Mark Dimunation was on the committee that selected the 88 books for the Library of Congress’s current “Books That Shaped America” exhibit. Recently he did an interview with NPR’s Lynn Neary in which he explained how he arrived at his decisions to include such works as Goodnight Moon, The Joy Of Cooking, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
1. Awful But Cheerful
In my family we remember the birthdays, not the death days, of our lost ones. My father’s father passed away in early February 2010, but we remember him on July 4th. Don Hernán used to say, when we called him to wish him a happy birthday at his beach house in Chile’s coastal town of Zapallar — by then he had already written his morning’s reflections on the Lipton tea bag wrapper from his breakfast tea and was wearing his cream turtleneck and navy blazer with brass buttons over charcoal slacks, his white beard trimmed and his blue eyes a few shades lighter than the sea hitting the rocks below his house — that he loved the United States because that was a country that knew how to celebrate his birthday.
To celebrate the 100th birthday of American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), Farrar, Straus and Giroux published three new Bishop volumes in February of this year: Poems edited by Saskia Hamilton, Prose edited by Lloyd Schwartz, and Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence edited by Joelle Biele.
Many critics and readers have welcomed the updated Poems and Prose, and I am especially grateful for the accompanying “Editor’s Notes” and “Notes on the Texts” clarifying which work Bishop published during her lifetime and which pertains to the other group of posthumously published prose pieces, incomplete drafts, and “manuscript poems.” The facsimiles of a handful of her manuscript pages are also helpful and will inspire pilgrimages to her archives at Vassar, Harvard, and elsewhere.
Bishop’s correspondence with The New Yorker is lively, not least because Elizabeth Bishop was a fantastic letter writer, as we know from the letters selected and edited by Robert Giroux in One Art, as well as from her correspondence with Robert Lowell collected in Words In Air. But I wish an appendix with a list of her New Yorker poems with publication dates had been included (for now the index will have to do). The rejection letters are wonderful, especially those with footnotes indicating where the piece was ultimately published, and they seem to increase steadily in word count as Bishop’s career unfolds.
Dissenters of the new Bishop volumes protest the hauling out of ever more material from her archives that she never meant for us to have on our nightstands. It is a distraction from her best work, the work she published, they argue. In preparation for this stance, Saskia Hamilton, the editor of Poems, includes a note to “Appendix I: Selected Unpublished Manuscript Poems” that begins:
Elizabeth Bishop foresaw that some of her uncompleted work might be published after her death. Her will grants her literary executors “power to determine whether any of my unpublished manuscripts and papers shall be published and, if so, to see them through the press.”
The debate will roar on in some circles, and meanwhile the 2011 FSG volumes will encourage renewed assessments of Bishop’s artistic development and the arc of her work. She is among our pillars of postwar, indeed twentieth-century, poetry, and new editions, biographies, and critical studies are to be expected.
What would Bishop say about all the fuss?
The concluding lines of her poem “The Bight” — first published in the February 19, 1949, issue of The New Yorker with the poet’s note “[On my birthday]” — offer a possible response regarding such commemorations, large and small:
Some of the little white boats are still piled up
against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,
and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,
like torn-open, unanswered letters.
The bight is littered with old correspondences.
Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.
She is clearly not a fireworks and champagne kind of birthday girl. The image of boats piled up in the bight, “not yet salvaged, if they ever will be” and compared to “torn-open, unanswered letters” suggests the poetic voice’s weariness at marking another year when not having concluded, even confronted, the previous. “The bight is littered…” is a line that recalls Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondences” and the difficulty of using words as symbols to make poems that seek infinity in the face of nature’s triumphant reach. The final two lines, which Bishop chose as her epitaph, conclude with a twist and the beginnings of a smile: “All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful.” By choosing the last two lines of “The Bight” for her gravestone, Bishop, her humor and bite unflagging, closes the circle between her birthday and death day.
Another Bishopian centenary is on the horizon, the death of her father in September 1911 from Bright’s disease, an old-fashioned medical term referring to a catch-all of kidney dysfunctions. Bishop was eight months old. Her father’s death sent her mother into a tailspin of breakdowns and hospitalizations that landed her permanently in a mental hospital five years later. Bishop, suddenly parentless and of kindergarten age, lived mostly with her beloved maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia (a nine-month stretch with her father’s parents in Worcester brought on asthma, eczema, and other ailments) until she left for Walnut Hill boarding school in 1927 followed by Vassar College. She received a modest income from her father that allowed her to pursue poetry full time with the supplement of fellowships, paid writing jobs, and teaching stints.
Her father’s death coupled with his alcoholism, which ran in the family, loomed throughout Bishop’s life. On January 17, 1951, less than a month before her fortieth birthday, she wrote to Dr. Anny Baumman, her physician in New York to whom she dedicated her second collection A Cold Spring, about her recent struggles with drinking, “an emotional upset of some sort,” and her loneliness:
I am sorry this is such a stupid letter. I simply can’t seem to think very straight about this, except I know I want to stop. I am exactly at the age now at which my father died, which also might have something to do with it.
In February 1951, Bishop survived turning 40 years old, the age of her father at his death. By March things had taken a turn for the better: she was awarded the $2,500 Lucy Martin Donnelly Fellowship by Bryn Mawr — Katharine Sergeant Angell, her editor at The New Yorker, was “instrumental” to her winning the award — and in November she wrote a letter about “this crazy trip” to Robert Lowell from the Merchant Ship Bowplate stationed off the coast of Brazil, the country that would accidentally become her home for more than 15 years and would inspire a significant output of poems, stories, and translations.
2. The Terrible Thing
The not thinking straight that Bishop describes in her letter to Dr. Baumman, the fixating on being “now exactly at the age” or moment when, the anniversary of the terrible thing that happened or didn’t happen, I know this. The same week I received my copies of the new Bishop volumes edited by FSG, in early March 2011, I took my three-year-old son Théo to the emergency room.
It was a Friday afternoon, he had been fighting the stomach flu for a week, and when his eyes rolled back to their whites while his head nodded as if he were going to fall asleep, or lose consciousness, I called my husband Vlad at work. We left our younger son Max with my mother and drove the eight minutes to the hospital, the same one where Théo was born and where Vlad did his three-year family medicine residency and now works a monthly inpatient shift.
Vlad sat in the back of the car and held a small plastic trashcan next to Théo. As soon as we stopped, Vlad scooped Théo up. When I returned to the ER on foot from the parking lot, I found them in the small waiting area. Théo was still in his father’s arms, his limbs draped lifelessly, the perfect model for a child Pietà.
Once Théo was on his second bag of IV fluids and his cheeks had turned from grey-green to a dull pink, I realized — and said out loud — surprised and humbled that I had almost forgotten a date we usually commemorate with stiff drinks and hospital jokes: “It’s the three year anniversary of Théo’s heart surgery.”
Théo was one week old when he spent 13 hours in the operating theater with a South African cardiothoracic surgeon whose first name, Hillel, means “place of worship.” I was deeply comforted by this detail given that our son’s full name, Théodore, means “gift from God.” I believed that the two names, and as a consequence the surgeon and our child, were perfectly matched for a positive outcome. It was a clear sign.
