Monday, January 31, 2011

Queen of Synchronicity

Day 357 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and the random coincidii of my own life collided with Radiolab at NPR this weekend, driving to and from a volleyball tournament, so I bring you two books people are reading that involve the lack of language:

1) A Man Without Words, by Susan Schaller, about a man deaf from birth who read the world visually but who did not, when she met him, comprehend the idea of language.  He could mimic the sign language she was using as she learned to be an interpreter but without understanding it or even what it was.  He was in total isolation from words.

2) My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor, about her experience and recovery from a stroke, and also the utter joy she felt when the stroke deprived her completely of words.

Here is a Radiolab link that brings these "words" programs together for you to click on. And here is a link to the Schaller book at University of California Press, and to Dr. Jill's website, where you can click all over the place, including Oprah.  I had just attended a little farewell gathering for a friend, where people were talking about Dr. Jill's book, so encountering both books made it seem like the universe was calling my name.

But Radiolab has dealt with that, too, talking earlier this month to writer Paul Auster and animation expert Michael Barrier, in The Universe Knows My Name.  But, as some of the comments show, some of their listeners did not appreciate either the whimsy or implied mysticism of that particular program.

Which brings me to my question:

When my current "What are you reading, and why?" project ends, what would you like me to do next?  That is, can you tolerate my whimsy and random coincidii?  Do you want more of the same, but with variations or a particular focus? More of what other people are reading, or more of what I'm reading? Random bookshop conversations? More poetry reviews, more poetry interviews, more poem explications? More musical comedy? More of my own personal comedy? (It might make you roll your eyes.)

During the next week or so, please comment and say what you've enjoyed here and what you'd like to see more of.  Or suggest a new topic or focus you'd like to see me handle. At some point, I could make a little list and let you "vote" more, still pretty informally.

And/or my own whimsy may still take over, as I've crowned myself Queen of Synchronicity.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Volleyball and Company

Day 356 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and it's fun to note that people are reading all over the place, including really loud volleyball tournaments. I am not the only one trying to fit in a few pages between matches, between games, or even during a time out. Most people reading at volleyball tournaments are engrossed in 1) print newspapers or 2) thick mass market paperback mysteries or romances.

And of course there are a lot of hand-held devices, but I don't know what people are doing with those...

At the volleyball tourney yesterday, which continues today, I was reading Shakespeare and Company, by Sylvia Beach, about the famous bookshop and lending library in Paris, because my co-worker Sarah snagged me an ex-library copy in a recent book buy. Thank you, Sarah!

This is a charming book, with photos of Sylvia's famous writer and composer and theatre friends in the middle. I love seeing Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in their everyday lives, and Sherwood Anderson has already walked into the store, drawn by the book in the window, his. Which is basically the way writers are...

So, off I go to read a few pages in between my husband's match at 9:00 a.m. (he's the coach of the Blue team) and my daughter's match at 10:00 a.m. (she's on the Red team), before work at noon in the used bookshop. I do live a charmed life!!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Turtles All the Way Down

Day 355, and I've been reading Turtles All the Way Down, by Kathryn Kerr, a poetry chapbook.  We did a local reading together, with Tim Hunt, as all of us have our chapbooks with Finishing Line Press, but hers was still in the pre-order phase then, and now it's here.  So I've done my fast read of all the poems, and now will savor them more slowly, one by one, feeling the sun on my shell and the mud between my toes.

Wait!  I'm not really a turtle, and neither is she.  But this is a fun book in which the speaker is somehow both a middle-aged woman and a turtle...who listens to Janis Joplin.

Turtle Listens to Janis Joplin

She feels music through mud
mostly covering her closed shell.
She's perfectly still hearing Janis wail
through an extended "Ball and Chain."

With "Turtle Blues"
she seems not to move
but inside her horny shell
her unarticulated pelvis sways.

Yes, she's a horny middle-aged woman!  And indeed "horny" works validly both ways because Kathryn studied biology as well as English, and knows, deeply, the ways of the turtle!

Because of the similarity of our names and occupations (I used to be an English teacher, too), Kathryn and I are sometimes confused with one another around town...OK, sometimes I'm horny, fine...and she used to think I was, like her, also a divorced mom raising two kids.

"I have a husband,"I said.  This was at AWP one of the years it was in Chicago.  It was the first time we'd really had a chance to sit down and get to know one another.

"What does he do?"

"He's an artist, and he does home repair."

"I have a home that needs repair."

The conversation really did go something like that!  My husband then really did repair the home of this horny woman...sigh...and we all survived!  (Kathryn has a sense of humor, as you will see in her poems, so I think she will forgive me all of this.)

So if Finishing Line Press has a table at AWP this year, pick up a copy of Turtles All the Way Down, by Kathyrn Kerr!  Plus Redneck Yoga, by Tim Hunt.  Plus Living on the Earth, by me!!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Rocket Boys & Tiger Moms

Day 354 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and Kim is reading Rocket Boys, a memoir by Homer Hickam, Jr., to avoid reading the next book-club book too soon, lest she forget important details before we discuss it.  (Likewise, I am reading other things first, including some wonderful poetry!)

Rocket Boys is part of a trilogy of memoirs, along with The Coalwood Way and Sky of Stone, about growing up in a coal-mining town (Coalwood) in West Virginia.  Rocket Boys was made into the film October Sky, and Wikipedia tells me that is 1) an anagram of "rocket boys" and 2) also a phrase from the Sputnik days, when the Russian rocket was announced on radio as being seen in the "October sky."  Neato!

Two random coincidii:

1) President Obama just mentioned Sputnik in the State of the Union address.  "This is our Sputnik moment."  Our wake-up call to re-invent ourselves and improve our education, once again, especially in the areas of science and math.  And I think Tiger Mom would be happy to set our alarm clocks!

2) Rocket Boys is also now a musical comedy (who knew?!--Wikipedia, of course, and probably Julie of A Follow Spot), headed from regional theatre to Broadway.  Julie, have you run across Rocket Boys in your theatre-going/reporting?!

I visited my mom yesterday, to take her a book (and some plays from Julie), and she had just been reading about Tiger Mom in Time magazine--that is, about the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua--and we discussed theories of childrearing and coaching as they were pertinent in our own American lives, as neither of us has yet read the book.  We tend not to voice opinions or judgments about books we haven't read, unlike a lot of Americans!

Anyhoo, so last night I saw Stephen Colbert talk to Amy Chua about it on The Colbert Report, and that was fun. She called the book a "self parody," had a sense of humor, and also said she was "humbled" by her experience as a mom, especially when her second daughter didn't take so well to the strict Chinese parenting style she was using and basically rebelled.  Both daughters were in the audience, and Colbert asked, "Are you OK?"  He is so funny.  (You can see more about Time's coverage and the Colbert episode here, and the whole show at Comedy Central.)

