Sunday, November 29, 2009

Poem of the Week: "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes," by Rainer Maria Rilke

This Friday is the birthday of my favorite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. I will probably post another Rilke poem on that day, but when it comes to an absolute master like Rilke, you can never start celebrating too early. So here's one of my favorite Rilke poems, "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes." It's a heartbreaking version of the classic Greek myth. It's so gorgeous and sad that I have admit I teared up while typing it out below.

Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes, by Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

That was the deep uncanny mine of souls.
Like veins of silver ore, they silently
moved through its massive darkness. Blood welled up
among the roots, on its way to the world of men,
and in the dark it looked as hard as stone.
Nothing else was red.

There were cliffs there,
and forests made of mist. There were bridges
spanning the void, and that great gray blind lake
which hung above its distant bottom
like the sky on a rainy day above a landscape.
And through the gentle, unresisting meadows
one pale path unrolled like a strip of cotton.

Down this path they were coming.

In front, the slender man in the blue cloak —
mute, impatient, looking straight ahead.
In large, greedy, unchewed bites his walk
devoured the path; his hands hung at his sides,
tight and heavy, out of the failing folds,
no longer conscious of the delicate lyre
which had grown into his left arm, like a slip
of roses grafted onto an olive tree.
His senses felt as though they were split in two:
his sight would race ahead of him like a dog,
stop, come back, then rushing off again
would stand, impatient, at the path’s next turn, —
but his hearing, like an odor, stayed behind.
Sometimes it seemed to him as though it reached
back to the footsteps of those other two
who were to follow him, up the long path home.
But then, once more, it was just his own steps’ echo,
or the wind inside his cloak, that made the sound.
He said to himself, they had to be behind him;
said it aloud and heard it fade away.
They had to be behind him, but their steps
were ominously soft. If only he could
turn around, just once (but looking back
would ruin this entire work, so near
completion), then he could not fail to see them,
those other two, who followed him so softly:

The god of speed and distant messages,
a traveler’s hood above his shining eyes,
his slender staff held out in front of him,
and little wings fluttering at his ankles;
and on his left arm, barely touching it: she.

A woman so loved that from one lyre there came
more lament than from all lamenting women;
that a whole world of lament arose, in which
all nature reappeared: forest and valley,
road and village, field and stream and animal;
and that around this lament-world, even as
around the other earth, a sun revolved
and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-
heaven, with its own, disfigured stars —:
So greatly was she loved.

But now she walked beside the graceful god,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.
She was deep within herself, like a woman heavy
with child, and did not see the man in front
or the path ascending steeply into life.
Deep within herself. Being dead
filled her beyond fulfillment. Like a fruit
suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,
she was filled with her vast death, which was so new,
she could not understand that it had happened.

She had come into a new virginity
and was untouchable; her sex had closed
like a young flower at nightfall, and her hands
had grown so unused to marriage that the god’s
infinitely gentle touch of guidance
hurt her, like an undesired kiss.

She was no longer that woman with blue eyes
who once had echoed through the poet’s songs,
no longer the wide couch’s scent and island,
and that man’s property no longer.

She was already loosened like long hair,
poured out like fallen rain,
shared like a limitless supply.

She was already root.

And when, abruptly,
the god put out his hand to stop her, saying,
with sorrow in his voice: He has turned around —,
she could not understand, and softly answered

Far away,
dark before the shining exit-gates,
someone or other stood, whose features were
unrecognizable. He stood and saw
how, on the strip of road among the meadows,
with a mournful look, the god of messages
silently turned to follow the small figure
already walking back along the path,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Remember last week when I mentioned I was excited to start reading Lev Grossman's new novel, The Magicans? Well, I only made it one-third of the way through before putting it down. It wasn't that I didn't like the book. While I was reading it, I actually enjoyed it a lot. But the second I set it down to do anything else, it completely left my mind. It wasn't calling to me from the table to be picked back up again, which is a pretty important part of reading.

I have a few theories about why the book wasn't ultimately doing it for me. I think these reasons are fairly universal in a lot of ways. They describe the reasons why I, and maybe you too, can't finish certain books. Here they are, in no particular order:

1) The writing wasn't anything special. The writing snob in me has become more and more interested in good prose the last few years. A lot of the books I liked best this year have been ones where the writer's prose has completely grabbed me. Grossman just doesn't have IT. The story was extremely imaginative. The writing wasn't. Grossman is obviously highly educated and loves literature, and I think sometimes both those things can be a negative when it comes to having an interesting writing voice. And I think that bothered me more than I care to admit.

2) The characters are kinda assholes. As a "serious" reader, I like to think that I don't have to like characters in order to love reading about them. Unfortunately, that concept wasn't working for me this time around. Almost every single character reminded me of the kind of person I really dislike both in the real world and in literature as a whole (overly confident know-it-alls, divas in training, the smart shy girl who is only shy the way girls in books are, etc).

3) It reminded me of my life a little too much. At first, this was one of the things I loved about the book. Even though it was about people going to college to learn magic, it more closely understood the actual feelings involved in going to college than any other book I've read. The main character, ridiculously intelligent and confident that he's always the smartest guy in the room, suddenly finds himself in a place where everyone is like that. They might even be better than him. This wraps up my first year college experience pretty nicely (insert being an experienced writer/reader for being really smart). But as the book continues and becomes more about emotional and academic failures, the more it began to get to me in a bad way. It's kind of the last thing I wanted to read while filling out grad school applications and working my minimum-wage, part-time job.

I wouldn't be surprised at all if I actually go back and finish this book in the next year. But right now, it's suffering from Wrong Place, Wrong Time Syndrome. The story is very imaginative and Grossman understands the weirdness of being between childhood and adulthood extremely well, but in the end, the book just wasn't doing it for me. Sorry.

I will still be posting in the next weeks with the usual Poems of the Week and lists and whatnot, but I am not picking up anything to read until my grad school apps are completely finished in the next two weeks, so there won't be any new reviews. I apologize.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope you all have a lovely Thanksgiving and a nice post-holiday weekend!

As a bonus, I'm including a link to the AV Club's List of their favorite books from the last decade. I adore the AV Club, but I was a little disappointed in this predictable, bleh list. But, in a note of excitement, guess what book made the cut? Gilead! Gilead is having a good year, what with making all sorts of best-of-the-decade lists and President Obama naming it as one of his favorite books. Despite my worry over the list's originality, it's still nice to get some more reading recommendations.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Seven Literary Things I'm Thankful for This Year

In honor of this week's Thanksgiving, I decided to do a list appropriate for the holiday. Here is my list of all the book-related things I am super-thankful for in the year 2009.

1. Marilynne Robinson - I'm not sure any other author's prose has had such an affect on me ever. Her writing is so perfect that it's devastating. Even better, Robinson's three novels - Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home - are some of the finest things I've ever had the pleasure to read. All of them are full of truth about life and cover so many important bases (life and death, tragedy and hope, guilt and redemption). Robinson's the first novelist since I was in high school to have such a profound affect on me as both a writer and a person.

2. The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman - No more needs to be said about this book than I've said here a million times before. I'm thankful this book came around at the time it did because it's entertaining and funny and bittersweet and everything I needed during an emotionally confusing time.

3. Anne Carson interacting with Anna Akhmatova in Carson's "TV Men: Akhmatova" - Probably the most important literary discovery I made this year was my newfound love for women writers. I spent years preferring the work of men, but for some reason, as I've gotten older and realized just how much being an independently-minded woman means to me, I've found that female writers are much closer to my own voice . Being able to read a poem where Anne Carson, contemporary critic and poet, carries on a kind of dialogue with Anna Akhmatova of what it means to be a female writer taking part in a pained society, really meant something to me.

4. This blog's first annual Fitzgerald Week - I don't know about you guys, but I had a blast with September's week-long celebration of my favorite writer's birthday. F. Scott Fitzgerald is The Shit, and I was sooo happy to celebrate his work with fellow readers.

5. Confessing my love for fanfiction - It's been a secret passion for a couple years now, but this summer I finally realized that I could admit I loved reading fanfiction, consequences be damned. I'll say it again: I love fanfiction, especially the Supernatural Brotherhood AU series I mentioned a few months ago.

