Being receptive

When my parents moved to a senior-living campus about 10 years ago, one of the hardest aspects of downsizing was what to do with the books. My dad’s bookshelves were full of texts that he found meaningful, valuable, inspirational, informational, necessary; he loved to read. Choosing which books to give away and which to keep was agonizing for him. And then he faced the task again when he and my mother moved to a smaller, assisted-living apartment. That time, he donated many of his books to the facility’s library, so he could “visit” them if he needed them. There remained one large bookcase. Because you can’t live a happy life without books!

Then he died; and my mother, who also loved to read, developed such aphasia that she could no longer decipher sentences. Now, every time I visit, she gestures at the books and urges me to take some of them. It’s hard to explain the response I have to taking home my dad’s books–a mixture of tenderness and discomfort, nostalgia and pain. Sometimes I end up giving the books away, but usually I read them first. Because they are books and deserve to be read, somehow, just by virtue of existing. No–by virtue of their having been significant to my dad. That is why I feel compelled to read them.

I cannot say I got much inspiration from my father’s 1955 copy of a text on caritas by Martin D’Arcy, The Mind and Heart of Love, although I found suggestions about the philosophy of Christian love that my father would certainly have noted {indeed, his penciled checkmarks in the margins confirm it}. Last time I was at my mother’s, I chose to take Karen Armstrong’s 2004 book The Spiral Staircase, a book I appreciate rather more than I did D’Arcy’s. Much of Armstrong’s memoir deals with the frustration she felt as she struggled to find her place and purpose in the world of work. As it turns out, she is a writer, although it took her awhile to discover and admit it. Part of being a writer involves isolation or solitude, which Armstrong equates with silence: “Without the distraction of constant conversation, the words on the page began to speak to my inner self…I was no longer just grabbing concepts and facts from books…but learning to listen to the deeper meaning that lay quietly and ineffably beyond them. Silence became my teacher.” That passage resonates for me. I can recall times when what I learned, and subsequently, what I wrote or composed, emerged from such silence.

But I like most of all what she says in her next paragraph (p. 284).

This, of course, is how we should approach religious discourse. Theology is–or should be–a species of poetry, which read quickly or encountered in a hubbub of noise makes no sense. You have to open yourself to a poem with a quiet, receptive mind, in the same way as you might listen to a difficult piece of music. It is no good trying to listen to a late Beethoven quartet or read a sonnet by Rilke at a party. You have to give it your full attention, wait patiently upon it, and make an empty space for it in your mind.”

It helps if we can give our hearts to poems and books we read, make space for them in our minds, hear what they have to say before rushing in with our own clever ideas and personal perspectives. When writing, the same approach applies. Often I think I know what I have to say, yet the poem on which I’m working proves me wrong. And it helps to be compassionate to the writerly self, which is another thing Armstrong had to learn, as she was far too hard on herself about her thinking and writing.

Her subsequent books, and her recent work, center around compassion, I notice. I have not read them yet, but I plan to. Another thing I notice is that the copy of The Spiral Staircase I brought home from my dad’s bookshelf is inscribed:

Tom and Bonnie    with best wishes     Karen Armstrong

Moment(s)

Very small pear.

~

It was delicious.

After last year’s complete dearth of pears, this year both trees were laden with fruit so that the boughs drooped, making things easier for the deer, who love to eat them. We were happy to share, as I haven’t got time these days to make pear butter or prep fruit for canning. We gave pears to friends, made pear cobbler, ate pears for breakfast, and enjoyed them immensely. And we liked watching a doe and her twin fawns nibbling around and under the trees at dawn and towards dusk.

The summer heat broke at last after the “remnants” of hurricane Ida crashed over us. If those were just remnants, I have deep respect for the people of Louisiana, who felt the initial force. We got 7″ of rain in less than a day, and the flash floods affected many of our friends. My basement office on campus is drying out during the 3-day weekend–our building’s drainage system was not quite up to the task of directing water away from our doors. Now, the brown crickets are noisier than the katydids, the grasshoppers have grown large, the days are shorter. Tomato harvest has slowed, and gardening consists mostly of pulling up weeds and dead plants. It is as though the downpour swept away summer, despite my knowing that the hot days will return. (September can be steamy here in my valley.)

