Monthly Archives: April 2013

Exercise #87

il_fullxfull.257143996This exercise may be less about the task and more about the workings of a nocturnal brain.

A crown of sonnets or sonnet corona is a sequence of sonnets, usually addressed to one person, and/or concerned with a single theme. Each of the sonnets explores one aspect of the theme, and is linked to the preceding and succeeding sonnets by repeating the final line of the preceding sonnet as its first line. The first line of the first sonnet is repeated as the final line of the final sonnet, thereby bringing the sequence to a close. An advanced form of crown of sonnets is also called a sonnet redoublé or heroic crown, comprising fifteen sonnets, in which the final binding sonnet is made up of all the first lines of the preceding fourteen, in order.

Write a “heroic crown” of sentences using the definition above, substituting words for lines.

1. New nights bring new angles of moon and darkness, and—between sleeping and waking—black and glowing shadows attack and retreat like great fronts of weather.

2. Weather penetrates even dreams, rain pouring so suddenly it soaks my clothes, and the loss of comfort shocks.

3. Shocks like these stir in a mind like a muddy field already filled with loose roots of leaning, menacing trees.

4. Trees loom when the dreaming brain can find nothing to turn them into.

5. Into empty hours come worries budding.

6. Budding and building and knotting, fears proliferate in brain soil like planted eyes.

7. I don’t know if a promise to face them in waking hours is anything more than another wish.

8. Wish the rain would stop, wish I might, into sodden hours, bring sun.

9. Sun might do more than hopes could.

10. Could I control my thoughts, write a forecast my brain could then enact, what a difference that would make.

11. Make another metaphor and I create more fabrication… another trouble of mine.

12. My inventions lie deep in my nature.

13. Nature in the outside world happens without care or compulsion, saying endlessly, “ It’s as simple as….”

14. As the planet makes its required revolution, so the world becomes new.

15. New weather shocks trees into budding—I wish sun could make my nature as new.

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A Defense of Studying Literature

fume-hoodWhen people call physics and chemistry “hard sciences” they refer to those subjects’ basis in mathematics and quantitative reasoning. In the lengthy definition of “hard,” such subjects fit best with 7a,“1. firm, definite; 2. not speculative or conjectural: factual; 3. important rather than sensational or entertaining.”

By that definition, my own specialty—reading, thinking over, and writing about literature—is decidedly soft. Many people probably assume the earlier definitions of “hard” don’t fit English either. Because literature classes don’t require mastering complex and rigorous physical laws, they aren’t seen as being as difficult as classes involving equations, graphs, and experimental data. Literature is fuzzy, subject to slippery interpretations and airy whims. You can say anything about a story, novel, or poem, the reasoning goes, so what you say is insubstantial, variable, and, on some level, false. Some people think English teachers should grade easier because there’s nothing really to grade. If you can’t do numbers or master analyzing figures, it appears you’re better at bullshit than anything else.

As might be expected, this sort of thinking makes me defensive. Anyone who has read Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, Dickinson, Woolf, Joyce, Pynchon, Wallace, and countless others knows literature aspires to considerable complexity. Some works offer challenges equal—in their own way—to calculus, advanced economics, or quantum physics. The absence of hard information creates distinctive burdens. Nuanced interpretations rely on sophisticated understanding of language, fine differentiation, scrupulous decoding, and resourceful observation. Saying something new about texts pored over for hundreds of years isn’t easy.

Nonetheless, some might say less is at stake. People see literary analysis as arcane. No one calls an English teacher for an emergency opinion on Jane Austen, so we’re all diddling, expending valuable mental energy on silly pursuits. Nothing we talk about or write about is real because none of it is practical, none required. If I say understanding the human condition is real and necessary, a boon to living if not absolutely essential, some may say, “Yes, but it’s fiction, right? It’s invented, not the granite foundation of existence.”

I wish people understood hard sciences the way I understand literature, as a way of seeing, produced by a distinct sort of curiosity providing one valuable angle on reality. How did the quantifiable become so privileged? How did it become the preferred means to truth—and sometimes regarded as truth itself? When did we begin believing exclusively in the explainable, the graph-able, and the hitherto undiscovered minutiae of physical processes? How can the definitive be all we should notice? When did we decide only knowing certainly matters?

Sometimes I think everything we call “hard” in those terms—the factual and verifiable—is actually the lowest lying fruit, subject to mechanical processes of discovery requiring more discipline than invention, more scrutiny than inspiration, more brute data-picking than art. I know that’s not so. Experimenters rely on insight as well. They follow hunches about where and how to look. Scientists and mathematicians require creativity also. I see that.

These hard subjects are clever and rigorous, but I want to beg respect for my own specialty and request acknowledgement of literature’s effort to seek truth. If humans only find answers to the questions we think to ask, shouldn’t we ask all sorts of questions and address reality from every angle of inquiry, hard and soft?

