Monday, February 28, 2011

"Lost" from "A Crown Of Feathers"

I’ve been reading Isaac Bashevis Singer’s book of short stories—“A Crown of Feathers,” in rather a bemused fashion-not really sure what to make of them, alternately amused, horrified and disturbed by the stories. I found the story that I read yesterday rather adhesive and went back to it to find out why. I mean this is a small patch of words—that covered a hole; and surely that hole would not be visible to bother me? But it did. This story deals with disappearance, and perhaps the reason it surfaces in the mind with a shiver is because, it is something that happens to all of us. We put something down in a place –we know the place we put it—and then we go back and try to find it and it is gone. We never find it. The difference in this story, seems to be the disappearances seem to happen sometimes in front of the characters.  Yuck.

And so what happens?  Do the characters in this story have some sort of tear in the bubble of their existence so that they are able to have matter become nothingness every so often? Or is it like some sort of delusion that brittles the sanity of all those concerned in this story so that there is a hysteria of sorts –so much so that they believe that things are disappearing in their presence or out of their presence?

The story begins with an elderly man of 83 years old called Shmuel Opalovsky in Poland –who is now known as Sam Opal in the new country.  He has arrived  at the newspaper office of a man who writes an advice column—but he hasn’t come for advice for as he tells the columnist—“What advice can you give to a man of eighty-three?  I have everything I require, and when I die there is a cemetery plot that my landsleit have prepared for me.”  This is a composed, intelligent man who knows that there isn’t much time left but he has something that he would like cleared up in his mind before he dies; and he hopes the columnist would be able to provide some sort of resolution to this matter that he brings before him.

But what matter is this?  A matter of many losses. First, he tells the columnist that in the ship coming to New York, he had been with a young Jewish girl –by the name of Anna Davidovna Barzel—a well educated, reserved and proud young thing who was going to America to meet her fiancé—Vladimir Machtei.  The old man remarks that he felt that this was “an unusual name.”  Hmm... I wonder why?

In any case, they chatter and seem superficially to get  to know each other on the trip. Then, one day he finds the girl decomposed completely, almost on the verge of throwing herself off the ship; and he asks her to explain why she is so upset. Well, apparently, one day she woke up and the money and address she had been carrying in a pouch around her neck has had its contents removed, and a worthless ticket stub was placed in the place of the valuable things. How she had managed to lose the money and the information to contact her fiance is not explained. But when Sam kids her about it—with reference to a possibility of an on board romance and an associated theft, the girl rejects him completely. This then is the state of affairs until they arrive in America.  Sam Oppal has enough currency on him to avoid the sequestration on Ellis Island which was then the fate of all new arrivals in America and since apparently the fiancé never shows up for Anna Barzel, she is about to be taken to Ellis Island as well; but for the good efforts of Mr. Oppal. 

And to make a long story short, they marry –and as Mr. Oppal says to the columnist:

My dear friend, I know that you are a busy man, so I will give you the bare facts. We got married. I have a daughter by her, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The baby was born two years after we married.”
Apparently they were married for six years; during this interval, Mr. Oppal was harassed and made afraid by the entire relationship. His wife was for the most part silent—only speaking when things disappeared.  What do I mean by disappeared?  Apparently –throughout their time together, things would go and never come back—which would drive his wife to words. 

This is how Mr. Oppal explained it:

The fact is that things literally disappeared before her eyes and sometimes before mine.  I would bring her a book from the library—a Russian book, for she never learned English. Suddenly it would vanish.  I brought her a diamond ring and shortly there was no ring.  I gave her household money, and I myself saw how she put the ten dollars into her purse.  A half hour later, the money was gone.  Each time she lost something, she became hysterical.  She literally turned over everything in the house. She went so far as to rip open the mattress.  I am by nature a social person, but as long as I stayed with her I remained practically in isolation.

Imagine how it is when you misplace-say the car keys –as I do on regular occasions –and run round the house to look for them. I do a circuit of all the places I have been in before I lost them –and eventually find them. But Mr. Oppal isn’t speaking about misplacements of things here. He has seen her put something in her purse and yet a short while later, it isn’t there. Now how can that be?  How can two people have the same hallucinations?

It really creeped me out. (Yeah, I’m easily creeped out.)  What is going on? I asked myself. Are they both mad? 

The story goes on that the poor man had to endure this type of loss/hysteria/silence for most of his married time with this woman who also was going through purgatory (no wonder she was silent—terrorized no doubt by when the next horror would happen.)

Then they have a little girl—Natasha-and it gets weirder. The poor woman doesn’t even speak to the child and then, the horrible day when a teddy bear is grabbed out of the baby’s hands and the poor woman has a fit.

I heard the baby screaming.  I went back to the living room, and Anna stood there, white.
‘The teddy bear is gone,’ she said. ‘The fiend tore it from her little hands.”  I felt furious  and I yelled, ‘You’re a liar!...

As you can see Anna, herself –is overcome with this whole business. Or else why would she say that “The fiend tore it from her little hands”? This must have been the work of hysteria but it was enough to break her down more than usual.
This is how her husband remarks on her condition at this incident:

Anna seldom cried. This time tears streamed down her cheeks.  In all the years, I never spoke about these things—people would have considered me mad.  Even after what I am about to tell you occurred, I never told the whole story to anyone.

