21 August 2008
Have been staring at syllabi all week wondering how I ever got through a single semester of teaching before -- they are, at best, slightly overwhelming. It's my fault; I know already there's too much on each one. And yet, I keep throwing in more and more reading, more and more assignments, as though I'm throwing books and paper and pens at my students, as though I'm in some sort of wild and dangerous arsenal, shouting, "READ THIS! READ MORE! WRITE WRITE WRITE!"
Will regret this later.
And, because my television seems to be, well, busted (each channel sounds like "CHHHHHHH" with all the static and jumpy lines), there's no opportunity for me to relax with the really bad crime shows, featuring Horatio. Which is probably a good thing. There are only so many times you can hear the man say, [in response to a question, say, about alarm clocks and a well-timed murder], "Well, Mr. Fox, he may need a wake-up call. From us." After a while, terrible phrasing and bad delivery can kill the last of anyone's ability to think.
So, in lieu of any other distraction, I've been reading this poem over and over again, getting ready to try to explain what makes a good metaphor to my students, what makes a simile work, what makes writing vivid and interesting.
This, of course, does every bad thing, tongue-in-cheek: metaphors that are in no way workable, metaphors that go so far off-track they are no longer even about the subject, metaphors that are not even metaphors, and similes that are not even similes. But somehow it manages both an unwieldy sense of humor and a great uplift at the end, pushing us back to the startling, as though the poet and the poem can't help but be terrific, and moving, after all.
Here 'tis. John and Mary. Who had never met, of course. (Many thanks to Hannah for sending this to me -- saves my life a little bit every day.)
John & Mary
"John & Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who also had never met."
—from a freshman's short story
~ Stephen Dunn
They were like gazelles who occupied different
grassy plains, running in opposite directions
from different lions. They were like postal clerks
in different zip codes, with different vacation time,
their bosses adamant and clock-driven.
How could they get together?
They were like two people who couldn't get together.
John was a Sufi with a love of the dervish,
Mary of course a Christian with a curfew.
They were like two dolphins in the immensity
of the Atlantic, one playful,
the other stuck in a tuna net—
two absolutely different childhoods!
There was simply no hope for them.
They would never speak in person.
When they ran across that windswept field
toward each other, they were like two freight trains,
one having left Seattle at 6:36 P.M.
at an unknown speed, the other delayed
in Topeka for repairs.
The math indicated that they'd embrace
in another world, if at all, like parallel lines.
Or merely appear kindred and close, like stars.
(This was published in Ploughshares. And elsewhere, no doubt. It came, this time, from my email account. And the energy to research where it was published is lacking. Apologies.)
07 August 2008
After I've been writing for a while, invariably I'll wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, thinking, "What's a metaphor? Oh, no, oh no, oh no, I can't remember what a metaphor is, oh no, oh no, WHAT'LL I DO?!"
I wonder if this happens to anyone else, in any other professions. Do doctors awake and think, "What on earth is a fibula? What IS it? WHAT?!" Do bartenders awake and think, "I have no idea where Scotch comes from. Where?!"
Somehow, I doubt it. But such is the nature of writing, for me, at least, who clearly needs to sleep with a Dictionary of Poetic Terms under her pillow.
But I did remember what similes were this morning (relief of the highest order) as I was working on a poem, and trying to describe the ocean. It's a very difficult thing to do, to describe the ocean. For one thing, it's been done for... well, for forever. I was just having a conversation last night about "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Which, of course, reminded me that really good, timeless, brilliant poets (no matter the opium or the other influences) write about the sea all the time, and they've done it better and faster and stronger than you could ever do it.
And so, in lieu of posting the poem I'm working on, which is chock full of words like "delicate" and "linger" and "sluice" (I do like that last one), I thought that instead I'd do that fun little diversion in which you type the phrase, "[your first name] is like," in quotes, into Google, and steal all your favorites and wonder how you ever might have got to be like that. It's also wonderfully narcissistic, hilarious, and invariably--invariably--with the name Sally, you're likely to get phrases about people's favorite dogs ("Sally is like a tornado of fur and slobber") and their oldest aunts ("Sally is like a wrinkled old handbag"). I very much like my name, of course; I just happen to share it with lots Saint Bernards and octogenarians.
So, in no particular order and to avoid all the dumb ones, here are my favorites from the top twenty or so:
1. "Bonfires too are unyielding, unemotional and unresponsive; but neither 'Sally is like a bonfire' nor 'Sally is a bonfire' is metaphorically compatible with the original sentence." (A lesson on similes! This might actually turn out to be helpful, somewhere, someday!)
2. "What I really wanted to say is that Sally is like a Fiat Strada: she was handbuilt by robots." (AWEsome).
3. "I believe that Sally is like a Commanding Officer (CO). If a CO isn't strict, then your forces would fall into complete chaos, correct?" (Correct.)
4. "Sally's is like a transplanted Louisiana roadhouse, full of good music, good people and good food."
5. "Sally is like.... Dopeasaurus REX!!!!"
6. "Sally is like disco. We didn't like it when it was new, but we get nostalgic looking back."
7. "Sally is like the anchorperson in a relay race."
8. "Sally is like a ricocheting bullet, bouncing off walls and furniture and whizzing between my legs like a streaking comet." (I really hope that one's about a dog.)
9. "Sally is like Switzerland."
10. "Sally is like a fireman. She is always ready to go when the bell rings."
11. [An album title?] "Sally Is Like A Lucid Dream."
And, now, almost my favorite thus far, which is suitable for print. . .
12. "Sally is like the imaginary friend gone wrong."
Now, after that faux-exercise for creating similes, I'll go back to trying to generate them out of my own brain, and will stop starting every sentence with my own name. It's getting a little eerie, as though I'm one of those people who refers to herself as "The Queen." (i.e.: "The Queen prefers Junior Mints." or "The Queen would like you to shower.") No, I don't know anyone who does that, but I imagine that, one day, in the senior home, you'll find me saying such things.
And now you want to Google your own name, don't you? Go forth. Tell me what you find.
p.s. The title of this post is the epigram from a poem that's a new favorite of mine, recently sent to me by Hannah and Mamie, and we've read it back and forth so many times we have it memorized. It's genius, and hilarious, and I'm going to post it next, again to remind myself what a good simile is, and what one is NOT.
29 July 2008
The important part is this: I ran across this poem.
It makes a Tuesday, any Tuesday, better to know that this poem exists in it, and that the poem is here every day. Maybe that's one reason for writing poems -- for writing them down, I mean: to ensure that a lovely moment (even amid the words "mucus," "waggle," "fluorescent mustard," and "book lice") continues through the days, the weeks, the years of rough-going.
Of course, I'd be called on the carpet for such a sentiment, such a poem, but that's why Galway Kinnell is here: to do it beautifully, smartly, unabashedly. (And that was the world's worst series of adverbs). I'd talk more about it, but I don't really want to. I'm just going to think about ants and peonies, and trails of monarchs, and hand-holding in the dark.
~ Galway Kinnell
Didn't you like the way the ants help
the peony globes open by eating the glue off?
Weren't you cheered to see the ironworkers
sitting on an I-beam dangling from a cable,
in a row, like starlings, eating lunch, maybe
baloney on white with fluorescent mustard?
Wasn't it a revelation to waggle
from the estuary all the way up the river,
the kill, the pirle, the run, the rent, the beck,
the sike barely trickling, to the shock of a spring?
Didn't you almost shiver, hearing book lice
clicking their sexual dissonance inside an old
Webster's New International, perhaps having just
eaten out of it izle, xyster, thalassacon?
What did you imagine lies in wait anyway
at the end of a world whose sub-substance
is glaim, gleet, birdlime, slime, mucus, muck?
Forget about becoming emaciated. Think of the wren
and how little flesh is needed to make a song.
Didn't it seem somehow familiar when the nymph
split open and the mayfly struggled free
and flew and perched and then its own back
broke open and the imago, the true adult,
somersaulted out and took flight, seeking
the swarm, mouth-parts vestigial,
alimentary canal come to a stop,
a day or hour left to find the desired one?
Or when Casanova took up the platter
of linguine in squid's ink and slid the stuff
out the window, telling his startled companion,
"The perfected lover does not eat."
As a child, didn't you find it calming to imagine
pinworms as some kind of tiny batons
giving cadence to the squeezes and releases
around the downward march of debris?
