Wednesday, August 31, 2011


To be completely superficial let me start by saying that for a book concerning ugliness, Skylark has a beautiful cover. The colors are gorgeous and fine -dark ochre and robin's egg blue- and the sans serif type and Hungarian accents top it off like fragile, delicate bones.

But looks aren't everything. I was also bowled over by the story, which is both heartbreaking and very funny. It's set in a distinctive time and place, but what's portrayed is accessible to anyone.

Before going into it, it’s important to say that this book has a lot of laughs. I laughed out loud at the theater scene. I laughed at how the writer poked fun at the characters’ sentimentality. I laughed at the drunken “ride” in the chair, the father’s confrontation with a man he’d hoped would wed his daughter, the funny title headings, and at many exchanges between the couple. It’s the humorous touch and the irony that makes it surprising how sad this book is.

The story is about a couple and their 35-year old unmarried daughter, Skylark, who is their life's focus and its albatross. Because Skylark suffers, they suffer. Because Skylark has no way to escape her sad, uneventful life, they resolve to a sad and uneventful life, cutting themselves off from the community and friends and everything else that brings sensual or intellectual pleasure - the theater, good food, cigars, music.

This self-imposed deprivation is painful for the characters, but tedium in its sameness is a great soother, and the alternative would throw Skylark's situation into stark relief. That's what happens when she goes away for a week, leaving her parents alone. They loosen up, and the thought of Skylark loses its grip, until they are confronted with her return.

Though ugly, Skylark seems an average, able person; unfortunately she lacks any gifts, talent or any particular characteristic that would make her attractive, or redeem her inner life, like a keen mind or a love of music, say, or poetry. Significantly the father’s only pastime is studying genealogy, as his own family tree is about to stop branching.

Skylark’s ugliness comes across almost as a disability, as when we first encounter her in the garden in the posture that is “best” for her, or when she walks flanked by her parents. Although she never really seeks to manipulate anyone, Skylark’s presence is oppressive. The family doesn’t eat in restaurants because she has a sensitive stomach. Her frugality means they use only one bulb in a four-bulb chandelier. Her parents love her dotingly in an effort to ease her loneliness, and they hate her because they are powerless to change it.

I usually don't post my book reviews here, but I thought this book especially worth talking about. Ambiguity (love vs hate)! Nuance (mouse grey vs dove grey)! Despair! It's got 'em.

Monday, August 29, 2011


The next morning I woke groggy but happy in my gold bed and, after a gold power shower, went down to the ornate dining room and ordered the "healthy and energising" breakfast Tej had recommended. The banana porridge was sublime, as was the creamy yoghurt scattered with nuts.

This excerpt is from an article about a hotel that offers an insomnia package.

Next to my husband's snoring, if there's anything keeps me up at night, it's worrying about whether I'm right or wrong, and how I can find out.
And so I ask, isn't there something wrong here with the use of "scattered?" The way it's used indicates the yoghurt is scattered, but I am sure the writer means the nuts are sprinkled on the yoghurt. Or have the nuts been thrown at the yoghurt in such a way that the yoghurt has scattered about the room, in which case, the writer could just as well have chosen "splattered?"

Or perhaps the yoghurt has disappeared? Or been recklessly flung away? These are among the possibilities.

Scatter (v.)
1. a. to cause to separate widely b. to cause to vanish
2. archaic: to fling away heedlessly
3. to distribute irregularly
4. to sow by casting in all directions
5. a. to reflect irregularly and diffusely b. to cause (a beam of radiation) to diffuse or disperse
6. to divide into ineffectual small portions

intransitive verb
1. to separate and go in various directions
2. to occur or fall irregularly or at random

I do have to say that if I had to rise and eat a meal that included both porridge and yoghurt I might decide never to wake up again.

