Friday, April 24, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Czeslaw Milosz

Here's a special World Book Day edition of Poem for the Weekend, courtesy of Czeslaw Milosz. This Nobel Prize winner wrote virtually all of his poems in his native Polish. You can find his eventful biography here.

And Yet the Books 

by Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004)

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it's still a strange pageant,
Women's dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Precocious Characters

Remember in high school, that one character in your group who said the funniest things? He was intelligent in amusing and surprising ways and always had a range of interests outside everyone else’s. Maybe he had a passion for the French revolution and went around shouting Liberté, égalité, fraternité at strange moments; maybe he owned a vinyl collection of Howlin’ Wolf, long before it was cool (again) to have vinyl. This guy would say the darnedest things, things that would be repeated over wine coolers for months to come. He was eccentric, precocious in a too-colorful-for-this-world kind of way.

I think for entertainment purposes, we enjoy the quirky intellectualism and verbal repartee you find on any episode of Big Bang Theory or Modern Family; maybe part of the enjoyment comes from imagining the what ifs. What if I were able to banter like that? What if I were able to remember swathes of information about astrophysics yet still be able to whip up a batch of beef vindaloo from memory for my friends? What if your speech was not peppered with ums, yeahs, and okays? What if, for each time you found yourself confronted, challenged or provoked, you actually SAID the witty comeback, instead of thinking about it two hours later?

We all know the precocious child character from TV, books and movies. A kid who is wiser than his years, advanced beyond anything his current elementary school can handle, always ready with a smart ass remark or aphorism. Well, I’d argue that precociousness isn’t just for the young, and it isn’t just for real-life people When the characters in a book are too eccentric, too perfectly verbose, it discourages true communion with the reader. At least for me. It’s like they’re as polished and ultimately, unrealistic, as a model in a photo shoot. Lately, I’ve read several novels (you know the type--fun, bright fonts, punchy titles, oodles of sales) that had 1) page-turning plot, 2) apt metaphors about modern life, 3) remarkable situations, 4) adroit, expert construction, 5) quirky characters, and 6) repartee galore; yet, inasmuch as I enjoyed the reading experience, I never forgot for one moment that I was reading a book, about people who didn’t really exist.

You may be thinking that it has something to do with a realistic setting but really, that doesn’t matter. Believability of plot? Nope, my suspension of disbelief mode is fully functional. It’s something to do with the characters, which is, for me, what books are mostly about. I have to think it involves precociousness. You say: But there are very eccentric people who speak in very eccentric ways. There are genius scientists and brilliant teenagers and people who quote constantly from literature. Maybe I just don’t know any, you’re thinking. But I don’t know any time travelers or golems or statesmen either, but I’ve seen them breathe and walk off the page. When characters are too clever, too funny, too insightful, too precocious—it’s fun to read but ultimately, I can’t believe they are real.

What types of things hold you back from loving a book you like very much? What ingredients are in your novel-reading special sauce? What aspects make you keep your distance?

Friday, April 17, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Gjertrud Schnackenberg


The poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg was born in Washington state and studied at Mount Holyoke College, where she won the first of many poetry awards. Best known for her masterful use of prosody and blank verse, Schnackenberg's most recent book of poetry, Heavenly Questions, was an elegiac work written after the illness and death of her husband, the philosopher Robert Nozick. You can watch her read a poem from that collection here.


by Gjertrud Schnackenberg

Threading the palm, a web of little lines
Spells out the lost money, the heart, the head,
The wagging tongues, the sudden deaths, in signs
We would smooth out, like imprints on a bed,

In signs that can't be helped, geese heading south,
In signs read anxiously, like breath that clouds
A mirror held to a barely open mouth,
Like telegrams, the gathering of crowds -

The plane's X in the sky, spelling disaster;
Before the whistle and hit, a tracer flare;
Before rubble, a hairline crack in plaster
And a housefly's panicked scribbling on the air.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Jose Rizal


Jose Rizal is a national hero in the Philippines, where he advocated peaceful resistance to Spanish rule and was executed for conspiracy in 1896. A medical doctor by training, he excelled in many arts and pursuits, including poetry. Filipino school children study his final poem, "My Last Goodbye," and his two famous novels. Nearly every town and city in the Philippines has a street named after Jose Rizal. His fascinating biography can be found here.

First Inspiration

by Jose Rizal (1861-1896)

Why falls so rich a spray
of fragrance from the bowers
of the balmy flowers
upon this festive day?

Why from woods and vales
do we hear sweet measures ringing
that seem to be the singing
of a choir of nightingales?

