A great icicle formed on the railing of my balcony
so I drew up close to the window and tried peering through the icicle,
hoping to trick myself into some interior vision,
but all I saw
was the man and woman in the room across the street
making their bed and laughing.
I stopped watching.
I forgot about Nudes.
I lived my life,
which felt like a switched-off TV.
Something had gone through me and out and I could not own it.
“No need now to tremble for the hard frost and the keen wind.
Emily does not feel them,”
wrote Charlotte the day after burying her sister.
Emily had shaken free.
A soul can do that.
Whether it goes to join Thou and sit on the porch for all eternity
enjoying jokes and kisses and beautiful cold spring evenings,
you and I will never know. But I can tell you what I saw.
Nude #13 arrived when I was not watching for it.
It came at night.
Very much like Nude #1.
And yet utterly different.
I saw a high hill and on it a form shaped against hard air.
It could have been just a pole with some old cloth attached,
but as I came closer
I saw it was a human body
trying to stand against winds so terrible that the flesh was blowing off the bones.
And there was no pain.
The wind
was cleansing the bones.
They stood forth silver and necessary.
It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all.
It walked out of the light.

-Anne Carson, the Canadian writer and poet, an excerpt from The Glass Essay. Carson’s poems remind me of Bach’s cello suites, each a constructed world unto itself, somehow autobiographical but larger than any one person’s experience. (For some reason the line breaks are refusing to format correctly. Follw the link above to see the complete poem in its proper form.)


throwing_the_elephant_large1“Many animals walk the earth. Only some of them are elephants. The rest of us must deal with them.

Some of us are gnus, and this is unfortunate unless one chooses the path of the gnu, and then there is certainly nothing wrong with it. There is a place in the universe for bovine creatures of various sizes who eat vegetables at lunchtime and do no violence to anyone. Good luck to them!

Others are lions, but it is a well-known fact that lions do not prevail over the average elephant. Lions are fierce and noble, but they too may be crushed under the elephantine foot. One may also be a little bird pecking away the insects that prey upon the elephant’s hide.  But what kind of living is that?

No, the way of dignity is first to recognize that one is not an elephant, and then to dedicate one’s life to serving and controlling these gigantic and powerful beasts.

It is possible. Their size is illusory. Their power is evanescent. They will all go to the elephant graveyard, eventually. In the meantime, they need our help.”

Stanley Bing’s hilarious book Throwing the Elephant is an essential business tome that riffs on Zen Buddhism and the “Art of Managing Up”. I thought I had mastered its lessons but I was laid off anyway. I chalk it up to the virtual collapse of my chosen industry rather than my lack of Zen skillz.

At Least

“I want to get up early one morning,
before sunrise. Before the birds, even.
I want to throw cold water on my face
and be at my work table
when the sky lightens and smoke
begins to rise from the chimneys
of the other houses.
I want to see the waves break
on this rocky beach, not just hear them
break as I did all night in my sleep.
I want to see again the ships
that pass through the strait from every
seafaring country in the world –
old, dirty freighters just barely moving along,
and the swift new cargo vessels
painted every color under the sun
that cut the water as they pass.
I want to keep an eye out for them.
And for the little boat the plies
the water between the ships
and the pilot station near the lighthouse.
I want to see them taking a man off the ship
and put another up on board.
I want to spend the day watching this happen
and reach my own conclusions.
I hate to seem greedy – I have so much
to be thankful for already.
But I want to get up early one morning, at least.
And go to my place with some coffee and wait.
Just wait, to see what’s going to happen.”

