Monday, January 27, 2014

The Return to the Kingdom by the Sea

On Friday evenings, I typically read the Weekend section of the New York Times in a state of supreme FOMO.*

So many wonderful things going on...and all at the same time!!!!! How can I even begin to make a dent in the richness of Manhattan's cultural offerings??? How can I even hope to be a cultivated person when I am so constrained by the limitations of time and the fact of being only one person with an extremely busy professional (and social!!) life???

I am an anxious wreck as I scour the articles, the ads and the listings, creating a week's worth of destinations in my head because it is, after all, Shabbat, and I cannot write anything down and besides, I'm in the middle of my weekly Scrabble game with HOBB.**

I sigh loudly. I rustle the paper. I announce the opening of films and shows, limited engagements, cabaret acts of note, exhibitions, lectures, walking tours and other offerings guaranteed to improve my life and my husband's life as well as the lives of everyone on the planet.

Trapped within the labyrinth of the Weekend section this past Friday night, I let out a shout that startled HOBB in the midst of his Scrabble move.  The Little Prince exhibition was opening at the Morgan Library and Museum while the Edgar Allan Poe exhibit was closing.

I had one golden day to see both.

And damn it, nothing was going to stop me.

Not the blood-freezing cold, not the gunmetal skies, not the appointments that dotted my day like push-pins on a bulletin board, starting with my personal training session at 9 am and ending with a client call at 7 at night.

Not the gala @ the JCC the previous night that had me downing tequila and dancing like one possessed.

Not the morning-after hangover.

Not the unexpected shut-down of the East Side trains (the 4, 5 and 6 subway lines all ground to a halt).

Not the syllabus I was supposed to deliver last week for a graduate school course I am teaching this spring.

Not the fact that I was on my own as HOBB was spending this Sunday afternoon playing with an amateur orchestra and I hadn't invited anyone to come with me.

And certainly not the severe sickness that turned my nose into a raw, red faucet, clogged my ears and made my limbs feel as if someone had given me noogies for the past week.

I arrived at the Morgan, shivering and clutching a soggy handkerchief. Having walked from Grand Central Station along a strangely unpopulated Madison Avenue, I was awash in a familiar, yet long-ago feeling.

It was akin to a premonition, creepy but in a fantastic way.

I call it the Poe effect.

Even before I reached the regal entrance of the Morgan, I was returned to that realm of imprisoning introspection, feverish speculation, unchecked murderous impulses, suspicion, dreadful secrets, dying love, entombed loved ones.

As I stepped over sodden snowbanks and clutched my collar against the cold, I felt the deliciously icy hand of terror grip my heart.

My dearest childhood literary companion awaited me, proud to point out how many people came to see his show on its very last day.

He wanted me to know that the show was a hot ticket in the Manhattan where he had lived many and many a year ago.

Bathed in welcome warmth, I tip-toed through the exhibit gallery, peering into showcases and reading captions of manuscripts and letters and newspaper clippings and book pages. From every wall, the tragic eyes of Edgar Allan Poe gazed, accusatory and anxious. The room was filled with palpable Poe-love. Parents pointed out famous poems to young children, hipsters clustered over drawings with showy interest, solitary visitors such as myself moved dreamily. Discovering the extent to which Poe had influenced some of my other favorite authors -- Nabokov, Wilde, Whitman, among them -- I trembled with excitement, reading their words of praise, feeling proud to be in their number.

Sneezing frequently, a handkerchief pressed to my nose, I stalked the exhibition, my sickness strengthening my sense of solidarity with Poe. My emotions careened wildly. I felt like the crazy person at the museum, the wacko other visitors swerve to avoid.

With a joy that inspired giddy laughter, I found out how Lolita had embedded Poe-prints throughout, beginning with Humbert's confessional storytelling style and the basic frame of the book: his obsessive love for a child.  I saw the original script for the film version, containing Poe allusions that ended up on the cutting floor, Kubrick's surgery, infuriating Nabokov.

I realized something glaringly obvious that I had never noticed, even after more than six readings: Humbert's first love is named...Annabel.

I congratulated myself on my good literary taste. Closing my eyes, I was able to recapture that rush that comes from discovering a greatness you never knew existed -- an aspect of the world you had not imagined, a treat that makes life delicious and is available whenever you want it.

Poe was my passion as a nine-year-old newly returned to the United States after a year in Israel. He was my closest companion, dwelling in the dark realm that was underneath the wallpaper in my bedroom, beneath the floorboard of my closet. He confirmed the mystery that I intuited; he knew that a house at night was swirling with spirits, he detailed obsession, longing, guilt, loneliness, spite.

The previous year had introduced me to Dickens and White, Twain and their entirety. Bookish by nature, living in a country without functional television, the daily adventure of exploring Israel was matched in intensity by my literary sojourns in the apartment of a great philosopher with a respectable English library.

Poe had been on the shelf of my Jerusalem apartment but I was afraid. The volume of his work felt sinister. The words on the page were ominous, portals to a place I was not yet ready to enter.

But that which frightened me also beckoned. Poe was the dank cellar I could not resist exploring.

When I returned back to America, I opened the creaky door and began my descent.

In an instant, I knew Poe. His work demanded that of the reader. He was an intimate -- my brother or alter-ego. His work was inseparable from himself and I felt inseparable from him. To read his sentences was to be in a conversation with him, or to eavesdrop on his inner monologue, to whisper sentence fragments back in a hot, sticky breath.

Or to become blood brothers of sorts, co-conspirators, con-artists of artistry.

To read Poe is to be Poe; marvelously morbid mind so familiar, so beloved.

The swirling madness, his sadness, I drank it in, organic, rich and life-giving, so much more real than the careful order of my childhood, the roster of rules, the belief in the ordinary, the schedules that had to be kept, the punishments for transgression.

The world of my peers was a flimsy reality I needed to visit during the school week, utterly insignificant, save for my new best friend, a moody girl named Eileen who also loved books and Poe. I see pictures of myself from that year, long bangs and dark hair, deep, serious eyes. I look like Poe's younger sister. Or child love.

I went to school, excelled in Judaic studies and English and dutifully took piano lessons from an old lady who smelled like erasers and had a love of the metronome. Outside of Shabbat, when I was shaken by my rabbi-father's sermons during the Saturday morning synagogue service, I despaired of the rational world and the mandate of preserving the status quo: safety and predictability.

What was life about if not pushing beyond the boundaries of the expected? What was life without adventure and danger?

Poe's chaos was feverish freedom. It was alluring and transgressive, like dancing naked at night.

For the outsider child that I was -- introspective, sensual, sensitive, adopted -- Poe was mother and father, the rebellious older brother I always dreamed of.

Thus it must be for all who love Poe; that sense of an intimate encounter, the flattering feeling of being friended by one who is defiant, fearless, brilliant and crazy, chosen to be part of an inner circle of hyper-vigilant consciousness.

In the middle of a harsh 21st Century New York winter, an adult is recalled to her childhood, to the moment of grand discovery of a transcendent reality, to beauty -- tragic and true -- to the kingdom she shared with a tormented, long dead writer by the shores of the deepest, darkest sea.


* Fear of Missing Out
** Husband of Bungalow Babe

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