word therapy

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Photo credit: U.S. National Archives

Sometimes when I feel hopeless, stressed, scared, overwhelmed…, I just write a list of words and then I feel better:

alluvial, lisp, litany, undertow, carve, abide, message

There.

I hope you feel better now, too

 

thesis-ing

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The word thesis is from Latin thesis, meaning “unaccented syllable in poetry”; later (and more correctly), “stressed part of a metrical foot,” from Greek thesis “a proposition”; also “downbeat” (in music), originally “a setting down, a placing, an arranging…” from root tithenai “to place, put, set.”

I find this only mildly comforting.

Now back to thesis-ing…

on dormancy

 

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dormant adj.

(of an animal) having normal physical functions suspended or slowed down for a period of time; in or as if in a deep sleep.

• (of a plant or bud) alive but not actively growing.

• (of a volcano) temporarily inactive.

• (of a disease) causing no symptoms but not cured and liable to recur.

[ usu. postpositive ] Heraldry (of an animal) depicted lying with its head on its paws.

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I had not intended to let this site go quite so dormant this summer. I suppose I use here the “of a volcano” type of dormancy: temporarily inactive.

The good news is that my writing life has not been dormant. I’ve spent many mornings at my not-desk, thanks to my mom who set up a cozy little writing space in her basement for me while we were at her house, and thanks to sheer determination in other locations—at my aunt’s and uncle’s dining room table while Eldest Son slept on the floor a few feet away; at my MFA residency; at the kitchen table in the crappy (if I do say so myself) corporate apartment we’re now living in while we wait for our house to be move-in-able.

I’m hoping to get back to a more regular posting pattern soon, but until then, here’s a favorite poem about dormancy:

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THE WILD IRIS by Louise Glück

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.

It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
buried in the dark earth.

Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.

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makeshifting

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I have begun to believe that the word makeshift should be a verb.

makeshift: serving as a temporary substitute; sufficient for the time being. Syn.: temporary, provisional, interim, stopgap, make-do, standby, rough and ready, improvised, ad hoc, extempore, jury-rigged, jerry-built, thrown together, cobbled together. Ant.: permanent.

I am makeshifting a writing desk here, as we prepare to move. Again. This time, it’s a happy move, home to The Mitten. Mostly happy. It’s always hard to leave people you love, and I love some very amazing people here.

For the record, I’m aware that winters will be longer and colder in Michigan (people in and around the Peninsula Town are fond of mentioning this). I have faith in my ability to endure, and expert knowledge of winter clothing strategies, sometimes makeshift in nature, but effective (bread bags in your boots, anyone?).

In the last few weeks we’ve: moved out of our house into a rental apartment, sold the house and rented it back, moved out of the rental apartment and back into the house, traveled to Michigan to look at houses, and traveled back again. In the next few weeks, the kids will finish the school year, the movers will come, we will say our ‘until-we-meet-agains,’ and then make our way north and east.

Which is to say: Life: 5,472; Poetry: 3 1/2.

Most of everything is packed away, so there’s a lot of makeshifting going on: borrowing clothes, hunting for eye drops in the oddest places, wishing I’d set a few more books aside to remain unpacked, making do, shifting expectations, even doing without my afternoon cup of tea from time to time (I know: it’s sad, but true). I’ve been thinking a lot about connections to objects (it’s the books I miss most, and my flannel shirts), about comfort; thinking a lot about refugees, their rooflessness, all the makeshifting they are made to do a thousand times a day. My makeshifting is nothing in comparison, of course.

I’m going to try not to disappear here, checking in when I can, maybe posting things in shorter bursts. Making, shifting, &c.

friday roundup: squalor, sad poems, and blackberries

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This  may or may not have been the scene at my writing desk for most of yesterday.

Dear Reader, it’s Friday again. I’m dashing this off early because later this morning I’m going to see the Bonnards at the Legion of Honor. (!!!!!!!!!) Bonnard is one of my favorite painters of all time. I’ve lost track of whole days paging through books of his paintings, and now I get to go see Real Live Bonnards With My Own Eyes. I can hardly believe it. Isn’t this life amazing?

But first, the roundup:

squalor  n. a state of being extremely dirty and unpleasant, especially as a result of poverty or neglect; from Latin squalere, “be dirty.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about squalor this week. This is because a meme has been circulating on Facebook with a quote from J.K. Rowling on how she was able to be a mother and write a book. The quote, which I believe comes from this interview, is this:

“(P)eople very often say to me, “How did you do it? How did you raise a baby and write a book?” and the answer is, I didn’t do housework for four years! I’m not Superwoman, and living in squalor that was the answer.”

