I wasn’t planning on doing any writing today, well maybe a few comments during the process of reconnecting with the wonderful world of blogging. I had gotten a late start this morning because of a late end last night, and late starts always put me off my game to some degree. I had finished setting up my little office environment here in NY just so nicely when I heard the dreaded question, “Are you going to write something for Valentine’s Day?” Perish the thought! That is one hundred and eighty degrees from me. It’s so blatantly conforming. Yet the pit of the stomach feeling had already dropped me and the childhood conditioning had already begun kicking the dickens out of me the instant I was downed.
Too dejected even to invoke the great idea gods, I cut straight to research and found this one-stop-shopping gem of a site, a valiant effort on the part of an unnamed hero of a writer who packed every fact and conjecture around a custom so vague that it’s unclear to me why the countries who’ve adopted it have adopted it and embraced it with such zealousness. Which of the saints named Valentine, that the Catholic Church recognizes, was responsible for this custom of giving cards, flowers, and chocolates? What was his true cause and how was he martyred? And which of the three possible reasons is most probable as to why St. Valentine’s Day is celebrated in mid-February? There are various legends to choose from. Take your pick.
So I did. In reference to the calendaring of Valentine’s Day, for its intrigue, my interest was piqued by the explanation that involved the Christian church interjecting its Valentines’ feast day midway into February as a diversion from the pagan Lupercalia festival of ancient Rome…like some say the Christmas celebration day had been strategically interjected by the bishop of Rome in 137AD amidst the pagan multi-god celebrations of the December months. I love a little plotting expertise and the Lupercalia festival offers that and more.
The same thing in humans that makes us rubberneck at car accidents made me read every gory detail of the Lupercalia festival dating game rituals. After a day’s worth of animal sacrifices for fertility and purification and dipping goat’s hide strips into the sacrificial blood to slop on women and crop fields, the city of Rome’s bachelors would gather ‘round an urn of ladies’ names and each would select a name and be paired with that woman for one year.
I’m not sure which thing was more shocking, that they did all that period, or that the one-year pairings most usually resulted in marriage. I realize arranged marriages work splendidly in many cultures, but thinking about it always rouses within me that annoying fast-food kind of question, “Would you like attraction with that?” I suppose if we can work our way around to loving some man or woman that shows up on our doorstep, we might also eventually find them attractive, so why do I get stuck on that? Perhaps my own culture imbibed in me?
Culture’s a tough thing to break from, and the mores of mine would plague me again as I continued to tear up the internet looking for something, anything interesting. Then I saw it. The story of two Americans, a poet and a writer. The poet, the very same Marie Howe whose poem “The Star Market” I featured on 02/08/08. And the writer, Michael Cunningham, best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Hours,” based on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dallaway and how it affected three women—one of whom was Woolf herself—in three different time periods.
And there, all mixed up in their story of unusual friendship, which would probably be a bolstering tale to most, was that same bothersome something within me. Just as with arranged marriages, the accompanying awareness was of a feeling of something not being quite right, of something not synapsing. There was the very same sense of incredulity and futility around our destinies that always produces an especially difficult brand of melancholy in me.
Although Howe and Cunningham have a loving and devoted, supposedly platonic relationship, as featured in Garrison Keillor’s Literary Friendship pilot series, I couldn’t shake the melancholy left as an impression from Keillor’s interview with them. They have so much in common—they’re close in age, grew into their lives and crafts in similarly winding and unlikely ways, and there was a mutual sense of destiny when they were introduced to each other—yet their alliance took on the flavor of incompleteness and futility, similar to that of the hopelessness of a doomed extra-marital affair.
At the beginning of the interview Howe and Cunningham were highly energized and sounded to me like a couple madly in love, laughingly, agreeably finishing each other’s sentences. But just as relationships often unravel exposing more and more of the not-meant-to-be-highlighted working parts beneath the pretty outer skin, it seems the interview unwinds and exposes more and more details that take the two from happily carefree friends to unlikely pair.
The shine of their relationship is definitely dulled by the fact that Cunningham’s novel-writing career took off in the way of fame and fortune and left little miss Howe in the dust teaching at Sarah Lawrence College with only three days off per week to write and only three collections of poems published. But actual chrome seems to start to peel off when Keillor’s more personal questions force the two over the hot coals of their sexual attraction, their dear friend Billy who died from AIDS, Cunningham’s gayness and the “straight like me” game he enjoys when he’s together with Howe in public. You can hear it in Howe’s voice, not so much in Cunningham’s. Once bouncy and confident, toward the end Howe boils down to a faltering delivery of words that include “um” and “you know?” way, way too much.
Even when Keillor attempts to give them back their dignity with the ingratiatory question, “If your friend Billy was here right now…what do you think he’d say to you?” it was too late. Too late like the suggestion that I write something for Valentine’s Day couldn’t be reversed and here I am writing to you. And not only that but that I’m now telling you, after all this realization that relationships are hard enough, that I think it’s a saving grace we’ve pressed the St. Valentine’s Day tradition into the red-hot, hearts-and-candy lightness that it continues to be to this day.
If you do listen to the Keillor/Howe/Cunningham interview, I would love to hear what it left you with.
A selected poets, writers, and speakers site with a nice piece on Marie Howe: http://www.blueflowerarts.com/index.html
Two poems by Howe: http://www.readab.com/mhowe.html
Norton poets online on Howe: http://www.nortonpoets.com/howem.htm
More in depth on Howe from “Ploughshares:” http://www.pshares.org/issues/article.cfm?prmArticleID=3450
Michael Cunningham’s site: http://www.michaelcunninghamwriter.com/
Lorri Holt of Pif Magazine interviews Cunningham: http://www.pifmagazine.com/SID/525/