crossed with broken pines and maples
lumpy with the burial mounds of
uprooted hemlocks (hurricane
of ’38) out of their
rotting hearts generations rise
trying once more to become
just beyond them
tall enough to be called trees
in their youth like aspen a bouquet
of young beech is gathered
they still wear last summer’s leaves
the lightest brown almost translucent
how their stubbornness has decorated
the winter woods
on this narrow path ice tries
to keep the black undecaying oak leaves
in its crackling grip it’s become
too hard to walk at last a
sunny patch oh! i’m in water
to my ankles APRIL
1. Let’s start with this: This is for me, this is not for you.
2. The above statement is not a very inviting invitation to the audience, is it? Sorry. Look. I have the Writer’s Block. The blockage. The being-stuckness. Etc.
3. Writer’s block, for me anyway, is not the inability to write. It’s more like some kind of inertia, some kind of anxiety, some little whisper of doom, hopelessness about the futility of shaping feelings into ideas and ideas into words. (That last phrase is, I believe, a paraphrase of Robert Frost’s definition of poetry).
4. Anyway, sometimes it’s best just to write—and write with the intention to make the writing public, to publish it (even on a blog!)—to put something (the publishing, that is) at stake.
6. I’ve read or audited nearly a dozen books this year that I’ve failed to write about on this site. Ostensibly, at some point, writing about books was like, the mission of Biblioklept, which maybe that mission has been swallowed up by some other mission, some non-mission, some other goal or telos or whatever.
7. But you see there are some books I’ve read or audited that I really, really want to write about! (Sorry for this dithering but hey wait why am I apologizing I already said that this is for me this is not for you did I not?).
8. These books are:
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus
Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole
Concrete by Thomas Bernhard
Middle C by William H. Gass
Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald
Goings in Thirteen Sittings by Gordon Lish
Not quite half a dozen books of poetry by Tom Clark
The majority of Donald Barthelme.
9. (I am also reading half a dozen books right now, even though I made a vow years ago not to do that).
10. A common theme to some of the books listed in point 8: The difficulty of words to mean, the toxic power of language, the breakdown of communication.
I’d been wanting to pick up a collection of Grace Paley’s stories for awhile now. I wasn’t sure whether or not to pick up Enormous Changes at the Last Minute or The Little Disturbances of Man, so I just got both. The covers helped convince me, I’ll admit—I’m a sucker for Hopper, and John French Sloan is no slouch either. (I’m tempted here to launch into some vague critique of the covers that books by women get but nah).
I’ve already read most of Enormous Change, ingesting most of the tales while sitting in my car, waiting to pick my kids up after school, which seems like a perfect place to read it. Smart, odd, often sharp, scathing, precise, etc.—great stuff. I’ll try to do a full review but I’ve got a huge backlog. In the meantime, check out “Wants.”
A book, you would think, is not a pocket, a purse, or a wastebasket, but people dispose of their sniffle-filled Kleenex between unexposed pages, their toothpicks, too, dirty where they’ve gripped them while cleaning their teeth—such in-decency—matchbooks with things written on the underside of the flap, usually numbers, of telephones, I suppose; or they leave paper clips and big flat mother-of-pearl buttons—imagine—curls of hair and all sorts of receipts as well as other slips of paper they’ve used to mark the spot where they stopped; and they file correspondence between leaves as if a book were a slide drawer—do they do that to their own books?—or they tuck snapshots, postcards, unused stamps, into them, now and then a pressed bloom—they stain, I’ve seen leaf shadows—one- to five- to ten-dollar bills, you’d never guess, yes, rubber bands, a shoelace, candy and gum wrappers—even their chewed gum that I have to pry out with a putty knife—people—people—I dee-clare—and newspaper clippings, often the author’s reviews, that are among the worst intruders because in time they’ll sulfur the pages where they’ve been compressed the way people who fall asleep on the grass of a summer morning leave their prints for the use of sorcerers like me to make our magic.
–From William H. Gass’s novel Middle C.
