It is far easier
to fill my stomach with pleasant things
than my heart.
It is far easier
It is far easier
to fill my stomach with pleasant things
than my heart.
Death of a Battery at 5:30 AM
Had it happened in the driveway,
We might have been forewarned,
Delayed our start till after the rain
Began to coat the road and land,
Or before salt trucks fired headlights,
And bridges sent cars widely sliding
In wild spirals of tire and ice,
Fingernails, wheels, rails colliding.
Drifting, tenebrous, flakes settled down
Against still shadows in cadence.
Breath turned vapor before speech,
Blood slowed, the flares burned out
And cold pressed round our patience,
Which is when the battery died.
A year ago, I wrote about my search for various things, including stories about single ladies living their lives without worrying about their singleness:
But Susan’s story (and Hannah Coulter, and The Princess Bride, and any given article on Boundless) suggests that there is no other narrative, that no lady can ever be happy without The One, that the only ending possible is marriage. This ground has been trod by a lot of women in tiresome family-vs-career arguments, but the fact remains that I want a story: a different story than my usual fare, something involving a woman who is content with a different sort of happy ending. I’m looking for a female character who is content to live her life on her own, if only to show me that it is possible.
This turned out to be a bit difficult, such that I am returning to it now with what little bit of insight I’ve gleaned over the past year. Since readers and friends all suggested one or two books at most, and that with some amount of struggle, I was reassured that I hadn’t missed an entire section at the library or bookshop. Initial suggestions included:
Miss Marple stories – Agatha Christie
I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
The Thirteenth Tale – Dianne Setterfield
The Story of a Soul – St. Therese of Lisieux (autobiography)
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc – Mark Twain
It’s a small field, one friend suggested, because for centuries, a lady’s singleness didn’t just mean loneliness, awkwardness amongst the society of couples, or agonizing over whether she was fulfilling her telos. It meant being without provider or protector, in a time when it was much more difficult, if not impossible, for women to provide for or protect themselves. Thus, she said, the only stories of that type to be expected would focus on nuns – living within the provision and protection of an abbey – or great queens, who held enough power to concern themselves with affairs and interests beyond their marital state and household management.
I later learned that, unbeknownst to me, The Atlantic had published an editorial on the same subject about a month before I addressed it. Ms. McKinney’s concerns were somewhat different from mine; she seemed to call for a story with a female protagonist and no love subplots whatsoever, which is a rather formidable task. She made a few suggestions, not all of them equally hopeful:
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson
The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
The Help – Kathryn Stockett
The Awakening – Kate Chopin
The Devil Wears Prada – Lauren Weisberger
Salvage the Bones – Jesmyn Ward
More useful than McKinney’s musings were the comments. Normally, the comments section of any given article online is a wasteland of hatred, name-calling, and poor grammar, but these responses contained thoughtful criticism and a plethora of recommended titles. Here are a few comments that struck a chord:
Lasting love is perennially hard to find… for both men and women, so it makes for good story and character development in literature.
Girls too young to be interested in boys made good stories.
I think there are probably more love-plotless books in the YA category than the adult category
It’s not spite [on the part of publishers]. They won’t choose it simply because it doesn’t appeal to them, so they think it won’t sell. It doesn’t appeal to them because they aren’t used to it. They aren’t used to it because there are NONE IN THE SYSTEM.
I also disagree with your premise that self-discovery is always a solitary process. Why can’t a woman’s process of self-discovery include a little romance? That doesn’t mean that the entire purpose of her life is now to be married and have kids.
…To some extent human biology, and psychology, cares about reproduction because otherwise the species dies. So it’s likely at least some characters will have a drive for heterosexual love or sex unless there is a reason none of them do. (It’s a children’s book or they’re all children, it’s set in a monastery or convent, they’re all gay, it’s some kind of futuristic unisex setting where people reproduce by cloning, etc) But this isn’t really a male/female issue. I think there’s likely few novels, for adults, with male protagonists where love or sex has absolutely no role.
The author overlooks the fact that in the past looking for a man was more than about looking for love; it was about looking for a secure future–the equivalent of a job. For this reason many female authors such as Jane Austen are quite unsentimental when it comes to husband hunting…
I grew up reading the lives of saints. That is as diverse a group of women as you could ever hope to meet. One thing they all seemed to have in common was a strength of character that allowed them to face the unknown, challenge norms – even lead men into battle if that is what God called them to do.
