Monday, April 28, 2008

The Armillary Sphere by Ann Hudson

I met Ann Hudson on visiting day at my oldest daughter's Montessori school. Our three year olds were off exploring the classrooms while the parents waited in the gym so Ann and I struck up a conversation about favorite Chicago neighborhoods, cupcakes and writing. I found out she is a poet, with a newly published book of poetry from Ohio University Press. How cool is that? I ran out and bought the book immediately and I must tell you - I loved it. Her poetry is beautiful and true.

The title of Hudson's book of poetry, The Armillary Sphere, refers to an instrument used in the early days of astronomy to study the circles of the heavens visible from earth. You see the sphere in the 17th century Flemish allegorical oil painting on the gorgeous cover of Hudson's book. The painting depicts in precise detail a cluster of precisely rendered birds before a skyscape of angry storm clouds torn apart by Apollo's sun-chariot. In the foreground, a luminous nude woman holds a bouquet of feathers in one hand and in the other, the tool of the book's title, an object made of golden rings that reveals the answers of the celestial bodies. Like the poetry in this book, the image glows with great beauty, possibility, mystery and meaning.

Despite the obscure name, Hudson's lovely writing is poetry for real people, poetry of real women. I've been getting a poem a day from the Academy of American Poets this April and most of them are really beautiful, but murky in a deliberate way that makes the reading experience pleasant but fleeting, something I'll barely remember. Not so with Hudson. She shot right up into the ranks of my favorite poets - Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Emily Dickinson - who write of worlds I recognize, who talk to me about the way I live in it.

The perceptive observations here seem snatched between real-life obligations and hours of salaried work. In "Architect," with a few strokes, she paints a vivid picture of a big-egoed boss: "He wants to fill my desk/at work and home."

In "Equinox," a thrilling poem about standing still and changing at the same time, Hudson writes, "We try to downsize,/slough off old clothes, bad books,/mementos we nest our houses with/to anchor us to where we've been./It doesn't matter that this never works."

Many of the poems create a vision of an urban life that drowns one in its exhausting routine, makes the poet "feel empty/of anything interesting to say," but even here Hudson finds perception and beauty. It is in sensation that the poet finds something to trust: in the morning light, or a "scruffy/dog, who licks his gray muzzle,/then bites at nothing in the winter air." Or a swim at midnight: "to forget all/but the instant, and your body/in it.

I'll say it again; I loved this book. I loved the rich imagery, how Hudson captures that elusive feeling when you are half-way into a dream but fighting to stay awake: "A suck of darkness, a roar in your ears,/and you slip under, lit by a great flurry/of wings, streaks of copper/and black pressing your lids." I loved her reimaging of the story Eurydice as that of the long-suffering wife of a rock star. I loved how the poet untangles complicated feeling - here is what it is like to be a teacher to adolescents and so the object of their gossip and imagination:

I'm the next toy
come to life, after the doll they dressed
and undressed with their friends.

Barbies they twisted into flat,
un-organed sex with plastic Ken,
then abandoned, naked,

in the Dream House to sleep it off,
wiser and looser in the joints.

The Armillary Sphere by Ann Hudson from Ohio University Press

Friday, April 25, 2008

Fun and Games

The Great Balloon Race will suck you in. You'll have to fight your way out. From DaMomma who has written a moving post about taking kids (in a stroller!) to the Boston Marathon.

Our new favorite video, thanks to Foodmomiac. Thanks, Foodmomiac. Thanks a lot. We can't get the damn thing out of our heads. Wha wha wha!

And courtesy dear husband, who I neglected to acknowledge for bringing home the Ira Glass collection, here are some sad and strange Russian playgrounds.

Congratulations, Becky!!

