Saturday, December 5, 2009
Monday, November 30, 2009
I do know the prize is kind of a big deal, the top for literature in Spanish, with previous winners including people like Borges and Octavio Paz.
And I was lucky enough to skim through a copy of Pacheco's Selected Poems years ago, where I encountered what remains one of the clearest and most lovely statements on patriotism I've ever read. The tone, the way it vaults over grand statements about destiny or democracy to capture the concrete, physical things you can really love, the things that bind you to a place.
If there's any big statement at all, it's the title, which (I think) can be read as a neat little smack to those who would say grander things--those who would be immediately offended by Pacheco's opening statement, and might read no further.
I do not love my country. Its abstract splendor
is beyond my grasp.
But (although it sounds bad) I would give my life
for ten places in it, for certain people,
seaports, pinewoods, fortresses,
a run-down city, gray, grotesque,
various figures from its history
(and three or four rivers).
No amo mi Patria. Su fulgor abstracto
Pero (aunque suene mal) daría la vida
por diez lugares suyos, cierta gente,
puertos, bosques de pinos, fortalezas,
una ciudad deshecha, gris, monstruosa,
varias figuras de su historia,
(y tres o cuatro ríos).
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Living with a writer (or an artist of any type, I suspect) is a recipe for irritation.
Few weeks go by when I don't think to myself at some point, I am a pain in the ass.
When I am not working, or when my writing isn't going well, I can be grouchy or emotionally needy.
When the work is going well, I am distracted. I may well forget to feed the dog, or myself, or to put on underwear, or lock the front door, or ask my husband how his day was, because I am thinking about exactly how to phrase a piece of dialogue or where to break a line or what color of paint I need.
This is a no-win situation for my husband, who frequently gets to choose from a delicious, two-option buffet: gaga, overly sensitive emotionalism, or "What did you say, honey?"
Luckily, he is also a writer, so he is also (by the rules established above) a pain in the ass.
Learning to tolerate and accept the quirks of sharing space with another writerly brain is key to our happy relationship.
I would not trade my husband for all the world. We can talk about the craft, we can do first reads on each other's work, we can share good and bad nuggets from our scads of reading material, we can say honestly (but gently) when something isn't working. We understand the annoyance of working for days on a piece, only to submit it and have it rejected, or damned with faint praise, or picked apart by blog commenters who respond to a piece that took hours of interviews and research by pointing out that you made a typo and forgot to include the "l" in "public." Ha ha! Good times.
We can also--every now and then--sit around with our dog and watch bad movies, drink beer, listen to music, chill out with friends, and talk about everything but writing. Those are good times: when we stop, for a moment, being neurotic, narrative-driven freaks and exist as human beings--human beings who have no need or obligation to commit anything to a page, no obligation to do anything but enjoy each other's company and feel happy that we get to go through the world with another person who has to love and tolerate our pain-in-the-assness, because we love and tolerate theirs.
I give thanks for this almost daily, while remembering that not everyone is so lucky. The newsletter of the Kenyon Review this week highlighted an old gem by Roger Rosenblatt, (who wrote the terrific novel Beet--certainly the funniest academic satire since Russo's Straight Man). The story first appeared in the Kenyon Review in Fall 2007.
I don't live with this guy, but I have met or observed him many times at readings. And I have met his long-suffering wife. Oh boy, did this story make me laugh--with amusement, recognition, and appreciation for my own writer-spouse, whose egotistical writer B.S. is minimal and whose patience for my occasional dark moods and "Clean the kitchen? We have a kitchen?" absentmindedness is great.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
The Writer's Wife
Look at him, my active man. Sometimes he sits and turns to the left. Sometimes, to the right. I wouldn't think of disturbing him. He is dreaming his writer's dreams, and his dreams are inviolable. I have the privilege of serving him, and of watching him.
Did you say something, dear? Nothing yet? Still dreaming? Well, while you're at it, I'd better get to my chores. No, don't get up. I can handle it: Fix the engine on the Prius; recondition the Steinway; point up the bricks on the west wall; build a bathroom in the basement, from scratch.
Busy, busy is the writer's wife.
