Friday, April 27, 2007

Poems from Nana Peterson

A package came yesterday for Lizzie. It contained three Little League trophies belonging to Dave (1976, 1977) and three packages of poems, one for each of us. "Celebrate April! National Poetry Month," the slip of covering paper reads. My package contains work by Margaret Atwood.

How lucky can a woman get? I have wonderful in-laws, and my mother-in-law, particularly, has always nurtured my poetry. (Of course Mom has, too, but since we're supposed to take our parents for granted, that's what I'm doing--most of the time.)

Reading over the poems as I nibbled on aging Easter eggs this morning, I was reminded how much I love Atwood's work. And, because I followed up a student poetry reading last night with a trip to a bar for dessert and was, unfortunately, pegged at once as the chaperoning professor rather than a winsome coed, Atwood's "aging female poet" series spoke directly to me.

Aging Female Poet Reads Little Magazines
Margaret Atwood

Amazingly young beautiful woman poets
with a lot of hair falling down around
their faces like a bad ballet,
their eyes oblique over their cheekbones;
they write poems like blood in a dead person
that comes out black, or at least deep
purple, like smashed grapes.
Perhaps I was one of them once.
Too late to remember
the details, the veils.
If I were a man I would want to console them,
and would not succeed.

I am lucky to be surrounded by a few amazingly young beautiful woman poets. My AYBWPs, however, don't write poems like blood in dead people, nor do they let their hair fall down around their faces. My AYBWPs remind me how fun it is to speak our poems aloud, to see the faint lines drawn in the sand and, grinning, to step over them. My AYBWPs (I use the possessive so lovingly) are feisty, loud, amusing, involved, over the top rabble rousers. They do not want to be consoled by a man, men in general, but they do want to be noticed. I know I was one of them once, and, inside, still am. I remember the details, the veils, and am not ashamed to say that I enjoyed them. Still, the melancholy in this poem, the bitchy crone posture, gives me a wonderful thrill. A necessary lift.

Margaret Atwood

My daughter crackles paper, blows
on the tree to make it live, festoons
herself with silver.
So far she has no use
for gifts.

What can I give her,
what armor, invincible
sword or magic trick, when that year comes?

How can I teach her
some way of being human
that won't destroy her?

I would like to tell her, Love
is enough, I would like to say,
Find shelter in another skin.

I would like to say, Dance
and be happy. Instead I will say
in my crone's voice, Be
ruthless when you have to, tell
the truth when you can,
when you can s ee it.

Iron talismans, and ugly, but
more loyal than mirrors.

There's so much in this poem that hits me, umph, on that deep level, the subterranean level of poetry in the body. "How can I teach her/ some way of being human/ that won't destroy her?" How can I read those lines and not feel them, like a soft knife in my womb? This advice, I realize, I've given myself, will give Lizzie, have given to writing students: "Be/ ruthless when you have to, tell/ the truth when you can,/ when you can see it." Yes, that is the point, at least for me, finally.

The Words Continue Their Journey
Margaret Atwood

Do poets really suffer more
than other people? Isn't it only
that they get their pictures taken
and are seen to do it?
The loony bins are full of those
who never wrote a poem.
Most suicides are not
poets: a good statistic.

Some days though I want, still,
to be like other people;
but then I go and talk with them,
these people who are supposed to be
other, and they are much like us,
except that they lack the sort of thing
we think of as a voice.
We tell ourselves they are fainter
than we are, less defined,
that they are what we are defining,
that we are doing them a favor,
which makes us feel better.
They are less elegant about pain than we are.

But look, I said us. Though I may hate your guts
individually, and want never to see you,
though I prefer to spend my time
with dentists because I learn more,
I spoke of us as we, I gathered us
like the members of some doomed caravan

which is how I see us, traveling together,
the women veiled and singly, with that inturned
sight and the eyes averted,
the men in groups, with their moustaches
and passwords and bravado
in the place we're stuck in, the place we've chosen,
a pilgrimage that took a wrong turn
somewhere far back and ended
here, in the full glare
of the sun, and hard red-black shadows
cast by each stone, each dead tree lurid
in its particulars, its doubled gravity, but floating
too in the aureole of stone, of tree,

and we're no more doomed really than anyone, as we go
together, through this moon terrain
where everything is dry and perishing and so
vivid, into the dunes, vanishing out of sight,
vanishing out of the sight of each other,
vanishing even out of our own sight,
looking for water.

Atwood so poignantly gets to the center of the matter--the matter of "being" a poet. Of choosing to write and, presumably, to try to publish (and thus communicate) poetry. Do we really suffer more than others? Is it that we're defining those who don't have a voice, or, as Whitman would have it, giving voice to the voiceless, the "others"--and thus doing them a celestial favor? Are we a doomed caravan, a desert tribe, lost, stuck in the place we've chosen for ourselves (the Sahara of literature?), having taken a wrong turn on a pilgrimage, having lost the guiding star? Perhaps. What Atwood so nicely captures for me here is the sense of wandering I experience when I write, and read, poetry. It is a sense of blue loneliness, invested at least a bit with the fear of never finding the place I seek, or even knowing the place I seek. The landscape is a "moon terrain/ where everything is dry and perishing" and "lurid/ in its particulars, its doubled gravity." How wonderful to realize that what we might be looking for is not God, or a lover, or a chance to talk with that elusive other, but water (which is probably all of these things at once, and more.)

