The Last Time I Saw Your Face Essay

The last time anyone saw my smile was the night of February 1, 2002. I’d been out for Korean barbecue with old friends, and had been complaining about a headache that I’d had for five days. I’d likened it to a spike driven through the top of my head and down to the back of my throat. “We’ll send you heavy-duty pliers,” someone joked as we said good night.

When I woke up the next morning, my face felt slack; I thought I’d slept too long in one position. Then I looked in the bathroom mirror. There were no creases on the left side of my forehead, and the laugh fold to the left of my nose had almost disappeared. I could raise the right eyebrow but not the left. The right eye blinked; the other was frozen open. I couldn’t pucker or retract my lips. My head was still throbbing.

At the emergency room, the doctor was unimpressed. “It’s Bell’s palsy,” she said, as if describing a case of flu. She told me that it was a common, temporary paralysis brought on by the inflammation of the seventh cranial nerve, which activates the facial muscles. The condition is named for the Scottish physician Charles Bell, who called it by its then familiar name, “blight,” in cranial-nerve studies that he conducted in the eighteen-twenties. (Bell also considered the problem “not formidable.”) Bell’s palsy afflicts about one in sixty-five people at some point in their lifetime; most recuperate within three weeks, but about fifteen per cent never recover fully. The exact cause is unknown.

That was Saturday. I was sent home with a prescription for a strong pain reliever for the headache and an eye patch to protect my cornea until I could blink again. By Monday, I couldn’t keep food or water down; I returned to the hospital and was told that my kidneys had failed. By Tuesday, I was constantly dizzy, even while lying in bed. The inflammation had disturbed the eighth cranial nerve, which regulates the inner ear. It and the seventh cranial nerve pass through a pair of tiny canals, one on each side of the skull. The nerves had likely been squeezed up against the ragged internal walls of the left canal and damaged.

After several days, my kidneys started working again. (Their failure turned out to have been a side effect of the pain medication; my headache dissipated on its own during the following week.) Six months of physical therapy restored my sense of balance. The eighth cranial nerve didn’t heal, but with effort the eyes can be trained to take over the work of the inner ear, providing information about balance to the brain. The seventh cranial nerve was able to heal, but only in part. Like a utility trunk line, it is a bundle of thin strands that attach to an array of facial muscles. When the strands are “insulted,” as my doctor put it, the ones leading to the upper face often heal first and best; those serving the lower face can take longer and sometimes reattach sloppily to the wrong neuronal partners.

And so I regained the ability to blink and wink on both sides, to frown, and to look absorbed. But the nerve that once connected to my left zygomaticus major, the muscle that traverses the cheek and pulls it up for a smile, had attached itself to my left platysma, the muscle that extends into the neck and pulls down the mouth and chin. Doctors call this condition synkinesis. For the past thirteen years, my smile has been an incoherent tug-of-war between a grin on one side and a frown on the other: an expression of joy spliced to an expression of horror.

Smiles are our most important form of nonverbal communication. They express warmth and familiarity; they signal receptiveness, openness, alliance, approval, arousal, mirth, and pleasure. They’re also pleas for attention; tools of ingratiation, seduction, appeasement; flags of disapproval, contempt, embarrassment. Some people wield them parsimoniously; others dole them out willy-nilly. The spontaneously joyful smile is the facial expression most easily recognized from a distance—as far as a hundred metres, researchers say.

If a stranger approaches me smiling and I try to return the greeting, I watch the person’s face fade into apprehension and wariness. I teach theatre at Hunter College, and, when I first enter the classroom each semester, new students have no idea what to make of me, because my face doesn’t corroborate my claim of being accessible and eager to work with them. A confusing message is the last thing I want to send, so I try to produce the most normal-looking expression possible, which in my case is usually a flat, tight-lipped half smile that comes off as ungenerous, patronizing, or insincere. If something tickles or pleases me, I try to smile, and my left cheek is yanked down as if by a rubber band.

I have a photograph in my office of Bill Clinton and me, taken about ten years ago, when he visited campus. Clinton, the old pro, is beaming. The camera has caught me leaning slightly away, trying to show pleasure with my eyes while holding my mouth flat to avoid looking deformed. Most people who see the photo chuckle and assume that I couldn’t stand Clinton. Actually, I have always rather liked him and am sorry the record seems to show otherwise.

