Tuesday, December 21, 2010

mea culpa

Feeling the need to report on my lovely visit to Borders last night after bashing the the thought of it in my previous post.

I found a parking spot immediately. I saw a million books that I wanted to read. The store is really well-lighted, even - dare I say - cozy. They have a much better selection of Audio Books. I also ran into a friend who didn't seem to have nearly the hang up that I did. And finally, it is actually closer to my house than my old independent bookstore.

I am one step away from joining the fan club. This is good news.

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Fox Books Redux

As I type this, I am currently on hold with the local Borders bookstore. Not my bookstore of choice, but the only choice right now. Weirdly, I just found myself experiencing a Meg Ryan moment out of You've Got Mail. Our local independent bookseller, Davis-Kidd, closes at the end of December (the stacks are a zoo), and so my only choice for a new book is the overwhelming chain bookstore with the undersized parking lot on the busiest section of Nashville road. Actually, come to think of it, Davis-Kidd had pretty much morphed into Borders by the time it decided to close. But there was something comforting about the fact that I could call them up and ask about any book, and the employee on the other end of the line would know more about that book than I did.

Today, my request to Borders for a particular memoir was cause for several transfers. No "A ha!" moments on the other end of the line, no commentary about my choice. They did find the book for me just now, but as I sat on hold I was reminded of the big chain bookstore drama in You've Got Mail. The scene that causes the most alarm is when Meg Ryan's character watches a clueless employee fumble for lack of knowledge in the childrens' book section. My friends with children are the most distraught about Davis-Kidd's closing; they had the best childrens' section of any bookstore in town.

Here's the thing: books are cause for intimacy. Why else would so many people belong to book clubs? Borders or Barnes & Noble or (god forbid I ever go in there again) Books A' Million are not places that cultivate intimacy.

I found this Linda Pastan poem several weeks ago, and I've been waiting for inspiration to post. After fighting the traffic, duking it out for a parking space, and finding myself numbed by the Borders aesthetic, I hope I'll still feel this way.

"The Bookstall" by Linda Pastan

Just looking at them
I grow greedy, as if they were
freshly baked loaves
waiting on their shelves
to be broken open – that one
and that – and I make my choice
in a mood of exalted luck,
browsing among them
like a cow in sweetest pasture.

For life is continuous
as long as they wait
to be read – these inked paths
opening into the future, page
after page, every book
its own receding horizon.
And I hold them, one in each hand,
a curious ballast weighting me
here to the earth.

Linda Pastan


The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”

And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.

We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It’s in them all.

And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.

~Rainer Maria Rilke

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Snow Poems

There is something about teaching freshmen that I like to believe keeps me young. This past week they dazzled me with their wonder over poetry; I felt the years slough off as they read and listened, star-eyed, to poems. I am a skeptic when it comes to other people and poetry. I don't generally believe they will want to enjoy it or will even try. At least, I know I didn't until after years of studying it. But I watched these students read poem after poem for the joy of it during class, and I felt as though I might burst. I felt the same thing a week earlier when they workshopped each others' poems, and wrote little sayings such as "I love whoever wrote this poem. I wonder why you didn't use any commas." I'm not making this up: they responded to each others' poems with an outpouring of love. That is the magic of poetry.

I think, sometimes, it is a lonely business, loving words and particularly poems. I suppose it's a bit like being a mathematician and loving theorems.

It is snowing in Nashville today. Here are two snow poems, the first of which a student found and read in class last week:

"Dust of Snow" by Robert Frost

"The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

"Walking Home from Oak-Head" by Mary Oliver

There is something
about the snow-laden sky
in winter
in the late afternoon

that brings to the heart elation
and the lovely meaninglessness
of time.
Whenever I get home - whenever -

somebody loves me there.
I stand in the same dark peace
as any pine tree,

or wander on slowly
like the still unhurried wind,
as for a gift,

for the snow to begin
which it does
at first casually,
then, irrepressibly.

Wherever else I live --
in music, in words,
in the fires of the heart,
I abide just as deeply

in this nameless, indivisible place,
this world,
which is falling apart now,
which is white and wild,

which is faithful beyond all our expressions of faith,
our deepest prayers.
Don't worry, sooner or later I'll be home.
Red-cheeked from the roused wind,

I'll stand in the doorway
stamping my boots and slapping my hands,
my shoulders
covered with stars.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

"Two Look at Two" by Robert Frost

Love and forgetting might have carried them
A little further up the mountain side
With night so near, but not much further up.
They must have halted soon in any case
With thoughts of a path back, how rough it was
With rock and washout, and unsafe in darkness;
When they were halted by a tumbled wall
With barbed-wire binding. They stood facing this,
Spending what onward impulse they still had
In one last look the way they must not go,
On up the failing path, where, if a stone
Or earthslide moved at night, it moved itself;
No footstep moved it. 'This is all,' they sighed,
Good-night to woods.' But not so; there was more.
A doe from round a spruce stood looking at them
Across the wall, as near the wall as they.
She saw them in their field, they her in hers.
The difficulty of seeing what stood still,
Like some up-ended boulder split in two,
Was in her clouded eyes; they saw no fear there.
She seemed to think that two thus they were safe.
Then, as if they were something that, though strange,
She could not trouble her mind with too long,
She sighed and passed unscared along the wall.
'This, then, is all. What more is there to ask?'
But no, not yet. A snort to bid them wait.
A buck from round the spruce stood looking at them
Across the wall as near the wall as they.
This was an antlered buck of lusty nostril,
Not the same doe come back into her place.
He viewed them quizzically with jerks of head,
As if to ask, 'Why don't you make some motion?
Or give some sign of life? Because you can't.
I doubt if you're as living as you look.'
Thus till he had them almost feeling dared
To stretch a proffering hand -- and a spell-breaking.
Then he too passed unscared along the wall.
Two had seen two, whichever side you spoke from.
'This must be all.' It was all. Still they stood,
A great wave from it going over them,
As if the earth in one unlooked-for favour
Had made them certain earth returned their love.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

on my to-read list

Click here for Janet Maslin's New York Times review.

Monday, November 29, 2010


I wonder if I'm the only one out there who will sit at my desk at the end of the day reading my poetry volume of Sound & Sense, long after the bell rings. Today I read for 45 minutes, and here I am again reading poems out of it. Look what I found...


To claim the poem as mine would be to tell
only that half-truth that's worse than a lie.
The other, the missing half, which is true as well,
is the poem's claim on me: I know how I

was lured, held for a brief spell in a rapture.
I wasn't myself, but a vessel, a plain tin cup
filled and then suddenly emptied, and cannot recapture
the dazzle of those droplets. I look up

from the poem and can't remember, or only barely,
what it felt like, and what I have lost. What you
approve the most is what afflicts most sorely,
not being me but something I went through

and want not to resent. Enlivened by birds
migrating south, the sky they wheeled upon
is emptier for their passing. These spates of words
leave similar vacancies when they've gone.

