Category Archives: quotes

Goodbye May

Personalia (Mary Ruefle)

When I was young, a fortune-teller told me that an old
woman who wanted to die had accidentally become
lodged in my body. Slowly, over time, and taking great
care in following esoteric instructions, including laven-
der baths and the ritual burial of keys in the backyard, I
rid myself of her presence. Now I am an old woman who
wants to die and lodged inside me is a young woman dy-
ing to live. I work on her.

The Kookaburras (Mary Oliver)

In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator.
In every heart there is a god of flowers, just waiting
to stride out of a cloud and lift its wings.
The kookaburras, pressed against the edge of their cage,
asked me to open the door.
Years later I remember how I didn’t do it,
how instead I walked away.
They had the brown eyes of soft-hearted dogs.
They didn’t want to do anything so extraordinary, only to fly
home to their river.
By now I suppose the great darkness has covered them.
As for myself, I am not yet a god of even the palest flowers.
Nothing else has changed either.
Someone tosses their white bones to the dung-heap.
The sun shines on the latch of their cage.
I lie in the dark, my heart pounding.

Poem for Right Now (Catherine Pierce)

In protest I say the word iridescent.
In protest I say the word vesper.
In protest I say that I am in love
with this day, this exact day, this rain
on the thousands of dead leaves
in my backyard and the mourning dove
and the faint growl of the garbage truck
a few blocks over. I am in love with it.
In fucking love. It’s true that now
a mushroom cloud billows behind my eyes
all day. It’s true I fall asleep drafting letters
in my new language of pitchforks.
I know the chopping block is vast. I know
it has room and stomach for everything.
But my tongue and my head are mine.
So in protest I say the word liquefy.
In protest I say the word gloaming.
In protest I will remember how once
my friend and I walked through an alley
in a strange city, and my friend wore
a paper dragon in her hair, and the city
was five o’clock gold all around us.
In protest I say the word dragon.
There are days I’ve carried like candles
to light the rest of my life, and I will not
let the new days snuff them out, though
the new days are trying. Watch me hold
a decade-ago snow night, moon-bright
and silent, right next to my hammering rage.
Watch me house halcyon next to protocol,
lagoon next to constituent. I am trying
to become a contradiction machine.
I am poorly oiled, but every day I creak
awake again. The rain is heavy now
against my screened-in porch,
and the gutter that years ago my husband
patched with duct tape is still holding.
At this point, repaired is more accurate
than patched. It’s still holding, and in protest
I marvel over that. In protest I marvel.
In protest I say incandescent, liminal, charcuterie,
embrace. I think acquiescence is a beautiful word,
too, but in protest I put it away. There are
other beautiful words. Like lunar. Like
resistance. Like love, like fucking love.

“You’re just looking for a way not to be alone,” I told him. But Saul said, “There is no way not to be alone.”

Anne Tyler, Earthly Possessions

“People without hope do not write novels. Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system. If the novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by a hope of salvation, or he simply won’t survive the ordeal.”

Flannery O’Connor, in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” from Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (FSG, 1969)

“Reconnecting to art and to writing helps me believe in the goodness of other people. When I prove to myself that I can be empathetic and interested, I become less isolated in the present and far less afraid of the future.”

Stephanie Powell Watts in this week’s Writers Recommend (Poets & Writers, 2017)

“Working hard and faithfully on what you love will pay off and bring quality to your life. Sitting and writing, even on the awful days, is just a glorious thing to be able to do.”

Ralph E. Rodriguez, in Laura Maylene Walter’s “Tell Me I’m Good: The Writer’s Quest for Reassurance” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine (2017)

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Homo sapiens in Northumberland

I spent the bank holiday weekend in Northumberland visiting the coast–very Game of Thrones scenery. Please enjoy the photographs below. 

I still haven’t finished Sapiens but have highlighted copious notes, especially in the first section (“The Cognitive Revolution”), which I have also provided below.

It’s definitely the kind of book that’s both interesting and depressing. Interesting in the sense that it really helps to open the mind up and see the BIG picture of things, like the feeling you get while camping and looking up at the stars late at night. And depressing in the sense that it occasionally sounds like passages that would be spoken vehemently and written into manifestos by the apocalypse-obsessed main character of “S-Town” (a truly excellent podcast; I have one episode left and don’t want end it to end). God.

I guess I had a similar emotional reaction watching the film Homo Sapiens (what similar sounding titles – I even saw a man holding the book Sapiens in the theatre. He kept muttering angrily throughout – did he think the film was based on the book? How disappointed he must have been!).

Sapiens quotes – Part One: The Cognitive Revolution

Chapter 1

The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies, or jellyfish. (so “Ishmael“!) 

Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. 

Chapter 2

The truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled.

Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language… But why is it important? After all, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting… But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.

Ever since to Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees, and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations, and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google. 

Chapter 3

Our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all the result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, aeroplanes, telephones and computers. This environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured.

The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.

Chapter 4

The ecological record makes Homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer.

Part Two: The Agricultural Revolution

Chapter 5

[Wheat, rice, and potatoes] domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa. (Very Michael Pollan-esque here)

This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: to keep more people alive under worse conditions. (Yeah, he gets pretty doom and gloomy at times!!)

Over the last few decades, we have invented countless time-saving devices that are supposed to make life more relaxed – washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, telephones, mobile phones, computers, email… Today I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.

Chapter 6

History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.

We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.

People today spend a great deal of money on holidays abroad because they are true believers in the myths of romantic consumerism. Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experiences as we can. We must open ourselves to a wide spectrum of emotions; we must sample various kinds of relationships; we must try different cuisines; we must learn to appreciate different styles of music. One of the best ways to do all that is to break free from our daily routine, leave behind our familiar setting, and go travelling in distant lands, where we can ‘experience’ the culture, the smells, the tastes and the norms of other people. We hear again and again the romantic myths about ‘how a new experience opened my eyes and changed my life.’ Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible… Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism (very “The Beach” here, as in the Alex Garland novel… I still like to travel though lol!)

I’ll share more later, maybe…

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Quotes for January

“Writing requires the concentration of the writer, demands that nothing else be done except that.”Carlos Fuentes


Maeve Brennan’s advice to writer Tillie Olsen (as seen on Twitter)

“Surviving Love”
Linda Gregg

I work hard at managing, grateful
and spare. I try to forgive all trespasses
and give thanks for the desert. Rejoice
in being alive here in my simple world.
Each evening I walk for an hour, paying
attention to real things. The plover
sweeping at my face to get me away from
its ground nest. An ant carrying the wing
of a butterfly like a flag in the wind.
A grasshopper eating a dead grasshopper.
The antelope close up, just staring at me.
Back in the house, I lie down in the heat
for a nap, realizing forgiveness is hard
for the wounded. Near the border,
between this country and the next one.

“El amor nunca trae nada bueno. El amor siempre trae algo mejor.” —Bolaño, Amuleto


I often wondered: is it some kind of trade-off? Do others have to lose so we can win? —Zadie Smith, Swing Time (a beautiful, brilliant, compassionate & open-hearted novel… best Zadie Smith I’ve read yet)

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Random quotes I’ve collected over the years

“Dear God, only now am I remembering that people die. Does that include me?
Don’t forget, in the meantime, that this is the season for strawberries. Yes.”

The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector

“I regret that it takes a life to learn how to live. Because if I were able to live my life again, I would do things differently. I would kiss my piano teacher, even if he laughed at me. I would jump with Mary on the bed, even if I made a fool of myself. I would send out ugly photographs, thousands of them.”

–Jonathan Safran-Foer, in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

“Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”


“I do not exist to impress the world. I exist to live my life in a way that will make me happy.”

 Illusions, Richard Bach

“Here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?”

Virginia Woolf, “Mrs. Dalloway”

“When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”

Kurt Vonnegut, attributed by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird

“A writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view, a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Junot Diaz

“You haven’t done anything wrong. Didn’t take an MFA? You didn’t do anything wrong. Took 11 years to write your first book? You didn’t do anything wrong. Don’t feel like writing about your family? You didn’t do anything wrong. Feel like writing about your family? You didn’t do anything wrong. Want to write about Asians? You didn’t do anything wrong. They keep trying to tell us we did fucking something wrong. You’re an artist. How could you do anything fucking wrong?”

Junot Diaz

“You say to yourself, Well, this poem isn’t going to be any good, but I’ll write it anyway.”

Robert Bly (via theparisreview)

“Don’t worry. Don’t worry about anything. It doesn’t help. I have spent a lot of time believing that I could control the outcome of events by worrying about them. I think that is what therapists call magical thinking. But your thoughts don’t make a difference. All that matters is what you do. So I would say my best advice is do the best you can and assume the result will be good. I wish I had been enjoying myself all the times I was anxious and not.”

Elizabeth Wurtzel


“You have to be willing to write badly. You can’t say, “I’m going to write habitually, and it’s going to be good.” It’s unpleasant to write badly, but it’s much more important show up on a regular basis so that you’re there when the good stuff comes.”