The other day, a senior at my school said, “I’d like to go into medicine, but I’ll probably end up studying English instead.” Her assumptions were ready to be read. She knows she may have to settle. Medicine may be too hard, and English is simpler. Maybe, but even if that were so—and it shouldn’t be—the value of any study can’t rest on how easy or difficult it is. Academic disciplines arise from what they add to understanding, how they train minds, educate, and humanize.

I’d argue this country produces as many bad scientists as bad English majors. And our educational system as a whole fails when it ranks pursuits as fruitful and less so, as real and unreal. Of course the world needs scientists and mathematicians, and, because rigor probably has scared people away, it’s important to urge others to fill those roles. But we also need brilliant people who can accommodate soft thinking and appreciate elusiveness and uncertainty and—dare I say it?—beauty. Education will be healthier if it can recognize the value of complexity without groping for definitive, hard answers.

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In My Room

article-1184369-04FEF065000005DC-530_468x310When I was young, tantrums—fits, really—sometimes possessed me. Some minor slight would set me off, and I’d rail in ire or angst or something between. I lost it so often my family nicknamed me “The angry bee” because I buzzed incomprehensibly and spun like someone signaling a path to poison flowers. I couldn’t have been easy to watch, so my parents sent me to my room. Their instructions were simple and direct: “Stay there until you can come out and be a civil human being.”

Once alone, I’d…

  • rail against the injustice of my oppressors
  • formulate elaborate plans to run away
  • fantasize how much I’d be missed
  • cry until crying grew tiresome
  • relive and revise the moments that landed me there
  • embrace whatever criticism I’d received
  • crack the door to listen to my family without me
  • catalog my other shortcomings and fatal flaws
  • excoriate myself for the sins of my nature
  • cogitate over what made me so unsuited to society
  • resolve to become Spock and never feel emotion again
  • compose the newest chapter of my prisoner’s autobiography
  • prepare my apology and a sincere promise—this time—to change
  • rehearse a jocular re-entry sparing my saying anything
  • wait, hoping someone noticed and retrieved me

These episodes ended much less dramatically than they began. I slinked back into the TV room. One of my brothers or sisters scooted over to make room on the couch or in a chair. I slotted into the space, and no one said anything. The biggest kindness, they must have believed, was silence, forgetting, moving on.

I’d say the process didn’t help me much but really it made me. In many ways, I’m in that room still, a ruminating creature subject to the same looping reexaminations and recriminations, looking for a place when I’m never entirely sure I belong anywhere. Without my history of time alone, I might not pursue sense so desperately now. I might not read the way I read or write as I do.

Nonetheless, the infinite time out isn’t anything I’d recommend, and it wasn’t a course I could take with my own children. My wife’s request I let my son or daughter stew, to give them time to process, to calm down, to think twice about the things they’d said—such patience felt impossible to me. In their place, I’d await some angel’s arrival. I wanted to be the angel. My children weren’t always glad to see me, and sometimes they welcomed continuing our dispute just where we left off, but I couldn’t stay away, couldn’t leave them alone, couldn’t leave me alone, couldn’t leave questions alone.

My self-restraint never lasts long. Though I’ve learned to affect a preternatural calm, I’ve never actually had much. My mood changes more than weather, is more subject to subtle shifts in air pressure, cloud cover, temperature, and wind direction.

You can accept never settling some issues because variables are too multitudinous and circumstances too chaotic, but thinking every issue insolvable is a bad habit. And one hard to break. Disbelieving assures you’re right. Though self-recrimination is a tremendous ally to deliberation, a motivation to think over, under, and through complicated questions, a spur to exploring subtle distinctions, implications, and applications, though I wouldn’t be myself without this relentless sense I haven’t thought anything through yet, that room is lonely.

The greatest kindness may be someone who can stop spinning flywheels of thought and affirm what you might otherwise never believe. Some rooms you can’t escape without help.

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Speaking of You as Me (or the opposite)

photoIf you kept a part of everything you’ve broken, how big would the pile be? Several trunks would follow moves, and, if you dared to reach into shards of glass and crockery, you might find forgotten hours and days in fragments.

Prufrock has scuttling claws, you bits of mugs given by hands and faces lost long ago. This imaginary pile is mostly accidental, products of inattention and clumsiness. Other broken things touched you peripherally. You pushed the button for the last time or found the weak bridge of plastic, metal, or fabric fated to snap or sever at someone’s hand—yours.

That’s something though, you were an instrument, the person present.

Of course, writing about your collection of broken things wouldn’t necessitate talking about those moments. Writing is coy, as much silence as saying. Quiet means to seduce readers, even if, as you compose, the idea of being seductive seems laughable. No one sees you as you search for what might incite longing. It will be your longing and a reader’s only second-hand. Loss eludes the future tense. You write about what’s gone because you wish for belief, faith in what you once possessed and don’t anymore.

