Saturday, December 27, 2008

List Poems

I was introduced to my first list poem, “Silent Poem” by Robert Francis, as a junior in high school, and I fell in love immediately. Here was a poem without verbs, a twelve-line poem, each line comprised only of four compound nouns. It was a poem whose form seemed to match its content perfectly; 48 rustic nouns without a verb or punctuation created a sense of stillness, but the fact that they were all compound words gave it a physicality, a thickness that almost made the images palpable.

While in college, I discovered the poems of Campbell McGrath, another listmaker who was not afraid to leave the verbs out from time to time. His debut collection, Capitalism, included two poems, “What They Ate” and “What They Drank,” about the dietary practices of the American colonists, that were comprised entirely of lists and also rhymed. His second book, American Noise, contained a prose poem, “Sunset, Route 90, Brewster County, Texas,” which in a single 14-line sentence attempted to catalog the light of a particular time and place and ended up as nothing less than a prayer.

I started collecting such poems, photocopying them out of literary magazines and library books, and keeping them in a manilla folder where I could return to them whenever I wanted, and disappear into those small nouny worlds. As a teacher, I showed my students the different ways a list could be a poem (while always making sure they understood that not every list was a poem—far from it, in fact, which is part of the beauty of these things). It seemed a way to make poetry less intimidating, to emphasize the music of language and de-emphasize that adolescent search for the deep hidden meaning of a poem that seems to drive so many teenagers away from poetry.

I haven’t taught that poetry unit for a few years now, and had given my pursuit of such poems a break, hadn’t even thought about them for a while, and then today, in middle age, while waiting for my kids to arrive to open their Christmas presents, I stumbled on this wonderful, brief poem by Lola Haskins, four spare and beautiful lines on beauty and aging.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

From a Dream Early in my Teaching Career

A student raises his hand, then asks me, "Are you a real teacher or just a bum who knows a lot about English?"

Line of the Week (#8)

"I want to play the one that got me started on this dark, depressing road. It's given me so much joy."
—Emmylou Harris

For a Good Time, Call . . . (pt. 6)

Tom at Omnivoracious. It was his recent write-up on the death of Mark Felt (aka Deep Throat) and his confession of his own fascination with Watergate that took me to this site, but it is the book lists, especially his Books of the States lists, replete with ersatz author state quarters, that has me coming back, though I am not sure how Michael Martone (author of Alive and Dead in Indiana, Fort Wayne is Seventh on Hitler’s List, Blue Guide to Indiana (speaking of ersatz), and The Flatness and Other Landscapes) was left off the short scroll of Hoosier honorees.

Observation / Pet Peeve

Language is a constantly evolving thing, so I tend not to get too caught up by changes in it. In fact, often I revel in them, and think that people who get their noses bent out of shape by minute changes are rigidly old school (a term itself that has risen in prominence lately). As a result, I know I run the risk of sounding like an old fuddy duddy in bringing this up, but I have noticed my students using cliché as an adjective with increasing frequency, both in speech and in their papers, and it grates on me. Until this morning, I thought it was a trend that was perhaps confined to adolescence, but in the recent profile of Philip Seymour Hoffman (a peer of mine, at least chronologically) in the New York Times Magazine, the amazing character actor, commented, “It’s a cliché thing to say . . .” and I cringed.

When and how did this happen? When did the d get dropped from the adjective form of clichéd? Why is the noun form now used adjectivally? Is there any going back? Should I just mourn the soon-to-be archaic form that I grew up with and move on?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dave Barry Makes Lemonade

Mr. Hubcap of JPU Unlimited has been pretty quiet recently, but when I checked out his blog today, he had posted this Dave Barry doozy from Regret the Error:

In yesterday’s column about badminton, I misspelled the name of Guatemalan player Kevin Cordon. I apologize. In my defense, I want to note that in the same column I correctly spelled Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarak, Poompat Sapkulchananart and Porntip Buranapraseatsuk. So by the time I got to Kevin Cordon, my fingers were exhausted.

Thanks to all of those involved for bringing this wonderful and brief piece of writing to my attention.

Line of the Week (#7)

This week's sentence was submitted by a friend, adding a whole other pleasant layer of irony to the situation. The speaker is the Mickey Rourke character, Henry Chinaski, who is really the Charles Bukowski character, from Barfly, a movie I haven't even seen:

"I like people. I just like 'em better when they're not around."

Speaking of Mr. Rourke, I don't know how you feel about him—I don't even know how I feel about him—but his new movie, The Wrestler, sounds pretty interesting. I think it will be on my short list of movies to see over the holidays.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Line of the Week (#6)

"There's nothing so pure as the kindness of an atheist."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Modest Book Publishing Proposal

What this country needs is a good annual anthology of criticism. One often hears about the dearth of good criticism, and what a way to remedy the situation this would be. If someone culls the best writing on literature, dance, music, theatre, art, architecture, and anything else cultural from scholarly journals, general interest magazines, and daily papers, there would be plenty of good commentary that would find a larger audience, and perhaps spur on a greater appreciation and more practitioners of the craft.

Houghton Mifflin offers almost an entire catalog of thematic anthologies (The Best American Comics, The Best American Essays, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Best American Science and Nature Writing, The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best American Sports Writing, and The Best American Travel Writing), and other publishers have their versions as well (The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Pushcart Prize, The Best Creative Nonfiction, Best Food Writing, Best Music Writing, The Best Buddhist Writing, Best American Political Writing, The Best American Magazine Writing, The Best American Crime Reporting, and The Best of Technology Writing are all titles I turned up in just a few minutes on Amazon). The number of different titles and publishers involved appears to be expanding every year. Clearly this is a growth industry, which is a rare thing these days.

Even if Houghton Mifflin and the other publishers who already have such series underway pass on it, an enterprising university press could have a real success with this. So, intrepid editors, have at it. And when you do, please keep me in mind for a lifetime subscription.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Coldest Run in a Long Time

When I layered up (four layers of technical wicking fabric up top, tights and wind pants for the legs, two layers of knit gloves, and a stocking cap) and headed out in to the 5:20 darkness, the thermometer read 13 degrees, but there was a pretty brisk wind, and I feel confident putting the wind chill in the single digits. The first mile was fairly bitter, and I wasn’t sure how long I would stay out in it, but after that I acclimated, and felt comfortable the rest of the way. Also, my course went into the wind the first half of the run (a trick I learned from Merle Harris back in the day in Boone, Iowa, when winter running meant heavy cotton sweats and thermal underwear). It’s a good strategy; you don’t want to work up a sweat and then run into a winter wind. The cold and dark can be intimidating at first, but once you’re underway it really doesn’t feel much different from running any other time of the year. Plus, one of my favorite sensations in the world is coming inside after playing out in the cold.

Line of the Week (#5, belated and with commentary)

"When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin."

(Things might have proved more bearable for Mr. Samsa if he had access to iTunes and Bose speakers. They have done wonders for others of us who have woken up to find ourselves insects.)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Picture Book Review: A Day with Dad

If you’re a divorced dad with a young child you don’t get to see enough, A Day with Dad by Bo R. Holmberg (Candlewick Press) is a fine book for you and that child to share. It’s a simple story of a divorced dad’s day with his young son. Though the d-word never appears in the book, my 5 ½-year old had no problem identifying the situation. The book opens with Tim, the child, waiting with his mom on a train platform for his dad’s arrival. Father and son go to a movie, eat out, and spend some time in the library before they have to head their separate ways. Their mutual affection overrides the poignant but understated sense that they have to squeeze in as much as they can in too little time. It’s a tender book that honors those all-too-brief shared times, and for both child and parent mirrors that less-than-ideal situation we find ourselves in.

Friday, November 21, 2008

New Link

Here's a little secret I was let in on today: PostSecret. Actually, I guess it's not that big a secret since more than a million visitors have already been to the site, and there have been four books that have resulted from submissions, but it was new to me. I learned about it at the first session of an English teacher's conference I am attending, and it seems an amazing thing at first perusal: people's confessions in the form of home-made postcards. The frisson between text and image in these very brief messages is powerful. Now that I know how popular this site is I can't help but wonder whether people are crafting some amazing lies rather than real confessions. Nonetheless, I'm intrigued and moved. I know I will be checking in weekly to see what is new there.

