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.

A bent for history

December 3, 2007

I have been dabbling in histories these last two weeks: Froissart’s astonishingly courteous Edward II, Daniel C. Matt’s translation of the Zohar, and most recently, Josephine Tey’s A Daughter of Time. In the form of a carefully researched commentary and a mystery, Tey makes a strong argument that Richard III did not murder his nephews — that in fact his family held strongly together, his rivals lived free and well cared for, and he came closer to settling the York/Lancastrian feud than anyone else. Every time I read the book, I wonder what would have happened if he had not died at the battle of Bosworth.

I picked it up this time, inspired by Read Write Poem and its challenge of threes. Here is a draft in his honor, and a toast to his memory.

Richard III Turns 30

On the last day of Christmas, his true love
gave to him six naming trees. She said they were —
one for his father, one for his son,
one each for his brothers, and one
for his wife, the companion of his childhood
— to hold in long needles drawn down with snow.

Speak of them she said. Speak of your loss.
The hemlocks clasped the frozen ground.
Edmund died at seventeen, in his first battle.
I was five.
He shook the trunk.
The stiff whorls of the blue spruce
slapped him with blood and ice.

Edward, never seasick or single, came
every night from his new throne
to roar beside our fire while we parsed Latin.
George landed head down in a tankard,
when his coat turned the colors of fall.

My father, with my own name,
nailed above the Micklegate Bar;
my own Edward, too light to break
this crust of snow; and Anne, oh God,
who held me in the unfamiliar south—

What good can come? I grant them bail,
pardon my own murderers,
hold the border against the Thanes,
and in this spot, six months hence
I will fill your mouth with raspberries
one, two, three four for the boys who will outlive me.

Snow shook down on his shoulders
as thick on his cloak as on the branches,
and under its canopy he kissed her.
In the darkening march of firs,
knit with ground pine, the kingship
was worth no more than a rogue horse.

Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour

November 28, 2007

I’m planning to write a lot of book reviews in this blog — of any kind of book that touches me. This one did. It also had me wired all the way through. And what better subject to mull over, the week after Thanksgiving, than how to make good food… out of pig snouts, calves’ cheeks, steamed cockles and o-toro.

Tony Bourdain travels, often to places hard to reach unless you live there, and eats damn near everything, and writes about it. And gets filmed. One of the many remarkable things about this book is that after the first chapter I am decidedly curious to try pig snout, and pigs’ feet, and all of the parts of the pig most cultures turn into festival dinners while Americans throw them away. He describes them with such uninhibited gusto.

He loves these parts because they taste good. People who make one pig last a winter, and eat the innards as a matter of course, have spent centuries finding out how to get the best use out of them. But more than that, he respects what he eats, and the people who cook it, because they work hard; they pick their ingredients fresh; and they waste next to nothing.

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Between Places

November 15, 2007

My friend Rachel at Velveteen Rabbi has just introduced me to a weekly poetry site, Totally Optional Prompts. They post a prompt every Saturday, and poets respond on Thursdays. The prompt for this week is “Place”. Clearly, it matters to me… and now more than ever, while I don’t belong entirely to the place I live in. So here’s a thought.

In the mountains

I am at home on your limestone,
looking over one blue hill after another.
Falling leaves clear distance,
a blazon of red oak — I am here!
I am too tired to think
past the last of this season’s corn.

I am a guest seeking work,
and I love you,
your weathered wood,
your root stocks.

You call me back from an inlet
where I have written
so many strokes and long held
meetings of eyes.

From here I can see
I always choose clean heights.
Yet must you leave me
exposed and longing
exhilarated alone?

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

November 12, 2007

I wasn’t in Portugal — but I have seen a freshly dead pig. So has Tony Bourdain, it turns out. I’m reading A Cook’s Tour. When I’m finished, I’ll write a kicked back, going over the whole of it review, but right now, I’m struck with the opening. For the first time, at a family get-together on his boss’s farm, he watches his dinner die.

He slows down for it. If you’ve ever seen or read Tony, you know he delights in innards, butcher’s blocks and adrenaline. Here’s a guy who once tore headlong down a mined jungle road toward a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. He can anatomize a pig as easily as peeling a carrot. And yet a jovial working day on a Portugese farm knocks the sarcasm out of him.

He’s just kicked off the pilgrimage, and he’s in the hazy morningtime, still blinking around at the grass and shingles and beams and mountains that are impossibly not on the same ground he stood on yesterday. Hot soup sets him dreaming. Two locals gear up with a trestle and a knife and some of last season’s homemade wine (probably in an old milk jug). They wrestle with the pig as their wives wrestle with the stove.

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This “all” feeling

November 6, 2007

You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer’s day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the all feeling.

Herman Melville wrote this postscript in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, June 1851, at the height of haying season. Melville’s “Whale” would go to press in a few months. He was in the grip of a blue devil and half turned away from the idea of this blending into the touch of growing things, but he turned back again to explain it further. I have felt it too, and I’ve been trying, tonight, to figure out how to explain it to someone who has not.

I have only ever found two of Melville’s letters to Hawthorne, in the Berkshire Reader, and they make me wish for more. I love to think of one grown man saying to another, after a fourteen hour day of labor, “you know what it’s like when you lie on your back on the lawn….” It’s an open pleasure, like jumping into leaf piles and whistling on acorn caps, a child’s game in the woods.

Of course, Melville had just spent all day, and all the days and weeks before, pitching cut alfalfa and clover into a pine board wagon and stacking it in a barn, to keep his horse alive through the winter. No wonder he had grass on his mind. (Don’t laugh.) But if he had written this passage as carefree as a boy, or as a farm hand after a long day, I would not have remembered it today, four years after I first read it, and felt drawn to pull it off the shelf again. It means as much as it does because he wrote it as a man, with a nagging soreness in him like toothache, and still he remembered.

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Lay of the Land

November 3, 2007

The Kenyon Review blog posted yesterday a challenge from W. H. Auden to writers of criticism and evaluation: to describe our ideals, so that readers can judge our judgments. In this journal, I plan to talk about books I like and why I like them, about writing and conversation, about the places I walk and the people I meet in them, about whims and facts and stories that are new to me — and I invite you to evaluate it.

Auden describes his ideal place in a list. Here are my answers to his categories.

A living one, a system of systems. People walk barefoot there, and plants grow — lady’s slipper, pipsissewa, chestnut trees a man can walk through upright when they fall and hollow. The Mohican language classifies words as animate or inanimate, having or not having a soul, as other languages call words male or female; in it, mountains are animate.

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