Friday Reading Rainbow

Magic, Mystery, and Enchantment

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You know when you find a novel that just fills your heart and your head at the same time, so much so that you’re thinking about the mysteries it holds even when you’re not reading it? You can’t wait to get back to it, but you also want to stretch it out so it never ends? I found that in Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield.

A brief synopsis: On the night of the winter solstice in 1887, an injured man and a dead little girl arrive at The Swan, a riverside inn on the Thames. As Rita, the plucky nurse, treats the man, the girl is laid up in the cold room. The Swan, famous for its storytelling, gets a surprise later that evening when the girl – soaked to the bone and barely breathing, suddenly opens her eyes – and comes back to life.

The events of this night spread out (like the tributaries of the river, according to Setterfield’s clever chapter divisions). Three different families claim (or attempt to claim) the girl as their own, but no one is really sure of the truth. Was she dead or only mostly dead? Will she speak again, and tell everyone who she is? Who had an interest in finding her or losing her?

The book is full of lovely characters, people you actually wish you knew, and their backstories are freely told (the whole idea centers around storytelling and folktale). Woven with the realities of family, love, and longing  is an air of magic and superstition, including the belief the riverfolk hold in Quietly, the ferryman who takes you “across the river” when it’s your time to go, and saves you if you have more to do in life. Along with this retelling of Chyron and the river Styx, fairy tale references abound. It’s an enchanting read, and I’m looking forward to seeing the mysteries resolve themselves (or not!)

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 I decided to dedicate this Friday’s post on what I’m reading to magic, mystery, and enchantment. I used to read lots of fantasy when I was a kid, and though I haven’t really invested my reading into adult fantasy, I really enjoy things that have a touch of magical realism or mythology. There are books that just feel special and immerse you in a different world, and they can be inspiring. Some of my favorite magical books from my childhood and young adulthood include: Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass trilogy, Half-Magic by Edward Eager, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, The Redwall books, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, The Harry Potter series (obviously. I’m a millennial), and so many more.

Here are some places I’m finding magic these days:

Poetry

So much poetry verges on magic, because poetry takes words and makes them new. Here’s one of my recent favorites: ““Trees and What They Whisper,”  by Lynette Mejia.

 

Film / TV

I’m so pleased that Outlander is on Netflix and I don’t have to pay extra for it. The show is based on a time-traveling nurse from 1945 who finds herself in 18th Century Scotland, and it provides steamy romance and drama. Excellent escapism.

This week I went to the theatre to see All is Well, a Kenneth Branagh-directed film about the end of Shakespeare’s life. If you’re well-versed in the bard’s work (pun intended), you’ll enjoy this homage. Branagh’s directing is just gorgeous…. this is a slow, quiet, atmospheric movie. There were so many moments that stood out to me, but I’ll share one. When Shakespeare returns home to Stratford, he decides to create a memorial garden for his son, Hamnet. For the first third or so of the movie, he toils alone in the garden, and nothing really grows for him. But as he reconnects with the people in his family and community, they start helping him in the garden, and it is then that he finds success. There are some happier moments, but on the whole, this is a sad, sad movie. Use caution.

 

Next novels on my reading list

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Though these are very different from Once Upon a River, I’m hoping to extend my sense of expansive magic by reading them. Both have a sort of mythological largeness to them, I think. Everything Under is a modernization of Orpheus and Eurydice (can that story ever be told too many times?) If you have other recommendations for me, I’d love to hear them in the comments!

Have a great reading week, everyone!

I am an affiliate with IndieBound, and if you choose to purchase the books I mention by clicking on the book covers, I may earn a teeny tiny commission, at no additional cost to you 🙂
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Sunday Poetry: walking in a field

I am continuing my series of Sunday poetry posts this summer. Each week, I’ll post a poem that I’ve been thinking about, whether mine or someone else’s. Tune in for an exploration of how poetry can interrupt and enrich our lives when we least expect it to. 

Sunday Poetry: June 9

My poetry so often starts with what I’m doing, what I can see, what I’m hearing. I almost always think of first lines first, and then the rest of the poem happens from there. It’s brilliant that other poets also start with what is being in the moment, what is doing right now.

Here is an excerpt from Oliver Baez Bendorf:

Here I Am Walking in a Field

again, I think, while walking

in a field. Field thick with
snow, field of milk.

