My best Acquaintances are those
with Whom I spoke no Word—
Every whale-ship takes out a goodly number of letters for various ships, whose delivery to the persons to whom they may be addressed, depends upon the mere chance of encountering them in the four oceans. Thus, most letters never reach their mark; and many are only received after attaining an age of two or three years or more [. . .] Of such a letter, Death himself might well have been the post-boy.
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter 71
August 1 (Wonder)
You could never have known, all those years ago, when you were drifting room to room in your white dress, hair as straight as ribbons though your thoughts were wild leaping things—that one day all of Amherst and even the world would be trapped indoors like you. But what people saw as some kind of self-exile on your part might have been something like Odysseus, who, once home in Ithaka, saw no need to leave again. The last time I rode my bike, I got lost in the feeling of the wind and the backs of my hands sunburned the color of gruesome lipstick. A friend came to visit and wore a mask to my door. We sat apart on the balcony and drank beer until one in the morning. My wife says we kept her up with our stupid laughter, but I had been lonely. Most of my friendships have been epistolary, which is to say somewhat unreal, but no more so I suppose than most of the New Testament. I like to write letters to people I love. Years ago, before she broke up with me the second or was it the third time, a woman said she liked my writing, but in real life I didn’t do much. She was all about action, whatever that is. Anyway, I think you understood that sometimes writing is all we are capable of doing. Though we can feel everything. You wrote poems on scraps of paper and never sent them, but when you did, you wanted to be read. I think all your punctuation asks to be read, long dashes like a skid in the snow, your long fingers twitching on paper: “what are Stars but Asterisks/to point to a human Life?” There is a moment in Big Sur when Kerouac is shivering in a borrowed apartment with a rocking chair beside a window and he pulls the curtain back with his white fingers, feeling like the Phantom of the Opera because he’s been indoors “writing” all day and somehow accidentally even killed the goldfish with the ashes of his cigarettes, or thinks he has. I never wanted to be like that, but rather be you, who stood at the window but were content. Your pencil was the only one you really trusted. In a book, I saw an envelope flap on which you’d written:
As there are
Apartments in our
own Minds that –
we never enter
without Apology –
we should respect
the seals of
All of which is true; I couldn’t agree more completely. And yet as my friend and I were sitting on the balcony after weeks, weeks, of not seeing each other or any stranger who wasn’t wearing a mask—across the courtyard in a bright window one of my neighbors tiptoed from kitchen to couch in her T-shirt and underwear, and my friend and I stopped talking and I felt lecherous and guilty as a criminal but also lucky, too, like a birdwatcher who had stood in the same angle day after day and seen nothing but glass and buildings and then one night a quick, fluttering life.
August 4 (Before the door I dared not open)
Chris Offutt said home is where you hang your hat, but his father-in-law said it is where you hang your head. Disappointment is like a fly buzzing in the room, which I know we have both heard. My father cursed a lot when I was a child, and I have done the same as an adult though I claim to be a poet finding the right words in the right order, which these most certainly are not. You lived in your father’s house your whole life, except when you were away at school, but even then, you got sick and returned home early. You said your father was distant but it’s hard to be too distant in the same house. I left home at eighteen and then for good at twenty-two. I went to Africa because it was a place my father had never been and was not likely to go. He had a hardware store and stood there at the cash register six days a week. Saturday evenings before he came home, he picked up cigarette butts from the parking lot and mowed the lawn. When my grandfather sold the store to my father, he said, “I don’t want to get in your way. It’s yours now,” and never set foot in it again. He left a picture of my grandmother on his desk. He left a coat with his name on the pocket hanging in the bathroom. My father told me later that he hated working in that store, but it wasn’t so much a confession as an admission because I already knew it. I think my father was happy in Korea; he gave me his army duffle and I took it far away. I live in Singapore now. Your father was apparently quite pleased with himself, Emily. Sometimes people like that are hard to live with. Happiness is like money; we’re not supposed to show people how much we have. Better to live in a simple white dress and not leave home. You had a beautiful house in Amherst, Emily, but I suspect you felt it was your father’s house. Maybe you were only at home in your upstairs room. You had a Franklin stove in your bedroom so you could stay up late writing at your tiny desk the size of a chess board. One desk, one drawer —for a lifetime of thoughts. My own thoughts would fit inside a walnut, so who am I to think your desk was small? I like to imagine your big house, its moonlit bedsheets fifty degrees in the Massachusetts winter, but your upstairs room all bright with oil-lamp and stove! Wild nights! Wild nights! Maybe your home was not this room but the desk itself. Maybe—since you wrote in the garden and scribbled while ironing—maybe your home was the tiny pencil you kept in your pocket. A home within a home within a home. I know you said you had never seen a Moor or the sea, but I think you were Jonah and the house was your whale. Your life was a sea. Let Melville pursue his whales off the Massachusetts coast. His Leviathan does rival your small poems no bigger than bits of broken eggshell. Home was the place you could never leave. Home is the place I cannot go. Every mile between my parents and me is filled with sickness. The borders are closed. I miss my father though he is still alive. I cannot go to him. What good is it? What good is it, to get old? Emily, sometimes I am so lonely. Sometimes, like in that Mark Strand poem, I feel like I am the only thing in a field that is not-field. I am always in the way. If I had come, a winter’s night, beneath your bright window, would you have let me in?
