Saturday, September 29, 2007

I, wild, ruinous

I thought of you this morning, Sasha. I was randomly reading poetry, whiling my hours as recklessly as I do, and after a whole carafe of hot-down-to-cool coffee, I found an old gem submerged. It was Atwood. Remember how sorry you were for me that I'd gone that far through life without reading her? That made me love you. Where are you and yours now?

Well here is Atwood again in any case, now a touchstone.

This poem is brilliant brilliant cynical cruel and, as my Great Aunt Etty once said when I noted that this one gray could only be found in Galway waters, "spot-on, dear."

Siren Song

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:

the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the beached skulls

the song nobody knows
because anyone who has heard it
is dead, and the others can't remember.

Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?

I don't enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical

with these two feathery maniacs,
I don't enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.

I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song

is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique

at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.

my bedside

I don't own a TV. Never have in my life, come to think of it. So living solo again, I catch Top Chef as I can, where I can, how I can. Generally iTunes and comrades come through, but I've got a stopgap: I picked up Kitchen Confidential. Am I happy I did? Well, it was a fun read, but I did have to work hard to shoulder past the bits of obligatory misogyny, the typical saltpeter of toughguy pyrotechnics:

While I'm onto my recent reads ... I had hopes for this book, with which I was unfamiliar till I spotted it on a shelf. Stilted, not very insightful:

This book made my heart ache. I kept getting the feeling as I read The Road that I was suddenly so grateful for all the words Coetzee left out of his slim dystopias. Because McCarthy seems to have picked them all up and gathered them here. And they sting.

A wacky snack, this next one. Good for fans of Hempel, Lutz, Slavin:

And like most folks observing an absence, I picked up Liam Rector's latest. It's also sent me back to Don Hall's poetry. Without, in particular. Such beautiful poems in there.

to beat the ban

It's Banned Books Week over at the American Library Association (ALA). I talked a little in my graduate lecture about the importance of offense, including references to the various complaints registered lodged with the ALA.

We lost a good champion of free speech this year, so it's even more important to take up the task and at the very least check out this list of the most challenged titles of the year. (You'll have to click through a spam filter jump page. Sorry about that.) Maybe pick a few of them up.

interweb double u-turn

So I've been spending more and more time with pointyheaded web nerds (meant in the very best way). This company I'm keeping has caused veritably vertical spikes in the quality of my aural life. I remain starry-eyed and wide-eared with the massive additions recently made to my iTunes. These changes only involved the slightest back alley trades. Find yourself an external hard drive and shazaam, a gigaswap just like that. Now I listen at all hours to new and pretty bands, marvel at the seakelp-sway-in-the-ocean sounds of singer-songwriters in every letter (D: Decemberists! Ditty Bops! the Duhks! the Divine Chants of Ganesh!). Excellent. But I see that I probably should have just stopped there, much like a $500 win at a blackjack table.

Because I am the type well-advised to steer clear of Targets and Z Galleries (I really need that gigantic resin buckhead for a coat rack) for fear of the stupid things I might buy for no good reason at all, the natural next step in my internet timesinkathon was the enablement of silly purchases. It was noted that I could and should buy my very own domain, not for the $25,000 bid Network Solutions suggested when I first researched (I'm worth more, in my opinion), but a .org for a scandalously low $5.99.

So! Dear web traveler, watch this. Now that I (being extremely broke) have spent this valuable little fistful of dollars on, you, lucky you, can go to your address bar, type it in, and ... come right back here. Free ride for you! Wasn't that fun? You're welcome. (I should have bought a latte and listened to the Es instead.)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

widget liberation movement

I like the writing, the moodiness, and the finicky fixtures of Wes Anderson films, so am necessarily watching the reviews of The Darjeeling Limited as they roll in.

A. O. Scott is my James Wood of film criticism. He's precise, incisive. He slices and dices. Delightful and sharp words, even serrated when called for. The Darjeeling review is no exception to his smart takes. That said ...

And forgive the untoward intimations in advance, but they're pretty incontestable.

I selected the "email this page" linko to share the remarkably positive review when I spied with my little eye a blue widget (a nanobillboard) on the upper right corner of the page. Article tools sponsored by:

Hay zeus! For reals?

Do I even need to explain my objections? No, of course not. And I don't mean to be provincial. I hav spent my time in the cooling shade of the money tree. I understand. But to put the button right there on the page with the actual review of the movie? Couldn't Darjeeling Limited rotate sponsorship of the tools on, say, an article on Doctors without Borders or Ed Jew or somesuch?

