The Story You Can’t

June 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

Edward Hopper, Evening Wind

I had to recommend some how-to books on writing for a client, and since he doesn’t write the same kind of thing I do, that required some research. Naturally none of the books I found was adequate and I was tempted to write my own. But I resisted that. Instead I got interested in the books aimed at people like me, albeit a much younger me, and bought a few on the theory that they would prod me into taking (literary) writing seriously again.

I’ve been reading them slowly. At first they worked to send me back to my unfinished manuscripts with ardor for revision, but that dimmed when I started worrying that I can’t afford right now to become too focused on what doesn’t pay the bills. I can scribble around the edges of my stalled fictions and feel sad, or I can write blog posts. Guess which one I’m doing.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy the fantasy novel I’m writing. I like it a lot. But the necessity to keep things happening, to twist the plot in ways that snag and grab is giving me ideas for applying this relentless forward motion to my other stories, where, historically, stasis reigns because, a) what do I know? And, b) those things I know well are not safe for me and perhaps would make you itch to go back to answering your email.

Or perhaps not. Lee K. Abbott says, “Write the story you can’t.” Oh, that one. If books were theater, I could direct how my novels were read: on enormous beds covered in antique brown furs, in the country, on silent winter afternoons, with nothing happening and nothing about to happen.

Until it’s later and your lover hasn’t shown up or called, so you have to eat the whole dinner yourself and read until 3 in the morning, staying awake in case he was arrested, hit on the head, in case he comes staggering in (not bloody at all) and you have to forgive him everything in advance, abandon speech and let the night have you.

I can help you with that.

I Have Become Very Hairy

I have become very hairy all over my body.
I’m afraid they’ll start hunting me because of my fur.

My multicolored shirt has no meaning of love —
it looks like an air photo of a railway station.

At night my body is open and awake under the blanket,
like eyes under the blindfold of someone to be shot.

Restless I shall wander about;
hungry for life I’ll die.

Yet I wanted to be calm, like a mound with all its cities destroyed,
and tranquil, like a full cemetery.

Yehuda Amichai

Summer Night With Books

June 27, 2010 § 4 Comments

Wretched heat. The cat growling. Back pain. Anxiety. But it’s still June! Solstice month, out-of-school month, that tag end of days before real summer when as I kid I was laziest, released from the social prison of school to the pleasure of books, staying in my room to read all day before we went wherever we went.

My mother has recently confessed that when we were all packed off to school, she wouldn’t do housework or any of that; she’d pick up a book and read. Her activity in the afternoons and evenings were all we saw: the second half of her day. She had four children, a big house, a husband, a social life. She made herself dresses from pictures in Vogue—sewing late into the night—and went to a lot of parties, theaters and restaurants. But mostly she read.

Mostly, I read. I don’t do any of that other stuff very often, except restaurants, which are to NYC living what cars are to everyone else. There were children once, part-time; now I have cats. The husband is part-time. The big house I don’t even dream about anymore because it feels like having that much house—what I grew up with—would be like gaining 100 pounds and how would I climb the subway stairs?

I read and sing to the cats and wander the streets that throb with energy—wild torrents of screaming youth I move through, barely noticing; I write in the mornings and the evenings; I eat and do the dishes and read; I wait, which is wrong, but I’ve always waited, so I might as well let it be. I read some more.

This moment has so many layers. Under the anxiety is watchfulness. Under that are little bubbles of bliss: time is so startling and beautiful, look at it, you couldn’t make up anything like that, could you? Given a raw universe?

Here’s a piece of it: a black oval hairbrush, tangled long brown hair, the child running off, the woman in her own life, the hair still being untangled, strand by strand, the copper glint…what story am I telling? Why am I alone tonight?

