Monday, September 21, 2015

Ghosts of Gardens Past, Part 2:
"Breaking Rocks in the Hot Sun" (Saratoga, 1990–1994)

This was a Willy Wonka garden: It grew out of pure imagination. It had to, because at the start it was a big piece of nothing.
        It was early summer 1990, and I’d been house-hunting for weeks. Still smarting from the demolition of my sweet little cottage in Monte Sereno (see Ghosts of Gardens Past, Part 1), I’d been sharing an apartment with a roommate for a year and a half and it wasn’t going well. No one—not even our cats—was happy. I’d been itching to live by myself again, and I couldn’t wait to get back to gardening.
        One day I came across a little in-law cottage for rent that was still under construction. It had a funky triangular living room and wiring that wasn’t quite finished, so only half of the kitchen appliances worked. But the yard was interesting—a wide stretch of bare ground between the cottage and the main house. I asked the landlady what was going on with that big yard. “Oh,” she said, “we’ll put up a fence and divide it. You can have as much as you want.” I hastily signed a deposit check.

Pole beans in the ground—check.
Hurry-up summer
I moved in during a drought-baked June, and the bare ground in that yard was hard as an old bone. But I managed to dig out a bed and get pole beans in the ground by the 4th of July, and I kept going from there—marking off each bed with string and stakes, digging and planting one at a time. It was great having all that space, but it made for damned hard work—countless sweaty weekends wielding a pickaxe and shovel* in the hot sun, humming “I Fought the Law” (Clash version). I quickly got used to the labor (hey, I was 28) and spent a lot of happy days out there stubbled with dirt, prying rocks out of the ground and bending chicken wire into Quonset huts for the cucumbers to climb on. I draped floating row covers over the broccoli to keep out the aphids; I set up walls of tinfoil around the lettuce to keep the slugs off. The next spring, I planted peas early and got a bumper crop—way too many for weeks and weeks, a bounty I’ve never been able to repeat.

        The sheer size of the garden was wonderfully freeing—I could plant pretty much anything I wanted, including perennial space-hogs like artichokes and asparagus. But by the second year, I saw that all that feverish work had an unexpected drawback: In my drive to get all the beds planted, I hadn’t given much thought to the garden’s design. And now that it was all dug out, I realized that it had the unimaginative grid of a grocery store: one wide aisle down the middle, with perpendicular paths branching off from it. I tried to class it up with a Tuscan terra cotta birdbath in the middle, but that thing turned out to be impossible to keep clean and its conical base made a nice apartment building for black widows.

A more successful addition to the garden’s ambience was a tool shed, one of those metal kits from the hardware store. After I managed to get the enormous carton home in the back of my car, I was alarmed to see that the first step in the directions was “Build a foundation.” I had to think on that for a while, and ended up cobbling one together with bricks and scrap lumber. It never felt substantial enough to keep the little building from flying away in a windstorm, but luckily we had no hurricanes and it stayed on the ground. I loved that little shed. I felt a flush of pride every time I opened the door and saw my tools hanging neatly, the odd bags of potting soil and sand obediently waiting on the shelves. I can still hear the metal pop of the walls when I stepped onto that homemade plywood floor.

            As the beds filled in with plants, the yard’s severe face began to soften. An impromptu herb bed near the front door was one of the prettiest spots, with lacy blue and purple fronds waving drowsily along the brick walkway. Over time, a mix of vegetables, annuals, and perennials grew into their adult bodies and shaped a graceful, surprising landscape.

Living, in and out
In the four years I lived there, life marched on. A freak February cold spell froze the water pipes and forced me to leave the house and move in with a friend for a week. A relationship came and went; Bill Clinton became the only presidential candidate I’d ever voted for who’d actually won. My delicate, middle-aged cat Tara, never much of a wanderer, ran the house. The undisputed ruler of the yard was my much older, much tougher cat Salome, a fierce beauty who’d never lost her feral streak. During our third year living there, Salome began to struggle; arthritis made every step painful, and mysterious seizures left her disoriented and helpless. After a long battle, it was clearly time to put her down. Afterward, I had no doubt where she should be, so I dug a small, deep grave near the back fence, planted rosemary** over her, and set off her little memorial with white rocks. I spent a lot of time out there sitting next to her, weeding and thinking about her warm gray fur and uncompromising, hunting nature.

