Thursday, June 29, 2006

Poems Make Marvelous Traveling Companions

Choosing reading material to bring along on a trip is always easy for me. My bags are packed, and I have snuggled several books in between my summer dress and two-piece swimsuit. I am bringing Here at Eagle Pond and The Museum of Clear Ideas by Donald Hall. Can you guess where I am off to? New Hampshire. Tomorrow I leave for Boston. Dear friends will pick me up at Logan Airport. But this afternoon, to prepare for my journey, I visited the Chicago Public Library to borrow books by Donald Hall and other poets. Hall will be poet laureate come September, and he lives in New Hampshire—it keeps me in good rhythm to bring a New Hampshire poet’s work with me while I visit the “live free or die” state. Readers describe Hall’s poetry as “rich with New Hampshire rural landscape,” so I assume his verse will enrich my experience of the place. I am interested in chronicling my own voyage through the influence of Donald Hall’s poems.

Our group of friends will spend one day canoeing on Lake Pawtuckaway and another day playing on a beach in Portsmouth, Maine, a third day hiking through woods, and then road tripping to New York for the finale. We’ll also be following the World Cup finals and picking strawberries if there is still time. I intend to report about our party on this blog. This means I am attempting to take a break from my usual fiction endeavors to write in a more memoir or essayistic style, a kind of writing that usually gives me the creeps. But I have also been inspired by many other bloggers out there who seem to be blogging about their every-day lives. Also, I am reading Lisa Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic and her recent journal writing at the Poetry Foundation web site is encouraging me to practice more journal writing. In addition to Hall and Robertson, I am also traveling with Yusef Komunyakaa’s Talking Dirty to the Gods because that title captures, precisely, the spirit that is conjured when our special posse of Lawyers, Surgeons, Teachers, Mothers, Fathers, Ph.D.s, and Writers get together to celebrate American Independence in New Hampshire. We talk dirty, we cook gourmet, we slam dance, and we sip basil Mojitos. Also, this is a great year to be celebrating in the wake of the recent Supreme Court ruling against President Bush’s war crimes trials for Guantanamo Bay detainees. June 29, 2006 is a good day for the U.S. Constitution! Finally!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

How are you going to cut the shine with me, Lady?

“Cut the shine” is a phrase that, Susan assumes, was probably used more frequently on the streets of London during Charles Dickens’ time. Susan had never heard the phrase used on the streets of places where she had visited or lived: New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Chicago. The phrase is used in the context of expressing a desire to divide money, share wealth, or make sure that stolen booty is equally distributed among honest thieves. That’s why, when Susan was getting into her yellow 2005 Mini Cooper S, she nearly jumped out of her go-go boots when the neighborhood tramp leaned into the open, passenger-side window, smiled and said, “Are you going to cut some shine with me, Lady.” It was the man with the limp who always wore a free WXRT giveaway t-shirt. The neighbors all called him Junksmith because he liked to collect stuff off the ground and save it or reuse it. He had picked up the cigarette butt Susan had mashed underfoot outside of My Place For Tea on Sheffield Ave. With the butt cupped in his oily hand, Junksmith had followed Susan to her car. “You dropped this, Lady.” He extended his arm in front of her, returning her half-smoked butt. “I’ve come to give it back to you. Shows I’m honest, see. Now, how are you gonna cut the shine with me?” Susan asked him, “Where did you hear that phrase, ‘cut the shine?’” Junksmith knew this lady was thinking, ‘now who says that in this day and age?’ Junksmith winked and said, “I read this month’s One Book One Chicago reading selection: Oliver Twist.” He nodded. “They say it in there.” Susan is also a member of that book club, so she invited Junksmith into her car to take a drive along Lake Shore while they each took leisurely drags from the half-smoked cigarette and exhaled out the open windows. Ah, city summertime! Finally, just to talk, Susan said “I hope they don’t bust you for plagiarism.” Junksmith shrugged, “Aw, they won’t. But I tell ‘ya, if those MCs start using that phrase in their rap lyrics, if they start makin’ a killin’ off that phrase ‘cut the shine,’ I’d better see my share of profit or else it won’t be records they be spinnin’; it be heads! That’s right, anyone steals my words, heads is gonna spin!” Ah, city braggadocio!

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Mysterious Passport Holder

Among her late father’s papers, Riva Djinn found an old-fashioned passport. The “passport” was an 18th Century letter of introduction claiming that Saul Djinn curried much good favor with the King of France and should be treated like royalty in the new world. Finding this official document among her father’s things convinced Riva that she had been born into a family that should travel as it pleases. ‘My troubles are over.’ She thought as she devised a brilliant plot to get herself out of her fix. She decided that for now she’d keep it all a secret from her boyfriend. She packed her bags. Roger Boyle works as an Irish customs officer. His job involves checking and stamping passports. He often yawns on the job and rarely gets involved in travel document intrigue. One day he was working the Irish Seaport entry, and he noticed a suspicious traveler wearing a football jersey, de-boarding a ship that had just crossed the Irish Sea from the UK. After Agent Boyle whiffed a familiar odor issuing from this man whose name on his papers was Mister Boris English, Boyle sensed something suspicious and followed the traveler. Turns out Boris English was not a man at all but a woman who had snuck over to Britain to get herself an abortion. Thought she was so clever hooting and hiding among World Cup fans in the crowded Dublin pubs, but Agent Boyle noticed, under the oversized jersey, her full breasts, her supple figure, and her wide hip-swing; that was enough for him to suspect she was up to something scandalous. Authorities asked her, “And the real Boris English? Where is he?” She told them he was a once-celebrated-now-forgotten military leader. He is clinically insane, really, and is now kept quiet in an out-of-the-way hospital. When the authorities turned their backs to check the merit of her story, the woman slipped away and successfully escaped. She is confident they’ll never find her. Authorities suspect She is seeking asylum somewhere between Brazil and Canada. She’s having a blast going by as many as twelve different names, such as Riva Djinn or Rina Flynn or Riza Sims or Razor Sharp. She’s traveling with forged official documents from twelve different countries around the Far Northern Middle East. This time she is sure to stick to her proper gender identity. Experience has taught her that national identity is more fluid than gender identity, thus much more easily forged. But her abandoned boyfriend, Roger Boyle, waits at an undisclosed port; he still stamps the passports of every man, woman, and child. They enter and he sniffs them on the sly, pulls a long face and thinks ‘No, you’re not Riva in disguise. Go on through!’ But now, thanks to his sweet girl, his job is made much more interesting.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

You Naughty Insurgent, You!

While masked radicals ran and fired all around her, Maud kept her attention on DBC Pierre’s novel entitled Ludmila’s Broken English. She’d been summering at this beach and reading novels on this shore for fifteen years, and she wasn’t about to let riotous brutes disturb her peace now! She’d had enough of it from her at-risk students at the Urban Girls Literacy Yard, known as U.G.L.Y. She could keep her book in her lap and pull her hair down so it swung over and hid her face. ‘That’ll trick ‘em!’ She said from behind a veil of thick, dark hair and through her strong, clenched teeth. She buried her attention back in the novel. Pierre’s novel contains such fabulous drama, like conjoined twins being separated and a woman getting sodomized by her grandfather. Who could pay any attention to real, angry gunmen with fiction like that to read?! So Maud didn’t notice when the heavy-breather with a rifle came around to hide behind her back to use her as a shield. She only got a clue when he sneezed without covering his mouth. “How rude!” Maud said. And she flipped the hair away from her eyes, turned herself around to look the brute in his face, then she slapped him and poked him in the eye. “Take that! You ill-mannered Insurgent!” While he yipped and howled, Maud walked off gracefully. A rain of bullets may have been peppering the air around her, but not one bullet dared strike our well-mannered heroine. Even bullets know that you don’t get too close to Maud the urban girls’ reading tutor.

