Up here, it seems we’re tied in nots: not-winter, not-spring. A glance out, my eyes lifted up from the blank page, and I think things look bleak. But wait. Stands of young ash are still clasping their old leaves, the color of palominos here or the insides of pumpkins there. The ground is variegated nut and mud. Six shades of green moss cap the rocks, and bull’s-eyes of lichen bloom on bare trunks a color I’d love to paint a bathroom, if it wouldn’t lend a questionable pallor to my already wan reflection in the mirror. The forsythia this year: larger than an elephant it sprawls and glows in the gray light of these moody days. Something’s up in this between-times. From sandy verge of the roadside stagger the small battered suns of coltsfoot, gleam of madness. Lightly the pen of spring scrawls on the rough page. Many years ago I wrote this:
Even in the is-ness of all things— snow doused rut, bleak skeleton of blackberry— there is a waiting: water of what’s next, small fist of intent. Who can live in the moment amid all this soon-to-be: bud of laurel, aspen’s catkin, thirst of the dirt road?
(from Rugged Means of Grace (Finishing Line Press) and Perpetual Motion (The Word Works)
It’s been a long time since I’ve read any Annie Dillard, and I don’t know why. I have loved her work so, and have rerereread Teaching a Stone to Talk and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and remember laughing out loud reading An American Childhood. Her poems haven’t done it for me so much, but her essays. Good lord.
But I had not read For the Time Being. I vaguely remember it coming out and having good intentions, and then, oops, 22 years go by. So I found it on the library shelf and grabbed it.
What a strange book it is. It seems an even closer and unmediated glimpse into her mind than the other books of hers I know. Short and long snippets of notes fling us from a clinical book on birth defects to standing in China amid the unearthing of the terracotta army to the stony streets of S’fat, Israel, with the ghost of Rabbi Akiva. We dig with Teilhard de Chardin and watch a NICU nurse bathe tiny, wrinkled, multicolored newborns. We learn about sand. We think about God.
Sometimes I think she’s the Delphic Oracle, among us still. Sometimes I think she must have been drunk. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive.
Entries jostle each other, sometimes loop back around to each other, sometimes just sit on their own, leaving the reader to make connections as she can. Each chapter has almost the same group of subheadings: Birth, Sand, Encounter, Now, among others. This lends a slippery netting to the whole enterprise.
She’s irritable in this book, and bemused, she’s righteous, and amiable, argumentative, generous.
The book is a button box, clackety and multivarious. It’s irritating, bemusing.
I’m quite sure if I understood what she was saying, I would understand Everything. As it is, though, I’m never entirely sure what the hell she’s getting at. It’s confounding. I love it. I’m perplexed by it. I can’t wait to read it again.
My mother died recently, and I was grateful for all the emails, phone calls, and Facebook comments, people moved to reach out to me, to touch, electronically. I was moved. And I was amazed that a ton of people sent me cards. It was so lovely to receive these bits of paper and color through the, let’s face it, miracle of the US Postal Service. It was startling and thrilling to see, of all things, people’s handwriting! The loops of one friend, the scratch of another dear soul.
Wow. That all these people took the time to stand in front of a selection of cards at some store, trying not to breathe in someone else’s Covid germs, debating whether this card was too sappy, that one too cute, then took it home and, I would bet, to a person, paused, pen clutched in curled fingers, thinking “what on earth will I say??” And then they commenced, and said in black pen or blue all number of lovely things, including just “thinking of you,” which was true and warming.
And the signatures! Do I sound like a lunatic?
But this evidence of our selves, our scrawly names. In these typefaced days of electronic signatures and stock emojis, of typing someone’s address or phone number into your phone rather than have them scribble it on a scrap of paper, the distinctiveness of handwriting has been hidden. It exists. We all haven’t collectively forgotten how to write. Although I do hear that children are no longer taught to write cursive. We all still, at some point or another, put pen point to paper, and the heft of pen and hand and arm, the wick of inkpoint, the tautness or looseness of loop or line are an intimate part of us.
It was a tender moment for me to see this evidence of my friends on paper, to see in their lines, thick or thin, even or jiggly, their thoughts of me, and of course, as the death of a mother is a big event for everyone, their thoughts from within themselves and their own experience of loss or the anticipation thereof. Stunning.
So if not today someday soon find a reason to send someone a card with your own chickenscratch inside. It seems, the sending of a card, to be an isolated event of individual effort, but upon receipt it becomes a shared experience, an art, a dance of ink-to-eye and mind-to-mind. And we need such small personal actions in the cold world. Sometimes Times New Roman and smiley faces are a bit too stiff. They hide us, the skinny scrawl or thick slash of us sprawled on paper like a grin or a grimace or a wink and a smile.
