Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Great Wave

One of the gifts I got from my family for Christmas was a jigsaw puzzle version of Katsushika Hokusai's iconic woodprint the Great Wave of Kanagawa. Of all the works of art that I have seen in my lifetime, it is the one which resonates the most with me, so I was happy to have the chance to spend some time with it each day over the last few weeks, especially since the cold and rain have been keeping me mostly indoors anyway. Took a while to complete the 1000-piece puzzle, and I was convinced at many points along the way that there were pieces missing, but no, I finished it up this morning:

The Great Wave is an image of artistic virtuosity that works both as a dramatic image and as a philosophical allegory of sorts. It's made up of essentially four elements: the sky, which takes up fully half of the picture; the three boats in the foreground, with the oarsmen—more than twenty of them—huddled against the force of the waves; the great wave itself, looming large and about to break over the boats; and—off in the distance, framed by the sky, the boats, and the water— snow-covered Mt. Fuji.

The drama of the image is explicit. It's a bad day on the water; the waves are threatening; the men—presumably fishermen out trying to wrest a living from the water—are in mortal danger. The looming blue wave itself—and its somewhat smaller echo below— is rendered in stylized detail, its myriad little white fingers reaching  out like talons as the wave begins its precipitate descent toward the sailors bowed helplessly against its power. The wave is terrifying, but it is also very beautiful: Hokusai has gone to extreme lengths to render the wave's colorations, including long curling arcs of royal blue to help define the shape of the otherwise nearly jet-black water. Even the sea-spume is rendered, thousands of little white droplets of water and mist pervading the air over the boats, frozen just before the moment of impact.

For me, this picture has always seemed an allegory the human condition. Life is always to some degree a matter of turmoil: work to be done, food to be procured, challenges to be met, dangers to be confronted. The daily vicissitudes of life can be pleasurable, but they can also be painful, and at times overwhelming. The wave is for me the emblem of imminent danger, the reminder that at any given moment failure is possible, and even total destruction not out of the question.

And yet, that's not, as they say, the whole picture. In the midst of turmoil, we are also surrounded, and grounded, by something else, something which is not usually at the forefront of our consciousness but which nevertheless exists and endures. In this picture that presence is represented by Mount Fuji, dwarfed by the wave, occupying only about one twentieth of the overall image. But we can recognize that as a trick of perspective. In reality, of course, Mt. Fuji is larger than the wave by many orders of magnitude. If the perspective were reversed and we were looking at the wave from the summit of Mt. Fuji, the waves would be barely noticeable, and humans in their boats not visible at all.

I see the presence of Mt. Fuji in the picture—Hokusai could just as easily have left it out—as being symbolic of that which is permanent, changeless, and enduring in the world, both in the physical sense (the waves will break and dissipate, the mountain will likely be there forever) and in the spiritual sense (in the midst of turmoil of human life, and even perhaps beyond the life of the body itself, there is nonetheless a locus of centeredness, of stillness, of peace.)

Mt. Fuji can thus be seen as representing a kind of spiritual ideal. Pretty much all of the many forms of Buddhism make reference to the concept of the Buddha nature: the potential we have within us to achieve absolute happiness. If we assume this to be the case, the obvious operational question to ask would be "How do we manifest our Buddha nature? How do we bring it forth?" Each form of Buddhism has its own answer to that question, its own practice. Some Buddhists meditate, some chant, some take vows of poverty, some garden, some write, some retreat from the world, some go into the world to do good works.

Hokusai himself had something to say about the nature of practice. It's one of my favorite passages of any kind in literature. (It's been on the sidebar of this blog since its inception.) I've seen various translations of it, but this is the one that I think is most relevant here.

From the age of six I was in the habit of drawing all kinds of things. Although I had produced numerous designs by my fiftieth year, none of my works done before my seventieth is really worth counting. At the age of seventy-three I have come to understand the true form of animals, insects and fish and the nature of plants and trees. Consequently, by the age of eighty-six I will have made more and more progress, and at ninety I will have got closer to the essence of art. At the age of one hundred I will have reached a magnificent level and at one hundred and ten each dot and each line will be alive. I would like to ask those who outlive me to observe that I have not spoken without reason.

The passage dates from 1833, as Hokusai indicates, he was 73 years old. He lived another 13 years, so he clearly never reached the final pinnacle of artistic excellence as he himself envisioned it. Nor—and this is perhaps not obvious, but crucially important to understanding his point—did he expect to. That's what I love about his last sentence: "I would like to ask those who outlive me to observe that I have not spoken without reason." He knew he wasn't going to live that long. And he knows we know it as well. How long one lives is not what matters. Hokusai became a master of one of the most difficult of artistic mediums* and left an archive of artworks which will continue to inspire appreciation and contemplation for as long as humans walk on this earth. That's perhaps as close to transcendence as any of us might hope to come.

* Special bonus: Here's a fascinating process-analysis video showing the work of a contemporary master of the woodcut.

Thursday, January 10, 2019


A poem is a box, a thing, to put other things in. For safe keeping. (Marianne Boruch)

For the last maybe six months I've been concentrating on writing, poetry mostly. There are always essentially three questions to be worked out in the writing of a poem: where to start, how far to go, and where to end. Ken Ronkowitz, a teacher and writer I admire who lives in New Jersey, maintains a whole bunch of web sites that have to do with writing and education and life. I've had fun with a form he invented, based loosely on the Japanese form of the tanka, which he calls the ronka. The formal rules are simple: five lines, seven words per line. It's an interesting form to play with, because once you write your first line you only have three lines before whoops, it's over. Like this:

There's a logic to all this, first
the leap into space, then the
attempt to see something quickly enough
that the last line (coming up fast)
doesn't cut you off before you're done.