She Cleans He Cleans

Marissa said that she would clean the apartment herself. Her husband had his work cut out for him, but the income wasn’t enough to hire a housekeeper. So Marissa cleans on Wednesdays. She sweeps, scrubs, and tidies two bathrooms, the parlor, the kitchen, and two bedrooms. She purifies the air with essential oils. She paces the long hallway chanting about her personal bliss and silently wishing her dearest Ones good fortune. She never needs to bend and scrub in her writing studio. She adores that space and keeps it ever tidy. On the radio, Marianne Faithful was singing a feminist anthem called “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” about a housewife who is so bored she jumps off the roof. Marissa gets bored with the burden of house chores, but she’d never despair over it the way Lucy did. Indulging a sad mood when the song ends, Marissa recalls a sad story she read the day before, a story called “Immortality” by Yiyun Li. Marissa silently repeats this line from that story, “Trust us, it breaks our hearts when he cleans himself by his mother’s tomb.” In Li’s story’s context, the word “cleans” refers to castration. Marissa thinks of the fictional Chinese man, who was prized for his face’s resemblance to the dictator’s face, who lives over forty years and remains a virgin, who is publicly humiliated when he attempts to be with a prostitute, and who castrates himself in the tradition of an imperial eunuch during a time when no one could possibly appreciate the gesture but only dread and fear it. Marissa grins. Her husband has been told that his face looks like that of the second baseman for the Chicago White Sox. Tadahito Iguchi! Even though her husband is Chinese by birth, she won’t have to worry about him castrating himself anytime soon. He’d better not! Not while she is trying to convince him it is about time they try to make a baby!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Lore of the Midwest

When Della had finished reading a book of poems called Midwest Eclogue to her dying grandmother, this only living and senile relative of Della’s drifted into a sound sleep. Della’s mind had grown quiet, and so she just watched out the window, taking in the lakefront view from the sixteenth floor of St. Joseph’s Hospital. She lowered her gaze and on the street below, Della saw a woman keeping up with a Retriever and a man walking next to her, but the two were not touching. The dog carried some large and strange object in its mouth. Something about the scene irked Della enough to make her feel she had something to prove. Della, recently divorced, set her jaw and decided she was ready to do what her husband of twelve years had been always nagging her to do. ‘I will prove I am not a coward.’ She thought. ‘I will put my head into the mouth of a ferocious lion.’ She walked out of the hospital and straight to the Lincoln Park Zoo the whole time keeping the phrases of David Baker’s poems on her mind. When she got to the Kolver Lion House, the animals were sleeping as soundly as her grandmother, but they woke as soon as Della, determined and confident, smuggled herself into the cage by laying low in a barrel marked Lion Diet that contained mice, lizard, and warthog meat. She rose from the slop, brushed herself off and executed the head-in-the-mouth-of-the-lion trick with the ease of a professional lion tamer. With her head completely submerged in the lion’s gullet, she swore she heard a voice rise up from the beast’s rumbling stomach. The voice was repeating these words from David Baker's Midwest Eclogue, “Hunger drives the animal mind to fill its needs by the nearest means.” Della pulled her head out and stroked the gentle beast. She whispered, “Yes, poetry can be such a marvelous, natural sedative!” Della concluded that the hole left by a failed marriage could be cured by getting a couple pet cats and a litter box.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Grub

There once was this garden goon that the neighbors all called “The Grand Bub.” He lived at the hilltop chalet address of Seven North. “The Grub,” as he was known to all the guys in the Brotherhood, was legendary for the varieties of giant, gangster tomatoes that grew on his rooftop garden. Every year, the month of August rolled around and, sure enough, neighbors could see the Grand Bub on his rooftop, bent over his tomato plants, measuring his crop’s circumferences—just for the hell of it. After nodding his approval, he’d always say “All grown up!” Then the Grand Bub asked for help from his wife, who worked part time as a bodyguard. Together, the two harvested the giant tomatoes some of which got to weigh around 200 pounds. But the sizes never daunted his wife; she’d make all her famous tomato recipes, such as Tomato and Thunder Soup, Monster Casserole, and Colossal Salsa. Then, on the night of the August harvest moon, the Grand Bub invited everyone from the greater metropolitan area to come on up to his rooftop. The Grub held an annual sock-hop dance party at which everyone would dance in their socks over a rooftop dance floor that was just rolling full of giant, gangster tomatoes. The dances started way back when The Grand Bub’s Godfather Boss discovered that a bath in tomato juice washes off the skunk smell. Thanks to the Grand Bub and his harvest party, every resident in the greater metropolitan area enjoys an entire year of tomato-fruit-fragrant feet! For that reason, The Grub is tight with the Law and therefore all his dark crimes and misdemeanors go unpunished. Oh, and his wife’s recipes also come in handy for big parties and when The Grub is in need of bribing the officials.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Well, No. She was Not Saint Jane Adams

Oleg engraved tombstones, entire lives settled in simple runs of numbers 1840-1893; 1856-1893; 1886-1893. He had been a scientist in the Ukraine but moved to Chicago to give his daughters a better life. He engraved tombstones for Irish, Polish, Russians, Germans, Jews until he suffered a massive heart attack and died. His wife, Myra, and his daughters, Eva and Adelle, started pedaling food door-to-door then worked in a sweatshop on south State Street, a mile away from Marshall Fields, a high-end store where they could never afford to shop. One June evening, at the Maxwell Street market, Eva’s dark eyes seduced a local ward politician. He would make her his wife after she attended lots of funerals with him where she used those eyes. Those eyes! Eyes that spoke rhymes: crave engrave grave grave wave save never shave. She mesmerize lots of the city’s voters, especially the bearded and the beastly. While saying her matrimonial vows, Eva whispered a silent prayer giving thanks that she didn’t end up in the cribs smoking opium with her younger sister.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Beach Reading Rapture

I must have been turning the pages of Katherine Vaz’s novel, Mariana, but I don’t recall those movements. I confess: this fictional rendering of a true story of the European romantic icon, Mariana Alcoforado, absorbed me to the extent that I was sighing out of every porous part of my body, including my belly button (see the meaning of the name of the book’s heartthrob, Noel Bouton). Mind you, I read this 299-page gem, complete with Mariana’s real-life, passionate letters and a glossary published in 2004 by Minneapolis’s Aliform Publishing Group, while I am under strict order from my doctor: “Do not read romance!” You see, I suffer severe reaction to romance, so much so that I lose all capacity to maintain critical distance and sometimes I even forget to breathe. Doc says if I read romance, I am likely to pull a stunt that would raise Flaubert from the dead and force him to write another doozy on par with Madame Bovary. So with writing as powerful as Katherine Vaz’s, I may as well not exist. So I can’t tell you if this is the perfect beach reading because once you open Mariana, you are likely to be spirited away, turned into an irresistible woman confined to a convent scriptorium in 17th Century Portugal during the uprising, over-two-decades-long war against Spain tormenting your heart while a French cavalry officer feels you trembling under your black scapular. If you are as delicate as I am, the drama will keep you so torn that you won’t know whether praise be to God or to Romance! Has Mariana set herself up to burn alone in her own passion, or will she and Noel Bouton be “the first lovers in the history of the earth to domesticate ecstasy?”

If you prefer the gritty reliability of the beach—the feel of sand and wave crash and the heat of the here and now—I urge you to save this novel for the winter months. This is no flash-in-the-pan bodice ripper, but Mariana will elevate you to the truest, highest sense of romance. So if you need an escape that will prove as terrifying as it is beautiful, and you can allow yourself to surrender to the rapture that doctors warn against, I beg you read Katherine Vaz’s Mariana, at once!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


A banshee of industrial strength spoke to a stunned blogger who was ordered to post these words:

During the air strike, Selma lifted all garments, readying herself for his finger. As marked and filthy as it was, at least she’d distract the finger from pushing the blood button. Couldn’t she at last get his mind turned onto a strip more agreeable than the Gaza? “So I will die the spy of pleasure.” She remarked through lips that took an eternity to part with a tongue that took another eternity to roll over and speak a reptilian dialect. Removing her garments took ages, each layer more riddled with bullet holes than the last, until finally he’d returned to prehistoric times to discover her mound, militarized, pleading for the end-of-the-world. “Don’t be afraid.” She whispered in a language that he could nibble but would never be able to translate. Later, when the intelligence agents cornered him to surrender tortured answers, stardust and white-hot light flew off the retired Sniper’s tongue. He mumbled, “Market bargain: prayer bead for flying carpet thread.” The gospel engine roiled and tried and failed to remind everyone, “You need not negotiate. This is Paradise.”

