On Withdrawal – Brian Blanchfield

from Onesheets: Brief Studies, Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source

To withdraw—when it doesn’t take an object, like: an offer, or a question, or the troops—to withdraw, as an intransitive verb, is, as it happens, always reflexive. If I withdraw, I withdraw myself. From what? From the race for city council, from active cocaine dependency, from the relationship, from the chill night air. To withdraw is to vacate what has held or kept you, and implies movement away from that engagement. Pullback.

When I can, on a commuter rail line, I sit in a rear-facing seat. I like the illusion of being drawn from the present into the future. To sit there is to withdraw. I have my eye on what I’ve left. There’s that famous passage in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when she’s on the little footbridge over the rushing, swollen stream during the heavy spring snowmelt, when she asks what sort of idiot would rather look downstream from that bridge, at what’s already passed beneath, rather than upstream toward what’s coming. I think of this sometimes when I watch the scenery recede from a rear-facing seat, and feel a bit perverse for my predilection. Am I a withdrawn type, not as take-charge as Annie Dillard? By that comparison, almost certainly. But to so reason seems reductive, since, in effect, to choose to take the train to Natick, MA from Back Bay Station Boston is the principal act of agency involved. The train is moving on its track no matter which direction you point yourself within it. To face forward is redundant if you are already forward-moving.

Dozens of times, during the academic year 2011-12, I took the MBTA line from Back Bay Station Boston to Natick, MA, riding with my back to my destination. I worked that year at a fine arts boarding school: the first time, after nine consecutive years teaching at universities, that I had ever taught high school. I directed the creative writing program, one of the five arts programs at the school. Situated in a stern residential town, the campus was formidably old and manicured, damp and dichromatic—as if the green of the lawns and the Puritan white of the wood buildings had suppressed other color—and the students, even the most spirited theater kids, were correspondingly more than a little depressed, it seemed to me. My students, the writers, were known as the most morose, the least social. Eating disorders were alarmingly rampant and severe. It had been a girls’ school, a feeder for Wellesley College about a mile away, before converting to coed and fine arts in the Eighties. There were a lot of rules, and a complex, elaborate system of retribution: penal councils, governance boards, response teams, and levels of probation. All activity had to be documented, passes and permissions obtained for liberties like a chaperoned outing to the Natick Mall. All meals were in the dining hall at tables for eight colleagues. One vegetarian option per meal. Two cisterns of soup. White cremini mushrooms in their bin at the salad bar. The adults were a fair distribution (though, curiously, many shared the same name: Cathy or Ann), and all were quite responsible—some more dynamic or more drab than others, some detached and some officious—but not, on the whole, a faculty you might imagine for an arts school. Perhaps we were too busy or authorized with too much responsibility to parent and supervise to give free reign to our eccentricities. I don’t know. I felt I did not belong. I’m ashamed to say that I suspect my colleagues thought rightly of me that, when I was scheduled for Sunday morning work duty supervision or asked to present program successes for alumni or donors or parents on Founders Day or Trustee Weekend, my ego was bruised and my resentment enflamed, no longer the college professor and acclaimed poet. Also, the work was more stressful than any I had had, inexperienced as I was with being an emotional ballast for a group of teenagers and an administrator in profit-making education. Moreover, John and I were sure within months we’d made a mistake moving to Boston, which we found uptight and clenched and almost entirely joyless. I quit in early Spring and told my students one day late May. We’d move to Tucson, where, unemployed for months on end before taking an office job, I have hidden my new fixation on building a narrative of a career not in decline.

I told them on a Friday, before the day-students left for the weekend, before the train took me back to Back Bay, and we discussed my decision around the Studio table. Through many tears, and even eventually expressions of gratitude or wistfulness, the girls shot one another glances that meant, “Now this!?” or “Are there no adults we can count on?” or “This abandonment compounds my general condition of abandonment.” Maybe one “Can we go now?” All the writing students were female; I don’t know why. As one of the primary men in their life, but openly gay, I was somewhat irrelevant to their developmental need to impress a male authority (or so said my therapist once); but perhaps they came therefore more quickly to the implicit understanding that I could be an arbiter and coach of their literary giftedness, if not of their success as practicing women. We grew compatible. They especially enjoyed Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Remember the blubber-slathered knife Dillard recalls the Eskimo buried to the hilt to bleed the wolf dead? They liked that lick of inquiry.

