from If on a winter's night a travelerItalo CalvinoThe professor is there at his desk; in the cone of light from a desk lamp his hands surface, suspended, or barely resting on the closed volume, as if in a sad caress."Reading," he says, "is always this: there is a thing that is there, a thing made of writing, a solid, material object, which cannot be changed, and through this thing we measure ourselves against something else that is not present, something else that belongs to the immaterial, invisible world, because it can only be thought, imagined, or because it was once and is no longer, past, lost, unattainable, in the land of the dead. . . . "
Monday, August 31, 2009
Sunday, August 30, 2009
If Alice Munro had never existed, part of the soul of Canada would have remained inarticulate, forgotten, submerged. The locus of this Canadian scene rendered so powerfully in her fiction is rural Southwestern Ontario, settled by Scotch Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Methodists from the north of England. . . . But everything in her world comes back to that small-town milieu of pokey little stores, dull Sunday-afternoon dinners with aunts and uncles, a mentality made up of respect for hard work, resentment of show-offs and dim memories of Calvinist terrors.
Friday, August 28, 2009
"I can't say that I expected anything but the usual when I read her a few selections from Boy Land last night, seeing how anything (a) I'm a fan of and (b) has been published in the past 70 years seems not appeal to her whatsoever.
"But oh, oh, the shock and awe! She was raving on how 'fantastic' it was, asked me to borrow it, and returned it to me a few hours later commenting that you were 'like a painter, but with words.' Yes! You inspired her to attempt a metaphor of her own!
So, you've charmed my grandmother, Dawn. To understand the immensity of this achievement, let me just tell you that this is the woman that read an issue of the Beloit Poetry Journal and called the poets featured 'a bunch of weirdos.'"
Ode on Melancholy
No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut they sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
August 15 was the one-year anniversary of this blog, and I can't decide if I feel like I've just started the project or have been writing these posts forever. So in honor of the blog's birthday, and of the Harmony Free Fair--which at this time of year infects the citizens of Harmony like typhoid--I will once again post "The Skillet Toss," a poem from Boy Land that appeared in my first post.
But I also have some questions for you. Is this blog interesting? Should I keep writing it? Should I make changes? And if so, what? Writers are, by their nature, self-involved; yet they also want to communicate, to converse, to share. I want this blog (have I mentioned how much I hate the word blog?) to be an open letter to you, newsy yet not self-indulgent. So if I can do better, please let me know.
The Skillet Toss
Harmony Fair, September 2002
A loose, laughing huddle of women
gathers alongside a swath of packed dirt,
hot children milling underfoot
clutching half-empty cans of soda;
and now husbands drift over, and we
arrive, who don’t throw skillets,
ready to cheer on our friend Tina,
who baby-sits our kids and doesn’t take shit.
Ask the contestants what they’re aiming at
this year, they’ll all say husbands.
Men are proud to have a wife who can
fracture skulls, if she thinks it’s worth her while.
They watch, amused but unsurprised—
married too long to doubt the plain lack
of vanity a high school sweetheart
acquires by forty. Tina practices her swing,
all knees and elbows under the sun;
the crowd watches, relaxed
and easy-tempered in the heat,
last hurrah of a Maine summer:
such weather can’t last; frost on the way:
in this town we never forget January;
so oh, the pleasure now of watching
sweat run down a brown arm,
first arc of a skillet in the heavy air
and the slow rise of dust when it lands:
Applause, laughter; Tina wipes
her forehead and takes aim for the next,
all eyes on her target: invisible Everyman
in the haze, asking for it, his voice
a low grumble of content, like oxen
flicking their tails in the barn—
and just fool enough to turn his back,
bare elbows propped on the fence,
watching a couple of ponies drag
their burden of concrete across the ring.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Leo’s eleven, but he still can’t write “Leo.”
He throws a pencil at me.
“You write the poem,” he says.
He frowns and leans back in his chair
and shuts his eyes.
In the flat autumn light, his glasses
shed a watery glow. His freckles tremble.
Leo always likes to keep me waiting.
After a minute he growls,
“Big heifers in the corn again,
And them horses
After a minute he snarls,
“Coyote snitched the rawhide.
Grab a gun and blast him,
Then skin him up.”
Twenty other kids breathe hard,
scribble, and erase. Danyell chews
on the end of a pen and sighs gustily.
“Can I make this up?” she complains.
Leo slouches and crosses his arms
over his bony ribs. He opens his eyes
and smiles in a superior manner.
In his view, imagination sucks.
What matters in a poem
is you tell it like it happened
but you leave out the crap.
