Friday, June 30, 2006

The midnight zinnias.

After my summer class ended this afternoon, with the usual term's-end mingle of regret and relief, I spent a good part of the rest of the day reclined in a pair of chairs on a lawn, my feet bare and sunned, my ears full of more Sufjan Stevens. (Seriously, have I recommended him to you yet? The concept albums, Illinoise (2005) and Greetings from Michigan (2003), are both great, but the album that came between them, Seven Swans (2004), might be my favorite right now, for the spare, devastatingly complex simplicity of its lyrics and its strings. Try "To Be Alone With You," for one, but don't let yourself think it's a romantic narrative.)

And that was good enough, that sitting in the chairs in the shade on the lawn, trying to get comfortable enough to put my thick and swimming head back and to sleep. Or at least it was almost good enough, perhaps a shade short.

And then a poem walked up and wanted to be written down, and so I started. And then I stalled, distracted from the poem by what was not the poem, what could not be the poem, what the poem needed to excise in order to exist.

Striding away from the chairs in the shade on the lawn, I reached the man selling vegetables near the path. Beside the multicolored squashes and the tiny tomatoes and the greens leafing wetly in plastic bins, there on the red bench, there were the vats of zinnias, yellow and red and orange and fuschia and white, their stems rich and strong below the gorgeous multifarious fullness of their blooms. "How much are your flowers?" I asked the man selling the vegetables. "Three for a dollar," he said.

I walked the gravel path toward home in the five o'clock sun bearing my nine perfectly chosen zinnias, these sweetest and boldest of favorite flowers a gift to the girl who waited for years to get blooms from another before deciding to give them to herself, over and over and again. Now, in the half-dark of the porch, I look at these stems, and at their profusion of petals, and I memorize all over again the ephemerality of sweetest and boldest things, and my hopes (I had written faith, but I'm still struggling that way) that such profusion cannot go unseen and unneeded--that it fills its presaging purpose, that it leads to some greater, necessary growth, that brightest beauties don't go wasted.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Such slipping.

Tonight, I am both empty and full, wakeful and exhausted. There is both more to say and nothing to say, the day having gone over largely to reading and thinking in concert with my young ones, guiding word choices and interpretations, fielding stress and confusion, administering confidence when possible, praise when deserved.

But the best part of the day: a drowning nap, this afternoon, on the couch in the window, under and in the breeze, the curtains drifting, the light swimming, enough coolness for a quilt, enough sun for forgetting one's dreams.

The coneflowers, the coneflowers: they are starting to show. We will have them for much of the summer now. They're hardy; even I couldn't kill them, even in my Ithacan garden of neglect. They came up summer after summer, wending their ways through the weeds, stretching their quirky glory into every available shaft of sunlight.

I don't think I've actually told you about the lilies in Gambier. They are everywhere, lining every yard and every campus green, it seems, and they are enormous. I have not loved them in past years; I may not love them now. But in tonight's early evening sun, they were diaphanous, shadowing over and into themselves, a powerful recommendation.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Tonight, just rain, and rain, and rain, and lightning. And rain. And somehow, that drumming and drubbing is exactly what's meant to be here. The day was long and mighty, the weather swift and flighty. My taste for rhyme is, apparently, unslakeable, unslackening, unstoppable even at the end of a pounding, pressing day. Heading from a happily abortive attempt to get dinner in a dining hall, over to a happily successful dinner somewhere finer than a dining hall, I checked on the coneflowers but could not take their pictures--too much speed, too much swiftness in our passage through town. But pictures of yesterday's vanguard will let you know how things are coming along. Tonight's rain will, I suspect, bring these even closer to their final selves.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The wonder of clarity.

We have reached that moment in the summer course where the students are writing their final papers, which creates a tiny lull while we wait to see what they'll create if we just leave them alone for a few minutes. After weeks of having pushed so hard to craft class sessions and ever-deeper thoughts about Morrison, I have suddenly found myself a few minutes of quiet and un-stir. I spent part of that ease this evening drinking wine and talk on a lawn with my excellent novelist friend; by the end of our couple of hours, as I headed back toward home through the dark, I realized that my leg muscles were the slightest bit wavery, the slightest bit at sea, despite the strange solidity of everything summery around me, from the depth of the night to the layering of the lamplit leaves to the shiftiness of the gravel under my feet. I thought of the days and nights I breasted the dipping and beating of the sea against a boat, walking decks with traveling companions in Greece and Turkey, and the dipping and beating of a train against the air, walking aisles first with traveling companions and then simply myself, all those years of train travel in this country and others. I thought of the days and nights I breasted the dipping and beating of incommensurable lives, walking the streets of every place I've lived, walking my way toward some kind of clear integrity.

The air tonight is not resistant, by any means; we have had thick-laden humid afternoons--today was one of them, almost--and heavy-hanging evenings, but tonight offered a swift-staying medium, an atmosphere that left me able to skim over the half-mile home from downtown with a particular graceful-feeling speed. Tonight I think I carry my own private nimbus of hope around with me, born of who knows what elements, aimed at who knows what target. My thoughts have done so much wandering over the past few weeks, and to feel them perhaps starting to circle back, to crystallize and clarify once again, to ring up around the places where my life's meanings live, is a small wonder and grace. I suspect that they are not done with the wandering, but would I want them to be? The trick is to have them wander freely but always return. The trick is to remember that the thing itself, the beauty itself, is something I made and then commenced gravitating to long ago; it is no finished thing, and in fact the beauty of its lineaments resides in its unfinishability, but it is a staff and a support, a framework, a worthy structure, a stateliness.

Clarity and integrity were my thoughts' refrains tonight.

The colors into which we're moving now, at midsummer, are somehow both bolder and more muted than our spring colors were. The lilies are orange (and occasionally white or ruby or lemony yellow), while the coneflowers (still green stars) that will bloom within days will bring a soberly ecstatic fuschia into the middle of town. The gravity of my joy and the joy of my gravity are most difficult to explain, even to myself, these days. For a long part of my walk home, my striding cast two shadows.

The rain has begun slapping beyond me, draining off some of the excess and strain of the cloud cover under which I walked out and back tonight. It is so insistent a thing, raucously itself. And the smell it raises is one of some and all things, of particulars traded and loved, of generalities feared and needed, of necessary meeting, of inevitable sunder.

In the new project, the one that arrived as an unbidden visitation yesterday, the first piece is "The Invisible Girl."

Expect more of these stars, and expect them blooming, as these days trace onward.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Running running running.

Tonight, one of my summer students requested an evening conference about the paper he's writing, and since we're not in full session, the only place to meet him, really, was the classroom where he was working, nearly a mile away. I strapped my sandals back on, grabbed my good old (old old) hooded sweatshirt, and skipped out onto the street. Somewhere a few steps down the block, I realized how good it felt to be moving swiftly, and I lengthened my stride out, dropping my center of gravity just a bit, squaring my weight over my hips, and off I flew. Within a quarter-mile, I was about to burst into a run, just to run and run, following the cheerful insistence of the music in my ears, more of Sufjan Stevens's Illinoise (2005), the second in Stevens's projected fifty-album set, an album for each state. The sky was grey but not too low, the evening darkening but not too dark yet. By the time I hit the lawn outside the classroom building, I actually had broken into a run, bounding over the grass, leaping down a low-rising hill, springing through the swung door. It's all the energy of the underslept and overworking.

