Jill Talbot

243: The Professor of Longing

Dr. Jill Talbot
Contact: talbot1@boisestate.edu | 426-7060
Office: LA 102 C (a room I share with a broken shelf and three people I never see)
Office Hours: Before and After Class and once in a booth in the Hyde Park Bar & Grill

Course Description: This course is about failed attempts. It's about me standing in an office two states and two months ago handing over a letter declaring that I was leaving academia indefinitely. It's about being on the road—Utah, Idaho, Montana—climbing north before having to turn around, scramble south. It's about the trying months of summer and ending up in a circumstance not on any map. It's about Boise instead of Missoula, about adjustments instead of adventure, about impediments edging out impulse, bi-monthly paychecks that can't cover rent and daycare, my last cigarette. It will be writing in a cramped corner on a plastic tv tray in a foldout chair bought at a thrift store. By the end of the semester, the focus will be two am phone calls and bad checks. For the final, look for a bookcase and a loveseat in a living room with the front door left wide open, my four-year-old daughter's favorite polka-dotted vest forgotten on the kitchen counter.

Texts: We're not going to read anything beyond my own proclivities. We'll discuss stories, essays, and poems that remind me of my most recent misgivings, the lingerings I'm unable to yield, the words underlining my past. Our study will include recurring images, my own, of course, as well as the themes of my disposition. The text in this class is me.

Attendance: It's strange to think I'm even here. Years from now, I will feel as these weeks were nothing more than an interruption, a curve in the story's road.

Disclaimer: While these aren't the texts I really used that semester, they most accurately reflect who I was during those weeks when I kept my eyes to the sidewalk.

August 22      

Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, Selections

Whitman has many famous lines about celebrating himself and containing multitudes and taking to the open road, sounding his barbaric yawp, yet stylistically, he used a device called "cataloging." A long list. Write that down. It's important, because we all catalog, make long lists of lovers, of things to pack, pros and cons, items at the drugstore. Some catalogs come with details, like wine lists. Some in a shorthand no one but us can read, and if enough time goes by, neither can we, as we pull a forgotten slip of paper from the bottom of a purse or a pocket and stare at a mystery.

Dickinson used dashes in her lines, random capitalization, difficult to decipher punctuation. She wasn't consistent in her usage, and often her poems were in unfinished forms. But it's the dashes that draw me, so we'll focus on those. Sometimes they appear at the end of a line, others in the middle, interruptions. Still, other poems are words alone, no dashes at all. Emphasis? A writer's pen carrying over to the next word, down the line? Never intended as part of the prosody at all, like a pause in a conversation misinterpreted as silence or disagreement when it's only search for the right words? Or are they like bridges crossing a question?

We'll be seeing these elements throughout the semester: catalogs of loss, of what lies between or is left to the end, the choices too difficult to decipher.

I'll tell you up front: he left. So let's look at an opening line of Dickinson's: "You left me, sweet, two legacies—"
And he did, one, the legacy of our years together that began with the Eagle River and a half moon. The other, the sweetest legacy, our daughter, who, I suppose, he never saw as part of his prosody. That dash—his disappearance. And so, to the Whitmanesque open road he went, "afoot and lighthearted," while, me? My lines are a bit further down: "I carry my old delicious burdens . . . . I carry them with me where I go/I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them."

The delicious burdens I bear because no state, not this one or the last three I've lived in can trace a line underneath Kenny and make him pay child support. He's the dash that keeps dashing, a catalog of unanswered phone calls.

August 29  

Kate Chopin, "The Story of an Hour"

A "storm of grief" I know well. And that feeling of being locked in a room alone and looking out of it, fearing the feeling that's coming and not being able to beat it back. For years I wanted to be free, and yet, I had "loved him--sometimes." Here is the conflict in—the balance of—maintaining individuality while sharing a life with someone. I'll tell you I've always wanted to share a duplex with a man, him on one side, me on the other, so we have our separate spaces together, but I will not divulge that sharing a life with someone is not a thing I've ever been able to sustain, that I have repeatedly chosen "self-assertion" over "possession," that I can discuss love within the context of a work of literature, but surviving it, for me, is an "unsolved mystery."

If you need to see me before class, check outside the double doors on the East side of the building. I'll be huddled near a trash can, smoking like a stranger outside a convenience store.