Why in the grass below
do birds start at the wind's noises,
unleashing their honeyed voices
as they hop from bough to bough?

Why should the spring that glows
its crystalline murmur be tuning
to the zephyr's mellow crooning
as among the flowers it flows?

Why seems to me more endearing,
more fair than on other days,
the dawn's enchanting face
among red clouds appearing? 

The reason, dear mother, is
they feast your day of bloom:
the rose with its perfume,
the bird with its harmonies.

And the spring that rings with laughter
upon this joyful day
with its murmur seems to say:
"Live happily ever after!"

And from that spring in the grove
now turn to hear the first note
that from my lute I emote
to the impulse of my love.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Mary Ruefle


"The relationship between these two is that of the part to the whole, and in all things we have no way of ever really knowing the Whole, but we can know a part of it, and that part has to suffice. I am definitely now talking about the universe and individual lives within it, and also of the sense that every poem is just a part of something, call it a life, the poem is just one little stone, no one can see the configuration all the stones make together, but on any given day, one stone will have to suffice."

If you'd like to read more of what the poet Mary Ruefle said, you can find a fascinating interview here. Mary Ruefle is the author of fifteen books of poetry and prose, and seventy-two erasure books, which you can find explained here. And, below is one of her poems.

The Daze Poem

by Mary Ruefle

It was one of those mornings the earth seemed
not to have had any rest at all, her face dour
and unrefreshed, no particular place-- subway,
park-- expressed sufficient interest in present circumstances
though flowers popped up and tokens
dropped down, deep in the turnstiles. And from
the dovecots nothing was released or killed.
No one seemed to mind, though everyone noticed.
If the alphabet died-- even the o collapsing, the l
a lance in its groin-- what of it? The question
'krispies, flakes or loops?'-- always an indicator of
attention-- took a turn for the worse, though crumpets
could still be successfully toasted: machines worked,
the idiom death warmed over was in use. By noon,
postage stamps were half their width and worth
but no one stopped licking. Neutrinos passed,
undetected. Corpulent clouds formed in the sky.
Tea was served at four. When the wind blew off a shingle
or two, like hairs, and the scalp of the house began
to howl, not a roofer nailed it down. That was that.
When the moon came out and glowed like a night light
loose in its socket, no one was captious, cautious or wise,
though the toes of a few behaved strangely in bed--
they peeped out of the blankets like insects' antennae,
then turned into periscopes scouting to see
if the daze that was morning had actually managed to doze.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Mini-Reflection: Turtles


I’m all about turtles lately. I guess I always have been, in some room of my mind. When I was a kid, a neighbor who babysat us had a turtle living in her back yard. Along the side of the house, where there were dense bushes and some rocks, and a trodden dirt path. But the turtle was a rare sighting. Sometimes, we looked around for him but only once in a great while would we find him exposed, maybe chewing on some grass or slowly making his way back to his corner. Her yard had an element of the wild, knowing he could be anywhere within its perimeters at any given time. I remember her telling us the turtle had been there when they bought the house, a couple of decades before I was even born. She said turtles could live to be a hundred years old, and I remember being awed by that at the time, this sand-colored being, living his simple life while tenants came and went. I wonder what happened to him?

I wrote a turtle into my most recent novel, and gave him a special relationship with one of the main characters. I think many of us writers have been drawn to the turtle as metaphor when thinking of characters. That protective shell, that seeming wisdom and zen. The long lifespan, the contemplation of which prompts us to broaden our daily preoccupations toward something grander.
There is an exposed rock at the northernmost end of the north lake in my neighborhood. It’s on my jogging route, so I run by it often. Once in a while, I’ll see a turtle sunning himself on its craggy surface. I always stop. A mini moment of reflection, I guess, that always centers me. But these sightings, like the times in my old neighbor’s back yard, are infrequent. Maybe once every fifty passings, maybe even less than that. Which makes today’s event extremely rare, a first-time occurrence, and I’d have to assume, maybe once-in-a-lifetime. Two turtles, basking in the sun side by side, perfectly symmetrical on that same rock. Both with wrinkled necks strained towards the sun, both shells dried in the heat, one more faded than the other but both that distinct brown/green color of common turtles. They were perfectly situated on the surface, only inches of rock around them. All sorts of metaphors came to mind, particularly the same but different, existing harmoniously. I would have loved to see how they got into position—one first, then the other? Or at the same time, in an orchestrated maneuver? And I would have loved to stay longer than the moment it took for that mini-reflection, to see what signal would prompt them to lower themselves back into the greenish water. And how that would occur—again, together, or apart? But I had to hurry off and finish my run, many things to do and many preoccupations before the next pause.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka