During my youth, on a thousand-mile walk around Ireland,
my dreams grew strange and bright as planets, and I woke once,
laughing, having witnessed my own birth: a young woman,
holding her newborn, stepped from rows of tasseling corn
as a voice-over intoned, And they named him Bela Rada.
Bela, Beautiful, Rada, Wheel: that’s how I translated it,
recalling a Serbian circle dance, though later I found
it meant Beautiful Rada—Rada is a woman’s name.
No matter, she’s part of me now: Bela Rada.
This morning, our second in Languedoc, I woke repeating Belarus.
In daylight, I know it means White Russia, but the sun’s logic
isn’t night’s. In my dream it was Bela, Beautiful, Rus, Russian.
A friend had phoned from Spokane—Are you awake, she asked,
or are you still dreaming? She was at a wedding
where things were going terribly wrong—the body of a waitress
from Belarus (or did she say Beltane?) was discovered in a ballroom.
Then I was in Spokane myself, stepping over yellow tape,
assuring the groom, This is not a sign. Don’t call off the marriage.
In Spokane the only place with a proper dream ballroom
is the Davenport, the same hotel where Vachel Lindsay once lived.
Epileptic, prone to visions, Lindsay styled himself
the last of the troubadours and set off to preach the gospel of beauty.
Today, some of his work strikes me as tedious, but when I was nineteen
his Handy Guide for Beggars inspired my six-month walk. I liked, too,
that Lindsay, while recovering at the Davenport from a breakdown,
met a woman half his age, and beautiful. They married the next day
in what he called ‘a wedding by spontaneous combustion.’
The gospel of beauty. Perhaps it began here in Languedoc
in songs composed by troubadours for the Cathar women of Cabaret?
Though the church saw them as heretics, their beauty
called forth the praise of poets like Vidal and de Miraval.
Yesterday, we climbed to their ruined chateaux, negotiating
the same paths once taken by a hundred Cathars from the village of Bram—
blinded by Crusaders, noses and upper lips cut off,
they were sent by the Church as a warning to the citizens of Cabaret.
Passion and beauty and sorrow, all raised under one roof.
A few weeks after they met, my parents wed—spontaneous
combustion, yes, but also the war meant there wasn’t time
to take things slowly. They were in Idaho, not far from Spokane,
living in a motel suite with my father’s best man and his new bride.
And when, on a training flight, his friend crashed into a mountain,
my father had to watch from his own plane but keep flying.
That night, his friend’s lovely wife clawed my father and beat his face.
Dostoyevsky said, Beauty will save the world,
but when has beauty ever saved anything, even itself?
And where did Lindsay’s gospel of beauty lead him?
He drank a bottle of Lysol in the same house where he was born.
A man flies into a mountainside. A girl from Belarus is found
in the Marie Antoinette ballroom with its accents of 22-carat gold.
The Church spares one man’s eyes so he can lead the other Cathars
up the cypress-lined precipice as an example for ‘wrong-believers.’
And Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin? Having proclaimed
that beauty would save the world, this gentle visionary fell in love
with two magnificent women at once and of course went mad.
In The Maltese Falcon, a man named Flitcraft is almost killed
by a falling beam. Understanding then that life is random, he vanished,
then showed up at the Davenport with a new wife much like his first.
Sam Spade liked that Flitcraft ‘adjusted himself to beams falling,
and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself
to them not falling.’ Hard to tell sometimes
if the Davenport’s a hotel in a novel, or in real life, or in a dream.
So many beautiful people check in and disappear:
Mary Pickford, Clark Gable, Sarah Bernhardt, Amelia Earhart.
And those who have managed thus far not to disappear?
Spontaneous combustion—strange the people it joins.
My parents outgrew first love, then found love again
and again, together. Sixty-three years since beauty
drew them close, and they must help each other now
with the simplest chores. Blindness, surgeries,
depression and all the rest, yet sometimes
when they look at each other, they seem to realise how lucky
they are. Love and loss and love again. Bela Rada.
Our last full day in Languedoc, we visit two more Cathar strongholds,
hilltop castles that couldn’t stave off Crusaders or Inquisitors.
Still, against all evidence, I want to believe what Dostoyevsky said
about beauty. The owls call out as we fall asleep, and come morning
a dream fragment in which I’m toasting a bride and groom in an orchard,
only it’s not me, I seem to be the girl from Belarus, disfigured
and somehow beautiful, wishing them luck. Belarus, or Bela Rada,
the whirl of spokes. We pack, then breakfast on the terrace in dawn’s birthlight,
while everything plunges in hazy green into the ridge-shadowed ravine.