Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Bitter Pills

Archie, the Italian greyhound among us, has been sickly once again. He’s been sneezing and interrupting his routine of sleep, violence, and mutilation of chew toys with bouts of hacking that sound almost like wheezing. I think, after consulting with his vet, that he’s only coughing up bits of mucus and pollen, but we are concerned that he may have—believe it or not—asthma. So, for now, our smallest dog is taking an antihistamine.

Unfortunately, pilling Archie is an ordeal. At first, I tried covering any medicine in a layer of cheese or peanut butter, but when Archie was 3 months old, he was too small for the technique to work. Each bite was so tiny that he would taste the medicine before he’d eaten even half the cheese. So we bought a device for administering medication against his will. Now, whenever he sees the syringe-like apparatus for pushing tablets past his teeth, he scuttles away, seeking shelter beneath the dining room table or behind the child-sized rocking chair that I’d once offered as an ideal place for the dogs to nap. We follow him, of course, tracking him into this room or that, cornering him where he thought he’d be safe, and then lifting him into our arms only to soothe him with long strokes across his ribs and back. When Michelle holds him, in such moments, he always settles against her chest, propping his tiny head atop her shoulder and offering an almost inaudible whimper before finally giving in to the machinations of my hands upon his jowls and swallowing the bitter pill.

At least, he’d always submitted until today. This morning, before I drove the dogs off to daycare and Michelle gathered herself for work, we tried to give Archie his medicine. Archie scratched at Michelle, arching his claws toward her face as he tried desperately to get away. When this didn’t work, he tried to bury his face into her shoulder, so neither my hand nor the pill popper could even reach his teeth. When I turned his head to face me, he snarled, baring his canines and snapping at me. At last, after what seemed an endless amount of prodding as we tried to relax him, Archie managed to kick his legs free and dashed into his travel carrier, which is way too small to be reaching into if he’s growling.

The morning was quite a tribulation, but we finally got him pilled and the house was emptied for a day of writing—a day I’d decided would be dedicated to the art of poetry and not to making money.

This morning, I began my poetry vacation by clicking through old files. At some point this week, it occurred to me that none of my poems is currently an unsolicited submission. Since I believe I have a few publishable poems stashed away on my hard drive, this is a foible that shouldn’t go unaddressed for too long, so last night—after weighing the cost of not writing query letters, networking, or dealing with HR personnel who envision assets management in my future—I decided to rectify the situation by working through the week to send out a mass of emails and snail mails to a variety of markets.

Last year, when I turned 30, I sent out 100 poems, and was, ironically, quite pleased by my 4% acceptance rate. This time around, I’m trying to be a little more selective with the quality of poem an editor sees and, hopefully, getting my batting average up around .100. (Thank heavens this isn’t baseball.) With this goal in mind, I started my poetry vacation by clicking on old poems, reading them, and revising those works where improvement is easy, readily apparent, or simply a task to which I’m drawn. The others were unceremoniously closed and left to a later date or perhaps to fester, like compost, in my collection of unfinished poems.

As I worked, I kept hoping I’d open a poem that made me catch my breath, because, for some reason, this is one of my favorite things about being a poet.

In the past, I’ve clicked on a file I didn’t recognize only to find a poem that stuns me with its quality. After I’ve forgotten about or piece—or at least forgotten the details—the poems (or at least the regions of my ego they represent) no longer need coddling. Instead, I can be open to the words as if I’d stumbled across it in some journal somewhere.

But that didn’t happen today. Instead, I went through a handful of poems: a few seemed ready enough, a few seemed almost hopeless but peppered with just enough interesting language to keep, and a number of poems—particularly poems I’d written while in graduate school—seemed imminently competent, but cold, very cold. In retrospect, I think that much of this coldness was intentional, but re-reading those poems was worse than reading Robbe-Grillet because, well, I’m responsible for them.

You see, most of the poems I dislike are of an apparently confessional bent with heavy doses of something resembling allegorical liberalism. My tummy aches just thinking about them, and reminds me, not coincidentally, that I was listening to an obscene amount of Radiohead during that time period. In fact, the poems, despite being posited from a first-person point of view, read, to me, more like misanthropic laments than viable critiques of late-capitalist society. Unfortunately, I was aiming for the latter.

Yet when I think of those poems, the ideas and themes lurking within them are not the work of idiocy or ignorance. The poems are thoughtful and, if I remember correctly, strive to convey that we are all—in our own ways—responsible for the state of the world. So, I think, the idea was to incorporate notions of existential responsibility for one’s actions into the ongoing critique of late-capitalism. Unfortunately, the poems that emerged from this notion could only be marketed to masochists. After all, who wants to read, in what leisure time they have for poetry, a poetics of blame?