Yes, we need more female protagonists that represent the modern woman. No, I don’t expect to find them in the Victorian Era.
I went through the various recommendations to see if they were, indeed, what I was looking for. Admittedly, I am working from secondhand sources, because I wanted to share the possibilities before reading through all of them; precedent suggests that I wouldn’t have posted this for another 5 years if I read them all first. But based on Goodreads, the following books show some promise in depicting women whose stories are not romances:
The Crow Trap (and other tales of detective Vera Stanhope) – Ann Cleeves
A Field of Darkness – Cornelia Read
Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
State of Wonder – Ann Patchett
Clan of the Cave Bears/Valley of Horses – Jean Auel
Deed of Paksenarrion Trilogy – Elizabeth Moon
Friday – R. Heinlein
Titan/Wizard/Demon – John Varley
Hyperion Cantos – Dan Simmons
Little Bee – Chris Cleave
The Optimist’s Daughter – Eudora Welty
Loitering with Intent – Muriel Spark
The Voyage Out – Virginia Woolf
Perhaps in another year I’ll be able to report back on how happy or fulfilled these characters are.
Please let me know if you have any additions, corrections, or thoughts on this list!
What do you find to be the most hateful-but-necessary task on your to-do list? Life is full of such errands and duties, but I’m convinced that shopping for clothes is the worst. At least, it’s the most evil necessity that comes to mind. Shopping for food or household goods? Not too bad, even if I’m a bit hungry and the shop’s a bit full. Going to the credit union? Pretty painless, honestly. Going through voicemails? Takes forever, but I can multitask. Waiting at the DMV? A rare occurrence, and you can always take a book.
Shopping for clothes? I will be exhausted by the end.
It always feels too expensive, considering how cheaply made all the fabric is, and none of it ever looks good. I increasingly need clothing that does the miraculous, and increasingly find tissue-thin polyester in weird colors and blindingly bizarre designs, assembled into shapeless garments: clothing incapable of achieving even the mundane goal of fitting, much less the miraculous of flattering.
Which means that I take a really careless approach. If I took a careful approach – hunting for a particular color or style, hemming and hawing over each object as I pull it from the rack, pondering each outfit for several minutes in the mirror – I would never buy anything and, moreover, I would spend so much energy and so many emotions on the attempt. I don’t have that time, or that energy, so I tell myself “Okay. Grab stuff theoretically in your size that isn’t black or blue” – sane and generally flattering colors, meaning both fill my closet already – “and hie thee to the dressing room.”
At first I just thought it was a “screw it” approach. But it’s also a “You won’t know until you try” approach. Polka dots a size up? Why not. A dress that appears to have both splashes of Pepto-Bismol AND the vibrant green of Nyquil? Sure. Something virulently salmon? Trying it. A dress with the sort of line-based gradient meant to effect an optical illusion of some helpful variety? Go for it. Peach lace frock, stripy knit day dress, and a pair of linen pants? For all I know, they’ll work. Desperation tugs me into a state of open-mindedness like nothing else.
…of course, sometimes you do, in fact, know before trying. I honestly did know the linen trousers and translucent silk shirts were not going to be winners. There was a moment where they sort of approached success – grey and salmon were kind of fun and felt daring together! – except for all the spots that neither item fit. And then there are the garments that are really REALLY long. This comic? It is the truest thing I have ever seen. Who exactly are the Amazon giantesses that clothing designers evidently focus on dressing? The fitting room attendant was concerned I’d trip.
All in all, I keep wondering if designers are insane. Do they not believe in knee-length skirts this year? Do they not have a full palette of colors to work with? I hunted for “summer-y” shades, and found white, black, the aforementioned blindingly bizarre patterns, and a few silk shirts in taupe. Are we being punked? Did all the fashion people make a bet about who could get consumers to pay the most for the privilege of looking the stupidest? There are rompers on the racks, for Pete’s sake, and those stupid heavy shoes that look like hooves.
…and then I wandered past the men’s department on my way to the checkout.
There are button-ups in the solid, summery colors I was looking for. There are t-shirts which look to be opaque. The craziest designs in sight were straightforward plaid.
Catch y’all later. I’ll be in the men’s section.
My friend The Grackle, of The Grub Street Grackle fame and previous adventures, has recently begun a video series entitled, Poets on Poetry. The exercise of this is to see how poets respond to, appreciate, or analyze each other’s poetry. Which is supposed to help the rest of us respond to poetry.