The scientist who first explained the separate actions and effects of the human facial muscles was an eccentric nineteenth-century Frenchman named G. B. Duchenne de Boulogne. His 1862 compendium, “The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression,” established the “orthography” of humanity’s “language of the emotions,” which Duchenne presumed to be “universal and immutable.” (Charles Darwin, Paul Ekman, and others later provided evidence for the claim of universality.) Duchenne’s was the first scientific work to illustrate its findings with photographs. The book contains more than a hundred remarkable plates, some as misshapen as anything a Bell’s-palsy patient is likely to see in the mirror.

Duchenne cast aside the pseudoscientific literature on physiognomy—reading character and morality in people’s faces—that had been piling up since the seventeenth century. Using an apparatus he’d invented, Duchenne stimulated volunteers’ facial nerves at the points where the nerves entered each facial muscle. He then photographed the resulting contractions, compiling a catalogue of discrete muscle actions that correspond to particular emotions.

Among the experimental subjects were a mustachioed young actor with the rare ability to move many of his facial muscles independently; an attractive, nearly blind young woman; and a prematurely wizened middle-aged man so “stupefied by the abuse of alcohol” that he died of the D.T.s ten days after being photographed. I found my own condition in photo No. 58. One of the regular subjects, a toothless old man with nerve damage so severe that he could not feel the electrodes, is having his left platysma muscle “electrized.” His neck is grotesquely strained on the left, and his lower lip is drawn sharply down and sideways. He looks irritated, baffled, and attentive all at once. Duchenne called the platysma “the muscle of fright.”

Duchenne was the first to observe that a spontaneously joyful smile cannot be faked, because it results from the simultaneous contraction of two muscles, only one of which is ordinarily under conscious control. Most people can voluntarily lift the corners of the mouth, but authentic joy lives in the eyes. It requires contractions of the orbicularis oculi, the sphincter muscle surrounding the eye socket, which, Duchenne wrote, “is only put in play by the sweet emotions of the soul.” The effect of this muscle is unmistakable: it subtly lifts the lower eyelids and pushes the skin around the eyes inward, and the eyes seem to sparkle.

Certain people, it turns out, do have the ability to activate this muscle voluntarily. Method actors, for instance, can produce radiant smiles by force of imagination, just as they produce hot tears, shrieks of terror, gusts of indignation, and blasts of rage. Watch Meryl Streep laughing in “The Bridges of Madison County”; she later told Oprah Winfrey that she was able to do so convincingly by thinking about the times that Clint Eastwood forgot his lines. In general, the presence or absence of these eye-muscle contractions makes all the difference between a real smile and a forced one—an observation that social scientists today consider to be so fundamental that they refer to the smile of spontaneous joy as the “Duchenne smile.”

About three years after the onset of my Bell’s palsy, I started trying to recover something of my old smile. I realized that, to avoid prompting puzzled double takes and averted eyes when I met people for the first time, I’d begun suppressing facial expression altogether, holding my face impassive and emotionless. I had decided against corrective neurosurgery after hearing that it sometimes worsens the condition. But my son, Sam, inspired me to get creative. One day when he was eight, he was sitting across from me on the floor holding a camera, and I happened to lean my weak cheek against my knuckles. “Hey, look—you just smiled!” he said, and snapped my picture. Sure enough, the lifting action of my hand had produced a tolerable facsimile of a smile in the photo. Improvements soon followed. My wife, Julie, pointed out that even better photos resulted when I pressed close to her and used her right cheek to hold up my left.

The first step in my recovery program was to explain a mystery: often, and in all sincerity, my friends say that they see nothing wrong with my smile. Reading Duchenne, I figured out why. He described a phenomenon that contemporary scientists call “holistic processing,” in which a facial expression that is formed by a single muscle seems to involve movement of the entire face. For instance, doubt can be expressed by the knitted brow alone, but studies show that viewers often think that the expression enlists other muscles as well, such as those controlling the upper lip. In my case, thankfully, because the nerves of my upper face have healed, the orbicularis-oculi muscles around my eyes contract when I’m happy or amused. My friends overlook the outlandish appearance of my cheeks and mouth because they see the smiling in my eyes and project it onto the rest of my face.

Studies done in the past ten years have shown that people prefer mates who have symmetrical faces, associating them with health and fertility, and that the brain computes whether a face is attractive or threatening before processing whom it belongs to. The assessment, made in milliseconds, is strongly influenced by abnormal features such as scars, blotches, or conspicuous asymmetry. My main social challenge, as I saw it, was to figure out how to postpone this assessment until I could provide a new acquaintance with more information. I couldn’t escape the reaction to my deformity, but I could delay its recognition.