And please, don't even think of lowering yourself to the details of bill paying, dry cleaning, shopping, cooking, dishwashing, trash toting. May I get the door for you? May I get two?
Am I complaining about my lot? Never, sweetheart. The intellectual challenges alone make it worthwhile. How many ways can I invent to assure you that you're not losing your touch? Our topics of conversation: Your obligation to your gift. My obligation to your obligation. Were you born before your time, or after your time, or just in time? I forget.
Then there's our social life. The dinner parties, where everyone speaks in quotations. The book parties, where everyone says, “There he is.” Or variously: “There she is!”
Do I want to go to Elaine's? Are you kidding? I want to live there!
And don't worry. I've laid out your uniform. Dark suit, dark shirt, dark tie. Your special look.
Do you think you might speak to me this month? It was so nice last month, or was it the month before that, when you asked me how I was. For a moment there, I thought you'd asked who I was. That's just a little joke. Nothing to upset yourself about. But what am I saying? Why would you be upset? Why would you -- sitting there in your dreamscape -- why would you even look up?
My folks, having met you but once, suggested I marry an actuary or a mortgage broker. Or a wife beater. Hell, what do parents know about the life of the mind -- yours. The precious moments we share --
Such as the times you ask me to read something you've written, and if I say “I love it!” you say I'm blowing you off, and if I appear disappointed or confused, you go into a clinical depression, and if I say, “Then, please don't ask me, if you don't want my opinion,” you go into a clinical depression.
Oh, dear. Did I say, “That was the best thing you ever wrote”? Of course, what I meant to say was, “Everything you write is a masterpiece. And this latest masterpiece just proves it.” That's what I meant to say. You're right. I must learn to say what I mean. Forgive me?
But soon we make up, and you'll say, “Let's go to so-and-so's poetry reading.” And I'll say, “Oh, darling! Let's! Just give me a minute to freshen up and hang myself from the hall chandelier” -- which, by the way, I repaired last week.
Memories? Say, rather, treasures! The day your agent returned your call. The day your editor returned your call. The day you found your name in the papers. In the phone book. Remember the time we saw your first novel on sale in the Strand for one dollar? How we laughed! The night you awoke with an inspiration for a story, and in the morning it sounded so silly?
Remember when I tried to write something myself, and you said it was “interesting”?
You know? I used to like books.
Ah. You've turned to the left again. I'm pooped, just watching you. Watching you in your dreams. I dream, too. Here's mine:
Lord, please let him find a younger woman.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
King Praises Sklenicka, Who Trashes Lish, Who Muddied Carver, Who Wanted a Drink, Which King Also Wanted
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
With poems, I often come up with one line (or rather, one line comes to me) and write toward that line or idea. There is a destination, and the terrain comes clear as I track toward it.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Saturday, November 7, 2009
Sunday, November 1, 2009
Female voice, vaguely Eastern European accent: "Hello, I am talking to reach M.C. Allan?"
Me (immediately on guard. I write fiction and poetry under that name; no one actually calls me that): "Yes?"
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Monday, September 14, 2009
The first few days of the trip didn’t allow much time for reading (too busy snorkeling and trying to get into relaxed zone after mad cram to finish up work), but by day three I’d started into Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I don’t know how I managed to miss this book until now, as its blurbings were effusive and compared it to great poli-sci-fi like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. It is a fascinating read, depicting a post-nuclear war world in which all scientific materials have been destroyed by people convinced that science was responsible for “the Flame Deluge.” Only fragments remain, and these are preserved by Catholic monks laboring in the desert to illuminate manuscripts that may be no more important than someone’s shopping list, but may be the blueprints for nuclear reactors. They are preserving materials they don’t really comprehend and have worked the material into an evolving "Catholic" literature. It’s funny, scary, and totally bizarre. I had heard of the book before, but never read it. I’m convinced that the only reason it doesn’t get more attention now is because the threat of nuclear oblivion that was the chief cultural fear during the Cold War (the book was published in 1960) now seems charmingly simple; the world is no longer split into two behemoths bent on destroying each other, but into a thousand factions that want to do the same. Between our changed thinking on nuclear stand-off and the scandals that have hit the Catholic Church, it’s hard to read the book in a 1960s mindset—but it’s still a great read.
