Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Holiday Stupid

So here I am, entering the back half of nearly two weeks to myself, with more than 60 hours of vacation time that I had to use or lose by the 31st ... and I have had no urge to write. None whatsoever.

The Holiday Stupor (which really means "stupid") descended, clogging my brain with obscene amounts of food and work-stress and several visits to The Mall. I blame the mall for the current case of writer's block. Not because I really feel that those few trips truly caused my brain-freeze, but because I prefer to blame malls for everything. My younger sister earned my eternal admiration this year by fulfilling an ambition I have stated for five years but have not yet achieved: she accomplished every bit of her Christmas shopping online, thus avoiding completely the insane crush into too few parking spaces, the plowing through mass-produced merchandise that's been pawed over by hundreds of people, the perfume snipers in the department stores, the aggressive kiosk sellers in the halls with their assortment of The Extremely Random (warm, lavender-scented paraffin wax to dip your feet in? Toasters that only toast hot dog buns and simultaneously steam a weenie? Really?)

I'm trying to rejuvenate with lots of reading. I can't remember the last time when I read three novels in a week, but I'll manage it this time. Already finished Roger Rosenblatt's Beet (hilarious; probably the best academic satire I've read since Russo's Straight Man) and Margot Livesey's The House on Fortune Street, which I found very moving and tried to learn from structurally.

I also read Billy Collins' latest book straight through this morning. I don't mind Billy Collins; I know there's a whole school of Collins-haters out there. I've never fully understood the vitriol about him. But I do have to admit to feeling that once you've read one good Billy Collins poem, you've read them all. He varies his subjects a bit, but his technique and mannerisms seem to stay so much the same that it's like eating a savory-yet-predictable dish over and over. I found nothing in the new collection to correct that opinion. (If you missed David Orr's review of Collins' last book, The Trouble with Poetry, go read it now. It's not only a clever review but an impressive piece of ventriloquism; I thought that it was fair to Collins in reporting his strengths and weaknesses as a poet, but the accuracy with which Orr managed to get the Collins voice seemed the most stinging aspect of the review. Reading it is a bit like watching someone stand behind a gifted magician and do the exact same routine, but very slowly so that you can see the moment when the rabbit's pulled from his back pocket.)

Anyway, I'm hoping to get the brain back in gear soon. It's incredibly frustrating to have a period of time for writing and no urge/inspiration to do it.

In the meantime, Beltway's new issue is out, a fascinating collection of poems on the theme of museums. I'm honored to have a piece in it.

Happy new year to all and if you've been similarly afflicted by the season, may your own holiday stupid soon pass over.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Robert Bly No Habla Español

Below, a guest blogger on his frustration over Robert Bly's translations of Antonio Machado.


soberbios: pride, arrogance, haughtiness
bendita ilusion: blessed illusion
ciencia: knowledge, learning

Robert Bly: worst translator ever? I can’t make that claim since I haven’t read every translation in every language. But I wonder if any other readers out there have encountered translations as exploitive and distorted as Robert Bly’s?

In his translation of Machado, the Spanish poet of the early 20th century, check out these lines (even if you don’t know Spanish):

En todas partes he visto
caravanes de tristeza,
SOBERBIOS y melancholicos.

Everywhere I’ve gone I’ve seen
excursions of sadness
ANGRY and melancholy ...

Ignoring the clumsiness of "excursions" instead of "caravans of sadness," why does Bly use "angry" instead of "pride" or "arrogance"?

Anoche cuando dormia

Last night, as I was sleeping,

"Marvelous error" instead of "blessed illusion"?

corazon maduro
de sombra y de CIENCIA.

a heart made mature
by darkness and ART.

Obviously, the primary meaning of "ciencia" is "science." A secondary meaning is "knowledge." I could even see translating it as "wisdom." But "art"? Clearly, Bly is exploiting Machado for his own purposes. Unfortunately, he is one of the most prolific translators of Spanish-language poetry. Before I could read much Spanish, a teacher warned me off Bly and told me Alistair Reid was the much more reliable and artful translator.

- Mouse (Raton)


My thoughts: I don't envy anyone who takes on the work of trying to preserve the nuances, inflections, and even the sonic qualities of poetry in another language. Even with the best of intentions, the result will always be its own new creature; a translator can't help but leave a fingerprint, and some things are truly untranslatable. And given Bly's prolific work as a translator—he's translated vast reams of poetry not only in Spanish, but in many other languages as well—we likely have him to thank for exposing many English-speaking readers to works they never would have otherwise encountered.

That said, go back to "many other languages" note: Bly's taken on poetry in Spanish, French, Norwegian, Persian, Urdu, German, and Swedish. Does he speak all of these languages with anything resembling fluency? I know many translators work with assistants who are more fluent than they are (Robert Hass actually worked directly with Czeslaw Milosz, a hell of an aid in translating his own work). Maybe Bly had a good native-speaking guide for all of these. But where's the line between translation and creation? Should we celebrate the fact that we can read these authors, or that we can read a Bly-toned version of these authors?

The results of his work on the Machado poems cited above remind me of stories about changelings, those substitute babies in folklore. Brought by fairies to replace a stolen child, they bear a resemblance to the original, but something is creepily off.

Thoughts on this tricky art? Ever tried it? Ever been frustrated by a tainted translation, or are you more grateful that any version of these writers is accessible?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" — Never Let the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Poem?

Saint Mark Freeing a Christian Slave

The Spoliation
El Greco

John the Baptist

The Third of May

The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus

About suffering, they were frequently wrong,
The Old Masters: if they understood
Its human position, how it takes place
While someone is eating, opening a window, or just walking along,
That understanding is rarely in evidence
In their paintings, which more typically depict
The agonies of martyrdom, the brutalities of the state
As the central focus of the work—as though
Outside of the radiant anguish,
Little else exists or is worthy of attention.
And not simply for the viewer, we posterity whose eyes
Are directed via light effects and shadow
Toward the tear-stained face of Mary or
The tortured veins on the throat of a slave, but
For the other inhabitants of the painting, who usually
Are turned toward the central scene of pain, and not—
Like the ploughman, the expensive delicate ship
In Brueghel's atypical "Icarus"—gesturing away.
The central argument of Auden's poem seems to be
About human suffering itself, which inarguably does
Happen while others are not paying attention.
It is undebatably true we are all cocooned
Within the opaque veils that comprise
Our own fields of concern; that we fail
Again and again to attend to the suffering of others,
And that this has elements of both tragedy
(Our blindness, our inefficacy in the face of horror)
And solace: that all of this shall pass. But this much loved
(By me as well) poem argues its case
With evidence circumstantial at best, using
A painting that in no way typifies
The Old Masters approach to suffering. In their work,
One could more rightly argue
That suffering is the center of the world, and that every eye
Moves toward it as a needle points to north
To be, by its dark light, inexorably changed.

How did Auden pull this off? Is there any chance that his great poem should be read not as a statement on the nature of suffering, but about the critic's ability to force misinterpretation by misdirecting the viewer's gaze (and perhaps the poet's ability to do the same?) I'm just spitballing here ... because I don't think this poem would have survived this long if it were read as a statement about how criticism/interpretation is a tricky process in which "experts" misguide us.

Poetry often seems to be what sounds like truth—the Muses said as much to Hesiod. Yet I am not entirely comfortable with "truths" that try to claim our minds without the needed facts, which gesture toward the thinking behind edifices such as Kentucky's Creation Museum.

I have started to collect these factual issues in other poems I like: In B. H. Fairchild's "Weather Report," for instance, how everything builds nicely into his thesis: a wry acknowledgment that both grand scale injustice and quotidian dolor are perpetual—a fairly convincing argument, largely supported by his facts (and ours). Yet, stanza four is this nice little mousetrap:

Eichmann lies in bed and reads a novel;
A Holocaust survivor sets himself on fire.
The thief's in church, the priest is in the brothel;
the sky is clear, the weatherman's a liar.

