Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Loving Gaze

Last night, Elizabeth, James, and I went to see Mark Doty read as part of the Poetry Series of Seattle Arts & Lectures. Oh, what a lovely reading: the crowd murmuring in delight and sadness; the writer connecting with us. My first introduction to Doty's work was his stunning, long-form lyric essay/book - Still Life With Oysters and Lemons - a deep and lovingly weighted meditation on memory and objects and seeing. The prose was breathtakingly tuned, precise. Reading that essay, and discussing its form and considered lines influenced my own prose quite a bit. I now begin sentences and paragraphs with "And" and "But" almost to excess in order to effect dramatic turns within prose, to begin new sections of writing as pointed joinders or reversals.

I admit I am not as familiar with Doty's corpus of poetry, but have always returned to one of his poems, "The Embrace," which was published in his 1998 collection, Sweet Machine. My friend Jenny handed it to me and told me it would make me cry. I glanced at the brief page, and thought "It would take more than that." Of course, I wept. It's a perfect poem; a simple evocation of love and really, really, what it means to miss someone. It makes me think of my family. It makes me want to call them. In fact, I just re-read the poem this morning (collected in Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems) and cried again. Here it is, should you need to moisten your eyes a bit.

I think what I loved about Doty's reading, and poems, was his love. His poetic gaze lifts things; treasures things; fingers them and sets them down. The poetic moments of his poetry and prose come as a beachcombers might: a piece noticed, vaunted to transcendence through the recording of detail, connected to a moment greater than its parts, released again. Of course, this is what all writers do, poets especially, but Doty's moments feel like a glow. They feel like love itself. When turned to even quotidian subjects like dogs and turtles and goats and getting a massage in Manhattan, somehow a love infuses everything; even in sad poems, this brings the reader a kind of happiness.

In a passage excerpted from his recent book of non-fiction, Dog Years, Doty describes his old dog, lying out in a storm, and his own desperate attempts to rouse him. Before deflating the moment with a satiric "I suppose I am prone to be dramatic...," he describes the experience as bending over King Lear himself, trying to wake the old king. I've been picturing the shiny, rain-soaked side of that dog ever since, thunder roiling overhead; the dog's coat glimmering as the lightning flashed. It reminds me of a line (which I'm approximating here) from Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, where the protagonist reflects that sometimes moments seem as if they are lifted from a myth, even as you are living them. This is, of course, what made the reading of this passage so spellbinding.

Followed by an eminently warm, entertaining, and intelligent Q & A (including a great discussion of the Whitman vs. Dickinson poetic line -- these were superb questions!), we got our books signed and shuffled off home, pretty elated. Of course, I was too shy to say anything to the great writer, but at least my name is spelled correctly. I came home and wrote five fragmentary pieces of prose, just because I felt like it, and it felt so good to do that again. I rather liked what I wrote. I may share them here, since they're too slight for much else.

Anyway, it was a good evening.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Thought For Food

Interesting book review in The Guardian from a few days back, in response to David Shields' new book, Reality Hunger. I remember reading a small chunk of this in my grad school days - it's a very interesting thesis, although I agree with the reviewer here (Blake Morrison) that fiction is far from irrelevant to our lives as people, and as consumers of art. Nevertheless, an interesting subject to ponder, and I plan to read Shields' manifesto in full when it comes out in paperback.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Just Shelved

Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism by Katha Pollitt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'm certainly entrenched in the "preaching to the choir" camp of Pollitt's audience, but nevertheless, had a wonderful time reading this collection of short essays, most originally published between the mid-eighties and mid-nineties.

Not only is Pollitt a witty, eminently quotable, and warm writer, she also does not shy from controversy. I think what I admired the most was her strong emphasis on social justice and addressing the root issues of many "women's issues" the media chooses to focus its blathering, inaccurate chorus on from time to time. Namely, she is not afraid to call poverty what it is, and point out the social forces that uniquely disadvantage women within systems of race and class oppression.

I was especially compelled by Pollitt's arguments regarding surrogacy and fetal rights. I don't think I'd ever thought through the issue completely before, but her incisive writing pared away the tangle of conflicting rhetoric on the subject to point out that the more we separate mother and baby when we consider pregnancy, the more we treat a woman like a vessel, and the child carried therein as a mere temporary passenger. This was an eye-opener for me.

At the end of the day, it comes down to treating women as people, 100% of the time, with rights that are sacrosanct. Would that society could find this simple in practice...

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Just Shelved

Selected Poems: Anne Sexton Selected Poems: Anne Sexton by Anne Sexton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Dear Anne Sexton,

Thank you for your muscular rhythms, your anger, your narratives, your clear-eyed and unromantic views of mothering and sex and familial wounds. Your poems aren't always consistent, but your persona is consistently fascinating. Above all, it seems sincere. Thank you for your uncomfortable confessions; your sadness; your unerring descriptive powers. Thank you, too, for your honesty. Especially for that.

This Reader

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Just Shelved

Given Ground (Bakeless Prize) Given Ground by Ann Pancake

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
There are prose stylists who whittle their sentences to a fine point, a perfectly-tuned object. There are prose stylists who breathlessly append and append and append to their sentences, extending them outwards; as if, in casting this web of words over experience, somehow its multifarious "reality" can be expressed. Pancake falls into the latter category.

If you have the opportunity to see her read a story in person, by all means do it. That breathless accumulation proves absolutely riveting during a reading(and her accent doesn't hurt, either). Her style, in its extension of time, is nothing if not suspenseful. The writing in this collection is lyrical, visceral, and profoundly effective. However, as with many lyric prose writers I've read, I had a hard time locating the action of the stories - I couldn't picture what was happening; I couldn't picture the characters; I caught myself tangled in the sheen of the language, and its rhythms. I loved the first story, though. It gave me the best kind of chills. I didn't finish the last few, but plan to eventually.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010


Another experience at The Pacific Northwest Ballet - this time, The Sleeping Beauty. The production was lavish, stylized, ceremonial; an exercise in pantomime. I still found it lovely, although it was so markedly different in interpretation than the sexy, throat-ripping Romeo et Juliette, which left me with an oddly sad, metallic feeling - a realization, I think, that the lovers seemed to me now reckless teenagers, when before they had seemed like a shocking comet of passion.

In the Act I of this ballet (post-prologue), the princess dances the "Rose Adagio" with her four suitors. At one point, she stands, perfectly extending one leg while balancing on the other en pointe. Betraying not so much as a wobble, she holds this pose...and holds it, as all four suitors gallantly approach her, each one elaborately twirling her about once, as if she were a top. The principal dancer in this production (Mara Vinson) was just incredible to watch, but this stilted section struck me as such a metaphor for femininity: this graceful, decorous woman holding an impossible position of display as if it were effortless; being turned and manipulated by each suitor in turn. Meanwhile, the court conjectures over who should pluck her.

Now, I don't bring this up in an angry "Boo sexism!" kind of way. Rather, the thought struck me at the time, and mingled with my amazement at Vinson's consummate athleticism. She really was breathtaking to watch. Flash forward to the next evening and, me, weeping my way through the end of "The Young Victoria" ("Oh my God but I thought these long-dead people would live forever!") This story is really one of female conquest. Prince Albert's presence is wispy, deferential, and quiet. He tells the queen "I am replaceable, and you are not." As a love story, I really liked it, but it wasn't a narrative I felt accustomed to seeing.

Three cheers for the Prince Alberts of the world (and the Victorias).

(photo credit: