Twas the Day Before the Day Before Christmas

December 23, 2009 § Leave a comment

My brother, Jimmy, 1964

Last night I got some wonderful books as gifts from Lisa, including the poems of Tennessee Williams and an anthology of poems by Christian mystics. “Such love does/the sky now pour/ that whenever I stand in a field/I have to wring out the light/ when I get/ home.” St. Francis of Assisi.

There’s a lot of light outside, but I stay in here where it’s warm, and feel the light of my mood, which is: Cats asleep on my unmade bed/Scent the air/ Like James Joyce writing of his Nora/ I love their little farts.

That’s not intended as a poem. It’s just the way words bounce when you’ve been reading poetry, when love glitters through the mind, stopping here and there at this or that person and animal and memory and book, but mostly moving on its way like water.

I’m lucky. I had wonderful Christmases when I was young, and so whatever anxieties attend the holiday now, they’re never anything like what other people report—people whose parents got drunk and smashed their presents; people whose relatives fought bitterly at Christmas dinner. My father had plenty of rage in him, but on Christmas mornings he was too tired from putting toys together until 3 a.m. to be angry, and seemed, anyway, chastened by the joy around him. I remember him on those days as a little fragile, a little embarrassed to receive gifts, perhaps stunned by the unfamiliar company of all four of his children in the daytime. This was a man who spent his weekend days mostly in bed, reading and drinking beer.

Christmas and children were my mother’s bailiwick, and she did Christmas like an impresario. The house was decorated everywhere, the tree was enormous and covered in ornaments of all kinds—fragile glass icicles; metal birds with feathered tails, and spring-clamps to fasten them to the branches; stars and angels, the Styrofoam and sequin balls she taught us to make—and Santa’s gifts weren’t wrapped because why would Santa bother with wrapping paper? It just didn’t seem to her like a Santa kind of thing. She wanted us to see the trains and dolls, the blocks and stuffed animals all at once, in their full splendor. So she arranged them: four tableaux around the tree. Separating the quadrants were the wrapped presents from relatives, the books that were our parents’ ostensible gifts to us, and the badly wrapped items we gave each other. Sibling gifts did not receive a lot of thought, most of the time. A Bic pen was acceptable.

But the Christmas before he died, when he was not quite fourteen, my older brother Jimmy gave my sister and me each our own copy of the new Beatles ’65. The munificence of that amazed me. The cost, for one thing, but also the understanding that I wouldn’t want to have to ask to listen to her record; how much it mattered to me to have my own gleaming black vinyl disk with those adored voices on it, the Capitol records logo, the dust jacket…

And then he died two months later and I listened to “Baby’s in Black” all the time. How lucky we are to not know the future.

Christmas Ballad

Sing a song of Christmas!

Empty pockets here;

Windows broken, garments thin,

Stove all black and drear.

Noses blue and frosty,

Fingers pinched and red,

Little hungry children

Going supperless to bed.

Sing a song of Christmas—

Tears are falling fast;

Empty is the baby’s chair

Since t’was Christmas last.

Wrathfully the north wind

Wails across the snow;

Is there not a little grave

Frozen down below?

Sing a song of Christmas!

Thanks to God on high

For the tender hearts abounding

With His charity!

Gifts for all the needy,

For the sad hearts, love

And a little angel smiling

In sweet Heaven above.


Fear and Dithering

December 21, 2009 § Leave a comment

Regret is something I never experienced as overwhelming until this year. Is it the vanished money? My age? Great interplanetary forces beyond my pale?*

The advantage of age is knowing things, not just having heard or read them. Like: if my perspective sucks, get outside it. There are ways out and I know them. But I keep falling into what for me was the Great Trap, the original sin—thinking I had to fix the insides before I went out, before anybody saw. I don’t believe this anymore but I still fall into the ruts I made so doggedly, digging through my psyche to find the bone that was never there, that was an absence of a bone, what a shrink would be quite happy with, but even though I’m ferociously psychological I’m also very literal, and I wanted to FIND THE FUCKING THING AND GET IT OUT, then tidy up, plant some flowers, comb my hair before inviting people over.

Meanwhile the cat cries piteously. He’s only been fed twice, with treats on top. Yet his desire for food is real and deep; it’s just that he isn’t actually hungry. I apologize to him for his eating disorder. When you castrate an animal and make him live indoors, is it surprising he becomes overly attached to the last remaining instinctual pleasure? It helps when I soothe him. I know he purrs to manipulate me, but it comforts him as well. Then he feels strong enough to attack his sister, which any addiction counselor would call progress, since the violence is merely temper, and no real damage is done.

I digress. Perhaps. The point of the cats was to divert me from myself, which has worked, up to a point. I have incorporated them into my ego-myth, I deluge them with love songs, maternal longings and endless small talk, but they remain themselves anyway.

