Thursday, November 29, 2007

My Beauty Has Gotten Me Many Places

I plucked Nancy Huston's Longings and Belongings from my bookshelf yesterday. I'm always interested in the ways books manage to call, to murmur, your very own need to you. It's been cold here, and the snow has finally come to stay - so maybe it was the cover of the book, the cold blue-gray street scene, and two figures walking in the falling snow that led me to it. Who knows? I reread one essay titled, "On Being Beautiful." Here are the first few lines: "I'm beautiful. I have never written about this before, so I thought I would try to write about it. It has lasted quite a long time, this beauty of mine, but it won't be lasting much longer because I'm forty now, as I'm writing this, forty now and probably by the time you read it forty-one, and so on and so forth, and we all know it ends up as worms or ashes, but for the moment I'm still beautiful. More or less." This is a fascinating and open essay. Huston notes at the end of the piece that it's one of her most widely translated. She also says that it sparked controversies in Spain and Italy. For me it was like a peek into another realm. It still seems radical when she talks about how she has been treated because of her beauty. "My beauty," she says, "has gotten me many places, some of which I very badly wanted to go to, and some of which I did not want to go to at all."

For whatever reasons, this essay reminded me of the moment I discovered I could be a poet. A small moment, perhaps. I was in university, a class on 20th century poetry. We were encouraged to roam around the Norton Anthology, choose a poet, and then do further study on that poet. There were a few poems by Diane Wakoski that piqued my interest, so I took out Emerald Ice from the library, which is where I came across the poem, "I have Had to Learn to Live With My Face." The poem itself is so beautifully evocative, and I fell in love with the images. With the line, "Learning to live with what you're born with / is the process, / the involvement, / the making of a life." This is really not unlike what Nancy Huston says in her essay. These are simply the cards we're dealt - beauty, ugliness, somewhere in between.

I wondered if anyone is still reading Diane Wakoski, and of course they are. The poem is available on a number of sites and blogs with comments etc. It's obviously still hitting a few raw nerves. How far has our thinking moved on the beautiful and the ugly? How long did it take for someone to come up with an ad campaign (Dove) that used the term 'pro-aging' instead of 'anti-aging' cream?

Here is a link to the poem, then, written in 1969 by Diane Wakoski. And now photos of Wakoski and Huston. Does it matter to see them?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Poem by Iman Mersal


One day I will pass in front of the house
that was mine for years
and try not to measure how far it is from my friends’ homes.

The plump widow whose cries for love woke me
is no longer my neighbor.

I will invent things so not to get confused.
Count my steps,
or bite my lower lip delighting in the slight pain,
or keep my fingers busy with tearing a whole packet
of paper tissues.

I will not try short cuts
to avoid the pain.
I will not stop myself from loitering
as I train my teeth to chew on hate
that leaps from within.
And to forgive
the cold hands that pushed me toward it,
I will remember
that I did not smudge the bathroom’s whiteness
with my own darkness.

No doubt, things elude me.
The wall itself did not enter my dreams.
I did not imagine a color of paint
to match the scene’s tragic lighting.

This house was my home for years.
It wasn’t a student hostel
where I would leave an evening gown
on a nail behind the door
or paste old pictures with temporary glue.
The romantic sentences
I extracted from Love in the Time of Cholera
must be jumbled up now
making an altogether comic text.

Translated by: Khaled Mattawa

Iman Mersal was born in 1966 in a small village in Egypt in the Delta. A graduate of Mansura University, she was co-editor from 1985 to 1988 of the independent feminist magazine, Bint al-Ard (Daughter of the Earth). Following her first book of poetry, a collection of measured verse, she switched to the avant-garde genre called qasidat al-nathr (prose poem), aligning herself with the "new generation" of poets who found the genre more suitable for describing the details of daily life. Her second book, A Dark Passageway is Suitable for Learning to Dance, was selected as the best book of poetry in 1995 by polls conducted by a number of Egyptian magazines and newspapers. She currently teaches Arabic language and literature at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. A collection of her poems is forthcoming from Sheepmeadow Press in 2008.

