Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Art of Emasculating Rejections

My poem, "Slips," kindly published by The Atticus Review this week, is based on a true story. A friend of mine who used to work at Mailer's publisher used to be one of the people who had to send rejections to aspiring novelists. The publisher, which was proud of its literary stallion, like for these rejections to mention its affiliation with Mailer.

This struck me as painfully funny. As if rejections aren't painful enough, you'd get a nice little reminder of how awesome you aren't. Between that reality and Mailer's own reputation, the story seemed like a gift. Hope writers especially will enjoy it -- along with this little gem where Rip Torn (a nice naming synchronicity, given the incident) gets his ear eaten by a literary giant. (Seriously.)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

I Am Not Malala Yousafzai.

I was going to post something today to express solidarity, something saying “I am Malala Yousafzai.”

But that’s ridiculous. I am not Malala Yousafzai.

We were both born in Pakistan, but I was born as the child of an American diplomat, with all the rights and good fortune that entails.

No one thought twice about sending me to school—it was expected, right up through college.

But this girl, born in 1998 (the year I graduated from college and went on to graduate school), has had to fight every step of the way to get an education. She has been trying to get it not only for herself, but for other girls in Pakistan. And the response of these Taliban thugs—whose own daughters would benefit from the manifestation of her dream—is to shoot her in the head, and promise to do it again if she lives.

Muslims should be proud of her, and as the reaction in Pakistan indicates, most are. My personal belief is that those responsible for this attack aren't true Muslims, any more than "Christians" who murder doctors or persecute the families of gay veterans are true Christians.

I’ve spent my entire existence pillowed on rights that I often don’t even think about. I don't have to think about them. So no. I am not Malala Yousafzai. But I wish I had an ounce of her grace and courage. And I am so grateful that the world produces people like this to counterbalance the retrograde, violent, stupid forces she is up against.

It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.
–Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Another compelling distraction from writing ...

... which I don't need but am enjoying tremendously.

One of the great frustrations of becoming an adult, I've long felt, is the need to narrow your field of interests--at least, if you ever want to be any good at any of them.

I've always been lousy at that. Over the years, I've been intensely occupied, at various points, with painting, drawing, dichroic glass, beadwork, and collage. Oh, and making cocktails. Add to that the desire to have some sort of social existence and, sometimes, the desire to hibernate and do nothing but read and avoid all human contact, and I often feel a mile wide and an inch deep, and worry that I'm neglecting the words that have always been my deepest love.

Still ... I do have a good time with distractions. My latest sideline has been gripping me for a couple of months now, ever since I finally got to take a metalsmithing class at Glen Echo. The artist and instructor, Blair Anderson, makes stunning silver (check out this brilliant pendant, which gave me chills: Not only is it a tribute to Ray Bradbury, it has a jump drive with 10,000 books hidden inside it) and is also an amazing teacher, and after a few weeks, I had the silver bug. After a day of moving words around a screen, hammering the shit out of metal and firing up a blowtorch is incredibly satisfying.

Silverwork's not a cheap hobby, though, so I've revamped my Etsy store to include some of the jewelry I've been making in hopes of making it eventually fund itself. It's funny, because while there's so much about the work that is deliciously nonverbal, there are ways it reminds me of writing poems ... specifically in that, like poetry, I often labor for hours and get to the end and it looks a) tiny and b) flawed. But like poetry, also, I can see potential, and every now and then I think, that's actually kind of neat.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Whitman at Armory Square

I’m grateful today to have “Whitman at Armory Square” up on Linebreak. Many thanks to the journal, and to Jason McCall for as powerful reading as I could possibly hope for. It’s Linebreak’s treatment of poems, presenting recordings along with the text, that had me hoping they'd take this piece.

I don’t believe in “explaining” poems. It’s a bit like explaining jokes: If you have to explain them, they didn’t work. And Walt Whitman’s place in American poetry requires no explanation; he is a touchstone figure, often perceived as the towering life-force who changed the landscape of poetry and brought it into a true “American” voice after decades of British emulation. (A brief pop culture aside: Given the relatively marginalized place poetry holds in the mainstream these days, it says something that Whitman’s poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” was quoted in full in an episode of Breaking Bad, and I love that it may end up being Leaves of Grass that brings down Walter White’s House of Meth.)

But to explain why I went to this subject and this form: Whitman worked as a nurse, tending to the wounded during the Civil War, and there seems to be little doubt that what he saw at Armory Square hospital changed him permanently. A few years ago, I read that after his experience, he stopped writing poetry. That struck me as so telling, so poignant—this man who had been welling with life, with love of people and deep carnality, with words, struck dumb by seeing the country turned against itself. And how it almost seemed as though his own voice had been taken over by those of the soldiers who wanted him to “speak” for them by writing their letters home, some of them the last words they’d ever utter.

