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.

Make a new plan; or, On Memoir: A Reader’s Questions

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.

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.

Born Before the Wind; or, On Encountering Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light, a Post in Two Parts: Part Two

If you missed it, here’s part one: https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2020/03/09/you-want-it-dark…o-parts-part-one/

Wiman has been dealing with a disease that has made mortality a reality for him (whereas at this moment, my mortality is merely theoretical).

But here is what he says about reality: “If reality is, as this entire book has been arguing, perceived truly only when the truth of its elusiveness is part of that perception…, and if poetry has any reach into ultimate reality at all, it is the abstract element of music in which that connection is most deeply felt.”

Well, that’s one of those statements he puts out there as if there can be no argument. But music is music, and poetry is music with, of course, words, and all their layers and shiftiness, their sniffs of time past and echoes and currents, their pictures and arrows — their meaning, let’s just make it plain. Words have meaning, and poetry is made of words, chosen carefully for music and silence, for form and function, for all that’s conjured, for double-entendre and some je ne sais quoi. That’s why it’s so great. And “reality” is, of course, no different: layered, shifty, circumspect, changeable.

Wiman writes about “…bringing eternity into one’s immediate consciousness rather than, as so many poets have tried to do, as so many people try to do in one way or another, projecting their consciousness into eternity.”

Eternity. Art and faith — why is an old atheist like me interested in this stuff? Is it an anthropologist’s curiosity about a strange subculture? Do I long for some force that can act on my behalf in the face of the random clatter of life unfolding? Of course. Do I fear the loneliness of oblivion? Nah, I think when I’m dead I’m dead. Do I fear having come and gone with no impact? Well, I’ll be dead — so what do I care?

Maybe it’s that human impulse to believe in something larger than ourselves, and I’m too human to ignore that impulse, yet too hard-headed to indulge it. So I read about and contemplate it. And maybe that in itself is a kind of faith? Or an appreciation, anyway, of the process of thinking, a practice of consideration of the mysteries of this life thing.

Wiman says this: “…there is a persistent mystery at the center of our existence, which art both derives from and sustains.” And you know, I can’t really argue with that.

Cross over into campground; or, on Houston’s Deep Creek

I usually have at least three books I’m reading at the same time. One is often either poetry or poetry craft or criticism, one is often science or some other kind of nonfiction, and one is what I keep by my bedside or read in the late afternoon when I’m tired of doing whatever I’ve been doing. In search of something for the latter category, I chose Pam Houston’s Deep Creek, just because I liked the cover — the viewpoint is looking up the back of a dog toward a meadow and mountain. Finding Hope in the High Country is its subtitle, and who doesn’t want a little hope nowadays? I expected, I don’t know, a nice meditation on what Gretel Ehrlich termed “the solace of open spaces.”

Well. I had never read anything by Pam Houston before, but certainly I had heard of her, but knew nothing about her. The book begins pastorally (or pasture-ly) enough but takes an abrupt turn into a horrifying chapter about her early life. Actually there is much harrowing in this book, as she has lived a life of much risk, some but certainly not all of her own making. She was verbally, psychologically, and physically abused by both parents. She lived a rough and rugged outdoor life — I’m still nightmaring from her tossed-off-in-one-sentence tale of backcountry skiing alone and breaking her leg.

But between these difficult chapters, including a nail-biter about fires ringing her Colorado ranch, is indeed a reach toward hope and the possibility of transcendence. She details the astonishing people she encountered throughout her life who saved her, both literally and figuratively — including a random other solo backcountry skier that day who, incredibly, happened by and was able to carry her out. And the amazing things that have happened to her along the way in her amazing life — including, and I’m so envious of this I could spit!, seeing narwhals in the Northwest Passage.

She also talks about the beautiful and terrible conflict of loving a world that is utterly changing under the abuse of our hand, the necessary torment of staying open to love and grief at the same time.

It was quite a wonderful read. But perhaps not just before going to sleep.

You’re the Salt in My Stew; or, Viva la difference; or, Diversity

One of the great things about being on a writing retreat is being able to paw through the piles of books the others have brought. In one pile I stumbled on an anthology edited by my old teacher-for-a-week Judith Kitchen of short creative nonfiction (In Short, eds. Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones) within which I found a piece by my old friend Fred Setterberg who wonderfully counters my daily crabbing about the state of the States with this metaphor for what we do when we’re at our best.

He quotes, in “The Usual Story,” Nora Zeale Hurston as writing: “Everyone is familiar with the Negro’s modification of the whites’ musical instruments, so that his interpretation has been adopted by the white man himself and then reinterpreted.” Then Setterberg notes, from his stance in the crowd at the Preservation Jazz Hall: “The bass player…launched into a flutter of notes that were both too rapid and dissonant for New Orleans vintage jazz…demonstrating how music — culture — argues, blends, dissolves, mutates, advances. The odd bird who hears something different plucks his strings too quickly or queerly or flat out plunks the wrong note, but he does it over and over until it sounds rights. He finds his own groove and fashions new music from the old. And that’s exactly what American music — American culture — has managed to do.”

How can we not value the gumbo of us, the jambalaya we are, chunky and piquant? Our language itself is a mongrel; or no, a palanquin, a vessel, a ship, a hammock. I can barely talk to you without calling down the whole array of immigrants to our shores, plus the people who were here when they got here.

Yes, English is a difficult language to rhyme in, with all its variety of endings, which is why poetry in English has long gone in different directions from the old endy-rhymey road, and American poetry has been perhaps particularly jittery and digressive, if also ahistorical and culture-centric. But also wide-armed and ribald and jazz-bit.