One Train May Hide Another

(sign at a railroad crossing in Kenya)
In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line–
Then it is safe to go on reading.
In a family one sister may conceal another,
So, when you are courting, it’s best to have them all in view
Otherwise in coming to find one you may love another.
One father or one brother may hide the man,
If you are a woman, whom you have been waiting to love.
So always standing in front of something the other
As words stand in front of objects, feelings, and ideas.
One wish may hide another. And one person’s reputation may hide
The reputation of another. One dog may conceal another
On a lawn, so if you escape the first one you’re not necessarily safe;
One lilac may hide another and then a lot of lilacs and on the Appia
Antica one tomb
May hide a number of other tombs. In love, one reproach may hide another,
One small complaint may hide a great one.
One injustice may hide another–one colonial may hide another,
One blaring red uniform another, and another, a whole column. One bath
may hide another bath
As when, after bathing, one walks out into the rain.
One idea may hide another: Life is simple
Hide Life is incredibly complex, as in the prose of Gertrude Stein
One sentence hides another and is another as well. And in the laboratory
One invention may hide another invention,
One evening may hide another, one shadow, a nest of shadows.
One dark red, or one blue, or one purple–this is a painting
By someone after Matisse. One waits at the tracks until they pass,
These hidden doubles or, sometimes, likenesses. One identical twin
May hide the other. And there may be even more in there! The obstetrician
Gazes at the Valley of the Var. We used to live there, my wife and I, but
One life hid another life. And now she is gone and I am here.
A vivacious mother hides a gawky daughter. The daughter hides
Her own vivacious daughter in turn. They are in
A railway station and the daughter is holding a bag
Bigger than her mother’s bag and successfully hides it.
In offering to pick up the daughter’s bag one finds oneself confronted by
the mother’s
And has to carry that one, too. So one hitchhiker
May deliberately hide another and one cup of coffee
Another, too, until one is over-excited. One love may hide another love
or the same love
As when “I love you” suddenly rings false and one discovers
The better love lingering behind, as when “I’m full of doubts”
Hides “I’m certain about something and it is that”
And one dream may hide another as is well known, always, too. In the
Garden of Eden
Adam and Eve may hide the real Adam and Eve.
Jerusalem may hide another Jerusalem.
When you come to something, stop to let it pass
So you can see what else is there. At home, no matter where,
Internal tracks pose dangers, too: one memory
Certainly hides another, that being what memory is all about,
The eternal reverse succession of contemplated entities. Reading
A Sentimental Journey look around
When you have finished, for Tristram Shandy, to see
If it is standing there, it should be, stronger
And more profound and theretofore hidden as Santa Maria Maggiore
May be hidden by similar churches inside Rome. One sidewalk
May hide another, as when you’re asleep there, and
One song hide another song; a pounding upstairs
Hide the beating of drums. One friend may hide another, you sit at the
foot of a tree
With one and when you get up to leave there is another
Whom you’d have preferred to talk to all along. One teacher,
One doctor, one ecstasy, one illness, one woman, one man
May hide another. Pause to let the first one pass.
You think, Now it is safe to cross and you are hit by the next one. It
can be important
To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.

–Kenneth Koch

Monkey See, Monkey Do

June 23, 2010 § 2 Comments

For months and months, when I’d look at the search terms people used to find my blog (ever curious am I), I’d see the same words, which I will not repeat, pertaining to individuals of my gender undergoing corporeal distress. I’d had things to say on that subject, true, but couldn’t I attract a less bloody-minded crowd?
But for the last few days the premier search terms were “sloth” and “monkey.” That’s more like it. Sloth is my besetting sin, though the others all take their toll, and there’s a pronounced strain of monkey in my lineage. My mother says: Welsh, Native American, Jewish (she has no proof for the Jewish; she just feels Jewish, without, let it be said, desiring to abide by any religious rules, or coveting Jewish angst), and probably African—her family settled in the south in the 17th century; on my father’s side, German, Irish, English.

All that’s fine, but the monkey’s in there too. It’s been in there forever but in some generations it’s more noticeable than others. My brother spent a great deal of his childhood in the bushes (imaginatively, my father nicknamed him “Bushes”), and took his clothes off in public until he was 35. My sister had a passion, in her younger days, for popping the zits on my husband’s back, something I did also, but only a monkey would extend those grooming habits to an in-law. She has a wild, gleeful side, jittering with energy and the kind of jokes you understand without recourse to your brain; this is perhaps a sign of mania, but also reminds me of a monkey amusing herself in Bloomingdales after hours.

As for me, I have much in common with chimpanzees who learn to talk—mostly mute in public, communicating by means of signs and computer manipulation. I don’t throw my feces at unwanted visitors, but I understand the impulse. And I’d be very happy to spend the summer in trees, swinging from branches, if someone would kindly return my 10-year-old body. As for my husband, who’s kin of a different sort, I think it’s enough to say that he still misses a pair of sock monkeys we once owned, a quarrelsome pair named Jimbo and Miss Monkey, whom we had to discard after the mice nested in their guts. At least the cats won’t suffer that ignominious end.

A little change of pace (but at least it has an ape in it…and reflects one part of the mind, not the one that jokes)

Night Without Sleep
The world’s as the world is; the nations rearm and prepare to change; the age of tyrants returns;
The greatest civilization that has ever existed builds itself higher towers on breaking foundations.
Recurrent episodes; they were determined when the ape’s children first ran in packs, chipped flint to an edge.

I lie and hear dark rain beat the roof, and the blind wind.

