With the newest publication of a beloved author on the horizon, she’s been live-tweeting as she reads one of my favorite works of hers. Naturally, I am comparing myself to her and finding myself lacking. Yes, folks, you can make negative, unhealthy comparisons to someone for which you hold pure admiration.

As I sit here making my mental comparisons, I  wonder why I even bother. What do I even have to say that’s worthy of anyone’s time? Does my work have any Meaning? (I promise the tone of this post turns around).  But as I cuddle my sick toddler, I open one of my poems on a whim, Nest.

That poem still makes me so proud. My epiphany, however, was noticing the poetic devices I employed, some intentionally like the image of home, but more importantly, some unintentional, like my partial rhymes. And then the end of it, how everything just came together and…happened. How I had written no less than 10 poems before this poem, trying to capture my emotions about being a new mother and having lost my father, and that final stanza expressed everything I felt more clearly than all of those attempts combined.

I think that, that final marriage of meaning, form, feeling, and rightness is a key to this whole “what do I even have to offer anyone” question. That poem almost created itself, using me as a vessel; I didn’t have the option to not create it. Is that enough to give work meaning? To say, I HAVE to write, therefore it has meaning. I don’t think so. What I have to offer is how much I enjoyed creating it, and THAT gives it meaning, because if you did it right, others can feel that coming through.

E-books vs. Books

Once upon a time, I had terrible reading comprehension but loved reading anyway. This disparity between ability and desire was most apparent when I was entered high school. After miraculously testing out of remedial English and into Honors classes my junior and senior years, I remember being given The Plague, The Stranger, As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, Fathers and Sons, and Pride and Prejudice. I probably would have loved reading all of these books had I understood them better. The problem wasn’t understanding the themes or plot; discussing these novels in class made me realize I did love them. It was my inability to synthesize what I was reading. I remember straining to finish Pride and Prejudice before it was due and the words looking like hieroglyphics. No matter how many times I read over the same page, I couldn’t see what was happening in the novel in my head. This was a bit distressing after reading countless R. L. Stine and V. C. Andrews books where I had no problem with this. I felt like my brain was broken.

Over the years, I did get better at absorbing what I read. Probably just practice and cramming for exams in college. Sometimes, certain books dredge up my old flaw and the accompanying fear of inadequacy. It happened recently when I checked out Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows about a MAGICAL HEIST from my local library. I checked it out as an e-book. Though I liked the novel, I was still slogging through it three chapters in. Then my best friend and partner in reading shenanigans started it and fell head over heels for it in a way that I hadn’t. This was not a matter of us merely liking different things. I knew I would have liked the book more if I followed it better. Sometimes it takes me time to get into an author’s writing style, and Bardugo certainly has a lot of lush world-building happening right at the beginning of the book. But, but, I had a feeling this book would be better read physically. So I purchased the hardback, and my reading experience between the hardback and the e-book was night and day. (I definitely recommend the hardback, because this book is just effing gorgeous inside and out.)

Yep, already devouring the second book

The book has these epic maps and character designations in the front. The e-book does too, but the ability to physically return to the maps while marking the page you’re currently on with your finger is a luxury you didn’t know you’d miss until you don’t have it! Also, just being able to flip back through the book to reread something for clarification is another simple pleasure that reading an actual book affords, while an e-book does not; this book kind of lends itself to rereading certain parts because of how deliciously complicated the plot is (seriously, I feel smarter for having read this book). Also, somehow, being able to see how far I was in the book with regards to the unfolding plot helped me situate myself in some abstract spatial way. Reading purists or anti-e-bookers often cite reading as a physical activity. And I totally get it now.

Let it be known, I am in no way declaring myself a reading-monogamist here. This book has shown me that I read more complicated, involved books better when I can hold it. Novels that don’t require so much…involvement are great for downloading as an e-book and popping out while traveling, standing in line at the grocery store, or waiting for you doctor who never seems to be on time for your appointment.

Any purists out there? E-book or anti? Do you notice a difference in how you read  certain books physically versus on a reader?


Night Swimming

Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais

On a whim, I decide to go swimming. At 9 pm. Actually, it wasn’t really decision on a whim. I wanted something to keep my mind off a cigarette. The burn I have in my lungs right now is familiar, though an altogether different torture than sitting outside late into the night, reading or writing hundreds of thousands of words, all the while smoking like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, asking myself ‘who are you?’

So now, I’m out here on my back in this pool, facing my fear of large bodies of water at night, vulnerable to whatever imaginary leviathin waits beneath me. There is almost no separation between me, floating, weightless as I’ve ever been, and the sky with its modest smattering of stars, only the border of the palm trees winked at by the light colliding against the restless waves in the pool. I row myself like a boat, like a canoe if we’re being honest, because I’m programmed to wish myself long and lean. And all I can hear are the sounds of my arms breaking the water with a muffled splash and my breathing in stereo, like the opening of an indie film. I could reinvent myself out here tonight, I think, while simultaneously trying to merge with the vast nothing above me.

