Monday, June 15, 2009

Good Readers Reread

Since I have no news of publications to speak of, I will write about what I am reading, or rather, rereading. In my teaching, one of the main tenets I attempt to drill into the heads of my students is: "Good readers reread." It sounds simple enough, and most of us know it intuitively. For example, if you don't understand a sentence, you read it again until you do. If you find a poem confusing (intriguing, mystifying, perplexing), you re-enter it, looking for footholds until you can at least partially ascend some measure of understanding. What struggling readers do not understand is that they don't have to get it the first time. Struggling readers read something once, and if they don't understand, shrug and go on. So that's the first form of the tenet: the micro.

On a macro level, I teach my students that good readers reread old favorites, because a good book has more than one lesson to teach and always rewards second, third, fourth (if you're four, maybe a ninth, tenth, one-hundredth) readings. One of my old favorites is Moby Dick. I recently finished Ahab's Wife, or the Star-Gazer, by Sena Jeter Naslund. I enjoyed it so much that I was inspired to go back and reread Moby Dick as well.

The first time I read it (in college), I finished it at breakfast in Commons, and after sitting stunned a few moments, had the rare urge to dive right back into the first page. Unfortunately, I had a class in five minutes, so my reread has been delayed until now. I just finished "The Whiteness of the Whale" last night. What a voice. The compiling of almost all possible associations of "white" is really quite remarkable. If that had been workshopped, folks would probably have said, "Just give a few examples and leave it at that. Don't try the reader's patience." But the exhaustiveness of the list works so well, of course. It's almost like the heaping on of colors (all colors, in fact) that makes white. In Melville's words:

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows-- a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? (186)

Rereading this reminds me of Updike's "ghastly blank," but also makes Una's answer to Ishmael in Ahab's Wife all the more poignant for me: that we are a part of them, and they are a part of us. When I told Sena I was sorry when Ahab's Wife ended, she said, "You can always reread it." I think I will.

Happy rereading,


Monday, June 8, 2009

Poems at Literary Mama

I'm excited to have two poems (Penny Horse and
Measurements) featured in the June (Father's Day) issue of Literary Mama, an online magazine for the "maternally inclined." Thanks go to poetry editor Sharon Kraus, who so carefully read and responded to my (late) submission and senior editors Amy Hudock, Rebecca Kaminsky, and Shari MacDonald Strong. This is such an amazing journal; it's an honor to have my work up with so many talents.



Monday, June 1, 2009

The Story of Endless Good Fortune

The Mary Oliver poem has really stayed with me since I read it in Matt's last post. It seems to exist in my mind fully formed as an image, but I think I would like to assign myself the task of memorizing it in order to learn how the lines and stanzas work to produce that image. It seems like a simple enough poem, but knowing Oliver, I am sure there are subtleties that would reward memorization.

As promised, I bring you more Updike. First, a stanza from the longer poem "The City Outside: December 11, 2008":

I'm safe! Away with travel and abrupt
perspectives! Terra firma is my ground,
my refuge, and my certain destination.
My terrors-- the flight through dazzling air, with
the blinding smash, the final black-- will be
achieved from thirty inches, on a bed.

This reads as nothing more than a man whose sentence has been handed down, the date of execution, if not set, looming. What struck me about this stanza is the forsaking of an old fear (of flying) for a new, more terrifying certainty. The fear of flying is not really a fear of flying so much as a fear of not flying, ie dying. But the fear of flying is an indulgence of the young and full of life. The remote possibility of the crash is sweet in its slimness. Now the speaker lies safely abed, yet confides that this seemingly safest of places will be the location of that most feared crash-- not from a dramatic airborne vessel, but from a humble thirty inches.

I also love the trick he plays with terra firma: ground, refuge, and my certain destination. The tone is only mildly bitter, mostly resigned. The lesson: we are none of us safe, even when we most think ourselves to be.

Now, "Fine Point: December 22, 2008" (in its entirety):

Why go to Sunday school, though surlily,
and not believe a bit of what was taught?
The desert shepherds in their scratchy robes
undoubtedly existed, and Israel's defeats--
the Temple in its sacredness destroyed
by Babylon and Rome. Yet Jews kept faith
and passed the prayers, the crabbed rites,
from table to table as Christians mocked.

We mocked, but took. The timbrel creed of praise
gives spirit to the daily; blood tinges lips.
The tongue reposes in papyrus pleas,
saying, Surely-- magnificent, that "surely"--
goodness and mercy shall follow me all
the days of my life
, my life, forever.

What a word: "surlily." And here is quite a different narrator, one that wants to hope. What's the loss, he seems to say? Why not a little make-believe to ease the darkest fears. Thus the move from surlily to surely, a wonderful rhyme, so wonderful he repeats it. The only word more wonderful is "forever," which he also repeats. It's that same story the bones (in Oliver) prefer: the one of endless good fortune. It's the same way Updike ended his short story, written in the seventies, "Pigeon Feathers." The narrator, looking at the intricacies of the feathers of the birds he has just killed, concludes by saying that surely the creator of such beauty would allow him to live forever. What a conclusion! How nonsensical. And yet, so tantalizing.

So that's what I've been thinking about. I actually wrote a new poem this week-- yay! And I've been thinking of writing one about sleeping children (no, not a spell) for some time now. But now the sleeping one is awake, so I'll sign off.

Happy June!