Friday, October 31, 2008


Everyone should have superheroes at work.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Poets on which I've stumbled

So I'm wondering about the book I ordered — the book of poetry (what has gotten into me?): has it shipped yet? when will I get it? And I discover: no, it has not been shipped. But the publication date was days ago! What kind of shoddy customer service is this?! It occurs to me to check the publisher's website; maybe publication has been delayed.

And I stumble across this name that rings a bell. A bell-ringing name. Peter Cole. And I remember that he was supposed to be speaking at Concordia this week, and I'd thought about going. According to the publisher of his latest work, that would've been the other day. And I curse. But according to Concordia University's website, it's this day. So I plan an extra long lunch break in order to be able to check it out.

Peter Cole is a 2007 MacArthur Fellow, and he has amazing hair. Really. I can't get over the hair. Check out this picture — the hair is... is... remarkable.

He's a great speaker. The 20 or so of us in attendance were captivated. He's perhaps better known as a translator. He was sincere in explaining the pleasure (as opposed to the problem) of translation, and talked mostly about what it is to live in a space between languages. His fluency in another language and living in another culture created a crack in his English, through which light was introduced, transforming his own poetry.

He addressed some of the difficulties that arise when you're both poet and translator.

On the perils of being a translator: In gaining familiarity with various forms and voices, one may become nothing more than a technician. In breathing another's atmosphere, one may starve one's own poetry.

But ultimately, the acts of translating poetry and writing poetry — that mystical place to which one is transported — are for Cole indistinguishable.

"Improvisation on Lines by Isaac the Blind," from Things on Which I've Stumbled, begins like this:

Only by sucking, not by knowing,
can the subtle essence be conveyed—
sap of the word and the world's flowing

that raises the scent of the almond blossoming,
and yellows the bulbul in the olive's jade.
Only by sucking, not by knowing.

I like this poem, but, on the whole, the poems Cole read (recited, performed?), those he'd written as well as those he'd translated, did not speak to me.

I don't remember the last time I heard poetry, other than inside my own head. Or watched it unfold (that is, I see poetry revealed to me everyday; I mean the recitation of a poem). This was a strange experience.

Cole's voice took on a different timbre; he assumed a persona. The speaking of the poem was a deliberate and affected act. I've witnessed this at many readings. With poetry, it is more pronounced. I'm not convinced it should be this way.

(I firmly believe the words should speak for themselves. How can any writer, particularly poets, convey the breathing, the tone, the rhythm, the sum total effect they intend their work to have if not by relying on the words themselves. But attend any reading and it's clear the authors have intentions incompletely conveyed on paper.)

When Cole became a Poet reciting his verse, he removed his glasses and held his book like it was Yorick's skull. His right hand punctuated the verse, describing every beat of his orchestration, driving or being driven by the words, reluctant even to break rhythm by turning a page, rising in crescendo and slurring legato, urging his inner resources for more, to hold, to ease away.

Cole must be a marvelous teacher. He spoke candidly and with humour in response to all questions put to him. On practical matters, like learning another language, getting published, collaborating with authors to perfect a translation; on different schools of thought, in poetry, translation, linguistics (Cole takes some leeway in translation — essence more important than the words); on life — for example, there's no sense in working at translating poetry you don't feel.

Everything is translation after all. We translate every bit of our external world into the context of our own exeperience.

So this maybe is genius. Stumbled upon.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Story after story

For someone who claims not to be a big fan of short stories, I sure have read a lot of them lately. These collections since mid-August:

Carlos Fuentes: Happy Families
David Foster Wallace: Oblivion
Daniel Handler: Adverbs
Sana Krasikov: One More Year
Théophile Gautier: My Fantoms

I have found that short stories make for excellent reading:
— while waiting for my morning coffee
— in the bathroom
— on the morning métro commute
— at lunch
— whenever I need a break from my workday
— on the evening métro commute
— while watching the stove
— while the girl splashes in her bath
— while pretending to watch hockey
— at bedtime

Short stories provide a kind of instant gratification that I seem to be craving lately. Certainly I needed these bursts to balance some of my other long and slow reading. They're easy enough to start — and finish! — in the interstices of plodding days.

