Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Friend Remembered Tonight

After my friend Jimmy died, his mother told me that he came to her, one night, and stood at the foot of her bed. Jimmy's death was very hard. He was a small man, but a dancer, cute and a little vain. I met him when we were freshmen in college. He was funny, adorable. He had thick black curls, long black lashes, a long pointed chin. He always felt he had "too many teeth," so when he smiled, he always touched his chin to his chest and turned his head, emphasizing his dimples. He was injured, a few years before he became sick, and had to stop dancing, but he still took class, choreographed drag shows, stayed slim and still wore his clothes tight. He was still quite young when he died. Before he died, he went blind. His skin was disfigured. He weighed nothing. His voice went from reedy to just a wet and difficult rattle. His bowels, then his mind, went. I was across the country by then. A friend went and visited him and told me. I sent letters. His last lover was gone. His mother cared for him in his last illness, as she said to me once, "just like when my Jimmy was a baby."

Jimmy came to her, after he died, just as he had been, before the illness, before even the accident. He stood at the foot of her bed and smiled at her, tucking his chin to his chest, but never taking his eyes from hers.

"He didn't say nothing," she told me on the phone, "but I knew it was him and he was okay."

She was a little Italian woman, even smaller than her son, and older, at least by the standards of her generation, when she had him. "My last baby" she called him. Once, at the last birthday party Jimmy had before he became sick, in his mother's house, I watched his mother happily cooking for a room full of drag queens. Jimmy's mother enjoyed the fuss they made over her, over her food. "You girls need anything down there?" she asked every few minutes, from the top of the basement apartment stairs. No one made a joke of that, no matter how many times she said it. Me she liked because I had a moustache, made a joke of tugging on it at the party, "He don't have to shave so much, like you girls," before Jimmy shooed her away.

She told me how happy she was that Jimmy had come to see her, that they hadn't needed to talk. "It's enough I seen him. He looked good. He looked real good. Happy."

The next time I called her, I had waited too long. Jimmy's brother answered the phone. He told me she had died in her sleep, some months before. We didn't talk long, the brother and I. I'd never met him. I never met Jimmy's father, either, that I can recall. That's how it so often was then, at the end of things, just a mother and her son.

Jimmy never came to me after he died. He never stood at the foot of my bed, smiling. I wish he had. But Jimmy came to his mother, smiled again for her, and that was, as she said, enough.

"He looked real good." she told me, "Happy." It made her happy. I hope they both are now. I miss my friend. His mother was such a good woman. I wish them both rest.


Come to me in my dreams, and then
By day I shall be well again!
For so the night will more than pay
The hopeless longing of the day.

Come, as thou cam'st a thousand times,
A messenger from radiant climes,
And smile on thy new world, and be
As kind to others as to me!

Or, as thou never cam'st in sooth,
Come now, and let me dream it truth,
And part my hair, and kiss my brow,
And say, My love why sufferest thou?

Come to me in my dreams, and then
By day I shall be well again!
For so the night will more than pay
The hopeless longing of the day.

- Matthew Arnold.

A Thrilling Clerihew


Scotland's Josephine Tey
Did not always obey
The strict rules of thrillers:
Writing crimes without killers.

Daily Dose

From The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems, by Agha Shahid Ali


"On this perfect day, perfect for forgetting God,
why are they -- Hindu or Muslim, Gentile or Jew --
shouting again some godforsaken word of God?"

From First Day of Spring

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Bit of Flailing at the Keyboard

I am still waiting to hear back from the editor to whom I submitted, as requested, an essay of some 1600 words or so on a novelist I happen to love as much or more for his faults as for his virtues. (Not perhaps the happiest choice then on my part for a volume meant to represent the best of a particular literature dear to me, and to the editor, but... well, that's what I wrote anyway, so there it is.) I won't rehearse the essay here, as that might do me out of the fifty bucks it's meant to make me, but it's been more than twenty four hours since I sent the damned thing off, and I haven't had an acknowledgement yet! A ridiculous response, I know. Joking aside, I am grateful for the opportunity, and for the willingness of anyone, let alone an editor, to read my muzzy thoughts on even so happy, if obscure a subject as I chose. I'm just feeling anxious. It's been years since I was asked to contribute so much as a smile to anything like a real publication, by which I still snobbishly, perhaps quaintly, mean something appearing in print and for a price. And it isn't as if I ever made more than the cost of an indifferent lunch, or a free copy, from any such commercial undertaking in the past. Neither I nor my writing fell on hard times, I ought to say just here, I simply ceased to do much of it years ago. Acting was the reigning passion of my youth, and like acting, I found writing something for which, though I might have the knack, if not the skill, I no longer quite felt the need. In part, I've assumed for some time now, this was the result of a contented marriage. Poor A. has been forced to have both the best and worst of me over more now than twenty six years, and in return, he's been nothing but good. Seems greedy to want more than that, in a way, and I've been content knowing he'd have me, even when I wasn't specially entertaining. Satisfaction came for me in an audience of one, mostly. For acting, I've ended up in retail, which requires something like every working day, and not long ago I had the pleasure of organizing and doing a series of public readings which, while sadly unlikely now to be encouraged again or repeated hereafter, I thoroughly enjoyed in much the old way of my other, more traditional, amateur theatrics; I spoke loudly if not well, to polite applause from a small public and received the genuine encouragement of my true friends, deserved or not. Thrilling. Thrilling AND I never needed to actually "go off book," but could keep the page before me, a lazy ham's dream, that. As for writing, having got a bad sort of book out of me years ago, and having seen to it's proper burial, I assumed myself all but cured. I wasn't of course, but so it very much seemed at the time. What I actually did was write letters, not unlike my noodling here, that were then sent to friends and acquaintances alike down the years. Sometimes, when I was very lucky, the friends were good and wrote back. Sometimes, when the friend was extraordinarily good, as my friend R. has been, what I got back was, to my eye, as good or better than what I sent. Bliss.

In Austen and elsewhere, I've read of the aristocratic hobby of "private theatricals," performed for the amusement only of family, any friends not recruited into the performance, and such of the servants and local gentry as could be press-ganged into attendance. I doubt this sort of thing survived the coming of the talkies, even in the remoter counties, but then so little of what seems most thrilling about the gentlefolk of yore has: servants, huge breakfasts, comely stable-boys too polite to talk or easily bought off, good tailoring... And besides, I would have been, had I lived in Austen's day, shoveling shit in one form or another, not playing the Friar to m'lady's Juliet anyway. But the idea of acting, just a little, and not for a living, now that sounds rather wonderful.

Likewise the letter as a form of literature has great appeal. Admittedly, most of the letters I read are either by people, mostly professional writers, who wrote wonderfully elsewhere as well, or by people whose letters were about just such people, or politicians, or statesmen, or the scandalous rich, the exciting times in which they lived, that sort of thing. My efforts in this way, little or long, were unlikely to amuse any but the recipient and or such of our mutual friends who might be invited to read-along a little. Still, even if my letters never found their way under any one's gaze but the intended, I've enjoyed writing them over the years.

When I took up this blog and began completely neglecting such of my surviving, regular correspondents as still speak to me, I did so as a passive sort of protest, having written equally lightly elsewhere and having been unceremoniously made unwelcome there. I've kept at it here so long as I have as much as an experiment, or exercise of otherwise long-atrophied muscle -- just to see if I could, -- as from any need to say anything in particular to anyone in particular. What I've remembered, in the process, was something of the fun writing used to be, and, I must admit, just how much time it takes each day. (Though when I worry I'm leaving poor A. too much alone to come down here and type away, I go to check on him and often as not find him contentedly dozing in front of the television. He may well be relieved, after all these years, to not have me chattering at him quite so incessantly. I'm just guessing.)

Writing here has also, I should think, allowed my very kind friend B. to recommend me for the anthology to which I've just so impatiently submitted a short essay for consideration. Easier to explain myself as someone who writes, if only here, rather than just someone, in B.'s usual exaggeration when introducing me to third parties, "who's read everything." Kind of him to blow me up that way, if difficult to prove for being utterly false.

Also writing here has introduced me, however belatedly and reluctantly, to reading something on the computer beyond foreign newspapers, book reviews, movie listings, and porn. I've discovered some rather lovely people, blogging. One of them, for instance, has most recently started a an exchange on her blog about her own gestural excesses, or "flailing," as she seems to prefer. Quite funny, as have been any number of similar stories contributed by her regular readers.

Challenged to tell something of my own experiences of the inadvertent, I realized that the kind of knockabout described hasn't happened all that often to me. It's not that I am graceful, mind, just that my gestures tend to be somewhat more studied. A symptom of the same self-consciousness that made me struggle to lose the accent with which I grew up also made me careful about the use of my hands. If my accent showed me up as a rube, my hands might betray me as queen. Mustn't be too broadly expansive, too loose at either wrist or shoulder, as that, like the problem of the sibilant "s," was an obvious "tell."

