Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Monsters Reclining on a Couch

I was talking to a friend about my recent graphic dreams, telling her that I assumed the monster that grew large and menacing was my anger and that I thought it needed a serious time-out. I must train myself to stop the growth of this anger before it turns bestial.

She pointed out that in the dream I was beating it down, physically repressing it. And that my attempts to calm down and not feel the anger is what eventually made it monstrous, not the anger itself. To keep emotions manageable we have to deal with them when they are still small. It is true that I try to suppress my anger – it seems natural to me that anger is a negative feeling and one that we should repress. Better to accept whatever befalls us. Never strike back.

My friend pointed out that when it was small I didn’t trust it and tried to beat it into submission. The monster had something to tell me but I refused to listen. My refusal only made it bigger. And when the other people ignored me, dismissed what I was saying, laughed at me, it is my monster that came to my defense. That is why I was not afraid of it. When we are children, and someone laughs at us, what do we want to do? At a primal level we want to bash their face in. In my dream, that is what my dark side did. My monster became an uncontrolled, elemental force.

She said I have to stop looking at anger as negative, and think of it as something that is there for my protection, something that can warn me of danger or simply tell me that something is wrong. When the first bodily sensation of anger is felt, I need to take a deep breath and figure out why and then take an appropriate action. I need to deal with it while it is still small. After all, fire when contained provides warmth and comfort. The trick is to keep it manageable.

I was thinking about what she said and realized that I have always had an unhealthy relationship with anger. It is true that emotions themselves are not bad or good; it is how we respond to them that defines their nature. Feeling disappointed can lead to lethargy or a renewed sense of purpose. And anger can lead to great displays of aggression or be taken as an opportunity to express dissatisfaction in a situation. Since I was a young girl I have viewed anger as something raw, frightening and uncontrollable, which is why I find it very confusing that in the last few years my own anger has seemed boundless. Where is it all coming from and why can’t I rid myself of it? Perhaps now I realize that was the wrong thing to do. I shouldn’t try to rid myself of my personal monsters but rather try to figure out why they exist and what their purpose is.

And so monsters, please make yourselves comfortable and we’ll have a little talk. I’m ready to listen now.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Monsters Abound

Early this morning, right before I woke up, I was dreaming that I was running away from something I could not see. It was dark and I fell down a hole into a cave. There was something in front of me, like a cross between a bat and a rabid squirrel, and I was sure it was trying to attack me even though it told me otherwise. “Don’t be afraid” it said in a small voice, but I wouldn’t listen and grabbed a large stick from the ground and began bashing it over and over again. “Stop”, it pleaded, “I won’t hurt you”. But I kept smashing it with the stick. Then it began to grow, larger and larger, until it filled the cave and its head was above ground. It took a large step right out of the cave and I could hear it walking away. I had to warn people. I sunk my fingers into the dirt wall and clawed my way out of the cave.

The next thing I remember is being in an office, with Dr. Phil of all people, and trying to warn them that this horrific monster was coming. They asked me to describe it and only after telling them did I realize they were laughing at me. Of course, they didn’t believe me! Dr. Phil was diagnosing me as schizophrenic or potentially manic when a loud growl could be heard. I hid inside a closet and locked it from the inside. I tried to get the others to hide but they just stood there, unalarmed and annoyed at my hysterics. The creature smashed down the door and grabbed the woman and began chewing on her. I watched everything from a crack in between the two doors. It then chewed off Dr. Phil’s arms and threw his torso into the window. Glass shattered everywhere as his body smashed through and dropped down. The monster came up to the door where I was hiding and I could hear it sniffing at me like the nose of a dog.

Then I woke up. I sprang right up into a sitting position. My pajamas were damp from sweating. I was so hot; I had to take them off. The back of my neck and hair were wet. I wasn’t scared when I woke up, like I usually am when I have a nightmare. My heart was pounding and I was sweating profusely, but somehow, even in my dream, I knew the monster to be something from my imagination.