September 5  

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper"

I am trapped inside my own yellow walls. The apartment I rented on Dewey Street, about a ten minute drive from the University, is the middle unit in a three unit structure, and mine is undoubtedly the smallest, crammed between the other two. The landlord who met me at the property in late July on my drive back from Montana opened the door to a hideous site: yellow walls with accents of a deep red, a clash so revolting I almost didn't step inside. Gilman's description resonates: "The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow." But there were only two weeks before classes began, the other apartments I had seen not livable or in questionable neighborhoods, and I still had to drive back to southern Utah to pick up Indie, who had stayed with friends while I found a job and a place in Missoula, now Boise.

The apartment has a bathroom off of the kitchen, a proximity that bothers me, a stand-only shower, a tiny bedroom, one closet. This is the smallest place I have ever lived, including graduate school. Indie and I share a bed, one we found in the storage shed, and we sit side by side on a loveseat, the only size that still only barely fits along the wall. The state tells me I make thirty dollars over the limit to qualify for assistance. I think that's about what I spend on smokes a month.

Gilman admitted to altering her experience in her story, using "embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal." The ideal, she felt, was to keep women from going crazy. Later this semester, I will sit on the loveseat in the middle of the night, cutting my arms with nail scissors, assume this is what is happening to me.

September 12  

Willa Cather, "Paul's Case"

Paul is what is considered a fragmented character. He embodies two worlds but doesn't really live in either. My mother on voice mail, asks, "Where are you living?" And I'm not really sure. I'm not even sure I'd call what I'm doing here living.

Indie's daycare costs four hundred dollars a month. Every two weeks, I make just two hundred over that. Then there's the rent, the groceries at Albertson's and the wine I can't stop drinking, not to mention the quarters for pool where I teach Indie to play while we share a hamburger at the Hyde Park Bar & Grill. I am a fragmented character: I stand before you confident, poised, engaged. I stand inside myself a wreck.

September 19  

Sherwood Anderson, "Mother"

Another window watching woman. This is a story that uses where a character lives as a metaphor for how he lives: "The hotel in which he had begun life so hopefully was now a mere ghost of what a hotel should be." I think of my apartment, how it stands for the way there's not enough room here, a suffocation.

September 26  

John Steinbeck, The Wandering Bus

I love how the woman in this chapter tells her whiskey glass, "Now you just stay here and wait for me." Alice Chicoy stands inside the screen door of the lunchroom, watching the bus drive away before setting out the CLOSED sign and taking a day to herself. In these her hours of rare isolation, she waits on herself, downs a glass of whiskey, then beer, suddenly realizing that "the way you drink changes the taste." At some point, she goes into her bedroom (attached to the diner) and grabs a mirror, sets it down in front of her and serves her selves. I've done this many times, sipping Chardonnay in front of a mirror, keeping myself company. Like Alice, I too have become frightened, worried that I will run out. Of time, of wine, of cities in which to start over. When I get really worried, I start dialing and in the mornings, I have to check my phone to see who I talked to and for how long.

October 3  

F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Babylon Revisited"

In the spring semesters, I teach this on or around my daughter's birthday. In the fall semesters, I teach it in October, the month five years ago when I wrote to Kenny: "Jack Kerouac wrote that ‘everyone goes home in October.' It's October, and the last leaves are falling from the tree outside our bedroom. Come home." Unlike Charlie Wales, he never came back for his little girl. At least Charlie Wales tried.

I love Indie enough for two parents. This part, at least, I get right.

October 10  

Ernest Hemingway, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"

This story is a memory of an afternoon outside a basement apartment in Fort Collins, me in the green chair, him on the porch step, discussing the old man and the two waiters. During class, I draw the peak of a triangle drawn on the board with a line across the very tip of it, the fractions 1/8 above, 7/8 below. When I shade in the depths below the surface, I think how the story of us exists so far down I'm at a level where I can't even see what was there and what never was anymore.

He and I used to smoke on the back porch of our last apartment. Here I smoke on the tiny step outside our apartment. Yesterday, Indie asked me to quit. I said yes. I'm one bad habit down from a pile that's stacked like unwashed dishes in the sink.

