Monday, July 18, 2016

truly joyful

The Good Life

by Tracy K. Smith

When some people talk about money
They speak as if it were a mysterious lover
Who went out to buy milk and never 
Came back, and it makes me nostalgic
For the years I lived on coffee and bread,
Hungry all the time, walking to work on payday
Like a woman journeying for water
From a village without a well, then living
One or two nights like everyone else
On roast chicken and red wine.

- from Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

{read more of her work on Poetry Foundation}

How is it out there for you? 

The question at the centre of my book Rumi and the Red Handbag is "what are you going through?"

And maybe I came to it via poetry because poetry is an excellent place to find these things out. 

A while back I read some poems on Poetry Foundation by Timothy Yu which completely blew my mind, opened it right up. I feel like I'm a pretty open minded, empathetic person, constantly trying to put myself in someone else's shoes. But poetry, yes, it offers a way in. We need to take it. His book is called 100 Chinese Silences and here is the description for it:

There are one hundred kinds of Chinese silence: the silence of unknown grandfathers; the silence of borrowed Buddha and rebranded Confucius; the silence of alluring stereotypes and exotic reticence. These poems make those silences heard. Writing back to an orientalist tradition that has defined modern American poetry, these 100 Chinese silences unmask the imagined Asias of American literature, revealing the spectral Asian presence that haunts our most eloquent lyrics and self- satisfied wisdom. Rewriting poets from Ezra Pound and Marianne Moore to Gary Snyder and Billy Collins, this book is a sharply critical and wickedly humorous travesty of the modern canon, excavating the Asian (American) bones buried in our poetic language.

Other reviewers call the book 'wickedly fun' and 'necessary' and brimming with "sharp, angry, sarcastic and tender poems." It's a book, clearly, that we need to read.

On his website Yu talks about the impetus for the book:

“These poems are part of an ongoing project called 100 Chinese Silences. They were begun in response to Billy Collins’s poem ‘Grave.’ The speaker of the poem describes the ‘one hundred kinds of silence / according to the Chinese belief,’ but then admits at the end of the poem that these Chinese silences were something he had ‘just made up.’ I took it upon myself to write these 100 Chinese silences.”

Chinese Silence No. 22

by Timothy Yu

            after Billy Collins, "Monday"

The Italians are making their pasta,
the French are making things French,
and the Chinese cultivate their silence.

They cultivate silence
in every Chinatown on the persimmon of earth—
mute below the towers of Toronto,
silently sweeping the streets of Singapore
clear of noisy self-expression.

The Americans are in their sport utility vehicles,
the Canadians are behaving reasonably,
but the Chinese remain silent
maybe with a cup of tea or an opium pipe
and maybe a finger puzzle or water torture is involved.

Or maybe the Chinese are playing the Chinese
game of ping-pong,
the pock-pock of the ball against their tight-lipped mouths
as their chefs dice scallions and bean curd.
The Chinese are silent
because it is their job for which
I pay them what they got for building the railroads.

Which silence it is hardly seems to matter
though many have a favorite
out of the 100 different kinds—
the Silence of the Well-Adjusted Minority,
the Girlish Silence of Reluctant Acquiescence,
the Silence that by No Means Should Be Mistaken for Bitterness.

By now, it should go without saying
that what Crocodile Dundee is to the Australian
and Mel Gibson is to the Scot,
so is silence to the Chinese.

Just think—
before I invented the 100 Chinese silences,
the Chinese would have had to stay indoors
and gabble about civil war and revolution
or go outside and build a really loud wall.

And when I say a wall,
I do not mean a wall of thousands of miles
that is visible from the moon.

I mean a noisy wall of language
that dwarfs my medieval battlements
and paves the Pacific to lap
California’s shores with its brick-hard words.


One of the books I read this week is titled, The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, by Katie Roiphe. I opened it in the bookstore and started reading the section about Susan Sontag and was hooked. There are chapters about the last days of John Updike, Maurice Sendak, Freud, James Salter. Each chapter has a photograph (which also drew me in) of the workspace of the writer, sans writer.

You wouldn't think such a book would be a page turner, but it is. 

From the chapter on Sontag:
"But does this final conversation that everyone imagines with a dying parent exist, this moment of perfect closure, the last thing you needed to say coming out whole and entire? Or is it just a fantasy thrown up by a desperate mind, an unobtainable mirage, glittering water in the desert? If you had this conversation, would it be satisfying? Or would it be one conversation in a lifetime of words; would it be, like every interaction we have with someone who is leaving us, not enough?"