I'm reminded of the scene in "Victor/Victoria" when Robert Preston is explaining to Julie Andrews how to perform correctly as "a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman." Preston's dear, queer Toddy, insists on "Tons of shoulder! Remember, you're a drag queen!" Hilarious, but also among the terrors of my youth, all that shoulder.

I think it fair to say that acting, and writing, were and perhaps still are for me, primarily a means to both allow for and amend my inclination to flail, which, in my case is just another way to name my innate and obvious queerness.

What makes this funny though is that these efforts to tamp down also, to my way of thinking, made me if anything more obviously fey. Subtlety is hardly a masculine physical virtue, is it? Stillness is, but then I've never managed that.

So, I'd have to say my personal experience of flailing has less to do with knocking wineglasses onto white satin dresses, than with being caught, as I was recently while waiting to be seated in a good restaurant, staring at some hot male ass and, rather than tripping or bumbling into a passing waiter, assuming a rigid dignity as I turned and walked directly into a closed door.

As with nattering above at my first real editor in years, I seem to only do actual harm to myself. Embarrassing enough, that.

Wee Scots Clerihew


Every student of Robert Burns,
Eventually, if foreign, learns,
'Tis nay Robert, but "Rabbie,"
Has a bust in the Abbey.

Daily Dose

From Burns: Poems, edited by Gerard Carruthers


"O, why should truest Worth and Genius pine
Beneath the iron grasp of Want and Woe,
While titled knaves and idiot-greatness shine
In all the splendour Fortune can bestow?"

From Lines on Fergusson, the Poet

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Lang Digression

“Dialect words those terrible marks of the beast to the truly genteel” --Thomas Hardy

My origins are far from "genteel." If my strivings run that way, it is only natural. It's true, I've always distrusted dialect, as written, but not for reasons rightwing or blue-stocking. I grew up, as it were, all in the demotic, speaking an almost unique dialect of Scots/Irish origin, isolated by the Allegheny and Ohio stretch of the Appalachian Mountain Range. Neither hillbilly nor "Picksburgh," the sound of my ancestral patch of Pennsylvania features one of the more "hissing and unmusical dialects of men," to invert Emerson, "whether there be any who understand it or not." Even, as a youth, I struggled manfully to lose the accent and pronunciations that I felt placed me as a "hick," I understood that class and place-of-origin did not determine my worth, but did limit the possibilities of being heard out in the wider world. Had my native sound traveled better, I might have kept it without much thought, but, being so narrowly local, I knew, never hearing it, for instance, on television, that if I was to escape the locality, I must learn to speak otherwise. And so I did. There are words that survive, if not in my regular conversation, then certainly in my head and on the phone with family back "ta home." For example, I still see a messy room as being in need of being "red up" rather than straightened or cleaned. But if I never heard my parents' speech on television, I likewise never read it on the page. When I did encounter other American or English dialects reproduced in fiction, I had the provincial's distrustful assumption that someone was being mocked. (Turns out, that distrust is well founded.)

Joel Chandler Harris, for all I understand of his intentions, might have been a good enough man, even an exceptional one, but I can't say the good he did in retelling the stories he heard on a Georgia plantation outweighs the harm he did in, if not creating certainly, then in helping to revive and perpetuate the single most poisonous myth in all our history, and he did it in dialect. Whatever their value as anthropology or literature, it is the language he invented for his stories that he has to answer for, and it is that that makes them unreadable, at least for me. He did not simply reproduce the speech in which his stories were told him, he codified that speech, set not only the spelling of it, but the meanings, bent the morals of it to a false and vile purpose and used the stories of slaves to justify and extend their bondage well beyond their emancipation and the war fought, ultimately, to deny the right of people such as the author to dictate, unchecked and without consequence, the whole fate of people whose wit, grace and humanity he admired, even celebrated, even as he insisted on their inferiority to himself. Of all the shameful literature of our brief history, I can think of few books that had a more pernicious and lasting effect, teaching, as his books did, generations of children, black and white, that slaves tell stories to some purpose other than to save their souls in the midst of bondage, that when they laugh, sing, exercise their wits, tell stories older than their own memories, they do so harmlessly, in something less than the language of their masters, and without intended consequence to their masters or themselves. Joel Chandler Harris told a lie. He was believed as much because of the sound of it as for saying something his white listeners wanted to hear.

But then, dialect almost always serves a similar purpose: it allows the privileged reader to slum, be it among the contented slaves on a Georgia plantation, or among contented rustics in the bucolic English countryside owned by an only slightly less brutal and capricious class of supposedly benevolent bastards; Lords and Ladies though they might have more legitimately been than their self styled "American cousins." There is condescension in almost every missing syllable, dropped "h" and apostrophized exclamation uttered in English literature before Hardy, Dickens and George Eliot not excluded, though they at least meant well.

But dialect can also subvert. It took me a good while, being a bumpkin myself, to hear the difference.

The great benefit of working in a college bookstore -- well, one of them anyway -- is having regular, if brief, contact with students. For all the frustrations inherent in such encounters, it can be great fun, particularly when the student is a surprise. Usually they arrive in New & Used Books more by accident than not, having missed the stairs down to textbooks. But not infrequently, they are in the department they intended, usually with a list, looking for books not require, but "recommended." (Trans: not ordered by their instructors.) Seldom, if ever, are the books on such lists actually in the bookstore. Seldom, if ever, are the books "recommended" by professors in any bookstore, but let that pass. A few years ago, I was helping a student with just such a list of poetry. By the rarest of chances, we happened to have at least a few of the out-of-print titles he'd been sent to hunt. These books, though hardly rare in booksellers' terms, were just unfamiliar enough to need looking for, but happily familiar enough, for having recently come across the Used Books Desk, that I remembered them and was able to find them and price the one that hadn't yet made it into stock. We chatted a bit as we reviewed the list. Hearing this boy's accent, I made him a bargain: for my help, he had to read me a poem.

He demurred, "but I dunna have the right accent!"

Right or wrong, his Scots accent sounded better, reading Robert Burns, than I ever will. Having bullied him long enough, he finally agreed and, blushing furiously, read:

"O, my Luve's like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June.
O, my Luve's like a melodie
That's sweetly play'd in tune..."

And then I made him read aloud another.

Robert Burns was not a poet I could read for most of my life, try as I might. I knew just the barest bones of his biography, knew the few poems that might have found me in America as familiar songs. For whatever reason though, perhaps, again because of Auden's tuition and the little study I'd finally done of the Romantics, Burns proved to be unavoidable. And once I'd finally understood something of just what the man did in his poetry, for his people and for his language, suddenly he ceased, for me, to be either Guy Lombardo's pokey New Year's Eve rendition of "Auld Lang Syne," or a comic Harry Lauder song, and spoke. Here was another language, as well as English in a dialect, in both of which I somehow at last could hear the music, if not always the literal sense, though that, I've found, can be had easily enough in this age of computer reference. When I'd finally bought The Poems of Robert Burns in the Oxford Standard Authors edition, for all of $8.50, I found page upon page, poem upon poem to give me great pleasure; move and delight me, make me smile, blush and laugh.

Robert Burns in a wonder: romantic, dog, bard, wit, radical, revolutionary, and hero. He is the national poet of Scotland and the equal of any in our common language.

And he taught me that dialect can be the means of liberation as much as a tool of oppression. Bless him.


An honest man here lies at rest,
As e'er God with his image blest:
The friend of man, the friend of truth,
The friend of age, and guide of youth:
Few hearts like his, with virtue warm'd,
Few heads with knowledge so inform'd:
If there's another world, he lives in bliss;
If there is none, he made the best of this.

by Robert Burns, (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796)

Clerihew in Laurels


Laureate, John Betjeman,
Unlike so many tetchy men,
Of equal, or higher caste and greater reputation,
Happily did TV, and yet earned the appellation.

Daily Dose

From Collected Poems, by John Betjeman


"My head is bald, my breath is bad,
Unshaven is my chin,
I have not now the joys I had
When I was young in sin."

From Late-Flowering Lust

Monday, April 27, 2009

Trying to Read My Own Palm

Suddenly free from obligations, deadlines and the like, I find myself drifting tonight through my books, unmoored. Our houseguests are gone. A good time was had by all. I've made my presentation to the business conference I was so unexpectedly asked to address. I've already reread the novel for the next meeting of the Book Club. I am done, or nearly so, with the commission I was lucky enough to receive through the good offices of a good friend. Of that, I have only to wait and see if the editor is pleased. Not having written much to such a purpose in years, I've no idea if what I've written will do, but I have the satisfaction at least of being done with the writing of it. As to possibly rewriting, as I said, remains to be seen. Other than books yet to be read for the committee on which I sit, there is nothing I need do, nothing I need read now but what I will. It is not an easy thing.

