I missed the birthday of one of my favorite writers: Michael Ondaatje (September 12, 1943). One of my best friends from the museum, Becky Anthony, introduced me to Ondaatje and his masterful novel, The English Patient, which was adapted into an equally beautiful movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas. The Poetry Foundation has a nice bio of the author.
For today’s Two for Tuesday, I thought that I’d share some of my favorite quotes from the novel, a few more than two, I suppose. I’m also including a video with some of the movie’s soundtrack. I love movie soundtracks, and this is one that I listen to when I’m feeling very out of sorts. It is as hauntingly beautiful as the movie and novel. Enjoy.
“She had always wanted words, she loved them; grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape.”
In the desert the most loved waters, like a lover’s name, are carried blue in your hands, enter your throat. One swallows absence.
A man in a desert can hold absence in his cupped hands knowing it is something that feeds him more than water. There is a plant he knows of near El Taj, whose heart, if one cuts it out, is replaced with a fluid containing herbal goodness. Every morning one can drink the liquid the amount of a missing heart.
He walks with her through the indigo markets that lie between South Cairo and her home. The beautiful songs of faith enter the air like arrows, one minaret answering another, as if passing on a rumor of the two of them as they walk through the cold morning air, the smell of charcoal and hemp already making the air profound. Sinners in a holy city.
And all the names of the tribes, the nomads of faith who walked in the monotone of the desert and saw brightness and faith and colour. The way a stone or found metal box or bone can become loved and turn eternal in a prayer. Such glory of this country she enters now and becomes a part of. We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all of this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography—to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.
I would ride your bed
And leave the yellow bark dust
On your pillow.
Your breasts and shoulders would reek
You could never walk through markets
without the profession of my fingers
floating over you. The blind would
stumble certain of whom they approached
though you might bathe
under rain gutters, monsoon.
Here on the upper thigh
at this smooth pasture
neighbour to you hair
or the crease
that cuts your back. This ankle.
You will be known among strangers
as the cinnamon peeler’s wife.
I could hardly glance at you
never touch you
–your keen nosed mother, your rough brothers.
I buried my hands
in saffron, disguised them
over smoking tar,
helped the honey gatherers…
When we swam once
I touched you in the water
and our bodies remained free,
you could hold me and be blind of smell.
you climbed the bank and said
this is how you touch other women
the grass cutter’s wife, the lime burner’s daughter.
And you searched your arms
for the missing perfume
what good is it
to be the lime burner’s daughter
left with no trace
as if not spoken to in the act of love
as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar.
your belly to my hands
in the dry air and said
I am the cinnamon
Peeler’s wife. Smell me.
Friday afternoon, partly cloudy and beautiful, 84 degrees.
I’m having problems getting to sleep again; I’m really hoping that this doesn’t turn into another full-blown episode of insomnia. Last night I dreamed I was having a good conversation with Brett’s partner, Dom. I was telling her how much I missed speaking with Brett. She said that she would tell him . . .
I’m hoping that Corey will spray the bugs around the house soon, so that I can venture outside without adding to my huge collection of bites. Oh well.
Hope you like today’s collection. Enjoy.
My nights lately:
In praise of words:
When you realize . . .
I love this picture. One of my earliest memories of is of my father working on a green car while we were living in Navy housing before going to England.
“How I wanted to be that sky — to hold every flying & falling at once.” ~ Ocean Vuong, from “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”
Sunday afternoon, partly cloudy, 85 degrees.
It’s a lazy kind of day, but when isn’t it? I’m currently surrounded by sleeping dogs, and both horses are waiting by the front door for treats. Last night in one of my dreams the front porch was wondrously clean, something that isn’t going to happen until the pasture fence is finished. The night before I had couple of dreams in which I was hiding from a bear, same bear in both dreams, but hiding with different people in each. Weird.
Today I’m featuring a SoundCloud from poet/writer Ocean Vuong. Vuong was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1988; two years later he immigrated to Hartford, CT with six relatives after spending a year in a Philippine refugee camp. Vuong, the first person in his family to read, currently teaches in the M.F.A. program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The Guardian ran a detailed article on Vuong and his work in 2017.
Vuong’s debut book of poetry, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, won the coveted T. S. Eliot prize in 2017; he is only the second debut poet to win the T. S. Eliot prize (Sarah Howe was the first in 2016). The poems in this book deal with the war and the fall of Saigon with a mixture of myth and harsh reality.
