We’re on a melancholic run for the winter months. February’s honoree is “The Professor of Longing” by Jill Talbot.
243: The Professor of Longing
Dr. Jill Talbot
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org | 426-7060
Office: LA 102 C (a room I share with a broken shelf and three people I never see)
Office Hours: Before and After Class and once in a booth in the Hyde Park Bar & Grill
Course Description: This course is about failed attempts. It’s about me standing in an office two states and two months ago handing over a letter declaring that I was leaving academia indefinitely. It’s about being on the road—Utah, Idaho, Montana—climbing north before having to turn around, scramble south. It’s about the trying months of summer and ending up in a circumstance not on any map. It’s about Boise instead of Missoula, about adjustments instead of adventure, about impediments edging out impulse, bi-monthly paychecks that can’t cover rent and daycare, my last cigarette. It will be writing in a cramped corner on a plastic tv tray in a foldout chair bought at a thrift store. By the end of the semester, the focus will be two am phone calls and bad checks. For the final, look for a bookcase and a loveseat in a living room with the front door left wide open, my four-year-old daughter’s favorite polka-dotted vest forgotten on the kitchen counter.
Texts: We’re not going to read anything beyond my own proclivities. We’ll discuss stories, essays, and poems that remind me of my most recent misgivings, the lingerings I’m unable to yield, the words underlining my past. Our study will include recurring images, my own, of course, as well as the themes of my disposition. The text in this class is me.
Attendance: It’s strange to think I’m even here. Years from now, I will feel as these weeks were nothing more than an interruption, a curve in the story’s road.
Disclaimer: While these aren’t the texts I really used that semester, they most accurately reflect who I was during those weeks when I kept my eyes to the sidewalk.
Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, Selections
Whitman has many famous lines about celebrating himself and containing multitudes and taking to the open road, sounding his barbaric yawp, yet stylistically, he used a device called “cataloging.” A long list. Write that down. It’s important, because we all catalog, make long lists of lovers, of things to pack, pros and cons, items at the drugstore. Some catalogs come with details, like wine lists. Some in a shorthand no one but us can read, and if enough time goes by, neither can we, as we pull a forgotten slip of paper from the bottom of a purse or a pocket and stare at a mystery.
Dickinson used dashes in her lines, random capitalization, difficult to decipher punctuation. She wasn’t consistent in her usage, and often her poems were in unfinished forms. But it’s the dashes that draw me, so we’ll focus on those. Sometimes they appear at the end of a line, others in the middle, interruptions. Still, other poems are words alone, no dashes at all. Emphasis? A writer’s pen carrying over to the next word, down the line? Never intended as part of the prosody at all, like a pause in a conversation misinterpreted as silence or disagreement when it’s only search for the right words? Or are they like bridges crossing a question?
We’ll be seeing these elements throughout the semester: catalogs of loss, of what lies between or is left to the end, the choices too difficult to decipher.
I’ll tell you up front: he left. So let’s look at an opening line of Dickinson’s: “You left me, sweet, two legacies—”
And he did, one, the legacy of our years together that began with the Eagle River and a half moon. The other, the sweetest legacy, our daughter, who, I suppose, he never saw as part of his prosody. That dash—his disappearance. And so, to the Whitmanesque open road he went, “afoot and lighthearted,” while, me? My lines are a bit further down: “I carry my old delicious burdens . . . . I carry them with me where I go/I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them.”
The delicious burdens I bear because no state, not this one or the last three I’ve lived in can trace a line underneath Kenny and make him pay child support. He’s the dash that keeps dashing, a catalog of unanswered phone calls.
The rest is at Diagram.