Friday, September 28, 2007

Vanishing Point

That’s the name of a poem of mine recently accepted by Blackbird, one of my favorite litmags. It’s been a dry spell for acceptances so I’m taking that as a good omen. The title is also appropriate as I’m vanishing for a month, taking four weeks (four weeks!) off from my job to stay home and write: “my own private Yaddo,” as a friend of mine calls it. My plan is to generate as much new work as possible and worry about revision later. Ideally I'd like to finish a draft of a new manuscript I've been working on. I am going to try not to get distracted by the house remodeling we’re in the middle of, nor by preparing for my upcoming brief panel presentation at AWP on poetry and religion. I will say that “Vanishing Point” is a poem that fits right into that topic! But here’s a poem by Emily Dickinson that fits even better. One thing that makes the poem so great, I think, is that 150 years after Dickinson wrote it, it’s still hard to say if it’s a poem about the glory of creation or the terror of a lonely, chaotic universe—or both.


Behind Me—dips Eternity—
Before Me—Immortality—
Myself—the Term between—
Death but the Drift of Eastern Gray,
Dissolving into Dawn away,
Before the West begin—

’Tis Kingdoms—afterward—they say—
In perfect—pauseless Monarchy—
Whose Prince—is Son of None—
Himself—His Dateless Dynasty—
Himself—Himself diversify—
In Duplicate divine—

’Tis Miracle before Me—then—
’Tis Miracle behind—between—
A Crescent in the Sea—
With Midnight to the North of Her—
And Midnight to the South of Her—
And Maelstrom—in the Sky—

—Emily Dickinson

Saturday, September 15, 2007

What I Did On My Vacation: Ireland

How to sum up two weeks in one blog post? Would have been better to keep up to date daily as I've done with holidays in the past, but we brought no computer and only accessed one briefly at a home in which we stayed. I didn't write a word either. Mostly, unless we were asleep, things were happening. In that way, though it was only two weeks, it felt like a year, and though it was Republic of Ireland, it felt like we had traveled galaxies.

First the backstory. This was my second trip to Ireland. When I was 18 and graduated high school, I had the opportunity to travel to Ireland (and other places in Europe) with my high school friend. We spent a good part of the summer there, including traveling around rural Ireland with her uncle the priest. All of her relatives were amused that I was the one, with my red hair, who looked Irish, although, in fact, I'm Jewish by heritage. Well, her brother, a budding photographer, took photos of us at the airport. Six years later, John and I celebrated our wedding. This trip was John's first time anywhere in Europe. He turned 60 on September 3, our Labor Day, and being Somewhere Else would help him to deal with it. Well, it was apparent that if we were going to wait until we could afford a European vacation, we were never going to go. So off we went anyway.

These pictures I'm posting here are John's -- well, except for this one I took of John on the john, on a toilet hole we found on the fourth floor of Carrigafoyle Castle. These were just the snaps. We brought with us a suitcase apiece and one probably bomb-proof case of John's studio camera with digital back (16 megapixels). So in addition to these, he did some serious picture taking. Oh, he wanted castles and we found castles. When he is occupied in this way, there's no hurrying him up. Here's a picture of me being patient/bored while waiting for him to capture every angle and shadow in the Glendalough monastery.

We arrived in Dublin and stayed in a B&B for the first two days and then John's cousin Ursula picked us up and brought us to her sister Geralyn's. Ursula lived in the same apartment house as John in Brooklyn when they were small and has been to the States many times and we know her well. She's a successful playwright and fiction writer and we have always gotten along. As we got into Ursula's car, she looked out and said there's Roddy Doyle walking down the street. He was carrying a newspaper and his groceries.

The really, really sad thing is Ursula and Geralyn's brother Michael was dying. He was fading, we knew, as we left, and John got to see him and squeeze his hand on one of his last days. When Michael was 8 and John was 16, Michael idolized him, so it was so important. Yes, he did die, and we cut short our travel in the West to come back for the service in Glasnevin cemetery. Michael was a staunch atheist and insisted on being cremated, so the service was different to all. Hundreds packed into the chapel -- SRO. It was amazing, like a scene out of a movie, only we were in it. And most of the folk were related to John. He met uncles and cousins and cousin's progeny. Did I say that his mother was one of eleven?

Before we returned to Dublin for Michael's memorial, we saw Dublin for five days and then left for points south and west. Dublin is a vibrant and bustling place, where the old and the new are side by side. Gone are the days of poverty and hardship! Yeah, it was our luck to visit Dublin when the Euro was at its highest. Here's a flower stand on Grafton Street, the street where, it's said, Dubliners go for retail therapy.