Moreover, the surgeon’s last name, Laks, rhymed with the last name of the poetry professor, Peter Sacks (also a South African), whose lectures and writing workshops resuscitated my spirit during my cranky college years. Another obvious sign: the couplet of Laks and Sacks, the clear connection between the heart and the poetic line, the purveyors of beats that give us breath, life.
It will not surprise you that during my son’s hospital stay I dissected every shining detail I came across, and every shining detail proved full of meaning. These details became my religion and my religion kept me busy, sharp, on the borders of sane.
The surgery was two, three times as long as we had been promised. Dr. Laks put Théo on bypass twice — his coronary arteries were unusually placed and thus required unexpected tinkering — and the second time the operating team tried to take him off bypass, they had trouble starting his heart. At least that is what Vlad heard the nurse say to him when she called to give us an overdue update.
That phone call made my husband, nine months into his intern year in family medicine at the time, jump up and take action, any action he could. He wanted movement, agency in an impossible situation. He wanted to wait at the very door of the operating theater. He would have volunteered to go into the room if it had been allowed; in truth, he would have banged the door down. Instead, we drove to the hospital and paced outside her doors, in the open-air plaza with several water fountains and benches where patients, family members, and nurses sipped coffee and talked on cell phones.
We paced until the operating room nurse called again to say our son was out.
We rode the elevator to the third floor in silence. We rang the bell outside the cardiothoracic intensive care unit to request permission to enter. “Come in,” said the muffled voice and the man inside directed us to bed number seven. As we passed by the others, I noticed that Théo was the only baby, the only child, in a 12-bed unit of patients mostly over 70.
We introduced ourselves to Théo’s nurse with tense smiles and then walked towards him on tiptoe, afraid to speak or breathe. His infant hospital bed was small enough to make his “room” feel gigantic, like it could swallow us up. His eyes were closed and would continue to be for another week due to the sedation. His body was swollen and bruised, he had a monitor on his forehead to track his brain function, countless tubes and wires, and an open chest that would have to be coaxed together and sewn up, finally, five days later.
We agreed when the nurse offered to move the soft blanket covering Théo’s chest. We saw his fixed heart beating inside him, no larger than the size of his newborn fist, yellow-hued by the tint of the hospital plastic wrap that shielded his insides from the outside world. What we saw was more the movement of the heart than the heart itself, the pulsing up and down, the keeping going. I watched, mesmerized, and after a few moments I looked away and felt a throb in my gut, like I might be split in half.
Plastic wrap and all, I had not felt Théo closer to me in a long time. I had not yet sensed that the hospital might give him back soon, soon enough for me to stop being patient, to stop saying “we’ll see how he does and when we get to take him home.”
The fact that three years later Vlad and I sat on an ER bed with Théo as nurses triaged an ordinary stomach flu gone wrong was the strangest anniversary. We had him, but we had almost lost him. As we waited for Théo to finish the second bag of IV fluid and for the nurse to bring us the prescription for anti-nausea medication, Vlad and I looked at each other with the same two thoughts: how lucky we were to take him home (again), and the awful eventuality of another heart surgery to replace his leaky pulmonary valve, a sequel to his longer-than-expected newborn surgery.
3. “First Death in Nova Scotia” and “Travelling in the Family”
How does a dead child look? How do we look at him?
The closest I have come to these questions has been too close. For two weeks Théo’s eyes were sealed in deep sleep, one week before the surgery and one week after. For two weeks while he slept and did not move, I visited him for hours each day and night. I read and reread Goodnight Moon, I sang him our “Pickle Song,” I touched his head and his feet at the same time, which was the only way I could hold him. When he opened his eyes for the first time after two weeks, I was surprised by how dark they were and how intently he seemed to look at me.
Less than one year later, I saw Théo under sedation again, laid out on an exam table after a routine heart ultrasound (he will be followed by a cardiologist for the rest of his life though most ultrasounds will be unsedated). He looked beautiful, sweet, motionless — uncanny for our energetic boy who was learning to walk and nothing like the swollen and bruised baby we visited after heart surgery. Vlad and I took several photographs of him stretched out on the table with a bumble bee decorated muslin baby blanket covering him from the chest down, his surgery scar peeking out. We were giddy with nervousness and joy that he was not dead, just deeply asleep.
Théo will be put under sedation two more times this fall, for a catheter procedure and an MRI that will give his cardiologist better images of his pulmonary valve so that he can determine whether we need to replace it now, or whether we can wait. Maybe during the catheter procedure Théo, now three and half, will have stents inserted (is deployed a better word?) to relieve the narrowing of his coronary arteries. These will not be the last sedations, but for the first time Théo will talk to us when he wakes up. What will he say? Lately when we go to the doctor — for his younger brother’s vaccines, most recently — he says, “I don’t want to get fixed by the doctor.” I hear him and stop myself from making interpretations.
We have also seen our younger son Max sedated, only once, after his surgery at seven weeks old to release his Achilles tendons. He looked cherubic in his drug-induced sleep, and his new fiberglass casts to treat his clubfeet were perfectly white, almost haute couture. Max too was born with a defect, one far less dramatic and more easily treated. His foot surgery lasted less than an hour and was executed as planned. And even though Max’s nickname ends with “x” and his surgeon’s last name starts with “z,” the alphabetic proximity of their names did not leap into my mind as a shining detail that would get me through. I was simply confident that Dr. Zionts would be precise and gentle.
Théo and Max post-surgery and under heavy sedation, these are the moments when I have come the closest to seeing with my own eyes what a dead child might look like, what my dead child might look like, and I am grateful.
Elizabeth Bishop tells us what it is to see a dead child, from a child’s perspective, in “First Death in Nova Scotia.” This eerie and crushing poem was first published in the March 10, 1962, issue of The New Yorker. The poem comprises five stanzas, and the first line includes a comma that her editor Howard Moss proposed as an addition, to which Bishop agreed:
In the cold, cold parlor
my mother laid out Arthur
beneath the chromographs:
Edward, Prince of Wales,
with Princess Alexandra,
and King George with Queen Mary.
Below them on the table
stood a stuffed loon
shot and stuffed by Uncle
Arthur, Arthur’s father.
The poet’s mother takes her to see her two-month-old cousin in his coffin:
“Come,” said my mother,
“Come and say good-bye
to your little cousin Arthur.”
I was lifted up and given
one lily of the valley
to put in Arthur’s hand.
Arthur’s coffin was
a little frosted cake,
and the red-eyed loon eyed it
from his white frozen lake.
Arthur was very small.
He was all white, like a doll
that hadn’t been painted yet.
Jack Frost had started to paint him
the way he always painted
the Maple Leaf (Forever).
He had just begun on his hair,
a few red strokes, and then
Jack Frost had dropped the brush
and left him white, forever.
The gracious royal couples
were warm in red and ermine;
their feet were well wrapped up
in the ladies’ ermine trains.
They invited Arthur to be
the smallest page at court.
But how could Arthur go,
clutching his tiny lily,
with his eyes shut up so tight
and the roads deep in snow?
The final four lines are devastating: “But how could Arthur go…?” The child’s perspective is spot on, and one is frightened for her as her mother lifts her up to look inside the coffin. This is the only poem where Bishop’s mother appears in the flesh.
The title is a little strange too. “First Death in Nova Scotia.” Why “first”?