The most useful tactic I’ve developed was inspired by watching stutterers, who, when they start to say something and fail to get the words out, often settle for an alternative statement. Some stutterers, however, go to work on their mistakes, gradually correcting whatever misunderstandings may have arisen and eventually returning to their original points. Misunderstood facial expressions, I’ve found, can be “worked” in the same way.

At a small gathering in my home a few years ago, a guest brought up the charged subject of the new bicycle lanes proliferating throughout New York City. The mother of one of my son’s friends said, heatedly, “I just hate them. The whole thing’s gone way too far.” I launched into a careful defense. “I like them,” I said, keeping my tone cheerful while squeezing my face into the friendliest smile I could manage. “I wonder if it isn’t possible to share a little bit.”

“There’s no need to be sarcastic,” the woman said.

“No, that’s not . . . I’m not . . . I understand what you’re saying.” I then embarked on an appeasement campaign, using words to do the work that my face couldn’t. At some point in the deluge, the woman noticed my eyes. My smile was absurdly crooked, but my eyes triggered a whole-face illusion that didn’t convey antagonism, and she immediately turned convivial.

Sometimes more elaborate stratagems are required. One of them is the “pick play.” In sports, a pick is a blocking move in which the player with the ball uses a stationary teammate as an obstruction, freeing up the player to pass or shoot. In my variation, my wife or an agreeable friend stays on my left as I move about or stand in a group. The idea came to me one evening at a dinner party. Old friends happened to be seated on my left, and people I’d just met were on my right. Toward the end of the meal, I noticed that I hadn’t needed to resort to my stutterer strategy. No quizzical looks had come my way. The new acquaintances had seen only my good side, while my understanding friends on the left had fielded most of my distortions.

I first tried out my strategy at a cast party for a new production that had opened Off Broadway. I was eager to talk to one particular actor. I waited for an opening, introduced myself, smiled—and absorbed his perplexed reaction. I said I’d be back in a moment, and returned with my wife, whom I planted on my left so that the actor, on my right, faced her directly and me in profile. “We saw your Hamlet—did Jonathan tell you?” Julie said. “We went to a matinée and then talked about it the entire night afterward.” I saw the actor glance at me as I looked at my wife; I could now plausibly continue the three-way conversation without turning to face him directly. Within minutes, I was asking him questions about his working relationship with the actress playing Gertrude, who was known to be intimidating, and he looked me in the eyes and tracked my emotions. He seemed not to notice that I’d shown him only my profile before, and from then on it didn’t matter.

I have developed two shortcuts to the “whole-face illusion.” One is the “Clark Gable.” If I’m walking toward someone from a distance—the host at a restaurant, say, or an acquaintance on a subway platform—I start a smile with my head tilted down, staring along my brows. Using the pressure of my chin to keep my mouth immobile, I’m able to raise the right side of my mouth without allowing the left side to droop. As I approach, I gradually lift my head, slowly release my mouth and cheeks, and add an amiable raised brow at the last second. The rolling action tends to keep attention focussed high and allow my smile, such as it is, to function as a kindly greeting.

A variation is the “Jack MacGowran,” named for Samuel Beckett’s favorite Irish actor, who concluded his silent performance as the philandering title character in Beckett’s first television play, “Eh Joe,” with a smile made of twitches and cheek flutters. Like many Bell’s-palsy veterans, I get occasional facial twitches, which make me squint on the left side, and this in turn calls attention to my twitching eye. But if this happens at just the right moment I can use the fluttery squint, along with a few voluntary brow and forehead movements on the other side, to make me look as if I were about to say something fascinating.

My case of Bell’s palsy is by some measures a lucky one. In the waiting room of my neurologist, I saw a few patients who had recovered almost no facial movement, even years after their injuries. Their cheeks hung slack, their eyelids drooped, and their mouths sagged to the side as if perpetually reaching for a straw. In some of these cases, surgeons sew tiny gold weights into the paralyzed eyelids to help them close.

My paralysis is moderate enough to allow me to pass. But my tricks are only partial compensation. The worst effect of my damaged smile is that it can dampen my experience of joy. Scientists have long been aware that emotions are the product of a collaboration between the mind and the body. Happiness, we know, results in smiling, but the converse is also true: the act of smiling can create feelings of happiness. “Thus the sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our spontaneous cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully, to look round cheerfully, and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there,” the psychologist William James wrote in 1892.

