Thursday, November 18, 2010
Where my writing touches on nature it often concerns paradise, whether this or that place is Edenic/Arcadian, a peaceable kingdom lost in mythic past; or a place beyond death/after this life, a heaven or Elysium for the just and the brave and the virtuous; or a parallel to our world but invisible except to private imaginings (as it is in my personal life), the dreams of cults, the prophecies of shamans or utopians, where all is as it might be—as it could or should be Only If—(fill in your hypothetical ideal conditions here).
The poem “Hemlock” (which closes my earlier book, The Work of the Bow), set in Colorado near Aspen, is in part about how people pioneering west in search of a paradisal future brought with them—unknowingly, half-knowingly, or fully aware—seeds of old European/eastern botanical culture, along with their books of Homer & Virgil, that altered the landscape and the culture-scape of the West, and brought old death to new earth. Another poem in that book, “The White Ibis,” takes the matter up in a more direct way: how any human incursion (in this case, real estate development of Carolina barrier islands) into a previously unsettled habitat destroys what can be protected only by leaving it alone forever.
In “The Spear Lily” and “The Kilim Dreaming” (as well as in “The Wire Garden,” once part of The Kilim Dreaming but now a limited edition of elegies for my father) my essential aim was to retool the Garden of Eden myth, starting with the moment that the two human inhabitants realize they’re stuck together in what might have been a paradise—except for what humanly happened to each of them. As Robert Hass so casually put it as a premise: “In the life we lead, every paradise is lost.”
The core metaphor—the heart of both narrative systems—is a mythic garden where a pair of strangers, after becoming acquainted, find that they must mutually negotiate their sense of belonging (their place on the earth, their place in each other’s life); examine their responsibility to tradition (the cultural past), to community (the present) and to posterity; and finally, come to terms with having permanently altered each other’s identity, and how this in turn will alter their destinies.
In “The Spear Lily,” the protagonists are survivors of sexual abuse as well as sexual outsiders: the woman an urban, middle-class Bay Area prostitute, the man a Dutch coffee dealer and avowed celibate after years of gay prostitution. Neither has family nor a partner, but over the course of an afternoon, each considers what their sharing of similar life-stories entails. Would they make sensitive partners, granted each other’s history of violations and tragedies, and each other’s differing strengths of character? Would each be a good candidate to ‘protect the other’s solitude,’ in Rilke’s phrase about an ideal marriage? The Dutch man proposes this is worth thinking about, but as in Milton’s poem, “The Spear Lily” closes with a woman and a man leaving a darkened garden together, without any resolution about either’s future.
“The Kilim Dreaming” is fundamentally about how a Turkish rug dealer’s attitude toward the welfare of innumerable women who live as rug-weavers changes after he meets a younger woman who not only possesses some very rare kilims, but is apparently capable of supernatural communication—with him, with a recently dead woman who was her nurse/chaperone, with other weavers she introduces him to. In short, he encounters the cultural remnants of Amazon matriarchy and changes his life and business practices. And like “The Spear Lily,” “The Kilim Dreaming” is also a romance about the mystery of displaced, shifting identities, about the stripping of veils and masks, the relative costs and consolations of maintaining solitary illusions and of mutually sharing disillusionment. But while “The Spear Lily” was pure fiction (other than some of the botanical settings), “The Kilim Dreaming" was first inspired by a nonfiction profile of a Turkish rug dealer, and gradually built out of research into the history of flatweave textiles in the Anatolian region. It does have a San Francisco connection: one of my primary sources was the book Anatolian Kilims by Cathryn Cootner, which catalogues the Jones kilim collection at the de Young in San Francisco.
