Friday, May 12, 2006

Refractory Reflections

Last night, Michelle and I were up late making initial preparations for a trek across Ohio to visit her mother (and the rest of her family) for Mother’s Day. Michelle wrapped presents, did a load of laundry, and packed an overnight bag for the two of us, while I unloaded then loaded the dishwasher and tried for a few moments to write. I wondered into my office around eleven and tried desperately to write. Normally, as midnight approaches, when the lights at the gas station that flickers through the rear window of my office have gone dark, time is completely mine. Michelle is typically asleep upstairs and the puppies are curled, resting their muzzles on their hind legs, asleep. But last night was not typical.

Instead, Archie, the beloved Italian Greyhound who is currently twitching asleep against my abdomen, kept wondering into my office looking for a quick fix of people food, an escort outside, or a playmate for a moment. He simply would not leave me alone. Sadly, I relented and moved my laptop into the living room, facing the TV. Archie begged his way up onto the sofa, and Dixie lounged on a throw, looking in my direction once in a while with her sad, red eyes. At last, with the mere fact of my presence, the dogs were happy. They could relax and drift off to sleep. Michelle finished tying the last violet bow to a box covered in soft pink crepe paper, and then walked over the sofa to join us.

Nearly two hours after her normal bedtime, Michelle settled into these black cushions that are now supporting my back and gazed into the television. VH1 was broadcasting a variety of videos from the 80s. Videos we both recognized almost instantaneously.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were nowhere near the VH1 demographic. They were the MTV-light—the channel for those who couldn’t stomach electronic music or loud, fuzzy guitars. Now, however, 20 years after “alternative” music became a marketing phrase, we recognized every one of the songs they played and, even with leaden eyelids, caught ourselves humming along to one melody or another. We also found ourselves laughing at the silliness of some of the videos—amazed that such an “artful” concept might have seemed a good idea at one point.

But these were songs from the 80s—an era of skinny ties, tax cuts and deficit spending, liberal bashing, coke-fueled clubbers in Bill Blass suits, E. Coli outbreaks, Atari addictions, personal computers, skater kids grinding the paint off of every painted curb, teen movies that took teen emotions seriously, and the ever-looming Cold War. This is where we spent our formative years.

Nostalgia, I suppose, is a bit like cancer. It’s something that spreads slowly at first, but accelerates as time progresses. Cancer, ironically, is the result of numerous cells refusing to die. Their existence continues on, past their natural endpoint, disrupting the endless renewal of tissue that is life. I imagine that, sometimes, for some people, nostalgia functions in such a way. The memories persist—no longer sustaining or simply reminding, but rather taunting with what might have been. Now, as I approach middle age, I recognize more and more that a buffer of a few years between an event and a memory colors each memory—it grows more and more attractive—as though a memory, by spending time in the dust and sod of one’s mind, might spread its roots and blossom into something that only resembles what it once was.

To me, this is a beautiful and awe-inspiring process. I recognize my own frailty in this phenomenon, as months or years that once knotted my stomach and forced me to reach for tablet after tablet of antacid suddenly becomes suffused—like honeysuckle in spring—with its own soothing perfume.

Yet, such near-delusion of the senses, this longing for an 80s that never truly existed also strikes me as dangerous. It is as dangerous as simple, unexamined contentment. After all, one who does not learn history….

As a poet, however, I’m delighted by nostalgia. It is the junkyard I scour for bits of tin or aluminum to sculpt into tiny mobiles for a yet-to-be-born child. My material emerges, sort of, among such ruminations. In fact, I wonder if that might be why—even at my age—I’d still be considered a young poet. After all, you see, poetry can engender nostalgia, examine it, and in those blessed moments when you come across a truly great poem, poetry can belie nostalgia.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Conversations with Ezra

As a wedding gift, a friend from Pittsburgh gave me and Michelle a first edition of Cantos 96-109 by Ezra Pound. It’s a lovely book: red cloth bound with gilt titles along the spine. Plus, it came with the original dust jacket. The only flaws, from a collecting standpoint, are the name of the original owner and a small triangle of paper missing from the dust jacket.

For me, having such a book is a bit of an anomaly. Of all the books I own, only this one could be sold for more than the price of breakfast at a diner. I collect books, of course, but only because I read and because I find the idea of selling my books a little unsettling. In fact, I’d rather that the bulk of my library sits, stacked in boxes, in the basement until a safer time when more bookcases have encircled my desk.

