Every Memorial Day my grandmother took flowers to the graves of people she had known, military or not. She was a southern transplant, with ancestors that fought on both sides of the Civil War, but she lived in my grandfather’s state, New Hampshire, so the graves she visited belonged to members of his family. Like most children, I didn’t understand her preoccupation with the past. Neither did I understand what seemed a grim preoccupation with her own death, as visits to the cemetery also included her own plot space, and my grandfather’s, reserved and paid for in advance. I remember looking at the empty patch of lawn beside the tombstones of my great-great-grandparents and thinking, “What am I looking at?”
Of course with adulthood the mysteries of time and memory have become contemplations I indulge on a regular basis, and I often return to the writers who articulate these mysteries brilliantly, strangely: who can forget the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse? Laurence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet? Proust’s seven volumes?
Everyone has them—the books that we loved that got only cursory critical attention, if any. The friends who managed to get the books finally, finally into print, only to hear a few grains of sand shifting in the long silence as they drive to the liquor store to buy themselves the only champagne that will celebrate it (not that I would know anything about that.) Or, in the more fortunate case, the books that did well (for poetry), but which still aren’t getting the attention you’d like for them from a wider readership.
You can shake your head over that, muttering, and naming your particular aversions among the more successful. You can wonder where you stashed that fetish doll with its assortment of black-headed pins for cursing (that response too, of course, I know only in imagination.) Taking the long view, you can re-read Dana Gioia, or anyone thinking about the poetry-and-culture big picture, and try to decide which diagnosis, if any, accounts for what sometimes seems a cosmic patchwork of neglect and misplaced privilege.
Mood: a predominant emotion; disposition; a conscious state of mind.
Etymologically, “mood” at its root is anger, anger and its sometime sidekick, courage, though, the book cautions us, mood’s ultimate origin is unknown. Because who can really say where a mood comes from? Construction on the freeway wastes an hour of my time, now I’m in a mood, but where am I, and how did I get here? I’m not angry at the dump trucks – I’m angry at the world. I’m in this mood like a dog in a pen, like a twig in the tide. I’m being transported; I’ve been shut in. I can’t seem to get out of this bad mood.
We just received the list of Best American stories and essays, and were happy to see lots of familiar names. It would take too long to mention all of the former contributors and guest editors on the list, but here are a few:
Fall 2010 contributor and Ploughshares guest blogger Megan Mayhew Bergman’s “Housewifely Arts,” from One Story, will be in Best American Stories 2011, edited by Geraldine Brooks and Heidi Pitlor (a Ploughshares contributor herself). Greg Schutz’s “Joyriders” was chosen as a distinguished story, as was former guest editor Charles Baxter’s “Mr. Scary” (both from the Fall issue), and Amy Hempel’s “Greed,” from Elizabeth Strout’s Spring issue. You can check out Greg’s blog posts here, as well as Christine Sneed’s, whose story “Interview With the Second Wife,” from New England Review, was also honored.
Photo by Kerstin Joensson
Kyoko Mori’s Plan B piece from the Fall, “The Pleasure of Letting Go,” was named one of 2010’s notable essays. Also honored were essays by Scott Nadelson (“Go Ahead and Look” from Oregon Humanities), and Aimee Nezhukumatathil for “Birth Geographic” from Waterstone. Both Scott and Aimee are past contributors who were nice enough to blog for us: you can check out Scott’s posts here and Aimee’s here.
Also, if we can pat the back of our own talented staff, former reader and Ploughshares assistant Laura van den Berg (whose story will appear in our upcoming Fall issue), was honored for her story “Acrobat,” from American Short Fiction, as was current Ploughshares reader Eson Kim, for her essay “Fixed Everything” from the Cream City Review. Well done to everyone!
Alice Munro has been a popular literary writer of short stories for decades. She moves from subtle interior discomfort to the most blatant of coincidences without apology. “Simon’s Luck” is a short story from the book that could be called her only novel: The Beggar Maid. The book could also be called a collection of linked stories, all centering around a character named Rose and sometimes around her stepmother, Flo. I love the whole book, from “Royal Beatings” at the beginning to its ending with “Who Do You Think You Are,” but “Simon’s Luck” is the story I most often end up recommending—and for some reason the main time I make unsolicited recommendations of books or stories, this blog excepted, is when a friend is going through a divorce or breakup. “Simon’s Luck” is kind of a brief, painful tour of what Munro talks about when she talks about love.