It happens just that fast. The challenge is to see how much work you can get done in a very short space. Imagery can help:

Another April opens up, hummingbirds and bees
flitting in the branches of the cherry
trees, a restless breeze stirring the air.
The worst of the winter is behind
us, the sidewalks flanked with new flowers.

I found, after working in that framework for a while, that when I turned to writing sonnets, they seemed luxuriously roomy. I think that's been one of the enduring attractions of the sonnet in English: it's long enough that you can sink your teeth into a subject, but it's short enough to demand a certain amount of compression and attentiveness to each syllable. It's also very versatile in terms of the structural possibilities it presents, familiar to anyone who had to endure high school English: Octave and sestet. Three quatrains and a couplet. Seven and seven. Five and five and two. And of course the history of the sonnet is rich with examples of poets who just made up their own patterns within the fourteen-line constraint.

In any case, I'd say that something like eighty or ninety percent of the poems I've written of late have turned out to be sonnets, or at least sonnet-ish. (While I sometimes like to work with strict iambics and regular rhymes, more often I don't.) It's not like I started out any of these poems with the intention to write a sonnet; it's more that if the challenge is to open a topic, develop it, and then close it down, I often find myself in the neighborhood of 14 lines anyway, and thinking of it as a sonnet gave me something to work against: I need to cut two lines. I need to add a line and a half. That line is too long. That line is too short. This is of course one of the reasons that poets choose to work in forms in the first place: the form gives you something to work against; it forces you as a writer to come up with something just slightly—or maybe completely—different than what you might have said if you were just spooling out words as they came to you. It gives you the opportunity to surprise yourself.

So here is a sampling from the current body of work, now closing in on 30 sonnets. Got a ways to go to catch up to Uncle Will, but hey.


Swabbing the decks. Mending nets. Sewing patches
on torn sails. Polishing the brass fittings along the rail.
Ship at anchor under still black clouds. Clusters of seagulls
screech in the rigging, cruise over the dark water
in search of scraps. The captain has gone ashore,
for how long no one knows. Ripples of water lapping
at the hull. Smell of salt water and rotting seaweed.
The beach by the pier deserted but for two homeless men
in skull caps warming their hands over a driftwood fire.
The storefronts along the boardwalk shuttered, the streets
empty. The flag in the town square limp against the pole.
Distant ringing of bells from the churchtower somewhere
near the hills. On the afterdeck men sit and stare out to sea,
the first mate whistling softly as he sharpens his knife.

 Fever Dream

Enter reluctant disparities in keen-edged thwarted
restorations, relentless gravel and rock grinding,
storm-wind caterwaul, pellets of rain pounding
down, what we never expected, after cross-stitched
emendations, to be cast again back into hard weather,
notions ridiculous and scorned actualized, weaponized,
hard now at work, seething, stamping, spewing bits
of bone and hunks of flesh, smoke and stench roiling,
rivers of gravity-based black ink everywhere, recoiling
wretched malodorous eddies swirling, swallowing
whatever you make of them and spewing it back out
on blacktop do you remember what you thought
you had got before it all exploded and the smoke
came rolling down from the hills and choked your eyes.

Questions about Art

Painting is still the material form of desire.

                    - William Logan

Supposing this to be true, what kind of desire
might we be talking about? Sublimation? The yellows
and reds and blues inviting, as flowers do, bees,
the oblique mechanics of pollination and sex?
Is it a desire for self-transcendence, the urge to make
something to stand in for us when we are gone, to speak
for us once we can no longer speak for ourselves?
Or to evoke the viewer's desire to possess this work,
the pride of owning objects we have coveted, and won?
Or perhaps simply the desire to have, for as long as
we hold the brush in our hand, a focus, a reason to hope
that at the end of the day's work there will be something
real, something created, something visible to justify
the hours of our life given over to the making of it?


Four way stop at Maple and Main. Betty's Better Donuts:
red and white awnings, wrought-iron tables and chairs.
Round-topped blue post office box by the door. Lonely-
looking dog on a leash. Next door, two rundown houses,
porches caved in, ivy tendrils climbing the walls,
growing around and into the wheels of a rusted tricycle.
In the next lot, bounded by barbed wire, a swaybacked
bay mare swishes her tail, nibbles at weeds. In the oaks,
three crows stare off into the fog just starting to burn off.
Across the street, at the playground, two mothers sitting
side by side on a bench watching their kids chase each other
around the jungle gym. Up above the clouds, a white needle
pulling thread: vapor trail of a jet too high up to see. Me,
I'm looking out the window of the bus pulling out for Ames.

Take That

The light aggressive, intrusive, squinting
a stratagem, but only against perhaps a half
of what might effectively be blocked. Then
that noise, no longer white but burgeoning,
like motorboats growling on the mirrored
skin of the lake, or warrior ants sowing
trepidation and deliverance. What next?
Odor of skunk and lemon under the boughs
of the pin oaks. Working from outside in,
you whisper as if in supplication the words
of a nearly forgotten prayer. Overhead
a plane circling, circling, just audible above
the dripping leaves and the hum of the cicadas,
looking for some trace of human life.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Always on the Train

I ran across a poem recently that seemed to me to be remarkable both as a message to the world and as a kind of master class in the practice of poetry. I suggest that you read it a few times yourself and collect your own preliminary thoughts before reading what follows:

Always on the Train

Writing poems about writing poems
is like rolling bales of hay in Texas.
Nothing but the horizon to stop you.

