24 February 2009

Pet poems, Pt. 2




Walking Bailey

At the sight of my green-and-navy Pumas
he remembers "beg," haunches plomp
to carpet, front legs supplicate so high
he almost falls over. And this is why
it’s so good for me to go—much more
than exercise (O my smugness in the summer
suburbs, empty but for landscapers,
because cardio is indoors and paid for):

it’s his simple animal joy over the same route,
trailing the shifting patina of smells. Learning
where a rabbit was, its path violent
as lightning. Strolling through gutter
puddles, having a drink at the same
time. There’s no thought to it; no swimming
spiral of chemical washout, just the sheer
amazing change of the world.

[July 2007]

Pet poems, Pt. 1
















Lines in Waka Style

How much of love’s
the simple passion
for warmth and breath?
My cat’s flank drawing
against and away from
my face while she sleeps.

[August 2005]

The perennial favorites.

Let's just get these out of the way, since my (wholly imaginary) legions of fans demand it:

My Dog is Jesus Christ

My dog is Jesus Christ.
I can tell because he saves.
He kills the serpents in the yard
and digs them shallow graves.

The devil fears his holy bark,
he makes the demons flee.
They seem like beasts of hell to him
but mice and squirrels to me.

My dog is Jesus Christ, and I
am grateful for his service.
But when he turns and barks at me
I must admit I’m nervous.

He seems to think I’m of his flock
and it’s his job to herd me;
to shall me and to thou shalt not
and Lamb and Living Word me.

My dog is Jesus Christ, but I
must keep him in his place:
his is not to question why—
down, Faith! Roll over, grace!

[summer 1996]

On Morning Sex

Birds fight outside my window, and the sun
Through blinds drips onto calmly resting forms.
From out of sleep, where there was only one,
I struggle to awareness of a warm
Hand on my thigh; half-conscious I recall
The second in my bed (my cat’s the third).
Your hand moves. I turn, smiling, from the wall,
And take your waiting kiss without a word.
At night we bite, we scratch, we moan, we scream:
Too tired now for violence, we move slow,
Our sounds drowned out by birds; eyes closed, we dream;
And I end up on top, and you below.
Then we move faster, louder—oh God—too soon
We come, and then go back to sleep till noon.

[March 2000]

23 February 2009

Adventures in niche knowledge.

I do the receiving four days out of five at work, which is great since that means most of the store's inventory has literally been held in my hands at one point: tactile record, visual impression. It's also given me extensive experience of how the various publishers pack their books for shipment. Since we save boxes and packing materials for returns, I've developed preferences:

MPS wins on both counts. Lovely sturdy boxes that can hold roughly 40 pounds, lovely packed air with perforations so you can use a little or a lot.

Simon & Schuster and Harper have good boxes, but they tend to use stiff bubble wrap, which works fine just filling in space on top but is lousy for crannies, and boxes of books are always full of crannies.

Hachette and Penguin use this horrible gray slick shrink-to-fit nonsense, which is probably super easy and economical for them but nigh impossible to reuse. Penguin in addition ships in strangely shaped boxes ill-suited for multiple applications.

And don't get me started on W.W. Norton's packing peanuts.

On "On Beauty"

Zadie Smith's On Beauty does not need my accolades, but here are some anyway: Funny. Brilliant. Scathing. Touching. Complicated. Smart. Heartfelt. Cakiest thing on four wheels.

I started reading it whilst hanging out at UC Santa Cruz with a friend who's working on his Ph.D. in comparative literature (we've always claimed to be the same person, and discovered a shared love of The Mysteries of Udolpho and a shared loathing of Tom Hanks). My alma mater being sui generis (look at that, I didn't even study Latin), academia is a strangely mannered, dauntingly layered world to me, and Christian was an able guide. So was On Beauty. Apropos of my previous post, the first half of the novel is curled up in bed listening to the rain, trying not to stay up too late and failing...and later in the book there is a TA named Christian. How perfectly perfect.