Of course, all this somehow connects to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the musical comedy I saw half of last night.  Howard Keel, as Adam, is a redheaded, red-bearded man, with six brothers of similar hairage, until Jane Powell, as Milly, Adam's new bride, makes them all shave.  Yes, she's sort of a tiger mom.

I don't think I ever saw this movie before (it was definitely made before I was born), but I had seen clips of some of the famous dancing. And I used to watch Here Come the Brides on tv, which seems clearly based on this movie as well as its civilization-of-Seattle-after-the-Civil-War historical components.  Bobby Sherman was in Here Come the Brides!  As Jeremy, a character with a charming stammer!  Briefly cured by a traveling con artist! (Suddenly both The King's Speech and The Music Man come to mind!)

And here's another interesting connection. Seven Brides was based on a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, called "The Sobbin' Women," itself based on The Rape of the Sabine Women of Roman legend.  Wikipedia assures us that "rape" here means "abduction," as it does in the musical comedy The Fantasticks, but 1) they changed the song called "Rape" when they made the film version of The Fantasticks and 2) whether in Seattle, the generalized American frontier, or ancient Rome, it appears that men feel fine about taking women by force. At least here, as in Paint Your Wagon, there is 1) singing and dancing involved and 2) amazing respect for the woman's wishes after the fact.

But there are also some wonderful accounts in writing and film of women who went west to homestead, answering men's advertisements in search of wives, getting to know each other a bit in letters first, or just taking the big risk. I like the sound of an adventure involving more choice than force, though circumstances can indeed "force" certain choices. Then, of course, there is the "tiger mom" aspect of the Sabine women themselves, who are depicted in this painting by Jacques-Louis David, sometimes called The Intervention of the Sabine Women, as running between the fighting men and making peace.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wand'rin' Star

Day 353 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and a sweet, earnest man came in to the bookstore yesterday looking for books by Karen Armstrong because he had seen her on Charlie Rose. (Here's her TED bio.)

He particularly wanted her book on Islam, but we didn't have that, and other of her books had gone out recently, but I found for him The Case for God and The Spiral Staircase, an account of her life in the convent and why she left.

We stood at the register for a while, waiting for Sarah to get off the phone so we could run his credit card (small business quirk) and talking about compassion in the world in times like these, or in any times.  What we have in common.  It was a small, sweet moment of connection with a stranger.  Now we are less strangers.

And what could be stranger, you might ask, than the American theatre convention of musical comedy?  And, I might answer, a musical comedy western! I refer, of course, to Paint Your Wagon, starring Clint Eastwood as a singing Gold Rush guy, along with Lee Marvin, and a bunch of men in No Name City.  Then along comes Jean Seberg, gorgeous, and married to a Mormon who has another wife, so, upon demand of the lonely men, up for auction.  Tit for tat, so to speak, Jean is eventually interested in having two husbands.

But it's a 3-hour film, and that's when I fell asleep.  Memory and Wikipedia assure me that all hell broke loose and literally swallowed up this Gold Rush boom town with fancy ladies in it from a kidnapped stage coach, etc.  I didn't actually get to hear Lee Marvin sing "Wand'rin' Star" in his wonderful drunken gravel, but I did hear Clint Eastwood sing "I Talk to the Trees."  The plot of the film is quite different from that of the stage musical, which I've never seen.  Does anybody do that anymore?

And to bring in a pertinent book, I own and have read Played Out: The Jean Seberg Story, a biography by David Richards, given to me by my parents one Christmas.  They were frequently giving me biographies and autobiographies of actresses during my own high-school musical years, and, back then, it was sort of hard to read why...  Were they supporting me in my vague career choice, or warning me?  Played Out is certainly a cautionary tale.

In retrospect, of course, I see that 1) my parents were always supporting me, but 2) wanted me to be clear eyed about the realities of a career in the theatre, and 3) probably hadn't read these books themselves.  But, hey, the front flap of the dustjacket starts, "Jean Seberg was forty when a policeman in the 16th arrondissement in Paris discovered her disintegrating body under a crumpled blanket in the back seat of white Renault."

And Seberg took up writing later in life.  Hmm.  1) Thank God I've never played St. Joan (Seberg's first big role, after those high school plays she starred in, and, alas, a major film flop) and 2) Thank God (whatever God is) that, at 40, I just pierced my ears.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Yes, We Can Can!

Day 352 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and Vickie is reading God Went to Beauty School, a book of poems by Cynthia Rylant, because she heard about it in a Mornings With the Professors seminar on "books your children should be reading."

She sat down on the steps with me, after our exercise class, and showed me poems while I was putting on my boots.  That seemed to fit right in with the earthy, friendly, informal poems about finding Jesus in unexpected places.  Like a beauty parlor, doing nails.

Now I promise you that Can-Can, the film made from the Cole Porter musical, was already upstairs waiting by the double DVD/VHS player to be viewed for possible damage, and I did not watch it last night right after the State of the Union address just so I could say, "Yes, We Can Can!" this morning.

But, of course, I hope we can!  Common sense changes, straightforward solutions, and collaboration, cooperation, and compromise.  How hard could it be?!

Sigh.  Well, if the state of the DVD is an omen, alas.  It started out beautifully, then had little gasps and spurts of digital malformation (some rather frightening and involving displaced body parts), and finally froze on an utterly fragmented scene shortly after Shirley Maclaine went to jail and got out (who knows how?).

Evidently the plot of Can-Can was changed in the course of its career on Broadway, in revivals, and on film.  It was not a big hit in its time, though it was praised and had some memorable songs. Other Cole Porter songs were added to try to make it more popular, but it never fared too well, so my DVD mishap seems to fit right in (like Jesus, on a bus).

Wikipedia tells us that Nikita Kruschev happened to visit Hollywood during the filming of Can-Can and was scandalized, using it to damn Americans for their depravity, sort of like the self-righteous judge in the plot except that he forgot to fall in love with Shirley Maclaine. (Whenever I mention Nikita Kruschev, I have to mention that I looked a lot like him as a baby.  A cross between Kruschev and Buddy Hackett, due to the black hair standing straight up on my head when I was born.  Fortunately it fell out.  And, yes, Buddy Hackett was in The Music Man.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How to Succeed

Day 351 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and Mary-of-the-Book-Club is actually reading American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, a book her son gave her, before she starts American Years, by Harold Sinclair, her new book club selection.  And they had just read Founding Mothers, by Cokie Roberts, and loved it.

This all somehow fits together so well I am afraid to mention that last night I (semi-) watched How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, in which the main character walks around holding a book with that title, by Shepherd Mead, which satirizes the striving and gamesmanship of the business world and works as sort of a cautionary tale, once you add the music and romance.

The random coincidii just continue. American Gods is also about the business-as-usual world of power and money, except that it exposes the "new gods" of money, technology, celebrity, etc. as having displaced the old gods of various mythologies that immigrants brought to the United States in a kind of mythic journey to...what? restore them?  (I know some of you have read this, and also I suspect the novel ends in some suspended way that probably suggests a sequel? Or more to come? Or interpretation?) And Shepherd Mead also wrote some fantasy/scifi/America thing, where animalistic ETs impregnate the women of the world.  I hope nobody makes a musical of that.

