Billy Collins’s Art of Drowning

poems_3I always keep a poet by my bed.

Lately it has been Billy Collins, former U.S Poet Laureate.

I don’t open the book every night. Only when I need to touch the play of language, to be entertained by poetry’s taut twists and turns and surprises, before settling into whatever novel I’m reading that will engage me for a half hour or so, then lull me to sleep.

But why Billy Collins? Why for months now has he kept me reaching for his poems?

Of course, there are the double-over-with-laughter poems like “Litany,” which he reads aloud in a deadpan voice that heightens the comedy.

In fact, deadpan is the characteristic voice of Collins’s poetry, a voice that allows him to create fanciful lists, caress details, or slip into a profound understatement, all without ruffling the surface tone of the verse. Humor is his home, and much of the humor is self-effacing. That’s surely part of what draws me to his work. [Read more...]

Goodbye to My Nuclear Days

fe71438f-d663-40bd-b19f-6e7ddb8ab904-1472x2040From the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, I devoted my research and writing to the nuclear arms race and nonviolent responses to it. The mid-eighties marked the height of the Cold War. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were locked in an arms race that our government referred to as (I kid you not) “MAD.”

The acronym stood for Mutually Assured Destruction.

The strategic theory behind MAD was that if both nations had enough nuclear bombs to totally annihilate the other country and its inhabitants, then neither nation would push the button—because even after a first strike by one side, the other side was capable of launching a second strike in retaliation. Second strike capability was housed mostly in nuclear submarines that cruised the ocean floors.

By 1988, the U.S. had about 23,5000 nuclear bombs in reserve, the U.S.S.R about 33,000. Overkill, to put it euphemistically. [Read more...]

There’s No Original Art

scarfWhat a joy to be knitting something beautiful for a woman I don’t know and never will.
She’s a guest at my church’s soup kitchen, where every guest gets a gift at Christmastime.

The yarns are a rich red and orange wool interlaced with red-orange nylon eyelash.
She’ll say “how pretty —at least I hope she will.

Maybe it will become her favorite scarf,
make her feel special, dressy, worthy in a way that the world doesn’t usually value her.

But maybe she’ll leave it by mistake on the bus,
where it will ride up and down town alone on the seat
until a quick turn slides it to the floor.

The next passenger doesn’t notice it caught in his boot as he steps off the bus.

The red-orange lies limp in the gutter’s blackened snow.
A child walking by with her mother points with “Oh look! Can I have it?”
“No, we don’t take dirty things from the street.”
[Read more...]

Fiction is Truer than Fact

img_4595In Jill Lepore’s extraordinary biography of Ben Franklin’s sister Jane, Book of Ages, a short chapter near the end sketches the rise of the novel as a genre. Prior to the eighteenth century, “history” was the genre for telling the stories of lives, and they were always the stories of famous men. Then in the eighteenth century, novels began to be written, but at first they called themselves “histories”: Fielding’s History of Tom Jones, Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy are two that Lepore names. Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela also purported to be real letters that Fielding had discovered.

Soon, though, novelists dropped pretense of writing history, because they were convinced that their new genre was truer than history. It was a new kind of biography—of ordinary people—and its truth was founded not in documentary evidence but in human nature.

I was reminded of this while recently reading Kent Haruf’s novels Plainsong, Eventide, and Benediction, all set in his fictional town of Holt, Colorado, on the high dusty plains east of Denver. The small events of very ordinary lives are Haruf’s subject. In a spare, understated style, Haruf creates characters who surprise themselves with a generous gesture, who suffer from depression or loss or the meanness of others, who settle into habits of sadness or of gratitude.

Reading along, I would often stop and think: “this is life as it really is.”

Lepore’s terms helped me understand why I keep reading fiction: because fiction connects me with the truth of other lives. And so with the truth of my own. [Read more...]

The Gift of Gravy Days

Education_Article_WildflowerMeadows_02Well, I’ve reached my three score and ten years.

It must sound positively ancient to those of you who are half my age—or even two-thirds. I know that when I was in my thirties, forties, even fifties, seventy sounded old: not only over the hill but way down toward the bottom of the other side.

“Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty if we are strong,” sings Psalm 90. I’m not strong. I have a chronic form of leukemia that could carry me off any day. In fact, when I was diagnosed with it just before my sixtieth birthday, my doctor said with an upbeat, encouraging voice “You can expect to live ten more years!”—which at the time sounded like a lot. So I had scientific confirmation that the psalmist’s sum of seventy years was indeed my allotment.

[Read more...]


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