Jack Gilbert: “How is THAT a poem?”

One book that got me through this grueling winter is Refusing Heaven, a collection of poems by Jack Gilbert, from 2005. I handwrote one poem from it, “Trying to Write Poetry,” and carried it around in my pocket when I didn’t feel like carrying a book, in a not-too-successful attempt to memorize it.

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It could be that some lines from it resonated with the idea of poetry I got from Irish theologian John O’Donohue, who talks a lot about finding truth in the penumbral places. “Trying To Write Poetry” starts: “There is a wren sitting in the branches/ of my spirit and it chooses not to sing./ It is listening to learn its song./ Sits in the Palladian light trying to decide/ what it will sing when it is time to sing./ Tra la, tra la the other birds sing/ in the morning, and silently when the snow/ is slowly falling just before evening…”

“Knowing that passion is not a color/ not confused by energy…”

In many Jack Gilbert poems, you ask yourself “How is that a poem?” Which is always a completely legitimate question of the reader to ask – and often the door to the room where the meaning is clear.

Sometimes Gilbert’s poems are best read as extraordinarily concise character-building sketches, that character being the “I,” the narrator. That’s not something we usually say about poets, but take this poem from Refusing Heaven:

By Small and Small: Midnight to Four A.M.

For eleven years I have regretted it,

regretted that I did not do what

I wanted to do as I sat there those

four hours watching her die. I wanted

to crawl in among the machinery

and hold her in my arms, knowing

the elementary, leftover bit of her

mind would dimly recognize it was me

carrying her to wherever she was going.

A touching memory, but how is it a poem? I couldn’t really defend it from someone who says it isn’t one! Though I do see some poetry in the title: “By Small and Small.” The late night hours are often called the “small” ones, and the small memories and regrets can be the ones that stick in our craws. And small mercies can be the most meaningful ones, at the end of life and throughout.

Gilbert’s favorite topics are his young years spent in Italy, his home town Pittsburgh, and his late wife. In “Less Being More” he writes of a “he.” “It started when he was a young man/ and went to Italy. He climbed mountains…” (The first choice a poet like Gilbert makes is to write of an “I” or a “he” or a “she.”) It ends:

                           …. He began hunting

for the second rate. The insignificant

ruins, the negligible museums, the back-

country villages with only one pizzeria

and two small bars. The unimproved.

 

My kind of guy! And my kind of poet.

Letter From Mid Winter

So much has happened. So much to talk about. It’s deepest February. Snowdrops are popping out of the ground. The Olympics are back. Though I never really watch them, all this talk about Mikaela Shiffrin got me listening to Lalo Schifrin, the Argentine-American arranger and film score composer, a master at putting bugs in one’s ear, including the Mission Impossible theme.

The first cut in that clip – and this is news to me – is called “Danube Incident,” and it’s what Portishead sampled for its 1994 song “Sour Times.” Schifrin is still alive at 85, and “Sour Times” is now in fact older than Mikaela Shiffrin.

Another mass shooting this week. Not much else I can say about that.

Neil LaBute lost his job! Two things about that strike me. One, so far the reporting says nothing about why, and that says something odd about the times we’re in, when they don’t even have to say why he’s out: we can safely assume it’s sexual harassment. Ask yourself, did you ever think for a moment Neil LaBute wasn’t a harasser?

I’ve been working as the general manager of a new restaurant in Brooklyn, the most ambitious “day job” I’ve had in years. Every day is like film production, and it’s relegated my writing life to a few hours of poetry in the mornings.

Last Tuesday I took a rare break to go see a Bergman film, Sawdust and Tinsel. His best, you could argue. Only seen it on the big screen once. Got distracted. Went to a wine tasting. Got talking shop. Missed the film. Had a cannoli. Met my wife and went to the Beacon Theater to hear First Aid Kit.

Instead of dour old navel-gazing Sweden – Bergman, who preferred the emptiness of Faro Island over the bustle of … Malmo – I got a young, global, Americana-loving Sweden:

You know I love to psychoanalyze bands. “Why does Mick worship the ground Keith walks on?”  That sort of thing. And so often it’s about the fraternal bond between them, that we get to warm our hands by. Seeing how they interact is one of the rich things about live performance, and it shapes how we appreciate the music.