He jerks his chin up,
looks me over, slitty-eyed. He says,
“I do something I do it right!”
When that bell screams,
he’s number one out the door.
[forthcoming in How the Crimes Happened (CavanKerry Press, 2010)].
Monday, August 24, 2009
Ode on Indolence
“They toil not, neither do they spin.”
One morn before me were three figures seen,
With bowed necks, and join’d hands, side-faced;
And one behind the other stepp’d serene,
In placid sandals, and in white robes graced;
They pass’d, like figures on a marble urn,
When shifted round to see the other side;
They came again; as when the urn once more
Is shifted round, the first seen shades return;
And they were strange to me, as may betide
With vases, to one deep in Phidian lore.
How is it, Shadows! that I knew ye not?
How came ye muffled in so hush a mask?
Was it a silent deep-disguised plot
To steal away, and leave without a task
My idle days? Ripe was the drowsy hour;
The blissful cloud of summer-indolence
Benumbed my eyes; my pulse grew less and less;
Pain had no sting, and pleasure’s wreath no flower:
O, why did ye not melt, and leave my sense
Unhaunted quite of all but—nothingness?
A third time came they by;--alas! wherefore?
My sleep had been embroider’d with dim dreams;
My soul had been a lawn besprinkled o’er
With flowers, and stirring shades, and baffled beams:
The morn was clouded, but no shower fell,
Tho’ in her lids hung the sweet tears of May;
The open casement press’d a new-leav’d vine,
Let in the budding warmth and throstle’s lay;
O Shadows! ’twas a time to bid farewell!
Upon your skirts had fallen no tear of mine.
A third time pass’d they by, and, passing, turn’d
Each one the face a moment whiles to me;
Then faded, and to follow them I burn’d
And ached for wings because I knew the three;
The first was a fair Maid, and Love her name;
The second was Ambition, pale of cheek,
And ever watchful with fatigued eye;
The last, whom I love more, the more of blame
Is heap’d upon her, maiden most unmeek,--
I knew to be my demon Poesy.
They faded, and, forsooth! I wanted wings:
O folly! What is Love! and where is it?
And for that poor Ambition! it springs
From a man’s little heart’s short fever-fit;
For Poesy!—no,--she has not a joy,--
At least for me,--so sweet as drowsy noons,
And evenings steep’d in honied indolence;
O, for an age so shelter’d from annoy,
That I may never know how change the moons,
Or hear the voice of busy common-sense!
So, ye three Ghosts, adieu! Ye cannot raise
My head cool-bedded in the flowery grass;
For I would not be dieted with praise,
A pet lamb in a sentimental farce!
Fade softly from my eyes, and be once more
In masque-like figures on the dreamy urn;
Farewell! I yet have visions for the night,
And for the day faint visions there is store;
Vanish, ye Phantoms! from my idle spright,
Into the clouds, and never more return!from John Keats: A BiographyWalter Jackson BateThe interest of the poem lies in the unexpected confessions that emerge in the last two stanzas. . . . Throughout the autumn he had been able to take the reviews of Endymion in his stride, partly because of the daily anxiety about [his tubercular, dying brother] Tom and partly because he was so preoccupied with Hyperion, which was then going forward rapidly. But in the months that followed the death of Tom, moments of misgiving and self-uncertainty had multiplied. . . . It was not only the need to earn a livelihood, sharp as it was, that was creating such a hurdle of discouragement. What had the months brought otherwise since he had returned from the north? The odes had indeed reawakened some of his confidence, more than he knew at the time. But the really large effort of Hyperion . . . had trailed off into nothing. It, or "some grand Poem," was the essential thing. When he said (June 9) that he had "been very idle lately, very averse to writing," partly because of "the overpowering idea of our dead poets," he was not speaking of the two or three weeks that had passed since the odes of early May. He was thinking of all the months that had passed since the bulk of Hyperion was written.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Sue Kaufman's Diary of a Mad Housewife, in an early book club edition, with dust jacket and peculiar author's photo.Not dedicated to Betty Friedan.Price: $1.99.First 3 sentences: "It is nine-fifteen on this hot September morn, hotter than any summer day we had. All the windows are open and soot, like fallout, is drifting in and settling everywhere. Outside this bedroom door, which I've locked, the apartment is empty and unpleasantly still."Italo Calvino's, If on a winter night a traveler, in a grubby but still cohesive paperback edition.Book epigraph contains a translator's note explaining that "in Chapter Eight the passage from Crime and Punishment is quoted in the beloved translation of Constance Garnett," thus intensifying the curious translator layers while lifting my spirits [see my War and Peace essay for more on my Constance Garnett habit].Price: $1.99--far too expensive when compared with the fine Kaufman edition above.First 3 sentences plus interrupting imperatives, which sort of count as sentences: "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade."