6. Pete Dexter's prose in Spooner - I wouldn't call Spooner a favorite book necessarily, but man, was it a fun read. I'm extremely envious of writers like Dexter, who can manage to make you laugh and cry with a single simple sentence. He's not the master prose artist or truthteller that Marilynne Robinson is, but at the time I read it, Spooner really took me out of my own life, which is exactly what good fiction should do.

7. Philip Larkin's Collected Poems - How could I call myself a poetry fan without Larkin in my life all this time? After buying his Collected Poems on a lark (heh), I couldn't stop reading it. His stuff is simple and hardly says anything groundbreaking (unlike, say, Rilke, who is ridiculously original), but the way he presents his work through rhythm and meter and heightened language is extremely admirable. Plus, the man knows how to make an emotional gut-punch in his endings like no other.

I hope you all have a lovely Thanksgiving and are thankful for your own literary moments this year. Feel free to share them below!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Poem of the Week: "The Underground," by Seamus Heaney

It's amazing we've made it this far in our Poem of the Week posts without getting to Seamus Heaney. Heaney is one of my favorite poets, and probably the first poet whose work I read obsessively. I love Heaney's use of language to evoke mood. His poems are achingly beautiful in their depictions of his homeland, Ireland, and in their studies of the people and forces acting upon it. He's interested in how the historical past continues to affect the present, a favorite theme of mine.

I picked Heaney this week because of Notre Dame. Yesterday, I went to the last Notre Dame home football game (surprise, surprise, they lost), one of the few places in the world where having red hair isn't necessarily unique. It's weird to me that a school named after a famous Paris cathedral is so Irish-obsessed, but since I've always secretly wished I was Irish, I'm kind of okay with it. So, like any young poet who loves poems about bogs, hearing the word "Irish" made me think: SEAMUS HEANEY!

So here you go, a Seamus Heaney poem. This isn't necessarily one of my favorite Heaney poems, but I think the way it evokes a specific scene and mood is really cool. Also, the last two lines are fantastic. And if you like this poem, rest assured that there will definitely be more Heaney ahead.

The Underground, by Seamus Heaney

There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
You in your going-away coat speeding ahead
And me, then like a fleet god gaining
Upon you before you turned to a reed

Or some new white flower japped with crimson
As the coat flapped wild and button after button
Sprang off and fell in a trail
Between the Underground and the Albert Hall.

Honeymooning, mooning around, late for the Proms,
Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons

To end up in a draughty lamplit station
After the trains have gone, the wet track
Barred and tensed as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The November 20th Wish List

This is a new feature here on Not Your Mama's Bookshelf. Every few weeks, some books catch my eye that I want to purchase and read right away, but which have to be put on the back burner due to other concerns. So, I thought I'd include those books in a bi- or tri-weekly list (depending on how much is going on at the time). Here's the first entry!

Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett - I keep seeing this novel referenced in reviews of my favorite so-bad-it's-good TV show, Supernatural, which is tackling the Apocalypse this season. Plus, we all know my crazy-love for Gaiman right now, so don't be surprised if I'm getting my hands on this in the next few months...

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross - This long nonfiction book got absolutely glowing reviews when it came out a couple years ago. It's a history and listener's guide to twentieth century classical music, which just so happens to be my most favorite kind of music. This seems like it might be a good read for the January doldrums.

Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving - This is Irving's new book, and even though Irving's last few books have been a little disappointing, I still think he's one of the best contemporary storyteller in the U.S. I hope to get to this sooner or later...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Favorite Passages: War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

I know, I know. Really? We're mentioning War and Peace again? But I promise there's a reason for the post today. Because this week marks the one year anniversary of my falling in love with War and Peace! About this time last year, I went from being a Tolstoy-hater of the first degree to suddenly being in love with every single aspect of his magnum opus, even the philosophy I vehemently disagree with the and the moments that abandon characters I love. So of course, I needed to make War and Peace the topic of this week's Favorite Passage.

