Writing About Poetry, Victoria’s Secret Models, and Dogs

0375503803.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins ★★★★
Source: Municipal Library
Edition: Random House (2001), Hardcover, 192 pages
Awards & Distinctions: ALA Notable Books for Adults
Original publication date: 2001

I’m not a natural to poetry; I really have to make a special effort to make time for it and pay attention to it and work at appreciating it, which is odd, because I have my quiet and unexpressed poetic way of looking at the world, but too often the language of individual poets is obscure to me, the imagery too specific or too filled with references I don’t understand, rhythms I can’t pick up on, moods I’m not in tune with. Billy Collins is new to me, and I decided to give this poetry collection a try after seeing a few of his best poems on one of my LT buddy’s threads. This collection gathers some “new” selections (as of 2001), as well as older ones from collections from The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988), Questions About Angels (1991) The Art of Drowning (1995), and Picnic, Lightning (1998), the latter of which includes one of my absolute favourites poems by Collins, which my buddy Joe transcribed in full on one of his threads, called Victoria’s Secret. It’s rather long, so here are just the first three of nine verses:

Victoria’s Secret

The one in the upper left-hand corner
is giving me a look
that says I know you are here
and I have nothing better to do
for the remainder of human time
than return your persistent but engaging stare.
She is wearing a deeply scalloped
flame-stitch halter top
with padded push-up styling
and easy side-zip tap pants.

The one on the facing page, however,
who looks at me over her bare shoulder,
cannot hide the shadow of annoyance in her brow.
You have interrupted me,
she seems to be saying,
with your coughing and your loud music.
Now please leave me alone;
Let me finish whatever it was I was doing
in my organza-trimmed
whisperweight camisole with
keyhole closure and a point d’esprit mesh back.

I wet my thumb and flip the page.
Here, the one who happens to be reclining
in a satin and lace merry widow
with an inset lace-up front,
decorated underwire cups and bodice with lace ruffles along the bottom
and hook-and-eye closure in the back,
is wearing a slightly contorted expression,
her head thrust back, mouth partially open,
a confusing mixture or pain and surprise
as if she had stepped on a tack
just as I was breaking down
her bedroom door with my shoulder.

What appealed tremendously to me about this particular poem I guess is I heard an inner voice, or was it the voice of my own mother maybe, who has a mean sense of humour and has always liked to put words in the mouths of the models on the glossy magazines we always had laying around the house, so there was something familiar about it, which took nothing away from the humour of it, and just made it all that more engaging in fact. Collins often writes poems about the process of writing poetry which are surprisingly appealing. There’s often a sense of playfulness in his work, though in his “new” work, there is more talk of death, since it seems he lost his mother around 2001 and was quite understandably more focused on themes of death and dying, but not always. My favourite poem from that particular collection is about a dog and like so much of his work, just seems so spot on:


The way the dog trots out the front door
every morning
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her doghouse
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.

Who provides a finer example
of a life without encumbrance—
Thoreau in his curtainless hut
with a single plate, a single spoon?
Gandhi with his staff and his holy diapers?

Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.

If only she did not shove the cat aside
every morning
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she would be,
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.


Thrills and Frissons, Gothic Style

dragonwyckDragonwyck by Anya Seton ★★★★½
Chicago Review Press (2005), Paperback, 352 pages

I kept the lights on till 3 a.m. yesterday (or should I say today?) to finish Dragonwyck by Anya Seton. I’ve written just a handful of reviews this year, though I started on quite a few, but it seems only the ones that get written spontaneously and completely off the cuff get to see the light of day, while those I set to write as ‘proper’ reviews seem to remain in draft limbo forever. I had a phone conversation today with my mum who lives in France, and when I asked her what she wanted for Christmas this year, her request was for more regular blog posts (our family, such as it is, has never gone for Holiday Shopping Madness, as you can see) so I took the hint and decided I might as well start today. Though I don’t promise I’ll be posting every day, I will try my best to do so at the very least once a week or more. In any case, while there are those few other reviews I’ve written and posted on Library Thing recently which I will also post here very soon (not to mention those I really do want to write, or finish writing), here is the catch of the day:

This novel felt like a delightful guilty pleasure. To set the tone, it opens on the famous poem by Edgar Allan Poe, Alone:

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I loved, I loved alone.
Then- in my childhood, in the dawn
Of a most stormy life- was drawn
From every depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still:
From the torrent, or the fountain,
From the red cliff of the mountain,
From the sun that round me rolled
In its autumn tint of gold,
From the lightning in the sky
As it passed me flying by,
From the thunder and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.

