Friday, April 24, 2009

Mirrorball by Mary Gaitskill

I'm sure Mary Gaitskill needs no introduction, so I'll just share a couple of paragraphs and a link to her featured short story, Mirrorball, at Pantheon Books. This is one of those stories that just has to be experienced. I don't think understanding is the point.

"He took her soul—though, being a secular-minded person, he didn’t think of it that way. He didn’t take the whole thing; that would not have been possible. But he got such a significant piece that it felt as if her entire soul were gone. As soon as he had it, he not only forgot that he’d taken it; he forgot he’d ever known about it. This was not the first time, either.

He was a musician, well regarded in his hometown and little known anywhere else. This fact sometimes gnawed at him and yet was sometimes a secret relief; he had seen musicians get sucked up by fame and it was like watching a frog get stuffed into a bottle, staring out with its face, its splayed legs, its private beating throat distorted and revealed against the glass. Fame, of course, was bigger and more fun than a bottle, but still, once you were behind the glass and blown up huge for all to see, there you were. It would suddenly be harder to sit and drink in the anonymous little haunts where songs were still alive and moving in the murky darkness, where a girl might still look at him and wonder who he was. And he might wonder about her."

Sunday, April 19, 2009


This isn't a new poem, but one I posted a few months ago on MySpace, back when I used to go there.


You can’t hold on to water.
It’s like your first kiss,
The perfect temperature of a cup of coffee—
just after it burns, just before it’s tepid—
the honey milk smell of a baby’s neck,
that last 10 pounds you lost again—and regained,
purple hyacinths pushing out of the snow,
a ripe, red garden tomato.

All that is important drips, flows or floods from your life
Like water escapes your cupped hands
No matter how thirsty you are
No matter how much you need it
No matter how tightly you press your palms and fingers together
And suck up what you can before it’s gone.

Remember contests in the bathtub with your little brother and sister
To see who could hold a handful of water the longest?
Over and over you tried
While soap scum cooled on lukewarm water,
Tiny waves lapped at the dirty tub ring
And your brother’s lips turned blue.
Just like yours, their lives have slipped through their fingers—
Like your grandmothers’ lives and your children’s lives
And the love you thought would last a lifetime.

But water that slips away always comes back—
As the tears you shed at your mother’s funeral
Or the urine that determines your daughter-in-law’s pregnancy test
Or the ice cube in the scotch your husband drinks
The day he knows the biopsy is positive
Or the moon-driven oceans that ebb and flow with the life of a blue planet.
You are as likely to hold on to love as you are to drink an ocean,
Hold it in your full round belly and belch fishy burps...
Eventually you’ll have to pee.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Weight of Paper

I wake this morning crushed under the weight of paper: papers to write, papers to grade, papers to read, not enough paper to spend…but the sun shines through the blinds and the sheers and even though I’ve only slept about five hours, I get up and settle the weight of paper on my shoulders. I let the dog out and the smell of spring slips into the room and nudges the weight of paper aside a little so I can take a breath. How do you describe that? Is it chlorophyll green or petal purple? High and tweety like a cardinal song or dark and heavy like the earth turning and stretching? Is it the milky smell of the top of a newborn’s head or the soft, thin skin of old hands turning the soil after a lifetime of care?

The herbs and flowers I neglected last fall stand like crisp, brittle sentries in their pots, their dead seedheads spent. I get an orange folder of student papers out of my rolling backpack and set it on the dining room table next to my laptop. I eat a bowl of oatmeal with the papers in front of me, as appealing as the dead seedheads and stalks poking out of the dozen or so big pots on the deck. I check my email, Facebook, the weather….76 and sunny today…59 and rain tomorrow. Same Monday. I shrug off the weight of paper, let it fall to the floor next to my backpack. Just until 1:00, I promise. Paper has no life. It will still be there. I open my laptop, steal my daughter’s computer speakers, plug them in and set them in the window. They’re not loud enough for the neighbors to hear—not that I care, and you’ll see why—but the window opens to the deck. I set the station to Pandora, grab my clippers and my goofy straw hat and head outside.

First the pots. I clip and pull and dig, tucking the crunchy stalks into a five-gallon bucket. They will nurture another generation of sage, mint and marigolds. The elvin thyme is starting to green into a fragrant carpet that will cover the top of the pot and spill down the sides. The chocolate mint is putting out a few tentative leaves. I can’t tell about the spicy oregano. It should be leafing out, but it’s not. If I planted it in my yard, it would take over like kudzu and I wouldn’t be able to kill it if I tried.

A frog in the pond trills and trills to another in the pond two houses down the street. They’re so confident in their ability to attract another. Frogs probably don’t broadcast their requirements for the perfect amphibian lover—must be 22-35 years old (croak! I’m 53, but look and act much younger); height/weight proportionate (fatties, don’t send me hate mail; I have a right to prefer slender frogs); just looking for somebody real—anybody out there?; your pic gets mine; love NASCAR, camping, flea markets, BBQ and the Bengals; 420 friendly…In a few weeks the pond will be full of tadpoles, fluttering like little sperm in the shallow water along the edge, no custody battles, no visitation, no child support. Just spermy little offspring who will become food for birds and fish, and possibly even frogs someday.