After posting as directed, the blogger couldn't sleep for the next three nights.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Challenge

Once, the unclad cigar rollers wanted to know if it could be done. Tell us a story in six words. Hemingway spoke, “For sale: Baby shoes. Never used.” Generations later, a Hemingway scholar returned to the tropics to carry on the tradition. Again, the cigar rollers posed their shortest story challenge and the scholar said, “Prince discovered lost shoe fits Papa.” The women rolling the cigars asked a question they thought might really stump the scholar, “Now how is sudden fiction any different from poetry?” The Hemingway scholar boomed, “They are very similar, but Poetry makes the blood rush to your head while Sudden Fiction makes the blood rush to your tail!” When he said tail, he exposed his pearly gnashers like a hungry bear. The women gave out one of those screams that expresses that they are at once thrilled and afraid. They rushed to the darkest corner of the cigar factory and came back into the light feeling both more knowledgeable and more ashamed, covering themselves with tobacco leaves. The scholar laughed and blushed. Since ancient times, nobody’s seen a scholar laugh and blush so. He rubbed a cigar under his nose and inhaled deeply.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Dancing in the Cloister

Afonso Alvaro forbade his daughter from attending anymore flamenco lessons at the Dance Institute. He claimed it was less because of the over-affectionate teacher but more because, “Flamenco is a crude art. I will not pay money for you to jerk your body like that.” Soledad protested, “Father, I must dance. I live to dance.” Her father told her she was too young to know that kind of passion. “You will go to the convent!” He demanded. Soledad spent years in a scriptorium copying tears of the virgin onto sacred illustrations. Every day, one thousand times, she repeated her silent promise to God, “I will wait. Your mercy and grace will see to it that I dance again.” When she was over forty-five, Soledad lost her father to stomach cancer, and she left the convent. A year later she performed flamenco at a theater in New York City’s St. Marks place. Critics praised her technique, “Her fierce movements reveal the history of human pain.” At the after hours party, Soledad met Marco, the Salsa king of pleasure. That night, she was thrilled to lose her virginity to him.

Friday, June 09, 2006

youPod, whoPod, allPod, whatPod, myPod

While commuting to the Loop on the Lakeshore bike path, Sarah didn’t even notice that the cycle goons pursued her. She was listening to a sacred-chant-rave-dance remix on her iPod. While she pedaled quickly, she also remained “vestal and vigilant” as her mother always advised. Her glance did not stray on muscular bikers. Her mind did not wander onto her favorite daydream topic: her emergence as a world-famous belly dancer. But she did allow herself the risky indulgence of listening to earphones while riding her mint green Bianchi Milano Cross-Terrain. She worked hard; felt she deserved it. Just as she was turning the curve near Oak Street beach, the goons caught up to her and snatched her iPod right out of her back pocket. They dragged her by the earphones all the way to the Capone Club, where all the high-end thugs hang out. Sarah protested. “I downloaded all those songs. I even had plastic surgery on my ears so that the earphones fit. Give back my iPod.” She stomped. “Not until you answer this riddle.” The goons threatened. “Okay,” said Sarah. “I love riddles.” The goon with the silver moustache asked, “Tell us your iPod’s personal, relative, indefinite, interrogative, and possessive parts of speech?” Sarah had no clue what these goons were asking; she couldn’t answer. “I’m telling you I don’t know that information! What do you want from me?” She cried while they tied her up.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


Because of his testimony, Peter had to fear for his life. He changed his name to Hal and moved to L.A. where he started a new family and got involved in the movie business. When Hal received the horrifying news that crime lords were hired to murder his wife, he vowed to avenge her death. Hal loved his wife with such passion that he thought the criminal courts didn’t offer enough retribution. So when the thugs received their life sentences, Hal carried out what he considered to be a more satisfying payback. He hired a team to dig up his wife. He put her in the movies. He cast his dead wife with the most esteemed actor. Audiences regarded the lovemaking scenes completely unforgettable. Her rotten corpse won “Best Actress” at the Academy Awards that year. Some thought this was scandalous while others applauded the progress: finally, the Awards were giving equal treatment to the living and the dead. To top that, all the fashion magazines reported that she wore the most beautiful gown.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Saudade ( sow • dahd) is a Portuguese word that has no English translation. If you have ever known yearning so intense that it becomes part of your being then you know the meaning of saudade. If you have ever longed for an absent person, time, or place so thoroughly that the absent person, time, or place has become the most profound presence in your life then you know the meaning of saudade. The word proposes a rich paradox. This is the only Portuguese word that I know, but if I speak, write, or sing this word, I fall under its spell.

