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.

I heard the news today; or, On Poetry Making Use of Non-poetic Texts

I took a dip into the work of Muriel Rukeyser recently, a poet whose work I was only vaguely familiar with. I spent time mostly with “The Book of the Dead,” her documentary-ish exploration of a tunnel collapse and its corporate cover-up. It is quite contemporary in feel, though it was published in 1938 as part of her second poetry collection, US1. She uses research, reportage, and the borrowed voices of witnesses or individuals who stood in the middle of the situations that stirred her. Bringing home to the reader social justice concerns in a visceral way.

And I realized there is a direct line between her work and several other collections I happen to be reading at the moment: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Don Mee Choi’s DMZ, and Travis Cebula’s The Sublimation of Frederick Eckert. All of these make use of documentation and imagination, witness and response, text and visual presentations. And they all, to my mind, stretch the traditional sense of what poetry is: From Rukeyser’s use, for example, in “Statement: Phillipa Allen,” of altered lines from a witness statement, set in the dialogue format of a play, with dashes to set off each line of of the questioner’s questions and Allen’s replies; to Choi’s snapshotted notes and scribbled Korean characters and a respondent’s doodled map of circles; to Rankine’s “situation scripts” making use of news coverage; to how Cebula’s poems, launched from an old newspaper clipping, explore the fictionalized life of the first suicide off the Empire State Building tumble down the page, sometimes in two columns, some words bracketed as if a photojournalist froze moments of the fall.

Is there music here? Sometimes. Is there form? Of strangeness, yes, and sometimes borrowed from non-poetry-looking documentation. Is there compression? Of vision, certainly, of focus, if not always of text. Is there silence, as weighed against sound? Yes, and often interestingly, insightfully so. How they take from and make use of documentation interests me, text dimensioning itself from text, like a 3D printer transforming code into form.

I must confess, though, this interests me intellectually, but it’s the other book I happened to grab in quick Covid-breathing-down-my-neck visit to the library that grabs my poetry heart. It too takes its cues from something concrete, in this case a video clip and some photographs. Ross Gay seems to be attaining incadescence in front of my very eyes with each new book. Be Holding is magnificent, as it achingly slowly tells of the fleet seconds details of an improbable dunk, a “baseline scoop,” by Dr. J during a 1980 NBA finals game, interspersed with curling and twining tendrils of sidebars and meditations on holding, on flying and falling, on love. This is poetry that truly engages me as a reader, a writer, and as a human bean.

This is news of the finest kind. Oh, boy.

There’s always something happening there; or, On Reading Phil Memmer’s Pantheon

I’m a gobbler. I vacuum my meals, I gobble the pavement under my quick step, I whip-read such that I’m always having to reread because I went too fast to remember what I read. But I’ve had this book of poems now for several months and I love it so much I can only bear to read a few poems at a time. This rarely happens to me, and I’m so thrilled to have the experience, especially during the pandemic, when everything seems to have slowed down around me, and my brain too, stumbling and bleary.

The poems are imaginative, beautiful in all the ways of beauty, sometimes funny, always poignant, almost unbearably so — but in a very good way. Indeed Phil was filled with some holy spirit with these poems, so full are they of wild winds and homely wonder.

Every poem is entitled by the name of the god who is speaking: The God of Wisdom, The God of Snow, The God of Driving Alone in the Middle of the Night. And each god reveals itself in tercets of its thoughts in the form of epistles to a “you” who is we, we who are staggering in the created world.

One poem is called “A Muse.” This might be my favorite. (No, even as I write that, others clamor for my favor.) Anyway, in “A Muse,” the muse describes how hard it worked to gain “your” attention so as to give you “…a worldly thing//to move you, in a world of things/by which you refuse to be moved….” The muse claims credit for the fog that canceled the flight that created a cascade of events that interceded with the haphazard car inspection that resulted in an accident that provided the writer with “…a copse of roadside trees//in peak spring, a perfect green/you might, on another ay,/have sped right by….”

And really that little quote does no service to the wonderful reeling out of the poem and its characters. I just cannot do justice to any of these poems with any snippet of lines. They are a wonder and a delight, and now that I have finally read every poem, I almost can’t bear/really can’t wait to go through them again.

Pantheon was published by Lost Horse Press in 2019. The book has a ghostly black cover that has a funny feel to the touch, as if it’s covered in soft leather, a pair of pale hands folded lit in the gloom.

You drove me, nearly drove me out of my head; or, On Reading Ocean Vuong and Brian Doyle

I’m a crier. (I’m an ugly crier, so I try to keep it to myself.) I cry at all kinds of things: music, TV commercials, stupid movies that I know have manipulated me into crying but I do it anyway. I cried in front of a Van Gogh painting. I’ve cried at the beauty of nature. But these days I’ve been crying because of two books I’m reading. Give me a break, boys! You’re killing me here!

