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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Freedom


I've just finished Jonathan Franzen's novel, Freedom.  Described by Time Magazine as the new "great American novelist," Franzen lives up to the rep he was given even before Freedom came out. This is indeed the exploration of a quintessentially American idea, and connects Franzen with other writers who have explored one of America's founding principles, writers that include Jefferson, Lincoln, Emerson, Thoreau, Hemingway, Martin Luther King.  But Franzen takes an approach to the idea of freedom that would perhaps surprise his antecedents.  In his novel, it is not freedom that allows people to bloom and thrive; it is responsibility. Freedom allows his characters to drift; it makes some of them depressed while it turns others misanthropic.

In an essay I make my students read for their Historical Methods course, Stephen Greenblatt argues that while culture can be thought of as all the effluvia--ideas, events, arts, politics, cellphones and HD TV, ballet flats and Nike runners--that swirls in the world around us, that concept is uselessly broad for insightful analysis.  He suggests instead that culture gestures both toward the mobility it affords us and toward the constraints it imposes.  The constraints are expressed in a society's rules, its system of punishment, but also in its material culture.  Mobility, without which constraint is meaningless, is often found in subversive art, in the ways we improvise our way around the constraints.  We find a way to get back at our control-freak boss that eludes detection (or we dream about it); we get slightly drunk at family Thanksgiving so we can have an excuse to tell tight-assed Aunt Milly what we really think of her knee-jerk ideology that frees her from the responsibility of independent thought.  Then, of course, we wink; don't take us seriously--we're a bit drunk.

At the current moment, technology seems to offer us mobility:  we can surf the net from anywhere; we can negotiate business deals while choosing the right kind of canned tomatoes at the grocery store; our vehicles--particularly the trucks and four-wheel-drives--can take us anywhere.  But Greenblatt might observe that this technology also represents a constraint.  What does it mean that your boss can reach you anywhere, any time?  What price do you pay for the vehicle that will go anywhere--and figure that both in dollars and in damage to the environment.

Greenblatt also suggests that some cultures attempt to achieve as much constraint as possible, while others quest for perfect mobility. We can see, for example, that China's one child policy imposes constraints.  Consider its effects on a couple's intimate life or on a woman's relationship to her body when she is encouraged to abort a female fetus.  America surges toward as much mobility as possible, as might be articulated in its gun laws or in its promise that "anyone can be president."

It's almost as if Franzen had read Greenblatt's essay, for he has a gift of seeing the constraint in the mobility.  Take Patty, for example, the young gifted basketball player who settles down with Walter Berglund in the 70s, in an old house that the two of them renovate in an effort to create the perfect life that gestures toward tradition as well as toward modern outlooks.  Walter makes enough money that Patty doesn't need to work, so she stays home with the kids well after they've entered school.  After all, she likes the freedom.  But that freedom comes with some fairly possessive parenting that backfires big time, some debilitating depression, some damaging desires.  (Spoiler alert!)  Only once Walter has kicked Patty out and she rediscovers the joy of working with young children and of shaping young athletes is Patty, in that almost quintessentially American expression, happy. This is true of other characters as well:  responsibility and connection to others create fruitful, satisfying lives.  Endless desires that can never be sated do not.

We read, I tell my creative writers, for the experience, not for the message.  That could be said of the way we relate to any work of art.  It's the experience of Rothko's enormous, sombre, nuanced paintings that make the Rothko room at Britain's Tate Modern one of the quietest rooms in an otherwise exuberant gallery.  It's the experience of a piece of music that raises the hair on your arms.  Similarly, it's the experience of Franzen's characters, and the ease with which we identify with them that precedes, even in a novel with a portentous title like Freedom, our analysis of Franzen's ideas.

But I also have a bad habit as a reader--or a good one, perhaps.  I can't help reading like a writer.  Franzen evokes this habit in me when he allows his characters to talk about environmental issues like habitat preservation or population growth without it seeming like the author is preaching at me, and getting between me and my experience of the characters and the narrative.  How'd he do that, I asked myself at the end of a scene where Walter tries to convince his old friend Katz to join him in his plans to motivate young people to think about these issues.  The answer is twofold.  First, Walter has a rather odd, sometimes naive (though always well-informed) take on these issues; we easily recognize the moments when he's on the wrong tangent; we see what's human about Walter's enthusiasms, and how the human gets in the way of idealism.  Second, we hear the conversation from Richard Katz's much more cynical point of view, so there's an added layer of critique and commentary.   

