In the evening, I work story problems with my daughter If a teacher has 25 students, and 312 raffle tickets How would she divide them evenly between them? And what will be left over? (So much will be left over) I don’t even hassle my kid about how raffle tickets are bought, not given (So much has been bought not given) Not like the one story problem where alligators ate blueberry pie Alligators don’t eat pie, I said, not vegetarian pie That’s ridiculous She laughed at me, and got the salt, and shook it all over the page You’re salty She’s a product of her age (So much is, even me) This is her age: 17 die in Florida 28 in Sandy Hook 13 in Colorado I don’t even think she remembers Sandy Hook I remember I stood outside the back door of the elementary school with other parents, and we were red-rimmed and leaking We talked about how it felt like Columbine, and 9/11, and the Challenger explosion How those 20 dead children hit air and fluoresced And we were left with hard blue streaks just behind our eyelids that could not be got out with rubbing (Could not be got out with anything) We caught up our children and hugged them so hard they told us we were weird. You’re weird, mom, let me go. Here’s a story problem: Two students walk into a school with guns and bags of explosives One man kills his mom and then walks into a school with a gun One man walks into a school with a gun One teacher uses himself as a shield One student stands in a doorway to usher others to safety One student sits on the floor and cries One student calls her mom One student runs with his hands up One student jumps out the window One student didn't go to school that day, because she had strep, and her inbox fills with horror Here’s the answer: Children die Children die Children die All story problems are exponential and something like infinite Because no parent can resolve their data set to one When that one is dead on a school hallway floor That dead child is neither anecdote nor data, but something worse: It is a dead child. Dead children are no answer They are the beginning of a logarithm that curves up Into the reckoning of our brutal calculus (Originally written Feb 22, 2018, after the Stoneman Douglas high school shooting.)
This is going to be a ramble. It’s my Grandma Dory’s 97th birthday. She died less than a half a year ago, and I’m still raw with loss on days like today. On other days, I don’t always remember, which makes the occasional rawness all that more difficult. For a smart, well-researched, and considered take on The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, please check out the review in the New York Times.
A friend of mine – actually more the mother of a childhood friend that I’ve known forever – recently posted a picture of birds in a glassed case. She titled it “Three little birds,” undoubtedly referencing the Bob Marley song because I know how she rolls. It came after a series of posts about her father – the grandfather of my childhood friend – and his experiences in his assisted living home. He is 102 years old. The image bolted me to the floor.
When I was visiting my Grandma Dory in the past years — after the fall, before the stroke, after the stroke, before the end, in the middles when it was just fall and I was there, or it was spring, and I was sprung — I would sit in the broad open visiting area with its hard couches and watch the birds. There was a glass case with a variety of finches, all hopping tropical finery, and a three-ring binder on a string with their names and attributes. I’d page through with my daughter to learn their names in the interstitial times: right before my cousin came and told us stories, right before we set up a dinner in the odd “meeting room” with its badly framed art, right after all that jazz and heartache while I waited for my husband to pull the car around, like one does, my son with his head in the Nintendo DS. The birds hopped.
When she died, my closest cousin and I messaged a lot about what we were going to say. He is the oldest boy of the cousins; I am the oldest girl. (That we are both nigh on 40 years old does not factor; boy and girl were what we were to her in the best most difficult way.) We linked each other a lot of Cure songs and other tragedies. (Six months apart, we are the children of our time, and I’m not going to apologize for that.) Birds were a motif for us, for her, my grandma, all of her watchful years and feeders hung out in front of the picture window. I remember smearing peanut butter in a swinging wooden stand on her behest when I was six, licking the knife. For the birds. I remember the owl and his plastic neck turned nearly around in the woods outside of the Payne Farm house seen through the spyglass she left on the windowsill. Do you see? she would ask.
He read this, in the end, at her end. God, how I miss her. I even miss him, my closest cousin, our relationship always in these hard, bright moments when he is here or I am there, suddenly, at an event. Nigh on 40, these events tend to take the tang of loss more often than they used to, funerals more than weddings, loss more than gain.
I was shocked as child when my dad made fun of Dickinson. “A bird came down the walk,” he said, puffing out his chest and making the universal sign for chicken arms that he flapped. How can you make fun of her weird observations? She was indeed an odd old bird, all of her slashed punctuation, all that hiddenness. She wrote poems on envelopes like I write grocery lists on the same, the economy of the domestic scribbled out on whatever is at hand. “Hold this”, I say, in the car as we go the grocery store. “Read it back.” My daughter cannot read my cursive and chides me, the reused envelope in her hand. She pretends at cursive in pages of fake script. I wonder at the things that might shock her about how I feel: how could you? I imagine my feelings are glassed, fluttering behind surfaces that she can see through but cannot touch.
In my more crystal moments I think about the long twisting process of grief, which makes me grab whatever is at hand to staunch the bleeding. I cut the tip of my thumb off by accident earlier this week, and it didn’t even hurt at first. After I’d run the water pink and wrapped leaking gauze over the digit, I looked closely at the bit of thumb and nail that sat on the edge of the blade. It was like there was another me pushing through the knife. I got tissue and pushed what I’d cut off away. I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry for my loss. I am not sorry for all the gorgeous nothings.
In this short life that only (merely) lasts an hour
How much — how little — is within our power
I’m in the middle of planning the last of my grandparents’ funerals, the one for my Grandma Dory who died three weeks ago. I’m a mess, and I’m not going to sugarcoat that. This is going to be messy.