It's hard to pick just one great passage from a book that tackles nearly every single theme ever found in literature, but I went with my gut and picked this one. This is a brief moment between our two main characters (well, as close as you can get to having main characters in a book rumored to contain 500 distinct people), Pierre and Prince Andrei. Andrei's heart has recently been broken by Natasha Rostova, who has had a disasterous flirtation with Anatole Kuragin, Pierre's brother-in-law. This moment carries, in my opinion, the single best sentence in the novel - the one where Prince Andrei smiles like his horribly unpleasant father. It's such a great way of showing that despite the many transformations we see in Andrei, at the root of it, he's a victim of his own upbringing and social class just like everyone else. Tolstoy is a genius, and I think we see that in the pained dialogue between these two friends.

From War and Peace (Book Eight), by Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude:

Pierre saw that Prince Andrei was going to speak of Natasha, and his broad face expressed pity and sympathy. This expression irritated Prince Andrei, and in a determined, ringing, and unpleasant tone he continued.

"I have received a refusal from Countess Rostova and have heard reports of your brother-in-law having sought her hand, or something of that kind. Is that true?"

"Both true and untrue," Pierre began; but Prince Andrei interrupted him.

"Here are her letters and her portrait," said he.

He took the packet from the table and handed it to Pierre.

"Give this to the countess...if you see her."

"She is very ill," said Pierre.

"Then she is here still?" said Prince Andrei. "And Prince Kuragin?" he added quickly.

"He left long ago. She has been at death's door."

"I much regret her illness," said Prince Andrei; and he smiled like his father, coldly, maliciously, and unpleasantly.

"So Monsieur Kuragin has not honored Countess Rostova with his hand?" said Prince Andrei, and he snorted several times.

"He could not marry, for he was married already," said Pierre.

Prince Andrei laughed disagreeably, again reminding one of his father.

"And where is your brother-in-law now, if I may ask?" he said.

"He has gone to Peters...But I don't know," said Pierre.

"Well, it doesn't matter," said Prince Andrei. "Tell Countess Rostova that she was and is perfectly free and that I wish her all that is good."

Pierre took the packet. Prince Andrei , as if trying to remember whether he had something more to say, or waiting to see if Pierre would say anything, looked fixedly at him.

"I say, do you remember our discussion in Petersburg?" asked Pierre, "about..."

"Yes," returned Prince Andrei hastily. "I said that a fallen woman should be forgiven, but I didn't say I could forgive her. I can't."

"But can this be compared...?" said Pierre.

Prince Andrei interrupted him and cried sharply: "Yes, ask her hand again, be magnanimous, and so on?...Yes that would be very noble, but I am unable to follow in that gentleman's footsteps. If you wish to be my friend, never speak to me of that...of all that! Well, good-by. So you'll give her the packet?"

Pierre left the room and went to the old prince [Prince Andrei's father] and Princess Mary.

The old man seemed livelier than usual. Princess Mary was the same as always, but beneath her sympathy for her brother, Pierre noticed her satisfaction that the engagement had been broken off. Looking at them, Pierre realized what contempt and animosity they all felt for the Rostovs, and that it was impossible in their presence to mention the name of her who could give up Prince Andrei for anyone else.

After dinner the talk turned on the war, the approach of which was becoming evident. Prince Andrei talked incessantly, arguing now with his father, now with the Swiss tutor Desalles, and showing an unnatural animation, the cause of which Pierre so well understood.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Creepy Coraline

I decided to pick up a copy of Neil Gaiman's much-loved children's book, Coraline, based on two things: 1) He wrote The Graveyard Book, and you all know how I feel about TGB, and 2) my brother recently saw the critically-honored movie version of the book and highly recommended it. I am one of those people who prefers to read the book before a film has a chance to ruin my views on it, so I went ahead and got to the book so I could see the movie soon.

Coraline did not disappoint. It was exciting and packed with intense images. The heroine was a great character, very real and full of a child's misguided courage. And Gaiman's writing, as always, was full of fine moments. But here's the thing with Coraline: It's terrifying.

I'm not kidding. This has got to be one of the scariest books I have ever read. This is the stuff of my worst nightmares - lumpy dough versions of people, rats, bugs, blood, and violence. Some of the book's visuals (and even a few of its illustrations, done by Dave McKean, who often works with Gaiman) made my blood run completely cold. The plot of the book is pretty simple: Coraline finds a door in her family's flat that leads to a world that is like hers, but different. For example, her parents have been replaced by an "other mother" and "other father," figures with buttons for eyes who become scarier and scarier as the book goes on. Eventually, Coraline is completely trapped in this world and has to save the souls of her parents and three ghost children in order to escape. She does so, and with finesse, but things aren't necessarily all hunky-dory by the book's end.

I liked Coraline. It was a brief, entertaining read. But holy crap, I will not be able to get some of this stuff out of my head for awhile. Remember my list at Halloween about good scary reads? This would definitely make the cut. Yikes!

What's Next: Lev Grossman's The Magicians, which got some great reviews and is being called a "grown-up's Harry Potter." I'm excited to start it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Critic Meets the Poet: Anne Carson

I admit I'm not totally sure what to make of Anne Carson's book of poems and essays, Men in the Off Hours. I think Carson is a genius, and the way she plays with the ideas of poetry and criticism inspires me to think outside the box about my own work. But sometimes, her stuff is so heavy in allusion and wit that it takes away from the kind of emotionally compelling work I look for in other poets. Sometimes, it feels like Carson is a little too smart for her own good.

But even as I say that, I admit that I really, really liked this book. Some of the pieces in it were nothing short of amazing, with the way Carson builds on layers of meaning and language. The standouts in this collection are the long poem series. One, "Hopper: Confessions," was made up of 10 voice pieces centered around his artwork. Some of the lines in this series were quite wonderful and often surprising. Also, the entire set reminded me of going to the Indianapolis Museum of Art last winter with a good friend. The museum had a series of Edward Hopper's sketches for a single painting, so that you could see the piece build and change with time. The way these poems moved around his subjects reminded me of that exhibit.

The best poems in this collection come from the book's largest section, entitled TV Men. These long poems were centered around historic literary subjects. Many were about the subjects' lives but told through the perspective of someone intent on filming said lives. These poems were strange and extremely allusion-heavy (it helped to know a little about the subjects before reading the poem), but they were often beautifully written, addressing questions about humanity and love, politics and art. "Tolstoy" perfectly captured the often-contradictory strings in the writer's life, and as I mentioned in yesterday's Poem of the Week entry, Carson obviously struggles in understanding the man. The TV Men: Lazarus poems were also fantastic, with probably the best lines in the entire book.

But for me, the real standout was the TV Men: Akhmatova series. Anna Akhmatova, a Russian poet who struggled for artisitic control with the Soviet government, is a complicated figure, and Carson turns her into this beautifully complex, heartbreakingly tragic heroine. I read the "Akhmatova" poems at a busy hamburger joint during my work lunchbreak. It was strange balancing these sad, personal poems with the hubbub around me, but the effect only added to the idea of chaos that poor Akhmatova dealt with through her entire life. She was a writer haunted by loss and government pressure, and Carson really seems to "get" her. It was awesome to see such understanding between two important, hyper-intelligent female poets from opposite sides of the world, of the century.

That's what I like about Anne Carson. As a literary critic, she often cannot separate her work from her love for the work of others. For this reason, her poems become extremely personal essays about what it means to worship at the literary altar of writers as petty and complicated as ourselves.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Poem of the Week: "Lazarus (1st Draft)," by Anne Carson

This weekend, I finished Anne Carson's collection of poems and essays, Men in the Off Hours. I'll do a full write-up on it tomorrow, when I've had time to gather my thoughts on these often strange, often beautiful, extremely allusion-heavy works. This poem, "Lazarus (1st Draft)," is one of my favorite standalone pieces in the book. The figure of Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead, repeats often through the book, but this is his first appearance. Probably the reason I love this poem so much is because it casually mentions Prince Andrei, my beloved philosopher/soldier/man-about-town from War and Peace. Carson clearly loves and struggles with Tolstoy as much as I do, which is just one of the many things I love about her as both a critic and a poet.

