30 August 2005

James Longenbach

My thanks to Dan Green for this link to an interview with the fine poet and essayist James Longenbach.

29 August 2005

Kevin Canty

Apparently some readers are tired of listening to Kevin Canty write about alcoholics and other failures, but not me. I have read and will continue to read anything from Canty because he’s an adult who writes of the impossibility of being an adult, of the need to let go, give up, fuck up, sometimes fatally. His characters drink and/or take drugs to help them through lunch, through the horror of five o’clock and all those ghastly hours until nightly oblivion. His characters also fall in love frequently, fast, and hard.

The new novel, Winslow in Love, is that same old thing, a grownup who can’t clean up his act. I felt so at home. I couldn’t put the book down. Canty captures the giving way so well, the speeding through the rotary in the rain on the borrowed motorcycle and realizing you can’t hold the line because you’re afraid to hold the line and that’s why you drop the bike, bang it and yourself up. No, Canty’s Winslow didn’t do that, I did. Before today, I don’t think I’ve ever admitted to anyone except myself that the failure was will, not skill, and my relief at crashing felt immense and pleasurable. I was playing too hard, exhausting myself with possibilities. I needed a hard stop, like a wet curb, and the consequences didn’t matter, or I chose to believe that. What’s amazing is that Canty draws such scenes as ironic arabesques right up to the real-life stop, the place where irony collapses into trauma and electric shock treatments, unemployment and divorce, straight chair and cheap whiskey in the unfurnished apartment.

Canty surprised me with this novel. At the end, I talked back to him, chastised him for tomfoolery, but my objections didn’t survive thinking them through. He knows what he’s doing, knows the amplitude of irony and hope, the humor of a Hallmark card. If you’re a functional adult, skip this book.

28 August 2005

more Lyn Hejinian

[From The Cell by Lyn Hejinian]

It is obstructive to be
           round against the lightness of
           the wall
A social encounter not seeming
           to happen as it will
Nations blossom and reward from
           the vines of latitude and
           the individual person swallows the
Where else would I find
           the space to read
Deliberately to keep the sensory
           and the world apart

The open sky is blue
           with storage, is waves receding
           violently through the trees
And for whom never to
Two people cannot be bare
           at the same time because
           they have to exchange visibility

You can listen to Lyn read some of her work by going to the ever marvy Electronic Poetry Center at SUNY-Buffalo.

this Sunday morning

my bones hang to
gether like pinched dragonflies
shake loose my skin

            -- Sonia Sanchez

24 August 2005

James Galvin

[from The Meadow by James Galvin]

When his arm was fully extended he moved his hand underneath the rock, still slow in the current, until he touched a fin slowly wavering like a gently fanning angel’s wing. In his mind he could see the beautifully speckled body as he moved his hand forward to the slick cold under the gills. He began to wave his hand gently from the wrist like a willow branch trailing the current. He stroked back along the sleek form toward the vent to see how big a fish he was rocking to sleep. It was fourteen inches or so, big for a native brookie, enough for a good breakfast.

He massaged softly, working his hand forward, and when his hand was behind the gills again he knew the fish was dead asleep. In one swift motion he grasped it and lifted it out of the water in a shower of gemlike drops that fell back into the creek, which was itself as full of light as it was of water. With a deft motion of his left hand he shoved the head up and back until he heard a definitive snap. He leapt back to the bank, his hand already reaching into his pocket for his clasp knife.

One cut, slick as a zipper, from vent to gills, revealed the inner mysteries. The second cut popped out a flap under the chin. He inserted his thumb and pulled, removing the lower fins, gills, and viscera. He threw them all in one piece back into the stream. It made a gulping sound where it went under. He slid his thumbnail down the bloodline in the spine, dunked the fish, closed his knife one-handed against his hip, and emerged from the willows, breakfast in hand.

If you don't know Galvin, he's a poet. This particular book is an homage, might be called a memoir, and prose only in that it's not lineated.

I am so baffled by this

Some days I think no one is home in the world. Should we volunteer to pay for abortions for these girls? Could we teach them why NOT to wear Paris Hilton skirts? Is this the final outcome of women's lib?

CANTON, Ohio -- According to a report in the Canton Repository, of the 490 female students at an Ohio high school, 65 are pregnant.

