Archive for February, 2008

Early for thunderstorms

February 25, 2008

This week, Read, Write, Poem prompted weather… and also characters. I haven’t often written from another point of view in poetry, and I remembered friends telling me about a Midsummer Night’s Dream they saw years back at the Folger’s Library, and big, brassy Helena who knew how to laugh at herself. And she started talking. Don’t know whether she’s finished yet.

Helena

I know what I want.
Don’t you know the strength of that?
All their minds blowing around me
like aspen leaves in yellow storm light,
and the air heavy with mischief,
and only I come straight
through the wood.
I sleep in the fern beside the path
and wake and come on.
If you know your longings —
and what would you give to know?
— would you not walk barefoot
over wet pine needles
to meet them? The clouds build.
The woods breathe, waiting for the rush.
Rumble in my throat, static lightening
in my hair — give me the shock
of closing space. Say it with me:
I want you.

True story

February 19, 2008

Thanks to a prompt from Read, Write, Poem and a half-memory of a story someone told me once, and I’ll swear it’s true… I wrote a poem today at lunch. The final image came to me with brilliant clarity as I sat reformatting the calendar, and I carried it down with me. Our lunch room has good tall windows, mostly full of sky, for writing by.

The British garden club makes a naked calendar

Hail the gentle ladies on a fine May morning
who created a new scheme to raise funds.
Among their arching borders of roses
and roses, Levant, Gloire de Dijon, Bridal Pink,
they sat and stooped and bent over
a watering can. Who raised the first arm
of a neat beige jumper? Who slid
the first wool over her cropped head
and lowered the first hem to the grass?
The earth crumbed over their feet,
and on the cool pine boards of the sun room
they appraised slowly their mature skin.
Did the teapot hold more heat, held
in a bare hand, with the oak chair
cool on bare legs, stuck with sweat
to the small of the back?
They said this was the hardest part.
They had never seen each other so
or any women sweat since birth.
And now, after the years of speeches,
seed catalogs, planned beds in winter,
to drink tea laced with orange, clove,
and lean a bare midriff against
the planed table gave them grace.
Did they speak, unrecorded,
as the water poured from the spout,
or laugh a good, round laughter
as the first woman knelt in silence
in the turned earth, with the sun a dazzle
over a shoulder, and the full-throated roses
open and lifting from her breasts
in the sweet wild air?

Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse

February 14, 2008

I have just fallen for Louise Erdrich. I found The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse at the library, on tape, in a rich, low voice that almost sings the Ojibwe. In honesty, I had seen it before, and snuck quick glances at it as I passed. But only in my mad haring back and forth across the state in November, in need of company in the car, did I work up the courage to take it home.

I had read Erdrich once before and enjoyed her company, but Four Souls is a very different and grimmer book than this one. Four Souls tears a woman out of the woods and watches her disintegrate. Last Report on the Miracles at Little no Horse brings a woman into the woods and watches her blossom and suffer and love and grow old — and draw strength out of the earth.

This is the story of Father Damien Modeste. And — I’m not telling you anything you won’t read by page three — Father Damien is a woman. Through a series of misadventures and tearings up, he comes to the reservation on a spring flood. And falls in love with it. And stays.

I loved this book. It wanders in places, like the memory of an old man, and it is funny and painful at once, like Nanapush towed behind the moose in an open boat and bound to the seat by fishhooks.

The narrative moves along a straight path in the beginning, as Agnes becomes Father Damien. Erdrich gives some of the best description of music I have ever read, and the passion and absorbtion of playing. She writes profoundly erotic scenes in the most unlikely ways and places. A nun fully clothed on a piano bench becomes dangerous and anguished.

Conversely, two priests on either side of a wall of books, who discover that they are man and woman at night, are blessedly normal and safe. Those are her words. Passion can be human and natural and kindly too.

And this is one of the things I most loved: I loved this book for its balance. Conversions are mutual. Father Damien has very little natural arrogance, and what he has he loses. He learns the faith and stories and humor of his people. He gives them comfort and visits the victims of the flu epidemic. He forgives, not out of superiority, but as an act of community. And Erdrich, all the time, is forgiving him for all that his predecessors have destroyed.

And the balance between male and female — the book is founded on that. Agnes becomes Damien because she cannot be what she is called to be as Agnes. She loves the work. She loves men, but she does not submit to them. It is a grief that she cannot openly have both. But it is a warm and just satisfaction that she is free to choose, and that in the most paternalistic of structures, she will not sit still to be patronized.

This is a book of crisp northern pine woods. It feels sometimes less like a novel than like a string of beads, stories woven together. But it is circular . . . and humblingly beautiful.

Armed with poetry

February 8, 2008

Last weekend, I spent a day with the AWP.

Friday afternoon, I drove through sleet and farm country to a train station smaller than the train —six feet of baking heat behind glass, four wet benches, a patch of parking, and long lines of mountains. And I got on the train and got off in Grand Central.

My sister gave me most of the floor in her dorm room to sleep on, and half a sandwich at her favorite café, and a ticket to Rock and Roll, the new Stoppard play. It’s Czechoslovakia in the 1960’s right after the tanks went through. The narrative feels like a playlist deliberately at times, a series of short, scored scenes. Music tells the story and moves the plot; people betray for it, risk arrest for it, talk with it, learn indifference from it and let it move them to protective kindness and courage and passion.

And the play feels feels — contemporary. The hippies are outgunned and scared. Communism is not always unsympathetic, but it is inefficient and cold. And the narrative follows two stories in two places, among a crowd of people, across two generations. One actress plays a wife in act one and her grown daughter in act two. How many novels can you name that use that structure, a crowd of characters and a hundred years? Middlesex; Little, Big; A Hundred Years of Solitude….

I have a theory about the modern passion for writing novels across generations. Most novels want some kind of hope of continuity or union — most novels have both comic and tragic structure, things falling apart and things coming together. The early novelists had humanism and heaven and clan kinship and the family name, kinds of continuity that America manages to deny a lot of the time. But we do still have children.

I started out to write this post about poetry. A lot of Stoppard qualifies, at that. I’ll never forget the night I saw Indian InkLike Radha, most beautiful of the herdswomen, undressed for love in an empty house. But I did also, on this Saturday, hear poetry and prose beautifully read. Here’s a sampling.
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Returning from limbo

February 8, 2008

Hello again.

This blog has taken a rest in the last month. At New Year, I funnelled my former apartment into boxes, carted them over the mountains, and began a new job in an almost new city.

It isn’t a large city; from my driveway, I can look clear across the top of it to the opposite ridge. The ridges are blue and unbroken, and the buildings on the main street are barely five stories high. This is a city that stopped growing upward around 1920.

I have lived near here before, a half hour north and four years ago. But it takes time to reroot from a cutting. The move has left me down a desk chair and at least two bookcases, but all my kerosene lamps are unpacked; things even out. And the park next door has an arboretum and a public garden. There may be roses. I have high hopes.

And I walked home from work to clear my head, and I am officially returning to this writing blog again. Now that I have two jobs, it is even more important that I keep up with this one and keep writing.