Forgiveness, gratitude, and other things I suck at

Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday—historically, emotionally, even logistically. (Reason #647 to be grateful: I don’t have to get on the highway this year.) And yet I love all the rituals leading up to the feast. Last weekend, I made stock and baked pumpkin bread to freeze. This Saturday I scribbled out long lists and laid in ingredients. Now homemade cranberry sauce is chilling in the fridge and cranberry-orange bread is perfuming the kitchen. Wednesday is for pies; Thursday morning I embark on an elaborate plan that will theoretically get all the food hot in time for dinner with Chris’ brother and his family. This orderly sequence—a crazy amount of work for one meal, but carved into small steps doable over time—seems all the more beautiful because I know it will have to change before too long. My daughter goes to college next year, and who knows how our traditions will need to alter as our children’s lives expand?

thxA sense of loss, prospective and retrospective, permeates the rituals. I scored some challah bread at the market because two decades ago, my friend Gayle taught me that it makes the best stuffing—but I haven’t seen Gayle for ages. Some of the recipes, like a maple-glazed sweet potato and apple dish, are from sticky old copies of Bon Appetit, to which I subscribed in the early nineties when I was a grad student learning how to cook. Those first attempts at domesticity are hazy in my memory now. The pumpkin bread recipe was transcribed in a neat hand around the turn of the century by my departmental partner in crime, Suzanne, whom I see much less of since she moved to the dean’s office, although she emails me generous notes of praise after I submit departmental reports. The cranberry bread instructions are scrawled less precisely on a soft green index card given to me by another now-distant friend. She broke off contact with me in long-nursed anger over something I’d said years before. I apologized but couldn’t remember making the harsh remark, or even secretly holding that opinion; I suspected misunderstanding. Not surprisingly, my apology didn’t help either of us—another friendship faded out.

And people near to me are managing much harder losses. I’m giving a poetry reading the week after Thanksgiving at VMI and only belatedly realized the date coincides with a terrible car accident at W&L last year. Over the mountain, the University of Virginia is in the news after the murder of a young woman earlier this fall and more a recent Rolling Stone article about gang rape in its fraternities. In class we’ve been discussing anger in poems and essays by Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Rich, and others—how rage can liberate, how it can harm. This is in the context of our own campus troubles with assault. You want a university to be a place where everyone can discuss their differences passionately yet respectfully, where good arguments can change minds, where everyone is safe to pursue their intellectual curiosities. But it is very, very difficult to cultivate and maintain even a temporary bubble of safety around one seminar or workshop, much less a college that has a million points of intersection with a dangerous world.

What I am truly most grateful for is that my spouse and children are safe and well, that my son can whine about his World History project and Chris can get so obsessed with his works cited list that, after shopping, he leaves the groceries in the car overnight (at least it’s cold). But my relief is so small it feels almost mean-spirited. I always want to hedge my thanks, too. I do feel very lucky, for instance, to teach great students in this lovely college town, but I want to add “where the campus culture can be toxic and good morale is fragile despite splendid resources.” Not very gracious, am I?

And forgiveness! I was so moved by my colleague Deborah Miranda’s reading from Bad Indians last week. She excerpted a passage about her dad coming home from San Quentin—a honeymoon of cooking and woodwork and gardening—but then segued into their alienation and his death. Deborah’s childhood was vastly different from mine, but my father was also an alcoholic and unpredictably mean, so as I listened I resonated like a bell. She finished on a passage about holding in her mind an image of her father as a child, still innocent, and feeling a wave of cool forgiveness wash over her. I’ve been meaning to ask her since: did the wave ebb, or does it stay with you? I have forgiven my father many times. The feeling seeps away, floods in, seeps away again. That night I sat down opposite a baby picture of my father I’d put up shortly after his death. The frame suddenly smashed face-down, though the room was still and the shelf unjostled. That’s how I feel: peaceful most of the time, but subject to sudden crashes of refusal.

Since I’m an unforgiving obscenely lucky ingrate, you’ll know it must be genuine when I say that I’m recently able to feel a little less angry about something that has chewed me up for years. About a month ago I responded to a small-potatoes bit of bullying in my department—by a guy whose previous behavior added up to gangantuan, ugly, poisonous potatoes that still lurk around campus unacknowledged—by publically saying cut it out. (You’ll forgive that potatoes metaphor, I hope, for getting so mashed up.) A tiny act of self-expression has made a big difference in my sense of well-being. I’ll try to make a habit of it.

I’m also feeling unhedged gratitude to have Deborah and other friends around, giving me recipes for sustenance. Thanks to a long-distance poet-friend, too, Jeannine Hall Gailey, for a shout-out last week on her blog. Thanks to Gordon Ball, soon retiring from VMI, for asking me to read there (Weds. 12/3, 7:45 pm in Preston Library). A generous writer from Ghana contacted me out of the blue a few weeks ago to interview me for his blog, Geosi Reads–I talk about anger and forgiveness there, too. And thanks to magazine editors who recently turned on their personal amplifiers on my behalf: the people at Crazyhorse, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Gettysburg Review, as well as guest editor Anny Ballardini at Truck. Tahoma Literary Review just nominated a forthcoming poem of mine for a Pushcart, too. Does that sound like trivial po-biz stuff? It’s not. All my poems are love-letters, solitary broadcasts, petitions for human connection. I am so grateful to feel heard.

