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Reading to Live, to Read

I have given up reading books; I find it takes my mind off myself.—Oscar Levant

Library 21, Dean Nimmer

The links in this "room" connect to a few—just a few!—of the poems, and excerpts from the books, that move me most in no particular order. My love for them is idiosyncratic and all mine, mysterious, and absolute. I can explain many things about the virtues and merits of these pieces, but I can't say why they have entered me more fully than other poems, or other pieces equally fine.

What I do know is that this kind of attraction is chemical, it's deep, and no less palpable than the stirrings we feel when we fall in love with another person. These are some of the charged, soul-changing moments from a lifetime's reading that have kept me whole. (Clearly, other people live in this room, too.):

It is thanks to my evening reading alone that I am still more or less sane.―W.G. Sebald

When we read a story, we inhabit it. The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls. What is to happen next will take place within the four walls of the story. And this is possible because the story's voice makes everything its own.- John Berger

To feel most beautifully alive means to be reading something beautiful, ready always to apprehend in the flow of language the sudden flash of poetry.—Gaston Bachelard

The habit of reading is the only enjoyment in which there is no alloy; it lasts when all other pleasures fade.— Anthony Trollope

When you sell a man a book you don't sell him just 12 ounces of paper and ink and glueyou sell him a whole new life.—Christopher Morley

We read to know we are not alone.—C.S. Lewis

A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.—Samuel Johnson

The greatest gift is a passion for reading.—Elizabeth Hardwick.

I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.- Groucho Marx

Read in order to live.—Gustav Flaubert

The more you read, the more things you'll know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.—Dr.Seuss

Inside The Reader's Room

The Lover in Winter Plaineth for Spring by AnonymousThe Bedroom, Vincent Van Gogh

A Hill by Anthony Hecht

Elegy For Whatever Had A Pattern In It by Larry Levis

The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm by Wallace Stevens

From Holy The Firm by Annie Dillard

From Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

From I Send You This Cadmium Red:  A correspondence between John Berger and John Christie

To Any Reader by Robert Louis Stevenson

For Once, Then, Something by Robert Frost

Domestic Mysticism by Lucie Brock Broido

Epithalamium by Louise Gluck

The Crossed Apple by Louise Bogan

From Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald

From Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen

Musee des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden

From Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Renunciation—is a piercing Virtue by Emily Dickinson

Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens



Women, Movies, Heartache


Madame X, Singer Sargent

Earlier today, as I was cleaning the house to the wry, wracked songs of Lucinda Williams, and tonight, while listening to Nina Simone's Music for Lovers with a glass of red wineI've been thinking about women. Women and heartache. More specifically, the way the great women singers leaven their heartache with wit, and make their unique laments universal through a transcendent passion for being alive, alert, and hurt.

Actually, I've been thinking about women for days, not just in song but women in films that, like these songs, have become a part of my inner landscape due to the majesty and presence of particular women, their voices, gestures, intelligence, emotional gravitas, and architecturally dazzling forms.

I've been thinking recently rabout two films in particular, so different from one another aesthetically and culturally, but with a similar emphasis on the great desolation often found in marriage, and on the beauty of women.

First there's La Notte, the middle of Antonioni's Alienation Trilogy, with Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau. This film is like a visual poem more than a story, although the plot is clear—an extended day into night highlighting the emptiness at the center of the marriage between the two protagonists, sharpened into acute crisis by the wife's anguish over a friend's impending death.

The long, bleak day of the film, which spills remorselessly into a vapid night of partying, can be seen as a turning point in their lives, opening up the possibility—certainly not the probability—of regeneration between then. Many viewers might argue with this interpretation and find the couple as hopeless at the end as at the beginning. But I think that the stark truth the day brings them to may be a gateway into new possibility, even though the movie doesn't show them walking through it (nor perhaps are they even aware of it, even at the end).