American Gods seems to be re-seeing and developing the idea, explored by others, that certain creatures--fairies, gods, elves--exist only as long as people believe in them.  Then other versions of reality or, in this case, "gods" take their place.  I remember this as an aspect of The Mists of Avalon, for instance.  So, all you Gaiman readers and fantasy readers can set me straight and/or recommend other books.  Feel free.

But, wait, wasn't I talking about a musical earlier? Fun and corporate games?  (And Cokie Roberts?)

1) Founding Mothers, by Cokie Roberts, is full of "tough women," says Mary, connected to those founding fathers of the USA.

2) Mary says that the Gaiman book is "very strange."

3) How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has had various revivals since its first Broadway run and since the film, which features teased hair and blue eyeshadow.  The 1995 revival had Matthew Broderick in it, and Wikipedia tells me Harry Potter, er, Daniel Radcliffe, will star in a 2011 revival, coming right up in February.  (Julie, of A Follow Spot, is this true?!)

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Boyfriend

Day 350 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and Mary is reading American Years, by Harold Sinclair, for her book club. I've written here about Sinclair before, and he is a popular local read because he grew up here, renaming Bloomington, Illinois, and fictionalizing it as Everton, as you can read here.

And there's more about him here, at the McLean County Museum of History, including pictures! One is with John Wayne on the set of The Horse Soldiers.

Speaking of movies and memory lane, and, as I told CollageMama, who has a fabulous "Itty Bitty" blog of collages, art projects with children, photos, and funny and poignant stories, and who reminded me of Twiggy and her eyelashes in it recently, last night I watched The Boyfriend, in the ongoing musicals project that is causing me to relive bits of childhood and adolescence and question my sanity.

Now I was sure I had seen this movie the year we lived in England, in a really big movie theatre, from way up high in a balcony, and thus from very far away. Holy Eyelashes! That's because a lot of the actual scenes are from the vantage of a high-up balcony, watching actors overact a musical, with the assistant stage manager/understudy (Twiggy) going on for the star, while a movie scout looks on, fascinated and laughing!!

So now I can't recall the actual circumstances of my film viewing, except that the timing suggests I really did see it in London!

It's a strange and silly film directed by Ken Russell, and I can see me not being able to follow it the first time I saw it, as the stage scenes morph into fully imagined film scenes in the minds of the stage director and film scout, and also into an outdoor bacchanal at one point. I do recall Twiggy as the spirit of ecstasy, and I knew that was Glenda Jackson (the star with the broken leg)!  Wikipedia tells me The Boyfriend was released in the U.S. in a shorter version and that it was never released on DVD, so I don't know what I've got here, but it has some damage in the middle, a few digitized puzzle-piece moments. (VHS at Amazon.)

But it's worth keeping for the fabulous dance scenes by Tommy Tune, who tells a little story about being a child star during his American years....

And anybody who thinks I am going to say anything embarrassing about anybody's actual boyfriend can just breathe a sigh of...wiener.  (Don't worry, it's an "in" joke.)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Showing, Telling, Meaning

Day 349 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and I have been reading poetry, revisiting old musicals, and redecorating the tree for Valentine's Day and volleyball. I wish I could hang Donna Vorreyer's beautiful flower on my Valentine tree.

And how 'bout that belly button?

I read Womb/Seed/Fruit too quickly, and too spottily, like the flower, when it first arrived, because I had recently encountered Donna's poems-in-process in the blogosphere and wanted to know her story. So now I've read it again, more slowly.

If you are a poet yourself, she is providing poetry prompts in her new blog, Put Words Together. Make Meaning. 

And that's something that happens consistently in this chapbook! She puts words together to make meaning, not just for show! That is, she is able to balance telling with showing, and the book has a narrative arc predicted by its title and organization into 3 sections: Womb, Seed, Fruit.

We hear the story of a womb that will not function as hoped, in poems with such titles as "Diagnosis," "Empty Handed," Misconception," and "Barren Avenue." Even the titles tell you what you need to know, and the poems give you the images and feeling and hard thoughts to go with this difficult tale.

And then the beginnings of change and possibility in the Seed section, which ends in this insight, gleaned from travel to the ocean, the fondling of a shell:

...Perhaps this is
all it takes to understand the nature of things,

how they are reborn in different light,
how something stirs in the deep fissures
of the heart, seeps through, overflows.

And then there is Fruit!  Poems of the son, of the mother, of empathy with other mothers. Womb, seed, fruit, and that marvelous flower on the cover.

The tropical flower might remind you of South Pacific, but last night I watched The Music Man, and enjoyed its special magic. The "think system" allows the blue-sky salesman's flim-flam plan...ah, with the help of real love, to bear fruit!  And fancy red uniforms!

Meredith Willson, who wrote the book--which I just happen to have, in a Fireside Theatre Book Club edition, with pictures of Robert Preston and Barbara Cook as Professor Harold Hill and Marian the Librarian--does a brilliant job of showing and telling in that opening song with salesmen on the train. Their voices speed up as the train gets going, building in urgency and speed as they tell how this fake professor is ruining the reputation of other traveling salesmen, and then slow down again, and hiss like steam, as the train comes to a halt. And off jumps Harold Hill!

And, speaking of travel, check out Donna Vorreyer's poem "Navigation" in the new issue of The Literary Bohemian, an online journal dedicated to travel!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Fabulous Fanny

Day 348 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and now, of course, I want to be reading The Fabulous Fanny, by Norman Katkov, because it is a real book.

I was afraid to Google it, but, evidently, there are a number shops in New York (one for eyeglasses?!), as well as some special services, with this name.  Plus the book, first published in 1953, and indeed available, currently, at Amazon via the Marketplace.  And here is a fabulous review (from the All About Jewish Theatre website)!!

As you might guess, if you have been watching me watch old musicals, last night I watched (part of) Funny Girl, with the fabulous Barbra Streisand.  (I generally see quite a bit of the beginning and the end, snoozing in the middle, but I see enough to determine that the CD is intact, undamaged, and to be saved for posterior, er, posterity.)

The fabulous Wikipedia told me about The Fabulous Fanny--is it actually this one?!--an authorized biography of the real Fanny Brice, without naming the author and in the context of stopping its publication.  The musical was to be based on the book, and the musical itself went through the usual ups and downs of writing, cutting, and changes of personnel.

The fabulous Mary Martin was the first to suggest it for Broadway, and Anne Bancroft, Eydie Gormet, and Carol Burnett were considered along the way, but clear thinkers (including Carol herself) insisted on "a Jewish girl" for the role, and Barbra Streisand had to be Fanny, especially after she recorded the song "People" and it became a major hit even before the show opened!