Jennifer Egan

“I decided to totally accept failure. I was like, ‘Yes. If this book totally fails, I will write another book. And if that book totally fails, I will write [another].’ This is how I deal with stress… I imagine the worst-case scenario, and I try to decide whether or not I can take it. And [I thought], if I’m like 85, and I’m lucky enough to live that long, and I have [not] published a single book but I’ve dedicated myself to trying to write something that matters and is true, then, yes, that will be a life that I’m willing to accept.”

Catherine Chung

“I don’t care what other books are like, bad or not. I am going to keep doing this. I cannot be stopped.”

Aleksander Hemon

“Comparison is an act of violence against the self.”

Iyanla Vanzant

“Youth has enormous pressures. There are so many expectations, so many worries about the future: who am I?; what will I become? You are surrounded by authority figures: your parents are still alive; your teachers are a presence in your life. You are trying to please all of these people. What’s liberating about getting older is that after a certain point there are no more authority figures in your life. And you are so keenly aware of the gift of each day. One of my favorite titles is from Henry Miller: “Paint As You Like and Die Happy.” I couldn’t have taken that advice when I was 20. I couldn’t. I didn’t have the perspective. But now those very words by Miller are my motto. It’s not always possible to paint what you want, and it’s not always possible to die happy, but boy you can die trying.”

Mary Ruefle

“And God said “Love Your Enemy,” and I obeyed him and loved myself.”

خليل جبران ‎ Khalil Gibran

“In the end I would rather wonder than know.”

Mary Ruefle, “On Secrets” from “Madness, Rack, & Honey”

“Insanity is ‘doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.’ That’s writing poetry, but hey, it’s also getting out of bed every morning.”

—Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey

“At least I can still read, he said to himself, at once dubious and hopeful.”

Bolaño, Woes of the True Policeman, pg. 86

“In the end there are certain things you can take with you when you flee, things that have no weight, such as music.”

Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck, pg. 108

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Audre Lorde

“I didn’t have him, but I had this writing, and he could not take it away from me.”

Lydia Davis, The End of the Story, pg. 197

“You kneel beside her, breathing the familiar smell of Sasha’s sleep, whispering into her ear some mix of I’m sorry and I believe in you and I’ll always be near you, protecting you, and I will never leave you, I’ll be curled around your heart the rest of your life, until the water pressing my shoulders and chest crushes me awake and I hear Sasha screaming into my face: Fight! Fight! Fight!”

–Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad

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wise words from Francisco Goldman

Original text in Spanish here, poorly attempted translation by me below:

I have never felt compelled to give up fiction. Like you, despite that times like these in Mexico aren’t easy, I remain faithful. I’ve dedicated my life to this fucking art that I love and that is in reality a very marginal trade, as it perhaps should be–I hate the solemnity and pomp of certain kinds of “novelists”–and it’s also what I live on. I don’t think that the novel is in itself something useful, that it has or should have a political use. It is the reader who decides what has value. What is the novel for me? A search for something that can only be expressed through writing a novel, and that something includes the search for its own structure, its style, pattern, rhythm and so on. You follow the whispers of intuition and memory, and many times you have no idea what will happen on the next page. I believe the novel turns out better when it’s like that. Of course in some way or another it’s an encounter with yourself, with your most intimate self. There’s a high risk of embarrassment, of failure. Perhaps breaking the silence is always a danger. Pain is fundamental. But maybe, as speculated as much by W.H. Auden in some essay, the first pronunciation by a human was “Ow!” Some caveman stumbled, his foot struck against a stone, hard and sharp, and yelled “Ow”; later another did the same, and so on. Human language began here, the song of experience. Pain is perhaps the seed or start; others have said it’s death and loss. Finally, the wish or desire to search, to understand, to dramatize the pain of others. That is the art of the novel, and one of the few things that the novel has in common with certain types of journalism.

When I don’t write I feel like a useless weakling, I’m good for nothing. When I do write, I know what I’m doing with all my being, with everything I think or believe: in one way or another, that’s where I’ll be… Then came Ayotzinapa and things changed. I’m still working on a novel that has nothing to do with it, a very intimate novel, which is practically the only thing that’s mine in the world, and I don’t regret it. But I am a citizen too. I admit that now my concentration is fragmented and that I have to discipline myself. I need to go out in search of what is happening. I like to observe, ask, listen. It is a privilege to share what I learn.

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Reviews Catch-Up

Wow, big surprise, I am way busy in graduate school. That doesn’t mean I haven’t had time to read for pleasure, though.

