11 November 2009

Learning About Home

Jonathan, one of my colleagues, and I left the college together tonight. We walked down a short path that leads to a promenade that borders the oldest cemetery in the state as well as two college buildings before passing under a Long Island Railroad trestle.

Along the way, I couldn't help but to notice that the reds and yellows of the leaves that had not yet fallen were more vivid in the darkness, with the lights from the buildings reflecting off them from behind, than they were in daylight. That is because the day was heavily overcast, although no rain fell. The light of this day was definitely late-fall, tending toward winter: It has lost the October glow and is darkening into the more stark light of a winter sky. For another week or two, we will see more color on those trees than anywhere else, even though the leaves seem to be falling off more rapidly with each day. Then the branches will be bare of leaves, not to mention color.

Every year, it seems that the department in which I teach holds its Open House on a day like this one. As in years past, it began at 4pm, just as the sky is about to start growing darker. This year, there seemed to be more camaraderie than in last year's Open House, even though the organizers of last year's event tried to make it a festive commemoration to the newly-elected Obama. I think part of it had to do with the topic of the readings and presentations: Home.

At least it's a topic that everyone can relate to, in whatever way. As I've mentioned in another post, it seemed, for much of my life, to be an abstraction: After all, how could I be at home anywhere if I wasn't at home in my own skin?

I was uneasy, not because I was giving a presentation, but because I saw the department secretary and the coordinator who'd accused me of something I didn't do. I was going to avoid them, but they both apologized to me. They seemed sincere to me, so I assumed that they were and accepted their apologies.

Of all the readings, presentations and performances, mine was scheduled to come last. I was a bit intimidated, because the two readings that preceded mine (There were eight in all.) were dramatic and done by a pair, then a group, of people. And I was going to read poems and a short prose selection by myself.

I read three pieces in all. Actually, I recited one from memory: Palais d'Hiver,one of my own short poems. I preceded it with a selection from Jacobo Timerman's Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number and followed it with Bruce Weigl's Anna Grasa.

But the way I started my presentation really got people's attention. I introduced myself and said, "I find this topic, home, very poignant right now. After all, I came home for the very first time this year."

Some of my fellow faculty members knew what I was talking about. So did many of the students who were there, as well as some guests they and faculty members brought in. And, I'm guessing that the college president and provost, and the dean of arts and sciences--all of whom were in the audience--knew, too. I haven't mentioned my surgery to any of them, but I'm sure they've heard about it.

Afterward, a number of my colleagues--including Janet, a new prof with whom I hadn't previously had the chance to speak--as well as students I'd never before met and the partner of one of the profs--came up to me and offered hugs, congratulations and advice.

The selection I read from Timerman can be found here.

My poem is here.

And here is Weigl's poem:

Anna Grasa

I came home from Vietnam.
My father had a sign
made at the foundry:
in orange glow paint.
I had to squint,

Out of the car I moved
up on the sign
dreaming myself full,
the sign that cut the sky,
my eyes burned,

but behind the terrible thing
I saw my grandmother
beautiful Anna Grasa.
I couldn't tell her.

I clapped to myself,
clapped to the sound of her dress.
I could have put it on,
she held me so close.
Both of us could be inside.

One thing Timerman and Weigl understand is that sometimes home takes some getting used to, especially if you're there for the first time, or are returning after a long absence. I'm learning about that, too: I just came home four months ago.


EdMcGon said...

Nudge nudge...you forgot the link to Weigl's poem. :)

Justine Nicholas Valinotti said...

Shh...Don't tell anybody. I couldn't find a user-friendly link to the poem, so I revised this post to include the poem's text.