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.