SEEKING CHILDHOOD by Nathaniel Popkin
by Nathaniel Popkin
In early 1951, when the Mexican writer Homero Aridjis was almost eleven, he came home from playing soccer with friends and, following a vague urge, took his brother’s shotgun to the yard. He shot into the air, scattered the birds aloft from the sapodilla tree, and dropped the shotgun to the ground. The gun fired and struck Aridjis in the stomach. He barely survived. The accident, writes Chloe Aridjis, his daughter, “cleaved in two” his life and sealed off his early childhood “like a locked garden.” In the aftermath of the accident, Homero Aridjis began reading and writing in earnest, the crucible of an astonishingly prolific career, but without access to memories of his own boyhood.
Twenty years after the gun accident, with his wife, Betty Ferber, pregnant with Chloe, the couple’s first child, Aridjis began to have “astonishingly vivid dreams” of his childhood. These dreams unlocked the garden of memory. He eventually recounted them in a slender memoir of childhood, El poeta niño, published in 1991. Now, Chloe Aridjis, the author of the novel Book of Clouds, has produced an English translation, The Child Poet, brought out by Archipelago Books this month.
I am particularly hungry for this book because my own childhood is locked away, and my writing suffers for it. It isn’t clear why—there is nothing so acute as a gun accident in my history.
My mother, like Aridjis nearing 76, is the keeper of the garden. She calls me with “sad news.” Stephen, a friend from when I was six, has died. “You remember playing with him, don’t you?” she says. I shrug, not because I’m callous, but because I can only conjure a vague image of a yard, a dark kitchen. Nothing about the boy. Another time she says she’s run into my third grade teacher, Mrs. So-and-So. “She was the one who got you interested in books.” Oh?
“And that time I had to rush you to the hospital because you couldn’t breathe…”
I don’t remember. Invariably, I change the subject. I don’t want to hear. The stories stab at me like the pins and needles of poor circulation. They vanish when I stand up and walk out of the room.
Why do I resist? Why am I afraid to confront myself? Perhaps if I can answer these questions I will begin to unlock my childhood, what the poet Yehuda Amichai calls the “innermost heart.”
I have written three books, hundreds of essays, critical reviews, and articles, more than a dozen documentaries. Though my work is characteristically directed outward, often, in fact, I draw upon my own experience. The insight I deliver in Song of the City, a work of reportage, is derived from specific encounters on the streets of Philadelphia. Caleb Cloud, the narrator of the novel Lion and Leopard, and his traveling companions, Dixcy and Victor, emerged in my imagination from memories of high school and college. They are loosely based on old friends. But Cloud’s name is a kind of shorthand note to myself: the memory isn’t firm, the basis for his character isn’t clear enough.
Without vivid memory, indeed, I struggle to compose vivid characters, whose particular experience will translate to the reader as universal feeling. Unless I overcome it, the barrier could be fatal to my art. Once Aridjis began having dreams of his childhood, he began to write them, says Chloe Aridjis, “out of necessity.” I now hope to adopt the same urgency.
In The Child Poet, working from dreams, Aridjis builds from scent and vision to time, place, and moment. “Apples and peaches were rotting in the mud,” he writes, and the reader senses the adult poet holding a mirror, reflecting back adult consciousness. “Quinces and sapodillas exposed their flesh, pits, and skins. As we stepped on them, leaves released water like sponges or tore soundlessly like damp paper.” Memory in the mouth of the adult becomes awakening. Introducing her father’s work of recollection, Chloe Aridjis says Homero thought of this process of interpretation as a form of translation: one world—of the past—opening up to another, the present.
Aridjis’s “translation,” culminating in the 145-page book, glimmers with rare wisdom. As a boy, he observes disconnections in his family, interpersonal fragmentation that as an adult he comes to recognize as universal. These are the barriers that keep us from really knowing others and ourselves. “For there are people from whom we are so far removed, although they might seem physically near, that we can see them every day and never cross the threshold of their being,” writes Aridjis.
