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Saw this on the 6 train as part of MTA's "Poetry in Motion" project. I'm actually not crazy about the rest of her stuff, but I've come to peace with that. And I love this.
To the Reader: Twilight
Whenever I look
out at the snowy
mountains at this hour
and speak directly
into the ear of the sky,
it’s you I’m thinking of.
You’re like the spirits
the children invent
to inhabit the stuffed horse
and the doll.
I don’t know who hears me.
I don’t know who speaks
when the horse speaks.
Bonus: I tried to take a picture of the poem so I could look it up later and Tyler thought I was taking a picture of him. You can guess how he feels about it. (Note the Young Fidel hat.)
Tyler, if you're reading this, I know you're mad at me, but the expression on your face is really great.
You should read this.
I’m constantly aware of lost opportunities. I used to think such lost opportunities were beautiful towns flashing by my train windows, but now I imagine they are lanterns from the past, casting light on what’s ahead.
- Chris Huntington, "Learning to Measure Time in Love and Loss"
"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
1. I don't care if you read this, but I wanted to document this quote:
On a later Burma trip, a cobra squirted venom into his eyes. After a few hours the excruciating pain passed. Joe never paused much over these incidents. He seemed to embody the understanding that a fully natural world includes the possibility that nature can kill us—and afterward glide freely away into the wet grass it came from. That love in any form involves an element of risk.
- Mark Moffett, "Bit"
2. I do actually care if you read this, and you should:
I know the hypnosis, as I'm sure you do, too. You start clicking through photos of your friends of friends and next thing you know an hour has gone by. It's oddly soothing, but unsatisfying. Once the spell is broken, I feel like I've just wasted a bunch of time. But while it's happening, I'm caught inside the machine, a human animated GIF: I. Just. Cannot. Stop.
- Alexis Madrigal, "The Machine Zone"
3. I would also like you to read this:
Part of the patronising promise of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous. “Don’t worry!” that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero’s love interest is an SFC. “Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face.” Sometimes the phrase “not your typical damsel in distress” will be used, as if the writing of pop culture heroines had not moved on even slightly since Disney’s Snow White and as if a goodly percentage of SFCs did not end up, in fact, needing to be rescued.
- Sophia McDougall, "I Hate Strong Female Characters"
Other weddings are so shrewd on the sofa, short
and baffled, bassett-legged. All things
knuckled, I have no winter left, in my sore rememory,
to melt down for drinking water. Shrunk down.
Your wedding slides the way wiry dark hairs do, down
a swimming pool drain. So I am drained.
Sincerely. I wish you every chapped bird on this
pilgrimage to hold your hem up from the dust.
Dust is plural: infinite dust. I will sink in the sun,
I will crawl towards the heavy drawing
and design the curtains in the room
of never marrying you. Because it is a sinking,
because today’s perfect weather is a later life’s
smut. This soiled future unplans love.
I keep unplanning the same Sunday. Leg
and flower, breeze and terrier, I have no garden
and couldn’t be happier. Please, don’t lose me
here. I am sorry my clutch is all
tendon and no discipline: the heart is a severed
kind of muscle and alone.
I can hear yours in your room. I hear mine
in another room. In another’s.
Corinne suggested I listen to this podcast, which apparently has developed a strong fan base among the rest of the Internet. It's presented as a community radio update for a town straight out of HP Lovecraft, and it is SO GOOD. That having been said, I cannot guarantee that you will like it. It's not for everyone.
I think a lot of my affection for it comes from the fact that, as previously documented, I've lived in a LOT of weird places, none of which seem to know that they're weird. I've been working on the Great Bradenton Essay, in a variety of iterations, for what feels like forever, and I still haven't gotten a handle on it, because here are just a few of the things that make that town unique:
- smells like burning oranges
- sometimes you can't swim in the water because of the red tide
- one time I dug up this weird clay-like substance at the beach and no one knew what it was, but everyone's operating theory (I'm not kidding) was "industrial waste"
- pet manatee
- home of the most evil conquistador
- mall named after most evil conquistador
- formerly host of a festival in honor of the most evil conquistador, a festival that has since been revised to include native groups (this came about because of a protest involving said native groups dumping fish guts on the road during the festival parade one year)
- strong sea turtle component in curriculum
- actual school field trip to the dump
- has a beach called Beercan
- sinkholes appear randomly in the road, your yard, my middle school
- alligators in drainage ditches are a real problem and periodically eat puppies
- young people die all the time (I am not trying to be flip about this. I am, however, trying to write about it, and I haven't yet succeeded. Seven people died from the class I would have graduated from, had I not moved away, and this was not that abnormal.)
- home of at least one Internet millionaire and one semi-famous pop-punk musician; said musician was notable in my life for a) being able to play "Great Balls of Fire" in third grade, b) making my mother's life as a volunteer miserable, c) telling us during an "All About Me" presentation that his sister's name backwards spelled "A Rat," and d) making me be "Stepmommy" in an elaborate, grade-wide and weeks-long game of House. His band, for the record, is named after my middle school, the one with the sinkhole issue.
And now my parents reside in a small town in Appalachia with a radio station that is unironically named WETS, and they live in a house next to the most polluted lake in the entire state and have a regular source for buying moonshine. In case you hadn't guessed, it's a weird place too. And I live in the District of Columbia, a city that keeps electing Marion Berry, so.