Once I was done with Canticle, between sunburns and reef visits, I perused the lending library at the little beach house where we stayed in Mexico. It was like every beach house lending library, in that it was composed of bad thrillers and pirate-themed bodice rippers in which terms like “velvety orbs” and “downy mound” stand in for body parts. It is fun to do dramatic, out-loud readings of these books (especially if you add piratical “Arrrs” to the euphemism-laden love scenes), but they are not good reading. Not even good beach reading.
Granted, I think Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is great beach reading, so maybe my tastes run darker than most.
I actually got so desperate for reading material that I perused a few of the books at the beach house (Jeffrey Deaver’s The Sleeping Doll and Harlan Coben’s Gone for Good). The Deaver book was not my thing: all plot, zero characterization and subtlety; I could actually see the credits for the bad TV movie playing as the first scene went along. Harlan Coben, on the other hand, is a good writer; the book was funny, had a good voice; lots of thriller-standard plot twists but some real emotion humming underneath the surface. (Then, later, I read Coben’s Tell No One and was amused to discover the movie adaptation was way better than the book—more tender, more believable. The movie leaves out the book’s final plot twist and is much the better for it.)
I left my own copy of E.L. Doctorov’s Loon Lake at the beach house. Partially to improve the offerings there, but really because I had stuck with it for 200 pages and kept thinking it was brilliant and then annoying and then brilliant and then annoying and finally the annoyance won out and I stopped reading it. Normally I like Doctorov and like experiments with form, but in this case, the moves between the narrative and the modern poetry kept losing me. Perhaps my brain had been turned to goo by the sun. Maybe the next beach bum will have more luck.
Speaking of experiments in form, I discovered Anne Carson. Whoo boy. A few pages into her book, Autobiography of Red and I am cursing myself for not having found her earlier. Talk about exciting experiments with form.
I owe at least four people comments on their manuscripts and/or poems. I am sorry; I swear, I will read them. I’m hoping they’ll jog me loose from this writer’s freeze I’m in … got diverted from the novel by vacation, and am trying to dig back in now … mostly via painting, which is often a great way for me to refocus creatively.
That’s all the news that’s fit to blog. Will poke my head up again when there’s something worthy on the radar.
Thursday, July 2, 2009
The first book won several awards and got deservedly praised every which way, but it had--to my mind--one substantial flaw. The first person narrative occasionally veers to places that seem unbelievable for the character in question. He's Rob Ryan, a youngish homicide detective in Ireland, never finished college, obsessed with his job, troubled by a forgotten childhood trauma that may or may not be connected to his latest case. All well and good, and for the most part, French carries the voice off pretty well.
But every now and then, Ryan let slip a line or a thought that had me turning to the back jacket of the book to look French in the face. He compares the preparation for a murder investigation to the chaos that happens backstage as ballerinas wait for the curtain. He names the French musical piece that young ballet dancers are warming up to. All in all, for someone readers have been given no reason to think of as a ballet aficionado, he seems to know an awful lot about the world of toe shoes and nutcrackers.
While these moments were enough to make me stop reading and address a general, "WTF?" to the empty room, they were minor problems in an otherwise terrific book, and almost as soon as I finished the last page, I picked up French's second book, The Likeness. And there the voice problems ceased: In the second book, the narrative voice is no longer Ryan's, but his former partner's, a young female detective. In The Likeness, the plot is just as taut and the first-person voice comes off without a hitch.
The difference between the two books made me think about the trapdoors in that old writing class dictum: write what you know. I've always thought that it should be followed by a number of caveats, one of them being: unless the character you're creating doesn't have a clue about what you know, in which case, write what HE knows. French's bio says she trained as an actor; my guess is she may have encountered a bit of ballet over the years, but letting it drift into the consciousness of her male detective protagonist--without at least a throwaway line to explain how it might have got there--seemed a misstep.