I am not trying to ignore everyone in my life, but I'm doing a pretty good job of that anyway, even without effort. I'm back up for air and human contact once I make it to Friday.

In the meantime: today, I shot the dragon for the first time in a long time. Somewhat on a whim, I lay down in the yard where he lives. Because I had headphones on, I couldn't hear my landlord when he came running over to find out whether I'd passed out on the lawn--and my not responding, of course, made things all the more frightening for him. Much blaming of technology ensued. However, I had already secured this image when the panic went down:

I suspect you can guess why I might have wanted to lie down for that one.

The real photographic business of the evening, though, consists of my giving you a much overdue installment of LRB personals. I will let them speak for themselves until such time as I can say something more useful of my own. I may never, ever agree with the classified manager's choice, but this week, in particular, I can say that I adore both his methodology and his prose.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Dappled and drowsy.

I think I've used that Simon and Garfunkel line on you before. I'm using it now, too, as a prelude to saying: today was a day of reading essay topics and writing a sonnet and eating a dinner and then picking brains for awhile, and now I'm tired. Which means that tomorrow I'll write, but tonight I'll sleep. Things are likely to be erratic in this way for the next few days, as the summer students and the teaching staff and I push through the final project that will cap their time with me before they fly off to their next engagement, small migrators. Tomorrow morning, Paul D will want to put his story beside Sethe's all over again, and I, as always, will feel like crying but won't.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

In memoriam.

My favorite William Blake image is a small one, the ninth plate from The Gates of Paradise (1793). In it, a hatted man has hitched his ladder to a crescent moon and seems about to ascend; a couple stands behind him, embracing. In The Illuminated Blake, a compendium of Blake's illuminated works, David Erdman's commentary on this image describes the man as looking back at the embracing couple, the woman of whom is "not too busy to wave or direct him upward" (273). As I peer at the image, knowing full well that I don't have any reproductions good enough to allow me to quarrel with what Erdman was undoubtedly able to see while he used the originals and magnification, it always looks more to me as though the climbing man is entirely focused on his impending ascent. Blake's key for this image explains that the man is "On the shadows of the Moon / Climbing thro Nights highest noon" (Erdman 278). These details are mostly beside the point of this writing, which has more to do with this image's caption than anything else (though the image itself encapsulates so much that is important to me about the way I exist in this world). At the bottom of this plate, which is one of the only ones that didn't undergo some kind of serious change when Blake re-released Gates of Paradise perhaps a quarter-century after first engraving it, Blake includes the simplest of cries: "I want! I want!" This spring, I finally found a coffee mug bearing the engraving on one side and the caption on the other. I'm using that mug today.

What I want (I want!), this afternoon, is to mourn the loss of an excellent dog, my favorite Ohio dog, one of my longest-standing Gambier friends. You will recall, perhaps, my writing about the beginning of his decline, back in April. As it turned out, he had only two more months of life beyond that writing. On Thursday evening, while I was out cavorting in my midsummer's sense of lingering, yearning youth, my friend was dying in his home, his breath caught by a thunderstorm, his life stopped by a fear and trembling that became an unconsciousness that (they tell me) stayed until a sigh from the backseat of the car, speeding to the vet, came to stand as his last sign of life.

Yesterday afternoon, coming home from my morning and afternoon teaching sessions, which had more than their usual share of strange hilarity, I saw my excellent friends walking their younger dog. The absence of my dog friend was no surprise; he has not gone on a long walk since April. Nor was one friend's nose-blowing a sign; I assumed he had a cold about which I didn't know because I hadn't seen him since our gala-fabulous dinner (at which I was distractable to the point of not being able to sit still, and of barely being able to finish my dinner) on Saturday night. Because we're in Gambier, I stopped my car in the middle of the road to ask how they were. "Well," came the reply, "we're fine, but Toby died last night." I parked the car in the driveway (for they were right outside my house when I met them) and started getting the story, but what I also started getting was numb, numb beyond reaction or inscription, numb beyond sensitivity and sympathy, numb beyond all the years of love and company I have spent with a dog I will never see again, a dog I didn't see even once in the five days leading up to his death, a dog I would in any other week have petted and communed with at least a handful of times.

I was looking the other way when he went; I was busy helping my young readers try to make sense of why it matters to people in Beloved that they were looking the wrong way when the four horsemen of a latter-day apocalypse rode into town to cap off Sethe's unliveable life. I was busy feeling wet grass under my toes, busy trying to get a match to light a firework, busy scanning anapests under the table during a discussion of a book I didn't like, busy teaching others how to teach, busy, just busy. As he lay dying, I was busy eating carrot cake in the power-outed dark on my porch, busy watching a moth fly at his own candlelit shadow on my porch ceiling again and again, busy trying to figure out how to explain the contradictory vagaries of desire and regret and love and sorrow to eighteen-year-olds, busy trying to figure out how to let myself simply put on a pair of headphones and be sung to sleep by music I don't know well yet, in a full, early, foreign dark.

"There's nothing you could have done," said my young poet friend, who happened to be the first to arrive at the house after I'd gotten the news, and I know that he is right. And I don't think that what I feel today is guilt. I think that what I feel is sorrow, though not for what would seem to be the right thing, not just yet. I'm sorrowing over my absence of surprise, which feels too uncomfortably akin to an absence of caring, even though I know it is not that absence. "I don't know when it's going to hit me," I told my friend yesterday afternoon, "but it sure as hell hasn't yet." Later in the evening, as he and the rest of my teaching staff were sitting about in a pie stupor, in our variety of supine poses all over my front porch's furniture, the dog nosed worriedly into my conversation, pawing the floor with his left front paw just as he always did when he wanted the thing he could not articulate but that he knew we would intuit because we knew him well. I told a Toby story or two--for one, the story about his being taken to Texas to stay with my excellent friend's parents in 1995, left there with the leaving-home refrain "We'll be right back," not to be picked up until a year later when my friends returned from their year of teaching in England--and after a full silence, my friend quietly asked the nine-hour follow-up: "Has it hit you yet?"

"No," is all I could say then, all I can say now. No. No, but also why, why, why don't I feel it yet, where is it, when will it come, when will it hit me, when will it hit me, and then I realize that as I keep asking when it will hit me, the antecedent of "it" is changing, is becoming all those losses and deaths I have missed over the years, all the sorrows I have not felt, whose blanknesses I have not understood, so that when I think O for the loss of a dog, O, O, what I am crying with these tears that won't come is O for the loss of my mourning for the grandparents who loved me in ways I didn't understand until it was nearly too late. O for the loss of my grandmother who went to sleep one night and died not long after, leaving my grandfather unable to find us (we were at the beach for a few days longer; only she had known where we were), leaving my parents to depart for Detroit so swiftly that they forgot their clothes and my mother had to borrow one of her mother's dresses in order to go to her mother's funeral, leaving the preparations to come together so swiftly that my brother and I could not get to Detroit in time to be present at the funeral of a woman so capacious and so loving and so proud that I would give nearly anything just for a morning over toast and butter and honey at the breakfast table in the yellow kitchen, would give nearly anything to have her make me a cup of coffee in the percolator, to trade pie crust secrets with her, even to know what her favorite kind of pie was.