I was awake for the return of Nicky Arnstein in the film last night, and the finale of "My Man," which is a real song outside the show, that Fanny Brice herself made famous in her lifetime, along with other fabulous singers of it, including Edith Piaf ("Mon Homme"), Billie Holiday, and Peggy Lee.

Now I am going to have to check and see if we have a copy of The Fabulous Fanny at Babbitt's, on our Star Bio or Entertainment or Theatre History shelves.

And while "fanny" is a fine euphemism for "bottom" in American slang, be careful saying it in Great Britain.  Or Little Britain, for that matter.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Our Hearts are Young and Gay

Day 347 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and I will get around to why our hearts are young and gay.  First, to continue the watching of musicals project, I want to relate West Side Story to its other-than-book-for-a-musical book connection, which is Romeo and Juliet, a play by William Shakespeare.  (You can read more about the parallels here, if you don't already teach them!) In fact, I have actually handled the upside-down book version that puts the scripts for each in the same paperback, upside down from each other!

I did not get far into the watching of this last night before I fell asleep...(it had been a long, cold day at the bookstore--no heat at Babbitt's--and at junior high volleyball afterwards), but I did see the stunning overhead views of New York that open the film (after the changing colors of the overture) and the spectacular opening dancing.  "When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way!"

And I saw Tony and Maria fall in love at the dance in the gym.

But I am in love with We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood, by Emily Kimbrough, an account of going to Hollywood with Cornelia Otis Skinner to consult on the making of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, a film based on the book of the same name that these two very funny young women wrote together about a trip to Europe.  I fell in love with the wild ramble on the two dustjacket flaps, and with the opening account of Emily buying a gigantic window display valentine to take on the train to Hollywood to meet up with Cornelia, and then, I gather, being trapped in her train berth with it.

I would love to snap this book up, intact dustjacket and all, but 1) it's $18 and 2) you might want it or 3) Kim and I should go halvsies on it and then write our own quirky rambling account of some upcoming roadtrip, and then figure out who's going to play us in the movie version.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tales of the South Pacific

Day 346 of the "What are you reading and why?" project, and Bob, who was going to read The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas next, might just read the Edmund de Waal book from yesterday's entry first, due to the book review in the Guardian. (See his comment!) Both are about lost art, the Nazi threat to art, and saving art in and after wartime.

And I might just have to read Tales of the South Pacific, that famous book of interconnected short stories by James Michener, after viewing South Pacific, the filmed musical, last night.

A bit about why I am watching all these musicals: we have stacks of CDs, many taped from special cable television showings, inherited from a family friend who died a few years ago, and some were rain-damaged while stored in, and briefly, covered in plastic tarp, just outside, a garage.  So I am viewing to see which survived, and which are irretrievably damaged. (Gigi was irretrievably damaged, but I got the gist of it, and can go back and read the Colette short story for more. This one intrigued me as our son's first babysitter was nicknamed Gigi, by her mother, our son's second babysitter, who had seen the movie!)

So I am also revisiting my childhood and adolescence, seeing again some movies I had imperfectly remembered.... And I think I first saw South Pacific on a black and white tv, and never experienced the strange intense color manipulation of this particular film. There's the vivid Technicolor of much of the film, in its gorgeous tropical setting (Hawaii, for the filming), but also scenes given a color filter so they appear golden, or pinkish gold, or bluish, etc.

And Mitzi Gaynor is fine, but I grew up on the Mary Martin recording, so she's my favorite. Mary Martin as Peter Pan, Mary Martin as Maria von Trapp, Mary Martin as Nellie Forbush, and Mary Martin as Agnes in I Do! I Do! I love Mary Martin and her slightly raspy, rich full-bodied voice. Like a mellow red wine.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Fiddler on the Roof

Day 345 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and I'm pretty sure it was Nancy who was reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal, but 1) I could be wrong and 2) I know more than one Nancy so 3) will the real reader weigh in and tell us why? 4) even if you are not named Nancy?

This is a family memoir, a story about art, and the story of anti-Semitism in 1930s Vienna and beyond.  It tells what happened to a collection of netsuke, or tiny porcelain toggles used to attach pouches to traditional Japanese clothing that had no pockets.

This morning I consider the past in light of Fiddler on the Roof, the original film version, which I watched again last night for the first time in many years.  Beautiful, funny, heartbreaking film. Wikipedia alerts me that some songs were left out of a "re-release" of the film, but, while I do sometimes fall asleep during home viewings (and while I did), I do remember hearing both "Far From the Home I Love" and "Anatevka."  I did not hear "Now I Have Everything," though, because it really was cut from the film.

Grew up on the Broadway cast album and just loved "Miracle of Miracles," sung by the tailor Motel Kamzoil, played by Austin Pendleton, an actor I love (and got to meet once, when he directed me in a play!!).

Wikipedia tells me that the title Fiddler on the Roof comes from Marc Chagall's painting, The Fiddler.  And I already knew the play was based on stories by Sholem Aleichem about Tevye the milkman.

Now it is snowing, I forgot to eat breakfast, and off I go.

Please look at Joe Wilkins's poems in Escape Into Life today! Brace yourself.  He's a "killer on the bridge."

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Is this the hand-bag, Miss Prism?"

Day 344 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and we read through the prism of our desires...heh.  A woman and her daughter came into the store yesterday looking for Austen and Dickens.  Austen was the mother's favorite, and the daughter wanted to make a book purse out of the Dickens.

Here's how.

Ah, my crafty friends who read! Books will never go out of style!

So, yes, they found a Readers Digest condensed (but not overly condensed) hardcover Pickwick Papers, green with gold lettering, that will make some nice English major a fine purse.

Sarah Jane made me laugh over in her blog, the rain in my purse, discussing the new changes in the horoscope.  When in a mocking mood, and referring to my online or newspaper horoscope-for-today, I call this the horrorscope, and think what a nice paying job that must be, writing those little snippets "for entertainment purposes only," but the rest of the time, I love astrology.

I see it as astronomy + mythology = astrology, and think those ancients were definitely observing something and some patterns, however they chose to interpret it.

It's like a farmer saying, "The trees know it's going to rain."  They've seen the leaves turn over, they know a storm is coming, and they've personified the trees.  There's another, more scientific reason for the leaves turning over, yes, there's an explanation for the phenomenon, but the farmers and the trees are right.  It is going to rain. Etc.

Why is it so easy for me to suspend two kinds of interpretations of reality?  Let them float like dust motes and water vapor in the air?

I don't for a moment take mythical and metaphorical truths as literal reality.  I guess, as with other things, I don't see them in competition.  It's an odd collaboration and cooperation in my odd mind.

Of course, as Sarah Jane notes about the "fraud and mass deception" aspect, I don't want anyone to be duped, nor another American president whose wife is running the country with astrology.

My suspension is indeed water vapor and dust, before real rain.

