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The Mayapple Forest

December 1, 2022

Did you first hear of mayapples when reading Anne of Green Gables, or was it mayflowers? Anne gushed enthusiasm for so many things in the natural world that many of us never thought to put names to, and I found that kind of attention to nature in Kim Ports Parson’s volume of poetry entitled The Mayapple Forest. As people are part of the natural world, their actions also get the attention that must be paid in order to put experience into perspective.

Even the disruptions of a pandemic show a silver lining if we look close enough, doing
“the morning’s work: clearing dead vines,
deadheading the fading metaphors.
The gifts of these months of plague and separation
are silence and space and time, not calendars,
not plots on a line, but to be alive,
to breathe, to wake, to hear the owl’s call” (8).

But we’re not the only ones looking and listening. A barn owl is outside the house, and she not only “sees creatures moving in the meadow while we’re sleeping” but also “turns her neck in the hush and hears,/without the slightest interest, the murmured notes/we offer, stirring in our nest” (19).

In “Love, Birds” looking at birds is part of a bigger picture, one in which “a pair of young bluebirds/aren’t succeeding with their first nest” (32). When the “I” of the poem worries out loud, the answer is about both love and birds:

“I suggest that perhaps you could attach

a small addition to the platform, like an arm
to hold the nest. It would be easy to cut

a piece of scrap and tack it on. Sure, you say,
and go out to your wood shop, and get to work.” (33)

In poems like “Upstream” we look close enough to see that “joy is short, the ‘O’ a fish/makes as it leaps for the fly” (45). And in “Cicatrice,” we see what happens when a person wants to “put on bright colors, decorate with blossoms” (48). As the speaker of the poem is forced to “see what I had wrought” (48), the reader can see how she has become “a cicatrice, the ghost of the girl I used to be” (49). But as the speaker of “Please Forgive Me” acknowledges, “everything eats something” (57).

It won’t be surprising to anyone that my favorite poem from this volume is “Postcard,” in which you receive “a surprise from somewhere you’ve never/been, or maybe remember as a spot/where you stood looking at the scenery” (76). A dream can be like a postcard, when a “face still floats up sometimes,/in a dream, a postcard from the past” (76). Saved in a box, postcards can be shuffled as a person is “hoping to/draw the card that can bring you back to the you/who lies smoldering under the surface” (77).

The title poem appears as the penultimate poem in this volume, about a daughter that the speaker admits “I do not have” but who she imagines carrying on with the kinds of noticing described throughout this volume. The daughter “doesn’t know why she’s drawn here” (82) to the mayapple forest. The beauty of the surroundings is shadowed by her absence: “I do not see her, as she touches a stalk here/or there, or as she reaches to finger the first pale fruit” (82). This daughter is part of the speaker’s imagination, not part of the world, but “the world accepts its own dying,/recreates itself, cell by cell” (83).

In the last poem, “May the Particles of My Body Travel the Endless Conduits,” there’s an argument about what happens after we die, with the speaker wishing for “the right words/to part the sea of all the nonsense and save us all/from drowning” but realizing that all she can do is what she does so habitually and well, “press my ear to earth and listen hard” (85).

I hear the echo of the wife’s final speech in Death of a Salesman when reading the poems in this volume (“attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person”) and the echo of the last line of Wright’s poem about “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” No matter how small and quiet a life has been, it is not wasted if someone is paying attention.

Now Is Not the Time to Panic

November 22, 2022

Kevin Wilson’s newest novel, Now Is Not the Time to Panic, made me shudder with both recognition and repulsion. It’s about art, and being a teenager, and sharing a secret. I don’t know Kevin Wilson, but I’m starting to feel like he was there when I was a teenager in a town north of Memphis and south of St. Louis.

The two teens of the novel, Frankie and Zeke, decide one summer day to write down a phrase and draw images around it, and then they make copies and post them around their town, a little place called Coalfield. I have a question about this for all you readers—is that uncommon? I certainly did it, and more than once, on different themes. I made posters and questionnaires about a fictional “Peacock Farm” and I ran an invisible man I named George for student council president of my high school. I don’t remember what I wrote on any of these posters, but they were all different and the ones for George all had a reference to his invisibility. One of my proudest moments as a 16-year-old was when a friend of mine who was on the student council found out it was me making the signs and confronted me, saying “you’ve made a mockery of the whole election!”

As a teenager, I had a taste for creating what is now called performance art, and it seems like there was always someone willing to go along with whatever wacky idea I came up with. It was fun, and we thought we were making a statement, and I don’t remember that much about the details now, although I remember it was exciting.