I wanted to write something that showed what happened when Whitman’s life instinct came up against the carnage of the Civil War, and that’s the reason for this form: the non-italicized lines are the life instinct, the italicized ones the voice of the death he encountered, how it might have transformed his relationship with the body. It was designed, in a way, to be a dialogue between Freud’s concepts of Eros (the drive for life, love, creativity, sex) and Thanatos (the drive of aggression, sadism, violence, death) through the figure of Whitman.

The poem can be read straight through, but also as two stanzas one after the other, if you pull them apart at the spots where they mesh. I considered setting them that way, but in the end, I decided, I wanted them touching, blending, to form one narrative as well as two separate ones.

It’s a form I’ve been working with a lot due to the fact that conceptualizing America sometimes seems to require it: voices in opposition to each other, entertwining to make a whole that may be harmonious or acrimonious. Sometimes these voices even come from within a single person. Can these voices coexist? If not, which one will win out?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Remembrance of Prez Past

I have a friend who, every day on Facebook, posts the names of the latest servicemen and women who've died in Afghanistan. It's a depressing reminder of what's still going on, more than a decade after 9/11, and while I hate seeing the names, I'm glad he does it. I need the reminder of what our foreign policies mean for American military families. I know, also, that our lists will never include the names of the hundreds of thousands of civilian dead in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I think about former president George W. Bush from time to time. I thought of him especially when Bin Laden was killed, and wondered about what he thought and felt about it. I disagreed with Bush's policies almost across the board. And yet I've found myself, since he left office, occasionally wondering if he stays up thinking about his legacy, whether he now has any doubts about how he handled things during his presidency. He faced crises during his term in office that no one could have been adequately prepared for, and yet he always projected such certainty.

(I go back and forth about whether such utter certainty about deeply complicated issues is a good thing. When I see people driving around with bumper stickers passionately advocating scores of strong opinions, I sometimes feel woozy. Occasionally I think of creating a bumper sticker that reads, I have some opinions, but I may be wrong. I doubt it would have much of a market in a world where people have passionate opinions about everything from foreign affairs to boxers-vs.-briefs, and are willing to yell at each other on the Internet about them.)

Still, with less than three months left until the next election, I keep thinking about the potential consequences of electing a man who's unprepared for the insane complexities of domestic and international policymaking, who's not an idea man, who's not comfortable being a global citizen as well as an American. And about how many lives can be affected by the decisions made at those levels.

I don't think Romney is Bush. And I don't think Obama is perfect by a long shot (among other issues, I find the drone strike issue really troubling). But Romney's apparent glibness reminds me a bit of W. Glibness is a scary quality in the leader of the free world. After keeping a reasonably regular eye on the campaign for months, I still have no idea who Romney really is, what he believes and what he's merely saying to be electable, or how he would actually govern. The issues Bush expected to handle during his presidency were not those he ended up with. How might Romney deal with a terrorist attack, or a massive natural disaster like Katrina? Some of his campaign's recent targeting of welfare recipients and apparent cluelessness about the realities faced by those living in chronic poverty make me worry he could make "Heckuva job Brownie" seem sensitive by comparison. But I'll cop to the distinct possibility that I'm just unfairly suspicious of the super-rich.

(By the way, in looking for a Bush jogging shot, I found it here, accompanying an old piece from the White House in 2007. Bush got a lot of smack about his comic tendency to misspeak -- "nuculerr," "fool me once," etc. -- and smart, humane, responsible policies are more important than being an inspiring speaker. Still, it gave me a little "oy" moment here seeing that Bush, in addressing the press corps during this photo op, initially got the name of one of these wounded veterans wrong.)


Elegy for a Failed Statesman

Every time he lifted his pen,
blood and treasure ran down his leg,
soaking his sock.

Prime ministers and sheiks covered their smirks
hearing his foot squelch
as he strode grinning
into rooms
more serious than he was,

rooms sealed and reinforced with steel,
hung with gilt-framed glowering portraits
of patriots, their scalps
sweating under powdered wigs.

He did what he could:

When towers fell, he grabbed a bullhorn.
When rains came,
he flew over the coast frowning,
to show how much
he disapproved of weather.

Healthy, he jogged for miles
over marble
inscribed with names of the dead,
his lips sliding easily
over his teeth.