So they both kept silent about this horrid business between them and now the baby. For who would believe them? They would have been locked up and the baby given into foster care for sure. Things go missing, misplaced. Things do not get snatched into nothingness.

So if Mr. Oppal had kept silent for all these years, why was he now telling the columnist his story?  Well apparently the columnist had reported on the strange case of David Lang, a farmer from Gallatin, Tennessee, who was documented by the columnist as having vanished before witnesses. No one could explain the vanishing. And since the columnist had encountered one such disappearance, of a human being—into nothingness-Mr. Oppal felt he could trust him with the rest of his story.

Apparently, they had left Natasha with a baby sitter they trusted, and gone together to do shopping.  Partway through, Mr. Oppal, as men are wont to do, tired of the whole business and parted from his wife. She continued shopping. And she never came home.

When authorities were informed, they did not take it seriously. She never came home. He was completely done in of course. After six years of disappearances of things now—a person-how was he to trust his sense of reality?  As he puts it:

What does it mean?  How can a thing become nothing?  The Pyramids have stood in place for six thousand years, and unless there is an unusual earthquake, they may last for another six thousand—or sixty thousand.  In the British Museum and here in the Metropolitan, you find mummies and artifacts that have endured for many centuries. If matter can turn to nothing, all of nature is a nightmare.  This is what my logic dictates to me.
And I have to admit, I understand his perturbation. When you compare the presence of the Pyramids, the mummies etc that are solid and present, for many years; and here you have a woman disappearing before her time—it is bound to mess with your sense of reality.  And confuse how you will live your life. And it certainly did have a negative impact on poor Mr. Oppal himself-as he remarks here:

A person who has witnessed what I did can no longer make plans, build a house, attach himself to people. Spiritually, I became lost myself.
Surely this makes sense?  If you can’t depend on things and people being around you –if you can’t have your reality stocked with stable entities—then why bother doing anything? It may be that in the next minute the frame one person exists in will not be the frame the other person exists in.

In any case, Mr. Oppal, at the end of his life, unable to offer  himself a rational reason for his wife’s disappearance after six years of disappearing things-comes to this columnist who happens to believe in supernatural events and creatures and asks for some sort of response to his story. And what does the columnist say?

“Since I am not a scientist I will give you my own unscientific theory.”
“What is it?”
“Vladimir Machtei was the demon who stole Anna’s money on the ship, took away little Natasha’s teddy bear, and later kidnapped Anna. She was engaged to a demon to begin with.”
“Why would the demon pick on her?”
They are said to be attracted to the shy and the beautiful.”
Now that’s a sorry reason to prolong possession of the poor woman until the end of a six year period but I guess there would be no story if he had just absconded with her right away. I found this story unnerving simply because, hey maybe this is the reason I can never find the other partners for all my sock pairs. One of the pair just disappeares --matter becoming nothing.  Maybe, also-- this is the reason why there are no more pencils left in the house despite the fact I buy millions of them.  Or could this be why we have no money left in the bank? You see how tenuous it all gets after a while.  Maybe tomorrow, I’ll get up and be in a parallel universe with my family gone. It’s too horrible to continue on in this manner.  I’ll go read another story in the book.

Night before Tests

Darkness. All about the house a flop of the night. The mind sluggish as old toothpaste in the tube. Time to put younger boy to bed as older boy frantically crams for a science test for tomorrow. The only time the boys study is the day before a test. I call this enlightenment just before revelation. The test results will reveal the enlightenment that they received (minute and scattered).

Once younger boy is in bed, we will go through the same scene we go through every time a new book is to be read. We gather five choices and I let him look at the books. He picks two. Then I read.  Either he or I gets dulled out and we stop. We go look at another pair. This is sort of like playing cards with print. Eventually we settle. The book gets read until I tire out (at bed time he is never tired). Then he sleeps. Then, older boy frantic with the realization that he hasn’t studied much for his test, comes to me wild eyed to beg me to wake him early the next day (I never do—I figure if he hasn’t learned it 12 hours before—why would he learn it one hour before the test?)

The boys settle into sleep. The house pools into quiet. I take out my poetry book. I’ve not written many poems today. But that is fine. This isn’t a war. I’m not conquering nations. This is word-love and in this house –there is no hurry –the words will be here tomorrow.

Canadian History in Grade 7

Younger boy has a social studies test tomorrow and I've had the opportunity to read his textbook. I never did any Canadian history because by the time I got here -I was put into grade 10 and we were already off Canada and into world wars and global damage. It has been interesting to see how small matters such as fur pelts and the resultant madness for fur related head gear resulted in trade, colonization, wars, the erasure of whole populations of First Nations peoples by diseases for which they had no immunity and the start of the mutilation of the land.

I had no idea that fur was the reason Canada became Canada and that the lowly beavers --that I often encounter--- moving their downed pencils of aspen down to the river  to do their teeth writing on--were responsible for the two founding nations of France and England killing each other, and First Nations (FN) people as well --in prodigious abandon; before they finally decided that perhaps it might be simpler to simply live together on land owned by the FN people (as in every conquered place; they simply ignored the rights of the FN peoples). I also discovered that the British were responsible for the displacement of Acadians out of Acadia to parts far off in an illegal act of theft of their properties.  It seems that the British had overweening ambitions in those days.

