This year’s top 5.

Three Guineas – Virginia Woolf

Not a book of a year but of a lifetime. Every segment of British society in examined. She champions girls’ education, exposes corporate greed, challenges the rituals of the patriarchy down to the very clothes men wear in the military, the university, and the workplace, quotes Jesus, sings with Antigone, and made me laugh out loud in an airport. Writing in 1938 she combats fascism. She critiques Hitler, Mussolini, and the thinkers in her own country who share their views on the sphere of women, by name. She proves in 145 pages (and many footnotes) that the cause(s) of women in our society–maybe in any society–are at the very heart of the pursuit of justice, peace, and freedom from tyranny.

Sermons for Farmers – Charles Spurgeon

I don’t know if I’ve heard a male preacher whose sermons this consistently provide illustrations first for women and then for men, or for poorer folks and then for wealthier. He makes inclusion–and everything else…cracking jokes, saying fourteen breathtaking things about a three-word image, quoting Shakespeare–look doable.

Gilead – Marylinne Robinson

I tuned in late to the game, but they’re still playing baseball in the furniture of their minds, trying to forgive each other and believe in joy, laughing in the rain and weeping in pantries, rereading sermons, watching the sun go down and the moon come up at the same time, and handling, rearing back, and hurling the world’s biggest questions down to the last inning of the last page.

Teaching to Transgress – bell hooks

I also have come to bell hooks late. Among so many things this book has taught me about race, class, feminism, and American schools, this book has shown me that teaching is an embodied practice, that theory is a social practice, and that learning is a liberatory practice.

Boule de Suif – Guy de Maupassant

I do not have words to describe how hungry, literally hungry this short story made me feel, or how I had to look away and, figuratively, catch my breath because the language was so beautiful, or how it made me angry, how it explored every class-based interaction, and jolted me to amazement in every paragraph, how it foresaw today’s microbrewery culture (the phrase “le Pale-Ale et la Revolution” actually occurs), and how as I constantly tried to orient myself and gain some footing, it kept me guessing till the last word. Most of French literature is about war and class. This is as good as it gets.

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Twenty or so things you can write on a plastic cup other than your name this holiday season

Plastic cups photograph

One time someone called me Henry for a week (that’s not my name), and it was because I had written “Henry” on a red plastic cup to differentiate it from everyone else’s. When she finally confronted me about it, I stated as honestly as I could, “I just can’t write my own name.”

Another time–I was already beginning to work out a theory of non-identification at gatherings where drinks our served in plastic glasses–I was expanding on this theme. Lauren nodded in agreement, and turning her plastic cup around to show me the name, said, “Yes. And I don’t even know who Katie is. I found this at the sink.” Theory, as bell hooks points out, is a social practice. And in the interest of bearing no ill-will towards the ones who named us, it’s not just non-identification.

Hakuin wrote, ‘If you forget yourself, you become the universe.’ That mysterious factor of surrender, the creative surprise that releases us and opens us up, spontaneously allows something to arise.
Stephen Nachmanovitch Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art

The season of sharpies and plastics is upon us, and I think it’s high time we shook things up a little bit, let things rise to the surface, experienced surrender, opened ourselves to the “plentiful imagery of the world.”  It’s high time we identified with the universe. And when we shake the trees, who knows what will fall out of our consciousness. I’ve been “Baby” before. I’ve also been “Arturo” and “Felicia.” But I recommend starting with your own culture. Write down the name of your first dog. Write down the name of your great grandmother. I can’t, but write it in the cyrillic alphabet. And move beyond the personal. Write down “San Leandro.” Write down “Jamaica Plain.” Write down “Tolstoy’s Russia.” Go deeper. What political theory are you invested in? Write down “Consent of the governed.” Write down “All human life is but one life.” Write down “Mary Wollstonecraft.” Too universal? Because isn’t Thanksgiving at least in part an American holiday? Show your patriotism: “We cannot hallow this ground.” A haunting phrase. Walk up to that person whose cup reads “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” Make sure you’ve read the Lincoln book. (I haven’t.) Talk about America. And if there must be poetry, let there be poetry. “The lips of time leech to the fountainhead,” you can say. Or “como las huellas de las gaviotas en las playas.” Write down, “The quality of mercy is not strained,” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” and “It’s alright Ma, I’m only bleeding.” If the music fills you, “No Woman No Cry,” “Palestrina,” and “The _______ album.” Choose your own heart. And, for the times you just need to get really practical: “License plate number DR4183M your lights are on!” “Wash, rinse, repeat,” (another haunting phrase) or, more directly, “Tanya, remember to feed the fish!”