Writing Grandpa Ed’s was easy, though the writing was the only easy thing about it. I was about to be married, and my mother, his daughter, was out of the country, and my sister was sicker than I’ve ever seen her. I ended up blinking, dazed, in this foreign country of grief, digging through the papers on his desk in the basement room of his house, the one he called office. There was a stack of photos on the desk, this chronology of his life. He knew he was dying. I moused open his computer, which was a cast-off from my college days, which I’d set to the largest system font I could find to accommodate his blindness. He was writing to the end.
The easy thing about his funeral was that he was a man for poetry: maudlin, Celtic, one of those large, performing personalities that acts as subterfuge for a moody, feeling introvert. Dylan Thomas, we said, almost at once. Fern Hill.We made my dad read the poem, which was almost a cruelty I can see now. At the time all I knew was that I couldn’t read it. I can barely read it now.
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take meUp to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,In the moon that is always rising,Nor that riding to sleepI should hear him fly with the high fieldsAnd wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,Time held me green and dyingThough I sang in my chains like the sea.
“Do what you like to do. Live in the area that you would like to live. Enjoy your time off. I like the more simple life, down to earth. In a smaller town you have so many friends, real genuine friends.”
Also in the book, he talked about his mother’s death, when he was six, of child-bed fever. It was the defining moment of his life, in some ways, this woman lost a century ago. I wish I’d met her. I wish she’d lived long enough to raise him up so he didn’t keep looking for her all those years later in the throes of his senior dementia. I wonder about her funeral. It would have been horrible, like all funerals for young women and new mothers. I went and bought my son a suit today and worried about his hair grown long. I can just see Chris at six with an ill-fitting new suit and a haircut. I can see his infant sister. The prairie of Iowa would have been hard and flat.
At his service I read “How One Winter Came in the Lake Region” by Wilfred Campbell, a Canadian Anglican priest. I’m not sure anyone understood why, including me, but then I’m not sure I care. It was right, this slow freezing and the joy in that, the shift of seasons.
When one strange night the sun like blood went down,Flooding the heavens in a ruddy hue;Red grew the lake, the sere fields parched and brown,Red grew the marshes where the creeks stole down,But never a wind-breath blew.That night I felt the winter in my veins,A joyous tremor of the icy glow;And woke to hear the north’s wild vibrant strains,While far and wide, by withered woods and plains,Fast fell the driving snow.
My Grandma Fran, I can’t even work out the timeline for her death. She died so long and sudden. I have these memories of driving over the hills and bridges of Allegheny county, past the grim and vibrant steel towns laid down by the rivers of Pennsylvania. I remember my daughter in a fountain playing until the hospital security guard told us to get out. I remember flying home and waiting for the call from my mother, who stayed there until the end, or one of them. I remember cleaning out the house.
Fran was not a woman for poetry either. When I named my daughter after her, she was so perplexed: why would you do that? It wasn’t false modesty either, but something weirder, something hard and unsentimental. I never saw either of my grandmothers cry in the decades I knew them. I read Dylan Thomas’s “After the Funeral (In Memory of Ann Jones)” at her funeral. It was a counterpoint to Ed’s Fern Hill. I don’t know that there is anything written that could sum Fran in either poetry or prose.
I know her scrubbed and sour humble hands
Lie with religion in their cramp, her threadbare
Whisper in a damp word, her wits drilled hollow,
Her fist of a face died clenched on a round pain;
And sculptured Ann is seventy years of stone.
These cloud-sopped, marble hands, this monumental
Argument of the hewn voice, gesture and psalm
Storm me forever over her grave until
The stuffed lung of the fox twitch and cry Love
And the strutting fern lay seeds on the black sill.
And now Dory. I have to account for you in words now too, and I’m not sure I’m at the task of it. Dad and I trade phone calls, working out logistics; my children, who have been muddy with odd grief, calls from the teacher in the last month; what has happened? The Art of Losing at my knee last night, paging, paged. There’s so much here that gets the heart of it, but cannot be spoken aloud in a Cremation Society building in downtown Duluth. It would not be fair.
by Franz Wright
Death is nature’s way
of telling you to be quiet.
Of saying it’s time
to be weaned, your conflagration
starved to diamond.
I’ll give you something to cry about.
And what those treetops swaying
dimly in the wind spelled.
Dory was so domestic, so practiced in the arts of familiar deception. She was the most accomplished liar of my acquaintance, who rolled mythology as simple as truth. She read me maudlin Scandinavian folk tales as a kid, which I cried about with the pleasure of sorrowful fiction. She knitted like she breathed. She was the last, most important member of that generation to leave me here. I’m still surprised that it was possible for her to die.
Only until this cigarette is ended,
A little moment at the end of all,
While on the floor the quiet ashes fall,
And in the firelight to a lance extended,
Bizarrely with the jazzing music blended,
The broken shadow dances on the wall,
I will permit my memory to recall
The vision of you, by all my dreams attended.
And then adieu,–farewell!–the dream is done.
Yours is a face of which I can forget
The colour and the features, every one,
The words not ever, and the smiles not yet;
But in your day this moment is the sun
Upon a hill, after the sun has set.
Edna St Vincent Millay
She received this as a gift, and when I go to ask her, her mouth can’t form the words. I think I hear the name Kathy, and maybe a Mc, but the throat goes to glottal stops after a stroke. I don’t want to talk about this.
