A Strange Land

For James: Joyce and Holmstrand

By Lola Northup


“Conductor? Conductor?! Will this get me downtown? I said, can I get to the Loop on this train?”

Two o’clock. Four o’clock. Six o’clock. Eight. Rock, rock easy, easy with the tangent rhythms of the train. Chicago, Chicago, Chicago; the sound of the rail repeats this city’s name. It’s cold here, even inside the car. Outside the wind blows the snow. Where does the wind come from? Who has seen the wind? I have. There—as snow whirls in it. Why is snow beautiful? Mother, please answer me. Mother? John?

Two o’clock. Four o’clock. Six o’clock. Eight. People have frozen to death waiting for the “L”, I know it. This city is strange; strange in my mind. Glass, aluminum, steel; catch the winter sun so high. Reflections turn down and blind us all. Downtown the buildings are brick. Grimy, dirty brick. Because the “L” is there, and the exhaust, and the factories. The brickbuilt buildings are too tall. I told you that at first and it’s still true, John. Everything is too much. Even there, wood shacks built up and over each other like a bad tumbling act. Dirty noyard dogged sidewalks. Going to ugly shops. Even the frosted windows are flyticked. Slums. Chicago slums. At the old house the only tall thing was the tower; the tower rising out of the town, protecting it. The tower of the church of God …

Please close the door. It’s too cold. Will B-train take me to the Holmden Street exit? Negro man. He has a white mustache. How fat that woman is! She dropped her bag … everybody go ahead and look up her skirt. Outside the stops wrench by, and it is wrench, too. Two o’clock. Four o’clock. Six. Eight. I forgot to bring John’s black shoes in to the repair man. Such a strange, ugly man. Breathes on you so. I hate to go in there. I’ve got to get some patent heels this spring, too. Patent ….

“The Loop. Streets Washington, Randolph, Clark, and LaSalle.” Here already. Takes so little time to get here in the afternoon. Strange. It has to make the same stops as early morning runs. Please stop pushing so; we can all get off and you can all get on and nobody has to be walked on. Ohh, the wind is blowing here too. The buildings even, frostbitten. Brown icicles. It’s two o’clock. And four long blocks to go to the Museum. It’s cold, too unbelievably cold to do anything, much less go to an Art Museum. Don’t be silly, Annie, you said. Wear your heavy coat. Which wasn’t the point, John. People hurry even more when it’s cold outside, John; they run, run, pull their coats up around their ears and run, run. . Wishing they were anywhere but here with the pain of the cold in their heads. The buildings are so tall against the sky; tall and peopleless. I am a building they scream to that grey, ugly sky; see me, I am a building and I am touching you. I can’t touch these buildings. In order to see one I have to stand back and lean until my rib cage aches. And the cold slips under my scarf and freezes my collarbone.

Two o’clock. Four o’clock. Six o’clock. Eight. Marshall Fields! And warmth. Sslpp, shoosh, sslpp. I hate revolving doors; sense of crushing. It’s warm, it’s warm. It’s a hundred thousand degrees in here. And crowded. There’s the escalator. And one of those ridiculous fountains; a turquoise, threeplate fountain for $11.50. Just the thing for your bathroom. No room for you in the tub once it’s installed of course, but you can wash in the stool. A gardenia floats in the plastic, turquoise fountain, John. Floats in the dead water by a cigarette butt. A gardenia; the most beautiful flower in the whole world. It’s so fragile. Did you know that a gardenia means peace, John? That’s why nobody gives them to anyone anymore now—they are too fragile and they don’t last. They put them in the bathroom fountains on the first floor of Marshall Fields. Why did you give me a gardenia instead of roses? I expected roses.

Ohh, most beautiful god! Can … could touch it? Smooth, glass—sleek, like ice. The light catches in it and glints away. Prismatically. That’s the word. Stuben. Crystal. $132. With a twist in the base. It lies on a blackvelvet shelf and gleams there. The same price as the house payment. Here is a gold peacock; here in the center of Indiawares. Spread ing its red painted tail over those tin-spouted pitchers and ornate little shoes. Why a peacock? ‘I remembered the cry of the peacocks. Just as they flew from the boughs of the hemlocks down to the ground. Turning, turning, turning as the tails of the peacocks in the loud fire.’

