Dear Ben Lerner, Do We Really Have to Hate Poetry??

It is really stretching definitions to call Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry a book since it is only 86 pages long, and I’m really getting away with a lot by including it on my summer reading list while all of you have read so many very much longer books, but I was so eager to read it especially with ModPo beginning in a week.

Lerner is a fascinating and very successful writer.  He’s a poet but may be better known these days for his novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 (which I read earlier this summer), and he’s won a Fulbright, a Guggenheim, and the grandest of prizes, a MacArthur.  He is acutely aware of the tensions in the literary world surrounding poetry and its place in the contemporary artistic firmament.  His premise is that poetry elicits hatred and contempt because it seems to be unable to reach the kind of perfection people expect it to, but that the dislike for poetry can lead–and must lead–to a love for the possibilities that poetry opens up.

Lerner includes himself among the poetry haters.  His first experience with poetic transformation comes from having had to memorize a poem in high school, and he chooses Marianne Moore’s 1967 version of “Poetry” because it is very short and easy, he mistakenly thinks, to memorize:

“I, too, dislike it.

Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in

it, after all, a place for the genuine.”

Here is Lerner’s encounter with the slipperiness of a poet’s use of language, for it is the way Moore uses conjunctive adverbs and deliberately awkward choppiness that brings the poem its power and provides him with a starting place for his analytical ruminations–contempt leads a reader to reach for the “genuine,” the ideal of what a Poem can achieve in our minds through the understanding of its failure to be a mere object or collection of pretty images.

Poetry, Lerner argues, contains a sense of insufficiency.  Even the most lyrical of poems can’t ever reach the ideal, and he quotes Shelley: “the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conception of the poet.”  This is Plato’s contention, that since poetry can never reach the ideal, poetry and poets should be banned from the Republic for promoting false premises.  According to Lerner, the “fatal problem” with poetry is poems themselves.

And yet what brings Lerner back is what he calls the power of “Emily Dickinson’s dissonance”: “I think this is because Dickinson’s distressed meters and slant rhymes enable me to experience both extreme discord (although in Dickinson it’s eerie and controlled, nothing like McGonagall {a 19th century poet whose poem “The Tay Bridge Disaster” is widely proclaimed to be the worst poem ever written} and a virtuosic reaching for the music of the spheres.”  Several paragraphs later he discusses “I Dwell in Possibility” and the ambiguity of Dickinson’s punctuation and dashes which make each poem something that is both read as a poem and seen as a visual object, like a painting, a very keen insight into the duality of Dickinson’s presence on the page.

Lerner also discusses Whitman and the capacity of the Whitmanian “I” to include all: “Walt Whitman is himself a place for the genuine (note how this word refers back to the Marianne Moore poem that begins the book!), an open space or textual commons where American readers of the future can forge and renew their sense of possibility and interconnectedness.” Interestingly, Lerner goes on to discuss Whitman in context with Amiri Baraka who, in his poem “Someone Blew Up America,” excludes the kind of false “we” that politicians claim as their domain: “To suggest that Baraka’s ‘we’ is an attempt to speak for ‘all’ is therefore to repeat the dismissal of ‘our {people of color’s} history and contemporary reality.” He continues to discuss the work of pronouns in Claudia Rankine’s two books of poetry, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric” and “Citizen: An American Lyric” which “announce in their common subtitles a tension between a national project and a personal one.” No poem can speak for all people, Lerner writes: “You can hate contemporary poetry–in any era–as much as you want for failing to realize the fantasy of universality, but the haters should stop pretending any poem ever successfully spoke for everyone.”

And here is the crux of Lerner’s premise: a poem can’t speak one thing to everyone, and that’s why people hate it, but the immensity of poetry is that it can speak an infinite multitude of images, ideas, and possibilities to one person, to each person. He ends with a beautiful thought: “All I ask the haters–and I, too, am one–is that they strive to perfect their contempt, even consider bringing it to bear on poems, where it will be deepened, not dispelled, and where, by creating a place for possibility and present absences (like unheard melodies), it might come to resemble love.”

This is an excellent companion to the reading of poetry and especially to the ten weeks of ModPo.  Lerner’s work defends poetry by “hating” it, and yet the reader is sure that his so-called hatred is a kind of back-handed love and admiration, the kind of amazement that a reader can have when a poem opens up into endless possibilities.


