Last week, on the night of my birthday, I dreamed that my father phoned from the afterlife. The strangeness of hearing his voice made me think, the next morning, of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s elegies for the voices of lost loved ones: photographs were common then but since audio recordings were very rare, a person’s timbre and accent really did fall silent forever. It wasn’t clear, in my dream, that my father knew he’d died, but I did, and even asleep I was amazed at how he sounded perfectly like himself. I’ve looked at lots of pictures of my father since his death but, although there are probably recordings of his Brooklyn vowels somewhere, I’m unlikely to hunt them down and listen. Even for twenty-first-century me, voice remains more ephemeral than image.
That strange dream-signal was part of the noise I brought to the T. S. Eliot Society’s annual meeting in St. Louis this weekend. Michael Coyle invited me to lead a seminar on sound in Eliot’s verse, which turned out to be pretty fabulous. Members of this small group had prepared papers on Eliot’s poems, criticism, and plays in print and in performance: John Melillo, who wrote an honors thesis for me at W&L ten years ago, now listens for the shifting relations of voice and noise in “The Waste Land,” with Dada playing in the background; Elizabeth Micaković had fascinating things to say about Eliot’s relationship to elocution (I’d forgotten that Emily Hale taught speech!); Fabio Vericat took on Eliot’s shifting relationship to poetic genres as he became more involved in BBC broadcasting; Julia Daniel discussed a recorded performance of Murder in the Cathedral, particularly how Eliot developed the chorus with help from a celebrated expert in choral verse speaking; and actor Michael Rogalski described his work on a performance of Four Quartets. This was an auspiciously noisy seminar: conversation began on the shuttle bus and stayed lively straight through the session and lunch after. We agreed that it had been the best seminar in recorded history and it’s a shame all of you other human beings missed it.
On the second day of the conference, Mike performed Four Quartets. His production-in-progress is fairly spare: a white screen, four white blocks he shifts around, and one actor in a gray suit. The setting, in contrast, was the posh St. Louis Women’s Club, where we had just been served a fancy lunch with monogrammed silver: a large chandelier glittered over Mike’s head as he spoke, white columns framed the space, and he paced on a dark green carpet patterned with vines and roses. Sometimes I was aware of Mike interpreting the poem; sometimes I fell unselfconsciously into the flow of language. The experience reminded me of another lost person, my dissertation adviser and a distinguished scholar of modernism, Walt Litz. I had confessed to Walt that I loved “The Waste Land” but couldn’t get excited about the repetitious, recursive self-corrections of Four Quartets. Walt chuckled at twenty-five-year-old me and reassured me it was a poem for middle-aged people. Well, here I am, getting older, and yes, Eliot’s disclosure of the “gifts reserved for age” is powerful now. So, though, is the noise, in this case the distant kitchen clatter of mostly African-American women doing the luncheon dishes and laughing, as the mostly white audience sat respectfully hushed. That counterpoint seemed important to me.
The “compound ghost” of Walt and my father—I have always associated them with one another, both men paternal to me, and drinkers, and more smart than honest—materialized again during the conference’s Saturday night festivities. While several scholars sang show tunes over a grand piano and others danced barefoot, I talked with a Washington University professor who had helped Walt during his crisis years just before retirement in the early 90s, when I was one of Walt’s final protégés. It turns out that my dissertation adviser, who was good to me but so destructive in other ways, who seemed almost to fall off the face of the earth, is still alive in a Princeton nursing home. If I can find out which, I can still contact him. I’m not sure if he remembers me, though—if I left an impression at all commensurate with his echo in me. He liked me and helped me land a job at Washington and Lee, but whatever I am now, I wasn’t a star then. It came back to me later (through Walt himself? through my eventual colleagues? I can’t remember) that he had called my interviewers, then a department full of men who’d had trouble hiring and tenuring women, and told them that I was “easy to get along with, but no doormat.”
Over the dream-telephone last week, my father said hello and apologized for not calling sooner, mumbling angrily about the doctors who had screwed things up. He also said, “It’s snowing here,” before the line was cut. So much of what we would say to people gets fuzzed out, lost in the snow. Sometimes the message would be so painful that memory’s degradation is a good thing. And sometimes it’s also good, as my own long-ago student so wisely does, to attend to the noise just as closely as the voices.