It's like dream interpretation.  If I remember my dream in the morning and look at it, I am asking myself, "Hmm, what's on my mind?"  I think it's fun to find out what dream symbols "mean" and to bounce them off Jungian archetypes and universal symbols, etc., but I guess I think it's mostly going to turn out to be another personal prism, and help me ponder something I already was pondering, or see it now in a clearer light, uh, daylight, in fact.

When dream symbols and psychological archetypes and astrological patterns turn out to be shared, and to ring true, I imagine there's something there, and I stand back in awe, aware that I don't have the full explanation yet, if there is one.  And if it's a mystery, it's a mystery I don't try to solve on my own.

For instance, in my poem "Large Hadron Collider," about the underground collider and the particles racing around for the scientists in real life, with surely dire import, I am also using the prism of a tarot card reading to try and understand what's going on in the outer world and the inner world.  I think, on the particular night of the poem's making, I was trying to find something, and to focus.  So I put together not being able to find the book-in-a-box-with-tarot-cards on the shelf, my heart, and the real meaning that will come from the collider experiment, which I cannot know, by laying out a tarot reading, and trying to interpret it.  Hence, the poem.

Which surely has some meaning, other than this account of the process, which you can interpret on your own.

Of course, I love it when, as in a comic play by Oscar Wilde, all clues point toward one delightful conclusion. "Is this the hand-bag, Miss Prism?"  She is so glad to have the hand-bag restored.  And the lovers can marry each other, and live happily ever after, uttering ridiculous witticisms!!

Oh, Karen, who has new bookcases, to fit in more literal books, but who can no longer fit The Importance of Being Earnest into her syllabus, I feel for you!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Looking Back

Day 343 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project and Carolyn is reading Death of a River Guide, by Richard Flanagan, because she got it for Christmas.  Flanagan is an Australian writer, and the main character is a Tasmanian river guide who gets to revisit his past and look back on his life in an amazing way.

Carolyn, in New South Wales, is suffering from the humidity but is not in a dangerous flooded area.  She recently finished 45, by Frieda Hughes, a book of 45 poems, one for each year of her life (published when the poet was 46), looking back on both the innocence and devastation of being the daughter of Sylvia Plath, and perhaps a good one to read alongside Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes's book of poems to his dead wife.  Carolyn and other readers, alas, have found 45 to be "disappointing."

Soon she'll be reading Novel on Yellow Paper, by Stevie Smith, because she found it in a used bookshop.  I love Stevie Smith as a poet of hard-edge whimsy, but some find her "disappointing" as a novelist.  I love the strange and marvelous film Stevie, starring Glenda Jackson, but can never find it anywhere since I first saw it in a movie theatre.  And, as I recall, it's based on a play!

And soon my book group will be reading a novel covered in yellow paper, er, post-its, or, rather, probably the paperback, with a different cover than this one, Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris.  As Amazon puts, The Office meets Kafka.  Which reminds me of another film I love, Brazil!!

Today is Martin Luther King Day, so I am looking back on his legacy and also my own childhood and adolescence, growing up in unawareness and then awareness of the civil rights movement in the United States.  I spent part of my childhood in the South, so I know that affects my reaction to the NewSouth edition of Huckleberry Finn and the "n-word" controversy.  It's why I cannot and will not say the word but respect anyone's right to read and write the word, not to forget the troubled history rooted in the the language.  And also why I respect anyone's right to avoid the word.

Yesterday I spoke with a woman who works at one of the local public libraries, which is keeping the copies they have (except the falling-apart ones) and ordering some of the NewSouth editions, so the book will be available to patrons in both forms.  She acknowledged that someday the library might only have copies of the new edition, which upsets some of the older librarians, but that's only until another new edition comes out, restoring the original language.

It's a matter of what holds up during repeated use.

I will ponder that for a while.  The actual book, as a concrete object, being held in the hands and read till it falls apart.  And the meaning of words, being held and used in the mouth and mind, likewise.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Heart Almanac

Day 342 of the "What are you reading, and why?" and today I want to return to Blood Almanac, by Sandy Longhorn, which I wrote about earlier and have now finished, in the context of Diane Lockward's comments in her blog about reading a book of poems from start to finish.  (Then I will, as usual, ramble.)

Diane, herself a poet, gives excellent reasons for reading a book of poetry whole and straight through, and advice for what to look for to guide that reading (book title, order of poems, etc.), and shows what poets go through to create a book.  And she hopes that Mr. Lemony Snicket will take her advice!

I do now tend to read books of poetry straight through like a novel, but I have to take it at various speeds because I find poetry pretty intense and subtle, requiring close attention.  So sometimes I read a poem a day, and sometimes I read a titled section (like a chapter) at a time.  Often, I am indeed fitting this into my life between various activities and often between other kinds of reading.  For poems, I want silence, a dictionary at hand, and maybe an expanse of snow outside the window on which to rest eyes and mind.

So I read Blood Almanac slowly and at good times, not between matches at the volleyball tournament.

And I was powerfully moved by the last section, Listening in the Dark.  I'd like to mention Sandy Longhorn's arrangement.  Blood Almanac begins with a section called Birthlight, which puts her in a particular "homeland" and landscape.  Next, we have Momentary Constellations: 12 Self-Portraits, one for each month.  Then, Listening in the Dark.  And finally, Postscript, a single poem, "To My Docent Who Has Taken His Leave."  She helps situate us as readers, and gently guides and tugs so we get where we need to be to see her world and to listen in her dark and light.

I think the last section gripped me so much because there is love and loss, earnestly told.

Here is a poem from that section, called "Recitation in the Dark" about listening in the dark to a literal storm.  (I am breaking it up with my commentary, so be sure to go back and read it whole.) It begins:

Let the thunder clamor above and continue
after lightning has licked the heavy air.

(Anyone who has seen a storm begin in the Midwest has seen this licking, felt this heavy air.  Somehow the poem turns me into the lightning, changes my tongue.)

This is not a haunting.  I mean to be awake
and wide-eyed--to be both owl and field mouse
caught in strobes of light.

(Now the poem reveals an intention--to look and listen closely, to learn from the storm, to enter its characters, which turn out to be predator and prey.)

The clock pushes past midnight, then one,
then two, and I am counting backwards
into what is left as the bruises fade.

(Ever had a sleepless night like this, storm or no?  The phrase "counting backwards" took me to anesthesia for an operation, and those "bruises" and dull residual pain, but then I came back to the "strobes of light" of the previous stanza and the bruises were on the wall, as light and shadow.)

One man told me love was a transitive verb,
worrying me like a rosary bead to prove it.
Another man stood me in the middle of Nebraska
to prove the Permian seas once stretched
from Pittsburgh to Denver, home to creatures
we read about with our stone-caressing fingers
but could never know.  The last man was a thief,
his voice a prayer to a god so exotic I bloodied
my knees falling down before them both.

