Monday, April 23, 2012

Adrienne Rich, "Diving Into the Wreck", poem and analysis

To remember Adrienne Rich, who passed away earlier this year, and to commemorate Poetry Month.  A study of the symbols she used in this personal examination...

Diving into the Wreck

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.

it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.
There were a ton of symbols in this poem to evaluate. I chose to concentrate on the ladder, simply because the phrase “hanging innocently” struck me as curious. So my interpretation will likely vary from whoever selects the mask, the knife, or the camera as symbols to evaluate...

As noted, Rich stated that this poem “is” an experience rather than about an experience, and I think what fits for me is the idea of searching our memories, our past. And that is a journey that can only be done alone, subjectively. So using the symbolism of the dive, and the shipwreck, it appears to me that she wants to go back and figure out what happened in her life (her journey, or course) that left her damaged in some way.

To do this, she has to dive deep in the water, which is not pretty but black and dark, symbolizing that the journey is fearful. Rather than jump right into the water as some divers do, she has to use the ladder to slowly descend into the water, indicating hesitancy. Also, the ladder hanging off the boat requires her to face the boat as she went down. This means she literally can’t see what she is getting into: “there is no one to tell me when the ocean will begin.” So as she retreats into her memories, she’s not exactly sure at what point she’ll find clues or meaning. She says in verse 41, 42 “I have to learn alone to turn my body without force”…here she has to let go and turn away from the ladder to explore, letting go of the way out.

The ladder is significant as a symbol because it goes both ways: she could easily quit the journey and go back up. Also, because the water creates buoyancy, she really has to hold onto it to “go down”, so it’s not an easy task to go into the unknown (the sea of memories). The water would be pushing her back up, and the ladder would be so easy to just forget it and head back up to the deck. So the difficulty of the journey means that the rewards of such a journey must be greater.

She wants to find the damage but also what is left of value; she sees something in herself flawed but she wants to inherently know she still has value, something lasting. As she looks at the damage, she shows a sense of gentleness by saying “I stroke the beam of my lamp slowly”. She wants to know “the thing itself and not the myth”, which I take to mean she wants to find the root of her problem rather than the possibly nicer/easier story that she’s told herself (or possibly the excuses she’s made for herself).

It seems that as she explores the wreck, she finds the damage nearest the deepest part of the ship (herself) where her figurative heart is (because “the ribs of the disaster curving their assertion” are what protect the heart from damage). The mermaid and the merman she meets could represent parental figures, her origin of life, but I can’t figure out much on that, except that I think it is her parents as she says “I am she: I am he”, which a biological child could actually be, parts of both.

The reference to the journey of memories and damage could also be seen in lines 80-86: valuable things are still part of her “silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies obscurely inside” so maybe she’s trying to retrieve part of her value. As the half-destroyed instruments, the log and the compass that she mention both connotate the wreck itself: the water-eaten log sinks (the ship), the fouled compass gives poor navigation (the journey).

But in the last few verses, as she finds her way back (we, I, you), I’m lost as to what she’s achieved in her journey. What was the knife there to cut? What would the camera record? And what is with the book of myths?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Why Calories Count by Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim

...this isn't my typical genre, but it's a fascinating glimpse at the food industry!

This is not a diet book.  While it is probably considered a health book, it could easily be shelved in the political/current affairs section of any bookstore.  Because what it talks about goes far beyond weight and waistlines into the very political structure of the weight-loss industry and big business.

Sure, it talks about how unhealthy most Americans are, and without a doubt the most troubling aspect is the rising obesity rates in children.  But, given how many low-calorie and "diet" options are out there, why aren't people eating better?

The answers are pretty disturbing.  First off, human nature is an issue, and how impressionable our minds can be.  If a food item says it has low calories or is low-fat, we tend to tell ourselves it's okay to eat more.  Some more shockers:
  • "When fast-food restaurants position themselves as healthy, customers tend to underestimate the calories....and choose higher-calorie side dishes, drinks, or desserts."  Think Subway plus that lovely chocolate chip cookie next to the register, which is okay now, because the sandwich was so healthy!
  • "When portions are labeled small, people believe they are eating fewer calories regardless of the number of calories the foods contain or their actual size."  So small fries aren't really great even if they are small. Damn.
  • "When Oreo cookies are labeled as organic, people perceive them as having fewer calories than conventional Oreos....even when the study subjects have been shown package labels indicating their calories are equal..." Yikes.
Another surprise:  if the label grants that the product has some beneficial component, such as "vitamins added" or "contains probiotics", many of us will assume it's healthier and thus the calories "don't count nearly as much".  Ouch. 