Didn't you glimpse in the monarchs
what seemed your own blazonry
flapping and gliding, in desire, in the middle air?
Weren't you reassured to think these flimsy
hinged beings, and then their offspring,
and then their offspring's offspring, could
navigate, working in shifts, all the way to Mexico,
to the exact plot, perhaps the very tree,
by tracing the flair of the bodies of their ancestors
who fell in this same migration a year ago?
Doesn't it outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concert
to wake in the night and find ourselves
holding each other's hand in our sleep?
(published in Strong is Your Hold by Galway Kinnell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
21 July 2008
If you've got any ideas, though -- I'm all ears.
reading in the dark
the moon held up by a thread,
or more than one, a marionette—
and the sky, fingers.
a text of stars, a lawful, certain blaze—
who doesn’t doubt everything, in this dark?
who can read? don’t read
without light, my mother says,
you’ll strain your
lovely glassless eyes.
hold the white gauze
of morning over your mouth—
it covers, nearly,
the tiny cuts left, invisible
as fiberglass on your lips, left
by what was
said over a bottle of wine, over
the raft of darkness
between you and another.
neither of you can agree
which one is the north star, the scoop
of light, and everyone points elsewhere, without
compass or chart.
who wouldn’t doubt what you heard
come out of his mouth?
each star playing its last white note.
flawless, his logic, his starred map:
the text of argument, full of tunnels,
escape routes, pinpoints of light
that don’t add up
to a moon.
(Not yet published. Please tell all your publishing friends.)
17 July 2008
I'm in the bookshop with a cup of coffee and a headache.
The headache is not improved by the position of my chair and table, which face the self-help section, and so I can see titles like, The Happiness Trap, and The Idiot's Guide to Self-Esteem (paradox, no?), and Success Principles. These titles all make me nervous (except the Idiot's Guide, which makes me laugh) because I'm sort of a self-help hypochondriac. Co-dependent? Check. Low self-esteem? Check. Out of control with money? You bet. And soon I have an armful of books and guilt and I can't hardly stand it.
The self-help section is only made worse by the fact that it's next to the wedding book section. And they proceed from left to right. Therefore, after a single girl wanders past the wedding section -- the enormous pastel-covered albums with silvery script for the title, the portraits of sparkly shiny brides with their perfect unwilted lilies, the romantic rain-smudged pictures of likely-to-be-models-but-we'll-pretend-they're-real-people paired up under a streetlamp somewhere that must be Paris -- she can go directly, without having to even get out a kleenex, without having to turn to ask anyone for help, to Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who will promptly tell her she's an idiot. Helpful design, this bookstore has...
But none of this is really what I wanted to write about. It just happens to be to the right of me, and I find it remarkably amusing. No, what I wanted to talk about was the poetry section, which is buried deep in the back (as they always are, which may be what drew me to them in the first place -- every kid likes hidden places, the tree forts, the blanket forts, the under-the-bed fort, the poetry fort...) and which is usually chock full of only the poetry books that high schoolers begrudgingly purchase for their summer reading ("um, do you have the EE-nid? by someone named 'Virgin'?") or that people fresh out of romantic ideas come to find for Valentine's Day ("101 love sonnets? PERfect"). I used to work here, at this very bookshop (why I insist on calling it a "bookshop" instead of a "bookstore" is not something even I fully understand right now... but go with me). And so I've helped these people locate Virgil and Whitman and Dante. And Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. (Though before you go giving that one as a gift, as my dear Hannah will tell you, you'd better read it first). And don't get me wrong -- I like the "old stuff"'; I've spent over half my life in love with a single Emily Dickinson poem. But sometimes, you need a little something fresh. And sometimes, miraculously, some slender volume appears between the canonical works, by some poet you've never heard of, and you open the book and start to read, and you get that gold-edged blue fuzzy feeling that a good poem gives you (or, at least, it gives me) which is a lot like the feeling of falling in love plus the feeling that it just might end badly plus the feeling you get eating the best melted cheese sandwich in the world. And so, that someone has given you exactly the right poem for the day.
And it's better than self-help. WAY better. This poem I've found, the one I'll post below, sounds a bit like self-help, but tongue-in-cheek, a sort of mockery of anyone who would use Frost's "The Road Not Taken" as advice for teenagers who are deciding whether or not to drink beer in the woods. And at the same time, it's a warm poem, and one that's very familiar, and consoling, and celebratory, and amusing, and reassuring. And a little more complex than "self-improvement" books with seven steps to a happier life -- this one, as a journey poem, takes in the whole of life (and death, I think), recognizes that bridges wash out, that you'll resent having to ever leave home, that you'll have to leave some folks behind or they'll leave you behind, that you'll lie, that you'll find some beautiful places, that you'll drink some really bad coffee. It could be a poem about crossing that river into an afterlife (the journey metaphor for life and death ain't new, after all); it could be a poem about a road trip and nothing more. But it does both, I think; it works on both levels -- the major metaphoric and the minor microscopic -- and the details make it palpable, sweet, endearing, and smart-alecky, all in one.
Today, this is the poem, my love + melancholy + cheese sandwich poem. I might talk more (and more coherently) about it later. For now, I just love it.
How To Get There
~ Troy Jollimore
You could veer off now, but it might be best
to keep to the route you've been following
for just a bit longer. That will give you a chance
to finish your book-on-tape, drain your coffee,
and ask yourself for the thousandth time
"Why didn't I just stay home?" Up ahead
you will come to a highway, eight or ten lanes of traffic,
a rainbow of car-colors, huge alien
billboards, drive-through espresso stands
like so many Monopoly hotels.
Make a break for the other side.
Swing as far left as you can go -- farther! --
and drive down that narrow country lane
for twenty of thirty miles. When you get
to the river, the bridge will be out. A dog
will appear as if summoned. This is your sign
to turn back, to look for the tiny side road
that you should have turned onto before, but could not,
because it's only visible once you've passed it.
When you reach the village
(the cluster of white houses)
stop and discard the map.
Also get rid of the passengers.
From here on in they'd only weigh you down.
Leave them by the side of the road. You'll need
a new identity. Call yourself 'Gary.'
Say that you're in 'insurance.'
You'll be due for a maintenance check about now;
use the time to visit the nearby diner
that sells the best cheesecake and worst coffee in the whole
Tri-State area. Flirt with the waitresses.
It might get you slapped but they'll love you for it.
By now you'll have lost too much time: you'll have to
revise destinations. Though in fact
it won't make any difference. Remember,
anyone with a knowledge of physics will tell you
that the road not taken would have led you to the same place;
or else, it was never accessible at all.
(published in Tom Thomson in Purgatory by Troy Jollimore. MARGIE, Inc./IntuiT House Poetry Series, 2006.)
02 July 2008
Still, I do feel a bit neglectful, like I've let your lawn grow too long while you were on vacation, and the neighbors are complaining. Or like I've left a glass on the porch with a smidge of red wine left, and now it's all yucky and attracting flies.
Thankfully, blogging requires neither lawn-mowing nor dish-washing, and so, here I am, making up for all those days without entries.
I'm in a new/old place for the next several weeks -- I lived here for three years, and while I was here, I had established my life -- not just in the daily ways, that I had two or three jobs, or that I knew which grocery store was closest and the fastest way to get there. No, I mean, I had established "my" places -- which coffee shop, which booth, which seat in that booth I would spend hours in for writing and staring out the window. I knew the baristas or the bartenders by name, and they knew me, and they were starting on my drink of choice when I walked in the door. It takes a long time to establish these things, these relationships and levels of comfort, and I guard them carefully, jealously. Especially when it comes to writing.
I'm realizing more and more just how superstitious I am about writing. (And it's a little scary to talk about it -- like, once it's exposed, it will vanish. Knock on wood.) I nearly gave up, threw up my hands and cried, the other day, when I didn't have the pen I like to write with -- I only had green and red grading pens, and I feel they must carry that kind of critical thought and occasional grumpiness/despair and attentiveness that I use when I'm grading, and that's no kind of mindset for a poem. I have a particular notebook, and I write in it from the back to the front. Always. There's something secretive about starting in the back, and so, liberating. There's something a little formal and beautiful about black ink, and so, I love it and refuse anything else. There are plenty of other little habits that follow these same lines, but I can't give them away here -- they're either too weird or too close to my heart to give away. I know it might be a good idea to let go of some of this superstition, but at the same time: whatever works, right? Sure. Just agree with me for now.