My wife, on the other hand, has a number of marvelous books that, if times turn Dickensian, we could auction on eBay, and maybe, just maybe, find enough money for a mortgage payment or two in a PayPal account. She has a signed first-American edition of a novel by Perez-Reverte—my favorite mystery writer. As a Salinger fiend, she also has a first edition of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and a copy of the New Yorker in which “Zooey” originally appeared. Plus, I’m certain her collection contains numerous other minor jewels—valuable and lovely as garnets—that I haven’t yet discovered among the thousands of books we own. I just hope I notice the value of such a book before I read it with my customary level of abuse.

To me, books are not, typically, objects of reverence. Instead, a well-loved book can be well-worn, bulging with dog-eared pages, scrawled with marginal notes, and deformed by a cracked spine from leaving the dear object face down and open on any number of surfaces throughout your house. Indeed, by the time I finished reading Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter, the novel was essentially unreadable to anyone but me. And I adore that book.

Now, I’m not advocating a pogrom against the novels and poetry volumes of the world, but I do think that, particularly when you are young, it is difficult to imagine that the "masters" who constitute the "canon" of "Western" literature ever stared into a cupboard while wondering what in the world they should eat for breakfast. It’s difficult to imagine someone like Shakespeare pacing his study in consternation, wondering if the hyperbole in a certain sonnet isn’t just a little too silly. It’s hard to picture Emily, solitary in her study, mulling over the one rejection letter that convinced her not to pursue the publication of her lovely little hymns. Yet, they all led ordinary lives—just like the rest of us. Even someone like Rimbaud, who retired from poetry to smuggle arms at an age when I was still studying physics, led a life whose ordinary moments, like lingering in a chair reading, far outpaced the extraordinary. For me, knowing this makes it easier to sit down at desk and scan my brain for the precise word or a particular image. I can work to overcome the myriad doubts about whether I’m talented enough, disciplined enough, or simply lucky enough to make poems that might touch someone. I simply think—whether or not it is a minor delusion—that these objects I’m making are a small part of that history. They are missives from a particular mind, at a particular place, and at a specific moment in time.

In graduate school, I wrote a poem that used Pound’s seminal imagist poem, "In a Station at the Metro" in the epigram. In the body of the poem, I took that haiku-like image and contradicted it. I’m still not sure if my poem is any good; nevertheless, I was shocked by the reaction one or two of my peers had. They were both impressed and almost awe struck that I’d "take on" someone like Pound. And yes, Pound was a phenomenal poet; he was also a fascist, and by the end of his life, a frequent resident in mental health wards. Yet, even if he’d been a model patriot who tithed his earnings to the poor and frequently spoke, radically, in favor of minority rights, I wouldn’t hesitate to contradict him—if it served the purpose of a poem. Like I said, he ate breakfast too.

Like the work of Pound, my poems may not be philosophically rigorous enough to withstand simple logic, but I try, sort of. And reading Pound’s Cantos helps me remember my goals and provides a sort of caveat against ambition that leaves the reader behind in search of "making it new." Frankly, I wish I had another copy of the book, because there are moments when despite the lyricism, the poems annoy me deeply with their elitist ambition. Worse, there are moments when the poems make me feel ignorant, and curse that I never learned Greek or Chinese. I wonder, at such moments, where’s the German? And in such moments, I believe it might be fruitful to throw the book across the length of my office because, as Pound must have known, a poem is something that you, as a reader, must encounter and interact with, and I’ve yet to find a reader who was masochistic enough to enjoy the sinking feeling that he’s not smart enough to "get" a poem. Indeed, except in rare moments where the lyricism of his work transcends the confusion, I hate the fact that I have nothing to inscribe in those margins. Still, it is a lovely book, just not the type I’d like to write.


Back in high school, in the era of the first George Bush, I wasn’t really aware of anything like "potential" in my abilities. I didn’t think of myself as horribly smart until after I took the SATs, and then there was no stopping me. In fact, I have no idea what I thought about at the beginning of high school. I walked to school each day, my eyes always angled toward the sidewalk, looking askance. I rode my skateboard every day, helped friends build ramps from two-by-fours and plywood, and rode around the city with my best friend and his brother in search of the perfect concrete drainage ditches. I don’t think I thought much about school—except when I was planning to stay home to read and watch cable. In fact, I missed a lot of school. I was a sickly kid—asthmatic, plagued by upper respiratory infections, and constantly wary of oak trees and other allergies. In retrospect, I find it difficult to imagine that I was really that sick. Maybe, instead, I was a little sick of myself and a little sick of the drudgery of a very good public school.

Regardless of the reasoning, or lack thereof, I missed more than enough classes to fail my first semester of sophomore English. Of course, even with 22 absences over a 6-week period and the occasional visit by a truant officer, I still could have passed if I’d made up my work. In fact, I passed every other class during that term. Unfortunately, the prospect of trudging through A Separate Peace and scribbling a five-paragraph paper about the violence of New England prep schools stood in my way.

The next year, as a junior, I got bumped down to the "regular" version of English. The same teacher taught the honors section, with essentially the same curriculum: American Lit. Within a month, she’d pulled me aside to ask if I wanted to move into the honors section. I didn’t. Even now, I remember the class as one of the most pleasant courses I’ve ever taken. The class was arranged in a semi-circle, like any workshop, and I sat near the back of the room at the outer edge of the circumference of uniform desks. Most days, I would lay my head down, angled so that I could see my textbook and simply listen. The discussion would ebb and flow as our teacher teased knowledge from the other students, making them realize themes in Poe or Hawthorne that they hadn’t suspected they’d understood. But most of the time, they understood, and in those moments when the dialogue would stutter to a halt, I’d lift my head and offer an answer—allowing the discussion to regain its natural rhythm.

Of course, when I was in graduate school, I never told a single student that story, but in retrospect, maybe I should have. In that antediluvian failure, I can still see aspects of myself now. Regardless of how lucky I was that I’d stumbled across my mom’s volume of Poe when I was 12, choosing not to put a pen to paper left me as a failure.

I think, more so today than ever, writers face twin demons: fear of success and fear of failure. They intertwine, like the snakes on Mercury’s staff, leaving us prone and sedate. For me, I’m still working, mumble-mumble years after that first inexcusable faux pas, to slay those serpents. Or rather, I’m trying to train them, sating them now and again with a feast of despair or resignation while I make a transitory escape. Hopefully, one day I can teach them to sic agents and editors, but in the meanwhile, they only have fangs for me.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Drunken Immortals

I’m up far too late, but the day has been full. Dixie, our Jack Russell, came down with the same tell-tale cough that’s been haunting Archie, and today, she was blessed with a visit to the vet. Neither of the dogs is ill enough to mope around the house, but both are, it seems, contagious. Hence the dogs, alas, have been wandering around home, honing their skills at time-vampirism. They have cuteness and high-pitched whines working for them. Thank goodness none of the large advertising firms has thought to market such attention-getting techniques.

This morning, as the puppies cavorted around the back yard chewing on fresh sticks and burrowing fresh holes into the ground, I read a poem by Browning. Now which Browning do you suppose I mean?

In my head, use of the surname alone summons up Robert and his masterful use of persona poems. I’d like to claim that this is simply because Mr. Browning is the superior poet—and to my mind, he is. However, I suspect the root of such supposition is something slightly more insidious.

After dipping into Mr. Browning’s work for a few minutes, I decided—despite the rationale against such endeavors—to try my hand at a poem. You see, I had this dream…and already the poem seems hokey.

Nevertheless, the dream was—in its own way—about an old friend that I haven’t seen since my wedding. At times, I miss him horribly…in the way that you can only miss a dear friend. I miss having him near for over-intellectualized conversations about the nature of the relations between the sexes. I miss the erratic games of chess that turned, inevitably, on that single idiotic move that I made when my concentration lapsed. I miss the languid discussions of esoteric music that seemed to spiral late into evening well past two or three drinks.

Yet, when I wrote the poem, using the tried and true “I/you” formula, I simply couldn’t pull off the damn thing. In my lexicon of poetry, there seems to be a gap in describing one of the simplest and most valuable forms of love: friendship.

Ah, I’ll try again….and again….until it doesn’t sound as though the speaker is male and the “you” is female or vice versa. At least, that’s how my wife tells me it sounds. Granted, I think that I could add distinguishing features, like facial hair or size-13 shoes, but would it still read like a “love” poem, and if so, why?

Perhaps friendship between men is something that—excepting tragic circumstances ala Brian’s Song—simply doesn’t merit the kind of quiet contemplation a poem engenders. Perhaps, the concept, in Western poetry has simply been submerged in the deluge of love poems and “romantic” fixation that seems somehow integral to our culture. Then again, maybe I’ve just missed the examples.

For now, I know that I can hunt down the poems of Tu Fu and Li Po—great Chinese masters whose distinctly “modern” poems were first inscribed long before the first clumsy Anglo-Saxon forays into written verse. They provide an example.

And until I figure out the angle that will make such a poem read as I’d like it to be read, I’ll simply follow the arc the poems take, ignoring the inspiration, and shaping them into myriad love poems. Of course, for the sake of those poems, I think I’ll be re-reading Mrs. Browning, too.