As if suspense were a permanent state

Poetry isn’t generally associated with suspense. It seems like an art of uncertainty–and a consolation for that uncertainty. Yet I find myself more and more convinced that poetry’s fragmentariness needs to be anchored by story (earlier post related to this idea here). I’m also wishing I could see the shape of my own story more clearly. As usual, I’m projecting my life into poetry, and vice versa.

On life suspense: my mother is ailing, and so am I, and so are several other people dear to me. Being ill without a clear diagnosis is definitely a bad kind of suspense. My mother has lymphoma and while chemo is triumphing over the tumor, it’s also wearing her down–the doctors are still figuring out why this week has been so bad. I’m a six-hour drive away, so I spend a lot of time waiting for my phone to buzz.

During my 2005-6 sabbatical I researched poetic voice; during this one, I’m making a long-term study of my mother’s intonations by telephone. It’s not just what she’s saying and in what mood, but hoarseness, shortness of breath, and when things are really bad, her difficulty tracking the conversation. Slurring in October first alerted us that something was seriously wrong. I’m judging my sister’s level of worry, too, through tones and texts. All this close listening makes me think of Dickinson only consenting to medical examination through a crack in the door. Not much for a diagnostician to go on.

I’m not so sick as all that. Asthma, swelling, palpitations, lightheadedness–I’ve had the basic tests done to know I’m not in the middle of some cardiac cataclysm, but these medium-annoying symptoms could spring from about five million different problems, and lord knows how long it will take to narrow it down. Another research project.

I’m medicating myself in the interim by reading and writing. I’m revising Taking Poetry Personally and figuring out what presses to query, but that requires high concentration. What I seem to want to do most is read and write poems. Since I have stacks of poetry books around, some sent for review and others I’ve been meaning to get to for ages, I’m picking one up every time I feel low.

Plenty of them are good, but too often I’m disappointed by the first few pages. Every published poet knows, I think, to pick a strong opener, a well-wrought poem that inaugurates the themes and strategies of the collection. It’s surprising, however, how few poets use those early pages to generate suspense–the good kind that keeps a reader on the hook. I don’t mean a murder should be discovered in the first stanza, leaving us to ponder who done it over seventy pages of clever line breaks. Yet there should, I think, be at least one urgent question percolating. And the poems that follow should sustain interest in those questions, so that, by the last few lines of the last verse, we have some provisional, partial, fragmentary sense of an answer.

Narrative isn’t the only tension-generator: poems can also be arguments, spells, and riddles, to be resolved by sound or formal elements as well as, or even instead of, sense. The best poetry book I’ve read recently is actually pretty experimental: Anne Carson’s Nox (what? you demand, and shh, I reply, because my yet-to-be-read list is really embarrassing). I bet many of you have already cracked that box, unfolded the astonishing accordion pages, and pondered her artful use of collage, translated verse, dictionary glosses, etc. The book certainly doesn’t tell a straightforward tale. Yet Carson has such a strong sense of story–she is one of the best living poets, I think, when it comes to writing suspensefully.

“I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds,” she writes early on, addressing the death of her brother. “But death makes us stingy. There is nothing more to be expended on that, we think, he’s dead. Love cannot alter it. Words cannot add to it. No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history.”

Who was her brother, you wonder, and how did he die? What’s “odd” about his life and death? Isn’t there something odd about this speaker, too–the mix of grief and cool detachment in those lines? Carson doesn’t reveal complete or stable answers to any of these questions. She replies, rather, as poets do, through patterned fragments. Nox is really a long poem and therefore much more unified than most collections, and maybe my own distraction makes me a cranky reader right now, yet I really, really wish more poetry books had some part of its propulsive drive.

In considering all this, I realize the guiding question of my next book of poems is already crystallizing. It’s: Where am I? Really, interest in place runs through all of my poetry collections (think of the titles Heathen, Heterotopia, Radioland), but I’m further out on that question’s ledge than ever.

