Monday, November 30, 2009

Living in the Body

This weekend I saw my brother and my cousins and my aunts and just about everybody else I'm related to on my mother's side at the wedding of one of my first cousins once removed. We are a big family--both individually and in terms of how many of us there are. I looked around at cousins I hadn't seen for thirteen years--since the last big family wedding--and noticed that some of them looked a lot like their mothers now. The groom looked a lot more like his father than he did the last time I saw him. He married a red-headed woman, which will probably add to the already large number of red-headed cousins.

All the resemblances made me think of Joyce Sutphen's poem "Living in the Body":

Body is something you need in order to stay
on this planet and you only get one.
And no matter which one you get, it will not
be satisfactory. It will not be beautiful
enough, it will not be fast enough, it will
not keep on for days at a time, but will
pull you down into a sleepy swamp and
demand apples and coffee and chocolate cake.

Body is a thing you have to carry
from one day into the next. Always the
same eyebrows over the same eyes in the same
skin when you look in the mirror, and the
same creaky knee when you get up from the
floor and the same wrist under the watchband.
The changes you can make are small and
costly--better to leave it as it is.

Body is a thing that you have to leave
eventually. You know that because you have
seen others do it, others who were once like you,
living inside their piles of bones and
flesh, smiling at you, loving you,
leaning in the doorway, talking to you
for hours and then one day they
are gone. No forwarding address.

But I taught my kids a family game called "Nine Magazines," which we've always told the children is a mind-reading game that only those related to us can play. A number of cousins, aunts, uncles, and in-laws stopped by to demonstrate their mind-reading ability and further frustrate the kids until they finally caught on, making them part of a tradition that stretches further back than my childhood, back to when my great-aunt had us all running in and out of her house and the relatives for whom we were named and who we would grow up to resemble were still in town, still married, still alive.

I meant to take more pictures, but I kept getting distracted, as usual, so the number of my mental snapshots far exceeds the number of actual ones, which are the ones we'll look at in years to come and marvel at how young and attractive we were then, and who-all was alive then but left their bodies after that occasion. The bodies change, but many of them look the same. There's something reassuring about that kind of continuity, don't you think?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Taking the rest of the week off for Thanksgiving.
See you next Monday!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Deja Demon and Demon Ex Machina

I found the first one of this series by Julie Kenner, Carpe Demon, as an audiobook at the library, and listened to the second, California Demon, and the third, Demons are Forever, that way, too. Then the library ran out of funds and I was left at the end of the third one wondering if the act of necromancy performed by the protagonist, a "demon-hunting soccer mom" named Kate, was going to pay.

A year later, I bought the next two in paperback to find out. First I read Deja Demon, and it still wasn't clear. The person Kate brings back from the dead is her first husband Eric, who turns out to be infected with a demon even in his borrowed body. Finally Kate's husband and best friend are in on the secret of her demon-whacking activities, but Kate still hasn't learned to be entirely open with her daughter about dad's demon infection. This is all funnier than I'm making it sound. Let me give you a sample:
"The truth. Now there's a funny concept. Once upon a time, I thought truth was an easy thing. The sky is blue--true. The moon is made of green cheese--false. Evil walks among us--true. Dead husbands don't return to their wives and children in the bodies of other men. That one--surprise, surprise--turned out to be false."

Like any superhero, Kate has to train and do research, and she also has to agonize about whether saving the world is worth exposing her kids to danger:
"I'd always told myself I wanted my kids to have a normal life. So why was I suddenly cultivating my teenage daughter's desire to get out there and fight the good fight? Was I being a good mom, factoring in my child's wants and desires while still trying to keep some semblance of control to keep her safe? Or was I being selfish, reveling in her desire to be like me and wanting to increase the bonds that tied us together?"

Kate needs the help of her daughter and husband in the fifth book in the series, Demon Ex Machina, in which a lot of things are tied up, including what happened to Kate's nemesis Nadia and what happens to the demon inside of her first husband (her second husband has a very satisfying role to play in its vanquishing). The research is livened up by some accurate information Kate's daughter Allie gets from an online gaming site, and her by-now habitual agonizing over her kids is given a touch of humor by a face-off with a demon inhabiting the body of a toddler (Kate is undone, she says, by her "maternal hormones" but first hubby does the job for her), and then by bits of mother-daughter humor like this one, which rings true to my ears:
"Allie and Mindy came barreling inside, backpacks flying as they tossed them onto the kitchen table. Then they both fell into chairs and demanded ice cream.
'Hello? Do I look like our personal serving wench?'
'A little,' Allie said.
'Around the eyes,' Mindy added."

