18 May 2005


I think a lot about how to end stories, since starting them is so much easier. This from Alice Mattison, “Coincidence in Stories: an Essay Against Craft” from The Writer’s Chronicle, Volume 36, Number 6:

In Virginia Woolf’s story “The Mark on the Wall,” a woman sits in her chair, speculating about a spot on the opposite wall that she can’t identify. It’s a nail, a bump, maybe a leaf—but she prefers thought to action, so instead of getting up to look, she lets her mind wander—for several pages—from the mark on the wall to all sorts of subjects. Eventually she says, “someone is standing over me and saying:

‘I’m going out to buy a newspaper.’
‘Though it’s no good buying newspapers . . . Nothing ever happens. Curse this war; God damn this war! . . . All the same, I don’t see why we should have a snail on our wall.’”

And the story ends, “Ah, the mark on the wall. It was a snail.” Nothing happens except perception and the mind’s response to perception, but the story turns out to be about war, the first world war. It’s a bit tedious to read, because we get the idea too quickly, but it’s a story I for one am glad to have, yet not eager to imitate. That kind of writing leads us down a narrower and narrower path and finally disappears into the forest of the mind. I get nervous when it becomes clear as I read a story that it’s going to end with somebody alone in a room realizing something; even here, Virginia Woolf introduces another character at the end, someone who speaks and acts. We do have inner lives, and trying to represent them in fiction is fine, but there’s just so much of it one can write or read before the inner life starts to feel like a trap.

Mattison’s description reminded me also of stories by Katherine Mansfield, dear Miss Brill. How small to large and back again can cause a story to oscillate and reverberate.

17 May 2005

traveling with Merwin

About to embark on my travels, I began reading W. S. Merwin's Travels, this from the opening poem:

        . . . who
in the total city
will go on listening
to these syllables that
are ours and be able
still to hear moving through
them the last rustling of

paws in high grass the one
owl hunting along this
spared valley
the tongues of
the free trees our uncaught
voices reader I do
not know that anyone
else is waiting for these
words that I hoped might seem
as though they had occurred
to you and you would take
them with you as your own

15 May 2005

old P&Ws

I uncovered a stack of unread Poets & Writers magazines. Plowing through them, I keep finding great lines.

Robert Creeley:

Is that a real poem, or did you write it yourself?

Kent Haruf:

Writing is my religion. Don't shit in my cathedral.

Copper Canyon Press

Recently Copper Canyon Press gave me a book of poems, In the Next Galaxy by Ruth Stone. Anguished lovely poems. Here are two:

This Strangeness in My Life

It is so hard to see where it is,
but it is there even in the morning
when the miracle of shapes
assemble and become familiar,
but not quite; and the echo
of a voice, now changed,
utterly dissociated, as though
all warmth and shared sweetness
had never been. It is this alien
space, not stark as the moon,
but lush and almost identical
to the space that was. But it is not.
It is another place and you are not
what you were but as though emerging
from the air, you slowly show yourself
as someone else, not ever remembered.


Cylinder sacks of water filling the oceans,
endless bullets of water,
skins full of water rolling and tumbling
as we came together.
As though light broke us apart.
As though light came with the rubble of words,
though we die among the husks of remembering.
It is as we knew it would be
in the echoes of endless terminals,
in the slow scaled guises of ourselves
when we came together in the envelopes of ourselves,
the bare shadow, the breath of words invisible;
as slight errors repeating themselves;
as degradation passes like madness through a crowd.
It was not ordained.
It was one drop of salt water against another.

Now I need to buy all her other poems.

reading again

Every scrap of work required to obtain the blessed MFA from Queens University of Charlotte has now been completed. All that's left is the shouting, that is to say, I will teach the craft seminar and read from my thesis a week from Thursday, but the work is done, and I'm back to binging on fiction. I've missed it so much. First I read Cloud Atlas, then The Master, today it's Letting Loose the Hounds by Brady Udall. The delirious span of a novel. The taut bow of a short story. Okay, I haven't stayed bone dry but nearly.