I missed my grandfather's death, as well, both times it happened: I was in England (with my excellent friends, then my teachers, while their dogs were in Texas) when he had the terrible car accident that catalyzed his Alzheimer's (leaving him fulfilling my worst nightmares,
the obliteration of consciousness's power, perhaps placing the nightmare in my genetics). I had no idea how bad it had been, when my parents e-mailed to let me know; I was too focused on my own successes and failures, wearing the rictus of my academic anxieties, handspanning my way through train timetables and subway lines and new cities and romantic hopes' playing out over London bridges, beside the Thames, through museums, in playhouses. I continued having no sense of the magnitude of this event until we went to Detroit during my surprise visit home for winter vacation and I saw my grandfather supine and still in an intensive care unit, metal rods clawing into his skull and into the halo stabilizing his head, protecting the encasement of the brain that would never let him be himself again. And even after I saw him in traction, weighted down, freighted with the force of an accident of which I think he was never fully aware, I didn't fully get it. And when, years later, a phone message arrived on my old answering machine, my father's voice announcing the death of my grandfather and telling me what time my flight would leave Ithaca for Detroit the next night so that we could have a weekend both of burying my grandfather's ashes (which my brother and I seem to have taken turns holding on our laps in the backseat of the car) and also of celebrating my grandfather's life, I think that I still didn't get it.

I don't know whether I ever cried over my grandfather's death. I know that I did cry over my grandmother's death, which was far more a shock, a suddenness that never closed, an event from which I didn't really recover, even as I didn't really sink into it. What happened with both of their deaths was that I started feeling their absences slowly, lengthily; my grandmother's death, in particular, has carved a hole in some of my most significant pleasures, a quiet desire that I could tell her or show her how things have turned out for me. She'd be worried about a lot of things, I suspect, but when my life turns well, I hear her voice in the back of my head, saying, "That sounds like it was real nice."

It is time for me, for now, to stop writing this prose elegy (which in some ways I didn't really get underway) for my furred friend, who used to resist eating his dinner until Plato, his long-gone compatriot, would bark and bark at him in his frustration, who lay on the floor under the table when I typed my grad school applications while taking care of him, who settled quiet in the office while I hashed out my senior honors thesis with one of his owners, who used to hold feet with me under the dining room table on Fridays, who used to come lie on the hard floor next to my end of the couch just so he'd be there when I wanted to lean over the side and pat him, who used to put his ears in my hands so I'd put my fingers in them (which no one else would do), who loved rice and broccoli, who could not even lift up his back legs to have their insides scratched by the time this summer started, who could barely get up from the hardwood floors these last two months, who nevertheless always came to the door to cry an always-worried hello when I, always worried, appeared to call him O Tohhhby sweetheart and pat his frame and rustle his ears and pluck out his undercoat and snap on his leash and sit on his bed with him through youth to seniority to decline. He was the son of Samson and Sheena. He turned fifteen in May. He was beautiful, and beloved, and the best of dogs. He was, as some friends of mine used to say, good people.

I am never there when the people I love leave; I think it's that grief that's smiting me today.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Back at my post.

At 4:45 p.m. yesterday, the western sky darkening and darkening, I started to suspect we'd lose power. By 4:55 p.m., the power had flickered out one, two, three times, finally staying flickered out. The carnivalesque set in almost immediately: a student stuck in the office with me while a fast-moving summer storm berated and battered asked about whether I was planning to write a book and ended up paging through the dissertation; two-thirds of my teaching staff showed up at the house, later, and then all bets were off for the night. At about 10 p.m., coming back home from more bocce and sparklers on this greenest of deserted campuses--the ground so wet that the bocce balls kicked up their own celebratory fountains as they rolled, the night so light that when a jet passed over, its four engines and blinking lights (early stars) were just drifting, floating out of place--I realized that I was going to miss my nightly writing, for the first time since December. But as with so many other things I was missing, skimming near-bodilessly over the gravel, it seemed all right, mostly fitting, unavoidable anyhow. By 10:45 p.m. I was listening to Sufjan Stevens, a worthily fervent recommendation from a friend, through my best headphones; by 11 p.m., I was asleep. Just before I settled into bed, I looked out the back window of the house; the fireflies in the backyard were legion, hovering lightly in the startlingly pale (though moonless and clouded) night, their blinking an irregular, silent song of beauty and longing and transience. And as I slept, I dreamed for the first time in many days.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Small things.

Today, another marathon day. Tomorrow, yet another. Friday, yet again. So, this evening, impromptu almost-pick-up bocce, the grass short and wet, the light already going. A game, some sparklers, some dogs. Laughter and running barefoot to claim closeness (my aim has run true!). Forgetting the usual fear of glass, of foot-cuts, crossing Middle Path to write our names with dying sparks under the silently musical angels I don't even like all that much. (Occasionally they beckon.)

Tonight, glimpsed from the coffee shop, one of my summer students, walking along on the sidewalk, her nose in Beloved.

Last night, a fifth poem, this one in a swinging meter, anapests and dactyls, my favorite feet. Three days ago, I changed the name of the file containing the poems so that it's no longer the first poem's title; now, it's simply "Poems." I am starting to scan people's speech, listening for rhythms, feeling out words and finger-counting syllables.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Another necessary poem.

I don't know whether I've shared my love of this one, but I will this morning--it's going to be a long, long day, and last night's little companion in unfurlment on my porch made himself seen too late for that post, so think of this one as a post's worth of postscript, today an add-on to yesterday.

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

--Walt Whitman

Monday, June 19, 2006

The workings of weather.

Tonight, my teaching staff and I packed up our summer brood and took them to a literary reading, where a number of lines caught my ear ("pain's roar blasting my body," read Maurya Simon, in an exquisitely sad poem of mourning that perfectly capped off my viscerally sad day with Beloved and the film Osama, a day that left me wondering what we do, we humans, with all this loss and this pain that get showered down upon us not only in life but even in our art, inescapably in our art, in our art so that our lives do not simply end, but why, but why; "the horse is meant, like us, for madness," David Baker told us, later suggesting that "madness is its own mythology"; Rebecca McClanahan spoke of the courage of dailiness; I thought with some rue of the small, spoiled courage of holding one's own in the face of no real danger). By the end of the reading, I was meditating on words of refuge, in a day when language has seemed to do nothing but make me raw and exposed, a theorist of pain, a lecturer on sorrowful horror that simply leaves me empty, paying homage to suffering I cannot explain and cannot abate and cannot imagine. I am in a thin-veiled week, I fear, and to do anything but look the suffering in the eye and call it by its name and make my students call it by its name and sing together the sad sorrows of these vast human lives--to do anything but that would simply be wrong, immoral, points for the wrong side, the battle lost, the war over.