But I still don't know if necromancy pays in this series or not! I mean, so far it has, because there hasn't been any earthshaking negative effect from Kate's use of the "Lazarus bones" to bring her first husband back to life (in the heat of a demon battle). But as to what he's going to do with the rest of that life, we don't know yet. Obviously there's going to be a sixth in the series. And I'm going to be hunting it down when it comes out. Surely this little piece of fictional fluff isn't going to disprove my grand theory...or will it?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sunday Morning

This past Sunday, convalescing after the flu, I sat in a patch of weak November sunlight coming in through the picture window that has a spot of blood and feathers on it and reread one of my favorite poems, Wallace Stevens' Sunday Morning.

It's a long poem, but if you pick out a few lines to admire, it has lovely images. I'm going to comment on how I interpret the lines (at least how I interpret them this week) as I go along.

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.

--Someone is not going to church, but enjoying the sensual pleasures of sleeping in and having a leisurely breakfast.

She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.

--The sensual pleasures of reality dim in the light of her thoughts about the crucifixion. I think it must be spring, almost Easter.

The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.

--There's a gap between how she feels and how she thinks she should feel on this fine morning.

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?

--Why should she have gotten up early, crammed herself into her good clothes, and gone off to a hard pew in a cold church lit mostly by the dimness of the early spring sunlight as it makes its feeble way through the thickness of stained glass? Why should she believe in anything except what she can feel?

Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?

--Can't ordinary things lift her up the way she's been taught that faith in a mythical Heaven can?

Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.

--She resolves to value what she can experience with her senses, rather than try to cultivate faith in anything she can't experience.

Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth.
No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave
Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind.
He moved among us, as a muttering king,
Magnificent, would move among his hinds,

--Jove (or Zeus) had intercourse with humans.

Until our blood, commmingling, virginal,
With heaven, brought such requital to desire
The very hinds discerned it, in a star.

--The desire for intercourse with God results in the Virgin birth and the Nativity story of Jesus.

Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?

--Is any part of us more than mortal?

The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.

--We'll understand more if we become more than mortal.

She says, "I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;

--I like to hear birdsong in the morning

But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?"

--Is there anything more in life than transitory, sensual pleasure?

There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden undergrounds, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven's hill, that has endured

--These stories don't have the same power for me as anything sensual and real.

As April's green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow's wings.

--This is what moves me, these are the things that make me feel that life has meaning. (Especially at this time of year, the "desire for June and evening" seems a thought of something impossibly lovely.)

She says, "But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss."

--I still feel the need to believe that something of me will live on once I'm gone from the earth.

Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires.

--Only in death can we know if anything survives death

Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths,
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness,
She makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

--The fact that life ends gives urgency and meaning to the everyday events of our lives.

Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,

--Could we love the sensual pleasures of the earth as much if they were always available?

With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?

--It's the ephemeral qualities of life that keep us going, looking for more.

Why set the pear upon those river-banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!

--What use would these pleasures be if they were eternal and unchanging? How can a song be beautiful without any conflict?

Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.

--It's the possibility of loss that makes our mortal mothers want to cherish every minute with their children, even the painful (burning) ones.

Supple and turbulent, a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun,
Not as a god, but as a god might be,
Naked among them, like a savage source.

--Rituals are what we use to try to understand that which is beyond our understanding.

Their chant shall be a chant of paradise,
Out of their blood, returning to the sky;
And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice,
The windy lake wherein their lord delights,
The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills,
That choir among themselves long afterward.

--Rituals are also how we try to make the ephemeral pleasures of the earth immortal--through making music, for example, music that will outlast its makers.

They shall know well the heavenly fellowship
Of men that perish and of summer morn.

--They consciously experience ephemeral pleasure so they can express the full glory of its potential.

And whence they came and whither they shall go
The dew upon their feet shall manifest.

--Perhaps the footsteps they leave on our memory will be as transient as morning dew, and as briefly beautiful.

She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, "The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay."

--She is brought back from her daydreaming by a recollection of what she's been taught in church.

We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.

