Saturday, February 23, 2008

Running on Empty

Between sickness and work, feeling pretty beat up and burned out. Hoping March is a turnaround month. Incongruous collection of photos from a Flickr search for most interesting photos tagged "running on empty."

The January Raves List

There Will Be Blood

Wow. What a month.

The January Reading List

The Trouble With Diversity, Walter Benn Michaels

Only because you can't write about the books you read in January in March. So I read Walter Benn Michael's The Trouble with Diversity. He's rhetorically excellent, the first two chapters were fairly compelling arguments for class (and against race) as the meaningful bases for combating social ills in the United States. I intend to write about a few sections in greater detail, as I have the book heavily bookmarked, but have not done so yet.

Here's to better luck reading in February '08... oh, forget it. Maybe March?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Old Chinese Ladies

Work is on the edge of SoHo, Chinatown, and the tourist relic of Little Italy. It is one of the few parts of Manhattan that still feels small and tough and grimy, not with money, but with the effort of people trying to make things work out. Like cities in so many other parts of the world, but unlike so much of Manhattan, the city smells and the city sounds encroach upon the narrow streets. Strange meats, strange fruits, strange flowers. Windows of arbitrarily arranged imported goods.

Our front door is set into the block and unmarked. If you were watching us, we'd just seem to be coming and going, and not doing anything special. The adjacent unused first floor landing and the tiny windbreak of our stairwell make for good places to loiter. DL and I came out the other day, for lunch. I stepped onto Lafayette. A small, old Chinese woman grabbed me by the arm. Her grip was surprisingly, almost painfully sharp and forceful. "You buy!" she said. In her other hand splayed an assortment of pens and pencils, wrapped in a rubber band. I smiled, she did not smile back. I shook my head and pulled my hand free.

I walked down Grand St. to the B train, going uptown. Dusk was settling, but there wasn't much happening on the streets. A few aimless Spaniards, and the wiry, ageless Chinese men in the doorways. The men whose eyes lack interest, but who give the impression of being physically ready for something to happen. I passed the markets, where the fish is set on ice, and the fish blood and the ice water wet the sidewalks and flow into the streets. I ducked into the subway, and a train soon came.

The small Chinese woman came running down the platform in an peach, over-stuffed down coat. Her face was round and puffy, her hair a small, silver halo, her mouth enclosed in folds and wrinkles. She took small, fast steps, running past car after car, door after open door, doing the New York hustle, trying to get as well positioned for her exit station as possible. Her husband, old and fragile, with a Greek fisherman's cap, followed well behind, yelling in Chinese. I couldn't understand, exactly, but I got the gist of it. "Woman! Why are you so crazy! Stop running! Just get on the damn train!" She was having none of it.

There must be treasure in the city garbage can on the corner of Grand and Lafayette, or it must be a habit of thrift that the old Chinese lady remembers from some harder time. She has a wool hat on, and I can hardly see her face. The little projection wears the weather of a lifetime. It would make me sad to think that she needed the cans that she pulls out, when I occasionally see her making her way around the block. She doesn't have a big bag, so much, just a small collection. Maybe some cruel son or husband won't give her an allowance. Maybe she finds it fun.

It's a hard life and I'm constantly amazed, how many people have made their way into the great wilderness of the American immigrant experience, with strange dreams and even stranger visions. To find this marvelous city, New York, in all its small, tough, gray struggles. All these parents brought across, by their successful sons and daughters and nephews and nieces, to be here, to live here. Of course, what do they know? What should they expect?

What could you possibly imagine of this life, that it would be this way? It's the strength of the grip that always takes me back. Much stronger than mine.

Photos from a Flickr search for "Old Chinese Woman." Really a lot of lovely photos, worth a look.

Three Poems About Snow

It won't snow and it scares me. It's February, we haven't seen a real drift built up here in New York City. Should we count ourselves lucky? No. Something is wrong in the world.

Since there are no snow days for us, here are three poems about snow:

The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

by David Berman

Walking through a field with my little brother Seth

I pointed to a place where kids had made angels in the snow.
For some reason, I told him that a troop of angels
had been shot and dissolved when they hit the ground.

He asked who had shot them and I said a farmer.

