Nothing Much

April 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

I have a nasty cold and with my few moments of caffeinated semi-health, what do I do but read the paper and get caught in a confusion of ideas about Bloomberg’s proposed pedestrian plaza at Union Square. There are those who think the Mayor wants the whole city to be a pedestrian plaza, and I like that idea except for when I’m exceptionally tired or wearing heels and need a cab. Also I appreciate food and other goods being trucked into the city, and books, vitamins and bulk/discount cat treats delivered to my apartment building.

But what I want is more gardens and a warm ocean. What I want is Florida and France within walking distance. I want someone to clean my apartment in exchange for necklaces and for my countless writing ideas to come out fully fleshed and ready to turn a profit. Not even Bloomberg could give me these things.

I had to write about Bloomberg recently; one of my money-making jobs. I didn’t mind, except when my clean prose got muddied by the phrase “growing our economy” inserted at the last minute. Charles didn’t understand my distress. “Don’t you want the economy to grow?” “That’s not the point! I’ll have to call Mom! Only she will understand!”

But I’m too tired to call anyone right now. I think I have the energy but talking to Charles made my brain curdle. The month of May is full of social and work demands and all I want to do is walk in the sunshine for hours and hours, to be 25 again, financially privileged, worrying only about little things like love and terror…

This poem is so apt, it’s scary. WordPress won’t let me format it properly so click the link if you want the stanza breaks. Keep reading if you’re too lazy to do that.

An Urban Convalescence

Out for a walk, after a week in bed,

I find them tearing up part of my block

And, chilled through, dazed and lonely, join the dozen

In meek attitudes, watching a huge crane

Fumble luxuriously in the filth of years.

Her jaws dribble rubble. An old man

Laughs and curses in her brain,

Bringing to mind the close of The White Goddess.

As usual in New York, everything is torn down

Before you have had time to care for it.

Head bowed, at the shrine of noise, let me try to recall

What building stood here. Was there a building at all?

I have lived on this same street for a decade.

Wait. Yes. Vaguely a presence rises

Some five floors high, of shabby stone

—Or am I confusing it with another one

In another part of town, or of the world?—

And over its lintel into focus vaguely

Misted with blood (my eyes are shut)

A single garland sways, stone fruit, stone leaves,

Which years of grit had etched until it thrust

Roots down, even into the poor soil of my seeing.

When did the garland become part of me?

I ask myself, amused almost,

Then shiver once from head to toe,

Transfixed by a particular cheap engraving of garlands

Bought for a few francs long ago,

All calligraphic tendril and cross-hatched rondure,

Ten years ago, and crumpled up to stanch

Boughs dripping, whose white gestures filled a cab,

And thought of neither then nor since.

Also, to clasp them, the small, red-nailed hand

Of no one I can place. Wait. No. Her name, her features

Lie toppled underneath that year’s fashions.

The words she must have spoken, setting her face

To fluttering like a veil, I cannot hear now,

Let alone understand.

So that I am already on the stair,

As it were, of where I lived,

When the whole structure shudders at my tread

And soundlessly collapses, filling

The air with motes of stone.

Onto the still erect building next door

Are pressed levels and hues—

Pocked rose, streaked greens, brown whites.

Who drained the pousse-café?

Wires and pipes, snapped off at the roots, quiver.

Well, that is what life does. I stare

A moment longer, so. And presently

The massive volume of the world

Closes again.

Upon that book I swear

To abide by what it teaches:

Gospels of ugliness and waste,

Of towering voids, of soiled gusts,

Of a shrieking to be faced

Full into, eyes astream with cold—

With cold?

All right then. With self-knowledge.

Indoors at last, the pages of Time are apt

To open, and the illustrated mayor of New York,

Given a glimpse of how and where I work,

To note yet one more house that can be scrapped.

Unwillingly I picture

My walls weathering in the general view.

It is not even as though the new

Buildings did very much for architecture.

Suppose they did. The sickness of our time requires

That these as well be blasted in their prime.

You would think the simple fact of having lasted

Threatened our cities like mysterious fires.

There are certain phrases which to use in a poem

Is like rubbing silver with quicksilver. Bright

But facile, the glamour deadens overnight.

For instance, how “the sickness of our time”

Enhances, then debases, what I feel.