The New York Trilogy (Paul Auster)

Boy is this a mindtrip of a book! It’s actually three books in one: City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room, all detective stories. City of Glass is about a writer of mystery novels (of course!) who gets mistaken for a detective (who just happens to be called Paul Auster) and gets sucked into a case involving a young man who was locked up as a child by his father for years, the tower of Babel  and the authorship of Don Quixote. WOW. I know. Ghosts sounds like it features the cast from “Reservoir Dogs,” because all of the characters are named after colors. The main character is Blue, a detective who used to work for Brown. Blue is paid to follow a man called Black who seems to do nothing but sit in his apartment, write and read Walden all day, and while watching him Blue graduallygets more obsessed with and sucked into Black’s life. The Locked Room is possibly the most straightforward of all three works: it features a first-person narrator (another writer! only of magazine articles, though) who learns that not only did a childhood friend disappear, but that this friend also produced a mountain of fictional work, apparently with the Kafkaesque intention to never publish it. Under the narrator’s oversight the work is published to great critical acclaim, he starts getting mysterious notes and that’s when things start getting whacky.

Well, I just loved this book. It reminded me of Ricardo Piglia, Bolaño and Onetti, the three literary Latin American greats, thrown into a blender to make a delicious Paul Auster smoothie. Ghosts is especially Onettian, as the main character is someone who “does nothing, who merely sits in his room and writes,” (172) so reminiscent of Brausen in La vida breve. Did Bolaño ever read New York Trilogy? It was published in the 80’s; he must have. I’m just going to pretend like he did because the thought of him doing so makes me really happy.

I liked this book because I wanted to keep reading it, I couldn’t put it down, and it was a fascinating blend of literary criticism, philosophical pondering and good old fashion page-turning. The first story, City of Glass, is probably the work that most thesising graduate students pant over, what with the whole “Paul Auster as a character” thing. As a bonus, it also features a villain who wants to recreate the tower of Babel, in the sense that he wants to restore the original connection of language to God and truth as opposed to arbitrary signs–I mean WOW, how can you be a graduate student and not dig that?

I’m sure that there are lots of ways that these three stories are connected that I didn’t notice on a first reading (this is definitely a book I plan on reading again). All three stories deal with the nature of language, the question of authorship, and the relationship between signs (or clues) to reality. Another link is that the main character in Glass (Daniel Quinn, same initials as Don Quixote) is mentioned in The Locked Room as a detective who was hired to search for the missing childhood friend (he never actually appears as a character). There’s also a little red notebook that tends to travel around. In one particularly real mindtrip of a moment in The Locked Room, the narrator refers “the two books that came before it [this story], City of Glass and Ghosts. These three stories are finally the same story, but each one represents a different stage in my awareness of what it is about.” (294) Wow, when I read this sentence, my little head exploded. So, like, the writer in The Locked Room is the author of City of Glass and Ghosts? Eeeeeee!

I’m really excited to read this book again in a year or so. Check out this Piglian paragraph (what a weird sounding adjective–Pigliaesque? Whatever, reminiscent of Piglia is all I mean):

Every life is inexplicable, I kept telling myself. No matter how many facts are told, no matter how many details are given, the essential thing resists the telling. To say that so and so was born here and went there, that he did this and did that, that he married this woman and had these children, that he lived, that he died, that he left behind these books of this battle or that bridge–none of that tells us very much. We all want to be told stories, and we listen to them in the same way that we did when we were young. We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person in the story, pretending that we can understand him because we understand ourselves. That is a deception. We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another–for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself. (248-249)

The Third Reich (Bolaño)

Wow, imagine my surprise when I learned that The Third Reich is an actual board game. Whodathunk? My brothers only ever played Axis and Allies.

This book was pretty interesting. It’s not Bolaño’s best (how could it be if he left it at the bottom of a desk drawer, where apparently it spent 20 years before being discovered posthumously?). Honestly speaking though? I would be pretty happy if I could eventually write a novel on the level of this one.

This book is about a German named Udo who is obsessed with playing a strategy board game called The Third Reich (the way this obsession affects his relationship and his attitude towards the world reminded me a lot of video games and the Internet in general). Anyway, Udo goes on holiday with his girlfriend at a beachside resort in Spain, where his family used to go when he was a little kid. The atmosphere and events that unfold in the book feel like the descriptive sentences you’d write on the back of a novel to try to get the reader intrigued, full of mystery and foreshadowing. They befriend another German who disappears while windsurfing. They start hanging out with two local louts with the oddly biblical names of the Lamb and the Wolf. Ominous references are made to the husband of the hotel’s owner, sick and never seen. With all this in the foreground, el Quemado then appears, the owner of a pedal boat business, rumored to be Latin American and whose body is covered with mysterious burns that occasionally give off a mossy sheen. Udo and el Quemado start playing the Third Reich together and that’s when **** gets real.

