Wednesday, December 29, 2010

No City I Know

Because I'm allowed to hold my head up again, I've been out walking and errand-running while I wait for my eye surgery to be scheduled. I have learned how hard it is to do some things with one eye: walk down a broken escalator, put money in your wallet, swipe a debit card in the slot on the little machine. I walked up to the Whole Body store on 25th St to buy vitamins, and because I couldn't see to fit my card into the slot the cashier became quite solicitous. She had to key in my account number twice, and when I offered to give her another card she demurred. She didn't want anything to be more difficult for me. I was both grateful to her and about to cry; I'd never quite so clearly been seen as disabled. Then I went into Whole Foods to buy something for dinner; the store was busy, i was trying to walk forward, be aware of where my handheld green plastic basket was so I didn't whack anybody, and thread my way through the people and the carts, and suddenly I just wasn't sure I could handle it. I had to stop behind a column and just breathe next to the no-sulfites bacon till the feeling passed. Then, determined not to be defeated, I shopped.

Walking home on Seventh, I stopped and covered my left eye, so I could look at Manhattan through my right. What I saw was a murky gray city, tinged pink with my blood, and the dark shapes of figures moving toward and away from me; the one bright spot was a beautiful ripple of reddish neon, saying what I couldn't tell you. It was apocalyptic and like no city I know, and I thought, This is the adventure my soul is having.

Then I had to jump over one of those big slushy puddles that are the ice-cold perils of city intersections when the snow starts to melt, and just as I came down on the other side a taxi six feet away honked at me and scared me half to death, and I was filled with rage. The furious don't think about the spirit at all.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My Right Eye 4: Gravity is Not Your Friend


Any further description of recovery from laser -- trying (and not succeeding very well) to stay face down, doing a pretty remarkable amount of sleeping -- has become moot now. Ned and I came into the city for Christmas, got a happy little tree from a British vendor on 6th Ave, and Paul and I wrapped it in blue lights. Christmas night we were walking out to go to dinner at one of the comfortable but vaguely naff gay restaurants on 8th when my right field of vision half-filled with a darkish, greenish spot, an undulant bit of blood or jelly roiling on the bottom half of my vision. It didn't go away over dinner. I knew what it was, and left the restaurant while Paul waited for the check, and took myself in a cab to the ER. The usual drill: one resident peering into my eye, and when she or he saw what was going on, calling the next level of resident, who'd appear in a while, some holiday event or nap disrupted, peer into my eye, and then begin the cycle again. The people at the hospital were kind, and when I was afraid a lovely Asian-American man who was running the front desk actually held my hand.

Over the course of the next five hours or so we determined that my retina was again detached, and -- truly weird -- the little bubble of gas in there had actually slipped through the tear and was now behind my retina, sliding around, Surgery was called for, and it would probably be Monday. Till then, face down. Gravity, one doctor said to me, is not your friend.

I was home and in bed by two in the morning, and woke to snow, and then the snow just simply kept going, the marvelous blizzard of Boxing Day. Marvelous if you were inside looking at it. Outside, buses and trucks stuck and blocking the streets, people actually stuck in cars they couldn't get out of all night, and -- horrors -- an A train full of passengers stuck out in Queens, people in there all night without food or water or a bathroom. Nightmare material. But it was deep, beautiful snow, and the city took on that extraordinary quiet which always reminds you that you aren't aware just how constantly and alarmingly loud it is here until that rare silence comes again.

Which meant that when I arrived at NYU Hospital on Monday morning, no one was there, except the very gracious Dr. Hoang,
waiting for me in the lobby to tell me to come back tomorrow, bless his considerate heart.


Today I did go back, and met Dr. Reddy, who'll be my surgeon. He peered deep into my eye in what are now the familiar ways
(look all the way up, up and left, left, left and down...), held my eyelid down with the pressure of a slim wooden rod while he peered some more. Then he declared that my retina was indeed thoroughly detached, and surgery would take place, but not today. The OR was backed up from the storm, and some of Dr Reddy's team hadn't returned yet from the holidays, and he'd need them all on hand because it was going to be complicated surgery, maybe a long one, maybe more than one. Probably a scleral buckle, a belt of silicone wrapped around the outside of my eyeball to hold the retina in place. Maybe oil inside the eyeball. Strange to think that the vitreous jelly I was born with will no longer be there; apparently it doesn't really do all that much now save pose the possibiity of further retinal detachment. My eye will be full of some other fluid.

Somehow I feel oddly relieved. I'll go back to the hospital later in the week, when they call me, and whatever will happen will.
I'll have less sight in my right eye, but I'll have sight, which I cannot imagine living without, though I know people do. I understand intellectually that we have a phenomenal capacity to tolerate all sorts of losses, but oh I do wish to be spared that one. I will emerge from surgery with a bloody and swollen eye, and a scary (but I imagine sexy) black eye patch, and I'll begin the enforced stillness of recovery,, which sounds, in Dr Reddy's description, not quite as Gothic as I have understood it to be.

If I close my left eye and look through the right, what I see is greasy darkness, through which a few bright spots -- a lamp say -- gleam, I think this must be like what my friend Steven Kuusisto sees; in his book PLANET OF THE BLIND he describes taking a walk with his guide dog through Grand Central, where neither of them had been, and actually enjoying the adventure of getting lost in there. I love that attitude. When Steve came to Houston to read for us there, he wanted to go work out on a treadmill, and we didn't have much time, so we went to the nearest place: the gym connected to the gay bathhouse on the edge of downtown. Steve is straight, so it was another adventure for him; he couldn't see what was going on on the porn screens, and if some guy cruised him in the locker room, he wouldn't be the least bit bothered, He ran happily on the racing conveyor belt of the machine while his dog slept on the rubbery gym floor. I believe she was the first service dog ever to visit the baths!


Ned is being taken to the dog run in Union Square every day by two utterly charming boys from Barcelona, Rob and Geary. They aren't boys, really, but there is something so playful and a bit rogue-ish in their demeanor that we immediately started to refer to them that way. They have beautiful Catalan accents, and Rob has a bright blue mohawk that is sometimes spiked up but mostly not. The first day Ned was a little uncertain; the second day he was thrilled to see them, and today when they appeared -- unexpectedly for him, for a second walk -- he cried aloud in a way he only does when he is so excited about something he can't contain himself. It's clear that he has a crush on them, that he's extra well-behaved when they're around, and that the affection is mutual. Paul and I were just coming home from lunch today, after my return from the hospital, when we saw Geary leading Ned out of the front door of our building. We held back so as not to disturb, and watched; Ned's tail was wagging broadly when they came out the door, and he went prancing down 16th St toward the park with a kind of carriage that could only be expressing delight.


One bright note: my retina's so screwed up that now I have no restrictions, these next few days, Well, I am told to take it easy -- but I can hold my head up, something I've not been allowed to do for a month. My neck has forgotten what this feels like. I took Ned for a one-eyed walk on Seventh Avenue this evening, and we had a happy time losing two tiny squeaking tennis balls in snowdrifts. I am about to walk out to Marshall's and prepare for my convalescence by buying some new underwear, and maybe some flannel pajamas.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

My Right Eye 3


Head down, face parallel to the ground: the position of dejection. Something happens, when the body's put in a particular postion, as every practitioner of yoga knows; the pose begins to shape how you feel. Try it, right now; turn your face down toward your lap or the surface of the table in front of you, and stay there for maybe thirty seconds. Feel it, something beginning to tug your spirits down? Pose of penitence, of shame.