My cousin's daughter Becky (the baby in Uncle Phil's arms in this pic from '79 - don't you love his pants?) won a Board of Trustees scholarship at Longview Community College in Lee's Summit, Missouri! She'll earn her associate's degree for free! Becky's planning to study psychology when she's not chasing down her three amazing kids. I'm so proud.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Recently Read

From Ken Kalfus' audacious A Disorder Peculiar to the Country:

"At the corner, chewing a frankfurter, whose oily, gamy texture he barely noticed, Marshall reflected on this promiscuity that threatened the society on which it thrived. He could be killed. His children--. Somebody was at work right now. Bacterial grains were being milled and coated with silica to minimize their electrostatic properties. Pentaerythritol tetranitrate was being molded into the bottoms of running shoes. Turbaned men were even now double-clicking obscure, awesome icons."

Can you believe the above comes from a comedy? The blackest of black comedies. Now that we are finding the words to work September 11 into American art, to integrate it into our lives rather than have it sit like a stone on our hearts - are we ready to use it to laugh? Are you ready for a scene where an attempted suicide bombing becomes absurd, then nearly domestic and cozy?

The New Kings of Nonfiction is not new (half the essays are 20th century) nor written by kings (Susan Orlean and Coco Henson Scales make enjoyable contributions. I won't try to make a lame joke about Dan Savage.)

I won't review The New Kings of Nonfiction. I can't review a book I have not finished and probably will not finish. David Foster Wallace's hyper-essay, "Host," was written and designed to be read on-line; in print, it is unwieldy and irritating to wade through. Most of James McManus' essay about high-stakes Vegas poker games is written in obscure terms - reading it is like trying to eat a bowl of thick soup filled with unidentifiable chunks. I will say the rest is pretty great - Mark Bowden's "Tales of the Tyrant" explains the person of Saddam Hussein to you. And Dan Savage always makes me happy, especially here, where he tries to join the Republican Party.

Here's an excerpt from Lee Sandlin's amazing essay "Losing the War." Sandlin's essay, along with Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, should be required reading by every American high school student.

"But it seems somehow paltry and wrong to call what happened at Midway a 'battle.' It had nothing to do with battles the way they were pictured in the popular imagination. There were no last-gasp gestures of transcendent heroism, no brilliant counterstrategies that saved the day. It was more like an industrial accident. It was a clash not between armies, but between TNT and ignited petroleum and drop-forged steel. The thousands who died there weren't warriors but bystanders--the workers at the factory who happened to draw the shift when the boiler exploded."

The Kings (and Queens!) book gives an edited version of "Losing the War." The entire piece is here.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

New from William Styron

William Styron is my man. I feel a personal bond with the writer who died in 2006; he has been my guide on some formative literary experiences. In the space of four brief pages, Styron's essay "Death Row" moved me permanently from my place on the fence about the death penalty to the conviction that killings authorized by the state are as barbaric as the crimes they claim to punish.

Styron accomplished the nearly impossible by describing the experience of profound depression in his memoir Darkness Visible. "My brain had begun to endure its familiar siege: panic and dislocation, and a sense that my thought processes were being engulfed by a toxic and unnamable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world." When I read his identification of the illness as "a condition of helpless stupor in which cognition was replaced by (in William James' words) 'a positive and active anguish,'" I felt connection and relief - here is a name for the pain - here is the beginning of understanding.

I have lots more to say about Sophie's Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner, (I have a love-hate relationship with both these books for very different reasons) but right now I'm telling you about Havanas in Camelot, a collection of short pieces, some found in Styron's papers after his death. He writes, often with great humor, of his friendships with JFK, James Baldwin, Terry Southern and Truman Capote and an episode with a misdiagnosis of syphilis. It's not a major collection, nor always a satisfying one - some stories seem cut short by his lack of notes or memory -- but I loved the chance to connect again with a favorite writer.