        And then, suddenly, I had to move. The company I worked for had decided to relocate their offices 30 miles north, making for an ugly commute, and noisy neighbors had taken the shine off my idyllic little house. I was also tired of the South Bay, with its traffic and hot summers. I was ready for some fog, some hills, some San Francisco. So I went house-hunting again and found a sweet little cabin in Woodside, a half-hour north, and started packing.

On the last day in the Saratoga house, I was cleaning the place out and checking every corner and cupboard, well past the point where I felt like I’d puke if I found one more stray umbrella or pillowcase or stack of papers that had to be dealt with. Loading the last armload of stuff into the car, I thought, Hooray—on to the new house. I went back to lock the door, turned around…and saw the garden, laid out in front of me like a small country of roses and herbs, the shed standing stoic and empty, all of it sort of looking at me, holding its breath. My garden! I hadn’t really thought about leaving it. It was a hot summer day, like the first time I’d seen the place, but now it was all filled in and full of personality, scent, and motion.

        I walked around the yard for a long time, touching the plants. We’d finally had a decent, rainy winter, and the artichokes were fat and happy, the dianthus blazing in pink and white, the climbing rose thriving at last. It was a good garden; I felt good about it. But the satisfaction was tinged with loss and worry about what the next tenants might do to it.

        Then I saw the little grave, and a bitter grief pulled at my throat. The yard had quietly become a sort of ancestral land, now that I’d buried someone I loved in it. How can you ever leave that? I sat with Salome one last time, brushing the fronds of rosemary and straightening the white rocks. I hoped against hope that whoever moved in here next would water and tend and hold the place kindly. It was terrible, that feeling, that leaving it up to whatever would come next. I’d felt it before, and here it was again. I suddenly cursed my luck to be a gardener, with our blind hopes and often-broken dreams.***

* One time I shoveled for so long that I threw my back out and couldn’t straighten up until the next day.

** According to folklore, if you tap a branch of rosemary on a lover’s hand, he or she will never forget you.

*** That day made me think a lot about the strange business of renting, gardening, and having to leave gardens behind over and over. Already I’d done it twice—the first time in Monte Sereno, the second in Saratoga. All that work and planning, all the seed catalogs and late-night winter visions, dashed and lost and mourned. After I got settled into the new house, I dumped some of those thoughts into a journal entry and eventually turned it into an essay called “A Trail of Rosemary,” which Fine Gardening magazine picked up a couple of years later. It was one of the first pieces of writing I ever had published, and the editor nominated it for a Gardens Writers Association award. That small success put gas in my writer’s tank for years.

The neighbor's cat. I called him Pumpkin,
but he was partial to corn.

Tara and Salome. Another hot day.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Long and Short of Postcard Poems

This month's haul, as of
August 28th. Go, Group 3!
The August Poetry Postcard Fest is coming to a close. This is the third year I’ve done this month-long marathon where you write a poem every day, jot it down on a postcard, and send it off to someone else who’s doing the project. I had more than my share of slacker moments this year; one day I had to write seven poems to get caught up, and I spaced out badly last week and had to write four yesterday and two today. So my postcard recipients are getting a motley, ill-timed bunch of poems from me. But the reverse is also true; some days I get a fistful of postcards, and then for days and days my mailbox goes dark. So a lot of us seem to be, shall we say, sporadic. But I’ll end up writing 31 poems, one way or another. I have yet to break out the “emergency haiku.”