I picked up this volume of short stories by Brady Udall about six months ago after reading "Buckeye the Elder" in an anthology. This afternoon, I read "Midnight Raid"—a divorced father forbidden to see his seven-year-old son arrives in the middle of the night to deliver a pet goat—and reread "Buckeye," which I would be happy to read a dozen times more. Brady's so good at beginnings, middles, and ends. "Midnight Raid" starts like this:

Roy growls and gives me the evil eye from inside his doghouse. He's flustered; I'm fairly certain this is the first time in his life a six-foot-three Apache Indian holding a goat has walked into his backyard in the middle of the night. Roy, there under the comfort of his own roof, seems to be trying to come to a decision. He doesn't know whether to raise hell or to make friends with me. I slowly take a step closer—no sudden moves—and ask him, as sincerely as possible, not to make any undue racket. He pokes his head out of his house and yaps, causing the goat I'm holding to let loose a thin stream of piss down my leg.

I suppose this ought to be explained.

To tell the truth, I can't remember a word of Edgar Mint because when I read it I was working too hard. All I remember is how good it was, so I'll be checking that out from the library another time.

13 May 2005

delicious -- The Master

Colm Toibin's novel about Henry James -- The Master -- simply delicious. The best book I have read in a long time. The heart of my sympathy lies in a book like this. Yes, I liked Cloud Atlas, but not like this. The Master is exquisite. I will do my best to say more pronto.

D. A. Powell

from D. A. Powell's Tea:

[how his body stood against a thicket, rich in hardwood gentry: ponderous and gloomy]

how his body stood against a thicket.    rich in hardwood gentry:
    ponderous and gloomy
the limbs would still extend a noble canopy had they not been so
    alluring:    pitch and timber

hungry for plowland and pasture the notchers came.    char and rot the
    tools for clearing
driven deep into tangles the aching teams.    corduroy roads leading
    to the penetrable duff

he has been pioneered:    given to the final stump allowing
    settlement.    slow collapse
these trees stripped and unable.    there was no child in him:    a land
    traversed many times

signs dot the road where he should flourish.    could the sparse line on
    a sign indicate the forest

10 May 2005

how to dance

From David Mura’s Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei. His dance teacher, Ono, is speaking:

“When you are sad, it is not just your single self who is sad, but all the dead people, the great number of souls who are living inside you . . .

“When you dance, you must dance through the wall of the body. During my dance of Mozart, I am not doing a lot outside, but I am moving inside. If I move too much outside, I lose the within, the source or energy, the feeling that propels the dance. In order to break through the wall, I must hold on to and not forget what’s inside. It’s the relationship between what is living inside me and the living realm of the dead that is dance . . .”

David Mura is a poet and an autobiographer. Am enjoying seeing through his lens.

08 May 2005

Sympathy for Bad Poets

From Randall Jarrell's Poetry and the Age:

Sometimes it is hard to criticize, one wants only to chronicle. The good and mediocre books come in from week to week, and I put them aside and read them and think of what to say; but the “worthless” books come in day after day, like the cries and truck sounds from the street, and there is nothing that anyone could think of that is good enough for them. In the bad type of the thin pamphlets, in hand-set lines on imported paper, people’s hard lives and hopeless ambitions have expressed themselves more directly and heartbreakingly than they have ever been expressed in any work of art: it is as if the writers had sent you their ripped-out arms and legs, with “This is a poem” scrawled on them in lipstick. After a while one is embarrassed not so much for them as for poetry, which is for these poor poets one more of the openings against which everyone in the end beats his brains out; and one finds it unbearable that poetry should be so hard to write—a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey in which there is for most of the players no tail, no donkey, not even a booby prize. If there were only some mechanism (like Seurat’s proposed system of painting, or the projected Universal Algebra that Godel believes Liebnitz to have perfected and mislaid) for reasonably and systematically converting into poetry what we see and feel and are! When one reads the verse of people who cannot write poems—people who sometimes have more intelligence, sensitivity, and moral discrimination than most of the poets—it is hard not to regard the Muse as a sort of fairy godmother who says to the poet, after her colleagues have showered on him the most disconcerting and ambiguous gifts, “Well, never mind. You’re still the only one that can write poetry.”

