How much do words matter?

I’m a poet, so words are important to me; specifically, finding the exact right word for what I want to express. Is it pretentious to care about using the exact word in informal conversations? If other people get what you’re trying to say, is it okay to misuse words?

In high school I learned that disinterested means something different from uninterested. It was in one of the 9 years of American history classes that a teacher told me: George Washington was a disinterested president. As in, he was not ambitious; he was not eager to gain power. He was righteous. Meanwhile, uninterested means, point-blank, not interested.

The point of this spheal is that many people use disinterested and uninterested interchangeably, and it bothers me on a cellular level. I’m seeing a band I love, Why?, in a month for an album anniversary tour and they’re playing the song “Good Friday,” which is a great song, except for the misuse of the word disinterested. I just can’t get past it.

Here’s the turn.

While reading a critique of Infinite Jest for fun because I’m a fucking nerd, I learned a couple of things about words that humbled me. I’m the first to call someone out for misusing words, but it turns out I misuse words all the time without knowing it.

Did you know that nauseous doesn’t mean nauseated? It means causing nausea. As in, the old seafood my roommate’s heating up is nauseous. I’ve apparently never heard someone correctly use nauseous. It sounds bizarre.

And also, presently doesn’t mean at present?? It means ‘soon.’ This just seems dumb to me, but okay.

This realization has got me thinking: maybe I’m too pretentious about words and should chill out. Maybe, since everyone knows what people mean when they misuse disinterested, it doesn’t matter, and I should let it slide.*

*People thinking that ambivalent and indifferent are synonyms also bothers me to no end, and this one I feel justified for since they’re nearly antonyms.

Mark Strand

Keeping Things Whole
By Mark Strand

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

At first glance, this poem’s dismissible. A short poem with some lines only two words like it’s saying something pseudo-profound in the beat era. But it’s… actually really sad.

The 2-5 word lines work to make the reader pay attention and to connect the image to the idea in the poem.

The image is of the speaker moving through space. Wherever he moves, the space breaks for him, and when he leaves, the space can come back together. He is the disruption in space.

The metaphor is particularly powerful because the image works on a literal sense. It makes sense to think how when you walk, you part the air — that it opens for you and closes back when you move away. But clearly this poet isn’t talking about literally moving to keep the air in place. He’s using air as a metaphor for life situations, and for other people.

This speaker feels a fight-or-flight instinct — that urge to pull out in any situation before it turns sour, that urge to leave cold turkey. He doesn’t want anyone else to suffer because of him so he doesn’t stay for long enough to cause the damage.

“Keeping Things Whole” reminds me of some of my own poems about leaving prematurely. I relate to the speaker, in that way. I fuck everything up eventually, so in order to spare other people the mess, it’s best to make a quick exit.

It’s a cynical view of connection and attachments with other people, but hey, at least he got a kick-ass poem out of it.

John Ruff on Marie Howe: “Recognizing the Sacred in the Ordinary”

With Marie Howe’s Magdalene being my favorite poetry collection of late, I find a comfort in reading other’s reviews of it — as though I’m in dialogue with the authors, as though there’s a secret book club in my mind. I’m choosing John Ruff’s review to discuss, mainly because I love his anecdote about old religious women giggling in a chapel while Howe reads a monologue poem about penises, but also because it’s entirely involved with the text — both its presence on the page as well as its allusions. If I sound, in this review, as though I’m being hard on Ruff, it’s only because I respect his work and hold it to high standards.

John Ruff separates his review of Mary Howe’s 2017 poetry book Magdalene into three parts, opening by discussing the current renaissance of Catholicism in 21st century literature. He mentions other writers with similar non-secular styles, such as Franz Wright and Mary Karr, then gives a short synopsis of Howe’s body of work.

In the second part, he opens with a description of the image of Mary Magdalene in Renaissance art — specifically, Donatello’s carved wooden statue of her. He points out his fascination at her profound ugliness and agedness, which is unlike her representation elsewhere. Finally, he brings up the book he’s reviewing, justifying his digression on Donatello’s Magdalene by loosely comparing the two.

He begins his analysis of Howe’s work with a stylistic deconstruction. He makes it clear that he believes it is due to the stylistic choices — simple grammar of syntax and diction, along with lineation, spacing, capitalization, etc. — that “nothing distances the reader.” He breaks down its structure, mentioning that the double spacing “giv[es] more light and space to the language [and] creates more time and encourages greater attention.” Through these means, he makes the claim that the book’s persona Magdalene “seems to take great pains to be understood, to make plain and present what she thinks, sees, and feels.” He provides specific poems in the collections as examples, pointing out the choice of capitalization as a break in the pattern to create emphasis in her poem “The Affliction:” “as if Nothing Had Happened.”

