I'm really grateful to Anthony King at The Kenyon Review for a) coming up with a resoundingly smart and engaging set of questions for me in response to STILL LIFE WITH OYSTERS AND LEMON, and b) persisting for months in asking me to answer them, long after most people would have given up.
The result is a beautifully presented interview, complete with terrific images of de Heem's paintings. The Munich still life I talk about in the text is here -- the one with the crucifix and skull. The original is quite large (say three x three, maybe four x three) and the background is blacker than in appears here. It's not easy to find an image of this turbulent, strange painting, which I am pretty sure I have more to say about, and I'm thrilled it's here.
Here's a toast to editorial persistence, and thanks again to A.D. King. You can see what I mean at
The Lessons of Objects: An Interview with Mark Doty.
Sunday, November 11, 2012
indelible storm had been given another name -- "Sandy" seems so light and inconsequential a moniker for that vast, slowly spinning disc of trouble that passed over our heads, changing the course of many
a life beneath it.)
Alex and I lined up with a couple of hundred others just before ten at the ferry dock. The entire Sayville police force seemed to be in attendance -- there to prevent looting, I guess, though the process of checking the credentials of the passengers felt a bit haphazard, perhaps mostly to create a show of authority. Technically, I'm not a property owner any more; I sold my house a few months ago, but the tenant I'd rented it to for a long season just moved out at the end of October. Then Sandy happened. So it was only yesterday that I could actually get there to retrieve some furniture and boxes of things that hadn't been included in the sale.
Some of the men on the boat (and the passengers headed for the Pines were, it almost goes without saying, 98 per cent male) were somber and apprehensive; some already knew their pools or decks were gone, and were making jokes about it. "My pool," I overhead a guy beside me say, "is part of the big pool now."
It was a relief, when we swung open the wooden gate, to find the house looking untouched. The old garden was wildly overgrown, and a moraine of fallen twigs and slender oak branches made a long drift across the walk. The new chimney cap Paul and I had installed was gone, and in a while I'd discover that the rubber piping system that used to kind-of-sort-of heat the little swimming pool had blown off the roof, too. Not bad, under the circumstances.
The inside of the house looked like a hurricane had hit there, too. The tenant hadn't been able to finish moving before the evacuation of the island, and so the big main room liked like one of those disaster photos of a house wrecked by flood: clothes, DVDS, dog bowls, gadgets, kitchen stuff -- everything everywhere, in no visible order.
So we got busy, moving the fellow's stuff off the couch and chairs we were taking, wrapping up the glass top of the coffee table, and to my surprise we started actually enjoying ourselves. There was something good-spirited about it -- partly that we were finally bringing a long process to an end, partly that the new owner would be the one to take care of everything else. Partly that it was somehow the whole thing felt lighter than we'd imagined. The house was a revenant of a gone relationship, something of a hold-over, and the process of finally cutting loose from it might have been emotionally fraught. But it wasn't.
At least not till I went to the attic. We didn't know, until Alex swung the trapdoor down, that half the folding stairway had fallen away; what looked like half a ladder just hung in the air, four feet off the floor. We found a stepladder so that we could climb up and look. Just a few boxes up there, and we found a flashlight so that we could look into the far corners and make sure we hadn't missed anything. That's when one of us laughed, and we stopped and talked about how surprised we were that this all felt easy, and fine. Perhaps that was what jinxed it.
Alex went off to work on something else, while I looked into each box to see if it was something I'd want. I carted them down, carefully, one at a time. I didn't know what was in the last, rather weighty one, so I opened it to look: a collection of Moroccan tiles bought a long time ago, beautiful thick ones, orange and blue, geometric. I'd planned to use them someplace and never did, and now they could find a home, maybe someplace in the garden?
I lifted the box, started stepping down one rung at a time, and around four rungs down my right foot arrived at the gap between wooden rung and stepladder, and I probably already know what happened.
Something about that space between solid matter was enough to make me step unsurely, and then I was falling backwards. I hesitate, beginning to describe that moment -- seconds, the duration of that descent from ladder to floor, but could I ever do them justice?
It's a commonplace, the idea that an unexpected event like an automobile accident or a fall causes us to experience time differently. It's like Zeno's paradox: the distance between launching and arriving seems to keep dividing in half, becoming longer, because the anticipation of getting where you know you're going is so terrifying.
It occurred to me later that my descent seemed so long because my thoughts were so complex. I knew I was going to land on the small of my back, where I've had disc problems in the past. I thought I might break my back. I was acutely aware of the condition of helplessness; I could do nothing to stop this, or even moderate the damage; I do nothing. I was aware of the box which had been in my hands and now was in the air just above me and was likely to land on my hips, aware of the weight of the box. I was aware of my own voice in my own mouth, calling out not a word but just a loud, outrushing exhalation. I didn't think of the Bishop poem in which Aunt Consuelo cries out from the dentist's chair, though I think of it now -- a sense of dislocation. Was that my voice? And I was aware of Alex running toward me from the next room, and that I was striking the wall, and sliding down it, and then there was a sharp, ferocious blow, which I thought was the box striking me in its descent, and then I was possessed by the pure terror that I was about to experience unimaginable pain, and then I did.
Okay, now the temporal experience starts to get murky. Even as I'm narrating the moment above, trying to be faithful to the experience, I start thinking about Elizabeth Bishop, who certainly was not on my mind as I fell. I've been reliving the experience since it happened; it rises up in my awareness like a wave, and I feel myself tense, and that awful fear returns. I've seen the same thing happen to Alex, interestingly, as a witness; in the 24 hours since, I've seen him doing something else then experiencing a kind of paroxysm of a related kind of pain -- as if he is physically re-experiencing his own powerlessness, and the terrible moment of seeing me hit the floor, and then sitting beside me while I cry for a long time.
Was it a very long time? I don't know. I was flat on my back, and somewhere down there was the eye of the storm, an awful fire. Though it wasn't burning. I don't think there's a word for what it was, or if there is it's not something I'll find now, just a day later. I was moaning loudly, Alex was telling me to go ahead, let all that out, and also to breathe.
Almost blinding physical pain comes in tidal waves, and with each one I have to stop thinking, breathe, accept that it is there, let the tension in my back and pelvis go a little. I'm aware of our situation: we're on an island where there's only one boat more, leaving in two hours, there's no doctor, there's no help except perhaps the police, and if they come they'll move me and make me scream. We're still getting our stuff ready and this the only time it can be done and I don't know if Alex can do it alone, and if we can get back how I can sit in the car, and I'm thinking about these things in between spasms or pulses of pain.
Then Alex says something like, "The house bit you," and I begin to cry in a different way, from another place within my body, because he has tapped into the metaphoric current that has already begun with me -- how this house represents some last hope around my last marriage, how that hope fell into dust, and now the loss, guilt and rage I've not wanted to allow their hour have struck me down. I am cursing the house and the old marriage and saying now this is the end, this is really where it ends. All this feels like a release of pain, letting this out in sobs and shudders, but there is always a wave of fresh pain behind the last one.
In a while I begin to slow down, to still. When I remember my terror the muscles seize and the pain is fierce, but then I can let it loose a bit, slowly. I am not breathing so hard. I can move in and out of thinking metaphorically, come back to the event as just itself, and it can also be the fall from the hope that any marriage is, too. I begin to think I have not broken anything. I am worried about being hit by the box of tiles and what this did to me, and Alex says, "You weren't hit by the box." I am shocked by this; of course I was hit by the box. But no -- it in fact skidded down the hallway, and I came down on one curved metal arm of a framed mirror I'd bought years ago at a flea market in Houston. Alex was afraid it might go through me, but in fact it hadn't broken the skin. I had composed the story of my fall incorrectly, though for me it will always be the box of tiles, a box of the past, that gave me that heavy blow.
I can walk today, slowly, and sit up in bed briefly. Medication has the swelling going down and has granted me a long sleep. I've been talking to the dogs, and I drank a cup of coffee. What I cannot do is write any more of this. Though, as I have been spilling out this deposition, I have hurt less: telling the story seems to release something, at least in part, and I'm heading back to sleep. Next installment: aftermath, and hurricane.
Friday, September 14, 2012
To celebrate the publication of THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2012, which I'm wildly proud to have guest-edited, I wrote a little essay for Publishers' Weekly. It's just out today, but since I know lots of people don't see that journal, I thought I'd post the piece here. "Best of" collections are always lend themselves to a bit of contention, and many people aren't aware of the process of making such a thing.
So here goes, for the curious:
So here goes, for the curious:
When David Lehman invited me to take on the project of guest editing the Best American Poetry 2012 – the twenty-fifth edition of the annual anthology that appears in September of each year, bringing forth jubilation and curses among poets throughout the land, I was intrigued. I spent some time, just now, choosing that word intrigued. Delighted – though I was, as well as honored and pleased – seems to lack complexity. What I want here is a word that combines pleasure with a degree of challenge, a nuanced acknowledgement that one doesn’t really take on such a task lightly, without thinking about just what you’re getting yourself into.