Stop. I decided to go swimming on a whim. No. That was it–to keep my mind off a cigarette. Now about that…

The Importance of Not Having A Plan

Going on a writing retreat without a plan as to what to write let’s you take in the beach, rather than wracking your brain for something that will be relevant to your readers. Write what’s natural to you, they say. Unfortunately, what’s natural for me is doubt and self-consciousness.

Instead, I open my hands in the sand and dig until dry, loose grains give way to the hard-packed aggregate sleeping beneath, still covered in the blanket of last night’s high tide. I dig with my nails, breaking it up, feel each piece in my hand, an individual and collective weight. Nothing else feels quite like this–a handful of damp sand. I let it go at some point, either before walking out to the water or once I get there. Going anywhere without a plan does not mean without purpose; aimless and unmotivated, the journey begs for your enjoyment, your presence. You can feel the salt cauterizing your lungs. You jump and laugh in the waves without remembering you’re 31 goddamn years old. After, you lay on the beach, sore from fighting against the ocean, only somewhat displeased by the sand granules imprinting your cheeks and sticky salt expanding your follicles. You sit on the emptied beach at night with your best friend beside you and stare toward the sound of the waves, seeing ghosts at the break.

You lay in a strange bed with only a screen, which may or may not be locked, between you and the outside (your friend was drunk when she attempted to lock it). You listen to the sound of the waves lapping, like listening for your newborn’s sleeping breath. You have a full-blown night terror about a Dementor stepping out of that Conjuring wardrobe in your room, throwing your heart against your rib cage, and jerking you back to consciousness on the other side of the bed.

Maybe it was the overindulgence of nicotine or alcohol, or the cappuccino from the self-aware Italian restaurant just steps from your temporary residence. Either way, you’ve dreamed. You’re alive.

Going on a writing retreat without a plan cracks you open–a bone saw to your waiting sternum that bursts apart with a sudden break in the pressure. It lets you see, think, and feel again. It lets you breathe with new, raw lungs, washed by the salt. It lets you carry home that sand still under your nails and shows you that you don’t have to let all of your doubt and negativity go. You only have to outsmart it by writing in spite of it.

The Lives of the Heart: Poetry You Can Eat

The Lives of the Heart. Jane Hirshfield. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

After the experience of The Lives of the Heart–because that is all it can be called–I am looking forward to getting my hands on Come, Thief, The October Place, and Of Gravity and Angels now that I see what this woman can do. As I revisit my own poems in an effort to tweak and tighten, I find myself turning back to Hirshfield for inspiration. This post is well overdue as I finished this book last August, but in devouring these poems a second time, I realize that now is the perfect time for this post, actually, because of the time of year.

Hirshfield’s poetry is visceral and rich like a dark, juicy fruit. I thought I stopped to take in small wonders and subtle delicacies. I was so wrong. Her poetry is perfect fall and winter reading, next to a fire, with glass of red wine and some da capo warm in your belly. It is delicate and hearty all at once. You hold her poems on your tongue to savor them, and they fill you up.

Her words chime with grace and beauty. She asks striking questions through the everyday and domestic, like a mule’s muzzle (“Mule’s Heart”), the bend of a blue heron’s neck (“Hope and Love”), the scent of garlic cooking in oil (“Heart Pressing Further”), Chinese poetry in the morning (“Reading Chinese Poetry Before Dawn”), a dispassionate room (“A Room”), the taste of dark, ripe fruit achingly seasoned with a memory (“Beautiful Dawn”) or the scent of talc on a loved one’s ailing, infirmed body (“Talc”).

In an effort to persuade you to read her gorgeous, heart-stopping poetry, I will leave you with a poem (you can actually listen to her read it on this page!). “Knowing Nothing” is not one of her more edible poems, but it is definitely food for thought. There were many poems that struck me*, but I read this one about twelve times. The first five times I was just absorbing, trying to recalibrate my mind from the straightforward language of speech/my thoughts and prose to poetry. The next seven times were for comprehension. When I exclaimed how much I was obsessing over it, my boyfriend read it, tossed the book back, and said, ‘you don’t get it?’–much to my chagrin.

She says it in simple language, and I think I see what she’s saying in simple language, but every time I read it, there’s something more she seems to be saying. Without further ado, please read it, love it, and feel free to share your thoughts. Did you love it or hate it? Why? What do you think it’s about? Or, if you’ve read any of Jane Hirshfield’s other poetry, what do you think of her?

* “The Lives of the Heart”, “The New Silence”, “The Fire”, “Respite”, “The Key”, “Changing Everything”, “Lying”, “The Poet”, and all the poems mentioned above. This makes it seem like I fell in love with every poem in the book. In varying degrees, I did.