Here's a good paragraph:
Claire's kind of learning was tiresome to her. Claire didn't know anything about theorists, or ideas, or the latest thinking. Sometimes Zora suspected her of being barely intellectual. With her, it was always 'in Plato' or 'in Baudelaire' or 'in Rimbaud', as if we all had time to sit around reading whatever we fancied.
And here's another:
"Liberals never believe that conservatives are motivated by moral convictions as profoundly held as those you liberals profess yourselves to hold. You choose to believe that conservatives are motivated by a deep self-hatred, by some form of...psychological flaw."
It's full of this stuff. Zadie Smith manages satire with empathy, unlike, say, Sinclair Lewis: I read Main Street a while back and God, that man hated all his characters. Smith laughs at them, but she knows we are all ridiculous about something, or somethings, or someones, and that it's in our ridiculousness that we deserve the most love.

Also: one of this year's Oscar-nominated short films (wouldn'tcha know, they gave the award to the most mundane of the lot), Auf der Strecke, is about a department-store security guard in love with a girl who works in the bookshop there: ordinary hurt and indifference leads to gut-wrenching consequences, but before that, he buys a book to impress her, and it's Von der Schonheit, by Zadie Smith. Note: this would totally work on me. There's still a copy on the shelf.

22 February 2009

Smile As They Bow

Books retain the impression of the place I first read them. The chunk of War & Peace surrounding the battle of Austerlitz, for instance, will always make me think of a giant boulder somewhere in northern New Mexico, during a camping trip with a boyfriend. The trip itself was ill-conceived, punctuated by my unreasoning terror of the dark and ended with three miles uphill in mud, but to be perched on that rock, in the sun, with Natasha dancing and Pierre Masoning and Andrei ephiphanizing in extremis? Bliss.

I read Nu Nu Yi's Smile As They Bow in its slim entirety in the Denver airport and on my flight from there to San Francisco. They'd overbooked the flight, of course, and I took the bribe ($200 flight voucher and dinner) to get bumped till later; I waited at the gate with a group who'd originally been on a still earlier flight that had been cancelled altogether--these folks were ten hours in, unwillingly, and full of the grimly upbeat camaraderie of shared misfortune. They were a fun bunch.

Smile As They Bow tells a story in a subsubculture of a subculture of a culture that I know little to nothing about. There's Burma, to start: I had a book about Burma when I was a kid, one that had belonged to my parents, not a Landmark book but a similar read-and-learn series--there were houses on stilts, I remember. There's that, and Beyond Rangoon in a high school history class, and an expat associate pastor we had for a while. Not much to go on. But the book's not even about Burma as a whole, and not even really about gay men in Burma; it's about a set of gay men in Burma called natkadaws, "spirit wives," who channel Buddhist/ancestor/hero spirits at festivals, for a price, hold elaborate parades, and generally get to tart it up as much as they want without anyone saying boo. Daisy Bond is the heroine of this piece, an aging queen worried about losing his influence over his thirty-years-younger lover/manager, whom Daisy bought from the boy's mother when the boy was sixteen. It's a strange, gritty, glittery little book, and a glance at a way of life I never knew existed.

Adventures in bad blurbing.

On The Clothes on Their Backs, Linda Grant:

"Vividly written, she has created a world of characters that literally spring off the page as if they were alive." (Michael Korda)

I don't recommend opening this one without eye protection.

On Ten Degrees of Reckoning, Hester Rumberg:

"To people who say, 'I can't read such a sad story,' I say only: You must. You must learn about and celebrate Annie and Ben and Mike so that they may be remembered. You must marvel at Judy's bravery, her resilience, her will. You must repeat their story to others, so that what befell them doesn't happen again. Read Ten Degrees of Reckoning. You must." (Ann Hood)

Oh yeah? YOU CAN'T MAKE ME, LADY.

20 February 2009

An excuse for not posting.