This dream was unlike my usual night terrors in many ways. I occasionally have gory bits but not to this detail. I seemed a mere spectator, looking from behind a barrier. Although not at a safe distance, but the barrier seemed to separate in a tangible way. My little space for looking was on this side, away from the threat, while the others were being massacred. Despite the grotesque nature of a monster chewing on people, it seemed aestheticized. Like a Tarantino movie, the blood splattered artistically like paint on a canvas, the glass shattered into thousands of fragments and then rained down in slow shimmering motion. And then there was the whole Alice in Wonderland nature of a small creature in a hole that grew monstrously big. Perhaps never being a monster, it was mistaken for one and then had no choice but to live monstrously. Very Frankensteinian, really.

So this is what I am wondering - why a monster? I don’t think I’ve had a bogey dream since I was a toddler, about the same age as my daughter now. Unfortunately, she has been having nightmares too. A few nights back she woke screaming, and when I went into her room she said she was dreaming of monsters on her bed. I looked at her bed and saw many stuffed animals and dolls. “Look honey,” I said, “your animals here will protect you from any monsters. No monsters would dare come on your bed with these brave animals.” “But mommy,” she said, “they were the monsters. I was watching them, and they curled into a ball and when they popped back up – they were monsters.” She has a wild imagination. Once she told me she was dreaming of a pterodactyl ice-skating on his claws. He had to stay outside because he was too big to skate in the arena and there would be no room for the kids to skate. Another time when my husband asked how she slept, she said, “not good, the volcanoes were too noisy and kept waking me up.” The very matter-of-fact way she spoke was hilarious, like someone stating that a dog was barking.

My daughter has been saying things as of late that have been very upsetting to me. Whenever she doesn’t do as she is told and I have to reprimand her sternly, she’ll start to cry and say things like “I’m afraid you won’t like me anymore “ or “I’m afraid you won’t be my friend.” She was staying over night at my parent’s house and lost her hair clip, and my mother told me she began to cry and said, “I’m afraid mommy will get mad at me.” I’m thinking so what if I do, which I wouldn’t over a hair clip, but if I did, what would she have to be afraid of? I don’t hit her. Worst thing, I put her in a time-out. Occasionally, when I am at a breaking point, I have yelled at her. I know this is wrong, but in frustration I am ashamed to admit that I have lost my temper. I figure this is what she is afraid of, being yelled at. The majority of the time, I don’t though. My efforts at discipline are primarily a stern voice and threat of a time-out. She knows that once I start counting, a time-out is inevitable if she doesn’t listen. Most of the time the threat works, and when it doesn’t, she gets a time-out and cries through it. It is amazing how much a time-out upsets her. When she calms down, I ask her if she understands why she had one and we have a little talk about what is expected. Not the stuff of which monster movies are made.

Maybe she sees me as the safe teddy bear that pops up and turns monstrous, maybe I see myself as having monstrous potential underneath. There are some parallels in recent dreams — lurking danger hidden under a guise. Something apparently safe becomes menacing and dangerous. My own skin takes on an unnatural, diseased appearance. Or the small fury animal that claims to be non-threatening transforms into a horrific creature that dismembers and eats people. Perhaps I am the small creature that insists it is non-threatening only to turn hideous with any provocation. Perhaps that is why the dream did not scare me, although I recognized it as disturbing. It was really my own Mrs. Hide. The Dr. Jekyll side hid in the closet and did nothing as the monstrous side destroyed all in its path. Perhaps I need to be more pro-active. Like Dr. Jekyll I have a responsibility to keep my doppelganger small and unassuming.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Defining “Mother”

I never thought I would become a “mother”, and I am still trying to figure out what that label means to me. In its most basic understanding, a mother is a woman’s relationship to the child she has given birth to. But “mother” is so much more than that. My biological mother carried me inside of her for nine months and then went through the ordeal of labour, but once severed from her body, she was gone from my life. She never nurtured my growing body or mind, never answered my questions concerning life or the mystery of it, she never tucked me under the covers at night or brought me a glass a milk. The woman who did all these things, and so much more, was my adoptive mother. The woman that, through the years, has been called everything from mama, mommy, mom, and sometimes mother when I get upset with her. Although no biological relation, she is the one I have always turned to.

