three things: 2/2/17

Anne Carson in her inscrutable brilliance; click the image to read an article in the NYT

FEED: Tonight I’m lucky enough to be going to hear Anne Carson, who is currently the Distinguished Poet-in-Residence in the NYU Creative Writing Program. What she does with language is almost impossible to describe; I’d like to share some of my favorite lines from my favorite of her book-length works, The Autobiography of Red, but (a) they are too strange completely out of context and you wouldn’t be able to see their proper strangeness, and (b) I’m in NYC and my book is in Austin and I only read poetry in real book form. First, Book of Isaiah:

Book of Isaiah, Part I (Anne Carson)


Isaiah awoke angry.
Lapping at Isaiah’s ears black birdsong no it was anger.
God had filled Isaiah’s ears with stingers.
Once God and Isaiah were friends.
God and Isaiah used to converse nightly, Isaiah would rush into the garden.
They conversed under the Branch, night streamed down.
From the sole of the foot to the head God would make Isaiah ring.
Isaiah had loved God and now his love was turned to pain.
Isaiah wanted a name for the pain, he called it sin.
Now Isaiah was a man who believed he was a nation.
Isaiah called the nation Judah and the sin Judah’s condition.
Inside Isaiah God saw the worldsheet burning.
Isaiah and God saw things differently, I can only tell you their actions.
Isaiah addressed the nation.
Man’s brittleness! cried Isaiah.
The nation stirred in its husk and slept again.
Two slabs of bloody meat lay folded on its eyes like wings.
Like a hard glossy painting the nation slept.
Who can invent a new fear?
Yet I have invented sin, thought Isaiah, running his hand over the knobs.
And then, because of a great attraction between them—
which Isaiah fought (for and against) for the rest of his life—
God shattered Isaiah’s indifference.
God washed Isaiah’s hair in fire.
God took the stay.
From beneath its meat wings the nation listened.
You, said Isaiah.
No answer.
I cannot hear you, Isaiah spoke again under the Branch.
Light bleached open the night camera.
God arrived.
God smashed Isaiah like glass through every socket of his nation.
Liar! said God.
Isaiah put his hands on his coat, he put his hand on his face.
Isaiah is a small man, said Isaiah, but no liar.
God paused.
And so that was their contract.
Brittle on both sides, no lying.
Isaiah’s wife came to the doorway, the doorposts had moved.
What’s that sound? said Isaiah’s wife.
The fear of the Lord, said Isaiah.
He grinned in the dark, she went back inside.

And to entice you to read Autobiography of Red, a few snips:

“Depression is one of the unknown modes of being.
There are no words for a world without a self, seen with impersonal clarity.
All language can register is the slow return
to oblivion we call health when imagination automatically recolors the landscape
and habit blurs perception and language
takes up its routine flourishes.”

“… that blurred state between awake and asleep when too many intake valves are open in the soul. Like the terrestrial crust of the earth which is proportionately 10 times thinner than an eggshell, the skin of the soul is a miracle of mutual pressures. Millions of kilograms of force pounding up from earth’s core on the inside to meet the cold air of the world and stop as we do, just in time.”

What she does with language can be astonishing. Here’s my short GoodReads review of Autobiography of Red — short, because I couldn’t properly put words to her words. Her startling use of language definitely feeds me.

SEED: This is a broad topic I think about a lot, the way very good things can come out of very bad things. I’ve thought about it my whole life, in terms of my near-fatal childhood; I value who I am, and who I am is a direct result of what I endured, so where does that leave me with an evaluation of my childhood? To play the silly game, if I could go back and time and give myself a different childhood, would I?

grateful I got to be at the JFK protest on the day the ban was announced. So grateful. More than 10K people showed up spontaneously.

I think we’re in the same boat as a country now. I see good things emerging in this horrific political maelstrom. People are fighting, protesting, getting off their comfortable couches. More women are mobilizing for office than ever before. Etc etc etc. It isn’t that things were perfect while Obama was in office, and it isn’t that I agreed with all his decisions (I really didn’t, some more horribly than others like his bail-outs for the banks and his use of drones and his failure to close Guantanamo as he’d promised), but I was complacent. We all were complacent. And that complacency led us here, to the nightmare and also to the resistance, and the long-lasting consequences of the resistance — assuming our country and world survive, which is not at all guaranteed — will be good. Eventually. I’m thinking a lot about this as I look around. Are you?