Restaurant Review: Schilo's

At Schilo's, a family-owned deli in downtown San Antonio since 1917, they serve your morning orange juice in a frosty glass mug, an unprecedented delight in my experience. On the other hand, they don't butter your toast, and I didn't get a glass of water until after I asked for one, and was down to my last few bites. The food was serviceable, but nothing really to write home about. The juice, however . . . I'm going back for more of that!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Food List Inspired (in some way) by the Impending Holiday

‘Tis the season to be thankful. ‘Tis also the season to think about food. But how strange to combine these thoughts of gratitude and food around such things as turkey (dry and bland) and sweet potatoes (which I’ve never taken any pleasure in since I started eating foods of textures beyond mush). Of course, Thanksgiving is about tradition and ritual (not to mention quantity), which is why you don’t really have to taste or enjoy the dinner, as long as you gather with family and friends and ingest too much. This did seem a good time, however, to recognize the foods for which I have been exceedingly grateful recently. Please understand this is not a list of my favorite foods necessarily, but foods and flavors that have taken on a larger place in my life in the last year or two.
• Sun-dried tomatoes.
• Seared tuna.
• Pancetta & prosciutto.
• All members of the Allium family, though it has been the quality time I have spent with leeks and shallots that really sealed the deal for these guys.
• Fresh raspberries from the backyard, especially those that come from plants that produce more than one crop per year.
• Brussels sprouts.

Line of the Week (#4)

“I said, 'I’m so happy, I could die.’
She said, ‘Drop dead,’ and left with another guy.”
—Elvis Costello

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Star Wars Goes Green

W calls light sabers light savers.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Line of the Week (#3)

"You don't know me, but you don't like me."
—Buck Owens

Dream Logic

I continue to be fascinated by the connections my sleeping mind is making. Last night I dreamed I was in New Orleans for a night, and I was walking around looking for Tipitina’s or some other famous restaurant for dinner. A block or two off the busy commercial area, I came across a restaurant in an old railroad shed/depot. The walls were corrugated tin, and inside the spacious hangar-like building there was a counter and then lengthy rows of tables with benches. Here and there solo nighthawks were nursing their coffees. Outside the building there were signs indicating the distances to other towns. Much to my surprise and delight, this was Alice’s Restaurant, the one Arlo Guthrie sang about. I decided I would be sure to have breakfast there the following morning before I left town.

When I woke up this morning, I realized the reason for the restaurant being set by the railroad tracks in New Orleans was because one of Arlo Guthrie’s other signature songs was “The City of New Orleans,” a song not about the city of course, but about the train of that name. Somehow, more than 25 years after I listened to those songs with any regularity, my dream mind managed to compress those details quite concisely.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Friday, November 7, 2008

Is There a Term for This?

The other day W had me befuddled when he proudly announced, "I break myself apart."

Moments later, R cleared things up for me when he corrected him: "You mean you crack yourself up."

Is there a term for this? When you use the wrong word, it's a malapropism. There ought to be a name for getting an idiom wrong. I'm open to suggestions.


W's term for cursive: fast-writing letters. Even the phrase seems to have its own momentum, like a self-propelled lawn mower, the letters almost writing themselves.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Why I’m Waiting Until the Last Minute to Vote

When it’s the fourth quarter and the game is on the line, I want the ball in my hands. If it’s tied coming down the stretch, I want my vote to break the deadlock.

Line of the Week (#2)

"If wishes were horses, I'd have a ranch."
—Lucinda Williams

Ranking the Major Outside Household Chores

1. Raking is the easy winner. The weather is usually temperate, and I have nothing but positive childhood connotations with raking. Last week the boys played for hours in the piles in the front yard. Of course, that meant I had to rake again, but that hardly matters. It was almost a pleasure. Admittedly, if I had more than one maple tree, I might not feel so generous about the activity. It also gains appeal for its rarity. Fall always seems to me the briefest, most fleeting of seasons. Unlike shoveling or mowing seasons, which go on for months, there is a very small raking window.

2. Shoveling also has good childhood connotations. Like piles of leaves, piles of snow mean great opportunities for playing. Working against snow removal are the facts that it can at times be extremely cold, that often it may have to be done at inconvenient times (e.g. before you can leave for work), or that you’re already tired and ready for a drink because your commute time has more than doubled due to the weather. If the snow is heavy it can also be a burden physically.

3. Mowing is the hands-down loser. There is really no play involved with mowing. It is a chore and nothing more. The weather is often unpleasantly hot, and a pile of grass clippings gives none of the satisfaction that you get from creating a pile of leaves or snow. It isn’t picturesque. You don’t want to dive or fall into it. And the fact is you’re going to have to do the same thing again in a week or so.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Line of the Week (#1)

"Baby, let's transverberate."
—The Hold Steady

Monday, October 27, 2008

My Band

Its Reputation Precedes It

The other day I was messing around with W., and I called him a son-of-a-gun. It's something my dad used to call me when I was around that age (5), and until this moment it had never dawned on me to wonder where that particular phrase comes from. I remember a country song that says, "My daddy was a pistol, and I'm a son-of-a-gun," but I'm pretty confident the phrase precedes that. In any case, W. adamantly denied that he was a son-of-a-gun, but then he suddenly and fluidly shifted gears. "Speaking of guns," he said, "I want to go to Texas."

Questions About Clothing

Is there anything more ridiculous than unpacking a new men's dress shirt? I mean, the various plastic and cardboard pieces, the pins, the tags attached two or three different ways on each shirt—it's a laborious process! The pins border on being a health hazard. And every brand follows the exact same procedure. Who came up with that? And why does everyone follow it so precisely? Is it really the only way to satisfactorily package a dress shirt?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Double Dipping

This is a kind of cheating—stealing from my own Facebook page to get material for my blog—but I've been so darn busy lately, I haven't had the time to post much (or even think much for that matter). I would like to have a few new things on here every now and then for those of you who are checking in.

My Top Facebook Updates of 2008 (so far):

• Corvus took his foot off the gas for a moment this morning (metaphorically), and it felt so good (literally)!
• Corvus's calf might be his Achilles heel.
• Corvus is the kind of guy who gives weekends a bad name.
• Corvus needs to get a clue, but hasn't a clue where to find one.
• Corvus has been mowing his brown lawn, so he doesn't cause a precipitous drop in property values in his otherwise lovely neighborhood.

Xylem & Phloem

Yesterday I woke up at 4 am with the words xylem and phloem bouncing around in my mind. The bio class I barely learned these terms in was 26 years ago, and while xylem shows up now and then in crosswords, I don't know that I've ever had cause to read, write, say, or hear phloem in over a quarter century.

This is the third time in 2008 my sleeping brain has brought facts to the surface that my conscious mind probably couldn't conjure if it tried. I kind of want to set my alarm clock for a different time every night, and see what else I can learn from myself. I'm also kind of scared. What else do I know that I've forgotten during the daylight hours?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Gainly & Chalant

Shouldn't gainly and chalant be words? How can you be ungainly if you can't be gainly? How can you be nonchalant if you can't be chalant? I mean, it's common enough to find things that are innocuous, but other things can be nocuous. We've all heard of the placebo effect, but there is also a nocebo effect as well. I'm not sure we should allow words that seem to exist only in contrast to something else if we don't have the something else by which we define their opposition.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Two Reasons Why Sasha Frere-Jones may be the Second Best Music Writer at The New Yorker

"When we played our version of funk or dub reggae, or tried to make a synthesizer sound like a dolphin fixing a tractor (tough but doable), it felt natural."

And, regarding Grizzly Bear (a band he likes):

"The band's sound suggests a group of eunuchs singing next to a music box on a sunken galleon."

—from The New Yorker, Oct. 22, 2007

In His Review of Mark Strand's New Selected Poems, Dan Chiasson Explains, in Part, Why There Are Sometimes Lengthy Gaps Between Entries on this Site

"Waiting for inspiration to strike can feel, Strand says, like trying to create a cat from a bowl of milk or a thief from an open wallet."

—from The New Yorker, Nov. 19, 2007

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Knots & Butterflies: The Countdown

This blog picked up steam for me back in the spring when I registered for the Twin Cities Marathon. I had a purpose and a focus as I wrote about my early, often discouraging efforts to get into shape. Then, early in the summer, I left the topic behind. The truth is after a series of frustrating runs, I was on the brink of giving up, and I wrote a lengthy, depressing piece on my ambivalence called “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” which I removed from the site shortly after I posted it. Somehow—in part by getting most of my runs in before the heat of the day—I managed to get around that bend that seemed so impossible then; training became rote and didn’t seem to raise any issues that required a written account; and now post time is only five days away.

My other friends who are running Sunday seem to be going through the same thing I am right now. That is to say, we are a bundle of nerves. One of them sent me an email on Sunday saying she had just driven the course. That single sentence caused my stomach to flip and flop for a few minutes. Then yesterday, another friend wanted to know where to go to watch the race, so I popped open my laptop to show her the course, and as the map came on the screen, my stomach headed straight south. Even writing this, which I’m hoping will help exorcise some of these nerves, is causing my stomach to flutter around a bit.

Here’s why we’re all a bit antsy. There’s nothing any of us can do now to prepare ourselves, really. The training is done—and, in most cases, we have undertrained a touch. A friend calls training for a marathon a second job because of the time it entails. Each of us follows a training schedule, but it’s pretty darn difficult to do everything the way it is charted out. Life gets in the way, and you make compromises. I’m taking comfort in Haile Gebrselassie’s comments after his new world record for the marathon that he had to miss an entire week of training shortly before that race. Clearly, the rest of his training was more than sufficient. I am harboring similar hopes for myself. I had a pretty successful 20-miler a few weeks back, and if my taper has been more of a sharp drop off than I would like, perhaps the previous months of training have been enough to make up for that.

