Me, Myself and I

July 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

Under The Skin, J.W. Diehl


J.W. Diehl Photos

Recent articles and discussions about the dangers of Internet candor are making me feel a little anxious, defensive, though as a writer I’m always revealing myself, and even when I wrote only fiction, half my readers assumed it was autobiography. They responded to my modest denials with a wink. Don’t people know one writes fiction for the same reason one reads it—to escape what really happened? Certainly, you put in bits of real stuff, like a bird making a nest, some tinfoil from the pill bottle, the razored-out spot on the blue dress, the love note your sister’s boyfriend wrote which you stole from her bedside table (an example I just invented, sis); but the nest becomes a nest, a small nest, a bird’s nest; it’s not a life.

Writing a memoir fulfilled a promise I made to myself when I was ten—a promise that shaped my life so profoundly that not to make good on it would have been just…wasteful…but it wasn’t fun. Memoirs are not histories or double-blind studies; you accept the skewed perspective of a deeply implicated actor; but still, one wrangles with truth. You want your fiction to be true (when you’re not just praying for it to be over) but in a much more expanded sense. That gives more room for play, for hours of sheer fun. Blogging is also fun; it has qualities of those conversations I hold with myself, crafting my argument minutely, pretending I’m rehearsing to speak to a certain person, who would of course be bored by my intricate weave of thus and so and because and then, all concerning some trifling event.

It’s like that and also like reading a novel where a grand old bore (resembling an ancient toad, a barbered ape or a warthog in shabby tweeds) is holding forth, and the writer describes the majestic, unrelenting waves of speech; the pop-up peregrinations; and most of all the magic circle the victim cannot leave, feet glued to the floor as she pales, flushes, sweats, endures, hears the hissing of serpents from a long-forgotten childhood dream of Hell—and you wonder how can a bore be boring when a description of boredom can be so exquisite? (Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis offers a classic example of this.) It’s like what Jerry Seinfeld said: Let’s make a show about nothing, and make it the best sitcom of all time. Not that he anticipated that perhaps, and not that my or anyone’s blogging has reached that level; still and all, I like blogging best when it starts out being about nothing and only gradually acquires shape.

This is the way writers think. If some HR person reads this and decides I can’t be trusted with children or CEOs, they’d be wrong. But I’m okay with it.

Anybody Can Write A Poem

I am arguing with an idiot online.
He says anybody can write a poem.
I say some people are afraid to speak.
I say some people are ashamed to speak.
If they said the pronoun “I”
they would find themselves floating
in the black Atlantic
and a woman would swim by, completely
dry, in a rose chiffon shirt,
until the ashamed person says her name
and the woman becomes wet and drowns
and her face turns to flayed ragged pulp,
white in the black water.
He says that he’d still write
even if someone cut off both his hands.
As if it were the hands that make a poem,
I say. I say what if someone cut out
whatever brain or gut or loin or heart
that lets you say hey, over here, listen,
I have something to tell you all,
I’m different.
As an example I mention my mother
who loved that I write poems
and am such a wonderful genius.
And then I delete the comment
because my mother wanted no part of this or any
argument, because “Who am I
to say whatever?”
Once on a grade school form
I entered her job as hairwasher.
She saw the form and was embarrassed and mad.
“You should have put receptionist.”
But she didn’t change it.
The last word she ever said was No.
And now here she is in my poem,
so proud of her idiot son,
who presumes to speak for a woman
who wants to tell him to shut up, but can’t.

Bradley Paul

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Cat and Mouse

July 28, 2010 § 2 Comments

I got an email from Charles saying hello to me and the kitties and I wrote back to say the kitties were sleeping and I was working, but then I decided I should take a break and I went in the other room and poured myself a glass of Perrier. Returning to my desk I saw Fitzroy on his back doing his bunny thing so I bent down to stroke his irresistible white fluff belly and spilled a little Perrier on his face. His shock was a great silent film moment, and I thought (cruelly) of Philip’s suggestion to use a water pistol to disperse the cats when they swarm me awake at 6 am.

The wet no-longer-bunny cat jumped up and ran from me, hiding by the window. I coaxed him out for patting and sweet-talk then we adjourned to the bathroom. I took care of business and he lay on the floor at my feet chewing on what looked like a dried mouse skeleton, complete with tail. I picked it up by the apparent tail, but it was not that distressing—rather an ancient object of vegetable origin. It resembled a flower but was as thick and stalky as an artichoke. Don’t ask me how it got there. I clean what fits into the allotted hours. Dishes, garbage, cat litter and laundry take precedence.