One is Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, whose title alone is enough to bring tears to my eyes, but then the writing. Every paragraph is so beautiful and grief-filled and yet not tragic somehow. Full, overflowing with grace. I can barely read an entire page without having to put the book down.

The other one is One Long River of Song, by Brian Doyle, a book I pulled off the library shelf because I liked that title too. I had never heard of Brian Doyle, to my recollection — although he is an essayist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Orion, Harper’s. A blurb on the front stated, “These essays are truly staggering,” and I thought, okay, I like essays, I like staggering.

And they are lovely, joyous little things, along the lines of Ross Gay’s Book of Delights, only mostly longer than Gay’s daily dosages. But oh my, they are lovely. And I am indeed staggered by them, their seeming simplicity, their humility and wonder. A religiosity permeates them but more spirit than doctrine.

I have been thinking recently about beauty, and about how where I have been living of late is so beautiful that I feel like it’s spilling out of my hands, dribbling down my chin, and I can’t slurp it up fast enough nor keep it. Now with the beauty of these books, well, I’m a puddle on the floor, people, all tears and blurble.

Oh, the water; or, on Kathleen Graber’s Capacious The River Twice

I was thrilled to see a new book by one of my poet gods, Kathleen Graber. The poems unfold, or unscroll, down the page, sometimes multiple pages, and are polymathic in their contents. One moves from an eipgraph on the recalculation of the age of the universe to a comet no one will ever see again, as its orbit is longer than any one human life, to her brother who died before ever seeing a cellphone to vultures to two photos taken of that comet and finally to how long grief lasts.

If that sounds like too much for one poem to hold, I did not find that to be so. It seems like in these poems Graber is pushing the outermost walls of the poem’s container and it holds and holds.

Last year I spent several months on a project on this very thing — pursuing where the unfolding threads of a thought took me and how much digression a poem could stand. I found I thought it could stand more than some editors and trusted advisors could, so I pulled in the ropes of thought. But reading these poems I’m not sure now. I have the urge to go back to that poem and unleash it again.

As I read and reread the book, called The River Twice, knowing I wanted to write a blog post about it so I could encourage you all to read this brilliant poet, I searched for excerpts I could include. But the poems are so braided that I couldn’t pare off a piece of a poem without losing the power of the whole. So here are a couple of links to poems in their entirety. Throughout the volume are these “Dear America” poems, which, although at first made me think of Stephen Colbert in character in his old show (“America,” he’d begin, pompously…), I found to be among the most poignant in the book.

Here is one from the American Poetry Review: https://aprweb.org/poems/america-peaches.

And here is one that was published in Plume: https://plumepoetry.com/america/.

I hope you enjoy her work as much as I do.

I need you to need me; or, On Favorite Poems

We often in the poetry world talk about “loving poet X’s work,” and I easily fall into that habit of speech, but in truth there are no poets whose work I unequivocably love; rather, there are poems I love. Sometimes it so happens that many of those poems are by the same poet.

The “who’s your favorite poet” question just does not equate with my actual experience of reading poetry, which is much more “yawn, yawn, hunh?, WOW, yawn, yawn, hunh?” in nature. Even the poets I think I can turn to with fairly reliable pleasure can, at some stages of my lumpy development, leave me cold.

I think I’ve talked about this with regard to Tomas Transtromer and how perplexed I’ve been every time I encounter his poem “The Baltics,” even by the same translator: sometimes with a shrug and sometimes with a WOW. I can’t explain it, because I can’t see inside the tinker-toy structure of my state-of-being in any given moment.

I have this experience with Keats — I read excerpts from his poems, that is, lines cited by someone else, and think wow, I need to read this. Then I do. And I fail to find whatever was the frisson that made me interested in the first place. It’s like seeing a star best by looking at it out the corner of your eye. Keats in full frontal is just not much of a view for me, at least — again — at the stages of development

I’ve gone through thus far. Dickinson too fails me, or I fail her, again and again, although I’ve greatly enjoyed some discussions I’ve listened to about her work, and a fascinating book I read about religious dimensions in her work, whose title and author I have no recollection of. Left to our own devices, Dickinson and I sit silently over tepid tea and dry cakes.

I’m saddened and of course self-blame-y over my inability to gush along with the crowd. But, again, I’m falling into the habit of mistaking a poet for the entirety of his or her work. In fact, Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant…The Truth must dazzle gradually/or every man be blind–” is a central tenet for my thinking about poetry (that goddamn end hyphen notwithstanding).

And I found myself mentioning in passing in a conversation (I was obviously showing off) Keats’s “La belle dame sans merci” not long ago — thinking more of, if truth be told, one of those pre-Raphaelite-type illustrations than the poem itself. And his ghostly hand is vivid in my mind, although the point of that poem rather escapes me.

