Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Rereading

Lately I’ve been rereading Yeats, and once again thinking that there is no reading like rereading. I ought to do even more rereading, particularly of current books, because it is in rereading that a story or poem reveals itself—and tells us the extent of its merit. Most reviewers know only the first cursory passage through a work when they pen a review; a reader can know more. Though life is short and art long, we ought to reread often, because it is there that we “dive,” as Melville would say.

I’m finding that Yeats stands up. He manages to speak to me differently at every age. Right now I am touched by some of the youthful poems—they speak so eloquently of dreamy youth and aspiration—but it is the power of the old man Yeats that shakes me, and his determination to live to the end, to make first-rate art until the end of making. His creation of an alternate universe for himself seems far more sensible as a poet’s tool than it did when I was younger.

While I tend to read a lot of older writers again and again and again—a thing that began with my first-grade obsession with Lewis Carroll—there are few contemporaries that I’ve treated that way. If I try to pick out what books and stories and poems by living authors that I’ve read for a second or third time in the course of 2006, I can’t recall very many: poems in Catching Light by Kathryn Stripling Byer and Philokalia by Scott Cairns; Christopher Logue’s War Music; various essays in Seamus Heaney’s Finders Keepers; the story, “Creation,” by Jeffrey Ford; the delicious fairy tale, Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones, as well as a Chrestomanci story or two; a translation of Leena Krohn’s Tainaron: Mail from Another City; various poems and stories by writers who are penpals. No doubt there are others that don’t immediately jump to mind, but what I remember is more first-time reads. Reading to children makes me reread living authors, I see, and it seems that I may reread poetry by them more often than prose.

Perhaps next year I should reread more books by living authors. And it would be interesting to collect a list of what other people find satisfying as rereads by contemporaries . . .

***
The photograph is courtesy of www.sxc.hu and Nils Thingvall of Orlando, Florida. “Readers Under Diamonds” is a picture of "readers in the Seattle Public Library under an expanse of diamond-shaped windows."

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Thanksgiving & the Great Big Little Aphorism Birthday Contest

4 salt tears for Thanksgiving, that very American holiday

* a little salt tear for Governor Bradford's wife, Dorothy, leaping from the Mayflower to her death in the icy waters of the bay--her only child 3,000 miles off, and she caught between the endless bitter brine and a rime-clad shore.

* another for The Starving Time that Dorothy Bradford escaped by death

* one for the man Governor Bradford called the instrument of God, Squanto--by a succession of surprising events becoming the right man in the very right place at the very right time--having learned English and become a Christian after being captured and sold in the Old World, and having returned to the very shore where the Puritans would land, far from their intended destination point

* and one last tear for the astonishing fact of a Pilgrim people who appeared, to our knowing modern eyes, to have so little and yet to thank so very much.

*******

Just arrived back home from Thanksgiving dinner in Esperance--a lovely frolic--and found a note from the judge, Philip Lee Williams, in my mailbox. And yes, he has chosen a winner, who needs to send me a mailing address.

Here's what he says about his pick:"I've read through all the new aphorisms with a lot of pleasure and even glee. They warn of fame and failure in equal amounts, and since we all fall somewhere between the two, most of us are fine targets. But I'll have to say my pick for winner goes to Clare D. for: 'Sadness is best confined to small boxes so it may be consigned to the dustiest attic of memory.' That has the kind of visual strength that makes an aphorism memorable. My attic is full of such boxes, but they usually stay shut and insignificant. Brava to Clare for the winning entry!"

Thank you to Phil! His e-home is: http://www.philipleewilliams.com/. Although he is primarily a writer and poet, he also composes music and--though I don't see it on the website--has been known to sculpt in alabaster.