Dad and I are standing in front of the farm house, and it’s throwing light into the cicada buzz of Indian summer. We stand near forward, turned in a little the way Minnesotans do, elbow to elbow. He’s got a look in his eyes I can’t consider too closely without losing it. I smoke, and it rolls in the porch light. Dad talks. I talk. We tell stories about people we know. I am so angry and sad. There’s a house full of people, and we can hear their chatter and light-making. She is in the back room, my sister at her side. I don’t want to talk about this either.
It would have been not so long before she was married when she got this book, but the flyleaf notes her maiden name – Doris Bahls, R.N. It’s covered in green wool burlap and has a slipcase. It is sun-faded. We thought at first this was a gift upon the completion of nursing school, but that would have been two years earlier than the publication date. Dad read her “Song of the Open Road” that morning. We talk about Whitman. Dad is incandescent, surprised. He is a farmhouse throwing light into an angry darkness.
I knew these assholes in college who ruined Whitman for me, the way assholes who own literature do. You know the kind: the Brahmans wielding citation. My anger at her dying spills into my memory, which is already angry enough. Sometimes, like now, my instinct to anger depresses me. I resolve to read more aloud to her, if she wants to hear, tomorrow morning. That afternoon I saw a piliated woodpecker batter the lightning-struck tree on the roadside. It seemed prehistoric and a pathetic fallacy. I wanted to feel wonder, but my anger kept getting in the way.
The morning is better. I think murder to my aunt when she pulls bullshit both too complicated and subterranean to explain to anyone but my sister, but that infraction bleeds out into an empty house and my sister and I quiet and sitting. She reads aloud, and I listen. I don’t take in much meaning. Grandma isn’t awake, but she isn’t asleep either. Rain threatens – the sky hanging low and still – and the morning is napping and expectant. We hear the burr of the lawnmower pushed by the aunt who makes me angry over an acre of land. The sound is an odd comfort. Work is good.
My sister finishes, and there’s silence and low murmurs. Coffee cups are refilled. We turn her body the way the post-it on the wall instructs to do every four hours, asking if this pillow is right. God, she’s so thin. She smiles so big that she is radiant. On her bed is the quilt made by her grandmother when she was nine, in the year before her grandmother had the stoke, and then never spoke again. I don’t want to talk about this. I read “O Pioneers!”
I start to read “Song of Myself”. I begin choking in places, the early parts about the immortality of grass, the green hair of the grave. I keep thinking of Dylan Thomas, and the synagogue of the ear of corn or the fern on the windowsill dropping its seeds. I think about finding Fern Hill and the eulogy to Ann, but these poems are bright with loss for other people for me, and I’m not exactly keeping it together already. Whitman reminds me of the Beatitudes: blessed are the angry and sad. Blessed are the dying.
I read for a long time. My sister is laid out on the day bed in front of open windows. She watches the ceiling or closes her eyes. She listens. My voice begins to go muzzy, and I page through, counting. I didn’t know this poem was so long. It is repetitious until it nails you, a lulling patter of window-struck rain until lighting strikes the tree out front. I don’t even know what to do with the illustrations, which embed hammers and sickles in nearly every plate, Abraham Lincoln flying like one of Marc Chagall’s lovers over the rooftops, wrapped in the arms of a dark figure. I don’t think but store them away.
It eventually rains. The house fills with people who fill my anger, and I retreat to the porch, sitting off the edge, talking on the phone, tamping cigarettes into the gravel. I sit at the edge of her bed and read her anecdotes from James Herriot about dogs while dinner occurs like a rainstorm. I don’t want to talk about this either, and I don’t have an ending.
“Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irrestistably real and attractive to us – for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”
I’m not too embarrassed to admit I’ve written just pages of garbage about The Beauty of the Husbandthat I will not be posting, now or ever. Anne Carson absolutely fries my circuits; she makes me synesthetic and incoherent. I keep trying to explain why I quoted the much neglected and almost ridiculous Walter Pater, a quote that came to my mind like driftwood dredged by a storm and then bobbed, insistent.
I went to visit my aunt and grandmother once. They both live on the south shore of Lake Superior. I took my kids to the lake, to the municipal park with creosote-soaked railroad ties as playground equipment, cordoning rusting swings and concrete habitrails. It was half-spring, that odd interstitial season where the ice had broken to finger-shaped bits and then rubbed themselves warm on the surface of the lake. When the wind blew, the floating ice tingled on each other in this quiet bell noise that could be missed but for listening.
There were heaps of this black stuff, like a soft, black wet sand, running in ribbons up and down the shore. There was an old guy spading it into a used five gallon plastic bucket. What is that? I asked Kristen. Oh, that’s sawdust from the sawmills what were on the lake at the turn of the last century. It blows up onto the shore in the spring, and people work it into their gardens. The land there is peat and clay. She might even have had a name for this anaerobic sawdust, but I can’t remember it anymore. That’s this book: a disinterring and re-interring of the forest duff of the emotional history of marriage.
Duff? Another word I learned on the shores of Lake Superior. The New World had no earthworms before the Europeans came, and those wriggling creatures are an infection. Duff is the crust of decomposing matter on the forest floor, and invasive worms change this composition at its fundement. The outside wiggles in, and it can’t be spaded out. The litter should build, not be eaten away like fingernails.