Vuong’s first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Penguin Press 2019), was an instant New York Times bestseller, and has been hailed as, “a book of sustained beauty and lyricism, earnest and relentless, a series of high notes that trembles exquisitely almost without break” (Los Angeles Times). The book’s title comes from a poem included in Night Sky, a section of which I’m including here:
In the life before this one, you could tell
two people were in love
because when they drove the pickup
over the bridge, their wings
would grow back just in time.
Some days I am still inside the pickup.
Some days I keep waiting.
~ from “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”
I still remember the first time that I came across a snippet from one of Vuong’s poems—I was immediately mesmerized and spent hours searching for his poems on the web and then added his book to my wish list. His is the kind of writing to which people can only aspire. It is absolutely luminous.
(Today is the birthday of English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (August 4, 1792– July 8, 1822)
Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair
through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase. Because the city
beyond the shore is no longer
where we left it. Because the bombed
cathedral is now a cathedral
of trees. I kneel beside him to show how far
I might sink. Do you know who I am,
Ba? But the answer never comes. The answer
is the bullet hole in his back, brimming
with seawater. He is so still I think
he could be anyone’s father, found
the way a green bottle might appear
at a boy’s feet containing a year
he has never touched. I touch
his ears. No use. I turn him
over. To face it. The cathedral
in his sea-black eyes. The face
not mine – but one I will wear
to kiss all my lovers good-night:
the way I seal my father’s lips
with my own & begin
the faithful work of drowning.
“Time didn’t heal, but it anesthetized. The human mind could only feel so much.” ~ P.D. James, from Innocent Blood
Today is the birthday of one of my favorite authors, P.D. James, born Phyllis Dorothy James on August 3, 1920. She was named Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991, and among her numerous awards, she received an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), in 1983, and a fellowship from the Royal Society of Literature. She was the author of more than 20 books, 14 of them featuring her detective poet Adam Dalgliesh. James died at the age of 94 on November 27, 2014.
Here are a few quotes from the prolific author:
You can’t teach someone to know how to use words effectively and beautifully. You can help people who can write to write more effectively and you can probably teach people a lot of little tips for writing a novel, but I don’t think somebody who cannot write and does not care for words can ever be made into a writer. It just is not possible.
~ from “P. D. James’s 10 Tips for writing”)
Learn to write by doing it. Read widely and wisely. Increase your word power. Find your own individual voice though practicing constantly. Go through the world with your eyes and ears open and learn to express that experience in words.”
~ from Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom from a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights
“. . . I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them—with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself.” ~ Eudora Welty, from “One Writer’s Beginnings”
Monday afternoon, sunny and mild, 82 degrees.
I thought that today I’d complete a survey that I found. I enjoy doing these once in a while. This one is perfect for me as it’s about books and reading. By the way, if you don’t know it, you can find great copies of hardback books from all genres at Ollie’s. I know, a surprise right? Usually the books are $3.99 or less. Whenever we go there, I look for copies of books that I lost with the storage unit.
Another great place to find books is in thrift stores. There were two in Norfolk that I loved to peruse; one of them used to have a bag of books option: as many books as you could fit in a bag for $5. They were very generous in not limiting bag sizes. I really miss that place.
That all for now. More later. Peace.
“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” ~ Marcus Tullius Cicero
What are you currently reading? I’m rereading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
How many books have you read this year? I’m behind in my goals, having only read 12.
How have your reading tastes changed from when you were a child? I wouldn’t say they’ve changed as much as they’ve broadened. As a child, I loved pretty much anything I could find in the young section of the library. Now, I still love books from all categories—science fiction/fantasy, mysteries, in particular British mysteries, poetry, action/adventure, sweeping historical fiction, biographies, actual histories, and memoirs. I also like that category known as Young Adult, although I’m not sure why it’s called that.
Physical book or e-book? Only paper for me. I love the way that books smell and feel. You cannot get that from an e-reader.
Where do you love to read? I love to read outside; if I had a hammock again, that would be my preferred place. I did see one of those hanging egg chairs at Sam’s Club that I would give anything to have as that would be ideal.
What is your ideal reading atmosphere? background noise or silent? alone or with others? I don’t want anything going on in the background if I’m reading, and I prefer to be alone. When I was a teen, I would watch TV with my boyfriend while reading. Don’t really know how I did that.
Are you a writer? I like to think so.
What was your very first baby book? The first book that I remember having was A Child’s Garden of Verses.
What was the first book you read on your own? I’m fairly certain that the first things that I read on my own were Superman comics, but the first book was probably The House at Pooh Corner.