At first I felt a little rush of jubliation: Oh, it’s okay if I neglect all the housework and just write for four years, because this is how you get a book written! But almost immediately, I thought, Ick, I don’t want to live in squalor. Maybe I won’t be able to write a book. I’m by no means a neat-freak, but at the Wee, Small House we all work together to keep the place relatively clean and tidy. Because I want my home to be peaceful and welcoming and relatively clean and tidy. I feel like June Cleaver when I say that, but it’s true. I don’t do well in squalor or anything near it; it distracts me and makes me miserable.

Then my larger-minded self reminded me of a few things:

  1. Memes are not the answer. They are often clever, funny, wise, and/or insightful, but they are not the answer.
  2. I have already written a book, although I have not yet found a publisher for it, and I did it without living in squalor.
  3. Yes, if you want to write a book you’ll have to make tradeoffs.
  4. Every writer gets to decide what her own tradeoffs are. J.K. Rowling was willing to live in squalor; that’s what worked for her. My tradeoffs are usually made in the economies of sleep, time with friends, and the nature of the meals we eat (hello, grilled cheese and tomato soup, once again).
  5. And then, yes, sometimes the writing gets short shrift because of life, life, sewing ribbons and elastics on your daughter’s pointe shoes, and life. To quote Sarah Ruhl: “Life, by definition, is not an intrusion.”

So, friendly reminder: You can write a book. You will have to make tradeoffs. You get to decide what the tradeoffs are. You will find a way to do it that works for you. You don’t have to live in squalor (although you may choose to). Life is not an intrusion. Amen.

sad poems  I am often drawn to the darker pockets of life in my writing, because those are the pockets of life I’m trying to understand. I understand the joys, but I need to probe the sadnesses for their meaning. Sometimes I worry that if people knew me only through my poems, they’d think I was sad, conflicted, and skeptical to the hilt. That’s why I was so happy to come across a short piece by Kelli Russell Agodon this week on the topic of sad poems. She writes about why she’s drawn to dark subjects in her poems, and shares a poem by Linda Pastan that can be everyone’s answer for why we write sad poems. The essay is here; go read it.

blackberries  I’ve been spending a lot of time with one poem this week as I attempt, so far unsuccessfully, to tame my essay on Larry Levis and the elegy. I’ve been spending a lot of time with one line of the poem in particular: A word is elegy to what it signifies.

If you know this line, you’ll know it’s from Robert Hass‘ “Meditation at Lagunitas,” one of his best-known poems. I’ve read a couple different things (the actual sources are lost in the fogs of memory) over the years that kind of criticize this poem as too romantic, or too simplistic, or whatever. I don’t know. I remember coming across it years ago, before I knew who Robert Hass was and before I knew much contemporary poetry, and really loving it. And for me it’s a poem that I learn something new from each time I spend time with it. I still love it, still learn from it. Here it is for you to enjoy.

I wish you the best of tradeoffs and blackberries in triplicate. Thanks for reading!

 

friday roundup: more silence

 

Hello, Reader and happy Friday. I am still on my silence kick… #sorrynotsorry. Here goes the roundup:

what silence can do   This week I’m in the process of reading several texts on silence:

These are all very academic texts and, while fascinating, they don’t speak to what I want to know about silence. What I want to know is this: Philosophy aside, aesthetics aside, linguistics aside, what can silence do in a poem?

Rae Armantrout has some answers for us in this essay. She writes that silence can (and I am paraphrasing):

  • admit mistakes
  • concede personal limits, or finitude
  • indicate the presence of the ineffable
  • concede the presence of another
  • wait for an unknown response
  • hover at an edge or boundary
  • straddle the border of statement and non-statement, consequence and inconsequence

Quoting Max Picard, she notes that silences in poetry can ” ‘leave a clear space into which another can speak’.”

She also argues that what she calls “the lyric format” (as opposed to prose or prose-like , declarative poems) has a greater potential for evoking silence, then looks closely at several poems and how their particular silences are achieved: for example, by minimizing grammatical connections, ending lines abruptly or unexpectedly, deliberately creating the effect of inconsequence, and/or using white space strategically.