Sounds great, but this is from his 2003 collection, Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, and unless Fairchild wrote this particular poem back in '62, Eichmann had been dead—captured in Buenos Aires, taken to Israel, tried, and hanged—for 40 years. You can argue that the poem is outside of time in some way; that it speaks a truth beyond the factual about victims and victimizers, that it captures certain eternal realities without capturing temporal facts. But for some reason, I feel that it matters that no, Eichmann is not lying in bed and reading a novel; he is not lying anywhere because his ashes were scattered in international waters so no one could visit his grave or memorialize him. Whatever you think about state-sanctioned execution, Eichmann's fate certainly bespeaks a kind of moral justice that the poem seems to argue is absent from the world.

A good poem, even if it's not making any kind of philosophical argument as these two are, must be persuasive about its vision. And yet, I think both Auden and Fairchild's poems do persuade, even without having all the facts in order. So where is the border between fact and truth? Would these poems be improved by use of facts more supportive of their arguments, even if the names were more obscure? (There are certainly some Nazi war criminals who escaped the noose, but few would have the resonance of Eichmann.) Is all that separates great poetry from great propaganda a poet's good intentions?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

My Little Sister is 30 and I Have One Foot in the Grave

Spent the weekend in NYC with beloved sister, celebrating her momentous arrival on the planet, which occurred 30 years ago yesterday. We saw two plays, walked hundreds of blocks, hit two great museums (the Met and the MoMA), wandered through Chinatown and Little Italy, and had two less-than-great meals. As usual, I got back completely exhausted but sorry to leave.

Question: How many "chocolate bars" can one city support, especially in a recession? Everywhere we walked, it seemed, we passed some little exclusive chocolate shop with a menu of gold-leaf truffles and $8 hot cocoas and chocolate with bacon in it. I couldn't help but wonder what will happen to these places over the next few years, as our need for the chocolate endorphins rises and our ability to pay for anything more than a square of Hershey bar sinks.

Moment with the most "poetry": Eavesdropping on a class of public school 2nd graders at the MoMA as their tour guide sat them down in front of the cluster of Brancusis shown above and had the kids talk about what they saw in them. The kids were amazing: alternately squirmy, entranced, and disgusted by the naked breasts on a Klimt in the room. I couldn't wait to write about them. The kids, not the breasts.

Best New York moment: Eating a bagel in a small diner near the museum and watching our Indian waitress enchange flirtatious banter with the Ukrainian line cook and the Latin American manager. Oddest NY moment: Walking south on Madison Avenue just after the Met closed on Saturday, freezing our asses off in the dark, and crossing an intersection only to realize that the entire area was clogged with cop cars, marked and unmarked, and that every nearby doorway had an officer in SWAT gear lurking in it.

These contest results went live this weekend while I was away ... a nice surprise. The $2000 first prize would have been nicer, but $100 will help me pay for the time in New York!

Friday, November 14, 2008

New work in Blackbird today ...

Check it out here.

I was happy to get work accepted, but I'm happier still seeing the company ... The issue is a veritable roll call of Hollinsites, with fiction by Lee Smith (Hollins class of '67), a memoir by Constance Adler (who was in my '99 M.A. program and who I haven't seen in years! So happy to see she's still writing!) and poetry by Jeanne Larsen (Hollins class of '72, and one of my favorite professors ever ... not just a wonderful poet and novelist, but one of the world's genuinely kind and generous people). It's enough to bring out my school spirit.

Also: Bruce Weigl. No Hollins connection I know of, though the Hollins Critic included a good essay about his work way back in '94. But Weigl is one of the poets I discovered in grad school, and much of his work just stuns me. Go find and read "What Saves Us" and see what you think.

And Angela, thanks for the picture!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Obama Needs to Watch His Line Breaks

I mean, breaking on "the" in the 9th line is a little weak.

Otherwise, really, this ain't bad for a collegiate poem, even if it does sound like Obama might have been tripping—or feeling negative about a recent spelunking experience—when he wrote it.

(Underground apes eating figs?)


Under water grottos, caverns
Filled with apes
That eat figs.
Stepping on the figs
That the apes
Eat, they crunch.
The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance,
Tumble in the
Rushing water,
Musty, wet pelts
Glistening in the blue.

Another, perhaps more personally revealing, poem by the President-elect here.

Our new president wrote poetry! It's a good thing this didn't come out before the election. it could have scared off middle America—even though Lincoln himself was known to scribble an iamb or two.

Still giddy ...

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


For the first time in 8 years, I'm finding myself shedding tears of joy over the news, rather than ones of disgust or impotent rage.

I'm sure emotional equilibrium will return in a few days.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Well, let me amend that: If you've read a paper or follow the news or are reasonably informed, vote. Otherwise, just pretend this is a regular old day. Go to work. Watch your stock portfolios plummet. See who's died in Iraq today.

I don't care if people vote for McCain -- I just hope they don't vote due to Barack's middle name. Anyone's who's harbored the thought that he might be Muslim (and that might be bad), who thinks he's a commie, who thinks he's related to Saddam, please, just stay home and leave this to people who are voting on policy issues.

Washington City Paper staff are following the nitty gritty of the local polling stations via Twitter here. Lines around the blocks. People jubilant. Several unicorns spotted.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

In the Immortal Words of Joey Tempest ...

It's the final countdown.

But in the meantime, this weekend my friend Lou created—using saws, kerosene, and several enormous pumpkins—a scene in his front yard that must have thrilled every kid in the neighborhood, and probably many adults as well (the ones who weren’t freaked out by the potential for neighborhood-wide conflagration).

Am I overstating things to say this diorama of carnage is a quintessential American art installation? It’s over-the-top, absurd, funny. It simultaneously represents and parodies our obsession with violence and spectacle. It honors the value of work—this took hours and hours to create. And most of all, it values the audience: Why spend the time to do this thing at all, if not to create a reaction of horror, amusement, and, dare I say, delight?

Maybe I’m overstating things. Still: awesome.

On to Americana of a larger scale: This weekend, the book review sections of both the Washington Post and the New York Times carried articles about presidential reading habits. (They also both carried reviews of a novel called The Flying Troutmans, and in an all-too-common scenario, the Post’s critic loved it—“Toews has created such an engaging cast for this 2,000-mile trek that you'll never be tempted to ask, ‘Are we there yet?’—and the Times critic panned it—“a journey of a few thousand miles that ends up seeming like several million. I blame the disagreeable company and the vapid conversation.” But I digress.)

The Post piece is a review of a recent book by Fred Kaplan on the literary works that shaped Lincoln, Jon Meacham’s a general round-up of reading executive habits that comes around to focus on McCain’s for Hemingway’s hero in For Whom the Bell Tolls and the fact that both candidates share a tragic sensibility; Meacham covered much the same ground in two NPR pieces this week, though the NPR pieces delved more deeply into the Obama and McCain autobiographies.

Both articles are worth a read, but the few extracts Jonathan Yardley quoted from the Lincoln book seemed particularly germane at this moment. First, Lincoln himself, writing in 1855:

“Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ' all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except Negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equals, except Negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.”

Then Kaplan himself, writing about Lincoln’s preparation through books:

"If intellectual readiness is everything, he was ready, as he well knew when he said goodbye to his Springfield world, having prepared himself over a lifetime to become a well-read master of the human narrative. If that narrative was to have its tragic dimension in Lincoln's failure, despite his talents, to prevent the South's secession, shorten the inevitable war, or alleviate Northern racism, it was to be an object lesson in the limitations of language rather than a failure in preparation. At the same time, the unfortunate givens of the narrative provided the context for his two greatest achievements, the Gettysburg Address and the second inaugural address, in which he did what great writers do: create useful texts from which readers can derive inspiration, literary pleasure, and universalizing direction."

