Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790)As I was walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity, I collected some of their Proverbs: thinking that as the sayings used in a nation mark its character, so the Proverbs of Hell shew the nature of Infernal wisdom better than any description of buildings or garments.
Monday, September 28, 2009
Sunday, September 27, 2009
ProseWithin the past several years, I have written pieces on Tolstoy's War and Peace, Austen's Mansfield Park, Bowen's The Heat of the Day, Bronte's Shirley, and Dickens's David Copperfield. I have written what may be related essays on Dickens and inspiration; du Maurier, Baldwin, Woolf, and reading clutter; and family stories and the vagaries of memory. I have written a long review of the new Norton sonnet anthology and a shorter review of Milly Jourdain's forgotten collection Unfulfilment. Some of this stuff has been or will be published. In addition, I have written a short essay on being a college fuck-up for the Haverford alumni magazine. I have plans to write more obsessive-rereading essays on Eliot's Mill on the Floss, Mary J. Holmes's Victorian pulp novel Millbank, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I am also thinking of writing about Blake, though I don't obsessively reread his poems.PoetryI have written a long narrative poem called "The Myth of Phaeton" and am working on an even longer one called "The White Bear." I have written ten or twenty sonnets of varying quality, a poem about a Custer-era massacre, and a few lyrics about marriage and frustration. Very little of this material has been published. Since my Milton overload, my ability to compose lyric poetry seems to have been severely compromised. Too early to tell if this is a good thing or not.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
from "No Advantages," in the story collection The View from Castle RockSelf-dramatization got short shrift in our family. Though now that I come to think of it, it wasn't exactly that word they used. They spoke of calling attention. Calling attention to yourself. The opposite of which was not exactly modesty but a strenuous dignity and control, a sort of refusal. The refusal to feel any need to turn your life into a story, either for other people or for yourself. And when I study the people I know about in the family, it does seem that some of us have that need in large and irresistible measure--enough so as to make the others cringe with embarrassment and apprehension. That's why the judgment or warning had to be given out so frequently.
Friday, September 25, 2009
Thursday, September 24, 2009
1. Tell us about your history as poets.2. How did you come to write a memoir?3. What has been exciting for you about writing prose as compared to poetry?4. What has been challenging for you?5. What is your next project?
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
A marriage worth of minutes we’ve stood
side by side, staring into the hooded depths
of your 1984 Dodge Ram pickup truck,
watching the engine chitter and die
for no apparent reason. I feel a crazy,
ignorant joy: here we go again, sweetheart,
struggling in harness over yet another
crappy mystery. Do you? I can’t say I’ll ever
know one way or the other what your thoughts
will do, though twenty years ago I made you cry
when I dumped you for the jerk down the hall,
and I’ll never get over it, the sight of you,
cool autocrat, in tears for a dumb girl
who happened to be me.
Now I’m the one who cries all the time,
you’re the one not walking away from me
down the hall. Just the same, you imagine
walking away, I’m sure of it; maybe when you’re
dragging another snow-sopped log to the chainsaw
pile, or we’re curled in bed waiting for a barred owl
to stammer in the pines, the barn dog shouting back
like a madwoman. It’s not that being here
is misery; it’s more like marriage is too much
and not enough at the same time: the trees crowd us
like children, our bodies betray a fatal longing.
What’s left for us, at forty, but dismay
till labor shakes us back into our yoke.
Work, work, that puritan duty—yet
how beautiful the set of your shoulders
when you heave a scrap of metal siding
into the trash heap. Our bodies linger
this side of lovely, like flowers under glass.
We drive ourselves to endure; on my knees
in the hay mow, stifled and panting,
I plant bale after bale in place: you toss,
you toss, I shove, I shove. We keep pace,
patient and wordless; the goats in their pen
blat irritably. In the yard our sons quarrel.
Mourning doves groan in the eaves.
Long hours ahead, till our job is done
and another begins.
Hunting scattered chickens in the bug-infested dew:
I watch you crouch along the scrubby poplar edge,
then circle back between the apple trees,
white hen skittering ahead, luminescent in the shabby
dark. Suddenly she drops her head and sits,
submissive as a girl. You’ve got her now; tuck up her feet
and carry her back home, then squat to mend the ragged fence.
A breath of sweat rises from your sunburnt neck,
salt and sweet. My love. Marry me, I say. You cast
an eye askance and shrug, I did. How odd it seems
that this is where we’ve landed: chasing chickens
through the woods at twilight, humid thunder rumpling
the summer sky, dishes washed, a slice of berry pie left
cooling on the counter. I’ve been saving it for you.
