A Video from Noam Osband

This video by my high school classmate, Noam Osband, finishes with the contention that if you think about the social relations behind your produce, it will tase, "soooo much better." I love this piece. Noam himself is a phenom: his gift – and it's a magical one – is that absolutely anyone will talk to him. Some of his other videos are available here. Comments welcome.

Philly Market from Noam Osband on Vimeo.


Forgetting Who

Yesterday I was reading a short story – a work in progress by a friend. The passages that impressed me most absolutely blew me out of the water. They were so good that I forgot all about the author; I forgot my friend had written them.

This observation raises two related points about the editing process that I'd like to think about further: The first is that I read a work in progress much differently from how I read a finished or published work – and it's not the material itself, but my readerly attitude. Reading as an editor means that I can hope to influence the work, to shape it somewhat to my own desires. And so I read quite aggressively; and I keep on reworking the thing in my mind as I go. I try to get ahead of the story. I think especially hard about what every line implies, and I catch myself rereading half a sentence that appears not to make sense when if I would just read the sentence's second half, I'd see how clear it really is. How rude of me!

The second thing I'd like to think about is whether losing track of the author really is a measure of quality in the writing of fiction. Is it analogous to the quality of a performance by a famous actor during which the audience forgets who the actor really is? Yes! – say I. But also no. An author's distinctive voice can be an asset. A storyteller needn't disappear in order to tell a story well. A narratorial voice doesn't convey the guts of a story or novel in anything like the way an actor conveys the world in which she plays. It's also problematic to suggest to my writing friends that their work would be better if they didn't appear to be narrating as themselves. I can't think of a good reason this should be the case.

Ultimately (I've hardly begun this sentence, and I already know I'm getting into trouble) a reader wants to forget herself, not the author; her own reality rather than the fact of the story's being written. ("Oh, that sounds pretty good," I say.) And yet the books that have influenced me the most are those that speak to me just as I appear to myself and make me see my own world as though it is deeply tied to the one I'm reading about; a contradiction abides.


The Chinese Cauldron


What’s this? This is an old toolshed.
No, this is a great past love.

[Yehuda Amichai]

Heart falters, stops
before a Chinese cauldron
still good for boiling water.

It is one of a dozen or more,
it is merely iron,
it is merely old,
there is much else to see.

The few raised marks
on its belly
are useful to almost no one.

Heart looks at it a long time.
What do you see? I ask again,
but it does not answer.

Poetry is my loo reading at the moment, and it’s working well; I’m through an anthology of horse poems, Li-Young Lee’s Rose and into Jane Hirshfield’s The Lives of the Heart, where this poem stopped me, got me to re-read, read it aloud, and then hold a monologue to myself about why I love it. The monologue went something like this:

This poem describes, simultaneously, three different experiences that have made me feel isolated. They all take place in museums or places like museums, places where the primary goal is attention.

The first experience is of not being able to lose myself in anything, of feeling overwhelmed by how much there is to see, and maybe also by what I’ve paid to get in. The frustration of bouncing off the surfaces of everything around me, and getting more and more irritable and harried, can be exacerbated by a companion who’s been caught and stopped by something. Then I am like a three-year-old child: Stop looking at that. Look at me. Mommy, let’s go. I want to join in the absorption, but the only questions I can think of are ones that attack the object of absorption, that list all its unremarkablenesses. “It is one of a dozen or more, / it is merely iron, / it is merely old, / there is much else to see.”

The second and third experiences are similar. One is losing myself in something and being asked to explain it, and either growing tongue-tied or sullen, depending on the questioner, or hearing my mouth give out words while an inside part of me says “What in God’s name are you talking about? That isn’t at all what attracts you. And it’s not even true.” Then I am like the heart in Hirshfield’s poem, either unwilling or unable to answer.

The last is losing myself in something and being alone. It is the experience the poem most directly describes, the most mysterious of the three. In that case, I am the absorbed one and the bouncing-off one at once, the heart and its questioner saying “Why this?”

I see the epigraph as an answer to that question: because this thing means more than can be empirically or pragmatically determined. In this case, the toolshed and the cauldron both mean love, mean long years of work and handling, someone’s devotion.


Re: Poets vs. Critics, part II

I'm going to respond briefly to Ezra's arguments against my poets/critics distinction. I hope to show how our positions differ, but also that we are not in as much disagreement as he suggests.

On the question of what poetry is: as a literary theorist, I first have to insist that poetry, the kind that critics study, is primarily an artifact of language. Poetry is a particular form of language. From a Formalist viewpoint, it is language that is at some level talking about itself, whatever else it may be about.

