Archive for August, 2010

Notes from the Sierra Nevada wilderness

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

The rocks of Yuba River

California is parched and yellow in late August, before the rains begin – but away from the coasts,  the dryness becomes dire.  Inevitable wildfires are seasonal guests in the famed “Gold Country.”

I am driving through the manzanita, scrub pine, live oak, and dry brush of the fire-scarred Sierra Nevada foothills en route to a stepson’s wedding.

A journey that only a dozen years ago would have been accompanied by a lapful of maps is instead guided by a handful of google printouts and “Eunice,” the Australian-voiced GPS in my daughter’s ancient Toyota.  Eunice won out against google with her reassuring voice, and by promising the shortest route – though, as it turned out, not the quickest.  Eventually, Eunice steered us through Woodland, Marysville, and Downieville, winding along Highway 49 over Bullard’s Bar, the dam where the current wildfire blazes after devouring 1,300 acres.  The smell of smoke (“like salami,” said my daughter) penetrates the car and, in places, fogs the landscape.

Sardine Lake and the Sierras

The moon is huge, heavy, and low on the horizon, a golden half-melon.  The chill takes even the August air by the time you reach 5,000 feet.  For my daughter, this is home.  Now, a city-dweller, she is nostalgic, but can’t envision the place as a campground.  She’d rather, if she were inclined that way, go to Oregon’s redwoods, rather than these “gross pines and scrub.”

We encounter no one on our travels, speeding through the darkness towards Sardine Lake.  “We are in the center of nowhere,” she says, as we drive deeper into the night, past the deserted Coyote Café, North Yuba Trail, and signs that advertise sales for “Aged Steer manure.”  We see a jackrabbit and a gray fox ambling across the street at midnight.

Life in the Sierra Nevada

Welcome to California

I do not like the country.  I lived here for a decade —  and fled for my home three times in the face of approaching walls of flame.  The granite walls along the highways are striking, but more than offset tonight by the bugs hitting the windshield, and the possibility (not having checked beforehand) that these orange warning signs we are passing will yield to closed roads and detours unforeseen by Eunice.  This very California landscape overwhelmed Czesław Miłosz, also, and he chastised its spokesman, Robinson Jeffers, who viewed humanity as a blight on a more-perfect natural world.  Miłosz wrote:

Better to carve suns and moons on the joints of crosses
as was done in my district. To birches and firs
give feminine names. To implore protection
against the mute and treacherous might
than to proclaim, as you did, an inhuman thing.

The moon moves as we round the winding curves — it goes under and over mountains again and again, digging out the hills with its golden shovel.

What I miss most about living in these hills is the quality of silence, that enters you, that deepens into still pools within you.  The solitude that troubles my daughter (reminding her of the opening scene of a horror flick, where someone horrible jumps out of the bushes), refreshes me.

All this was meant to be a lead-in to another California poet,  Moore Moran, and his poem on the Gold Country, “Outside Truckee.” But driving through the night, thinking of Miłosz’s alienation from the California landscape that has entered me, that entered him, too, I find I am drawn instead to Moran’s poem on the facing page, “Star Dust,” which concludes:

Yearn is another term for breathing.
Hostage, we live on cruising wheels,
eye ever quick, need ever seething,
rejections linger … unrung bells.

We trust our immortality
To sex, its produce and its scars,
and so persists the roundelay,
This dance of dust among the stars.

Robertson Davies: “I do not ‘get’ ideas; ideas get me.”

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

A quick birthday card to one of my favorite contemporary novelists.  It’s Robertson Davies’s 97th birthday today — or rather, it would have been, had he not died 15 years ago.  (I suppose some will argue that that fact makes him not “contemporary.”)

Davies (1913-95) is not one of my favorites because he’s the most profound, but because he’s a kick and provides me with the most amusement — and an enormous wealth of common sense, to boot.  As he himself said, “The great book for you is the book that has the most to say to you at the moment when you are reading. I do not mean the book that is most instructive, but the book that feeds your spirit. And that depends on your age, your experience, your psychological and spiritual need.”