I think I was reminded of Pater for two reasons. First: Pater is such a poet of the moment, the hyper-Romanticism of that one shining event caught and crushed like a firefly so that it leaves its luminescent ichor on your hands. This is the opposite of a marriage. Not that marriage is a drudge, or a slog, but it is not a moment. Carson always invokes the weirdest muses for her works – here she keeps cutting snippets of the boy Keats, whose consumptive unconsummation of his romantic life made his Romanticism burn. I could speak of speaking urns if I could go off to Italy and die, taking my hard and gem-like flame with me. I can’t though. I’ve got obligations.
Second, I feel like poetry is often argument. The three-part sonnet, with its terminating couplet like the prestige in a magic trick. Ta da! The morals of the epic, however sloppy, spent like rage. This poem is a series of arguments, undertaken in the kitchen, that never rightly resolve to the prestigious coda. Pater’s moment’s aren’t argumentative – they just are – but they reside on a spectrum of the emotional like a teeter-totter. An argument enacted a thousand times is a habit, in black or white like nuns. It is worn like shoes. A moment casts those shoes off, or steals them. So Pater is my wrong muse, like Keats is Carson’s.
I don’t know. The thing about The Beauty of the Husband, the thing I think makes me impossible, is the Woolfian argument, the quantum leap that dances from q to r through a lot of impossible, everyday connectives that only make sense in the black body radiation of my heart. I can’t even argue it right. I’ve only lit one end, and the light is both lovely and small. I’ll dance it to the end.
Barlow takes the Homeric fire, tosses on a bunch of kerosene, toasts a couple of marshmallows until they bubble blackly, and then eats them with a grin. Then he throws on a couple of tires for good measure and leans back for a long, slow pull on a hip-flask. Man. I’ve been doing the sputtering flail whenever I try to describe Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow to people: it’s a free verse novel! about werewolves! an L.A.! Quit backing away like I’m a crazy person because I’m totally for serious and so is Barlow.
I’m the kind of dork who flips out when I read in one of the blurbs for this book that says it’s written in blank verse. Godamn it, blank verse has meter, my friends, and this does not. This is free verse. I’m also the kind of dork who has an opinion about free verse, generally, which goes something like this: free verse is for the lazy. No, no, calm down; I’m also enough of a dork to defend e. e. cummings with my dying breath for relying on other, cooler, more chthonic prosodic stylins. Sure, he’s kind of responsible for a bunch of lamers thinking it’s okay to just write crap all over the page and call it poetry, but that’s like blaming [some historical figure] for [later, sucky historical movements]. You know what I mean. (And I’m not talking about [Ayn Rand] and [Objectivism], for the record.)
The dorkiness will keep on coming when I try to relate my feelings about the Epic. I’m no Classics major; that train of inquiry more or less ended when a history prof in my freshman year gave the following question as a mid-term exam: Compare the Fall of Greece to the Fall of Rome. Um, does “fuck you” count as an answer? So, my relationship with the Epic begins with John Milton and then terminates in Alexander Pope. It’s been a while since I’ve sung this tune, but let’s see if I can hit the high notes: Milton translated the Epic into the vulgar language of English, and much like the translation of the bible into the vulgar language of English, both ended in a profoundly local sense of divinity and identity. Milton grappled with a Mediterranean God/form in his own tongue, and it changes that form, the God, and the tongue in ways that cannot be counted.
Pope tootles along almost a century later, and knowing he couldn’t be Milton, broke his Epic musings into two things: he translates Homer’s epic into fucking heroic couplets, which is, like, the most insane thing ever, trust me, and then writes what he calls a “mock epic”:The Rape of the Lock. I don’t really know what to say about The Rape of the Lockother than it makes me seriously nuts on several levels. It’s goofy; it’s in absolutely more heroic couplets; it uses the word “rape” in an already (at the time) archaic sense that means “theft”. It’s been a while since I’ve hefted this tome, but I do know that a thousand proverbs in English come out of The Rape of the Lock. It’s catchy as hell. You can dance to it, even though it kind of pisses you off. So, your English prof would say at this time, the Epic is dead. Long live the Epic.
So. Then. Well. *cough cough* The epic didn’t really die there, and then English got itself transported to America and hit the Pacific ocean and sat down on the California coast and thought, “Oh, fuck, man”. There’s The Golden Gateby Vikram Seth which is a sort of prose poem/epic Tales of the City. Fantastic, and worth a looksee, seriously. It’s funny; it’s light; it’s written in the Onegin stanza which has a kind of loosey-goosey conversational style to it, despite being rhymed-and-metered. The opening:
To make a start more swift than weighty
Hail Muse. Dear Reader, once upon
A time, say, circa 1980, […:]
Ha! Milton may have invoked the wrong muse when he began Paradise Lost, and Seth just sketched her briefly, but Sharp Teeth takes this a step farther.
Let’s sing about the man there
at the breakfast table
No muse. Let’s just sing. Let’s just boogey it out on this California coast in the twisting idiom of supernatural Noir, which is both tired tired tired like the detritus of the American Dream and open open open like the frontier that ends at the Pacific ocean and breaks into the thousand ethnic neighborhoods. The epic at its heart cares and is concerned about God in its many guises; Sharp Teeth is no different. But since Pope elevated the silly to the profound, the epic in English can throw in the kitchen sink, and Barlow does, in spades.
