September 30, 2003
Loyal readers! If you are there...by now you realize that the Blog of Unknowing has become the Unknown Blog. I have decided that blogging is not for me. With my collection Here from Away scheduled for publication later this year, I actually have a lot to write about. But I'd rather this exciting time be kept private. I am not convinced that my daily musings are all that blogworthy anyway!
Now and then, I may add an entry. In the meantime, in between time, here are some highlights from that erstwhile blog of mine.
On Riverside Park: July 14, 2003
On the extreme west side of Manhattan lies Riverside Park. At four miles long, a quarter mile wide, it is Central Park’s skinny cousin; as with Central Park, Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvin Vaux were primary designers. The core sections of the park were completed by 1910 and since then the park has experienced times both fine and derelict.
To the east of the park, on Riverside Drive, you find old residential buildings of various elevations. Real estate prices are dear, for in New York vintage buildings are prized and river views highly desirable. The river viewed is, of course, our lordly Hudson, and the park features a fine esplanade along its banks, and a surprising marina where some of our more pioneering New Yorkers live in houseboats year-round. The city provides gas and electric hookups.
The most bizarre feature of Riverside Park, the West Side Highway, bisects it, adding the jarring sounds of whizzing cars and clanking tires. Given the presence of the highway, it is a wonder that the park is as enchanting as it is. But it is cleverly laid out, in a sloping fashion, with rustic stone stairways and spooky arched underpasses and various ramps. Volunteers maintain gardens, and a picnic-ready greensward abuts the esplanade. Many regal monuments dot the landscape: Grant’s Tomb, the smaller colonnaded Soldiers and Sailors Monument, a Joan of Arc statue and the newest statue, at Riverside Drive and 72nd Street, of Eleanor Roosevelt. She is posed leaning back, with her hand on her chin, smiling wisely, and her form is imposing yet attenuated. She would have liked the image, I think.
John and I enjoy Riverside Park a great deal, especially this time of year, when days are long and we can take a post-prandial walk there to watch the sunset. The park keeps one wooden dock open at the marina so people may enjoy the Hudson close-up; the sloop Clearwater docks there now and then. For many nights running, J. and I have watched the sun set from this vantage point, watched it dip low behind the New Jersey palisades, a gladdening sight even though some tall buildings interrupt the view. The sunset is never the same, of course. The sun may appear as a huge orange fireball, or a dim peach light behind low striped clouds. The sky may be pale gray, or pinkish, or absolutely psychedelic with color. Sometimes a wind rushes up right before nightfall, and the colors erupt, and I am frightened.
Waterfowl make their homes here, ducks and geese especially but more exotic birds too. It’s a good spot for bird watching, dog watching, people watching. The park has recently been extended southward by a number of blocks, thanks being due (I suppose) to the Trump organization which has put up a clutch of modern high rises. Bryant Gumbel was one of the first to move in; these buildings are out of the price range of us normal people. For a long time, the project was fought by west side coalitions who deemed the tall buildings out of scale for the neighborhood, a strain on the infrastructure, etc. etc., but Trump triumphed in the end.
Confession of the Day: I rather supported Trump overall, a very non PC stance!
I supported him simply because I supported development of this section of waterfront and there was probably no one else in town who could have brought the project off. The area was seedy before this, just wasted, and the charred remains of piers which burned down in the early 70’s didn’t add to the ambience. (Ghosts of some of them still haven’t been removed.) Now we have more park and a marvelous new modern pier over the river where residents gather for tai chi and fishing and skating and just hanging out. But the buildings are undistinguished—Trump is just a businessman and a builder—and the West Side Highway is ineluctable here, on an elevated highway. All in all, a mixed success.
I enjoy the views here too, though. The remains of one of the piers suggest a collapsed roller coaster; I am among those who regard the twisted metal structure as found art. Its future remains unclear. The park’s future seems bright now that it is being maintained better, both by the city and by volunteers, and now that some real money is being thrown at it. It is much more of a neighborhood park than Central Park, which is a tourist mecca and, on weekends, quite raucous with street musicians and such. Riverside is for the locals, kids play little league and soccer, grownups stroll and slowly bike ride and chill. Nevertheless, when you come to New York, please don’t pass it by. Come down one night and pour yourself a little wine perhaps and watch the magnificent sunset.
