November Reading Update

It’s been a long time since I last posted. I started grad school, which hasn’t allowed much time for independent reading or for writing. I am trying to find a balance because reading is really important to me.

I am taking a breather to post some quick reviews of some things I’ve read since my last post.

Remarkably, given how little reading I’ve been able to do over the last two months, I’m just two books behind in achieving my goal of reading 50 books this year. I might still pull out meeting this goal.

The last book I reviewed was Blind Spot in August. Since then, I’ve read four more books.

Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage is an interesting exploration of the effects of incarceration. Roy and Celestial are newlyweds when they travel to his hometown to visit his parents. They make the fateful decision to stay in a hotel for some additional privacy. Roy helps a fellow hotel guest with the ice machine, and later, she accuses him of raping her. Celestial knows Roy can’t have done it because he was with her at the time, but he is sentenced to twelve years in prison. Jones explores the effects of Roy’s imprisonment to both Celestial and Roy as well as their marriage and the broader repercussions of mass incarceration in the African-American community.

Rating: ★★★★½

 

My husband and I listened to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology as read by Gaiman himself. I always recommend Neil Gaiman’s audio books because he is an excellent reader.

Gaiman draws inspiration for this collection from a variety of sources in Norse mythology. His stories retain the humor of the myths, but they feel re-invigorated in his hands. This collection is a must-read for anyone who enjoys mythology, or Neil Gaiman, or good stories in general.

Loki, in particular, is a nuanced, complex, and interesting character. Tom Hiddleston would be proud.

Rating: ★★★★★

 

I read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle for the RIP Challenge (more on that later in the post). This novel is the story of Mary Catherine “Merricat” Blackwood and her sister Constance, the town recluses who live in a large empty house with their Uncle Julian, who is compiling his memoirs about the poisoning murders of the rest of the Blackwood family some years earlier.

Eh. I finished it. It was okay; not great, not horrible. I understand a lot of people find the character Merricat Blackwood interesting. I guess I am not among their number. I guessed what was supposed to be a big surprise ending pretty early on; I’m not bragging because I’m usually terrible at guessing the surprise ending in thrillers. I also didn’t like The Haunting of Hill House, which a lot of people love. I think I’m just not into Shirley Jackson. I do love “The Lottery.”

Rating: ★★★☆☆

 

José Olivarez’s poetry collection Citizen Illegal was a hit with my students. I bought it on the recommendation of some teacher friends on Twitter. The collection explores Latinx identities, including the tension of being a first-generation American of Mexican parents who came to America as undocumented immigrants. He explores issues of language, culture, race, gender, class, and immigration with a fresh, engaging voice. Many of the poems stand out, particularly the series called “Mexican Heaven.” The opening poem “(Citizen) (Illegal)” might be my favorite.

I participated in a Twitter chat about the book with some of the teacher friends who recommended the book, and the poet himself chimed in. I love reading living poets!

Rating: ★★★★☆

 

I didn’t make it through the RIP Challenge. RIP the RIP Challenge, I guess! Grad school interrupted my flow. I still have time to complete the other challenges that run until the end of December, but some of them are not looking likely at the moment.

I’m going to try to carve out more time to read and reflect on my reading here. I can tell a difference when I don’t sit down and write about a book right after finishing it. I had to look up the names of the characters in An American Marriage because I had read it so long ago. Unsatisfactory!

Review: A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century, Jerome Charyn

I believe I first saw Jerome Charyn’s book A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century at the Emily Dickinson House and Museum in Amherst. I put it on my wishlist, thinking I would get it some time, and my husband bought it for me for my birthday.

Jerome Charyn recently gave a lecture at the Frost Library at Amherst College, which I attended and wrote about on this blog. I wanted to start reading the book right after the talk, but I believe I was in the middle of The Club Dumas, which took me forever to finish (because I didn’t like it and should have given up on it). I wanted to finish The Club Dumas before reading A Loaded Gun. After a while, I sort of used A Loaded Gun as a carrot to encourage myself to finish The Club Dumas.