The film itself is a kind of gateway, a still breathtakingly original vision of what can be conveyed through art—this particular art—that fifty years haven't dimmed and many imitators (Scorcese, I think, and for sure Kubrick) haven't come close to. There's a long sequence in the middle of the film that sees Jeanne Moreau wandering through an urban landscape, walking, walking, completely alone, isolated and yet deeply responsive to the world around her. The camera lingers on that incredible face of hers, but far more than the object of the camera's gaze she is the gaze, and this ability on her part to see and absorb what she's seeing makes your own seeing, as a viewer, seem a paltry thing in comparison.

Over and over, she breaks my heart in this scene, because her ability to see what she looks at is born of her loneliness and desolation. I've watched La Notte three times (once as a very young woman, too young to know what I was watching; once as a new wife frightened by this glimpse at the limitations of intimacy; and once finally as someone who can begin to understand its meanings); I know all the significant moments in the film. But it's this walk that stays with me, that I replicate sometimes in my dreams or my own rambles through the landscapes of cities. It's a walk that seems to go on as if forever, outside the frame of the picture and into time. 

The other film I've been thinking about is Zimou's Raise the Red Lantern with Gong Li, who is so physically beautiful that she's almost hard to look at. The scenery in the film, set in rural China in the 1920's—the gorgeous landscape, the castle in which the master and his four wives live, seen from above as an impenetrable ocean of stone—mirrors and mocks her beauty and the beauty of the other wives, all of whom are forced to spend their lives catering to and placating an all-powerful husband. It's a brutal portrait of marriage (although somehow no more brutal than La Notte's).

Watching these films brings one to the inescapable conclusion that our attempts to quantify intimacy and formalize it for the purpose of safety or tradition or reproduction—all the cultural forms humans have chosen for these—are doomed to insufficiency, if not outright tyranny.

But  the sadness of marriage isn't really what I've been thinking about. I want to linger on the unutterable loveliness of these women. Which reminds me of a time when I was searching for "love" online. One evening, I ventured onto and ended up looking, at first by mistake, at pictures of women instead of men. (Briefly, I was the hidden male gaze.) I found myself more and more entranced by several of the women there, almost obsessed with them. I just couldn't stop looking. And not for the first time in my life, I wondered why I'm stubbornly heterosexual when I've always found women so moving and attractive.

Women, men, sexuality; it must just be hardwired for each of us, what? I was intimate with a few women, back when I was young and experimental, and found them marvelous to kiss and to touch. But my innate sexuality seems really to be oriented to the male form, the male touch; the greatness (how else to say it?) of the male anatomy. Which is sort of too bad, I think! But there it is.

Some men are stunning too, of course; there are objectively stunning men who also stun me. I mean, thinking only of film: Marcello Mastroianni, Alain Delon, Tony Leung, the sex on legs that was Marlon Brando during his glorious youth; also Jeremy Irons, Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, Laurence Olivier in all his prickly, complicated bisexuality, and Alan Rickman (a choice most other men don't understand but almost every woman I know, does). Amongst men too young for me now, there was Heath Ledger; I'm touched by the pathos he brought to bear on his beauty.

OK, I give in. Men!

But still: many women are far more beautiful than any man; and reader, you, of course, agree. I adore the men in my life, the young ones with their unconscious, easy musculature, the aging or elderly ones with their lines and paunches, their incipient frailties. But it's the women in my life—-my gorgeous friends, my luminous daughter, the swish of women walking down streets everywhere, the girls in their summer dresses—that I find myself frankly and daily hypnotized by. Sometimes, in fact, when there's no other woman around, I look in the mirror, at my own face, at my own form unbound and loose in my nightgown, and feel the same way about myself....



I Love a Real Heel: The Architecture of Pain 

Recently, after staring in forlorn adoration at the high-heeled shoes that (mostly) sit like pristine architectural exhibits on the shelves of my closet, I read the following advice:

"Walk properly. When wearing high heels, you should walk by pointing your toes straight ahead instead of to the side. Then, complete the step by setting your heel down. Keep your legs close together and swing your arms, right arm as you step with your left foot and left arm as you step with your right foot, to keep your body balanced. In addition, look straight ahead of you so you'll be able to see the spots on the floor or the ground where you could trip and fall."