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Paterson: the movie, the poem, the place



I finally got a chance to see the movie Paterson, but I had to travel 326 miles to a movie theater in Princeton, New Jersey (not too far from Paterson, New Jersey) just to get a chance to see it before it disappears into video release. Granted, I was going to Princeton for the weekend anyway to see my kid’s dance company spring show (and I’ll write about this genre-blending hip- hop/contemporary dance group of diverse college students finding context for street culture within the very definite confines of Ivy-league privilege in another post soon), but there it was–in the center of town, the art house movie theater, showing Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, and we had a free Saturday night, my traveling companion/ husband and I, so we bought some cookies and mixed nuts, and found two seats in the mostly not-too-full theater, and settled in for the show.

I’d been very eager to see the film, mostly because I can’t remember ever seeing or hearing about a movie that has to do with poetry, the solitude of being a poet, and that features actual poetry scrolling across the screen (the poet Ron Padgett wrote the poems that the movie’s main character, also named Paterson, is writing).  And also because the movie has to do with the historical presence of William Carlos Williams, who wrote an epic poem called–you guessed it– “Paterson,” five volumes of poetry inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses.  Williams was born in and spent his entire career as doctor and poet in the town next door, Rutherford, N.J.  And so Paterson stands in for the kind of small town on the edge of an urban megalopolis, where ordinary people live their lives, and yet what they do every day, the methodical dailyness and routine of 9-5 work elevates the commonplace to the poetic, just as William Carlos Williams found unnatural beauty in broken glass behind the hospital walls.

Paterson, the character in the movie, played by Adam Driver, is a bus driver and aspiring poet in Paterson, N.J.  He lives in a tidy house away from the center of the city with his partner Laura and their French bulldog Marvin.  The movie is framed by a week in Paterson’s life, a routine that is fixed and yet open to Paterson’s wandering imagination as he composes and reworks poems that come to him from his observations around him. Before he begins his bus driving shift, he writes in his “secret notebook,” and we can see these words flowing across the screen as Paterson silently recites them.  While driving the bus, Paterson listens to his passengers, their conversations and interactions, and we watch the quiet action in the bus unfold: people on their way to work or school, staring out the window, observing the cityscape around them, or talking among themselves.  Here, the bus becomes an emblem of inner exploration, that quiet time of meditative encounter while traveling from the private world of home to the public world of work, and Paterson drives the bus that makes this journey, a kind of Charon for the living.

At home, Laura, Paterson’s girlfriend, is completely untethered to any routine. She is always looking for ways to make things unusual: she paints over linens and curtains and her own clothes with patterns of black and white circles, she decided to begin a cupcake baking business (and the cupcakes are decorated with black and white circles too), and then she wants to become a country music star.  She cajoles Paterson into letting her buy a guitar outfit she finds online–money is an issue, but Paterson wants to make her happy–a “harlequin” model, weirdly also black and white, and she spends all day learning the first three chords of  “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”  She cooks unusual combinations of food for dinner–brussels sprouts and cheddar cheese pie–which Paterson politely chokes down, not wanting to disappoint her.  Her blithe, free-spirit anything-goes ethos contrasts with Paterson’s invariable set schedule–his walk to work in the morning and evening, the way he fixes the tilting mailbox every day when he comes home, walking Marvin to a neighborhood bar and the one beer he has every night.  And yet within the constraints of this modest, predictable life, Paterson engages with life around him.  He is the city, its people, its history.  His poetry links together the routine of his day, and his imagination becomes the way he makes the commonplace majestic.

The entire movie is actually like a poem itself.  Afterwards, my very rational scientist husband was perplexed–what was the movie about?  Why didn’t it make sense?  And despite the framing device that Jarmusch uses, a week in Paterson’s life, the story is not exactly linear.  There is some rising action, some conflict, some bad dog behavior, and Paterson’s final redemption, but plot and narrative are almost hidden within the framework of the ordinary a little tilted on its head: the story becomes more about the characters in the movie, their oddness or their equanimity, than what exactly happens. Just as a poem is more about the sensations and metaphoric imaginings that its words create, Paterson the movie is more about what these characters make us feel about them,

Jarmusch is also obsessed with twins, many of whom walk through perfectly framed shots for apparently no reason, random coincidences–the many Patersons, the bus driver, the city, the William Carlos Williams poem–and a Japanese poet who shows up at the end, almost like an angel sent by a poetic God to bring the dejected Paterson back to writing poetry again, whose charming difficulty with the multiple “w’s” in William Carlos Williams points to the way language tries to but never succeeds in separating those of us who seek out the transcendence of poetry.