However, I have some wonderful blind readers who've taught me that, when you don't need to look at the person who's speaking, it's often the most natural position to keep your head face down. That way you're looking at the matter at hand, at the conversation between you. I like this idea better, but the first one is the one that won't leave me alone.


Two days later, my new friend Mike drives me to the clinic. He's an actor, and he's playing Albany in an e-book version of Lear, where readers will be able to click back and forth between the text and the scene in action. He's brought the script along, and he sits reading in the waiting room while I'm lead into side chambers, dilated, peered into. How far down into one can they see, when the pupils are open and one of those searing lights comes blaring in? I'm thinking about the blinding of Gloucester, and all the references to seeing in the play; to see is to discern, to comprehend, to judge, to find a way forward, to recognize one's mistakes, to become aware of possibility, to find a solution to a problem. We mean a host of things when we say, "I see."

Laser, I've always heard, doesn't hurt. Dr. Federici, my dapper and reassuringly at ease opthamologist, says that some people experience it as a toothache in the eye, which doesn't help me to imagine anything except that I'm not going to like it. Some, he says, don't feel a thing. At first simply a blip of green light -- shades of Gatsby! -- a green light that feels softly focused and then seems to land, strangely enough, on the back of my eyeball, and with each suceeding little green burst that landing feels more and more like a punch.

But the small blows, it turns out, are not landing on my retina, but on the blood clouding the back of my eye, which drifts across my vision in an unpleasant grayish scrim. Much as Dr. Federici tries, nothing is accomplished, and we drive back home, where I have two more days, head down, to wait.


There isn't a lot you can do with your head down. I am assured that if I had full-tilt surgery, in the OR, I'd have to remain face down for six to eight weeks, which I am pretty certain would be the end of any claim to sanity on my part. It gives me some comfort to know my penitential spell is shorter, but it's possible I may have to undergo that kind of surgery if the laser doesn't work, so that doesn't help much. You can't really go for a walk with a seven month old golden retriever, or safely drive a car, or shop for groceries. Hard to have a conversation without at least raising my head sometimes. I imagine some kind of state wherein I'd arrive at a meditative calm in response to imposed restriction -- but that's a dim prospect out there somewhere, one that feels like someone else's life.


Back to the doctor. This time my eye's far more clear, so the pummeling little beam hits its target. Four hundred and forty... what, units, shots, bullets? of green light seal the tear in the back of my eye and then ring it three times. Dr. Federici says the combination of the laser and the bubble will, this time, wipe me out and he's right; my eye aches, I want to sleep endlesslessly, and I don't have to come back for a week. In the meantime, face down. But there's hope in the sealing of the rupture; maybe the end is -- sorry -- in sight.


The equipment I've rented online arrives, in a big box, a bewildering bunch of green vinyl pads redolent of an old weight room at the Y, and a lot of black pipes and knobs to turn. I'm really glad Mike can put it together, though when it's assembled the results seem truly disappointing. There's a horseshoe shaped contraption to sleep on, face down, which frames your face the way a hole in a massage table would, but when you lie on it the smell of the vinyl and the previous pentitents who've rested there overwhelms. Well, not an odor exactly, more like an aura, individual weeks of discomfort and defeat, multiplied.

The more elaborate contraption sits on the edge of the table, and two pipes with adjustable knobs support another face-rest. This allows you to sit at the table, lean way over, rest your head on a padded platform parallel to the surface, and stare at -- what else -- a piece of green vinyl between three and six inches from your head. It's awful. I think about Temple Grandin and those devices she made to help cattle feel more at ease on their way to slaughter. I wish that the manufacturer of these items would consult with her; there must be a more cheerful way to be face down, something that doesn't make one feel worse.

(more to come -- apologies, but I'm only able to do a part of this at a time)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Right Eye 2


Some experiences are so particular -- sui generis, unlike any other you've known -- that the memory of them is hard to hold onto. Already my first treatment seems like an hallucination: my right eyeball numbed, the prod of a stylus marking a spot on the lower right hand corner -- no pain, just the odd feeling of a bit of pressure on the eye, the surface bouncing back as the point is removed. Then I'm told to look way up to the right, so as not to see the needle approach. What sounds more horrific than a needle in the eye? Though in fact it doesn't hurt at all, just a curious sensation of having been punctured or entered, and then -- seemingly in seconds, a bit of the vitreous gel from within my eye's extracted to lower the pressure, and -- swoosh, though of course there isn't and sound -- a bubble of gas is injected in its place.

There are cloths covering my face, only the right eye open to the right open to the various lights that are coming and going, and with the advent of the bubble follows the most extraordinary lightshow: the bubble, refracting light, goes flying up to the top of my eye, pushing back dark floaters and bits of stray gelatinous matter, all that darkish flotsam receding, and suddenly the view goes simply blank, all white, as though I'm looking at the screen of a crashed computer. Then, as though that train of thought has generated the visuals that come next, appear little squares of color -- hot pink, black, chartreuse, gray, flicking on and off, rearranging patterns, like some kind of animated composition illustrating, what, jazz? It's pleasurable, this show, and then it's gone, and in its place a bright sky half blue and half golden yellow, bits of weather moving through, and it fades to the dark bulk of the opthamologist's head, and the miner's lamp on his forehead.

Bend over, he says, put your face between your legs. And I do. In a while there's a resident on his back, on the floor, looking up into my open eye, and ah-ing, and then there's another. They are so pleased and proud of their work! My eye is indeed far more clear, and floating in the enter of my vision is a round blue bubble, bobbing a little, for all the world like a contact lens on the surface of a swimming pool.


The ten minute procedure took two hours, though indeed most of that time involved dilating, being eyed (so to speak) by many residents, and the overall general happiness about the procedure. Instructions for recovery: keep your head face down for the next two weeks. Ninety per cent of the time. My immediate response is: impossible. More or less impossible. And come back in two days for laser treatment to seal the tear; meanwhile the bubble will be holding my ripped-open retina (which I'm imagining as a frail, iridescent film, something like fish scales but more delicate) in place.

(more to come)

Monday, December 6, 2010

My Right Eye

Thursday night Paul and I went to dinner at a Belgian restaurant on 17th Street. We were enjoying the warmth of the place and the foxy Antwerp-meets-Chelsea style of the maitre'd, and I was thinking about a slightly uncomfortable matter I wanted to discuss, when an odd thing happened. My right eye filled with a swirls of what looked like dark brown smoke. I thought something was wrong with my contact, excused myself, washed my lens in the mens room, and it seemed better, but then it wasn't. The odd perception seemed to fade away, and after a while we went home and watched an episode of The Wire.

The next day, driving out to Long Island, I kept thinking the windshield look dirty. I squirted the washing fluid a couple of times, but when the wipers stopped moving, it didn't seem much better. Experimentally, I closed my left eye, and whoa: It was snowing, a steady stream of little gray flakes, like the sort of road-dirtied particles of sleet you'd see on a highway in mid-winter. It occurs to me that person with less skill at denial than myself would, at this point, have taken some action. But when it comes to the body -- and I suppose to other matters as well -- I have a long-standing habit of hoping thing will go away, then being forced to rush to respond when they do not. And I was looking forward to the evening, and figured I could call my doctor later if need be.

Saturday, late afternoon, when the mild flurry in my right eye became a storm: what had been curlicues of smoke were now large brown floaters in random shapes, sort of menacing, and there was a green half-circle at the bottom of my field of vision, and if I covered my left eye what I could see through the right looked coated in vaseline. Ned needed a walk, so I took him on his leash down the road to a Jewish cemetery a block away where he can run off-leash when there's no one around -- and i've never seen anyone there yet. That evening the twilight was descending, the leaves were blowing; at least I thought those were leaves, and what were those black and white shapes playing under the trees, and those rushing shadows? I couldn't see Ned anywhere, and suddenly the active dark was a little terrifying, a restless and uneasy forest. We walked home, and I did what anyone accomplished at denial might: took a nap. Then I got up, called my doctor, and at his advice drove myself to the ER at Stonybrook.