Post 9/11 Moments: June 26, 2003
Every now and then, I read or view something that conjures in me a “post 9/11 moment.” In Flow (published in 1990), when he explores the cultural conditions contributing to the optimal experience, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi (quelle nom!) writes the following: "Over the past few generations social scientists have grown extremely unwilling to make value judgments about cultures….The naive confidence of our supremacy is long past. We might still object if a young Arab drives a truck of explosives into an embassy, blowing himself up in the process, but we can no longer feel morally superior in condemning his belief that Paradise has special sections reserved for self-immolating warriors.”
Such a cool perspective would not have played in Peoria then, nor does it now in the well-appointed dens or Dreamwoven blogs of many of my sophisticated cohorts. Separating part A of his sentence (the act of terrorism) from Part B (its cultural justification) seems impossible. While it may be imperative for an anthropologist to study a culture objectively, is it not also imperative that someone somewhere does make value judgments among cultures? Critiquing our own values in the west is considered a constructive exercise, after all. It is how we move forward. Now we need to critique other cultures, if only to understand them better so that we may protect ourselves against their benighted quests.
I hate the simpleminded hate talk, though, the We Good, Them Evil assertions, whether they come from the guy in the street or the guy in the Oval Office. That the 9/11 terrorists were “cowards” always did strike me as a self-consoling sort of lie. They had a mission—for them it was a grand mission—and they carried it out methodically, calmly, bravely. No doubt the terrorists had an “optimal experience” that morning. After it happened, I couldn’t stop envisioning the scenario: the slaying of the pilots, the co-opting of the cockpit, the taking over of the controls. You follow the blue ribbon of the Hudson River to your destination and there it is, the trade center, the massive towers. You are about to honor your hero on earth, bin Laden, and your god in heaven, Allah, and the beautiful virgins are opening their arms to you in paradise. The second pilot’s joy would have been doubled, as he saw the first tower in flames. Those men died happy.
In Catholicism, we often prayed for the grace of a happy death. But a happy death—that is a morally neutral thing.
Let no one reading these lines think that I have a soft spot for the terrorists! I just think that understanding them can play a key role in defusing them. Too, as a poet, I am a student of human nature, and find it profitable to ponder the mysteries behind even the darkest human doings. The Nazis, the Islamists—they are not of another species, after all, they are homo sapiens too. Let’s not forget that the same “average” American convinced that the Islamist view of Paradise is idiotic probably believes there is a Heaven waiting for him or for her. Certain fundamentalist Christians are quite certain that there will soon be a Rapture, and they, the righteous, will be swept into heaven while the rest of us are condemned to suffer a great Tribulation. Oh, yes. They are so literal about this, they think that everything will stop when the Rapture occurs, a plane will fall out of the sky if its pilot is among the righteous because he will be swept up in the Rapture. Yet the last thing they would recognize is that they are cut from the same slime mold as the Islamists. Though they have not waged war against the rest of us yet, they sit on a powder keg that could blow at any minute. Some plot against abortion centers already. Fundamentalist thinking is one of the greatest dangers we face, the world over.
Confession of the Day: I believe in no Rapture but am very worried indeed that bad times are coming, a great Tribulation.
Poetry and Anonymity: July 11, 2003
Maya Angelou knows why the caged bird sings. I know why the anonymous poet writes.
To write in anonymity is to write without the threat of rejection or disapproval. One self-edits, to be sure, but one does not edit to make poems marketable or to shoehorn them into a particular movement or trend. To write in anonymity is to be unencumbered by all that, to write with a certain carefree abandon, to play. One writes to please no one but oneself.
Until the net came along, I wrote in almost total obscurity. Ostensibly I wanted to be published, and my work was published, in little literary magazines, in some thematic anthologies, and in a few nonliterary venues such as The Christian Century. But I did not promote myself or do readings, except when the book Catholic Girls came out and the editors invited me to read at a local bookstore.