August 5 (dogs of the sea)
I was thinking of you yesterday—the subject of whales and being swallowed came up, as it so often does. The whale is a tremendous thing—a harbinger of myth but also somewhat ridiculous, the giant armless dog of the sea. How wonderful that you are forever associated with a creature both real and mythical as a whale. I will never be associated with an animal unless it is maybe my dog Tristan. You can have all the whales of the sea because this dog was a great friend and not inclined to migrate a thousand miles in a day but rather to wait at a window for me to come home. He wanted to walk the earth with me but mostly we went around the block. And that was good too because we often saw things like tiny frogs in the creek. And bright stars! We saw so many stars high above the windows where my neighbors were watching Netflix or making breakfast. Having a friend is not always the end of loneliness, but a good dog can make you feel you belong on this earth. You and I are friends but sometimes I wonder if I haven’t just imagined that like I have everything else I’ve ever read. Certainly I’ve had my hypos and taken to the sea the way you described. My Omoo and Typee were Gabon and Paris for all the good that did me. I still felt lost. “Your own lowest point, as I understand it, was the moment after Moby Dick and after Pierre, when you were so proud of the latter, so happy and full of good feeling —and you opened the newspaper to read the review: “HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY.” You must have wanted to plunge the harpoon of your heart deep into the brain of everyone, then dive deep into the cold below where no one would ever see you. I have never had a moment like that, though one Amazon reviewer gave my novel fewer stars than she gave her favorite deodorant. Still, you wrote to yourself, “N.B. I ain’t crazy” I suppose you wrote this so you wouldn’t forget, but I think you knew, just like I do, that no one can give us stars. They’re free for the taking.
August 6 (apologia)
I should probably apologize for my note yesterday because I was glib, and I apologize for what is to come, which will be my usual bleak mumbling. I apologize for what is to come, which will be my usual bleak mumbling. I should probably apologize for my note yesterday as well because I was glib. I was told, “You’re never going to get anywhere as a writer until you realize no one cares how it feels to walk your dog.” And then, of course, I wrote to you about how it felt to walk my dog. I’m a terrible student, Herman. And now I teach, which is a joke. You probably felt this often: that no one understood when you were joking. Only Hawthorne, and it wasn’t enough. I think your impulse to knock men’s hats off was a kind of desperate humor and not cruelty; it’s the urge to touch and be touched, to have your hands so close to another man’s face, to leap from a crowded sidewalk and go from being an invisible Bartleby to something seen. Every year, I have some student who decides to read Lord of the Flies, which I tell students is about as good as a book can be if it has no girls in it and is not funny at all. I’m including all of Tolkien in this but not you. Your work is something different, something special and holy, with its unbreathing fish armada and men holding hands in wet clouds of warm sperm. I think your work is the loneliest thing I’ve ever read and not comparable to anything else. I know your lowest point was not really getting a bad review but some kind of bottomless lifetime. I know why men go to sea. Sometimes the sea is in us. And why, home in Ithaka, we look to the sea again. It’s not your fault, what happened to your son: what your son did, how he filled his narrow room with blood. We control so, so little. We are all just lost hats “dimly discerned, falling from that vast height into the sea.” Forgive me for being so forward. I know it’s not my place to comment on what you left silent. Here I am, apologizing even at the end of my apology, but that is just what I mean, how even in our best intentions, we are so often our own worst enemy. We pursue difficulty like a whale. Sometimes, even with the door locked and a pistol under our pillow, we are not safe. Holding a sweaty head full of alcohol and the echoes of footsteps and late-night good-byes— good-bye, good-bye— the cold pillow, the nights ahead, we become our own Ahab. It’s not easy to be a father. It’s not easy to be a man. Easier, perhaps, to chase something invisible and hope it’s older and greater than us, like a whale.