You can’t write without guessing an audience’s desire, so every approach invents resistance. So much of what you might say no one wants to hear. In that pile of broken things is a key snapped in half, the other buried in a lock elsewhere. In that pile are edges defining what’s gone, the eye that implies a face or an eyeless face. Somewhere, among all the pieces, is an object you meant to keep whole and, no longer whole, lament still.

Among the rubble is lost childhood, everything meant to be reassembled, clues to what led to life now. As you began, you continue. Where you assembled, you stoke your desire to repair. You picture placing parts together, searching for pleading edges, epiphany in dissimilar but sympathetic losses.

Here is a device. Here is a machine. Writing means to make discarded cogs mesh and turn detritus into treasure. You’ve been told, perhaps many times, there’s truth in trash. Just look and, if you see nothing else, you will see abandonment. Privation speaks. All the fragments shout loss, seen or unseen, implicit, explicit, invisible, and aching.

And even if you keep no pile or trunk of pieces, the broken will lurk by implication. You have only so many words, and you’re bound to surround reality in your attempt to say what you can’t. It will all be said, either in words or in what they leave out.

Some part of you circles this imaginary midden, looking for clues that might collect it all and speak at last. You won’t quit believing in meaning. You can’t stop collecting. You want to realize sense in what you know is gone. You’re sure there’s something there.

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Waiting

601seasonsChicago has been stingy with spring so far. The sun—though warm enough—doesn’t appear often enough. The sky is the right blue at times but clings to low temperatures. In the fair fragments of fair days, people emerge as from caves, turn their faces upward, and walk stupefied in parks and on busy streets. But I can’t count on the next day. Another storm or chill will come.

To live here, you need insulation—not just the real sort that stuffs coats or lines walls against wind and snow, but the psychological sort that allows you to remain steady through cold and hot, that keeps you tolerant, moderate, and calm in the face of struggles. Insulated people aren’t unsettled by bad minutes, hours, or days. They’re rarely put-off, aggravated, insulted, or miffed. They don’t feel down for long. Nothing penetrates their poise. Their desperation barely becomes audible.

My own insulation is thin. Some people say I’m “sensitive,” though no one applies the term as a complete compliment. Being sensitive means you feel subtle shifts of light and shadow and the rise and dip of each degree change. When you’re sensitive, winter permeates you. You thaw just as readily, but I wish I were the sort who stayed the same through vicissitudes. I’d like to carry the seasons in me, to call them as needed and rest assured I might meet spring just as summer, fall, and winter.

The world has no shortage of worries and is always with me, and anything that happens—to those I know and those on the news—can drag me into weather hard to elude.

The other day, after another soggy walk to school, I ran into a colleague who told me I shouldn’t despair, that spring had to come someday. I tried to be cheered, but hope comes reluctantly when conditions affect you. People say things will get better, and I know they’re right, but these things will also get worse, and better again, and worse. I know that, however these things are, they will demand I accept their comings and goings and how little I control them.

It’s enough to make me desire delusion, the willful substitution of faith for doubt, and the oblivion of utter insensitivity. I could wish for hibernation too, if I didn’t worry about its becoming my perpetual state, a way to escape into unconsciousness and save myself from internal weather.

A bright day will arrive soon to obliterate these dark thoughts—it can’t rain every day—and, when a beautiful day does appears, I’ll celebrate spring with everyone else. In the meantime I wish I could find another layer to wear. I wish belief in spring sustained me more.

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Meeting Up

columbia-alma-mater-statueWhen I found my first masters’ thesis from 1982, I couldn’t resist reading.

The first sentence was simple enough, the second less so, and, after that, I encountered syntax and language so muddy I couldn’t trudge through it. I gave up, convinced someone else must have written it, maybe an ancient astronaut or some medieval pedant I was channeling at the time.

Am I that much stupider, or was I once so much more pretentious?

One of my favorite Borges stories is “The Other,” about someone meeting his younger self on a park bench. The narrator of the story—the old man—can’t convince the young man that he’s talking to his future self. The youth believes he’s dreaming. All the biographical proof the older man offers is dim memory, and the older man can’t clearly recall once meeting his aged self either.

The moment leads to an impasse. All the fantasies a reader might harbor about going back in time—or forward—lead to nothing. They were unprepared; they talk about books. Even exchanging currency from their respective years proves inconclusive, the money too strange to accept.

Having revised my resume recently, I think I understand Borges’ story better. We think of ourselves as one person when, like an organism whose every cell is replaced one at a time on strict schedule, we are entirely different. We don’t recognize the subtle transmutation or, even recognizing it, don’t accept it really.

My resume lists degrees I’ve earned and tasks I’ve performed at work, but they’re a better description of the turns I’ve taken than who I am. Who I am, in some sense, is where I’ve arrived. It’s a trap to be overly impressed by framed diplomas I once earned.

