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