At my desk I swallow in a glass of water

No longer cordial, scarcely wet, a pill

They had told me not to take until much later.

With the result that back into my imagination

The city glides, like cities seen from the air,

Mere smoke and sparkle to the passenger

Having in mind another destination

Which now is not that honey-slow descent

Of the Champs-Élysées, her hand in his,

But the dull need to make some kind of house

Out of the life lived, out of the love spent.

–James Merrill

Night and the Light and the Half Light

April 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Christina Rossetti, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I dreamed last night that I had a mailbox full of replies from publishers. As I sorted it, the haul dwindled to one passionate reply about a book proposal I’d sent out; the editor noted all the things she loved, what small changes she’d make. As I read, I was eager to get back to my desk, plunge into this dense, imaginative work…

Upon waking, I realized that this book did not exist except as a dream.  It was about a child with strange powers sent away from the family. There was a dim and narrow hall, an uncle urging haste, dark coats. Was there something about wings? The plot was set, perfected; hidden from me.

Every culture has a theory on the meaning of dreams. Messages, portents, wishes. What if they’re only the subconscious showing off? Look, it’s saying (that clutch of grub-white neurons), I can do all this, create worlds and exquisite emotional textures, without words or paint, research or effort…I’m the genius, the god; I reign in sleep; you will never surpass me.

I never have. What’s conscious is always clumsier. I used to dream more before I accepted that. I dreamed all the time, I was a glutton for dreams, because I thought they would lead me somewhere in the world—even if it was another world—somewhere I could go with my eyes open.

I dreamed of vampires and lions; of lovers never met and houses with endless rooms; of cars, trains, mountains, famous men; of the dead; of flying. I dreamed I was a queen once, standing on a balcony in sunlight. In the distance were immense, naked gods, walking toward me over the ocean.

There are so many wonderful poems about dreams, but this first one is probably new to you.

My Dream

Hear now a curious dream I dreamed last night

Each word whereof is weighed and sifted truth.

I stood beside Euphrates while it swelled

Like overflowing Jordan in its youth:

It waxed and coloured sensibly to sight;

Till out of myriad pregnant waves there welled

Young crocodiles, a gaunt blunt-featured crew,

Fresh-hatched perhaps and daubed with birthday dew.

The rest if I should tell, I fear my friend

My closest friend would deem the facts untrue;

And therefore it were wisely left untold;

Yet if you will, why, hear it to the end.

Each crocodile was girt with massive gold

And polished stones that with their wearers grew:

But one there was who waxed beyond the rest,

Wore kinglier girdle and a kingly crown,

Whilst crowns and orbs and sceptres starred his breast.

All gleamed compact and green with scale on scale,

But special burnishment adorned his mail

And special terror weighed upon his frown;

His punier brethren quaked before his tail,

Broad as a rafter, potent as a flail.

So he grew lord and master of his kin:

But who shall tell the tale of all their woes?

An execrable appetite arose,

He battened on them, crunched, and sucked them in.

He knew no law, he feared no binding law,

But ground them with inexorable jaw:

The luscious fat distilled upon his chin,

Exuded from his nostrils and his eyes,

While still like hungry death he fed his maw;

Till every minor crocodile being dead

And buried too, himself gorged to the full,

He slept with breath oppressed and unstrung claw.

Oh marvel passing strange which next I saw:

In sleep he dwindled to the common size,

And all the empire faded from his coat.

Then from far off a wingèd vessel came,

Swift as a swallow, subtle as a flame:

I know not what it bore of freight or host,

But white it was as an avenging ghost.

It levelled strong Euphrates in its course;

Supreme yet weightless as an idle mote

It seemed to tame the waters without force

Till not a murmur swelled or billow beat:

Lo, as the purple shadow swept the sands,

The prudent crocodile rose on his feet

And shed appropriate tears and wrung his hands.

What can it mean? you ask. I answer not

For meaning, but myself must echo, What?

And tell it as I saw it on the spot.

Christina Rossetti

I dreamed a thousand new paths. I woke and walked my old one.