When I walked out of the reading, what had been a hot, still day had gone lively, spectacular, the last kind of beauty I'd have sought: grey stormclouds roiling, a cold breeze dropped in, rain biding the last of its time before starting, first the slow drops, so slow that if you keep moving they will only graze you, then the hard patter, the rattle and slap, the coming of more water. Usually I do not like to be damp but not wet--I am all for immersion--but this evening, I broke into a smart run across the road, from the car to the post office, and upon returning to the car, wanted nothing more than to stand, to get drenched, to catch that other silver that the rain becomes at dusk, molten half-light, accumulation of liquefaction and need. Halfway back to the car, the thought dashed across my mind that I could run and keep running, could run despite dress and dress sandals, could run on into the night with the rain and the wind, could stretch my legs and just keep going, never breathless, never tired, never my old self, simply a running rush of motion under earthbound waters.

When I reached home, I claimed my fourth poem.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Such wind today.

All day it blew, through the house, through the trees, over the bedclothes, over my books and my reading, over my distractions and difficulties with working, over the third poem that perched in my ear and snarled until I wrote it down, gave it a place in my gut to hitch a ride. But when the evening settled over, looking like rain, dropping slow soft drops for moments, the warm wind quieted to cooler breeze, and now it rustles and rushes in the night, low wordless whispering. And in between? Fireflies scattered out over the landscape, causing exclamations and e-mails up and down campus: one person's coo of delight at an insect never seen caught, another's exhortation that I venture back out and see a glory not to be missed. Now we are all settling in for the night, the fireflies darkened to rest, the wind soothing and speaking itself hushingly, some of us reading, some of us sleeping, all of us safe (or as recklessly safe as safe's likely to get) in this small, lovely place.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The night deer.

Perpetual deferral of the commemoratory post. Perhaps I am reiterating to myself that life happens not in neat packs of one hundred, nor in neat palindromic figures. Instead, it seems to be a big jumbly mess, and the best I could do today was to choose my lightest dress and walk out into the night, heading along to dinner with a pie balanced on one hand and Hem singing in my ear. And now I seem to have gotten myself so tired and confused and slightly grouchy and certainly meditatively melancholy that I can barely see my way straight to a writing tonight. Nor can I find the lines of advice my excellent poet friend offered tonight, from William Carlos Williams, about writing a poem about the feeling of blockage.

But in the process of not being able to find Williams's lines, I have produced some of my own. Tonight, I feel like the inside of an old edge's fraying, and somehow what has soothed some of my unraveling is--of all things--my second poem of the week, the second poem of the decade in fact, and so I'll offer it, and here it is, though I actually wrote it before I wrote this paragraph, making these words some kind of proleptic postscript.

The Night Deer

Did you see the night deer?
that shadow massed in darker darkness,
the bent neck, the heartstop's reach,
that gathering near the silence at the edge of the wood?
She is quieter than this slow wind, this subtle stirrer
whose feet sweep echoes through my leaves,
red rustling shocked silver by this moonless night's lamps.
Last night I watched two finches.
They ascended the air as if sprung,
red beside brown, to pause on that high branch,
to sit without singing, to look dead ahead,
to drop straight back down. I have come to see the birds--
the woodpeckers, the wrens, the nuthatches--
that poke about, beaking bark. In last night's dusk
a wren plundered a branch of last resort, tiny and pliant,
and I saw and believed I knew better. But in the dark
of this night's feeding I know that I knew nothing.

Summers are not usually so fraught. I can hope that tomorrow will be a bit more easeful.

Friday, June 16, 2006

More wisdom from unexpected sources.

My morning's couplet, taken from today's junk e-mail:

Knowledge is solving problems no one else can:
quit your deadened job, make more money.

Of course the second line actually said "deadend," but my linguistically hyperactive brain automatically fit another vowel in there, in keeping with Beloved, through which I'm swimming once again, with yet another lively brood clamoring behind me. I'm not so into this particular version of a found-text experiment to make a whole poem out of these things. But I do like these two together, and I like the strange, mystified agency of "knowledge," which makes me think of knowledge running about with a little toolkit, fixing problematic toilets and lightbulbs and solving difficult derivatives and functions and perhaps even doing a little bit of close reading and dictionary legwork. It's the kind of statement that sounds aphoristic and possibly even true, until one starts to poke at it a little more. Is that an actual definition of knowledge? What if knowledge is actually recognizing which problems are insoluble? Or knowing how to help other people solve the problems? Or what if knowledge really is as independent as this sentence's literal level of meaning makes it out to be: a free-floating force that one might harness temporarily but must always lose control of almost immediately?

And the afternoon's junk mail declaration: No one is told off.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Well, I guess I'm running late here, as well.

This post is #200, and I simply cannot do an appropriately commemorative event this evening. You will have to love the palindromic #202, instead.

Tonight, dinner with poets (the aspiring and the accomplished) and talk about Hopkins, and others, and others, and trespass, and sheer gorgeousness, and a sweeping storm of sheep. By consensus, eating by evening light only. And the dark seeping, the room dimming, the night lovely, lovely, a slow and quiet sigh of nearing summer.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

(It is a thing I have always wanted to do.)

I tried this one as haiku and didn't like it much at all
, so I'm back to the keyboard. Sitting in my office tonight, watching the sun sink on toward setting, I remembered that it's been quite awhile since I last thought about my dream of seeing the midnight sun, at some year's solstice. For many years, I contemplated the old Icelandair trick: fly to London on Icelandair, and you get a stopover in Reykjavik, where today the sun rose at 2:57 a.m. and set at 11:57 p.m. (with dawn and dusk at 2:27 a.m. and 12:27 a.m., respectively). Then, one year I actually flew to Europe on the summer solstice, but I didn't muster the courage or the organizational prowess to place myself in Iceland that evening; instead, I flew USAir and arrived in London some six hours after I left Pittsburgh. But I hang on to the dream, particularly on nights when I look over my shoulder out the window at 9:48 and discover the sharp silhouettes of trees in a still-silvery sky, and I simply want the light to linger.

source for tonight's image (because I haven't gotten to see it myself yet): a broken-down Cross-wise site.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Admit one.

Reading and talking writing from the inside out has been the business of my long day's journey into a fatigue setting in with its swift weighty way. Today's bosom companions: juxtaposition, multiperspectival narration, discernment, delineation, and, surprise of surprises, relineation and enjambment (the stealth, the heartsoar, the breathcatch, how the twenty-hour-old prose sketch becomes a shivery moonbeam beckoning over a line some false hand struck in the sand all those years ago, picks up a title, shakes out its embodiment, stands up as stanzas I could carry at my heart, little late valentine to myself this year).

Some days, like today, I overestimate my energy from first consciousness. I've never been great with long-term pacing. I am the sprinter: I swam dashes: the fast kid in the blue suit, off the blocks to anchor the free, to close distances, to go all out, blindedly, trying to pull more than my weight. Decades later, I am still learning how to be on a four-person team, not to need to do the whole relay myself.

When I was younger, my father handed me a ticket stub that said, "KEEP THIS COUPON." I looked at him, and he said, "Well, keep it." I prefer the other kind of ticket stub, the one that says, "ADMIT ONE." Well, admit one. I suspect you want to.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Full moon.

When last in a bed not mine, I slipped up from sleep to find myself silvered, lightened, loned. The moon, the moon, it was the moon in the east window of that stranger place, the moon nearly full, the moon in slow traverse, the moon, and I was in it, and I slept again, not soundly, but selved.