Here are the aphorisms that brought him "pleasure and even glee," in the order that they were submitted:

*a man with teenage children never again trusts to his own abilities. anonymous

*a happy life requires two underlying passions; one for an idea and one for another person. one passion will only leave you bitter. anonymous

*The sculptor is a Materialist with a soul. Joy In Life

*Fatness is the only personal failing that can be objectively measured. No one can say quantitatively how greedy or proud or lazy you are. But any scale can say within a pound how little regard society holds for you. anonymous

*Nothing is so dangerous as a well wrought aphorism. anonymous

*Don't knock what's not hollow. Archbold

*Deceit's redemption resides in truth. Jeffrey in Cullowhee

*Nothing exceeds like excess. Lori Witzel

*A bird in the hand is worth a bandage on the thumb. Lori Witzel

*Every man secretly wishes for a troublesome wife upon which to blame his failings. anonymous

*The desire of every anonymous person is fame. The desire of every famous person is wealth. The desire of every wealthy person is anonymity. anonymous

*Sadness is best confined in small boxes so it may be consigned to the dustiest attic of memory. Clare D.

& a final one submitted today, after the Thanksgiving feast--

*Gluttony is no reflection of gratitude. anonymous

***
I'm very glad that I handed off the judging, because I am free to enjoy and be glad for all these aphorisms and writers of aphorisms--and so, on Thankgiving, I will simply say that I am giving you each a little bit of thanks.

***
The photograph of fall leaves is courtesy of www.sxc.hu/ and photographer Claudia Meyer of St. Germain en Laye, France.

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Free books & birthdays, trala!

I’m racking up yet another dratted birthday on the 22nd—sometimes I am a Turkey Day Woman (you knew, you knew) but not this year, not quite—and feel like giving somebody a present. I’ll mail you or a person you like copies of my two barely-out paperback Firebird books, signed and wrapped by me in either birthday paper or Christmas paper, if you take home the laurel on a teensy, bitty, wee morsel of a contest. I’ll ask a novelist friend to judge; since they’re involved in the long, surely my pennish pals will be positively slavering to snap up the short.

Because I’m going to make it an aphorism contest.

THE GREAT BIG LITTLE APHORISM BIRTHDAY CONTEST Feel free to take a look at my aphorisms (go chutes and ladders down the page till you find some, all numbered so you can find a way through the labyrinth) and better them. So far I have done fat people (seemed a topic of the moment, but it made readers very skittish), tourists (obvious subject in Cooperstown), and poetry (the great and passionate form.) Right now I can’t decide what I feel like doing next. God is daunting. Chickens are frivolous but loom large. Poetry aphorisms are still popping into my head.

You may seize hold of some bizarre, delicate, wild, or orderly topic of your own. Reveal your inner maenad or show nothing but proper reticence. Do what you like, frolic and gambol as you may. Write one or a flood. End of the contest is midnight the 22nd. Please post any aphorism entries in the Comments (and thanks to Susanna for asking where.)

Update: The judge is Philip Lee Williams, author of 11 novels and 2 books of nonfiction and innumerable poems. Don’t let that scare you; we've been pen pals for a while, and I can certify that he’s a very sweet man, capable of silliness! I do hope we get some silliness along the way. And you can see his brand new nonfiction book right here. Dawning idea: I bet that would make the perfect illuminated present for somebody you know…

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Sticks

Sticks.
Favorite silly quote of the week
My children are 1/16th Akwesasne Mohawk, and so they have a special interest when Iroquois pop up in schoolwork.
The Daddy, asking study sheet questions: How did joining the Iroquois League help the Mohawks?
N, age 9: Better technology.
D: How’s that?
N: Sharper sticks.
***
The Akwesasne Mohawks did not join. They were fire-spirited Iroquois, once upon a time, and did not care for nation-building. But they liked sharp sticks.

More sticks.
One of my favorite North Carolina artists is the withie-man, Patrick Dougherty. Evidently he was inspired by the forests around Southern Pines, where he grew up. They strike me as very "sticky" places. I've seen some of his creations in Raleigh and Carrboro. I just had a pleasant little fantasy that he came to visit and made us a little castle and village in the backyard. Then there would be four castles in Cooperstown. If you don’t know his magic cities and withie gyres and leaning towers, go indulge your wanderlust. The picture is borrowed from his sticky site, www.stickwork.net/.

