Tuesday, July 31, 2007

one tires of research

Global warming has been linked to the epidemic of horrid manners.
Feeding pigeons causes premature hair loss.
Riding backwards in the train will lead to dyslexia in your unborn children.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

What I Read on My Summer Vacation

I’ve made short story reading a vacation tradition over the past few years, and I read about half of The Best American Short Stories 2005 in Denmark. My favorite of the volume was George Saunders’ “Bohemians.” I kind of hoped to surprise myself by prefering someone else’s story over Saunders', but no go. He really is funny and wonderful. In a miracle of cosmic generosity, you can actually read this story online! My second favorite was Charles D’Ambrosio’s “The Scheme of Things.” I also liked Tim Pratt’s “Hart and Boot,” Joy Williams’ grotestque “The Girls,” and Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals,” which was marvelous. I felt the Joyce Carol Oates story “The Cousins “ was underdeveloped, and the story “Until Gwen” by Dennis Lehane, besides the somewhat maudlin title, had a rather surprisingly clichĂ© passage about how life is like a road, but otherwise it was a good story. Recommendation: Yes.

I also read Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, a WWII novel set in occupied France. I know the world went gaga for this book, and certainly it’s very good, but what makes it more interesting is that it’s written by a Jewish Ukrainian in France in 1941-42 whose project for a five-part novel is aborted by being deported to Auschwitz and murdered. The notes and correspondence at the end of the book definitely enhance the reading, interesting to writers, and very sad. Recommendation: Yes.

I also finished JM Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. His novel Disgrace is among my favorites. Before I go on let me say that I did enjoy the book and the ideas kept my interest despite there not being much of a story. The relationships the protagonist has with her son and sister seem like they ought to be developed, but instead they’re mostly abandoned, the characters being used too transparently as instruments to play off Elizabeth Costello’s ideas and convictions. I found the second half of the book lost momentum. Still, Coetzee’s prose is among the best being written, and I admire him in this book for doing something different. Recommendation: if you like “idea” novels, yes. If you need a story to propel your reading, no.

In poetry I read Gerald Stern’s Everything is Burning. There are some excellent poems in the book, notably “The Law” and “Cigars,” but I admit that I got tired of the “I” of this book. There’s just too much celebration-of-me going on for my taste. It's not a Whitmanesque "I" celebration in which "I" am part of everything and it is part of me, rather one that isolates. Recommendation: skip in favor of Stern's selected poems This Time.

it's always ourselves we find at the sea

Our most gorgeous Danish experience was walking the tidal flats. I’m sure there’s a word for this activity – in German it’s “Wattwandern.” Basically it’s walking barefoot through the shallow waters of the seabed when the tide is out. From the look of the landscape you seem to be far out in the ocean but the water level is so low you can see everything going on in the sand. We went with a Dutch family and a guide, a young woman from Germany who is doing an “ecological year” in Denmark. The Dutch woman said the walk was nicer here than in the Netherlands flats, which are slimey and smell bad. The Danish flats were pristine. The guide gave us all broom-like net contraptions with which to catch shrimp and fish and crabs. She also showed us how the sea birds dig for clams with their feet, and we all became sea birds digging for clams. We caught many creatures and dumped them in a basin to observe, then set them free again when the walk was over.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

the blonde and the black

You should know that there are about 5.4 million Danes. The country is half the size of Maine but chopped up into chunks and spread out on the shore. Denmark contains many very blonde persons who love licorice. All kinds of licorice, mostly black. There must be 35 varieties of black licorice. Where in America you go into a small shop and find beef jerky at the cashier, in Denmark you find licorice. If I could read Danish I would tell you some of the kinds but I could only make out three or so – “family favorite,” “strong,” and “salty.” It comes shaped as tubes, pipes, coins, cats, herring and ropes.

Another interesting thing about Denmark is shortly before I went there my father informed me that the paternal ancestors were Danish, not Dutch as I always thought. He mentioned this is an off-hand way, whereas for me it was major news, like “by the way I never married your mother.” All my life I’ve been telling whoever asked that my ancestors were Dutch. But he says they were Danes who stopped briefly in the Netherlands, hollandizing their name (Van Sloat, I understand), before moving on to America. That ancestry was so defined that I’m truly having a small identity crisis, though my love of licorice may be explained.

Monday, July 23, 2007

tour de france

i wonder if i write a poem when i'm drinking
wine if that's doping. is that fair to those
writing cold sober? is my poem disqualified?

Monday, July 16, 2007


hello from denmark where i'm enjoying many new words.
if you are in a strange city please know that it helps
very little to ask the good citizens where there is
an internet café. they have no reason to know, and only
the very smart ones, like those who run the local wine
shop, will be quick enough to tell you to try the
library. libraries are always wonderful, even if all
the books are in danish.

anyway just wanted to mention i have a summer poem
up in the new issue of Boxcar Poetry Review.

Friday, July 06, 2007

to the land of the bong tree

We leave for Denmark tomorrow, and as I was reading The Owl and the Pussycat today, Lear's verse on interracial romance, I thought I'd share my idea about it. In stagings and recordings of the poem, the owl is typically played by a male, the cat by a female. But it seems to me the cat is the male and the owl the female. (Did you already think this, too?) Except for the piggy-wig, Lear avoids gender pronouns, so I can’t prove this. And if I mention that the owl is a symbol for the goddess Athena it probably won’t convince you either. But look at Lear’s illustration.