I say there are werewolves, but this isn’t the kind of genre fiction that gives a shit about silver bullets and the lame specifications of rule-bound supernaturalism. People become animals. They become these sleek, domestic beings because they are beaten until they change or they share the blood of another werewolf, or because they break with grief after an act of kindness shatters the darkness they have cultivated so closely. There’s a lot here about love, and kindness, about cruelty, about the prime mover and his ineffable indifference and old Wile E. Coyote who lopes into the grand creation and arranges a thousand coincidences that arrange themselves into the doofy haphazardness of our lives.
I’m in love. I still won’t release my unease with free verse; that’s the fur on my hackles that I simply won’t shave off. This isn’t tight prose, but I like the shaggy dog of its looseness, which says things like:
The secret must stay
and – according to the scientists –
the love will live.
The heart is quite comfortable with secrets.
After all, its home is a dark wet place
tucked in among all the other organs
who aren’t talking either.
I’ve run off the end of the cliff. Love is the anvil that will hit me when I drop. Hail Muse.
I’ve been tossing around like an insomniac deciding what to read next. I’ve been off fiction for grown-ups for a while, for various personal reasons. I had cause to push Autobiography of Red into someone’s hands this weekend, which gave me cause to pull this artifact out and consider it again. I know Nox by Anne Carson is going to kill me; I know that. But it is winter, and the snow falls glittery and insulating over the back porch, and it may be the best kind of sarcophagus in which to consider Carson and her grief. I’ll have to read it at night, so the kids don’t wreck the accordion pages. There’s something funny about that – the way this object, this book, is bait for children – when I know the heart-break I will find in the less physical parts of its being. We shall see. I shall see.
I wrote a whole review, and it vanished with an ill-timed key-stoke. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Now I will have to recreate it from memory, like a life in retrospect.
In the mayhem of the holidays, I dug through a box of old photographs, and found myself there, younger. It was a shock. The best photo I have from high school, with all of the players smiling out from under their bangs, has a weird stain in the middle that leaves rings on our faces. I can’t find the negative. Seeing the photo made me have the memory of s smell, something like carpet, and tobacco lingering on fingers after you smoke, and the carbon dioxide smell of soda as it fizzes.
This poem has struck me dumb. Our lives hinge in the double meaning of that word.
I don’t like collage, or fragments, as a rule. Many years ago, some artistic jerk-off stacked up a bunch of water mines dredged out of the Atlantic as an art instillation at the local modern art museum. Above it, the words:
bits and pieces
put together to present
a semblance of a whole
Hipsters on the corner of 27th and Hennepin – Hennepin Ave cuts across the grid pattern of the streets, so the apartment sits at the end of a point of land, visible to the clog of rush hour traffic – hung a statement on white sheets on their porch:
bits and pieces
float in flatulence
in my bowl
The hipsters were right: sometimes fragments put together are just shit. But. To quote better poets than I:
A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.
But sometimes fragments are all we have, and metonymy is as good as completeness. A memory of smell invoked by the damaged image of a damaged time.
But still, it moves.
Carson is a translator, which makes her a poet, or possibly the other way around. Causality is a tricky business. She gropes in a dark room for a light switch. Sometimes she finds it. Sometimes she doesn’t, and the thing that makes her a poet is that she can give the darkness shape.
I choke up when I talk about this poem. I don’t know why, because it is not confessional or manipulative. It is not meant to play me like an instrument. It plays itself, and the tears are in the silences between the notes.
I also don’t know why I’m calling this a poem. It’s too tactile for that. The accordion pages bear the marks of the staples, which have been recorded like music, a record. Remember when you could pronounce that two ways and have it mean something? Record the verb, and record the noun. On one page, there is the sketch of a shadow, and when you turn the page, you realize it is the shadow of the photographer, their mother, laid out in the grass. You realize, I said, distancing. I realize, I guess is closer to the truth of it.
This is almost voyeurism, but for the silence, the muteness. This is no confessional. There is no pat Freudian conclusion to the fragments, to the eulogy, just a bit here and there with odd tears between them. If I were speaking these words, you would know whether I meant tears, like from your eyes, or tears, like something rended. I’m not speaking them though, and the translation hangs. I didn’t know until I typed these words that there was any ambiguity.
I read this on the couch, wrapped in blankets because I’m cheap and the house is cold. My daughter came and wriggled next to me and watched the pages move, connected to one another the way they are, and also watched whatever dumb movie I put on to distract her. She was warm, and smelled like childhood.
In my current Carson inspired insanity, I’ve ordered her translation of Sappho’s fragments, entitled If Not, Winter. It is winging to my house now. I thought I’d reread this, my first and only meeting with Sappho, before I meet with Carson and her words. I have a really great anecdote about this translation, but I’ll wait to tell it later, because it is late and I’m tipsy.
I’m just going to take a deep breath and review this, because it’s not going to get any easier letting it sit on currently-reading for the rest of the year. I love this book. I love Sappho. I can’t really remember why I picked this up many, many moons ago, but I did, and it was the most fragile, most glass-spun, earthy, moonlit poetry I’d ever encountered. Its fragility is really strange though, more a product of history than the thinness of the words themselves; Sappho is not thin. Like many of the writers from the ancient world, her work comes down in scraps and quotes. Out of volumes, 500 lines remain. Many or most of them are not contiguous.
