On Themes

My dad calls and says, “What’s the ‘theme’ of your book.” 

“Well, it’s not a story or a narrative, so there might not be one. Are you looking for one theme Dad?”

“Yes. I was hoping there’d be one. I’d like to talk about it with Don at coffee tomorrow, and I think it would help to have a theme.” A pause while I worry about what it means to be “read” and wonder what kind of reading my father is performing, is chatting about over coffee with his friends. “Maybe it’s a progression? A progression of your life?” He’s pretty confident about this assertion. “Is that what it is?” 

I don’t want to break the belief. My father is comfortable thinking in terms of stories. A lot of people want that little ditty, a poetry of storytelling. I get that. I have to be honest thought, “It’s not exactly about me. It’s not exactly a story or a movement in a specific direction.”

Pause.

“Dad, did you read the book already? All of it?”

“Yes. I read it as soon as it came in the mail.” 

“Well, maybe it will take one or two readings.” 

Pause.

“I’d like to know what themes to look for. Can you tell me a theme?”

Sometimes I do want to fit nicely into a blurb or synopsis. I am trying to be clear, but here and there are questions and the fog rolls in thick. The fog rolls in around 5pm and stays heavy until it’s too dark to see. In the morning, the windows are hazy and the baby rubs his eyes even though the doctor told me not to let him do that. It’s hard to see clearly and harder to put anything down clearly. 

I’m usually in this hard place where I can’t make the car humidifiers work and I squint a bunch, cross my fingers and legs, hope that there’s not a tree in front of the car or a dog running up behind it. Is this what Keats meant?

I deal with a lot of hazy days and nights.

The book deals with the white page, the way I want to say something, the materiality of words coming together, and the way the tapestry starts to unravel.

“Nothing to paint and nothing to paint with,” as Beckett says of Bram van Velde. 

“Maybe it’s about restoration Dad. I’m trying to restore a feeling and the most simple way to say that feeling so that it feels the same as a feeling you might have had; a feeling you might have felt. I think I get there at the end. I think I might say the same thing for 100 or so pages and then, finally, I say the very thing I’d been meaning to say. Or, at least, I say it somewhere in the book in a way where many readers might remember that feeling it’s trying to pin down.” 

“That’s not a very interesting theme.” 

 

 

 

 

 

Vivian Maier and telling the baby why I write

Vivian Maier’s work, first, pulls at how much I miss Chicago. More than that nostalgia, which is admittedly very heavy, Maier’s work reminds me about the reasons I make and the value of participating in art-making.

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Over lunch I tell H that I’m not sure why I write poetry.

Sometimes—and those times are increasing since leaving a poetic community, since finding myself in the process of making without many other “makers”—I feel silly about it. I meet other people who say, “I keep a notebook too” or “I used to write poetry in high school.” These aren’t the same things, but they aren’t lesser or not-the-same-exactly either. Screw the high and low distinction. The difference is only in intention: I am not writing it to be private or to “make sense” of my own experiences. In the back of my throat I worry that this is a silly little hobby, that my parents might not be proud, and—in the back of my knees or somewhere else that stuns me—I think about the way it makes me always look at things a bit slower, more careful, and never with an easy smile. (Negative capability?)

Avery has an easy smile. He sees H’s coffee cup, which she lets him hold, and smiles. He sees the sun hit the gourd and leave a white mark, and he smiles. He sees a bird fly into the grocery store, and he smiles. He already knows how to live a poem; I only know how to write one.

I’ve been trying to explain, to Avery, why his mother writes. I want to give him good reasons so that he knows why, when I leave and go off to work or write, I am committed to something else.

Maier’s photographs help. The work makes me think about the way we get to and let things take shape. The work helps me explain the poem as an apparatus, as a kind of machine, that enables me to participate.

At this moment, where a new book of my own comes into the world and I struggle to remember that this isn’t something to blush about, to feel “small” about, and to get red-in-the-face about, Maier’s work matters. She makes me think that the small, inner, and sensory experiences are very full of material. Communicating our material and relating to each other, to our lived world, is what I want Avery to think (hopefully know) I am trying to do.