~David Slavitt

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

my morning brew

Thank you, Frank Bruni, for coming out of the closet about your Mr. Coffee habit. And in The New York Times, no less. I have been through the same ritual: fancy stainless steel contraption, then on to French press, now back to Mr. Coffee. I love him and he is brewing up as I type this! No fuss. It's nice to find a food critic who also feels the love:

"Loving Coffee Without Being a Drip"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

For the Sake of the Poem

For the sake of the poem
the bed remains disheveled all day,

the dishes loll in the sink
like adolescents. For the sake

of the poem a forest is cut down
to appease my appetite for paper.

A lover is betrayed in print;
hot tea and desire must

cool their heels,
for the sake of the poem.

I am an addict who needs
her daily fix of language.

Children are left uncombed;
unwatered, plants languish.

For the sake of the poem
old age is put on hold.

What wouldn’t I do
for the sake of the poem?

~Linda Pastan

Friday, November 19, 2010

Poetry: A Minority Sport

I loved reading Billy Collins's interview with Margaret Renkl in The Nashville Scene. Collins was in town last weekend to receive a Nashville Public Library Award.

As poet laureate, you launched the Poetry 180 initiative, in which you urged schoolteachers to read the poems to students without discussing them or assigning work related to the readings. What was your thinking behind that project?

Boys and girls often have the natural pleasures of poetry beaten out of them by the time they get out of high school. Two reasons why: forceful emphasis on interpretation, and using poems that are very dated — poems that were written a hundred years ago. The poems in Poetry 180 are funny and they're clever and they can pretty much be gotten in one hearing.

You recently told an audience at Cornell that "the trouble with poetry is its availability: You can pick up a 29-cent pen and express yourself. Self-expression is overrated. If I were Emperor of Poetry, I would make everyone learn to play the trumpet before they could write poetry, just to make it difficult."

What I meant in the comment at Cornell was the means of writing poetry are too accessible. In other words, if you were to play the cello, you'd have to obviously go to school and buy a cello and practice. Even oil painting or ballet requires lessons; you wouldn't just get up there and start jumping around in a tutu. And you wouldn't just pick up the trumpet and just blare into it. But [with] poetry, people think you just pick up a pen and start writing down how sad you are in the middle of the night, and add some autumn leaves and you've got a poem. The training in poetry is reading. Reading, reading, reading. Reading from Chaucer on. Reading the Spanish poets. Reading John Donne. Reading, reading, reading. Memorizing 10 Emily Dickinson poems. That's the training.

Entertainment Weekly once called you "the best buggy-whip maker of the 21st century." Any response to the accusation that you're really good at an art that's now completely irrelevant?

[Poetry is] a minority sport. It's not something that everybody plays. And the irony is that poetry really tries to talk to everybody, because poetry does deal with these very basic human emotions, and because poetry values subjectivity. It lights up inner parts of you — your appreciation of nature, your conscience, your desire for love. All these areas of your interior are being sparked by a poem, and so one might say, "Why doesn't everybody read it? It sounds pretty good." But most people don't. It doesn't play any part in most people's lives. All you have to do is say to somebody next to you on an airplane that you're a poet. You get some pretty strange reactions.

Readers coming to your work for the first time might be surprised to encounter so much wit, and even outright humor, in your poems. Do you ever find that people in your audiences, especially when you read to students, are shy about laughing at the funny parts?

They are at first, but they're relieved to be able to. And then for some people it's like giggling in church.

To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.

Friday, November 12, 2010

As imperceptibly as Grief

Surely this is where it turns, summer into fall. 77 and sunny in Nashville can't really last much longer. Not in November. I have a hunch that today is the day.

As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away -
Too imperceptible at last
To seem like Perfidy -
A Quietness distilled
As Twilight long begun,
Or Nature spending with herself
Sequestered Afternoon -
The Dusk drew earlier in -
The Morning foreign shone -
As courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
As Guest, that would be gone -
And thus, without a Wing
Or service of a Keel
Our Summer made her light escape
Into the Beautiful.

~Emily Dickinson

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Romantic comedy

What is it about these American Romantics...no one ever tells you how funny they are. I laughed my way through pages of Moby Dick, and here I am now, howling, tears running down my face, as I read Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Maybe I've gone bananas, but I think his descriptions of Puritan children are hilarious. The kids won't play with Pearl, Hester Prynne's child, because of her illegitimacy, but Pearl is looking pretty good compared to these "sombre little urchins" (Hawthorne's words, not mine):

"[Pearl] saw the children of the settlement, on the grassy margin of the street, or at the domestic thresholds, disporting themselves in such grim fashion as the Puritanic nurture would permit; playing at going to church, perchance; or at scourging Quakers; or taking scalps in a sham-fight with the Indians; or scaring one another with freaks of imitative witchcraft."

Later, when Hester and Pearl pass the urchins, the urchins take note:

"Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!"

Comic genius, that Hawthorne. My days of complaining about teaching this novel are over.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


by Carl Sandburg

THE fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Monday, November 8, 2010

a lovely idea

The New York Times devoted the back page of Week in Review to poems about Daylight Savings this Sunday. Unfortunately, the poems were practically illegible thanks to the fancy double font in which they were printed. I had a bit of a rant about this: some people will never see or read another Mary Oliver poem again. Why did the Times choose such a difficult font? Let's find another way to discourage readers of poetry! Oh well. Here are a few of the gems below. Legible this time.

Falling Back: Poems for Fall


I was always thinking about her even when I wasn’t thinking. Days went by when I did little else. She had left me one night as a complete surprise. I didn’t know where she went. I didn’t know if she was ever coming back. I searched her dresser and closet for any clues. There wasn’t anything there, nothing. No lotions or creams in the bathroom. She had really cleaned out. I thought back on our years together. They seemed happy to me. Summers on the beach, winters in the mountains skiing. What more could she want? We had friends, dinner parties. I walked around thinking, maybe she didn’t love me all that time. I felt so alone without her. I hated dinners alone, I hated going to bed without her. I thought she might at least call, so I was never very far from the phone. Weeks went by, months. It was strange how time flew by when you had nothing to remember it by. My friends never mentioned her. Why can’t they say something? I thought. I remembered every tiny gesture of her hand, every smile, every grimace. Birthdays, anniversaries — I never forgot. But then something strange started to happen. I started doubting every memory. Even her face began to fade. The trip to Majorca, was it something I read in a book? The jolly dinner parties, were they a dream? I didn’t trust anything any longer. I searched the house for any trace of her. Nothing. I started asking my friends if they remembered anything about her. They looked at me as if I were crazy. I sat at home and began to cheer up. What if none of this happened? I thought. What if there was nothing to be sad about?

— JAMES TATE, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author, most recently, of “The Ghost Soldiers”

Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends
into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing, as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?
So let us go on

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

— MARY OLIVER, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author, most recently, of "Swan: Poems and Prose Poems"

How It Happens

The sky said I am watching
to see what you
can make out of nothing
I was looking up and I said
I thought you
were supposed to be doing that
the sky said Many
are clinging to that
I am giving you a chance
I was looking up and I said
I am the only chance I have
then the sky did not answer
and here we are
with our names for the days
the vast days that do not listen to us

— W.S. MERWIN, poet laureate of the United States and author, most recently, of “The Shadow of Sirius,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2009

Thursday, November 4, 2010


"The Armful" by Robert Frost

For every parcel I stoop down to seize
I lose some other off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns -
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.
With all I have to hold with, hand and mind,
And heart, if need be, I will do my best
To keep their building balanced at my breast.
I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;
Then sit down in the middle of them all.
I had to drop the armful in the road
And try to stack them in a better load.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

teaching "Dover Beach" again. and again.

