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QUINTESSENCE

Time and Self

BUDAPEST
My pen moves along the page
like the snout of a strange animal
shaped like a human arm
and dressed in the sleeve of a loose green sweater.

I watch it sniffing the paper ceaselessly,
intent as any forager that has nothing
on its mind but the grubs and insects
that will allow it to live another day.

It wants only to be here tomorrow,
dressed perhaps in the sleeve of a plaid shirt,
nose pressed against the page,
writing a few more lines

while I gaze out the window and imagine Budapest
or some other city where I have never been.


- Billy Collins

Recently, Publishers Weekly produced a small piece celebrating an author who has produced five novels before the age of thirty. And not just ordinary tough-as-nails-to-write-for-anybody books, but tremendous books. It is as though this young intellect arrived on earth with a soul full of truths and simply sat down and let the stories out. Helen Oyeyemi, Publishers Weekly correctly observes, is an icon among writers and her generation.

That acknowledged, I let my breath out. Now what in the hell do the rest of us mere mortals do? By this spectacular standard I have clearly underproduced; muddled through to middle age with but four books (and a load of false starts and no-sells in the drawer), and one newly completed manuscript out in the market. I think it would be fair to say most of the books are competent; maybe one a near-great (for me). But none of these books mark the high point of a generation. Not one has as of yet set the bar for literature or the world on fire. So what does this coal-car of paper amount to then?

It amounts to me. To my complicated, imperfect, imbalanced journey through life. To all that it required for me to become a writer at all. A parenthesis around pathways that amounted to ridiculous dead-ends, needless "learning experiences." A love-song to the self-confidence that didn't arrive until late in my third decade. A fossil of sorrow that hollowed out wasted thinking and living and left a thing fine and unbreakable in its place. These books I have written are all in some way reflective of an unorthodox coming of age. Not classic young adult tales of self-discovery but the thrashing near-drowning of the very adult. The bumbling, insecure, hopeful human being that ages into self-assurance by sheer survival. The lost in the raw, relentless beauty of the world. That journey is me. My work.

It is now and then necessary to step back from the media banner-awards party. The thirty under thirty lists, forty under forty, the masters of our time, thought leaders and cultural candles. I rejoice in their accomplishments. But I cannot make their journey a template for mine. They have overcome or stepped over life crevasses of their own. Sooner, better, more beautifully, with extraordinary shining talent the world does well to recognize. I remind myself this does not negate my dusty corner. At the fringe of my shadow I am quietly content. Each book a summit. A personal Matterhorn in tennis shoes.

Time occasionally finds us on the right or wrong side of some imaginary mark in the sand. A bar we have set ourselves, or that others seem to vault with greater ease. Celebrate the victories. Let the anxiety go. Live your life on your own terms. This is the true prize. And the grandest part of it all - the becoming of you.




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Beginnings and Endings

Sunrise over Haleakala Crater, Maui
In the end, all books are written for your friends.
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

As soon as you trust yourself you will know how to live.
- Johann Wolfgang Goethe

This week has been full of important endings and magnificent beginnings. The world said farewell to one of the greatest writers in my lifetime, a spinner of tales of magic and fable, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Marquez passed away at his home in Mexico on April 17 at the age of 87, leaving the world a legacy of writing that most are familiar with and generations treasure. His stories were stories of ordinary, impossibly grand lives. Lifetimes lived accidentally, yet with instinct. Of poetic nuances and tragic shadows, ignorance and discovery. Marquez celebrated life for its many impossibilities - for those are the moments that give us beauty.

Also, a beginning to note. The birth in Princeton, New Jersey, of a baby boy. The first child, a son, of a dear friend's daughter. This beautiful, talented woman and her brilliant, compassionate husband have added a new voice to the world. I love this moment: when the revolving door of souls, the coming and going of destinies, freshens history. A sweetness on the air so delicate and full of promise with the arrival of new life that we can't help but notice. The world taketh and returneth. We give and lose and regain and lose and give again. Each life makes a unique, profound impact on the world; and when it is our time, we step aside for the next new performance. On April 17, one family marks a new beginning, even as another says goodbye.

I will never forget the stories of Marquez. And I cannot wait for the songs of one new boy. Isn't the world a marvelous place?
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Ear to the Canvas

Automat, 1927, by Edward Hopper

THE GLOVE OF TIME BY EDWARD HOPPER

True I am but a shadow of a passenger on this planet
but my soul likes to dress in formal attire
despite the stains.
She walks through the door.
She takes off her glove.
Does she turn her head.
Does she criss her leg. That is a question.
Who is speaking.
Also a question.
All I can say is
I see no evidence of another glove.
The words are not a sentence, don't work on that.
Work on this.
It is not empty time, it is the moment
when the curtains come blowing into the room.
When the lamp is prepared.
When light hits the wall just there.
And the glove?
Now it rose up - the life she could have lived (par les soirs bleus d'ete).
It so happens
paint is motionless.
But if you put your ear to the canvas you will hear
the sounds of a terribly good wheel on its way.
Somewhere someone is travelling toward you,
travelling day and night.