“Me Time”

An author and scholar friend tells me he wrote his first “big” novel during nap times as a stay-at-home father. I’m floored. 

Nap times are a brain fuzz of list making, list tackling, and less than writerly thoughts. I can’t imagine composing during a nap or feeling enabled to seep myself into the process. 

I told another academic and writerly friend about the nap-time-author and she said, “That’s because he wasn’t the mother.” It was a short, quickly delivered response. The tone was clear and biting. I noticed that she didn’t say, “That’s because he’s the father,” but she specified the negation of what he “wasn’t,” as if that specification needed to be drawn out. It is, more specifically, “the” mother—as a kind of label or role that all mothers would follow. 

I asked her about her process during early/beginning/learning the ropes mommy-hood and she explains, “Nothing teaches you better time management.” She explained that prioritizing improved, knowing what time actually meant became clearer, and nothing was “wasted” time. 

I agree. I am fast. I am so fast these days that I cannot keep up with myself, and nobody else can either. My mind chatters a list and I have everything prepared and at the ready. I can do dishes in seconds. I can clean a whole house in minutes. I can get my ideas out and try to tell you what yours is before you’ve even had time to register. I am too fast. I am not always listening because minutes and days are moving under my feet. 

The speed of it all makes me feel akin to Bob Brown’s reading machines or some other Surrealist’s/Dadaist’s depiction of a face replaced by automatic and mechanical parts. 

This dual conversation with the two writers/scholars happened around the time the doctor tries to lure me into the idea of EASY (eat, activity, sleep, you time). This still makes me laugh. The idealization of packing parenting into an acronym, already ridiculous, but to the specific word “easy.” C’mon. 

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I haven’t found anything easy and I haven’t found “you” time. I have, however, thought pretty endlessly about the gender discrepancies tied to parenting. Have we, in our most progressive communities, still let the roles “mother” and “father” remain different? Are we attending to that difference? What does it mean that my mother-identifying colleague critiques my father-identifying acquaintance with so much difference regarding labor and expectations? 

Another friend and mentor from high school reminds me about Betty Friedan, the efforts to fit many labels and the myth of domestic bliss. I return to Friedan: 

Gradually, without seeing it clearly for quite a while, I came to realize that something is very wrong with the way American women are trying to live their lives today, I sensed it first as a question mark in my own life, as a wife and mother of three small children, half-guiltily, and therefore half-heartedly, almost in spite of myself, using my abilities and education in work that took me away from home.

But the stay-at-home-father didn’t have to go “away from home”—unless away from is not literal here. At home, I am pulled to make things orderly and clean, I am pulled to play with the baby even when he is content with himself. Would the role of father feel that same pull? The pull is not a joy from folding the laundry, but a sense of obligation or, as Friedan identifies, guilt. 

I do have to, quite literally, go away. I have to leave the house. To research, to write, to prepare for teaching, I have to be away. And I can’t help but wonder about this connection to the house and “mother,” the one who has to literally leave to assume her other roles, and the house and “father.”

I wonder nothing clear. The baby naps and my glass of water feels more important than the piles of research I’d like to attend to. 

 

Working Notes: Soft Line Breaks

I end the line.

Choosing to start somewhere else on the page or to mark the occasion with a visual, the decision asks the line above to bend down and look at the line below. I’m asking the page to show how much everything wants to be connected, but we need space to let the reader connect the dots.

Is this space this kind? Is the space an open field for the reader to grass stain her knees?

The baby traces the width of his high chair tray with a piece of cereal. He stops, drops the cereal on the ground. “Uh oh.” Things have to fall, be dropped, to remind us that intentions are well and good, but actions echo, have consequences. Nobody sees my good intention to wash the windows, sweep the porch, but everyone sees the unintended car dent.

In the poem, the lines end

because there is a shadow of logic, of

breathing.