Nothing could be further from my expectations about an emergency room. First, there's free valet parking for the patients. Honest. Just inside the door a guard at a desk asked me what I needed, and sent me directly to Triage. I was asked a few questions, made some jokes with the kind and interested woman behind the desk, who seemed happy for a little wit to be injected into what must often be a dire conversation. For some reason, as we spoke the green spot in my eye turned, all at once, an alarming and hostile red. I like red; I'm not used to seeing it look threatening. Was it the light in the room, or was my retina tearing open that fast? I was immediately taken to a private room where I could lie down, rest and await a series of concerned people. I was in this room for about six hours, but in truth never felt neglected; in between the various persons who came to shine lights of increasing intensity into my eye -- so that i was soon seeing, along with everything else in there -- craters and cracked mud in dry desert lakes. I fell asleep in my room in the dark, was examined again; people had to go and get larger and more intricate lamps to shine into my eyes. Once a resident held up an eye chart, and I could see on it absolutely nothing. Then I realized, in a while, that i could make out letters, not because i could focus but because whatever obscured my vision was moving -- a kind of gelatinous matter shifting under the surface of my eye, the thought of which made me feel ill.

In a while a resident concluded my retina was detached; a more advanced resident appeared, rubbing his sleepy face, and eventually concurred; a senior opthamologist was consulted, the poor fellow roused from his bed at four A.M. I was presented with my options, the most attractive of which was the less invasive procedure, something that could be done in an office, with a local anaesthetic: a bubblle of gas would be injected into my eye (good God) to hold the retinal tear in place, and then lasers would seal up the wound. This might work but didn't always. I might still require surgery.


Now it seems to me a bit surreal that I drove home, but that's what I did. In truth, my left eye just seemed to take over, and the road didn't look especially different to me. East Hampton, empty at five-thirty in the morning, the little shops decked in lights, was beautiful, a toy town under a Christmas tree. My dog Ned was thrilled to see me -- he's seven months old and I've never left him alone overnight -- and seemed bewildered by the upside-down schedule: why would I come home in the morning and go to bed? I was convinced (just how tired was I?) that I was to go receive my bubble on Monday morning, but in retrospect that makes no sense at all; it we'd waited that long I could easily have lost my sight in my right eye.

So I didn't understand, two hours later, when the phone began to ring and ring. Who was calling me so insistently?. On about the fifth call I dragged myself out of bed, only to find my doctor wondering where I was. Nothing else to do: I threw on some clothes, Ned hopped in the car, and we drove to Stonybrook. The procedure, they said would take ten minutes.

(That's all the typing my tired eye will allow for the moment. Part two follows shortly.)

Friday, October 29, 2010

If the locomotive... (parts two and three)

Last night I was so weary after a day of teaching and panel-participating that I ducked out of the evening reading here after the first reader was done: i'd like to have heard my two other colleagues read but I just couldn't attend to another thing. So I started walking up the hill to our room by myself in the dark, and just as my mountain lion fantasy began to assert itself, there in the darkness by the path was a jackrabbit, sitting up, elegantly lunar long ears alert. She was just sitting, and didn't budge till I walked over toward her and she scurried ahead a little. Then I realized why she wasn't darting away: a baby about the size of my hand was wandering around on the pine needles by my feet. This seemed a possible message from the night: you will not be eaten by a mountain lion, Mark, at least not tonight, but you might get to say hello to a mama jackrabbit.

And then tonight, after Terrance Hayes, John D'Agata and I read, Paul and I came walking back and took a different, higher path, so dark that we had to trust the gravel under our shoes to tell us we hadn't wandered astray, and over and behind the sound of some writers talking on the path below, we heard this high pitched concatenation of -- sirens? emergency vehicles? the whoops of cop cars when they want you to move over? Of course -- coyotes, in a grand yipping conclave, a wild-toned Bacchante pack. Wonderful, primal, disruptive, the delicious shiver of otherness in it.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down....

Paul and I are at the Marconi Center, a coastal conference place just north of Point Reyes, on the incredible coast about an hour from San Francisco. The grounds -- which smell like eucalyptus, conifers, moss and rosemary-- are very dark at night, and we were walking up a steepish dark trail after the reading last night with two women we didn't know, participants in the conference. Somebody mentioned mountain lions, and we cheerfully recounted the story we'd head from a local fellow, who a few years back was walking in the middle of the day in the golden grasses up on the mountain above the dining hall when he saw such a creature stalking through the grass. He talked about how struck he was by the animal's movement, and I thought how much I'd love to see such a thing, even if were in the dark on the way back to our room. The women grew quiet after we told this story, and I admit that I found myself taking boyish pleasure in scaring them just a iittle with the idea of beastly proximity. I am afraid of various things, but mountain lions are not one of then, and I found myself quoting Jack Gibert's brilliant poem "A Brief for the Defense": "if the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, we should be grateful that our end had magnitude." I know there's a certain bravura jokiness in that sentence, but I also think I would rather be eaten by a cougar than, say, be devoured by an English Department. My companions did not see either the humor in this or the allure of magnitude, at least not at that moment on the dark path. And needless to say I don't really WANT to be eaten by a mountain lion. Not very much.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Good morning Baltimore...

My hosts here kindly found us a pet-friendly hotel, the Sheraton downtown, so Ned has just spent his first night in a hotel. The best part was the big bed, which allowed for mutual sprawl. We were both worn out from travel and the reading (three hours on a college campus with a lot of people around is little overstimulating for a young fellow) and unwound from the reading with answering e-mails and much rubbing of the blonde belly.

This morning, however, was a little more frantic. The patient and calm Ned, once he saw me putting on my socks, began to wiggle and jump and bark. (Is there anyone in the next room?) Down the hall to the elevator, and when the doors slid open Ned walked in, eyed the smooth travertine of the floor, and started to pee, the spreading puddle distinctly yellow against that bone-colored stone. What to do? I stuck my foot in the door, which alarmed Ned so much he ran out of the elevator back onto the carpet. I thought about running back to the room for a towel, but surely the elevator would be gone by the time we got back. On the bureau across from the elevator door was one copy of USA TODAY -- the perfect use for that paper! I wadded it up and set to work, Ned pulling at his leash and looking at the doors (which kept trying to close) with alarm. Then some kind of buzzer went off, a sign that something -- me -- was stuck between them. If I pulled my arm in, the doors would close on the leash, I'd be going down, and Ned would be left on the third floor wondering what happened. It didn't seem possible to push forward, but I gave it a go and the doors loosed their grip, sending me tumbling toward Ned and the paper sleeve of my coffee cup cup flying down into the bit of pee that remained on the floor. Maybe that would make it look like a bit of spilled coffee?

So we headed to the stairs, me with my big bundle of wet newspaper, Ned excited about walking down the hall. I forgot that he has been afraid of going down flights of stairs; in the city, where we live in a third floor walk-up, he simply sits down at the top of the stairway and expects to be carried down. This morning, no such thing: he went trotting down four flights of stairs into the lobby, where we strolled out to the revolving door and the sidewalk: Baltimore! October! So many thing to attend to: pigeons, passing dogs, children in strollers, anyone wearing a hat. We were promptly thrown out of a corporate plaza across the street, then headed west, into a universe of things to be investigated by nose and mouth: spilled drinks, urine, napkins, chicken bones, pizza crust, kleenex, KFC boxes, more newspaper, and the invitingly distinct scents of the shoes of men sitting at bus stops.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I have been found by Mr. Briggs Arthur of Barclay's Bank

This e-mail arrived today; it's pretty wonderful, save for Mr. Arthur's assertion of his skin color. I'm not sure how to read that number -- a billion? some unthinkable sum of millions? -- but it sounds good. I like the way the writer seems to have just given up on credibility, as if he's tried more modest proposals and now he might as well just pull out the stops. Anyone want to write and claim the treasure?