I have bit more sympathy for my husband's fellow French men in Quebec now.  I can now understand their fierce refusal to lose their language, their culture and their independence. After all they have been through it is entirely sensible on their part, to ignore all English speaking folks and carry on in a civilized manner as if they were a country within a country--which when I go to Quebec, it certainly feels as such.  If you are ever in Canada and want to visit a small acre of France go to Quebec, but not just the French cities of Quebec City and Montreal. No, do what our family does and see the real Quebec of the Gaspésie (official name) or also Gaspé Peninsula or the Gaspé--as we have done several times now. Below are some links to show you what you will encounter on a round trip tour.  Some of the most beautiful beaches and towns--with the nicest people (it helps if you speak French) live in small villages and cities along this coastline.

The first time I went there it was just my husband and I. We were graduate students and I was being taken home to visit his family.  We did the family inspection (them of me) and then went off to camp in farmer's fields and other public places all along the coast. That trip must have been why I married my husband.  And later, when the boys were no longer savages, we took them on the Grand Tour;  it has been about three or four years since I've last been there. I love going there and I plan to go in the future again and stand by the ocean where it all began--- when the French were in New France, under British rule --even then ---stubbornly refusing to be assimilated.

"Self Portrait with Nerves," from "Nerve Language"

I like this fractured poem. The two halves or fractured pieces fit neatly together so you can read them as one continuous poem or as two independent poems.

I don't usually like poems like this since I think  of them as pretentious little mind games a poet plays on a reader to show us how smart he is and how dull we are not to be able to see two poems in one; but this strategy works in this poem and I will stop being so snarky about poetical decision of poets and just huff and puff into this darling thing.

So on the left side of the poem, is the one self-seen I suppose in the mirror with the almost "blue" color of skin, the "Long, narrow, now shaven, face" and the assorted difficulties this face has in managing life --for it appears as if this outer self --is imagining the other self of nerves that is on the right side of the page and is a country apart where the mind is visible as "Rivering through cities," with its nerves. The architectural arrangements of this mind with its volley of nerves is seen in different ways:  "nerves are hot lava"; "Nerves the roots of the tree/ Inventing thirst" as they dig down into the soil of the body; "Nerves the cracked mirror" that is also the "The rhizomes of stars."

The two halves of the poem are brought together in the next to final stanza where the poet or the poet's speaker remarks--"I grow a writing callus" and out of this hardening--has learned to refrain from judging; has developed a reversible language of sorts where "poison is food, and juice venom" -interesting concept by the way--and submits that "Tunes the Nerve Language" (?is music the way the nerves speak).

And then the final stanza--where the one half of the self --addresses the fact that the other half is away already. And isn't this the way it is?  You --the self might be saying one thing to the other self; and the other self is away with its attention. And why not have a self that speaks and a self that attends to the speaking and call the attending self --the Nerves beneath the self speaking?

A neat poem.  It is better when it is seen as a whole --let me show you the first part to give you an idea of its prettiness:

Self Portrait with Nerves

Colour of skin, nearly blue      Rivering through cities, nerves are hot lava
Long, narrow, now shaven, face    Nerves the roots of the tree
                                                                            Inventing thirst

How does one get used
To this state of affairs                Nerves the cracked mirror
I walk as though I were catching myself
From falling                                    The rhizomes of stars

Print Happiness

Happiness is a rope that is around my neck.  I often tug on it to remind myself when I’m mucky with thinking that I’m knee deep in love and happiness and sentimental crap.  I’ve got so much reading that how can I not be supremely happy? I’m reading a wonderful book of poetry by one of the poets that I found in “Open Wide a Wilderness”—Brian Henderson and I am sitting here eating the mouth reddening cherries from the piled up blue bowl of his mind. I love finding a new mind. I love sitting in the presence of its insect whir and flight. I love the meander and drop down the roped cliff of poetry. It is only when you are this happy, does the rope of happiness seem tightest. The book is called “Nerve Language” and my nerves have been stung sharply awake.

I have left Don Domanski (another poet whose bones I dug up from that very productive anthology) –his book “All Our Wonder Unavenged” has been set aside for Mr. Henderson. Such is the loyalty of this reader of poets. But I will be back to read him after Mr. Henderson.  Then I’ve got a second one of Mr. Domanski’s books –“Stations of the Left Hand” ( do poets come up with this interesting titles with their curious book cover pictures?).  I have so many word-sound-meaning riches here that it is waking me up.  Finally. But such delicious language has electricity in it and has catapulted me out of zombie state to the awakenings. There are just too many riches.And they are all about me in these poetry books.

"Hang in there! Spring will be here soon!"

Last day of February. The sign by the extended care near younger boy's school says:

Hang in there! Spring will be here soon.

It seems like a jibe in this weather. The ice blasts that hit you as soon as you leave the van, the push of the shopping cart through the corrugated snow folds of the parking lot outside of Superstore, all serve to slow you down. The morning dash of coffee and toast did nothing to smash the calm blankness of sleep from you.  Mornings at the Superstore on Monday are a zombie march. I have an automatic path that I follow in the store as if I am trundling down a fixed railway line.  Shampoo, soaps, fruit and veggies; the cheese, the pasta, pizza sauce, tomato paste, the cookies, the cereals, jams, peanut butter, milk, bread; then pay, pack and leave.  By the time the cold hands grab you outside the store doors you are partially awake, and the defrosted body enters again into chilling.  Madly stuff the van. Pluck the van out of snow rut. Then into traffic, home, the garage door slams. Unpack. Sit. Write. Drink coffee. 