In my early teens I wanted to be a dancer. Then I realized that I didn't—don't—have the kind of mind that could translate the steps of a dance from my head to my body. So there's just no chance that I could follow through with the instructions above. With every step I'd be thinking, "heel . . . down, legs far, no, close together, arm back-woops-forward, lookup, look . . . down, arggggh"! and I'd still be standing in place.

 Which isn't to say that I haven't worn high-heeled shoes throughout my life. I'm 5'2" so of course I've worn high heels. I try to squeak a little more on to my height even when describing myself to myself (no, what—five feet two?—that's five feet two AND A THIRD, OK"?). I think I even tried it on my passport. Sometimes I've enjoyed being enveloped by a man taller than I am (and what man isn't?) but otherwise, I hate being short. I don't have a short personality and it irks me that my body is a living metaphor for less rather than more.

 I've tried to wear heels ever since I was sixteen and it became obvious that  no one was ever going to describe me as "statuesque." When I've managed to wear them successfully it's often been in the evenings on dates, when I had the advantage of riding in cars and walking only short distances, sitting as much as standing, or dancing only for show. But by nature I'm a walker, even a strider. Like my (considerably taller) mother before me, I like to swing my arms vigorously and feel like I'm flying over the ground. Also, due to a mild neurological condition, I don't drive, so I often have to walk.  It just isn't practical for me to wear high heels, and never has been. Not to mention that I don't like being in pain and heels hurt; they just do, they always will, and no advances in design will ever change that.

 Some things that hurt are actually good for you. Immunizatons, for instance. Wearing heels, however much or little they're subjectively causing you pain, is obviously not. There are reams of studies out that prove it; any casual search on Google will come up with things like: "scientists [have] found that heel wearers move with shorter, more forceful strides . . . a movement pattern [that]  continues even when the women kicked off their heels and walked barefoot. As a result, the fibers in their calf muscles had shortened and they put much greater mechanical strain on their calf muscles..."

And, well, duh. It's obvious that this is the case to anyone whose ever worn high heels or watched someone walk in them. In addition, of course, there's the fact that high-heeled shoes are mainly designed for the male gaze, they're all about sex and availability, and they do nothing to enhance a woman's ability to move through the world or have real and active power in a physical sense. I have friends who have never worn heels, on principle, and I'm in complete agreement with them on all counts. High heels are stupid, unhealthy, a tool of control and sexism and . . .

and at their best are soooo incredibly gorgeous and playful! Plus, wearing them can make you feel ten feet tall (well, not me—I feel five foot five. But that's a great feeling from where I usually stand). When you're wearing them you just know that you can kick butt, which is a good thing since you can't run. And they make your own butt look curvaceous and fine. They're wearable art, and I guess wearing them is a kind of art, or at least a subservience to the art that they are, a kind of devotion to form over function, beauty over efficacy.

So I have a closet full of high heels. Some of them—the only ones worth having—were expensive, though no doubt I got them for far less than their original price on sites like Ebay or Gilt. I've built outfits around them, but their soles are nearly pristine. Sometimes, especially when my limo hasn't shown up, the farthest I've gotten in them is the full-length mirror in the hall, where I look admiringly at the way they perfect and complete whatever else I'm wearing. And then I change them, with a sigh, to a pretty kitten heel (kitten! see how diminutive? I like the word "lioness" much better) at night, or to my tasteful, sensible, well-worn and not-bad-looking flats for day.

 But every once in awhile when the conditions are right I stick my feet into the high-heeled shoes of my dreams, test the paradoxically powerful yet coy new arch of my feet, and sail (hobble) out the door. Without much practice in the wearing of high heels, only in the loving of them, I keep this bit of advice firmly in mind:

"Maintain a serene appearance in the face of embarrassment. Accidents happen, whether you like it or not. But if you see one on the verge of happening, like your dress catching on your heel, try to remain calm and smiling as you try to kick the fabric away from your shoe. It only becomes embarrassing when you make it look embarrassing."





