Monday, January 31, 2011
You lit blackest tunnels—
searing shame; soaring
ecstasy in empathy.
Absorbing your familiar,
I reeled like one who’s just seen God
in the dishwater, keep scrubbing.
Your words in packets crackle;
in volumes, crystalline.
You didn’t give me will to live
or any other platitude,
but you knocked out
the lovingest of bridges—
sacred way forward,
in the end, in your stead.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
something is happening
which will make its slow way here.
A cold front will come to destroy
the camellias, or perhaps it will be
a heat wave to scorch them.
A virus will move without passport
or papers to find me as I shake
a hand or kiss a cheek.
Somewhere a small quarrel
has begun, a few overheated words
ignite a conflagration,
and the smell of smoke
is on its way;
the smell of war.
Wherever I go I knock on wood—
on tabletops or tree trunks.
I rinse my hands over and over again;
I scan the newspapers
and invent alarm codes which are not
my husband's birthdate or my own.
But somewhere something is happening
against which there is no planning, only
those two aging conspirators, Hope and Luck.
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
with contrary tack—
take seat/ignore neighbor,
heed if to ignore is second nature.
Or maybe straighten spine
if curling over
is default posture.
Can be new-whatever;
objective is to reassign, shoulder
aside the overly plied,
chipping out favored-
fresh neural channels,
allowing a look at the girls
on bench opposite
to evoke different composite.
Call this thinking wishful,
wasteful, but consider how small
the variance between
you and anyone—
tiniest flake tweaked—
and yet, you’re so distinct.
Slyest shift: could be enough
to lift you out for a breath.
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
alone on the bed, back to wall,
laptop toasting my bare thighs,
coffee mug engaged.
I want to send a freshly heartbroken
friend the title of a book I believe
can help her, record of another
left-woman’s struggle to grasp
“all this” as even real, though
I plan to suggest this friend
wait a little while yet,
given how fresh the break.
I enter my terms, click the first link
listed, noticing right off an image—
the book’s front cover,
different than I remember
and uncanny in its depiction
of my own bedroom:
one part of one ivory wall,
an angular, cream-colored clock
in the tidy style of the 1950s
hanging, little hand on the 11,
big hand just past the 12, cord reaching
down to an outlet below.
Not quite trusting, I move my eyes
from screen to wall, wall to screen,
but the sameness stays.
My own experience—a slow patient
opening of the heart—is with me,
always with, and I consider
the connection between these things:
the broken heart, the breaking-open
heart, The End of the Story,
the crisp mirror image…
This seems as good a place as any
flux of a cool Atlantic
teasing ropey anklets
around my sea-happy stems—
encircle, retreat, encircle, retreat.
I'm savoring a rare detachment
when the ball of one foot
comes down on something
not-sand. Alarm pierces flow:
that was someone's address once.
I'm still in motion, burning up
a greasy vacation breakfast,
though the ocean air
has suddenly gained weight.
My thoughts go to the week before,
to a lesson in Google Earth.
Zeroing in on my childhood home,
bloom of relief—still there.
I consider an alternative,
that sweet one-story brick number,
bearer of me,
taken out by the rogue paw
of some heaving giant,
Monday, January 10, 2011
Time to dust off those heels and hit the dance floor! I've no doubt you're already drawing a crowd.
At My 94-Year-Old Grandmother's Nursing Home
She’s in her wheelchair
when we first see her,
her frame too frail to support
a precipitous weight gain.
With her back to us,
she looks through a picture window,
unmoving as we enter,
our steps cautious, voices low.
It’s my boyfriend and I,
my dad and stepmother.
Our greetings rise in pitch
and my grandmother turns,
smiles: “Oh, well look at this.”
I hug her sloped shoulders,
place a kiss on her cool cheek;
others do their version.
We chat about the usual—
where we’re living these days,
folks we’ve seen, “those darn
Mariners, just can’t catch
a break.” I circle the dim room,
pausing to handle and remark
on the odds and ends
that line every available surface—
The sock monkey, Beanie Babies,
plastic Kewpie dolls; model cars
and a tiny 747, testament
to my grandmother’s Boeing days.
And the bulletin boards!
Old news clippings,
photos of first husband
and every child and grandchild,
Reno and Maui trips
with her last love, long dead.
“I don’t know how I wound up
with all this junk,” she says,
her bright eyes a giveaway
(she knows, loves it).
Then, with conversation steering
to a close, comes a story
Of a pregnant cat my grandmother
would watch for hours at a time
some days; sit at her window
and just watch this cat
as it slunk around the bushes
across the street. Until one day
last week when she stopped appearing—
“I’m just sure she went into those
bushes to have her kittens,
see. And I’m worried about her,
because you know I just haven’t
seen her and I’m afraid some-
thing might have happened.