--Her daydreams are more satisfying to her longing for something beyond transitory sensual pleasure, even though she can't get past the barrier of imagining what could be beyond this world.

Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

--the beauty of the world must be enough to take her out of herself. It is now evening, and she doesn't know any more than when she started. She can't read anything into the pattern the pigeons are making. She is left with beauty and uncertainty, and with the abundant consolation that ephemeral beauty offers to the alert observer.

After Sunday, we go into the week with purpose, trying to avoid the deer (and around here, the quail) on the highways, washing and eating the berries that are ripe, and flying down to the eventual darkness of the winter solstice on the extended wings of our busy schedules. It happens so fast that sometimes it is good to stop what you're doing, sit in a sunny chair, and daydream. Do you ever have time for that?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

No Forgiveness Ode

Yesterday was my last day of class at the commuter college. Tomorrow they write an exam over the material covered in the second half of the course, and by next Tuesday they turn in a revision of one of their papers as a final exam. I have taught them everything I'm going to have a chance to teach them. The fall, which seemed so full of promise in September, is over. And I'm ready; I've made my mistakes, the students have made theirs, and what happens in the next week is that we all try to come to terms with it.

It's a little bit like having to drop your maternity coverage before you're entirely ready to give up the dream of another baby. Or watching the father of your children, having walked out of the marriage a few years before, move to a distant city where you'll no longer have the chance to see him every day. It's been over, but it's just now hitting you.

I love this poem, the "No Forgiveness Ode" by Dean Young, especially for its last two lines:

The husband wants to be taken back
into the family after behaving terribly,
but nothing can be taken back,
not the leaves by the trees, the rain
by the clouds. You want to take back
the ugly thing you said, but some shrapnel
remains in the wound, some mud.
Night after night Tybalt's stabbed
so the lovers are ground in mechanical
aftermath. Think of the gunk that never
comes off the roasting pan, the goofs
of a diamond cutter. But wasn't it
electricity's blunder into inert clay
that started this whole mess, the I-
echo in the head, a marriage begun
with a fender bender, a sneeze,
a mutation, a raid, an irrevocable
fuckup. So in the meantime: epoxy,
the dog barking at who knows what,
signals mixed up like a dumped-out tray
of printer's type. Some piece of you
stays in me and I'll never give it back.
The heart hoards its thorns
just as the rose profligates.
Just because you've had enough
doesn't mean you wanted too much.

I've had enough of this fall, both in terms of what I've done and what I've left undone (to quote part of an Episcopalian confession of sin).

Next we'll want too much from the holidays; it's almost time for me to start gunking up my Thanksgiving roasting pan with this year's expectations and regrets--how about you?

Monday, November 16, 2009


Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld, is a YA book set in an alternate world at the onset of WWI, a world in which the British allies use bio-engineering for their war machines and the German allies use mechanical engineering (some reviewers, like Amanda, call it steampunk, I think largely because of its neo-Victorian illustrations, and Westerfeld discusses the applicability of the steampunk label in his "Big Idea" piece at Whatever).

It's quite a good story and I am full of regret and irritation that I bought it this fall. Why Scott Westerfeld thought he could write part of a story and publish it as a finished book is explained, I guess, by the current plethora of series novels, especially in the YA section. But I'm feeling very cross about it. Westerfeld sets up a fascinating world in which a hero, Alek, and a heroine, Deryn, (alternating narratives at first) meet and learn to cooperate. While the heroine's story comes to a sort of conclusion (she's gotten what she thought she always wanted by pretending to be a boy called Dylan), the hero's is just getting started at the end of this novel. What really gets to me is that some mysterious eggs are introduced on p. 153, and on p. 434 the author cuts us off by reminding us that we still don't know what's inside the dern things. Maybe I felt extra-grouchy because I read the book while I had the flu. But still.

The illustrations, some of which you can see on Westerfeld's Leviathan page, help to tell the story; every time my daughter shows someone the book she opens it to p. 104 and says "see? here's the spider-dog." I also like the illustration of the heroine's, Deryn's, early flight with a creature based on a medusa jellyfish on p. 35. The illustrations really give readers the contrast between the soft, billowy sides of the biological tools (made by "Darwinists") and the sharp, armored edges of the mechanical ones (made by "Clankers").

