“I am just passing through”

If there is one theme that has carried through my entries since I began blogging, it’s this: my dad is way cooler than I am.  Well, also that I have a fairly dysfunctional relationship with Diet Coke and am obsessed with bad reality television to a degree that is possibly not healthy.  Those two themes aside, though, it’s definitely that my dad is way cooler than I am.  He’s the person who’s responsible for the good part of my taste in music: he raised me on Bob Dylan and the Beatles, taught me to appreciate Graeme Edge’s poetry on Moody Blues albums as well as the Moody Blues albums themselves, and introduced me to musical artists I wasn’t cool enough to have heard of yet, like Laura Veirs and Laura Marling.  He’s the one who told me I had to listen to Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games,” the one who explained the “Paul is dead” phenomenon to me, the one who first introduced me to Leonard Cohen.  He’s also the person most responsible not only for the fact that I’m a writer but for the way that I write.  On our weekendly trips to the library, he put the poetry of T.S. Eliot and e.e. cummings in my hands.  He’s the one who told me that I absolutely had to read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, and he’s the one who taught me how to pronounce “Dostoyevsky” and “Karamazov.”  In one word: my dad?  Awesome.

However, as my dad is way cooler than me, I have, from time to time, not appreciated the Awesome of his suggestions until later.  Such was the case with Alice Munro — he gave me a collection of her short stories for Christmas one year, and I was bored to tears by them.  I picked up the book again years later, and it also ended with tears — but the tears were because the stories were so very good, so expertly crafted and beautifully rendered, so subtle and yet so deeply moving.

The same thing happened, I hate to admit, with Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska.  My dad started reading Szymborska a long time ago — probably around 1996, when she won the Nobel Prize — which really should have been a sign to the teenage Emma that she needed to read her book and immediately, but, as she so often did, the teenage Emma did not listen.  The teenage Emma was too into blood and guts and glory splattered all over the page, and so she didn’t appreciate the subtle poems her father said she should read.

Cut to ten years later, when I came across this Szymborska poem.  I’m not going to post it on the Blog or even talk about it all that much, because it makes me cry every time I read it, and not just because I’m a cat person.  It’s a perfect poem: the perspective, the subtle shifts of language, the way she views grief through a cat’s eyes and in this way shows all of us what grief really it — I should have listened to my dad.  As always, he knew best.

Szymborska died yesterday, at 88.  In his beautiful article on NPR, David Orr writes that for Szymborska, “the little things — onions, cats, monkeys, and yes, sea cucumbers — turned out to be very big indeed.”  That, more than anything, is what I took away from her verse, and in more ways than just appear in her verse: when it comes to a father and a daughter, it’s the little things — loving the same song, memorizing the same cheesy poem about “bursting, blasting, billowing forth with the power of ten thousand butterfly sneezes,” being heartbroken by the same image of a cat for whom “Something does not happen quite as it should” — that turn out to be very big indeed.

In honor of Szymborska, and of my father, I’m posting the excerpt from her poem “Birthday” that he sent me last night.

I am just passing through, it’s a five minute stop
I won’t catch what is distant; what’s too close, I’ll mix up.
While trying to plumb what the void’s inner sense is,
I’m bound to pass by all these poppies and pansies.
What a loss when you think how much effort was spent
perfecting this petal, this pistil, this scent
for the one-time appearance, which is all they’re allowed,
so aloofly precise and so fragilely proud.

 

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Classes are canceled at Georgetown College today, and I’m snowed in with two very clingy feline friends.  Though I am learning to never utter dangerous predictive sentences such as “there is no possible way that this winter can be as bad as last winter,” I’m taking the brief, white-clad respite to catch up on writing, reading, and class preparation.  I admit that most of my time has been spent reading and re-reading (and re-re-reading, ad infinitum) the instructions for the NEA grant application (one year, I will finally begin grant applications early), I’ve been breezing around the Internet and looking at articles filed under “Read Later.”

The first is this chilling article about a professor who opened fire on other professors, which presents some terrifying news from my home state and also makes a terrifying statement about the state of academia today.  It’s an incredibly frightening thing, and my heart goes out to the faculty and students of UAH.

Then, there is this article about the first autobiography of Emily Dickinson since 1974.  As the article particularly addresses the myth-making surrounding the figure of Dickinson, I can’t wait to read it.

