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Eleanor Goodman
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Homages to Seamus Heaney have been pouring out from his friends and admirers across the world, including, it turns out, China. On August 30 and soon after, my poet friends here in Beijing and around the PRC posted expressions of their sadness, often along with a Chinese translation of one of Heaney’s poems. “Digging” is a particular favorite here, as elsewhere. The piece below is my translation of the distinguished Chinese poet Zang Di’s (臧棣) own private eulogy to Heaney, printed here with his p... Continue reading
Posted Sep 16, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
As everyone has heard by now, this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the Chinese novelist Mo Yan. Nearly any selection would create controversy—from sour grapes to complaints about literary quality to accusations of political maneuvering on the part of the Nobel committee. This year, what strikes me is the substantial difference between what is being said in the US about the choice, and what is being said in China. Outside of Chinese literature specialists, the major reaction in th... Continue reading
Posted Oct 13, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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My first summer in Shanghai, I horrified my female Shanghainese coworkers by daring to walk around outside. It wasn’t that they were worried that I would suffer from heatstroke in the humid 95-degree weather, or get run over by a bus or motorized rickshaw on the chaotic streets, or even that I would get lost in the labyrinthine back alleys where I liked to wander. No, they were worried about my face. “Your skin was so pretty, but now you’re getting so dark!” they would cry, in a tone usually reserved for national disasters. Coming from the States, where those odd cancer-causing machines called tanning beds are still popular and people think it’s a good idea to go to the beach to lie out in the sun until they turn as pink as undercooked pork, I was flummoxed by my coworkers’ attitude. I have to admit I reacted in typical foreigner fashion: I ignored them. Finally, one of the receptionists moved decisively to save me from my own ignorance. She bought me an umbrella. Parasols have a long history in China, along with an appreciation of pale skin, and neither shows signs of fading. In Shanghai, you will find many more umbrellas deployed on a sunny day than on a rainy one. I stubbornly resisted until one brutally hot day when a friend insisted that I step under her umbrella. I discovered something amazing: it felt at least ten degrees cooler under that glorious round shadow. Instead of scurrying from leafy tree to leafy tree (which tend to be few and far between in Chinese cities), I could carry around my own personal shade! Feeling sheepish, I started using the umbrella the receptionist gave me, and it made a huge difference in how sweat-soaked and cranky I was when I arrived at the office. I learned to love my protective nylon friend. But then I came back to the States, and I had to give up my habit out of shame. Using an umbrella just invited too much gawking and unwanted attention. (This from a guy in a landscaping truck: “It must be raining baby, ‘cause you just dropped from heaven.”) But I really miss it on those hot days when you can feel the sun burning your shoulders, turning your nose an unsightly red and incrementally inching up your chances of melanoma. So I plead with you, gentle reader: let’s bring the parasol back. Not only does it protect from the heat of the sun and offer better SPF than any lotion, it can be a fashion statement. In China, there are ruffled parasols, polka dot parasols, silk parasols, painted parasols, even personalized ones. We could start our own American parasol industry to replace chemical sunscreen manufacturing. Once the idea takes off and carrying a parasol becomes common, all sideways glances and comments will disappear. And a lot of skin cancer with it. Remember: Power in numbers! Continue reading
Posted Aug 21, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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My hometown, Buffalo, NY, isn’t famous for much. We’ve got Buffalo chicken wings and the ill-fated Buffalo Bills. There’s SUNY Buffalo and Lake Erie and the faded glory of the Erie Canal. But mostly, if you ask people whether they’ve been to Buffalo, they invariably say, “Sure. I drove through it once on the way to Niagara Falls.” But in facebook land, where I spend a lot of time (for a writer, it’s a deliciously fertile jungle of gossip and human peculiarity), Buffalo suddenly started showing up in the form of links to a bizarre news story. Apparently, a man was pulled over for running a stop sign and the traffic cops found in his trunk a cat that, “according to police, was in a cage ‘marinating’ in a mixture of crushed red peppers, chili pepper, salt and oil” (The Buffalo News, Aug. 10). Facebook posters immediately exploded in righteous indignation. What cruelty! How dare he marinate his pet! What kind of a psycho would think of eating a cat! The guy should be put away for life! ...Now excuse me, my hamburger’s getting cold. There is a disconnect in our culture that becomes more profound the farther we get from our food sources. This phenomenon produces factory farms, genetically modified corn syrup, and that wonder of DNA-splicing, the fish-tomato. It also produces a moral stance in which killing a pig to eat it is fine, but killing a dog (which, according to many measures, is the less intelligent and affectionate of the two) to eat it is not okay. Marinating a