In Praise of Anticipation

carly

Anticipation. Great 70s song by Carly Simon, yes. And almost ruined by her ill-advised agreement to lend it to a ketchup company for an ad. But still, there’s nothing quite like anticipation. It has the same salutatory effects on life as a massage does on the body.

Exhibit one is the contrast between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and you can look through the lens of a child or an adult. On the Eve, everything is ahead of you, bigger than life. Anticipation multiplies the number of gifts you receive. It increases their size and value. It takes every glinting light on the tree, in the windows, and atop a candle wick and makes of it a holiday brushfire to warm the sugarplums of your heart.

The Day? Rip. Tear. Oh, that’s it? And then the aftermath, when every decoration in the house is less a festive source of cheer and more a visual reminder of work to be done: putting Christmas, already stale, thankfully away.

Let’s consider books, shall we? I read about new books all the time on Goodreads, in The New York Times, and in the Boston Globe. The descriptions whet my parched literary appetite. I go to the interlibrary loan page on the Internet and, with relish (I see a condiment theme developing here) put holds on dozens of books.

In short, my to-read eyes are bigger than my time-to-read clock. The books come in. The books wait in their lonely tower at home while I trudge off to the mines each morning. I read upon my return but, like Christmas Day, most of the books disappoint without the pixie dust of anticipation to burnish their credentials.

And so it goes. Shopping at the grocery store for this healthy vegetable and that healthy fruit in anticipation of a new page in diet? All good and anticipation at its best until, weeks later, the wilted produce must be given its 21-gun salute and burial in the garbage. Minus the anticipation, there’s the pain of preparation and challenge of taste, you see.

“This is going to be so-o-o-o good. Can’t wait!” It’s the kid in you, over and over. Anticipation is a gift of childhood that follows you into adulthood. Don’t banish it. Luxuriate in it, even if it eventually comes to naught. Life isn’t overloaded with pleasures, after all, and as Carly reminds us in the golden refrain: “These are the good old days.”

My New Book Is Out

Indifferent World

Like how casually I said that? As if I ever had an OLD book out?

Whatever. Enjoy the moment, St. Andy Warhol once said. It’s fleeting. So am I. And at my age, you avoid Fleet Street all you can. Know of any very long streets I can stroll?

The new book is called The Indifferent World and it is available from my publisher. Or, if you want a signed copy, you can buy direct from me and hope the pony express I employ gets it to you as fast as amazon prime. For that purpose, I’ve fired up a separate poetry-only blog site here.

Pretty cool, no? (Rhetorical question)

Raymond Carver–Not Just Short Stories

all of us

Here’s my review of Raymond Carver’s complete collection of poetry, All of Us:

 

Sometimes reading an entire collection of poems cover to cover is exhausting and maybe even inadvisable work. In fact, I often read poetry collections on the side as I’m reading fiction (or non-) because it requires such focus.

You know the feeling. Especially with poems that yawn and stretch out over a page or two. You’re reading and suddenly you realize your mind has drifted, like a newbie meditation acolyte trying on Buddhism for size. You go back. Remind yourself. Focus on the words! Start over! Deep breath and go….

With Raymond Carver, this is less of an issue. One reason is his style. It is quite idiomatic, often written in chummy vernacular. Deceivingly simple, too. A Hemingway of poetry, then. And before long, due to the repeating themes coming at you in waves (like, say, Bach’s music), you feel like ole Ray is your bud. Your best pal. Sympatico. Amigo.

And, say. I can write like this, too! Look how simple! Just as Hem breeds legions of aspiring short story writers who crash into the craggy shores of imitation, so does Carver with poetry imitators. The Scylla and Charybdis of deceptively simple. Scrivener sailors beware.

If, like me, you’re not at home with narrative poetry and caught up with the Johnny One-Note of lyrical poetry, Carver’s the antidote. He’s known for his short stories more than his poetry, but so many of these thrive on the same strengths–the ability to choose a few key details from his own life or another’s, to quickly build a story, to deftly find emotion or one small note of truth in it.