Timken High School officials were not sure why the pregnancy rate soared, but in response to them, the school planned to launch an educational program to address pregnancy, prevention and parenting, according to the report.

[CP: That's certainly going to help]

The newspaper also reported that students will face mounting tensions created by unplanned child-rearing responsibilities, causing students to quit school and plan for a GED, making it difficult for the Canton City School District to shake its Academic Watch designation by the state of Ohio.

[CP: mounting tensions, and wow, let's worry about that Academic Watch designation]

The high numbers come at a time when teen pregnancy rates across the nation are dropping.

According to the Canton Health Department, statistics through July show that 104 of the 586 babies born to Canton residents in Aultman Hospital and Mercy Medical Center had mothers between 11 and 19.

[CP: ELEVEN??????]

The newspaper reports that the non-Canton rate was 7 percent. Canton was 15 percent.

Muriel Rukeyser

Here's a poet I find difficult to quote. For one thing, she wrote many long poems. She also wrote sequences of related poems, e.g., "The Book of the Dead" in U. S. 1 (1938). Here are two poems from The Speed of Darkness (1968):

A Little Stone in the Middle of the Road, in Florida

My son as child saying
is anything, even a little stone in the middle of the road, in Florida.
Nancy, my friend, after long illness:
You know what can lift me up, take me right out of despair?
No, what?

From Word of Mouth

                      Sex of cactus and cypresses.
Tile-orange, green;      olive;      black.      The sea.
One man.      Beethoven radio.      War.
Threat of all life.      Within my belief's body.
Within my morning, music.      High colored mountain
along the seacoast
                                    where the swallows fly. . . .

Speeding back from the border.
                                    A rock came spinning up
cast from the wheels of a car.
                               Crackled the windshield glass.
Glitter before my eyes like a man made of snow
lying over the hood, blind white except for glints
an inch of sight where Languedoc shines through.

You on my one side, you on the other!
What I have is dazzle.      My son; my friend;
tell me this side and tell me that side,
news of the road near Agde.

Word from this side, word from the tree-side—
Spain at our back : agony : before me, glitter,
blinding my eyes, blind diamonds, one clear wound.

Something is flying out of the sky behind me.

Turning, stirring of dream, something is speeding,
something is overtaking.

Stirrings in prisons, on beds, the mouths of the young,
resist, dance, love.      It drives through the back of my head,
through my eyes and breasts and mouth.
I know a harvest : mass in the wine country.
A lifetime after, and still alive.

Something out of Spain, into the general light!
I drive blind white, trusting news of this side,
news of that side, all the time the line of the poem:
Amor, pena, desig, somni, dolor.
The grapes have become wine by the hand of man.
Sea risen from the sea, a bearded king.

The seaward cemetery risen from the sea
like a woman rising.


                                    Phases of sun.
The wine declared god by the hand of man.
                A rumor given me by this side and that side.
We drive in brilliant glitter, in jungle night, in distant war,
in all our cities, in a word, overtaking.


A cry received, gone past me into all men,
speaking, into all women.
           A man goes into the sea,
bearded fire and all things rise from this blaze of eyes,
living, it speaks, driving forth from Spain,

                                              somni, dolor,

These cliffs, these years.      Do we drive into light?
Driven, live, overtaken?

                               Amor, pena, desig.

20 August 2005

Matthea Harvey

[from Sad Little Breathing Machine by Matthea Harvey]

Address to an Absent Flea

Reading the sonnet the old way
was impossible once the period

started leaping about. Through
the magnifying glass you seemed

a gadget God, with a suitably
parasitical air. I am trying not

to let making too much of things
become a habit—I read too slowly

already. Little Itch-Ticket whose
menu has only one item on it,

I think it’s important to be specific.
I’ve never felt desire before.

I won’t believe that was accidental
syntax. If a pen were a turret to me

I too might wait, nest in a tapestry
& save my stories for some bloodless day,

but please come back from wherever
you’ve gone. There is so little left.

18 August 2005

if you're wondering where I am . . .

San Francisco Bay, stalking curlew.

