Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life

An entertaining and witty memoir from Charleston lawyer and disability activist Harriet Johnson. Born with a congenital neuromuscular disease, she’s never been able to walk or bathe or get dressed without help from the form of paid caregivers. She tells stories that she’s honed over the years as payment in return for countless rides and assistance she’s received. From an early protest against Ronnie Reagan’s appearance on campus (not consenting to having her rooms searched without being present and hanging protest signs from her windows directly behind the podium), more protests at the DNC Chicago in 1996 when she felt endangered by the thousands of butts in her face, visiting Cuba for a conference and feeling like she was treated like a normal person,  and debating philosopher Peter Singer about her right to exist. She’s hilarious, heartwarming, sassy, and fierce. Easy to read and leaves you with a much needed perspective from someone who lived her life in a wheelchair.

The Best American Poetry 2019

I used to abhor anthologies but now I find them perfectly suited to my taste, my mood, my attention span(?). These are the best poems of the year, according to Major Jackson this year’s guest editor, a bold statement that invites raised eyebrows. And  of course leads to all sorts of squabbles in the comments/rating system of the book online, people who are pissed not to see more straight white men represented, as if we haven’t had enough of their droning. My own beef is with the ordering system, listing the poems by author’s last name, alphabetical. As someone with a name at the end of the alphabet, I hate this default ordering system. Why not zetabetical, mix it up a bit?

I loved poems from my continued favorite, Ada Limón (Cannibal Woman), along with David Lehman’s It Could Happen to You (I like the idea of taking the anniversary of an event and exploring what else was happening on that day, oh so long ago).

Ilya Kaminsky’s Last Will and Testament, Amy Gerstler’s haunting Update (what life is like after a death), Chen Chen’s I Invite My Parents to a Dinner Party wherein they are advised yet again that he is gay and his boyfriend will be attending and to please be interested in him. Victoria Chang’s Six Obits also great (I’m seeing my trend of loving death as a topic)—for friendships, optimism, affection, clothes, the ocean, and the clock. Margaret Atwood has a delightful Update on Werewolves which allows women to get wild and hairy. Jeffrey McDaniel’s Bio from a Parallel World: “Jeffrey McDaniel runs his hands along the two f’s in his name like elephant tusks and shakes his head like a bucket full of soggy trademarks.” The powerful Head Crack Head Crack from Willie Perdomo. Philip Schultz’s The Women’s March zapped me back in time to 2017 at my own march. And I like the idea of David Wojahn’s Still Life: Stevens’s Wallet on a Key West Hotel Dresser, where he describes the contents of Wallace Stevens’s wallet as he’s at a conference away from his wife.

Waiting for Nothing

Tom Kromer wrote about his life tramping during the Depression, the tricks he used to try and rustle up a free cup of coffee, to get people to give him enough money to flop somewhere warm for the night. He made it out to Santa Rosa by 1931, harvesting grapes and by 1932 was working the fields in Napa. The book was written in 1933 while he was enrolled in the California branch of the Civilian Conservation Corps at Camp Murphys in Calaveras County (north of Angel’s Camp).

One great story in here about a trick he learns from another tramp—to buy a donut, drop it on a corner where women wait for a streetcar, wait for a different group of ladies to arrive, walk up to the donut and stare at it, then scurry away to eat it behind a telephone pole. Women would come up and give money to him after seeing that act. Tales of bums huffing the gas that runs the heating system, gas hounds who soak a handkerchief full of gas and drip it into a glass mixed with water, called “derail.” Bums hunkered down in an abandoned building to sleep in the rain, hustled out by cops. Taking pennies and trying to barter for half loaves of stale bread hoping that the baker would just give you the loaf. Walking into fancy restaurants and loudly asking the manager for a meal so he’d make a big deal of being generous in front of customers. Riding the rails out west where it’s at least warm and hiding money in his bandaged arm. And the mysterious chapter 4—which disappeared from some versions of the book—where a he accepts hospitality from a “fairy” dressed up in women’s clothes who offers him a meal and a warm bed.

Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition, prose introduction

It’s taken me about a week to slog through the 24 page, 30 paragraph, nearly unreadable “prose” introduction Whitman tacked onto the first edition, written after the poems when he was starting to puff and bloat. Crowley calls out Whitman’s “rather bumptious American nationalism” as the new prophecy he begins to promote in that text. Indeed, Walt seems very proud to be an American, continues to marvel at the fact that the President must tip his hat to us instead of vice-versa. What fun to travel back in time when that was the case, before the U.S. experienced its own bloat and gluttony.

Despite the confusing, swollen sentences, there are bits of gold dust to be panned and savored. Walt commands us, “This is what you shall do:… read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem…”

I did like his phrasing around appreciating immigrants: “To [the American poet] the other continents arrive as contributions.”