My Dear Partner,I am contacting for good.

I have Million Pounds that I want to Transfer to your Bank Account.

Please Reply Immediately to enable me give you more Informations about this Transaction.

I am a white Man and also a British Citizen.

I will send to you a Copy of my International Passport Once I receive Reply Ok.

Please we will deal only through Email for security Reasons.

Email contacts : (

From Yours Partner

Mr.Briggs Arthur

Director Barclays Bank


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Nantucket, Maggie Conroy's tobacco barn, and Dean Young on the culture of creative writing

Paul and I got stuck on Nantucket (I know, the limerick possibilities immediately spring to mind) this week. Every boat off the island was cancelled due to the high seas and wild wind, but our friend Maggie Conroy graciously came to our rescue. I'd known Maggie a little in Iowa City, when I was teaching there; we used to go to great parties at her and Frank's house. We hadn't seen her for years, and she appeared as a rescuing angel, loaning us her Ford Explorer and welcoming Paul and Ned the pup and me into her amazing house. It was built, forty years ago or so, by Frank and a carpenter, constructed of cherry-wood beams from an old tobacco barn. They kept the barnlike feel -- a great room in the center, small rooms off to either side. We had a wonderful time; it was a privilege to be in the dreamy, inviting house with Maggie and our friend Joy and Maggie's dog Neville while the rain came down on the salt marsh out the big windows.

I was thinking about these friendships -- all of us brought together by times held in common in various institutions that are part of the culture of creative writing -- as I was reading Dean Young's THE ART OF RECKLESSNESS, one of the new volumes in Graywolf's series of short "handbooks" for writers. I put that term in quotes because of course there isn't any such thing, once you get past manuals or style. These little volumes, a various lot, look into aspects of craft, and their intent isn't so much to explain things as it is to complicate the conversation about craft, providing signposts for exploration.

Early in Dean's book there's a terrific manifesto/rant about graduate education in creative writing. Since MFA-bashing (and now PhD-bashing) is such a perennial activity, I want to post Dean's artful defense here.

"Let us put to rest all those huffy complaints about the proliferation of MFA programs, as if courses of study that offer support and allowance to people for the exploration of their inner lives, for the respected regard of their imaginations, their harmless madnesses and idiosyncratic musics and wild surmises, somehow lead us to a great homogeneity as well as a great dilution of the high principles of art. Some people try to convince you they love poetry by showing you how bad all the poetry they read (more likely don't read) is, just like those who love love so much they've come to the conclusion that nothing and no one deserve to be loved. Some people try to convince you poetry is so important you have no business trying to write it without severe indoctrination. But POETRY CAN'T BE HARMED BY PEOPLE TRYING TO WRITE IT! The billions of MFA programs and community creative writing workshops and summer conferences and readings, all of it is a great sign of health, that the imaginative life is thriving and important, and worthy of time and attention, worthy of conditions in which it is honored and encouraged to wildly grow. It's not a marketplace where the bad forces out the good. We are not a consumer group; we are a tribe. The MFA programs may be booming because our business is to boom. OUR BUSINESS IS BLOOMING. If there is a problem, it is in the professionalization of creative writing. J'accuse, AWP! When Tomaz Salamun was asked by one of my students what was the one thing he would like to tell a young poet, he said, Be artists, not careerists. I do realize that people have real economic concerns, and two or three years of graduate study are traditionally geared toward the establishment of a career. But realistically, all these young writers cannot be English professors, nor do many of them actually want to be. Our creative writing programs would do a better job offering students guidance in other possible employment options, suggesting courses, outside creative writing and literature that could lead them to decent work outside academe. But when I walk into a creative writing class of any kind, I am thrilled with the liberty that all of us in that room have managed to achieve through a faith in and dedication to art, and the profound sense of possibility that something one of us does can become a vibrant part of that art."

I especially love "the liberty that all of us in that room have managed to achieve through a faith in and dedication to art..." But I'd add -- and this surprises me a little -- that in the literature course I taught this spring, a seminar on Whitman and Dickinson, I had that same sense of liberty, of our freedom, dedication, courage and pleasure as readers.

And, in some way, our pleasure inside the dry barn house while the winds battered the island -- thirty miles out to sea! everyone likes to say -- felt a part of those same communities of writers and readers.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Three splendid announcements at once

Teachers have no right to pride, really, when it comes to their students' work. All I can claim to have done is ask questions and make some statements about what I saw in the poems before me. I try to be a friendly, interested advocate for what seems most alive in the work at hand. My ideal is for the writer I'm working with to feel thoroughly SEEN -- that someone (me) is looking very closely at what they've made and are trying to make, and attempting to articulate that project with them.

But even though the writer does the work, I can't help but feel this flush of pride when first books find their way into the world. This week brings the news that THREE of my former students have just had books taken, and I am feeling beside myself with delight. Lauren Berry won the National Poetry Series; Terrance Hayes chose her book for Viking Penguin. Glenn Shaheen won the Agnes Starret Lynch Prize and his book will be published by Pittsburgh. And Lacy Johnson, whose dissertation was a formally rambunctious assemblage of text, video, photos and audio recordings, has just had a print version of the work accepted by Iowa. Hot damn. I am, in whatever relation to these books I might claim (even if it is hardly any at all other than cheerleader) inordinately happy.

Monday, August 9, 2010

In a couple of hours I will be fifty-seven, which is a gigantic relief to me. Fifty-six has been a hard year in general, but it's acquired a particular dark charge because it's the age my mother was when she died, in 1976, of cirrhosis of the liver. At first I thought my aversion to the year was a a kind of magical thinking, but then I learned that if indeed it is I'm not alone with my folly; a number of friends have spoken of their own difficulty in passing through the age of a parent who'd died at her own hand, or perished to some addiction. Perhaps we just don't want to outlive our parents, so to speak -- can we succeed where they did not, is that permitted? Or perhaps it's the fear of a toxic legacy, an inescapable inheritance.

But now I am about to leave fifty-six, alive and breathing, reasonably intact. For the occasion I've been making gestures toward the future. One of them is above: Ned, with whom I am entirely in love, and to my mind quite reasonably so. With good luck we're going to be together now for a a long time to come. And this evening I went over to my neighbor Joanne's and dug up a young catalpa tree, which is going into my garden in the morning. I've always loved them: the big virile leaves, their pungent scent -- does "pungent" really convey anything at all? Think green tomato stems, tannic acid like black tea leaves steeped a little too long. And the word, catalpa, with its Whitmanic echo of Native American speech, something southern in those three vowels, inviting one to extend the a's... In the picture, Ned is resting his head in the hole I'd been digging around the slender trunk, which you can see on the right hand side of the image. After I finished, Joanne and I had some French rose' and listened to the screech owls announcing the twilight. We tried to think why just that moment -- are they waking, is it suddenly dark enough, or cool enough, for the world to begin?

