What I really read, and why, and what it means (Splinter Reviews Part 2)

High winds are plucking the last shriveled leaves off the branches while professional reading piles accumulate, isolating as snow-drifts: student papers, dossiers and writing samples from job applicants, scholarly mss I’ve promised to evaluate. At war with myself about whether I really need a Sunday off or a Sunday making a dent in it all, I decided to collect evidence from my Twitter account of what I’ve read and watched for fun since July. Some surprises: first, even when school’s in session, I read plenty of novels and feel no guilt about tossing off some half-baked remark about many of them. I’m actually less likely to tweet about a book that cuts deep—I reread Erdrich’s Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, for example, and it really impressed me, but that’s not in evidence here. Second, I’m less likely to tweet about poems. I read and liked Dean Young’s Falling Higher and Sally Rosen Kindred’s Darling Hands, Darling Tongue during the past few months, as well as revisiting older collections including Langston Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred, but didn’t have pithy observations about them. Is poetry less susceptible to summation? Or am I just more loyal to its complexities? I also would have told you that I prefer full poetry collections to the fragments in magazines, but that’s not borne out by what I’ve actually done lately—I read a single-author volume a couple of times a month this fall, but absorbed much more poetry online, through anthologies, or via the journals I subscribe to. I know we all consume media in part by convenience and happenstance—watching the mediocre movie that plays locally rather than the great one featured in some Hip But Distant Metropolis—but I wonder about that gray area between laziness and actual preference. I don’t always like the things I’m supposed to like, but rooting out those prejudices and admitting what I actually personally enjoy in a piece of art can be surprisingly hard. I haven’t kept a proper journal in decades so Twitter-as-reading-diary actually turns out to be sort of revealing.

Poetry and nonfiction:

On Jean Valentine’s Break the Glass: hairline crack in a bowl of light but the light doesn’t leak away

From Quiver, Nat Anderson on sleep as her squeeze: “he turns that key so soft, I won’t know he’s come/ until he’s left me.”

& today’s other delight: the cranky connoisseurship of Fry’s Ode Less Travelled. He didn’t even have to write it for tenure!

If unpersuaded about deep links between EB Browning and Battlestar Galactica, check out the essays in Derek Furr’s Suite For Three Voices

Sf and adjacent territories:

No sf in Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderful We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but it is all sf: sneaking up on the unknowable

Jo Walton’s Sulien walks in god-haunted woods between familiar versions of the world. I mean, she REALLY does.

Jo Walton’s Among Others made me wonder if I’ve been practicing magic for years. It’s brill.

Want to visit 2312‘s version of post-global-warming NYC and float along canals between skyscrapers #sfvacationdestination

Traversed @GrahamJoycebook‘s weird alt-world Silent Land through weird alt-world of headphones. Ears still feel packed with snow

@EmilyCroyBarker‘s #RealMagic, a scholar finds a portal. Turns out ice demons really like WC Williams, but Ashbery, not so much

What woke me up about #DoctorSleep is the poetry: incantation, sure, but also Eliot, Auden, and a kickass poet-great-grandma


The excellent Much Ado reminded me cynics (Beatrice) morally trump idealists (Claudio). Also made me envy @josswhedon’s beautiful house

#Gravity proves my mom right: it’s crucial to wear nice underwear on field trips because accidents do happen

For the theory behind these tweet-length assessments see “Reviews the Length of an Irritating Splinter.” For another kind of conversation about art we love and how it worms into our brains, go to the latest issue of Midway, scroll down, and see some works of visual art by Carolyn Capps and the poems I wrote in response to them. The real landscape at hand when I drafted them were the Virginia hills around the VCCA.

Cats, poems, Viking funerals

All unsuspecting, I was reading the Sunday paper in the sunny nook by our back door, looking out occasionally to admire the sky’s brilliant blue. Our cat, Flashlight, howled to be let in, but when you admit her she howls to go out again immediately, so I stalled and she wandered off. I should have been reading a hundred-plus job applications, having foolishly volunteered to head the department’s search committee, so the article about Lee Harvey Oswald absorbed me with improbable intensity.