But lest we forget the hidden, the transformative power of naming…

Are names more properly said to be the names of things, or of our ideas of things?
John Stuart Mill A Sytem of Logic: Of Names

Last night, alone in my house, chairs arranged for playable action, tables set for festivities, plates and serving bowls filled with the best that Trader Joe’s can offer, water hissing in the kettle, I etched into the ridges of the inaugural cup a simple statement of truth: the word “Sunset,” a name for myself. And when I held the marker to the crystal-cut plastic (I’m cheap but I’m not that cheap) and prepared to fill its curvature with my own linear sign…in that moment I knew, in the depths my heart lives in, that part of me was this vision of my boyhood curiosity, this landscape of adolescent loneliness, this image of adulthood longing: I was the organ of the sky being played on by a wind of yellow light.

My Pablo Neruda scrapbook: This week

Para que tú me oigas
mis palabras
se adelgazan a veces
como las huellas de las gaviotas en las playas.

…like the tracks of the seagulls on the beaches.

Who introduced me to Pablo Neruda? It has to have been Joshua. He posts his poetry all the time and I think it was he who told a beautiful story–an incredible story–about a Spanish speaking worker, or someone like that, who discovered that they shared an affinity, and maybe developed one for each other, when the man noticed Joshua’s book of Neruda poems on his dashboard. I also had friends in college before this who read to each other poems and stories and translated vocabulary pages at the same table as me. It could have been a few months ago too, when I read as many banquet speeches of the Nobel literature prize as there were writers I was familiar with. I recommend Márquez’s, Camus’s, and Svetlania Alexiavich’s. I had to have at least recognized Neruda by then.

In his banquet speech, Neruda offered thanks and said that he would return “to the blank page which every day awaits us as poets so that we shall fill it with our blood and our darkness, for with blood and darkness poetry is written, poetry should be written.”

Part of me thinks of the suffering of political prisoners in Chile as Neruda knew it and in every civilization that oppresses its workers.

…porque con sangre y sombra se escribe, se debe escribir la poesía.

The Christian in me thinks of Jesus.

The still growing up part of me wants to shout, “This is when art is” and return to browsing the movies in the HBO GO account I don’t even pay for. And count out my likes later.

The child in me wants to share this with all of my friends.

And then they will come watch with me the 2016 film Neruda, directed by the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín. It made me want to visit Chile–its cobbled streets lined with plane trees, its mountains filled with snow. It made me want to sing when I read poetry aloud. It made me want to read Spanish detective novels in bed and fall in love. It made me above all want to read more of his poetry.

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I texted my sister on Wednesday night saying, “I wrote a love poem in French. I’m a poet now.” She said something like, “Send it to me.” My sister “reads” paragraphs to me from French philosophical treatises on the subway in New York City. She even does her own “translations.” One time, in 2009, she was reading to me about the horse négligée that Lindsay Lohan once wore. My sister is as obsessed with language as I am. She does Spanish toasts in weddings. She has studied for the GRE.

I wanted to be as free as he was. I wanted not just to see the evening haze rise into the hills across from San Francisco, I wanted to feel it roll through me, like spirit. One of my favorite images from scripture is the Spirit of God moving in our hearts, filling them with love.

But I still get caught in the rhythms of what love poetry was supposed to be, what it must have meant for Victor Hugo. What people who love each other say out loud. “I strove to love you in the old high way of love,” wrote Yeats. And doesn’t language too often have a way of smoothing–as with a rich butter on a piece of crust–the sensations of our life together? I wasn’t picturing someone I’ve been in love with. That would have been different. That wouldn’t have been“Come to me, I see you standing by the lake.” It wouldn’t have been “The moon is rising on your skin.” These sound like bad translations of Chekov. We can’t be more in love with the moon than we are with the one we love or the words of love we share. It would have been “Your body is wet with the crests of waves. I’m chasing you.” It would have been “Your hair is dripping in shiny pearls, falling on your chest,” if I were picturing someone whom I loved.  Nevertheless, this is what I wrote, trying to be free.

Les eaux sont calme ice-bas, ce soir.
Les eaux qui te caresseraient le visage
qui t’appeleraient et qui t’emmèneraient au plus profond
qui t’embraseraient avec leur fraîcheur
ne sifflent plus, ne tremble plus,
ne chuchote qu’en mots d’écume.