Franzen is a ventriloquist when it comes to dialogue.  That's part of the experience of the novel:  the opportunity to eavesdrop on conversations that sound believable, spontaneous, and human.  My favourite here is a conversation late in the novel that occurs when Walter Berglund, whose family cottage has been overtaken by the suburbs, tries to convince a Christian fundamentalist mother to keep her cat in the house so it won't kill the birds.  Walter's up on his data; he knows that roughly half a million birds are killed every years by loose housecats.  But armed with fervour and facts, he fails to use tact.  Meanwhile, the mother is up on her Christianity and knows that cats are here for our use, as are the trees and land and birds.  She knows her cat, who is a member of the family, likes to go outside, in spite of the fact that it never talks to her.  So it's her godgiven right to put out the cat to kill the godgiven birds.  This scene is a brilliant evocation of world views in collision.

I cannot say, however, that this is a well-shaped novel.  I struggled to understand why some events deserved rather long and tedious scenes (like Joey's South American trip with the physically beautiful but hideously self-centred Jenna) while others (like daughter Jessica's insight into Patty's need for a job that meant something and her observation that Patty clearly liked young kids so...) got summarized in an off-handed way.  In fact, Jessica generally gets short shrift, while self-centred Joey gets tedious in his inability to be satisfied by anything.  We get family history at the most unpredictable moments, as if just then Franzen has discovered the background to a new facet of his characters.  So the novel seems somewhat provisional--not a bad thing, perhaps, for a meditation on freedom.  I'm grateful to Franzen for his exuberance, his ability with a couple of gestures to evoke an historical moment, his understanding of the human even as we strive to transcend it.

From my pre-retirement point of view, Walden Pond, and Thoreau's exhortation to "simplify!  Simplify!" exemplifies freedom.

The photograph of trees at Walden Pond is by Veronica Geminder, whose work can be found here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Turning Sixty-one

 I turned sixty-one on St. Patrick's Day with the same sense of relief and liberty I felt when I turned sixty.  A year ago I remember telling Bill and Veronica that it's as if I'm finally the age I'm meant to be, and I continue to feel that.  Sometimes.  Other times I have to remind myself that I'm an adult, not a teen or twenty-something.  I wonder what that means?

At sixty, I decided to drop out of the fray, where a lot of self-dramatizing heat is generated but not much light.  Perhaps it's that I have enough history behind me that I realize that the newest crisis (is some diligent administrator wondering, again, what the English Department is up to?) is just business as usual.  I wonder, for example, how many earthquakes and tropical storms have occurred in my lifetime?  So the "mini-disasters" that loom on the professional horizon are gradually projected against the context of real wars, against the loss of homes and lives and stability.  Perhaps having history behind me is also humbling:  I'm not the centre of the universe, thank goodness.  When others feel threatened, as if disaster's about to strike, it's my job, first, to be very still and to listen carefully.  Then I try to bring some perspective to bear without mocking anyone else's take on things.

We'll have to see what my students think this term, but I also think that being sixty-one is changing my teaching.  Last year at this time, I was trying to throw pots to do research for Soul Weather, my next novel, which has a young ceramicist as a main character.  I'm a terrible potter, but that doesn't mean I didn't learn anything.  I learned that you can work very hard at something and still not be very good, so our students need their dignity to be left in tact when they don't do well in English classes.  I also learned that it's very hard, on a beautiful spring afternoon, to go into a windowless pottery studio and practice something you have absolutely no feel for.  In fact, it's very hard to practice anything you're not particularly good at.

I also feel less compelled to diagnose and figure out how to "fix" the "weaknesses" of the current generation of students because I'm not going to be teaching them much longer.  Instead, I opt for curiosity.  Find out where they are and take them farther.  There's no point berating them for where they are, and it isn't something any individual can fix; it's the product of a very complex society, culture, and education system, of things like the internet, which has probably created the most enormous change human beings have ever experienced.  It's not something I'm going to "fix," though I can perhaps urge them to be self-reflective about the forces awash around them.  Curiosity continues to be a good friend.  Much better than making judgements.

In fact, except when it comes to the environment, I want to "fix" things less.  About a year ago, Veronica offered me a wonderful motto to go along with "just be curious":  you can't fix all the idiots.  But please, can't we have some leadership so that I don't have to go around in the dead of night putting "the power of my car is in inverse ratio to the size of my penis" bumpers stickers on SUVs and Hummers?" 

I can now admit that I'm not very good at multi-tasking; my senior brain finds it a stretch.  Maybe this allows me to be a reality check for those in my life, particularly my students, who are multi-tasking their way to wherever the opposite of being in the present moment is.  In fact, I'm feeling a certain adolescent rebellion (is being a senior essentially a third adolescence--the first one being the terrible twos?) against a society that demands I live my life at a certain speed and a certain level of instantaneous connection.  Right now, zany Sheba is purring and bathing while she's leaned against my left thigh.  That's important.  So are the birds outside my kitchen window and the music of our second language learners' voices in the University of Regina hallways.