Saudade is also the title of a novel by Katherine Vaz, a beautiful and beguiling tale that pays homage to transcending sorrow. This novel has encouraged me to quiet down, slow down, and turn inward. As a writer who is not published or paid, has few readers and is not enrolled in any program or group, I do realize that the solitary dimension of my work might easily trick me into stagnation. I know solitude is necessary for writing, but at the same time, my continuing solitude almost seems to put me at risk of halting in my growth as a craftsman and thinker. In the stage I am in now, I could assure an imaginary reader that I am skillful at building suspense, creating an exotic atmosphere, and peopling narrative with memorable characters. I am not so confident when it comes to character and plot development or closing revelations. Vaz’s accomplishment with her novel Saudade urges me to confront my own weaknesses as a writer. But rather than throwing up my arms and saying, “I give up!” in the face of literary work as accomplished as Vaz’s, how can I read Katherine Vaz’s novel and respectfully ask it to bestow its blessing, ask it to help me become a better writer?

In this essay I will discuss writing intentions that I hope to return to over and over, intentions that will insist that I continually evolve my writing craft. I venture to pose this analogy: The process of improvement in the craft of writing without relying too heavily on strengths and habits is very similar to the process of learning to grieve without falling into despair. When I reread the previous sentence, it is a mouthful; that’s why I write this essay. I wish to explore how the writing process and grieving process commune.

There is an important scene in Vaz’s Saudade in which the protagonist, Clara Cruz, is receiving a lesson in how to grieve. A woman named Caliopia is a professional mourner from Portugal now living in Lodi, California. Her mourning skills are never needed at Americanized funerals. Instead, she is called upon to use her mourning cry to scare gophers out of the ground so that exterminators can shoot the pests. When Caliopia cries, the exterminators jeer, but she’s got to use her grieving skills somehow. A lonely Caliopia teaches Clara that the world is made of lace and sometimes a body falls through the holes. She tells Clara that eggs offer lessons in how life works. An egg itself is a fragile world with its own insular sun. “You have to go so far into pain that you hit an end that must be seen as a beginning if you are going to survive.” Caliopia regards the egg as “a land of trying to find birth out of death.” Clara will carry this lesson with her when she must deal with being robbed of land she owns, when she must mourn the death of her infant, and when she must mourn the loss of the love of her life. Clara cracks eggs, separates yolks from whites, and dyes eggs at Easter. She becomes more familiar with the lessons of saudade as she gets older. Throughout the novel, Clara grows stronger by growing more delicate. Katherine Vaz is expert at illuminating paradoxes. A delicate aura implies that someone has learned to turn agonizing absence into profound presence.

How do Clara’s lessons apply to what I need to learn as a writer?

Until now I have always tried to write fiction that attempts to be gorgeous, excessive, queer, and not quite decent. I have labored at coming up with funny phrases and situational drama. Now I am becoming more interested in trying to make my writing offer readers their own opportunity for explorations into profound mystery, humanity, and psychological complexity. Vaz’s portrayal of Clara and her trials might guide my writing to more equilibrium. Keep my prose poised. I will strive to make my work a solid balance between the narrative and the lyrical. My imagination must do the work of lifetimes unfolding, characters growing stronger as they grow delicate, characters embodying paradox.

Vaz is masterly at creating worlds full of a mixture of tender humor and immense sadness. Hens wear bonnets. A baby can be born with his heart exposed. Characters might repeat Portuguese sayings, “If shit were money, the poor wouldn’t have assholes.” This narrative mixture of humor and sadness takes a skilled craftsman. Also, Vaz can show two characters working to avoid despair are perfectly matched to fall in love. Vaz will sometimes juxtapose a short, bitter dialogue with a haunting lovemaking scene. I intend to attempt to deal with more fresh juxtapositions in my own writing.