In part three, Ruff gets into the meat of the review; he hits us with the important questions that any decent review should attempt to answer: “So who is Howe’s Magdalene? And what’s the matter with her? And what happens to her?” It’s also in this last section that Ruff attempts to further justify his earlier art history digression, stating that Howe’s Magdalene too exists in dialogue with the traditional, biblical character (though this seems an obvious statement, based on the mere title of the collection). However, he also remarks that, though she’s a traditional character, she’s also uniquely of her time-period, that is, 21st century America. She has mental health, medication, and relationship issues. Ruff brings in Augustine when he calls her plight a case of “disordered desire,” a smart juxtaposition in his point of Magdalene transgressing time.

After this analysis, he goes back to the beginning of the book to provide evidence of his claims, working in order from the epigraph to each early poem that follows. He points out that the epigraph is from an apocryphal gospel, setting the religiously transgressive tone for the rest of the book.

Ruff discusses one of my favorite poems in the collection, an untitled, completely italicized vignette, calling it a tender and redemptive scene of lovemaking. While I can see how one can get that take-away from the poem, I also find it grossly simplistic. Here’s the poem:

Looking down at him   my tears fell onto his chest

and he looked at me with such pity

raising his hand to wipe my cheek

before he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me

down to the bed so he could press inside me deeper

To me, this is an incredibly sorrowful scene, laced with (and perhaps veiled by) the erotic. The speaker has a difficulty with her mental relationship between sex and sadness. This poem takes place as a man is inside her, and she’s crying. He doesn’t pull out and ask what’s wrong, but continues — and goes deeper. To me, this represents the speaker’s belief that she’s a lost cause; and the man is reiterating to Magdalene that she’s hopeless, or at least he’s telling her that he can’t help her, that only she can help herself. That he’s using her body, and she’s complicit in it. She gets off on it, further emotionally complicating the passage. If Ruff understands my reading and still considers the passage redemptive, I’d love to hear his definition.

And then, my favorite part of Ruff’s review: the penis monologue. Personally, if I had written this review, I would’ve opened with this part that he closes with. It’s captivating, funny, and transgressive, instantly drawing in any reader with taste. I understand though that, if not to open with it, the next best choice is to close with it. Here’s the passage:

“I was in the second row, behind a group of middle-aged women who turned out to be the book club of a friend and colleague from Chesterton, Indiana, a little town near Lake Michigan and the steel mills. As Marie began to read, you could hear the chapel go quieter. You might have heard my heart as it began to beat louder and faster. Not too long into Marie’s reading of the poem, those ladies in front of me began to giggle, and then to laugh, which gave the rest of us permission to laugh, to relax and let the poem do its good work, and give us its good news. Their laughter was like a benediction they conferred upon the poem, upon Marie, upon all of us there, those middle-aged ladies enjoying heartily their first penis monologue, the best, most human and holy they will ever hear.”

Aside from certain digressions, my beef with the ordering of ideas, and the friction between my stubborn views and his, John Ruff’s review of Howe’s Magdalene is a highly satisfying read. He’s clearly a great writer and pays close attention to the ways in which words work when placed next to, around, below and above each other. It’s clear that he cares about poetry, which is the most I can ask for in a great review.

Joyce Mansour

Since one of my favorite bands is Joyce Manor, I was immediately attracted to the poet Joyce Mansour. I quickly found out that, unlike the pop-punk band, her words are much more abstract than explicit. She conjures up images in order to build emotion.

Here’s my favorite poem by the French surrealist poet, from Rapaces (Birds of Prey):

Can you still remember the sweet aroma of plantains
How strange familiar things can be after departure
How sad the food
How dull the bed
And cats
Do you remember those cats with strident claws
Screaming on roofs when your tongue passed into me
And rose up when your nails skinned me
They vibrated when I gave in
I no longer know how to love
Dolorous bubbles delirium fainted on my lips
Let go of my leafy mask
A rose bush agonized under the bed
I no longer swing my hips among the stones
The cats deserted the roof

Her one-stanza, punctuation-less style adds to the surrealistic elements in the poem. One of my favorite lines is “And cats.” It causes a shift in the pace by breaking the anaphoric pattern it directly follows. It also creates curiosity. What about the cats? Mansour continues to spark our curiosity by giving us more detail about the cats in the following lines before she gets into what the cats really signify. She writes that they have strident claws, and then that they scream—and here’s the key part—”when your tongue passed into me.” She uses the cats as a means to avoid directly discussing how much she misses her former lover. Instead, she uses the objects around her—the food, the bed, the cats, the rose bush—to illustrate her loneliness.

After the veiled yet violently intense sex scene, Mansour paints out the speaker’s sub-drop with her famous line: “Dolorous bubbles delirium fainted on my lips.” Dolorous: dol·or·ous /dōlərəs/ adj. feeling or expressing great sorrow or distress. Intense sorrow from the loss of her lover drives the speaker to delirium; she nearly foams at the mouth from grief, and physical manifestation of this grief up to her mouth is reminiscent of the lover’s kiss. She feels it, the former love, and it’s the reality of the love being gone that brings her to a state of insanity and rapture over her past, which becomes her current fantasy. A beautiful expression of my favorite poetic topic: the leaving of love.

The next line, “Let go of my leafy mask,” is less straight-forward (to me, at least). Who is the speaker talking to? The ex-lover? How is he holding onto her “leafy mask?” I get that mask is facade—but what does “leafy” mean? Once ripped from the plant, leaves shrivel and they’re frail, though once they exuded life. Perhaps the “leafy mask” is a metaphor for her dying love—and her lover (in her mind, entirely of course) won’t let her be. She wants to rid her mind of this extreme sorrow, but the memory of her lover is vicious and resilient.

The rest of the poem gives in. To the loss, to the sorrow. The Phoenix burns in the middle of the poem and now turns to ash.

And, as always, just as after the poem, (since love and lust are common Joyce Mansour subjects), the spark returns.

Louise Glück

It’s finally October, which means it’s time for my favorite month-titled poem. Well, part 5 of it:

5.

It is true that there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.

I am
at work, though I am silent.

The bland

misery of the world
bounds us on either side, an alley

lined with trees; we are

companions here, not speaking,
each with his own thoughts;

behind the trees, iron
gates of the private houses,
the shuttered rooms

somehow deserted, abandoned,

as though it were the artist’s
duty to create
hope, but out of what? what?

the word itself
false, a device to refute
perception — At the intersection,

ornamental lights of the season.

I was young here. Riding
the subway with my small book
as though to defend myself against

the same world:

you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.

This section of “October” from Averno by Louise Glück gets me every time. Glück’s poetry overall is one of the reasons why I travelled to Greece. I just lent my book to a professor and I’m afraid how long it’ll take to get it back (if you’re reading this, Stuart, I’m lying; please take your time).

Glück’s voice is one of experience, cynicism, and exhaustion with the continual death and rebirth of the Earth. This poem can hit you so depressingly if you let it. It says: this has happened before, it will happen again, and nothing can protect us. It says: you are very alone, and anything telling you otherwise is a lie, “a device to refute perception.”

I love her diction in this section. The phrase just mentioned above, along with others like “Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use,” sound calculated. We trust the speaker’s intellect, causing her words and their meanings to cut deep.

When she writes “as though it were the artist’s / duty to create / hope, but out of what? what?” I linger. I reread the lines so as to savor them. I feel confronted: ‘what? what?’ twice for emphasis. I always wished the second ‘what’ was italicized (and thought it was for a while, when I would rewrite the poem in my notebook, letting my mind wander during class), but it’s not necessary. Especially with the stylistic choice to keep the second ‘what’ de-capitalized, showing that it’s a continuation of the same sentiment. Plus, we pay attention to it more than we would since the style is non-traditional, and breaks the pattern of traditional punctuation in the poem.

The poem means a lot to me, this section particularly, because it calls me out:

I was young here. Riding
the subway with my small book
as though to defend myself against

the same world:

you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.

I was probably reading this exact snippet on the subway in NYC when I lived there at 19. And, I probably (definitely) freaked out and proclaimed “October” my new favorite poem. In a way, it justified my depression, and my cynicism despite my innocence. I will grow old, and poetry won’t save me.

If you wanna check out the whole poem, and even the whole book, it’s all online at a blogspot called The Floating Library — a great place to lose a few hours.

On Theodore Roethke, Depression

Hi. I have depression. Really bad depression, and I’m going through it. One thing I like to do to try to feel less awful is take baths. I have a lot of reading for my MFA program — say, 500, 600 pages a week — and most of it gets done in the tub.

After an hour or so, the water gets cold. I add more hot water. After another hour or so, it gets cold again. This time I have to drain some to make room for more, warmer water. Repeat.

One of my favorite poems is “Meditation in Hydrotherapy” by Theodore Roethke:

Six hours a day I lay me down
Within this tub but cannot drown.

The ice cap at my rigid neck
Has served to keep me with the quick.

This water, heated like my blood,
Refits me for the true and good.

Within this primal element
The flesh is willing to repent.

I do not laugh; I do not cry;
I’m sweating out the will to die.

My past is sliding down the drain;
I soon will be myself again.