He had ideas
for how the world should change,
and sat at his huge desk humming,

stitching them
onto a veil thin as sand
that kept tearing
at the dull prick of his needle.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Go Muppets

I'm very glad the Muppets have come out in favor of marital equality. But I suspect Gonzo and his ladies have had issues with the Chick Fil A relationship for years.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Show an Affirming Flame

Woke up Friday morning, excited that we had bought advance tickets to see The Dark Knight Rises. Early show, beating the crowds. Then came the news from Aurora. Then my Facebook feed, filling up with more images, stories, sympathy, expressions of how this terrible latest mass shooting should make us hold our families close and think about what really matters.

On one level, I couldn’t agree more. It’s just human nature to have horror bring us back to the things we really value, and calls to be kind are the best response.

On another level, I hate human nature. We should focus on these things every damn day, and I cannot stand how it sometimes takes a shocking act of violence to make us do so. Drilling into it, it also bothers me because it makes a killer in some way an inspiration, in some way responsible for our brief burst of loving behaviors.

After September 11, there was an Ad Council PSA that made this connection directly. I found it moving and disturbing for the very same reasons (and more, of course—9/11 brought out patriotism and kindness, but also, well, a fair amount of other distinctly less awesome stuff, enough of it that I couldn't even begin hyperlinking to all of it and just have to trust that you've followed the news over the past decade.)

I’m not saying that we should instead take this day and use it to be a real jerk to the 7-11 cashier, hide our grandparents’ dentures, kick the dog. I’m saying that I refuse to allow a psychotic gunman to inspire me to hug my loved ones more or be kinder to strangers than I already try to be. Every day, I struggle with my own pettiness, with annoyance at bad drivers, with impatience at work, with the conflicts created by the sometimes competing desires to be kind and to be honest. And I fail all the time. But I want to be tolerant, patient, gentle, loving, and generous every day, and not just when some crazy a-hole shoots a bunch of people and makes light stand out against dark action. Not just in response to carnage.

(It reminds me of a line from Tom Lehrer’s song about Christmas: On Christmas Day you can't get sore/Your fellow man you must adore,/There's time to rob him all the more/The other three hundred and sixty-four. Lehrer’s National Brotherhood Week has some relevance here too, in its capturing of being decent just long enough for a self-congratulatory bonding moment.)

I always feel—and let me say, I hate that we've had enough of these effing shootings that I can say "I always feel"—unease that it seems to take heinous acts of violence to bring out our best selves. Doesn’t that kind of imply that we require these horrors in order to rise to the occasion? That core goodness can only be accessed reactively? Maybe it’s true, but I find the idea fairly depressing. America could use more gentleness on an everyday basis.

While I don’t want to get much into politics here, the most recent news reports all say that the guns used in Aurora were all purchased legally. This is where I always come up against the NRA’s arguments that gun laws are stringent enough and that background checks will protect us. Yes, the vast majority of gun owners in this country are decent, law-abiding citizens, but there are too many cases now that indicate that those who snap often have no criminal records, nothing that would red flag them as dangerous … until, suddenly, there’s a red flag made out of a bunch of dead people. While I generally think that you can’t base laws on rare aberrations, when those rare aberrations have such heinous results, don’t they have to be factored in?

But enough with the polemic.

Bruce Weigl’s amazing poem “What Saves Us” is not about a mass shooting, but it is about violence—the last stateside night of a soldier about to leave for Vietnam—and about the small, unexpected places and forms redemption can inhabit. I love the lines “We are not always right/about what we think will save us”—a large “we” statement that’s risky in writing, but which I think Weigl earns with the specificity of what leads up to it.

I thought of the last lines when I heard about the shooting in Aurora. I have always found them incredibly haunting, expressing something so true about the human condition: our entanglement. I think it is this entanglement, these strands of connection, that make every day kindness decency both so difficult and so necessary. As Auden put it, "May I, composed like them/ Of Eros and of dust,/ Beleaguered by the same/ Negation and despair,/ Show an affirming flame."

What Saves Us

We are wrapped around each other
in the back of my father’s car parked
in the empty lot of the high school
of our failures, the sweat on her neck
like oil. The next morning I would leave
for the war and I thought I had something
coming for that, I thought to myself
that I would not die never having
been inside her body. I lifted
her skirt above her waist like an umbrella
blown inside out by the storm. I pulled
her cotton panties up as high
as she could stand. I was on fire. Heaven
was in sight. We were drowning
on our tongues and I tried
to tear my pants off when she stopped
so suddenly we were surrounded
only by my shuddering
and by the school bells
grinding in the empty halls.
She reached to find something,
a silver crucifix on a silver chain,
the tiny savior’s head
hanging, and stakes through his hands and his feet.
She put it around my neck and held me
so long the black wings of my heart were calmed.
We are not always right
about what we think will save us.
I thought that dragging the angel down that night
would save me, but instead I carried the crucifix in my pocket
and rubbed it on my face and lips
nights the rockets roared in.
People die sometimes so near you,
you feel them struggling to cross over,
the deep untangling, of one body from another.