The text came on Labor Day, while we were driving home from Pittsburgh: a sharp-eyed neighbor had spotted a cataract pouring out from under the back door. We called him, other neighbors, the police to turn off the water supply, a plumber, then we could only keep driving and wondering. I distracted myself with a fat stack of poems I have to read for an editorial project. Chris considered what might have gone wrong, where the water would be, what would be salvageable. What about the cat? one of us asked. (Turned out she was defecating on our bed, right in the middle by our pillows, because she considers us equally to blame.)
Our house is about a hundred years old, except for a two-story addition someone put up thirty years later: downstairs a mudroom, laundry room, bath; upstairs a small fourth bedroom where my son has slept for eleven of his almost twelve years. Sometime over the weekend, the pipe that led to the upstairs bathtub broke deep inside the wall between the addition and our kitchen. Water filled up that wall like a sponge, soaked upwards through the pine floorboards, pooled an inch or two deep in some places, and poured out and down every way it could—through ceilings, along nearby walls and jambs, through hardwood into the basement, through the drier’s lint trap, out the damn back door. One unlucky thing: we renovated the kitchen two years ago, had beautiful hickory cabinets built and the floor refinished, and some of that work is damaged.
Within the context of total crap luck, though, there’s a lot of good fortune. None of our papers or photographs were damaged; it struck me while teaching the poetry of Katrina last winter how much it hurts people to lose those irreplaceable things. The water missed the good rugs and most of our belongings, too. The builder of the cabinets will oversee their restoration. Kind neighbors fed us dinner and let us use their washing machine. A company that specializes in dealing with water and fire damage (who knew such an art even existed?) has filled our house with roaring fans and dehumidifiers and floor pads that perform some mysterious drying function; the snaking tubes and constant din are awful to live around, but they’re working. We’ll be fine. The insurance will even pay for a hotel while the kitchen floor is fixed, sanded, and refinished next week (lord knows what we’ll do with the cat), and after that, the worst will be over. We wouldn’t have planned to remodel that addition during the busiest part of the teaching year, but what the hell; it needed doing anyway, and it’s demolished now. Yesterday they found fragments of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in the walls dated September 5th, 1940. The sheetrock of the era was apparently made with horsehair.
Don’t tell us we’re lucky if you meet us on the street, though; we’re sleeping badly, the kids can’t concentrate at school, and the toaster’s on the front porch. The machine noise and mess make us all feel constantly hysterical. I’ve been shaken up about changes at work and now home isn’t a haven either. I don’t know how I’m going to get through my first class of term today—I’m technically ready but not really thinking straight. Just look at me funny and I’ll crumble like water-logged horsehair walls.
My friend Rosemary Starace was the first to observe that Heathen (then in ms) is full of underground streams and hidden channels. I’m not sure why they’re such a potent metaphor for me, but I’m still fascinated by moving water and by secrets. At the time I connected those references to my father, a water treatment engineer who also served in the Navy in World War II. This summer began with his funeral by the Delaware River; a super-derecho smashed through, though I guess the damage to our house (still unrepaired!) was caused more by wind than water; we waded for a few weeks through Ireland’s rainiest summer on record; and now our walls are weeping. Water, water, everywhere is driving me to drink. Maybe I’m just being superstitious, but that nice dry autumn equinox can’t come soon enough.
My latest symptom of workaholism is an editing project: this fall, with help from two students described below, I’m coediting a portfolio of contemporary poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand for Shenandoah:
Shenandoah is currently seeking submissions for a February 2013 feature on poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand. Please send up to five poems in a Word document to editors Lesley Wheeler and Drew Martin at email@example.com by August 31st, 2012, using the word “submission” in the subject line. Include a brief biographical note explaining your relationship to the land/country. Work previously published in any venue, including magazines not distributed in the United States, is not eligible. We will consider poetry simultaneously submitted to another journal, but please contact us immediately should the work be accepted elsewhere. We would be happy to receive photographs and other visual materials as complements to literary submissions.
We will respond to all submissions by mid-October. Prior to publication, we will require a final electronic copy of the work, a high resolution photograph of the author, and biographical information. Additionally, we may ask for audio recordings of some work and will provide instructions for creating these files through Audacity. In lieu of payment, online publication will include links to authors’ personal home pages and publishers’ sites. All published work will be archived online.
I don’t know about the motivations of the crazy guys embarked on this with me, but mine is curiosity. I’m hoping to learn more about New Zealand writing; about literary editing; and about teaching, since supervising an internship is a new pedagogical mode for me. I’ve done demented things like this before and find that while they’re stressful, they also pay unexpected dividends down the line, so I try to take or make opportunities for new literary ventures whenever I can. Here’s the beginning of my editorial diary; I plan to post follow-ups later.
8/23: I’ve been sorting, printing, and cross-checking submissions—49 packets so far of 1-5 poems each, but I’d be surprised if we don’t hear from at least 10 additional poets in the final week, maybe many more. Reading a quarter of them and browsing others, I have discovered:
A little over half of the total submissions are from women; more women than men pursue poetry in NZ, as in the US, so that disproportion seems fair. I see at least some geographic and aesthetic diversity, a range of ages and educational backgrounds and careers. I haven’t counted for this yet but I suspect the Wellington area is more heavily represented than any other, since my network is best in that region. Only five poets identify in their biographical notes as Māori or Pacific Islander, although I’ve spotted other kinds of racial and ethnic diversity. I’m worried that we’ll end up with a disproportionately pākehā pool and wish I had better ways of getting the word out.
I’m printing out all the submissions to read on paper, as my wise editor-friend Anna Lena Phillips at Fringe advised me to do—it seems wasteful, but the medium matters to how a poem feels, looks, sounds. I find myself wildly grateful to poets who followed instructions and put all the poems in one Word file: the extra clicking seems trivial until you’re processing 50 batches. Also, you single-spacing paper-conservers and those of you who put your name on every page: bless you. I’m hand-writing last names on every sheet otherwise so I don’t get confused later. I now understand all those persnickety editors whose detailed instructions I’ve moaned about for years. There is SO much potential for loss and mistake.
There was at least one poem this morning that made me laugh in delight, so I expect other wonders to counterbalance the clerical frustrations. It’s also fun to find: hmm, the members of this writing group apparently tackled centos a few months ago, or hey, we’ve had a couple of poems with that title, was that a workshop prompt? I’m interested,though a little concerned, to find myself reading differently, too. It’s easy to start meeting each poem with a dare: okay, impress me fast or I’m putting you down. I do consume poetry magazines this way, and I’ve judged contests before so I’m familiar with this reading mode, and of course I read and evaluate all kinds of writing for a living as a teacher and scholar, but this time swift judgment seems more dangerous, perhaps a reaction to guard against by only allowing myself to read in short bursts. I’m glad I’ll have other readers to argue with along the way; I’m hoping editorial conversation will prevent egregious omissions or indulgences. After all, I do personally know and like some of these writers, a complicating factor.
My coeditors, Drew Martin and Max Chapnick (Max joined the process later), arrive on campus in a week or so. They’re senior undergraduates, good poets, and they know a little bit about contemporary Aotearoan poetry because they were in my classes last year. (Note to self: if I do this again, make the deadline September 15th, so coeditors can help me with the tiresome printing/ correlating tasks that happen at the outset.) We’ll all read furiously for the first week of September and then have a long meeting to start making piles: yes, no, or we need to argue about this one until the leaves start reddening over our heads.
The kids, you’ll be shocked to hear, haven’t been especially receptive to the Yeats I’ve been reading aloud over dinner. Madeleine thinks the Maud Gonne poems consign Yeats to creepy stalker territory and isn’t nearly as impressed as I am by the beauty of it all—and I was moving chronologically, so I didn’t even get to the infuriating “A Prayer for My Daughter.” I think when you know a place through art, really visiting is an experience full of layers and facets that make the grass much more brilliantly green. They’re skeptics, although maybe I can console myself that they’ll be better Yeatsians one day after having seen Thoor Ballylee. Since our Pacific adventures, after all, they love recognizing New Zealand and Hawai’ian landscapes in films and they’re much more fervent about Flight of the Conchords.
I’m obsessed with the difference it makes to visit literature’s sacred sites. I’m not sure if I’m a better critic or teacher of Emily Dickinson since touring her house in Amherst, Massachusetts, but I have a different feel for her poetry, what those garden references and domestic metaphors mean. An early pilgrimage to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania—H.D.’s home turf—bore fruit for Chris, leading to an article on her handling of missionary and Lenape history in The Gift. Visiting Aotearoa New Zealand was my biggest conversion experience. That trip had a massive payoff in my understanding of and commitment to poetry from that part of the world. I’m no expert but at least I know what I don’t know, and nearly all of it had been invisible to me for most of my career, poetry full of birds and foods and expressions and geological formations I wouldn’t have been able to recognize, much less pronounce. Now teaching poems from places I have no first-hand experience makes me wonder: what incredibly basic, important scraps of context am I missing?
