Sunday, April 29, 2007

Two Sonnets I Associate with Carleton College

The seniors in their black robes, with their troubled
Destinies in their smiles, in a thousand chapels
Now manfully march from childhood into banks,
Shops and offices, with their ranks
Unbroken still, and their eyes front still,
As if in all their classrooms they had learned
Only the virtue of marching, the vice of standing still.

Or so it seems -- or so it seems to those
Who watch them with the knowledge of many such marches
And see in them only the mass, forgetting their own
Halting separateness years ago,
When they found themselves, in those robes, suddenly grown,
And suddenly, flanked by classmates, marching alone.

-- Reed Whittemore

(Longtime chairman of the English department; this poem was published in the June 1963 Voice, where I discovered it while working for the Archives one summer)

I. Nomen, Numen

"Tuncks is a good name. Gerard Manley Tuncks."
-- Gerard Manley Hopkins, from his Journals

I am haplessly hopelessly Hopkins.
What is a Hopkins? A series of little
Hops. Leaplets. Nothing sustained. Nothing whole.
Hobbled-kind. Hare-minded. What begins
Well ends one length away. Half-happens.
A plan, hope-full, for poem, or more, hurries to a fall.
A man breathes in, puffed, breathes out, flat. That's all.
My name (help!) spells me out: what whole? My sins.

Ah, but Tuncks. Tuncks. I would give such thanks
To be so named. Sound sound manly single.
Blow well-aimed at a mark; thought an arrow thinks.
Thunk. Thud. Straight for God. Good. Nothing will
Do but dead center, the heart of the Triangle
's Word, Holy Name no silence (sh!) outflanks.

-- Philip Dacey

(who read at Carleton my senior year; this poem was published in the English department newsletter, and I saved it. The same newsletter also contains the following Quote of the Week, designed to test English majors' recall of the books they studied:

"It was then that began our extensive travels all over the States. To any other type of tourist accommodation I soon grew to prefer the Functional Motel -- clean, neat, safe nooks, ideal places for sleep, argument, reconciliation, insatiable illicit love."

Ten points to the first reader who is not Katy or Nadia -- or Eric or Ted or Avery or Andy -- or okay, not associated with Carleton, period -- who can identify the author and novel from which the quote was taken. )

Saturday, April 28, 2007

"What Lips My Lips Have Kissed," by Edna St. Vincent Millay

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply;
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands a lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet know its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone;
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

"A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," by John Donne

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
"The breath goes now," and some say, "No,"

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of the earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers' love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

But we, by a love so much refined
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do;

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

More of my favorite Donne:
"The Good-Morrow"
"Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God"
"To His Mistress Going to Bed"
"Go, and Catch A Falling Star"

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Daemons, Links, and Kid Lit Drinks

My friend Ben sent me a link today to The Golden Compass movie website's Find Your Daemon feature. After a twenty-question personality test, I have learned I am "modest, spontaneous, shy, competitive, and sociable," and therefore my daemon is an ocelot named Sereno. This would mean more to me if the three other people I know who have taken the test were not also judged "modest, spontaneous, shy, competitive, and sociable," and also therefore future companions to ocelots. (The website itself also seems oddly educational and explanatory. . . . Part of the great genius and pleasure of The Golden Compass is how it just throws you into this world of daemons and alternate-Oxfords and leaves you to puzzle out its wonders for yourself, and the site tells you straightaway [assume kindly didactic vaguely English-inflected voice] "a person's soul lives on the outside of their body in the form of a daemon" [/voice]. Hrmph.)

Anyway, I think I am going to stick with my daemon from a few years ago, when Katy and Ted and I decided to try out what Philip Pullman said was the best test of one's daemon -- that is, having two friends confer and choose for you. Katy was an otter (cheerful and resourceful); Ted was a lemur (I think; tree-loving and vegetarian); and I was a swan (long-necked and fierce) --much snappier.

Apropos of nothing, four blogs worth checking out:

  • Isabel Archer, written by my Carleton classmate Avery Palmer, with good writing and beautiful photos of his travels in Mexico and beyond;
  • Living the Romantic Comedy, by screenwriter and novelist Billy Mernit, with reflections on one of my favorite genres (often done, rarely done well);
  • Trainwise, by my friend Jonathan Valuckas, with many great reviews and crazy adventures; speaking of which:
  • Mishaps and Adventures, by Chad Beckerman, an art director for Abrams Books for Young Readers (and formerly of Scholastic and Greenwillow), about children's and young adult book design.