So long as I am reading to some purpose, even if only to write a staff-recommendation card, or here, I can steal my pleasures as I find them; at lunch, before bed, in any guilty moment when I may have the mischievous joy of putting done the needed book to take up the useless. The trouble is, I have arranged my life in such a way that my responsibilities are few, my services seldom required after regular business hours. I owe almost nothing to anyone but friends and creditors. The former indulge and forgive me my neglect, for the most part, and the latter can be satisfied by most of my paycheck, every two weeks. My life then is all lazily arranged. I am, unhappily, content.

Rereading Hugo is less fun when there's nothing to keep me from enjoying it. I've kept two translations of Les Misérables, the old and a new, on my nightstand for weeks, if not months, dipping into one then the other, excusing the indulgence as an appropriate diversion before bed. The title pops up. I joined the many millions recently in watching on Youtube an unlikely Scots lady conquering Britain with a song from the musical, and then turned to the death of Fantine so as to extend my happy blubbing for another hour. I caught a broadcast of Ryszard Bolesławski's film on Turner Classic Movies, and watched it straight through, again utterly fascinated by the astonishing portrayal of Inspector Javert by the great Charles Laughton. I then had to reread the death of Javert. Not long ago, I reread the whole first part of the book, after watching a documentary about a murdered nun, just to spend time again with the good Bishop -- still a character I find impossible and profoundly attractive. But tonight I might take up either of my Hugo translations and read at will, and yet I don't know that I have any desire to do so.

I have just read Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, by Oscar Wilde, though that took no time at all. It is a wonderful story, of a murder predicted by a parlor trick, of Fate, and wit, and woe. We had a lovely little book, a selection of Wilde's longer short stories, come across the Used Desk last week. It was first issued, amazingly, very near the time of Oscar's fall and this handsome little book is the fifth impression, made in 1911, so suggesting his disgrace may not have undone him so completely as I'd always assumed, at least so far as his continued sales were concerned. The book was sadly cocked, so that the covers no longer aligned, but after carefully pressing pages, back to front, it was largely righted and again looks all but new. I dropped it into the bag I took with me for my presentation at a booksellers' conference on Saturday, thinking I might use it as an example of a book that has lasted. I never took it out of the bag, as it turned out. Finding it yesterday, I realized it had yet to be priced, to say nothing of being purchased by me. Knowing I would now want to keep it, I decided to read a little in it, guiltily noting the necessity of returning it to work tomorrow so that I might pay for my inadvertently stolen pleasure. See my theme coming back, just then?

I suppose what's wanted tonight is some guidance, supernatural or otherwise, to set me off reading, if not what I should, then what I shouldn't. I rather wish Oscar's unassuming little palmist, or "cheiromantist," as Lady Windermere insists on calling him, Mr. Septimus R. Podgers, were here tonight to provide me with some direction, though I have absolutely no desire to learn of any future murders I might yet commit. He could keep all that to himself. But I do wonder what, if anything, my hand says I ought to read next?

I have an advance readers' copy of a new book, Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde, by Thomas Wright. I've been taking that in snatches for a week or two and I've enjoyed it, but rather than read it straight through, as I thought I might earlier today, I've instead let it send me off looking at some of the various books referenced from Oscar's enviable library. And now, tonight, I find myself reading bits of Oscar's poetry, with no plan, mind, even of quoting any of it here. And then I came to this, an early poem in which Oscar, little more than a boy, memorializes the sister he lost, Isola, when she was only nine years old:


by: Oscar Wilde

Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.

All her bright golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.

Lily-like, white as snow,
She hardly knew
She was a woman, so
Sweetly she grew.

Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast,
I vex my heart alone,
She is at rest.

Peace, peace, she cannot hear
Lyre or sonnet,
All my life's buried here,
Heap earth upon it.

Now that is a lovely thing, isn't it? The last stanza, even with a "lyre" in it, is as good as anything he ever wrote, I think. But I find few other satisfactions in dear Oscar's poetry. Hitting on that sad little poem, and rereading a bit about it in Ellmann's biography, seems to have satisfied my curiosity so far as it went.

So, perhaps I'll be satisfied tonight with just rereading Oscar's The Canterville Ghost, and not worry about what book I ought to take up, from the many I might. It seems enough for now that I read this little book I swiped from work, that being quite bad enough, and before I pay for it and spoil the fun. So at least my hand seems to tell me, as I find Oscar's book in it again as I close here.

Daily Dose

From The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton


"The quiet air awaits one note,
One light, one ray and it will be the angels' spring:
One flash, one glance upon the shiny pond, and then
Asperges me! sweet wilderness, and lo! we are redeemed!"

From The Sowing of Meanings

Seven Story Clerihew


Thomas Merton,
Soul hurtin',
Took the cowl.
Quiet now.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Reading A Book About Books Aloud to My Betters

Sometimes, one is volunteered without so much as notice. Just yesterday, I found myself up at six in the morning, dressing in the dark, trying not to wake my beloved -- though, in truth, a truck crashing into the bedroom couldn't quite do that unless dear A. decided for himself to get out of the way. I used my printed directions to find my way downtown, find the rather fabulous new hotel at which I was expected for breakfast, and then find myself seated on a dais. For once, my big mouth had not put me in this position. Or rather, if it did, it was only at second hand; because I am the resident "expert" at the bookstore on used books, and by way of my established reputation for being a ham. I was copied on an email by a very nice woman, organizing a panel discussion at a conference of college bookstores. In this email I learned that I was to be one of four featured speakers on the subject of increasing the sales of books other than textbooks. Having read of this for the first time, I consulted my boss. Meeting with a bewilderment equal to my own, I then consulted The Boss of Bosses, and learned I was, indeed, intended to talk, to "represent the bookstore."

I do not doubt for a minute that at some point well previous to the morning in question, I must have burbled, with my usual lack of reserve, how happy I would be to do anything that might help, in any small way, with the huge undertaking that was to be hosting such a conference here, in Seattle, with the bookstore where I work as the official representative of the local trade. I've heard and seen something of the enormous effort put forth in this undertaking by my betters and my coworkers. So far as I could see, everything came off, by the way, rather wonderfully well. All, I hasten to add, without so much as a finger lifted by me. The conference participants seemed, in my brief encounters with them, well pleased. In fact, before I rose to join the morning's first session on the last day of the conference, the organization's leaders, quite rightly, made a point of publicly recognizing the excellence of the efforts made by those among my employers who had worked so hard to make of things such a resounding success. I joined most sincerely in the applause. But then there was this business of my unexpected presence among all these executives, managers and the like. How to explain, let alone justify that? All I can think is, in the frantic hours of preparation for the conference, my name came up when Used Books did and, Used Books being something of a success story since it's introduction into the Trade Books Department a few short years ago, an understandable, if unnaturally leap of faith was made. Frankly, I would be hard pressed to imagine a less likely person to be set before such serious people of business, and at such an hour. Naturally, being as I've so often now admitted, so very easily flattered by the least notice being taken of me by my employers, I never thought of declining the invitation. Instead, I simply worried I'd make a dreadful mess of the thing.

I am not the least little bit businesslike. Oh, I work hard. I try very hard to be professional about my job. I am loyal. But I don't do well with numbers. I do not speak the language of business or management with any fluency at all, as any of my employers, past and present, and any who have worked for me when I've been a manager, could testify. Oh, I can talk, but seldom to the point. Perhaps the best assistant manger I was ever lucky enough to work with, used to tell the clerks after I'd finished yakking away at meetings, "He means you need to show up on time hereafter" or "He means you need finish what you start," or "He means you need stop talking so much at the cash register," that last always causing me exquisite embarrassment, as I was always by far the worst offender. That I am trusted with counting back change is a fact of which I am perhaps inordinately proud. I really ought never have been let near a budget, a schedule, or a business conference.

But however I came to be there Saturday morning, there I was. At eight in the morning, dressed better than I usually am at noon, let alone at such an hour of the day, I found myself seated next to actual business people, before a microphone, in a huge room full of other business people, including my own boss, our collective boss, and any number of company executives. In my somewhat slapdash preparation for this unlikely event, I had shaved carefully, worn black socks to an occasion other than a funeral for the first time in ages -- or so I hoped -- and packed a small bag with a small, old book, my phone in case I might need to call my partner to come and console me after, a short page of figures provided by my boss, and a small tackle-kit used for pricing books, in which were: a pencil, an eraser, a bottle of lighter fluid used for cleaning stickers off books, a few markers, a short strip of price tags, a box of yellow stickers used to mark the spines of books as used, a dollar bill, and my health insurance card. That last item, was a prop for the point in my presentation when I explained how one found and hired a used books buyer to work in a legitimate college bookstore. That was how the bookstore I work in now got me. (If you are in the market for an experienced used books buyer, trust me, there's nothing better. Just whisper, "401 K," and "dental coverage," to the first employee, over forty years of age, who looks likely, at any used bookstore. You'll have landed a candidate the minute you drop bait.)