In my case, writing in obscurity also meant writing surreptitiously, secretly, even sneakily. I loved writing poems at the office—just turning on the old Wang or the new PC and inviting the Muses into the workplace! I loved Windows software especially, because I could type up a memo or a presentation on one screen while “my” screen, the poem-in-progress screen, glowed underneath. I felt it was percolating there. And when I finished a poem, at last, it seemed published already, up there on the bright console.
It was satisfying. I was satisfied in my anonymity. I know why Emily Dickinson was happy, perfectly happy, writing her quirky poems without compromise, sewing them into pretty bundles and stashing them under her bed. I know why she could take the risks she did and be as radical as she was. Publication would have reaped crass blue-penciling by editors and outcry by readers offended by the likes of “Wild Nights” and dashes and off-rhyming. Nowadays women can write poems even more explicit than “Wild Nights” and be published and gain honorifics, but they still face ridicule and censure. Ridicule and censure are what most published poets reap, in one way or another, from one quarter or another. I’ve had small tastes of it from workshopping online, and I will no doubt be subjected to tummyloads as time goes by. I had better stock up on spiritual Maalox, eh? My work will disappoint readers and be fodder for critics, it’s the name of the game. I know why the anonymous poet writes; maybe I’ll find out why the excoriated poet does too.
Crowds and Noise: June 6, 2003
If there’s one thing that will draw my neighborhood’s egghead oddballs from their musty apartments, draw them like yellow jackets to dejeuners sur l’herbe, it’s a book sale at the St. Agnes Public Library.
The Book Pit, I call it. You edge down a narrow stairwell to a basement packed with people picking over groaning shelves and tables. What a scraggly bunch today! Graybeard beatniks, scrawny Kafka clones, massive Valkyrie wannabes. It’s a muggy day and the Book Pit wasn’t air conditioned. A sweaty tang hung in the air. Well there are fine bargains to be found there—in the past, I’ve bought history and biography—but I skedaddled out before buying, because of the crowd, and because of the checkout line, so long it snaked right past many shelves and made browsing impossible.
Confession of the Day: I hate crowds, I hate noise, and yet I love New York! Go figure.
Well, I slept a whole five hours last night and am almost rested. I might have bagged another few z’s if I hadn’t been awakened at 6AM by Armageddon—no it was just the ear-piercing clangor of a tractor trailer on Columbus Avenue. And I might have gotten to sleep earlier except for the thumping of feet above me. This old building of mine—it went up in the 1890’s—has some acoustical peculiarities. Noise from adjacent apartments isn’t usually an issue, but from above and below, footsteps and stereos can drive you crazy. The sounds reverberate in the floors and ceilings; when that skinny girl upstairs walks around, I can literally feel the vibrations in my spine! When she gets to vacuuming and doing housework (I hear this now), it’s like construction noise.
City officials get noise complaints all the time but nothing effective is ever done. Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on smoking in bars may have addressed indoor air pollution but it’s added to noise pollution. Now, smokers loiter outside the bars where they holler and whoop and carry on till three o’clock in the morning. The bar across the street from me, the appropriately named Dive 75, has been a nuisance since it opened some years ago; now it’s a bigger nuisance. (I once looked out the window to find that someone had written “I hate Dive 75” in the snow on the top of someone’s automobile!)
Well, that’s how the Starved-for-Quiet fight back in this town. We quietly editorialize. Or we fight fire with fire. A warring married couple used to live in my building, across the courtyard. Late one night, as they were screaming at each other (again), I heard the window below me open fiercely and then a violin play a few lugubrious bars from The Theme from Love Story! Hah! The sad footnote here is that the violinist was Helen Hagnes, who was murdered in an elevator one night at Lincoln Center. The Murder at the Met, it came to be called.
We’ve had our share of celebrities in this really rather ordinary building (no doorman, no concierge, no perks) and some have been noisy. There are those who still remember the sounds of Bette Midler making obstreperous whoopee with Barry Manilow.
What better way to end this Noisy Lamentation than with this poem by Robert Francis. We don’t have many buzz planes around these parts, but we do have those hovering migraines, helicopters.
