Monthly Archives: June 2020

10 posts

“The Comfort of Being Strangers”

porch

The word “lovely” is old-fashioned and antiquated. Still, I consider it an old stand-by when referring to poems that successfully dance on the edge of abstraction and sentiment.

Abstraction and sentiment, you see, live on the precipice. One false move and over they go, much like Wiley Coyote with his lead parachute manufactured by Acme. My hat’s off, then, to poets who take risks, and one who engaged in risky business early and often is Mark Strand. As a for instance, let’s read together:

 

The Night, the Porch
Mark Strand

To stare at nothing is to learn by heart
What all of us will be swept into, and baring oneself
To the wind is feeling the ungraspable somewhere close by.
Trees can sway or be still. Day or night can be what they wish.
What we desire, more than a season or weather, is the comfort
Of being strangers, at least to ourselves. This is the crux
Of the matter, which is why even now we seem to be waiting
For something whose appearance would be its vanishing —
The sound, say, of a few leaves falling, or just one leaf,
Or less. There is no end to what we can learn. The book out there
Tells us as much, and was never written with us in mind.

 

If poetry is the art of stating truths we hold to be self-evident — only in a manner we’ve never seen before — then Strand is your man. For a dark poem, “The Night, the Porch” is deceptively light.

For starters we have that “nothing” in L1, the one we learn by heart by staring at. It’s the same nothing we’re all being swept into, according to the speaker, once our brief terms here are done.

What really gets me is the “crux / Of the matter,” defined here as “the comfort / Of being strangers, at least to ourselves.” I had to mull on that one for awhile. How is there any comfort in being a stranger to yourself? But then I recalled the words of the prophets: “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” (St. Bono) and “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (St. Henry David). Surely that “stranger” is the construct we always hoped we would be.

And so we wait. And wait. For something as subtle as the sound of leaf fall. For something “whose appearance would be its vanishing,” which is a roundabout way of saying something both impossible and impossibly lovely.

Why is the impossible so alluring, you ask? Perhaps it is akin to hope. Perhaps it is one of the things that keeps us going in life. At the end of his book, The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway has Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes — lovers doomed to never love — look each other in the eye and agree on this sentiment: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Yes, it is, no matter what “it” is. And acknowledging as much is like learning from a book that was “never written with us in mind.”

We just think it was, as is our prerogative.

 

The Special Day We Don’t Know (Yet)

birthday

From an early age, we are attuned to our special day, our birthday. We remember nothing of that perilous journey, of course, but our mothers will be happy to fill in all the missing details.

Over time, birthdays devolve into a familiar ritual of well-wishes, birthday gifts, and a fiery cake accompanied by a monotonous ditty. They also become reminders of the approaching other.

Think about it. Each year we lap another special day on the calendar, our birth date’s dark cousin (a. k. a. “the other”). Each year it smiles as we pass, nodding its head in that knowing way. This would be that patient trickster known as our death day.

After both are revealed, commemorating one special day over another can be a problem. The Kennedy family, for instance, would prefer that people not remember President John Fitzgerald Kennedy by the date of his assassination: November 22nd. They’d prefer people celebrate JFK’s life on his birthdate: May 29th. Unfortunately, people of an age (read: “old”) only think of the man on 11-22 because of ’63.

W. S. Merwin wrote a poem about the special day allotted to each of us — the one we choose to ignore. It is called, appropriately enough, “For the Anniversary of My Death.”

 

For the Anniversary of My Death
W. S. Merwin

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

 

The first stanza is the living speaker, the second the speaker familiar with his formerly secret “deathday.” Stanza one offers some alliteration (“will wave” and “Tireless traveller”) as well as a rather oxymoronic contrast via simile: “Like the beam of a lightless star.”

I like how silence is depicted as a tireless traveller happy to never break its silence for eternity. If you’ve ever been frustrated by the dead’s refusal to yield up their secrets, you can identify.

