“Do you have an object that holds very special meaning for you?”
My husband is a non-professional photographer. He’s been asking that question of almost everyone he knows, including me. I had to think. Then it came to me – Of course! My typewriter.
We fetched it from the bookcase where it’s been accumulating dust, propped up on the top shelf like those Sicilians buried to look like they’re still alive in the Capuchin cemetery in Palermo. A drop of olive oil was all it took to restore the typewriter to its original black luster and bring out the silver in those toothy keys.
“Show your teeth!” my father once exhorted when I was in the middle of a legal battle and starting to lose heart. Instantly, I thought of my typewriter. Those keys. Their bite.
My typewriter has been with me all my life, a gift when I was only five from my Great Uncle Dominick who was also my godfather. It was a Royal portable – the word Royal plated right on the front with a silver line drawn underneath like a smile.
So unlike the gold charms I had come to expect from a doting uncle, my typewriter had weight, heft, substance, and even its own carrying case, also black. Not a little girl’s color.
Could my Uncle Dominick have known I would become a writer? Had he unconsciously set me on my path? Did he somehow intuit that I would fall in love with words and the pleasure of arranging and re-arranging them on the page?
Destiny was hiding under the hood of that little machine that only imagination could fire.
I learned to type when I was ten. There was music in the clatter of the keys, the ping that came at the end of every line, the ca-chunk of the lever in my right hand that moved the carriage forward. There was nothing about my typewriter I didn’t understand. I could set the margins, adjust the touch control to soft or hard, change the ribbon, taking pride in that messy but delicate job, ink on my hands, the red and black flying back and forth from spool to spool.
My Royal portable was a work horse. It carried me through all my term papers, two dissertations, every poem I ever wrote in Donald Hall’s creative writing class and thereafter. It went wherever I went: to camp, to college, to graduate school, to the hermitage at Holy Wisdom Monastery where I set it up on a card table and wrote Bacchus at St. Benedict’s, one of my last poems. With my husband, I took it on a plane to Aspen (“You’re not taking that, are you?”) and set it up on the hotel patio where two children gawked. “What’s that?” they asked their mother. “That’s what people used to write on,” she said.
The day finally came when the ‘a’ collapsed. I kept right on typing, using the ‘q’ instead. But then the roller started to slip, blurring two lines into one, and by that time all the dingy repair shops had disappeared. I had to admit the end had come.
I could never make the transition to writing poetry on a computer. Prose, but never poetry. I was too invested in the process that had evolved over the years, the I-thou relationship that made my typewriter talk back to me. Like a bicycle, it was always under my command, but the dynamic went both ways. My typewriter was a critic. It conveyed meaning, coherence, authority. Feedback was instantaneous, dictating whatever changes needed to be made. Best of all, there were never any poltergeists in it. No ghostly hand behind the screen. No pop-ups, emails, pesky reminders, or flirty ads to interrupt or distract me from my intended task.
Donald Hall used to talk about the body of the poem – the way it looked on the page, its musculature, its symmetry, the beauty in the punctuation and the line breaks. Without the typewriter, my poem could never take shape, and without shape, the poem was nothing but inchoate ideas, mere scribbles and scratchings on a yellow page. The soul of the poem was in its body and the body was a palpable thing so long as it was me pounding the keys.
My typewriter: the only machine I could ever trust, the only machine I would ever love. When it died, the poetry died with it.