Monday, September 6, 2010

the country i remember, part i

It’s autumn in the country I remember.

This is the opening line of Trumbull Stickney’s poem “Mnemosyne,” an elegiac meditation dedicated to the titular Titaness, the Greek personification of memory and mother of the nine Muses. A few weeks ago I memorized this poem with the help of my friend, Jason Daniel Baker. Learning poetry, like learning to sing a song, helps me to experience the musical and emotional effect of a poem's craft in a way that is visceral, rather than intellectual. I'm going to start saying/writing "learning" rather than "memorizing," because memorization smacks most of rote duty and accumulated detail (dare I say trivia?), and less of the dynamic process to which memorization is but an aid.

I bet many of us can recite a few lines we were forced to regurgitate as kids--let us chant "Full fathom five thy father lies" or "Whose woods these are I think I know" in chorus!--without necessarily having a sense of what the lines mean to us, if they mean anything at all. I know this has been true for me when I learn by rote, rather than by heart--two clichés that touch on the canyon that lies between knowledge acquired through instruction, and the richer stuff we become acquainted with when instruction shines its small, pointed light into the dim universe surrounding us. Much like a star, instruction can lead us to discoveries, but it cannot illuminate the entire field of our experience at once. (Even the sun only touches on one half of the Earth at a time.)

In the process of learning a poem, I notice things I don't notice on the page. In the case of "Mnemosyne," for example, how Stickney's shifty verb tenses spin a web of emotional resonance. One of the most striking tense shifts in the poem comes in the penultimate stanza:

But that I knew these places are my own,
I'd ask myself how came such wretchedness to cumber
The Earth, and I to people it alone.

(Lines 20-22)

In line 20, the speaker acknowledges that, in spite of the contrasts between the country he romantically recalls in the poem's tercets, and the destroyed, desolate space he witnesses in the present-tense refrains, both "countries" exist in the perpetual present of his memory. Regardless of whether the mountains he gestures toward are where he once "lived" (see line 16), line 20's jostling return to the present reminds the reader that all the elegies ever written are incapable of erasing the eternal return played out in our memory. Mnemosyne, as an invocation of memory and artistic birth, shows us the two sides of Stickney's inspiration——the sorrowful corners, the persistent longings, the compulsion toward beauty, its succour and inadequacy. Even as the speaker bemoans the loss and decay of his mythic country (political, geographic, however you may read that), it belongs to him as much as he belongs to it.

These thoughts lead me to ask whether national and regional identity are not similarly dynamic, and impossible, relationships. be continued....

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Taste Intervention for Ladies Everywhere*

*Now with 50% More White Male Gaze

Sure, rolling out the trope of the male gaze can be tiresome in this post-feminist age where all gazes are equal (cue tweeting songbirds and gamboling puppies), but some days that gaze’s good works in the community demand recognition.

Exhibit A:

A recent commercial for Sabra’s (admittedly tasty) hummus:

I can hear what you’re thinking.

“But it’s FUNNY!”

“Oh, come on, that Chinese guy’s hilarious!!”

Of course it’s funny! Didn’t Freud teach us that nothing makes us laugh like uncomfortable revelations? What could be funnier than a bald admission to (white, middle-class breeding) women, “Yes, we really are watching what you’re eating. And judging you. ALL of us. Even the Asian food service worker whose livelihood depends on your ‘bad’ taste—for yes, he also recognizes that his ‘Chinese’ taste is bad, and secretly wishes to join the ranks of the white, button-down-wearing, hummus-eating master class!”

What’s that you say? That I’m missing the irony? That the commercial is a parody targeted at dudes, who stereotypically DO need taste interventions, NOT ladies, especially thin, white middle-class moms? That the fantasy of being married to a man with good taste who raises his children in the path of good-taste righteousness, in spite of his wife’s sad “addiction” to “junk” (poor soul!), is but a gentle satire?

The OED defines parody as “a composition in which the characteristic style and themes of a particular author or genre are satirized by being applied to inappropriate or unlikely subjects, or are otherwise exaggerated for comic effect.”

The genre being satirized is clearly that of rehab interventions, the same cultural script that gave birth to catchwords like “carefrontation” and television abominations like Celebrity Rehab. That this script is exaggerated for comic effect I can’t deny. That’s what makes it funny! We recognize the trope, which tells us, “hey, we’re doing this for her own good,” even as we also recognize the ridiculousness of the “problem.”

Or do we? With obesity both a statistical epidemic and a media obsession, with foodie-ism and Alice Waters holding court, IS the parodied “problem” not a problem we identify as a real one? And can’t Sabra count on viewers’—particularly a demographic like thin, white middle-class moms or their aspirational counterparts—to make that connection?

To my mind, the commercial is parodic, but fails to be true parody because irony is not the point. We are not invited to laugh at the accusations Janet Reidel’s family and neighbor (I use this term loosely, given the problematic class/race dimensions of the deliveryman’s character) bring against her in the name of her own “well-being.” Neither does the parody show us anything new—rather, it chases it’s own tale (pun intended) like the tautological monster much advertising is.

Rather, we are invited to become uncomfortable, in the Freudian sense. And that “we,” the commercial let’s us know all too clearly, is a certain category of women, represented by Janet Reidel. (I say “category,” lest all those aspirational Janet Reidel’s who don’t happen to be female, white, middle-class or breeders feel left out.) The commercial acknowledges a system already in place, pokes fun at it in order raise anxiety in the viewer about her eating habits, and then ends with the product in question restoring order to the known universe.

