Arc of Coincidence

– Essay by Jeffrey F. Barken 

Years ago, on a college road trip with friends, I stumbled upon a Chagall painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, (PMA). Half-Past Three, (The Poet), an oil on canvas, was completed in France in 1911. The work, part of the PMA’s permanent collection, alludes directly to Emily Dickinson’s obscure poem, At Half Past Three, A Single Bird. As if “Unto a silent sky”(white wall) a little plaque chirps quiet, near, and bears the poem. During my first reading, I was struck by the poet’s evocation of shifting shades as evening looms. Lulled in pulses the speaker arrives at an estranged peace… 

Now, I’m reminded of the lines that impacted me the most: “And Place was where the Presence was / Circumference between,” the poem concludes. This signature lightness of being that Dickinson summons, surely informed Chagall’s imaginative painting. “The Poet” bears an upside-down head. A tall tilted bottle—as if taken by a great gust of wind—leaps off a red table, all as a green cat calmly licks his master’s lap. Through Chagall’s blues, carved in shards, and the cloudy white background smears, concentric energy swirls the topsy-turvy scene hiding behind stitched, print curtains.

The concept of “Circumference” was pivotal to Dickinson’s poetry. “Circumference marks the borderline of symbolic and linguistic order,” Laura Gribbin asserts in her essay, Emily Dickinson’s Circumference: Figuring a Blind Spot in the Romantic Tradition.* “This border is a highly charged point of convergence where oppositions are collapsed, boundaries are explored, and meaning originates,” Gribbin writes. Readers are prompted to reflect on the essential individuality that underlies even our closest relationships. Try as we may, we cannot merge souls. Parallel existence is unsustainable. An arc of coincidence accounts for all initial human encounters and in turn, drives companioned travels, but the mystic source of personal gravity will gradually, inevitably, spirit partners away—perhaps on tangents, or as lonesome souls eternally bound to disparate orbits. 

If not a recipe for “meaning,” I thought I had at least discovered a means to begin structuring the life trajectories of my fictional characters. I returned from Philadelphia intrigued to consider two collapsible identities staged at a pivotal meeting, and inspired to attempt writing a love story. I soon submitted my still unpublished piece, titled; A Tale Unplanned, to my Sophomore year creative writing class. 

How stereotypical of me, at that age, to be so enamored of a wandering muse. These were the first lines I scrawled in glimpse of my heroine, a young woman named Erin, first seen bounding “Rocky’s Steps” outside the PMA, all to the delight of her would be lover: She was a “three stepper” –never taking stairs in sets of ones and twos—like humbler folk more often do—but always making leaps and strides—a method I judged was ultimately slower…

Flawed as my short story was on many counts, I remain proud of the draft. Suffice to say the trip to Philadelphia had been worthwhile, my exposure to both Chagall and Dickinson, foundational. As I continued to ruminate on Circumference through the years and many adventures that were to follow, I eventually landed on my own rendition of the same theme. People in the world when time is running on, begins a poem I’ve jotted in many different iterations throughout my early journals. Are lines and fits of passion that glide and swerve together… It’s fair to say I grew a tad obsessive about this summation of existence that I’d developed to fuel my writing. Often I’d experiment, changing subtle words here and there in latter verse, and then bide time filling entire pages of my journals with accompanying diagrams. My repetitive fractal sketches featured curved, briefly touching lines exemplifying those very fits of passion, (various people) I saw sprinting tests of time in life as well as fiction.

My writing method firmly established, I began to map the characters and plot of my first novel, All The Lonely Boys in New York. The project was already well underway by the time I met my wife in December of 2009. I had traveled to Israel to volunteer on a kibbutz. My existence at that time was a peculiar, once in a lifetime experience. To earn my room and board, I’d wake early and spend the day digging irrigation trenches and trimming palms. If there wasn’t a party after work, I’d devote my afternoons and evenings to my writing. On weekends, I’d make small excursions to tour the country. The Shabbat we met, I was visiting my aunt and uncle in Zichron Ya’achov, a small town in the hills north of Tel Aviv. One morning, when I asked to visit the sea, my aunt dropped me at a tiny coastal Kibbutz called Nachsholim. There, in the spirit of A Tale Unplanned, I found a scenic hill-top overlooking the sea, sat on the steps of Roman ruins, and played some rambling ditties on the banjo I’d brought along for amusement. 

Contrary to Dickinson’s “single bird,” hardly were my clumsy clucking melodies “cautious.” It’s true I hoped to score a date that night, and was in every way prepared to make romantic overtures, but the three-stepping black-haired girl who raced along the old Roman path on tangent toward me, eclipsed all expectation. To this day, we both recall being somehow blinded by our initial encounter. In the middle of a conversation that stretched all afternoon, we had the sudden sensation we’d known each other all along. Shockingly, it was a sentiment my wife’s sister quickly echoed when we crossed paths in a cove further up the shore where she had brought her children to play. She thought we were the oldest of friends. 

When my aunt returned to fetch me, my wife and I made a hasty plan to grab a drink later that night at a local Irish pub. There we continued our rapid sharing of experiences, interests and dreams. I told her about my writing and even scribbled a rendition of my People in the world poem on a napkin with accompanying diagram. Later we walked up to a lookout spot, where we had our first kiss. Then she drove me home. 