I’m reading A.E. Stallings‘ collection Like and relishing her new takes on traditional poetry forms as well as her facility with establishing a sense of place in the poems. I appreciate her images and thought-provoking ideas, too. Her work does the things that I think poems are supposed to do.

Finally, I have been drafting a few poems, or at least hoping these drafts will turn into poems. I’ve also begun examining some older work for revision and, maybe, collection into another book. But that’s looking perhaps too far ahead. After a challenging couple of years, maybe just living in the moment serves me better.

The taste of fresh pears. The sticky sweetness of fresh local peaches. The smell of basil.

Reading not writing

But the next best thing to writing is reading. Or maybe it’s the other way around; if I had not loved reading, I would never have started writing.

Stacked beside the bed:

A Book of Psalms (Stephen Mitchell)

The Book of Joy (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Dalai Lama XIV, Douglas Abrams)

The Book (Keith Houston)

The Darker Fall (Rick Barot)

Theory of the Lyric (Jonathan Culler)

Shifting the Silence (Etel Adnan)

Noise (Kahneman, Sibony, & Sunstein)

Haiku 2021 anthology from Moonstone Arts Center

I love how the first three books all have BOOK in their titles. The Adnan and the Mitchell are re-reads that settle my soul while keeping my mind active and inquisitive. The Book of Joy has been surprisingly helpful to me so far (I am reading it a bit at a time while other things are going on).

Anyway, I can garden. We have had plentiful rain and now I have plentiful beans, basil, zucchini, carrots; numerous tomatoes cluster under leaves, so whenever they ripen we’ll have more splendid organic tasty produce. I will continue to pull out the crabgrass, wild mustard, pigweed, smartweed, etc. Culling, cultivating, collecting sunlight through my vegetables and through my skin (yes, I wear sunscreen–and a hat)…there are worse things in life than an inability to compose poems. And I can read, thank heaven. Reading poetry, and reading about poetry, provides plenty of joy.

One of the practices of joy mentioned in the Dalai Lama’s & Desmond Tutu’s book is gratitude. Fortunately, that practice has never been difficult for me.

under clouds /heat rises from soil /beans grow plump


Complicated distress

My recent reading list borders on the bizarrely unrelated: Helen Macdonald’s essays in Vesper Flights, Malcolm Lowry’s descriptive pastiche of a novel Under the Volcano, and Daniel Defoe’s wandering and curiously relevant A Journal of the Plague Year.

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin
..."is to learn something."
                               --T. H. White

Lowry’s book offers a strange escape for those of us preparing for yet another few months of pandemic quarantining. The escape is Mexico, its mountains and villages, its expatriates, world-travelers, drunkards, outsiders. But the characters cannot escape. The Consul cannot be saved from himself, from his tragic upbringing and his betrayals and his alcoholism. The novel’s so sensual and the descriptions so loving that I feel a sense of personal exile everywhere in the text. And I’m learning about Mexican-British politics in the pre-WWII years. It is a sad novel, but a different variety of sadness than the one I carry with me currently.

~

Most birds possess the power of flight, something humans have longed for and envied forever, inventing angels and airplanes to mimic birds. Macdonald’s essay on swifts’ vesper flights describes how the birds rise in flocks up to the top of the convective boundary layer, where the wind flow’s determined not by the landscape but by “the movements of large-scale weather systems.” The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (one of my favorite informational sites!) suggests the swifts–not intellectually, but somehow as a group–orient themselves using the many-wrongs principle:

That is, they’re averaging all their individual assessments in order to reach the best navigational decision. If you ‘re in a flock, decisions about what to do next are improved if you exchange information with those around you…Swifts have no voices, but…they can pay attention to what other swifts are doing.”

Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights

We have voices; and yet we are not, in general, so good as the swifts at paying attention. Perhaps because there are too many voices shouting so loudly that the information gets confused. The sheep-following fashion of thinking goes with whoever’s most noisy, we follow; that way lies error. Paying attention and using a many-wrongs principle means we have to be willing to change course when new information arrives. It requires a certain humility that, let’s face it, most of us lack.

~

While reading Defoe, I am struck by parallels with today’s pandemic. But of course–times change, people don’t. His narrator feels torn–do I leave for the country, or stay in London? Is it wrong to shut people up in plague-touched houses, or safer for the greater number of the population? Is the Mayor making the best choices for the city? When new information about contamination arises, how are the people–as a community–to respond? And what do we do about those people who show total disregard for others? When there are so many responses, for good and ill, to a pandemic of such scope–what choice is best?