At the point in the book where this story appears, Rose has made a small name for herself as an actress, but to pay the bills she has taken a temporary gig at a community college. She is young-ish but aging, attractive enough and just famous enough for her relationships with students to be complicated and hostile. At a college party she meets a classicist named Simon, who saves her from a mean-spirited confrontation (a former student responds to her exaggerated tale about accidentally killing her cat with “Now you won’t be able to fuck the cat,” etc.,) and follows her home for the weekend. What follows are five pages of falling in love—all the rolling out of each others’ past, all the first gestures of caretaking, all the ways the life she’s living – “country life” – comes alive for her when she displays it, detail by detail, for Simon’s amusement. She spins drama from small events, she turns neighbors into characters, she even exposes herself with brave vulnerability, saying about the situation at the party,
It feels as though every posting starts somewhere else, and this is no exception. I’ve been reading one of Angela’s “Why I Reread…” postings, in the midst of state and federal budget cuts which, far from rereading much of anything, seem designed to keep the world from reading most texts even once. As in most “business-friendly” states, the desires of “corporate citizens” (that’s a lot of scare quotes, but there seems little alternative in this forest of euphemism) have a disproportionate effect on curricular emphases, to the point that it’s hard to stay sanguine about what teachers and writers do.
If what the world really wants are engineers and middle managers, and literature is a luxury commodity, why do this at all? And why are my colleagues in creative writing breaking their schedules and their hearts and their backs for literary events which we then have to bribe and threaten audiences into attending? Yes, I thought; why reread, or press students to read? Why teach what’s in such low demand? For pleasure, sure: but while the corporate rulers of the known world need no explanations as to the pleasure value of a HumVee, the pleasures of the word are a different story. And what about all the writings which aren’t initially or obviously pleasurable?
Gary Fincke’s poem, “At Midnight, on my Birthday,” appears in our Spring 2011 issue, guest edited by Colm Toibin. The poem opens with these lines:
My mother, dead at my age, unclasps
her beaded purse as if entering
my house requires a ticket.
Here, Fincke describes where this poem came from:
“At Midnight, on my Birthday” has become part of a long poem sequence now called “The Onset,” which is one way I’ve grappled with the double play of being an aging athlete and suffering a back injury that manifests itself in what can only be called electric shocks that run down the back of both legs. It’s been a fascinating, if painful, lesson in human anatomy, especially the nervous system.
What reaches for the sun. What turns green panes flat to the zenith. A green order in the bay window, quatrefoil. Egg-toothed cotyledon.
There’s something to know and it can’t be known and I have to know it. It wakes me up in the morning, shivers me through the day. My soul fleeth unto the Lord, what Lord, what Lord. And then it passes. It returns. It hits me on the highway, drives me the long way home. I try to see it but it’s nothing; my eye can’t find the edges. I try to see through my own death.
I sometimes take comfort in categorizations. The world can always be divided into two populations, it can be obnoxiously insisted: those who send thank-you notes and those who don’t, those who have seen American Idol and those who haven’t…those who get to class on time and those who can’t, for some reason, and on and on. My students look at me with hungover alarm, as if they’re thinking “This is how old people entertain themselves.”
Things that are important to me, like books and reading experiences, elide categories except in the most esoteric sense, that sorting mechanism in my brain that tells me where to go for different rewards. So far I have come up with three columns for my favorite books: I read for 1) what happens next, 2) a certain experience with language, or 3) how something feels. My favorite books, like This Boy’s Life, lodge firmly in column three, because even though Tobias Wolff is nothing less than a contemporary master of plot and language (columns one and two), what I come back for is the way he nails, over and over, the way something feels. Take this example from the book’s beginning, when the young narrator is approaching confession:
As a change from the didacticism and mostly-benign aesthetic dictatorship of my recent posts, and before I review anything (though that’s coming), perhaps it’s time I ask a question instead of attempting to answer any.
Within recent memory I had cause—or thought I had, anyway—to post a link on my Facebook account to a Mary Oliver poem. That’s always kind of dicey, of course—because with living poets, one can’t be sure doing so constitutes fair use, especially when one knows little about the author of the site linked to; because there’s always a chance the author’s gotten something wrong; because Facebook’s ownership provisos and caveats and claims are both endless and endlessly obscure (cf: South Park’s recent episode on Apple); but mostly because almost no link other than the Academy of American Poets and its fellows can really manage the stepped lines.