Joan Didion’s Miniature Room: New York City, 2017
In the front room we call the sunroom, some months after my sister has died, a fire is warmly and brightly chuckling in the fireplace, feathery beige tassels, looking like something on a hat Marie Antoinette might wear, are waving from the top of the tall zebra grass through the south-facing windows and French doors, looking out to the front yard. The quince bush is there too, a sturdy cluster of bare branches with a crown of golden-brown leaves that become bronzed by the sun when it momentarily pushes through the day’s dark clouds. A gentle knock of the birdfeeder against the north-facing window announces the arrival of nuthatches and other things too.
I have just finished reading Blue Nights, Joan Didion’s fractured-through-language-and-memory account of her daughter’s death and life, and her own record of aging, grief, and physical and emotional frailty as a writer at eighty-two. I have read, too, online criticisms of Didion’s apparent denial or refusal to say that Quintana Roo, her daughter, did not die—after a string of viruses, infection, pneumonia and other causes—of alcoholism, but of acute pancreatitis (though often the root cause of pancreatitis is alcoholism). Didion did not say, “my daughter died of alcoholism” and the online writers are angry about this and one cites an interview where Didion has fleetingly mentioned that her daughter had gone to a well-known treatment center for addiction and, also, mentions the well-known fact that both Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne (her daughter’s adoptive father), and her daughter’s biological father were drinkers. Nature and nurture are implicated here—genes and growing up with behaviors, routines, or patterns for quieting unsettling emotions or mental conditions, like anxiety or depression, through drinking.
I am saying, yes, my sister died of alcoholism, also of pernicious feelings of abandonment, sadness, anxiety, and depression, as well as a genetic-pre-disposition (a grandfather we never knew) to drinking-as-cure for these things, but I do not fault Didion for not saying those precise words. She is the one, after all, who gave us: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It is her story: one in which she recounts weighing seventy-five pounds, surviving her husband and daughter’s deaths, and waking up bloody from a fall she does not recall.
I am going to give her whatever part of the story she wants or needs. I am not going to pull the last cottony shred of what may or may not be denial, privacy, or a writer’s privilege or point of view, away from her. I am going to tuck her small, delicate-self, the one I have created in the image of her—someone who survives with, through and because of language—and gently place her in a Thorne Room (see: Mrs. Ward Thorne’s spectacular miniature rooms in The Art Institute of Chicago), with a plaque titled: Joan Didion: New York City, 2017. In this room, Didion is sitting comfortably on an over-sized little couch, stacks of magazines and books on a coffee table, perhaps a mug of tea. She is reading a book, and nearby is a tiny desk with a tiny typewriter, next to which are her signature (but miniature) pair of dark sunglasses, and a replica of that much-published picture of her, her husband, and daughter on the deck in Malibu many years ago, when a warm salty wind swept up from the ocean and whispered something to them beyond human hearing. In this small room, and from that mini reproduction of a picture of that day and that sun and wind, what secret words of memory and love do we think we hear?
Pamela Mandell lives with her husband and Pip, their lively old dog, near a covered bridge in southern Vermont. She writes fiction, nonfiction, and profiles of artists. She is a sometime-gardener, editor, and writing coach. Her work has appeared in Provincetown Arts, The Los Angeles Review (the essay published there received a notable mention in The Best American Essays 2016), La Piccioletta Barca, and elsewhere. She is on Instagram: @pamela_mandell_writer, on Twitter @Pam_n_Paul, and can be found at http://pamelamandell.squarespace.com/.
Splitting Joints and Marrow
In the time I’ve spent denying thirst, my ligaments have unstitched
bone from bone. Frayed ropes unravelling shalom, so I can’t
lean backwards and trust the tension of the knot. Below,
dry oak and hawthorn twigs scatter the grass. With a spark,
we’d have enough to warm our faces. But someone must rake in
the blowing wind. Our pillowed hearts don’t know what to do
in the rain except to curl under its sound. Its white noise paralysis, a mist
blurring us to sleep. In dreams we lose nothing, still creep down the paths,
rhododendron and ash. Stillness and spring streams. That is where I fear to stay,
places of sun and rain. But without them, the fruit remains woody and hardens.
To be something to taste, sweet and acidity must mix and make us soft enough
to slice the skin, surprised by both knives, innocence and evil again.
Matthew Miller teaches social studies, swings tennis rackets, and writes poetry – all hoping to create home. He and his wife live beside a dilapidating orchard in Indiana, where he tries to shape dead trees into playhouses for their four boys. His poetry has been featured in Whale Road Review, River Mouth Review, EcoTheo Review, and Ekstasis Magazine.
Every shell is dipped in night.
Place an ear against the ceramic
to eavesdrop on fox squabbles,
crows watching rubbish bags
left split open like unfinished
operations, brambles unfurling
their fruit. Humans, extras
with no dialogue. Open every
shell to reveal day – the glazed
pottery a perfect sky. Of course,
there’s the meat: An orange muscle
on a ready-made plate. Quiet,
contemplative. I threw up
the sea the first time I tried it.
Didn’t know I was chewing its prayer.
The bruise cannot be coaxed
from the knee. Wait for its starling
colours to fade. Do not attract
or let it sting. Never worry
about its song – it is mute.
There are no gardens to walk
through with this bruise,
no waiting for it to suddenly fly.
The bruise cannot be coaxed
from the knee. Wait until
it dissipates like paint in clear
water. Look at the leftover specks –
see how they congregate
in the church of silence you made.
Christian Ward is a UK based writer who can be currently found in Culture Matters, Impspired, Literary Yard, and Poetry and Places.