So all these ideas about silence—both the lofty and the nuts-and-bolts-y—are rolling through my mind as I continue to be relatively silent at my desk, writing stillborn lines, false starts, and silences.

what haunts  And just in time, just when the stillborn lines, false starts, and silences begin to feel overwhelming, a quote comes along that helps me to reframe and start again. This morning on Facebook, the poet Kelly Cressio-Moeller shared this gem from Rita Dove:

“I don’t want to be looking around for something interesting to make a poem out of. That should not be the impulse behind a poem. That’s not why you do it. You do it because it haunts you, and you write to discover what it has new to say to you.”

The quote is from this interview.

I know what I’ll be doing just after finishing this roundup: I’ll be making a list of things that haunt me.

 

Persephone, with silences  Here is a poem by one of my favorite poets of silence, Jean Gallagher. I hope you enjoy it.

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Thanks for reading. May you be haunted. May all your silences reach down much further in the dark.

 

friday roundup: hidebound opinions, ‘those beautiful names of horses,’ & ‘the ax that breaks this lock’

Perhaps the only remotely good thing about a poet dying is that we are sent sharply back to her words. And isn’t it true that the words of poets become more weighty after their deaths, because we know there will be no more from them? At any rate, I have gone back sharply and here is what I’ve found:

hidebound

hidebound adj. constrained by tradition or convention; narrow-minded

At poetry group last weekend, the person in charge of the craft talk led us in a discussion of the work of C. D. Wright—who is perhaps the least constrained by tradition or convention, the least narrow-minded poet of recent memory, but who gathered her poetics in an essay called “69 Hidebound Opinions, Propositions, and Several Asides from a Manila Folder Concerning the Stuff of Poetry.”

I’ve been living with the essay this week. All of her little quotes and quips about poetry I’ve gathered over the years in my notebook of quotes are there, along with so much more. Here are a couple of my favorite bits:

“It is poetry that remarks on the barely perceptible disappearances from our world such as that of the sleeping porch or the root cellar.”

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“It is the quality of omission or suppression I believe which determines the quality and degree of a reader’s participating in the telling—what is latent in the work that the reader alone can render active and integral to it.”

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(and this one is my favorite:)

“This is the poet’s choice: to attend to a presence no one else is aware of, to spend the better part of a lifetime preparing for an arrival that could not occur but for her attention, that would not in fact otherwise make its blaze on this world.”

You can read the whole essay here.

those beautiful names of horses  Now for another dead poet: Larry Levis. I think of him as the Poet Laureate of Oblivion, his poems ache so with love and loss and the fleetingness of, well, everything. I’ve been reading his work these last two weeks, traversing his long, wandering lines & coming face to face with his ampersands. I’ve been thinking about his ampersands and what they achieve—what does the ampersand do that the word ‘and’ cannot do? Where, how, and why does Levis use them?

Well, someone else has been thinking about Levis’ ampersands, too, and far more cogently and poetically than I have. Yesterday, I read Mairead Small Staid‘s essay “The 27th Letter,” and I fell in love.

The essay looks at the ampersand—its history, what it can do that the word “and” can’t, etc.—and its function in Levis’ work: “Both ways is the only way it is.” Beyond that, the essay is beautiful and poetic and carries its own ideas about why we read and write poetry. Here’s a teaser:

“To list what you love, many-chambered as the heart; to couple one part to the next to the next, forced to give nothing up; to carry what you love, to wear it on your chest, to possess it as fully as you can—this is one reason, at least, to write poetry or to read it, those beautiful names of horses grazing on the tongue.”

You can read the whole essay here. And huge thanks to Sandy Longhorn who linked to the essay on Facebook, which is how I found my way to it.

“the ax that breaks this lock”  About two seconds after I posted the last roundup, I heard the news that the poet Francisco X. Alarcón had died.

Dear Universe, enough with all the poets and artists dying already.

Here is a beautiful love poem he wrote to round out the roundup this week:

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from OF DARK LOVE
by Francisco X. Alarcón, translated by the poet

I

there has never been sunlight for this love,
like a crazed flower it buds in the dark,
is at once a crown of thorns and
a spring garland around the temples

a fire, a wound, the bitterest of fruit,
but a breeze as well, a source of water,
your breath—a bite to the soul,
your chest—a tree trunk in the current

make me walk on the turbid waters,
be the ax that breaks this lock,
the dew that weeps from trees

if I become mute kissing your thighs,
it’s that my heart eagerly
searches your flesh for a new dawn

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Happy weekend and thanks for reading!

friday roundup: heat wave edition with fragments, ruins, and katydid

IMG_5564Dear Reader, it is so hot. Or as we say in California, It is sayyyew hawt. And even though on the Peninsula we say it is sayyyew hawt when it hits 82 degrees, this time we mean it. Temps at or above 100 all week (today, a little relief: forecasted high of 93). Have I ever mentioned that the Wee, Small House has no AC? Well, enough about me. I have one of the easiest and most comfortable lives on the planet, and it is raining on refugees in Europe, but I am really looking forward to the mid-70s we’re supposed to have next week.

