Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Rabbit, Rest

Wow. John Updike died today.

This little segment of Rabbit, Run, where Rabbit is sheltering up the stairs from a little mechanic shop, stunned me when I read it.
(In fact, that whole book stunned me. And he was not yet 30 when he published it.)

The clangor of the body shop comes up softly. Its noise comforts him, tells him he is hidden and safe, that while he hides men are busy nailing the world down, and toward the disembodied sounds his heart makes in darkness a motion of love.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

New work up at Linebreak this week ...

The guy who reads the poem in the audio version does it WAY better than I could. Thanks to the Linebreak editors for treating their poems so well.

(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 Cabernet of Asthma Medication

So it’s less than 24 hours till we get a guy who reads modern poetry in the White House, and I could write about past inauguration poems or the flap over Obama’s choice, but instead, I find myself wanting to write about my drinking problem.

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.)

Where I get lost is with wine. Good food and good wine usually go together, and people who know a lot about food often know a lot about wine as well. But while I can hold my own in banter about the flavors of a dish, I am a complete baboon when it comes to wine—an oenofool. Even now my approach when the subject comes up is to shut my mouth and try not to say anything that might embarrass my husband (or my friend Angela, who's been known to be able to tell an Oregon from a Washington pinot at one sip. This may be no big deal among wine people, but it impressed the hell out of me). It's taken me years to even begin to be able to tell a Cab from a Pinot, and I would probably still make plenty of mistakes if blind-tested. I could almost certainly discern a red from a white, but I might try to peek to be sure.

It's not that I don't like it—I'm very fond of many wines, but to quote Dave Barry, "my policy with wine is very similar to my policy with beer, which is pretty much drink it and look around for more." Terroir, tannins, vintage, crus—the effects of all these things continue to mystify me. Part of this is certainly due to how my sister and I grew up: Our parents liked a glass of wine with dinner, but we never saw a bottle more expensive or unusual than a Kendall-Jackson Chard or a Gallo—not ever. Sensible, down-to-earth people, my folks, who still drink rotgut gin in their G & Ts, even though they could afford something better. My folks' version of talking about wine would have been some high-falutin' banter like, "Nice wine." "Yep, it was on special at Giant."

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.

About five years ago, though, I had a breakthrough: I'd stopped at a wine bar to wait for my husband one evening, and ordered a glass of something. It should help indicate what a complete wine idiot I am that I have no idea what the something was, though I do recall it was a Red Something. I lifted it to my face to sip and was almost wacked in the face with an incredibly powerful waft of pure butterscotch. The wine reeked of it.

I'd never experienced anything like it. I won't say it was spiritual, exactly, but it was close: I'd experienced something that had always been invisible, that I'd always believed fictional or at least beyond my capacity to experience. I would never have expected to have my own personal little oeno-Lourdes at a strip mall in Gaithersburg, but there you have it. It was everyone else's illusion until it became mine, too, and I suddenly understood it was real.

That said, the most I would have ventured about that wine was what I said above: It reeked of butterscotch. The oenophile in Hoagland's poem talks about wine on a whole other level—an expertise that seems, by the end of the poem, to be about dodging more painful subjects.


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.