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Jericho Parms

 

 

Ninth Letter is proud to be able to feature “Practicing,” an essay from Jericho Parms' forthcoming collection, Lost Wax (Crux: the Georgia Series in Literary Nonfiction, University of Georgia Press, 2016).

Lost Wax is already garnering early critical praise. Publishers Weekly praises Parm’s prose, “as elegant and studied as the classical sculpture she admires, making wonderful leaps and astonishing juxtapositions through which her precise, startling images emerge like etchings on glass.” And Kirkus Reviews is equally enthusiastic: “As an artist and a person, what Parms desires most of all is “to soak everything in,” and as she does so, we find her to be a perceptive, unsettling, and surprisingly endearing guide.”

In her essay “Practicing,” Jericho Parms displays all the strengths noted above, combining memories of her childhood violin lessons with speculations on how to describe the sound of walking on snow, how to peel off “generations of wallpaper,” the theft of a concert violinist’s Stradivarius in Milwaukee, and how language can sometimes fail us, and she wraps it all together in a delicate package that the reader is grateful to have opened.

—Philip Graham

 

 

 

Walking in the woods, I am trying to find a word for the sound of snow beneath my feet. It sounds nearly the same as always: a methodical crush, with the levity and chance of rolled dice landing with each step—but icier this time, more laden with winter's end. The sun, just peeking over the eastern ridge, gleams along the ground's fresh crystalline layer. Soon, the light will bathe the birches and cast itself longingly against the neighbor's red barn, as if tossing a veil, as simple and secure as an afterthought. I want to think about all of the love stories in history. Instead, I am preoccupied with sights and sounds, trying to authenticate time and place, all our past discoveries and collective human failings.

Not long after moving to the country, I scrape together all that I am worth and buy a house. The house is old and charming and has too many rooms that need to be sanded, painted, brought back to life. The house once belonged to a family that is no longer a family; it has shifted and slanted, seen divorce and flooding, generations of life and death. With the soul of a farmhouse and the upgrades of a Cape, it has a sturdy frame. The property sits between a road and a river, between industry and sanctuary, which is a place I can bear. There is a room with eaves and windows facing both directions that once belonged to a girl. I decide to start there. I collect paint swatches at the hardware store and try to imagine the space anew. Stormy Monday, Ivory tusk, Winter gates.

Growing up in the city, I used to play the violin. Looking back, I still wonder if, had I learned to play the guitar instead, I might be closer to my father now. His six-string classical guitar was among his first loves. Just like my father, who, as a boy living dirt poor in rural Pennsylvania, was given his first instrument, I got my very own violin from a family friend. More than one hundred years old, its hollow body was made of rosewood, stained and perfectly aged. The violin soon became instrumental in my understanding of self. When I played, my heart rising to the top floor of my chest, I never knew if I was really happy or really sad. Years later, I felt a similar longing when I first read Frank O'Hara. Or when, in the dead of winter as the snow in Manhattan grew soiled and gray, I learned that O'Hara played piano and sold postcards at an art museum—which was my first job when I returned to the city after college.

I am here, but I am always a world away. Months ago I grew obsessed with a story in the newspaper about a Stradivarius that was stolen in Milwaukee. Known as the Lipinski, and over three hundred years old, the violin was on loan to a local concertmaster. Shortly after the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's performance of the final sequence of Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" had silenced the audience and ended the concert, the maestro was followed to his car, shot with a Taser, and robbed of the rare instrument. What most compels me about the story is the profile of the alleged perpetrator. A slim-framed black man in his forties who, though he fancied himself a high-end art thief, was a low-level street dealer, a twice-convicted felon fighting to make ends meet and provide for his five kids.

I took violin lessons with a woman named Sally, and I always said, "I'm sorry," even when the occasion didn't call for it: if my bow needed rosin; if my E string screeched too high or my elbow dropped low, or because I never felt ready to begin. I remember walking home from my weekly lesson in winter, how the blackness of my violin case looked against the snow, and how when nearing home it grew heavy and knocked against my knees. I remember a lot of things in black and white, but I learned early on that nothing really is. So much depends on color these days. So much always has.

