8.29.2014

Things I Can't Believe

Frozen cows may have to be exploded.
--


I found this ages-old, unfinished post in my drafts and decided it was hilarious enough now to stand alone. Good night.

8.24.2014

Falling Out of Time by David Grossman

David Grossman's new book, Falling Out of Time, is a wonderwork that defies genre, combining elements of drama, poetry, and novel into one tightly wound piece. And yes, it is difficult. It is not something you read carelessly. You must step into it much the way you enter a sacred place, with caution, hushing the noise of your footfalls, uncertain if you are supposed to be there among those who have gathered.

As most readers of Grossman's work know, his last novel, To the End of the Land, was written while his middle son was serving in the Israeli military. As the book was nearing completion, Grossman and his wife received the unbearable news that their son, Uri, had been killed in action. This excellent article from The New Yorker explains more about how Grossman was able to bear the unbearable, to grieve, and then to bring the book into the world. This latest book takes the everyday weight of that grief and makes it the main character. It invites the reader into a community of loved ones who do not know how to go on within that sadness.

Having not lost a child myself (and being thankful for that truth each day, of course), I was an outsider in this book. I did not enter it ready to identify my grief, to see it displayed on the page, but I recognized the truth of it all the same. It has some of the same tenor you hear in Grossman's beautiful eulogy for his son found here. And it reminds me of a story I was told years ago:

Growing up, our next-door neighbors had a daughter a few years younger than me and a son a few years younger than that. I was a teenager when I learned they had had a son that would have been my age. He died when he was around 18 months old from complications due to telescoping bowels. Sometime after his death, my mama asked her friend how she was managing, and she responded:
Every day, I wake up, and I want to lie down in traffic. And every day, I don't. 
That was it. That was all she could do to explain her continued existence. Grossman is working with a very similar set of feelings here, and it is powerful.

The book opens abruptly. There is no narrative voice, no stage direction, no list of dramatis personae.
TOWN CHRONICLER: As they sit eating dinner, the man's face suddenly turns. He thrusts his plate away. Knives and forks clang. He stands up and seems not to know where he is. The woman recoils in her chair. His gaze hovers around her without taking hold, and she - wounded already by disaster - senses immediately: it's here again, touching me, its cold fingers on my lips.
The language here sets the tone: clang, recoils, wounded, disaster, cold. These are the feelings that will infect every page, but for all its ferocity, I must admit: for the first portion of the book, I was left feeling a bit detached from it. Perhaps I was holding myself apart from the emotions, perhaps I was doing what anyone would do: self-preservation in the face of danger? Whatever the reason, I found myself returning each evening to those pages and feeling unconnected to their grief. I even had the unkind thought cross my mind: is this all it's going to do? Will there be no change?

But somewhere about midway through, I realized that the book was having a cumulative effect on me. Like the constancy of waves, it was drawing me under, and I was aware of my own heartbreak in the midst of theirs. The characters are abstractions - The Man, The Midwife, and yes, The Centaur. Like the 15-century play Everyman, this play denies its characters full identities in order to convey universal truths. So, I could read a series of exchanges between these relatively unknown characters and let them run and blur before my eyes, and I would feel the truth of this grief for all of us.

Did I mention how beautiful the language is? It is a feast. Here is just one example I loved:
Tell me just what is the thing
in us, the living,
whereby we can become
completely dead
within an instant,
in the blink of our own death?
And give up on everything,
be given up on,
as though a primal law
that always lurked inside us
suddenly appears and rises
like a shadow from the depths: around it
still the ruins mount,
and comfortably it settles in,
a haughty landlord long in charge,
its stony glare - which does not miss
a thing, yet sees nothing -
declares with just
a hint of triumph
in its smile -
"Death, my friends, is what is true!" (135-136)
There are many more examples, especially small moments that capture the tragedy of surviving, but perhaps none more tragic than this question:
In August he died, and
when that month was over, I wondered:
How can I move
to September
while he remains
in August? (139)
A still, small, deafening book. I'm glad to have walked with these survivors for a few days, but I hope I never know their pain.
 

8.20.2014

Finding Poems

A few years ago, I had the pleasure and honor of observing Robert Pinsky as he conducted a small class at the University where I was working. He was warm and smart and - unlike some poets - clearly invested in teaching. He mentioned a project he assigned wherein his students were expected to read lots of poems with the aim of collecting their favorites in a notebook. Just a simple binder, probably, and maybe there was more to it than that, but the idea struck me, even in its simplicity, as important. I have always read and written poetry (see the Friday and Tuesday First Drafts effort for more), but I didn't know many poems deeply. I didn't have any memorized, I didn't gather them, I had never attempted to curate a collection.

A few days later, I started my own Poetry Notebook, and today, I assigned one to my students. I asked them why they didn't read much (or any) poetry, and they said things like, "it just takes so much effort; when I read, I want a story to take me somewhere. I don't want to have to work to figure out what it means; I just never know what it's supposed to be about; I prefer stories because I can relate to the characters." I understand their hesitations all while I lament their unnecessary resistance. They don't yet know that poetry can be funny as well as "deep," that there isn't just one right answer to "what a poem means," and that the things requiring the most effort are often the most worthwhile.

Today, I began by freeing them to see poetry in more ways than one: in spoken word or google poems; in haiku or sonnet; in found poetry or song lyrics. I showed them the spinning action in the Poetry Foundation app and watched as many of them pulled out their devices and immediately began playing with it. I invited them into the books on my shelves and shared with them my Poetry Notebook. And perhaps most importantly, I read to them. In one class, I read "Bread" by Richard Levine and maybe didn't do it justice because I don't know it well enough. In the other, I read E. E. Cummings' poem that begins
i thank you God for most this amazing day
and that one, I know. I know it intimately, musically. It makes a loop somewhere around my ribcage and thrums in my fingertips. And I think they heard it. I can't wait to see what they find.