(from What Saves Us, 1992)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Here for a Reason

I found out earlier this week that an essay I wrote, one that appeared in two of the magazines produced by my organization, won gold for best essay in this year's Magnum Opus awards. I had forgotten -- or maybe even never known -- we'd entered it. My first thought was extreme excitement, because, given the name of the awards, I imagined the prize might be Tom Selleck showing up on my doorstep with Berkeley Breathed's melancholy penguin.

Even when I realized that wouldn't be happening, I was still happy -- this was a subject I thought about a long time before writing the essay. Over the years I've been covering the animal sheltering field, I've often worried about the way that people tend to elevate the animals who've been made victims in some terrible way. It's not that I don't think we should tell these stories -- people need to hear them, and in some cases, telling them saves animals' lives. But there's something troubling about such attention getting paid to the worst cases. It seems to indicate a human attraction toward victimization in some way, an addiction to an exciting narrative that may work for some animals but leaves others homeless.

This essay -- the story of the puppy pictured above, who survived euthanasia and went from being unknown and unwanted to having adopters in France apply to take him in -- was an attempt to explore that issue, and I'm really gratified that others read and enjoyed it.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Love's Austere and Lonely Offices (Father's Day)

Here's what I know about fathers: I have an extremely good one.

I have always aware of this, but have become more so over the years as I've met person after person who did not. Abusive dads. Absent dads. Dads who never hugged their kids, ever, or expressed any pride in them. Dads who likely learned their fathering techniques from their own dads, who likewise had no idea what to do. It's a Russian doll of bad dads, where every time you open one angry and frustrated man, there's another angry man who helped shape him. Interrupting that lineage, once it's gotten started, can take years -- generations, even -- of work.

Our father could not have been more different. Over the years, he has been the very image of not only a good dad, but a splendid human being. He worked hard and he worked long hours, but I never remember feeling him as remotely absent: when he came home for the evening, he was home, and present. I remember him teaching me words and getting me to memorize poems when I was a kid, exercises that played a huge and early part in shaping my love for reading. He has been protective but never overprotective. He's ready to offer advice but never one to force it upon us. He was always slow to anger -- very lucky for me, as during adolescence I was often very quick to inspire it.

I remember when I first got interested in writing, it seemed to me that most of the greats were spurred to their craft, at least in part, by terrible parenting. On that front, I felt, I was handicapped from the start.

And over the years I've come to think it's likely an illusion anyway. Every writer who's found fodder in their family dysfunction likely first had to surmount it, and I suspect many people who could have been writers may not have been able to. I know people, in fact, who have a great deal of raw writing talent and yet for years have had to invest the lion's share of their psychic energy in just surviving the toxic legacy of their parents. And the armies of writers out there with proud and supportive parents probably outnumber the ones with Joan Crawfords.

(Somewhat tangentially, I think with amused embarassment about the time that my mom ended up on a plane next to another woman, and through chit-chat they discovered their daughters were both writers. After going on proudly for some time about my writing -- the contests I won as a teenager, my few publications, my day job -- and likely overblowing them terribly, my mother asked about her fellow passenger's progeny. It turned out her daughter had written, among other things, a little book called A Thousand Acres. Yes, it was Jane Smiley's mom. This is one reason that bragging -- even about other people's accomplishments -- always strikes me as a truly silly thing to do.)

Robert Hayden's great fatherhood poem always makes me think of my dad, and feel grateful that I never had to fear "the chronic angers of that house" and that my father practiced "love's austere and lonely offices" so well.

Here's a poem for my dad, about the way he used to give us "airplane rides" on the beach at Gulf Shores, Alabama.


Early Flight

Our father, swimmer and fish-warrior:
hallowed be his hands, the ones that gripped

our wrists and ankles for the lift. Are you ready?
he would grin, and we claimed to be,

feeling the stretch of our muscles as he began
to turn like a discus hurler, feeling

the ground drop away, one eager daughter
after the other, dogfighters in looping rotation,

our eyes peeling the surface of the sand,
the far dunes and the beach-shacks spinning,

the vast green waters a blur: that world
we thought we were ready for. And though

he was no god, how he flew us then—
his dizzy gulls, his kites—allowing

in speed and his steady grip just enough fear
that we rose and fell laughing and shrieking

over the curve of the sand,
our limbs the only tether between us.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Ooh Las Vegas

Much as I love the Junkies (and Gram Parsons), my version of this song would likely be called "Ew. Las Vegas."