August 27 (Alchemy)
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
I am sending you the above poem. It was written—how far is Arrowhead from Amherst? Thirty-eight miles from you, which, frankly, is the kind of distance you could probably walk in a weekend if only you went in straight lines instead of endless circles, dock to dock in Manhattan. You said sometimes in your farmhouse you heard the wind outside your window and imagined the entire house at sea, that you would go out into the dark and climb to the roof to fix the rigging. The first chapter of Moby Dick is called Loomings, which suggests, of course, things hanging above us, mysteries approaching, but also things woven together, like Penelope’s shroud. Penelope made and unmade her work each day, which to me sounds a lot like writing. I think of writing as my alchemy, which was a false science, I know, but full of hope. Just because no one else has turned lead into gold doesn’t mean I won’t. I keep writing, all my pencil marks in my notebook like the scratching of some wild animal on a door. I am told my favorite poet had handwriting like “fossil bird tracks” and why not? If Shelley could have been a skylark and Keats a nightingale, why couldn’t she have been some bird we never saw? That left only traces in wet sand. That’s poetry. So many times you must have felt doomed, Herman, that nobody liked Pierre or your other thoughts. Only Typee. Only Omoo. But you no longer lived in the South Seas. You were in Arrowhead, dreaming new things. You were working in a Customs House, scribbling by lamplight—but then going home to close your upstairs door and write poetry. These poems went unloved as well—far battlefields, a lonely Jerusalem, but always, too, the rolling ocean. The world ignored you, made you feel small, but you forgave it and wrote it a love letter anyway.
To make the whale it takes a rover and one sea,
One rover and a sea,
The alchemy alone will do,
If seas are few.
August 31 (Buddha nature)
“For what is your life? It is
even a vapor that appeareth for a
little time and then vanisheth away.”
Swooning swim to less and less,
Aspirant to nothingness!
Sobs of the worlds, and dole of kinds
That dumb endurers be—
Nirvana! absorb us in your skies,
Annul us into Thee.
I am enclosing a poem by someone you probably do not know but who lived for a while in Pittsfield, not even forty miles from your door. You might be unimpressed, but his Clarel is 18,000 lines, which is even longer than the Iliad or Paradise Lost. That’s not your style, of course. You are a needle and thread and he is a blanket-shaker, two-handed, sending claps of smoke over the sea and forest. You are a note folded in a hand, stuffed in a pocket, in an empty garden. The poem I copied here is a scribble of his, but it reminds me of you and your mysterious Immortality. Not everyone would give Nirvana an exclamation mark, but you often wrote about how sudden life was. You swooned from less to less. You famously never saw the sea. My friend, who wrote this, had trouble doing the same. He always wanted more, and when he couldn’t sail, he walked long miles in the city. He had a farm for a while but walking behind a plow was not the same for him. For many years, he felt his house was too small, unlike you who were content in your room for the most part, which makes me wish he could have met you. I know you bearded your pronouns and disguised your true love. I think he did too. You were so unlike and yet I imagine him in your house, his beautiful beard wild as a prophet’s, his eyes girlish and afraid of you and what you might see—and you, terrified of his energy, his crashing falls and loud voice—and I wish I could be the ghost between you, whispering in your ear, in his: it’s okay—I know him; she’s one of us. Mostly I wish you would say it to me: you’re one of us. You went to your grassy-roofed house with your life’s work written in pencil and hidden in envelopes. Herman had to pay a publisher to print his books at the end. I write for you and I know you will never read it. I am carrying this to you across the grass. When you died, you thought your letters and poems would be ash for the garden. He thought his were lost in the wind and sea. I don’t write on paper because my handwriting is so difficult. I type but my ink is made of electricity, so I might as well be hand-inscribing grains of rice in a huge barn. When I die, the sound of these keys will stop saying my name. But you won’t need to say my name. I’ll be with you.
 This is only a modest extension of what I was told all through school, which was that no one cares how it feels to be me. This lesson is simple as any and it’s called humility, the basis for everything. A better question might be: how did I make good grades in complicated things like French or math when I couldn’t understand this elemental thing?
 Herman, you don’t mind a footnote, I know. You want to include every rope, every thought, every windy scent. Reading and living— so much of our lives are spent with our mouths closed, but writing, we say everything.
Chris Huntington is the author of the prize-winning novel, Mike Tyson Slept Here. His non-fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and outlets, including National Public Radio and The New York Times Modern Love. His poetry has been featured in Rattle, Frontera, Singapore Unbound, and elsewhere. He lives and works in Singapore. More information is available at www.chrishuntingtononline.com.