Not a huge fan of how he seems to relegate women to their one role of birthing babies, but that’s the patriarchy for you. Since it’s Walt, it’s filled with “goodshaped and wellhung” men, masturbation (onanism), foolish women.

Earlier, he contradicts himself, “The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters is simplicity. ” But he’s barely able to contain himself, as shown in the below snippet. Crowley calls it “Whitman’s age-old habit of never saying in three words what might be said in six.” Is this something you’d want to read?

A Poetry Handbook

Another book I’ve been sipping from for weeks, and one I’ll likely keep reading continuously. I picked up at the Beat Museum, on my list to buy after another poet (Hoagland) called Oliver “the Miss Manners of poetic convention,” so I rose to defend her. This is a helpful book that drills down on technique, inviting students to mimic other writers to try on different styles, to pay attention to SOUND, to the line, whether or not to go for free verse or something more restricted, the role of imagery, tone, voice, the importance of revision.

She recommends consistent writing to allow inspiration to know when to show up. You “promise to be at your desk in the evenings, from seven to nine. It waits, it watches. If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself—soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes or are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.”

Imagery

“The poet must not only write the poem but must scrutinize the world intensely, or anyway that part of the world she has taken for subject. If a poem is thin, it is likely so not because the poet does not know enough words, but because she has not stood long enough among the flowers—not seen them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way.”

Line length

“The pentameter line is the primary line used by the English poets not for any mysterious reason, but simply because the pentameter line most nearly matches the breath capacity of our English lungs—that is, speaking in English—and thus it is the line most free from any special effect.”

Tone

“In order for the tone of the poem to change, the line had to change. Now a line was needed that would sound and feel not like formal speech but like conversation. What was needed was a line which, when read, would feel as spontaneous, as true to the moment, as talk in the street, or talk between friends in one’s own house…. Speech entered the poem. The poem was no longer a lecture, it was time spent with a friend. Its music was the music of conversation.”

 

Bounjour Tristesse

Francoise Sagan’s novella from 1955 is a charming delight, translated from the French by Irene Ash. A 17-year-old woman who enjoys life with her bachelor father (widowed for several years) takes a vacation on the Mediterranean. He brings his latest lover, and the three of them get along fabulously. Then in swoops Anne, a friend of the dead mother, who lures the father into proposing marriage. The daughter plots a way to break them up, accidentally causing Anne’s death and returning them to their normal state of affairs. A delicious snack of a read.

Leaves of Grass (1855 edition)

Almost a week of December has slipped away and I’ve only posted one book here, what could I be up to? I’ve been sipping slowly and deliberately at this delicious Whitman concoction for the past few weeks and finally decided to pop it up here, although I don’t think I’m going to ever stop reading it, a few lines a day maybe, briefly considering the effort it would take to memorize some of it, wouldn’t that be divine to be able to summon Uncle Walt’s words at a moment’s notice? So far I’ve only managed to memorize “Washes and razors for foo-foos…. for me, freckles and a bristling beard”—a line that Whitman excised from the “Deathbed” edition of his much-revised poems, which tells you everything you need to know about which version to read (this first one, of course).  This Penguin edition I’m reading has an intro by Malcolm Crowley from 1955 wherein he calls this first edition a “buried masterpiece of American writing” because everyone ignored it before his resurrection I suppose. Walt himself insisted that the 1892 Deathbed edition (a bloated 383 poems instead of the pure 12 included here) was the version he preferred and recommended, but I’m on Crowley’s side with this one.

This version seems more pure, a simple clarity with “no twistified or foggy sentences” as Whitman himself put it. After 1855 he fell under his own spell and thought himself a prophet, puffed up his prose and overedited things into shambles. Crowley calls this period when Whitman was “inflated.”

The only thing I’ve yet to really appreciate is Whitman’s original introduction to the 1855 edition, written after the poems and when he was catching a bit of the puff of himself. It’s 19 pages of blathering that I need to gird myself to go back to, when I’d much rather frolic in the verses themselves. “My words itch at your ears till you understand them.”

Sidenote, not from anything I read in this edition but my own convoluted knowledge of strange things: Whitman’s idea for the cover art (Flowery letters of gold overlaid on green) came after he saw his pal Fannie Fern‘s book cover- Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio (to whom he owed a bit of money that he never repaid, by the by).

 

Bridget Jones’ Diary

A hilarious book absolutely ruined by the movie but worth reading despite having Rene Zellwegger’s face loom up at me from the pages (along with Colin Firth’s and Hugh Grant’s). Definitely a tour of force from the 90s that hits on themes still relevant (if not more so) today- feminism, climate change, general hijinx. Stumbled onto this rec by way of someone who’s posting about each chapter, a diary of reading Bridget Jones’ Diary, which is also hilarious.

Illuminations

Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations (1875), translated by John Ashbery in 2011, is a wonderous thing. I love Ashbery’s word choices and the decision (always wise) to publish the French and English side by side, allowing me to test my rudimentary French skills and roll the words around in my mouth.