Here is what he says about the adaptation of Sophie's Choice into film: "When I first saw the film it was a joy to note the smooth, almost seamless way the story unfolded in scrupulous fidelity to the way I had told it; there were no shortcuts, no distortions or evasions, and the sense of satisfaction I felt was augmented by the splendid photography, the subtle musical score, and, above all, the superb acting, especially Meryl Streep's glorious performance, which of course is already part of film history." He continues (what writer whose baby has been adopted by another could not?) with a lament for all that was not included, but I think the film only benefits by omitting the lengthy comparisons of Sophie's butt to pieces of fruit and the scene where she gives Stingo a handjob on the beach. The Godfather and The Bridges of Madison County easily refute his claim that "for the true experience one must return to that oldest source - the written word--and confront the original work" but I wouldn't deny the writer a preference for his medium.

The collection ends with an essay from 1990 (the same year Darkness Visible was published) that is a reverie about the dumpy village on Martha's Vineyard he called home. After witnessing his horrific war with the demons of mental illness that robbed him of sleep and pleasure, I read with satisfaction evidence he had recovered the ability to enjoy the world again. The book concludes with the words, "And at night to fall gently sleep to the far-off moaning of the West Chop foghorn. . . . Vineyard Haven. Sleep. Bliss."

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Possibly the stupidest thing I have done. This week.

"Let’s take the kayaks out!" I said. Becky and I were sitting in the sun on the shore of Fox Lake last Sunday afternoon. Becky is my cousin. She is one year older than me, we played together a hundred years ago, now she's got three huge sons, (the youngest in high school!) and whenever I get the chance to see her, I feel like a kid again.

I ran inside to grab a hat and my jacket and get Becky an extra sweater. "The lifejackets are in the laundry room," said Randy but I couldn't find them. "We'll stick to the shore," I said or some nonsense like that. Becky left her shoes.

"Turn your paddle around!" called Becky's husband Rich as we launched. Rich had brought the 8-foot kayaks for fish he never caught that day. I flipped around the blade of my paddle so it would do some work scooping the water instead of just mixing the lake.

We pushed off from shore and I spun around in a couple of tight circles just because I could. "Whee!" Randy would watch the girls. He didn't say a word because we had company. I felt like I was running away - for a harmless hour or so.

The kayaks moved smooth and swift over the glassy water. It was so much fun to tool along the lake’s shoreline, peeking in the windows of the houses, laughing at the little white dog we could see but not hear yapping furiously at us from behind a sliding glass door. We waved to fishermen, made note of a lakeshore bar with an outdoor deck, passed a mysterious pile of snow. I caught a glimpse of the tail end of a splash as a fish sunk back in the water. Seconds later Becky and I squealed at the sight of the entire ugly beast flipping up in the air.

Becky told me stories about getting stuck with a flat tire at Midway and walking down Cicero Ave in the dark and almost getting into a fight with a woman on an airplane and I got to say “Oh No She Didn’t!” She told me about a friend of her oldest son, a young girl who died of a rare kind of brain cancer and I cried out loud because the girl told Brad, "I'm so sorry, I don't want to go on your birthday." She died two days later and as Becky was finishing that story, we had reached the far side of the lake. I was wiped out. The sun had changed its angle, we thought we'd been out for hours. The idea of following the shoreline all the way back around again felt really hard; I just wanted to get home. I could just make out the smeary dot of our house on the other side. We didn't even make a decision. We just set out straight across the lake for home.

Now I’ve done some doozies in my life, haven't you? College idiocy comes to mind. Some colossal misjudgments of character at work. Bad choices in romance.

But as cringe-producing are the memories of these missteps, they all fade into nothing more than silliness now that I've got children counting on me.

We have no snacks. I check my pockets and find a tampon and two dollars.

The highest waves on the rumpled surface of the water are no more than six inches and the sky is as soft as a John Constable oil painting, but my mind, as it does when my blood sugar starts descending, scurried from the Armageddon dream I had last night to the Chicago magazine story I'd read of two men nearly perishing in their kayak crossing of Lake Michigan.

The air is cool and comfortable. I've opened my jacket. Water occasionally drips on my legs from the paddle, but it's not unpleasantly cold. But I look at the water and realize that if we fall in, hypothermia would set in within moments. I think of the enormous pile of ice we saw sitting mysteriously on the shoreline. It dripped and glistened.

