"The problem with life is that everyone who dies really dies." ~ Kathleen Graber Every now and then you think you know the answer. But then some version of that quiz resurfaces: If you're going to be marooned on an island, what one book would you want to have with you? If you could keep only one of your senses before the world ended, which would it be? The problem with these zero-sum games is that most always want more than one thing. Or you take the side of the mother who can't bear to have her baby sliced in half in front of the king. Never ask about a favorite book or poet; or which of my children I like best or is the prettiest. In The Two Fridas, Frida Kahlo has painted both hearts whole, laid across the bodice— as if the artist ripped them out of each woman's breast. And each woman is different yet the same. The one on the left, with a pair of surgical scissors suturing a vein that drips on the skirt of her white wedding gown, is the rejected one. On the right, hand on her lap holding a miniature of the beloved, is the self that was loved. Yet they clasp hands and sit serenely on the same bench, not minding a sky bruised and boiling with clouds behind them. The same vein coils up the forearm of the loved one and over a chasm of shoulders to the abandoned other: red as embroidery floss, the kind one could use for mending socks or cross- stitching rows of flowers on a hem.
Summer. Avenues fill with ragas plucked across the washboard of their abdomens, sustained vibration multiplied by tymbals. They come from wintering inside the ground, trailing these labyrinths of low sound. Bulbs of grief grow long-stalked then break upon the first stony edge. The husk: tearable as paper though it kept you for years.
All the morning at the office. No newes more than last night; only Purser Tyler comes and tells me that he being at all the passages in this business at Chatham, he says there have been horrible miscarriages, such as we shall shortly hear of: that the want of boats hath undone us; and it is commonly said, and Sir J. Minnes under his hand tells us, that they were employed by the men of the Yard to carry away their goods; and I hear that Commissioner Pett will be found the first man that began to remove; he is much spoken against, and Bruncker is complained of and reproached for discharging the men of the great ships heretofore. At noon Mr. Hater dined with me; and tells me he believes that it will hardly be the want of money alone that will excuse to the Parliament the neglect of not setting out a fleete, it having never been done in our greatest straits, but however unlikely it appeared, yet when it was gone about, the State or King did compass it; and there is something in it. In like manner all the afternoon busy, vexed to see how slowly things go on for want of money. At night comes, unexpectedly so soon, Mr. Gibson, who left my wife well, and all got down well with them, but not with himself, which I was afeard of, and cannot blame him, but must myself be wiser against another time. He had one of his bags broke, through his breeches, and some pieces dropped out, not many, he thinks, but two, for he ’light, and took them up, and went back and could find no more. But I am not able to tell how many, which troubles me, but the joy of having the greatest part safe there makes me bear with it, so as not to afflict myself for it. This afternoon poor Betty Michell, whom I love, sent to tell my wife her child was dying, which I am troubled for, poor girle! At night home and to my flageolet. Played with pleasure, but with a heavy heart, only it pleased me to think how it may please God I may live to spend my time in the country with plainness and pleasure, though but with little glory. So to supper and to bed.
the first man to complain
ached to be alone
like a pear in slow light
heavy with plainness and pleasure
though with little glory
Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 15 June 1667.
Up, and to the office; where Mr. Fryer comes and tells me that there are several Frenchmen and Flemish ships in the River, with passes from the Duke of York for carrying of prisoners, that ought to be parted from the rest of the ships, and their powder taken, lest they do fire themselves when the enemy comes, and so spoil us; which is good advice, and I think I will give notice of it; and did so. But it is pretty odd to see how every body, even at this high time of danger, puts business off of their own hands! He says that he told this to the Lieutenant of the Tower, to whom I, for the same reason, was directing him to go; and the Lieutenant of the Tower bade him come to us, for he had nothing to do with it; and yesterday comes Captain Crow, of one of the fireships, and told me that the officers of the Ordnance would deliver his gunner’s materials, but not compound them, but that we must do it; whereupon I was forced to write to them about it; and one that like a great many come to me this morning by and by comes Mr. Wilson, and by direction of his, a man of Mr. Gawden’s; who come from Chatham last night, and saw the three ships burnt, they lying all dry, and boats going from the men-of-war and fire them. But that, that he tells me of worst consequence is, that he himself, I think he said, did hear many Englishmen on board the Dutch ships speaking to one another in English; and that they did cry