The bathroom is our agora. Mouchette came eeling in for a gossip and stayed to investigate the supposed mouse. She wants a mouse badly; she waits so patiently by the place under the radiator where they come out when they dare. I used to have more mice than God (he has angels to clean). Now I don’t have enough for my darling carnivores and must resort, albeit unwittingly, to that thing vegan restaurants used to do, tofu made to look like beef or chicken….

Instead of a poem, here’s a link to a video with a Scotsman reading Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse”

you won’t understand all the words, but it’s worth it anyway.

News of the Day

July 25, 2010 § 2 Comments

Bengal Cat

Animal roundup: scientists have proven that a dog is more likely to steal food if you’re not looking. They’ve invented a robot that can eat anything and excrete the waste. It uses a litter box. The idea is to make it self-sufficient. So far, they’re working on feeding it flies and sewage. “Don’t worry, it won’t eat you,” the scientist said gaily. Hey, it’s early days yet. I’d rather trust a dog.

But what I want is a Bengal cat. Not that I want another cat. There’s no room in my apartment or heart, and the other two would be madly jealous. But I want a Bengal the way I used to want Nicole Miller dresses. Pretty, pretty. Also I’d like to able to afford a $1000 cat without blinking. Would I love it more for its touch of the wild? I know: you’re thinking fur coats, fox stoles, conspicuous consumption, blah blah. My mother had a fox stole. It made me think adulthood involved enchanting animals to corpse-stillness like Snow White in her glass coffin. The savage magic of adults when I was five! I look at my mother now and think: where’s the House Goddess; the sneaky witch with her sewing machine, pins glinting on the floor; the Queen of Night with my father wrapped around her little finger (no wonder he was twisted). She’s still beautiful but she’s a human being. What happened?

But I was talking about cats. About the cat I’ll get when I’m my mother’s age, Fitzroy and Mouchette are dead, and so are all the Siberian, Indonesian and Indian tigers. I’ll still live in this apartment and I’ll never go outside. My robot will do the shopping (and clean his own litter box). The mad and toxic world will only enter here, through a computer that will be then be everywhere, in the air, on the wing, cleaning your clothes as you wear them, sewing shut your tired eyes.

Believe me, dogs know you’re distracted. They slink around like shadows, lift the roast beef so gently and swallow it before you’ve found that special Israeli sea salt. This means they have a theory of mind. I can tell you what it is: If you know your heart’s desire, if you keep your will focused, if you wait with faith and never falter, the human will look away.

Your Dog Dies

it gets run over by a van.
you find it at the side of the road
and bury it.
you feel bad about it.
you feel bad personally,
but you feel bad for your daughter
because it was her pet,
and she loved it so.
she used to croon to it
and let it sleep in her bed.
you write a poem about it.
you call it a poem for your daughter,
about the dog getting run over by a van
and how you looked after it,
took it out into the woods
and buried it deep, deep,
and that poem turns out so good
you’re almost glad the little dog
was run over, or else you’d never
have written that good poem.
then you sit down to write
a poem about writing a poem
about the death of that dog,
but while you’re writing you
hear a woman scream
your name, your first name,
both syllables,
and your heart stops.
after a minute, you continue writing.
she screams again.
you wonder how long this can go on.

Raymond Carver

Squeak Toys

July 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Female Coconut Beetle

The cats were playing with a dead, or nearly so, baby mouse last night. I retrieved the corpse when they lost interest, took it out with the trash. It was no longer than my index finer, including the tail. They think mice are toys. Probably it’s my fault; I haven’t demonstrated what to do with them. And yet they eat bugs with gusto. In fact sometimes it seems like they won’t eat anything but bugs. Fruit flies and waterbugs, skittering and big buzzing things…I can’t always what they’ve got because I wear my reading glasses at home and a mere insect across the room is invisible. I see Mouchette swivel her dainty neck, fix those high beam eyes and leap, or Fitzroy chasing something frantically under the 12 items of furniture I have in the front room. I hear the crunching, watch them work their mouths around the awkwardness of anatomy.

They don’t like catfood anymore; not turkey, not lamb and rice, not the sardine/mackerel blend they used to favor, that made Mouchette’s coat so shiny. They disdain the excellent roast chicken brought back from a night out. They’ll eat “treats” ($1.50 per 3 oz bag if I buy them in bulk, online, with free shipping) but even those get boring…so they whine, whine, whine, just like I used to as a kid, but I would have been happy if I’d gotten all the cokes, candy and comics I asked for. These beasts want the moon and I don’t have it.

