“Ask Much, The Voice Suggested” by Jane Hirshfield

July 5th, 2011

Ask much, the voice suggested, and I startled.
Feeling my body like the trembling body of a horse
tied to its tree while the strange noise
passes over its ears.
I who in extremity had always wanted less,
even of eating, of sleeping.
Agile, the voice did not speak again, but waited.
“Want more” -
a cure for longing I had not thought of.
But that is how it is with wells.
Whatever is taken refills to the steady level.
The voice agreed, though softly, to quiet the feet of the horse:
A cup taken out, a cup reappears; a bucketful taken, a bucket.

Yes. And yes.

(From After)

Reading like a writer

May 31st, 2011

I haven’t tried to write fiction in years. I’m trying to remember the last time I actually completed a work of short fiction – was I still in the States? I know back in DC I wrote some stories when I should have been writing my dissertation; I’ve sketched ideas for stories here in Switzerland, but I don’t think I’ve completed any. Let’s just say it’s probably been close to a decade since I considered myself an aspiring fiction writer, and I still don’t see myself turning to fiction any time soon, but a strange thing has been happening lately when I read certain novels, intricately constructed novels like A Visit From the Goon Squad or The Children’s Book.

I read these novels and find that a part of my mind is trying to work out how the author did it, how she kept all those balls in the air at one time, how she mapped the story, how she plotted out all the twists and turns so that on page 61 she knew to drop the hint that would make the reader say “Oh!” on page 149. I picture a novelist floating above her work, able to see the whole thing below her like a map, already knowing at the outset how the thing was going to work; or standing in a closet like Charlie Crews mapping out all the connections between her characters. I’m almost finished with A Visit From the Goon Squad, and I feel a part of myself wondering with each page how Jennifer Egan plotted it all out.

What does it look like for an author to hold such a complicated thing in her head? How much did she know before she started writing, and how much did she discover along the way? I have read interviews with authors in which they say the writing of the novel was an act of discovery, that they wrote the story to find out how it would end, but novels like A Visit From the Goon Squad or The Known World by Edward P. Jones are so complex the author must have known a great deal going in. How did they build the scaffolding? When did they go back and add all the multiple layers? How did they keep track of everything? I find a part of my brain working on this level more and more frequently – how was this built as a piece of fiction? – even while the rest of me is reading for pleasure.

And I wonder if some part of my brain is making the long walk back to fiction.

Reading Wallace

March 9th, 2011

I’m still reading a Wallace Stevens poem a day, usually at the end of the day though I enjoy it most fully on those rare occasions I get to it first thing in the morning before anybody else has begun to stir. His is an insistent intellect; I can feel him sometimes straining through the pages to tell me something, to express what Harold Bloom calls “that solitary and inward glory we can none of us share with others.” It is, in the end, inexpressible of course – I can no more truly convey to you what it means to be me than you can make me understand what it is to be you and yet here is Stevens trying, in poem after poem, to do just that. Here we all are, poets and writers and bloggers trying to shape words in some magical way so that they take on finally the form of the self so that I might share it with you. It is the endless project; endless because we must begin the endeavor new again each day, this quest to understand and be understood, and endless because we must all fall short. But we wake again and try again, and it is a noble project.

In defense of a good story

March 2nd, 2011

After The Glass Bead Game, my book club is now reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog – it’s a particularly interesting (and entirely coincidental) back-to-back. Both books ask the same Big Questions – what is the purpose of a life? – but in completely different ways. The eras in which the books were written show: Hedgehog is an engaging narrative with characters the reader is meant to respond to emotionally – in a word, a modern novel – whereas Glass Bead Game was all intellect – very much the German Intellectual novel of the last century. It was work for me to read The Glass Bead Game every night (I had hoped to read it in the original German, but that proved too much and after about 40 pages I switched over to an English translation); Hedgehog is a pleasure and it’s still asking the Big Questions. And because it’s a pleasure to read I’m engaging with the questions more than I did with The Glass Bead Game, which asked them so earnestly.

Did I just out myself as low-brow? That I’ll consider the Big Questions but only if they are wrapped up in a good story?

Or was it that The Glass Bead Game was neither fish nor fowl? I’ll read a philosophy book and I’ll read a novel but don’t give me a philosophy book pretending to be a novel. A story that is a story only to serve as the platform for an idea. Yes, I did just criticize the literary talents of a Nobel Prize winning author. But only in the context of this novel – I’ve read other works by Hesse and I remember being utterly, completely engaged – Demian stands out in my memory as a book I read again and again over the course of a year. But in The Glass Bead Game I think the story had to do far too much heavy lifting for the philosophy. The book was full of interesting ideas but it failed for me as a story, a story in which I connected with and cared about the characters as fellow human beings whose fates mattered to me.