Not only is the empowered male gaze, represented by the husband, son and deliveryman, watching, that gaze apparently is taking notes and conferencing about the “problem,” all the while Janet’s young daughter stands idly by with the dish of hummus. Like a timid alter boy, she hesitantly passes the hummus to her mother as she glances at her father. Accessory to her “recovery,” schlepping the goods of man, and most surely internalizing the message that she too must maintain vigilance over her food intake, this little girl knows the price of being found to have “bad taste,” as should her mother, if she wants her own daughter to consider her (Janet’s) image one of aspirational value.

Saved! Without Sabra and the male gaze, poor Janet Reidel might never have thought of her health or her “tastes” in quite the same way.

The food police are real, my friends. Take heed, and hide the Goober Grape.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

man-womanly, woman-manly...?

Currently I'm reading Mating by Norman Rush, a novel set in Botswana in the 1980s. Thus far, it is a fantastic read. I'm especially impressed by how believable and intriguing the female narrator is. It's pretty rare that I can lose myself in the narrative, trusting completely that the particular woman relating the tale is "real." Too often, I feel as though a scrim separates such narrators from their audiences, as though the authorial eye/I had swaddled the speaking subject in a type of low-level radiation discernible only to members of the gender/class/race/type supposedly "speaking." I guess you could call it the authenticity meter, though that phrase feels a little presumptuous--in spite of my ardor for Chaka Khan, I am not every woman.

But I am ONE woman. A woman who can tell you that the way women narrators written by men narrate their bodies generally is the first bleep on the radar scren. "Sweat trickles between my breasts," or something of that ilk, pops up in the narrative. BEEEEEEEEEP.

I couldn't tell you the number of times I've thought of my breasts as "breasts," because it hasn't been that often. Generally it's when someone else's gaze or hands are involved in increasing my awareness of their existence. In other words, largely in sexual, or sexually-charged, situations. Because, somehow, the word "breast," when not applied to chickens or followed by "cancer" or "feeding", has been sexualized in my mind. (Yes, I do blame society.) The fact of having breasts is not very interesting to me. If I were a narrator, I can guarantee you that their existence would only be interesting when their involvement in the plot of my life was interesting. Namely, during sex, or breast feeding, or getting any sort of medical test performed on them. Definitely while shopping. Most of those actions have plot value. The fact that the breasts, in themselves, exist does not.

It's not (obviously) that my daily activities of bathing, dressing, working out, et. al. somehow are performed independently of them. It's just that I don't think of them as plot-movers. "The king died, and the queen died of grief." What happens if that shortest plot read: "The king died, and the well-stacked queen died of grief." Who cares?

Well, if the queen trudged through a desert in her elaborate costume, and chronicled the discomforts of her trip...perhaps what happened to her breasts would be interesting. Both to her and her readers. Say her whalebone stays caused her discomfort. What language would she use to tell you about this? Would the sweat "trickle?"

"Trickling." If I'm sweaty, I might deign to say I'm "sweating," in spite of the old saw about women not being horses and glowing (or something). "Trickling" is a word that sensualizes the experience of sweating. It adds a writerly sort of drama that living day-to-day with a female body, I can assure you, hardly resembles. It is its own plot, and it has nothing to do with the narrator.

So, if the shoe is put on the other foot....what happens if a female writer creates a male narrator, and this narrator is to have a fight scene that escalates in the men's room when (say) his arch enemy is espied via a mirror as he stands at the urinal?

Do men narrate to themselves when they visit a urinal any more than a woman narrates her trickling sweat? (And if the sweat were near another body part...say the armpit...would that author choose the word trickle? Food for thought.)

I imagine not. Though, to be honest, I'm sort of intrigued about how I would narrate that moment. How could I make it real? How could I make it feel real without falling back on trying to feel up my narrator vicariously? Without objectifying his experience of his own body?

I suppose the first step would be to write about using the loo as I do, then changing the verb "sat" to "stood." Then important plot-driving details like, "scrutinized the etchings on the back of the stall door" to "noticed in the half-mirror a jagged scab on the side of my nostril. Fucking hotel razors."

Could it be that simple?

Writing gender interests me not just in terms of character study, but in terms of how a writer writes embodiment via an "I" speaker, especially if that "I" speaker is of a different gender. What could be a more challenging exercise than trying to realistically narrate the thought-process of a character in an intimate moment with the self—especially an intimate moment as routine, and thus half-consciously dealt with, as using the bathroom? It would be hard for me to not want to talk about the mechanics of it, because it would be necessary for me to imagine the mechanics in order to try to get into that place. And then, it's really hard to think about the mechanics and not write about them, if only because the mechanics are INTERESTING. I'm not a dude. Urinals ARE interesting to me, in as far as they are unknown territory frequented by half the population.

Circling back to Rush's narrator in Mating...thus far, I believe the unnamed protaganist's narration of her physical experience. One way Rush makes that work is by delivering an overwhelmingly self-aware narrator who's interest in anthropology and the position of the audience is rivaled only perhaps by her creator's. Another way is by avoiding letting his own interest (whatever that may be) in women and their bodies hijack the speaker's narration. Her descriptions are only as writerly as she herself is writerly (which is very) and they only wax garrulous on topics that interest her.

