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.