Friday, July 14, 2006

Hucksters—One and All

The entire family of my wife, my dogs, and me is outside waiting for someone from the gas company to arrive. Today, Michelle detected the faintest of odors in the living room near the front door and window. Hopefully, it's nothing major, but everyone is healthy and the house has not blown up—even though I suspect the leak may have been present for more than just today.

Dixie—despite the tenderness of the incision on her belly—is meandering about, contemplating a gladiatorial confrontation with Archie. Of course, I have no doubt that she'd win, but on her vet's orders, she doesn't need to be engaged in such activity.

Within a few minutes someone from the gas company arrives. He walks around our house, from the basement to the garage and back to the living room, following the path of natural gas. He holds a little yellow device attached to a long snake-like tube. It takes samples from the air, checking for gas. He doesn't notice the smell. Even though Michelle and I both seemed convinced of that slightly noxious aroma they add to natural gas to make what normally is odorless become a lingering presence in the room.

But it was nothing. A false alarm. A trick, perhaps, of our combined imaginations. Or perhaps a plastic bought thoughtlessly at the local convenience store has slipped under the sofa. Or the scents from the storage room beneath the porch are seeping into the living room. I don't know. I only know I felt a bit foolish following the man around, surprised that there was nothing to find and thinking that it had been a waste of time.

Long, long ago in a state adjacent to the one I live in now, a fiction teacher told me that the stories that I'd been handing in for workshop weren't really stories. Nothing happened. There was conflict, I suppose, but no building action, no resolution.

I'd set up confrontations, but crawfish my way out of them. I'd describe an ominous setting, but take the reader to a party instead. I'd build characters on the precipice of irrationality and let the run away from conflict to cower in bathrooms. I think, even now, that life is like that. The potential for conflict is everywhere around us: honking horns and morning traffic, puppies with tender incision scars growling at a passing rottweiler, the scent of gas in your living room. Yet, for the most part, we manage to avoid confrontation. We seldom fling curses at the convenience store clerk who is in the back room smoking rather than fixing the nachos we thought we needed. We seldom succumb to our lizard-brain instincts to pummel the person who cuts in line in front of us at the gas station. We seldom let tense conversations with our significant others erupt into escalating brouhahas that end up in a division of mutual properties. Yet, isn't that the space that fiction (and to a large degree poetry) occupies?

Poetry, of course, has a long tradition of narration. And, to me, narrative poetry needs to follow many of the same strictures as fiction. You need to have a clear, consistent voice. There needs to be building action and a climax (or turn if you like). The characters need to be more than thin cutouts that would work for a booklet of paper dolls.

Why do we read such things? And why wouldn't we read a story about an average guy with an average life who consistently hovers around conflict?

Think about it—which poem would you rather read—the poem where I phone the gas company and sit outside waiting for half an hour or the poem where I phone the gas company, head outside, when my cell phone rings, and I answer it, not thinking about the potential for a spark until after that potential is realized?

If this were a story, which would you rather read? Why?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Coddling (2 Days)

Rain taps against the sidewalks outside, trickling from the rain gutters, splattering against the leaves, and cooling the air with wet. Dixie, our Jack Russell Terrier who underwent a successful surgery yesterday, has been groaning off and on throughout the morning. Now, after perking up enough to wag her tail and lick my face a little, she’s curled up beside me, sleeping. Archie, our Italian Greyhound, is wrapped in a blanket a couple of inches from her, after spending a few minutes outside in the rain.

As for me, I've spent what time today wasn't spent nursing Dixie contemplating the notion of starting an online literary magazine. Granted, there are thousands (or more) of sites floating in the ether of the web, but is there room for one more? And would it be worth my time? And what would I name it?


Last night, I decided to buy myself a domain name and procure hosting for that oft-contemplated literary webzine. I spent hours contemplating names, imagining logos, icons, and design elements. Plus, I spent hours searching the Internet for a hosting company that wasn’t too horribly expensive but offered features enough for me to build that hypothetical website without learning far more HTML, hiring someone, or buying a ton of software.