I like to come home and write as soon as I can. It is already noon as I write this. I wonder, sometimes if the reason I write is for the reasons--- that Ms. Gunnar lists in her book  “Stranger at the Door –Writers and the act of writing,” —as prayer, devotional time, as some sort of way to enter aloneness and prepare for final silence?  Or is it a well formed habit only designed to make products that I temporarily own and then discard? What is the purpose of daily writing?  

I’m not sure. Writing is a way to clarify life--if only transiently. Today I write something down; this is true for this minute, but then the next thing I write contradicts what I said three days ago. Writing is endlessly disruptive.  

When I consider this fact of lack of agreement in anything I write down--the fact that one day--I may be all for one position and the next --not--what this tells me is that I am mirroring a mind that is also as fluid as the writing. In other words, the mind is a thinking machine that functions on chemicals. And what do we know about these chemicals?  How do they work?  How are they are made and how do they degrade?  How do they do the work they do and is their degradation the reason for the slow erosion of memory and the fluidity of our thoughts?   What do they do to store--memory--logical thinking processes--emotions--the self?  And if everything is stored in neurons--how are they stored? Is memory a simple stockpile of chemicals with half lives that are reached continually and progressively until no memories are finally left?  If so --this makes the act of writing down --critical.  

But if what we write down is contradictory, emotional rather than rational, considered useless by our society--is it still worth it to be writing devotedly--as if despite these deficiencies in textual depictions of a mind--it is still a worthy practice to engage in the writing down of a mind? 

I suppose this decision is based on what you value.  Do you --if you have sufficient time--value working at something that will return you more goods and services--or do you in your free time prefer to do what makes you see clearly into your own small life and its attachments? It depends entirely on value and the type of life you want to live.

This type of writing is not valuable if you would rather paint or draw; if you need to work on a career; if you prefer other activities. But if the main method of learning for you (and your main interest is learning) is to use words in multiple ways--then writing is a daily practice that unknots and untangles a great many small minor problems a human being can encounter in a life. It also serves to waken up that human being to luck and good fortune.

I never realized that I was one of the lucky ones in this life. I mean -nearly everyone in Canada is entitled to public education, a public library system, a public health care system, a pension plan (if you work) and social services.  Do you realize how lucky we are?  I think only about such matters when I write.  

I only think about nature when I sit down and write about it. I only think about the good fortune to be married to a kind, loving man like my husband and the extreme luck of having two sons, when others have no kids.  Writing practice inevitably introduces you to the grace of your own extreme luck in being born into such a life of privilege.

Even the long winter is a lucky matter for it makes spring and summer like desserts after a long tedious meal of rubbery food.   Outside the winter wheels and grinds us down to nothing.  The packed river of ice that is flowing towards my house  seems to be a negation of luck and good fortune. For even–the torrents of wind blown ice-surf seem to be coming to drown the small ice berg surrounded boat of my house. It feels like being in a winter-miasma sometimes --in the desert of ice after living in Kuwait in that desert of sand.  I prefer Kuwait; oceans of water are kinder than those of ice.   But in Kuwait you would never encounter--this painter that is winter---a giver of beauty and a maker of landscapes that no human being has been able to draw, paint or sculpt into such attentive bright.

Winter is the ultimate artist.  The poor fir trees stick out like old timers TV antennae from the ice box of the soccer field—they adopt petrified metal arm positions. The long graceful sweep of trees that are at the University of Alberta Farm that I pass by every day—looked like glass factories—with their long sweeping rows of ice tinkling branches.  The metal works of their tree trunks seemed to form fence tines-that no doubt are singing and cracking in this painful ice-land.  It is all very beautiful –if you are sitting in the writing room like I am out of the battering fists of the wind, sympathetically appreciating the troubles of the snow shoe hares, the locked in birds, the coyotes and deer that live right near here along the boreal forest of the Whitemud Ravine Trail.  The young male moose that enjoys a snack of ravine lot trees-- is also hopefully sheltered as well. 

Usually I’m out and about on a walk at this time of the day. But today, I’m obedient to my Muse without  any resistance whatsoever. The weather is a powerful incentive to writing—encouraging me by the hammering of windy fists on the house walls, the posting of white notes of snow at the doorstep that --I’d better be good, that I’d better not come out—that as the sign by the extended care says—Spring is coming soon—but just not today.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

All This Theory

Writing poems seems more difficult than I ever imagined. I wonder how poets did it before we had all this analysis and scholarship in the area of creative writing? Specifically I am wondering how Emily Dickinson arrived at her poems or how Sylvia Plath may have developed her way of singing ?

Did they do what I am doing now --which is reading about how writers write?  Did they ever consider concepts like the shadow poem that poet James Tate has developed? Did they even wonder how words can never make meaning completely clear to any of us but is merely the skin of all the things we are unable to say to each other?

I'm going to write poems the way I have been writing poems--as a way to make language split out of its worn carcass and arrive at something flying and alive.  I don't know yet when this thing will sing.  I don't know if it will be carrying inside it the passenger of a shadow poem. I don't know if it will have integrated in its genome--anything about mythology, hidden agendas, the boundary between language excess and its wordlessness. I'm not even going to try to enter poetry as life saver practice as done by Paul Celan--it seems like a certain path to self destruction  to revisit the massacre site continually in your poems --in an attempt to survive these types of experiences.