Hence, in a few days, our first trip to Ireland. I have a long-term commitment to the place. My maternal grandfather’s people, the Cains, were Irish exiles in Liverpool, so my mother grew up listening to fairy stories and her father’s Irish tenor (he died when she was a teenager). She never visited the country, though, and associates it, I think, with shame and anger as well as music and storytelling; to be Irish in Liverpool was to be brutally, unromantically poor. I grew up in New Jersey, attending Catholic schools where Irish connections are fetishized, so I was delighted to find out, one St. Patrick’s Day, that I had a proper claim on those green bagels. Although there was little Irish poetry beyond Yeats in my own education, working through it with students is now part of my job description.
The British & Irish Poetry course is scheduled for this winter and I know I’ll teach it better once I’ve listened to the Irish birds. I have a more particular mission, though: to track down some of the places Paula Meehan writes about in Painting Rain. I suspect that locating any poem is basically impossible but wonder what I’ll learn by trying.
Meehan has a suite of poems about St. Stephen’s Green, which even a confused American should be able to find. What about all the lost and damaged sites, though, like the meadow beneath the housing development she laments in “Death of a Field”? In what sense can you even get there from here? Placing poems fully would involve time-travel and other spectacular feats, since poets may layer into a single poem impressions gathered over years, or things they’ve simply imagined. What about, too, where a poet does the writing, revising, first public reading?
This year I wrested possession of our study from Chris (actually, he gave it to me, and my verb reflects a guilty sense of triumph). The tall maple outside the window and House Mountain in the distance kept entering my poems—while I wrote a poem a day during April, the tree went from stark branches through first-green-is-gold to full leaf, and the mountain’s face fluctuated from sharp purple to utterly veiled by cloud and smoke. Both became poetry triggers even when I was writing about very different situations. Then a massive June storm tore the tree in half. Its former canopy, though, persists in the poems’ virtual space; I recreate some version of that maple’s shade whenever I reenter, revise them. That’s part of why I wrote them, right, to preserve what I didn’t know I was about to lose?
You know on “The Wire,” how Lester just listens for those phone numbers to ping, and meanwhile builds dollhouse furniture? And Baltimore goes to hell all around him, and the hours watching screens and sifting through papers don’t fix the rottenness of the world, but damn he does a good job carving those little highboys? That’s my summer research program, only I’m not quite so cool and handsome and wise as Lester Freaman.
I know we’re the last people in western civilization to view the “The Wire.” Chris and I watched the first couple of seasons grumbling about how it’s really good but not the transcendent triumph people kept raving about, and then we got to the transcendent part at the end of season three, and season four is even better, except that it’s giving Chris flashbacks to those days of substitute teaching in New Jersey when clever students built flamethrowers and less clever ones smashed windows with each others’ bodies. I can’t stop thinking that this show is all about conducting research. They watch the movement of cargo containers on a cloned computer, waiting for one to blink out suspiciously. I troll through old editions of the T.S. Eliot newsletter hoping to find support for my argument, dreading to discover something that makes it wrong or pointless.
Of course, members of the Major Crimes Unit get to be half-bored, half-tortured by suspense together, sharing Chinese food. I sit alone in my home office, sit alone in my work office, or pace the library stacks alone, with an occasional lunch date or Facebook break. A colleague, a smart and productive researcher, told me once that she dreads the loneliness of summer work (as opposed to the harried teaching year, in which one is anything but solitary). July in a small academic town in Virginia is hot and empty. My kids are in camp, so I’d better build cases while I can, which means eight hours a day of reading and writing— a huge luxury many writers would kill for, but it is hard work and I understand why some people dislike it. This summer has been lonelier than most, as I try to figure out a new relationship to a work space now haunted by a man I have a bad history with. When I asked a supervisor some weeks back, “So you’re telling me that my only option is to hide in my office with my new minifridge?”, he said, “Yes.” Ever dutiful, I’ve been hiding and reading and writing in the company of my appliances. After each day’s late afternoon thunderstorm, I walk home to fire up, cook on, load, run, and gaze at more machines.
