Friday, June 18, 2010

Said the Poet to the Analyst

I thought I would take the time to give credit where credit is due. The title for this blog is not my own invention, but taken from Anne Sexton’s “Said the Poet to the Analyst.” In high school—during my days of angst—Sexton was hands down my favorite poet. While I still enjoy the confessional poetry of Sexton, Plath, and crew, I’ve broadened my poetic tastes.

Nevertheless, when I recalled this opening line from Sexton’s poem, I found it quite fitting for this blog. So, here is the poem in full:

Said the Poet to the Analyst

My business is words. Words are like labels,
or coins, or better, like swarming bees.
I confess I am only broken by the sources of things;
as if words were counted like dead bees in the attic,
unbuckled from their yellow eyes and their dry wings.
I must always forget who one words is able to pick
out another, to manner another, until I have got
something I might have said...
but did not.
Your business is watching my words. But I
admit nothing. I worth with my best, for instances,
when I can write my praise for a nickel machine,
that one night in Nevada: telling how the magic jackpot
came clacking three bells out, over the lucky screen.
But if you should say this is something it is not,
then I grow weak, remembering how my hands felt funny
and ridiculous and crowded with all
the believing money.

And thank you, Anne Sexton, for writing at least one poem not filled with images of death, abortion, or menstruation. I appreciate.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What is your favorite book?

This question is one that I loathe, and also one that I often hear; especially when people discover that I study English.

“What is your favorite book?” Someone will ask.
“Uh,” I typically start the response. Really articulate for an English major, right?

But what is my favorite book?

Out of the hundreds of books I’ve read since the inaugural See Spot Run, what would I deem my favorite? For some people, the response may be quite easy and straightforward.

“Ah, yes, that’s rather simple—Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses.” Now just imagine the person giving his response with an air of smugness. Usually, a person who states that any novel by Faulkner is his favorite is a douche, which accounts for the smugness factor.

(I had to get in my Faulkner jab.)

But anyway, back to my favorite book. I do have a prepared answer to this question. If I know that the inquisitor really wants a to-the-point reply, I say, “I would have to say Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse,” which is partially true. Yes, in my opinion, I think that Woolf truly perfected the art of prose. For example, here is the passage that made me fall in love with the novel when I first read it my senior year of high school:

Only she thought life—and a little strip of time presented itself to her
eyes—her fifty years. There is was before her—life. Life she thought—but she did
not finish her thought. She took a look at life, for she had a clear sense of it
there, something real, something private, which she shared neither with her
children nor with her husband. A sort of transaction went on between them, in
which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to
get the better of it, as it was of her. (59)

There’s something terribly intimate about this passage, and something tragic. In just a handful of lines, Woolf captures the internal conflict of Mrs. Ramsay. Whenever I reread this passage, I get chills, which is rare for me, so maybe To the Lighthouse is my favorite book.

But then again, there are so many wonderful books that could usurp Woolf’s place as my stock answer favorite book. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer is a possibility. Or what about Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout? The Hours is my favorite movie (hands down), but is the novel by Michael Cunningham my favorite book? And what if I said something like Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, would I be judged because of its lack of “literary merit?” I mean Brown is great at crafting a plot, but the level of writing is, well, questionable.

So, I guess I really haven’t arrived at any definitive solution. When asked the favorite book question, I continue to roll my eyes and respond with To the Lighthouse because truthfully I haven’t discovered a book that can replace it.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Voices in Trees

This poem is one I wrote about two years ago, but I recently decided to revise it. It's a villanelle called Voices in Trees. It doesn't even compare to Theodore Roethke's "The Waking," but, hey, what can you do?

The leaves carry our voices though we make no sound;
the silence fills the gaps between us in the air.
It is beneath the woven branches where I knew I found

a slight change in the fractured light that falls around.
Your words rest on your tongue, and it is now that you dare
the leaves to carry our voices. You still make no sound.

I train my eyes only to make contact with the ground--
afraid to look up and discover you not sitting there.
But it was beneath the woven branches that I knew I found

the reason why I always saw myself more bound
to your silent presence, and why you couldn't bear
for the leaves to carry our voices though we never make a sound.

I discovered your lack of presence when the pound
of silence danced through the trees into my ear.
Then beneath the woven branches I knew I found

a way to let go of all the moments that surround
two years of my memory, until I learn where
the leaves carry our voices. So I listen for their sound
beneath the woven branches trying to remember what I found.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Twenty Years

She emptied a packet of sugar into her coffee. She had arrived thirty minutes early and selected a booth next to the window. As she slid along the black glossy seat, the friction between her jeans and the synthetic material made a dull screech. She arrived half an hour early. She needed time to compose herself, to act on the offensive. She practiced her breathing—in through the nose, out through the nose—and straightened her sweater, pulling the top closely around her throat. Half an hour.

He called her a week ago. After twenty years, he called. She answered the phone. She didn’t recognize the number. But she answered it anyway— not uncharacteristic. She immediately discerned the voice. The tone had changed slightly, not as deep, smooth; it had lost its edge. But this change must come with age. Yet, something else seemed out of place. His voice lacked its usual self-assurance. His words did not run smoothly; his voice strained around them. She had answered the phone with her usual curt hello. A habit she adopted to make people respect her from the outset, to give her the appearance of a formidable individual. Was the strain in his voice a reaction to this?

“Ellen?” came the response from the other end. Then a crackle. A bad connection? The clearing of the throat?

“Ellen?” The way he said Ellen perplexed her. He never placed a question mark on the end of anything. It was part of his self-confident air, his nauseating charm.

In the conversation that followed, they agreed to meet; he wanted to talk. Talk. In the ten years they were married, he never wanted to talk; he just ordered. She followed. But even now on the phone, he was less assertive than she remembered; he almost bordered on bumbling. Nonetheless, she acquiesced; they would meet.

Twenty years. She was thirty. The white streaks had yet to weave throughout her hair; the lines encircling her eyes were held at bay. She kept her head down when she walked. When she spoke, her voice sputtered before finally warming up. She was bright, but irresolute. Her skin was limpid. She would train herself to grow a thicker skin later. A year earlier she received her doctorate in history, and then she became pregnant. He wanted it; she followed. They had been married for ten years; she resisted, but her resistance always waned. She never came out victorious. (The nerve under her left eye began to twitch. She had to control it; he could use it against her). She gave birth to a boy. They named him Ben—Ben Jr. to be exact. He felt the need to possess a namesake.

Ben Jr. remained in her life for three days. On the third day, she gathered everything she owned (books mostly) and abandoned him with the nanny. She found a job teaching. She published, gave talks, gained an air of deference.

She glanced at her watch, five minutes late. She watched the cyclonic pattern her sugar spoon made on the surface of her black coffee. Her left heel silently tapped the floor. With a slight raise of her hand, Ellen waved over the waiter and requested her check. As she scrounged through her bag in search of a five dollar bill, she didn’t see the young man who entered the diner. Her hair blocked her peripheral view.

“Hi, Ellen?” It was the same voice from the phone.

She raised her brow, accentuating the lines on her forehead. It was Ben, but it wasn’t Ben. He extended his hand; she reciprocated the action

“I’m Ben,” he said.

She smiled, letting the warmth of his hand flow into hers.