When we left Dublin, we rented a car. I should say John did the driving, and it was terrifying. Not only do they do everything entirely in reverse from the way we do, but the roads are often incredibly narrow. Here's a picture of what was supposedly a 2-way road in Wicklow County. When someone comes the other way, you back up. These roads were actually less terrifying than the ones that were wide enough for opposing traffic that would whiz by you at terrifying speeds -- no shoulders -- we often brushed the high hedges along the side of the road.

In Wicklow, we visited the above-mentioned monastery and took a three-hour walk around a lake. In Kilkenny, we visited the castle and cathedral and climbed the round tower. Also got to hear some trad music. Here are some Kilkenny snaps. We went to Kilarney, a tourist town if there ever was one, and from there, like everyone else, drove the Ring of Kerry.

On the Ring of Kerry we found the picture-perfect castle John was looking for -- Ballycarbery -- overgrown with ivy and crumbling. That was also where I slipped on a cowpie and fell (fortunately, not in a cowpie). We came back in the glowering twilight, careful not to hit meandering sheep.

We went from Tralee to Listowel to Tarbert and took a car ferry next to a trailer filled with terrified longhaired horned sheep and drove to Ennis. There we stayed one night in a guesthouse built in 1650 and then headed back to Dublin, or more specifically, to Howth where stayed with another cousin. This is the Howth, as Robert reminds me, of Molly Bloom's monologue: "...the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head ..."

Our last day in Dublin, a cousin, Tadgh, who seems to know everyone who is anyone in Dublin, took us around, full of stories about teaching Arnold Schwarzenegger to say "I'll be back," in Irish...

That night, we dined with four cousins in Trocadero, a photo-lined restaurant that caters to the theatregoers and actors. They did not hurry us out and gave us free drinks. By the time we got back to Howth and then packed, we had less than four hours to sleep.

We never got to see any theatre -- it seemed enough to be in our own movie, and anyway, the timing wasn't right. (The following week there would be a production of Synge's "Playboy of the Western World," a version Roddy Doyle was involved in that was supposed to be provocative and experimental.) I did get to see a street performer who mimed the James Joyce statue pick up his take for the day and stride home. I got into one argument about poetry and bought a Seamus Heaney collection and a book on Irish birds.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Kitchen

This is the kitchen of the house where I grew up. When my mother died Cheryl and I decided to fix up the house and move in, but as you can see, we’ve got a ways to go: it’s radical revision. This is the kitchen where my grandmother baked chocolate chip cookies and I licked the bowl. This is the kitchen where years later my grandmother tried to bake bread at 3:00 a.m. and couldn’t remember how. This is the kitchen where I carved pumpkins and played Monopoly. This is the kitchen where I read Peanuts every morning in the Chronicle and, later, the jazz and rock reviews by Ralph J. Gleason. This is the kitchen where my aunt slammed the door and I pretended she had slammed it on my finger and she got hysterical and my mother screamed and hit her so I couldn’t confess what had happened and had to sit for an hour with my hand in a bowl of ice water to keep down the nonexistent swelling. This is the kitchen where I paid my mother’s bills when her eyesight got too bad to write checks, and this is the kitchen where my stepfather broke his hip when he tried to kick the beach ball across the floor. This is the kitchen they would kick Cheryl and me out of when they had us over for dinner so they could cook in privacy and argue in privacy over who had put what in the salad dressing. This is the kitchen where the liquor cabinet was a shrine full of mysteries, not so much the liquor as the jars of ancient maraschino cherries and, especially, the Angostura bitters that I watched my mother grind into sugar cubes and that smelled like nothing else in my world. This is the kitchen where I washed the pots and pans (my main household chore) and wasted a Tahoe of water. This is the kitchen where I ate Cream of Wheat and chuck roast with prunes and soft-boiled and fried and poached and scrambled eggs and frozen “Italian vegetables” and frozen French fries and Chinese chicken salad and (the worst) German “wilted salad” and “tuna boats” on Fridays and (the best) burnt sugar cake and English muffins and sliced apples and watermelons and papayas and plantains and pineapples and pears and persimmons and pomegranates and white peaches and black plums.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Spring and All

I was interested to read this recent post by Ron Silliman. So often people talk in abstractions (“accessibility,” “slippage”) about poetic issues that it’s refreshing to see a couple specific examples, one of them Robert Creeley’s great poem “I Know a Man.”