This year more than 200 people signed up to do the Fest, and the structure was a little different than in past years, thanks to organizer extraordinaire Paul Nelson. This time he divided the big list into subgroups of 32 people so that each group could send postcards to just the people in their group, creating a tidy loop we haven’t had before—now you get postcards from the same people you’re sending postcards to, instead of sending them off into the ether to someone you’ll probably never hear from. I actually liked that ether-sending of yesteryear; there was a freeing, anonymous quality to it that pushed the Postcard Fest into a more intimate part of the spectrum than, say, the much more public Tupelo Press’ 30/30 Project, or even our local NaPoWriMo group. The act of sending that postcard off to some unknown person always felt a bit like whispering in a stranger’s ear. But this year, I’m enjoying getting poems back from the people I’ve written them to. They’re not answers, or even responses, to the poems I send out; they’re more like pings coming back on the radar. Hello, poet—I am here too.
        Paul also put together a Facebook group for the participants, which I’m starting to think every project in the world should have. People post about the challenges of writing a poem a day, intriguing postcards they’ve received, other news in their lives, and the books they’re reading. The past few days we’ve been posting links to our own books. Again, it’s a mix of anonymity/randomness and camaraderie/intimacy. Here are all these strangers participating in the same project, all these people at this virtual cocktail party, and some of them are smart and damn funny.

Dear Stranger
This year Paul suggested that we all write epistolary poems—poems written in the form of letters. I don’t know if that was the suggested form in years past; honestly, I tend to skip right over rules and suggestions about what to write in these things and do whatever the hell I want. But I got stuck for ideas early in the month, and those first few poems were painful. Then I thought, “Epistolary, hmm...,” and wrote “Dear _______” as a title, and a poem popped out very easily. Since then, I’ve structured almost all of the poems as letters. Most of them don’t have titles, only the “Dear _______” part. That proved to be very, very fertile ground. Intimacy again, I guess; the feeling of writing a missive to one person gives me less stage fright than trying to “write a poem,” and the month’s output has taken on the air of a dreamy conversation. And now I’ve got this odd little collection of letter-poems, many with river images from a recent rafting trip on the Rogue—dismantled dams, abandoned power stations, salmon leaping out of the dark waters, the lazy bends and chaotic, crushing rapids. The collection feels more cohesive, like more of a project unto themselves, than my August postcards usually feel. So my hat’s off to Paul for that suggestion.

Shorts get the short end
Every year when I do this postcard project—a marathon in which each poem can’t be more than about 12 lines because, again, you have to squeeze it onto a dinky postcard—I always wonder if these shorties will ever get published anywhere. I’m gratified to see that some journals favor the short form—Right Hand Pointing* comes to mind, among others. Still, I can’t help feeling that an unspoken length-ism prevails in the literary world: The longer poems get most of the love and win most of the prizes. So in a way, it feels especially good to invest a whole month in short poems. Maybe someday short poems will walk alongside their tall cousins, respected at last. In the meantime, somebody’s got to do some captive breeding to keep their numbers up. Postcard Fest to the rescue.

*Right Hand Pointing’s sister site, White Knuckle Press, has a series of fantastic online chapbooks, all consisting of short prose poems. I just got the good news that they’ll be publishing my chapbook Rough House early next year. Their whole list of chapbooks is worth exploring—strong poetry, striking designs—and here are a couple that I especially love:

The Russian Hat by Claudia Serea

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Beloved Movies That I Hate

Come on, you’ve probably got them too—those big movies that everybody around you loves, but that make you reach for the remote as soon as they come on. Maybe the jokes don’t work for you, you don’t like the hero’s forelock curl, or…well, you just can’t stand it and that’s that. Here are a few popular films that, for one reason or another, make me want to stick a fork in my eye.

The Wizard of Oz
I don’t know how many times I’ve sat down to watch this movie, thinking I might like it this time. But it just never works. I like the little hard guys in the Lollipop Guild and the Cowardly Lion’s song (“What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the ‘ape’ in apricot?”). But a half-hour in, right after Billie Burke floats away in her big bubble and inexplicably strands Dorothy, I find myself squirming, stuck in this movie’s spiral of frustration. It’s like one of those dreams where you’re trying to catch a plane or drive to work, but everything keeps going wrong and you never get there. Too many of the songs have the same melody (bad dream again), the talking trees scare the crap out of me, and I get antsy for Dorothy—I keep thinking she should sit down and have a meal, or maybe take a shower. And when the scene with the poppies comes up, I find myself wishing I were watching Traffik instead. Now there were some poppies.

