Novels & words

When I was about seven years old, I discovered books offered me a way to immerse myself in adventure and temporarily escape life’s discomforts. Novels, and later, poetry, were the genres I turned to most often. Though I also liked history, science, biographies, and art, there was something about a piece of sustained fiction that enthralled me so deeply I could easily ignore anything around me: the television, my siblings’ bickering, the vacuum cleaner, my parents’ calling me to dinner. In later years, immersed in a book, I risked going late to class or missing my stop on the F train. The only area of my life where I understand what is meant by hyperfocus has been reading.

Then I had children, which changed everything. I remained an inveterate reader, but I found it far easier to get through non-fiction, poetry, essay or short story collections, and literary memoirs than to devote myself to novels. It was simply too easy to get lost in a book of fiction, to wrap myself in those worlds to the detriment of my own. Too easy to become irresponsible to life’s requirements, which were suddenly so many and so urgent. If my situation had been different–let’s say, commuting by train for half an hour or more daily–I might have continued reading a hundred or more novels a year. But I was home in the rur-burbs with two young kids, and I could read only in short spurts throughout the day. Granted, I read a lot of books to my son and daughter, some of which were new to me and most of which were fictional…but a bit below my grade level.

Those children are in their 30s now, but I became so accustomed to the non-fiction genre that only recently have I begun to turn back to my first love, the novel. Granted, I did my reading-all-of-Dickens stint during covid, and I never completely abandoned reading novels; but I got out of the habit. Because my workplace office is now in the library, however, I have been picking up the occasional, usually contemporary, novel that appears on the library’s New Acquisitions display. This is where I found R.F. Kuang’s book Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translator’s Revolution. Imagine an alternative Dickensian-era Britain, with the underlying power struggles between education and political power as per Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, and the almost-believable otherworldliness (and creative footnotes) of Susanna Clarke’s fiction…with the late-adolescent outsiders who bond over knowledge that cements the Harry Potter books…and add some genuinely academic background on linguistics and etymology.

That’s about as close as I can describe Babel by means of other books, but what I really enjoyed about the novel is the way it got me thinking about how dismayingly interconnected education and scholarly pursuits are with power structures such as governments, politics, wealth, and colonialism. Kuang deftly shows her readers how the focus on knowledge that her characters love and possess talent for inevitably leads to a narrowness in their perspectives that differs almost dangerously from an uneducated ignorance. They are good young people, but they operate as elites in a fundamentally callous system. The system either corrupts or smothers. The “fun” part of her world construct is that power operates on the use of words: on languages and their etymologies, which are magical enhancements.

But of course, power does hinge on the use of words, doesn’t it?

The question this poses in my mind has something to do with poetry, with the writing of it, the speaking of it, its use of words that are not magic but can carry with them a power to evoke that seems pretty magical at times. Reading this novel was not only entertaining (sad, thrilling, surprising)–it got me, after I’d completed hyperfocusing, to reflect on ideas that twine with the roots of poetry. To me, that’s the best takeaway from any reading experience.

Relevant, possibly

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Of note: I’m happy to have a poem in Scoundrel Time, a journal I enjoy reading for work that’s relevant to the contemporary moment. Here it is; please read it, and read the other wonderful poems in Scoundrel Time: “A Brief History of Kyiv.”

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This poem also came to mind, for different though possibly related reasons. It will appear in The Red Queen Hypothesis when that book (my second full-length collection) gets into print. I was writing many poems in various forms at the time. The poem’s story is second-hand, the we a personified plural community of human beings, one repeated line taken from, you’ll recognize, A Tale of Two Cities–there’s a reason for the allusion as well.

Somehow, may all be well. Somehow, may each of us find some happiness.

~~

Variations on a Line of Dickens
			(Belarus, 1985)

It was the best of times, it was the worst
of times, when nothing seemed to go our way,
though happiness is what we wanted. First

we stood in endless queues, outside, and cursed
the lack of cheese or bread; our pals would say
it wasn’t the best of times, it was the worst.

We’d swill cheap vodka, harshening our thirst,
highlighting deprivations of each day,
when happiness was all we wanted. First

we’d press our bodies close enough to burst
the paper bag of lack. Kisses could not stay
our own best times, but it was the worst

thing to let go. Our lips still pursed,
the tastes of sex would linger and relay
that happiness is what we’d wanted; first

times were the best, solid, immersed
in flesh and heat—forget the fray—
those were the best of times, and yes, the worst.
Happiness was what we wanted first.

~~





Sir John Tenniel, of course.

Practicing

When I was 15 years old and learning to type on my dad’s old manual typewriter, I decided to write my memories; I was composing memoir before I knew what memoir was, under the influence of fiction (David Copperfield). I lost track long ago of where those pages are, but I do recall that I wrote page after page. What on earth would an adolescent who was raised in loving and non-traumatic circumstances in a middle-class New Jersey suburb have had to say that was worth recording?

I wrote about losing a toy bear, and learning to read; receiving second-hand books with joy, reading voraciously, wondering what it would be like to be an orphan, and feeling terrified of dying. I wrote about the attic of our old house and learning to ride a bicycle. There were other things, too, that I can’t remember now. Generally, mundane and typical 1960s-childhood events–and descriptions galore. It felt important to write down the small details.

Perhaps I should have gone into journalism.

These days I’ve no interest in writing memoir. I have kept a journal since I was ten years old, and that constitutes enough self-indulgent scribbling on its own. I treasure, however, the practice all that writing gave me: practice in constructing sentences, employing vocabulary words, creating metaphors, using punctuation in various ways, expressing abstract ideas and describing concrete objects. Writing, learning to write, critique, and revision have been immensely valuable to me.

I’m not sure who I would be if I hadn’t been constantly writing (and reading). Maybe I’d have been a contemplative.

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All of which is to report to my readers, who may be experiencing their own obstacles to their art, that –yes– the writing continues in the face of loss and grief, anxiety, and the work of the body in the world, in the mundane spaces of daily grind and in the wakeful hours, and in the containers of dreamwork and consciousness. Right now, the writing is not “good,” not crafted, aware of itself, ready to speak to others than the self. It is, at present, more akin to what the Buddhists call practice.

Photo by Donald Macauley on Flickr | https://tricy.cl/2DSmsmY

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Keep working, keep practicing, keep breathing.

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.

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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.

Objects and stories

I’ve been occupied with many things lately that take me away from blogging and even from poetry. I have been re-reading Hard Times which seems, suddenly, relevant and appropriate to life. I deeply value my world of the imagination, which is not bi-modal, black-and-white, straight facts, simple storyline, no diversions. It is rich and complex and worthy of exploration. It is mysterious and loving and paradoxical, a puzzle and a joyful muddle and a pool of sorrows. It loves to divulge and elaborate and dwells in velvety ambiguities.

I post herein a quote not from Dickens, however, but from Edmund deWaal’s book The Hare with Amber Eyes–in hopes that it will jog my memory for a further post on this topic eventually.

“It is not just things that carry stories with them. Stories are a kind of thing, too. Stories and objects share something, a patina….perhaps patina is a process of rubbing back so that the essential is revealed, the way that a striated stone tumbled in a river feels irreducible, the way that this netsuke of a fox has become more than a memory of a nose and a tail. But it also seems additive, in the way that a piece of oak furniture gains over years and years of polishing…

You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start. You begin to tell a story.”

ipomoea

Or something that is not in your pocket. Something you may see along the road, on a path in a park or forest, reflected in a window. The story, perhaps, of a story you thought you knew well–one your father told you, which his father told him, and to which there is truth but also layers and about which you may be able to weave another tale.