Monthly Archives: January 2010

For the birds

I.
Against the clear and shifting pearl-pink of dawn and dusk skies, the birds have been dancing. Great flocks of them, turning and throbbing overhead. They stretch and twist into ribbons or mass together into dense amoebas, all distinct curve with no constant form. Now they are so close they are a single black body; now they spread themselves thin and let the light through. Always they keep to form. I could trace their outline with a sharp pencil, if they stayed still long enough for my hand to reach out. But they are pulsing through the air, all motion and change, and my fingers cannot catch them.

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II.
In the northeast part of my city, where the mountains grow so big they begin to seem real and the western horizon opens so far to reveal what lies beyond the mesa, there is an intersection. It is very usual, and very ugly. Two huge roads meet, twenty lanes of asphalt weaving together in a hard, black latticework. It is loud. Signs bellow their advertisements between arcs of wind-borne trash.

It is not what I would call a special place.

And yet: each time I pass it, I can’t help but think of a summer day three years ago and more, when I sat at this stoplight and a specific joy found me. Among the plastic bags and dead tumbleweeds milling about in the shin-high weeds, something small and soft must have trembled and tried to blend with dust and thorn and rock. Above, a kestrel hung in the air as if from a string. An oversized, underspeed hummingbird mimic, it swooped its powerful wings once, twice, six times in succession, and remained suspended over its prey.

I’d never seen a bird of its size do that. It was impossible and mesmerizing and amusing to learn something so new and so beautiful, in such a spot.

Seeing its moment, the raptor closed its wings around its body and fell, tilting into an arrow-true dive to the ground. When I saw it again, it moved with such purpose away from the killing ground that I didn’t need to see its mouth to know it full.

It was a small kernel against the clouds when the light turned green.
The car horns had never stopped blaring.

Hearting greens

In the story of Rapunzel, a child is traded for a bowlful of greens. Rapunzel’s mother, hormonal and hungry, looked over her neighbor’s wall, and the garden she saw there inspired in her a craving so fierce she promised her unborn child to the witch, in exchange for a few mouthfuls of tender leaves.

The child inherited the name of the plant that was her disinheritance.

Now, I’ve taken enough college lit classes to know that we could dissect the heck outta this one–a woman commits the ultimate act of defiance for one of her sex, relinquishing motherhood to nourish herself, and so on–but let’s keep it simple, shall we?

Rapunzel–also called rampion–isn’t much cultivated anymore. I’ve certainly never seen any. But I’ve known the story for a long time, and I can relate to a woman who lusts after fresh produce. So maybe it’s understandable that I always confuse rampion for another plant, similarly named.

Rapini, emerald-green, tasting of chlorophyll and minerals. It’s been on my mind lately, though absent from the co-op’s shelves. Some gals might fantasize about dark chocolate or pine for mac & cheese. Me, I tend to get a little cranky if I can’t get my greens… and the rapini was driving me to distraction. Kale and chard and escarole are just dandy, but it was the one I couldn’t get that I wanted.

But on a dreary, cold, hailing day last week, a batch finally made its appearance in the produce section. We ate it wilted over a whole trout, with a crumble of bacon and a dish of jewel-toned roast vegetables. It tasted like sunlight distilled, like an entire field–leaves, dirt, and all.

On a plate in winter, the echo of summer grass.

Good enough to trade offspring for? Having none, I can’t say for sure. But I’d definitely do business with witches to keep some on my plate. Even better, I plan to be the crone next door with the overflowing cold frames. Funny, they never have a blank for that on those occupational aptitude tests…

Crazy Heart

I haven’t been so anxious to see a movie in a long while. Crazy Heart has yet to make its way to this neck of the woods, but this should tide me over for a bit:

T Bone Burnett’s hand here is plain: that soft cushion of steel guitar weeping over a gently rumbling percussion has become the man’s signature. Most of the records T Bone produces sound like they should come with a flask of whiskey and a dusty pair of boots, and this song is no exception. Melancholy and grit are the stock in trade, and he does it so, so well. Can’t wait to see this film.

Wise Words

I was lurking around my own bookshelves yesterday (surveying my domain?), visiting some old friends and updating my sometimes-neglected and still far from being complete Goodreads page. It was a peaceful early-morning activity in a week so far short on peace: I sat in front of the fire, sipping tea and waiting for the snow to start falling, while I opened covers that haven’t been cracked in some time.

When I was in college, I was introduced to the work of poet Eavan Boland. This was a time when my own poetry was still all obfuscation–manipulating words to express feelings without identifying their cause. Beautiful, maybe. Therapeutic, perhaps. But juvenile and cowardly nonetheless. Boland’s poetry was a revelation because of its specificity, and its voice resonated for me. It continues to do so, and the reasons have only grown more rich and varied as I’ve grown and begun thinking myself about histories–personal and public–and memory and the way pasts touch the future.