It’s interesting to go back to old poems. I find I do not have the urge to revise them, nor do I read them with critical eye at all. They were the poems of a moment, a time in my development as a person and a poet. I see them with fondness and appreciation of the places my mind was at, the things I was trying to get at that interested me at the time. They are old friends, flawed and familiar, yet made a bit strange through time. I presume they look at me in the same way.
Here are a few poems from my old chapbook Rugged Means of Grace, which Finishing Line was kind enough to publish back in 2011. A lot of the poems in it I put also in Perpetual Motion. Here are some poems that got left behind.
Such sturdy substance at my source, one seed, but risen rosette, now this labile, sea- like self, I’m silly, frilled as a lizard. Unsolid, I’m salad. What the hell’s happened to my head?
You arose striated, cleft, and dumb. Became ribald with attention, your sex displayed. You’re all lips now. If I kiss you once, you’ll tell me everything.
There are feathers and things that look like feathers: a frost edge, a fringed petal, today a shred of sodden apple skin left in a bowl’s puddle, a live thing turned dead, turned into the leavings of a live thing flown.
Just some poems today, from my books. I can’t find a copy of my first book, a chapbook from Finishing Line called Rugged Means of Grace, but I’m sure I’ve got some around here somewhere, and will add one from that little volume.
There’s a baby in the crisped litter of a roadside wood today, made pale and lovely by an October snow. Then even the skin is brittle. It’s never the big thing but the fine and permeative that destroys often beautifully. How are we a thing that hates and is so hard to hate? There’s a boy tucks a note into the pocket of a coat he’s sending a stranger, saying “Have a good winter. Please write back.” A branch breaks, a lamp flickers, the dog digs at a flash of something paler than snow. A boy uncrinkles a note. What happens next?
(from Perpetual Motion, The Word Works, 2012)
The dark is shifting almost imperceptibly
toward you. I know that much of endings. As usual I’m mistaken, though, about what’s moving. Not the dark onward but you and I falling toward it, and sometimes it is beautiful, fanned in flame, and some days, as today, obscure. Hymn so cautious will lead you humming. I hope.
( from Glass Factory, The Word Works, 2016)
[While the day]
While the day is its own autocracy, I am citizen staring out at world, touch the cool glass of rain’s mirror. Color deepens then fades, a slow flicker as if I am blinking, as I must open the eyes inside myself to keep democracy alive.
I’ve written often over the years about my grappling with the revision process, ways I’ve approached it, ways I’ve been confounded, approaches I’ve read about and tried, ones I’ve read about but have been too lazy to try. I decided to go back through all the posts I could find that talked about revision and distill the barest skeleton of stuff so as to create a sort of quick-and-dirty revision cheatsheet. This is not to say I’m an expert, it’s just to say here’s some stuff I think I’ve learned along the way that maybe you’d find useful too. Or not. Whatever. Anyway. Here’s some stuff.
Remember: look for the shine and sheer away what’s getting in the way, or carve it so that the light and shadow work how you want them to.
Remember: it’s a spiral process. Start anywhere. You’ll be back there again eventually, but hopefully from…
Unusually for me, I find myself 8 handwritten pages into…well, what it is I can’t yet say, but I’ll loosely term it at this point an essay. I decided to start with a geographic point and then try to get myself to spin out from there, writing in whatever direction consciousness, or subconsciousness, or unconsciousness took me. I’m bemused at this, and am trying to still the anxiety I always feel to conclude a piece of writing, to tie it off, like a scarf from a knitting needle.
The urge to end is, well, urgent. What more could I have to say? How will I ever make all this work together? I’m trying just to keep knitting. What if it never ends? Well, won’t that be something?
Anyway, I found this quote from the ever-enjoyable essays of Olivia Laing, this from her engaging To the River: A Journey Beneath Surfaces, which traces the river Ouse, the same river that swallowed Virginia Woolf. Laing wrote:
“A river passing through a landscape catches the world and gives it back redoubled: a shifting, glinting world more mysterious than the one we customarily inhabit. Rivers run through our civilisations like strings through beads, and there’s hardly an age I can think of that’s not associated with its own great waterway. The lands of the Middle East have dried to tinder now, but once they were fertile, fed by the fruitful Euphrates and the Tigris, from which rose flowering Sumer and Babylonia. The riches of Ancient Egypt stemmed from the Nile, which was believed to mark the causeway between life and death, and which was twinned in the heavens by the spill of stars we now call the Milky Way. The Indus Valley, the Yellow River: these are the places where civilisations began, fed by sweet waters that in their flooding enriched the land. The art of writing was independently born in these four regions and I do not think it a coincidence that the advent of the written word was nourished by river water.”