The words are catching up with the thought and the decisions have to shine, to show how far the work is trying to push into and against language.

Sometimes I worry I’ll swallow my tongue. I’ll swallow my tongue and choke. When I get anxious, I curl my tongue and stick it out. I shape my tongue into a seashell and look in the mirror. If my tongue is still there, if it hasn’t slipped back into the recesses of my throat, I’m okay. I tell this to Theresa, who is a therapist, and she asks about my father.

Can I keep a vigil for the tongue? For the way it might fall? I am worried words will fall without decisions, that I’ll say the wrong thing. I say the wrong thing to Jeremy and my husband shakes his head. Jeremy keeps a straight face, but I’ll remember the head shake and not the straight face.

Can I keep a lantern on or over words? Can I shine a light with a line break to help my reader hear what I am hearing? The line breaks make a new order; make room for my tongue to spread out and not feel crowded by the teeth, the barriers, the way I can’t pronounce the word “bagel” without a heavy a.

I’m making room

for the way tenses and pronouns can’t stabilize. It wasn’t a linear day: the baby woke up and fell back asleep, we had eggs for dinner. Nothing matches. The knock on the door happened when I was in the middle of a thought, but the record player kept playing. I can’t remember the thought, but I remember the feeling of quiet.

The song ended and the guest at the door stayed for another cup of coffee.

I can’t remember her name, maybe it’s Susan, but she never liked the way I mismatched. “Your pronouns don’t make sense to me. I can’t read this.” I felt that in my stomach.

It’s an assertion to give shape, to stop the line. Sometimes I am timid. Sometimes I rely on a comma more than I should. Yes, there should be more periods, but the other mothers think I’m too sudden and jarring. I resist the indent, prefer the

thought: not all words line

or fit in a  box. Like “wait, wait, I need more time,”

was hoping to paint the clock copper, but the sun downed a big gulp and we all rested at the beach today. The porch might never be swept.

This is about anxiety, about being nervous to say things the way they might naturally be said. I mumble and the other mothers say they can’t understand me. I shorten my name to make it easier to say. I give directions to the house and it’s a road map of what I see instead of a list of street names: at the big tree, turn to the yellow house and the wood fence on the corner—the one that Jim put up because his daughter was epileptic—is about three feet away from the house with the hound dog that keeps me up at night, but that’s not really near the corner where I live with a swing tied to a tree and a gopher eating the lawn. The map dims.

Before I write on the page, I stick my tongue out.

Kat Dixon’s Here/Other (is awesome!)

I’m having a good mail week:

  1. tax refund
  2. Kat Dixon’s new book Here/Other

It’s orange blossom season, which means Santa Cruz smells like ripe citrus and, in a few weeks, it will smell like jasmine and eucalyptus, we won’t be able to drive to the beach anymore, and we will all picnic in our side yards. It’s the kind of season to wander through a narrative that corresponds with the way we want, wait, and continue to want.

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Here/Other is a book where something happens in a new way. This is why I like Dixon: there’s the academic conversation about form/genre, the poetic conversation about hybridity and praxis, the reading conversation about plot and character, and then there’s a sense (this is the important part) that the work happens among us. Dixon is writing about us: the language is approachable, the narrative is compelling, and the dialogue is honest.

I will never speak to you I will never speak to you I will / never speak to you I will never speak to you I will never / speak to you again.

It takes the characters the same “thinking space” it takes us to come to conclusions, to make decisions, and to be active:

[…] He had every intention / of locking doors.

Like us, her characters have so many needs, so many rabbit feet, so many missing gloves. There is a lot of Dickinson-esque nothings and nobodies, a lot of “hush hush there is still / so much to be said,” and mouths that open, but we seem to always end up “Here again” or falling.

This isn’t as quiet as it sounds. Instead, it reminds me of Baudelaire asking about how we experience, how we are unable to talk about our experiences because someone/thing (often, our own language) speaks them for us. There’s a lot at work here with issues of power: who says what and how what is said can be said. Her sensitivity to acts of translation, language, and power reminds me of Paris Spleen: representing is strange, is about admitting to strangeness, and will reveal the way we are always reshaped.