This description is somewhat disingenuous in the context of my previous post, however, since I was using poetry metaphorically (as I think Ezra does in his response) to describe a number of different actions and expressions. In that wider sense, I agree with Ezra that poetry is "a quality of grace…a kind of victory." This is the more general creative impulse that I group under the name "poetry" in my post.

On to the question of whether poetry is "a mixture of critical and aesthetic focus," whether "every good work of art practices criticism." I want to clarify, first, that I am not using criticism to describe the practice of evaluation, but rather a practice of organization. That said, I appreciate Ezra's argument that poetry practices criticism of the world. Much poetry is undoubtedly a practice of organization of features of the world; an attempt to understand and explain it.

Perhaps the distinction I'm trying to make is more between the particular and the universal. In my experience, creative work explains the world in terms of a particular event, a particular description, a particular instance. The work I would call criticism tries to draw generalities from the works of art. (Works of poetry can perform criticism by expressing generalities as well, but I think it is less common.) I think the difference in focus, on generalizing or explaining creatively by example, is more important to the distinction than whether a work is a "poem" or not.


How Do Seasons Work?

We all agree that the seasons follow each other: spring comes after winter, summer after spring, then fall, then winter again. We're also familiar with a sense of uncertainty about the transitional periods. After Monday's cold weather I thought, "Fall has definitely begun." But what on earth did I mean? Fall began when the calendar said so, which is also to say with the arrival of autumnal equinox, didn't it? And if it didn't, then I was probably wrong on Monday, because Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were beautifully warm, even if leaves in striking yellows and reds were everywhere on the ground.

My question is simply whether season transform one into another or replace each other (or both). Are they sets of astronomical conditions? Atmospheric conditions? Subjective human experiences? And again strangely – from the perspective of philosophy of language – they seem to ride a line between proper nouns and common ones.

Autumn, Winter, Spring – Summer subsists on them all then lends back her warmth.

re: Riding Bareback

I'm surprised by Stephanie's characterization of Julie Brown's view of language ("I don’t believe communication is ultimately possible. But I believe it’s necessary to live as though it were.") as a statement of faith. What faith does the statement evince? It disavows faith in the possibility of communication. A comparable statement that showed faith might read, "I don't believe communication should ultimately be possible: it seems riddled with failure – and yet we do communicate." That would show faith in the existence of communication, whereas if Julie's statement shows faith, it must be in some form of human resilience, in our ability and continued willingness to behave as though we are communicating when really we aren't!

That said, I too am drawn to W. Bynner's "Horses." I'm not sure whether the poem works as a metaphor for words as signs, but it definitely has something interesting to say as a metaphor about words and their meanings. Let's take it apart carefully:

"Words are hoops," and, we as word-users, are like trained dogs or seals, or like anything that leaps through hoops. Pets leap through hoops in order to be rewarded. People leap through figurative hoops in order to get ahead. So catching meaning, or making meaning, is a reward or a success. So far the poem seems encouraging enough: to get ahead and get meaning (perhaps to communicate), we have to leap through the hoops of words. This devalues the word itself (just a hoop to jump through) and puts the weight appropriately enough on the meaning. Great! If I want to mean, now I know what to do.

But it's more complicated than this. Meanings, the metaphor says, "are horses' backs / Bare, moving." Hard not to think at once of the beauty of a barebacked horse in motion. So these valuable things we leap upon are beautiful, too. Excellent. But what is bare is vulnerable; and what is moving is hard to hold. The horse in this metaphor might be unbroken, even wild.

Words may be the way to leap upon such brilliant things as meanings, but we are leaping to a moving target, and the poem doesn't promise that we'll always land on the horse's back. It just tells us that the way there is through words. Meaning becomes beautiful, but very likely alterable and difficult to catch.

None of this addresses Stephanie's insight that this poem has something to say about subjectivity. What it says depends upon how we reading the barebacked, moving horse. If the motion is constant and inevitable, meanings must be somehow temporary – subjective even if we all (all the subjects) agree for the time being and communicate successfully. What if meanings move unpredictably, like bucking broncos? We might catch meanings only for ourselves, and sometimes it certainly feels that way. But then again, we might sometimes catch and bridle meanings once we've jumped onto them through hoops. Maybe we can all ride meanings easily into the sunset, beautifully, certainly, and with no possibility of a hangman's posse on our trail.

re: Poets vs. Critics

I find a lot to argue with in Hannah's post, "Poets vs. Critics." I suppose one might look at the following comments as an instance of the poet trying to take a critic to task. But in fact I want to attack the distinction, and not the critic at all.