Davies’s career is a reminder that journalists can have a future beyond newsprint — his father was a newspaperman, and Davies himself became the editor of the Peterborough Examiner in Ontario. “Canada is not really a place where you are encouraged to have large spiritual adventures,” he said —  but he had them anyway, apparently, and wrote novels, plays, libretti, and essays.

Alas, my own annotated copies of his novels have been loaned out to friends — but here are a few gleanings:

“Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness.”

“A happy childhood has spoiled many a promising life.”

“The dog is a yes-animal. Very popular with people who can’t afford a yes man.”

“Authors like cats because they are such quiet, lovable, wise creatures, and cats like authors for the same reasons.”

“Do not suppose, however, that I intend to urge a diet of classics on anybody. I have seen such diets at work. I have known people who have actually read all, or almost all, the guaranteed Hundred Best Books. God save us from reading nothing but the best.”

“Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances and they become more extraordinary because of it.”

“Inactivity and deprivation of all accustomed stimulus is not rest; it is a preparation for the tomb”

“Fanaticism is overcompensation for doubt.” (Perhaps my most frequently quoted line from him — and a very good rule of thumb.)

“The world is burdened with young fogies. Old men with ossified minds are easily dealt with. But men who look young, act young and everlastingly harp on the fact that they are young, but who nevertheless think and act with a degree of caution that would be excessive in their grandfathers, are the curse of the world. Their very conservatism is secondhand, and they don’t know what they are conserving.”

“Pessimism is a very easy way out when you’re considering what life really is, because pessimism is a short view of life – If you take a long view, I do not see how you can be pessimistic about the future of man or the future of the world.”

“The people of the United States, perhaps more than any other nation in history, love to abase themselves and proclaim their unworthiness, and seem to find refreshment in doing so… That is a dark frivolity, but still frivolity.”

“I see Canada as a country torn between a very northern, rather extraordinary, mystical spirit which it fears and its desire to present itself to the world as a Scotch banker.”

“We mistrust anything that too strongly challenges our ideal of mediocrity.”

“What we call luck is the inner man externalized. We make things happen to us.”

“The love that dare not speak its name has become the love that won’t shut up.”

“The love of truth lies at the root of much humor.”

“Well, allow me to introduce myself to you as an advocate of Ornamental Knowledge. You like the mind to be a neat machine, equipped to work efficiently, if narrowly, and with no extra bits or useless parts. I like the mind to be a dustbin of scraps of brilliant fabric, odd gems, worthless but fascinating curiosities, tinsel, quaint bits of carving, and a reasonable amount of healthy dirt. Shake the machine and it goes out of order; shake the dustbin and it adjusts itself beautifully to its new position.”

“All mothers think their children are oaks, but the world never lacks for cabbages.”

“I object to being told that I am saving daylight when my reason tells me that I am doing nothing of the kind… At the back of the Daylight Saving scheme, I detect the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier, to make them healthy, wealthy, and wise in spite of themselves.”

No rejection letter will ever seem quite that bad again

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Wonder what the first edition goes for...

Here is news that will cheer writers everywhere.  This is a December 1953 review of the then-unpublished Lolita manuscript:

“It is overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian. To the public, it will be revolting. It will not sell, and will do immeasurable harm to a growing reputation…. I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.”

Five leading publishers rejected the manuscript:  Doubleday; Farrar, Straus; New Directions; Simon & Schuster; and Viking.  When it was finally published, 55 years ago next month, John Gordon of the Sunday Express denounced it as “about the filthiest book I’ve ever read” and “sheer unrestrained pornography.”  This, about a book that is curiously sexless — where the porn is largely projected onto the book by the mind of the reader.  But that’s okay.  Dorothy Parker described the pretentious Humbert Humbert as a man of “taste and culture.”  The book would seem to be a Rorschach test — or perhaps a mirror.

The quotations above are the latest gleanings from the Library of America’s new blog, Reader’s Almanac. We’ve written about R.S. Gwynn‘s theory that Pale Fire‘s John Shade is actually poet Yvor Winters here.  And I’ve written about the bruited link between Humbert Humbert and the founder of Stanford’s Slavic Department, Henry Lanz over here.