You can read the full poem by buying the Nov/Dec 2018 issue of  American Poetry Review.

 

It shows that what we do has value, even if it’s a little thing. I might write about waiting for my coffee to brew, or sitting at an outdoor cafe, or sweeping my floor, or a spiderweb on my balcony. Poetry, more than any other form of writing, has the capacity to be in the present (and to keep us there).

Sunday Poetry: A feminist Mother’s Day

Sunday poetry is a new series beginning this Spring! Each week, I’ll post a poem that I’ve been thinking about, whether mine or someone else’s. Tune in for an exploration of how poetry can interrupt and enrich our lives when we least expect it to. 

Sunday Poetry: May 11

One of the things I detest most about Mother’s Day (TRUST ME, THERE ARE A LOT) are the facebook posts thanking moms for their sacrifice. My friends praise their moms and think about “all the things they gave up” to make our lives better. Some recognize that they “never wanted for anything,” implying that financial stability is one of the greatest gifts a parents can give. I’ve had a friend assert that one of his reasons for not having children was that he did not feel confident he could make enough money to pay for a child’s entire college education without any loans. It was better not to have children at all than to fail in this essential role.

Inherent in these Mother’s Day posts, to me, is an assumption that a mother’s identity is the sum of her children. Pictures of moms at their daughters’ wedding, or at college graduations not their own. It seems that what we expect from our parents is to sublimate or refuse their own lives and dreams in order to do it all on our behalf.

Isn’t it enough that our parents love us? Can’t we thank them for trying to give us a good life by being themselves, by being role models and teaching us that success isn’t measurable in dollars? Why do we demand their sacrifice?

I tried to write about sacrifice and what other versions of motherhood could be. This isn’t by any means a finished poem, but it’s my attempt to make some sense of the anger I feel and retain some hope that I could be a different kind of mom.

 

i.

how much blood is lost in birth
how much blood in nonbirth
what sacrifice do mothers make enough
to be counted as selfless
as if generating life takes away our selves
steals our bodies
crime of gift to take our minds and our lives

what if motherhood isn’t an altar
or a hospital issuing of what was once mine
not a battle, not a loss
not a taming of the spirit to be always hunched
but rather a transmission to other worlds, other minds
a melding
an embodying

ii.

giving up the self
should only be praised
when it is a lifting of hands to sky
to welcome rainwater in cupped hands.


iii.

what if motherhood is the mama I saw
hastening down the sidewalk
after her toddler practicing walking? 
with every excited step she cautioned
“don’t run, baby, don’t run.”
“there’s lots of cracks, don’t go too fast.”
“just take it easy.”

 

 

There are so many versions and reasons of motherhood, many of which are difficult and dark and sad. I hope that whatever motherhood means to you, you’re doing okay today.

Sunday Poetry: weakness / strength

Sunday poetry is a new series beginning this Spring! Each week, I’ll post a poem that I’ve been thinking about, whether mine or someone else’s. Tune in for an exploration of how poetry can interrupt and enrich our lives when we least expect it to. 

April 28: weakness / strength

Sometimes I think my poetry is weak.

It’s not a commentary on the unique 21st century conundrums of technology and privacy. It doesn’t always deal with cutting-edge social controversies or current events or social justice. Sometimes it does. Sometimes my identity is relevant to the poem. But sometimes I write about waiting for someone to come home, or wanting someone to change; about being alone, about love, about seeing myself in nature. Sometimes I write about vulnerability and grief.

A while ago, I was talking to a friend about getting published. Kind of cool, I thought, to get recognized when all I do is write little love poems.

He stopped me in my tracks. “What could be more important than little love poems?”

 

I have to say I agree. We live in a world where too often simple humanity is seen as weakness, where kindness is seen as an absence of strength rather than an absence of tyranny, where talking about feelings is less important than talking numbers. I want so much to be in a world free of this toxic masculinity, but I still feel doubt that my softness is valuable.

This worry over weakness and strength is found in Elaine Equi’s poem, “Lazy Bones,” recently published in American Poetry Review:

Lazy Bones

Sitting in the waiting room
sucking on the sweet paranoia
of a Shirley Jackson story.

