Bleak Weather, by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Every new year I resolve to read more poetry, and every year I fail. Why is that? Like so many people, I didn’t read poems as a child, not good ones anyway, even as I devoured prose with a manic, indiscriminate appetite. I loved a story, a story that held me in its world for pages and pages, hours and hours, and poems seemed both too brief and too hard. So I never developed a poetry habit, even as my love of the blunt, heart-stopping noun perfectly chosen, of a filagreed phrase laid atop a sturdy sentence, of the mysterious, simultaneous stirring of senses and soul that no amount of literary analysis can pin down–even as my love of words deepend and widened and became my life’s work.
And plot is so hard for me (have I said this before?) And I will follow a novelist whose voice I love anywhere, no matter how flimsy or preposterous the narative. So why don’t I read more poetry? As my character Cody likes to say, In this life, there are many mysteries.
Recently I’ve asked myself the question with renewed irritation, as I’ve been loving–swooning for–the new collection by Joyce Sidman. Sidman does children the rare favor of absolutely zero condescenion. I’ve seen debates over what age her new collection, “What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms and Blessings” is for, and the answer of course is all ages. The book made me wish I was still running my library program Afterschool Authors. What second grader wouldn’t want to try her own hand at a poem titled “A List of Things That Will Set You Free”? What fifth grader wouldn’t dig into writing his own “Invitation to Lost Things”?
What adolescent wouldn’t clutch close “Heartless”, whose first lines read. “You don’t want my heart?/ Fine. I will climb a hill/ where the sky is wide./The sun will be setting/ and the wet grass will drag at my feet./ I will crouch there/ as darkness wraps me in its arms,/and watch the lights wink on below:/ highways, bridges, stars,/places I’ll go without you.”
Which of us who’ve grieved the worst kind of loss wouldn’t catch our breaths at the end of “Riding a Bike at Night”, a poem about losing your way, your destination and its landmarks: “You will never find it/with flashlight and map./You must simply plunge,/whirring,/ into the dark.”
Sidman’s homage to the cat praises how he is “willing to purr or leap”. Thus these poems. which have renewed my annual resolution, and given me hope I’ll fulfill it this year. Maybe I’ll do my own chant or conjure my own charm, just to make sure.
Sidman has a beautiful website, where she posts photos she takes on rambles around her New England countryside. Treat yourself at www.joycesidman.com
This week Alice Munro, via her daughter, accepted the Nobel Prize. I still feel as if a close, intimate friend won it. I am thinking of a line from one of her stories, where a woman describes how hard it is, midst the demands a wife and mother and friend faces every day, to do what she calls her “real work”. This work she defines as “a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself”. Yes.
“I experience shame and self-reproach more or less continually.” Jonathon Franzen quoted in a Salon article titled “Literary Self-Loathing”.
I’m probably too timid a person to loathe anything, even myself. But I recognize what Franzen is talking about. The questions about why I’m doing what I’m doing, why I still can’t explain what I’m doing, why I still have so much to learn about how to do whatever it is I’m doing—they lurk about, waiting their chance to spring upon me (most often at 3 or 4 A.M).
In fact, the only time those questions really leave me be is when I’m working. Even when the work isn’t going well–even when I’ve made a character walk in and out of a room three times because I have no idea what the scene is trying to accomplish, even when a character is jawing on like the world’s most insufferable talking head, even as CLICHÉ ALERT lights up my synapses—I’m absorbed. I’m purposeful. And hopeful. This makes no sense, but it’s true.
Franzen goes on, “The only way to deal with it (the self-loathing) is to keep trying to immerse myself in the fictional dream and hope that good sentences come out of that. Once there are good sentences on the page, I can feel a loyalty to them and start following their logic, and take refuge from myself.”
That’s it. That loyalty to the good sentences is what it’s all about, where the sense of calm and determination and optimism is rooted. Humility helps, too. There comes a point in every book I write where I understand, This isn’t going to be quite what I thought. And I’m not sure what it’s going to be, instead. But I keep going, putting my faith in the characters and setting and situations I’ve developed, trusting them to show me the way. This isn’t the same as saying, My characters just take over. How can they—they’re my characters! But they certainly exist, thanks to me, and because by that point in the book I believe in them fully, I listen carefully. I count on them to uncover the connections I’ve missed, the themes still un-mined. Like God, I’ve got a lot to learn from these creatures I created.
My new middle grade novel has lots of bits about Darwin, and evolution is surely the book’s middle name. It started out as a mystery—what was I thinking? Plot is torture for me. After trying out crimes so obvious a five year old could solve them, and crimes so convoluted even I knew they were preposterous, I moved on. After four (or more) tries, “Moonpenny Island” evolved. A few of the original characters survived—the fittest, I guess—and the setting, a tiny speck of an island in Lake Erie, has never changed. Already, a merciful amnesia is setting in, and I’m so happy with the book, which will publish in 2015, that I’m forgetting much of the agony.
But I do know that I showed up at my desk, every day I could, over the course of way more than a year, to work on it. The doubts and confusion fell away while I sat here, typing, deleting, staring out the window, but sitting sitting sitting, bearing witness, having faith. The way my editor kept pushing me to go deeper and farther has a tremendous amount to do with how the book turned out—but that’s a story for another post. For now, I’ll just give thanks to Flor and Sylvie and Jasper for being my companions all these months. They and their story aren’t who or what I expected, and I’ll never be sure exactly how they came to be. But I’m very grateful.
Things move a lot faster out there, for sure–except on this tiny street in Boston, where my oldest daughter, my husband and I took a happy if chilly stroll the Saturday after Thanksgiving. It’s on Beacon Hill, all bricks and cobblestones and skinny lacquered doors, the windowboxes brimming and the lamps casting a warm amber glow. Can you see the centuries of history drifting up and around us? Afterwards we went down to the Public Gardens and watched the skaters. Ice skating is one of those preposterous human activities that never fails to make me smile.
The whole weekend was like that, bits of personal happiness snatched midst the hurly burly of crazed traffic and woebegone shoppers and rising pressures of the holiday. When my kids were little, Christmas was such a huge responsibility. I was in charge of making The Magic happen, and by Christmas morning I could barely see straight (this became literal one year when I forgot to put my second contact lens in and wandered around all day certain something had gone very wrong with my brain).
Now the holidays are about hoping everyone can make it home, and trips to Trader Joe’s to lay in truffles, and making sure there’s wood for a fire. Most of the hoopla has fallen away, leaving us free to just enjoy each other–what a gift.
I also got some very good news over the long weekend, and hope to share it here soon….