A Loaded Gun is not a straight biography of Emily Dickinson. If you are looking for a chronological narrative of Dickinson’s life, this biography will likely not satisfy you. However, if you are interested in looking at Emily Dickinson with fresh eyes, casting away the stories you heard about her reclusive nature and her white dress, then this book is definitely the book for you. A Loaded Gun is really more the story of Dickinson’s genius. She is compared to and contrasted with other artists that we have struggled to understand—memorably, Joseph Cornell, who made shadow box art. This is his piece based on the work of Emily Dickinson, entitled Toward the Blue Peninsula:

Toward the Blue Peninsula
Toward the Blue Peninsula © Joseph Cornell, used according to Fair Use guidelines

The piece is inspired by the following poem (Fr. 535, Dickinson’s exact language and punctuation):

It might be lonelier

Without the Loneliness—

I’m so accustomed to my Fate—

Perhaps the Other—Peace—

 

Would interrupt the Dark—

And crowd the little Room—

Too scant—by Cubits—to contain

The Sacrament—of Him—

 

I am not used to Hope—

It might intrude opon—

It’s sweet parade—blaspheme the place

Ordained to Suffering—

 

It might be easier

To fail—with Land in Sight—

Than gain—my Blue Peninsula—

To perish—of Delight—

Charyn spends the bulk of one of his chapters discussing Cornell’s art and connecting it to Dickinson’s. Ultimately, however, Charyn finds Dickinson elusive. As he says in his introduction, “I know less and less the more I learned about her” (8). I snapped a photo of the following page, with discussion of one of the most “well-known” facets of Dickinson’s life:

One thing that is clear to me after reading this book is that we may never really know Emily Dickinson at all. Who was this genius who played with language in a way no other American poet has matched?

If you haven’t seen the way Emily Dickinson thought about variant word choices, you should definitely take a look at some of her poems. The Dickinson museum has one such poem posted as a display, and visitors can try out Dickinson’s different word choice ideas by moving levers (they don’t allow photography, so I can’t share a picture of it, but it’s really interesting). Dickinson marked her variant word choices with a + and wrote the variations in the margins and on the bottom of the page. Because Dickinson didn’t publish her work, it’s hard to say which variations she would ultimately have preferred, and in some ways, I absolutely love the freedom I have as a reader, if I see Dickinson’s original work, to construct my own favorite version of her poems. Ultimately, her editors have had to make the decisions that Dickinson did not make, and I’m not always sure I agree with their choices.

As he did in his lecture, Charyn discussed the possibly new daguerreotype discovered by “Sam Carlo” in a Great Barrington, MA junk shop. I had a chance to talk a little bit with Sam Carlo at Charyn’s talk, and he also let me take a picture of his replica of the daguerreotype. Charyn, like Sam Carlo, believes the other woman in the daguerreotype was Kate Scott, and Charyn advances the theory that Dickinson was in love with Scott, and also that she was in love with her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson (this theory is not new—Charyn said at his lecture that if you read Dickinson’s letters to her sister-in-law, there really isn’t another way to interpret them except as love letters; I plan to read them and see what I think). Was Emily Dickinson a lesbian? Bisexual? Charyn argues that partly, our picture of Emily Dickinson has been the virginal spinster in white who never left the house, and the image of her in the known daguerreotype supports this vision of Dickinson. She remains forever fifteen in our imaginations rather than the grown woman who wrote fierce poetry.

I enjoyed Charyn’s book very much. One aspect I particularly liked is that he didn’t remove himself from the subject matter. He is a part of the story he is telling as well. He describes visiting Vincent van Gogh’s room in Auvers-sur-Oise outside Paris.

And for the price of a few euros, collected by a ticket taker at a little kiosk in the rear yard, I climbed upstairs and visited van Gogh’s room. It was barren, with a tiny skylight and a cane-back chair; the walls were full of crust, the floor was made of barren boards, and I couldn’t stop crying. I imagined him alone in that room, his mind whirling with colors, his psychic space as primitive and forlorn as a lunatic’s world… he was always alone. (211)

Charyn doesn’t explicitly connect Dickinson’s room to van Gogh’s. Perhaps he wants the reader to make that connection if he/she so chooses. I don’t know if I will ever forget ascending the stairs the first time I visited Emily Dickinson’s house and seeing the sunlight illuminating the replica of Emily’s white dress on a dressmaker’s dummy. The docent told us a story about Dickinson pretending to lock her door and telling her niece, “Matty, here’s freedom.” What freedom did Dickinson find in that small room?

Even her poetry on the subject is elusive:

Sweet hours have perished here,

This is a timid room—

Within its precincts hopes have played

Now fallow in the tomb. (Fr. 1785)

R. W. Franklin’s edition of her poems differs from Thomas H. Johnson’s edition:

Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a mighty room;
Within its precincts hopes have played,—
Now shadows in the tomb. (1767)

Which was it? If I had my way, it would go like this:

Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a mighty room;
Within its precincts hopes have played,—
Now fallow in the tomb.

