Sunday, January 24, 2021


I've been known to do that, read while walking, and knew I would love our new next-door neighbor back in Chicago, when I saw her reading-while-walking down the sidewalk on her way home one day! Our babies grew up side by side and played together in our back yards. Wonderful to encounter the practice again in the book Milkman, by Anna Burns, published in 2018, which I finally got around to reading, pretty much, as always, at exactly the right time! 

And how about that cover, that sunset, right? Looking up from one's reading, or one's life, to notice the actual colors of the actual sky is a crucial part of this book, in which what people say and do is completely constricted by their circumstances. This story is set in the "troubles" or "sorrows" of Northern Ireland, not ever named, like most of the characters. To stay alive during the political/religious conflicts raging all around, people have to contort themselves--their speech, their behavior, their emotions. Part of the "right time" to read this, for me, connects to the current constrictions of the pandemic, and part, the main part, is how it evokes the current political divide in the country I live in. We can't really talk to each other, kindly and well, because we're living in different realities. It's awkward, dangerous, and strange.

The other book I read--quickly, sometimes skimming--at the "right time" was Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America's Poets Respond to the Pandemic, edited by Alice Quinn. This is a new book at the library, I was the first to check it out, and I didn't want to keep it too long, which is one reason for the skimming, another being self-protection. I didn't want to dwell too long in pandemic reflections, so if a poem was too long, too prosey-looking, or with too many virus-related words glaring up at me, or if it seemed too easy, bordering on the cliched or sentimental, I skipped it. Instead, I went for the shorter poems, with simple, direct language--"simple" being quite different from "easy" in my meaning here, with simple language so often the container for rich complexity.

I want to share some favorite lines, images, facts, and, of course, random coincidii with you.

I loved "Facetime" by George Bilgere, partly about the return of the animals to human-deserted places, and partly about phoning up the eels! I loved Sarah Paley's strong sonnet about a store cashier, "At the Hardware Store on the Island (March 21, 2020)," and noted the coincidence that Paley has a chapbook forthcoming from Eyewear Publishing called The Autobiography of an Eel. A coincidence of eels! Who gnu?

In "May Day," by Nicholas Christopher, I heard the woman crying out from a dark corner. I joined a man and his wife in delighting in watching a couple across the way who played cards every night in "Cards," by John Freeman. It reminded me of my parents playing cards, and also playing characters playing cards in The Gin Game. I loved how the sequestration in "As If," by Dana Levin, has shifted from "natural sloth" to "domestic industry" when suddenly two Labs, one black, one yellow, appear on Mount Atalaya in the past... Yes, anything can happen!

I loved learning about "arborial cemeteries" in Gail Mazur's wonderful and funny "Matzoh." I was sad to learn this personal history detail from "Under Juncos, the Baby Stones," by Tess Taylor, which begins:

     Grandmother, born 1918,
     half-orphaned, mother dead of the flu,
     your father, widowed, alone,
     taped your mouth shut
     to keep you from crying.

There is the connection of our pandemic to the 1918 pandemic, and also to whatever contortions of grief and circumstances might be happening now. My heart broke to read the phenomenal "An American Nurse Foresees Her Death," by Amit Majmudar, where, sadly, the title tells the story. With "Leaving Evanston," by Deborah Garrison, I sympathized with the theatre students having to leave school before their spring showcase production, before their Commencement, and thus also with all the students whose lives and expectations were disrupted this past spring...and likely will be in the spring to come. 

"How I wish feeling terrible felt useful, as it did when I was a teenager," says Nicole Cooley in the poem "At CVS Wearing a Mask I Buy Plastic Eggs for My Daughter." That resonated, and also reminded me of the narrator of Milkman, who is seventeen and eighteen when the main events happen; it's hard to come of age when the adults don't know how to show you, teach you, bring you along. And in "Poem for My Students," by Sharon Olds, I encountered "chain-reading" (like chain smoking), something I do, reading one book right after another.

Despite my skimming and skipping, I found much to marvel at in ...a Sudden Strangeness, including this deftness with line and stanza break in the beautiful and simple "Quarantine" by Dave Lucas, that begins:

     You could not come to me
                    so instead I set out for you

                    these lines.

