Sunday, November 30, 2008

Tropical Landscape with Ten Hummingbirds

I have a "complete" chapbook manuscript (at thirty pages of poems), concerned with the work of Martin Johnson Heade in Brazil. Eight of the seventeen poems have been (or soon will be) published, though I have made no real effort publish any of them, including the four that won the Arts & Letters Prize in 2007. I sent those off on a lark, hoping for some sort of reaction. Earlier, short versions of this manuscript have also been finalist in three chapbook contests I entered to see what (if any) progress I was making. Yesterday, I sent this latest, more complete version off to another contest.

Yes, I think it has a real chance.

The question is, what next? I haven't yet exhausted the Heade material. My guess is that I have four or five hummingbird poems to go. I am not sure, however, that I can stretch that into an entire, book-length manuscript, and my original intention was to combine the Heade poems with another series of (overtly) unrelated poems. If I do that, I am ten or-so poems short of where I think I should be--four or five Heade poems, five or six non-Heade. I can begin thinking about a full-length manuscript at about 50 pages--and I am there already--but would prefer to have 80 to 85 pages of poems that I can edit down to about 70.

I would love to have a complete, full-length manuscript safely in the hands of a publisher so that I can spend a year working on my next project--a novel.

I had a slow fall, writing-wise, and am grateful for the past several weeks, in which I had a bit of a breakthrough. I hope to keep the effort going through the Christmas break, and have a better sense of where I am in January.

In the meantime, I am going to send out a few of these poems and get back in the publication mix.


It has begun to snow here and is supposed to continue--with near-blizzard conditions--for the next two days. I made a big pot of soup out of the leftover Thanksgiving ham. My best to all of you who are on the road home this afternoon.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Chris Rea: On the Beach

Time to party.

This is a sunnier video of this song than the one I posted a month or-so ago. I like the CD version even better; it has a long, jazzy instrumental ending.

Progress Note

I just pulled some things together into a manuscript and...hey, it is good.

Different, original...and good.

There, I said it.

Draft of a New Poem

While my Detroit Lions serve turkey to the entire state of Tennessee (the Titans already lead, 21-3 in the first quarter), I am cooking dinner and working on a poem.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.


The painting is "Brazilian Forest" (1864) by Martin Johnson Heade.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Moment with Philip Schultz


I like to say hello and goodbye.
I like to hug but not shake hands.
I prefer to wave or nod. I enjoy
the company of strangers pushed
together in elevators or subways.
I like talking to cabdrivers
but not receptionists. I like
not knowing what to say.
I like talking to people I know
but care nothing about. I like
inviting anyone anywhere.
I like hearing my opinions
tumble out of my mouth
like toddlers tied together
while crossing the street,
trusting they won't be squashed
by fate. I like greeting card cliches
but not dressing up or down.
I like being appropriate
but not all the time.
I could continue with more examples
but I'd rather give too few
than too many. The thought
of no one listening anymore––
I like that least of all.


The poem is from Failure: Poems by Philip Schultz (Harcourt, 2007), which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. It is a very good book.


In other news, I have a bad cold, but will soldier on into winter, regardless.

Ah, brave and tragic me.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Three Panels for a New Poem

The Fallen Angels Enter Pandemonium (1841) by John Martin

Pandemonium (1841) by John Martin

White-Vented Violet-Ear (1864-1865) by Martin Johnson Heade

I am working on a new poem in my Heade series. The poem takes us from Brazil to hell and back. Some fun, eh?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Black Orpheus (1959)

I just saw Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro), the 1959 film set in Brazil during Carnival and directed by Marcel Camus. It is a marvelous, beautiful movie.

Meanwhile, I am working on a new poem.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Chris Rea: Soft Top, Hard Shoulder

Music to bust-through-the-snowdrifts by.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What National Book Awards?

I buy and read more books than anyone I know, and I also keep up with the major book reviews (other than Publishers' Weekly). I am thus at a loss to explain how I did not know that the National Book Awards were last night and--worse--that I am familiar with so few of the books that won or were finalists. In fiction I have Marilynne Robinson's Home, though I haven't yet read it. I also have 2/3 of the books that were re-written or condensed into Peter Matthiessen's The Shadow Country, which won the award for fiction. I read Killing Mr. Watson (1990), the first in the series, but in the interim between buying Lost Man's River (1997)--the second in the trilogy--and reading it, I met Matthiessen and swore off reading any more of his books. Proir to this morning's paper, I had not even heard of the other finalists in fiction.