The diverse rabble of us elbow-jab and glare, and sigh together, and laugh, which itself is one language. Maybe laughter and music are the two things that will save this species from itself. I don’t know. But I thank Fred for giving me a little air today, a moment of breathing room. And it smells sweet.

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.

Postcards from the Edge; or, On Reading Wiman’s My Bright Abyss

I have been making my way slowly through Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Slowly because it is tough stuff, both the — what should I call it? theology? the study of his own faith/God/self-in-God?, and the intensity of it: a dying man sending dispatches from the edge.

Diagnosed with a rare and fitful disease, Wiman has been dragging himself through years of treatment sometimes as ravaging as the disease, approaching death only to have death pull away, only to catch up to it again, like some long drag race in the desert. Throughout much of it he has been trying to make sense of his call toward God or Christ or some ineffable -ness that is not captured by the wan word “religion,” with its weight of institutions and hierarchies.

I am interested in ideas of god, in the faith that seems something innate in our species, though long though a nonbeliever myself. Is it this lack of a religious upbringing that makes me struggle so to understand what he’s saying?

The writing itself also requires me to untangle sentences, to consider asides, to parse the meanings of words. He does have a tendency toward long sentences that take some effort to track. He also speaks at times in koans. For example, he used the word “contingency” several times, including in one gnomic statement early on that God is contingency. Which made me have to look up the word, as I’ve only used it with regard to plans-made-just-in-case, also known as Plan B. Which made me think of W.C. Fields — isn’t he the one who took up religion on his deathbed just to hedge his bets? But it turns out I had misunderstood contingency as meaning the plan itself, when in fact it’s the stuff that transpires such that Plan B is called for.

Contingency is a possible future event or circumstance, unpredictable, chancy, possibly fortuitous. It’s also, philosophically, “the absence of necessity; the fact of being so, without having to be so.” (That’s Random House Dictionary’s wording.)

Oh. Well, no wonder I’m confused. But of course I’m confused.

There’s nothing like the fact of one’s death to change perspective, I imagine, particularly from how one thought one would feel in the face of one’s death. The brief segments that make up the book were written over the course of years, at it has been years since he was diagnosed, years of treatment, years of the disease in abeyance, years of it breathing down his neck, years of a soul’s dark night, God as dark knight, as nothing like that at all. There is no arguing with a dying man, so if wants to speak confusingly about his wrestling with ideas and needs, saying the unsayable in the abstruse, well, there we are. Contingency is from a late Latin word meaning befall. Indeed.

He also has many interesting things about art and writing. And these I cleave to. About some poets and poems, he says they are: “…making a thing at once shine forth in its ‘thingness’ and ramify beyond its own dimensions…What happens is some mysterious resonance between thing and language, mind and matter, that reveals–and it does feel like revelation–a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see.”

He talks about the best art finding “multiple dimensions in a single perception.”

Regarding the amateur and the artist, he says this about photography: What the amateur offers, often poignantly, is “a chopped-off piece of life. An artist…makes you feel just how much missing life is contained within a given image: it is as if the image is surrounded with, enlivened and even created by, the invisible, the unknowable, the absent.”

But the final chapters and segments become more and more achingly, confoundingly, terrifyingly beautiful. I think of Rilke’s terrifying angels. In these passages Wiman is transcendant.

Here are some excerpts:

“It is not some meditative communion with God that I crave. What one wants during extreme crisis is not connection with God, but connection with people; not supernatural love, but human love. No, that is not quite right. What one craves is supernatural love, but one finds it only within human love.”

“To fling yourself into failure; to soar into the sadness by which you’ve lived; to die with neither defiance nor submission, but in some higher fusion of the two; to walk lost at the last into the arms of emptiness, crying the miracles of God.”

And this: “Word after word ekes out of me as if I were in some bare, wasted place scraping myself forward, as if there were a ‘forward,’ as if I did not end up every time on this same circle circumscribing all I do not know.”

I was enamored of his words about writing and poetry, and these beautiful sentences of his experience. I felt in some ways I have failed him in my obtuseness with regard to his meditations on “belief.” He has been working so hard to communicate his sense of God.

It wasn’t until I came to the very end of the book, ironically, that I began to begin to begin to understand what he was saying. And it was by way of a poem. That old unsaid saying it best, the great expanse beyond the punctuation opening out:
My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this:

 

Easy on the Eyes; or, Book Report on Recent Reading

I find myself in the midst of some terrific reads right now, piles of jewels of books that I’m rolling around in like Midas.

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass is a gentle murmur of profound wisdom, the breeze ticking the corn leaves, quaking the aspen as this botanist and member of the Potawotami people braids together different ways of knowing. I’m taking small bites of it, rare for me, a voracious eater. But it’s the proper way to absorb this book.

Ruth L. Schwartz’s Miraculum is poems of close observation, of some duende, and the intimacy of conversation with an old friend. I love encountering books whose authors seem like someone I’d like to know.

Bruce Beasley’s All Soul Parts Returned is quick becoming a new favorite, sprawling, witty poems considering the soul and the sanity, tweaking the sacred mutterings of catechisms. Love his work, which always makes me laugh and be amazed at his creativity.

Lucia Perilla’s On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths is so full of life, often wry, vivid. Mortality is much on the mind of these lively poems, so it was especially startling for me to learn that this wonderful poet I just discovered died a few years ago.

David Sedaris’s new book Calypso is funny and poignant, as we spend time with his wacky family whom he loves to the bottom of his twisted little heart. I am reading more and more slowly, as I don’t want this book to end.

And my guilty pleasure: I read Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island in two days. It’s been a while since I indulged in a page-turner and it was worth it.