Or, as Dixon says, “rearrganing.”

Pre-order, the bundle edition

Pre-order, the bundle edition

Now that the sun is out longer, you might wonder if life can get any better. Sure it can! Click the book cover and get directed to a happier moment.

Here’s how: You can pre-order With Lorraine and pick up The Memory of Planets, poems by Ryan W. Bradley at the same time.

What Baby Eats

Diptic

We did our first food during the holidays, so the family could “witness” eating. Strange to think watching somebody eat is an event worth documenting, watching, and even researching.

I did too much research. I settled on avocado as the first food and added sea salt for the magnesium content. He ate it, but the kids eats paper too you know?

I am in a privileged position in this way: I have the time + energy to make baby food. In another privilege: I am able to afford healthy foods to cook him + I have tools to research best foods and health of food content. I don’t take those privileges lightly, and I recognize them as luxuries. They are luxuries that weren’t afforded to my mother who fed us egg and goat’s milk yogurt because that’s what the doctor said to do and you did whatever the doctor said was best. The goal was to be like everyone else and to do “what worked” instead of to develop an understanding of food. I have to wonder, is it totally naive to think I am developing any understanding, of anything?

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At eight months, Avery eats a limited diet. He’s not “into” food. Apples, carrots, avocados, sweet potatoes, plums, bone broth, oatmeal, and a few other tidbits of “tried” food. We’ve tried eggs twice and I’ve given him little bits of things he’s watched me eat like humus, carrot bread, and even a bit of mustard. I let him suck on carrots and broccoli stalks. He really likes water. He loves bone broth. He hates sweet potato.

I’ve been wanting to read French Kids Eat Everything to see recipes and suggestions, and I’ve been wanting to learn more about baby led weaning. I’m into the ideas, which are conflicting, that the baby should not be ultimately responsible for what he eats/likes/accepts and that the baby has some notion about what foods he’s ready for and eager to try. I’m a bit nervous about reading another book about how rockin’ French kids are after reading Bringing Up Bebe when I was pregnant and feeling downright bad about the image on the cover (let alone some of the content): a slim, fashionable mother who looks as relaxed as her baby. She’s even carrying a regular sized purse—not a diaper baby—she has remembered and somehow found time to do her hair and to bring a toy for her baby. It’s a mommy standard I can’t live up to and, to be frank, I don’t want to (but that’s for another post).

I’m researching a lot less and resorting to a bit of self trust: I will know if something is “good” or “bad” based on my own knowledge (not necessarily intuition, but actual knowledge) and Avery’s response. I get a bit of anxiety when people ask me about food and eating because it seems like they want to compare notes, make sure they are doing it right, and I bet I’m not the best person to compare with for “rightness.” I just don’t know. I think he’s probably too little to care. As long as he’s not eating loads of fructose, I think we’re good.

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My point is, I started out incorrectly: I can’t build his relationship to food yet. Avery’s not going to understand wild caught salmon versus farm raised salmon. He doesn’t know about dyes, crop rotation problems, soy patents, and much else. Sure, I tell him about it and I think introducing him to foods that follow my ethics matter because they taste better, will encourage him to later learn about why I hold those ethics, but he’s a little guy. He wants to put his hand in pureed carrots and lick his fingers.

That’s cool too.

 

Tokinish

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Twenty years since James Thomas Stevens wrote Tokinsh. Eleven years since I read the long poem. The effect: I switched majors, stopped taking literature classes that didn’t slow down to listen to texts, and learned how to read a poem.

Tokinish might the first poem I read. I wonder about it as a contribution to how we “make” sense with words: Stevens uses language, translation, and questions about directions and transgressions to re-see language. This is essential for what I expect poetry to do—to keep language alive, to teach us how to survive with language. Even, to ethically regard the contours of words, our use and misuse of them.

