Where I'm Coming From

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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Road Most Taken

John Ashbery feels a certain warmth in his heart for cliches. He said so in his quiet, brittle voice while discussing his latest book of poems on Bookworm on KPFK radio. It stopped me in my tracks. It disturbs me that a poet's love of language is so inclusive as to encompass even the hackneyed. And yet I have to admire this kind of love. It is courageous, doesn't care what the world thinks, places the poet in a relationship strictly with the words as they are, the reality of them, even -- or perhaps especially -- when that reality is ugly.

I have two volumes of Ashbery's poetry in my library, neither of which I read through. The poems that I did read I approached with that violent earnestness that Billy Collins laments and mocks in "Introduction to Poetry": "But all they want to do," he writes of the students in this imaginary class, "is tie the poem to a chair with a rope/ and torture a confession out of it./ They begin beating it with a hose/ to find out what it really means." I wrote notes in the margins of Ashbery's books of poetry, looked up the allusions, made diagrams of the development of the ideas in the poem. All that, however, was to no avail. One other thing I did, though, more out of exasperation than anything else, was to listen to them, prick my ears to the sound of each line. There was something in that music, but I dismissed it; it seemed too easy and too small. Back then poetry was to me a means to understand my own inadequacy, and so the more abstruse it was, the better. But no one can live for too long in the presence of one's irrelevance, so I abandoned reading Ashbery, and any other poetry, altogether.

It is in cliches that we talk to one another, Ashbery said, because cliches embody fundamental emotions. They give us ordinary mortals a tried-and-true way to talk about what is otherwise ineffable. What do you do when you don't have a way with words, but a certain experience you've had is so profound and exhilarating that it must be expressed? What do you do when you can't speak but you must? You say, "My love is like a red, red rose" and reject the baggage that those words come with, say it as if for the first time, when it was new.

Every year for my birthday my parents give me a card with greetings printed in gold script on the front and long poems on the inside about how precious I am to them and the many ways in which they have continued to love me. I hate these cards. I hate them because they bring tears to my mother's eyes and a shy smile on my father's face. I hate them because their meter and rhyme are perfect, carefully measured and polished, like dishonesty. And I hate them most of all because I know that this dishonesty is false. Though these words are not their own, my parents mean them from the heart and couldn't say what they express any other way. So I save each card and when I'm seized by one of my organizing fits I find them tucked away in a crumpled envelope, a stack of pastel-colored paper whose professions of love pain me with their self-conscious pomposity and sweetness. But they are part of who I am, part of who my parents are, part of our relationship. This is indeed how we communicate; not the best way, not even second best, but what simply is.