Vaz’s masterly way of conveying masturbation and sexual fantasy makes me wonder about the differences between literary and erotic portrayals of sex. How do I know that Katherine Vaz is not writing erotica? I can tell that Vaz’s prose is literary because the erotic passages always return to the pressing human paradox of mourning and rebirth.

As a writer I have been dealing with this quandary for some time. Should I write erotica or mainstream fiction that might break me into print because it will sell better, or do I labor through writing whatever constitutes literary fiction because I feel that it fulfills my yearning? This is a difficult question for me. Why are market forces having as much a hold on me as literary development? Both forces are likely to make me crack if I am not careful. Alas, I grow egg-like and delicate. Is it safe now to admit that I consider myself a literary writer who once thought erotica might be my best shot at breaking into print?

Did Katherine Vaz ever have this dilemma? Her protagonist Clara envisions intercourse with elephants and rubs her ghostly clitoris in the mirror. Clara drips the kind of seepage that ghosts leave in places where they haunt. In one scene, Clara’s lover Helio ejaculates between Clara’s breasts. Clara does not wash herself clean. The next day she rescues a chipmunk that falls into a pitcher of ice water. Clara warms the trembling creature between her breasts until it stirred the patch of Helio’s come alive and wet as if Helio were coming between her breasts again. “She breathed in the reborn salt water just as the pulsing creature washed it away.” Here, again, the paradox emerges from text to sex, from physical image to the profound idea. Sensual images seem to be literary when they are mixed with the twists in the plot and they implicate or challenge the characters. They work even better when they can surprise a reader, challenge a reader’s assumptions, offer the reader inconclusive detail that is as urgent and biting as the clues sniffed out by a jealous lover. I hope to write with this level of urgency. But is this earnestness possible while I still also indulge in an occasional attempt at portrayals of sex scenes like those of more light-hearted writers, such as Plum Sykes or the hilarious episodes enjoyed by Tom Robbins’ Casanovas? I intend to write from a spirit both earnest and playful.

How does a writing spirit that yearns to be earnest and playful deal with despair? Clara is born with her hands covering her ears. Either she is deaf and mute or is refusing to make the words and sounds of this brutal world. From the way other characters respond to Clara, it is unclear whether she is dumb by choice or by fate. The language she learns is a sugar language. She understands her father when he sings into seashells and she feels their vibration. Things change for Clara when her parents die and she must leave Azores with Father Eiras. In America she learns to speak; she graduates from high school, and seduces Father Eiras to try to regain ownership of her land. She falls into trances to spirit the priest away from the rectory. But she is pregnant and has a baby who is born with an open chest, his heart exposed. After the baby dies, Clara reaches her deepest despair, has nightmares that people are shit. Then Helio comes along to say “Yes” to her.

The revelation: Yes. In the context of all this human drama, the agony and eroticism turns into the revelation, “Yes.” It is a Yes that can hold all seriousness and play.

Doctor Helio Soares turned down his job on whale hunting ships because he didn’t want to use his whale-spotting ability to hunt whales. He loves whales. He grafts plants. He keeps bees. He is in the quiet grieving stage for his lost family. Helio wants to solve the mystery of darkness. Clara needs the word “Yes.” repeated to her, arms to grab her out of the darkness of her nightmare. She embodies darkness. Helio embodies light. The narrative has been working up to these two characters immanent coupling. Yes.

I won’t expose any more revelation in this novel, in case you have not read it. I will only say that passion, whether it be requited or unrequited, resonates again and again with saudade. I need to infuse my writing with more human passion and a clearer sense of paradox, longing, and joy.

Like the characters in Saudade, I too am impulsively grabbing toward my chest where there may live an anemone, a gull, a tiger, a whale, or a rabbit. And there must be a chicken here somewhere with all these eggs around. I vow to allow writing to teach me the skill of being both courageous and delicate. Like Clara, I will be the spider navigating the filament, careful not to fall through the holes. Every piece I write should contain the energy I might use to turn grief to joy.