Random piece of advice for the day: Do not write to an editor and tell her you want her to publish your book, but you are not open to any further editing on it. She will turn you down. On second thought, if you aren't open to any further editing, do tell her -- it will save you both the hassle.

And as you have probably seen on Fusenumber8: Next kid-lit drinks night, May 8 at Sweet & Vicious. Hooray!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"You Must Accept," by Kate Light

You must accept that's who he really is.
You must accept you cannot be his
unless he is yours. No compromise.
He is a canvas on which paint never dries;
a clay that never sets, steel that bends
in a breeze, a melody that when it ends
no one can whistle. He is not who
you thought. He's not. He is a shoe
that walks away: "I will not go where you
want to go." "Why, then, are you a shoe?"
"I'm not. I have the sole of a lover
but don't know what love is." "Discover
it, then." "Will I have to go where you go?"
"Sometimes." "Be patient with you?" "Yes." "Then, no."
You have to hear what he is telling you
and see what he is; how it is killing you.

Monday, April 23, 2007

"On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," by John Keats

Much have I traveled in the realms of gold
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then I felt like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez* when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

* I always loved the footnote in my Norton Anthology of English Literature on this line -- that it was Balboa, not Cortez, who first saw the Pacific "matters to history but not to poetry."

More Keats:
To Autumn
La Belle Dame Sans Merci
The Eve of St. Agnes

Sunday, April 22, 2007

"In the Middle," by Barbara Crooker

of a life that's as complicated as everyone else's,
struggling for balance, juggling time.
The mantle clock that was my grandfather's
has stopped at 9:20; we haven't had time
to get it repaired. The brass pendulum is still,
the chimes don't ring. One day you look out the window,
green summer, the next, and the leaves have already fallen,
and a grey sky lowers the horizon. Our children almost grown,
our parents gone, it happened so fast. Each day, we must learn
again how to love, between morning's quick coffee
and evening's slow return. Steam from a pot of soup rises,
mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread. Our bodies
twine, and the big black dog pushes his great head between;
his tail is a metronome, 3/4 time. We'll never get there,
Time is always ahead of us, running down the beach, urging
us on faster, faster, but sometimes we take off our watches,
sometimes we lie in the hammock, caught between the mesh
of rope and the net of stars, suspended, tangled up
in love, running out of time.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Quote File: Poetry

[Poetry is] the successful synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits. – Carl Sandburg

Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words. – Robert Frost

Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads. – Marianne Moore

Poetry is a separate language. It's a language in which you never really come to the point. You're always at an angle. – Karl Shapiro

Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful ... like a bouillon cube: You carry it around and then it nourishes you when you need it. – Rita Dove

Poetry is the deification of reality. — Edith Sitwell

Poetry is a rich, full-bodied whistle, cracked ice crunching in pails, the night that numbs the leaf, the duel of two nightingales, the sweet pea that has run wild, Creation's tears in shoulder blades. — Boris Pasternak

Poetry is the one place where people can speak their original human mind. It is the outlet for people to say in public what is known in private. – Allen Ginsberg

Poetry is the clear expression of mixed feelings. – W.H. Auden, poet

Poetry is like fish: if it's fresh, it's good; if it's stale, it's bad; and if you're not certain, try it on the cat. – Osbert Sitwell

Prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in their best order. – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Poetry should please by a fine excess and not by singularity. It should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost as a remembrance. — John Keats

Because it is occasionally possible, just for brief moments, to find the words that will unlock the doors of all those many mansions inside the head and express something--perhaps not much, just something--of the crush of information that presses in on us from the way a crow flies over and the way a man walks and the look of a street and from what we did one day a dozen years ago. Words that will express something of the deep complexity that makes us precisely the way we are, from the momentary effect of the barometer to the force that created men distinct from trees. Something of the inaudible music that moves us along in our bodies from moment to moment like water in a river. Something of the spirit of the snowflake in the water of the river. Something of the duplicity and the relativity and the merely fleeting quality of all this. Something of the almighty importance of it and something of the utter meaninglessness. And when words can manage something of this, and manage it in a moment, of time, and in that same moment, make out of it all the vital signature of a human being--not of an atom, or of a geometrical diagram, or of a heap of lenses--but a human being, we call it poetry. – Ted Hughes