So, I'm trying to reestablish "my" places here, so that I get to that place where I can let go enough, let my guard down enough, to begin writing again. It ain't easy. But, luckily, one of my dear friends just purchased one of my favorite books, one of the books that's the best for my heart -- lifts it, crushes it, all at the same time. It's Plainwater by Anne Carson. My copy of the book was sent to me a long time ago, by someone I missed terribly, in one of those summers where everything was ideal except that my heart hurt steadily, every day of June, every day of July. He inscribed it: "Because I can't be there and she can't be here." (Which is, more and more, the story of my life, no?) And I fell madly in love with the book, primarily for the essay/travelogue/poem/gorgeous thing, "Just for the Thrill: An Essay on the Difference Between Women and Men." The premise of the essay (we'll call it that for the sake of brevity) is that the speaker is traveling across Canada and the US with a man she's fallen in love with, but the intent of their trip is to move him -- and he will stay in LA while she returns to Quebec. This, though, is the barest of skeletal descriptions of this essay -- she does miraculous braiding with Chinese characters and wisdom, jazz and blues, the weather, her own history and personal story, maps, anthropology, landscape. . . You name it, it's in there. I'm not going to go into defense or whatnot of her "belief" in this passage I've chosen, except to say that it strikes a chord -- I am often the women chopping the onion, filling up the bucket, whatever. But that's not really why I selected it.
I chose it because it's so astonishing for me, not just because the story itself breaks my heart, but because so much emotion comes from the delicate, intricate, dangerous pairings between sentences -- Chinese characters lead to a Robert Johnson song lyric, which leads to a storm across Missouri, which leads to some quote from her history, which leads to some fabulous statement about the difference between men and women, which, of course, leads us back to Robert Johnson: "Standin' in the rain, ain't a drop fell on me." This is a loose mimicry of what she's doing, and I hardly know how to describe it clearly, let alone follow her lead.
All the same, it's both familiar and strange, just as I am feeling much of the time here right now-- I belong in this book, I know it well, and yet it's too beautiful to hold. I belong in this town, too, though it's not really mine, not just yet, not just now, and maybe too beautiful on some days.
From: Just for the Thrill
Celine Lake, Indiana
Camping is hard on top vertebrae. Baked Indiana clay is no silk pillow. It reminds me of the morning my father woke up so angry, he dislocated his neck getting out of bed. On the good side, he loved mileages and every Sunday took us out in the car to view the landscape. As we rolled down the driveway he would glance at his odometer and call out, "Now somebody remember this number!" I was somebody. I remembered that number. For hours, for years.
It is my belief that women like to be given a task in the middle. Don't worry about putting up the tent, just hold this pole. Just fill this pail. Just chop this onion. Just collect sticks all this size. Timing is important in the middle, I know when the cursing stops is the time I go hold up the pole. Exactitude is important, depending on what the numbers are for, but I usually don't find that out until after. Good temper is important, caryatids often outlive the structures into which they are built. And now--tent pegs scorching my hands, I can hear his voice saying, For God's sake don't grow up to be one of those helpless women. Father was a man who knew the right way to do things. Well it's true the natural facts generally elude me. Yet, to see it catch like a row of wheat and do nothing, just stand there, face growing hot, knuckles hanging down -- collaborator! That is who I am. Women are not pure and they know it is the reason why the middle smells so good. A person without a smiling face should not open a shop, says classical Chinese wisdom. The original Chinese ideogram for woman shows her in a bowing position. Later the character was reduced to that of someone kneeling. For ease in writing.
Illinois, Route 19
Cornfield after cornfield after cornfield. Through southern Illinois and across sullen Missouri where the ends of the sky fall open and into hot Kansas where they dropped and stay. Another thing is you know one thing is, Carmen Macrae is singing on the radio, I don't want to be free. One thing camping is is an excellent way to confront the difference between women and men. The emperor is videotaping out the window while I drive. Explaining to me that in classical Chinese the character for cornfield plus the character for oneself mean freedom. Well I came on this trek to leave one self behind. Like a painting, it will be erased, I thought, and the suffering too. For desire is like the secret of the suffering of a work of art, dispersed over the surface of the beloved's body, residing everywhere and nowhere at once. You know I'd rather be a blind girl. I came on this trek to videotape desire -- to obtain cheap, prompt and correct facts about an object to which nothing in the world exactly corresponds. Than to see you walk away with another love.
(published in Plainwater by Anne Carson. New York: 1995, Vintage Contemporaries.)
01 June 2008
(and there, you've just taken the abbreviated version of my class. really, when it comes to these stories, for me, it's a lot of hand-clasping and eyes rolling to the ceiling in raptures and extravagant gestures with my flapping arms and a lot of "o!" exclamations).
i can't tell you what it is about these stories that draws me in so. of course, i took one course on jungian psychology (from a certified jungian psychologist who studied at jung's institute in switzerland!), and another that referenced it for a unit, and so, i can claim to be an "expert" (ha!) on jungian psychology, and while i believe that some of what jung claims can be detrimental and/or limiting, i've always been drawn to the idea that there are universal themes, universal identities, that we all recognize, that strike us deep at our cores, even if the characters/archetypes are not in any way representative of our own experiences. these characters, these revelatory folks -- from demeter's desperate search for her missing daughter, which brings the death of all living things on earth, until she finds her and strikes a bargain to get her back (bringing spring and rebirth), to orpheus' despair over losing his only love not once, but twice, to death -- condense, it seems to me, what it means to be human, and flailing, and failing, and trying again, and then singing about it.
ovid's metamorphoses is by far my favorite version of all these myths (trans. by rolfe humphries -- that's my favorite translation) because, in part, ovid, a roman social butterfly of sorts, is an irreverent writer who is far removed from the perspective of someone like homer, whose gods and goddesses are stoic, if sometimes personal, and rarely prone to screwing up. ovid's humans and gods and goddesses are mostly a mess (and always in flux), but they also end up being more beautiful, lyrical, and full of whimsy and grace and thoughtfulness than some of the other solemn meditations and the grieved and angered portrayals in other versions.
i recognize, of course, that ovid was exiled for his risque and occasionally ribald approach to what was religion in his country and to most human relationships in general -- and maybe it's because he's writing about a religion or faith that is not mine, that is now purely considered "literature" and not loaded with contemporary connections or meaning or devotion, that makes us ease up and enjoy his stories a bit more, without the word "truth" looming behind them. for us, they're no longer blasphemy -- they're stories. for me, this "step away" also makes his perceptions of human life, relationships, faith, and problems with all of the above really illuminating. after all, love, betrayal, deception, devotion, faith, sacrifice -- all of these human dilemmas and joys can be found in any text, really, and especially religious texts, but here and now, they're freed (mostly) from the weight of moral judgment or correctness, and so we're able to view them not as lessons but as reflections and considerations.
i could be way off, here. but i love them, anyway.
and that was all to say: i still find them particularly inspiring (oh, no one likes that word, "inspiring," but find me a replacement and i'll use it) and they end up showing up in my poems at least once a summer. and they always end up being more about my own experiences in conjunction with the myth (and in conjunction with some song that's running through my head) than a retelling of the myth, which, i hope, makes them new. after all, the orpheus and eurydice myth is one of the most retold on the earth (and more than one person has told me that he or she is wicked tired of it -- i even read a poem this week that said something like: the world can't bear one more orpheus poem), and to make it new is not only difficult, but perhaps an arrogant effort. alas, even so, here i go again (on my own...).
and yes, i'm posting another one of mine, despite all my qualms, in part because i'm curious what y'all will say about it ,and in part because i have not been the most dedicated reader this week and so, while i'm building up a stash of poems to share and figure out and discuss with you, i ain't got it together yet.
so: the poem. onward.
