Thinking About John Thorndike

I first heard of writer John Thorndike years ago in Santa Fe. A friend of mine at the public library called and said–I just read a great novel by a guy who lives here…It was THE POTATO BARON, which indeed I did love.
I just read Thorndike’s memoir about moving to Cape Cod to live with his father who is dying of Alzheimer’s. I admit I like books about extremis–death on Everest, survival–and books abut disease. So this would have intrigued me in any case.
But really the pleasure in THE LAST OF HIS MIND is the writing and sensibility. The author is both honest and kind. The strange peace and claustrophobia of taking care of someone who is dying is a lot like being home all day with an infant, and Thorndike captures that. He loves his father, but hopes he won’t die before the writer is finished with his subject, not just the son with his father.
Too many such books tend to lament–how could such a brilliant person, oh what a terrible disease. By contrast, Thorndike seems more to observe. It isn’t exactly acceptance but rather the writer’s narrow path between wanting things to be one way and seeing how they really are.
John Thorndike has written another book about caretaking, an earlier one about raising his son Janir—ANOTHER WAY HOME. This book is a kind of companion to that one. Full of insight, secrets, wishes, fears, and an understanding of what it means to be a person–and superb writing.
***
TheLastofHisMind.com

Roadtrips to the Moon: Valley of Fires

My cousin Teresa Neptune, the photographer, and I are still working on our collaborative project–Roadtrips to the Moon. Wednesday night found us “camping” in her charming shipshape van at the edge of the lava flow at Valley of Fires. The stars came out, so did gnats, we walked and ate dinner in the chairs and table that swiveled so cleverly out of the walls. And talked about where we were–a 5000 year old lava flow of pahoehoe that no doubt local inhabitants saw when it began to burn. The black vent in the earth that birthed it. Trinity Site, so close as the crow flies. Hiroshima, not that far away.
We also spent dusk in Carrizozo, which turned out to have a charming and eccentric arts street, resplendent with a parade of painted burros (reminiscent of Santa Fe’s trail of painted ponies) and even more appealing–wild funky sculptures made of recycled metal parts–a mouse, a big bug.
The next day we had coffee at the local cafe, trying to wait out the rain. Teresa asked if I would know where I was if I suddenly dropped out of the sky, and I wouldn’t…might it be Berkeley, or Las Cruces, or…Then on to the petroglyphs at 3 Rivers, where a fighter jet split the sky, lightning forked, and my intrepid photographer scrambled over rocks, capturing images intensifying or vanishing in the changing light and intermittent rain. Poetry being a less athletic art, I sat at a picnic table, watching the great mountain behind us and the workings of my mind.
I was haunted by the feeling that I was leaving something out of the poems…I added in Robert Oppenheimer in a hat, sotol, a planet, sleep, and that fabulous Polynesian word for slow moving lava. I’ll have to re-read to see what I have.

Poem by Mark O’Donnell

CALENDAR

The fruit surrenders to the ground.
The wind must spread old news around.
The living shrink into their trees
to genuflect to earth’s disease.

The snow that falls conceals the fruit.
Its reticence is absolute.
What summer ruins or improves
the snow’s amnesia removes.

The globe tilts sheepish in its path
around the sun’s potential wrath,
so snow concedes to hungry things
again. The trees call back their wings.

The earth maintains its lexicon.
The orchards avenues go on —
the boundless code bound in the cell,
the sea heard rushing in the shell.

There is no end of ending days.
Love never dies, love never stays.
New hillsides feel the old surprise.
Love never stays, love never dies.

***

This poem first appeared in EPIPHANY, Jeff Gustavson’s quarterly.

MARK O’DONNELL’S poetry has appeared in Epiphany, Canto, Ploughshares, The New Republic, Harvard Magazine, The Gay and Lesbian Review, and other journals. Knopf has published four books of his fiction, and he won a Tony as co-author of the musical HAIRSPRAY.

Interview with Carol Moldaw

1. What is you personal/aesthetic relationship to the poetic line? That is, how do you understand it, use it, etc.

The line is an essential element in my understanding and reading of poetry, as well as my writing of it. A line should have its own integrity, not necessarily a syntactical completeness, but its own momentum, balance or drive, one that often counterbalances or adds complexity to the syntactical drive. I usually work and rework the first few lines of a poem to get a sense of the poem’s rhythmic design before I’m able to move on. As far as I’m concerned, lines can be long or short, and of course they can vary within a poem, but they must feel alive and vibrant, not slack—they are the poem’s chi, the energy courses through them.

2. Do you find a relationship between words and writing and the human body? Or between your writing and your body?

I do have a sensory and sensual relationship to words on their sonic level, and often think of them as having certain textures, as if they are cloth and feeling them on my tongue is tantamount to feeling them between my fingers. I’m not that conscious of my body when I’m writing, except perhaps that I shift and squirm in my chair when I sit too long. I like to write and then take a shower or a walk and then write some more, I find that both water and walking loosen words and thoughts in me; walking is one of the ways I find out what’s on my poetic mind. When I’m in the midst of a poem, driving also often provokes it to move along, and sometimes I pull over to write down lines. I think there is a direct relationship between our pulse, our heartbeat and our stride and the meter or rhythms of poetry.

3. Is there anything you dislike about being a poet?

I do sometimes dislike the sitting, as I tend toward restlessness. I’m also still uncomfortable and don’t know how to respond to the way people not involved in writing or reading react to the news that I write poetry—“That’s SO wonderful”–as if I’m an archaic artifact that floated up. In general, I don’t think about “being a poet” so much as I think of myself as a person who writes poetry and is a bit obsessed by it. I like the obsession and discovery that come with writing, but dislike literary politics and most theorizing.

Additional questions:

I was intrigued by your process in putting together your New and Selected Poems, So Late, So Soon, just out from Etruscan Press. Can you say something about how you assembled the book? Did you have to leave out anything you liked? How did you work the balance between new and old? Any advice for a poet embarking on this kind of selection?

Putting together So Late, So Soon was the perfect way for me to feel my way back to writing poems after working on my novel, The Widening. I had a Lannan writer’s residency at Marfa, and would spend the first part of the day working on new poems and going through old notebooks and then in the afternoon and evening read through my previous books. It was a wonderful immersion. At first I divided the poems, by book, into ‘yes/no/maybe/probably not’ columns, but I allowed them to shift around as I read and re-read. I was aware of creating a balance among, as well as within, books, and did have to leave out poems I liked, particularly from The Lightning Field, which is still in print. I also, for instance, left out the long ballad, “Reb Shmerl and the Waterspirit,” from my first book, Taken from the River, even though I like it, because it’s anomalous and just dominated the selection too much. One hopes that new readers will look up the single volumes if they like the work. Phil Brady, my publisher, and I decided together that we didn’t want the book to be a compendium, but wanted it to really shine. I have to say that it made me feel good about my work when I weeded out the poems that to my mind hadn’t held up as well over the years. Working on the book also provided an opportunity to revise a few poems that I thought worked over all but had glitches that bothered me. That was very satisfying. Advice? Go into it with an open judicious mind, neither overly critical nor overly attached, take your time, and make it into the best book possible.

BIO:

Carol Moldaw is the author of five books of poetry, including most recently So Late, So Soon and The Lightning Field, and a novel, The Widening. She won the FIELD Poetry Prize and a Pushcart Poetry Prize in 2002, and an NEA fellowship in poetry in 1994. She will be the Louis D. Rubin., Jr. Writer-in-Residence at Hollins University in the spring of 2011.
***
Selected poem:
Canning in Chimayo

“Feed me fuck me feed me fuck me feed me”–
knife a whirligig, each trochee slashed off,

translucent venous beet wheels heaped
like raked-in poker chips, her disquisition

on canning upended by the nightly crapshoot
she can’t in her viscera shake, only vitiate

at the chopping block. Eyes pop. Widen.
Not one of us can slice that fast. Someone

passes a jay. Someone pours more wine.
Cheeks streaked, wrists ribboned, thumbs

pressed to temples, she aprons her head.
Then the beets are vinegared, the whole mess

sealed in mason jars; the Italian plums
eviscerated, mounded with sugar, put to boil;

the corn cobs flayed, pearl onion and red
pepper strips stirred into the kernels, all

four of us at the counter, mulling it over:
feed me, fuck me, pressure cooker, preserves.

Re-Blogging Jersey Roadside

I just really enjoyed this–thought you might too–even if you aren’t from Jersey…for all the links and visuals and the rest of the article go to NorthJersey.com

Road Warrior: What IS that? North Jersey’s roadside oddities.
Friday, July 23, 2010
Last updated: Friday July 23, 2010, 7:37 AM

By JOHN CICHOWSKI
ROAD WARRIOR COLUMNIST
If you drive Route 3 in East Rutherford, you can’t miss the giant orange and blue protrusion that pokes up at the sky like a psychedelic ski slope to nowhere.

“What IS that?” you ask.

The same question arises in Oradell where green and white lawn chairs are rearranged almost daily in some sort of ritual on a big Kinderkamack Road lawn. Thirty miles west, Route 46 motorists pass under a white erector set that occupies nearly as much space as a highway overpass. On Route 287, somebody parked a yellow Packard atop a Boonton factory.

Roadside oddities like these can’t compete with the Grand Canyon, but they pose thorny questions for road warriors trying to navigate North Jersey thoroughfares: Why are black-and-white cows lounging on a lawn along busy Spring Valley Road in Paramus? Why do bunnies sit atop utility poles on Route 23 in Kinnelon and West Milford? Is that a fortress on the Parsippany mountain overlooking Route 10?