The other thing that is difficult right now is the unknown and that which you have no control over. For the last couple weeks, I have been washing my hands constantly, hoping against hope not to contract the common cold at exactly the wrong time. A concern of mine long before I signed up for the race was the weather. The only previous marathon I’ve run, Grandma’s in 2006, was marked (or should I say marred?) by high temperatures and humidity: it was grueling. And the last two Twin Cities Marathons I have attended have been brutally hot. Both times, I kept saying to myself how glad I was to be watching rather than running. At this point, the forecast for Sunday is for mild temperatures, though I have heard talk of a possible headwind. With roughly 10,000 runners though, a person should be able to do a fair amount of drafting.

Then last night, while I was sleeping, my left calf cramped up, and it’s still tender and knotted today. I wrestled with calf problems all through my training for my previous marathon, and they tightened up at the three-mile mark in that one. I was pleased I could tough it out over 23 miles, but it also made the experience less than entirely enjoyable—especially combined with the heat and humidity. Later that summer, I made a mid-life stride change, and I have hardly had a twinge since then—until last night. I don’t think it is going to be a problem, but I’ll admit it has me a little freaked out.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Hats Off . . .

. . . to Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia on the occasion of his new marathon world record of 2:03:59 set in Berlin on Sunday. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s a pace of 4:43 per mile, which absolutely blows my mind. If any of you have ever spent time in your youth trying to break five minutes for the mile, or say 2:20 for the 800, you know what a feat this is. He ran 26 consecutive miles, each faster than I could run a single mile in my prime. On Sunday, I will attempt my second marathon. I am a solid middle-of-the-pack runner, the epitome of average. Odds are very good that I will finish in the middle 20% of the field, which is to say, in part, thousands of people will still finish behind me. If I manage to double Gebrselassie’s time, I will be celebrating like there’s no Monday.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Overheard from the Back Seat

"Wouldn't it be fun if we could take our heads off and go bowling with them?"

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Five Recent Books of Poetry That Reward Rereading

Time & Materials by Robert Hass (Ecco, 2007)—For me every new Hass volume is reason for celebration. They are rare enough occasions, and his most previous book, Sun Under Wood (Ecco, 1996), is the only one that has ever disappointed me, making the wait seem all the longer this time—and more tenuous. Would his poems still speak to me? The opening poem in the book is a mere couplet, but I can’t get enough of it.

Swoon by Victoria Redel (Chicago, 2003)—Though this is the oldest book on the list, it is the one I came across most recently, picking it up in a used book store just a couple weeks ago. I remember hearing something good about it when it was published—I don’t remember what it was or who said it, but I pulled it off the shelf, opened it at random, and almost immediately swooned. “The Bounty” is a wonderful poem set in a Costco about motherhood, the commercial abundance of America, and the desire to be part of the literary world, while also addressing the austere beauty of Jack Gilbert’s work. I even went online and ordered her first book of poems, Already the World (Kent State, 1995), and have found in it poems I will be returning to again and again as well.

Unmentionables by Beth Ann Fennelly (Norton, 2008)—Beth Ann Fennelly is smart, sexy, and funny. I fell in love with her first book, Open House (Zoo, 2001), and was equally taken with her follow-up, Tender Hooks (Norton, 2004). Unmentionables continues her exploration of the places where domesticity and wildness overlap. The sensual poems of parenting from Tender Hooks are continued here, and the influence of John Berryman, which was apparent in Open House, is addressed directly here. In addition, in a number of poems she delves into explorations of her adopted home in the south, most satisfyingly in a twenty-page poem called “The Kudzu Chronicles.”

Green Squall by Jay Hopler (Yale, 2006)—A volume focused on failure and alienation that won one of the most prestigious first book awards in the country. What will he do for an encore? He likes to verb nouns, which is mostly striking, but begins to feel a bit reflexive and overdone at times. His humor about his own failings reminds me of the early volumes of Franz Wright, but Hopler has longer, more loose-limbed lines, and the relentless sunshine of his Florida setting seems instinctively at odds with his despair, though it also engages and offsets it. His is the third strong debut to come out of Florida recently. Spencer Reece’s The Clerk’s Tale (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) and Randall Mann’s Complaint in the Garden (Zoo, 2004) are both remarkable books. Each of these poets has a very distinctive voice, vital intelligence, knowledge of forms, and curiosity about history. I look forward to seeing what all of them do in their next books.

Bucolics by Maurice Manning (Harcourt, 2007)— This series of 80 unpunctuated and untitled monologues addressed to God (who the speaker refers to as Boss) in the voice of an uneducated farmer are lyrical, devout, questioning, and often very funny. Manning’s ear for the music of the rural vernacular was obvious in his two previous books, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions (Yale, 2001) and A Companion for Owls (Harcourt, 2004). This guy is going to be raking in the awards before long.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Poetry Titles

Michael Atkinson has an enjoyable piece on the Poetry Foundation website about the titles of poetry collections. He says, "A gangbusters poetry book title should not only cook with language, but echo and sing of the real world in ways new to us. Ideally, it should suggest that a feast is before you, and that it will taste of ideas and humankind and beauty." It was enough to send me to my bookshelves to create my own top-ten list of titles culled from my collection. The quality of the poetry in the books had no bearing on the ranking. I just tried to credit the most engaging titles.

1. Meditations in an Emergency by Frank O’Hara
2. What Narcissism Means to Me by Tony Hoagland
3. Elegy for the Southern Drawl by Rodney Jones
4. Talking Dirty to the Gods by Yusef Komanyakaa
5. The Palm at the End of the Mind by Wallace Stevens
6. Saints of South Dakota by Katharine Whitcomb
7. The Theory & Practice of Rivers by Jim Harrison
8. The Night World and the Word Night by Franz Wright
9. Dime Store Erotics by Ann Townsend
10. A Hummock in the Malookas by Matthew Rohrer

Honorable Mention (three titles that aren’t technically eligible by my self-imposed rules, but that I want to recognize anyway): God Hunger by Michael Ryan (used to own the book, but no longer do), First Course in Turbulence by Dean Young (never owned the book), and The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir by Richard Hugo (one of the all-time great titles by a master of great titles; I own Making Certain It Goes On, his collected poems, which includes The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir).

Friday, September 5, 2008

Overheard in the Hall

"It's so weird when you see teachers joking with each other," said one teenager to another.

"Yeah," her friend replied, "it's like watching a dog walk on its hind legs."

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Divorce Poems

For a little while I’ve been toying with the idea of posting a short list of good divorce poems, and today Billy Collins and Poetry Daily moved me from musing to writing. Poetry Daily just posted a short poem by Collins called "Divorce" from his new book, Ballistics. It’s the kind of poem that I’m normally a sucker for, an elusively brief poem with a near symmetry that sounds almost like irrefutable logic.

Once, two spoons in bed,
now tined forks

across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.

The structure of it reminds me of A.R. Ammons’ delightful short poem, “Small Song”:

The reeds give
way to the

wind and give
the wind away

Despite their very different subjects, the poems’ structural similarities simultaneously draw attention to the subtle effectiveness of Ammons’ poem while pointing out the relative flatness of Collins’ work.

Ammons’ poem has two interrelated subjects, the wind and the reeds, and the poem echoes that pairing with repetition. In this 12-word poem, there are three words that appear twice—wind, give, and (a)way. He uses the alliteration of the w-sounds and the short i sounds to create a whispery susurration that also imitates the sound of the reeds in the wind. What the text of the poem describes also represents a doubling, visually the reeds give evidence of the wind, but as the title suggests, they also do that audibly. Ammons’ powers of observation and concision are funneled through these pairings—note also the two couplets of the poem—which reinforce the symbiotic relationship of the wind and the reeds.

Collins utilizes a similar structure—a single sentence spread over two two-line stanzas—but I don’t find it nearly as compelling a work. Collins has taken the comforting image of a couple spooning in bed (a cliché), and stretched the silverware metaphor from the domestic tranquility of the opening line to the threat of the lawyers in the final line, but the poem lacks those qualities that make Ammons poem so ineffable. Collins’ lines are not as compact or lyrical as Ammons’, and the images are not as effective. Spoons have turned into forks? And “tined” forks seems forced and redundant. Doesn’t every fork by definition have tines? The goal here seems to be to ratchet up the tension, but do forks ever really threaten each other? And while the knives of the final line represent a clear increase in the tension over the previous forks and spoons, I question whether lawyers are where the real pain of most divorces comes from (and keep in mind, the title “Divorce” really suggests a generality, that the poem itself is a metaphor for the topic). The damage and pain are usually done by the soon-to-be ex-spouses to each other. Often they have cut each other far worse in their spoon incarnations (as Collins’ imagery would have it) than those nasty knives ever could. And—in my questioning mode—do forks hire knives? And why a granite table? Yes, it may be cold, and it may suggest some kind of dining table, but it doesn’t seem (except in its coldness) to suggest a negotiating table or a courtroom table, and why should the kitchen utensils and setting represent the dissolution of a marriage? It seems a metaphor stretched too far with little concern for logical coherence or the music of the language.

