Sunday

I am not a very sociable person. I mean, I'm interested in people, I love to have good conversations, and I'll dance in public pretty much anytime - I'm really not what you'd call shy. But somehow, the particular combination of skills you need for keeping up with social plans every night of the week, going to parties where you have to make noncommittal, chitty-chatty small talk with strangers for hours without accidentally saying something that makes one of them feel weird (oops), absorbing the huge amount of emotional information that goes pinging around a room full of people - whatever those skills are, I don't have 'em. The effort exhausts me, and if I've had to "go out" too often in too short a period of time, it drains my life force and makes me pissy and mean, depressed and restless and resentful toward the poor other people involved, who are most likely just doing their best to get along and are probably suffering to varying degrees along with me. I mean, they might be suffering. I guess it's possible some of them are actually enjoying the party. :-/

Anyway, after a couple weeks of too much of this kind of socializing, today was magnificently quiet. I finally got a decent night's sleep last night, and I woke up feeling worn-out and battered in that gorgeous way, when you're so rested your body almost aches from it. I went for a long, long walk through residential city neighborhoods, which is my favorite way to spend time with myself, and then I read some of an old issue of Parabola magazine that I found at a thrift store for 29 cents on my birthday last week (thrift store shopping being my favorite way to celebrate my birthday). Parabola is smart and gentle and nuanced, like a person you'd feel lucky to know. In this issue (Spring 2005), I found a poem by a Greek poet named C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933) called "As Much As You Can." I think it's okay to post it here because it's also available to read on this official website of the Cavafy Archive. The website has a few different translations of it (Cavafy mostly wrote in his native Greek), but here's the one that was published in the magazine, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard:

As Much As You Can

Even if you can't shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it
by too much contact with the world,
by too much activity and talk.

Do not degrade it by dragging it along,
taking it around and exposing it so often
to the daily silliness
of social relations and parties,
until it comes to seem a boring hanger-on.

Reading this poem, I felt a rush of comfort come over me. I saw and was seen. It was like getting an extra week of days like today, all the time I needed to heal and rest and become whole again.

I'm a poet, you fools

What is it about poets and cops?

I’m reading Eileen Myles’ memoir-novel, Chelsea Girls, and early on she tells a story of a drunk night out with some friends, including this woman Chris, who she maybe still loved. Chris was drunk and starting fights and she punched a cop (!) who then tried to manhandle her out of the car she was in, so Eileen, without giving what she was about to do any thought, jumped on his back. Then they all got arrested. She writes,

“And, in my heart I know the moment of my flight towards the blue shoulders of the law, I was flying for Chris, did love her, and was saving her from the professional mediocrity of white Datsuns, I was releasing her from bourgeoise captivity, maybe bringing her home to the scrubby plains of my drunk art and love. Oh, Chris! … Also, my real moment in the police station in Bath, Maine was when I lifted my sword and revealed to them that I was a poet. I’m a poet, you fools, you asshole cops! Poet has always meant to me saint or hero, the dancing character on the stained-glass window of my soul, the hand lifting slowly through time, the whirr that records my material against strong light, gosh, why I live.”

Reading this reminded me of a wonderful line from the Morrissey song, “Late Night, Maudlin Street”, which might be the most beautiful song he’s written so far (and that’s saying something):

“There were bad times on Maudlin Street.
They took you away in a police car.
Inspector, don’t you know – don’t you care –
don’t you know about Love?”

It’s hilarious, it’s sad, it’s about being misunderstood. I guess that’s what cops represent to artists, to everyone—the authority that patrols the streets making sure none of us look or act too weird, since as we all know that’s a crime in itself.

Myles starts out telling the story of something that really happened, and ends up imagining herself reciting her poems in the police station, as a way of defending herself. I once wrote something like this myself, in the same sort of way—as a fantasy. In my book White Elephants, I tell the story of how one night, I took an office chair from a trash pile behind the Catholic grade school where I spent several unhappy years of my childhood. I still lived in the neighborhood and I walked past the school often, practically every day. On this occasion it was late on a summer evening and I was a little tipsy on wine. I’d gone strolling over to the post office, past the back of the school and the church, which were next to each other, to check my mailbox but really just for something to do. I saw the chair there next to a pile of black plastic trash bags and I wanted it; in my mind, it had certainly belonged to one of the nuns who’d taught me, possibly even the principal, since it was clearly a bigwig’s chair. (It had arms!) There was something subversive and funny and repulsive and triumphant about the thought of owning something that had been inside that awful school. I had to have it. So I pulled the chair away from the trash, and on that quiet street its wheels sounded so loud, grinding against the pavement. I stopped, feeling mortified, but I wasn’t about to give up. I’d just have to get the chair home quickly, and in my drunkenness I decided to ride it.

