Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Even Virgil Slam Dances, Sometimes.

Slam dancing has been a family affair. Seriously. I don't recall the first time I slam danced with my brother or if I just watched for years and then followed suit, bouncing up to his armpit while London Calling was playing, slamming to the line, "should I stay or should I go now." Call it the myth of the older brother, call it growing up in the early eighties or just call it what happens when sensitive people are tired of being so sensitive and they need a release. Really, slam dancing is perhaps some poets' favorite secret pastime from all those, well, from all those feelings.

I remember once someone telling my husband after they heard I was a poet, "wow, I bet she has a lot of feelings." And I do. Thankfully for me though, I grew up with men who do also. My father once told me, "Emily if you feel like crying, cry because well, not crying gives you headaches." My brother, a mechanical engineer, also has a very pragmatic approach to emotions. He just has them openly and we, my brother and I, have always shown them openly to each other. I cannot tell you how many phone calls I have made to my brother from where ever I have lived and while I ranted on, he would listen, be patient and always say something far more insightful than my winded over-talked analysis. We've been close growing up and even now as adults, so he knows talking to me can take some time. And thankfully he always seems to have time. Thankfully too, I've grown up a bit and hopefully listen more. Now, we mostly find hours to chat on Sunday mornings via the phone and during the week we send each other random videos of music we love or you tube clips we cannot stop laughing from.

Yet when my brother was in high school, I was in elementary school and he seemed, well, old. But during the summers, we were friends again. Growing up surrounded by cherry orchards, every summer brought two harvests: tarts and sweets. If you wanted to go to college or be able to buy records and maybe even a bike, most kids worked their summer away to the odd hours of cherry harvesting. There were usually two shifts, midnight to noon or noon to midnight. My brother started pulling tarp and then graduated to tractor driving and when he'd come home he'd fill the house with the scent of sulfur and sweat, never sweet hints of cherries, just labor. In between harvests, the crew would usually have time off to just chill and thankfully, for my brother, the harvest crew consisted of most of his friends. When it was down time for them, it was for me, fun time.

My brother is seven years older and could seriously be claimed the greatest influence in my life in regards to music, and for kids growing up in the middle of nowhere, music made you feel somewhere. The summer when my brother was 16, my cousin Eric came out from Baltimore to work cherries and being nine years old and held up at home with books and an occasional sleep over, summers felt long. But not that summer. That summer my brother let me tag along everywhere with him. One night we loaded up in the Horizon (my brother, Eric, me and my friend, Erin Sweeny) headed in to Suttons Bay to eat pizza at the Hose House. My brother drove and the radio blared, "I'm your Venus" by Bananarama while we all misquoted the lyrics, yelling out the windows to nothing but rows of trees and humid summer skies. I recall while we were driving along the road, my brother, without hesitation just drove off into an orchard and he took that horizon through the rows of cherries and then down onto a tractor road and then back onto the pavement without even blinking. Erin and I, seat belted in the back, laughed while being slightly afraid all at the same time.

And my brother was like that. He would be so mellow and calm and then suddenly some surge of energy would come over him and he'd do something so reckless and wild, which is probably why slam dancing made so much sense to him. Maybe it isn't the aggression as much as it is the music that makes my brother so amped up. Maybe growing up on Donnybrook (our road my parents still live on) has something to do with it too. Or maybe if you're sensitive, this world seems to understand bold acts of energy more so than quiet displays of introspection.

My brother would get quiet, really quiet. I'd sometimes find him in his room, all dark and a slight volume of Morrissey playing in the distance. Sometimes, I knocked on his door, and always he'd let me in. We'd listen for hours together and ask each other questions about lyrics from U2 or Peter Gabriel and he'd say, "listen to this Emily, what do you think it means?" And he already had an idea, but he'd ask me and would really listen to what I thought. I recall feeling nervous sometimes as if I might not fully understand or be able to analyze some lyric, but Chris would keep asking me questions, keep helping me feel more like an intelligent equal, than some tag along. Sometimes we'd talk about life on Donnybrook, our family, our grandparents or aunts or uncles as if we would have each other as witnesses to make sense of our experience all while Sinead O'Connor would sing in the background from "The Lion and the Cobra".

