The Library

UnknownThe ceiling of the Library of Congress is embossed with aluminum.  Aluminum, the tour guide tells us, was a precious metal.  Once.

On the top there is a torch.  Torches are prominently featured.  As are: Minerva, owls, and women showing or unshowing one or both of their breasts, it varies a great deal.  Minerva has a sword.

The first Library was burned.  The second Library burned.  Now, rather than much of a library for Congress, it is a book fetish place on the mall.  For the second time, I got a reader card.  I would call it a library card.  Proof of book fetish, merely, I wasn’t going to read anything there.  Libraries, in fact, I love and fear, because I don’t check out books anymore unless I have an in.  I can’t be trusted with library books.  I have dug myself holes.  The government employees at the get-your-card office are deeply unimpressed with your desire for a card, just ignore the warnings that this is NOT A SOUVENIR.

What people do is create libraries, and then those libraries are burned or dispersed.  Three-quarters of my library has languished in a Lenexa, Kansas storage unit for two years, twenty-four months.  I never thought I could live without it.

The Library was the first building in Washington, DC to be completely electrified, and people used to go there to see the sight.  They also installed gas.  Once the electricity fad passed, they could crank up the gas lights like regular people.

Thomas Jefferson’s books, the ones that survived the second fire, are preserved in a swoop of an almost circle, glass on both sides, so you can see both sides, the spines are on the inside, labeled by subject, and the outside is all their pages, some of them dizzyingly marbled, blue and cream or burgundy and cream.

Aluminum was, in the beginning, so precious that royalty had one set of aluminum fork, knife and spoon for the honored guest, and the others had to use gold.

Were books your company?  When weren’t they?  When have you felt lonely, away from your book, and worse when you had to stop and realized how one-sided your relationship had been with the book.  Hadn’t it been?  When did you know the complete hollowness of not having any book you wanted badly to reenter?  Did the books you read pay any attention to you?  Did they respond at all?  Did they light up?

Jefferson sold his library to Congress.  He thought they could use them, sure, but also he needed the money.

The last day of school, I ended up sitting and chatting a long time with a student.  He told me he wished his dad would teach him how to pray.  I told him if he didn’t end up a neurologist, he could still work in medicine.  He might change his mind, and that would be okay.  I told him to read Atul Gawande.  Do you know anyone who’s gone to medical school? No.  I told him to go to the Natural History Museum, he had never been there, I told him it was free, really, just give them a dollar, they let you in.  Go see the dinosaurs.  Maybe I will, today, Ms Schurman, maybe I will.

Reading

IMG_3558I won’t be a snob about seasickness anymore.  They told us we might get seasick while the boat was tied up.  I only get seasick when I ride the Star Wars ride at Disney World more than two times in a row, so I figured I was fine. (For the record, I rode four times in a row in defiance of my nausea.)

First we had to board the little raft to ride out to the boat.  We were bundled up, me in my new heavy chocolate-colored sweater, ugly but serviceable hat, red mittens with removable mittenness.  It was mostly grey, and we were at the East River.  The George Washington Bridge was upriver, and downriver was the Freedom Tower.

These sailboats, where we were supposed to bond as colleagues, were small.  The other sailboats I’ve been on were both big enough to live on, albeit cozily.  This boat had enough space down inside it for six people to have a very uncomfortable cocktail party while sitting Indian style and not have anywhere to pee.

Rather than be taught, one of our crew was to read directions from a book about sailing, and the rest of us tried to follow them.  She was good at translating the book into action.  When I took a turn, I got stuck on the first direction I read.  I couldn’t find that thing, or figure what we should do with it when we found it.

When I took a turn trying to read How To Sail, I started to feel seasick.  Trouble was, as we had been told, when tied up, the boat bobs a lot, can’t go with any current or any wave of passing barge.  “Look at the GWB,” our teacher said.  “It happens to me all the time.”  I looked at the Freedom Tower.  That was the way I was facing.  I started to feel less like puking.

IMG_3556Eventually we got the sails up.  Once untethered, we moved out into the water, praying that our East Riversickness would lessen by being able to watch the horizon continuously and go with the flow.  And we learned the four jobs.  Two people tighten (trim) and loosen the front sail, one person trims and loosens the main sail, and one person steers.

I was excited by the word “trim,” and I got to think back to my period of obsession with Herman Melville, and reading Moby Dick on the beach in Galveston, Texas, and thinking about what a bad, great book it was, and thinking of Melville living and working in New York in this sad, sad job after his youth of adventure, and feeling like a failure and not knowing how much I, hundreds of years later, would prefer him to Hawthorne, I mean, I would love to have dinner with Melville, and I would wear a beautiful dress.

When the sail starts flapping, and there is another word for this I’ve already forgotten, you trim it.  After lunch, I learned that when your boat snags the anchor line of another boat, you yell and pull down the sails as fast as possible so no gust of wind can push your boat over.

I wasn’t too alarmed.  I was like a ten-year-old boy.  When I am in danger, but there is nothing I can do, i.e., I am the passenger of someone driving fast and crazy, I am actually comfortable.  I surrender to fate, and I’m amused or frozen or both.

Our teacher was running around the boat, people were grabbing the anchor line and other pieces of equipment, clearly it was an emergency, and then our teacher, standing on the front of the boat with his hands clenched, released the line that held the anchor and it dove into the river like a lemming and he said, “Fuck.”

Since he had such a bad day, I’m going to add here that he was just as cute as I remember our rafting guides were, all those years we were girls in Colorado and pretended they were our boyfriends although for those boys to even look at us was illegal.

Suffice it to say that there had been, on our boat, patting of shoulders and silence and people trying to joke in a kind way even though they felt like shit.  It had already been a challenging day.

Our teacher sat for a while looking at his hands, which I imagined to have at least red and maybe bloody lines torn across them from the rope.  He blew on them to warm them.

We sailed back to the dock.  Once more, before we were actually back, the boat unexpectedly (to me) leaned way over so we could have fallen in.  That actually did scare me for some reason.

IMG_3560Our teacher read the wind the way I read the Bible, that is, with all my life history, all the times I’ve heard all those stories since I was born, and actually, in the womb, too, and all the sermons I’ve heard about them, the ancient Greek I remember a little and all the background I’ve read and everything I know about how it has formed the caves of other pieces of literature and the rest of history with its water trickling through the rest of our limestone, and I don’t even think about it.  He read the current, the tide, the wind, which in this funny place, this wind tunnel between Manhattan and the towns of Jersey is especially capricious.  He read barges and other sailboats and ferries and their wakes and the weight of our boat and the kind of sails we had and the skill level we had.

There’s so much to read.

Distance

When I was zipping through a practice exam to use with my students, I slowed way down to read Ralph Ellison.  I don’t really know anything about him.  I’ve never read Invisible Man.  Strange as it seemed, I was enjoying reading a passage on a test.  I immediately went back and ordered it from Amazon, which is, strictly speaking, not permitted in my budget.

This morning there was a tow truck in my driveway.  My neighbor had pulled his moving truck up on the lawn, and it was stuck.  I wandered over, both to ask the driver to move the truck, and to see the spectacle, and to comfort my neighbor.  He had offered to introduce me to his cousin, who was helping him move.  His cousin is near my age, and apparently rich as King Midas.  When I approached my neighbor, his cousin was standing a ways off, shirtless and angrily smoking a cigar in the spring sunlight.  His chest hair was the same color as the cigar.  “We’re a little frustrated at this point,” my neighbor said.

The Ellison book arrived.  Along with the New Yorker and Smithsonian.  They were all waiting in my black mailbox, despondent.  I had forgotten about them.  The first piece in the book is the one I had already read from.  It’s about living with the noise of other artists.  Ellison is trying to write, and a singer lives above him, and drunks sing around him in the alleys, and he’s trying to fucking think straight.  He buys a record player and blasts arias and spirituals at top volume, in a war with his neighbor.

One of my uncles is an audiophile, collects turntables and exquisitely designed Japanese needles that will transmit sound with the delicate touch of one rabbit hair.  He has often been stopped at a Japanese airport to have a needle inspected more closely.  I would think it a weapon, myself.  They come in odd-looking little clear plastic boxes.  Once he sat me in the “sweet spot” in his listening room and played us a piece with a pizzacato bass.  I closed my eyes, and I would have sworn I could taste the rosin that sticks to every stringed instrument after being in clouds of it rubbed lovingly on bows.  I could feel the glossiness of the thin wood of a stringed instrument, and the lightness of its body, which is so scary, like holding an infant.

How do things touch each other?  Physically, proximity, neighbors.  Physically, as a copy of Living With Music by Ralph Ellison is plopped in my mailbox, from Spokane, Washington, inscribed with the black ink notes of a stranger: “One moment inspires many that’s great like Herb Hancock quote about conversation.”  Sometimes remotely, like a bass far from me in time and space, living in my ears anyway, in the top floor of a house on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas.  And sometimes across years and genders and races from Ellison to me: “Those who know their native culture and love it unchauvinistically are never lost when encountering the unfamiliar.”

Fetishes: Annotated Bibliography

“The French have a horror of the smell of cooking food, whereas Americans find it appetizing; in the nineteenth century the first French Rothschild went so far in this aversion as to have the food brought from the kitchen to the dining room on an odourless, because underground, train.” –Edmund White, The Flaneur

(I couldn’t figure out how to put a circonflexe on that Flaneur.  But I do know what a circonflexe is, if that makes it better.)  Seriously, the smell of cooking food?  What is the difference between the smell of cooking food and cooked food?  There are subtleties that, as a corn-fed American, I’ll just never understand.  This makes me feel much less bad about refusing to use powdered creamer, or “creamer” that isn’t, in the main, something from a cow’s tits.  It’s the only time I feel my European ancestry.  We drink cow milk.  We have for centuries.  And wait, “odourless, because underground”?  It seems like a great book anyway.  I just started it.

“The ruling gentry in Thomas Paine’s hometown had their own octagonal temple, and Thomas Jefferson had built an octagonal house for his daughter.  Jefferson was so delighted with the result that he also built her a pair of octagonal outhouses to accompany it.  But Fowler brought a new and nearly religious fervor to octagons.  They allowed more windows and thus were lighter, healthier structures, he insisted– and his readers all knew how essential good health was to the moral improvement of the world.”  –Paul Collins, The Trouble With Tom

Number one, I think octagons are ugly.  There was a house either hexagonal or octagonal around the corner from where I grew up.  It was a glorious shot of scotch in a very warm-milk area.  Still ugly, though.  I imagine that back when it was so much harder to get straight lines, before computers and machines, straight lines were super sexy.  In my time and place, I have sought out sagging lines in every building I have lived in.  Sagging is the thing now.  Good health leads to moral improvement?  Oh, silly Americans.  Lucky for the sick and the cheerfully degenerate, that just doesn’t follow.  Finally, if you get a chance, you’re going to want to say “octagonal outhouses.”  I’m going to try to work that into conversation tomorrow.  That’s the kind of phrase that makes people stop and think, both in its meaning and its poetry.

Things Other People Said: Long Ago or Far Away

“‘Don’t go, Peter,’ [Wendy] entreated, ‘I know lots of stories.’  Those were her precise words, so there can be no denying that it was she who first tempted him.” — Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie

They have everything in Neverland: hideouts, pirates, mermaids, caves, treehouses, wild animals, natives.  Everything except stories.  Neverland is only in the present.  Stories are all in the past.  Wendy is going to travel to Neverland to be maternal, which includes storykeeping.  Although all the wild characters in Neverland care nothing about the future, they still appreciate a bedtime story.  It’s the only thing they don’t have.  Wendy’s flirtiness here is a cute sideline.  I want to go/no I can’t possibly/well, all right.  No means maybe.  And exotic, in Neverland, means connected and clear.

“And the youngest daughter, Felicia, wrote a novel called Carpathia, about a headstrong, high-born young woman in the Mohiga Valley who fell in love with a half-Indian lock-tender on that same canal.” — Hocus Pocus, Kurt Vonnegut

This is a long, curly sentence for Vonnegut.  He often doesn’t want to give us so many petals on the flower, but right here he couldn’t help it.  It’s a sentence I remember from the first time I read it…in 1994.  It has little to do with the plot, as I recall– it just makes everything classier, with its cold music. Like high heels.  Vonnegut is so plain that he’s classy.  Quite a feat.  No pun intended.