It also made me think about the difficulty of believably inhabiting a demographic that's not yours--something I'm struggling with right now as I work on a story set in 1960s Mississippi in which the two central characters are a middle-aged black woman and an 8-year-old white boy. I figure, demographically, I've got a little connection to each of them, but I also keep thinking I have to know more, more, more about their lives and their worlds. I keep reading more about the civil rights movement, about life on the Gulf Coast, about what people wore and ate and where they worked and how they lived. Sometimes I feel like I'm going to drown in research and never actually write this story.
It reminds me of the writerly equivalent of that old apocryphal anecdote about Dustin Hoffman: Supposedly, while on the set of Marathan Man, method actor Hoffman, playing an exhausted college student on the run from Nazi war criminals, was staying up late and exercising himself sick to get himself looking and feeling the part. His co-star, Laurence Olivier, saw this miserable wreck dragging itself onto the set each day and expressed concern; when Hoffman explained what he was doing, Olivier said acidly, "Try acting, dear boy; it's so much easier." (If you want to get a sense of how Hoffman took this advice, this photo pretty much says it all.)
I think the opposite is true. Sometimes I know I'm researching just to avoid putting pen to paper. I plan to post this photo above my desk as encouragement.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
“The hawk rips the feathers off/the bird/the tail of the blue jay/goes up/stomped by the hawk/it’s a cat and mouse rampage,” wrote fifth-grader Chris Tapia.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
But this blog is likely to remain dark for a bit. My job is sucking a huge amount of my writing energy, and I'm trying to focus what little juice remains on a bigger project.
I will be popping up now and then when the news is worthwhile or the Muse comes knocking.
In the meantime, though, before I go back to radio silence for a while, I feel compelled to give a shout-out for a book I have recently been re-reading. For the sake of full disclosure: The author, Andrew Kozelka, is a friend of mine. We went to grad school at Hollins together, though I think we shared only one class, a theory seminar on short fiction. And while most of us young grad students were spending our nights hanging around, drinking, bantering wittily, hoping to show enough intellectual ankle to get us intellectually laid, this guy was burning the midnight oil in his little apartment in downtown Roanoke, churning out two novels and many of the first poems in the book below.
Every time I pick up The Ages, I am struck by a complex roster of emotions: The first is a rueful sense of irritation with the state of poetry publication in this day and age. Here is a book, dear readers, which was a finalist for the National Poetry Series in 2005. A finalist, but it did not win, and then when Kozelka got tired of the ongoing slings and arrows of the contest submission system, he finally did that horrible, shiver-inducing thing which can draw hushed gasps of disgust even from those who know the meaning of the slang term "Dirty Sanchez": He self-published it.
While the innocent among you are googling the term (I tell you now, you'll be happier if you don't), I ask the rest: Has Kozelka, by dropping into the self-publishing well, dipped himself in tar which can never be peeled away?
Maybe he could have gone on playing the game. Maybe he should have. Every time I pick up the book, I argue with myself about it, the angel on one shoulder soothing, It's out there, the devil on the other seething, No one will read it.
Oh, but that's just the first emotion. The second one comes on as I start reading: envy. Deep, lustful envy of these poems. The kind I very rarely experience, that Why the hell aren't I smart enough to write this? sort of feeling. Then, as I read further, the envy vanishes and turns into excitement. Excitement at their ambition, their leaps of imagination, their historical scope, their black humor, their multiplicity of form, their willingness to scavenge through the darkness and bring up gold and icons and drowned slaves and dead czars and heroes who are known as heroes because they killed many, many people.
I realize I am waxing all slobbery here, but I cannot help it: the cumulative power of these poems taken together is hard to overstate. Every time I read them, they make me want to write more, and read more, and simultaneously they make me want to throw every book in the room onto a pyre and light it and go be a throat-slitting pirate somewhere. Really. It is that good.
I'm going to just shut up now and drop a couple of my favorites below. Kozelka's dirty, filthy, self-published book of brilliance is available through Amazon. Buy it, and have a little source of dark light to put on your shelf.