And I identify with this impulse in "A Private Life," by Mark Wunderlich, which I may, though lacking in chickens, follow:

     I think when this is done, I'll stay
     shut in, tending my hens, mending

     the threadbare life nobody will see.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Still the Right Book at the Right Time

The judge in the Calyx prose-writing contest, where I was a runner-up, compared me to Sigrid Nunez. I kept coming across her name in other reading, and figured it was the right time to seek her out. I read For Rouenna, about a Vietnam War nurse, and Sempre Susan, her memoir of Susan Sontag. And, while I really enjoyed her discursive style, sometimes fragmentary and vignette-like, which reminded me of Jenny Offill, I didn't understand the comparison to me. Then I read The Friend--about a dog! And grief. Yes, and also about writing and writers in academia, and I finally saw the connection, as that's also the subject matter of my story "A Retiring Woman." At any rate, a fine compliment!

I didn't have any "anxiety of influence," as I was just reading the book now, and I wrote the story years ago and kept submitting it and revising it over the years until it found its proper home, which I had always thought was Calyx, having sent them an earlier draft before entering the prize competition! Ah, persistence. Ah, coincidence. The coincidences abound. For one, Nunez writes, "My own first writing teacher used to tell her students that if there was anything else they could do with their lives instead of becoming writers, any other profession, they should do it." That's exactly what my dad told me, only about acting! Ironically, he was encouraging me to pursue writing instead.

Another coincidence is that the novel I read right before this one, Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman, also has suicide as a central subject. In Backman's book, a bridge is the site of a suicide and an attempted suicide that persist in the memories of characters brought together in an "anxious" situation. In The Friend, the narrator is recalling some suicide facts reported by a coroner about people who jumped into the Seine: "Those whose reason for wanting to die was love had tried to scramble back out of the water. Those whose reason was financial ruin had sunk like stones." Both reasons occur in the Backman book. And there's an important bridge in The Friend that the narrator has in view when she visits the site of a famous double suicide, also the grave site, on "a shady green slope" down to a lake in Germany. And as I read about the swans in Germany in The Friend, I recalled the swans in and around Berlin in the poems of Maria Garcia Teutsch, which I had published in Escape Into Life, with images of love, snow, water, bridge...death.

And then I encountered Rilke, also quoted by Patricia Hampl in The Art of the Wasted Day and in one of my blog entries about that. Nunez's narrator, quoting Rilke in italics, commenting on her own reading (the way I comment upon mine in my blog...) says, "Once again I come upon his famous definition of love: two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other." In the Hampl book, the translation chooses "touch" instead of "border." I had just just quoted that book/translation here, noting the similarity to my own marriage, in the context of being lucky to be married to another artist. Layer upon layer of reading the right book at the right time, making almost every day a Random Coinciday.

Finally, I identified with the problems of writing itself: "You write a thing down because you're hoping to get a hold on it. You write about experiences partly to understand what they mean.... But there's always the danger of the opposite happening. Losing the memory of the experience to the memory of writing about it." Nunez makes that connection to people who realize some of their memories arise not so much from events themselves but from photographs of these events. 

I know I sometimes lose track of what really happened if I make a poem of my own experience, or base a story on observed life and behaviors. I often write to better understand something or someone, to expand my compassion for someone who hurt me or behaved badly or inexplicably. What would make someone do that? I ask, and then try to answer that question in a story that loves the character who did it, in part by exploring the character's motivation, as I would as an actor...  By the time the story is finished, my compassion is expanded, yes, but my imagination has already taken over, and my fiction-writing self has mixed and matched details as needed, and who knows what the "facts" were on the way to the new truth? That's why it's fiction. Hmm, is this another "wasted day"?

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Chess Story

A couple days ago I mentioned I was reading Chess Story, by Stefan Zweig; it's a short one, and I've finished it. I was sort of thrilled to recognize chess facts and names from my earlier reading and viewing of The Queen's Gambit, and noticed how a character in Chess Story can and must visualize the board the way Beth Harmon does, although without the help of green tranquilizers.