I still think one of the best opinions of the book was offered in Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003): “This is the story of a twelve-year-old girl who had nowhere to go. Humbert had tried to turn her into his fantasy, into his dead love, and he had destroyed her. The desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another.”

Elizabeth Janeway expressed something of the same idea when the book came out:

“Humbert is every man who is driven by desire, wanting his Lolita so badly that it never occurs to him to consider her as a human being, or as anything but a dream-figment made flesh 3/4 which is the eternal and universal nature of passion. … As for its pornographic content, I can think of few volumes more likely to quench the flames of lust than this exact and immediate description of its consequences.”

My neighbor Vladimir Nabokov himself recognized the consequences, while reflecting on the work that pleased him most:

I would say that of all my books Lolita has left me with the most pleasurable afterglow—perhaps because it is the purest of all, the most abstract and carefully contrived. I am probably responsible for the odd fact that people don’t seem to name their daughters Lolita any more. I have heard of young female poodles being given that name since 1956, but of no human beings.

Home furnishings: It’s come to this

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

As ebook fever takes the land, Americans become more and more ingenuous in ways to use all those musty old books that have been cluttering their space-hogging bookshelves for years.

A few weeks ago, we discussed the man who made a room of books.  Here’s the next step: bringing books as objets (we will not say d’art) into your own home.

The New York Times recently discussed all the alternative uses people are finding for their books — planters for bonzai, for example.  Among the more aesthetically pleasing is Jim Rosenau‘s effort, at left.  Berkeley’s Rosenau gives a new twist to the word “bookcase.”

Then there’s the bookshelf at right, also by Rosenau — more of a high concept thing.

This from the New York Times piece:

“Certainly it’s relevant that most of these examples involve older volumes: whether it’s because of changing production standards or changing tastes, most contemporary mass-market books simply aren’t as appealing, as physical objects, as their ‘vintage’ predecessors. As pure decoration, a shelf of 19th-century tomes just looks more interesting than a typical shelf of, say, recent nonfiction at Barnes & Noble.”

Let alone a Kindle.

Things get wackier from here.  Got a pile of your own remaindered books? Here’s a solution, at left:

“These legs are quite easy to make and very stable if done correctly – but they possess a bit of wobble as well.

“That wobble came in handy when a car crashed through the art section of the bookstore I work at, however. The shelves fell when the car came through and the table merely leaned out of the way as the shelves hit it.”

For earthquake protection, you might try this solution at right.

In any case, recent reports say the ebook is taking over — don’t believe it, as we discussed here, the numbers may have been jiggled a bit.

But one city may have already lost the battle to save the book as an object to peruse, rather than a building material — or perhaps the Kansas City Library simply found an acceptable compromise.  According to the “Community Bookshelf” website:

It runs along the south wall of the Central Library’s parking garage on 10th Street between Wyandotte Street and Baltimore Avenue. The book spines, which measure approximately 25 feet by 9 feet, are made of signboard mylar. The shelf showcases 22 titles reflecting a wide variety of reading interests as suggested by Kansas City readers and then selected by The Kansas City Public Library Board of Trustees.”

Don’t look for him in Wikipedia

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

In an era when most prominent poets seem to have a protected perch in academia, Moore Moran is rather refreshing.  Moran, one of the lesser known students of Yvor Winters, left Stanford and entered the advertising world as a copywriter and later creative director.  He lives in Santa Rosa, and has raised four daughters and a son — all the while writing poetry for the last half-century or so.  He’s managed to avoid even a Wikipedia entry.

Nevertheless, his first full-length book, Firebreaks, won the National Poetry Book Award in 1999.  His newest book, The Room Within, was published this month.