It seems a detestable joke that the “national poet of the Ukraine”—kept a private in the army for ten years, and forbidden by the Czar to read, to draw, or even write a letter—should not have for his pain one decent poem. A poor Air Corps sergeant spends two and a half years on Attu and Kiska, and at the end of the time his verse about the war is indistinguishable from Browder’s brother’s parrot’s. How cruel that a cardinal—for one of these books is a cardinal’s—should write verses worse than his youngest choir boy’s! But in this universe of bad poetry everyone is compelled by the decrees of an unarguable Necessity to murder his mother and marry his father, to turn somersaults widdershins around his own funeral, to do everything that his worst and most imaginative enemy could wish. It would be a hard heart and a dull head that could condemn, except with a sort of sacred awe, such poets for anything that they have done—or rather, for anything that has been done to them: for they have never made anything, they have suffered their poetry as helplessly as they have anything else; so that it is neither the imitation of life nor a slice of life but life itself—beyond good, beyond evil, and certainly beyond reviewing.

07 May 2005

Cloud Atlas

This afternoon I finished David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I liked it. Many parts delighted me, even though reading conditions were not the best: I spent a week reading the novel instead of two days because I’m moving on May 18th and that puts a crimp in everything.

Still, I would say that the novel is not top of class because the structure made it impossible for me to become intractably committed to any character or story line. One story cuts off mid-sentence—a new one begins. This happens five times. The sixth and middle story is the longest and written in a relatively exhausting invented dialect. After story number six ends—the first story that actually comes to a natural end before being interrupted—the fifth story resumes where it left off, if you can remember where that was. I couldn’t and had to flip back. After the fifth story ends, the fourth story resumes; etc. I flipped back three out of the five times.

I found all but one story extremely interesting, but I hate being preached to, and by the end, I’d been preached to as follows: people who fight and kill to gain money and power will eventually destroy the world, and if only individuals would realize that and fight against it, we could prevent that horror. Great. Thank you for sharing. Sorry to be so negative, but I guess I don’t read fiction for that sort of thing. I read fiction because I love to read about complicated people and the messes they get themselves into. I’m even willing to swap contexts, but if the author makes me do it in such large chunks that I forget who I’m supposed to be worrying about, well then, I don’t deeply worry about anyone.

Nevertheless, David Mitchell writes breathtakingly well. He has the great stuff. The Adam Ewing and Robert Frobisher stories were terrific. He does thriller genre in the Luisa Rey story and science fiction with Somni-451. Weirdly enough, the middle story, the one in the boggling dialect, might be my favorite. It’s called “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” and takes place on the Big Island of Hawaii. Here’s a scrap, not chosen but the first place I turned to:

I took the died babbit wrapped in a woolsack to the Bony Shore. So lornsome I was, wond’rin’ if Jayjo’s seed was rotted or my seed was rotted or jus’ my luck was rotted. Slack mornin’ it was under the bloodflower bushes, waves lurched up the beach like sickly cows an’ fell over. Buildin’ the babbit’s mount din’t take as long as Pa’s. Bony Shore had the air o’ kelp an’ flesh’n’rottin’, old bones was lyin’ ’mongst the pebbles, an’ you din’t hang ’bout longer’n you needed to, ’cept you was borned a fly or a raven.

Jayjo she din’t die, nay, but she never laughed twirly like b’fore an’ we din’t marry, nay, you got to know your seed’ll grow a purebirth or sumthin’ close, yay? Or who’ll scrape the moss off your roof an’ oil your icon ’gainst termites when you’re gone? So if I met Jayjo at a gath’rin’ or bart’rin’ she’d say, Rainy mornin’ ain’t it? an’ I’d answer, Yay, rain till nightfall it will I reck’n, an’ we’d pass by. She married a leather maker from Kane Valley three years after, but I din’t go to their marryin’ feast.