The paint chips are splayed on the kitchen table like a deck of cards. I tape them to the bathroom mirror and the humming refrigerator door. Mesa Verde tan. Galveston gray. I want a rich cream-ochre, something that feels warm and rooted in place. Kansas grain. Durango dust. Richmond bisque. With the blank page of winter outside, I can see America taking shape and imagine how I could paint every state into these walls, place an entire nation in a room: Pewter dust for the painter I fell for in the Carolinas, who quoted Ram Dass and placed dull powder between my eyes; Barren plain for the woman in Seville who burned sage for my soul and then told me her plans to move to New Jersey; Mannequin cream for mall windows left shattered in Houston, Newark, Baltimore; Cloud cover for a thief in Wisconsin plotting a heist as he, a rare black man in the concert hall, attends the symphony.

When I was seven or eight I played my first recital, hosted by the family of another violin student who lived in a house across the parkway (our version of "the tracks"). The oversized Victorian sitting room made me feel like a prop in a movie set, or a doll in a dollhouse—everything from the grand piano to the paneled walls was pasty and pastel, like most of the girls who played that day. All short skirts and bony legs, we took our places with our sheet music and rosined bows, as a large swatch of sun came through the bay windows. My father, with his black turtleneck and neatly trimmed Afro, sat somewhere among the chintz-covered dining chairs next to my mother, her bare feet in Birkenstocks, who was noting the light before it crossed the Hudson and settled over the Palisades. That afternoon, glancing at our bows moving in sync, listening to our strings pierce through Suzuki variations, with only the occasional squeak out of tune, I realized that I can move inconspicuously between worlds: black and white, urban and rural, between privilege and lack thereof. I would spend many of the next formative years feeling out of place yet managing to belong. Passing with little impact on the ground beneath me, like an animal in the woods at night where the snow covers all tracks by morning. As much as I love the country, I fear love for the way it blankets everything it knows. Perhaps that is why I may never stay.

In the city I can lean out the window of my mother's apartment and peer down over Manhattan: passing the South Bronx, I am the elderly woman watching the block; in Spanish Harlem, my arms are the twig arms of a boy manning the fire escapes of the barrio; on the East Side I am the park and its darkness that a million trees try to breathe away; on Broadway, I am a stagehand; in Times Square, I am the neon coil in a lighted sign; in Chelsea, my arms bulge and tighten, my hips slant; in the village, too. I am Stonewalled. I am waiting for the Supreme Court to strike again the way it did for Loving in Virginia, the way it did for my parents. And it won't be long until Obergefell v. Hodges, until dignity in the eyes of the law "is so ordered" once again. I am stoned in Alphabet City; in the deep bowels of the Bowery, I am both artist and trick, perusing the changing sky before kneeling and crawling through the back door of the Chinese Arcade; I am Italian bakeries, Ukrainian church pews; at the Seaport, I am the anchorman hung over the bow; and then I'm crawling again onto the ferry docked on the island where so many began, where so many licked the shores of America, to write their own names for the first time. To have a name.

After days of uncertainty, staring at a spectrum of shades, I settle on Montgomery white, which feels fitting and elicits a warm familiar friction: Parks and King, boycotts and marches, lilies and handmade paper and fresh-fallen snow. For nights I have a dream in which I am wearing pajamas and crawling through a battlefield of cowry shells searching for black marbles. In the dream I can hear the crush of shells, as recognizable as that of snow beneath me. My knees are cut and bruised and someone is cupping them gently in his hands. There is a boy nearby holding a stone behind his back. When I wake I realize it is not a boy but my father—or rather, a drawing he made in the early 1970s of a boy staring up at a mounted police officer on a gigantic white horse. The next week, I travel back home to the city and spend an afternoon strolling through the discreet wing of musical instruments at the Metropolitan. I listen for the silent resonance within the wall cases.

In the newspaper I look for more news of the Stradivarius. Instead, I find an article in an online edition of Vanity Fair. The rare violin, one of only several hundred made by seventeenth-century master luthier Antonio Stradivari said to survive, is of "unquestioned provenance," its worth in the range of $6 million. Yet, no one seems to know exactly what makes Stradivarius violins so uniquely famed. The varnish? Indigenous wood from Cremona? Perhaps what led Stradivari to his genius was a sheer intuition for the nuances of acoustics and the minute alterations of body and space. The Stradivarius demands action. Its basic need for equal parts admiration and attention makes it all the more compelling: it must be played, handled, moved. Perhaps it is as restless as I am, filtering between the pristine grace of countryside and the necessary wear of the city. Maybe Stradivari understood this. If he was in fact a genius, he might have also been, as Aristotle would have us believe, a master of metaphor, able to perceive likeness in dissimilarity, the gray area inherent in matters of black and white. Ultimately, the stolen violin was recovered, intact and unharmed, by the Milwaukee Police Department. In every report, authorities take care to outline the various methods of confirming the authenticity of the rare violin. But how can we ever know for sure?