I go through the same depression every spring. The bizarre winter we've had--60-degree days every couple of weeks; it's supposed to hit 70 today--has I think dredged up the Slough of Despond prematurely. I've never put it better than this:

Mayfly

In spring love seems a flypaper struggle
pinning me here, awkward and ticking:
like a pulse, like the jittery blackpowder
bundle in my chest. Blind ribs shield
the world from my heart and not
the other way around. On the trees
the youngest mocking greens uncurl
like breath but my throat is full
of words

after the equinox, it's raining--
the finches on the porch couple
in a scuffle of feathers--
I think of you and flutter my wings

tamped down by fear.
I understand the vernal suicide:
surrounded by resurrection but
mired in daily death, the contrast
too much to bear. All winter I longed
for light, but here it is, butter lemon
clover honey
, and I am still the same
gaping mouth, the same hoarse cry.
Restillborn. Every morning
a life cut short.

[April 2007. "Mayfly" garnered an honorable mention in the 2008 issue of Mikrokosmos, Wichita State University's literary journal. I've never been happy with the last two lines: I feel like the poem ends three times, and none of the endings are satisfactory.]

05 February 2009

Overpacking

I'm headed to San Francisco and Santa Cruz till the 12th, and while I'm only bringing three pairs of shoes (flats, tennis shoes, and boots, all black--oh, OK, and a pair of horrid white Dyeables flats for Zombie Prom), I've got eight books in my trusty/huge Hello Kitty shoulder bag:
  • Snake Catcher
  • The Book of Dead Philosophers
  • Smile As They Bow, Nu Nu Yi: the first work by an author living in Burma to be published in the U.S., it's about (the cultural equivalent of) drag queens.
  • The Possession of Mr. Cave, Matt Haig: I read and loved his The Labrador Pact last March--a heartbreaking tale narrated by a dog trying vainly to keep his human family together. This one's out next month.
  • On Beauty, Zadie Smith: White Teeth is a fave; this one I got below cost cause it was all shelf-worn.
  • Stranger Things Happen, Kelly Link: Ten of her stories are recollected for YA readers in last year's Pretty Monsters, and they are jaw-dropping: glorious, Borgesian horror/fantasy. "Magic for Beginners" is one of the best things I've ever read.
  • To The Wedding, John Berger: Recommended by my former co-worker Jason.
  • Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures, Bill Schutt: Well, I am going to Zombie Prom, after all.
  • Also: issues 20-22 of the Buffy Season 8 comics, which feature a Big Bad called "Twilight." I'd say Joss Whedon is a genius, but I think that goes without saying anymore, right?

04 February 2009

Oh!

I read the fourth story in Snake Catcher, "Resting Place," and realized all the stories preceding it were interconnected in deep and fascinating ways. I can't say "it all makes sense now," but I'm sucked into the project.

03 February 2009

Catching snakes. They're tricky little devils.

Having wound up with Yates for the time being (I might try Young Hearts Crying or A Good School later down the road), I'm working on Snake Catcher, by Naiyer Masud (tr. Muhammad Umar Memon). I picked it out 1. because I found it on the bottom of a stack of titles to be returned after I'd already returned the other titles by that publisher (rrrr. We have a less stack-intensive system now), and 2. it's translated from Urdu, and I've never read anything translated from Urdu. (A while back I counted up the translated books I own: 17 Japanese, 8 German, 7 Latin, 6 Homeric/Attic Greek, 4 French, 3 each Italian and Russian, one each Spanish, Turkish, Norwegian, Danish, Arabic, Polish, medieval Icelandic, and Indonesian (which totally isn't a language. Javanese?). Now I'm idly collecting tales from languages I've never read anything from: besides Snake Catcher, there's Burmese, Portuguese, and Farsi on the stack.)
I say "working on," though, because man is this book opaque. Surreal's not the word--I think the term's overused--but honestly I'm not sure what's going on, what these stories are "about." They seem to live in barren spaces, and time doesn't go forward or back; it's a kind of urgent stasis. I'm not sure what to do with it.

Two reviews for work.

