Zest

Writing poems, you want to focus
on what to leave out; for example,
leave out phrases like for example,
one of the academics on a jaunt.

The leaves fall; for example,
consider the maple.

The maple tree green
red-orange
suddenly bare.

Another academic wishing
he was a real poet
and not just another drunk
in a bar after his night class.

Leave out articles, too (the, a, an).
And add detail with specificity.

The maple tree lime green in
spring turns to fall and rust.

Use a dictionary to make sure
you’ve got the best verb
for the occasion:
turns might become (now or later)
lathe, which suggests circular motion:

Lime green leaves
limbs on lathe
leaves shaved
disposition zest.

Also important to think
about when to leave
the poem
alone
go home.

But new ideas will arrive.
The place gets crowded,
maybe noisy:

The poet bartender
adds a piece of zest
to drinks she prepares,
which twists what
is said, lips pucker
distastefully sour –
better just have one more
and then get on home.

At the Spinning Lathe Bar
on each stool sits
a ball of yarn
she looms back and forth
warp and weft
she sheds, picks, and beats
takes up and lets off
replenishing drinks
replacing fresh pints.

Midnight and she wants
to go pee and go home
leaves cover the way
streetlights smolder
black branches wet
she approaches the stairs
of the Metro and falls
amidst the rusted leaves
still wearing her bar
stained apron.

She undresses in front
of the backlit window
her breasts are orange
tipped her yellow hair
in the streetlamp light
flooding her bedroom.

She climbs into bed
thinking Spring is
a seemingly happy
drunk Fall often sobers.

Otiose

Put down the phone
and write us a poem
nothing to say
the cell has not.

Laptop almost
too old for this
slow prose style
inelastic cat.

The lazy morn
the otiose
slow afternoon
the heat taut night.

No notifications
come this far
from the signal
symbol sacramental.

Parts of thought
the universe yet
exploration sits
unexpanded.

Intelligent Life

Intelligence might mean an ability to exercise choice, even if the options seem limited or nil. A couple of weeks ago, meeting for a beer with fish and chips at a local English styled pub where soccer from the real England was playing on hanging television sets to an audience of rapt fans sipping beers, an old friend asked me if I thought there exists intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. At once I had to consider the definitions of intelligence and life and universe. I also had to consider that at first he said simply life, then qualified the question by adding intelligent, as if other kinds of life were assumed to exist but even if so had already failed some test of life.

In the midst of this morning’s freshly updated global warming news, walking with a cup of coffee in ye olde Americana backyard, I stopped to consider again why the Dogwood tree now refuses to flower. About 25 years old, flowering reliably every spring until seeming to lose interest in recent years, full of healthy green leaves, not a touch of pink blossom does it this year yield. I would blame last year’s torching hot summer, when the temperature one day in July hit an unprecedented 116 degrees F, easily the hottest ever locally, or this April’s absurdly late snow storm, which piled a few feet of heavy wet snow on branches already leafing out, bending them all the way to the ground under the weight of the late snow, but elsewhere around the neighborhood all the other Dogwoods are blooming to beat the band, a bumper year.

Maybe this Dogwood has simply chosen not to bloom this year. The reason may be nothing more than a desire to exercise its ability to choose. But where would this desire, seemingly baneful to its existence, come from? Or maybe the energy required to produce blossoms is being used to correct some deficit in the soil or water or location – but again, similar conditions around the area are at the same time thrilling all the other Dogwoods into fully blessed vibrant pink blossoms.

What have I done to offend this Dogwood such that it refuses to bloom? At worst, I’ve ignored it, but the other plants in my yard seem to appreciate being mostly left alone to their own devices.

Nature, left to its own devices, continually overseeds. It has always done so, blasting and piping surely enough that somewhere somehow something takes hold roots and spreads. But never alone, always sewn from a diverse bag of seeds, some seemingly smarter than others, whatever that means. And it means nothing. The same intelligence that informs me informs the Dogwood. Thus as I sit here in my attic room from where I can watch through the window the Dogwood willfully refusing to bloom, I choose to write.

What I Write

Having addressed, as it were, most recently, Why and How I write, we now turn our attention to What. Yesterday, I said that when and where writing is written are not important. I rush now to correct that. When and where are maybe more important than why, how, or what. Consider, for example, Beckett’s Watt, written in double exile (from Ireland, his homeland, and from occupied Paris, hiding out in Southern France). But Watt does not seem to be about the war. But I don’t want to write about Watt this morning. I want to write about what. But it may not matter what’s intended; readers are notorious twisters of words, collecting twine into a ball, where to twine is to moan, complain, whine.

The problem lies with linearity. Where there are no straight lines. At the moment, I’m typing on the keyboard of a laptop computer. A MacBook Pro, circa 2010, so an old one, as these things go. Directly into a WordPress block. Such my brass. I watch the cursor flicker, waiting. I should slow it down, but I forget how that’s done.