I stopped when Silliman said, “Creeley’s famous ‘I Know a Man’ derives much of its power from precisely the fact that the reader situates the key verb, drive, into two possible contexts, one in which the word belongs to the narrator, the other in which the word belongs to John …. Creeley himself said that the former was his original intent, but even he had to acknowledge that readers everywhere could hear both.”

Is this true? Yes, the drive is ambiguous, but is it true that the poem “derives much of its power” from the ambiguity? I would guess that most readers, while acknowledging the ambiguity, read drive as belonging to John, for a variety of reasons such as the stanza break before “drive, he sd.” I would say that most of the poem’s power derives from the sudden shift to “John’s” perspective in the last stanza, and that the ambiguity is relatively uninteresting. What Silliman says about the poem being “a text about primal need in an existential universe” is undeniably true, but isn’t that still true if we read drive unambiguously as John’s command? I’m not objecting to ambiguity per se. I think some poems do derive their power from the multiplicity of interpretations open to the reader. I just don’t think this poem is one of them.

Silliman’s other example is a section of Rae Armantrout’s poem “Grace”:

a spring there
where his entry must be made

signals him on

What does this mean? (Don’t cheat and read ahead for the “answer” as I confess I did when I read Silliman’s blog.) My initial impulse when first reading the passage was to take spring as the season, and “his entry” as an almost abstract (dare I say Merwinesque?) quasi-spiritual quasi-pastoral being (let’s say the magical stag in Harry Potter rather than Merwinesque). I would have had a different take if I’d dwelled on it for another 30 seconds, and yet another take if I’d dwelled for yet another 30 seconds, which is partly the point. Anyway, Silliman’s very interesting point is this:

Whenever I’ve asked students to “tell me what this means,” whether at San Francisco State in 1981 or at Naropa as recently as last summer, I’ve been offered a variety of narratives – … one being the idea of a diver in that instant leaving the board before the arc & splash of the event, the other that of the “step into character” that comes over an actor or actress as they make their entrance from backstage. Never in 26 years has a student offered the narrative Armantrout herself gave me when asked, that of vaginal lubrication. But this doesn’t make any of these narrative scaffolds wrong. All three, in fact, line up the key terms in this passage into roughly the same configuration, tho Armantrout’s own version is the most intimate.

This raises so many questions. It’s certainly true that, of the three narratives, Armantrout’s is the most intimate, although the actor’s story may be the most interesting. The question is whether the power of the poem is increased or decreased by the openness and multiplicity of interpretations. (I just noticed I spelled “Rae” as “Ray” above, which might make someone think Armantrout is a he, which might or might not affect the interpretations, especially the “intimate” one.) Another question: If the multiplicity of interpretations is interesting, would it be more or less interesting if the ambiguity were “clarified”? If the simultaneous perception of diver/actor/lover is interesting, would it be more interesting or intolerably clichéd to make it explicit (“When he entered her he felt like an actor stepping into character …”)?

It’s interesting that Ron talks about how these poems derive their power, as power is the key issue. Obviously one of the distinctions between experimental and mainstream poetry is that experimental poetry typically wants to share more power with readers (regardless of readers' possible desires for a poem to exert its power over them), or to abandon all power in a Buddhist-like renunciation. My instinctive reaction is that if Armantrout is not “attached” to whether I “get” her erotic interpretation or substitute an interpretation of my own, then why should I care about the poem? (I like many of Armantrout’s poems very much, by the way—that’s not my point.) The instantaneous collage in the reader’s brain of spring as “stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf,” spring as erotic arousal, spring as Slinky toy, spring as Sierra thaw, etc. etc. does not inevitably strengthen the poem. So much of contemporary poetics seems to revolve around this strange power struggle where writer and reader fight over the right to transfer their power to the other like a hot potato.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Nessun dorma

Luciano Pavarotti, 1935-2007. It’s hard to say rest in peace to someone whose signature aria was “Nessun dorma,” “No one sleeps.” Check out this heartbreaking video, not heartbreaking because Pavarotti is dead but just because his voice is so damn gorgeous. I suspect even opera lovers with legitimate complaints about Pavarotti as a musician and actor have to admit there have been a couple occasions where they’ve been moved as deeply by his singing as by just about anything in their life.

A couple decades ago when I worked behind the counter at Caffe Trieste, serving espresso to Ferlinghetti et al. in one of the original Beat coffeehouses in North Beach, and not caring anything about opera, I’d still find myself almost every evening putting a quarter in the jukebox to listen to “Nessun dorma.” Not great poetry, I guess, but the line “quando la luce splenderá” always gets to me: “when the light shines,” but I always hear it as a more literal translation—“when the light … splendors itself ….”