In the second stanza, we get the wonderful metaphor of life as a “strange garment,” which makes sense given we exist for an eternity before birth and will exist again for an eternity after death. Clearly non-existence is the more familiar of garments.

As for life, it’s the mere blip between. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, a man attuned to his approaching secret day, pounds away at this fact of death (you thought I was going to say “life”?).

Merwin remains in the abstract with the “love of one women” and “the shamelessness of men” (something news readers and students of history can relate to). Then he shifts to the concrete with the last three lines.

Here we have three days of rain. Here we have a wren singing and “the falling cease / And bowing not knowing to what.” The word “falling” is nifty in that it ostensibly refers to the aforementioned rain but works just as well for the more Biblical falling of man. You know, the broken contract, wherein Adam & Eve lost their franchise, The Garden of Eden, and got stuck with this problematic death thing along with a host of other woes. Thanks, Adam & Eve.

As for “not knowing to what,” that brings us around to the great mystery again, the driving force behind all great literature: death. And yes, death will have its day.

Anyway, it’s a small outing for Merwin written in his characteristic, no-punctuation style, but I like how it reminds us of the thing we prefer to ignore, especially in modern day. Death was more a part of living in olden times. People were waked in the living room (ironically) of their homes, then buried by family.

Now the dying are hustled out of sight into nursing homes and hospitals. Funeral parlors are paid outrageous sums to take care of everything so the living can continue to pretend that they are immortal, even though they logically know they are not.

Birthday, Deathday. We should all wish ourselves a happy one of each and remind ourselves we’ll be blowing out the candles for good come “the other.”

 

Lines That Stand On Their Own

matthews

Sometimes you come up with a beautiful line or turn of phrase for a poem and then construct a not-so-beautiful poem around it.

Reading a collection of William Matthews poems, I noticed he found a solution for this. If he couldn’t make the poem worthy of the line, he gave the line its own principality and crowned it a “One-Liner.”

Here are a few “One-liners” shared in the Matthews book I’ve been dabbling in:

 

THE NEEDLE’S EYE, THE LENS

Here comes the blind thread to sew it shut.

LUST ACTS

But desire is a kind of leisure.

SLEEP

border with no country

HOW CAREFUL FIRE CAN BE

is not for fire to tell

SPIRITUAL LIFE

To be warm, build an igloo

NO TRUE RHYME IN ENGLISH FOR “SILVER”

“Pilfer” is true enough for me

DAWN

Insomnia, old tree, when will you shed me?

WHY I DIDN’T NOTICE IT

The moss on the milk is white

PREMATURE EJACULATION

I’m sorry this poem’s already finished

THE PAST

Grief comes to eat without a mouth

SNOW

The dead are dreaming of breathing

 