So, a good fifteen years with Ned (knock on the wood of the table where I write), decades of catalpa after I'm gone. Tomorrow Paul's taking me out to celebrate -- presents, lunch, a nursery I like in Montauk? -- and that will be all about the present. But this evening's solitary goodbye to fifty-six has entirely to do with days to come.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Deep Lane

I took this picture last week, in the late afternoon, in Amagansett, down the road a couple of miles south of our house here. Deep Lane is the most beautiful name for a road I've ever heard, I think: the two monosyllables, the two long vowels, with the higher pitched vibration of the 'e' and the more soothing relaxation of the throat required to produce 'a.' And then there are the suggestions of the words themselves: the road is deep because it dips, just before the patch you see here, but it might also be deep in the country, or deep in memory or in one's regard, or it might carry one deep into -- what? And "lane," doesn't that speak for itself? A lane is modest, it doesn't go anywhere of note, it's unimportant in the larger scheme of things. "Lane" speaks of domesticity and familiarity, a kind of ease. "Lane" is to "road" as "cottage" is to "house."

Those are part of a flock of sixteen or so wild turkeys; the others are off to the left, down in a little clearing. I've never seen so many together at once.

The dark object in the lower right hand corner is the front left fender of my car: I stopped while the turkeys continued, in groups of three or four, joining the flock.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

From world to word

I'm happy to report that my little handbook for writers, THE ART OF DESCRIPTION, has just come out from Graywolf, and here's the first review -- a starred notice in PUBLISHERS' WEEKLY. I know it's immodest to pass along one's own reviews, but hey... this project has been a bit of a labor of love, and a while in the making, so I'm happy to see its first reviewer express pleasure in it, and happy to pass these words along:

The Art of Description: World into Word
Mark Doty, Graywolf, $12 (152p) ISBN 978-1-55597-563-0

"To use words at all is to use them figuratively," says Doty in his writing guide, part of Graywolf's "The Art of…" series. As both a National Book Award-winning poet (Fire to Fire) and accomplished memoirist (Dog Years), Doty is not only qualified but uniquely articulate on the subject. How does a poet create color? Landscape? Context? Saying "blue" or "field" means different things to different people, and also falls short of encompassing any kind of atmosphere or significance. "Poetry's project is to use every aspect of language to its maximum effectiveness, finding within it nuances and powers we otherwise could not hear," he says, and in order to capture the "texture of experience," the poet must be aware of what is actually in front of him or her, both physically and metaphorically. Because the simple act of looking involves interpretation, descriptions are, in a sense, "self portraits"--no two people see the same way, so the poet inevitably puts him or herself into each and every image. For Doty, the art of description is mostly "a balance between terms, saying what you SEE and saying what YOU see." (Aug.)

Friday, June 25, 2010

In the old cemetery, Amherst

"And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves."

Monday, June 14, 2010

Yesterday my friend Phil Schultz gave a terrific reading at Guild Hall in East Hampton, a retrospective performance that moved through his new volume of selected poems -- and thus through a career -- offering a piece or two from each book, then concluding with a suite of new poems in which the breadth and spirit of the work that's come before felt both crystallized and amplified. It was really energizing.

Afterwards, dinner at Town Line Barbeque on Route 27 with a host of poets and artists, a sweet-spirited time. I was thinking about the sort of group snapshots that show up in the biographies of artists who've spent time out here over the decades, and these seem ripe for just that sort of thing.The picture on top was taken by yours truly: that's Paul, Phil, Star Black, Carol Muske Dukes, and Monica Banks. The second shot is by Star Black, and from left to right it's Julie Sheehan, yours truly, Phil, and then Phil's son Augie. This picture reminds me of old Chinese poems, scenes where the poets gather in some mountain hut or tavern someplace, a brief respite from the rest of the world, some joyous hour.

While I'm at it, here's a piece I wrote about Phil's new book, THE GOD OF LONELINESS: New and Selected Poems, for the East Hampton Star. There is, of course, a potential ethical issue in reviewing friends' books, but the fact is that if poets don't write these things, who will? And in truth I'd rather call this an appreciation than a "review" anyway -- poets of this stature don't require reviewing, but perhaps something more like a description of the way they've become fully, unmistakably themselves.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Ruthless furnace

Yesterday we heard that the first balls of tar had appeared on the shore of Key West, at Fort Zachary Taylor Beach, a place we've often been to swim -- as much as one can swim there, where the waves break steeply after traversing deep water and suddenly hitting a narrow shelf of sand. When Paul told me he'd read this -- that oil had moved into the current that would carry it to the Keys, and probably from thence around the tip of Florida and up the east coast, I had a physical response. A shut-down. A rupture. Entirely silent but something breaking. I've had this feeling, here and on Facebook posts, that people didn't want to read about bad news, and of course who doesn't feel inundated with the horrors of the news -- war and disaster, extinction and corruption and pollution and the endless failure of leadership? We've been hearing it all our lives and it's only gotten worse. But somehow this sense of steeling ourselves against the realities of the world needs to be broken through, or set down for a while, in the face of this moment's gravity. I think Jack Gilbert is right when he says, in an unforgettable poem called "A Brief for the Defense," that

              We must have
       the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
       furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
       measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

It's true, but conversely it is also the case that something as grave as the murder of the Gulf of Mexico -- and how much ocean on beyond it -- is so overwhelming an instance of"ruthless furnace" that we need to lay the private gladness down, the good sense of being a living body. We need to be willing to weep, to be outraged, and to ask every question we can about our endless, characteristically American sense of powerlessness. BP says it's a minor spill, with minor consequences, and the turtles die, and the Gulf churns black, and in how many days or weeks will the coral reef be dead forever?


And now, on the evening of the 18th, tar balls on the beach in Big Pine Key, where the endangered key deer live. That means the oil is rounding the tip of the Keys already.


Yesterday, May 19, pure crude oil coating the wetlands of southern Louisiana, "as thick as chocolate syrup," sad the CNN reporter. Photos on Huffington Post of a dragonfly and a crab, covered in oil. Everything in the marshes touched by the oil, which include the marshgrass that IS is the marsh, holding the marsh together, will be dead in a week.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Paul took this picture when I wasn't paying attention yesterday at the Audubon Zoo. We were in the elephant house; outside you can see Jean on the left and Panya on the right. Jean and Panya were wild-captured about forty years ago, when each was around one year old. Jean was a circus performer, Panya a pet; they wound up in the zoo, where they've lived together for more than thirty years. Just after this photo was taken, we fed them a snack -- apples, pears, carrots, and their favorite, corn on the cob, served husk and all. Everything grabbed by the trunk and elegantly stuffed into the mouth, with pleasure -- save that Jean did spit out an apple, which is apparently not her favorite food.

Afterward, Panya grabbed hold of the metal gate with her trunk and rattled it like a small peal of thunder -- something she does, we're told, when she's happy.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

From the balcony

We're in New Orleans for the opening of the poetry project I've been working on for the last two years with the Audubon Zoo, a part of The Language of Conservation Project, which is installing poems as part of the permanent exhibits in five American zoos. Tomorrow evening, we'll take the first trainload of viewers through the zoo, stopping along the way to talk about some of the poems I've chosen -- including work by Dickinson, Whitman, Neruda, Hopkins, Langston Hughes and many more. I haven't even seen the results yet myself. I can't wait for tomorrow, when I'll see what Terry and Mignon, the zoo's design team, have done.

This photo was taken last this afternoon from our hotel room balcony, five floors above Orleans Street big humid Gulf Coast clouds piing up, and the ninety-one degree heat suddenly softened by wind off the water, smelling of moisture and -- oh what have we done-- petroleum.