Graham Greene: A Life in Letters Graham Greene: A Life in Letters by Richard Greene

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
I think a selected-letters is the best form of biography for a writer, for whom (I’m projecting here) the distinction between prose-as-art and prose-as-communication is whisker-thin. This collection, edited by Richard Greene (no relation, he’s hasty to clarify), spans nearly seventy years, from Graham’s letters to his mother to notes to his grandchildren, through his pleading courtship with his wife Vivien (for whom, sadly, with the hindsight of objectivity, he was spectaculary ill-suited) and love letters to mistresses major and minor, with restless return addresses ranging from Mexico City to Sierra Leone to Saigon, Buenos Aires, Haiti and Antibes (a city in the south of France where he spent decades as a tax exile).

The reader can trace the intellectual, idiosyncratic fluidity of Greene’s politics—during the Cold War, he was dissatisfied both with what he saw as the inflexible jingoism of the U.S. (at the height of McCarthyism, he famously dared the State Department to deny him a visa based on his having been a Communist for six weeks at Oxford. Some non-literary-minded diplomat complied) and the USSR’s brutal suppression of artistic dissent. Religion, too, was essential to Greene; though he wavered in belief and was never particularly pious (see mistresses, above), Catholic notions of sin and redemption were never far from his fiction. He’s obviously tickled when, in 1965, Pope Paul VI invites him for an informal audience and reveals he’s read several of his books, even The Power and the Glory, which a previous Vatican administration had found troubling in its bleakness; Greene writes his daughter Lucy, “He said there would be always things in my books which offended some Catholics, but not to bother about that!”

My favorite missives are Greene's correspondence with Evelyn Waugh--no surprise they knew each other, being English Catholic novelists born in the early 1900s, but I hadn't known they were such fierce and affectionate friends. I'll have to hunt up a selected of Waugh's to read the responses. Particularly vindicating was his letter regarding David O. Selznick’s plan in the late 40s to film Brideshead Revisited (Greene was tapped for the screenplay): “I would rather it had been any other man almost than Selznick behind this, because he is an extraordinarily stupid and conventionally-minded man.” Waugh took his advice and dropped the project, and Brideshead didn’t make it to the big screen until last year, with a rather lesser scribe at the helm.

The Housekeeper and the Professor: A Novel The Housekeeper and the Professor: A Novel by Yoko Ogawa

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Last summer I read Ogawa's The Diving Pool, three spare, eerie novellas where fat baby thighs, American grapefruits, and color-changing tulips take on strange significances. Housekeeper, to my surprise, wasn't surreal at all, but a sweet (and I mean "sweet" before the Age of Irony, when sentiment was not automatically cause for contempt) tale of memory, math, baseball, and improvised family.

The Professor of the title was a brilliant mathematician specializing in number theory until a car accident, 17 years before the book begins, left him with a short-term memory of only eighty minutes. He compensates in a small way with an elaborate system of notes pinned to his one suit, recording names, dates, formulas—and the most important one, of course, that reads “My memory lasts only eighty minutes.” After she meets him for the first time (he always meets her for the first time), the housekeeper narrator spies a new note, a crude sketch of her with “the new housekeeper” written underneath, and thenceforth she can introduce herself by pointing.

Every time the Professor meets her anew, he asks for a number that belongs to her—her shoe size, for example, or her phone number. It’s more than just a nervous tic: to the Professor, numbers contain and encode a beautiful, objective reality. Whatever integer she gives he becomes significant. Her shoe size, 24, is the sturdy factorial of 4 (1x2x3x4=24); her phone number, 576-1455, the number of primes between one and one hundred million. After he finds out her son is a latchkey child, the Professor insists the housekeeper bring him along, and dubs the boy “Root” for his radical-sign-flat-topped head. Root and the Professor bond over their home team, the Hanshin Tigers, and the three create a contented household of sorts, with that most primary of numbers, the Professor’s eighty minutes, always hanging over them.