I circle back to a whole variety of poets and poems in case I happen to “need” them in the given moment. And thanks to my leaky memory, sometimes it’s like encountering a poem for the very first time.

 

Doorbells and Sleighbells and; or, Reading A. R. Ammons’s Garbage

I love when literary synchronicity happens, that is, when I’m thinking about a thing or have just written about it and suddenly, randomly stumble on someone else thinking or having thought about the same thing. I decided, spurred by a mention of him in an essay on the long essay/poem, to finally explore the poetry of A. R. Ammons. He’s someone whose work I’m surprised I haven’t sought before, as his interests in science and the land are right up my alley. But it’s always been one of those, oh, yeah, I’ll get to that.

But I got my hands on Garbage, his booklength, multipart poem. And there in the first section were things I had written about that very day in my own notes: the competition of trees, the dismay of overabundance, and what has also been on my mind, which he puts this way: “…we tie into the/lives of those we love and our lives, then, go//as theirs go; their pain we can’t shake off…”

The book as a whole contains a lot of…well, stuff. Quite a bit of it is about itself, Ammons being clever about writing about writing, amusing himself to no end. So I have had to plow a bit through it all and hard-to-follow meanderings but just as I would get impatient and start to mutter words like “self-indulgent” under my breath, he’d hit me with something like this from section 3. We are watching the driver of a garbage truck on top of the municipal mound of garbage:

…the driver gets out of his truck
and wanders over to the cliff on the spill and
looks off from the high point into the rosy-fine
rising of day, the air pure, the winds of the
birds white and clean as angel-food cake; holy, holy,
holy, the driver cries and flicks his cigarette
in a spiritual swoop that float and floats before
it touches ground: here, the driver knows.
where the consummations gather, where the disposal
flows out of form, where the last translations
cast away their immutable bits and scraps,
flits of steel, shivers of bottle and tumbler,
here is the gateway to beginning, here the portal
of renewing change, the birdshit, even, melding
enrichingly in with debris, a loam for the roots
of placenta…

That “gateway to beginning” found among the ends of things, the detritus, the beginning found in the ends of things, as a tree grows outward from the center and rots that way too, having absorbed a lifetime of nutrients, having shared what it had.

I didn’t love much of Garbage, but it taught me something about the glory of excess, and the boldness of pouring it all into the poem, carrot peels and rotten meat, old receipts and fancy packaging, and having the patience and faith in the process to make a path and find a pattern.

 

Sweet Confusion Under the Moonlight; or, The kingdom of God is within you; or, Making the Better World

I had read the news as usual that morning and fell into the now-usual doom gloom. Then the radio reminded me that another of my music pantheon died recently. Dr. John has ascended.

And the station played a tribute to him for a few hours, but I was vacuuming and stuff so heard a bit here and bit there, nodding to the beat when I could hear it, otherwise swept in my own to-and-fro, but they closed with “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere,” and I thought, Right, Mac? Right?

But then I opened up Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights.

The Book of Delights is Ross Gay’s almost-daily, always-exuberant, sometimes-funny, sometimes-poignant record of his days’ delights. Which are often found in not so obvious places.

Although that groovy dude — and here I’m talking about Dr. John, although Ross Gay is indeed also one groovy dude — Dr. John’s oddball let’s-face-it-a-bit-whiny sly if-I-don’t-do-it-somebody-else-will devil on his angelic shoulder (have you HEARD the “Boogie Woogie Twins” with Jools Holland? Shut. Up.) makes it almost impossible for me to not leap up and boogie around the kitchen, there’s often a dark undercurrent in his music, that undeniable blue note, a hint of wrong-place-right-time. Some might call it duende.

And just as you might tire, thinking, all right, enough, you perky sonofabitch — and here I’m talking about Ross Gay — I don’t know that anyone would call Dr. John a perky sonofabitch — Gay will slip in an essayette that reminds us ever so subtly of that yin to yang, the old no-joy-without-sorrow note that sometimes being a black man in this world causes him to stumble over even in the midst of this practice of delight, or even just being a human in the world, and doing the hard work of loving in the face of losing.

And so Gay corrected me: No, Timothy Johnson and Shane Minor voiced by the good doctor were incorrect — there is not necessarily a better world someplace; the better world is right here, if we only notice it.

And we ourselves, with paean and call, hum and curve, laughter and the invention of a good can opener, are what can make it the better world. And old Mac Rebennack did that too, bringing us all into his funkin’ boogie woogie, his bluesy praise, his daily delights.

And I too, even my sometimes-crabby, impatient self can participate in this making. It only takes a moment’s notice.