I am wrapping up Fahrenheit 451 with my freshmen this week, and we've spent some time talking about the scene when Montag reads a snippet of Arnold's "Dover Beach" to his wife's vapid friends. Having lived in a society deprived of poetry, beauty, and intimacy (can you imagine??), one of the women begins to sob uncontrollably at his words. My students want to know: is she grateful? disturbed? overwhelmed? furious? Maybe all of these. At any rate, I thought about the fact that "Dover Beach" is the poem I teach continually. I'm always referencing it. When I was prepping for Fahrenheit I had decided to whip out this poem, and I hadn't even reached the part where Montag actually reads it. Hemingway, Wharton, Bowles, Shakespeare - they all address its central conflict, the danger in and the hopefulness of its resolution.

So here it is, my back-pocket poem.


By Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!

Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


Sunday, October 31, 2010


Just realized that The New York Times is running a column right now called "Disunion" to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. I'm linking to Tony Horwitz's opinion piece about the potency and candor of the language in this era. See here for the full article, some of which is excerpted below:

But as we approach the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s election, on Nov. 6, and the long conflict that followed, it’s worth recalling other reasons that era endures. The Civil War isn’t just an adjunct to current events. It’s a national reserve of words, images and landscapes, a storehouse we can tap in lean times like these, when many Americans feel diminished, divided and starved for discourse more nourishing than cable rants and Twitter feeds.

'The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.' Those famous lines come from President Lincoln, delivered not in the Gettysburg Address, but on a routine occasion: his second annual message to Congress. Can you recall a single line from any of the teleprompted State of the Union messages in your own lifetime?

The Civil War abounded in eloquence, from the likes of Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, the Southern diarist Mary Chesnut and warriors who spoke the way they fought. Consider the Southern cavalryman J. E. B. Stuart, with panache, saying of his father-in-law’s loyalty to the Union: “He will regret it but once, and that will be continually.” Or Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, brutal and terse, warning besieged Atlantans: “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”

These and other words from the war convey a bracing candor and individuality, traits Americans reflexively extol while rarely exhibiting. Today’s lusterless brass would never declare, as Sherman did, “I can make this march, and make Georgia howl!” or say of a superior, as Sherman did of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, “He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk.”

You can hear the same, bold voice in the writing of common soldiers, their letters unmuzzled by military censors and their dialect not yet homogenized by television and Interstates. “Got to see the elephant at last,” an Indianan wrote of his first, inglorious combat. “I don’t care about seeing him very often any more, for if there was any fun in such work I couldn’t see it ... It is not the thing it is bragged up to be.” Another soldier called the Gettysburg campaign “nothing but fighting, starving, marching and cussing.” Cowards were known as “skedaddlers,” “tree dodgers,” “skulkers” and “croakers.”

From "The 150-Year War" by Tony Horwitz, The New York Times

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Oh the heavy burden associated with this one word. If you are a dear friend who has not heard from me in ages, this is why. This week I am wrapping up my teaching of this opus. The play that has had me breaking out in cold sweats at just the mention of it. Having never taught it before, I seriously considered putting it off til the spring. And then maybe, just maybe we'd run out of time and have to - god forbid - cut it from the syllabus. What's strange is that the procrastinator in me surprisingly lost this battle. Instead, I decided to dive right into my uncertainty, and during the busiest fall ever. In the middle of college rec writing, parent-teacher conferences, grades & comments, not to mention life, I was cramming Hamlet. My goal was to make sure that my students weren't scared of it the way I was in high school. All I remember about reading that play senior year was my failure to comprehend it. So, we act it out every day; we watch the glamorous Kenneth Branagh and Kate Winslet; we debate the true nature of Hamlet and Ophelia's relationship; we talk out our confusion. Some classes go well; others are messy. The burden I was feeling has lifted, though. After all, as a wise teacher once told me of trying to teach Moby Dick, this is only their first Hamlet. Their senior year Hamlet. There will be many more readings or viewings to come, and with these, many new ways to understand the play. Hamlet at 17 is invariably a different play than Hamlet at 21 or 33.

As an older reader now, I have to say, I'm mesmerized by it. This transformation occurred for me in Act V, along with Hamlet's own transformation. He finally gets out his head, stops dwelling on things outside his control, and decides to leave a few things up to fate. There is a lightness to his language that is missing in the earlier acts, even when he is jesting (albeit bitterly) under his antic disposition.

Hamlet's epiphany to live in the moment reminds me of my favorite line in Beowulf: "Fate goes ever as it must." Similarly, Hamlet tells Horatio, "There's a divinity that shapes our ends,/Rough-hew them how we will - / That is most certain."

It's the hardest thing in the world to do sometimes: to surrender. Particularly for those of us who think we can map life out, solve all of its quandaries intellectually. Apparently I'm not as far off from Hamlet as I first thought. I'm pretty sure I told several people at the outset of this little endeavor, "I just don't relate to this guy." Ha. The joke was on me.

Really, my favorite moment in the play (aside from when he's messing with Rosencrantz n' Guildenstern) is when he and Horatio are discussing his upcoming duel with Laertes. The duel is unlooked for; it's just been thrust upon him by Claudius. And it's happening right now, no delay. Get thee to the Great Hall for the show. Horatio, sensing Hamlet's discomfort (this, after all, wasn't in Hamlet's plans), says he'll stall the duel and tell the gang they'll just have to wait. (What a good friend, that Horatio.) And Hamlet the planner, Hamlet the thinker, Hamlet the procrastinator would do just that. But the new Hamlet has a better approach: just wing it.

Horatio: I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit.

Hamlet: Not a whit, we defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come - the readiness is all. Since no man aught he leaves knows, what is't to leave betimes? Let be.

I love it! It is the perfect answer to his "to be or not to be" moment. Hamlet just "is" here. He accepts what is to come with grace and dignity(I admire his apology to Laertes). Maybe I'm terribly misreading, but to me, he becomes a true king in these moments.

Thank you to the kind souls who shepherded me through Hamlet this fall.
You know who you are.

Monday, October 25, 2010

happiness is

finding my first issue of Poetry in my school mailbox today. And in it

"Memorizing 'The Sun Rising' by John Donne"

Every reader loves the way he tells off
the sun, shouting busy old fool
into the English skies even though they
were likely cloudy on that seventeenth-century morning.

And it's a pleasure to spend this sunny day
pacing the carpet and repeating the words,
feeling the syllables lock into rows
until I can stand and declare,
the book held close by my side,
that hours, days, and months are but the rags of time.

But after a few steps into stanza number two,
wherein the sun is blinded by his mistress's eyes,
I can feel the first one begin to fade
like sky-written letters on a windy day.

And by the time I have taken in the third,
the second is likewise gone, a blown-out candle now,
a wavering line of acrid smoke.

So it's not until I leave the house
and walk three times around this hidden lake
that the poem begins to show
any interest in walking by my side.