Lazarus (1st Draft), by Anne Carson

Inside the rock on which we live, another rock.
So they believe.
What is a Lamb of God? People use this phrase.
I don't know.
I watch my sister, fingers straying absently about her mustache,
no help there.
Leaves stir through the house like souls, they stream
from the porch,
catch in the speaking holes, glow and are gone.
what Prince Andrei said when they told him Moscow had burnt
right down to the ground.
He said Really?
A man who had been to the war! had seen our lives are just blind arrows flying.
There he sat
on his cot all the same, trying to get the string to the bowhorn.
Actions go on in us,
nothing else goes on. While a blurred and breathless hour
repeats, repeats.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Favorite Passages: The Road Back, by Erich Maria Remarque

If you were to ask me who I thought the single most underrated writer of all time was, my answer would be Erich Maria Remarque. Sure, his novel All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the most famous anti-war books of all time. But as a writer, he is extremely overlooked. He wrote at least ten other novels besides All Quiet, and they are nearly all out of print in America. In Germany, his home country, it's still possible to find a Remarque novel floating around, but over here, it's as if he was never more than a one-hit wonder.

Well, I won't stand for it. Remarque is one of my favorite novelists, and although all his work starts to look the same after awhile (all of it centers around the effects of the world wars for Germans), all his books are startlingly beautiful. They have the thinnest of plots, but the characters are all lovingly created. Most importantly, Remarque fully understands and sympathizes with the inability of the human mind to deal with tragedy. Nearly all his characters are dealing with some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, struggling to maintain connections with other people after losing so much. His books are extremely well-built, both emotionally and physically, with life building up to a character's breaking point. He's a master of internal turmoil.

My favorite Remarque novel is The Road Back. Written only a year after All Quiet, it is often called a "sequel" to that book (and it's true that most of All Quiet's characters get name-checked in the novel). The Road Back takes place as World War I comes to a close, as the narrator, Ernst, and his friends struggle to re-adjust to society. They feel alienated from their government, their families, and their hometowns. Unable to find work and feeling as though their country betyrayed them, they cannot cope with the new world order in Germany. The book is extremely haunting. I first read it in high school, and I still remember sitting on my living room couch, crying fiercely through the last 50 pages or so. And even though it's a sad book, it completely explains what happened to Germany between the world wars, leading to the rise of Hitler. In fact, Remarque's early novels were so disillusioned with Germany and the rise of fringe nationalist political parties, that the Nazis made sure all his books were destroyed when they came to power.

This passage from the book comes towards the very beginning, before Ernst truly learns the meaning of the word "jaded." Ernst and his fellow soldiers are headed on the long path home as the war comes to a close. Remarque often uses the beauty of nature to counteract the horror of uprooted humanity, and this passage displays how Ernst finds peace in his surroundings even as the dead and dying are all around him.

From The Road Back, by Erich Maria Remarque
Translated by A.W. Wheen:

As I marched on with pack and lowered head, by the side of the road I see an image of bright, silken trees reflected in the pools of rain. In these occasional mirrors they are displayed clearer than in reality. They get another light and in another way. Embedded there in the brown earth lies a span of sky, trees, depths and clearness. Suddenly I shiver. For the first time in many years I feel again that something is still beautiful, that this in all its simplicity is beautiful and pure, this image in the water pool before me - and in this thrill my heart leaps up. For a moment all that other falls away, and now, for the first time, I feel it; I see it; I comprehend it fully: Peace. The weight that nothing eased before, now lifts at last. Something strange, something new flies up, a dove, a white dove. --Trembling horizon, tremulous expectancy, first glimpse, presentiment, hope, exaltation, imminence: Peace.

Sudden panic, and I look around. There behind me on the stretchers my comrades are now lying and still they call. It is peace, yet they must die. But I, I am trembling with joy and am not ashamed. --And that is odd.

Because none can ever wholly feel what another suffers - is that the reason why wars perpetually occur?