My bucket’s full of dead plants, so I head down to the compost pile. The raccoons have worn a path through grass from the deck to the shed. I think they’re living in there somehow, and I’m going to have to deal with them soon. Not today. I grab a shovel and start turning the finished compost. It’s dark and rich, but my neighbor planted some stupid perennial vine along the fence and it’s now out of control. It loves my compost like Audrey loved Seymour’s blood. I have to chop the roots out of the compost. I can’t get back there to cut the vines out so I think about using Roundup around my compost for a while. Damn it. I dig out a bucketful and smile to think this used to be grass clippings and egg shells and the insides of jack-o-lanterns. I dump a couple of buckets on the strawberry bed. A groundhog has been in there. I’ll have to deal with her too. A neighbor to the back starts up a saw. He hasn’t run out of things to saw in all the years I’ve lived here. He saws and saws and saws. His riding mower is out too, ready to fill the air with exhaust and noise. I fill my bucket with more compost, grab a blue Rubbermaid trash can and head back up to the deck, away from the neighbor’s whiny circular saw.

I stop to count the fish in the pond, but there are too many and I need to clean out the oxygen plant that’s taken over through the winter. I don’t really like sticking my hands down in the pond. I’m afraid I’m going to grab something gross, like the time I was pulling out big clumps of oxygen plant and a bloated, white frog carcass came up in my hand. Or that I’ll lean over too far and plunge headfirst into the murky water and drown. It could be days before anybody found me, ass up, white and bloated and eaten by goldfish. I call the pond Dan’s cancer pond. He dug it the summer he had prostate cancer. He carried pea gravel two cups at a time from the front yard to the back just days after his surgery when he wasn’t supposed to lift anything, his catheter swinging against his thigh. It took him the whole summer to get the waterfall to work just right so it didn’t leak behind the rocks, but he lost interest in it after that. I never run the waterfall because I can’t afford the water bills, but I plunge my arm in the water up to my shoulder and drag out the oxygen plant, pull the weeds around it, fill it with the hose during the drought of summer. Today I won’t disturb the frog’s love calls.

Back up on the deck I continue cleaning the dead plants out of pots, pulling out handfuls of maple leaves that wintered over, uncovering new green growth. My hands are black and smell like spaghetti herbs. I cut off the masses of dead snapdragons that volunteer in the cracks of the concrete pavers around the air conditioner. The whine and grind of the circular saw continues, joined by a nearby chainsaw. How these men of privilege love their loud machines: saws, leafblowers, riding mowers (hell, yes, I’m jealous), snow blowers. They’re never in their yards unless they’re using their machines or paying someone else to bring their own and work. Their lawns are perfect—smooth and green and plastic, every blade cut the same height. They feel entitled to their ideal of beauty and whatever means it takes to create it: the poisons, the fertilizers, the noisy engines. I teach their entitled children too, and I won’t be surprised this quarter when one of them says, “You can’t fail me. I paid for this class.” And I will reply, “I can fail you. You didn’t buy a grade. You only bought the privilege of sitting at that computer while I offer you a little of what I know.”

I don’t belong here now. I never really did. My grass is full of dandelions and violets. I have a firepit and a big pile of wood in the backyard, circled by old lawn chairs the kids dragged home from the trash of various neighbors. I let two raccoon babies grow up on my deck last summer after…well, I won’t go into that painful story. They come up to visit when we sit on the deck at night, almost adults now. I don’t mow often enough. I sit out on my deck playing my guitar while my neighbors watch their big-screen TVs. And there’s no man in my house to run loud engines on the weekends. These are just a few of the reasons I don’t belong here.

I try not to listen to the saws, but they annoy me. So do the white dogs when they start barking. I know they’ll be out in their pen, where their feet never touch grass and they poop on a small square of white gravel, and they will bark into the evening. All of us hate them, but it’s been going on since before I lived here. Letting your dogs bark isn’t as bad as letting a dandelion grow in your yard.

I listen to the music coming from the dining room window instead. Patty Griffin sings about letting him fly….”ain’t no talkin’ to this man…” I tried, but I never could get that song right when I played it. The Indigo Girls beg Jesus for some relationship help, but I know that won’t work, and it doesn’t. Don’t you think Mary begged Jesus not to be the Son of God, not to leave her? You know she did. Ani DiFranco comes on and I remember driving to Indianapolis through a blizzard to watch her in the Egyptian room. She beat the shit out of six guitars, all tuned differently and none of them in standard. She had to take a year off because she hurt her wrists playing like that, but we saw her right before. Gail was looking for a good woman at the time, and as we left the crowded bathroom, I said, “That girl just checked you out. Go say hi to her.” Gail looked back and asked how I knew she was even a lesbian. I said, “Other than that we’re at an Ani DiFranco concert and there’s nobody in the men’s room? She had on a T-shirt that says ‘I’m a lesbian’ on the front.” We’ve laughed about that many times. And then James Taylor starts singing “Fire and Rain,” so I cry a little. I miss the music and I always will, but that song ended. Every gardener waters her herbs with tears, don’t kid yourself. And I remember that James Taylor was the most disappointing concert I’ve ever gone to.