Random Thoughts for Another Midsummer Night’s Eve

midsummer

  • But two days left to spring and then the longest day of the year on Sat., the 20th. Only why do they call it “Midsummer” (as in “Night’s Eve”) if it’s the first day of summer? I’ve always wanted to ask a learn’d astronomer that, but they all went into hiding after the Walt Whitman poem. Just, meet deserts!
  • Read in the paper where an epidemiologist said that “Covid-19 is only in the 2nd inning, yet people are behaving as if the ballgame is over!” Human nature, I want to say. I mean, people went three whole months without a haircut or manicure so what do you expect! Is it any wonder they have come up with their own ad hoc conclusions? Is it any wonder a few picked up their Second Amendments, stormed state capitals, and whined, “Don’t Tread On Me!” and “Liberty!” (Insert eye roll here.)
  • Speaking of ad hoc conclusions and Midsummer, Saturday also brings the prospect of thousands of people in Tulsa, Not OK, exposing themselves to each other and the president at a political rally that’s about as necessary as mosquitoes.
  • Funny how the president once cancelled bombing raids on Iran because there’d be “too many body bags,” but now is full steam ahead on creating Covid’s favorite conditions (crowds in close proximity shouting and cheering and laughing at horrible jokes) among his fellow Americans, which may lead to body bags (and one would be one too many). Honestly, I hope no one gets seriously ill due to this stupidity, but the collision of irony and ignorance is beyond frustrating.
  • In 2018, I wrote a poem about Blueberry the Duck in Lost Sherpa of Happiness. This duck showed up near my legs as I stood in the water picking from a shoreline blueberry bush (she was patiently waiting for “droppers,” which she promptly scooped up). Today Blueberry D. returned, only with 8 ducklings in tow. I was on the dock reading Carson McCullers when I heard a quack on the dock behind me. There she stood halfway between me and the stairs into the water where her charges were cleaning themselves fastidiously, four ducklings to a step. No other duck would have been so comfortable. Only a duck with blueberry memories, I figured. When I turned in my seat to look at her, she simply looked back with that bill of goods of hers. You know. The kind that says, “S’up? Seen any blueberries lately?”
  • Back in March, I was despondent over the loss of televised March Madness due to Covid-19. I was sad to see Major League Baseball’s spring training disappear, too. Only now, some four months into this mess, I’m not missing baseball (or much any other sport) in the least. Who says pandemics don’t change people? The only question being, is it for the better? (And if more time for reading and writing means “better,” the answer is apparently “yes”!)
  • Today I ate a raw rhubarb stalk for the first time. The leaves are poisonous. The stalks are safe. And sour. Really sour.
  • Also today, the deer fly arrived. When you do a daily four miles in the Maine summer (as is my wont mornings), deer fly are happy to accompany you all the way, constantly buzzing your head and landing where opportunity offers. Deer fly bite. You can read that two ways.
  • Hot black coffee on a 90-degree day oddly cools at about the same rate as it does in a 65-degree house in winter. I think this was a Galileo experiment in the Tower of Pisa (coffee leaning in the mug).
  • Today I received a reply from a prospective poetry publication the same day I sent my submission in. The editor said he was turning it back because, after listing in Submittable, they had been inundated with submissions. I replied, “Why not take the listing off Submittable, then, so as to not waste other writers’ time not to mention yours?” I said it nicely. Really. And like to think he took it that way.
  • But probably it was an auto reply and he never took it any way.
  • An adolescent snapping turtle has moved into the neighborhood. A few years back it was a Northern Water Snake. I’m not sure which is worse, but I’m sure my naturalist friends would tell me both play an important part in the local ecosystem. More important than me, they’d add.
  • It’s always sobering to be told you rate somewhere below amphibians and reptiles in the scheme of things.
  • The further north you travel in Maine, the fewer masks you see in stores. Like New York, Maine has an upstate identity quite different from its southern one. In Massachusetts, its the west (Berkshires) vs. the east (Boston area), but in that case both enclaves are bluer than blue. Not so New York and Maine.
  • I saw a baby mink this week. If you thought puppies and kittens were cute, you haven’t seen a baby mink.
  • This used to be the time of year school ended in the northern U.S. No sooner does summer vacation commence when days start getting shorter. At the time, it seemed like the new play, A Midsummer Night’s Dirty Trick: Shakespeare’s Sequel.
  • What? Friday already? As you age, tempus has a way of fugiting more and more.
  • I’ve heard some older folks grump about 18 months of their lives lost to this damn pandemic thing as they are forced to hunker down, live like hermits, and not have fun or get to see the grandkids, to which I can only logically say, “I hear you and sympathize because I hate it, too. That said, 18 months is better than eternity if you let your guard down and catch this thing. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but E=MC Squared (Eternity = Months & Centuries Squared)!”
  • Somehow that is of little solace. Meanwhile, we await the 3rd inning.

“This Ridiculous and Undignified Early Death”

hudgins

I like to meet new poets via their poems (the antisocial distancing aspect is an extra benefit). This weekend, via The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry edited by Rita Dove, I met a poet named Andrew Hudgins via his poem “We Were Simply Talking.”

This poem did something I did in a poem of my own a few years back, only it did it better. That’s OK. I can learn from that. Still, the fact that we have the same sentiments about the same topics speaks loudly, meaning there will have to be further exploration of Hudgins’ work. Let’s take a look at the poem, shall we?