The Ministry of Silly Shirt Poems: May 30 & 31, 2003
Laundry day, which means a schlep to a basement laundromat half a block away, toting a ton of grungy sundries in a muslin bag. Undies, outies, washcloths—it’s a mixed bag, darks and lights together. Those lacking in major appliances aren’t finicky about such things. Then, at home on the bed, I fold. “I stop writing the poem to fold the clothes,” Tess Gallagher writes. Only a male poet would celebrate the joys of laundry! One of Richard Wilbur’s most famous poems, Love Calls Us to the Things of This World, does just that: “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,/Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam/And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.” Actual billowing laundry on a clothesline set this paean off. In its way, it's a glorious poem, joyful and life-affirming, and yet one can't help thinking that the chapped-handed laundress wouldn't see things quite that way.
Such things as clothing and laundry are hard to build a good poem around; nevertheless, poets keep trying. Here’s one by Jane Kenyon, a poem which totally exasperates iconoclast Dan Schneider . He calls it doggerel and she a doggerelist!
According to Schneider, Donald Hall, Jane’s surviving husband, has been known to read this trifle before an audience while acting it out in a wacky pantomime. (Or shirtomime?)
But the World’s Worst Clothing Poem surely goes to [POEM AND REFERENCE DELETED DUE AT THE REQUEST OF THE POET'S DAUGHTER]
Confession of the Day: I once wrote an equally terrible poem about boiling water.
I know of one poem in this vein that is quite fine, though. It’s not about laundry per se, it’s more of a head trip experienced by a frisky male ogling a female at the laundromat. May I present Monsieur Gary Keenan and his glorious double sestina.
A reader of yesterday’s blog entry from the Ministry of Silly Shirt Poems reminds me that Robert Pinsky has written what must be the Ur shirt poem, called, simply, Shirt. He makes a weave all his own, for this is a reverie on both the rightness of a well-made garment and the labor behind the garment. The Triangle Shirt Factory fire, the pickers of cotton, the seamstresses, the quality control inspector—the poem is a rich tapestry.
It seems entirely possible to me that RP had some of the lesser shirt poems in mind when he wrote this one. Seamus Heaney praises what he terms the redress of poetry, by which he means (I think) that poetry can serve as a counterweight for the less ringing forms of communication—journalism, legalese, the Hallmark sentiment—that only screen us from our genuine inner lives. But I think that within poetry itself there is another kind of redress or counterweight. One poet takes up a topic; another accepts the baton, as it were, and takes it up again, but with a different slant. I’ve even redressed my own poems this way. No one poem can speak the complete truth, after all, just a jot of it, but somewhere in the energy field between and among poems, poems which on their surface may contradict one another, a bigger truth lies.
I just wrote “truth lies.” Yes it fibs all right, it does that too! Hear the giggles? The little genies of the blog of unknowing find this to be a real knee-slapper.
Confession of the Day: If I weren’t a poet, I’d want to be a comedian, someone like Lily Tomlin, outrageous, out-there, mordantly charming, persona-donning, verbal.
But, hey, Mad Magazine is one reason I survived childhood!
On Rage: May 29, 2003
Confession of the Day: I seldom lose my temper but when I do, duck.
When it happens, I just wind up hating myself for acting hurtful and being so out of control. Which brings me back to Robert Thurman’s book and the others I’ve been studying about Buddhism. Buddhist practice offers a way out of those miserable spasms of rage. It comes down to simple tolerance. Tolerance of others when they frustrate you. Tolerance of your own flooding frustration. Thurman writes that when you cultivate tolerance, it “provides you with space between stimulus and your reactions to the stimulus.” You are deepened and more able to “discern the deeper nature of the situation.” It’s a way of freedom, isn’t it? Any automatic reaction is indicative of a deep unfreedom.
Every day of my young life I watched my father fly into rages. Anything could set him off, the floppy handle on the refrigerator, a fidgety child, things not found in their “proper place.” My mother, whose tongue could be acid, set him off all the time, but a spilled glass of milk infuriated him just as much as a mordant remark. He was powered by a great engine of rage and outrage, completely unfree.
I’m nowhere near as bad but I understand him now in a way I didn’t as a child. Actually, I don’t understand the unrelenting rage, quite, but I do understand the stimuli. Like him, I am what’s recently been defined as an “extremely sensitive person.” Now that doesn’t mean that your sensibilities are overly delicate or refined, it means that your senses are easily overloaded. Noises or smells or levels of disorder that don’t bother most people cause us acute stress, levels of anticipation that others find energizing we find agonizing. Add a rage disorder to the picture and you get … my poor father!