Last night, lying to sleep early, light where I never see it. The moon, the moon, it was the moon in my south window, the moon singing nothing, scant signer, simply staring, so palpable that I could not but resume my sight, could not but look and see and look and lose, and lose, and lose.

Tonight's sky, stratified, silent, seemingly too late for light: palest, paler, pale, then the luminescent dark before a day-off moon, the summer pinpricks of first stars, the solstice stealthily sooning, the year's light grace gathering to leave.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Rooftop meanderings.

I still want to tell you about my wooden spoons, but all these other things keep showing up, wanting to be told, and who am I to say them nay?

Eleven years ago tomorrow, I packed my father's car and drove myself to the Indianapolis airport and flew off to JFK (flying TWA, no less, so I actually got to experience the Saarinen terminal before it went empty) for my first international travel: to Athens, Greece, where I'd live on and off for six weeks while doing a summer study-travel program. The year before had been scarifying; the trip to Greece, I would realize even by the time it was over, marked my decisive farewell to the terrified version of myself who had careened through the academic year, fearing that the work could never be good enough, wanting to drop out of school, falling for someone who made no effort (at 20) to hide his alcoholism and his arrogance. And so it mattered that I drove myself to the airport (though things just happened to work out that way), and it mattered that no one was there to tell me how and when to flash my passport, and it mattered that I knew no one on my flight, and it mattered that within a few days of arriving, I had locked in with the people who would be my fast friends for the rest of the program, and that they seemed happy I was there, and that we all laughed at each other's jokes. I floated through my days in sandals and wide-legged linen pants and sleeveless tops; I felt, as I put it in my journal, very continental. I have never been so tanned. I may never have been so happy.

During the second week of our trip, we traveled on the overnight ferry to Crete. By this time I was fully smitten with an exceptional fellow traveler, who was eminently taken, all but engaged to the woman he married a few years later. (I do unrequited and/or ill-timed exceptionally well, I'd say.) Our first two nights, we stayed in a small, central Cretan town called Zaros. It was on the way to Zaros that I first had more than one drink at a time; at the taverna where we ate lunch, the spaghetti was incredible and the retsina homemade, and my friends and I drank a carafe together ("bread and grapevines and sun splotches on our hair and tables," I wrote later), and I realized one could drink without making drunkenness a goal, and everything changed for me. That night, our group made too much noise at our hotel's bar, and so four of us peeled off into the night. Peeling off into the night, or watching the night peel down, was our favorite pastime. That night: "Because we were sick of plastic chairs by a neon-lit bar, we walked into the darkness of the hotel walkways, only to discover that the sky was literally filled, covered, saturated with stars and planets--hundreds of millions, covering every visible bit." The week before, at a fish taverna (psarotaverna) near the little cove on the east coast of Attica where we swam in the clearest water I've ever seen: "The lights on the other side of the bay twinkled on one by one as the sun set behind our taverna, and I watched the sky darken and the boats on the glassy sea grow less and less distinct on the other side of the low whitewashed wall." As I type, I can picture it: there was a conical island out in the bay; we sat under olive trees; everything grew night-grey and the tiny fried smelts were unparalleled.

But the night that I've been remembering for the past couple of days is the one we spent in Heraklion, the main city on Crete's north coast, after our travels through the breathtakingly stark landscapes (landscapes that I still think would make a richly beautiful quilt) of the central and southern regions of the island. The Olympic Hotel, where we stayed, had a roof deck that, in my memory, was no great shakes aesthetically (though were I to check it, I might discover that it had a fancy roof bar and we simply slummed away from it, young and moneyless as we were). By the time we were there, we had all been together for nearly two weeks, and our loyalties were setting themselves up for good. And at the end of the night, my favorite friend and I met up on the roof, where we sat in the dark, talking for hours. From him, I learned about shaggy dog stories. Or maybe I taught him about shaggy dog stories. It is appropriate that that bit of the story could go either way. There were no stars; the city street below us sent up the hazy sounds of engines and night-calls; it was still warm, in the way that cities are still warm, exuding their day-heat, long after the sun goes down. There was no moon; the moon had been full when we arrived in Athens and was nearing new by the time we were preparing to leave Crete. Our view was of more postwar buildings across the street in downtown Heraklion, and of a tiny bit of the bay if we leaned forward and looked right.

I have no memory of what we talked about. What permeates me still is that night's unspoken feeling of reckless hope, of a happiness hovering just below giddiness occasioned by the very fact that I was still around, and that I was so improbably there on a Mediterranean roof. I think about our sitting on that roof, our feet propped up on the low wall before us, away from all the people who had grated on us for days (for we were kindred spirits in our need for quiet retreat and managed, as the summer wore on, to carve solitudes out for one another through impressive and sometimes desperate subterfuge). And I feel again how loose and easy the night became, how time fell over into itself while we talked about absolutely nothing--literally nothing, in my memory--and how somehow that seemed enough, and how relieved I was to be there, so daringly adrift in the moment, so vividly and viscerally and blissfully aimless, so safely unmoored.

A trebled postscript, veering: On the road, on the way to the grocery store for pie rhubarb: two misshapes in the road, grey from a distance, geese up close. In the store, having picked out the rhubarb ("select stalks no bigger than your thumb," says the Joy of Cooking): a gleeful child perched on his crouching father's lap, learning about the tanked lobsters, doomed beyond even thunking the glass with banded claws. On the road, on the way home from the store with rhubarb and everything else, Aimee Mann singing "I feel like a ghost who's trying to move your hands / over some Ouija board / in the hopes I can spell out my name": three turkey vultures, one swooping down with improbable majesty, reconnoitering in a field.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

How the dragon has fallen!

Before (Thursday afternoon):

After (this evening):

I do have stories to tell. I do. But I also have a deep syllabus-building fatigue and a very strong need to check in with William Faulkner before I sleep.

The moon is up and full tonight, our clear sky the deepest luminous indigo. And such coolness I could not have imagined for mid-June.

Friday, June 09, 2006

These dreams go on when I close my eyes.

(You get nine bonus points, maybe even ten, if you can name that allusion. Here's another hint: every second of the night, I live another life. If you needed the hint, you only get seven points.)

In my dream, the students were organizing a concert, but to get there we had to walk a long ways, through the collection of buildings that seem to recur as an alternate college in my mind, and then over the bridge near the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge of my adolescence. We walked over a swollen river, through a storm that had just ended. I had carried with me eight pairs of earrings, most of them plain silver hoops of many sizes, all of them hooked together into their pairs. Two pairs were new, and lovely, and I had just received them as gifts from my family and from my excellent friend who buys me jewelry occasionally, always choosing impeccably. One of the new pairs: silver hoops, but exquisite. The other: delicately strong gold, with red cord. When we got where we were going, I had lost the earrings, all but the ones I was wearing. The whole way back, I searched and searched for what had vanished. I found a few pairs of hoops, near the river (still swollen), but another storm had raged through and obliterated our tracks, and I am no good at finding small things among pebbles, though I am a finder of lost things, I with my connection to Saint Anthony. Later, in a suburban house in a subdivision like my parents', the students were organizing something else, but I was still searching for my earrings (and here's where I figured out that we'd started from this subdivision earlier in the dream). And then it transpired that I had lost my shoes as well. And then I awoke. And now I am missing the rest of the dream, which might be a mercy since it was shot through with so much frivolous loss, with which no one could sympathize, quite rightly.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Please open your mind for a simple thing.

