“All of us dazzling in the brilliant slanting light”: Barbara Crooker’s “Strewn”

Not exactly right, but you get the idea.

Not exactly right, but you get the idea.

Last week, my uncle, who lives in Maine, came for a visit, which was excellent in all respects except that it was too short. And it just so happened that last week’s American Life in Poetry column, curated by Ted Kooser (which I highly recommend as a way to get into poetry–the poems are about the experiences of everyday life, and are always accessible) featured a poem by Barbara Crooker about the Maine coast.

“Strewn” is beautifully detailed. I love the list of broken shells that the speaker describes, and the idea of the sunlight on the beach like “a rinse / of lemon on a cold plate.” But it’s the turn at the end of the poem that brings the other people on the beach—and by extension the reader—into the speaker’s orbit that still resonates for me days after reading the poem.

“in a foyer of evenings”: Joanna Klink’s “Auroras”

It’s been cold—not brutally cold, but cold—in Boston lately, and as often happens in January, I’ve been thinking about summer, and all the things I like about it (I will forget all those things as soon as it is July, 95 degrees, and muggy). Recently, I also learned that there is such a thing as a dark sky park, a place low enough in light pollution to give you a great view of the stars, so now I’m daydreaming about a trip to one of them this summer.

“Auroras,” by Joanna Klink, makes me think of summer and stars. I love its opening lines: “It began in a foyer of evenings / The evenings left traces of glass in the trees.” That’s a wonderful image: the last of the daylight caught in the tree branches while the sky above them turns black.

In other poetry-related news:

Michael Klein’s review of Mark Wunderlich’s The Earth Avails in The Boston Review is excellent.

I thoroughly enjoyed this interview with Susan Howe on The Poetry Foundation’s website. I haven’t read much of her poetry, so if you can recommend the book I should start with, please leave a note!

Recommended Reading: The Niagara River, by Kay Ryan

Back in late July, I featured a poem called “Thin,” by Kay Ryan.  I liked it so much that I went to the library that week to find a full-length book of hers, and the library obligingly provided The Niagara River. As a child, I spent many happy summer afternoons jumping into the Niagara River from my Uncle Bill and Aunt Mary Kay’s dock, so the whole thing seemed beshert.

Image courtesy of  George Stojkovic / Freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of George Stojkovic / Freedigitalphotos.net

I love these poems. They’re unlike any others in my pretty extensive poetry library. They’re short, rarely flowing from one page onto another, and the lines are short as well, often just three or four syllables in length. I found the rhythm, and the occasional rhymes, jarring, but not unpleasantly so. Many of the poems end with a subtle twist, a line that forces the whole poem into sharper focus. These poems call for slow reading and then re-reading; I wanted to savor and remember them.

Some of my favorites in this volume are “Carrying a Ladder,” “Sharks’ Teeth,” “Green Hills,” “Ideal Audience,” “Hide and Seek,” and “The Well or the Cup.” I hope you’ll have a look at them for yourself.

“they don’t pause, don’t buzz, don’t / fly up in fear and light again”

I’ve been itching to feature this poem all summer, but I restrained myself until the timing was right — and now it is!

Image courtesy SweetCrisis / Freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy SweetCrisis / Freedigitalphotos.net

This week, I’m working on Andrew Hudgins’s sublime “Wasps in August.” You can hear Professor Hudgins read the poem here, at Slate (text too). And you should immediately go find Ecstatic in the Poison, from which this poem comes. I own two copies, and I am, sad to say, not sharing.

Professor Hudgins is one of the best living formalist poets, and a kind and funny man to boot (he teaches at The Ohio State University, alma mater of your humble blogger). I’ve never had the pleasure of taking his classes, but my friends who did treasure the experience. He was gracious enough to support the campus literary magazine and its young poets, and he was (and is) a highly-regarded mentor to new poets.

This poem describes the dying days of the wasps outside the speaker’s home, who defend and nurture their larvae in the nest. But it’s about more than that: frailty, death, rebirth, renewal, futility . . . I could go on.