When, yesterday, reader and old, old friend Dan commented regarding paper and pen, “it almost seems a quaint nod to a passing phenomenon,” I thought of McLuhan and his analysis of the printing press (see his The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man), also now a passing observable fact or event. A machine we understood how it worked. It made everything the same, uniform. Straight lines. Single point of view. That sort of thing.

Outside, through the second story window, I can see a Camelia, pink and white, just coming into bloom, and a weeping Cherry in full bloom, and some scraggly plums not boasting just saying bring us your bees, your flies, your birds, your squirrels. The plums are just over the back chain link fence, up against it, ignored. Occasionally a branch breaks, ice or snow laden, or heavy near the end of summer with fat purple plums that fall into my yard, more than I can eat. I should learn to make plum pudding, jam, or some sort of plum soup. Plum Clafoutis. That’s it.

There you have it. I would not have mentioned plums this morning had I not decided to write from the upstairs window instead of the downstairs nook where I usually set up.

How I Write

Most writing begins in Purpose, a very crowded city, with directions out unclear amid contradictory signs. North of Purpose is Poetry, South is Prose. East is essay. West is Uncharted Territory. It doesn’t matter which direction you choose; Purpose is surrounded by ocean. The easiest and most travelled conveyance out of Purpose uses words. Words come from Language, some say the oldest of cities. But not all languages use words, semaphore, for example. Other examples of language without words might include body language, talking drums, whistling, smoke signals, music. We might say that those languages are not written, but music is written, and without words.

But I do use words, and because I’m only an average speller, poor pronouncer, mostly monolingual, and usually lost in Purpose, I keep a dictionary open while I write, but also because individual words are like recipes; I want to know what’s in them. Sometimes I spend so much time in a dictionary nothing gets written. One easily gets sidetracked in Genealogy and never reaches far from Purpose.

That one uses words doesn’t necessarily mean that one writes. One might talk, achieve one’s purpose, no need for pen and paper. Others might commit what someone said to memory, and repeat it themselves for a ticket out of Purpose. Talking is not writing, but it is a kind of writing.

And I don’t always use words. I draw cartoons. But if the cartoon is an argument, it is at least a kind of writing.

Sometimes it’s enough to ramble around Purpose, maybe with a camera in hand, walking through the neighborhoods, down to the industrial section, out to the ballpark.

If writing were a sport, it might be baseball. The outfielders adept at prose. At third base and first, essayists. At shortstop and second base, poets. The battery of pitcher and catcher a thesaurus of pitches: location, intent, speed, deceit. Readers may want to put the Shift on here.

We might say our purpose is to entertain, so we give our writing twists and shouts, a preacher’s sermon. The purpose of most writing is argument, an attempt to persuade. Purpose should not be confused with occasion. The occasion of writing is an assignment: a query, a synopsis, a critique or analysis. And occasion should not be confused with form. A postcard (from Purpose) is form, not content, but we begin to see how one shapes the other: “Wish you were here!” “You should have come!” “Can’t wait to get home!” “Not coming home, ever!”

In short, how we write is not quite the same thing as what we write or why we write. When we write is not important, nor where.

But it’s very hard to get out of Purpose. You never know when you’ll be stopped by the Authorities and asked to present your papers. Documents, photographs, identifications, QR Codes. They might even want to draw blood or have you pee into a bottle.

Purpose can be a mean place, a town without pity.

So I mostly try to avoid Purpose, and that’s how I write, or try to.

The Reading Crisis Revisited: Amazon and the Gatekeepers Against the Wall

Mark McGurl has a new book out. I enjoyed and reviewed his previous book “The Program Era,” here, and his new work, “Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon,” which appears to revive the Reading Crisis theme I first started following over at Caleb Crain’s site, is reviewed by Benjamin Kunkel in a recent Bookforum post: Sense and Saleability: How Amazon changed the way we read. After reading the Kunkel review, I don’t feel I need to read the new McGurl take.

First, it’s still too early to say what’s really going on or how dramatically it’s affected our reading, particularly the reading of the common reader (who seems to persist, in spite of the odds). Second, Mcluhan, who explains the effects of the printing press, and predicts a long time ago now the current reading crisis (not to mention a plethora of other ideas), I still find more convincing. And while McLuhan did not personally look forward to the changes in literacy his theories explained or predicted, he didn’t necessarily feel the world would be a worse place as a “global village.”