Bare birches flow past.
The red road drops away.
Here, you hold this:
evidence.
It so happens
a good evening glove
is 22 centimeters from hem to fingertip.
This was a glove "shot in the back"
(as Godard said of his King Lear).
Listening to his daughters Lear
hoped to see their entire bodies
stretched out across their voices
like white kid.
For in what does time differ from eternity except we measure it?
- Anne Carson

This poem by Anne Carson is linked to Edward Hopper's famous painting "Automat, 1927" in the title, and touches on both Carson's ideas of time as a parenthesis, a formality, an accessory of eternity - and the painter Edward Hopper's hung narratives, his famous still scenes, paintings that catch and hold a moment of life in suspended view. Reading this poem for me is like falling into the wake behind a moving boat. The froth of the ripples, the spreading disturbance of words and ideas, the patterns of strokes created by the words and the poet, catch us, soak us, and soon shimmer over our heads as we sink into the stillness. What is this stillness? The stillness of everything. The inside out of Carson's "Glove of Time." The voice of Hopper's canvas.

This is National Poetry Month, and if you have not already made friends with a book of poems, I urge you to do so. Emily Temple posted a list of "50 Essential Books of Poetry That Everyone Should Read" (April 7th, Flavorwire.com, http://flavorwire.com/449473/50-essential-books-of-poetry-that-everyone-should-read/view-all).* While by no means complete, missing many favorites of mine, and without the collectible quirks that make poetry personal to each reader, this list comprises a foundation to begin an avid reader's bookshelf collection. Poetry books, like friends, are indispensable in my view. Poems can be invited for long chats, fill a blue evening, lift a trodden heart. Poetry is another set of senses to experience the world and ourselves. This list is just one place to begin.

I invite you to find a poem this week. Befriend the new way in which poetry opens what we see and hear. Enjoy where the poem takes you. Where the words end and your thoughts continue.

*Poets mentioned in Temple's list: Adrienne Rich| Allen Ginsberg | Anne Carson | Cathy Park Hong | Charles Simic | Corey Van Landingham | Elizabeth Bishop | Emily Dickinson | Frank O'Hara | Frederick Seidel | Galway Kinnell | John Ashbery | John Berryman | John Donne | Josh Bell | Louise Gluck | Mary Oliver | Lyn Hejinian | Marie Howe | Mary Karr | Maya Angelou | Natasha Trethewey | Nikky Finney | Ovid |Pablo Neruda | Rita Dove | Robert Hass | Seamus Heaney | Sharon Olds | Shel Silverstein | Sylvia Plath | T.S. Eliot | Terrance Hayes | Tracy K. Smith | Wallace Stevens | William Carlos Williams | William Shakespeare | e.e. cummings | John Keats | Langston Hughes | Robert Frost |Walt Whitman | and others...

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Mark the Music

Ruins of ancient Greek amphitheater at Licata, Sicily
“By the sweet power of music: therefore the poet
did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones and floods;
since nought so stockish, hard and full of rage,
but music for the time doth change his nature.
The man that hath no music in himself, nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
and his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.”


- William Shakespeare, "The Merchant of Venice"



This lyric passage from Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" is one of my favorites on illumination and human nature. For not only is Shakespeare's language full and transcendent, touching on myth and poet, the passage has a timeless truth at its core. The human animal is moved, persuaded toward virtue, by a natural capacity and recognition for the arts. Music in this case transforms the brute to the aesthete, the warrior to the statesman, one who is dangerous to an ally. Shakespeare writes of the flame within: that aspect of mankind unconsciously attuned to natural beauty. What power in the shepherd's reed, the primitive landscape, the brushstrokes of a civilization past, to spark the human soul. Our appreciation of beauty causes us to better our natures, to bring forth the genuine, and unexpected goodness. Mark the music, Shakespeare writes, for concord within casts the light of the soul.

I find myself thinking of this passage and the raucous, brawling nobility of the discourses that embolden The Merchant of Venice, whenever I worry about the future of books, bookstores, or contemporary culture in general. Whether we encourage, patronize, or sustain the arts, as people we are nonetheless deeply connected to them. What it is about art that elevates the soul is also that which draws us into its presence. Nature, song, dancer, poet... We are "moved with concord of sweet sounds."
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