I suppose part of the beauty of Emily Dickinson in the 21st century is that now we know more about what she actually wrote, including all her variant word choices. All the layers of changes made by editors over the years have been stripped bare. We can look at Dickinson’s original manuscripts and examine her poems in Franklin’s Variorum Edition. As a result, the poet we thought we knew and understood is more elusive than before. Still, she remains as intriguing a subject of study as she ever was—perhaps even more than she was when we assumed she was a waifish, homebound spinster in white.

Rating: ★★★★★

Who Was Emily Dickinson?

It’s not a secret I love Emily Dickinson. My blog’s title is taken from my favorite of her poems. I have visited her house twice and paid my respects at her grave twice in the last year and some change. Last Friday, I had an opportunity to hear a talk by writer Jerome Charyn at Amherst College. The title of his talk was “Did Emily Dickinson Really Exist?” Of course, Charyn chose the title to provoke. He has written two books about Emily Dickinson—one fiction and the other nonfiction.

Steve bought me A Loaded Gun for my birthday, and I bought myself The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson after hearing his talk.

The center of his discussion concerned a new daguerreotype believed to feature Emily Dickinson and her friend Kate Scott Turner Anthon. I believe the daguerreotype is copyrighted, so I won’t reproduce it here, but you can see it on Amherst College’s website. After hearing Charyn speak about the photo and also learning more about its provenance from the person who found it, I am fairly convinced it is Emily Dickinson on the left in the photograph. Of course, it’s true that many people would say the opposite, and the only way we’ll get to the bottom of it, finally, is if the FBI is willing to look into it with their special equipment. I have a feeling they don’t spend a lot of their time verifying suspected photographs of 19th century poets, though.

The photograph’s owner let me take a picture of the copy of the daguerreotype that he brought with him. It is in a frame case that is nearly identical to the original and is the same size as the original. It’s not the best picture, so in order to see the photograph properly, please do check it out at the link I mentioned previously.

photo-oct-14-8-19-29-pm

As you can see, it’s about wallet-sized and would have been a personal photo—something carried in the pocket or placed in a drawer. It’s an intimate photo. Kate Scott Turner, pictured on the right, was wearing widow’s mourning. Emily’s dress was probably blue, green, or gray (I learned a lot about how we can determine colors from daguerreotypes). I didn’t know that because daguerreotypes were printed on silver, they do not pixelate. If you zoom into a photo on paper, eventually you get dots. Not so with silver. The photograph’s owner said that we really haven’t duplicated the quality of a daguerreotype with our modern technology. Of course, I thought that was fascinating.

I learned that the known daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson was taken when she was a teenager, right after an illness, so she is a bit thinner than she otherwise would have been. The known daguerreotype has not been handled with care and has been damaged over the years. It was also made with older technology than this newer daguerreotype, and what happened was the edges of the daguerreotypes made with this older technology tended to warp the edges. The “new” daguerreotype’s owner pointed out that Emily’s thumb looks like a lobster claw.

627px-black-white_photograph_of_emily_dickinson2

Well, it does look weird now someone has pointed it out to me. He said that there was something wrong with the way her nose looks—large on one side and thinner on the other. He said this was likely due to the same issues with the older technology. He said that Dickinson’s family didn’t think this photograph was a good likeness. However, I think if you examine the eyes, they do look like the eyes of the woman on the left in the new daguerreotype. She had astigmatism, so there is a flatness to the eye on the viewer’s left that is similar in both photos. The mouth looks the same to me as well, as does the hair. I’m not a photographer, and I know very little about the history of photography, so I learned a lot I didn’t know.

Aside from these interesting particulars, the daguerreotype’s owner said a trunk of fabric swatches for a quilt was found in the Emily Dickinson house, and he thinks one of the swatches looks like the dress Emily is wearing in the new daguerreotype. Interestingly, and even more tantalizingly, when Thomas Wentworth Higginson asked Emily Dickinson for a photograph, she responded, “Could you believe me—without? I had no portrait, now. . . .”

I have to agree, as an English teacher and a writer, that the comma Emily Dickinson uses after “portrait” is purposeful. She seems to be saying she used to have a photograph, but that she gave it away or doesn’t have it anymore for some other reason. The owner of the new daguerreotype believes that Emily gave the portrait to Samuel Bowles, a friend of both Emily’s and Kate’s. The daguerreotype’s present owner, who is a daguerreotype collector, bought the daguerreotype in a junk shop and was able to trace the provenance to Bowles.

A lot of circumstantial evidence, yes, but it convinced me. I was intrigued by Jerome Charyn’s description of Dickinson as a “sexual predator.” I think that’s going a bit far, but the subject of his talk was her poem “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun,” which Charyn claims is near impossible to explicate. However, he thinks that this poem, which he sees as written from the viewpoint of a gun, indicates that Emily herself is the loaded gun. Kate looks distinctly unhappy. Perhaps she was coerced to pose for this portrait and didn’t want to. Dickinson, however, projects confidence, looking boldly into the camera and putting her arm somewhat aggressively around Kate.

