Virginia Woolf’s Walking Stick
Unless you are too sensitive or being affected, you don’t cry
over a thing in a museum, knowing what’s there
is already dead. But there I was, in grief, because when I bent
to the glass case I saw the walking stick
she left behind on the river bank before she walked in
and sank and died.
I hadn’t known the object would be there,
it was among other objects in an exhibit of writers’ artifacts,
a black sturdy thing that might have been owned
by anyone but was owned by her, the last thing of this world
she touched before she touched the stones
that would go into her pockets, the stones which
were things of another world.
The shock of the walking stick was like and not like
the first time I read something she had written,
when I sat at a library carrel in college, cleared it of the books
someone had left there, and found a volume of her diary
among them. This led to the four other volumes,
then to her actual books. This led to a voice, a way of thought
and being, a way of knowing the ordinary
and the profound, that seemed my voice too,
despite the differences that should have made the affinity
impossible — the years between us, gender and class
and race. But there we were. Looking around
at the things that surround me, I have come to believe
that the test of how well a thing is made
is to look at the places where its parts come together —
joints, seams, corners, folds. I know it’s a violence to sense
and sequence, but I’m thinking now about sitting with him
in the car in the hours before dawn,
reading aloud the ugliest parts of Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s.
The parts where the speaker does things to Wendy.
The part where the speaker fucks a Frosty. Back and forth,
by the dim gold light of the car, parked on the street
outside his apartment building, reading, laughing,
breathing. I was in love with him and he was in love
with someone else. This is what we hadn’t talked about
all night. Earlier, we had driven to a hill
that looked down on the enormous city, lit up
like a circuit board in the overall mechanism of the dark.
We stood, hands in our pockets, shrugging in the summertime
cold of a city by the ocean.
The wind was all the talking there was, and then
we were walking back to the car.
This was some time ago. And I don’t seem to understand
any more now than I did then, the hill,
continually whirled by the wild air, while still full
of original feeling, now empty of people and incident and time.
Rick Barot’s most recent book is Chord, which received the UNT Rilke Prize, the PEN Open Book Award, and the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award. Barot lives in Tacoma, Washington and directs The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University. He is also the poetry editor for New England Review. In 2016, he received a poetry fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation.
The Poetry Section is edited by Mark Bibbins.