“First Death in Nova Scotia” is not an account of the first death Bishop experienced as a child. The first was the death of her father, who died in Worcester, Massachusetts, but she never wrote that poem. Instead, Bishop turned to translation. Indeed, for every four original poems Bishop published, she published one translation of a contemporary poet writing in Portuguese, Spanish, or French (she also published prose translations).
Bishop translated the major twentieth-century Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s “Travelling in the Family,” a poem where the poetic voice encounters “the shadow” of his dead father who takes him “by the hand,” but does not say anything to his son over the course of 12 stanzas. Seven of the stanzas end with the refrain, “But he didn’t say anything.” The speaker tries repeatedly to no avail, as we see in the ninth stanza:
Speak speak speak speak.
I pulled him by his coat
that was turning into clay.
By the hands, by the boots
I caught at his strict shadow
and the shadow released itself
with neither haste nor anger.
But he remained silent.
The poetic voice changes how he refers to his father, from “he” and “his” to addressing him directly with “you” and “yours,” in the tenth and eleventh stanzas. The two men connect through a “ghostly embrace”:
There were distinct silences
deep within his silence.
There was my deaf grandfather
hearing the painted birds
on the ceiling of the church;
my own lack of friends;
and your lack of kisses;
there were our difficult lives
and a great separation
in the little space of the room.
The narrow space of life
crowds me up against you,
and in this ghostly embrace
it’s as if I were being burned
completely, with poignant love.
Only now do we know each other!
Eye-glasses, memories, portraits
flow in the river of blood.
Now the waters won’t let me
make out your distant face,
distant by seventy years…
Bishop underscores the shift from “his” to “your” as the translator. There is no indication in Drummond’s original poem, no quotation marks or italics or other marks, to make explicit the shift in the poetic voice from speaking of his father in the literary third person to speaking to him in the colloquial second person (the original uses the possessive pronoun “seu” in both cases, but Bishop knew that in Brazilian Portuguese, specifically in the dialects of the Southeast including Rio, São Paulo, and Drummond’s native Minas Gerais, “seu” refers to the second person in everyday speech).
In her translation Bishop clarifies what the original leaves ambiguous and up to interpretation. Her choice, which Drummond could have protested in their correspondence about her work, also hinges on English not having a similarly flexible possessive pronoun that can mean “your” or “his” depending on the context. Her choice makes clear that Drummond’s poetic voice succeeds in speaking to his father directly. Because of this shift in intimacy, the final stanza of the poem is all the more satisfying: “I felt that he pardoned me / but he didn’t say anything. / The waters covered his moustache, / the family, Itabira, all.”
“Travelling in the Family” first appeared in the June 1965 issue of Poetry and got top billing on the cover of the magazine. Bishop also included it in the 1969 edition of The Complete Poems and in the 1972 anthology she co-edited with Emanuel Brasil for Wesleyan University Press, An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry.
Bishop read the translation during a number of her own poetry readings, including the one on May 6, 1969, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. In his introduction, Robert Lowell called Bishop “the famous eye.” She read a few of her Brazilian poems, introducing each briefly: “Manuelzinho” was a true story; “The Armadillo” took place on St. John’s Day, the shortest day of the year in Brazil and the longest in the United States; and “House Guest” was set in Rio, but could have happened anywhere. She also noted that “Travelling in the Family” was about Drummond’s father. The poems had in common their “true” quality; they were all autobiographical in one way or other.
Bishop wrote to Drummond about her readings in her May 31, 1969, letter: “During the past year and a half, I have given six or seven public readings of poetry, most of them at universities, including Harvard and the University of California, and at all of them I have read my translation of your poem, “Viagem na família,” with a few explanatory remarks of my own.”
“Travelling in the Family” was significant to Bishop, significant enough for her to promote it as much as she did, and significant enough, in my mind, to function as an analog to the poem she never wrote about her father, which might have been called “First Death in Massachusetts,” where she too died on Lewis Warf in Boston in October 1979.
4. “Objects & Apparitions”
Bishop’s final book of poetry Geography III appeared three years before her death. The collection includes ten poems that delve into questions of memory and the passage of time. One translation appears in the sequence, the poem “Objects & Apparitions” by Octavio Paz, which is the only time Bishop included a translation among her original poems. (I wonder if her version of Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s “Travelling in the Family” might have been included in her collection Questions of Travel if she had translated it in time.)
“Objects & Apparitions” appeared in The New Yorker in the June 24, 1974, issue, the only translation of hers to be published in the magazine, though the story might have been otherwise given editor Howard Moss’ encouragement and interest. In his January 31, 1969, letter he tells Bishop how much he liked her translation of Drummond’s poem “The Table,” which appeared in The New York Review of Books earlier that month: “I did have to tell you how beautiful the translation of [Drummond de] Andrade is. I love it. And if you have any others, please do send them my way[…] I hope Farrar, Straus is smart enough to bring out a book of the translations.”
Bishop writes back thanking him and asking if the magazine’s policy on translations has changed: “ARE YOU interested in translations? In the past, a few of mine, both prose and poetry, were rejected and The New Yorker wrote me then that they never published translations. However, since then I did see that very nice poem by Borges, so perhaps the magazine’s policy has changed?” Indeed it had.
Dedicated to Joseph Cornell, an artist both Bishop and Paz admired, “Objects & Apparitions” attests to the translation-ship the two poets developed in the 1970s when they each translated and published a handful of the other’s poems. They first met in 1971 at Harvard where they both taught the fall term. Bishop attended Paz’s lectures and socialized with him and his wife Marie José. In her letters, she writes of the Pazes fondly. In her July 9, 1975, letter to Frani Blough Muser she tells of visiting them in Mexico City and of recording a poetry roundtable for television: “We were 4 languages: Octavio, Joseph Brodsky, Vasko Popa (his language is Serbo-Croatian) & me [….] it was all very interesting and novel, to me, and went on for hours.”
Paz participated in Bishop’s memorial service in Cambridge, which was held on October 21, 1979, in Radcliffe Yard: “He spoke of the love for modern art he shared with Elizabeth, and then he read his Spanish poem on Joseph Cornell; Frank Bidart followed with Elizabeth’s English transmutation.”
A “transmutation” is what Paz liked to call translations, which he considered as creative as the composition of original work. The term transmutation is one that Paz borrowed from Roman Jakobson, a contemporary who taught at Harvard and MIT, but Paz redefined it for his discussion of poetry. For Paz, a transmutation transforms the original poem, which is what a translation should do.
Bishop’s “Objects & Apparitions” transforms the original in an unquestionable, structural way. As she was translating the poem, she proposed a change in the order of stanzas, which Paz agreed to and then corrected in the original Spanish. In his March 16, 1974, letter he praises her version:
Your translation is perfect. Nothing needs to be changed, absolutely nothing. It is not only faithful, but rather at times better than the original. For example, I write — translating literally, “platement”, from French — “hacer un cuadro como se hace un crimen [“to do a painting like one does a crime”] but you say “to commit a painting the way one commits a crime.” Magnificent! I don’t know what I would give to have written that “to commit a painting.” I love it the way I love Thumbelina lost in her gardens of light. Yes, you are very right — how did I miss it? — stanza 10 should be stanza 13, the penultimate one. I have already made the change and will write to Dore Ashton [the art critic and editor of A Joseph Cornell Album] to make the correction. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Bishop’s suggested change in stanza order strengthens the poem’s closing by providing a two-stanza-long meditation on poetic language in the context of visual art, more specifically Paz’s poetry in the framework provided by Cornell’s boxes:
The apparitions are manifest,
their bodies weigh less than light,
lasting as long as this phrase lasts.
