There is nothing magical about twins. If you believe otherwise, you may as well believe in mermaids and centaurs. One twin sister cannot read the thoughts of the other. Nor does a stabbing pain travel psychic miles to lodge itself in the gut of the brother when his twin is killed in a drunk driving accident. A twin is merely one of two offspring produced in a single pregnancy. But on the bright side, there is no such thing as a so-called “evil twin.”
And just as one should not look for centaurs frolicking among faerie twins in a Hellenic meadow, one should not expect to lie down in that same field and wait for a Muse to show up and hand him a poem. An image may be inspired at the sight of a woman’s well-turned ankle (Homer). A meter may be borrowed from a nightingale’s song (Mandelshtam). A masterpiece may be dashed off in just the span of one feverish night (Blok). But you can bet it won’t have been dispatched from Mount Parnassus. Rather, it is the intimate pairing of experience and language that guides the poet to the poem—that binds the twin to his other.
I am a twin—a monozygotic twin, to be more specific—and I assure you, there is nothing magical about me. Monozygotic, or identical twins, occur when a single egg is fertilized to form one zygote that then divides into two separate embryos with the same fundamental genetic material. Eventually, two separate fetuses develop. It is a random and quite non-magical event occurring in about three of every 1,000 deliveries.Yet it never ceases to capture the imagination of those not randomly selected to become twins themselves.
As one of a pair of twins, I’ve been asked everything from whether I can read my brother’s mind to whether we share orgasms when just one of us is getting lucky. To be fair, when we were young, my brother and I did look remarkably alike, and to some extent still do today. There have been times when looking at yearbook photographs that even we couldn’t tell who was who. And it didn’t help that our mother dressed us in similar clothing. Our “sameness” has caused heads to turn and has stopped people in their tracks. A neighborhood kid once even begged to allow him to present us at his class Show-and-Tell. (I still remember running away with my brother when the would-be P.T. Barnum came to fetch us for his elementary school freak show.)
While apparently captivated by our similarities, people have seemed equally obsessed with noting our differences and identifying reciprocal traits in our respective appearances or characters. By turns, I’ve been the fat twin and the thin twin; the good twin and the bad twin; the one with a girlfriend and the one without. And my brother has been labeled smarter than I am or the more artistically talented one. More imaginative observers even have tried to figure out which one of us is the straight twin and which is the gay one.We’ve been stopped by strangers and compared on the street, and we’ve been verbally maligned, even assaulted, as though one of us was Frankenstein’s monster and the other his equally gruesome double. So we found ways to differentiate ourselves. For as long as I can recall, my brother wanted to be a visual artist of some sort—a cartoonist, a printmaker, and finally a painter. While I, too, was creatively inclined, I knew that I could never become one myself; he had already claimed that path. I compromised and started writing poetry. So, as well as being the fat one or the one without a girlfriend, one of us became the artist and the other the poet—assigned roles meant to test the tether that bound us together.
In high school, my brother and I played a prank on one of his teachers by switching classes with each other. No one was the wiser until one of his classmates, a cheerleader, spotted a difference and betrayed me with her scream, a reaction that seemed rather extreme at the time. But it is disturbing to realize that someone is not whom you thought he was. The sameness of twins seems to throw one off balance, as though one’s mind is playing tricks. And this imbalance becomes compounded when even a subtle difference is noted, creating a sense that something is not right—Freud’s term das unheimliche (the uncanny) more or less sums it up, to the extent that such a vaguely disturbing feeling can be summed up. In situations of mistaken identity, it is as though a familiar person has somehow become a stranger right before your eyes. An unsettling cognitive dissonance arises as a result of simultaneously recognizing and not recognizing someone. When mistaking one twin for another, some embrace this tension with a sense of wonder, others with discomfort. Indeed, myth has it that if friends or family see one’s doppelganger (literally “double walker” in German), it’s to be understood as a harbinger of illness or bad luck. Worse, to see one’s own double—as in Dostoyevsky’s The Double: A Petersburg Poem, where a government clerk goes mad, obsessed by the idea that a colleague has stolen his identity—is to portend insanity, even death. In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “William Wilson,” the protagonist is haunted by his double—an “evil twin,” really—who literally drives him crazy by taking over every aspect of his life (including his name). For much of his life, an identical twin sees his own double nearly every day, which would mean portending his own death and the death of his brother on a daily basis.