I start turning my paddle straight vertical as I stroke, pushing my back and arms into the effort.

Straight ahead I see a pink and brown dot on the steps, topped with a bright head. It's little Nora. Perhaps she sees us.

When I tell this story later to a friend, he laughs and says, "If you capsized, you could have walked home."

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Drowsy Chaperone Update

Did I laugh? Until I nearly choked. Did I cry? What do you think? Not that there were many tender moments here - the sweetest love ballad had lyrics like: "I put a monkey on a pedestal and then he ran away... He left his jacket on the pedestal and his little rusty cup... Oh monkey, monkey, monkey, you broke my heart in two..." (This was one of my choking episodes.)

But I found myself tearing up during a little number ten minutes into the show called "Cold Feets" - a song that was little more than an excuse for some great tap dancing - classic, perfectly executed, with blithe and dazzling smiles by Mark Ledbetter and Richard Vida. This show's book drips with irony, but the triple joke is that all of the stagecraft is rendered with spectacular honesty. I'm transported back to Band Wagon and "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan."

But the sincerity of the singing and dancing wasn't enough to have me weeping - it was how the show gets to the heart of the meaning of escapism. Much of the show's humor and poignancy arises from its post-modern situation - a 1920's era Broadway show is taking place in the drab apartment and imagination of The Man in the Chair - a lonely Broadway connoisseur who puts on his old records when he's feeling blue. Much like Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo and the 1981 Pennies from Heaven with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters, but without their grimness, The Drowsy Chaperone never lets you forget the harsh reality that the airiest musical confections temporarily erase.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

A man has died.

A neighbor, a friend of my husband's, a father to two young girls, died last month. We are shocked, bewildered, sick.

I am trying to wrap my head around this death. I think of Wallace Stevens and his "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." The poet trying to get at the bird, changing the angles of his approach, making volleys at an impenetrable fortress.

A man died. A husband. A father of two girls, a neighbor. Randy worked with him closely a few years ago, considered him a friend, wondered at his recent distance. I waved to him once from the porch and gave his girls Halloween candy as he waited on the sidewalk. I only know him through death. The most bewildering of all choices. The agony he kept secret has exploded into a thousand pieces and is shared by all around him.

After Mary Oliver dodged a Florida alligator, she wrote that suddenly she "saw the world as if for the second time,/the way it really is."

The morning before we heard the news, Randy and I had a loud, brief fight, like a couple of lightning crashes. We yelled through the shower curtain, kept silent truce, shared a few neutral comments in the car, made up over lunch. But a few hours later, with the bad news rolling in my head and knocking in my stomach, our sweet life has a bright light shining on it. If all goes as hoped and I'm incredibly lucky, I’ve only got 40-odd more years with this family – my life is halfway done. And this shining man stands before me, choosing to be with us, choosing every day to stay. For that and the infinite pleasures, blessings and challenges we have yet to face, I am eternally grateful, again.

A man has died. My husband put together a video for the wake, pictures of a golden boy growing into a handsome man, clutched by family, by fraternity buds, by a beautiful girl turned bride, by children. Like the work of an undertaker or a surgeon, my husband is able to put his attention so close to the details of a larger thing that the pressing and difficult reality of the entire can be held at a distance.

"He was brilliant," says my husband. "But he was really funniest when things were at their worst."

A man has died. A poem about Icarus is read at his memorial.

". . . As he neared the ocean,/came close enough to wave to the startled fishermen in their boats,/he laughed,/and admitted/that even had he known/of the many failings of fathers and feathers,/he would have done it anyway."

I hear of this and for a moment I confuse Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun, with Apollo's son, Phaeton, who flew his father's burning chariot too close to the earth.

A man has died. A poem is read at his memorial. Poetry gives us comfort – we sink into the words, the examination of this tiny moment, here, now. The poet offers understanding, if not of the whole, but of some piece of it.

A man died. The boy-god has scorched us, but we must forgive him because he was a god, because he nearly set the world on fire and because he is gone.