Monthly Archives: April 2014

Bleaker Than Fiction

348sMy condition has no name I know. You might call it “impatience,” but that label seems too generic and mild:

  • I race through all the instant view options on Netflix, half reading each, without settling on one, or, settling finally, watch ten minutes and say, “Stupid. Unbearable….”
  • 625 pages into the 779 pages of The Goldfinch, I find myself irredeemably bothered and think, “Enough.” I can’t stand another mistake, another boneheaded decision.
  • My wife says, “You have to watch House of Cards!” and I do, only to find I can’t watch more than thirty minutes before anguishing over events that make me want to howl.

Empathy is the most flattering explanation. “If only I didn’t feel so much!” I think, “I might not be so bothered by every downturn and mishap!” I say. “It’s just that Pete Russo was such a good man,” I reassure myself.

Truth is, I’m an ice cube in a frying pan, spinning in the steam of its own disintegration. Empathy has less to do with my state than raw discomfort, agony akin to mild electrocution… willingly, deliberately, undergone.

As a boy, television used to agitate me profoundly. The Beaver’s next blunder would certainly send me running into the kitchen, and every Brady seemed, at one time or another, bound for humiliation. Even Petticoat Junction might lead me into baffled territory. My hand over my eyes, I wanted to retreat to a corner, hide myself from myself.

You might think forbearance might grow—certainly my exposure to literary and cinematic turnarounds should have grown. The outcome always settles on a steady note, experience ought to tell me. Yet, with age, my condition worsens. I try to figure it out. “Think of yourself in a room sealed tight,” I say to my wife, “when you pull the door closed, you trap another gulp of air and it’s too full and the pressure jumps. It’s too much.”

“Huh?” she says.

Maybe this is the problem, I think: I’m indulged. I’ve grown accustomed to the proper fit of circumstances, controlled environments where fulfillment is assured. I want complacency, worrylessness, satisfaction, pleasure. No challenges please, I’m tired of those. Give me candy.

I try convincing myself each strange development won’t be that strange or may even enhance my satisfaction when events, improbably, reverse. The present calamity could—ultimately—delight more than frighten. “Give it ten minutes,” I say, “then decide.” These fictions aren’t happening to me. I should stand above, drolly saying, “How interesting.”

The true issue, I say, is faith…or faith and courage… or faith, courage, and remove. When you believe in a positive outcome, suffer bravely through seemingly hopeless moments, and stop to breathe outside the fiction, you’re fine.

I’m not fine. Theo kicks drugs, he picks them up again. Finally, the poor influence of Boris is gone, and Theo runs into him on a New York street. Kitsey gets caught in infidelity, and Theo might easily leave her for Pippa—we know he loves Pippa best—then stays with Kitsey because Kitsey says, “My mother loves you. Leaving me will kill her.” I want to hurl the book and might, if my wife didn’t put her hand on mine and repeat, “It’ll be okay. I promise.”

I sometimes wish I lived in a naïve fantasy where everything, everything, everything will be so okay in the end. Maybe it will, but this world, the one I live in, is depraved, and nothing in reality persuades me (enough) fiction will be different. Nothing I experience convinces me, “Believe!”

 

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Filed under Aesthetics, Aging, Anxiety, Art, Desire, Doubt, Essays, Grief, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Reading, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry

Thursday Haibun (Episode One)

basho-loc-01518vI learned this week that I missed NaHaiWriMo (Haiku a Day Writing Month), which was March. But, no matter, I write a haiku a day anyway, and I’m celebrating NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month) with extra vigor, writing haiku and prose in haibun. I also cheated by starting early—I’m on spring break right now and won’t be next week—and so I’m writing more than one haibun a day.

As promised, I’m posting them on Thursdays during April. These are today’s output. I’ve kept the numbers assigned to them.

xx.

Some rains keep the world dark all day, and some people appreciate steady half-light, steady pelting, steady captivity. I enjoy rain too if life waits. On days I’m happy to rest, I stand at my window, watch the lake form at a nearby intersection, and study people leaping it as if in a steeplechase or, like ants blocked by a finger, weave left and right seeking the proper place to ford the more-than-puddle before them. It’s just a puddle to me… or will be until the clock demands departure, need calls, or some summons insists. Then I learn all this time my study has been practical, teaching me how to enter the unwanted, to bear it instead of looking from afar.

sitting in a bath

I listen to the faucet’s

persistent tears

 xxi.