Later, in the night, just after Paul had fallen asleep, after we'd drawn the curtains over the balcony doors to muffle the revelry coming up from Bourbon Street, one melancholy and soulful voice, a young man, I thought, singing acapella: I was raised by the river, in a little shack... Like the very ghost of Sam Cooke, right on the corner of Royal and Orleans.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Lush and spilling over

Readers of this blog will have noticed a good patch of silence of late: end-of-semester (and so of my wonderful Whitman-Dickinson-Twentieth Century Seminar which I wish just went on and on) meets National Poetry Month. I would be relieved, next year, if we instituted something like National Poetry Morning, or maybe National Poetry Tuesday. I understand, of course, that attention is a good problem to have, and also that I could say no a little more often. But the colleges and other venues where I read understandably want to schedule events during poetry month, and so before you know it April's calendar becomes a scribbled and crosshatched road map. And as the month proceeds, I seem to have less and less of an inner life, and must concentrate carefully on reservations, tickets, schedules... lest I do what I did yesterday, and confidently jump on the wrong train, only to find myself heading into the wrong part of New Jersey and not able to get where I need to be at the right hour. Thank goodness for cheerful sponsors and patient audiences!

But last night I got to the Springs, after a pleasant afternoon in South Brunswick, and we had dinner in our favorite welcoming Mexican restaurant in Amagansett, and then drove home into an oddly warm night, the big sky out here between the dark bulks of the trees a streaked jumble of clouds and stars. A good night's sleep, and then, this morning, when I'd planned to spend the day in the burgeoning garden, it poured down rain.

But the rain made the garden glow more deeply, the blue of the ajuga electric against countless shades of green, differentiated by the leaf-shapes and textures that make leaves so inexhaustibly varied: strap foliage of Siberian iris, near-white curl of the tight fern fronds, busy matte-textured curls of the fountaining daylilies. Last year the garden had been such a banquet for the deer that it didn't seem anywhere near as green and full by early May. It's all a bit of a mess since I haven't been here to weed and attend, but because the garden's got a solid structure -- better this year, after lots of moving and fiddling last season -- it looks beautiful even in its neglect. Lush, spilling over -- partly the gift of this spring's wild rains. The woods around us are still full of brackish ponds, and every time it rains again they spill over onto the road.

I wouldn't be noticing much of this if I didn't have this day of shutting out whatever I'm supposed to be doing and simply looking. Exactly what body and soul want, after the surface-gliding of travel. Tomorrow I have to go to a reading, then introduce one, then go to a party in the city -- but I will be bringing the green along with me, invisibly, and it will be with me now for many months to come. No teaching this coming fall. So a long season of tending this place while I'm also tending the book that I've been promising will at last come together this summer and fall. An almost unthinkable luxury: June until December, to make of the pieces and scraps and essays I have of this project, which has been simmering -- oh, two years now, three? Of course I'm going to be traveling too -- Juniper Institute in June, Tomales Bay in October, readings here and there. But the focus, now, shifts toward home, and my body seems a little ahead of the calendar, already settling in.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


The brilliant editors at GRANTA have just come out with a new issue centered around the provocative title of this post. The writers assembled include Jeannette Winterson, Herta Muller, Dave Eggers, Roberto Bolano, C K Williams, Carl Philips... just to name a few. Remarkable company. And with a really admirable flair, they've commissioned two young British artists (currently showing at the Barbican) to make three micro-films touching upon three of the pieces in the issue. The first film concerns the Bolano; the second, yours truly's essay, "The Unwriteable"; the third, a not-to-be-missed finale, is based on Dave Eggers's "Four Animals Contemplating Sex." Enjoy!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Luxuriating in a break from AWP

Now and then I feel a twinge, thinking of Paul and a good four-fifths of the people we know gathered in Denver, all trooping down hotel hallways to panels, gathering in hotel bars, piling into overcrowded cars to go to off-site readings, comparing notes on the psychic weirdness of being in a strange city with a good percentage of the writers in America. This is the first AWP conference I've missed in a while. Truly my system just rebelled at the thought of doing it again so soon after last year; Chicago felt like a kind of psychological boot camp, as if we were all slogging together through some difficult period of being in a community so large, vibrating and edgeless that it seemed to swallow all individual life. Everyone's always trying to analyze what's so strange about the experience of the conference: a vast number of fundamentally introverted people in one place, a social situation that makes everyone want to feel known and recognized, and then makes the known and recognized want to run and hide. These are true but not entirely an adequate explanation of the existential peculiarity of it.

One thing that makes it feel like a wild ride for me is that it's like attending many reunions at once. In one hour, I have encountered friends from high school, from grad school, from practically every writing program I ever taught in, and from a great many of the schools I've visited over the years. All streaming toward me in random order, full of good-natured greetings, excited to reconnect. Which excites me, too, until I begin to feel like a large wave that has gathered strength all day and then broken on the shore in one big shatter of foam and bubbles. I feel just like the speaker in Whitman's incredibly desolate poem, As I Ebbd with the Ocean of Life -- which ends with poet looking down to see himself on the shore as nothing more than a scatter of seafoam and straw.

Though of course I have to admit that I miss the elation and exhaustion of it. A little. But not enough to come to Denver. Love to all of you there!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Beloved wolf, beloved bears

I've hardly had time for reading for pleasure this spring, but I've been slowly nursing a novel, TENDER MORSELS, by Margot Lanagan, and this weekend I took a few lavish hours for myself and finished the book -- in bed, wonderfully, in the Springs, while the rain came pouring down outside on one of the darkest nights out there I've ever known: no streetlights, moon, stars, the neighbors in bed or away, just absolute darkness and rain on the roof and windows. Perfect.

Lanagan's novel is a fairy tale, of a sort, about a woman so harmed in this world she's lifted to a sort of heaven devoid of conflict, where she raises her two daughters -- and of course, no growing person can remain in a world without tensions and edges. The book's billed as a novel for young adults, but there's no reason it shouldn't be for any reader, especially if you're at all susceptible to the artful evocation of magic, to tales of transformation, and of profound encounters between human beings and animals.

Lanagan's prose is so beautiful and exact that she makes extreme experiences of ravishment -- living through rape, or passing between worlds, or becoming a bear -- feel entirely available to her reader. And despite the darkness of the book, what one carries away is a startling sense of enchantment, of the possibilities with which the slippery and uncertain world shimmers at every moment.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Remembering Ai: Tucson, 1970, blue satin dress

One day in my first poetry workshop -- I was seventeen, and a student in Richard Shelton's poetry workshop at the University of Arizona -- Dick told us that we'd have a special guest for class. Her name was Florence Anthony, and she'd also been a student at the U of A, and now her first book was forthcoming from Houghton-Mifflin, chosen by Galway Kinnell for a poetry series. She had chosen another name for herself, Ai, and when she entered the room I think there must have been a kind of psychic ripple that passed through our collective awareness. She was a slender, poised African-American woman with a decidedly glamorous aspect; she was wearing a tight sky blue satin sheath dress, though it was a Tuesday or Thursday afternoon in Tucson, and the rest of us were wearing -- oh, cut off jeans, Indian-print shirts, beads. She sat on the edge of one of the classroom chairs, both forthright and a bit shy at once, and Dick asked her questions, and then she read some poems from her book, CRUELTY. Harrowing, heart-reading, violent poems, face to face with the brutal struggles of her characters, relentless. I'd still say it was her best book. I can feel the sear and shock of those poems now, the world she opened before us, this calm and elegant young woman -- she was all of 23 at the time -- reading her ferocious lines.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Stress echo

This morning I wasn't allowed either food or coffee (the latter deprivation a serious one indeed) because I had an early appointment for a "stress echo" test, a phrase I couldn't figure out until I remembered the "echo" in "echocardiogram." My father had two heart attacks, and my doctor reminds me that I'm of the age for vigilance -- so off to the cardiologist's lab I went. Ten sensors were attached to my chest; I lay on a table on my side while another sort of sensor was pressed to my rib cage near my heart. I climbed on a treadmill and began to walk, speed and incline gradually increasing, until I was running, and my heart-rate had reached the level of intensity the technicians wanted.