eurydice sings the four tops
everyone is tired of eurydice—her grey
flaky skin, her dulled eye sockets, hands limp
at her sides, tugged back to light
everyone is tired of eurydice—her grey
by a winged-foot trickster and some
lovelorn lyricist. or maybe we’re tired
of all women sung back
to life, rising like vapor ghosts in each
chorus, minor chords swirling
in their hair—the eternal
responsibility to eulogize until
we’ve brought them all back to rest
among the living, in our flowered
armchairs, in our silent kitchens. or to
keep singing it’s the same old song
until we’ve all traded places, until
those cities of the dead
look just like a midwestern ghost town—
blank eyes of boarded-up buildings, one man
playing harmonica in a doorway, bodegas *
and laundromats all that’s left
of our once nickel-shine life.
my grandmother deadheaded
all her flowers, and in this way
allowed them to live, which
is what i learned of love from her.
my father snapped off all
the living blooms after planting,
because beauty, color, blossoming—
it all takes so much energy. which is what
i know walking back toward the world—
my body taken from ash, wetted down,
and reformed—that coming back,
sprouting up from the ground, one more
fiddlehead unfurled, one more dandelion
trying to steal all the sun in the day,
takes so much work.
and whatever they’ve told you, love isn’t
water, isn’t sun—those are rewards
for the compliant and the beautiful,
and love spends eternity under the earth, *
singing like worms you won’t hear
until you put your ear back to the ground.
i don’t mean to say that i’m the origin
of all song—no one is that arrogant, even
in her own room alone remembering
how she made a man howl, how his
skin sang under his clothes, under
her hands. no—what i mean is that
the restaurant manager told me,
a tray full of cokes and beers
balanced on my hand, my apron smeared
with grease and ink, that i’d grow
up to be a real heartbreaker, and
the first time i did it, i did it
with no notion the manager had been
an oracle, no idea what a heart looked like
when it becomes an evacuated city.
no idea that the heart is connected
to the mouth by a tunnel that runs
under water, under lungs,
no idea what the wreckage of anatomy
would look like after it collapsed.
but i know now, and this is how it works:
once it’s rebuilt, the tunnel’s traffic
a steady stream again, no one—
not the pretty boy singing
to cypress trees weeping
at his feet, not the girls
in their grey winter hell—no one
ever shuts up about it.
i know two stories about turning backward,
those one-last-glances. neither work
out the way they should. in one, a man
turns and loses love. in another, a woman
turns and becomes salt. in both, the men
go on, get drunk, invent ballads—same old song
since you’ve been gone—sleep
naked under stars. the women are never
heard from again: one blank-dead and dulled,
the other longing but mute. one guiltless
and snake-bitten, one gleaming
but melted after the first rain.
22 May 2008
i would write more about it, but i have a feeling that there's not much i could say which wouldn't end in a rant or in blathering on and on about my own liberal leanings (you didn't know? that's because i hide those leanings so well. ha.)
so: onward. and cheers to you in this election year. . .
The Real Dick Cheney
~ Jeffrey McDaniel
Know going in -- the lie will one day
fall apart. The beautiful thing is
it doesn't need to last forever,
just until you have a new lie
to move into. The lie's foundation
is less important than its roof. Build
a strong roof with layers of red tape
for insulation, and even the loudest barrage
of facts will sound like a gentle rain,
as you recline beside the fireplace of your lie
sipping mouse blood. Remember:
honesty is the best policy,
but there are other good ones, too.
(published in The Endarkenment by Jeffrey McDaniel. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008).
12 May 2008
and so i am a little rusty. i'll work my way back into it after a bit; it must be like riding a bicycle, right? pedal, pedal, pedal. . .
and so: i was reading this poem the other day, found in a collection that a dear friend gave me for my birthday, and my heart just about stopped. and so it must be posted here -- not because i want your heart to stop, but because i think you'll be just as stunned as i am by the gorgeousness (that can't be a word) of the language, the sheer glimmer of it, the shine and dark of it.
and while i don't know this poet's writing process, it seems to me that she's taken the subject of the poem (or maybe just the word referring to the subject -- "housefire") and teased out and shaken out all of the sounds from that word -- and then she tracks those sounds all the way through the poem, and the repetition not only adds to cohesion, but also to tension, to the drama of the poem, as the readers wait to hear what comes next, what sound will unleash us from the housefire, what sounds will keep each stanza trapped in it. this is exactly what richard hugo recommends to poets in his book, The Triggering Town; he claims that poems that follow sound rather than meaning tend to make for better poems -- the sounds lead to the unexpected leaps, the associations, that might not have appeared if the poet were faithful to the "project" of the poem rather than the "possibility" of the poem.
the sounds in this poem don't take the subject matter on any kind of wild ride, but they do increase the experience and strength of the images for me, and following sound in this controlled way makes the poem extraordinarily vivid. the sounds, it seems to me, leap up in poem much like flames would -- a base of hissing "S" sounds; the leaps and flickers of "Ls"; the richer, warmer "Rs" that keep adding contrast to the colder "Ss"; the long mournful "O" sounds that make the poem sadder ("mortification," "broken," "swollen") and also more frightening because they're so quiet and lulling ("stroke," "smoke," "smolder").
the miracle to me about this poem is that, quite often, alliteration can become a joke, a commercial jingle, reminiscent of a tongue-twister from the fourth grade. but here, even with the string of S sounds in the first stanza, that sound neither interrupts meaning nor does it show off and upstage the meaning, but instead it reinforces the "subject matter" (much too clinical a term for this, but you get the idea), and bolsters the experience of the poem. in the way the poem is written, in the hush and push of the sounds of the words, i'm suddenly also inside the house, inside that sleeping silence, waiting for the spark to catch.
(the sounds are catching, too, hey? i can't stop with the alliteration/consonance now. . . so before i go over the edge into S-ville, here's the poem).
~ Miranda Field
The spark struck in secret under the stairs in dust
in the cellar smolders the way a face does, and the life
inside it, after a slap. A mortification, stains
on the floor of a caged thing's cage. In dust
in the cellar where our bicycles lean
broken-antlered in the dark. Among molds
in the cellar where the cat swollen with poison
curls in the damp to extinguish herself. It's dark outside;
inside the dark becomes particles a little like rain
stilled. Behind chicken-wired glass the garden
shakes a few leaves down. Most of winter's work is done,
the pond lidded, the ruts of the bicycles' wheels
cast in iron. The fire begins by itself, a breathing-life-into,
a kindling: cells of our skin, soil from the garden;
tinder for the fire's insistence. The fire has been impatient
to begin all along. The house is its accomplice.
Roots of the black walnut hold tight the foundations,
hence nothing grows here, nothing flourishes.
But flames brush the root hairs, make them stand on end.
Like a story's ending, not quite to wake us is the fire's
intention. To stroke us with smoke, our sleeping faces.
(published in Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century, eds. Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin. Louisville: Sarabande Books, 2006.)
22 April 2008
"if you can't do what you want to do on your birthday, when can you do it?"
and yes, today is my birthday, and no, i have no compunction about advertising that to the entire world (well, the world that reads this blog, which is, to be fair, much smaller than "the world").
and thus far, it's been a really lovely day. i went to the farmers' market and bought parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. (seriously. i did. and i don't mean i purchased the simon & garfunkel song. i purchased the plants. and now i'm going to scarborough fair. . .). and then i bought a good cup of coffee. and i stayed in the sun as long as i could this morning, and i'm going back into it soon.
and so, today also seems like the right day to post a poem of my own, which is not something i do often, because it feels weirdly self-serving, and it feels a little (a lot) like self-promotion, and i'm not very comfortable with any of that. but, well, here it is anyway. (yes, it's the bird poem, for those of you -- cough*dad*cough -- who have requested it).
and, by way of a little introduction, i did make this bird book a long time ago. it's the first book my father said i should publish. it's still tucked up in my closet somewhere, in a faded blue folder with pages dog-eared and battered sticking out the top. it was never finished. but even if i had finished it, i think it would have been a bust of a publication, sadly, especially once the publisher discovered that i'd plagiarized over half of it from the world book encyclopedia "bird" section.
but, as i've talked about in earlier posts, i loved the specificity of the names of the birds; this bird book may be one of the many things that contributed early on to my love of naming things, to holding names in my mouth, to figuring out how to say them. (incidentally, i still have to stutter three times before i can get "quetzalcoatl" out of my mouth). between the bird book and the lands' end catalogues (oh, the colors! "coral, periwinkle, spruce"!) and my parents' gardens, i was set on course for poetry even then, whether i knew it or not.