One answer: nowhere. I’m a middle-aged striver laboring in an obscure small town. As I try to promote Radioland, and feel enormously grateful for the reviews I’ve received and the events coming up soon (W&L next week, and also the VA Festival of the Book, AWP, Kenyon College, and Poetry by the Sea), I’m also struggling. It is HARD to inspire people to order and/or open a poetry book, much less decorate it with laurels, no matter how  engaging its interior might be. One kind of suspense I’m suffering from: of all the threads I’ve recently cast into the void, trying to launch the poems toward a larger audience, will any catch?

Well, I keep telling myself, suspense in this case is better than having hit the canyon floor. I’m proud of the book, plus the new work is worth doing in its own right. I’m finding the somewhere in nowhere and having a hard look around. These badlands have some interesting features.

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Marginalia and interleavings

When you read, you think someone else’s thoughts–which is why it’s interesting and good to read books by people whose experiences are different than yours. Sometimes, however, there’s an intermediary spirit in the mix. Pick up a heavily marked used book and you end up glimpsing another reader’s mental processes, too. Students experience this all the time, through used textbooks; in a boring class, you can even get a little obsessed by trying to extrapolate a personality from the highlighter marks and marginal jottings (as a certain Harry Potter episode demonstrates).

I’ve been contemplating this, in part through the lens of a poem I admire from the November 2015 issue of Poetry by Hai-Dang Phan. You should read it, but in short, the speaker traces to understand his father through the notations he made in a Norton anthology, for an English class he pursued after emigrating from Vietnam to the U.S. As I was writing a short discussion of it in my critical book’s introduction, I also happened to serve as anonymous reviewer for an article ms that concerns, in part, interleavings–the clippings etc. readers store in their books, and that booksellers often strip out before resale.

I’ve published a poem called “Bequest” that references the one book I own of my father’s, a Bible from Sunday School. On the reverse of the title page, my father, in a childish hand, penciled a reference to a passage from Job. It strikes me now as having some eerie resonances with the last years of my father’s life. Thinking about marginalia and interleavings, I suddenly remembered: wasn’t there a newspaper clipping, too?

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Yes! My father was born in 1925, the Bible is inscribed to him in 1937, and the newspaper scrap references films from the 40s and 50s. They’re matinees, so this could even be from the 60s or later. How did it get in there, man? I guess I need to see Passage to Marseilles.

Sitting in my office Monday reading H.J. Jackson’s Marginalia, I started thinking about my own inscriptions. I make a lot of what Jackson calls reader’s indexes in the backs of books, especially when I plan to teach or review them. Here’s one from the back of Ann Fisher Wirth’s Carta Marina. This practice of making readers’ indexes goes back centuries.margins3

And that’s not even to mention crumbs, food-stains, and other signs of the reading life! The grass-chain I left in a copy of Whitman makes the book awkward to handle–it’s a fragile remnant of a gradumargins2ate school seminar held out on the lawn by Firestone library–but I feel too sentimental about that spring to discard it.

You will be relieved to know I don’t write, or store organic debris, in library books, but the remnants of other peoples’ readings don’t bother me. They clearly annoy others, because I was just wiping eraser dust yesterday out of a book of literary criticism–someone had underlined passages, and the same person, a librarian, or later reader effaced the markings. I find it more depressing, as Jackson says, when there’s no sign a book has been read before at all. Sadly, the library copy of his own book is pristine.

One thing I treasure about the older books in our university collection: some of them still have cards and signatures in the back. I often see traces there of professors long gone. For example, Barbara Hernnstein Smith’s Poetic Closure is on my shelf. The first library user, from 1970, was Sid Coulling, an eminent and much loved English professor who retired before I even arrived. I love seeing his elegant old hand. It increases my sense of participating in a community of readers. Sorry about the clementine, Sid, but as you know, scholarship is a hungry business.

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Poetry & change & cocktail recipes

When someone says, “Poetry changed my life,” you expect to hear of a high-stakes transformation. Former students have told me, for example, how poetry gave them permission to embrace and admit their sexuality. Reading and writing poetry sustains people through all kinds of crises, and hearing it helps people feel moved and connected at weddings, inaugurations, and other happy occasions. There’s experimental evidence that reading certain kinds of stories can decrease a person’s racial prejudices–I expect that’s true of poetry, as well. On a less inspiring note, dedication to poetry has probably strained or destroyed plenty of love affairs and bank accounts.

