The Frozen Sea Within Us

For my 100th post, I pay tribute to an author who has inspired me since the first time I read him.

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Roger Rosenblatt is one of those language crafters whose sparseness and blank-stare honesty catch me right here, square in the throat.  One paragraph of him, and I want to huck anything I ever wrote and start all over, one hand and all adjectives tied behind my back.

Intimate. Precise. Reduced. Penetrable. Bruised. Wryly funny. And rumbling with electricity like thunder in your breast pocket.

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Rosenblatt also buried his daughter, Amy. Two of his books, Making Toast and Kayak Morning describe, respectively, his life at impact and a year later. From Making Toast:

Amy Elizabeth Rosenblatt Solomon, thirty-eight years old, pediatrician, wife of hand surgeon, Harrison Solomon, and mother of three, collapsed on her treadmill in the downstairs playroom at home. “Jessie and Sammy discovered her,” our oldest son, Carl, told us over the phone. . . . “Mommy isn’t talking,” [Jessie] said. Harris got to Amy within seconds and tried CPR, but her heart had stopped and she could not be revived.

Amy’s was ruled a “sudden death due to an anomalous right coronary artery”—meaning that her two coronary arteries fed her heart from the same side. . . . Her condition, affecting less that two thousandths of one percent of the population, was asymptomatic; she might have died at any time in her life.
––Roger Rosenblatt, Making Toast, 2, 3

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I’d travel far and pay a hefty price to merely sit for an hour and listen to Mr. Rosenblatt talk about his daughter Amy, about his writing about Amy, and about his writing, period. Maybe you’ll feel likewise after the following, the last page of another Rosenblatt book, entitled, Unless It Moves The Human Heart:

You must write as if your reader needed you desperately, because he does. If, as Kafka said, a book is an ax for the frozen sea within us, then write with that frozen sea in mind and in view. See your reader, who has fallen through the ice of his own manufacture. You can just make him out, as he flails in slow motion, palms pressed upward under the ice. Here’s your ax. Now, chop away and lift him up by the shoulders. And what do you get out of this act of rescue? You save two people; your reader and yourself. Every life is exposed to things that will ruin it, and often do, for a time. But there is another life inside us that remains invulnerable and glimpses immortality. For the writer that life exists on the page, where it attaches itself to every other life, to all the lives that have been and will be.

…To be the writers you hope to be, you must surrender yourselves to a kind of absurdity. You must function as a displaced person in an age that contradicts all that is brave, gentle, and worthwhile in you. Every great writer has done this, in every age. You must be of every age. You must believe in heroism and nobility, just as strongly as you believe in pettiness and cowardice. You must learn to praise. Of course, you need to touch the sources of your viciousness and treachery before you rise above them. But rise you must. For all its frailty and bitterness, the human heart is worthy of your love. Love it. Have faith in it. Both you and the human heart are full of sorrow. But only one of you can speak for that sorrow and ease its burdens and make it sing– word after word after word.

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Amen, Brother Rosenblatt.

Amen.

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21 thoughts on “The Frozen Sea Within Us

  1. Oh, goodness. How have I never heard of him? Those last two paragraphs made me breathless. Thank you thank you thank you. Going to amazon right now.

    • MB, So glad to hear that! See my other response to Annie W with a passage from Rosenblatt. It’s just a teaser, though. You’ll want his others books like Rules For Aging and Children of War.

      “Writing is the cure for the disease of living. Doing it may sometimes feel like an escape from the world, but at its best it is an act of rescue.”–Rosenblatt

      Best to you today and always–M.

  2. Dear Melissa, I’ve enjoyed several delicious snippets of time in your writing here (returning on and off through the day today) and am so grateful for it! (Also, why have I not checked in before, my Segullah sister? Well, perhaps because I needed the discovery now.) Thank you for sharing your exquisite words and thoughts. You’ve inspired me.

    I have used Making Toast (in its New Yorker article form) in a Human Development grad course I taught for MSW students, a representative voice of loss in such clear, visceral language. I am thrilled to know he has written books and am off to find & devour them.
    x

    • Annie–Thank you for reading and responding. Thoughtful readers are what keep me at my laptop.

      You already know Rosenblatt. Let me share where I first read him because if you don’t know this particular piece, you’ll want to. Below is a chunk of his epilogue written for a major work, entitled The Mission, a photo journalistic exploration of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, my church and (I know this from our affiliation at Segullah, an LDS Women’s literary journal), yours.

      Rosenblatt is Jewish. His first encounter with a living poet was with a Mormon one, as he describes:

      The first images of the Mormon faith that I saw were verbal. A man named Jon Beck Shank, a poet and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, came to teach English at my New York City high school when I was in my senior year. None of us had ever seen a teacher as brilliant and inventive as Shank. He taught us the power and the meaning of words, and he was the first bona fide poet most of us had met. . .
      Shank used to have us do an exercise in his English class to show us the difference between using the nearly right word and using the exactly right word. He would give us a passage of poetry with an essential word omitted and ask us to figure it out – by assessing the context, tone, and rhythm of the rest of the passage – what was missing. The point of the exercise was not to hit the word on the nose (though it was fun whenever that happened) but to get as close as possible.
      The strange beauty of the exercise came from looking at the blank space where the exactly right word had been and where our newly arrived at words were yet to be. And while Shank never said so, I always wondered if he thought that the blank space was not, in fact, better than the word that has been there and the word that would be. I wondered if he thought that the emptiness was closer to the mark than anything that could fill it – because the space represented the evidence of the thing not seen. Yet it was there.

      **

      That passage has returned to my mind countless times in my life since July 2007, when my life became a habitation perforated with one great absence, my son’s. It is precisely that absence that keeps me yearning and hungering for the right word and for The Word.

      And that is why I write.

      Love and warmth—M.

      • Oh, so lovely and true. I think the strange beauty & elemental pull (of these words and The Word) is that we each bring our own blank spaces–each so different!–and go away filled. I can see there will be a Rosenblatt-infused stretch of days in my future. Thank you!
        A.

      • Annie- Ah, yes. . .memories of my Reader Response theory courses. Yes, literature is, to some extent, what emerges out of that encounter in the empty margins. Looking forward to hearing how you like Rosenblatt.–M

  3. Today I struggled with a couple of things, writing about my husband’s journey with PTSD, an endeavor I have journaled about over the years, but never formalized until a year or so ago in my blog, and the anniversary of the passing of a dear friend. I happend on your Freshlypressed and then read this…and am humbled and grateful. Blessings.

    • Az-I can’t speak with any authority at all about a struggle like yours, and do pray you have a community (one person can be a community!) to listen and support. Thank you for coming here, and I am glad this felt good to your heart—M.

  4. I had not heard of Roger, but I thank you for introducing me to him (and you!). This is a lovely post. ‘…To be the writers you hope to be, you must surrender yourselves to a kind of absurdity. ‘ This is wonderful! As is the image of you, inspired, with all your adjectives behind your back.

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