Frankie, though—she’s not like that. She takes a photo of her divorced parents and “used scissors to make a jagged separation between them, cutting the photo in half. I pasted them to the edges of a piece of copy paper, and then Zeke drew all these little designs in the gap between them, snakes wrapped around knives, lightning bolts, a fist punching out of a grave.” When they look at the finished product, Frankie says “I think I’d feel awful if my mom ever saw this” and Zeke tells her “I think art is supposed to make your family uncomfortable.” That was certainly part of the point of my teenaged productions, to stir up my family and anyone else I considered too complacent.

What Frankie wants is volume. She puts up her posters on “telephone poles, taped them to the windows of businesses, folded them up and hid them in the aisles of the grocery store…we put a few in some random mailboxes on the way to Zeke’s grandmother’s house.” I did all that, but not her next step, which is to continue making copies and putting them up even after they’ve been discovered and taken down. Frankie says “I wished we had an airplane that we could fly over Coalfield, dumping out copy after copy….it was the high of doing something weird, not knowing the outcome.” The thing is, though, that she starts to find out about the outcome because she just can’t quit putting up her poster until people really start to think it means something.

The people of Coalfield start to believe it means kidnapping and violence, and then of course they make that happen. The sheriff is quoted in the local newspaper saying “Now is not the time to panic, but, also, there seem to be dark forces at play.” The poster and the agitation it stirs up get so famous that it’s called “the Coalfield Panic” and is “featured on Unsolved Mysteries and Hard Copy and 20/20.” And because people died and Zeke moved back to Memphis, Frankie never tells anybody about her involvement.

As an adult, Frankie achieves some measure of fame as a children’s book author, which I think would make most people move on from thinking about one phrase they wrote at sixteen, but Frankie is still completely obsessed with the phrase she put on the poster. Years after that summer, a reporter finds out that Frankie is responsible for the poster because of a letter written by her neighbor at the time, a famous artist. Frankie is married and has a daughter, and yet she still likes to repeat the phrase she made up when she was sixteen. She finds Zeke and asks if she can tell the reporter that he helped with the poster and he tells her no, saying “it was so long ago.” That would be my feeling.

But Frankie says “It doesn’t feel like that long ago to me, honestly….I think about it all the time. I think about that summer. I say the phrase to myself. If I’m just sitting by myself, not really thinking about anything, I see those hands that you drew, just kind of hovering there in my mind.” At the end of the novel she is lying in bed, repeating her phrase to herself over and over.

So after reading this novel I feel recognition of the urge and repulsion at the way it develops into obsession. Tell me, please—did you also make art like this as a teenager and did you drag your friends into it? Or has Kevin Wilson really been spying on my life?

Goldilocks

November 21, 2022
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Goldilocks by Laura Lam is a science fiction novel about a group of women scientists and astronauts who are trying to get humans off an Earth that is increasingly less livable because of climate change and onto a planet in the “goldilocks zone” as we sometimes term the habitable zone of a planet in the range of distance from its sun with the right temperatures for water to remain liquid.

At first I got a very “yay women scientists” vibe from this novel, kind of like reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars. It’s clear that the captain and crew of the Atalanta, on its way from Earth to a planet that seems ripe for colonization, Cavendish, are super-qualified for their jobs. They’ve had to steal the ship from a government so misogynistic that it has edged women out of the workforce. As in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale,
“it hadn’t happened in a moment, but a series of moments, as slow and insidious as the melting of the ice caps. Women had been ushered out of the workplace, so subtly that few noticed until it was too late. There had been no grand lowering of an iron curtain, with passports voided and bank accounts emptied. There had been a few men in sharp suits quoting scripture with silver tongues, but it was cursory, just enough to wrangle part of the Christian vote. Really, they were afraid of women. Or hated them. Wasn’t that much the same thing? The country saw those angry men as a fringe movement right up until one was elected president.”
An interesting addition to Lam’s picture of the rise of misogynism is her observation that “everyone had grown used to giving orders to the pleasant-voiced feminine robots. Alexa, Siri, Sophia, Sage, do this for me. A perky ‘okay’, and your wish was her command. They’d all been doing it for years before women started realizing the men in their lives had been conditioned to do the same to them. And by then it was too late.”

The captain of the ship, Valerie, built the Atalanta and handpicked the all-female crew, consisting of her foster daughter Naomi– from whose point of view the story is told–along with Jerrie Hixon, Irene Hart, and Oksana Lebedeva. We’re told that
“the government had dangled the project before Valerie, let her spend her money, her expertise, before snatching it away and replacing the crew with last-minute substitutions from NASA. It was physically impossible for the five men to do as much training, to run through the simulations, to know the ship from the inside out. President Cochran was so determined to keep those five women off the Atalanta and their destination of Cavendish, he was willing to risk everything.”
But the women steal the ship from the clutches of the government (by knowing more about the ship and the launch than anyone else) and set off, heroically. We’re cheering for them.