Nice. In my moments of fear that the polls are wrong or that the Karl Rovian plotters are about to launch some massive smear campaign (“Obama Found Sharing Cup of Borscht in Gay Love Nest With Reverend Wright”) in these last hours, I console myself with this: Even if Obama doesn’t win, isn’t it nice that, either way, we’ll again have a president who reads?

I don’t know why, exactly, but this Donald Justice piece from his 2004 Collected Poems struck me as relevant, right now. It’s the last stanza in particular that seems, to me, to sum up this moment of great hope.

“There is a gold light in certain old paintings”


There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and from nowhere at once, this light,
++++And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
++++Share in its charity equally with the cross.


Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.
With so much to look forward to he looked back.
We think he sang then, but the song is lost.
At least he had seen once more the beloved back.
++++I say the song went this way: O prolong
++++Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.


The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
++++And all that we suffered through having existed
++++Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

Nice little montage of poets' graves by the Academy today.

(Of course, some of us prefer to go au naturel.)

Here's a little tribute to one of nature's creepiest.


My name is Charon.
I am the ferryman
across this black river
to the land of the dead.

My name is Charon.
Someone must dine
on the flesh of the gone.
Their lives flow in my bald brain
after they are nothing but bones.

You can’t take it with you,
but I can. Many complain
about my breath,
but I don’t get mints.
I stay alive by eating death.

My name is Charon.
My beak is the oar,
my stomach the boat.
Please leave your bags at the gate.
The only luggage I take is carrion.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Maybe We'll Have Dust Tupperware, Instead

While driving into D.C. today to check out some of the new exhibits at the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery (which, most excellently for a rainy pisser of a day, are located in the same building in Penn Quarter), I heard an excellent Freudian slip on NPR. Discussing the collapse of Wall Street and the coming D.C.-based economic summit to discuss it, the reporter noted that "the crisis will be held in Washington."

Indeed it will.

And in (gulp) barely more than a week, we'll know who's going to be holding it. Whether it's Obama/Biden or The Exoskeleton Formerly Known as John McCain and the Gleeful Moose-Killer, they're going to have a hell of a job ahead of them.

Last week Forbes reported that seniors are selling off previously purchased cemetery space in order to nab a little cash. Forget that sweet little space in Forest Lawn; sell it now to pay for your medications. When you die, just have your next of kin stick you in a Hefty bag and drop you in the nearest 7/11 dumpster.

Every time I hear news about the economy, visions of Cormac McCarthy's The Road dance in my head. For those unfamiliar with the plot of McCarthy's Pulitzer winner, here's an extract from Wikipedia's summary:

Civilization has been destroyed, and most species have become extinct. What happened outside of North America is left unexplained. Humanity consists largely of bands of cannibals, their captives, and refugees who scavenge for canned food. Ash covers the surface of the earth; in the atmosphere, it obscures the sun and moon, and the two travelers breathe through improvised masks.

Good times!

I'm not sure I could say that visiting the gallery cheered me, exactly, but the American Art Gallery contains some amazing works created during the Great Depression, some under the auspices of the WPA. There's a stunning mural by Thomas Hart Benton, and Alexander Hogue's Dust Bowl (above) could have served as the cover for McCarthy's novel. Hopefully we won't be seeing similar images on the cover of U.S. News and World Report any time soon.

Get tips on surviving the apocalypse to come here. Enjoy them while you can; it's hard to access hilarious online videos from the back of a boxcar.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Instant Memorials and the Problem of Fodder

Get ready: It's nearly Halloween, and as soon as that night of rotten eggs and toilet papering is over, the real scare begins: marketing for the holidays kicks into full gear, with retailers eager to encourage us to buy, buy, buy in the name of Jesus. Your family will be inflicted upon you. You will be inflicted on them. Out will come cameras for endless shots of decorating, pie-making, present-wrapping, and Uncle Steve passed out in the eggnog.

I make joke, of course. I don't even have an Uncle Steve (though if I did, I'd want him to be like this guy.)

But the approach of the holidays has had me thinking about a lost ritual: the development of family photographs. Once upon a time, you had to wait weeks to see the pictures you took on vacation or during family visits. You mailed them off and got them weeks later; viewing them felt like you were looking over a historical event. Then, I think while I was in elementary school, came the advent of the express photo shop, where you could get your pictures in an hour or so.

Now, there's no delay at all. I can't remember the last time someone handed me a stack of photographs. Instead, it's all digital: you click, and instantly you can see the results. What's more, you DO see the results; I can think of many recent occasions when as soon as photos had been taken, the camera was passed around so that everyone could see the images. I looked at the pictures, some of which included me, and like everyone else I giggled and groaned—and felt somehow nostalgic for a moment that had occurred only seconds before.

What is that? Does looking at images of yourself enjoying a moment remove you from the moment you're enjoying? Never before have events taken so little time to be memorialized— which is a different process than remembering, and sometimes an oppositional one.

The effect of digital cameras reminds me of the poetic process, if such it can be called: When something interesting occurs or some emotional moment transpires in my life or I witness/ eavesdrop on a conversation, I often think within seconds, "This will make a good poem" or "I'm going to put that in a short story." How many pieces of my life have I missed thinking about how to convey them in words?

Do you do this? Is it healthy—or is health beside the point? Maybe once you start writing, you can't help vampiring big chunks of your existence. Maybe you should only worry once you actually start avoiding life in order to write; supposedly, Rainer Maria Rilke skipped his daughter's wedding because he was thought a poem might come. (If I'd been his kid, I would have been pretty pissed about this. "Hey Dad. I hear you were waiting for a poem. You know where your poem was? At our wedding with everyone else, you prick.")

Anyway, I've been reading Brenda Shaughnessy's Human Dark With Sugar this week. Lots of really striking lines and startling turns of phrase in the book, but the one below struck me as pretty damn funny. I laughed out loud, in fact. (And then started thinking, "This would make a good blog entry.")

A Poet's Poem

If it takes me all day,
I will get the word freshened out of this poem.

I put it in the first line, then moved it to the second,
and now it won't come out.

It's stuck. I'm so frustrated,
so I went out to my little porch all covered in snow.

and watched the icicles drip, as I smoked
a cigarette.

Finally I reached up and broke a big, clear spike
off the roof with my bare hand.

And used it to write a word in the snow.
I wrote the word snow.

I can't stand myself.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Dish Best Served with a $5.99 Sticker

While I was in grad school, an editor from a major publishing house came to visit our writing program. His visit was greeted with much excitement by those of us scribbling away at novels and short story collections; we were invited to submit a sample of work that he would read before meeting with each of us.

While we feigned nonchalance, I'm sure each of us secretly hoped to be Discovered by this editor, a writer in his own right whose first novel had been highly praised by critics and whose career seemed poised to scale the heights. Knowing he was unlikely to read everything I sent, I struggled to decide which story to place first in my batch. I chose an atypical piece: it was more frothy and “chick-lit”ish than what I generally wrote—but it had moved a few readers to tears, and had scenes I’d continued to find funny months after writing them.

When we met, it was immediately clear that I had chosen the wrong story. “How old are you?” he asked. I admitted that I was 23. “Good,” he said. “This first story is obviously the work of a very young writer. If you had been older, I would have tried to discourage you from continuing. But you obviously have some years to grow.”

Bummer. But while I felt a bit patronized (and cursed myself for putting that story first), I figured, hey—could’ve been worse.

It wasn’t until a friend told me about his own meeting that I was truly put off. My friend was working on a novel about sharecroppers; it was taut and lean and beautifully written, with real depth and scope and a strange, cut-down prose that served the story well. When he met with the editor, the man praised the writing but told him it was derivative, had already been done by Faulkner, and would never sell.

“If you want to see a Southern novel that doesn’t repeat what’s already been done before, one that’s truly original,” he said without irony, “read my book.”


Soon after grad school, my story, “The Colonization of Helena Capezi,” ended up in Iron Horse Literary Review. I was ecstatic (more so than usual, even) for it to find a home, and later to get calls from an editor and an agent wanting to read more work.