Then it looks at some diet claims:  apparently the Negative Calorie Diet claims that eating certain foods will make the body burn calories instead of store fat.  Of course, it's not possible, and the dynamics of the claim are analyzed.

One example of this is given of how people interpret or imagine calories work when faced with a choice.  Sort of like the "diet coke plus cheeseburger" phenomenon we may not want to admit to, this one is disturbing.  A scientist did an experiment with bowls of chili and salad.  With the chili alone, participants guessed that the portion contained 700 calories.  But when the same bowl of chili was placed with a green salad, they guessed that the meal was 655 calories.  That somehow, the salad magically eradicated chili calories!

Beyond those terrible details, there's the whole idea of how badly we underestimate portions, and how even children aren't able to understand what is or isn't reasonable.  What makes this such an issue is that junk food and high-calorie treats are big  business; manufacturer's aren't really interesting in you eating less because you'll buy less.  Sure, they may offer a 100-calorie snack pack, but the increased price makes up for their losses.  And it's sort of disturbing to see just how involved this large corporations get into political lobbying to keep healthy food out of schools, and using this power to simply redesign their products to gain imaginary approval.

It seems like the cards are stacked against anyone eating healthy, but this shows ways a consumer can analyze ridiculous claims, see through the hype, and understand just how nutrition works. Also, with that knowledge, a person can make better choices and realize just how much a business model is manipulating their health.

One area I would have like to seen explored a bit more is just how to make good choices for people on the go for whom the worst of the food choices are aimed. I'd like to be able to explain to my sons why a Monster energy drink and a King Size Snickers is not a meal, because their crazy schedules don't allow them much time for planning or prepping something healthy.  A list of "yes, you can buy this at 7-Eleven before work and still be healthy" foods would have been nice, but probably not realistic.  And I think that is another point the book makes very clear: we are in charge of our health.  We can't leave it to fast-food companies or convenience stores to provide the healthiest choices...they simply have no incentive to do so unless people change their habits.  It really can't be left to chance or as an afterthought. 

Special thanks to Kathlene Carney for the Advance Review Copy.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Spy in the Ruins by Christopher Bernard

“In the wreckage of a life contained like a seed in the wreckage of love. Since that is what it is meant to have been all about. Wasn’t it. Was it not. Where is it. The nightmare again. Flung. Out. Far.”

In Christopher Bernard’s novel, A Spy in the Ruins, a disaster has devastated a city. Or perhaps, it only affected a small region, a block, a person, or just a moment. The reader begins by being uncertain as to exactly what happened, and more importantly, why. This vague beginning is intended, and offers the first clue in grasping the scope of this complicated study of the human mind, memory, and hopes. Various characters appear, but one can’t be sure if they are indeed individuals or fragments of one consciousness.

Various literary devices are used in a surprising way: poetry and narrative intermingle throughout. Phrases may appear on a single page, and paragraphs can last for pages. Some paragraphs are absent all almost all punctuation, which creates a sense of propulsion towards the next word, speeding the text into a tense pace that feels urgent. Alternatively, other paragraphs are full of fragments, such as quoted above, driving the reader to stop. Listen. Question.

I have to admit, as I began, I wasn’t sure where the story was headed, or if it even was a story. It doesn’t follow Campbell’s Heroic Journey mythology. And I can’t really say that it is character or plot driven. I continued, because I was intrigued, and began to make marginal notes whenever a concrete location or person appeared…something to anchor the narrative to reality (or at least a fictional one). My marginal notes were minimal. It didn’t take long to figure out that such anchoring wasn’t the point, but rather the emotional and mental state of each action was what Bernard was toying with. With this in mind, it became easier to see that this was a piece of metafiction that was more about exploring the line between reality and constructions.

“It came as something of a surprise to learn that the will was written in invisible ink. So much trickier the task of deciphering a text on a blank and tumultuous page.”

Such deciphering continues as the novel continues, and without being held to the typical story arc, it is free to examine random perceptions about youthful confusion, aged wisdom, and the struggle to conjoin the two. A young man and woman both appear, but separately, and are written so differently one would imagine they were separate species rather than human. Their thoughts are rambling, sometimes incoherent, but also painfully honest. In a typical story, an author would be hard-pressed to have a character speak (or think) so honestly without alienating the reader. Because these are beings we can’t know, their anonymity allows us to view them without judgment.

“One day he opened a book. It was as though an arm rose from the pages and seized him by the throat and a voice angry learned and terribly clear said look hear listen act. Who are you. What do you know. What do you believe. What have you done. What will you do. What will your life have been worth.”

For some reason, that quote from the book reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s reaction to Joyce’s Ulysses, and how Joyce’s authorial voice challenged his way of looking at fiction forevermore. I can’t find the quote now (of course), to confirm it, but I’ve heard similar reactions to Joyce because of the unconventional style he employed. In any case, this novel’s unconventional style is mesmerizing. Throughout, the idea of books as challenges to consciousness and thought prevails. Bernard insists, through the poems and prose, that only books can reach the interior of the mind and the honesty of private contemplation. At the same time, books may invite disorder and dissonance as well.  After all, going back to the title, who is the Spy and what are the Ruins?

“Chaos facing its reflection in a mirror becoming symmetry and order.”

Once the reader can grasp that the intention of the book is to question consciousness (that’s my take…I hope I’m not way off base!) rather than take a reader from point A to B, it begins to read more personally. No doubt, this is a complicated book, one that requires consideration and reflection. If I were to advise a reader, I’d suggest that they read it slowly and enjoy the play on words, the images created that only hint at reality, but that feel familiar.

Special thanks to Regent Press for the Review Copy.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Niagara Digressions by E.R. Baxter III

The ideal reflecting pool is smaller, rather than larger…deep enough to suggest mystery and to sustain schools of minnows or other small fish so that these may be observed in the shallows.

Ferns, wildflowers, and grasses should be permitted to grow unmowed on some of the shore, trimmed grass in other areas….Mature trees, native to the region, not nursery ornamentals, should also be left to grow on the shores, establishing groves or small forests. There should be no artificial lighting.”

When I hit this section of E.R. Baxter’s new book, Niagara Digressions, I couldn’t help but think he was talking about more than simply viewing a landscape. The quote above felt more fitting in describing this book, a collection of stories, musings, and history by a writer who is unpretentious and honest. There’s nothing artificial or hyped up about his recollections, and there’s nothing showy in the famous names he drops.

As Eric Gansworth, who wrote the introduction, states, “this book, in its more unorthodox style, is closer to truth than most of those memoirs with which you might already be familiar. It’s an aesthetic representation of the way we really see our lives, if we are at all careful listeners and viewers, witnessing the way we perceive the world.” Baxter is all over the place (in the best way possible) in how he recalls events that were significant in his life, and ultimately, in the history of that region and even in literary culture. And the almost rambling path he takes isn’t annoying, it’s endearing. Better yet, he’s not one of those figures who nostalgically look back and whitewash realities that are easier forgotten. His voice is honest, and just as importantly, unadorned with anything extraneous.

In one part of the book, he speaks extensively about his Uncle Bill McCoy, cataloguing details of his life that tell their own story, right down to the personal effects left when he died. These included numerous photographs of his life at sea:

“Photographs: there are photographs of ships at sea, foggy, misty, too far off to be recognizable, street scenes, all taken from too great a distance to be focused on individuals, but more on the aggregate, picture of a lone man on a deserted street at dusk, almost half a block distant, nearly a silhouette, walking away.”

Somehow the description feels eerily poetic, filling out the stories he’s already told about Bill to make him both complicated and endearing. Besides colorful characters he’s known, and some especially dishy gossip about Ginsberg and W.S. Burroughs, he also speaks seriously about toxic chemicals in the region, the romantic life of red foxes, Shredded Wheat, dead foxes, the annoying habit of people who stir their coffee too long, and the beauty of flaws in old houses. The play between dead serious and wry wit is compelling, and makes you wish you could sit by a fire and listen to him talk. His reflections, like those found in the pond he described, can only have come through his personal perception. Yes, that’s obvious, but unfortunately, it’s rare. Few people can talk about life without whining or trying to instill some all-important message.

