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Victoria Kelly
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One writer who has been particularly inspirational to me in my career is Jehanne Dubrow. I discovered her third collection, Stateside, midway through my own attempt at writing a book abut being a military spouse. Dubrow, a Navy wife and a well-established poet, approached the topic using the compelling comparison of Homer’s Penelope, who famously waited a decade for her husband, Odysseus, to return from war. Now she has released her latest book, the stirring and evocative The Arranged Marriage, with the University of New Mexico Press. In it, she writes of her mother’s traumatic marriage, frequently referencing sharp and broken things. In “Set Jerusalem above My Highest Joy,” she writes, “Every marriage is arranged to be broken. / There is a light bulb wrapped in a napkin, / which the groom wedges beneath his heel." It is a dark but powerfully unique interpretation of the Jewish wedding tradition. Then there is “Schiller,” a variation on the ghazal, which is perhaps one of the most beautifully-structured poems I have come across since Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” “That our parents have lives before us is a secret we close in a dark compartment,” Dubrow writes. It is a statement that gets at her ability to express the surrealist of ideas, a child grappling with the strange truth, as we all have, that there was a time when people we love most existed, but we did not exist. “My / mother’s face was water just before a stone / drops in, surface-smooth, opaque,” she writes in “The Blue Dress.” But beneath all of the hurt and brutality that underlies the central relationship in the collection, there is love. The speaker’s love for her mother is transformative. Dubrow’s dexterity with language, which first drew me to her work, is once again remarkable. The emotion is raw, but her words are expertly refined. Continue reading
Posted Oct 9, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Because my first novel, Mrs. Houdini, is about the famous illusionist’s wife, sometimes I am asked whether I believe in magic. When I was living in Ireland, that magical isle, in 2008 as a graduate student, I did not see any fairies or leprechauns. I did see a lot of chain restaurants and malls. In the late nineties, the Celtic Tiger had come to Ireland. Ten years later the streets still sang with this affluence: shops were crammed, hotels were expensive, and the lights of the pubs blazed late into the night. It was to be the last year of the Tiger, but none of us knew this yet; my Irish classmates and I enjoyed gourmet meals and train trips to Galway and cheap flights to England and Italy. After such a long, sad history of misfortune, of famine and scandal and poverty—which had sent my great-great-grandmother, like many others, across the Atlantic to America—there was only the enchanted air of celebration. Sometimes I heard people wonder whether Ireland had modernized too quickly, whether an Ireland of Vodafone and Marks and Spencer meant that perhaps the old Ireland had been lost. But I saw the magic of Old Ireland everywhere I went that year. I saw it in County Cork, when I walked through a storm at dusk to Blarney Castle and kissed the Blarney Stone, lying upside-down off the edge of the castle wall while the rain fell like tinsel around me. I saw magic in the cobblestoned streets of Galway, in the lilt of the shopkeepers’ voices and the way everyone seemed to call everyone “love” and in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin with its velvet curtains and the ghosts of Yeats and Lady Gregory in the wings. I saw it in a firelit café on the Aran Islands after a long walk along the cliffs in the spring cold, and the warm, coarse brown bread I have never tasted since. I saw it in the voices of the street musicians who sang on Grafton Street until three a.m. on Saturday nights, and the Bulgarian woman who ran the nail salon near my room and talked only of her family, and in the hillsides dotted with sheep and heather, and in the stone angels of the Powerscourt Gardens, and the cracked pages of old Biblical texts at the Chester Beatty Library. Do I believe in magic? I have had psychics tell me things about my life so far from the truth it was embarrassing even to be present. I am amazed by David Blaine but know that there is a difference between illusion and magic. I know that Harry Houdini made an elephant disappear in front of hundreds of people but he used no special powers to do so. But I have also had a white-haired fortune-teller in New Orleans ask me, out of the blue, why I had stopped going to church, at a time in my life when I had stopped going to church. And I... Continue reading
Posted Oct 8, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
For three years, before I had my own children, I was a Court Appointed Special Advocate to two little girls living in the foster care system. As a CASA, I visited these girls weekly—at home, at school, and at daycare—and attended all court hearings relevant to their placement. My goal was to make sure they were safe and thriving—both in their foster home and when they visited their mother, who was overcoming a series of difficulties in her life. The role as a volunteer CASA is not unlike that of a social worker—get to know the children, learn their routines and habits, and hope that they come to see you as someone they can trust. If many cases, they will confide in you things they might not confide to a foster parent or a social worker, situations that could become harmful or life-threatening. I loved these little girls. We played paper dolls and “running away to Hollywood”. I watched them enter kindergarten and learn to read, sounding out each word with furrowed brows, and then graduate to chapter books. These girls were fortunate to have a caring foster family. But in their guardianship situation they were not so lucky. They still linger in the foster system after many years, caught in a court battle that remains unresolved. It was heartbreaking to watch these girls struggle to feel safe, to understand where they belonged, to wonder if they were wanted. Now that I am a mother to two little girls of my own, I look back on those years I spent as a CASA with new eyes. It was what drew me to support the Pajama Program, an organization that provides new pajamas and new books to children like the ones I knew. The children they help are in foster care, or living in shelters, or living in poverty, or have been abandoned. These are kids who do not get tucked into bed. Sometimes these pajamas and books are the only new things they have ever received. Pajamas, and books, help them feel warm and secure at a time when they are most vulnerable. I can’t imagine what it would have felt like to have never owned a book as a child, to have never had those long Sunday mornings in bed reading, dreaming up new worlds. If you would like to get involved, visit the Pajama Program site to donate, sponsor a book drive, or volunteer at their NYC reading center. Or go here to learn about volunteering as a CASA. Continue reading
Posted Oct 7, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
As a guest blogger whose debut collection is about my experiences as a military pilot’s spouse, I would certainly be remiss in not commenting on this part of my life. In my poem, “Heroes,” I say, “The truth is / So much of it now is just like life, the guys / coming over for a drink after work and the XO / breakdancing in a pair of running pants / at the Christmas party and all the lieutenants / in reindeer costumes with their girls on their arms.” I have been fortunate to have done many things in my life—singing in Lincoln Center, and standing at the feet of the statue of David, and swimming in the glow of a bioluminescent bay, and reading books in libraries older than the town I grew up in. But the life I live now is a life all its own. There is something magical in being always part of a group, always part of something larger than yourself. There are the downsides, of course—filling out the paperwork before your husband leaves for a deployment, writing down who you would like to be with you, should you be informed of your husband’s death. And there are the crashes that happen, more often than you would like, one of them just a mile from your house, the flurries of phone calls and texts, finding out it is not your husband but someone you know anyway, because everyone here knows everyone, it seems. You are friends with widows who are too young to be widows, and you watch them get married again, and understand that it is beautiful because they are in love, but sad too, because in the back of everyone’s mind is the bride’s first love. But there are the friendships. There is laughing at dinner with a group of women while across the world your husbands are laughing together at their own table, on an aircraft carrier, having breakfast. There are the group trips to far-away ports where you check in to luxury hotels with swimming pools as large as banquet halls. There are the grand balls that are supposed to be sophisticated but everyone knows will be debaucherous. There is your two-year-old daughter seeing “Dada” flying every plane she sees overhead, and there is watching movies where actors pretend to live the very life you are, in fact, living now. But, mostly, there are ordinary days. There is running into someone you know at Target, and filling lunchboxes for school, and wandering the aisles of department stores looking for sheets. There are afternoons at the beach and afternoons at the waterpark and afternoons at the museum. There is reading books and cleaning the kitchen and walking the dog. Still, it has been, as James Salter once wrote, looking back on his own years in the military: “a great voyage, the voyage, probably, of my life.” Continue reading
Posted Oct 6, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Much has been said on the frenetic pace of modern life, and its consequences. Writers have been glorifying the wonders of simplicity for hundreds of years: “Let your affairs be as two or three, not a hundred,” Thoreau advised in Walden. But in the past five to ten years, especially, the art of “slowing down” has garnered a mass-market following. Today, it is “cooler” than it ever was (think Eat Pray Love, Lululemon, and the rising popularity of Buddhist quotes in tattoo parlors). I found my way recently to meditation out of medical necessity; chronic stress and anxiety had been causing stomach pains and other physical symptoms. I did, of course, what all good writers do before embarking on something new—I procrastinated the actual “doing” of the thing by reading about it first. A lot. In Mindfulness, Meditation, and Mind Fitness, Joel and Michelle Levey ponder how, “In a single day we respond to more information and make more decisions than one of our ancestors faced in a lifetime.” I thought about this as I went through my day: sorting through dozens of emails advertising clothing, facials, and charities; walking a supermarket aisle devoted entirely to cereal; stopping at a popular intersection with four competing drugstores, one on each corner. I spent a great deal of time preparing my meditation. I downloaded just the right app, found just the right space where I would not be disturbed (a carpeted closet), bought a tray for the occasion to hold a candle, beads and fancy Santa Maria Novella incense papers. It was only weeks later that I gathered enough courage to actually sit down in my closet, close my eyes, and try to think… of nothing. I wasn’t very successful. I’ve learned since then that it takes at least seven hours of accumulated meditation time before one begins to see an actual difference. But I’ve thought a lot in the past month about what “meditation” means to different people. To some it means sitting in a dark closet; to others it means tai chi, or yoga, or reflexology, or reiki. But couldn’t it also be poetry? Self-help books don’t really reference this tactic. But I think a lot of people would agree that reading poetry slows down our minds in the best kind of way. For exactly that reason, the faster society goes, the more people tend to say to poets when apologizing for not buying their books, “You know, I don’t really get poetry.” But if we spend the same amount of time on a page of poetry with sixty words as a page of a novel with four hundred words, we get a whole lot more out of it. William Stafford is one of my favorite twentieth-century “meditative” poets (“There are great gray islands that come for us, / where the dreams are / far as the sky and the light…”) but I also recently discovered a beautiful, slim volume by Richard Wilbur, published in 1947, called The Beautiful Changes:... Continue reading
Posted Oct 5, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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Oct 4, 2015