this poem, then, came much later from a workshop in which we were required to visit with another artist, to spend time with their work and try to write from their work. (this class became the inspiration for the class i teach now on ekphrasis -- writing that comes from art). i visited "pottery rob" and his studio. he was wonderfully kind and patient; i stayed for several hours, in the quiet, the cool, the dark of it. and there were all these tiny pottery creatures in a little net -- sort of a hammock for his creatures. one bird had, it seemed, fallen on the ground a long while ago, and a long crack now ran up its belly, into its breast, ending just below its beak. i held that tiny pottery bird in my hand for a long, long while. i cried. not just for the pottery bird, but for the memory-dam that broke loose, for my own bones which weren't as strong as they should have been, for the bird i'd found long ago on our driveway, for all sorts of things. and this poem is what came from holding that bird.
so, in honor of one more year gone by, and in honor of that tiny cracked bird, and in honor of all the new birds coming out just now to bolster our hope again, here's the poem.
wing into cloud
when you were seven years old, you started on the bird book.
it was called that, the title page in blocky letters: ‘the bird book.’
a set of colored pencils in a blue and red striped bag, and you
remade the encyclopedia, the backyard,
canary, quetzalcoatl, peregrine falcon, goose.
eight weeks in a row you worked: a folder for the papers, a ruler
for writing straight lines, the blue pencil shortened
and dulled for so much sky. you sketched and erased, drew
and erased until the paper wrinkled and smudged
and tore. you made pages of nests, branches, eggshells,
and all the places you could find for a bird, none of them
your home -- a rainforest, cliffs of gray stone, a stiff birch
tree branch, a wide softening sky. you wrote their names
in a table of contents: page two magpies, page five
pelicans, with captions: “a common songbird,”
“a pair of swimmers, with their young,” “a night hunter.”
all of it first in pencil, then traced over with marker.
the day after finishing the passenger pigeon
page, you walked outside to find a blackbird
on your driveway, its wing folded back, its eye closing
with a blue flower-petal eyelid, its glossed feathers
spoked at wrong angles.
with your mother’s lilac-print gardening gloves,
you scooped the bird up, placed him in a shoebox
on a folded towel. the bird’s eye stayed wild, his heart
against your palm beating like mosquito wings. for hours,
you rocked on your haunches, knee to ankle
numb. with your small girl-body shadow over the box,
you whispered, you hummed and sang, until the feathers
settled, the hollowed bones stilled, and you sat back
on the grass and looked at your wrists.
at night, you closed your nightstand drawer with
the book in its folder, its pages out of order, the heron’s wing
half-shaded, the magpie left without a branch, and a blackbird’s
half-memory of pine tree, rooftop, lighthouse, cold air.
(not yet published. please tell all your publishing friends.)
16 April 2008
now, all of you go knock furiously on wood before i get caught saying this and we get sent another batch of rain, another heaping serving of snow, another pile of gray days.
and, whenever spring rolls around, i notice that there are several rooms in my house that need that heavy-duty kind of cleaning. and there are only five rooms in my house, and so you can envision what "several" means. the problem with cleaning (okay, with me doing the cleaning) is that i tend to get distracted.
i was just talking to my folks about this habit of mine on the phone the other day -- when i was small, i was often sent to "clean my room" on a saturday. i hated cleaning, for one, but what usually happened is that it took hours. from 9:00 a.m. till 5:00 p.m. from 8:00 a.m. till 6:00 p.m. because i liked the museum of my room. i liked curating it, giving myself a tour through it, retelling the stories of these objects i found under the bed, in the drawers. i found books that needed to be read. . . again. i found stuffed animals that needed arms and legs bandaged with toilet paper and scotch tape. i found socks that needed to be tried on, hand-me-down skirts from my sister that needed to be twirled in. i found music in the cassette deck that was begging me to be the star of my own (two hour) show.
at 5:00, my mother would come in and say, "is it clean?" i would say, "yes." she would say, "really? because those legos belong in front of your closet? those books belong under the bed?" if i was feeling sassy, i would say yes. but i would have to clean more. if i was feeling penitent, i would say no. and i would have to clean more.
so you can see how much i'm looking forward to cleaning up my rooms. because that same wandering, distracted, reminiscing kind of cleaning is already happening. today, i pulled a poetry book off the shelf and found, in the back, a poem that one of my boyfriends had once written. he was a physics teacher; we had made a bargain. i'd try to teach him how i looked at poems; he'd try to teach me physics. i got as far as being able to pronounce "mobius" correctly, and he got as far as reading over the comments i'd written all over his poem. we didn't work out, really. no, say it straight, sally: we didn't work out. and so, it's likely i should just dismiss this poem as some kind of sentimental nonsense that i cling to for no reason anyone can discern.
but i can't throw this poem out. not for any reasons you'd expect; there's only one line about us, after all, out of fifty. there isn't any beautiful memory or pretty card or dead rose to go along with it.
i have to keep it because we worked so hard, respectively and together, on this poem. (read: obvious metaphor for relationship as a whole). i had written an encyclopedia of comments on this poem. he worked on line breaks, for heaven's sake -- and he worked on them harder than i worked on reading a brief history of time. but we both worked hard to make that thing between us work.
and, even though it's spring, and it's time for renewal, and it's time for throwing out and starting over, i have to keep it to remember what difficult winters i've already been through. while spring cleaning feels like a fresh start, i like to remember, with a bit of distance, how cold and icy and mean some of those winters were (and there were good moments in the snow, sure. there were some). and i need to remember what i learned from this physics teacher i once loved. and then i need to move it to a new place, and figure out how to live with my lessons there.
and this poem, more succinctly, i think, than i ever could, does a beautiful job describing how difficult it is to move to a new place, to keep some kind of relationship in a new context, to start over, to pay homage to the past but not live solely there, to trust the new. to clean not as i do, perhaps, which can't really be called "cleaning" at all, but can only be called "moving old brooms around new rooms" -- without fully cleaning and without fully mourning what's been thrown out. or maybe the poet is, in some way, recommending that we hack the past all to pieces and find out what remains when we've tried to rid ourselves of everything -- and maybe what's most important will remain intact. or maybe you'll have an entirely different read on it. either way, i think you'll like it.
The New Place
~ Julia Kasdorf
We can't admit that we can't make love
in our old bed positioned like this.
You no longer cook, and I seem to know
only three recipes. The towel racks
on the floor hoard lint, and like drunks
who can't see past a need to stay numb
we sit in our rooms unable to work.
You spend long days in the city and return
to me, talking, but silence always
catches up. You think the place is possessed,
and I blame the broom we moved despite
that superstition about dragging old
dirt into new rooms. I can't even pitch
scorched pot holders or properly mourn
those turquoise walls, dull with eight years
of our own grease and happiness. Maybe we grew
so fond of the known that we can't arrange
ourselves here, and we'll just have to chuck
something out with the oversized bookcase
and table, or else take a saw to it all
and see what turns up with the dust.
(published in Eve's Striptease by Julia Kasdorf. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998.)
09 April 2008
i didn't know julie all that well -- she and her husband john rybicki came to visit one of jack ridl's poetry classes when i was in college. and john, of course, fired up the room like a lightning strike -- he's out of his chair, he's up, he's down, he's gesticulating wildly about the BRILLIANCE of METAPHOR. . . and julie remained, quite calmly, in her chair, saying the smartest, most thoughtful, kindest things to us, about us, about poems. she's a stunning human being -- so gracious, so sharp, so very dear.
and her poems are stunning -- and some of them absolutely wild. i remember jack talking about one of her first breakthroughs as a poet -- that she adopted this great persona, named her "iva," and then could go absolutely anywhere and do absolutely anything in a poem. "iva" was a saving grace, a rebellious soul, an alter ego, a surprising tell-it-like-you-see-it gutsy persona. iva and julie both do what emily dickinson says poetry should do: make you feel like the top of your head has blown off.
and mine exploded this way: just reading these iva poems, after briefly meeting julie (not nearly a long enough visit -- but they never are, are they?), was a revelation for me. she taught me a lot through just a few poems -- that i, too, (who was, once upon a time, quiet and shy to the point of panic and muteness and disappearing, if you can believe it) could take on outrageous and daring acts in my poems, that i didn't have to tell the bland "truth" (by which i mean "facts"), that sometimes wonderful outrageous lies lead to wonderful, stunning, truthful revelations. that there are more true selves than just one, than the one most of the world sees. that there are complexities in every action -- iva is never just one thing, one emotion, one person. for example, at the end of the third iva poem i'll post below, the similes imply that being in love for iva is both a glorious and a helpless thing, an empowering and a powerless thing. a goddess, and a bowling pin -- one of the most powerful deities, and one of the clumsiest, stumbliest objects around, one whose entire purpose is to be knocked over again and again.
and so, i think, julie taught me that truth -- that the self is always in motion, shape-shifting, and so are the self's poems and personas, which was enormously liberating for me. and her poems continue, and we're all, i'm certain, carrying john in our thoughts and hearts and prayers, and we're carrying julie on in our hearts and our work, too. even though i only met her once, julie had a profound impact on me -- and meeting her just once meant a lot for not only my work, but also for me as a person trying to grow into someone as gracious and smart as she was.