Among the finalists in poetry, I have (and have read) only Frank Bidart's Watching the Spring Festival. I did not know that winner Mark Doty had a New and Collected out. I do have most--if not all--of his earlier work. I will buy Reginald Gibbons' Creatures of a Day, both because I like him and because he's on the faculty at Warren Wilson.

I have heard of all of the nonfiction finalists, but haven't read any of them.

It seems I am more "out of it" than I'd like to admit.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Winter weather is not that much fun to drive in. Yesterday, we received 4 or 5 inches of lake-effect snow, much of which melted and then froze on the road surface. Coming down off the highway, I did a 360 degree turn on the Ferrysburg ramp--in the dark--, trying to avoid sliding into the cars that (in varying degrees of catawump-itude) had already come to a stop at the bottom of the hill. Somehow, I avoided all the cars, two sets of guardrails, and the ditch, and received a free carnival ride for my efforts.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Almost Random Notes, Part 19

It has been awhile, Constant Reader, since I have rambled in this manner. But heading for the final turn in the semester, exhausted by my day job, and at sixes-and-sevens* with my poetry, I offer these almost random notes:

1. The Paris Review: At your next oppportunity, run to the nearest good bookstore and buy a copy of the latest issue of The Paris Review. The interview with novelist Marilynne Robinson is, alone, worth the cover price. I highlighted a good number of her responses to interviewer Sarah Fay's questions, including this one:


[The protagonist in Gilead, pastor John] Ames says that in our everyday world there is "more beauty that our eyes can bear." He's living in America in the late 1950s. Would he say that today?


You have to have a certain detachment in order to see beauty for yourself rather than something that has been put in quotation marks to be understood as "beauty." Think about Dutch painting, where sunlight is falling on a basin of water and a woman is standing there in the clothes that she would wear when she wakes up in the morning––that beauty is a casual glimpse of something very ordinary. Or a painting like Rembrandt's Carcass of Beef, where a simple piece of meat caught his eye because there is something mysterious about it. You also get that in Edward Hopper: Look at that sunlight! or Look at the human being! These are instances of genius. Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it's not Versailles. It's a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.

At the same time, there has always been a basic human tendency toward a dubious notion of beauty. Think about cultures that rarify themselves into courts in which people paint themselves with lead paint and get dumber and dumber by the day, or women have ribs removed to have their waists cinched tighter. There's no question that we have our versions of that now. The most destructive thing we can do is act as though this is some sign of cultural, spiritual decay rather than humans just acting human, which is what we are doing most of the time.

Add to the Robinson interview a long piece by Jean Hatzfield on the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, an "oral history" of the early days of the Paris Review, and poems by Robert Bly, Paul Guest, Bruce Smith, and others, and you have a remarkable, highly readable issue of this premier literary journal, which (my opinion, of course) seems at last to be finding its way under editor Philip Gourevitch.

2. Today's New York Times Book Review: The history of the Paris Review excerpted therein is drawn from George, Being George: George Plimpton's Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals––and a Few Unappreciative Observers, edited by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr., which also has the cover of this morning's New York Times Book Review.** In his review, Graydon Carter writes, "Another WASP trait George carried was an almost allergic reaction to introspection. He was offered $750,000 for his memoirs, but felt he had written so much about his life already that he's just be 'putting nails in the coffin.' Sometime after the offer came in, James Scot Linville recalled seeing a quotation from Verlaine in his [Plimpton's] diary that had been left open on his desk. 'When one goes on a journey of self-exploration, one should go heavily armed.' George would often complain that because of the review and the need to make money, he never got around to writing the Big Book, to enter the Pantheon of the greats the way Mailer and Styron had. 'I could have been a contender,' Maggie Paley remembers him saying, 'If I hadn't done the Paris Review, I could have been a major writer.' "

I met Plimpton briefly in Key West many years ago, and liked him. He struck me then as having the personality of an editor and collector of people, rather than as a great writer, but those were the roles he had assumed for himself. He was fiercely bright, and who knows, perhaps he could have written the great American novel had he made the time to do so.

But then, who would have been our George Plimpton?