Around midnight, I thought I’d found a good deal based on the description on a particular company’s website. I entered my info, read the terms and conditions, and clicked the submit button.

As soon as I had enough information to get to the control panel, I was there, cruising around and looking for the tools that had lured me to that particular host. I even went so far as to set up three email addresses: one for me, one for my wife, and one for future submissions. But when I looked for anything to help with the design of web pages, I found nothing. Instead, every last icon was grayed out and unavailable for the plan I'd purchased—even the items that were touted in bright blue print elsewhere on the company’s website. When I chatted with the folks at customer service, they were polite enough, but informed me that I'd need to upgrade to a plan that cost almost twice as much to see those services.

Bait and switch.

I cancelled the account and asked for my money back. I assume that they'll keep that promise, at least. I also made a report to the Better Business Bureau. Actually, that's the first time that I ever felt angry enough to file a complaint—even though I tend to see hucksters and scam artists everywhere. So, I suppose, when I was certain that I someone tried to rip me off, and not just suspicious, I filed a complaint.

The whole process, a cocktail of unbridled enthusiasm and hope at a new undertaking mixed with fountains of disappointment, kept me awake well past any reasonable bedtime. And I was expecting business that morning.


The dogs have been crated for the night. Archie, the Italian Greyhound, whimpers in his birdlike way. Dixie has looked at me with pleading eyes for much of the night—much of it due to the soreness of the incision from her surgery.

I have spent the day waiting for work that never came and coddling my dog. I managed two naps on the sofa—one in the early morning and one through the late afternoon. During both naps, Archie curled in a crevice at the crook of my knees, and Dixie sprawled across my torso, carefully adjusting her weight so that no pressure fell on the stitches and the reddened skin they hold together.

For brief intervals, she behaved as though nothing were wrong. She gnawed for a few minutes on a favorite rope, gulped down treats of shredded cheese, and stalked June bugs on the front porch. Yet, today, she's spent far more time acting as though she were in serious pain. Worse, the pain makes her shiver with fear if she thinks Michelle or myself want to examine her wound or pick her up or do anything she might perceive as threatening.


Life has a habit of interloping on dreams and ambition. I suppose it should be impossible to write poem or contemplate a story when someone (or in my case something) you love is in pain. A simple touch or the mere fact of your presence can sometimes mean so much more than a few measly words might ever mean. Personally, I'd rather be a good person than a good poet, and in many ways, I suspect the former is more difficult to achieve than the latter.

But then again, I like to imagine that there are moments in everyone's life when something like a poem might help make that simple touch or the fact of your presence easier to manage. And, if I'm wrong in this, I may as well stop writing.

After all, I could make a decent living penning the fluff in a corporate newspaper or copyediting financial reports.

Monday, July 10, 2006


The wind sways the stalks of the spiderwort and rustles through what hair I have. It is cooling on a summer morning. Archie is laying in sun at the edge of our backyard, staring at me as I type. He seems vaguely lost without Dixie here to bat him around.

The vet's office just phoned. Dixie's surgery is done and she is doing fine. Now, I must wait a few scant hours for her to recover enough to come home. Then, Michelle and I will have to be as vigilant as secret police, watching her every move so that she doesn't slow her recovery with an ill-advised leap from the sofa onto Archie's head.

Luckily, the World Cup is over now. Consequently, other than writing and business, nothing will prevent me from devoting my full attention to the dogs while Dixie recovers. Even though I did not watch the entirety of the Cup, I did spend many, many hours watching the action on the pitch from somewhere in Germany. Now, the Italians have won. My wife, who we both think of as Italian although she is adopted and her father is of German stock, took the news with a knowing smile, as though an Italian victory was the only possible outcome.

In deference to fate, I spent a couple of hours on the Internet looking for Italian poems. Oddly, despite the fact that the English and American tradition of poetry is derived from the work of Greeks and Romans, I've encountered very little Italian poetry via translation other than the obligatory Dante. More, from my brief searches, it seems to me that the influence of French and Chinese poetics had a much more profound effect on American poetry in the 20th century. Of course, my knowledge of contemporary Italian Literature is limited at best. I know of Eco and Calvino, so I won't claim my impressions are anywhere near informed.

Yet, I did manage to find a few poems, translated into English, that struck me as admirable, and in honor of the Italian victory, I'd like to talk about one of them today: “Kafka at Bologna” by Gregorio Scalise.

At first glance, the poem reminds me of the work of Jorie Graham. Unlike much of contemporary American poetry, the poet does not seem to fear the use of abstraction or rhetorical techniques. Although there are moments of stunning concrete imagery, the poem does not move from image to image, crafting a delicate personal narrative, as you might expect from an American poem. Instead, a philosophical thread seems to provide the cohesiveness of the poem.

And it is the imagined thread of Kafka’s purpose.

Yet, even as the Scalise’s narrator flits through history referencing philosophy to prepare his argument with lines like: “the season opens with a polemic/against the Stoics but the day is against/those arguments:… the poem never dissolves into pure abstractions. Instead, the poem offers moments of concrete imagery, like “the name that persisted/as far as the border with the rain” before veering again toward abstraction.

Throughout the poem, that play between the abstract and concrete imagery, seems to echo the narrator's argument, as well as the dialectic of Kafka's work itself. Consider, for example, these lines:

He can only be received again:
his alter ego in this projection
transforms the forest into a cultural zone:
among the nocturnal gestures
a virtuous exercise can be narrated
in common words: the swallows come
to visit Kafka's body.

Here, perhaps, we have a brilliant encapsulation of the writing process—complex “projections” narrated into common words. I adore these lines and doubt, as with the entire poem, that I can do them justice.

Scalise, with Kafka as a guide of sorts, wrestles with history and the nature of society and writing throughout the poem. With the final lines:

The altar boy walks between dialectic and
structure: he shakes the branches at
sunset, unaware that nothing is a syllogism:
and an insidious pair
leads a central idea to a baroque cart:
because of his solitude
he only lives twice.
The distance conceals those motives,
the defects whirl in the air,
he had conceived an important project
but saw his intentions vanish.

And here, we see the point. Our generic altar boy, symbolic of societal organization, youth, and religion “shakes the branches”. He leads us to the central idea, corrupted, dissolving with “distance” as “defects whirl in the air” until “intentions vanish.”

Amazing. I doubt, very seriously, that I've done the poem any justice, but as you head off toward other tasks, consider this question: what makes this poem worth reading? How does Scalise manage to weave multiple arguments and perspectives through the fabric of the poem without the poem itself falling apart?

Oh, and one last thing: congratulations, Italy.

A Lovely Line

I'm off to sleep soon. I need to be up early to drive Dixie, the Jack Russell Terrier who must dream of a career as a miner, to the vet for surgery. Again, I'm not sure what happened to the day. Each action, from mowing the lawn to napping on the sofa, seemed vital. Yet, tomorrow is already closing fast like a semi in your rearview mirror on a mountain pass and my only brush with writing was a few hours spent organizing a series of poems that may one day be a book.

Tonight, after I had my fill of television, I ran across this line by Edith Sitwell:

"See, see where Christ's blood streames in the firmament:"

It's from her poem "Still Falls the Rain." I think it's a lovely line that I wanted to share—even though I'm not entirely sure what draws me to that line. Perhaps it is the seemingly simplistic repetition of the word "see" or the seeming typo in the middle of the line, which could be a tacit acknowledgement of our comparative imperfection. Then again, maybe we can blame the unexpected use of the preposition "in."

What do you think? What makes this line worth reading, 64 years after it was written? Could you do the same?