Here ice is just catching the edges of the rivers and streams. I watched today a small eddy surge up through the hole it had created in the thin ice. I persevere.
I just read a much vaunted memoir, and found I kept getting distracted by questions — not about the writer but about the book, about the genre, about the publishing world.
Here’s a sort of anatomy of my reading experience:
– About a quarter of the way through: This memoir includes very long direct quotation monologues and dialogues that the author is “remembering” from 40 years ago. Haven’t others been criticized for that? Haven’t other authors gotten the hairy eyeball for claiming to remember exact wording? Is this one of the things that James Frey got in trouble for? I don’t really know, as I didn’t follow that uproar, didn’t read the book, and don’t really care if a good story is exaggerated or not, I don’t think. Aren’t they all? What is the thinking about lengthy direct quotes in memoir?
– A little more than a third of the way through: This author writes about a life experience in the context of a place the author neither comes from nor belongs. Haven’t other authors who have done this been accused of appropriation? The author is not claiming to be other than their own identity, so maybe that’s why it’s okay? I don’t know. I’ve never been very clear about why that woman who wrote American Dirt got such a drubbing. It was fiction! The only thing that made sense from one thing I read was that it just wasn’t a very good book. Is the book I’m reading so well written that it can do what it wants? I don’t know.
– A bit farther along now, and am wondering this: The author tells a story of a life experience against the backdrop of an important issue, but the book remains focused on the author, not on the issue. The person’s life does not particularly reveal anything about the issue nor cause us to understand the issue at another level, deeper than, for example, a nonfiction treatise on the issue. Isn’t that also appropriation? Or something like that? Or at least kind of lame?
It just seems strange to me that nothing I have read about the book has raised these questions. If it were more of a page-turner, would I be spending so much time putting it down and looking out the window, wondering about these things? Do memoir writers have a duty to make their lives page-turner-y? (Isn’t that what got James Frey in trouble?)
– Okay, I’m about 250 pages in and it seems to me the author has now learned how to write this book. Didn’t any early readers tell the author this? Why didn’t an editor didn’t step in to point this out and help create a whole book that works? The pace has stepped up, and there is an attempt to integrate the telling self, the experiencing self, and the situation the self finds itself in, and, perhaps most importantly, the other people in the situation. Do editors even do this kind of corrective advice any more? Are some authors so well respected that no one dare edit them?
– By the end, I’m feeling satisfied, although some of the end stuff could have been cut or trimmed, I think. But the book found itself and the story found its way to be told, and the author found the right placement of themselves in relation to the context. But it took more than half the book to get them there.
I think my overall conclusion is that (caveat auctor) a good memoir is very, very, very hard to write.
As I mentioned last week, I created some monoprints from which I made a handmade book. I’ve made other little books. The making of them pleased me, and as I look at them on my desk, I’m pleased by the having-made.
But if Marie Kondo has named the zeitgeist: “throw it away,” should I really be making objects? I ask myself what is the point. Shouldn’t I be un-making? Dis-making? Should I burn all these little books? If I do it as some offering to some gods does it make that un-making sacred, and therefore worth doing more than just chucking them in the recycling bin?
I live in a dusty house. Or, perhaps, it could be argued, I never dust, so there is dust. Dust on my things, and on my little books. Dust on me, and I will be dust. And someone else will have to decide what to do with my books. Who will be left to dust me? Will all my making be recycled? Ashes to ashes.
I’ve been reading about the human species. We despair of what we’ve done to Earth, but what we should really despair about is what we’ve done to us and our fellow denizens. The Earth can take a lot of abuse and will roil along with our without us until its own destiny is played out. Dust to dust.
I don’t believe in gods, nor even really in life, I mean, I don’t believe that life has a purpose except to sustain itself. Living being that I am I did not reproduce myself, but my body has fed some strange beasts: bacterias and protists, spiders and mites. My books are probably doing their part too, paper that they are and likely highly digestible.
A word, however, is an ephemeral thing. A poem fleeting in the air. Unless I write it down, either on paper or in my laptop, in which case suddenly it takes up space. And if it’s printed in a magazine or a book, and it sits on a shelf, well, I’m profligate. And if you buy it? If you read it, find it pleasing, however briefly? How lovely. And if you then recycle the book someday during your own existential — that is, how can I have such a preponderance of things that exist — crisis? Well, that strikes me as a good thing. Sort of. (It’s lucky that books of poetry are usually paperback.)
I have a box of my own books, unsold, that I’m about to take to the attic, where it will sit until I hit the attic with a frenzy and decide no one will ever buy one and chuck ’em. But these handmade books, the largest one only a bit bigger than my hand? Well. I’ll keep them a little while longer. A bit of me for those booklice to read over, digest.