3. On Ted Hughes: I was dismayed by Gregory Orr's semi-snarky review of The Letters of Ted Hughes (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007) which also appears in today's Book Review. Orr faults Hughes for the very qualities (a Jungian attention to symbolism and the natural world, a faith in the ability of poetry to heal the soul) that make Hughes what he is as a poet. I have never quite understood why a devotion to the natural world makes a poet an object of tolerant amusement among certain critics. Perhaps their own work––and criticism--would be informed by a walk or two in the woods. Preferably with their eyes open.

4. A Good Movie: I watched Becoming Jane the other night, the 2007 film by director Julian Jarrold about the long-rumored romance between the young Jane Austin and the Irish barrister Tom Lefroy. The leads (Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy, respectively) are very good and the movie is well worth your time. I understand that many Jane Austin fans have been critical of the film because it speculates (rather extensively, based upon the slim historical evidence) about the depth and importance of the relationship, but if one sets aside those concerns, it is an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.

One thing I find annoying about Austin (and Dickens, the Brontes, etc.) is the constant chatter about "how many pounds per year" this or that character shall have, and this is also a recurring concern in this pseudo-biographical film. If our economy continues its present downward slide, of course, this may be the way all of us make our critical decisions well into the 21st Century.

Question: Does anyone do any actual work in these novels?

5. Adventures in Adaptive Technology: Getting new glasses was a big help with my eyes, but it has also made evident how far my vision has deteriorated in ways that cannot be comepensated for by new lenses. It was obvious from looking at the photos taken of my retinas that the macular degeneration--or at least, the accumulation of drusen, which causes so-called dry MD-- has advanced in both of my eyes, and I now have particular trouble with my right eye, where I have what I can only describe as a blurry piece of pie forming in the lower right third of my field of vision. My eyes had been able to focus around this, but not so much anymore. My left eye doesn't blur out as much, unless I am tired. I also do not see well in the dark--and prefer not to drive at night unless necessary. Of course, on standard time in November, it is difficult to avoid low-light driving conditions.

Anyway, I bought red flashing lights to attach to the dogs' collars and a walking stick with a light attached to it that I bring when I take the dogs out in the dark. These work well, and also serve to reestablish my divinity credentials with our three dogs. Our boldest (a black lab who should probably be leading some sort of great, slobbering, benevolent wolf pack), had figured out that I couldn't see him in the dark, and will gladly disappear into the woods or sneak away to the neighbor's house if I don't stay right on his tail. The other two will slavishly follow the leader, if I let them. The lights and the walking stick have increased my confidence in the dark, and have substantially readjusted the odds vis-a-vis our insidious canines.

I also bought plug-in night lights so I can find my way around the house at night, a couple of new Verilux lights to help me read, and some special over-the-glasses sun glasses. Yes, I look like Superfly when I wear them. I am glad that I got the largest screen I could afford for my computer, but I still panic a bit when I think about the things I would like to accomplish and how my assorted eye problems may make all of that more difficult.

Time remains a terrible thing to waste.


* I always wanted to use this phrase somewhere.

**Lucky George by Graydon Carter, a review of George, Being George: George Plimpton's Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals––and a Few Unappreciative Observers, edited by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr., (Random House, 2008), New York Times Book Review, November 16, 2008.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Back in the Black

School resumed today, and my students had many interesting stories about the unplanned break from class occasioned by the norovirus. I will have to slightly revise my syllabus, but we should cover everything we are supposed to cover before the end of the term. I always build a secret "fudge factor" into the schedule; I just never tell the students about it unless absolutely necessary.

I am very busy in my day job. My working conditions are great and I like the people I work with, but there is a great deal of work being done by one lawyer (uhmm, me) representing an 1,100 employee public corporation responsible for the delivery of public services (law enforcement, public health, mental health, employment training, justice, etc.) to a population exceeding 250,000. I am not complaining, mind you. It is useful work, and for the moment, I have some job security and a paycheck in a very bad economy.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Draft of a Villanelle


Sunday, November 09, 2008

Martin Johnson Heade's Black-Breasted Plovercrest (1864-1865)

I am working on a villanelle about this painting; another poem in my Heade series. Yes, it actually does rhyme, something I rarely try.

I will probably post a draft of this one, as soon as I've done a bit of polishing.


In other news, the reported norovirus cases at Hope College are up over 400, and the college is going to stay closed at least until Wednesday morning.

Chris Rea: On Broadway-Live

Or New York City.

Chris Rea: The Way You Look Tonight

Or Paris.