The ordinary murmur of a car passing, then a thump, and I looked up to see a dark SUV speeding off. Suddenly I was on my feet, yelling for Chris. I’m not sure how, but he reached Flashlight before I did. I must have slowed down when I came close; she looked bad. He pulled a blanket from our station wagon and scooped her up. I grabbed keys and phone, told the kids what was happening, and hopped behind the steering wheel, Chris scooting awkwardly into the back seat with his arms full. I was sobbing and trying to drive and scan the phone book for the vet’s address at the same time, which even I began to realize was not smart, so I pulled over only two blocks from the house and said, “I don’t know where to go, Chris. It’s Sunday. Everywhere will be closed.” I called the vet to see what advice their phone message gave about emergencies. As I was writing down the number, he said, “She’s dead.” It had been fewer than five minutes.

In most ways, Chris and I respond differently to crises. He rushes in to be the grown-up, for one thing, and horror-struck, I let him. Today we both cried at the shock and the pity of it, but guilt kept twisting tears out of me, and for him it was anger at that driver who just kept going. Despite the differences, though, both of us began working frenetically. He covered up the worst injuries and invited the kids to pet her and say goodbye. He then dug a hole in the fiercely resistant red Virginia clay, not far from where we buried our old cat ten years ago. I put away Flashlight’s food and water bowls, disposed of the stained blanket, made lunch for the kids. He delivered a report to the police while I vacuumed like a demon. We each kept stopping to say how strange, how awful, and to see if the children wanted to talk or be hugged. Only an hour had passed.

I started an elaborate dinner of barbecued ribs, October beans, broccoli rabe, and biscuits. He tried to finish his emails and call his mom and then decided a run was a better idea: what a warm golden day, with a high breeze. I read five applications and thought all the candidates seemed like wonderful people, most not suited for the position but surely they deserve a chance…then abandoned Interfolio, melted chocolate chips into almond butter, and spread the salty goo on chunks of banana. And now, of course, I’m writing, because books, food, and putting sentences together are my main consolation for any hurt.

I don’t want poetry today. I’ve never yet wanted to read a poem at a funeral, though there are distinctly unpoetic things I’ve wanted to say, sometimes. Poems bring order to pain, and who wants tidiness just then, in the middle of those first, blurry minutes and hours and days? On the other hand, isn’t that why I started cleaning house, to make order through fidgety effort? Or is effort itself the key, because it prevents thinking?

Last night, Chris, my son, and I went to see Thor 2, which is more entertaining than the reviews would have you believe, although the plotting is horrendous.  I leaned over in the middle of a Viking funeral and whispered, “I’ve changed my mind. That’s the ceremony I want. Flaming ships.” On the way home, we reminisced about my slightly demented response to my father’s death. He had a brief and wildly inappropriate military send-off and while alternate closure seemed in order, there wasn’t an obvious religious solution, given his impiety and ours. So I looked into Norse ritual, drawing on his Swedish heritage, and gave Chris and the kids some colored paper and age-appropriate beverages. Each of us wrote messages to my father and folded the bright squares into boats. Finally, we gathered solemnly around the toilet, lit the little ships on fire, and set them on the water. When they dissolved into black ash, I flushed.

That felt ridiculous, and satisfying, and right. Of course, it wasn’t “closure.” I dream about my dad from time to time and continue to write about him. Each time I fold a line into a stanza, though, I’ve made something out of badness. I wish there weren’t such a large supply of badness in the world, but there it is. My mother called as I was drafting this with more news of illness and injury. There’s infinitely worse stuff out there, beyond the small pool of light my kitchen casts into November darkness. We’ll always have some grief to usher out to sea.

Poor Flashlight, wherever she is. May I have more patience with everyone’s craziness from here on in.  We all deserve more kindness.