Steven Riddle: October 2008 Archives

While Linda was recovering from surgery, and finished my first book on my marvelous Kindle. I don't know why I devolved upon this title as I'd read it a couple of time before. However the catchy beginning and refrain and the marvelous experiment in reading a language that isn't quite English, is engaging.

Many have seen the movie and know the lines of the story, so there's little point in going over much of that detail. It is interesting to note a couple of places where the movie differs from the book, because it places the book in an even darker realm. For example, in the book Alex, the hero, is fifteen years old. The two girls he encounters in the record store are 10 years old--obviously not something Kubrick could place into his film.

Other than these major differences, the movie is largerly true to the book, emphasizing certain things (such as Alex's devotion to Beethoven, whereas in the book it's a general devotion to classical music) for cinematic effect. What the movie, and the American edition of the book, lack is the 21st chapter.

In the introduction to this edition of the book, Burgess makes the point that he wrote the novel as a novel, not as a fable. He felt that the twenty-first chapter in which we see Alex in quite a different light moved the character from one place to another that was more probable considering the wisdom that comes with age.

And I'd say, if that were your intent, Mr. Burgess, such movement should have started and been indicated long before the tail end of the book. I'm supposed to believe in the span of six or seven pages we've had a complete reform of life.

This is once again a place where we see the value of editors. When the American publishers sliced off the last chapter, they were making a comment about the strength of the book and the strength of Burgess' message, whether or not we agree with the message. They identified the true power and driver of the little tale, and if Mr. Burgess wanted to regard that as a fable, then so be it. But the reality is that his little fable, his truncated novel, is by far a more powerful work than most other novels, and certainly, made the novel and much finer work.

But it wasn't what the artist conceived--and I really do like to see what the artist thought the work should be. In almost every case, where there has been a good and insightful editor involved, the judicious edits made vastly improve the book. Of course everyone is aware of the work Maxwell Perkins did in making Thomas Wolfe (particularly Look Homeward, Angel readable. After reading Stephen King's uncut version of The Stand I gained a true appreciation for the value of a fine editor. King's larded, self-indulgent phantasmagoria of a novel has, I'm certain, charms all to itself; however, the sleeker, svelter, original publication is by far a more powerful book.

Not all editors enhance a manuscript. Not all editing improves--the editor must be someone who at once has a deep appreciation for the book in front of her or him, and also a deep appreciation for the English language and literature in general.

Editors have fallen by the wayside--it is evident in the plethora of books that could, at a minimum, use a continuity editor. But in the past , editors have made good decisions that have improved a work greatly. My own interactions with editors I have trusted and admired has lead to greatly improved manuscript and published copy. (There are many times when I wish that I could turn my blog over to an editor before publishing a single entry. Alas, it is not to be so.) The New York editors of Burgess' novel greatly improved it by removing the last chapter. However, I think it is also instructive to read what the author has written and understand what he thought the purpose of his work was, regardless of what the work actually accomplishes in itself.

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A Report

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While your continued prayers are warmly appreciated (and indeed much needed) I have good news in that the surgery was a complete success and the patient is recovering if uncomfortably at home. Prayers for continued recovery for the patient and patience and endurance for the family are most welcome.

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Prayer Request

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One near and dear to me undergoes surgery tomorrow to alleviate a long-standing ailment/difficulty. All surgery is serious, so there's no point in saying that it is not serious, but it doesn't tend to have a high complicatoin rate and it could yield a much better quality of life for the entire family.

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from Acedia & Me
Kathleen Norris

The monastic perspective can assist us specifically with regard to understanding the value of community. Imagine for a moment that the people you encounter at home, work, or school are the very people God has given you to pray with, eat with, and play with for the rest of your life. And you are supposed to thank God for this, every day, several times a day. This is what monastic people take on. And what they've learned from this particular asceticism, in attempting to live in peace with themselves and with others, may constitute their greatest gift to us.

