Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Master

I spent part of the holidays reading Colm Tóibín’s wonderful novel about Henry James, The Master. The Washington Post’s book review called it “hardly a typical summer book,” and it does seem like a perfect winter book.

The Master is convincingly written from the start: “As he moved his head, he could hear the muscles creaking. I am like an old door, he said to himself.” Tóibín creates a style that seems true to James without mimicking him. When Aunt Kate suggests trying to contact the dead, Tóibín has Alice, Henry’s 16-year-old sister, forcefully dismiss the idea: “One need pray for nothing. Reference to those whom we should meet again makes me shiver. It is an invasion of their sanctity. It is the sort of personal claim to which I am deeply opposed.” This sounds so true to James’ own spirit! Who else would object to contacting the dead, not so much out of scientific skepticism as out of a sort of “good manners” that reaches beyond the grave?

I really enjoyed the book, but I did have some reservations. Now that I look back on it, maybe the problem is that none of the other characters seem as strong as Henry. Perhaps this was part of the tragedy of James’ life: he knew women, like the novelist Constance Woolson (who committed suicide partly because of James’ unresponsiveness to her), who were his match in intellect and insight, but the men he was closest to were like the narcissistic sculptor in the novel. This may have made it all the harder for James to confront his own homosexuality (it’s hard to think of him as “gay”!), but the novel frustrated me because so often James seems to get away without confronting anything.

I haven’t read that much of Henry James, but I love The Golden Bowl. It has a great scene where Charlotte confronts “the Prince” with her love for him, and he can’t deal with it, and James makes us see just how thoroughly and terribly he can’t deal with it. Tóibín similarly shows us a James who “can’t deal with it” either, in so many ways, but we never really get a confrontation. We just get James wistfully looking down the canal in Venice where Constance killed herself and wondering if he might have done something.

This all interests me because I’ve been writing poems about the lives of artists, and it brings up the question of what the difference is between a historical novel or poem and a biography. At times I felt that Tóibín had written a very sensitively and vividly imagined biography, but one that didn’t quite come together as a novel. I felt that something was missing for me from The Master, and as I feared that what was missing might also be missing from my own poems, I got rather obsessed trying to figure out what it was. I hope someone else has read The Master and will tell me what they think.

Monday, December 26, 2005


How nice it is to be home alone today in the quiet, in the lull between holidays. I was out walking in the sun this morning with my dog, Greta, but already, as I look west to the ocean, the next storm seems to be moving in. Christmas was pleasant, and everything worked out--the morning with the family here, dinner at my son's new flat with his fiancée. We'll do Hanukah later in the week when I can handle the idea of celebration by frying. And New Year's Eve we'll be meeting old friends for dinner in an East Bay restaurant. Right now, I'm feeling more inclined to think that I'll never eat and drink again--and look forward to restarting my YMCA membership in January, now that they approved financial aid. My brain and body need it.

I realize though things may not be happening as fast as I want them to, I really am lucky with all the important things: love, family, friends, my work in poetry. And right now, that is enough. And I'm happy for the Internet and the blogs, which let me feel connected to others, to share ideas and words.

Happy holidays and a wonderful New Year to all of you.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Poetry Reading

It was really a thrill over the last couple weeks to get to do three readings with poets like Robert Hass, Ishmael Reed, Lyn Hejinian, Chana Bloch, Alan Williamson, and Brenda Hillman—all to celebrate the new anthology Zack edited, The Face of Poetry. I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to read with a group like that again.

One thing I learned is that, while I’m reasonably nervous about reading my own work, I love reading other poets’ work. The readings’ format was that each poet read just one of their own poems and then a couple of their favorite poems by other poets in the anthology.

Well, I am just a total slut when it comes to reading other people’s work. I love it all. I could read all night long, everything from Lyn Hejinian to Billy Collins, John Ashbery to Sharon Olds, soup to nuts. (Actually I limited myself to Agha Shahid Ali’s “In Arabic,” Robert Hass’s “Interrupted Meditation,” and Mary Ruefle’s “Merengue.”) I’m not a great reader, but I think I do all right and I sure enjoy it. I only hope someday I’m as relaxed when it comes to reading my own work.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Woohoo! Dragging the Lake!

Friendship has its perks. I 've got Robert Thomas’s new book, “Dragging the Lake,” chosen by Carnegie Mellon this time last year. I have my own copy already, for that matter. All right, so do the rest of the members of our group, but that’s what I mean.

And it’s a wonderful book. Robert was worried about the cover and apparently is not too sure what he thinks about it, even now. He selected the photo, but didn’t get to see the treatment until the book arrived on his doorstep in South City. I like it! The swath of sea green gives it a woozy surrealistic feel, and that part of the photo is kind of slightly out of sync, as if it is being refracted by water.

But of course, it’s the inside, the poems that are the best part. Brendan Galvin calls it: “…deeply satisfying and snazzy.” Chase Twichell says it’s …“smart…and profound.” I call it astonishing. It will be in bookstores in February.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

25 Years Ago Today

...John Lennon was shot and killed in NYC. I didn't go to any memorials. I wasn't sure what the point was, and in any case, had my own problems (was going through a miscarriage at the time). But friends called me to tell me about JL--some considered him "mine." Some of us sat around talking about him--I guess that was our own memorial.

We put the cocoanut John gave me on our make-do coffee table and I told the story I've told about a thousand times, about the weekend I spent with the Lennon entourage in Syracuse, NY in 1971 and how it changed me. Curiously, I've never been able to place the essay I wrote about the weekend--mostly, I get back comments like, "beautifully written, but not for us." But everyone wants to hear the story.

Death is a funny thing--that is not funny-haha, funny-peculiar. I get why people have developed concepts like heaven. It's hard, nearly impossible, to conceive of someone you know and love not being there anymore, not being anywhere. It feels like they're simply someplace else. And just as oddly, they never grow old, never change. People who are recorded or on film are, as they say, immortalized--immortal. But he was such a human immortal, the John Lennon I met that weekend.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Everyone's got needs...

I realize that this is not exactly a profound first blog posting. But I'm far too agitated by sleep deprivation and baby-gear shopping to post anything of depth. In lieu of such, I offer:

Lisa needs a stable environment, love and attention.
Lisa needs a tree.
Lisa needs braces.
Lisa needs a bigger grin and lots more warmth from an overly conscientious Julia Roberts.
Lisa needs to more clearly communicate to clients how they can benefit from LISA membership.
Lisa needs to go to the museum tomorrow, and I think you should take her.
Lisa needs a miracle healing.
Lisa needs a kick in the arse.
Lisa needs to be attended by trained medical personnel.
Lisa needs Help! Will you help Lisa out?

All true, save the braces (had those for 6 years, and boy are my teeth straight). I especially like the idea of offering my clients membership, with its many clear and compelling benefits.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Diane needs....

Yes, I couldn't resist the meme that's going around. Diane needs... a little entertainment, now and then! These are pretty good (Google your name and "needs"):

Diane needs a pigfoot and a bottle of beer, some reefer and some gin, and crawlin' kingsnake.
Diane needs to apply herself more conscientiously ...
Diane needs to get some sleep or perhaps this is her glass ceiling. ...
Diane needs to meet with Doreen and set up security.
Diane needs to see these paintings
Diane needs help right now.
Diane needs to be more sexy and more out there,
Diane needs to put her hair up and Cowboy volunteers
Diane needs to consider her contractual obligations
Diane needs: a little discipline and a little training. ...

Hehe. What Diane really needs is to hear about her effin' manuscript!