Then we were on the roof of the lake.
The ice looked like a photograph of water.

Why he asked. Why did he shoot them.

I didn't know where I was going with this.

They were on his property, I said.

When it's snowing, the outdoors seem like a room.

Today I traded hellos with my neighbor.
Our voices hung close in the new acoustics.
A room with the walls blasted to shreds and falling.

We returned to our shoveling, working side by side in silence.

But why were they on his property, he asked.

Snow Day
by Billy Collins

Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished,
not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,
and beyond these windows

the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost
under the noiseless drift,
the paths of trains softly blocked,
the world fallen under this falling.

In a while I will put on some boots
and step out like someone walking in water,
and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,
and I will shake a laden branch,
sending a cold shower down on us both.

But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,
a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.
I will make a pot of tea
and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,
as glad as anyone to hear the news

that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,
the Ding-Dong School, closed,
the All Aboard Children's School, closed,
the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,
along with -- some will be delighted to hear --

the Toadstool School, the Little School,
Little Sparrows Nursery School,
Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School,
the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,
and -- clap your hands -- the Peanuts Play School.

So this is where the children hide all day,
These are the nests where they letter and draw,
where they put on their bright miniature jackets,
all darting and climbing and sliding,
all but the few girls whispering by the fence.

And now I am listening hard
in the grandiose silence of the snow,
trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,
what riot is afoot,
which small queen is about to be brought down.

Just This Rock

It's a specific kind of poetry, I know. A bit over-wrought, I'm sure, and it speaks to a special kind of sap. I'm just that kind of sap. I forget how much this movie cut me open when I first saw it. I relish each of Terrence Malick's movies, to me they are the highest art. Since my DVDs are packed away in boxes on either coast, I'll take these small, partially satisfying segments for the moment. And in the light of the day's great struggles - a never ending war in Iraq, a struggle to which I have no claim, a workaday life in professional America, a struggle to which I have every claim - it makes The Thin Red Line all the more crushing. To a sappy man.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Is It Time For Me To Go Yet?

This week, last year.

Four from Jack Gilbert

Going There

Of course it was a disaster.
The unbearable, dearest secret
has always been a disaster.
The danger when we try to leave.
Going over and over afterward
what we should have done
instead of what we did.
But for those short times
we seemed to be alive. Misled,
misused, lied to and cheated,
certainly. Still, for that
little while, we visited
our possible life.

The Abnormal Is Not Courage

The Poles rode out from Warsaw against the German
Tanks on horses. Rode knowing, in sunlight, with sabers,
A magnitude of beauty that allows me no peace.
And yet this poem would lessen that day. Question
The bravery. Say it's not courage. Call it a passion.
Would say courage isn't that. Not at its best.
It was impossib1e, and with form. They rode in sunlight,
Were mangled. But I say courage is not the abnormal.
Not the marvelous act. Not Macbeth with fine speeches.
The worthless can manage in public, or for the moment.
It is too near the whore's heart: the bounty of impulse,
And the failure to sustain even small kindness.
Not the marvelous act, but the evident conclusion of being.
Not strangeness, but a leap forward of the same quality.
Accomplishment. The even loyalty. But fresh.
Not the Prodigal Son, nor Faustus. But Penelope.
The thing steady and clear. Then the crescendo.
The real form. The culmination. And the exceeding.
Not the surprise. The amazed understanding. The marriage,
Not the month's rapture. Not the exception. The beauty
That is of many days. Steady and clear.
It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.

Recovering Amid The Farms

Every morning the sad girl brings her three sheep
and two lambs laggardly to the top of the valley,
past my stone hut and onto the mountain to graze.
She turned twelve last year and it was legal
for the father to take her out of school. She knows
her life is over. The sadness makes her fine,
makes me happy. Her old red sweater makes
the whole valley ring, makes my solitude gleam.
I watch from hiding for her sake. Knowing I am
there is hard on her, but it is the focus of her days.
She always looks down or looks away as she passes
in the evening. Except sometimes when, just before
going out of sight behind the distant canebrake,
she looks quickly back. It is too far for me to see,
but there is a moment of white if she turns her face.


The Greek fishermen do not
play on the beach and I don't
write funny poems.