But it’s NYC and I’m sloppy, attracting a cockroach now and then, and it’s summer and they’ve clawed a few holes in the window screens—the cats, not the cockroaches—so fresh victims waft in, and as I told Lisa, who gave me a framed print of “Beetles in a Flood” for my birthday the other night (which was actually her birthday) and suggested I not hang it but lean it artistically against the wall, they’re prone to knock things over while on the chase. I’ve lost my father behind the bureau several times that way.

Bugs seem like nasty fare, but they’re better than used dental floss. Fitzroy regularly interrupts his meditative gazing into the toilet to fish those mouth-scented threads out of the wastebasket. He likes chewing things that can’t properly be chewed. He enjoys reminding me of the time I spent $1300 at the vet because I was afraid he’d swallowed jewelry wire. Mouchette, always more self-sufficient, has invented a new activity: sitting up straight, she wiggles forward on her butt, purring. This mostly happens on the bed, which she traverses like a caterpillar. It reminds me of the interesting experiments of pubescence. I’d prefer to think it’s her stolen girlhood coming to the fore, but it’s also possible it’s bug madness.

To Sleep

Then out of the darkness leapt a bare hand
that stroked my brow, “Come along, child;
stretch out your feet under the blanket.
Darkness will give you back, unremembering.
Do not be afraid.” So I put down my book
and pushed like a finger through sheer silk,
the autobiographical part of me, the am,
snatched up to a different place, where I was
no longer my body but something more—
the compulsive, disorderly parts of me
in a state of equalization, everything sliding off:
war, love, suicide, poverty—as the rebellious,
mortal, I, I, I lay, like a beetle irrigating a rose,
my red thoughts in a red shade all I was.

Henri Cole

Forever Thirteen

July 17, 2010 § 1 Comment

New York Times photo

It’s in fashion again to deify French women, who stay slim, age gracefully, are always in style and retain that most important of qualities, feminine mystique. No, I don’t mean Betty Friedan’s book, but what she was rebelling against, what Wiki Answers defines as “The mysterious power that women have to make you become attracted to them and want to do things for them, like buy them a drink or fix their central heating system.”

I grew up reading novels by men who found women delightfully enigmatic creatures, unencumbered by the square-jawed honesty common among men. As a plump thirteen year old, I was drawn to the idea of being mysterious, able to charm and enchant—for such powers giving up the right to become a desk-bound executive or a draftee in basic training did not upset me.

I did, however, think I must not really be a woman since I had such a dense and peculiar inner life and the lovely sylphs in the books had only the sighing of the wind and the feral grace of hunting cats. I was not a woman but I aspired to be, at least one day out of seven.

That was then, this is now (for the moment, anyway). Nothing is enchanted. We’re not French. What we need is more and better enhancements; tension, torque and speed; seven league boots and bionic arms able to pluck prey out of their office chairs and toss them over a shoulder. No more than three to a customer, please, and don’t get too excited and bite their heads off.

Let’s not age gracefully. Let’s become crones, feast on brie-stuffed croissants and foie gras ice cream, train rats to serve cocktails and find jobs for all the men.

(btw, I know Isabelle Huppert’s face and Robert Herrick’s poem demolish my argument. So it goes.)

Upon Julia’s Clothes

Whenas in silks my Julia goes
Then, then, (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free;
Oh, how that glittering taketh me!

–Robert Herrick

Poet’s Mousehole

July 12, 2010 § 2 Comments

Marble sarcophagus with the contest between the Muses and the Sirens Roman, Severan period, 3rd quarter of the 3rd century A.D. Metropolitan Museum. Athena, Zeus, and Hera preside over a musical contest between the Muses and Sirens. The Muses are defeating the Sirens.


I’ve been meaning to get to the Poet’s House showcase of all the new poetry books published this year, and when I do, maybe I’ll write about it. Today I saw an article on the subject in the New York Times, and felt a pang of regret that I hadn’t written something myself two weeks ago and submitted it. But so it goes. I was struck by the quote at the end of the article, from Kimiko Hahn. “When you see the books and chapbooks represented at Poets House in any given year, you can see how poetry is not in the margins of people’s lives. It’s really at the center of people’s lives.”