Is there a bridge to that part of you, besides the one I call my own? If in
definition, a bridge connects two isolated points, then we must decide when
I reach to you, which body is isolated. Or is isolation a mutual thing. If in
its isolation, there is no recognition of its being “alone,” no desire to
become part to another, who rightfully calls it “island”?

How badly I wanted to be a bridge, to make a bridge, to poem a bridge. How much I want to learn how words can get us closer to each other.

I hate to narrow down the poem, the work of the poem, but I want to also give a sense of how much this poem contains about contact, relationships, culture, colonialism, sexuality, wanting and taking. I remember sitting in Stevens’ classroom, hearing him reflect about calling someone “mine,” our small acts of daily colonialism. Stevens asked us, as he asks his readers, to see how language acts, how intention can slip in and out.

The borders we cross. The borders we make. The way words draw lines in the sand, touch other meanings and associations. It’s a mess. It’s a real moment when you realize you’ve used words to put up boundaries: The memories of saying “no, this is mine” and “that’s not yours” as a kid, how the adult versions of that are less direct and equally terrifying. This is important for a sophomore, which I was at that point: to become aware of something so strange and to feel tangled. To become aware and sensitive to words, meaning, arrangement, intention, connotation, reception, and all the other consequences of “saying.”

I read the title incorrectly for two years: To kin-ish. I thought it was about kinships, the difficulty of belonging. I read it like that because that’s how I needed the text. Like a good writer, Stevens composed a text that opened up in several ways and has let me enter it differently at each reading. The book lets me find what I need.

Now, eleven years later, I read the book differently. I come with a new need and it offers me a new gift: I need to understand that things and feelings without names or clarity still exist. As a mother, I have a sense of strangeness. I find myself at the park trying to explain the feeling of being pinned down, thinning, fading and – at the same time – radiating and growing. The moms look at Avery as if he isn’t loved. It isn’t that, it’s a missing word for being my most complete-incomplete version of myself. I turn to Tokinish:

A bow exists for the English as the shape of the bow itself.

The Narragansett know the bow as Onu–ttug. A halfe Moone in war.

Yes, many ways to say something and many meanings. Many meanings without words at all.

on staying

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After some uncertain weeks, we’ve decided to stay near the Pacific and keep trying. We hung art on the walls to make things feel more permanent, more real. Our kitchen table has new candles; everything is a genuine attempt to try and stay where we are. The soil is changing and there are purple flowers budding on the tree next to our house.

Quite suddenly, there is right now.

Right now is away from delay; right now is briefly soon and very rarely later.

Right now is nothing flat: your round eyes looking straightaway, the cat presently hunting an unseen mole, and, quicker than we can bundle ourselves, the fog coming promptly over the grass and setting the ducks asunder.

Utterly, this is now.

Absolutely, this is an affectionate approximation about how fully full right now is.

See, it is a short and wobbly thing to talk about right now because now is a thing unhinged. Now is an unbroken thing where you hold my hand and I loosen my tongue to tell you all about before and after, all about the time that’s come and the time that’s coming. This has everything to do with you, but it lovingly has to do with everything else too. It has to do with things that are millimeters near you and miles away from you; with things seen and unseen, known and unknown. It has to do with the soft recognition that there is much before you, much around you, and much after you. There is much more than you—much more than now—even though you and now are warm and wondrous.

Scout + SLO. AKA: Our first family road trip

Avery’s been to the east coast twice now. He’s been on planes, trains, and in many (too many?) car rides. But our trip to SLO two weekends ago marks the first and furthest road trip.

Scout + SLO. AKA: Our first family road trip

Needless to say, we did it up. We got a hotel room with a big ‘ol king bed, brought a million toys, and stayed out late. It was a huge success and gives me hope that we’ll be able to enjoy driving down to LA soon or up the coast for some oysters.

Babies love Scout Coffee Co. If you want to read more about Scout and my first impressions, check out the article I wrote for Sprudge.com about the opening.

Scout Babies