Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Gift That Keeps On Creeping

I don't know how it became a holiday tradition to give friends an amaryllis bulb. Maybe it's something about the red flowers. Maybe it's the idea of having something that will bloom in the new year, or the fact that the flower vaguely resembles a seraphic trumpet when it blooms. The Wise Men could have brought the Christ child an amaryllis. I mean, seriously -- it would have been less creepy than myrrh, which was used for mummification and embalming. "Hey kid, welcome! You're going to die a horrible death some day, so we thought we'd bring you some supplies for that." Try bringing myrrh to a baby shower these days and see how that goes for you.

As far as amaryllis goes, I do know that when we got the traditional Christmas bulb gift a few years ago and I kept the pot in our bedroom, the thing gave me the freakin' creeps. For weeks it did nothing, and then all of a sudden, it came out. It seemed much more animal than vegetable, and because my side of the bed is near the sunniest window, it turned toward me as it grew. I would wake up in the morning and the thing would be looking at me in a way I did not much like.

Here's hoping that your 2012 blooms (literal and figurative) do not attack you while you sleep. Happy new year, all!


This poem was strangled by an amaryllis shoot.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Painting Up a Storm

I've been overwhelmed with writing for work and therefore in more of a painting zone lately, though I'm working on some fiction projects. I find art can be a great escape from the verbal; the painting above is a gouache and ink rendering of fiddlehead ferns.

Check out some more of my work on Etsy.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Thief We Can't Prepare For

A friend and colleague died unexpectedly this week, a kind and funny woman who’d dedicated her life to helping animals (even those usually forgotten, like rats and possums and baby vultures).

It’s left a hole in our office that no one was prepared for. It’s also been a reminder of how such a thing brings out people’s kindness. I suspect many people are surrounded by more goodness than they realize, yet I do feel like my office is probably sweeter than most. Maybe it's due to the nature of the work.

I’ve been reading Jane Hirshfield’s latest book recently, Come, Thief, and it couldn’t have been more timely. Hirshfield’s one of my favorite living poets; her work has a calmness and a depth that leaves me feeling rejuvenated every time I read it. I am a person who has a very hard time slowing my mind down, something I notice daily but especially whenever I’ve tried to meditate; it just doesn’t happen. I try to make my mind a calm blank page, but a thousand little thoughts creep in at the edges. Reading Hirshfield—a practicing Zen Buddhist—is about as close as I can come to stilling the hamster wheel in my head. Even her voice is calm (to hear it, check out the lovely interview my friend Adam recently did with Hirshfield. It’s at the bottom of this page.)

The loss of our friend this week had me going back to Hirshfield’s The Lives of the Heart, which has so many beautiful small moments it’s difficult to tally them. They returned to me this week not only because the poems are full of mortality, but because they are also full of animals—horses, foxes, cats, birds. In thinking about my colleague—and her husband, a dear friend—many of them have risen in my head:

Walk slowly now, small soul, by the edge/ of the water. Choose carefully/ all you are going to lose, though any of it would do.
(“On the Beach”)

These lines acknowledge, simultaneously, the importance of choosing what will be central to your life, and the fact that all of it will be lost. A nihilist might look at the latter truth and say it makes the first meaningless, but not here: “choosing carefully” still matters, even though everything chosen will vanish.

In Hirshfield’s newer book, "Contentment," a poem about looking after a collection of satisfied hens—and one who’s not yet ready to return to the roost—struck me as an experience that Sue would have loved, tending as she often did to a menagerie of rescued creatures. But it’s this poem that really made me (to paraphrase William Stafford) think hard for us all.

Thank you for the comfort, Jane. And thank you, Sue, for all you did for people and other animals.

The Promise

Stay, I said
to the cut flowers.
They bowed
their heads lower.

Stay, I said to the spider,
who fled.

Stay, leaf.
It reddened,
embarrassed for me and itself.

Stay, I said to my body.
It sat as a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.

Stay, to the earth
of riverine valley meadows,
of fossiled escarpments,
of limestone and sandstone.
It looked back
with a changing expression, in silence.

Stay, I said to my loves.
Each answered,

Sunday, September 11, 2011

In Memory


I. First Leaves

Outside was the whole world:
There were the first leaves, turning;
the coffee shop; the office parking lot, half full—
I was earlier than usual, and as I turned the car off,

the last chirrup of radio:
There is word a plane has collided

Inside, the halls were formless,
the nameplates bore no letters.