Because I'm finding it harder to multi-task, I have a wonderful crew of imaginary friends (particularly in the kitchen after a complicated day) that I can talk to.  At least that's what I tell Bill, who wonders if I'm talking to him.

I've spend most of my professional career feeling as if I'm a fake who's just about to be discovered.  Feeling like you're a fake continues to dog women and academics (because you can never know enough).  Something complicated has happened here.  First, I feel much less like a fake.  I think, again, it's having history at my back, having years and years of experience and thought behind me.  I'm not a brilliant scholar, but I love stories, words, and ideas--a love I can pass on to the young, whom I merely guide to finding their own ways of understanding them.  But second, it doesn't really matter because most of us are just doing our best, joyfully making it up as we go along.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A day inside poetry


"For every poet it is always morning in the world.  History a forgotten, insomniac night.  History and elemental awe are always our early beginning, because the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of history." 
                           Derek Walcott's 1992 Nobel Prize acceptance speech



I took a "mental health day" on Friday:  it's the first time since Mother died that there wasn't something I had to do, reinforcing my sense that we spend too much time doing and not enough time being ("Time and Being," January 14).  My original plans were to drive to Moose Jaw, to The Quilt Patch and Quilter's Haven, to look for fabric that would let me finish up some quilts, but the white-out on the No. 1 between here and Moose Jaw intervened.  Looking back, I see how serendipitous the weather was, that it forced me to do exactly what was best for me:  stay put for a change.  So I began the day with a cat on my lap and a large cup of hot coffee, reading Karen Solie's Griffin Poetry Prize-winning book, Pigeon.  I read these lines, and immediately behaved like an undergraduate:

                                              Circling,
a red-tailed hawk pinpoints the moving detail
of his meal in the big picture.

Karen's poems are deeply committed to the environment.  Even if poems like "Four Factories" don't seem to be on topics we casually (but wrongly) think poetry "naturally" covers, her work represents nature as it is and nature as we have made it.  The hawk in "The World of Plants" isn't a sentimentalized hawk--what hungry hawk can be?  Once on a grid road around the Cypress Hills, Bill and I startled a hawk with a small rabbit who took off with his prey, wiping blood and shit across the hood of the car and the windshield, so I don't think I'd trust a sentimentalized hawk.  Yet I immediately appropriated Karen's lines for what seemed my own purpose that day:  for thinking about and inside poetry, for considering its paradoxes.

Derek Walcott's quotation, which has been taped to my office door for several weeks, certainly conveys one of the paradoxes of poetry:  it both eludes and is implicated in history.  The fountainhead of the lyric poem is the moment when one rediscovers one's love of morning, of the day, of the day's light--whether bitter or reluctant or golden;  consequently, the poem's epicentre, the place where the pebble has been dropped in the Walden Pond of experience, is the intensity of the present moment. The poets I most enjoy, however, explore the way this moment ripples out into other moments--into history, into cosmic time.

Karen's image of the hawk, springing from its context where it denotes something quite different, seemed to me to capture another of poetry's paradoxical qualities.  Like poetry, the hawk's eyes are on the "moving detail" of a meal, but the only way it can maintain that kind of focus is to keep the big picture well in view.  Similarly, the lyric poem homes on a particular node or knot, an image, a gesture, or a tone of voice, yet it tries to ripple out to touch the edges of the rest of the world .  Poetry is both in close and far away;  it's implicated in history and yet preoccupied with the present moment.

When you're living inside poems, in the words of other writers or in your own struggle for language, you notice everything:  Sometimes I think this is one of poetry's gifts:  the invitation to notice everything, to feel as if everything has meaning, or to struggle with the world's refusal to mean.  You try to interpret the graffiti in the back lane.  You notice the way the snow acts like sand to make whirlpools in the street and consider the paradoxical similarity between snow and sand when they are the wind's playthings:  they way they pirouette and ride the wind into scalloped or striated arpeggios of rifts.  You notice the paleness of everything once the sun reluctantly comes out.  In the tentative light you see the world through freshly-squeezed lemonade.

So because the weather was hopeless and miserable, there was nothing for it but to start the poems about my mother.  I've got a cadence and a few images.  Nothing I want to show anyone yet.  But I'm past that awful moment when you must leap the Grand Canyon that lies between your conception and what you can actually get language to do.