My various spam filters are crafty enough that I usually don't see the junk that bombards my e-mail account (often through my old Cornell address, which still forwards to my active address). But occasionally one will worm its way through. Tonight, in fact, the one that popped in was addressed to the all-employee distribution list on campus, which seems problematic to me. However, it contains a couple of great lines, so I'm not complaining. First, it kicks off (after a snappy hello!) with the request I've lodged in my title: "Please open your mind for a simple thing." And who couldn't use that mantra, really? Opening my mind for little things is an alternate way of describing my vocation. The other great line, which gets used twice, is "You may agree or not, but this is a fact." (Need I tell you that this e-mail is hawking some kind of half-price drugs? Does anyone actually buy drugs through these e-mails? And did you read the New Yorker article about the man who actually responded to one of the Nigerian money shuffling e-mails that have been around for years? And have I told you that I don't seem to be able to stop starting sentences with "There was a great article in the New Yorker..."?)

I have many potential stories for tonight, but my mind is a jumble; I spent the evening in Columbus having my hair cut and dining with a friend who lives in a truly lovely part of the city. On the way home, I skirted the airport from just the right direction to see one runway/taxiway's whole set of lights (the blue ones are my favorites), but I also drove through intermittently heavy rain over already slickdarkened streets, nothing on the ground being illuminated by the lightning whipping its rooty tentacles across the sky over and over, and over. My original title for this post: What is this charge in the air? Everything feels the slightest bit electric; everything has shifted three paces to the left and turned counter-clockwise 45 degrees, possibly in part because the playlist I'd whimsically picked out for the drive is a bizarre collection of sassy and off-kilter love songs, including Nouvelle Vague's deeply weird "This is Not a Love Song."

The whole trip back, the roads steamed, cooling as the rain passed southward, back the way I had just come. The roads steamed the way the swimming pool used to steam on cool mornings, the way it steamed the night my team came home late from another loss (we always lost; we had no indoor pool) when I was very young and fast and spent bus trips belting out Chicago's "You're the Inspiration" with all the other girls, only I knew all the words and the harmonies too. Traveling over rural roads late at night, one encounters barns and buildings--but especially barns--as sudden geometries, the shapes of solidity itself, swiftly there, then swiftly not-there, velocity's darkness swallowing them wholly.

The day we drove to western Iowa, we drove home for hours with lightning raging through the darkness all around; the winds were so high that we feared tornadoes, in the dark. Instead there was just rain, and more rain, buckets full, drops as big as shots tossed back, bottoms up. My night vision is terrible, just terrible, but my wakefulness behind the wheel is formidable, and so I ended up driving us most of the way through that slapping rain, heavy punisher.

The other story I want to tell you is about wooden spoons. But that's the one that will wait, now that I'm tired. I will perhaps have to go back to writing during the afternoons or even the mornings; I seem to get awfully tired at night these days. So, please open your mind for a simple thing: I suspect you'll hear about wooden spoons tomorrow, if you're around.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

harried / By a red-winged blackbird.

Well, if you really want to know, I'll tell you: my favorite bird might be the red-winged blackbird. It might also be the Canada goose (and early this afternoon a small flock skittered over town, sounding all disarray). But for now I'll tell you about blackbirds, before I go off to read and then to sleep.

[First, may I tell you one of my favorite parts of the little dinner I had tonight for my summer teaching staff? (That is, besides the fact that I can legitimately use the phrase "my summer teaching staff"?) I stepped into the kitchen to dish ice cream--no time, alas, to make a pie today--and, my back turned to the dining room and to the windows, suddenly heard an exclamation from the person with the best view out the window into the backyard: "There's a deer out there, and it's looking right at me!" You are well aware that that particular startle is one of my favorites, in this house. And indeed, the deer was standing and chewing, as the deer always are, and she was looking right at the house. And then eventually she wandered off, as the deer always do--but not before stopping by the back cherry tree, raising herself up on her back legs, and eating from the lowest-hanging branch. There is a spot in the back lawn still flattened where the deer lay the other evening, resting.]

I saw red-winged blackbirds for the first time when I visited my OhioanIowanOhioan (she's moving back!) friend in Iowa two years ago. When we took our full-day mystery trip out to the Loess Hills and the Broken Kettle grasslands, we kept seeing these black birds, too small to be crows. I don't remember how we figured out what they were; perhaps my friend knew all along and simply filled me in, or perhaps we looked them up when we got home. They're not at all an uncommon bird; in fact, they're everywhere in this country. But somehow I'd never seen one.

What I love about these birds is that they can seem fairly plain and then can suddenly dart a blast of color at your eye, flicking their red shoulders as they fly. I saw one on Monday. It flew across the highway, east to west, and what I saw first, fastest, brightest was the red at the wing's top. The bird was a black-bordered burst of color.

I started seeing red-winged blackbirds this spring during my drives out into the countryside; the day my excellent friend and I drove, the same day I took all the drive-by pictures, I saw blackbirds everywhere. They don't come into town, not even into our little town. They are strictly country birds. They dip and alight; they sit on barbed wire fences and on power lines.

On my way to pick up my moving truck on Sunday, I saw a hawk and a red-winged blackbird swerving and giving chase, dipping and fighting and darting. I thought of the lines in G.C. Waldrep's "Battery Alexander" from which I've taken my title tonight: "Above, a hawk harried / by a red-winged blackbird. / (Theirs is a private argument.)." Lots is happening for me at this moment of vision meeting memory meeting poetry; I tend not to keep many lines of poetry (and very many fewer full poems) at the tip of my mind. The ones I do keep quite often involve birds; someday, I'll recite Hopkins's "As kingfishers catch fire" for you (each mortal thing does one thing and the same, after all; I cannot help but selve, go myself: my self I speak and spell). But this image from my soon-arriving colleague's poem has stuck since March, and seeing the birds hashing out their private argument in flight activated it once again.

I'm trailing. It's time to read and then to sleep. I'll tell you more blackbird stories later, perhaps. For now, read and listen up.

sources for tonight's images: 1) Robert Cox's "Redwing Blackbird #3" comes from Art in Context; 2) South Dakota Birds and Birding.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Gambier sounds.

Today has been a day of sounds. It still is; the air conditioner for the human resources building keeps up its dull exhalations all night long. It's also been a day of great restlessness; I have roved over Gambier in much the same way that the deer have been roving through my yard (three today, one covered in flies; one last night, lying down in my yard, flicking her huge ears back and forth and devouring my grass with great diligence).

All morning, the birds in the backyard worked on their nesting in that old birdhouse.

For a space of the afternoon, I sat on the benches that line Middle Path in town, and I read, and I listened. Lena Grove climbed through a window, got pregnant, climbed through the window again, and started her journey to find Lucas Burch in Jefferson. The bench told me, in faded letters, "Share." A sparrow riffled over, cocked its head, and with its left eye looked up at me between the slats in the bench. Hopping two-footed out from under the bench and around my feet, it looked up at me again and opened its beak in mute request, soundless demand. The sound of horses' hooves clacked and clattered off to my left; a horse-drawn buggy pulled into town, and its white-bearded Amish driver climbed out and went into the grocery, leaving his wife in the buggy. The horses stamped and performed several neck-defying head tosses. The driver returned and hurrahed the horses into motion almost before he was even seated. The buggy rolled away slowly; did you know that in Ohio, Amish buggies need not display slow-moving vehicle triangles? Such things you learn before you take the Ohio state drivers' test.