To amend the first paragraph: digging through my psyche in conversation or writing-for-the-public is very different from doing it in my head or a notebook I’ll burn on my deathbed. Once it becomes subject to communication, the pieces of my obsession rearrange themselves, strive not to repeat (and bore), thus having to be, at least briefly, not true obsession but rather its ambassador.

And, yes, I wonder: what is the point of this? Melancholy is a condition one strives to be rid of; if, at the same time, one strives to make it ‘beautiful, artful’, isn’t this collusion? No, because it works? No, because it makes others feel better as well, when it works?

When I was 18 or even 25, I thought there were solid answers to psychological, philosophical and spiritual questions. Later, I became distrustful of the way so many (famous) writers celebrate ambiguity and shadow. Consider the popularity of the word ‘liminal’ in poetry and criticism of the last 2 decades. I know reality is various, nuanced, subjective and/or unknowable—in fact, nothing but thresholds; at the same time, all of a piece we mostly can’t even glimpse. But my problem is fear and dithering (not plural, it’s the and that’s the problem). In college, my rather brilliant papers never got above A- because I was constitutionally unable to present an argument without reservations. And since there was never room to discuss my many, many reservations, my appreciation of other interpretations, etc, ad infinitum, the end result was a softening of every idea, a blurring of focus.

Where are the cats, you ask? Why aren’t they herding you toward digression into something concrete? Yeah, this is a blog entry so I’ll quit. (And now I’m depressed that I don’t have time to write a proper essay, but must get on with the paying work….)


Most explicit--
the sense of trap

as a narrowing
cone one's got

stuck into and
any movement

forward simply
wedges once more--

but where
or quite when,

even with whom,
since now there is no one

quite with you--Quite? Quiet?
English expression: Quait?

Language of singular
impedance? A dance? An

involuntary gesture to
others not there? What's

wrong here? How
reach out to the

other side all
others live on as

now you see the
two doctors, behind

you, in mind's eye,
probe into your anus,

or ass, or bottom,
behind you, the roto-

rooter-like device
sees all up, concludes

"like a worn-out inner tube,"
"old," prose prolapsed, person's

problems won't do, must
cut into, cut out . . .

The world is a round but
diminishing ball, a spherical

ice cube, a dusty
joke, a fading,

faint echo of its
former self but remembers,

sometimes, its past, sees
friends, places, reflections,

talks to itself in a fond,
judgemental murmur,

alone at last.
I stood so close

to you I could have
reached out and

touched you just
as you turned

over and began to
snore not unattractively,

no, never less than
attractively, my love,

my love--but in this
curiously glowing dark, this

finite emptiness, you, you, you
are crucial, hear the

whimpering back of
the talk, the approaching

fears when I may
cease to be me, all

lost or rather lumped
here in a retrograded,

dislocating, imploding
self, a uselessness

talks, even if finally to no one,
talks and talks.

--Robert Creeley

* “…[The}word pale has nothing to do with the adjective for something light in colour except that both come from Latin roots. The one referring to colour is from the Latin verb pallere, to be pale, whilst our one is from palus, a stake.

A pale is an old name for a pointed stake driven into the ground and — by an obvious-enough extension — to a barrier made of such stakes, a fence (our modern word pole is from the same source, as are impale and paling). This meaning has been around in English since the fourteenth century. By 1400 it had taken on various figurative senses — a defence, a safeguard, a barrier, an enclosure, or a limit beyond which it was not permissible to go. The idea of an enclosed area still exists in some English dialects.

In particular, the term was used to describe various defended enclosures of territory inside other countries. For example, the English pale in France in the fourteenth century was the territory of Calais, the last English possession in that country. The best-known modern example is the Russian Pale, between 1791 and the Revolution of 1917, which were specified provinces and districts within which Russian Jews were required to live. Another famous one is the Pale in Ireland, that part of the country over which England had direct jurisdiction — it varied from time to time, but was an area of several counties centred on Dublin….”

Michael Quinion

Let it Snow

December 20, 2009 § Leave a comment

I found this image on She said it’s an illustration from an old children’s book, in the public domain, but doesn’t name the artist or book.

I woke up wanting to write about Joe Lieberman (let’s boycott Connecticut until they get rid of him), Christmas—should I send an e-card to all those I love, but haven’t contacted lately just because—when I decided to check out the paper, and got annoyed with Frank Rich’s choice of Tiger Woods to epitomize the falsity of the past year and decade.

My views of monogamy are well known to those who read this blog. Still, I wouldn’t want to be married to Tiger. Yet there’s an enormous difference between what he did and what the financiers and Bush administration did, and I refuse any facile connection.