My fellow panelists, professionals all, and managers the lot, each had not only prepared remarks, but powerpoint presentations. I came last. I had a shopping bag with props. As I listened to each of the speakers, my nervousness grew. To distract myself from unflattering comparison, I doodled on the pad of paper provided, the faces of bald men in the audience. I was pretending to make careful notes. (And by the way, when all was over, like an idiot I left those doodles behind. My apologies now to any who came after me to the dais and found themselves doodled.) Inevitably, my turn finally came.

I had decided, just that morning, to take a friend with me to the conference, the old book I mentioned. I thought I'd read it quietly at breakfast and so avoid conversation with legitimate conferees. Worked for awhile, until the dining area filled up. The book is Obiter Dicta: Second Series, by Augustine Birrell, published in 1887. The price marked in pencil, which for some reason I never erased, is one dollar. I bought it, years ago, from a bin of books put out to be got rid of at a used bookstore in Southern California. I didn't know Birrell from Adam, but the book was old and attractive, and one dollar. Now of course I am a collector, in a modest way, of Birrell's essays. All charming. I read again, from this book, Book Buying. Having read a bit of that with my eggs, I decided then and there to open my remarks from the dais by reading a bit of it aloud. Gave me courage, explained a little my own philosophy of books, got me a laugh or two I would not have earned otherwise. I introduced myself, and Birrell, showed the audience the book and told how I came to have it. I explained that, for Birell, William Gladstone was a contemporary figure, and that when the author quoted Gladstone's lament that there were always fewer bookstores than there had been in his youth, Gladstone might be speaking for all of us today. Here's the bit I read:

"Mr. Gladstone was, of course, referring to second-hand bookshops. Neither he nor any other sensible man puts himself out about new books. When a new book is published, read an old one, was the advice of a sound though surly critic. It is one of the boasts of letters to have glorified the term 'second-hand,' which other crafts have 'soiled to all ignoble use.' But why it has been able to do this is obvious. All the best books are necessarily second-hand. The writers of today need not grumble. Let them 'bide a wee.' If their books are worthy anything they too one day will be second-hand. If their books are not worth anything there are ancient trades still in full operation amongst us -- pastrycooks and trunk-makers -- who must have paper."

After that bit, I sailed on. I won't bother reproducing here my own comments on used books buying, except to say that my many props were brought out to show that, whatever pretensions to expertise we book dealers might assume to ourselves, all one needs to become a second-hand books dealer is: a box, and in that box, a pencil, an eraser, a bottle of lighter fluid used for cleaning the stickers off books, etc., etc.

Evidently, despite my unprofessional presentation, or perhaps because of the simple novelty of it, my audience was easily pleased. I will never quite understand the workings of business, conferences and the like. My bosses and a number of those in attendance at this conference were all surprisingly nice to me though, after I read a little something to them at that ungodly hour on a Saturday. Always trust writers better than one's self, that's my only contribution to the mysterious business of capitalism. Feel free to use that, the quote from Birrell's essay, I mean, if you likewise have the unexpected occasion for it.

Daily Dose

From Source, by Mark Doty


"This salt-stain spot
marks the place where men
lay down their heads,
back to the bench,

and hoist nothing
that need be lifted
but some burden they've chosen"

From At the Gym

Hot Clerihew


Quite a hotty
Is Mark Dotty,
Now, him I'd do!
(Good poet, too.)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Transgressive Clerihew


Dennis Cooper:
First violent erections...
Then, alas, vivisections.

The Mental Traveller

Were I to enumerate the times I have talked myself into situations from which I some time, usually shortly, thereafter wished myself free, this entry would require reformatting the blog to accommodate thousands, if not millions of lines. I picture a mobius strip of looping miscalculations. I'd like to think my natural ebullience and my native civility explain my participation in so many half-assed ideas and unrealized projects, that I am an enthusiastic, unhesitating "team player;" content to contribute as needed, happiest when setting out the chairs and making the coffee, but such is not the case. If in fact my light were brighter, but kept more modestly under a bushel basket, I would be a happier, and more accomplished man. In truth, I am most often, all talk, and far too much of that. When asked for "suggestions," I offer mine without thinking. As with my opinions, I am inclined to scatter these on soft or stony ground with an equal, mad abandon, little concerned with the potential husbandry that may thereafter be required. Easily flattered, and gabby, I do not so much volunteer, as keep spinning blithely forward until I find myself not in front so much as alone. Finding myself so, I usually attempt retreat too late. No one to blame but me. The lesson not learned in childhood or since, clearly, is when to sit down, shut up, and only murmur assent when absolutely required. I've seen this done, quite successfully, by any number of people considerably smarter and better behaved than myself. Such people, I'm convinced, lead contented and accomplished lives. It is a behavior I've tried, time and again, to emulate; in meetings, on committees, at work, in politics, at play. But then, I'd have to stop talking. Seems I can't. Not because I think I know best. Not because I think I am right. Not even because I am so enamored of the sound of my own voice. (Actually, I've always rather hated the sound of it in my own ears and wished that annoying tenor shrill would stop. I can't stand my voice recorded, though I've stupidly volunteered just that, more than once, even giving recorded readings as gifts, despite watching and listening to these myself in writhing embarrassment.) No. It's panic, at not being seen to participate, at being thought less than friendly, at being thought dull -- the singular terror of my life -- that drives me. I am not ambitious. I am not confident. I am childishly hopeful of notice. It is not ego. It's need. If liked, I will fight to retain that affection. If applauded, I will not get off stage. If asked, nicely, I will do almost any unfortunate thing. Emotional immaturity and the avoidance of disapproval explain more that I've done in this life than enterprise.

Which may explain why I organized and hosted a reading of William Blake, in commemoration of his 250th birthday in 2007. I had already hosted a series of poetry readings, which, if not exactly popular, had proved good clean fun for myself and a small group of others, largely strangers. The only rule for participants in these had been that the poet to be read, must be dead, the idea being that I might avoid listening to earnest, unpublished poets read from their own work. Entirely selfish, that. Had I left the idea at that; an annual reading, hosted by me but not wholly my responsibility, I might still be in the habit of reading poetry aloud at the bookstore. The whole evening was harmless enough. If my preparation tended to the frenzied and over-elaborate, that is just my way. (Like me, damn you.) It was once a year, like my Christmas readings, when those were still welcome, and there was always time for me to forget my labor once the event was over and before the next was planned. But I can not leave well enough alone. I did so like people laughing when I read Edward Lear, and noting the title of the Auden poem I'd read. Everyone was so terribly nice to me after.

Well, you see the pattern emerging, don't you? If I could organize such a reading once, then once a year, then more than once, then for the birthday of my beloved Charles Dickens, then why not... And so I came to Blake. A thoughtless urge to bath again in the polite applause of coworkers, friends and the families of friends, to be thought awfully clever by complete strangers, it was all too tempting. Who else might have a birthday worth celebrating?! Why, look! There's William Blake, aging all but unnoticed in the calendar to a nice round number. How's about a bit o' Bill Blake, then? I could do that, I thought.

So I did. In the end, it was a successful evening. A friend who works in the bookstore on campus, mentioned my planned reading to an instructor in English literature, who in turn suggested attendance to her class. Again, friends, and the parents and friends of friends were recruited in their dozen or so, and an occasion was born. The good and loyal people on the Events staff at the bookstore pitched in, promoted the reading on the store's website, provided slides of Blake's paintings, even read a poem or two , in one case. Coworkers allowed themselves to be bullied into reading brief poems for the bookstore's blog. Everyone, as usual, was far too nice about the little I had to say on the subject, and about such reading of the poems as I did before calling for volunteers. (Thanks be again to my friend and to that dear teacher, who sent me such willing and unafraid students. The best of the evening proved to be hearing young, even very young people, up on their hind-legs, reading English poetry out loud. That was pure joy.) As I said, the evening went unexpectedly well.