What I am going to do is keep writing as if this field was like anything else I have ever learned in my life--a learning curve that can be surmounted and a first plateau reached. When writing, the only thing that is sure is that writing makes for "better" writing.  In other words, the more poems I write, in practice, the "better" these poems will get. I'll rest the idea if such conservative forms are going to amount to anything since I haven't got anything decent anyway.

It is useful to keep all the concepts in writing books somewhere in one's brain, but when the poem arrives--it comes naked and screaming and I'm not sure any poet can do much but cut the cord and start mothering that little one.  All this theory is just that--theory. What counts is practice and experience.  You become a mother by having a kid.  You become a poet by having a poem. One after another.

"Writing And Silence The Unteachable Mystery of Words" from "Stranger at the Door Writers and the Art of Writing"

 I've been reading Essay 6 in this book and I've only come up with a few derivations from this essay which still feel rather muddled up in my head but I've summarized them here.

I lot of writers stop writing when they feel they haven't got anything to add to their daily writing. I don't do this. I'm of the volume writers.  I haven't got anything to write? I find something. The only place this doesn't work is with poetry and I haven't quite figured out why.

All forms of writing are creations of the brain. That means that when we think, we are using neurons and neurotransmitters and neural relay systems to do the work of making.Writing in any form requires the transmutation of nerve impulses into print.  So  why would it be that print that is prose is easier than print that is poetry?

Print is print. Writing is writing.  I don't think that poetical language is created in a specific region of the brain that is locked and bolted and only opens with specific stimuli. And yet, it is harder to get poems (or what I call poems) than prose.  Is this a matter of practice? Or is it simply harder to put forth more complex forms of language which I have to believe poetry is?

Prose for the most part is direct language. We put out examples that are tired, used up and ready for the garbage can. We don't need to mentally exert ourselves for the making of prose. We can go round the worn routes of the brain and arrive at the same place every time.

When we make poetry-perhaps we ask our brains to exert ourselves more than the minimal level that is necessary to produce tired language. Maybe we ask our brains to activate larger regions of the brain so as to get denser texts or multiple surfaces.  Maybe this is hard for the brain to do--to conjure up images, attribute meanings to them, then present them in novel combinations and then, form mathematical equations of poems.  Maybe several different types of thinking have to occur. And the end result is that this is mentally fatiguing, cannot be done for extended periods of time and is less likely to arrive at a predictable end result.

The brain had to make a commitment and then follow through at several levels to deliver the package to the customer. This required some sort of planning, some sort of training, some expenditure of energies and resources.  How is the brain to first set all of this up, then keep doing it and keep aiming for --in business terms--a better product?

Can I even look upon the poem I make as a product?  And can I think of its maturation as product innovation?  No.

So how do I look at the making of poems versus prose?  How does one get better at making a poem?  I suppose the brain is being taught to do the work.  But why then the difference between prose and poetry?

Is there something else involved? Who actually makes the poem?  The self that the brain has put as the face to the writer? Or is it the thing behind the self construct?  Or are there successive time limited selves that replicate over time to replace defunct selves ?

And the poem that is made--how does it say what the mind wants it do say?  What do words actually say besides the surface values of a simple message?  How do we have other attachments to a message that we do not consciously understand that words are impregnated by--but that somehow our mind knows how to implant into them--by arrangements of words into text forms or by line breakages or diabolical tricks?

It all seems to be getting more and more complicated. I started out trying to think of writing a poem as a simple unit of communication that was using words in a tight, elegant manner to commit a singular experience of feeling plus thinking to a reader.  Now from what I have been reading in books like the "Stranger at the Door  Writers and the Act of  Writing," it doesn't seem simple any more.

What was a means to an end--a response has become a brittle honeycomb that drips sweetness everywhere.  How can you have a poem behind a poem as is suggested by James Tate in this book? He calls this concept the "shadow poem" where the poem is giving more than one meaning-but is able to give a richer more expressive meaning somehow ---this is how he speaks of the extra bit that such a poem has:

Page 71

Tate is here talking about that which the poem is not saying, but which may still be "read" there.  He believes that "if it is a good poem, there will always be an element that cannot be explained".  That element is "what we might call 'the shadow poem,' The poem we read says it is doing one thing, is about such and such, when really the important work, the real work is being done offstage, as it were."  An element of innuendo and deceptiveness enters in the creation of the "shadow text."  This the poet does because he wishes to get in touch with that whcih is most mysterious in the human animal.

Is Mr. Tate speaking of the shadow poem as being the hand so to speak in the glove of  the outer words that form its glove? And so this is a hooded poem? And the presence of hand in the glove of words is necessary to make a denser poem?  One that I sense is "better" than a poem without that hand and just the limp glove present?

So is this what I experience as a reader as "resonance" --the feeling that the text --has many wavelengths of meaning--of which the poet and reader synchronize together to get rich, evocative meaning from? We all know why the poet wants to make such resonant text --it is because it is mentally challenging and allows for the poet to do what Ms. Gunnars suggests that lousy poets fail at completely -which is  "breaking into the vaults of the unconscious where valuable documents and priceless jewels are stored." In other words the good poet is trying to harness the unknown parts of the brain--the unconscious that springs open occasionally to release gas clouds and dragons.  But what is this thing that the unconscious gives to the poem that translates to the reader as a deeper, harder, and more feeling experience?  As Ms. Gunnar remarks--"It is difficult and unknowable."  Hmm.. I seem to sense a pattern here.