Maybe it’s because my parents gave me a book of Greek myths when I was seven, a book whose size and pictures and even the look of the words I still remember. The stories of gods and mortals sunk deep into my imagination. There were also the Blue, Green, Red and Yellow Fairy Books and J.M. Barrie and C.S. Lewis to populate my inner world. I grew up rich with stories and characters, and the penchant for celebrity fetishizing never took hold. (Exception: The Beatles. But I was 9.)

Most everyone agrees that the crux of our current problems is people believing only what they want to believe, refusing all signs of danger if it means giving up pleasure, profit or comfort. The corollary to this is that, human-natural as this tendency is, it’s gotten worse.

Yes, no, maybe. We shouldn’t forget that the growth of systems of industry and finance follow their own evolutionary laws; that numbers matter; that much or our world is fueled by machines that can “think” much faster than we can. Our computers aren’t conscious or malevolent (yet), but they make individuals and more importantly, groups and segments of the population, able to do things bigger and faster than ever before. Think acceleration, exponential functions and speeding cars hitting patches of black ice.

This doesn’t explain Dick Cheney, but then nothing does.

Which brings me back to Christmas and the sound of snowplows outside. I want to walk in the new snow. I miss having a house I could throw a party in—miss the old days in Newcastle, N.H. when my mother would serve champagne with breakfast on Christmas morning while we opened the red velvet stockings decorated with handmade felt toys and the letters of our names, beautiful stockings with bells on the toes that she’d sewn for us years earlier. After the stockings and the blizzard of presents, we’d have eggnog made with whipped cream (more like zabaglione than anything else) and we’d all drink too much and spend the afternoon in bed.  I was young and in love and bed was a very sweet place to be.

I do regret that my mother so often was left to cook the dinner by herself. But some years she had a lover too. She was the age I am now and she had a house big enough to throw a wedding in, with the Atlantic ocean just outside, and three not-too-bad kids.

Nobody had a computer and Joe Lieberman hadn’t been elected yet.


with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions 

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

--W.S. Merwin

Goat Poet

December 8, 2009 § 1 Comment

My sister and my friend Sanna threw a couple of parties this weekend for me to sell my jewelry. It worked out well, if not as well as I’d hoped. There was snow one day, miscommunication the next. What kind of freaked me out, though, was that at both parties people were talking about books—writing them, reading them—and it took me ages to remember that, yes, I’m a writer too.

I’ve been forgetting a lot in my middle age, but this is a little much. It’s like forgetting I’m female. I’ve been lucky enough not to have to work hard at other jobs for most of my life, and now that I do have to, I can’t see how people manage to keep their literary imp alive. Mine’s at the back of the closet, under the laundry that gets left out of the sorting every month, behind the high-heeled mud-purple boots I’ve never worn, the box of old tax records and the rickety pile of unidentified devices.

At least I think it’s there. The cat might have eaten it.

Lately I’ve received two serious compliments on my poems (by professionals, I mean, not just my dear ones), and each time I’m thrilled but confused; I have wax in my ears; I’m in a dream from which I should wake up decades younger. I won’t even get into my fantasies about what my agent is doing with my two novel manuscripts.

Let’s stick to the good news. Money was made and compliments received, on both poems and jewelry. The inches of hair Delilah cut off in Davis’s kitchen is still brown. I got to see new-fallen snow in the country, ate well, was mooned by an 18 year old boy, and treated to rapturous love by the cats on my return. And if you read Chinese astrology sites at 2 a.m. (I can’t speak for other times of day), you’ll find that my animal, the Wood Goat, is supposed to have a stellar 2010. So there.


The beloved was naked, and knowing my heart,
had retained only her vibrant jewels,
whose pageantry gave to her a rich and conquering air
such as belonged, on langorous days, to Moorish concubines.

This world radiant of metal and rock
ravishes me, and when its bright
and mocking noise leaps in dance, I madly love
those things in which sound is mixed with light.

She lay thus, abandoned to love,
and from the height of the couch, smiled
carelessly at my ardor that rose, deep and fragrant as the sea,
mounting toward her as toward a pale cliff.

Eyeing me like a tamed tiger,
she posed with a vague and dreamy air,
and candor, being joined to shamelessness,
gave fresh charm to all her metamorphoses.

Polished with oil, undulant like a swan,
arm and leg, thigh and loins
passed before my serene and clairvoyant eyes;
while her belly and breasts, fruits of my vine,

Hovered, more seductive than Fallen Angels,
to trouble the repose in which my soul lay,
and to lure it from the crystal rock where,
calm and solitary, it had been enthroned.

I thought I saw the hips of Antiope
joined by a new design to a boyish torso,
so that her figure thrust forth its pelvis–
how superb the rouge on this brown and tawny complexion!

–The lamp had resigned itself to dying.
The hearth alone illuminated the room,
and each time it heaved forth a flaming sigh,
flooded her amber skin with blood.

–Charles Baudelaire,
translated by Robert Anbian

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