Sad day for the rest of us. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/31/art... _____________________________________ It's the time of year when everything brings...moreSad day for the rest of us. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/31/art... _____________________________________ It's the time of year when everything brings this poem into my head. I think Seamus Heaney has a brilliant ability to create momentum. Also, blackberry picking is one of my favorite things that I never do anymore.
Late August, given heavy rain and sun For a full week, the blackberries would ripen. At first, just one, a glossy purple clot Among others, red, green, hard as a knot. You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots. Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills We trekked and picked until the cans were full, Until the tinkling bottom had been covered With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre. But when the bath was filled we found a fur, A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache. The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour. I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot. Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not. (less)
At my college graduation, the speaker was a gruff professor. He was one of those older men whom people somewhat patronizingly describe as a teddy bear...moreAt my college graduation, the speaker was a gruff professor. He was one of those older men whom people somewhat patronizingly describe as a teddy bear to convey the idea that while he looks like Santa Claus, they wouldn’t be surprised to see him arraigned on assault charges at the local courthouse. I liked this professor in general, and his graduation speech was a grand: warm congratulations on a crisp early-summer day. He decided to inform us, however, that anyone who had not read The Iliad and The Odyssey should not be graduating from college. I was one of those lucky (lucky?) folks, like an illiterate kid graduating from high school.
I decided to rectify the situation as soon as possible, and I spent an indefinite number of hours in the next few, sunny weeks laying in a hammock on my porch, the boy I loved commiserating with me about this wonderful book. It is a warm, sharp memory. That was mumble mumble years ago, and this summer, I thought that since I just graduated again, I would read it again. It was a good choice. Warm, summer days in the hammock with limb-chopping, flashing helms, and mountain goats rushing down the hillside.
I can’t find this quote I’m thinking of, but I’m pretty sure it’s from Beowulf, and it goes something like, “Brave men should seek fame in foreign lands.” Google does not think that quote exists, so maybe I dreamed it, which is really neither here nor there, but kind of weird. Something about that quote, about this book, and about the way this book reminds me of that quote, makes my blood beat close to my skin. I get this feeling that my heart grows too big for my ribs, and my eyeballs get tight, as though I’m going to cry. But, my heart doesn’t pound, and no tears come.
That is how this book feels to me.
This story is about what Homer doesn’t describe as much as what he does, and reading it evokes some kind of mirroring response from my body. The Iliad is the almost-death of Achilles, the almost-destruction of Troy, and reading it is an almost-panic-attack, an almost-sob. It is the absent top step in a flight of stairs. But, oh man, that flight of stairs. How do you even make that?
It’s not possible to spoil this story because Homer is always one step ahead, tripping you up about what story he’s telling. So, just because I think it’s fun (and, also because it seems kind of absurd to write a “review” of The Iliad, so I’m wandering in the dark here), I’m going to give a brief summary:
This story is about a bunch of guys fighting over some women fleshlights and jewelry. Mostly the women fleshlights. Everyone’s been at this war for nine years (sidebar: weirdly, when I read that it was nine years, I thought, “NINE YEARS? WHO WOULD FIGHT A WAR FOR THAT LONG? Oh, wait . . . .”). As you probably know, the war initially started because Paris, a Trojan, stole Helen, who was the iPhone 5 of fleshlights, from Menelaus, an Argive. The Argives are at their ships; the Trojans are in Ilium, behind the city walls. There’s lots of blood and guts and pillaging throughout.
This story, Homer clearly tells us, is about Paris and Helen’s betrayal of Menelaus, and it is about the death of Achilles. The story opens with Agamemnon, the king of the Argives, having stolen a fancy new fleshlight from Achilles, who is a child of a water nymph. Achilles refuses to continue fighting if Agamemnon is going to take his fleshlight. Then, Achilles has this beautiful, beautiful moment where he questions the very nature of fighting over fleshlights. We are all pawns in the petty squabbles of the gods.