It rather startles that Moran’s name was entirely unknown to me.  For awhile, I had made a point of writing about the generally unheralded Yvor Winters/J.V. Cunningham group of poets, which included Thom Gunn, Edgar Bowers, and many others in the so-called “Stanford School of Poets” (I say “so-called,” because they dodge any grouping).  Moran and I have a number of mutual friends — Timothy Murphy for one.  The accolades on the back of the book include a few others who have been mentioned on these cyberspace pages:

“Imagine a poet who could deal with the experience of Jack Kerouac but with too much intelligence to limit himself to the road. You don’t have to imagine him. He exists. He has many skills, all of them beautifully bright, and on occasions when he looks into the abyss they take him safely over it”  — Turner Cassity (my article here — Book Haven post here)

“Moore Moran writes out of a wide range of experience in both traditional and experimental verse. Reading his work is a joy for the reader seeking a mature and sensitive mind.” — Helen Pinkerton (my article here)

And an important voice from my own alma mater, X.J. Kennedy, chimed in, too: “Moore Moran knows how poems should be made, and a great many of his poems score resounding victories.”

I haven’t had much time to go over the book thoughtfully.  But there is much that is striking and fine, and a good deal can be found online —  “Ordinary Time in the Pews,” for example.

The title poem will be top-rated for many readers, I think, but I favor this one, edged in spare mystery:

Holy Thursday

Tonight I ask You in to help me mourn.
You who help whom you please,
don’t leave me just with these–
a loincloth, timber, nail and scarlet thorn.

I‘m what I earn to think, not think I am.
Nor love, wisdom or art
sustains the baffled heart,
and fact contains no holy anagram.

Be more, Lord, than my hope, Your innocence.
Reason has never known
how to live with its own
immaculate, hard-hearted arguments.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s book

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

Wow.  How weird is this?

Imagine going home to Brooklyn Heights,  or catching the G train at Clinton-Washington, or waiting in the subway station near Times Square, or on the long bus ride up to visit the Cloisters.  You are quietly minding your own business.

You attract the stares of a nearby, shleppy fellow traveler with slightly crazy eyes.  Is it a pickpocket?  A mugger?  A masher?

It’s not you he’s after.  It’s your book.

Here’s how the website CoverSpy explains itself:  “A team of publishing nerds hits the subways, streets, parks & bars to find out what New Yorkers are reading now.

Yesterday, a teacher in her thirties was going over her lesson plans at the Housing Works bookstore.  She’s reading the Tobias Wolff collection (left). The moment immortalized on the worldwide web!

Today, a 20-something woman wearing ear-pad headphones at the Carroll Street station reads about Marilyn Monroe (right).  Captured!

It goes on and on — and the Twitter feed is, if you absolutely must know the latest in what other people are reading right now, now, now.  Kind of like watching other people eating, innit?

Thanks, Andrew Herkovic, for this tip.  Whew!  Who knew 21st century life would get so strange, so fast?

Namaste, Mark Twain.

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

Land of Twain?


Just ran into Shelley Fisher Fishkin at, of all places, the manicurist’s.  She was preparing for an upcoming trip to India to talk about Mark Twain. It’s all part of the the much-ballyhooed Twain centenary.  Get this:  Her tour is being funded by the State Department.  Apparently the American government has an investment in making sure Asians have a good grounding in Twain.  She’ll be visiting Hyderabad, Delhi, Lucknow, Calcutta, and I can’t remember where else.  Bon voyage, Shelley.  May Ganesh be with you.

“Golden Gate,” the opera: Coming to a theater near you!

Friday, August 20th, 2010

Well, what do you know!  This week’s posts (here and here) on Vikram Seth‘s The Golden Gate elicited this reaction from Kären Nagy:

“I thought you might be interested to learn (if you don’t already know!) that it’s become the basis of a new chamber opera with music by Conrad Cummings.   I learned about this from Shelley Fisher Fishkin several months ago after she had seen the New York City production noted in the blurb I just forwarded to you. Via Shelley, I’ve learned that Cummings is trying to bring the production to San Francisco, and SiCa [Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts] has indicated we’ll try to help with some Stanford programming connections if/when that happens – getting students to the production, perhaps a panel and/or some curricular connections here, etc.  All this just FYI to keep your eyes open for developments in the future!”

Indeed something to look forward to.  The poster she included from American Opera Projects had this to say:

An Opera in Two Acts
Music by Conrad Cummings
Libretto from the novel in verse by Vikram Seth, adapted by the composer

With a libretto adapted from Vikram Seth’s best-selling novel in verse The Golden Gate, five twenty-somethings experience love, life, and loss in the magical and innocent San Francisco of the early 1980’s. John, handsome and successful, will discover too late the price of  his emotional detachment. He has just met Liz through a personals ad placed by his former college girlfriend Jan, a sculptor and punk rock drummer. Meanwhile, John’s best friend from college Phil, reeling from a divorce which has left him the sole single parent of a six-year-old, begins a passionate relationship with the Ed, Liz’s younger brother. Ed is bright, gorgeous, in search of a lover and mentor, and a profoundly conflicted devout Catholic. Couples come apart; new couples form, families are created, friendships are severed. A tragic death leads John, always the outsider, to the promise of a deeper connection and a warmer life.

Kären Nagy tipped me off (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Vikram Seth’s source novel is composed entirely of 690 rhyming tentrameter sonnets and was inspired by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

Leah Garchik at the San Francisco Chronicle explains how it all came about:

“In New York, opera lover and San Francisco Opera aficionado Perry-Lynn Moffitt went to a Brooklyn performance of six scenes from operas workshopped by America Opera Projects. At the end of the evening, the one chosen for further development wasa setting of Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, a novel in sonnet form. The composer, Conrad Cummings, grew up on Masonic in the Upper Haight. Moffitt, who used to live here, too, says it’s a ‘dramatic, moving, lyrical piece with lush vocal writing that deserves to be heard in San Francisco, above all other cities.”


Honestly, San Franciscan Cummings himself looks like a character out of The Golden Gate.

Steve Smith writes about the first (semi-staged) production in the New York Times here:

In creating an opera based on Mr. Seth’s novel, the composer Conrad Cummings has fashioned an equally improbable fusion: lithe melodic lines that flow and entwine in the manner of Monteverdi, peppered with musical references to Henry Mancini and the punk band Black Flag.

Mr. Smith may know music but he doesn’t know verse:  he refers to Seth’s “stately sonnets” — heavens, they’re not “stately,” they’re witty, brisk, fleet-footed, and playful!

A couple of erses

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Oedipus and the Sphinx, long before Freud

We’ve mentioned Robert Conquest‘s new book of limericks, Garden of Erses, and wrote about the poet and historian here and hereDave Lull, patron extraordinaire of bloggers, pointed out that a handful of erses were already published in the April edition of Standpoint here.

We’ll cite two of them, to brighten a slow Thursday a bit:

Limerick #1

Said a stammering wit out at Woking,
“Though I like d-d-drinking and smoking
One thing I suppose
I like better than those
Is p-p-p-practical joking.”

Limerick #2

Oedipus said to the Sphinx,
My name’s been perverted by shrinks.
Who’d think that Jocasta’d
Call me a bastard?
I say that psychology stinks.

One question remains:  What’s an “erse”?  My dictionary says:  “Scottish Gaelic, or, less properly, Irish Gaelic.”

Postscript:  In praise of light verse: Frank Wilson at Books Inq alerted me (well, actually, Dave Lull alerted him) to this paean to light verse in The American Scholar:


During the late 1920s and early ’30s, all of New York’s newspapers carried a daily column of light verse, most famously Franklin P. Adams’s “The Conning Tower” and Don Marquis’s “The Sun Dial.” They encouraged submissions from their readers, and it was in those hospitable columns that many men and women who later made their name as writers and playwrights and wits—Dorothy Parker, Russel Crouse, Dorothy Fields, Alexander Woollcott, Robert Benchley–first saw their name in print. As E. Y. (Yip) Harburg put it, “We lived in an age of literate revelry in the New York daily press, and we wanted to be part of it.”

Ease, effervescence, and endless verse

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

A few days ago, I wrote about near-forgotten novel-in-verse, The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth — and was surprised to learn that an acquaintance actually bought the book on the strength of my reportage. Such, such is the power of the word.  So let me have another go at it.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll sell three.