I would define the poetic effect as the capacity that a text displays for continuing to generate different readings, without ever being completely consumed – Umberto Eco

I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything. – Steven Wright

When I feel inclined to read poetry, I take down my dictionary. The poetry of words is quite as beautiful as the poetry of sentences. The author may arrange the gems effectively, but their shape and lustre have been given by the attrition of ages. – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment. – Hart Crane

A poet looks at the world as a man looks at a woman. – Wallace Stevens

The poet, like the lover, is a person unable to reconcile what he knows with what he feels. His peculiarity is that he is under a certain compulsion to do so. – Babette Deutsch

Almost the whole problem of writing poetry is to bring it back to what you really feel, and that takes an awful lot of maneuvering. You may feel the doorknob more strongly than some big personal event, and the doorknob will open into something you can use as your own. – Robert Lowell

I have no fancy idea about poetry. It's not like embroidery or painting or silk. It doesn't come to you on the wings of a dove. It's something you have to work hard at. – Louise Bogan

Fiction is ... like sitting in a clearing and waiting to see if the deer will come. Poetry to me is lightning of the moment. – Tess Gallagher

The writing of a poem is like a child throwing stones into a mineshaft. You compose first, then you listen for the reverberation. – James Fenton

I think a poem (also) is a dream, a dream which you are willing to share with the community. It happens a writer often doesn't understand a poem until some months after he's written it--just as a dreamer doesn't understand a dream. Being a poet in the United States has meant for me years of confusion, blundering, and self-doubt. The confusion lies in not knowing whether I am writing in the American language or the English or, more exactly, how much of the musical power of Chaucer, Marvell, and Keats can be kept in free verse. Not knowing how to live, or even how to make a living, results in blunders. And the self-doubt comes from living in small towns. – Robert Bly

I write poems to wake myself up, or to preserve a suddenly lit, awakened state. Of dreams, as of taste, too many sweets spoil the sense. It's not nice dreams I'm yearning for; it's true dreams. – Heather MacHugh

A poet is somebody who feels
and who expresses those feelings through words.
This may sound easy -
it isn't.

A lot of people think
or believe or know they feel
but that's thinking or believing or knowing, not feeling
And poetry is feeling, not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know
but not a single human being can be taught to feel –
Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know,
you're a lot of other people,
But the moment you feel, you're nobody but yourself . . .

-- e.e. cummings (?)

The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople—it's no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. . . . You and I are human beings; mostpeople are snobs. – e.e. cummings

It is not every day that the world arranges itself in a poem. – Wallace Stevens

Jokes concentrate on the most sensitive areas of human concern: sex, death, religion, and the most powerful institutions of society; and poems do the same. – Howard Nemerov

To know how to say what others only know how to think is what makes men poets or sages; and to dare to say what others only dare to think makes men martyrs or reformers – or both. –Elizabeth Charles

I think that all poets are sending religious messages, because poetry is, in such great part, the comparison of one thing to another... and to insist, as all poets do, that all things are related to each other, comparable to each other, is to go toward making an assertion of the unity of all things. – Richard Wilbur

The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone's knowledge of himself and the world around him. – Dylan Thomas

But how can you care if anyone really gets poetry, or gets what it means, or if it improves them.
Improves them for what? for death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don't give a damn whether eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don't need to, if they don't need poetry bully for them, I like the movies too. – Frank O’Hara

I think there's a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there's still time. – W. S. Merwin

Good poems are meant to complicate our experience. – J.D. McClatchy

Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese. — G. K. Chesterton

Friday, April 20, 2007

"To Be in Love," by Gwendolyn Brooks

To be in love
Is to touch with a lighter hand.

In yourself you stretch, you are well.

You look at things
Through his eyes.
A cardinal is red.
A sky is blue.
Suddenly you know he knows too.
He is not there but
You know you are tasting together
The winter, or a light spring weather.

His hand to take your hand is overmuch.
Too much to bear.

You cannot look in his eyes
Because your pulse must not say
What must not be said.

When he
Shuts a door--
Is not there--
Your arms are water.

And you are free
With a ghastly freedom.

You are the beautiful half
Of a golden hurt.

You remember and covet his mouth
To touch, to whisper on.

