Parisian Literary Salon

creating community through reading and discussing literature

Writing from a day of clashing and swimming

Filed under: Poetry & Musings — toby at 3:15 pm on Sunday, July 6, 2008

It was a hot day of clashing. My daughter is rounding the corner from childhood to adolescence; the interior struggles in her body often come out fully armed against me. We had spent the day cleaning her room. I had hoped the promise of the swim in the Pond would push her along, would give speed to her careful rearrangement of dried-out markers and scattered beads in one of her desk drawers before she even contemplated the mounds of dirty clothes, school papers, partially read books and flotsam that provide a nesting ground for the clothes moths. Every time I went up to help, the frustration escalated to a metallic simmer – cartoon samurai warriors floated in the air between us, clashing their swords together, as I struggled not to scream at the glacial pace of progress. I was hot and sticky from cleaning the rest of the house and scratching at being inside on one of the first (perhaps the only) warm and thick day of June. Showers came and went all day but the hot density of the air taunted, begged to be plunged through towards the waters of the Pond so close.

7.30… Almost too late to go, my unbelievably patient husband holding off dinner, both of us trying to help her along but wanting her to make the project her own… finally she comes to me in tears and I realise again I can no longer scoop her up off the ground; her body has grown too long and gangly for me to gather her as I once did in my arms – an embrace or containment that made me feel as though I could hold her in, make it better, cleanse her in my holding before returning her to the rough ground. Now when I try to pick her up, her feet scrape the floor and she is already moving away when I let her go. All together we make a last assault on the room – and miraculously the floor is clean, the clothes put away… so on the bike.

As we push up Highgate Hill, I welcome the sweat that stings my eyes; with each pump of the pedal the conversation between us eases in confrontation, relaxes into reflection. The air is thick with humidity and evening bugs, scent of roses and lilacs and grasses, the green of
the Heath swarms us as we get closer to the Pond. The air feels like warm cloud around us – saturated with the evening sun and heavy with humidity – if it were actually raining it would not feel so different.

Into the changing room at the Women’s Pond, we peel off sweaty clothes and our angers and finally… the velvet thickness of the water is just sharper than the air – I push away from the roped ladder and merge every fragmented piece of me with the tangy pond. I watch my daughter collapse into the water, and see her smile just for herself as she too relaxes, shudders, elongates. The thickness of the air, the hushed voices of the other swimmers, the call of the mother ducks, the color and calm of the lifeguards – all combines into one gorgeous fluid moment on this Saturday evening in early summer when the velvet air prologues the water and the Pond gives my daughter the clean embrace I wished for her.

Poems from Answering Back ed. by Carol Ann Duffy
Answering Back: Living poets reply to the poetry of the past, edited by Carol Ann Duffy : Classic poems chosen by contemporary poets who then write a poem ‘back’. Here are two poems that I found to articulate the tension between the painful nostalgia of home as idea up against the vibrancy of home as lived.

Home is So Sad
Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
the music in the piano stool. That vase.

by Philip Larkin, chosen by Vicki Feaver

Her response:
Home is Here Now

Home is here, now
at this table with its gouged
and scratched wood
where I peel an orange,
the spray from the zest
sending shivers up my nose.

I can see my hands’ blue veins
and swollen red knuckles,
and the diamond highlight
on the blade of my knife,
and bright rind falling
in a long curl.

It’s the quiet time
at the end of the day:
no birdsong, no wind;
just my in and out breaths
and the faint tearing
of pith parting from flesh.

A poem & Poetry Salons

Filed under: Poetry & Musings — toby at 3:31 pm on Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Love Like Salt by Lisel Mueller

It lies in our hands in crystals

Too intricate to decipher

It goes into the skillet

Without being given a second thought

It spills on the floor so fine

We step all over it

We carry a pinch behind each eyeball

It breaks out on our foreheads

We store it inside our bodies

In secret wineskins

At supper, we pass it around the table

Talking of holidays by the sea.

I was considering poems for the next Poetry Salon when I came across this exquisite piece. I recently had a conversation with some friends on the nature of love and was awoken again to the many perspectives and possible models of love. As we ascend to the end of Dante’s magnificent vision in Paradise, I am surprised how deeply we struggle to understand the relationship between Beatrice and Dante- and how fundamental that understanding is to the work as a whole even as we consider the architecture of the universe Dante created, his levels of shining souls residing in Paradise, his theological arguments and political concerns.