Saturday, August 22, 2009
Friday, August 21, 2009
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
"I had been deliberately living in the wilderness; that is, doing work I could never really love, precisely because I was afraid that I might fall in love with my work and then forever afterwards be one of those sad, faded myriads among the intelligentsia who have always had vague literary ambitions but have never quite made it.""I am surrounded by people who have not chosen themselves . . . but who have let themselves be chosen--by money, by status symbols, by jobs--and I don't know which are sadder, those who know this or those who don't. This is why I feel isolated from most people--just isolated, most of the time. Occasionally content to be so.""Money makes me happy to the extent that it brings me more time to write. But it also brings me proportionately sharper doubts about my ability to write; existentialist doubts about whether I have really earned the freedom to write.""Writing has always been with me a semireligious occupation, by which I certainly don't mean that I regard it with pious awe, but rather that I can't regard it simply as a craft, a job. I know when I am writing well that I am writing with more than the sum of my acquired knowledge, skill, and experience; with something from outside myself.""Writing is active, and the kind of writing I have always admired, and shall always want to achieve, makes reading active too--the book reads the reader, as radar reads the unknown. And the unknown ones, the readers, feel this."
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Monday, August 17, 2009
Sunday, August 16, 2009
We mow, rake, bale, and draw the balesto the barn, these late, half-green,improperly cured bales; some weigh 150 poundsor more, yet must be lugged by the twineacross the field, tossed on the load, and thenat the barn unloaded on the conveyorand distributed in the loft. I help--I, the desk-servant, word-worker--and hold up my end pretty well too; but God,the close of day, how I fall down then. . . .
Saturday, August 15, 2009
"Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act."
Friday, August 14, 2009
"The Greatest Novel of America Ever Written""A thundering novel of the men and women who risked their lives to forge a new country. Through these exciting pages sweeps the grand panorama of America in the making.""GENUINE MAGNIFICENCE . . . moves on a plane of understanding and perception that only the best kind of historical fiction achieves. --Bernard DeVoto, Saturday Review""AN ENORMOUS TALE IN EVERY SENSE OF THE WORD--IN LENGTH, IN BREADTH OF ACTION AND INTENSITY . . . AN IMPRESSIVE BOOK--A TREMENDOUS STORY" --Chicago Tribune"
Thursday, August 13, 2009
from LycidasJohn MiltonI come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,And with forc'd fingers rudeShatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Back in Boston, the Sunday Globe proclaimed him MOST PROMISING POET IN 100 YEARS . . . MAY BE GREATER THAN JAMES AND AMY. And the paper carried a comment from "Robert Traill Spence Lowell, Annapolis graduate, retired navy officer and stockbroker"; "Poets," Lowell's father said, "seem to see more in his work than most other people."
Sunday, August 9, 2009
Friday, August 7, 2009
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Spring SicknessMilly JourdainThe starlings clustered on the treesAre gurgling in the rain;From garden beds the white snow slips,Leaving them bare again.When shines the sun upon the earth,And spring is everywhere;Like Paradise, the apple treesAre fresh and scent the air.The spring will come to this gray town,That stretches to the brinkOf rivers where the trees grow greenAnd almonds flush with pink.A wish is mine, so fierce and vain,A sudden wish to runWhere thrushes sing, and near the hedgeAre celandines in the sun.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Signage. What is wrong with "signs," I ask you?Utilize. Used when "use" is just not fancy enough.Deployment. Among academic writers, routinely utilized as a synonym for "employment." I am not joking.Gazillion. As in "If you publish my book, we'll sell gazillions of copies."Prior to. Theodore Bernstein, author of The Careful Writer, asks: "Would you say posterior to in place of after?"
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Monday, August 3, 2009
from Ubi Sunt Qui Ante Nos Fuerunt? [translated by the first line, if that's any help]Anonymous (c. 1275)Where beth they beforen us weren,houndes ladden and havekes beren,and hadden field and wode?The riche levedies in their bower,that werenden gold in their tressour,with their brighte rode?Eten and drunken and maden them glad;their life was all with gamen i-lad;men keneleden them beforen;they bearen them well swithe high.And in the twinkling of an eyetheir soules weren forloren.Where is that laughing and that song,that trailing and that proude yong,those havekes and those houndes?All that joy is went away,that weal is comen to weylaway,to manye harde stoundes.