Sitting among silk tulips
and paper roses,

the frosted glass panels
and pale pink walls
of the radiology center.

Then led to a dark cubicle
(politely pornographic?)
for the imaging of my skeleton.

Dave, the tattooed technician
slips a pillow under my knees.

I want to tell him,
“My bones are shy.

I don’t exercise.
I love coffee.

They know they’re weak
and don’t like being photographed.”

 

I was intrigued by the word “weak”, and by the speaker’s advocacy for her bones. She identifies her bones as ‘shy’ as if they are actually humans who don’t like being photographed. The reason given: “they know they’re weak.” The speaker wishes to express this sentiment to Dave, the technician, who is in the position of looking at her (and her bones) and potentially judging them. To stave off the embarrassment of being seen, she wishes to reassure him that she already knows her weaknesses. It’s the same phenomenon of getting up in front of a class to perform a speech and apologizing first: “I know this isn’t very good, but it’s the best I can do.” But the bones do not speak in first person; the speaker wishes to speak on their behalf: “They know they’re weak” (emphasis added). This shows that she feels responsible for their weakness, as we can see from the lines that immediately precede this one: “I don’t exercise / I love coffee.” Here, the speaker is criticizing the actions in her life that have made her bones weak, and therefore critiquing her own character weaknesses as she notices her physical ones.

But she also uses the poem to establish sympathy. Weakness seems allied to softness, gentleness, in the feminine, gentile setting of the waiting room. And she is, after all, here to seek medical help, an act of bravery in my opinion. he speaker must admit that she is weaker than she would like to be, weaker than a healthy person should be, but why should she apologize for that?

This poem seems to suggest that we all have moments when we are weak– we are not always at our peak condition. Sometimes it is because of injury or disease, sometimes because of emotional distress. We also may have moments when we are seen as weak because of our identities, our ages, our gender, our class. We may find embarrassment or judgement in those moments, and may try to avoid it by apologizing or self-deprecating. Instead, we should sympathize with ourselves. It is okay to be soft and vulnerable, and when we feel tired and weak, we should accept the kindness of a pillow gently slid underneath our knees.

Writing about this weakness, these moments of humanity and need, is the role my poetry seems to be serving in my life right now, and in doing so, I think it is making me stronger.

 

Sunday Poetry: short poems

Back from a short hiatus, Sunday Poetry is a new series this spring. Each week, I’ll post a poem that I’ve been thinking about, whether mine or someone else’s. Tune in for an exploration of how poetry can interrupt and enrich our lives when we least expect it to. 

April 21: short poems

A student recently talked to me about poetry (first– can I take a moment to think about how amazing it is that teenagers talk to me about how poetry works? And that another student sent me an email with the subject “A poem I wrote but don’t want you to share with anyone”? This life of mine is a treasure).

Okay, back to the question at hand– she was wondering how to write or what to write about now that she’s doing well and she’s in a supportive, healthy relationship. How do we write about joy? She identified that it requires a shift of mindset, and maybe a different way of writing altogether.

This reminded me of The Secret Sisters Tiny Desk Concert in which the sisters mention that now that they’re married and happily settled, they don’t know what to write about anymore.

And I’ve been in this place too. When everything seems fine, there’s nothing too interesting to write about. There’s no pain that needs to be expunged. So, no new poems?

The great thing about poetry (one little great among many many) is that it can be used to notice the smallest moments and not to reflect the overall trajectory or mood of a life. That’s where short poems come in. There are still interesting tensions and contradictions within joy and peace. Here’s one of mine:

how can love happen any other way
but quickly
majestically
like a fast otter surfacing joyfully midstream
twitching its whiskers
shaking water freely
about to dive deep in its search for clams?

I originally wrote a second stanza, about springtime and being in love, but it felt canned. And I’m still toying with the question mark. Is the poem compact enough to viably be one sentence?

So to answer my student – our poetry changes when our lives shift in new directions. Most of my poems until quite recently, have been in the same length range, but I’m trying my hand at shorter poems and longer poem sequences. Maybe this is because I write more regularly, and am more willing to revisit poems. That first length range feels comfortable because it is the stretch of time I need to get something important out. Poetry seems less urgent now, because I can trust that it will be there whenever I need it.

Our poetry may change, but it is still ours.