On a more personal note, I was fortunate to be part of a wonderful writing group of which Iman was also a member. Whenever she brought poems in translation to the group they took my breath quite away. She has agreed to do an interview with me for this space so look for that posting in the near future. In the meantime, I'd like to direct you to a couple of places online where you can read about her and also read her work: Words Without Borders has a decent selection of poems in translation, Arab World Books has an in-depth biography, and Poetry International Web has posted a series of diaries that poets kept during the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in 2003. Her thoughts on giving a poetry reading strike me as quite unique, and as in all the works I've read by Iman, there is a fearless streak that runs throughout.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Go Forward with Curiosity

I've been reading this one book in the car while I'm waiting for our daughter to come out of school everyday for the last many months. I just leave it on the front seat and it's there for me. I get to the school early, turn off the engine and pick up the book. It's probably one of the most useful things I've ever read, at least it would be if I could put it into practice, and I'm trying and will keep trying.

The book is
Pema Chodron's No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva. Chodron is resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. What she does in this text is work with The Way of the Bodhisattva by the eighth century sage, Shantideva. What blows the mind is that it is perfectly relevant today. In fact, I felt like my mind was being read in a certain way. There are all these things, people, that we come up against on a daily basis that can make us angry and Chodron shows us a way through via Shantideva. It's strangely comforting to know that the same problems, the same types of people all existed in the eighth century.

Okay, so I'm not a Buddhist, but this is a work that is for anyone. Practicing patience, compassion. How to cope with the troublemakers in our lives, the haughty and insolent creatures that cross our paths. These things are in No Time to Lose. Chodron also guides us to "just go forward with curiosity, wondering where this experiment will lead." What I most like about this book is that it's highly practical and readable. For me it really was a timely guide.

If you have a spare moment, it's also worthwhile reading the
conversation with Pema Chodron and Alice Walker. You have to go to her site, then click on the Q&A.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Hermenegilde Chiasson's Beatitudes

One of the many books that inspired me to attempt to write a book of essays about living with still life was Hermenegilde Chiasson's Available Light. It's a collection of short essays - meditations and memoirs about creativity, to crib from the jacket notes. An artist, a poet, a playwright and now the Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick, Chiasson is worth seeking out. His latest book of poetry, Beatitudes, is a glorious volume, full, compassionate, an extreme comfort. And yet somehow shocking. The observations, each beatitude, seem to be thoroughly felt. We grow too accustomed to hardening our hearts, passing by the everyday pain and sorrow and pleasure - in short the humanity - of those we encounter. It is good to see that someone is taking them in, in these small moments.

A few short excerpts:

"those who raise their heads in astonishment at the raucous cry of birds,
those who await the end of twilight,
those who ceaselessly leaf through catalogues and order nothing from life,"

"those who hear the still, small, intimate sounds of things, whose glory stems from spreading the word, who are coming to terms with reality, who are born under the right star, who walk lightly along the edge of emptiness, who radiate an awe-inspiring confidence,"

"those who give away their books,
those who pay for the wine, just to be polite,
those who leave enormous tips,
those who give up the limelight and take their seats in the shadows,"

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

...that Loveliness was Complete

This phrase appears at the foot of the first page of the manuscript of Jane Austen's last and unfinished novel, Sanditon - that Loveliness was complete. It is the conclusion of chapter three's final sentence. I've been thinking a fair bit about Sanditon and even went so far as to buy my own copy of the B.C. Southam facsimile copy put out in 1975. The original is "in the possession of King's College, Cambridge." Austen died at the age of 41, and here I am at 41. I had vague ideas of putting together a book of poems that would be outflowings from Sanditon. I collected lines from the novel that I thought were amusing or poetic or both, but haven't gotten around to doing much more with them. Here are some:

- that Loveliness was complete.
- cocoa and buttered toast
- bracing sea air
- while Charlotte having received possession of her apartment, found amusement enough in standing at her ample Venetian window
- to the Sea, dancing and sparkling in Sunshine and Freshness
- with due exceptions – Woman, feels for Woman very promptly and compassionately
- and such a nice Garden – such an excellent garden
- of whatever Heroine might be most beautiful and bewitching
- the deep fathoms of its Abysses, its quick vicissitudes, its direful Deceptions
- Delicious! Delicious!
- more melting, more fraught with the deep Sublime
- this glorious sentiment
- the mere Trash of the common circulating library
- Tender, Elegant, Descriptive – but Tame
- the prosaic Decencies of Life
- happy, happy Wind
- to prefer the quietest sort of ruin
- we are sent into this World to be as extensively useful as possible
- to turn the conversation on dry Toast
- a good deal of Earthy Dross
- all that had the appearance of Incongruity
- and stepping to the pales
- in spite of the mist

In his introduction to the facsimile, Chapman says, "Sanditon is the most precious, poignant, and tantalising of all Jane Austen's literary remains." And it is beautiful - the sepia ink, the handwriting itself, the cross-outs, additions, changes, the bits that show through.