This is an unabashedly romantic, creepy story set in the 1840s with overblown characters who are almost parodies of themselves, including a Byronic male anti-hero in the form of Nicholas Van Ryn; a male paragon of dark good looks with disconcertingly piercing cerulean eyes; descendant of a long line of immensely wealthy Dutch landowners, who is the current ‘patroon’ of a large tract of land along the Hudson river and the developing city of New York. Nicholas, the archetypal control freak, fully occupies the role of domineering master and self-contained enigma who keeps all those around him in a state of fear and dread of his ever shifting moods. The innocent and unsophisticated Miranda is the submissive heroine who falls into her distant cousin Nicholas’ clutches when he invites the young maiden to Dragonwyck manor with a view to form the erstwhile farm girl into a proper society lady. She leaves her strictly devout father and hardworking mother and siblings to their small farm and poverty to fully embrace the kind of lifestyle she has so far only read about in novels. She eagerly takes to the life of splendour and luxury and doesn’t too much mind being a nanny to Nicholas’ little girl. She falls under his spell the moment she meets him, with his alluring combination of physical beauty, irreproachable courtly manner, and fabulous wealth, but there is also the not so small matter of keeping in the good favours of his wife, the morbidly obese Joanna, who insists on treating the girl like a servant. There are of course macabre secrets contained in this vast gothic mansion, though (tiny spoiler, which any observing reader will have figured out early on:) Nicholas himself is the novel’s dangerous enigma. Some of the core events which provide the framework for the novel are based on historical facts, such as the anti-rent wars, the Astor Place massacre and a great steamboat race which is closely modelled on a competition undertook by Cornelius Vanderbilt and his eponymous steamship in 1847.

My edition contains an afterword by Philippa Gregory, who claims Anya Seton probably didn’t realize how strongly influenced by Jane Eyre she was in this, her second novel, but I beg to differ. Surely it can’t be an accident that her heroine, just as innocent and meek as Jane Eyre, comes to live in the capacity of governess in a great gothic house complete with what may be a haunted Red Room and a repulsive first wife . There are other parallels with Charlotte Brontë’s novel I cannot mention without revealing spoilers, but while I don’t mean to imply Dragonwyck is in the order of masterpieces such as Jane Eyre is, it definitely makes for a good helping of thrills and frissons, delivering a hearty dose of unabashedly Gothic horror and romance (not to mention a visit to Edgar Allan Poe and his dying wife’s impoverished household). For all these reasons, I count this novel among the most entertaining I’ve read this year.

On Henry James

Someone over on LibraryThing shared the poem that follows, which was on The Writer’s Almanac today.  I discovered Henry James for myself only this year, and he’s a writer I will continue reading for certain.

Henry James

“Poor Mr. James,” Virginia Woolf once said:
“He never quite met the right people.”
Poor James. He never quite met the
children of light and so he had to invent them.
Then, when people said: No one is like that.
Your books are not reality, he replied:

So much the worse for reality.

He described himself as “slow to conclude,
orotund, a slow-moving creature, circling his rooms
slowly masticating his food.”

Once, when a nephew asked his advice
on how to live, he searched his mind.
Number One, be kind, he said.
Number Two, be kind and
Number Three, be kind.

“Henry James” by June Beisch, from Fatherless Woman.

Portrait of Henry James by John Singer Sargent, 1913

mes de los muertos

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Two of a series of four small paintings from today’s Painting as Expression class. Of course the originals look very different and even with my best efforts I couldn’t get the colours quite right here on the screen. Our teacher Vicki had asked us all to bring materials which we could share to inspire each other; images, books, poems or various readings which were in keeping with the prevailing themes of the month; autumn, change of seasons, the dimming of the light, death and dying, Halloween, etc. None of us remembered to bring anything, although I had intended to bring along my book of Charles Baudelaire selected poems to read a piece such as The Enemy*:

My youth was filled with storms; dark thunderheads
Lit up by sudden sunshine. Wind and rain
Tore at my garden, left the ravaged beds
Stripped bare of soil. How few ripe fruits remain!