I don’t know if Raymond Carver wrote this poem after his cancer diagnosis (so brutally chronicled in What The Doctor Said), but it would seem likely. The audio version on Good Poems, read by Garrison Keillor, gets the reading just right.

photo by Bob Adelman

dressler1Beside him, Alice kneeled by the arm of the chair and seemed to try to see what he was seeing. Martin knew that she felt his irritation and, glancing down at her as she kneeled there, he had a moment of pity for the lobby orphan and of anger at himself. He let his hand drop over the side of the chair and touched her on the shoulder. Alice grew suddenly tense–turned to him with a startled, almost violent look–her shoulder trembled–and all at once Martin felt something pass over him, his heart beat fast, there was an inner bursting, and the entire lobby was transformed: he became aware of the soft underswish of petticoats, the faint creak of stays, the rub of silk stockings, a dark alluring undersound of silk and lace, a sudden dark flash of glances–and as they strode past or sank sighing into soft couches, the ladies of the lobby began shedding their long dresses, unlacing their tight corsets, flinging up their petticoats like bursts of snow, throwing back their heads and breathing sharply as veins beat in their necks, while Martin, rippling with terror, starrted to rise and knocked something over that began rolling away and away and away along the wavy pattern of the marble floor.

-Steven Millhauser, from Martin Dressler. This is Millhauser’s Pulitzer-winning creation, which to my mind is beyond all prizes that might have been bestowed: a beautiful, fantastical, sad, humane book that chronicles the rise of Martin from cigar-shop owner’s son to visionary world-builder.  I cannot agree with critics who claim it a disavowal of the “American Dream” (which has in any case become a universal one) but is does give one pause when considering Utopian visions.

Martin, of course, deals with his sudden, unexpected bout of lust in a characteristic manner–but for that, you’ll have to read the book yourself.

(photo by daralibrarian via flickr creative commons)

(photo by daralibrarian via flickr creative commons)

…like an old, ambiguous dream. You keep on moving, trying to slip through it. But even if you go to the ends of the earth, you won’t be able to escape it. Still, you have to go there–to the edge of the world. There’s something you can’t do unless you get there.”

-Haruki Murakami, from Kafka on the Shore

Murakami’s mind-bending fictions are as rewarding in their way as the great realistic novels. As the excerpt implies, there are truths one can only find on the fringes, where reality and metareality meet.


The Continuous Life

What of the neighborhood homes awash

In a silver light, of children crouched in the bushes,

Watching the grown-ups for signs of surrender,

Signs that the irregular pleasures of moving

From day to day, of being adrift on the swell of duty,

Have run their course? Oh parents, confess

To your little ones the night is a long way off

And your taste for the mundane grows; tell them

Your worship of household chores has barely begun;

Describe the beauty of shovels and rakes, brooms and mops;

Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,

That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;

Explain that you live between two great darks, the first

With an ending, the second without one, that the luckiest

Thing is having been born, that you live in a blur

Of hours and days, months and years, and believe

It has meaning, despite the occasional fear

You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing

To prove you existed. Tell the children to come inside,

That your search goes on for something you lost–a name,

A family album that fell from its own small matter

Into another, a piece of the dark that might have been yours,

You don’t really know. Say that each of you tries

To keep busy, learning to lean down close and hear

The careless breathing of earth and feel its available

Languor come over you, wave after wave, sending

Small tremors of love through your brief,

Undeniable selves, into your days, and beyond.

-Mark Strand, the title poem from his book.

This slim volume of poems is a source of endless nourishment and inspiration.

emerson“Why should we assume the faults of our friend, or wife, or father, or child, because they sit around our hearth, or are said to have the same blood? All men have my blood and I all men’s.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson: Self Reliance

Ralph seems like a tough, humorless old bastard. I wonder whether he was as upright as he wished us all to be?

veilofsnows2“Though once I was a singer of tales, they were not very good, for I always put too much of my heart in them, and never enough (I was told) of calculation. Where others would captivate and entertain, I would only sing a simple song that bent its head as if in prayer before time and truth and love. It was all I could do, and all I wanted to do, and I don’t know why. I followed nature’s wild rivers and God’s glittering lights, and they led me into a land where I was alone.

I was neither afraid of my solitude nor unhappy about it, but, lacking an audience, I could no longer be a singer of tales, and I became what I am now, which is I don’t exactly know what. Perhaps I am a kind of sentinel. My little house is high on a hillside overlooking the village, and from only mediocre height it has a commanding view of the great march-lands and the Veil of Snows. But though a sentinel, I do not merely watch. I wait, and I have formed an image of exactly what it is I hope to see. ”

-Mark Helprin, from The Veil of Snows

The third book in a trilogy reimagining the tale of Swan Lake.