The Yellow Wall-paper by Charlotte Lesley Perkins Wheeler Gilman

It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer. I would say a haunted house–there is something infected about it. Else, why should it be let so cheaply, and why have stood so long untenanted, during a global pandemic? John laughs at me, but one expects that in marriage.

You see he does not believe anyone is sick! If a Republican of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression–a slight hysterical tendency–what is one to do? So I take hydroxychloroqine and Airborne, vodka tonics and exercise, until I am required to work again in the hospitality industry. My brother is also a Republican, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.

Personally, I disagree with their ideas. But John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about Covid-19, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.

So I will let it alone and talk about the house. It is the most beautiful place with a delicious garden! But I don’t like my room a bit, where I use my laptop to design reopening plans to submit to the governor. It is big and airy, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways. It was an insane asylum first and then a gymnasium, I should judge, for the windows are barred and there are rings and things in the walls. The paper is stripped off in great patches all around my desk, as if a person wanted to refresh the decor then fell into melancholy because there is no future and no one will ever again have houseguests anyway.

I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those untraceable patterns committing every statistic sin. It is devious enough to confuse any epidemiologist, pronounced enough to terrify and demand study, and when you follow the uncertain rising curves for long enough they suddenly leap out of sight–plunge up at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in contradictions. It is a lurid sunset orange in some places, an unclean sulfur in others.

There comes John and I must put this away–he hates to have me blog.

*****

We have been here two weeks. John is away all day giving dishonest testimony to Congress. I am glad my paranoia is not justified!

John calls me a blessed little snowflake and teases me as if I have a crush on Dr. Fauci. John knows there is no reason to worry, and that satisfies him. He even scoffs at me about this wall-paper! There is a recurrent spot where microbes rise in plumes. I fancy I can detect a sub-pattern in certain lights, and behind it a strange, provoking, faceless sort of figure that seems to keep washing its hands.

But otherwise really I’m getting fond of the room. It is so remote from bad air and fundraising dinners! I can doomscroll for long hours without being perceived.

There’s a member of the extensive and unquarantined house staff on the stairs.

*****

It dwells in my mind so! The pattern starts at the bottom, rises acutely, dips in some places and plateaus in others. Then it climbs again, over and over. It is a constant irritant to the normal mind and I exhaust myself attempting to make sense of it. I will take a nap I guess.

*****

I don’t know why I should blog this. I don’t feel able. John would think it absurd. He says I mustn’t lose my faith in the president, and has me take Breitbart, to say nothing of vitamin C and rare meat.

I lie in bed and look at the paper. Behind the outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like people posting and tweeting alarming news at a social distance. I don’t like it a bit. I wonder–I begin to think–I wish the pharmaceutical industry would hurry up and release a vaccine!

*****

There are always new infection vectors in the wall-paper and the virus gets into my hair. In this hot weather it is awful, I cannot even walk in the garden. The CDC recommendations go round and round and round and round–they make me dizzy!

But I really have discovered something. The front pattern does move–and no wonder! The people behind the bars shake them! Nobody could climb through the pattern–it strangles so; but I see a woman wearing a mask and brandishing an absentee ballot.

*****

John has contracted the novel coronavirus and is complaining downstairs. He says the Democrats gave it to him and also that it was engineered by Chinese scientists. How he betrays himself!

I don’t want to go outside. I won’t, even if my employer asks me to. It is so pleasant to be in this great room with the masked social media people and read angry opinion pieces as I please. I have locked the door and secreted the key in the hydroxychloroqine bottle. How John does call and pound! It is no use, Republican, you can’t open it!

“For God’s sake,” he cries between coughing fits, “why won’t you let me in? It is only the common cold.”

“I have got scientific rationality at last,” say I, “in spite of the government’s denials! And I’ve made a mask of the wall-paper and you can’t take it off!”