The image of the quilt at the top of this post has nothing to do with the post at all, except that I didn't feel like having my picture appear, again, in the Facebook thumbnail.  Part of being "orphaned into my mortality," as my friend Deborah Morrison described me, has been to finish projects.  The blocks for that quilt had been sitting around for quite a long time and when I last tried to put them together, I hit a snag.  There's a half-inch arc that must be exactly half an inch, or the seams don't line up.  Somehow, I had the patience Saturday night and Sunday morning to pick out some stitches and re-sew the seams that were making it hard to join the blocks.  It's the first of my quilts that I've named; called "All colours," it includes every single colour there is.  You can't see the red, because Twig is settled on it.  Sheba's on the small patch of orange.

Quilt magazines occasionally publish articles on how to take good photographs of your quilts.  I've broken every one of their rules.  Really, you should photograph your quilts hanging vertically, preferably not with someone standing behind it holding it gingerly at the corners, their feet visible at the bottom.  You shouldn't climb up on a stepstool to see what the quilt looks like when you can see more of it at once.  And of course, while I climbed up onto the stool that usually holds my bedtime reading, both Twig and Sheba leapt onto the top to check it out.  I don't know what it is about cats and quilts, but arrange a few blocks on the bed to see how they look together, and you'll find you have a cat. 

The other project I've finished is the Frozen Leaves shawl I wrote about in my Woolgathering post, where I talked about the fact that knitting complicated lace takes just enough concentration that it stills my insomniac "grasshopper mind."  I had to do the edging three times to get it right, but it was worth it.  And yes, I've started a new lace shawl, which has been good company on several sleepless nights. 

Do you know why I'm suddenly motivated to finish projects that have been languishing, sometimes, for several years?  It's not simply that I'm afraid I'm going to die tomorrow.  So why is it?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Talking Fresh 9

This is the ninth year in a row that Luther College, inspired and led by Gerry Hill, has teamed up with the Saskatchewan Writers' Guild to bring writers in the province a bit of spring inspiration.  This year it was called the "Saskatchewan Poetry Summit," and included a panel, readings, and presentations by Brenda Schmidt, Karen Solie, Dan Tysdal, and Michael Trussler.  The first event was a panel moderated by poet Katherine Lawrence, on the subject of Saskatchewan poetry.  Can one identify something one can name, with any confidence, "Saskatchewan poetry"?

Brenda Schmidt began by talking about coming to Saskatchewan and finding on one of those rotating wire bookracks in a cafe in Outlook Barbara Klar's book of poems, Blue Field.  Klar's acknowledgements--to organizations like the SWG and to poets who had inspired her, became Schmidt's first "map" of Saskatchewan poetry.  Schmidt also quoted Anne Szumigalski's sense that in Saskatchewan (perhaps anywhere?) the physical landscape becomes an internal one.  Brenda went on to create some elegant metaphors; if "Saskatchewan" meant "swift-flowing river," perhaps "Saskatchewan" referred to a swiftly flowing river of poetry.  If Saskatchewan's watersheds are inter-connected, so are its poets.  The bedrock of Saskatchewan poetry includes writers like Anne Szumigalski, Andy Suknaski, Tim Lilburn.

Michael Trussler called his brief paper "Dream Song for Eli Mandel."  Michael worked with Mandel when he lived in Toronto; the "Dream Song" of the title refers to the poems of John Berryman.  Michael chose to shift the conversation away from place toward time.  If a human being is, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, "a gathering around a complexity," then one of poetry's strategies might be to create moments of temporal simultaneity that articulate existential and ethical entanglements between people who are temporally 'other.'  These days, Michael is preoccupied by wondering who he's writing to;  because space is non-discursive, you can't write to it.   Michael's paper ended with a mind experiment that encouraged us to imagine Proust and Mandel sharing the same compartment on a train at opposite ends of the twentieth century.

In a less scripted mode, Karen Solie spoke of reading Frank O'Hara's poetry and finding it captured New York City, although O'Hara moved there after growing up in Baltimore and Massachussetts and studying at Harvard and the University of Michigan.  O'Hara's poetry is full of detail that evokes NY; for Karen, it's that detail that matters, not some pure description of place.  Putting one detail next to another allows them to resonate to create the effect poetry has that is almost beyond or even outside  its words.