A car pulled to the curb behind me and, vacated by its driver but still running, leaked its radio noise into the air all around my bench. Another car squealed through town with Cake's "Short Skirt / Long Jacket" blaring.

Once I'd moved to my new bench, further north on the path and also in the shade, I could hear a different range: the layers of a college town's vacated summer silence, the cascading crunch path gravel makes when only one person is approaching, the hopeful ringing of the town gas station's bell.

After awhile, the soundscape started to flatten, and so I made my way home. But by 9:30, the rise of late-dusk sounds--the occasional sound of a night bird, the final pips and burbles of dozing day birds--and the lingering of the light led me back out into town, this time along Middle Path itself. Starting at the north end of the path, I walked the mile to the south end, a walk that taxed me in surprising ways. Halfway down, I plucked a daisy and stuck it behind my ear and kept on going. No one has arrived for summer camps yet; I may have passed three people along the two-mile round trip. All the while, the moon shone down through hazy clouds, and the last light (still the faintest reddish purple when I crossed over to south campus) slipped away.

My favorite part: when I reached the chapel, I was able to see just how far off the clock and the tower bells are, in the aftermath of yet another power outage (which took place while I was away). By the clock and the bells, it was 6 p.m. as I began that second quarter of my walk. Pacific Time, I thought to myself. On my stroll back north, the creak and strike of the first bell's clapper made me jump, despite myself. Further north, I plucked the petals from my daisy; I have always been a little superstitious, and my excellent poet friend has me thinking about luck and fortune today. The daisy did its bit to confirm that somewhere, somehow, sometime, some abstraction of a person is indeed in love with me. I left a trail of narrow white petals behind me like strange snow, weird breadcrumbs, a transient trail by which to find my way out, if I could only find it again. I laughed at myself as I tossed the bared stem away into the night.

Cutting back through the art building's lawn, heading for home, I realized that my toes were getting wet with new dew, and that my restlessness was still not slaked. Even now, hours later, what's finally stopping me in my tracks is sleep's swift onset. Apparently, today it's all or nothing. That air conditioner across the road keeps cycling air with its dull, flat sound. The birds rest up; the deer are couched in someone else's yard. But who knows what newness will make itself heard tomorrow?

Monday, June 05, 2006

One of those days.

And by "one of those days," I don't mean "one of those days when everything falls to hell because I can't stop dropping or losing or breaking everything around me." Instead, today was one of those days on which entirely necessary things happen--packing, driving, meeting, unpacking, eating--but, in the process of their happening, the whole day disappears. And now I'm crashing out, fast. But first, let me tell you: for the first time in thirteen years, tonight I will go to sleep in a bedroom containing a full set of furniture, all of it mine. Never in my life has putting things in drawers been so pleasant an occupation. And there's not much more to tell about my experience driving the semi-big truck here. Don't tailgate trucks: it really is true that if you're very close to their rear ends, they can't see you. Several times today, I discovered lurkers behind me when they drifted to one side or the other of the lane, and it was frustrating and a bit frightening not to be able to ascertain whether they were still back there, a little while later.

More rigorous and engaging cogitations tomorrow, I promise.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The motions of moving.

Today's project: moving bedroom furniture. My father is a master packer and loader, and I am a completely adequate truck driver (in part because of the time I spent driving a forklift many years ago). And my mother is an extraordinary planner and supervisor. The three of us spent a surprisingly leisurely afternoon completing the first phase of getting my childhood furniture out of my parents' house and on its way to Gambier, where I will, by this time tomorrow, have drawers in which I can store the clothing that has rested in crates and on the floor for nearly two years, not to mention a headboard to attach to my bedframe. So now we sit together for a last night of this brief early summer vacation, learning about the excavation of Egyptian tomb KV63. And then tomorrow, it's back to work--driving a nearly empty seventeen-foot truck with marine creatures summering on its side.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

I enjoy being a girl.

I try not to burden you all with too much information about my body's goings on--because, frankly, there's so much more interesting stuff happening that I generally have no reason to fixate on, say, the condition of my hair and skin, or the quirks of my toenails, or the vagaries of my physical self-perception. But today, I have not been able to escape a particular hygiene product's completely asinine branding decision: instructing women who use this product to "Have a happy period." In French and English. If you ever need to encourage une belle femme in Montreal or Nice, you need only say, "Bonne et hereuse semaine." I'm sure she'll respond, "Ahmm... merci."

This evening, I followed up on this brand's tagline, figuring that I'd discover a full-fledged marketing campaign associated with it. And I was correct: there's a whole website called BeingGirl (not Being A Girl, just BeingGirl) (which is "by girls, for girls") designed to provoke positive feelings in girls, in particular, toward a pair of sister brands. "This is the time of the month that is all about you," one main page in this website proclaims. "You have the right to make it the best it can possibly be, and we're here to help." (Of course, another message in the three-part sequence of images in which we find that mantra is "No roaming charges," whose meaning in this context I can barely fathom.)

Intellectually, I grasp the reasons for this advertising campaign: the desire to make this brand seem hip and happy, in order to capture and keep the ever-renewing population of menstruating women as purchasers and users. And it's not as though this kind of ideologically charged campaign is anything new. Witness, courtesy of (who knew?!) the Museum of Menstruation, one side of the package insert for "Secret" brand tampons, ca. 1930s:

How different is it, really, to insist upon the happiness of a period, on one hand, or to declare a tampon "a means of retaining always your youthful loveliness," on the other? Did anyone fall for the line about "safe, personal daintiness" when this product first appeared? I'd guess that, just as now, women in the 1930s sought the product that did the most both to minimize nuisance and to boost comfort. I'd guess that sometime when "Secrets" (and all the other tampons that came on the market in the 1930s) appeared, some woman rolled her eyes at the very idea of this product as an "invisible guardian of health and intimate daintiness"--because either it worked for her, or it didn't.

I once knew a guy who, during his chemical engineering studies, interned at Kotex. "Why do you guys have to make the packaging on pads and tampons so glaringly bright?" I asked him one time. "Can't you just put these things in relatively low-key bags and boxes? It's not as though we're likely to stop buying them." Within a couple of years, they'd gone over to their white boxes decorated with single red flowers--a classier touch than wacky bright pastels, but still a bit more heavy-handed than is really necessary.

It's all just so silly, really, which brings me back to my ironically put title. Back in 2002, the partner of one of my soon-to-be Chicagoan friends introduced me to Flower Drum Song, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that ran on Broadway and the West End from 1958-60 and then became a motion picture in 1961. His rendition of "I Enjoy Being a Girl" was my introduction to the show. "I'm strictly a female female," exults Linda Low, the musical's protagonist. I can't help but wonder whether the advertising people working for Procter and Gamble had Linda's lyrics in mind while they worked up the BeingGirl website's concept. But doesn't it seem particularly invidious to try and define one's period as the time of the month that's all about her? If anything, doesn't menstruation represent one time of the month that simply can't just be about an individual girl or woman and her individual desires, given that it's a forceful reminder of an other-generating biological process? On the other hand--and somehow I suspect that this idea was furthest from the advertising execs' minds when they crafted the "Have a happy period" campaign--it is indeed the case that the onset of a period is also a forceful reminder (for good or ill) that one is still simply oneself, not oneself and the beginnings of another.