It meditates on weaving (presuming natural dyes/wools/practices) as the closest human analogue to what the earth does as a total system. (“The Spear Lily,” which I wrote before “The Kilim Dreaming,” is more straightforwardly based on the Adam & Eve conundrum, and set in the San Francisco Botanical Garden.) In “The Kilim Dreaming” I was committed to telling a longer story, developing the characters more deeply, but also to portraying how the concept of a paradise-garden is transformed into a valuable artifact, a purely human object. I was also pursuing a formal analogy between the sonnet sequence and rug-weaving. In their traditional forms, both depend on standard measures of length and width—the loom’s warp and weft designed for certain sizes (the 3x5 of a prayer rug; the 9x12 of a main tent rug, the 14 lines times 10 syllables (12 in my case) of each sonnet. Both can (hypothetically) be endlessly lengthened—the red carpet runner unrolled for visiting royalty, the thematic or narrative sequencing of sonnets; both depend on the rhythmic joining of the abstract to the concrete—the knots that join dyed wool to patterned images, the accentual-syllabic joining of syllables and linguistic elements to imagery and metaphor and story. Another formal intersection, for me, is how flatweave techniques favor repeating geometrical images and visual rhythms, while my thinking about the poetic elements of syllabics, rhymes, cadences and verbal music is a sort of musical math designed to represent people living the mystery of earthly existence.
Back to the cultural and paradisal aspects, though, here’s a useful generalization: Anatolian rugs portray a heaven seen from earth, while Persian rugs portray an idealized earth seen from the eternal perspective of heaven. (The word “paradise” itself derives from the Persian word for a walled garden.) So each is rich with paradoxical suggestions about time, and about the functions of desire and memory in depicting the intersection of the mythical with the actual. Rugs are not only image repositories, but cultural repositories; their commercial and cultural values are inextricably knotted together, warp and weft; yet they are made be walked on, sat on, eaten on, prayed on, and among some nomadic people they retain their oldest function: portable flooring in a world where the pastoral life and country itself is a homeland not to be desecrated by permanent dwellings, which are in any case an illusion. Many rugs are composed of one or more central “fields” and one or more “borders”; common images in Anatolian kilims include fruit trees and flowers (but also a figure thought to be a relic of Neolithic goddess-worship, and winged creatures who may be angels); the oldest surviving fragment from the fifth century BCE has representations of horses, deer, and humans together in a liminal state between the wild and the domesticated. And of course every ancient kilim is composed entirely from living materials extracted from the weaver’s environment: wool, dyes from vegetables, fruits, insects, woven on a wooden frame.
I think of the old inscription-on-stone best known in the paintings by Poussin and Guercino of bucolic pastorals: “Et in Arcadia ego”—And I am in Arcadia. Is this, as some critics think, evidence of Death being a tagger in paradise, where the chiseled graffito means “I’m in Arcadia, too, like any other place—you can run but you can’t hide from mortality”? Or is it what Simon Schama terms “a wistful epitaph” about what works of art have in common with gravestones: a formal, compressed testimony, designed to communicate as long it exists the mysterious privilege of having lived as a name on an earth where most of what exists inhabits its essence with no name for itself, no memory (that can be communicated to us), no history, and no future? Kilims are not only colorful memorials to the tedious (but perhaps social and companionable) hours of nameless women. Kilims announce, after their fashion, that the weaver was, at least this once, a visionary medium between the past and the future, and her artifact contains the coded patterns and colors necessary to understand how she conceived the world and abstracted its mysteries—which would outlive her, along with her kilim.
Monday, October 25, 2010
In other news, Bear Star poet Rick Bursky has a new book coming out with Sarabande this fall and I can’t wait to read it: Death Obscura. It sports another stunning cover, right up there with the one for The Soup of Something Missing, but when you work for an ad agency and teach at an art school you have no shortage of creative friends with whom to collaborate. Congratulations, Rick! Don’t forget you promised to let me interview you sometime soon.
Meanwhile, Steve Gutierrez has an essay in the fall Redwood Coast Review—“The Big Fresno Fair” (online at http://www.stephenkessler.com/rcr/rcr_2010fall.pdf )—that I loved. Here’s his description of his Aunt Ella. “She was the younger one: the rebel who had been a 'career girl' into her late twenties, daring the barrio to call her an old maid, working as a secretary for a corporation and saving enough money to travel. She conquered Mexico with Capri pants that stirred the natives. She dropped in on Hawaii and broke some hearts.”