Thrushes, worms, and bibliomemoir

What can amateur accounts of literature do better than conventional literary criticism? That’s the question I brought to two recent bibliomemoirs: Alexander McCall Smith’s What W.H. Auden Can Do For You (from Princeton and Oxford’s Writers on Writers series, 2013) and Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (Crown, 2014). The main answers seem to be: 1. sell books (well, better than criticism generally sells, anyway) and 2. testify ardently that reading matters and, perhaps, that the books that strike us powerfully in our teens and twenties may matter most of all. Which makes me think: teaching matters.

smithI enjoyed both books in a mild, non-urgent way. I’m a binge-reader of print or e-books but a slower listener, and because I downloaded My Life in Middlemarch as an audiobook, I consumed it in nibbles. I started Mead’s encomium in September and finished it two months later, listening mainly on extended car trips—and I don’t have a lot of those, since I commute on foot. Yet “no car time” isn’t really the headline here: when I listen to Robert Galbraith or Tina Fey, I somehow find more listening occasions. There just isn’t much suspense in a bibliomemoir. (Spoiler alert: she loved the book!) I read Smith more rapidly, in just a couple of evenings last week, but his is actually the less compelling of the two books. What W. H. Auden Can Do For You just happens to be shorter by more than half and, ahem, I had a deadline. I post this bibliomemoiristic episode from the Modernist Studies Association meeting where I am about to moderate one of the conference’s “What Are You Reading?” sessions, in which I’ll informally present Smith’s prettily-printed meditation.

My feelings are mixed. Smith is an acclaimed mystery writer—I dipped into the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series a couple of times—so he has an easy, appealing, unpedantic style. Twelve short chapters present different aspects of Auden’s life and work, including some basic biography, attention to the major works, and a tactfully-written meditation on how secular people can appreciate a poet’s turn to religion. Smith’s subject is a writer I care about, but not one whose works or life I know thoroughly. I teach Auden and adore many of his lyrics. I don’t know much Auden scholarship. However, even I can tell Smith’s book offers no serious, original appraisal of the Anglo-American poet’s work. In fact, there’s plenty here to irritate even a disaffected member of the contemporary Critical Congregation. Smith pontificates, oh lord, on themes of choice, responsibility, and the journey; and while Smith is totally forthright about Auden’s homosexuality, I found the bit about how “Lullaby” “transcends gender” and “can be appreciated by anybody”—well, not quite untrue, but defensive. And reductive of one of the century’s most beautiful poems. A more accomplished critic could deepen “Lullaby”‘s magic even while explaining its tricks, I think.

Yet there are parts of Smith’s book I found memorably charming. While this is not a very personal bibliomemoir—I closed it knowing the author’s disposition, but not much about his life—I recognized myself in his descriptions of poetic earworms. “The line returns again and again until it becomes part of the way I look at things…It is rather like having the poet by one’s  side—ready to point something out, ready to put into words a feeling or impression that would otherwise be fleeting.” Because Smith happened to read Auden at an impressionable age, and because Auden’s lines delighted and mystified and haunted him, he proceeds to perceive events of his own life more richly and vividly. I loved a passage starting on page 93 and triggered by Auden’s phrase “with thrushes popular”: Smith is inspired by it to find hidden life teeming in all kinds of scenes: rivers become with salmon popular, etc. Auden’s strange locution populates Smith’s life with weird, excessive liveliness. Words affect perception: “the way in which we stock our minds will surely determine the quality of our experiences, conscious and subconscious.”

Overall, Smith’s approach to the poetry seems dated and shallow compared to Mead’s. However, there are several circumstances that dispose me to prefer the latter. I’m less invested in Eliot’s work than Auden’s, which may make me less critical. Mead, a journalist, is in her forties like me and Smith, twenty years senior, sounds rather more like my own stuffiest high school English teachers. Mead’s basic premise cuts close to the bone: she’s a middleaged person beginning to see the shape of her own life the way a novelist might, and also contemplating the ultimate meaning of love and work. Well, yeah. Me too.My Life in Middlemarch is in any case more complex study, rooted in extensive research, archival work, and site visits, as well as a detailed interweaving of both authors’ lives. Mead’s book is not so different from a critical biography; it just foregrounds the researching writer more.

I’m interested in bibliomemoir because my current critical project, Taking Poetry Personally, shares affinities with this emergent genre. I didn’t expect to find myself feeling suddenly more thoughtful about my own children’s reading and the books I assign to undergraduates. It might be that life is full of crises, of which youth is only one, and what we read at any crux can hook us deeply. Yet when I think back through the books that have shaped how I think about myself, that have encouraged and chastened and obsessed me, I realize that I encountered almost all of them before my twenty-fifth birthday.

Twilight, Call of Duty, stupid cat videos: contemporary twenty-year-olds’ brains are with zombies popular. I’m not anti-screen, or even anti-zombie.( I don’t think there’s a better show on the air right now than The Walking Dead, but that’s a swordfight for another day). Yet I do feel inspired by these bibliomemoirs to keep stocking student trees with literary singers. You never know which bird will become the worm.

If you’re swimming with the scholars like me, by the way–or just in or near Pittsburgh–come check out a free reading at the Omni William Penn tonight, Friday 11/7, 9 pm, in the ballroom on the 17th floor. The conference program is here. There will be a LOT of thrushes warbling, including Cynthia Hogue, Meta Jones, Dan Tobin, Julia Lisella, Tyrone Williams, Jan Beatty, Elizabeth Savage, Beth Frost, Aldon Nielson, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Lisa Samuels, and Jeanne Heuving.