[from How the Crimes Happened (CavanKerry Press, 2010)].
The Undefiled Bed
Hail wedded Love, mysterious Law, true source
Of human offspring, sole propriety
In Paradise of all things common else.
Though by now we’ve been married for nearly sixteen years, more than once Tom and I have announced over a beer that we’d never do it again. As far as I can tell, neither one of us is hinting at divorce. And as far as I can tell, our declaration isn’t one of those conversational ice chunks that occasionally float up from the marital iceberg: those double-edged couple-ish remarks like “She doesn’t eat parsnips, so I don’t cook parsnips” or “I’ve always left the decorating up to you” or “He’s never enjoyed talking on the phone.” We in fact have an easygoing friendship, don’t argue about child raising, admire each other’s artwork, and can stack hay without quarrelling. So on the surface, it’s strange that we’ve come to this conclusion about what appears to be a flourishing partnership.
I think one source of our antipathy is getting married. This, in itself, is odd because I (and even Tom—though being the skinny, silent type, he winces at the prospect of all overwrought public gatherings) actually enjoy attending weddings. My cousin celebrated his marriage to a remarkably large-breasted girl in a New Jersey firehouse, and that was very fun. My generally self-contained mother drank cheap wine and danced recklessly to “Love Shack.” The bride’s satin skirt ripped out at the waistband during “YMCA” and had to be safety-pinned with much fuss and flurry, while the bride was screeching at Tom, crouched in a corner with his camera, “Hey! Are you taking any good photos of this?” The Presbyterian groom’s family was confused by the ziti and sauce (“Who eats macaroni at a wedding?”), which the bride’s Italian family insisted was de rigueur (“Everybody eats macaroni at a wedding!”).
A wedding is one of the few celebrations in which people of all ages dress up in fancy outfits, consume ridiculous food, pace solemnly up and down aisles, cry in public, sing comic songs, hold hands with their fathers, and do the limbo. What can be wrong with an occasion that jumbles together high ceremony and cheerful absurdity to celebrate a new bond? It seems, in some ways, an ideal amalgam of human social relations.
Yet when I’m chipping away at Paradise Lost and happen across lines like these, where Adam and Eve are getting ready for bed, I feel a twinge of regret:
Observing none, but adoration pure
Which God likes best, into thir inmost bower
Handed they went; and eas’d the putting off
These troublesome disguises which wee wear,
Straight side by side were laid.
For a poet so addicted to syntactic contortion and celestial formality (especially in matters of battle: how he loves a stately clash), Milton’s thoughts about marriage are notably modest, even austere. To begin with, he equates lapsarian marriage with clothes, and he cannot stand “these troublesome disguises.” He’s so vehement, in so many places, about how awful they are that I frivolously begin to wonder if he had a wool allergy, or maybe a mole on the back of his neck that chafed against his collar, or perhaps was married to an inept seamstress. Trivializing is unfair, however, because his diatribes against clothing are, beneath their bluster, some of the most poignant passages in the poem. For to Milton, in our naked glory, humanity most nearly replicates the beauty of the angels:
Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,
Godlike erect, with native Honor clad
In naked Majesty seem’d Lords of all,
And worthy seem’d, for in thir looks Divine
The image of thir glorious Maker shone,
Truth, Wisdom, Sanctitude severe and pure.
In our fallen world, this vision of humanity is not only patently false but even embarrassing. The rare beautiful bodies among us are more renowned for stupidity than for “Truth, Wisdom, Sanctitude severe and pure.” As for the rest of us aging grunts, our flabby, bony, pasty shells seem evidence of both physical and metaphorical ineptitude—a frail, imploding carapace, a monstrous rhinoceros suit, a winding sheet.
Milton’s vision of human beauty charms me, and makes me sad, because unlike our present conceptions of beauty, which are so often narcissistic and self-flagellating and victimized and mob-controlled, his depends on a shared, equivalent gaze. “Straight side by side were laid” may be the starkest description of a marriage bed I’ve ever read, an image more akin to a double funeral than a honeymoon suite. But its starkness is also simplicity, and innocence, and, perhaps most movingly, concentration. Look only at me, my love, and I will look only at you.