I leave stuff in books all the time. In fact, I almost always leave something (a movie stub, a photo, a note, a picture my son or daughter drew, something) in each book I finished. (I even wrote about it a bit last year). So I guess Miss Moss, the old librarian in Gass’s Middle C, would be royally pissed with my habits. I read this passage a day or two after a visit to my favorite used bookstore, where, looking for books by Grace Paley, I came across an uncracked copy of Breece D’J. Pancake’s super sad super terrific collected stories. I own the book, but in a different edition (fox on the cover), so I grabbed it out. Lo and behold, a postcard!–and of a scene straight out of Pancake’s own semi-beloved West Virginia, no less! The note, a token of friendship, accompanied an inscription in the book itself—is there anything sadder than an inscribed book abandoned to a used bookstore?
I left the book, postcard in it, easily resisting the initial temptation to slide it into one of the Paley volumes. Destined for another reader.
I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.
Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.
He said, What? What life? No life of mine.
I said, O.K. I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them.
The librarian said $32 even and you’ve owed it for eighteen years. I didn’t deny anything. Because I don’t understand how time passes. I have had those books. I have often thought of them. The library is only two blocks away.
My ex-husband followed me to the Books Returned desk. He interrupted the librarian, who had more to tell. In many ways, he said, as I look back, I attribute the dissolution of our marriage to the fact that you never invited the Bertrams to dinner.
That’s possible, I said. But really, if you remember: first, my father was sick that Friday, then the children were born, then I had those Tuesday-night meetings, then the war began.Then we didn’t seem to know them any more. But you’re right. I should have had them to dinner.
I gave the librarian a check for $32. Immediately she trusted me, put my past behind her, wiped the record clean, which is just what most other municipal and/or state bureaucracies will not do.
I checked out the two Edith Wharton books I had just returned because I’d read them so long ago and they are more apropos now than ever. They were The House of Mirth and The Children, which is about how life in the United States in New York changed in twenty-seven years fifty years ago.
A nice thing I do remember is breakfast, my ex-husband said. I was surprised. All we ever had was coffee. Then I remembered there was a hole in the back of the kitchen closet which opened into the apartment next door. There, they always ate sugar-cured smoked bacon. It gave us a very grand feeling about breakfast, but we never got stuffed and sluggish.
That was when we were poor, I said.
When were we ever rich? he asked.
Oh, as time went on, as our responsibilities increased, we didn’t go in need. You took adequate financial care, I reminded him. The children went to camp four weeks a year and in decent ponchos with sleeping bags and boots, just like everyone else. They looked very nice. Our place was warm in winter, and we had nice red pillows and things.
I wanted a sailboat, he said. But you didn’t want anything.
Don’t be bitter, I said. It’s never too late.
No, he said with a great deal of bitterness. I may get a sailboat. As a matter of fact I have money down on an eighteen-foot two-rigger. I’m doing well this year and can look forward to better. But as for you, it’s too late. You’ll always want nothing.
He had had a habit throughout the twenty-seven years of making a narrow remark which, like a plumber’s snake, could work its way through the ear down the throat, half-way to my heart. He would then disappear, leaving me choking with equipment. What I mean is, I sat down on the library steps and he went away.
I looked through The House of Mirth, but lost interest. I felt extremely accused. Now, it’s true, I’m short of requests and absolute requirements. But I do want something.
I want, for instance, to be a different person. I want to be the woman who brings these two books back in two weeks. I want to be the effective citizen who changes the school system and addresses the Board of Estimate on the troubles of this dear urban center.
I had promised my children to end the war before they grew up.
I wanted to have been married forever to one person, my ex-husband or my present one. Either has enough character for a whole life, which as it turns out is really not such a long time. You couldn’t exhaust either man’s qualities or get under the rock of his reasons in one short life.
Just this morning I looked out the window to watch the street for a while and saw that the little sycamores the city had dreamily planted a couple of years before the kids were born had come that day to the prime of their lives.
Well! I decided to bring those two books back to the library. Which proves that when a person or an event comes along to jolt or appraise me I can take some appropriate action, although I am better known for my hospitable remarks.
by Grace Paley
Some boys are very tough. They’re afraid of nothing. They are the ones who climb a wall and take a bow at the top. Not only are they brave on the roof, but they make a lot of noise in the darkest part of the cellar where even the super hates to go. They also jiggle and hop on the platform between the locked doors of the subway cars.