13 August 2005

Margaret Atwood

No stories! No stories! Imagine a world without stories!
But that's exactly what you would have, if all the women were wise.
The Wise Virgins keep their lamps trimmed and filled with oil, and the bridegroom arrives, in the proper way, knocking at the front door, in time for his dinner;
no fuss, no muss, and also no story at all.
What can be told about the Wise Virgins, such bloodless paragons?
They bite their tongues, they watch their smart mouths, they sew their own clothing,
they achieve professional recognition, they do every right thing without effort.
Somehow they are insupportable; they have no narrative vices:
their wise smiles are too knowing, too knowing about us and our stupidities.
We suspect them of having mean hearts.
They are far too clever, not for their own good but for ours.

    - from Good Bones and Simple Murders by Margaret Atwood

A delicious book of what? Essays? Short fictions? Take this book seriously, while laughing aloud. It's about writing, women, the bottom line. Better than chocolate.

And while you're at it, read everything else she's read, starting with The Blind Assassin. So good I read it and then listened to it on tape.

11 August 2005

Re: dreams

[From The Cell by Lyn Hejinian]

Dreams are perfect—it’s illogical
            to think there could be
            mistakes anywhere in them
Nothing intended
Not unless you could say
            the psyche itself is a
But it’s natural that dreams
            don’t change enough—so a
            person repeats them to other
I pose a question and
            immediately the psyche pops up
Not something one would naturally
            name Patricia or Josh
Some nights I experience embarrassing
Wide and near, bare and
There’s entertainment in dreams without
            erudition in reality
Strongly competitive urges
Any immutable information is boring
A voice under the dream
            and reality develops
An invisible reality

                       November 4, 1986

10 August 2005

Mehmedinovic on Kent Johnson's poetry

Below is an exchange between Ammiel Alcalay and Semezdin Mehmedinovic (Bosnian poet, author of Sarajevo Blues; 1998, City Lights; Nine Alexandrias, 2003, City Lights; and numerous other books in Bosnian) about Kent Johnson's Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz; the text was translated from Bosnian into English by Ammiel Alcalay.

Mon. 08 August


I got the copy of Kent's book that you sent today? I read it immediately and was really struck by it: beautiful, humorous, very painful and intelligent. I haven't read anything this fresh in a long time: my hope would be that this poetry has some kind of serious effect or, barring that, that it at least bring back some primary faith in poetry. I'm happy that you're in some way present here; I had the feeling while I was reading the book that it was the direct result of your public work over the past ten years...



i'm going to ask you if I can quote you on this because there is a controversy raging on various poetry blogs now about kent's book and what you wrote here would be perfect...


That would make me very happy - by all means quote me if you think that it is well enough articulated; I think that Kent's book needs to be talked about as much as possible precisely because it is unsettling; it's unsettling to the less talented and less courageous (and that, unfortunately, includes about 90% of the poets in America). I was reading somewhere, that one of the mindless assertions (but today
typical) written on one of the blogs is that the war in Iraq (the one Kent's book is dealing with) is 'old news.' Well, that's a terrifying phrase, not just because the war is ongoing and even more horrendous measures are in preparation but because, let's say, Hiroshima then is old news and poetry shouldn't try to deal with it, as if poetry were some prime time TV show. What must be most unnerving for poets here is the freshness of Kent's book on all levels - on the formal and every other level, because it's alive, it's speaking of reality, while most American poets would still rather go on writing about anything and everything except themselves in the world they're in, and certainly not about things that are so unsettling; what's more, they've been writing about nothing so long, that they're not in any position to write about anything concrete; the freshness of Kent's book completely overshadows most of what's being written now and it doesn't at all surprise me that there would be negative reactions among "the poets." But this actually really saddens me. Because the book opens a dialog with serious problems that all of us on this planet are living with, while a reaction like that makes it seem as if all that is at stake here is cleansing relations between poets and their conscience. But now I'm telling you things you know a lot more about and better than I do. So, that's it, I just want to say that I'm not at all indifferent to what is going on, that the whole thing hits very close to home for me.


08 August 2005

Cormac McCarthy

Although I've read most of Cormac McCarthy's work, Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West somehow slipped by me, so I'm reading it now as a warm up to McCarthy's latest novel, No Country for Old Men, which I'll read next.