A lot of this book is pure atmosphere. Not that much happens, so that minor incidents (feeling sick from drinking a cup of coffee or calling a friend and receiving no answer) feel monumental. I could have done without the 3+ page descriptions of how the counters were moved around the board but that’s just me; I’m sure any buff of World War II history would have loved it, and those pages were necessary to fully reveal the depth of Udo’s obsession (I just didn’t feel like reading them is all).

I really enjoyed reading this book. Will Bolaño’s 2pac-like output continue after this?! Is this the very last work of his we hope to get? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: when that day comes, I’ll be a very sad little reader indeed.

Seek: Reports from the Edge of America & Beyond (Denis Johnson)

Boy, did I like this book a whole lot. Boy, am I really getting into Denis Johnson. He takes you on a helluva ride throughout this book: Liberia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Montana, Alaska. My personal favorite is the piece on the hippie festival in Oregon, which also coincidentally contains my three favorite sentences in the book:

– I’ve brought a couple hundred dollars in my pocket because . . . I don’t care what they say, I’ve never seen anybody trade dope for anything except sex or cash.

– I who have had so much of peace and so much of love, I have never really believed in either one.

– I said I’d split it, but I only gave him about a quarter. Less than a quarter. Yeah. I never quite became a hippie. And I’ll never stop being a junkie.

Yeah. The opening and closing pieces on Liberia are also extremely strong and the main reason for reading this book. I’ll never forget the first time I read the closing piece on Liberia, “The Small Boys’ Unit,” in my non-fiction class in 2008. I don’t know if I’ll ever read anything again in my life that more closely resembles a descent into complete and utter hell.

My favorite thing about this book is how completely unafraid Johnson is to reveal himself as this less than perfect person. At one point in regards to Liberia, he makes the following confession (which almost sounds like an understatement in light of everything that came before): “My assignment in Liberia was over. As far as I could see at the time and as far as I can see now, I accomplished nothing… I’d come to this place and I was not whole enough or real enough to accept its terms.” Another similarly, unforgettable moment of candor takes place when Johnson comes thisclose to screaming racially charged epitaphs at the Liberians around him, despite the fact that “my parents raised me to love all the earth’s people.” It’s moments like this one in which Johnson achieves an Orwellian level of brutal, unflinching honesty. It’s hard to read, but it’s even harder to look away.

The Hour of the Star (Clarice Lispector)

Well, this was one of the strangest and most interesting books I’ve ever read. And I like to think that I’ve read my fair share, ya know what I’m sayin’?

Ali Smith quoted the opening paragraph of this book at the beginning of one of her short story collections, and now that I’ve read Star I can definitely see why Smith found this book so appealing. It plays with language, the role of the narrator and reader in that innovative, unexpected and utterly delightful way I’ve come to expect from Smith, in which you are consistently surprised and never sure where you are going or what’s going to happen next.

This book is a story-within-a-story: our narrator is Rodrigo S.M., a somewhat bougie, overtly self-conscious tormented artist who wouldn’t be super out of place with the young crowd in The Savage Detectives. He’s attempting to write a story about Macabea, a poor girl from an urban neighborhood in Brazil. The details Rodrigo provides us about her are select and few: she’s a virgin, she likes Coca-Cola, she’s ugly and often ill, she’s a terrible typist. Argh, now that I’m trying to do it, I realize how difficult this book is to summarize. I think this is a work where its greatness and intrigue comes primarily from HOW it treats its subject matter, rather than WHAT it’s about (if that makes any sense). I am definitely going to have to read this again (it’s very short, 86 pages in my edition!).

This book (similarly to Bartleby & Co.) made me very interested in how the figure of the AUTHOR is depicted in fiction. I’m sure there are many masters theses out there about how the structure of the narrative is paralleled with the creative process in Lispector herself. The contrast between Rodrigo and his invented character of Macabea is fascinating, not just because he’s rich and male and she’s poor and female (though that’s a big part of it). Just like in the works of Ali Smith, the words on the pages of this novel aren’t just words; they’re living, breathing people; they’re universes, they’re worlds. By figuring out how to write a story, are we attempting to figure out how to live our lives? How do we deal with the ultimately ineffable mysteries about our characters and ourselves? Does writing (and living) lead to breathtaking awe or heart-sinking despair? These are just some of the questions this book left me with.

Also, maybe this is cheating, but this book felt all the more poignant to me when I learned that it was the last book Lispector wrote before her death from cancer. Apparently she didn’t know she was sick at the time that she wrote it, but it still made the book’s last sentences all the more beautiful and moving to me (in the same way I feel moved by Mrs. Dalloway’s celebrations of life and being alive):

Dear God, only now am I remembering that people die. Does that include me?
Don’t forget, in the meantime, that this is the season for strawberries. Yes.

Bartleby & Co (Enrique Vila-Matas)

This was another interesting book that is hard to summarize. Again, the narrator is a writer, but one who doesn’t write. Instead of writing he obsessively catalogs and researches what he calls “writers of the no,” or writers who (for whatever reason) started writing and then stopped (like Rulfo and Rimbaud), or in some cases never wrote at all.

I honestly couldn’t tell which books in this novel really exist and which ones don’t. I don’t really want to know. This book is more like literary criticism or an essay than a novel (there’s not really a plot to speak of)–it reminded me of Bolaño’s Nazi Literature of the Americas or Ricardo Piglia. I can definitely understand why some people wouldn’t be into this, but I totally dug it (admittedly I am a giant nerd). Just like The Hour of the Star, this book seems to be an essay and exploration about the creative process and the nature of writing, via an examination of the act of NOT writing. Fascinating!

My one comment is that I wish SOMETHING had happened to the narrator. There are little hints of plot development throughout the text: we learn he’s a hunchback, he loses his job, a homoerotic relationship is implied, there’s always the question of his own writing hanging over the text… and then the book just ends. Which is OK. I still think it’s very clever and fascinating. I just wanted a leetle eensy-weensy bit more. Otherwise I don’t really understand why all those little hints of info and character/plot development were included in the first place… I guess it did keep me interested and made it easier to read, so I didn’t feel like I was reading a bunch of footnotes or flash mini-essays by Mr. Vila-Matas.

Irreguardless this is definitely another book I would like to read again, along with other works by the same author. Here’s to pleasure reading!

I live like an explorer. The more I advance in the search for the labyrinth’s centre, the further away I am from it. I am like the explorer in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony who does not understand the meaning of the designs the officer shows him: “It’s very clever, but I can’t work it out.” (147)

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Poems I’ve liked a lot so far in 2012

The Letter (Linda Gregg)

I’m not feeling strong yet, but I am taking
good care of myself. The weather is perfect.
I read and walk all day and then walk to the sea.
I expect to swim soon. For now I am content.
I am not sure what I hope for. I feel I am
doing my best. It reminds me of when I was
sixteen dreaming of Lorca, the gentle trees outside
and the creek. Perhaps poetry replaces something
in me that others receive more naturally.
Perhaps my happiness proves a weakness in my life.
Even my failures in poetry please me.
Time is very different here. It is very good
to be away from public ambition.
I sweep and wash, cook and shop.
Sometimes I go into town in the evening
and have pastry with custard. Sometimes I sit
at a table by the harbor and drink half a beer.

All of Me (Mark Roper)

So all of me, why not take all of me –
the one with so many certificates,
the failure, the one who can’t cope,
the boy who never grew up,
the boy who grew up too early…

o all of me why not take all of me

The Mower (Philip Larkin) [excerpt]

The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

The Madness Vase (Andrea Gibson) [excerpt]

My bones said, “Write the poems.”

To Build A Swing (Hafiz)

You carry
All the ingredients
To turn your life into a nightmare-
Don’t mix them!

You have all the genius
To build a swing in your backyard
For God.

That sounds
Like a hell of a lot more fun.
Let’s start laughing, drawing blueprints,
Gathering our talented friends.
You carry all the ingredients
To turn your existence into joy,
Mix them, mix

A Settlement (Mary Oliver)

Therefore, dark past,
I’m about to do it.
I’m about to forgive you

for everything.

Clarification (Franz Wright)

Someone once told me about a Buddhist
monk who on awakening

each morning said “Master!”
Then he would answer

“Yes, master?” And then
in a loud voice demand

“Become sober!”
Listen to what I am saying,

but listen especially
to what I am not saying—

Of all the powers of love,
this: it is possible

to die; which means
it’s possible to live.

Now it is possible to die
without being mad or afraid.

The House of Belonging (David Whyte) [excerpt]

This is the temple
of my adult aloneness
and I belong
to that aloneness
as I belong to my life.

There is no house
like the house of belonging.

Welcome Morning (Anne Sexton)

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning, […]

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house

The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
dies young

Don’t Hesitate (Mary Oliver)

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

To Myself (Franz Wright)

and if you vomit this time I will hold you:   
everything’s going to be fine
I will whisper.
It won’t always be like this.
I am going to buy you a sandwich.

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Happy birthday to me!

Today was pretty much the best day I could have asked for.

I woke up late and ate breakfast at the Waffle Window with my family.