1. The owl leans back and sings to a small guitar. In English society, it was the female who was musically trained to entertain suitors. And the pussycat is steering the beautiful pea-green boat, a task usually left to a man. (note that the cat’s tail is standing straight up.)
2. Following the owl’s song, the pussycat makes the marriage proposal, also typically the territory of the male.
3. In the second illustration, where the owl and pussycat meet the piggy-wig, the cat looks downright burly, lurking above the bowed owl who passes the shilling along to the pig. It is, after all, Lear's illustration, not someone else's imagining.

(Of course Lear began a poem concering the children of this pair, which poses the cat as the mother, so perhaps I am all shot to hell. But taken on its own, I can't help but imagine the cat as a slinky tom. And the sequel was nowhere near as good as the ambiguous original.)

And I have many other questions and ideas about this lovely verse, which like most parents I have recited many many a bedtime. For example, what is a bong tree? Does it resemble a hookah, or sound like a gong? Why do they only bring honey? Are they fleeing persecution? If there’s plenty of money, why pay just a shilling for the ring? And do they eat the quince with a runcible spoon, as in by means of, or do they eat the spoon along with the quince?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


I hardly make it to the cinema anymore. Tops seven times a year. I rent or buy movies to watch at home, but also that's infrequent. Last week we watched The Sea Inside, and this weekend I watched The Mask (Jim Carrey) with the kids. I had expected more from The Sea Inside. The Mask was entertaining, period.

Here is a survey from Speechless The Magazine of some poets' favorite films. The list also proves I also don't read enough since I don't know half the poets there.

What consistently surprises me about movies is how many people's lists are dominated by films that are decades old. Not 2-3 decades, but six or seven. I also love Double Indemnity (1944 - Robert Mezey's list), and recently bought a copy of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954 - Rob Koertege's list). But wouldn't you think that the storytellers of our own time would interest us more than they do? And wouldn't you think that ever-improving technology, animation, make-up and special effects would amaze us more than they seem to?

But I also have trouble picking young American movies (say no older than 25 years) that I can say I absolutely love. American Beauty (1999) would be one. The Hours (2002 -book was better) and Sophie's Choice (1983 - ditto), both with Meryl Streep, would also be on my list. I completely surrendered to Erin Brockovich (2000) despite kind of disliking Julia Roberts, and Brokeback Mountain (2005) was stunning. I do think movies are becoming increasingly violent. And that just makes me want to shoot somebody in the face.

you went the wrong way old king louie

7/2/2007 -- Senator John Edwards released the following statement today about President Bush commuting Scooter Libby's prison sentence:

"Only a president clinically incapable of understanding that mistakes have consequences could take the action he did today. President Bush has just sent exactly the wrong signal to the country and the world. In George Bush's America, it is apparently okay to misuse intelligence for political gain, mislead prosecutors and lie to the FBI. George Bush and his cronies think they are above the law and the rest of us live with the consequences. The cause of equal justice in America took a serious blow today."

7/2/2007 -- Senator Hillary Clinton issued the following statement on President Bush’s decision to commute the sentence of Scooter Libby:

"Today's decision is yet another example that this Administration simply considers itself above the law. This case arose from the Administration's politicization of national security intelligence and its efforts to punish those who spoke out against its policies. Four years into the Iraq war, Americans are still living with the consequences of this White House's efforts to quell dissent. This commutation sends the clear signal that in this Administration, cronyism and ideology trump competence and justice."

7/2/2007 -- Barack Obama today released the following statement on President Bush's decision to commute the sentence of Scooter Libby:

"This decision to commute the sentence of a man who compromised our national security cements the legacy of an Administration characterized by a politics of cynicism and division, one that has consistently placed itself and its ideology above the law. This is exactly the kind of politics we must change so we can begin restoring the American people's faith in a government that puts the country's progress ahead of the bitter partisanship of recent years."

Monday, July 02, 2007

snack lunch in the hall

We leave for vacation Saturday. Don’t ask me why we’re going to Denmark. It seems more absurd to me every day. I keep hearing Monty Python’s “Finland” song in my head, except of course with Denmark substituting Finland. Add to that it’s only about 70F degrees so what we’ll be doing at the Danish beach besides listening to our teeth chatter I don’t know.

Carlo is nagging us not to pack too much since Stella will be lying down in back. He said I shouldn’t bring 20 books “this time,” which is of course hyperbole, but I’ll take advantage of it and bring ten or so, citing his exaggeration. I usually bring a novel or two, short stories and 3-5 books or journals of poetry. If nothing else, I'm looking forward to reading.

Here’s my list so far:
Novels: 1) Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky 2) Elizabeth Costello by JM Coetzee and maybe 3) Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie.

Short stories: 1) The Best Amercian Short Stories of 2005, and maybe 2) Lydia Davis’ Break it Down and maybe 3) Alice Munro’s Open Secrets. I’ve read much of the latter two so may be budgeting them out.

Poetry: 1) Yemuda Amichai’s Selected Poems, 2) Gerald Stern’s Everything is Burning, & ? ?
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