Monday, August 31, 2009

Syllabus, Syllabus...

Where is my syllabus?

My first class is Wednesday.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

William Logan on Louise Gluck

Louise Gluck's A Village Life (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009) is reviewed by William Logan in today's New York Times Book Review.* It is difficult to say which person (poet or critic) deserves the other more. Logan actually seems to like Gluck's poetry (his standard ratio of slams-to-compliments is reversed, standing in this review at approximately 1:2--I almost shouted "Hey, Mikey!").

Logan describes Louise Gluck's new book as "a subversive departure for a poet used to meaning more than she can say," a non-insight which strikes me as meaning less than it wants to.

But enough of William Logan; Louise Gluck wants our attention. At a respectful distance, of course.

Louise Gluck reminds me of Jorie Graham, in that while I find it necessary to read her work--and always learn something from her--I have never much liked her poetry. Gluck is an Apollonian for whom the moon is always waning; her poetry's preoccupation is with how others have failed to properly love and understand her. Because the world--because men, because all of us--so fail to meet Gluck's needs, it is difficult for an attentive reader not to become exasperated. One wants to say, "Hey, Louise, we're having a party over here, we're dancing; anytime you decide to join us, let us know."

One must finally turn away from the humorless girl in the self-enameled corner, holding her breath until she turns blue.

What is compelling--even riveting--about our work when we are 26 can become tedious when we are 66.


*‘Nothing Remains of Love,’ by William Logan, a review of Village Life by Louise Gluck, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, (2009), New York Times Book Review, August 27, 2009.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Would Michiko Kakutani Like a Double Chocolate with Sprinkles from the Whippi Dip?

I love Lorrie Moore's work and am pleased that her novel, A Gate at the Stairs (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), received a positive review in today's New York Times from the eminence grise herself, Michiko Kakutaki. But I wonder if Ms. Kakutani could be more condescending toward the "emotionally reticent" among us who live out here in "flyover country," as she calls it.

I say this as someone who lives in a Midwestern town too small to even have a Dairy Queen--the culinary destination which Ms. Kakutani considers the very apex of the Heartland experience. Instead of Dairy Queen, we have Miss Lisa's, and two miles down the road, The Whippi Dip. Once a week in the summer, I fire up the John Deere, load the kids in the hay wagon, and head to the Whippi Dip for a double chocolate with sprinkles.

Normally, we try to be home before dark. But once in a while, we go a little crazy, just to see the bright lights.

Please note--waffle cones are not permitted west of the Delaware Water Gap; so if that's your pleasure, bring your own.

You can read the review, here.

Coming Soon to a Blog Roll Near You

I will be updating my blog roll soon--perhaps this weekend. If you've left a comment recently on S@4A.M., I will probably be adding your name to my list. If I miss someone, or if you've been quietly reading along and would like a link, please leave a comment and let me know.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dominick Dunne, Dead at 83

The New York Times obituary is here.

Reading Around

Richard Wilbur has three poems in the August 31, 2009, New Yorker. The first one, "The House" (p.35) is an okay poem. The third poem, "Flying" (p. 55) is a poem that, were it not attached to the name "Richard Wilbur," would never be published in the New Yorker. The second poem, "A Reckoning," (p. 40) is my nominee for worst poem of 2009 published East of the Hudson River.

Read it, if you dare, here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mr. Bad Example

Last night at a public meeting, someone suggested that I was a very poor role model for my children.* I am a poet and a writer, and one of my (several) reactions was to think back on the days when I was young and to recall things I had read that inspired me--that made me want to be a better person. Because I was raised by coyotes and yet, had a library card hidden within our family lair, writers were my role models when I was a child. And so late last night I looked back to the books I read when I was a kid and tried to find a few of the quotations--or if I could not remember them with a fair amount of precision--to find a few of the sentiments expressed by the writers I read and admired; passages that made a difference in forming my thinking and in some small way, shaping my behavior.

Having found a bit of the base materials, one then asks--in your conduct, in what you have stood for, in what you teach and have taught your children, do you try to live up to these early ideals? Let's leave that (potentially self-serving) question unanswered for the moment. Let's look instead at a few of the words I recall reading and as having mattered, if only because I think that is a more interesting subject than how I rate as a role model.