In other news, meet my morning companion (pictured, above). As I drafted (a draft so sad and middling that, yes, I re-touched it out of the photo), this little katydid appeared on my desk. She was harmless enough but I do wonder from whence she came. I put in a request with Tech Support and they came, humanely captured her, and returned her to her natural habitat.

Now, on to the roundup.

more words  I am still reading (at this point, re-reading) Stanley Plumly’s essays. I am still looking up words that are new to me (gantry—a bridge-like overhead structure supporting equipment such as a crane or railway signals; autotelic—(of an activity or creative work) having an end or purpose in itself) and the words that I’ve been looking up for years and have a sense of, but when pressed, can’t articulate clearly, so, dictionary (ontological—having to do with the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being; declension(in the grammar of Latin, Greek, and other languages) the variation of the form of a noun, pronoun, or adjective, by which its grammatical case, number, and gender are identified; panegyrica public speech or published text in praise of someone or something). Sometimes I want a bigger brain.

these fragments Sometimes I read something that simultaneously just about kills me and saves my life. From Plumly’s essay “Wistman’s Wood” (P.S. Whistman’s Wood is a pocket of ancient woodland in Devon):

“The room in ruins—that is what a spot in Wistman’s Wood is in winter. The winter wood reminds us of our poet origins, of the spiritual space and longing even in a child, who follows us from place to lost place. The winter wood reminds us that dark and windswept memory is more vital than a green thought in a green shade and that the setting of that memory is in the moment in the space that represents the truth. Sitting in the room you write in, you sit within the tangle and the winter mist. The leaves have long since blown into corners. You sit there with the hard language and memory in front of you and you feel yourself disappearing. Wonderful. These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” –Stanley Plumly

That last sentence is, of course, from Eliot, “The Wasteland,” but I’m ready to award a Pushcart for Plumly’s repurposing of the line here.

The Poem  The poem for this week’s roundup is called “The Poem.” Really. One problem I have when I’m reading almost anything is that, if another book or poet or poem is mentioned, I can’t help myself—I have to go read that other book or poet or poem even though I really don’t have the time… (the things we do to ourselves…). So I did that this week, tracking down a copy of Marvin Bell‘s 1977 book Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See. “The Poem” is the opening poem in this book and while I usually shy away from poetry about poetry, this poem seemed accurate in an important way to me. Here it is:

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THE POEM by Marvin Bell

Would you like me more
if I were a woman?
Would you treat me better
were I a man?
I am just words, no
not words even, just marks
on a page, tokens of what?
Oh, you know.
Then tell them, will you.
Tell them to stop looking for me.
Tell them I never left home.
Tell them, if you must,
that I never left my body.
Unlike so many others,
I never had wings, only shoulders.
I was, like the snow bunting,
of tout build but moderate size.
Better make that “exceedingly” moderate size.
I neither blessed nor cursed
but that the good suffered
and evil closed the books in triumph.
I cured no one.
When I died, my bones
turned to dust, not diamonds.
At best, a tooth or two became coal.
How long it took.
You would have liked me then,
had you been alive still.
Had you survived
the silliness of the self,
you would have treated me better.
I never lied to you,
once I had grown up.
When x told you you were wonderful,
I said only that you existed.
When y said that you were awful,
I said only that life continues.
I did not mean a life like yours.
Not life so proud to be life.
Not life reduced to this life or that life.
Not life as something—to see or won.
Not life as a form of life
which wants wings it doesn’t have
and a skeleton of jewels,
not this one of bones and becoming.
How perfect are my words now,
in your absence!
Ungainly yet mild perhaps,
taking the place of no field,
offering neither to stand in the place of a tree
nor where the water was,
neither under your heel or floating,
just gradually appearing,
gainless and insubstantial,
near you always,
asking you to dance.
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I’ll be taking a blog break next week. Deadline looming. Peace to all of you and the whole wide world today. Say ‘yes’ when the poem asks you to dance. ;).