I spent a chunk of my matriculation reading poetry, because I fell in love with the Romantics and the early Modernists. I loved the transition between the almost-backward-looking period of Romanticism and how it turns, changes, molded by fire and mechanization and the Great War. How you can go from Wordsworth crying about how he can’t believe:
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
To crispy old T. S. Eliot who writes:
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
It’s the same: the narrator standing with his toes in the water, considering the awesome power of the Old Gods, but the tone is so much different. Disbelief as sorrow, or disbelief as murder, as suicide.
Or take the sonnet. There’s lots of sonnets about The Muse of Poetry, and how she gets chained in verse – this is pun on lines usually, because poets are as immature as the rest of us. Take this, from the boy Keats, at the very, very beginning of the Romantic movement:
If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d,
And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fetter’d, in spite of pained loveliness;
Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of poesy;
Along comes Millay – who rocks so hard she burns the house down – and she twists this image of Andromeda’s foot into a Monty Python style smash in “Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare”:
O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
When first the shaft into his vision shone
Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.
Do you see how funny this is??? She is not unaware of the double meanings of the word “shaft”, is all I’m saying. The Muse puts her foot down. All this joking doesn’t negate the power of Keats, I would say, but it’s such a fascinating turn in world view.
I am so avoiding talking about Sappho.
I don’t feel like I can talk about the Classics, and Sappho is a hard woman to look in the face. I have no training, none. I can shit-talk a little bit about prosody, because I really earnestly love the dusty, pointless end of analyzing poetry. This is what I love so much about it: it’s so freaking outdated and imprecise. Prosody is still sitting around adjusting its spats, just waiting for someone to come along and blow it out of the water like Chomsky did with linguistics. (We can argue about Chomsky all day, but he really did a number on all that sentence-diagramming bullshit with his generative grammar, thank Proteus and his Horn.) The note on translation in this book is so far gone into talking about unbelievably arcane prosodic knowledge that I could not even pretend to keep up, which makes me want to hug the translator a bit. You go with your bad self!! You have clearly thought about this so much more than I!!
So I’ll just tell the anecdote that I mentioned at the first, even though it isn’t anywhere as funny as I let on. I plead mild inebriation.
I got married about a dozen years ago. Richard and I are atheists, but we didn’t want to give our grandmothers heart attacks or make a big thing about it, because weddings are already difficult enough. We had a heckuva time trying to find an officiant to our wedding. We first talked with a New Age woman whom I really respect, but her weddings are total hokum and verbal bloat. I’m not ragging on her – she’s a really wonderful person – but I had profound aesthetic differences in how I wanted the wedding to go. But I was young, and stupid, and I was all like, it will be fine! We will work it out! Thankfully, she fired us. She understood better than we that we were not well matched.
Then, in the scramble, we were referred to a man named Waldo Asp. I am not making this up. He was named Waldo because he was born on Walden Pond a la Thoreau, which I am also not making up. He was a minister and a philosophy professor, which I continue not to make up. And thank the Lord whom I don’t necessarily believe in, he was both lazy and incredibly well-versed in marriage ceremonies.
We wrote our own vows, mostly stripping out any reference to God from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer that I was raised with. (My quip on the matter: I may not believe in God, but it’s a Episcopal God I do not believe in; the rest of you Gods I haven’t gotten around to disbelieving in.) I was exceedingly pleased with myself for adding in a line from Sappho – much of her poetic output was from marriage ceremonies, because she was an officiant of some kind herself – because I thought I was being all subversive, yo. Waldo took one look at the line, and was all casual, hey, did you know there is music for this section of poetry? Would you like me to sing it in plainsong?
WOULD I??? ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME???
So he did. It was pretty great.
I don’t really know what that has to do with this collection, and I’m sorry I’m so far off topic. These are amazing verses, amazing partially because they are not verses, but often just individual lines, just the word “chick-peas” and then the page is torn and then there is no more. It kills me that there isn’t more recorded, because Sappho’s verses spark and hiss like a downed power line. I’m looking forward to Carson’s take on Sappho, but I suspect that this will always be the collection in my heart.
The semester I spent in London, I went to the British Museum at least three times, which is not nearly enough. Most of the collection of artefacts from ancient Egypt was undergoing some sort of rehab at the time – you know, all the fancy stuff and sarcophogi and things. But there was a small display of everyday items: make-up kits, kitchen tools, hand mirrors, bits of fabric. I, like many kids, went through a pretty serious Egypt phase, but it was mostly centered on the mythology, not the archeology. Ancient Egypt was a place where gods rose up out of lotus flowers and wore the heads of strange beasts, where rivers ran backwards, a person had two souls, not one, where the writing danced with the shapes of cranes and men, where the earth was a man and the sky was a woman. It was a land of unreality, of dream, of reversals.
In some ways, I never realized that the people of ancient Egypt were real, were people with human bodies like mine, until I looked at the tin of face powder with its neat row of brushes with little numbers by the handles. I saw her then, brush in hand, blacking her eyes, whitening her face, carefully outlining her mouth in red the way I do when I go out and want to look pretty. She had a husband, some kids, and they’d gotten a babysitter for the first time in what felt like ages. She saw a movie and her husband drove the sitter home. They stayed up too late drinking wine and talking. In the morning, the kids woke them up early, and then they sat sleepily on the porch and watched the kids play in the rushes and fight companionably.
I’m not sure where this is going. This book makes me incoherent. I kind of want to stop trying to get it across to you and just order you to read it. Go read it. I just finished reading and I want to sing and and cry and write some stories, and I want to go back and read it again, and then I started doing that. Then I thought maybe it would be better to cry and type a bunch of anecdotal rubbish that only makes sense to me so I did that. Now I think I’ll do that some more.