Here in the snow, a rabbit's track. Here, the print of a deer. Is this really the deer, or has the rabbit become a master of disguise, bounding in zigzags on heart-shaped leaves? I want to shout out descriptions, look up their scientific names, give words to their shapes, classify their existence. But I already know these tracks. I learned them as a girl. Not only do they have names but, by now, I think they each hold their own notes. The three-pronged relief strums rabbit. The rounded heart chimes deer. If only I could remember the fingerhold for each sound and call all these creatures out from the tree line. Instead, I fiddle with the strings of my scarf; I pluck at the toggles on my coat. I am still trying to find my pitch, trying to master cadence: one rhythm belonging to the city and the other to the remote woods. In the no-man's-land in between, I am a petty thief, a master of the heist. I am a refined concertmaster, a common fiddle needing to be played.

By the time I reached high school, I played my violin when I was lonely, which seems so obvious now. Tacking sheet music to my wall, I practiced with persistence: a canon, Bach's concertos, Mendelssohn. Reading notes came with ease—euphoria, even—as a language I understood and guarded like a secret crush, a rebellious obsession. If I left my bedroom window open, the sound echoed against the neighboring building, the same structure that caught and reflected the afternoon light. Often I repeated the same piece three or four times, as if rereading, as if seeing something new. My arm flowed back and forth, wrist loose, the bow weightless between my fingers. The closest I have come to such weightlessness was when I first saw Greek and Roman statues as a girl. The museum, the one place I can stare without feeling bashful, where, during a middle-school field trip I first felt aroused by the smooth perfection of form imperfectly preserved. And then again, years later, I would fall in love in those same galleries with a sweet-talking museum security guard, a painter, whom I would eventually take home, introduce to my mother, share a bed with—the one with whom I left the city and moved to the country and bought an old house. He knows I am mourning my violin days when I remind him, again, "You do know I used to play, don't you?" and he nods, although I’m already at him with, "Or have you forgotten?" He humors my longing without missing a beat and puts on a record, something soulful like Etta James or Nina Simone. He knows that I cannot be satisfied with only one view, that my happiness is laced with unease, a chameleon longing. I am thankful for that. I’m thankful, too, that I can retreat to the country and the city, to live in the extremes of anonymity and silence. There, I cannot be evicted, can no longer be stunned by loss. There, I will paint the walls gray and practice being alive.

Before the paint there is the primer, and before the primer, there is the need to prep the walls. In the room that would become a small study I find generations of wallpaper, which I peel only to unveil new layers. The underside of the paper is the color of certain eggshells, a parcel, coffee with cream; it spans the spectrum of flesh. Like a snakeskin, like a sunburn, each layer peels in stripes and patches. The sheds blanket the floor. After hours of this I stand amid strewn strips wet with glue. The room looks as if a protest or a ticker-tape parade has taken place and left only a damp scattering of pamphlets and fliers—no trace of fleur-de-lis or blue-willow-patterned wallpaper—calling for a revision of history. The wall will be sanded smooth and painted gray and lined with simple shelves for books, which is the only thing we really own, so I can find O'Hara whenever I need to, so I can reference the language of others and grow strong again.

When I was young I thought that everything was just practice, a rehearsal for life, which at some point would simply begin. Some days I still want to believe this. There is no rehearsal for living, of course, but sometimes it does take practice: loving the fact that you were born, loving all the winters, the inevitable seduction of elsewhere or other that builds like a scale or refrain and can trail on and on like a sentence.

In just weeks the ground will thaw. The last licks of snow caught in the shaded wood will carry a new pitch beneath my steps: deep, wet, the coarse slush like rosin against an open string. And my boots will sink farther into the muck of the coming mud season. But here, now—this is what it means to linger, before the call for "Last frost" when we all order big, steal a final glance, before any signs of warming. This recital is not nearly the last. No matter where you are, city or country, the sound of snow crunching underfoot is pretty much the same. But I still can't figure out how to describe it.

 

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Jericho Parms is the assistant director of the MFA writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches at Champlain College. Her essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, the Normal School, Hotel Amerika, the American Literary Review, Brevity, and elsewhere.

Photos by Hannah Gottlieb-Graham

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