Emily famously wrote letters to her sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson. Charyn claimed in his talk that there is no way to read those letters except as love letters. Of course, I immediately ordered a copy of them so I could see for myself. He spoke so eloquently of how delightful her letters were that I felt I should read them myself.

Dickinson’s sexuality has been the subject of some speculation for a long time. I don’t know enough about it to make a judgment, hence my desire to read her letters and poems and see what I can learn. I can’t wait to dive into Charyn’s books and Emily’s letters and learn more about her.

The evening certainly gave me a lot to think about, and it didn’t do much to shrink my ever-growing to-read list. Charyn claims the more he learns about Dickinson, the less he knows. I was more intrigued by Emily Dickinson than ever after this talk. I loved the drive up to Amherst. The fall colors are gorgeous right now, and it was a beautiful night. It had been a long time since I did something that was geeky fun by myself.

What do you think? Is this Emily Dickinson in this daguerreotype? Anyone want to “book club” Charyn’s books with me?

Review: The Crossover, Kwame Alexander

Our middle school’s summer reading selection this year was Kwame Alexander’s verse novel The Crossover. It’s a book that has been on my radar since an English teacher’s conference I attended last November, but I hadn’t set aside time to read it until this weekend. It’s a very fast read, and I think the students will have enjoyed it. I know I did.

The novel is told from the perspective of middle-school basketball phenom Josh Bell, nicknamed Filthy McNasty by his father, a legendary former basketball player named Chuck Bell. Josh has an equally impressive basketball-playing twin named Jordan, and the two boys attend school where their mother is principal. Things get complicated for Josh when his brother starts dating a girl and his father’s health problems take a serious turn.

When one of my students read this book last year as an independent read, he said it was the best book he had ever read. I’m not going to go that far, but I understand why he said it. This student is not a big reader, and he plays hockey. Finally, he must have thought, here is a book about a boy like me, who loves the game with everything he’s got. I think it also opened up his notion of what poetry could be and do. I always say Kobe Bryant did us English teachers a solid by retiring with a poem. I think what happens too often is that our kids don’t see themselves in the books we select for them, and the boys who passed this book around my classroom last year saw themselves in this book. They also don’t see poetry as something that can be cool or that can speak to them. That’s something to thank Kwame Alexander for.

Some of the poems seem to mimic basketball on the page.

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Other poems are constructed in interesting ways. I am a big fan of poems in two voices. One of my students wrote an excellent one for a multigenre writing project she did on Robin Williams. In one voice, she wrote a monologue he had delivered as part of a comedy routine. In the other voice, she wrote what Williams was thinking as he spoke. When she presented to the class, she asked me to read Williams’s interior monologue while she read the comedy routine. It was an amazing poem, and I think we all felt its power, particularly when read aloud in two voices. Alexander includes a similar kind of poem in this book. It can be read three ways: 1) as one poem, going back and forth; 2) as a second poem on the left, reading vertically; 3) as a third poem on the right, reading vertically. It works each way.

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I can see why this book received so much praise from teachers and librarians as well as winning the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award. Highly recommended to anyone who likes basketball, who likes to dip into children’s books on occasion, or who loves poetry.

Rating: ★★★★★

Review: Citizen, Claudia Rankine

If you haven’t yet read Claudia Rankine’s multigenre blend of prose, poetry, art, and protest lyric Citizen: An American Lyric, do yourself a favor and pick it up. Particularly, perhaps especially, if you are white. Because you don’t understand, and even though reading a book is not the same as living the experience, it will open your eyes. Some of what you will read in this book you think you know, but the bone-deep weariness of living in America and being black permeates every single page of this beautifully written book.

Rankine writes about topics from the #blacklivesmatter movement to Hurricane Katrina to Venus and Serena Williams to Trayvon Martin to microaggressions. I think my favorite part was perhaps the extended section on Serena Williams. Many years ago, I used to follow tennis, but I haven’t really done so for about 25 years. So, I didn’t realize what Serena Williams had been through in her career, and it was educational to be sure. I also found section VI on Katrina, Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, the Jena Six, and New York’s stop and frisk policy especially powerful. Each was described as a script of a situation video.