Then, after my circling,
better than the courteous dominion
of her being all states and him all princes,

better than love's power to shrink
the wide world to the size of a bedchamber,

and better even than the compression
of all that into the rooms of these three stanzas

is how, after hours stepping up and down the poem,
testing the plank of every line,
it goes with me now, contracted into a little spot within.

~Billy Collins

I have to add a post-script here. One of the reasons I love this poem is that this summer I memorized "Terns" by Mary Oliver. Just for the hell of it. I don't have a television, and so at one point memorizing a poem seemed like a highly underrated way of whiling away the scorching August afternoons (note to self: probably shoulda been reading Hamlet). For the life of me I can't seem to meditate, but repeating the lines "Don't think just now of the trudging forward of thought" was essentially this. It was such a different kind of task than I'm used to. And I loved it.

...after hours stepping up and down the poem,
testing the plank of every line,
it goes with me now...

Friday, October 22, 2010

autumn begins

"Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio"
~ James Wright, 1963

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Work, Sometimes

I was sad all day, and why not. There I was, books piled
on both sides of the table, paper stacked up, words
falling off my tongue.

The robins had been a long time singing, and now it
was beginning to rain.

What are we sure of? Happiness isn't a town on a map,
or an early arrival, or a job well done, but good work
ongoing. Which is not likely to be the trifling around
with a poem.

Then it began raining hard, and the flowers in the yard
were full of lively fragrance.

You have had days like this, no doubt. And wasn't it
wonderful, finally, to leave the room? Ah, what a

As for myself, I swung the door open. And there was
the wordless, singing world. And I ran for my life.

~Mary Oliver

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Procrastinating. As we speak.

I am finding this New Yorker essay/ book review titled "Later: What Does Procrastination Tell Us about Ourselves?" fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which is that procrastination, to me, can be a form of art. Here is a short excerpt but the good stuff is all throughout the essay:

"The term itself (derived from a Latin word meaning “to put off for tomorrow”) entered the English language in the sixteenth century, and, by the eighteenth, Samuel Johnson was describing it as “one of the general weaknesses” that “prevail to a greater or less degree in every mind,” and lamenting the tendency in himself: “I could not forbear to reproach myself for having so long neglected what was unavoidably to be done, and of which every moment’s idleness increased the difficulty.” And the problem seems to be getting worse all the time. According to Piers Steel, a business professor at the University of Calgary, the percentage of people who admitted to difficulties with procrastination quadrupled between 1978 and 2002. In that light, it’s possible to see procrastination as the quintessential modern problem."

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2010/10/11/101011crbo_books_surowiecki#ixzz1216oKK4j

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

do not go gentle into that good night

On a whim, my AP girls and I decided to wander into villanelles this morning. We started with David Huddle's "Roanoke Pastorale" and ended up comparing it to Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." We talked about the fact that both poems mightily resist a straightforward interpretation, but that both are meditations on mortality. We looked up words like "green" and "frail" and "rave." We contradicted ourselves. We read aloud. We listened to an archaic-sounding Irishman read his poem aloud.
An hour and twenty later, my entire lesson plan was out the window. History. Weren't we supposed to talk about The Sun Also Rises and write an essay? Instead, we were lost in words and rhymes.
Best class of the year so far, entirely off the map.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

"Reading Hemingway" by James Cummins

Reading Hemingway makes me so hungry,
for jambon, cheeses, and a dry white wine.
Cold of course, very cold. And very dry.

Reading Hemingway makes some folks angry:
the hip drinking, the bitter pantomime.
But reading Hemingway makes me hungry

for the good life, the sun, the fish, the sky:
blue air, white water, dinner on the line...
Had it down cold, he did. And dry. Real dry.

But Papa had it all, the brio, the Brie:
clear-eyed, tight-lipped, advancing on a stein...
Reading Hemingway makes me so hungry.

I'd knock down Monsieur Stevens, too, if I
drank too much retsina before we dined.
(Too old, that man, and way too cold. And dry

enough to rub one's famished nerves awry,
kept talking past the kitchen's closing time!)
Reading Hemingway makes me so hungry...
And cold, of course. So cold. And very dry.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

a tough cookie

Hearing Jeannette Walls speak at Davis-Kidd about The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses this past week was an awe-inspiring experience. That woman is a living legend, and she did not disappoint. I'm only sorry I did not bring a notebook to record all her pearls of wisdom, but I remember a few. My favorite is her theory on endings. She and her mom were arguing one day about something - maybe Jeannette's writing - and Jeannette was afraid it wasn't going to work out. Her mom kept insisting that it would, and so Jeannette countered, "But what if it doesn't, Mom? Some things don't end well."

And that's when crazy, brilliant Rosemary Walls said, "Well that's when you know you haven't come to the end yet."

But here is my favorite part of the talk, and my favorite passage so far in Half Broke Horses, a novel about Jeannette's grandmother. Her grandmother learned to break horses when she was young, and her mother feared that she'd get hurt falling.

"...I got thrown plenty, which terrified Mom, but Dad just waved her off and helped me up.
'Most important thing in life,' he would say, 'is learning how to fall.'"

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Liking this one

Let me say first that I love fall. It has always signaled the beginning of a new year to me. However, I have had a series of interesting and not unrelated conversations with friends this weekend about the profound sadness some feel at this time of year: about the inevitable end of summer and all that that season entails; about the advent of fall, and with it, the pressure to succeed at school or work; and finally, about the art of bow hunting. (Not that I've tried this. Yet.) Somehow, and rather miraculously, all these things seem wrapped up in this gorgeous short story by Paul Murray, published today in The New York Times. I'm posting it here for posterity, and to remember this inbetween time of year when the sky couldn't be more blue.

"Back to School" by Paul Murray.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Get Excited...

Jonathan Franzen's new book, Freedom, is out and making waves. See Sam Tanenhaus's review of this "masterpiece of American fiction"...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

loving Gwennie Brooks's sonnets

love note
I: surely

Surely you stay my certain own, you stay
My you. All honest, lofty as a cloud.
Surely I could come now and find you high,
As mine as you ever were; should not be awed.
Surely your word would pop as insolent
As always: "Why, of course I love you, dear."
Your gaze, surely ungauzed as I could want.
Your touches, that were never careful, what they were.
Surely - But I am very off from that.
From surely. From indeed. From the decent arrow
That was my clean naivete and my faith.
This morning men deliver wounds and death.
They will deliver death and wounds tomorrow.
And I doubt all. You. Or a violet.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

and this


by Carlo Bertocchi

And it grows, the vain
even for us with our
bright green sins:

behold the dry guest,
the wind,
as it stirs up quarrels
among magnolia boughs

and plays its serene
tune on
the prows of all the leaves—
and then is gone,

leaving the leaves
still there,
the tree still green, but breaking
the heart of the air.

