Notes on the State of Virginia: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Queries IV and V

vintage virginia

This is the third installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. You can read previous installments here and here.

Query IV: A notice of its mountains
Query V: Its cascades and caverns

I walked into Queries IV and V thinking Jefferson would use these sections to acknowledge the changeability of Virginia’s natural landscape, the dramatic variations of terrain that make it both beautiful and dangerous to traverse. I thought I’d compare Jefferson’s celebration of Virginia’s wild places to the notion of surprise in poetry, or maybe to resistance—that sense that the poem is getting lost somewhere in the middle, and you, the poet, have to invent a light (or a hatchet) to make your way through the draft.

I should have known better.Continue Reading

The Best Essay I Read This Month: “The Habits of Highly Cynical People” by Rebecca Solnit


There are many benefits of cynicism. But there’s also a certain kind of knee-jerk, armchair cynicism that lets those who subscribe to it reduce complex political and social events to doomed exercises in futility, and to pretend to know the totality of their worth. That kind of thinking is the subject of Rebecca Solnit’s “Easy Chair” column, “The Habits of Highly Cynical People,” in this month’s Harper’s Magazine.

Solnit muses that the full effect of the Arab Spring might not have yet come to pass—we can’t ever be certain. Some people, though, seem to be very certain about this or that, immediately after it happens.

Non-pundits, too, use bad data and worse analysis to pronounce with great certainty on future inevitabilities, present impossibilities, and past failures. The mind-set behind these statements is what I call naïve cynicism. It bleeds the sense of possibility and maybe the sense of responsibility out of people.

Cynicism is first of all a style of presenting oneself, and it takes pride more than anything in not being fooled and not being foolish. But in the forms in which I encounter it, cynicism is frequently both these things. That the attitude that prides itself on world-weary experience is often so naïve says much about the triumph of style over substance, attitude over analysis.

Naïve cynicism, Solnit goes on to say, is so hasty to brand everything in the world as black or white—so eager to give the impression that it cannot be taken in—that the full depth and nuance of any situation viewed through this lens is immediately lost. Naïve cynicism, then, discourages people from caring, from trying; it is that voice that says there’s no point in getting your hopes up, you’ll just be disappointed, no matter the context. Naïve cynicism would stifle the passion and emotion that led to the Arab Spring, as it dismisses the unknown impact the uprising may yet still have.Continue Reading

Writ in Water: Son of Salinas


steinbeck h2oLast month, I mentioned John Steinbeck’s famous declaration about the forgetfulness of his beloved Salinas Valley in matters of water and drought. He is fortunate that the valley has not forgotten him.

The National Steinbeck Center commands one end of Main Street in downtown Salinas, and a walk through its sprawling exhibits leaves little doubt that the city, the valley, and the whole of California’s central coast has reclaimed all iterations of its native son. There were times, framed newspaper spreads are quick to note, when Steinbeck’s portrayals of the valley were read harshly for his immigrants and migrants, workers and woebegones, producing varying degrees of local disavowal. Yet now, with Steinbeck enshrined a Great Man of Letters, his many legacies seemingly assured, the Center raises the question, for me at least, as to how a museum—visual, interactive, available to all and assuming broad levels of visitor familiarity with the work—can remember, celebrate, and perhaps, reimagine.

Does the Steinbeck Center, one might ask, need a human-sized model of an iPhone to make a comment about modern communication? Does lifting an old phone receiver to hear different accounts of a fruit pickers’ strike allow me to better understand In Dubious Battle, or for that matter, East of Eden or The Grapes of Wrath? Does harnessing a plastic horse let me “help Jody do his chores” and read The Red Pony anew with experiential insight? Do I need to believe, even for a second, that the display of a chirping canvas bag actually holds frogs for Doc in order to appreciate the wayward generosities of Cannery Row? Do I affirm the richnesses of Lenny and George by lifting brims affixed to a wall, finding names beneath, and quizzing myself as to which Of Mice and Men head filled which hat? Did the Nobel Prize committee finish the massive wall of a Steinbeck crossword puzzle before awarding him the prize in literature in 1962? For all of it, I’m not so sure, but I admire the effort at accessibility, and there is something undeniably engaging in the mixing of media. (Do I feel transported to old Mexico and into Viva Zapata! by the stucco village and piñatas and faux fruit carts leaping out behind a bend—no—but I am usefully unsettled by the film photos of Marlon Brando’s mustache and, ah, skin color. Did the hilarious Yelp reviews of the nearby Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum convince me to skip the zombied bodies displayed in the basement of a strip mall in favor of a longer visit at the Center? Yes, but no more than the sign at that register, defensively pre-declaring no refunds.)Continue Reading

Which Candidate Will Write the Theme for the 2016 Election?

Photo of Donald Trump signing a bobble head of himself courtesy of Matt A.J.

Photo of Donald Trump signing a bobble head of himself courtesy of Matt A.J.