and say, “We did heretofore fight for tickets; now we fight for dollars!” and did ask how such and such a one did, and would commend themselves to them: which is a sad consideration. And Mr. Lewes, who was present at this fellow’s discourse to me, did tell me, that he is told that when they took “The Royall Charles,” they said that they had their tickets signed, and showed some, and that now they come to have them paid, and would have them paid before they parted. And several seamen come this morning to me, to tell me that, if I would get their tickets paid, they would go and do all they could against the Dutch; but otherwise they would not venture being killed, and lose all they have already fought for: so that I was forced to try what I could do to get them paid. This man tells me that the ships burnt last night did lie above Upnor Castle, over against the Docke; and the boats come from the ships of war and burnt them all which is very sad. And masters of ships, that we are now taking up, do keep from their ships all their stores, or as much as they can, so that we can despatch them, having not time to appraise them nor secure their payment; only some little money we have, which we are fain to pay the men we have with, every night, or they will not work. And indeed the hearts as well as affections of the seamen are turned away; and in the open streets in Wapping, and up and down, the wives have cried publickly, “This comes of your not paying our husbands; and now your work is undone, or done by hands that understand it not.” And Sir W. Batten told me that he was himself affronted with a woman, in language of this kind, on Tower Hill publickly yesterday; and we are fain to bear it, and to keep one at the office door to let no idle people in, for fear of firing of the office and doing us mischief. The City is troubled at their being put upon duty: summoned one hour, and discharged two hours after; and then again summoned two hours after that; to their great charge as well as trouble. And Pelling, the Potticary, tells me the world says all over, that less charge than what the kingdom is put to, of one kind or other, by this business, would have set out all our great ships. It is said they did in open streets yesterday, at Westminster, cry, “A Parliament! a Parliament!” and I do believe it will cost blood to answer for these miscarriages. We do not hear that the Dutch are come to Gravesend; which is a wonder. But a wonderful thing it is that to this day we have not one word yet from Bruncker, or Peter Pett, or J. Minnes, of any thing at Chatham. The people that come hither to hear how things go, make me ashamed to be found unable to answer them: for I am left alone here at the office; and the truth is, I am glad my station is to be here, near my own home and out of danger, yet in a place of doing the King good service. I have this morning good news from Gibson; three letters from three several stages, that he was safe last night as far as Royston, at between nine and ten at night. The dismay that is upon us all, in the business of the kingdom and Navy at this day, is not to be expressed otherwise than by the condition the citizens were in when the City was on fire, nobody knowing which way to turn themselves, while every thing concurred to greaten the fire; as here the easterly gale and spring-tides for coming up both rivers, and enabling them to break the chaine. D. Gawden did tell me yesterday, that the day before at the Council they were ready to fall together by the ears at the Council-table, arraigning one another of being guilty of the counsel that brought us into this misery, by laying up all the great ships. Mr. Hater tells me at noon that some rude people have been, as he hears, at my Lord Chancellor’s, where they have cut down the trees before his house and broke his windows; and a gibbet either set up before or painted upon his gate, and these three words writ: “Three sights to be seen; Dunkirke, Tangier, and a barren Queene.” It gives great matter of talk that it is said there is at this hour, in the Exchequer, as much money as is ready to break down the floor. This arises, I believe, from Sir G. Downing’s late talk of the greatness of the sum lying there of people’s money, that they would not fetch away, which he shewed me and a great many others. Most people that I speak with are in doubt how we shall do to secure our seamen from running over to the Dutch; which is a sad but very true consideration at this day. At noon I am told that my Lord Duke of Albemarle is made Lord High Constable; the meaning whereof at this time I know not, nor whether it, be true or no. Dined, and Mr. Hater and W. Hewer with me; where they do speak very sorrowfully of the posture of the times, and how people do cry out in the streets of their being bought and sold; and both they, and every body that come to me, do tell me that people make nothing of talking treason in the streets openly: as, that we are bought and sold, and governed by Papists, and that we are betrayed by people about the King, and shall be delivered up to the French, and I know not what. At dinner we discoursed of Tom of the Wood, a fellow that lives like a hermit near Woolwich, who, as they say, and Mr. Bodham, they tell me, affirms that he was by at the justice’s when some did accuse him there for it, did foretell the burning of the