But consider the railroad’s edge of metal trash;
bird perches, miles of telephone wires.
What is so innocent as grazing cattle?
If you think about it, it turns into words.

Trash is so cheerful; flying up
like grasshoppers in front of the reaper.
The dust devil whirls it aloft; bronze candy wrappers,
squares of clear plastic—windows on a house of air.

Below the weedy edge in last year’s mat,
red and silver beer cans.
In bits blown equally everywhere,
the gaiety of flying paper
and the black high flung patterns of flocking birds.

                - Ruth Stone

The poem opens with radical simplicity. The first sentence is a simple, declarative statement about a poetic move that all writers, from grade school on up, have likely made at one time or another. In the course of fifty years of teaching, I've read countless poems that began something along the lines of

I am writing this poem this way
because I do not know what else to say
The teacher says I have to write a poem
so, I guess I'll just let my mind roam...

I don't have anything against this method of proceeding. If the goal is to get oriented, to get started, to get a line of thought going, writing a poem about how you feel about writing a poem is probably as good a place to begin as any. It's a move I've suggested to students who don't know where to begin. I've written more than a few poems that began that way myself.

Ideally what will happen is that, having gotten the poem moving, the poet will fall into something that opens the poem up in surprising ways. That's exactly what happens with Ruth Stone's poem, and it starts to happen right there in line two, with the simile that ends the first sentence:

Writing poems about writing poems
is like rolling bales of hay in Texas.

Really? How so? In what way is writing poems about writing poems like rolling bails of hay? And why Texas? The next line starts to develop this apparently random idea:

Nothing but the horizon to stop you.

So that's the Texas connection. Texas is big. Texas is flat. Once you get rolling, there's a lot of space to move in, all the way to the horizon. Which, of course, will recede as you move, so you've got even more room than you can see.

That first three-line stanza serves as a kind of frame for what follows. Presumably, having written the first three lines, Ruth Stone could have stopped there, leaving the poem as a kind of process-reflection haiku. But.

But. There it is, that powerful little word.

[Digression: On many occasions I have had reason to discuss with my students the power of the word "but." Notice, for example, the difference in impact between these two sentences:

    You didn't do your homework, but you passed the quiz.
    You passed the quiz, but you didn't do your homework.

Same content in each sentence. The exact same words, in fact. But the tonality of the sentences is completely different. The first sentence comes across as a kind of compliment. It appears to let the person spoken to off the hook. The second sentence comes across as a criticism, as a setup for further bad news. ("That's why you got a C rather than a B on the report card.") The power of the word "but" is that it tends to deemphasize—and sometimes make disappear entirely—whatever comes before it. And to focus attention on what comes after it. That's why people in the design-thinking community and other venues that hope to support creative thinking often preface their brainstorming sessions by stipulating that the phrase "Yes, but..." will not be allowed, and that group members should make a point of prefacing their remarks with "Yes, and...". EOD]

So he second stanza begins with "But":

But consider the railroad’s edge of metal trash;
bird perches, miles of telephone wires.
What is so innocent as grazing cattle?
If you think about it, it turns into words.

Here the author is second-guessing herself, re-thinking, with that introductory "but," her original assertion that there is nothing in your way when you begin to write a poem about writing a poem. Even within the particular framework she has hypothesized with her Texas/horizon simile, there are things "in the way," or perhaps more significantly, "along" the way: Railroads. Trash. Bird perches. Cattle.

Now of course, all of these elements are in fact hypothetical. They're imagined. They're made up, as was the original simile, of words. But that's the point. Having set up the landscape comparison, it's natural enough to start imagining your way into that landscape, and as soon as you do, the energy level in the writing starts to jump. As Stone points out, "If you think about it, it turns into words." And suddenly our poem, which started out as a somewhat generalized reflection on writing poems about poems, has itself become more poem-like. The author is still holding the metacognitive thread in her mind; she's still thinking out loud about the relationship between thought and verbalization and poetry. But, as it turns out, not for long.

Stanza two began the transition from landscape-as-simile to landscape-as-imagined-space. The second half of the poem is in essence a falling through: the writer is no longer thinking about poetry, she's writing poetry, and a startling, dynamic, soaring poetry it turns out to be:

Trash is so cheerful; flying up
like grasshoppers in front of the reaper.
The dust devil whirls it aloft; bronze candy wrappers,
squares of clear plastic—windows on a house of air.

Below the weedy edge in last year’s mat,
red and silver beer cans.
In bits blown equally everywhere,
the gaiety of flying paper
and the black high flung patterns of flocking birds.

Now we're out on that Texas flatland, watching the reaper blow up candy wrappers and, behind them, the birds soaring in the sky overhead. The language here is compressed, imagistic, metaphorical ("windows on a house of air"!), musical (grasshopper, reaper, wrapper, paper; squares, air, everywhere; beer, bits, blown, black, birds). What began as a contemplation of poetry has metamorphosed, before our eyes, into a poem. Magical.

I love the way the poem opens up in the last two lines, how it takes us through the imaginative process, after we have been looking out, of looking up. And the closing image of "the black high flung patterns of flocking birds" gratifies both my sense of sight and my sense of hearing, the richness and symmetry of those b's and f's.

What I find most inspiring about this poem is the way that it demonstrates, the way it enacts, the poetic process itself. How do you write a poem? You begin somewhere. You begin where you begin, even if it's just to ask "Where do I begin?" Once you've done that, it's like you've boarded a train. You're on the way. You're moving. So you stay on that train and, as it begins to move across the landscape, write down what you see. Piece of cake.