"Appeal to the Grammarians"
by Paul Violi

We, the naturally hopeful,
Need a simple sign
For the myriad ways we're capsized.
We, who love precise language,
Need a finer way to convey
Disappointment and perplexity.
For speechlessness and all its inflections,
For up-ended expectations,
For every time we're ambushed
By trivial or stupefying irony,
For pure incredulity, we need
The inverted exclamation point.
For the dropped smile, the limp handshake,
For whoever has just unwrapped a dumb gift,
Or taken the first sip of a flat beer,
Or felt love or pond ice
Give way underfoot, we deserve it.
We need it for the air pocket, the scratch shot,
The child whose ball doesn't bounce back,
The flat tire at journey's outset,
The odyssey that ends up in Weehauken.
But mainly because I need it—here and now
As I sit outside the Caffe Reggio
Staring at my espresso and cannoli
After this middle-aged couple
Came strolling by and he suddenly
Veered and sneezed all over my table
And she said to him, "See, that's why
I don't like to eat outside."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

"The end of civilization"...

One of my favorite college English professors used to lament Wednesday night parties (a weekly ritual at my undergraduate university) as the end of civilization. Slug-like, we would shuffle in for our Thursday morning seminar, where he would grimace at us over his roll book and deliver the requisite chiding. Another long morning ahead for him as he tried to keep us awake and interested in Chaucer.

I just happened across this New York Times article about the end of civilization from an entirely different perspective, but one that has been on my mind recently. What is also this facebooking and texting and twittering and emailing doing to civilization? Causing a ton of anxiety, apparently. I love that the author posits going to woods as a solution. Worth reading, and then unplugging...

"Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain."

"Claustrophilia" by Alice Fulton

This one has been rambling around in my head since I read it in The New Yorker a few weeks ago. I don't know the meaning of half the words, but that seems to be the beauty of it. A study in how to pack a phrase if I've ever seen one...

It’s just me throwing myself at you,
romance as usual, us times us,

not lust but moxibustion,
a substance burning close

to the body as possible
without risk of immolation.

Nearness without contact
causes numbness. Analgesia.

Pins and needles. As the snugness
of the surgeon’s glove causes hand fatigue.

At least this procedure
requires no swag or goody bags,

stuff bestowed upon the stars
at their luxe functions.

There’s no dress code,
though leg irons

are always appropriate.
And if anyone says what the hell

are you wearing in Esperanto—
Kion diable vi portas?—

tell them anguish
is the universal language.

Stars turn to train wrecks
and my heart goes out,

admirers gush. Ground to a velvet!
But never mind the downside,

mon semblable, mon crush.
Love is just the retaliation of light.

It is so profligate, you know,
so rich with rush.

Friday, August 13, 2010

"Animal Spirits" by Denise Levertov

When I was five and
undifferentiated energy, animal spirits,
pent-up desire for the unknown built in me
a head of steam I had
no other way to let off, I ran
at top speed back and forth
end to end of the drawingroom,
bay to French window, shouting -
roaring, really - slamming
deliberately into the rosewood
desk at one end, the shaken
window-frames at the other, till the fit
wore out or some grownup stopped me.

But when I was six I found better means:
on its merry gallows
of dark-green wood my swing, new-built,
awaited my pleasure, I rushed
out to it, pulled the seat
all the way back to get a good start, and
vigorously pumped it up to the highest arc:
my legs were oars, I was rowing a boat in air -
and then, from the furthest
forward swing of the ropes

I let go and flew!

At large in the unsustaining air,
flew clear over the lawn across
the breadth of the garden
and fell, Icarian, dazed,
among hollyhocks, snapdragons, love-in-a-mist,
and stood up uninjured, ready
to swing and fly over and over.

The need passed as I grew;
the mind took over, devising
paths for that force in me, and the body curled up,
sedentary, glad to be quiet and read and read,
save once in a while, when it demanded
to leap about or to whirl - or later still
to walk swiftly in wind and rain
long and far and into the dusk,
wanting some absolute, some exhaustion.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

latest obsession: John Keats

Anyone who has spent time with me recently knows that I am obsessed with John Keats. Can't shut up about him. I found the following quote during my week of existential hell at a workshop in CT (if I disappeared into this Watertown countryside and never returned, would anyone actually notice?), and it helped put my world back into perspective. Just happened across it again and I thought it was important to record:

"...several things dovetailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason...with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration..."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

surprised by joy

This is actually the title of a C.S. Lewis book that is somewhere on my to-read list (editor's note: see the movie Shadowlands to understand its beauty), and it's also the phrase that comes to mind when I think of getting back to teaching this week. Despite the unexpected turns my life continues to take, nothing can shake or suppress the joy I feel about teaching. It just bubbles up on its own, seemingly out of nowhere, and surprises me. It happened today during our first full faculty meeting when our two amazing librarians announced that our school's 648 students last year checked out a whopping 18,529 books. I think I'll say it again: a whopping 18, 529 books! Isn't this the best, most hopeful news of the year? Whatever pointless proofs I was trying to work out in my head simply vanished; I was at that moment the happiest clam in the room.

We were asked later in this same meeting to think and to write for a minute about why we taught. Fostering a love of reading seems like one answer to that essential question, and although I didn't write about this specifically, it was gratifying to learn that it's actually happening at my school. For me, there is nothing quite like seeing a student, a colleague, a friend - a total stranger even - get all passionate about a particular book or poem or article. Of course, my friends, and yes, probably total strangers, know that I am prone to these outbursts as well. And like Annie Dillard, I'm not making small talk. I mean to change lives. This must be why I teach.

A panel of alums spoke today about their high school experience, and one panelist said she was most grateful for her teachers' contagious love for their subject matter. She described us as "passionately quirky and wonderfully weird." I had to smile because I suppose - whether I like it or not - that this is me in a nutshell, in or out of the classroom. I can't help it, so I might as well make peace with it. I wouldn't want to trade all these unexpected moments of joy for something else.

the thick of things

This is the middle.
Things have had time to get complicated,
messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore.
Cities have sprouted up along the rivers
teeming with people at cross-purposes –
a million schemes, a million wild looks.
Disappointment unshoulders his knapsack
here and pitches his ragged tent.
This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,
where the action suddenly reverses
or swerves off in an outrageous direction.
Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
to why Miriam does not want Edward's child.
Someone hides a letter under a pillow.
Here the aria rises to a pitch,
a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.
And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge
halfway up the mountain.
This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
This is the thick of things.
So much is crowded into the middle –
the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,
Russian uniforms, noisy parties,
lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall
too much to name, too much to think about.

~ from Billy Collins's "Aristotle"

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Read it.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

— Wendell Berry

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


"The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color. Often at night there is lightning, but it quivers all alone. There is no thunder, no relieving rain. These are strange and breathless days, the dog days, when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after."

~Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Monday, July 26, 2010


"Terns" (ps: I don't know what a Tern is. But I have my own version)

Don't think just now of trudging forward of thought,
but of the wing-drive of unquestioning affirmation.

It's summer, you never saw such a blue sky,
and here they are, those birds with quick wings,

sweeping over the waves,
chattering and plunging,

their thin beaks snapping, their hard eyes
happy as little nails.

The years to come - this is a promise -
will grant you ample time

to try the difficult steps in the empire of thought
where you seek for the shining proofs you think you must have.

But nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding,
than this deepest affinity between your eyes and the world.