Forrest Gump
Fingernails on a blackboard, people, from beginning to end. For my money, Tom Hanks hams it up too much when he’s playing “extraordinary” characters, like that morose cryptologist in The Da Vinci Code or the stressed-out survivor in Cast Away. I love him when he’s playing more of an everyman, like the poor schlub in Catch Me If You Can or level-headed James Lovell in Apollo 13. Forrest Gump is further hampered by one of my pet peeves: actors playing people with learning disabilities. It just seems like something we’ll look back on in 50 years with shame, the modern equivalent of white actors playing in blackface. And despite this movie’s having Gary Sinise—who can pretty much do no wrong—it doesn’t convince me of its magic realism and whimsical sweet nature because I’m too busy thinking about how Hanks is putting on an act and Sinise’s legs were erased with special effects. And if you buy the right box of chocolates, you do know what you’ll get. There’s a chart and everything.

Sleepless in Seattle
I like Hanks fine here, but this movie has the version of Meg Ryan that grates on my nerves*—the one where the director seems to have said, “Look how cute she is! Let’s exploit that in every possible way!” But the elaborate stalker story is creepy, and I can’t believe any man would be attracted to a woman who stands in the middle of a busy road, gaping at him like she’s had about 16 margaritas. At the end, when they’re peering soulfully at each other and walking away with the kid, I always think, “Won’t last six months.” They don’t know each other at all! And she’s crazy! The movie does have a lot of funny lines and some great supporting actors—David Hyde Pierce, Rosie O’Donnell, and the always wonderful Victor Garber. They’re just not enough to overcome the cringeworthy premise.

The trouble with this Scottish historical saga is that whenever I see it, I find myself comparing it to the other Scottish historical saga that came out the same year, the fantastic Rob Roy. That movie had Liam Neeson (always perfect in my book) and a much wider emotional range than Braveheart: good guys who make mistakes, an almost-too-intimate air of tragedy, and a couple of the best swordfights ever filmed. Braveheart also doesn’t bear up well against Gladiator, which came out five years later and basically tells the same story—a chaste hero’s family is killed by a bad guy, driving the hero to exact revenge on said bad guy—and Gladiator, of course, had Russell Crowe**. So when Braveheart comes on, I just find myself sitting there thinking about other movies I’d rather be watching. Some of them are even Mel Gibson movies; although he made a few that I didn’t like (all the Lethal Weapons and What Women Want), he’s been in three that I absolutely love: The Year of Living Dangerously, The Bounty, and Signs.

Pretty Woman
This is another one with a creepy premise that I can’t get past: Richard Gere buys Julia Roberts, and then the “happy ending” is that he buys her again (to snuggle up against for a few more weeks before he throws her back on the street, I cynically figure). Of course, it’s based on Pygmalion, so Roberts’ lady of the night has to be as chipper and undamaged as Eliza Doolittle (“Oy’m a good girl, oy am!”), which is beyond implausible. Her street-smart roomie—the formidable Laura San Giacomo—is much more convincing, and I always wish the movie were about her instead. There is one fun thing about Pretty Woman, though: It bears a strange resemblance to The Princess Diaries.*** Maybe it’s because H├ęctor Elizondo is in both of them, playing more or less the same guy, but Anne Hathaway starts to look like Julia Roberts if you squint your eyes and think “hooker” instead of “princess.”

* I am not a Meg Ryan basher, though I hope never, ever to have to watch When Harry Met Sally again. I like her fine in You’ve Got Mail, but her character is smarter and more cynical in that one than in Sleepless. And I like her a lot in Proof of Life. But that has Russell Crowe in it, and—well, that man is hot sex on toast.

** See * above. Sub-footnote: Other actors considered for the starring role in Gladiator were Hugh Jackman, Antonio Banderas, and…Mel Gibson.

*** My other favorite thing about Pretty Woman is that it’s used as a joke in a much better movie, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. (Lisa Kudrow, tearfully: “I just get really happy when they finally let her shop.”)