Other times we would talk about depression. One time my brother told me about being young and feeling the weight of depression come over him and the odd fact he told me, "I remember liking it Emily and liking the darkness was what scared me the most." Sure, we both love Harold and Maude, The Smiths, we would share novels like The Brothers K and The River Why and sometimes find ourselves on the phone asking each other questions again, about the odd loneliness of being in a crowd, our love of traveling and searching instead of being still. But through time, experience and probably each of us growing up, we can now return to music again. We can share soundtracks from our individual lives and remind each other to not be afraid of the darkness. We both know it is there, but we don't have to be dark, anymore. We can walk away from all the weight of our past or who we once were and remind each other we will always be there in music even in a quiet dark house. There is always sound and light, somewhere.

And really, I like to think of my brother as my Virgil, a slightly taller and smarter version of myself who has been a voice and hand of reason for me. Sure, there are a lot of terms for big brothers, like bully or being over-protective and, don't get me wrong, my brother has been both. From dislocating my arm twice from politely shunning me from bad boys, my brother has been the typical older brother, but what I feel grateful for is that he has been an atypical guide and role model. It's as if my brother decided to close the door on all that Morrissey and The Smiths of our youth and has moved beyond the darkness and to listen more to Talking Head's "Pulled Up" but he knows when to pull out Leonard Cohen when needed.

This past week I was in Michigan visiting family, my sister's family and my brother and his wife's new baby girl, Wren. While we were all home, we (the three siblings and spouses) went to the Traverse City Film Festival and watched "Winnebago Man." While The Dead Kennedys were singing "Winnebago Warriors" in the beginning of the film my brother shouted out the lyrics. People turned around slowly and stared. But my brother just keep singing along as if he were slam dancing in the dark against people seated comfortably eating popcorn. I loved it. I loved hearing him and his earnest energy of angst come alive again. I felt oddly proud of my brother not to lose that gift of making people feel awkward by someone simply expressing themselves and sure enough, that was what the movie was about. Winnebago Man is about how a man spent one summer making Winnebago ads in the muggy heat of Iowa and how the camera caught him swearing on all of the out takes, which later become a Youtube craze where people find pleasure in someone else's anger. But it was about a lot more than that.

And so is my brother--a lot more than just someone who likes to slam dance and take his shirt off and mow the yard while listening to Van Halen. He's a lot more than just an engineer, a big brother, a mountain biker, a son. He's now a husband and father and he will always be the one who first taught me to really listen to lyrics and to try and make sense of them. Really, he taught me to be a poet. But to be a poet not attracted to or in love with darkness only, but to recognize that it is there, but to believe in light. The lightness of being in all of us and that we all have music. So we can sing, our "bittersweet symphony" (The Verve) to get close enough to "sound and vision" (David Bowie). To get close, enough.

Scrabble in the Hospital

Jet or zip will give you a higher score
than death or meadow. Even zoo
is greater than grief. Axe on a double word
will always be more points than embrace.
Our language in tiles can be separated
by vowels, but our bodies cannot speak
the sounds of the word for a baby born
without breath. There aren’t enough letters
for this loss. There are no words
for this color. And when they told me
of how you held your baby girl,
Ariel, I didn’t think of the sprite
on an island or the book of poems
which rests on my night stand.
I thought of your hands
around a blanket of a body
born cold in a room shaded pink.
The same pink of your cheeks in February
on frozen lakes when you’d tell of trout
in their slow sleep. And now your slow voice
staticed and wintered in a phone line
tells me of joy, the stubborn happiness
in loving what cannot live. Knowing
we couldn’t ever spell or keep score
of the light of each star, but we have the word
sky, elephant, and hope . To get close


  1. Both your post and your poem are a beautiful weave of memory and reality. I love the use of color in the poem, how it is so stark except for the pink. And I can't pass up such a succinct and rich first paragraph as this one about slam dancing. I think it's a great start for where you take the story.

    My sister, Emily, showed me your site this summer and it has been one of my favorites to read for the quality of the writing.

  2. Emily - thank you for a wonderful, moving picture of your brother. As a mother-in-law, I never know when I'm intruding in the space of those reared and let go long ago. Your brother is very introspective and I respect his need for solitude and aloneness. Your poem following brought back the pain I felt when I saw your brother draped over your father, sobbing his heart out. It brought back the pain I felt when I knew I could do nothing to help my daughter in her grief. It brought back that early am when we all passed Ariel around to hold - my son, my son-in-law, my daughter, your parents. It brought it back so that I could remember that it was real. That's a good thing. hank you.