Then I had to lie down again, quickly, on the table, and the sensor was pressed to my skin again. And then, when they were done, I turned my head and saw, on a video screen, my own heart. It was golden, and pulsing, and resembled a cross between a Georgia O'Keefe flower and a jellyfish. On the left hand side, it was pulsing at its normal rate; on the right, it was contracting furiously -- so strange to think of all my blood pouring through that aperture! During how little of history have people been able to see their own beating heats? I couldn't resist asking the technician how it looked. He said, "Really great."

Monday, March 15, 2010

Spring taking place

Last night, after days of torrential rain out here on the far east end of Long Island, I opened our side door to go down to the basement to start some laundry, and there was a sound last heard so long ago, an entire year, and in between then and now this long and grueling winter... the spring peepers, on their very first night, in the swampy woods across the road! Every year I'm shocked by that chorus, and somehow this year especially so, that after all that deep snow and endless cold, here's this life suddenly awake and chorusing. They are actually part of a group called "chorus frogs" by naturalists, and in their brief season they chime at each other (with each other?) like there's no tomorrow. If you don't know them, you can listen to an audio recording here. And if you do know them, you're likely to find the sound even more pleasurable. (It's a good thing there's a recording readily available, because something about their ringing, interwoven shouting-out, with its slightly metallic tone, seems to completely elude description's grasp. Who could ever get it right?)

Monday, March 1, 2010

Crooning from under the mud

In the current issue of THE GAY & LESBIAN REVIEW, there's a remarkable poem by Patrick Donnelly. Here it is:


guesses he's killed some man or men. Can't imagine
how long a pilgrimage could in iron shoes atone.
If all were ignorant, do all bear the blame?

How dared
his indigent seed
lodge a bullet upside anyone's sweet puppy head?

Whose faces? Whose shade
rises, swears he's the feckless fuckhead who molested my blood.
His mischief keeps crooning from under the mud

little milk caught the kitty, made off my heart,
little love in the ditch, little lord that I hurt,
little bug, little bat, broken as dirt.

That title nods directly to Cavafy, but in his work it would lead to a restrained, aching elegy for gone days of sexual pleasure. But Donnelly's erotic memory has, of course, been re-colored by the advent of HIV, and these remembered boys, who were touched with such pleasure -- did the man who so ardently enjoyed them also infect them?

The poem took me back to a discussion, years ago now, at the final OutWrite conference in Boston. Sarah Schulman was sitting on a panel talking about AIDS, activism and writing, and she asked the panelists "What have you noticed about the epidemic that hasn't been represented yet?" The first thought that came into my mind, as an audience member, was Everything. It was as if, when the horrific crisis years came to an end, we were all so exhausted and shell-shocked that it didn't seem possible to write another word. How to talk about the new dizzying fact that people we thought would die soon now might live a long time? How to talk about a transformed relationship to medicine? A culture where the artifice of chemical intervention becomes an ordinary, daily reality -- even, to some degree, no big deal. And then there's the matter of our recent history: years of grief, years of injury, just behind us, and how to find any terms for all that?

That conversation was years ago, but I still feel that the situation of HIV is weirdly under-visible in our poetry. That's one reason I find Donnelly's poem just thrilling. It looks headlong into the awful prospect of guilt in the transmission of disease, and though it speaks to those perhaps-lost men with tenderness, it also doesn't let the speaker off the hook. He reaches towards those ghosts tenderly, but he doesn't dodge the fact that he may be the one who "molested" their blood. "Milk caught the kitty" is utterly chilling, both childlike and sinister.

Finally, the poem's virtues don't just reside in its content. It's an artful little song, these four three-line stanzas with their deft loose end-rhymes, and then that aching, scary song-within-the-song at the end, spoken by the "mischief" of the speaker -- imagining himself as unknowing murderer -- singing up from beneath
the ground, in lines that feel charged with pity and sorrow, guilt and tenderness and threat.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Paean: Mussels

Here's a poem from a terrific book, torch song tango choir by Julie Sophia Paegle, soon to be published by the University of Arizona Press. I love (no surprise!) the descriptive richness of this poem, with its very exact attention to the look and shape and behavior of mussels. But I'm also delighted by the poem's daring in ventriquizing these creatures: of course they'd speak, if they could, in the first person plural. I like Paegle's formal acuity, too; somehow these syllabic stanzas feel themselves like bunched tight mussels. And it's a delight the way the last stanza's surprising image takes us to the winglike form of a hinged mollusc shell -- wings made blue-black, here, by their distance from the heat of the divine, or by the darkening smoke of hellfire.


Blue inside
obsidian, blue of compression,
blue of the fleck

and of flash-
cooled glass. We anchor
volcanic, and fast.

We embrace
and make changeful our
beach. We bury.

Between, we
breach -- our numbers our
read -- but do

not be fooled
by the forfeit of blue,
that sad shadow mim-

icry shift-
ing on waves, or within.
Not slate, nor

azure, we
are devotion to tidal

we turn to the
backing away of the ocean
as cicadas

turn to their
seventeenth year, as delphinia
gravely follow

the sun, not
unlike some seraphim long
after faltering.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

That suspense of punctuation...

In light of my Dickinson post of the other day, I thought I'd add here a remarkable, useful passage from an essay by Heather McHugh called "What Dickinson Makes a Dash For," from her book BROKEN ENGLISH. I'm not sure anyone ever said this better.

"Eudora Welty says the writer's work is to detect the pattern beneath the given, a shape at once lyrical and mysterious and felt, which 'is the form of the work...underway as you write and as your read.' (Writer and reader both do it, intuit the shape in the act, and their acts are by no means opposed.) The mysteries of meaning (at-once-still-and-moving, at-once-part-and-whole, at-once-read-and-written) obtain in literary as in spiritual realms. They resist logical codification because they sense, inside all diction, contradiction.

It is not the definable (delimiitable) finally, that interests Dickinson; she is drawn precisely to that uneasier thing, what can't be said. The relative exhaustibility of a literary construction is one measure of its inadequacy to this truth; and Dickinson's sentences and lines often seem designed (in judicious ellipses, elisions, contractions, puns and dashes) to afford the greatest number of simultaneous and yet mutually resistant readings. Where a lesser writer might try to comprehend the world by adding more and more words to his portrait of it, Dickinson allows for it, by framing in opposites or absents, directing us to what is irresoluble or unsaid, Where the addition of a word would subtract even one of the cohabitant readings in a text, she leaves the sense unsteady and the word unadded, What critics sometimes lament as cryptic or obscure in her work proceeds, I think from this characteristic reticence - a luxurious reticence, a reticence which sprouts and branches meaning in many directions, the way more exhaustive (less ambiguous) texts cannnot... Her richest work is precisely what critics since Higginson have called 'elusive,' and its signature is the sign of the dash -- that suspense of punctuation, that undecidabiity, which is not an indecision."

Friday, February 5, 2010

As you might be able to tell from the dearth of posts here of late, I've been absorbed in the new semester -- as well as having my attention turned to a couple of writing projects whose deadlines seemed to come looming up out nowhere, though of course I'd only been pretending that I still had time to work on them. Those are finished now, but I find myself more deeply drawn into the seminar I'm team-teaching with my colleague Meredith McGill. Because we're reading Dickinson, I've been thinking about the remarkable powers of wrenched or unexpected syntax, and the ways in which meaning is disrupted, complicated, and made multiple by the sheer power of ordering sentences.

