Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Wednesday Poem 2.20.13

A Monk Sips Morning Tea
Matsuo Basho (Robert Haas, trans.)

A monk sips morning tea,
it's quiet,
the chrysanthemum's flowering.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Wednesday Poem 2.13.13

Don't Allow The Lucid Moment To Dissolve

Adam Zagajewski

Don't allow the lucid moment to dissolve
Let the radiant thought last in stillness
though the page is almost filled and the flame flickers
We haven't risen yet to the level of ourselves
Knowledge grows slowly like a wisdom tooth
The stature of a man is still notched
high up on a white door

From far off, the joyful voice of a trumpet
and of a song rolled up like a cat
What passes doesn't fall into a void
A stoker is still feeding coal into the fire
Don't allow the lucid moment to dissolve
On a hard dry substance
you have to engrave the truth

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Wednesday Poem 2.6.13

The Scarborough Grace
Michael Lista

An old man on Grace Street is going mad
In a Canadian T-shirt he won’t change
And red unwrinkling pants I thought had made
Him stylish when I met him in the spring —

Five or six times a day I see him walk
Down Grace Street to St. Francis church, and knock
And pull its wooden doors, always shocked
That his entitled holy place is locked.

Undreams Damascus from a baffled Paul,
Rolls back the road where some unstricken Saul
Rises up, as bubbles through a beer
To a surface where we disappear

And wake in some uncalendared forever,
An unwelcome Elijah passing over.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Confession Is Good for the Soul: The Memoir

I had intended to write today about my weakness for spy/mystery novels. Agatha and Co. will have to wait, however, because I have an uncanny knack for inspiring undesirable personal revelations from total strangers. I know, I know, some girls have all the luck. Just today (indeed, moments ago) I was joined at my coffee shop table by a man whose most noticeable trait (prior to his revelations) were his extraordinarily short, extraordinarily neon running shorts. Let's be clear: I do not carefully select my workout garments. My favorite t-shirt for the gym is one I have owned since college. Nonetheless, these shorts were...
I digress.
My coffee companion - let's call him Jim (as this was his name) - originally joined me because there were no open tables. Quickly, though, his true motivation emerged: to share with me the deeply unsettling tale of his search for a new apartment. Allow me to summarize what was for me an agonizing thirty minutes: his girlfriend (really?) kicked him out of their apartment. Because of the shorts, you might ask? Oh, reader, how I wish this had been the case. For so many reasons. But, no. She kicked him out of their apartment because he possesses not one, but TWO poisonous snakes whom he allows to roam freely about his dwelling (but only at appointed times. Which makes it fine. Because as long as I know I can only be suddenly bitten by a snake in my own home between 6-9 PM, I am totally cool with it.) Now, before you say, "giving one's venomous pets access to a significant others' bed, shoes, dark corners doesn't seem *that* bad. Surely his sleepless, terrified girlfriend could have compromised on this one?" let me tell you a little more about Jim. Jim, you see, is a world-renowned herpetologist. If, by world renowned herpetologist, you mean a dude with 2 POISONOUS SNAKES HIDING IN HIS APARTMENT WHOSE ONLY QUALIFICATION IS EMPLOYMENT AT PETSMART.
Sadly, before I could get Jim's digits, or confirmation that his ex-girlfriend was still alive, he received a text (which I sincerely hope one of his snakes banged out with his fangs. Something like: "Coming home ssssssssoon? I'm under the bed. Maybe.") and had to take his latte to go.

So now, in honor of Jim, his sssssssshorts, and whatever it is about me that gets me into these sorts of conversations, let's talk memoirs.

1. Waiting For Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, Carlos Eire 
(Full disclosure: Carlos Eire was my professor in grad school. He may or may not have also been very good looking.)
In 1962, Eire was one of the thousands of children airlifted out of Cuba as part of Operation Peter Pan. The CIA organized the airlift and the children brought to Miami were those whose parents opposed the revolution and feared their families were in danger. Eire was 11 when he and his brother left behind home in Havana and their parents. He would not see his mother for three years and he would never see his father again. Eire's father had never intended to follow his sons as their mother planned to do, and his willingness to part with them is something that Eire struggled for years to understand and forgive. Indeed, Eire is his mother's family name -- a name he took in adulthood.
But before the airlift -- before the disappearance of friends as they slipped out of Cuba; before having his favorite movie censored; before Castro's endless speeches and restrictive policies -- Carlos Eire led a fairly charmed life in a paradise: wave surfing and breadfruit fights, birthday parties at beautiful homes, and blasting firecrackers that a boy was allowed to ignite himself.

2. Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year, Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott is a very talented novelist, but in Operating Instructions she tackles the poignancy, challenge and comedy of her first year as a single mother. She describes her friends and neighbors in northern California, her participation in a local church, her experiences as a recovering addict and her infant son, Sam, born in 1989 against the wishes of his father. She covers maternal emotions from rapturous bliss to bare fury (``In the middle of the colic death marches, I end up looking at the baby with those hooded eyes that were in the old ads for The Boston Strangler '') and she airs her strong political and religious beliefs. When her best friend, Pammy, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Lamott conveys her anguish with the same depth of feeling and sense of the absurd that characterize her observations about her son, God, recovery, writing, and Republicans. 

3. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
Joan Didion's account of the year after her husband's (John Gregory Dunne), death is the most honest, affecting, beautifully written memoir I have ever read. 
John Gregory Dunne died of a sudden heart attack in their Manhattan apartment while Joan Didion prepared dinner. They had been married for nearly forty years. Once the paramedics had been called, once he had been taken to the hospital and once the doctors pronounced him dead, Didion realized that she needed to "discuss this with John...there was nothing I did not discuss with John." That sense of a dead end to all her thoughts, ideas and wishes (whose end had once been John)* is typical of the searing incisiveness of The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion manages to elucidate the complications of love and loss with extraordinary clarity:

"Because we were both writers and both worked at home our days were filled with the sound of each other's voices... I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted. There was no separation between our investments or interests in any given situation. Many people assumed that we must be, since sometimes one and sometimes the other would get the better review, the bigger advance, in some way 'competitive,' that our private life must be a minefield of professional envies and resentments. This was so far from the case that the general insistence on it came to suggest certain lacunae in the popular understanding of marriage. That had been one more thing we discussed." 

*C.S. Lewis describes the same sense of loss in his account of losing his wife, A Grief Observed

Thursday, January 31, 2013

To Whom It May Concern: Letter Collections

30 January 2013                                                                                                       Home
                                                                                                                                Denver, CO

Dear Interweb,
 First, I desire a better address: Fitzroy House, Fitzroy Square, London W1 or Inch Kenneth, Gribun, Isle of Mull. Next year in Jerusalem?

 I have been giving quite a bit of thought recently to the nature of 'a life well lived.' I blame this chiefly on my decision to read the collected correspondence of A) Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor (In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, ed. Charlotte Mosley) and B) Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz (My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz ed. Sarah Greenough)

A brief overview of the dramatis personae:
Deborah Devonshire (the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire) was born Deborah Mitford. If you are unfamiliar with the Mitford sisters, here are some highlights - - Jessica Mitford was a committed Communist who eloped to Spain to battle Franco, and later moved to California and wrote The American Way of Death; Unity Mitford was obsessed with Hitler and attempted suicide in Munich when England and Germany went to war; Diana Mitford divorced the heir to the Guinness fortune and married Oswald Mosley (leader of the Union of British Fascists); Deborah Mitford married the 11th Duke of Devonshire and inherited virtually all of England and Ireland.* The family is insanely fascinating and I highly recommend Nancy Mitford's semi-autobiographical novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.

Patrick Leigh Fermor walked across Europe to Constantinople when he was 18. He then joined the Irish Guards and fought in Greece and Crete during WWII (mostly behind enemy lines, alone, in the mountains, disguised as a shepherd). When he captured the German general in charge of operations in Crete, Patrick Leigh Fermor was able to COMPLETE THE HORACE ODE THAT HIS CAPTIVE QUOTED on the first morning of his imprisonment. He returned home to receive the DSO and OBE and then "retired" to Greece to a house he DESIGNED AND BUILT. His "retirement" consisted of writing several books (A Time of Gifts, most notably), traveling everywhere, and being sufficiently close to the Royal Family to have a pet name for the Queen Mother.** A BBC journalist once described him as a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene.

The letters between DD and PLF are remarkable for their humor, breadth (DD sat with the Kennedys during JFK's inauguration; PLF hung out with Errol Flynn) and lack of cynicism. DD and PLF shared an unfailing enthusiasm for life despite its challenges (among others: Deborah's husband Andrew struggled with alcoholism; PLF suffered from tunnel vision for the last ten or so years of his life), and both were wonderfully enchanted by every place they visited and (virtually) everyone they met. 

*okay, maybe not ALL.
**Cake. He called her Cake. Not to her face, presumably, but still...

Georgia O'Keeffe: I think we're all good on this one.

Alfred Stieglitz did as much as anyone to legitimize photography as an art form. Between 1890 and his death in 1946, Stieglitz used his own work to demonstrate that photography was the medium best suited to capturing the reality of 'modern life.' The principals of the Modernist art movement (the fragmented self; the outside world and the individual personality is constantly changing; truth is relative) seemed ideally suited to being captured by a camera rather than by art forms that required an artificial halting of life (sculpture, portraiture). In addition to creating his own work, Stieglitz promoted the work of other photographers and brought the work of European modernists (Picasso, Rodin, Brancusi) to the attention of American collectors. 

My Faraway One is a massive collection of some 650 letters that chart a love story pitched at the highest romantic level. Yet O’Keeffe and Stieglitz were not actually compatible. They were the sort of couple who seemed to experience their most genuine togetherness when they were separated by a safe distance of at least a few hundred miles. Stieglitz’s 'love' letters to O’Keeffe at times read like an exercise in reverse psychology. He complains about his insomnia, his headaches and frayed nerves. Worn down by the tides of depression, he craves a long, “steaming bath” every night, to better face the challenge of falling asleep. In her letters, O'Keeffe rhapsodizes about the western plains and sky and seems to retain a certain distance from Stieglitz's occasionally hysterical missives. She also maintained a literal distance from him, particularly after the late 1920s when he began an affair with Dorothy Norman. In short, Stieglitz and O'Keeffe's letters are not odes to idealized love. Yet, when Stieglitz suffered a massive stroke in New York, O’Keeffe took the next plane out of Albuquerque. The night before the funeral, she tore out the tacky pink-satin lining that came with his coffin and sewed in its place a pristine lining of white linen: a clarifying, wholly lovely image.