song of the day: The Way We Were

Saturday, August 27, 2011

roll another number

in which I discover myself alone in the house, without family or even dog

in which I play a Neil Young CD without the adulteration of European opinion

in which I put my pajamas and kimono on at 6 pm because I do not have to walk the dog later tonight or in the morning

in which I eat slices of Stilton cheese for dinner, and red chard and rucola salad with baby tomatoes, followed by an imaginary cigar

in which I look up the word ‘breviary’

in which a fruit fly drives me crazy and I fight bravely and lose

in which it gets dark outside, and not gradually

in which I call to wish my step-mother happy birthday and apologize that I am the sole messenger, at which expresses her envy

song of the day: mellow my mind

Monday, August 22, 2011


After a cool, damp summer the kids went back to school and right on schedule two weeks later it started to get hot as all goddamn. After the summer pool passes expired, thanks a lot. I am a devoted red wine drinker but the humidity has made this impossible. I caved and bought a bottle of white today. And it is actually great. Go, New Zealand. Go, gooseberries.

Still, summer has officially ended and it is time for me to lament never having read Moby Dick. I was in a bookstore at lunchtime and indeed they had Moby Dick, and I picked it up and checked to see the print wasn't miniscule and it was not and I pretended that wasn't happening and put it back on the shelf...

In terms of seasons it also seems to be journal reply time. I've gotten about 7-8 replies in the past week and a half, pretty evenly balanced. On the Yes pile: DMQ Review, Umbrella, Pure Francis, Verdad. Plenty of rejections, too. Have you heard about writers seeking to get 100 rejections a year? It's a quest I may join.

Want to hear the worst rejection I had this year? It came from Grey Sparrow, and I am sure I immediately tossed it, but it said something like: "We will pass on these poems. Have you read the poems at Grey Sparrow? They are exceptional." Which to me meant, "and you suck."

Anyway, at the moment I'm reading Christian Wiman's Every Riven Thing, which I got from a newspaper colleague who had no intention of reviewing it, and which I am surprised to like so much.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

you cannot unlock a door that is unlocked

Of all doors in the vacation house, the kitchen door is the worst.

It must be opened with a key but the key will not position properly to turn the lock.

Rejiggle and try to turn, rejiggle and try. It all comes to nothing.

This lock is like a clump of knotted hair that only gets knottier.

Just leave it alone and come back later? Take a walk around, lay the key down and hope it works when it’s cooled off?

(Is this even the key?)

Wanted: Two bearded vikings with battering ram.

And lo, I say unto thee, someone may have moved the stone but even Jesus could not unlock this lock.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


I'm in Vienna for a couple days, working. Our office is in a very nice area just a street over from the Dom, with its horse-drawn carriages and Catholic icon shops. Ah the smell of horse shit! So unlike bus exhaust.

I would like to commend Viennese retailers on their integrity. These guys do not dabble. If it is a kimono shop, you will find only kimonos. If it is a cigar shop, there are no cigarettes. The Catholic icon shop sells crucifixes, religious statuettes and purposeful candles. There are no t-shirts that say God hearts Vienna. I was in a candy shop yesterday that was a purifying experience. I asked about the different licorices and was given different licorices to try. (I bought chocolate.)

It is strange to think that the population of all of Austria is only about the size of that of NYC. As far as I'm concerned, with Vienna, the Alps and Sigmund Freud, the country has everything it needs.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

marie von ebner-eschenbach

Yesterday my daughter took me to a second-hand shop in a kind of icky part of town. It was a decent shop, though; we tried on a number of things. She REALLY wanted a purse, but I told her I was nearly broke and we'd come back another time.

Two doors down was a second-hand bookshop where we also went 'just to look,' though soon she had a pile of books in her arms and I, too, had 2-3 interesting books picked out. I made her choose two, which apparently meant three, and I got a slim collection of aphorisms by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach. She published a number of stories more than a hundred years ago, but is known now mostly for the aphorisms.

Here are a couple bad translations:

To want to clear oneself of unjust suspicion is either superfluous or futile. (p. 73)

The hungry are more easily helped than the overfed. (p. 47)

What is regret? The grief that we are what we are. (p. 32)

All disappointments are nothing in comparison with those we have in ourselves. (p. 47)

The more you love yourself, the more you are your own enemy. (p. ?)

Clumsy flattery can be more humiliating than well-founded reproach. (p. 67)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Baby Names

Combine Ethel and Ethan and the results are almost lethal, but not to worry because even though non-native speakers find them equally hard to pronounce, these two are never seen together.