When to Write a Poem (When Not To)

Conference at Home , Susanna Heller

A few years ago, a dear friend of mine was hospitalized in a local mental health facility during a severe manic episode. My friend is a poet, and usually she does what all poets do when they are ill or sad or happy or in love or confused or embarrassed or whatever: she writes. In fact, when she was younger and more reckless, sometimes it was the shimmering, jagged stirrings of a manic episode that seemed to prompt her to her most vivid work. Sometimes she would allow, she would even invite, this manic muse into her daily life of discipline, of remunerative work, and medication, and let it take her where it would. But sometimes it would take her just too far, past expression into a kind of terrible, dark silence. This was one of those times.

So she was voluntarily hospitalized, and given strong drugs to pull her back from the—literal—edge, for she had been sitting on the fence of the high balcony off her 17th floor apartment when a friend of her worried sister's arrived and talked her in. And after awhile, in the Nova Scotia Hospital amongst the mentally halt, lame and blind, she began to come out of that hopeless, silted-up place into words again. Not well enough yet to leave for home, but missing the monthly poetry-writing workshops that she and I had been attending together, she made a bold proposal: since she couldn't come out into the world to meet those of us who regularly gathered to discuss our poems, we would come to her.

And so we did. Six or seven of us poets trooped anxiously (poets are often anxious) one Tuesday evening into the Nova Scotia Hospital's communal lounge. We met up with our dear friend, who was still shaky and ferociously pale but—we were thankful to see—very much herself, and sat down in a side room around a table to read and talk about our poems.

The door stayed open according to the rules of the hospital, which offered an invitation of sorts for other patients to wander in as they so chose; many of them did choose. While I was reading my own poem, one patient, a small, shaved man, sat nearby, rocking back and forth and moaning. (Or, wait: was that one of the poets?) A huge woman in a fuschia muumuu peeked in to growl every few minutes. Our friend, in a brave, drugged daze, managed to make the most useful and cogent comments of any of us, and we listened to her attentively. An attenuated girl of twenty-something in shades of gray leaned against the back wall with her hand over her eyes.

I remember all those things and I remember this: that every poet in that room was both intensely present to the extraordinary moment we now found ourselves in, and yet somewhere else entirely. For we were each already feverishly planning, certainly imagining, the poem we would soon write—must write, were chosen by the gods to write!—about that very meeting. Because this experience was the true stuff of poems. It was just like real life but more so! And if it weren't enough that we were conducting a poetry workshop in a—say it, a mental asylum—we were all also aware that this was the very mental asylum where the mother of Elizabeth Bishop, that parton saint of 20th century poets, ended up spending the rest of her life after going mad when EB was five. Hence turning EB into a poet!

The only problem was that, in the end, and after true and valiant effort  on many of our parts, the poem(s) just wouldn't come. Not the good poems, anyway. Not the ones that we would end up keeping, sharing, publishing, the ones that would surprise us because, whether they came as gift poems that just flow, or effortful poems that take days-months-years to craft, they were not really the poems we had thought we were writing.

It's hard, if not impossible, to end up with those poems, the good ones, when you've started out to write A Poem.

Here are a couple of my own poems that turned out not to be at all what I had thought they'd be. Until they were.

1) Many years after my friend's bout with her illness, I was besieged by a pospartum depression connected to the birth of my daughter. Feeling the first stirrings of wellness, but almost more comfortable with the muffling effects of deep depression, I wanted to write again. Specifically, I wanted to write about an incident in which a nurse at the Seattle hospital I had given birth in had told me I would soon become very depressed—she could tell "the ones" who would, she said—and how I had believed, irrationally no doubt, that this is why I had fallen so far and so fast. But I couldn't write the poem I held so firmly in my mind, no matter how hard I tried. Every time, I ended up writing a cleverly line-blocked prose treatise on what it was like to feel really awful. I wasn't getting getting anywhere except, as each new attempt proved more pretentious than the last, to feel even more really awful. But then one day I was on the phone with my poet friend, who still lived in Nova Scotia, and she said to me: just look out the window and write about the first thing, the very first thing, you see. Do that instead.

