Church and State: Katia Kapovich, “Painting a Room”

Painting a Room (from poetry 180)
Katia Kapovich

Here on a March day in ‘89
I blanch the ceiling and walls with bluish lime.
Drop cloths and old newspapers hide
the hardwood floors. All my furniture has been sold,
or given away to bohemian friends.
There is nothing to eat but bread and wine.

An immigration visa in my pocket, I paint
the small apartment where I’ve lived for ten years.
Taking a break around 4 p.m.,
I sit on the last chair in the empty kitchen,
smoke a cigarette and wipe my tears
with the sleeve of my old pullover.
I am free from regrets but not from pain.

Ten years of fears, unrequited loves, odd jobs,
of night phone calls. Now they’ve disconnected the line.
I drop the ashes in the sink, pour turpentine
into a jar, stirring with a spatula. My heart throbs
in my right palm when I pick up the brush again.

For ten years the window’s turquoise square
has held my eyes in its simple frame.
Now, face to face with the darkening sky,
what more can I say to the glass but thanks
for being transparent, seamless, wide
and stretching perspective across the size
of the visible.

Then I wash the brushes and turn off the light.
This is my last night before moving abroad.
I lie down on the floor, a rolled-up coat
under my head. This is the last night.
Freedom smells of a freshly painted room,
of wooden floors swept with a willow broom,
and of stale raisin bread.

Comment:

The rituals constituting the sacrament emphasize that “purity” is not the same thing as a “clean slate.” It is “bluish lime” one uses to “blanch,” after all. What is natural has to be covered up, not because we are necessarily entering another realm, but because we want to enter another realm. Purification is a means, not an end. Thus, others who have different ends can partake of our old life; it makes perfect sense “there is nothing to eat but bread and wine.”

What is at stake is freedom in another land. “89” is key, though: this isn’t some “rah-rah America” story about “the land of opportunity.” The homeland the speaker knew is gone. It probably was tyrannical and murderous, and doomed to fail because of the basic freedoms it denied. But it was home, and it isn’t gone because angels from heaven came and kicked out all the devils. It’s gone because its faults got progressively worse, and the sense there was something better became too much to resist. Emphasis on “sense:” I don’t think any of us in the US can really come to grips with what has happened, say, to the former Soviet Union. All I can say is that if you ever wanted to see a complete failure of a foreign policy post-Cold War, US policy toward Russia might be number one on the list (for all the whining about Bush and Iraq: we stayed the course because of him, and that was the only just thing we could have done). “Sense,” obviously, is not the same thing as actually possessing a good.

“Ten years,” “4 pm” – before we get to the sacrament, there is wandering. The sacrament is a literal sacrifice playing out over a narrative of strange events, that may or may not make sense to us. God’s time is not our time; we’re just caught up in it. For me, the “cigarette” is being the burning bush oneself. Tears might as well be water from a rock.

And then this immigrant story begins to look eerily familiar:

Ten years of fears, unrequited loves, odd jobs,
of night phone calls. Now they’ve disconnected the line.

My American audience is looking at that and going “hey, that was my life for a while. A long while – struggling to make it in terms of love and career.” And that’s exactly right – I’m not saying those of us in America have it as hard as some immigrants. I wouldn’t want to be landscaping or in a sweatshop hoping not to be fired or have my visa revoked, or struggling to speak the language, or wondering who, if anyone, I could trust. It’s absolutely the case that the severity of coming here with virtually nothing sometimes makes great entrepreneurs, and probably breaks as many as those who find success.

But we’ve got our own set of expectations, those of us that live here already. And our expectations are different, and that’s something those who wonder why we’re not fighting like immigrants for every little thing we may need should consider. Some of those people say “well, you’re spoiled.” I don’t know about that any more: I don’t kill time online as much as spend it trying to bring the best ideas to as many as possible. There’s no pay in it. There’s no way I could ever say to someone right now, “hey, let’s have a relationship, my current income is $0 btw.” And I know I’m not the only one like this in America, still chasing a dream and hoping that what little I do can be recognized as good. I know people who are working a heck of a lot harder and going through a lot, lot worse. I’m comfortable in the basest sense right now. One of my friends is adjunct teaching and saw his courseload cut in half. He will be probably working retail after teaching Rousseau and Plato (that’s what he teaches to kids who have reading skills of haha) in order to make ends meet. Life for some of us is nothing but “fear,” “unrequited loves,” “odd jobs” (you’re working for the work you want), and “night phone calls” (independent of any sexual themes, this applies to the only time you’re allowed to be free).