The chapters alternate between preparations for the launch and what happens in the Atalanta after launch. There’s also a preface and an afterward chapter, set 30 years after the events of the novel. We find out that before the launch the air is so polluted people wear filter masks whenever they go outside and that there are a lot of “people too poor to afford the subscription fees for a luxury like the internet, much less the even higher costs needed to live a comfortable life: dues to private police or firefighters or health insurance. So many lived in ramshackle housing little better than shanty towns. They didn’t count as permanent addresses, so most couldn’t register to vote. They were becoming increasingly invisible.”

Aboard the Atalanta, the crew find out that Valerie’s plan is to allow people on Earth to send ships after their own with “a ration of ten climate change orphans to one caretaker, plus their own offspring” because “we’ll be able to raise them without the influences that had shaped previous generations. A few years later, when the children are nearing adulthood, we’ll allow another few ships of children. Repeat. In roughly fifteen years, the rest of humanity can arrive into a world with existing infrastructure. Fewer country allegiances. Open borders. Everything we’ve discussed.”

Eventually Naomi finds out some things that Valerie hasn’t shared with the crew, like that she’s brought along hundreds of cryogenically frozen fetuses for populating Cavendish and that she thinks nothing of killing humans to achieve her aims. Valerie tries the stereotypical environment-obsessed supervillain thing, releasing a virus to dramatically reduce the population of earth, and Naomi has to work with the other women on the crew to stop her from killing the people they’ve left behind. When the virus outbreak begins there’s an all-too-plausible description of how frequently pandemics are cropping up on future Earth:
“Flu vaccines were growing less protective every year, making each year of Evan’s work harder. Illnesses spread as quick as wildfire in the crowded areas teeming with refugees. Even in the more affluent areas, young professionals were crammed in close quarters, renting overpriced bunk beds with up to thirty people in a dorm. If anyone had a cold, it’d jump from bunk to bunk, through those flimsy blackout curtains that gave the illusion of privacy, and then spread to the overworked people’s offices. Sick pay was something technically available but never taken.”

When it becomes clear to Naomi that the price of loyalty to Valerie and her plans is too high, she organizes the rest of the crew and they scuttle the mission, which was disappointing as I was reading but sets up the afterword chapter, which provides an unexpected and deeply satisfying perspective on the action of the novel.

Superbly plotted and admirably characterized, Goldilocks will live in the imagination of anyone who has read it, shaping our attitudes and possibly even our actions during the next few decades of efforts at environmental preservation and space exploration.

The End of Horses

November 18, 2022

The poems in Margo Taft Stever’s The End of Horses are divided into three sections. The first one is comprised of poems that seem to be mostly from a child’s perspective, the second from an adult’s, and the third from an old person’s. In all of these stages, animals and plants are part of the way we measure the wealth of our experience and the passage of time.

In the first section, we experience what it’s like to grow up loving horses, rabbits, cats, birds, dogs, inchworms, bumblebees, fish, mosquitos, and frogs. In one poem, a person wears “leopard/-print PJs.” A child learns what it is to love a predator, one who approaches her with a baby bird in its mouth and “who sleeps/in my bed each night.” A fetus stirs in the “underwater world/of the fish.” A poem entitled Menopause turns out to be a child’s perception of what an older woman’s days are like: “a frog lives in the water element./She fishes him out in spring/to take him to a local pond.”

In “Death of a Grandmother,” there’s a feeling that life goes on, as the grandmother is “cradling babies, each one/dressed to perfection./It was always Easter.” There’s also a growing feeling of loss in this section, as if growing up is a process of losing things. In “Beloved Child,” a dying mother says to her infant daughter “you will read/much of a mother’s love,/but will never estimate/what you have lost.”

In the second section, we feel like the boy in “Treehouse” with branches under his bed so “something about the tree seeped/into his dreams.” These poems are about adulthood, but specifically about what it’s like to be an adult who loves the natural world so fiercely. We hear that “so much more has happened since you left,” and what that consists of turns out to be “the apple tree,/the worms have ridden with the red,/the sky is bare and blank.” There is still possibility in this mature outlook:
“Something begins
to flow, water
from the faucet,
dripping leaves
browned in autumn;
galls rise, round,
circular, full of
next year.”

But despite the seasons of growth, there are dangers that disturb the rhythms of the day for the adults, who should be the world’s caretakers, as in “Rats,” where a mother has to keep the lights on “above her baby’s crib; the lights/disturb the baby’s sleep/but keep the rats away.” Even in a poem about the “Electrolux Salesman,” we are forced to consider the earth, a literal pile of earth that “mounds up like a cow pie” and the question “do you/want your child to play in this?”