This is poem 285:

The Love a Life can show Below
Is but a filament, I know,
Of that diviner thing
That faints upon the face of Noon
And smites the Tinder in the Sun --
And hinders Gabriel's Wing --

'Tis this -- in Music -- hints and sways --
And far abroad on Summer days --
Distills uncertain pain --
'Tis this enamors in the East
And tints the Transit in the West
With harrowing Iodine

'Tis this -- invites -- appalls -- endows --
Flits -- glimmers -- proves -- dissolves --
Returns -- suggests -- convicts -- enchants
Then -- flings in Paradise --

The first three lines of the poem might open many a piece of Victorian verse, with their comfortable assertion that earthly evidence manifests some portion of divine love. But the examples Dickinson chooses to show use the power of that over-arching spirit are peculiar ones indeed, if love darkens noon, smites the sun's own fuel, or halts the wing of an archangel, it's a powerful and disruptive force indeed.

The stanza that follows grows even more emotionally ambiguous. That filament of the divine is what provokes us in music, and what may, in the middle of a summer day, bring an unnameable pain; that filament of love may be what troubles and frightens in the medicinal color of a sunset. Divine love seems here to do anything but comfort;
the promise of the larger life discomfits, unsettles, wounds.

And this leads to the remarkable final stanza. Could there be another nineteenth century poem in which 12 verbs appear in 4 lines? How wildly modern this stanza seems, these verbs flung upon the page, each set out by attendant dashes, making a list full of opposites, a list that "hints and sways" as Dickinson says music does. What's above us, what the world larger than the visible one is as appalling as it is enchanting, as condemning of us (it "convicts") as it is endowing. Has anyone ever written such a bristling, contradictory, gorgeous list of verbs? The poem seems to explode, syntactically, in this final stanza, as if what Dickinson has to say about the world behind the world is so overwhelming, has placed such pressure on her speaking voice that she's become a stammering speaker, seized by this multiplicity of verbs.

And what to make of that final gesture? "Flings in Paradise" refuses any singular sense. If we take "flings" as another in that chain of verbs, then "fling" is an action performed by that filament of divine love that we csn apprehend on earth. Does it toss Paradise into our awareness, into the mix of actions that the other verbs have set in motion? Or do we take "flings" as a way the filament is moving, swaying as it does in music, a glimmering thread of the other world? Or is to "fling in" a gesture of relinquishment; like flinging one's sword to the ground, so that here Paradise is being tossed away, abandoned? The phrase seems to exist just beyond the edge of sense, forever floating in a zone of ambiguity the poem's created through the agency of Dickinson's daring construction of the sentence. If they should even be called sentences anymore, these deceptive and shimmering constructions of speech moving down the page.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

My city

After some time on Long Island and in Mexico, I'm back in NYC, and tomorrow's the first day of my class for the new semester, a graduate seminar on Whitman, Dickinson and their twentieth century heirs. Because my books are scattered in three different places, I went to work at Poets House yesterday, using their superb library to find the right range of poems for my syllabus. The first photo was taken yesterday morning, looking out from Battery Park, just outside of Poets House, out toward Liberty and what Hart Crane called "the chained bay waters." The second one is from early this evening, the moon over 7th Avenue, the sky a perfect, glowing winter blue. That jiggly white apparition is the moon.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tangled lines of lost possessions

The cab driver at JFK told me he knew just where I was going, in order to catch my bus out to the South Fork, and so I sat back -- weary from the day-long journey from the Yucatan to Queens -- and watched the expressway lights, and called Paul and talked on the phone a while, and so didn't notice till the driver made a u-turn, then tentatively eyed some dark-looking intersections, that he didn't know where we were. I had to fire up my computer and look up the directions, and by the time we arrived the fare was about a third higher than in should have been, and my bus was already idling at the stop, with clouds of frozen exhaust billowing up from the tailpipe. So I hurried to charge the fare, pack away the laptop, get my bags together -- the two masks I bought in Merida, packed in the special Anne Waldman/Kiki Smith tote bag Anne gave me, where were they? I got it all together, raced to the bus, only to discover it wasn't my bus after all. And there I was in the aching cold, right next to the galactic rush of the L.I.E., and I realized that inside the departing cab was my hat. My favorite winter hat, with two layers of knit wool, and ear flaps -- decorated with blue pigeons! -- that folded down perfectly over my ears. Gone.

Thus the hat becomes indelible, at least for a while, as it moves to the front of the line in the great chain of my lost hats. I imagine this line snaking behind me, moving as I do, curving off toward the horizon: Kangol caps, baseball caps, watch caps, longshoremen's caps, stocking hats... I begin to imagine this line intersecting with lines of my other lost things. The longest must be the line of pens, a half century's worth of writing implements. Shorter lines of jackets, shirts, shoes. An enormous line of single socks, how is it possible?

Then it's easy to imagine my trails of lost things intersecting with the trails of others. I move inside the lobby of the Fresh Meadows Cinema to warm up (at least some)before my bus comes; it's packed with people lining up to see Avatar. They're all trailing cordons of things they couldn't manage to hold onto, shorter lines for the children, longer and more elaborate ones for the adults holding their hands. The room's so thick with tangled lines it's a wonder anyone can find their way to the ticket counter, where the seven PM show in 3D is already sold out.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Poets awakened by wild festivity...

I write from The Italian Coffee Company, on Calle 62 in Merida, in the Yucatan. This place, which is smack in the centro historico, has the best coffee I've found here so far. The centro seems to be thronged with people all the time -- some of them tourists, but the majority are local, at least just now when this part of town's all athrum with doings for Three Kings Day. Last night I was just falling asleep when a very grave male chorus began in the street outside my room, their volume swelling. I'm used to lots of street music outside, but this was something else, as if the Stalingrad men's choir had come marching down Calle 60 outside my hotel. Then there was a huge explosion, as if some part of the hotel had just blown up, the walls and rafters literally ringing. Through the high bathroom window, I could see a streak of gold in the sky, over the Plaza Central. By the time I threw some clothes on and got out onto the terrace, Anne Waldman was already there in her glamorous black bathrobe, and Tim Siebles came stumbling out, and the three of us watched the sky light up over the square, to the wild roars of applause greeting the Feast of the Epiphany. Thousands of grackles were winging their way out of there, in shock over the explosions -- so the birds were streaking east and the fireworks flying up and the wind blowing big billows of smoke after the birds.

Friday, January 1, 2010

In memory of Rachel Wetzsteon

From the Times obituary:

Ms. Wetzsteon’s work was often rooted in her Morningside Heights neighborhood. In the title poem of “Sakura Park,” here in its entirety, she wrote of the small park near Riverside Church, known for its cherry trees:

The park admits the wind,
the petals lift and scatter
like versions of myself I was on the verge
of becoming; and ten years on
and ten blocks down I still can’t tell
whether this dispersal resembles
a fist unclenching or waving goodbye.
But the petals scatter faster,
seeking the rose, the cigarette vendor,
and at least I’ve got by pumping heart
some rules of conduct: refuse to choose
between turning pages and turning heads
though the stubborn dine alone. Get over
“getting over”: dark clouds don’t fade
but drift with ever deeper colors.
Give up on rooted happiness
(the stolid trees on fire!) and sweet reprieve
(a poor park but my own) will follow.
There is still a chance the empty gazebo
will draw crowds from the greater world.
And meanwhile, meanwhile’s far from nothing:
the humming moment, the rustle of cherry trees.