Don’t Show, Tell; or, Reading the Book v Watching the Movie

I read the Game of Thrones series, and did NOT watch the TV version. I enjoyed the series for the most part, and am (somewhat) impatiently awaiting R.R.’s concluding volume(s?). And I was tempted to watch the show, given the infernal ubiquity of cultural references and endless Facebook spoilers, but I didn’t want to disturb my own inner vision of the characters and settings.

I often don’t want to see movie-ized or TV-ized versions of books I’ve read for this very reason — they are alive in Technicolor in my head, and why should I let someone else’s vision replace (as it inevitably does) my own?

I do have to say that, for example, the movie version of The World According to Garpeither so mirrored my own that I could accept it, or perhaps was superior — forever will Garp look like Robin Williams, who already in the movie sort of reminded me of the photos I’ve seen of John Irving, who is Garp in my mind, as one being. I confess I did not read the original Wizard of Oz books, so bowed always and forever to the movie, and I don’t think I want to disturb the movie’s sacred status with a reading of the original text. I actually think Disney did quite a good job with its cartoon of the Toad chapters of my sacred text, The Wind in the Willows. I can’t even remember if I read The Princess Bride, so thoroughly does the movie inhabit my brain. (And I can never forgive Mandy Patinkin, as I watch him age, for not really being Inigo Montoya, nor really ever living up to that role.)

I don’t want to have my opinions about the Game of Throne characters disturbed at all by some actor’s rendition. I want to remain thoroughly bored and irritated with tiresome Daenerys. Ugh, get over yourself. And I don’t want to see what they did with doughty Brienne of Tarth. I have my own complicated feelings toward the scoundrel Jaime. And my hating to love Jon Snow. Sansa is an idiot, and I’ll brook no doubt in that. Arya in the books has swirled into some eddy and I only hope R.R. has something better in store for her.

That brings me to the other problem — I know that the TV version veered from the books, and this would have made me crazy. No, no, I’d insist, that’s not what happens. And I didn’t want to be that person.

Why do people take books and make movies of them? What is this impulse? I guess it’s that the books live vividly in a creative person’s mind, and that person wants to show the world that vivid screen. But it’s kind of authoritarian — the imposition of one person’s vision on what is each reader’s individual right to create.

On the other hand, there’s something so tempting about being able to see into someone else’s brain this way, to see the same scenes through someone else’s eyes. This is all part of our need to connect, I think. Do we see things the same way? Is watching someone’s visual version of a book the purest form of communication, the only true way of seeing inside someone’s mind?

Of course, there’s also the money to be made from the vast audience of I’d-rather-watch-it-on-a screen people who can be extracted of money for, for example, years of HBO membership versus a one-time (well, okay, 6[?] times) for a book purchase.

I confess I would dearly have loved to see Peter Dinklage as Tyrion. But I held fast. Well…really, I was saved from my own worst impulses by not actually having HBO.

Looky Lou; or, Enjoying Lia Purpura’s Work and More on Form

I heard her read many years ago, and enjoyed it thoroughly, and thought I’d read her book On Looking. But I remembered nothing about it when I feel deeply into the fascinating essays of this writer’s deep gaze. I also picked up and am, based on how much I’m enjoying so much of On Looking, looking forward to her newest collection of essays All the Fierce Tethers.

Listen to this from “On Form” in On Looking (again I’m being drawn to discussions of form — for someone who stubbornly writes in free verse, this seems peculiar):

“Sketching, I consider the line: ‘These fragments I shore against my ruin’–from a time when so much felt to be coming apart. But no. My fragments I shore to reveal my ruin. And all the similarities my eye is drawn to: flaw. Torque. Skew. I make a little pile by the shore: cracked horseshoe crab, ripped clam, wet ragged wing with feathers. I look because a thing is off, to locate the unlocatable in its features, forged as they are, or blunted, or blown. I look because the counter flashes its surprising grin.”

The essays luxuriate in the odd things noticed, the lovingly catalogued deformities noticed in her fellow humankind, in herself, in the world.

In the wonderful “Glaciology,” she recalls a week in which she was waiting for the results from a cancer test as her area was wrapped in snow, school cancelled, the usual rhythms disrupted. She wrote: “Of all the names for snow considered, of all the shifts in tone it made, I found clamshell, bone, and pearl. That week I found lead in the white, mouse in it, and refracted granite. Talc with pepper. Layers of dried mud, zinc, and iron. Blown milkweed and ashy cinder. Silvered cornfield. Uncooked biscuit. Mummy, oatmeal, sand, and linen. Some morning glory. Some roadside aster.”

Her interest in similarities reminds me of Magritte’s interest in such things. Think of his painting of a bird cage containing an egg, the curve of the cage echoing the curve of the egg; the thing containing the thing containing the thing to be contained but not yet birthed.

Which is sort of the form of a good essay, it occurs to me.

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