Many of the poems focus on simple things that make life worth living. And on death. Which is ironic and not. On the one hand, death is a theme in most all writer’s writing from the dawn of days. Where do we go? And why me? Special old me? The other irony is Ray’s own early demise to cancer. Struck down at age 50. The last poems are written through that glass darkly.

This particular collection contains every poem Raymond Carver ever wrote. In the back there are appendices, the first one containing his early, unpublished poems. I read these first, then went back and read in order of his four published collections so I could see his growth as a poet. He’s an end-stop guy. When he’s in an enjambment, he knows how to get out of it, so to speak. Lots of dependent clauses with periods. If you’re enamored of complete sentences in your poetry and if grammar violations bother you, enter at your own school marm-ish risk.

Here are some sample works I like:

“Bobber”

On the Columbia River near Vantage,
Washington, we fished for whitefish
in the winter months; my dad, Swede-
Mr. Lindgren-and me. They used belly-reels,
pencil-length sinkers, red, yellow, or brown
flies baited with maggots.
They wanted distance and went clear out there
to the edge of the riffle.
I fished near shore with a quill bobber and a cane pole.

My dad kept his maggots alive and warm
under his lower lip. Mr. Lindgren didn’t drink.
I liked him better than my dad for a time.
He lets me steer his car, teased me
about my name “Junior,” and said
one day I’d grow into a fine man, remember
all this, and fish with my own son.
But my dad was right. I mean
he kept silent and looked into the river,
worked his tongue, like a thought, behind the bait.

 

“This Morning”

This morning was something. A little snow
lay on the ground. The sun floated in a clear
blue sky. The sea was blue, and blue-green,
as far as the eye could see.
Scarcely a ripple. Calm. I dressed and went
for a walk — determined not to return
until I took in what Nature had to offer.
I passed close to some old, bent-over trees.
Crossed a field strewn with rocks
where snow had drifted. Kept going
until I reached the bluff.
Where I gazed at the sea, and the sky, and
the gulls wheeling over the white beach
far below. All lovely. All bathed in a pure
cold light. But, as usual, my thoughts
began to wander. I had to will
myself to see what I was seeing
and nothing else. I had to tell myself this is what
mattered, not the other. (And I did see it,
for a minute or two!) For a minute or two
it crowded out the usual musings on
what was right, and what was wrong — duty,
tender memories, thoughts of death, how I should treat
with my former wife. All the things
I hoped would go away this morning.
The stuff I live with every day. What
I’ve trampled on in order to stay alive.
But for a minute or two I did forget
myself and everything else. I know I did.
For when I turned back i didn’t know
where I was. Until some birds rose up
from the gnarled trees. And flew
in the direction I needed to be going.

 

“My Dad’s Wallet”

Long before he thought of his own death,
my dad said he wanted to lie close
to his parents. He missed them so
after they went away.
He said this enough that my mother remembered,
and I remembered. But when the breath
left his lungs and all signs of life
had faded, he found himself in a town
512 miles away from where he wanted most to be.
My dad, though. He was restless
even in death. Even in death
he had this one last trip to take.
All his life he liked to wander,
and now he had one more place to get to.
The undertaker said he’d arrange it,
not to worry. Some poor light
from the window fell on the dusty floor
where we waited that afternoon
until the man came out of the back room
and peeled off his rubber gloves.
He carried the smell of formaldehyde with him.
He was a big man, the undertaker said.

Then began to tell us why
he liked living in this small town.
This man who’d just opened up my dad’s veins.
How much is it going to cost? I said.
He took out his pad and pen and began
to write. First, the preparation charges.
Then he figured the transportation
of the remains at 22 cents a mile.
But this was a round-trip for the undertaker,
don’t forget. Plus, say, six meals
and two nights in a motel. He figured
some more. Add a surcharge of
$210 for his time and trouble,
and there you have it.
He thought we might argue.
There was a spot of color on
each of his cheeks as he looked up
from his figures. The same poor light
fell in the same poor place on
the dusty floor. My mother nodded
as if she understood. But she
hadn’t understood a word of it.
None of it made any sense to her,
beginning with the time she left home
with my dad. She only knew
that whatever was happening
was going to take money.
She reached into her purse and bought up
my dad’s wallet. The three of us
in that little room that afternoon.
Our breath coming and going.
We stared at the wallet for a minute.
Nobody said anything.
All the life had gone out of the wallet.
It was old and rent and soiled.
But it was my dad’s wallet. And she opened
it and looked inside. Drew out
a handful of money that would go
toward this last, most astounding, trip.