Our skins, like walls, and our bodies, like houses, keep us separate every day, like neighbors whose front doors face different directions.
But what he writes here, about the walls between people, I might easily apply to myself.
I was mid-way through Henry Roth’s parable of immigrant Jewish childhood, Call It Sleep (Picador), when, following a vague urge, I pulled The Child Poet off the review copy shelf next to my desk. The book had been there for months but I hadn’t touched it. Perhaps no action is accident. Roth’s 1934 novel evokes his own childhood in New York’s Brownsville and Lower East Side. Eight years old, in 1914, Roth inhabited a world of light and dark. From moment to moment, Roth’s fictional protagonist, David, is afraid and then assured, hopeful and then destroyed, excited and ambivalent. Roth’s intimate tracking of this movement provoked something inside me.
For the next week, as I went from text to text, I witnessed two authors interrogating their childhoods, and two shy, observant boys remarkably alike. The boys, who both saw themselves as outsiders among their peers, reminded me of myself. It became hard to avoid an inward gaze.
I kept reading. “And if, when with friends,” Aridjis writes, characterizing himself,
I grew excited by the sight of sunflowers or an ash tree, or if I discovered the shadow of a cloud cast onto a mountain, or if, gazing at a chestnut tree, I saw a drop of water on a slated leaf sliding from center to edge, slowly descending as if on a slope, I would realize, thanks to the near deafness with which they listened to me, that I was moved by things that did not interest them.
These things: a spray of monarch butterflies like a forest flame, mother’s skin, juice of pear or peach or plum, the bellow of a cow.
Aridjis observes with penetrating discomfort as his brother grabs for their cousin, sits her on his lap, and fondles her breasts. David befriends a boy named Leo for a few days like the brother he doesn’t have, and Leo finagles time with David’s cousin, Esther. “You’re nuts, ye know?” says Leo to David, when David indicates he isn’t interested in Esther’s sexuality. “Dont’cha wanna give ’er a feel ’er nutt’n?”
“No!” The darkness hid the revulsion of his features if not of his voice.
Homero’s friend Arturo rapes a girl, Anita. When he is through, Arturo offers her to him. He refuses.
Both the young Homero and Roth’s David vanish in place around other more callous, aggressive boys and make excuses for not being likewise violent or destructive. They plead cool, but they are faking and get caught. They want to be alone but are afraid of getting lost. They recognize something else inside themselves and they observe the multitudes: “Within me there existed another, a boy who would enjoy getting lost,” writes Aridjis, “…who was drawn to the crowd, desiring to lose himself among the faces and feet, in order to no longer be me.”
Chloe Aridjis writes in the introduction to her father’s book that in the process of writing he “became a reader of his dreams.” Memories, loose and slippery, are indeed like dreams. The writer’s job is to harness them.
For forty-five years, from publication of Call It Sleep in 1934 until 1979, when he forced himself back into the writer’s chair, Henry Roth resisted memory—of the shameful act of incest he regularly committed with his sister and cousin. Roth wrote Mercy of a Rude Stream, finally published in its entirety in 2014, to force recollection, as a literary act that was, also, jointly, an act of unburdening. The dual purpose is reflected in the form of the book. Writing as the lightly fictionalized Ira Stigman, Roth moves between his teenage-into-adulthood story, beginning in 1914, and his own meta-narration, commenting on the story, reflecting on the life of an old man, and cajoling himself along. Building courage to reveal the locked-up truth, he demands of himself, “Isn’t it time you cleared the air, exposed the clandestine burden?”
Isn’t it time, now?
One afternoon, as Homero recalls in The Child Poet, while playing soccer with friends, the ball strikes him in the face. The recollection—“the burn of leather on my cheek and dirt in my mouth”— triggers a memory: eight-year-old Nathaniel lost on a soccer field in the hot sun, unsure of what to do or where to go, nailed in the gut by a hard-kicked ball, the wind knocked out of him.