But before it came to that, I spent a month walking with Blake in Hell. Of all the poets whose work I might have celebrated, I can not now imagine a less likely choice than Blake. As I eventually said in my introduction that evening, I found him to be, "an uncongenial personality." Not his fault, you understand. The poor man's been dead for ages, I dug him up for the night. But again, I spoke without thinking. Again, more eager to be applauded than right, I undertook a task to which I was not equal. I read Blake. For the first time I read not just the few poems common to the anthologies, but Blake at length. With increasing desperation as the date of the reading approached, too late to call it off, I read a real biography of Blake at last. I read such criticism as I could understand. Again, I read Blake. As the day came near, my fear planted "many a thicket wild." I did not, as it turned out, much like William Blake. I'd know only the barest biography before; that he hated slavery, that he believed in the equality of the sexes, that he was, perhaps, the greatest, and certainly the most individual English artist of his century, if not ever. I knew that he was little known, and less appreciated in his own time, but that his reputation as a poet and a visual artist have grown with each passing generation. Reading more, I was more and more impressed, and intimidated. Truth be told, I was as often lost as I have ever been in written English, and that, my dears, is saying something.

Blake was a mystic. I have only a distant, and frankly resentful awe of mysticism. I've never had so much as a memorable dream, let alone a vision. Blake was prophetic. All prophets, I confess, tend to bore me when they don't make me impatient. Blake, as a prophet, did both. Blake believed in nearly everything I don't, and mocked many things in which I most fervently do. Blake was never, so far as I could tell from weeks of hard, sweated reading, anything less than a genius, or more than very difficult company indeed, except with babies. Common ground, it seemed, at last: we both like babies. As you might imagine, that was not enough. I did not, as it turned out, and do not still much like William Blake. I'm glad I read all that I did. I certainly would not have read it otherwise. The idea that Blake ought to be celebrated was a good one. That his poetry deserves to be heard as well as read is true. That I ought to be the person doing either, proved to be painfully false. But I did it. Why?

Because I'd said I would. No one to blame for that but me. That the evening came off at all was something of a miracle. Blake, should his ghost have been present, would certainly have seen it as such. I ought not to have done it, that reading. I ought not to have done any such thing, without at least knowing my subject a little less superficially than I knew William Blake. Having spent so much time, in preparation for the reading, with him in his mental travels through the bewildering interior landscapes he described with such terrifying beauty, I should have admitted my error and called the evening off. But I was too embarrassed to admit my failure, again, and my hubris, yet again, and so...

The moral of this little story should be that I learned my lesson, that the reason there was no poetry reading hosted by me this year for National Poetry Month was that my experience reading Blake, and reading Blake aloud, left me properly chastened at last. Such, sadly, is not the case. I'd do it again, if asked. I'd volunteer tomorrow, even to read for Blake's next birthday, if anyone told me I really ought, and donated the use of the hall. If I'm home quietly tonight, typing, it's only for want of the opportunity to talk. Hopeless.

Daily Dose

(pictured: William Blake's death mask)
From The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake


"It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer's sun
And in the vintage and to sing on the waggon loaded with corn.
It is an easy thing to talk of prudence to the afflicted,
To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer,
To listen to the hungry raven's cry in wintry season
When the red blood is fill'd with wine and with the marrow of lambs."

The Price of Experience

Friday, April 24, 2009

Quick to Hope

I came to poetry late. There had been the usual childhood play with rhymes, I suppose. I have little memory of books in my earliest years, and fewer still poems proper. I do remember, from very early on, my mother being made unhappy when I corrected her pronunciation of imaginary words in Dr. Seuss -- probably because I understood the rhymes and missed them when she missed them.

"No, Mom, it's 'Biffalo Buff,' see?"

Otherwise, I was no prodigy.

But in junior high school, I had a somewhat heated flirtation with Da Muse. A handsome,young English teacher insisted we write a few poems of our own, admittedly to no good result. He was, as I said, handsome, and male, and youngish, all novelties at the time. I thought him terribly attractive; tall, blond, perhaps thirty, at the time, so not so young as to lack authority, but not so old as to seem ancient, as he might have seemed had he been forty. He had a wonderful, melodious voice that made me shiver, not unpleasantly. He read to us nearly every day, sometimes poetry, sometimes not, but always in a voice subtlety different from his lecturing; more serious, even sententious, and very deep, even more redolent of cigarettes, I thought, and possibly whiskey. He might have read Keats. I remember Cummings. It was all very romantic, I thought.

We wrote nearly every day in his class, eventually being told we were to write a poem, and then another. I therefore wrote poems with all the clumsy enthusiasm of something like first and unrequited love, gathering words up like so many stemless dandelions, delivering these sad nosegays as if they were roses, by the dozens. But we were provided too few models, having read next to nothing, and were taught little or nothing of form or the simplest versification. Given no guidance at all, we wrote the only poems we might. I took as my model, Poe, at his most lachrymose, and used as many archaisms and exclamation points as seemed appropriate to my seriousness of purpose. While I don't believe I fancied myself going on to fame and fortune as a great poet, I do think I assumed I might just have found the means to, shall we say, adult ends? These poems are no longer extent, fed to a fire some time later, as I described in an earlier post, but I do remember much elevated sentiment, and a perfectly understandable preoccupation with the hopelessness -- instinctively understood, or felt in the atmosphere of that little classroom -- of love likely unrequited. ("Room" rhymes easily with "doom" at just thirteen.)

Perhaps our instructor assumed the results would be endearing. Looking back as an adult, I can see they may well have been, in a hilarious, if heartbreakingly earnest way, to a bored and bemused provincial English teacher, more concerned with passing the time quietly than teaching. My effusions were met with many a manly blush and a dignified reserve, my poems returned to me silently, with a few flattering, if gently reproving remarks. I remember the word "over-heated" recurring more than once. Eventually, poetry, at least the writing of, was left behind and we moved on to areas of literature I suspect my instructor, felt to be more sure beneath his feet, like "The Beats." Passing out of that seventh grade English class was like passing from poetry to prose again, at least so far as handsome teachers went. My interest in poetry flagged thereafter.(My teacher subsequently followed his true calling, abandoned teaching altogether, and became a television anchorman in Youngstown, Ohio, where all he had to read each day was the Teleprompter. I saw him do this, just the once, on a visit home some years ago. Dissipation had had a sorry effect, I like to think, on his good looks, but the voice was still hypnotic, even in "the Farm Report.")

Asking children to write poetry is just a darling idea, though it serve no other purpose. Kids are awfully cute. But we learned no more of poetry in that exercise than we did of biology by dissecting a single frog. And little or nothing did I learn in high school literature or composition classes thereafter of poets, poetry, or writing, once we'd done with grammar.

The great mistake made when I was introduced to poetry in the classroom of my youth, was in teaching poems as distillations of feeling, rather than thought. I believe this was quite a common mistake in the generation of younger teachers I had from middle school on. It was a generation much preoccupied with feelings, and "rapping" about same with the kids. It was not a particularly productive or inspiring classroom strategy, at least from the evidence I saw. Insisting that poets had felt things more profoundly than I might ever do, did nothing to endear them to me as a class of person.

That poets could be genuinely funny, could be clever and witty and smart, as well as or instead of soppy and or psychedelically hip, or "relatable," that poems could be aphoristic, philosophical, narrative even, came as revelations I had to have reading largely on my own. It was, I should think, as much the fault of the times as of any of my teachers that this was not something much taught at the time. The few times we did read poems not fashionable, it was because the teacher was old, had points dryly historical to make, and tended to find nothing funny, not even Pope. Sad, really.

I'm glad that I have lived past such instruction. Though I'd bet I'd still feel something of the old shiver if I ever were to hear Bill Black, assuming he's still among the living, read another poem aloud.

Solitary Clerihew


For Thomas Hardy
Life was a party,
reading Dynasts aloud,
Far from the madding crowd.

Daily Dose

From The Complete Plays and Poetry of William Shalkespeare


From you have I been absent in the spring
When proud-pied April, dress’d in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
That heavy Saturn laugh’d and leap’d with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seem’d it winter still, and you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Among my treasures, I count among the chief The Viking Portable Library: Poets of the English Language, published in 1950 and edited by Norman Holmes Pearson and W. H. Auden. In five fat little volumes, each measuring only six and a half by four inches, but each an inch and a half thick, I find my education in verse. Auden has been perhaps my best, though hardly my only teacher in poetry.

If The Oxford Book of English Verse, in Arthur Quiller-Couch's edition, is dear to me still, Auden's annotated anthology has been the more instructive. My set was purchased not all so long ago, to replace the two stray volumes I had from a discard bin at a used bookstore I worked at years ago in Southern California. Those old strays -- Romantic Poets: Blake to Poe & Elizabethan and Jacobean Poets: Marlowe to Marvel -- cost me nothing and taught me much. Having the full set of five, I undertook something like serious study; beginning again at the beginning with the first and most difficult volume, Medieval and Renaissance Poets: Langland to Spenser, and using the pronunciation key, and Auden's introductions, to read early English poetry for the first time. Reading that book was the only reason, I should think, that it even occured to me to try Chaucer again, at least in bits. (For years, my friend R. has periodically attempted to interest me in Chaucer's poetry, as apposed to just the writer. Seems R. required the help of Wystan Hugh Auden & others to budge me.) If Helen Hanff's Q's Legacy set me to reading The Oxford for myself, and so gave me the confidence for the classics of English poetry that my education never had, it wasn't until Auden's anthology that I began to appreciate the evolution of verse. I may never learn to love Spenser, for instance, but I doubt I would have read even the little I have, had it not been for The Viking Portable. (Years ago, another respected friend told me I would "love" Spencer and find in him just my "sort of thing." Turns out, that friend didn't actually know me very well at all.)