Oh when to declare
Is certain Death!

Oh when to apprize
Is to mesmerize,

To see fall down, the Column of Gold,
Into the commonest ash.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

From "The Lady's Not for Burning," by Christopher Fry

JENNET. . . . But even so
I no more run to your arms than I wish to run
To death. I ask myself why. Surely I'm not
Mesmerized by some snake of chastity?

HUMPHREY. This isn't the time--

JENNET. Don't speak, contemptible boy,
I'll tell you: I am not. We have
To look elsewhere--for instance, into my heart,
Where recently I heard begin
A bell of longing which calls no one to church.
But need that, ringing anyway in vain,
Drown the milkmaid singing in my blood
And freeze into the tolling of my knell?
That would be pretty, indeed, but unproductive.
No, it's not that.

HUMPHREY. Jennet, before they come
And interrupt us--

JENNET. I am interested
In my feelings. I seem to wish to have some importance
In the play of time. If not,
Then sad was my mother's pain, my breath, my bones,
My web of nerves, my wondering brain,
To be shaped and quickened with such anticipation
Only to feed the swamp of space.
What is deep, as love is deep, I'll have
Deeply. What is good, as love is good,
I'll have well. Then if time and space
Have any purpose, I shall belong to it.
If not, if all is a pretty fiction
To distract the cherubim and seraphim
Who so continually do cry, the least
I can do is to fill the curled shell of the world
With human deep-sea sound, and hold it to
The ear of God, until he has appetite
To taste our salt sorrow on his lips.
And so you see it might be better to die.
Though, on the other hand, I admit
It might be immensely foolish. -- Listen! What
Can all that thundering from the cellars be?


(N.B. I discovered The Lady's Not for Burning through the fantasy novel Tam Lin by Pamela Dean. It is one of my very favorite plays, lovely and funny and romantic and wise, and written almost entirely in gorgeous blank verse. One of the reviews calls it "The best Shakespeare play not written by Shakespeare," and Dean compares it to Austen for the perfect balance between the comedy of its actors and the near-tragedy of their actions. I've seen only one staging, on film, with Kenneth Branagh and Cherie Lunghi; if you ever hear of another production, please let me know.)

A Ramble: Thoughts Written on the Plane Home from California

(some of which I had had before going to California and finally had the time to write properly on the plane; and yes, this consciously morphed into a blog post partway through, and has been edited and added to since)

fantastic fact, the (n.) that one thing that, in entering a fictional world, alters it and the people who inhabit it so profoundly that the story becomes a fantasy. A dragon, a daemon; the ability to control the winds through singing, or the existence of an entire hidden magical world; gods who act on earth and demand to be worshipped, or ghosts; and the entire logic of the world warps around that and is changed by it. But everything else must remain the same: most especially characters, and their wants and needs and relationships; and scientific laws. No one has yet written a story, that I know of, about what would happen if the earth lost its gravity, how we should survive and what that would change.

The way good writers make your brain spark, alive with both the wonder of their creations and the wonder of the real world: your brain sharpened by the truth they present.

Some themes that emerged from the conference:

  • Empowerment. I talked a little about my fascination with power as a theme in children's literature -- that it comes up so much (implicitly or explicitly) because it's what children don't have (cf. Where the Wild Things Are). Also the power of the writer to master his or her past through writing.
  • Writing your own truth. I used the phrase "your way of being in the world" in my talk and didn't cite it properly; it was from the first part of that lovely Zadie Smith article I linked to a few months back. (Alas, my link to the article itself no longer seems to work.)
  • Outlines. Gotta love 'em.
  • The three-act plot structure, in both my talk and Anastasia Suen's. I identified the core story picture-book structure as "Problem-Process-Solution," where the process makes up the slowly crescendoing middle of the book. Anastasia then took that a step further and put emphasis on the joins between the acts, which she identified as turning points, where the character decides to make a change and takes action to effect it. If you saw the cheerfully terrible picture book I showed at the conference, both the spreads I chose to make full-page pictures -- me pulling my hair and shouting "AUGGH! I NEED COOKIES!" and me mashing the banana -- were turning points, though I hadn't explicitly identified them as such; and thus they deserved the emphasis of the full-page spreads.

Anastasia and Cheryl Zach and I all talked about the importance of plotting and pacing and structure, making your story work in harmony; and then Joan Bauer stood up at the end of the day and blew us all away, God bless her, by talking about the thing that matters most, the thing an editor can't fix or a writer fake: making your characters real. Let's make a character, she said. Boy or girl? Girl, we answered. How old is she? 15. What's her family like? Big -- seven brothers and sisters. What's her pain? She's abused. Where does she live? New York City. Who abuses her? Her uncle. What kind of abuse? Sexual. What's her talent, what keeps her alive? She's an actress. Is she good? Yes, very good. Why is the abuse unexpected? They're rich. Where are the parents? Making money. Who can she talk to? A counselor. And as Joan ran through the litany of questions, the girl sprang to life -- different for each of us, I'm sure, because of our individual tastes and histories, but there in the room, scared and defiant, waiting for all of us to take her and make her story ours. Every editor knows you can fix pacing, you can fix plotting, but you can't fix bad writing and lack of characterization -- or at least, it rarely proves worth the time, if you're trying to make something of literary and not just commercial worth. That ability to create real kids and teenagers and make us care about their problems is the talent Joan and Lisa Yee have in such abundance, and why J. K. Rowling is such a success, really -- OK, incredible plots there too, but they work because we care.

Speaking of which, Lisa and her cute (Son) and beautiful (Teen) and funny (Hubby) family tried very hard to wrest the secrets of Book 7 from me -- but I only smiled sphinxishly. (I've withstood that kind of pressure before.)

Another theme of the weekend was the necessity of writing your own truth, going deep, not shying away from it, not being scared. Cheryl Zach noted that once someone pointed out that all her heroines lacked mothers, and this forced her to look at her own history with new eyes, and enriched all her books afterward. Joan spoke about the deep connection between the struggle to grow a giant pumpkin -- the subject of her first novel, Squashed -- and her struggle to write the novel itself while recovering from a painful accident. Lisa talked about her deep fear of calling herself an author and the bravery required to do so. And when someone thanked me for my willingness to show what were undoubtedly some of the most unflattering (but also funniest) photos of myself ever taken, to write a story casting myself in an unpleasant light (as my bad picture book eventually evolved into), I said why I did it: If I'm going to ask for honesty and truth and pain and humility from my writers, then by goodness, I have to try to show those same virtues myself in what I write. (That thought also was behind "Morals, Muddles," when I gave that talk last year.) And lord, some of those pictures were humbling.

During Joan's talk she spoke about the trouble she had with her second novel, Thwonk -- in particular that she created a whole backstory for the Cupid character but used none of it. At that, the woman sitting next to me wrote "BACKSTORY" in her notebook, then drew a circle around it and a slash through it. "No!" I wanted to say to her. "You have to have backstory! The trick is to make your characters show it in who they are and what they say and do, and when to display the facts of it so it matters in present action. Explanations of backstory are odious, but not backstory itself." Lisa's first draft of Millicent (that I read) was 75 pages of backstory followed by 150 of action in the present, and much of our work on it involved chopping up that backstory and slotting it into the right places -- if we didn't cut it out altogether. (Also J. K. Rowling's genius: perfectly timed deployment of backstory.) But the work was all worth it because the characters were so strong.

I hung out with Marilyn, Greg of Gottabook, and the Disco Mermaids, who are already planning something fabulous for this year's SCBWI ball (hint to everyone else: stock up on your aluminum foil). I like LAX, and Georgette Heyer novels (I'm on a binge -- finished Sylvester on the plane, reading Venetia now, desperate to get ahold of These Old Shades), and See's candies, and walking on Santa Monica Beach. Also 70 degree weather, thank God, and my first-ever sight of an orange tree. I am obsessed with the "Spring Awakening" soundtrack -- all contemporary-YA writers should see this musical to remember the pure clear desperation of teenage sexuality and the weight of adult oppressiveness (though the oppressiveness is less of a problem now than when the show is set, the desperation rings true). And it's a pretty amazing show, period. I want to go see it again and sit onstage. And I have never particularly cared to have Showtime until they came up with a "This American Life" TV show and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers started brooding out of all these subway ads as Henry VIII. Normally I do not find Jonathan Rhys-Meyers that attractive, but in these ads . . . Zounds, as an Elizabethan would say. Forsooth.