 

We Were Simply Talking
Andrew Hudgins

We were simply talking, probably work, or relatives
or even Christmas presents, when the car slid
and I corrected, fishtailed and I corrected, then we were gone,
sliding sideways, sliding backward on black ice
and staring into the grill of a diesel tractor, also sliding,
and in that instant I was ready to die.
I saw my wife and was overjoyed that I had married her,
though our marriage was already falling apart,
and I loved the car, a brown Toyota, loved
being warm in the car while it was white, cold, bitter
out in the world we’d lost control of. I loved
every molecule of breath I wasn’t taking,
and for the moment I forgave myself every sin
and failure of my life, including this
ridiculous and undignified early death.
The car snapped backward into a frozen ditch.
I sat speechless, shaking, my wife speechless also,
and a man pulled up, a salesman: You folks okay?
Suddenly the car radio roared, and by the car
a dog barked wildly and, yes, we were fine.
Fine. We were fine. But what was “fine,” I wondered,
and why do we always, always have to speak?

 

I love in L3 how he literally (in the poem) corrects himself while describing a driving feat that involves correcting. Repetition figures prominently in the end, too, where the “fine” in “we were fine” merits three mentions, as if to be sure, which aptly mimics the situation that just went down.

The details in the middle are interesting, too: about the sliding (heh) marriage, about the brown Toyota, even about the “molecule of breath I wasn’t taking.”

But what gets me is the nugget of wisdom, seemingly incongruous, at the end. What makes it fit here is an oddity — the fact that husband and wife are still speechless with fear.

And finally the repetition of “always” in the final line, how it emphasizes the point that talk ruins so many things in life. In this poem, some time earlier to the car mishap, it was probably the marriage that suffered for it. In mine it was the fact that we sometimes romanticize strangers only because we haven’t heard them talk yet. Once that goes down, forget it.

As Hudgins can tell you, in 99.2% of the cases, it ruins everything.

 

“A Girl Gets Sick of a Rose”

gwendolyn

Gwendolyn Brooks has many well-known poems, but if you were to choose one that most people identify with her work, it would be the infectious little ditty “We Real Cool,” wherein seven pool players at the Golden Shovel get their comeuppance in the form of not-so-cool future elegies.

Me, I prefer Brooks’ ode to teenage rebellion, where she uses the front and back yards (of all things) as metaphors for conformity and resistance. The voice of “We Real Cool” is motherly and ironic, a cool Cassandra calling it like it was, is, and ever shall be. But here the voice is more plaintive and imaginative. A bit less golden shovel, a bit more golden dreams — the type woven from the threads of boredom:

 

A Song in the Front Yard
Gwendolyn Brooks

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.

I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.

They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).

But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.

 

In L3 we see that the weeds are “hungry,” as is the speaker, who’s grown tired of the overly-nurtured flowers in the front yard (“A girl gets sick of a rose”). She’s hungry for a “good time” now, charity children or no. She senses that the authority figures in her life have been denying her both “wonderful things” and “wonderful fun.”

The speaker’s mother — a voice more in line with “We Real Cool” — simply sneers. She knows where “fun” lands the Johnnie Maes and Georges of the world. The young speaker tries to calm her down. She flat-out admits to herself that she’d like “to be a bad woman, too,” though Mom is certainly not getting that version.

And what exactly is a “bad woman,” anyway? You know. The kind who dons “brave stockings of night-black lace.” The kind who gets to “strut down the streets with paint on my face.”

Is that so bad, Ma?

James Dean and Marilyn Monroe would say no, not at all, a girl’s got to live. Like the Sirens in the back yard, they’d call, “Come on over, child. The back yard is life.”

In truth, some children grow up in and eventually cultivate their own front yards, while others light out for the unkept and less predictable back yards connecting to alleys and God knows what. The two plots of land — and the urges they represent — represent human nature.