Poets, by nature, favor anarchy, or at least resist consensus. When anything smacks of the official or the imprimatur, you will find them muttering in the lobby, grumbling in the vestibule, or cursing under their breaths outside the door. Poetry thrives on the unofficial, the unnoticed, the neglected, the unauthorized. Ask Emily Dickinson.
But on the other hand, the solitary nature of our art makes us long for company, and every poet wants to be heard. Even as private a poet as Dickinson wanted to be read, which is why the terms fame and publication occur again and again in her work; she was summoning her audience into being, even if it took some time for them to arrive.
This contradiction – the fact that we poets tend to be poor team-players and that we very much want to be loved – is what causes us to react so strongly to the Best American Poetry. We are fascinated by it, and love to criticize it. It is widely read indeed; a number of younger poets who are now well established, a National Book Award winner among them, have told me that one of these anthologies was the first book of poems they ever owned. And it is widely bashed as boring, dominated by insiders, or beside the point.
But I was also aware that here was a chance to point readers toward 75 wonderful poems (each volume includes exactly the same number). I happen to think this is a particularly vital moment in American poetry, and that poems of great formal variety and genuine ambition are being published now in many venues, from big-ticket journals to small enterprises that open up like mushrooms after rain and often close just as quickly.
I mean ambition in the best sense of the term – that the best of our poems are grappling with the hardest things to say: what it’s like to be awake, to be a thinking and feeling person in these vexed, dizzying hours. Maybe it feels no more difficult to be human than it did in, say, 1650, but I remain deeply convinced of the urgency of speaking in our times, of naming where we are. That was why I said yes to David’s offer; I wanted a chance to demonstrate the liveliness, emotional vigor, intelligence and wit our art offers just now, an array of gifts to the culture that all too often go unopened.
What I hadn’t imagined was the sheer tonnage of verse that would almost immediately descend upon my post office box, and continue to do so from January to December. In truth, no one can read every poem published in America in a given year, mainly because it would be a superhuman achievement to find them all. But Lehman has assembled a remarkably efficient and thorough means of getting work at hand to his guest editor. I began very early on to put some poems in a “probably maybe yes” pile, and David read these with enthusiasm, venturing an opinion now and then before sending me another envelope, box, sack, sled or howdah full of poems. Sometime I’d read a little at a time, grabbing a few poems between phone calls or before making dinner. Some days I’d set aside long, indulgent bouts of wandering in journals for hours. Plane trips and train journeys were especially good, though it meant I was always traveling with an extra bag, usually a cloth tote stuffed to the brim with poems. Read, winnow, recycle, hold back the best, repeat.
Here is what most surprised me: I read more poems than any reasonable human being would ever read in a year’s time, and it was fun. Joyous, bracing, the kind of pleasure that gives you energy rather than robbing you of it. Sometimes I’d read for a couple of hours and think, oh why not, an hour more. I’d think I’d had it, then notice the cover of a journal I hadn’t seen before, and before you know I was deeply immersed again.
Of course there were times I looked at teetering piles of photocopied papers and stacks of magazines, or remembered the five new online journals I’d just heard about, and felt overwhelmed, mildly resentful, and a little ill. But the truth is, whenever I started to read, these feelings passed, often remarkably quickly.
Because, of course, contemporary American poetry is actually terrifically interesting – especially if you approach each poem as if this one might be masterful. This could be a miraculous marriage of sense and music from a poet you’ve never heard of before. Or it might be someone I’ve been reading for years, appearing with a poem impossible to forget.
If these criteria sound exacting, they are. Only 75 poems, out of many thousand, and that demands that the chosen few be distinctive indeed: gorgeous or possessed of a perfectly achieved plainness, startling or inevitable, uncommonly well made, grave, hilarious, wrenching, sly, urgent, arising from a profound need to speak.
This returns me to the theme of ambition; each of the poems I chose, out of my dauntingly large “maybe probably yes” pile, is trying fiercely hard to get at something crucial, trying to find form and language for what might otherwise go unnamed.
I know I missed things; no one can read that much without some good stuff slipping through the cracks, and I’m sure there were valuable poems that never crossed my threshold, sad to say. The nature of an anthology like this is that decisions have to be made quickly, within the bounds of the year; there isn’t time to spend months debating the value of one poem over another. What I was making, finally, is a snapshot of our moment, and a testament to the kinds of poems that move me and matter to me.