McCarthy writes about men as he believes they are underneath the pretense of civilization. Every time I read him, I'm shocked anew at the bleakness of his vision, not that mine is any less bleak. Here's a scrap of the meeting between the kid and Toadvine:

When he woke it was daylight and the rain had stopped and he was looking up into the face of a man with long hair who was completely covered in mud. The man was saying something to him.

What? said the kid.

I said are you quits?


Quits. Cause if you want some more of me you sure as hell goin to get it.

He looked at the sky. Very high, very small, a buzzard. He looked at the man. Is my neck broke? he said.

The man looked out over the lot and spat and looked at the boy again. Can you not get up?

I don’t know. I aint tried.

I never meant to break your neck.


I meant to kill ye.

They aint nobody done it yet. He clawed at the mud and pushed himself up. The man was sitting on the planks with his boots alongside him. They aint nothin wrong with you, he said.

The kid looked about stiffly at the day. Where’s my boots? he said.

The man squinted at him. Flakes of dried mud fell from his face.

I’m goin to have to kill some son of a bitch if they got my boots.

Yonder looks like one of em.

The kid labored off through the mud and fetched up one boot. He slogged about in the yard feeling likely lumps of mud.

This your knife? he said.

The man squinted at him. Looks like it, he said.

The kid pitched it to him and he bent and picked it up and wiped the huge blade on his trouserleg. Thought somebody’d done stole you, he told the knife.

The kid found his other boot and came and sat on the boards. His hands were huge with mud and he wiped one of them briefly at his knee and let it fall again.

They sat there side by side looking out across the barren lot. There was a picket fence at the edge of the lot and beyond the fence a boy was drawing water at a well and there were chickens in the yard there. A man came from the dramshop door down the walk toward the outhouse. He stopped where they sat and looked at them and then stepped off into the mud. After a while he came back and stepped off into the mud again and went around and on up the walk.

The kid looked at the man. His head was strangely narrow and his hair was plastered up with mud in a bizarre and primitive coiffure. On his forehead were burned the letters H T and lower and almost between the eyes the letter F and these markings were splayed and garish as if the iron had been left too long. When he turned to look at the kid the kid could see that he had no ears. He stood up and sheathed the knife and started up the walk with the boots in his hand and the kid rose and followed.

Halfway to the hotel the man stopped and looked out at the mud and then sat down on the planks and pulled on the boots mud and all. Then he rose and slogged off through the lot to pick something up.

I want you to look here, he said. At my goddamned hat.

You couldn’t tell what it was, something dead. He flapped it about and pulled it over his head and went on and the kid followed.

McCarthy is also a prose stylist whose gifts are rarely matched:

Now wolves had come to follow them, great pale lobos with yellow eyes that trotted neat of foot or squatted in the shimmering heat to watch them where they made their noon halt. Moving on again. Loping, sidling, ambling with their long noses to the ground. In the evening their eyes shifted and winked out there on the edge of the firelight and in the morning when the riders rode out in the cool dark they could hear the snarling and the pop of their mouths behind them as they sacked the camp for meatscraps.

The wagons drew so dry they slouched from side to side like dogs and the sand was grinding them away. The wheels shrank and the spokes reeled in their hubs and clattered like loom-shafts and at night they’d drive false spokes into the mortices and tie them down with strips of green hide and they’d drive wedges between the iron of the tires and the suncracked felloes. They wobbled on, the trace of their untrue labors like sidewinder tracks in the sand. The duledge pegs worked loose and dropped behind. Wheels began to break up.

[felloes: pieces of wood composing the rim of a wheel; duledge pegs: dowels joining the ends of the felloes that form the circle of a wheel]

07 August 2005

Carol Peters

       - to Robert Hass

I like blackberry
but not small shoulders
not small
no matter how true
listen how small objectifies
turns shoulders into a thing desired
all I want is desire

06 August 2005

an elegy by David St. John


Vivian St. John (1891-1974)

There is a train inside this iris:

You think I’m crazy, & like to say boyish
& outrageous things. No, there is

A train inside this iris.

It’s a child’s finger bearded in black banners.
A single window like a child’s nail,

A darkened porthole lit by the white, angular face

Of an old woman, or perhaps the boy beside her in the stuffy,
Hot compartment. Her hair is silver, & sweeps

Back off her forehead, onto her cold & bruised shoulders.