The best compliment I can pay a book is to say I won’t pass it on to a like-minded friend. When I get a little selfish about a book, when I make permanent space like a star on Hollywood on the bookshelf so I can return to it for inspiration, ideas, and unpacking, it’s a five plus. I realize he’s not everybody’s cuppa. He’s not into rhyme, meter, or form poems of any sort. But that’s a snapshot of me, too. Those don’t much appeal to me.

As Mark Twain said of classics, so I say of poetry: I prefer water to fine wine. And if that says something about me, so be it!

Thoughts While Waiting Out a Cold

cold

Once upon a time we had a school nurse who said February vacation was necessary not so families could escape to DisneyWorld and not because teachers needed a break but because the school needed a breather from viruses.

Honestly. It’s like working in a Petri dish. Great way to make a living. And a breeding ground. For not-so-secret, viral agents. Double Oh 7 days to recover, typically.

So, as I sit here trying to balance my bowling-ball head, hacking up phlegm, feeling the scratch and the not-so-funny tickle of a throat in the throes, I can’t help but think random thoughts. Maybe they will distract me.

  • Can anyone believe today is the last day of January?
  • And that Monday ushers in the good, the bad, and the ugly of February?
  • The good: Super Bowl Sunday (relax, splurge on the food, and berate the commercials).
  • The bad: Valentine’s Day (a fraudulent date where you’re told to show your love–or else–and, like a lemming, do just that).
  • The ugly: Snowfall typically reaches its peak expression. In the Boston area last winter, its peak expression was around 12 feet 4 inches above my snow shovel.
  • Is it me, or does Ted Cruz look like a sleazy undertaker in a suit? Very. Creepy.
  • My independent reading has reached a polar pace, but that’s faster than my exercise regime (which today consists of typing).
  • Does anyone else think the professional tennis betting scandal is but the tip of the iceberg? Throwing a match (game, point) is just too easy.
  • Listening to: Daniil Trifonov’s Chopin Variations by Rachmaninoff.
  • But it will never match my all-time favorite Rachmaninoff — the Vespers, as sung by Robert Shaw Festival Singers. Write to it, sleep to it, weep to it. It’ll understand, even if it speaks Russian and you don’t.
  • I could use a freak, sunny day in the 70s along about now. I’d be a turtle in the sun. I’d even shell out for one, if it could be bought.
  • Comfort foods in winter conspire against us. But what a pleasure the conspiracy is!
  • Something I don’t get: All the Jane Austen fans. Really?
  • A year ago I made a big push on cleaning out the books. But the Empire Strikes Back every time. Once again, the books are winning the war and the bookshelves are going undercover.
  • Hey, reality TV ratings will be in from Iowa and New Hampshire sooner rather than later. Who gets voted off the island? I suspect Rand Paul, Chris “Macy’s Parade Balloon” Christie, Doc-in-the-Headlights Carson, and that guy hanging around Hillary and Bernie. The one who works for 3M, maybe.
  • Lazy man’s supper: Pancakes and maple syrup with New England Pats of butter.
  • Speaking of, the best team won last week in the Patriots-Bronco game. Everyone’s saying Broncos-Panthers will be a blow-out, though. I hope not. I can only stand watching one Cam Newton self-congratulatory dance, thank you. Egos. They’re a dime a dozen.
  • Did I mention Ted Cruz and funeral homes already?
  • No snow days so far. All together now: Hold your breath!
  • Looking forward to No. 5 in the My Struggle series, coming out in April (at least in the States). Karl Ove’s navel-gazing is fascinating stuff, for some reason.
  • At the UConn Dairy Bar recently, I was behind a student who bought a large bowl of ice cream and instead of taking it to a table, held it up, took out her cellphone, and photographed it. I’m sure it was on a social network site before she even sat down. Hashtag Who Cares, kid! (And yes, it’s come to this–people photographing their food before eating it.)
  • My poetic output of late is nil. Nil! “Write about that,” the experts would say. Write about nothing? But that’s what I’ve been doing! All too well!
  • Groundhog Day is but two away. Stupid “holiday.” Great movie, as B-grade movies go.
  • Does anyone else take their birth month personally?
  • Prediction: If Bernie burns Hillary in both Iowa and New Hampshire, a Democratic Dark Horse will begin to make noises in the stable. Uncle Joe’s Stable.
  • Watching a college basketball team with potential and potential only = maddening. Repeat after me: It’s only a game, it’s only a game.
  • Anyone ready for March roaring in like a lion (or however the hell it likes) early? I thought so.