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Poet

The Poet (RBS Collage)

The Poet

Out on the water
I can think, or
rather give up
thinking altogether—

the afternoon hills
bathed in sunlight,
the glistening water
on fire, the scull

itself gliding oh so
lightly as if through air,
bearing me to a place
I seek but cannot see. 

Friday, April 6, 2018

Drawing as Exploration

Put the point of the pen down
somewhere in the upper left
corner of the paper, and move
your hand, leaving a mark, an angle,
a curve, a line that moves away
and then comes back to connect
with itself. So now there's a shape,
and that shape sets the direction
for the next, which must of necessity
be similar or different, larger or
smaller, closer or farther away.
Now there are two, now three,
now twenty. Along the way questions
arise. How long, for example, before
whatever patterns begun by accident
should by design be broken? How much
of the surface should be inked, how
much left white? How close to the edge?
What about the negative spaces?
Inking is another story, silent, automatic,
eye and hand in motion, mostly
without thought. Music can help
to mark the time, set the rhythm
and the feel. It will take longer
than you think. Often the pen tip
starts to fray, or the ink dries up.
Switch pens. A pen with a big tip
makes the work go faster, but
if your hand strays it's harder
to correct the mistake. Hold
your breath, pay attention, learn
to trust your hand. When
the drawing is done, touch up
the tiny white spots with a fine-
tipped pen, and you're done.
Step back and see what you've got.


Monday, March 12, 2018

Humans of New York - and Elsewhere

There's a blog I like a lot that's called Humans of New York, where photographer Brandon Stanton posts portraits he has made of people on the street, along with short first-person narratives that give a glimpse into the lives of his subjects. A selection of his posts was published in book form in 2015.

Recently Stanton has been traveling and doing similar portraits of people all over the world. He has for example, been photographing and listening to the stories of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. And he has a link on his site to group that is raising money to provide temporary housing for the refugees. I encourage you to check it out.

* * *

A week or two ago Stanton posted something that got under my skin when I first saw it and has continued to bother me since that time. (It's one of the great strengths of Stanton's manner of working that he lets people speak for themselves, which in turn encourages us to think about what we might have to say in response.) The post, which you can see here, shows a middle-aged man in Indonesia sitting on a blanket in a park and staring at the camera with a stern expression. The man's comment runs like this:

We must teach religion in our schools. We must start them really, really young. As soon as they know how to point out basic things like ‘rock, milk, tree.’ That is the best time to start. Not too much. Just one hour a day until they are about seven. Enough to teach them the basic prayers and Arabic alphabet. It has to be compulsory. You don’t have to force them to believe. But you must force them to study. It’s the most important thing in life. All of us have animal thoughts and lust. Only with God do you start having rules. Even the Christians have rules. I have a Christian relative. They pray to God as well. And the Hindus, well I don’t really understand Hinduism, but they have something too. You must have a higher power. When a man lives without God, it’s very dangerous. You have no reference, no principles, no precepts. You are almost equal to animal.

I think I understand why the gentleman feels this way. I suspect that many, if not most, people in the world would agree with his thesis. My mother certainly did. She was raised as a Methodist but married a Catholic. The church, in its wisdom, stipulated that my mother must agree to convert to Catholicism before she could be allowed to marry my father; furthermore, she had to agree to raise her children as Catholics. Which she agreed to do, because she believed that the Catholic religion provided a good framework for raising children. And so, as it turns out, my education was placed in the hands of the Sisters of Mercy (elementary school), the Benedictines (first two years of high school, and the Jesuits (last two years of high school and all four years of college.) And what I have come to believe, in part because of my experience with religion-infused teaching, and in part because of my experience of the world during adulthood, is that the gentleman's thesis is not just wrongheaded, it is recipe for disaster.

Certainly it is true that "all of us have animal thoughts and lust." Certainly it is true that human beings are capable of great selfishness and great cruelty to one another. But I don't believe it follows that the only way to have a life with rules is to be a theist, or that the only way we can confront and master our weaknesses is by the appeal to a "higher power." In fact, throughout history it is precisely the fervent belief in a higher power that has served as the smug justification for much of our most inhuman behavior on a massive scale.

It's a very short leap from saying that anyone who lives without God—or without the particular version of God that the speaker may have in mind—is almost equal to an animal, to believing that such people should be treated as animals, leading to the kind of genocide and ethnic cleansing that has been responsible for countless millions of death in the last century alone: Christians exterminating Jews (and Muslims), settlers exterminating native Americans, Hutus exterminating Tutsis, Buddhists exterminating Rohingya, Muslims exterminating Christians and even other Muslims of a different stripe, etc. etc. ad nauseum.

In the course of my education—much of it, as I have said, at the hand of fervent Christians, many of whom were, to their credit, open-minded about other ways of thinking— I have come to believe, along with the narrator of Ivan Klima's novel Love and Garbage, that the people who are most to be feared are not the ones who are given to doubts, but rather the ones who are entirely too sure of themselves:

The most important things in life are non-communicable, not compressible into words, even though the people who believe they have discovered them always try to communicate them, even though I myself try to do so. But anyone who believes that he has found what is truly enduring and that he can communicate to others the essence of God, that he has discovered the right faith for them, that he has finally glimpsed the mystery of existence, is a fool or a fantasist, and, more often than not, dangerous.
Amen, brother. Look no further than the front pages of your daily paper or the latest postings on social media to see the results. Ever since I began this blog twelve years ago, I have had at the bottom of the page a quote from Eric Sevareid that pretty much sums up my feeling: "One asks not only for the courage of his convictions, but for the courage of his doubts, in a world of dangerously passionate certainties."