Here are some sights you can search for with your kids:

Xanadu ski slope. Yes, the 800-foot-long protrusion really is a ski slope – and it goes nowhere. Snow Park is part of the stalled, 2-million-square-foot Xanadu entertainment-retail project near the Meadowlands stadium. Like the ski slope to nowhere, Xanadu’s outlandish promise exceeded its garish reach — $2 billion and counting. One politician summed it up this way: “Something my 4-year-old granddaughter might build with Legos.”

Mystery lawn chairs. Drivers along Kinderkamack Road in Oradell seem mesmerized by the lawn-chair “show” unfolding on the sprawling lawn near the Blauvelt Wildlife Art Museum. “Sometimes they’re in a circle, sometimes in a line, sometimes in random groupings,” noted Paramus reader Betty Ralph. “What’s it mean?” Some think the owner, architect Jeffrey Wells, is channeling the movie “Signs,” in which extraterrestrials seem to create strange crop circles. “No, it’s just Jeff’s way of having fun,” chuckled his father, Ray. The Wells family lives in an adjacent mansion that could use more laughs. The building is in foreclosure and attempts to convert it for public use are continuing.

Denville’s white monster. A $4.3 million pedestrian bridge now allows walkers to proceed diagonally for 170 feet over Route 46 from a Burger King to a strip of lawn on Savage Road near a park. To reach this span, you must climb up and down two sets of stairs. If you use a bike or wheelchair, the distance is much greater because you must power yourself up and down long, zigzag ramps at each end. Some think the state Department of Transportation should have stretched this erector set an additional 80 feet over Savage Road so it reaches the park. Others call it an eyesore that resembles a fallen crane instead of the Denville symbol it now is. They should stop grumbling.

Paramus livestock. Actually, the cows on Carol Coache’s lawn are life-size replicas that cost $1,400 — just three examples of the self-proclaimed Cow Lady’s obsession. Tens of thousands of cow-inspired collectibles adorn her home’s interior. “I just like to make people smile,” she said. At least two passers-by pose for pictures there each day, a practice she encourages. So, bring a camera and a smile to 310 Spring Valley Road.

If you see strange-looking bunnies, cows or ski slopes, e-mail The Road Warrior, but first check with your eye doctor or shrink.

Road Warrior rolls by here Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. E-mail cichowski@northjersey.com.

Mountainair Poetry Picnic

Here are the dates for this year’s Poets & Writers Picnic and the Sunflower Poetry Writing Workshop. Hope to see you in Mountainair! Apologies that some of you are receiving duplicates of this. Please feel free to forward.
The 13th annual Poets & Writers Picnic takes place Saturday, August 28th, noon to 5 pm at the historic Shaffer Hotel in Mountainair, New Mexico, outdoors in the Shaffer’s tree-shaded gazebo garden behind Pop Shaffer’s famous folk art wall, with featured readers, an open mic, and live music. This is a free event sponsored by the Manzano Mountain Arts council during the town of Mountainair’s Sunflower Festival. The Shaffer Hotel is located 2 blocks south of the intersection of Routes 55 & 60. Bring a picnic lunch or enjoy local dining.
Emceed by Kenneth Gurney & Dale Harris

Featured Readers are Tani Arness, Gary Brower, Greg Candela, Wayne Crawford, Donald Levering, Mitch Rayes, Sirena Rayes, Miriam Sagan, Charles Usmar, and New Mexico championship ABQ Unidos Youth Poetry Slam Team members Reed Adair, Khalid Binsunni, Miguel Figueroa & Olivia Gatwood

Music by Greg Candela; The Blue Rose Ramblers: Jessica Billey & Bud Poston; The New Mexico Celtic Singers: Jenn Brooks, Michele Buchanan, Carol Conoboy, Nancy Costea, Dale Harris, Erika Kretzmann, Mary McDaniel, Gwen Montgomery, Scott Sharot, & Kathy Wimmer

SUNFLOWER POETRY WRITING WORKSHOP runs concurrently with the Poets & Writers Picnic, Aug. 26-28 at the Shaffer Hotel, workshop leaders Dale Harris, Greg Candela, Miriam Sagan Sessions: Thursday evening Aug. 26; Friday all day Aug. 27; Saturday morning Aug. 28 with optional wrap session following the Picnic.

Fee: $125. covers writing sessions only. Ask about reduced rate for partial attendance.