“And to the question asked by Ecclesiastes 3000 years ago, ‘That which is far off and exceeding deep, who can find it out?’ two men alone of all now living have the right to give an answer– CAPTAIN NEMO AND MYSELF.” — 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

You would think Jules Verne was writing the goddamn Bible, not merely alluding to it.  Writers of unrespected genres, and writers of early novels (this is 1869) weren’t afraid to set off the fireworks.  Verne was writing about going to the moon, and to the center of the earth, and down in a nuclear submarine, so he’s gotta be comfortable with flash and drama.  Still, seriously, this is the cannon shot in the 1812 overture.  “Two men alone of all now living.”  I couldn’t find who translated my Wordsworth classic edition, or the original sentence in French, but I would guess it sounds more ass-kicking in English.  “Myself” instead of “moi” or “me.”  There are other translation issues with this novel, because of Nemo’s sorta pacificistic politics.  Like a lot of science fiction, Verne’s work is burning with political messages.

“Best, therefore, withhold any amazement at the strangely gallied whales before us, for there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.” —Moby Dick, Herman Melville

Melville loves alliteration, inside and outside words, and I love that, too, so much I have to rein it in with revisions.  (Although not here, see?)  English prose likes to go rah-rah-ruh and la-luh-vull.  Play in and out with consonants.  I’ve never been a fan of rhyme, outside of lyrics for hymns and songs.  Emily Dickinson’s rhymes are as as far as I can go.  Too rhymey gets too yellow and Kool-Aid.  The g’s in “strangely gallied.”  (“Gallied” means worried or frightened.  While the mouthfeel of Melville’s words is great, needing to use a dictionary while you’re reading a book is annoying.  Maybe that’s the only word you know to express that idea, but if it’s not in my vocabulary, as a regular reader of literature, it interrupts and distracts.)  The relationship between the t’s in “beasts,” “earth,” and “not,” all close together, and all slightly different, but still tapping to the t’s, a bit.

Eating Your Words

There is a difference between kissing and talking about kissing.  There is a difference between dating and marriage (apparently).  And there is a difference between reading and memorizing, which is actually what I’m considering here.

I took my students to a writing workshop last week, and one presenter explained the importance of memorizing poems.  That while reading is critical, memorizing is ownership.  I have a great deal of trouble memorizing.  I read like bulimics eat.  I have trouble slowing down.  I am too impatient to digest.  And even more trouble taking small bites and tasting.  Emily Dickinson helps me with this.  She’s so dense and stingy that she forces my attention.

In high school, I was assigned to memorize Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Macbeth’s “sound and fury” soliloquy.  I also memorized Juliet’s “Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face.”  I can’t say it was like pulling teeth.  It was more like trying to shove teeth into your mouth, implant them somewhere up there without a mirror or glue.

I already felt ownership of my language.  My brain waves with iambic pentameter– I grew up on Mother Goose and Protestant hymns.  The smell of English poetry was mine the way Old Spice was my dad.

That kind of ownership is deep stuff, without subtlety or particularity.  With that kind of ownership, I could wax easily about what Shakespeare meant.  I could even write a passage of faux Shakespeare.  I loved writing my own dictionary definitions in 6th grade.  It was much faster than looking them up.  I was never caught.  However, I was caught adding an extra chord to a Mozart piece, and my piano teacher laughed at my insistence on “improving” Mozart.  See, I’m a showoff dilletante.  While I could demonstrate rhythmic and thematic and style understanding, I didn’t own a particular piece.  The generalities were mine and the details swept through my fingers.

My junior English teacher didn’t know or care about my struggle to memorize.  He was just going to sit there with the text while I recited.  (He told us we had to memorize poems so that we wouldn’t go insane if we were trapped in a POW camp.  Funny…and wise.)  There was no way I would screw up an English assignment.  So I shoved Frost and Shakespeare into my mouth, piercing word by word.  I recited to the shower tile.  I recited to the popcorn popping on the stove.  After fifty repetitions, I still got lost and substituted words and mixed up phrases.  I kept going.

Memorizing gives words a sensuality that reading cannot.  Reading once, even reading aloud, you can’t feel the words in your mouth the same way you do when they are memorized.  And the difference is commitment:  time and tenderness toward each sound.

The poems are still there as much as my teeth are– drilled out and refilled, and five of them just gone.  It is good to be able to run your tongue over them, occasionally.  Several times, I’ve silenced students by setting aside the textbook and doing the Juliet speech myself.  I’m not a great performer.  It doesn’t show that I understand Shakespeare.  It just shows is that I own a little of Shakespeare, and I hope it shows that he is affordable.

Annotated Bibliography: French slop, Italian despair, and So Ends the Play.