End of ramble.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"The Last Hours," by Stephen Dunn

There's some innocence left,
and these are the last hours of an empty afternoon
at the office, and there's the clock
on the wall, and my friend Frank
in the adjacent cubicle selling himself
on the phone.
I'm twenty-five, on the shaky
ladder up, my father's son, corporate,
clean-shaven, and I know only what I don't want,
which is almost everything I have.
A meeting ends.
Men in serious suits, intelligent men
who've been thinking hard about marketing snacks,
move back now to their window offices, worried
or proud. The big boss, Horace,
had called them in to approve this, reject that --
the big boss, a first-name, how's-your-family
kind of assassin, who likes me.
It's 1964.
The sixties haven't begun yet. Cuba is a larger name
than Vietnam. The Soviets are behind
everything that could be wrong. Where I sit
it's exactly nineteen minutes to five. My phone rings.
Horace would like me to stop in
before I leave. Stop in. Code words,
leisurely words, that mean now.
Would I be willing
to take on this? Would X's office, who by the way
is no longer with us, be satisfactory?
About money, will this be enough?
I smile, I say yes and yes and yes,
but -- I don't know from what calm place
this comes -- I'm translating
his beneficence into a lifetime, a life
of selling snacks, talking snack strategy,
thinking snack thoughts.
On the elevator down
it's a small knot, I'd like to say, of joy.
That's how I tell it now, here in the future,
the fear long gone.
By the time I reach the subway it's grown,
it's outsized, an attitude finally come round,
and I say it quietly to myself, I quit,
and keep saying it, knowing I will say it, sure
of nothing else but.

Monday, April 16, 2007

"The Reader," by Richard Wilbur

She is going back, these days, to the great stories
That charmed her younger mind. A shaded light
Shines on the nape half-shadowed by her curls,
And a page turns now with a scuffing sound.
Onward they come again, the orphans reaching
For a first handhold in a stony world,
The young provincials who at last look down
On the city’s maze, and will descend into it,
The serious girl, once more, who would live nobly,
The sly one who aspires to marry so,
The young man bent on glory, and that other
Who seeks a burden. Knowing as she does
What will become of them in bloody field
Or Tuscan garden, it may be that at times
She sees their first and final selves at once,
As a god might to whom all time is now.
Or, having lived so much herself, perhaps
She meets them this time with a wiser eye,
Noting that Julien’s calculating head
Is from the first too severed from his heart.
But the true wonder of it is that she,
For all that she may know of consequences,
Still turns enchanted to the next bright page
Like some Natasha in the ballroom door—
Caught in the flow of things wherever bound,
The blind delight of being, ready still
To enter life on life and see them through.

Friday, April 13, 2007

"The Writer," by Richard Wilbur

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

"Thelonious Monk," by Stephen Dobyns

A record store on Wabash was where
I bought my first album. I was a freshman
in college and played the record in my room

over and over. I was caught by how he took
the musical phrase and seemed to find a new
way out, the next note was never the note

you thought would turn up and yet seemed
correct. Surprise in 'Round Midnight
or Sweet and Lovely. I bought the album

for Mulligan but stayed for Monk. I was
eighteen and between my present and future
was a wall so big that not even sunlight

crossed over. I felt surrounded by all
I couldn't do, as if my hopes to write,
to love, to have children, even to exist

with slight contentment were like ghosts
with the faces found on Japanese masks:
sheer mockery! I would sit on the carpet

and listen to Monk twist the scale into kinks
and curlicues. The gooseneck lamp on my desk
had a blue bulb which I thought artistic and

tinted the stacks of unread books: if Thomas
Mann depressed me, Freud depressed me more.
It seemed that Monk played with sticks attached

to his fingertips as he careened through the tune,
counting unlike any metronome. He was exotic,
his playing was hypnotic. I wish I could say

that hearing him, I grabbed my pack and soldiered
forward. Not quite. It was the surprise I liked,
the discordance and fretful change of beat,

as in Straight No Chaser, where he hammers together
a papier-mâché skyscraper, then pops seagulls
with golf balls. Racket, racket, but all of it

music. What Monk banged out was the conviction
of innumerable directions. Years later
I felt he'd been blueprint, map and education:

no streets, we bushwhacked through the underbrush;
not timid, why open your mouth if not to shout?
not scared, the only road lay straight in front;

not polite, the notes themselves were sneak attacks;
not quiet—look, can't you see the sky will soon
collapse and we must keep dancing till it cracks?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