I’m very glad that I had a chance to see Paterson, and I would highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it already.  Jim Jarmusch studied with Kenneth Koch at Columbia, and his reverence for modernist poetry is completely apparent here.  Even as a movie about the ordinary life of a bus driver, Paterson– via Jarmusch– is making a statement about the kind of ordinary, small-city life that nevertheless has vigor and importance and imagination–we all share this, for this is what makes us human.

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Revealing Pictures, Haunting Faces

Another side benefit of making the endless drive from Rochester, NY to Princeton, NJ, made even longer these days by the beginning of road construction/ traffic tie-up season, is being able to go to the Princeton University Art Museum.  It’s a wonderful jewel-box of a collection, with new exhibitions opening regularly in addition to a  wide-ranging assemblage of permanent works always on display, and the best part is that admission is completely free.  Two weekends ago, we stopped in for a couple of hours on a warm Saturday afternoon, and we saw a collection of ancient Greek pottery, pieces that are close to two thousand years old, and almost all of them intact, vibrantly hued, with depictions of athletes, gods, or even daily scenes.  Many of these urns, or kraters, were given as prizes in competitions, filled with olive oil or wine.  And many were simply used as household supply storage the way we use plastic containers today.  But it is absolutely clear that our devotion to plastic will insure our throw-away containers will not be dug up two thousand years from now and exhibited in a museum.  Certainly we have lost the idea that these utilitarian objects should be artistic and beautiful too the way these ancient vessels are.  I wonder what life would be like if we did surround ourselves with crafted things instead of manufactured things. Perhaps we would not appreciate these objects as much when we view them in museums, or perhaps we would not even need museums to remind us of what beautiful things can look like.IMG_1326

The next exhibit, Revealing Pictures, was a group of photographs from photographers around the world.  All these photos were of people, and the images both revealed and hid the figures they expressed.  The most haunting were by the South African artist, Pieter Hugo, who has been especially concerned with the plight of children exploited by inequalities of race, and the stark contrasts between rich and poor.  He is also greatly concerned with the impact of technology on the developing world, and the disproportionate burden of waste and environmental degradation that Africans must shoulder all in service to the technologies of the West.  This point was not lost on me at all as I took my own photos on an iPhone, and while I write this on a laptop, both of which will contribute at some time to this burden of obsolescence that will directly affect children in the developing world.

This first image was the most haunting and yet also offered the possibility of hope.  Here are two sisters who are blind and live in an orphanage in Johannesburg. They face away from each other while one still reaches back to touch her sister’s dress.  This to me seems to communicate the powerful need for connection, the need for human touch, and the need we all have to reach someone near as we navigate through a dark and dangerous world.IMG_1329

The next image that absolutely staggered me is of a young man staring directly out of the frame in a look of barely suppressed rage or indignation, a coil of wires from discarded electronics piled on top of his head and a tire slung around his shoulder.  It is almost an allusion to the stock image of an African with a basket balanced on his or her head. But here, this image shows us the truth of our Western wastefulness, the toxic components that burn in garbage dump fires, sickening children and polluting the air, the thrown-away detritus of our device-obsessed life. This is the result of global consumerism, and Hugo’s photograph so starkly shows how people are living and dying as a result of the dominance of technological obsolescence. IMG_1331

The final photograph also hit me hard.  This is another graphic expression of what is so far below our consciousness as Westerners–what happens to the clothing we discard, and what it means to have something that isn’t yours but represents the complexity of global relations together with the inequities between rich and poor.  The little boy is wearing a brown jacket– the “Members Only” brand–that completely contains him because it is adult-size and way too large.  Here is the description from the exhibit: “This article of adult clothing was most likely donated from Europe, calling attention to the fact that while Rwanda is undergoing a period of renewal, echoes of colonialism still infiltrates the present.” And it is also about how children are thrust into this adult world of global power that represses individual worth.IMG_1332

This is a staggering exhibit.  I don’t think I have ever seen photographs this powerful and affecting, and the fact that this Ivy League university museum has made the choice to display images of such depth and resonance has to count for something, if only as a collective expiation of Western guilt.  However, this is still a haunting reminder that our lives here are privileged beyond comprehension–something we often take utterly for granted–and this must make us think so much more carefully about our individual impact on the world, the footprints we leave behind.