In the morning
perhaps I shall find strength again
To value the immense beauty of this time of the world, the flowers of decay their pitiful loveliness, the fever-dream
Tapestries that back the drama and are called the future. This ebb of vitality feels the ignoble and cruel
Incidents, not the vast abstract order.

I lie and hear dark rain beat the roof, and the night-blind wind.

In the Ventana country darkness and rain and the roar of waters fill the deep mountain-throats.
The creekside shelf of sand where we lay last August under a slip of stars
And firelight played on the leaning gorge-walls, is drowned and lost. The deer of the country huddle on a ridge
In a close herd under madrone-trees; they tremble when a rock-slide goes down, they open great darkness-
Drinking eyes and press closer.

Cataracts of rock
Rain down the mountain from cliff to cliff and torment the stream-bed. The stream deals with them. The laurels are wounded,
Redwoods go down with their earth and lie thwart the gorge. I hear the torrent boulders battering each other,
I feel the flesh of the mountain move on its bones in the wet darkness.

Is this more beautiful
Than man’s disasters? These wounds will heal in their time; so will humanity’s. This is more beautiful….at night….

Can You Make A Cat Laugh?

June 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

My friend said recently that I anthropomorphize too much; cats don’t get bored. Then why is Fitzroy standing on his hind legs, tapping on my shoulder and meowing? He’s got half his dinner on his plate. Why does he jump out of the window seat and skid around corners to follow me to the bathroom, where I perform the same exciting acts I always do? Listening to him prowl and growl at night, I can amuse myself pretending he’s my father reincarnated, but now at my mercy. When he attacks Mouchette for no good reason I remember long childhood trips in cars, and being stuck on the island in the rain.

Sometimes he lies on the bathroom threshold, keeping watch. The toilet has its mysteries beyond my engagement with it. And when I sweep back the bathtub curtain, surprising him…doing something…how his eyes glow! I remember being in his position, scorning the big folk for having such a dim idea of their surroundings, as if things and places existed only for their most obvious functions.

Now he’s on the cardboard box the air conditioner came in, which I saved because Mouchette likes sleeping on it. I indulge her (and it is an indulgence; the box is half shredded, leaving my bedroom looking like the inside of a pencil sharpener) because she never bites my elbow or pauses doltishly while standing on my keyboard. She merely wakes now and then, squeaks weakly, and pokes her little head at me (just the size of a dirtball fitted into a child’s palm). But today the big redheaded Easter-Bunny impersonator has claimed it. He’s digging frantically at the seam to cave in the top so he can fall in along with my checkbook, notebook and stray papers.

Yes, they’re bored. I’m bored too, but only because I’m not doing all the things I should or could. I have no excuses. I paid a lot in therapy to get rid of those excuses, so they went. It’s lonely without them.

To entertain the family, I sing. The non-humans appear to enjoy it. I sing the songs I liked as a child while rocking my grouchy cat. (Mouchette won’t allow me to rock her. She crouches and watches with her big round eyes.) I’m looking forward to the new iphone, which has an app that records and tunes your voice, making all the necessary adjustments so you can sing to professional accompaniment and sound the way you always knew you should. Well, you—maybe you can sing already. I can’t carry a tune. It was a wonder at school. The teacher would ask me to sing a note just to give everyone a good laugh.

Don’t you like that expression, “It was enough to make a cat laugh?” Few things are. Maybe that’s why they’re bored.

Dream Song 14

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no 
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

Peoples bore me,

literature bores me, especially great literature, 

Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes 

as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me. 

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag 

and somehow a dog 

has taken itself & its tail considerably away 

into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving 

behind: me, wag.

–John Berryman

Greens & Dragons

June 19, 2010 § 1 Comment

Very hot out. I bought collard greens and strawberries at the farmers’ market. I’m not sure I’ll actually eat the collard greens, even though I’m going to try. I was going to buy kale because my mother always tells me to eat it and she’s the poster oldster for greens-eating benefits, but I’ve tried kale recently (it’s the vegetable du jour in NYC $25+ entree restaurants) and I still don’t like it. But collard greens…I don’t remember when I last had those. And the many voices from books and plays about the downhome delights of collards can’t be all wrong though to achieve the desired effect might require cooking them in bacon grease.