A great deal of poetry is mysterious, is felt to be beyond our direct tallying, is in fact viewed as intangible and approaching the "unknowable" areas of comprehension. In this chapter of the book --Writing and Silence--the way this is best expressed is that the text is moving from words to what is described --in reference to the poetry of Paul Celan as "the unspeakableness of poetic language and its border of silence."

What exactly is being spoken of here? Is this the deepest core of poetry?  Are there multiple rose petal layers to this bloom at the core of which is an invisible and impossible to define matter?Is this something subatomic and all the other macroscopic views we have of the poem are superficial things; while this approach to holiness and silence is something that words can only grope towards and signal but cannot say?

It gets more and more complicated the more I read. Add to this all the other parameters of craft--it is a wonder that any poet is sane.

The shadow poem is not the only mysterious genotype of the poem that the poet must decipher but the other matters of the type of poetry being made and the mythology that each word itself represents. If the poetry that is being made is conservative --can it be said that the poem is adding anything to the category of literature?  Or is literature only dead bodies of language?  If literature and language are not to be dead skins then they must be continually reshaped by the practitioners of the language.  As Ms.Gunnar points out--Maurice Blanchot reshapes the definition of literature to be a volatile chemical:

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True literature however, in Blanchot's view, does put both itself, its own language, and the culture from which it springs, at significant risk. True literature is always in danger of destroying itself.  The process involved in real creativity is dangerous and even self-obliterating.

Blachot goes on to say that the true aim of writing is silence. This is how he puts it:

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What the real writer aims to reach is a kind of neutrality he calls "degree zero," where none of the ambitious factors connected to art production matter.  Ultimately, true writing reaches for its end in silence.
Another pain in the ass comment. What the heck is he speaking about here?  And why silence? Aren't we in words? Or is he speaking about what words are always trying to aim for--the ineffable?

And perhaps this is what very good writing and poems within poems are trying to do--make a reach towards what can never be made clear--the ineffable in everything.

This is how Ms. Gunnars says this (I think):

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Imaginative, poetic writing is inherently contradictory--a paradoxical enterprise.  "The key word in all this," Auster notes, "is dispossession."  and

The "limit of experience" is the place of mystery and ultimately, not really communicable.

And so is this to say that words cannot reach complete expression?  That the grope is present, and good poems show the grope towards the intangible but it is never possible to arrive at the place where full understanding is possible?

These are just some of the ideas that I think were discussed in this chapter. I'm not done with it yet. I'm still rather bogged down with what has been discussed --of which I found these two ideas of the shadow poem and the decision of the "good writer" to write independent of anything else --writing in the neutral state of "degree zero" as Blanchot calls it. Towards again, that pernicious silence.

There are other ideas in this chapter -such as the mythology business that taints everything, the "hidden agendas", the mysterious intimations or non-sayings that say everything in Paul Celan's poetry; the persistent state of doubt and miserable uncertainty that exists in the use of language where the writer writes basically what cannot be expressed but is somehow expressed and interpreted by a reader-and the "wordless" part of language that is still present even in floods of words.

How to use all this information in poem making? Somehow I do not believe that this can be something you can make yourself do. It is part of the poet and part of her development and will become or not become depending on the poet.  I simply can't conceive of any human being robotically programming herself to incorporate each and everyone of these ideas consciously when she is making a poem. If a poet is able to consciously do this--please write a paper and present it so the rest of us can learn how to do this as well.

Even Ms. Gunnars at the end of this essay decides it is "mysterious."

"Whatever Works The Writing Process" from "Writing Fiction A Guide to Narrative Craft"

I buzzed through this book yesterday at the second hand book store while older boy was held up in his improvisation class at the Citadel Theater and liked the practical and reductive way this author presents concepts in this book. I've gone through chapter one yesterday and thought I'd remark on it.

I liked the immediate jump into the reasons we do not write. Let me say it in one word--FEAR. We do not write because we are afraid of what will come out of our mouths--those rats, vipers, scorpions--- that land on the reader's body and scare her shitless. We are afraid because in showing the other---the vermin that lies inside of us we simply lose our false outer normal citizen image and become "one of them"---which is of course the crazy ones.

And we are all afraid of being crazy or being thought of as crazy aren't we? Otherwise why would we live our whole lives as people we are not, working at jobs we despise, with people who we know are also inauthentic, to end up in the cluster of aneurysms that are midlife and end of life stages--like ghosts travelling a space terrain?

So we do not speak to each other of what lies inside us.  So we do not write ---what we could write--privately in journals because who knows how that might mess with our minds?  And most of all we do not write publicly, the hard  facts of our existence, because then everyone will know, beyond a shade of a doubt that we are not dependable, perfect creatures but fallible and even broken beings.  And god knows such creatures are only a step away from psychiatric wards--aren't they?

So when this chapter calmly enters into FEAR--I am pleased.  I am so done with fear.

Ms. Burroway enters the mind of writer Dorothy Allison--who has to be one of the most fearless creatures around who remarks:

The best fiction comes from the place where the terror hides, the edge of the worst stuff.