In Love Like Salt, the careful and economic choice of words (Love is never named in the poem) reinforces the quotidian nature of love. Moving from its precious, ineffable nature in the first stanza directly to the kitchen floor in the second and third, the poem does not attempt to obscure love but by the playing out of the extended metaphor (love = salt), I am brought anew to my occasional thought of the absolute necessity of love in my life- not just as an enhancer, but as life-giving.

Even the final line- that seems to pint to our distraction from the thing at hand, contains within it a further image of the love/salt duo- the holidays at by the sea involve being immersed in the buoyant salty world; again without awareness, without consideration. We are immersed in our love all the time.

Poetry Salon: October 23, 20.00-22.00

After the pure pleasure of the September Salon night, this looks to be a Salon regular feature. My aim is to have the Poetry night occur at the start of the new series. Please sign up by your email commitment and I will send you the specifics including poems as they are determined. The cost is 10 euro and a suggested contribution of a nibble or boisson. I am considering some Emily Dickinson works perhaps to paired (oh, it is so cliché but the contrast brings each into clarity) with Walt Whitman (some stanzas from Leaves of Grass or A Noiseless Patient Spider) along with Louise Gluck or Phil Levine or Sharon Olds…there is so much to choose from! And while I am procrastinating the choice, I must read more poetry every day…

Sister Cat

Filed under: Poetry & Musings — literarysalon at 11:20 pm on Wednesday, December 14, 2005

I think this poem attracted me right now because of the inherent struggle- even when one’s needs are elaborately fulfilled- the unnamed yearning for more I feel, for example, with the end of each Salon as I want to honor the gathered energy with something greater than a closed door on the final meeting. But it is that want- “She wants. Milk beyond milk. World beyond this one, she cries.” - that drives us- to continue to reach for new ideas, for what challenges us, for world beyond.

Sister Cat
by Francis Mayes

Cat stands at the fridge,
Cries loudly for milk.
But I’ve filled her bowl.
Wild cat, I say, Sister,
Look, you have milk.
I clink my fingernail
Against the rim. Milk.
With down and liver,
A word I know she hears.
Her sad miaow. She runs
To me. She dips
In her whiskers but
doesn’t drink. As sometimes
I want the light on
when it is on. Or when
I saw the woman walking
toward my house and
I thought there’s Frances.
Then looked in the car mirror
To be sure. She stalks
The room. She wants. Milk
Beyond milk. World beyond
This one, she cries.

St. Francis & the Sow to Unaccomodated Man

Filed under: Poetry & Musings — literarysalon at 10:42 am on Sunday, October 2, 2005

3. St Francis & The Sow
by Galway Kinnell
The bud
Stands for all things,
Even those things that don’t flower,
For everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
Though sometimes it is necessary
To reteach a thing its loveliness
To put a hand on its brow
Of the flower
And retell it in words and in touch
It is lovely
Until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
As St. Francis
Put his hand on the creased forehead
Of the sow, and told her in words and touch
Blessings of the earth on the sow, and the sow
Began remembering all down her thick length,
From the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of
the tail,
from the hard spines spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking
and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

From A Reader’s guide to James Joyce by William York Tindall (Noonday Press, NYC, 1959) :
“Joyce’s problem then, was not only how to make a work of art from moral matter but, making the particular universal, how to suggest all youth, all loneliness, all desire. Stephen’s inscription on the flyleaf of his geography book provides a clue: “Stephen Dedalus” it begins, then proceeding through class, school, town, country, continent, it ends with “the World, The Universe.” Joyce told a friend: “If I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”
Tindall, pg. 73

From King Lear, Act III, sc. iv, lines 96-103

Lear: Why, thou wert better in thy grave than to answer with
thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies. Is man no
more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no
silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no per-
fume. Ha! Here’s three on ‘s (of us) are sophisticated. Thou art the
thing itself; unaccomodated man is no more but such a
poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings!
Come, unbutton here. {Tearing off his clothes}

What you can you weave out of these pieces? How might they reflect on each other, building in an idea?

Summer Reading Notes

Filed under: Poetry & Musings — literarysalon at 8:52 pm on Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Summer is a time to stretch out and read…well, at least is should be. Here are some works I have crammed in between hostings and house sellings:

Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides- It really is as good as everyone says it is- bringing to light various boundary lands- between genders, between old worlds and new, between generations. I think the text was heavily influenced by Midnight’s Children- did anyone else notice the references (thematic and narrative)? Man and His Symbols by Carl Jung (and others)- I asked my father- who holds a Doctorate in both Philosophy and Theology- what work he recommended to a shamefully acknowledged biblical neophyte to help that lost soul understand imagery and symbolism of the Bible. Surprisingly, his immediate choice was Jung, followed by the Italian theologian Mercier Eliade. Jung is teaching me- again- how to both recognize the symbolic level of the dream- and how to discard my own learning when entering into the language of the subconscious. Jung would tell his pupils:” Learn as much as you can about symbolism; then forget it all when you are analyzing a dream.” Although this book requires slow, wakeful reading, it is well worth the time.