We are given a cursory description of her physicality, but even then the details are delivered in a straightfoward, unromantic fashion, with little time spent extrapolating on the details of those deatils. I still have no idea what color her eyes are. Why would I? This character isn't interested in what her eye color means to others, and it hasn't come up as a pertinent plot point yet. No villager has told her she looks like a ghost because she has blue eyes, for example. This is the kind of moment when this narrator would deliver that kind of information. Otherwise, it's not important to her.

Which isn't to say her body, and its effects or non-effects on the people around her, are not interesting to her. But while the narrator clearly is able to objectify (or could we say objectively view) herself within her milieu, her ruminations on her body, and its actions, only appear in ways that advance the plot and add contour to her character. As a result (and a big plus, in my book) we do not suffer a writer's interest in his character's, er, formal properties, at the expense of the work as a whole.

P.S. The post title is not in reference to the picture. That is one gorgeous lady. You know...unless she's a man, of course.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

negative capability

Wow. If I had a nickel for every time someone said "negative capability" in grad school, I might not be working a day job. And yet, it's a phrase that I would have a perversely difficult time defining if a random stranger were to ask me what it meant. I absolutely have to sit and mull over it for a few minutes, and parse jargon, before I remember. Then I usually laugh, because it's pretty funny for my brain to be continually in doubt about a concept that revolves around....continuing in doubt.

When I wrote my last post on unicorns, the subtext seems to have been my struggle with negative capability. More Wordsworth and Coleridge than Keats, I suppose, my usual process with a poem is to start with some sort of image, event or idea that makes me want to know more. KNOWING is, or has been, immensely important in my life. If I'm depressed, I want to dig around and try to find the "cause," or "problem." If a poem isn't working, my old instinct was to always analyze sound, meter or image to find what didn't "click" into place. In other words, the "problem."

Last month I was following a series of articles on the New York Time's Opinionator blog by Errol Morris entitled "The Anosognosic's Dilemma: Something's Wrong, and You'll Never Know What It Is." The series loosely, but fascinatingly, explored the idea of the human mind's ability to know unknowns, or to seem to not know (or unknow) phenomenon considered by other sources to be knowns. One of Morris' dominant metaphors is that of anosognosia, an affliction where a person with paralysis does not appear to know he or she is paralyzed. Another riveting anecdotal example involves a man who is told wiping lemon juice on his face will make him invisible to cameras. He then tries to rob a bank, and is shocked when he is arrested after being identified from footage taken by a security camera.

I mention these articles because they touch on the issue of the perceived "problem" of not knowing something. Morris briefly discusses Surrealism, and automatic writing, as well as the hysterics documented in Salpétrière, as examples of allowing the brain to show the self something that self doesn't "know" it knows. I imagine Keats would have said to Morris, "yes, my dear sir, you have described states of negative capability quite nicely, except for the part where you keep pursuing knowns!"

A problem wants a solution, in the same way that a question wants an least, according to our habitual practice of syntax in conversation and composition (I'm thinking here of essay more than poetry). When habitual syntax goes out out the window, what are we left with? Some might say a truth or knowledge that we don't even know we don't know yet.

If in a cluster of grapes there are no two alike, why do you want me to describe this grape by the other, by all the others . . . ? Our brains are dulled by the incurable mania of wanting to make the unknown known, classifiable . . . It is pointless to add that experience itself has found itself increasingly circumscribed. It paces back and forth in a cage from which it is more and more difficult to make it emerge . . . Forbidden is any kind of search for truth that is not in conformance with accepted practices . . .
I quote Morris' excerpt of André Breton, because it is an excellent way to tie together the idea of creative "problems" and negative capability. A teacher of mine used to get VERY annoyed when I referred to poems or groups of poems as "projects." I think she felt that "project" implied that the poem—the flashes of the previously unknown or unseen that appear in poetry, appearing to surprise even the poet herself—already existed, leaving the poet's task to one of excavating and arranging....not unlike the way academic scholars or thinkers like Morris excavate and arrange information in order to reveal something previously unknown to their audiences.

And yet, I believe that scholarly pursuits are just as much guided by negative capability—an example Morris' series makes quite nicely. At no point reading his essays did I get the sense that we started with a clear map of his "project," then proceeded down the outline to the conclusion he had identified from the outset. Rather, there is a creative meandering in the essays that takes us from cultural artifact to cultural artifact—mirroring, I imagine, the process by which his thoughts on anosognosia and knowing unknowns were stimulated. (He makes a point in his notes to mention that the whole idea started when he Twittered a definition of a stupid person.) In other words, accepting that the end of the fifth installment of the essay might even end without any solution to the "problems" of "self-deception" and anosognosia...but rather an acknowledgment of a few of the mysteries surrounding us.

It is, of course, at times, deflating to be faced with so many unknowables when one has spent thirty-plus years being goaded to "know." Believing that the pursuit of knowledge was the good fight, and that knowing is the half of the battle that prepares you to win the war. (Sorry, G.I. Joe. You are indeed an American hero.) How many years were spent trying to know the wrong thing—trying to know what I never knew I didn't—and perhaps couldn't!—know?