The gods are easily my favorite parts of this story, though it is not really about them in a certain way. It is not really about them in the way that any discussion of a god is not really about the god. On the one hand, it is about how our lives are just pawns in this squabbling, incestuous, eternal Thanksgiving dinner in the sky. On the other hand, it is still about the pawns. The gods are compelling on their own, but my heart tries to escape my chest not because of their story, but because, yes, humans do live and die by some kind of petty lottery run by a rapist married to his sister. Yes. And maybe there is someone bold and wonderful in the sky, like the grey-eyed Athena, but we still live and die by the thunder of a maniacal drunk uncle. Yes, that seems true.
So, in the midst of the chopping of limbs, the shatteringly beautiful similes, death after death, and the machinations of the dysfunctional immortal family, this story is about the betrayal of Menelaus and the death of Achilles. The thing that is absolutely, hands-down the most insane about this story to me is that those two events are deeply vivid in my mind in connection to this book, but neither of them actually happens here. How is that possible?! How do you plant enough seeds about an event in a reader’s mind that when she closes a book, those seeds grow into whole, robust images about the event? My blood does that thing where it tries to get out of my skin just from thinking about that. I can picture Achilles's death so vividly, picture lying in that hammock and reading it after I graduated from college, but that never happened. Homer just planted the seeds of his death in my brain, and they grew from my constant pondering over them. Helen and Paris sailing away grew in my mind through Helen’s beautiful regrets.
This is a story that I could think about for days: Helen’s mourning, like the women I’ve seen apologize for causing their husbands’ abuse (no, you didn’t cause this); war, and the futility of killing each other, as though we are controlled by the Kardashians of the sky. What causes violence? We say women cause violence because they push our buttons, so we’re driven to maim and kill because of the betrayals and button pushing. We say that something eternal, God or the gods, cause violence because they control our fate, they appear to us as birds and as wisdom and lead us on our night-blind path of life, but they lead us erratically: drunk, hysterical drivers and us with no seat belt, so we grasp for mere survival. Homer describes those motivations for violence so beautifully.
But, ultimately I think that is all bullshit, and I think the bullshitness of it is there in this story, too. It is there in Achilles challenging Agamemnon. It is there in Achilles mourning Patroclus. Oh, Patroclus, about whom I haven’t even freaked in this review. What a shame. Anyway, though, people are not violent because we were betrayed or because of supernatural trickery. Our violence is ours; it is our choice and our responsibility. Life is barbarous and cruel around us, but that is its nature, and we can only shape ourselves through and around it. When we expect life to be gentle and obedient, we are usually doing nothing more than justifying our own cruelty. I don’t think there is an answer to any of this in The Iliad, but it is beautifully told in both the positive and negative space. It is blood-poundingly, eye-achingly told. As my professor said, everyone should read this, and if you can read it in the sun, lying in a hammock after your graduation, all the better.(less)
Hmmm. There is something weird going on with this book, and I’m not quite sure how to react to it. It is smart, I think . . . but kind of creepy. So,...moreHmmm. There is something weird going on with this book, and I’m not quite sure how to react to it. It is smart, I think . . . but kind of creepy. So, this guy, John Wareham, apparently had something of a rough childhood, then, later in life, he wrote this book Chancey On Top. Then, later, he wrote this book, Sonnets for Sinners, which karen so awesomely sent me for Valentines in 2011. Awwww, romantic!
Anywho, I’m going through, reading this book, and totally digging it. It’s all compassionate and, whoa, we all are never satisfied with the people we love because we are searching for some ideal love we never got in childhood. Word. The format is that you read a poem on one page, and then you read something like a goodreads review of the poem on the other, so that is cool. And Shakespeare analysis – fun! And other silly poems from philandering celebrities! And then these other pretty poems from . . . who are these poems from? Why are they using contemporary vocabulary, and then the analysis on them is pointing out their use of Elizabethan slang for vaginas? And what about these lines, “So, for now, my love, to friendship cry, Avaunt! / And come with me in Aphrodite’s cunt”? Why is this lady talking about Aphrodite’s cunt? Isn’t that more what a nerdy 12-year-old boy would talk about to try to look smart and badass? So, I googled it.