Alas, sometimes the inferno of interests is unavoidably visible to those rosily warmed by its intoxicating emissions. Not cool after all. It's getting hot in here. Quick, take off all your widgets!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

a few bookmarks

Momentum in the worlds of my various authors. Check check check it:

We'll be publishing Niloufar Talebi's breathtakingly diverse collection of contemporary Iranian poetry in the summer of 2008. The book is going to be beautiful and smart, and we will have galleys available at the upcoming festival she's organized:

- - -

When Louise Steinman's The Souvenir was last released, the book was overshadowed and ultimately subsumed by the tragedy of September 11th. We're getting this elegant memoir of a WWII daughter back out there this spring. Here's a recent review Steinman wrote for the L. A. Times.

- - -

With love and endorsements from Woody Harrelson, Michael Franti, Julia Butterfly Hill, and the entire Berkzerkely Bay Area, Cafe Gratitude founders and I Am Grateful authors Terces Englehart and Orchid will gift the business world with a much-needed title for success without moral or ethical sacrifice. Sacred Commerce comes out this summer.

- - -

And just for fun, check out this peculiarly riveting little video sent from George Quasha, whose Axial Stones will be features in Sculpture Magazine in November. (Make sure to let the clip finish buffering before you play it so that the sound and picture are in sync.)

So much more happening. But only if I go edit it, I suppose ... more soon.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

never right, not wrong

Emotion: so roguish, so hard and hard-driven,
I sometimes want to collapse in its course
just to slow it down.

The following is taken from Entirely by Louise MacNeice:

If we could find happiness entirely
In somebody else's arms
We should not fear the spears of the spring nor the city's
Yammering fire alarms
But, as it is, the spears each year go through
Our flesh and almost hourly
Bell or siren banishes the blue
Eyes of Love entirely.

And if the world were black or white entirely
And all the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters,
A prism of delight and pain,
We might be surer where we wished to go
Or again we might be merely
Bored but in brute reality there is no
Road that is right entirely.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

oh my god

Seems I've just tuned into the literary channel, but I'm crossing signals with God, God, and more God. I'm nearly certain this is one of those psych 101 instances of my seeking out what I want to find, that whole clinical phenom in which subjects note the hits rather than the misses.

I know that the Karen Armstrong armies have been out there for eons, scribbling away about the heavens, furiously debating on our souls and other celestial whatnots. I know I'm influenced by this window of atonement we have happening. I know my mind's on higher power since Liam Rector committed suicide.

Word had it that the East Coast crew had twenty readers lined up for his memorial, the send-off of a slipper soul, and that was just the formal roster. I imagine wine and tears and all sorts of exaggerations of intimate familiarity. We so excel at loving what we've lost.

For our part on the West Coast, we were a starchy group, just one weepy breakdown on the part of the small man whose name I forget across the table from me. His partner made a hell of a lime tart. I had two pieces, some nuts, a little bubble water. Between you and me, the poem I read was one that I thought Liam might not have wanted to hear. I thought he'd appreciate someone resisting brief solemnity.

Others read other's work:

It Is Night. It Is Very Dark.
Jane Hirschfield

Rainfall past any interrogation.
Questions and answers are not the business of rain.Yet I step forward by them
Left foot? Yes. Right foot? Yes.
And all the time wanting to be soaked through
as the flowers of the apricot that open too early,
in mid-December,
are soaked all the way through their slow petals but do not fall.
The colors only slightly deepen.
The fruit has far to travel.
Left foot by right foot under the hidden stars.
And I?
Question by question,
like an elephant trained to paint what is in her heart.


"The rain ran wildly, and beat at the great door,
like a swift messenger rousing those within."
Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Finally, rain.
I've waited for it.

The best, the only time
to make up stories, really.

Friday, September 21, 2007

the view

Going to see The Creature from the Black Lagoon with V and my two dear exes. We've known each other since we were young(er), erratic, still fledging, stumbling, crooked, raucous. I don't miss it. I like how we are now. And I can thieve the spirit from those days, draw the best of it from back then. Take this picture. This is how I saw V. most often when we lived together on the watery bounds of San Francisco. She and I bowed down to the ocean. So much romance swirled into those waters; I've kindled beside, argued near, run along, fallen into, walked beside, run out of this ocean. I could tell the sands from any other beaches. I returned this morning and all that spiritthe courage, the passionflooded back for the first time in years.

Middle of the night brings some of the sunniest slats of joy.