Marriage is indeed a concentration: both an unswerving attention to another human being and the distillation, day by day, year by year, of what matters in a shared life. Since a wedding is a sloppy froth of cousins, ribbons, parents, pomp, cake, bad photos, and mishap, it seems like a silly way to begin such an enterprise. But I don’t have anything against silliness, though clearly Milton didn’t care to picture our noble First Parents as gigglers. What I hate is the idea of being looked at by all those wedding guests.
A wedding is a story with lots of characters. A marriage is a story with two. No matter how tightly it intersects with other family divisions—children, parents, cousins, ancestors—marriage itself is a separate world, remote as an island. Scanning the crowd of couples at a local basketball game, I note strange alliances and ponder unanswerable questions: “What does she see in that jerk?” or “How does it feel to wake up every morning next to such an enormous woman?” But I’ll never know. Even children, those greedy observers, never in all their lives understand the secret links and fissures in their parents’ union.
“Straight side by side were laid.” This is what it feels like, marriage, on fine days and on bad days. Lately I tried to have a conversation with Tom on this very subject, as we paused together in the kitchen. The kettle hissed on the woodstove, and he was holding a wet dishtowel. I had propped a basket of folded shirts against my hip. Our sons had shot off into their own orbits, sorting through Legos or listening to Lone Ranger episodes or folding paper airplanes. It was a regular winter evening, cold and dark, and we were pleased to be together, though not talking about it. And then I tried to talk about it and found there was nothing to say. “Of course weddings are nothing like being married,” he said.
“But that’s what I’m trying to write about,” I explained.
“But weddings are nothing like being married,” he said.
I went up to bed feeling confused and disappointed. Had I expected some clarification, some revelation? Was I trying to articulate something too obvious to mention? Or was I misunderstanding some larger, more vital conceit? And then, unexpectedly, Tom followed me to bed almost as soon as I’d gone up—Tom, who likes to haunt the house late and alone: and that was a surprise and a pleasure; for we rarely have a chance to lie awake together, feeling the night chill seep through the window at the foot of the bed, feeling our own warmth seep from one quiet body to the next. And though I still had no clarification, no revelation, what I did have was comfort, the dozy, inarticulate comfort of contiguity, which has nothing to do with passion or epiphany but is a good end to a regular day.
Being fond of both Tom and the conjugal ideal, I find it easy to shuffle among such sentimental snapshots and pretend they render an honest portrait of marriage. Milton wasn’t such a fool. Consider the tale of Sin, the “Portress of Hell Gate,” who is Satan’s daughter, born Athena-like from his head, and also mother of his monstrous son, Death:
I pleas’d, and with attractive graces won
The most averse, thee chiefly, who full oft
Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing
Becam’st enamor’d, and such joy thou took’st
With me in secret, that my womb conceiv’d
A growing burden.
I think Milton intends the amours of Sin and Satan to work as a lewd parody of Eve and Adam’s “bed . . . undefil’d.” But how different is the pure, absorbed, human gaze from Satan and Sin’s “Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing”? As a lapsarian wife, I find the distinction difficult to untangle, though I do see one other significant difference: modest Eve has plenty of unencumbered recreational sex, and flirty Sin instantly gets pregnant, after which everything goes downhill for her.
God intended Eve to be “our general Mother”; and in theory, Milton is all for babies: “Our Maker bids increase, who bids abstain/But our Destroyer, foe to God and Man?” But the poet is squeamish. After Sin gets knocked up, Satan instantly deserts her, and I suspect Milton doesn’t necessarily fault him for sidestepping the mess.
Pensive here I sat
Alone, but long I sat not, till my womb
Pregnant by thee, and now excessive grown
Prodigious motion felt and rueful throes.
At last this odious offspring whom thou seest
Thine own begotten, breaking violent way
Tore through my entrails, that with fear and pain
Distorted, all my nether shape grew
Transform’d: but he my inbred enemy
Forth issu’d, brandishing his fatal Dart
Made to destroy: I fled, and cri’d out Death.
Death proceeds to rape his mother and beget a pack of “yelling Monsters,” and the original unity of two dissolves into pain and chaos and misery.
Is this hell? Or is it family life?
I didn’t fall in love with Tom because I thought he’d make an excellent father of sons. I fell in love with the way the backs of his knees looked as he walked away from me down a dormitory corridor, the way his hair stuck straight up from his forehead in the mornings, the way he never bossed me around or made me play softball, the way he entered into the private lives of housepets, the way he stared up at the sky.