The Grackle has hitherto worked with words and ideas captured solidly through paper and ink, or pixels approximating paper and ink.
The foray into film to explore the sounds, sights, and nuances of spoken poetry is a bold stroke.
And as such, I, your brooding muse of tragedy, am honored that he chose one of my poems to initiate this series. Our friend Ian (his nom de plume is in the works, I shall let you know when it coalesces,) gives a wonderful and insightful introduction to the piece, one which made me gasp in sudden and new-found wonder over my own work. It is a powerful quality in art that it can hold more depth and meaning that the author purposely intended. Truly, poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonian, as Milosz says.
It is my favorite of my poems, and I have many thoughts and opinions about it. But we want to know your thoughts. Please watch, listen, and read, and then comment either here or over at the GrackleRag!
I dreamed of you last night.
Knobby, creased ground pressed
Up under our feet,
And you were facing west
With your back to me, firm,
As dark as almost shadow,
Fixed and calm;
The moment almost hallowed.
But then you leaned back on my shoulder.
(Shoulders closer than a kiss.)
Me awake, and now I press
A fist against my breast: I ache – how I had forgot –
For the weight of another being upon my heart.
To quote the original post,
The written, printed word is our bread and butter at the Grackle. But we don’t mind admitting—we will insist on it, in fact—that what makes poetry necessary is something that turns up first of all in a common breathing and beating of hearts. So what we’d really like is to get together with you somewhere, read some poems, and talk.
We hope the video series in which the above is the first entry gives you a hankering for the same.
If you’ve read a poem in Grub Street Grackle that you’d like to see featured in a future installment of “Poets on Poetry,” please leave a comment below to let us know!
Some questions about the poem, for your consideration:
- “Closer than a kiss” seems to draw attention to the fact that the two in the poem are not kissing. What do we infer from this about the speaker and the one being addressed?
- Res mundi. Things “of the world,” as opposed to what? Things of other worlds? Eternal things? Dream things? Memories? There’s a turn in the poem at “But then.” Does that turn tell us anything about the nature of the opposition?
- The poem is framed as the recollection of a dream after waking, and the dream itself seems to be of something remembered. At what point does this dream memory end? Take the line, “Weight bouldered.” Is this something that happened in the dream? Then where was the weight? Is it “of the world,” or not?
- We are used to distinguishing a literal meaning of “heart” from a metaphorical. Does this distinction make sense applied to the last line of this poem?
One of the abiding questions of my life is “Am I grown up yet?” Not because I’m Susan Pevensie and super-eager to be An Adult, but because years have rushed by, and I don’t exactly have the best vantage for seeing how they’ve changed me. Am I really any different from myself at age 14? Surely I’m not old enough or mature enough to care about, say, insurance premiums or local construction projects?
Presumably certain people who are not me can point to their spouse, their children, or their 30-year-mortgage and stop feeling angst about this kind of thing. Some of them act like nothing you do in your life counts until you’re married with progeny. Maybe it’s unintentional, but it seeps through their words anyway, like one can’t really live without somehow being bound to or responsible for another person’s life.
This is false, of course; we’re not all stuck in a tower waiting for life to begin. But the married folks sure have that clear milestone set in their past. The rest of us pass the seemingly-arbitrary government mile markers at 18 and 21, and then go “Um. Okay? I guess I’m in Adultland now?” We wonder “What am I doing with my life?” as well as “What should I do with my life?” And after such worries trails the dark shadow of fear, that one day we’ll sit somewhere, old and enfeebled, wondering “What have I done with my life?”
Such worries can serve as the catalyst to change, but they’re not helpful otherwise. So I was pleased to come across a different approach from Erika and others: taking a look at the experiences one has already had, or the goals one has already accomplished, praising God for them, and carrying on with a little bit more perspective. Erika also shared her thoughts on how this isn’t a brag list.
Here are some things I’ve already done. They may not make me an Official Adult, but they’ve all contributed to who I am. What’s on your reverse bucket list?