I believe that it's a mistake to begin force-feeding children religion when they are too young to understand it ("an hour a day until they are seven"). To do so is to exploit the children in their innocence, to engage in a form of brainwashing that the children are helpless to resist, and, in the worst case, to narrow their vision and lay the groundwork for the kind of self-righteous thinking that results in the dehumanization and demonification of those whose perspective differs from one's own.

So, teach children the value (and the pleasure) of study, yes. Encourage their engagement in the world, their sense of curiosity, their sense of wonder and appreciation. When they are old enough to express an interest on their own, encourage them to explore the many interesting and thought-provoking ways that humans have come to answer such questions as "Where did we come from?" and "Where are we going?" and "What does it all mean?" Let them learn something about Islam, about Christianity, about Hinduism, about Buddhism, about Bahai, about Taoism, about whatever religious stances they find themselves drawn to, including agnosticism and atheism. Let them grow up in a state of respectful uncertainty, make their own choices, and learn to accept that the choices they have made are not the only possible ways of being fully human.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Taking a Dot for a Walk

Paul Klee: "A line is a dot that went for a walk."
William Stafford: "Writing is a reckless encounter with whatever comes along."
Jasper Johns: "Do something, then do something to that, and then do something to that."

These are three drawings I worked on recently. All are pure explorations, drawn with my left (non-dominant) hand in order to add another layer of unpredictability to an already open-ended process. I'm considering whether to add color to either of two black-and-white pieces, and if so, what kind of color. But there's a presence to each of these drawings, arising from the movement of the lines, that I can respond to.

(The pictures are showing up pretty dark on the screen, for some reason.)

So here's the connection I've been thinking about and exploring. Drawing and writing are physiologically and intellectually similar activities. In most cases we are taught in our schools that there are rules to be followed and basics to be mastered before you can become an artist, or a writer. Little children, who love to draw and write before they are told that they don't know how to do it, grow into adults who have little or no use for art or for writing. Having to follow the rules in order to produce a predictable result based on someone else's idea of what that result should look like is not interesting, and it's certainly not much fun.

My inclination—and for those of you who are open to it, my recommendation—is to go back into the process in a pure spirit of play. Take up a pencil. Start drawing. Start writing. Push marks you make onto the paper. There will necessarily be a sequence of moves. Once you are doing any particular thing, you will continue doing it until you decide to do something else. First this. Then that. Then whatever comes next, like the man says.

That's exactly what I was doing as I was typing this paragraph, and it's the basically the same kind of exploration that I was conducting as I worked on these drawings: pushing the line (of words, of thoughts) into the white space in front of them. I wrote it the first draft on the fly. (The next morning I came back to tidy up.) But as I was writing I had no idea where we were going to wind up. But here we are. The moral of the story: trust the process.

At some point you can step back and review your work decide what is most interesting or worth pursuing. Some of what you write, perhaps a lot of what you write (or draw) won't be great. As Stafford says, of writing poetry, "A writer must write bad poems, as they come, among the better, and not scorn the "bad" ones. Finicky ways can dry up the sources." The first task is to get the lines on the page. Then you can begin to look at what might be worth extracting or reworking, or what might suggest a new beginning.

It is a practice. It's an exploration. As Stafford says in his indispensable essay "A Way of Writing," "A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them."

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Twenty Questions

The other day there was an interesting post on Tumblr a list of questions that Paul Thek used as “Teaching Notes” for a class that he taught at Cooper Union from 1978-1981. I have always been intrigued by inventories of this kind—lists, list poems, brainstormed possibilities—both as artifacts in themselves and as challenges to me (and, once upon a time, to my students).

I have had in my files for more than 40 years now a poem by Donald Justice that goes like this:

Twenty Questions

Is it raining out?
Is it raining in?
Are you a public fountain?
Are you an antique musical instrument?
Are you a famous resort, perhaps?
What is your occupation?
Are you by chance a body of water?
Do you often travel alone?
What is your native language, then?
Do you recall the word for carnation?

Are you sorry?
Will you be sorry?
Is this your handkerchief?
What is your destination?
Are you Aquarius?
Are you the watermelon flower?
Will you please take off your glasses?
Is this a holiday for you?
Is that a scar, or a birthmark?
Is there no word for calyx in your tongue?

I find this poem to be, well, charming. It’s playful and purposeful at the same time. There are elements of structure in it (the framework of the game of twenty questions, the sense that there is a conversation going on between strangers who speak different languages, the suggestion of a seduction taking place) combined with elements of (apparent?) randomness (“Is this your handkerchief?”). It’s a kind of verbal collage. The poem has a logic, individual lines undercut or redirect the logic in ways that are surprising. The poem creates in a short space an implied world, a world in which certain facts are established but most are left open to question.

There’s a game being played here, and, as often happens when we see a game, there’s at least the possibility that we might ask, can I play too? I’ve had my students write “Twenty Questions” poems; the results are always surprising and interesting to read. There’s something about not having too intention that frees them up. So here I am, working on this post, and the task is to come up with something to say. So I think I’ll play. Here goes:

Twenty Questions

Did you hear the thunder this morning? What was up with that?
Shouldn't there be an easier way to get those sneakers clean?
Have you seen my sweater? What are we going to do about
Elizabeth? Can you tell me what you have in mind? Don’t you
Think we’d be better off if we just stayed home? What is that crow
So upset about? Is there a reason why you need to be doing that
Right now? How many times have I asked you to stop?
If I get done in time, would you like to come with me
To the basketball game? Why are the newspapers still covering
That story? Would you care for some peppers? Is my scarf
Too much? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to fly a plane?
What do you think you’re doing? Isn’t there a statute of limitations
On that? When is the rain supposed to end? Can I ask you a question?

