That scene of dinners in the big, echoing dining room of my grandmother’s house in the French Quarter is now in a kind of sepia remove in my memories, vague faces staring at my imaginary camera before lifting a glass of wine or pushing back the crab shells with a fork. The shadows led to a kitchen with an enormous old-fashioned sink, a real ice-box cooler in the corner, old and grease-stained (polished?) wood floors, and beyond, a window that looked out on the tiny courtyard where a fig tree drooped with fruit. This was the house where I learned to walk, and perhaps heard someone say the word syzygy as a joke – a wink at the obscure corners of our language. I heard it as a toddler, pondered it, kept it in a cigar box of certain important tidbits at the back of my mind, and went on blissfully in my ignorance of its possible meaning.
I had no idea that the word would come to mean so much without telling me what it meant. It’s definition is yoked opposites, from the Greek syn: together, and suzogos: yoked. Every summer we spent two weeks in the Quarter, on Barracks Street, with its old stoops and brown-painted house fronts, the muffled voices one heard from rooms shuttered against the noon-day sun. The Quarter back in the ‘20s, when my mother was a child, was a ghetto for blacks and Italians, mainly Sicilians. An unwanted place, where opposites were yoked together under the old Creole regime of separatism and racial apartheid. The whites with pedigree lived uptown, in the Audobon Park region of mansions, where their scions graduated from Jesuit School and proceeded directly to Tulane University, to learn the arts of managing a yoked and unequal society under the stately, moss-festooned oaks that kept the campus dark and cool all through the fall and spring.
My own life was a syzygy in which I battled furiously against a tendency to withdraw into myself and a noisy, gregarious family that demanded humor and boisterous dinners that went on into the wee hours. My cousins were all eccentrics, especially the lanky, asthmatic Frank who wore a bowtie and raised alligators in cement tanks in the backyard of his mother’s house. He insisted on a certain candor among the young of the household, and when my grandmother visited our house in Philadelphia one summer, Frank came along with his sister and heard me demur when my mother said I would sleep in a room with my grandmother. He insisted at the top of his lungs that I tell my grandmother why I didn’t want to sleep with her – in an adjoining single bed. “She makes noises,” I said quietly, after being prodded and harassed for ten minutes on the upstairs landing. I did not want to hurt her feelings; she was old, a complicated bag of wrinkles and moles, and a smile you sometimes find on the angels in Renaissance paintings. She always dropped heavy new quarters into my hand when I was going off to buy my uncle a cigar, and I loved her pasta sauce, her big, high-ceilinged house in the Quarter, and all that she represented about Sicily and immigrants. And here I was being tortured into admitting she made certain strange noises at night, and that as a syzygy, I couldn’t quite accept the yoke. So he shouted at her as she came from the bathroom that I wasn’t going to sleep with her after all, that she made NOISES. The poor woman merely smiled, smoothed my hair, and said she would sleep with my mother instead, in the other bedroom.
I found syzygy everywhere I went in my early years in Philly. One day, the first day of school for the fourth grade, I walked in and found two black boys in immaculate white short-sleeved shirts sitting in the back row of the classroom. They were shy, kept their eyes down at the long looks each of us gave them, and when we sat down, we left plenty of empty desks between us. They kept to themselves, except that one was the more ambitious and offered to handle the candy concession at recess, in a spacious, ugly, brick-walled yard where we ran around playing tag. I came up to him at one point and pointed out a candy bar I wished to buy and handed him, with smiles and winks, a slug. He took it, was about to throw it into his cash box when he noticed it was a fake coin. He grabbed his candy and the cash box and rushed to the teacher standing guard at the door. He accused me of trying to steal candy and I was hauled up before the principal, a dour old man with a bald head that was illuminated like a table lamp by the gray, industrial sky behind him. The principal scolded me and then patted my shoulder when the black boy left – and told me it was not serious. The boy was a born policeman, a law-and-order type who thought he could erase his black skin if he were more righteous and puritanical than any of us white kids. It didn’t work, and the syzygy that held us in mutual bondage in that dungeon merely added to our grief.
At college, we studied the so-called Metaphysical poets, where “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked together by violence,” according to the 17th century Scottish poet, William Drummond. They went underground by the 18th century, but resurfaced in the 20th in H.G. Grierson’s edition of Metaphysical Lyrics (1921) which T.S. Eliot reviewed and more or less resurrected the poetry for use by modernist poets. Donned was his special case, and he found in the hard, cold finish of some of his poetry the intellectual precision that was the opposite of lush romantic emotion. So, onward with the new academic poem, with its allusions to all things literary and historical. Eliot’s poems yoked a lot of things, especially the degraded sex of post-WWI London life and the spiritual hungers of his spokesman, Tiresias. The 20th century was all about syzygy of a very high order. In the early 1970s, I heard the poet Dara Weir read a poem about a southwestern front yard, with bottles jammed onto the branches of a tree, colored stones in the dirt, a tire with calla lilies blooming in it, and remarked how close this yard was to a modern poem. Lots of syzygies thrown about by some El Pasoan who never even thought about the word.
Even if the 20th century was all about syzygy in the arts, montages, mobiles, crushed auto parts, nudes covered in paint rolling across a canvas, apes with paint brushes or toddlers making abstract paintings that critics later assessed as mature work of one sort or another, all that syzygy poured out of the imagination, while in the streets, the same dingy neighborhoods held blacks and Hispanics in an indestructible isolation, while whites commanded the freedoms of the city at large. There was no syzygy in politics, no attempt to yoke together any otherness, no matter how hard one tried to break down the barriers. That is perhaps the greatest syzygy of all, the iron-will of power to keep the races unequal and separate, and the driving force of nature to yoke them together.
I write this as I watch the results of the mid-term elections come in, and find the Republicans taking over the Senate, holding onto the lower house, and having their will backed by a five-member majority of conservatives on the Supreme Court. Racism, big money, the festering hatred of the Deep South for all things federal, the last hurrah of white men battling against the rising sea of other genders and ethnic groups – all contributed to the isolation of the one black man with real power, left alone in the White House for two more years. The failure of syzygy stings and leaves the world poorer; when it succeeds, something like spring and rain and blossoms return. If only I had put my arm around the black boy trying to live up to impossible standards in that recess yard years ago, I might have had a friend for life, and perhaps a real sense of syzygy after all.