But that visiting editor was right: The damn thing practically has ringlets.

Nonetheless, since then, I’ve seen his first and second novels stacked in the bargain section of at least a dozen bookstores. I’m not gloating—I was 23, after all, and with the perspective of years, I think he was generous. But every time I see his books, I think about him telling my friend to read his own novel as an example (the only example—no suggestions to read Barry Hannah, Tim Gautreaux, Lee Smith, James Lee Burke, Dorothy Allison) of how to do Southern fiction right. And I think about Clive James’ most hilarious poem, which David Orr quoted in a review of James' new selected poems a few Sundays back.

Blessed are those humble in success, for they shall never remind anyone of this poem.

The Book of my Enemy Has Been Remaindered

By Clive James

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy's much-prized effort sits in piles
In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.
Great, square stacks of rejected books and, between them, aisles
One passes down reflecting on life's vanities,
Pausing to remember all those thoughtful reviews
Lavished to no avail upon one's enemy's book—
For behold, here is that book
Among these ranks and banks of duds,
These ponderous and seemingly irreducible cairns
Of complete stiffs.

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I rejoice.
It has gone with bowed head like a defeated legion
Beneath the yoke.
What avail him now his awards and prizes,
The praise expended upon his meticulous technique,
His individual new voice?
Knocked into the middle of next week
His brainchild now consorts with the bad buys
The sinker, clinkers, dogs and dregs,
The Edsels of the world of moveable type,
The bummers that no amount of hype could shift,
The unbudgeable turkeys.

Yea, his slim volume with its understated wrapper
Bathes in the blare of the brightly jacketed Hitler's War Machine,
His unmistakably individual new voice
Shares the same scrapyard with a forlorn skyscraper
Of The Kung-Fu Cookbook,
His honesty, proclaimed by himself and believed by others,
His renowned abhorrence of all posturing and pretense,
Is there with Pertwee's Promenades and Pierrots—
One Hundred Years of Seaside Entertainment,
And (oh, this above all) his sensibility,
His sensibility and its hair-like filaments,
His delicate, quivering sensibility is now as one
With Barbara Windsor's Book of Boobs,
A volume graced by the descriptive rubric
"My boobs will give everyone hours of fun."

Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,
Though not to the monumental extent
In which the chastisement of remaindering has been meted out
To the book of my enemy,
Since in the case of my own book it will be due
To a miscalculated print run, a marketing error—
Nothing to do with merit.
But just supposing that such an event should hold
Some slight element of sadness, it will be offset
By the memory of this sweet moment.
Chill the champagne and polish the crystal goblets!
The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am glad.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Bits of Stuff That Let Art Happen

A while ago, I wanted to write a poem about someone working in a pen factory, putting the tiny little caps onto pens that would be used to sign contracts, endorse checks, and write poems.

Behind any kind of art that now exists—even one as insubstantial as poetry often seems—there is a pile of materials that must exist in order for the art to be made. Someone must mix the colors for paints, creating the precise balance of pigment and chemical that makes a paint burnt umber rather than sienna or rust. Someone must run the machines that press out keys for the keyboards upon which novels and poems are written. Someone must mine the kaolin that's refined into porcelain clay. Yet how many of the people who produce the materials that allow art to exist have the money to possess the final “product”—or the free time to appreciate it?

The gap between those producing the raw materials and those creating the final artworks has long interested me. It’s more elaborate, too, than just producer/artist—for a shade of paint, there’s a mine where the pigment is obtained, then the pigment is refined, then the paint is created and sold. How wide is the economic and cultural gap between the laborer who pulled the ore from the earth and the artist who uses it as one shade on a canvas?

Most people in my zip code can afford to buy a book of poetry, but some the next zip code over would find even that purchase difficult to squeeze into a budget. I'm lucky enough to be able to buy a book now and then, but most visual art is beyond reach. Choosing to buy a painting I love would mean not paying our gas bill, and so I prioritize. But the fact of that choice is a sad one.

Tolstoy said something like, “To say that a work of art is good, but incomprehensible to the majority of men is the same as saying some kind of food is very good but that most people can’t eat it.” I think about both sides of that idea frequently; my husband works as a food writer, and we sometimes find ourselves noshing delicious things during press events at restaurants we can’t afford or would have to save months to eat at.

I never got around to writing the pen poem, but this weekend my husband mentioned a job he had after high school that captured another iteration of the exact image I’d been considering: he worked in a plant that made pads for saxophones, stamping out tiny bits of felt all day.

What a tedious, mind-numbing, menial job—without which no one would have ever known the names of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Lester Young …

** This draft passed out hearing Kenny G. **

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Poetry and Politics: Strange Bedfellows?

Great event at the Folger Shakespeare Library this past Monday: Terrance Hayes, Nick Flynn, Eileen Myles, and Edwin Torres reading in support of a new collection, State of the Union: 50 Political Poems.

I’d heard Flynn read part of his poem “Fire” on the Academy of American Poets Poetcast a while ago and found it stunning (little did I know that the podcast contained only about half of the whole poem; apparently the Academy didn’t want listeners to hear the c-bomb dropped in its hallowed recordings. Flynn apparently didn’t know this either; when I asked him about it Monday he said he hadn’t heard the Poetcast of his piece and didn’t know that it had run censored). The whole of it appeared in Tin House’s issue on the subject of evil a while back; it’s an amazing piece of work that's utterly chilling and humanizing of both captives and captors at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib.

I was curious to hear Flynn read, but the main reason I went was to see Terrance Hayes, who is writing some of the most exciting American poetry out there right now. Hayes draws on history and the language of both sermon and myth to explore the ways in which we’re both in thrall to the past and desperate to move beyond it. His collection Wind in a Box is rich, strange, and really funny, and the work he read Monday made me wish his new collection were coming out today. Some writers are not good readers of their own work (it’s always painful to go to a reading of work you love to find that the writer’s shyness or dry/forced delivery comes close to ruining the poems), but Hayes is a natural performer and was a pleasure to hear.

After the individual readings, one of the editors of the new anthology, Matthew Zapruder, led a panel discussion of the writers about the nature of political poetry—a combination that many regard with suspicion or downright dislike. Zapruder asked the poets why, and why a “political poet” is seen as such an odd creature in the U.S.

The poets kicked it around for a while, and fear of didacticism seemed to be the number one reason—creating a poetry that’s the political equivalent of the sentimental verse found on Hallmark cards. I can think of a few poets whose works has veered into that zone at times.

At some point Zapruder started to say how the issue is seen differently by poets in other countries, and Flynn interjected “That’s because they’d be put in jail.” A valid point. But I think what Zapruder was leading to is the point that in other countries, politics is seen as so central to a person’s being and such a major component of life that there’s not the disdain for it we often see in the U.S. A “political poet” in South America or Europe is any poet at all; labeling one as such would be a bit like the name of the old Department of Redundancy Department.

Part of the issue to me seems to be that poets and politicians mutually look down on each other; each group thinks it’s dealing with the more important matter. To some poets, the stuff of politics often seems too fleeting to muddy the hands with, and to politicians, much poetry seems incomprehensible or at least detached from real, contemporary concerns. There are so many celebrities now who dabble in politics; political dilettantism is rampant among artists. And there are plenty of political poems that, when you get to their core, seem satisfied with simple messages: war and sexism and racism are bad bad things.

If the job of the artist is to deepen the mystery, can a poem that makes an effective political argument really succeed as a poem? Thoughts?
And a couple of interesting thoughts on the matter here and here.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Unspeakable Speeches

Poet Sam Rasnake posted Francis Bacon’s painting Head VI on his blog the other day, and accompanied the painting with a quote from Bacon: “If you can talk about it, why paint it?”