One of the last days of school, after workshop, one of the girls was playing a popular YouTube clip of a marriage proposal on the large desktop in the rear of Studio 1. The proposal is in essence a live musical number, some six minutes long, a viral sensation, a meme maybe. The bride-to-be is seated on the flatbed gate of a truck that moves very slowly down a suburban street, her legs dangling. The camera is set up on the truckbed behind her at an overshoulder angle that captures some of her expression and most of the action that unfolds and follows the truck, as it enters the purview of the bride. Some musicians trail the young woman, walking at the truck’s pace, in formation. Then, a color guard and drum corps fall in and march for a segment of the song that many voices sing, then fall away, leaving a soloist, who gives way to a couple of clowns juggling, or whoever has been choreographed next. An acrobat, an accordionist, close friends flown in whose sudden appearance in the number make the woman cover her mouth in wonder, both sets of parents I think, and other players prepared to enter the scene in flanks of backward walkers who perform and then peel off as someone else takes center stage advancing down the middle of the blacktop road. Everyone singing the girl’s name in celebration. It is Bollywood in its excess, a marching version of “Oh Happy Day” crossed with a Rube Goldberg contraption and an episode of This Is Your Life on wheels. Finally, the groom who has directed the performance, the feat of which is remarkable (you keep reminding yourself as his girlfriend is affianced), who had gotten everything right, occupies the screen alone with the fixed right shoulder and cheek of his beloved, as the truck comes slowly to a standstill. He gets down on one knee, on the asphalt, takes her hand, and asks the question more or less inaudibly. She cannot remove her other hand from her mouth at the end, shaking, nodding consent.

I watched, standing behind the four or five girls crowded in at the desktop, all of them grinning the smile of transfixion unsurpassed yet by scorn. Me too, I suppose. For the bride, advancement in time is backward-looking, and the surprise narrative is concerted effort unforeseen, falling in formation from the curbs which must have been lined a half mile with rehearsing players counting themselves in, reaching their marks, color coordinated with someone across the street. The parade leaves nothing behind, by design. It was all a dream.

I have to turn around away from the computer, to position myself to think of the driver. What did he see out of his windshield as he kept his four mile-per-hour pace? Did he watch the double yellow line? Did he look at his cellphone? Did he get out of the truck after parking it, careful not to close the door and jar the camera? Did he hear her yes? Did he pull forward across the finish line afterward, and drive home, or give anyone a ride? Was he best man material? Would he marry; could he? When he sees the playback, does he remember his own experience, pulling away from the show, driving between the players readied in the little lawns, all that rehearsal behind his careful haul? He is both the man staring downstream instead and the footbridge threshold itself. I like imagining him, while all the legs dangle out the back, in the fragrant warm day nature itself seems to them to have arranged.

This essay is from the forthcoming collection, Onesheets: Brief Studies, Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source. Inherent to the project is the suppression of recourse to secondary sources; so, on his own authority, the author get a few things wrong. The book therefore concludes with a rolling corrective endnote.

from Correction.:

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard wonders at the mental health, not the mental aptitude, of one who stands, on a footbridge, with his back against the onrush. “There must be something wrong with a creekside person who, all things being equal, chooses to face downstream. It’s like fouling your own nest. For this and a leather couch they pay fifty dollars an hour?”

Only darker strains of agaricus bisparus or white or button mushroom are marketed as cremini mushrooms. “White cremini mushroom” is therefore infelicitous. “Cremini white mushroom,” on the other hand, in a certain light, is a valid descriptor.

Brian Blanchfield is the author of two full-length books of poems—Not Even Then (University of California Press) and A Several World (Nightboat Books)—and a chapbook, The History of Ideas, 1973-2012 (Spork Press). About A Several World, John Ashbery has written, “The oneness of our physical and spiritual life has rarely been conveyed more accurately.” The work shared here is from a collection of single-subject essays, provisionally titled Onesheets, forthcoming from Nightboat Books. Part cultural semiotics, part dicey autobiography, the project was a finalist for a 2013 Creative Capital Innovative Literature grant. His recent poems and essays have appeared in The Nation, The Awl, Guernica, Web Conjunctions, The Brooklyn Rail, Manor House Quarterly, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he lives with his partner John at the foot of the Tucson Mountains, in Arizona. http://brianblanchfield.com