One essay I wrote this summer felt good and right and important; one I’m putting aside for the moment because it feels like I’m just making stuff up. Those are the Major Crimes, requiring police work of mixed quality. The poetry-furniture is a more quixotic enterprise. I wonder if Lester really sells those babies. Somewhere, I bet, he has a room full of pieces he couldn’t quite polish up convincingly. Rows of wee entertainment centers and elegant sofas with throw-pillow lozenges. Too-tidy desks and spidery chairs. I like making them, looking at them, dreaming up the next one; on many days this labor is much more satisfying than my casework. I can’t clean up Baltimore, at least this summer, but here’s my fantasy: every six inch doll who wants one, dammit, WILL have her fist-sized minifridge stocked with dreamy little baskets of paint-speck berries, and then she can close her door and watch YouTube if she pleases, pretending it’s research.
And then I’m going to Ireland on a vacation slash poetry pilgrimage, before the cathode rays and various other forces shrink me any further and I’m hopping across the keyboard to blog at gnat-frequency.
One of my talisman poems is section 6 from H.D.’s “The Walls Do Not Fall.” The poet imagines herself as a worm, emblem of lowly persistence, among mist-jeweled grass blades. Her mantra: “I profit/ by every calamity;/ I eat my way out of it.” The calamity for H.D. was living in London during the Blitz.
The apocalyptic trilogy of my summer 2012 is on a much smaller scale: the death of my father; workplace disaster (more to come on that subject); and, just for fun, that derecho last weekend tearing open a beautiful four-story maple and dumping half on our roof and porch. Damage from the latter wasn’t terrible, but I’ve already had enough of insurance, repairs, and power outages. And the dark green canopy I once faced from my desk is stripped away in favor of a long, jagged wound of pale wood.
So, yes, I’ve been eating my way through psychic debris—that’s a family tradition. Wheelers don’t waste away from anxiety and grief; we gird our loins against it with peach pie. But so far, I’m also having a good writing summer. Some of the pages I’m churning out are just letters, though I’m enjoying even the promotion reviews. I just wrote a supporting document for a project to digitize Columbia’s modernist-era audio holdings: some of those strange metal disks can only be played from the inside out, or by the application of a cactus needle to the grooves! I’m drafting poems, revising slightly fermented ones, and working on essays. I expected to descend into brain fog, but I’m not. Writing is consoling me. It reminds me of what I care about, what I’m good at, what I have some modicum of control over.
I also just finished the galleys for The Receptionist and Other Tales, my forthcoming speculative feminist academic novella in terza rima. This stage involved a little re-writing but mostly careful reading, with the help of wonderful Aqueduct editor Kath Wilham: are the italics and capitalization consistent? How often may I use the word “moron”?
Drafting “The Receptionist,” though, was an act of survival. I was a new department head, never an easy gig, but a few factors made it harder—bureaucracy ramped up sharply in those years and many systems needed reinvention. Easily the worst aspect of the job, though, was having a lousy relationship with the dean, a person I wanted to look to for strategic advice and moral support. I was a friend of his predecessor, a woman treated badly by university administration, and while I wrote to him immediately that I in no way held him responsible for that debacle and looked forward to working with him, he clearly didn’t like me for having objected to those events. The years immediately following his arrival were also terrible for women on this campus and this time he was partly responsible. He had inherited an associate dean from his precursor, another smart and industrious woman, and I watched him undercut her at meetings, listened to her accounts of physical intimidation, and tried to be her ally when he nudged her out of the position before her term was up. I saw him put his arm around other female professors and staff and watched them shrink back. I talked to colleagues from various departments who felt impotently furious about his ominous or badgering notes. He spoke to people in derogatory ways more often than any administrator I have ever worked with. A lot of these incidents were trivial, in isolation. Further, I’m not saying everything this dean touched was poison; he actually gave me better raises than other deans, and even the new red tape isn’t all bad. Better bureaucracy than back-room deals. And some people worked well with him, a few of them women. He was sometimes pleasant, even to me.