Monday, April 13, 2009
We rotate cities for our annual conference, and Vegas definitely pulled in the crowds this year. (It struck me that hosting an animal welfare conference in Las Vegas is a little ironic. Here we are pushing a movement that works to encourage people not to give in to their base instincts—suggesting that there are ideas that trump the pleasure principle, radical ideas like, "Maybe you shouldn't beat your dog, even if it makes you feel good," and "Perhaps you could eat something other than veal, even though it's tasty"—and this year we held it in a city that whose modus operandi is to encourage people to indulge every instinct they've got.)
Monday, March 30, 2009
My sister and I grew up Catholic, and when we were kids, my mom would frequently suggest we give up something for Lent. My suggestion that we give up homework never seemed to be appreciated.
Like most kids anticipating Easter, I looked forward primarily to searching our yard for plastic eggs and consuming puke-inducing amounts of chocolate. But the religious significance of the day was not lost on me. I grew up going to Sunday school and Mass and reading illustrated Bible stories that alternately fascinated and terrified me (there was an image of Absalom, his hair caught in a tree, that I still remember being upset by). Back then, both Easter and Christmas induced a sense of wonder, of unmooredness and mystery, that I no longer experience. I miss it, especially at Christmas.
Was I a believer then? I probably would have professed to be, into my early teens. But at some point, doubt entered the picture. When I went to Mass and it came to the time to recite the Nicene Creed, I started to be silent for the parts that I didn't believe anymore. I would mouth the words and hope my parents didn't notice. The part about "one baptism for the forgiveness of sins" was the first to go, because it struck me early how unfair it was that unbaptized kids in distant heathen lands who'd never even been exposed to Christianity would go to hell. It didn't seem like the kind of thing God—at least snuggly, post-therapy, New Testament God—would endorse. Gradually other pieces of it dropped too. These days, my performance of the Nicene Creed would probably resemble a Milli Vanilli concert.
My mother blames herself for this. My sister and I spent most of our formative years at good secular schools overseas and here in the U.S. It wasn't until we moved to Australia that we were chucked into a Catholic school, not due to any misbehavior, but simply because St. Clare's was the best educational option in Canberra. My mom sometimes mutters self-criticisms about how she should have put us into Catholic school earlier, because then we'd still be practicing. I think she's nuts: Nothing did more to tip out my dregs of religious piety than Catholic school. The first first day, I left class to go pee, and in the bathroom, a pack of feral adolescent girls were leaping around, shouting at a crying fifth girl and pelting her with feminine hygiene products. Imagine the shower scene in Carrie meets Lord of the Flies. I'm not saying that it was enough to make me question the existence of a benevolent God, but it was certainly enough to make me question the value of Catholic school in shaping good little Catholics.
Along with the picture of Absalom (lesson: When riding a hysterical mule away from service in your father's army, always put your hair in a sensible bun), a scene I remember seeing many times is that of "doubting" Thomas checking out Jesus after the Resurrection—the Caravaggio above is probably the best known. I always thought this was one of the weirdest stories in the Bible: Thomas says he won't believe Jesus has risen unless he checks out his wounds for himself, and when Jesus comes back, he makes him do it. Imagine having belief forced on you in that way! It's almost like fraternity hazing: Oh yeah? Well, here: stick your finger in this, pal, and tell me what you don't believe.
The poem below consists of portraits of Thomas and two other central figures of the crucifixion story, each grappling with what they did and why they did it; it appeared in Tar River Poetry last spring. The most interesting thing I learned while researching to write it was that the "good thief" crucified next to Christ had a name.
What did he want—me to declare him innocent,
set him free to pull lepers out of hats?
I am not comfortable with the insinuation of miracles.
Torchlight laddering up a woman’s back,
the bruised figs brought to me by servants,
the sea-scent of olives and sweat—
already more than I expected.
Too much, perhaps—but worth protecting
against riff-raff sorcerers and all they might imply.
I washed my hands not to show my innocence.
The cloth and water were all I could be sure of.
My hands that night smelled not of blood, but lemons.
The good thief, they called me, leaving out
excellent tax cheat, superior adulterer.