The last line will floor you.

Recommended Reading: Shift, by Hugh Howey

When Dust comes out this August, I’ll be first in line to buy the complete Silo trilogy, without even reading the last one first. These books are just so fun—suspenseful, inventive page-turners.

My practice is never to reveal spoilers, and I won’t start here. So really, I can’t say too much about the plot because you must read Wool first. Shift answers some of Wool‘s questions and will leave the reader with many more to ponder before the final installment comes out.

If anyone out there has read Hugh Howey’s other novels, I’d love to hear what you thought of them!

Movie Review: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

Imagine you’ve just finished shooting The Avengers, and you have a bit of vacation before editing what will go on to be a billion-dollar summer blockbuster. What would you do with your time off?

If you’re Joss Whedon, you get a bunch of your friends together and shoot a completely different movie. At your house. For fun.

And thus we have the delight that is Mr. Whedon’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. For someone like me, it feels like the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates of lit and TV nerdom.

TV nerdom because Mr. Whedon’s shows — especially Buffy and Firefly — are some of the best written, most inventive shows that have ever aired (and in Firefly’s case, been canceled much too soon), which inspires rabid fandom (myself included). Lit nerdom, because Shakespeare is my favorite writer (not for nothing did I spend five years in grad school reading his plays), and Much Ado is my favorite comedy, which I taught twice to undergrads (maybe three times). I have a huge framed poster of the text of the play (all of it on one page!) in our front hall, one or our favorite wedding presents.

Much Ado full text

Full text of Much Ado

Shot in black and white, Much Ado never takes itself too seriously, instead recalling the screwball comedies of the thirties, which of course owe their sparring pairs, though centuries removed, to Shakespeare’s sublimely antagonistic Benedick and Beatrice. The handheld camera motions make the viewer feel part of the intimate setting, peeking over railings and through windows at the antics of the house’s inhabitants and guests. Though the tone is largely lighthearted, Mr. Whedon never shies away from the undertones of sex and violence that permeate the play. “Nothing” in early modern English was slang for the vagina (“thing” = slang for phallus; “no-thing” is its opposite), so the play’s title is a sexual pun. Sure, all the kerfuffle over Hero’s virginity turns out to be founded on nothing, but the point remains: there was, indeed, much ado about her nothing.

See? Told you I was a nerd.

All the performances are pitch perfect, and spotting regulars from Mr. Whedon’s shows was particularly fun for fans.

It’s difficult not to make comparisons with Kenneth Branagh’s succulent 1993 version of the play, in which the Tuscan landscape and lineup of stars compete for attention with the play’s mordant and often sexual wit; here we have a much more laid-back, modern approach to the language, which flows rapidly.

While Emma Thompson cannot be surpassed as Beatrice, Amy Acker is still an excellent match for Alexis Denisof’s surly (and excellent) Benedick. Nathan Fillion is the best Dogberry I’ve ever seen, with a generous assist from Tom Lenk as Vergese. And I liked newcomer Jillian Morgese as Hero, which is a tricky role to pull off without seeming like a simpering child. Ms. Morgese, elegant and restrained, finessed it beautifully. Another pleasant surprise was Sean Maher’s Don John, played here as an upper-class malcontent. Look for my favorite large change Mr. Whedon made — the relationship between Don John and Conrad.

Quibbles: I hate, hate, hate flashback sex scenes to establish characters’ mututal history (worst offender: Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet); I think they show a director’s lack of trust in Shakespeare’s language (and the audience’s ability to understand it). And I didn’t love Mr. Whedon’s additions to the play (there’s a little scene with Benedick and Margaret near the end of the movie that I’m thinking of in particular). Correct me if he simply moved a swath of text out of order.

Something I’m on the fence about: the implied Borachio/Hero backstory.

These quibbles aside, I loved the movie, and I heartily recommend it if you need a break from the blockbusters. Not that they aren’t fun too.