I almost forgot: this morning, while Archie was cowering in his carrier, I walked into the kitchen, opened a jar of peanut butter, and pulled a dab out with a spoon. I dipped my pointer and middle fingers into the peanut butter, then pressed the tiny pill into the peanut butter on my middle finger. I then offered the peanut butter on my pointer finger to Dixie, our other dog, and made certain that Archie could see her licking her jowls before I offered him his pill burried in peanut butter. He licked and licked at my finger, cleaning off every milligram of peanut butter he could find.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


Again, I find myself up—well past the bedtime of the puppies and about an hour after my wife has clutched a comforter to her and surrendered to that uncontrollable collage of image and thought that is sleep.

I long to join them, but I need to write. If I were to power off the computer, sip a cup of tea in front of the television, brush my teeth, and climb the stairs to join my family in sleep, what difference would it make? In truth, none of the readers I know about would fault me, and any readers who just happened across this little missive into the darkness certainly wouldn’t pause. Indeed, you would go on with your plans, finding one voice or another that would hopefully please you. You would not, in fact, know of what seems to me a dereliction of my duties.

"Duty" is an important word to me—not least because I still have a first-grader’s sense of humor. In fact, both of our dogs are subjected to a cavalcade of tasteless jokes, particularly when white beans creep onto the menu. By now, I’m certain that, if Archie and Dixie could protest, they would. Alas, their understanding of English is so basic that they’ve yet to master the syllables necessary to protest. But, snicker, I digress. I had meant, instead, to tell you why writing is so important to me. Sadly, I don’t honestly know.

I do know, however, that this impulse to write is fickle. If I spend a day chomping on chips in front of the television or twiddling my thumbs at the altar of the PlayStation, the next day’s writing is that much more difficult to enter. Worse, I often find myself at the nexus of my cultural inheritance: protestant guilt. Strands of guilt and foreboding seem to cling to my forehead like an unseen spider web, and soon enough I find myself flinging my hands around my face at nothing in particular. Perversely, such worry about writing sometimes prevents me from writing. I begin to look at the next line of a poem with increasing trepidation. I question my ability and doubt my authority. I have trouble with scansion, forgetting for a horrifying moment, how to write a line in pentameter without using two or three trochees. I wonder to myself whether or not I actually have anything to say, and occasionally, lament the fact that I seem incapable of articulating any of the vatic truths that I do have to say. Sometimes, I find myself daydreaming of the praise Kirkus Reviews will rain on some unwritten book.

Obviously, it’s easier to write. If you simply sit down at your desk (or anywhere else you find appealing) and start to write, focusing on the way the words themselves connect to form meanings, you’ll succeed. You may not write a masterpiece, or even a merely adequate work that further demonstrates the vast number of competent writers in a nation that often seems uninterested (that’s my specialty), or even a work that would embarrass you if a child had written it in crayon, but you will have succeeded in working on your craft. More, you have an opportunity to entertain yourself. After all, the first reader of your work is you, so, if you get the inkling, lather on the fart jokes—there’s always time to revise and, even if we won’t admit it, most of us like such crude humor. In fact, one of the bawdiest writers I’ve ever read is Shakespeare, and that’s the main reason I’ll love Romeo & Juliet until I die (at which point it may seem melodramatic).

Monday, May 01, 2006


Tonight, my wife and I drove a few miles north to Fairfield to try grocery shopping. We’d heard of this place, which, like a city, includes a bank, phone company, cafe, and a number of deli counters. We walked from one end of the store to the other, until our feet throbbed against the soles of our shoes. We spent half-an-hour studying the cheese aisle, overwhelmed by the choices. We surveyed the organic selection, looking for reasonably priced tea that didn’t make me think of patchouli and tie-dyed tapestries.

Every once in a while, a song erupted in the background. Animatronic monkeys and soup cans gyrated as they sang familiar songs. Near the pet food and supplies, one wall was lined with tiny rooms, labeled by nation. The facade of each room was made to resemble a small house that you might find in a small village somewhere in that particular country. I waltzed into the Ireland room, curious. There was only fruit-flavored soda, a variety of biscuits for tea, and oatmeal.

Michelle was frightened. Without a map, we worried we’d never find our way out again. We worked our way back to the cafe, and then to the many aisles of processed food labeled "American" before finally finding the checkout. We bagged our groceries then pushed our cart past the plastic giraffes that guard the entrance and hurried to the parking lot. We had wandered through that store for more than two hours.

As we left, turning toward home, I noticed through the rain-streaked window, that they have a monorail. Perhaps some poetry is like that—a monorail towering near the signage of a grocery store—the quotidian made unique.