But my twin brother is not a magical creature. He can’t read my thoughts or hold his own hand above a candle flame in order to burn mine, though we are certainly closer to each other than we are to our other three brothers--all mere singletons. If we share a unique bond, it likely has more to do with our proximity (both physical and temporal) to one another than anything so interesting as magic or genetics. After all, we grew up side by side in nearly every sense of the term. Born six minutes apart, we developed and reached our milestones at the same time. We learned to walk and to speak together. We napped alongside each other, often in the same crib. We were dressed alike and started school at the same time. And as we learned to play and to talk together, we developed similar interests and senses of humor. If my brother would often finish my sentences, it was because he simply knew me that well. This isn’t unique to twins; it can occur in old married couples and close friends, even among siblings not simultaneously conceived. It is merely a tender byproduct of intimacy. Only, it is easier with twins because since Day One everything about their early lives is happening at exactly the same time—and more apparent, because identical twins tend to look so much alike.
Though likely a matter of family lore, my brother and I have always been told that we are “mirror image twins.” That is, while identical, some of our features have mirrored differences and similarities: For instance, I am left-handed while he his right-handed; if a tooth came in on one side of my mouth, you could bet that he would soon get one on the other side; and we share a similar ptosis (or drooping) of one of our eyelids, only on opposite sides of our faces. This mirroring effect is supposed to occur when a fertilized egg splits quite late, at around 9-12 days. Any later than that and, it is said, you’re in conjoined-twin territory. Learning that we had just missed becoming Siamese twins made me shudder when I was young and in many ways still does so today. When I moved to New York to study poetry, I was obsessed with it. I couldn’t read enough about those most famous of conjoined twins, the so-called “Siamese Twins” or “Double Boys” Chang and Eng Butler, and the six-inch band of flesh connecting the two even through separate marriages that produced a total of 21 children between them (a story wonderfully told in Darin Strauss’s fictional account Chang and Eng. “‘Chang-Eng,’ the children chanted. ‘Mutant, mutant.’”).
When I uprooted to New York, my brother stayed in Providence to paint, and there wasn’t a day that I didn’t miss him. It was the first time we had lived apart, and though just two states away, I could feel the tug of our bond stretched to its limit, even while we began developing separate e. At school, I was studying under a poet who discouraged his students from committing poems to paper. One didn’t read or recite a poem, one relived it with each utterance, so it never was quite the same twice. This form of composition kept the words and ideas swirling around in the poet’s head, and was not the least bit compatible with sitting still, which was perfect for me. I felt anxious without my twin brother, my constant companion, by my side, and I dragged his absence like a heavy shadow on long walks around the city.
“How many shoe soles, how many ox-hide soles, how many sandals Alighieri wore out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat paths of Italy,” asks Osip Mandelshtam in his 1933 essay “Conversation with Dante.” I discovered this passage that first year in New York, as I became interested in Russian poetry—the first interest, as far as I am aware, that my brother and I did not share in common. Mandelshtam did not compose his poetry at a desk, rather on the go, and he imagined the same of his beloved Florentine. “The step, linked with breathing and saturated with thought, [Dante] understood as the beginning of prosody.... Even a stop is but a variety of accumulated motion.... The metrical foot is the inhalation and exhalation of the step.”
Mandelshtam walked briskly through the streets of St. Petersburg, Moscow, Voronezh, always in intimate conversation with the past, drinking “the cloudy air like muddy water.” With each hurried step:
Time is turned over. The rose was once dirt.
Tender Roses spin sluggishly in thick whirlpools—
Roses, heavy and tender, twined in twin wreaths.
Me? I walked around New York muttering poems about Siamese twins, double monsters, and shattered reflections in broken mirrors, but always in conversation with my brother and our twined pasts.
Though a twin herself, my mother was not a magical creature, even if her father certainly thought he had brought something special to the table. Growing up on and off an Oklahoma reservation with twin sisters of his own (not to mention a dozen more singleton siblings), my grandfather was immensely proud when my mother gave birth to twins--and proportionately disgusted with my aunt for having produced only single births. As a result, my brother and I received special attention from our grandfather, who strutted like some cock of the gene pool, while our brothers were largely ignored. But my mother and her sister were dizygotic, or sororal twins. Sometimes referred to as “non-identical” or “dissimilar,” dizygotic twinning usually occurs when two eggs are independently fertilized by two different sperm cells, resulting in fraternal twins. Like any other siblings, sororal (or “fraternal,” in the case of boys) twins have an extremely small chance of sharing the same chromosome profile. They may look similar—and my mother and aunt looked just alike—but may also look very different from each other. And the same holds true for brothers and sisters from the same parents: Sororal twins are just sisters who happen to be the same age. I doubt my grandfather would have appreciated the distinction.