Four boys are jiggling on the swaying platform. Their names are Alfred, Calvin, Samuel, and Tom. The men and women in the cars on either side watch them. They don’t like them to jiggle or jump but don’t want to interfere. Of course some of the men in the cars were once brave boys like these. One of them had ridden the tail of a speeding truck from New York to Rockaway Beach without getting off, without his sore fingers losing hold. Nothing happened to him then or later. He had made a compact with other boys who preferred to watch: starting at Eighth Avenue and Fifteenth Street, he would get to some specified place, maybe Twenty-third and the river, by hopping the tops of the moving trucks. This was hard to do when one truck turned a corner in the wrong direction and the nearest truck was a couple of feet too high. He made three or four starts before succeeding. He had gotten this idea from a film at school called The Romance of Logging. He had finished high school, married a good friend, was in a responsible job, and going to night school.
These two men and others looked at the four boys jumping and jiggling on the platform and thought. It must be fun to ride that way, especially now the weather is nice and we’re out of the tunnel and way high over the Bronx. Then they thought. These kids do seem to be acting sort of stupid. They are little. Then they thought of some of the brave things they had done when they were boys and jiggling didn’t seem so risky.
The ladies in the car became very angry when they looked at the four boys. Most of them brought their brows together and hoped the boys could see their extreme disapproval. One of the ladies wanted to get up and say, be careful you dumb kids, get off that platform or I’ll call a cop. But three of the boys were Negroes and the fourth was something else she couldn’t tell for sure. She was afraid they’d be fresh and laugh at her and embarrass her. She wasn’t afraid they’d hit her, but she was afraid of embarrassment. Another lady thought, their mothers never know where they are. It wasn’t true in this particular case. Their mothers all knew that they had gone to see the missile exhibit on Fourteenth Street.
Out on the platform, whenever the train accelerated, the boys would raise their hands and point them up to the sky to act like rockets going off, then they rat-tat-tatted the shatterproof glass pane like machine guns, although no machine guns had been exhibited.
For some reason known only to the motorman, the train began a sudden slowdown. The lady who was afraid of embarrassment saw the boys jerk forward and backward and grab the swinging guard chains. She had her own boy at home. She stood up with determination and went to the door. She slid it open and said, “You boys will be hurt. You’ll be killed. I’m going to call the conductor if you don’t just go into the next car and sit down and be quiet.”
Two of the boys said, “Yes’m,” and acted as though they were about to go. Two of them blinked their eyes a couple of times and pressed their lips together. The train resumed its speed. The door slid shut, parting the lady and the boys. She leaned against the side door because she had to get off at the next stop.
The boys opened their eyes wide at each other and laughed. The lady blushed. The boys looked at her and laughed harder. They began to pound each other’s back. Samuel laughed the hardest and pounded Alfred’s back until Alfred coughed and the tears came. Alfred held tight to the chain hook. Samuel pounded him even harder when he saw the tears. He said, “Why you bawling? You a baby, huh?” and laughed. One of the men whose boyhood had been more watchful than brave became angry. He stood up straight and looked at the boys for a couple of seconds. Then he walked in a citizenly way to the end of the car, where he pulled the emergency cord. Almost at once, with a terrible hiss, the pressure of air abandoned the brakes and the wheels were caught and held.
People standing in the most secure places fell forward, then backward. Samuel had let go of his hold on the chain so he could pound Tom as well as Alfred. All the passengers in the cars whipped back and forth, but he pitched only forward and fell head first to be crushed and killed between the cars.
The train had stopped hard, halfway into the station, and the conductor called at once for the trainmen who knew about this kind of death and how to take the body from the wheels and brakes. There was silence except for passengers from the other cars who asked, What happened! What happened! The ladies waited around wondering if he might be an only child. The men recalled other afternoons with very bad endings. The little boys stayed close to each other, leaning and touching shoulders and arms and legs.
When the policeman knocked at the door and told her about it, Samuel’s mother began to scream. She screamed all day and moaned all night, though the doctors tried to quiet her with pills.
Oh, oh, she hopelessly cried. She did not know how she could ever find another boy like that one. However, she was a young woman and she became pregnant. Then for a few months she was hopeful. The child born to her was a boy. They brought him to be seen and nursed. She smiled. But immediately she saw that this baby wasn’t Samuel. She and her husband together have had other children, but never again will a boy exactly like Samuel be known.