The flock thickens
over the roiling, salt brightness. Listen,

maybe such devotion, in which one holds the world
in the clasp of attention, isn't the perfect prayer,

but it must be close, for the sorrow, whose name is doubt,
is thus subdued, and not through the weaponry of reason,

but of pure submission. Tell me, what else
could beauty be for? And now the tide

is at its very crown,
the white birds sprinkle down,

gathering up the loose silver, rising
as if weightless. It isn't instruction, or a parable.

It isn't for any vanity or ambition
except for the one allowed, to stay alive.

It's only a nimble frolic
over the waves. And you find, for hours,

you cannot even remember the questions
that weigh so in your mind.

~Mary Oliver

Monday, July 19, 2010

celebrating Annie & Josh

Having a Coke with You

by Frank O'Hara

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, IrĂșn, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them
I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse
it seems they were all cheated of some marvellous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it

Monday, July 5, 2010

Loved this on Papercuts

Ha! The below excerpt (and commentary) is hilarious and so true. Can't wait to get my hands on this Shteyngart novel come July 27. Read on for some good thoughtful laughter:

"It's the Fourth of July: Do You Know Where Your Summer Went?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

"Downtown" by Frederick Seidel

July 4th fireworks exhale over the Hudson sadly.
It is beautiful that they have to disappear.
It's like the time you said I love you madly.
That was an hour ago. It's been a fervent year.
I don't really love fireworks, not really, the flavorful floating shroud
In the nighttime sky above the river and the crowd.
This time, because of the distance upriver perhaps, they're not loud,
Even the colors aren't, the patterns getting pregnant and popping.
They get bigger and louder when they start stopping.
They try to rally
At the finale.
It's the four-hundredth anniversary of Henry Hudson's discovery -
Which is why the fireworks happen on this side of the island this year.
Shad are back, and we celebrate the Hudson's Clean Water Act recovery.
What a joy to eat the unborn. We're monsters, I fear. What monsters we're.
We'll binge on shad roe next spring in the delicious few minutes it's here.

from The New Yorker, July 5, 2010

Friday, July 2, 2010

still got it

Patting myself on the back this morning because it's been one of those weeks where I have been way too hard on myself. The kind of week where I just couldn't seem to find my footing. The good news is that I found it yesterday, and not surprisingly, by reading Hemingway. I picked up The Sun Also Rises out of obligation; I'm teaching AP English for the first time next year and it's on my re-reading list this summer. A novel I once had a strong attachment to and then lost in favor of A Farewell to Arms. Quite honestly, I was not looking forward to reading about despair and aimlessness and loss (my short-sighted way of shrinking down a work that is so much more). Yet without even realizing what was happening, I fell completely into the process of reading and analyzing that novel. At some point I was grappling for a pen; at some point lunch was made and dinner attended to; but the business of loving and listening to good writing consumed me entirely. It is what I love to do - my touchstone - and I'm grateful that I get to do it for a living.

The character I'm most fascinated with on this reading is Robert Cohn. He first struck me as a Malvolio figure: he can't laugh at himself, and thus finds himself continually on the outside. Cohn's obsession with Brett Ashley is on one level farcical, and yet on the other hand...doesn't it suggest a desire for order and for sense? He can't conceive that the affair meant nothing to Brett, can't seem to exist/function in a world where actions are so meaningless. He tries to restore order through violence by beating up Jake and Mike (and Romero, who is innocent), but the rules of the boxing ring can't cure their sordid crowd. Thus, he's on the train out by the end, a la Malvolio. The irony is that there is some crazy standard of "behaving" in their world; Jake and Brett talk about it constantly:

"Was I rude enough to him?" Brett asked. Cohn was gone.
"My God! I'm so sick of him!"
"He doesn't add much gayety."
"He depresses me so."
"He's behaved very badly."
"Damned badly. He had a chance to behave so well."
"He's probably waiting just outside the door now."
"Yes. He would. You know I do know how he feels. He can't believe it didn't mean anything."
"I know."
"Nobody else would behave as badly. Oh, I'm so sick of the whole thing. And Michael. Michael's been lovely, too."
"It's been damned hard on Mike."
"Yes. But he needn't be a swine."
"Everybody behaves badly," I said. "Give them the proper chance."

Monday, June 28, 2010

a snippet

They say you can jinx a poem
if you talk about it before it is done.
If you let it out too early, they warn,
your poem will fly away,
and this time they are absolutely right.

from "Madmen" by Billy Collins

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Finishing Mr. Peanut

Finally finished Adam's novel this afternoon after a torturous half-week of reading it. It's so dark and disturbing and downright brilliant in places that I had to set it down, had to pick it back up.

I'm linking to Scott Turow's review because I don't want to ruminate on or even attempt to condense the plot details here. The reader experiences three portraits of marriage, each suffering from a desperation and a failure to connect, a maddening blindness (toward self and spouse), and a resulting violence that bubbles up to the surface. I'm not sure that sentence is quite parallel. Oh well.

Hoping Adam won't mind if I quote him directly here from our earlier conversation:

"In large part, this book is a critique of our ever more virtual/distracted society and how these distractions--be they sexual, avataristic, or otherwise--lead us away from the most immediate, important things before us (our spouses and children, unborn or in their earliest adolescence). David is writing a novel that is an attempt to re-grasp what he wasn't present to (Alice), while also exploring aspects of his guilt via avatars (Hastroll/Sheppard). But avatars fall short. They are a prophylactic on life.

And yet at the same time his art is very much alive and possibly a cautionary tale that is a wake-up call to the reader."

My question upon finishing the novel is whether or not art is ultimately portrayed as redemptive or destructive. In short, Mr. Peanut requires reading and rereading. The layers of fantasy, fiction, and reality blur throughout. Makes me think about the stories we tell ourselves and the narratives we construct in the absence of - really the impossibility of - fully knowing ourselves or another person. In one of my favorite passages, the main character, David Pepin (David/Pepin - two versions of the same character), writes in his own novel:

"There are two of us, of course, David and Pepin, interlocked and separate and one and the same. I'm writing my better self and he's writing his worse and vice versa and so until the end. A good reader - a good detective - knows this by now. If you don't, look in the mirror. That's you and not you, after all, because the person in your mind isn't the person in the world. And if you don't know this already, you will."

I don't think Adam would mind me saying that it is also quite the sexy novel, too. Good old-fashioned graphic. And as a few of us discovered after his book-reading, it's amazing what you can see on the cover after getting into two bottles of wine and flipping it upside down. It has its own Escher-like qualities, as does the novel itself.

Friday, June 25, 2010

"Answers" by Mary Oliver

If I envy anyone it must be
My grandmother in a long ago
Green summer, who hurried
Between kitchen and orchard on small
Uneducated feet, and took easily
All shining fruits into her eager hands.

That summer I hurried too, wakened
To books and music and circling philosophies.
I sat in the kitchen sorting through volumes of answers
That could not solve the mystery of the trees.