Finally the rhyme/repetition in Ammons’ final word returns us back to the initial appearance of that word in the first stanza. It is a poem that leads us to reread it, that reveals its mystery even while continuing it in the sound and structure of it. Collins’ poem, on the other hand, ends absolutely at the period at the end of the fourth line. He has made his statement with an almost mathematical precision, but there’s nothing to lead us back into the poem. And I can’t find anything that enriches the poem with closer reading. In fact, that almost mathematical precision seems to fall apart upon further investigation into the imagery.

Obviously, I am not going to build my imaginary divorce poems anthology around Collins’ poem. Here are some I would include, however:

• “How Cow Bones Look After Your Wife’s Run Off” by D.C. Berry from his wonderfully titled collection, Divorce Boxing.
• “We Started Home, My Son and I” by James Harms, which originally appeared in West Branch, and has been reprinted in the current volume of The Pushcart Prize anthology. This is a heartbreakingly poignant poem which had me thinking Harms was one of the tribe, but I believe his marriage is intact, which makes his empathetic accomplishment even more impressive.
• “The Poet’s Wife Leaves Him for a Carpenter” by J.P. Murphy. This poem appeared in the March 2007 issue of English Journal, a publication for high school English teachers, which means it is readily available at most academic libraries, but it also means most literary tastemakers haven’t seen it. This is one of those times where I felt like the writer was taking notes from my own life. Mr. Murphy, if you're ever in St. Paul, I would be honored to buy you a drink.

For a Good Time, Call . . . (pt. 5)

Jon Stewart! Until a month or so ago I'd never had cable, so I had to take everyone's word for how funny Mr. Stewart and The Daily Show are. Despite now having access to it, I've still never watched it. This clip makes me think it might be time to start scheduling a little regular tv viewing time in the evening.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Chronicle of Minor Negligence and Irresponsibility (pt. 4)

8 things I failed to do last week:

• floss every single night.
• get in my long run for the week.
• buy a hanging pot for my new fern.
• mow the lawn.
• recover my hundreds of lost iTunes tracks.
• sell my screenplay.
• get a tattoo.
• set an Olympic, American, or world record.

Good Advice

"Fail. Fail Again. Fail Better."

—Samuel Beckett

From the Dept. of I Wanna Know More

"His mother, Myrna, a sculptor who works primarily in the medium of dried fish, said about him recently . . . " (emphasis mine)

—from Susan Orlean's article "Thinking in the Rain" in the Feb. 11 & 18, 2008 issue of The New Yorker.

14 Excellent Nonfiction Books

Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger
Blood Orchid by Charles Bowden
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
The Blind Side by Michael Lewis
The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
Where the Buffalo Roam by Anne Matthews
The Control of Nature by John McPhee
The Firecracker Boys by Dan O’Neill
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
Driving Mr. Albert by Michael Paterniti
Once Upon a Distant War by William Prochnau
American Stories by Calvin Trillin
A Wanderer in the Perfect City by Lawrence Weschler
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Five Reasons This Evening’s Quiche Made Me a Real Happy Man

• Leeks
• Gruyere
• Pancetta
• Shrimp
• Leftovers

Here's Something I Never Thought I'd Get to Say Again in this Lifetime on this Planet

I really liked Woody Allen's new movie.

Against Murakami

I feel like I first heard of Haruki Murakami in 1990 or 1991. He was a former jazz club owner who translated writers I loved like Raymond Carver and Richard Ford into Japanese, and his first novel to be translated into English, A Wild Sheep Chase, was being talked up as a Chandler-influenced exploration, something a bit lighter and stranger than a traditional hard-boiled mystery, an absurdist noir.

I tried the novel, and early on it didn’t do much for me, so I set it aside. I knew any time a novel doesn’t work that it may be the reader’s fault as much as the writer’s, and the mythology of Murakami was so engaging that he stayed on my radar for years even as I didn’t read him. A couple years ago, it seemed like I was hearing amazing things about his new novel, Kafka on the Shore, everywhere I turned. It seemed like it was time to give him another try. The only question was whether to read Kafka or his other big book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. People seemed split on which of them was better, and the gist of most conversations was that I wouldn’t go wrong with either one.

Kafka on the Shore blew my mind. I had never read anything like it. The closest analogy I can come up with is my experience watching Being John Malkovich. All the rules and conventions I had counted on as a viewer or reader had been twisted around. I recognized things, but they no longer made sense in the same way. On the familiar drive home from watching John Malkovich, I took a wrong turn. I was that disoriented. Kafka did the same thing to my equilibrium, but whereas Malkovich was mostly funny, Kafka resonated with history, loss, tragedy, and a poignant inability for characters to connect. I talked the book up to everyone, gave it as a Christmas present, and looked forward to the ever-lengthening shelf of Murakami titles I would eagerly work my way through.

But a funny thing happened on my way to Murakami-induced bliss: I got bored. I turned first to his other epic work, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and every trope sounded familiar. It was like reading another version of Kafka, but what had been magical now seemed habitual. The narrator-protagonist had a sense of alienation from everything (work, love, geography) that was strikingly similar to Kafka Tamura’s. There were mysterious alienated disappearing potential impossible love interests. There was the same sense of menace and fate, marked by massive good luck and coincidence as well as inexplicable dangers, mysteries, and disappearances. It felt like names and places had been changed, but otherwise the tone and content of both books were remarkable similar. Life is too short to read long books that aren’t moving you, so I set it aside, but I kept in mind the possibility mentioned earlier that perhaps I had failed the book, and in bookstores I would often find myself in the Murakami section contemplating a different angle of attack.

At the end of this school year, I plucked the thin volume, Norwegian Wood, off the shelf. On my internal buzzmeter, it was the next most discussed book of his. I managed to read the whole thing, and though I quoted a brief passage earlier on this blog, it was a desultory experience at best. Other than the passive tone (again), the aimless protagonist/narrator (again!), and the inability of any character to really connect with another (again!!!), I couldn’t fully manage to put my finger on what I found so dispiriting about it—until I read Geoff Dyer’s recent review of Murakami’s latest book, a nonfiction account of his life as a runner. (I should love this guy!—he runs marathons, writes novels, loves pop culture, and he has translated writers who are important to me.) Dyer pointed out to me that it wasn’t just the characters and their situations that left me uninspired, but the tics of language, the prose style that describes those characters and situations. The things that bothered Dyer about Murakami’s nonfiction were traits I immediately recalled from his fiction, and the voice that Dyer was hearing was the same one that wasn’t working for me.

It’s always a pleasure to come across a skilled, articulate reader. Dyer has been on my radar for a number of years. It may be time to move one of his titles on to my “Books to Read” list.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


One of the joys of kids is their fresh approach to language. Sometimes through their ignorance of the finer points of usage, they make ordinary language dance and shout and sing again, bringing to our attention the conventions and clichés that are such an integral part of our world that frequently we don’t even notice them. W, for example, uses a regular conjugation for the conjunction “won’t,” saying “I willn’t.” A number of years ago R tended to conflate two interjections to make an even more powerful one. Though he has long stopped saying it, I still use “Holy Smokes Cow!” for moments of awe and great enthusiasm.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Monday, August 4, 2008

Good Companions: Two Poems About Rocks

I gave my love a rock, and she gave me ashes. It was enough to turn me off of rocks for a while, but I’ve always had a soft spot for them, and this weekend at Whitefish Point I fell in love with them again. What appeared to be a sand beach gave way to rocks at the edge of the water. I was simply keeping an eye on the boys while enjoying the water horizon and mild temperature when the rocks started to call to me. Initially it was just a single rock that stuck out from the others, all the more brilliant for being wet. While holding and admiring it, others appeared to me, equally beautiful and distinct. Before long I found myself filling my pockets, then I had to run to the car to get a larger container. After a bit, the boys started heading for the car, but I could barely pull myself away. There kept being one more rock that wanted my attention. I wanted to scoop up pounds of them to go through later, and discard the ones I didn’t love, but that goes against my initial rule of rock collecting, that it is a selective process, that I take only those that really speak to me.