Joseph Cornell: inside your boxes
my words became visible for a moment.
The sequence of stanzas highlights a paradoxical message. The final line of stanza 13 says the apparitions last “as long as this phrase lasts,” which literally means as long as the phrase takes to read and suggests a mere instant, but also points to permanence in the way Shakespeare and others teach us that language fashioned into art is immortal. The final line moves into the past tense to emphasize that the phrase mentioned in the previous stanza did not last: the poetic voice’s words and lines “became,” and were, “visible” for a moment. And yet every time we read and reread the poem, the phrase endures once again.
The momentary visibility of Paz’s words inside Cornell’s boxes recalls the poem’s second stanza — “Monuments to every moment, / refuse of every moment, used: / cages for infinity” — as well as Bishop’s early poem “The Monument” (after Max Ernst’s frottages) with its artifact that seeks “to cherish something” and to “commemorate.” Again, the paradox: how can we make a monument to every single moment? And how can we possibly cage infinity? It makes no sense, though we try. The act of commemorating or cherishing or remembering cannot be continuous — if it were, it would be called “knowing.”
I know I will never forget certain anniversaries. The day my grandfather Don Hernán was born, which happens to be Vlad’s birthday. The day Théo had heart surgery, his almost death day that became his second birthday (and, by extension, I will always remember André Breton’s two birthdays, the second one chosen by him because of its more auspicious astrological coordinates). I will never forget the morning of Max’s surgery, the day I turned 33. And I will never, never forget the day Théo was taken from us, the day we found out something was terribly wrong with his heart, the day I expected to take him home.
5. I Lost My Mother’s Watch – March 6, 2008
“Let them do whatever tests they need. He’s fine.” I squeezed two-day-old Théo a little tighter against me and he mewed.
A few hours later the ultrasound technician named David took images of Théo’s heart with a small probe for newborns. Théo didn’t squirm during the echo. I held his arms down and Vlad paced behind me. I wanted it to end so I could feed him.
After, I sat with Théo in my arms and Vlad next to me. Vlad took photos of Théo, who still had EKG stickers on his chest. Théo looked into my eyes and started to fall asleep with a smile. He had just taken milk.
There was a knock at the door and three women walked in, our nurse and two doctors. At the same moment Vlad’s cell phone rang and our pediatrician told him that Théo had a problem, would need surgery. Vlad started to cry and handed the phone to me.
“We have to take your baby,” the head of the neonatal intensive care unit said. And she took him.
I don’t know how I handed him over.
I don’t know why I didn’t collapse, how I kept myself from screaming and pounding the walls and throwing everything at the windows of the room, to break every inch of glass, to break all of us out of there.
What I do know sounds like a digression, a distraction to keep myself going. It’s not.
What I do know is how sneaky Elizabeth Bishop can be.
Her poems first read like quiet and picturesque memoranda on the curious details of everyday life. Oh, but how she can be sly. In her villanelle “One Art” she repeats throughout that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master” – yet there is one line I did not understand until Théo was taken from me.
In the tenth line, smack at the middle of nineteen lines on the art of losing, Bishop says: “I lost my mother’s watch.” She has already talked of losing keys, names, places one meant to visit, the wasted hour, and she will speak, in the second half of the poem, of losing houses, cities, rivers, and ultimately “you.”
I had never understood why her mother’s timepiece, a ticking mechanism held to her wrist, would anchor the poem. I had never understood that her mother’s watch also referred to her gaze, her presence, her watchful eye. Bishop lost her mother’s watch when she was a young child; her father died when she was an infant and by the time the poet was five years old her mother was sent to a mental hospital.
“I lost my mother’s watch,” screamed Théo without words but with flailing limbs as the transport team prepared to move him to the bigger hospital a few miles away. They put his arms and legs in restraints in order to “stabilize” him.
“I lost my mother’s watch,” he screamed as I packed my hospital bag with son-empty hands.
Image credit: Amy Bernier/Flickr
The books that parents read to their very young children don’t change much from generation to generation. When my son was born two years ago I was surprised to find that with few exceptions, the titles we welcomed into our Philadelphia apartment were the same ones that three decades earlier had served as my own introduction to storytelling.
I made an informal study of the Amazon sales rankings of the books I enjoyed having read to me most as a kid. It seemed to confirm that taste in books for young children is remarkably constant. Here are just a handful of popular titles with their publication years and their overall Amazon ranks:
The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969), #169
Goodnight Moon (1947), #227
Where the Wild Things Are (1963), #314
The Giving Tree (1964), #342
Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), #559
Pat the Bunny (1940), #743
Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day (1968), #817
For comparison’s sake, consider Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, which was a bestseller only a few years ago and enjoys strong residual sales. It’s currently ranked #2,194, which leaves it well behind the leading titles in the Dr. Seuss canon (Green Eggs and Ham, #1,050; The Lorax, #1,063).
The reason children’s books endure seems clear enough: The books that toddlers read are determined entirely by adults, and when adults select books for kids they naturally gravitate towards the books they loved as kids. As a result, the market for children’s books is probably more resistant to cultural churn than just about any other slice of the consumer economy; it’s a closed circuit that reproduces itself one generation after another.
There are benefits to this system. For one, it helps to ensure that passing fads doesn’t wash quality books away. It’s doubtful, for example, that toddlers would opt for Goodnight Moon as often as their parents do, so maybe it’s just as well that they don’t have a say. For two, the persistence of children’s books yields a kind of experience we don’t get so often in a culture that has relatively few traditions: the chance to revisit childhood experiences through an older set of eyes.
Just the other weekend I took my two-year-old son to Barnes and Noble to buy a birthday present for a friend of his. I browsed the aisles while my son emptied a carousel of Berenstain Bears books onto the floor. After a few minutes I spotted Caps for Sale (#5057), a book that had once meant a great deal to me but which I had not thought about in decades. It was nice to see that it had managed to last all this time without my attention. We bought two copies, one for the friend and one for us.
That night I put my son in his pajamas, filled his cup with milk, sat him in my lap and began to read Caps for Sale. It only took a few lines before the entire story came back to me: an old world peddler walks around a village with a stack of caps on his head; one luckless afternoon he leans back against a tree to take a nap and when he wakes up he finds his caps have been confiscated by a troop of monkeys in the tree branches above him; he demands the monkeys give him his caps back by shaking his fists and stomping his feet but the monkeys mock his efforts and for a moment it seems like he’ll never get them back.
In addition to remembering the plot, I was somewhat stunned by how vividly the feelings the book had elicited in me as a kid came tumbling back. It’s noted several times in the book, for example, that the peddler always stacks his caps on his head in the same order—“first his own checked cap, then the gray caps, then the brown caps, then blue caps, then the red caps on the very top.” As I read this to my son I found myself flush with the same covetousness for the red caps, so bright and distinct above the rest, that I’d felt as a child.