And now I am both of these women, a combination of “mother” that I have no experience with. My husband thought it odd how I kept remarking how pleasantly surprised I was that my daughter looked like me. And still to this day, when people comment on our very obvious familiar appearance, I am warmed inside. I think it more than common pride. It springs from somewhere unknowable, a sense of loss, a history or foundation that was never there. I look nothing like anyone is my family. I grew up in a family of tanned, dark haired brunettes, and here I was, a pale freckled red head. When I look at my daughter, a connection has been made, a lost link finally reestablished. What was severed, having no choice on the matter, has been regained through choice. The choice to become a mother to my daughter.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

From the Mouth of a Babe

My daughter has recently become very philosophical, ruminating on states of existence. She has asked such questions as:

“What happens to our bones when we die?”
“How did I get into your belly?”
“Will I still see you if I die?”
“Where did the first mommy come from?”
“If my heart is still beating, that means I am alive, right?”

At three years of age, she is now contemplating such epistemological issues as the meaning of life. I sometimes think her very smart, but then she does something to remind me how young she really is – like chew my pant leg.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

How NOT to Interview

Excerpts are taken from Dan Schneider’s interview of Phillip Lopate, published on-line at www.cosmoetica.com/DS17.htm

1. State that you haven’t read the author’s novels and accuse him of ill intent.

Quote: “You have written two novels: Confessions of Summer (1979) and The Rug Merchant (1987). I’ve not read them. What were they about, and were they well received? Did you simply see them as being written to get an “in” to the publishing world, and once done, you left the form behind?”

2. State that the author is not very good at writing, and base this on the one poem you found on-line.

Quote: “You wrote two poetry collections, The Eyes Don’t Always Want to Stay Open (1972) and The Daily Round (1976). Yet, nothing more in three decades plus. As with fiction, was this a form you simply did not master, so dropped it? I could find only one poem of yours online and it was not a good one.”

3. Criticize other writers, although it is irrelevant to the interview.

Quote: “Then there is Toni Morrison. She’s a writer with talent, but her novels become unstructured messes, and her winning the Nobel Prize was just PC.”

4. Assert that creative writing programs are corrupt and insinuate that the author, as a writing instructor, is part of this system.

Quote: “I’ve met, literally, thousands of talentless people who are wannabe writers, but not only do they lack talent, but they regard themselves in low esteem because they were suckered into programs they thought could turn them into Emily Dickinson or Norman Mailer. Have you ever felt like you were part of a corrupt system?”

5. Make long-winded speeches and arrogant comments.

Quote: “the failure of ‘published’ literature today lies more with the failings of publishers, editors, and critics to do their jobs well, more so than with the bad and generic writers who are published. My point is that bad writers have always been with us, but the cronyism, favoritism, and grants-giving NEA cash cow has led to a system of writers and editors who dare not say negative things about another writer’s work lest they find their own publication chances minimized, if not extirpated. Do you agree?”

Quote: “This leads to bad art being championed—such as the horrid poetry of a Charles Bukowski or even Pulitzer Prize winners like James Tate, or Poet Laureate Donald Hall being alibied for. It also leads to the monochrome or drip paintings of Abstract Expressionists being hailed as comparable to the works of a Goya or Rembrandt. Ultimately, this leads to young wannabe artists saying, ‘I can do crap like that in my sleep, so I must have real talent, too,’ and a downward spiral of art being created. Do you see this trend, as well?”

6. Make generalizations about critics and the literary community and then expect the author to respond to this diatribe.

Quote: “Why do almost all critics and wannabe artists today find it impossible to distance themselves from emotion-based subjectivity and towards intellectual objectivity? Is it merely self-interest because of the fellatric way the publication world is set up?”

7. Be nonsensical.

Quote: “another noxious claim is that ‘all art is political.’ Aside from its logical absurdity, one can substitute the words ‘about poodles’ for ‘political,’ and the statement is just as true, or absurd. If one does not deal with politics in one’s story, poem or painting, then one is actually making a statement about the condition of poodles in the cosmos by ignoring their plight. No?”