How many books have you read in total? A conservative estimate would be about 2,000 books.
What has been the longest gap between books? I went through a really bad depression in which I couldn’t concentrate enough to read. It was almost a year without books.
What are your favorite genres? See number 3. My very favorite would probably be British mysteries. I’ve been reading those kinds of books the longest.
What books make you happy? This is a weird question. Reading in general makes me happy. Books that make me smile tend to be things like comic compilations such as Calvin & Hobbes or The Far Side.
What books have made you uncomfortable? Why? I don’t really like romances, mostly because they are so antithetical to real life, and the writing style tends to be formulaic.
Can you read anywhere? Moving vehicle? Roller coaster? I used to be able to read anywhere, but I can no longer read in a moving vehicle without getting carsick.
How do you bookmark books? I have a collection of bookmarks, but I rarely remember to use them. Usually I just use whatever piece of paper is closest to me.
Policy on book-lending? I only lend books to close friends or family. My other mother and I used to exchange books all of the time.
Do people know you’re a bookworm? If they know me, they do.
How well do you take care of your books? I cherish my books, and I prefer to purchase hardbacks. I hate it if they become damaged.
Can you read in other languages? I can read a bit in French.
What is a total book turn-off for you? I hate books that contain errors in grammar and syntax, and I get really upset if a book has a bad ending.
What is an essential element of a good book? For me, it needs to have good plot and character development, and it needs to be written well.
Genres you rarely read? I don’t read self-help books. They get on my nerves.
Do you read non-fiction? Yes, I like to read biographies, especially those of writers. I also like memoirs and collections of essays.
Do you read reviews on a book before you read it? Not usually, but if I do read a review and it seems intriguing, I will probably order the book.
Do you judge a book by the cover? I try not to. I learned when pursuing my publishing degree that the cover design is not always as closely married to the text as it should be.
Do you read cover to cover or sometimes skim parts? I read cover to cover, and I often reread books I love, in particular series such as Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, both of which I have read multiple times.
Do you always finish a book, even if it is dull? It’s hard for me to leave a book unfinished, and I can count on my hands the number of books that I’ve actually put down without finishing.
How do you organize your books? I organize by last name within genres.
Favorite book this year? This would have to be The Magicians trilogy. I really, really liked those books, and I wish that there were more in the series.
Music by Keane, “Somewhere Only We Know”
Burning of the Books
Typewriters wait at desks,
stories loiter outside hotels.
Far from the boiling pulp of Thunder Bay
starved spruces in wordless bogs
wait to be books.
You who leave the bookstore
will know how the snow waits
for the white fox to venture out
when hunger is spelled in his gut,
how his tracks end in a tuft of fur
and the asterisk of blood
which is the only color on this page;
the unwritten preface to your book.
It will speak to you in your study
like the claviforms on cavern walls
that have kept felling bison
for forty thousand years.
As you open the cover
an axe will strike in the north woods
and teams of draft horses will haul
great logs across the ice.
And if you read well when you read fire
the censor’s match will fail,
the heart of a pinecone will shine.
Incendiary slogans that sleep in libraries
will inspire arsons in the night.
Fireballs will crown the forests,
and in your book-walled room
the sweet smoke of a word’s entrails
will rise from ashes of the page.
“my dry spell the thing I don’t talk about with anyone.
My desperation: first of many. Hollow, or hollowed, depending on where you stand;” ~ Jesse Rice-Evans, from “The Self as Liminal, Endless”
Sunday afternoon, overcast and cold, 43 degrees.
I’ve spent the past few days trying to figure out why I cannot put words down here. It’s disconcerting and weird. But I have landed on one possible reason: I set myself up.
Yes. Exactly that. Let me explain: I find these beautiful passages in my meanderings around the ether, mostly on tumblr. I group them by themes, creating drafts for possible future posts, and then I sit down to write, and nothing that I think I can say seems to be worthy of the words of others. Actually, I think that probably the reason for many instances of writer’s block for me, and possibly others—the writer doesn’t feel worthy, doesn’t feel as if she has anything new to say, so what’s the point.
It’s a twisted kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: my words aren’t good enough so I cannot produce the words. The irony is that half of today’s quotes are not from a previously created draft, but from my most recent tumblr visit. I only have about 120 drafts to work through.
“I don’t think any of us can speak frankly about pain until we are no longer enduring it.” ~ Arthur Golden, from Memoirs of a Geisha
Speaking of beautiful words, Golden’s novel about a geisha is one of the best written novels that I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, I fear that my copy ended up in one of those tubs in storage that we lost. The loss of most of my library still pains me. Some of you may view a collection of books as needless, nothing but something to take up space, but books have always, always been my salvation.
I began reading at a very young age, and as an only child, books became my boon companion. Once I started working as a teen, I began to collect hardback books with the money that I earned. That’s how long I’ve been at it. And I had some truly incredible editions, things that have gone out of print. I remember that I had a two-book, oversized collection of all the works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; I love Sherlock Holmes. But now that set, as well as most of the rest of my collection are gone.
I didn’t just put my books in storage bins and forget them. I can say fairly certainly that I’ve read at least 80 percent of my books more than one time. My dream in the old house was always to have built-in bookcases in the living room. That never happened, and now this small house does not have the space for a wall of bookcases, which I suppose it just as well as I no longer own almost a thousand volumes of fiction, poetry, history, and biographies.
“Here is the river, and here is the box, and here are the monsters we put in the box to test our strength against.” ~ Richard Siken, from “Snow and Dirty Rain”
My big plans to clean the house have not materialized. You see, Corey left on Friday for Ohio for a visit with his family, which means that I am alone here with the animals. The being alone part is not problematic, as I’ve stated numerous times. The sticking point is that I’m still sick. The cough awakens me in the middle of the night, and my body is just depleted.
So here I sit in the midst off muddy paw prints on the wood floors; add to that the shredded tissues that the pups have dragged out of the waste baskets, and you are left with quite a mess, one that I find quite oppressive. I suppose it’s all just coalescing and pressing down on me, making me feel as if everything is just too much.
And then, mere minutes after Corey made his way down the driveway, the toilet clogged, and for some reason, the good plunger that I had at the old house is missing, and the only thing I have to work with is some bizarre design of a plunger that requires me to use my non-existent upper body strength in order to create the adequate suction. Aren’t you glad I shared that with you?
And then . . . I got in the car with Bailey to take her for a short drive to the mailbox only to find that my vehicle is dead and probably needs a new battery. Corey took Tilly with him to give her a special treat (she loves to travel with him), so I’m trying to give Bailey extra attention as she was quite pissed when they left, but the new bag of dog chew is probably in the mailbox, which I cannot get to without hiking a few miles.
Under better circumstances, the mileage would not matter, but as I begin to cough and wheeze moving from the kitchen to the bedroom, it doesn’t bode well for a hike down the mud in the cold.
“She was . . . flame-like and fierily sad. I think she did not know she was sad. But her heart was eaten by some impotence in her life.” ~ D. H. Lawrence, from Twilight in Italy: The Lemon Gardens
Among the positives (because, yes, there are definitely still positives), we’ve finally had some clear nights again, and the night sky is breathtaking. One night as I stood on the porch just admiring the view, the stars seemed to be hanging just above the ridge. One day I’m going to get a good telescope. Brett had one when he was younger, but it wasn’t very good, and you couldn’t really see much from the yard of the old house because of all of the light pollution.
That’s definitely not an issue here. Once we turn off the outside lights when we go to bed, the darkness is so complete that you literally cannot see the top of the driveway. It bothered me when we first got here, but now, it’s fine . . . most of the time.
When I woke up coughing around dawn, I looked out the window that faces the front of the house, and I thought I saw a truck parked in front of the house, not Corey’s pickup, but more like a box truck. Then I put on my glasses and realized that it was actually just a square of pitch black between the porch posts. It was weird.
Of course, if there were anyone or anything out there, the dogs would be spastic, especially Maddy, who still barks at the horses as if they only just appeared in the pasture. I really wish that I had taken her from Dallas sooner because she is a bugger to train; even a simple command like “sit” seems to just fly over her head. I won’t even get into Dallas’s beliefs about training dogs except to say that it’s pretty much non-existent except for making them bark like crazy . . .
“One winter I lived north, alone and effortless, dreaming myself into the past. Perhaps, I thought, words could replenish privacy.” ~ Jennifer Chang, from “The World”
I am making an effort not to spend hours on tumblr as I used to when it first came around. My logic is that I need to put the effort here, not there. It is a rather addicting site, though. I mean, there’s so much there. Predictably, I follow people who post quotes from poems and other literature, as well as photography, art, and some architecture, but there are sites that are nothing but memes, or comics, or old firearms, or artistic porn (well, maybe not any more since tumbler instituted puritanical restrictions), etc. ad nauseam
I find it to be quite a good source to jump-start my thought processes, and after perusing my dashboard, which is where the posts appear, my brain seems to be more primed to do something, anything; unfortunately, for the past two (four?) days, that something has been nothing more than playing spider solitaire.