Most of the metamorphoses triggered by poems, however, are much smaller. You are changed by a poem if you recall some of it afterwards: your memories have been altered. As you read, you might enter a state of happy concentration and experience physiological changes: respiration and pulse calm, so that briefly, your focus and mood shift. Or a poem might provoke an unfamiliar thought, or bring to mind some forgotten association, or prompt you to imagine the scene described. I am commonly changed in all these small, low-impact ways by reading and writing.

This week, however, I can report something bigger. This year has been full of difficult transitions: my eldest went off to college, my baby started high school, my mother got sick, and, not only for those reasons, I am feeling my age. My body has been a royal pain. And all this comes shortly after a series of changes in my workplace, some of them good but others distressing. In September I was definitely struggling with a sense that I had entered the second half of my life and it was going to suck.

So I wrote. My poetry and prose have all centered, more or less, on crisis as I looked for ways to redefine loss as change. A qualification: certainly it’s not always possible, or even a good idea, to revise grief into optimism. Responsible people look backwards as well as forwards and acknowledge what’s terrible as well as heartening. But I’ve been cultivating a sense of possibility all the same, and I swear it’s made me more resilient.

This week I, and others, got tested. A dear colleague suddenly left. Information has trickled out slowly; I’ve been enjoined not to say what I know, but in fact I still know very little. I’m left torn up about it but also with relief that the process seems to have been fair. While I hate the way universities tend to be run by legal fears and not by ethical imperatives–THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING–in this case, I wouldn’t divulge more anyway.* People need to pick up the pieces and I truly wish for everyone involved to heal and flourish.

My point is, the past few days have been totally rotten and my fragile department has taken another blow, but I feel somehow ready to roll with it. Maybe the last few years have just battered into me that life isn’t as stable as I once thought, and I actually learned the lesson. I really think, though, that writing has been at least as big a factor in my restored ability to bounce.** I’ve practiced telling new stories about myself, about middle age, about opportunities that sometimes spring up under winter’s worst ice-lock, and maybe the repetition is actually helping me believe them. It’s all hocus-pocus but I seriously find storytelling, beautiful repetition, and other literary strategies essential for thriving during the long, slow, catastrophic crash that is most anybody’s life.

If you have a less healthy strategy in mind for coping with your own crappy week, here’s help with that, too. Below are a few recipes best shared with people you like. And full of immune-boosting vitamin C! I suppose you should shake then strain them, but life is short–I just put the ingredients into a glassful of crushed ice and stir. Then I nurse it, and myself, slowly along towards a bouncier future.

The Absinthe-Minded Professor: one part each absinthe, elderflower liqueur (such as St. Germain), lime juice, simple syrup. Based on something tasty I drank locally, at The Red Hen.

Screwdriver from Hell: one shot each vodka and pomegranate liqueur (such as Pama), topped with a few ounces of orange juice

Elderflower Lemonade: one part each Deep Eddy’s lemon vodka, elderflower liqueur, lemon juice, simple syrup

BONUS: I’ve been making a version of the above with grapefruit vodka and grapefruit juice, and it’s delicious enough that it really needs its own name. I suggested Vitamin G–too flat–and a friend countered with G-Spot, which I eventually decided was too Ft. Lauderdale. Suggest something good in the comments and if I like it I’ll send you a free signed copy of one of my poetry collections. (Judging will be subjective, arbitrary, and doubtless very irritating.)

*But stop calling it “gossip,” administrators. Gossip is a gendered term of dismissal for the kinds of conversations women need to have to survive the stupidity of life. I do not gossip. I TALK, and I’m not sorry.

**Blogging also represents a deliberate strategy of indiscretion for keeping myself ineligible for upper administrative positions, in which you earn boatloads of money but have to deal with traumatic personnel issues unbolstered by real time for writing and teaching–ugh. So far, so good.