There’s a poem about imagining necromancy in this second section, “Calling Mother After She Died,” and in it the adult daughter thinks about how she and her mother were “distanced like the spider/swept down from the rafters,/the orb weaver who once/wove her web.” What calls up the memory of the mother is the sight of “a few faded dahlias by the fence” and the “sunflowers and finches/you once fed.”

The third section is about getting old and beginning to understand that many of the things you love will not survive you. Is there a worse feeling than that? We want to imagine a legacy for ourselves, something we’ve changed, at least a living child, but what we see in this section is that we can take it with us–into the darkness, so that nothing is left for anyone who might come after.

The third section begins with the title poem, “End of Horses,” in which “you must realize/that nothing survived after/the horses were slaughtered.” Even worse, “we do not know whom to blame/or where the horses were driven,/who slaughtered them, or for what/purpose.”

But it’s not all loss and gloom in this section. In fact, my favorite poem from the volume is an imitation of Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno” entitled “For I will Consider the North American Beaver,” a celebration of facts about beavers, including “For in 1948, when Idaho Fish and Game trapped seventy-six beavers out of Payette Lake in the town of McCall and dropped them by parachute into Idaho’s Chamberlain Basin, all but one survived to create new thriving beaver communities.”

There are horrors in the third section, though, like the end of “Ballad of the Dolphin,” with the lone dolphin that “hangs from the prow,/still alive, calling, calling” and the turtle who disappears with “no trace of eggs.” People and birds mourn the destruction of a blue spruce, although they “never knew/the spruce was one of five planted/in spite to ruin the neighbors’ view,” as if to reminds us that in the natural world good things can come out of bad.

There’s a literal poem of “Farewell” in this third section, which focuses on moving away from the warmth of Florida. This poem struck me in particular with lines like “good-bye, my hibiscus, I have/forsaken you because you couldn’t/survive the trip back up north” because currently I’m trying to say good-bye to my own hibiscus and a few other warm weather plants, since I have no good place for them to survive the long months of Ohio winter.

Once we let go of the things we love, they will be gone and like the “Ocean Birds” of the last poem in this volume, “nothing will ever bring/you here to me, nothing/will ever call you back.”

The End of Horses is a celebration and a lament, full of poems that will make readers feel that a small change can make a difference and how people of the poet’s generation have repeatedly failed to make even small changes to preserve what all we took for granted.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman

November 14, 2022

After I wrote about my list of favorites, someone asked me why The French Lieutenant’s Woman was on it, and I said that it was because novels by John Fowles were trendy in literary circles when I was in college in the 1980s and I’d read and liked them all, but thought that The French Lieutenant’s Woman was the one to begin with, if you want to read Fowles. Then, of course, I had to reread The French Lieutenant’s Woman to remember why I’d liked it so much. I remembered that it wasn’t so much the tale as the way it was told, and that turned out to be absolutely correct. It’s a Victorian love story, but the narrator is constantly putting a modern perspective on it, musing about Victorianism and how the story might have turned out differently in another age (in fact, the novel has more than one ending).

I finished rereading The French Lieutenant’s Woman while sitting in DFW in Dallas, waiting for my much-delayed flight to take off for home. I’d spent a pleasant long weekend with my brother and sister-in-law, talking about things we don’t always get a chance to discuss and sharing a few of the things that underlie our conversations—like, for instance, why my hermit crabs are all named Bob. They took me to their community pool, still open in November and with the best handicapped entrance I’ve ever seen for a pool. The pool itself was beautiful, overlooking a lake.


We went out for Tex-Mex food and it was not only some of the best I’ve ever had, but a sudden downpour as we finished made us stay for dessert, which turned out to be the apple pie with brandy butter sauce and cinnamon ice cream that I’ve been longing for since the Columbus-area Cantina Laredo went out of business after the pandemic. Because I’ve spent most of my life on the academic calendar, I’ve never traveled much in the fall, and it was lovely to feel that kind of freedom.

All of this provided just the right background for rereading The French Lieutenant’s Woman, with its shifting perspectives and reassessments of what life was all about at the end of the 20th century. Fowles’ time is past; he died in 2005. My life in academic literary circles is mostly past; I’m on the fringe now, an “affiliated scholar” at Kenyon.

And so I reintroduced myself to Charles, the male protagonist of this 1969 novel, who
“liked to think of himself as a scientific young man and would probably have not been too surprised had news reached him out of the future of the airplane, the jet engine, television, radar: what would have astounded him was the changed attitude to time itself. The supposed great misery of our century is the lack of time; our sense of that, not a disinterested love of science, and certainly not wisdom, is why we devote such a huge proportion of the ingenuity and income of our societies to finding faster ways of doing things—as if the final aim of mankind was to grow closer not to a perfect humanity, but to a perfect lightning flash. But for Charles, and for almost all his contemporaries and social peers, the time signature over existence was firmly adagio. The problem was not fitting in all that one wanted to do, but spinning out what one did to occupy the vast colonnades of leisure available” (16).
Can you even imagine?