I’m sure that my edition of the BAP will raise some hackles, as they all do – but I am also utterly certain that this is a readable, energetic, engaging sampling of an art I love. Like most committed readers of poetry, I’m always wanting to share poems I like, pass them on to anyone who’ll listen. That’s what this book is. Is it “the best of” anything? Who cares, really? To my mind these are 75 reasons to be glad to be alive now, when such art is being made.
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Tonight I saw Ira Sachs' new movie, Keep the Lights On, here in Chelsea. What a complicated, intense couple of hours! Because I have any number of friends who are memoirists or writers of personal nonfiction, I'm used to reading about people I know. Usually that's an experience of intimacy; one comes closer to the inner life of friends than one might be likely to in conversation. Not because so much is revealed, necessarily; it's HOW that revealing takes place -- not content so much as the way content is thought about, reflected upon, understood. Great first person writing is the clearest and best rendering of what it's like to be that person that the writer can create. So when I read, say, Nick Flynn or Terry Tempest Williams or my friend Deborah Lott, whose marvelous new memoir I have just read in manuscript, I have the experience of coming closer, feeling, as it were, the contours of the inner life. It's amazing. I just read an excerpt from Salman Rushdie's new memoir in THE NEW YORKER, and though it's in the third person it has curiously just the same effect; we enter the interiority of the character.
Film's a different beast altogether, and since I don't know a lot of filmmakers, I don't think until this evening I've ever had the experience of seeing a movie about people I know, or about characters based on those people. I felt I was standing outside of someone else's house, looking not directly into their rooms but into a complicated mirror which possessed its own agency, and reflected the inhabitants in its own fashion -- so that they were artfully rendered, and unfamilar, and echoed the lives of people I know.
I want to talk about just one odd little aspect of this. The film begins with two men meeting over a phone sex line (it's 1998, so internet hook-ups haven't happened yet). There's a sweetness and lightness of touch during its first twenty or so minutes, as the guys become closer and more open to one another. I was caught up in the storyline, and suddenly there was one of the characters, in bed, reading my book ATLANTIS.
It didn't matter that I knew it was coming; Ira had asked my permission to use the book in his screenplay; because it's a book of poems largely concerned with the epidemic, it's a starting point for the two to have a conversation about HIV. Maybe I should have been prepared, but I felt two unexpected, contradictory things: first, I was tickled -- my book was in a movie! There was just something childishly delightful about the sense of validation. And it was a book from 1995, and there it was, alive, being read and discussed by two naked men onscreen. I loved it.
And I immediately understood that I had been in the suspension-of-disbelief zone, which is something that I truly love about the movies. The lights go down, the noisy previews end, the opening credits and music start to focus your attention, and suddenly you're allowed -- invited -- to relinquish your will, and allow your perceptions to be guided. We stop making decisions, when we agree to participate in a film. It doesn't matter to me one bit whether I am looking at, say, an opal-eyed dragon, or two men meeting and falling in love in New York City. Both are equally experiences of leaving the daily world, entering something other.
But there was my book, and there went the fourth wall. And then from that moment on I was required to participate in the film in a different way -- which could be a good thing, and is most certainly an uncomfortable one.
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
I do not think I really have anything to say about poetry other than remarking that it is a wandering little drift of unidentified sound, and trying to say more reminds me of following the sound of a thrush into the woods on a summer's eve -- if you persist in following the thrush it will only recede deeper and deeper into the woods; you will never actually see the thrush (the hermit thrush is especially shy), but I suppose listening is a kind of knowledge, or as close as one can come. 'Fret not after knowledge, I have none,' is what the thrush says. Perhaps we can use our knowledge to preserve a bit of space where his lack of knowledge can survive.
Mary Ruefle, MADNESS, RACK AND HONEY:
COLLECTED LECTURES, Wave Books, 2012
Friday, June 29, 2012
In Thirty-sixth Street it is raining. The middle-aged man who lives in the brownstone directly across from us is in the habit of posing in his window with a curtain partly wrapped around his naked body. He keeps guppies or goldfish in a lighted tank, spends the whole day in a kimono ironing, and at odd moments goes to the front window and acts out somebody's sexual dream. If I could only marry him off to the old woman who goes through the trash baskets on Lexington Avenue, talking to herself. What pleasure she would have showing him the things she has brought home in her string bag -- treasures whose value nobody else realizes. And what satisfaction to him it would be to wrap himself in a curtain just for her.
-- William Maxwell, "The Thistles in Sweden"