Currently, I'm midway through Dumas's The Last Cavalier, but earlier this week, reading in an overcrowded train about plots to assassinate Napoleon, I suddenly felt both lost and under siege. So I set it aside, to wait for the smoke to clear. And I turned to Doris Lessing's Stories.

I love the feel of this book — its physical presence. It's new in the catalogue of Everyman's Library. I have a couple other books of this imprint, and they're a real pleasure to read and to carry. If you didn't know:

Everyman's Library pursues the highest standards, utilizing modern prepress, printing, and binding technologies to produce classically designed books printed on acid-free natural-cream-colored text paper and including Smyth-sewn, signatures, full-cloth cases with two-color case stamping, decorative endpapers, silk ribbon markers, and European-style half-round spines.

The Everyman's hardcover has peculiar, but perfect, dimensions. Weighty, but somehow in its compactness perfectly weighted. It just feels good!

So I'm reading Doris Lessing again. I've never felt compelled to search out and read in its entirety her oeuvre, and I'm starting to wonder why not. I've immensely enjoyed everything of hers that I've read, and while I truly to believe her work to be Important, my interest in it has been very reasonable — I have not obsessively hunted down obscure or out-of-print works, nor have I compulsively snapped up her latest releases. When I read her, I am pleasantly surprised and reassured to find that it is good. And I am fortunate to have this leisurely but strong relationship with an author, relieved that it is unlikely I will run out her books to read for many years yet to come.

In 1969, Doris Lessing was written about in Time Magazine:

Fans of British Novelist Doris Lessing talk about a composite character called the Lessing Woman in much the same way as people once talked about the Hemingway Man. The Lessing Woman is a formidable female. She hasn't been to a university but she has read everything and remembers it. Her ideals are high and unsullied. She works (or has worked) at lost political causes. Although she loathes marriage, she gamely raises children and endures domestic woes. She cooks well, keeps a spotless house (except when depressed) and does excellent writing, research or secretarial work. She is any man's moral and intellectual superior, and she rarely hesitates to tell him so.

I can't say I've ever heard anyone called a Lessing Woman, though I know a few. I don't think I qualify myself — I'm less political, more naturally maternal, and my house is far from spotless. But there are days I think it's something to aspire to.

The stories were drawn from collections previously published in 1957, 1963, and 1972. They are bleak, in quite a beautiful way, and very real.

Here's one Doris Lessing story (not in the collection I'm reading) I found online: "A Mild Attack of Locusts."

I'll share more about the stories in this particular collection as I progress.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Artful and quizzical


Your result for What Your Taste in Art Says About You Test...

Traditional, Vibrant, and Tasteful

10 Islamic, -4 Impressionist, 5 Ukiyo-e, -9 Cubist, -5 Abstract and 4 Renaissance!

Islamic art is developed from many sources: Roman, Early Christian, and Byzantine styles were taken over in early Islamic architecture; the architecture and decorative art of pre-Islamic Persia was of paramount significance; Central Asian styles were brought in with various nomadic incursions; and Chinese influences. Islamic art uses many geometical floral or vegetable designs in a repetitive pattern known as arabesque. It is used to symbolize the transcendent, indivisible and infinite nature of Allah.

People that like Islamic art tend to be more traditional people that appreciate keeping patterns that they learned and experienced from their past. It is not to say that they are not innovative personalities, they just do not like to let go of their roots. They like to put new ideas into details and make certain that they will work before sharing them with others. Failure is not something they like to think about because they are more interested in being successful and appreciated for their intelligence. These people can also be or like elaborate things in their life as long as they are tasteful. They tend to prefer geometric patterns and vibrant colors.

Take What Your Taste in Art Says About You Test at HelloQuizzy

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


The 2008 Massey Lectures are under way. Margaret Atwood speaks about "Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth."

These are not lectures about how to get out of debt; rather, they're about the debtor/creditor twinship in the broadest sense — from human sacrifice to pawnshops to revenge. In this light, what we owe and how we pay is a feature of all human societies, and profoundly shapes our shared values and our cultures.