I approach from two angles. First I want to claim that every good poem and every good work of art practices criticism – not of itself (so the poet is not necessarily a literary critic) but of some feature or bug of the world itself: a structure, a pattern, a piece of chaos, a failure. Second, I suggest that poetry is something other than all the things that are poems, taken collectively.

We speak of poetry in physical movement, in the changing of the seasons, and in a thousand other places. Poetry is not poems, though good poems are usually poetry. Think of poetry as a quality of grace; think of poetry as a kind of victory; think of poetry as a lovely mixture of critical and aesthetic focus – critical and aesthetic success.

That is poetry.

Riding Bareback

[Witter Bynner]

Words are hoops
Through which to leap upon meanings,
Which are horses’ backs,
Bare, moving.

I love this poem for several reasons.

One: It is about horses. Or at least, has horses in it, and the writer has captured something of how horses move, and of what it feels like to ride bareback.

Two: It is a wise poem, in its laconic brevity. There is an authority in the description here that has to do with being willing to say one thing, precisely; one thing, not everything.

Three: The lineation. Each line is a simple, compelling statement, which builds on the previous thought but adds something distinctly new. Each line, in fact, has the quality good story endings are supposed to have, of feeling surprising yet inevitable.

Four: I read the whole poem as a metaphor for words as signs, for the relationship between signifier (word) and signified (meaning). Its brevity works for it here, too, in that it shapes the image, in four strokes, and leaves it there. In the debate over whether words have anything like an objective meaning, what I find interesting is the tension. Common sense seems to demand an acceptance, simultaneously, of both extremes: Words clearly do not mean the same thing to each subjective person, and the possible slippage, and failure in transfer of meaning, has no limits; and yet in experience there are moments, both mundane ones and transcendent ones, when words make that leap and land, against all the odds, on meaning. Julie Brown, a poet-critic friend, put another view of the paradox to me once: “I don’t believe communication is ultimately possible. But I believe it’s necessary to live as though it were.” Her faith here reminds me of the two central claims of Christianity, which are both unresolvable paradoxes: God is three, yet one. Christ is fully human, fully God. The orthodox creeds assert both extremes without seeking logical resolution. Similarly, the taut physicality of Bynner’s bareback metaphor, the leap that is at its center, rides the central paradox of what human words are capable and incapable of doing, and being, in the world.


Poets vs. Critics

When Stephanie asked me to join the conversation on this blog, I was nervous to be writing with two “real writers.” I don’t consider myself a writer, in the creative sense. Through my education, I have focused on analytical writing and criticism. Instead of being a poet, I became a critic.

Let me explain the distinction that I draw between “poets” and “critics,” which I think applies outside of the realm of literature as well. A poet is someone who creates. Writing poetry is an inherently creative process. The poet makes something from nothing. (After all, the words “poet,” “poetry,” and “poem” come from the word for “to make.”)

The critic, on the other hand, describes the work written by the poets. The critic’s job is to categorize: to find similarities between the work of different artists and determine a “school,” or to understand the underlying processes that make the poet’s work “work.” As a critic, I am interested in understanding poetry as a whole, not just the expression of an individual poem. Of course, poetry consists of poems, so in order to generalize about poetry one must carefully study the individual works.

The poet creates; the critic categorizes and explains. I don’t think this distinction is only applicable to the criticism of poetry. Criticism seems like more of a science; poetry, more of an art. Consider the work of mathematicians, however. While the study of math in classes is focused on generalizing, and you understand new mathematical concepts by analogy with concepts you already know (working in a “scientific” manner, like a critic), the practice of research in math is a creative process. The research mathematician chooses a particular area to focus on, and studies that area, trying to understand/invent interesting properties it has. (There is often discussion among mathematicians of whether math research is a process of discovering things that already exist, or of creating them. While I tend to sit on the "discovery" side of the fence, there is no question that the act of discovery can feel a lot like the act of creation, as inspiration often has to strike essentially out of the blue.)

The distinction is not complete: poets benefit from understanding general principles of the form in which they work (by doing critical work), while critics can write poetry (although my poetry, at least, is often more informed by my understanding of poetic form than any essential inspiration). In many studies, however, it seems that the work can be divided up between the creative and the critical. What would it mean to bridge that divide? Is such a synthesis something that would improve our understanding and production of art, or is it better for artists and critics to specialize?