Even having received so many anguished confidences about this dean’s behavior, I was still somehow shocked to be on the receiving end as chair. I would be chastised for missing reports handed in weeks earlier (organization was not his strong suit), or told I was in the wrong in a conflict before he learned the details. The dean seemed to be scanning for weaknesses to pounce on while my achievements were invisible. Then, during a tenure and promotions meeting, when I was making a point he disagreed with, he started poking me under the table, jabbing me in the arm. I wish I’d yelled, “Stop touching me!” Instead, I shut up, pulled back. You know the story. I told his supervisor, the provost. She said no one had ever complained about such behavior from him before, and I wouldn’t want her to fire the guy for that, would I?
So, I invented a campus and a set of oddball academics. The main character, an administrative assistant and mother of two young boys, is obsessed with fantasy tropes, so when the dean at her campus commits some very different kinds of malfeasance (the kind you do get fired for), she starts thinking of him as the Dark Lord and wondering if she can be a Hero. On Tuesdays and Thursday mornings, I stayed home until I’d drafted a canto and mapped out the next; around ten o’clock I’d head in to triage demoralizing emails. The craziness of the project, a brilliant secret joke, sustained me until I could create a buffer against toxic interactions by becoming an ordinary professor again.
In early June, about a week after my father died, one of those real-life time-for-a-change-of-leadership emails came through. The dean would be relieved of his responsibilities as of July 1 and join my department (he was a literature professor elsewhere before he began deaning around). It’s like a big storm that clears the air but leaves a hunk of deadwood on your house.
So how do I write my way out of it? I’m working on it.
The best condolence note so far was an offer from a former student who grew up in New Orleans: “Let me know and I’ll put the voodoo on her.” It came with an anecdote about an effective curse on a scheming widow. Her jinxed swimming pool cracked as if buckling under an invisible burden of guilt. This is one good outcome of teaching poets. They rarely make the dough to create scholarships in your name or loan you their tropical islands for vacations, but they do know just what to say.
A few notes from the last few weeks:
Otherworldly poetry is an adaptable traveler—it can thrive in many climates and habitats—but the new science fiction-themed issue of the New Yorker does not, apparently, possess a life-sustaining atmosphere.
My favorite reading bandwidth is slipstream, new fabulism, whatever you call it: that place on the dial where so-called literary values of complexity, moral ambiguity, and linguistic precision fuzz into the world-skewing tendencies of speculative fiction. Various definitions include any narrative that makes you feel strange, that reframes reality as a somewhat random consensus, though the main uses of these categories seem to be a) marketing and b) giving critics, teachers, and students something to argue about. (My recently graduated student Mathew, now off to do micro-finance in Mongolia, prefers the term post-realism; my rising senior student Eric growls when you put “post” in front of anything.) I like realism too, and straight-out fantasy when the dragons are handled responsibly. The problem with the former, though, is that it can be too much like life—isn’t the real world mean, sad, boring, and pointless enough?—and the latter can be different from life in ways that are too predictable. My Darth Vader died a few days ago and I would like literary support, but no symbolic castrations, please, or death-bed reconciliations (in my family, last words run along the lines of “I need you to go retrieve cash from a secret compartment in my spaceship while my third wife is at church”—not something you want ringing in your ears during battle scenes).
So I awaited this New Yorker optimistically, eager to escape into a bracingly cool slipstream. It’s a decent issue. The stories by Junot Díaz and Jennifer Egan are terrific; the ones by Jonathan Lethem and Sam Lipsyte are passably entertaining; and the essays by Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Karen Russell, Colson Whitehead, and others are interesting and often very funny. I also really appreciated Emily Nussbaum’s piece on “Doctor Who” and “Community”: one theme of these shows, she observes, is that “the fan’s experience of loyalty and loss is its own, legitimate form of romantic love.” Inspector Spacetime, I love you madly.
But Paul Muldoon, you blew it! I guess I knew you would. I saw the names Kay Ryan and Charles Simic, though, and hope flickered in my dying warp drive. Both are wonderfully weird poets. Ryan’s “The Octopus” focuses on the extreme oddity of the titular creature, estranging it for us further: what does it have eight of, exactly? Arms or legs? And why is it so smart? She envisions some production factory where “Sometimes a brain-feed/ sticks until the brain/ that gets delivered has/ a hundred times the/ strength it needs in/ nature. Which changes/ nature.” Ryan’s a “strange intelligence” too. I like her questions, and it’s OK that none of her eight appendages is pointing to an answer, but this isn’t a world-skewing poem. And it’s short on the soundplay and crazy lineation that give some of her apparently slight poems their black-hole-gravity.
