April 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
The picture above is from a wonderful online site.
Go look at it. Then talk to me about the time machine you’re building and what I have to do to get a seat. Remove 20 years from my body, let me go back in time…nothing would make me happier. Not fame, wealth, power, God…
Though, really, who knows. The past might be nastier than it looks, even if you researched the wheres and whens to avoid. No iphone with 2,500 pictures of the cats and grandkids. No fine chocolatier in every neighborhood. No instant books.
Friday, the niece-nurse came and we talked for hours (about time travel, among other things) even though I was direly sleepy with a bad cold. She’s cut her hair short and it looks great. She’s a cozy niece. I know she’ll take it as a compliment when I say she’d make a great cat. Yesterday—such a lovely day here in New York City!–we went to Petco and I mooned over the wall of shelter cats in cages. The small tortoiseshell mother with her five-month kittens. The grey and white cat with an eraser-pink nose curled into a perfect circle. The tall cat with brilliant yellow eyes and fluffy, long black hair that spiked up around his neck like a ruff. Only when I give in to the lure of Petco and browse the felines do I understand the kind of man who wants to sleep with every pretty woman passing by.
Then, last night, I dreamt I was looking for the manuscript of Me and You, which was a version very different from the published book, a manuscript oozing with sex and character, messy, unfinished, waiting for me to dive back in. It’s always the case for writers that the books you dream are richer and more alive than anything you’ve written or will write: they represent everything we know that consciousness hasn’t room for or the ability to handle. They’re the children kept in the attic because the parents are too brittle and high-strung for the dark magic of childhood; and you know what years locked in an attic will do to people. It’s like that and also like what years in a cellar do to fine wine or whiskey.
I recently read an article in the New York Times about computer programs that can now grade essays. It’s deeply depressing. The only reason I got A’s in the classes I got A’s in was because I wanted the professor to admire me, to hear my ideas, to read my sentences. I know that’s not the case for many students, but even for the ones who never think about it, I believe it matters. Writers who can’t get published will tell you that writing for nobody isn’t writing at all.
The end of the piece tells you everything you need to know (other than the software specifics; if you’re interested in that, go look it up).
Mark D. Shermis, a professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, supervised the Hewlett Foundation’s contest on automated essay scoring and wrote a paper about the experiment. In his view, the technology — though imperfect — has a place in educational settings.
With increasingly large classes, it is impossible for most teachers to give students meaningful feedback on writing assignments, he said. Plus, he noted, critics of the technology have tended to come from the nation’s best universities, where the level of pedagogy is much better than at most schools.
“Often they come from very prestigious institutions where, in fact, they do a much better job of providing feedback than a machine ever could,” Dr. Shermis said. “There seems to be a lack of appreciation of what is actually going on in the real world.”
Of course I think the problem should be addressed from the other end. But even when it isn’t, I don’t think Dr. Shermis understands the power of being read, even cursorily. As for teaching students how to write more smoothly, thoughtfully, logically, etc, other people quoted in the article said what I would: if machines can do that, they can do all the writing themselves. Then we might as well go back into the trees.
Not that that would be a bad thing. If nothing else works out, being a young ape in a forest with no humans anywhere sounds pretty nice. I know there’d be leopards or panthers or tigers. That would be scary. But no forest should exist without them.
I should move to Costa Rica. I’m thinking about it. Charles doesn’t want to go.
National Poetry Month
When a poem
speaks by itself,
it has a spark
and can be considered
part of a divine
Sometimes the poem weaves
like a basket around
two loaves of yellow bread.
“Break off a piece
of this April with its
raisin nipples,” it says.
“And chew them slowly
under your pillow.
You belong in bed with me.”
On the other hand,
when a poem speaks
in the voice of a celebrity
it is called television
or a movie.
“There is nothing to see,”
says Robert De Niro,
though his poem bleeds
all along the edges
like a puddle
with yellow tape
at the crime scene
“It is an old poem,” he adds.
I was very young
when I made it.” –
October 30, 2011 § 2 Comments
I know all you American parents will roll your eyes, but there’s no disputing it: Parisian kids are exceptionally cute. They’re graceful and elfin; they flicker in their bodies and spark in the sunlight. And if you think I’m just seeing things—well, maybe. But there’s no doubt that they’re much more relaxed and spontaneous than NYC kids, more like children in the grand old days of when I was a kid in the suburbs, as well as being disarmingly polite. So an eight year old running down a city street (with no mother shouting anxiously after her) will, if she accidentally brushes against you, sing out, “Pardon, Madame!” and keep running. Ditto if she’s running through a subway car. It made me even happier than looking into a window of jewel-like tarts.
I felt almost instantly at home in Paris. I remembered more French than I thought I would, and the French spoke more English and with far less attitude than when I was last there a quarter of a century ago. If was lost or confused, I asked for help and people were kind and took much more time than they needed to. The men were so gallant I started thinking maybe I was 25 again.
The old gray Paris I remembered is much cleaner and more colorful. Shop signs, awnings, banners, table cloths—bright reds and blues and greens, handsome graphics. And of course more colorful in the other sense, too, a more diverse population, which also made me feel at home.
Highlights: The Munch show at the Pompidou Center; the Seine in sunlight; the middle-class neighborhood we stayed in, where the cafes were full of old men drinking wine at 10 pm; the cheese plate in a café on the Left Bank whose name I don’t remember; The Musee D’Orsay, every bit of it; Manouche (gypsy) music in Samois Sur Seine, while visiting Andree; reading my poems to Andree and getting voice tips; suffering one of the familiar curses of my married life as Charles pushed through the “sortie” door when the metro turnstile refused his ticket and then, as the alarm screeched and wailed, having to pull him onto the closest train, which was luckily going in the right direction. Finally, the woman at the desk in the hotel I stayed in alone, my last two days, who seemed to dance as she spoke, her head, shoulders and hands moving slightly in time to her singsong voice: routine enacted as private pleasure, as a tiny bliss I shared, the kind you feel when a friend idly reaches out to loop your hair behind your ears.
On the plane home, I was surrounded by British schoolboys on a tour, which made my stomach sink, and yes, they did shout across to each other the whole time, but it was made up for by the delight the boy next to me showed when he realized he could have as many Sprites as he wanted, free. He told all his classmates this in a voice as excited as if they were getting booze. And when the stewardesses brought around tiny cups of ice cream—post dessert dessert—he shook his head in incredulity. “And this is economy,” he said under his breath. No, it was Virgin Atlantic.
I want to go back. I can’t even afford to go to see my mother for Christmas, but I’m already dreaming of Paris again, Paris when my fortunes turn, when I write my bestseller about how my cats are really angels, here to impart the knowledge that the universe, against all appearances, is kind and just and very fond of us: if you close your eyes and say, “kitty, kitty, kitty,” three times a day until further notice, all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. (Julian of Norwich.)
Actually I think my cats are angels. But like most angels, they have no purpose but to look androgynously beautiful and ignore the sweat and tears of humanity.
Correction: they do not ignore my tears. They take great exception to them. But that’s another story, one I’ve been telling lately in poetry because it’s easier to see the comic side in poems. Liars and sex make good comedy—something I’ve barely begun to explore. But then my ex-lover’s lies still take my breath away. OK, enough. The book will be out soon. Save your pennies.
The Drunken Boat
As I was going down impassive Rivers,
I no longer felt myself guided by haulers:
Yelping redskins had taken them as targets
And had nailed them naked to colored stakes.
I was indifferent to all crews,
The bearer of Flemish wheat or English cottons
When with my haulers this uproar stopped
The Rivers let me go where I wanted.
Into the furious lashing of the tides
More heedless than children’s brains the other winter
I ran! And loosened Peninsulas
Have not undergone a more triumphant hubbub
The storm blessed my sea vigils
Lighter than a cork I danced on the waves
That are called eternal rollers of victims,
Ten nights, without missing the stupid eye of the lighthouses!