“Wallace Stevens … Oh, excuse me. No, I didn’t want anything, thank you. Yes, it is lovely. Just looking really. It reminded me of a poem.” Well, don’t look so shocked. It did. I sat in the blue chair last night and listened to John read it to me. There’s the book store. A hundred thousand volumes. Not really. But a thousand black and white New Directions. Why did you give me a gardenia in the middle of winter? It’s so silly, John. There’s no peace in the winter. Two, four, six, eight; here we are at the garden gate. Sslpp, shoosh, sslpp. Revolving doors are ugly. Ugly as this cold which permeates everything and thrusts itself into everything. The river is frozen solid and the ice is gray instead of white. The wind blows everything. Where does the wind come from? May I lie in your arms and ask you? Where is it that the white wind blows from, John? It blows from the north to find you, Annie, to cover you, to blow itself around you, because you are beautiful and it covets you, covets you too. Then why does this cold ache so in me, John?

Two, four, six, eight; two, four, six, eight; two … Adams and Michigan. The Museum is right there; half a block more. The green lions are before the door. Green lions to welcome the interested into the Art Museum. I wonder what color they really are. The green, you said, last time, is caused by exposure to weather. It’s rust. But rust is red, I said, and lions should be in Africa and MGM studios; not in front of the Chicago Art Museum. Don’t be silly, you said. Which wasn’t the point; lions aren’t green, they’re lemoncolored. And they don’t stand in front of Museums with their tails in the air in 12-below weather.

The lobby is always so empty. I always expect to be immediately surrounded by paintings and there is never anything in sight. Except that statue of men and women wrapped around a pillar. And the proud, wide staircase. And the doormen. Somewhere is the little gift shop; yes, there.

“Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? I would like to purchase a print of, just a moment, I have it written down, of, of Claude Monet’s “The Old St. Lazarre Station.” Yes, thank you. Oh, yes; it’s i.. $18.00! Of course, yes, I realize that it is one of the first popular Impressionist paintings. Yes. Yes, I … oh, I’ll take it! No, don’t wrap it. It’s all right. Just give it to me please. Thank you.” Eighteen dollars. John, that’s so much! Why did you insist on it! Because, Annie, you will be interested in the queer old engine with its funnelshaped smokestack, and in the street lights, so different from ours. Yes, there’s the engine, just like: it is funny! And light; everything light. Not like here where everything—look at the windows stretching there. Light and air around the station. The locomotive is curtained by its steam; it’s almost beautiful. Annie, I want you to learn to love the beauty here. Things that seem ugly are often the most beautiful. Like the “L” for example. To you it’s just an ugly old train.

“Oh, dear! O, I beg your pardon. Yes, I know this is the middle of the lobby. Move? Oh, I will. Where’… where is the Impressionist display, please?” Up stairs and to the left. Up the wide staircase. Which way is left? Two ways to go here. Renoir. He was an Impressionist. Renoir was famous for … his blue colors. No, that was Rubens. His shadows? No. Renoir. Renoir. The love of color in its pure form. This one is called “On the Terrace.” A mother and daughter; color in its pure form would be … O, look. John. Red. How red. How absolutely red her hat is. Mother had a ruby that color; it would flash on her breast when she talked. How Dad loved that! Red, red, and wild as the stone on your breast is my love for you … Skin is so pink! Child, your eyes are so blue. Skin and color. Warm and vibrant. There was a balcony like that at the old house. Only over a lake. The clothes too are colors. And the colors are so warm. But the trees were like that and misty; even in the noon hours.

“Mother; mother;”

“Why, Anne, you’re bleeding.”

“Am I? Mother, I saw the most wonderful thing just now! I was walking down to the gate to meet Daddy—no, he hasn’t come yet … I was walking down and I found a cabbage moth. No, I didn’t see him yet. The moth looked torn, Mother. There was a line across the wing that made the moth look torn. It fluttered in a little circle pattern on the ground. But when I went to pick it up it could fly. The line was a protection for it! So other things wouldn’t eat it. No, I don’t want a bandage! Will you listen, please? Oh, Daddy, hi.” You are too beautiful, today, always, Mother and he sees it, today, always. “Hello. Yes, I did fall down. No, it doesn’t hurt. Now? Do I have to get a bandage now?” The blood on my leg was as red as your lips, oh prim lady. Why don’t you see what your child sees? I had a friend once whose eyes were as blue as the dress you wear. Her eyes were so blue that my own ached when I looked into them. Men loved her for her body; her flesh was like yours, child, smooth and pink. She hated most of them. Chicago, Illinois’ own M. M. Mary Magdalene. She had a child though and M. M. didn’t. Only Mary the Mother. Magdalene, beautiful Magdalene, fell in love with Mary’s child. But her flesh. Her flesh was more than all the blueness all together. My mother’s skin was white. As white as paper, as a cabbage moth, as a table cloth. Annie, Annie, how soft your skin is. I didn’t believe you, you know, don’t you, John; I thought you were lying.