James’s theory has been understood by actors (to say nothing of wise aunts and uncles) since ancient times. Clowns have always known that mimicking expressions and gestures can induce corresponding emotions. Modern experiments have charted the underlying biochemistry, bolstering what has become a widely accepted idea: emotions aren’t intangible phenomena traceable to an abstraction called the mind; rather, they are responses rooted in physiology. As the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio wrote in his 1994 book, “Descartes’ Error,” our minds have no meaningful existence apart from the organism that they evolved to serve: “The mind had to be first about the body, or it could not have been.”

The trouble is, my brain doesn’t receive the same feedback messages that normal people receive from their smiles, which reinforce their happy feelings as well as relaying them. I’ve been devastated by the loss. When I make an extended effort to smile, my initial pleasure is extinguished, first by the squinting of my left eye, which distorts my vision, and then by a concatenation of distracting thoughts, emotions, and mental images. I’m bombarded with arbitrary and discordant sensations, as though at the edge of sleep. I feel viscerally distressed, and the distress makes me woozy.

For a long time, I despaired of ever again feeling happy in this way, until a year ago, when I read Angus Trumble’s “A Brief History of the Smile.” Trumble chronicles many therapeutic uses of laughter, including Norman Cousins’s legendary claim to have laughed off heart disease and arthritis, Japanese studies showing that laughter alleviates allergies, and yogalike clinics in India that offer “laughter therapy” for stress reduction. I wondered if laughter could be a therapy for me. I had read that a laughing face doesn’t necessarily require the zygomaticus major to contract; perhaps a work-around was possible. Could I find a way to laugh without smiling?

Almost all laughs begin as expansions of a smile, but everyone laughs differently. Snickerers and snorters keep their mouths closed, titterers and grunters pulse through parted teeth, wailers and barkers yawp through gaping mouths and throats. My old laugh was an open-mouthed guffaw that raised my brow a bit and formed a dimple. Lately, through trial and error, I’ve adjusted this expression, finding a slightly different muscle position—my mouth more O-shaped, my lips pulled into a sort of half pucker—that accommodates my laugh reasonably well and asks little of my zygomaticus major. As long as I don’t let my cheek slip in a way that awakens that killjoy platysma muscle, I don’t feel any discomfort.

My face coöperates well on second or third laughs. First ones are trickier. It seems to take at least one tug of the platysma to remind my muscle memory of its self-improvement program. I also have the problem that laughter sometimes brings on yawning. And during long, amusing stories I’ve noticed a danger zone between laughs, when my face tries to settle into a smile. At such times, I lean my head back and let my jaw hang slack, which encourages expostulations like “ha-ha” and “ho ho.”

I received an early dose of therapeutic laughter in 2002, during one of my first ventures out of the house after my attack of Bell’s palsy. I’d been asked to interview Steve Martin for the Times, and though I could still barely walk, I accepted the assignment, partly because I wanted to meet him and partly to assure myself that I was on the mend. I expected to speak to him at the rehearsal hall (he had adapted a ninety-year-old German farce called “The Underpants”), but he suggested lunch, and made me laugh unself-consciously for an hour and a half. He told me that he had known several people with Bell’s palsy, including a movie star. I’m pretty sure he knew how hard it was for my weakened lips to hold food in my mouth, but he didn’t let on, and we methodically picked over the old German comedy.

The spirit of that conversation has some relation to what I’m trying to do now—to forget vanity, calculation, other people’s reactions. Martin, in a famous rant from “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” said, “You can start by wiping that fucking dumb-ass smile off your rosy, fucking cheeks.” To which I would respond, “I’m trying! I’m trying!” ♦

I

I can hear little clicks inside my dream.

Night drips its silver tap

down the back.

At 4 A.M. I wake. Thinking

of the man who

left in September.

His name was Law.

My face in the bathroom mirror

has white streaks down it.

I rinse the face and return to bed.

Tomorrow I am going to visit my mother.

SHE

She lives on a moor in the north.

She lives alone.

Spring opens like a blade there.

I travel all day on trains and bring a lot of books—

some for my mother, some for me

including The Collected Works Of Emily Brontë.

This is my favourite author.

Also my main fear, which I mean to confront.