***


Sticks to come.
Next week the gigantic ash tree comes down. Sad for the ash, sad for the dratted old pocketbook. I’ll have to write a poem for the extravagant creature. Three times it dropped an enormous branch on the lawn, one filling up the entire back yard. A fourth time it speared a large branch through the driver’s side of the windshield, about thirty seconds after I paused at the back door, thinking the day a bit windy. Life is so full of near misses: I'm very glad not to have been an ash-tree's shish kabob. I’d like to make a Dougherty house out of its no-doubt astonishing remains, but I’m only 5’3” and have nary a stick of scaffolding.

By stick, by stone, I am surprised!
I have been elevated! Poet and web-dreamer Michael Burch (another Southerner, by the by) wrote me that I am now not only a “Spotlight” poet for the month but also one of the permanently “featured” poets on The HyperTexts. Thanks, Mike!

Last stick
N’s silly 4th-grade joke, acquired at summer camp: What’s brown and sticky? A stick.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Stars & ice, with Postscript

Snowflakes in the hair: so very romantic, six months straight. Or seven, or eight. Fall swept by too quickly. The last colored leaves are a transparent, thin red that lets the sun right through.

Hard for a Southerner not to feel a tinge mournful by the fall's fifth or sixth light snow. This year I missed the yellow wood that materializes in Cooper Park. All those half-invisible trees become wholly visible in October. But this year the leaves were not so bright and fell early. I wished for the yellow wood; I wished for the bright yellow pools that lie around the trees on emerald grass. The weird autumn twilight this far north goes straight to the heart, a message one can't help reading.


Here's a little poem I wrote long ago, about a young woman who lived on the shores of Mirror Lake, Lake Placid. She and her boyfriend lived on either side of the lake. One evening they told her family that they were going to marry. Then they crossed the lake to tell his family the news. As they returned, she fell through the ice.

The story felt entirely kindred to me, back then. I tried to write this poem many times. Once I typed my long hair around the platen* of my electric typewriter (so long ago!) when I tried to write it. Eventually it emerged very easily. But of course it never matched the dream in my head.

Now I live by an often-frozen lake. Last year Susquehanna the chocolate lab fell through the ice while walking with my husband (2:00 a. m., naturally.) Suppose I ought to write one for her as well!


Snow House Stories
To Michael


Our district's bedtime tales of snow are cruel.
The steps of toddlers, moving back and forth
Between two doors, the sled runs to a pond.

At Mirror Lake a woman slipped through ice
And drank the cold. In blue twilight she saw
Lucent souls of lost unlucky children

Suspended in the ice, or floating past
In sodden hoods and gowns, unharmed by smiles
Of pike. Claire spoke; then she forgot all words.

The man detected nothing. Logged, his sleeve
Now strained in silence that the blackbirds fled.
He felt the world attending as he fished.

Next he could feel the stars kneel at his back.
And he could feel the planets stare to think.
Then particles were getting in his eyes.

And afterward he proved the orphic voice
To be a kind of choking, stop and start.
The leastmost tendril crept across his wrist.

She didn't want to come. She didn't want
That birth. Claire wanted nothing. Still, she was
Upraised by hair from water's placid womb.

It seemed there was no link with nature's dark.
And after all, she lived. The neighbors sprang
From shining homes to help him lift her forth.

The snow kept on, tireless, wide spaced as stars.


From Claire (Louisiana State University Press, 2003); originally published in Carolina Quarterly

Slip down the page for the last batch of poetry aphorisms. Perhaps I'm done with those. Thanks to everybody who let me know the ones they liked best--and any more comments in that line will be welcome and interesting to me. And thanks to all for reading.

CREDITS: Chris LaCroix of London, Ontario took the picture above, "Ice shots on Lake Erie 3." He says: "These are shots of ice formations, taken about 300 yards out from shore on Lake Erie at Port Stanley, Ontario." Thanks to him and www.sxc.hu/.

