This is a place where nothing happens, my grandfather says. I remember him saying and continue scribbling.
I shift to the left and look out the window, past the duct tape and spiral crack expanding in the heat. I cannot see the lake, just a tower on fire. The smell is a constant burning. The refinery layers itself in black and draws the sun closer. Then, there are the train tracks and the silver edge of the Ford plant where my grandfather and his sons drilled rivets into the sides of mini vans for twenty years or so before it closed. There is the garage my uncles built, the dripped paint and cracked windows lined in cardboard and glints of metal. There are newspapers stuffed within the foundations, stacked tires, and rows of duct tape.
Cleveland is a city of perpetual leaving. It defines itself in tides and oil slicks, the burn of factories remembered and idle, crumbling kingdoms of concrete and brick. My grandfather moved to Cleveland to escape the lake and the island of his father – something he can’t remember or discuss. He decided to stay despite it. A kind of leaving that I am trying to dissect and write.
My grandfather’s legs are swollen. He has no ankles or knees. The joints mimic bubbles and pulse beneath the ice and bandages. I help him layer blankets under his knees. He swam to Canada, once. He was a champion endurance swimmer. I still remember sitting in a makeshift raft of driftwood, a rope tied around my grandfather’s waist, and slicing through the water, carried by the power and rugged grace of his arms in the black water.
Nothing happens here, he says, unless you make it happen.
He is round and short. His body leaves displaces the air and layers it in piles around the couch. I ask him about the island. I ask him about the past. He drinks, is silent. He speaks in bursts and collapses. There is something desperate in his remembering.
I have nothing but my grandfather’s stories to know myself by. I cling to his fractured histories and hide them in the corners of my notebooks and tape recorders.
I believe in memory. I claim to understand it. I even study it, researching the distinction between the memories of the body and the mind, exploring the impact of trauma and the consequences of forgetting.
I write, meaning that I put words on paper – No, not even words, but marks, scratches that become sentences eventually becoming knowledge. I do not know how this happens. I cannot comprehend the science of extension and connections, of brain waves and memory – that is for someone else to know. If I know nothing else, though, I know this about myself. I tell stories that are or that will be dreamed, imagined, exaggerated, transformed, remembered, and I know that there is something meaningful in the active process of their dreaming, imaging, transforming, remembering. Alice Fulton once referred to this realization as a “cascade,” citing that “words by themselves are as small and dull as slides without illumination. Only when we shine our flawed selves through language does it take on meaning and color” (Fulton, 1991). Expanding this cascade outwards, towards my reader, I also know that this color and meaning shines and persists through memory, more precisely, the memory and imagination of my reader who absorbs my flawed language, reflecting it back against their own narrative lines and expectations.
There is a conversation, a fluidity, ingrained within the art of narration. The story is written, and its meaning flows, a design based on “waterfalls” and oceans, a continuous “cascade” of information, building and twisting within itself, expanding out towards and beyond unrealized boundaries and unknown possibilities. This ebb and flow translates into a fury of voices, images, memories, traced within both the real and the impossible, the known and the unknown. A conversation has a way of extending itself, of twisting back and touching itself, illuminating its unknown parts, its dark spaces.
I know that I write and to an extent, I know that what I write has meaning, that it holds a place in the world, that it embodies something more than what I can say or know alone. When writing, I often experience the very physical sensation of reaching, as though my pen is striving to touch, to grasp something just beyond my comprehension. I know what I am striving to write or capture. I know what my words are about. But how will they be read? What will they mean? How will they be translated within the imaginations and memories of my reader? I view my writing then as a kind of search or searching. I am not writing what happened, but rather, I am reaching back towards what happened, a reaching through and beyond in an attempt to deepen and expand my understanding of my story and the experience that that story strives to realize. I would argue that the poem, the story I write, is not really about anything. Rather, the words and the worlds they create provide an opportunity to search and thereby discover something that I had not known, something that I had not experienced, something that was beyond me, but that was not beyond the page or the words I wrote into them. “What poems are saying – and what they are failing to say – is an issue of considerable complexity” (Fulton, 1999).