Whenever I visit my mother

I feel I am turning into Emily Brontë,

my lonely life around me like a moor,

my ungainly body stumping over the mud flats with a look of transformation

that dies when I come in the kitchen door.

What meat is it, Emily, we need?

THREE

Three silent women at the kitchen table.

My mother’s kitchen is dark and small but out the window

there is the moor, paralyzed with ice.

It extends as far as the eye can see

over flat miles to a solid unlit white sky.

Mother and I are chewing lettuce carefully.

The kitchen wall clock emits a ragged low buzz that jumps

once a minute over the twelve.

I have Emily p. 216 propped open on the sugarbowl

but am covertly watching my mother.

A thousand questions hit my eyes from the inside.

My mother is studying her lettuce.

I turn to p. 217.

“In my flight through the kitchen I knocked over Hareton

who was hanging a litter of puppies

from a chairback in the doorway. . . .”

It is as if we have all been lowered into an atmosphere of glass.

Now and then a remark trails through the glass.

Taxes on the back lot. Not a good melon,

too early for melons.

Hairdresser in town found God, closes shop every Tuesday.

Mice in the teatowel drawer again.

Little pellets. Chew off

the corners of the napkins, if they knew

what paper napkins cost nowadays.

Rain tonight.

Rain tomorrow.

That volcano in the Philippines at it again. What’s her name

Anderson died no not Shirley

the opera singer. Negress.

Cancer.

Not eating your garnish, you don’t like pimento?

Out the window I can see dead leaves ticking over the flatland

and dregs of snow scarred by pine filth.

At the middle of the moor

where the ground goes down into a depression,

the ice has begun to unclench.

Black open water comes

curdling up like anger. My mother speaks suddenly.

That psychotherapy’s not doing you much good is it?

You aren’t getting over him.

My mother has a way of summing things up.

She never liked Law much

but she liked the idea of me having a man and getting on with life.

Well he’s a taker and you’re a giver I hope it works out,

was all she said after she met him.

Give and take were just words to me

at the time. I had not been in love before.

It was like a wheel rolling downhill.

But early this morning while mother slept

and I was downstairs reading the part in Wuthering Heights

where Heathcliff clings at the lattice in the storm sobbing

Come in! Come in! to the ghost of his heart’s darling,

I fell on my knees on the rug and sobbed too.

She knows how to hang puppies,

that Emily.

It isn’t like taking an aspirin you know, I answer feebly.

Dr. Haw says grief is a long process.

She frowns. What does it accomplish

all that raking up the past?

Oh—I spread my hands—

I prevail! I look her in the eye.

She grins. Yes you do.

WHACHER

Whacher,

Emily’s habitual spelling of this word,

has caused confusion.

For example

in the first line of the poem printed Tell me, whether, is it winter?

in the Shakespeare Head edition.

But whacher is what she wrote.

Whacher is what she was.

She whached God and humans and moor wind and open night.

She whached eyes, stars, inside, outside, actual weather.

She whached the bars of time, which broke.

She whached the poor core of the world,

wide open.

To be a whacher is not a choice.

There is nowhere to get away from it,

no ledge to climb up to—like a swimmer

who walks out of the water at sunset

shaking the drops off, it just flies open.

To be a whacher is not in itself sad or happy,

although she uses these words in her verse

as she uses the emotions of sexual union in her novel,

grazing with euphemism the work of whaching.

But it has no name.

It is transparent.

Sometimes she calls it Thou.

“Emily is in the parlour brushing the carpet,”

records Charlotte in 1828.

Unsociable even at home

and unable to meet the eyes of strangers when she ventured out,

Emily made her awkward way

across days and years whose bareness appalls her biographers.

This sad stunted life, says one.

Uninteresting, unremarkable, wracked by disappointment

and despair, says another.

She could have been a great navigator if she’d been male,

suggests a third. Meanwhile

Emily continued to brush into the carpet the question,

Why cast the world away.

For someone hooked up to Thou,

the world may have seemed a kind of half-finished sentence.

But in between the neighbour who recalls her

coming in from a walk on the moors

with her face “lit up by a divine light”

and the sister who tells us

Emily never made a friend in her life,

is a space where the little raw soul

slips through.

It goes skimming the deep keel like a storm petrel,

out of sight.

The little raw soul was caught by no one.

She didn’t have friends, children, sex, religion, marriage, success, a salary

or a fear of death. She worked

in total six months of her life (at a school in Halifax)

and died on the sofa at home at 2 P.M. on a winter afternoon

in her thirty-first year. She spent

most of the hours of her life brushing the carpet,

walking the moor

or whaching. She says

it gave her peace.