It’s at the center of some people’s lives (particularly those who’ve published a book of it in the last year). It is of interest to a wider and more diverse group than writers and academics, and perhaps it’s vitally important to many individuals who’ve never heard of 99.9 % of contemporary published poets. But in respect to the vast majority of people who, if they’d been born in a different era, would have read or at least heard of all the acclaimed new poets: no. Poetry is in the margins. It’s there and it’s stuck there and all the prizes and poet laureates and occasional commercial success (Billy Collins, Mary Oliver) aren’t going to pull it out. If, after a lovely dinner, when the candles are guttering and the last wine is being poured, you ask your guests to listen while you read aloud a poem by your new favorite poet, they’ll be charmed (possibly); they may even promise themselves to read more poetry. They won’t. If you put a poem at the end of every blog post, as some people are known to do, many readers will skip those poems. How many I’d prefer not to know.

It’s exquisitely painful as an artist to be so out of step with the times her very genre is nearly obsolete, but I don’t know that there’s anything to be done about it. Poetry in Motion—those wonderful short poems on the New York subways, a brilliant idea of Molly Peacock’s—reached those literate after dinner guests, the firefighters Kimiko Hahn mentioned who ignore the people and save the books (no, I made that part up) and some others, but I doubt it moved anyone to buy more than one book of poetry, if that. You can’t do anything about the pain either. It’s ridiculous to say writers write for themselves, so don’t say it to any writers you know. It’s like saying loving oneself is the most important thing. It’s important because without it, no other love can flourish, but if you stop there, that love won’t flourish either. Writers need readers. We can get by with a few. Emily Dickinson and Emily Bronte managed with their few. Some manage with none if they have a passionate belief in future readers; they have very strong souls. And they suffer.

Poetry—as opposed to doggerel—is in the margins. If you’re 16 or of a certain melancholic, romantic temperament, you can make a tiny flame from that word ‘margins’, make it seem like endangered wetlands with their 10,000 species, or twilight, a daily phenomenon justly famous long before the movie; you can search for the new liminal (a word cherished by poets a decade or so ago, now sucked dry and abandoned to PR writers); you can view your small audience as the only one that matters.

And it is. But only to you.

My Grandmother’s Love Letters

There are no stars tonight
But those of memory.
Yet how much room for memory there is
In the loose girdle of soft rain.

There is even room enough
For the letters of my mother’s mother,
Elizabeth,
That have been pressed so long
Into a corner of the roof
That they are brown and soft,
And liable to melt as snow.

Over the greatness of such space
Steps must be gentle.
It is all hung by an invisible white hair.
It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.

And I ask myself:

“Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is the silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As though to her?”

Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand
Through much of what she would not understand;
And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof
With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.

Hart Crane

Hot City—Some Art

July 6, 2010 § 2 Comments

Charles Burchfield, American, (1898-1967)


Charles just left to go back to Florida, where it’s probably cooler than it is here. We had a lazy but culturally rich weekend; the highlight was the Charles Burchfield exhibit at the Whitney, titled Heatwaves in a Swamp. Burchfield’s watercolors of wooded landscapes and Depression-era houses are painted with a light yet sinister touch that reminds me of Edward Gorey—an Edward Gorey digesting Edward Hopper and Vincent Van Gogh. Yes, I know that’s hard to imagine.

As the painter aged, his visionary side dominated; the paintings of the 50’s and 60’s—woods unfolding to reveal their inner Fantasia—have some of the formal elements of Asian art but mostly resemble drug dreams of the most splendid sort. It brought me back to 1968: LSD, Peter Max, my introduction to the Impressionists at the Metropolitan Museum, Blake’s watercolors, and books like Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Go see this exhibit, if you can. It will be up until October 17th.

Another exhibit I’ve seen recently is at the Cathedral of St. John The Divine. In Other People’s Skins, by Terry Flaxton, consists of a real table and chairs the viewer sit down at, while a video projection of hands and arms sharing meals plays over the surface—different meals, different hands, though I mostly remember the champagne and the ice cream with strawberries.

It brought the past back just shy of definition so I couldn’t tell you which dinner party or wedding feast I was remembering. The pleasures of those nights, the different eras of my youth, were intermingled and connected, as the artist intended, to the recognition of how those pleasures are happening everywhere, all the time, to people not me, but so much like me.

Meanwhile, I dine on Perrier and pineapple, and the cats are no longer being told hourly how beautiful they are.

Charles Burchfield, Backyards with Early Sunlight

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