The Tour de Bookcases

I got married two months ago, and moved into my first home with my husband two weeks later. When we moved, we decided – in our first big step as a married couple! – to combine our books. This act of combination is one of the most visible signs of our married state. Whenever I walk past a bookshelf, I see my books mixed in with his – divided by topic and subject, rather than putative ownership. Of course, the previous sentence shows the unfamiliarity of this state to me: I still refer to “my books” and “his books” rather than simply “ours.” We have kept all the duplicate copies of books that we own – how could we get rid of a copy that one of us feels an attachment to? The books that we brought into this marriage hold memories. The cheap paperback copies of “The Lord of the Rings” are the ones in which I first discovered the magic of Tolkien’s stories. The textbooks each mark an important moment in our college experiences. My books hold memories from my life that my husband cannot share, so they must be in some sense “mine” not “ours.”

But the books are nonetheless combined on the shelves. A brief tour of the books in our (small, one-bedroom) apartment:

Shelves in the living room hold hymnals and books of religion and philosophy. They contain amusing juxtapositions of content: the Qur’an sits by the Marx–Engels Reader; the Bhagavad-Gita two shelves above the Hebrew dictionary.

Elsewhere: books of music theory and history, from my husband’s college coursework, tucked onto a bottom shelf next to the stereo, and a small shelf of cookbooks tucked next to the kitchen. In the hallway, the “work” books (mathematics and literary theory); in the bedroom, the novels (mostly fantasy).

Our books describe us: they expose our studies, our interests, our values. They also expose the values we think we should project: there is a reason the religion and philosophy books are in the living room and the fantasy novels in the bedroom. While I am a great believer in the importance of fantasy and fairy-tales, putting those books in the living room would make me feel a need to explain them to all of our guests: “Yes, these are children’s books. They are ‘easy’ to read; they don’t have the weight of tradition. Yes, they are escapist. But is that so wrong?” I love the novels I read, but I am still somewhat embarrassed by them. I don’t read them to discover fundamental truths about the world, but simply for entertainment. The religion and philosophy books, on the other hand, are in the living room to convey, “We are Christians. We are proud of our faith, and want you to know about it. But we are also thinkers. We read and study and learn. Our faith is intellectual, as well as evangelical.”

The combining of our books mirrors the combining of our lives. Our shared values allow us to combine our books, to decide what image we want to project from our library. I don’t want to sound like a sappy newlywed (although I am one), but one of the joys of marriage is illustrated by the enlightenment that comes from juxtaposing books that come from different homes on a single shelf. These books have more to say together than apart.


On Roses and Poesy

The third line of “Moses supposes” puzzled me at first. I always imagined that "posies" were themselves a kind of flower, and I’d only encountered the word in another nursery rhyme, "Ring around the rosie, / A pocket full of posies..." A posy is "a small bunch of flowers," as my computer's Oxford American Dictionary tells me.

Imagine my joy in finding, as I kept reading the entry, that an archaic meaning of “posy” is “a short motto or line of verse inscribed inside a ring.” Moved to consult the Oxford English Dictionary online, I found further that “posy” was originally a variant of “poesy,” so that a bunch of flowers and “a poetic composition” (1.a.) or “poetic expression” (1.b.) shared a location in the language.

They shared a word. I was tempted to write that a bunch of flowers and poetic expression were once, somehow, the same thing, but this obviously not the right way to talk about a word with many meanings. I wonder whether the metaphor I’ve chosen – a location in the language – shows any promise at all.


Geniuses and Daemons and TED

Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, spoke at TED, which I highly recommend generally; the acronym stands for "Technology, Entertainment, Design," but they interpret these fields loosely and host fascinating, brief (15-20 min.) talks on things ranging from "6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World," (which features biologist Paul Stamets describing how to use fungi to turn oil spills into fertile organic matter, and to kill termites) to Billy Graham on human failure.

Elizabeth Gilbert's talk is about creatively surviving the success of her memoir by going back to the Roman understanding of "genius" as a spirit residing outside humans, rather than as a momentously gifted human. Even if it weren't insightful on other counts, the talk would be worth listening to just for the stories she tells about musician Tom Waits' and poet Ruth Stone's creative processes.


Delightful Errors

Inaugurating the Weekly Rhyme:

“Moses supposes his toeses are roses
But Moses supposes erroneously;
Nobody’s toeses are posies of roses
As Moses supposes his toeses to be.”