The following articles aren’t poetry-related, but I’m obsessing over them nonetheless.  The first is an article from the New Scientist which discusses the apparently very possible possibility that we are actually living inside of a giant hologram.  I’m particularly fascinated by this because I spent most of my sophomore year at Sarah Lawrence reading about gravity waves, and it was through the search for gravity waves that they received the data suggesting our hologram-like state.  Hopefully, this search will also soon reveal data making it much easier to take out the trash in eleventy billion inches of snow.  The second is an article about leaked documents revealing the nightmarishly Mean Girls-esque rules for a sorority at Cornell.  I admit that I was once about as anti-sorority as one could be, thinking they were bastions of pre-feminist thought which perpetuated stereotypes and the kind of middle school behavior which shouldn’t even exist in middle school; however, after seeing the sororities at Georgetown, and especially how kind the sorority sisters are to their fellow students, where they’re fellow sisters or not, I’ve very much softened my opinion.  This article brought back the rage.  Perhaps this is because I like to wear “gross plastic shizzzzz” as jewelry.

Last but not least, a bit of self-promotion: Toadlily Press published my first chapbook, and Matthew Nienow recently started work on a Toadlily blog.  He’s done a remarkably beautiful job with it, and I’ve had a wonderful time catching up with my fellow Toadlily authors, from Nienow himself, who offers an account of how uniquely supportive the Toadlily experience is, to an article by Emily Carr, a UNCW classmate of mine and a phenomenal poet, about the metaphorical and actual meanings of meat.  You can also check out this entry about my witch poem project, which contains a recording of me reading one of the poems!

“Essential Oils — are wrung — / The Attar from the Rose / Be not expressed by Suns — alone — / It is the gift of Screws”

As a girl who asked way too many questions, in religion class, I found myself more often than not sitting in the classroom’s corner and staring at the space where four whitewashed cinder blocks met, or otherwise copying the Our Father five times in my best hand (and, given that my students accuse even my most neatly-written note of being cuneiform, this was far from easy).  Needless to say, I was never overly happy when the bell rang and we trudged upstairs for religion class.  By the time I began confirmation classes, I’d learned to keep away from questions (or, at least, to keep questions away from my tongue), and I began to listen (though this, I admit, may’ve been the result of my switch from daily religion classes as a student at Our Lady of Sorrows [no, really, I swear -- the school was actually called Our Lady of Sorrows] to a once-a-week CCD kid).  And finally, something began to float in: the idea of gifts — both those which we receive and those which we give others based on what we’re given.

Christmas, of course, always sends me to think about this.  Granted, I have no problem with actual, physical gifts, and will happily sport my new scarf, boots, and jeans without a hint of guilt.  I do think that, perhaps, we (my Taurean, Anthropologie- and shoe-obsessed self very much included) tend to over-emphasize the importance of physical gifts and de-emphasize the importance of spiritual, emotional, and psychological gifts; the intangible gifts which can’t quite be plugged into the television in order to play Manning 10; the gifts which, even if unrecognized, allow us the glimpses of kindness and happiness that help us through lives which are often, let’s face it, far from happiness.

What interested — and still interests — me most about Confirmation is the idea of how gifts are gained.  As a sacrament, Confirmation initiates one as an adult in — and a mature member of — the church, and it is with this maturity that one gains gifts such as wisdom, right judgment, and courage.  Though I’m unsure as to whether or not I had or gained any maturity then (I remember wondering if it would feel like lightning, something sharp and electric, and I also remember joking with the tow-headed boy I had an almost unbearable crush on about how X-ray vision and the ability to leap tall buildings would be awesome gifts, too), the message was a ubiquitous but important one: with maturity comes wisdom and other great gifts.

What I did not understand then, and probably only partially understand now, is that it isn’t simply the swirl of time that grants us such gifts, but instead what happens in that time. Ten years ago, at nineteen, I was, in a word, haughty.  What I knew was what I knew, and what I knew was more than what others knew; now, I know that I don’t even know what I know.  I know that it’s possible to wake up to a life you never wanted or expected to live.  I know it is possible to wake in this strange and impossible life and to find that the people you always imagined would be in your life are missing, or that a limb doesn’t work.  Or else, you have the life you always wanted, and one morning, you’re spreading Nutella on a piece of wheat bread when the neighbor’s dog barks and you’re suddenly struck with thinking that this is not it at all, not what you wanted after it all.  I know that the one thing that’s permanent is impermanence — which may, perhaps, actually be the greatest of gifts.