What struck me as I read this passage is that, in fact, it should not require any remarkable feat of imagination, because this is, in fact, precisely what God has done. Not perhaps for the rest of our lives, given our mobile society, but certainly for that entire portion of our lives while we live amongst these people.

What's important here is the necessity of thanking God for these people regardless of how we might feel about them, and thanking Him for the community that we have around us. Honestly, how many of us can claim that we do that faithfully every day? I don't see any raised hands on this side of the ether.

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On Brevity (not)

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An amusing sample of the prose of a Nobel-Prize winning author.

from Death with Interruptions
José Saramago

Lovers of concision, laconicism and economy of language will doubtless be asking, if the idea is such a simple one, why did we need all this waffle to arrive, at last, at the critical point. The answer is equally simple, and we will give it using a current and very trendy term, that will, we hope, make up for the archaisms with which, in the likely opinion of some, we have spattered this account as if with mold, and that term is context. Now everyone knows what we mean by context, but there could have been doubts had we rather dully used that dreadful archaism background, which is, moreover, not entirely faithful to the truth, given that the context gives not only the background but all the innumerable other grounds that exist between the subject observed and the line of the horizon. It would be better then if we called it a framework. Yes, a framework, and now that we finally have it well and truly framed, the moment has come to reveal the nature of the trick that the maphia thought up to avoid any chance of a conflict that might prejudice their interests. As we have said, a child could have come up with the idea. It was this, to take the sufferer across the frontier, and, once he or she had died, to bring him or her back to be buried in the maternal bosom of his country of origin.

I don't know why the book is written in this way--long discursive paragraphs that include everything imaginable; single sentense that contain pages and pages of dialog, Seemingly endless and pointless detail about minor characters and odd incidents. And yet, despite all of that which seems an over-abundance, there is about this book something really enjoyable. It is a kind of romp that compels the reader through. I'll let you know if I think the same by the end of the book. But for the moment, I'm having a good time trying to figure out the purpose of the choice of narration.

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First, Happy Birthday Ms. Rice--I'm three days late, but very gratified at the gift you've given us all with your confession.

The subtitle of this book is revealing: A Spiritual Confession. It is not a confession in the sense of enumerating sins but a kind of Martin Luther confession--"Here I stand, I can do no other." But Ms. Rice stands firmly with the Church despite blemishes and a long period of estrangement, during which she called herself an atheist. During this period she struggled hard to maintain her atheism, but if the truth be told, there were signs always of the Holy Spirit at work bringing her gently home.

The book is superb. We learn enough of Ms. Rice for the events and revelations to make sense, but not so much that one is perhaps distracted by too much information. Much of the book focuses on her early life in New Orleans and the preliterate formation of her faith--a formation that endured the trials of a long period of distance (38 years.)

As one progresses through Ms. Rice's story, one learns many details about her including her real name, and incidentally her birthday.

It's hard to know where to start in looking at the book, but perhaps the best place is in the facts that most fascinate me. Ms. Rice had a great deal of difficulty in her early life obtaining information through reading. This continued through her early college career. How interesting then that she took up pen and made her living through her writing.

I have said before, and I do not mean it as unkindly as it sounds, that i have never cared much for Ms. Rice's writing style. Up until her Life of Jesus books, I had not completed an entire novel although I tried nearly all of the early ones. But given the struggle she had with literacy, the gift of writing that she has is an enormous accomplishment. It does not make me inclined to like the writing style any better, but it does cause me to bow down once again before the Creator who so mysteriously imbued her with these contradictory trends. Who knows the divine path in it? But divine it is and through the combination of these things, Ms Rice was able to return to her early love of the Lord. More, it is to be hoped that by sharing the story of her struggle she will lead a great many back home with her.

