Sunday, March 17, 2013

Just Shelved

The Marriage PlotThe Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can't be the only English major or liberal arts graduate who read this book with a fond sigh of recognition. Ah, the college seminars, the days spent reading like it was your job, and that super annoying pretentious guy who always had a point to make in every. single. class. Like Madeleine, the novel's heroine, I was devoted to the unfashionable Victorian texts. Still am. I, too, never felt particularly edgy in my literary proclivities. I just liked to read. Still do. Those little digs of recognition end there, however, and become stymied in frustration. Maybe it's because this novel feels "low stakes." Do we really worry about anyone who's heartbroken at the tender age of 22? Especially if she's  already been accepted into a prestigious post-grad program and has the deposit money on hand for a Manhattan apartment? Is this self-consciously clever investigation and reappropriation of the marriage plot really necessary? It seems, actually, to be far more retrograde than those fusty old novels. Those heroines were so compelling that their marital hijinks were riveting--a sensitive reader is not wrapped up in the "romance" of these books, but rather enmeshed in the diminished possibilities for the brightest and most independent women depicted therein. At the end of Middlemarch, one does not close the book with a happy sigh that Dorothea and Will have been united at last. One closes it wistfully, looking forward to a century when a woman of Dorothea's gifts could *be* a finer version of Will Ladislaw. Now that that century has come, Madeleine disappoints. The men who vie for her affections are both more brilliant, and she is mired in class prejudice. She's not an entirely unsympathetic character, but she's certainly not representative of me or the other talented young women I knew in school. As a final note, the fate of Leonard Bankhead, my favorite character, disturbed me. Eugenides' ending seemed to imply that people who suffer from manic depression are de facto disqualified as stable partners or part and parcel of a happy ending. Haven't we come further than that very Victorian idea of madness?

The View from Castle RockThe View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I started this many times, and wasn't in the right zone until now. A more personal and less classical short story collection, View From Castle Rock is nonetheless engrossing and bracing, like everything Munro has ever written. Loved it.

View all my reviews

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Gold Leaf Fixations

As writers, I think we cycle through various fixations. At different points of my life, I have been obsessed with silent film stars, describing snow, the personal effects of dead people, and medieval tapestries. The list goes on... Currently, I can't stop myself from Googling images and clips of classical ballet dancers. Curiosity feeds my art, even when there will be no pointe shoes in what I'm writing now, and only a little snow. Sick, sniffly, and cranky today, I combed through my own writerly archives and found these quite ancient poems. They brought me right back to my medieval portraiture/gold women fixation of seven years ago. I had just traveled to Europe that summer, and saw the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in person. I loved those arch, stiff figures, and the symbolically mysterious cornucopia of creatures fixed at awkward angles around the maidens. Back in Seattle, I was cutting apart an old calendar of Botticelli's most famous paintings, and his flaxen-haired maidens painted centuries later called me back right away to the tapestries. Those same blonde maidens with the same faces, cast again and again as Madonnas and Venuses and Muses. I guess I'm still a little in love with them. Anyway, these two ekphrastastic (new word!) poems came directly from two of those uber-famous works. I post them here because, truth be told, I never was a very good poet, and this is really the only venue informal enough to share them. Also, they are oooolllldddd. Don't judge.

After Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

I am the bone white Venus.

I cut my feet when I walked to shore;

I wore clothes that were not my own

but my breasts glinted as pearls
inside my raiments.

The children came to touch my skin.

It wouldn’t be hidden

but glowed.

You are a body of fireflies!
They exclaimed.

My hair looped around the room like the rings of Saturn
and I spit seawater onto my plate.

Excuse her for she has just been born
they said in embarrassment.

I did not know the language yet
and my old tongue fled quickly,

twisted away like gilded fish.

They could not tell I wept
thought my tears a remnant of my salted womb

like the drippings from my limbs,
bursting into bloom on the plank wood floor.

Bless us!
they clamored.

I gurgled words I knew to them, uncomprehending;
the nymphs stole in at the sound and stole cheeses from

the bell dumb crowd

as I rang and rang them with a sound like whale calls.

That wicked baby who has dogged me flew in,
pinched my nipple.

I was dreaming of the shell, tongue-pink
my kelp body, drifting


just another unfound treasure in the deep

and now diminished, diminishing

trawled out and flaking light
like the most common catch,


After Botticelli’s Madonna del Magnificat

Oh mother of the milky skin cry the angels.

There, I shall write in your book, pageboy;
you are prettier than girls.

The corona of my baby cuts into my breast,
my fingers slide over the slick seeds of the pomegranate.

Your wrists are lilies cry the angels.

My baby is fat and transfixed and heavy;
my skin is taut over my forehead.

I can feel the angels rotating my crown like a poker traced ‘ore my scalp
ear to ear.

Your hair golds like wheat cry the angels.
Your face is beautiful and fine like a shell.

I want them to waft this baby, this weight, away;
my robes stripped off

and float aimless like a star
unknown, unheralded, unflaxed with gold,

empty as I was born.

(all images: Wikipedia)