Though I first encountered this idea through Catholicism, it seems to pervade all religions: we are born and then we die, and what happens between these two points, even if the religion holds that we are reborn in one way or another, is all part of our relationship with the impermanent world.  Though we — well, I — often concentrate on how this means that good will pass and suffering will return, there is more importantly the other side: suffering will pass, and good will always return.  It is when the world is filtered through this lens that it becomes most beautiful.  Because we know that life is impermanent, and because living means carrying on with this knowledge, the smallest things — speck of dirt on snow, the torn veins of a leaf, the clean edge of a piece of paper — the smallest, most insignificant things are almost unbearably beautiful.  A great deal has been written about grand spiritual gifts — prophecy, speaking in tongues — but I often wonder if the smallest gifts aren’t the greatest — or, at least, if the smallest gifts are not evidence of the greatest gifts, of some kind of grace: daily kindnesses that go nearly unnoticed, or even those actions we only rarely notice, like breathing or moving one leg after another in walking.

In fourth grade, we memorized the Beatitudes, which I loved for their language and for their mystery, which I spent a lot of time considering: how were the weak strong, the meek blessed? I wonder, now, if perhaps our moments of weakness, our moments when we feel we can say and do nothing, those moments from which it seems impossible to move on, are indeed gifts in and of themselves in that they allow us to see through suffering, to concentrate on the good — or, at least, to know good differently, deeply, and with greater resonance.

Dickinson, as always, puts this more aptly and beautifully than I ever could:

Come slowly—Eden
Lips unused to Thee—
Bashful—sip thy Jessamines
As the fainting Bee—

Reaching late his flower,
Round her chamber hums—
Counts his nectars—
Enters—and is lost in Balms.

Or, of course, there’s always this one (which may not be the correct version, but the “corrected” — my Dickinson’s in Georgetown!):

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple host
Who took the flag to-day
Can tell the definition,
So clear, of victory!

As he, defeated, dying,
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

On the eleventh day of blogging, a fierce poet came to be. . .

Today is the 177th anniversary of Emily Dickinson’s birth.  I’ve made no secret of my love for Dickinson: were it not for her (well, and some incredible teachers I was incredibly lucky enough to have), I wouldn’t be where I am today, doing what I am today.  Though this does sometimes make me shake my fist at her, 99.999% of the time, I’m grateful.

I’ve written here about how Dickinson’s work first called me to poetry, but my feeling of connection, I admit, goes to an eerie level beyond this: I was born on the 94th anniversary of her death, and — the story behind this is very long and complicated, but absolutely, I promise you, absolutely true — had my grandfather’s last name not been changed, my legal name would, in fact, be — Emily Dickinson (so serious about this one.  So seriously no lie).  People have only halfway joked before that perhaps my devotion to Dickinson has led me to this life as a single and childless five-months-away-from-thirty year old, but I must say that, on the contrary, Dickinson’s work has instead helped me to survive this life — or, rather, how the public frogs see this life.  This is largely because it seems that many of the expectations for How A Woman’s Life Should Be that Dickinson railed against, both in her poetry and her public and private lives, haven’t changed a great deal in the intervening 177 years.  As background evidence foreshadowing the point I am soon (or, well, eventually) going to make, I offer this story of the eighteen year old freshman who came into my office and announced that she was engaged and, therefore, leaving college.  I tried to convince her that she should stay in school — she was a good writer, she was bright, she had interesting and fresh ideas — but the student responded that she didn’t want to be one of Those Women (emphasis in the original), and didn’t want to grow to be old, sad, and lonely like yours truly (who was, incidentally, 25 at the time).  I cannot tell you how often I’ve been called an old maid or a spinster (likely), or called out as a crazy cat lady (proudly), or even told that I need to “just find someone and settle” (very much not likely).  Dickinson’s work has always been stunningly powerful to me, but is now something else: a comfort, a conversation with someone who understands.

I notice, at this point, that I seem to be speaking interchangably about Dickinson’s work and Dickinson’s life.  Many teachers balk at the very idea of discussing a poet’s biography in class, and I fully admit that it makes me more than a little bit queasy as well.  However, there are times when I think that not discussing the life behind the lines shortchanges a class, and stops at the quick some very interesting and absolutely necessary conversations and considerations about art, and about social responsibility, and about the power we give language and art, sometimes over social responsibility; for instance, what are we as readers to do with Eliot’s anti-Semetic sentiments?  And if Anne Sexton writes a poem about the actual abuse her daughter Linda suffered at her hands, are we to respect that as art, to the point of not taking responsibility of stopping what we know to be true?

I think that, when it comes to Dickinson, it is absolutely necessary to discuss her biography in the classroom.  This is because I believe that Dickinson’s biography tells a more powerful — and important — story about the position of women and also of the experimental in the poetic world better than any lecture about her use of dashes and capitalization ever would.  I’ve been thinking, on this anniversary of her death, about the thousand deaths and rebirths and re-deaths her work, and the story of her life, have lived through in these years.  When I teach Dickinson, I always ask the class to tell me a little bit about her, and, unfailingly, the class comes up with the same biography: she was a madwoman who locked herself in an attic after her father chased away her lover.  This story infuriates me, if only because everything that comes after “attic” is a complete and total fabrication.  I’m not here to argue that Dickinson was completely sane, because a.) what poet — or person, for that matter — is?, and b.) what’s the fun in that?  What fun would the world be if we were all marvelously and stably on-kilter at all times?  I am here to argue that this narrative is only the tip of the very dangerous iceberg of the very dangerous process of “romanticizing” and rewriting Dickison.