Et toi qui savais une fois danser
qui exultais dans la valse vagueuse
de touches brusques, de secrets partagés, et de douces retraites,
es capté par le même silence
la même intransigence,
la même crépuscule douloureuse.

Veille bien tendre l’oreille,
faire descendre la main,
regarder autour de toi.
Fais un seul pas.
Toi, qui ne vois qui l’image d’amertume,
le reflet fixe, la surface mate,
tu vas voir le monde contorsionne à fleur d’eau.
Toi, qui ne sens que l’air frigide, tu vas réussir à sauter
avec des cris de joie.
Et toi, qui n’entends rien de vagues ni de soupirs de vent
tu vas ressentir, même au centre de cette nuit pesante,
les palpitations du cœur qui bat.

The water is calm here this evening, still.
The waves that would caress your face
that would call to you and lead you farther out
that would embrace you with a cool kiss
no longer stir, or tremble,
or whisper anything but words of foam.

And you who once knew how to dance,
who gleamed in the waves’ waltz
of quick touches, secrets shared, and soft goodbyes,
are stuck in the same silence,
the same intransigence,
the same painful obscurity of the evening.

 But come incline your ear,
lower your hand,
look around you.
Make just one step.
You, who only see the bitter image
of your fixed reflection, a matte surface,
you will see the world twist itself on the upper layer of water.
You who who only feel the frigid air
will rise to jumping with cries of joy.
And you, who now hear nothing of waves
or the breathing of the wind
will feel, even in the middle of this heavy night,
the palpitations of a beating heart.

 

The Nobel prize committee in 1971 evoked Pablo Neruda’s sense of, his yearning for, man’s harmony with nature. Some day, we’ll find this harmony. We won’t dream of disaccord and intransigence. We won’t be an unsettled people. We’ll sing our suffering and our jubilation, ours and each others, from the fullness of our breaths in our once sunken chests. Some poets have reached this. Some poets have lived this. Some poets have died for this. For the rest of us, and until then, we will have them–the ones like Neruda–to help us search our darkness and find our blood still moving in the life inside.

 

 

I Will Think About Your Heart

“Does the earth know what passes in those stars that are hurled like a spark of fire across the firmament–so far that we perceive only the splendor of some?…I never feel myself more alone than when I open my heart to some friend, because I then better understand the insuperable obstacle.” – Guy de Maupassant

In the morning we’ll have oysters and fruit. Leftovers, nuts, pieces of pie. I’ll watch you run on the beach until the fog rolls out. I’ll offer you coffee and another piece of pie. I’ll go for a swim. You’ll read a book. We’ll take naps together on the one scrap of grass we can find. If we were to die or if aliens discovered us, this remnant of civilization, they’d find our hands crossed into the leaves of our book, our chests rising and falling with breathing, even in a second Pompeii.

In the evening we’ll go dancing. Do you remember when your mom surprised us back in your high school room? “We’re only dancing,” you ran down the hallway calling after her. I only snorted out laughter so hard I could have made water fly.

I’ll collapse too early back into the wicker chair. There will be uneaten cuts of meat on my plate. Pork chops and slices of chicken, beef juice and scalloped potatoes turning lukewarm. The saxophonist will be swaying. The stars will start to dance a little too. I’ll search for you but won’t find you until I see you crying softly in the corner behind the plants. You’ll pretend you weren’t crying, and I’ll pretend I didn’t see you. I’ll read you poetry I wrote on my napkin. It won’t be mine. Chaucher’s.

We’ll order coffee and bring it up to our rooms. You’ll carry the cream and the sweet caramels that the waitress brought to us on a plate. We’ll stay up the night talking, both slowly and quickly, until the moon begins to fade into the smear of light that crosses the sky. We’ll pack our suitcases. We’ll forget about the caramels. We’ll sleep in and forget for just one moment about the sadness and the pain.

We will drive to your old home in the early afternoon before it gets too hot. Your sisters will clean the house. Your older sister will offer us drinks. Your younger sister will sit in the couch between a roomful of people that feel to me like strangers, beckoning us into the next piece of conversation.

So we will pass the afternoon until the curtains can be drawn and the windows opened to let in the cool smells of the evening. Everyone will leave. Your older sister will go to bed with a remark about the kitchen, not needing to say that she wished she had the strength to help more with the rest of the house. Your younger sister will stand with me as we see her off. I’ll say my sad words to her. She will touch my hand then touch my arm, feeling its hair. I’ll meet your eyes across the room. You’ll be standing in the door. You’ll be too angry to be tired. You’ll be exhausted. I’ll try to come to you, with your sister on my arm. But you, for a moment, will slip away.