Okay, so there’s a draft, created in the moment and lightly edited as I set this up on blogger. I may go back and work on it more later, but for now it serves the purpose. What I noticed as I was writing was that even as I was just pushing forward certain elements of voice and tone kept asserting themselves more or less in spite of me. I’ve remarked before how every collage—every work of art, really— is in some ways of necessity a kind of self-portrait. And that certainly applies to this poem. It’s a little bit odd. It’s a little bit random. But it was fun to write. How about you? You want to try?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Sue Grafton: An Appreciation

In the final days of 2018 I was saddened to hear about Sue Grafton, who died on December 28. I was a fairly recent convert to her works. I had been vaguely aware of her name showing up on the best-seller lists. She was the author of 25 mystery novels, starting with A is for Alibi, and progressing through the alphabet right up to Y is for Yesterday. I had not read any of them until about a year and a half ago, when someone donated a bunch of used paperbacks to the local library-sponsored second-hand bookshop. I saw them there and picked up several for 75 cents each, which turned out to be the bargain of the year as far as reading materials are concerned, and started me on a long and satisfying reading journey. 

The novels feature a feisty, irreverent private detective named Kinsey Millhone. Grafton started the series in 1982 and wrote roughly a novel a year until 2017. (In an interview with Mora Macdonald of the Seattle Times, she commented wryly on how that played out: “When I started, she was 32 and I was 42,” Ms. Grafton said. “And now she’s 39 and I’m 77, which I just do not think is fair.”) 

In any event, I was taken with the books. They are inventively plotted and keep you turning the pages, as mystery novels are supposed to do. But what I appreciated about her writing, more than the stories she was telling, was the clarity and vividness of her descriptions. What Kinsey Millhone sees and feels in the course of her investigations goes a very long way toward making her a credible crime-solver. Often as I was reading the books I found myself marking particular passages and then typing them out for the sheer pleasure of it. Even when the descriptions have nothing to do with the case at hand, they serve the purpose of indirect characterization, offering evidence of a Millhone’s particular brand of sensitivity to the world. For example, here is a passage from early in B is for Burglar where Kinsey is just out for a run:

I generally do three miles, jogging along the bicycle path that borders the beach. The walkway is stenciled with odd cartoons at intervals and I watch for those, counting off the quarter-miles.  The tracks of some improbable bird, the mark of a single fat tire that crosses the concrete and disappears into the sand. There are usually tramps on the beach; some who camp there permanently, others in transit, their sleeping bags arranged under the palm trees like large green larvae or the skins shed by some night-stirring beast.
            That afternoon the air seemed heavy and chill, the ocean sluggish. The cloud cover was beginning to break up, but the visible sky was a pale, washed-out blue and there was no real sign of the sun. Out on the water a speedboat ran a course parallel to the beach and the path of the wake was like a spinning ribbon of silver winding along behind. At this distance, the low-growing vegetation looked like soft suede, with rock face showing along through the ridges as though the nap had worn away from hard use.
There’s nothing self-consciously artful about the language or the syntax here. But there are thoughtful, intelligent choices that Grafton is making about what to include and what not to include that make the scene come to life in my imagination. The speedboat, for example, is not strictly needed; it does nothing to advance the plot. But it does a lot of other important work. It helps to snap the afternoon run into focus. And, taken at face value as the thoughts of the protagonist rather than the verbal choices of the author, it demonstrates the alertness and  attentiveness of the narrator in a way that makes me feel that I like her and trust her.

Here’s a similar sort of passage from M is for Malice. This time Millhone is just walking:

I walked home along Cabana Boulevard. The skies had cleared and the air temperature hovered in the mid-fifties. This was technically the dead of winter and the brazen California sunshine was not as warm as it seemed. Sunbathers littered the sand like flotsam left behind by the high tide. Their striped umbrellas spoke of summer, yet the new year was just a week old. The sun was brittle along the water's edge, fragmenting where the swells broke against the pilings under the wharf. The surf must have been dead cold, the salt water eye-stinging where children splashed through the waves and submerged themselves in the churning depths. I could hear their thin screams rising above the thunder of the surf, like thrill-seekers on a roller-coaster, plunging into icy terror. On the beach, a wet dog barked at them and shook the water from his coat. Even from a distance I could see where his rough hair had separated into layers. (!)
Subtle, the way that the narrator is able to see the children in the surf and make the imaginative leap into their physiological experience, their eyes stinging from the water, their minds on the edge of exhalation and terror. And then the bit about the patterning of the hair on the dog: unexpected. Surprising. Delightful.