I suffered and I watched him suffer and I resolved, early on, not to be like that. So when I am like that, when I “lose it,” I am deeply disappointed in myself. Sometimes I think I’ve got that devil whupped and then … it happens again. Last year I found myself screaming like a banshee into the telephone, fighting like mad with a customer service representative from my bank. The poor girl, she was probably just new at the job and didn’t know how to talk to people yet. Right then, I resolved, no more of this. And so far, there’s been no more of that, but one must be ever vigilant. I’ll take the Buddhist cure and just give myself some space before I let a little personal frustration turn me into The Incredible Hulk.
We also called my father The Incredible Sulk. He did that too … he intrigued me, really, the Id Man of Quimby Avenue. Alcohol fueled the rage and the sulks, of course. When he was sober, he was a kind and tender and affable man. I liked just being with him sometimes, in his basement workshop or in his car. He’s inspired many a poem; some can be found over there in my chap, Early Lessons. Within the ample frames of Buddhism, he can only be called “unevolved” and yet I find nothing pathetic or invalid in his life. He was lived by his life, he didn’t live it, but who’s to say that he wasn’t perfect anyway, Ed qua Ed, in the Edness of him? He had no bad intentions. I smile whenever I realize how he did control himself in one way: in my presence, he never swore. “Nuts!” he’d cry, when he banged his thumb; he made himself milder, in that one way, for me.
On Buddhism: May 28, 2003
In “Inner Revolution,” Robert Thurman, the noted American Buddhist, poses the following:
Which view is the accurate one? The materialist critique of spiritual awakening as an illusion? Or the enlightenment critique of habitual materialism as illusory?
The validity of these questions keeps boomeranging in my mind. One minute I see them as profound questions, vital to ponder, the next as straw man polarities. As a Buddhist, RT celebrates the spiritual awakening, a joyful state findable by any person who is willing to let go of the “habitual material illusion” and seek it. One feels lighter just contemplating the possibility of that! But it seems to me that there are other mindful alternatives, that it needn’t follow that you are enmeshed in the “illusion of habitual materialism” because your point of view is more scientific or existential or, indeed, atheist or agnostic.
RT puts a huge emphasis on Buddhism’s teachings about eternal life. There’s no room in it for the existential view that death brings oblivion. He keeps saying that Buddhism has no doctrines but surely reincarnation is a doctrine. One must "take it on faith." Refuse to accept it, RT writes, believe instead that your life is finite and, indeed, insignificant over the long haul, and you will fall prey to hopelessness and pursue only the immediate gratifications. But can one not still be joyful even in the face of existential uncertainty? Can one not still lead a generous and fruitful life, for its own sake and for the sake of posterity?
Confession of the Day: When it comes to reincarnation, I am an agnostic.
Nevertheless, from what I’m learning, Buddhism seems to me our planet’s most life-enhancing religion. It offers a way out of all the psychological traps and fits quite well with our modern ethos of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness. At the same time, it is a religion of deep compassion. It does no harm. Christianity has its own Buddha-like figure in St. Francis of Assisi, with his simplicity, his egolessness, his goodness, his large love for all sentient creatures. In fact, the prayer of St. Francis is very much like one written in the 8th C by the Buddhist poet Shantideva, quoted by RT in his book. I won’t quote Shantideva’s—his is verbose when compared to St. Francis’s—but it is, essentially, the same prayer.
The more you look into the religions of the world, the more you see the commonalities among them.
Which view is the accurate one? The materialist critique of spiritual awakening as an illusion? Or the enlightenment critique of habitual materialism as illusory?
I’ll let Father Hopkins give an answer:
…O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
The Bitch-Slap Incident, or, To PC or Not To PC: May 25, 2003
At Eratosphere, one of our young female members, “Whyrd,” started a topic in General Discussion questioning the quality of the poems in Best American Poetry 2003. She doesn’t like them. She said she’d like to “bitch slap” them.
