#305: Lucinda Williams, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" (1998)

Not a day goes by I don’t think about you
You left your mark on meit’s permanent, a tattoo

There is no way to write about a loved one’s death in a self-satisfying way. Most lives we’ve loved are too enormous for that. And death is petty and maudlin. It makes people uncomfortable. Though it remains our singular shared experience, the conversation surrounding it is hushed, held in late-night tones. Perhaps because it isn’t really death we want to keep tucked away, but loss. Perhaps because loss like this is a permanent absence you’re either forced to get comfortable with or go mental trying not to. When someone’s suddenly gone, you feel it much more than you understand it. Rational thought has no place here. Philosophers beware.

Largely, I’m a lucky so-and-so. I can count my losses on one hand. Each finger counted breaks me to the bone, but they are few and I am grateful. Last week was a year and eight months since Lena sent me a text to tell me Claudia had died. I was in the middle of teaching fifth grade Language ArtsI don’t typically check my phone. It must have been the end of class. My students must have been packing up their things. It matters and it doesn’t matter. I want to hang on to every detail of the day because I think of it now as the last day I still lived in a world where my friend Claudia Emerson lived with me.

I knew her before I knew her, if that makes sense. At the University of Mary Washington, it was a little hard not to. She wasn’t our only rock star, but she was the biggest. She’d won the Pulitzer three years before I got there and, miraculously it seemed, had stayed. She said she liked teaching undergrads, that their hunger made her hungrier. Her office door was covered in strange ephemera and what looked like photographs of bright feathers and bird skulls. At the one coffee shop downtown, you could find her writing quietly on her own at a corner table. You couldn’t typically take an upper-level poetry class until junior year, which meant your first two years as an English major were spent with the same hundred questions in your head, all more or less variations on what’s she like?

Writing poetry is a weird thing to do. As a teacher myself now, I always tell my high schoolers not to worry about it if they don’t like itI cut the unit short if that’s the case. I never analyze lines with them unless they seem like they might want to. The first poem we read is always “so you want to be a writer?” because I want my kids to snicker and I want them not to worry about it. If they’re into itpoetry, I meanthey’ll fall in love on their own. I believe my job is only to hand them impossible, bewitching collections of words and say “Here, give it a try, just in case.” The medium is too fragile. The hackles go up the minute the filthy word is said: poetry. A punchline more than an art. Is it any wonder its foolhardy bearers have chips on their shoulders as big as they are?

Like most, I was force-fed the same dry oats throughout my entire academic career. I understand now the great beauty in language, but why was this my lesson at 12 years old, 14, 16? When it came to me, on its own, in college, it came hard. And, of course, it came from Claudia, who read the hermitic West Virginia poet Steve Scafidi’s “Life Story of the Possible” to the class in the early days of my first-ever poetry workshop. By the last line, she was in tears. Partly, my revelation came from the poem, which remains to this day one of my favorites, though mostly it was Claudia, exposed and open-hearted and laughing about it all at once. A small, cataclysmic response.

It’s hard to say who this is for. Recollections of moments of those who have died seem selfish, or boring at best. But Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is one of the greatest albums ever madeand it reminds me now heavily and only of Claudia, which, to be frank, somehow makes it even better.

I’m not even 100 percent sure that she liked Lucinda Williams as much as I remember, but it’s impossible that she didn’t at least like her a little. Her life, for one, was surrounded by and infused with music every day. She was a part-time lyricist and guitar player on top of the poetry, and her husband’s stringed instrument collection hung on the walls of their home. I keep his business card in my wallet: it says his name and beneath it, MUSIC. The first time I paid them a visit I met their cat, Lucinda. I freaked; Claudia and I talked Gravel Road. What else was there to say? Maybe it’s music that’s our great unifier, the one shared thread, after all. If so, it’s a good one.

At Claudia’s funeral, I stood in the procession filing into the great downtown church. It took a moment for me to realize that Steve Scafidi stood immediately in front of me, shuffling at my same pace, same confused glaze of a look. As much as any writer can, he had changed my life irrevocably. I had never met himto this day, still haven’t. It was only appropriate I should see him then, there, for that occasion. All links over time break from their chain. It doesn’t mean that they’ve forgotten, will forget.

A few of us decided to get tattoos that night; it hadn’t been an easy day. We wanted to be links connected forever to our chain, we wanted never to forget. Claudia’s tattoo was of an iamb on the inside of her wrist, just below the palm’s ridge. It was she who told me the iamb was the heartbeat of poetry. Nearer to the end of her life, she explained her tattoo by telling others “it means stress unstress.” Both meanings true, both perfect. On an image of the tattoo on Facebook, the poet Mark Jarman told her he and his wife were considering iamb ink of their own. She asked, “For me as a kind of prayer?” and told him to do it.

So we got our own iambs. The needleman asked if that was all we wanted, that it would only take two seconds and we’d still have to pay the minimum, far more than a stress and an unstress was worth. A simple bowl and leaning ladder. The decision felt like a minor thrill, helped pump blood back into our demolished hearts. Today I trace my pinky across the lines just over my pulse. Today I teach Claudia in the classroom. Each time it feels like opening wide a set of locked double doors.

And I listen to Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. When I hear Lucinda, I imagine Claudia. The loss has so tightly tied these together that by now it’s second nature. It’s an album that was written to perfection, labored over for years, held onto for as long as possible, and it shows. A labor of love is still founded on love, still seeks it. Country music has always bartered in the currency of loss. But music is the unifierthe medium, not the message. Music is the unifier. Too cool to be forgotten / hey hey.

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—Brad Efford