You’ll have made it as far as the table. The iced tea will have run watery and warm, but we’ll drink it anyway, the three of us. We’ll play cards. We’ll try to make each other laugh, first you and then each other, until our chests feel sore as if we were coughing.

We’ll eat what is still good of the food your sister brings in from the tables and watch as she takes everything that is left to the trash and some to the sink. We will hear the scraping of the garbage disposal for about four seconds. At first it will sound like the way our laughter felt in our chests. I will think about sleeping on the beach with you the day before, our faces getting burnt, our arms and legs, water bottles, and the pages of our books crusted with sand. We will watch your sister filling another trash bag. You will stand to help. I will be too dizzy with tiredness and free of logic to notice you are gone until I am surrounded by the silence of curtains and buzzing fans.

You will come back and say you saw the stars out, tears in your eyes.Your sister will join you on the front deck, and I will find a bed to sleep in.

As I nudge my body into the sheets, I will think about your heart, and the saxophonist’s and the way your arms clench when you run and imagine the sounds your feet make, puff puff against the floor of the beach sky, tossing the sand behind you as you propel yourself into the disappearing morning fog.

Another love letter to Balzac, I think

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Head of Balzac (1901)
Auguste Rodin

Sometimes I don’t know how to read the great French author Balzac. As I’ve suggested before, this tends to bother me. A few weeks ago my aunt asked me what Cousine Bette was about, and I answered: “It’s a trashy French novel.” Adultery. Money entanglements. Despair. Luxury. It’s not that this isn’t true, but what bugs me is I have described almost every French novel I’ve read in these terms. (Sometimes I say this affectionately, as with the early European novel The Princess of Clèves, the first sentence of which, according to my favorite translation reads, “There was never a time with more seduction.”) But it tugs at my heart: I want Balzac to have more common sense than Marguerite Duras when she is at her most scandalous, to open his eyes a little wider than do George Sand or André Gide, to be less lustful than Flaubert, but just as thoughtful and as radiant.

Balzac’s use of language, particularly in moments of emotional crisis–which occur by the page–has un undeniable appeal for me. I hesitate to acknowledge this because I believe that although his powers of expression are masterful–he is not a master. My understanding is that his beautiful words rely less on the simmering of reflection as on the strength of a constant practice akin to guzzling coffee. His worth is in the cloud that hovers above the words, that surrounds his phrasing. Or to put it less spiritually, he unearths wonders of lived experience, but language somehow is not his primary tool. Like Dickens, the value exists elsewhere. But boy, could he turn a phrase. Of jealousy: “The torrents of dizzy, lovesick potions that are spilled by this wild feeling began to run through his heart in an instant.” Or the beauty of a secondary character: “It was altered, poetically distant, by the soft shadows of a hidden melancholy.” Or the “good laments, spoken at length, like cigarettes smoked down to the edge of the tongue, by which women put to rest the little miseries of their life.” (This chapter passed the Bechdel test.)

There is a moral component to Balzac’s work, which he perhaps jokingly insists upon with headings like “Moral reflections on immorality” or “To what extremities men reduce their wives.” When Balzac locks in on an injustice, however small or big, his gaze can be painful. However captivated I might be by a character’s reckless pursuit of social standing or by a character’s painstaking exacting of a pleasurable revenge, the result is rarely pleasurable for the characters. Cruelness (like everything else in Paris) takes a toll. Goodness, truly, is rewarded. And yet, the city keeps pressing on.

And it’s this outlook on the stratification of Parisian life, this seasoned articulation of the sweep of history, that–when I notice it–makes me feel like I’m getting to the heart of a Balzac novel. Whether its the head-hurting account of how unmarried women have to earn their wages or a throwaway critique of the extravagance of the bourgeoisie, like this gem –“In revolutions, solid values go to the bottom and the tide washes up the light things”–Balzac keeps social class at the forefront of his vision of humanity. This is why, for instance, so many of Balzac’s characters are corrupted by the slave trade. Or why, in the beginning chapters of my current novel, Balzac takes us to the old palace grounds where his characters live, yes, but also where he pauses to comment on the concerted growth of  luxury edifices on the old Louvre. Are they, Balzac asks, a testament to the hope of a people who have endured three complete revolutions and want to make nice with the rest of Europe? No, because there is something dark here–destructions, demolitions, ruins of neighborhoods–a darkness that resides not underneath it all but in full view–an “eternal shadow” that the people exiting the operas and galleries cannot rid themselves of. Here we recognize “the intimate alliance of misery and splendor” from which the characters’ stories proceed.