Now this is true for any form of writing. The lovey dovey gentle family stuff is sweet, but poems that explore pernicious topics such as our sexuality, infidelity, marriage problems, difficulties of family relationships, environmental disasters, political messes, the social issues--well--they are simply not being addressed by many poets.  Or at least the poets I have encountered so far in Canada. Do any of the poets currently writing see poor people around them?  Do any one of them remark on the homeless?  If they do--I've not read their poems.  What about repression in other countries such as China? Is it all about the birds, bees and trees? Does everyone have perfect marriages? Does not one of them have a child --who has fallen --stands up as a normal or sub-average achiever---and has never got back again-- on that famous success track?

What I am asking here--is everyone perfect?  Of course not.  So why aren't our poets ---writing about the "worst stuff"?

Could it be because this kind of poetry does not sell and that poetry is now a commodity that must conform to the needs of middle class readers?  Or is all poetry being written by rich folks?  Ms. Allison tells us ---in her small contribution on the role of fear ---in making our writing great --the simple truth--which is that we need to enter these hard topics---- and find out what it is about them that terrifies us:

I believe, absolutely, that if you do not break out in that sweat of fear when you write, then you have not gone far enough.

Now I happen to think she is right. I know when I write about topics in voices that I do not personally own (or at least I hope I do not have rattling around as permanent residents inside me)--the writing is very hard for me to accept but it does not sound as bad as the writing that is done in my safe middle class voice.  In other words --if I take on voices of those who are not boring old me--when I'm rowing like hell on the turbulent ocean---then the writing is terrifying to do but I think it is a fraction better than when I writes safely from the beach.

But how to do this type of horror? I think Ms. Allison is wise to advise us--if we are cowardly chickens as I most assuredly am--to fake it. And I would simply add another bit of advice-write under a different name for years if necessary as I did and in private journals if you can't fake it. Even faking takes courage.

I think you have to take whatever tiny trembling steps you can before you can fling yourself at print like a warrior.  Faking is the precursor state to non-faking where you write under your name as I have started doing (but it took me 5 long years to get here --note). This is how Ms. Allison speaks of the way she faked it:

And I know you can fake that courage when you don't think of yourself as courageous--because I have done it.

And thank god, she is brave enough to admit cowardice because I thought I was the only screaming chicken writer around.

Courage becomes a habit the more you do it -because once you have burned yourself with your own brand--well it is hard to going back to being cattle in someone else's herd.  You might as well show up and without pretense, show the squirming coward in the dress suit.

The reward of showing everyone what an idiot you are is that you no longer fart around being goody two shoes and just say it like it is--which might happen to be the best way to say it. In Ms. Allison's words:

I know that until I started pushing on my own fears, telling the stories that were hardest for me, writing about exactly the things I was most afraid of and unsure about, I wasn't writing worth a damn.

So that's the first and main stumbling block to writing. Cowardice. Now you have been told how to rid yourself of that bat and so let us move on to see what else stops you from writing.  Ms. Burroway indicates the other impediment to writing is of course the fact that we can never write the imaginary perfection in our heads into actual poems (well, you might be able to but I am not able to).

And so --because we do not want to lose the pretty pretty in our heads for the ugly ugly on paper, we never write. Stupid. It is just best to get used to ugly, ugly and accept that it will be our fate in life to be one of Cinderella's ugly sisters and still decide to go to the ball.

After getting started--what are the ways you can enter into writing?  When I say ways--I mean where are you going to deposit your writing droppings?

Now I don't know about other writers, but I'm not going to pretend that I'm writing science here. I'm writing daily life. I write daily life in every form I can find--essay, poetry, story. And I write it everywhere, in whatever place I can do it in.

I don't care what everyone else does personally. It's their business and their time. But it is best to write every way you want to write and then usually, one genre will force itself upon you and rape you into submission.  Poetry does that to me. I dare not write anything else when a poem arrives in the hot hands of my Muse. He is not patient.

But onto Ms. Burroway.  She suggests several ways to write--- all of which I have tried and liked:

You can write by keeping or doing any of the following:
journal keeping
using paper and pens/pencils vs computer

The journal is an absolute must for me. I can't do without it. This is the skeletal structure of my body of writing. I write on the computer for my journal entries.  They are my private writings that sometimes pop up into the blog or elsewhere.

The freewriting I do in the minivan waiting for boys. That time is essentially "wasted" time so I have fun with it. Freewriting is just writing any which way you like for a set period.  Some people are very messy with it but since I am an anal person, I have notebooks, observe punctuation rules and I try to write civilized. I then recopy the freewriting into my journal. It is all part of my monthly word count.

Clustering-is rather like using balloons.  A central word is used in the center of the page -then you let words arrive to petal it.  The fact is I mostly use this for the boys and not for myself. I'm too impatient.  The author says this method is fully described in the book "Writing the Natural Way," by Gabriele Rico. If you like diagramming this might be the book for you. I prefer to think in my head.

Using paper and pen/pencils is a good thing. I suspect it makes for slower thinking which is better for poetry and I use them when I do my writing-walking practice. This is done in small hand size dollar store booklets that again I try to copy into my journal that is on the computer. As it is right now--I've dozens of these small books that I haven't had enough time to copy but one day, one day.....