What makes Housekeeper astonishing is Ogawa’s ability to locate warmth, affection, and tenderness in numbers, which are more important to the story than names—the two title characters’ names are never mentioned, and Root is only referred to by his mathematical nickname. The complex relationships between people not joined by blood are mirrored in rare numerical phenomena like “amicable numbers” whose factors add up to each other (the factors of 220 add up to 284; 284’s factors equal 220) and “twin primes” that differ from each other by two (there are six pairs under 100, and then a gap until 821 and 823). According to the Professor, “The mathematical order is beautiful precisely because it has no effect on the real world. Life isn’t going to be easier, nor is anyone going to make a fortune, just because they know something about prime numbers. . . . But those things aren’t the goal of mathematics. The only goal is to discover the truth.” Ogawa, I think, feels the same way about human love.

Also: isn't the cover pretty?

02 February 2009

The only poem I wrote last year.

Sonnet X: Soup & Beauty

The lack of Ativan hits like blood clot,
climbs from gut to skull with dizzying speed.
I curl up on the break room floor: "I've got
to go," I whimper. Once again, the needs
of my most hated qualities win out.
Rebekah sends me home. Then, on the stairs,
I near-collide with Josh, all lovely mouth,
wide eyes, faded shirt, calculated hair--
and halfway to my car, I stagger back.
Aesthetics will trump illness every time.
I sip tomato bisque, and the attack
subsides; soon, by bowl's end, I feel just fine.
I say the soup restores me, but there's more:
Beauty, oblivious, sweeping the floor.

[April 2, 2008]

01 February 2009

What I'm Reading

This is the stack, subdivided into in-the-middle-of, checked-out-from-work, galleys (by month), fiction, and non. I look at it like little lovely Amelie Poulain looks at a sack of grain, anticipating the feel of all those words slipping smoothly over my hands. Except that Meg Rosoff galley, which is more a matter of form. Reviews = free sandwiches, after all.

Some notes on the year so far:

3 January: Some Danger Involved, Will Thomas
First installment of the Barker & Llewelyn Victorian mystery series. I picked this out as a vacation read for my mom last September, ate it up myself, and my dad's reading it now. Won't change the world or anything, but it's a fun hybrid of prim Holmesian deduction and two-fisted Raymond Chandler badassery.

18 January: Graham Greene: A Life in Letters, ed. Richard Greene (no relation)
Greene's one of my top ten (maybe top 5? Way up there, anyway). I think a selected-letters is the best form of biography for a writer, for whom (I'm projecting) the distinction between prose-as-art and prose-as-communication is whisker-thin. My favorite missives were Greene's correspondence with Evelyn Waugh (definitely top 5)--no surprise they knew each other, being English Catholic novelists born in the early 1900s, but I hadn't known they were such fierce and affectionate friends. I'll have to hunt up a selected of Waugh's to read the responses.

23 January: The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa
Last summer I read Ogawa's The Diving Pool, three spare, eerie novellas where fat baby thighs, American grapefruits, and color-changing tulips take on strange significances. Housekeeper, to my surprise, wasn't surreal at all, but a sweet (and I mean "sweet" before the Age of Irony, where sentiment was not automatically cause for contempt) tale of memory, math, baseball, and improvised family. Absolutely perfect.

25 January: The First Circle, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
Stating first that I AM NOT DRAWING A MORAL EQUIVALENCE HERE, INTERNET: it's a little freaky how modern enviromental legislation echoes Soviet attempts to put deadlines on scientific progress. A 40% improvement in gas mileage by 2020? What if that's not possible?

25 January: My Little Red Book, ed. Rachel Kauder Nalebuff
Ugh. I like the premise--essays on first periods--but it's too transparently trying to be the next Vagina Monologues in Bringing This Very Important Issue (pun!) To Light Oh Let's Embrace Our Bodies. I think I would have liked it an entire star more without the biographical notes on the contributors, all of whom seemed to be diversity consultants or feminist conceptual artists. After a while I just skipped over them.

