A few months ago, I mentioned to a friend that it’d be nice to start a poetry memorization/recitation group. I want to go to the next level with poems I love, to carry them with me all the time. A different way to approach a poem, to really pay attention. She held me accountable for the idea, and three of us met in January with our first poems. I chose “Questions of Travel” by Elizabeth Bishop (the title of this post is a line from it), which I frequently cite as one of my favorites.
What did I learn/realize anew? Mainly that “Questions of Travel” is LONG, lacking a regular rhyme scheme, with Bishop’s trademark somewhat-impenetrable phrasing. I found myself dying to reword a few of her lines, and might have accidentally done so in my recitation. I realized how easily I skipped over the bits I’m ambivalent to (“Three towers, five silver crosses”) to get to the parts I like (“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?”). I think most readers are loathe to admit how much we end up skimming even our favorites, both poetry and prose.
Did spending more time with the poem make me fall in deeper in love, as with the staring-at-a-painting-for-30-minutes exercise? I think so, ultimately. I found much more to enjoy in the fourth stanza than usual (“Never to have studied history / in the weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages”), perhaps because before I would be racing through it to get to the lovely ending (“Should we have stayed at home / wherever that may be?”). I still count it as one of my favorites: questions of travel, and whether a person changes depending on their surroundings, are all the more relevant in our hyper-mobile society.
That said, I’m going short and rhyme-y in February. /pulls out “Selected Stevie Smith”
I recently listened to the Arthur Miller episode of “You Must Remember This”—part of the podcast’s Hollywood Blacklist series that aired in 2016. I love “You Must Remember This” and its host/producer, Karina Longworth—essentially everyone who has listened to an episode does. She turns a not-insignificant amount of research on “Hollywood’s first century” into extremely palatable, lunch-hour-length episodes. Her approach is both loving and journalistic, but she doesn’t hide her progressive leanings when appropriate, and while she gives her subjects their due diligence in research and fact-checking, she doesn’t hesitate to name their bad behavior. In short, it’s a loving podcast that does not necessarily invite nostalgia-induced hero worship.
This episode covers most of Miller’s career highlights from before the Blacklist. I learned that he had vowed to give up playwriting altogether if “All My Sons” wasn’t a hit (I think it might be my favorite of his). When that play was a critical and financial success, he took a job in a box factory so he wouldn’t lose touch with the working man altogether (he lasted one week). Then, he built himself a writing shed, determined that he wouldn’t be allowed to write more hits until he had earned another manual labor merit badge.
But since this particular series focuses on the Hollywood Blacklist and HUAC hearings, there isn’t as much real estate for Miller’s relationship with Marilyn Monroe as there is for his soured friendship with Elia Kazan, besides the fact that Miller received much more attention from HUAC because of his ties to the most famous woman in the world. Longworth does note that there is much more to that story, and Miller’s mistreatment of his second wife in both his written works and real life, and I guess I got a lot of that story from this story the next day:
Some coincidence—it’s only because I’m behind on the podcast that it coincided with #MeToo movement, and this article by Maria Dahvana Headley. The headline does most of the work: “Him Too? How Arthur Miller Smeared Marilyn Monroe and Invented the Modern Male Witch Hunt.”
Headley’s article is a feminist deconstruction that has a different thesis than Longworth’s Blacklist episode, so they’re not exactly comparable and neither deserves blame for the way they covered Miller. But one aspect that was not present in the podcast episode was the parallels between Monroe and the character of Abigail in “The Crucible”: the 17-year-old who has an affair with John Proctor, then vengefully accuses his wife of witchcraft. This mirrors Miller’s own torn feelings, as he fell hard for Monroe to the detriment of his own marriage. (He stayed married for years after he fell in love with her, as she conducted her own affair with his then-friend Kazan.) Headley’s analysis is a prescient one. I haven’t read “The Crucible” in years or ever seen it onstage, but Abigail’s villain-hood, as a hysterical spurned temptress who would “ruin” the life of a “good man” in a series of calculated, vindictive maneuvers, is incredibly apt in light of the #MeToo movement, and men’s bandying about of the term “witch hunt.”
In the past 20 years, feminist readings of “The Crucible” (with or without reference to Miller’s real-life parallels) reveal Abigail as a victim (raped, dismissed from her position) who is mistreated by the writer in his characterization, as is Elizabeth, the “frigid” wife. Abigail also makes me think of other female villains throughout history, both fictional and real, including my favorite temperance preacher/hatchetator, Carry A. Nation. The ways that disenfranchised women find and wield power—so often under the guise of “virtue,” the only acceptable label for them—is often not palatable, to put it lightly.
