Instructions for creating England

My speculative poetry students have been asking brilliant questions during the past two weeks: what’s Tracy K. Smith’s attitude towards a posthuman future in Life on Mars? How does assigning a higher priority to the natural world change Marvin Bell’s sense of what death means? How do Jeannine Hall Gailey’s villainesses differ from their counterparts in Ovid and Hans Christian Andersen, and why? What does James Merrill admire in that other weird spiritualist, Yeats, and what does he reject? This is also a course in research writing, so each student is pursuing a topic and teaching some part of it to the rest of the class. Their presentations have been wildly interesting, though, of course, pulling coherent papers out of a mess of tough questions is a hard thing to do—we’ll see next week how well the actual writing is going.

I’m “working” on my own essays pretty minimally right now: using my classes, for sure, to read and think about research, but not putting fingers to keyboard much. My students’ efforts, though, made me want to try. So, briefly: I’ve been dunking my toes in Lubomir Doležel’s Heterocosmica on and off for a couple of years now, interested in his descriptions of how novelists construct and readers enter fiction’s incomplete possible worlds, and trying to figure out how and why poets summon up possible worlds, too. They certainly do in epic and other long narrative modes, but my gut says that lyric poems can also constitute virtual universes, although they’re even more incomplete. I suspect, for instance, that one reason I prefer reading single-author collections to anthologies, and why knowing a poet’s biography deepens my pleasure in the verses, is that increased data helps me fill in more details of whatever place a poem evokes.

That’s a reader’s approach to poetry’s possible worlds; the writer’s involves a series of technical problems. How, in the space of a few lines, do you absorb a stranger into some alternate spacetime? During those class presentations last week, I realized that one of the poets I’ve been teaching addresses that problem quite overtly. As Chase talked about Todorov in relation to Sally Rosen Kindred’s Peter Pan poems—is Kindred hesitating between realities, as Todorov says fantastic stories do, or do her poems inhabit some straight-up version of the marvelous?—it clicked for me how much her chapbook Darling Hands, Darling Tongue concerns literary world-building. Look at this passage from “What Wendy Darling Tells Her Brother” (full version here):

Don’t you remember
the smell of her—lemon and ash—
her skin’s speckle like wrens’ eggs
and the warm wind of her moving in
off the edge of the bed, to hover
by cool sheets and bring her hands
down on your face
like rain?

Kindred’s Wendy, as the stand-in for the poet in this collection, is struggling to create successfully absorbing fictional universes. In this case, she wants desperately to remind her brother about England and the parents he’s half-forgotten. One of her strategies is to call up sensory detail as vividly as possible–sight, smell, touch. Simile and metaphor are portals, too. Michael in Neverland knows what warm wind and rain feel like, so they might help him remember or imagine. From Wendy’s current vantage, England isn’t exactly real (tangible? available? important?), but the storyteller misses it all the same:

And though it wasn’t real
it was home. And though it was in time
it was ours, the mother and father
who draped the air, their bodies strange
and soft with yearning.
It felt right to have a mother, to live
in the lap of a world I hadn’t made.
Don’t you remember?
It felt just like this story
that I am telling you.

Stories transport us, and certain ones transport us to “the lap of a world” safer and better than the mundane existences we often seem to inhabit. For Kindred, reality is relative and fragile. Wherever you are, you might try hard to believe in an elsewhere–maybe that effort to believe defines you–but your longing can never be fully satisfied. Not only do Neverland and England shimmer a bit, mirage-like, but Kindred’s also invoking the universe of oral storytelling from the pages of a handbound chapbook. This gap between print and voice is one engine, in fact, of lyric poetry’s power: nostalgia for sound, or attempts to represent its complexity in little black characters, drive verse’s turns and repetitions. In Darling Hands, Darling Tongue, the loss of a voiced world also entails all the losses of growing up.

Where are we? How does it feel to be not there? I type these questions into a blog-box, writing and not-writing, reading and not-reading, having just tipped from a long winter into a spring with snow in the forecast. I think Todorov is wrong about genre: fantasy is bigger than he allows, and often entails not just hesitating between explanations but understanding that our wildest speculations can be more real than, say, our social security numbers. There’s no knowing what matters, after all, until you lose it or find a way to step away from it. The oscillations of my professorial life show me that, too. Fantasies about writing’s Neverland, viewed through the portal of teaching English, clarify what’s at stake in both universes.

Valentine’s Day in the uncanny valley

valentinesOn Valentine’s Day, I was asking my class about the psychedelic weirdness in Natalie Diaz’s poems about her brother’s meth addiction, when I suddenly realized I felt surreal myself: headache, vertigo, a conviction the last leftover scraps of bo ssam had not been such a good lunch plan after all. I muddled through a few more hummingbird gods and human sacrifices in When My Brother Was an Aztec, stumbled home, and slept through romantic dinner reservations.