I'm sleeping.

I open my eyes, focus on Harvey, Velvie, and Pinky. Out the window, see the five tall palm trees swaying beyond the houses out my front window. Again, doorbell. Unmistakable. I'm not one whom folks generally visit unannounced. My moods force volcanoes and scatter birds and it's generally best to know what one's approaching. Still, here he was, pirate of the dawn, master G. So off we went towhere else?the ocean.

Open the door of The Matrix (my car deserves its name) and play What I Be. Had Michael Franti, local peacenik, on my iPod, so apt for early morning emptying of the lungs at the beach. Sometimes it's nice to act really young. Play music, dance at the beach, enjoy it while it's here. Because much of what's beautiful is the unseen undertow, never visible from this kind of distance. And for now, we're so incredibly lucky to be back at the brink. Oceans, lagoons, more murk than imaginable.

ramping up corporatespeak to optimize our meaninglessness

I remember being in a workshop with Amy Hempel years ago. She and Jill McCorkle were rolling their collective eyes at the word "monetize." This and other officese, those hunky neologisms that blur their way out of MBA programs like UrukHai orcs from Mordor, were categorically stupid, according to Hempel (and nod, nod, very eager nod, therefore stupid in the eyes of the adoring minions set around the table like bend-at-the-waist Lego people).

Did I agree? I wasn't so sure. I'm a fan of coinage and, for that matter, the even more common tendency to fall back on the figurative. Invention is our best privilege and pleasure, puppet show improvisation without the puppets. That said, I did find myself yielding. I had most certainly used words like monetize and impactful just that last week and I had to admit that they lacked the romantic whimsy of making up, say, a Carrollian phrase like "all mimsy were the borogroves" or populating the world with plain-belly sneetches and hinkle-horn honkers like the Seusses among us. I sat up straight, silent, blinking with as little expression on my face as possible (innocent!), but could feel my spirit (busted!) sinking below the plane of the roundtable.

What's resulted in the intervening years is my own half-wit slanguageno running with the coinage herdjust modified or adapted phrases that do the job, but much more importantly, that entertain me. I imagine I might confuse my coworkers with dopey linguistic vagary when I could just say the damn thing already. It's worth it, though. One should always avoid (well, one should always avoid always to start) both clich├ęs and buzzwords. We're better than frank and dull, aren't we, noble procrastinator reading my sillyblog? I've established a redemptive livelihood out of vivisecting vital elements from hackneyed phrases and getting the job done despite it.

So clearly I'm having a good time. But I should share my post-surgery phrases with you, a sampling from the week expressly for your edification. Because I know it can't be only about entertaining myself forever. And when it comes down to it, if you hold on tight, I always come around. I always prove what a giver I am. For you, my dear invisible comrade. Use at will and marvel at the fun you'll have!

Okay so, what's our drop dead?
This means what is the absolute last, most merciful deadline that you can give me to whip my author into producing what I should have gotten her to send me a week ago?

Over and out.
I tag this onto the end of emails to express: I'm done talking to you now and am moving onto the unilateral-decision stage.

The truth will set you free, but so will a lie.
This is a stolen song lyric that unhinges tricky limits and frees us to be as creative as we please with marketing materials. Amen!

We've got two floors for the elevator pitch and this is written for the Empire State.
This is just one example of the boundless utility of metaphorical camouflage. It means you talk too much. People will stop listening to you after the second sentence.

I hear you. Totally.
This means I was typing an email while you were talking and I've just noticed you stopped talking.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

beware the star-nosed mole

I realize with this and the last post that I'm veering from what might popularly be considered "writerly topics. " But C. sent me a list and I'm not sure anything has delighted me so since I discovered the taste of p. b. cups in ice cream (or, okay, literarily, since I saw the way words imitate light in Kenyon).

The last three items on this here list are a little anticlimactic, but the fourth from the last is nothing less than sublime. Could such a thing really exist, do you think? Giggle, giggle, thrill.

I will memorize this list and use them all as my new insults. You narwhal! Ah, he ain't nothin but a nagfish. Oh, sheet, your ex is just a sucker-footed bat now that she's slumming with those dumbo octopi.

Now that's what I call a nature walk.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

right on, sistermen!

Jay-Z and Kanye, the latest to unwittingly join the feminist uprising. Yoni Power forever! Can't wait for the new single. Here's to getting in touch with our feminine sides.