I had a similar experience at the end of the story. In order to get his caps back, the peddler remonstrates the monkeys every way he can: he shakes his fists, stomps his feet, jumps up and down. The monkeys repeat his actions back to him but the simple peddler doesn’t see what’s going on. He thinks the monkeys are mocking his suffering when really they’re just aping (monkeying?) him like the lower-order mammals that they are. In despair the peddler takes his own checked cap off his head—the one cap that’s not for sale, and the only cap the monkeys didn’t take—and throws it to the ground and starts to walk away.
As my son finished his milk and started to fall asleep, I found myself awash in the same anguish I’d felt at this point in the story as a child. I couldn’t have explained why at the time, but as a child I knew there was something deeply sad about the peddler throwing his own cap to the ground. Now as an adult, I can put words to that sadness; I can see that by throwing his own cap to the ground the peddler is effectively saying that without his caps, nothing in the world matters anymore.
I was surprised by the complexity of the reaction to Caps for Sale I’d had as a kid. As a four-year-old I had no firsthand experiences that would have taught me there is such a thing as despair in the face of an unforgiving world, but on an intuitive level I understood that what the peddler was experiencing went beyond mere frustration.
When the peddler throws down his cap the monkeys throw their caps down too, and tragedy is averted. The peddler collects his caps from the ground, stacks them back atop his head, and walks back to town calling “Caps for sale, fifty cents a cap.” It is not exactly a happy ending—the fact that the peddler became so desperate over the loss of a few caps reveals just how precarious his life really is—but there is a melancholic satisfaction in knowing that he gets to go on selling for one more day at least.
For me, the feeling I had after I’d closed Caps for Sale and laid my son down in his crib was melancholic and satisfying, too. It was an unexpected gift to have glimpsed myself as a child through the pages of the book, and a wonder to imagine that if trends hold, my son might one day have the same experience himself.
Bonus Link: Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?
Last May, I wrote a piece for this site titled “Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?” It was a look at the messages secreted within books for young readers—messages promoting revolution, naïveté, and the unchecked spread of lice. The article drew a strong response, and I was dismayed by resistance to my vigorous quest for truth. One respondent wrote that I “need to relax;” another said, “Subversive plots can be found in anything even a cereal box.” As to that last, I don’t doubt it for a moment. The next time you’re in the supermarket, inspect a box of Alpha-Bits. What you’ll find in that milk-splashed bowl will shake you to your core.
As to the charge that I was too uptight about Ferdinand and its ilk, however, I must forcefully disagree. To the contrary, I don’t believe that I’ve been uptight enough. And in the months since the article ran, my son has amassed more books—books that, as you’ll soon see, want to mold him into an obsessive-compulsive Communist with a mad penchant for nudery. The quest, as always, continues.
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
A tale of unbearable emptiness, Goodnight Moon is at once a dusky nightmare and a paean to OCD. A young rabbit, wishing to escape the oppressiveness of its bedroom—a red-and-green Fauvist horror—must, in a brutal twist, neurotically catalogue the very items which torment its waking hours. In a steady incantation, the leveret bids farewell to the burdens of its world: a rancid bowl of mush; a stiff white comb; two cats who wait to pounce. All the while, the creature is menaced by an “old lady” who urges him to “hush,” annoyed by the youngster’s mewling (a bottle of sherry, no doubt, awaits her in the kitchen). Goodnight Moon’s message is unremittingly bleak: psychological escape is hard-won—yet the more necessary it is, the more transitory it becomes. Goodnight, fleeting hope.
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff
Would you like to know what happens when you give a mouse a cookie? In Numeroff’s estimation, the result is relentless exploitation—the mouse will drink your milk, use your crayons, chew your bendy straws. It will sap you, leave you slumped and dirty—whereupon the parasite will demand more milk, keen to restart the cycle.
For the boy in the story, the relationship is presented as soul-eating toil—curious, given how tirelessly the mouse works to repay his kindness. It “sweep[s] every room in the house,” “wash[es] the floors,” draws a Walker Evans portrait of its indigent rural family. The picture lays bare the mouse’s hidden past: in its background we see a rickety shack, its roof held up by a brace of spindly twigs. We recall that when it arrived, the mouse was wearing a knapsack. Its overalls are faded, ill-fitting; its tiny feet are bare. It has found the boy at the end of a trying journey, perhaps parting ways with a coyote just a few short days before.
Yet we are not meant to sympathize. Quite the opposite. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is a prescient endorsement of today’s anti-immigrant conservatism: though mice may scrub your floors and tidy your house, their presence portends catastrophe: they’ll want milk, straws, schools for their 14th Amendment “anchor babies.” No, best to keep your cookie, refuse the rodent at your front yard’s fence—which, in a perfect world, would feature camera towers, razor wire, and Skoal-dribbling Minutemen.
Mr. Clever by Roger Hargreaves
The orange, bespectacled Mr. Clever lives in “Cleverland,” a place of entrepreneurial bounty. Here, alarm clocks not only ring, but switch on lights, brew tea, and predict the weather. Toothbrushes “[squeeze] toothpaste onto the brush out of the handle”; toasters “spread [toast] with butter and jelly, AND cut off the crusts.” Ingenuity has liberated Cleverland’s citizens, none more than Mr. Clever himself—yet when he strolls into a neighboring town, he finds himself mentally neutered: in this nameless morass, Mr. Happy demands a joke, but Mr. Clever cannot recall one. Mr. Greedy requests a recipe, but Mr. Clever finds that he “doesn’t know any recipes.” And on and on, until Mr. Clever, dazed by confusion and craving intellectual succor, attempts to return home—yet in a final authorial dagger, staggers off in the wrong direction.
Mr. Clever is disdainful of its protagonist’s creativity, revels in the stupidity that eventually swallows him whole. Mr. Clever’s neighbors resist innovation—yet they mock him as a dullard. The book envisions a Maoist utopia in which the masses are freed by fetid thoughtlessness. Better to scoff at free markets than to consider what wonders—tea-making alarm clocks, say—they might confer.
But the story does not end there. As was revealed in a November 1987 International Affairs exposé, “Roger Hargreaves” was a pseudonym for Choe Yong-Nam—the notorious former head of North Korea’s culture ministry. Mr. Clever, indeed.
Once Upon a Potty by Alona Frankel
Once Upon a Potty is often hailed as a toilet-training aid, and perhaps rightly so (my son is still in diapers, so I can’t yet testify to the book’s efficacy). But on a gut level, Potty is plainly disturbing. For one, it features images of a toddler’s anus that, in any other context, would land Frankel on some sort of watch list. And its pages teem with coiled turds: dysentery-ridden waste rendered in loving burnt sienna. But there’s a more pressing issue at hand: after little Joshua—the story’s grinning, crapping hero—learns where to drop his bombs, he does not once wear pants. Empowered, he careens about in a flouncy pink tank-top, eager to showcase his bits. Has his mother been so successful in his toilet-training—which, in the introduction, Frankel says “enhances the child’s confidence and pride”—that she has created an exhibitionist? More troubling: will he ever wear pants again? Once Upon a Potty was first published in 1980, meaning that Joshua would now be in his early 30s. As such, it would be little surprise to soon see a harrowing sequel: Once Upon an Indecent Exposure Conviction.
In Dan Chaon’s story “Prodigal,” from his collection Among the Missing, the narrator says: “When I was young, I used to identify with those precociously perceptive child narrators one finds in books. You know the type. They always have big dark eyes. They observe poetic details, clear-sighted, very sensitive… Now that I have children of my own… I think of that gentle, dewy-eyed first person narrator and it makes my skin crawl.”