The mechanical or "clanker" tools we see the most of in this book are the "walkers," such as Alek's "Stormwalker," and the two-legged variety do bear a passing resemblance to the Star Wars image. But the illustration of the "giant metal spider" variety on p. 165 shows more of the range of possibility for such machines.

The most interesting part of the tale is discovering the differences between the way the "Darwinists" and the "Clankers" think, and how they learn to cooperate. In one exchange, Alek is repulsed by the "glowworms" the Darwinists use to light the inside of their ship, Leviathan, and asks
"'Haven't you Darwinists discovered fire yet?'
'Get stuffed," Dylan said. We use oil lamps, but until the ship's all patched, it's too barking dangerous. What do they use on zeppelins, candles?'
'Don't be absurd. I imagine they have electric lights.'
Dylan snorted. 'Waste of energy. Bioluminescence worms make light from any kind of food. They can even eat soil, like an earthworm.'
Alek eyed the cluster of worms uneasily. 'And you whistle at them?'
'Aye.' Dylan brandished the pipe. 'I can command most of the ship's beasties with this.'
The Leviathan is an ecosystem, as the story itself illustrates when the ship crashes on a glacier and is in need of food, which only Alek can provide, to repair itself.

In fact, however, the Clankers and Darwinists end up working together when neither of their vehicles will work. They put the Stormwalker's engines in the Leviathan, giving it powers neither Clanker nor Darwinists vehicles have had before. And they share knowledge; another of my favorite parts is when Deryn explains the way the Leviathan uses bats in aerial warfare:
"'Did I hear Dr. Barlow say something about bats?'
'Aye, the flechette bats. You should see those wee beasties at work.'
'Flechette? Like 'dart' in French?'
'That sounds right,' Dylan said. 'The bats gobble up these metal spkes, then release them over the enemy.'
'They eat spikes,' Alek said slowly. 'And then...release them?'
Dyland stifled a laugh. 'Aye, in the usual way.'

At the end of the book, the Darwinists and Clankers are headed off together to Constantinople (leaving me with the "Istanbul not Constantinople" earworm), Deryn with her secret still intact and Alek with his destiny still unfulfilled. And the eggs as much a mystery as ever.

Westerfeld plans three books in this series, with the last one planned for publication in the fall of 2011. My advice would be to wait and get all three together. In the meantime, if you haven't read his earlier books (So Yesterday and the Uglies, Pretties, Specials, Extras series are my favorites), this would be a good time to do that. If he weren't such a good writer, I wouldn't be so frustrated by the lack of resolution to the story he begins with Leviathan.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

When I got to the part of having the flu where I could open my eyes for a bit, I lay in bed and read some children's books. The first one was Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian because I've been seeing recommendations of it everywhere and my friend the Lass particularly wanted me to read it.

Despite having grown up hearing stories from great-aunts and great-grandmothers about "our Indian blood" (in the south, this was often an attempt to gloss over "our African blood") and having been raised in a midwest city next to Trail of Tears State Park, where the Cherokee Princess Otahki died, I've never gotten particularly interested in Native American culture, aside from what everyone learns in school or from reading Mary Oliver and Louise Erdrich. I know just enough to be amused when I find out that a friend's child is in a school band called the "Marching Braves." And I'm always bemused to read about instances of prejudice against "Indians," which is a main feature of Alexie's book.

It seems that in the American west, there must actually be some prejudice, especially concerning reservations and casinos. To try to understand that, I found myself thinking about moving to Middletown, Rhode Island in the 1980's, when I remember encountering a kind of prejudice I'd never even heard of--against the Portuguese. The Portuguese?! At first it struck me that these folks had whirled a globe and chosen someone to pick on at random. Then I began to see some of the tensions between people whose families were brought to the area to fish or a living, and people who came to the area for other, often less desperate, reasons. It still seems strange to me, but if I close my eyes and squint a little I can see some of why it might have started.

The interesting part of this book, for me, is not how downtrodden the main character, Junior, is, or even how he deals with adversity. It's how he refuses to see through the narrow lenses offered him by the "Indian world" or the "White world." Although I'm not a fan of cartoon illustrations in general, I did like one picture with the caption "boys can hold hands until they turn nine." It seems to me the opinion of an extraordinarily gentle--perhaps extraordinarily hard-headed--boy; when I ask 19-year-old college students how long boys can hold hands, they generally tell me that it's not allowed after the age of 6, when the boys go to first grade.