The prairies fail along Chicago. Past the five
Lakes. Into the black woods of her New York; & as I bend

Close above the iris, I see the train

Drive deep into the damp heart of its stem, & the gravel
Of the garden path

Cracks under my feet as I walk this long corridor

Of elms, arched
Like the ceiling of a French railway pier where a boy

With pale curls holding

A fresh iris is waving goodbye to a grandmother, gazing
A long time

Into the flower, as if he were looking some great

Distance, or down an empty garden path & he believes a man
Is walking toward him, working

Dull shears in one hand; & now believe me: The train

Is gone. The old woman is dead, & the boy. The iris curls,
On its stalk, in the shade

Of those elms: Where something like the icy & bitter fragrance

In the wake of a woman who’s just swept past you on her way

& you remain.

05 August 2005


heavens, the poem that appeared here has been accepted by a literary journal, the poet is astonished.

E. E. Cummings

[as found in Mark Strand and Eavan Boland's The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms]

Tulips and Chimneys


the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds
(also,with the church's protestant blessings
daughters,unscented shapeless spirited)
they believe in Christ and Longfellow,both dead,
are invariably interested in so many things—
at the present writing one still finds
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?
perhaps.      While permanent faces coyly bandy
scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D
. . . .the Cambridge ladies do not care,above
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of
sky lavender and cornerless,the
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy

Ralph Angel

[from Neither World, 1995, by Ralph Angel]

Breaking Rhythm

And then the head is at odds with the body.

And then the head strangles your way of thinking.

But don't get me wrong. It's not
that I'm saying life's taking us nowhere,

if I'm not saying yes, I'm a liar, a liar who does not
dwell in the shadow of his own home—

kind of your average, respectable, two-bit junkie
          who thinks he knows what he’s after,
and what he’s after is nightmare. Concussive. Brutal.
          The unending
ritual of eluding detection rising up and taking
shape with flaring nostrils and enormous hands,

and if it just happens to be pain that he’s in right now,
well, at least, pain is who he is for a while.

No big deal. Out loud
the pulse quickens and, very loudly, prolongs itself.

Anger slams the door on a mettlesome friend of a friend,

and then I am boredom paying for groceries,
most happy when you chew on my chin
in luxurious sweat, in our sexual oil,

exhaustion on the subway back to the city. The fact is
I can only hear one part of myself at a time.

And it’s late. And I’m tired. And it sounds like
all or nothing. A fistful of thirst and a cup of hot tea,

the silence shame gathers into no boundary.

The robe. The pocketknife. The loaves of bread.
Mud on the carpets. The shatter of leaves.

The wonder, the wonder, the wonder.

04 August 2005

seeing a fox

People tell me fox live in these here woods, but I'd not seen one until this week when I saw a dead one lying next to the side of the road. A beautiful yellow pointy-nosed fox. Not what I needed.

Adrienne Rich understands about fox:

I needed fox        Badly I needed
a vixen for the long time none had come near me
I needed recognition from a
triangulated face        burnt-yellow eyes
fronting the long body the fierce and sacrificial tail
I needed history of fox        briars of legend it was said she had
        run through
I was in want of fox

And the truth of briars she had to have run through
I craved to feel on her pelt        if my hands could even slide
past or her body slide between them        sharp truth
        distressing surfaces of fur
lacerated skin calling legend to account
a vixen's courage in vixen terms

For a human animal to call for help
on another animal
is the most riven the most revolted cry on earth
come a long way down
Go back far enough it means tearing and torn        endless
        and sudden
back far enough it blurts
into the birth-yell of the yet-to-be human child
pushed out of a female        the yet-to-be woman


03 August 2005

Fleda Brown on Verse Daily

If you are not already in the habit of reading Verse Daily, today's featured poem by Fleda Brown would be a good reason to begin.