Chris Rea: Texas

While I am working, load up the Trabant and go to Texas.

Attack of the Norovirus!

Hope College was shut down by order of the Health Department at 1 p.m. on Friday because of a norovirus outbreak on campus. As of Friday afternoon, approximately 120 students had become sick. We won't begin holding classes again until Tuesday morning, at the earliest, which means that I won't be teaching on Monday. For me, this is a considerable bother rather than an unexpected holiday--for my poetry class to function it is important that we stay on schedule. We do not have much flexibility.

The norovirus is a nasty thing, but not life threatening.

The story is here.

I am praying that all of my students (past and present) stay well.

In my attorney-job, I represent the Health Department, so this made for an interesting couple of days.

Since I do not have to prepare for class, I am going to work on a poem.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Blue Cafe

"This is where the one who knows,
meets the one who doesn't care..."

I am not sure what this video is about--some kind of bounty hunter thing--but this is a great song.

I have a little man-crush going on Chris Rea.

I am swamped at work and have another busy day. Wish me luck.

Uhmmm. At work.

Not with Chris Rea.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Random Notes on a Long Season

I was thinking about Dr. Hunter S. Thompson--what he might have thought about this election and last night; what he might have written. For no very good reason, I kept coming back to these few paragraphs, which are, I suppose, apropos of almost nothing. Perhaps the doctor was simply a drug-addled Ezekiel, meant for his time and not for this one.

Thompson writes:

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era — the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights — or very early mornings — when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder's jacket . . . booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) . . . but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that. . . .

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

-Hunter S. Thompson, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1972).

Obama Wins

Well Done!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Obama in '08

Optimistic Voices

A song to sing as you make your way to the polls today:

You're out of the woods
You're out of the dark
You're out of the night.
Step into the sun, step into the light.
Keep straight ahead
For the most glorious place
On the face of the Earth
Or the sky.

Hold onto your breath
Hold onto your heart
Hold onto your hope.
March up to the gate
And bid it open...

Monday, November 03, 2008

Meanwhile, Back on Standard Time...

As close as we are to the election, I have decided to forgo further crankiness and instead give you Jacqueline Du Pre. After eight years of the Bush administration, six years of war, Hurricane Katrina, a financial meltdown and the endless campaign, think of it as a public service announcement.

Tomorrow, be prepared to do the right thing.

That's Daniel Barenboim conducting.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

I Write Entirely for You, Constant Reader

Because I already have One Art: The Letters of Elizabeth Bishop (Noonday Press, 1994) and The Letters of Robert Lowell (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005) I am an unlikely customer for Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008); at least, at its hardcover price of $45. I did, however, read the review by William Logan in this morning's New York Times Book Review. * Logan generally admires the work of both Bishop and Lowell, and we are therefore spared his usual insults and cutting remarks about the dead.

Of more interest to me were a couple of the reviewer's whackier sentences. He writes (as nearly as I can tell) of Lowell's use of metrics and the influence of Alan Tate upon Robert Lowell:

"If Lowell's early poems seem stultified now, they were boiled in brine and preserved in a carload of salt."

With my trusty dictionary, I attempted to figure out what Logan might be saying:

"If Lowell's early poems seem [to be of unsound mind, stupid, foolish or absurdly illogical] now, they were boiled in brine and preserved in a carload of salt."

Say what?

And what to make of this:

"Their admiration even made them light fingered––[Lowell and Bishop] borrowed ideas or images the way a neighbor might steal a cup of sugar."

How might that happen, exactly? And would it be a high court misdemeanor or felonious breaking and entering? In Flyover Country, far from the Dream Coasts, one would knock on the neighbor's door and simply ask to borrow a cup of sugar if one wanted to borrow a cup of sugar. **

Perhaps Bill lives in a rough neighborhood. Gainesville, I'm told, can be that way.


* 'I Write Entirely for You' by William Logan, a review of Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008), The New York Times Book Review, November 2, 2008.

** Yes, of course. Bill was only alluding to this, you silly Midwesterner:

"One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion."

-T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1922).

Among the literary cognoscenti, borrowing is equivalent to stealing--even with regard to household sweeteners. Perhaps Logan will write in and set me straight. See, for example, his pointless, self-aggrandizing letter in the November issue of Poetry.

Chris Rea on David Letterman: The Road to Hell

This ain't no upwardly mobile freeway, oh no...