March 28, 2013
Dear Mikhail Epstein,
When I first pulled PreDictionary from the shelf, I glanced at your name and skimmed your bio. My mind registered the following facts: your first name was Mikhail; you had come from Russia; you taught at Emory University. Your last name did not register. I started reading the book.
At some point, I must also have recalled the name of another Russian émigré writer, Mikhail Iossel. I don’t know the other Mikhail, but we are “friends” on Facebook, which is probably the logical explanation for this elision. The next time I was at my computer, I decided to look you up on the Internet to see what else you had written.
I searched for “Mikhail Iossel.” I read his bio. Some of the cursory details are similar to yours. You came to the US in 1990. He came to the US in 1986. He writes in English, you write in English (and Russian). He teaches at a university, you teach at a university. The fact that he did not teach at Emory bothered me, but I thought maybe I had misread something.
It didn’t matter that the book had the name “Mikhail Epstein” written in large white letters on a green band emblazoned across the cover. My mind registered “Mikhail Iossel,” and so I was reading his book. It took several days for me to overcome this blindness and realize that you were not, in fact, Mikhail Iossel. You were you, Mikhail Epstein.
I suspect we should, in the spirit of your work, coin a word to describe the phenomenon of temporary mental blindness to the visual presence of a word caused by a false association with its meaning, the registration of which triggers an inability to read the word on the page before you.
I was thinking that “wordblind” might be a possibility. I looked this up. “Word-blindness” is sometimes used in place of “alexia,” a loss of the ability to read caused by lesions on the brain. My spell-checker tells me “wordblind” is not a word. Maybe in a few years it will be.
I once coined a reflexive verb in Spanish. I volunteered for a year in Ecuador working with children in Quito. One of my duties was teaching physical education to third graders. For an hour each morning, I had to keep them occupied with physical activity. Our classes took place in a concrete courtyard behind the school.
One of the games we played was crab soccer. The children would sit on the ground, feet facing forward, palms on the concrete, fingers pointing behind them. They’d use their knees and palms to raise their torsos a few inches off the ground. I would throw a ball among them and they would play soccer while in the crab position.
At first I found it difficult to order them into this position because my Spanish was a little weak, so I invented a verb. The word for crab in Spanish is “cangrejo.” The word I coined was “cangrejerse,” which means something like “crab yourself” or “make yourself like a crab.” The first time I blew my whistle and shouted the command, “Cangrejense, niños!” they immediately understood my meaning. I was proud.
I have yet to find the term in a Spanish dictionary.
“ ” made me think about a course I took with Charles Bernstein in graduate school. One night after a poetry reading — I think it may have been by Gerrit Lansing — we all went out to a bar in Buffalo called Gabriel’s Gate. The food there was awful, but the beer was cheap and they had free popcorn, so it was a good place to drink after a reading.
Charles said he had an idea for a new course he wanted to teach in the fall called “Blank.” I asked what he meant. Were we going to read books about nothingness or emptiness or space? He said no, that his idea was to present a blank syllabus and ask students to fill the semester in themselves. The course would have no reading list, no theme, no direction. We would spend the semester, as it were, filling in the blank — or not filling it in. I thought it was a hilarious and inspired idea.
When the fall semester began, a new crop of students arrived with whatever artistic and intellectual aspirations and expectations they’d brought with them. These apparently did not include a sense of humor. While those who had been around reveled in the play and fun of “blank,” the new students rebelled. They wanted a reading list. They wanted a theme. They wanted a direction. They wanted homework!
The arrival of this group of rebels was the moment the fun of grad school ended for me.
After I finished reading PreDictionary, I wandered around the house thinking about “ .” There was a full moon that night. On my way from the living room to my bedroom, I stopped by my office to plug in my laptop for charging. The moon shone brightly through the glass doors that connect my office to the brick patio in the backyard. I decided to step outside.
I climbed the three steps up to the patio and stared at the moon through the trees. Several tall white pines separate our property from the neighbor’s. I had to peer through the crisscrossed branches to catch a glimpse of the moon. It looked small. Given how much light it was giving off, I would have expected it to be bigger.
I shuffled left, then right, then forward, then back, before I found a spot where I could see the whole moon, unobstructed. I held myself in place and stared at the shining orb. I thought about Mandalas, which made me think of Jung. I wondered if I stared long enough whether I would hypnotize myself or have an out-of-body experience.
Then I started to think about all the “ ” around the moon. The white disc began to waver. A kind of purple corona, a trick of the eye, appeared around it. I shifted left. A small twig obscured my view. I shifted back right. Same thing. I stepped forward, backward, left and right again, but I could not find a clean view.