Here in the Rain

. . . the constant squirrel disappears between shades of grey,  
daft smoke of a rodent waved on by the immensity of his tail.  

So apt for disappearance he scurries and tumbles like a hyperactive ghost,
but suddenly stops still ‑ becomes stillness ‑ beside the citron flower. Single bloom

on the bush, yellow but bolder than that, an ancient hot gold not diffuse  
like sunlight, petals soft to the touch but wholly defined by the hardness  

of . . .whatever color has brought the squirrel back from ghost land  
to the world of real things. Unmoving. Look.  

He is terrified.  

And there I had it. Not the poem I had meant to write. And yet, really, it was.

2) I was reading the poems of a man I had studied with as a teacher long before I believed I could write poems. I hadn't thought of this poet, his work, for years until I happened by chance upon one of his poems online, and then began to read—re-read—almost all his poems. God, he was a gorgeous poet! He did things with long poems—heartbreaking, expansive things—that I so wanted to do. I yearned to create my own version of the meandering, arduous, Baroque journeys he undertook through charged landscapes. I wanted more than anything in the world to write a poem about a time from my childhood in a way that would embody that time, and return it to me with all its meanings enlarged, but intact.

Trudge, trude, trudge through the poem I lusted after. I tried a different childhood incident. I gave up on my attempts at the poet's fearless free form style and tried a few tricks of rhyme and meter to give my poem some highway signs. Finally, in high dudgeon, I remembered that I didn't even like this poet. Well, not as a person, anyway. Well, maybe I had liked him, or at least I'd admired him, but he had been just  so . . . so. . . well, so much the person who had lived the life that would let him write the poems he wrote.

I stopped trying to write a poem after him, and wrote this one, instead.

Still Dead

Ten years ago you were finally dead, not really
for the first time. Before that I knew you for awhile, but it turns out
not at all. You were a force, a name, and I was young. Back then

I got stuck each time you came near, mute
girl trussed in an accidental web as you'd dip toward me
with your seamed face, air of casual or was it causal debauchery

mild amusement and ultimate indifference that fit me

like a bespoke suit. Not even a morsel for your afternoon snack, I was
too small, too stunned to bother with as you ravaged your own
design each day, smoked, snorted, invited your death

and then got up early again to seduce the tender students grasping
at the threads you threw, the ethereal girls made beautiful to you
in that they weren’t afraid of how close you were, how awful it felt,

that closeness, how it was not glamorous, not
pretty, hardly even bearable, but every word
you wrote was another coin for our vigil.

And here, I'll do a real disservice to myself as a poet, and just leave it to Emily Dickinson.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant---
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind---

All poets know this poem, keep a lamp shining, when awake, on the knowledge therein. It's so true it's almost  . . .. Well, it's just so damn true. But somehow we often forget when we sit down to write that poem we've been dying to write, about that thing we so want to write about: we can't do it this way. The real poem—the one that gets written anyway, despite what we've planned—takes us by surprise each and every time.


Three Sofas

M.F.K. Fisher once wrote an essay entitled, "Three Kitchens in Provence." I know: "Three Sofas in North America," just doesn't have the same ring.  And yet, sofas are a vital component to a comfortable home. A sofa is pretty much the place in a house where everything important, except for sleeping and eating (and often, sleeping and eating), takes place. Sofas are great and I've been really fond of some of my own sofas, at least the ones I've had over the past fifteen years. They seem worth writing about to me.

The first sofa I loved had once been my grandparent's. The style was, I think, French Regency: the sofa was graceful and curvacious, with a wooden frame, nailheads along the periphery, and a beautiful, cream, silk-patterned covering.

When my Canadian husband and I moved to Pennsylvania to join my ex-husband so we could all raise our (my and my ex's) six-year-old son together, the sofa, which had been left behind years before in Utah, travelled out to Pennsylvania with my ex-husband's girlfriend (this is complicated; every damn thing about blended families is complicated).