“All tight and right in which condition it is to be hoped we shall all be this   

    day 4 years,”

she wrote in her Diary Paper of 1837.

Yet her poetry from beginning to end is concerned with prisons,

vaults, cages, bars, curbs, bits, bolts, fetters,

locked windows, narrow frames, aching walls.

“Why all the fuss?” asks one critic.

“She wanted liberty. Well didn’t she have it?

A reasonably satisfactory homelife,

a most satisfactory dreamlife—why all this beating of wings?

What was this cage, invisible to us,

which she felt herself to be confined in?”

Well there are many ways of being held prisoner,

I am thinking as I stride over the moor.

As a rule after lunch mother has a nap

and I go out to walk.

The bare blue trees and bleached wooden sky of April

carve into me with knives of light.

Something inside it reminds me of childhood—

it is the light of the stalled time after lunch

when clocks tick

and hearts shut

and fathers leave to go back to work

and mothers stand at the kitchen sink pondering

something they never tell.

You remember too much,

my mother said to me recently.

Why hold onto all that? And I said,

Where can I put it down?

She shifted to a question about airports.

Crops of ice are changing to mud all around me

as I push on across the moor

warmed by drifts from the pale blue sun.

On the edge of the moor our pines

dip and coast in breezes

from somewhere else.

Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a lover is

to watch the year repeat its days.

It is as if I could dip my hand down

into time and scoop up

blue and green lozenges of April heat

a year ago in another country.

I can feel that other day running underneath this one

like an old videotape—here we go fast around the last corner

up the hill to his house, shadows

of limes and roses blowing in the car window

and music spraying from the radio and him

singing and touching my left hand to his lips.

Law lived in a high blue room from which he could see the sea.

Time in its transparent loops as it passes beneath me now

still carries the sound of the telephone in that room

and traffic far off and doves under the window

chuckling coolly and his voice saying,

You beauty. I can feel that beauty’s

heart beating inside mine as she presses into his arms in the high blue room—

No, I say aloud. I force my arms down

through air which is suddenly cold and heavy as water

and the videotape jerks to a halt

like a glass slide under a drop of blood.

I stop and turn and stand into the wind,

which now plunges towards me over the moor.

When Law left I felt so bad I thought I would die.

This is not uncommon.

I took up the practice of meditation.

Each morning I sat on the floor in front of my sofa

and chanted bits of old Latin prayers.

De profundis clamavi ad te Domine.

Each morning a vision came to me.

Gradually I understood that these were naked glimpses of my soul.

I called them Nudes.

Nude #1. Woman alone on a hill.

She stands into the wind.

It is a hard wind slanting from the north.

Long flaps and shreds of flesh rip off the woman’s body and lift

and blow away on the wind, leaving

an exposed column of nerve and blood and muscle

calling mutely through lipless mouth.

It pains me to record this,

I am not a melodramatic person.

But soul is “hewn in a wild workshop”

as Charlotte Brontë says of Wuthering Heights.

Charlotte’s preface to Wuthering Heights is a publicist’s masterpiece.

Like someone carefully not looking at a scorpion

crouched on the arm of the sofa Charlotte

talks firmly and calmly

about the other furniture of Emily’s workshop—about

the inexorable spirit (“stronger than a man, simpler than a child”),

the cruel illness (“pain no words can render”),

the autonomous end (“she sank rapidly, she made haste to leave us”)

and about Emily’s total subjection

to a creative project she could neither understand nor control,

and for which she deserves no more praise nor blame

than if she had opened her mouth

“to breathe lightning.” The scorpion is inching down

the arm of the sofa while Charlotte

continues to speak helpfully about lightning

and other weather we may expect to experience

when we enter Emily’s electrical atmosphere.

It is “a horror of great darkness” that awaits us there

but Emily is not responsible. Emily was in the grip.

“Having formed these beings she did not know what she had done,”

says Charlotte (of Heathcliff and Earnshaw and Catherine).

Well there are many ways of being held prisoner.

The scorpion takes a light spring and lands on our left knee

as Charlotte concludes, “On herself she had no pity.”

Pitiless too are the Heights, which Emily called Wuthering

because of their “bracing ventilation”

and “a north wind over the edge.”