(Let's also just observe while we're here that Jay-Z looks SO gay.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

he did a bad, bad thing

Wheeler, Tony. Tony Wheeler's Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil. April 2007. Lonely Planet. 344p. maps, color photo signatures, reference lists. ISBN: 978-1-74179-186-0. $14.99.

for Library Journal

With the ranks of global jetsetters increasing, travel journalists no longer enjoy any distinction as elite rangers of far-off, exotic lands. Leave it to Lonely Planet founder and veteran travel journalist Tony Wheeler, however, to bring back this bygone mystique by going where no author has gone before with the travel narrative: rounding up in one volume what he deems the most forbidden—and forbidding—lands on earth. The book, Tony Wheeler's Bad Lands, works hard to do it all: to educate, entertain, debunk, evoke, and provoke. Ultimately, though, it burns much of its fuel presenting the basic history lessons necessary for any readers unfamiliar with nine touristically idle places such as Iran, Afghanistan, and Burma. Bad Lands makes light fare of political and cultural devastation, cataloguing countries by what Wheeler calls his EvilMeter(TM), jokily characterizing North Korea as a "gulag run by Monty Python," or capriciously reflecting on the accommodations of "guests" at Gitmo. Add to this questionable taste the even more questionable judgment involved in presenting his own experience touring as a seasoned, well-connected, knowledgable traveler as that which any brazen, but woefully green, wayfarer might now expect to have after reading this book, and Wheeler's handy reference may be, by far, the most dangerous development to come of his global romps. Recommended with caution for public libraries. Elizabeth Kennedy, Oakland, CA

Monday, September 17, 2007

what big eyes you have, Virginia Woolf

So my distance vision is not really the best. Driving around is always exciting because I need to be immediately in front of a sign before I can receive its course-setting instructions. My imagination, therefore, plays a fair part in sighting what's far-off. So imagine my surprise yesterday as I drove east on University and spied, looming above the line of car roofs, what appeared to be the head of Virginia Woolf, looking especially huge and saturnine, strapped to the top of a Volvo.

I had a moment of wincing clarity: I'd finally lost my mind. For that instant, I determined that I'd finally had the psychotic break I'd long dreaded. Maybe this decapitated author existed only for me, a private dancer here to haunt my demented mind. To my great relief as I neared her, though, the splendor of the plaster head's reality was unmistakable. She was real. Phew.

I pulled over, the bulldog in me engaged and ready for the play-tug negotiations that would ensue as I convinced the lucky owner of our star-crossing, that he was absolutely meant to sign the big Ginny over to me. I already began the plans for her arrival in my small, but willing home. She could sit in my window and look out over the downtown Oakland cityscape. A bay window of our own. To my disappointment, though, as I walked up the street "Virginia" revealed herself to be none other than the miserable matron from—yes, that's right—American Gothic.

I went into the store anyway. I'd parked, after all. In the SF Bay Area, that's commitment. And well, it ends up I just loved this guy. I asked if he had a digital camera (I only had my phone with me). He didn't, but said that he actually went over and drove around the Google campus whenever he had Gothic wife strapped to the car. His strategy was to sucker the deck kids roundabout those parts to take pix and post them online—just like I was wanting to do. "Free advertising," he smiled. And look at that. Per his plan, I was charmed enough by the outsized oddity that I inadvertently ended up advertising for Rerun clothes (see side of Volvo). The guy was a regular guerilla marketing marvel.

Friday, September 14, 2007

just a few leagues under

Some journalist somewhere (The Atlantic?) wrote that we've lost our appreciation of noble melancholy. That was years back and I bit hard and deep into that truth like a starved sea lion come upon the perfect, available prey.

Melancholy gets brighter, more useful as time paints in broader backdrops for me. Today's a day off. I never take them. It's all mine and I'm in my PJs at noon, drinking coffee, reading poetry.

I don't read Adrienne Rich enough.

I think it's because I nearly always experience a kind of coitus interruptus with her. She builds it with precision, word by turn by wait wait go
and every fiber sharpens its form, gets tautonly to fold back in together too soon, relaxation of quicksand resolution. Frustration. We should take longer to get there. That's the point.

See the end of this poem. It rounds back to its beginning, much too much of an echo, especially for something underwater. The whole long metaphor demands muffling and tenacious, difficult movement toward exact discovery, a revelation beyond the expected identification of being wreckage and diver at once. We're with her underwater, all the pressure on our ears, streams of bubbles disrupting upward from the Regulator, the crippling, slowing flippers
. I need not just to see something down there, to glimpse it, butwell, maybe my expectation is unrealistic hereto startle when something murky in this wreckage reaches out to grab me by the hair. Increasingly, I demand the shock of the true.