With this in mind, I am grateful for John Keats' poems and letters in a way I never suspected I would be—grateful to finally begin to understand (and next time someone asks me about negative capability, I think I'll know how to respond!) that understanding isn't the point of a poem. A poem can teach you things you didn't know, and it can share facts. It can be knowledgeable, in the way that we understand that word, and it can inspire one to gain more knowledge (I'm thinking in particular of Pound here). But at the end, if there isn't a relinquishment of intellectual knowing (i.e. mastery) in favor of imagining or intuiting our way to spheres of experience greater than our "accepted practices" have deigned show us (a state Fanny Howe might call bewilderment)....I'm just not sure it's the kind of poem I want to write.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

the unicorn

Years ago, a friend told me she had been invited to be a unicorn at a private party that moved around the city, expressly for the purpose of letting moneyed couples explore their swinger /exhibitionist inclinations. You might ask, as I did, what a "unicorn" is, in this sense. She replied, "A unicorn is a single woman who cruises parties for multiple partners. They are rumored to exist, but no one has ever seen one in nature."

More recently, my friend, poet and writer Colie Hoffman, also got me thinking about unicorns. They appear in some of her magically surreal prose poems that I had the chance to read when we were at Hunter. I vaguely remember a scenario that involved unicorns playing baseball. In this scenario, unicorns in humanoid postures seem to suggest humans can attain an idealized form by elevating a mundane pastime (apologies to those who pray at the batted altar) to one of mystical meaning. Or, that our human hunger to believe our fantasies and ideals can somehow form a transcendent logic that is at home in this world.

As some of you know, I have the privilege of working a day job in advertising that magically doesn't eat up all 12 hours of daylight. I also have what I consider to be the privilege of working in design. Even when my job is boring, there is the satisfaction of making things orderly, pretty, or functional, and most usually some combination of all three. I like organizing closets and making collages. I like type and colors. I like ordering information. So, all in all, this works out remarkably well.

Recently a printer contacted me about submitting one of my designs to a contest. This happens on occasion, and is always flattering, even exciting. Since I've been focusing on my writing over the past few years, the energy I'd been pouring into design took a hit. These moments of reflection help stoke my flame that still burns for design, and reminds me that I might, after all, have the touch. That maybe there is hope for me yet at being more of a William Blake or Robert Bringhurst than a poor man's Wallace Stevens, toiling behind the scrim of a gray flannel suit.

However, these moments also pose uncomfortable questions....have I made the right decision to spread my energies around, in this day of increased specialization? Am I wasting time trying to do too much, be too much? What IS that Most Important Thing? Could it be design for consumer markets, when I thought it was Art?

This spiral continues, and the cheap seats begin to bark tips at the unicorns on the field:

You can't eat poetry.
Advertising is a career for the masses, art for the few.
You're still "creative," even if you're not an artist.
There're more benefits in being an art director than a poet.
Why don't you write something like "Twilight"?
Good luck with all that, kid. You'll never buy a house.

But I'm not a kid, really, and I don't believe in unicorns. When models are hired to circulate at parties in various states of undress, either selling vodka or just the illusion of sexual availability, I don't believe the illusion they are selling. (Of course, I'm not the target market.) And I believe, Pollyanna-ish as it seems, that most members of said target market also don't believe in what they are being sold...they're buying into how safe the idea is when it's divorced from the threat of reality.

My friend who "performed" as a unicorn at the aforementioned underground parties told me that her job really was to talk to people, and to wander around. I'm not going to pretend that her experience was in any way bound by the monogamous heterosexist narrative this comment implies. This was her take-away from the experience--that the unicorn was a unicorn because the unicorn wasn't real. The unicorn was extra-human, a figment of the imagination. And if she did choose to engage with break down the line between fantasy and reality...well, she never shared that with me. I suspect that might be because the reality of the event (so many arms and legs, the impossibility of three-way eye contact) made the pre-game illusion much more interesting.

When I saw the first window ad for Diesel's "Be Stupid" campaign months ago, the line I'm shuffling toward drawing in the sand between Teams Unicorn (where the teams are consumer design and poetry/non-consumer art) got a little clearer. This campaign represents exactly the kind of work I could be doing. I could be manipulating rhetoric, cultural symbols and psychological motifs into profitable advertising ventures. I even think I might be able to be good at making that kind of unicorn--the type that touches on some of our basest human desires and raises those desires to the level of an ideal. The desire that substitutes "creative" for "stupid," and counts on a society's anti-intellectual terrors to fill in the blanks. Or the desire that substitutes luxury goods with self-worth. That appeals to aspirational identity, and uses said rhetoric and motifs to make that identity emotionally fulfilling. The unicorn who frolics in sweet meadows, backlit by soft spring sunshine, silken mane buffeted by the wind as a chance ray of light reflects off the horn that springs from her forehead like an aesthetic messenger of Zeus.

Then there is the unicorn in the baseball uniform. Is this unicorn ever really safe? This unicorn that stands on two legs, one hip stuck out as she throws a baseball into her glove (somehow), and glares at the competitors. This unicorn whose mane is stained with sweat and clay. Who, by playing a human game, reveals us to ourselves--our human ways suddenly absurd, for what could be more ridiculous than believing any of our logics can be transcendent, or that any of our ideals can be perfection?

And yet, that's what we do over and over again, and that's the unicorn I want to chase. The unicorn that pulls humanity, in all its absurdities and beauties, into high relief. Not the unicorn that clicks shut like a box, a cipher of a desire that, while also all-too-human, somehow seems to push me further from becoming more human and further into a mountain of consumer goods.