I did get out of bed, though, for a dreamlike valentine exchange. I’m pretty sure a heart-shaped card from my daughter read:

Roses are red
violets are blue
I love you a lot
shoe new canoe
(idk how you do this for a living)

My son’s note to me contained the immortal verses: “When you do play Scrabble,/ you’re better than the average rabble.” Aw. My husband, too, typed me an android-themed valentine, each line on its own neatly-scissored scrap of scarlet paper. No problem there—we’ve been watching Almost Human, Äkta människor, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, so we’ve both got artificial intelligence on our biochemical minds. We have a tradition of writing each other sf valentines, like our zombie convergence a few years back; I’m the one going off the deep end recently, writing him verses about narwhals and eighteenth-century brain science. Nonetheless, he presented me with some pretty bizarre sweet nothings, including “I’m half crazy with almost human error,” “more robo-love, more robo-robo-love,” and “I fall upon the thorns of love—I leak!”

I woke up human the next morning and picked up a copy of the New Yorker containing a sort of history-of-atheism essay by Adam Gopnik which, on the whole, I disliked, but a couple of points stuck with me. First, there’s his relabeling of rationalists and believers as Self-Makers and Super-Naturalists, among whom he notes some convergences. For example, plenty of not-very-religious and even outright godless people nonetheless practice holiday rituals. That’s me: I paint eggs come spring and fix a red-white-and-blue pie in July and drag the whole family along with every demented tradition, but I’m a skeptic in most ways. Well, seasonal turns mean a lot to me, and I’m patriotic enough to spend much of my life reading and teaching the U.S.’s damn fine art, but mostly I just like making up weird family activities.

More annoying was Gopnik’s assertion that “nearly all of the major modernist poets were believers.” He cited Auden, Eliot, and Yeats, with Stevens as a counter-example. The first two, sure, and you could add in Marianne Moore, but is it Yeats’ idiosyncratic mysticism really anything at all like Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism? And, ahem, how about the irreverences of Hardy, Frost, Williams, Millay, Langston Hughes, and Helene Johnson, or the syncretic strangeness of H.D.? Oh, that’s right, nearly all of the major modernist poets were also white guys. I love poetry, modernist and otherwise, because it offers an alternative kind of sacred grove, with the worship diffused among every sensation, idea, and syllable the poet attends to.

I’ve been thinking a lot about familial love lately, partly because of Diaz’s powerful book, but also because I’m teaching Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars in another course. I first read her elegies for her father on the train to New York City in May 2012. I was about to give a reading in Bryant Park, and on the return trip, I would visit my father in the Philadelphia Veterans Hospital—not knowing he would die a week later, but suspecting he didn’t have another winter in him. Smith’s father, who worked with the Hubble telescope, becomes nearly godlike in the second section of Life of Mars, which is mostly comprised of a long poem, “The Speed of Belief.” She hated to imagine a world without him. I felt immense pity for my own bedridden, isolated father, but I also thought he had done at least as much harm as good with his eighty-six years. I knew I would grieve but not miss him, and I was right.

I’m currently revising an essay containing the line, “when all-powerful patriarchs run the show, things don’t go well for most of us.” I was raised to be a skeptic, but I do wonder if that intellectual position has remained congenial partly because, for biographical reasons, I just find the idea of a father-god obnoxious, not consoling. I adore Smith’s intelligent, exploratory, deeply felt book not least because it contradicts my pop-psychologizing: her poetry seems agnostic despite its author’s love and admiration for her earthly father. I wonder if my own kindly-fathered kids will continue to feel as they do now—as they have felt ever since they had the words to express opinions. One’s a spiritual seeker and one’s as profoundly rationalist and religion-resistant as anyone I’ve ever met. Well, whatever their future relationship to positronic Christmas elves, both of them can rhyme.

If you need more juice for your poetry battery and your rocketship can take you there, check out two speculative poetry readings next week in which I play a small, humanoid part:

Monday, Feb. 24th, 7 pm, Studio 11 Gallery in Lexington, VA: a night of sf, fantasy, and gothic poetry featuring Sally Rosen Kindred! Come for briefer readings, too, by Mattie Smith, Ted Duke, Brittany Lloyd, Chauncey Baker, and Tamara Lipscomb. Chris Gavaler and I will read from the HOT OF THE PRESSES anthology Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comics.

Thursday, Feb. 27th, 8 pm, Jack Straw Cultural Center in Seattle, WA (an AWP offsite reading): The Superheroes of Poetry, starring Bryan Dietrich, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Sally Rosen Kindred, Jason McCall, Jason Mott, Evan Peterson, and me.

Future tense

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.