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Moby-Dick Days

My love affair with Moby-Dick began in kindergarten. That sounds like the start of an awkward joke, but it’s true.
        My mother was a fan of “accelerated learning.” She felt that kids should start reading much earlier than the school system recommended in the 1960s, and I was her guinea pig. When I was three, she stuck flashcards all over the house, labeling every object—sofa, lamp, wall—and drilled me on them constantly. The next year, she hired a local woman to tutor me in reading the usual first books, Dick and Jane–type stuff. (I vaguely remember one called Nose Is Not Toes.) So by the time I started kindergarten, I could read pretty well. That put me way ahead of the other kids, since at our school they didn’t teach reading until the first grade.

The trophy book
Frankly, having an academic jump on everybody else made me into a little monster. I lorded my reading abilities over the other kindergartners, reading signs out loud and haughtily carrying books around. At recess, I’d sit reading whatever I could get my hands on—ham radio magazines, dinosaur books, lists of the kings of England; didn’t matter. In the school library, I walked past all the kids’ books and went right for the grown-up novels, checking out whatever was big and intimidating-looking. And the biggest, fattest book, weighing in at more than 500 pages, was Moby-Dick. All through kindergarten that book was my constant companion. I checked it out over and over, just to have the satisfaction of walking around with it under my arm.
        Trouble was, I never read it. I couldn’t read it, even with my accelerated-learning super powers, because that book was hard. I kept looking at the first page and could never make heads or tails of it. “Call me Ishmael”? Like, he won’t even tell us his real name? And what was up with the long sentences and turned-around, foreign-sounding language? It wasn’t like any other book I’d seen. I skimmed forward a few chapters, and they didn’t even go to sea for, like, 100 pages.

Call me bored
Fast-forward—gulp—almost 50 years, to a couple of months ago. I was sitting in a theater one night during a dress rehearsal. This is part of my job; I have to go to a lot of these rehearsals, and this one was taking forever, with very long intermissions and pauses to fix things. I’d brought my Kindle, loaded with literary journals and a few classic novels for just such emergencies. During an especially long wait, I turned it on and saw I had Moby-Dick on there. I had to laugh—I’d forgotten that I’d downloaded it months earlier as a joke with myself. I thought, what the hell, I’ve got all this time on my hands. Let’s see if I can get past that first page. Here we go again: “Call me Ishmael...”
        And you know, not only was I able to get past that first page, but I loved that book. I went home and read some more, and stayed up reading it every single night at bedtime for the next 50 nights.*
        I will say now, having finished that big book, that I’m glad I didn’t try to read it at a younger age. Even more glad that I wasn’t forced to slog through it for some class, though I often wished I had a fellow reader to talk things over with. Years ago, I think I would have been impatient with all the poetic language and the crazy-quilt mix of tones and styles. But now I was loving it so much that I started tweeting a line from it every day (@writersisland), a fun project that made me comb through it looking for snippets under 140 characters (a real challenge with Melville, who did go on).
        More than anything, I was surprised at how readable and entertaining it is. Like…well…a whale, it’s this big living, breathing creature, turning and glinting and diving for hours and breaching up, marvelous, where you least expect it. I can genuinely say I’ve never read anything else like it.
        Here are other things that surprised me:

Illustration for 1902 edition:
"Moby-Dick swam swiftly round
and round the wrecked crew." 
It’s a ripping yarn.
As in, a page-turner, a potboiler, an action-adventure that actually left me gasping sometimes. Okay, not every page—it starts off slow—but once you’re on the ship and the hunt begins, it unfolds and unfolds with the dangerously obsessed captain and the very nice first mate who tries to talk some sense into him, and an extremely motley crew caught between them. Plus, sharks and squids and cruelty and peg legs and near drowning and actual drowning and wrecked boats.

It’s an encyclopedic tour of the whaling industry, circa 1850.
Seriously, if you want to know how whales have been portrayed in classical literature, how blubber is boiled and what it’s used for afterward—even how the boilers themselves are made—or what the inside of a whale’s mouth looks like, what’s lurking in its gut, or how the sinews of its tail are constructed, it’s all in this book. In vivid, sometimes stomach-churning detail, told by an extremely entertaining tour guide.

