Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Twins. Hot.

Kudos to Rebecca Mead for her profile of the Dickman twins in this week's New Yorker. Matthew and Michael Dickman are identical twins, and they're both poets. I hadn't realized I had read one of Matthew's poems, Trouble, earlier in the magazine, and liked it very much. I can't imagine how difficult it must be to be an identical twin, for one thing, on top of trying to make it in the same profession as your sibling. This piece has some really interesting moments, however. I'm going to list them below.

1. They like Sylvia Plath.
2. Apparently Matthew is quite the ladies man, and yet:
3. Has kissed Allen Ginsberg for "fifteen minutes."
4. Both are related to Sharon Olds.
5. Both appeared as the twin boy "pre-cogs" in Minority Report.

Like, what?

Here's an awesome moment: Michael describing working on Minority Report.

"Whenever we weren't actually shooting, we would be in our trailers, reading Ted Hughes, and then we would leave and take cabs to bookstores and spend our per diem on poetry. On our days off, we would make coffee in one of our hotel rooms and write poetry all day."

Monday, March 30, 2009

Just Because

I think JFK and Jackie may have had the most beautiful wedding
of all time.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Pleasure of the Text

This morning on a very crowded F-train I started reading Roland Barthes The Pleasure of the Text. It's my first time reading it; I was prompted to do so by another book I read this summer, Long Life Cool White, which illuminated Barthes' reliance on constant notebook-ing.

The Pleasure of the Text is fairly straightforward. The basic premise is that reading can be an erotic activity, and when the reader is lost in the act (or the text, depending on how you see it), then there is a catharsis, or climax. Richard Howard, the book's introducer, labels this act of pleasure jouissance, and its accompanying noun he calls bliss (this being the closest word he can think of in English to Barthes' original French). Pretty sexy stuff!

There are, of course, more complex arguments made throughout the book. I haven't finished reading it yet. But I found it intriguing (and convincing) that I immediately thought of blissful moments in my life.


In my backyard there are two maple trees that were just saplings when my parents moved in. They're now quite large, and hang over our back porch. In the summertime, I used to sit outside on the deck reading, and stare up into the leaves. In a way, it was like looking through a chlorophyll filter into the sun.

When my Mom and I spent a week in England, tooling around the Virginia Woolf hot-spots, we took a train down to Cornwall, where her family had spent their summers. It was the most beautiful place I have ever been to date. The time spent with my mother was also absolutely priceless, and helped me to realize how lucky I am to have a parent I can also consider my best friend. We also visited Knole, a Tudor mansion of epic proportions, and the family seat of Vita Sackville West. I can still remember what the scones and tea tasted like in its tea shoppe, even though I had strep throat and could barely swallow.

The way it feels to walk off a stage, body jittery with adrenaline, your shaking water bottle and propensity to smile when someone praises you, the delightful sweat of a job well done. The clear feeling of a throat that's sung its heart out for two hours.

Frequently, if I'm feeling low I'll recall my first scotch on the rocks, at Marlow & Sons, the way the ice clinked against my glass and the flickering candles at the bar. It was one of my boyfriend and I's first dates, and nothing beats the excitement of getting to know someone over a wonderful dinner. That was a year ago. I still feel that anticipation when I'm on my way to see him.

For me, writers who are able to capture moments like these: filled with nostalgia and sense memory (the way things taste, sound, look and feel) are TRUE writers. The most obvious example is Proust's madeleines, but lately, with her name so much in the news, I've been thinking of Plath, and how much her simple descriptions of a rainy night indoors, or the way her curlers set in her hair, her lengthy and somewhat indulgent description of a first date, or her feast of tuna and hard boiled eggs while reading Yeats in her college dorm room reminded me so much of what Barthes means when he describes reading as the ultimate experience.

Just look at the comments on the New York Times post on her legacy: over twelve pages of people up in arms to defend her or drag her name through the mud. If anything, the sheer volume of discussion is enough to warrant the importance of her work.

I'm wondering, what are your blissful moments?
Which writers capture bliss for you?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Nick and the Candlestick

for Nicholas Hughes, 1962-2009
and Sylvia Plath.

I am a miner. The light burns blue.
Waxy stalactites
Drip and thicken, tears

The earthen womb

Exudes from its dead boredom.
Black bat airs

Wrap me, raggy shawls,
Cold homicides.
They weld to me like plums.

Old cave of calcium
Icicles, old echoer.
Even the newts are white,

Those holy Joes.
And the fish, the fish---
Christ! They are panes of ice,

A vice of knives,
A piranha
Religion, drinking

Its first communion out of my live toes.
The candle
Gulps and recovers its small altitude,

Its yellows hearten.
O love, how did you get here?
O embryo

Remembering, even in sleep,
Your crossed position.
The blood blooms clean

In you, ruby.
The pain
You wake to is not yours.

Love, love,
I have hung our cave with roses.
With soft rugs----

The last of Victoriana.
Let the stars
Plummet to their dark address,

Let the mercuric
Atoms that cripple drip
Into the terrible well,

You are the one
Solid the spaces lean on, envious.
You are the baby in the barn.