I’d spent time in the company of whores—
in this, our strung-up party of three, I was not alone:
I’d seen him before, threadbare and muddy;
long before he hung bloody beside me,
there were always women around, enraptured,
their dusty hair unbound, poor locals
drawn by those purpled eyes, that green garden
he claimed to have the keys to. My buddy
smarted off. But I was a good gambler
as well—I did not show my tell. I said:
Remember me when. Pain had blurred
my mind, breath and sweat were peeling
away from me in veils, I saw my death
elbowing through the seething crowd,
not a one of them was there to grieve it.
You’d do the same: Say the grace.
Kiss the kingdom. Hope to wake up and believe it.
Unless I see the wounds, I said. Unless I stick
my fingers in his hands. Around us in the room
the faces of our friends
hung slack as sails on a windless day.
Fresh from the tomb, he parted his robe,
drew my hand to his side,
then parted flesh rough cloth had uncovered,
to open in his battered side a small door
my hand slipped through. There were the ribs:
spines of books I could not read;
beneath, the fat hot ropes of his intestines.
I had not known the stuff that made a man:
here was the form of my friend who’d sat by fires
with me, eaten, laughed—died? Yet, not him
at all: I pulled my hand out, terrified,
tried to hide my blush, my fingers still sticky
with that other, inner world. I think he blushed
as well—though for himself inside that flesh
or me inside my doubt, I couldn’t tell.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
Oil & Steel
My father lived in a dirty dish mausoleum,
watching a portable black-and-white television,
reading the Encyclopedia Britannica,
which he preferred to Modern Fiction.
One by one, his schnauzers died of liver disease,
except the one that guarded his corpse
found holding a tumbler of Bushmills.
"Dead is dead," he would say, an anti-preacher.
I took a plaid shirt from the bedroom closet
and some motor oil—my inheritance.
Once, I saw him weep in a courtroom—
neglected, needing nursing—this man who never showed
me much affection but gave me a knack
for solitude, which has been mostly useful.
I love how concise this poem is, how much it tells about the relationship in so few words. I love the way the peculiar alliteration (it comes nowhere else in the poem, and so is startling when it appears) of "neglected, needing nursing" manages to deflate the anguished image of the weeping father and keep the poem from swerving into sentiment.
I love the multiple schnauzers (how many? We never find out), and how they help flesh out the image of the home this man lives in and of his consistency of habit.
I love how the simple, direct voice and absence of rhyme disguises the fact that the poem is essentially a sonnet, complete with the classic turn, in the 9th line, toward resolution of a presented problem. And dark as the memory is, the narrator's recollection of seeing his father weeping and neglected is part of his own resolution, and what seems to allow him to give the man some small (if partly ironic) credit.
More than anything, though, I love the word "mostly" in the final line. Whole worlds of regret and anguish and a wry, pained acknowledgment of inherited graces (and wounds) lie in that one little "mostly."
Sunday, March 1, 2009
It’s a minor app, a blaring yellow widget to catch
your eye, let language work its wiles on the soul, or brain,
or whatever we can call the locus in the meat
that feels, now that the idea of souls, of gods, of nations
are dying, or at least suffering severe sniffles.
This poem planned to be a sestina, but its soul
resisted. It suspects that greatness—at least in language—
lies now in prose, or in pieces. It has heard the canaries
singing in the coal mines, proclaiming the nation
immune to meter and rhyme, obsessed with widgets,
cell phones, reality TV—trends that make MFAs sniffle
as their wrists go carpal from repeating those six
words over and over. Sestinas? Villanelles? What
greatness of soul is possible, making language macramé
in a world of hi-res pixels? You want some sniffling words
to be universal in a nation made of one-way streets,
trains gang-tagged silver and canary yellow, widgets
that work on one brand of PDA and make
the other sniffle, freeze, crash? “Greatness”? What
does it even mean? It’s a mutant canary dyed pink,
singing in a baroquely shit-caked cage. There’s a place a block
from here where they never heard of free verse. A place?
Try every bar across the nation. And the girl at the till
at the hot dog stand at Whitman’s rest stop on the Turnpike
thinks he's a chocolate maker. Where is she in “Greatness”?
It’s a widget that will be outdated by next week; she’ll still
be grilling franks. Time doesn’t move the way it did for Frost.