 

“The Familiar Dust of Summer”

lee

Today’s New York Times contains an article titled “The Poems That Poets Turn to in a Time of Strife.” It includes the recommendations of poets who seek comfort, escape, or fiery calls to action in this amazing spring of righteous upheaval.

Last in the list is my good friend (I met him in Salem, and if you ask him about me, he’ll say, “Who?”) Ocean Vuong’s recommendation. It’s Rose: Poems by Li-Young Lee. Researching Lee, an American poet born to Chinese parents in Jakarta, Indonesia, brought me to a poem that could have come out of Georgia or most any state where peach trees take root (includes New England, my stomping grounds).

Take a look at Lee’s “From Blossoms” and see if you’re like me, someone who plans to seek out his book for further readings.

 

From Blossoms
Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

 

Rather uncanny, how we move from wonderful description of the humble peach to joy. It makes joy, an otherwise wisely-avoided and totally unwieldy topic in poetry, approachable and, contrasted with death, most beautiful indeed, especially seen through the metaphor of blossoms — like lots of things in life, “sweet impossible blossoms.”

“I Love Pretension” and Other Bits of Wisdom

socrates

Here is the last set of quotes I annotated in Mary Ruefle’s collection of essays, Madness, Rack, and Honey (recommended reading):

  • “I remember, in college, trying to write a poem while I was stoned, and thinking it was the best thing I had ever written.

“I remember reading it in the morning, and throwing it out.

“I remember thinking, If W. S. Merwin could do it, why couldn’t I?

“I remember thinking, Because he is a god and I am a handmaiden with a broken urn.”

Comment: Whether it involves an altered state (like Arkansas, which elected Tom Cotton a Senator) or not, we all can identify with this. Certain authors, be they poets or not, just make it look so damn easy. (See Hemingway comma Ernie, for one).

  • “I remember the year after college I was broke, and Bernard Malamud, who had been a teacher of mine, sent me a check for $25 and told me to buy food with it, and I went downtown and bought The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats.

Comment: A wise investment on Mary’s part, choosing food for thought over food for gut. And why didn’t I ever have a famous writer for a professor, one willing to send me checks, even? Instead, I had one that I handed a short story to for critique. He handed it back, saying, “I don’t have time for this.”

  • “I remember the first time I realized the world we are born into is not the one we leave.

Comment: And the corollary — we do not leave as the same person, either. Strangers, they’d be.

  • “They say there are no known facts about Shakespeare, because if it were his pen name, as many believe, then whom that bed was willed to is a moot point. Yet there is one hard cold clear fact about him, a fact that freezes the mind that dares to contemplate it: in the beginning William Shakespeare was a baby, and knew absolutely nothing. He couldn’t even speak.”

Comment: Finally, post-Disney, something Frozen we can embrace!

  • “Socrates said the only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing. It is his basic premise, one from which all his other thoughts come.”

Comment: If only we could find a politician with such basic premises. Instead, we have the makings of a book: The Arrogance and the Ignorance.

  • “And I came to believe — call me delusional — that no living poet, none, could teach us a single thing about poetry for the simple fact that no living poet has a clue as to what he or she is doing, at least none I have talked to, and I have talked to quite a few. John Ashbery and Billy Collins can’t teach you a thing, for the simple fact that they are living. Why is that, I wondered. I mean I really wondered. I think it is because poets are people — no matter what camp they sleep in — who are obsessed with the one thing no one knows anything about. That would be death.”

Comment: And to follow through, living people know nothing about death. And to those who think my first two poetry collections are dark and depressing and overly fraught with the topic of death, I say, “Touché,” which is French for “So there!”

  • “Ramakrishna said: Given a choice between going to heaven and hearing a lecture on heaven, people would choose a lecture.

“That is remarkably true, and remarkably sad, and the same remarkably true and sad thing can be said about poetry, here among us today.”

Comment: Get it? (Me either, but I like it!)

  • “Short Lecture on Craft”

Comment: This the title of a short section in the book. I was so flattered to read this and learned so much about my name!