I tried the opposite. I stepped two steps to the left so that the trunk of a pine blocked my view completely. The light shone against the backs of the trees, throwing them into silhouette. A large limb that had fallen during a hurricane hung in the crotch of a limb about two-thirds of the way up the tree. It became a crucifix. I thought of the scene in Stalker where the writer makes a crown of thorns and places it on his head.
I stepped to the right. I could see the moon again, but I still could not find an unobstructed view. I turned my back to the moon and faced the house. The shadows of the trees danced along the walls. A square of light glowed to my left: the bathroom window. My wife lay soaking in a tub on the other side. On the white blinds covering my daughter’s bedroom window, the shadows of the branches bobbed up and down.
I looked at the stars and I thought of all the “ ” between them. I started to feel a chill. It was mostly quiet. I could hear the hum of cars on the highway in the distance. I took three steps down from the patio, slid open the door. I heard the cats scatter. They must have been watching the whole time.
March 31, 2013 (Easter Sunday)
Dear Kate Greenstreet,
I was reading through the notes at the end of Young Tambling the other night when I discovered a typo. I don’t point this out to be a pedant or a scold. I am probably the last person who should call attention to a typo in someone else’s work, but this one has a story behind it, so here it goes.
You cite an essay by Martha P. Hixton, which in turn cites the Motif Index of Folklore by “Seth [sic] Thompson.” Thompson’s first name is actually “Stith.” I had a hard time with it the first time I saw it, too. What kind of a name is Stith?
The reason I am aware of this is that Stith Thompson is a distant relative. My mother’s maiden name is Thompson. She’s from Detroit, and her father, John Thompson, was from Indianapolis. When my grandfather died, in 1977, he left my mother a book called Denny: Genealogy in England and America.
The book was written by one Christopher Columbus Denny, a descendant of an old New England family that had come to Massachusetts in 1718. One of the Denny clan, Theodore Vernon Denny (b. 1800), a pioneer, left the Denny homestead in Leicester, Massachusetts, at the age of twenty-one and settled in Indianapolis, becoming one of its early citizens. His daughter Martha married into the Thompson family.
One of her sons, John, was my grandfather’s grandfather. John had a sister named Kate, a schoolteacher who never married. For many years, my mother, who hadn’t read the Denny book, thought it had been written by her great Aunt Kate, who everyone referred to as “the spinster.” Somewhat snidely, I should add. When I started reading through it myself, I discovered that Kate was not in fact the author, but the owner of the book. Turns out she had plans for a book of her own.
I am, it seems, very distantly related to Abraham Lincoln by way of a direct descendant of his mother’s first cousin. I tried to figure this out one day. Old Abe is a fourth cousin once removed or something like that. I accrue no benefit from this relation (or any other, truth be told). Aunt Kate had hoped to establish this family connection to Lincoln.
Another motive drove her research, however. She wanted to disprove the story (true, it turns out) that the president’s mother, Nancy Hanks, was born out of wedlock. She did extensive research on the Shipley, Mitchell, and Thompson families in Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
Kate died in 1942, when my mother was five. She never published her work. Twenty of her notebooks compiled between 1874 and 1932 ended up at Indiana University in Bloomington, where Stith Thompson taught for many years. I think he was responsible for her papers being placed there. She may have willed them to him when she died. I am not sure, as I haven’t visited the archive.
Stith Thompson actually did write a book that traced the lineage of the Shipley, Mitchell, and Thompson families, based on Kate’s work. I tracked down a photocopy. According to cousin Stith, the Thompsons started out in Maryland before heading south into Virginia, and eventually west into Kentucky. Upon entering Kentucky, the group of settlers was attacked by Native Americans, and the father and mother were slain.
One of the daughters was taken captive. Her brother searched for her for several years, eventually buying her freedom from a trapper and returning her to Kentucky. She went to live on a cousin’s farm, where she was raised alongside Nancy Hanks, Lincoln’s mother. It’s a classic captivity narrative, so I take it with a grain of salt.
At some point, the Thompson clan moved for a brief period to Indianapolis but then decided they preferred Kentucky. Except, that is, for one member of the family: John Thompson, who remained. My family springs from John. Stith came from the Kentucky clan.
Apparently, Ben Marcus used Thompson’s Motif Index of Folk Literature as the basis for his book The Age of Wire. I have read neither.
I did read the rest of Young Tambling, by the way. The image of the severed deer with the recording device lodged in its torso troubled my sleep for days.
June 30, 2013
Dear Garrett Caples,
I wonder what the statute of limitations is for publicly responding to a book. Having just finished Complications, I looked at the copyright date and realized it was published in 2007. Mainstream book reviews run within a few weeks or months of the publication. Others usually within a year. Poetry seems to operate on an altogether different timeline, with reviews coming out within, say, two to three years of a book’s publication.
