21 August 2008

"kindred and close, like stars"

Here I am. Here it is, the promised poem.

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

"john and mary had never met. they were like two hummingbirds who had also never met."

Dear all of you ~

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.