That spring I quit my volunteer post. My wife had invited me to live with her in Tel Aviv. Exciting as this period was, a terrible deadline loomed. I was slated to travel to Germany in May for some last thrills with friends before I returned to the States. No matter how melancholic this perceived expiration date for our relationship could render us both in turns, by the same token we discovered an incredibly romantic urge to make the most of every moment. We cooked, dined out, met friends, had drinks, talked twilight thoughts, made love and walked together everywhere. 

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?” Jack Kerouac hums roaming verse in On the Road. Surely the tearful scene my wife made in Ben-Gurion airport as I gave one last wave and turned the corner through security, bears resemblance. “It’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye,” Kerouac suggests. Yes, there is a pendulum presiding, but whereas the Beatnik is spurred forward—his or her spirits renewed—by what shallow Kerouac conveniently labels the “next crazy venture,” my departure, was emotionally crushing. Utterly fatigued by my wife’s absence, I found little enjoyment and rather a sense of redundancy in the next phase of my travels.

“Leave the rest to chance,” is the mantra of uncertain lovers. We were lucky. Another coincidence intervened, forestalling doubts derived of distance. While I was still touring Germany my wife’s company in Israel acquired a new East German client. Since she speaks fluent German, her boss was keen to send her abroad where she could assist with initial project planning. We rejoiced in this unexpected chance to be together once more. Time was short, of course, but when we met in Dresden all our passion burst forth heightened. One day we picnicked under a bridge on the banks of the Elbe. I told my wife there’s no point wasting time being lonely. We owed it to ourselves to at least try out life as a couple in America. The bravest girl I’ll ever meet, she agreed and made the leap of faith.

The following April we were married in Baltimore, where I was attending graduate school. Our experiment had subjugated the tests of separation and immigration. At last “Place was where the Presence was,” we’d made our home together. 

In hindsight, I can count a dozen signs and symbols that make me believe our fortuitous meeting on the beach and subsequent fast-paced courtship was somehow ordained. Certainly, I owe a spiritual debt of gratitude to Marc Chagall. His artwork inspired my stay in Israel and led me to my wife.

During the winter of 2008, when I was still working half-a-dozen gigs in New York to keep afloat amid the worsening recession, I began eagerly seeking escape abroad. I had gone so far as to price out tickets to Buenos Aires, and to explore my visa options for a prolonged stay in South America. Then my dad lent me his copy of Jackie Wullschlager’s recently published biography, Chagall. Time to read was dear in those trying days, but I devoured the book. The colorful descriptions of Chagall’s post war experiences in Israel and the stained glass works he produced for the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem were enough to turn my gaze East. 

So I had embarked on a Holy Land Adventure in search of artistic illumination, and yes, I hoped to meet someone on my travels. I’m generally not superstitious, but what strange providence to encounter a print of “The Birthday” by Marc Chagall, depicting the artist levitating in love with his fiancée, hanging in the hotel room my wife and I rented our first night together in Tel Aviv. We have since discovered that we share the same seven-and-a-half-years age difference as Chagall and his wife, Bella Rosenfeld, although our ages are reversed. Similarly, an odd fact to reflect upon, I met my wife exactly one hundred years after Chagall first encountered Bella in 1909. Though it’s not her career, she is a talented artist, and we share a creative life. 

Obviously these characterizing coincidences occurred at random. Despite accenting our love, they are not the essence of our attraction. And yet, for the sake of telling a good story, we do find such meaning in these circumferential elements, that in musing moments we are prompted to consider questions of destiny.  

Dickinson’s poem suggests that it is what lies “between” two collapsing identities on the threshold of encounter, a vague impenetrable energy field, that spurs enduring intrigue in defiance of time constraints. In other words, momentum. “Keep the mystery,” my wife used to say when we were first courting, tempering my open desire for partnership. Flush with optimism—an unleashed dare—with all my American Innocence cast abroad, did I quote Obama’s First Inaugural? Dismissing any “big plan” cynicism that might impede the ambitions of “free men and women,” I proposed to the girl I’d only known for a few months that nothing could limit us once our “imagination(s) (were) joined to common purpose.” Thankfully, my wife knew better than I how sacred and essential individuality is. That the point of meeting someone new and coming together as a couple, is to wake each other up and, emboldened, face disparate journeys. We’ve kept along our parallel and passionate paths, undaunted by the fact that “forever” is a term beyond all mortal grasp.  

My focus as an author and a publisher has always been to foster collaborations. I’d be remiss not to praise the principle collaborator who has supported and inspired me through the most pivotal chapters. When my wife first sketched the logo for back in 2014 it truly launched a creative vision we’d come to share. As if she’d compiled all my fractals into one iconic entity, a somewhat comical, Huck-of-sorts character sits atop a log and rows along the current, seeking links to others. This image was a formal invitation for writers and artists to experiment on a platform that celebrates creativity without asserting ownership, and which highlights whatever ripples spread from each individual’s tangential course toward “meaning.” In this peculiar, seemingly destined pursuit, perhaps the best anyone can do, is cling to those he or she has met by chance along the arc of coincidence, and paddle forth with sprig in teeth, “circumference between.”

– Jeffrey F. Barken –
November 15, 2020 

*Gribbin, Laura. “Emily Dickinson’s Circumference: Figuring a Blind Spot in the Romantic Tradition.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 2, no. 1 (1993): 1-21. doi:10.1353/edj.0.0142.