October 17  

John Cheever, "The Swimmer"

Choosing a Cheever story is like choosing a wine. I consider the concentration, the clarification, the finish I want to persist and not be short-lived. This story is about a man who drinks his way home only to find an empty house, all the doors locked. Here we discuss the way a character can look "in at the windows, [see] that the place [is] empty." An inversion of all those other characters who look out, wish to leave.

How can I explain that I'm not even near halfway home, and it's getting darker with every week here, the muddy waters of my life churning, and I'm about to drown.

October 24  

Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire

Class cancelled.

October 31  

Jack Kerouac, On the Road Part I
Sherman Alexie, "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven"

I just read this last week while sitting at the Hyde Park Bar & Grill in the middle of the afternoon. Alexie writes about anger and imagination being the key to survival, and I can admit, I don't get angry enough, so maybe I balance my survival with what I imagine. I underlined this: "I knew there was plenty of places I wanted to be, but none where I was supposed to be." A recurring theme in literature, the search for a place where one belongs. But it's these questions I'd like to raise, to hear your thoughts: "How do you talk to the real person whose ghost has haunted you? How do you tell the difference between the two?" Because I can't figure that part out.

November 7  

Joan Didion, "The White Album"

Didion, similar to Anderson, discusses the house she lived in as being indicative of the times and her own state of mind. Things were fucked up. The world no longer made sense. The center was not holding. She told herself stories in order to live. I've become very good at telling myself stories..

Essay Due. Assignment: Discuss the significance of a character's house and his/her relationship to it by focusing on three of the works we have read and discussed. You are also required to discuss two texts (poems, essays, films, stories, novels) that do not appear on this syllabus.

The check I wrote last week at the Hyde Park Bar & Grill bounced. I knew it would.

November 14  

Raymond Carver, "The Ashtray" | "Why Don't You Dance?"

A stanza from the poem:

Then walks back to the table and sits
down with a sigh. He drops the match in the ashtray.
She reaches for his hand, and he lets her
take it. Why not? Where's the harm?
Let her. His mind's made up. She covers his
fingers with kisses, tears fall on to his wrist.

A line from the story:

His side, her side.

Class adjourned.

November 21  

Amy Hempel, "Memoir"

An interesting story with only one sentence—enough to tell the story of a life. The three hours of class not enough to explain what that means. I'm unraveling. Can you tell?

November 28  

Pam Houston, "Cowboys are My Weakness"

Discussion: "This is not my happy ending. This is not my story."

While you discuss, I've got to go in the hallway to return a phone call. A friend called to say I left a scary message on her voice mail at two o'clock in the morning. I'm going to tell her I'm fine, that I'm in class going over a story with an unnamed narrator. It won't be a lie. This is my story.

December 5  

Tim O'Brien, "The Things They Carried"

We will close our study by examining the effect of Whitmanesque cataloging in prose form and how Lt. Jimmy Cross carries the letters of a girl he hopes loves him, even though the narrator shows us it isn't so. The young lieutenant reads her words again and again, as if he can change their meaning. When her words distract him from the war, he burns them. I tell my students it doesn't matter, he'll read those letters for the rest of life.

Those misinterpreted letters like the checks I keep writing, and for some reason, I pretend it doesn't matter. My balance already overdrawn past anything I can catch up with in time for the check to clear. Two years from now, I'll send one hundred and sixty dollars a month to pay down the damage I'm doing here, but for now, I'll keep writing false words and fake numbers on a small slip of paper, convincing everyone but myself they mean anything.

We'll cut the last meeting short, because another night turned into some version of the darkest part of Alice Chicoy's afternoon once I decided there was no way I could stretch my severe salary across another semester, so I've been cataloging my choices for the next city and am in a bit of a panic.

Final   Your final is a representation of what you have learned in this class that may not be measured by exam or essay. I'm bringing a stack of parking tickets I have accrued over the course of the semester, the manifestation of the fines owed to me, the fines I own.




One semester at the end of an American Literature Survey, I looked back over all the short stories, plays, and poems I had assigned, and I recognized my own fiction, drama, and lines beneath the syllabus, like a palimpsest. And I thought about when I teach certain pieces, like Pam Houston's "Cowboys are My Weakness," I'm teaching a version of my self I knew long ago, a woman who told herself a story for so long she believed it. So I wanted to write an honest syllabus, to expose the person behind the professor. I was inspired by Brenda Miller's concept of the [hermit crab essay], "an essay that inhabits an alien form in order to deal with difficult material."