1. I started out this morning thinking maybe I’d write something about Poetry Night (which, by the way, you should record a poem for and send to me immediately) but I got distracted by the Frank O’Hara poem where Frank sees a note on his door that says ‘Call me, call me when you get in!’ so he throws a few tangerines into his overnight bag and heads out. He’s going to catch up with someone, an anonymous friend, maybe just an acquaintance. It’s as if he’s run into the poem, then he keeps running. But towards the end of the poem you realise that, in a way, he’s running into the past, because he finds his friend lying dead, and we learn that the request to call him was actually given months earlier. It’s not till just now that O’Hara has finally come over to catch up. Maybe he was just in the neighbourhood anyway and hadn’t even planned to come over.
It’s always hard to pin down an O’Hara poem. But partly I think the urgency in that poem is the urgency of guilt, of wishing he had gone straight away, like the note had asked him to. Partly I think it’s an urgency to carry on with his own life, and to protect himself from what he’s seen. O’Hara is strangely selfish in the way he sees his friend’s death. You can see it in the way he frames it in terms of his own arrival, as a guest, and the dead man as his host:
I did appreciate it. There are few
hosts who so thoroughly prepare to greet a guest
only casually invited, and that several months ago.
There’s self-defense in this: the conventions of ‘calling in’ blinker him from the awful fact. Has O’Hara actually lost his mind, though? Has everything evaporated except for the thing he knows how to do: greet a friend? I wonder what they would have talked about had the nameless friend been alive.
2. There are these phrases that always make their way into a conversation when I meet a friend. Phrases like ‘It’s all a bit of a patchwork/hodgepodge/don’t really know what I’m doing.’ There will be references to ‘reading more’ and ‘itchy feet’ and ‘been thinking about making a move for a while now’. Someone will say ‘fugue state’. There will probably be someone shaking their head and mumbling ‘relationship’. There will be talk of injuries. There will be a bit of ‘Oh man, I dunno’ even when you do know, or have an inkling, and at some point one of you will say, ‘That’s ridiculous’ and look belligerent, in solidarity with the other. These words don’t look like much when they’re written down – if you recorded a catch-up between strangers and then transcribed it you’d probably find that the majority of the conversation pointed at uncertainty: ‘I dunno’, ‘maybe’, ‘kind of’, ‘a bit’ – but these words are really the oxygen of the conversation, where you pause to gather yourself up.
I sometimes think that uncertainty – at least, for people around about my age – is where the common ground is. No one really knows what to do, and you can share not knowing. And when you express uncertainty, you open yourself to the other person’s perspective and to the hope that maybe they know something you don’t.
In a catch-up, when you talk about things that have made you very sad or very happy they tend to come with the suggestion of an apology, as if you’ve drifted too far away from common land, and need to get back to it, get back to the uncertainty. I think there’s something inherently teenage about not being sure of things, about scrutinising the uncertainty from all directions. After a binge on uncertainty, I feel young and full of possibility.
But it’s changing. We’re growing out of it. More and more, no matter how we try to hold on to it, the uncertainty is edging away. The small uncertainties, that is. I think the big uncertainties stay for good.
3. A catch-up in person comes with the expectation – a pressure, almost – that you will crystallise the previous days and weeks into a kind of story about yourself. An unsatisfying catch-up is when one of the two, or both, arrives on a kind of catch-up autopilot and steamrolls blindly through the catch-up. The other person can’t catch up – they fall over, they flounder in the muddy ditch. This kind of catch-up leaves both parties feeling bereft, because the catch-up has only forced their locations further apart. To get back to safe ground, one of the parties has to send up some kind of flare or distress signal. The other party might be tempted to ignore the flare and just carry on going, or maybe they persuade themselves that it’s just a suburban firework or something, but what they should really do is go out and look for the other party and not rest until they’ve found them.
4. My friend Morgan Bach wrote a wonderful poem called ‘In Pictures’ (as yet unpublished) about her father, who was in Christchurch during the February 2011 earthquake. In the poem, she (I think it’s safe to assume the first-person in this poem is Morgan, not an imagined speaker) keeps refreshing pictures of the crumbling buildings coming through on news sites, looking for the Arts Centre where her father is working. Then:
I check my email, and see the little green light
next to his name – online.
Anyone who uses Gmail knows that orange means idle, means asleep. It’s always ambiguous – is the person no longer at their desk, or are they still there, ignoring their email? In this poem the ambiguity is terrifying; the change from green (‘here’) to orange (‘not here’) is charged with meaning.
Her father is fine, as it turns out. But it’s still a great example of how much power those icons can hold. I think about this poem a lot.
For the last six months or so I’ve been interested in those social networks where the currency is, simply, presence. You don’t really have to do or say anything to participate. I’m thinking of Rdio and Spotify and even Gmail chat (when you’re not using it to ‘chat’, that is) with its traffic light-like icons. You’re just there, a name and an icon, the barest approximation of presence, and others are just there too. It’s like a bunch of late-afternoon teenagers loafing in a backyard in various states of alertness. Most of them don’t want to be talked to, but there they are. An awareness of other people stands in for actually connecting with them, and in a quiet way their names, their icons, the song they are listening to, populate your present moment.
If someone unfollows or deletes you on one those networks you can feel regret – or, I have – but what is it you regret? No meaningful conversation happened there. Not even any uncertain conversation. But, I guess, in some instances, there’s a kind of company in it. It’s probably unhinged that sometimes, seeing and being seen can feel more meaningful (and definitely more calming) than an exchange on Twitter or Facebook. On Rdio, the music you can see someone listening to can form a kind of narrative about them, about their day. If you see someone listening to something that you yourself listened to earlier that day, you’ll wonder whether they like it or dislike it as much as you do. Or if a person listens to the same album over and over, you’ll usually end up listening to it to see what all the fuss is about. You might wonder if they feel self-conscious about being seen to listen to the same album over and over. (I used to, but for some reason no longer care too much.) Or sometimes their icon will show the same song for days, and you’ll realise they haven’t logged off and aren’t there at all.
Often I have to switch off this ambient socialising completely, go invisible. Even though nothing happens, it can be distracting, even flummoxing. It is an odd thing to have to choose, then, to be invisible. And to think, there’s probably a bunch of other people on your network who are also present but have chosen to be invisible.
Note: Don’t say on the internet that you are going to do a thing that you are too lazy and disorganised to do. Or, worse, knowing deep down that you are too lazy and disorganised but saying it anyway, as if it were easy. I’m referring to my ill-fated attempt to write a post here every day for a month. I lasted a week. Maybe less than a week.
Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I’m free. I go back to my seaweed strategy. Drifting until I snag on things.