In citing Gore Vidal‘s encomium, however, I somehow neglected the one below it, by his fellow poet, the late James Merrill:  “Mr. Seth’s beautifully conventional characters would self-destruct on the page of any prose fiction.  But his verse sets them glowing from within, and the result is as humanly poignant as it is mechanically reassuring — in short, a cause for rejoicing.”  So true.  And a large reason why I found it, despite its slight and commonplace characters, so much more satisfying than his novels.  The verse sustains them.  Power of the word, etc.

Here’s another strong reason why the 1986 book is so much fun:  Nothing keeps happening.  It brings to mind what Somerset Maugham said about Jane Austen: “Nothing very much happens in her books and yet, when you come to the bottom of a page, you eagerly turn it to learn what will happen next.  Nothing very much does and again you eagerly turn the page. The novelist who has the power to achieve this has the most precious gift a novelist can possess.”

Take this, for example, a random sonnet early in the book, while John waits in a San Francisco Chinese restaurant for his sculptor friend Janet Hayakawa:

John thinks, “It’s not that I’m fastidious. …
I wish they’d turn that music down.  …
It’s gross. That calendar is hideous …
(He stares at a distasteful clown.)
… I’ve waited half an hour, blast her!”
Her hands encased in clay and plaster,
Janet arrives at twelve to two:
“So sorry, John, I had to do
This torso. Yes I tried to hurry.
I’m glad you’ve got yourself a beer.
What’s that? Tsingtao? Don’t look severe.
I didn’t mean for you to worry.
You’ve ordered? No? This place is fun!
What’ll you have? It’s family-run.”

Seth’s miraculous gift for playfulness and delight in meter and rhyme overwhelmed his Stanford class, I’m told.  One participant confided that the kids puzzled over the phrasing in one of his poems, till they realized he had rhymed all the first words in the lines, as well as the last.  One begins to understand how he might be able to write verse at a staggering 600 lines a month for over a year.

In The Golden Gate, his effervescence and ease brims over so thoroughly that he puts his dedication, author’s note, acknowledgments, and even his table of contents into Pushkin’s fleet, four-footed sonnets.  I wonder how many people understand his dedication:

Veracity and vim

So here they are, the chapters ready,
And, half against my will, I’m free
Of this warm enterprise, this heady
Labor that has exhausted me
Through thirteen months, swift and delightful,
Incited by my friends’ insightful
Paring and prodding and appeal.
I pray the gentle hands of Steele
Will once again sift through its pages.
If anything in this should grate,
Ascribe it to its natal state;
If anything in this engages
By verse, veracity, or vim,
You know whom I must credit, Tim.

The mentor he credits is Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele, author of several collections of verse, and a prosody scholar as well, with his Missing Measures and All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing.  Tim also edited the Poems of J.V. Cunningham, a kind of homage to the poet who weds emotional intensity to stylistic purity — and who was a major influence for Tim at Stanford.  Tim is also the subject of my third-of-a-book interview, Three Poets in Conversation, where he shares space with Dick Davis and Rachel Hadas (who, incidentally, was a close friend of James Merrill.)  Years earlier, I did a shorter online interview with him for the Cortland Review.

No longer on P.S.T.

Here’s Seth’s author’s note:

The author, Vikram Seth, directed
By Anne Freedgood, his editor,
To draft a vita, has selected
The following salient facts for her:
In ’52, born in Calcutta.
8 lb. 1 oz.  Was heard to utter
First rhymes (“cat,” “mat”) at age of three.
A student of demography
And economics, he has written
From Heaven Lake, a travel book
Based on a journey he once took
Through Sinkiang and Tibet. Unbitten
At last by wanderlust and rhyme,
He keeps Pacific Standard Time.

That last lines lie — when I interviewed him a decade ago, he was dividing his time between London and Calcutta.  Wanderlust had bitten again.

Update: Triumph!  Frank Wilson of Books Inq said this morning he is getting a copy of Golden Gate after what he purports is a vacation out in the hinterlands!  That makes two copies sold.  Any other takers?