Talking tonight, long distance, with my friend R., I was reminded first, how much I miss him every day, now that we no longer live in the same city, and second, of how much poetry he brought with him into our friendship. R. has gently grouched, with some justification, that I have seldom really read the poets he has recommended over the years. Often as not, these have been poets very dear to R., a poet himself. But it is not entirely true to say his recommendations to me went unheeded. I may not have responded immediately to, say, W. S. Merwin, but if I read so much as a poem of his now, it is because R. brought Merwin to me. My friend reads poetry naturally, as he might read a novel or a newspaper. As a poet, R. is open to poetry in a way I never quite, or only more recently, learned to be. Writing it as well as reading it, poetry is as much a part of my friend R., for me, as his conversation, his laugh, his nose. Had I not had such a friend, I wonder that poetry should have ever become for me what it is.

So just as Helen Hanff led me to "Q" and he to The Oxford Book of Verse, so Isherwood to Auden, and Auden now to so many, many poems not his own. Our best teachers send us on to the next, and the next, in my experience.

And so my friend R. has taught and led me, albeit not always in directions intended (-- I've never quite got to Ashberry, for example.) So thinking now about R., about poetry, about the past and the present state of our now lifelong friendship, I do not doubt, I was led yet again to Auden, though this time not to the Viking Portable, but to another anthology altogether: 19th Century British Minor Poets, edited with an introduction unsurprisingly by W. H. Auden. And therein I found a poem, by Hartley Coleridge -- a son, by the way, who made his more famous, and famously dissipated, father look like something of a piker when it came to failed promise, a favorite theme of mine. No matter though. I love the minor talent all the better for being nearer. Beyond the title, this poem reminds me just how many of my best memories are of places visited with my friend R., and of how my memories aren't really, or only incidentally are of anything other than the good company of my friends.


"When we were idlers with the loitering rills,
The need of human love we little noted:
...Our love was nature; and the peace that floated
On the white mist, and dwelt upon the hills,
To sweet accord subdued our wayward will:
...One soul was ours, one mind, one heart devoted,
...That, wisely doting, ask'd not why it doted,
And ours the unknown joy, which knowing kills.
But now I find how dear thou wert to me;
...That man is more than half of nature's treasure,
Of that fair beauty which no eye can see,
...Of that sweet music which no ear can measure;
...And now the streams may sing for others' pleasure,
The hills sleep on in their eternity."

Grudging Clerihew


At 94, poor, ancient James Purdy,
Was still cranky as a hurdy-gurdy.
His reputation he never forgave,
Though it came to rest In a Shallow Grave.

Daily Dose

From Everyman's Pocket Poets: Ralph Waldo Emerson


"The sense of the world is short,
Long and various the report,
To love and be beloved;
Men and gods have not outlearned it,
And how oft soe'er they've turned it,
'Tis not to be improved."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Reason Not the Need

"There was no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse." ~Quentin Crisp

Would that I could live so, without shame, with even more dust than I do. It took real character, and many years of studious neglect, for Quentin Crisp to become the gloriously passive old savage who could say the words above and truly mean them. Sadly, I am still too much my mother's child. Unlike Q. P., I must now and again, make an effort. We have weekend guests coming. This means the hired cleaners come tomorrow, so we must clean up tonight.

One of the greatest luxuries of having married into the -- now retired -- middle class, other than having a house big enough to accommodate my library, is being able to afford "having help in." Now my beloved mother used to be a cleaning lady, and dear A., for all his managerial ease with hired temporaries, had a mother who worked too. This means that the night before the morning the "Merry Maids" come to clean the place -- we clean the place. Not extensively, you understand, not so much as to no longer necessitate the aid of professionals, but enough that we don't shame our mothers. Porn, for example, is tucked away. Allen even puts post-it-notes over the unmentionables of the more provocative nudes in his office, to spare the delicate sensitivities of the ladies, don't ya know. A. invariably cleans the stove and replaces the foil guards under the burners. The dishwasher is run. And I do my part: gathering the laundry up and doing such of it as might be done in a night, putting out fresh folded sheets and blankets and such with which the beds might be freshly made up, washing the throw rugs and the throw blankets left throughout the house -- we're great ones, in this cold climate for "throws." (It is 41 degrees outside as I write. Ah, Spring!)
(See illustration of a "tidied" library at right.)
The worst of my tasks on such occasions as this is the great gathering in of scattered books. Every room, as you might imagine, is littered with them. They overwhelm my nightstand, as was shown in an earlier post. Books seem to gather in every least likely corner; stacking up before my bathroom mirror, occupying the steps of our only stepladder, drifting behind the television, accumulating on every available flat surface, or so it seems, in the place. As I've doubtless much lamented here before, I have more books than shelves and just as doubtlessly always will. Such is a happy life. But writing here has loosened my already slack standards of housekeeping, and National Poetry Month in particular seems to have necessitated pulling whole shelves of poetry out and then distributing them, in no special order, about the room. (Tomorrow's quote for the "Daily Dose" will be from a book I searched for a couple of weeks ago and could not find -- because I must have taken it down for just that purpose the week before that and then promptly lost it in the subsequent poetic floods.)

In fact, writing here has all but undone whatever attempts I might ever have made to systematize my library at all. Because I generally hate unattributed quotes, which still make me feel stupid when I don't immediately recognize even the most common, I distrust most if not all the online sources for such. There are a few respectable sites offering poems, by title, author, but almost never by first or most famous line, which, maddeningly, is most often the only scrap I tend to retain. If and when I try to search these things up online, I've usually got them just slightly wrong, but not often so slightly as to be able to find them among the suggestions offered by the helpful faeries that live in my computer, bless 'em. I still find I am generally better off trusting to instinct and going to my shelves to hunt up anything longer than a phrase of verse. And as for the many sites that offer prose quotations, most often grouped by insipid themes, I find these wholly inadequate and untrustworthy still. Besides almost never siting the book or essay from which the quote was pulled, these virtual Bartletts tend to repeat endlessly the same pat quotations, often from people I am unlikely to ever have heard of or give a damn about -- inspirational speakers? comedians? gurus? -- and if from recognizable and worthy authors and wits, then misattributed or multiply attributed or offered in two or three crazy-making variations, all or none of which may be original to the person quoted. A pox on all such sloppy, lazy sentimentalists and practitioners of uplift! Let them open a goddamned book now and then!

Here now, my favorite poem on attribution:


"If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it."

By Dorothy Parker

(But then you knew that.)

The one advantage, constant reader, to my need to clean up the joint tonight, is that you will be spared at least a little my usual rambling. Whatever else I should be doing at this late hour, this ain't it. And so, for once, goodnight before morning. I have sheets yet to fold, ashtrays to empty, and smut to stow. Mustn't let the "Merry Maids" find us in our natural state of disorder. Must make some sort of effort, mustn't we, Mother?

A Gardener's Clerihew


Old Gertrude Jekyll,
Deciding to take all
Her intentions for deeds,
Planted flowers in weeds.

Daily Dose

From American Poetry: The Nineteen Century, Volume Two, edited by John Hollander


"I stopped to read; I took no heed
Of time or place, or whether
The window-pane was streaked with rain,
Or bright with clearing weather."

From Recollections of "Lalla Rookh," by John Townsend Trowbridge

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bonfires Regrettable and Otherwise

Charles Allen, in the introduction to his new book, Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling, describes the Great Man's horror of biography, reacting "to any perceived breach of his privacy with a hostility bordered on paranoia." Allen goes on to recount Kipling in old age being visited by his old friend and publisher, Frank Doubleday, "who found him shoveling piles of his papers on to an open fire. When asked why, he declared that no one was going to make a monkey out of him after death." Kipling's widow, Carrie, described as the "staunchest of proctors," honored her late husband's wishes by continuing the conflagration after his death.