"To His Coy Mistress," by Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Other good seduction poems:
(N. B.: I am not responsible for the consequences of this poetry. -- C. K.)
"To His Mistress, Going to Bed" by John Donne
"Love's Philosophy" by Percy Bysshe Shelley
"since feeling is first" by e. e. cummings
"Yes" by Catherine Doty

Monday, April 09, 2007

"Why I Take Good Care of My Macintosh Computer," by Gary Snyder

Because it broods under its hood like a perched falcon,
Because it jumps like a skittish horse
and sometimes throws me
Because it is poky when cold
Because plastic is a sad, strong material
that is charming to rodents
Because it is flighty
Because my mind flies into it through my fingers
Because it leaps forward and backward,
is an endless sniffer and searcher,
Because its keys click like hail on a boulder
And it winks when it goes out,
And puts word-heaps in hoards for me, dozens of pockets of
gold under boulders in streambeds, identical seedpods
strong on a vine, or it stores bins of bolts;
And I lose them and find them,
Because whole worlds of writing can be boldly layed out
and then highlighted and vanish in a flash at
"delete" so it teaches
of impermanence and pain;

And because my computer and me are both brief
in this world, both foolish, and we have earthly fates,
Because I have let it move in with me
right inside the tent
And it goes with me out every morning
We fill up our baskets,
get back home,
Feel rich, relax, I throw it a scrap and it hums.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

"Prayer (I)" by George Herbert

Prayer, the Church's banquet; angels' age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth;
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage;
The Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth;
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinners' tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days' world transposing in an hour;
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

"To the Young Who Want to Die," by Gwendolyn Brooks

Sit down. Inhale. Exhale.
The gun will wait. The lake will wait.
The tall gall in the small seductive vial
will wait will wait:
will wait a week: will wait through April.
You do not have to die this certain day.
Death will abide, will pamper your postponement.
I assure you death will wait. Death has
a lot of time. Death can
attend to you tomorrow. Or next week. Death is
just down the street; is most obliging neighbor;
can meet you any moment.

You need not die today.
Stay here--through pout or pain or peskyness.
Stay here. See what the news is going to be tomorrow.

Graves grow no green that you can use.
Remember, green's your color. You are Spring.

Poetry Month at Brooklyn Arden

Short, terse, unfriendly,
Yet sometimes quite emotive;
I am the Haiku.
What Poetry Form Are You?

(from, of course, the lovely Fuse #8.)

So originally it was going to be a normal month around Brooklyn Arden, with perhaps fewer posts than usual because of the conference next weekend and crazy work to do and so forth. And then I realized it was National Poetry Month, and I thought, Oh, this is a nice excuse to post that Gwendolyn Brooks poem I love so much.

Oh, and that Stephen Dunn.

Oh, and that George Herbert . . .

And that reminded me of Richard Wilbur, Sharon Olds, John Keats, John Donne -- all the people I read and loved as an English major and before and after, the array of minds and hearts and passions and philosophies that have spoken to me throughout my life, and shaped me, too, in the purity of their language and emotion, and in giving words and balm to my own feelings as I've discovered them. So we are having Poetry Month here at Brooklyn Arden -- perhaps not every day of the month, but many days, because there are so many poems I love and I want you to read them all now.

And I hope you love them too.

Friday, April 06, 2007

"Tenderness," by Stephen Dunn

Back then when so much was clear
and I hadn't learned
young men learn from women

what it feels like to feel just right,
I was twenty-three,
she thirty-four, two children, a husband

in prison for breaking someone's head.
Yelled at, slapped
around, all she knew of tenderness

was how much she wanted it, and all
I knew
were back seats and a night or two

in a sleeping bag in the furtive dark.
We worked
in the same office, banter and loneliness

leading to the shared secret
that to help
National Biscuit sell biscuits

was wildly comic, which led to my body
existing with hers
like rain that's found its way underground

to water it naturally joins.
I can't remember
ever saying the exact word, tenderness,

though she did. It's a word I see now
you must be older to use,
you must have experienced the absence of it

often enough to know what silk and deep balm
it is
when at last it comes. I think it was terror

at first that drove me to touch her
so softly,
then selfishness, the clear benefit

of doing something that would come back
to me twofold,
and finally, sometime later, it became

reflexive and motiveless in the high
ignorance of love.
Oh abstractions are just abstract

until they have an ache in them. I met
a woman never touched
gently, and when it ended between us