That last line is probably one of my favorite in all of literature. I hope you might all feel brave enough to check out Remarque sometime. He never disappoints. What he wrote about really mattered, and not a lot of writers can say that.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Poem of the Week: "Meditation at Lagunitas," by Robert Hass

For the last month or so, I've been meaning to use this poem as my Poem of the Week. Robert Hass's "Meditation at Lagunitas" is definitely in my list of top five favorite poems. It starts out really highbrow and a little hard to understand, but those last eight lines are killer. Of all the poems I have ever read (including Larkin's "Talking in Bed," which I included a few weeks ago along with a discussion about the amazingness of its ending), the final line of this poem is hands-down my favorite final line of poetry EVER. And this is definitely a poem to read aloud, so that last line has even more beauty and impact. In fact, the first time I ever heard this poem, a professor was reading it to our class. And the way he read it runs through my mind every time I see it.

Meditation at Lagunitas, by Robert Hass

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island minnows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

An Open Letter to Barbara Kingsolver

Dear Barbara Kingsolver,

I think you are, without a doubt, one of the best living American writers. I am super-excited about your new novel, The Lacuna, which I plan to buy as a present to myself as soon as my grad school applications are finished later this month. Also, we share the same alma mater, which is cool. But I have a request - nay, a suggestion! - to make.

Bring back Taylor and Turtle and Jax and the gang. The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven are two of my favorite novels, and I miss your versions of the American West and nontraditional families. More importantly, the characters from these books are truly fantastic. I asked Taylor Greer to fight zombies with me. And Jax Thibodeaux? I'm in love with the man. These books and these characters have felt like a part of my life since I first read them in high school. Every couple years, I return to them so I can be part of the universe again. But you know what? Two is nice, but THREE IS BETTER!

That's right. For years, I have been secretly wishing and hoping and praying that maybe, just maybe, you'd be interested in writing a third book about these people. I would love to see how Jax and Taylor are adjusting to the possible married life, or how Turtle is handling the shift between her real family and her adopted family. Or maybe we could see what LuAnn is up to, or Alice? I know you've gotten away from these early family-centered novels to explore more political work. You are very interested in the environment, which is great, but is there anyway you could maybe mix that interest in with a plotline involving Jax? Also, you could get some politics into such a book if you make it take place in Jax's hometown of New Orleans. Imagine a book where Jax returns there after the hurricane and sees his estranged family. That is a book I would seriously sit in line for days to buy, a book I'd read over and over again.

This is all just a possibility. As a writer, it would get really old to have to keep returning to old creations. But I never felt like Taylor, Jax, and Turtle's story was really finished. Sure, I have my own ideas about what happens to them after Pigs in Heaven ends. I lay in bed at night and fall asleep to the plotlines I create for these kick-ass characters. So maybe, just maybe, you might think about a Taylor Greer trilogy....

Because you know what? For some reason, no one is writing Bean Trees/Pigs in Heaven fanfiction.

Love, Beth

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Poem of the Week: "We Never Know," by Yusef Komunyakaa

Yusef Komunyakaa is probably the first poet I really remember making me pause and think. I had always breezed through poetry in my teen years, not paying any attention to them. Then, in my first year of college, I was introduced to Yusef Komunyakaa, and suddenly I could no longer toss poems away as useless. His book Dien Cai Dau, about his experiences in the Vietnam War, is full of tragedy and meaning and loss. It's a great introduction to poetry in that it concentrates on a single topic but has surprising ruminations and gorgeous lines. It's a fantastic book that I'd recommend to anyone. This poem, one of the book's shortest, is also one of it's most powerful. "We Never Know" is the poem that made me realize that even the slightest of poetry could contain the same emotional capacity as a 400-page novel. The awesome thing about poetry is that it cares as much for what goes unsaid as it does it what's written. This poem is the perfect example of that power of suggestion.

We Never Know, by Yusef Komunyakaa

He danced with tall grass
for a moment, like he was swaying
with a woman. Our gun barrels
glowed white-hot.
When I got to him,
a blue halo
of flies had already claimed him.
I pulled the crumpled photograph
from his fingers.
There's no other way
to say this: I fell in love.
The morning cleared again,
except for a distant mortar
& somewhere choppers taking off.
I slid the wallet into his pocket
& turned him over, so he wouldn't be
kissing the ground.