Perhaps it takes a lot longer to get a poetry book into someone’s hands. Perhaps because poetry and poetry book reviewing both operate on a gift economy, it is harder for someone to find the “free” time that they can “spend” reading and writing about a book. Perhaps poetry just has a longer shelf life than other forms of writing. To answer my own question, I guess there is no statute of limitations.
Since this isn’t a review, per se, I guess it’s a moot point.
It took me about a week to read Complications. We’d been having a very wet June here in Connecticut. It seemed like it rained all day every day throughout the month. And then the sun came out, and the temperature rose into the nineties. It’s now very humid. Your book is lying on my desk, and the moisture in the air has caused the cover to curl.
I began reading it before work. I wake at 6:30 every day and try to lock myself away to write for an hour or so. It’s not a lot of time, but I am freshest in the morning, so I can usually get a fair amount done. Trying to write at the end of the day or while I am at the office is next to impossible.
My usual breakfast is a smoothie made with home-brewed kefir, frozen fruit, flaxseed, and whey protein. I mix it all up in a blender, pour a cup of strong coffee, then head to my study. On this particular morning, I used peanut butter and ice instead of frozen fruit. The humidity in the study caused the glass to sweat. A modest drop of condensation slid off the side of the glass and wet the page I was reading. I drew a circle around the spot and noted the date, 6/24/13.
You were talking about how “buildings repeat / broken objects.”
I finished reading up to that poem before heading to work. The next morning, I noticed that there was already some water damage to the upper right-hand corner of pages 19–32. This damage occurs mostly to the poem “Synth.” I made a note of this. Then I left the room to get a cup of coffee.
It’s always a danger to leave the room in the morning. Anything can break my concentration. I managed to read a little further, but then my twenty-one-month-old daughter started banging on the door of my office screaming “Song, song, song!” She recently discovered that I keep my guitar hidden away in the closet of my study. She likes to strum it with a plectrum while I hold the chords down for her. That ended my concentration for the morning.
The last line I read was “poetrys / not a / job / its a set / of dentures.”
“A Young Girl Recalls Meeting Erich von Stroheim” made me think of Theatre 80 on St. Mark’s Place in New York. Most of what I know about film came from attending films there in the early nineties. The theater was run by an older couple, Florence and Howard Otway. I used to talk to Florence at the ticket window. Howard was not well at the time and eventually died. This was the end of the theater. The last film they showed was “Sunset Boulevard.” I also remembered the image of the cracked desert floor near the end of Stroheim’s Greed.
In the midst of all of this, the Voting Rights Act was gutted, and DOMA was declared unconstitutional. This happened just before I read the poem “Ordinary History America.”
It’s funny how information sometimes begins to accumulate. The more focused you become on a subject, the more you notice its presence everywhere. This same week you published a response to Kenny Goldsmith’s “Printing the Internet” exhibition. I probably would not have noticed the essay online had I not been reading your book.
I read the long last poem on 6/28/13. Given its one-word-per-line structure, I thought it would be a quick read, but it took me quite a while to get through it. One-word lines remind me of a bass drum pounding over and over and over. Boom boom boom boom!
The thumping became knocking, and I realized my daughter was again banging on the door of my study. I let her stand there for another minute while I read the last lines of the book, “puke / poem / keep / sake,” then I opened the door. “Song! Song! Song! Song!” she screamed.
So I took out my guitar and sang “Lost Highway” by Hank Williams.
A review of Jen Currin’s ‘School’
I bought Jen Currin’s School at Seattle’s beloved Open Books: A Poem Emporium. A friend encouraged me to get the collection, so I did.
The epigraph for School is a Lao Tzu quote: “I confess that there is nothing to teach” (5). I found myself nodding and saying out loud, “because it’s all learning.” Still, this is neither a didactic book nor a moralistic instructional. It is too nonlinear to be either. Yet poems like “A Week of Silence,” “Friendships (Unlikely),” “Fragmented Lesson Plan[s],” “Imperfect Teachers,” “Possibilities of Zen” allow us to look more deeply at teaching, what’s taught, and various different kinds of learning.
For me, School is about the ways in which life elucidates the connection (or lack thereof) between human beings, the balance between vulnerability and drawing lines, and the importance of staying present and embracing change. As compelling as what Currin’s saying is how she says it. Her work vibrates in what I call the sensual infrastructure: a logic of the senses that takes up residence in intuition’s heart-mind circuitry. This is not a book raw with emotion. Feeling is processed in a manner of speaking — through intimate distances and analytical but tender observations. These contradictions often occupy the same breath: intimate but cool, sharply intelligent but compassionate. And this is one of the things I deeply admire about School.