Not a speculative poem, and not a great poem either. Same goes for Simic’s “Driving Around,” sadly. He’s performing that surrealistic trick: imagine small town Main Street as “an abandoned movie set/ whose director/ ran out of money and ideas.” The unhappy woman in the bridal shop window becomes an out-of-work actress. I suppose the poignancy he intends is how a Hollywood metaphor makes ordinary desolation more vivid: aren’t we bad people, grieving more for the actress than we would for Miss Nobody? Simic is applying an alien perspective to a familiar scene, a strategy that once made James Fenton describe poet Craig Raine as “Of the Martian School.” This way of writing is a little science fictiony—hence the name—but in these particular cases, it’s also a little disappointing.
I speculate Tim Green at Rattle will do better (see his call for sf poems here). In the meantime, I’d be grateful for summer reading suggestions for half-orphaned poet-heroes: anything absorbing, preferably a little otherworldly; goofy is good as long as it’s not dumb. Elven stereotyping has gotten totally out of hand.
My father checked himself into the VA Medical Center in Philadelphia a few weeks ago and it’s not clear when or if he’ll be able to leave again. He’s been managing congestive heart failure for a while. Now he needs surgery for a leaky valve and just isn’t well enough to undergo it. Every time I think of him my heart starts racing, triggering a tickly cough that faintly echoes my father’s wet gasping. It’s funny how you can be annoyed by your body’s speech—the symbolism of this sudden ailment is too obvious, like bad writing—but your body refuses to shut up.
May 22, on the train from New Jersey to Penn Station, I review the poems I’ve decided to read in Bryant Park. Then I pick up Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars. Before the Pulitzer, I’d ordered it for the David Bowie/ sf title, read it quickly and liked it but put it away for a while. Recently I started rereading it slowly and had arrived at section two. Rushing past Princeton Junction towards Newark, I open to “The Speed of Belief.” It’s about sitting in a hospital room with a dying father. Soon I’ll be walking through the city at the center of the world—I think Smith and Bowie both live in New York—on my way to the library. I’ll admire the rotunda, pore over the Shelley exhibit, take my turn at the microphone, and then listen to the human voices of poets I know through their smart, kind books: Ely Shipley, Scott Hightower, Richard Blanco. Behind each of them will be a statue of William Earl Dodge, only visible to the waist. I’ll study it, imagining him young and happy and relaxed, and be surprised by his upper half when I google him days later. Stern businessman’s face, bushy mutton-chops.
I will visit my father the next day after a harrowing drive into Philadelphia. Only my sister has been there; his young third wife has never shown up, although she served him divorce papers in hospital, probably afraid of being stuck with his bills. My sister has seen some bad days, but the nurse tells me this is a good one. He’s sitting calmly, sometimes coherent, sometimes disoriented. I see relationships in his newly-gaunt face: a resemblance to me, my siblings, my children, but also to his Swedish mother and grandmother. Martha Carlson’s slanting blue eyes and prominent cheekbones, there all along. Suddenly his dentures seem too big for the smallness of his jaw. “I don’t need much in my old age but I’m not getting what I need,” he says. “What do you need?” I ask. “Peace and quiet,” answers the former sailor who still fights with everyone he meets, whose three ex-wives, five children, and many old friends and girlfriends can’t tolerate his company. He chose life on Mars, is choosing it.
He’s still friendly with his roommate, though; that hasn’t exploded yet. I chat with Harry, who grew up in Puerto Rico and then taught social studies to elementary students in Camden for many years. Harry lights up when he learns I’m a writer. “Ah, poetry,” he sighs. “Poetry makes life bearable.”
I need to write about Smith’s Life on Mars, although my head’s too noisy today. I resonate like a bell whenever she alludes to Bowie, but there’s a lot more—the poems are skeptical-spiritual, a paradox I love. Certain poems about reincarnation made me wonder if she’s a fan of James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover. And all the science fiction! I’ve been wondering why no one seems to write poems in the future tense, and there on page 7 is “Sci-fi”: “the word sun will have been reassigned/ To a Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device/ Found in households and nursing homes.”
My physical heart is rushing, so part of me wants to know the ending of my father’s sad story. The projection booth in my head, though, is just a big tangle of film, past-present-future looped together. The tangle is upsetting but also sort of beautiful and interesting, at least when I can regulate my breathing, anyway. The soundtrack helps.
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