Especially after reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, featuring a British schoolboy who gets special powers from a 50-year-old school book, I don't sympathize with Junior's anger when he gets a geometry book that's 30 years old and belonged to his mother. If it was a History book, maybe I'd understand, but geometry hasn't changed that much in the past century. Yet this is the perceived "unfairness" that gets Junior out of the reservation school and into a nearby small-town public school where the children learn more. One of Junior's new classmates is a "genius farm boy" named Gordy, who tells him to look at the small high school library (3,412 books) and consider that "if you read one of these books a day, it would still take you almost ten years to finish." When Junior asks what his point is, Gordy elaborates: "the world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don't know." What redeems Junior as a character, at least for me, is that he's eager to learn. He befriends people who at first seem "racist" to him, and he learns enough about himself to start showing his best side to people, rather than always pushing them away.

Perhaps because this is a book for children, the type of Indian Junior identifies with is not well delineated. He tells stories like this one:
"Now, in the old days, Indians used to be forgiving of any kind of eccentricity. In fact, weird people were often celebrated.
Epileptics were often shamans because people just assumed that God gave seizure-visions to the lucky ones.
Gay people were seen as magical, too.
I mean, like in many cultures, men were viewed as warriors and women were viewed as caregivers. But gay people, being both male and female, were seen as both warriors and caregivers.
Gay people could do anything. They were like Swiss Army knives!
My grandmother had no use for all the gay bashing and homophobia in the world, especially among other Indians.
'Jeez,' she said. "Who cares if a man wants to marry another man? All I want to know is who's going to pick up all the dirty socks?'
Of course ever since white people showed up and brought along their Christianity and their fears of eccentricity, Indians have gradually lost all of their tolerance.
Indians can be just as judgmental and hateful as any white person.
But not my grandmother.
She still hung on to that old-time Indian spirit, you know?"

This story, with its unspecified "kinds" of "Indians" reminds me of the response a friend of mine once got when he correctly identified the home country of a visiting student as Cameroon. The student was so grateful to be recognized that he blurted out "most think that all of Africa is one small village!" Rather than "the Spokane Tribe," which is mentioned, most of Junior's musings seem to be about generic "Indians" as if all Native Americans were from one small tribe.

In the part of the midwest where I grew up, a game children sometimes play is reciting how many different countries their ancestors came from, and the child who can remember the longest list without being suspected of making them up on the spot wins. I wasn't terribly good at the game; usually only getting in three or four from my mother's side and the same from my father's. How good would you be at this game?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Holiday Swap

I have the flu and haven't even been able to read much (see Spynotes about the effect of H1N1 on the eyes). But I did sign up for the Book Blogger Holiday Swap because Dreamybee made it so easy and the hosts make it sound like fun:
Amanda (The Zen Leaf), Amy (My Friend Amy), Ana (Things Mean a Lot), Chris (Stuff As Dreams Are Made On...), Debi (nothing of importance), Eva (A Striped Armchair), Jill (Fizzy Thoughts), and Lenore (Presenting Lenore)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Bathtub Families

Last night I met--live and in person--an imaginary friend, ReadersGuide, who was in town to visit the local college with her younger daughter. And aside from the initial nervousness about meeting someone I knew only virtually (all of our kids said "mom, you're not supposed to meet people you know from the internet!"), it was delightful. Because we did already know each other. And unlike real-life friends, where there's usually some element of catching up, we could take the conversation up where we'd left off, only in a little more depth and with me racing around saying "see? here's this thing I talk about, right here!"

Meeting someone I knew previously only through the written word made me think of this poem by Billy Collins:

Bathtub Families

is not just a phrase I made up
though it would have given me pleasure
to have written those words in a notebook
then looked up at the sky wondering what they meant.

No, I saw Bathtub Families in a pharmacy
on the label of a clear plastic package
containing one cow and four calves,
a little family of animals meant to float in your tub.

I hesitated to buy it because I knew
I would then want the entire series of Bathtub Families,
which would leave no room in the tub
for the turtles, the pigs, the seals, the giraffes, and me.

It's enough just to have the words,
which alone make me even more grateful
that I was born in America
and English is my mother tongue.

I was lucky, too, that I waited
for the pharmacist to fill my prescription,
otherwise I might not have wandered
down the aisle with the Bathtub Families.

I think what I am really saying is that language
is better than reality, so it doesn't have
to be bath time for you to enjoy
all the Bathtub Families as they float in the air around your head.