This morning, I deliberately did not open tumblr or spider solitaire; it’s just too easy, and I’m tired of doing easy. Well, I’m tired—that part is true. Seriously, though, I’m fed up with doing nothing. I’m so ready for warmer weather so that I can work on the kitchen cabinets and all of the other projects that have been set aside for winter. But I’m also fed up with myself, fed up with being sick (I really hate to be so sick that I’m incapacitated), fed up with doing nothing.
I keep remembering how I used to clean the entire house, top to bottom, every Saturday morning of my life from the time I was about 10. I enjoyed it—truly. It was the whole thing of being able to get immediate tangible results that I could see as soon as I had finished.
Tangible results aren’t as apparent when you write for yourself, at least not when it feels forced, but you see, I have to take my own advice, the advice that I used to give my students: If you can think of nothing to say, write “I can think of nothing to say, repeatedly, until you do think of nothing to say.” It was an exercise that I started every writing class that I taught, and it almost always produced results.
Okay, so I haven’t written that phrase over and over, but I’m trying to apply the principle: just writing whatever pops into my head in the hopes that I might actually create something more than fodder.
So maybe not so much today, as in more than fodder, but hey, I tried, which is more than I can say about the last few weeks. Anyway, that’s the latest.
More later, in the hopes that the words will flow better. Peace.
Music by Shells, “Jagwar” (discovered this on The Magicians, my current favorite show)
a selection from “Snow and Dirty Rain”
If this isn’t a kingdom then I don’t know what is.
So how would you catalog it? Dawn in the fields?
Snow and dirty rain? Light brought in in buckets?
I was trying to describe the kingdom, but the letters
kept smudging as I wrote them: the hunter’s heart,
the hunter’s mouth, the trees and the trees and the
space between the trees, swimming in gold. The words
frozen. The creatures frozen. The plum sauce
leaking out of the bag. Explaining will get us nowhere.
I was away, I don’t know where, lying on the floor,
pretending I was dead. I wanted to hurt you
but the victory is that I could not stomach it. We have
swallowed him up, they said. It’s beautiful. It really is.
I had a dream about you. We were in the gold room
where everyone finally gets what they want.
You said Tell me about your books, your visions made
of flesh and light and I said This is the Moon. This is
the Sun. Let me name the stars for you. Let me take you
there. The splash of my tongue melting you like a sugar
cube… We were in the gold room where everyone
finally gets what they want, so I said What do you
want, sweetheart? and you said Kiss me. Here I am
leaving you clues. I am singing now while Rome
burns. We are all just trying to be holy. My applejack,
my silent night, just mash your lips against me.
We are all going forward. None of us are going back.
Not many of my own words today, and besides, today’s poem is by Sharon Olds, and how could I possibly compete with that?
Taken from the Knopf site; direct link below.
Sharon Olds, in her poems across the decades, has carried us through many of her life’s passages, as well as those of her growing children — their milestones are both part of her story and then not, as she sees them emerge into their own separate narratives. Today’s poem ushers us thoughtfully into graduation season, with its partings that are also new beginnings.
For seventeen years, her breath in the house
at night, puff, puff, like summer
cumulus above her bed,
and her scalp smelling of apricots
— this being who had formed within me,
squatted like a wide-eyed tree-frog in the night,
like an eohippus she had come out of history
slowly, through me, into the daylight,
I had the daily sight of her,
like food or air she was there, like a mother.
I say “college,” but I feel as if I cannot tell
the difference between her leaving for college
and our parting forever — I try to see
this apartment without her, without her pure
depth of feeling, without her creek-brown
hair, her daedal hands with their tapered
fingers, her pupils brown as the mourning cloak’s
wing, but I can’t. Seventeen years
ago, in this room, she moved inside me,
I looked at the river, I could not imagine
my life with her. I gazed across the street,
And saw, in the icy winter sun,
a column of steam rush up away from the earth.
There are creatures whose children float away
at birth, and those who throat-feed their young for
weeks and never see them again. My daughter
is free and she is in me — no, my love
of her is in me, moving in my heart,
changing chambers, like something poured
from hand to hand, to be weighed and then reweighed.
~ Sharon Olds
Music by Linda Rondstadt, “Long, Long Time” (best copy I could find)