The narrator informs us that Charles is an agnostic, while a footnote explains that “he would not have termed himself so, for the very simple reason that the word was not coined (by Huxley) until 1876; by which time it had become much needed” (18).

Charles is engaged to Ernestina, a pretty young girl who he does not know very well, but finds himself attracted to the unconventional Sarah, who is known as “the French lieutenant’s woman” because of her relationship with a wounded man called Varguennes who was recovering in the home where she worked as a governess. Sarah roams the woods and shorelines where Charles walks to hunt for fossils. The narrator tells us that the beauty of nature “made him sad, in a not unpleasant bittersweet sort of way” and explains that this is because
“he was a Victorian. We could not expect him to see what we are only just beginning—and with so much more knowledge and the lessons of existentialist philosophy at our disposal—to realize ourselves; that the desire to hold and the desire to enjoy are mutually destructive. His statement to himself should have been ‘I enjoy this now, therefore I am happy,’ instead of what it so Victorianly was: ‘I cannot possess this forever, and therefore am sad’” (60).

When Sarah has been dismissed from her position with an unpleasant woman who has been using her to exhibit what she thinks of as Christian charity and Charles does not know where she has gone, he thinks she must be in one of the places they have met while roaming outdoors and thinks “but the folly of the procedure, the risk! The French! Varguennes! ….a vision of her running sodden through the lightning and rain momentarily distracted him from his own acute and self-directed anxiety. But it was too much! After such a day!” Then the narrator says “I am overdoing the exclamation marks” (167). This is one of the parts of the novel that led Harold Pinter to write his script for the 1981 movie in such a way that Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons seem perpetually overwrought.

When Charles and Sarah are reunited there’s a scene that reminds me of the missing “reunion scene” for Buttercup and Westley when they are reunited in the fire swamp in The Princess Bride, a scene that William Goldman, as narrator, says you can write to his publisher to get and which, if you do, you will find consists of more excuses for why you can’t actually read the reunion scene. In this novel, Charles find Sarah safely asleep in a barn and when he wakes her “they stood some ten feet apart, Sarah in the door, Charles by the corner of the building” (197). Instead of getting to see them draw any closer together, readers are treated to the narrator’s musings on Charles’ impression of her at that moment:
“There was a wildness about her. Not the wildness of lunacy or hysteria—but that same wildness Charles had sensed in the wren’s singing…a wildness of innocence, almost an eagerness. And just as the sharp declension of that dawn walk had so confounded—and compounded—his earnest autobiographical gloom, so did that intensely immediate face confound and compound all the clinical horrors bred in Charles’ mind by the worthy doctors Matthaei and Grogan. In spite of Hegel the Victorians were not a dialectically minded age; they did not think naturally in opposites, of positives and negatives as aspects of the same whole. Paradoxes troubled rather than pleased them. They were not the people for existentialist moments, but for chains of cause and effect; for positive all-explaining theories, carefully studied and studiously applied. They were busy erecting, of course; and we have been busy demolishing for so long that now erection seems as ephemeral an activity as bubble-blowing. So Charles was inexplicable to himself. He managed a very unconvincing smile” (197).

After the first ending of the novel, the narrator says
“having brought this fiction to a thoroughly traditional ending, I had better explain that although all I have described in the last two chapters happened, it did not happen quite in the way you may have been led to believe.
I said earlier that we are all poets, though not many of us write poetry; and so are we all novelists, that is, we have a habit of writing fictional futures for ourselves, although perhaps today we incline more to put ourselves into a film. We screen in our minds hyportheses about how we might behave, about what might happen to us; and these novelistic or cinematic hypotheses often have very much more effect on how we actually do behave when the real future becomes the present, than we generally allow.
Charles was no exception; and the last few pages you have read are not what happened, but what he spent the hours between London and Exeter imagining might happen” (266).

In another ending, the narrator admits that “I have pretended to slip back into 1867; but of course that year is in reality a century past. It is futile to show optimism or pessimism, or anything else about it, because we know what has happened since” (318).

In one of the endings, the narrator even touches on the subject of necromancy. Referring to some lines from Tennyson’s long poem In Memorium—“There must be wisdom with great Death; the dead shall look me thro’ and thro’”—the narrator says that “Charles’s whole being rose up against those two foul propositions; against this macabre desire to go backwards into the future, mesmerized eyes on one’s dead fathers instead of on one’s unborn sons. It was as if his previous belief in the ghostly presence of the past had condemned him, without his ever realizing it, to a life in the grave” (286).

Although I’m refraining from revealing any secrets about the ending, no one reads this novel for the plot. If you read it, it will be for the digressions, for the pleasure of exploring assorted thoughts about the kinds of situations in which the characters find themselves.

Too Big for Live Theater

November 10, 2022

Last weekend I saw a delightful performance of Young Frankenstein in Dallas at Theatre 3, at the Norma Young Arena Stage. I enjoyed everything about the performance except that it was painful to sit in the seat.

Roxane Gay has described this kind of pain well, in Hunger:
“Chairs with arms are generally unbearable. So many chairs have arms. The bruises tend to linger. They remain tender to the touch days and days after. My thighs have been bruised, more often than not, for the past twenty-four years. I cram my body into seats that are not meant to accommodate me, and an hour or two or more later, when I stand up and the blood rushes, the pain is intense….Anytime I enter a room where I might be expected to sit, I am overcome by anxiety. What kind of chairs will I find? Will they have arms? Will they be sturdy? How long will I have to sit in them? If I do manage to wedge myself between a chair’s narrow arms, will I be able to pull myself out?….I love plays and musicals, but I rarely attend the theater because I simply cannot fit. When I do attend such events, I suffer and can barely concentrate because I am in so much pain.”

As I’ve gotten older, my knees have gotten less able to lift me out of too-small chairs with arms, so I’ve gotten less willing to endure the pain. Now I ask if there’s anywhere else I can sit.

At the Royal George theater, at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, they’ve renovated the seats and every other row the seats are wider. My friends know to ask for seats in rows A, C, or E now. I spent a delightful couple of hours there in a very comfortable seat in October to see Just to Be Married. But at the Festival Theater the seats are like the ones at the Freedlander theater in Wooster, where the Ohio Light Opera performs—too narrow. When I’ve gone with a group to those theaters, I either have to endure the performance in pain or sit by myself at the very back of the theater, where they can put an armless chair.

After we entered the Norma Young Arena Stage at Theatre 3 in Dallas I tried the front-row seat on the aisle that my brother and sister-in-law had purchased for me, and then asked an usher if I could sit in one of the chairs on the floor, even though they had arms, because I could sit on the edge, which I couldn’t do in the front row because it was about 10 inches off the ground and my legs are very long. The usher told me to ask the guy in concessions, who was busy selling drinks and candy. He said he’d find out, and I asked him if there were any chairs without arms. Two minutes before curtain, I’d gotten no answer, so I squashed myself into the assigned seat, wooden armrests cutting into my hips on both sides. The chairs on the floor remained empty throughout the performance.

After looking at the website, I called to buy tickets to see a touring company perform Six at the Ohio Theatre in Columbus in January, and although I asked about accessible seating on the aisle, the person I spoke to told me there were no provisions for accessibility unless I was in a wheelchair. Knowing the show lasts for a little over an hour, I went ahead and bought a ticket for a seat in the middle of a row, but although I really want to see the show, I’m kind of dreading the ordeal. (UPDATE: after reading this, a friend who works in arts administration told me theaters are supposed to have designated aisle seats for anyone who asks and urged me to pursue this so I did, getting a response from someone at CAPA and then from someone else at BroadwayInColumbus who exchanged my seats for two on the aisle.)

At least I don’t have to get on an airplane to go see Six. As Gay says, “the bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes.”

As we exited the Norma Young Arena Stage, there were some set pieces left out and we had to walk right by them. I left my calling card, the one that says Necromancy Never Pays.

Pride’s Children: Netherworld

November 4, 2022

After reading Pride’s Children: Purgatory, the first novel in Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt’s planned trilogy, I was eager to read the next one, and finally it’s out: Pride’s Children: Netherworld. The author describes her series as a love story but it’s more than a romance; it’s an intricately detailed and careful description of how two people from very different walks of life manage to become friends, sharing their philosophies and ambitions and finally admitting to loving each other.

In this second novel it looks like Kary and Andrew, the two would-be lovers, are going to be out-maneuvered by a beautiful movie actress and aspiring director, Bianca, who was Andrew’s co-star in his last movie. Like she crafts her novels, however, Kary carefully plans each step of her friendship with Andrew, weighing what she thinks will be best for him with how much she can stand to give and making deliberate choices that reflect her integrity. Integrity is what Andrew has been missing in his life; what could be more irresistible than seeing the process of how Kary puts it into action?