For Dan Tysdal, Saskatchewan speaks of poetry's openness to invention.  It's a place where forces collide.  In his memory, these forces include stealing Wolfman toys (and being startled by his mother's response) and making hollow point bullets (and being startled by what they do to a bird you shoot).   It's the rocky terrain of local culture coming up against its larger context and setting up conflict and resonance.  Later when the discussion ranged more widely, Dan observed that moving to Toronto for graduate school took him off guard.  Although he'd gone there specifically to write poems, observing Toronto and Torontonians made Dan want to write fiction, not poetry.  So there's a hint, a suggestion that different places get under our skin in different ways, setting up or evoking a different view of the world, a different way of observing and seeing that plays itself out in our choice of genre.

For me, there are two qualities of the Saskatchewan landscape that are almost synonymous with poetry:  its spaciousness (which sometimes seems generous to me and sometimes seem like the landscape of a Beckett play to Michael) and its light.  For what else does poetry do but to try to create, in its readers, the light with which to see something new, startling, and unfamiliar, and the space to create, to play, to muse, to wonder?

Dear panelists:  if I've misrepresented you in any way, email and set me straight.  I'll revise the blog straightaway.  I'll also admit that my student days of taking coherent notes are far behind me!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Words

When my father died five years ago, my reaction was mainly philosophical.  He had been ill and largely silent for so long that each time I'd leave him, I assumed it was the last time we'd see one another.  I'd get on the plane in Atlanta and begin my mourning, making notes for poems like "Moving Day in Georgia."  When he died, I lived with more deliberation, made choices that before wouldn't even have seemed like choices.  I said "No."   (In fact, my father's last words were appropriately rebellious.  He told his nurse "No!  I'll eat tomorrow!")

My mother's death has been quite different.  During the last week, I've felt periods of normalcy, even moments of relief.  I'd find myself worrying about how we're going to manage inserting an IV when the next UTI invades her body, then remember that the need to worry about how frightened and resistant she could be is over.  But there have also been times when my feelings of loss seemed to arrive in a blue, nameless mood.  I feel homeless in a peculiar way.  There are other metaphors; my friend Jeanne Shami talked about feeling as if her orbit has lost its gravitational centre.

For years, deconstructionists like Derrida argued that there was no transcendental signifier, no single word like "God" or "being" that guaranteed the meaning of other words.  We live in a sea of    differences where each word is only partly defined by what it is not.  Cat is not bat, because one begins with C and the other with B. 

[We might have gotten the two confused, however, when the two words merged for an instant above my bed last summer when my cat Sheba brought down a bat with a single deadly accurate leap, paws outstretched.  I rescued the bat, which lived to echolocate the tale.] 

More recently, Derrida has declared that the transcendental signifier is justice, a sentiment I share in my more optimistic moments.   Right now, people in Egypt and Libya and Yemen are hoping for this. 

In the face of such enormous brave hopes, I won't suggest that the transcendental signifier is "Mother," and besides I mean the comparison metaphorically, not literally.  It's as if "Mother" is a kind of primal word; when that word is gone, the meanings of other words shift and sway a little, as if blown by the wind, as if shrugging their shoulders with a question rather than firmly declaring their meaning.  Forgive me, then, if the title of the poem below seems all wrong to me:  memories, no matter how insubstantial they are, are never "nothing"; a life, even gone, is never nothing.  Yet that's the only word I've got.  Can you help me find a better one?  The poem is not just about "nothing," but about how hard it is, even for artists, to capture that moment when a person's will and breath disappear.

Learning to become nothing

I
Sleep is the first teacher,
sleep, and those moments on the bridge of waking when you knew
there were dreams that evaporated,
preferring to be a breath.

The lethargy of hot days
and the drugged sleep of convalescence teach
the slumbrous gravity of grace and grave,
the discipline of indifference, the sweet
lack of will.

II
The word "no" has been uttered without rancour--so easy
is it to peel the silver from the back of your mirror.
Routines go missing, arbitrary habits like brushing your teeth
and eating meals.  Evenings
are without incident, cycling round and round
like a left-handed child practicing cursive Os,
trying not to smudge the dusky blue ink.

III
This poem of nothing, of zero, of silent
seed pods is not
a pastoral.  There are no moons,
full or dark, waxing or waning:
Nothing ever changes.  There are no musicians, no mysterious
shadows in green glades,
It is not natur morte with blushing apples, translucent
grapes, drooping rose buds, its obsession
with an authenticity just this side of death.  It is not a portrait:  no pier glass
generously reflects the unseen side of your life.

It is about the lightness of hunger
you ignore, the way it blooms
like a golden Japanese lantern lit at dusk, and then,
jostled, consumes the colour that contained it. 

One night there is a taupe moth, wings like pleated linen,
a cobweb across the window.  The next night a little dust burns
against the light bulb, a white tangle sways in the corner of the sill.
Some small trace, a few deceptively tangled words rest
heavy in my hands.