In part 5 of the prose poem, Childhood/Enfance, “I am the learned scholar in the dark armchair. Branches and the rain hurl themselves at teh library’s casement window. I am the walker on the great highway through dwarf woods; the murmur of sluices muffles my steps. I gaze for a long time at the melancholy gold laundry of the setting sun.” (la mélancolique lessive d’or du couchant– gorgeous!)

I confess most of my knowledge about Rimbaud comes from The Day on Fire: A Novel Suggested by the Life of Arthur Rimbaud which was excellent.

 

My Name Is Lucy Barton

Could anything be better than cozily reading Elizabeth Strout on a rainy morning? This delicious piece of fiction was so tender and intense and yet flitted away perfectly over a few hours, dropping me into the world of Lucy Barton. She’s recovering from a mysterious illness in a hospital room that has a view of the Chrysler building which is spectacular at night. Her husband hates hospitals and so leaves her alone most of the time, but does summon a visit from her mother. Lucy’s mother sits at the foot of the bed and tells stories and they reconnect over the five days she’s there. Strout weaves in other strands of Lucy’s life, her becoming a writer, her childhood struggles and poverty, staying late at school simply because it was warm, running into a published author at a clothing boutique and loving her style then taking her writing workshop. We all have one story, we can tell it a million different ways. Beautiful work, I can’t believe I haven’t read Strout before.

The Tempest

Just a quick dip into Shakespeare, flipping through the ultra-thin pages of my mom’s copy of the complete works. Appreciating the hijinx of Stephano pouring wine down Caliban’s throat when he thinks the four legs (one pair belonging to Caliban, one to Trinculo) are a monster, and the ensuing nonsense. “Here is that which will give language to you, cat.”

Prospero creates a storm to trap his brother, who has unfairly snatched up his dukedom and left him to die. He finally admits to daughter Miranda about the circumstances of their leaving Italy many years before, and arranges it so Miranda falls in love with her shipwrecked cousin Ferdinand. Ariel’s the spirit who earns his freedom from helping Prospero while Caliban is a spirit freed from a tree and then enslaved by Prospero, who turns his loyalty toward the sack of wine that drunken butler Stephano wields. As always, the fun characters are the most interesting.

In the Dream House: A Memoir

Carmen Maria Machado details an abusive relationship she had with her first girlfriend, a woman whose moods swung wildly and incomprehensibly, muttering threats and making Carmen weep. It’s a good reminder that bad relationships come in all shapes and sizes, including between same-sex partners. Many nights locking herself in the bathroom to escape the yelling, the verbal abuse, the manipulation. Oddly, there was a 3rd woman in the love triangle and this woman ultimately ended up marrying Carmen, so happily ever after? I wasn’t a fan of the style she chose for the book, each section a different flavor of literary device, riddled with folk tale elements. Definitely hated the choose your own adventure section, which seemed to just fluff up the page count. But decent writing on an important topic.

A Beginner’s Guide to Japan

Yes, at the beginning Iyer has a “grains of salt” section wherein he explains he has no business writing about Japan and the “beginner” is both himself and the reader. I find it odd that he’s lived there for 30 years and hasn’t picked up any of the language (he claims to speak at the level of a 2-year-old). I guess his Japanese wife carries the burden of communication with the outside world for him. Mostly a bland book compared to his other great travel writing like Video Night in Kathmandu. Frequent quotations from Oscar Wilde and SF Zen master Shunryu Suzuki. Little bits of sentences, short paragraphs a concession to our evaporated attention spans?

My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education

Great collection of essays about growing up Cuban-American in Miami, being the first generation to go to college (and not knowing how long her parents were supposed to stay for orientation so they had booked a whole week of vacation expecting to go as a family to all the events), getting married and divorced, dealing with hurricanes and the end of rides at Disney World, living in a space that rented out for weddings on the weekend and hearing the same exact playlist every night, laying down truths at visiting colleges about how they needed to hire more people of color to teach and talking over the white woman’s tears in the front row who said that was racist.

Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream

I’ve been thinking about the G.I. Bill lately and its impact on the arts, giving people like Frank O’Hara and Robert Rauschenberg college educations that encouraged them into their artistic pursuits.

This book wasn’t great, but it did have a chapter focused on the impact of the G. I. Bill on the arts. Other chapters focused around various (white, male) veterans and how they came back and benefited from the education credit and housing loans. Humes does mention how this overwhelmingly benefited white men and how women and minorities were left out of the great post-WW2 handout.

Black Mountain College in NC appears to have been saved by the returning veterans, with their college-going population dwindling to the dozens during the war. “Schools on the brink of bankruptcy were soon overflowing, and Black Mountain, with a record enrollment approaching one hundred found itself restored to a modest but stable financial footing by those $500-per-student payments from the Veterans Administration, an unimaginably kingly tuition in that place and time.”