READ: Read poetry. Last night I read a bit of Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates), and he was talking about writing as a way to hone your thinking — and especially poetry. Here’s a relevant passage:

I was learning the craft of poetry, which really was an intensive version of what my mother had taught me all those years ago–the craft of writing as the art of thinking. Poetry aims for an economy of truth–loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts. Poetry was not simply the transcription of notions–beautiful writing rarely is. I wanted to learn to write, which was ultimately, still, as my mother had taught me, a confrontation with my own innocence, my own rationalizations. Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.

Read good poetry. I am not at all trained in poetry, but I think I have good taste somehow, because the poetry I love always turns out to be “good” poetry, so if you want to read poetry but don’t know where to start, get in touch and I’ll make some suggestions.

four things: 12/20/16

I look a lot like my dad. He was 16 in this picture, I think.

1)  Today is my dad’s birthday; he died March 5, 1982, when he was 43, and today he would’ve been 78. I can’t imagine him that age, but then I can no longer really imagine him. No one was ever glad he was born, and it’s kind of complicated to be grateful that he was born, but I am. I’m sorry his life was so sad and hard, and I’m sorry he made mine so sad and hard, but I’m so glad to be here, and I couldn’t be, without him. So on my dad’s birthday, I wish a happy birthday. I wish a happier birthday than he ever had. My dad loved books and old movies and his dog Rhoda, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, and he liked to make scrambled eggs. He gave me my middle name, Dawn. He had a self-aware corny sense of humor and could make himself laugh very easily, when he was in the mood. He saw himself as a Tragic Figure, and it would be hard to argue with him about that, even though a good part of the responsibility for that belongs to him. But how do you disentangle responsibility in the mess of a real life? He never found a place for his fury, and he followed the tradition of his paternal line through vicious, violent alcoholism — and he was born into that legacy in every way. My poor dad. I don’t miss him, but I do sometimes wish I could just have an hour with him, with un-drunk him, to ask him some questions.

2)  2016 has SUCKED and I am struggling. Ilan and Lucy were born, the very best gifts to our little family and that’s unequivocally Good (as has been my own personal year), but otherwise this year in the world has just been terrible. Like so many of us in this country — the majority, let’s remember — I am so depressed by the incoming president it has bled all the joy from me, from the season, from anticipation of the future. As Michelle Obama said in an interview last night, this is what it feels like not to have hope. I feel flattened, and honestly even the thoughts that try to arise about the holidays fall flat before they can materialize. Everyone I know who shares my politics (which means everyone I know except for two people) is in the same devastated boat. I keep trying to summon some kind of lift for the holidays, and that’s always hard anyway since we are in SEAsia over Thanksgiving and the holiday season takes me by surprise when we’re back, but this year I just can’t find even a tiny spark. The future looks so bleak, and honestly it’s very frightening. We have a mentally ill tyrannical child at the helm, and he has stocked the government with people whose sole missions are to line their own pockets and burn everything down. No wonder it’s hard to find any holiday spirit.

how I want this book…

3)  But in the small moments, in the interpersonal connections, life is still there, right? I can get lost in Charles D’Ambrosio’s lush prose, in his essays in Loitering. I can see new books that give me a flutter, like Anne Carson’s new collection, Float. On Thursday I will make brunch for my beautiful, dear friend Cindy — shakshuka with crusty bread, a great green salad, and a lovely little fresh fruit cake. And oh the pleasures of choosing what I’ll cook, the pleasures of preparation, I can rest in those moments now, and a bit of happy cracks through the dark, at least for a moment. Maybe that’s how we will all get through the next years, stepping from one crack to another to help us keep going through the long fight. We will have to lift each other when we get too low, and fight together, and share information, and put our efforts together, and perhaps the most important of all those efforts will be helping lift each other. This is going to be a long-haul battle with few wins, and despair is going to be the easiest response but we can’t just give up. We can’t.