I intended to spent the walking time from the market and back thinking about the characters in my novel but instead calculated how many calories I’d save switching from whole milk to low fat and not putting honey in my tea. Then remembered the NY Times article about how tiny cuts like that make no difference because the body wants stasis and will make up the difference. Then I tried to remember how I looked at each weight (in 2 lb increments); what clothes fit me then; what difference a few years might make re whether the fat appears/disappears from face, breast and hip; and so on. I was home without ever figuring out how Niles was going to decide to leave the uncle who beat him but would die without his help. I’ve already established Niles as exceptionally forgiving and don’t want to change that. It’s hard enough that he can’t have cinnamon colored hair because it’s just not cinnamon country; cedar’s close enough in shade but I like the associations of cinnamon…cinnamon toast, cinnamon buns, boys made of snips and snails and puppy dogs tails but also having a pinch of sugar, spice and everything nice…the first boy who kissed me: Chris Schultz. I was five. His hair was cinnamon brown. Niles isn’t like him, other than the kindness—but I wanted the hair, too.

I didn’t intend the uncle to be lame or widowed. It just came out that way. I’m not one of those writers who pretend my characters are in control; I can fix Uncle’s foot or haul Auntie out of her grave, and you, the reader, would never know it had been otherwise. But the pleasure in fiction is following the imagination as it romps. It’s what makes it not seem like work. I’m willing to work to keep that not-working feeling, especially if by “work” I mean lying in bed with a cup of coffee thinking about how why what if…

Also, I need to get clear about what’s wrong with the dragon.

When I Met My Muse 

I glanced at her and took my glasses 

off—they were still singing. They buzzed 

like a locust on the coffee table and then 

ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the 

sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and 

knew that nails up there took a new grip 

on whatever they touched. “I am your own 

way of looking at things,” she said. “When 

you allow me to live with you, every 

glance at the world around you will be 

a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand. 

–William Stafford 

Muse or Dragon?

Here I am Again

June 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

There have been complaints that I haven’t been keeping up my blog. I thought maybe if I stopped pouring my heart out here, I’d get more work done. This has proved not to be the case. A general sluggishness prevails in my household, possibly a cat virus. Or maybe it’s the no sex, so sugar thing I’ve got going on…

It’s been five minutes; can I go yet? How about if I take a break for a cup of tea? Or spend an hour on the Internet looking at fares to recession-battered Europe, or figuring mortgage rates on decaying mansions near a certain oil slick that will probably be cleaned up before I die?

Local news: I passed a young woman on the street, talking on her cell. She said, “I’ve only been able to see, like, 2.5 people since I’ve been in New York. I was planning to see, like, 5.5.”

And in the NY Times today, “When two children discover a special bond between them, we honor that bond, provided that neither child overtly or covertly excludes or rejects others,” said Jan Mooney, a psychologist at the Town School, a nursery through eighth grade private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. “However, the bottom line is that if we find a best friend pairing to be destructive to either child, or to others in the classroom, we will not hesitate to separate children and to work with the children and their parents to ensure healthier relationships in the future.”

Destructive to others in the classroom? Like, two kids who get together to buy trench coats and plan a school shooting? I don’t think that’s what she means. I actually went to Town School. I didn’t have a best friend, but other kids did. I don’t remember being destroyed by it. In fact, and you may find this hard to believe in a 7th grader, but even in my post-traumatic isolation (family deaths) I found others’ friendships heartwarming. And when I had a best friend again, in 9th grade, we excluded others heartlessly and it was essential to our bond, you and me against the world, etc. The smell of dog pee on a rug still brings back the memory of those afterschool afternoons in her room, the flow of talk that never stopped though we didn’t actually have anything to say. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

That woman quoted above? May she lose her job and have to go work in a robot nursery. May all her friends call up and say, “Guess what? I’m not allowed to be friends with you anymore. Bye.” I’m glad I don’t have to deal with people like her because if someone said that to me about my kid I think I might bite her fingers off.

An Extraordinary Morning

Two young men—you just might call them boys—
waiting for the Woodward streetcar to get
them downtown. Yes, they’re tired, they’re also
dirty, and happy. Happy because they’ve
finished a short work week and if they’re not rich
they’re as close to rich as they’ll ever be
in this town. Are they truly brothers?
You could ask the husky one, the one
in the black jacket he fills to bursting;
he seems friendly enough, snapping
his fingers while he shakes his ass and sings
“Sweet Lorraine,” or if you’re put off
by his mocking tone ask the one leaning
against the locked door of Ruby’s Rib Shack,
the one whose eyelids flutter in time
with nothing. Tell him it’s crucial to know
if in truth this is brotherly love. He won’t
get angry, he’s too tired for anger,
too relieved to be here, he won’t even laugh
though he’ll find you silly. It’s Thursday,
maybe a holy day somewhere else, maybe
the Sabbath, but these two, neither devout
nor cynical, have no idea how to worship
except by doing what they’re doing,
singing a song about a woman they love
merely for her name, breathing in and out
the used and soiled air they wouldn’t know
how to live without, and by filling
the twin bodies they’ve disguised as filth.

–Philip Levine

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