Sunday, August 29, 2010

Be Grateful for the Glory that is Jonathan Franzen

The hour draws near. Salutory horns volley in the distance. I hear sighs and the persistent tunk-tunk of fountain pens dropping onto desks across this vast and troubled land. Give up, O pitiful American scribblers. Jonathan Franzen has already (or perhaps once again, I forget) written The Great American Novel and we won't be needing your undernourished little manuscripts; not according to Sam Tanenhaus' review of Freedom (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010), which appears on the cover--and at considerable length inside--this morning's New York Times Book Review.*

According to Tanenhaus--who should know; after all, he's the editor of the Review, and in the best position to judge these things--Freedom is "a masterpiece...a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majectic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life." Franzen uses "phrases with full command of [their] ideological implications." Franzen knows many obscure but revelatory facts. Franzen––that Midwestern renegade genius currently laboring away in a sensory-deprived room on the Upper East Side--even knows that F. Scott Fitzgerald grew up on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota.

How's that for fresh datum? Er, fresh data?

As Tanenhaus reminds us, Franzen's last novel, The Corrections, published days before 9/11, "towered out of the rubble" ( of the attack on The World Trade Center, I think) and became "a beacon lighting the way for a new kind of novel that might break the suffocating grip of postmodernism." Indeed, [The Corrections] "cracked open the opaque shell of postmodernism," replacing it with "an authentic humanism."

But Freedom is even better than The Corrections. For in this latest novel, "Franzen grasps the central paradox of modern American liberalism," Franzen "writes with brilliant economy," Franzen "knows that every man has his reasons." Indeed, every phrase in Franzen's novel brims with "crystalline instances of precise notation shaped by imaginative sympathy."

I must admit that, from reading the review, I couldn't quite figure out the plot of Freedom (a family moves from St. Paul to the tonier regions of Georgetown, goes to a few execrable Bush 2-era dinner parties, has some misadventures with a rock musician who looks like Muammar el-Qaddafi, and returns to Minnesota, wiser for the experience?) But no matter; all will be made clear when the Long Awaited Manuscript goes on sale this Tuesday, because, according to Tanenhaus, "'Freedom' does not just tell an engrossing story. It illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author's profound moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew."

With all this white light, it seems I won't need a votive candle.

All I can say is Thank you, Mr. Franzen.


*Peace and War by Sam Tanenhaus, a review of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen ( Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010), in The New York Times Book Review, August 29, 2010.

Friday, August 27, 2010

What I am Reading

Things exist at three points in time: when they occur, when we learn they occurred, and when we forget them. This last, of course, is a sin.

-Charles Bowden, Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America (Random House, 1995)

If I were teaching a course about life in America at the end of the 20th Century-- and how we got here from there--this book would be the most important text on the reading list.

It's all here, written on the wall. Peel back the foreclosure notice and read.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

And Another From the Manuscript


“This is a beautiful country.”
-John Brown, remark as he rode to the gallows,
seated on his coffin (December 2, 1859)

The top of the canvas spread with charcoal-gray clouds.
Beneath, a dove-gray meant as distant rain, falling
across darker hills, beyond the larger part of a lacquer-black bay.
Dead center, a white-sailed catboat has either made the far point
of the inner harbor, and will be safely home before the sky opens,
or the catboat has not made the point and must come about
again, meaning the sailors will not come safely home.
How the odd sunlight reaches––the creamy bloom of the sail,
a catboat moving too serenely––the light, startling the far-left point,
the one the sailors must make, then circling to fire the grassy greens
of the closer point. Do not fear for the man in the rowboat,
who has made the inner harbor and pulls for the green shore.
Do not fear for the silent man in the yellow straw hat, red shirt,
tan vest; seated in the foreground, his back to us, smoking a pipe.
No fear, either, for the dog facing the water––a yellow lab, I’d say––
perhaps the earliest depiction of this breed in American art.
But what of the man you can barely see? He is no more
than a cross of rose madder and flesh, standing
at the sole of the catboat, facing the mouth
of the inner harbor and the seated man in the red shirt,
tan vest and yellow straw hat; that ardent yellow lab.
In the left foreground, draping a rock, the shroud of a larger sail
the captain did not take when he left. Everywhere––
the water is luminously black, the sea, so eerily calm.
The catboat is not yet up on its heel, the sailors have not begun
to work for the point. It seems they never will.


This poem was originally published in Arts & Letters.

In the Heade painting, there actually is a man standing on the catboat. He is not visible in this reproduction. The bottom illustration is taken from a mural on the walls of the Kansas state capital building, painted in 1941-1942 by John Steuart Curry.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Yet Another Hummingbird Poem


-Rio de Janeiro, December 17, 1863

He came with graphite and oils, to paint hummingbirds.
A ghost, he walks among orchids, seeking hummingbirds.

He has arranged his room with easels, a chair, a wicker bed.
He scrawls on foolscap, the floor awash in hummingbirds.

At night he drinks red wine, Bourbon, and port.
He speaks with his hands; his fingers––like hummingbirds.

He picks passion flowers, gardenias and palm fronds.
Next to each, he lays the bodies of hummingbirds.

I have rounded the Horn, and know many lands.
Ceylon was most strange. I remember no hummingbirds.

He supports the Union cause, and freedom for our slaves.
He does not love war. He loves only hummingbirds.

Women come to him so freely.
I pray my sister is not found among his hummingbirds.

I saw him sketch the harbor, and our stone battlements.
He is restless. He wants to paint hummingbirds.

An excellent shot with a fowling piece.
He fears the blood, as he works to skin hummingbirds.

My agents have trailed him at night.
He says he seldom sleeps, and dreams of hummingbirds.

I find him with his sketchbook, staring at the trees.
He says the palms, the banyans, are alive with hummingbirds.

In the steamy mountains, he steps from a mist.
Cradling his sketchbook, babbling of hummingbirds.

For days, the rain was never-ending.
I found him singing scales, shouting, “I am a hummingbird!”

I imagine their breasts––gold and green and red.
I fear I too will dream of colibris.

His leather satchel keeps his most secret things.
The merkins of their tiny nests, the bodies of his hummingbirds.

There are days I yearn for the sea. The sea was
all I knew, before the days of hummingbirds.

I will go with him to the borderlands.
He says the Delft-blue sky will swell with hummingbirds.

I remain your servant, Eduardo Gonzales,
Captain of the Imperial Navy, escrivao of hummingbirds.


This poem first appeared in Shenandoah: The Washington & Lee University Review.

Florence Mary Arenz (1928-2010)

We have been dealing with the loss of Marcia's mother, Florence Mary Arenz, who died after a long illness on August 8, 2010, in Gearhart, Oregon.

Florence was born July 31, 1928, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the second daughter of Frederick and Mary (Ludwick) Blymeir. She joined her sister, Margaret and two brothers, Julius and James. Her early education took place in Grand Rapids. She graduated from Kalamazoo College with a B.A. in Sociology, then worked at the University of Chicago downtown campus as Registrar, as well as with famed psychologist Carl Rogers as personal secretary.

Florence later moved on to Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, as an Academic Advisor, counseling students on curriculum choices, and then went on to the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, where she was an Administrator.

She was gifted with a remarkably clear and lovely soprano voice, and was active for many years with various choral groups in the Midwest. Florence sang under the direction of Robert Shaw several times, and received many critical accolades.

She met Robert Arenz (Marcia's step-father) in Monterey, and they were married in 1980. They moved to Cannon Beach, Oregon, in 1982, where they founded A Great Shop, a gift and home furnishing's store. They moved to Gearhart, Oregon, in 1989 and brought the store with them. A Great Shop celebrated its twenty-fifth birthday in July of this year. The shop and its unique goods have been featured in many newspaper articles and magazines, including a cover article in Coastal LIving.

Florence is survived by Robert, her two daughters Margaret Plichta (Roger) and Marcia Rappleye (Greg), both of Michigan, and her sister, Margaret Lee of Evanston, Illinois. She also leaves two grandchildren, Carlos and Liam Rappleye.