Sweeter than the flesh of hard apples is to children
The green water penetrated my hull of fir
And washed me of spots of blue wine
And vomit, scattering rudder and grappling-hook
And from then on I bathed in the Poem
Of the Sea, infused with stars and lactescent,
Devouring the azure verses; where, like a pale elated
Piece of flotsam, a pensive drowned figure sometimes sinks;
Where, suddenly dyeing the blueness, delirium
And slow rhythms under the streaking of daylight,
Stronger than alcohol, vaster than our lyres,
The bitter redness of love ferments!
I know the skies bursting with lightning, and the waterspouts
And the surf and the currents; I know the evening,
And dawn as exalted as a flock of doves
And at times I have seen what man thought he saw!
I have seen the low sun spotted with mystic horrors,
Lighting up, with long violet clots,
Resembling actors of very ancient dramas,
The waves rolling far off their quivering of shutters!
I have dreamed of the green night with dazzled snows
A kiss slowly rising to the eyes of the sea,
The circulation of unknown saps,
And the yellow and blue awakening of singing phosphorous!
I followed during pregnant months the swell,
Like hysterical cows, in its assault on the reefs,
Without dreaming that the luminous feet of the Marys
Could constrain the snout of the wheezing Oceans!
I struck against, you know, unbelievable Floridas
Mingling with flowers panthers’ eyes and human
Skin! Rainbows stretched like bridal reins
Under the horizon of the seas to greenish herds!
I have seen enormous swamps ferment, fish-traps
Where a whole Leviathan rots in the rushes!
Avalanches of water in the midst of a calm,
And the distances cataracting toward the abyss!
Glaciers, suns of silver, nacreous waves, skies of embers!
Hideous strands at the end of brown gulfs
Where giant serpents devoured by bedbugs
Fall down from gnarled trees with black scent!
I should have liked to show children those sunfish
Of the blue wave, the fish of gold, the singing fish.
—Foam of flowers rocked my drifting
And ineffable winds winged me at times.
At times a martyr weary of poles and zones,
The sea, whose sob created my gentle roll,
Brought up to me her dark flowers with yellow suckers
And I remained, like a woman on her knees…
Resembling an island tossing on my sides the quarrels
And droppings of noisy birds with yellow eyes
And I sailed on, when through my fragile ropes
Drowned men sank backward to sleep!
Now I, a boat lost in the foliage of caves,
Thrown by the storm into the birdless air
I whose water-drunk carcass would not have been rescued
By the Monitors and the Hanseatic sailboats;
Free, smoking, topped with violet fog,
I who pierced the reddening sky like a wall,
Bearing, delicious jam for good poets
Lichens of sunlight and mucus of azure,
Who ran, spotted with small electric moons,
A wild plank, escorted by black seahorses,
When Julys beat down with blows of cudgels
The ultramarine skies with burning funnels;
I, who trembled, hearing at fifty leagues off
The moaning of the Behemoths in heat and the thick Maelstroms,
Eternal spinner of the blue immobility
I miss Europe with its ancient parapets!
I have seen sidereal archipelagos! and islands
Whose delirious skies are open to the sea-wanderer:
—Is it in these bottomless nights that you sleep and exile yourself,
Million golden birds, o future Vigor? –
But, in truth, I have wept too much! Dawns are heartbreaking.
Every moon is atrocious and every sun bitter.
Acrid love has swollen me with intoxicating torpor
O let my keel burst! O let me go into the sea!
If I want a water of Europe, it is the black
Cold puddle where in the sweet-smelling twilight
A squatting child full of sadness releases
A boat as fragile as a May butterfly.
No longer can I, bathed in your languor, o waves,
Follow in the wake of the cotton boats,
Nor cross through the pride of flags and flames,
Nor swim under the terrible eyes of prison ships.
Arthur Rimbaud, translated by Wallace Fowlie