Bicycling Into Town With Elisabeth
by Jenny Gillespie
Trees like vined corncobs—and then the country houses, whose careful, proud arrangements astound Elisabeth from Austria. Their gleaming green lawns and ceramic geese, and tiny white flags arranged in mysterious circles. In Amherst, we leave the bikes unlocked by the side of the hardware store where the men look like they'd like to grimace a little more at us from their grizzled faces. A brotherly sameness of moustache and cap. A giving up of difference, or maybe that was never a question. They are here for real tools; hardware stores are not for wandering women. Rich, gritty lumber smell. A kind of pungent aridity to the aisles. Hard-glitter amassment of cords, planks, brass fixtures. And a rack of toy pistils--a pink and silver one for girls, that shoots actual caps.
In the antique store the sombrero is heavy on our heads. She will take the empty cologne bottle shaped like a lamb—twist off its head and there's still the tweak of scent. I select a gold thread strung with tiny blue beads that I later learn from someone around here was greatly overpriced. I stand with her before the Prussian blue transistor radio wondering if it's worth it, to lug back home on the bike. We have paid yet we still can't seem to leave.
It's raining hard, so the antique store owner's son gives us a ride in his brown 1970s truck with a deep-red leather seat. Don't worry, he's my son, he'll take care of you, she calls after us as we slide in. He apologizes unreasonably for the truck—but we exclaim that it's beautiful, beautiful! The truck cab is clean, a neatly folded newspaper, a card hanging from the dash with something godly and inspirational, rows and rows of wildflowers on its front. He lifts our bikes with his small strong arms into the back. Elisabeth tells him she lives off your paintings. He is discovering how much he loves the antique business, which he's inherited from his gum-smacking, apple-cheeked mother--people from Scotland and France, people like us, different.
There are good people there, he says about a restaurant off the highway where we could get a beer with him, but we don't. Sometimes there are places where there aren't good people—and then there are those with good people, and you want to just keep going to those. You just want to be around them. The honest but dopey plainness of his utterances enchants us but would be difficult to endure in longer conversation. We wave to his brown truck slowly rumbling down the path. The rain is more like mist now. Thunder seems to sheathe the far-off mountains in a kind of slick brooding.
I have always seen writing as a way to contain experience. Our lives are full to the brim at every moment with sensation, interaction, memory, image, introductions, passages. My favorite literature takes the raw elements of our very real lives and shows us how wild, funny, beautiful, and difficult they are, through the amazing medium of language. Our ancestors used storytelling as a way to connect, teach, and preserve experiences and memories, and I feel that impulse running through me as I move my writing practice more towards fiction: an impulse to connect to others rather than create a private universe that a reader might not be able to access. I can't abide literature of the latter kind; literature where the author loves the sound of his or her own voice, and isn't thinking about the universal, healing, shared experience of reading. Poetry that is printed in contemporary literary magazines, in this way, sometimes agitates me as I can't seem to find a way in. My own poetry has struggled to move past private incantation, and over-playing with language; I feel I've often wrongly assumed the reader can detect every originating spark of the poem's current.
Poetry has always been more of a meditative, self-inquiry practice for me, whereas fiction holds something more buoyant, reaching, encompassing of the world beyond me. Right now I find myself moving between the genres of poetry and fiction, and I think this piece shows my seesawing between the genres. This particular piece was written during an artist residency where I thought I'd come to the place to hole up and write a bunch of poems, but found myself wanting to write more fiction and started several stories. I had made a new friend, and just wanted to write about our fun day together and the weirdness of this town we were in, but I didn't want to fictionalize it, and I didn't want to write a poem with line breaks and metaphors. I just wanted it to be a straightforward retelling, transparent. However, I recently find myself trying to bring this desire for transparency and capturing the world "as it is" back into my poetry. One of my favorite places to read poetry lately is Tricycle Magazine—the poetry is always with a Zen spirit, simply capturing the world and putting it on the page, not fussing with opaque metaphors and linguistic experimentation. I usually go back to the poetry of Mary Oliver, Jane Hirshfield, and Basho for nourishment, yet in fiction I'm drawn to funny, human stuff, and usually stories by women about women, like Lorrie Moore, Deborah Eisenberg, Antonya Nelson, Ann Beattie. Hopefully, as I continue to grow my writing practice, my influences and instincts will combine into more successful experimentations such as this one.
Jenny Gillespie lives in Chicago, IL. She was educated at the University of Virginia and University of Texas at Austin. She works as an editor at Cricket Magazine Group, a collection of publications for children and teens. She is also a singer/songwriter-you can listen to her stuff at www.jennygillespie.com.