Friday, March 13, 2009

On Self-Respect

I wanted to write something about self-respect, but then I remembered Joan Didion's essay on the topic, collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. She's pretty much nailed it here, to the point where I can't think of anything better to say. Upon re-reading the essay on the subway this morning, I was pleasantly surprised to find I had completely forgotten the Jordan Baker reference (my favorite character in The Great Gatsby). Didion's had a tough life. Her wisdom is appreciated.

Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. Although now, some years later, I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor, I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. It was a matter of misplaced self-respect.

I had not been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. This failure could scarcely have been more predictable or less ambiguous (I simply did not have the grades), but I was unnerved by it; I had somehow thought myself a kind of academic Raskolnikov, curiously exempt from the cause-effect relationships which hampered others. Although even the humorless nineteen-year-old that I was must have recognized that the situation lacked real tragic stature, the day that I did to make Phi Beta kappa nonetheless marked the end of something, and innocence may well be the word for it. I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honor, and the love of a good man; lost a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and proved competence on the Stanford-Binet scale. To such doubtful amulets had my self-respect been pinned, and I faced myself that day with the nonplussed apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire and has no crucifix at hand.

Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself; no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through ones’ marked cards the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed. The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others – who we are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without.

To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that deals one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there’s the hurt on X’s face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, the Phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commissions and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice, or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.

To protest that some fairly improbably people, some people who could not possibly respect themselves, seem to sleep easily enough is to miss the point entirely, as surely as those people miss it who think that self-respect has necessarily to do with not having safety pins in one’s underwear. There is a common superstition that “self-respect” is a kind of charm against snakes, something that keeps those who have it locked in some unblighted Eden, out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general. It does not at all. It has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation. Although the careless, suicidal Julian English in Appointment in Samara and the careless, incurably dishonest Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby seem equally improbably candidates for self-respect, Jordan Baker had it, Julian English did not. With that genius for accommodation more often seen in women than men, Jordan took her own measure, made her own peace, avoided threats to that peace: “I hate careless people,” she told Nick Carraway. “It takes two to make an accident.”

Like Jordan Baker, people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties; nor do they complain unduly of the unfairness, the undeserved embarrassment, of being named co-respondent. In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of mortal nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues. The measure of its slipping prestige is that one tends to think of it only in connection with homely children and United States senators who have been defeated, preferably in the primary, for reelection. Nonetheless, character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs.

Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts. It seemed to the nineteenth century admirable, but not remarkable, that Chinese Gordon put on a clean white suit and held Khartoum against the Mahdi; it did not seem unjust that the way to free land in California involved death and difficulty and dirt. In a diary kept during the winter of 1846, an emigrating twelve-yaer-old named Narcissa Cornwall noted coolly: “Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke out about it.” Even lacking any clue as to what Mother said, one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the entire incident: the father reading, the Indians filing in, the mother choosing the words that would not alarm, the child duly recording the event and noting further that those particular Indians were not, “fortunately for us,” hostile. Indians were simply part of the donnee.

In one guise or another, Indians always are. Again, it is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.

That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth. It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my had in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult bin the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with ones head in a Food Fair bag. There is a similar case for all the small disciplines, unimportant in themselves; imagine maintaining any kind of swoon, commiserative or carnal, in a cold shower.

But those small disciplines are valuable only insofar as they represent larger ones. To say that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton is not to say that Napoleon might have been saved by a crash program in cricket; to give formal dinners in the rain forest would be pointless did not the candlelight flickering on the liana call forth deeper, stronger disciplines, values instilled long before. It is a kind of ritual, helping us to remember who and what we are. In order to remember it, one must have known it.

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out – since our self-image is untenable – their false notion of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. Of course I will play Francesca to your Paolo, Helen Keller to anyone’s Annie Sullivan; no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of divining and meting the next demand made upon us.

It is the phenomenon sometimes called “alienation from self.” In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands to much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Being Lost On Lost

I was probably born jaded, because, for as long as I can remember, I've resented any artistic endeavor that becomes wildly popular. My assumption is anything that could be consumed by the masses is most likely mediocre. I've never seen a single episode of Survivor, only one of American Idol, and until recently, I had never seen LOST. Granted, Lost did occur while I was in college, without a television, and when I did have access to one I was usually watching Special Victims Unit. But there's always TV on DVD. By the time I got around to feigning any interest in the show, four seasons in, it seemed like a lost cause. Pun intended.

But when I saw the pleading look in my boyfriend's eyes on the night of the season premiere about two months ago, I knew I'd have to bite the bullet and watch the show. And, miraculously, even though I had missed out on nearly four seasons of material, I found myself enjoying it! Mostly because it's totally ridiculous.

So, there were people.
Their plane crashed.
They got stuck on this island.
The island was bad, and lots of shit went down.
They (some of them) escaped.
People remaining on the island are like, time-traveling, constantly.
For some unknown reason, the escapees have to return.