Three Iva Poems
~ Julie Moulds
1. Iva Drunk with Steel-toed Boots on
didn't have to borrow
her uncle's Harley.
She had her own -- deep red
as a whore's lipstick.
She roared to the bar,
black chaps over Levi's.
Eagle wings patched
her scrawny behind.
A leather laced halter
fringed her belly,
exposing a small rose tattoo.
Iva hadn't drunk enough
to pose for Easyriders; she
would surely try.
2. The Fish Poem
Iva looked at the clear fishline, the canned
beer on ice. You'll like this, he said.
There's peace in this warm sun.
I'll teach you to cast and reel. . . Iva wanted
to be on the water. To be the pheasant
feather fly a brook trout would die for.
To wiggle into that pink mouth,
and whisper, wicked, It is too late.
You should not have swallowed,
while the line pulls his gills into air.
3. Wedding Iva
Stars shot gold
over evening mass --
she planned the wedding
so the sky gave blessing;
married a man
no one had seen.
(His face appeared
when I do's began,
rose as the stone
in her ring.)
In their wedding room
from Modern Dimensions
of Heroic Life.
He licked her ribs
still she softened.
She nibbled his neck
like a mushroom stem.
When he held her
white and armless
like a goddess
or a bowling pin.
(published in The Woman with a Cubed Head by Julie Moulds. Kalamazoo: New Issues Poetry Press, 1998).
04 April 2008
1. my crazy neighbors have been, from all discernible signs, evicted. there is a sign made of red construction paper and written in black messy sharpie on the door that reads: "locks have been changed. if you forgot anything, please call mgr."
this is -- how else to say it? -- a tremendous relief.
this means: no more midnight knocks on the door to ask if my walk needs shoveling for five dollars when it is well below freezing outside and not even well-furred and well-insulated bears should be wandering the streets.
no more creepy christmas presents -- "crystal" angels that sit upon mirrors with their chipped wings, their broken noses; slippers in a size 6 1/2 that wouldn't fit even if i cut off half my foot -- ugly stepsister, indeed; a bracelet, with gold hearts and rhinestones, that i might have loved if i were five years old and wandering through k-mart's costume jewelry section.
no more emma yelling, "hey, girl! my name is emma! whenever you see me, you say, 'hey emma!' say it! SAY IT!"
no more of emma's son coming out in the morning (when, again, it's too cold for bears) to watch me get in my car, hollering, "hey sexy!" because, i promise you, in the a.m., i ain't anywhere near sexy, and no one should be using that word anyhow. especially not him.
now, i am in no way celebrating that they have no home. that would make me an awful person. i wish them well, i do. i just don't want to tell them in person.
2. vienna teng. my father (who, except for the month of the gregorian chants) has very good taste in music (by which i mean, it often overlaps with mine), and he sent me the website of this singer/piano player. i bought her album, dreaming through the noise, the other day, and have listened to nothing else since. go, go ye, and get it. a.s.a.p.
3. i made it through 60 student conferences. my students are wonderful; the difficulty is sitting in my fluorescent-lit office (where one colleague recommended that i put a picture of a window up, just to help...) for 12 hours a day and getting caught playing online scrabble between conferences.
4. i cleaned my house. remarkable feat, that.
and so, i'm thinking of a celebratory kind of poem. one that sort of lifts my heart up further (which is hard to do; after the bathroom's clean, it's sort of like i say to myself, "well, nowhere to go but down..."). and so, here's this one. and, like everything i think is celebratory, this one has its blue, sweet darkness, too. but oh, i have loved this poem since i was sixteen years old, and have not stopped loving it since.
and somehow, the lines, "someone telling you in a loud voice/they once wrote a poem," always make me laugh. because this happens a lot with poets who tell someone they're poets. and maybe it's that the person is trying to make a connection, trying to say, "i understand what you do." which, if that were the case, would be lovely. what it more often feels like is that the subtext is: "oh, i can do that. and also, i have a real job, which you're gonna need if you keep saying you're 'a poet.'"
and i know this is going to make me sound elitist, and for this i apologize, but there is a sense in this culture, in this world, that really, if you know your letters, if you have access to a pen, and you have emotions, you, too, can write poems. and in part, that's absolutely true. but it's the view that writing is not a craft, not an art that's studied and learned, like any profession, that gets on my nerves a bit. one woman, a real estate agent, interviewed on NPR the other day said, "well, if real estate doesn't go well for me in the next couple of years, i think i'll quit and be a writer instead." and i thought: *sigh.* it's not that folks can't quit their jobs and become writers (see also: john grisham, who makes more money in a year than i will ever see together in one place). it's just the perception that writing is easy, that writing a "good" poem or story (which we don't really know how to define, which makes it even harder to make this argument) is easy. and really, after working at it for years, and studying it for years, i still struggle with it. and it's my job.
for me, it comes down to respect, i guess. the same thing is said about teachers (you all have heard that awful phrase, "those who can, do; those who can't, teach" -- which, again, after having been in several classrooms over these last few years, i can tell you is simply not true). and i've been fighting this same battle for years, which is likely why i'm so full of piss and vinegar about it here (see also: the boyfriend who told me that "if poetry were important, he would do it"). and of course, living in a culture that values money more than (am i really going to use this phrase? yes, yes i am) soul-work, this kind of disrespect is, i suppose, inevitable.
but i do value other people's professions, other choices, and i keep working at it, and isn't that all we can do? and i know -- beyond a shadow of a doubt -- that i'd really, really suck at selling real estate, but that's the reason i don't say, "you know, if this poetry thing doesn't work out, i think i'll just go sell real estate."
and that's enough (too much?) of that rant... onto the poem, the brilliant poem:
The Art of Disappearing
~ Naomi Shihab Nye
When they say Don't I know you?
When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
If they say We should get together
It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.
When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.
Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.
(published in The Language of Life, ed. Bill Moyers. New York: Doubleday, 1995).
01 April 2008
why am i stealing? because i'm drowning in work, because i miss blogging but can't think straight enough to make sense, because i'm much too much in the mind of an analytic critic of student essays to switch over easily (it will sound like switching gears without the clutch -- that awful grinding "i've just destroyed this car" sound -- not that i've ever done that, of course) to the creative side of my brain.
and because: it's hugh laurie and stephen fry, who, thanks to the show jeeves & wooster, have become a favorite comedic pair for me, and because: it's hilarious. absolutely hysterically funny. i loves it.
here you are. see poems in full text below. not that they make any more sense when you read them.
—by Hugh Laurie
Underneath the bellied skies
Where dust and rain find space to fall
To fall and lie and change again
Without a care or mind at all
For art and life and things above
In that there look just there
No right left up down past or future
We have but ourselves to fear.
—by Richard Maddox
THE REST OF MY LIFE
—by T.P. Mitchell
“Forward and back,”
Said the old man in the dance
As he whittled away at his stick,
Long gone, long gone
Without a glance
To the entrance made of brick.