  • “I love pretension. It is a mark of human earthly abstraction, whereas humility is a mark of human divine abstraction. I will have all of eternity in which to be humble, while I have but a few short years to be pretentious.”

Comment: Very cool. Just keep your pretensions under a bushel because, while they may be fun, they look butt-ugly to lookers-on.

  • “On one piece of paper I had written ‘the difference between pantyhose and stockings’ and I had scanned the statement — with marks — and written ‘the beginnings of an iamb,’ which is bizarre because I can’t scan or recognize an iamb.”

Comment: Thank you. And please forward to all these Unlovely Rita, Meter Maid, poetry editors out there who take their beats so damn seriously and reject any poem not stinking of the Ivory Poetry Tower (ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM).

  • “Insanity is ‘doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.’ That’s writing poetry, but hey, it’s also getting out of bed every morning.”

Comment: Meaning we should celebrate getting out of bed each day as a new poem. Think about it. The bed you rise from, like fingerprints, never quite looks the same. Write  about it!

  • “Now I will give you a piece of advice. I will tell you something that I absolutely believe you should do, and if you do not do it you will never be a writer. It is a certain truth.

“When your pencil is dull, sharpen it.

“And when your pencil is sharp, use it until it is dull again.”

Comment: A fitting end to all of these quotes, though I wonder what the pencil equivalent is to keyboards? Cleaning the damn thing? I mean, really. What could be more disgusting than a keyboard and its lettered-cracks?

 

“Live the Questions Now!”

madness

More quotes — some hers, some others’ — noted in Mary Ruefle’s book Madness, Rack, and Honey:

  • “Robert Frost never wrote a nature poem. He said that. Meaning: there’s more to me than trees and birds. Meaning: there’s more to trees and birds and I know that, so that means there’s more to me, too.”

Comment: Clever, but Robert Frost wrote lots and lots of nature poems, and he can add all the linguistic frosting he wants (pass the ice cream).

  • From Thomas Tranströmer’s long poem “Baltics”:

Sometimes you wake up at night
and quickly throw some words down
on the nearest paper, on the margin of a newspaper
(the words glowing with meaning!)
but in the morning: the same words don’t say anything
anymore, scrawls misspeaking.

Comment: This is true in more places than the Baltics!

  • “I suppose, as a poet, among my fears can be counted the deep-seated uneasiness surrounding the possibility that one day it will be revealed that I consecrated my life to an imbecility.”

Comment: Ruefle goes on to elaborate, but I like the thought much better before any explanation is provided. Let the reader take it and run!

  • Nietzsche: “The degree of fearfulness is the measure of intelligence.”

Comment: Apparently Nietzsche hadn’t heard of FDR, who said, “The only intelligence we have to fear is intelligence itself!” Or something like that. Still, if you subscribe to the notion that fear requires imagination, then I’ll buy some stock.

  • “Shakespeare’s reputation as a god is enhanced tenfold by the mysterious circumstances of his being. As is always the case, the unknown raises the stakes and the stature and the flag of the formidable before which we bow and do worship in unaccountable dread.”

Comment: I’ll agree heartily to this — the unknown enhances everyone and everything. Growing up there was many a girl I fell in love with from afar based on looks alone. The personality and circumstances of her life I made up. If I was unlucky enough to get to know her, the allure disappeared and, with it, the attraction. Notable, then, was the role of silence and mystery, both mine to fill. The minute many of these girls talked especially, everything went poof. It was a no-go. In fairness, it was likely the same for any girls who saw ME from afar and built a suitable mate.

  • Rilke advises we “live the questions now.”

Comment: What the hell does this mean? That’s the question I’m living now.

  • “The wasting of time is the most personal, most private, most intimate form of conversation with oneself.”

Comment: Ruefle has much to praise when it comes to “wasting time.” After all, it’s essential to writing poetry. But you knew that.

  • The great sculptor Giacometti: “I do not know whether I work in order to make something or in order to know why I cannot make what I would like to make.”

Comment: More often, the latter.