I sat down and kick-rolled my way back to my apartment building, a thirtysomething lady chuckling to herself like an old hobo riding a skateboard with a seat. I felt scared and embarrassed and free. As I rolled down the empty street I fantasized about what I’d say if I were apprehended, which I was halfway certain would happen. This sexy guy I’d gone to school with was on the local police force—I knew because I’d seen him around town in his uniform. I pictured him stopping me and wanting to know what I was doing. Whose chair was I riding, and why? I would try to explain myself but it would be too hard. Why did he want to know in the first place? Taking something off the curb, someone else’s trash, wasn’t a crime.

“I’m a cop,” he’d say, as if that explained everything.

“Well I’m an artist!” I’d answer, which definitely would.

Irish literature, Irish rebellion, and the lost art of letter writing

On Thursday of last week, I had the great pleasure of listening to a conversation about Irish society between two of the most important living Irish writers, the poet Eavan Boland and the fiction writer Colm Toíbín, at the Free Library in Philadelphia. The talk was moderated by a filmmaker and journalist named Sadhbh Walshe, and its purpose was to discuss the legacy of the Easter Rising of 1916 on the 100th anniversary of Ireland's fight for independence.

I've been to about a million talks and readings at the Free Library, which puts on an excellent authors series every year, and quite honestly I'm often one of about 30 or 40 people there. I didn't bother buying a ticket for this talk in advance because I really didn't expect a program on this rather narrow topic to come close to selling out, but I had a surprise in store. When I got to the library the auditorium was nearly full, and I was lucky to be able to buy a ticket at the door. Even luckier to find an open seat, which happened to be next to an old friend of mine from college. All around us, and in the ladies' room too, I could hear conversations taking place in Irish accents, from both the south and the north. It really drove home the points that Toíbín and Boland made about the Irish in America. One of the first remarks that Toíbín made was to quote Irish ambassador Barbara Jones, who said that there wouldn't be peace in Ireland if it weren't for the U.S. And the connection between the two countries wouldn't exist, of course, if it weren't for the many millions of Irish immigrants who have arrived on these shores over the last few hundred years.

Boland and Toíbín both had many wonderful, insightful things to say during the hour or so that they were interviewed. One of my favorite ideas is one they came back to several times, and which both of them have addressed in their writing over the years: What Boland described as the gap between history and "the past." History, she said, is populated by famous names and important leaders, nearly all of them men. The past is filled with people, many of them women, whose names we never knew, but without whom no "history" would have been made.

They talked about the Irish rebellion, and how it had its roots in the Great Famine, and the silence and "erasure" of that tragedy. Toíbín said that he believes the earliest feeling that the English must leave Ireland came from this time. He reminded us that 1 million people died in the Famine, but 2 million emigrated away from it, most of them to America: To Boston, New York, Philadelphia. Haunted by their memories of the Famine, this "angry diaspora" began making "revolutionary noise" to fill that silence.

The two writers also talked about James Joyce, and Toíbín—always so finely attuned to the female experience—made the excellent observation that Joyce was "engaged in the politics of Ireland by letting a woman speak uninterrupted" at the end of Ulysses. Hearing this made me glow with pleasure. (And reminded me to be exited about going to hear Drucie McDaniel do the Molly Bloom soliloquy at the Rosenbach's Bloomsday readings, as she does every year.)

And to my delight, they talked about handwriting. Toíbín, who grew up in Enniscorthy in the southeast of Ireland, told a story about the 400-year-old castle there. In the 1950s, his father raised the money to buy the castle, which was no longer inhabited and which he planned to restore and operate it as a museum. The people of the town were invited to donate any antiques they had in their homes to fill the castle and put on display, and Toíbín recalled that everyone wanted to bring something, not because they would benefit financially from doing so, but because there was a woman named Marion Stokes with beautiful copperplate handwriting who wrote the name of every contribution on a placard. At home later I read about Marion Stokes, and how some 30 years before this, she had participated in the Easter Rising, helping to hoist the tricolor flag as they declared Ireland a Republic. It was clear that Toíbín was still moved by the idea of this handwriting and what it meant to people, to see their things made into pieces of history in this beautiful way by a woman who had been a part of history herself. (He tells a longer version this story in a recent article in the Irish Times.)

Moderator Walshe led this story, quite gracefully, into a conversation about letter writing. Boland talked about how important writing letters home was to the Irish immigrants who knew they may never again see their hometowns again, who sat down to write them on "the long evenings of their leave-takings." She read her poem "The Lost Art of Letter Writing" and it was one of a few tearjerkers that evening.

"...And if we say
An art is lost when it no longer knows
How to teach a sorrow to speak, come, see
The way we lost it: stacking letters in the attic,
Going downstairs so as not to listen to
The fields stirring at night as they became
Memory and in the morning as they became
Ink; what we did so as not to hear them
Whispering the only question they knew
By heart, the only one they learned from all
Those epistles of air and unreachable distance,
How to ask: is it still there?"