A New York Times review of the recent novel Mercury Under My Tongue praised the book by saying of its protagonist, “Fortunately, unlike the precocious child narrators that populate so much fiction, there isn’t a whiff of gee-whiz wonderment or innocence about him.”
I love precocious narrators. Of course the child narrator is not a new construct, but some of the most buzzed-about novels of the 2000s, such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, have featured memorable young leads. The books have met with both exuberant acclaim and accusations of being cloying, gimmicky, mannered, precious, faux-innocent, forced, unbelievable, exasperating, show-offy, or just plain annoying. But I admire the books’ inventiveness, and I love the characters’ idiosyncratic voices, unapologetic intelligence and bold curiosity. And, like Chaon’s narrator, and probably like many lifelong readers, I see a bit of myself in them.
With so many precocious children and their quirks to keep track of, here is a guide to some of the genre’s recent standouts:
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Oskar Schell, 9, “inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, Francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archaeologist, collector.” Having found a key left behind by his father, who died in the 9/11 attacks, Oskar sets out to find the lock.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics: Blue van Meer, 16, who never met a simile, metaphor, parenthetical quip, reference, citation, or Strategic Capitalization she didn’t like. Her mother died in a car accident; Dad is a brilliant, nomadic, and pompous professor.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: Christopher Boone, 15, autistic and mathematically gifted. A fan of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, he investigates who killed his neighbor’s dog, and uncovers the truth about his mother’s death.
Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love: Alma Singer, 14, who keeps a notebook called “How to Survive in the Wild” inspired by her adventurous father, who died of cancer. She is trying to find the author of an old novel that her mother is translating.
Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet: T.S. Spivet, 12, a cartography genius traveling by train, alone, from a Montana ranch to Washington, DC, to accept an award at the Smithsonian.
In each of these books, told in first-person, voice is central. Reviewers often remark that the protagonists sound nothing like a “real” child or teenager. But aside from Curious Incident, which is meant to be a feat of channeling—this is how the world looks through the eyes and brain of an autistic boy—reality and fidelity are not of primary concern. Lacking much real-world and life experience, the characters filter their lives through film noir, cowboy movies, detective stories, Jewish mysticism, novels and history.
As T.S. says before beginning his train journey, “I guess I was a sucker for historical myth just like Father. But whereas his Spiral of Nostalgic Unfulfillment was directed at the cinematic West of the trail drive, one need only whisper the phrase ‘bustling railroad town’ to raise my blood pressure a notch.” Alma’s hero is the aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who disappeared during WWII. Blue describes Hannah Schneider, the film teacher whose mysterious death fuels the book’s plot, as straight out of a black and white classic:
She had an elegant sort of romantic, bone-sculpted face, one that took well to both shadows and light… Within her carriage… was a little bit of the Paramount lot, a little neat scotch and air kisses at Ciro’s. I felt, when she opened her mouth, she wouldn’t utter the crumbly speak of modernity, but would use moist words like beau, top drawer and sound (only occasionally ring-a-ding-ding).
These influences from previous eras create an internal logic for each book. The trick is similar to that of the movie Brick, which transported the conventions of ‘30s detective fiction to a Southern California high school. Would a high schooler say “No, bulls would gum it. They’d flash their dusty standards at the wide-eyes and probably find some yegg to pin, probably even the right one”? Of course not. But as Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir wrote of the film, “it’s an engrossing fantasy picture that in some ways gets close to the feeling of teenage life, even though it bears almost no relationship to its reality.”
For his Spring 2008 ready-to-wear collection, Marc Jacobs designed shoes that had squat heels jutting out backwards, horizontally, from the ball of the foot. I love shoes as much as I love reading, and found this pair quite special: Jacobs had managed to rearrange conventional elements into something whimsical, and expand the idea of what a shoe can be.
Most books fit within a remarkably limited format, but formal inventiveness is a salient trait of these novels. Like children, they don’t always follow the rules. The books include maps and diagrams in the margins; pages in color and marked up with a red correction pen; illustrations and photos; blank pages; pages with type so dense they’re unreadable; foot notes and citations; chapters named for classic books or numbered with increasing prime numbers; and codas of a mathematical proof (Curious Incident), a Final Exam (Special Topics), and a flip book (Extremely Loud). According to critics like B.R. Myers, whose article “A Bag of Tired Tricks” appeared in The Atlantic upon the publication of Extremely Loud, my enjoyment of such “spurious playfulness” makes me “easily amused.”
But I don’t see these flourishes as gratuitous examples of “look at me! I’m different and clever!” T.S. makes sense of the world through mapping, and as he deals with the recent death of his younger brother “during an accident with a gun in the barn that no one ever talked about,” the tragedy’s repercussions are fittingly explored in the margins. Christopher’s brain functions in an emotionally detached, logical/mathematical/schematic way that necessitates diagrams. I found Extremely Loud’s backwards-flipbook, in which photos show a leaping body rising upwards alongside one of the twin towers, a moving visualization of Oskar’s biggest wish. Plus, it’s simply fun to turn the page and find a picture. It’s a fitting throwback to children’s books, as well as a nod to the hyperlinked/sidebar-ed/multimedia texts we read, without fuss, online.
The playfulness extends to language. More than any book I can remember, Special Topics delights in inventive, extended description. Listen to Blue riff on a central character:
He was a Goodnight Moon (Brown, 1947). Goodnight Moons had duvet eyes, shadowy eyelids, a smile like a hammock and a silvered, sleepy countenance… Goodnight Moons could be male or female and were universally adored. Even teachers worshipped them. They looked to Goodnight Moons whenever they asked a question and even though they answered with a drowsy, wholly incorrect answer, the teacher would say, ‘Oh, wonderful.’
None of the precocious narrators are Goodnight Moons. In fact, let’s call them The Outsiders (Hinton, 1967), though with less class warfare. They do not fit easily into the world. Aside from Alma’s Russian immigrant pen pal, none of them has a true friend his or her own age; professors, teachers, parents, grandparents and strangers to whom they write letters provide a tenuous social life. They are unpopular at school, lonely, awkward, weird.
I was not a 12-year-old cartography genius or pint-sized private eye, but I was an overachieving kid who took a while to figure out how to be smart without being an annoying show-off—a quality of precocious narrators that often bugs readers. I recently re-read the journal that I kept through high school, which was not all that long ago. The content breakdown is approximately 60% about boys, 30% about how lonely I felt, and 10% about how great I was doing on my AP physics tests. I had forgotten about the time I gossiped about how academically stupid my crush’s girlfriend was, and then he confronted me about it via AIM conversation. Which is to say, I really could have used a bookish friend like Alma or Blue. (And like Blue, whose father quizzes her on vocabulary and makes her perform readings of classic plays during long car trips, I had parent-assigned summer homework. I remember writing short reports about the book Cheaper by the Dozen and the sport of diving; homework earned points, which could be redeemed for sodas and CDs.)
The books also nimbly capture how, when brains trump social skills, you end up feeling both older and younger than everyone around you. Alma and Blue are clueless about boys and have disastrous first kisses, but are ambitious enough to unravel complicated mysteries. And that’s what’s heartbreaking about these books: they put smart kids in the position to feel like they can, and should, come up with answers to some of life’s biggest questions.