In no particular order:

"They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions... but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."

~Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

"Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around --nobody big, I mean -- except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff -- I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be."

~J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

"What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love."

- Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

" . . . tell Wind and Fire where to stop," returned madame; "but don't tell me."

-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

"Whenever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Whenever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there . . . . I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an'--I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build--why, I'll be there."

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

“Character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self respect springs.”

– Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”

-Thomas Merton

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

-Dylan Thomas

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.

-Ernest Hemingway, In Another Country

“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock, to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.”

-Flannery O'Connor, The Fiction Writer & His Country

"Then suddenly he felt a quickening in him. His heart turned and he leaned his back against the counter for support. For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who—one word—love. His soul expanded. But for a moment only. For in him he felt a warning, a shaft of terror... he was suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith."

-Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

"In every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, and of no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again: and in him, too, once more, and of each of us, our terrific responsibility toward human life; toward the utmost idea of goodness, of the horror of terror, and of God."

- James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

“Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I believe that man will not merely endure. He will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

-William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech


*Not to worry; I suspect this person and I have profoundly different ideas about children, education, parenting, and role-models.

However I rate as a "role model," I am sure that I am a very unsatisfying figure for my kids to rebel against.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Hell by Any Other Name

Welcome to Rapelje, Montana--the only town in America named*

Hopping place, eh?


*Rapalje is an early version of "Rappleye."

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Moment with Susan Sontag

What I write is other than me. As what I write is smarter than I am. Because I can rewrite it. My books know what I once knew––fitfully, intermittently. And getting the best word on the page does not seem any easier, even after so many years of writing. On the contrary.

Here is the great difference between reading and writing. Reading is a vocation, a skill at which, with practice, you are bound to become more expert. What you accumulate as a writer is mostly uncertainties and anxieties.

All these feelings of inadequacy on the part of the writer––this writer, anyway––are predicated on the conviction that literature matters. “Matters” is surely too pale a word. That there are books which are necessary, that is, books which, while reading them, you know you’ll reread. Maybe more than once. Is there a greater privilege than to have a consciousness expanded by, filled with, pointed to literature?

Book of wisdom, exemplar of mental playfulness, dilator of sympathies, faithful recorder of a real world (not just the commotion inside one head), servant of history, advocate of contrary and defiant emotions––a novel that feels necessary can be, should be, most of these things.

As to whether there will continue to be readers who share this high notion of fiction, well, “There’s no future to that question,” as Duke Ellington replied when asked why he was to be found playing morning programs at the Apollo. Best just to keep rowing along.

-Susan Sontag, from “Writing as Reading,” Collected in Where the Stress Falls: Essays (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001).


I am at 243 pages. More later.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Time to Dance

"The Voice of Liberation" may have been a CIA front, but in my novel, it broadcasts bitchin' good music.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Progress Notes, Again

231 pages.

Most of the growth in the novel from here on will come through revision, not expansion.

I took Wednesday,Thursday and Friday off from my day job to push through this manuscript.

More later.


Shown above, an altar for my compadre, Maximon.

Below, a section of the Dresden Codex.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Progress Notes, Reloaded

A little shrine to Maximon, patron saint of my novel.

216 pages.

Keep working your juju, my naughty little friend!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Progress Notes, Redux

200 pages.

No hallucinations, so far.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Progress Notes

I am 190 pages into my novel.

And the August heat is really making the hibiscus pop.

Though I have not managed to photograph them yet, the hummingbirds love the hibiscus, which I take as a sign of something or other.

More later.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Good Luck, Bad Luck

I had a bit of good luck yesterday. I got 4 numbers right on the Mega Millions drawing and won $150.

I had a bit of bad luck today.

!. A flat tire, no jack. $55 for road service to fix it.

2. Tangled the lawn tractor's mower blade up in a dog chain––$30 to fix it.

3. Cut my head open on a tree branch while finishing the lawn. A little blood; no $ to fix me, but--owie!--it hurts.

Add in food, 2 cups of coffee, etc.

I have $10 left.

Just enough to buy gas to go to and from work tomorrow.

This has been a very bad week at S@4A.M.