[from The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book, assembled by Iona and Peter Opie]

I’m not much for baby talk; usually I find it annoying. This rhyme redeems itself for me at the end of the second line, where “erroneously” plunks down like a full professional architect’s blueprint in the middle of a toddler’s collapsed pile of colored blocks. The word “erroneously” tickles me pink for its spot-on match in rhythm, mostly-match in sound, and its total mismatch in diction: The whole rhyme is in dactyls (stress unstress unstress: MOses supPOses his TOEses), and “erroneously” doesn’t miss a rhythmic beat. The sounds are mostly long “o” vowels and short “eh” sounds, with the occasional “ee” sound. “Erroneously” matches perfectly in vowels, but the most common consonant is “s”; the “r” and “n” in “erroneously” are not repeated anywhere else in the poem, except for the “n” in “Nobody.” But the word really diverges from the rest of the rhyme in diction: “erroneously” does not belong with “toeses.” This contrast is a kind of internal mockery of the rhyme’s own use of baby talk. And with that five-syllable word echoing in my mind, the two last lines, explaining Moses’ error in words that rhyme with “toeses,” are a delightful continuation of the joke.


Art Collector's Doorway

Santa Fe, July 2009


Another Kind of Day by Day

I'm in one of those small streaks of writing that makes me a writer. I mean simply that I actually am writing: for each of the past several days I've worked on the script that is my main project, a play called "Ghost." I'm once again thinking about time scales. There's the question of how many minutes of theatre I've so far orchestrated; the question of how much time has passed in the world of the play; there are the days of my composition ("several"), but there are also the minutes and hours I've spent sitting in front of my computer, adding word after word to the document; then, too, there is the time I've devoted to thinking about the play and its characters when I'm not actually writing.

Is there an insight here? Is there something to say about the time scales that fold over themselves as we live? Do writers grapple with these multiple scales more than other artists? more than non-artists? And is sensitivity to time something one should – or can – value?

I suspect I'd rather have a clear sense of timing than a clear sense of time, or of time's complexities. In chess, which I've been playing a lot of in between my bouts with words, the clock often matters, but one can improve one's game much more by thinking clearly through the order of moves in one's plan of attack than by trying, somehow, to think faster. "Think fast," says someone who teases you and then either does or does not throw you something. But the person who says "Think fast" usually tests your reflexes or catches you thinking too much. An alternative imperative, "Think hard!" does not invoke time so explicitly, but if one says it seriously, one usually means, "Slow down; take stock; consider before you act." I find it a little bit frustrating that neither of these injunctions applies to my writing, to my being a writer. To think fast, I'd have to rely on something like a writing reflex – and wouldn't it be nice if I had one; and to think hard I'd have to postpone the work itself. "Write!" I tell myself, "Think!" – compact imperatives that leave the time scales up in the air.


The Joyous Pigeon Man

Trafalgar Square, June 2009


One Day at a Time

It occurred to me only in reading the post of 8.13.09 that "journalism," etymologically, is a daily practice. Stephanie writes, "I wonder whether it is possible to practice journalism that is not so much about hunting down stories as about knowing a place and community and cultural reality deeply, so that one can speak intelligently and even wisely about it even if nothing ‘news-worthy’ is happening there." I am inclined to reply, "Yes! Journalism can be precisely itself by knowing and noting the daily life of a people or a place. Journalism isn’t the same as news, and it can go on productively (fruitfully? more on that another time) when there is no news at all.”

But this reply is too simple, or maybe just wrong. It seems to me that “journalism,” used colloquially, includes all of the following: the news, what we call features, human interest, exposé, and opinion. There are probably other subgenres I’m not thinking of. If this is right, then my idea that journalism can be “precisely itself” looks misleading and absurd. At the same time, I think I’ve stumbled on one of the valuable features of the journal, which of course has the same etymology.

For all the difficulty I have defining journalism, it still seems opposed to the journal in one clear way. While the news elements of journalism can operate on the very limited time scale of the day, as in “day after day” – while they should consist primarily of reportage – the other kinds of journalism I’ve mentioned all strive to build coherent and compelling narratives from events that follow one after another without, in fact, being part of a story. It is the news that resembles the journal, while the other forms of journalism represent the powerful human impulse to impose a story pattern (beginning, middle, and end, say) on unpatterned, unauthored occurences. Journals can be compelling because when we reread them, they force us out of the narratives we’ve constructed. They drop us back into what I’ll call the diurnal mode. They call our attention to the facts of a day, and simultaneously they remind us of the fact that we’ve incorporated those facts, fictionally, into a story of a life.