To register, contact Dale at 505 242-4930 or poetdale@yahoo.com

Make your own room reservations at the Shaffer Hotel. Special rate for participants. Call 505 847-2888 or toll free 888 595-2888. Hotel info: http://www.shafferhotel.com

Thinking about The Land/An Art Site

The Familiar Made Strange 
 
  The Land/An Art Site is forty acres of land, pinon and juniper, in Mountainair, New Mexico. It looks much like that which surrounds it for thousands of acres. In its general aspects, it is like parts of New Mexico I’ve spent decades living in. However, when I started working with it it became a unique and numinous environment. It is a kind of artistic incubator. And for me it became magically apart from the ordinary. 
  I wrote to The Land with a loose proposal–I wanted to write a poetic map of the place. The response was unequivocal–I was welcome to a residency, but it was I as an artist who was being accepted, not my specific proposal. I was told The Land itself had a way of transforming vision. 
  “What are you doing?” my husband Rich wanted to know. I was worrying, lying on the living room couch and staring into space. “I’m installing a poem I haven’t written on a site I’ve never seen.” I said. I was so worried I went to a Sam Peckinpaw movie that was showing at SITE Santa Fe before lunch. I ran into educator Juliette Myers there. I told her I was worried the land was blank. “Nothing is blank, darling,” she counseled me. 
  Rich and I went down in the heat of an August day and met Tom and Edite. A chain gate opened, a rutted road led to the site. A few things were permanent–Steve Peters’ little benches carved with text that recorded sounds over the twenty four hours of a day. Most installations were low-impact or no-impact. A beautifully shaped arroyo curved away. A train whistled. I was hooked. On our way home we stopped in Albuquerque to go shoe shopping. I couldn’t function in the strip mall. I was totally overwhelmed. All those signs and letters seemed like messages–marks on the landscape. I went into a little diner and ordered french toast and bacon, and coffee. I was trying to ground myself. But my point of view had changed. 
  I went to Mountainair that autumn and stayed in the Shaffer Hotel. The Shaffer became part of my experience. A historic hotel, its ceiling was painted wildly by a former owner. A devil’s head smirked from a mosaic wall. It was purported to be haunted. I wrote in a small dark room, on a little desk. For two nights, I was the only guest, making forays out to The Land, which looked increasingly luminous. In fact, I soon became awed by it. At first I found I couldn’t even drive the whole way in. I’d leave the Toyota inappropriately on the rutted road and walk in, as if on a pilgrimage. The first time this happened it was very early morning and everything–fence posts, grass–was covered in shimmering spider webs and dew. By noon it was all gone, like a whimsy or hallucination. To calm myself I’d simply sit down on the earth, the land itself. 
  I saw The Land under snow that winter with my friend. She took some photographs that helped focus the images in my mind. I began to write my poem. I used a quote from the patron saint of the project, New Jersey artists Robert Smithson, who said “earth’s surface and the figments of the mind have a way of disintegrating.” It was both an explanation and a handy excuse for my confusion as I moved into the unknown. The Land seemed just as mysterious with my friend as it had when I was alone. We heard pinging and musical sounds without a source, like the melodies that haunt the island in “The Tempest.” The air itself seemed charged to alter our perceptions. 
  Rich and I went back in the spring to watch the sun go down and the stars come out on a moonless night. My sense of topography of the place had begun to include the sky above. It was like sitting in a grand opera house and watching a succession of “stars” come out. Despite the darkness and my sense of mystery, The Land felt if not exactly welcoming at least very open to any poem I would create on it. Perhaps I experienced an archaic quality there–a place neither benign nor threatening, but something ancient that predated human wishes. 
  When the poetic map was written, something changed. The challenge had always been to get the words into the landscape in some temporary manner. I began to see those words fluttering in the breeze, disintegrating like a line of Tibetan prayer flags. But how? I’ve always had a love of laundry lines–and laundry itself. My backyard housed an old line, and a heap of decrepit wooden pins. How about a laundry line on The Land? 
  My friend Dan Stubbs, a woodworker, built me a ranch style laundry line. I needed to weather some pins. I bought some and put them out in a little basket to deteriorate. “I brought your clothespins in,” Rich said, in a big rainstorm. Back out they went. The text, though, presented a problem. It obviously could not be the whole poem. I started fooling around, taking one line from each section, and adding one more to represent the Shaffer Hotel. 
  But when I recited the selection at the opening of The Land’s gallery in Albuquerque it fell flat. “Hang on,” I told the audience. “I think this is in the wrong order.” So I read it backwards, half-terrified to be working spontaneously in public, and luckily it sounded right: 
 
nothing is secret 
 
haunted corridors, a ghost in every mirror, 
 
braille of the book of salt 
 
the spirit boat, the chain linked fence 
 
stars come out in nightsky, cryptobiotic 
 
did this create 
 
tiny scenes of the narrative, 
 
this is where I began building a scale model of solitude 
 
  This then became the text to install. I had it printed–vinyl letters on a tablecloth. Allegra Print cautioned me that eventually the letters would fall off, but that felt just right. I added a gauze dress and the slip of my wedding dress to balance the look of the laundry line. And left the basket of clothespins beneath it. 
  I hear that pack rats stole them.