One more point before I proceed to the final analysis. Ms. Rice determinedly does not apologize for the fiction she produced up until the Jesus Books. She, in fact, helps explain the personal meaning of the writing in her life. Regardless of whether or not it had any personal meaning, she is right not to apologize for it. A writer writes because they cannot do otherwise, and a writer writes what is in the depths of her or his heart. If that is darkness, perhaps writing is a means of exorcism, if light perhaps it is a means of praise. Ms. Rice has had both, and through her writing she struggled with her alienation from the faith. Ultimately, that writing may have been instrumental in bringing her home. Yes, she wrote about darkness, because I have not read all the way through a book, I cannot comment on the nature of this, and do not wish to. I heartily endorse Ms. Rice's attitude toward her work. It would seem that a thinking reader, or even a casual reader, would be engaged throughout her work in the struggle that she waged. And by that engagement they might come to a tempering of faith, or perhaps to the cusp of faith. I don't know.

All of that said, when we get to the end of the book, we cannot but realize that Ms. Rice has some very unorthodox views of the faith. Not heterodox, and not necessarily unorthodox in the sense of denying doctrine, but she brings to her view of the Holy Family a unique set of issues involving gender identification and equity. These are good to hear about. Ms. Rice is not proselytizing her notions, but giving us a deep and honest sense of where she stands. That is refreshing. She is disturbed by the pedophilia scandal. She is upset by the notion that women cannot be ordained. She has little patience for some of the patterns of the Pre-Vatican II church (the index of forbidden books) even while she cherishes its beauty and magnificence. She struggles with some of the divisions within the church and with some of the church teachings on sexuality. And for all of that, she has come and intends to remain there. Let me share with you a stirring passage from the end of the book:

from Called Out of Darkness
Anne Rice

But I see people driven away from churches by these issues. And some for their whole lives.

And too many make the mistake I made. They leave the loving figure of Jesus Christ because they feel they have to leave his churches.

I will never leave Him again, no matter what the scandals or the quarrels of His church on earth, and I will not leave His church either.

Next Sunday, I will walk into my parish church as I do every week, and I will celebrate the Mass with my fellow Catholics, and I will stand before the altar of the Lord.

I stop here, not because that is the end of a beautiful passage, but because, you all should have the pleasure of reading it for yourself.

Ms. Rices' story is told in beautiful and simple prose. There are within these pages prose poems and long litanies of praise. (She even gives us pause to reconsider our opinions about the commercialization of Christmas--in a wonderful, beautiful way.) But they never intrude, nor are they ever dull or extraneous. I was buoyed up in my own lackluster spiritual life by being able to share for a moment the difficult journey of this determined woman. It is good to know that the spiritual life is a struggle for all and that my own bleakness does not hold a candle to the torment others feel as they seek meaning in Jesus Christ. Not that I relish that all must struggle, but it's good to see once again how good the Lord has been to me.

Let me recommend this book to the attention of everyone who struggles with the Church, either doctrinally or spiritually. Or if you know someone who is hurt and struggling, buy this book and give it to them. For seekers, at whatever stage, Ms. Rice's work will give hope and some measure of joy. And let me part with this passage from near the end:

Why did He do it this way? Think about it. He made the Universe. So He could have done it any way that He liked. He knew what His intentions were. He knew what we were. He knew what He meant to do. Why begin in such complete obscurity and helplessness? Why begin in the arms of a woman who had to provide for His every physical need?

I find myself confounded by this, as confounded as I am by the horror of the Crucifixion--that the Lord surrendered to the process of birth and maturation, that He entrusted Himself to the weakness and the inevitable frustrations of a developing little boy.

This is not merely the measure of love, but the measure of an overwhelming affirmation of the human condition. You have been a child, so I became a child. That seems to be what the Infant in Mary's arms is saying to me. No wonder He can later say with such conviction in Matthew 18: "Unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." He had become a child, quite literally and completely, to enter the Kingdom of Humankind.

I found myself dazzled by this as I thought of it this morning. I was dazzled by His long journey from babyhood to manhood, dazzled by the tenderness of those little hands and little feet.

Nothing short of magnificent. Anne Rice threatens to teach me how to love God again as I should. I can only say with a great fullness of heart and aching, yearning--hank you for this birthday gift you have given me and everyone who chances to read it. What a real blessing, what a vulnerable sharing.

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A New Poem

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I knew that someday the image would make sense, the experience would have meaning.