Rankine experiments with boundaries. At times, it’s hard to classify what, exactly the form is—poetry? essay? The resulting book resembles an assignment I have given my students in the past: the multigenre research project. In this assignment, students research a topic, but rather than write a research paper to show what they learned, they write poems, stories, and essays (any genre you can think of, just about) and use photographs and art to tell the story of what they have learned. They are immensely creative, incredibly interesting and inventive, and highly expressive. Citizen could probably best be classified as a multigenre book on the black experience in America. It includes criticism, prose, poetry, art, and photography. In fact, the chilling omission of a key detail on p. 91 somehow rendered the photograph (which is a famous photograph of a lynching) even more stunning and frightening, and I’m not sure how, but you really have to see it. Even the cover is a fascinating work of art. At first glance, I thought it was a black mask, but I realized it is actually a hood like you might find on a hoodie sweatshirt.

I read Citizen in one gulp, and I probably should have slowed down to take it in because it deserves a thoughtful reading, but I couldn’t put it down. It’s one of those books I think I will be pressing into the hands of just about everyone I know. Powerful. Wow.

Rating: ★★★★★

Sunday Post #32: Visiting Emily

Emily Dickinson's House

This weekend, I presented at a digital storytelling conference in Northampton/Amherst. My family came with me, and we visited Emily Dickinson’s home (now a museum) and grave. Now, given the title of my blog, you might guess I’m a fan. I am not sure what it is about her poetry—the jarring dashes and slant rhyme, the ballad meter (on most), or the strong images. I like the way she thinks, and I find I agree with her about a lot of larger issues in life.

We took a 45-minute tour of her house. You can also take a 90-minute tour that includes a tour of her brother Austin’s house next door. The tour began in a parlor, and the docent discussed some of the portraits hanging in the room and told us about Emily’s family. Next, we went into the library. Some of the books from the library are now housed in other locations, but some remain. The docent told a great story about Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s visit to Dickinson. It seems she wore the poor man out with conversation. He also shared the anecdote about Higginson’s reaction when Emily sent him her poetry—he described it as “spasmodic” and “uncontrolled.” Her famous reply: “You think my gait ‘spasmodic’—I am in danger—Sir—You think me ‘uncontrolled’—I have no Tribunal.”

The next stop is on the second floor. Sunlight shines through a window facing the front of the house, illuminating a replica of Emily Dickinson’s white dress. I nearly cried when I saw it. She must have been about the same height as me. A little more slender, though. About 20 years ago, I could have fit into her dress. The museum doesn’t allow pictures, but I sure wanted to break the rules to get a picture of that dress. You can find other pictures of it online, however.

Finally, we saw Emily’s bedroom. She has pictures of George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning on the wall, and according to our docent, Emily’s niece Mattie attested to the fact that Emily did hang picture of those two writers on her wall (whether they are the exact same ones, I don’t know). Her actual sleigh bed is still in the room. A replica of her little writing table sits in the corner. The room has recently been restored with wallpaper reconstructed from the actual wallpaper that Emily had in her room. It was amazing to stand in that space where Emily wrote most of her poems. I can’t really even describe how it felt.

We went outside to take a look at Emily’s gardens. Of course, she was a great gardener, but her garden doesn’t survive. Still, I found these beautiful purple flowers. The label said they were called “Love Lies Bleeding” (Amaranthus caudatus). They were gorgeous, and they seemed perfect for her garden.

Love Lies Bleeding

We took a short walk to the cemetery where she is buried. Luckily for us, a quick Google search led us to an article that indicated her family’s plot was surrounded by a wrought iron fence. Otherwise, we’d have had to wander a while, and my husband’s patience was not going to extend that far.

We found it pretty quickly after discovering that detail. We took a few pictures of her headstone and the family plot. I placed a rock on top of her headstone. Many people had the same idea before me, as you can see.

Emily Dickinson's Headstone

I was interested to see that her stone reads “Born Dec. 10, 1830.” That is my oldest daughter’s birthday—December 10. Then it says, “Called Back May 15, 1886.” In her last letter to her cousins, right before she died (and she knew she was dying) she wrote,

Little cousins,

Called Back.

Emily

I read that her niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi had that inscription done some time after (her original headstone had just her initials on it).

Emily Dickinson's grave

It’s hard to get a good, unobstructed picture of the headstone because of the fence.

Dickinson Plaque

I love that the plaque on the little gate in the fence describes Dickinson as a “Poetess.” One of those archaic terms one never needs to use anymore.

Dickinson's tree

There is a really nice tree growing in the corner of the Dickinson family plot. I think she’d like that very much if she knew it.

Emily and Lavinia

Emily is buried to the right of her sister Lavinia (on the end). I didn’t know much about Emily’s sister, known as “Vinnie,” until the docent shared some details. Did you know it was Vinnie who found Emily’s poems after Emily died and worked to make sure they were published? I had no idea. As you can see, some folks left stones for Vinnie, too.