It took two songs to figure out First Aid Kit: Johanna Söderberg, who has a voice as pretty as Iris DeMent, also has a little sister Klara who’s got a gusher of songs coming out of her. At the ripe old age of 25, she’s got something good figured out.

Oh, and my film had a screening this week! “Six Women,” which I wrote and produced and Teddy Schenck directed, finally had a New York screening at the Anthology Film Archives. Marvelous to see it in a theater!

After ten or so film festival rejections, it’s easy to second-guess choices you made in finishing a film, and in our case, as writer-producer, I admit I was revisiting some choices about what we paid attention to on shooting days. Had we given the director and camera “department” too many liberties to make what they felt were pretty images?

Seeing it on a computer screen, you could forgive me for suspecting as much. Seeing it a hundred feet wide, all that attention to creating beautiful images feels like it was worth it! It deepened the meaning and in some scenes conveyed the meaning of the action like it just does not on a 12-inch screen.

Much, much more coming.

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Just Kids

I was a little surprised a few nights ago to read on the IFC Center marquee that it was reviving Casablanca for a 75th anniversary run. One wonders, how much longer can World War II still keep the moral imagination of cinema-goers penned in like it has?

The fact that I was walking to the train from a revival screening of A Matter of Life and Death only made the length of time seem longer. The characters who fought in the war – and many of the soldiers filing into heaven in the film – were just kids, after all.

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“There’s no Technicolor in heaven.”

Kim Hunter was 26 when the film got made, David Niven a full ten years older, though smoking cigarettes and fighting world wars seemed to age men’s faces faster back then, making this one of those hard-to-get-your-head-around age gaps, watching it now.

Gorgeous film, written by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It’s a good example of a film getting lost in history because it was too topical, too of its time: When Niven’s British pilot falls to earth and falls in love with an American before the bureaucracy in heaven can track him down, it goes to an administrative trial that, you’d expect, is about love, but turns into an amusing but way beside-the-point argument about British-American relations. Brits apparently know it much better than we do – the BFI once ranked it the 20th best British film of all time – but if it hadn’t gone so out of its way to make a point about diplomacy and politics, it could have been one of the most celebrated love stories ever.

It’s just marvelous how it turns the Wizard of Oz dichotomy on its head. Heaven is bland and bureaucratic – and black and white. Earth is Technicolor. There is no place like home.

Away In a Trough

I’ll never forget the first Christmas after I’d taken a French class. A manger, as far as I’d known, was a decorative place where hay gets stored, roughly the size of a baby carriage most of the time, about knee high.

NativityThen I recognized that word: manger, to eat. It dawned in me that a manger was a trough where an animal eats. They’re often longer and presumably not as snug and inviting as the fake ones I’d seen.

Around this time I was a waiter who was learning how foie gras gets made – and yes, I do think there is a place in hell for those who make it and eat it. I’d seen gras before, something about Fat Tuesday.

Another time I was shopping with an immigrant who needed to pay for something small and produced coins from his pocket. Instead paying with them, he handed them to me, who was quicker with these five- and twenty five-cent pieces, and the ten-cent coin that was mystifyingly the smallest of all.

I tried explaining that it wasn’t that hard. The quarter was a quarter of a dollar. The little dime was…could the d-i in dime be the same d-i -in diez, for ten cents?

Then there was the time I noticed that the White Mountains were in New Hampshire but the Green Mountains in a place called Ver-Mont.

Discovering new, esoteric words and congratulating oneself for being able to place them via their cognates is an elite kind of pleasure, like the day you hear about an old relative who has tachycardia and you know what it means because you know what a tachometer does.

The more humbling pleasure is realizing you have been using a word for a long time without appreciating its simplest meaning. There are cognates hidden in plain sight, words we have a deeper connection to than we realize. We use them every day, making witty cross-cultural puns without meaning to.

I was reminded of another this week when I watched an episode of an excellent online series called Woodlanders – more on which another time. A woman in Greece harvests acorns, grinds the nuts themselves into flour, and takes the acorn caps and sells them to a tannery in Germany. Can you guess what the active ingredient the tannery is after? Tannic acid.