cat is wrong, wrong, wrong, but hey, if we’re talking chicken wings, go right ahead. What disturbs me is not that people draw lines that resemble an abstract painting between what they will and will not eat. We all have to draw some line: a carrot is alive after all, and to eat it involves viciously killing the entire plant by ripping up its roots. My cousin, a deeply moral vegan, won’t eat honey, because it involves “bee slavery.” On the other end of the spectrum, even the most voracious steak-devourer from Texas probably wouldn’t touch a nicely grilled cutlet of human rump. Some people draw the line at anything that bleeds, or at fish, or at red meat. In some sense, it’s an arbitrary choice. No, what disturbs me is that many people don’t seem to realize that they are in fact making a choice, and one that has real moral (as well as practical, political, economic, energy, environmental, policy, etc.) implications. In his essay “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace recounts (originally for Gourmet magazine: it’s amazing they published it) a visit to the annual Maine Lobster Festival, where over 25,000 pounds of lobster are consumed with great verve and enthusiasm. No one there seems to be bothered by, or even aware of, the live lobsters that are being thrown—fully awake and aware in their lobster-awareness—into boiling water to die (what would be for us anyway)... Continue reading
Posted Aug 20, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Two years ago next month, the writer, philosopher, and literary genius David Foster Wallace hanged himself in his backyard. I didn’t know DFW, and initially I disliked his work. True, I took some pride in the fact that we attended the same alma mater and shared professors (many years apart). But I’d badmouthed DFW’s novels to friends as “mannered and faddish,” a criticism along the lines of James Wood’s coinage of the category “hysterical realism.” I resented his footnotes and piling up of details and jump-and-splice style of narration. I thought his tone was arrogant. Then two months before DFW died, a friend loaned me Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Somewhere in the middle of the second story, “Death Is Not the End,” I abruptly got it, and I devoured the rest of the book with a feeling of voracious pleasure and nausea, as though I were compulsively eating an entire three-layer chocolate cake with jalapeno frosting. What I realized was that DFW wasn’t trying to make his readers feel stupid, or to intimidate them, or to bludgeon them with his own unreasonably encompassing intellect. He was simply trying to get his readers to feel something, to break through the anesthetized shell most of us walk around in all the time. He was trying to bring empathy back into our lives, an awareness of others as well as of ourselves. In this way, he was in a lineage not of literary figures, but of religious leaders—gurus and sages and mystics. He just also happened to be able to tell an incredible story on the page. It wasn’t until this summer that I could finally pick up Consider the Lobster, one of his incredible collections of essays. For me, DFW’s work is inescapably recontextualized by his death: everywhere in his books are hints of the kind of flagellating self-hatred that must be behind suicide. Evidence of the cruel cost his writing exacted from him is there in the amusing confessions and casually self-deprecating meta-commentary. But perhaps, and I believe this simultaneously, his writing was the only thing that could keep him alive, until—in the midst of brain-chemical issues created by the psychotropic drugs he was taking and then not taking—it wasn’t enough. There are questions we want to ask every time an artist commits this act of ultimate self-destruction. What makes some creative people find life unbearable, and do they find it more unbearable than investment bankers or store clerks or construction workers? Is there something about the kind of sensitivity and openness required to do creative work that makes people more vulnerable to the suffering in this world, including their own? Did writing save DFW or drive him crazy? How could someone so brilliant have been so cruel to himself and so uncertain of his own talent? And for god’s sake, why didn’t somebody save him from himself? But we can’t save others from themselves: we can only love them when they’re here and continue to love them once they’re... Continue reading
Posted Aug 19, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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There is a discrete point in life when you suddenly realize your parents look frail, you have wrinkles starting to spider out from the corners of your eyes, and practically everyone you know is married. Now replace “discrete” with “traumatic.” Replace “traumatic” with “revelatory.” Replace the whole sentence with “What the hell is going on here, and how did it all happen so fast?” This spring, I attended a bachelorette party for a close friend from high school. The celebrations involved electric pink spandex pants, several surreal MTA rides, marathon dancing in stilettos, and a tremendous amount of alcohol. A few months later, the same group of women, most of whom I’ve known for over twenty years, attended the lovely Quaker-Agnostic/Catholic wedding in a Unitarian church in the country. I’d rather not do an accounting, but my brain does that sort of thing unsanctioned: of my friends, two have kids, one is expecting, three are married or as good as, while one is living the fabulous single life in NYC. She and I may have been the only unattached people there over the age of twelve. We as a culture spend a lot of time trying to figure