Now I see John in the garden, opening the hatch to the survivalist bunker stocked with guns and canned goods. But I can outlast him because there is sourdough starter under my bed, and toilet paper, and dark chocolate, and useless calendars with all my appointments crossed out. I can creep the internet, cackling and screaming, until the spring thaw, now that I am perfectly sane.

Like water wants to shine

I slid off the rocks pictured above at Willoughby Spit, Virginia, last weekend, cutting my toes and raising a mother of a bruise on the opposite shin. A couple of days before that, I fell off a bike, although that time I managed to throw myself clear onto some relatively cushy grass. The day before that, I got bashed down by Virginia Beach waves a couple of times; the wind was high and getting from the billows to the shore was a challenge.

I’ve always been a klutz, but my muscle tension is higher now, which makes my balance lousy. Paradoxically, I don’t think my fear of falling helps. I watch my 19-year-old leap up and down steep trails, the kind spined with sharp rocks and tree roots; his footing is relaxed and sure because he trusts his body to do what he wants it to. Was I ever that agile?

I still want to move with speed and attain the great view, but if I push even a bit too hard, I end up benching myself. I’ve been thinking about ambition in writing, too–not, this week, ambition for quality of the writing, but craving a little bit more recognition, pushing myself to apply for more opportunities, even knowing that middle aged women hardly ever pull the brass ring. Leaving town for a few days, even though we didn’t go far, allowed me to stop thinking about Unbecoming and The State She’s Inhallelujah! When I got back from the beach last Sunday, though I dropped into a homebound funk, made worse by a sore throat. I immediately thought I was dying from COVID-19, felt sorry for the kids and husband I would leave behind, and did some soul-searching about what work I had left to do in the world (yes, I go apocalyptic quickly and vividly). Then I realized I had stopped taking an allergy medication at the beach, started it again, and felt fine within two days.

That cheered me up, but what cheered me more was a long phone call with Jeannine Hall Gailey ranging over all these subjects–health, career aspirations, politics, literary culture. It helped SO MUCH, and not just because she’s a gifted pep-talker, which she is, or because she gave me good concrete advice, which she did. As she wrote on her own blog earlier today, conversations like that can remind you that we’re not alone in aspiring and feeling frustrated. There’s a difficult balance to walk: for sanity’s sake, you can’t get carried away by po-biz longing, but I also don’t want any of us to underrate ourselves. Others are perfectly ready to ignore or underestimate us–we don’t need to get a jump on them!

Shout-out to Jeannine, too, for blogging about my recent books here. She’s a great literary citizen who reviews indie authors she admires on places like Amazon and Goodreads, something I’m trying to do more of, too. This week I’ll be striving to keep up my restored energy and improve my footing: a little publicity work, more drafting of projects I’ll be excited about next year or the year after, even if it seems like struggling through rough surf now and falling down a lot. I’m closing with a couple of poems about “flimsy plastic dreams” or being “focal/ marginal,” depending on whether you like estuary metaphors or punctuation play (actually, they both come from travel adventures, too!). “Danger Beyond This Point” just appeared in the new Chautauqua “Boundaries” issue and “Venus/ Dodo” in Michigan Quarterly Review (along with a golden shovel poem–a frigging hard form to get purchase on). All were first drafted 2-3 years ago then much reworked, submitted a bunch of times. I still like them. I guess it’s a reminder that even though the climb is hard, occasionally you get the shot.

“I live in language on land they left”

Some troll tweeted at me the other day that since I seem not to like Lexington, Virginia, I should just leave. He styled himself as a lover of the Shire who’s not ashamed of being a hobbit. He even used Elijah Wood as Frodo for his profile picture. Good to know hobbit-hood is white supremacist code, I guess–a state of intransigent smallness.