It’s like a zig-zagging conversation with your crazy uncle.
You know, the one who served in France in the army and tells you minutiae about the experience every time you see him. But every little thought leads him off on some digression—like, he’s telling you about this chef he met in Lyons, which gets him talking about escargot, which takes him to how snails are raised, which leads to the Fibonacci sequence, found in natural objects ranging from nautilus shells to pine cones to pineapples, but the nautilus part is disputed, which leads him to that trip he took to Vanuatu in 1964, where he went snorkeling and met that woman he left his wife for. And what was he talking about? Oh, France. That uncle.

Style-wise, Melville threw in everything but the kitchen sink.
I sometimes found myself sitting there, reading this thing and thinking, “Did he even have an editor? Who would have agreed to all this?” We’ve got a chapter told entirely in internal monologue from the point of view of one of the mates, then another, and then we never hear from them again. And one chapter is all Ahab muttering to himself. Then your chatty tour guide is back for 20 chapters or so. This thing would get boiled alive in a college creative writing workshop.

We never get to know Ishmael.
I love this device. Ishmael, who tells this story, is a fly on the wall the whole way. Somehow he’s privy to conversations he shouldn’t hear and other people’s thoughts that he couldn’t possibly know. We never figure out how much he’s making up, or where exactly on the ship he is, or what exactly his job is. It reminded me of another wonderful mysterious narrator, the one in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In Midnight, the narrator is the author, John Berendt, telling this crazy true story of his friends and neighbors in Savannah. But he moves so deftly through the events that we barely see him. He’s there, but the book is not about him. Ishmael, similarly, always seems to be listening at the door. By the end you’ve heard this great tale, and then you’re like, Wait, come back—who are you?

It made me laugh out loud.
Actual, explosive guffaws. Many of them. Melville would have made a great dinner guest; he’s wry and arch at the most unexpected times. He manages to lampoon the wealthy, the ignorant, and the gasbags that seem to come with every profession, all while making you slightly seasick with all the details about sails and cargo and blood and boilers. That is a fine line, and he walks it.

It reads like freakin’ music.
Time and again, I had to stop and reread a sentence because it was so beautiful. I read entire chapters out loud, acting out all the parts as if I were making an audio book. The language is so theatrical that you can’t help rolling it around in your mouth. Again, this probably works better now that I’m older, since my head is now filled with a lot of Shakespeare, whose influence on Melville is unmistakable. But Melville infused the language with his own idiosyncrasies, which ended up sounding alternately like the Bard without line breaks and then like the Bible through some sort of warped looking glass. Dude could write.

"Boats Attacking Whales," 1839
It’s sad in unintended ways.
For all this book’s beauty, you can’t read it from a 21st-century perspective and not feel queasy. Melville was a product of his time, and his descriptions of people of color are not kind—they’re savages, they’re ridiculous, they’re inscrutable. Even the harpooner Queequeg and Pip, the cabin boy—both crucial to the story—are childlike characters who never really develop into three-dimensional people. And to those who say Melville was some sort of early environmentalist, I don’t think so; he touches lyrically on the havoc man was wreaking on the natural world, but in the next turn he brushes it off. Even in his most soul-crushing scenes of man’s cruelty to whales, to dolphins, to anything that moved or might be regarded as food or fuel—there is endless stabbing and cutting and bleeding in this book—the men doing it are often painted in a heroic light. At one point Melville says there were too many whales to ever fish them out; they had places to hide (under the ice sheets, he said), and there would always be plenty of them. And true, the harpoon-and-rope whaling of Melville’s time, deadly as it was, had its limitations; he probably couldn’t have foreseen the destruction brought by 20th-century mechanized whaling, which nearly wiped out whales everywhere. I kept thinking that Melville’s bravado-tinged-with-melancholy felt like just the kind of thinking that’s hurtling us toward the end of the world. Whales had products that we wanted for convenience and industry; they were big business, so we killed them for it. Much like how wolves got in our way, so we killed them for it. Above the storytelling, above the feverish genius of Melville’s writing, there hangs this grand tragedy that humans were bringing down on themselves and everything around them—and which continues today.

Sperm whale. (Photo: Tim Cole, NOAA)

* I know this because the Kindle keeps track of what percentage of the book you’ve read, not page numbers, and I found that 2% was about all I could handle in one night. That’s only about 10 pages of the printed version, but if you’ve read it, well, you know—it’s dense. Like dog years.