I've written about this before. Much as I like to imagine that our spare time at our conference will be spent having Rat Pack like good times, it's just not my kind of town. Part of it is that I don't have the money to make it my kind of town. Nicolas Pileggi, who wrote Casino, wrote Las Vegas is a city of kickbacks. A desert city of greased palms. A place where a $20 bill can buy approval, a $100 bill adulation and $1,000 canonization. He left out the tip for nonprofit drones visiting for a convention, that $5 will buy you a cup of coffee and some cards advertising hookers.
Also, I have a hard time turning off the part of my brain that worries, and Vegas -- rather than releasing me from it, as it's supposed to do -- makes it worse. I worry about the prostitutes. I worry about the people slumped over the slot machines, their eyes flickering back the numbers. I worry about humanity as a whole, and American humanity in particular, and then I worry about myself for not being able to relax and enjoy the whole thing.

The best I can really do there is try to leave my body and consider it all from a cultural anthropology point of view. For a writer, Vegas is great material. What doesn't kill you is fodder.

Still, all things considered, Vegas mostly makes me want to get out of town and see the desolate, haunted country all around it. High desert ranges, sagebrush, tiny towns that seem like no one could live there. Towns like Hernandez, New Mexico, which Ansel Adams photographed in this haunting 1941 shot. I haven't been to Hernandez, but there are desert towns all over the West that still look essentially like this.

Moonrise, Hernandez

          after Ansel Adams

What is there, beneath this stone-hewn sky,
          but to cluster and keep low?

Strings of whitewashed crosses
                      maintain ramshackle piety,
a stay against the leathered palm of sagebrush,
the whims of mountains, clouds
    solid as snowbanks,
                     their pewtered canopy
over huddled shacks
stitched by need
              into a town.

The moon drags her train over soil
pocked with clapboard and sheet metal,
               a past-prime bride abandoned
at the altar. Her light
catches on sharp edges, stray nails;
                pale threads tear loose,
become thin sheets and shirts
                clinging to the lines,
flapping like wingshot birds.

                If you come upon it, turn away.
Whoever comes here must claim these things,
              must wear this shirt, its wind-licked lapels
              stitched with aces.
You must wrap herself in these sheets;
                     hold your loneliness close.
You must scuttle among crosses where the dead
                     crouch quiet in the bracken,
                            listening to the wind forget their names.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Arbor Day Ironies

It was Arbor Day last week, the last Friday of April. Near my office, developers celebrated by clear-cutting a buttload of beautiful old trees.

I wanted to stand nearby and yell, "You're doing it wrong!"

I don't know what they're putting into the space they cleared, but I sure hope it's a Panera. God knows we could use another one of those.

As a belated tree-honoring, I'm posting a poem by Mark Haddon (best known for his novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) that makes me happy, in which the trees seem to emerge victorious. This is from his book, The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea, which is not only home to some interesting poems, it has one of the coolest covers ever (yes, that wheely thing at the edge actually rotates, allowing you to pick which of the title's figures you see).

I like this poem for
A) The amazing line about the school of fish, which is so perfect as a description of how a cluster of leaves moves in a wind.
B) Because it's a tree poem that echoes Joyce Kilmer's most famous tree poem. Which, to be honest, I think is a poem gooey enough to make people dislike both poems and trees. So to read a tree poem that has the same echo of humility about how paltry poetry is compared with the natural world--but that's understated and funny and non-goopy--was delightful for me.
C) Because in this poem, the trees win.


They stand in parks and graveyards and gardens.
Some of them are taller than department stores,
yet they do not draw attention to themselves.

You will be fitting a heated towel rail one day
and see, through the louvre window,
a shoal of olive-green fish changing direction
in the air that swims above the little gardens.

Or you will wake at your aunt’s cottage,
your sleep broken by a coal train on the empty hill
as the oaks roar in the wind off the channel.

Your kindness to animals, your skill at the clarinet,
these are accidental things.
We lost this game a long way back.
Look at you. You’re reading poetry.
Outside the spring air is thick
with the seeds of their children.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Variations on a Theme by Kenneth Koch Who Was Variating on a Theme By William Carlos Williams

You know the originals.

And you may have encountered Kenneth Koch's great joke (of which I love every character except that last exclamation point. Seriously. It's bugged me for years).