I tell you I’ve been at that window
every day just waiting for her.”
We say our goodbyes shortly after.
From the parking lot, I glance
up to find my grandmother back
at her window, waiting anxiously
for that cat of hers to reemerge
a mother, as she, Grandma,
is a mother, as she will always
be a mother, even in dying.
Friday, January 7, 2011
Some ... writers seem to know that it takes more than that for a sentence to cohere and flourish as a work of art. They seem to know that the words inside the sentence must behave as if they were destined to belong together—as if their separation from each other would deprive the parent story or novel, as well as the readerly world, of something life-bearing and essential. These writers recognize that there needs to be an intimacy between the words, a togetherness that has nothing to do with grammar or syntax but instead has to do with the very shapes and sounds, the forms and contours, of the gathered words. This intimacy is what we mean when we say of a piece of writing that it has a felicity—a fitness, an aptness, a rightness about the phrasing. The words in the sentence must bear some physical and sonic resemblance to each other—the way people and their dogs are said to come to resemble each other, the way children take after their parents, the way pairs and groups of friends evolve their own manner of dress and gesture and speech. A pausing, enraptured reader should be able to look deeply into the sentence and discern among the words all of the traits and characteristics they share. The impression to be given is that the words in the sentence have lived with each other for quite some time, decisive time, and have deepened and grown and matured in each other’s company—and that they cannot live without each other.
In her story “The Blood Jet,” Schutt ends a sentence about “life after a certain age” by describing it capsularly as “acutely felt, clearly flat”—two pairs of words in which an adverb precedes an adjective. The adjectives (felt and flat) are both monosyllabic, they are both four letters in length, and they both share the same consonantal casing: they begin with a tentative-sounding, deflating f and end with the abrupt t. In between the two ends of each adjective, Schutt retains the l, though it slides one space backward in the second adjective; and for the interior vowel, she moves downward from a short e to a short a. The predecessive adverbs acutely and clearly share the k-sounding c, and both words are constituted of virtually the same letters, except that clearly doesn’t retain the t of acutely. The four-word phrase has a resigned and final sound to it; there is more than a little agony in how, with just two little adjustments, felt has been diminished and transmogrified into flat, in how the richness of receptivity summed up in felt has been leveled into the thudding spiritlessness of flat. All of this emotion has been delivered by the most ordinary of words—nothing dredged up from a thesaurus. But what is perhaps most striking about the four-word phrase is the family resemblances between the two pairs of words. There is nothing in the letter-by-letter makeup of the phrase “clearly flat” that wasn’t already physically present in “acutely felt”; the second of the two phrases contains the alphabetic DNA of the first phrase. There isn’t, of course, an exact, anagrammatic correspondence between the two pairs of words; the u of the first pair, after all, hasn’t been carried over into the second pair. (Schutt isn’t stooping to recreational word games here.) But the page-hugging, rather than page-turning, reader—the very reader whom a writer such as Schutt enthralls—cannot help noticing that the second phrase is a selective rearrangement, a selective redisposition, of the first one—a declension, really, as if, within the verbal environment of the story, there were no other direction for the letters in the first pair of words to go. There is nothing random about what has happened here. Schutt’s phrase has achieved the condition that Susan Sontag, in her essay about the prose of poets, called “lexical inevitability.”
A sentence that I have spent an almost pathological amount of time gaping at since the turn of the century, a sentence that always leaves me agog, is the opening sentence in Sam Lipsyte’s story “I’m Slavering,” in Venus Drive: “Everybody wanted everything to be gleaming again, or maybe they just wanted their evening back.” The paraphrasal content of the statement informs us that high hopes for a return to a previous wealth of life or feeling are inevitably going to have to be scaled back and revised immediately and unconsolingly downward. If you tweak the verb tense from the past to the present, the sentence is even more self-containedly epigrammatic in its encompassing of our shared predicament of disappointments. It’s a richly summational sentence, not the sort of sentence you might expect to find at the very outset of a story—but there are writers whose mission is sometimes to deliver us from conclusion to conclusion instead of necessarily bogging us down in the facts, the data, the sorry particulars leading to each conclusion.
Lipsyte’s sentence is composed of words that, in ordinary hands, are among the most humdrum and pedestrian in our language: in the first half of the sentence alone, the words filling the subject slots in the independent clause and in the infinitive clause are the bland, heavily used indefinite pronouns everybody and everything. And the entire sentence is in fact completely lacking in specificity and so-called literary or elevated language: there is no load of detail, no verbal knickknackery whatsoever—there are no big-ticket words. The only standout word, the participle gleaming, most likely was called up into the sentence out of bits and pieces of the words preceding it—the ruling vowel of the entire utterance (the long e) and the -ing of everything. Yet this opening flourish of the story not only has both sweep and circumference in its stated meaning, but it has a swing and a lilt to it as well. The first half of the sentence is buoyant, upfloating. The entire sentence has the chiming, soaring, C-chord long e’s in everybody and be and gleaming and maybe and evening; it has the alliterative ballast of the b’s in everybody and be and maybe and back, and of the g’s in gleaming and again; and the only really closed word in the mix is the final word, the adverb back, which is shut off with harsh consonants at either end, especially the cruelly abrupt, terminal k, which finishes off the sentence and pushes it rudely down to earth. The last vowel in the sentence is the minor-key short a in back—the only appearance in the sentence of the disappointed, dejected ahhh of crap and alas.