Great question. In some ways, I think it's a perfect question for poetry, as well—though an odd one, given that poetry trades in words; to transfer Bacon’s thought to our medium would be to say, If you can speak of it, why write it? Which seems only a small step from saying, If you can speak of it, why speak of it? and from there, one might descend down a long slippery slope of verbal insanity, at the bottom of which one would find Yogi Berra, explaining how he’d give his right arm to be ambidextrous.

For all the wackery in that line, though, to say that poems are unspeakable speeches seems very close to the truth—and not “the unspeakable” meaning solely "awesome" or "horrifying" (as many of Bacon's paintings are), but the things that simply cannot be conveyed in conversation or in narrative prose; what can be expressed that way is not poetry. And in fact, I find that the more I struggle to “say something” in a poem, the less happy I am with the outcome. When I try to say something, it often results in a highly crafted, overthought piece that doesn’t succeed at all in creating the feeling I get when I read a really stunning poem—namely, of having been momentarily removed from my body by a strange confluence of image, sonics, feeling, and idea.

Like so many poems, Bacon’s unsettling canvases are describable when it comes to method—you could talk about the thickness of the white and the purple here, the vertical dry brushiness of the black obliterating the figure’s eyes—but as with a poem, the painting’s final impact cannot be described or summed up the way an article or even a novel might. Many times that’s because poetry, or at least the initial impulse toward poetry, comes from somewhere else, a place even the supposed creator of the poem usually can’t explain. At least I can’t. Writing-wise, there’s little I dread more than having someone ask where I got the idea for a poem. (I’ve noticed other poets never ask this question.)

Jane Hirshfield’s “The Envoy,” from her book Given Sugar, Given Salt, captures this unconscious aspect of writing better than any other work I know; in fact, Hirshfield’s study of Buddhism seems to have led her to become an astute and precise observer of her own mind at work throughout much of her poetry.

What I want when I write a poem is to be able to access the “belled herds.” But they do not come when I call, I cannot look directly at them, and they often dissolve when I try to speak them into being, leaving in my mind a pungent bovine smell that will not turn up on the page. When it does turn up, I feel justified in cracking a beer and calling it a night. But most of the time my brews are unearned, opened because the magic isn’t happening rather than to celebrate its visit.

The Envoy

One day in that room, a small rat.
Two days later, a snake.

Who, seeing me enter,
whipped the long stripe of his
body under the bed,
then curled like a docile house-pet.

I don’t know how either came or left.
Later, the flashlight found nothing.

For a year I watched
as something—terror? happiness? grief?—
entered and then left my body.

Not knowing how it came in,
Not knowing how it went out.

It hung where words could not reach it.
It slept where light could not go.
Its scent was neither snake nor rat,
neither sensualist nor ascetic.

There are openings in our lives
of which we know nothing.

Through them
the belled herds travel at will,
long-legged and thirsty, covered with foreign dust.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Temporary American Poetry?

We read different poets for different reasons. There are some I turn to (they tend to be old guys like Justice, Larkin, Auden) when I want a sense of solid ground, of comfort in high winds and waves. There are others I read when I have poetry block; for some reason, I can write fiction almost any time, but I have to be in a certain mental space to write anything resembling a decent poem. Reading Jorie Graham or August Kleinzahler often helps break me out of a prosaic tone that regularly threatens to creep in; the drive toward narrative is a tick on my belly every time I try to write a good lyric poem.

I read Campbell McGrath for pleasure, but also as part of an ongoing argument with myself about what cultural stuff belongs in poems. For some reason, poems that are filled with modern implements—the things we’re surrounded by right now—often turn me off. A poem that mentions Britney Spears, text-messaging, or Seinfeld may intrigue or amuse me, but I have yet to find such a piece that makes me want to go back and re-read it. All of these things are themselves, but in poems they’re often metaphors as well, and how long can they last as metaphors for anything but transience itself?

In college I had a used textbook called Contemporary American Poetry in which, on the title page, some wit had crossed out the first three letters of Contemporary. When I read poems that have such modern cultural minutia in them, that’s how they often feel to me: temporary. While we were in grad school, my then-boyfriend wrote me a gorgeous poem—delicate, restrained, yet passionate—but it mentioned the playing of a CD, and that word almost ruined it for me (he was kind enough later to change it to “album,” which helped—and now, sure enough, CDs are almost a dead reference point.)

I want to get the references in what I read. I know he’s a favorite of many, but John Ashbery’s a poet I’ve never been particularly fond of; many of his poems bar me right from the start with allusions to art or films I’ve never seen and have no charge or investment in. Yet Campbell McGrath uses the same baggage; his poems overflow with names and places and stuff. His book Pax Atomica, for example, contains a long poem called “Guns N’ Roses.” Yes, it’s about the band (or at least uses the band as a central image) and I really like it. It’s probably because recognize McGrath’s cultural baggage and have lived in it, where Ashbery’s seems like another planet.

I want to read (and write) something lasting, and it’s often hard to tell how much of right now will last. Yet what seems classic to us now was once tentative: Auden’s “September 1, 1939” is full of contemporary references. But it has lasted and is quoted regularly, in spite of the fact that few contemporary readers know “what occurred at Linz,” what Nijinsky wrote about Diaghilev, or even who Nijinsky or Diaghilev were. And on some level, I think my desire not to see cell phones or iPods or Donald Rumsfeld in poems is a ridiculous and maybe even harmful bias. Poets are regularly bemoaning how few people read poetry, but how many poets write poems that live in the world most people live in? Many poems I read seem a million miles from contemporary concerns and cultural touchstones. How can you tell trivia from culture, especially when much culture is trivia and there’s less and less of a difference between high art and pop? The line becomes more porous by the day; it’s almost become an irrelevant fiction.

Besides, who says something has to last forever to be good? Why do I have a bias insisting art has to be like Michaelangelo’s David—still standing centuries from now? Not only is it a standard most art will fail to reach, it fails to acknowledge that something ephemeral can have it’s own particular merit and bring, in the moment it’s viewed or read, all the pleasures of more lasting art. Given that everything is fragmented now, why try to build cathedrals? No one goes to cathedrals anymore. People go to the movies, the drive-thru, the grocery store. People go to Subway.

And on that note, here’s one of my favorites from McGrath’s Pax Atomica: funny, gross, utterly now (and on some level, I think, about the tension between high and low culture). You have to love a poem that includes both sandwiches and Wittgenstein. And while the sandwich chain may go out of business at some point (potential headline: “Subway Announces It Will Close 300 Stores; Jared Swells to 300 Pounds”), I would wager more Americans have interacted with Subway this year than they have with Wittgenstein. What’s lasting? And to whom?


Consider the human capacity for suffering,
our insatiable appetite for woe.
I do not say this lightly
but the sandwiches at Subway
suck. Foaming lettuce,
mayo like rancid bear grease,
meat the color of a dead dog’s tongue.
Yet they are consumed
by the millions
and by the tens of millions.
So much for the food. The rest
I must pass over in silence.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Beached Wails

Living overseas, my family fervently looked forward to returning stateside. Postings with the Foreign Service were of varying lengths, and if you were sent somewhere for more than three years, your family got “home leave” midway through—a trip back to the U.S., courtesy of Uncle Sam. Our trips back were most often to the South, specifically to Pascagoula, Mississippi, where my father’s parents lived. We would spend a few days in Pascagoula before hitting the road for the Alabama beach, usually driving in separate cars, my parents’ little rental and my grandparents boatlike Crown Victoria. It had leather seats—I still remember their smell—and power windows, which seemed incredibly decadent and luxurious to my sister and me.

Even when my mother and father were growing up in the South, their families were summering in Gulf Shores, Alabama, the Redneck Riviera. They’ve joked for years that Mom likely kicked sand in Dad’s face when they were children, with no idea of what lay ahead years in their futures.

We went back to Gulf Shores over and over throughout my childhood, sometimes just the six of us, other times joined by my father’s brothers and their families. My father and mother can remember when getting from the west to the east to see Fort Morgan required a short trip by ferry. There were hardly any buildings along the shoreline at all.