4)  I still can’t find the person who gave me a gift subscription to the New York Review of Books. It started arriving just around my birthday, so I assume it was a birthday gift, but the NYRB never sent any kind of gift notification — the issues just started arriving, and definitely in my name. I asked on Facebook if anyone had given me the gift and no one said they did, and then I asked a couple of friends who aren’t on Facebook, people who would do that kind of thing, and they didn’t. Whoever gave it to me knows me very well, because it’s my favorite publication — even more than the New Yorker, which I also love. I guess I’m mentioning it just in case someone who reads this is the gift-giver, to let him or her know that I’d love to say thank you if only I knew who to thank!

A fractured set of fragments today — it’s that kind of day/week/month. I’m trying hard.

see! saw! see! saw!

seesawDid y’all call these see-saws or teeter-totters? I grew up hearing both about equally, but I think in North Texas, in the very small towns, we were more likely to call them teeter-totters. Anyway, I realize that the last few days I’ve been up! Down! Up! Down! I’m better, yes! I’m exhausted, no! I’m back to myself, yes! It’s too much, no!

And there may still be seeing and sawing to come for me, but my steps forward are getting me somewhere, despite the steps backwards.

Tuesday night my poetry group met in my house, and I was not feeling it, I was too lost in the pain and so tired from my extremely early flight back to Austin — but the group means so much to me, and I want to hold the space for it even on the rare nights I don’t feel good. About an hour and a half into the meeting, Rebecca read this poem by Anne Carson, from Plainwater:

Town of the Sound of a Twig Breaking

Their faces I thought were knives.
The way they pointed them at me.
And waited.
A hunter is someone who listens.
So hard to his prey it pulls the weapon.
Out of his hand and impales.

Hunters, prey, that topic pulled at me in a specific way, of course, but as we talked about the poem, as we tugged at it and loved it and saw it this way and that, the endless loop in my mind was broken. Poetry, art, beauty stopped my obsessions and struggle and just opened up my mind, filled in the grooves, and gave me space to breathe.

After yesterday morning spent with my beloved little Oliver, who is now a complete chatterbox, last night a genius friend of mine gave me a GENIUS task. I was telling her about my rage and fury and hate toward my hateful, psychopath mother for what she did to us, and for how she destroyed my brother, and she told me to just kind of go with it. Indulge it, fantasize. Go all out! It’s just a fantasy — how would I do it? No, really, play it out! It started dawning in me, and it bloomed and blossomed.

this particular monster, my old nemesis, my imagined Inner Other

I’ve always been so afraid of my anger, afraid it was just my father lying dormant inside, me as him maybe, and that if I gave it any slack it would all be over and I would be the rampaging monster, destroying everything in my path. I’ve written about this before, this is old news. But fantasy, it’s just fantasy! I realized I could write it out, a chapter, a whole Tarantino bloody fantasy — and then I could edit it and elaborate even more. “And this one’s for my brother!” “And this is for this, and this one’s for that!” The Jews had Inglorious Basterds, the slaves had Django, and my brother and I would have my little bloody fantasy chapter. It might unnerve you to know just how much pleasure I am taking in writing this showdown.

Of course my genius friend also had a lot of other brilliant ways to help me, ways to help me think through some of the aspects of my brother’s life that were particularly tormenting, and she listened in that way she has, and held me safe, and I have to say: I feel so much better. Just so much better.

So much better. So so much better. Nancy called my name over and over and over. Cindy listened and understood and encouraged me to run with it. Friends all over the world reach out to me, extend hands, poke me, check in. I grapple and struggle, I cry and suffer and then take a step forward. I guess this is what it looks like. Teeter. Totter. Poetry. Friendship. And murder fantasies. 🙂


focus and then not and then again

The week that mostly wasn’t — much of anything but work. And boy did it get tough in its own way. It became harder and harder to sleep as the week went on; all I did every minute of every day (almost) was sit in my chair and stare at the computer. Most days I did that for about 14 hours, uninterrupted. It became hard to sleep, it became hard to think of anything else, and then harder to think about what I was doing, and I felt myself become flatter and flatter. Not good. My body hurt so much, my back ached, my eyes felt weak. But I got through that crunch, and had planned to work all weekend but the client whose manuscript was up next wasn’t quite ready for me so I got a whole weekend just to relax. Saturday morning brunch with my lady posse of bros, as someone referred to them, some home-tending, a Saturday night Skype date (we watched Blue Ruin, don’t bother). I stayed up very late on Saturday because I could, mani/pedi, bath, reading, putzing around. Up late on Sunday, brought the French press back to my bedroom and lay in bed reading ‘The Glass Essay’ from Glass, Irony & God, then went to see Linklater’s new film Boyhood but it turned out my ticket was for next Sunday. So lemons, meet lemonade, I got a whole uninterrupted (except for the trip way down south and back) day just to be myself. It was a much needed break, I’m telling you. And now, some detail:

one night I did stop long enough to slice cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, and a slice of feta with a splash of Cretan olive oil. Great, but I wasn't on Crete, so boo.
one night I did stop long enough to slice cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, and a slice of feta with a splash of Cretan olive oil. Great, but I wasn’t on Crete, so boo.
for our Skype date we both made a stir fry. Marc's had shrimp in it, mine had asparagus, organic shiitake mushrooms, zucchini, lots of ginger and garlic, and tofu marinated in Vietnamese chili garlic sauce. Sprinkled with scallions, served over jasmine rice. SO GOOD.
for our Skype date we both made a stir fry. Marc’s had shrimp in it, mine had asparagus, organic shiitake mushrooms, zucchini, lots of ginger and garlic, and tofu marinated in Vietnamese chili garlic sauce. Sprinkled with scallions, served over jasmine rice. SO GOOD.
I day I forced myself out for a 20-minute walk. It was a beautiful day.
One day I forced myself out for a 20-minute walk. It was a beautiful day.
One night, one of the super moon nights, I went outside to take the trash out, first time outside that day, and saw the moon and a star hovering over my house
One night, one of the super moon nights, I went outside to take the trash out, first time outside that day, and saw the moon and a star hovering over my house
This was shocking. Facebook suggested people I might know, and the first one on that list was my father's brother. I haven't seen him since my father's death in 1982, didn't know he was still alive. It was like seeing a ghost.
This was shocking. Facebook suggested people I might know, and the first one on that list was my father’s brother. I haven’t seen him since my father’s death in 1982, didn’t know he was still alive. It was like seeing a ghost.

To my current passion. I think most people who encounter Anne Carson become proselytizers, and so I have too. It’s always hard to find something to say about her work, though, because it’s startling and so deeply true, but it’s all in how she does it instead of what she is writing about — which isn’t exactly true. What she writes about is extraordinary and insightful and comes from a direction you’d never think of yourself, and yet to tell you what a book or essay is ‘about’ misses the point so badly I don’t even want to try. Here’s a lovely interview with her in Paris Review, and here is a great Ploughshares review of Glass, Irony & God (which you can buy here, if you’re willing to buy from Amazon…otherwise go to your local independent bookstore, which I did).

In ‘The Glass Essay,’ she visits her aging mother who lives “on a moor in the north,” to grieve the end of a romantic relationship with a man who one day told her he no longer loved her. With her she took Wuthering Heights; the book and its author have long fascinated her, and Carson uses Bronte’s aborted life and that book as a way to reflect on herself, her life, what it means. Kind of. I’ve butchered that description, but you get the gist. As always, I just want to put down some of the things I highlighted, but the startle of them requires their context, and pulled out of nothing they are unusual and new, but not startling. Still, here are some of her words that I underlined and love:

Bluish dusk
fills the room like a sea slid back.

…by now the day is wide open and a strange young April light
is filling the moor with gold milk.

…since he came to hospital his body has shrunk to the merest bone house

She has these visions of nudes when she meditates, and she came to understand they were visions of her own soul:

Nude #7. White room whose walls,
having neither planes nor curves nor angles,
are composed of a continuous satiny white membrane

like the flesh of some interior organ of the moon.
It is a living surface, almost wet.
Lucency breathes in and out.

Rainbows shudder across it.
And around the walls of the room a voice goes whispering,
Be very careful. Be very careful.

The deeply startling thing to me was that her nude #7 is exactly what my experience was when I used to dissociate, which I’ve done since I was a child. So exactly (except for the rainbows), in fact, I did sit up straight when I read it and gasped. HOW did she know that so precisely? How did she do that? I want to be her, I want to be her friend, I want to be her sister, I want to be the person who checks her out at the grocery store.

She’d been having these visions, 12 of them, and then they just stopped and didn’t come back. She waited, she watched, she listened, bupkis. And then:

Nude #13 arrived when I was not watching for it.
It came at night.

Very much like Nude #1.
And yet utterly different.
I saw a high hill and on it a form shaped against hard air.

It could have been just a pole with some old cloth attached,
but as I came closer
I saw it was a human body

trying to stand against winds so terrible that the flesh was blowing off the bones.
And there was no pain.
The wind

was cleansing the bones.
They stood forth silver and necessary.
It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all.
It walked out of the light.

And that ended the essay. Nude #1 ended with the woman calling mutely through lipless mouth, so there has been a transformation to this beautiful image at the end of the essay. If you want to read it, it’s here online — but get the book. Read Anne Carson. And then let’s meet for a drink to talk about it.


I do not have a green thumb. I over-water, under-water, forget. But even with my black thumb, even I wouldn’t pour Coke on my plant on watering days and expect it to grow. Even I wouldn’t place chips and a Snickers bar on the soil and think I’d fed it. That’s nutty.

But of course I do that metaphorical thing to myself, in so many ways. I am now good about nourishing my body (all the fruits and veg!), but don’t think regularly about the other things that go into me. Marnie and I had hours of conversation a couple of evenings ago and we talked about self-care and doing our work. And of course I’ve been thinking hard the past few days about living my life on purpose, instead of flitting through it. I’ve been trying to uni-task (mono-task?) and just do the thing I’m doing. It’s GREAT. I couldn’t have done this during my busy years with young kids and teenagers and going to college and graduate school, obviously. Multitasking was our family M.O. back then. But that was then, and this is now, and I have the luxury of focus.

Here she is, Anne Carson. If you click the picture you'll go to a breathtaking story about her in the NYTimes titled "The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson"
Here she is, Anne Carson. If you click the picture you’ll go to a breathtaking story about her in the NYTimes titled “The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson”

And so yesterday I turned off the music, sat in the chair in my bedroom — a place I don’t usually sit — with Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. Marnie read a passage to me that left us both in deepest-heart tears, the heavy ones, the ones that come from seeing yourself in a work of art, of having yourself given back to you in a way that makes you feel like you’ve come home, finally. (Here is the NYTimes review of the book.) The people who have mentioned it to me, always with urgency, are the kind of people who think about big things. I sat with the book (the actual book, not a Kindle book) and my moleskine and my favorite pen and read. I read slowly, savored, stopped to reflect. I made notes, wrote out passages that meant something to me, wrote tiny annotations of thought. I read that book, and don’t want to stop until I finish, but I also don’t want to just frantically consume it — and I have other things to do. I read 50 glorious pages.

Reading such amazing writing made me think about nourishing myself and my own writing. I am not Anne Carson, cannot write like her because I am not her and don’t have her voice, but I want to do in my own way the kind of thing she has done. I want to find the way my book needs to be written, and I need to push and break and find a new way. And to do that I will need nourishment, I will need to read exceptional writing. I’ll want to spend my time feeding myself the kinds of things that fill that well. Besides reading Carson, tonight or tomorrow night I’m going to watch Ida, a beautiful complex movie. As David Denby said in his review of it in The New Yorker, the movie “again and again asks the question, What do you do with the past once you’ve re-discovered it? Does it enable you, redeem you, kill you, leave you longing for life, longing for escape? The answers are startling.” Those are questions that interest me, they’re questions that are relevant to me, and here Pawel Pawlikowski has been thinking hard about them too and produced a beautiful and thoughtful piece of work. More on the movie later.

Of course I’ll need to laugh and break into crazy dancing when Donna Summer comes on my playlist. And when I’m dancing, I’ll need to just be dancing. I’ll need to see my beloved people and be with them. But I can’t go where I want to go if I feed myself chips and Coke and a Snickers bar—Facebook feeds and news I don’t give a crap about and blank TV-watching. What words, ideas, thoughts do I want to fill my head with, especially as I grapple with my own writing? Not those, they’re not going to get me where I’m headed. Figuring things out, yo.