Nana, if you're reading this, thank you for the poems! I've got a taste for Atwood again. I'll have to go to the bookstore and pick some of her up, take her home, eat her smothered in hot fudge, whipped cream, nuts and a cherry. (Oh, and I hope you realize just how much you look like the aging Canadian siren...)

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Asking for Directions

A Twenty-Minute Writing Exercise from The Poet's Companion, Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, eds. (p. 246-7)

I Can't Remember

I can't remember if the last time I saw you was
that Christmas in San Carlos, when Lizzie pitched
a tantrum on the dining room rug (Liz and Mike
were in Tahoe for the week and we were squatting
in their house); you said, shaking your silver head
over the Caesar salad, to Aunt Wendy, covering
your moving mouth with a spotted hand,
"In my day, we had the kids in bed by 7:00,
ate alone at 9:00," as if the absence of their living noise,
the triumphant crash, bang, and scream of them making
their unholy mark on the world were some sort of
half-recalled heaven--

that's not how I want to remember you,
not as a sudden old woman in her 90s,
frail, confused,
a grounded traveler guarding her remaining days
against the brush of death's
mind-numbing cloak.
Even then, when I could tell we'd lost
quite a bit of you already,
I loved you with an ache that went deeper
than your son's early death.

When I got the email about your diagnosis,
I sat at my desk, here at school, alone,
and stared into the glowing screen--
as if there, in the shifting light, I could see
the flit of your young body on a Rhode Island beach,
the reach of your legs, pedaling on nothing,
to the sky.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Appointment in Samarra

Dave used to tell me things about this novel. Actually, he used to tell me about the story O'Hara uses to begin his novel, a story about Death meeting a man in the market. The man is startled to see Death and runs home to his master, asks for a horse and money so he can escape Death and run to Samarra. The master gives him everything he wants and off he gallops, hell bent for leather. The master meets Death later, and Death explains--Death was surprised to see the servant in the market. "I have an appointment with him later, in Samarra."

I can't remember the contexts for Dave's discussions of the story, or O'Hara's novel. No doubt he had a point to make about how hard it is to escape our fates. Or else he wanted to call my attention to this novel, which doesn't get much airplay, but--now that I've finally read it--does, to my mind, another number on the same sort of world that Fitzgerald takes on in The Great Gatsby.

Even though I've read The Great Gatsby at least two times, I can't really remember much about it right now, except that Daisy (I think that's her name) runs over someone with her car, and Jake (is that his name?) comes back from obscurity with lots of money to throw massive parties and to try to win Daisy over to his side. She plays him for all he's worth, runs over someone, and then ends up with her brutish once-rich faux-aristo husband again in the end. It's one of those novels designed to expose all the savagery of the idle American rich, and as such is a classic, one of the top dozen novels a person should read in order to call herself an educated American. (I've no doubt exposed myself here, or at least exposed my faulty memory banks, by committing all sorts of errors in fact and plot and theme. Oh well.)

In any case, my experience of O'Hara's novel was quite good. As I was reading the story, which deals with several middle class families in a small Pennsylvania town outside of Philadelphia, I was pleasantly shocked at O'Hara's treatment of sexuality (blunt, unromanticized, only half euphemized) and marriage (blunt, unromanticized, not euphemized at all) and alcoholism (ditto marriage). Looking at the copyright date, 1934, I expected the story to suffer from the brittle self consciousness of many Depression/Prohibition era novels that didn't quite make it to the "must read" lists of the later part of the century, the cracked patina of the hordes of "hilarious" black and white screwball comedies that used to define American Movie Classics (before they started chopping movies from the later decades into tidbits with commercials--in fact, is there even an American Movie Classic channel anymore? Wow. I don't think there is...) But the novel does a very good job of getting at middle class suburbia, men who sell Cadillacs, country club frat boys, and their bored, desperate wives, and at the spiritual vacuity that leads them to self destruct.

I'm sure that Johns Updike and Cheever owe a small tip of the hat each to O'Hara, who years before them captured the angst of Eastern suburbia, the general pointlessness of daily human interaction, and the material strivings of communities divided by religion, ethnic origins, money, and politics--but mostly by a sort of spiritual sterility.

(I note from the site where I found the picture for this entry that Fran Lebowitz called O'Hara 'the real ... Fitzgerald,' though that citation can't be verified because of the vagaries of Wikipedia, and that Updike has been one of O'Hara's consistent supporters. What do I learn from this? That I should trust my gut reactions.)

For those of you who've recommended that I read McCarthy's The Road, you'll be happy to know that I've decided to include it in my senior creative writing seminar in the fall. I have yet to read it (just ordered it from, which has suckered out of me the 75.00 it takes to get my selections sent to me free on the 2-day plan) but, based on the blurbs, very much look forward to it. I love post apocalyptic narratives (don't ask me why, because they scare the shit out of me... it's probably because they scare the shit out of me that I love them). If you've got a favorite post-apocalyptic narrative you'd like to recommend, drop me a comment. The best ones I've read lately have been, in order of greatness:

1. Orynx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
2. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
3. The Stand, Stephen King
4. The Children of Men, P. D. James