And here I see a hint of Balzac’s intention that however wide-ranging, however grandiose and immense is his view of Parisian life, he is concerned most with the grandiosity and immensity of his characters, of Parisians, of us. He does not merely remark on the harshness, the coldness, the “silence” of homes that are more like “living graves,” but takes us inside them, showing us not just the emotional tumult, the moral degradation, and the personal struggle against large-scale inequities, but the joys, the dreams, and the kindnesses of lovers and companions and among families.

From an early chapter: “All is there, the rich, the poor, the envious and the envied, the philosophers and the people who chase after illusions, all groups like plants in a basket surrounding a rare flower, the bride. A wedding ball is a glimpse of the world.”

This is what I want art to be. What I want fiction to be. And halfway through my third Balzac novel, I think it fits the bill.

Imitation

TragedyI’ve often been aware of how the way I write is influenced by what I am currently reading.

This is why, for instance, when I was reading a lot of George Eliot during a summer break in college, I tried to write this sentence in a story:

“Her pensive glance did not signify any more deeper yearning than her exactness in dress and manners emerged from unacknowledged desires for her friends’ approval—just a judicious gesture, her brother thought.”

Don’t ask me what it means.

It is also why, in a less painful way, I think, I included this image in the same story:

“As she lifted her glass to her lips, she peered out the window, past the murmuring crowd, to take in the end of another hot afternoon thickening in the trees.”

We take on other writers’ prejudices, their comfort with certain emotional content and symbols or with braver (in my case foolhardy) attempts at syntactical complexity. We take on their narrowing of focus on a character’s inner life, and in rare instances for me, their sensitivity to the physical details of a scene.

I mentioned that I have been reading Mes Mauvaises Pensées by the French author Nina Bouraoui. Some of my recent writing bears this mark.

Bouraoui talks about knowing someone by their “silences,” about writing that bleeds, of lives inside of life, of never being dishonest with oneself even if one is too weak to handle it, of a life other than our life that envelops us, about past nights of dancing when one wants to cry, of needing to write a book with silence, of writing a book with prayers.

And here is a poem I wrote while I was caught up in this way of reading, this way of looking at my life:

too many times

two nights ago
I said that there are too many ways
to break my heart

by dropping it or letting it fall
by bending it in ways it shouldn’t want to bend
by freezing, by overheating, by chilling it again

I saw that my heart was either ice or metal
and that neither of these was a real heart
of flesh and blood and throbbing

I wondered where my heart was
in the depths it lives in
and who I was on the surface

and I had another vision:
my heart was a rubber ball in a theatre
a giant orb glowing green in a black night sky
waiting to shatter
into hundreds of bursts of light, take cover
I told you, from the rain,
from the pieces of my heart when it shatters
take cover from my looks,
with my eyes that only want one thing—
to be the kind of guy
I think you want me to be,
that part I used to act out
that role I’ve played too many times

but when I said to take cover
I was talking straight to myself
because I’m tired of breaking my own heart
because I don’t want to let you down

I wondered where my heart was
who I was deep down
and on the surface

A Translation

For Christmas, my sister gave me a book by Nina Bouraoui, who is becoming one of my favorite authors. I told my sister that this book, called Mes Mauvaises Pensées (or “My Bad Thoughts”) was changing the way I perceive both the world and language. I also admitted that I had just had a huge cup of McDonald’s coffee. Attribute it to whatever you will, but as I was walking through Walmart the morning after reading a little chunk of the book, I felt like I was swimming in a world of untouched motives, of violences hidden inside violences, of new loves and old identities, of DVD racks, children’s clothing, and women buying children’s cough medicine.

I thought I’d translate a couple of passages to share some of what has been touching me lately in my reading.

…from Garçon Manqué (the Franco-Algerian protagonist’s reflections about an oppressive experience of aloneness at the beach while visiting her French family).

Who here will say: Are you okay, Nina? Are you figuring it out? It’s not too hard? What do you dream about at night? What are your images? Have you come to accept them? To live with it? With these moments? With what you brush against every day? With what defines you? And why this sadness in your eyes?

…from Mes Mauvaises Pensées (my favorite quotes about writing)

I’ve always wanted to run away from life; writing and love are the ultimate means.
* * *
With you, I am in life, in my life, within its folds, and it’s a way for me to rediscover writing.
* * *
I could write my own history book and make myself a subject with deep roots; books are like arms–I put myself to sleep in their warmth.