02 August 2005

Charles Olson

[from The New American Poetry: 1945-1960 edited by Donald Allen]

The Lordly and Isolate Satyrs

The lordly and isolate Satyrs—look at them come in
on the left side of the beach
like a motorcycle club! And the handsomest of them,
the one who has a woman, driving that snazzy
             Wow, did you ever see even in a museum
such a collection of boddisatvahs, the way
they come up to their stop, each of them
as though it was a rudder
the way they have to sit above it
and come to a stop on it, the monumental solidity
of themselves, the Easter Island
they make of the beach, the Red-headed Men

                                            These are the Androgynes,
the Fathers behind the father, the Great Halves

Or as that one was, inside his pants, the Yiddish poet
a vegetarian. Or another—all in his mouth—a snarl
of the Sources. Or the one I loved most, who once,
once only, let go the pain, the night he got drunk,
and I put him to bed, and he said, Bad blood.

             Or the one who cracks and doesn’t know
that what he thinks are a thousand questions are suddenly
a thousand lumps thrown up where the cloaca
again has burst: one looks into the face and exactly as suddenly
it isn’t the large eyes and nose but the ridiculously small mouth
which you are looking down as one end of
                                                  —as the Snarled Man
is a monocyte.

             Hail the ambiguous Fathers, and look closely
at them, they are the unadmitted, the club of Themselves,
weary riders, but who sit upon the landscape as the Great
Stones. And only have fun among themselves. They are
the lonely ones

             Hail them, and watch out. The rest of us,
on the beach as we had previously known it, did not know
there was this left side. As they came riding in from the sea
—we did not notice them until they were already creating
the beach we had not known was there—but we assume
they came in from the sea. We assume that. We don’t know.

             In any case the whole sea was now a hemisphere,
and our eyes like half a fly’s, we saw twice as much. Every-
thing opened, even if the newcomers just sat, didn’t,
for an instant, pay us any attention. We were as we had been,
in that respect. We were as usual, the children were being fed pop
and potato chips, and everyone was sprawled as people are
on a beach. Something had happened but the change
wasn’t at all evident. A few drops of rain
would have made more of a disturbance.

             There we were. They, in occupation of the whole view
in front of us and off to the left where we were not used to look.
And we, watching them pant from their exertions, and talk to each
the one in the convertible the only one who seemed to be circulating.
And he was dressed in magnificent clothes, and the woman with him
a dazzling blond, the new dye making her hair a delicious
streaked ash. She was as distant as the others. She sat in her flesh

             These are our counterparts, the unknown ones.

They are here. We do not look upon them as invaders. Dimensionally

they are larger than we are—all but the woman. But we are not

small. We are as we are. We don’t even move, on the beach.

             It is a stasis. Across nothing at all we stare at them.
We can see what they are. They don’t notice us. They have merely
and suddenly moved in. They occupy our view. They are between us
and the ocean. And they have given us a whole new half of beach.

             As of this moment, there is nothing else to report.
It is Easter Island transplanted to us. With the sun, and a warm
summer day, and sails out on the harbor they’re here, the Con-
temporaries. They have come in.

             Except for the stirring of the leader, they are still
catching their breath. They are almost like scooters the way
they sit there, up a little, on their thing. It is as though
the extra effort of it tired them the most. Yet that just there
was where their weight and separateness—their immensities—
lay. Why they seem like boddisatvahs. The only thing one noticed
is the way their face breaks when they call across to each other.
Or actually speak quite quietly, not wasting breath. But the face
loses all containment, they are fifteen year old boys at the moment
they speak to each other. They are not gods. They are not even
They are doubles. They are only Source. When they act like us
they go to pieces. One notices then that their skin
is only creased like red-neck farmers. And that they are all
freckled. The red-headed people have the hardest time
to possess themselves. Is it because they were over-
fired? Or why—even to their beautiful women—do the red ones
have only that half of the weight?

             We look at them, and begin to know. We begin to see
who they are. We see why they are satyrs, and why one half
of the beach was unknown to us. And now that it is known,
now that the beach goes all the way to the headland we thought
we were huddling ourselves up against, it turns out it is the
same. It is beach. The Visitors—Resters—who, by being there,
made manifest what we had not known—that the beach fronted wholly
to the sea—have only done that, completed the beach.

                                                  The difference is
we are more on it. The beauty of the white of the sun’s light, the
blue the water is, and the sky, the movement on the painted lands-
cape, the boy-town the scene was, is now pierced with angels and
with fire. And winter’s ice shall be as brilliant in its time as
life truly is, as Nature is only the offerer, and it is we
who look to see what the beauty is.