~Chinese proverb

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

William Butler Yeats

Princess Mouse-Velvet

April 8, 2010 § 1 Comment


Mouchette, my she-cat who once fled at any sudden movement and panicked at a touch, hiding under the bureau for hours, has come into her own. She still can’t meow properly—she makes a singing squeak-squeak noise, like an enchanted mouse—and she only nips me when she’s very excited, my hand on her belly, her little white paws clutching, claws scratching me like baby thorns—; but she’s the one charged with waking me in the morning.

She jumps, her eight pounds landing unerringly on one of my sore spots (25 years of muscle tension), then her purring face whiskers next to mine, she thrusts her hot little head under my palm so I have no choice but to cup it and murmur, “Good morning, Kitten,” then roll over on my stomach, hiding face and hands. She perseveres, purring industriously as she teeters up and down my spine, so confident of her charms, while (as I learn when I finally drag my eyes open) Fitzroy sits on the floor a few feet from the bed, watching in silence like a spymaster.

This used to be his job. She does it better. I’m reluctant to knock her from the bed, as I would him. Her trust was so slowly won. I do my best I to evade; I beg; finally I get up and feed the starving animals, whose dry food sits neglected in their bowls. It’s difficult to live with cats when you work at home. It’s  hard to make jewelry with a cat among the beads, claws sliding over the crystals as he insists on closeness; hard to write while he meows angrily for an early dinner, then stands on hind legs to bite my elbow.

Mouchette is more feminine in her tactics. She purrs at full volume and twines around my feet, jumps up to knock over notebook and glasses (staring with surprise), moves from lap to laptop vibrating with pleasure, pushing out her squeaks—more happy, happy love, forever warm and still to be enjoyed—so it takes me, even now, a few minutes to realize she’s not just communicating how adorable I am.

Every night, I consider latching the door, leaving the cats in the living room. But when I look up at from my late night Kindle-fest to see Fitzroy spread like a fur shawl at the bottom of the bed and Mouchette lounging, legs dangling, in her new favorite spot—the box the air-conditioner came in, now forever next to my desk—watching me with her lambent yellow eyes, I don’t want to sleep alone. I’d rather be woken by the officious, delighted  girl-pest. It’s worth it to be able to stroke her little head when I pass her melted over the arm of the couch, mid-afternoon, and watch her tip it up in her FDR pose, whiskered chin glinting, no longer at all concerned that I might be  planning to twist it off.

Pangur Ban

Pangur, white Pangur, How happy we are 

Alone together, scholar and cat 

Each has his own work to do daily; 

For you it is hunting, for me study. 

Your shining eye watches the wall; 

My feeble eye is fixed on a book. 

You rejoice, when your claws entrap a mouse; 

I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem. 

Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other; 

Thus we live ever without tedium and envy.

–Unknown 9th century Irish monk, translated by W.H. Auden

A Thousand Doglike Faces, Purple from the Cold

April 2, 2010 § 2 Comments

The Last Supper, Tintoretto

Last night was Maundy Thursday: the night of The Last Supper, which instituted the Eucharist, and of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples as demonstration of humility. My Internet sources (I have never been a Christian) explain that it’s also a time for the reconciliation of penitents and of giving alms to the poor.

At the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where I’m working part-time, Maundy Thursday is celebrated by special masses, foot-washing, and a 9 p.m. to midnight reading of Dante’s Inferno. I made it to the last half of the latter.

I can’t tell you what the Inferno has to do with the Last Supper or the reconciliation of penitents, since to my ear, Dante seems quite pleased at the fact that the sinners he encounters will suffer eternal torment. He names as many sinners he has personal knowledge of (as we might name Bush, Cheney, et al) and describes their individually tailored punishments. I resisted Dante for a long time, because though his images are fanstastic in the best sense and his language precise and thrilling, the emotional arc of the story did not move me. Yes, the following volumes give us Purgatory, and Paradise, angels and Beatrice and all that, but as far as I can tell nobody ever gets that far. Everyone likes hell.

A hell that is not especially terrifying, I might add, having read my share of novels written about psycho-killers, where the inventive tortures will actually make you despair, if only for the writer who dreams them up. In Dante, after a “wretch” has been submerged in boiling tar for some long period, and is fished out by demons and rent by their wicked talons, he’s able to carry on a coherent and quite civilized conversation with Virgil and Dante, telling his own story and reminding the latter poet to take note of all the other sinners, his old enemies who deserve to have society and posterity know their torment.