Colorful term. I wasn’t familiar with it. Immediately, someone piped in with the information that this was an unsavory, sexist expression used by pimps and low-lifes who boast about “bitch slapping” their ho’s and womens. Whyrd said she’d had no idea that was the derivation. She just figured she was the uppity bitch giving those poems a real good slap. Eratosphere being Eratosphere, the discussion mushroomed to nuclear proportions. The others convinced me that the term “bitch slap” indeed refers to the slapping of one’s “bitch”; they did not convince me that the term is used in earnest anymore, if it ever was. A moderate voice or two pointed out that no word or phrase ought to be denied us, that context is all. I raised the question of earnestness. It would seem to me that anyone using “bitch slap” is just being campy. Big surprise, my point was ignored. The discussion continued in a high-toned and horrified vein. Between the lines: anyone who says “bitch slap” is a sexist goon and an ignoramus.
I “private messaged” Whyrd with a word of condolence and told her to stay sassy. I felt that they were “bitch slapping” her! After all, she used the term innocently. The irony is, she picked the term up from a couple of friends, gay guys, who indeed use it campily.
The last time I looked, someone was solemnly preaching that using the term “bitch slap” is colluding with evil. The name Hitler was dropped; as typical in such instances, thinking stopped.
Now today, in the New York Times Magazine, we have an article about the new conservative movement on U.S. campuses. I embarked on the piece thinking I’d be depressed by the whole phenomenon; I emerged in a cheerful mood. Good for them, I thought. Nowadays, they’re the real radicals. They’re stirring things up. In a P.C. milieu, they are upholding free speech. And they’re not all that tight-assed either. They deplore the streaks of homophobia and racism in Old Conservatism; they call the proponents of such claptrap “paleo-conservatives.” In a funny way, these young conservatives seem … liberal. Liberal the way it used to be, before it became mired in haughty political correctness and got downright puritanical. Perhaps a good liberal is a “paleo-liberal”! Perhaps I am that. I certainly can’t abide that whole “shame-on-you,” “gotcha” thing. Ooooh, Whyrd said a bad word …let’s wash her mouth out with soap. Meanwhile no one's really dealing with the elephant in the room, that is to say, white folks using black jive as they archly arch their beautifully groomed upper middle brows. I wonder what The Black Jesus would say about that?
But what do I know. I know nothing and this is the blog of unknowing. I do know that Whyrd’s original point was conveniently dropped. What about those poems in Best American Poetry? Are they good or are they slap-worthy? Discuss amongst yourselves.
On Wallace Stevens: May 23 & 24, 2003
I stayed up till 3 last night reading Wallace Stevens. Suddenly his work opens to me. I always liked some of the well-known anthologized poems--Sunday Morning, Peter Quince—but now I’m finding lesser known poems, little gems. I may feature some of them in my Lectio. For all that, it’s shocking to discover him using words that even in the 20’s and 30’s bespeak arrogance and prejudice: nigger, negress, darkie, Jew. Poets ought not to be so enmeshed in the status quo, whatever it happens to be. Like so many male poets of the 20th C, Stevens wrote like a man amputated below the neck. Thanatos he can handle but not Eros. Lofty thoughts he can harbor but visceral emotions need not apply. The only thing “venereal” in Steven’s poetry is the soil of Florida! He spent the bulk of his life working at an insurance office and was, it seems, a dedicated husband and father. You’d never know it from the writing. He’s a poet of the mind. Lucky for him, and us, that his mind was as fine as it was. I keep looking at the B/W photo of Stevens on the cover, a 60ish man in a business suit lending the camera a penetrating gaze. He looks so familiar to me; he looks like the men in my family actually, the Shaws. I keep drinking in that gaze!
I’m ever irreverent when it comes to the greats. Here’s a bad “first line” of Stevens:
My titillations have no foot notes
And here’s a bad interior line:
The blood of the mind fell/to the floor.
And here’s a dubious simile:
And the cheeks like flower-pots under her hair.
And here’s a Very Peculiar First Stanza:
A purple woman with a lavender tongue
The editors provide a clipped list-bio at the back of the book where a couple of notations popped out for me. Enjoy, O unknown reader:
1921— “Why do you scorn free verse?” He writes to someone. “Isn’t it the only kind of verse now being written which has any aesthetic impulse back of it?”
1935—Discouraged by Elsie (wife) from drinking at home, becomes connoisseur of teas; frequently joins friends for martinis…
1936—Provokes drunken fight with Ernest Hemingway while in Key West in February; breaks right hand in two places from hitting Hemingway’s jaw…tells Elsie he fell down a flight of stairs.
1943—Refuses two invitations to read poetry: “I am not a troubadour and I think the public reading of poetry is something particularly ghastly.”
1953—Declines to speak at memorial for Dylan Thomas ("an utterly improvident person").
I agree with him about poetry readings! So many poets read badly. Some poets are inaudible or monotonous, others affect a deadly “duo-tone” or act hammy. When I listen to Yeats or Plath on tape, I cringe. He sounded like an alien; she sounded affected. The funny thing is, I think I might do well myself, if I could only get over my nerves.
These last few days, Wallace Stevens has weasled his way into my every waking thought. His work is so unusual, I have a hard time defining it. Is it transcendental? Occult? Mystical? It seems to exist on a parallel plane, in a fourth dimension. It frightens me. To think that a man who worked in Insurance gave himself to such images and ideas! I know what it’s like to be a poet and work in offices. You inhabit two worlds, you’re always walking next to your shoes. But I never “turned off” the poetry mind, I took it to the office, I found inspiration there too. I don’t think Stevens did that. He (as it is said) “compartmentalized” his life. Compart-mentalized.
Very dense stuff too; he plays hard to get. Often I don’t have the patience for such things—whomp goes the book across the room. But not this time. Even in his most obscure work, I am carred away by the music of the language, the mouthfeel. But this immersion in his work has left me depressed in an existential sense. His is not an hospitable universe.
I imagine he must be a huge influence on poets such as Ashbery and Graham. Personally, I think Stevens invented a modus of writing that went as far as it can profitably go. He broke the sound barrier, you know? Fly any faster and you implode, disintegrate.
First Blog Entry & Backwards Bio: May 19, 2003
My first blog entry. This could turn into a good opportunity for personal discipline or just a big time waster. I haven’t thought things through yet, not entirely, but I’d like this blog to be disciplined and contained and focused. Confession and self-display are to be avoided, yet it must be a personal chronicle. Hey, I’m 52 and constantly marveling that I’ve not reached menopause yet but knowing it’s close, very close. This is an edgy time for me, a cuspy time, and the perfect time, I think, to embark on a daily journal.
I’ll muse on what I’m reading and writing and watching. Whatever’s obsessing me, I’ll obsess about here. And though I don’t want to be overly confessional, I think I’ll have a regular feature, Confession of the Day, just for kicks. Here goes.
Confession of the Day: I’m an Equal thief; I just keep stuffing those little blue packets in my pocket or purse, ripping off Starbucks whenever I’m there. And I swipe those little brown packets of Sugar in the Raw too, for my husband, for he prefers them over white sugar in his coffee and he prefers not to buy them.
To get things going, I’ll borrow a device from my niece’s blog and summarize my life.
FIFTY YEARS AGO, 1953
I was 2 ½ years old. My family was living on E. Tremont Avenue in the Bronx, on the second floor of a two-family house, a rental apartment. I remember a couple of sets of French doors, and steep steps fenced off to protect me from falling down them. A wall in the kitchen was all blistered from a stove fire. We’d move to a small house in 1955 so I know that all my memories from the E. Tremont place are early memories indeed. Most of those memories are dreadful in the pure sense of the word; I feel dread when I remember them and dread is why I remember them. They are memories of parental strife and personal terror and such like. I can conjure up the atmosphere of that place so easily, it is still so real to me: the cigarette smoke fogging the rooms, the dust motes when sun streamed through the windows, the fubsy furnishings, the dangerous streets with their streaking automobiles, the dangerous brick stoop, the feeling of smallness among giants. Even my one sibling, my sister Janice, was all grown up.