And I have to work hard to understand the punctuation choices in here. Especially since we're talking about words as maps, I'd like more direction along my short lines. Boss me around with a comma now and then. It's not too much to ask.

All that said, I love the embedded mots justes
: maritime floss, ribs of disaster, vermeil cargo. These wordsI have no idea whyremind me of Bishop's rosettes of lime, her isinglass, the oarlocks on their strings. And then this line, it brought up Gilbert: "we are the half-destroyed instruments / that once held to a course," more the first half than the second. All in all, it makes me consider jumping overboard the next time I visit the otters at Elkhorn Slough. Just to feel the nervy risk and reality of my long hair floating loose down under the planet's deep dark.

Diving into the Wreck

by Adrienne Rich

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and away into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

fall beyond all fear

Autumn! We're moving into my favorite season, the time of my first memories, the showy months of firecracker color and moody disintegrations. Time to reflect and correct!

This (ever so slightly edited) excerpt of a letter from Rabbi Michael Lerner is a fine starting point. I do struggle against the idea of a Godplace or a Godself (seems to me this necessarily includes any place that can be called a place). Nonetheless, I'm grateful, what with all my distracted troublemaking and ego-based adventuring, that I receive stuff like this to remind me what I ought to take seriously at the center:


It is particularly appropriate for 9/11, as we pray, that Americans can let go of their desire for revenge and move to a higher level of consciousness, abandoning the fantasy that somehow "homeland security" can be achieved through militarism and dominating others (as the U.S. Administration and its hired guns in Iraq are trying to do).

Let us pray for the healing of the fear and trauma that guides the policies of the U.S. government and many of its leaders. It is also appropriate for Ramadan and for the Jewish High Holy Days, days when we search our deeds and contemplate how far we have strayed from our highest God place within. We know that each of us is deeply imperfect, and though we have been wronged by others, our spiritual traditions teach us to move beyond whatever anger we've experienced to a place of forgiveness. We must start that process by forgiving ourselves also, for not being all that we wish we could be, and for losing contact with our holy God place within us.

Imagine how blessed our world could be if that path of forgiveness became part of the reality of America's relationship to the world, Israel's and Palestine's relationship to each other, the Muslim world and the West's relationship to each other, the Chinese and Indian and Western relatonships with each other. And from that forgiveness, we would move lovingly to change economic and political arrangements that are oppressive or hurtful both domestically and internationally. Well, we may not be able to make all this happen in the next few weeks, but one place we can start is by using this prayer every night of our lives before we go to sleep.

Many blessings to you, and I humbly beg your pardon for any ways that I have hurt, offended, or otherwise transgressed in relationship to you!

Rabbi Michael Lerner

Bedtime Prayer of Forgiveness

I forgive every person who has hurt or upset me.

May no one be punished because of me.
May no one suffer from karmic consequences for hurting or upsetting me.

Help me become aware of the ways I may have unintentionally or intentionally hurt others, and please give me guidance and strength to rectify those hurts and to develop the sensitivity to stop acting in a hurtful way.

Let me forgive others, let me forgive myself—but also let me change in ways that make it easy for me to avoid paths of hurtfulness to others.

I seek peace. Let me BE peace.
I seek justice. Let me be just.
I seek a world of kindness. Let me be kind.
I seek a world of generosity. Let me be generous with all that I have.
I seek a world of sharing. Let me share all that I have.
I seek a world of giving. Let me be giving to all around me.
I seek a world of love. Let me be loving beyond all reason, beyond all normal expectation, beyond all societal frameworks that tell me how much love is "normal," beyond all fear that giving too much love will leave me with too little.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

writers with sharpies

Stopped in at Writers with Drinks, a reading series that, as it happens, involves a regrettable amount of just the kind of spoken word I really don't understand or appreciate.

My attention span petered out during the last poet's performance— somewhere near the tenth complete line of expletives, delivered in that grinding trochaic rhythm of all spoken word readings (SPOken BROken RHYMing TIMing EFFing ANgry POets).

Fortunately, I had a Sharpie in my bag and tons of poems in mind. The night started looking, well, much sharper.

Emily Dickinson
It might be lonelier
Without the Loneliness—

(Look! Poe is in the audience)


Jack Gilbert
We are surrounded by the absurd excess of the universe.


Walt Whitman
I too am not a bit tamed—
I too am untranslatable.

(It is most useful to have gamey accomplices!)