I don’t have a good classical education, but at some point I was given a copy of Sappho: A Garland, which is a translation/collection of all of Sappho‘s extant poetry. Very few full poems of hers come down intact – mostly because someone else quoted her – and the rest is just fragments, sometimes whole lines, but also sometimes just a few words with big tears between them. These few whole poems were augmented by the discovery of scraps and bits wrapped around things like mummified crocodiles (I make this up not) dug out of the Mediterranean sand by colonial archaeologists. These fragments kill me. They make me burn with hunger.
nor the bee
The moon has set
and the Pleiades; it is the middle
of the night and the hours go by
and I lie here alone.
golden chickpeas grew along the shore
In one of the reviews on Goodreads, the reviewer wonders if this book was written just for him, which is what I wonder too. Sappho was my fragmentary poetic love; a poet named Stesichoros was Anne Carson’s. She says he “came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet.” I loved Sappho for empathizing with Helen, in the poem that begins:
“Some say thronging cavalry, some say foot soldiers
others call a fleet the most beautiful of
sights the dark earth offers, but I say it’s what-
ever you love best.”
The poem ends with the personal, with Sappho, the poet, dropping her little argument about Troy and Helen and the place of those things in the world and howling with the ache of her lost lover. Homer was many good things, but he was a not a poet of the personal. His seas are always wine-dark, his dawns rosy-fingered, the blood black. Mimesis makes demands; remember this one adjective and not all the others. Remember the story, the fleet, the thronging cavalry. Sappho broke Homer open for me; Stesichoros did for Carson. Stesichoros was struck blind by Helen for calling her a whore. He wrote a reversal, and Helen reversed his blindness. Makes one wonder about the blindness of Homer, right? I’ve recently derided free verse as for the lazy, and then this came along and struck me blind. I’ve been broken open again. Ah, and I leak while I reverse.
Genyon, whose name meant red, who lived on a red island and kept a herd of red cattle was killed by Hercules for his cattle for one of Hercules’ Tasks. Carson writes this story like a heap of scraps falling out of a box, with a piece of Steinian meat thrown into it for good measure. So often poets are wankers, even the ones I love, because they write for other poets or for themselves or god knows what. The obfuscate, they allude, they conceal. They put their appendixes at the back and not the front. Carson is generous. She reverses this, and then she tells a story of the personal about a boy named Genyon who falls in love with a drifter named Herakles. Genyon is a monster with red wings, but then he isn’t. This isn’t simple allegory; unlike a Homeric story the nouns have adjectives that change and when the adjectives change, so too the nouns. The modern story is rended, it is torn, it is told in fragments and images. But it is also specific and it moves, like Zeno’s Paradox in free verse.
Another thing I saw in the Egyptian room was a wall painting that had all of the Egyptian paint still on it. They would carve the relief, and then paint over it in wild colors, but history and sand and blood has rubbed those colors off. Classicism in art is mistaken: there is not anything subtle and sepia about the Ancient world. They took out their make-up brushes and went dancing. And now I’m wrong again, they probably had wings too, because we still have them tied down to our backs under our jackets. When we fly no photograph can capture us until it’s all reversed.
I think I’ve figured out my issue with steampunk. I’ve even said this before about the genre, but I wasn’t listening to myself too closely. Steampunk is defined mostly by gadgetry — goggles and steamships and corsets — and that gadgetry generally has this narrow aesthetic band. I’m nerd enough to have gone to my share of sf cons, and I get eye-rolling about how frustratingly similar all the steampunk costumes are — a corset (always with the freaking corset), a top hat (both genders), non-functional gearworks, maybe some anachronistic wings or those weird fox tails that all the teenagers wear with the weird muppet boots. (What up, teens? I don’t get your con boots.) But as much as I get irritated with the uniformity – seriously, why does “creativity” have to be so damned uniform – I get that the operative part of cosplay is play. Playing dress-up doesn’t have to make a big statement or blow my mind, and it exists as much for the performer as the audience.
That said, there are always flashes of the truly inventive in costumes I’ve seen: a woman in a gold Victorian-style dress that was designed to look like a Dalek; various steampunk takes on Stormtroopers; costumes using more working class Victorian sartorial iconography and mixed up with Marxist Freedom Fighter clothes. This last one especially, because so rarely do these steampunk characters hail from anywhere but the most rarefied upper classes, a fetishization of people who were on the whole a bunch of shitty, colonial asshats who enforced the crap out of social and sexual norms that are appalling to the modern person. Or freaking should be. Steampunk decouples the sartorial from the cultural, which in some ways can be wonderfully subversive in its own right, but also can be an act of la-la-la-la nevermind the horrors of the Industrial Revolution pretty dresses wheee!!
The gadgetry of steampunk can be part of a reordering of expectation, or they can just be there to look sweet. Either one is fine, though of course I have my preferences for the former. This is my problem with steampunk: I don’t know, often until very late in the game, which kind of book I’m reading. I read with different parts of my brain depending on genre, and it’s possible even to argue that genre is a shorthand letting us know what part of the brain to read with. I’m not going to pick up a fantasy book about elves and magic and start nitpicking that magic violates the rules of physics, therefore it’s a bad book. Or I could, but I would be lame. I approached Soulless looking for spectacle, which is exactly what I got. But I’ve fallen into the gap in steampunk’s split-personality ethos before with Meljean Brook‘s Iron Seas series. I read the first one with the part of my brain reserved for romance novels – not the dumb part or anything, just the part that isn’t going to nitpick world-building or plausibility – when I would have had a much better time reading with the SFnal part of my brain – the part that gets off on well-constructed alternate histories. Because, damn, she’s rocking the alt-history so hard in that series.