It's not that I don't love my consumer feelings are certainly ambivalent here, as I'm ever-so-much part of the machine I critique. It's really that my life project is to explore what makes us human in a way that brings me closer to humanity, within myself and (perhaps aspirationally!) within others...not to study how to push human buttons from behind a curtain.

There....line drawn. Imperfectly, and certainly with logic flaws. Inconsistent. Contradictory. Perhaps even ephemerally delightful, like a unicorn playing baseball.

Batter up.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

me and my animal

I've been thinking about animals more lately than I can ever remember thinking about animals. Part of me blames Mary B. McHugh, who during our time at Hunter introduced me to a thousand and one ways one might consider an animal...and indeed, perhaps come to prefer to BE an animal. (Keep your eye out for her work, she's dynamite.) Part of me blames my twin obsessions of psychology and poetry, which lead me to puzzle over what the animal means within my writing, and thus self. Animals appear in many recent poems, either as a cow, dog or alligator, much to my surprise. The cows started sneaking in first. Now there is the ungainly, threatening but attractive figure of an alligator lurking in some newer sketches.

In some way, the speakers of all my poems reflect a part of myself. (Surprise!) Maybe that part is small. Maybe it is a part I would otherwise cast out, but which must exist for the sort of empathy required to write from the perspective of another to be channeled. On one hand this makes me despair--for if one is only ever writing about one's self, then how can it ever be useful to take on the mantle of another? Isn't the ruse just too obvious? And aren't the ethical problems of speaking for another and/or appropriating their speech not worth the trouble?

Well, if you were Jung (and sometimes I pretend to be him myself), you might say, "No! Ridiculous! Poppycock!". You might then say, "Did you not read my theories of the animus/anima, liebchen? And are you not convinced that there are shadow selves darting in and out of your consciousness as though it were but und closet?"

Perhaps. I find Jung's categories within the animus/a to be intriguing. I much prefer the idea that I am a core self working through my shadow selves toward a wholly realized self to Freud's feuding triumverate. While the animus/a's gender categories Jung created feel a bit old-fashioned, I do resonate with the idea that I might be slogging through the following shadow selves: The Athlete/Muscleman, The Planner, The Professor and the Guide.

I love Jung's premise that a human being, in her/his best manifestation, reaches the final stage of mediation between all these parts...and then is able to shuttle between selves (or I might say types of knowledge and intuition) without sacrificing any of the parts.

I might like to add the Animal to the list of shadow selves. For the body is, most purely, an animal like any other. It tells us when we are hungry, when we are aroused, when we are tired. It finds physical means of expressing its anger or joy or sorrow, in a manner quite divorced from the way we "think" or "recognize" our emotional feelings. How else to explain those terrible moments when we want to cry and can't, whether it be because our minds associate physical crying with emotional relief, or because our social selves feels the pressure to respond to an event.

And yet...who would say that our bodies are not integral to our selves? Okay, Plato would. I sure as heck wouldn't.

And I not live a life that is primarily in denial of my body's needs? And thus, at some level, deeper needs of my whole being?

I thought of this while cleaning off our dining room table the other day. For the past two years, the table has been buried under manuscript drafts, photocopies of articles, half-used journals, books, mail, computer other words, it's been my desk. So, Shyam and I have been eating...pretty much where it's most convenient. Which in a New York apartment, where there is a strict no-eating-in-bed rule, means the couch.

For two years, we have eating sitting side-by-side, facing the television, plates balanced either on knees or on the coffee table. I have been nurturing a frustration with this arrangement the whole time, but of course did nothing about it. After all, I had to have a work area, and there just was nowhere else to put my piles. (Or was lazy. You be the judge.)

Then this weekend I finally moved those piles. And now we have begun eating at the table again. It feels...strange. It feels strange to look at Shyam when we're not in a restaurant. And given that we do not eat the majority of our meals in restaurants, it feels strange often of late. But strange in a wonderful way...strange in the way moving into a new home feels strange.

But it's not only the strange feel-good-ness of actually communing (read: kvetching about our days) while we eat. It's also the way eating changes when one is actually communing while eating. We both eat slower, breathe more between bites, perhaps pause and rest for a moment. Usually because one of us is chattering, but also because it feels good!

I hate eating quickly. Something physiological happens, I swear, when I'm eating with someone who eats quickly. It's as though an animal (athlete?) wakes up inside and says, "OMIGOD!!! SCARCE RESOURCES!!" and then I begin to eat more quickly, too. I practically feel the fight-or-flight hormones racing. It is the antithesis of, as the French say, l'art de vivre.

This little article I stumbled upon sums this all up very well with key points to help "Discover the Art of Eating Well":

1. Hyrdate. "Mmmm, aperitif!" Or water. That's good too.
2. Breathe. "(Sigh) is good." Or, life is hard....but now there's a break.
3. Extend gratitude. (see above)
4. Engage the senses. "Mmm, that smells like....looks like..."
5. Savor the first bite. I think you smell what I'm cookin' here.
6. Chew well.
7. Slow down.
8. Observe.
9. Complete the practice.
10. Notice the effects.

When I allow myself to take the time to follow these steps, they come rather intuitively. Of course, it's hard to muster too much excitement about a peanut butter sandwich or ramen, you might say. But why? It's time taken to nourish the body, and by extension, the self. It isn't necessarily whether truffles and foie gras are involved, but the ceremony itself.