James Dickey
Live like the dead
In their flying feeling.
Loom as a ghost
When life pours through it.


Emily Dickinson, refrain
It might be lonelier
Without the Loneliness

(My hand looks a bit like a fakey, Halloween hand. Alas.)

Denise Levertov
Two girls discover
the secret of life
in a sudden line of poetry.


Dorothy Parker
Ah no, it's always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.


[Please note the Elvis skull.]


Emily Dickinson, surreal
It might be lonelier
Without the Loneliness


Edna St. Vincent Millay
I shall forget you presently, my dear.
So make the most of this, your little day.


The Writers with Sharpies Grotto: This is where it all happens.
(Okay, it's the bathroom of the Radio Habana.)

Saturday, September 08, 2007

my melancholy model

Birkerts, Sven. Reading Life: Books for the Ages. April 2007. Graywolf Press. ISBN 978-1-55597-464-0. $16.00.

Written as part of the Brattleboro Literary Festival, September 28-30, 2007

In The Reading Life: Books for the Ages, Sven Birkerts has arrived at the vantage from which he’s seemed destined to write all his literary life: the remote and elevated outpost of retrospection. Linking his thirty years as a cynosure of the reading life to the eleven books that defined that charted course, Birkerts matches up his past and present intellectual selves through the rereading of his touchstone texts, The Catcher in the Rye, Madame Bovary, and The Ambassadors among them.

Lifelong readers will likely relate to many of the common formative experiences recreated in The Reading Life. Birkerts begins, for example, by flashing back to the narcotic sway Holden Caulfield held over his fourteen-year-old self: the identification with “the comic pathos,” “that almost killing despair” of adolescence, and the eventual, mature revelation that what once passed pejoratively for Caulfieldian alienation was, in reality, nothing more—and nothing less—than “the essential impulse toward privacy.” Jumping ahead, as he does deftly throughout the collection, Birkerts feels the book’s potency after he learns of his preteen daughter’s affinity for it. The conclusion of The Catcher in the Rye clicks into its rightful place: fixed as a still-life of disaffection, Caulfield functions—tragically—as every generation’s object lesson in “the disappointments of life to come.”

Not all characters go so gently into their set site. The most diverting characters in this pantheon inspire more wrestling on the critic’s part; they provoke what Birkerts calls the “disputatious inner swing [that] defines engaged reading.” (The Reading Life is crowded with the intricate fight-dance of such relations—with Binx Bolling, Lily Briscoe, Rupert Birkin, and others—and as such, the collection, of course, defies neat abridgment here.) The major characters of this latter category do not so much reappear after prolonged absence from Birkerts’s reading list, but exhibit a sustained, lifelong entanglement in the critic’s active intellectual life.

Emma Bovary is a case in point. Birkerts, a committed child of the counterculture, had long resisted the centrality of the classics until fate holed him up on an isolated
Montana ranch with no other reading options but Madame Bovary. This wizardry is one of the pure pleasures of reading Birkerts—the uncanny ability he has to select the very book that the energies of his life require for highest truth at any given moment. Having met Emma, as he familiarly calls her, the course of his literary life reset itself.

Birkerts traces the subsequent strands of his career spent growing into a consciousness of Flaubert’s craft, the rich pretext, text, and subtext that together form Bovary’s romantic folly. Her “ravenous wanting,” it becomes clear, are meant to inspire neither judgment nor sympathy alone, but both at once, resulting in a tormented, sorrowful, and “complicated self-division” on the reader’s part. Birkerts shows time and again, as he does with his immense deference to Flaubert’s characters, that it is not with false hope for strict moral truth that one might usefully tend to a book, but for something subtler, more graceful, less immediately evident, for the shifts in a character’s actions or outlook that invisibly slip the knots of our convictions, leaving us—to our great surprise—somehow reconfigured after the book has ended. Birkerts’s work stands as a wild proof that the literary work’s constancy offers the best measure of the reader’s evolution.

Birkerts reports, after he finally finished The Ambassadors, having reveled in the rapture of “literary endorphins.” This athletic metaphor intimates that the reading life must be accorded the same focus—no TV, no instant messaging, no iTunes in the background—given to any other disciplined endeavor. Birkerts considers it “reading as a way of inviting [ourselves] to be overtaken.” And though critics may come to literature for various reasons—vanity, hunger, blood sport, haven—one imagines Birkerts remains in the game “for the solace of literature mattering.” What matters, what makes the difference, and what, after having gone 516 pages with Strether through the long haul of The Ambassadors, will tell each reader whether she’s up for doing it all over again, is taking the right, the only, position one can honestly take in relation to the work: one’s own.