While you are using all of these various ways into writing--you also--- have to learn to squish the critic, which is that dominant Darth Vader inside your head that you have to sword fight each day and conquer in order to write. Just do it. And get writing.

Once you have found the way into writing -you chose a subject and just go.  And keep going. She gives different ways to find a subject, but I think this is rather dumb. I mean why are you writing? Something is bugging you or pissing you off or making you feel the itch to scratch at the surface of life. Use that feeling. Always start with that feeling that is killing you and write until it is less achy and painful. Pain is an indicator that you need to write. And when it is less, stop writing for the day.

The pain may just be the fact that every single poem you write sucks, but that is sufficient motivation to write something horrible again. And how to keep going?  If you have a spouse, you simply, in your most defeated moments go to him as I do and he tends to make it all better. But if you are alone, go beat a pillow.

Then go back to the writing place and seat yourself there. Start writing. Don't get up. Use a word count to "motivate yourself."  Write like a jugular vein being cut and pumping out words in spurts.   Be promiscuous in print. Unlike other writers who suggest gently that quality is better than quantity, this might be true for them and you; but not for me. They may know what the hell they are doing. I don't. Volume and promiscuous proliferation--almost viral numbers of infectious writing particles --are what is necessary if you don't know what you are doing. Write as if your life depends on it. In my case-- it does. That is how to do writing.  And to keep writing.  It is that simple.

In the Belly of a Beast

Cold day blurts outside its wind popping blisters. A frog leaps in the snow –the motion of the same wind. Downed tumbles of snow blocked our driveway.  Shovels formed small cakes on the metal surface. Ice glare on the road as I got groceries. It is already half done the light hours and very little spoken into print. But I had a quiet morning. I read a few pages  of another essay in “A Stranger at the Door,” and did not feel like doing too much more than this. Reading should not be cyclonic. But a meander, to let the mind expand as it is filled.   

My husband and my sons-- are watching a movie. I’ve a new cup of coffee, and warming up from unpeeling myself from ice rind of snow outside. The house heat is buffing me back to human again.  Sometimes it feels as if we live in the belly of a beast that is hole and scream of cold.  The main repercussion of living in the beast is that we stay captive inside its flesh and do not drill out to do much.  It is simply too unpleasant to cross country ski.  Slippery on pavements which makes walking a tragedy of falls.  The gym is packed with New Year’s Resolutions in aching bodies. I’m content to be sessile here.

The Animal, The Voice

This matter of voice in a poem –who is the who inside the box?  Do we sit with our many selves and out of some sort of carousel of selves choose one of them to be in the poem? Or are all the selves we show in poems fictive selves?  It is hard for me as a reader—to not believe that the poet is showing a self—his own self in a poem—for to keep reality constant—it is essential to believe that the self in the poem is also constant and associated with a writer. 

Why is this? Is this a control thing? Is this why I do not want to read fiction? If I understand that fiction is populated by “unreal” beings—devices used to transmit selves that are patently not the authors—why does this frazzle me?

Why do I have to think of poetry as being truth telling? Or a poet as having a voice that speaks of the inner world of the author? What if I accepted the premise -- that a self or a series of selves in a poem—is also a fictive creation? This would –I admit not please me as much as if I felt that a real human being populated the works.

If I move away from confessional poetry to poetry that is voiceless or fractured or even suspending itself in sacrificial poses on the page, the writer is still there inside the works.  Something human still speaks in these poems but I am not happy with this bit or piece. I do not trust it. I want wholeness.

Even though none of the poems where the poet speaks in one of imagined selves is the “true” poet— and even though this voice may not be saying anything new—for what can a poet say that hasn’t been said before ---it is still a voice I trust—more than in the non-traditional poems. 

Why is this?  And why the necessity for trust between poem maker and reader?  Am I looking for a contract for stability?  Am I reading to satisfy such needs are present in conventional conservative poetry for equilibrium, maintenance of one viewpoint, the ordered society that I live in? Is there no room for me to broadcast out of this metal armour and let arrows rain on me as a reader? Is there no way to enter the danger zone of moving out of what is clearly not working –and find not a voice –but something like interesting subjects to mix up and put down to see what fecundity and chaos create?

And why do I see the paring down of language to the shorthand of Emily Dickinson, the barbarism of Dane Zajc  and Anna Swir—the inexorable path to follow? Is language most intense, when it is skeletal? Is voice –the sour sentimental voice defeated by the rigor of an emaciated poetical decision? 

I have been using what I thought was my own “true” voice in poems but I think that this true voice is a fictive voice. That in any piece of writing, we make a robot to take us through the writing as elegantly and swiftly as we can. We do not ever have a “true” voice that is constant and that sings through every poem we make. 

We have a construct. This construct, like the construct used in fiction, works as a truth teller in our poems.  But even here, it may not be a truth teller.  It may be a false entity that removes truth.  How am I to know?  When the thing that sings in a poem pushes its fist through the page and hits the reader in the face, sometimes the poet --- in the background--is barely able to hold that animal back from tearing out of the lines and onto the reader to eat him whole.  Who am I as a poet to tell this animal that it is my own “true” voice?  Where this animal came from—I can’t say. And it may never return back to tell me.  

So what I conceive of to be voice now –at this point in time—at least for me—is who appears inside of me –in my mind to do the work of saying “the truth” which may not be the truth—but be simply what the animal which is the voice of the piece wants me to write down and thereby, tell its story.