My imagination must do the work of lifetimes unfolding, embrace paradox, and seek fresh juxtapositions. Prose can attempt to fuse image, language, and music in both earnest and playful explorations. This will be a great mountain for me to climb, but here goes. I regard Katherine Vaz’s Saudade as a delicacy. I have eaten this text, and it’s given me nourishment.

If you have read books that offer beautiful paradoxes at their core, I am open to your reading recommendations. Thank you for reading this essay.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Ocean Yearning

Alice rose from the dead this morning. She sat in the sun, ate the fruit of the Medjool and read Katherine Vaz’s novel Saudade. Do you dream in pink? She whispered to a haughty gull perched beside a stunned fisherman. The gull turned its head; her salty voice only made the bird more vigilant. Alice lowered a deep-sea mask over her face. Like the bird, she watched; she listened. She noticed that every city dweller had gathered on the shoreline. Hand visors shaded all eyes. Everyone remained quiet, waiting, searching. The sailor who had tasted the Soup of Sorrow was supposed to arrive home before evening to report, but the horizon remained blank. Alice cheered. Look! Is she the only one who can see him? He is coming home; I see colorful wounds marking his body. No one could hear her. When she cheered, bats tremble in the distant sea caves. She noticed that he looked confused. He took one look at the city and mistook it for an enormous fishing net. Alice watched him press his ship’s anchor to his chest until the anchor hung over his heart and lungs. He plunged. Oh Seafarer, have you forgotten your promise? Alice asked until she lost her voice to the waves. Then she swam out, found his empty ship, climbed aboard, navigated the ship’s library, and sat at the stern with a book propped on her knees. He had marked the page of Saudade where she left off. She read on, memorized the whole text. Centuries later, he surfaced looking like Moroccan pudding. He stood, reading over her shoulder for the next one hundred years. At last his fingers pressed gently the back of her neck, and he remembered everything.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Rendered Voiceless

Sylvia just wanted to know, "Did anyone ever think that the soldiers would not be sloppy, reckless, and arrogant enough to kill civilians? Of course they kill civilians. This is news? Everyone is responsible." The manager calls the cops, "Another madwoman!" She is escorted out of the diner by the elbows. They drag her on, hoping she will calm. Her heels drag over greasy linoleum then hot cement then uncut grass. Eventually she drops her suspicious bag, and the peaches and berries splatter everywhere. She is crying; stones glide down her cheeks. The CPD officers throw her into the lake. The whirling derFish feed on her tongue.

From a Remote Place

Milan met Eli when she visited the festering health clinic. Eli was the UN peacekeeper assigned to guarding the clinic. During Milan's short stay in the clinic’s only infectious diseases bed, Eli paid her discreet visits whenever he had a fifteen-minute break. Eli seduced Milan and vice versa. Their love grew so sincere that Eli didn’t even care if Milan might be contagious; Love is that much more contagious. Jungle fog settled over the clinic when Eli finally made love to Milan. Arms and legs entangled, the two broke into sweats and sighs that could spread a world-wide, delirious, orgasmic moonlight virus.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Sumo Levee

At the end of this first day of hurricane season, Fanny is feeling lucky. Her house hasn’t taken the dive yet. She tells her landlady, “Duke of Luck is on my side today. Let's gamble.” They walked to the neighborhood saloon where all the arm wrestlers and mud wrestlers gather to gamble, grunt, and pray. Recently, three sumo wrestlers were flown in from Matsue, Japan. The city is taking a chance to see if three squating sumos will be sufficient to help support the levees. And now the patrons in the saloon are putting money on it. "Five bucks says we stay dry." Fanny said, "Cheers." Then Fanny was informed that tonight the whole city is celebrating the wrestlers contribution by observing a Shinto salt ritual outside the graveyard at dusk. Everyone will be there, including wayward saints, mellow hornets, timid zephyrs, and Voodoo queens. The ritual is a way for New Orleanians to thank international aid workers for their help. Fanny has invited three dates; each will carry a case of wine on each shoulder. Her landlady whoops, "Yes. Indulge!" Fanny raises her arms skyward, screws up her face, and shakes. She's calling down the old spirit of southern decadence.