Fox Ascending

The other day
I saw a fractal
oval white cloud
nailed to the bleached
blue sky like a day-
old fox corpse clinging
to a farmer's fence.

An imagist poem juxtaposing images separated in time by 25 or so years--one of a brilliant white oblong/oval cloud that sat suspended and motionless in the sky, seeming isolated and alone, nothing about it but long stretches of blue sky. And then a barbed wired fence surrounding a farmer's field in western Virginia near West Virginia. On it a row of foxes. I was told that it was a practice designed to keep other foxes away. But if so, it did not seem efficacious as there were already several there. But then, I don't have the wisdom of experience, so I couldn't presume to say. Either way, it has found its way into a hundred different poems. This is the first in which I thought it successful. (Not that the poem is--it needs work--overly burdened in the first few lines and plodding--I have to think more about the cloud and see if I can distill it more.)

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I was speaking with a friend about Billy Collins last week. This person pointed out that there is remarkably little substance in some of Mr. Collins's poetry. And that is a fair evaluation. Some of them are sheer fluff--not the stuff of eternity, hardly, one might say, the stuff of fifteen minutes.

However, it is important to bear in mind that for a poet every poem stands in the same place as a novel does for a novelist. That is not to imply equity of effort and endeavor, but rather the fact that each new poem rises to the surface and it is a tabula rasa, ripe and ready to move into meaning or into play. While some of Mr. Collins's poems are undoubtedly slight--they play and they show us play in a wonderful, liberating way--there is play with language, image, and individual words. Is it profound? Probably not, but it is meaningful and it does give a sense of diversity to the poems--it reflects mood and moment--there is no attempt to hide from what is happening at the time the poem is written, nor is there the false pose of many classic poets that seeks to enshrine poetry in a kind of unbreakable plastic case.

I would rather a thousand Billy Collins's with his occasionally excesses and underplays, than ten other lofty, portentous, and ultimately pretentious poets.

Yes, some poems are slight--but in what I have read so far, they are more than balanced by poems that make sudden turns and poems that, while slight at the surface slip in past the defenses to make a statement. That is poetry of worth--poetry that means despite the fact that we have all of our defenses up.

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Kindle and the Academy

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I finally got mine.

It was interesting--getting it, I took a long time to open it, charge it, and figure out precisely how to care for it to assure that it would last for some time to come. Rumor has it that they are fragile--not the body, but the face, the electronic paper. So much thought was given as to how to preserve this space. And in the reengineering, it is to be hoped that Amazon gives a good deal of thought about how to better protect the valuable reading surface.

I am not Amazon's ideal Kindle owner. While I'm fascinated by the fact that I can buy at will, my real reason for owning a Kindle has to do with what I already own. I have a great many crumbling, valueless books mouldering away on shelves in my back rooms. The Kindle will allow me a permanent (as much as anything can be permanent) library of classic books.

The first books I loaded onto the Kindle came from Gutenberg--as will the majority--the Moncrieff translation of Swann's Way, To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, The Ambassadors and Wings of the Dove by Henry James, Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Dubliners by James Joyce. That's because these books were either in my present reading list or on the radar for reading. I intend to add Dickens, H. Rider Haggard, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Austen, Fielding, Trollope, Thackery, and so on to my Kindle as time allows. (The preparation of the Docs to meet my specifications takes a little while.)

I also went to the point of getting the Mobipocket book converter as the Kindle will read unprotected PRCs generated by this program (which allows a more controlled conversion of HTML into a kindle-friendly format). Additionally, they can be read on a Palm as well. Such conversion allows me to control, to some extent the styling and division in the text to make a more readable e-book experience.

The Kindle will mean for me a new set of possibilities in reading and a new way to engage in dialog with the books I love. It may also help me focus on "only the best."

