Sunday, June 29, 2014

"and we dead stand undefended everywhere"

My drive home from Nashville takes me past a lot of churches, and this evening as I watched them flicker by I got to thinking about being a little girl in church myself, listening to preachers present Bible stories as lessons for sinners, every narrative wrangled into instructive service. There was no room for ambiguity in the religion I knew. Every tale had a good guy and a bad guy, and there was never any confusion about who deserved sympathy. But I was confused, always. I loved the stories and I tried hard to see them the way I was supposed to. I just couldn't. I liked the troublemakers and the losers — Eve, Cain, Esau, Lot's wife, even Judas — and from the time I was very small I felt a mixture of shame and resentment about that: What's wrong with me that I can't understand things properly? Why does there have to be a proper way of understanding? I was baffled by many things about church when I was a child, but nothing troubled me more than the feeling that I was in some way too stupid or too corrupt to root unreservedly for the star on God's team.

I was still brooding about my morally bewildered young self when I got home, and that sent me to a poem I loved early on, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," which in turn led me to James Wright's "At the Executed Murderer's Grave." I never think about one of those poems without thinking of the other. I've spent most of my Saturday night pondering sin and death with Wilde and Wright. Somehow that feels more sustaining than church ever did. The stanzas below are from Wright.

I pity myself, because a man is dead.
If Belmont County killed him, what of me?   
His victims never loved him. Why should we?   
And yet, nobody had to kill him either.   
It does no good to woo the grass, to veil
The quicklime hole of a man’s defeat and shame.   
Nature-lovers are gone. To hell with them.   
I kick the clods away, and speak my name.

This grave’s gash festers. Maybe it will heal,   
When all are caught with what they had to do   
In fear of love, when every man stands still   
By the last sea,
And the princes of the sea come down
To lay away their robes, to judge the earth
And its dead, and we dead stand undefended everywhere,   
And my bodies—father and child and unskilled criminal—
Ridiculously kneel to bare my scars,   
My sneaking crimes, to God’s unpitying stars.

*The girl in the photograph is 11-year-old Ellen Woodman, who was sentenced to seven days hard labor for stealing in Newcastle, England, c.1870-1873. Image from Wikimedia Commons 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A few thoughts on loneliness

"...nothing helps loneliness. I mean–you either feed off of it, or it feeds off you."

I came across those words last week while working on an article about Charles Wright, the new U.S. poet laureate. Wright said them years ago in offhand response to a rather silly interview question, but they struck a chord with me that has echoed for days now. I understand the ineluctability of loneliness, and lord knows I get the part about loneliness eating you up. But what does it mean to feed off of loneliness?

Loneliness pushes you into a state of uncertainty, silence, self-absorption. It's hard to know anything while dwelling in loneliness. The world is remote, and there's nothing to trust. A terrible sense of voicelessness takes over. Expression begins to seem worthless when there is no hope of response, no promise of communion. You're left looking deeper and deeper within, slowly but surely reaching the void at the center of everything you believe you are.

And yet...the writer in me nods in intuitive understanding of the nourishing, illuminating power of loneliness: Yes, of course. Embraced, loneliness can be a kind of magic potion that cures glibness and dissolves ego. It can offer a glimpse of the utter fragility we share with every living thing. It has something of the exquisite extremity of being in love.

Exposed on the cliffs of the heart. Look, how tiny down there,
look: the last village of words and, higher,
(but how tiny) still one last
farmhouse of feeling. Can you see it?
Exposed on the cliffs of the heart. Stoneground
under your hands. Even here, though,
something can bloom; on a silent cliff-edge
an unknowing plant blooms, singing, into the air.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

SilĂȘncio, Odilon Redon, 1900

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Here's to flaming summer

Flaming summer
charms the earth with its own fluting
~ Sappho*

* From "Cicada", translated by Willis Barnstone.

Archipelago Flower, Anders Zorn, 1916

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

One Sentence Perfume Review: Most Precious, Evyan (vintage)

A pampered child at the moment she discovers her lady toy

Notes from The Perfumed Court: Tarragon, heliotrope, anise oil, lemon, lily of the valley, ylang ylang, jasmine, orange flower, gardenia, rose, tonka, coumarin

Danae, Alexandre Jacques Chantron, 1891

The story of Danae

Just FYI: Feministing's Pocket Guide to Vaginal Euphemisms

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A summer book or two

I have been letting the blog languish for ages now, and I think it's about time that ended. I'll have a new post — a real post by yours truly, I mean, not just a poem & pic — up as soon as possible. Meanwhile, here are links to a few of my recent reviews and interviews, in case you're in search of a summer book or two.

For the 'fume heads, there's Barbara Herman's Scent & Subversion, a gorgeous, witty, sexy guide to the world of vintage perfumery.

If you love short stories, check out my interview with Madison Smartt Bell about his collection, Zig Zag Wanderer, recently out from the innovative Concord Free Press. Bell is one of our best writers, and his short fiction is not to be missed.

Speaking of short stories, no one has ever written them better than Elizabeth Spencer, and her new collection, Starting Over, is as fine as any she has published. Spencer, at age 92, was the recipient of this year's Rea Award — well-deserved and long overdue.

Amy Greene's new novel, Long Man, is simply a wonderful read. Greene is an awesomely talented writer, and this second book from her left me looking forward to a third.

Finally, I've been telling everyone who will listen about Patrick O'Keeffe's novel, The Visitors. The story is moving and the writing is exquisite. If you love real, grown-up fiction, this is your book.

 Marie-Madeleine au dĂ©sert, Emmanuel Benner, 1886

Thursday, June 5, 2014

"A flower blooms there"

Press my breasts,
Part the veil of mystery,
A flower blooms there,
Crimson and fragrant.

~Yosano Akiko

from Love Poems from the Japanese

Katsushika Hokusai, c.1814