FORTY YEARS AGO, 1963
Grades 7 and 8 at Holy Family School on Blackrock Avenue. I was going through that awkward age, chubby, smelly, socially challenged. The 8th grade teacher, Sister Alvera, was an odd duck. She hardly spoke a word, honestly I sometimes think she taught by pantomime. If she wanted us to take out a certain book, she’d lift her own copy in the air, just like the priests held up the communion wafer at Consecration. She was probably disturbed mentally; other nuns were bonkers there as well. They belonged to a small order called the Sisters of Saint Agnes and their mother convent was in Wisconsin. These were Wisconsin milkmaids, dispatched to the dreary concrete Bronx, displaced, and not very well educated to begin with, that’s clear now, though then no one questioned their abilities or faculties. A nun literally assaulted me in kindergarten as my mother watched and did nothing. It took a while to get over that trauma, I’ll tell you.
The family had been living on Quimby Avenue since 1955, in a small drafty house my father called a “bungalow.” It had a certain “curb appeal” for the area, being one of the only one-family houses around there. An L-configuration of pale stone steps led past a sweet fir tree in a big stone planter and then up to a wide front landing made of pink concrete. Usually we entered through the back door, though, so we’d walk along a shady side alley, past our apple tree, and to a backyard nicely landscaped by my father, who also made many home improvements after we moved in. But he let the house fall into disrepair after a certain point.
THIRTY YEARS AGO, 1973
What a difference a decade makes. I was grownup, fairly thin, earning A’s in college, and in love. I met John that summer when we were both studying drama in Ireland. I had dropped out of college, CCNY, in 1969, to get a job and take an apartment on West End Ave. in Manhattan with a roommate, Myra, whom I’d met at Macmillan, where we were both baby assistants, me in editorial, she in publicity. But I returned to CCNY in 1973 and resumed living with my parents in the Bronx. At 22-23, I was an overage teenager, living with parents, going on dates, going to school. It was a fine time, actually, maybe my happiest time. I began to know for sure that I would be a poet. I also had a part-time job as a typist at the New York Bar Association’s Grievance Committee on W. 43rd Street.
TWENTY YEARS AGO, 1983
Uh oh. Hard year, pivotal year. By this time J. and I were married and living in the same apartment we have now at 102 W. 75th Street in Manhattan. My father had died and this year my mother moved to Maine, to escape a changing neighborhood and live near my sister.
I was also in psychoanalysis, and had been since 1980. It was not a positive experience, overall--my doctor was clueless and the treatment only diminished me, when I was in it. In the long term, though, the analysis had some breathtaking positive effects.
TEN YEARS AGO, 1993
Marriage strong, identity established, job secure. I’m willingly underemployed as an administrative assistant for Citibank credit cards and reporting to the director of marketing, an energetic and a brilliant man, though a tad frantic and disorganized. I’ve got to bring in a paycheck—J. and I bought our apt. when the building went co-op—and I’m making the best of it. Since 1986, I’ve been completely committed to poetry; nothing else matters as much. My work appears regularly in little magazines.
FIVE YEARS AGO, 1998
Still at Citibank, which is going through a big merger crisis for it is really being “taken over” by the mouse that roared, Travelers Group. My new boss, an affable Aussie and the new president of Merchant Banking, is in a bad position; the bigwig who hired him announced her “retirement” in the first week that he’d started work! The following year, he’d be gone and my own job would be literally discontinued. In late 1999, I happily accepted a “package” and haven’t held a job since. I treated my package as a grant and I’ve been writing poetry like a fiend ever since, though the “grant” is long expended.
ONE YEAR AGO, 2002
Alas, ads for decent P/T jobs are scarce. I did have high hopes for one interview I had at a local psychoanalytic institute, but the director was so negative in her description of the job and so obviously ready to be disappointed by whomever she hired, that I hied myself hence right out of there. Meanwhile, yellow tulips are blooming all over the city. The bulbs were a gift from the Netherlands, a bit of brightness for us after the darkness of 9/11. They are the linchpin of a poem I’m writing, The Sociability of Nations.
A quiet Sunday, reading the Times, exploring the local flea market, eating chicken, drinking chardonnay. I don’t have much energy for I’m losing vital fluids due to my remarkably persistent, middle-age period! In the Art Forum of Eratosphere, I alert people to my redesigned website and tell them I am facing the ultimate temptation, to blog or not to blog.