To return to Stephanie's question: we can practice journalism both by hunting down stories that other people have already shaped or rough-hewn, or we can rely on our own immersion in a place, community, or cultural-reality – and write stories that are therefore more totally our own. They may be wiser, but they also may be no more true.


Products and Fruits

Farmers depend on the sky. Even if irrigation can mitigate the effects of a short drought, hail will ruin a crop of ripe wheat. An early warm spell can trick trees into budding, and the frost that follows can destroy whole years of apples, cherries, pears. In June and July and August and September, when the harvest should be, there will be leaves that look chewed and brown-edged. Apples are hardy and so there will be some apples, but not many, and they’ll be misshapen, with dry brown spots like anti-tumors, where growth seems to have been sucked in, stunted.

Productivity is a machine word; fruitfulness is a plant word. Several years ago I heard a sermon on the difference between them. It is the difference between factory and farm, a difference we’ve been trying to eradicate with pesticides and fertilizers and ever-larger machines. But we can’t get rid of weather. And so farmers either stop farming, or they work hard and develop that horizon-watching squint. You can sow, plow, plant, you can water till the well runs dry. You can do everything right, weed, find tricks to keep crows away from the kernels. And in the end it takes not even a tornado, nothing so dramatic, to kill what was alive, or to render it unharvestable. In Dakota, in a chapter called “Rain,” Kathleen Norris writes that on a hot day, in the afternoon, light rain can burn wheat. Or a long rain at harvest can make cut wheat sprout, and ruin it for sale. It doesn’t even take hail; just wind and a downpour can leave huge swathes clubbed, plastered so flat to the ground no combine can reach them.

Factories are affected by weather too, literally and figuratively: floods and earthquakes, economic swings, consumer fads. And yet their roofs and bright lights, their large paved parking lots, their linoleum or concrete floors and white walls, all block out the sky and the earth, and make horizon-watching difficult at best.

There is an essential humility missing when we call our activity “productivity,” a narrowing of focus that leaves out the scope of the world beyond us, as though this one productive process can be sealed off from the mess and disaster and glory of seasons, oceans, famines, wars, elections, death, birth. “Bearing fruit,” by contrast, is as much something that happens to us as something we do. Bearing children (the most literally, physically fruitful thing a human body can do) is a good example: women are constantly becoming pregnant when they don’t want to, or failing to conceive though they desperately want to. And the changes of pregnancy happen, like the apple blossom turning into fruit. They often include humiliating changes—throwing up, exhaustion, becoming cumbersome, and weepy, and overwhelmed by everything from smells to birdsong. You can practice breathing exercises and birthing techniques, but the contractions will hit when they hit, and you’ll have to take them for as long as they last. You don’t set the time or the duration. It may be like getting hit by a truck. It may be like running five marathons. Or, God help you, both.

Beforehand, we say “she’s having a baby,” but while it’s happening we name the process: pregnancy, giving birth. “Productivity” is a process named after the thing that exists when the assembly line has attached all the parts and sprayed on the last coat of lacquer. The people I know who have worked on assembly lines tell me they are spirit-killing places, that their repetitive action denies what it is to be human at every level, from the body on out. This is true even if no limbs are lost; there is physical, psychic, spiritual danger in making a body do only one action, again and again.

There is also an awkward, machine-y dancing quality to assembly lines in some documentary films. Maybe the “ivity” in “productivity” applies to this dance. There is a mystery in the dance of factory processes that is usually not what I mean when I call something “productive.” It’s the mystery of things-working-together, of whole-that-is-more-than-its-parts. And maybe it is the same mystery that is at work in a hydroponic tomato, grown in a trough of water in a hothouse—which is the same mystery at work in a Sungold cherry tomato bush lovingly tended in a small plot: the wondrous fact of a tomato’s ripening. A plain red-and-green apple (as Chesterton points out in Orthodoxy) has something in common with the golden apple in the fairy tale. And I’d add, with Apple products at their best, elegant in the way of mathematical formulas boiled down to their simple, graceful bones. Even when we can describe the chemical processes (the little machines) that fertilize the bud and let the fruit bulb ripen, producing sugars and juice and a blush on the skin, a fruit (and the part of technology that is usefulness and dance at once) reminds us that we lack the language, the science, the understanding, to explain what makes life alive. And so does technology when it is, at the same time, usefulness and dance.


Standing in the Kitchen

I work at Maxie’s Supper Club, one of Ithaca, NY’s, fine eating establishments, and I love what I do there. Every step of the way I can see what I’m accomplishing in a way that rivals – and sometimes surpasses – the pleasure of seeing word follow word onto a page. The words need work, are never done. But when we “sell” a crab cake platter (put it up for the servers to deliver to the customer), my part is done, and in a few minutes it’ll be eaten, finished, gone.

I’m new at Maxie’s, and I’m training. At some point during every shift one of my managers will say, “Ezra, you hungry?” By now they’ve heard me say a few times, “Don’t ask me that. I’m always hungry!” But my manager is telling me it’s a good time to take a break and order dinner from the kitchen.

Every time I face the decision of what to eat, I freeze up for a moment unless I’ve planned an order in advance; but I love the menu, and I love the feeling of plenty that comes from standing in the well stocked walk-in cooler, dipping into a five-gallon tub of flour or cornmeal, or watching plate after plate come off the line. Today for the first time I actually fried some of my own dinner, a horseradish potato cake. It sat under a rare tuna steak in a slightly sweet glaze, and the whole thing was delicious.

Late tonight, a couple of hours after I’d helped close and clean the line at Maxie’s, I stood in my own kitchen, thinking about a snack. How could I apply what I’ve learned about cooking at the restaurant to my own space? What could I fix for myself? In a flash I envisioned the whole Maxie's setup that is already becoming familiar to me and will soon be second nature (and second home). “Man, I should fry up some green tomatoes,” I almost thought. But it would require a shopping run. It would take an hour. It would be, let's face it, a project.

My freezer is full and my pantry is overflowing; I have a range of spices, and I have a good stove, a nice pan, pots, and so on. But the feelings of plenty and simplicity that the Maxie’s kitchen now offers elude me at home, because the simplicity and totality of the Maxie’s stock presupposes constant and massive turnover; in a word, volume. (Of course, the simplicity at Maxie's is an illusion that hangs on complex provisions management, but I’m still fairly removed from the stock lists, prep lists, and organizational aspects.) As I stood alone in my kitchen at one in the morning, trying to find a snack I both wanted and could extract from my own ingredients, I felt a gulf open between what I’m learning to do and what it would take to do it on my own.

In this way cooking is like writing. It’s one thing to cook for others in a fully stocked and professionally equipped space, to serve up surprising and tasty hot food, carefully done, in a few minutes. This is like editing, or teaching writing, or even just writing for others: “You want a paper on the symbolism of the green tomato? I’ll have it for you in the morning.” But writing for oneself is like looking in one’s own full, familiar pantry and wondering whether anything there will be good.


Berlin Wall

Berlin, 1989 to 2009

The Economist
has a sister magazine called Intelligent Life. In their web publication, I just found this brief photo essay. Seeing pieces like this makes me want to be a journalist: to have been there in 1989, photographing, and to be back in 2009, following up, with an eyewitness sense of what has happened on the ground under my feet. It also makes me realize, though, that while there's luck involved in being in the right place at the right time, good journalism is a serious commitment involving just being there for a long time, in lots of different theres or in one, patiently, with one's eyes open and often very little payoff. In fact, I wonder whether it is possible to practice journalism that is not so much about hunting down stories as about knowing a place and community and cultural reality deeply, so that one can speak intelligently and even wisely about it even if nothing "news-worthy" is happening there.

Which would make journalism much like writing in general: inspiration can't often be scheduled, but "showing up" (whether at a writing desk or camera, or in front of a book, or just by being present to your surroundings with your eyes and brain and pores open) is like maintaining an address where inspiration will know how to reach you. (This is my re-statement of an observation given by so many writers in so many versions that I don't know whom to cite. Somerset Maugham's: "I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o'clock sharp.")

Salem, 1989

I am in the middle of the small living room. It has pale blue carpet and the walls are cluttered with pictures and shelves. In the corner there is a small TV, and the adults are clustered around it. The TV’s colors are like the colors of the room: bland, slightly bluish. It is a crowd: blurred crowd noise, blurred crowd colors. There are so many faces I can’t even make out separate heads and shoulders in the glimpses I get of the TV between the heads of my parents and my aunt and uncle. Something, I know, is happening, a category of thing that has not happened before in my memory. They are riveted, but they are not cheering. They are talking in low voices. My parents watch sports, but not with this kind of attention, and not this quietly. And there is no little yellow ball on this screen; nothing, in fact, seems to be happening.