My grandmother stood among her kettles and ladles.
Smiling, in faulty grammar,
She praised my fortune and urged my lofty career:
So to please her I studied - but I will remember always
How she poured confusion out, how she cooled and labeled
All the wild sauces of the brimming year.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

"The Sink" by Catherine Bowman

She loves to talk on the phone
while washing the dinner dishes,
catching up long distance or
dealing with issues closer to home,
the reconnoitring with the long lost
or a recent so-and-so. She finds it
therapeutic, washing down
the aftermath. And that feeling
she gets in her stomach with a loved one’s
prolonged silence. And under the sink
in the dark among the L-pipes, the confederate
socket wrenches, lost twine, wire lei,
sink funk, steel-wool lemnisci, leitmotifs
of oily sacraments, a broken compass forever
pointing southeast by east, mold codices,
ring-tailed dust motes from days well served,
a fish-shaped flyswatter with blue horns,
fermented lemures, fiery spectres,
embottled spirit vapors swirling in the crude
next to the Soft Scrub, the vinegared
and leistered sealed in tins, delicious with saltines,
gleaned spikelets, used-up votives. . . .
In the back in the corner forgotten
an old coffee can of bacon fat
from a month of sinful Sundays,
a luna moth embossed, rising—a morning star.

The New Yorker, June 24, 2010

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mr. Peanut

So incredibly proud of and happy for my friend Adam Ross, whose novel, Mr. Peanut, hit bookshelves yesterday. At least half of Nashville is reading it right now, and that includes me, so I won't write at length about it yet. Serious porch time ahead. I will also note that it isn't just Nashville reading: he's getting rave reviews from just about everyone. The New York Times called it "dark, dazzling" this week, and Scott Turow is reviewing for this Sunday's book section. In my opinion, worth the hard back price for the cover alone...although the opening lines are damn good, too:

"When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn't kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God..."

I guess I should note here that the novel is about a man named David Pepin who may or may not have killed his wife. Not surprisingly and yet fabulously wonderful all the same, Stephen King is a big fan of Mr. Peanut, too.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

20 under 40

I curled up with the summer fiction issue of The New Yorker last night (June 14 & 21), and the short stories took my breath away. Friends will attest to the fact that I never read the short stories, so I'm not sure which stars were aligning last night. At any rate, this concept of choosing 20 of the best fiction writers under 40 clearly appealed to me. As someone in the Times pointed out today, it's unclear what being a great writer under 40 years old means for the rest of one's career. No way to know. Best to enjoy these words now...I'm excepting from a few of my favorites below.

"Here We Aren't, So Quickly" by Jonathan Safran Froer (loving the cadence of this one)

...I changed and changed and with more time I will change more. I'm not disappointed, just quiet. Not unthinking, just reckless. Not willfully unclear, just trying to say it as it wasn't. The more I remember, the more distant I feel. We reach the middle so quickly. After everything it's like nothing. I have always never been here. What a shame it wasn't easy. What a waste of what? What a joke. But come. No explaining or mending. Be beside me somewhere: on the split stools of this bar, by the edge of this cliff, in the seats of this borrowed car, at the prow of this ship, on the all-forgiving cushions of this threadbare sofa in this one-story copper-crying fixer-upper whose windows we once squinted through for hours before coming to our senses: "What would we even do with such a house?"

"The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire" by Rivka Galchen

People say no one reads anymore, but I find that's not the case. Prisoners read. I guess they're not given much access to computers. A felicitous injustice for me. The nicest reader letters I've received - also the only reader letters I've received - have come from prisoners. Maybe we're all prisoners? In our lives, our habits, our relationships? That's not nice, my saying that. Maybe it's even evil, to co-opt the misery of others...

"The Pilot" by Joshua Ferris (painfully good...)

Kate's invitation had come by email. She was considerate, or she was canny, not to include the addresses of the other invitees. She'd sent the message to her husband and bcc'ed everyone else....

He'd R.S.V.P.'d, but not immediately. Two days after the message came in. Two days plus maybe an hour. And said something like: Just can't wait. Heading to tax-friendly Winston-Salem in a few days to shoot this godawful underarm commercial. Remember that particular station of the cross? Maybe not, probably scrubbed it from memory. But, hell, work's work. That pilot I told you about is coming along, I think. Gleekman's enthusiastic, or at least Pleble claims enthusiasm on his behalf. But the sad reality is always reality television. It's why I so admire "Death." It's a sick little fuck-you every week to the swapped wives and tarantula eaters. Congratulations, by the way. Three seasons! God damn if that's not impressive in this climate. But the show...well, do you ever tire of hearing how good it is? And I thought life was over after "The Wire." Listen, no need to reply to this longwinded e-mail. You're wrapping! But can't wait to see you at the party. Consider this an R.S.V.P. No way I'd miss it. Not a chance in the world. Hooray! Cheers cheers, Lx.

He didn't expect a reply...

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

While stranded in Philly in May (not a bad place to be stranded, fyi, because I got to stay in Bruder's lovely and miniature Rittenhouse Square apartment), Anne strongly suggested that I pick up a graphic novel that she had just taught in her women's memoir course at Bryn Mawr. This suggestion was met with an automatic "No."

A) I don't "do" graphic novels.
B) Enough said.

I thought this would be the end of the conversation for sure. Instead, we found ourselves idly searching for it in her neighborhood bookstore, and after reading one page I could not put it down. Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel, is the illustrated story of Bechdel's fraught relationship with her father, a high school English teacher and closeted homosexual who spends most of his waking hours obsessing about the decor of his rambling Gothic Revival home. As Bechdel describes him:

"My father could spin garbage...into gold. He could transfigure a room with the smallest offhand flourish. He could conjure an entire, finished period interior from a paint chip. He was an alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface, a Daedalus of decor..."

What you are missing from this description though are the wonderful illustrations and asides that make a graphic novel so rich and layered. And witty! The other tennis coach grabbed it out of my bag on a long bus ride to Memphis, and she was giggling the whole way. Every now and then she would shout, "Hey Lemon! What does solipsistic mean? What does simulacrum mean?" Bechdel's vocabulary absolutely rocks this book. After all, there are only so many words which one can fit in the margins or bubbles of an illustrated page, and so Bechdel has chosen them with razor sharp precision.

Important to note that this is also the story of Bechdel's own coming to terms with her sexual orientation. It is her "Odyssey," (and yes, literary references do crop up on every other page), yet she sees it as tangential to her understanding of her father. From the opening page she describes their relationship in terms of Icarus and Daedalus and questions who is actually father to whom: "In our particular reenactment of this mythic relationship, it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky..."

Poignant, humorous, and heartbreaking - sometimes all of these on the same page - it is one of my favorite reads this year. To end on a tantalizing note, it is also quite "graphic." Might want to read this one away from the kids' end of the pool this summer...

Sunday, June 6, 2010


Wells Tower, when asked to describe in a New York Times article a random literary encounter from a summer vacation:

“The Bridges of Madison County,” by Robert James Waller, found in a beach house in Brooklin, Me. Strenuously unrecommended as a novel, but if you strike every third verb and noun it converts into a superb volume of Mad Libs with which to pass idle hours by the sea. — Wells Tower

Friday, June 4, 2010

"KOI" by Katie Ford

After all the days and nights we've spent
with Starry Messenger, with Dante,
with Plato, his temperance
painted as a woman who pours
water into a bowl but does not spill,
after particle theory and the geologic time of this quartz
gilded beneath the roaming gone,
composites of limestone calculated down to the animal
that laid upon it and quietly died,

after hearing how camels carted away the broken
Colossus of Rhodes, showing us how to carry
and build back our destroyed selves,

hearing there was once a hand
that first learned to turn
an infant right in the womb,

that there was, inside Michelangelo, an Isaiah to carve out
the David, the idea, the one buried
in us who can slay the enormities,

after all visions and prophecies that made the heart large,
once and again, true or untrue,

after learning to shave the gleaming steel down—
the weapon, the bomb we make,
and the watercolor made after
of the dropped-upon crowd, thin strokes
over a pale wash—
after all this, still
one of us can’t know another.