Now I can add a mental image of ReadersGuide when I think about her, but meeting her didn't change my picture of her otherwise. Especially for those of us who love language, it can be "better than reality" because you don't have to bother with airline tickets and driving down deer-strewn highways on windy nights and children who get sick when someone is visiting (as Walker did last night). Eating pizza and drinking wine with someone in real life beats the heck out of doing it virtually. But I enjoy all of you imaginary readers who float in the air around my head and into the comments here!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

No Nest for the Wicket

A friend loaned me Donna Andrews' mystery novel No Nest for the Wicket because she knows I like playing croquet. I like backyard croquet best, preferably with partners so we can play off each others' balls and go for the final post together, rather than suffer the inevitable ignominious defeat when one person hits the post and goes out, leaving his partner at the mercy of all the other players on the field. I have played competition croquet, with the billiard-smooth lawns and tall, narrow wickets. But I have never played X-treme croquet as it is described in this mystery...nor am I ever likely to, because the rules are not explained in enough detail to recreate the game. It would have to be created from hints like that cow legs can serve as wickets and radios can be used to inform far-flung players when it's their turn.

I did enjoy one character's explanation of why croquet was banned in Boston in the 1890s:
"Several prominent clergymen denounced it for encouraging drinking, gambling, and philandering. Men and women playing on the same field. The occasional bare ankle explosed to the leering eyes of the spectators. Young couples disappearing into the shrubbery in search of lost balls."
Come to think of it, my version of extreme croquet should probably include some drinking; makes the game more challenging!

And I very much enjoyed the culminating decision on house rules for the game being played during a murder investigation: "Spectators are fair game, but if you try to murder one of the other players, your team's out."
Croquet, of course, is infamous for having wildly varying house rules. Personally, I don't much care for playing with people whose major fascination with the game is rocqueting balls into the next county and chortling that there's no out of bounds.

The mystery itself, in this novel, was uninteresting. Possibly this is because the croquet one is the seventh in a series (my friend did tell me this), and it's more interesting if you know some background on the characters and their unfriendly dog. I spent three hundred pages with these characters and never got to like them, so I'm not feeling inclined to start at the beginning of the series to see if we could get off on the right foot.

I have started some mystery series novels with one of the middle ones and been interested enough to read backwards after the first one, and then forwards. I did that with Elizabeth George's Lynley mysteries, Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael tales, and Dorothy Gilman's series about Mrs. Pollifax. Have you ever tried dipping into a mystery series in the middle?

Monday, November 2, 2009


We had a whirlwind weekend at Non-Necromancy headquarters. There were houseguests I would have liked to have seen more of. There were parties I didn't have the energy to attend. Walker and I spent all day Saturday and then all day Sunday at his end-of-the-season soccer tournament an hour and fifteen minutes away. Today we're exhausted and all the fun is over, the houseguests already gone, nothing left but candy wrappers and dirty dishes.

I've been planning tomorrow's classes and not feeling inspired to my usual level of hilarity for talking about Oliver Goldsmith's play She Stoops to Conquer. So I decided we'd talk about courtship rituals and I'd read Gregory Corso's poem on the subject, Marriage, out loud. (If I ever decide to vlog, reading you a poem like this will be the reason):

Should I get married? Should I be good?
Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood?
Don't take her to movies but to cemeteries
tell all about werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets
then desire her and kiss her and all the preliminaries
and she going just so far and I understanding why
not getting angry saying You must feel! It's beautiful to feel!
Instead take her in my arms lean against an old crooked tombstone
and woo her the entire night the constellations in the sky-

When she introduces me to her parents
back straightened, hair finally combed, strangled by a tie,
should I sit with my knees together on their 3rd degree sofa
and not ask Where's the bathroom?
How else to feel other than I am,
often thinking Flash Gordon soap-
O how terrible it must be for a young man
seated before a family and the family thinking
We never saw him before! He wants our Mary Lou!
After tea and homemade cookies they ask What do you do for a living?

Should I tell them? Would they like me then?
Say All right get married, we're losing a daughter
but we're gaining a son-
And should I then ask Where's the bathroom?