out what marriage is and what it should be, how to make it last, how to make it better, how to deal with it when it ends, and who should be allowed to do it in the first place. We pass laws and then have legal battles about whether marriage should be exclusively an inter-gender thing. We produce scientific studies showing that women who don’t marry die early, and other studies that say they die richer, healthier, and happier. We punish people who marry more than one person (simultaneously, that is—we’ve long since gotten used to the previously scandalous remarriage) by taking away their children. We tsk at other cultures that do it differently. All this for a system that originated a very long time ago as a way to control women’s sexuality and fertility, construct dynastic alliances, and guarantee the biological legitimacy of inheriting sons. Oddly, my main model of marriage is a positive one: my aunt and uncle, who are like second parents, have been married for over forty years. One is always tempted to put “happily” in a sentence like that, and they are happy. But I’ve also observed their relationship go through periods of conflict and of emotional estrangement. It has always looked to me like a nonstop intractable negotiation with incredibly high stakes. My aunt told me once that during a difficult time early on in their marriage, they instituted a ‘no talking’ rule. Hey, it worked for them. But for many others, nothing works. I have friends, still tender in their late twenties and thirties, who are divorced and moving on to the second round. I’ve watched a few dissolutions close up, and it doesn’t look like something I’d ever want to do. And yet, watching my high school classmate and her fiancé tie the knot... Continue reading
Posted Aug 18, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Am I unusual in feeling that there’s something increasingly schizophrenic about our public life? According to the New York Times, BP’s apocalyptic oil spill continues to kill giant sea turtles by the boatload and destroy the unique biodiversity of Louisiana along with threatening the rest of our east coast ecosystem, all without any real censure or punishment from the US government—but you’ll be relieved to know that six-pack abs and shag rugs are back in vogue! Then there’s the fact that the Pakistanis are drowning (if the cholera doesn’t get them first), Greece may topple even faster than the euro, most of Thailand is still under a state of emergency, and China continues to bulldoze its way to the top of the global dog-pile at terrifying environmental and humanitarian cost. Our own politicians are unabashedly in the pockets of big business and no one is protesting the outrageous economic practices that led to the massive meltdown in 2008, at least no one with any political clout. But there’s good news to balance it all out: apparently the White House pastry chef is taking a stand against the industrialization of our food supply by growing his own rhubarb on the South Lawn. Take that, agribusiness. Does it all seem like a Monty Python skit to you too? The human capacity for self-destruction shows itself on micro and macro levels, in the individual psyche and in societies as a whole. Maybe the doomsday cultists like Jim Jones and Shoko Asahara (who led the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway 15 years ago) are just giving expression to the strange fact that we find a kind of satisfaction in hurting ourselves, or hurting our neighbors, which is the same thing in the end. The suicide bomber’s first victim is himself. Or is it a kind of myopia? Great civilizations have disappeared before: the Mayans, the Incas, the Roman Empire, the Phoenicians, the Mongol Empire, the Egypt of the Pharaohs, the Ottoman Empire. But, come on, that won’t happen to us. Today there’s an oil spill, but they (whoever they are) will figure out how to clean it up, and the solution won’t involve us having to sacrifice anything. Harnessing the largest source of energy in our solar system, that big ol’ ball of fire called the sun, is “impractical” (so sayeth our policy makers and corporate scientists) not because we don’t know how to do it, but because it would put the energy companies out of business. We may be mortgaged up to our necks after the housing bubble, but a reduction in our standard of living is literally inconceivable: we’ve lost the imaginative capacity necessary to envision a different possible future. As easy and satisfying as it is to rail against the oil executives at BP with their multimillion dollar salaries and tenuous relationship with the truth, perhaps we should keep in mind that we made them with our greed for SUVs, two-dollar tchotchkes, McMansions in the country, and petroleum-made plastic... Continue reading
Posted Aug 17, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Jared Smith is a poet I have admired for many years. I met him once by chance, on a day in July so humid that even the trees looked resentful, and we had a long conversation about art, the place of poetry in contemporary society, and what it means, or should mean, to be a writer. I found him to be a unique mix of the visionary, talking about poetry in unabashedly mystical terms, and the modern scientist (he started working in the high tech industry before it was an industry). His poetry embodies the same seeming contradiction, and that is one of the things that makes it so impressive. Also impressive is how prolific and consistently topnotch a writer Smith is. This spring alone, he put out two books, a new collection titled Grassroots [Wind Publications], and a compilation, Looking into the Machinery, Selected Longer Poems, [Tamarack Editions]. Both books are exciting