And friends, I was not very excited about what I found. It turns out that the bulk of this book is poetry from the characters of the author’s other book, Chancey On Top, and then the author analyzing the poetry of his characters. Feel free to let me know if I’m wrong about this because there seems to be some somewhat elaborate effort to talk about these characters as real people. But, google seems to think that is just weird hand waving. You know, assuming google is right, there might be a kind of silver lining to this cloud about how it is such a masturbatory thing to do, BUT it is a book about people being selfish and focused on self-pleasure, soooo, fitting? But, still no. And then it seemed like, why is Shakespeare in here? Just to add some legitimacy? And why did this author take apart personal emails from fallen celebrities, turn them into sonnets, and then write an analysis of the poem he just constructed? It is kind of confusing to me in a John Nash way.
And I don’t mean, wow, you are a genius, author. Even though you do seem like a smart guy. I don’t know. I guess smart isn’t something you can really measure. I have been thinking about this with studying for the bar exam. One of my friends, who did the best in law school of all of my friends, wants to get an A+ on the bar exam. But, you can’t do that because you only pass or fail. So, because the sacrifices you make to get an A+ so far outweigh the benefits of getting the non-existent A+, does that mean you’re ultimately dumb if you try for and get the A+, but you're just good at taking tests? It is like showing off: so, you show off this knowledge or skill to impress someone with how good you are at this skill or knowledge, but rather than being impressed, the person is left feeling like, wow, what a show off. Like, the talent or smartness or whatever might be there, but the other weirdness so overshadows it that it doesn’t matter anymore.
So, rather than feeling like, what a clever boy!, as I felt at the beginning, I was left feeling kind of annoyed. And it has clouded even the poems and analyses I liked at the beginning. I think if it had just been a book of the author’s own poetry or a book of his analyses of Shakespeare’s sonnets on cheating, without all of this hoodwinking business, I probably would have liked it. The way it is, it just felt like sneaky and unnecessarily complicated self-promotion.(less)
I spent most of my childhood riding my bike in the suburbs around Seattle. There was a hill I could speed down, a blackberry maze I could pretend to g...moreI spent most of my childhood riding my bike in the suburbs around Seattle. There was a hill I could speed down, a blackberry maze I could pretend to get lost in, a witch’s house, and a speed bump that was perfect for popping wheelies. When I was eight, though, we had to move to a farm in Oregon, and, for many reasons, it was a watershed moment in my life. It wasn’t until years later, when we had to move again, that I could finally appreciate the beauty of the Oregon farm and the jagged, friendly little mountains I could see from my bedroom window.
Eva of the Farm is a sweet story about moves, changes, and losing a childhood home, but to some extent losing the farm is a broader symbol of losing childhood. While it was very sweet, it still confronted a lot of not-sweet injustices and bitterness. Eva is a thirteen-year-old poetess who lives on an orchard her family owns in Eastern Washington. Her beloved grandma recently died, and her best friend moved to Seattle. Eva’s family learns they might lose their farm to foreclosure because of a bad apple crop, and Eva has to deal with all of the loss she faces.
The story is told as a poem, and Eva’s poems punctuate what happens in her life. At first, I thought the poem format was slightly distracting from the story, but by the end I really liked it. It expressed a certain simplicity and deliberateness about the story that I thought was sweet and beautiful. I think a larger theme of the story is Eva’s transformation from seeing life as black and white, evil and good, to seeing her own influence in the world and power over it, as well as the complexity of people’s reactions to life and how that affects our own complex reactions.
I would say the message of this story is that change is bad, but we can be stronger than change. I can get behind that. Though I have now moved many times, no matter how many times it happens, no matter how many times I lose a friend or face death of someone I love, it always seems bad and like it displaces my soul for a little while. The way Eva gathers the greater powers around her seems like good, comforting advice.
__________________________ I received a copy of this from the publisher, but I gave nothing in return.(less)