And it’s one for the audience, two for the show; no, just one for the audience, the puzzled one isn’t ready yet. Renoir must have loved children. This is “Two Little Circus Girls.” What are you looking at, child? It’s not the crowd; she’s not concerned with the crowd. She’s preoccupied. Why are children looking at something everytime you see them? What do you see with the oranges in your arms and the ribbon in your hair? I want to wear it, Mother. I know that it is orange; my dress is orange. I want to wear a ribbon in my hair. I want to wear a ribbon, an orange ribbon to match my dress. Please understand, Mother. I don’t care if it isn’t fashionable. I will wear it! No! Don’t call Daddy. Please don’t call Daddy. Daddy, no, I didn’t. I didn’t yell at her. Daddy. Oh, John, John, I just wanted to wear a ribbon; he slapped me. Because I’d upset my mother. You kept saying, Tell me Annie. Tell me what’s bothering you. Sometimes when you withdraw so I don’t understand why. You have to tell me, Annie, Annie. But it’s so silly to tell you that, John. Once I wanted to wear a ribbon and they wouldn’t let me. I don’t even know why I remembered it last night, or why it upset’ me so. Go ‘way from my window, Go ‘way from my door, Go ‘way, ‘way, ‘way from my bedside, Don’t bother me no more, I heard the song in my mind, and I sang it to you because … because I wanted to, it seemed appropriate. Did I hurt you, John? You whispered soft you loved me, and I answered with a sigh; I never guessed/… what? … would make those words a lie. Would make those words a lie, dear, would make those words a lie.

We used to lie on the shore of the lake and sing to each other. I loved those moments more than anything. Soft days. Like that: “Banks of the Seine” is its name. Monet. It’s not the Paris Seine, though; this is in the country. The lavendar clouds are reflected in the water with the tall green trees in between. Tree between water and sky; shadowed, reflected tree. And a wild meadow in the foreground. There is a strange light on the meadow; that light that comes at evening just before the stars come out. You came down from the old house once, looking for me, in a light like that. We lay in the grass together. And then the last rays of the sun burst out of the early evening gloom and the whole sky was alive. I picked a flower out of the meadow, a fringed gentian, and you said it was a delicate flower, as violet as the evening sky would be; blue as the lake washing the shoresand. And then a water snake slid towards us, his green skin shiny in the evening sun. You threw the flower at him, John; you took it out of my hands and tossed it at him. It was such a silly, strange thing to do. Lavendar clouds are strange things, too. I sat by the window once, looking through the leaves of a hibiscus plant, watching the blue rain come down. It fell on the pavements of this town, John, and the early evening light turned it blue. It formed little rivers in the gutters of the streets. By the river of Babylon, there we sat down, yes, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows … The violet sky was inside me, John, whirling, then, whirling until I lost myself in a deep, deepening red. This loud fire turned too, turned on an axis of fear. Blue and violet and green whirling, whirling, turning like the tail of a peacock, and every turn slides red, or a red light covers it all—I don’t know where the redness comes from. Outside, the vibrant sky let the rain fall on into the black night. No agony, no agony like those nights, John. You lie there in the darkness and wait, for a touch, for a sign, for something to relieve the desperateness inside you. A thing sits on your forehead, pushing your brain into the pillow and pinching it, painful. I cry, too. Release me; is there nothing anywhere? Is there nothing but the blue-black rains on an empty street ? Sing us a song of Zion; take your harp down from off the willow. Take your harp down from off the willow! How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? David knew, you see. King David lay in his bed at night and looked at the sky and heard the rain fall; and it beat in him. The stars of Palestine whirled across the sky and the hills burned in the sky fire. Van Gogh saw it too, see: “The Starry Night.” Look at it, John; this is what it’s like. The sky moves and the trees are evil in the wind. Your Impressionists are wrong, John. Van Gogh, Van Gogh and Picasso—they know. There is no peace in this world, John. There is no peace inside. There is only agony and division and pain. Cube the people, yes. Cube their flesh and their colors -so that you can’t see them in any order, an any perspective—then you have the world. There was a blue period. He painted women then, a nude with her back to us and legs clutched up. Dark was the color of her hair. But even then he had her with her head bent under the weight of it. He painted a mother and child by the seashore; she lies heavy in her blueness and her skin is so alive that you can’t stand to look at the painting. You can’t stand it, I know, I know. And a guitarist with his head hung over; hung over so far that idiots hang the painting sideways. But it looks better, they say. Better. What’s better? Picasso knows and they don’t, won’t see.