Having thought I learned my lesson about judging a book by its steampunk cover, I went into Geared for Pleasure by Rachel Grace keeping one eye open for some kind of coherent world or nifty alt-history. The alt-history idea was blown pretty soon, because this is more fantasy on steampunk planet, though there is some ornament about the horror of industrialization and the shittiness of enforced caste systems. The characters are inventive and the gadgets fun, with blue-haired badasses and spotted cat people, stealth airships and submarine brothels. In short, this book looks marvelous. The private guards for the immortal child-empress-like queen determine there is a threat to her, and go out into the world to nullify it. The novel is structured as two linked novellas, taking place one after the other about each of the two guards. The guards both seriously screw up their missions and end up falling in with pirates and pimps, who are also for some reason loyal to the queen. The writing is energetic and not faux-Victorian-purple, the last a serious problem I have with some steampunk novels. The first novella has some really ugly scene transitions, but I suspect this is more to do with bad formatting, though the writing could have been clearer.
However, even with my critical world-building brain mostly off, I have so, so many problems with this world. It’s not even so much nit-picking — going after details — as it is a fundamental incoherence in how this society is constructed. I was trying to explain the plot to my husband last night, and started in with bitching about the Queen. I likened her to Queen Amidala, even though their illogic is somewhat different. Queen Amidala is an elected monarch? How the hell does that even work? And why does she seem to have zero political sense and spends most of the movie running around pretending to be someone else? Presumably she’s got, like, actual work to do running the planet, even in exile, other than hair-brushing? Anyway, this queen was like that. Everyone loves the crap out of her, sees her as fundamental to the order of society, even though society appears to be a rigid kleptocracy that practices eugenics on a broad scale, has enslaved a whole race of cat-people, and is otherwise a total shitshow. All ills in society are blamed on some group called the Theorrean Raj — possibly a Senate or House of Lords? even though they often seem like a secret society? or possibly even just one evil dude who works behind the scenes? — whom everyone despises. Seriously, what the hell is the point of the queen if she can’t even run her own society? What is she even doing with her time?
And the principles — the two queen’s guards — are members of some racially constructed group, who, and I didn’t get this until way into the book, are understood to be an incredibly corrupt police force even though our two protags are all sweet honor-bound bunnies? Throw in a pimp-with-a-heart-of-gold, a piratess airship captain who, while being neat and badass and all, is a total psycho, murdering her crews almost casually. But everyone loves the queen! For no apparent reason! And this explains behavior that is otherwise absolutely confounding on a character level. Which is where my problem lies (lays? whatever; I hate these verbs): it wasn’t so much that the world didn’t make sense, it’s that it made so little sense that I couldn’t track why anyone was feeling anything about anything. This was less of a problem in novella one, which is a pretty solid virginal-type-learns-a-valuable-lesson-about-her-vagina tale, but in novella two I was so confused about the romantic leads’ cultural situation, societal placement, and what the hell their exact problems were that my emotional investment was pretty well fucked. If I can’t figure what’s going on, I can’t care about the outcome. I couldn’t even try to explain what that final reveal was, or what it might mean. No sense, you has it.
So why the three stars, you ask? Some of this is round up, I admit, because this as really just ok for me as a reader. But if I come at this novel with the romance reading part of my brain, there’s some interesting stuff going on. Waaaay back in the early days of my romance reading project, I complained about how some novel seemed to walk up to issues of domination and submission within sex writing, only to chicken out completely. (I think the exact scene was one where the heroine drove the hero to
fuck make love to her so hard she bruised. And then nothing! No commentary about this desire for the hard fucking in the novel at all. Given Bella Cullen’s wedding night bruisings — complete with amnesia! — this seems to be A Thing.) While the set up to the sex-show thing that goes on in novella one is totally dumb and makes no sense, the ways that scene walked around consent and domination and voyeurism were pretty cool. There’s even some same-sex interactions that don’t seem to run TEH GAY PANIC, and gesture to the ways sex is often mechanically sex, while desire is a whole other issue. Neat.
Novella two’s romantical story was hamstrung by my not getting what was going on, but the themes of domination and submission, when I did get it, were handled credibly. Novella two has to do with a sexually promiscuous dominatrix thief cat-person, and I bitchily said somewhere that I expected her to get her spanks, and then love the dude for it. Which kinda happens, but then was more complicated than that. She’s having a crisis of conscience, and dude is confronting his own limitations as an alpha dude. I mean, there’s a fair amount of waaaaanghst here, but there was a charged push-pull that navigated personal sexual proclivities and personality pretty well. Plus, did I mention that she is a sexually promiscuous dominatrix thief cat-person? Who isn’t slut-shamed? Good lord, a star for that alone.
So, anyway, I can’t really say I’m going to bother with book two of this series — my problems with the world-building are probably only going to deepen — but I wouldn’t be averse to trying out some of Grace’s later books, if she writes them. She’s got a pretty inventive world here, even if it makes no godmamn sense.