I was doing a few yesterday, just for fun for Poem in Your Pocket Day. Hope they cause a giggle somewhere. Leave me some of yours if you feel like it!


While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door;
only this, and nothing more."
            Then came the muffled voice: "Housekeeping!"


Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the road less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.
Especially once the GPS broke down and we started hearing that banjo music.


I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
Not after last time, when I whipped out my lighter and yelled requests for "Freebird!"

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Dear Ira Flatow: Thanks for Depressing the Crap Out of Me

And for making me think about Barbie. And the apocalypse. But we'll get to that.

Like every other warm-blooded liberal, I spend a good part of my spare time in the car, listening to NPR and feeling guilty about driving. I sometimes have the fortune to catch a bit of Science Friday, which is usually a pleasantly fascinating geekfest and occasionally depressing enough to induce thoughts of ejecting oneself into space where it's nice and cool and people haven't messed everything up yet.

Last Friday's was just such a show, as host Ira Flatow and his oceanographer guests, along with filmmaker James Cameron (recently back from his trip to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, and apparently he did not find Jack Dawson down there), did their best to remind people of how amazing the ocean is, how utterly dependent upon it we are, and how we're basically screwed because we've pretty much sucked the life out of it.

Top among the depressing moments of this show: John McCosker's discussion of the fact that after decades on the ocean, he hardly ever sees sharks anymore. He noted that people went into a killing frenzy after Jaws came out. (Steven Spielberg has some stuff to answer for. He should probably be receiving a lot of candygrams--though in truth, people were killing sharks for their fins long before the movie came out.) It was enough to make me envision a movie called Hands, which would be scary enough to become the shark makeout movie of the decade, and -- given that people kill literally millions of sharks for every single human a shark chomps -- could become one of those cross-genre films, in that it would be both a horror movie and a documentary.

(The most darkly funny part of the show, by the way, came during the discussion of the shark-to-human killing ratio, when Mission Blue oceanographer Sylvia Earle implied she thought sharks should aim to up their numbers.)

Beyond the shark issue, though, was the discussion of the increasing numbers of garbage islands in the oceans. Calling them garbage "islands" is apparently not quite accurate (yet). Mostly these are areas where the currents have brought together massive amounts of plastics, but since the plastics are largely in tiny fragments they don't typically appear as large floating trash barges. In fact, some barely appear at all, and therefore go unnoticed by humans, who already are unmatched by other species in our great capacity to avoid noticing important things. They get noticed by other animals, though, who unfortunately often mistake these plastic particles for food, and end up eating them.

For reasons that are likely apparent, this made me think about Barbie. Specifically, about the future, and about where she and her pals may end up, and how it could be the basis for another Pixar classic -- but one that will likely never get made, and which few will be around to see.

Toy Story 12

Long after they drifted onto the island,
dozing in the hammock of a takeout bag,
wearing at her throat the pale blue bread clip
Ken had given her, Barbie had a vision.

It came suddenly:
They were watching the low sun
bob gently through the amber of a prescription vial
and the golden-green of a Mountain Dew
when it struck. A single sparkle formed within her eye.

It was the thin ridges
at the mouth of the soda bottle—they were so like
the one that marked the top of Ken’s waist
that slanted toward his muscled legs
to indicate his permanent underpants.

After the little girl had left her in the dream house,
leaning against the pink fridge for years,
Ken slumped on the pink toilet above,
her only visitor was the cat,
who sometimes chewed her toes
in a way that made her feel feminine.

She had dreamed abstractly of a baby
whose eyes would close
gently on reclining, but knew
from the little girl’s ferocious experiments

her body against Ken’s merely clattered, stymied
by the smooth incapacities between their perfect legs.
So often, she had thought
they would die alone.

Now she saw the truth: time
had no meaning for them. Here
among the six-pack holders,
the wave-battered lawn furniture,
deflated basketballs,
the rising and falling swells of bottles,
the swaths of netting beaded with dead birds:

they were among their brothers and sisters.
They had found their home. She rotated
her delicate hand down upon Ken’s and told him
with her eyes: they had come to stay, and unlike
those they had been made to replicate—

whose bending knees did not make crunchy sounds;
who made children and had seemed to know
no end to hunger, no end to desire—their love
would last for eons. Through sludge.
Through ice. Through fire.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Beyond the Beginning

"What I'm interested in writing about things of people who've gotten beyond the beginning. They've tried to be married - and failed. And now they're trying to decide whether to try again. Or they've tried twice and failed, and they find themselves in love."

God bless Jack Gilbert. Beautiful interview with a man who writes beautiful poems.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Poem for Trayvon Martin


In America, you see, there is nothing
that we lack. We work, we rise;
we are all free. Kick your heels up!