None of these musings or reflections finds anything like thoughtful recognition and engagement in advertising that focuses on eating chocolate wantonly or crying uncontrollably or painting one's toenails, or in promotional literature that stresses "intimate daintiness" and "youthful loveliness." And so it is that I've sent offending wrapper after offending wrapper off to the trash today, refusing to comply with their demands that I have a happy period. I will not be interpellated by my feminine hygiene products and their makers. I refuse this hail, cheery though it may seem.

source for tonight's image: the Museum of Menstruation.

Friday, June 02, 2006

How fair the fiats of the caller are.

During the show last night, the guys from Hem kept making jokes about how sad their music is--about how, as Dan Messé put it, their stock in trade is heartbreak. And it's true. In fact, while I was immersed in these songs I have come to know so well--"The Golden Day is Dying" (bits of whose lyrics you've gotten from me on a couple of occasions), "Carry Me Home," "Half Acre," "Strays," "Hollow," "Lazy Eye," "Lucky," "When I Was Drinking"--I realized that part of the reason I cherish this group as I do is that their music attends with such melancholy care to what it means to be shaped by particular geographical and emotional places, even though we may no longer inhabit them (or they us). The one song they played from Funnel Cloud, the album coming out in September, was "Reservoir," a meditation on how the light on a Pittsburgh reservoir holds the song's speaker as nothing else can. "I know a light that shines forever / Howsoever we may roam," the chorus goes, and that light isn't the sun setting over the Pacific or the moon shining over an eastern Tennessee mountain; it's this light over "the iron hills of Pittsburgh / where all my memories are."

It's a poignant set of lyrics to hear during a visit home, it occurred to me as we made our way back from Bloomington to my parents' house last night. (And because I'm about to depart a bit from the concert, let me give you the capsule review: if the Hem / Over the Rhine tour comes near you, you should go; if you can't make it this summer, keep your eye out in the fall, because I can't imagine they won't do some kind of touring for Funnel Cloud. I could have done with far more Hem and far less Over the Rhine; of the two, Hem had far less flash and far more sonic inventiveness and intricate, powerfully felt musicianship. I had heard live recordings of the band, so I already knew that Sally Ellyson's voice isn't noticeably engineered or manipulated in their studio recordings; what I hadn't been able to gauge was how affecting it would be when I found myself listening to it from the center of an auditorium's fourth row. And the fact that we got a chance to meet her afterwards--simply because she came out to the lobby to hang out during the intermission between the Hem and Over the Rhine halves of the show--made an already exceptional evening into a simply exquisite one.)

What made these songs of nostalgia and heartsoreness all the keener for me, though, was that old, familiar loneliness that finger-crooks its way into corners of my consciousness just when I least expect it. Yesterday, it was already getting itself entrenched before we even made it to the show, as I watched my friends doting on and tending to one another and then realized how distant I feel from anything like the possibility of having or doing that kind of doting and tending in my own life. We've been over this ground before, you and I, and I can tell you that I'm always caught unawares when I realize that I've reached this particular question mark again. Once we took our seats in the concert hall, there was no getting away from thinking about couples: nearly everyone around me was in one, and everyone on stage had the telltale band or flashing diamond. (Do you know, by the way, the wedding ring itch that the title character develops in Virginia Woolf's Orlando, as she ages into the Victorian period? You must read it; what a crazy fantasia.) I was particularly startled yesterday because being singly single left me feeling the slightest twinge not just of envy or bewilderment (both old familiars) but even of annoyance--annoyance, that is, at others' displays of affection, at the nuzzling and whispering going on in the rows around me. And suddenly I had to wonder whether I'm in danger of becoming embittered at others' happiness because this one element of my own life hasn't developed as richly as maybe I'd have liked.

I thought about this reaction the whole way home, looking out the window from the backseat of the car; I thought that maybe if I sat long enough with my thinking, looking out at the dark woods as we passed them, I'd feel my way to some kind of answer about how I got to this place where the lyrics of love songs are merely hypothetical, where the movements of desire are things I'm more likely to anatomize at a seminar table than even contemplate in my own right. Somehow, somewhere, over and over again, I know that I made an enormous series of minute decisions, steadily massing a lifetime of steadfast refusals to compromise some fierce necessity in myself. There is no juncture to which I would return in order to do things differently. But by now, I'm wondering whether I wasn't right after all when I wondered aloud, during a break-up years ago, if I simply wasn't cut out for romance. Is it possible that some people simply aren't?

It's at this moment in my musing that any given interlocutor (including the other party to that years-ago break-up) is nearly certain to jump in with consolations that better things are coming, that frogs must be kissed, that good things come to those who wait. Stave off your reassurance; I am still thinking aloud, and I do not want to be interrupted. What if it is by design that I have lavished my attention as I have, loved my words and my worlds with the ardor and abandon I might have offered the right lover? What if I now cannot be spared, or cannot spare myself, from this call?

I think that one of the reasons I like "Reservoir," the song from Hem's forthcoming album, is that it's not about a couple. It's about a person, alone, thinking over the slants of light that have mattered to her. There's a "we": "Starless nights, come fall around me / over all we've left undone. / I know a light that shines forever, / Howsoever we may roam." But it's a loosely confederated, semantically flexible we, and somehow that feels like a blessing to me tonight.

Last night, in the car, I started to think I was seeing flickers of light through the trees at the side of the road. I kept watching as carefully as I could, hoping that I'd discover the flickers weren't just porchlamps on the houses perched in the hills; the night was too foggy for them to be stars. Emmylou Harris was singing her rendition of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer" when I realized that they were fireflies, the first of my season, everywhere momentarily brilliant, everywhere ephemerally blazing. They were everywhere, just everywhere, in that thick darkness enveloping the road I have known so long and traveled so many times. And bits of the last stanza of Richard Wilbur's "Mayflies" came alight in my mind, one and then another, though never all the lines, never all the words at once: "I felt myself alone / In a life too much my own / ... / Unless, I thought, I had been called to be / ... / ... one whose task is joyfully to see."

I think I'm too accomplished a close reader to miss the joyful task I've been being given my whole life. I know a light that shines forever, howsoever I may roam.

And what I loved, when we got home, was noticing that the tour poster I'd bought at the show is covered in fireflies.

source for tonight's image: Christopher Granger's "Fireflies" comes from his site. The tour poster comes from Over the Rhine's site.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Sheer splendescence.

I'll say no more for now other than that it was a blessing to be able to thank Sally Ellyson personally for her work, following a truly beautiful (and, for me, joyous) set.

And yes, I did alter the time of this post: 11:40 was the time on the Monroe County Courthouse clock as we left the theater and prepared to wend our way homeward through dark and foggy miles of winding Indiana roads. Can you blame me? And if you could, why would I care?