City, and now says that a greater desolation is at hand. Thence we read and laughed at Lilly’s prophecies this month, in his Almanack this year! So to the office after dinner; and thither comes Mr. Pierce, who tells me his condition, how he cannot get his money, about 500l., which, he says, is a very great part of what he hath for his family and children, out of Viner’s hand: and indeed it is to be feared that this will wholly undo the bankers. He says he knows nothing of the late affronts to my Lord Chancellor’s house, as is said, nor hears of the Duke of Albemarle’s being made High Constable; but says that they are in great distraction at White Hall, and that every where people do speak high against Sir W. Coventry: but he agrees with me, that he is the best Minister of State the King hath, and so from my heart I believe. At night come home Sir W. Batten and W. Pen, who only can tell me that they have placed guns at Woolwich and Deptford, and sunk some ships below Woolwich and Blackewall, and are in hopes that they will stop the enemy’s coming up. But strange our confusion! that among them that are sunk they have gone and sunk without consideration “The Franakin,” one of the King’s ships, with stores to a very considerable value, that hath been long loaden for supply of the ships; and the new ship at Bristoll, and much wanted there; and nobody will own that they directed it, but do lay it on Sir W. Rider. They speak also of another ship, loaden to the value of 80,000l., sunk with the goods in her, or at least was mightily contended for by him, and a foreign ship, that had the faith of the nation for her security: this Sir R. Ford tells us: And it is too plain a truth, that both here and at Chatham the ships that we have sunk have many, and the first of them, been ships completely fitted for fire-ships at great charge. But most strange the backwardness and disorder of all people, especially the King’s people in pay, to do any work, Sir W. Pen tells me, all crying out for money; and it was so at Chatham, that this night comes an order from Sir W. Coventry to stop the pay of the wages of that Yard; the Duke of Albemarle having related, that not above three of 1100 in pay there did attend to do any work there. This evening having sent a messenger to Chatham on purpose, we have received a dull letter from my Lord Bruncker and Peter Pett, how matters have gone there this week; but not so much, or so particularly, as we knew it by common talk before, and as true. I doubt they will be found to have been but slow men in this business; and they say the Duke of Albemarle did tell my Lord Bruncker to his face that his discharging of the great ships there was the cause of all this; and I am told that it is become common talk against my Lord Bruncker. But in that he is to be justified, for he did it by verbal order from Sir W. Coventry, and with good intent; and it was to good purpose, whatever the success be, for the men would have but spent the King so much the more in wages, and yet not attended on board to have done the King any service; and as an evidence of that, just now, being the 15th day in the morning that I am writing yesterday’s passages, one is with me, Jacob Bryan, Purser of “The Princesse,” who confesses to me that he hath about 180 men borne at this day in victuals and wages on that ship lying at Chatham, being lately brought in thither; of which 180 there was not above five appeared to do the King any service at this late business. And this morning also, some of the Cambridge’s men come up from Portsmouth, by order from Sir Fretcheville Hollis, who boasted to us the other day that he had sent for 50, and would be hanged if 100 did not come up that would do as much as twice the number of other men: I say some of them, instead of being at work at Deptford, where they were intended, do come to the office this morning to demand the payment of their tickets; for otherwise they would, they said, do no more work; and are, as I understand from every body that has to do with them, the most debauched, damning, swearing rogues that ever were in the Navy, just like their prophane commander. So to Sir W. Batten’s to sit and talk a little, and then home to my flageolet, my heart being at pretty good ease by a letter from my wife, brought by Saunders, that my father and wife got well last night to their Inne and out again this morning, and Gibson’s being got safe to Caxton at twelve last night. So to supper, and then to bed. No news to-day of any motion of the enemy either upwards towards Chatham or this way.
who would live on war
who would kill time every day for hours
and be unashamed
to cut down trees
who laugh at prophecies
who know nothing but distraction
who have guns and a foreign faith
who service the mouth
who tick like a heart
under the bed
Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 14 June 1667.
Consider the leaves of the young lime tree which drop by the handful in heat after being assaulted by rain; and consider the idiom of moths depositing eggs in the crevices of plants in order for the worms to multiply among the green. If it is so much work to stay alive how much harder is it to writhe free of this palimpsest in order to become a shade in the underworld? The air at sundown, caul still humid from the fire we burn inside us: each one wanting to write just one more beautiful book.