If Americans have so little sense of nuances, it isn’t that they’re incapable of grasping them– after all, American reality itself is sufficiently nuanced– but that they would be troubled by them.  To accept nuance is to accept ambiguity of judgment, argument, and hesitation; such complex situations force you to think.  They want to lead their lives by geometry, not by wisdom.  Geometry is taught, whereas wisdom is discovered, and only the first offers the refreshing certainties that a conscientious person needs.  So they choose to believe in a geometric world where every right angle is set against another, like their buildings and their streets.

— Simone de Beauvoir, America Day by Day, translated by Carol Cosman, Phoenix, 1998 (originally published 1954)

Lest you assume Ms de Beauvoir turns her nose up at us all, much of her book about her travels in America describes her delight in exploring our country.  If we can still refer to it as “our” country.  The America of just after World  War II was a conservative, awkward place, still wearing its braces and still broken out with the blemishes of a somewhat wild West.  You couldn’t drink much, or late, in Los Angeles.  People didn’t want to talk too much politics with her, although they felt they understood exactly what Europe needed.  Ah, how could they not show some bravado, having just inherited a burden of power they weren’t sure they asked for?

But I digress.  Americans still do tremble at nuance.  Our pound-the- drums two-party system insists we color within the lines.  Of course, I like that about us.  We are bold.  And it kind of makes me nuts, like when we can’t set up a reasonable national health care system because we have to pretend there are only two choices: socialized medicine and slightly tweaking our slightly imperfect current system.  Yes, let’s move on to Art.

Yet at the same time his heart swelled with delight over the adventure the outside world was about to embark upon.  For passion, like crime, is antithetical to the smooth operation and prosperity of day-to-day existence, and can only welcome every loosening of the fabric of society, every upheaval and disaster in the world, since it can vaguely hope to profit thereby.  And so Aschenbach felt a morose satisfaction at the officially concealed goings-on in the dirty alleyways of Venice, that nasty secret which had merged with his own innermost secret and which he, too, was so intent on keeping: he was in love and concerned only that Tadzio might leave, and he realized not without horror that in that event he would not know what to make of his life.

–Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, translated by Michael Henry Heim, Ecco, 2005.

I think this novel (barely a novel) might be one of the most beautiful things I have ever read.  I was so enchanted by it that I read it in one day, in a handful of sittings.  Even odder, I actually underlined and later looked up the words I wasn’t sure about, so I would know exactly what Mann meant (or what Heim thought he meant).  Sirocco.  Eflluvia. Matitudinal.  Apotheosis.  I never do that.  I have a vague idea, enough to keep going, and I keep going.  For this book, my blundering wasn’t good enough.

Crime and passion wait for ice storms and snow days, that is for sure.

I sat at a bar and ate dinner on my white cloth napkin and had one glass of wine, and I thought when the book was over, my face would hold its expressions, and I would not know what to make of my life.  That last part was killer, but this is even worse (in a Michael Jackson sense of bad):

There is nothing more curious or delicate than a relationship between people who know each other only by sight, who encounter and observe each other daily– nay, hourly– yet are constrained by convention or personal caprice to keep up the pretense of being strangers, indifferent, avoiding a nod or a word.  There is a feeling of malaise and overwrought curiosity, the hysteria of an unsatisfied, unnaturally stifled need for mutual acknowledgment and communication, and above all a sort of strained esteem.  For a man loves and respects his fellow man only insofar as he is unable to assess him, and longing is a product of insufficient knowledge.

That just makes me want to hide under the bed.  Okay, one more:

The gods have many shapes.

The gods bring many things

to their accomplishment.

And what was most expected

has not been accomplished.

But god has found his way

for what no man expected.

So ends the play.

The Bacchae by Euripides, translated by William Arrowsmith, University of Chicago Press, 1959

Like most regular people, I haven’t sat and read a lot of ancient Greek plays since college.  I did thoroughly enjoy reading all those plays in college, though.  The coolness and boldness of the language contrasts so sharply with the slung-around slyness of so much clever clever modern dialogue.  It’s pert without being snotty.  They did have the advantage of writing some of our first plays.  They weren’t so worried about sounding stale, I’m sure.

The other advantage they had was  a declining language, which freed them from having to string their sentences like a set of graduated pearls.  Ancient Greek words are hippie multicolored beads you can string to any length, shape, or pattern.  Which makes me slightly jealous, until I remember that we have more words.  So there, Euripedes.