Everything Glowed With a Gleam
From The Threepenny Review:
In Hardy’s “The Self-Unseeing,” he visits the remains of his childhood home and recalls where the door was, how the floor felt, how his mother sat “staring into the fire” while her fiddler husband “bowed it higher and higher.” The last two bittersweet lines, “Everything glowed with a gleam / Yet we were looking away,” remind him they couldn’t possibly have been aware of the harmonious moment while living it. They were oblivious, happily so. The moment is what the poem tries to catch up on. We’re always late for consciousness, neuroscientists say. And there are durations and degrees of lateness. When conversations turn to the trials of keeping up with the accelerated present, I say I’m still trying to keep up with the past.
If you grow up in a concentrated, tribal, old-style working-class neighborhood, as I did, you’re in the dream and can’t see it, conceptualize it, or even short-term remember it, as you eventually will in time. It’s a mossy nutrient medium and you’re the bacterial culture growing in it. You don’t control much. I spent more or less the first twenty-one years of my life in an insular, redbrick, South Philadelphia neighborhood, a village really, unaware how the place, its physical and emotional climate, was saturating my consciousness. The surround (voices, odors, sounds: the givella-water man shouting his arrival, the fresh manure hot from his horse, the rocking tock-tock of his wagon—this was the 1950s) composed, and in my head continues to dilate, an entity greater than all of its pieces. But I was oblivious to what was forming me and modeling my mentality.
To outsiders, a neighborhood is mostly local color. Live there, though, and local color is your life, invisible to you. When I finally moved away, my neighborhood, where there were no gardens, became a subject in my garden of writing: something was always growing or dying there. I think of it as the Matter of South Philadelphia (as one speaks of the Matter of Britain): it can’t be my property because it doesn’t belong to me, it is me. To honor my own looking away, I act in good faith to the material by re-imagining it: the re-imagination of the place is a preservative and maybe, maybe, makes me a little less late for consciousness.
I’ve now lived in San Francisco, in the same apartment in the Upper Haight, for twenty-two years.
Photograph by Thomas Hawk.