Because for all their cuteness, the novels are really about surviving death and loss. Several of the characters assemble literal survival kits, that include items like a telescope, compasses, drafting paper, duct tape, a stuffed animal, a snakebite kit, iodine pills, Swiss Army knives, a copy of Edible Plants and Flowers in North America, and Juicy Juice boxes. But what good is a compass or stuffed animal—where can you go, and what second-rate comfort will you find?—when you are a child whose parent or sibling has died?
As a culture, we have an odd relationship with high-achieving youths. The media scrambles to cover four-year-old abstract artists, 12-year-old fashion bloggers, 13-year-olds who climb Mt. Everest—but we regard the little prodigies with a mix of admiration, disbelief, mistrust and even hostility. (Witness the backlash against some of the precociously talented young novelists themselves, like accusations that Pessl only got a book deal because she’s pretty, and the phenomenon of “Schadenfoer“; note the glee people are taking in mocking Krauss’ recent over-the-top blurb.)
The other day, I overheard a commercial advertising a contest that would reward “the fastest, most accurate texter.” Then I learned that Jersey Shore’s The Situation had inked a book deal.
In an age of shortening attention spans and the glorification of stupidity, I find it comforting and exciting to spend time with young characters for whom books, maps, notebooks, letters, research, drawings, imagined inventions and classic films are central and essential. Precocious narrators, and the ambitious novelists who create them, give me hope that our culture can keep evolving without sliding into Idiocracy, and stand as proof of the power of intelligence, imagination, curiosity, and even “gee-whiz wonderment.”
In The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, T.S. coins the term “Stenpock,” after his science teacher, Mr. Stenpock. A Stenpock is someone “who insists on staying within the confines of his or her job title and harbors no passion for the offbeat or the incredible.” Precocious narrators are anti-Stenpocks, and I’m a sucker for them.
[Image credit: Inna]
When Nick Flynn drives around his hometown, Scituate, Massachusetts, he inevitably passes the houses he lived in with his mother and brother—six of them within the first five years of his life. In the past few decades, unsurprisingly, money has been pumped into Scituate, a small coastal city, but amid the explosion of seaside wealth, every house Flynn lived in looks worse for the wear. “They’re all still there,” he tells me, “sort of falling apart, with the same paint I painted on them just peeling off in sheets.” It’s an image that could be lifted straight from a dream—or one of his poems in Some Ether, or a chapter of one of his memoirs, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City or the newly published The Ticking is the Bomb. These ghost-houses are emblematic of Flynn’s writing—homes slowly being erased, shadowed, built on shaky foundations or none at all, people and places eroding. I imagine Cape Cod-blue houses, freshly painted, or creamy McMansions next to the scattered avocado green, tan, fading yellow of Flynn’s childhood homes. I ask if he ever knocked on the door of any of the houses; he says he went into one years ago, but hasn’t since. “There’s no pitbulls in the yard, but there’s something sort of up, like troubled people live in these houses. It’s really strange. It’s not like the whole town went into disrepair. It’s just the places we lived in.”
In the past decade, Flynn has lived in Rome, Dar es Salaam, and divided his time (as writers’ bios are wont to say) between teaching at the University of Houston and living in New York, either in Brooklyn or his house upstate. Fluidity of home and identity carries through Flynn’s writing. In The Ticking is the Bomb, Flynn writes about buying his house upstate several years ago. “My natural born restlessness only seemed to grow the more days I spent there. Rooted? I ended up staying in the house only to work on it, and then I’d leave… I moved around more those first two years of owning a house than I ever had—I was vapor, I was air, I was nowhere.”
The Ticking is the Bomb is a process-oriented memoir—in short, about the torture condoned by the U.S. government in recent years, juxtaposed with Flynn readying himself to become a father. Dated (but not chronological) vignettes mix with surreal extended metaphors which, while part of the narrative, I had a hard time convincing myself were not prose poems. “This book could have been poetry,” Flynn says. The first pieces Flynn wrote, before he knew he was writing his next memoir, were four long poems; they remained in the book up until its last edit. Flynn says the poems “became four pillars, scaffolding, that the whole book was built around. Then I took them away and the book was there.” (The poems will appear in Flynn’s next collection, The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, out later this year from Graywolf.)
The Ticking is the Bomb opens with a sonogram of Flynn’s unborn daughter—“a dream sleeping inside the body of the woman I love” and shifts rapidly to “another set of photographs” one of which Flynn describes plainly as depicting “a naked man being dragged by a soldier out of a cell on the end of a leash.” These other photos, Flynn writes, “also have the texture of dreams—shadowy, diaphanous, changeable.” In 2004, like most of us, Flynn heard of Abu Ghraib for the first time; he didn’t know if it was “one word or two, a building or a city, a place or an idea.” In the course of the next few years, he became part of a handful of what he calls “torture people” and traveled to Istanbul to meet some of the men victimized by American soldiers. At the same time, he was slowly extricating himself from one relationship with a woman while falling in love with his future partner and mother of his child, the actress, Lili Taylor (called Inez in the book). Flynn says, “I began looking at torture without really recognizing that I was also enacting some kind of darker impulses myself. As I pushed into it, I realized there were echoes of the larger culture in my life. Not to make any equivalents to them, at all. But certain brutalization or suffering that’s being sowed.”
As immensely personal as The Ticking is the Bomb is, it pushes readers to acknowledge, if not meditate on, the urges lurking inside us, those we tamp down in order to continue, to resist the impulses (conscious or not) to hurt ourselves, the ones we love, even those we don’t. As Flynn comes to understand what he’s writing about, within the book, he says, “Maybe I should tell anyone who asks that I’m writing about Proteus, the mythological creature who changes shape as you hold onto him, who changes into the shape of that which most terrifies you, as you ask him your question, as you refuse to let go. The question is, often, simply a variation of, How do I get home?” This is a book full of shape-shifting and slow alterations of character. How do you face other Americans who find the inhumane treatment of people acceptable and even justified? How do you look at a man who says the soldiers who made him stand on a box, hooded, resemble you? How do you transform into a parent after passing the age at which your parents imploded? How do learn to let go of love that is unhealthy?
As I prepare to meet Flynn to discuss The Ticking is the Bomb, I try to separate questions into thematic areas, but they fold in on each other, along with images from the book. There is a photograph of Flynn’s mother holding a can of Schlitz, wearing a blond wig and sunglasses— “the Grifters photo” he calls it; his father’s apartment, stacked to the ceiling with newspapers; a monkey sculpted out of lava; a torture pose once called “The Vietnam,” now called “The Statue of Liberty;” twenty year-old Flynn splitting open cut straws found in his mother’s glove compartment, licking out cocaine residue; Flynn bending down to his wife’s belly, two days after their daughter’s due date, murmuring, “We’re waiting for you, little one, the coast is clear.” In another meta-passage of the book, Flynn writes, “Sometimes I’ll say I’m writing a memoir of bewilderment, and just leave it at that, but what I mean is the bewilderment of waking up, my hand on Inez’s belly, as the fine points of waterboarding are debated on public radio.”