My neighbors as a kid in New Jersey were a working class family who called their living room their “poller,” or parlor, a word I prefer to “living room,” which is so antiseptic. It implies a room where you’d play parlor games, or maybe just talk, parl.

I could go on, but I must get back to work. Been too busy to blog. I promise I’ll write more by the full moon, which comes, incidentally, once a month.

 

 

 

2nd Amendment Fundamentalism

In the month between Las Vegas (58 dead) and Sutherland Springs, Texas (at least 26 dead) I’d shut off the notifications on my phone, so now I get no automatic notices when things like mass shootings or baseball playoff games happen. This way, I spent yesterday blissfully ignorant of the shooting, and got to condense the usual routine of my reaction down to a few minutes this morning.

See, they happen often enough for each of us to have a routine, like what we do when we catch a cold,  or a bee gets in the house.

First I pore over the titillating details. I know that if mass shootings are by design a shocking genre of theater, then we are abetting them by choosing to be audience members, but who can help it? I struggle, but typically manage to stop mindlessly clicking on links about it – but not before I’ve read up on the cultural slant it’s going to take.

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Ted Nugent.

“I wonder what they know about the shooter?” is a kind of code for “Is he a Muslim who snapped, or a white supremacist or what? What kind of fallout are we waiting for?” Many people made the case during the Las Vegas shooting that the coverage is very different when a white American does it, and that’s no doubt true.

The American Right went apeshit the moment rioters loosely affiliated with Black Lives Matter broke the law, let alone the horrible case of Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who had a long history of arrests and mental illness, bought a gun, shot his ex-girlfriend, drove to New York City, and killed two cops and himself. To the racist mind, this is proof that we should never-ever protest police treatment of minorities.

In all these shootings, including yesterday’s, the liberal asks, “How did this guy get a gun, and shouldn’t we try to make that harder?” I get that, but I despair of this horrific ideology that’s becoming more commonplace, of thinking of gun ownership as the source of our freedom. At each mass shooting, I think “Maybe this will open some minds,” but it’s dawning on me now that many gun enthusiasts actually like mass killings.

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Emmaus, Pennsylvania today.

Just look at the sticker I saw on a Buick in Pennsylvania last week, with a skull in the center: 2nd Amendment fundamentalists are a kind of heavy metal death cult. Like a teenage boy with an army jacket drawing photos of his automatic rifle all over his notebooks, the higher the death tolls the higher the stakes, the more euphoric he feels holding his gun.

Like other forms of fundamentalism, such as certain religions, 2nd Amendment fundamentalists use a fabricated notion of the past to build a false sense of right and wrong. As if paying taxes is what makes us contributing citizens (as opposed to the takers), and if we ever feel we’re getting a bad deal, then we can always get back to basics: me and my gun.

Joni Ernst is a member of the Republican majority in the Senate. Here’s how she won in 2014, a month before Ismaaiyl Brinsley killed two cops:

There is a radical, anti-government movement on the march, one that favors religious law over our constitutional traditions, and thinks killing like yesterday’s is an okay price to pay for our freedom to own military-grade weapons. It’s okay with vigilante violence as long as it’s being used against black people and the soft-headed liberals who sympathize with them.

And there is nothing comparable on the Left. Just compare the Democratic Party and Black Lives Matter’s reaction to the Ismaaiyl Brinsley shooting with the actual Republican support for the armed thugs in the Bundy standoff in 2014. They make us seem like the Rotary Club.

Let’s also never forget that if you’re locked in a room with an armed madman, then it’s you, not the madman, who has to figure out how to get out. The guy who did the shooting yesterday, like most of them, had a history of violence against the women in his life; one wonders what a “broken windows” policy toward domestic offenders would do to the violent crime rate.

I’m not holding my breath. There’s no easy way forward, and here we are.

Marathon Sunday

That the New York City Marathon happens on the morning we set our clocks back an hour in the Eastern time zone only makes it more special. It passes by the end of my block, just a few miles into Brooklyn from its start on the bridge from Staten Island.

More than once I’ve woken up on Marathon Sundays to the sound of cheers, but most years, like other people, I wander outside my apartment and wonder that it’s still so  early. Half the clocks are wrong. Outside at 8:30 are the usual retirees drinking bodega coffee, and families shuffling off to church, but on Marathon Sundays there are more: Cops looking bored staring into their cell phones. Tape and police cars everywhere. And increasingly between nine o’clock and eleven there are neighbors with bedhead out to cheer on the runners.