Wild Heart: A Life by Suzanne Rodriguez- a close writer friend gave me this while I was visiting. It is the biography of Natalie Clifford Barney- detailing her journey “from Victorian America to the Literary Salons of Paris”. Barney is an inspiration in many ways- her passion for literature and ideas in the early years of the 20th Century opened a route that we still travel- plus there is wonderful sensuality and a resonant vision of the Belle Epoque and the world of the early Moderns.

Poetry 180: A turning back to Poetry selected and introduced by Billy Collins- poems by contemporary writers that are ‘impossible not to love at first glance’; an experience that should then prepare us for the harder work of poems that take time.


Filed under: Poetry & Musings — literarysalon at 8:47 pm on Tuesday, September 6, 2005

by Carol Snow

Near a shrine in Japan he’d swept the path
and then placed camellia blossoms there.

Or-we had no way of knowing- he’d swept the path
between fallen camellias.

a poem and a quote

Filed under: Poetry & Musings — literarysalon at 11:29 pm on Saturday, August 13, 2005

(originally distributed June 17, 2005)

– by Edna St. Vincent Millay

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing,
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

and the quote…
– From an essay by George Eliot on Wilhelm Riehl’s text, The Natural History of German Life as quoted by A.S. Byatt in Passions of the Mind (whew.)

“… And in the Riehl essay, her (George Eliot’s) arguments for the specificity of natural history are also used for artistic realism: there is a moral obligation to depict peasants as they are, not in a pastoral idealization. “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot. All the more sacred is the task of the artist when he undertakes to paint the life of the People. Falsification here is far more pernicious than in the more artificial aspects of life.”

My musings (perhaps more accurately a rant):

These two bits set against each other may not have an obvious connection- but here goes: Eliot’s quote seems to me to get at the idea of what is true- and often for me a measure of what is true is that that resonates- for example, reading a poem that in the act of reading, reaches inside you, from your mouth down into the place where memory and impression quiver, and connects with a moment that is sharp for you in your experience. And that this experience happens, not just for those who have studied literature, who feel quite at ease discussing the wisdom in madness in Shakespeare’s King Lear, for example, but for those who have had lived consciously in the world and can use their experience to contemplate the ideas of others.

This week in the International Herald Tribune there was an article titled: In Elite Literary Club, a voice for women for 125 years. I applaud the purpose of the club, but feel a bit of an old anger in some of the terms used in discussing this club. Elite. It is not only people of privilege who can discuss ideas- whether it be the privilege of class, education, or culture. I hope that the act of reading, and the possibility of discussing what one has read, is not kept away from anyone who desires to grow and “extend contact with our fellow man”. That is why I do the Salons- so that anyone who is interested can access works and ideas that may broaden them. The works we chose are difficult- but not, I think to keep people from reading them. Nor is it necessary to spend years preparing for a work like Middlemarch. Simply having the courage to ask questions and through the work and knowledge of others to gain a foothold can be enough to let one in. Shakespeare wrote his plays so that the peasants standing on the floor of the theater would be as riveted as the Queen in her special alcove. The challenge for the contemporary reader is to re-enter the world and language of the writer, so that we can also grasp the ideas he offers. The human experience- love, greed, ambition, struggle- is the common and connecting thread. We all have knowledge from our daily experience that will illuminate a piece of the text.

So why Millay’s poem? I think I first encountered this poem in a children’s book (help- was it The Mixed up files of … ?) when I was quite young. I don’t think I had met my interior wanderlust yet- but reading the poem out loud until it turned into a chant reminded me of the leavings I had experienced. And now I re-meet the poem and hear in it the alternating desires of fellowship (community) and the yearning always for the unknown- the trail that winds away into the distance. Embedded in her language are the images of quotidian experience (night for sleeping, warm heart for friends, day full of voices) up against a wild call that sits in the back of her awareness: red cinders, shrieking whistles, engine steaming. Millay voiced here- in a poem that has the quality of incantation (go on, read it aloud) the tension I recognize of living solidly vs. giving into yearning & chance. If you are interested, I have another Millay poem that considers the struggle between influences of (Christian) faith and wilder forces. If you are interested, e-mail me for The Singing-Woman from the Wood’s Edge and I promise no rant.