~ after Kathleen Graber America, you were the cousin who joined a beauty contest the year before her visa application cleared so she could be a nurse somewhere in Rochester, NJ; she didn't think a roll of sheepskin inked with her name and St. Louis University would be enough. Soon after, she sent pictures of the doctor she would marry. America, we like to think there might have been love and not just the green card; we hear they're still together in their dotage. America, you were another cousin slowly dying from cancer, alone in an apartment in Maryland. I knew her only by name and the photographs she sent: her stylish bob, her cigarettes and drugstore-bought dark glasses. The patent leather Mary Janes she sent one Christmas, the walking doll with flaxen hair, white lace bib and pinafore, the vacant eyes that opened and closed (and give me nightmares even now). And you were a certain smell before we even began to understand what you really were—synthetic and abnormally clean, like Chlorox or Windex with a bottom note of soda left open in the sun. It wafted up from a box that took two months to ship from your flank or your hip or armpit: wherever it was people like us found neighborhoods where they could rent walkups whose stairwells overflowed with steam from rice pots. America, we can shine and scrub your floors without a Hoover or a Roomba, then punch holes in the bottoms of fruit cocktail cans so we can grow bird chillies and tomatoes on the veranda. We let a dentist in our old hometown pull out all our teeth so you wouldn't get the chance to do it and charge us triple. There is a fish we like to eat whose belly is soft and sweet and full of fat; but every bone in its body is a tree that bristles with more than a dozen spears. Like you, America— if we're not careful, we could choke on even the smallest mouthful.
No sooner up but hear the sad newes confirmed of the Royall Charles being taken by them, and now in fitting by them — which Pett should have carried up higher by our several orders, and deserves, therefore, to be hanged for not doing it — and turning several others; and that another fleete is come up into the Hope. Upon which newes the King and Duke of York have been below since four o’clock in the morning, to command the sinking of ships at Barking-Creeke, and other places, to stop their coming up higher: which put me into such a fear, that I presently resolved of my father’s and wife’s going into the country; and, at two hours’ warning, they did go by the coach this day, with about 1300l. in gold in their night-bag. Pray God give them good passage, and good care to hide it when they come home! but my heart is full of fear: They gone, I continued in fright and fear what to do with the rest. W. Hewer hath been at the banker’s, and hath got 500l. out of Backewell’s hands of his own money; but they are so called upon that they will be all broke, hundreds coming to them for money: and their answer is, “It is payable at twenty days — when the days are out, we will pay you;” and those that are not so, they make tell over their money, and make their bags false, on purpose to give cause to retell it, and so spend time. I cannot have my 200 pieces of gold again for silver, all being bought up last night that were to be had, and sold for 24 and 25s. a-piece. So I must keep the silver by me, which sometimes I think to fling into the house of office, and then again know not how I shall come by it, if we be made to leave the office. Every minute some one or other calls for this or that order; and so I forced to be at the office, most of the day, about the fire-ships which are to be suddenly fitted out: and it’s a most strange thing that we hear nothing from any of my brethren at Chatham; so that we are wholly in the dark, various being the reports of what is done there; insomuch that I sent Mr. Clapham express thither to see how matters go: I did, about noon, resolve to send Mr. Gibson away after my wife with another 1000 pieces, under colour of an express to Sir Jeremy Smith; who is, as I hear, with some ships at Newcastle; which I did really send to him, and may, possibly, prove of good use to the King; for it is possible, in the hurry of business, they may not think of it at Court, and the charge of an express is not considerable to the King. So though I intend Gibson no further than to Huntingdon I direct him to send the packet forward. My business the most of the afternoon is listening to every body that comes to the office, what news? which is variously related, some better, some worse, but nothing certain. The King and Duke of York up and down all the day here and there: some time on Tower Hill, where the City militia was; where the King did make a speech to them, that they should venture themselves no further than he would himself. I also sent, my mind being in pain, Saunders after my wife and father, to overtake them at their night’s lodgings, to see how matters go with them. In the evening, I sent for my cousin Sarah [Gyles] and her husband, who come; and I did deliver them my chest of writings about Brampton, and my brother Tom’s papers, and my journalls, which I value much; and did send my two silver flaggons to Kate Joyce’s: that so, being scattered what I have, something might be saved. I have also made a girdle, by which, with some trouble, I do carry about me 300l. in gold about my body, that I may not be without something in case I should be surprised: for I think, in any nation but our’s, people that appear (for we are not indeed so) so faulty as we, would have their throats cut. In the evening comes Mr. Pelling, and several others, to the office, and tell me that never were people so dejected as they are in the City all over at this day; and do talk most loudly, even treason; as, that we are bought and sold — that we are betrayed by the Papists, and others, about the King; cry out that the office of the Ordnance hath been so backward as no powder to have been at Chatham nor Upnor Castle till such a time, and the