Then we went blackberry picking at Sauvie’s Island. I was dumb and wore a skirt and sandals, and have the bloody scratches up and down my feet and legs to show for it, but it was still totally worth it. We filled containers and containers of tupperware with them, and left more than enough behind for the birds and the mice (on the highest and lowest branches, as per Ma’s advice in Little House on the Prairie). I ate so many I got a horrible stomach ache and had to ask the beloved fam to reschedule the originally planned dinner at my favorite Mexican restaurant for another day.

Later, at the Dollar Tree (where I was buying my oh so necessary supply of Tums and hand sanitizer, absolute essentials when a) prone to severe carsickness and/or blackberry greed, and b) working with large groups of grubby small children), the cashier lady asked me how I was doing. I said it was my birthday; she asked if I’d done anything special. “Blackberry picking at Sauvie’s Island!”

“Really?” she said, her forehead crinkling slightly. “That’s not special!”

“It is to me!” I replied cheerfully. I’ve never done it before, unlike ye native Oregonians…

Then I came home, ate a salad made out of greens and tomatoes from the flourishing and happy garden (thanks to my dad’s care, not mine!) and watched the recent BBC/PBS production of Hamlet. I really enjoyed the interpretation of Hamlet by David Tennant, an actor I’d never heard of but has apparently played both Dr. Who and Bartley Crouchy Junior in Harry Potter 4. I love Hamlet. I love how the most defining work of art made by a human being is about one man’s inability to act, about how we “lose the name of action,” and how his main attempt to do so (i.e. take action) is through the staging of a play.

Other things that have made my day, and my week in general:

– Joe Calderone’s recent performance, so liberating in its Amy Winehouse-Bruce Springsteen-ness. I love his Patti Smith-Rimbaud-Bob Dylan-Elvis vibe too.

– This poem, “Resurrection,” by Bolaño from The Romantic Dogs:

Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver in a lake.
Poetry, braver than anyone,
slips in and sinks
like lead
through a lake infinite as Loch Ness
or tragic and turbid as Lake Balaton.
Consider it from below:
a diver
covered in feathers
of will.
Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver who’s dead
in the eyes of God.

“Borges and I” by guess who, on page 324 of his Collected Stories:

It’s Borges, the other one, that things happen to… I live, I allow myself to live, so that Borges can spin out his literature, and that literature is my justification. I willingly admit that he has written a number of sound pages, but those pages will not save me, perhaps because the good in them no longer belongs to any individual, not even to that other man, but rather to language itself, or to tradition… I shall endure in Borges, not in myself (if, indeed, I am anybody at all), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others’, or in the tedious strumming of a guitar.

– A 1999 interview with David Foster Wallace:

I was cripplingly shy at Amherst. I wasn’t in a fraternity and didn’t go to parties and didn’t have much to do with the life of the College. I had a few very close friends and that was it. I studied all the time. I mean literally all the time. I was one of those people they had to flicker the lights of Frost Library to get out of there on Friday nights who’d be out there right after brunch on Sunday waiting on the steps for them to open the doors.

            There were happy reasons for all this studying, and sad reasons. It was at Amherst, with its high expectations and brilliant profs and banzai workload, that I loved to read and write and think. In many ways I came alive there. But I was always terrified. Amherst terrified me—the beauty of it, the tradition, the elitism, the expense. But it was less Amherst than me: I was a late bloomer and still deeply in adolescence when I entered college. I had an adolescent’s radical self-absorption, and my particular self-absorption manifested as terror and inadequacy. This is the sad part. The same obsessive studying that helped me come alive also kept me dead: it was a way to hide from people, to try to earn—through ‘achievement’ or whatever—permission to be at Amherst that I was too self-centered to realize I’d already received when they accepted me.

            So ‘the things about Amherst that, in hindsight, disappoint [me]’ are things not about Amherst but about who I was when I was there… It took years after I’d graduated from Amherst to realize that people were actually far more complicated and interesting than books, that almost everyone else suffered the same secret fears and inadequacies as I, and that feeling alone and inferior was actually the great valent bond between us all. I wish I’d been smart enough to understand that when I was an adolescent.

(I also really love the part in this interview where he talks about Lord of the Rings and the Velveteen Rabbit.)

I’m citing all these disparate links not to make this entry seem like something that should be on godforsaken tumblr, but rather more to reflect how sponge-like I’ve been feeling lately (my horoscope for this week seems to say the same, right on the mark as usual Rob Brezny!!). I’ve been reading a lot of quotes and advice by authors on the whole writing thing, blog entries and reviews of contemporary and Latin American literature, and have maxed out the number of books I’m allowed to place on Hold at the library. I feel like I’ve been one great big wet squishy yellow sponge for the past month or so, absorbing words, ideas, experiences, emotions. I feel like it’s going to be time soon when I’m gonna be wrung out, and let wet dribbly water ooze out everywhere and blur this computer screen, kill the keyboard, stain the notebook and smear the words.