The first poem, “The Conditions,” lays out what I presume to be the conditions of teaching and learning and not simply a learning of standard school subjects. In her poem “Increasingly,” Currin writes: “We want all want someone to release us. / It’s too painful / in this cage” (13). Currin places us all in the same frame, in which where “we” want to learn how to better negotiate suffering. Another poem states: “Other people are not just relationships” (11). I understand this to mean that other people have lives outside of their relationship to us. An other’s context determines her past, present, and future learning and a view of the world entirely her own. Later in the poem, the speaker explains: “Someone is leaving; someone is left. / Not the end of the world, just the end of a world” (11). The piece implies a maturing conception of loss. It’s just the end of a world.
The speaker of one of my favorite poems, “A Whole Wind,” contemplates an old self:
Tribes/tribal/hive-mind: the old way of loving.
A relentless tallying, a keeping track —
& calling this relationship. (46)
I first interpreted Currin’s first line as negative , especially in relation to the lines that follow. I thought about “the old way of loving” as a tribe mentality that might lead to compromised boundaries. Then I began to read the tribal or hive-mind more as an evocation of interconnectedness — an “old way of loving” outside of the new way set in a violent system entrenched in capitalism and opportunistic self-involvement. The “relentless tallying” and tracking by contrast is a tit-for-tat way of relating to other human beings and, according to the poem, not ideal.
Here and throughout the book, Currin beautifully explores a balance between vulnerability and setting boundaries. One of the ways in which she engages that dance is through her speaker’s keen observations. In “The Unfamiliar Gloves,” Currin writes, “It was so long go, when breakfast was coffee, cigarettes, & fatigue” (69). Observation is not numbed like “so long ago.” There is an ability to be in the world more authentically, more openly.
“What would it take?” Currin writes: “We could all be suddenly honest. / We could all surprise. / That careful other silence” (14). There are different kind of silences alluded to here. There is a silence of oppression rather than a productive silence of meditation. Which silence is being surprised? I think it is the silence of oppression — a silence “careful” and guarded and stifling.
Later in the book, Currin writes: “The learning is in trying. / I’ve lifted the sky from my back” (84). To be able to learn, one must make the attempts. And those attempts are at once new burdens and flight. “Learning is not enough friend. / Now we must begin to practice. / We must do it differently this time” (99). It is not only learning that is important but also putting what’s learned into practice.
In terms of formal invention, there are these leaps in meaning between lines and stanzas. Actually less like leaps, these are more like long, drawn-out es curves in the highway. Those bends between lines produce gaps in meaning that the reader must traverse. And those spaces beautifully render or embody the difficulty of learning (or being open to learning), the (in)ability for language to connect us, the fragility of relationships, and a life always in flux.
To illustrate, below is Currin’s “The Conditions,” along with my notes responding line by line. This is a beautiful poem; appreciate it once or twice without my italicized notes.
Other people are not just relationships.
It’s not all about you.
It’s morning, and the sun is setting.
Time goes quickly.
Maybe you made the librarian look bad.
Maybe you did something wrong that made that person behave poorly to you.
Clean the dust from your shrine.
Keep altars present.
‘Cheerfully accept these conditions, determined by your past lives.’
Karma, this is spiritual language.
My plants suffer in the winter.
So say we all. We have things in common.
Maybe they keep the café door open so the customers will get cold
and buy more coffee or leave.
Theorizing the mundane.
We have all tried to keep someone/something alive.
We have that in common too. And survival.
Someone is leaving; someone is left.
Always the departures.
Not the end of the world, just the end of a world.
Less dramatic and timely.
I spent ten minutes crouched in a bookroom with my students, listening to the computerized
‘armed assailant’ warning play over and over
Here is training for potential violence.
After that, I was less afraid
What makes you less afraid?
We are both changing, and we can’t change that.
Change is unavoidable.
What are you are washing is just a body.
Just a shell (Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary).
What I am mourning is just this.
Mourning this shell, fragile and transitory.
Before we were born, you asked me.
You asked me and I said yes.
In this poem, and in School, I often have the feeling that I am moving through some liminal sphere. In that zone, Currin manages to hold many things on a page: teaching and learning, mind and body, strength and fragility. It’s in that twilight space, in the space where we begin to wake and learn, Currin’s book schools us.