Paint me a still-life of a red bull’s head. You said it was a ridiculous painting. You asked what kind of unity there was in a painting composed of a red bull’s head, a white candle, a book, a green and purple pyramid, and a triangle. What kind of unity? None. That’s the point John; there is none. Look at the bull. His eyes are blank and his nose is twisted over his mouth. His ear is bigger than his horns. And he is red, red like that agony that twists in you, into you on the horns of that bull, twists . . . when you are all alone and nobody, nobody walks in the room beside you.

Look at the “Wounded Eurydice” of Camille Corot’s, you said. John, I did. Corot was the most competent of the Impressionists because … because he painted pictures that would sell? Not quite. Because of his foliage. The foliage of his trees, John. They’re perfect; willowy and green and soft. His Eurydice is lovely as she sits there; not good-looking, but lovely. So sad; so puzzled; so very very lovely. Orpheus lost Eurydice, lost her to the blackness. And the harps hang heavy upon the willows of this land, John. Picasso draws Pan, and his horns are soft, his ears are pointed, and his hair long, brown, and curly. His nose is long and shy, and his mouth sweet; a goatee grows on his chin. He holds a reed pipe in his fingers and he plays it; plays it while the world dances. But Orpheus lost Eurydice, John. Lost her to the underworld.

La Joie de Vivre, John, your phrase. Pablo Picasso knew it too, see. The joy of life. “La Joie de Vivre: A Pastoral Scene” Antibes (autumn), oil on fibro-cement, 28” x 100”. Look at it. The centaur plays his pipe, his long horn, and his hooves are large. A ship sails above his head, going out of the picture. But he splits the water it sails on and draws a line before the prow. Look at the ship closely. See the body of it? The fish shape of the body? They say that Christ bent down and traced that fish pattern in the dust of the road he walked on. They say that the early Christians traced that sign on the walls of the catacombs with candlewax, or in the wine on the tabletops of the slave pits. The sail of the ship is a triangle, too; but not an equilateral one. The lambs are dancing in the meadow, there, to the left. They have smiles on their faces as they dance to the horn of the centaur. Smiles on their faces and their legs high and disjointed. And the woman dances too. See her in the center. Her legs crossed flinging, her feet alive. Her hair waves out behind her in the pattern of her dancing. And her breasts go one to the right and one to the left, her soft, warmspringing breasts, John. What is it that her hands hold? Anything? A circle with nothing in it. Her face is blank. There is joy in the picture, John; but even the joy is caught. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

The bell is ringing, which means I have to go and meet you because it is two-I mean six-o’clock. Two, four, six, eight, keep your back straight. I don’t want to go outside, you know, because it is cold, and windy, and the snow is whirling and the people, oh, god, John, the people will be hurrying. Because it is all too much for their sick minds to ache with. I have to go out there and walk down the street to the restaurant and smile at you walking. We’ll have a good wine with our supper, though; and our waiter is a fine man. Slssp, slssh, slssp. Ugly doors. It’s cold out here, god damn it. And the white wind whirls up around me, beating like the wings of winter. I feel the whiteness of it in me, John, the cold, the turning. I hear that the peacock cries. And you’ll see it in me and say, What’s the matter, Annie? Feeling depressed? What’s the matter? Tell me, Annie, tell me. And I won’t answer you, you know, so you’ll go on and ask me how it was today at the Art Museum, did I look at the Impressionists, did I buy the print? And I will say, Yes, I did, yes, I did, it was all right, dear. Where is it that we go to, you and I. What is it that you keep wanting me to understand? I don’t like it here. The lights are so bright in the evening; flashing on and off, red and blue and green. And white. And the buildings are so tall that they’re lost in the gloom somewhere above my head. I don’t like it here. Here’s the restaurant and it’s, it’s six o’clock. We’ll be finished eating by eight. Maybe we can take a taxi home. A yellow-cab. Taxi drivers are beautiful people. This winter is so cold, John; hurry, hurry. Never has the cold ached in me like this.