Had Austen lived, certainly she would have finished this manuscript. But there are all sorts of reasons works are abandoned. Some are an approach, a necessary approach to another work. Helene Cixous cherishes what she calls, the "tornados in the atelier." The errors. The rawness. She says, "To think there are those who seek the finished. Those who seek to portray cleanly, the most properly!"

There is a painting Rob (my husband) did years ago that hangs in our bedroom. We get to keep the occasional painting that hasn't sold anywhere and I'm always glad for the cast-offs. Part of the reason I'm particularly fond of this painting, which is of a heap of red velvet, is that it has a secret. The painting itself is finished, but the velvet is in fact an unfinished bridesmaid dress. Often people give us interesting and often beautiful items that they think might some day end up in one of Rob's still lifes, and this was one such donation. I don't remember the entire story, but suffice to say a winter wedding was cancelled, the sewing called off, the dress unfinished. Maybe the wedding took place in the summer instead, I don't know. But when I look at the painting I'm always seeking out those secret folds in the landscape of the abandoned red velvet dress.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Taking up Space

I'd been reading Susan Gubar's book, Rooms of our Own, very slowly for some months, when I came across Lemon Hound, the blog of Sina Queyras. I've been so impressed by her entries, and then reading excerpts from the book of the same name, that I ordered myself a copy. (Her others, Teeth Marks, and Slip, are now on my Christmas list). There are so many things to say about Lemon Hound - the poetry literally sparks! Playful, intelligent, sensual and utterly Awake, these poems interact/engage with Virginia Woolf and the world in ways that I found sublimely refreshing. I've never been a huge fan of the prose poem until now, but then I don't think I've ever seen it used so skillfully.

It's worth following the thread on Lemon Hound, the blog, concerning sexism in poetry. As someone whose book was once reviewed in relation to the Charlie's Angels movie, I'm happy to see this being taken up. There's this unwritten rule that you're not supposed to respond to reviews of your work. I don't entirely agree but haven't figured out how to do this without further empowering the type of reviewer who likens you to one of Charlie's Angels. I think Lemon Hound has it right when she says, "For my part: I don't argue anymore, I just take up space." So, here I am.

Back to the Susan Gubar book. This is a necessary book, from one of the women who brought us the equally necessary, The Madwoman in the Attic. As you might guess from the title, Gubar is reconfiguring Woolf's A Room of One's Own. What she does is experimental and effective. That she sustains this contemporized Woolfian voice throughout is a feat, but the questions she asks, What advances have women made and what still needs to be done? seem courageous in this present climate. She revisits the idea of the Angel in the House, saying "If the Angel in the House no longer cautioned today's woman writer to be kind and modest and pure, hadn't other invisible censors arisen, tampering with integrity, resulting in deflections or evasions of a different sort?"

I could pull out a lot of great lines from Lemon Hound to end this entry, but there's a quotation in the book at the head of the section "On the Scent" by Lisa Robertson that I quite like. She says, "It is too late to be simple."

Monday, November 5, 2007

Fantasy of the Poet

Even though I'm writing from a land-locked position, this doesn't stop me from fantasizing about stuffing a poem or two in a bottle and throwing it into a large body of water. In Rootprints, Helene Cixous talks about "the famous metaphor of the bottle on the ocean, which Celan uses, which Mandelstam uses." She goes on: "It is really the fantasy of the poet who confides his written heart to a vessel, but the most lost vessel in the world, to the smallest chance." Well, it's true, this is my fantasy too. It takes insane amounts of courage to write poetry, yes? As a form of gathering courage toward writing, I often begin to scribble, draw, mess about. One of the scribbles uses this line from Cixous as a take-off point:

In an essay by Fanny Howe from her book The Wedding Dress, she also refers to Paul Celan. Apparently he wrote of the poem as a message sent out in a bottle ("certainly in the not-always hopeful belief that somewhere sometime it will be washed onto land, into heartland perhaps") after reading a poem by the Russian poet Boratynksky:

My talent is small and I am not famous
But I live - and there is someone
To whom my existence is dear.
The distant one, he who comes after me
Will find in my verse my soul.
Who can tell? My soul might connect with him
And just as I found a friend in my generation
So will I find a reader in the future.

I still feel elated every time I reach that second line - But I live. I like what Celan says too - that the belief is not always hopeful, and yet, still, there is belief.