And it's also a way, I think, of keeping our inner alligators in check, without denying they exist. To feel animal desire urge us to devour a juicy steak, while our more highly-realized self says, "It ain't gonna run away, and no one's going to steal it. Let's celebrate!"

Though, if you do give in to your inner alligator...well, there's a ceremony for that, too. But it's nice when the Guide shows up to wipe her mouth.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

bodies of knowledge

Though I've been trying to set myself the post-graduate task of one blog entry per week, last week's entry fell by the wayside. I had some scribblings about cultural code-switching, but after the fun and the drain of festivities planned in anticipation of my best friend Lisa's wedding, I wasn't feeling too bloggy. Inevitably when I looked at the notes, the small flame that had lit that fire had extinguished, and I put the notes aside for another day when the spark returns.

Do you experience that same phenomenon? I know writing, and the creative life in general, requires discipline. But if I don't have the fire within for that particular creation, it's very difficult to push it through. I have to thank my friend and teacher Donna Masini, among others, for helping me come to terms with this ebb and flow. At Hunter, Donna drilled into our heads from day one that "willing" a poem was often a dead-end strategy. That it was often more productive, and kinder to the host (i.e. ourselves), to let the unfinished poem lay fallow rather than beat our intellects against the Muse's door. Of course there are times when, without will, I'd write nothing. But it is not the will that reveals the poem usually, but the will that puts me in a place where I might stumble upon the beginnings of a poem. Those of course are the lucky days.

I don't mean to suggest that I consider the poet to be some sort of medium who is "possessed" by a poem, but who has no direct role in that poem's creation. For me it just sometimes feels like that when the quick cold lightening in my belly announces inspiration. When the poetic instruments, or organs, are roused from sleep, and begin to dance with the mind and body.

The poetic, or creative, instrument. Could this be a third essence, or idea, or substance? For the past few days, I've been reading An Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas, the 1945 Modern Library edition edited and introduced by Anton C. Pegis. And let me stress the "introduction" part, as I have yet to make it past Pegis' introduction, which for me has been a mind-whirling good time of parsing out where Aquinas split from the Platonic tradition and set the 13th century's britches on fire. Or not, considering that many of his Neoplatonic contemporaries thought his more Aristotelian theory of man as a composite being, for whom body and soul were inseparably important, was just plain wrong-headed.

I can see why a world that disdained the body as largely a housing for the purer "Intellect" and/or spirit might be rocked to the core by Aquinas' view that "man is a knower rather than a thinker, and he is a composite being rather than a mind" (Pegis, xxiv).

Marinating on my own poetic process over the past few years, and how torn I feel about relinquishing head knowledge to body knowledge, I've often put this struggle in feminist terms. The knowledge I feel bubbling within, what my intellect begins to intuit but often strains to decipher clearly, is precisely the type of body knowledge, or knowing, that my feminist mothers' writings (Cixous, Stein, Rich, Lorde) urge the world to acknowledge, even as baby feminists such as myself struggle to accept that this knowledge is valuable.

Confession: I have doubted. I might say I was taught to doubt, and raised on doubtful elixirs that poisoned me to the worth of my own knowing. But whatever the causes, the Doubt of my own composite nature, twin knowledges, instruments of knowing and thinking, exists. I still fight to tear it out at the roots.

And yet, I constantly stumble upon dudes--here an old Catholic dude, no less--who sort of say, to be human--not just to be woman--is to be a knower of many things. A composite of forces.

Here I admit this an interpretation of Aquinas based on scanty reading and no scholarship. I probably project more than a little pop Gnosticism onto it. But ride with me. I admit I am feeling my way around, toward a knowing, rather than thinking, progressing through the discrete white rooms with tables, at right angles, resisting the pencils that suggest I scratch out a proof.

I think the reason I love poetry is that its proof is in its feeling. I'm not going to label Aquinas a feminist per se, though it IS bolstering to do a Google search of "Aquinas" + "feminism" and find that these ideas are circulating in other skulls. What I am trying to get at is the import of self-knowing. Trusting the knowledge that might come from sources other than the socially-recognized "intellect." Something that you might not have proof for (hey, we can't all be masters of philosophy), but that is intuited.

This weekend I spent some time with Esther Gokhale's (Go-clay) book Eight Steps to a Pain-Free Back. It ain't the Summa Theologica, but it is a fantastic example of one person following the path of an intuited knowledge. In this case, a woman who suffered from excruciating back pain.

Gokhale spent years studying what she calls "traditional" societies, such as those found in Burkina Faso, India and Portugal, where back pain, even among elderly manual laborers, is largely nonexistent. Approaching the issue through the lenses of biomechanics, photojournalism, history and anthropology, Gokhale developed a method for preventing back pain based on training the modern body to return to its pre-modern knowledge. The comparison of pre-20th century and post-20th century medical drawings of "healthy" spines speaks volumes itself.

Basically, she shows you how to sit. And lay. And stand. And walk. And let me say—even after a day and a half of trying some of these exercises, it is amazing to feel the spine settle and the muscles release in a way that feels like a return to a sort of physical innocence. All the pictures of babies and small children doing their intuitive biomechanical thing don't hurt either.

During one of my sitstretching sessions, Shyam asked what I was doing. After giving him the short version, he started flipping through the book--and laughing. He found the idea that babies "know" how to sit correctly to be a tad ridiculous. This at first made me angry. As anger is an umbrella emotion, I looked under that umbrella to see what was there. I found frustration, disappointment, exhaustion and sorrow. Why sorrow? Because yet again I had bounced against a fundamental lack of respect for "other" types of knowledge that I suspected (feared is perhaps the better word) could not be resolved.