The only thing like it is when a blizzard shuts the city down. The gentrifiers and the O.G. call a truce, and we make fools of ourselves cheering. First come the wheelchairs. Then come the tears. Then I scrounge up another cup of coffee, and we wait in the damp cold for the women leaders, who run past like quiet lightning. Thirty minutes later, the men come, the biggest cheers, then a weird lull.

Then they come. The masses, thousands of them. We yell for random countries. “Go, Costa Rica!” “Go Svensk!” I break out my Spanglish, shake a few hands, try to commit some names to memory, and the neighbors say, “See you around.”

Night of the Living Dead

As someone who used to see about a film per day – in recent years, more like two or three per week – I knew I was in for a shock when I moved to Shelter Island, New York for a job that lasted from 4th of July till this week: Zero cinemas and a house with poor Wifi meant practically no movies.

 

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Somebody’s a Zombie.

My first visit to a cinema back in the city just had to be something both classic and entertaining. Luckily a restored Night of the Living Dead was out. I loved it from the first shot – more like a regional indie film than pure horror. And the content, about a black man and white woman confined to a house together, started with so much promise.

Its problem – and not in a theoretical sense, I mean, it kept us from enjoying the film – was the female characters. One is a vicious nag, one is hopelessly in love, and one, The Woman, is in such shock she turns hysterical by minute ten and needs a slap across the face just to ineffectually help The Man, a little.

The girl who becomes “a ghoul” and takes a trowel to her mother’s face has the most get-up-and-go of any of them! For kicks I took a quick look at the 1990 remake, and in the first five minutes the heroine fights back more than the 1968 heroine did the whole time.

There you have it. Seeing a good film is so satisfying, that seeing an okay film gives you  the feeling you get when you want s strong cup of coffee and all you have is diner Bunn-o-matic. You feel like a ghoul yourself.

Harvey, #MeToo, and Me

Even before the #MeToo moment arrived on social media yesterday I was reading Marie Howe’s poem “Sixth Grade” a few times per week. It starts with her telling the story of a day when a gang of boys tied her and her friend to a garage door with a clothesline and mock-raped them both with the dried leg of a deer. It ends when she finally gets through to a boy she knew, her brother’s friend, who happens to be named Charlie:

“…And then more softly, and looking directly at him, I said, Charlie.

“And he said Stop. And they said What? And he said Stop it.
And they did, quickly untying the ropes, weirdly quiet,
Mary Lou still weeping. And Charlie? Already gone.”

So little effort on men’s part makes such a big difference in stopping sexual harassment, and yet we feel somehow like it’s a grand sacrifice worthy of hand-wringing. We can forgive Charlie from Howe’s poem for slinking away, since the repercussions among sixth-graders in the 1960s may have been real, but among adults 50 years later, what are we really sacrificing?

I speak with some authority on the subject, since I’ve been a sexual harasser myself. I hesitate to say so this week, since #MeToo has been lumping all kinds of sexual harassment together, and the differences do matter, but that’s the nature of moments like this. We didn’t speak up when it was easy to; now we’re going to be embarrassed into it when it’s hard.

Over the years female coworkers have had to remind me when my sexual jokes have gone too far, something I can own up to. Now that I’m a supervisor, and older, I try to make up for it by being a good mentor to the younger women, taking complaints seriously, and proactively establishing a workplace vocabulary that’s  all good vibes and yet manages to feel more free-spirit than apparatchik-speak. One detail from the Weinstein scandal that spoke to me was Gwyneth Paltrow saying she recalled thinking, “I thought you were my Uncle Harvey.” Once you say anything about how you want to create “a family,” and once they call you uncle, abusing that trust in any way, big or small, makes you a real asshole.

I have a harder time forgiving myself for how mean I was as a sixth- and seventh-grader. One girl in particular, I used to intimidate, to the great amusement of my male friends. Like Groucho and Harpo, I had a chaotic sense of humor that was marred by spasms of outright cruelty. In retrospect we were intimidated by her, whose only crime was being the prettiest, most mature-looking girl in a room full of horny 12- and 13-year-olds. It’s all fun and games till you consider that she’s a human also.