Paint the town! unless you happen to be black—
in which case, better quiet down
and be prepared to show your hands.

You can buy Skittles and iced tea,
walk freely through the neighborhoods—
unless you happen to be black,

in which case, some local quack
can put a bullet in your chest
and leave you—seventeen, facedown,

dying in manicured green grass
he did not like you walking on
because you happened to be black,

young, and male within a gated town
that wasn’t. When you get up
to Heaven’s gate, and get to thinking,

gazing down, about the country
you just left, whether it was bad or good,
I tell you, Trayvon: Ask around.

See if those who claim it’s good
and died peaceful in their beds at night
mostly happened to be white,

and those who turn away, distraught,
who strain their eyes through the cloud
for safety that they never found,

just so happened to be black.
And if you see that other fresh-faced kid
who had a sweet tooth like your own,

and sauntered jaunty into town?
Ask Emmett what his Money bought.
It was not a graduation gown.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


On my drive home in the downpour
there was a Syrian boy on the radio
telling of his torture—
electrocuted, beaten with hanks of rope,
one toenail removed with pliers.

There is a point, they say
when the body adjusts to a level of pain
and interrogators must step up the severity
to obtain further reactions.
It is the same with commuters,
grown so accustomed now
to hearing of water-boardings, beatings,
renditions, strippings
they barely register.

What to make of those of us unbruised,
sleeping easily, with such patience
for the torsions of human agency,
accepting them as we do
a spate of bad weather? Who abide?

What to make of myself,
pausing at the light
with the rain running silvered chains
over the windshield, then quietly
making my turn, the way
I have been taught?


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bookstores, Happy Accidents, and a Motel Likely to Stay on my Bucket List

The second time I went to Chichen Itza, in 2002, was also the second—and likely the last—time I climbed the central pyramid. On my nervous way back down the enormous steps, a guide mentioned that it was the last year that tourists would be permitted to go up: Too much foot traffic was wearing away the stones, and the pyramid would be roped off from now on. I felt lucky to have been among the last to climb.

I get a similar feeling these days when I go into bookstores, as though I’m wandering through some amazing monument where, soon, no one will get to go anymore. Except, of course, with bookstores, it’s lack of use rather than overuse that has caused the problem. But what a great thing it is to still be able to go into a good bookstore, run your hands over the covers, to encounter the book you weren’t specifically looking for but really needed to read.

Today, on the way back from lunch, I thought we might stop at Politics and Prose, but an unsettled stomach made me think we should just go home. Then, as that passed and we came down Military Road, I thought, well, perhaps just five minutes.

For a writer, being remaindered is likely never a happy thing, but for a reader, Politics and Prose’s downstairs remainder section is a thing of wonder. After five minutes, I was already toting around Meghan O’Rourke’s Halflife, Lionel Shriver’s A Perfectly Good Family (based on the strength of We Need to Talk About Kevin, I’m willing to read anything she writes), and a copy of Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke (a gift for a friend that I’m hoping to borrow when she’s done; we both recently finished Mudbound and this sounds like a radical and fascinating departure).

Then I hit the stairs, noting on my way up that it sounded like there must be a reading going on, noting as I hit the top of the stairs that the speaker was saying something about the next poem he would read, noting as I turned to scan the displays of coming events that the reader was none other than Campbell McGrath. Campbell MceffingGrath!

OK, this is maybe not quite like spotting Elvis, but for me, it was at least as good as spotting Elvis Costello. McGrath is one of my favorite working poets, a writer who brings humor and pathos and all the trappings of his culture into his poems in a way that I simultaneously admire and feel uneasy about. I had actually been thinking about his work only yesterday as I was working on a new poem (the draft of which appears below) about the Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nevada, because it seemed like the kind of "weird Americana" place that might turn up in a McGrath poem.

Had I known he was reading, I would have scheduled my weekend around attending. I experienced a series of emotions that ran quickly from shock (WHAT?!?), to cultural shame (I watched the beyond-stupid 300 last night, but didn’t know Campbell MceffingGrath was going to be in the neighborhood?), to horror at the thought that some mild indigestion had almost sent us home, to delight that here he was, and he had barely started reading yet, and I could sit down and enjoy as he shared some terrific poems from In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys, along with a few that haven't even been published yet.

And then I got to babble fan-girl-isms at him as he signed my copy (thanks to sweet husband Tim for sneaking a photo as this happened).