The title is based on his lifelong location on the Niagara River, and many, but not all, of the 'digressions' are from this location. From his website (, he explains simply the subjects about which he writes: "it all rises from here, originates, is foundationally from here, the place that increasingly these days becomes the imagined landscape I call home."

Ultimately, Baxter’s work here coincides with his vocation as a teacher. He wants readers to observe and think, to write well for having interpreted for themselves life around them. It’s fitting that when again, he discusses the reflecting pond, he asks, “Where are you in the picture, standing or sitting tentatively near the edge, staring down?”

Special thanks to Ted Pelton for the Advance Review Copy.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Hugs from afar..

For author Doug Skopp and his lovely wife:

Holland tulip fields, photo Hello magazine

...I hope you get a more restful and comfortable Spring!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Stein and Hemingway by Lyle Larsen (all the juicy bits...)

The Story of a Turbulent Friendship

First off, who selected the photos for the cover art for this book?  Seriously, it sets the mood immediately:  Gertrude Stein looking mean and shrill and Ernest Hemingway with an amiable Dos Equis half-smile, his cap at a jaunty angle.  Would I have perceived the book differently had she looked a bit more congenial? 

In any case, this is a fascinating read full of gossip and name-dropping of just about every major literary figure in the US and UK in the early 20th century.  The book covers more than just the friendship between Stein and Hemingway, as Eliot, Pound, Fitzgerald and others (Picasso!) are interspersed in the stories. Somehow it surprises me to see just how catty and vindictive many of these authors and poets were, especially that they seemed to focus a great deal on revealing the faults of each other rather than promoting the writing art.

Stein seems to have all the great lines.  In one case, the book explores the numerous times writers came to visit Stein at 27 rue de Fleurus.  One night, Ezra Pound stopped by. "Gertrude Stein liked him but did not find him amusing.  She said he was a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not."  Ouch!  Another night T.S. Eliot shows up:  "Eliot and Gertrude Stein had a solemn conversation, mostly about split infinitives and other grammatical solecisms".  Stimulating!  But when Hemingway came to see her, their conversations and subsequent friendship became a random mixture of mutual admiration and dismissive gestures, mind games and begrudged respect. 

Stein's opinion of Hemingway thereafter, and her part in his success is revealed in a conversation she had with Sherwood Anderson. As Larsen writes,  "Hemingway had been formed by the two of them, and they were both a little proud and a little ashamed of the work of their minds." 

William Carlos Williams got a knock in when he remarked on her endless piles of manuscripts, asking her "are you sure that writing is your metier?....things that children write have seemed to me so Gertrude Steinish in their repetitions." Score WCW.  Naturally, she refused to see him again.

Hemingway, once matured and successful on his own, looked at Stein as lazy and disagreeable. He felt that she theorized more than she actually created.  He was harsh and overly worked up about a new way she wore her hair, closely cropped, "like a Roman emperor".  That her haircut was tied into her sexuality was obvious to Hemingway, and it could that he didn't like this "unambiguous statement of her sexual alignment."  In any case, their friendship was pretty much over.  As he explains, "But I could never make friends again truly, neither in my heart nor in my head. When you cannot make friends any more in your head is the worst."

Another character in this real-life soap opera is Alice Toklas, Stein's companion and to all accounts, a troublemaker eager to separate Stein from her literary peers.  Larsen offers insight into why she may have been so controlling.

It occurred to me that much of the friendship between this pair (as well as the other authors and artists mentioned) was dependent so much on face to face interaction...they made efforts to seek out each other's company, often staying for long periods of time in each other's homes.  Alternatively, they'd write extensive letters documenting their thoughts.  Given our technological excesses, it makes me wonder if modern authors would even interact in such ways today.  Maybe firing off a Facebook post or a Tweet in response to another's work, but does the same 'peer-review' sense of conversation about artistic works still occur?  Has globalization made it easier to come together, so much so that everyone takes it for granted and remains distant?