The good news--which is itself, a matter of good luck in this economy––I have a job and tomorrow is pay day.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What I am Reading

I began reading Tim Gautreaux's The Missing (Knopf, 2009) largely for the purpose of picking up some style points for my own novel. I find that I am absoluley engrossed in the story of Sam Simoneaux, a World War I veteran tracking a missing child while working on a riverboat along the Mississippi.

This is a very good book.

In other news, I tangled the lawn tractor in a dog chain last night and haven't quite figured out how to untangle it yet without taking off the blade.

That was contra-indicated.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On the Importance of Naming

There is a wonderful article by Carol Kaesuk Yoon in the Science Times section of this morning's New York Times, titled "The Lost Art of Naming the World." The brilliant painting of hummingbirds from Ernst Haekel's Kunstformen der Natur (1900), of course, immediately attracted my attention.

The article is adapted from Yoon's Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science (W.W. Norton, 2009) which is now on my list of must-read books.

Here is a passage that links to the entire article:

Today few people are proficient in the ordering and naming of life. There are the dwindling professional taxonomists, and fast-declining peoples like the Tzeltal Maya of Mexico, among whom a 2-year-old can name more than 30 different plants and whose 4-year-olds can recognize nearly 100. Things were different once. In Linnaeus’s day, it was a matter of aristocratic pride to have a wonderful and wonderfully curated collection of wild organisms, both dead and alive. Darwin (who gained fame first as the world’s foremost barnacle taxonomist) might have expected any dinner-party conversation to turn taxonomic, after an afternoon of beetle-hunting or wildflower study. Most of us claim and enjoy no such expertise.

We are, all of us, abandoning taxonomy, the ordering and naming of life. We are willfully becoming poor J.B.R., losing the ability to order and name and therefore losing a connection to and a place in the living world.

Festivus-in-August, with Mixed Metaphors, Product Placement, and Jumbled Cultural References

In the first Festivus-in-August Miracle, the power came back on yesterday afternoon at 5:30. For my post-storm "feats of strength," I single handedly dropped a thousand-plus pound branch that was hanging from twenty feet up in a maple tree and cut it into pieces, using only a pruning saw--and no ladder.

Today, I am a walking advertisement for ALEVE, official pain reliever of Sonnets @ 4 A.M.

Not to worry.

I AM a lumberjack, and I am okay.

But for our pain relief, we're kickin' it old-style here at S@4AM.


At work today, FEMA is revealing our new county flood-plain maps. Seriously, this is exciting stuff. I am something of a nut for multi-colored GIS maps.

The Gipsy Kings' version of "Hotel California" is my "song of the moment."

Monday, August 10, 2009

Weekend Update

We had a huge storm pass through late yesterday afternoon. We haven't had power at home since 6:30 p.m. yesterday.

Details to follow.

Prior to the storm, I did have a good writing weekend.

181 pages.

Good stuff.

Friday, August 07, 2009


So we set out from Castilblanco and began our march, with our scouts always ahead and constantly on the alert, and our musketeers and crossbowmen in regular order, and our horsemen even better placed. Each man carried his own arms, as was always our custom. But enough of this. It is a waste of words, for we were always so much on the alert both night and day that if the alarm had been given ten times we should have been found ready on each occasion.

-Bernal Daz, The Conquest of New Spain

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Music to Get Your Duende On

I hope this music gets me through the next stretch of my novel, which currently stands at 160 pages.

I should probably be listening to "Music to be Torpedoed By."

The pain is tremendous.

Film Director John Hughes is Dead at Age 59

John Hughes (1950-2009)

His credits as writer, producer and/or director include including National Lampoon's Vacation, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Weird Science, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Uncle Buck, Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

Hughes was a native of Lansing, Michigan, and many of his films were set in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, Illinois.

Hughes died of a heart attack on August 6, 2009.

Monday, August 03, 2009

A Poem for August


Where is the dwelling place of light?
And where is the house of darkness?
Go about; walk the limits of the land.
Do you know a path between them?
Job 38:19-20

The enigma of August.
Season of dust and teenage arson.
The nightly whine of pickup trucks
bouncing through the sumac
beneath the Co-Operative power lines,
country & western booming from woofers
carved into the doors. A trace of smoke
when the wind shifts,
spun gravel rattling the fenders of cars,
the groan of clutch and transaxle,
pickup trucks, arriving at a friction point,
gunning from nowhere to nowhere.
The duets begin. A compact disc,
a single line of muted trumpet,
plays against the sirens
pursuing the smoke of grass fires.