We saw Pakistan for the first time:
the news kept cutting to a woman
ululating celebration.
We had never noticed her before;

we thought we were flying to San Francisco,

we had poppies in our hair,

we had warmed our lips with lattes,

we had names and shoes and outside
was autumn, the first leaves turning

in the trees: our dim acquaintance with fire.

II. Leonids

They were supposed to infuse the sky with light,
transfix our eyes with a radiance so vast
it might roar, like Christ come back as lion—

At three I left the city to see the sky
unstained by unbuilding,
past layers of dust, past tourists who’d come to stare.

In the park, cars had gathered; headlights
shone through exhaust, fog had fallen.

All around strangers moved through the dark,
craning our necks toward the sky
we hoped would come through,

give us something grand to hook our hopes to—

but when the meteors fell it was in silence,
their trails slight as scraping claws
of a hungry stray locked just beyond the door.

III. Lobby

The high window springs a leak of light
past the flags, across the marble floor,
washing the branded lobby,
spangling the eyes of the desk clerks,
the tender at the empty bar.

No one’s flying now.
The charred hull lies only a mile away;
the locals are drinking at home, their eyes
bound to their televisions.
Late afternoon, mid autumn, but the heat is stifling,

and there’s a bride coming in the sliding door.
Her dress is dirty at the hem,
her makeup creasing beneath
her eyes—still,
the staff around the lobby glance up,
then stare, when she appears.

Transfigured by the sunlight through the glass,
which, fixed in time, seems more fire than light,

she is, in the precision and toil of her finery,
so common even now,
that if the hotel staff lose their breath a moment

it is not beauty that pulls it from their lungs,
but this moment of the ordinary resuming,
the needle set back to the groove
where music stopped.

It is simply out of amazement
that people still
do this thing, this way—

the plans, the hoist of girders’ order and design,
the gravity and balance required to rivet

one life to another until two
share a single silhouette,
visible from afar on any clear, bright morning.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The World According to Martha

Reading Russell McLendon's recent piece about the anniversary of the death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, made me think about animal histories. I had been thinking about the way humans consider their past--issues of inheritance, family ties, legacies that are passed down through generations, and how those are both good and bad for people. How there are things our ancestors did that we're still on the hook for; things our ancestors suffered that still ripple out into our own lives. The way that people born to a place feel connected to it and will defend it, and how animals are (at least in theory) separated from that kind of thinking.

People have whole stories of how they belong in a place and how it belongs to them, a version of history that adds up to an explanation of how we came to be where we are, and often a story of why we control what we do.

When you visit the Alhambra in Granada, for example, or the cathedral in Seville, you're walking through spaces that have been Christian and Muslim and Christian and Muslim for centuries, based on the battles for control that went on there. The bell tower in the Seville cathedral, La Giralda, used to be a minaret. So much of the architecture is like that, a sort of structural palimpsest on which one thing was written and then written over and then written over again, but pieces of the original thing still show through.

While I was at the Alhambra years ago, I noticed not just the architecture, but the swallows who were flying in and out of one of the main courtyards, swooping for bugs, occasionally dipping into one of the fountains. It made me think about their ancestors: Had this swallow's family lived here for long? Did this line of birds go back centuries, so that their great-great-great-great grandfathers might have witnessed the fights between religious devotees, each trying to claim the land for their own vision?

And if animals were inclined to record their history in the same way we keep track of ours--the wars, the treaties, the grudges that are held and echo for centuries--what might they have to say about the primates who left the animal kingdom and became something else?

(I should note that I'm actually a dog lover, but that the parasitical nature of our favorite slobbering companions has always made me wonder how other animals perceive them--whether they're considered the Benedict Arnolds of the wild kingdom. And also that the thing I liked best about the process of writing this poem was discovering that a group of apes is called a "shrewdness"--probably the best herd term ever.)


This draft went extinct.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

What We Talk About

The nameable sources for this draft: a rather unusual sonnet by Ernest Hilbert, the work of Rene Magritte (most specifically, "The Treachery of Images"), and one of my favorite Paul Simon songs.


This draft was annulled.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

We Parse, Therefore We Is

It's an old joke: What does the dyslexic agnostic think about when he lies awake at night? The existence of dog.

Without getting overshare-y, over the past months, I've had some major sources of worry. I've occasionally found myself talking to myself, arguing with myself. Sometimes out loud. (Usually not in public, though at least once or twice I've caught a stranger's eye and thought, whoops, another person who thinks I'm shellacking the waxed egg.) When I am struggling with a difficult question or decision, I often become two debate teams. I let them argue with each other, and see which side I end up believing.