In the Sendak chapter, there's this description:
"One day his grandmother, who had emigrated from the shtetl outside Warsaw, dressed him in a white suit, white shirt, white tights, white shoes, and took him out to the stoop to sit with her. The idea was that the angel of death would passover them and think that he was already an angel and there was no need to snatch him from his family."

Also from the Roiphe book. She says to James Salter, "Your work seems very interested in preserving a moment, very alert to death." He replies, "The work. Yes."

And then she quotes from All That Is:
"There was a time, usually late in August, when summer struck the trees with dazzling power and they were rich with leaves, but then became, suddenly one day, strangely still, as if in expectation and at that moment aware. They knew...The sun was at its zenith and embraced the world, but it was ending, all that one loved was at risk." 

So let's move from last days to loneliness. As soon as I read this review, "Loneliness Belongs to the Photographer" I ordered Olivia Laing's book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone.

"... if love belongs to the poet, and fear to the novelist, then loneliness belongs to the photographer. To be a photographer is to willingly enter the world of the lonely, because it is an artistic exercise in invisibility."

As someone who has written several books of poetry, a couple of novels, and who seriously dabbles in photography....this stopped me in my tracks.

So I went from loneliness, then, to joy, coming across the article "Poetry is the Place for Joy: or How we Praise the Mutilated World."

It's a long read, but a good one - I need to read it again and ruminate on it some more, particularly on the question the writer and his friend mull over at one point:

"... how many truly joyful poems were written by women. We didn’t come up with many."

And to go back to the Katie Roiphe book, the one thing that stuck out for me, was that only one of the chapters was about a woman, the Sontag one. Which is perhaps neither here nor there, but I can't help thinking that means something, too.

There is a quotation I've underlined in the book where Sontag writes about her mother. "After three years I am exhausted by the nonexistent literature of unwritten letters and unmade telephone calls that passes between me and M."

Well, speaking of silences.

Well, so far the post has been about death, loneliness, silences.....

Some music? This song by the Honey Ants was on CBC (can't remember exactly what show) this past week, and I fell in love with their voices straight away.

Meanwhile, the garden grows, the field is abundant and lush. 

The news of the world continues to alarm and bewilder and frighten. 

And we go on walks, and go to work, and fix what is broken - this week it was a leaking shower and a messed up dishwasher. We continue to make what we can make. We continue to attempt to add beauty to the world. We continue to worry and pay our bills and plan for the future. We hug our kid and pet our dog and try to enjoy every sip of wine. We try and connect with our friends even though we are bone tired and feel like the dullest people on earth.

At work I go from talking to a homeless person about where they're sleeping that night, to talking to a kid living in a group home who's eating a huge bag of chips for lunch, to helping someone do an interlibrary loan on some tricky and narrow subject. I come home and plan for my own kid's college education and worry if she'll have enough warm socks and take her shopping for clothes. I read books, some from the library, some from the book store. I try and write and collect ideas and try to talk my novel up without being too annoying about it. I cringe at the news until I feel small and crumpled. I try to straighten back up and go on with things. Grocery shopping, housecleaning, thinking and imagining things for my new poor sad neglected characters. I take them along with me wherever I go, nonetheless.  

Life is weird. Life is weird.

What if a person were to write an entire book of truly joyful poems. How would that change one. Would it be possible in this world right now. 

Last things. 

The life of the writer. Sigh. 

I love studio photos, and these have such a lovely clarity of light. 

I've taken a few of Rob's work/studio and you can view them on his Facebook page

And yes, just a few more weeks of me asking for votes for Rumi and the Red Handbag for the ARCA. 

Wishing you calm things and joyful poems. May you be alert to the day, enjoy a walk through the long grass, may you have enough. 

- Shawna


  1. These images are divine, absolutely divine! With all the violence and sadness, I am thankful to be able to come here for respite.

    Started reading "The Door" and am loving it.

    1. Thank you, Susan! So glad you like The Door. What a book.

  2. I love the vine on the chair back - it struck me and I can't explain why. And yes, what if in this world we wrote instead about being happy, feeling joy, ecstasy - what if...thank you for your faithful posts. Yours is the only blog I bother to read. N.

  3. I came back to have another look this morning because I was especially struck by those first few that Yarrow? If so, I need to go find some :)

    1. Awww, thanks Susan. Yes, it's yarrow - grows like a weed beside our house :)


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