Poetic license, to be sure, but how can one really feel the agony of Hell when its ministrations don’t even flay the tongues of the damned? The tortures depicted in Greek myths, where the afflicted rarely spoke for themselves, were more convincing. Imagine Prometheus explaining in measured cadences the circumstances of his punishment, and the liver-eating eagle diminishes in fearsomeness. Less bloodthirsty Christians like to say Hell is the absence of God: eternal loneliness. It seems to me that, whether or not one desires vivid pain in the mix, loneliness is essential to a true Hell, whether it be the solitude of a desolate cliff or Sartre’s confinement among the unloving rasp of other people’s souls.

Dante’s sinners do suffer loneliness, strictly speaking, but I don’t feel it. It all seems quite cozy there in Hell. Only Satan seems left out, stuck fast in ice, unable to rule his subjects with the suave and wicked glee one has come to expect from the Prince of Darkness.

In any case, I enjoyed the reading, especially the half-canto read in Italian, the sonorous words breaking over me like the ocean, sparking fantasies of  a high-chambered room, oil-lamps burning, yellow silk wallpaper with faint sigils etched on it and a bed like a bier (covered in furs) where one could lie for a night hearing poetry in unknown languages read masterfully by a dozen disembodied voices.The voices might read different poems, but all in the same language at any given hour.

I also enjoyed the excellent food afterwards, and the conversation I overheard on the way there, among three young, non-religious people headed for a bar. They were discussing the theory that since Christ died on Good Friday and rose on Easter Sunday, on Saturday there is no God and all is allowed. The speaker of this theory modestly admitted she’d heard it from another.

Even a non-Christian like me knows Christ isn’t the only player, and his Dad is still minding the store on Saturday. But it did make me think of how this Saturday has been neglected in Christian mythology: what stories one could tell of Christ’s sojourn among the dead: the whisperings of corpses, the questions. If souls aren’t dispatched to their fate until the Last Judgment (opinions differ), and if the presence of the Son of God in their midst stirred a flicker of consciousness, wouldn’t they crowd around him like moths, confused and hapless, wondering?

Since today is my friend Deborah’s birthday, I’m offering you a poem from her new book of translations, The Dragonfly, by the Italian poet Amelia Rosselli. Deborah’s own poems can be found here.

From Martial Variations

After God’s death came the rebirth.

After the endurance/

of the senses all days fell.

After the ink/

of China, an elephant was reborn: joy.

After joy/

hell set in after paradise

the wolf in its den. After/

the infinite came the joust.

But the tapers fell and the beasts/

sated themselves, and wool was

prepared and the wolf devoured./

After hunger the child was born,

after boredom the lover/

wrote his lines. After the infinite

fell the joust/

after the head was pummeled

the ink swelled. Warmly encased/

the Virgin wrote her lines:

moribund Christ replied to her/

don’t touch me!  After his lines Christ

devoured the suffering/

afflicting him.  After the night fell

the entire buttress/

of the world. After hell was born

the son hungry for/

success. After boredom broke the

silence the shrill/

whistle of the peasant woman

who sought water in the well/

too deep for her own arms. After the air that/

descended delicately around her immense

body, was born/

the daughter with a devastated heart,

was born the

suffering of birds,/

was born desire and the infinite

which once lost can never/

be found. Hopeful we totter

till in the end the ending fishes/

up a servile soul.

Amelia Rosselli, trans Deborah Woodard

April is Poetry Month

April 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Horse Chestnut Mary Delaney 14 May, 1799-15 April, 1788

Last night Lisa and I went to the Torch Club, near Washington Square Park, to hear Molly Peacock and Ruth Danon read. I got there early to save Lisa a seat, and the room was empty so I left and walked around the park three times: it was deliciously warm, the early evening light and fitful breeze filling my head with the embryos of ideas of what I should be doing with my life, and as usual I missed the obvious: this is what I should be doing with my life, looking at what’s beautiful.

A young woman stopped me and asked for the closest place to get coffee. Of course there were several and I dithered until I remembered a place on the next block where they roast their own beans and it’s always too crowded to sit, but maybe she didn’t want to sit, maybe she just wanted to stand on the sidewalk and drink a paper cup of coffee before the poetry reading. So I said, That way: it’s called Oren’s.