I go to the upstairs deck and finish clearing the long pots on the rail outside my bedroom. A crazy damn squirrel has chewed and chewed the edges until they’re almost gone. It will eat the flowers I plant too unless I can find a way to deal with it. Pat Santucci suggested a squirrel catapult. Last year my son brought me an air soft gun that shoots straight through Coke cans from 50 feet, but I can’t imagine that squirrel will hang around for me to shoot it after I’ve opened the door to the deck and taken aim. Cruel as it sounds, I hope it died of old age this past winter.

I dig some compost into the all of the pots. I love my compost. I love the idea of garbage turning into something dark and rich and nutritious for plants. It smells clean and slightly wormy, and it’s dark like the black Iowa soil I will never stop missing. I smooth the dirt, ready now for bedding plants or seeds.

Four big pots of rosemary have been wintering over in the big sunroom, so I drag them out and give them a drink. A couple of them have bloomed. I hope there are lots of pollinators this year to dance with the flowers now that the honey bees are gone. A big fat bumblebee hovers over a tiny purple flower and I have the urge to take off my shoes and socks. My dad never let us go barefoot until we had seen a bumblebee in the spring. I did the same thing with my kids, not because I didn’t think they could decide for themselves whether their feet were cold, but because I like the idea of letting a bumblebee decide.

One more thing to do before I lift that paper weight back on my shoulders. I take a trowel and scrape together all the cigarette butts Sophie has left in the big pink pot by the sliding door. She won’t clean them up herself. Last time Brandon did it because he didn’t like the idea of me doing it for her. Since she turned 18, she’s been smoking a lot more and she has a chronic cough that keeps her up at night. I carry the butts to the front and put them in the dumpster. Later, if I want, I can soak some in water and use the nicotine as an insecticide spray. It’s a powerful poison.

Time to get to work. I put away my tools, turn off Pandora, and pick up the weight of paper again.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The next best thing to writing poetry is...

...somebody else writing poetry about you. I'll start with the good stuff. Sunday a few of us engaged in a scintillating discussion on Facebook that started with my posting an unusual spoken word poem by AFI, along with the following quote, which I stole from 'Zann's status update: "You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it tick.... You're back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps... so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in. ~Dylan Thomas, Poetic Manifesto, 1961."

Following Patrick's comment that I'm supposed to be a "folky-hippie" and shouldn't listen to AFI (but you should click on that hot link and listen to their poem anyway), Dave shared Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica" and drew not only a standing ovation, but an invitation to date Patrick.

I was so inspired, I wrote on my status update that I'm going to paper the walls in my next house with poetry . Doesn't that sound like the logical next evolutionary stage after cave painting and Medieval wall tapestries? Dave said I had to put up all Charles Bukowski, which would "limit my dinner guests to only certain people." (Probably to the ones who would have accepted my invitation anyway.)

'Zann, who really is doing NaPoWriMo every single day, not just aspiring to like some posers whose names I don't need to mention, said she was going to write a poem that starts with "Carol papered her walls with poems..." (I suggested Charles Bukowski should be there and drink so much he fell asleep on the couch and didn't wake up until afternoon even though the dog licked him on the ear five times and barked at the mailman, but 'Zann said that wasn't going in her poem, by which she politely meant "write your own damn poem.")

The reason I told this entirely too long story is because you need to know why Charles Bukowski matters. And I'm taking my time getting to the point because I'm so embarrassed that I said I would do NaPoWriMo and then didn't unless you count a lame haiku and a limerick in the comments under my unfulfilled promise.

But, 'Zann has done it every day this month, and her 14th poem is the one that starts "Carol papered her walls with poems..." It's amazing. My friends are all jealous, which is quite a feat given I didn't even write the poem. Go read it and leave her soft, snuggly huzzah comments because she's really doing it and every poet needs to know someone is out there reading...laughing...crying...nodding....and reading again just to savor those perfect words.

As for me, I'm a poetry loser this year. The best I can hope for this month and next is to write a decent ethnography and an independent paper (what this university calls a master's thesis) that passes and earns me the ticket to walk in a cap and gown this June, in addition to teaching all those spring-fevered freshmen how to write a multivoice/multigenre research project. Somewhere I'll need to fit in laying out and editing the school's literary magazine. I've got so many excuses.

After that though, I will paper my walls with poems, starting with 'Zann's...and some of them will even be my own. And then I'll have a dinner party and set a place for Charles Bukowski, may he rest in beer-soaked peace.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

National Poetry Month Challenge

You've probably heard of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. has adapted the challenge for poets, who are encouraged to write a poem a day during the month of April and post them on their blogs or on the NaPoWritMo website. It's a hefty challenge, but I'm going to try it. Anybody else game? Feel free to share your poems here if you'd like. Or put a link to your blog in the comments area. I'd love to have some company.

Now I just have to write that first poem......(no cheating and using old stuff.)