Political campaigns, like novels, have a beginning, middle, and end. Hard as it may be to believe, we are still in Act Two of the story that will come to be the 2016 presidential election.

Act One is comprised of everything that happens in an election prior to the first primary and caucus votes being cast. Normally, that covers a lot of ground, but this election cycle it was positively Tolstoyian thanks to more than a dozen Republican candidates in the field.

Act Three won’t begin until the nominees have been confirmed after the conventions. For the Democrats, former Secretary of Hillary Clinton is virtually assured to carry her party’s banner into the fall. The Republicans are a separate matter. There is some uncertainty as to whether Donald Trump will acquire the requisite number of delegates to lock up the GOP nomination. Even if he does, the distaste for him even within the GOP is so deep that efforts by so-called “party leaders” are underway to thwart him. This may happen before the convention in Cleveland in late July. It may happen during the convention. It may not happen at all.

This is of enormous benefit to Clinton because it gives her a head start, by a couple of months at least, to control the themes of the final act of the 2016 election. History shows that the candidate who controls the terms of the discussion—i.e. the themes—has the best chance of being victorious.Continue Reading

Listening to Baltimore

Maryland Army National Guard Soldiers and local law enforcement watch protesters gathered in front of City Hall, Baltimore, April 30, 2015. The marchers shouted slogans calling for justice, equality and peace for fellow Baltimore residents. The Maryland National Guard was activated for the first time since 1968 to assist with peacekeeping operations while unrest continues in Baltimore. (Photo by U.S. Army National Guard Sgt. Margaret Taylor, 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

Maryland Army National Guard Soldiers and local law enforcement watch protesters gathered in front of City Hall, Baltimore, April 30, 2015. The marchers shouted slogans calling for justice, equality and peace for fellow Baltimore residents. The Maryland National Guard was activated for the first time since 1968 to assist with peacekeeping operations while unrest continues in Baltimore. (Photo by U.S. Army National Guard Sgt. Margaret Taylor, 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

Meet your narrator: a white woman who runs a community-based literary organization for Black kids. Your setting? Baltimore.

A year ago, your narrator sat around with four other writers. Three of us white, one Black, one Asian. We were trying to figure out how to talk about the events of April 27, 2015. “Riot” fixated on property damage. “Protests” occurred, but those which took place after April 27 were organized in a way that the initial events weren’t.

By April 28, individuals present at Penn-North had coined the term “Baltimore Uprising.” Called thugs by the same media that praised Egyptians in 2011, the neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester felt an urgency to tell their own story. Their story begins long before April 12, the night of Freddie Gray’s arrest. Their story is framed by the 51.8% of residents ages 16 – 64 who are unemployed and the 33% of residential properties that sit vacant. But “coming up with a name and a hashtag was a luxury we didn’t have time to commit energy to while in the midst of it,” Dr. Herber Brown III, a Black pastor and prominent community organizer, told me.

As the events of April 27, 2015 are processed into history — in museums, in textbooks, in our collective imagination — we need to think about who the words belong to. And as a white woman, this is a place where the words do not belong to me.Continue Reading

Long and Short of It

bicycle picture for pshares

In the term short story, “short” is a little baggy. You might find, within a collection of short stories, some that are a few pages, some that are thirty or more. Compared to a five-hundred-page novel, of course, neither of these is a long piece of writing. Both are compressed worlds. But the very short short story and the very long short story have different ways of folding a whole world in.

To me, very short stories often have the feel of stunts: daring balancing acts, high up on ledges. Once the pose is successfully struck—creating the kind of image that lingers on the insides of the eyelids—it’s time to back away. This kind of intensity is only briefly sustainable. To create such a picture in so few words, sentences sometimes have to cover vast swaths of life. Grace Paley is the master of this. In her short story “Wants,” only a couple of pages long, the narrator runs into her ex-husband while returning some years-overdue library books. He tells her their marriage ended because she never invited a couple they knew over for 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 anymore.

By the end of the story we can see this decades-long marriage, and the narrator’s current life.Continue Reading

From Swaddles to Slang: Creative Problem Solving in Translation and Motherhood


In late February I finished up the translation of a novel. In mid-March my son was born. Caring for a baby is not all too different than dealing with a challenging translation, though granted the hours are less convenient and the boss often poses unreasonable demands. In both cases there is proper procedure—first draft, dictionary look-up, napping only on one’s back, nursing every 3-4 hours—and then there are a myriad unexpected circumstances and improvised solutions—diaper blowouts, colic, one-hand cooking, rhymes, puns, and slang. For each unforeseeable problem there is a makeshift troubleshooting process, parts of which may not be approved by the American Literary Translators Association or by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Every day begins in working by the book. With my child, I feed and burp and change him. With a translation, I sit down with the original (either in book form, or, more conveniently, in PDF form) and with my Word translation file, and start filling the screen with words. The first draft is quick and dirty, quite literal, unassuming: word for word, ignoring more accomplished grammatical structures, putting baby back in his crib with a little half-hearted lullaby. Scrolling down fast from one page to the next is a great feeling, striking them off the checklist, clocking in work hours and often coming up with some inspired turns of phrase on the go.