Dickinson Plot

Rounding out the Dickinson family plot are the graves of Emily’s parents (both names are inscribed on the headstone that is second from left). I think the one on the end is her grandfather.

I learned a some interesting things about Emily’s writing process from the docent at the museum and even walked away with a good idea for a lesson in diction that I think my students will enjoy.

What an incredible opportunity to walk in Emily Dickinson’s footsteps and visit her!

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

Review: Shadeland, Andrew Grace

I ordred Andrew Grace’s poetry collection Shadeland after reading his poem “Field Guide for How to Pioneer the Midwest” in the May/June 2015 issue of The Kenyon Review. What particularly struck me about that poem was the simple, relatively unadorned language that not only brought the American pioneer to life, but made him beautiful. It reminded me of stories I had heard. My ancestors living in a dugout in the Texas plains until they could build a house. My great-great-great grandmother crying when the wagon stopped for the night because she didn’t know how to do anything except have babies and look pretty. There is something about westward expansion and farming that that really captures the American spirit for me, so I was eager to delve into more of Andrew Grace’s poetry. His website describes the collection as follows:

Shadeland is not only the name of the Illinois farm on which poet Andrew Grace was raised, it is also that elusive space where language attempts to recover all that has been lost. Deeply concerned with the state of today’s rural spaces, Grace’s poems describe a landscape and a lifestyle that are both eroding.

Stylistically rangy, yet united by an ardent eye for intricate imagery, Shadeland features allusions and influences as classical as Homer, Virgil, and Hopkins while still exhibiting a poetic sensibility that is thoroughly contemporary. Employing a blend of baroque and innovative language, these 21st-century pastorals and anti-pastorals both celebrate and elegize the buckshot-peppered silos and instill cornfields that are quietly vanishing from the countryside.

I would definitely agree that the collection is stylistically rangy. Of the poems I liked best, I found myself responding most to the ones that were more like “Field Guide for How to Pioneer the Midwest.” I loved the simple “Pilgrim Sonnet,” which evoked the call to settle the west and elevated it to religious pilgrimage. I’m not so sure it really wasn’t, after reading this poem. I also liked the six-part ekphrastic poem “Dinner for Threshers” inspired by the Grant Wood painting. Possibly my favorite poem was “Z,” which captures with beautiful simplicity the death of the speaker’s father in a farming accident and connects it to “the wind from Illinois” that has shaped and destroyed. It’s really a gorgeous poem. I also really liked “The Outermost Shrine of the Narrowest Road,” “Of Love and Wild Dogs,” “Is to Say,” and “For Tityrus,” all of which I felt were beautifully direct in their language. I think after reading Roger Rosenblatt, I’m noticing the nouns and verbs and the ways in which modifiers detract rather than add. I did try re-writing “Of Love and Wild Dogs” without modifiers in my writing journal, and it has a stark effect, stripping the language in that way. It is something I think I will experiment with in my own writing—drafting it as it comes and then revising to strip the modifiers.

I found this article about Shadeland, which is the family farm that gives its name to this collection. It sounds like quite a place, and I can see why it inspired Andrew Grace. He somehow managed to capture so much about farming in America in this collection, from the promise of early settlers to the ever-shrinking endangered family farm. People have a complicated relationship with the earth, and nowhere does that seem more apparent to me than in farming, which has been a metaphor for the human struggle since Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden.

I had more or less forgotten how much I like poetry until going to the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers, and now I find myself seeking it out and wondering how I could have set it aside. Andrew Grace’s collection Shadeland was a nice re-introduction.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Weird Dreams

I had the weirdest dream last night. I was the winner of some kind of luncheon or tea with Byron, Shelley, and Keats.

Bom dia! photo credit: Cláudia*~Assad

There was also another guy at the table, who happened to be a dwarf, and he was a writer, but I didn’t know who he was, and I was too embarrassed about not knowing who he was to ask him who he was. All these dream interpretation websites, which I take absolute stock in, seem to indicate the dwarf represents some underdeveloped or unexpressed part of myself.

Keats reached over and squeezed my hand when I sat down. Be still my heart!

He was very quiet, but friendly. Actually, I don’t remember he said a word, but he did smile.

Byron, on the other hand, was clearly put out about having to eat with a contest winner. Could be also that watching women eat grossed him out. He was wearing this outfit, I swear:

Shelley, on the other hand, was really flirtatious, but in that way you know is totally insincere. And every time he said something, I kept thinking of Mary Shelley. He kept apologizing for Byron’s behavior and chastising him for not being friendly. Then Byron would snap pissily (if that’s not a word, it should be) back at him.