“Love it or leave it” is a glib, narrow-minded slogan that’s already received more intelligent rebuttals than I could come up with (see my final paragraph on Kiki Petrosino, for instance–the title of this blog is from her poem “Farm Book”). The hobbit was responding to my tweet about the imminent renaming of local institutions such as Stonewall Jackson Hospital, the R. E. Lee Hotel, and, after a couple of long and contentious city council meetings, Stonewall Jackson Cemetery. A couple of years ago, R.E. Lee Church was rechristened Grace Episcopal (another hot and protracted fight that caused permanent rifts), and even my employer, Washington and Lee University, may be lurching toward a belated rebranding. Washington’s name needs to go as well as Lee’s, and it’s quite possible the trustees will hold out for a few more years against any change at all, but encouraging things are happening. The rising sway of clear-eyed young people has made a big difference here, as well as the hard work of others who have been putting their weight into moving the local culture for a long, long time. I know the activists, because Lexington, and W&L, are tiny. I remain moved and astonished by the opposition they continue to face and the grit they bring to facing it.

Yet fixing offensive honorifics feels so small! These names have always been aggressions, and if they didn’t matter, there wouldn’t be trolls and outraged alums and people spouting conspiracy theories at council-meetings. Still, they’re relatively superficial markers of a violence that goes so deep, that is so rhizomatically entwined with other aspects of town and university life, that expunging it would be more than a lifetime’s work.

For these obscene entrenchments and other reasons, I don’t like Lexington, and I thought about leaving right from the beginning. There’s a poem in The State She’s In, “Native Temper,” that ends with the line, “I’d rather die than die in these parts.” I don’t know if it’s a good line poetically, but it sang in my head for a while before I wrote it down, its paradox making me laugh with a hysterical edge. There’s always a reason to stick around a little longer. Some of the most serious reasons at various times have been a terrible job market, the exhaustion of raising very young kids, my spouse being hired to W&L’s tenure-track, fabulous tuition benefits for my older kids (damned if I wouldn’t take every cent I’d earned!), and fear of uncertainty, of hurting myself and my family by making a stressful move that turned out to make life even harder. W&L also did me a lot of damage–a plantation ethos entails systematic sexism as well as systematic racism and other noxious prejudices–and I think that paralyzed me, too. Staying hasn’t been good for me, as a friend observed after reading my new poetry collection. But here I am anyway, researching local history, writing about small-townness and southernness, thinking and teaching about complicity, continuing the small-scale work of making my spheres of influence some fraction better while very much doubting the rightness of my choices.

I feel particularly stuck right now because I don’t have the release of travel, of periodic escape to remind myself there’s a bigger world. I’m reading a lot but mostly books about small towns, too: Stephen King’s sin-haunted Maine villages (my stay in Salem’s Lot was unpleasant for a variety of reasons); plague-ridden Derbyshire mining country in Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders (I loved that one); a prissy Ohio suburb in Celeste Ng’s justly-celebrated Little Fires Everywhere; the island horrors of Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel and Lucy Foley’s The Guest List. Is that because I’ve been on a mystery-thriller kick, trying desperately to get out my own head? Do those plots work best in little bubbles? This spring, able to concentrate only in short spurts, my reading was mostly poetry that felt quite different, conjuring cosmopolitan places or a sense of global connectedness, as 21st-century poetry tends to.

The brand-new poetry collection I just finished, though, is local without ever being small–and illuminates Kiki Petrosino’s relation to a place she can neither love nor leave behind. In White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia, three long poems are based on the results of a DNA ancestry test; one section, titled “Albemarle,” eviscerates Jefferson’s celebrators in breathtaking ways; and another sequence locates itself in Louisa County, where some of Petrosino’s ancestors resided. Petrosino herself seems to have departed the region after earning a B.A. at the University of Virginia, and is now back as a professor there, drinking tiny glasses of bourbon at gastropubs while researching and receiving dream-messages from her dead kin. As Terrance Hayes writes, this book is “wonderfully irreducible” to tweets and slogans, plus so honed and gorgeous that it reminds me that poetry has special ways of helping people struggle with intractable problems; I think it will strike others that way, too, and be on short-lists for many prizes. I’m on sabbatical for a while but I’d love to teach it one day, in whatever still-messed-up America we land in a year from now.