In fourth grade, when I returned from Christmas vacation, Molly’s desk sat empty. I wasn’t surprised because she missed so much school, and, when she was there, she skipped music and art and recess to fill worksheets she hadn’t seen yet. Molly’s skin was as near translucent as I could imagine, blue networks visible just beneath the surface—every visible surface—and her blonde hair grew thin like grass in poisoned soil. She didn’t look at me much, and we hardly ever spoke, but I knew her eyes even when I closed mine. They said surrender. Their pale and weary blue slid from the sky, too tired to stay aloft.

chalk dust

on the blackboard’s edges,

ghosts on the border

I was sitting in my desk as Mrs. Mitchell gathered Molly’s things—a few books, some supplies, but nothing that said Molly really, nothing like the eccentric mess under everyone else’s desktop. When Mrs. Mitchell told the class Molly died before New Year’s Eve, some people already knew and a few cried or fought tears. I must not have believed it. The whole day seemed temporary to me, every worksheet another Molly would have to do.

beyond curtains,

outside the window, you see

air stirring

 xxii.

 last night, a cheer rose

from many neighbors’ houses—

I don’t know why

In any alphabetical list I’m almost always the middle. I like to count how many precede and follow me, happy when it’s even.

xxiii.

On the first day of a Shakespeare class I asked the students why they were there. One of them answered, “Because he’s famous.” I’d heard that response before, of course, but never so baldly put.

My daughter was in kindergarten that year, and, on the drive home, I asked her, “Honey, do you know who Shakespeare is?”

“He wears pumpkin pants,” she said.

unbound,

the newspaper still holds

its curl

xxxiv.

When I can’t sleep, I look for morning’s signs—the first defined shadows, a car sweeping by, a word uttered on the sidewalk in front of our house. The alarm often comes first.

in skyscrapers

half a mile away, checkered lights

of company

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On Being An Aesthete

72-1I’ve never really liked aesthetic theory. I studied quite a bit as an MFA student years ago but haven’t continued. As interesting as it is to learn what writers and artists think “good” is, thinking about “good” can be distracting, an invisible, meddling hand.

Impatience also prevents me from learning. Theorists push me toward affirmation or argument whereas I’m improvisational, hoping for discovery and skeptical of restrictions. Artistic goals re-form like horizons as I walk, work. Sometimes, just the next word or mark appears. Sometimes rhythm lays down tracks to follow.

I fail often and hope to see failure rising up the next time so I can skirt it.

Orson Welles despised the necessity of being “with it,” for, he said, “an artist always has to be out of step with his time.” Mostly, I think he’s wrong—who would an artist be talking to if not to his or her contemporaries?—but I get his thinking about being out of step, that required estrangement. I wonder if anyone would read or listen or watch or look if all art verified the perceiver’s own limited experience. In that sense, maybe aesthetic theory could be helpful. It could shake your frame, throw perspective out of angle. Some artists seem to benefit from knowing what others do so they can do their own thing.

But I prefer finding out for myself, trying, trying, trying until some anchor holds.

For the last month or so, I’ve been writing haibun (I posted a sample recently) and have been thinking much more deliberately about what I’m doing. Composing in an established form means, on the most fundamental level, making your work recognizably fit. With haibun, that’s easy enough. The convention requires prose and haiku. If you look at the page and see a paragraph and a three-line poem—or any variation on that order and number of paragraphs and haiku—you’re looking at a haibun.

Form, however, is paradoxical. As limiting as any rule might appear, rules invariably require a higher order of resourcefulness. Dancing on one square meter of floor space would quickly become tiresome, but if you moved brilliantly, inventively, startlingly… your dance might be more impressive than one granted the whole stage.

Restrictions lead into subtle territory. With haibun, you ask how the prose and haiku interact, whether the haiku echoes, complements, or disturbs the prose. You ask which comes first, whether one supersedes the other in flash or substance, which might stand out of the way for the other, or what balance or imbalance creates the greatest dissonance or harmony. Looking at each element independently, you might experiment with purely evocative prose or purely metaphoric haiku. Or reverse that. Or even it out.

Most importantly, you do whatever you didn’t last time and see what happens. Robert Frost’s famous description of free verse—“tennis without a net”—disrespects barriers artists make, form created themselves, rules forged… and then pointedly violated. “Art,” Alfred North Whitehead said, “is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is the recognition of the pattern.” The pattern’s source, convention or invention, matters little. Something tells us we’re in familiar and unfamiliar territory, which is where we want to be.

I’m aware of the hypocrisy of beginning by rejecting aesthetic theory and then writing like an aesthete, but I’ll offer this defense—ultimately, you make any theory your own, never absorbing what you might test instead. Only then do you make making your own.

 

Note: My celebration of NaPoWriMo is to write a haibun for each day of April. I’ve cheated—I’m 16 ahead. But I intend to reach 30 no matter what, and, for April, I’ll be posting a haibun each Thursday in addition to my regular posts on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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