Keats was quiet, Byron was sullen, and Shelley was gregarious. It was really weird.

Of course, I’m preparing to teach the works of these three gents in coming weeks, and my students are currently reading Frankenstein. I also received this lovely book in the mail…

…signed by the authors, courtesy the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

Receiving mail from the Bodleian was really cool. I am going to save the envelope.

The envelope also contained a pretty picture postcard of the Bodleian’s doors:

photo credit: Kaihsu

Note: This image is not the postcard image, which is probably copyrighted, but it depicts the same doors from a different angle.

I really wish that weird tea party had been real. Can you imagine?

Percy Bysshe Shelley

My Crush on Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819, by Amelia Curran

I wrote yesterday about Byron, and despite completely understanding Byron’s appeal, it is Shelley I have the crush on.

I probably first encountered Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry in twelfth grade. I can’t think of any reason I would have encountered him before that time. I did a group project on his poem “Ozymandias” with two classmates. We videotaped ourselves as the Shelleys and his “inspiration,” a basketball player who was past his prime and whose talent would quickly vanish, which I have to say was probably not a bad modernization of the text’s theme. Shopping in the bookstore with my parents, I found a Norton anthology of Shelley’s poetry and prose and had to have it. My dad bought it for me, and he must have been scratching his head over the purchase something fierce because what normal twelfth grader wants a Norton anthology of a British Romantic poet’s work? Even I would wonder what was up with such a kid if I met one today, but I have a sneaking suspicion I was on the extremely rare side in that particular area.

So I read some of the other poems in the Norton, and I was particularly entranced by Epipsychidion, a word Shelley made up which means “on the subject of the little soul.” This poem is about S-E-X. It is transcendent, a connection of souls. It’s written for a woman named Teresa Viviani with whom Shelley was quite enamored, but who was inaccessibly confined in a convent by her father. Just imagine! It reminds me of Romeo’s declaration that Rosaline’s decision to “remain chaste” in fact “makes huge waste.” In the poem, Shelley calls Viviani “Emilia,” the name of Hippolyta’s sister as described in The Teseida by Boccaccio. Later, Geoffrey Chaucer would rework the story in “The Knight’s Tale,” and Shakespeare and John Fletcher as Two Noble Kinsmen. Emilia, or Emily, desires to remain chaste also, but she has the misfortune to be spied by Palamone and Arcita, who fall in love with her on sight (because that’s what you do). I am much more familiar with Chaucer’s version of the story, so I’ll discuss it for a moment (still with me? bored out of your skull yet?).

In Chaucer’s story, Palamon and Arcite (same dudes, different spelling) are cousins who are like brothers. They are among the Thebans who fought against Theseus’s forces. They are captured and imprisoned in Athens, and it is from their prison window that first Palamon, then Arcite, spy Emily. They fall in love with her at first sight, but they can’t have her because they’re in prison. Eventually Arcite is released from prison, but is exiled from Athens, while Palamon remains behind bars. This scenario prompts the Knight to ask the company who has it worse: Palamon, who is imprisoned, but who can still look on Emily’s beauty from his prison window, or Arcite, who is free, but cannot see Emily. I usually ask students how they would answer the Knight’s question. How would you?

I won’t go too far into the rest of the story, but suffice it to say the men have really only fallen in love with Emily from afar. They don’t really know her, and in fact, no one really cares what she wants in all of this, which is to be a nun. Women didn’t get to choose so much in Emily’s day, however, so she eventually weds one of the cousins, and I won’t tell you which because I hope you’ll read the story. What Emily represents is the Knight’s ideal—an example of the lady on the pedestal. Of course, the Miller tells his story next, concerning men and women who are a little nearer to the earth.

At any rate, Shelley choosing that particular nickname for his beloved is fraught with all sorts of meaning. She is the unattainable Emilia, only she is imprisoned rather than her lover (presumably Shelley). Idealized, not real. Not really Teresa Viviani, but his hope for perfection.  He compares his wife, Mary Shelley, to the moon—cold, chaste. Teresa is the sun (can’t help but think of Romeo and Juliet once again).

I don’t know why, but I developed a sort of crush on Shelley that has lasted since twelfth grade, over 20 years now. I don’t think Shelley was particularly nice, at least not to his wives, and I’m not sure what it is about him. He is on the page, and his opinions and beliefs shine forth in clear language, but even after all this time, I don’t feel I really know him. He is still a mystery. I am looking forward to seeing how Jude Morgan gives him flesh and life. I have no trouble imagining Byron or Keats as real people, but Shelley has remained elusive. He is, in that way, like Emilia himself. All the descriptions I’ve read of him tend toward the idealized. I hope Morgan is able to make him walk on the ground.

See Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family.

Lord Byron

Byron Was a Bad, Bad Boy

Lord Byron
Portrait by Richard Westall

Byron seems to be cropping up on my radar a lot lately. Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time recently recorded a discussion of his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. I subscribe to the podcast in iTunes and listened to it during my work commute last week. My favorite part:

Melvyn Bragg: Then he left [England] in 1816, as it happens never to return, but he left notorious—he was hissed in theatres, he was hissed in the House of Lords. He was more than a scandal; he was an outrage. They wanted him out—out of the country, off the island. What had happened?

Emily Bernhard Jackson: Well, he had had an affair with his half-sister, um, of some duration, uh—

Melvyn Bragg: And that got out.

Emily Bernhard Jackson: That got out. Although, interestingly, what seems to have caused more problems were the rumours that he had practised homosexuality in the East, that he had attempted to perform sodomy with his wife and with Lady Caroline Lamb, both. Um, these were all rumours. There was a—when the Byrons separated, Lady Byron mounted a kind of campaign to make sure that she would come out well, a very modern campaign, and part of that was spreading these rumours. Um—

Melvyn Bragg: What credence do you give them?

Emily Bernhard Jackson: I would say he certainly had an affair with his sister. I would stay that’s beyond question, although he didn’t announce it to the world. I give full credence to all of them.

I think it says something kind of weird about me that I laughed when Professor Jackson said that last sentence, mainly because she set it up to sound like a smear campaign headed by Lady Byron, Annabella Milbanke, but a true one.

Annabella Byron, 1812
Annabella Byron, 1812 via Wikipedia

Caroline Lamb famously described Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” and Melvyn Bragg and his guests hypothesized that Byron’s bad-boy reputation helped move copies of his books off the shelves. The Corsair sold 10,000 copies on its first day, apparently.

Byron will also be a character in the book I’m currently enjoying immensely: Passion by Jude Morgan—the story of the Romantic poets Byron, Shelley, and Keats as told through the voices of the women who loved them.

I have to admit that when I teach Byron, I can be somewhat irreverent, and it is my hope that Byron, wherever he is (I’m sure many folks would say hell), enjoys it a little. I think he liked being famous. One of my favorite ways to describe Byron’s death is that he was bored, so he decided to sail for Messolonghi and fight for Greek independence because that’s what you do.

He sounds like he would have been one of those guys who was fascinating to have as an acquaintance, but maddening to have as a close friend or lover. Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist, expert on bipolar disorder, and author of Touched with Fire and The Unquiet Mind, speculates that Byron was bipolar, which would explain a lot about some of the choices he made in life. It also explains much of his behavior—by turns magnetic and charismatic, then frightening and cruel. Certainly he describes suffering from melancholy.

“My Soul is Dark”

My soul is dark—Oh! quickly string
The harp I yet can brook to hear;
And let thy gentle fingers fling
Its melting murmurs o’er mine ear.
If in this heart a hope be dear,
That sound should charm it forth again:
If in these eyes there lurk a tear,
‘Twill flow, and cease to burn my brain.

But bid the strain be wild and deep,
Nor let thy notes of joy be first:
I tell thee, minstrel, I must weep,
Or else this heavy heart will burst;
For it hath been by sorrow nursed,
And ached in sleepless silence long;
And now ’tis doom’d to know the worst,
And break at once—or yield to song.

When I read this poem, which seems to discuss Byron’s emotions on hearing music, I can’t help but notice the title seems to infer it’s really about his own turbulent feelings—the frustration he felt over being emotionally damaged or deranged in some way. His poetry must have been one of the few outlets he had for making himself feel better—his heart would “break at once—or yield to song.” And yet, he’s not without a sense of dark humor about himself. Thomas Medwin reports in The Angler in Wales, Or Days and Nights of Sportsmen, Vol. 2 that in discussion of an upcoming attack on the Castle of Lepanto in which he would act as commander-in-chief,

“I do not know how it will end,” said his Lordship, gaily, “but one thing is certain, there is no fear of my running,” at the same time glancing at his lame foot. (214)

I leave you with some audio of one of Byron’s most famous poems, “She Walks in Beauty,” set to music by Isaac Nathan. Nathan’s melodies for Byron’s poems (Hebrew Melodies) have largely been forgotten, but Byron’s poetry remains. This audio is from Romantic Era Songs.

She Walks in Beauty