Letter to Mitch (9 November 2002)

9 November, 2002
Hey Mr. Mitch,

I’m not sure how loudly I was moaning when you phoned the other day. I may have said I hated the film, but was on the verge of finishing it. I may have said I hated Susan. All of this was true, but things have changed.

The next day (I think it was) a guy tried to break into the apartment at 11 in the morning. I guess he didn’t know I was home. Anyway, since I didn’t have a handy baseball bat, I just yelled at him as he was beginning to come through the window, and he ran away. I’m not sure he could have made it through in any case since I have those gizmos that prevent the window from being raised very far. I didn’t get enough of a look at him to be able to identify him, so I didn’t bother calling the cops. But he was wearing a Buffalo Bills jacket, which just goes to show you.

The upshot of this was that I couldn’t sleep despite having been awake all night working. And I felt somehow violated, and threatened. My friend Ron in Mobile, the retired psychoanalyst, told me in August that he thought that the island was an important symbol for me (my camp is on an island, I’ve made 2 films recently – Ithaca and Ithaka – where island and returning home feature prominently), which he thinks pertains to the mother, to some insufficiency regarding the mother or mothering. No big surprise there. For some reason this stuff came to mind after the near break-in. And I realized that this was what I needed to have as part of the film, as its “hook,” so to speak. This would be what would make me stop hating it and begin to think again that it was worthwhile.


There’s a bit more to it: I’ve been reading a lot of Robert Duncan lately. Particularly the poem “My Mother Would Be A Falconress.” If you don’t know it, please read it and let me know what you think about it. Anyway, I picked up the Duncan stuff again, and about the first thing I found out that very day was that Duncan was adopted. His real mother died in childbirth, and his real father was apparently a scalawag who’d fucked off during the pregnancy. After his adoptive father died, he took his real father’s name – Duncan – because he had learned that the real father was still alive.

Duncan thought that poetry was both curative, and an illness. “I came down with poetry” he said. So, a pharmakon. He was, understandably, a melancholic. Poetry was sublimation which allowed him to escape the rigors of his depression.

Susan’s new book is about her mother, specifically her mother’s books: books the mother had had since childhood, and which Susan now has. She pasted a lot of stuff in her books, wrote a lot of marginalia and elaborate inscriptions of ownership.

When I was a kid, my father would occasionally regale us with slide shows. We had a tradition that whenever a slide would appear showing my mother in a bathing suit or in any sort of a woodland setting, everybody would exclaim: “Minnehaha!” Robert Duncan’s adoptive mother’s name was: Minnehaha Symmes!

It was my mother’s idea that I be circumcised when I was 3 and a half. No doubt you’ve heard this story. She was concerned because this guy on our street, Angus McLoed, had to have it done when he was 41, I guess because his foreskin was too tight or something.

In the third part of After Nature, Sebald’s mother can’t tell him anything about the city of Nürnberg in flames during the war, nor what her feelings were when she saw it.

I think that Susan cancelled the plans we had in 1993 for me to come out to Denver to stay with her for a few months, during which we were going to make a film together – an earlier conception of this film, I guess – because she’d called me one day at my parents’ house, and there’d been a terrible row during which my (Alzheimer addled) father had been screaming at my mother, telling her that he could easily punch her out, and had picked up his TV table and flung it and his dinner up into the air, and for some reason I burst into tears on the phone with her. I’d also just had a tooth extracted, and there was a bit of jawbone or tooth remnant that was poking its way through the sutures and causing me a good deal of pain. Later, I wrote her a long letter detailing my distress about the cancellation. A short while after my mother died that next summer, Susan sent me a letter in which she said something about how it was all for the best because I was able to be there for my parents in their dying. She concluded, weirdly, by saying “I hope you can someday forgive me.” And the truth is, of course, that I was precisely absent for my mother’s death. I was having a merry dinner in Buffalo with that southern girl and Schmitz juni I later found out that Susan had been emailing, from Denver back in 93, a number of her students in Bufftown, wanting info about the swampwitch.

Well, I don’t know if this fragmentary morass makes any sense to you, but the fact is that the film is now profoundly changed. And now at last I have a way to answer everybody who thinks it’s a film about Susan. Including Susan. I have to shoot some more stuff. And write some more. But I have the structure, and the hook, and I think I’m making something good. The film I originally planned could have been good too, but it required that Susan be a participant, and she wasn’t about to be one. Now it doesn’t matter.

Barthes is supposed to have said once to Philippe Sollers: “Whenever you give anyone something to read, you are giving it to your mother.” I am wondering if that applies to putting a film out there. (What RB meant by “giving it to” notwithstanding: as a former student once said in class, “You oughta see my mother!”)

The name of the film is Noncompatibles. (A piece of Melvillian marginalia.) Susan/me. Poetry/cinema. Mother/son.

Anyway, here’s a record I’ve been listening to a good deal lately, and just the thing (despite its ugliness) you need to make your Scots Lit. class even more memorable than it already is. Get one of the students to photograph you in it, and send me a copy.

Talk to you soon.