What can be said to represent the Misery of these Times, more lively to the Reader, or to give him a more perfect Idea of a complicated Distress?

Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year

Complicated Distress: a phrase, composed in 1722, relevant today.

How can it be

Another book about how to die, or how to think about dying: Roshi Joan Halifax’s Being with Dying–the subtitle includes compassion and fearlessness, two qualities Halifax explores using Buddhist approaches, such as meditations. While I like to read about meditations, meditation itself eludes me; I am “bad” at practicing, but authors like Halifax and Kabat-Zinn give me hope that even poor attempts at meditation can be useful in dealing with grief, stress, and anxiety. Death is the most normal thing in the world. How odd that we must teach ourselves how to “be with” it. How to keep from worrying ourselves to death about the most normal thing in the world. Worrying accomplishes so little.

When I was a college freshman, I interviewed my great-grandmother (born in 1884) for a cultural anthropology project. She talked about living on a small farm, nursing her 12-year-old son through the Spanish flu, baking and slaughtering and canning and drawing water–life before rural electrification. She said:

Times was hard, but times is always hard, and our lives were no harder than anybody else’s.

Orpha Ann Parrish Smith

Good to keep that in mind at present.

My temperament has always tended more melancholic than anxious; but in these days of covid, flu, and concerns about my bereaved and elderly mother, worried thoughts arrive, especially in the wee hours, especially as cases climb upward in my region and my mother’s assisted living center starts yet another lockdown. I try to imagine the changes the extreme elderly experience…I imagine her being ‘assisted’ by caring, gentle people she does not really know and with whom she can barely communicate due to anomia and aphasia, which makes her grief for my father truly inexpressible.

“I can’t say anymore what I say,” she tells me by phone. “On the wall, it says, what is it? Now?”

“The calendar? It’s Tuesday, Mom.”

“No, the other. The…weather. Season.”

“Oh. October. It’s October.”

“How is it? And I am trying…when was it? That he died?”

“August, Mom. August 25th.”

“Has it been since August? Was it August? Already? So many now. Many…pills. No, ice. Ices gone by. I don’t mean that. I said–“

“Many days, I know. Can it really be October already? And he’s been gone since the end of August. Summer.”

“25. 25 days, August, October. How can it be?” she asks; and I can tell, over the phone, that she is shaking her head slowly the way she does, wondering, surprised, how can it be…

There are times she says exactly the right thing.

How can it be? Something I might want to meditate upon.

Foretelling

I have been on a Dickens kick since March, reading his novels and travel writings that I had never gotten around to in the past. He was, in many ways, a journalist: a consummate observer of human behavior, appearance, society. It struck me, reading American Notes for General Circulation (1850), how prescient he was about the USA.

Portrait_of_Charles_John_Huffman_Dickens 1843

Dickens, 1843, portrait by by Margaret Gillies

In 1841, Dickens was just 30 years old but well-regarded in England and in “America,” where he traveled with his wife for six months. His observations tend not to demonstrate the best about 1840s Americans, though he also reflects on the “good character and general friendliness” of the people here. He remarks at how free education means that almost everyone is literate–every non-enslaved person, that is.

What amazes me is his wrap up, where he concludes his book with a kind of warning to Americans, a warning about our inclination toward doubt in our fellows–our lack of trust, about hyper-partisan political ideology and its poor results, about the ruin slavery will visit on the nation, and about the sad tendency to reward/admire “smart men” over moral, kind, generous, or intelligent ones. He additionally blasts this infant nation for its insistence that trade (and capitalism) matters more than just about everything else except the vaunted concept of personal freedom, which of course is belied by the existence of slavery.

He expresses alarm at how the average American conducts his day and offers suggestions on how Americans could improve overall public and personal health:

…the custom of hastily swallowing large quantities of animal food, three times a-day, and rushing back to sedentary pursuits after each meal, must be changed; the gentler sex must go more wisely clad, and take more healthful exercise; and in the latter clause, the males must be included also.

About distrust of facts, politicians, and experts:

One great blemish in the popular mind of America, and the prolific parent of an innumerable brood of evils, is Universal Distrust. Yet the American citizen plumes himself upon this spirit, even when he is sufficiently dispassionate to perceive the ruin it works; and will often adduce it, in spite of his own reason, as an instance of the great sagacity and acuteness of the people, and their superior shrewdness and independence.