Putting Millhone on the road in her VW gives Grafton another opportunity to paint word pictures. Here’s an example from N is for Noose, where she crafts makes an explicitly painterly description of lake country:

I reached Lake Nota… in slightly more than three hours. The town didn’t look like much, though the setting was spectacular. Mountains towered on three sides, snow still painting the peaks in thick white against a sky heaped with clouds. On the shady side of the road, I could see leftover patches of snow, ice boulders wedged up against the leafless trees. The air smelled of pine, with an underlying scent that was faintly sweet. The chill vapor I breathed was like sticking my face down in a half-empty gallon of vanilla ice cream, drinking in the sugary perfume. The lake itself was no more than two miles long and a mile across. The surface was glassy, reflecting granite spires and the smattering of white firs and incense cedars that grew on the slopes.
Or an even more detailed, extended description from B is for Burglar, displaying, among other things, Millhone’s (and Grafton’s) knowledge of local flora. And I like the way the description culminates in a generalizing remark that puts all of human life into the context of larger natural cycles:

The clouds hung above the mountains like puffs of white smoke left in the wake of a giant old-fashioned choochoo train. We took the old road up through the pass, my VW making high-pitched complaints until I shifted from third gear to second and finally into first. The road twisted up through sage and mountain lilac. As we approached, the dark green of the distant vegetation separated into discreet shrubs clinging obstinately to the slopes. There were very few trees. Steep expanses of California buckwheat were visible on the right, interspersed with the bright little orange faces of monkey flower and the hot pink of prickly phlox. The poison oak was thriving, its lush growth almost overwhelming the silvery leaves of the mugwort which grew alongside it and is its antidote.
            As we reach the summit, I glanced to my left. The elevation here was about twenty-five hundred feet and the ocean seemed to hover in the distance like a gray haze blending into the gray of the sky. The coastline stretched as far as the eye could see and the town of Santa Teresa looked at insubstantial as an aerial photo. From this perspective, the mountain ridge seemed to plunge into the Pacific, appearing again in four rugged peaks that formed the offshore islands. The sun up here was hot and the volatile oils, exuded by the underbrush, scented the still air with camphor. There were occasional manzanita trees along the slope, still stripped down to spare, misshapen black forms by the fire that had swept through two years back. Everything that grows up here longs to burn; seed coats broken only by intense heat, germinating then when the rains come again. It's not a cycle that concedes much to human intervention.
Grafton is also excellent at describing the human habitations that Millhone finds herself in as she pursues her investigations. In this passage, also from B is for Burglar, Millhone goes to the Tip Top Cab company in hopes of getting a look at whatever records they might of a cab taken by one of the people she is investigating:
Tip Top was jammed between a Humane Society Thrift Shop and a Big 'n Tall Men's Shop with a suit in the window designed for the steroid enthusiast. The office itself was long and narrow, partitioned across the middle with a plywood wall with a door cut into it. The place was furnished like some kid's hideout, complete with two broken-down couches and a table with one short leg. There were drawings and hand-lettered signs Scotch-taped to the walls, trash piled up in one corner, dog-eared copies of Road and Track magazine in an irregular tier by the front door. The bucket seat from a car was propped against the far wall, tan upholstery slashed in one spot and mended with Band-Aids covered with stars. The dispatcher was perched on a stool, leaning one elbow on a counter as littered as a workbench. He was probably twenty-five with curly black hair and a small dark mustache. He wore chinos, a pale blue T-shirt with a faded decal of the Grateful Dead, and a visor that made his hair stick up on the sides. The shortwave radio squawked incomprehensibly and he took up the mike.
            "Seven-oh," he said, his eyes immediately focusing on a map of the city affixed to the wall above the counter. I saw a butt-filled ashtray, an aspirin bottle, a cardboard calendar from Our Lady of Sorrows Church, a fan belt, plastic packets of ketchup, and a big stenciled note that read "Has Anybody Seen My Red Flash Lite?" Tacked to the wall was a list of addresses for customers who'd passed bad checks and those in the habit of calling more than one cab to see who could get there first.
The thing that strikes me about this passage is how funny it is. I have of course never been in this particular office, but I’ve sure been in ones that were like it. The description is laden with all kinds of telling details: the table with one short leg, the bucket seat mended with Band-Aids covered with stars, the cardboard calendar from Our Lady of Sorrows Church, the note asking about the “Red Flash Lite.” The old saying goes, you couldn’t make this stuff up. But that is exactly what Grafton is doing, making it up, and clearly having a blast doing so.

In another passage, this time from N is for Noose, Grafton describes with great precision and wry humor Millhone’s first impressions of a hotel she has to visit:

The hotel must have been considered elegant once upon a time. The floor was green marble with a crooked path of newspapers laid end to end to soak up all the rainy footsteps that criss-crossed the lobby. In places, where the soggy papers had been picked up, I could see that the newspapers had left reverse images of the headlines and text. Six ornate pilasters divided the gloomy space into sections, each of which sported a blocky green plastic couch.  To all appearances, the clientele was discouraged from spending time lounging about on the furniture as a hand-printed sign offered the following admonishments:
Which just about summed up my personal code.
I’ve read most of her novels now. And if you were to ask me to recount from memory the plot of any one of them, I would have a hard time doing so. What does stick in my mind, however, is the feeling of being in the mind of Kinsey Millhone, and sense of the way she inhabits and observes and celebrates the world. It’s unfortunate that Grafton never got to finish Z is for Zero, which was to have been the final installment of the cycle of 26 novels. But there’s also something deeply resonant about that. She lived her life, she set herself an ambitious goal, and she pursued it for as long as she could and wrote it as well as she could. Her life’s work brought a great deal of pleasure to me and to countless other readers. I’m grateful to her for that.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Reservoir 13

One of the enigmas of human life is that as humans what we know for certain about the nature of our lives is most often inconsistent with our lives as we actually lead them. We know, for example, that the universe is unimaginably large and has been in existence for an unimaginably long time. In his book the Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan included a graphic called the Cosmic Calendar, in which he laid out a timeline as if the history of the universe were overlaid on a calendar of a single year. In these terms, the origin of the Milky Way comes around May 1, the formation of Earth on September 14. Life on Earth begins on September 25. The first humans arrive at 10:30 p.m. on December 31. All of recorded human history occurs in the last half second of the year. The birth of Christ? 11:59:56.