These are the kind of experiences we will not have when bookstores become extinct. I don’t look forward to that day. I cannot share today’s reading, but here’s a link to one McGrath gave at Emory University in 2009 that has the great advantage of beginning with a truly wonderful McGrath poem called “The Human Heart” (linked here for those who prefer to read).

Stay away from clowns. Go to bookstores instead.


This draft was kidnapped by clowns.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

"Writing That Sounds Like Writing." Huh?

I was cleaning up dead blog links and ran across this excellent post from the very much alive Elegant Variation. Wanted to repost it because I also read this review of Leonard's latest book, and was equally flummoxed by the praising of the rule, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

What does that mean? I wondered, sipping my coffee, distracted by the dog clawing at my face. If it sounds fussy? Overworked? Baroque? Non-Hemingwayesque? Too Hemingwayesque? If it doesn't sound like common conversation? If it uses large, pretty words? If it's structured?

You know what sounds like writing, to me?

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning —So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.


You know what else sounds like writing to me?

All can be measured by the standard of the capybara.
Everyone is lesser than or greater than the capybara.
Everything is taller or shorter than the capybara.
Everything is mistaken for a Brazilian dance craze
more or less frequently than the capybara.
Everyone eats greater or fewer watermelons
than the capybara. Everyone eats more or less bark.

From Sandra Beasley's delightful and hilarious poem, "Unit of Measure." Swoon again, differently (and with more caution about accidentally swooning onto a large rodent).

Over the past few years, I have repeatedly heard the word "writerly" used as a pejorative. Why?

That's about as far as I got with my thinking. But it's apparently one of Sarvas's pet peeves, and he does a nice job of slicing and dicing the idea:

What one presumes Leonard is saying, given the other dumbed-down rules on his list, is that he eschews what we commonly refer to, for want of a better term, as lyrical prose. One imagines he would have John Banville [ed's note: dreamy sigh is mine], Joseph O'Neill and Teju Cole busily erasing their manuscripts. On the other hand, if he doesn't mean that, perhaps he means writing that, because it fails - because it is, essentially bad writing - feels "written". So, basically, fix bad writing. Thanks a whole heap, Elmo.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Dark Side of the Wordsworth: The Anxiety of Influence, Revisited

It struck me recently that in his (clearly miserable, as anyone who's ever wailed along with "Another Brick in the Wall" would know) experience as an English schoolboy, Pink Floyd's Roger Waters probably had to read William Wordsworth's work repeatedly. Perhaps not the bigger stuff like the Prelude, but I doubt many school kids could have escaped without learning his "Ode" or "Tintern Abbey."

I started thinking about this while driving home one afternoon when "Comfortably Numb" came on the radio. Where I normally just let the melancholy awful trippiness of the song ("my hands felt like two balloons" is maybe the best line ever about being a kid with the flu) wash over me, this time, I realized that certain lines reminded me of something I'd read before. Specifically, these lines:

When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse/
Out of the corner of my eye/
I turned to look but it was gone/
I cannot put my finger on it now/
The child is grown, the dream is gone

gave me a flashback to studying in the UK and reading Wordsworth that was so strong I could almost smell the halal shop that used to be on our corner. When I went and looked it up, I found the poem it had clanged on: Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," one of those poems you could not escape reading as a lit major and which would have been canonical in the English schools of Waters' childhood. There are several parts of the Wordsworth poem (which is, truly, a stunningly beautiful and profound work, but Wordsworth was nothing if not verbose) that contain this idea. Here's one:

The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

I was interested by this, but probably wouldn't have bothered to blog about it had I not today been listening to one of the Poetry Foundation's recent Poetry Off the Shelf podcasts on Robert Duncan. This one spent a fair amount of time on Duncan's well-known "My Mother Would Be a Falconress," published in his 1968 collection Bending the Bow. Probably because I've been on a Floyd binge lately, the similarity to Waters' late seventies' terror "Mother" seemed unmissable.

To be clear, I think it's highly unlikely Waters knew this poem; most likely he was simply channeling Oedipus, both the figure and the complex. There are a few verbal similarities (the bird metaphor appears in the Floyd song, but Waters' avian clearly leans toward the songbird rather than the raptorous: "She won't let you fly, but she might let you sing.") But the similar overall tone and horror, the constrictive-verging-on-cannibalistic mother-son relationship depicted in the pieces is what really struck me. If you put the poem and the song side by side, I won't wager which would win the creepy award, but I think there'd be one definite effect: You won't want to call Mom for a while.

Anyone noticed other Waters' song/poem correlations? One more might make it a worthy subject for a fumbling undergraduate essay, or at least a decent new tangent of discussion for the generations of stoners who try to sync Dark Side of the Moon to The Wizard of Oz.