12/31/12: On the Edge

There invariably comes a moment at a Leonard Cohen concert when singer/songwriter gives way to pure poet.  The softer he speaks, the more closely you listen. It’s a marvel to me, hearing echoes of a song I love, words that were their own music before they would become a song. If the achingly gorgeous  “AIce Art Boot Thousand Kisses Deep” he sings with Sharon Robinson on Ten New Songs owes its genesis to a poem written years earlier, what could be a more fitting expression of the fluid nature of words than to recite them in the incarnation stripped bare of melody? Not that I don’t hear it.

Then there’s the song itself, which, according to Sylvie Simmons’s new, wonderful biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, has a story of its own. As Rebecca De Mornay tells it, it’s a song he kept writing over and over, “like a painter who paints over his original painting that you loved, and paints a whole new painting on top of it, and then he paints a whole new one on top of that, and ten years later it exists on a record and doesn’t have a single note or word that’s the same as anything I heard when he first played the song.”

The other night words that seemed to be the beginning of something, maybe a poem, popped into to my head.  During this last week of the year, when time seems to both race ahead and stand still, I feel in a state of limbo.  A visit from my daughter makes very little else matter. More time with friends face-to-face means less time with friends on Facebook.  Even without saying it outright, a kind of taking stock of what I set out to do this past year, my own measures of success and failure, takes hold.  So much to put behind, so much more to look forward to.

You could be forgiven
      for wanting
To pack up the dream
Slip it into that swelling suitcase
    tucked under the bed  . . .

These words surface from some place in my consciousness just as Kevin Costner, young and handsome and in as high-definition as it gets on a television screen, is convinced that he has to clear away the corn on his farm in order to create a baseball field. It is a perfect moment of synchronicity for me. If another favorite holiday movie of mine, It’s a Wonderful Life, speaks to the spirit of how our lives are shaped by the singular fact of our existence  (not to mention the places that caring takes us), Field of Dreams speaks to the spirit of how our lives are shaped by the choices we make, and the edges that bring us to those choices.

To be ‘on edge’ is worlds apart from being ‘on an edge.’  An edge is a door, a threshold, a tightrope, the perfect fold of a towel. A precipice on which I stand, or sit, staring into a chasm. A surfboard teetering on a wave. Standing tall on water skis, holding on, not for dear life so much as to steady myself.  Once you think about falling, you topple over.

Ray (Kevin Costner) and Annie (Amy Madigan) invite Shoeless Joe Jackson into their home after he has played some ball on the magical field wrought of leveled corn.  The camera pans down to his shoes pointed toward the line in the dirt, the edge, the place where the field ends and the rocky path of the real world is drawn.  He stops dead in his tracks. He cannot cross over.

Later in the movie the younger incarnation of  Doc ‘Moonlight’ Graham (Burt Lancaster) has come to play baseball on this field of second chances. Karin Kinsella, the daughter of Ray and Annie, is lying on the ground, the air knocked out of her from a fall while chewing on a hot dog. The camera zooms in on a young Archie Graham. He can be forgiven what seems a moment of youthful hesitation but the cards really are stacked. Going back in time does not mean changing the course of his life for that glorious sound of bat hitting ball. The choice he made the first time around – to become a doctor – was not so much choice as calling.  He crosses over. Saves the girl.

The ponies run the girls are young
The odds are there to beat
You win a while and then it’s done
Your little winning streak
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat
You live your life as if it’s real
A thousand kisses deep.

To be ‘on edge’ is to be in a state of contraction, riddled with anxiety, uncertainty. One word, one syllable, an article as indefinite as it gets, makes the phrase breathe, infuses it with possibility.  A poem, “Thousand Kisses Deep,” becomes a song, “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” When I am on edge, disappointment over what is not calls into question all the good that is. When I am on an edge – slippery or smooth, rocky or foggy – bidding  one year good-bye means nothing more than ringing in a new one.

Photo copyright © Christine Boyka Kluge