One of the women in the group mentioned during the discussion that Dostoyevsky also asks Big Questions, perhaps most notably (but certainly not exclusively) in Crime and Punishment all within the framework of a story peopled by characters who are vividly alive. You care about them, you hate them, they repel you, whatever – but you respond to them emotionally as a reader. So here is where I defend myself against my own charge two paragraphs back: story matters. If you are writing a novel, story matters. Characters matter. These things matter because I think that we as readers are most open to examining the human condition when we feel our connectedness, our underlying unity, with the character experiencing the action. Through the portal of connection and caring we find our way into the story and are open to what the story has to teach us. This is not the same thing as saying we need to read about characters who are just like us, not at all – shoot, Watership Down is about rabbits, but damn if you’re not rooting for those little bunnies with all your heart by the end of the book. And it’s because somehow – and here is the magical, the ephemeral thing – the author has shined a light on their essential humanity (yes, the humanity of the bunnies too) and through that light our own humanity as well. If I cannot get inside a story the characters will always be Others to me, out there in that book, I will always be aware of their identities as constructs, and I won’t see what is happening to them in the full light of their – and thus my, our – humanity.

Fiction can be edifying, can shine a light on our own interior world or a spotlight on the world around us – think about books as divergent as Catcher in the Rye and A Half of a Yellow Sun – while still being a marvelous story full of people about whom the reader can care, deeply. It is not a zero-sum game by any means, edifying or entertaining – indeed if you are an author you had better not be approaching it as a zero-sum game.

Story has to matter, otherwise just write a philosophical essay and be done with it. There has to be a reason why we choose story; why we as humans have always chosen story as the way to grasp and examine the world and to tell our essential truths. Of course story matters, and not just the ideas contained within it.

Story is everything.

Holding it in my hand

June 1st, 2010

My copy of Walden and Other Writings is the copy I gave my father for Father’s Day in 1988. I am sure that somewhere in a box sits my first paperback copy from high school with its underlinings and marginalia, but the copy I keep in my library is the one I gave my father and which I took for my own after he died. I inscribed it with a quote of Thoreau’s, his most over-quoted quote, no doubt, but one I chose for a reason:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…

Then I wrote “Happy Father’s Day to the man who taught me the above long before I ever picked up Thoreau. Thank you,”

Twenty years on, it is hard sometimes to distinguish between memories of the actual relationship I had with my father, the real feeling that was there at the time, and the glossed over glow the memory of a dead loved one can take on. Especially after twenty years it would be easy to have created in my mind a relationship far different from the one that really existed at the time. In light of some of my other memories that have revealed themselves as false, I hold this copy of Thoreau with my school-girl’s writing on the fly-leaf, this piece of my love for my father that I can hold in my hand, especially dear.

It was real. He was my father, and I loved and admired him. And I know, and will always know, that at least once in my life before he died, I told him clearly that he taught me how to live a true life, and that I was grateful.

This brings me some peace when the memories shift like mist over the river.

From my notebook

July 15th, 2009

“I’m trying to force out poetic phrases in the hope that they will lead to thoughts when what I really need to do is let my thoughts run until they trip over a poetic phrase.”

Why I write

January 10th, 2009

“What survives is only what we are able to communicate.” Stephen L. Carter, The Emperor of Ocean Park.

More delicious words

July 3rd, 2008

Here’s another one from Chabon: “There is a small, decisive clink, a bit hollow, like false teeth clapping together.”

It’s not just the startling combination of words that make these images so great but the way they fit perfectly into the style and tone of the work. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a crime novel, gritty, dark, full of noir characters: in the scene from which the line above is taken, the room is full of down-and-outers who probably have – or need – false teeth. And here’s another: “A Disney shtetl, bright and clean as a freshly forged birth certificate.” This to describe a neighborhood that’s home to organized crime on the eve of “the Reversion” when a good many people might be wanting forged birth certificates. Even the image from my earlier post: as the novel progresses Landsman, a police detective, and his partner are indeed comrades in a probably doomed adventure.

At some point I stopped dog-earing my pages to mark such perfect lines because I was turning back every other corner.

Swooning over this simile

June 27th, 2008

Listen to this line from The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon: “He checks behind the hot-water tanks, lashed to one another with straps of steel like comrades in a doomed adventure.”

Wow. Wow oh wow oh wow.

Who are you reading?

June 16th, 2008

A while back Poet Mom wrote this post about who the top selling poets in the US seem to be: either dead (Gibran, Whitman) or well-known (Seamus Heaney, Mary Oliver). It wasn’t that Poet Mom was suggesting that the poets on the list aren’t quality poets, but that there are so many good contemporary poets writing today that don’t seem to get attention (to the extent that poets in modern America are getting any attention at all); that casual readers of poetry reach for names they’re familiar with and aren’t willing to read a new name in poetry the way they might be willing to read a new name in fiction.

Which got me wondering. Who are you reading these days? Who’s the last new – new to you, that is – poet you stumbled upon and how did you make the discovery? What’s the last book of poetry you bought? I’m reading Dorianne Laux and Anna Akhmatova at the moment. My most recent “discovery” is Jack Ridl; his poem “From our House to your  House” in the current issue of Poetry East spoke to me enough to inspire me to order his book Broken Symmetry, and while I was at it I also ordered this and this.

So tell me. Who do you like? Who do you read? Who’s on your “must read” list?