29 July 2008

"think of the wren and how little flesh is needed to make a song"

It's not been the World's Best Tuesday. For various and sundry reasons which need not be discussed here and now, nor likely ever, alas.

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.

Onward: poem.

"Why Regret?"

~ 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

"reading in the dark"

Would that I could explain this one to you. It just . . . happened. I'm a little afraid to talk about it, in fact -- my scalpels are too dull, my hands too shaky for dissection -- so I'll leave it alone for now.

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—

loopholed, flawless—

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

"and that has made all the difference"

Dear all of you ~

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

"i came on this trek to videotape desire"

I've been a long, long time gone from the blog now, dear all of you. For this, I apologize, though I don't imagine many of you are hungering after a blog daily like you might hunger after, you know, food.

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.)