In honor of this weekend, and my return to rocks, or their return to me (whichever is more accurate), I would like to call attention to my two favorite poems about rocks, two works that seem to capture the essence of stone: “Rock Said” by Jeanne Marie Beaumont, from her book Curious Conduct (BOA) and “The Encyclopedia of Stones: A Pastoral” by James Richardson, from Interglacial: New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms (Ausable). Beaumont’s poem is a right-justified monologue in the voice of a rock, or perhaps more accurately, it is a series of one-line monologues, each a single sentence. The right justification creates a sense of stillness that seems absolutely perfect for a rock’s voice, a rock that is not only perceptive, but often quite funny. Richardson’s poem is lengthy, 63 separate sections, each a small meditation or pensee. They are written in the third-person plural, but they seem kin to Beaumont’s first-person speaker. In both cases, the poets have created a stillness, a sense of calm. These rocks are, perhaps above all else, observers. They have a far different perspective on time than humans do, and they use that to gently point out our foibles. The rocks in both poems are humble and funny, good companions.

Though I am not nuts about either of these books in their entirety, each of them includes pleasures beyond the rock poems as well. Curious Conduct has a list poem composed entirely of questions called “Afraid So” that is worth rereading, and Interglacial contains 16 ½ pages of aphorisms that are a delight.

Mark Your Calendars!

I know many people would be severely disappointed if they accidentally missed one of the Olympic marathons, so I'm offering the following reminder as a public service announcement: the women's race is Saturday, August 16 and the men run the following Saturday, August 23.

I'm not convinced Deena Kastor can repeat her bronze medal performance from 2004, but I do look for Ryan Hall to be in the hunt for a medal in what should be a very tight race on the men's side. Don't be surprised if the top five or six runners finish within a minute of each other.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Thank God for Required Reading!

Though I’m not normally a fan of bestsellers, especially those that might be deemed ‘inspirational,’ I’m making an exception for Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. It was an assigned reading for work, and I was more than skeptical about it; a friend had called it self-serving, and it had all the earmarks of the book de jour—every mother at the pool who was sipping a fancy coffee or bottled water seemed to be reading it. It looked like this summer’s Water for Elephants. I’m sure the film rights have already been sold for a tidy sum, so that Hollywood can produce one of those inspirational blockbusters that is based on a true story. Not normally my cup of tea, so to speak, but it was our required summer reading, so as July drew to an end, I decided it was time to take my first step toward getting ready for the new school year. What I found was an engaging and moving story, a riveting adventure tale that never swayed from its ethical center nor succumbed to self-righteous finger-wagging.

Three Cups of Tea is a nonfiction work about Greg Mortenson, a mountain climber who, after a failed attempt to conquer K2, finds his calling building schools, especially for girls, in the most isolated, rugged, and impoverished nooks and crannies of Pakistan and Afghanistan—a remarkably difficult and dangerous task in the best of times, and one that becomes even more complicated and risky after the events of September 11, 2001—with a missionary zeal that seems genetic. That summary however doesn’t do justice to the narrative momentum of the book. There’s almost an Indiana Jones sense of tempo and adventure made all the more compelling by the fact that its nonfiction, and that Mortenson has a real moral purpose.

Let’s set aside the message of the book for a moment though to look at what makes it a compelling read. It has high altitude adventure; holiday season heartbreak; the penniless, jobless, homeless, loveless, clueless blues; a whirlwind romance; long odds; fantastic coincidences; a protagonist with a monastic devotion to a seemingly quixotic quest and a comic cluelessness of how to go about achieving it; a protagonist constitutionally inured to discomfort; a kidnapping; war; terrorists; foreign journalists; an international cast of strong-spined characters; fatwas; cultural clashes, both comic and menacing. This is a partial list, but my point here is that the book is fun to read, which is reason to pick it up.

Mortenson comes across as truly heroic, and while that makes reading the book a pleasure, it may also be the book’s major fault. This is almost a hagiography, and one in which the subject is also the co-author. I really wish Mortenson wasn’t identified as a co-author. The book is written in the third person, and Mortenson comes across as the kind of hero the world is always in need of, that is one who is selflessly devoted to the greater good, regardless of small minds and short-sightedness on the local and global levels. And part of what the book always makes clear is that it takes a village (a global one in this case) to support a hero. Without Mortenson these wonderful projects would never have happened, but it’s also true, and readily acknowledged, that he could not have pulled these projects off without the support of a huge web of individuals. If I just think about the text of the book I am sucked in and moved, but when I remember that Mortenson is the co-author I become skeptical for a moment. If a journalist throws aside objectivity to write an unabashed hagiography that says something about how persuasive his or her subject is, but when the subject himself is saying these things about himself, it seems to undercut the claims about his humility. It’s a real complaint, but it’s not enough to substantially dampen my enthusiasm for this book.

Three Cups of Tea is the most inspirational book I’ve read since Heft on Wheels: A Field Guide to Doing a 180 by Mike Magnuson. But that’s a horse of an entirely different breed and color.

(If you order Three Cups of Tea from the link above, 7% of the purchase goes toward a girls’ education scholarship in Pakistan and Afghanistan.)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

For a Good Time, Call . . . (pt. 4)

Failblog! I can't remember the last time I laughed this hard. 

Self-Promotion & Cross-Pollination

Who doesn't need a good word-a-day site? This one is unpretentious and fun, plus the July 18 word was submitted by yours truly. Have at it!

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Last night I discovered Ben & Jerry's creme brulee ice cream—to the tune of better than half a pint. Chasing the brulee riffle is a particularly tantalizing addiction. I guess I owe it to myself to finish the rest of the container today, and get that particular temptation out of the house.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

For a Good Time, Call . . . (pt. 3)

Desmond Dekker. I woke up in the middle of the night once this winter with the words "Desmond Dekker" and the refrain "The Israelites" running through my head. I hadn't heard the song for maybe twenty years. I hadn't talked about it recently or read anything about him. I don't know why I woke up, or what these things were doing running through my subconscious, but when daylight came around I went to YouTube, and there it was—every bit as good (or better) than I remembered.

On a somewhat related note, I recently had another odd experience with my dream mind. For no good reason I can think of I had been trying for a few days to recall the name of my middle school science teacher. I could picture his face and physique and certain mannerisms, but no matter what I did, I couldn't bring back his name. I even remembered that he had a son who played basketball and ran the hurdles, but for names . . . nothing. Then a few nights ago, I woke up in the early hours of the morning, interrupting a dream he was in, and there was his name—first and last!—and his son's name as well.

Further Adventures with Twice-Cooked Foods

Today’s lunch had its roots back in three different meals from the long weekend with the boys. At their request, I grilled burgers for dinner on the fourth, but one of my grilling rules (maybe my only one) is never to grill just one item, so I also threw on some marinated chicken breasts that I planned to include in Saturday’s panini. As it turned out, we didn’t eat all of the chicken during that meal, so I had some leftovers. Then Sunday night, we had spaghetti at R’s request, traditional American red sauce over pasta, but again there was plenty of leftover pasta.

Going through the fridge, I came across these items, as well as a few others, and started to envision a dish made in part of leftovers that would also be elegant and flavorful enough to serve to guests. I first read about fried pasta in John Thorne’s Outlaw Cook a number of years ago, and his enthusiasm, the simplicity of the meal, and the ingredients (olive oil, garlic, and leftover spaghetti) appealed to me immediately. My plan here was to use that modest combination as a base, and try something a little more complex.

I started by dicing and frying some pancetta. After setting that aside, I sautéed onions and then garlic in olive oil. Once those were lightly browned, I added more olive oil, and placed the leftover pasta—angel hair in this case—in the pan, turning it every so often, so that the edges became golden and crispy. When this was about halfway done, I added the chopped chicken from the fridge, the pancetta, and some capers. Once everything was cooked, the dish was topped with parmesan, toasted slivered almonds, fresh parsley, and a touch of lemon.

See Also: Previous Adventures with Twice-Cooked Food

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Shrimp Tacos with (More Than) a Little Help From a Friend, or Further Adventures in Marinating

Former professional cook, ongoing gourmand, mild-mannered bon vivant, and all-around good guy Hubcap was coming in to town, and I had no idea what to feed him, when all of a sudden I had a vision.

I was sitting outside at Sea Salt, a local seafood eatery near Minnehaha Falls that everyone raves about. Alas, both times I have been there, the food has been, well . . . fine, pleasant. Let me be clear, I have no real complaints, but when it comes to seafood and everyone raving, well . . . it seems like things should be pretty transcendent. So, I’m sitting there mildly enjoying my shrimp taco when the thought plops down on top of me: I could make a better one, and I should do so for my good friend, Hubcap.

The only problem with my vision was that it was a partial one. I saw tender pink shrimp with a touch of lime, Monterey jack, and either avocados or guacamole, a little shredded lettuce and tomatoes, but I was drawing a blank on the salsa front. A traditional red salsa would have been adequate, but this was seafood and Hubcap and my own little ego; adequate wouldn’t suffice. So, I emailed my friend, C, another former professional cook, ongoing gourmand, less mild-mannered bon vivant (or perhaps bonne vivante, je ne sais pas) and all around good guy (er, gal).