She presented part 4 of the series the other night here in Montreal. (When I first heard tell of it weeks ago, the event was already sold out.)

The lecture, titled The Shadow Side, [. . .] took on the subject of debt in the philosophical and literary sense, with references to Machiavelli, Charles Dickens and, most thoroughly of all, William Shakespeare. (You didn't have to be a seer to guess Shylock would show up somewhere. Her rigorous analysis of how anti-Semitism is rooted in historical concepts of debt was breathaking [sic].)

The lectures will be broadcast on CBC, November 10–14. Or you can read them.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


On arriving home after a hard
day's work I find
myself standing dutifully
at the stove, right hand
tending the meat
in the skillet, left hand
holding open Baudelaire,
my nose in it.

And I think:
something is not
right with this picture.

Les Fleurs du Mal
for a pinch of salt.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The flesh of the world

If you call yourself a poet, don't just sit there. Poetry is not a sedentary occupation, not a "take your seat" practice. Stand up and let them have it.

It's been a rough couple weeks at work. After eating lunch at my desk Friday, I need fresh air. An impromptu afternoon stroll takes me to the bookstore.

I miss browsing in bookstores. The bookstores I know here on the whole simply aren't conducive to it. I go with a mission usually, for "research" or a specific purchase. Some lunch hours I may spend more time there, scanning the bargain bins, but methodically, with only the pretense of leisure. It dawns on me that I may have shut myself off from an introduction to many fine and interesting books, pretty ones that shine cleverly at the cocktail hour, but deep and secretive ones too that leak their mysteries into the last bottle of wine some time after midnight when the jazz records come on.

So I... I don't know what I'm doing there Friday. I'm angry and distracted and tired. And I pluck off the shelf, I know not why — I guess because it's black and red, slim, the title psst-ing at me — Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Poetry as Insurgent Art, and I start to read, and smile. I feel all giddy inside.

Here's the thing. I'm a poet, I'm realizing. I mean... I don't actually write verse. But. No, I'm off to a bad start. How can I explain...?

I think I'm having a midlife crisis. That is, something is crawling over me, or bursting out of me, or seeping through my pores. Part of this is a physical function of age: I'm at, or nearing, my sexual peak, chronobiologically speaking, and the time bomb of the biological clock is pulsing, pounding, through my heart, my head.

This is a lustiness beyond the physical, that has yet to be sated. I am hungry — all my senses together screaming for more! And I am vibrating! Every fibre of my being — my physical body, yes, but I mean my neurons, my heartstrings — vibrating! Singing! My God, do you have any idea how much I love crunchy leaves?!!

Am I crazy? Or is this the noise of a cocoon rustling around me, flaking away?

(Diagnoses welcome.)

And it happens that I've discovered poetry. And I think these things are connected. And Ferlinghetti has me crying Yes! Yes! with every proclamation. Like I am being called to arms. Though I'm not sure my arms are literary ones. And I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with this information exactly. But it's being made clear to me that this feeling, this experience, this crisis, is not a disintegration, but au contraire a synthesis, at a molecular level, of body and mind too long separate.

Instead of trying to escape reality, plunge into the flesh of the world.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A chorus of irony and disomfort

Tolstoy wrote that "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

I think about this often, rather surprisingly often; I'd say about once a week on average. Not a fleeting glance of a thought, but a fully introspective reflection. Usually on my morning commute, having parted ways with the tiny little family of my own making, and wondering what it is that we are, whether we are normal and "happy" (whatever that means) in our quotidian dysfunction. Or sometimes a call from "home" will set me to appraising the actions and motives of siblings and cousins, though they might be unaware of what ripples they may cause.

Since I was 11 years old, perhaps younger, I've been unhealthily(?) obsessed with the question — the problem — of happiness: What is it exactly, and how can I get me some?