(Wow.  Heart of the poem.  A list of lovers, or heart teachers.  Thudding like thunder into the room.  Bringing history and science, somehow archaeology and religion.  The earlier bruises have prepared me, somehow, to fall down, bloodied.)

This is a recounting.  I mean to be accurate
and true--to be both diary and document
held open and up to the light.

(I love the distinction between "accurate / and true" and the quiet insistence on "both diary and document."  This stanza returns to the intentionality of stanza two and its "I mean to be awake."  She is going to see it and say it, while listening to the storm in the dark.  It is, after all, a "recitation.")

Let the storm pass, dawn taming the landscape
outside my room, leaves and branches loosening
back into the shapes of trees.

(I've been up all night with the speaker of the poem.  Now it is daylight, the world is as it was, but I have seen  the truth, heard the inner storm as well as the outer, so it is also transformed by that.)

To return to Lockward's poetry-book reading advice, you can also see this poem in light of the book's title, Blood Almanac, and bloodied knees and weather resound again in that context, of crucial calendar and the detailed information necessary for survival.

Now, to ramble back over to the volleyball tournament, I did read between matches, but what I was reading was Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I could barely put down.  As the Time blurb on the cover says, it's "a page-turner and a heartbreaker."  I have a feeling my mom picked this one up at Babbitt's when she got his book Remains of the Day, because she said she got two of his and that one was "like nothing I've ever read before" and didn't say much else, so read the book and you'll know why and won't want to give anything away, either.

And, finally, I am honored to appear in the new issue of Blue Five Notebook with four other fine pieces and fabulous art.  I am particularly tickled to have appeared as the last broadside of Blue Fifth Review, and the first poem in Blue Five Notebook, its new incarnation.  I came to e-zines late (technology challenge, busy teaching, editing, and childrearing), but I am glad to be here now!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Farewell to Huckleberry Finn

Day 341 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and I told you I might tell you why John, from yesterday's blog entry, wanted a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain. He had heard that it might never be the same again.

He already has a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the one everybody is talking about, all text intact. The issue is the "n-word" and most teachers and people I talk to are upset, call it censorship, and are not happy about the new edition, coming out from NewSouth Books in February, that will replace the "n-word" with the word "slave."

I tried to reassure John that many editions will still contain the text as it was written, and this one is apparently designed for teaching, for young people, for "community reads," and, as far as I can tell, to avoid controversy of the sort that gets the book removed from the American literature curriculum and/or takes up a lot of time to combat or explain, when teachers are trying to teach and libraries are trying to promote reading of classic or favorite texts.

In short, to make sure the book is still read in the 21st century. Looks like it will be, and that the current controversy has created a demand for the original text.  For both Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.

I only just recently learned (or re-learned if I had known and forgotten) that A Farewell To Arms, by Ernest Hemingway, has always been published in its "censored" format, substituting dashes for some particularly offensive swear words. I was handling a facsimile of the first edition at work, and, sure enough, there were the dashes.

Wikipedia lists the omitted words, if you are interested, and also tells us that Hemingway wrote the words back in by hand on two copies, given to Maurice Coindreau and James Joyce. Hemingway's three censored swear words are among "the seven words you can never say on television" made so famous by George Carlin.

Those are also seven words I am not going to use in a classroom, as is the "n-word." But I can read the "n-word" on a page, assign a book or essay that contains it, and handle student papers that repeat it, though I always give my students the choice of rendering it as the "n-word" if they prefer. And I give them the choice of whether to speak it aloud, although I won't say it myself. Discussing this issue has always allowed us to learn a lot from each other in my college classrooms, and I think many high school classrooms can handle it just fine, too. Young people today impress me very much with their generosity, easy acceptance of one another's differences, and general laid-backness, but there's also a lot of crap and bullying going on out there, so I guess we'd better stay alert.

I just hope we tolerate the new edition and it helps in the places it's meant to help. It certainly would solve the  problem of teachers having to provide an alternate text when someone objects to the assigned text. Assign Huckleberry Finn, and if anyone objects, offer NewSouth's edition as the alternate text. Then have the usual conversations and lessons in class.

For that matter, a purist who wants to make a point could ask for an alternate text if this edited one is assigned.  The original.  On and on it goes.

Maybe it just seems easy to me.  Nobody can "whitewash" Huckleberry Finn, not really. What's there is there, and will still be there after the NewSouth edition is set aside. Huckleberry Finn grew up in racist times and was transformed by close association with Jim.  He came to understand that this man was not anything he might be labeled but a fully human being.

I won't be buying the new edition.  I won't be saying the "n-word," either, but I won't try to prevent its use in texts and lyrics.  People who say it can, as long as they can accept the consequences of doing so.

I won't be saying those seven words on television any time soon. Nor, most of them, around the house.

I doubt I will ever celebrate the word "bitch" the way many women now do, though I admire and support those strong women who choose to use it to transform it, just the way the "n-word" has been transformed in some of its uses, though it's good to remember the "n-word" has always had different meanings in different contexts, both historically and now; unfortunately, the insult attached to it is always with us.

And I doubt I will ever accept the "c-word" that is used to insult women.  The Vagina Monologues did not convince me on the issue of the "c-word."  I will say "vagina" and "penis" out loud and in print. There you have them. They are body parts. But I won't just toss them around to be silly. Oh. Yes, I will.

And, by the way, Tom Sawyer's got this fence he won't let you paint.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Hopeless Romantics

Day 340 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and John is reading a new stack of, say, 10 or 12 fabulous books that caught his eye at Babbitt's.  John is a regular who appears every few months for another fine stack and says his house is full of books, maybe as many as the bookstore, so now I am worried for his wife, who, I'm sure, is hoping he will consider a Kindle.  (He won't.)

John first appeared at the window, peering at a copy of To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf.  He came in, picked it up, looked closely at it, saying, "My wife loves lighthouses."

Here's when my personal responsibility red alert button went off, flashing little pulses through my brain.  "I read that book and can't even remember the lighthouse."  May the literature gods smite me, I can't remember the lighthouse, except the one on the cover of the paperback edition I read in the green room while singing in the chorus of Camelot.  Not a good place to read Virginia Woolf.  Nor a good time, age 17, immersed in musical comedy.  Wikipedia reminds me that a visit to the lighthouse is central to the "plot" and I did remember that much, but I can't remember said "plot."

Red light still flashing, save the wife, save the wife!  "Isn't that the one where the wife dies in parentheses?" I ask, innocently.  "And I don't think that's giving anything away," I continue, impishly.

(I think I saved the wife.)

Anyway, in John's fabulous stack was a book from the floor that I had been lusting after as I passed it day after day, The Book of Love, an anthology edited by Diane Ackerman and Jeanne Mackin.

"I'm a hopeless romantic," said John.

Further evidence: the stack included Don Quixote, our favorite fighter of windmills, by Cervantes, which, by random coincidence, a young man had bought in paperback earlier in the day!  And Lincoln and the Court, by Brian McGinty, an account of Abraham Lincoln and the Supreme Court and their constitutional and legal "battles" during the Civil War.  We also looked for and found a hardcover Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain.  More about that, perhaps, tomorrow.

