Memory and chaos are recurring motifs in Read’s conversations and writings. She had joined the Navy after spending years taking care of her father and sister; after her mother’s death, the family never gained any sense of normalcy. She was looking for order and identity, but found chaos instead. The ideas and themes come together in Read’s poems.
In a poem called “Fado,” she writes:
- Your memory is fado
- Singing circles,
- Cracking in desperation
- In the theatre where
- My little heart
- Sits swaying
- Rigid and trembling with vibrato
- its hands are clenched tight
- and cheeks wet with tears.
Fado is Portuguese for “fate.” It’s also a musical genre that dates back to the 19th Century, popularized by sailors to express the loneliness and deprivation of a life at sea. Musically, it is unironically sentimental; the vocal styling is warbly and tremulous. To sing it right, you have to embrace its treacliness. Fado’s embrace of the past and a sense of longing is pre-industrial and certainly pre-modern. For some, it’s a bit tacky. But the perceived quaintness of fado has to do more with our inability to engage with suffering in an authentic way than with its inability to be relevant. We put an ironic face onto suffering to deaden the blow.
The poem’s approach to memory is Read’s approach to the memory of her mother, and there are often faceless or hidden female figures in her writing. The death of a parent
often registers as a rite of passage. It’s a reminder that we’re next, and it creates a reckoning within ourselves about what we’ve accomplished. But Read lost her mother long before she had the emotional or intellectual capacity to appreciate the enormity of the loss.
“I didn’t really cry about my mother until I was 23,” Read said. “Growing up, I never noticed the absence since I took on her role. I did the laundry, the dishes, made sure my sister and my dad were taken care of.”
Read felt the distinct loss of her mother twice in her life. Once, right before she joined the military, she wondered what this carefree hippie mother would have thought of her joining the Navy. The other time was when she had gotten pregnant at 20 and felt like her life was over, racked with shame and uncertainty. The pregnancy ended in a miscarriage.
“That pregnancy came into my life like a storm brewed sky, full of dark and vibrant energy; it glowed orange and midnight blue, exciting and domineering,” Read wrote in one of her essays for class. She had used her art writing class’s final project as a vehicle to discuss her pregnancy. The subject was Frida Kahlo’s Still Life, Round, a vibrant capturing of native Mexican fruits onto a copper plate. But look closer and the fruits resemble open-eyed pudenda, mushrooms with fingers outstretched like ovaries, a portrait of unabashed female fertility. Read’s own close brush with motherhood, more than any other experience, made her long for her own mother.
Her relationship with her father has always been characterized by vulnerability. He lives in San Diego, and she still comes by to take care of him regularly. She recalled reading letters in boot camp from her dad expressing concern for her sister as if Read were a co-parent.
Still, there were some pleasant memories growing up. Read revisits them in her poem, “Noise”:
- It’s six am and he’s fixing oatmeal
- cooked in coconut rum
- slathered in whipped butter and brown sugar
- the silver spoon scrapes against the pot
- clanking the breakfast
- into flower-painted bowls.
- the noise tears through the silent hall into
- silent rooms
- Pang! Clink! Cvush!”
The “cvush” is the sound of the suction created by the refrigerator seal as it closes and opens.
It’s a cool afternoon, and I’m sitting in Seth Lerer’s Shakespeare class in University of California San Diego’s Cognitive Science building next to Geisel Library. The play being discussed is Henry IV, Part 1. Lerer is reviewing the play’s concepts: it’s about control, self-regulation. Hotspur lives in dream and nightmare, and may be suffering from post-traumatic stress. Prince Hal’s corpulent drinking companion Falstaff embodies the theme that this is a play of rhetorical amplifications.
Lerer has taught at Princeton and Stanford and carries a reputation as an electric teacher. He paces around the room while discussing the nature of insults as a form of power.
“You,” he told a student, “insult me.”
“Uh, I don’t like your tie,” the student said. “It looks like a sock.” Lerer was wearing a knit tie with a square tip.
“That’s all you got? Try again. ‘Your tie, sir...’”
“Your tie, sir,” the student intoned, “looks like you tried to hang yourself, failed, and went to work anyway.”
Lerer fell into a heap on the floor guffawing and the room erupted in laughter. “He roasted you,” a student said. “Like bacon,” said another.
“There’s a lot of bacon in the play,” Lerer said, still on the floor. “This is a Christian world. We build it out of bacon. If you’re not in pig world, you don’t belong.”
For Lerer, the wall of porcine descriptions in the play is built up against an imagined non-Christian threat. It also alluded to the expulsion of Jews from England that lasted through the Elizabethan period. He asked students who are not able to partake in pork to raise their hands. A young woman in a hijab and several others did so.
Sitting in the middle of the room was 19-year-old Alex Vollhardt, an English-literature major with an interest in German literature. Today, she was alert to young prince Hal’s admission that when it came time, he would renounce Falstaff to become king: “I do; I will.” There was something matrimonial in it. It would be a pivotal rite-of-passage scene in Hal’s life as he casts aside Falstaff later on with the line, “I know thee not, old man” as he became Henry V.
Every few months or so, some cranky Boomer pens a missive in an op-ed section about today’s youth: they are soft; they are entitled. They want to wear elf costumes and live in their parents’ basements. Vollhardt and others like her put all these tired arguments to rest. She’s sharply ambitious, knows her field. UC San Diego could do more to attract and accommodate students like her.