This is not the same as prayer. Prayer is different, and as an agnostic and lapsed Catholic, it's not my typical mode of problem solving. But a few times in the past few months, I have also caught myself uttering, quietly, phrases that could be taken for prayer. As in, Please, great entity I'm not at all sure I believe in and usually pay no attention to, help me out with this one.

What I'd like, at such moments, is for the clouds to part, and a large mouth to appear and deliver instructions in a clear voice, preferably Samuel L. Jackson's. Thus far, that has never occurred. I'd conclude that the lack of a clear response is due to my own failures to attend to God on a day-to-day basis, but from what I understand, even those who pay a great deal of attention to God get some confusing messages. (Perhaps God needs to work on his penmanship.)

Sometimes, though, I worry that answers come, but I miss them. For example, a while back, I was sitting quietly on a rock in Great Falls Park during a moment of crisis and pain, when the word please formed in my brain. And as it formed, the nook of gray rocks across the Potomac, the exact spot my eyes had fallen upon, seemed to shift and blur and a heron flew out of them, the same color as the stones, and passed over my head.

So what was that, exactly? An answer? Or did that heron just randomly remember its manicure appointment?

I can never make up my mind about these things. I'm never able to believe they're really signs, but I'm also never able to believe they're entirely coincidence, either. I suffer from a more agnostic version of the illness that afflicts the son in Nabokov's brilliant "Symbols and Signs" (which seems to me the point of the story: all humans both suffer and benefit from our tendency to interpret the world).

Thinking about this issue reminded me of an old poem I wrote about dogs and their fear of mailmen, which has long seemed to me a decent metaphor for humanity's problem with God. Specifically: We sometimes sense there's something out there. It sticks notes through our door slot, but we can't read them because, well, we can't read. And our attempts to read them lead to, well, theories about intelligent design and, sometimes, mass suicides. Sometimes doubt itself seems to me like the best product of the mind -- the capacity to hold a thought or opinion and all the while also hold the thought: I may be wrong.

Then again, of course, maybe some of us read divine messages correctly. In which case, can I snag a spare key to your bunker sometime before October?


This poem was eaten by the dog.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Daddy Issues

Happy Father's Day from Sylvia Plath and Robert Hayden, two poets who apparently had very different experiences with their paternal role models.

Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" has long made me think of my own father. It's the work ethic depicted in the piece, the quiet attention to duty that you don't always, as a kid, recognize as love.

Plath's, while I recognize its lacerating genius and amazing sonics, these days mostly makes me giggle. Terrible, but true. It's the hyberbole ... and the fact that it seems like an early example of all the arguments that inspired Godwin's Law.

Here's a lovely one from Li-Young Lee, to tip the balance toward the good, graceful, non-Hitler dads everywhere.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Camera Set to "Fabulous"

This isn't at all writing related, but the Capital Pride parade was so much fun and so full of lovely little moments that it seemed worth sharing some pictures.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Names Changed to Protect the Possibly Skeevy

I was psyched to finally get a copy of the latest ALR. Once I was done ogling the cover, proofing my story, and inhaling some of the terrific work within (including a fascinating poetic sequence on Dante's Inferno by Mary Jo Bang), I faced one of the ongoing issues with publishing certain pieces: Who should be told that this thing has come into the world?

Specifically, when one has written a story that is so close to autobiography, who can one trust to appreciate the similarities, be amused by moments of recognition, and yet not hold a grudge about the aspects that are fictionalized (and those that aren't)?

This story, "The Umpire," depicts a kid who gets a crush on an umpire at her softball league and is completely obsessed with him until the moment it seems like he might return her fascination. She is 12. He is 33.

The story comes as close to portraying myself at age 12 as anything I've written. Awkward. Eager to please. Not immune to the occasional inappropriate crush, and yet still so much a child that I didn't even recognize such crushes for what they were. And it's set at a Little League--a venue rife with emotional tensions and politics kids are only barely aware of, but where I spent many frustrated and jubilant hours as a softball player, alternately hating myself for not being as good as I dreamed of being and feeling (very occasionally) smug about becoming better than I had been. When I was 12 years old, for example, I caught a line drive that, I'm afraid to say, may stand as the peak moment of my life. I'm still waiting to top it, twenty odd years later.