Having spent much of my life passionately defending feminist principles to audiences who were at best bemused and at worst scornful, this moment felt like another in a long series of being patted on the head and told to go back to my funny little projects. Of course I comforted myself with thoughts like, "he's just afraid of what is different and foreign to his ways of knowledge." Cold comfort, that.

When we first met, he told me that he felt his life had been a little too Apollonian, and he needed a Dionysian influence. To my eternal amusement, I was that Dionysian influence. (Those who know my day-to-day habits will see the amusement in this.) I think maybe he was also saying, "Hey, I have my worldview, and I'm attracted to yours, which is not mine. But don't expect me to join your tribe so easily." I'm not one to change my principles on a dime either, so this was at least a meeting on the grounds of respect as well as a proverbial drawing of a line in the sand. Exciting at first. Tiring, even alienating, at other times. I will be charitable and imagine there have been moments when he's felt this same mix.

Later in the evening, we took a walk through the neighborhood. I couldn't help taking note of the posture of the small children we passed. It was remarkable how their biomechanics were so consistent. Gait and posture were the consistent gaits and postures of new beings whose bodies know how to move, ineffably.

Shyam teasingly asked if I was keeping track of all the babies' postures. (And in Carroll Gardens, ladies and gents, this is no mean feat.) But when we got home and I wriggled my way into another attempt at stretchsitting, he did join me in trying to sit like "a straight-backed baby."

This was a feat of sorts, though I did wonder later whether presenting the whole idea in terms of Thomism (even if only as rhetorical device) would have expedited this process. I think I'm glad I resisted that tactic.

Photo Credit: Tamara Bonêt, "Indian Woman (Maiden) Sculpture WIP"

Saturday, May 29, 2010

walking the songline

This weekend I am in Providence, RI, with my partner Shyam's family. Shyam's mother leaves books, magazines and news clippings throughout the house, and often there is a small pile waiting our arrival, each article addressed to its intended reader with a yellow Post-It. These articles might be notices of school, church or shop closings, notices of weddings or passings of classmates or neighbors from the "old" neighborhood. For me, there are usually recipes, general interest articles about things French (today, a piece on the delight that is the macaron) or fashion spreads. These clippings both flatter and charm me with a version of myself, as seen by Shyam's mom—in no small part because of the way these themes repeat in my own family's understanding of things I love. Perhaps the taxonomic ordering of identity, at the hands of a family member, is all the more special for the way particularities are framed--like curio cabinets, these clippings feeds us with shadows of ourselves, seen.

At the same time, these small signs of familiarity are a self-perpetuating phenomenon. Clippings on political correctness, perhaps one of my traits that Shyam finds (among others, I'm sure) trying at times, never make their way into these piles. Nor do clippings on radical political insurgencies, or the progress of the Khmer Rouge trials. I imagine in part because these interests of mine are not the kind any of my family members necessarily wishes for me...but then what parent or friend really wishes tragedy, violence or mundane hatreds to be in their loved one's world? As a younger adult I tended to view this kindness as a rejection of sorts. Today I think I begin to peer through another prism of the dodecahedron that is the ways of love, and am grateful.

Of course, I have friends whose parents' lives have been dedicated to radical social and political work, who prefer to recognize these strains of common interest in their children, rather than petty bourgeois inclinations. This, too, is a way of love—a self-loving self looking for self in future generations. I would imagine self almost always finds some strain of that shared family self, too, if one is looking thoroughly. I don't find this impulse to be negative, though I can understand why some might find it creepy, but one of the human drives characteristic of the parenting principle—of which teaching, if not other forms of social parenting, is certainly included.

Are not the selves we construct, the qualities we've developed on our own, not the values we often value for our children (wrongly or rightly) as well? All the more loving, then, when that child's combination of departures from and alliances with the family fold (for there is always this tangle) are recognized.

But what if I were to depart from this psycho-semiological mumbo-jumbo for one cotton-pickin' second, and consider these departures and alliances from another perspective? On the bedside table in the bedroom we often sleep in chez Oberoi, I found a copy of Christopher J. Moore's book In Other Words, an editorial compendium of words that are difficult, if not impossible, to translate, and what translation (however slant) reveals both to and about the translator. In the introduction, Moore mentions the Aranda* word for dreaming, aljerre.
For Indigenous Australians, dreaming is a vital way of holding the created world together. British author Bruce Chatwin writes, "Aboriginal myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who wandered across the country in the Dreamtime . . . singing the world into existence." If a tribe's Keeper of the Dreaming fails to carry out his or her "dreaming" task, walking the songlines that put the world together, the Earth as we know it would come to an end. (14)
"Tribe" is a term not infrequently employed as a synonym for "family" (at least, by me). I spoke with one of the Keepers of the Malloy Dreaming (my father) yesterday. He had been on summer vacation from his teaching job for a whole two days, and our conversation went something like this:
M: What're you up to?
D: Oh, just enjoying the heck out of myself, playing in the yard. . .
M: Any plans for the summer?
D: Well, I'm taking a trip next week to go visit some folks I haven't seen in a while.
M: Oh? Who's that? Where're you going?
D: Taking the bike [read: motorcyle] out to Texas and Oklahoma for a few days. I'm going to catch up with my dad's brother, Bobby, and see my old commander at Fort Sill.
I can count on one hand the number of trips my father has made without his beloved life-partner, my beloved step-mother, in the twenty years they've been together. I can count on one finger the number of times I've heard any mention of a Great Uncle Bobby. That would be during the conversation, loosely transcribed above.