I move next to two photos of Dickinon.  There is, of course, first this one, presenting a softer and more “feminized” version of Dickinson’s image — and, of course, pretty much completely fabricated:

Dickinson, Curled and Ruffled and Fancied Up
Dickinson, Curled and Ruffled and Fancied Up

And then there’s this, the real Dickinson:

The Real Dickinson

She’s not softened and curled and ruffled.  There’s not a smile, but a stare.  And this is the real woman, not the false goddess we’ve worked so hard to create, self-exhiled by heart-break into her attic, where she wrote poems pining for a lost suitor who, in truth, never existed (please note that I’m not saying there were never suitors — Lord knows there were, from “Master” and beyond).  Perhaps we made this myth because it is easier, more explicable to explain than a woman who was quite happy being alone, and working and working and working, tirelessly, endlessly, on what she saw of her gift.  Perhaps we made this myth because it’s more comfortable, more palatable than the vision of the genius in her attic.  Or perhaps we made this myth because, somehow, putting her into the category of the expected — or, rather, what is expected — makes it easier to deal with the undeniable power of her words, the voice which comes like lightning from the clear sky with its sudden shock and electrical power.  Perhaps this gives us reasons.  There were, of course, real reasons for her real existance.  She had terrible allergies, and dyed fabric hurt her skin — thus the white wardrobe.  As for staying in the attic, there’s the fact that she had poor eyesight and a kidney disease, and also the story she told her niece: “this” — the locked door — “is freedom.”

Because Dickinson didn’t follow what was expected, we seem to have forced her into a role we accept: for a woman, it’s easier to accept jilting than devotion to her art.  The same goes for her work, which was brutally normalized, shoved into convention.  When I teach Dickinson, I show a “normalized” version of one of her poems to the class, then follow it with the rightful version.  The students are always amazed to see how Dickinson’s orignal poem allows for windows into possibilities.  There’s no one reading of Dickinson’s poets.  Her very syntax, and those beautiful dashes, bring the text to a level beyond the singular, allowing multiple readings of each line, each phrase, each word: layer upon layer upon layer, Dickinson’s work “dwells in possibility.”  Normalizing her poetry, and her life, may make each more palatable, but far less extraordinary, and far more empty of the promise and possibility that Dickinson presents and represents: if a poem can have so many possibilities and potentialities, well, why not?  And why not a woman, too?

“If lilies are lily white if they exhaust noise and distance and even dust.”

Goodness, I think this is my first two-post day in … Well, perhaps, ever.  I’m in the midst of beginning a poem inspired by Dara Wier, one of my idols, for Dustin Brookshire’s Queens of Poetry project, and I admit that the very idea of writing a poem inspired by someone as brilliant and amazing and intelligent as Dara Wier is so overwhelming that I had to put it aside for a while.  Also, I simply had to scan and post this.  One of my incredibly talented students, Stephanie Boxx, is an intern at the Georgetown New Graphic this summer, and recently interviewed me for their “People You Should Know” segment.  This article contains the saddest and truest statement about my life, and, actually, perhaps about human life and the brutal alienation of the modern world, ever made: Emma Bolden’s family is a cat named Gertrude Stein.  In addition, the article’s placement in the Georgetown News-Graphic creates the coincidence of all coincidences, perhaps making the saddest and truest statement about my life or human life in general or the magical serendipity of the modern world ever made: next to my photograph is a photograph of a kitten who looks exactly like Gertrude Stein did when she was a kitten.  I’m even posting a photograph of Ms. Stein as a kitten for comparison, thereby proving both the coincidence and the saddest and truest statement which serves as an introduction for my interview.

Part One of My Georgetown News Graphic Debut

Part One of My Georgetown News Graphic Debut

Part Two, Featuring The Cat Who May Well Be Gertrude Stein's Clone

Part Two, Featuring The Cat Who May Well Be Gertrude Stein's Clone

A Photograph Of Ms. Stein As A Kitten, For Comparison's Sake (And Also So That You Can Admire Her General Cuteness)

A Photograph Of Ms. Stein As A Kitten, For Comparison's Sake (And Also So That You Can Admire Her General Cuteness)