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Already Behind

It took me a little longer than I had expected to finish Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, mostly because I needed to slow down my reading to really experience the full impact of Nabokov’s language. Reading this book is like bathing in words. Nabokov writes in such a richly detailed way (how does he remember so much?), and with so many stunningly elegant sentences that seem to empty out the dictionary that it feels totally sacrilegious to attempt to blast through the pages.

The cover itself is a good representation of what is going on in the memoir: a yellow veil seems to obscure the title, leaving only a partial view of the words, just as Nabokov uses memory to connect with what he has lost. The memoir covers the years from 1903 to 1940, from Nabokov’s boyhood in St. Petersburg, growing up in a wealthy and aristocratic Russian family in the tumultuous years leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution, and then his wanderings in Europe before World War II displaced him and his family yet again. The memoir begins with one of the most famous first sentences in literature: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”  This is the imponderable, the nothingness we come from before birth and go to after death, but it is what comes in between that becomes the art of one’s life.

Nabokov and his wife and son eventually settled in America where he taught at many colleges and universities. In addition to his prolific literary career, he was also a highly regarded lepidopterist, and he amassed one of the world’s most extensive collection of butterflies in the years he was at Harvard, not in the English department, but in the department of Comparative Zoology. In fact, Nabokov has said that if the Bolshevik Revolution had never taken place, he would have been a scientist, and not a writer.

Nabokov is perhaps one of the greatest prose stylists of the twentieth century, and he wrote both in English and Russian. He translated many of his own works from Russian to English, and the suppleness of his language ignites the reader’s imagination, while also requiring many trips to the dictionary to look up the obscure words he loves to sprinkle everywhere. Nabokov also slips between recollection and musing, writing from the perspective of his adult self looking back on the experiences of his youth, while embedding the seeds of his future self in his boyhood remembrances. Here is an example, also of his richly evocative language: “But what am I doing in this stereoscopic dreamland? How did I get here? Somehow, the two sleighs have slipped away, leaving behind a passportless spy standing on the blue-white road in his New England snowboots and storm coat. The vibration in my ears is no longer their receding bells, but only my old blood singing. All is still, spellbound, enthralled by the moon, fancy’s rearview mirror. The snow is real, though, and as I bend to it and scoop up a handful, sixty years crumble to glittering frost-dust between my fingers.”

Self-referentiality is also Nabokov’s big in-joke, and in a section devoted to the difficulties of Russian emigré life especially for artists and writers, he slyly refers to his favorite writer of those years, Sirin. This is actually Nabokov’s nom de plume from the years before he emigrated to America. Here is what he writes about this writer he admires so much: “Russian readers…were impressed by the mirror-like angles of his clear but weirdly misleading sentences and by the fact that the real life of his books flowed in his figures of speech, which one critic has compared to ‘windows giving upon a contiguous world…a rolling corollary, the shadow of a train of thought.’” This is Nabokov writing about Nabokov, and the reader is in on the joke.

There is a great deal of fun in reading Nabokov (even Lolita, if the reader can push aside the surface sordidness of the story and think of it as a grand allegory), and I found myself especially drawn to his early life recollections because there are many similarities between his family’s experiences and those of my own Russian family–both from St. Petersburg, both rendered destitute by the Revolution, and both displaced a second time in 1940. And so reading Speak, Memory has been a way for me to reconnect with my own past–so much of our family lore is eerily similar to Nabokov’s–yet I would highly recommend this memoir to everyone, as an evocative and highly readable (despite all those big words!) work that draws away the veil of the past to reveal the present.

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Nothing Has Changed: Notes of a Native Son

It is extraordinarily depressing to realize that the world of 2017 is not that much farther removed from the still-segregated world of the late 1940’s and ’50’s that James Baldwin writes about in his essay collection, Notes of a Native Son. Racism is an ingrained fact of life in our America, just as it was for Baldwin, with micro aggressions, fear, and repression as prevalent now as it was in the 48-state America Baldwin writes about in these ten essays. “I love America more than any other country in the world,” he writes in the Autobiographical Notes that begin the book, “and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Baldwin has a razor-sharp critical perspective on American society and the role of the black man in white-dominated life. He writes in crisp sentences that unfurl like detonations, building up intensity in waves of argument. Baldwin was a child preacher, and much of his writing in Notes of a Native Son sounds as if it should be read aloud. Many of the essays have a tightly-controlled anger that Baldwin holds just under the surface of his sentences, like a sermon from the pulpit that resonates with Biblical intensity and willfulness instead of bland Sunday-school rhetoric.

Perhaps the most well-known and widely anthologized essay in the collection is the title work, in which Baldwin writes of his father’s death which coincided with the birth of his sister, his nineteenth birthday, and the Harlem riot of 1943, a convergence of events that elicits his anger and retribution while also laying the foundation for his extraordinary interpretation of bitterness: “The dead man mattered; the new life mattered; blackness and whiteness did not matter; to believe that they did was to acquiesce in one’s own destruction. Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.”

And yet Baldwin never denies the inequities of the radicalized world, a Harlem so blighted and extorted by predatory pricing, so crowded and broken, that “To smash something is the ghetto’s chronic need.” He writes of a rage so violent when he is refused service in a coffee shop in Trenton, N.J. that he hurls a cup of water at the offending waitress: “I hated her for her white face, and for her great, astounded, frightened eyes. I felt that if she found a black man so frightening I would make her fright worth-while.”

Baldwin lived in France for much of his life, and the last four essays are written during his time in Paris and Switzerland. In “Equal in Paris” he describes a week of abject misery in prison after he is arrested for supposedly receiving stolen property: an acquaintance lends him a bed sheet that the friend has stolen from a hotel, the police arrive, and arrest them both. Baldwin barely speaks or understand French, and the terror he writes of, not knowing or understanding what would happen, and the bureaucratic lethargy of the French justice system is horrifying and compelling. One does not need to think far to imagine what Baldwin hints at but does not say: how much infinitely worse it would be for a black man in the American justice system, accused of even such a petty crime as this, without the hope of exoneration Baldwin receives from the benevolence of a released prisoner, a French man, who contacts Baldwin’s lawyer, insuring his eventual acquittal.

This is such an important book to read, not just as a counterbalance for me after last week’s Dani Shapiro entitlement-fest, but also as humans in this troubled world of ours, an attempt to understand, imperfectly of course, absorbing through our different skin, the experiences of someone for whom living without malice, prejudice, and violence is not a given, not a right, not an inalienable guarantee of the pursuit of happiness. Baldwin does find a measure of his own hope through this very struggle to exist and be visible in the white world: “For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met. It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.” Read this book. We must, as citizens of this world.

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Oliver Sacks is On The Move and I Am Too

What a magnificent book Oliver Sacks’ On The Move is, and how fitting that after almost four hundred pages about his life and his writing, Sacks ends in the present tense. We can almost trick ourselves that he is still alive, still writing, still absorbed in all his far-ranging explorations of how the mind works and doesn’t work. And that after it all, he is someone who simply tells stories: “I am a storyteller, for better or worse. I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.

I need to write more about On The Move, but I myself will be on the move: in a few hours I will be leaving on an epic trip to Europe with my grown-up kids and my husband, the first time we will all be together on a trip abroad. And so I will be away from posting for a while, but I won’t be away from reading. Besides a French-English dictionary which I intend to consult fairly regularly, I have some Joan Didion and Meghan Daum in my backpack. I’m going off road here, deviating from my list of ten, so I should have some interesting things to write about when I come back.

I hope everybody is surviving the summer heat, and that reading is helping all to stay cool. I will have more soon!

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Reading the Landscape, Not Reading Many Books

I’ve been back from an epic family trip in Europe for a week now, and the mountains of laundry are done, the suitcases have been put away, the empty fridge has been filled, the dog and cat are happy to be back to their comfortable beds, and the fog of jet lag has finally lifted enough for me to realize how little reading I did on our trip and how far behind I am despite stowing three books in my carry-on, in addition to coming home with two more books (and helping to carry the twenty books my daughter had to take with her for her summer course in Oxford). As I was towing my two thousand pound suitcase through Paddington Station, then St. Pancras Station, then Gard du Nord, and finally Amsterdam Central Station, I wondered if other people travel with approximately their body’s weight in literature, and I realized that it made no difference, since I didn’t read  very much at all to begin with. I’d been unrealistically optimistic in what I thought I would get done, because as soon as the trip began, I ended up spending much more time staring out the train window at the countryside speeding by than burying my eyes in a book (as much as I wanted to keep reading! Do Rick Steves’ Guidebooks to Paris, London, and Amsterdam count towards the book challenge?), and that any time not spent looking would be better spent writing about what I was seeing, since I probably won’t get to do a trip like this ever again.