Humiliated, Homero on the field in Contepec, Michoacán, demands an apology. Arturo taunts him and ignores entreaties to stop laughing; the other boys clear space for them to fight. Homero will defend his honor. But Arturo pummels him. Humiliation mounts inside, but it isn’t new—it’s been there all along. Now it’s been awakened. Homero reverses the fight’s momentum. On top of Arturo, he pounds away. The fury has come, it must seem to the other boys, from some hidden place; Arturo, always aggressive, can’t comprehend the sudden torment and terror. “There he lay on the ground,” Aridjis writes, “his eyes open, staring at me as if taking me in…”
Homero’s fury was mine, mounting as we walked down the hill from school one afternoon. We? Who? I remember two or three names. I remember the sidewalk, street, houses. My Arturo was Jimmy, who lived with his mother. He came from California. Quick and sneaky on the football field, Jimmy would gain my trust and then exploit it. What was making me so upset that day? Why was I being taunted? What did my clothes look like, my hands? Did I carry a backpack? Did I drop it before letting loose?
How do I enter that childhood, how do I access that which must be there, that hasn’t disappeared?
I recall lying in bed in my childhood home. For a time, perhaps at eight years old, I was afraid at night. The window over my bed, just above the roof, was the worry: Someone would climb in. I recall lying in my thrashing anxiety, feeling myself physically grow smaller and smaller, as the room—the walls, closed door, ceiling—in perfect perspective, menacingly inflated. It was as if I were separating from myself, from everything. I only experienced that sensation, akin to a hallucination, in that room.
What else lay behind the door?
The night before I began this essay, I dreamed intensely of danger inside my childhood room. A cruel, evil man, had gotten in. His name, I learned during the chaos, was Lester Dugan. I’m not sure if that matters or what it means. During the dream I escaped the danger of my room but then for some reason needed to get back in. Could a metaphor be any clearer?
Trying to force my way in, I encountered Dugan, on the other side of the door, blocking the passage. He peered through the opening. For the first time I can remember during a nightmare, I screamed. Awake at 3:25AM, I was ready to write in order to recollect, to recollect in order to write.
The most enduring memory of my childhood room is the aftermath of a bicycle accident. Chasing a more daring friend, I had skidded on road salt and tumbled over the handlebars, knocked out teeth and turned my lips into lava skin. I lay in bed for days, spitting blood into a metal bowl. To make me feel better, my grandfather, with whom I spent most afternoons, brought me his prized wooden gavel, from halcyon days. I cherished it.
Six months later, on the day he died, my sister and I stood in his bedroom in the house where my mother had grown up. We watched out the window, waiting for our parents and grandmother to pull up. What I recall is my grandmother getting out of the car, arms crossed, her dear soft face implacable. In that moment, observing her, I came to recognize that my grandfather—“your greatest friend,” as someone remarked to me on the day of the funeral—had been a terror. Growing up with an oftentimes-brutal father, my mother developed her sheltering instinct, but also perhaps a repressive habit passed down to me, in order to protect herself.
Perhaps my amnesia is a form of self-protection: what awaits me if, following the paths of other writers, I wander down the dark channel of memory?
“The more he recounted, the more dreamlike it all became,” Roth appears to answer, in Mercy of a Rude Stream. But Roth is indefatigable, pushing through the confusion to ultimate truth. And here Roth and Aridjis meet up again. Though it appears that the sequence Roth observes, from recollection to dream, reverses Aridjis’s succession of dream to written recollection, I believe these writers are in fact describing the same process, by which experience transforms through imagination, the personal into the universal. This is writing that by the force of authenticity ultimately matters.
Cleaver reviews editor Nathaniel Popkin is the author of five books, including the 2018 novel Everything is Borrowed, and co-editor (with Stephanie Feldman) of the anthology Who Will Speak for America? His essays and works of criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kenyon Review, LitHub, Tablet Magazine, and Public Books. If you are an author or publicist seeking reviews or a writer hoping to write reviews for Cleaver, query Nathaniel.
Image credit: Thomas Leuthard on Flickr