Let's face it, the main reason I like the show is because of stuff like this:

Oh my God! It's a giant statue foot! But wait?! It only has four toes? What the heck? How creepy! What could it all mean?! This theory really got me going, honestly. Whoa! So it has to do with the fact that babies once thrived here and then their statue got destroyed and now no babies survive? Or . . . or is it Anubis, the gate-keeper of the underworld?

There's also a smoke monster. It reminds me of the oil monster in FernGully, which is really disturbing. I've only seen this guy once, but suffice it to say it was pretty scary.

Watching Lost without having any genuine idea of its narrative arc, makes for lots of listening to the show's fans try to explain something, like a character's back story. People really can't, or won't explain anything fully. In this way, the show functions as a cult, a club, that unless you've spent the time and energy watching all four seasons, you will never be fully inducted. I felt the same way with Harry Potter. Having scoffed at the books, I was surprised when I felt a bit sad when the seventh and final book came out. So I read all of them. It took about two weeks, and you know what? I loved the things. Reading Harry Potter, as it came to a close, felt like being a part of something huge. While reading the sixth book on a plane from Atlanta, the forty-ish man sitting next to me said, "Six, huh? Yeah, that one's a doozy!" It was incredible. And yes, I do get chills when I hear the theme song . . . Harry Potter 6, this summer!

Potter aside, I'm already falling down on the job with Lost. Hell, I haven't seen any of the episodes and I'm forgetting to watch the new ones, too. So who knows if I'll follow-through. Mega-season shows take a lot of stamina and dedication. But Lost has become another reproach against my snobbish ways. Maybe it's a popular show because it's good. If the writers can really tie everything up in a way that makes sense (Egypt! Hades! Mythology!) then hell, I guess I'll start from the beginning.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Two Lovers

The editors of More Intelligent Life have honored me once again by publishing a quick review of Two Lovers, which I . . . loved.

Read it here, then see it! Or vice versa.

Monday, March 02, 2009

One Woman Army

*please note this post contains major spoilers for The Descent, Kill Bill 2, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Yesterday, having barely survived a huge brunch and cold Sunday, we decided it would be fun to watch The Descent, a Scottish-made horror film that was released in 2005. I had heard from various sources that the film was indeed a film, and not just another horror flick, that it was "good," unbelievably. The basic premise: six female thrill-seeking friends go in search of a cave. What they find inside the cave, of course, is where the whole horror thing comes in.

What interests me about this film, aside from the impossible film editing and camerawork, is the exposition we're offered in the beginning of the picture. Sarah, Juno, and Beth are BFF, white-water rafting, as Sarah's husband and daughter stand watching. After the rafting, they climb out and there's a marked exchange between Sarah's husband and Juno. (i.e.: affair). On the way home, Sarah asks (and here be spoilers) her hubby if he's alright, because he "seems distant." As he turns to explain his behavior to her, they're struck by another car, and violently, both husband and child are killed.

Fast forward a year later. As Sarah and Juno are trapped inside the cave, battling evil and struggling to survive, the issues of the past rear their ugly heads. Is this a revenge story? Is Juno really evil? Was it an honest mistake? Should Sarah forgive and forget and should they work as a team to escape? What does this movie say about friendships between women? Can there really only be one woman standing in the end?

I couldn't help but think of Buffy and Faith as an earlier version of Sarah and Juno. Let's face it: Faith and Buffy are both the slayer, but there's only one real slayer. Buffy obviously takes precedence as she's the first. Each take a different path to destruction and they both end up (practically and literally) in the ground. Buffy and Sarah are the good girls: the blondes, and Juno and Faith the bad-ass brunettes. Hell, even the monsters the Scots come up against in the cave look eerily similar to the super vamps Buffy battles in her final season.

The weaponry is also similar: scythe-like. Here's Sarah in The Descent:

And here's Buffy with her King Arthur scythe.

And what's up with this whole underground, clawing out of the dark thing? Freudian analysis would say that it's a rebirth, a return to the womb, and that these women have escaped from being buried alive under extenuating circumstances: whether that be a husband's infidelity, a friend's betrayal, or, in Buffy's case, the end of the world. Here's a cheesy, but kind of awesome YouTube clip of Buffy's revivification and subsequent "clawing out of her own grave" bit.

And here's a still from The Descent.

And let's not forget Beatrice Kiddo's kick-ass buried alive scene from Kill Bill 2.

Ultimately, what these cultural candies seem to be telling us is that it's a dog-eat-dog world out there for us ladies. We can be the chosen one, your kid and your husband can die, hell, you can be a world-class assassin but at the end of the day, dammit, you just can't catch a break. Your boyfriend's a vampire, your husband's cheating on you with your best friend, and the father of your child shoots you in the head after you leave him so he can keep the baby.

But you know what? After all that, after all the blood, sweat, murder, and tears, there's still the undeniable satisfaction of revenge. And I think that's what makes these films and, in Buff's case, these enterprises so important for women. It doesn't always have to be about revenge, but if that's the fire under your engine to get the hell up out of the grave, well then: it works for me.