This story contains not only this fictionalized version of me, but a fictionalized version of my mother, my coach, my father, several amalgams of fellow girl softball players, and a middle school math teacher. And a much-creepified umpire, who in real life was nowhere near as troubling as I made him ... but who, even now, I occasionally wonder about. Where did he end up? What's he doing? And why did he want to talk about Freud's ideas on anal retention to a 12-year old?

Adolescence is full of mysteries that may never be solved. All I know is that I still, on occasion, buy a packet of Big League Chew and dream of being in the outfield, waiting for that perfect long fly. There's little that feels as good as catching one--except, perhaps, knowing you can show your mother a story that contains a fictionalized version of her and she will not freak out.

I'd be curious to hear how others deal with this. Are there stories/poems you won't publish in the name of protecting the innocent? Are there pieces you won't even write? What would have to happen for you to be free to write them?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bin Laden is Dead, and I Don't Feel So Hot Myself

As luck would have it, I got on a plane the day after bin Laden's death was announced. I was trying to decide whether anyone felt safer. Nothing seemed to have changed at the airport. The security line was just as long. The TSA agents were just as fond of fondling. I still couldn't bring the coffee I'd purchased only steps away into the secure area.

I'm not complaining; when it comes to debates over airport security, I'll take safety over the desire not to reveal my unpedicured toes to strangers. But no matter what's happened to al Quaeda's mastermind, figurehead, and Looney Toons in chief, it's clear that ambiguity and fear will remain a part of our lives for a long time to come.


This poem was fondled by the TSA.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

You Can Go Home Again (But It'll Freak You Out)

I went for a walk with my father tonight, in the town where I did some of my growing up. It sometimes seems like a place that will never change.


This draft was bulldozed to make room for a new subdivision.

Friday, April 8, 2011

This Radiated World

The episode of This American Life last week was incredibly powerful. The theme--"See No Evil"--gave birth to stories of brothers trying to cope with the fact that one of them might have killed their mother, and of a gift store manager trying to figure out the source of his shop's shrinkage. But the most powerful stories came in Act II, which used the recent disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan to launch into a discussion of the worst nuclear accident in history. The segment was comprised largely of translated passages read from a Russian book called Voices from Chernobyl. I dare you to listen without crying to the story of the new bride whose husband was sent in to deal with the disaster--in shirtsleeves and no protective gear.

I remember when Chernobyl happened. I was young and the TV reports were vague and terrifying. I can't help but think that most people who grew up during the Cold War must have some form of nuclear paranoia; off the top of my head, I can think of at least 20 poems I've written that have some element of nuke-related fear/fascination in them. When I was a kid and heard stories of the arms race, I conflated them with the space race, and used to envision a massive pile of rockets and space shuttles and nuclear missles circling the earth, a field of deadly rubble in constant orbit around the planet. And as to the use of nuclear power ... what is there to say? We're ruining the planet with oil and coal, but given the issues with nuclear waste, how can we treat nuclear energy as a true solution? In an unstable world where earthquakes and terrorism are realities, nuclear energy is a terrifying option, one requiring us to bury the consequences deep in the earth for future generations to deal with. It seems to me that one of the central metaphors of our time is radiation--the idea that something near us, something we created and have come to rely on to protect and empower us, to destroy our cancers and heat our homes, is simultaneously the source of an invisible poison. That poison is inseparable from power.

I've always been haunted by what Oppenheimer said about how people working at Los Alamos felt when the nuclear tests near Alamagordo, NM, were successful: We knew the world would not be the same. Few people laughed, few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Listening to NPR's ongoing reports on the disaster at Fukushima, I heard a story in which a reporter asked a local farmer whether he would leave the area due to all the pollution and fears of irradiated crops. He said that he would not. "This is our home," he said. "No matter what happens or how bad it gets, we have to live here." The same could be said of Earth.


This draft was irradiated.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sometimes, More is More: A Fan Letter to Tony Hoagland

A friend of mine recently shared some poems with an associate, a fellow poet and editor. The pieces came back with some praise, but also with critical notations marking up elements of description, along with general caveats warning against adjectives -- point after point where, the editor felt, the piece needed to lose some descriptive weight. Gone were certain colors, elements of dress, textures of objects.

I looked at the poem again, loving many of the very adjectives my friend had been smacked down for. And I wondered, not for the first time, when adjectives became the redheaded stepchildren of writing. (Of course, I should probably simply say "the children" of writing, as both "redheaded" and "step" are descriptive, and as all trained writers know, descriptions are lazy, and a waste of words.)


