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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Things Left Undone

Time has passed and I have not written—as I promised to write—about any of the interesting things that happened in the city:

my visit to MOMA with Deb. Actually I wrote three pages about it, but I don’t see why on earth I should inflict them on you;

Ed Baynard’s show at Sara Tecchia. No, strike that one. I did do that;

a visit to Makoto Fujimura’s loft and studio. That was marvelous, and I really should have written about it. Fun to see his sticks of unguent, the bowls of dried jewel-paint, the pictures in progress;

my reading at the Yale Club of New York;

Greg and Kenya’s performance of James Weldon Johnson;

how I was hugged by a Nigerian princess, just after she told a story about when she accompanied her mother’s body home, and how the royal family tried to make her worship their idols but she would not.


Eh, time moves on, and now I am busy with taking little boys to baseball games and going to school meetings and other important Cooperstonian activities.


I just looked up the order of the 7 deadlies for R, who is lying on the daybed reading Garth Nix and asking questions. And I found this entertaining little skewer: "You probably commit some of them ever day without thinking about the rich tradition of eternal damnation in which you are participating."


Here's something from what I was reading when I could have been writing one of the missing blog posts:

Third looked ordinary, to herself and others. She loved numbers. Her cousin, who was a man, had a position as an Accountant. Third would sit next to him in rapt and silent wonder, as the yarrow stalks clicked back and forth, counting in fan-shaped patterns. Her cousin was charmed that she was interested, sweet and silent as a child should be. He showed her how the yarrow worked.

Numbers were portents too. They were used as oracles. This was a practical thing. Rice shoots were counted; yields were predicted; seed was stored. Numbers spread out in fanlike shapes, into the future.

Third could read them. She saw yarrow in her mind, ghost yarrow she sometimes called them, and they would scurry ahead of the real stalks. They moved too fast for her to follow, flashing, weaving. They leapt to correct answers, ahead of her cousin.

If anyone asked Third how much rice was in a bowl, she would answer, “enough.” It was always polite to answer that there was enough rice, even when there wasn’t. But if anyone had pressed for more detail, Third could have answered, “Six hundred to seven hundred grains.” The yarrow stalks in her mind would click, telling her how much space ten grains took—as represented by so many lengths cut into a stalk—and how much space there was in a bowl. The ghost yarrow opened and closed, like a series of waving fans, beautiful, orderly, true.

As Third carried food to her mother in the fields, the yarrow would move. They told her the number of rice shoots, and the rate of their growth. She would have an early sense of the harvest, and how many days were left until they all could rest. She could not follow the waving fans, but she could feel her mind driving them. It was a pleasurable sensation, this slight sense of forcing something ahead. She could make them go faster if she wanted to.

It was how she saw the world; it was as if the world were a forest of yarrow, moving all around her, as if numbers were leaves, rustling in the wind.

--Geoff Ryman, The Unconquered Country

That story makes a wound—like an old Cambodian war wound that seeps tears when the weather is hot.


The accompanying picture, "Lake Life," is a royalty free photograph by Atif Gulzar of Lahore, Pakistan, from He says that he loves "nature and pure things," a phrase that I find attractive. His English has a charm: "It is man made a lotus lake outside the batdambang city. Arround 10,000 man died during its construction at pol pot regime time. Now it is symbol of peace. People grow their religious flowers (Lotus). Many people also live inside this lake to look after the flowers." I love that last line, and though I know that it refers to houses on stilts, I prefer to take it literally. Thank you, Atif!


  1. Interesting. In my little corner of the world, math has quite suddenly become entangled in words, knotted up in its opposite. Although I must admit, “Numbers were portents too,” caught my attention abruptly, like fluttering cloth jerked to a halt by an errant nail.

  2. PS : This should come first. I'm going to order something from the independent bookstore you mention in the last post. I'm with you on this one. As for undone things: I'd love to hear more about your trip, but I so understand how sometimes you can't stop life long enough to write or paint or draw about it. Just do the best we can, eh, Marly? On lotuses: I don't know how you always, or at least, often, do it--but you're so uncannily on track with me. I'm planning to go in June to a lotus farm in NC, so I can really see, en masse and personal, the things I dream about. Now, if I'd just reread my Strunk and White and not be seduced by Maira Kalman's illustrations, I'd be refreshed on the use of commas. Which would be a good thing and don't try to pretend you think it wouldn't.

  3. Ah, math. I have forgotten that much of that magical practice. But I liked the yarrow.

    Megan is currently involved in the magical practice of metaphor.


    Ordering a book from Burke's Books will no doubt add luster to your crown. (Just remembering that Corey talked amusingly about sizzling in hell for those who ordered from certain places I won't mention.)

    Somehow I think either some of what I saw and heard in New York is better as a secret, or else it has fled utterly.