In many things they are the inverse of each other. Ethel is, for example, tight as lips around a cigarette, tight as a perm at Saturday noon. Ethan, on the other hand, is loose, his shaggy hair uncombed. His taste tends to those baggy jeans that made boxer shorts a million.

While Ethan was the 2nd most popular boy’s name last year, Ethel was #7202 on the girls’ list. Reverse the clock by 92 years, and it’s the other way around.

Ethel and Ethan are like twins separated at birth, albeit about nine decades apart. A few years before Ethan’s popularity began its upward climb, Ethel, piece by piece, virtually dropped off the face of the earth.

Ethan is working hard to keep those pieces hidden.

Tomorrow: Nathan and Lilith.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Epilogue, for if all is fat

Years ago I gave up reading
in bed at night
as a kind of laudanum

as an instrument towards sleep
which is an insult to oneself
and a slap at the writer.

My books are stacked
bedside for morning, opened
in the hope of waking up.

I save nighttime for dull tasks
like simple math
like operating heavy machinery.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Ghost Fragments

When I try to speak French, Italian spooks me,
less the form than the mood of it, the flighty rise and ebb.
People talk about phantom limbs, but rarely of the phantom itch.
The itch occurs, but what’s under it?
At the Salvation Army there’s a ghastly rack
of coats, the line-up of might-be ghosts
I know a slender woman haunted by her former heavy self.
The body has been exorcised; the spirit will not let go.
The song in my head this morning, a song I didn’t know I liked.
The typewriter, too, is not extinct. It lives on
in street work, factories, rivers, in feet descending stairs.
My father’s boxy black one.
My electric Brother.
in love, the ghoul of hate
When I was in high school, a boy in the next grade
was decapitated by a train, stumbling home drunk
by the overpass. Charlie. Everyone knew the story.

I can’t go through that part of town without thinking of it.
As if I'd been there. And it’s not Charlie who haunts
that part of town, but what happened to Charlie.
The parts haunt the sum.
The choir in the ostrich.
The goon in kangaroo.
the past / the smell of lavender / a stroke that stays in the bones / trauma /
fog / exhaust trapped in the atmosphere / abortion / childhood /
perfume / regret
We’re all haunted by Auschwitz, even the deniers.
We all stand here shoeless in the Polish snow.
to say nothing of graveyards
only the dead really give up the ghost
As a noun, “haunt” refers to a place a man can frequently be found.
He occupies it, fills and inhabits it, seeking
something he’ll never come home with.

(in response to Dave Bonta's post at Via Negativa)

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

excuse me while I wring this long swim out of my hair

My chapbook, "Excuse me while I wring this long swim out of my hair," now newly exists. If you are so inclined, you can order one RIGHT HERE. Please do. There are a 22 jillion poems in it, including, completely out of order -

Dictionary Illustrations
Toy Boat Toy Boat Toy Boat
Ghazal of the Jack Pines
Riding Backwards on the Train
Excuse me while I wring this long swim out of my hair
On the Way to Meet My Daughter’s Teacher
Poem Found in a Comic Book
Outdoor Café, October
On Stopping to Smell Perfume on the Way Home from Work
From the Back of My Mind
My Money is on Fire
Ingrid Wears Bangs
Do Tell
Can’t we put them all there
The Minimalist
To Long Division
In Frankfurt Cemetery
Sworn to Observance

As I've mentioned, the marvelous Emmanuel Polanco provided the collage for the cover. If this were an Oscar speech, I would be thanking him right now with plentiful tears. I would also be wearing a long gown.

Monday, August 01, 2011

the end of obscenity

I was well composed today. High heels that didn’t hurt. Long swingy black slacks. I packed a lunch from home of items that would soon expire unless rescued orally by me. I put them in a recycled plastic bag from the book shop, in which they fit perfectly. Thrift is a complicated operation, both to execute and to pronounce. I felt so put together, like a colorforms figure – a sturdy piece of laminated plastic decked out in tidy vinyl. Then in the train station I saw a lady with one arm, and it occurred to me that if you are born with six fingers on one hand, you no longer have a middle finger.
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