The runner in me hears a voice inside saying, “What have you done lately?”

I wonder, with Borges, what it might be like to disillusion my younger self, to tell him events that seem so vitally important will prove to be another staging area for another and yet another…and some of what you think will be major accomplishments turn out to be empty vanity. I’d be sorely tempted to urge him to stop dragging degrees and grades like strong boxes and accept that memory lasts longer than achievement. “Each year is a new vantage from which to view life,” I’d spout, “another plateau or valley. And that’s better.”

Some parents seek to create paper trails to testify to their children’s experience. They want something neater and more portable than the messy and contradictory people children can be. I don’t blame them because who could object to their desire to situate their children for success and happiness?

At times, however, it’s tough to tell which comes first—documentation or experience.

For some of their children, the future oppresses the present. They learn “having done” is more important than “doing,” and doing loses its pleasure. They become academic bulimics more interested in having eaten than in growing from the food.

Living in the present is difficult for me too. I dream about meeting my son or daughter’s future self and being impressed by what each has become. But I can’t ignore my own experience. My own parents loved and supported me, but they didn’t—couldn’t—control what I’ve become. Now that my children are older, my only job is to help them deal with now—the latest mistake, disappointment, or triumph—and offer what comfort I can.

Any grand plan for my children’s future is a bench where stranger meets stranger. I try not to look forward or back too far. Now is a moment moving on.

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The Closed Door Policy

door_revThe front door of our building doesn’t close unless you pull the knob hard, and my wife—condo association president—left a sign: “Please pull door shut.” Still it often isn’t shut, leaving me to guess why.

In elementary school, I was a kid who believed every lost item had been swiped. It didn’t matter that no one would want one sock or a special zebra rock I’d found under the slide—evil forces lurked. Unfortunately, since then only the range of possibilities has changed. I invent scenes I haven’t seen, eye everyone as a character in some drama, and assign intentions.

My neighbor’s boyfriend is often in the building. His clothes are impeccably dishabille, his hair artfully mussed, and he wears sunglasses when it’s stormy. His deft movements say he should have left before now. I offer “Hello,” and he raises his chin five degrees. Sometimes, he says something that isn’t a word.

This winter, during our worst snowstorm, as I shoveled the front steps, he appeared at the front door in expensive leather shoes. He stepped gingerly in the spaces I’d already cleared and into the street. 20 minutes later he returned with a sandwich from Subway as I continued to shovel, and, still hurrying, swept inside. No words either way.

So he’s my number one suspect, and I’ve invented a personality from these few particulars… plus others. I’m convinced he convinced his girlfriend to install an elaborate sound system that shakes our wall when it’s full-throat. Once I went to their door about noise and my knocking went unheard, and I was sure he was ignoring me. For the holidays, he received a horn and occasionally, at moments seemingly timed to annoy, he blows it like a shofar.

So I imagine his walking up to the front door, harrumphing in contempt at my wife’s sign, and then deliberately leaving the door ajar.

“He’s just the type,” I think.

Of course, my supposition reflects more poorly on me than my sometimes neighbor. I shouldn’t blame him if he doesn’t care to fraternize with his girlfriend’s neighbors. Perhaps he is late. Maybe his eyes are sensitive.

And maybe I’m too quick to blame others as deliberately difficult when I’m just being difficult myself.

I’ve met a few people who celebrate stubbornness and boast about obstacles they create. In our diagnosed age, we’d say they have O.D.D. or oppositional defiant disorder. They are pathologically obstreperous, hostile to innocent commands, and determined to subvert order. But I suspect they’re less common than we think and, seen from another angle, they’re necessary, the only people poised to see what we accept too readily. Are they any worse than people, like me, who are too fearful of confrontation? I’d never follow my neighbors downstairs to check their work at the front door. I’d never say anything if I found a culprit out.

Who knows, assuming malice may be another way to sublimate my own buried hostility. The safest accusation can neither be tested nor proven. The greatest satisfaction arises from what’s held closest, most inviolably. As I learned in elementary school, better to believe in stolen goods than admit carelessness.

One political party stands ready to accuse the other of deliberate evil. Congress blames the President, and he wonders if their actions reflect their beliefs or a desire to obstruct progress. TV hosts boggle at the stupidity of public figures they wouldn’t dare invite to the set, and public figures take pot shots at hosts they never watch.

The open door probably has many thoughtless authors, each believing someone else guilty of the crime. What if someone’s picked me out as the criminal?

If everyone loves the idea of an adversary as much as I do, the world is in trouble. It shouldn’t be so hard to think better of people, but it is. Sometimes it seems the only important transgressions target you, intrude on you, hurt you, endanger you. It’s too easy to offend our rectitude. That door is always open.

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