Also, I’m excited to announce that Bear Star will be publishing a book of poems by Quinton Duval, beloved Sacramento-area poet who passed away unexpectedly last spring. Gary Thompson at Cedar House Books (Friday Harbor, WA) has taken Quinton’s unfinished manuscript and added to it from various files the poet was working on at the time of his death. The book is called Like Hay and will come out in Spring 2011. I can’t wait to begin setting it up in InDesign.
Finally, it’s been a pleasure to enter The Kilim Dreaming for some awards I feel it deserves. Each poem (there are only four) would make a terrific film, but you’re just going to have to order a copy if you can’t wait for Hollywood to come to its senses and make something good for a change. Robert Hill Long is a fabulous storyteller and one of the best sonneteers around.
Monday, August 16, 2010
Amiri Baraka, Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music University of California Press)
Sherwin Bitsui, Flood Song (Copper Canyon Press)
Nancy Carnevale, A New Language, A New World: Italian Immigrants in the United States, 1890-1945 (University of Illinois Press)
Dave Eggers, Zeitoun (McSweeney’s/Vintage)
Sesshu Foster, World Ball Notebook (City Lights)
Stephen D. Gutierrez, Live from Fresno y Los (Bear Star Press)
Victor Lavalle, The Big Machine (Spiegel & Grau)
François Mandeville, This Is What They Say, translated from the Chipewyan by Ron Scollon (University of Washington Press)
Bich Minh Nguyen, Short Girls (Viking)
Franklin Rosemont and Robin D.G. Kelley, editors, Black, Brown & Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora (University of Texas)
Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey C. Robinson, editors, Poems for the Millennium: Volume Three: The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry (University of California Press)
Kathryn Waddell Takara, Pacific Raven: Hawai`i Poems (Pacific Raven Press)
Pamela Uschuk, Crazy Love: New Poems (Wings Press)
From the press release:
"The American Book Awards were created to provide recognition for outstanding literary achievement from the entire spectrum of America's diverse literary community. The purpose of the awards is to recognize literary excellence without limitations or restrictions. There are no categories, no nominees,and therefore no losers. The award winners range from well-known and established writers to underrecognized authors and first works. There are no quotas for diversity, the winners list simply reflects it as a natural process. The Before Columbus Foundation views American culture as inclusive and has always considered the term “multicultural” to be not a description of various categories, groups, or “special interests,” but rather as the definition of all of American literature. The Awards are not bestowed by an industry organization, but rather are a writers’ award given by other writers."
The awards ceremony will be on Sunday, September 19th, from 1:00-4:00 p.m. at the Koret Auditorium, San Francisco Main Library, 100 Larkin Street (at Grove), San Francisco, CA. A reception will take place following the ceremony. This event is open to the public. For more information, call (510) 642-7321.
See you there!
Saturday, August 14, 2010
Speaking of links, Cohasset finally has high-speed internet—insert vuvuzela chorus here—or at least higher speed. Fact-checking, blog-reading, YouTubing, etc., has never been easier. And watching old episodes of 30 Rock on lazy days more tempting than ever.
Have you seen this? http://brightcove.newscientist.com/services/player/bcpid96978243001?bctid=221111468001
Simply mesmerizing. But after a while questions arise. What to make of the fact that large portions of the Midwest and East seem permanently sad? Or that Oregon is less happy than Washington and California? Most perplexing, how is it possible that California’s mood remains one of the highest in the nation despite the myriad ways this state is failing its citizens? Is it our generally warmer clime? The quality of our wine and weed? The vast number of people practicing yoga, zen, and veganism? Or simply that the homeless don’t tweet?
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
The first person I thought of when I watched it was my mother, Dorothy Brunsman Spencer. She’s only 88, but she also lives to read, despite suffering from severe macular degeneration. Knowing she might find it easier to enjoy novels, not to mention the Nation and New Yorker, if she could increase the font size and the contrast between the text and background, inspired me to join wallets with my brother and father to get her an iPad of her own. (As a small publisher gouged by Amazon there was no effing way I was going to get her a Kindle.)