I remember seeing her again a few years later. We must have been around 16, at an adult party I was attending with my parents, she with her 18-year-old boyfriend, smoking cigarettes around the pool table (the good old days!). I tried to be friendly and got completely frosted out, as in, it wasn’t yet time to forgive and forget.

I should add that I was on the receiving end of a serious bout of harassment when I was in college, and I try being philosophical about that too. I have zero interest in bringing it up and bothering some old closet case about it. On the other hand, I haven’t exactly checked on his well-being lately either.

It hurt yesterday, reading accounts of harassment my friends went through as kids. I would just add that many of the “perps” were kids too. I was by any other measure a “good kid,” but somewhere there’s a story in which I am that scumbag who harasses. I wasn’t as good at algebra as Harvey Weinstein was at producing films, but I could do the simple math: I read my history book cover to cover by October, and wrote book reports that would have passed in high school, and I wasn’t about to get into any serious trouble.

harvey-weinstein-meryl-streepMy only other word of caution is about the Puritan impulse that’s always close at hand on the American Left. “There was a type of man whom the Puritans never tired of denouncing,” as Edmund Morgan wrote in The Puritan Family: an upstanding family man, a successful farmer and conscientious citizen, who was nonetheless on his way to Hell. As if the purity of one’s heart is the true measure of a person, not the net sum of one’s actions.

Harvey Weinstein’s accomplishments, like Elliot Spitzer’s, make his fall all the more spectacular, but I see them as mitigating, evidence for the defense. Rutgers, my alma mater, should absolutely keep the money Weinstein gave to establish a chair in honor of Gloria Steinem. If the Devil dropped a solar-powered water purifier in Puerto Rico this week, I’d say “Hook that thing up.” Weinstein’s done, he’s not going to corrupt an academic department from his house in East Hampton, but I digress.

I’m not surprised that so few men spoke up with much more than a polite “like” button yesterday. To say “I support you” is to risk seeming like you’re glossing over your own complicity with sexual harassment, but to say “I’m guilty” requires a story, and, like I did, reminding friends that the differences of degree matter:

Weinstein’s asking an actress to sleep with him or else lose her job is harassment, and so is telling a blow job joke at the wrong table at a holiday party. One of them should get you run out of town. One should get you a “What the hell were you thinking?” talking-to. And those of us who rely on, or have relied on, that wiggle room owe it to our communities to take the lead when serious harassment happens. We should, like Scott Rosenberg, speak up when the time is right. There is no jury with the power to say we’re good or bad people. There’s just, always, the question of what to do now. Speaking up last year would have been more courageous than this year, but this year is better than next.

Years ago Kevin Smith described Harvey Weinstein as a “true vulgarian,” as is Kevin Smith, one reason I’ve never been a fan. While writing an arts feature about a film exhibitor in Minneapolis around 2000, my subject told me, “The Weinstein brothers are less ethical than Bob Guccione,” and I thought it was hyperbole. I can’t say I’m surprised now, but the big story here isn’t the “monster” or “ogre” – a word I’ve seen more in the past week than I had in the past decade.

The big story is the list of debonair guys and civilized ladies, all the aesthetes who went along because they were too protective of their own good fortune to ask any uncomfortable questions. The more of us that speak plainly about everyday harassment, and get in the habit of calling each other out and accepting guilt and moving on, the more we’ll see that it’s all kinds of decent, upstanding people who commit the petty offenses that create a sexual hierarchy. And the more likely we’ll get around to saying, “What about the boss?” And like Charlie from the poem, a single word from our mouths can stop it. Let’s just try not wait to be embarrassed into it.

 

Marie Howe

Marie Howe was the find of the summer for me. Just when I think I know most contemporary American poets I come across a new one, new to me, whose voice speaks to me.

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In this case my wife gave me Howe’s 1997 book What the Living Do. It has lots of poems about surviving the death of a loved one, but also tons of poems about growing up an American girl that warrant re-reading many times.

Many are deceptively simple in that they read like a story. She describes what happened straightforwardly, with an odd eye for detail, and you wonder, “Is this a poem or not?” By the end you realize the economy of words was part of her poetic method, and you’ve just been treated to a spare collection of images that describe a happening, and hint at something universal, in the space of a minute.