I had new hands and new sorrow,
everything it meant
to be a man changed, unheroic, floating.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Three Random Picture-Book Thoughts

  • Inspired by Meet the Robinsons: Has there ever been a really good full-length movie based on a picture book? Jumanji; The Polar Express; the Dr. Seuss abominations . . . Ehh. Shrek 1 & 2 were okay, I guess, but still I can't think of a truly successful adaptation. Can you?
  • There seem to be a bunch of picture books about expressing your inner individuality and freedom through dance: Giraffes Can't Dance, Dancing Matilda, others I'm forgetting, and one manuscript on this theme seems to turn up in almost every batch of SQUIDs. The nice thing about them is they usually have good rhythm to their rhyme; and I guess it makes sense that writers choose to write about dancing, as it's much harder to write about singing or art and achieve the proper effect through your words alone. Still, these books very rarely have stories more complicated than the basic Rudolph-the-Red-Nosed-Reindeer plot, and they can often come off as didactic, and given their numbers, I worry they're approaching cliche, so writers: If you've gotta dance, do something interesting with it.
  • Finally, thanks to you all for your comments on my bad picture-book manuscript below. I was a little surprised that you thought that was so terrible--because honeys, I can do (and sometimes read) much, much worse! This is the revised version, with all child appeal carefully excised (no ice cream, nail polish, or cute shoes, per Anonymous's comment on her five-year-old friend), and any hint of emotional plot or narrative direction removed as well. (One of the clothing brands is a fake -- can you spot it? I had to Google "designer jeans" to find enough brand names.)

Cheryl and Katy were best friends.
One day they were sitting around their glamorous apartments trying to decide what to do.
“I know!” Katy said.
“Let’s go have salads!”
So they went to the local diner.
Katy had a Caesar salad.
Cheryl had spinach with pears and goat cheese.
“That was fun,” said Cheryl.
“What should we do next?”
“I know!” Katy said.
“Let’s go get facials!”
So they went to the spa.
Katy had a deep pore purifying facial.
Cheryl had a restorative facial peel.
“Mmmm, a clean, soft face,” said Cheryl.
“What should we do next?”
“I know!” Katy said.
“Let’s go shopping!”
So they went to Bloomingdale’s jeans department.
Cheryl tried on a pair of Juicy Couture.
Katy tried on a pair of True Religion.
Cheryl tried on a pair of Diesel.
Katy tried on a pair of Morphine Generation.
Cheryl tried on a pair of Susana Monaco.
Katy tried on a pair of Primp Clothing.
Cheryl tried on a pair of Foley Corinna.
Katy tried on a pair of Nadia & Nadya.
Cheryl tried on a pair of Little Giraffe.
Katy tried on a pair of Blue Cult.
Finally Cheryl decided to buy a pair of Seven for All Mankind.
And Katy chose a pair of Citizens of Humanity.
They toasted their new purchases with martinis—
And talked about their stupid ex-boyfriends.
It was a wonderful day!

Monday, April 02, 2007

"Old Men Playing Basketball," by B. H. Fairchild

(for National Poetry Month and Ohio State)

The heavy bodies lunge, the broken language
of fake and drive, glamorous jump shot
slowed to a stutter. Their gestures, in love
again with the pure geometry of curves,

rise toward the ball, falter, and fall away.
On the boards their hands and fingertips
tremble in tense little prayers of reach
and balance. Then, the grind of bone

and socket, the caught breath, the sigh,
the grunt of the body laboring to give
birth to itself. In their toiling and grand
sweeps, I wonder, do they still make love

to their wives, kissing the undersides
of their wrists, dancing the old soft-shoe
of desire? And on the long walk home
from the VFW, do they still sing

to the drunken moon? Stands full, clock
moving, the one in army fatigues
and houseshoes says to himself, pick and roll,
and the phrase sounds musical as ever,

radio crooning songs of love after the game,
the girl leaning back in the Chevy’s front seat
as her raven hair flames in the shuddering
light of the outdoor movie, and now he drives,

gliding toward the net. A glass wand
of autumn light breaks over the backboard.
Boys rise up in old men, wings begin to sprout
at their backs. The ball turns in the darkening air.