Sunday, November 2, 2008

Filling in the Blank

On November 4th, Californians will cast their votes for or against Proposition 8, a ballot measure seeking to amend the state constituion to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. In doing so, California voters follow in the footsteps of voters in 26 other states (including four starting with M) who have passed similar ballot measures.

There's bigotry involved in the passage of these measures, sure. There's fear; there's ignorance. But there's also something more sympathetic: the raw, human hunger to codify the ways in which we connect to one another.

The cover story of the New York Times Book Review this week is about precisely the kind of connection that strays outside the boundaries of Propositions 8, 10, 12, whatever. William Logan reviews "Words in Air," the collected correspondence between the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. I've read the poetry of both: Bishop is tidy, Lowell is ravening. Yet these two ostensibly uncongenial artists, following a chance meeting at a party, carried on a passionate 30-year correspondence that ended only with Lowell's death.

All correspondence, save for the one each of us conducts with Internal Revenue, is interesting: unlike conversation, which can arise naturally from proximity, correspondence -especially paper correspondence- requires both premediation and impetus. Correspondence is a meeting of our edited selves, a tangling of our best feet.

Lowell and Bishop's correspondence is further enlivened by the kind of cross-pollination that inevitably takes place when good artists talk to one another. Yet what preoccupies Logan, what makes up the meat of his review, is good old-fashioned Proposition 8 fever. Baldly put, what were Lowell and Bishop to each other?

Not lovers. Though Lowell once confided to Bishop that he wished he'd asked her to marry him, there were impediments. Bishop was an alcoholic lesbian, for one, and Lowell was a womanizer prone to bouts of mania and depression. Still, the two were in many ways intimately involved, and Logan, in his review, documents these involvements with a detective's precision. He seems to be struggling -as, I confess, did I- to slap a label on the odd pairing, to define the relationship once and for all.

"Sublimated affair." "The love whose name Lowell...dared not speak." "Star-crossed lovers." Logan tries out names even as he describes how "the late letters often confine themselves to worries over age, money and dentistry." (In the face of poetry, cavities are refreshingly concrete.)

But maybe Logan and I should stop rooting around for definitions like pigs rooting for truffles and call a spade a spade: Lowell and Bishop were correspondents. Their letters to each other were simply their letters to each other; their words were simply their words. Whatever was contained within those words, whatever conflicting streams of feeling or thought, would not have fared any better given a name.

Leave a few blanks in life. Vote No to Proposition 8 on November 4th.

1 comment:

Liam said...

Damn California bastards...