The moment remains distinct for me – as clear as any memory I have. It’s a weekday afternoon, an unremarkable day. I’m about 19 or 20, and I have no reason to be anywhere except the Art Institute of Chicago. I’ve wandered into an early 20th century gallery, where I expect to find a Magritte to look at. It’s the 80s, so there’s a lot of bad Magritte-style graphics everywhere. The Magrittes are there, of that I’m sure. But there’s something else in this gallery. A painting full of sound and movement – the rush of ocean, the splash of pink tile, the puff of curtains waving. The canvas is drawing me like a magnet, speaking to me with its own voice. I stand, looking and looking and looking, as if I am hearing through my eyes. The painting itself teaches me how to enter a piece of art, on its own terms, for the first time. The painting is Interior at Nice, and my experience of art and beauty divides on this day into “before and after Interior at Nice.” Clear as a bell.
I have to steep myself more deeply in memory to recall the incandescent moments when I heard A Child’s Christmas in Wales for the first time. Heading home from the library through dark fog, I think and think and think. No, not then, not there but… Yes, already there, by then for sure... How can I not remember when we met, this prose poem and me? It makes me feel sad, like friends drifting apart, and so….My mind starts to chew on something else as I clomp beneath the giant glowing snowflakes that cling to the light poles, decorating the street for Christmas. A little chef’s salad forms in my mind, with iceberg lettuce and smoked turkey and a sprinkle of blue cheese and rosy orange dressing. This means a trip to Miller’s Grocery, the glowing repository of Whatever You Could Possibly Want for Dinner.
Outside the store, heaps of balsam rope and wreathes spice the air with the hopeful smell of sap that is ever-green. Inside, it’s good – bright, part of a crowd, something to accomplish. Just ahead, a Lady skates out of an aisle, elegant in her red princess style coat and red pants, pushing a tiny cart as she glides one black patent shoe in front of the other. Her grace and self possession make me smile under my breath. Being just six or so, the Lady can still hear such smiles, and looks up to meet my eyes as I pass her on my way to Produce.
Checkout Girl sends me on my way with my delicacies, past the Red Kettle Bell Ringer, through the self-opening doors, back along Balsam Lane, towards home. I am planning my rosy-orange salad dressing as I cross the wet, dark pavement. And It hits me. I hear my own voice, repeating Dylan Thomas’s spell…“I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find” – every syllable teaching me English as if it were a language I had never heard before. I feel myself waiting as other voices take their turn, affirming the sea has two tongues and that one Christmas is so much like another that you cannot remember any of them without remembering all. And I remember.
It was a fancy party, we were the entertainment, transporting any guests who paused to listen to the sea-town corner where Dylan Thomas unearthed his Christmas. It seemed an innocent enough thing to do – to perform, to act, to bring these words to life. But for me there were repercussions. Speaking the words allowed the poem get inside me, work on me, remake me. Before A Child’s Christmas in Wales, I thought words were tools I used. Since then, I have spent my life learning that is preposterous. I am the Tool. The Words have All The Power.
My reverie is dark and bright, and chilly and warm, and sweet, and requires all my concentration. My legs walk me home and up the steps to my front door without any help. I have Iceberg Lettuce in a brown grocery bag, and cold selzer in the icebox. The incandescent light glows companionably. I’m not sad. I don’t have to remember about the poem anymore. It remembers me. And that is a good place to begin.