When I got back to the Torch Club, Lisa was already there, a vision with her hair the yellow of a fairy princess, her lavender silk sweater a little snugger than most things she wears, showing off the lines of her neck and shoulders, and more calm and color in her face than usual.

The Torch Club is part of NYU, and rather a grand place for those of us poetry aficionados used to dented folding chairs and dingy carpets. There was even free food—a generous selection of hot and cold hors d’oeuvres and wine that was $5 before the reading and free after. I didn’t have any wine but the food was good, and I thought, this should be jammed with hungry students, but I guess students aren’t that hungry anymore. Most of the crowd seemed to be older poets Molly and Ruth knew; Molly spent several minutes at the lectern calling out her friends until she embarrassed herself by not being able to remember everyone’s name, as few of us can anymore.

I prefer poetry on the page, most of the time. I go to readings to see the poets and talk with my friend(s) after. Sometimes I go to look at the audience, though I don’t realize this until later. If you’ve been to a lot of other NYC events—jazz clubs full of tourists, art openings—and then attend a poetry reading, the difference is astonishing. I know poets can be as nasty, backbiting, ambitious and grasping as the next person, yet the collective vibe at these readings is almost always gentler and sweeter than anywhere else in the city except maybe Central Park on a warm spring weekend and that doesn’t count because of the young love and babies.

As well as poems, Ruth read an essay about her mother and herself and teeth and a fur-lined raincoat, and Molly read the beginning of her biography of Mary Delaney, a 18th century woman who invented the art of collage at 72 and went on to create nearly a 1,000 collages of flowers in the next ten years.

During the Q&A, someone asked, “What’s the difference, for you, writing poetry or prose?” I thought: don’t we all know this? Well, of course not—the questioner said, “for you” to two individuals. And their answers, though not dissimilar, were their own: what it is they most enjoy or require about writing in one form or the other, how they divide the contents of their mind. Their replies would have interested me just fine in conversation. What was bothering me was envy, which I find so hard to avoid lately. My poetry career was nipped in the bud by defeatism decades ago, and then one decade ago, and then again last summer. As I do so often lately, I looked at the poets and thought: they’re good, but I could be that good. If I’d spent 30 years at it, how good would I be now? But then again, as Molly Peacock said, Mary Delaney’s career lets us know it’s never too late. (Until it is.) Not, for me, just yet.

The poets were mostly very smart, although I took exception when Molly was talking about the coffeehouse culture of the 18th century, the period when coffee was new to England I and the Continent). She kept saying, “It’s as if you got your mail at Starbucks!” and similar remarks…I was biting my lips not to shout, “Those coffeehouses were nothing like Starbucks!” Not that I’ve ever spent time in a 18th century coffeehouse but having whiled away many hours in European, New York City and San Francisco cafes from the late 1960’s until the dread arrival of the Seattle swill, I know.

Mouse 1

“Nothing is simple,” said the mouse,
and spoke as though he had been
listening the whole time. Nothing
I had said til then seemed worth
repeating or remembering, but once
I got home the potential was end-
less. This confinement, the mouse
was saying, was getting tiresome.
He wanted out. I wasn’t surprised
at all but thinking up a few pearls.
These held me back. Walking
around my own home as if it were
someplace else, the mouse’s home
for instance.  The mouse wouldn’t
shut up, kept talking and talking
and I thought well, this is one
way to pass the time.
You can
get used to anything, they say.
(That’s the mouse talking). Time
and again, down in the tube, in
the subway I am troubled by heat
and noise and my own bad manners.
Excuse me I say but I don’t mean it.
I’m pacing a bit now and flushed
all over my face. There’s still
the mouse to think of, feeding him,
and cheese, and all that. My memory
fails at times. I used to remember
something about shells and caves, I
think, but all of that seems useless
now. I’ve got the mouse to think of.
And the tube and the night terrors
and anyone you look at long enough
will be happy to remind you
of neglected duties.
“Bored,” said the mouse.
“I wasn’t going to get into this
part, your dumb evasions, the sly way
you reinvent desire as a holding
pattern.” The mouse is my witness.
The mouse knows. I took off my shoes.
I had a bad dream. I carried the long
box down the long street. I did I did.
And that’s only the first part of the story.

–Ruth Danon

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