This, it seems, is a fairly common theme in literary biography: the bonfire. Sometimes undertaken by friends or relations, after the author's death, most infamously by William Gifford who burned Byron's memoirs, declaring they were "fit for the brothel and would have damned Lord Byron to everlasting infamy." That incident of course is understood to have provided the basis, at least in part, for the famous Henry James novella, The Aspern Papers, wherein the lover of a dead poet, rather than sell his letters, nobly burns the lot. James himself urged his own correspondents to "burn, burn," and famously spent days destroying such of his own correspondence as on which he could lay hands. (It is worth noting here, having the Edel edition of James' letters, in multiple volumes, what a fraction of his actual papers dear old Henry succeeded in committing to the flames, out of what must have been one of the most substantial totals in the history of literary letters.) As a regular and enthusiastic reader of both biography and letters, I am grateful for all that escapes the flames, but I think I understand the urge to burn, having done a bit of it myself.

In bonfires like those tended by James or Kipling, there is a reputation to see to and guard. Additionally, in the case of celebrity, which Kipling certainly was, as the most widely read author in English of his day, there is something to be said for a person's right to protect such scraps of privacy as might be allowed by the insatiable inquisitiveness of the public. According to Charles Allen, Kipling's personal tragedies, including the devastating deaths during his lifetime of two of his children, both occasions of enormous public curiosity, and sympathy, let it be said, and the embarrassment of a number of his friends and relations either writing or threatening to write and publish recollections of him in boyhood, etc., led him to an obsessive insistence on letting nothing slip out, ultimately driving him to destroy even his parents' correspondence not just with him, but between themselves.

I had and have no thought of any such reputation or celebrity. (What would be the odds?!) And yet, I too have "seen to" quite a bit of destructive liberation from my own past. Personally, for example, I found the systematic doing away with of the only full-length novel I ever wrote, or am likely to, much better fun than the writing, or reading of it was. I likewise, a few years ago, consigned to eternal forgetfulness all the then surviving journals and diaries of my childhood and youth. Having reread them, one last blessed time, and having found them touching yet terrible, I was relieved that no one else would ever see them.

I doubt this news will be greeted with any regretful sighs by even my dearest friends and readers. You must trust me, no treasures were lost. But, as a reader, and as a generally noisy sort of person, I sympathize with any shudder this kind of confession might involuntarily induce. When my friend Peter died, he was far from his right mind. One symptom of his dementia was a sad paranoia as to the motives of all his many friends expressing the slightest curiosity as to his state of mind. One consequence, of little moment to anyone else, but devastating to me, was that shortly before his death, I discovered that he had weeded from his files twenty years worth of my letters to him, and I had written to him often, and at length. When I looked for my letters, I found only the greeting cards I'd sent him over the years. All the letters were gone. Peter had also almost always kept a journal. I had seen him writing in it many times. I'd even been allowed to read in it, here and there, when some point made therein, he felt, was better said than he might be able to ever phrase it so well again. (I confess here to also having once, when I was living with him, guiltily and greedily scanned the whole of his last journal in search of any reference to myself. Never do this. Nothing in the little he said of me there was in any way unsaid otherwise between us, or specially disturbing to read. It was never the less a considerable shock, perhaps entirely deserved, to see with what infrequency, at least in the assumed privacy of his diary, my name occurred at all.) Peter's journals, and such of his papers he deemed personal and appropriate for preservation, he gave to another friend before his death. When I asked about these after his death, his friend remembered getting them from him, but admitted to me, without apology, she had subsequently misplaced the lot. When I asked after his journals again, sometime later, she no longer remembered, or told me she had no memory of, ever having had any such things from Peter. It is not too much to say I've hated the woman ever since.

There was nothing in the journals of my friend that would be of interest now to anyone other than his brother or myself. Most of what I was shown had largely to do Peter's parents, longer dead now than their son. A few of the entries I was shown had to do with Peter's lovers, of which there were many over the all too brief span of his years, but few of those men are likely to still be alive, or if alive, much concerned with affairs of such antiquity. Peter seldom used proper names, if he knew them, when writing about his more anonymous encounters, and was touchingly forgiving, as I remember, to those he had named, bastards the lot, so far as I remember them. Nothing in Peter's extensive writing would ever, of itself, have been likely to see print, nor had he any pretensions that way. But I still mourn personally the loss of the record of my friend's interior life in those pages, just as I still feel the sting of having none of my own letters to him to read again and be reminded of the most important friendship of my younger life.

But to close this entry on a less mournful note, I should also mention a much happier loss. The last summer, as I remember it, before I left home for good and all, my dear friend E., returning from his freshman year at college, had me over to his parents' house. We may or may not have had something to drink that day, but what I do remember us doing was sitting in a small room off his parent's kitchen, a lovely sort of guestroom -- with a fireplace? -- reading aloud my collected poetic juvenilia and roaring with laughter. Written when adolescence was cresting most tragic, these poems of mine, even after so few intervening years, were uniformly and instantly recognizably as bad as any ever written by a such a sorry and self-important soul as I so obviously had considered myself at the time of their composition. Gods, but they were bad. Blessedly, none survived that last, happy reading. By the end of the afternoon, all but unable to stand with giggling, dear E.'s weak protests not withstanding, I sacrificed the lot to the flames, by way of apology to the Muse.

Should I contribute nothing else to Literature, I at least performed that service. Would that my example were more often emulated by other poets manque, or "poets monkey," as I once assumed the phrase to read. There is much to be said for the cleansing power of fire. Not all fires are bonfires, but mine, however circumspect, made a happy glow.

Homebody Clerihew


Eudora Welty
Never once felt she
Need fly down to Rio,
Content at the P. O.

Daily Dose

From Monologue of a Dog, by Wislawa Szymborska


"I'm still asleep,
but meanwhile facts are taking place.
The window turns gray,
the room works its way from hazy space,
pale, shaky stripes seek its support."

From Early Hour, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak

Monday, April 20, 2009

Without This World

I like my authors dead. It's not from envy, or impatience; I wish no living author ill, at least not those I like and read, but the compulsion to have the whole of a writer, to own the works, I here confess. The collector's obsession I understand, but can not admit. I can appreciate the urge to amass bottle-caps, replace and store toys in their original packaging, or recreate a beloved team, if only in baseball-cards. To fixate is to fix, to recapture something of the single-minded devotion of childhood, to set and so preserve one's best memories in something like a pristine, if sterile purity. Harmless perhaps, even admirable in terms of his devotion, the hobbyist, to my mind, invests too much in magic, endowing the past with a power already exhausted, gives more meaning than is due to what was touched or treasured by himself, used or owned by the famous, and in so doing wastes autobiography on the dead. I understand the aesthetics of the thing: the force of a thing repeated and seen complete, but I am no hobbyist. My childhood needs no memorial. I don't need toys to play, or any aids to memory but those that the accidents of time might hide in the back of a drawer. I don't believe in the perfectibility of the past, as history or autobiography. The toy just like a toy I loved, is not the toy I loved, the boy I was, I am.

I sympathize with the scholarly obsession that drives people to spend fortunes, collecting coins they never intend to spend, stamps that will never be sent on a letter, to pin butterflies to boards. I never felt the need to own, even if I could afford to buy, Thackeray's spectacles, or a lock of Shelley's hair. Rather than bid at auction for one of Oscar's letters, I would much rather read them, carefully, lovingly collected by a great editor, Rupert Hart Davis, in a great book. While I would very much like to visit Isak Dinesen's house, or sit at Dickens' desk, I have more of those authors, here on my shelves, than I am likely to find in their surviving personal effects. It is not things I collect, but books, and books are living things. To have all the books of a great or favorite author is to have, in a very real way, that author in my house. I like fine things and would rather mine were, but I do not need my books to be uniformly bound, or beautifully made. Editions, variants, and pristine copies of early printings mean less to me then strong binding and clear print. The most casual antiquarian would find my collection woefully utilitarian. My books are read, or are meant someday to be.

"Complete" is better than "Collected." "Selected" is acceptable in the absence of affordable alternatives, or when an author is new to me, but the phrase "selections from" turns me cold with suspicion. Selected by whom? and to what end?

"i am going to bed. i will have nightmares involving huge monsters in academic robes carrying long bloody butcher knives labeled Excerpt, Selection, Passage, and Abridged."
— Helene Hanff

As in all things, Helene is my guide.

Taking down tonight my big boxed set of Samuel Beckett, trying to find a particular poem, I was so grateful to have him here, in four fat volumes. So what if I've still read so little in the year or more that I've owned The Grove Centenary Edition of Samuel Beckett? I hadn't read him at all, beyond a play or two until just a year or two ago. I had decided at some point, when I was still young and full of beans, that I needn't. I had decided that Beckett was difficult, if not impossible. I wasn't wrong then. Perhaps I needed to know something more of life, or grief or language. Perhaps Beckett had to be dead.

Two years ago, I bought the Everyman's Library edition of the novels. I bought it never intending to read it. I bought it because I buy the new Everyman's Library books. And then, for whatever reason, instead of rereading Paul Scott, reissued as well in the same series, in two huge volumes, I instead one day took up Beckett. I read Molloy, not all at once, you understand. I was reading, I think Trollope just then, one Trollope or another, and strange as it may seem, wanting a break I suppose from tragic engagements and funny, frustrated suitors, I read of all things, Molloy. It took me, as I've said, quite a long time. When I finished it, I started Malone Dies, though I've yet to return to it. And when The Grove Centenary Edition came out, I bought it for myself, I think for Christmas.

Suddenly, or so at least it seemed to me, Beckett made perfect sense. He was funny, at last. He had not been, to me, before I took up that collection of novels. How was that possible? I don't know. All I do know is that now he was, now he is. Austen I couldn't really read until I was, what? thirty? Before that she wasn't difficult, as Beckett was, if anything Austen was too simple; clear as a bell, but preoccupied, or so I must have thought, with sensibilities I neither understood nor shared. For me, Jane Austen really came into my life with Emma. That was the first book of hers I liked, the first I reread, one glorious summer, with my best friend R., sitting on the bank of The Russian River, in California, both of us laughing in the heat. We saw a heron standing in the water on that trip. We watched it for the longest time. Perhaps, then, I needed to be thirty, or to hear R.'s infectious laugh, from just the other side of the shade, or perhaps I needed to be able to read through a whole summer's day, or see a heron standing in the Russian River, before Jane Austen made sense to me really, before she belonged to me, or I to her. Who knows? And maybe Beckett had to come in the middle of an Anthony Trollope novel, after I was forty, or in winter. Again, who knows?

And what does it matter? But when I found Austen, or Trollope, or Beckett at last, it mattered that I might have all or nearly all of them, that I might own their books, have collected novels, complete writings, so many Oxford World Classics of Trollope that they can't all be shelved properly on a case but must be stacked up like cord wood, waiting to be lit.

A year ago or so, I rented from Scarecrow Video the wonderful series of DVDs, Beckett on Film. Having at last read one of his novels, now all his theater pieces, his plays long and short, suddenly became a necessity. I spoke Beckett. I laughed with Beckett, as I'd learned to laugh with Austen, and cry too.

And here he is, my Samuel Beckett, in his four uniform volumes, in his box on the shelf, between my sets of J. M. Barrie and Guy de Maupassant, if you can imagine that! And so tonight, in search of a suitable quote from a poem, I can and did kick through the muddle on my library floor, make my way to a shelf, and draw from the box a book of poems by Samuel Beckett, safely dead, complete and present. And because of that impulse, or for reasons I will either never understand or may choose not to, I could read at will in the good company of genius, and find this:


what would I do without this world faceless incurious
where to be lasts but an instant where every instant
spills in the void the ignorance of having been
without this wave where in the end
body and shadow together are engulfed
what would I do without this silence where the murmurs die
the pantings the frenzies towards succour towards love
without this sky that soars
above its ballast dust
what would I do what I did yesterday and the day before
peering out of my deadlight looking for another
wandering like me eddying far from all the living
in a convulsive space
among the voices voiceless
that throng my hiddenness

Clerihew in Rehearsal


Samuel Beckett,
Concerned they'd wreck it,
Watched Waiting for Godot
From way in the back row.

Daily Dose

From Samuel Becket, The Grove Century Edition


"the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words"

From Cascando

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Cheating the Fiddler

I am no good at "going out." I don't like drink. I can't smoke indoors anymore. I don't have the clothes. I talk too little, then too much, then I go home.

Dorothy Parker was good at "going out," threw fine parties herself and understood how functions function, as it were, and, for a time at least, she went where she was asked, drank what she was handed and danced with the fellows who asked her, famously claiming to have ended up, time and again, if not under the table, then "under the host." If, in reality, she was never the "party girl" she describes so pathetically in her most famous story "Big Blond," she certainly got around. She quite got the spirit of the thing:

On Cheating The Fiddler

"Then we will have tonight!" we said.
"Tomorrow- may we not be dead?"
The morrow touched our eyes, and found
Us walking firm above the ground,
Our pulses quick, our blood alight.
Tomorrow's gone- we'll have tonight!

I have never quite felt so. I married young, at sweet 19, for love among many reasons, it must be said, and not the least of which may well have been to be excused forever thereafter from "going out." Freshman year in college, a gang of friends, gorgeous actors and dancers all, took pity on me once, and made of me a "project." They did my hair, as best they could. They dressed me in tight, acid-washed jeans, pointed boots, eye-liner, etc., (It was the eighties, my dears.) They taught me to accept drinks when offered, to make only the smallest of talk, even to dance a little in a way less likely to embarrass my sponsors. Having made me over, they took me out. The dance bar in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to which we then repaired was called the "Pegasus Lounge" -- still there it seems -- and, after a bit of an orgy on the dance floor, to loosen me up, I was parked on a bench next to a handsome, older man. I did not know it, but this poor soul had agreed to be my blind-date. My good faeries left me there, nursing a 7&7, and flew back to the dancing. Time passed, as it will in a bar when one is underage, and eventually my friend Jimmy came to check on my progress. Signs were good; my "date" and I seemed to be in close conference on the bench. But dropping lightly down next to me, Jimmy discovered, over the din of Cyndie Lauper, that I had reduced the man to tears. Straightaway thereafter he fled, never to be seen again. All astonishment, Jimmy asked me what on earth I'd done to the man. I explained that he was feeling rather fragile as his mother had only just had a hysterectomy and he was very concerned for her recovery. Seems I'd violated one of the essential rules of "going out" and dragged the man into serious conversation. I was declared "hopeless" by Jimmy and the rest of the crew, and left largely thereafter to see to myself.

"Only you," said Jimmy, unkindly, "could turn a trick's thoughts to the terrors of maternal gynecology at midnight on a Saturday!"

Having "gone out" again tonight, against my better judgement, and if only to a gathering of the bookish called "Get Lit," hosted by the charming literary editor, Paul Constant, of the newspaper, The Stranger, I am happy to report nobody fled in tears. That though, is the full extent of my triumph. The party was intimate to begin with, I having arrived far too early. I walked in, saw six people in name-tags at a table by the bar, fled to the WC, and then slipped out for a fortifying burrito at a taco-stand down the street. I immediately regretted not having brought a book to read with my dinner, but no matter. Having eaten and strolled the neighborhood again, I stepped into a sex shop and goggled for a bit, before bucking up and returning to my scheduled evening "out." When I came back there were a few more people than there had been when I fled. (No one was so unkind as to ask if I hadn't been in briefly just an hour before.) A heated discussion of new technology was ongoing when I took a name-tag and sat down. A charming young novelist, in a stylish short-brimmed hat, was being chatted up on the subject by local booksellers, including V., with whom I'd once appeared on a panel discussion after a showing of Alex Beckstead's excellent documentary, "Paperback Dreams." Dear V. was, as usual, awfully clever and well informed. The mood was surprisingly light, the conversation interesting. I sat listening and sipping my glass of box-wine, until I yielded to the urge to chime-in. Mistake. I blessedly don't recall the full extent of my participation, but I do know that, at some point, I told the young author of literary fiction he might well have to choose between his forthcoming first child and writing novels of seven hundred pages. Oh dear. Then I believe, having driven a few good people from the table, I argued the importance of used books with poor V., who did not in fact disagree me, himself being a buyer. ?!

By the end of my evening, having thoroughly bored the good wife of our host, and having failed to introduce myself to anyone I did not already know, I latched on to the bookstore's vivacious director of promotions and events, Stesha Brandon, and let her do the donkey's work of including me in such conversations as into which I might unbidden intrude. Bless her. Stesha is a dazzler at a party. I warmed in her reflecting glow as long as I might and then, again and finally, fled.

I came home to my husband, fresh brownies, and the comfort of dear Dorothy Parker's poems, perhaps in the vain hope of, if not learning how to "go out," at least the right attitude for "staying in." Here then, a moving example of Dorothy's art:

A Certain Lady

Oh, I can smile for you, and tilt my head,
And drink your rushing words with eager lips,
And paint my mouth for you a fragrant red,
And trace your brows with tutored finger-tips.
When you rehearse your list of loves to me,
Oh, I can laugh and marvel, rapturous-eyed.
And you laugh back, nor can you ever see
The thousand little deaths my heart has died.
And you believe, so well I know my part,
That I am gay as morning, light as snow,
And all the straining things within my heart
You'll never know.

Oh, I can laugh and listen, when we meet,
And you bring tales of fresh adventurings, --
Of ladies delicately indiscreet,
Of lingering hands, and gently whispered things.
And you are pleased with me, and strive anew
To sing me sagas of your late delights.
Thus do you want me -- marveling, gay, and true,
Nor do you see my staring eyes of nights.
And when, in search of novelty, you stray,
Oh, I can kiss you blithely as you go ....
And what goes on, my love, while you're away,
You'll never know.