I trust "canary" more than I trust "nation." What soul left
is broken into pieces. Greatness needs a hardwood floor to settle,
and this nation’s potholes and steel plates shift.
Give me your tired of language, your poor snifflers
off the boat, the manuscripts and machetes in their gym bags
the widgets of dreaming. Give me your Twittering canaries,
their ADD effusions on the blogs. Pile it up; sweat it in a pan.
See what comes out. That laurel crown crumbled years ago.
Saturday, February 28, 2009
That, to me, sounded like a man who's taken a lot of crap over his own "meanness." And as much as I wouldn't have wanted to be the subject of some of his reviews, I agree with him.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Much as I love Dylan and partially agree with the argument that he's a poet at heart, when I read "Desolation Row" transcribed as a poem in David Lehman's Oxford Book of American Poetry, it set my teeth on edge. If Dylan's a poet, he's one who should only be heard; on the page, his songs read to me as irritating doggerel: an obsfucating, unfunny Ogden Nash. It's may be the end rhymes or the fact that Dylan's voice and delivery can't help but crop up in my head while I'm reading, but something is utterly lost in translation. When separated from their sonic back-up, most pop lyrics reveal themselves as pap. There are a few exceptions, of course; many of Tom Waits' songs—especially stranger pieces like "9th and Hennepin" and "What's He Building in There?"—hold up, but Waits is a writer's musician. (If Lehman's criteria for selection were pure on-the-page success of a work, Waits should've trumped Dylan for inclusion the anthology.)
There's a long tradition of changing great poems into songs, with greater but still mixed success. Loreena McKennitt has done some great work here, recording versions of Noyes' "The Highwayman" and Tennyson's "The Lady of Shallot"—but due to her sound and the age of the poems, they seem like artifacts. Lovely ones, but still. A 1997 collection called Now & In Time to Be had Irish musicians setting Yeats to music. The disc is hard to come by now, but Van Morrison's take on "Before the World Was Made" and the Waterboys "Stolen Child" were well worth listening to.
Recently, though, I heard a musical version of a well-known poem that took my breath away.
Theodore Roethke's "The Waking," which with Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle" and Bishop's "One Art" fills out the trifecta of most famous villanelles, is good enough on the page. But the recordings I've heard of Roethke reading the poem have always turned me off; his portentous delivery makes the poem into something overly ominous. While an awareness of death is central to the poem, his readings of it always seem a little stern, failing to capture its essential liveliness and the sweetness in it.
The poem took on a new life and beauty for me a while ago when I saw jazz vocalist Kurt Elling perform it. As soon as he uttered the first words, I was transfixed. It's an astonishly beautiful rendition, and Elling has real power in performance—a sort that seems to come from a sheer love of what he's doing.
My recommendation: Go to iTunes, put down your 99 cents, and download track #8 on his CD Nightmoves (try not to think of Bob Seger). Pour yourself a cup of something slow-sippable, and play that sucker, loud.
Or you can listen to the YouTube version, below. Let me know what you think—and if you have any favorite poems that have been turned into songs, I'd love to hear them.
Monday, February 9, 2009
A local librarian said, "It should brighten up folk's day, and maybe they'll be inspired to pop into the library and borrow more poetry."
Hopefully after they wash their hands ...
Toilets are perhaps the last place in the world where poetry may find a captive audience (though I wouldn't put it past people to be on their Blackberries while on the loo). Still, I wonder if any contemporary poet can top the classic stall verse that begins, "Here I sit/broken-hearted." Perhaps it could be expanded from a quatrain into a full sonnet.
Or they could just turn to Donald Justice's New and Selected for a poem that adds a painfully existential angle to a simple trip to take a leak.
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX lines written in an Omaha bus station
Seeing them, I recognize the contempt
Some men have for themselves.
This man, for instance, zipping quickly up, head turned,
Like a bystander innocent of his own piss.
And here comes one to repair himself at the mirror,
Patting down damp, sparse hairs, suspiciously still black,
Poor bantam cock of a man, jaunty at one a.m., perfumed,
O the saintly forbearance of these mirrors!
The acceptingness of the washbowls, in which we absolve ourselves!
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Thursday, January 22, 2009
(And I hate to link to commercials, but if you want to watch the way Rube would have made a car, this is fun.)
In the best news I've had all week, I just found out that the Inquisition has risen from the ashes. For those unfortunate readers who were not students at Mclean High School in the late 80s-early 90s, this news will likely not fill your soul with joy. For those who were, though, I don't need to remind you of Allan Piper's little newsletter that took on national news and politics with more wit and insight than any high schooler really had the right to possess. I still remember by heart one of the paper's rare sallies into rhyme, around the time of the first Gulf War:
Little Hussein went out of his brain
And killed all the Kurds in his way.
Then Little Bush kicked Hussein in the tush,
but let him kill Kurds, anyway.
The Inquisition lives!
Sunday, January 18, 2009
The subject came up for me after I re-read a poem in Tony Hoagland’s 2003 collection, What Narcissism Means to Me. Funny title, often hilarious book, and the poem “When Dean Young Talks About Wine” (below) is classic Hoagland. It’s very funny—blatantly, over-the-top funny; at times I can imagine Hoagland doing stand-up—but also moving and intelligent in ways that creep up on you. His poems have a way of making direct statements that wouldn’t be as successful in work that didn’t have this comic sensibility; if you can make people laugh, they will follow you anywhere.
My drinking problem is not that I drink too much—though I do love the Dogfish Head Brewery only a few blocks from work. My drinking problem is different: I'm married to a lovely man who writes about food for a living, which means that we're occasionally at press dinners where people say things like, "I don't think the holy basil successfully elevates the buttery tones of the fish" and "The miso provides a perfect counterpoint to the acid" and "This chef needs to learn that salt is his friend, not some embarassing redneck cousin he needs to hide in the basement." And while I do, at these events, occasionally harbor thoughts like, There are people starving in Darfur—hell, there are people starving two BLOCKS from here—and we're bitching about the lack of elevating qualities in the holy basil?, I understand what they're talking about. I love food. I think cooking is a true art, and 95 percent of the time when someone says something that would sound incredibly pretentious to non-foodies, I totally get what they mean. (Really, probably 20 percent of the time, the person saying something like that is me, and I'm completely sincere about it.)
For years when I heard people talk about tasting steel or blackberries or old saddle leather in their wine, I thought they were either crazy or making it up to sound sophisticated. Or actually sophisticated in ways that must make me a total rube. Recently I was reading Marion Winik's lovely new collection, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, and was gratified to find an anecdote where someone swishes their wine and tells the others tasting it, "Grapes. I'm getting ... grapes." It was a wonderful line, but my sense was he said it to be funny. I would have said it in earnest.
When Dean Young Talks About Wine
The worm thrashes when it enters the tequila.
The grape cries out in the wine vat crusher.
But when Dean Young talks about wine, his voice is strangely calm.
Yet it seems that wine is rarely mentioned.
He says, Great first chapter but no plot.
He says, Long runway, short flight.
He says, This one never had a secret.
He says, You can’t wear stripes with that.
He squints as if recalling his childhood in France.
He purses his lips and shakes his head at the glass.
Eighty-four was a naughty year, he says,
and for a second I worry that California has turned him
into a sushi-eater in a cravat.
Then he says,
XXXXXXXXThis one makes clear the difference
between a thoughtless remark
and an unwarranted intrusion.
Then he says, In this one the pacific last light of afternoon
Stains the wings of the seagull pink
XXXXXXXXat the very edge of the postcard.
But where is the Cabernet of rent checks and asthma medication?
Where is the Burgundy of orthopedic shoes?
Where is the Chablis of skinned knees and jelly sandwiches?
with the aftertaste of cruel Little League coaches?
and the undertone of rusty stationwagon?
His mouth is purple as if from his own ventricle
he had drunk.
He sways like a fishing rod.
When a beast is hurt it roars in incomprehension.
When a bird is hurt it huddles in its nest.
But when a man is hurt,
XXXXXXXXhe makes himself an expert.
Then he stands there with a glass in his hand
staring into nothing
XXXXXXXXXXas if he was forming an opinion.