Kary’s dedication to her craft and commitment to research will be familiar to academics and writers, while Andrew’s struggles to keep his public face presentable will be familiar to anyone who has ever been in the public eye. People believe what they want to believe, whether it’s about the author of Alice in Wonderland or a movie star, whose every action is reported by a myriad of people with different motives. Those used to dealing with the human perspective, the movie people, are dazzled by the research Kary does to consult on a film script about the life of Charles Dodgson and his relationship with the family of Alice Liddell. While most of the information Kary gives the movie people is familiar to anyone who reads, they’re impressed by it, and Andrew thinks that “Kary tackled everything with depth and intelligence.”

Another moment when the different assumptions of those in two different worlds clashes is when Kary has traveled to India to consult on a film script for a famous director named Elson. As she arrives on the set, she asks the director if she can take a picture and when he assents “she snapped three quick photos of the background.” Elson laughs and says “thought you meant me,” to which she replies “oh, certainly” and takes one of him, too. When he asks what she wants the background photos for, she replies “detail. Mountains. Light. Some way to bring them all back for when I write.”

Andrew keeps visiting Kary’s bungalow in India, even when he’s not sure if he’s entirely welcome, because he wants her perspective on what’s going on. At one point, while they’re discussing whether a problem with the director’s marriage is causing problems on the set, Kary asks “what do you need me to do?” and Andrew simply asks if she can “be there,” trusting her instincts with a problem he doesn’t know how to solve.

As in the first novel, the point of view shifts from Kary to Andrew to Bianca in different chapters. The undercurrents of the plot are highlighted by the quotations that preface each chapter, some from Shakespeare or the Bible, some from poems or novels or fictional newspapers. It becomes increasingly clear that Bianca wants to be rid of her current husband and manipulate Andrew into marrying her because she thinks of almost everything in terms of career and image. Even the way she talks to her best friend, Tonya, is colored more by her ambition than by any need to share, much less give anything of herself. (She shortens her friend’s name to “Toe,” which I found continually disconcerting and which must be a clue to how little she values the friendship, as Bianca is exquisitely alert to innuendo and appearance.)

The more we see from Kary’s point of view, the more obvious it becomes that in her own way she is as driven and ambitious as Andrew and Bianca are. They are distracted from their work by the need for publicity while she is distracted by the need for adequate rest; all of them have to plan carefully in order to get their work done the way they want it. At the climax of the novel, Andrew comes to Kary for advice, and she gives him the kind of advice readers have seen her giving herself. She tells him that “any changes you make must be strictly yours, and logical.” And when Andrew figures out what he wants to do, he thinks, for just a moment, “damn integrity.” But then they keep talking, and they figure out that what’s right has to be right for both of them in order to satisfy either.

The happy ending of Pride’s Children: Netherworld sets up the need to unravel the many complications involved in the merging of desires from two such different but similarly ambitious people. Now I’m eager to read the conclusion to the trilogy; a note at the end of this novel tells readers that book three is complete in rough draft, so we can look forward to finding out what happens with Bianca, Kary, and Andrew.

November

November 1, 2022

November

Show’s over, folks. And didn’t October do
A bang-up job? Crisp breezes, full-throated cries
Of migrating geese, low-floating coral moon.

Nothing left but fool’s gold in the trees.
Did I love it enough, the full-throttle foliage,
While it lasted? Was I dazzled? The bees

Have up and quit their last-ditch flights of forage
And gone to shiver in their winter clusters.
Field mice hit the barns, big squirrels gorge

On busted chestnuts. A sky like hardened plaster
Hovers. The pasty river, its next of kin,
Coughs up reed grass fat as feather dusters.

Even the swarms of kids have given in
To winter’s big excuse, boxed-in allure:
TVs ricochet light behind pulled curtains.

The days throw up a closed sign around four.
The hapless customer who’d wanted something
Arrives to find lights out, a bolted door.

This year October really did do a bang-up job in Ohio, making this poem by Maggie Dietz the one I’ve been thinking about. Outside the windows of the porch, where I will continue to write for a few more days in a fleece coat with a space heater beside me, I can see “fool’s gold in the trees,” along with a few yellow blooms on the big azalea that likes to put on a bit of an autumn show, opening up buds that should have been saved for March.

The nasturtiums look ever more splendid in their steadfastness as everything around them browns and dies back. Geraniums are displaying a last show of color.

Being against necromancy, I’m not a big fan of Halloween although I do like to carve a jack o’lantern.

About once a week I go to a local park to eat my lunch. One day last week I saw a sudden shaft of light and actually managed to get a photo of the way it lit up the trees.

“Did I love it enough?” I think so, this fall. With Anne Shirley’s “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers” ringing in my ears, I spent as much time outside as possible. We drove to Canada and back, admiring the foliage, and went to the Ohio Renaissance Festival almost every weekend, to walk around in the sunshine that’s abundant only this time of year.

Now the farm stands are closed, fields are brown, and rain is starting to fall. It’s November.