In any case, if I’m reading Kunkel correctly, what today’s gatekeepers seem to want protecting turns out to have been cut off only in its infancy:

Between the Great Recession and 2019, the number of undergrads majoring in English shrank by more than a quarter, and it’s difficult to imagine the pandemic has reversed the trend. Meanwhile, over approximately the same dozen years, professors in English and other literature departments have more and more bent their attention away from the real or alleged masterpieces that formed the staple of literature courses ever since the consolidation of English as a field of study in the 1930s, and toward more popular or ordinary fare. Sometimes the new objects of study are popular books in that they belong to previously overlooked or scorned genres of “popular fiction,” such as crime novels, sci-fi, or horror: this is popularity from the standpoint of consumption. And sometimes they are popular books in the different sense that they are written, in huge quantities, by authors with few if any readers, whatever the genre of their work: this is popularity from the standpoint of production.

Bookforum, Dec/Jan/Feb 2022

Theory and the Social Sciences, not to mention Reagan as governor of California ruining a good thing for the children of laborers who might have somehow discovered literature in the 50’s and 60’s and where McGurl now sits as public intellectual gatekeeper at Stanford, presumably with small cohorts of readers filling sandbags, had already altered how we read and precipitated the slide of the English Major, still a baby if born as recently as 1930. Amazon has not changed anything, at least not having to do with literature.

Meantime, James Lardner posts a recent Gatekeeper entry on the New Yorker online site, lamenting and lambasting the so called for profits (as if schools like the factory at UCLA pumping out Phds in the 60’s and 70’s is not de facto a for profit).

But not all English majors are created equal, and this one wishes he would have become a plumber like his father (having never read a book, good or bad) wanted him to become. And then he wouldn’t be sitting here writing a post no one will read on a subject few care about when he should be down in the basement checking that the plumbing didn’t freeze last night.

“pond”

(Pond, by Claire-Louise Bennett, Riverside Books, 2016, originally published in Ireland by Stinging Fly Press, 2015, 195 pages)

There are thirty snippets of “Praise for Pond,” cutlets from big and small zines and papers (and authors selected or solicited for blurbs) on and offline, from reviews, presumably, four full pages of front matter, mostly adjectives and adverbs describing the author’s (Claire-Louise Bennett, Riverside Books, 2016, originally published in Ireland by Stinging Fly Press, 2015, 195 pages) “prose… mind…debut…sensibility”:

  1. sharp, funny, and eccentric;
  2. dazzling…and daring;
  3. unnerving…sensitive…porous…lucid, practical…cognizant;
  4. ardent, obsessive-compulsive, a little feral…kookily romantic;
  5. innovative, beguiling…meditative…fresh;
  6. witty;
  7. dreamlike…startling;
  8. attentive…baroque and beautiful;
  9. stunning;
  10. cool, curious…intense;
  11. elegant and intoxicating;
  12. fascinating…immersive…readable;
  13. exhilarating…comfortable…confident;
  14. deceptively simple…unsettled…formidably gifted;
  15. strange;
  16. muddiness…deliberate and crisp;
  17. sharp…discursive;
  18. weird;
  19. impressive;
  20. compelling;
  21. quirky…opinionated;
  22. inventive;
  23. believable…dazzling;
  24. captivating…wonderful;
  25. quiet and luxurious;
  26. ablaze;
  27. absorbing, compassionate;
  28. distinct;
  29. provocative;
  30. wry.

But I will add that what Bennett requires of her reader is patience, the kind of indulgence one might assume will not make for a popular reading, yet here it is, an “eccentric debut…of real talent.”

The common reader might already suspect we are in for deep waters in “pond” when we see the page that comes after the list of twenty titles in the table of contents, quotes from Nietzsche (The Birth of Tragedy), Natalia Ginzburg (“A Place to Live”), and Gaston Bachelard (The Poetics of Space). I can’t explain why the titles of the Nietzsche and Bachelard books are placed in italics (in the Riverside paperback copy under review – i.e. the one I read, the first American edition, and have posted a pic of above, sitting in the kitchen nook window looking out on the wet yard as I type) while the title of the Ginzburg book is placed within quote marks. But, as it happens, the book I finished just prior to opening “pond,” coincidentally, (and I don’t really know if it should be typed as “pond,” “Pond,” or “POND”; or pond, Pond, or POND) was a Natalia Ginzburg book: “Family and Borghesia” (nyrb reissue, 2021), a very different kind of book from “Pond,” though similar in its wanton flow of words and focus on detail (how’s that for blurbing?). Moreover, as I looked up “patience,” wondering if it was the right word, appropriate and all that, for where I wanted to put it, adding my own descriptive, albeit with a noun, to the thirty clips, knowing full well it will never nor would have made the cut, I came across this sample sentence to illustrate the use of “indulgence”:

“Claire collects shoes—it is her indulgence” (Google dictionary, Oxford languages).