Then I waited. One never knows with Ma. Sure, she loves reading, but she’s also stubborn about things like paper. She prefers newsprint to shiny pages, for starters, so maybe reading on glass would just feel weird. Still, watching her slowly make her way through T.C. Boyle’s The Women when she visited here last month was heartbreaking. In the old days, when her eyes were stronger, she could have finished five novels in the time it was taking her to get through Part 1 of this one.
She called today, having just downloaded another novel by T. C. Boyle, her new favorite writer. I haven’t heard her sound so happy since the day I told her I was finally going to finish college. “I love it,” she said. “I can see the pages so much better.” She also likes the way it saves her place from one session to the next, how she can curl up on the couch with it and read in dim light. “You may not get a thank-you card from me,” she warned at the end of our conversation. “In fact, I don’t want to see anyone, go anywhere, or do anything else but READ!”
You go, Ma. I can’t wait to hear about your downloads. Maybe you’ll even be willing to show me how to use that thing when I see you next.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Quinton Duval passed away on May 10. A fine poet, a teacher, and the editor and publisher of Red Wing Press, Quinton was a big-hearted man who will be greatly missed. He is the author of four poetry collections, including Joe’s Rain from Cedar House Books. More recently, Rattlesnake Press published his chapbook Among Summer Pines. I have been reading and rereading “Morning Tea,” that book’s last poem since hearing of his death. Here are the last several lines:
Before I left, I saw you set out
the blue bowl full of speckled eggs
and a plate of June peaches.
After breakfast, find Bobo the fisherman
and his four sons. Tell them to bring rope
and a sheet of plywood. I’ve never had
a ride on plywood. I’ve never loved anywhere
as much as here, with you. I’d do it again
in a minute. You know me.
I’ve never had enough.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
And speaking of bears, I liked the one above, trying hard to see what was going on last week inside the Denver Convention Center.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
If you're going, I hope you stop by Bear Star's table in Exhibit Hall A--Table J22--which is shared this year by Helicon Nine Editions. The following Bear Star writers will be signing books at the table:
- Steve Gutierrez (Live from Fresno y Los): TH at 1 pm
- Jeanne E. Clark (Gorrill's Orchard): TH at 2 pm
- Linda Dove (In Defense of Objects): F at 1:30 pm
Friday, March 5, 2010
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Mother, they’ve strung up the head of the scapegoat
and I want him to open his eyes.
I’ll crawl past the bloodshot filaments, the tears
subsiding where his pain has not yet reached.
In this corner, a yellow barn cat,
fur licked flat about her teats; above, a wasps’ nest
no one has disturbed, the hay scent
and children’s voices hurtling down a ray of light.
Soon, I’ll be the mirror clouded by his panting.
I’ll be a bright penny destined for the locomotive,
and afterwards, the one who picks it up.
The mob gathers, siphoning green oil into their lanterns,
and I walk aimlessly with him
into the old city of the brain with its slant avenues.
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
For some reason, partly to do with a desire to cultivate a longer attention span, I’m into longer books so far this year, following 2666 with Infinite Jest. The latter seems weirdly appropriate in view of the recent SCOTUS ruling. Now that corporations can pour as much money as they like into political races, maybe it’s only a matter of time before the years are named, as in Jest, for sponsors. Somehow, “The Year of Depend Adult Undergarments” doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. I rather like picturing Alito and Scalia in diapers—Thomas, too.
But, speaking of long works, the latest Poetry has a marvelous essay by Durs Grünbein that makes a case for the time-saving aspects of poetry. “A few clusters of words express what the lavish epic draws out over hundreds of pages. Or to put it another way: couldn’t it be that poems, as long as they are alert and open to impressions, are novels by other means—and therefore do sterling service to readers short of time and hungry for intensity? What they offer are lessons in accelerated consciousness, machete slashes through a tangled world.”
Monday, February 1, 2010
Parable of Shadows
What turns cities gray are ghosts: that’s where they answer
monotonous inquiries about the future
in monotones of ash, exhaust, and verdigris.
The residue they leave is like a sustained kiss—
on this portico that sheltered one’s live embrace;
on that marble sill where another leaned her face
into her arms and listened to the song of sirens
and taxis, and weighed the summer she held the reins
of a milk-paint horse, and no one called her in at dark.
The city ghosts touch gray is a moon-luminous ark,
they’re its true passengers. The living are ballast,
perishables with no sure date stamped as their last.
Something stilled in them wants the facades to keep graying.
What the dead do with their colors, they’re not saying.
Sunday, January 31, 2010
“The atmosphere at the publishing house was one of feverish activity. Sometimes, however, everything halted, and the copy editor made coffee for herself and [an author] and tea for a new girl who worked as a designer, because by now the house had grown and the slate of employees had grown and sometimes, at a nearby desk, there was a young copy editor, Swiss, why on earth he lived in Hamburg no one knew, and the baroness came out of her office and so did the head of publicity and sometimes the secretary, and they talked about all sorts of things, about the last movie they’d seen or the actor Dirk Bogarde, and then the bookkeeper and even Marianne Gottlieb would drop by with a smile, and if the laughter was very loud in the big room where the copy editors worked, then Bubis himself would peer in with his teacup in his hand, and they would talk not just about Dirk Bogarde but also about politics and the dirty business that the new Hamburg officials got up to or they talked about some writers who had no ethical sense, self-confessed and happy plagiarists who hid expressions of mingled fear and outrage behind a cheerful mask, writers prepared to cling to any reputation, with the certainty that they would thus live on in posterity, any posterity, which made the copy editors and the other employees laugh and even prompted a resigned smile from Bubis, since no one knew better that posterity was a vaudeville joke audible only to those with front-row seats, and then they started to talk about lapsus calami, many of them collected in a book published long ago … and it wasn’t long before the copy editors got out a book … and began to read aloud a selection of cultured pearls:
‘Poor Marie! Whenever she hears the sound of an approaching horse, she is certain that it is I.’ Vie de Rancé, Chateaubriand.
‘The crew of the ship swallowed up by the waves consisted of twenty-five men, who left hundreds of widows consigned to misery.’ Les Cages flottantes, Gaston Leroux. …
‘ “Let’s go! said Peter, looking for a hat to dry his tears.” Lourdes, Zola.
‘The duke appeared followed by his entourage, which preceded him.’ Letters from My Mill, Alphonse Daudet.
‘With his hands clasped behind his back, Henri strolled about the garden, reading his friend’s novel.’ Le Cataclysme, Rosny.”
The list goes on, followed by commentary about particular pearls that if anything is funnier than the pearls themselves. I submit that the reason writers and editors so enjoy this kind of humor is that they—we—are all too conscious of the ease with which such goofs can make it into print, and so we laugh loudly (while knocking on wood to protect against further embarrassments).
I will end this post by reproducing the typo I make most often, and that on dark days I suspect describes me a little too well: edioter.
UPDATE: This just out from Amazon:
Macmillan, one of the "big six" publishers, has clearly communicated to us that, regardless of our viewpoint, they are committed to switching to an agency model and charging $12.99 to $14.99 for e-book versions of bestsellers and most hardcover releases.
We have expressed our strong disagreement and the seriousness of our disagreement by temporarily ceasing the sale of all Macmillan titles. We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan's terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books. Amazon customers will at that point decide for themselves whether they believe it's reasonable to pay $14.99 for a bestselling e-book. We don't believe that all of the major publishers will take the same route as Macmillan. And we know for sure that many independent presses and self-published authors will see this as an opportunity to provide attractively priced e-books as an alternative.
Kindle is a business for Amazon, and it is also a mission. We never expected it to be easy!
Thursday, January 14, 2010
In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.