She didn’t hesitate (at least as far as one can suss out hesitation or its lack thereof in an email) to lay out some guidelines that made me second and third-guess her self-editor, before following them (for the most part) to what I considered raving success. I thought I was inquiring about salsa, but the technique C introduced me to, one I had never heard of—and neither have any of the friends I’ve mentioned it to since then—was a post-cooking marinade. I hope I am not revealing any family or trade secrets, but for you, dear reader, it’s a risk I’m willing to run.

She directed me to cut the shrimp in half lengthwise, another step that was new to me, but which proved a fine move on the texture front, and a nice way of ensuring shrimp in every bite, something that doesn’t always happen with shrimp dishes. After quickly sautéing then removing them from the pan, I sautéed finely chopped onions and garlic, then poured lime juice over them, and let that cook for another minute or two. At this point, I combined the garlic-onion-lime concoction with the shrimp and placed it all in the fridge for an hour or two.

C’s other excellent suggestion was to put the flour tortilla on the skillet in a touch of oil, and sprinkle the Monterey jack on top of it. There was a trade-off with this step—the tortillas weren’t as malleable as they usually are—but it’s one I would make again for the sake of the crispy shell and melted cheese surrounding the rest of the ingredients. The only place I veered from C’s directions was in my choice of a tomatillo salsa over pico de gallo.

See also: Previous Adventures in Marinating

Monday, June 30, 2008

How Did This Happen and What Does It Say About Me?

The other night I stopped in the grocery store to pick up a few things, and I found myself filling the cart with beverages. When I got home and started putting them away I found that the cupboards and fridge were already loaded with drinks and drink-making materials. Am I just a sucker for liquids? Is it nasty American consumerism run rampant in a very specialized area?Is it the boy scout in me trying to be prepared for any situation? Or is it something else? What follows is an annotated list of the drinks (and powders and gels to make drinks) in my kitchen.

• mineral water
• milk
• half and half
• orange juice
• apple juice
• four kinds of beer
• French berry lemonade
• cream soda
• tonic water
• margarita mix
• rice milk
• three different brands of sports drink (in liquid form, as well as two flavors of gel and one of powder to make more sports drinks)
• two flavored syrups to make Italian sodas (pomegranate and blood orange)
• peach nectar (good for making popsicles)
• guava nectar (good for making popsicles)
• mango nectar (good for making popsicles)
• five different liquors
• a handful of bottles of red and white wine
• crystals to make the all-natural caffeine-free fake coffee drink I have every morning
• coffee (for guests)
• herbal tea
• hot chocolate
• small boxes of Juicy Juice 

I know I'm stocked up right now, but this seems like a lot of drinks. Am I out of line? There are two boys, and a number of the items on the list are for them. The funny thing is I drink a lot of plain ol' water, too.

More Track and Field Predictions

Tonight is the men's 5000 meter finals. I'm picking Bernard Lagat to win and Matt Tegenkamp to place second. Third place seems wide open to me. I'm tempted to pick the baby-faced Galen Rupp for third, but I'll be cheering for local boy Matt Gabrielson to surprise a bunch of people and pull off a spot on the team.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Handicapping the 10k

We were going to go to the track tonight to watch the ponies run, but a storm blew in, so we decided to settle for Mexican seafood instead. The ceviche tostadas were the hands-down winners on that front, but that's not really the matter at hand.

Today is the first day of the Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Oregon, and I want to make my picks public in advance of tonight's race. Most of the events today are preliminary heats, but the women's 10,000 meter final goes off at 9:20 pacific time. There's a field of 24 runners. Here's my exacta for tonight's race, the three Olympic qualifiers in the predicted order of their finish:

1. Shalane Flanagan
2. Kara Goucher
3. Katie McGregor

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Antigone in Her Tomb

Your will, finally, is unknowable. I am
exhausted, exasperated. Look
where my most willful
vows have landed me. Father, mother, and a brother already
underground, exiled for eternity from our native
Thebes . . . I claim no kin in that city. My
so-called sister mourns alone,
respected by a fool and other frauds, a
quorum of spineless idiots
posing as law-abiding citizens. The
offense reeks—a blind man can see that.
No one deserves such a sentence, least of all
my deceived, much-wronged brother—
left to rot on the desert plain. Generations will
know I would not accept that un-
just decree. I am not sorry, though I admit
I may have misjudged the jury of the gods.
Here I will end my otherwise unending agony,
groomless, convicted, and unconvinced.
From now on, on the surface of this most grotesque
earth, my name will echo, a doer of
deeds, one who believes, who acts, while
Creon—cruel, unjust—will be forever
banished from the rolls of the noble.
Always, always, always,

—Dallas Crow

"Antigone in Her Tomb" originally appeared in the Winter 2004 issue of Arion.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

For a Good Time, Call . . . (pt. 2)

Count No Count (aka Little Billy Faulkner, Wild Bill Faulkner, Wee Willie Faulkner, and the Nobel laureate). Or is it the German translation machine? You be the judge.

On a more serious note, here’s Faulkner’s hit single, his Nobel acceptance speech. I could listen to it for hours, maybe even until “the last ding dong of doom.”

Monday, June 16, 2008

Poor Kid—Punning Already at Age Five

I woke up W. this morning by chanting a little Bob Marley to him: "Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights." His first words of the day? "Dad, you should've said, 'Get up, stand up. Stand up for your lefts.'"

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Teaching the Villanelle

Every year I make my students attempt a villanelle.
They complain, whine, contemplate spontaneous combustion.
An aspiring Dante consigns me to my own private ring in Hell.

They tell each other the guidelines are impossible,
swear to me the assignment requires unattainable perfection.
I urge them not to think of the villanelle’s

form as a constraint, but as a container—a vase, a well—
into which words are poured. They laugh sourly at my suggestion,
convinced of conspiracy: one more teacher’s maliciously-designed Hell.

I demur, though not demurely, tell them filling the form well
is one art, playing with it an equally valid option.
As evidence I offer Carruth’s extended villanelle

and Klappert’s “Ellie Mae.” For a few the stanzas start to gel.
To their surprise they find a friend in repetition.
The assignment becomes a puzzle rather than a sentence in Hell.

One student wakes more slowly to the task, Monday’s 8:30 bell
ringing as he prints out his formal explosion,
cursing not the darkness but his father in his villanelle—
a curse disguised as a blessing for his adolescent Hell.

—Dallas Crow

"Teaching the Villanelle" originally appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Minnesota English Journal.

Friday, June 13, 2008


A few years ago, a student introduced me to this word—or perhaps, since I can’t find a traditional print dictionary that includes it, pseudoword (which is itself not actually an official, real word either, though perhaps it should be as well)—and I fell in love with it immediately. It means the fear of palindromes, and it is a term that is pleasing to me for its aesthetic logic. The urban dictionary lists it, as does wikipedia, and I’m all for everyone using it whenever possible, so that it becomes a legitimately recognized word. Of course, the opportunity to bring up the fear of palindromes doesn’t necessarily pop up all that often in conversation or in print, but it’s worth working on. If triskaidekaphobia can be a real word—and it is (the fear or superstition regarding the number 13)—why not aibohphobia?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Breakfast Chez Corvus

Scrambled eggs with andouille sausage, sautéed onions and red peppers, mozzarella, and a bit of sun-dried tomato and basil, along with two slices of ciabatta toast. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 9, 2008

"The Wind Doesn't Blow. It Sucks!"

I saw the adage above on a fellow cyclist’s t-shirt the summer I was 14 while biking across Iowa (take heart middle school teachers—some things that enter the adolescent brain appear to lodge there permanently). 28 years later, I have had cause to recall it any number of times while training for this marathon. It occurred to me today when I turned the third corner of my rectangular route, expecting relief after running into the wind for the first two legs, only to find myself fighting a headwind again. The homestretch also featured a headwind. How does it do that?

Earlier this spring I almost wrote another entry with this title, and I was going to claim that nothing was as likely to stop me as a stiff headwind. Especially if it’s on a particularly long stretch, and even more so if that long stretch is uphill. In fact, I’m not sure that’s true. I may have been as disheartened at times over the years by hills as I have been by headwinds, though I think I have had more successes on hills than I have heading into the wind.

Well, as I predicted last week, the last few days have been slogs, but yesterday and today I put long uphills in the second half of my runs. Today, I put in the very hill I’m going to have to face at around 20 miles in the marathon. I plan on running it so many times before the race that I will know every landmark along the way. Even though today’s run wasn’t easy, I’m already feeling like that hill is a little more manageable.

I made it over the eight-mile mark today, only a day or two after my training schedule called for it, but I certainly didn’t find any endorphins there. I’ll have to look for them again another day.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


This week marks the beginning of the eighteen-week marathon training program, and I got off to a great start by missing the first two days of it. Nonetheless, today I had the first really good run since I started this blog. Went over forty-five minutes, picking up the pace as I went along. According to the bipolar runner’s guide, this successful run will be followed by some ugly ones in the coming days, but today I finally felt like a runner rather than a poseur.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


Last night I went to a coffee shop between 6 and 7 o’clock to grade my last batch of papers for the year. In trying to decide what to order (I rarely go to coffee shops or drink coffee, and after a hot, sunny day I was contemplating my first iced cup of the year, but a storm was coming in, the sky had darkened severely, and there was clearly something to be said for a warm mug, not to mention the question of sizes, choice of blends, etc.) I forgot to make mine a decaf. At 2 am I was dancing up a storm in my living room.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

I Stand By My Longstanding Position

"Peggy Sue Got Married" is the essential overlooked Buddy Holly song. It never shows up on the compilation albums. I haven't heard it in so long that sometimes I feel like I have only imagined its existence.