Whaching a north wind grind the moor

that surrounded her father’s house on every side,

formed of a kind of rock called millstone grit,

taught Emily all she knew about love and its necessities—

an angry education that shapes the way her characters

use one another. “My love for Heathcliff,” says Catherine,

“resembles the eternal rocks beneath

a source of little visible delight, but necessary.”

Necessary? I notice the sun has dimmed

and the afternoon air sharpening.

I turn and start to recross the moor towards home.

What are the imperatives

that hold people like Catherine and Heathcliff

together and apart, like pores blown into hot rock

and then stranded out of reach

of one another when it hardens? What kind of necessity is that?

The last time I saw Law was a black night in September.

Autumn had begun,

my knees were cold inside my clothes.

A chill fragment of moon rose.

He stood in my living room and spoke

without looking at me. Not enough spin on it,

he said of our five years of love.

Inside my chest I felt my heart snap into two pieces

which floated apart. By now I was so cold

it was like burning. I put out my hand

to touch his. He moved back.

I don’t want to be sexual with you, he said. Everything gets crazy.

But now he was looking at me.

Yes, I said as I began to remove my clothes.

Everything gets crazy. When nude

I turned my back because he likes the back.

He moved onto me.

Everything I know about love and its necessities

I learned in that one moment

when I found myself

thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon

at a man who no longer cherished me.

There was no area of my mind

not appalled by this action, no part of my body

that could have done otherwise.

But to talk of mind and body begs the question.

Soul is the place,

stretched like a surface of millstone grit between body and mind,

where such necessity grinds itself out.

Soul is what I kept watch on all that night.

Law stayed with me.

We lay on top of the covers as if it weren’t really a night of sleep and time,

caressing and singing to one another in our made-up language

like the children we used to be.

That was a night that centred Heaven and Hell,

as Emily would say. We tried to fuck

but he remained limp, although happy. I came

again and again, each time accumulating lucidity,

until at last I was floating high up near the ceiling looking down

on the two souls clasped there on the bed

with their mortal boundaries

visible around them like lines on a map.

I saw the lines harden.

He left in the morning.

It is very cold

walking into the long scraped April wind.

At this time of year there is no sunset

just some movements inside the light and then a sinking away.

KITCHEN

Kitchen is quiet as a bone when I come in.

No sound from the rest of the house.

I wait a moment

then open the fridge.

Brilliant as a spaceship it exhales cold confusion.

My mother lives alone and eats little but her fridge is always crammed.

After extracting the yogurt container

from beneath a wily arrangement of leftover blocks of Christmas cake

wrapped in foil and prescription medicine bottles

I close the fridge door. Bluish dusk

fills the room like a sea slid back.

I lean against the sink.

White foods taste best to me

and I prefer to eat alone. I don’t know why.

Once I heard girls singing a May Day song that went:

                                 Violante in the pantry

                                 Gnawing at a mutton bone

                                 How she gnawed it

                                 How she clawed it

                                 When she felt herself alone.

Girls are cruelest to themselves.

Someone like Emily Brontë,

who remained a girl all her life despite her body as a woman,

had cruelty drifted up in all the cracks of her like spring snow.

We can see her ridding herself of it at various times

with a gesture like she used to brush the carpet.

Reason with him and then whip him!

was her instruction (age six) to her father

regarding brother Branwell.

And when she was 14 and bitten by a rabid dog she strode (they say)

into the kitchen and taking red hot tongs from the back of the stove applied

them directly to her arm.

Cauterization of Heathcliff took longer.

More than thirty years in the time of the novel,

from the April evening when he runs out the back door of the kitchen

and vanishes over the moor

because he overheard half a sentence of Catherine’s

(“It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff”)

until the wild morning

when the servant finds him stark dead and grinning

on his rainsoaked bed upstairs in Wuthering Heights.

Heathcliff is a pain devil.

If he had stayed in the kitchen

long enough to hear the other half of Catherine’s sentence

(“so he will never know how I love him”)

Heathcliff would have been set free.

But Emily knew how to catch a devil.

She put into him in place of a soul

the constant cold departure of Catherine from his nervous system

every time he drew a breath or moved thought.

She broke all his moments in half,

with the kitchen door standing open.

I am not unfamiliar with this half-life.

But there is more to it than that.

Heathcliff’s sexual despair

arose out of no such experience in the life of Emily Brontë,

so far as we know. Her question,

which concerns the years of inner cruelty that can twist a person into a pain

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