When I first read Anna Karenina some 20 years ago, Tolstoy's opening sentence stuck in my mind. I've wondered if families' happinesses are so alike as appearances (or Tolstoy) would have us believe. (Cannot happiness be unique?) Or if their uniquenesses — every family is unique, is it not? — imply that some unhappinesses lie beneath their happy surfaces. Is it the corollary of Tolstoy's pronouncement that all families are unhappy? Or are more of us more alike than we admit, happy — indescribably, ineffably, tragically, naturally and inevitably, our unique and glorious dysfunctions giving us a commonality, lifting us out of our dark secrets? Are we to find solace — happiness — in this newly realized normalcy? By acknowledging our demons, are we redeemed?

Carlos Fuentes's new collection of stories, Happy Families, has Tolstoy's declaration as an epigram. This book, then — in perfect communion with the path my mind follows on my daily commute, accompanying me over the last couple weeks.

In these masterly vignettes, Fuentes explores Tolstoy's classic observation that "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." In "A Family Like Any Other," each member of the Pagan family lives in isolation, despite sharing a tiny house. In "The Mariachi's Mother," the limitless devotion of a woman is revealed as she secretly tends to her estranged son's wounds. "Sweethearts" reunites old lovers unexpectedly and opens up the possibilities for other lives and other loves. These are just a few of the remarkable stories in Happy Families, but they all inhabit Fuentes's trademark Mexico, where modern obsessions bump up against those of the mythic past, and the result is a triumphant display of the many ways we reach out to one another and find salvation through irrepressible acts of love.

I don't know who wrote this blurb, but they couldn't possibly have read the same book I did. There is no redemption in love or by love for these tragic characters.

(Did Fuentes mean to be ironic? Or Tolstoy? Or the blurb writer?)

Rape, incest, boredom, and infidelity. The tyranny of parents and the rebelliousness of youth. I don't think Fuentes brings anything new to these age-old stories. He seems to wallow in them.

"Sweethearts," mentioned above, is, in my opinion, crushing: the lovers revisit their a nostalgia to have it erased by the reality of aging bodies and the not-quite admissions of the less-than-romantic dynamics of their own weak-willed youth too easily swayed by their families' wishes.

Still, it was to me one of the more interesting stories of the lot, but not a happy one. No salvation there.

On the whole, these stories seemed to be lacking in sincerity; too contrived, endings — whether of stories or of sentences — too cryptic.

Sixteen stories, each followed by a chorus. I haven't figured out the choruses. Poems, it seems, but long and rambling, intended perhaps to shock with violence of language and imagery. I couldn't find the point in them, either as commentary on the stories preceding them or in their own right.

I found only about half a dozen of the stories to have been worth reading, none of them perfect but with some interesting ideas and a little bit of a sense of passion to help them bear fruit.

I haven't read much by Fuentes — I remember having liked it, but that was long ago and now I'm not so sure. One of the most fleshed-out characters (We don't get to know any of these people very well. As I write this I wonder if Fuentes had it in mind that we don't often ever really know our family.) is that of a girl raped and killed:

You have to know who my daughter was. And please don't protect yourself, as my husband does, behind the lie of Alessandra's supposed human coldness. Ah yes, they say, she was promising girl but barely human. She lacked warmth. She lacked emotion.

People who think that infuriate me, beginning with my husband, I'll tell you that with all honesty. It means not understanding that the "familiar address" Alessandra used with genius — or brilliance, I don't know — was an intense, erotic form of desire. My daughter loved, Senor. Not what everyone vulgarly attributes that verb, physical attraction, not even the tenderness and warmth shared with other human beings. Alessandra loved Nietzsche or the Brontes because she them alone, alone in the graves of their books and their thoughts. Alessandra approached the geniuses of the past to give them life with her attention, which was the form her affection took: paying attention.

She didn't want to take anything from anyone. She wanted to give to the neediest. The dead? Yes, perhaps. It's true, "The dead are so alone.: But she sought out the company of the less frequented dead. The immortals. That's what she told me. She wanted to look after, offer her hand to so many human beings, the artists and thinkers who are the subject of studies, biographies, yes, and lectures, but not of a love equivalent to what we give to a close, living being. Offer her hand to the immortals. That was my daughter's vocation.