My father and his siblings have been estranged (by choice) from my grandfather (now long deceased) and his family (more or less) since before I was born. There are histories of abuse that run long and deep, about which I know only a little, but which I felt composed a steady-but-minor theme in our family songline. My reaction to the news of this Uncle Bobby, and my father's impending trek on a 20th-century horse through the tumbleweed-y landscapes of Texas and Oklahoma, echoed otherwise.

Astonishing! This image of my father, a figure of a man almost wholly unknown to me, taking off for such an adventure, with characters to whom I am apparently connected . . . and yet not. The writer in me immediately was envious. I commented to Shyam that I wanted to be a camera trained on my father during his trip—I wanted to read his reactions, feel the landscape, interpret and know this Great Uncle Bobby through my father's eyes. All of which is not only impossible, but proprietary and perhaps creepy in the ways that children can be creepily proprietary of their parents.

And yet . . . I like to think that underneath these knee-jerk immaturities, the excitement I feel for my father's trip is one born of love—the same sort of love that makes my father demand I order in French when he takes me to a French restaurant. For him, pride in my capabilities express love. For me, the drive to know everything (creepy or not).

My father is walking the songline of his life, and the song will change in ways that touch, but do not include, me. Probably in ways I will never understand, even remotely. But him following his songline shows me how we continue to put the world together—parent and child, teacher and student—simultaneously. It also shows me the ends of a child's egoism—where the belief that the child's songline somehow becomes the entirety of the song—bleeds into an orchestra of Keepers young, old and—like Great Uncle Bobby—shadow.

*Caveat lector: For readers who, like me, have a bad tendency of demonstrating their minds when traveling or at urbane parties, I couldn't find any specific mention of a language called Aranda, but a list of languages spoken by the Arrente people for whom the Aranda district of Australia was named. Lord knows that Wikipedia should never be used as one's primary definitive source, but it is often mine.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

whose soul is not a clod has visions


I lie in the bath and I contemplate the toilet-paper.
Scottissue, 1000 sheets—
         What a lot of pissin and shittin,
         What a lot of pissin and shittin,
Enough for the poems of Shelley and Keats—
All the poems of Shelley and Keats.

—Muriel Rukeyser

My dear teacher and friend, Jan Heller Levi, introduced me to this Rukeyser gem a few months ago. This morning, spent in near-raptures with Keats' "The Fall of Hyperion," I couldn't help but think of Rukeyser's seeming-condemnation of Keats' work. I also couldn't help but wonder whether a 1,000 sheet roll would be enough to scrawl out the 530 lines of "The Fall of Hyperion" in my rapidly-degenerating script. (Note: will try this later. Rainy Sundays and railroad apartments were made for such tasks.)

I don't know enough about Rukeyser to say whether she despised the poems of Shelley and Keats, or whether this poem is more of a statement on the disposable, compost-able, ever-recyclable nature of poetries. This morning I lean toward the latter interpretation. For years I found Keats excessive, his lyric cloying in its enthrallment with sensuous beauty. Mayhaps—yeshaps—because I fight my own inner Romantic constantly. Like a man with a pretty mouth and pockets full of Goetze's caramel creams, Keats gave me the high I was most susceptible to—seasons of melancholy mists sweetened by mellow fruitfulnes, that chatty urn chanting, to the beat of my aesthete heart: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty [.]"

And then, "The Fall of Hyperion." I mean, SERIOUSLY, ya'll. This fragment-poem is described by Harold Bloom as Keats turning away from the "sentimentality" he felt drove earlier poems such as "Ode to a Nightingale." Yet, the question that ends "Nightingale"—"Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music—Do I wake or sleep?"—rings similarly throughout "The Fall of Hyperion," with a marked shift in the question's underlying anxieties. Keats' speaker in "Fall" takes the waking dream as a given—"Fanatics have their dreams" and "the savage too," but now the question is not whether the vision is to be doubted, but whether it can be written: "pity these have not / Traced upon vellum or wild Indian leaf / The Shadows of melodious utterance" (4-6). But most importantly—whether these visions may be written in ways that "save / Imagination from the sable charm / And dumb enchantment" (9-10).

The introductory stanza goes on to posit, in a surprisingly democratic manner (at least, in my shamelessly ahistorical reading), that anyone "whose soul is not a clod" indeed has the vision and drive to "speak, if he had loved" (in the way Keats thought love to mean something similar to Simone Weil's famous injunction, "Absolute unmixed attention is prayer," and the fruit of that prayer poetry). That is, "if he had loved, / And been well nurtured in his mother tongue" (14-15)—and what a tremendously important distinction that is!

Reading Keats in such a way takes me back to Rukeyser's riposte, and socially-conscious poems (such as "The Ballad of Orange and Grape") that ask difficult questions—and make grim insinuations—about what happens when one is not "well nurtured" by any tongue, mother or not. Do the "great" poems then become shit-smeared sheets because of illiteracy? Or is it the forward progress of poets, a progress Keats' "Fall of Hyperion" gestures to in spirit at least, that allows old visions to become fertilizer—that which, in their decomposition, foster the future?