Once under an iron sky I listened
to a small assemblage of voices.
Two by two broke off into the field
to strip down the unbroken flock of starling dark
between them. The ceremony of the closing in,
the hope each to each might not stay tourists
before the separate, chiseled ruin of the other:

The unspeakable, illegible one before us—

this is what the linguists call the dead, isn't it?

But how are you, we say,
meaning how have you been made,
what is wrong, what
happened, we ask, how long have you been waiting,
are you on my side, can you promise to stay,
will you keep
the etchings clear on my stone
and come visit me, your never-known,

will you lean over my ghost
how we leaned over the green pools of the Japanese garden,
a cluster of lanterns blowing out above us
wisp by wisp, a school of koi pausing at the surface,
letting us look all the way in
until we saw each eye
was like a net heaped on shore.

Just like our eyes, weren’t they? all accidents, wastes,
all saving needs filled and unfilled, the cracked shells,
the kelp fronds torn from their buoys, all caught here,
inside us—
the seven we loved, the six we lost—
seaglass the living
and the human, alone.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

while buzzing around the house on espresso...

"Morning" by Billy Collins

Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,

then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?

This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—

maybe a splash of water on the face,
a palmful of vitamins—
but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,

dictionary and atlas open on the rug,
the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,
a cello on the radio,

and, if necessary, the windows—
trees fifty, a hundred years old
out there,
heavy clouds on the way
and the lawn steaming like a horse
in the early morning.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Words in Air

A couple of days ago something about Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell in one New York publication or another caught my eye. I was doing ten things at once and could not stop and read the article, but I could have sworn it said something about their letters being turned into a play. The only thought I had time for was "I'm going to this, and who is going with me?" The latter half of that question will forever be a mystery because a) I don't know anyone who is as obsessed with the Bishop-Lowell letters/relationship as I am, and b) I missed the show! A one-night-only reading at the 92nd Street Y this week. Would have loved to have seen who showed up at that event. Kindred spirits, people who love letter-writing as much as I do...a bunch of senior citizens? Betting on that last one. One of my dearest friends with whom I still correspond (though we've moved from letters to email) kidded me recently that I was channeling 40 back when I was 17. Thus finding myself in a room with senior citizens at age 33 would not at all have been surprising.

I remember wanting to write letters as soon as I learned to read. I thought it would be fun to create fictional characters and have them send letters back and forth. My neighborhood friend, whom I tried to persuade into writing with me, would have none of this so-called "fun." So instead I had to dress up as Darth Vader and Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz for the next several years. Fun, I suppose, but not the kind of creative outlet I was hoping for.

I think if this blog is anything - even from the start - it's been letters. A way to process through writing where I am creatively, emotionally, and intellectually. A way to safekeep the loveliness I find in others' words. A way to share some of this with readers, though I never expect a reply.

Anyway, back to Bishop and Lowell. I find their letters, or their relationship through letters, fascinating. Two brilliant writers - both emotional messes, really - creating a world on the page that could never have come to pass in real life.

Here is my favorite snippet from one of Lowell's letters to Bishop:

There's one bit of my past that I would like to get off my chest and then I think all will be easy with us.
...I remember one evening presided over by Mary McCarthy and my Elizabeth was there, and going home to the Bard poets' dormitory, I was so drunk that my hands turned cold and I felt half-dying and held your hand. And nothing was said, and like a loon that needs sixty feet, I believe, to take off from the water, I wanted time and space, and went on assuming, and when I was to have joined you at Key West I was determined to ask you. Really for so callous (I fear) a man, I was fearfully shy and scared of spoiling things and distrustful of being steady enough to be the least good. Then of course the Yaddo explosion came and all was over. Yet there were a few months. I suppose we might almost claim something like apparently Strachey and Virginia Woolf. And of course there was always the other side, the fact that our friendship really wasn't a courting, was really disinterested (bad phrase) really led to no encroachments. So it is.
Let me [say] this though and then leave the matter forever; I do think free will is sewn into everything we do; you can't cross a street, light a cigarette, drop saccharine in your coffee without really doing it. Yet the possible alternatives that life allows us are very few, often there must be none. I've never though there was any choice for me about writing poetry. No doubt if I used my head better, ordered my life better, worked harder etc., the poetry wold be improved, and there must be many lost poems, innumerable accidents and ill-done actions. But asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had...

~August 15, 1957

So today on my first day off for the summer, I went back and found that article on Bishop and Lowell. Here is the link to The New Yorker's article and a video of the reading.

And here is Elizabeth Bishop's final letter to Lowell, which she wrote upon his death:

"North Haven"

In memoriam: Robert Lowell

I can make out the rigging of a schooner
a mile off; I can count
the new cones on the spruce. It is so still
the pale bay wears a milky skin; the sky
no clouds, except for the long, carded horse's tail.

The islands haven't shifted since last summer,
even if I like to pretend they have
--drifting, in a dreamy sort of way,
a little north, a little south or sidewise,
and that they're free within the blue frontiers of bay.

This month, our favorite one is full of flowers:
Buttercups, Red Clover, Purple Vetch,
Hackweed still burning, Daisies pied, Eyebright,
the Fragrant Bedstraw's incandescent stars,
and more, returned, to paint the meadows with delight.

The Goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the White-throated Sparrow's five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.

Years ago, you told me it was here
(in 1932?) you first "discovered girls"
and learned to sail, and learned to kiss.
You had "such fun," you said, that classic summer.
("Fun" - it always seemed to leave you at a loss...)

You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue...And now - you've left
for good. You can't derange, or re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)
The words won't change. Sad friend, you cannot change.

So lovely - my colleague, Marla Faith, sent this to me yesterday. She lost everything material in the flood and still manages to create beautiful things on a daily basis. Including this poem.

After the great flood of May 2
the support and love of the universe is
throwing flowers upon my footsteps
opening doors on sunlight streaming
in on me the invisible angels are here
kissing my forehead with healing balm
Mother earth father sky and I,
the ether in between
the damp and dark run out
and clear air returns
The fullness of this life
is bigger than the body
or the home we cling to
The fullness of the Spirit
is our true home
So why grieve over the house
emptied by the flood to a few
sticks holding it up?
'Twas a skeleton we filled with
what we thought we were
And when all the stuff is washed away
what remains?
When Spirit is freed from form
it is still Spirit
The car that became my private billboard, an extension of myself
had the same end as my collection of books
under muddied waters
Yet I remain
untethered to these things of which
I'd grown so fond
And too, my loves will one day leave
their physical forms
I myself will say goodbye to this body
Yet what remains is bigger and more real
for those who see
Spirit inhabits and is beyond habitation
Love alone is real
only this Essence abides