Friday, September 07, 2007

the only thing ernest and i will ever have in common

Great news: I'm no longer hunched like Igor, craning the neck to type at my very low coffee table. I've got a desk! It is massive. A handsome fellow—dark, tall, and exceptionally solid (as we like our fellows)—with newsroomy fixtures, he's a drafting desk of sorts, with all sorts of coffee rings on top and neat, measured tape on the two top drawers that read in perfect lettering, "templates and triangles ONLY" and "French curves ONLY." How could I refuse a free desk that accepted French curves only? Well, I could not is the answer.

M. just helped me move the beast up the stairs. And that called for an immediate, insulin-frenzying doughnut excursion. And of course, more Peet's.

I was going to get a tall chair for it, but standing at it now with the mirrored closet right behind me (that I can turn around to and speak with), I'm feeling like Hemingway was really onto something. Standing at a tall desk is the most! (Is this the sugar and caffeine speaking maybe? TBD. Stay tuned.)

p.s. As of yesterday, I've also given up my swashbuckling ways and gotten my own DSL. Seems like good California commies like our lot should be able to share signals, but it's just as well that my neighbors no longer need to compete with my incessant need for their bandwidth. Avast, mateys, it's clear sailing ahead! This barnacle's shoving off! (And so on. Eufemia, where are you when I need your help with all this piratical talk?)

i'm so lost

So the Emmys are coming up in a little over a week and Lost is nominated for six of 'em. It's true. I'm a Lostie. I can't help myself.

I have watched the show and watched it all over again. The first season had me gripping pillows and screaming aloud. Lost is the only TV show I've seen in its totality multiple times.

(Hmm ... That may not be true. I've probably seen all the episodes of Three's Company, though it's not a claim I can validate. My memories are just chock-full of hours spent sitting sort of stupefied, eating cheese, drinking Shirley Temples, and laughing at Jack Tripper. Come to think of it, if Three's Company qualifies (I hated missing that opening soundtrack), then Star Trek probably does, too. Oh, and of course, Dukes of Hazzard.)

Lost's backstory and hidden narrative elements all heavily inform the developing structure of my short story collection. An odd set of influences I've got: Alice Mattison, William Faulkner, Louise Erdrich, and the Lost writers. What can I say?

Don't think I'm ashamed of it. There's no question that the provenance of my story structure is one to be proud of. The writers know hooks and angles. Turns out, no surprise, they have interesting taste in books, too. The writers recently posted their favorite novels on the Lost site. I've read every one of their all-time favorites (not that hard, lots of classics in there) and was so surprised and delighted to see The Moviegoer on there. What a strange book that is, full of oddball questy business, and how far it's managed to travel! Man, The Road, that book was tough stuff. I made the mistake of bringing that with me to Italy. Not not not a beach read, but I'd burned through all the other books I brought and so the back-pocket, plane-ride-home book had to come out.

Well, anyway, Emmys are up September 16th. Here are the writers' book choices, if yr interested.

All-time favorite novels:

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
Frannie and Zooey by J.D Salinger
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
American Tabloid by James Ellroy


Books that the Lost writers are currently reading:

So You're Going to Be a Dad by Peter Downey and Nik Scott
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
John Adams by David McCulloch
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War by Robert L. Beisner
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

Thursday, September 06, 2007

make believe: gone apple pickin'

So we’re in that peculiar post-summer summer season unique to the Bay Area. The fog that I love so much has officially given the game over to that Satanic, sticky, will-wilting heat that refuses to abate, the swelter that clings even to my arms as I scrabble for water bottles and any show of climatic temperance.

(An aside: come to think of it, this heat presents me with an ideal solution for a recent problem. My father's just visited me and I think the shirt I wore to the A's game--it read "New Jersey: Only the Strong Survive"--really bummed him out; he's got big pride of place (he, by the way, wore his DiMaggio jersey and Yanks hat). So it seems only appropriate that I cover the "New Jersey" in masking tape and write "California" in its place. Loverly.)

... Anyway, I for one—so that we’re clear on this—object to this damned heat. Stow me away in an Alpine cabin, shake snow from the eaves just over my windowsill, ply me with hot cider and a few decent books, and I am yours forever. That’s the dream. The reality: I suffer and sweat and snooze my solitary way through these spirit-dousing, Mojavian high temps as I do every ding dang late San Francisco summer. (Would that that wintry-haired old Twain really had said, and really would have been right in saying, that "the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.")