When my sister and I first started going, the beach was scattered beach houses, far off the main shore road in the dunes, each an isolated little retreat at the end of paths made of bleached and broken shells. We’d rent a small, stilted house from friends of my grandparents, and for a week we’d live barefoot on sand-scattered linoleum, windows open to the sound of the waves at night, small rotary fans cooling the rooms. We’d swim in the mornings and late afternoons, spending the long hours through the blazing heat of the day reading or working jigsaw puzzles or chasing the scores of lizards that lived in the sea grass beneath the house. We ate sandwiches and tomatoes bought roadside and cartons of boiled shrimp. Going out was a major occasion; we had to drive half an hour to reach our favorite restaurant, a little diner called Hazel’s Nook. We got stung by jellyfish, we stepped on sandspurs, we got sunburned and mosquito-bitten and once, running over the weather deck, I got a splinter the size of a sequoia that required a trip to the tiny clinic in Foley. At night we chased sand crabs and watched hundreds of stingrays haunt the floodlit water beneath the pier. We listened to my grandparents bitch at each other as they played gin and taught us to play hearts. It was about as close to heaven as anything I’ve experienced, and it’s always that little beach house that I think of when I hear the word home.

Over time, of course, most of the beach at Gulf Shores has fallen victim to the same fate as every beach town in America: condos, enormous reefs of condos as far as the eye can see, all varying pastel shades, with names like Summer Sanctuary and Seafoam Estates. And now that my grandparents have both died, there’s no longer a strong force pulling the family south for the summer. Virginia Beach—much closer to home—has become the new family rendezvous.

But the sand seems dirty, the beach crowded, the water murky and rough, and the weather this past week was the pits (the picture here was taken by my sister on the one pleasant day, and there was so much seaweed in the water it felt like swimming through a bathtub hair-clog). The beach certainly doesn’t hold up to our nostalgia about the Gulf, where the sand was whiter, the water calmer, and all of us younger. I wish that the family could go back there and experience that slow summer torpor, which these days seems as far away as the Gulf does—even at the beach this past week, I checked my work email several times a day. I never reached a state of relaxation; sometimes my stomach felt knotted with the same worries. I would love to be able to go back to the Gulf and kick that white sugar sand at my husband, but I suspect it would seem like a forced gesture.

I did go back to my grandparents’ old house in Pascagoula after Katrina hit. The beach road a block from their house had disappeared into the ocean. I had to find my way through a city with no signs, in which every yard was full of debris and all that was left of most houses was concrete slab foundations. My grandparents’ house was still standing, but barely. The yard was full of rubble, the lawn was dead and salty, and dazed-looking strangers were wandering through the battered, junk-filled streets. Most times and feelings and places we can’t recreate.

With Gustav bearing down on the Gulf Coast now, I’m hoping that Mother Nature has the same limitations.


This draft choked on seaweed and a bottlecap.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Poets Beware ...

As if the terse rejection slips, the disinterest of 95 percent of the population, the payment in contributor's copies, and the nights of soul-searching and utter certainty that you have no talent weren't enough, then there are stories like this one.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Butterfly, Squirrel, Beagle, Moose

The Washington Post Magazine today contains a lovely article by Dan Southerland detailing his relationship with a red admiral butterfly who alighted on his collar one July afternoon in the District last year.

The butterfly proceeded to hang out there for hours as Southerland stepped into a photo-shop to capture the moment, went to lunch at Smith & Wollensky, and finally took a cab home. Upon arriving chez Southerland, instead of departing, the butterfly stayed in the area, coming back to the garden and visiting Southerland and his family many times over the next month.

Southerland does a wonderful job conveying the joy of the whole experience, which gradually drew in family and neighbors and colleagues. He talks to a Smithsonian entomologist about butterfly behavior and what the little fellow might have been up to. The expert’s theory: The animal was likely attracted to Southerland’s sweat and may have been using him as a perch to scope out sexy female butterflies.

But much of what Southerland experienced with this little bug, the lepidopterist concluded, was highly unusual behavior for a butterfly. A mystery, in other words, and thank God for that.

The strange dance that developed between Southerland and his butterfly is one of my longstanding obsessions—not butterflies, particularly, but animals in general; how we relate to them, and they to us; what we share and do not share with the creatures who co-inhabit this world.

As a kid, I obsessively read the National Wildlife Federation's magazine “Ranger Rick,” spent many hours overturning rocks in the backyard to watch the ants do their marching thing, and used to wander miles down the tiny creek that flowed under our backyard trying to catch minnows and salamanders. I fantasized about wild birds coming down to land on my outstretched finger. I hatched many a Rube Goldberg-esque plan for catching one of the neighborhood squirrels, imagining that once we spent a few hours together, the squirrel and I would develop a friendship that would be fulfilling, passionate, and deliciously misunderstood by the philistines and grown-ups who could not comprehend the depth of our bond. I was a lonely kid, and wanted an intimacy most wild animals are well-served by avoiding; a relationship with a wild creature who “chose” me might mark me as special in a way that few people seemed to recognize.

I’d like to think that the ego-needs have gone out of my interest in animals at this point. I certainly no longer set up makeshift traps involving a box, a stick, and a bowl of peanut butter (which, by the way, no squirrel was ever dumb enough to fall for), and my work at The HSUS has taught me plenty of less sociopathic approaches to wildlife.

But the obsession with animals—what they do, what they might be thinking and feeling—has stayed with me. Even now, I can watch Coltrane, our beagle, for hours. My husband and I have invented a voice for him, and he “speaks” to us on a regular basis. His personality as we’ve constructed it is alternately sweet, smug, petulant, and greedy. There are grains of truth in this invented persona, but really, Coltrane is a mystery: a small, warm, breathing being who shares our home and our bed. We know so little about his inner mental life (we sometimes joke that it looks like a flat line on a heart monitor, jagging upward at moments when food is mentioned), yet we love him devotedly. And my belief in scientific principles and knowledge of the often-parasitic nature of the dog/human relationship are not quite enough to convince me that when he gazes up at us or licks our faces, that behavior is entirely driven by a desire to be fed. On some incomprehensible level, I believe, this animal loves us.

Maybe we’re romanticizing him; our belief in his affections may be a parasitism of our own, and some of what we love may be in the same vein as my childhood wish to be selected and loved by a wild creature that should know better. But I’m OK with that. There are fewer and fewer mysteries in the world, it seems, and the minds and hearts of animals are one.

I know few poets who write about animals with as much perception and stripped-down honesty as Robert Wrigley. His acutely observed poems about the wild are often brutal and completely without romanticism, and he gets into the heart of the way we look at animals and the ways we often fail to see them accurately. It’s hard for me to pick a single favorite, but here’s one; the poem below is from Wrigley’s Lives of the Animals.

The Afterlife of Moose
for Stephen Dunn

As the moose is obsessed, relentlessly
and with little or no variation, with food,
safety, and procreation, I am myself
obsessed of late with God, though by God
even I am uncertain What or Who I mean:
the word or the Word in the mouths
of those who use the word as a bludgeon;
the fabulous order of all disorderly things
or the perfect chaos that lives in straight lines;
all the succulent preliminary wines and kisses
or the thrust and plunge and plosive release.

I’ve been watching this particular bull
for a good while now, as he feeds
on the rich new shoots and shrub
by shrub moves slowly through the forest.
He knows I’m here. He eyes me
now and then. This morning I am in his mind
as God never is, and what I wish I knew
is whether or not I envy him that constant absence,
or whether doubt might not be
the source of all love,
all the shimmer of truth, the flavors of beauty.
Only a fool would see the moose’s life
as easier or less than his own.
As for the afterlife, I’ll take his chances.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Blurbings and Bitchslappings in the Book Review

Usually the hubby and I spend Sunday morning working our way through the weekend editions of the Washington Post and the New York Times. It’s all grotesquely domestic—coffee, spooning, occasional sharing of good bits from the pages we’re reading, occasional shared explosions of snot-flying, wheezing, heaving allergies caused by the massive hair expulsions of our beagle, Coltrane.

This weekend, though, we were away celebrating Tim’s birthday and so didn’t get to our usual ritual. We spent Sunday morning waking up pleasantly below the deck of the Schooner Woodwind, a sailboat that does tours out of Annapolis and serves, on Saturday evenings, as a “boat and breakfast” for those who want a whisper of piracy and wave-rocked relaxation without the tedious traditional accompaniments of scurvy and Dramamine. We had to get up early for breakfast, so we missed our usual newsprint canoodle. Besides, the stateroom was the size of a large shoebox. If we’d tried to fit the two massive Sunday editions into the sleep-drawer with us, one of us would have ended up in the water, dodging ducklings and the occasional drifting raft of beer barf.

To make an already tedious story short, I missed two worthwhile pieces about writing in the Times’ Book Review—one, Rachel Donadio’s funny piece about the inside business of blurbing, and two, Walter Kirn’s excoriation of James Wood’s new book, How Fiction Works. The two pieces are a matched set bookending the section: the politics of “to blurb or not to blurb” and a review that can only be described as “The Anti-Blurb.”

I’ve always thought that a review in the Times could only be good for a book’s sales, even if the review was mostly negative. Having witnessed plenty of rubbernecking on the actual highway, I can’t help but think some readers will get on the virtual one and buy the book just to see the smoke and the blood and judge for themselves how bad it is. Kirn’s takedown of the book is so vicious and personal (and funny) it made me cringe—and wonder if Wood had once seduced his wife or killed his dog.

Remember the dust-up over Heidi Julavits' piece on nasty criticism? In her piece for The Believer in 2003, Julavits wrote:

... I don’t know what many critics believe when it comes to literature; at worst, I fear that book reviews are just an opportunity for a critic to strive for humor, and to appear funny and smart and a little bit bitchy, without attempting to espouse any higher ideals—or even to try to understand, on a very localized level, what a certain book is trying to do, even if it does it badly. This is wit for wit’s sake—or, hostility for hostility’s sake. ... I call it Snark, and it has crept with alarming speed into the reviewing community ...

Kirn's piece reminded me of the tussle over the Julavits piece. But I wondered whether this a different breed of nasty? If so, why? Is it because it’s a critic taking down a critique—what sounds, from the sample grabs in the review, like a particularly pompous critique? Kirn reaches, in the final crescendo of his essay, the classic rhythms of a preacher's rant:

“How Fiction Works” is a definitive title, promising much and presuming even more: that anyone, in the age of made-up memoirs and so-called novels whose protagonists share their authors’ biographies and names, still knows what fiction is; that those who do know agree that it resembles a machine or a device, not a mess, a mystery or a miracle; and that once we know how fiction works, we’ll still care about it as an art form rather than merely admire it as an exercise. But there is one question this volume answers conclusively: Why Readers Nap.


I think Kirn nails it in that last graf: can anyone, anymore, say what fiction is, much less how it works? But while I’m grateful to him for the caveat (I’ve been considering reading Wood’s book), if I were at a cocktail party with the two writers, I’m not sure which I’d be more eager to avoid. Bumpy night, indeed. Hope Kirn has his next set of blurbers lined up solidly—and that none of them drink beers with Wood.

Monday, August 18, 2008

More on Larkin

Mary Karr, the Washington Post's "Poet's Choice" columnist, wrote about Larkin in this weekend's book section.

How'd he describe himself at Oxford? As a balding salmon. Ultra-conservative in politics and art, he praised Margaret Thatcher and mocked experimenters like Picasso. For Larkin (a college librarian), poetry was "an affair of sanity, of seeing things as they are."

Definitely an odd duck on the poetry scene--or at least not the way most people imagine poets to be. Read more of her write-up and some Larkin tidbits here.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tim Gautreaux: Bayou Poetry

An evil-smelling mocha puddle

Fly-haunted mules

Suits that fit like a hound’s skin

Guitar music that sounded like raindrops striking a trash pile of tin cans

Sun-gilded porch boards

The blind horse stood steaming like a hot rock

If all thrillers read like Tim Gautreaux’s The Clearing, I’d spend more time with them. The book reads like a rocket (or maybe a nutria on crack, to stick with a bayou image), and you can smell the swamp-rot coming off the pages.

This is a guy who knows his terrain, and the terrain’s been much the same throughout his novels and short stories: backwater Louisiana. I just finished reading the novel, Gautreaux’s second, and the book reminds me that there’s often a fine line between poetry and prose. But more, it brings back a thought I’ve had so many times: that having a native ground is vital to fiction writers, even if they aren’t really native to the place.

Having grown up as a foreign service brat, there’s no place on earth that I know so well as Gautreaux knows Louisiana. I never felt I got to know a place so well I could picture every inch of it, capture the dialect, delineate lines and hollows and alleys only natives know. I have little pieces of a hundred places, a patchwork of turf I’ll never revisit.

Such fragments are fine (maybe even an asset!) for writing poetry, but when I set out to work on a piece of fiction, I sometimes feel a little crippled about how to provide that sense of real habitation. I’m beginning to know D.C. pretty well, but it’s taken on-and-off visits and stays over a lifetime for that to happen, and when I read a book that depicts a place so intimately, I get a pang—not envy of the writing, but of the sense of being at home somewhere, even if the somewhere haunts you.

My favorite books for sense of place: Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. Okay, yes, I know it’s overly flowery and sentimental, but when I read that book at sixteen, I never wanted to shut it. I went back and read whole sections of it as I was going, just to keep it from ending. His images of the South Carolina lowcountry are baroque and sun-struck and stunning. Graham Swift’s Waterland. Jeffrey Eugenides The Virgin Suicides, pitch perfect on the emotional and actual topography of the suburbs. Most recently I’ve been digging John Burdette’s strange, kinky detective series set in Bangkok—rollercoaster plots and a great anchoring main character, but really, I’m reading them for the sense of having been dropped for hours at a time into seamy, steamy, ancient Thailand.

When it comes to fiction, plot and character are essential—but sometimes I can be satisfied just to find a place to hole up in.

What are your favorite literary geographies—poetry or prose?

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Happy Birthday, You Miserable Old Coot

Had he lived, today would be Philip Larkin's 86th birthday.

He died of cancer in 1985, accomplishing the fate he'd been gesturing toward throughout his entire body of work. It's the same fate that awaits all of us, but in Larkin's poetry, death is a constant companion -- a vicious pet dog he feeds and grooms, all the while knowing that it will one day eat him.

In his marvelous Lives of the Poets, Michael Schmidt wrote of Larkin, "When he is being savage about the poor, the old, the uncultured, we can be sure that by the end of the poem they will have been understood and celebrated, the savagery having been redirected at himself, his attitude, his circumstances." The cynicism and morbid tone that wash through his works are never patronizing; Larkin is in this thing with us.

My first encounter with Larkin was like that of many, I suspect: A boyfriend quoted "This Be the Verse" to me when I was in high school. I now know it by heart, but its pleasures are more suited to recitation in bars. After years of reading Larkin, I've come to see the best example I know of a phenomenon common to great art, what you might call ecstatic masochism. His endings are so perfect they make you shiver with anguish. They snap shut like bear traps, delighting you even as they describe something deeply sad or painful. They force you to enjoy your own suffering; it seems so exactly right.

In "An Arundel Tomb," Larkin describes the tomb of a lordly couple. A sculptor has carved an image of them in the stone, and the image depicts the earl wearing one armored glove. In that armored hand, he holds the other glove, while his bare hand holds that of his wife. Time has passed, the writing on the tomb has faded, but this image of the couple holding hands remains; those visiting now remember that gesture. I've heard the last line of this poem -- "What will survive of us is love" -- quoted in eulogies to comfort the grieving.