****************
I’m a ‘Spotlight’ poet for the second time at The HyperTexts. This means that Mike Burch says some attractive things about my poems on the Current and Back Issues page, and that Spotlight links there and on the home page will take the reader to a group of my poems, most already published elsewhere. You can see a goodly selection of other poets who like to fool with form under the “Contemporary Poets” section on the home page. Other interesting things appear as well—poets of the Holocaust, poetry in translation, and more. Links to poems by the editors appear at the foot.

*Thanks to my dear mother for writing me that "a typewriter has a platen, not a patten." I thought it wasn't quite right, but unfortunately there are sooo many people on the web who think that it is a patten that I figured they were right. Next time, the OED.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Talk about forgetful! Light must be shed--

Paperback pub date:
November 2

The Curse of the Raven Mocker
(Firebird)
Ingledove
(Firebird)

This lamp is the baby of the fountain in the preceding picture and is also courtesy of Laura Murphy Frankstone. Last of the poetry aphorisms are below, happy in the fountain's company...

Palace Aphorisms nos. 66-88: in which I hog out on poetry

Palace Aphorism no. 88

It is better to clip bad poetry into pieces than to clip prose into pieces called poems.

Aphorism no. 87, or Why Shakespeare was Shakespeare

Whatever you are as a poet, that is the norm and the daily bread you eat—even for Shakespeare, even for Milton and Dante and Homer.

Aphorism no. 86, or the Classical Caddy Aphorism

Poetry is a muddy girl with leaves in her hair, shouting her betrayal from the dark side of the moon, and it is the scribble of blood taken by sand, next to the fallen hoplite: both these, neither, and more.

ILLUSTRATION CREDIT: Fountain detail, Place de la Concorde, by permission of Laura Murphy Frankstone and Laurelines. This is the final image from Laura's month of sketching in Paris.

Aphorism no. 85

The forgotten word that is nagging you—the one that you can’t quite remember and catch—one day a poem will restore it.

Aphorism no. 84

Time is crueler and more ruthless to bad poetry than to badness in any other form of art.

Aphorism no. 83

The source of power in poetry lies in the unsaid; the unsaid never lies.

Aphorism no. 82: the Academic Male Poet aphorism

No more little men’s little poems about the paper over morning coffee, depression, and a dog!

Aphorism no. 81: the Lee & After aphorism

The seeds of poems lie in the pockets of dead soldiers, watered by tears, and when spring finally comes the kernels swell and sprout and make the fields green.

Aphorism no. 80: the Corset

It is impossible for a poet to be free who has never worn the elegant, erotic, restrictive straitjacket of form.

Aphorism no. 79: the Great Vacillation

The early poems of Yeats are lithe young girls, standing among roses, half obscured by leaf and petal—who will shelter them from the brutal, disastrous glory of the late poems?

Aphorism no. 78: the Emperor

Poets who never submit to formal verse are born naked like us but never wear clothes.

Aphorism no. 77

In the Golden Age of nanobot and microchip, one danger is that a poem may shrink but contain no worlds.

Aphorism no. 76: the Shrug

Is the poem too grand? Then go your way; the poet will bother you no more.

Aphorism no. 75, the Effortless

A seeming carelessness pleases in a poem, as of something tossed-off with grace.

Aphorism no. 74

The problem with many contemporaries called poets is that they practice a strict separation between body, soul, and mind.

Aphorism no. 73

A writer must emulate the growth of the universe, pushing forward into the void.

Aphorism no. 72

To read, rejoice in, and meet the soul of a writer—one meeting the other like a long-lost twin—is the gift of the reader.

Aphorism no. 71

If Shakespeare can die, then how can we help following his lead?

Aphorism no. 70

One of the three most important sensations in a writer’s life is the feeling of going to the pouring fount and fetching a pail brimming with water.

Aphorism no. 69

All these critical arguments over realism versus irrealism in poetry and prose simply ignore the fact that a writer can do anything, given sufficient fire.

Aphorism no. 68

As a poet, be a Jack or Jill who fetches the pail from the fount, even at the cost of crown and fallings-down.

Aphorism no. 67

Natural speech in poetry is highly overrated.

Aphorism no. 66

Even the greatest poetry ends in silence.