I love a painter. On a new canvas,
she paints the neighbor's field.
She paints it without trees,
and paints the field beyond the field,
the field that has no trees,
and the upturned Jesus boat,
made into a planter,
"For God so loved the world. . ."
a citation from John, chapter and verse,
splattered across the bow
the boat spills roses into the weeds.
What does the stray dog know,
after a taste of what is holy?
The sun pulls her shadow toward me,
an undulant shape that shelters the grass,
an unaimed thing.

In the gray house, the tiny house,
in '52 there was a fire. The old woman,
drunk and smoking cigarettes, fell asleep.
The winter of the blizzard and her son
not coming home from the Yalu.
There are times I still smell smoke.
There are days I know she set the fire
and why.

Last night, lightning to the south.
Here, nothing, though along the river
the wind upends a willow,
a gorgon of leaves and bottom-up clod
browning in the afternoon sun.
In the museum we dispute
the poet's epiphany call--
white light or more warmth?
And what is the Greek word for the flesh,
and the body apart from the spirit,
meaning even the body opposed to the spirit?
I do not know this word.
Dante claims there are pools of fire
in the middle regions of hell,
but the lowest circles are lakes of ice,
offering the hope our greatest sins
aren't the passions but indifference.
And the willow grew for years
With no real hold upon the ground.

How the accident occurred
and how the sky got dark:
Six miles from my house,
a drunk leaves the Holiday Inn
spins on 104 and smacks a utility pole.
The power line sparks
across the hood of his Ford
and illuminates the crazed spider web
of the windshield. His bloody tongue burns
with a slurry gospel. Around me,
the lights go down,
the way death is described
as armor crashing to the ground,
the soul having already departed
for another place. Was it his body I heard
leaning against the horn,
the body's final song, before the body
slumped sideways in the seat?

When I was a child,
I would wake at night
and imagine a field of asteroids, rolling
across the walls of my room.
In fact, I've seen them,
like the last herd of buffalo,
grazing against the background of fixed stars.
Plate 420 shows the asteroid 433 Eros,
the bright point of light, at its closest approach
to light. I loose myself in Cygnus,
ancient kamikaze swan,
rising or diving to earth,
Draco, snarling at the polestar,
and Pegasus, stone horse of the gods,
ecstatic, looking one last time at home.

August and the enigma it is.
Days when I move in crabbed circles,
nights when I walk with Jesus through the fields.
What finally stands between us
and the world of flying things?
Mobbed by jays, the Cooper's hawk
drops the dead bird. It tumbles
beneath the cedar tree,
tiny acrobat of death,
a dead bird released
in a failed act of atonement.
A nest of wasps buzzing beneath the shingles,
flickers drilling the cottonwood,
jays, sparrows, the insistent wrens,
the language of birds, heads cocked,
staring moon-eyed through the air.
Sedge, asters, and fleabane,
red tins of gasoline and glowing cigarettes,
the midnight voice of a fourteen-year-old girl
wailing the word "blue" from the pickup's open doors,
illuminated by the dome light,
the sulphurous rasp of another struck match,
foxglove, goldenrod and chicory,
the dry flowers of late summer,
an exhaustion I no longer look at.

Time passes. The authorities
gather the wreckage, the whirr
of cicadas, and light dissembles the sky.
A wind shift, and the Cedar Creek fire
snaps the backfire line
and roars through the cemetery.
In the morning,
I walk a path between houses.
I cross to the water
and circle again, the redwings
forcing me back from the marsh.
Smoke rises from a fire
still smoldering along the power lines,
flaring and exhausting itself
in the shape of something lost.
Grass fires, fires through the scrub
of the clear-cut, fires in the pulpwood,
cemetery fires,
the powder of ash still untracked
beneath the enormous trees,
fires that explode the seed cones
on the pines, the smoke of set fires
and every good intention gone wrong,
scorching the monuments
above the graves of the dead.

-Greg Rappleye