joan / joni : reporter / poet
In October 2018, when I was but a lowly sophomore in college, I walked the one block between my dorm and Gorgas Library, the gleaming white heart of The University of Alabama campus where the visiting poet was speaking. Their name was, is, Meg Day. Their collection was called Last Psalm at Sea Level. I bought a copy and had it signed.
(The trouble with visiting authors, back in the days when authors visited and simply walked about campus breathing guilelessly, is that I am terrified of them. I am mortified to be in the presence of anyone much smarter than myself, and especially mortified to make idle conversation with them, this vaguely important person I know next to nothing about and to whom I will surely say something devastatingly stupid. This aversion also explains my fear of showing up early to Zoom lectures.)
But anyways, I had the book signed. The poet asked me for my name and what I was studying in school, and I answered both questions with a frozen half-smile on my face. On the steps of the library, I opened the book and looked to see what they had written.
to Leah: the best poets are reporters & vice versa.
I think about that inscription a lot, trying to apply it to people I admire, seeing if it holds up. It typically does. And I find that the sort of yin and yang, reporter-as-poet/poet-as-reporter, of it all reminds me, always, of two of the women whose work I admire most.
For as long as I have known of Joan Didion and Joni Mitchell, they have shared a space in my mind. Two beautiful, glamorous women of the same era, endowed with obvious creative talent and the same name. Both from California (or, rather, both deeply associated with California), both cool and detached, both fodder for summer mornings on my parents’ porch, where I would read After Henry and listen to Ladies of the Canyon for the nth time.
The more I read them and listen to them, the more they meld for me. From the beginning, the two Joans are intrinsically attached in that they both introduced me to California, the last frontier, the place I would build up and romanticize in my mind from my place in Birmingham, Alabama, before eventually deciding that it was probably not unlike most other states.
(Their Californias were different, but they were also the same. Joni laid out a vision of ocean breezes and crisp white linen and colored glass vases in the window and easels with oil paints and interesting men and interesting women and being welcomed home. With Didion, it was cigarettes and glass bottles of Coca-Cola and long scenic drives and crime and mystery and parties and drugs and a kind of bland stubbornness hidden behind enormous sunglasses. Different Californias, yes, but it seemed to me that, when combined, they became the perfect summertime snowglobe scene for a somewhat restless teenager to latch onto.)
Still, it’s more than a shared left coast association. I can’t listen to “Down to You” from Court and Spark without beginning and ending my listening by thinking of Didion. “Things that you held high / And told yourself were true / Lost or changing as the days come down to you,” Joni sings. In “The White Album,” Didion writes of “a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself.” Joni says, “everything comes and goes,” nothing is permanent, nothing is sacred. People are kind and they’re cruel, disgusting and beautiful, indifferent and obsessive. Friendships fade, all things pass away. It’s ecclesiastical in a very literal sense.
“She is coming to terms with the meaninglessness of experience,” Didion has said of Maria, the central figure of her novel Play It As It Lays. “And that’s what everybody who lives in Los Angeles essentially has to come to terms with, because none of it seems to mean anything.”
And, at the end of the song: “Just when you're thinking / You've finally got it made / Bad news comes knocking / At your garden gate,” Mitchell sings mournfully. Down to you, constant stranger. Everyone gets dealt a bad hand at some point. From the stage, Vanessa Redgrave-as-Didion echoes Joni, her own experience of grief making her a sort of grim reaper figure to the audience: “That may seem a while ago, but it won’t when it happens to you. And it will happen to you.”
Still, more. Within a year of each other, Joni entrusted her daughter for adoption; Didion adopted a daughter of her own. In the somewhat hollywoodien lines of "Shades of Scarlett Conquering" and "Sunny Sunday," I am reminded of "John Wayne: A Love Song." When I read "In the Islands," I have the urge to listen to Hejira, imagining a blue quilt across the bed in Didion's room at the Royal Hawaiian. When Didion gives us an overview of the tiredly tense reconciliation discussions between herself and her husband, I think, "You and me, we're like America and Russia / We're always keeping score / We're always balancing the power / And that can get to be a cold, cold war."
From both writers: poetic truths, sometimes literally in the form of poetry, sometimes within the bounds of a paperback or newsmagazine.