But then there was an eight-hour plane trip back from Amsterdam, and I was awake enough to finish Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem since the movie offerings were lackluster, and besides, there wasn’t much to see out the plane window at thirty-two thousand feet except for clouds and sky.

I had read Didion’s essay “Goodbye To All That” (in conversation with Eula Biss’ essay of the same name) in July for a creative nonfiction course I was in, and I decided impulsively that I wanted to read the rest of Didion’s book from which the essay had been taken. And actually, technically, it was a re-read, since I had read Slouching Towards Bethlehem when I moved to California in 1998. I was trying to understand this new place I was living in, and Didion’s iconic take on leaving the east for her native California resonated with me, even though I didn’t understand California until I did the reverse move back to the east.

The title itself is a good indication of how Didion views the kind of life that California presents. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is a poem by Yeats, and perhaps the most well-know lines are “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” In these collected essays, Didion explores the way things fall apart, both socially and morally and emotionally, and yet how the dream of Western life keeps chaos tethered to reality. California becomes a place of contradictory tensions–and this is the California of the late 1960’s–unreadable to the rest of the nation, but clearly discernible to Didion who grew up outside Sacramento in the ’40’s when it was not much more than a small town: “When I first saw New York, I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal….”

Didion writes about the oppressiveness of a newly-created suburban enclave beset by boredom and consumerism: “The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles but it is in certain ways an alien place; not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.” This is a California, a Western lands-end of murderers, movie stars, ideological Marxist-Leninists, think-tank men, Joan Baez standing against her NIMBY neighbors who think her school for nonviolence will bring down property values, Howard Hughes, Las Vegas wedding chapels, and the hippies of Haight-Ashbury. Didion herself observes everything and writes to the center of what she sees and hears: “When I first went to San Francisco in that cold late spring of 1967 I did not even know what I wanted to find out, and so I just stayed around awhile, and made a few friends.”

These are essays that transform the idea of an essay as a “working-through,” a “trying out.” Didion never falters in the way her taut language pulls the reader through her observations and analysis, and she holds herself to the same high standard she applies to what she critiques; she never lets herself off the hook. “I hurt the people I cared about, and insulted those I did not. I cut myself off from the one person who was closer to me than any other….I had never before understood what ‘despair’ meant, and I am not sure I understand now, but I understood that year. Of course I could not work.” The personal in these essays only makes her observations more acute.

In the end, Didion’s essays are more about the conceptual place we find ourselves at different times in our lives, and how we respond to pressures and influences that shape, often unconsciously, the way we regard ourselves. This is not an East or West of unrealized dreams as much as a place of self-invention. “All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more.” Didion’s writing tells us about ourselves in relation to where we are, and so Slouching Towards Bethlehem is still as relevant today as it was back when “relevance” was the language of the moment.


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Poetry, A Language, “this green unsentencing”

Elizabeth Willis’ poetry is alive with lyric intensity and personal engagement. Alive is a collection of works spanning more than twenty years, and the density of her language and thought makes these poems beautiful in their difficulty. A poem needs to reflect “the internal struggle” we have with language, Willis has remarked. “When you travel through a poem, it is your reality, it carries you.” Willis carries us through an internal landscape of allusions and relationships in a separate territory that her poems open up, a poetic space that is not owned by the poet but rather, navigated by reader and poet together.