Some of the most obvious ways to ensure that the words in a sentence together create a community of sound and shape are too rarely discussed explicitly outside of, say, high-school creative-writing classes. Yet many great writers constantly avail themselves of these little tactics to give their phrasing both dash and finish. The result is often a sentence that looks and sounds fulfilled, permanent. These phrasal maneuvers are concertedly evident in the examples I cited earlier, but they are worth considering individually, because even though we are all well acquainted with every one of them, we too easily forget just how much they can do for us.
For starters, make sure that the stressed syllables in a sentence outnumber the unstressed syllables. The fewer unstressed syllables there are, the more sonic impact the sentence will have, as in Don DeLillo’s sentence “He did not direct a remark that was hard and sharp.” You can take this stratagem to breathtaking extremes, as Christine Schutt does in her sentence “None of what kept time once works.” Schutt’s sentence should remind us as well that we need not shy away from composing an occasional sentence entirely of monosyllabic words, as Barry Hannah also does in “I roam in the past for my best mind” and “He’s been long on my list of shits in the world,” and as Ben Marcus does in “They were hot there, and cold there, and some had been born there, and most had died.”
Those sentences illustrate another point: unless you have good reason not to do so, end your sentence with the wham and bang of a stressed syllable, as in Dawn Raffel’s sentence “She lived to marry late” and in John Ashbery’s “There was I: a stinking adult.” Such sentences stop on a dime instead of wavering forward for a wishy-washy further syllable or two.
Tonight while out I overhead a guy say "I like the sound of that," in response to the words of someone he was with, which were: "till four for sure." YES. (Right? Right!)
Thursday, January 6, 2011
Dear Ms. Figurelli,
My favorite subjects are English, Math, Art, and Social Studies. I love writing stories. But I have to say, I get really shaky and nervous when I have to read out loud, so don't be surprised. I also like art alot. I like to draw and paint. I like challenging things. I like gym, but I'm not too great at it. I love to read. My favorite series of books are Anne of Green Gables. I think it will be a fun year. Your friend, Kristen Elde
Written last day of school:
Dear Ms. Fig,
You are so-ooo cool! You have a great sense of humor. Because of that you make school interesting. You listen to peoples' problems. I can come to you and just talk to you like a friend. I like it when Tara and I come to see you sometimes after school. We play volleyball with your little ball from Brie, we talk to you about boy problems. Anyway, I want you to know that you are the best teacher that I have ever had! Your dearest student, Kristen Elde
Written at fifth grade graduation tea:
I'm setting my sails for getting through my school years and then going to college for about four years. Later on I'd like to become either an artist or an author. I'd like to live on the top of a small cliff overlooking the ocean in Hawaii. That way I could get really good ideas for books and paintings. I'd like to get married and have a boy and a girl.
by Kristen Elde
As we prepare this paper
the Drama Club presented the
Alice in Wonderland play to
Jefferson school, and believe
me it was a huge success! Every-
one in the cast looked so real-
istic in their elaborate cos-
tumes. It was just like the real
thing! All the practices really
As Mr. Kurtenbach said,
"Every little detail helps a lot.
There is no such thing as a
She was right! The cards
looked so stiff and straight as
they waddled down the aisle, the
birds to had great costumes,
their feathers flapping, and the
flowers were so graceful with
their beautiful petals. Tweedle
Dee and Tweedle Dum were hilari-
ous! They could not stop gig-
gling and the Queen, Katheryn
just made ya crack up, when she
yelled "Off with her head."
There were so many more
details that there just isn't
enough room. I don't know about
all you out there, but I think
the Alice in Wonderland play
is the biggest thing that has ever
happened to Jefferson!
We paddle out into the blue
glistening lake. My eyes meet
with the people on shore,
suntanning and listening
to radios. We row over
to hundreds of reddish-green
lily pads and white water lilies.
Turning back into the center
of the lake, the oars look
as if they're turning cartwheels.
I jump into the cool blue
water, the lifejacket squeezing
my chest. The current drifts
me back, I catch up
and hold onto the boat's edge.
My feet dangle down below
the water's surface
as the boat carries me
Tuesday, January 4, 2011