I realize I am taking on a literary sacred cow -- sorry, a cow. But really: Why do we hate adjectives? Should we blame it all on Ernest Hemingway?

He certainly did some damage, but he's hardly alone. Mark Twain ("When you catch an adjective, kill it"), Ezra Pound (“Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something"), George Orwell ("Whoever writes English is involved in a struggle that never lets up ... against the lure of the decorative adjective") and even Stephen King ("The road to hell is paved with adjectives") have all taken their potshots.

OK: There are some reasons to be wary. Recently, I re-read Pat Conroy's bestselling The Prince of Tides -- a book that, when I was 16, I believed was the best novel I would ever read -- and was struck by how much adjectival fat it was dragging around. One of the first paragraphs:

I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Colleton; my arms were tawny and strong from working long days on the shrimp boat in the blazing South Carolina heat...I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the low country, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders. As a boy I was happy above the channels, navigating a small boat between the sandbars with their quiet nation of oysters exposed on the brown flats at the low watermark.

(That whizzing sound you hear is Hemingway spinning in his grave.)

While I still love Conroy's book, I think it could have lost about 50 pages of adjectives and schmaltz and been a stronger, tighter novel.

And yet ... "the sandbars with their quiet nation of oysters"? Lovely, vintage Conroy. Even that "quiet" matters, softening a description that might otherwise read like bivalve jingoism.

The notion that any problem in a herd of words can be solved by thinning--and that adjectives are the crippled baby gazelles in the pack--is so ingrained in the idea of serious writing these days that I have started to look for exceptions to the rule.

It's not to be contrarian. It just happens to matter to me that we live in a world where things are rough, blue, steamy, grease-smudged, blue, cheap, and occasionally pickled. And sometimes when you're writing about that world, more is more.

I recently finished reading Tony Hoagland's marvellous latest collection, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty. I can't remember the last time I was simultaneously so moved and so amused by a book. Oh, wait: yes I can. But in poetry, snortingly funny and heart-rending rarely go together.

And Hoagland is crazy for adjectives. Very frequently, he piles more than one adjective onto a single noun. Clouds are "creamy and massive." People wear "oddly sexy running shoes" and drink from "blue polyethylene water bottles." The sun, in one poem, "is a brassy blond novelist of immense accomplishment." And his adjectives work, layering onto each other and driving the humor, the tenderness, the wryly bemused and sensual and often heartbroken voice that make his poems so great at capturing the complicated, absurd, product-filled, media-and-money-saturated here and now of being -- dare I use this adjective? -- (a certain kind of) American.

As he puts it in the poem "Muchness": "Description,/which lingers,/and loves for no reason."

Given Hoagland's disgruntled affection for (or at least addiction to) the physicality of the places and people and things that make up the world, it's not surprising that the collection starts out an ars poetica called "Description," which addresses the limits of language, and yet might be a kind of rebuttal to that constant dictum to cut, cut, cut.

There is some sense to the urge to make a noun nothing but itself--but what if its core essence has to do with being "blue polyethylene"?

The last lines of Hoagland's "Description," below:

In all of this a place must be
reserved for human suffering:

the sick and unloved, the chemically confused;
the ones who believe desperately in insight;
the ones addicted to change.

How our thoughts clawed and pummeled the walls.
How we tried but could not find our way out.

In the wake of our effort, how we rested.
How description was the sign of our acceptance.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Hunt in Childhood

I was walking into the local library on a warm summer evening a few years back, when the door burst open, and a little boy and a girl ran out into the lawn, carrying paper shadow puppets they had just made (I could see the rest of the kids inside, the teacher picking up the scraps of paper and sponging paste off the desks). The little girl was chasing the boy; they were clearly exhilarated, laughing and flushed and enjoying the game.

Watching them, I remembered chase games from my own childhood, how much I loved them--the physicality, the sense of quest, the occasional sense of terror when you were about to be caught. (Margaret Atwood captured this beautifully in the last lines of her poem "Game After Supper": From the shadows around/the corner of the house/a tall man is coming to find us.//He will be an uncle/if we are lucky.)

The terror--that was always an interesting element. For these were just other children I was playing with, and yet sometimes in that split second before one of them would tag me--or, in rougher versions, grab hold of a sleeve and hang on till it stretched or tore, perhaps sling me to the ground, perhaps tickle or punch me--the terror of that contact was real and visceral. It seemed life might hang in the balance, that being caught could mean actual violence would befall me, that I was in real danger.

Watching those kids, I was struck by the idea that they were happily and innocently enacting a ritual--one that could go on for the rest of their lives, but never again so visibly.


This poem was hacked up with safety scissors.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Larkin, Love, and Schadenfreude

So/To pile them back, to cry/Was hard, without lamely admitting how/It had not done so then, and could not now.

I've thought about this Larkin poem a bit lately, as friends and loved ones struggle in relationships. The first time I heard it, those last lines went through me. They felt like a slap in the face.

I was a freshman in college, more romantic and idealistic and judgmental than I realized, convinced that reason and love could save the world--though even then, I would never have been so Pollyanna as to articulate this belief. I was taking a lit survey class called "Love in the Ruins," my election of which now makes me think of this classic moment.

So, OK, maybe I was asking for it, taking a class that should have been titled "Why Love Sucks, or Will Eventually Begin to Suck No Matter What You Do, Because the World Sucks and the World is, Unfortunately, Where We Stupidly Love Each Other." (Texts, for the curious, included Graham Swift's Waterland, Richard Ford's The Sportswriter, the Walker Percy novel the class was named for, and a collage of other gems virtually guaranteed to have romantics reaching for the Prozac and/or hemlock.)

But I digress. The first day of class, the professor entered without much ceremony and read the poem below out loud, breaking my heart and turning me into a lifelong Larkin fan.

Love Songs in Age

She kept her songs, they took so little space,
XXThe covers pleased her:
One bleached from lying in a sunny place,
One marked in circles by a vase of water,
One mended, when a tidy fit had seized her,
XXAnd coloured, by her daughter --
So they had waited, till, in widowhood
She found them, looking for something else, and stood

Relearning how each frank submissive chord
XXHad ushered in
Word after sprawling hyphenated word,
And the unfailing sense of being young
Spread out like a spring-woken tree, wherein
XXThat hidden freshness sung,
That certainty of time laid up in store
As when she played them first. But, even more,

The glare of that much-mentioned brilliance, love,
XXBroke out, to show
Its bright incipience sailing above,
Still promising to solve, and satisfy,
And set unchangeably in order. So
XXTo pile them back, to cry,
Was hard, without lamely admitting how
It had not done so then, and could not now.

For me, no one captures poetry's frequent paradox of pleasure in pain like Larkin.

This sounds vaguely masochistic, but I think it may be closer to schadenfreude -- an emotion I usually think of as a negative, gleeful "Yay, someone is suffering!" sort of thing.

Not so here. There's no gleeful, Dr. Evil-esque chortling over someone's anguish. But poetry regularly asks the reader to take pleasure in the description of someone else's pain.
I'm talking about how occasionally a poem is so beautiful, so truthful, that it is painful--or how it may depict something painful in a way so clear-eyed, unsentimental, and elegant that it is beautiful.

It is, I think, what Bruce Weigl is talking about in the last lines of his brutal poem "The Impossible": Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.

It is a kind of empathy, a moment when you recognize your own thoughts in the words of a stranger ... which is where the pleasure comes from. Because even if the identification is painful, identification always carries a kind of pleasure, a recognition, a sense of feeling less alone.

Encountering such a poem can feel as though a stranger somewhere in time has somehow located a small, wounded piece of your heart, and had the courtesy to return it to you.

Love: "still promising to solve, and satisfy, and set unchangeably in order." Likely it will do none of these things, Larkin seems to say here--and yet because I recognize things I have thought here, I find this heartbreaker strangely, oddly comforting.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Fire and Ice: Frost-il Fuel

A tongue-in-cheek response to Robert Frost's famous, also tongue-in-cheek eschatalogical poem "Fire and Ice," inspired by more depressing news about climate change.

In his original (below), Frost implies it will be either fire or ice (or their corollary human flaws, desire and hate) that will end the world. But looking at the environmental debate and our failure to make change quickly enough to save our own skins, laziness and greed seem just as trenchant.

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

... Or Something Else

Why must it be an either/or?
Forces exist
Beyond the flames or flakes of Frost.
The world might end in flood, or dust.
But if I had to top the list
Of what could leave as deadened husk
This blue world’s lovely skin of green,
I’d go, like Gore,
With gasoline.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Loren Graham Out Loud

Yeah, yeah: I blogged about Loren Graham's fantastic book The Ring Scar already ... but just saw this online and wanted to pass it along.

Always such a pleasure to hear him read.