Here’s the poet Rosser Reeves, coming at the same concept from a different direction:


Someday, perhaps, some alien eye or eyes,
Blood red in cold and polished horny lids,
Set in a chitinous face,
Will sweep the arch of some dark, distant sky
And see a nova flare,
A flick of light, no more,
A pin-point on a photographic plate,
A footnote in an alien chart of stars,
Forgotten soon on miles of dusty shelves
Where alien beetles feed.
A meal for worms,
Sole epitaph,
To mark the curious end of restless man,
Who for a second of galactic time
Floated upon a speck of cosmic dust
Around a minor sun.

An individual human life, seen in this context, is a very small thing indeed. And yet that is not the way that we as individuals experience our lives. For us, “a lifetime” is a synonym for “forever.” Our consciousness is housed in blood and bone, and as individuals we are the center of our own worlds, regardless of whatever scientific evidence might offer by way of contradiction. We are, in this sense, always deluded. Our subjectivity skews our vision of the world and overemphasizes the importance of our place it. We live within a network of what we take to be certainties, but are surrounded by much greater and numerous uncertainties.  What we don’t know is always by many orders of magnitude greater than what we do know. But we do not, we cannot, live that way. It’s a dilemma that raises existential questions.

This past Sunday, Maria Popova, in her blog Brain Pickings, cited Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue talking about how we might respond to this dilemma:

Every human person is inevitably involved with two worlds: the world they carry within them and the world that is out there. All thinking, all writing, all action, all creation and all destruction is about that bridge between the two worlds. All thought is about putting a face on experience… One of the most exciting and energetic forms of thought is the question. I always think that the question is like a lantern. It illuminates new landscapes and new areas as it moves. Therefore, the question always assumes that there are many different dimensions to a thought that you are either blind to or that are not available to you. So a question is really one of the forms in which wonder expresses itself. One of the reasons that we wonder is because we are limited, and that limitation is one of the great gateways to wonder.

O’Donohue suggests, and I certainly agree, that the proper response to our inevitable ignorance is to ask questions that are rooted in wonder, which is to say, appreciation. The other, and unfortunately more common response, particularly in our present political climate, is to simply double down on your certainties, whether or not you have any evidence that they are in fact reasonable. The problem with that, as O’Donohue points out, is that “thought, if it’s not open to wonder, can be limiting, destructive and very, very dangerous.”

One of the most powerful and value-creating functions of literature is to liberate us from our certainties, free us from the constraints of our inherited perspectives, and allow us to see our lives as individuals, however briefly and ephemerally, from a broader perspective.

Which brings me to the best novel that I read during 2017, Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. It tells the story of an English village in thirteen chapters, one chapter for each year. McGregor eschews most of the familiar novelistic conventions. There are characters in the novel, more than 40 of them, actually, but the narrative does not focus on them one at a time, nor does it include what we would normally think of as scenes with dialogue. (The closest thing to a plot device is the disappearance of a teenage girl in the first chapter, which is revisited in each following chapter.) Rather, the story is told from a strategically distanced third-person perspective, written in simple declarative sentences, focused as often on animal life or landscape or weather as it is on human characters. It reads like a prose poem of sorts, an inventory of absences and presences. As you read, you get to know each of the characters in small doses over an extended period of time. You get a sense of the larger rhythms and patterns of their lives circling back on one another, moving forward in time even as they stay in one place.

An example, taken more or less at random, but indicative of the narrative style and tone throughout:

At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but they were too far off in the distance for the sound to carry and no one came out to watch. The dance at the village hall was canceled, and although the Gladstone [the local bar] was full there was no mood for celebration. Tony closed the bar at half past the hour and everyone made their way home. Only the police stayed out in the streets, gathered around their vans or heading back into the hills. In the morning the rain started up again. Water coursed from the swollen peat beds quickly through the cloughs and down the stepped paths that fell from the edge of the moor. The river thickened with silt from the hills and plumed across the weirs. (5)

Or, later:

The winds changed and came from the north, pulling a bog-sweet smell of damp down from the hills. After dark two of the badgers snuck out of the sett at the top end of the beech wood, sniffing at the air before foraging across the wet soil around the edge of the abandoned lead pits, looking for the earthworms that had always been there. Will and Claire came back from the hospital with a baby daughter, and went straight to the Jackson house to introduce her to Tom. They were calling her Molly, and when they laid her on Tom’s lap he looked terrified… On the television there were pictures of an earthquake’s aftermath; people walking down a road covered in dust, collapsed bridges, rescuers kneeling in the rubble to reach down into dark spaces… (123)

Reading Reservoir 13, one is put on constant alert to the larger patterns that underlie the lives of the individual people in the village, of which the villagers themselves are often only tangentially aware. The book is a reminder, to borrow O’Donohue’s words, of the many different dimensions of life that we are either blind to or that are not available to us, unless they are called to our attention, as they are in this case by an extremely confident and gifted writer.

This is the first book I’ve read in a long time that, having finished it, I was moved to go back and start again from the beginning. Reading it is an experience of the pleasures and rewards of the simple act of paying attention.

End note: If you’d like to get a fuller sense of what I’m talking about here before deciding whether to read the book, I suggest you take a look at James Wood’s characteristically brilliant review of it in the New Yorker. That’s how I found out about it.