Poetry

Photograph by Daniel Gordon for The New Yorker The volcano sat like a pointed cap at the head of the island. But this we knew only from photos, since, whenever we were near enough to see the volcano, it was covered in mist and clouds. The clouds suggested rain, and rain suggested that Celeste would not enjoy the hike, but so, frankly, did Celeste’s dislike of hikes, and, anyway, I had convinced myself the weather would coöperate.

“Coöperate” is an interesting word in this context, because it implies a natural alignment of interests—mine and the volcano’s—and the history of humans and volcanoes, as I understand it, does not encourage confidence in this direction. But the volcano was there, and so we had to climb it. That was how things shook out for me. Once, Celeste had spent the afternoon in a high-altitude rifugio while I hiked to the top of an Italian mountain in sneakers and shorts, among people with poles and crampons, who looked outfitted, basically, for an expedition to Mars. So maybe Celeste did have a choice. But maybe not. There was the looming question of marriage and children, after all, and of the deeper compatibility of our interests, tendencies, compulsions, and so on.

“James needs harrowing ordeals to prove he’s not already on the long downslope to death,” I once heard her tell an acquaintance at a dinner party.

“Death?” I said. “I’m worried about living. I’m worried about embracing eternity before the time comes.”

Celeste looked at me as though I’d proved her point. And maybe I had.

The first part of the hike was steep and interminable. The slopes of the volcano rose around us in pleated folds of utter, impenetrable green, falling away beside us in the depthless ravines the creases made, slick and dazzling with a wet emerald gloss. It would have been beautiful if we hadn’t been freezing. It was beautiful, but the rain rose and fell, starting and stopping ceaselessly, as though someone were shaking out a massive sodden towel above us. Somewhere far below, the island lay bathed in sunshine, ringed by the hypnotic azure of sky and sea, but up here a permanence of cloud blotted out the sun, and an icy mist banished the heat.

We had been hiking for an hour or two—straight up, to judge by the impression we had, looking down, that we could easily tumble back to where we had begun. The rain picked up, and water ran over the rock scrambles and rutted streambeds. Celeste slipped on a wet stone, fell on her knee, and scraped the hand she put down to break her fall. Instead of crying out, she inhaled sharply to indicate pain’s repression—her stoicism a greater punishment for my conscience.

“Are you all right?” I said.

“Go on,” she said. “I’ll catch up.”

“Did you hurt yourself?”

“I’m fine. Go on.”

We were not prepared for the hike, it was true. I could see Celeste’s thin, wet jacket clinging to her like the marmoreal drapery on a statue. But what could I say to relieve her misery? Short of turning back, which would only insure that our torment had been pointless, there was nothing to do. Nothing to say. Kafka once remarked that there is hope, but not for us, and if I’d thought this could draw a smile from Celeste I would have offered it to her as the gallows humor of preterition—the humor I use to bandage my heart—but I know Celeste, and I know what she finds funny, and I don’t relish the sight of those distant, unamused eyes.

The staircase in the mountain seemed, empirically, to ascend forever. Had the peak, or some other landmark, been visible, we might have known how to evaluate our suffering. As things stood, we could only hold to the idea—my idea—that suffering underwrote a deeper pleasure. We made it to the rim an hour or so later, not having passed a single person on the way. The ground levelled off, dipping and rising in knobby hillocks among bushes and outcroppings of rock. Water pooled in the path, and long wooden planks sank into the mud. We circled the rim until we had gone too far, then doubled back. Inscrutable trail signs, reporting apparently arbitrary distances to unknowable, ambiguous destinations, gave the impression of order while denying access to it. The path down into the caldera was simply nowhere to be found, and I knew that if I suggested turning back Celeste would agree.

I knew because she hadn’t spoken in half an hour. “Darling,” I said, “are you still with me?” No answer. “Darling?”

“I heard you.”

More speech was bound to annoy her—I am not insensitive to the tacit signals of hatred and hostility—but sometimes words are a Hail Mary, a desperate heave into the abyss of a new reality. Sometimes I believe that words can do this much, at least: overturn our mood and our beliefs, shake us free from the cage of our ideas. Sometimes it seems as simple as telling Celeste to imagine the beach. Imagine the heat and the sun. Imagine the sun setting over the water, piña coladas, and our last night. The light on the bay. Dinner. Anything she likes. As simple as saying, “We are going to head down soon and, when we do, the island will be just as we left it. We will sweep down from the highlands along those narrow inland roads, past waterfalls and banana plantations, until our anger has evaporated in the heat. Until the memory of our pain has turned to vapor and we have forgotten everything but the satisfaction of what we have done, and its taste, which will be the taste of prune de Cythère .”

“ Prune de Cythère , huh?” A smile complicated Celeste’s annoyance.

“Yes,” I said. “Drinking the fruit’s juice while we look up at the volcano will forever yoke the experiences—one a memory, one a taste—in our inner registries.”

“Even though we don’t know what prune de Cythère is.”

“Especially because we don’t know what it is,” I said. “It will have nothing else to attach to, no footing in the abstract realm of knowledge: a pure experience, summoned—but unmediated—by its name.”

Celeste wasn’t listening. She was looking at a break in the bushes, barely wider than a girl in profile. The greenery parted here to reveal the hidden passage, tumbling straight down to the crater’s floor through a vertical window of branches and vines. The going was steep. I slipped on a wet ladder, landing hard on my ribs, but I didn’t say anything. We made our way slowly. From the bottom, we could see the verdant canyon hung in mist. Everything was very still. The embankments rose like the prolate rock formations in Chinese scroll paintings, massive looming shapes half lost to fog. The air was damp, but warmer for the stillness. Short, stocky trees with thick, mossy middles and flared canopies rose from the lush vegetation, holdovers, surely, from the Jurassic. Flecks of orange and red stippled the knotted green pile, so dense and soft it seemed you might fall into it like feathers or snow. Broad fronds with fans the size of bathmats grew from low stalks. Berries hung in bead-curtain arrangements, and glossy persimmon-colored structures resembling bulbous pinecones made upturned pouches, catching the rain. All of it was alien—a garden, a flora, unlike anything we had ever seen. Looking closer, we found odd pink-and-purple organs tucked under the leaves. What were these? We didn’t know. We might have spoken, but the unreality of that strange beauty, the inarticulacy of this or any miracle, silenced us.

I had just received another message from Jacqueline, her third that day. After returning from the volcano, we had set up at the beach and now sat in the shade of a squat tree, whose fruit littered the sand around us. To the east, the white-sand cove swung out in a crescent, becoming a spit of raised land where, a ways off, we could see people walking along a ridge.

Jacqueline was renting us her downstairs apartment. She was a Frenchwoman in her early middle age, pretty, with a healthy, athletic figure and the air of a high-school cheerleader weighed down by adult worries. She lived in the house with her enormous teen-age son, Hugo, and a mysterious boyfriend we had never seen. Hugo had been waiting for us in the middle of the road the day we arrived, possibly for hours, since we got in rather late. He was staring out to sea with a blank look, as if, at an indistinct point in the distance, he could perceive the end of some captivity he was enduring.

Interpreting Jacqueline’s messages often required a sophisticated hermeneutics: “You are not too cold or buggy at nights? I have screams. Also, I did not mention before I am a poet.” Presumably, she meant “screens.”

I showed the message to Celeste, who said, “Oh, good Lord.” I didn’t know what had possessed Jacqueline to reveal herself suddenly as a poet, but I feared—it seemed altogether […]

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