***

The talk has brought up a lot of feelings and ideas for me, though I can't see the full shape of them yet. I grew up in a very Irish-Catholic world, attending Catholic church and school in an overwhelmingly Irish-American parish, and my own ethnic background is largely Irish as well, though my name is German, which was enough to mark me as a kind of outsider in my little community. (That and the fact that my German-named father, who was at least half Irish anyway, was not Catholic: unthinkable!) My mother, who was the one who handed down Catholicism to us and who had grown up with the Irish name and background, always showed disdain for the ethnic pride the large Irish families in our parish seemed to have, and I see now that her distaste came from a kind of shame. It was another facet to my feeling like an outsider to the community I grew up in, which ironically (or inevitably, I guess) has at times made me feel desperate to understand it and get closer to it. I don't know if I'll ever figure out how Irish I really am.

I've read an awful lot of Irish writing on this journey, though, let me tell you. In Toíbín's remarkable characters (so many of them women), I hear my grandmother's outrageous, flippant turn of phrase; I see my mother's thin-lipped rebellion. I understand the nature of the silence and stoicism he describes—and the unruliness beneath it. The lyricism and homegrown feminism of Boland's poetry resonates with me too, on a deep, personal level. Her country's troubled history won't let go of her, but in her writing she grapples with it, and appears to have gotten the upper hand.

As I sat listening to the writers talk about Ireland, I got those incredible lines from Yeats caught in my head, the ones about the fanatic heart that I sometimes like to say to myself over and over again. "Out of Ireland have we come. / Great hatred, little room, / Maimed us at the start. / I carry from my mother's womb / A fanatic heart." It always gets my own heart racing, which has a weird way of soothing me, like a mantra for the restless.

WCW

"In summer, the song sings itself."

Just wanted to share that line with you, that's all. It runs through my head almost every day during the summer, especially when I walk past huge lush bushes, flowers bobbing their heads, nests full of peeping wrens. We're on the other side of all that by now, really--the cicadas are loudly doing their thing outside my window, and autumn is on its way. Before it ends for good I wanted to share that beautiful line with you.

Broken glass like stars

photo by Casey Holford I went to sleep last night clutching Ann Beattie's new book of short stories (The State We're In), with the sound of fireworks popping loudly outside the window behind my bed. When I woke up I finished the first story, "What Magical Realism Would Be." It wasn't bad. On the surface, it's about a "troubled" teenager who's trying to write a story for a summer school program, and the girl has to include elements of magical realism, which she thinks is stupid. (I've never especially cared for magical realism myself.) What the story is really about is how strange life can be, even without any added fictional weirdness. I reflected on the story over my morning coffee and realized that this, actually, is what I like best about short fiction, as opposed to novels, which so often seem to me to be weighed down with unnecessary detail and "story." With a shorter piece, every descriptive word matters. Something about providing just a few vivid details--like a loud storm of broken glass that rains down after some teenagers throw tons of beer bottles out the window of their moving car, which is the scene that ends this particular story--and necessarily leaving out a lot of the more mundane stuff due to the form's shorter length, serves to highlight how eerie, surprising, or odd life can seem. And as a way of looking at things, this makes sense to me. I enjoy the quieter domestic details of a Tessa Hadley novel too, but sometimes what I want is a piece of fiction that really crackles with life, and wastes no time in getting to the good stuff--the broken glass glittering like stars in an upside-down night sky--the beauty that's everywhere around us, if you let yourself look at it the right way.

Buck Moon—From the Field Guide to Insects, by Mary Oliver

Eighty-eight thousand six-hundreddifferent species in North America. In the trees, the grasses around us. Maybe more, maybe several million on each acre of earth. This one as well as any other. Where you are standing at dusk. Where the moon appears to be climbing the eastern sky. Where the wind seems to be traveling through the trees, and the frogs are content in their black ponds or else why do they sing? Where you feel a power that is not you but flows into you like a river. Where you lie down and breathe the sweet honey of the grass and count the stars; where you fall asleep listening to the simple chords repeated, repeated. Where, resting, you feel the perfection, the rising, the happiness of their dark wings.

***

Found this in a book of poems by Mary Oliver that I took out of the library last week when I was feeling blue. The volume is called Twelve Moons, which I liked for its witchy sound. And the poems are as witchy as Mary Oliver's poems ever are, which is to say--fairly witchy, in the most earthy, natural sense of the word.