Now it is autumn; my ideas turn brown.
Look at the land; I’ll need spade, rake and broom
To clear that flooded mess. The sodden ground
Is full of holes, each bigger than a tomb.

I dream new flowers now: but who can tell
If they’ll take root in this exhausted soil?
The nourishment they need is strange and rare.

Time eats at life: no wonder we despair.
Our enemy feeds on the blood we lose.
He gnaws our heart, and look how strong he grows.

Yes, this poem would have been completely à propos today. As none of us was able to contribute anything, Vicki showed us paintings she’d selected from art books she brought along and then had us do an exercise called Wild Mind Writing (better known to most as stream of consciousness writing) to provide us with a starting point for our painting session. She gave us the first few words then gave us five minutes to write whatever came spontaneously to mind: When the light enters darkness… Here, an excerpt from what I wrote:

When the light enters darkness
awakenings of colours emerge
with shapes aglow inching closer,
wider, always glowing until the sounds
overpower our sense of vision.

Red, orange, more red.
Red on bicycles, orange bouncing
up and down, blue mean streaks
across red fields.

The light enters the darkness
to awaken all the senses,
to reshape the world; awash in colour.


* Here, Baudelaire’s original version:

Ma jeunesse ne fut qu’un ténébreux orage,
Traversé çà et là par de brillants soleils;
Le tonnerre et la pluie ont fait un tel ravage,
Qu’il reste en mon jardin bien peu de fruits vermeils.
Voilà que j’ai touché l’automne des idées,
Et qu’il faut employer la pelle et les râteaux
Pour rassembler à neuf les terres inondées,
Où l’eau creuse des trous grands comme des tombeaux.
Et qui sait si les fleurs nouvelles que je rêve
Trouveront dans ce sol lavé comme une grève
Le mystique aliment qui ferait leur vigueur?
— Ô douleur! ô douleur! Le Temps mange la vie,
Et l’obscur Ennemi qui nous ronge le coeur
Du sang que nous perdons croît et se fortifie!

~ Charles Baudelaire

Enough Words?

The Essential Rumi

How does a part of the world leave the world?
How can wetness leave water?

Don’t try to put out a fire
by throwing on more fire!
Don’t wash a wound with blood!

No matter how fast you run,
your shadow more than keeps up.
Sometimes, it’s in front!

Only full, overhead sun
diminishes your shadow.

But that shadow has been serving you!
What hurts you, blesses you.
Darkness is your candle.
Your boundaries are your quest.

I can explain this, but it would break
the glass cover on your heart,
and there’s no fixing that.

You must have shadow and light source both.
Listen, and lay your head under the tree of awe.

When from that tree, feathers and wings sprout
on you, be quieter than a dove.
Don’t open your mouth for even a cooooooo

When a frog slips into the water, the snake
cannot get it. Then the frog climbs back out
and croaks, and the snake moves toward him again.

Even if the frog learned to hiss, still the snake
would hear through the hiss the informations
he needed, the frog voice underneath.

But if the frog could be completely silent,
then the snake would go back to sleeping,
and the frog could reach the barley.

The soul lives there in the silent breath.

And that grain of barely is such that,
when you put it in the ground,
it grows.

~ Enough Words? From The Essential Rumi

Pic by Smiler

A Walk Around the Park (2 of 3)

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Shadow Play
The sun makes it’s descent,
Light fades quickly now —
Shadows stretch to infinity.
Like performance art,
They show up unexpectedly,
Unprepared for the part,
They are beauty in constant flux
They give it all they’ve got
When the day gives way to dusk,
They’ll only exist in thought.

Dancing Trees
Fingertips frozen under my mits
Eyes blurry, hurting from the cold
Difficult to snap a few more pics
For that I need a better fingerhold.
I work slowly, just for one last spree
It’s just as well — the result is real;
As real as what my eyes can see —
I’m not trying to capture an ideal.
Turning back towards the park
A group of treetops seems to play,
Dancing against blue skies in an arc.
And even as light quickly fades away
They keep reaching, always reaching,
Night after night, day after day.

More to follow…
(click here to view part 1)

All pics by Smiler