Another objection might be leveled against me at this point: “Well, what if setting up what you want in life is never easy in any way, and always involves risks that put you at the edge?” What if “opportunity” and “freedom” really are this much of a void? I think, actually, those of us who are older can respond more effectively to this. They’ve seen what their kids have gone through and achieved. I know the more sensible ones are just in awe. It’s not that everything about the US is wrong. It’s just that the material comfort we have doesn’t necessarily translate into serious opportunities to make money or be heard. Those of you from other countries who wonder why the US is so conservative, that’s your answer in a nutshell – there are a lot of us who feel like a free country should be freer, and not in the sense of “legalize weed.” It’s more like, “hey, why does it look like everything I want to do requires a ton of paperwork and fake credentials and exceptionally risky loans? Why do I need the strength of purpose a missionary might have in converting people on an unknown continent in order to become management at Petsmart?”

So yeah: I think this poem alludes to failed bureaucracy, which to a degree is what happens when one’s homeland fails. It’s the political/personal issue of utmost importance, clouded by the fact that having tons of money can obscure whether we’re getting what we want out of life or not. When the (human) state fails, what is left is divine. Here’s the sacrament:

I drop the ashes in the sink, pour turpentine
into a jar, stirring with a spatula. My heart throbs
in my right palm when I pick up the brush again.

All sacraments are a comment on the human. In this case: the heart is a chamber that you dump whatever crap you’re dealing with into and stir. I’m lucky: I don’t have the personal baggage some in my generation have. I remember an acquaintance who had been through two broken engagements and got the cold shoulder from nearly every girl in graduate school. Somehow, he just got back to work, did his teaching, and now is fairly successful and (in my mind) well-regarded. But I’m pretty sure there were years that were absolute hell for him.

Now no political order can guarantee that we find love. No divine order can guarantee we find love. But notice how the world of “opportunity” contains a double trap: it’s not that “opportunity” is a void. It’s that you can do tons of things, some of them very well, and can end up with nothing whatsoever. Worse than throwing your efforts down the drain, it’s like throwing your dreams down the drain, and the biggest hurdle is people telling you that your dreams were stupid and you should have aimed lower in the first place. That’s the ultimate significance of our purely democratic world: the lowest do rule. There can be nothing better than how they conceive their comfort. Thus the stage is set for a political order that not only makes “survival” a chancey thing, but doesn’t care at all that we have lives independent of making money. Again, it is worth keeping in mind that no society in human history was this obsessed with materialism: there’s a reason why totalitarianism was so, so ugly in the 20th c., and it may have something to do with what we have in common with the fascists. And it’s very much worth keeping in mind that while love has always been about money, well, just consider what the “Sex and the City” movie has to say about the relation of the two now.

The poem offers us a glimpse of what freedom looks like, when things enable instead of demand. The glass was a nothingness, it seems, but not quite: it allowed “stretching perspective across the size of the visible.” It allowed the speaker to be herself, to simply see. “Perspective” is a tricky word: it almost implies that our speaker can’t see beyond herself. Nothing could be further from the truth, though – earlier in the stanza, she is “face to face with the darkening sky.” Self-awareness may not be immediate, but something happens when one is given 10 years, whether or not church and state attend.

I don’t know that I want to comment extensively on the last stanza. I’ve done a lot of commenting to make this poem personal for all of us, but in the end, it’s the speaker’s poem, and she sounds hopeful. The sacrament is echoed in raisin bread, but there’s none of the terror of leaving home for the unknown. A freshly painted room and swept wooden floors sound like good things, like the speaker has what she might want already. I’d imagine that the absurdity of leaving home to find home has always been in the speaker’s mind: “I am free from regrets but not from pain” leaves open whether pain or regrets are the same thing. It doesn’t matter. The only thing you can have is the resolve things will be better, that ten years from now we’re not going through this awful process again.

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