carriages all broken; that Legg is a Papist; that Upnor, the old good castle built by Queen Elizabeth, should be lately slighted; that the ships at Chatham should not be carried up higher. They look upon us as lost, and remove their families and rich goods in the City; and do think verily that the French, being come down with his army to Dunkirke, it is to invade us, and that we shall be invaded. Mr. Clerke, the solicitor, comes to me about business, and tells me that he hears that the King hath chosen Mr. Pierpont and Vaughan of the West, Privy-councillors; that my Lord Chancellor was affronted in the Hall this day, by people telling him of his Dunkirke house; and that there are regiments ordered to be got together, whereof to be commanders my Lord Fairfax, Ingoldsby, Bethell, Norton, and Birch, and other Presbyterians; and that Dr. Bates will have liberty to preach. Now, whether this be true or not, I know not; but do think that nothing but this will unite us together. Late at night comes Mr. Hudson, the cooper, my neighbour, and tells me that he come from Chatham this evening at five o’clock, and saw this afternoon “The Royal James,” “Oake,” and “London,” burnt by the enemy with their fire-ships: that two or three men-of-war come up with them, and made no more of Upnor Castle’s shooting, than of a fly; that those ships lay below Upnor Castle, but therein, I conceive, he is in an error; that the Dutch are fitting out “The Royall Charles;” that we shot so far as from the Yard thither, so that the shot did no good, for the bullets grazed on the water; that Upnor played hard with their guns at first, but slowly afterwards, either from the men being beat off, or their powder spent. But we hear that the fleete in the Hope is not come up any higher the last flood; and Sir W. Batten tells me that ships are provided to sink in the River, about Woolwich, that will prevent their coming up higher if they should attempt it. I made my will also this day, and did give all I had equally between my father and wife, and left copies of it in each of Mr. Hater and W. Hewer’s hands, who both witnessed the will, and so to supper and then to bed, and slept pretty well, but yet often waking.
another hope sinking
into my night bag
every call is strange
that we hear in the dark
another body in pain
over another body
throats that never were people
birch and oak burn
and fly at last
Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 13 June 1667.
Up very betimes to our business at the office, there hiring of more fire-ships; and at it close all the morning. At noon home, and Sir W. Pen dined with us. By and by, after dinner, my wife out by coach to see her mother; and I in another, being afraid, at this busy time, to be seen with a woman in a coach, as if I were idle, towards The. Turner’s; but met Sir W. Coventry’s boy; and there in his letter find that the Dutch had made no motion since their taking Sheernesse; and the Duke of Albemarle writes that all is safe as to the great ships against any assault, the boom and chaine being so fortified; which put my heart into great joy.
When I come to Sir W: Coventry’s chamber, I find him abroad; but his clerk, Powell, do tell me that ill newes is come to Court of the Dutch breaking the Chaine at Chatham; which struck me to the heart. And to White Hall to hear the truth of it; and there, going up the back-stairs, I did hear some lacquies speaking of sad newes come to Court, saying, that hardly anybody in the Court but do look as if he cried, and would not go into the house for fear of being seen, but slunk out and got into a coach, and to The. Turner’s to Sir W. Turner’s, where I met Roger Pepys, newly come out of the country. He and I talked aside a little, he offering a match for Pall, one Barnes, of whom we shall talk more the next time. His father married a Pepys; in discourse, he told me further that his grandfather, my great grandfather, had 800l. per annum, in Queen Elizabeth’s time, in the very town of Cottenham; and that we did certainly come out of Scotland with the Abbot of Crowland. More talk I had, and shall have more with him, but my mind is so sad and head full of this ill news that I cannot now set it down. A short visit here, my wife coming to me, and took leave of The., and so home, where all our hearts do now ake; for the newes is true, that the Dutch have broke the chaine and burned our ships, and particularly “The Royal Charles,” other particulars I know not, but most sad to be sure. And, the truth is, I do fear so much that the whole kingdom is undone, that I do this night resolve to study with my father and wife what to do with the little that I have in money by me, for I give [up] all the rest that I have in the King’s hands, for Tangier, for lost. So God help us! and God knows what disorders we may fall into, and whether any violence on this office, or perhaps some severity on our persons, as being reckoned by the silly people, or perhaps may, by policy of State, be thought fit to be condemned by the King and Duke of York, and so put to trouble; though, God knows! I have, in my own person, done my full duty, I am sure. So having with much ado finished my business at the office, I home to consider with my father and wife of things, and then to supper and to bed with a heavy heart. The manner of my advising this night with my father was, I took him and my wife up to her chamber, and shut the door; and there told them the sad state of the times how we are like to be all undone; that I do fear some violence will be offered to this office, where all I have in the world is; and resolved upon sending it away — sometimes into the country — sometimes my father to lie in town, and have the gold with him at Sarah Giles’s, and with that resolution went to bed full of fear and fright, hardly slept all night.
afraid to be seen
going up the back stairs
with a crow for a hand
I am heavy as a shut door
all I have is my gold
and a bed full of fear
Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 12 June 1667.