Then something unexpected happens: an inscrutable sentence, a bit of localized slang, a joke, a pun, a play on words. Baby is awake and crying, and it isn’t hunger, and it isn’t any kind of discomfort that I can put into clear words. A solution is necessary.Continue Reading

Words of War: Poetry and Trauma

1-17th Infantry helps clear 120 kilometers to Shorabak [Image 6 of 22]  Sgt. Tim Martin, an infantryman with Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, shows evidence of the long journey after returning from Operation Buffalo Thunder II at Forward Operating Base Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, July 2, 2012. During the eight-day mission, Afghan and American forces cleared more than 120 kilometers of rugged terrain and escorted approximately 60 truckloads of humanitarian aid for distribution to the people of Shorabak. 117th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment (Hawaii) Photo by Staff Sgt. Brendan Mackie Date Taken:07.02.2012 Location:FORWARD OPERATING BASE SPIN BOLDAK, AF Read more:

117th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment (Hawaii) Photo by Staff Sgt. Brendan Mackie

“All a poet can do today is warn,” Wilfred Owen wrote during World War I. If one view of poetry holds it up as something filled with beauty or romance, the truth is that poetry found its first place more in images of violence and war—think of The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Epic of Gilgamesh. In the last 100 years alone, poetry has been shaped and changed by war: from the WWI poets, such as Owen, to the more recent poems coming out (and that will surely be coming out more and more as these events are processed) about current wars. But, what about the idea of poetry as warning? Do the poems of World War I reflect on today’s wars? Are they still as applicable to us?

To examine this, I’ll bring up an example from my own experience. I teach composition and communication at the college level and when I first introduce textual rhetorical analysis, I usually do it by first broaching literary analysis (which is often something students are more familiar with rather than jumping straight into rhetoric). The way that I introduce it? By looking at Ivor Gurney’s poem “To His Love.”

Gurney, an astonishing poet, was traumatized by his time in WWI and spent the end of his life institutionalized. “To His Love” is arguably one of his finest works, and one that most clearly shows the trauma of his experience. The poem begins slowly, simply, it’s tightly rhymed structure making it seem like the most traditional of elegies:

He’s gone
and all our plans are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswold
where the sheep feed.

Continue Reading

Erotic Parodies of Women

A writer and I were on the sunny plaza outside the Nobel Museum in central Stockholm and she was telling me about an erotic parody project she’d collaborated on. The project was called Fifty Shelves of Grey and involved a dozen or so British authors doing erotic rewrites of fifty classic books, all published under the pseudonym Vanessa Parody. However, amidst all that bodice ripping, partner swapping and heavy breathing, there arose a very real problem for those salacious scribes—finding works of literature that had two or more female characters that were not blood relatives. Though there were plenty of male/female and male/male relationships to uncloak; female/female relationships were almost exclusively between sisters, and mothers and daughters. The relationships of unrelated adult women are nearly invisible in literature. This absence is not only a hindrance for aspiring erotic parody writers, but is quite possibly a symptom of a larger erasure of the lives and experiences of women across literature.

Last year writer Nicola Griffith published a survey of the gender representation among the winners of half a dozen major literary awards. She looked at competitions from the last fifteen years and found that nearly two-thirds of Pulitzer winners were written wholly from the perspective of a man/boy, while zero were written wholly from the perspective of a woman/girl. The Man Booker fared slightly better with a total of two books of the last fifteen written wholly from the perspective of a woman/girl. So, it seems that stories that center on the lives of women are rarely elevated to the highest echelons of literary praise. It should then be of little surprise that relationships between women are nearly invisible in literary fiction.Continue Reading

Reconstruction: How the Lyric Essay Rendered One Body After Trauma

Anatomy Class, 1920

I didn’t start writing lyric essays until I found out I had cancer. The melanoma buried in my right cheek was at first missed, and then misdiagnosed in its severity. Clark’s stage IV, they told me. Likely in my lymph nodes, but they wouldn’t know until my third surgery, the excision and biopsy.

I was coming out of a dry period in my writing. I had hardly written in the previous year since my brother’s death from complications arising from a rare genetic disorder. When I went back to the page, I couldn’t go back to it as I’d been there before, but I felt I must go back. I had something to say, and what if I didn’t have long to say it?

What If became my muse.

The poems became fragmented, full of white space.  I broke lines unexpectedly, at least for me. Out of tune, out of sync/syntax. I revised through redaction, cuts, excisions.  Everything seemed relevant and connected, even as everything seemed disjointed. Separate.

Text is solid or liquid, body or blood.1Continue Reading