Again, none of these places plays up the weirdness. In fact, I would venture to say that they don't actually know that a lot of things that happen there aren't...normal; I grew up joking about how Bradenton was crazy, but I definitely didn't get the full picture until I left the state and realized that when I talked about my childhood I got a lot of weird looks. What I'm trying to say is that no one has adopted a tourism slogan that says, "Visit East Tennessee. It's WACKY!"
So that, in a nutshell (a large nutshell), is the main reason that I like Welcome to Night Vale. Despite the fact that the town includes hooded figures, the Sheriff's Secret Police, a glow cloud, and a dog park that you are NOT TO GO NEAR, the presentation as community radio really drives home the fact that this is the town's normal; there's no wink-wink involved. And I think that underscores the fact that there's no such thing as normal, really, not when you get down past the surface of a community. Besides, is there really that much of a difference between a glow cloud and a mysterious scent of burnt oranges that pervades the morning air?
There's a poem by Marcia Southwick called "A Star is Born in the Eagle Nebula." It's an elegy for her ex-husband, the poet Larry Levis, and I remember being sixteen and reading it in the B. Dalton on my break from work:
...In today’s paper four girls
in a photo appear to be tied, as if by invisible threads, to five
soap bubbles floating along the street against the black wall
of the Park Avenue underpass. Nothing earthshattering. The girls
are simply there. They’ve blown the bubbles & are following them
up the street. That’s the plot. A life. Any life.
I always think that maybe I should have grown out of the poetry I loved as a junior in high school. But the fact remains that, like most people, I'm fond of wrestling things into some sort of narrative form. Which makes poems like this one useful even now.
I was reminded of this last night, working on a side project with one of my friends. I'll hold off on the details for now, but what you need to know (for our purposes) is that it's a media production, we have a pile of recordings of high school students but no real chance to collect more, and there's a whole lot of compelling media but not much story. So we kept pacing around my apartment, yelling "WE HAVE NO NARRATIVE" and "WHO'S GOING TO CARE?" and "WHAT WOULD IRA GLASS DO? HUH?" And then - this is totally true - I remembered this poem and I ran to my bookshelf (my apartment is not large, so the running was about five feet), grabbed The Best American Poetry 1999 off the shelf, and started reading it aloud. I would like to think that the girl in the armchair at B. Dalton is proud of me.
The urge to impose a narrative is a pretty strong one, and I have to admit that it was also my initial impulse when I read Francesca Borri's poignant, bitter piece about being a freelance journalist in Syria. In it, she describes what starts to feel like the failure of, well, everything:
Yet we pretend to be here so that nobody will be able to say, “But I didn’t know what was happening in Syria.” When really we are here just to get an award, to gain visibility. We are here thwarting one another as if there were a Pulitzer within our grasp, when there’s absolutely nothing. We are squeezed between a regime that grants you a visa only if you are against the rebels, and rebels who, if you are with them, allow you to see only what they want you to see. The truth is, we are failures. Two years on, our readers barely remember where Damascus is, and the world instinctively describes what’s happening in Syria as “that mayhem,” because nobody understands anything about Syria—only blood, blood, blood.
(Courtesy of my childhood friend Cori, who has some experience with military communications herself.)
You read it, and at first you feel that it's just sort of chaotic and angry, with no clear target for blame and no real call to action (e.g. Stop Covering The War). And you're just like, great, okay, so?
But, of course, I've come to the conclusion that those qualities are what make it great. There's no one entity to blame in her piece, because guess what: wars aren't clear-cut either. Her experience doesn't make sense because war doesn't make sense. She only learns one thing, but it may be all we can learn from conflict:
Had I really understood something of war, I wouldn’t have gotten sidetracked trying to write about rebels and loyalists, Sunnis and Shia. Because really the only story to tell in war is how to live without fear. It all could be over in an instant. If I knew that, then I wouldn’t have been so afraid to love, to dare, in my life; instead of being here, now, hugging myself in this dark, rancid corner, desperately regretting all I didn’t do, all I didn’t say. You who tomorrow are still alive, what are you waiting for? Why don’t you love enough? You who have everything, why you are so afraid?
We can try to impose all the frames we want, but maybe that's not where the value of the story is, after all. It will be a collection of voices, a portrait of the world through the microcosm of experience. Nothing earthshattering. That's the plot.
I want to see dogs wearing crisp uniforms on the first day of school, dogs sitting at little dog desks, dogs gluing together paper pilgrim hats, dogs practicing math problems on educational software or, for a more old-timey feel, sitting in a one-room schoolhouse and writing letters on black slates. I want to see dogs packing Conestoga wagons and setting out west, dogs homesteading, dogs committing atrocities, dogs realizing that atrocities have been committed and taking precautions to ensure that the same atrocities are not committed again. Dogs drafting the Magna Carta. Dogs developing a new, more advanced optical disk storage media format.
I'm not sure what it is about this essay that keeps bringing me back. It's funny, obviously, at least if you're amused by dogs dressed like pioneers (I am). And it sort of indirectly addresses the question of why we are so fascinated by non-humans that resemble humans in some way. But there's also a wistful quality to it that I like - and I don't want to elaborate any more, because I'm not able to say exactly what I want to say. If I figure it out, I'll let you know.
From time to time, you may see a post with the title prefix "MoFT." This stands for "Museum of Favorite Things." I like a lot of things, and I also like keeping records of the things that bring me joy. I know it's kind of an awkward construction, but it's the best I've got. These will be published here and also in a separate list, on the sidebar. (As of this writing, it's not up, but it will be soon.)