I'm sitting at my kitchen table as I write this little blog post. It's my favorite place to sit in the whole house, in any house. We have a small kitchen but it's big enough, with two huge windows and a back door onto the yard. The windows have deep sills that I have crammed with houseplants in pots: a snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata), with its sharp, shapely long leaves; a sprig of the huge begonia, stuck into black dirt, that broke off when I repotted it the other day; an African violet with tiny white flowers, a housewarming gift from my mother-in-law that I potted in a polished-ceramic pot that a former tenant left behind in the basement when they moved out. I have two cactuses and several cuttings from a rich purple Setcreasea pallida plant (Purple Heart) that I've had for years. I remember seeing it growing wild in Mexico last summer and feeling the thrill of recognition: I never knew where it came from! There's a paddle plant too, and a palm of some kind that I bought when it was only about 8 inches high and is now so tall and full it has to sit on the floor in a great big pot.

We have a small yard, also big enough. Through the windows, behind my houseplants, I can see the herb garden I'm growing in pots. Short and bushy oregano, tall and bouncy basil, fluffy dill stalks that were temporarily tamped down by last night's freak hail storm. As I looked out just now to describe it, I saw the lady cardinal on the fence, her beak bright orange as ever. She's one half of the cardinal couple that lives in the back of our yard somewhere. Joe identified them as a couple and as permanent residents, and now we love to spot them, probably because we're a couple too, recently married and still new to setting up a household this way.

Dozens of tiny praying mantises were born out back a few weeks ago, and now one of them lives in this kitchen. Yesterday in the morning it was standing upside down on the ceiling, next to a ladybug--both good-luck insects. Later, I found a penny on the street, heads-up.

I get restless this time of year, as well as at any other time that I feel sad. I'm not sad right this moment though, just full of squirmy energy (and good luck, I guess). I want to go swimming in the secret swimming hole in the creek near here, but I hear it's too polluted to go in anymore. I want to put on my old sneakers and tramp through the woods or, like I did yesterday, walk five miles through the city, over broken sidewalks and ducking under kudzu and pricker bushes that no one's cut back. It's wild everywhere in July, even in the city. Especially in the city, because it's people-wild here too. Everyone is restless and no one wants to work. I think I'll try to finish my chores/jobs/tasks by early afternoon so I can go roaming around again, and see what I can see.

Tonight it's the full moon, the full buck moon--lowest full moon of the calendar year. I need to get drunk on wine, play my music loud, prowl around the streets. Break something, climb something, make something. There's a good place to swim in a state park outside of Philly; if I can wait till Friday, Joe will take me there, and we can pretend to be ten years old again, the age I return to every summer. I can let the power that is not me, flow into me like a river.

Nothing on Earth is Big Enough to Crush My Beautiful Heart

That's right. Nothing. heartI made this pretty little poetry book last year, and I would like to share it with you. It's a collection of poems I'd written over the last several years that, for the most part, hadn't really seen the light of day; my hubby J laid the book out and together we designed the rad cover, and by designed it together I mean I sat and looked over his shoulder and pointed at the computer screen while he made it, but truly, some of the better design details are ALL ME.

I woke up this morning thinking about poetry, and how important it can be at certain times. There are things in life that are too hard to talk about using a normal string of words. You need the weird grammar of poetry instead, the way it bends and buckles and opens into sinkholes, so you can find another way in. Yesterday I felt incredibly lousy, as I had for the last several days, but I forced myself to get out of the house anyway, to take the bus to the library and look at poetry books. I'm planning a reading that will take place one day soon, and sometimes when I do those I also like to share a poem that someone else wrote. Poems are made to be shared and I think reading them aloud is probably the best way to do that. So I went to the library and poked around and see if I could find a good poem to share.

I went to the huge main branch of Philly's public library downtown, which is housed in an old Beaux Arts building that's so preposterously gorgeous it occasionally makes me feel weird, like: I just took the bus through North Philly. Why am I in the Paris Opera House all of a sudden? I went to the literature room and marched to the back, where the sign said POETRY AND POETS or whatever, but i was odd, the only things they had were old, like Shakespeare and Spenser and Yeats. The poets were old and the books themselves were old, too. They weren't what I wanted, but I looked anyway, in case I found something that would be useful to me. I gave up after a while and was on my way out of the room when I spotted the other poetry shelves, which were crammed with contemporary poetry. Yippee! Kay Ryan, Mary Oliver, W.S. Merwin, Eileen Myles. I took a few of those books home with me and read through them, and woke up this morning thinking about a poem called "Writing" from Skies, a book Myles published with Black Sparrow about 15 years ago. I read it and something stirred in my chest and I smiled to myself, which was what I needed—the stirring and the smiling—and what I couldn't get any other way. Do yourself a favor and find and read the fucking thing. She is incredible.

I am much, much less of a poet than Eileen Myles is, but I'm not terrible, either. Would you like a copy of my little zine-book? Leave a comment below within the next week, and on June 3rd a robot will choose a winner at random, and then I'll contact that person privately to get their mailing address. Sound good? Good.