I woke up so slowly, friend. It was like
midnight had given me
pictures of all the answers
& now I had to sort through them. (59)
March 13, 2013
Dear Diane Wald,
Two days ago I received a large box in the mail. It looked as if it had been bounced around in a washing machine for several days. Two corners were crushed. It survived the journey from Pennsylvania to Connecticut thanks to yards of clear packing tape wrapped around it. There were thirty-five books of poetry inside, one of them yours.
It will come as no surprise that I had never heard your name before reading Wonderbender, poetry publishing being as prolific and diffuse as it is. When I first started writing, I could name most of the poetry presses and many of their authors. Now it’s difficult to figure out how many are publishing in certain parts of Brooklyn.
But I am always interested in connections, degrees of separation. I was curious to see how many degrees there were between us. I flipped to the back cover to see who’d written the blurbs. I had never heard of Patrick Lawler, Laurie Sheck, or John Skoyles. Perhaps there were more than I thought.
I had heard of 1913 Press, though. In fact, just last weekend I attended a performance at AWP in Boston celebrating the tenth anniversary of 1913. I went to see my old professor and friend Charles Bernstein read but arrived late and missed his reading. I sat in the back row next to Peter Gizzi. Do you know Peter? He lives in Massachusetts, too.
I did catch the end of a performance by Black Took Collective. They wore paper Justin Bieber masks and danced around the room.
I read the whole book in three sittings on consecutive nights.
The first night, Monday, I read on the couch while listening to BBC Three. We had just watched Roberto Rossellini’s India Matri Bhumi. They were playing Chopin. I read up to the poem called “Ptarmigan.” A ptarmigan is a medium-sized game bird.
The second night we watched Skyfall, the latest James Bond film, starring Daniel Craig. My wife says Daniel Craig is “simian.” I remember learning that word in a medieval lit class. I listened to BBC Three again afterwards, but I don’t remember what they played. I got as far as the poem “Prussian Blue” before going to bed.
Last night we watched Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, with its bloodred sets and spiteful sisters. On BBC Three they played dreamy early twentieth-century music, Debussy or something like that. I am not much of a classical music buff, though I find myself listening to it more often as I approach middle age.
One thing I rarely do is write in my books. I hate having the pages all marked up because I am afraid I will read them again and get angry at myself for having vandalized the site of my encounter. But since I need to remember things in order to write about them, I have taken notes on the cover page of Wonderbender.
I looked up the words “bollixed” and “veridical” on my phone. To “bollix” is to throw into confusion. I sort of knew what “veridical” meant, but I needed to double-check. I kept thinking “vertical,” then I was thinking “green” as in “vert,” and then I looked it up, and it means “truthful” or “veracious.”
Later that night
Writing this letter, I am reminded of what it was like to be interrupted writing physical letters back in the days before email. I wrote lots of them as a teenager and into my twenties. My letter-writing had ceased almost completely by the time I turned thirty.
I used to feel slightly guilty about returning to a letter after an interruption. For some reason, I thought that the veridicality of my epistolary self depended on a kind of temporal continuity which when broken, for instance by the need to go to work in the morning, required an explanation. To continue an interrupted paragraph without alerting the reader felt like lying.
Growing up Catholic will do that to you.
Your bio says you were born (like William Carlos Williams) in Paterson, NJ, then moved to Massachusetts in 1972. I keep thinking about that formulation. It masks your age. I tried to figure how old you were when you left New Jersey. It doesn’t really matter, I guess. My brother was born in 1972.
Tonight we watched an upsetting documentary called Five Broken Cameras. It’s about a Palestinian village being encroached upon by Israeli settlers. I don’t watch many political documentaries. They disturb me so much, I feel the need to disturb other people by describing them.
On my last night in Boston, I rode to Jamaica Plain in a cab with a poet, a translator, and an artist. (There’s the beginning of a joke in there somewhere.) We arrived in time to catch the last five minutes of a poetry reading in an art gallery. I didn’t really want to go, but my friend visiting from England insisted. I wanted to see him, so I followed.
After the reading we went to a bar down the street. We drank and talked about Italian films until my eyes began to fill with sleep. I said my goodbyes and asked how to get back to my hotel. The translator, who lives in the neighborhood, told me to walk straight up the street until I ran into the Forest Hills station on the Orange Line.
I walked a few blocks in the cold until I arrived at a lighted shelter with a train map. I saw the tracks you mentioned embedded in the asphalt, the rails snaking off in several disorienting directions. I wandered bollixed in the dark until I realized that the station was half a block away and the train ran underground.
There were a few other things I wanted to talk to you about. The Infant of Prague. The coelacanth. The conversation I had with an AT&T customer service representative in India named Grace. I’ve probably said too much already. I am still not sure what “Wonderbender” means, but I like the way it sounds.