As If the Trees By Their Very Roots Had Hold of Us

October 28, 2022

Before the pandemic lockdowns, we took trips to see friends annually and bi-annually. We went to the beach in South Carolina with a group of our college friends and our offspring for a week every other June and to Niagara-on-the-Lake with some of the same friends for the Shaw Festival every October. This fall it was three years since we saw those friends, who live in Toronto. Last October we weren’t allowed to cross the border into Canada, but this year we were, and we made the most of it.

One of our friends has spent much of the last year undergoing treatments for cancer, so we planned to sit around and visit more and schedule fewer wine tastings and plays. We rented a charming house within walking distance of the theater where we saw Just to Be Married, a play written by a woman at the turn of the 20th century which starts out like a comedy of manners but then gets more serious and interesting. The house had a gas fireplace that turned on with a switch, and we used it on the cool mornings.

We made a few of our meals at the house, rather than going out to restaurants as much as we used to. Our friends, Canadian citizens who grew up in Arkansas, made eggs and bacon with American-style biscuits and apple butter bought at the jam shop downtown (I wrote about buying jam in one of my Postcard Poems entitled “Note on a postcard from the Festival Theater”). Ron and I made the one dish we learned to make at home during the pandemic era: eggs benedict. In Canada they don’t sell “Canadian” bacon at the grocery store, so we made it with peameal bacon.

We drove down to see the lake, which I’d never gotten to see before because it was always a little farther than my ability to walk after getting myself to our scheduled destinations. Across the lake, we could see the Toronto skyline. I took a picture of our friends in front of the lake, with the skyline in the background but focused on them.

Our friends looked and acted the same, mostly. When you’ve been friends with someone for a long time, you don’t really see them age, even after something like cancer treatment. What you see is the grin of the nineteen-year-old you remember, and even if a friend’s gait has changed, their zest for charging out to see what’s up in the world has not.

This poem by Charles Bernstein made me think about our trip and the trips before this most recent one:

As If the Trees By Their Very Roots Had Hold of Us

Strange to remember a visit, really not so
Long ago, which now seems, finally, past. Always, it’s a
Kind of obvious thing I guess, amazed by that
Cycle: that first you anticipate a thing & it seems
Far off, the distance has a weight you can feel
Hanging on you, & then it’s there – that
Point – whatever – which, now, while
It’s happening seems to be constantly slipping away,
“Like the sand through your fingers in an old movie,” until
You can only look back on it, & yet you’re still there, staring
At your thoughts in the window of the fire you find yourself before.
We’ve gone over this a thousand times: & here again, combing that
Same section of beach or inseam for that – I’m no
Longer sure when or exactly where – “& yet” the peering,
Unrewarding as it is, in terms of tangible results,
Seems so necessary.

Hope, which is, after all, no more than a splint of thought
Projected outwards, “looking to catch” somewhere –
What can I say here? – that the ease or
Difficulty of such memories doesn’t preclude
“That harsher necessity” of going on always in
A new place, under different circumstances:
& yet we don’t seem to have changed, it’s
As if these years that have gone by are
All a matter of record, “but if the real
Facts were known” we were still reeling from
What seems to have just happened, but which,
“By the accountant’s keeping” occurred years.
Ago. Years ago. It hardly seems possible,
So little, really, has happened.

We shore ourselves hour by hour
In anticipation that soon there will be
Nothing to do. “Pack a sandwich
& let’s eat later.” And of course,
The anticipation is quite appropriate, accounting,
For the most part, for whatever activity
We do manage. Eternally buzzing over the time,
Unable to live in it…

“Maybe if we go upaways we can get a better
View.” But, of course, in that sense, views don’t
Improve. “In the present moment” (if we could only see
It, which is to say, to begin with, stop looking with
Such anticipation) what is enfolding before us puts to
Rest any necessity for “progression”.

So, more of these tracings, as if by some magic
Of the phonetic properties of these squiggles… Or
Does that only mystify the “power” of “presence” which
Is, as well, a sort of postponement.

We spent a long weekend in “a new place, under different circumstances: & yet we don’t seem to have changed.” It was all so wonderful, yet again. The trees were changing colors. There were lap blankets at the restaurant’s outdoor patio where we sat with our coats on, snatching at every occasion for bonhomie and Quebecois foie gras that came along.

The Not Yet Fallen World

October 26, 2022

Please read my review of Stephen Dunn’s collected poems, The Not Yet Fallen World, published May 2022. It’s available today at Heavy Feather Review!

If I were to publish another volume of postcard poems, some lines from Dunn’s poem “Loosestrife” might serve as an epigraph: “we live in a postcard … / cropped, agreeably, to deceive; / beyond its edges / broken glass at the schoolyard, / routine boredom, decency, spite.”

(not yet fallen)

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