I have bathtub crayons — god bless Crayola — and lately I’ve found myself writing memorized verse on the shower wall. I don’t care if I mess up I just write what I remember. And I leave it, for how ever long I need the poem up, or until I decide to replace it with another. I soak under the poem like it’s a shrine of flowers and candles and I’m in a casket, unmoving, at my own vigil. But really I’m just a melodramatic Jewish 22-year-old woman finding adolescence— teenagehood— hard to let go of. This poem’s on the wall right now.

What I love about this poem is its form. Its precision. The careful couplets. That calm awareness of mental strife, of being a prisoner to emotion, and the acceptance of being out of control. What can I do? I write; I soak.

I didn’t realize that hydrotherapy — at least, in this way, for depression — was a ‘thing.’ That Roethke underwent what I do, soaking in a tub for hours each day, as treatment for suicidal depression in a sanitarium. And that the act has a technical term. It’s incredibly validating to have a term for my experience, and to see it called something so professional as ‘treatment.’ And it’s incredibly validating to have this poem — the mere fact that it was written, and also that it’s readily available to me. Of course, I had to commit it to memory. I had to.

Federico García Lorca

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I saw this mural in Bushwick a year or so ago and freaked out (in a good, nerdy way). Though it’s not my favorite translation, it is one of my favorite poems.

The poem is Sleepless City and my preferred translation is by José Chapa, who reads it chillingly in the video in that link. (By the way, the Tumblr onesurrealistaday has introduced me to so many wonderful poems and poets — Dean Young, Joyce Mansour, and Picasso’s poetry, to name a few).

I heard about this poem before reading it. In the movie “Waking Life,” a character states, “‘On this bridge,’ Lorca warns, ‘life is not a dream. Beware. And beware. And beware.’ ….  Thomas Mann wrote that he would rather participate in life than write 100 stories. Giacometti was once run down by a car, and he recalled falling into a lucid faint, a sudden exhilaration, as he realized that at last something was happening to him. An assumption develops that you cannot understand life and live life simultaneously. I do not agree entirely. Which is to say I do not exactly disagree. I would say that life understood is life lived. But the paradoxes bug me, and I can learn to love and make love to the paradoxes that bug me. And on really romantic evenings of self, I go salsa dancing with my confusion. Before you drift off, don’t forget. Which is to say, remember. Because remembering is so much more a psychotic activity than forgetting. Lorca, in that same poem said that the iguana will bite those who do not dream. And as one realizes that one is a dream figure in another person’s dream, that is self awareness.”

I thought – I gotta check out that poem. To me, with this context, the poem is about making sure to live life fully, and not to sleep-walk through waking life. But to also maintain a balance between dreaming and living — because dreaming makes us want to live, to fulfill those dreams.

Then I read the poem.

Life is not a dream. Beware! Beware! Beware!
We fall down flights of stairs and fill our mouths with dirt.
Or we rise to the edge of snowfall under the choir of dead dahlias.
But there is no forgetting. No dream. Living flesh. Kisses tie mouths in a bundle of new veins.
And he who feels pain will feel pain without rest.
And he who fears death will carry death on his shoulders.

This poem is much, much darker than “Waking Life” portrays it to be. It critiques both the individual and society as a whole, for barely living, for being sad meaningless creatures destined to die and plagued by that knowledge. And it doesn’t end well, either:

On Earth, nobody sleeps. Nobody, nobody.
I have this before.
Nobody sleeps.
But if someone, by night, has an excess of moss on their temples,
open the trapdoors so they may see under the moon
the false wine cups, the poison, and the skull of theaters.

Even if we do, beyond the grave, rise to meet life, wake from our dream to exist for once, we will be disillusioned. To put it bluntly, life sux. It’s full of treachery, evil intensions, and laughing memento moris. The skull of theaters reminds me of Max Bechmann’s Still Life With Three Skulls:

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These guys are dead, and laughing at the living. We’re terrified of our own existence, and obsessing over the fact that we must die. These guys are eating that shit up. They belong to a theater of skulls.

In Lorca’s poem, he states, “the skull of theaters,” as in abandoned art, and what once was lively being now only a shell in a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape.

I guess, in a way, “Waking Life” used the poem correctly, since the poem is about living life incorrectly, and turning life itself into hell. Still, they missed the ending; there is no happy ending. Either way, you end up in hell. Living life not in a dream places you in the truth, where you see how everyone else lives, and what has become of society, and you grow depressed from the sight. I’ve always viewed depression as seeing things for what they are. Is that better? Is truth better than illusion? Would we rather live only in dream, and spend our waking life contributing to an auto-pilot society, or experience reality from the lens of how fucked up that way of living is? I can’t say, but I can tell you that, as a functioning member of society, I’m on meds.