A Teaching Exercise for Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”

I run my short story unit as a discussion class where we collaboratively come up with a close critical reading of the story at hand, which seems to be an effective, largely enjoyable approach. Nonetheless, the students really get a boost of energy when there is a bit of variation in the read-discuss pattern. For example, with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” I divide the class in half, and hold a debate on whether Gimpel is a fool or not. There is plenty of evidence for both sides, and without exception the kids have gotten behind their positions, searching through the texts for passages to support their claims, and often continuing the discussion off and on throughout the semester.

With Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” I have had success dividing students into small groups (say threes), and having them come up with slogans for each of the three main characters, Francis, his wife, and Wilson, the hunting guide. In coming up with a catchy motto for each character the students have to understand their behavior and motivation, their fears and goals. I have been quite impressed with the identifying phrases the students (10th graders) have come up with, and the way they have explained them. It’s also for them a lengthy story with a narrative chronology that is somewhat hard to follow, and this exercise gives them clear entrée to the characters and their inner lives, which then allows us to look at the narrative with a fair understanding of the story already under our belts, rather than starting out by tripping over the order of the events.

Here is a sampling:

Flip-Flop Francis
The first kill is always the hardest
A boy to a man
Too little, too late
In like a lamb, out like a lion
Man up
The brave coward

Red face, black heart
Wilson: friend or foe?
Bravery gets results
What can killing do for you?
The great white hunter
Hunt, kill, sleep with someone's wife
Wilson: standing his ground no matter what.

Margaret Macomber
Beauty begets betrayal
Kiss and kill
Murder is (not) my middle name
Easy and sleazy
I shot my husband but I did not shoot the buffalo
(I’m) in it for the money
Money > Love

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


If ever there were a word whose reputation was deserving of rehabilitation it would have to be dilettante. The connotations with it are usually negative. A dilettante is a dabbler, one who lacks commitment, perhaps a step above a ne’er-do-well. A quick glance at the OED shows that was not always the case.

1. A lover of the fine arts; originally one who cultivates them for the love of them rather than professionally, and so = amateur as opposed to professional; but in later use generally applied more or less depreciatively to one who interests himself in an art or science merely as a pastime and without serious aim or study (‘a mere dilettante’).

I find it interesting that the OED uses the term amateur there, for that is another word that is often used near disdainfully, but its roots are in the Latin word for love. An amateur is someone who does something out of passion rather than for recompense. And think about it, if you apply that to the act of love, who wouldn’t want to be an amateur? The OED identifies dilettante as coming from the Latin word delectare (to delight). Again, what a wonderful quality!

When George Plimpton died, Rachel Blount wrote in the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, “What athletes created through muscle and reflex, Plimpton translated with wit and keen observation. In that gift, he remains unsurpassed. Plimpton himself said, “There are people who would perhaps call me a dilettante, because it looks as though I’m having too much fun. I have never been convinced there’s anything inherently wrong in having fun.”

Through his writing, editing, publishing, and participation in the pleasures of life Plimpton made this world a richer, more interesting place. If you doubt this, simply watch When We Were Kings, the documentary about Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s “Rumble in the Jungle.” Plimpton’s pleasure and energy become ours, and in his role of interpreter he gives meaning and order to the film.

It’s enough to make me hope someone someday might call me a dilettante.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Against Bestsellers

"If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking."
—from Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Twice-Cooked Food

When I fire up the grill, it doesn’t seem worth cooking just one meal, so I usually put on something for another day as well. Twice this spring while cooking up traditional grilling fare like burgers, dogs, and brats, I’ve thrown on a salmon filet or two afterward to use at a later time.

Leftovers have a bad name; they’re second rate, like hand-me-downs. They aren’t something to offer guests other than close friends or family in very informal situations, but a twice-cooked dish seems to me a legitimate meal. A pot of chili, stew, or rice and beans can provide meals for me for a week, and in my youth I was fond of cold pizza for breakfast, but twice-cooked food takes on a form different than the original food. It isn’t mere leftovers. Not only that, the term lends it a certain legitimacy (or at least I like to think it does). A twice-cooked dish sounds more appealing than leftovers—after all, there are already twice-baked potatoes and double boilers. And, the salmon cakes I have been making, golden brown and crispy on the outside while tender and flavorful inside, are definitely guest-worthy if the occasion calls for it, but perhaps more importantly for me, they also please the palates of two young boys.

I use Ron Berg’s recipe from Northwoods Fish Cookery as a guide, though I have been substituting shallots for garlic with great satisfaction, which is saying something coming from a garlic lover. I make a simple dip for it by combining bay powder and mayonnaise. The truth is I don’t know which I like more, the salmon cakes or the zesty mayo.

Training Log: Slogging

For the third consecutive weekend I got in a run of over five miles, but none of them have been easy. I have yet to get in the groove on any of these outings. My ankles still feel tight and weak (each in its own way), and every mile has offered numerous tempting opportunities to give up. I’m just one week away from the beginning of my 18-week training program, and I’m glad I’ve got those runs in, but I would feel better about starting the official training schedule if I felt a little more at ease during at least some of my workouts.

Question of the Day

A few days short of his fifth birthday, Zen Master W challenges a widely used sportscasting statement: “In a game where the score is zero to zero, how come the announcers say, ‘There’s no score yet,’ when the score is zero to zero?”

Well, philosophers, linguists, and other honored guests, I do believe the boy has a point. Though neither team has scored, the game does indeed have a score. Chalk another one up for the little guys.

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Chronicle of Minor Negligence and Irresponsibility (pt. 3)

Six Things I Didn’t Do Last Week:

• Clip my toenails.
• Dine with a Middle Eastern potentate.
• Dine with a scion of American industry.
• Take home a puppy from the humane society.
• Take vows of any kind.
• Sing along with The Everly Brothers in the car (though I do confess that I did sing along with Van Morrison’s Moondance, the album, not the track, which I skipped each time it came around).

Sunday, May 18, 2008

For English Teachers Only: Poems to Teach Alongside Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

• “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen
• “why must itself up every of a park” by E.E. Cummings
• “next of course to god america i” by E.E. Cummings
• “i sing of Olaf glad and big” by E.E. Cummings
• “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell
• “On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the Vietnam War” by Hayden Carruth
• “Plague Victims Catapulted over Walls into Besieged City” by Thomas Lux
• "At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border" by William Stafford

Friday, May 16, 2008

Bipolar Runner’s Disorder

I mentioned recently how easily I can go from Walter Mitty heights of imagined glory to the equally convincing depths of unworthiness during a single run. Well, the same thing happens (perhaps not surprisingly) from day to day as well.

Last week I had a couple of very successful runs. On Thursday I finally broke the 30-minute barrier for the first time in 2008 with a four-mile run, then on Saturday I went six, my longest run since November 2007. I felt like I had broken out of my rut, and was on my way to being in good enough shape to really start my marathon training program.

Of course, the two runs after that were sluggish and disappointing. I barely made thirty minutes one day, and opted for twenty the other. The bad runs were followed by two days off, when I either didn’t have time to run, or didn’t make time. One of them I woke up early enough to sneak in a workout, but I couldn’t convince myself to get out of bed. Two bad runs followed by two days off had me questioning whether I had any right to be attempting a marathon. I certainly didn’t feel like a real runner.

Yesterday, after the two days off, I went out slowly and had a relatively decent run. I was weary by the end, but I picked up my pace over the course of the run rather than flagging in the later stretches, and perhaps even more importantly, the ankle joints that have been extremely tight all winter and into the spring are loosening up, so I felt like I was running instead of just shuffling.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Chronicle of Minor Negligence and Irresponsibility (pt. 2)

Five things I didn’t do this week:

• Go to church.
• Swim laps at the Y.
• Spray chemicals on the lawn.
• Plan the ascent of a major peak requiring Sherpas and oxygen tanks.
• Go to a honky-tonk looking for trouble.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Good News!

The route I've been running that I estimated at around three miles is actually 3.5. That means I've been going a touch farther and a touch faster than I had been giving myself credit for. A nice boost on an off-day—added a couple miles to my weekly milage with a few clicks of the mouse.

Training Log: Bits & Pieces

Three runs in the last five days, which means five workouts in seven days. That’s right about on target. Off-days are important, but they always make me nervous. I’m afraid that things are going to come up immediately afterward, and all of a sudden I’m going to have three or four off-days in a row, and lose conditioning.

