The revision process leaves every writer with bits and pieces of work that no longer belong to the poem or story or whatever where they first appeared. Sometimes these scraps and fragments grow to become full fledged works on their own; sometimes they get grafted onto other works-in-progress; but, as often as not, they end up in a file where the writer rarely, if ever, looks at them again. I went digging into my version of that file recently, looking for something that I knew would fit in a poem the beginning and end of which I was having a very hard time connecting. As I read through the file, I began to realize that, for me, the lines that don’t make the cut tend to be those in which I am either explaining to myself what I am trying to say or trying to force the language to go in a direction it just doesn’t want to go. These lines fall into the latter category:
and if you imagine that night as a film of my life,
then a thunderclap and dissonant chord,
the sky and this backyard lit up by lightning,
would call the moment to your attention:
layers of meaning packed hard
in the still image you’d carry home
of what it means to me to remember
that where the large oak
we put chairs beneath
for our summer concerts
now spreads its shade,
I played when I was nine
tackle football with Claudia.
In the poem this was originally part of I was writing about an evening when I went down to walk off some anger in the garden which sits in the center of the eight-building co-op where I live. Thunderclouds gathered overhead just a few minutes afterwards and the rain that fell as I made my way around the concrete path that marks the garden’s perimeter felt like small hailstones on my skin. This garden holds a lot of memories for me. My grandparents lived in the building next door to mine for nearly fifty years, and we visited them almost every Sunday from as early as I can remember until I went away to college. When I was a little boy, not much more than five or six, I made friends with a red-haired girl named Claudia who lived in the building across the way. She was the kind of girl people referred to back then as a tomboy—do people still use that term, I wonder?—and one of our favorite things to do was play football on what was then a dirt field between the back of her building and the back of the one my grandparents lived in.
I don’t remember being invited to her house or that she ever came to my grandparents’ place when I was there. Our friendship was the kind that little kids often have; we saw each other when we saw each other; and since she knew I would be there almost every Sunday, she would just head down to the garden to see if I was there; or sometimes I would get there first and wait for her. Anyway, in the middle of what I thought was going to be my last lap around the garden, a bolt of lightning lit that field up, lush with grass all these years later and with a gorgeous, almost mountainous tree dominating the center. In that flash, I suddenly remembered the last conversation I had with Claudia.
We’d been friends for about five or six years by that time, so we were eleven or twelve. It was Shabbat—I’m not sure why we were visiting my grandparents on a Saturday—and so Claudia and I were both in shul, hanging around outside the sanctuary where the adults were busy praying. She was wearing a pink frilly dress, which surprised me because I’d never before seen her dressed “like a girl,” and she was huddled with a group of girls I didn’t know. I tried a couple of times to talk to her, to get her to come with me to the places in the synagogue where, when we’d met there in years past, on Rosh HaShana for example, we’d spend time together until services were over, but she kept brushing me aside. Finally, I asked her point blank if she wanted to come out to play after lunch. (Neither my family nor hers was strictly observant.) “No,” she told me, “sports and climbing trees are for boys. I’m growing up now, and I am not a boy.” As I recall, she and I never spoke to each other again. The poem I was working on ended up being about something else, but this memory still makes me very sad.