But now I will tell about what I love to do, respond to a snippet of conversation by turning and grabbing from the shelf behind me (the shelf of books I am about to list in our database) the perfect book for the person in front of me.  "Oh, you'll want this!" is the refrain.

John had just asked, "Do you have True Grit?" as he had just seen the movie.

"We used to have one in the window [full circle return to image of John in the window!!].  Sorry, it sold right away," I said, turning to the shelf behind me. "But you'll want this!"

The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis!  First edition, hardcover with dustjacket.  John, if not his wife, is going to be glad he has that one!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Abide With Me

Day 339 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and my book group was just reading Abide With Me, by Elizabeth Strout, because I had suggested it. Why? Because I found it at hand in the bookstore, when everybody was reading Olive Kitteridge, which got the Pulitzer Prize, and here was this one I hadn't even heard of, with a little girl on the cover, and a blurb on the back setting it in a small town with a main character of a pastor. Hey, we live in a small town, and a member of our book group is a pastor!

So we met last night to discuss it, and 1) Yes, the gossipy nature of small towns does affect pastoral life and 2) We are not a bunch of ladies who drink coffee. There were six bottles of wine on the table and three in the fridge.

But what happens at book group stays at book group, so you won't hear any juicy gossip from me. Maybe.

What I really like about this book is how we gradually get to know the people of the town enough to see that the "perfect" people aren't, and the most unlikable characters are human and have something to love and protect in them. We see how they got that way, but we only see as much as is revealed by the people themselves via the omniscient narrative voice.Usually a "godlike" point of view, this is a subtle omniscience that moves around as needed and still doesn't tell us everything. Mysteries remain.

Just as they do with the people we think we know well, the marriages we observe.  Outside the book.  So this rang true to me, as fine literary fiction.

This is the kind of book I read to learn how to live, something I said at the beginning of this "musing on reading" project. I read everything that way, but this is the kind of book that actually helps me.

So it was quite wonderful to find at the back of my paperback edition--one of those Reader's Guide editions, with questions--"A Note About Abide With Me" by the author herself, saying, "In telling my stories, I am--as Tyler Caskey [the pastor] is--interested in the question: How does one live life? Does it even matter how one lives?" I was feeling spoken to as I read along.

"Whether we approach life as Tyler does, with the question of how love can best be served, or whether we approach it with some other central issue, either of our own making or given to us by a religious guideline, most of us are still dismayed by how imperfectly we love, we are still surprised by the consequence of action, we are often at sea with questions of right and wrong."

Hitting home, and still ringing true. My mom lives with the central question of how love can best be served, and she came to this by living, by reading, by raising children, by being an English teacher. That is, she might not have started that way, but she lives in love now. I knew her parents, though, so indeed she might have started that way!

In college, my central question was that of political philosophy: "How should men and women best live together on this earth?" What are the crucial values, based on what discernible truths, and what are the equitable and practicable arrangements for supporting them?

"At sea seems to me an honest place to be," Strout continues in her Note, and I agree. "My job as a storyteller," she says, "is not to supply any answers, but to raise the questions in a way the reader may not have seen before--to record in a different manner what it means to desire what we desire, to fail the way we fail, to hope the way we hope."

And now, for the "river of stones" people, another fine rock coincidence: In trying to describe her personal beliefs, Strout says they are "like huge, smooth rocks that shift, sharply at times, as I run my hands over them, looking at them from different angles, always trying to keep the moss of cynicism and sentimentality from obscuring them." Love that!

Then, oddly, or not so oddly, given all the wine, we behaved as if at a slumber party and called somebody's boyfriend! For a book recommendation!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Hump of the Week Hodge Podge

Day 338 of the "What are you reading?" project, and today is a hodge-podge of book-related coincidii, some of it freaky, some of it sweet, some dramatic, some clickable.

Cyborgs & Robots: Recently I wrote about Susan Slaviero and her book Cyborgia, and so did Kristin in her blog! Nathan Ferree makes cool robots from clay, etc. at Cyborg Clayworks, and Steppenwolf Theatre is doing Heddatron in their Garage Rep series, Hedda Gabler for robots. Chicago area Susan, you should go see that!

Spektor Factor:  My daughter gave me some Regina Spektor CDs for Christmas, and I am in love with her voice and lyrics and want them as background to my imagination and incorporated into various soundtracks. Oh, wait! They are. Her music is already on tv commercials and shows and in movie soundtracks, but I definitely think of Cyborgia when I hear "Machine." "Blue Lips"--with blue as the most human color, and "the color of our planet from far, far away"--and "Genius Next Door" haunt me. Wikipedia tells me that Spektor is writing the music for Beauty, the Grimm fairy tale set to music for Broadway in 2011-2012. Julie, please go see that and report on it in A Follow Spot!

Double Feature:  Over the holidays, we had a family wamily movie marathon and happened to watch The Road, based on the book by Cormac McCarthy, and Where the Wild Things Are, based on the book by Maurice Sendak, on consecutive evenings.

"Oh," I said, after the second viewing. "Where the Wild Things are is The Road for kids."  If you do this as a double feature, you will see what I mean. But, of course, they are not the same at all. But you will see.

About The Road, my husband said, "The book was better" in a sort of humorous immediate way, so I pursued him on this the next morning, and he said he got the sense of desolation more purely from the book.  "You'd think a movie would do that better," he said, meaning the visual opportunities, and he thought the film did it well, but somehow the book's bleakness got to him more.

Both my son and my husband had pictured the scene in the woods, with the guy peeing, exactly as it happened in the film. Likewise, the ocean. The ocean scene was exactly as I had pictured it, too, in my reading. I must have blocked from my mind some blood and innards elsewhere in the book, because there they were, inescapable, in the movie.

Sweets for the Sweet:  After that appetizing image, I offer sweet coincidii:  I happened to listen to Regina Spektor's "Man of a Thousand Faces" which has the word "sweet" in it, after writing yesterday's "sweet" blog, and Sara Gazarek's "Blackbird/Bye Bye Blackbird" mashup on the radio on the way to work, which is also sweet. You can hear Sara's sweet voice if you click on her website, here, and have your speakers on. Of course, it is a little freaky to me that as soon as I put up the robot arm by Nathan Ferree as today's blog image, Sara Gazarek started singing, "Reach out your hand...."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Charge of the Sweet Brigade

Day 337 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and this is the first time I have ever heard of someone so excited to read Tennyson that she got a speeding ticket on the way to the bookstore! A sweet woman called us at the bookstore as soon as we opened yesterday to say that she'd found two books (on our search page) that she'd been looking for ever since childhood.

We located them for her, and before we could call her back, she called to say she was on her way (she lives about half hour down the road), and that she had a list of other Tennyson in her pocket. She called from her car, noise in the background (radio? grown son? talking GPS system?), and once I realized that, I said, "We'll talk when you get here."