forays into the mind of this important poet of the modern experience. Song catch me as snow falling into air...... Song of the blood of this land, fill these veins Song burning in earthen fragments, filling the granite bonds of city, building the bones of time, Sing in the arteries of my mind. So begins “Song of the Blood,” a book-length poem published in 1983, which serves as the launching point of the Selected Longer Poems. The incantatory call for attention, the invocation of the Muse, which is both apart from and part of the body itself—it is this sense of the orphic made concrete in granite and bones that makes Smith’s work so powerful. One can see a young man’s passion in this poem, the pulse and avidity of a seeker just starting out. This sense of discovery and curiosity, of the desire to fill oneself with the world irrespective of the cost both psychic and practical, is a theme throughout Smith’s oeuvre. Take the beginning of Section III from “A Trout in the Pick-up on Papago,” a recent poem composed for the collection: When I am hungry, I rise to the surface and the universe settles a dusty miller which I take into my bloodless lips; the universe then settles around me. The bones dry out over time, crumble away but they always hold what built them. They hold the sun and they hold the darkness and every shade of color from in between. These are the same concerns, the same hunger for inspiration, the same seeking, and the same bones. Yet the position has shifted: the voice here is slower, calmer, more philosophical than incantatory despite the repetitions. There is a wonderful sense of circularity, the sense of a highly-attuned poetic mind returning to the same place, and, as Eliot wrote, knowing it for the first time. A sense of intellectual and spiritual restlessness is a vital characteristic for any poet, but a poet also needs musicality, linguistic creativity, and an eye for keen observation. And a feel for love, which is what fills... Continue reading
Posted Aug 16, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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“The perpetual ideal is astonishment,” Derek Walcott writes in the title poem of his painfully beautiful new book White Egrets. I take this to be true and essential in life as well as in art. Perhaps that’s one reason I tend to move so much (“compulsively,” according to one relative I’ll leave unnamed). After all, isn’t away much more interesting than home? And what better way to always be away than to avoid ever establishing a home? But I’ve somehow managed to land for the moment in a city of constant change, and I find myself wanting to put down tentative surface roots. Here, the school year is filled with college students and their machinations, while summer brings tourists and those hoping to profit from them. Last weekend, I watched a young man wearing a kilt and nothing else ride a ten-foot tall unicycle while playing “We Will Rock You” on the bagpipes. For a denizen of a tourist destination, it is very important to one’s self-esteem to look like a local, but I couldn’t help but stop and gawk. The bald danger, the sense that here was a performer throwing everything he had into his art, with real risks—concussion, humiliation, broken bones, a public indecency charge from an untoward flap of his kilt. And I remembered: yes, that’s what we should be doing, always, on the page. No fear, no withholding. At the cavernous entrance to the subway, I’m often stopped by a middle-aged man who begins with “Could I ask you a question?” He doesn’t have a question; he wants to tell me that he needs ten bucks to buy a bus ticket back to Tennessee for his mom’s surgery. He’s got to leave tomorrow. But I’ve given him money before; he’s lived here longer than I have, working nine-to-five like the other commuters. Still, I always feel compelled to apologize for not forking out. He surely needs the money, if not for the bus. “That’s all right,” he always says, and his voice is understanding, as though I’ve just revealed a terrible moral deficiency (as I clearly have) and he wants to reassure me that I will be forgiven. Outside the cafe where I often work is a small grassy square where street musicians of varying levels of musical incompetence compete for aural dominance. There are benches for businesspeople to eat their takeout lunches with the tourists and buskers, homeless teens with their dreadlocks and dogs, and the human statues, like this angel, who pose in the heat for hours without wavering. Does everyone crave this mix of backgrounds and languages and incomes and attitudes, the grunginess at the corners of wealth, the feeling that each time you go away, you will return to a different place? Or perhaps it mirrors the inner state of the inveterately peripatetic: fearing the kind of death that comes from insensate security and comfort, ever wary of that deceptively static concept of home. Tomorrow: the work of Jared Smith. Continue reading
Posted Aug 15, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks for the kind remarks, David and Stacey. I love Stevens' "Sunday Morning", but the poem on this topic that speaks to me most is Rilke's first Duino Elegy: "For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure / and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us." That sense of awe, for me, is the impulse behind art. I felt that same mix of intense aesthetic pleasure and fear in Pere Lachaise. I think Stevens is pointing to the fact that despite our desire for it, there is no "imperishable bliss", only a fleeting sense of joy, and such is a given life. Death, by providing the door through which beauty comes and goes, is both a looming horror and a solace.