O God, and the wedding! All her family and her friends
and only a handful of mine all scroungy and bearded
just wait to get at the drinks and food-
And the priest! he looking at me as if I masturbated
asking me Do you take this woman for your lawful wedded wife?
And I trembling what to say say Pie Glue!
I kiss the bride all those corny men slapping me on the back
She's all yours, boy! Ha-ha-ha!
And in their eyes you could see some obscene honeymoon going on-
Then all that absurd rice and clanky cans and shoes
Niagara Falls! Hordes of us! Husbands! Wives! Flowers! Chocolates!
All streaming into cozy hotels
All going to do the same thing tonight
The indifferent clerk he knowing what was going to happen
The lobby zombies they knowing what
The whistling elevator man he knowing
Everybody knowing! I'd almost be inclined not to do anything!
Stay up all night! Stare that hotel clerk in the eye!
Screaming: I deny honeymoon! I deny honeymoon!
running rampant into those almost climactic suites
yelling Radio belly! Cat shovel!
O I'd live in Niagara forever! in a dark cave beneath the Falls
I'd sit there the Mad Honeymooner
devising ways to break marriages, a scourge of bigamy
a saint of divorce-

But I should get married I should be good
How nice it'd be to come home to her
and sit by the fireplace and she in the kitchen
aproned young and lovely wanting my baby
and so happy about me she burns the roast beef
and comes crying to me and I get up from my big papa chair
saying Christmas teeth! Radiant brains! Apple deaf!
God what a husband I'd make! Yes, I should get married!
So much to do! Like sneaking into Mr Jones' house late at night
and cover his golf clubs with 1920 Norwegian books
Like hanging a picture of Rimbaud on the lawnmower
like pasting Tannu Tuva postage stamps all over the picket fence
like when Mrs Kindhead comes to collect for the Community Chest
grab her and tell her There are unfavorable omens in the sky!
And when the mayor comes to get my vote tell him
When are you going to stop people killing whales!
And when the milkman comes leave him a note in the bottle
Penguin dust, bring me penguin dust, I want penguin dust-

Yes if I should get married and it's Connecticut and snow
and she gives birth to a child and I am sleepless, worn,
up for nights, head bowed against a quiet window, the past behind me,
finding myself in the most common of situations a trembling man
knowledged with responsibility not twig-smear nor Roman coin soup-
O what would that be like!
Surely I'd give it for a nipple a rubber Tacitus
For a rattle a bag of broken Bach records
Tack Della Francesca all over its crib
Sew the Greek alphabet on its bib
And build for its playpen a roofless Parthenon

No, I doubt I'd be that kind of father
Not rural not snow no quiet window
but hot smelly tight New York City
seven flights up, roaches and rats in the walls
a fat Reichian wife screeching over potatoes Get a job!
And five nose running brats in love with Batman
And the neighbors all toothless and dry haired
like those hag masses of the 18th century
all wanting to come in and watch TV
The landlord wants his rent
Grocery store Blue Cross Gas & Electric Knights of Columbus
impossible to lie back and dream Telephone snow, ghost parking-
No! I should not get married! I should never get married!
But-imagine if I were married to a beautiful sophisticated woman
tall and pale wearing an elegant black dress and long black gloves
holding a cigarette holder in one hand and a highball in the other
and we lived high up in a penthouse with a huge window
from which we could see all of New York and even farther on clearer days
No, can't imagine myself married to that pleasant prison dream-

O but what about love? I forget love
not that I am incapable of love
It's just that I see love as odd as wearing shoes-
I never wanted to marry a girl who was like my mother
And Ingrid Bergman was always impossible
And there's maybe a girl now but she's already married
And I don't like men and-
But there's got to be somebody!
Because what if I'm 60 years old and not married,
all alone in a furnished room with pee stains on my underwear
and everybody else is married! All the universe married but me!

Ah, yet well I know that were a woman possible as I am possible
then marriage would be possible-
Like SHE in her lonely alien gaud waiting her Egyptian lover
so I wait-bereft of 2,000 years and the bath of life.

I do a very good performance of this poem, if I do say so myself, with the climactic line "I deny honeymoon!" delivered at the top of my very considerable voice. And I love the poem, love the idea of all these different possible lives, even though I got married relatively young and never worried too much about courtship roles or possible young married scenarios. Still, having visited Niagara Falls, I can imagine being a young person going into one of those hotel rooms and feeling the way the speaker does, here. And for years I have not felt my shopping lists to be complete if someone hasn't written in "penguin dust."