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.