I don’t collect shoes, nor, I suspect, does Claire-Louise Bennett, who apparently lives or lived during the making of POND on the Atlantic Coast of Ireland in a small stone hut of some kind, again, apparently, as I put together a few clues from the book as well as from rummaging around. I live on the Pacific Coast of the US, not within a stone’s throw of the water, anymore, but close enough to enjoy the waterlogged winters of the Pacific Northwest, about ninety miles away from the big pond as the roads go, about seventy miles for the birds, assuming they take a direct route over or through the passes of the Coast Range. The coordinates for Galway are 53.2707° N, 9.0568° W; while for Cannon Beach, Oregon are 45.8918° N, 123.9615° W. It’s currently (as I type) 44 degrees in Galway and wet at 8pm, a bit of wind maybe a bit of sun tomorrow to close a rainy week and start a new one; while at the Oregon coast it’s wet and 47 degrees finishing the morning with a high wind warning in place for this evening to close a wet week and start a new one. That’s not to say living on the Pacific coast of the US is anything like living on the Atlantic coast of Ireland. Except that, we both get our weather for the most part from our close proximity to what some call wild oceans.

In any case, I very much enjoyed reading “pond,” and thought I might put up a post from another West Coast of rivers and streams dampness and moss and ponds and puddles galore:

“aplenty
in abundance
in profusion
in great quantity
in large numbers
by the dozen
to spare
everywhere
all over (the place)
a gogo
by the truckload
by the shedload”
(Google dictionary)

I think galore is the descriptive word I’ll end this review (if, indeed, it can be called that, and, if not, I don’t know what) of “Pond” with.

Claire-Louise Bennett’s “Pond” presents writing galore.

First Snow on Fuji, 1959 (transl. 1999)

Nine stories and a “Dance-Drama” by Nobel Prize winning Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata. Domestic settings around living quarters, gardens and paths, plants and pets, involving marital and extramarital relationships, post World War II thoughts and experiences in lovingly (at once sympathetic and detached) close, naturalistic readings of character motivations and responses – to one another, to nature, to self. In a “Translator’s Note,” Michael Emmerich summarizes the style:

“He [Kawabata] had to make the most of each unclaimed moment, each precious word. So it’s no surprise to find that the pieces in this collection are incredibly distilled, often dealing with the relationship between language and being, words and the past, and with being claimed, with losing possession of one’s historical self” (ix).

Not that the motivations and responses are necessarily absent any ambiguity, in spite of the lucid, no-nonsense prose. There might be an impulse to get away from one another, the hugging closeness of living together, from one’s own place, of wondering what taboos have to do with you, from, in the end, comparing and contrasting what you have with what you think others might have, to break one’s silence of the solitude that comes with living with someone else:

“Once more I seemed to have said too much. Wasn’t what I was doing like forcing a desperately wounded soldier to return to battle? Wasn’t it like violating a sanctuary of silence? It wasn’t as though Akifusa was unable to write – he could write letters or characters if he wanted to. Perhaps he had chosen to remain silent, chosen to be wordless because of some deep sorrow, some regret. Hadn’t my own experience taught me that no word can say as much as silence?” (167).

Kawabata’s writing is full of atmosphere created from the smells and sounds, visions and touch, of ordinary living. The effects might be described as calming, even if the events portrayed are not. And in that sense there is an acceptance of life the characters often in personal rebellion don’t want to accept, or, at least, wonder what life might be like on the other side of such acceptance. That is brought forth from description, dialog, shifting point of view, of course, but here the brush strokes, the word juxtapositions, the storytelling flow, just seem so perfect and create that sense one sometimes yearns from reading – a momentary relief, as Frost said of poetry, against the confusion of the world, even, again, if confusion is what it’s all about.

The copy I read is a Counterpoint (Washington, D. C.) paperback, 227 pages, Perseus Books Group (ISBN: 1-58243-022-5), 1999, but there appears to be a reprint, “revised,” which I’ve not seen, from Counterpoint (Berkeley, 2000, 248 pages).

In the Sober Reality of Celestial Shade

Day ends with a walk to sleep,
ends again in the sober reality
of celestial shade, one awakes
in the dark and quiet, too early
to get out of bed, too late
to start some new episode
on the television or telephone,
and this is when one turns
to paper and words seep
out shy and uncertain fearful
like little furry animals searching
the brambles for food and drink
day’s fire now cool ashen,
and while certainly somewhere
in the city of night madness
drones on, an asocial tinnitus,
here in the paper we find
we can hear the pencil’s breeze
and feel the bluish-gray lead lighten.

Spelunking

What’s written by candle in yr cave
won’t be read for eons by anyone,
no views, no visitors, no likes, no
comments, until erelong perchance
some fair spelunker crawling
horizontally across the buried
rocks of yr commas, not too deep,
discovers yr degraded predicament,
etiolated undertaking to connect
images in the dark of creatures
now extinct, spellings archaic,
broken syntax of yr past, and finds
yr crushed crumpet of a skull
buried like a period at the end
of yr tunnel up against a wall,
a scurvy potation spilled betwixt.