Step right up; or, Writing Out of Uncertainty

I’m in a place I’ve never been to before, staying here for two weeks, and I’m more unsettled than I usually am in such a situation. I love my rut and routines. Change makes me anxious. Usually, though, new places make me curious and happy to explore, happy to find corners where I’m comfortable, happy to find new things to look at. But somehow here, I don’t know. It’s odd. So I’m trying to write out of this strange unsettledness. 

I think that’s a good thing. I hope the work comes out as strange as I feel, as uneasy, a bit jagged. (Or maybe that’s my insomnia talking. My old stand-by, an over the counter sleep med, seems to have deserted me in effectiveness. There is nought between me and the void of sleeplessness.)

Maybe this is the strangeness of the entire past year catching up with me, or the losses, the uncertainties. 

Maybe it’s just that I’m very place-oriented, alive to how I interact with my environment, and this place is not, for some reason, sitting easily on my skin.

It’s interesting, though, this situation, my reaction. 

The other thing though is that it’s chilly here and my cold hand around the pen is crabbing my handwriting even more than usual. So whatever comes out of this period may be illegible. That also might be interesting. What I thought was writing might really be an exercise in asemic writing, that mysterious art form that invites, and frustrates, any attempt to decipher. Like life. Like this experience. Like staring sleepless at the ceiling looking for signs in the dark, listening for a voice with a message. Or for mice with malintent toward my granola. 

We’ll see.

I keep encountering things that talk about “writing out of your deepest dark” or creativity as a way to “exorcise the demons.” Well. Allrighty then. Demons, step right up. 

I feel to be a cog; or, On Memoir and Secondary “Characters”

I struggle with my species. Struggle with the overwhelming evidence that we suck. That we’re greedy and short-sighted, stupid and vengeful, petty and violent. But as “they” are me, and I am interested in “their” stories, it’s not unusual that I’ve ended up reading two memoirs in a row. And what I took away from those memoirs was not the individual author’s story but rather the sometimes stunning generosity and love of the people around the person. As I look back on them both, it’s not the individual I remember but they people they met along the way. 

Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jouad is an illness memoir of a young woman diagnosed in her early twenties with a complicated disease that ultimately required complicated and lengthy treatment and lots of medical mishaps along the way. But the constancy of her parents, doubtless daily sick with worry, and a boyfriend who, though the relationship was pretty new when the illness kicked up, stuck out for a very long time the vortex and the diminishing bubble that is the life of the very ill. 

This Land of Snow is Anders Morley’s tale of his ski trip across western Canada, undertaken both to scratch an itch and to run from a marriage that was wearing thin. What remains with me are all the people along the way, strangers, who stopped their giant logging trucks or small pick-ups or slippery-tired sedans to find out what he was up to and then offered him food, shelter, a ride, a beer, or a story. I was particularly struck by the three loggers who for several days sought out his trail and tent and left him lunch. And the Native man, who, if Morley wrote a memoir, wanted to be known as “the mysterious stranger,” who brought him two bags of groceries, presented solemnly “on behalf of my people.” 

There is never one story. Never one side. Nothing is ever only one thing. Even my species. The bastards.

The physicist Carlo Rovelli wrote this in his pleasantly incomprehensible book The Order of Time: A human being is “[a] knot of knots in a network of social relations, in a network of chemical processes, in a network of emotions exchanged with its own kind.”

I had never thought to pay attention to the secondary characters in a memoir, but these two books have awakened in me a curiosity about how memoir writers deal with the people around them. How present are they in the narrative, how alive? As a life is richer for the cast of characters in it (yeah, I’m talking about you, friends), so, it occurs to me, is a memoir.

The poet’s game: or, On Waiting

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:

Refuting Buddha

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)

Wild again; or, On Dillard’s For the Time Being

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.

Sit right down; or, On Handwriting

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.

The regular crowd shuffles in; or, More Poems

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.

from Bestiary

2. Lettuce

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?

3. Tulip

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.

6. Peel

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.

Consumed

I slice a line    from Perlman’s violin concerto.

Suck it down.             Lick

the slice of a lemon sky. Again.  A hunk of Giant

mountain I rip,                                    fists

of lavender, stuff                     them in my mouth.

Wad and gnaw a      photo: wrinkled

Galician woman. On               my lips

smear liver-red zinnias.                       I must eat

beauty. Seeing is not             enough, hearing

not enough. Taste       alone is not enough.

May I           sweat beauty.

May         I stink of. May

I       deliquesce to. May I

    disappear.

Some Poems

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.

Found

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.

::

          the day is

                    world

         the cool glass of

          Color               

                   a      flicker

                 blinking

                          the eyes 

                       to keep 

                   alive

::

          the 

                     world

                        the eyes

                          keep 

                  alive

(from Being Many Seeds, Grayson Books, 2020)

Notes on Revision: A Megablog

Reblogging this because, well, it’s a MEGAblog.

O Write: Marilynonaroll's Blog

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…

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