Shot a rifle
Saw an opera
Wrote a story
Learned to ski
Visited 32 states
Went ice skating
Visited the Louvre
Enjoyed formal tea
Owned a dollhouse
Took a singing class
Rode a roller coaster
Ran several 5K races
Went horseback riding
Took an overnight train
Visited the Eiffel Tower
Saw Billy Joel in concert
Got and held a job 5 years
Cooked a Martinmas goose
Saw Alcazar and Alhambra
Performed in plays/musicals
Attended a Steampunk Expo
Saw the Golden Gate Bridge
Sang solos in front of people
Learned to play the bagpipes
Walked the Mackinac Bridge
Touched the LeFay Fragment
Rode a bike on Mackinac Island
Went to (Motor City) Comic Con
Lived in an apartment on my own
Was a bridesmaid (five times now)
Was broadcast singing on the radio
Visited Portugal, Spain, and France
Went on a mission trip to Nicaragua
Painted and framed some watercolors
Climbed Laughing Whitefish 5+ times
Saw Devil’s Tower and Mt. Rushmore
Memorized some really lengthy poems
Graduated high school as valedictorian
Traveled to Yellowstone National Park
Learned how to do a fling and sword dance
Graduated from Hillsdale magna cum laude
Rocked some standardized tests like a champ
Swam in the Atlantic, dunked toes in the Pacific
Drove to Virginia, Ohio, and Wisconsin by myself
Learned about cocktails and designed several of my own
Made my own ginger beer, sushi, crepes, ricotta, grenadine
Joined a group blog and posted for more than three years on it
Traveled to Rome; ate gelato, drank cappuccino, saw sights, etc.
Swam in Lake Michigan, dunked toes in Lake Superior and Huron
Created a youTube profile and started making videos (really badly)
Was VPR and Fraternity Education director for my music fraternity
Visited locations from movies (namely, Harry Potter; possibly others)
Saw Coriolanus, and Shakespeare in the Arb, and other live Shakespeare
Attended a major league baseball game (with a squirrel on the field. Can’t be beat)
Was an Intercollegiate Studies Institute Honors Fellow, and visited Cambridge, England
Visited St. Jeronimo’s in Lisbon, the Cathedral of Seville, Notre Dame, Ely Cathedral, and the basilicas of Rome
Was one of four students picked to go on CS Lewis trip to Oxford and Cambridge; met Walter Hooper, Jack’s last pupil, and Dr. Michael Ward (before Planet Narnia was published)
As Hyoi told Ransom in Out of the Silent Planet:
“A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking, Hmãn, as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing. What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure, as the crah is the last part of the poem. When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it. But still we know very little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes me all my days till then – that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it.”
My housemate Cecilia and I went to see this film the other night. We did so in flagrant disregard of the Benedict Cumberbatch rule, namely “Do not watch a movie, TV episode, or miniseries for no other reason other than one actor you like is in it.” The one actor in question is, unsurprisingly, Tom Hiddleston; we’re fans of his, nor are we opposed to Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, or the rest. Sadly, none of them could save Only Lovers Left Alive from a deadly (undeadly?) slow pace.
First, the good: as a whole, the movie certainly catches a quality, a flavor. It’s dark, coppery, and not very pleasant, but it’s certainly there in Eve’s brisk walk through Tangier (the most feminine I’ve ever seen Swinton), in the grungy melancholy of Adam’s house, in the streets of Detroit. Cecilia found this depiction of Detroit rather refreshing: instead of focusing on the city as the capital of crime and corruption, the movie focuses on its musical contributions, the grittiness of its urban blight, and its hope for better things. Eve notes the importance of the lakes all around, saying “This city will rise again.” Why she doesn’t go for the original Latin, Jim Jarmusch only knows. But then, Adam is the one in residence there. Caught in the 1970s as he is, his affinity for the city indicates that both hope for better, but neither really changes.
That stagnant quality of endless days might account for the sluggish plot. This is the most charitable explanation that comes to mind: that vampires, having spent centuries of darkness watching all that the “zombies” (ie, humanity) have to show – all the art, the music, the scientific advances – are doomed to ennui, to anomie, to acedia, and (should no sunlight, contaminated blood, or immortal beloved interfere) to suicide. The story arc, such as it is, might just be one more postmodern conceit for human lives with no overarching narrative, no implicit meaning. The lack of chemistry between Adam and Eve might have been intentional, depicting the natural consequence of being married for some 200 years. Sparks, fire, fizzle, distance, regroup. They try to patch it over with allusions to quantum entanglement, Adam describing them as particles which affect each other though they be a universe apart. Perhaps Donne could make that metaphor work; this script can’t.