26 January: Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
America's favorite gay ex-patriate!

Right now I'm reading two fantastic books (I've discovered I can handle doubling up if one's non-fiction; otherwise the narratives fragment each other): an Everyman's Library Richard Yates that contains Revolutionary Road--I read this last year when the publisher sent out "Hey, there's a movie coming out!" galleys and it floored me. I wrote on my work blog:
The book's about an intellectual (self-styled, at least, which is part of the problem) young couple, Frank and April Wheeler, living in suburban Connecticut in 1955 and filled with dreams of escape and future greatness. Bluntly written, with great characterization. I empathized with their desperation at the dull, conformist lives they found themselves falling into, and similarly felt contempt and guilt over their constant need to feel better than the people around them, based only on their aspirations and not any real achievements.
The Everyman also has 1976's The Easter Parade, which is if possible even more brutal, and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, a 1962 collection of short stories.

And then there's Simon Critchley (OMG Britishest name ever. Besides my co-worker Mark's drag-name-should-he-ever-need-one, Mollie Panter-Downes) The Book of Dead Philosophers. Critchley's Chair of Philosophy at the New School, so he's got chops; he's run with Cicero's classic idea that "to philosophize is to learn how to die" and has assembled brief entries on the lives, thoughts, but mostly demises of 190 philosophers from Thales to (I just flipped ahead to find out) Simon Critchley (entire entry: "Exit, pursued by a bear."). It's funny and informative and also a serious attempt to understand the way out of fear of death.

Introit: Recklessly Composed

1. strasseliede
Joel burned this mix:
it threads along the pavement,
here quik-stik chenille
there the silk cloth drawn through a ring.
Under a rented wedding-canopy of clouds.
Above the duct-tape lick of 54,
seamed by Joel’s music,
I try to stay between the lines.

2. meade citgo
Joel glimpsed me that first night:
when John couldn’t bring himself to
remove my navy crew-neck sweater (I
did it myself) and we slept in
our jeans, sternum scooping spine,
my shoulder blades his stilled lungs.
For a while our conspiracy was Js:
Joel knew, three Jessicas, most likely
Josh, who they said then loved me.
(This year we made love inside memory,
between the sheets of our lost past.)
My thoughts slip by like fields.

3. sleeps alone tonight
Joel had a girl then, I won’t
say her name she was a thistle
of a girl, pink-plumed, sharp
everywhere, a candy-dish
collarbone, roots in Brooklyn I believe:
Sunday afternoon the boys played Worms, Thistle
made tea for my cough as
the spider-crack climbed my rib.
Now Joel sends songs from Alaska
and I’m almost at the OK border
and the others are somewhere in love.

4. goth dance
And I pass so many wheel-split creatures:
feather-tasselled, fur-coated,
a crumpled-handbag armadillo.
I cross myself, always.
We’re the same stuck meat.

5. cranberry dirge
My grandmother dying back home,
I think of two things:
a plucky widow of nineteen,
perched on a stool asking
"number please?" in hose and heels,
played to the hilt by Eva Marie Saint,
Grace Kelly, an Andrews Sister or two;
and how just lately we’d reached
a culinary d├ętente: she offered seconds.
I declined politely. So last
Thanksgiving I had no turkey at all.
She didn’t bat an eye.

6. cresting clayton
The mountains appear
teeth and knucklebones where Kansas was scalp.
The rivers ripped blisters.
New Mexico’s raw body purified, like
a flagellated saint, ugly, exalted.

7. RUNNERS HIGH
More than flowers for a grave.
Baby cows and baby
horses and a lone baby pronghorn.
Rain raked like iron filings from the horizon.
Blue and green like a first-grade watercolor.

And my Muse at 65 mph,
a Gauloise stuck to his glossy pout,
turns eyes brown behind cat’s eye glasses and hisses,
"Traffic safety is for suckers. Just
write." He slides his perfect manicure
into my lap, wraps my fingers around
the pen. "The road will watch itself."
[Written on the drive between Wichita and Santa Fe, June 2006]
 
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