Her extended family includes step-children Hans Arenz (Tammy), Eric Arenz (Debbie), Elaine Arenz Brock (James), Annabelle Arenz Groh, and Heidi Arenz Kleist (James), step-grandchildren Elliot Rappleye and Hannah Rappleye, along with a constantly expanding collection of grand- and great-grandchildren scattered across the nation. She was predeceased by her parents, her two brothers, and by step-daughter Roberta Therese (Tré) Arenz.

There will be a memorial service on Saturday, September 11, 2010 at Calvary Episcopal Church in Seaside, Oregon.

She is very much missed.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Four Orpheus Poems

These are from my manuscript-in-waiting, Tropical Landscape with Ten Hummingbirds, and all have been previously published.


-The Metamorphoses of Ovid, Book X,
Lines 86-110

When love died the second time,
he sang at dawn in the empty field
and the trees came to listen.
A little song for the tag alder,
the fire cherry, the withe-willow.
The simple-hearted ones that come quickly
to loneliness.
Then he sang for the mulberry
with its purple fruit,
for the cedar and the tamarack.
He sang bel canto for the quaking aspen
and the stave oak;
something lovely for the white pine,
the fever tree, the black ash.
From the air he called the sparrows
and the varieties of wrens.
Then he sang for a bit of pestilence––
for the green caterpillars,
for the leaf worms and bark beetles.
Food to suit the flickers and the crows.
So that, in the wood lot,
there would always be empty places.
So he would still know loss.


A three-headed dog named Cerberus, guards
the opposite shore of Styx, ready to devour
living intruders or ghostly fugitives.

-Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, 31.a

As one comes to wolves. Song of canine bodies
circling through the pines. Aria of bone-gnaw,
of driven snow in Caucasus, of sweet, sweet marrow.
Song of lip-curl, of bloody gums, of gritted teeth and snarl.
Whimpered song of bitch-and-den, song of musk,
of tongued pups, of burrow thick with steam.
Song of fire, circle-song, beaten onto skins. Song of meat,
of shearling, of glowing coals and cinders, song of hellish fleas.
Ballad of hound-hunger, of want; song that calms the dog.
In the stony deep, Oh! are lesser gods, the stink of sulphur,
and the spirits of the dead. The beast is chained, or else
the beast runs loose. I have sung my way through darkness
and wait upon the shore with open palms.
Oh, dog, dog, dog. What song must I sing to get by thee?


His head [the women] threw into the river,
but it floated, still singing, down to the sea,
and was carried to the island of Lesbos.

-Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, 28.d

Before my lips kissed the gravel
of river-bottom, I looked back

and saw the lost body,
and the fingers of my severed hand

twitching for my lyre.
Even then, I bobbed up, singing.

They threw the lyre beside me
and the lyre began to play.

I could hardly hear the strings
for the noise of rushing water.

As the river slowed through the tidal flats,
I came to love the taste of salt.

Eight months I have drifted
among the bluefish and the tunas.

Leached of all blood and beset by sea lice,
one eye pecked by a passing gull––

I still sing. The lyre, drifting with me, plucks on.
I hear the sounds of wave-on-beach

and sense the schooly candlefish,
frenzied in the surf.

Whatever land I drift toward,
I sing for what lives there.

My hair braids through the nut-brown kelp
that tangles along the shore.


As for Orpheus’s head: it was laid to rest
in a cave at Antissa, sacred to Dionysus.
There it prophesied day and night.

-Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, 28.g.

Salt-washed, my right eye pecked sightless,
my left, still cloudy with sea water,
I loll atop this stone and say what they want to hear.
When the weather is dry, I prophesy rain.
When asked for the stars, I say Look at the sky.
The blind-shrimp that scurry, tap-tapping through the pools,
the fruit bats that flap around and foul the stalagmites––
all of us are happy. A swan, paddling the last round
of wintered water, foretells its own death,
singing more sweetly as it comes.
Whenever I must speak now, I speak in stagy whispers.
The vireo, the meadowlark, the tiniest sparrow––
name one songbird, nested at last among the darkening trees,
who will not prophesy the night.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Non-Progress Notes

I work and work and still, there seems no place in the world for my manuscript.