I haven’t gone over thirty minutes yet, and two days I only got in twenty minutes, one because of scheduling constraints, the other because I just didn’t have it in me. It’s amazing where the mind can go even during a short run. Within a mile or two, I can feel good enough to think I could set a time goal, and tear up the marathon course (at least by my personal mediocre middle-age standards), and before I know it, I’m feeling like the idea of even completing a marathon will be an impossible stretch, a set up for failure and embarrassment. Both mindsets are completely believable to me—within minutes of each other!

The best run of the last three was yesterday in a downpour, which was the best once since . . . the previous one in a downpour, which got me thinking about weather. Minnesota’s two marquee marathons, Grandma’s and Twin Cities, used to practically guarantee cool weather (ideal for 26.2 miles); however, in recent years, they have resembled long-distance saunas. When I ran Grandma’s in 2006 (my first and only marathon to this point), the humidity at the start was frighteningly close to triple digits, and by the time I hit Duluth, the sun was baking the streets of the town, with no shade anywhere. When I watched the 2006 & 2007 Twin Cities Marathons (both sunny, hot, and humid) I was happy to be on the sidelines cheering and had no desire whatsoever to participate. Part of the reason I decided to register this year was because it’s been such a cool, gray spring that I managed to convince myself that October 5, 2008 might actually be a traditional, cool autumn day. I’ll be crossing my fingers for the next five months on that issue.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

A Chronicle of Minor Negligence and Irresponsibility

Five Things I Didn't Do This Week:

• Change my oil.
• Iron my shirts.
• Cross the state line.
• Dance.
• Enter The New Yorker's Cartoon Caption Contest.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Training Log: Day Two

Gray, rainy, and windy all day, 40 degrees at 5:15 according to the State Farm agent’s about a mile into my run.

The trees are on the verge of leafing out, something they may be regretting tonight if we get snow as predicted. I got thirty minutes in the hard way this evening. It’s hardly inviting weather for a workout, but once I got the kinks worked out, it was my best run since . . . well, since the last time I ran in weather like this. At least until the last half-mile home stretch which was directly into the wind and rain.

Afterwards, apropos of nothing except perhaps his dad’s seemingly foolish run in the blustery weather, R. asked if I was ever going to run another marathon. When I told him I had just signed up for the Twin Cities, his face lit up, as did his younger brother’s, and they raised their palms to me for high fives. An unforeseen bonus! Great to have their enthusiastic support!

Training Log: Day One

A few weeks ago I started toying with the idea of signing up for the Twin Cities Marathon. I had all but decided not to enter when I learned that two friends had registered, so due to peer pressure and the idea of camaraderie and the other ideas (fitness, accomplishment, it's not going to be any easier to attempt such a thing a year or two down the road, etc.) that had me considering the marathon in the first place, I decided to go ahead with it. Buyer's remorse settled in pretty quickly, but 48 hours later I got my first training run in, so things are underway.

Made it 30 minutes without stopping today (with the exception of two brief red lights). Five months to add four hours of endurance. I think my weekly basketball game is wreaking havoc with my ankles. Only one more month of that. If I can make it through that without getting injured, I want to think the ankle joint tightness will ease up.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A List of Delightful Words (in no particular order, along with three ugly words and two words that don't sound like what they mean)

pugilist anathema palimpsest
fedora porkpie penultimate
antepenultimate cahoots Poughkeepsie
Schenectady gadfly conundrum
filch consternation coagulate
ostensible conduit languid
goad quench slake
quintessential epitome terrestrial (though certainly not extra-terrestrial) quixotic Ishmael
Galilee Guillaume Shiloh
Antietam quandary inchoate
diaspora niche lucid
ripe unctuous poseur
somnambulist preternatural quisling
a cappella mooncalf portent(s)
cantankerous curmudgeon prelapsarian
farcical guano guile
segue fugue echolocation
scurvy beriberi lemur
tapir Liverpudlian Glaswegian
shenanigans bivouac succotash
ricochet tsunami ectomorph
exoskeleton iconoclast galoot
pinochle gibbous shivaree
excoriate boomerang (as a verb) sublime (as a verb)
nocuous antagonym zeugma
endive legerdemain akimbo
lithe svelte scrappy
mallard piebald skewbald
schwa apocryphal enigma
flange anachronism verisimilitude
staccato descant torque
frankenstein (as a verb) snarky shindig
plethora filibuster logy
dais diaspora avuncular


negligible familiarity bureaucracy


limpid pulchritude

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Monday, January 28, 2008

Nom de Guerre

Today in class, a student raised his hand to ask a question. When I called on him, he inadvertently addressed me as "Mr. Homework."

Saturday, January 19, 2008


The following book review originally appeared in Whistling Shade, a quarterly tabloid published on real newsprint, in 11-point Perpetua.

67 Mixed Messages by Ed Allen (Ahsahta Press)

For his first book of poetry, novelist and Flannery O'Connor Award-winning writer Ed Allen (Straight Through the Night, Mustang Sally, and Ate It Anyway) has set himself a formidable task. Each of the 67 poems that comprise 67 Mixed Messages is not only a Shakespearean sonnet, but also an acrostic, and all of those acrostics bear the exact same message: "I LOVE SUZI GRACE." The first four words of the second stanza in each poem are also the same: "I love you, Suzi." The result is oddly compelling, intellectually satisfying, occasionally disturbing, and loaded with equal amounts of pathos and humor.

The sonnet sequence follows a narrative in which the speaker, a professor in Vermillion, South Dakota (home of the University of South Dakota), who shares a name and job with the author of the book, recounts his adoration, mostly from a distance, of a female student. What contributes to the mixed message quality of the unabashedly infatuated poems is that the narrator appears to be gay. So, in addition to the tensions created by the age difference and the issue of a professor's romantic interest in a student, there are also the questions of why and how he desires her.

The girl of his dreams-a girl with a reputation who goes to bars "where students crowd like sheep"-lives in a trailer on the plains where she watches MTV. His fantasies of Suzi are decidedly low rent. He imagines walking hand-in-hand with her in a mall in front of Sears, or bedding her between K-Mart sheets or in a Super 8. The apotheosis of his dreams is a trip together to Vegas and a chintzy wedding there. Meanwhile, Suzi's ambitions never seem to rise above her entrance in a South Dakota beauty pageant.

While the protagonist's imagination may not always rise above the lowest common denominators of commercial America, Allen, the author, is weaving in literary allusions to other sonneteers, and creating a narrative with elements of a journal. With a desert war playing in the background on CNN, the speaker of the poems travels east to attend a conference on Robert Frost where he reflects on Suzi, the war, and Frost, as well as a friend diagnosed with breast cancer. In fact, the emphasis in poems 23-32 shifts from Suzi to this friend and her illness, lending additional weight to what otherwise might easily be a superficial infatuation. Poems 34-36 then allude to the most renowned writer of sonnets-Shakespeare himself. Number 35 begins with a reference to the sublime-"If Suzi's eyes could look more like the sun"-and concludes with the banally ridiculous-"Call me extreme, but Suzi in the sun / Exceeds all spreads that Hefner's ever run."

Allen pulls off most of his sonnets with élan, but the book 67 Mixed Messages is most closely related to is not a volume of poetry, but Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. There is more than just a bit of Humbert Humbert in the narrator of these obsessed odes. One poem is titled "Suzi Disguised as a Body Pillow," and another, "What It Would Be Like to Have Suzi Looking up into My Eyes the Way Actresses Do in Porno Movies." Jealousy of and disdain for her boyfriends and her tastes permeate these poems. There is even a touch of vengeful bitterness at her aging at the end, with two of the final poems titled "Thinking about Suzi on a Day When I Don't Have Any Desire For Her" and "Watching Suzi Drive Away on a Day When She Looks Heavier." If Lolita was an ambiguous love song to America, Allen continues in the same key. The narrator is too old, educated, and cultivated to fall for the same things his young inamorata does, but he seems to envy her youthful, nearly mindless ability to immerse herself in the music, beer, and boys of the plains. Effete, if not gay, he is drawn in by Suzi Grace's bland midwesternness. In a land of know-nothings, this misfit might be able to pass-to fit in-if he could possess her. She would not just be a beard for his sexuality, but perhaps more importantly for his outsider intellectual status. At one point, Allen even claims he is willing to give up his position in academia to work in a slaughterhouse if he could have her.

The book is not without its shortcomings. Some sentences defy parsing, such as: "You can be as bad, / Greedy, promiscuous, dishonest, blind." And Allen's Z-lines often suffer from a sense that his self-imposed rules have forced him away from the mot juste, and has had to settle for an unsatisfactory approximation. Take: "Unkindness, when it comes from Suzi, feels / Zones far removed from what I know as pain." That may scan, but it certainly doesn't sing.

What is most pleasing about these poems is how Allen maintains the traditional form of the sonnet while addressing his humble subject matter, acknowledging that "Eros lives among the lawn-parked cars."