When people find out that my mother was also a twin, they are either amazed by the coincidence or they tell me that twins usually “run in the family.” Some even predict that I will likely produce twins of my own (not yet). While there is a genetic basis for dizygotic twinning (on the maternal side, as there is yet no known strategy for a man to tease out more than one ovum from an ovary), this is not the case with identical twinning, which occurs through a spontaneous and random event. Spontaneous and random events don’t get passed from one generation to the next, no matter the perceived potency of one’s Injun mojo. (Sorry, Grandpa.)
When my aunt died some years before my mother, it felt somehow strange to think of them still as twins--and stranger yet to not think of them as twins. Despite losing her sister, didn’t my mother remain a twin while she yet lived? When my aunt passed away, my mother became somehow diminished, a mere shadow of herself. She was never quite the same again, even if she didn’t feel something special the moment my aunt died in the middle of the night--a scenario easily accommodated by my grandfather's mythopoetics: his twin sisters passed away within days of one another. Still, when people would mistake my mother for her late-sister, they were often stunned to learn that they weren’t really talking to the person they thought they were. But how can this be, some seemed to wonder, she was just standing in front of me? But as they’re both dead, the problem seems to have resolved itself. Now it doesn’t seem strange at all to continue thinking of them as twin sisters.
But twins do “vanish.” It is believed that as many as one in eight pregnancies start out as multiples, though only a single fetus is eventually brought to term, because the other has died very early in the pregnancy. Early ultrasounds sometime reveal an “extra” fetus, which fails to develop and instead disintegrates and vanishes. And even with nearly identical DNA, environmental influences throughout a pair of twins’ lives cause some genes to be switched “on” or “off” in individual twins. Some studies suggest that differences increase with age. For instance, fifty-year-old twins may acquire more genetic differences between them than three-year-old twins. So cans twins simply time out? That is, if a twin can vanish, can the bond that once linked them be forgotten?
The Forgotten Word
“I forgot the word I wanted to say,” Mandelshtam begins “Swallow,” a poem from Tristia, his second collection of poems, which I translated while in graduate school. The “forgotten” word simply packs up and returns to the “hall of shadows” from whence it came and the poem is lost.“But on the lips, like black ice, / Burns the memory of Stygian chimes.”
Ironically, I stopped writing poetry for more than ten years after translating that poem. When the poems stopped coming down from Parnassus, as it were, I didn’t know what to think. For some ten years, I had defined myself as a poet, had been recognized by others as a poet, had even drawn this distinction between myself and my twin brother, as in: This is what makes me who I am, what makes me different than him. Suddenly, this trait had vanished and I didn’t know what to do with myself. By this time, I was living in Boston (my brother, like a doppelganger, was now in New York confusing everyone who had known me there) and I used to wander those historic streets muttering to myself, trying to find some words to link together. But to no avail. In the meantime, I threw myself into translation. If I couldn’t find poems within me, maybe I could find inspiration within the head of another. In this case, Osip Mandelshtam.
When translating a poem, aside from the murky business of rendering it from one language into another, the translator must insinuate himself into the head of the original poet, into the very DNA of the poetry itself. Translation is the closest reading possible of a poem, requiring an examination of each word on something of a genetic level. A translator, then, must attempt to recapture the primordial stuff that inspired the original poem in the first place (in some way an inversion of Freud’s das unheimliche: the strange made familiar). He needs to learn everything possible about the poem, the circumstances of its writing and of the poet’s life while writing it—the viscera of the poetics itself. In short, he must learn to finish the poet’s sentences, to become his double.
While wandering the streets of Boston, it was Mandelshtam with whom I was in conversation—an intimidating thought, to be sure, but one made more comforting over time through the intimacy of a shared experience and an increasingly shared language. But how could Mandelshtam have replaced my brother—my twin—in my internal dialogue? How could another so easily have intruded upon our lifelong conversation? But like steps along uneven paths, conversations do falter. Life and distance bring interruptions, allowing the familiar to turn strange. Neither of us are magical creatures, so he can’t put thoughts into my head from afar, nor can I tap into his mind across state lines. Like everyone else, we simply grew further apart, left increasingly to rely upon speculation and conjecture—the guesswork of isolated minds kept in the dark, like the Forgotten Word returning to its hall of shadows.