It was a boy. Our died no-name babbit. A boy.

Frequently he performs with such flourish that one needs to take a deep breath and go back and read it aloud:

We said we was herb’lists sivvyin’ for presh plants an’ maybe Yanagi b’liefed us an’ maybe he din’t, but he bartered us fungusdo’ for rockfish an’ warned us Waimea Town weren’t so friendsome as it’d been once, nay, Kona say-soed’n’knucklied ficklewise an’ you cudn’t guess their b’havin’s.

Imagine inventing this language and writing it ear-perfectly for seventy pages. Kudos. I look forward to more work from this author.

06 May 2005

some days I need James Tate

From Return to the City of White Donkeys by James Tate:

Of Whom Am I Afraid

I was feeling a little at loose ends, so
I went to the Farmer's Supply store and just
strolled up and down the aisles, examining
the merchandise, none of which was of any use
to me, but the feed sacks and seeds had a calm-
ing effect on me. At some point there was an
old, grizzled farmer standing next to me holding
a rake, and I said to him, "Have you ever read
much Emily Dickinson?" "Sure," he said, "I
reckon I've read all of her poems at least a
dozen times. She's a real pistol. And I've
even gotten into several fights about them
with some of my neighbors. One guy said she
was too 'prissy' for him. And I said, 'Hell,
she's tougher than you'll ever be.' When I
finished with him, I made him sit down and read
The Complete Poems over again, all 1,775 of them.
He finally said, 'You're right, Clyde, she's
tougher than I'll ever be.' And he was crying
like a baby when he said that." Clyde slapped
my cheek and headed toward the counter with
his new rake. I bought some ice tongs, which
made me surprisingly happy, and for which I
had no earthly use.

Everyone should own a book or two by James Tate. Far cheaper than therapy.

02 May 2005

Jane Alison's new novel

From The Millions (A Blog About Books), this review of Jane Alison's new book:

May 1, 2005

Fans of historical fiction set in far flung lands will likely enjoy Jane Alison's new book Natives and Exotics. It's a multigenerational tale set in South America and Australia that spans the twentieth century. The publisher notes liken the book to W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants, which is a lot to live up to. PW describes the book thusly: "More impressionistic than narrative, Alison's third novel is a lush evocation of the way people love and alter (and are altered by) the environments they inhabit."

Read the PW review at Amazon.

I haven't seen the novel yet, but her first two were superb, so I expect no less from this one.

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas

First off, one sentence:

Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.

Next, a short scene from the Tim Cavendish segment:

I groped my way to the ammonia-smelling gents’, where a joker had stolen the bulb. I had just unzipped myself when a voice arose from the shadows. “Hey, mistah, got a light of sumfink?” Steadying my cardiac arrest, I fumbled for my lighter. The flame conjured a Rastafarian in Holbein embers, just a few inches away, a cigar held in his thick lips. “Fanks,” whispered my black Virgil, inclining his head to bring the tip into the flame.

“You’re, erm, most welcome, quite,” I said.

His wide, flat nose twitched. “So, where you heading, man?”

My hand checked my wallet was still there. “Hull . . . ” A witless fib ran wild. “To return a novel. To a librarian who works there. A very famous poet. At the university. It’s in my bag. It’s called Half-Lives.” The Rastafarian’s cigar smelt of compost. I can never guess what they’re thinking. Not that I’ve really ever known any. I’m not a racialist, but I do believe the ingredients in so-called melting pots take generations to melt. “Mistah,” the Rastafarian told me,” you need”—and I flinched—“some o’ this.” I obeyed his offer and sucked on his turd-thick cigar.

Ruddy hell! “What is this stuff?”

He made a noise like a didgeridoo at the root of his throat. “That don’t grow in Marlboro Country.” My head enlarged itself by a magnitude of many hundreds, Alice-style, and became a multi-story car park wherein dwelt a thousand and one operatic Citroens. “My word, you can say that again,” mouthed the Man Formerly Known as Tim Cavendish.

Wow. Chris Duncan, you should read this.