It reminds me of '87, when love-addled high school Romeos were calling radio stations to dedicate R.E.M.'s "The One I Love" to their girlfriends. Transfixed by the pounding drums and the title, they managed to miss the line where Stipe describes his love object as "a simple prop to occupy my time."

In the full context of stanza, the line is not a comfort:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

What's fascinating to me (and I think Larkin may have been clever enough to plan on this): The strong declaration and meter of that closing line drives it into memory. Because of that, the way this poem is often recalled and quoted echoes the phenomenon described in it: Just as visitors to the Arundel cemetery remember not the facts of the lives of the earl and countess, but the way they're holding hands, readers don't recall how the whole of the poem builds to undercut and negate that last line. Over time, this poem has become the Arundel tomb.

We don't like to think ourselves as lonely, bitchy, selfish creatures headed for the dirt. Bless Larkin for reminding us -- in a way that somehow always seems comforting.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Tattoo You: Lines to Be Buried In

Talk about commitment to a line.

This proverb from William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" -- and other excellent poetry tattoos -- can be found here.

For a long time while I was in college, I seriously considered getting the last line of "Fern Hill" tattooed around my ankle. I could see a flowing script (something like Cezanne, only looser) circling the bones: Time held me green and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea. Coooooool.

But I kept thinking about Johnny Depp, and his painful laser copyediting of his "Winona Forever" tattoo, which now reads "Wino Forever." More, I thought of one of my best friends, who in college deliberated for weeks over a tattoo before choosing a lovely, meaningful symbol -- the alchemic sign for "essence" -- only to have someone tell her (once it was inked permanently onto her back) that it looked like a swastika.

Moreover, it seemed to me that the Thomas line might be great around my ankle at 22, but by the time I was 65 might seem a little grim -- a daily reminder not to sing, but that death was growing closer by the day and that I would meet it would a sagging, stretchy-tattooed ankle.

Thus far, I remain uninked. But now and then I still think about getting one.

What line would you want to be buried with, if you were in the market for a tattoo? Keep in mind: whatever you pick, that's what Charon's going to read when you ask to cross the river. (Probably best to avoid ethnic jokes.)

While I think Peter Trachtenberg's book Seven Tattoos is an incredible piece of work (one I'd highly recommend -- even if you're not going under the needle -- for the way it examines the intersection of ritual, grief, and desire), it's not my favorite piece of tattoo writing. That's still Robert Hayden's masterful poem, below. Is it about a circus freak? Yes. Self-creation? Yes. Otherness and solitude? Yes. Being black in a racist, blancocentric America? Yes. Trying to fix your flaws in order to be loved? Yes.

It's so many things at once. I think it's a masterful use of line, too: the thinness of the poem, the way it winds downwards, the short lines, suggest to me the way ink might move over skin -- hesitantly, jerkily, as though every movement hurts.

The Tattooed Man

I gaze at you,
longing longing,
as from a gilt
and scarlet cage;
silent, speak
your name, cry--
Love me.
To touch you, once
to hold you close--
My jungle arms,
their prized chimeras,
appall. You fear
the birds-of-paradise
perched on my thighs.

Oh to break through,
to free myself--
lifer in The Hole--
from servitude
I willed. Or was
it evil circumstance
that drove me to seek
in strangeness strange
Born alien,
homeless everywhere,
did I, then, choose
having no other choice?

Hundreds have paid
to gawk at me--
grotesque outside whose
assures them they
are natural, they indeed
But you but you,
for whom I would
endure caustic acids,
keenest knives--
you look at me with pain,
avert your face,
love's own,
ineffable and pure
and not for gargoyle
kisses such as mine.

Da Vinci's Last Supper--
a masterpiece
in jewel colors
on my breast
(I clenched my teeth in pain;
all art is pain
suffered and outlives);
gryphons, naked Adam
embracing naked Eve,
a gaeity of imps
in cinnabar;
the Black Widow
peering from the web
she spun, belly to groin--
These that were my pride
repel the union of
your flesh with mine.

I yearn I yearn.
And if I dared
the agonies
of metamorphosis,
would I not find
you altered then?
I do not want
you other than you are.
And I--I cannot
(will not?) change.
It is too late
for any change
but death.
I am I.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Traveling Home from Work I Saw a Jerk

Really funny piece in the Times magazine Sunday on people’s bad behavior on the roads—specifically about a phenomenon my husband and I have enjoyed many good, bonding, soul-mate-level rants about. While Gorney is describing a scene particular to a road in California, anyone Washington commuter whose daily grind involves heading south down the 270 spur in the evenings will recognize the behavior she describes. Just before the spot where the spur hits the Beltway east toward I-95, the far left lane exits onto 355 south. Every day, hundreds of patient souls line up in the bottleneck into the loop, and every day, scores of other shoot by these waiting cars in pretense of exiting at the Bethesda offshoot—only to zip over at the last possible second and jam their way into the line onto 495.

Every time I see this, my inner fifth grader wants to yell "Cutters!" Maybe these people skipped elementary school. Maybe they were spoiled as children. Whatever it is, something tells them it’s fine to skip past all those decent souls waiting patiently in line (OK—maybe they’re not all decent souls. Maybe there’s a child molester or a virulent homophobe or a white supremacist in one of those cars, but when you’re stuck in traffic, all you want from your fellow commuters is courtesy; your grander moral judgments can wait till you’re home in time for dinner).

Gormey amusingly depicts our mixed reactions to this driving behavior as a battle between two opposing forces in the American soul: We like to believe we are simultaneously a) a nation of equals and fair play, but also of b) rugged individualism. So how to cope with those rugged (read: smug, self-important, at best oblivious) individuals who assert their individualism via what
N.P.H. would certainly call “a dick move”? Cope with it, that is, without being tempted to go for that other classic symbol of the rugged American soul—namely, c) the .44 Magnum?

Most of these people would not cut in line at a movie theater or other open-air queue where they can actually be identified and called out. But behaving badly in a car, where fellow drivers can catch at most a passing glimpse of their faces, seems to cause them no shame. Or does it? Maybe these people wake in the night and feel wretchedly guilty. Maybe they confess it to their priests.

Parishioner: Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. Last week, coming home to Chevy Chase, I pretended I was going to get off at Bethesda and instead cut back in to the line onto the Beltway. I haven’t been able to sleep since.
Priest: I cast you out, hell spawn, and may all the angels in heaven spit on your minivan.

I’m working on several poems about being stuck in traffic right now—more about all the odd places my mind goes to while stuck in it—but when I started poking around in my various anthologies and online sources, I found that traffic seems to be an underwritten theme in contemporary American poetry. Given what a large feature of our lives it’s become, it seems like it would have more of a presence. Anyone have any good ones? I’d love to read them.

In the absence of a good traffic jam poem, here’s a driving classic instead—one about ethics, at that, and one of the first poems I ever loved, on that “God-DAMN, that is a great poem” sort of level. The great William Stafford, below (and remember, folks, wherever your commute takes you, watch out for deer. They were here first—even before the folks waiting patiently to merge—and as bad as the real estate market's gotten for us, it's a hell of a lot worse for them).


Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

Friday, August 1, 2008

1921: T. S. Eliot Discards An Early Draft

August is the humidest month, breeding
Muffin tops and dewy sweat on the fuzz
Of upper lips

I don't think very much of September either
No bank holidays until Christmas and the traffic
Is simply beastly

Ever imagine what a poem would have looked like if written in another place or time--or by another person?

In a recent piece in the NYT Book Review, David Orr wrote that if Seamus Heaney’s oeuvre were revealed to have been written by a Portuguese guy living in Toronto, it would entirely disrupt our sense of his poetry.

I'd love to see some new opening stanzas: Sylvia Plath's version of "Daddy" after they've gone to family therapy. e.e. cummings' version of Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality." Langston Hughes writes about dreams deferred, but during this election year.

Or, if you really want a challenge, a poem of Seamus Heaney's as written by a Portuguese guy living in Toronto.