26 March 2008
see more crazy cat pics
the rain does not fall down (not even mainly on the plain, not even in spain -- and certainly not in south bend) because it's winter. despite the fact that we've passed the vernal equinox, despite the fact that i am in sandals, it appears that we are still in winter. i am trying not to despair over this.
i am also trying not to write about the weather so often on this blog -- but it's to the point of tears, despair, and desperation every time i hear the word "snow." or "below freezing."
i want to plant my garden. my garden right now is full of trash -- an old pumpkin, someone's old coke box for a 24 pack, several plastic bags. they've been frozen there all winter. and they ain't the easiest to clean up when they're encased in ice. so, i'm keeping hope alive (that thing with feathers, you know) by dreaming up my garden, by thinking about where else i could dig a garden, by plotting (ha! no pun intended) and planning my garden. lantanas. sweet williams. verbena. impatiens. bloodleaves. and this time around, because i'm getting all hippie (getting?) and environmentalist -- and because anything that tastes good is wicked expensive at the store -- my own tomatoes, my own peppers, my own basil and oregano. (because those are the only things i know how to cook with).
and it is the province of poets to write using as many flower names and plant names as possible. we used to mock this a bit in graduate school -- no one can just say "flower"; they must say, "five-petaled vinca." no one can say "tree"; they must say, "loblolly pine." but truly -- the word "vinca" or "loblolly" is just so much. . . better than the other words. richer. sweeter. a wealth of sound and image, packed into each word. i'm defending myself here, of course, too -- i'm a sucker for plant names, much like i'm a sucker for the names of constellations and towns and even haircut places -- i once thought of doing a coffee table book on just the bad puns of haircut places: "curl up and dye," "the best little hairhouse in denver," "shear perfection."
but i digress. mostly, i like the story and history in specific names, and the image and sound that accompany them so easily. i like specifics in general (paradox?) and so i thought of this poem -- just the town names, the specificity of lunch and the car, of the colors of the farmhouse, the multiple senses this poem opens itself up to with ease and grace -- these all fill me with light. and i'm in need, again, of a little light. this poem is one of my all-time favorites; it's so full of hope and detail, and its ending is so wonderfully, gorgeously rich in sound that it makes me happy just to hold the words in my mouth. and it makes me think of a time -- sometime soon, we can hope -- when there aren't remnants of snow on all the roads, when there's just pure spring, when the day is, indeed, a woman who loves you.
~ Richard Hugo
The day is a woman who loves you. Open.
Deer drink close to the road and magpies
spray from your car. Miles from any town
your radio comes in strong, unlikely
Mozart from Belgrade, rock and roll
from Butte. Whatever the next number,
you want to hear it. Never has your Buick
found this forward a gear. Even
the tuna salad in Reed Point is good.
Towns arrive ahead of imagined schedule.
Asborakee at one. Or arrive so late --
Silesia at nine -- you recreate the day.
Where did you stop along the road
and have fun? Was there a runaway horse?
Did you park at that house, the one
alone in a void of grain, white with green
trim and red fence, where you know you lived
once? You remembered the ringing creek,
the soft brown forms of bison.
You must have stayed hours, then drove on.
In the motel you know you'd never seen it before.
Tomorrow will open again, the sky wide
as the mouth of a wild girl, friable
clouds you lose yourself to. You are lost
in miles of land without people, without
one fear of being found, in the dash
of rabbits, soar of antelope, swirl
merge and clatter of streams.
(published in Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984).
23 March 2008
i identify with the second wavers -- gloria steinem, betty friedan, even the "second wave" literary theorists simone de beauvoir and luce irigaray -- far more than third wavers. i want to support the third wave, i do -- i just don't totally get it. i was born, perhaps, twenty years too late. and i really don't understand "post-feminism," which seems to me to be (pardon the phrase) a load of crap. (ann coulter? not a feminist. setting feminism back seventy years, perhaps, if we stick to what i believe is the truest definition of feminism: the belief that all people -- including women -- are equal. and my, oh my, if you've seen any of the negative media reactions -- especially the way they've been phrased -- to hillary clinton, then you know: we are not post-feminist. we are only just beginning).
i am often reminded of why i "became" a feminist in the first place; i say "became" in quotation marks (and if you could see me, and if i weren't typing, i'd do those irritating air quotes with two fingers from each hand -- and i'd do them dramatically) because it became clear to me in college, once i'd adopted the word, that that was all i'd done -- i'd found a name for who i had always been. who knows where these sorts of things come from? nature or nurture, it's clear that i had been a wee raging feminist since at least third grade. maybe it was all the nancy drew (and my somewhat sour reactions when she was rescued by ned), maybe it was all the boys in grade school who made me one of their favorite targets, maybe it was the good training i got from my strong-minded mother and father, or maybe it was watching my older sister deal with high school, body image, women's issues in sports and academics, etc., long before i got there. either way: the word "feminist" -- no matter the new idea that we're "post-feminist" (ha!) or the vehement fears and reactions to the word "feminist" (still -- which, of course, proves that we ain't nowhere near post-feminist) -- suits me just fine.
on a terrific website called "antigone magazine" which my friend kris found (and she has postcards posted there this week!), they're selling a t-shirt that reads, "i became a feminist as an alternative to becoming a masochist." yes. yes, i think. yes. (sidenote: i'll be happy to take this t-shirt for my birthday. i'll take ten.) and that, for me, is the most basic way to say it: i had to become a feminist to stop hurting/starving/loathing/damaging myself, and to make sure that i protected myself from other folks who might want to, and to start up (for myself and for others) a brand new way of thinking of ourselves as a community, as in relationship, as equal to one another and protectors of one another.
and feminism, of course, is a fight for freedom. in the novel we're reading in class, (which i think is brilliant, genius, magic), the handmaid's tale, margaret atwood describes the "training school," the "rachel and leah center" for the handmaids, where they "learn" their new place in the world. one of the "aunts" -- the wardens, really -- says to the women, "there's freedom to and freedom from." the women are meant to be grateful that while they've given up their freedom to (hold jobs, earn money, run alone, go to school, in short -- live), they've been "given" freedom from (men's lascivious gazes, whistling, harassment, assault, etc.). and really, while that's a lovely, pithy idea -- it just doesn't hold. atwood knows this, of course, and after reflecting on that dichotomy for a while, i've realized that freedom to and freedom from have to come at once, together, that they're not at all separate. in other words, a substitution of one kind of oppression for another is no progress at all.
which brings me to this poem, which i've come across again. (everything -- classes, websites, memories, conversations, the next round of the michiana monologues -- renamed, but similar -- even happenstance browsing -- is starting to coalesce. i'm having a liberal arts moment!). it's by susan browne, who has a brave sense of humor and sharpness and sarcasm in her writing which does not, somehow, overpower her sincerity, but instead makes it that much stronger -- because, to put this badly, when she's crying, she's really crying, and when she's laughing, she's really laughing.
this one strikes me as hugely important, in thinking about not being a masochist, thinking about freedom to and freedom from -- because at the end of the poem, the speaker has both, and she has neither. she's locked herself in her room -- no freedom to. in the beginning, driving around braless, carefree, even reckless -- she doesn't have freedom from. and her solution is disturbing, and not a solution, and yet, and yet. i understand. i've been lucky enough to have been in bad relationships that never turned violent or threatening like this. but i do understand. and i think: there's got to be some other way to do this -- this relationship between men and women, this liberation that must be guarded, this falsehood of the "post-patriarchy." it's no error, of course, that she brings up in this poem the women she does -- one beaten by her husband, the other who wrote to her mother that she was glad ted hughes published a book before she did because it would make it so much easier on her. freedom to? freedom from? but the speaker, at least, has made her decision, and she's taken back control -- some freedom regained. on the other hand, this is very problematic, yes? because it seems to perpetuate the exact cycle with which she wants to break, and this is one of the most common complaints about feminism -- that it takes a hierarchy and simply flips it. and so: it's got to be more complex than this. and i don't think for a minute that the speaker of this poem doesn't struggle with exactly this for the rest of her life. at least, the reader here does.
however, i'm also reminded of how very human this is, and how the poem is made better by its honesty. as one of my writing professors told me once, "say it as truthfully and accurately as you can, and it will be beautiful."
regardless, here's the poem. let me know what you think.
~ Susan Browne
In September of 1970 we took off our bras
and waved them like flags over our liberated heads,
cruising in Jan's convertible Bug
to the college we would attend.
When we let the bras go, they fluttered up
on various cup-sized wings and flew
into a cornfield.
We were eighteen, we could do whatever we wanted,
and that first Friday night staring awestruck
at Tina Turner singing on the outdoor stage,
I wanted to belt out the lyrics of my life,
a life unlike any woman's I'd known.
I was free in my gauzy blouse,
dancing in the street with a man
with long curly black hair and a paisley bandana.