  • Sung master Qingdeng, by way of the Vietnamese monk Thich That Hanh: “Before I began to practice, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. After I began to practice, mountains were no longer mountains and rivers were no longer rivers. Now, I have practiced for some time, and mountains are again mountains and rivers are again rivers.”

Comment: This is what’s know in the business as a koan. You don’t know. You know. You learn you don’t know. It just takes you 20 years to admit as much.

  • “Stanley Kunitz has said it gets harder and harder to write, not easier, because your standards and expectations — the limits of your endurance — become higher.”

Comment: If you are your own worst critic, getting better will only make you more critical still, a good problem to have.

  • Pascal: “Runaway thought, I wanted to write it; instead, I write that it has run away.”

Comment: This reminds me of the free-writing advice I used to give to my students: If you can’t think of something to write, write about your inability to think about something to write!

  • Kafka: “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.”

Comment: I don’t know if he meant the books he wrote himself or the books he read. In either case, incredible pressure on the author! I just like the metaphor of a frozen sea within me. It explains the cold look I give my wife whenever she says, “Let’s watch Sanditon together, shall we?”

  • “A poem is a finished work of the mind, it is not the work of a finished mind.”

Comment: This is one of those aphorisms that, when first read, appears deep. On second reading it appears obvious, for but for the grave, when is a mind finished?

Next time we meet, the final installment of annotated text from this thoroughly engaging book. You know how Holden Caulfield wanted to call authors up after he enjoyed their book? I suffer that same affliction. Ms. Ruefle can thank God for unlisted numbers (though I would more likely text or email, and I may be using the “unknown, Shakespearean” aspects of her to make her more compelling than she is.

You Could Look It Up

dictionary

One poetry-reading habit I have is looking up words I don’t know and writing their meanings as marginalia. Yes, I used to avoid writing in my books, as if they were so many sacred Bibles, but then I thought, “Who am I kidding? They actually have more personality when one author makes room for another.”

As an example, thumbing through Dorianne Laux’s Only As the Day Is Long, which I just completed, I came across the unfamiliar words below. If you already know them, or most of them, or even some of them, forgive my ignorance and assume I know some words you don’t. It will feel more democratic (a vanishing feeling) that way.

Line: “Melmac dishes stacked on rag towels.”

Melmac: “Melmac is the name for plastic dinnerware that was created with the use of melamine.First developed in the 1940s, melamine resin is easily molded into a number of different shapes and is extremely durable.”

Line: “The warm days pass, gulls scree and pitch”

scree: (noun) an accumulation of loose stones or rocky debris lying on a slope or at the base of a hill or cliff. Nota bene: obviously not what Laux had in mind, so I’ll take it that the verb “scree” is onomatopoeia.

Line: “…beaks like keloid scars”

keloid: (noun) a thick scar resulting from excessive growth of fibrous tissue

Line: “…those glorious auroras, glassine gowns”

glassine: (noun) a thin dense transparent or semitransparent paper highly resistant to the passage of air and grease

Line: “…the deep scar a gnarl / along the scritch of your chin.”

scritch: dialectal variant of screech (and thus another Laux sound invention)

Line: “Rugose cheeks and beef / jerky jowls”

rugose: a.) full of wrinkles, b.) having the veinlets sunken and the spaces between elevated

Line: “…in a coracle boat”

coracle: (noun) a small boat used in Britain from ancient times and made of a frame (as of wicker) covered usually with hide or tarpaulin

Line: “…and rivers run through, scumbling up the rocks”

scumble: (verb) a.) to make (something, such as color or a painting) less brilliant by covering with a thin coat of opaque or semiopaque color applied with a nearly dry brush; b.) to apply (a color) in this manner

2: to soften the lines or colors of (a drawing) by rubbing lightly
Line: “…as seed onto the friable air”
friable: (adj.) easily crumbled or pulverized
Typically, after looking words up, around 30% will migrate into my short-term memory and 10% into my long-term memory. The other 60% make like Huck and light out for the Territories, never to be heard from again.