Once safely installed, it became the nicest thing we owned during those years, but when we (all) moved west to Seattle, we deemed it just too large to transport again, and sold it to some very appreciative, and very lucky, graduate students. I still miss that sofa; most especially the way it reminded me of a childhood's worth of evenings in the 60's, in Utah, sitting with my beloved Greek grandparents on Sundays watching Bonanza and eating orange-filled chocolate fingers.

Our Seattle sofa was a different breed altogether. Suddenly, we were expecting an unexpected baby, my husband and I, and we needed new furniture for our next not-altogether strategic step in the general direction of committed family life. So we went to The Bay, and purchased, on credit, a great, big, warm, ploofy sofa with (shudder) a matching large chair. Let's call the sofa Big Spice. Big Spice was not exactly ugly, but it was a conservative Republican of a sofa, a "couch" sort of sofa, a sofa for settled grownups without much aesthetic judgment. It was certainly not "me" though I didn't know that yet: I was seduced by how comfortable it was and how much it looked like the sofa that could define the life I was trying to create. I was willing, hoping, counting, even, on soon being so secure that I'd be bored with my life rather than anxious about it. Big Spice bored me, and that's probably why I loved it.

In fact, I was so fond of it that I wrote this essay about it; an essay that was as much about working hard, and about surrendering to the endless complexities of family life, as it was about a sofa (couch). Since then, I've given up Big Spice, the husband, the Seattle apartment, and Seattle itself; one child is grown and gone and the other is speeding through her pre-teens. I don't miss the couch, but I do miss the life it represented.

The third of my favorite sofas was a gift to myself after we moved back to Nova Scotia. I made a lot of money that year, and was living in a state of blessed innocence concerning the months just ahead when first my mother and then my father-in-law would die within a month of one another, followed by my business, and finally my marriage. We had sold Big Spice before leaving Seattle—sofas really are too big and expensive to transport long distances. For awhile, we sat on the most hideous couch (definitely, "couch") I have ever seen, a free placeholder piece from a friend's cottage. The couch was covered in some kind of prickly material with an eye-searing pattern of both spots and stripes. And flowers. It was so heavy that the men who brought it up the stairs for us complained of their sore backs, and they were big, big men.

As soon as I could, I replaced it (as in, junked it on the curb) with our next sofa, a simple, clean-lined transitional sofa just deep enough to be comfortable. It was trim, elegant and a most pleasing shade of aqua.

 Now, several years later, I lean toward more neutral colors, but I'd take that sofa back in a heart's flicker. It centered the room it was in, and nudged me fully into an appreciation for the art form that is house design. It made civilized love daily to the butter yellow walls in the living room of that high, light-filled apartment with the bow windows. It was a fine sofa, a sofa that my small daughter was heard (by me) to refer to in these terms when showing a visitor around our apartment: "this is the couch mommy sleeps on every night because she's so lonely since daddy left. (Beat). She loves it like a boyfriend."

When, after a long, hard year in Utah helping my father resettle after my mother's death, we came back once again to Nova Scotia and discovered that our sofa wouldn't fit up the very narrow stairs to our new, very small apartment, I sold it to friends so I could go visit it.

I haven't found the next sofa I'll love, which will probably be a less colorful but more gussied up (think nailheads) version of the last one: a modern sofa to provide counterpoint to the beautiful Victorian chairs I've been collecting. For now, we sit on a simple framed and folded futon in yet another apartment in a suburb outside of NYC where my daughter and I have definitively begun a new life. The aqua sofa could have travelled up the stairs here, but it lives with my friends now. Meanwhile, the futon is comfortable enough, and unobtrusive enough, not to offend. Expensive pillows grace it, it doesn't clash with the brass and glass coffee table or the Asian side table made of bamboo; it sits facing plain walls that we have not yet adorned with anything--a kind of tabula rasa that represents this new chapter's essential condition of anticipatory anythingness.

For now; all of it: it'll do.