So loading children into a love affair’s two-person rowboat is indeed a kind of hell. The boat rocks dangerously; it runs up against rocks and is menaced by sea serpents. Though I treasure my sons (and got pregnant on purpose), it took me all the years of their babyhood to reconcile myself to their random, interrupting confusions, to their demands and distractions, to how they sucked away my inner life and my married life. Given his high respect for both the unity of two and the fruits of his own imagination, Milton must have found the proximity of a wailing two-year-old in the kitchen nearly unbearable—as indeed, indeed, it is. I have knelt on that kitchen floor myself, wailing alongside that child. With diapers to pin and tantrums to strangle, who has time or space to “Sleep on,/Blest pair”?
If, in my marriage, I’m grateful for our wordless moments of delight, I’m equally irritated and put-upon and distracted, willing to injure and be injured, to bitch when Tom doesn’t wipe the kitchen counters after he’s been roofing all day, to fight jealousy and feed its fires, to lie in bed and hope he’ll be the one who gets up to deal with an unhappy child or a barking dog. Every day, I’m dissatisfied with my lot—sick of sweeping up the mud our boots have dropped, sick of washing the sheets our bodies have crumpled, sick of nurturing the sons we prize.
One day I told Tom I was glad to be married to him, and he said, “If you hadn’t married me, you would have married someone else.” Can you blame me when I cringe at the thought of enduring another wedding? For yes, he’s right. I wanted a husband, and I have one. Therefore, I love him. Such an admission doesn’t do much for my credibility as a well-read woman with feminist proclivities. But how more ambiguous than politics is marriage, “mysterious Law,” “shot forth [with] peculiar graces”—a strange land, a faraway town, a garden, a shelter, a bed.
For all of Milton’s talk about male dominance and female subjection—how Adam’s “fair large Front and Eye sublime declar’d/Absolute rule,” how Eve’s “wanton ringlets . . . impli’d/Subjection”—he knew he had to deal with the biblical facts of the story: Eve talked Adam into eating the apple. “Subjection” may be “impli’d” and “Absolute rule” “declar’d”; yet even in the most autocratic of marriages, the power balance tips and sways, and a covert gesture can topple a fortress. Blame the Fall on Satan if you like, but Adam was already predisposed to please his wife. How could paradise be otherwise? Their perfect marriage was its own undoing.
Here Love his golden shafts imploys, here lights
His constant Lamp, and waves his purple wings,
Reigns here and revels; not in the bought smile
Of Harlots, loveless, joyless, unindear’d,
Casual fruition, nor in Court Amours,
Mixt Dance, and wanton Mask, or Midnight Ball,
Or Serenate, which the starv’d Lover sings
To his proud fair, best quitted with disdain.
These lull’d by Nightingales imbracing slept,
And on thir naked limbs the flow’ry roof
Show’rd Roses, which the Morn repair’d.
Even though I know better, when I read this passage, I want to believe it can be true for Tom and me, despite our lapses and angers. I’ll happily attend your next “Mixt Dance, and wanton Mask, or Midnight Ball,” but more than anything I want to be “lull’d by Nightingales” in my own narrow bed, listening to the vague thump of Tom’s stereo in the darkroom, hoping he’ll remember to stoke the woodstove before he comes up and knowing that, when he does, he’ll embrace me, even though I might be too sound asleep to notice.
To me, the saddest word in the passage is “unindear’d.” The tragedy it implies cuts me to the heart. For it’s endearment, not romance or passion (lovely as both can be), that makes marriage a solace. On a late winter afternoon I sit on the school bleachers with my fidgety son Paul, watching the Harmony boys win their first basketball game of the season, waiting for the fourth period, when the coach will finally let my crabby, benchwarming son James snag two minutes of play. If Tom gets home from work soon enough, if he has time to change his filthy clothes and wash the sheetrock dust out of his sticking-up hair, he’ll drop in; and sure enough, there he is now in the doorway—at forty, still thin and wary as a boy—paying his one dollar, pausing to let the players rush to the other side of the court; and now he’s walking along the edge of the floor, scanning the bleachers, looking for me; and when he catches my eye, he hurries his step; he has a goal, an intention; he scoots up quickly to get out of the players’ path and sits down behind me; I lean back into his knee, and he says, settling his knee against my spine, “You shoveled out my truck.”
And I say, “I did.”
And he says, “They’re winning.”
And I say, “They are.”
“Perpetual Fountain of Domestic sweets.” Why waste all that money on a wedding when this is what you get?
[from Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009)].
Monday, September 21, 2009
TroubleDawn PotterFrom the barren hills a battery of menmarched and stumbled onto the muddy plain,but the wolves, impatient for spring, mistook themfor scrawny oxen and devoured them. Now the women,no longer the wives of heroes, hoard turnips and spoiled loaves.Mice gnaw the empty shelves, grind their yellow teethagainst the split handles of knives and hatchets.Children launch greening potatoes at the anxiouscattle; they throttle the last angry geese. Pale sheep wanderthe bleak forest like ragged deer, tearing twigs and blackenedleaves from the stunted oaks. A sallow pair of lambs huddlesby the half-thawed pool, where a single ancient fish lives outhis cloudy hours, calm, unfixed, a pitcher of silver and lead.At dusk he drifts into the net.[forthcoming in How the Crimes Happened (CavanKerry Press, 2010)].
Sunday, September 20, 2009
from CalamusWalt WhitmanNot heat flames up and consumes,Not sea-waves hurry in and out,Not the air delicious and dry, the air of ripe summer, bears lightly along white down-balls of myriads of seeds,Wafted, sailing gracefully, to drop where they may;Not these, O none of these more than the flames of me, consuming, burning for his love whom I love,O none more than I hurrying in and out;Does the tide hurry, seeking something, and never give up? O I the same,O nor down-balls nor perfumes, nor the high rain-emitting clouds, are borne through the open air,Any more than my soul is borne through the open air,Wafted in all directions O love, for friendship of you.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
from The Heat of the DayElizabeth BowenSo far, his heart had never moved from its place, for it had felt no pull from a moving thing. His attention, as an entirety, was yet perhaps to be daunting, to be reckoned with: up to now it had never been wholly given. His motives were too direct to be called ulterior: he liked going out to tea with families who had a brook through their garden, hypothetical snakes in their uncut grass, collections of any kind in cabinets, a haunted room, a model railway, a funny uncle, a desk with a secret drawer.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Monday, September 14, 2009
Friday, September 11, 2009
from To the LighthouseVirginia WoolfAt that season those who had gone down to pace the beach and ask of the sea and sky what message they reported or what vision they affirmed had to consider among the the usual tokens of divine bounty--the sunset on the sea, the pallor of dawn, the moon rising, fishing-boats against the moon, and children making mud pies or pelting each other with handfuls of grass, something out of harmony with this jocundity and this serenity. There was the silent apparition of an ashen-coloured ship for instance, come, gone; there was a purplish stain upon the bland surface of the sea as if something had boiled and bled, invisibly, beneath. This intrusion into a scene calculated to stir the most sublime reflections and lead to the most comfortable conclusions stayed their pacing. It was difficult blandly to overlook them; to abolish their significance in the landscape; to continue, as one walked by the sea, to marvel how beauty outside mirrored beauty within.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Spring in FebruaryMilly JourdainA damp wind blew from the west over the frozen ground, and for days a cold mist lay on the earth;Then the sun shone out on little drifts of snow-drops in the gardens, and a pleasant wind dried the roads.Coming up the long gray village in the late afternoon, the sound of thrushes singing all round me before the dark fell was like pure water.And I was made more happy than I can say; and my happiness was like their song.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Monday, September 7, 2009
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Saturday, September 5, 2009
Friday, September 4, 2009
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Perhaps [one] reason this story is so compelling is that Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar are Biblical characters who behave like real human beings. With their jealousies and passions, doubts and anxieties, they are among the first in the western assemblage of cultural icons to be racked by such modern ailments as self-doubt and inner turmoil. In this way, their heirs are not only Jacob, Jesus, and Mohammed, but also Hamlet and Ahab, the Reverend Dimmesdale and Isabel Archer, Anna Karenina, Mrs. Dalloway, and Jane Eyre. This is especially true of Abraham, who seems more like an Updike character than an ancient as he stands at his tent, torn between duty and desire, his love for one woman and his responsibility to another, and tormented by faith in a god whose motivations he doesn't always understand.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Books discussed: A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch; Loving by Henry Green; The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen.Thesis (if one can use such a formal word about my slapdash opinionating): That certain 20th-century prose writers carry on the narrative-poem tradition that their 20th-century poet contemporaries (Eliot, Pound, etc.) eschewed. That language and image and poetic structure are essential to these novels, as they were not for the 19th-century novelists.