Americans maintain too much pride in their shrewdness and distrust, Dickens claims:

…any printed lie that any notorious villain pens, although it militate directly against the character and conduct of a life, appeals at once to your distrust, and is believed.

So long ago, and yet here is a visible trait of the “American character”:

‘There’s freedom of opinion here, you know. Every man thinks for himself, and we are not to be easily overreached. That’s how our people come to be suspicious.’

Another prominent feature is the love of ‘smart’ dealing: which gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust…and enables many a knave to hold his head up with the best, who well deserves a halter; though it has not been without its retributive operation, for this smartness has done more in a few years to impair the public credit, and to cripple the public resources, than dull honesty, however rash, could have effected in a century. The merits of a broken speculation, or a bankruptcy, or of a successful scoundrel….are considered with reference to their smartness.

~

I need add nothing here that Mr. Dickens hasn’t said already…170 years ago.

NOTE: Project Gutenberg provides this text, including its 1868 postscript, online here.

Top ten, discourse, power

Last week’s New York Times Book Review listed, as always, the ten best-selling books. It’s rather heartening to note that this past week, in the non-fiction category, nine of the ten top selling books deal with systemic racism, historic racism, personal experiences as a person of color, and anti-racism in the United States. Granted, the NYT Bestsellers list projects the interests of only a small percentage of citizens and reflects the interests of a well-educated readership. These readers, however, tend to be people who have money and influence, who make hiring decisions and corporate policy protocols, and who are responsible for educating Americans. They may not think of themselves as people with power, for many of the Times readers are under 40 and middle-class.* But they seem to be showing an interest in learning more about privilege, power, and racism.

I have never considered myself a person who had any power; and yet I now recognize that just as I have privilege I never earned, I have power I never earned–and that I have indeed been using that power (as I have unwittingly benefited from privilege) and can do more with it. For educators possess power.

So do poets.

The past three months, as spring has bloomed into summer, poems of protest and poems that inform society have likewise bloomed. Poets of color, marginalized poets, poets who are disabled or queer or immigrant or for other reasons yearning to be heard are all over social media–which is not unusual in itself (the voices, the poems, have been online for decades)–but the difference lately comes through retweets and viral videos and shared posts at a higher rate than previously. These poems, and the prose and interviews that often accompany them, create discourse. Badly needed discussions. Confrontations that cannot be shoved away as easily as they were. I’ve been reading and observing, hoping a change is gonna come.

True, maybe change will not come. At any rate, it’s unlikely to come readily or rapidly; we have been at this pass many times before in the USA. One person at a time may make incremental changes, though, as my father did in the 1960s: a tiny addition to the marches, one person speaking to a small and largely indifferent congregation. One person at a time can be me, as I instruct my students in how to discuss and how to write about controversial subjects using genuine evidence while being respectful of other perspectives. Demonstrate to them how to notice that there are other perspectives. Teach them that they can read and listen in order to teach themselves.

That is power, and it is power to change. Incrementally, a drop in the ocean, a butterfly effect…why not? We have a dream.

monarch.ann e michael

~~

* I’ve gleaned demographic information from NYT’s published statistics and those from several media-advertisement websites.

Miscellany

I reside in one of the Pennsylvania counties under “shelter in place” advisory, but I can work from home; also, we live on almost 7 acres, so outdoors activities continue. The buds bloom. The insects waken, goldfinches molt to their bright yellow, the magnolia tree bursts into blossom. The meadow is muddy, and vernal pools appear in the hedgerows.

Today, a miscellany of links and virtual or reading-related forays.

My new chapbook, Barefoot Girls, can be purchased at https://prolificpress.com/bookstore/chapbook-series-c-14/barefoot-girls-by-ann-e-michael-p-317.html

(Here I am as a barefooted teenager)

bfg

1975, New Jersey, USA

Poets House is offering live workshops (video) and has a great archive of past readings. Check them out. https://poetshouse.org/

Dave Bonta continues to compile fascinating writing-related blog posts. From his site, you can link to many other poets and writers who are pondering pandemics and etc: https://www.vianegativa.us/2020/03/poetry-blog-digest-2020-week-12/

~

Meanwhile, I am still making my way through the 910 pages of The William H. Gass Reader, a selection of some of the prolific writer-critic-novelist-philosopher’s essays and excerpts. I love his piece on the book as a container for consciousness, and I suspect I’ll be saying more about that in future.