If you got this far, congrats. Have a good week, friends…

 

The Hazards of Good Faith and Book Reviewing

memoir

I just finished Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and called myself to task for considering a review. Then I wrote it anyway.

Oh, well. In expressing some positive and negative reactions, I’ll have a mosquito’s impact on a tortoise’s back as far as Karr’s sales go. And I like her, too, even though I don’t know her. Voice will do that. You read a book for a stretch and suddenly feel as one with the character or, in this case, the first-person author and professor.

The opening of my review touches on the problem. Here it is:

It’s always hard to judge a book read in fits and starts. When you’re busier than usual, you pick up your book-of-the-moment at odd times. And even if you end every day like I do — reading in bed — the busyness of your life often leads to an early date with Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep. Thus, another start ends, only now in a sleeping fit.

Writing this review and rereading it, I’m torn. If it’s true that you put someone’s book at a disadvantage due to circumstances during its reading, is acknowledging it good enough? Or should you recuse yourself from writing a review?

From the perspective of the author, I’d say, “Leave it alone, clown. What if it were your book?” From the perspective of a reader, I’d say, “Good books overcome all odds. They break and suck away the foundation of resistance, like the incoming tide on a previously-stalwart castle of sand.”

You see the problem.

If you’re interested in Karr’s book or have read other stuff by her, what follows is the rest of the review. Yes, as a writer or wannabe, you can get something out of it no matter what you write — poetry, stories, essays, or novels. There’s that. And, as a reader, you will be treated to some good inside stuff on quality memoirs out there because Professor Karr teaches memoir, both the reading and the writing of the genre.

Me, my memoir-reading is pretty lame. I’ve got work to do on that count. And I didn’t much like Speak, Memory (though I love the title!), the Vladimir Nabokov memoir that Karr reveres above all else. Oh, well. Back to busyness. And to reading! The finish, then:
I rallied at the end of Mary Karr’s book, however, taking the last 100 pp. by storm. It helped. My 3 stars began to lean four-ish. It’s a short book, for one thing, and seemingly wears three hats. At times it wants to be a “how-to” book on writing, written by a professor (Karr) who teaches memoir writing at university (Syracuse, I believe). At times it wants to be literary criticism, going off on certain memoirs and their merits. It even ends with a long (and I do mean long) list of “must-read” memoirs. 

And finally, at times it is straight-up biography or memoir of memoir-writing Mary. Here’s me writing Liar’s Club. And me waving as I write Cherry. Here I am again, this time Lit up. With it comes background information of the writer at work and at war (or peace) with the subjects of her memoir: Mom, Daddy, Sis, Hubby, lover, tinker, tailor, soldier, spy.

One thing Karr makes clear is the power of voice. If you can’t establish voice in your writing, stick to your day job. Despite the identity crisis in this book’s somewhat scattered approach (at times it feels like the syllabus of her course itself… “OK, class, where the hell was I when we last met? Whatever. Today I’ve decided to talk about…”), Karr’s voice comes across in spades. One annoyance, however, is her decision to call sensory details “carnal.” Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s an old movie that I never saw but heard plenty about in my youth (Carnal Knowledge), but “carnal” seems all wrong in the list of requirements for good writers (“Class, you must think carnally!”).

Oh, well. My problem, maybe. If you’re writing a memoir or considering it, worth a look. If you’re a Karr fan, why not? But me, I was left ambivalent.