P.S. I have a wishlist of Benedick/Beatrice pairings I’d like to see. At the top: Bradley Whitford and Mary Louise Parker. Who’s on your list?

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

I’ve been waiting weeks to work on this poem, with its famous final lines.

Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day,”  from her 1990 book House of Light, just sings summer, and now summer’s here (with the accompanying mid-90s temperatures here in Boston), it’s time to learn it.

I’m slowly reading the whole volume, and I can’t believe that for years I’ve missed that Ms. Oliver is perhaps the best-known and most widely read poet in this country. A native of Northeast Ohio, Ms. Oliver now resides on Cape Cod (her poems celebrate its interior marshes more than its seashore), and since I grew up in Cleveland and now live in Boston (and married a man from Cape Cod), her poems often feel homey and familiar to me. I love the intimacy of her observations, the feeling, almost, of conversation. This feeling of casual grace is remarkable, because elsewhere Ms. Oliver has written that she revises most poems forty or fifty times!

If you’d like to recommend a favorite poet, please leave a comment! Who knows how many lovely voices I’ve been missing . . .

“under the house the stone / has its feet in deep water.”

Yesterday, it was hot here. Eighty-five, I’d say. Cool water poured on the pavement turned instantly warm and finally, finally, it rained. The breeze was a relief, but even better was the enormous double rainbow that appeared over our town, and, it turns out, all over Boston.

The rainbows over our neighborhood last night

The rainbows over our neighborhood last night

This week, I’m working on Reginald Gibbons’s “At Noon,” a poem in which you can just feel the sweltering heat radiate away in a cool, dark room.  I especially love the image I’ve quoted in this post’s title: the house, like a child in a wading pool, cooling its heels.

“We / Strike straight”

“We real cool” is one of those unforgettable, awesome poems — it’s summer, youth, and the brutal unfairness of racism all at once, in five terse couplets. Gwendolyn Brooks is brilliant — read any poem or an excerpt from Maud Martha, her only novel, and you’ll be hooked.

Recommended Reading: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon

My copy of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh includes an interview with Michael Chabon, in which he talks about the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Philip Roth on this, Mr. Chabon’s first published novel. While I haven’t read enough Roth to comment on the connection (truly, one of his novels was quite enough for me, though you may, if you choose, think me a Philistine), The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, without being at all similar in plot or setting, did indeed seem caught up in the summer-long wave of events that is The Great Gatsby; the last page of the novel, especially, savored strongly of the green light.

Art Bechstein, the narrator, spends his first post-collegiate summer in Pittsburgh looking for adventures and answers with a new, wildly interesting set of friends.

That’s not a great summary, but really, how do you summarize a novel? I’ve always found it tremendously difficult, and the stress that results from worrying about what to leave out and what to highlight makes me thirst for a tall gin and tonic.

But I digress.

This is my third Chabon novel. I very much enjoyed Wonder Boys, which I like to read in conjunction with Straight Man, by Richard Russo, my number-one contemporary lit-fic squeeze, and I recommend Mr. Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to just about everyone. It was the first-year summer reading at Ohio State (Go Bucks!) when I was a freshman (lo these many years ago), and it was an awesome pick.

Reading a first novel after reading those polished, longer pieces was delightful; I saw later characters germinating, saw the beginnings of Mr. Chabon’s wit and breadth of view. It wasn’t jarring (the way that reading The Comedy of Errors after reading King Lear is almost terrifying), but rather gave me a chance to appreciate the author’s mature prose in light of his youthful exuberance, without denigrating either.

A few other stray thoughts: I’m a sucker for kind but clear-eyed descriptions of north-easternly cities that aren’t New York (hailing as I do from Cleveland by way of Buffalo), and Mr. Chabon’s Pittsburgh is a character in this novel. The first-person narration works, and the slight departure from it in the penultimate chapter made me sit up and take notice of what was happening, without fanfare or fireworks.

It’s a fine bildungsroman with charm and verve, and it comes highly recommended.

By the way, I hear there’s a film version, and that you shouldn’t see it.