Take “The Copper Beech.” As a writer who often says too much and needs an aggressive editor, I’d give my right hand to be able to write a poem so simple with my left.

The Copper Beech

          By Marie Howe
Immense, entirely itself,
it wore that yard like a dress,
with limbs low enough for me to enter it
and climb the crooked ladder to where
I could lean against the trunk and practice being alone.
One day, I heard the sound before I saw it, rain fell
darkening the sidewalk.
Sitting close to the center, not very high in the branches,
I heard it hitting the high leaves, and I was happy,
watching it happen without it happening to me.

The Walking Dunes

Montauk, somehow, is the place I go for equinoxes. My first visit there was back on March 21st, and I finally went again early this week – this time, straight to Hither Hills State Park, specifically to the Walking Dunes, acres of sand dunes known for moving a few feet in the same direction every year, hence “walking.”

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The “walking dunes.”

I’ve been reading Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer, an insightful book book about a life spent studying moss, including a chapter devoted to the special role moss plays in regenerating forests on damaged land. I’m an amateur naturalist who often makes rookie mistakes identifying plants, but books like Gathering Moss have opened my eyes to forests like never before.

To get to the Walking Dunes you park on the scenic overlook and hike through a thick forest of oaks. Some visitors out here are so afraid of Lyme disease they avoid the woods, but I just wear light-colored, long pants and white socks, and check my legs for ticks, often. I’d have preferred a few ticks to the hundreds of mosquitoes I slapped off my face on my way there.

Once at the dunes, though, you can see right away that you’re in a rare ecosystem:

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I noticed shrub oaks all across the tops of the dunes, and some kind of cedar bushes around them. In the ravines in between were pines, and berry bushes. You got the sense that if the dunes were slowly walking through, then the tree roots were putting up as hard a fight as they could. Knowing even a little, you see drama everywhere.

The water around there is full of shellfish farms. Though not all that inviting to swim in, I was determined. I walked along Napeague Harbor, and felt my bare feet sink into the silty sand, before crossing over the peninsula to the Napeague Bay side, more like the water I’m used to swimming in around Shelter Island. It had more waves, but my walk had taken so long, I was starting to get concerned about making it through the woods again before dark, so I figured I’d skip it till I got clear across the South Fork to the ocean (unnecessarily, it turns out, but getting stuck in the woods at dark is miserable, I can tell you that).

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I can’t explain it – it might have been too cool, though it sure felt hot – but at dusk the mosquitoes were all hiding, and the oak woods on my way out were the prettiest of my walk. I started noticing lots of varieties of mushrooms, and moss. I may get to know moss better, but I doubt I’ll ever be a mushroom forager: one mistake and you’re dead as a shrub oak with the sand cratering beneath it.

By the time I made it to the beach on the ocean side, I saw signs that read “No lifeguard on duty, no swimming,” or something like that. I’m not scared of water, and used to ignoring those signs, but all it took was one look at the violent waves to resign oneself: there was a hurricane someplace far off that shore, and there would be no swimming!

I saw three different kinds of Atlantic water in one afternoon, but the swim would have to wait. I saw exactly zero ticks, one deer, and not many more humans. Kept repeating the same line of Seamus Heaney: “The bog holes might be Atlantic seepage.” Tried composing my own ode to the place but only came up with one line worth keeping: “Take me to the edge of misanthropy but no further.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, writing about the thousands of protozoans and tardigrades found in one gram of moss, says, “But the numbers themselves miss the point. Such lists remind me of the inconsequential facts tossed off by a tour guide, the number of steps to the top of the Washington Monument, or the number of blocks of granite used to construct it, when what I really want to know about is the view from the top and the jokes told by the stonemasons.”

Like many extroverts, I cherish my time alone, and after a day in the the lush world of some very weird yet unspectacular plants, I went to my usual spot in Montauk for a fish and chips, and made a point of talking with strangers. I asked them about the Memory Motel down the road, one of the few old time-feeling hotels left in Montauk, and they shrugged. Any place that inspired such a uniquely sad Rolling Stones song must be a town landmark, I figured, but to them it was a dump. Sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes to see things right.

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