P.S. Of all the memoirs she discussed at great or not-great-enough length, the most intriguing to me were Frank Conroy’s _Stop Time_ and Michael “Now a Buddhist” Herr’s _Dispatches_. I plan to check both out at some point, thanks to Mary’s quotes.

Falling Off the Wagon

DidYouEverHaveaFamily_1Book Buyers Anonymous. Or in this case, not-so-anonymous. A new book with a drumbeat of pretty blurbs? Like catnip to the cat, my friends.

Last year I vowed to save my groaning bookshelf (it speaks Spanish — “No mas! No mas!”) and my hollow wallet by using the interlibrary loan privileges at my local library. It’s been working out pretty well, too, even if my drives to work and food markets do not take me past my local library, inconveniently enough.

Then I read something like this:

Fall Fiction and Nonfiction Suggestions

This is cruelty, plain and simple. Do we pour a foamy beer in front of the alcoholic? Walk down Fifth Avenue with a shopaholic? Light up in front of the cold-turkey who quit smoking? No. But I’ve only myself to blame. Did I really have to read those descriptions? Did I really have to open a new window to amazon, where I could read more reviews and blurbs while noticing the special, new-book discount?

Rhetorical questions are a wonderful thing. Until they look like rationalizations. There I was reading all about the horribly-named novel Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg. Really. It sounds like a Dr. Seuss book or something. And yet… and yet… catnip! Snared by the whiskers!

Click. Cart shows 1 item.

Next thing you know I see The Art of Memoir. Me, a guy who can’t resist the siren call of books about books or books about writing books. Mary Karr, yet! An author and poet I admire!

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And just like that, my resolution lies a beaten vow on the floor. Pulverized. Bleeding through the hardwood cracks. Forgive me, Father, for I have bought. For these and all my sins, I am heartily sorry.

Until tomorrow when my new books arrive…

Retiring, Then Getting to Work

woodpathsI’ve read that more and more Americans are working later in life — 60s, 70s, even 80s. In some cases, service gives these people a sense of purpose and a reason to live. In others, it’s a way to escape a not-so-retiring spouse. And I daresay healthcare plays a role, too. The Scylla and Charybdis of insatiable greed — medical and insurance companies — are enough to give anyone considering a career in rest and relaxation pause.

Me, I plan to buck the trend. Just as kindergarten kids should be allowed to learn via play (as opposed to getting homework and — gasp — standardized tests), this retired person will get to work on his own terms. The payment will come in satisfaction as opposed to pay stubs.

OK. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but indulge me for a moment. Shouldn’t retirement serve as a new lease on life, a second beginning, a license to do what circumstances have, until this point, disallowed? If I want to take a course at a college, I will. If I want to take piano or French lessons again, why not? And if I want to put more time, effort, and seriousness into my writing, Godspeed.

That’s what retirement should be. You wake up. You go to work as always. But you have only yourself to answer to.

This arrangement is already auditioning in the wings. I’m reading a book called Why Homer Matters because, at long last, he does. Homer himself had nothing to do with it. In fact, he’s waited patiently for me to be ready. And I am. And so Homer can wine-dark see for himself. I even ordered Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey to read this summer after school ends. Dead Greeks know you mean business when you choose epics for beach reads. And “studies” like this will become the norm, once I’m done with teaching.

I’ve also been steady about sending poetry out. In fact, May 2015 has been my best month yet — five (count ’em, FIVE) poems published in a single month. The good news: This is a record. The bad news: I probably won’t match it for some time.

Whatever. Our hopes for ourselves as future retired persons are similar to our hopes for ourselves as young men and women. We dream big. We plan unrealistically. We want to learn, create, give. We want to eat well, exercise well, love well. And, just as we did as children, we have little regard for the Grim Reaper. He remains hypothetical, a gadfly attracted to others, even as he’s “getting warmer” in his search.

And so, like so many before me, I face the equation. Do you retire sooner, bent on enjoying a maximum number of remaining years and damning the tyranny of money? Or do you retire later, making sure you never feel the yoke of poverty and need in the last great gasp called life in the twilight?

It’s Robert Frost all over again. Yellow woods. And, damn them all to lovely hell, ever-diverging paths…