I found myself reading and re-reading each poem, underlining words and lines that struck me, not often grasping meaning, but not especially worried that I needed to “understand” in order to inhabit this poetic space. Here are some examples:

“What rules a body’s buried factions/ when laundered by morning” (A Maiden, 20)

“Innocence shags experience and I’ll never grow./ Experience catches the dove, and I’m lost.” (The Human Abstract, 24)

“Desire is a form of fastening” (The Human Abstract, 32)

“Human understanding is a savage construction/ of dilation and resistance” (The Human Abstract, 34)

“I was fluent in salamander” (Autographeme, 47)

“To live in someone/ else’s music (the musician/ not the composer is free) (Sonnet, 50)

“To imply or intone the whole possibility of human sun. The rose rose unknit with spring. A dragonfly in your hand for luck.” (The Tree of Personal Effort, p.64)

“If I appear to play the violin, it’s only to keep my head on. Everything heavy falls in September, a fire truck lost on polar seas.” (Solar Volcanos, 101)

“We all live under the rule of Pepsi, by the sanctified waters of an in-ground pond.” (Ferns, Mosses, Flags, 107) This made me laugh! And it’s so true.

“I worry that my youth was wasted/ in obedience, which it was.” (Survey, 146)

“I don’t remember the moment when it became obvious that my own body was meat, and apart from meat, mostly gristle and bone, and very little of me actually produces words, although it feels compelled to speak for the part of me that is dumb meat, which is not dumb at all, only speechless, and not entirely speechless, but needing a translator like Wittgenstein’s lion.” (Alive, 172)

Willis writes about art and mass-culture movies, mythology, and mass murder: “Alabama” refers to the Amy Bishop shooting at the University of Alabama in 2010 in which three faculty members were shot and killed, including Maria Ragland Davis, a biologist to whom the poem is dedicated, and “Watertown Is Ninety-nine Percent Land,” about Tamerlan Tsarnaev hiding in a boat in Watertown, Mass., after the Boston Marathon bombing: “Someday even this will disappear into another death, an absence you didn’t know was holding up the future.”

And there is a sense of the exterior landscape pressing against the self: “I don’t think God created polyester/ I worry water is unaffordable/ I hope we’re not too tired/ to cross the border” and “I’d like to graduate/ from the united states of plastic” (Survey, 148), but the poet creates an interior landscape when the unknowable opens up space. A poem is an act of discovery.

I intend to read through Alive many more times. There is such a feeling of pulsation in the way Willis  writes these poems, a true poetic rhythm and heartbeat that, while difficult to discern, does not have to be thoroughly understood in order to be inhabited by the reader.

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Old Clothes

I had a few extra hours today–not usually the case on a busy teaching day–and decided, among the thousands of more enticing projects and leisure-time activities I’ve been meaning to get to, that it was time to clean my closet.  Sum total of what will go to Goodwill: three shirts.  It is not as if I have a walk-in closet of full of expensive designer clothes or fancy matching outfits that I don’t want to give away–what I have is the dress I wore for my graduation recital in 1984, the shirt I wore for my high school yearbook photo (yes, it still fits), the Liberty of London print wrap dress (that made me look so professional even though it falls to my ankles) which I bought on sale and wore once a week for a year when I taught at the Westchester Conservatory (my students must have thought I owned only one dress), the London Fog rain coat with enormous 1980’s shoulders and zip-out lining that John bought me for my birthday, the only piece of clothing he ever picked out for me, the dresses I wore when I was six, rescued from my mother’s closet after she died–I will never wear those again, but how can I give them away after she saved them for all these years?

It’s a ghost closet filled with clothes that seem to me to still have the essence of who I was at that time.  I don’t particularly want to be that person from 1984 or 1975, but somehow it seems important to remember what it was like then, where I was, and to respect the time and distance traveled.

So I can’t ever complain that I have nothing to wear!  Eventually it may turn out that my wide-bodied raincoat makes its way to Goodwill and then to a cold homeless person in Detroit or Poland or becomes rags.  The sentiments in the cloth, though, I need to retain.

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The Next Step

Leaving my son at the airport today, I could feel him pulling away before we’d even said good bye. I would have pinned a note to his shirt: “Please take care of this sweet boy and make sure he gets to where he needs to go, but please bring him back to me at least for a little while.” But he is not Paddington Bear, thankfully, but a smart, vital young man who swears like a sailor, has a mind of his own, and is ready to fly from the nest.

This is what brings the tears–the loss of that responsibility and how my life has been totally shaped around caring for him, his sister, my husband–even the cat! What shape does my life have now? Maybe like vapor, a cloud, flowing around different things, or maybe just dissipating–it would be so easy just to give up and retreat to my comfortable chair.

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