From her collection, In a Time of Violence which leapt off the shelf at me yesterday morning, after a long time sitting there:

——————————————

THAT THE SCIENCE OF CARTOGRAPHY IS LIMITED

–and not simply by the fact that this shading of
forest cannot show the fragrance of balsam,
the gloom of cypresses,
is what I wish to prove.

When you and I were first in love we drove
to the borders of Connacht
and entered a wood there.

Look down you said: this was once a famine road.

I looked down at ivy and the scutch grass
rough-cast stone had
disappeared into as you told me
in the second winter of their ordeal, in

1847, when the crop had failed twice,
Relief Committees gave
the starving Irish such roads to build.

Where they died, there the road ended

and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of

the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that

the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon

will not be there.

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I read ____, therefore I am _____.

I’ve read a few amusing pieces about how the Kindle and other electronic reading devices will rob us of significant opportunities for snobbery. No more quietly judging people by their books’ covers; no more subtlely communicating one’s wit, taste, and dark complexity with a carefully selected tome. On the flip side, no more feeling guilty perusing the “wrong” section at the bookstore because you just want something lurid and cheaply scintillating to read while you fly to Poughkeepsie and who the hell cares if you give your brain a little break every once in a goddamn while?

While there’s a good chance I’ll eventually own one of these miraculous little gadgets—seriously, 200 books in a 10-oz package?!?!—it will be difficult to adjust to the tactile experience of holding a light plank of plastic, with no pages to turn, no smell of glue and ink. But, then again, I resisted the iPod for a very long time, smug in my low-tech ways, but now I’m deeply in love with the shuffle mode. Things change.

Earlier this year, I updated my renter’s insurance. I first bought the policy when I lived in a 500-square-foot apartment and everything I owned could fit inside a station wagon. I’ve done my part to keep the wheels of capitalism turning in the intervening years, and I’ve added a household member, who came with his own material goods. There was a bit to be added. Taking stock turned out to be a surprising, enlightening exercise. Adding up what it would take to replace all of our possessions should they be suddenly vaporized by martian lasers, reduced to ashes by lightning or arsonists or faulty wiring, or transported to another dimension by a vengeful deity painted an interesting picture of who we are, as communicated by what we’ve chosen to own.

Our number one biggest asset? Books, by far. We have more money tied up in paper and words than we do in anything else. More than electronics, clothing, outdoor gear, or our fast-burgeoning menagerie of bicycles. Far more than we have in cars, even. Moving’s gonna be a bitch.

I bring all this up because I caught myself engaging in a little culture snobbery of my own, just yesterday. It’s mildly embarrassing, but I’ll admit it: I tried to hide the cover of the book I was reading. It was Daniel Abraham’s A Betrayal In Winter, a fantasy novel. Its cover, as fantasy novels go, isn’t bad—no buxom wenches, no shirtless and pectorally gifted warrior-men, no surly dwarves with large and glistening axes. I didn’t go to great lengths, but the urge was there just the same, and I laughed when I realized I was doing it.

I can’t tell you why I still think of genre fiction as a guilty pleasure, and hold it apart from more “serious” literature, but I do. It’s a common, persistent, and probably unfair prejudice. I’m guessing it has something to do with our cultural fascination with realism–the fantastical may have something very valuable to say about life, but cloaked as it is in dragons and spaceships and wizards, we demote it as only fit for children, airport layovers, and beach reading.

An engaging story well-told is worthy of our attention simply for being that. It’s one of the first things we did with our time after we evolved sufficient vocabulary, and our storytellers have always been revered, be they bards or novelists or film directors. Sometimes a story is just a story is just a story—and, stripped of the intent to be probing or philosophical or educational, its characters and setting and action become that much more important (and thus does the writer’s skill became absolutely critical). I’m sure you could write a graduate thesis on the themes of imperialism and religious freedom in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and how they relate to world history, but you’d be better served to just enjoy it for what it is: damn fine storytelling on an epic scale.

Which is not to say that fantasy and science fiction aren’t ideal vehicles for serious examination of important questions; they are. Writers like Ursula Le Guin and Phillip K. Dick give us eloquent what ifs that say a great deal about our world and our experience, with the double cushion of fiction and otherwordly settings to smooth any discomfit. It’s that second cushion, though, that’s the trouble—makes it too easy to entirely discount the bearing of the work on real life. Rock, meet hard place.

These two points, disparate yet overlapping, just bolster my argument—why is genre fiction a lesser breed of literature? Is it because our imaginations are supposed to atrophy with age–or, more precisely, that our make-believe should constrain itself to fit inside reality? Dreams of battling orcs or contacting aliens are for kids; dreams of large houses, corner offices, and celebrity lovers are for grownups. Maybe we should go back to bedtime stories that take us a little further out of ourselves–from the far-off land, a fresh perspective on our everyday worries. Or, at least, a little break from them. All forms of fiction offer escape or exposition; some just do it with more embarrassing cover art.

Wise Words

Try to love everything that gets in your way.
~Alison Luterman

Don’t let the bastards get you down*…

…or, if they do, please allow the baaa-studs an opportunity to bring you back up again:

*thanks, Kris.