    I just wrote something about research karma. Now here is lotus karma or minds-think-alike karma. Or something. If come back to this particular spot, you can tell where, where is the lotus farm? I'm picturing one in the hot piedmont. An excellent thing to do with hot Carolina piedmont. In fact, a large lotus farm stretching from some place east of Morganton to the coast would be about right.

    You malign me! I have great respect for the idea that you should put your commas in the right places. And not put them in the wrong places...

  4. What a lovely post. Never, by the way, speak of your writing and "inflicting" in the same sentence. But I do know well the difference between intended actions and what one gets done.
    I can see the Lotus tenders showing up in a Marly tale someday, living translucent lives beneath a remote lake where perhaps the bones left from some long ago war still rest as well.
    And as for the post about your friend's bookstore--I hope for miracles. Down in the Berkeley area the venerable Cody's is closing--not after so many years open as Corey's, but after I think 4 decades or more of sheltering poets and physicists and wandering students. I used to get envious when I received their monthly list of people doing book signings--wanting either to have the authors for myself in my remote shop, or to be able to dash down to the city to sit at their feet.

  5. Yes, I always come back to your comments section because your responses to comments are so much fun to read. Not surprising, since you're the one who writes them. There's a lotus place near Asheville and also one of the farmers at the Carrboro farmers' markets grows them on his farm. I'll stick to the close one this year. We'd planned to go the Asheville one last June but dry weather ended their season early. And I was just being silly about the commas---of COURSE, you're an appreciator of the well-turned comma! Have you seen, though, that new illustrated edition of Strunk and White? And finally, I do hope you come to these parts soon. We'd have so much fun together.

  6. Somehow Jarvenpa & Laura are tangled up in this one, particularly in the matter of Lotus Farms. Two interesting women on opposite coasts make a third imaginary woman. How did that happen? It must be all those lotus flowers. If you click on the picture, you can see a big version--with lots of little green pods.

    No new Strunk & White! Where I live, one must make an effort to see anything in particular. The random book is what appears locally. And yes, Cody's is sad. What's also sad is that we lose so many and have fewer replacements.

    Hmm, well I was just in Cullowhee, so it won't be soon (there's the gamut of camps and such to run after the Three get out of school in June), though I wouldn't mind.

    One near Asheville... I'll have to ask my mother, repository of horticultural knowledge. She's doing some propagation of wee green infants at the Arboretum and is my Garden Source. Maybe we can meet at the lotus garden! That would be fun. I wouldn't mind being a Lotus Tender for a few days. (A leafy platform in the lake would be pleasant.) Or a Lotus Eater, for that matter.

    Or maybe you'll want to practice your Parisian French on the Québécois and drive by my door...

  7. Now, this is wandering far from the topic, but I have a question brought on by a sudden arrival of movies based on books. What do authors think of their novels being handed over to be made into movies?

  8. Hello, Miss Megan--

    I'm just back from the Hotel Otesaga, where the 7th and 8th grades are having Cotillion as the final polish on a ballroom dancing class. What sylphs!

    So I'm in a good mood to answer a question from a 7th-grader.

    I imagine that the answer to your question is as variable as are people. Occasionally writers refuse to let their books become movies. Tolkien was against movies being made of "Lord of the Rings," I recall, and no doubt there are plenty of others.

    For a "mid-list" literary writer, a movie can mean a certain amount of name recognition for his or her books, and a good many writers are willing to put up with any sort of film version of a book in order to increase readership. There are plenty of things a writer can't control (book covers, amount of marketing and publicity by a publisher, timing of "pub date," etc.), and what happens when a book turns into a script and then a movie is one of those things.

    Also, plenty of options are purchased that never pan out because the director can't raise enough money to make the movie during the option period. For example, Stacy Title and Jonathan Penner took an option on "Catherwood," but I never counted on anything coming from that buy--and any writer who sells an option knows that nothing may come of it. Nothing did, in that case.

    So I think the scenarios are infinitely variable. But it's not something I think about. We do have a t.v. in the house for watching movies, but I don't watch many--I don't think it's a particularly helpful activity for a wordsmith, as we live in an age where many novels have come to resemble movies in form and content. (Some are clearly written primarily to sell as movies.) And I'm just not interested in that sort of book.

    That's a huge question, but there are a few answers. Some of mine, anyway.

  9. I see. What if one of your books were to be made into a movie? Seems risky: the book would be greatly affected by the movie. Plus, so much has to be changed in a fantasy.

    You're right in that some books are obviously intended to be movies. What I find even more annoying is books based on movies, more like long summaries of the movie instead of an actual book!

  10. A book is just not a movie: the forms are utterly different. To be successful, a movie can't be too much like a book.

    A lesser book sometimes makes a better movie, but a great book rarely makes a great movie. However, I do love both Fielding's Tom Jones(1749) and Tony Richardson's movie version with Albert Finney as the hero (1963). The screenplay was written by playwright John Osborne...

    I've read the book a number of times, and I've seen the movie several times. And the desire to reread, see again, etc. is a fairly strong vote in favor of a work of art.

    That's my 2 cents.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.