8. Ask the author to label other authors as the “the worst”.

Quote: “Who are some of the worst published writers, as well as the worst filmmakers, around today?”

9. Suggest that the many years someone has spent teaching was a form of “penance”.

Quote: “You spent many years teaching in the public school system of New York—which many of your essays document. Was that a sort of penance for the writing mills? Or did you feel that the earlier you could reach potential artists the easier it would be to encourage the truly talented, and weed out the kids who would waste their lives and become the embittered drifters that I’ve seen at too many cafes and bars that host open mics?”

10. Coin a neologism and then ask the author to comment on it.

Quote: “In that same vein, about the dumbing down of America, in general, and literarily, in specific, I coined a neologism—deliterate, in opposition to illiterate. By deliterate I mean the willful choice to not read great nor compelling writing. To avoid the classics in favor of reading blogs. To write emailese rather than proper grammar. Basically, I claim that deliteracy is far more a problem than illiteracy is. Do you think such a distinction is merited? Have you seen such in your years as a teacher?”

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Dream - Green Luminescence

A few nights back I dreamt that there was a large scab on my forearm. I began picking at it and the skin pulled away like the peel of an orange. Underneath there was a green glistening substance. It didn’t hurt but obviously was not right. I went to the doctor’s office and the nurses began peeling more flesh, revealing a green luminescence. Very strange dream. Wondering if I am radioactive underneath, like the hulk.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Wired Mayhem

My husband assures me that there is nothing dangerous in having many cords, but I can’t help thinking that this is unwise. When I go to other friend’s houses, I never see a mess of electrical tentacles like this. Perhaps other people hide it better, but I sometimes wonder if my workspace is exceptionally messy. I might even call it hazardous. Not only is there wired mayhem, but scissors, knives, glue, drill bits, a hammer, a guillotine paper cutter, racks too heavily burdened, and stacks of books and papers teetering. I have to carefully tiptoe through the clutter just to get to my desk chair.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Positioning the Personal

This review was published in Event volume 36.3.

Torch River by Elizabeth Philips
Heron Cliff by Margo Button
The Pear Orchard by Joanne Weber

In Elizabeth Philips fourth collection of poetry, Torch River, she writes of the primal experiences of death, birth and sexuality and its intrinsic and metaphoric relation to the natural world. In the series of poems, “Fatherhood”, she considers the experience of birth from the usually neglected angle of the labouring woman’s partner. Each poem documents the stages of labour, from the onset he “hooks his gaze/ into hers,/ and her irises are water,/ a blue he falls into like thirst” (p.62), to the birth itself when “her hands throttle his,/ and leaning into the oars, she pushes and/ pushes, drawing him with her in to the water, it washes over them/ the head surging” (p.69). The lines ebb and flow like the current she is describing, washing out to the far reaches of the edge of page and then pulling far back in.

Her imagery is both fresh and startling in its beauty. When describing a newborn it would be easy to sentimentalize, but Philips never falls into that trap. The child has “cheeks streaked with vernix/ and blood, her small hands, creased/ pink lilies.” (p.73) Philips’ use of animal and fauna imagery set human experience within the broader context of nature. Her work proliferates with coyote, fawn, frogs, wolves, owls, geese, columbine, lilies, spruce, aspen, birch, crocus and lichen. In “Sunday” she describes kissing as “mouth/ on mouth (the inside of/ sea scent, oysters/ kelp lustrous/ anemone)” (pgs. 102-3). Our lives seen through and experienced as a part of nature, a type of seasonal flux of sensuality, suffering and pain, from relaxing summer days spent in the water to the harsh winter of snow and ice.

Philips style is quite varied. At its best, the diction, rhythm and line length match the content. In the poem “Jackknife/ 2” she writes,

I tag him

or I don’t.
He swaggers

no matter what.
With the deftness

of a novice
I’ve leaned the language

that drives us
toward that hallowed

and to no mind

goal line.
Fuck! is the sound of

the ball (p.28)

The diction is straightforward, lean and masculine in its directness. The short quick lines are like the snap of the football, and the hard sounding repetition of the “d” in don’t, deftness, and drives leads up to the even harder sounding exclamation “Fuck!” At the other extreme, Philips uses lines that are long and flowing. The poems are meditative and the stream-of-consciousness technique works, in that, it represents the fluidity of both water and thought. In the opening poem, “Breath”, the long-winded passages move like a deep inhale and exhale.

It’s that little catch, of pleasure
or release, when I first glimpse the river
each morning, the river that never pauses, not
in its meander or undertow, the light
breaking apart the sky and reassembling it
the wide, flat rock we call
Pelican Rock. (p.9)

The flowing lines have purpose and are not, in themselves, the problem. The issue is that she drifts into abstraction so often that I am sometimes at a loss about what exactly her point is. In an attempt to capture the ever-shifting currents of thought, she seems to loose her own point. “What was I saying?” (p.10) she asks, and I think, hey, if you don’t know then how am I supposed to. In another poem she asserts, “I’m going to say it now,/ are you listening?” (p.16) and I have to answer no, sorry, I wasn’t. You lost me.

Although some poems, especially at the beginning of the collection, are unable to hold my attention with their meandering thoughts and philosophical questioning, I thought the collection as a whole worth reading. Philips displays finely tuned control over her language and is able to adjust her diction and style to create a wide range of effects. The best poems are honest, unpretentious in style and contain fresh and relevant imagery. The poems in Torch River are wide-ranging, and Philips should be applauded for varying her style and emotional tone from poem to poem. Too many poets write consistently in one style, risking nothing. Philips writing is confident, skilled, and full of sensuality. With a genuine voice, she conveys how life can be altered within a single moment and how the currents can both buoy or sink us.

In Heron Cliff, Margo Button’s poetry delves into the personal tragedy of a beloved son who committed suicide, and the interconnectedness of pain and suffering that all people experience when trying to cope with death or violence. Whereas, Torch River, set the personal in the larger context of the natural world, Heron Cliff positions the personal within the global context. Her son’s death is set among poems about a Beirut uprising, acts of terrorism, a mass grave in Guatemala, and a drowning in Mexico where “a cry keens around the cove,/ vibrates in me like a tuning fork.” (p.49) Button is able to vacillate between the personal and public in a way that brings the eye up close to focus on the individual petals of a singular flower and then travels back out to view the entire garden set inside a landscape. She explores the notion of home, her own relationship to family, and what wisdom can be garnered from others. When watching a child, she writes, “Today she learns to turn her head sideways/ for a different view of the world./ Today I practice with her.” (p.39)

Although the emotions in her work are powerful, I found Button’s style in the first two sections of the book to be lacking. It is narrative, expository, anecdotal and devoid of musicality and syntactical play. In some instances the poems appear to be the beginning of a news report: “A sunny winter day in 1919/ my grandmother…” (p.32) or “January 7, 1936, a wintry day in Maine/ he grabs his lunch pail, rushes off/ to the yards, signs his daily orders” (p.33). That poems examining death, its aftermath, violence and universal suffering, solemn and grave topics if there ever were ones, are written in a causal and almost chatty style seems incongruent and does not give the reader a weighted importance of the material. Perhaps it was Button’s intent to write in a colloquial style to levy this importance against the ordinariness of the everyday, but I found it to be a stylistic discrepancy.

In many ways the first two sections of the book reads like chopped prose, but this changes in the third and last section of the book. “Blue Dahlias” is a long series of poems, numbering one page short of twenty, and are the strongest in the entire collection. Whereas the previous poems were prosaic and too explanatory in their meaning, these poems are impressionistic and allow for textual openness. Like trying to tell a story through individual snapshots that have been dumped from a box onto the floor, the reader gathers up each image and arranges and interprets for herself. Take for example the lines,

Upended, a spider crab is comical
brandishing pincers like boxing gloves.

The nuthatch couples stick close to home.
Yet they don’t know their name.

Christmas in July. The yew decked out in rubies.
Edmontonians shovelling hailstones. (p.77)

Here, Button is at her most poetic. The images are juxtaposed, without exposition and unnecessary narration. As a result, the fragments are striking and elegant in style and they challenge the reader to go deeper into the work. What does the crab, nuthatch and decorated yew have in common? I have to think further on this: an unknown threat, a sense of vulnerability, useless ornamentation, or a sense of not belonging. These poems are challenging at times, but the work pays off. In the end, Heron Cliff is about the interconnection of people and how shouldering someone else’s pain brings us closer to our own humanity. “Listen to her sobs,” Button writes, “her small sorrows/ as keen as ours.” (p.91). The “Blue Dahlias” series effectively redeems the collection from its earlier pitfalls. It proves what Button is capable of, and in the future I hope her talents will be further honed and more consistently displayed.

Joanne Weber’s The Pear Orchard, is an impressive first collection. The themes of suffering, birth and sexuality are explored in relation to a deaf woman struggling to communicate with her lover, a man capable of hearing, and the world around her. Whereas in the earlier collections the personal was set in the context of the natural world or the global community, with The Pear Orchard the personal journey of the woman is woven into a symbolic tapestry of myth, legend, art and literary history. References to John Donne, Saint Augustine, George Sand, Heloise, and the paintings of Jan Van Eyck and Renoir abound, to name just a few. The first section of the book is written like a mythic re-enactment of a medieval tale: a young woman seduced by a boy who raids her father’s orchard. She later becomes his Queen and bears him children.

There is a tension created between the mythic world of saints and icons, where she is a noblewoman in a “stiff headdress of pears” (p.15) and the woman who wears “jeans now that it is the harvest.” (p.28) This duality is evident throughout the collection, as the woman tries to bring her two worlds together. In an interesting reversal, the persona in “Simple Gifts1” is her lover, who states,

…think of me as your king,
a medieval metaphor surely pleases you.

Think of me too, as a simple man,
I enjoy simple pleasures:
a walk in my fields each day,
measuring the stubble with the toe of my boot. (p.33)

What I find fascinating is not the retelling of an archetypal story, many have done this before, but the way in which Weber takes the ordinary object of a pear and through the use of language makes it multi-facetted. Like the many mirrors and reflective waters she writes of, the pear too becomes something brilliant and glittering. The entire collection pivots around the singular image of the pear and what can be made of it metaphorically. What is a pear capable of being? It can be an offering of juice, representing sensual pleasure. It can be sliced, cut, pierced, even “smashed… against the stone wall” (p.20), symbolic of a tortured body. Pears are canned, stored, or eaten, thereby becoming a source of bodily/ spiritual sustenance. It has a core and seeds and is suggestive of growth and fertility. The very shape of it, being a “heavy bottomed fruit” (p.11) suggests a pregnant woman’s body. It smells like vanilla, with connotations of baked goods, an earthy and domestic life. It grows in an orchard, where it can be picked, stolen and tasted, symbolic of sexuality and a loss of virginity. In Weber’s talented hands, the pear, at turns, becomes all of these things. Take the wonderfully evocative and sensual line, “let my language come between us,/ hard as a young green pear.” (p.13) The pear is obviously indicative of masculine sexuality, but given the syntax of the line it is also “language” itself. Language, and by extension Weber’s poetry, is able to come between people with passion and tension and the expectation of pleasure.

Weber’s verse is pleasing, to the eye and the ear. It is musical and contains an alliterative quality, but does not become overly showy. Her collection is full of beautifully written and balanced lines like “sprays of spores, and ripening orange.” (p.25) and “bathing perfumes stored in stone jars/ by rocks on the shore.” (p.34) The sound play in her poetry is evident everywhere, and her stylish lines are able to dazzle without completely taking over the content. As a first collection, the ability to achieve a balance between content and style is remarkable by itself. If I was to make any criticism of the collection, it would be that she reuses too many of the same metaphors and images. Although this creates a sense of unity in the work and makes it cohesive, at times it felt like I was reading the same poem over. But this seems a small offence in a collection that sparkles with multifaceted imagery, a skillful handling of diction and rhythm, emotional felicity and a genuine engagement with the material. The Pear Orchard is a welcome debut by a poet who has much to offer.