~

Two friends have come down with the coronavirus; it’s no joke, people, take the slow-down seriously and “level the curve.” Please.

Finally, here is a photo of the wonderful hospice staff at the in-patient unit where I volunteer (though, for now–no volunteers are permitted in the hospital to assist, so these folks are doing it all themselves, bless them!).

thumbnail

❤   ❤   ❤

 

Memoir-ish

While we are self-isolating, how about reading books? As it happens, I have a short chapbook of poems that’s being released just in time for National Poetry Month. Here are some thoughts.

~

I enjoy reading memoirs–a well-written memoir reads like fiction or poetry, with interesting perspective and description revolving around not an entire life but one event or series of events that has a dramatic arc the way fiction does–and, often, some of the same ambiguities. Now that my chapbook on adolescent New Jersey girls in the 1970s is coming out (March 26, Prolific Press), however, I realize that readers are likely to interpret these poems as memoir. After all, I was indeed a teenager in south Jersey in the 1970s. That being the case, I might go only so far as to call these lyrical narrative poems memoir-ish.

barefoot girls cover

What people who read poems often forget is that the poem does not necessarily reflect the poet’s experience, only her interpretation, only the potential or the possible–the imagined. Poets choose personas as narrators when we endeavor to imagine other people’s insights, points of view, or experiences. Or even other beings’ or objects’ “points of view.” But of course, we can only imagine–we cannot really know anyone else’s lived experience. That gives poets and fiction writers and dramatists room to speculate, pretend, imagine: “What must it be like?”

This booklet tries to evoke various voices from a collective past but, I hope, will feel familiar to anyone who has ever been an adolescent. These poems emerged from Bruce Springsteen songs, from memories, from rumors, from attending a class reunion,  from experiences my 21st-c students had, and from my imagination. I filled in some gaps and created perspectives that would certainly not have been my own when I was a teen. And yet, any writer’s disingenuous if she claims her characters or narrators have nothing to do with her own perspective, that everything she writes is completely made up; if that were true, readers would feel left out. There would be nothing in the poem to relate to, nothing from which to derive personal meaning or insights. No “Aha!”

Any poem that can be called lyrical takes up the close point of view. Any narrative poem tells a story of some kind. An example is Patricia Smith’s book Blood Dazzler. Readers find it easy to believe that Smith resided in New Orleans, was there when Hurricane Katrina hit, because the poems are so authentic and personal–fierce, believable voices describing the devastation and its particular toll  on elderly and non-white citizens. But Smith did not live in New Orleans, and it doesn’t matter. It is an excellent and shattering work all the same.

Here’s one of Ren Powell’s posts on the unreliable narrator of our own lives. What we writers work with, often, is evoking the emotional memory, which isn’t the same as other ways humans recall events.

Yet it often fells more “true.”

~

Type

 

I was looking in my archive files for something I didn’t locate, and I happened upon this.

In 1981, I was a typographer; actually, I was a typographical proofreader who often stepped in when we needed another typographer (or, in a real pinch, typesetter) during rush times. This is one of the many style guide pamphlets the type designer-producers gave out to sell their fonts and as demos for set style and sizing.

When I was working in that field, I loved experimenting with the way words looked in different fonts. Sometimes I’d typeset my poems, or other people’s poems, to get a sense of how they would read on a “real” page (rather than as typewritten text; this predates word-processing and desktop publishing software). Those experiments led me and David Dunn to establish–briefly–LiMbo bar&grill books as an independent arts small press in 1982. I designed and typeset the books with help from my coworkers at various typography companies, and David did the editing.

I still love print text for the feel and look of how different printing and design choices affect the holistic environment of the page. Paper texture. Type size and choice. Gutter width. Titling. Binding, covers, front matter.

At present, I’m not yet a significant consumer of ebooks, so I can’t say whether similar design choices affect the reading experience. Surely there are differences, subtle and obvious. For the experience of reading poetry, from what I’ve seen on ebooks, I prefer print when reading poems. Technology may eventually change my point of view–I’m aware of that and open to it.

Here’s a poem from Red Queen Hypothesis (due out in 2021), designed appropriately as a bookmark by designer Ric Hanisch.

berthold005