“And to imagine this is happening now, the first time in years we’ve been out of the country for more than two months…” my dad’s voice is wry, half laughing, but also half embarrassed at the thought. And his tone is abstracted, as though he’s not actually present with the words, as though they are drawn out of him while he’s not paying attention—as though his mind needs his voice to make a foundation of sound, to give it something to stand on.


Gun Hill

In Ithaca, the hill I walked up in the morning to school, and down in the evening, is called Gun Hill. It’s named that for the enormous hulk of disused factory which sat (until this past spring) across the street from glossy apartment buildings like a transplanted piece of inner-city Detroit. I loved the building since I first saw it for its scarred face. Ithaca Guns were made there, and since production was moved away, the empty building sat on prime real estate, glowering out over Lake Cayuga, untouchable because the lead content in the building and the plot around it were so high there that no one could afford to tear it down and decontaminate the land. They figured something out, apparently, because a developer put up signs for more brick apartments, and a wrecking crew tore the building limb from limb; first the windows, then the walls, then the pillars with their steel supporting cores. When I left town, there were twin heaps of rubble under big tarps, like a massive deformed bikini top. I think the tarps were meant to keep the lead dust down.

It was fall when the building first stopped me dead in my tracks, on the way down the hill in the late afternoon—through the third-floor corner window, I could see all the way down onto the lake, bright as molten metal. The whole top corner of the building was a burning eye. On clear days I began timing my descent in hopes of catching that moment of light. I sat in front of the factory. I photographed it. I painted it. I tried to write it into a poem.

The chain-link fence around the building is (this should all be past tense but it still feels present) too easy to climb to deter anyone able-bodied and curious. The building’s insides are tattooed, painted, crusted with graffiti—stencils of the face of Edgar Allan Poe, “FATE” in black over doorways, huge rainbow bubble-words battling each other in the main ground-floor hall; on the third floor, on a patch of otherwise unmarked drywall, there are three elegant simple cartoons, and in a small side room, a whole wall lettered in hot pink French reminiscent of Rimbaud, about a fish going over a waterfall.

Two years later I’m still working on the poem. It’s nine pages long and counting. The window-eye, I’ve realized, is like the left eye of Christ in the Pantocrator icon from St. Catherine’s in Sinai. Even when I saw it first in grainy photocopy, that icon’s divided face stopped me, unsettled me, just as the factory did. Both the icon and the factory were embodiments, to me, of the connection between beauty and sorrow that Makoto Fujimura describes as the central tenet of the 15th-century Japanese aesthetic movement called mono no aware, “beauty in the pathos of things.”

Knowing What's Coming

We are familiar with the sensation that an unmentioned event or idea is hanging over a conversation, a movie, or a piece of writing. Perhaps we often feel that omitting the real topic is counterproductive, coy, or simple easy; but I’ve just finished William Styron’s fantastic story, “Rat Beach” (The New Yorker, July 20, 2009), which perfectly uses this tactic of omission.

Set in the Pacific in the late days of WWII, “Rat Beach” explicitly addresses its narrator’s fear, having by luck escaped the carnage of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, of having to lead his men in an amphibious attack on Japan. Styron brings this fear to life and carries us along as the anonymous second lieutenant finds ways of easing his fear temporarily, but finally has recourse to the comfort of planning his own suicide before he would have to face the test of battle.

From the moment that Styron identifies the event that his narrator fears, however, we see that the fear will never come to pass. “But President Truman approved the atomic strikes,” we remind ourselves. “Japan surrendered unconditionally without the amphibious assault that fills this second lieutenant with such dread.” And this is essential to the functioning of “Rat Beach” for two reasons: First, our knowing the resolution to the larger conflict prevents our feeling abandoned when the story ends with the officer’s private resolution, rather than with his finally confronting (or fatally eluding) his fear. Second, that knowledge gives the story a wholly different depth by letting us read it as an account of a life saved by the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don’t mean that the story would be shallow without this content. Rather than calling this a new layer of depth, I suggest the analogy of a second ocean of meaning that “Rat Beach” borders.

The device of relying upon an unmentioned fact, though, also suggests a direction for experimentation (I mean in my own writing and thinking). In a story of a different genre and with different aims—a kind of science fiction, perhaps—Styron might have surprised us by bringing this character, apparently safe from his named fears, into contact with them after all. Perhaps this is part of the work that Philip Roth does in a book like The Plot Against America, but I am envisioning a more tightly honed piece that operates by the realization of an historically averted event, or the narrative deletion of an event that the reader will understand to be on its way.