And we did, a bit, and I pulled three more Tennyson books from the counter shelves where we store the pretty ones (thanks to Sarah; see also the vintage valentines!), and the boss took her into the rare book room, where she found some more, and she was one happy lady. I think this might have been part of her son's Christmas gift for her, because she mentioned that she found her Mother's Day gift in our store, too, and told him what he had gotten her on that occasion!

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was the poet laureate of England after William Wordsworth and was beloved by many, even those who did not get speeding tickets! He wrote short lyrics and long narrative poems, often incorporating myth, legend, and history, as in the very well known "Charge of the Light Brigade."  (Poor's the story of a tough battle and stupid military situation during the Crimean War.)

The lovely lady weaving is Tennyson's "Lady of Shallot" as painted by John William Waterhouse.  And here she is in her boat, sick in love with Lancelot.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Metaphysical Magi

Day 336 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and yesterday I did talk to people about what they were reading, but I posted my poem just because that seemed all I could do and because we were probably all reading the news, the followups, the updates, or listening to it.  I heard the first reports on NPR, traveling to and from the volleyball tournament.  Thanks to all for the wisdom and comfort in your comments here.

To follow up with Harry, he has been reading George Herbert, one of the metaphysical poets, and had asked me if there was another name for poems like Herbert's poem that begins, "Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store, / Though foolishly he lost the same, / Decaying more and more..."  Hmm, which does fit right in with the weekend's horror.

Herbert's poem, in the shape of wings, has come to be known as "Easter Wings," and I found it in Five Metaphysical Poets, by Joan Bennett, which also discusses Donne, Vaughan, Crashaw, and Marvell.  It belonged to Christine Garrigan, who taught me Victorian Prose in graduate school at DePaul University, and this must be one of those free books professors put out on tables when they were cleaning out their offices.  I remember reading Ruskin with Professor Garrigan.

To answer Harry, using the handy Handbook of Poetic Forms, published by Teachers & Writers and edited by Ron Padgett, the name for this kind of poetry is often simply "shaped poetry" or "pattern poetry."  The term "concrete poetry," which we often apply to shaped poetry, is associated with a particular modern branch of it and sometimes to poems that depend entirely on their shape on the page for their impact and effects.  Herbert's poems can also stand on their own, content-wise, but become themselves more fully in their shapes.

But the T&W book did provide me with the name Harry had been searching for: calligram, a form developed by Guillaume Apollinaire in his book Calligrammes, which contains the beautiful "It's Raining," which looks like it's raining.

I do love the Handbook of Poetic Forms, which provides definitions and summaries of the history of the form, examples (often modern variations on it), and pronunciations! Oddly, I have been corrected on my pronunciation of, say, cento, but it is SEN-toe, as I had always said it, and means "patchwork," and is the basic collage poem, once again popular.  It is, apparently, sometimes confused with the Italian for a hundred (CHEN-toe), and sometimes leads to 100-line collage poems, but SEN-toe is correct for the patchwork collage poem, if anyone was wondering, or worried!

And yesterday a young man picked out The Magus, by John Fowles, as he had always wanted to read some Fowles. "Oh, this is a revision!" I said, opening to the title page. "Do you know what he's revised?"

But then we simultaneously pointed to the new foreword by the author and realized Fowles would tell us.  I think the young man will, too, when he returns. I am interested because I loved reading The Magus but felt somehow cheated by the ending, and maybe the revision and foreword address this.

**pause to check Wikipedia article**

Nope, Fowles probably leaves the indeterminate ending; the foreword credits the sources. Which leads me to that story I always tell about reading The French Lieutenant's Woman at the time I was getting my wisdom teeth removed and writing a completely different third ending to the novel in my head, under gas. Wikipedia alerted me to the film version, and Michael Caine's and Woody Allen's humorous complaints about it.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Poem After the Arizona Shootings

Helpless in the Face

of technology, I am competent still
at a number of things,
but this doesn’t matter.  It’s so unreal,
the shooting, the silence
as she sat up against the wall, a bullet
gone clean through her brain.

How can anyone grow up
thinking it’s an option to kill innocent
people, a child, passersby?
We all know the answer/s,
the disconnect and its distinct click

so like the snap of a mousetrap.
It gets harder and harder to accept
the death of small animals
in my own house, or insects, even as five
thousand or five hundred birds
fall from the sky.

But in one movie, death is easy.
In another, a police officer cannot face
the fact of his bullet,
his own gun following perfect orders.
The dead man was a criminal.  He did it,
but the officer is helpless
forever after.  Likewise, war.

We cannot make sense of our own times.
There are many kinds of people.
Some of them kill, some cannot.
Some believe in, some mock the apocalypse.
Some see it happening inside
everyone, at some time or another.

My husband takes the mouse out
into the shining snow.  My son goes
back to college today.  Everything shows
on me.  I am helpless
in the face.

Kathleen Kirk, January 9, 2011

Hand painting by Tony Rio

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Literary Mayhem

Day 334 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and Harry is reading a couple of thrillers, for fun, and brought in some Cormac McCarthy, not exactly fun, and David Sedaris, very, very fun but not Harry's cup of tea, in exchange for them.

I think Dani (of Dewey and Dani) picked up the Sedaris, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, which sounds like it could do a lot of mayhem in the animal world.

And I have just finished The Fine Art of Literary Mayhem, by Myrick Land, A Lively Account of Famous Writers & Their Feuds.  It was a lively account, and I liked it even more than Literary Feuds: A Century of Celebrated Quarrels, by Anthony Arthur.  But they both sort of freak me out, and they worked into my conversation with Harry, a philosopher who has lived through postmodernism and beyond.

One wants to hear Buzz Lightyear say that!  Or, as a literary critic might render it, Buzzword Lightweight!

No, really, Harry and I were discussing the harm literature and criticism can do one another if each is struggling to elevate itself above the other.  But while there were certainly feuds between rival writers and critics and writers, this Literary Mayhem book is also remarkable for conveying that sense of respect and responsibility that writers and critics have felt toward one another at various times.

And it made me look up the word "mayhem" which I had associated with riotous disorder and wild confusion but which actually means "the offense of wilfully crippling or maiming a person," which, indeed, some of  the feuding writers did, figuratively, to one another.  And there were some fistfights.

Or "wanton destruction" which makes us think of the streets after the Michigan vs. Ohio game.

A milder example of mayhem given by my American Heritage dictionary is children in the garden, but then ponder all those broken stems and beheaded flowers, and we are back to the maiming.

"Ah, love, let us not maim one another."  Uh oh, I've just maimed Matthew ("Sweetness and Light") Arnold.

For "Dover Beach," read by David Kirby, go here.  For more on Matthew Arnold, go here or here. And now off I go to a volleyball tournament, where I hope there will be no mayhem of any sort.