I meet Flynn one evening in January at a cafe in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where he lives now, with Taylor and their nearly two year-old daughter. Known as more of a brunch spot, the place feels like a B&B dining room or perfect grandma’s country kitchen. I order a chicken pot pie. Flynn, who eats early these days with his daughter, has a pot of tea. As Dionne Warwick sings, “I say a little prayer for you,” through the speakers, I ask Flynn if he wants to talk about torture first or fatherhood? In interviews for The Ticking is the Bomb, he tells me, some people don’t want to talk about torture at all; others only want to talk about it. “I give the mornings to torture and the afternoons are for love,” he jokes. Early on in the book, he writes, “Maybe talking about torture is easier than talking about my impending fatherhood.” I take out the book to rifle through my notes, and Flynn reaches for it, like a kid. He sings the praises of Kapo Ng, the artist who designed the covers of both his memoirs. “You give him the book, and then like a week later he comes back with the cover and nothing changes.”
As Flynn thumbs through the book, my notes on Proteus fall out. Flynn says he “got” Proteus from Stanley Kunitz, calls the sea god “a poet’s archetype.” He worries, “You have to be careful of the archetypes you embrace. Our culture embraces Prometheus, which is the same thing as Adam and Eve. He gets punished for knowledge. I never quite understood why we are punished for knowledge.” Both Prometheus and Proteus are symbolically present in one of my favorite passages in The Ticking is the Bomb, “Lava.” Flynn writes of the months following a volcano’s eruption, lava slowly moving towards a village: “Some argued that it was better than a flood, better than a fire—lava gives you time to move out what you most value. I had the idea that the only option would be to uproot your house and put it on a raft and float it to the next island.” Proteus is a distinctly Flynn archetype, even reflected by the loose form of his memoirs.
Growing up in Scituate, he tells me, “Everything was damp all the time. You could smell the ocean.” His father claims that his grandfather invented the life raft. Flynn once lived on a boat; in The Ticking is the Bomb he writes, “My twenties, you could say, were water, you could say I was, in a way, more ocean than earth. You could say that whatever was solid in me was slowly dissolving.” Where Flynn lives now, in Brooklyn, he is still close to the water. In the mornings and evenings, if the traffic’s not too loud on a particular street, you can hear ship horns as they pass through the harbor. At a recent reading, he shared a poem called “Kedge,” (a method of anchoring a ship). Another poem, “haiku (failed)” echoes Goodnight Moon but with a nautical edge, with the lines: “bye-bye/ boat, bye-bye rain,” “beating, our bodies the bottle, a ship inside each,” and “here it is still, your heart, is it well/ well welling?”
Flynn is indeed a mutable a character in The Ticking is the Bomb, split between two women and briefly returning to substance abuse after years of sobriety. A woman who refuses to have coffee with Flynn, because she is married, tells him, “Two dogs live inside me, and the one I feed is the one that will grow.” He is drawn into a relationship with a woman he calls Anna, who shares some of the same dark impulses that run through his family. In the midst of severing ties with her, Flynn admits, “When I was with her I felt known, perhaps for the first time…Those rooms we shared became a space in which to reveal a darkness I carried inside me, a heaviness that needed to be dragged into the light, or it would sink me.”
Where Flynn’s character shifts forms, his partner, Inez, is a solid force. If Flynn’s writing weren’t such a kick in the pants, this could come across as the old “you make me want to be a better man” shtick, but instead he gives us passages like this:
When I turn away from the book, Inez is there, radiantly pregnant, seemingly more sure of what’s to come, and this calms me. The baby is, after all, inside her, inside her body—perhaps this makes it more real, for her. But then, Inez has always been this way—certain, or at least seemingly so. It confused me when we first got together, for it seemed that whether I was to stay or go she would be alright, that she would survive. When we were first together I had to face the uncomfortable realization that I wasn’t used to calling love something that didn’t involve disaster.
Flynn evokes Elizabeth Bishop’s familiar words in “One Art”: “the art of losing’s not too hard to master/ though it may look like, (Write it!) like disaster.” As he struggles to latch on, open up to a stable relationship, he makes new the poets’ old favorite, loss.
On their first date, Flynn and Inez talk about having children. In a passage called, “The Tricky Part,” he writes,
We weren’t asking each other if we could imagine having children with each other, but we weren’t not asking that either. For years I’d told myself that I could live anywhere, for a year or two…. Some part of me did this with women as well… imagined a new woman as a city I could stay in for a while, then visit from time to time. I’d know my way around, I wouldn’t need a map, but I wouldn’t really live there either. But a child? A child wasn’t like a city, or even a woman. I couldn’t simply visit now and then.
Flynn navigates this murky water through his elegant language, trying not to “blame the map [he was] given” for his apprehension. This is not a book of blame, but one of understanding how images and words are manipulated, in personal relationships or in a larger scope. After the Abu Ghraib photographs are leaked, Flynn listens to the U.S. government’s malevolent poets deny what the photos show, twisting language to map their own agenda. Donald Rumsfeld says he is “not going to address the torture word.” Flynn hears victims of torture use words to describe how their bodies were manipulated; looking at photos of himself, a man called Amir says, “I do not believe it was me that was there.”
Of the sonogram image of his daughter from 2007, Flynn writes, “I was there when each shot was taken, yet in some ways, still, it is all deeply unreal.” Since then, nursery rhyme language has crept into some of his recent poetry. He has seen every sunrise for two years as he wakes with his daughter, a time he considers meditation. “I’m preparing food for her, making tea, sitting and reading a book to her. It’s not a sitting meditation, but the attention is there,” he says. In the opening passage of The Ticking is the Bomb, Flynn writes that he hopes to be able to explain the “dark time” of our country to his daughter as a story in the past. “We got lost for a while, this story will begin, but then we found our way.”
The Rake takes note of the New Yorker’s particularly dark reading of Goodnight Moon.Iain Hollingshead gamely responds to being awarded the “Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award” for his debut novel Twentysomething, which included such turns of phrase as “everything is pure white as we’re lost in a commotion of grunts and squeaks.”With a few celebs getting in trouble for racist outbursts this year Malcolm Gladwell (ever thoughtful) comes up with a way to figure out who’s really being offensive and who’s just dumb.Maud points to a new blog from one of my favorite publishers, NYRB Press.Dozens of year end-lists floating around here and elsewhere, but I always take special note of Jonathan Yardley’s year-end column because it is always thoughtful and sometimes surprising.To do (as soon as I have the time): listen to the Bat Segundo Show that features Edward P. Jones.
The Using Books blog points to a Kansas City childrens’ book store, Reading Reptile, that is taking HarperCollins to task for allegedly doctoring the photo of Clement Hurd, illustrator of the childrens’ classic Goodnight Moon, on a recent edition of the book. It seems that Hurd was once pictured holding a barely visable cigarette and now the cigarette has disappeared. The Reading Reptile folks have put together Goodnight Reality, a Web site to protest the “censorship.” Though the comparisons to Stalin may be a bit over the top, I suppose you have to fight for what you believe in.And lest I be accused of taking things too seriously, the Reading Reptile folks are probably being a little tongue in cheek about this. Judging from their “About Us” page, they’ve got a sense of humor.Update: The New York Times looks at the Goodnight Moon cigarette controversy. HarperCollins plans to find a completely different photo of Clement Hurd for future printings of the book, so that no doctoring will be required.