The less charitable and possibly more realistic explanation for the film’s torpidity is poor writing and an undeveloped plot. At some points it was like watching Catcher in the Rye but with vampires in. There are amusing moments – Adam burying his head under the pillow to avoid Eva, Eve’s iPhone calling Adam’s curious corded setup, the wrinkle of disgust that crosses Eve’s face on watching a body dissolve – but for the most part, neither Adam nor Eve compel me to care much about their undead existence or their butter-scraped-thin romance. By far the most interesting character was Eva, Eve’s younger sister. She is obnoxious, she is careless, she drinks them out of their fugue-inducing O-negative – and she somehow remains lively, as Adam and Eve do not. We left the theater wondering how she spent her time in LA, how she’d offended Adam in 1925 in Paris, what bloodletting would attend her trip back west.
Possibly devotees of artistic films would appreciate details that I missed. There are a number of overhead shots, a heavy-handed motif which attempts to connect the spinning of the stars, of records, and the eponymous lovers. Adam takes a look at all manner of classic guitars, so perhaps Gibson fanboys would be into that. Those with a dog in the fight over the author of Shakespeare’s plays might be amused when Christopher Marlowe turns up. But for my own part? Speraveram meliora. I’d hoped for better. They’re hardly lovers, and barely alive.
Here is another Rilke poem. I read it first in Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, as translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. Then I read through the German, mostly to appreciate the original words (Erlauchter, rauschender, bedrängte, jetzt), the interplay of e and i vowels, the consonance, the seeming levity that comes from rhyme.
Then, in an attempt to better understand the original, I went back and forth between a dictionary, Google Translate, and the Barrows-Macy translation. This is the result.
(If that seems like a lot of slipshod work for little profit: it is enough for me to learn that Barrows-Macy rendered “ich war,” which is literally “I was,” as “I am” – removing the contrast between most of the poem and the last verse. The rest of it may be a passel of mistakes; nothing like lazy translations to emphasize that language is 80% pronouns and prepositions.)
Ich bete wieder, du Erlauchter, I pray again, you Illustrious One;
du hörst mich wieder durch den Wind, do you hear me again through the wind
weil meine Tiefen nie gebrauchter because from my unused depths
rauschender Worte mächtig sind. mighty words are rushing.
Ich war zerstreut; an Widersacher I was dispersed; to the adversary
in Stücken war verteilt mein Ich. my self was given in pieces.
O Gott, mich lachten alle Lacher, O God, I laughed all laughter,
und alle Trinker tranken mich. and all drunkards drank me.
In Höfen hab ich mich gesammelt In courtyards I have gathered myself,
aus Abfall und aus altem Glas, from waste and from old glass,
mit halbem Mund dich angestammelt, stammering to you with my half-mouth,
dich, ewiger aus Ebenmaß. to you, eternal in symmetry.
Wie hob ich meine halben Hände As I raised my half-hands
zu dir in namenlosem Flehn, to you in nameless entreaties,
dass ich die Augen wiederfände, that I might find the eyes
mit denen ich dich angesehn. with which I once beheld you.
Ich war ein Haus nach einem Brand, I was a House after a Fire,
darin nur Mörder manchmal schlafen, where only murderers sometimes sleep,
eh ihre hungerigen Strafen and their hungry punishments
sie weiterjagen in das Land; pursue them through the land;
ich war wie eine Stadt am Meer, I was like a city on the sea,
wenn eine Seuche sie bedrängte, pressed by a plague,
die sich wie eine Leiche schwer which like a heavy corpse
den Kindern in die Hände hängte. hung the children in the hands.
Ich war mir fremd wie irgendwer I was a stranger to myself as one
und wusste nur von ihm, dass er of whom I knew only that he
einst meine junge Mutter kränkte, once offended my young mother
als sie mich trug, as she carried me
und dass ihr Herz, das eingeengte, and that her heart, thus constricted,
sehr schmerzhaft an mein Keimen schlug. throbbed achingly about my sprouting self.
Jetzt bin ich wieder aufgebaut Now I am rebuilt
aus allen Stücken meiner Schande from all the pieces of my shame
und sehne mich nach einem Bande, and yearn for a bond,
nach einem einigen Verstande, for a unified understanding,
der mich wie ein Ding überschaut, which regards me as one thing
nach deines Herzens großen Händen – as I yearn for the big hands of your Heart [to hold me]
(o kämen sie doch auf mich zu) (oh, let them draw near me)
ich zähle mich, mein Gott, und du, I count myself, my God, and you,
du hast das Recht, mich zu verschwenden. You have the right, to waste me.