                                            These visitors, now stirring
to advance, to go on wherever they do go restlessly never completing
their tour, going off on their motorcycles, each alone except for
the handsome one, isolate huge creatures wearing down nothing as
they go, their huge third leg like carborundum, only the vault
of their being taking rest, the awkward boddhas

                                                  We stay. And watch them
gather themselves up. We have no feeling except love. They are not
ours. They are of another name. These are what the gods are. They
look like us. They are only in all parts larger. But the size is
only different. The difference is, they are not here, they are not
on this beach in this sun which, tomorrow, when we come to swim,
will be another summer day. They can’t talk to us. We have no desire
to stop them any more than, as they made their camp, only possibly
the woman in the convertible one might have wanted to be familiar
with. The Leader was too much as they.

                                            They go. And the day

- 1956

01 August 2005

The tall camels of the spirit . . .

I need Richard Wilbur most days.

Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days

I've read three superb novels in the past three months:

- The Master by Colm Toibin
- Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
- Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham

The third I read this weekend because I found it on the New Books shelf at the Southern Pines Public Library and I couldn't resist. Funny how I'm not willing to buy a novel on a whim. Could it be because the blurbs are fake, the reviewers compromised by ego and paychecks, the publishers depraved? With novels I want to know they're great before I commit to putting the book on my shelf, and if they're great, I'll buy them and read them again for all the things I loved and all the things I missed. For example, one reviewer of says that the simulo called Marcus in the third story of Specimen Days has an Emily Dickinson poetry chip. I missed that and will be heading back to find it.

I've read all of Cunningham's novels. I even read The Hours twice because I hated it so much the first time, then listened to friends rave, and once I set Woolf aside and promised her she was not being diminished by the ostensible homage, I was able to appreciate the work. My favorite remains Home at the End of the World and this morning, Specimen Days is running second.

Since so many reviewers spoke slightingly of Specimen Days, I went back to learn what they didn't like. One said the third section "strains credibility." Thank heavens. If I wanted realism, I'd watch television. A few seemed bothered by their ability to figure out what Cunningham was doing, i.e., a novel composed of three separate stories linked in what one reviewer called "mysterious and significant" ways. One reviewer claimed that Cunningham was uncomfortable with Whitman. Another wished the Whitman quotes had been omitted. Reviewers paid by the word reduced the stories to plot points so that the cocktail-party goer wouldn't have to read the book at all to form an opinion, which is only one reason I barely skim reviews until after I've read the book.

I'm glad I read Specimen Days because I can't stop thinking about it. Cunningham is a prose stylist of such skill. He creates characters I fall in love with, here Lucas and Cat and the nameless boy and Simon and Catareen. He creates characters I can pity and despise and also long for like Cat's whitebread boyfriend. He creates expectations and turns them upside down: why Catareen is so green. Cunningham's story lines are rich, alive, compelling. I fall completely into his imaginary world, and when I reread, I try to figure out how he made it happen so smoothly. He can quote Whitman (or Dickinson or Woolf) to me any time he wants. I was fascinated by Cunningham's decisions of which Whitman to use where, which Whitman to quote over and over.

More than anything though, Cunningham has written here about apocalypse, about the collapse of American society, and by implication, the collapse of human society, the opposite of what Whitman wanted to believe possible. He writes movingly of the small lives of people in the midst of it, people who cannot affect anything beyond themselves but who can try to live short moments of their own lives with sincerity.

For you craft freaks, study Cunningham's narration of the first story. He sets himself in a close third person of a twelve-year-old boy who is not "normal." Every narrative paragraph is a minor triumph. Here's one that takes place while Lucas is walking Catherine home after Simon's wake:

She [Catherine] glanced at a place just above Lucas's head and settled herself, a small shifting within her dark dress. It seemed for a moment as if her dress, with its high collar, its whisper of hidden silk, had a separate life. It seemed as if Catherine, having briefly considered rising up out of her dress, had decided instead to remain, to give herself back to her clothes.

The first sentence is pure narrator. The second begins to slip into Lucas's perception of Catherine. The third is pure Lucas.

Okay, I found Marcus speaking Emily. "Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me." The simulos can't help quoting their poets because of their poetry chips. We all need poetry chips. Could I be James Merrill today?