What I didn't expect was the strange pertinence of this novella to now, even though I have noticed weird coincidences in my "Covid reading" before. A character in Chess Story is held as a prisoner to get information out of him, and the form of psychological torture is "the most exquisite isolation imaginable." Yes, it's a form of solitary confinement but in a hotel. "They did nothing--other than subjecting us to complete nothingness. For, as is well known, nothing on earth puts more pressure on the human mind than nothing. Locking each of us into a total vacuum, a room hermetically sealed off from the outside world...." Well, you get the idea. I know people are truly suffering in their loneliness and isolation right now.

The prisoner suffers, and a doctor later gives him some relief, saying "Perfectly understandable when you get down to it," speaking of the forced isolation. "Since March 13, isn't it?" March 13 was when my own isolation began, a stay-at-home order beginning a work-from-home period until June 1. And I know that Friday the 13th was the end, and beginning, of something similar for a lot of us here in the USA. Imagine my shock at seeing that particular date in a book from 1941 that I was reading in 2021.

My recent reading has also delighted me with word meanings. I was reminded in Chess Story that a dilletante, that dabbler so often despised for surface involvement, is simply someone who delights in, say, the arts, as an amateur is someone who does something for the love of it. Zweig speaks of "a true dilettante in the best sense of the word, one who plays for the pure delight--that is, the diletto--of playing." I also looked up "antimacassar" (I think in The Queen's Gambit?), a word I always get from context, and delighted in the discovery that this upholstery protector = anti + Macassar, a brand of hair oil. Perfect!

Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Queen's Gambit

We watched and enjoyed The Queen's Gambit, a limited series on Netflix, and when I saw it was based on a book, I knew I'd have to read it. What a delight! The Queen's Gambit, by Walter Tevis, is as sharp and stylish, and relentless in pursuit of the game, as the series. And both have the perfect ending! In the novel, privy to the inner life of the main character, I had an even better sense of the fear, anger, and vulnerability of the orphaned girl who becomes a great chess player. 

The Queen's Gambit was the last book I read in 2020, finished on New Year's Eve, for a total of 162 books in 2020.

By chance, I was seeking out--and found, through interlibrary loan--The Post Office Girl, by Stefan Zweig, which I read next, another great story with a young woman as the central character, a vulnerable person tossed by circumstances who develops an anger about her life that helps her rise above despair. Maybe. Also by chance, I found Chess Story,* also by Zweig, also translated by Joel Rotenberg, which I am reading now. *Sometimes translated as The Royal Game.

And completely by chance, I found myself resting my chin on my hands, and my elbows on the windowsill, just like Anya Taylor-Joy in her thinking pose, regarding the chessboard or her opponent, while looking out the window at great fallen chunks of ice, all looking like the white pieces in chess. This was during the first power outage, followed, alas, by the second power outage, an interesting but chilly way to start the year 2021! I am grateful to have the heat back on, the tree lights back on, and not to be cooking by candlelight...although it was romantic and sort of fun.

So it was two days of reading by milky (foggy, overcast) sunlight, wrapped in the silky blue blankie, layered in jammies, sweater, soft blue robe, wearing scarves around my neck and fingerless gloves. Talk about the "wasted day"! And now I am catching up, with email, blog, various bits of online business, and warmth, in general. We rang in the new year literally with a glass bell in our back yard, at midnight, with friends who came bundled and masked, standing around a wood fire laid in a barbecue grill, with champagne, while other backyard neighbors 1) also rang a bell 2) set off fireworks. The ice storm came the next day, with many branches down, followed by inches of snow. 

Followed by tree-cutters and power company guys. We finally realized, when four trucks pulled up in front of our house, and workers in bright vests carried a ladder into our back yard, that a subcontractor was perhaps carrying out a six-year-old work order, dating from a past ice storm with a four-day power outage at Christmastime, back when we could gather with family, when the workers climbed up, rigged a pulley to the electric lines that come from the pole to the house, and fixed slack lines into taut lines. Shortly thereafter, we had power! Power! Which might comfort Stefan Zweig's and Walter Tevis's characters!! And that makes it a Random Coinciday in the blog!