Tomorrow is 26 + 1. Here we go.

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Filed under Bolaño, David Foster Wallace, Dear Diary, quotes

The Writers

On constantly mishearing ‘rioting’ as ‘writing’ on the BBC

There has been writing for 10 days now

unabated. People are anxious, fed up.

There is writing in Paris, in disaffected suburbs,

but also in small towns, and old ones like Lyon.

The writers have been burning cars; they’ve thrown

homemade Molotov cocktails at policemen.

Contrary to initial reports, the writers belong to several communities: Algerian

and Caribbean, certainly, but also Romanian,

Polish, and even French. Some are incredibly

young: the youngest is 13.

They stand edgily on street corners, hardly

looking at each other. Longstanding neglect

and an absence of both authority and employment

have led to what are now 10 nights of writing.

(Written by Amit Chaudhuri, my professor at University of East Anglia!)

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Useful Advice I’ve Liked Referring To Lately

I) First, a poem:

Berryman, by W. S. Merwin

I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

II) From the New Yorker article “Hollywood Shadows,” about a Jungian therapist in L.A. treating screenwriters with writer’s block:

“Michels also told the writer to get an egg timer. Following Michels’s instructions, every day he set it for one minute, knelt in front of his computer in a posture of prayer, and begged the universe to help him write the worst sentence ever written. When the timer dinged, he would start typing. He told Michels that the exercise was stupid, pointless, and embarrassing, and it didn’t work. Michels told him to keep doing it.

Patients are told to visualize things going horribly wrong, a strategy of “pre-disappointment.” The tool for this, which Michels and Stutz teach to those who are hoping to win an award or who are about to submit a script for approval, involves imagining yourself falling backward into the sun, saying “I am willing to lose everything” as you are consumed in a giant fireball, after which, transformed into a sunbeam, you profess, “I am infinite.”

To help a patient avoid freezing during a pitch—a problem that Michels attributes to trying to hide your Shadow from development executives—he’ll tell him to reassure his Shadow with the words “I love you and I care more about you than I do whether this pitch sells.” That is step one. Then he must invite the Shadow into the conference room, so that together they can address a silent scream—“Listen!”—to the assembled suits. “What it does is assert our—me and my Shadow’s—authority and right to have something to say,” Michels says. The third step takes place afterward, when, regardless of the outcome, the patient thanks the Shadow for its time, so that it knows the ego wasn’t just using it to get money. For writers, the analogy is clear: give the Shadow the respect you long for.

By far the most common problem afflicting the writers in Michels’s practice is procrastination, which he understands in terms of Jung’s Father archetype. “They procrastinate because they have no external authority figure demanding that they write,” he says. “Often I explain to the patient that there is an authority figure he’s answerable to, but it’s not human. It’s Time itself that’s passing inexorably. That’s why they call it Father Time. Every time you procrastinate or waste time, you’re defying this authority figure.” Procrastination, he says, is a “spurious form of immortality,” the ego’s way of claiming that it has all the time in the world; writing, by extension, is a kind of death.”

I also like the advice about how to deal with something unpleasant by visualizing yourself pushing your way through a cloud of pain while screaming “BRING IT ON!” and “I LOVE PAIN. PAIN SETS ME FREE.” I find the article’s discussion of Jungian archetypes fascinating. Among other things it’s really made me appreciate the Tori Amos song “Sister Janet” in a whole new way.

Master Shaman, I have come
with my dolly from the Shadow side
with a demon and an Englishman
I’m my mother, I’m my son…

With your perfect wing, a wing can cover all sorts of things. Aaaaaah so good.

III) I went to a yoga class on Wednesday where the substitute teacher talked for a little bit about her past experience as a researcher at OHSU, studying the ways that blind people “see.” She talked a lot about wave lengths that people omit, about how the metaphorical language we use to refer to it (“I got a bad vibe from her,” “He and I are on the same wavelength”) actually has some scientific basic. People emit “wavelengths” or something that we can pick up on (I can’t remember exactly how this connected to blind people), and some wavelengths from certain people can be better for us than others. The main message that stayed with me, though, was how she emphasized the importance of “staying true to your center.” As in, not always letting other people’s wavelengths throw you off all the time, and dictate to you what to do and how to feel and how to orient yourself in life. Instead, STAY TRUE TO YOUR CENTER. Good advice.

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