Oh! The heat. Bastard Zeus and his bolt-throwing, tube-sock-wearing weather team. Bastardy bastards. Have I no choice but to roll with this insufferable tropicality and pretend I didn’t burn, even from behind tinted windows? In fact, I do. I can set my sights instead on the future. What to ponder? Ah, yes. Harvest time. Even the phrase has a redemptive autumnal tone.

I will think of apples and squash and pumpkins on my plate and in my soup bowl, maybe all of them together. I will praise the nightshades. Having moved into an apartment, though, I have no garden to watch for the first time in many years. (Hence, you have witnessed the lunatic doting on indoor orchids that rightly belong on the other side of the equator. Hmm.) A stumper. How to autumnate? I will walk into my kitchen and see what’s there from this last farmers’ market:

Two tomatoes (zebra, Cherokee) with the freakish lumps that signify heirloom
Fingerling potatoes
Spring onions, garlic, shallots
Roundabout a dozen assorted stonefruits, two threatening to abandon themselves to wrinkles and worse if I don't hurry up about it ...

I browse around among other items, and come to it: the perfect, singular apple in its own bowl. This is the thing for which I will plan: apple picking.

Like an apple on the tree
hiding out behind the leaves,
I was difficult to reach
But you picked me.

Indeed. I’ll give you two apple poems by two Roberts. The first is Frost’s lesser-known, better apple poem, in my opinion. Am I the only one that reads it as a kind of ode to love unconsummated?


A scent of ripeness from over a wall.
And come to leave the routine road
And look for what had made me stall,
There sure enough was an apple tree
That had eased itself of its summer load,
And of all but its trivial foliage free,
Now breathed as light as a lady’s fan.
For there there had been an apple fall
As complete as the apple had given man.
The ground was one circle of solid red.
May something always go unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan,
Apples or something forgotten and left,
So smelling their sweetness would be no theft.

—R. Frost

And now there's Bly. I’ve seen him read a few times and however much ridiculous, manly bluster he brings, I continue to admire the importance of (some of!) his ideas and the grace of his phrasings. He leaves nothing of life's difficulty out--it's all here: the wisdom gleaned in transit, the conscious thoughts of culpability, the regret, the deepest need for communion, the growth and fatigue, the transience of our most important opportunities.

Passing an Orchard by Train

Grass high under apple trees,
The bark of the trees rough and sexual,
the grass growing heavy and uneven.

We cannot bear disaster, like
the rocks—
swaying nakedly
in open fields.

One slight bruise and we die!
I know no one on this train.
A man comes walking down the aisle.
I want to tell him
that I forgive him, that I want him
to forgive me.

—R. Bly

So. I'll be here. With all the intervals of weight and levity that tip the scales of my mind, I'll do what I can to return to the thought of apple picking, reveling: the heat is present, just as warm as we want it to be. The sun is gentle, hanging back, and the apples are not at all difficult to reach. It’s the perfect moment to be alive. And yes, of course. It's just the right thing to be doing.

the matter of life and death

My apartment is blacktop-in-the-sun hot. And despite keeping both fans going 24/7, I see it has had its effect.

As disappointing as it is to see the blooms on the spidey orchid show me their first, barely visible signs of imminent collapse (slightest tint shift and curl of the long elf foot sepals), they're giving off a hell of a scent. I'm transported: wild orchids on the road to Hana. Yes!

Well godspeed, orchids. Let me breathe it in. (Now if i could only find my imaginary way to those waterfalls we swam under.)

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

opp & the olivettis

Four of my best mates have signed on for the Oilcan Pen Pals project. Rationale: my mental machinery works best as a standalone unit, but the social tune-ups, however much I try to avoid them with guarded, excessive alone time, keep me attuned, adaptive, curious. So all that means is it’s time: I haven’t had a steady pen pal since the fourth grade and my Underwood’s grumbly and lonesome for work these days. What a good day to shop for stamps.

I don’t get to have tea and cake with some of my favorite folks flung all around the country and at various intl outposts, so we’ll trade leisurely letters on all things literary (and whatever else there is). I’ll diversify it: origami, pressed weeds, treasured shadow box item giveaways, poems, poems, poems, rocks, clippings, and thoughts on both the swirling plastic flotsam and the anchored rustbuckets at my life’s noble, oceanic depths.

And for you and yours, I’ll post whatever’s permitted by way of excerpts and exhibitions, as it occurs to me.