I wonder if Fuentes thinks it his vocation, too. A cold, passionless bid for genius that misses the mark.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cavalier attitudes

At long last I have arrived at The Last Cavalier, Alexandre Dumas's long-lost novel. On my shelf for almost a year already, I was somewhat daunted by this brick of more than 700 pages.

But read a sentence and you can't help but read the next one. How could I have stayed away so long from Dumas, he who sweeps me away with political intrigue and wild exploits? Plus, he's very funny.

At that moment word came to Bonaparte that the horses were harnessed and ready. He stood and asked Roland to pay. Roland dealt with the hotel keeper while Bonaparte got into the coach. Just as Roland was about to join his companion, he found Alfred de Barjols in his path.

"Excuse me, monsieur," the young man said to him. "You were beginning to say something to me, but the word never left your lips. Might I know what kept you from pronouncing it?"

"Oh, monsieur," said Roland, "the reason I held it back was simply that my companion pulled me back down by my coat pocket, and so as not to be disagreeable to him, I decided not to call you a fool."

"If you intended to insult me in that way, monsieur, might I therefore consider that you have now done so?"

"If that should please you, monsieur. . . ."

"That does please me, because it offers me the opportunity to demand satisfaction."

"Monsieur," said Roland, "we are in a great hurry, my companion and I, as you can see. But I will be happy to delay my departure for an hour if you think one hour will be enough to settle this question."

"One hour will be sufficient, monsieur."

Roland bowed and hurried to the coach.

"Well," said Bonaparte, "are you going to fight?"

"I could not do otherwise, General," Roland answered. "But my adversary appears to be very accommodating. It should not take more than an hour. I shall hire a horse as soon as this business is over and shall surely catch up with you before you reach Lyon."

Bonaparte shrugged. "Hothead," he said. And then, reaching out his hand, he added, "Try at least not to get yourself killed. I need you in Paris."

"Oh, relax, General. Somewhere between Valence and Vienne I shall come tell you what happened."

Bonaparte left. About one league beyond Valence he heard a horse galloping behind him and ordered the coachman to stop.

"Oh, it's you, Roland," he said. "Apparently everything went well?"

"Perfectly well," said Roland as he paid for his horse.

"Did you fight?"

"Yes, I did, General."


"With pistols."


"And I killed him, General."

Roland took his place beside Bonaparte and the coach set off again at a gallop.

The first 6 chapters are available online. I barrelled through them.

Monday, October 13, 2008

One of the many things I'm thankful for

Helena draws me a picture almost every day. Averaged out with those days on which she draws me handfuls of pictures... well, that's a lot of pictures. I throw them out when she's not looking. Not that I don't treasure each and every one of them, but it's a lot of pictures.

Many she specifically designates as pictures I should take to work. And I do. My office wall is covered with her artwork — she'd previously asked for photographic evidence, and I'd obliged, though she's since seen it with her own eyes. We are currently showcasing a series of superheroes (because who doesn't need a superhero on their wall?). My desk drawer is stuffed with drawings that have fallen out of rotation, and dozens of others I throw away (when nobody's looking).

(Make no mistake: though many are destined for the recycle bin, I know full well how much emptier my days would be without these drawings.)

Some drawings I like more than others — because they're prettier, or tell a particularly interesting story, or show significant artistic development. This weekend Helena drew me a picture that met all these criteria.

Here the prince has come to rescue the princess, but the evil witch is thwarting his efforts with her magic power (that would be the green blob between them). I love the fact that Helena is suddenly concerned with drawing people's eyelashes.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008


A man needs sad friends to whom he can tell what he doesn't say to his lover. A man needs patient friends who give him the time that a lover denies him. A man needs the friend who talks to him about his lover and evokes a kind of shared warmth that requires the presence of a third person, a special confidant. And above all, a man must respect the relationship with the friend who isn't his lover and gives the assurance that passion could overwhelm him.

— from "The Gay Divorcee," in Happy Families, by Carlos Fuentes.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

This is a weeping song

Nick Cave — and the Bad Seeds — play Metropolis tonight. I'll be there.