That’s about as far as I’m willing to analyze it without re-reading “The Crucible.” Instead, I will re-read Lindy West’s “witch” take from last October: “Yes, This is a Witch Hunt. I’m a Witch, and I’m Hunting You.”
“Gold Fame Citrus” by Claire Vaye Watkins
2015, Riverhead Books
Novel – 352 pages
For a long time, I was fixated on a Californian landscape that I’d never actually experienced. That fixation hasn’t changed since my first visit last year, maybe because it’s culturally mythologized so effectively. The difference, now that I’ve visited, is that I have an unearned attachment to the Romantic wasteland of gold, fame, and citrus. Those are the three reasons people go to California, according the characters in this book.
So that unearned attachment is probably why I liked the story so much, though the author’s style was aggressively Literary at times. The apocalyptic, fantastical, and painfully simple break-down of society in the face of environmental catastrophe pulled me right in. I was as fooled as the main character, Luz. Definitely recommend—but you will feel sandy for days afterward.
“Who Fears Death” by Nnedi Okorafor
Novel – 432 pages
Why yes, I did find this on the same “climate change apocalypse” reading list as “Gold Fame Citrus.” Okorafor also writes young adult fiction, and I think the only reason this book isn’t classified as YA is because of the amount of weaponized rape that occurs in this futuristic depiction of war-torn Sudan. The thing is, you don’t realize it’s the future until characters start stumbling upon ancient desktop computers—tribal warfare and theocracy is definitely something most readers will associate with the past, not the future. The presence of magic and countless twists and turns kept my eyes on the page, though it’s easy to become disoriented on this sprawling journey. I love the main character, Onyesonwu (which means “who fears death”), and her stubborn strength. Not to mention the fact that she’s a powerful-but-doomed sorceress who can transform into animals and bring people back from the dead.
I kept thinking how this book might be adapted as a film or miniseries, and which of the harsher elements they might have to cut, both for length and content. Then I saw that HBO has optioned the story, and George R.R. Martin will produce—so [Eeyore voice] I guess they’re keeping the graphic rape scenes. It is central to the plot and the main character’s identity, though. I’m sure I’ll be tuning in to see how they interpret the journey.
“Men Explain Things To Me” by Rebecca Solnit
2014, Haymarket Books
Essays – 130 pages
I think that most of Rebecca Solnit’s now-huge fanbase came to know her through this book, or at least the titular essay. I had never actually read it before (although I can’t really claim to have liked her “before she was cool”—I saw her speak at a whim at UH in 2014). For my money, the best essay in this book is the one about Virginia Woolf, which also appeared in the New Yorker: “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable.” Great notes on criticism, the “tyranny of the quantifiable,” and the value of uncertainty.
“Forgiving the Unforgivable: Geronimo’s Descendants Seek to Salve Generational Trauma” —Anna Badkhen for LitHub
“Swing Low, White Women” – Brigitte Fielder for Avidly, on the pink pussy hat placed upon a statue of Harriet Tubman during this year’s Women’s March
“The Women the Abortion War Leaves out” — Michelle Oberman for The New York Times
“Caseworkers, Stand Up Against Racism in Child Welfare Or Be Part of the Problem” – Alan Dettlaff, dean of the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work (probably my favorite UH college), for YouthToday
“Letter from a Target-Rich Environment” – Barrett Swanson for Guernica
“Watching Delores O’Riordan Dance on Yeats’ Grave” – Laura Passin for Electric Literature, in what is both a tribute to the recently departed Cranberries singer and Ireland’s rich tradition of history-reclaiming woman poets
“What a Year of Grief Taught Me about Monuments and Memorials” — Ric Kasini Kadour for Hyperallergic
“An Evening of Immersive Theater with the Dead and Dying” — Adam Dalva on an immersive theater version of James Joyce’s “The Dead” for The Millions
Letter to a Young Poet (the whole of your body is a vibing wire) — Patricia Smith for The Scores, as part of their “Letter to a Young Poet” series
“A Eulogy for the Headphone Jack” — Charley Hoey on Medium
“Materials, Man” —Austin Kleon’s blog, on how an artist has to love her materials
“Is There Such a Thing as a Good Book Review?” — Elisa Gabbert in her writing advice column, The Blunt Instrument, for Electric Literature
“Improving Ourselves to Death” — Alexandra Schwartz for The New Yorker
I did go to muddy Cambridge Common with “several thousand” others for a Women’s Rally on January 20. Not quite as magical as last year’s Austin/Wendy Davis/Sailor Moon excursion, but heartening nonetheless. My best photo is of a sousaphone wearing a pussy hat: