomes the red flag, beckons memory like a cruise missile strike. It knows not what it does; it's automatic. Someone else's memory drones on.

We're reading Kevin Varrone's Box Score: An Autobiography in my creative writing class. It's an app. John Kinsella wrote an autobiography called Auto. Cars are appliances, as were automats. The app makes a poetic sequence into an appliance of sorts. I ask my students to use the "shuffle" function to find poems to talk about in class. One group happens upon Rick Ankiel of the St. Louis Cardinals, who lost the ability to pitch. His left arm had been automatic, a gorgeous appliance, but it and he broke before he returned to baseball in another function, that of outfielder. To what extent is a life an app? One with sound files (Kaia Sand's voice flits first from their devices), with collages, with poems. They seem not to match, the documents and the poems, but that's because we assume they apply to one another. Pretend they're not applied, not glued together as binary code. See what happens when you let go of that idea, the one we believe about how meanings fold together, like gluey flaps over an envelope. Marianne Moore with one flap up, tricorn hat askew.

The little boy who comes with his dad to remake our bathroom (including its appliances) has a Gameboy with no batteries. My husband gave it to him, as it was unwanted by our children, an elderly appliance. He roams the house with his little yellow box, its screen dark, the battery housing empty. He makes noises, he causes the yellow box to fly. It's better without the batteries, his dad notes. Imagination is an appliance, but one that has no immediate function. The yellow box may be tragic (it doesn't work, after all) but where it goes we cannot know because it is no more yellow box than we are.

My students are scared of our book on memory and forgetting. Forgetting can change you. The moment you kill a man in battle makes you someone else. There are images you cannot ever get out of your head. They are automatic, persistent, unchanging memories, and they never break (even if they break you). My students wonder if they could be so broken; they suspect they could. What we remember is not necessarily what is most important to us. It's our brain that causes us to forget. When the batteries run out, the electricity fails, when the mechanism cannot work, our appliance fails. La machine, c'est moi. Another student tells me Rick Ankiel, outfielder, was recently released by the Mets.

The phone just rang. Caller ID: Georgetown University Hospital. "As you know, this is about your mother's remains," says a jovial man's voice at the other end. He checks my address, mispronounces my street. Her ashes will come by US Mail. FedEx and UPS won't ship cremains. He will get a tracking number, a receipt, try to make sure they get here safely. From body to ash, from ash to US Post Office. What we love best.

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