He quoted Nietzche and Rimbaud,
and he knew all about Plath.
How old are you? I asked.
Let's go to a party, he said.
It was dark under the oaks by the creek,
no other cars but his station wagon.
The party's here, he said, pressing
my hand into his lap.
I told him I was a virgin,
and he held my hair back so hard
I thought my skull would crack.
He bit my neck, whispering
that he was so big,
I couldn't handle it,
but he'd know when I was ready
just by looking at me.
Thank you, I said.
As we drove to the dormitory,
he said he'd come by tomorrow.
I have homework.
You sure are a smart girl. He winked.
I locked the door of my room,
lay down on my narrow bed,
the stack of books on the desk
outlined in the light
from the streetlamp.
I would get smarter.
And if a man ever did anything
like that again,
I would do what I wanted.
I would kill him.
(published in Buddha's Dogs by Susan Browne, New York City: Four Way Books, 2004.)
18 March 2008
this envy does not negate appreciation -- in fact, it may enhance appreciation, increase close reading, intensify focus.
the envy quite often gets in the way of reading, and reading well, and thoughtfully. and it's soon followed by panic (why am i not writing like this? why am i writing so much NOT like this? why am i writing? why am i not writing?), and it's followed thereafter by either giving up, beating myself up, or quitting the reading of poems entirely -- none of which i really want in my life. and so, i've started to try to think of poems as gifts -- tiny page-long (or more, if you write as i do) gifts for the day -- even as i admire or marvel over them, even as i quash the envy threatening to take over.
and this one was a gift for today -- and also, it's a poem about that kind of envy. doubly good for today. and, i believe, it's about what happens if that envy takes over and plugs up your ears against the poem, and it's about the envy we may have built up in our minds that may just be ridiculous, out of proportion, but at the same time, stifling and deafening. and, of course, that envy (and its results) isn't limited to poems.
(and that's a very simple overview of a complex and rich poem -- apologies for my watering down of said poem. and yes, i am a little envious -- a lot -- of this poem, too).
Envy of Other People's Poems
~ Robert Hass
In one version of the legend the sirens couldn't sing.
It was only a sailor's story that they could.
So Odysseus, lashed to the mast, was harrowed
By a music that he didn't hear -- plungings of the sea,
Wind-sheer, the off-shore hunger of the birds --
And the mute women gathering kelp for garden mulch,
Seeing him strain against the cordage, seeing
the awful longing in his eyes, are changed forever
On their rocky waste of island by their imagination
Of his imagination of the song they didn't sing.
(published in Time and Materials, Robert Hass, New York: HarperCollins, 2007)
17 March 2008
maybe the worries that are nearing us now are worries that we've just held at bay for a while -- they're there, but we're able to put on our shoes and go for walks and eat our lunches and do our jobs anyway. maybe they're new; it's hard to say, from one day to the next. there are plenty of instances -- huge or smaller, bear stearns or a lost and starved pit bull (no, i don't own a pit bull, but if you need one, i know where you can get one), two unending wars or a broken engagement -- where it seems that the world might be ready to call it a day and close up shop.
and all this worry and struggle reminded me of the poem, "paradise," which does a magnificent job of remaining in the present moment -- not only that, but finding peace in that moment -- despite the surrounding dark waters of grief and loss. it does a magnificent job, for me, of reminding me how to go on -- not "move forward," necessarily, which i'm not convinced is an apt metaphor for anything we do, especially for grieving or worrying or living in a messed-up world, because what is "progress" here? what marks or measures "progress"? progress, for the US, has often meant our own success at the expense of others. "progress," for me at least, has come from a continual mining of the past -- which is technically looking backward.
regardless of that tangent, this poem seems to me to be about how to continue, even if our actions or our words are "unreceived," even if they seem not to matter at all in the face of something unsayable, threatening, difficult, scary, or unknown. tess gallagher wrote this book after her husband, raymond carver, died, and it's one of the most beautiful books i've ever read. the title of this poem, while possibly ironic at first glance, seems more and more appropriate and not ironic the more often i read it. this poem has always given me a moment of sorrowing peace, if that's a good enough phrase for it.
~ Tess Gallagher
Morning and the night uncoupled.
My childhood friend
who had been staying awake for me, left the house
so I could be alone with the powerful raft of his body.
He seemed to be there only for listening, an afterlife
I hadn't expected. So I talked to him, told him
things I needed to hear myself
tell him, and he listened, I can say "peacefully,"
though maybe it was only an effect he had, the body's surety
when it becomes one muscle. Still, I believe I heard
my own voice then, as he might have heard it, eagerly
like the nostrils of any mare blowing softly over
the damp presence he was, telling it
all is safe here, all is calm and yet to be endured
where you are gone from.
I spoke until there was nothing unfinished between us.
Since his feet were still there and my hands
I rubbed them with oil
because it is hard to imagine at first
that the dead don't enjoy those same things they did
when alive. And even if it happened only as a last thing, it
was the right last thing.
For to confirm what is forever beyond speech
pulls action out of us. And if it is only childlike and
unreceived, the way a child hums to the stick
it is using to scratch houses into the dirt, still
it is a silky membrane and shining
even to the closed eye.
(published in Moon Crossing Bridge, Tess Gallagher, Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1992.)
i've been paying particular attention to the rhythms of language and of line breaks here, in this read-through, and i find them incredibly careful. for example, the line, "things I needed to hear myself" doubles beautifully -- the speaker is not only talking, then, to her husband, but recognizing through line break that she's talking to herself, saying things she needs to say, needs to hear. the way words are put together, here, too, is very powerful: saying, for example, "Since his feet were still there and my hands/I rubbed them with oil" is very different in tone, rhythm, and meaning than saying, "Since his feet were still there, I used my hands to rub them with oil." in the first (and actual) phrasing, the antecedent for "them" could be both the hands and the feet -- there's far more merging of the two than separation in this phrasing. if it were the other way, the speaker's hands are more distinctly separate from her husband's feet, not nearly as blended, not nearly so much one body, one spirit, "one flesh" -- one person resisting separation again into two.
there. i'm starting to feel a little better. the world isn't mended, but one moment is, at least. and yes, i'm going to order and read very soon the book Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy. seems like that oughta be the title of this whole blog...
13 March 2008
and it is a good day for reading poems in a square of window sunlight.
by way of introduction to the poems i've been reading, i'll say this: talking last night to some creative writing folks, i made the claim that there are three types of poets in the world: 1) the kind who make me love poems again and sincerely want to go home and write and write, 2) the kind who are so good i throw up my hands and say, "i'm never writing again," and 3) the kind who are good but somehow get under my skin and so i go home and say, "i'm going to write better than you ever could, you jerk." yehuda amichai, the poet i've been reading this morning, is mostly in category 2, and a little in category 1.
i've had his book for several years but haven't really dug into it because i was always intimidated by it. maybe it's because it's a "selected poems" book, and it's big and chock full of several decades' worth of poems. or maybe it's because amichai is brilliant. he is, according to the brief bio on the back of the book, "Israel's most popular poet as well as a literary figure of international reputation." he can also "say virtually anything and give his words enough sting to defuse both sentimentality and hyperbole." i find him to be a master of startling simile and metaphor -- some of his descriptions give me so much pause that i cannot move on to the next poem. you see? intimidating.
and so, i will share a little of this with you -- this poem, a section from his long poem, "Songs of Zion the Beautiful," struck me as astonishing, especially that last stanza. and i agree with the back of the book -- he's able to make me see a war-battered place that's deeply loved and troubled, a landscape i've not seen (except in little blips on television), and he makes it not sentimental, but certainly emotional, and not hyperbolic, but accurate to the point of searing. i read it, and i thought, "yes, exactly." and then, "how do you do that?" and then i closed the book for a bit and stared out the window.
This is the end of the landscape. Among blocks
of concrete and rusting iron
there's a fig tree with heavy fruit
but even kids don't come around to pick it.
This is the end of the landscape.
Inside the carcass of a mattress rotting in the field
the springs stay put, like souls.
The house I lived in gets farther and farther away
but a light was left burning in the window
so that people would only see and not hear.
This is the end.
And how to start loving again is like the problem
of architects in an old city: how to build
where houses once stood, so it will look like
those days, yet also like now.
(published in The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, trans. by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.)