Which leads me to a point about the Swedish Academy which is noted as saying that American literature is hardly literature as it is too insular and protected from outside influence. I would say rather that since the academy and modern European post-structuralist theory, the majority of literature is no longer literature--instead being a series of precious experiments with words that will cease to resonate almost before they have finished being read or spoken. It is difficult to find a modern work that compares with Joyce or Hardy or Dickens or, most especially, James. We work hard to make what we read difficult, obscure, experimental, almost without purpose. Such literature will rightly die the death it has so willingly brought upon itself and what is worthy will continue forward despite book award committees and Academies.

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I Offer This for What It Is

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I don't quite know what to make of this--but a person arrested for protesting the indoctrination of homosexuality in the schools? I suppose we'll see as the case continues:

Proposition 8 in CA

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From Anne Rice

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There is a very cogent point made at the beginning of Anne Rice's spiritual confession that is borne out by another book I reviewed here recently:

from Called out of Darkness
Anne Rice

The reason I've taken so long to describe this world in detail is because it is the world I knew before I was taught to read.

The knowledge of God, His Divine Son, and His saints was entirely iconic. And as scientists tell us, what we learn through pictures or icons is strikingly different from what we learn through the written word. The brain receives this information in a unique way. Learn from books is something else altogether.

Well, not entirely correct, but close enough; that is, the what may eventually be the same, but the how (which makes all the difference) will be quite startlingly different. And if we grant that the how influences the what . . . well, you get the point.

According to John Medina (see Brain Rules, below), the brain does not treat the two differently (at one level). Iconic images and the written word are both viewed and treated by the brain as images, hence, it processes them in similar ways. However, because the iconic image is direct, it requires no further processing--the image is there. Certainly interpretation is required in the way interpretation is required when we look at a glass of water; and it does not preclude an aesthetic level of additional interpretation and appreciation. However, the written word is viewed as very much the same--images that are disassembled and stored in the same way other images are. However, the written word consists of a set of images that must be processed and interpreted before they can have any real meaning other than images. That is, there is no immediate meaning in the written word--it requires further analysis--hence when we hit upon a word we do not know, the image of the word does not tell us what the word means.

All of this is to say pretty much what Ms Rice says here--we learn from the two differently. They enter the brain and roll around in similar ways, but the end result is quite different--powerfully different. Hence, it is often easier to be affected by and learn from amazing images than it is to read about it and try to internalize it. A good icon of St. Therese (for example) is likely to bring me more immediately into her company than any amount of reading about her.

Don't know why i maunder on about this except that I found it an interesting correspondence between disparate writers with very different purposes.

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My Reading List. . .

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as if you care. But I do, so here it is:

José Saramago--Death with Interruptions
Anne Rice--Called Out of Darkness: a spiritual confession
Sigrid Undset--Kristin Lavransdatter (2nd time through this one)
Marcel Proust--In Search of Lost Time (Either the 4th or 5th time through this, and it changes every time. Decided to go the easy route this time because my book list is so long--so--no French. Hope to finish by the end of the month--but that is more than ambitious--it's lunatic.)

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Brain Rules--John Medina

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This is a book that should be on the shelves of every educator in America, indeed, most especially on the shelves of the homeschooling moms and dads across the country. At once a benign indictment of our present educational mores and an unknowing support for most of the activities of home-schooling families, it helps to illuminate why homeschooling can be such an effective strategy for most children.

Dr. Medina is a molecular biologist focused on the development of the human brain and psychiatric disorders. As such, he is a good person to speak to the validity of much of the bogus "brain science" that seems to sweep through education and industry like a moldy plague--unsubstantiated, unproved, and unmourned when it has swept on.

In this book, Medina outlines 12 "rules" about the brain that have a substantial basis in present brain research. While the book conveys the contours of the information, it is not laden with a lot of references. Indeed, one would wonder, if one were not privileged to visit the Brain Rules Site whether there was any substantiatiion for any of this.

Never fear, there is--for a single chapter nearly eight, very tightly filled PDF pages of references. But references are not the whole of the book, and they do very little good if we can't use the rest of it.

Brain Rules is written in remarkably simple prose with suggestions here and there for how to implement them in our lives, education, and business practices. They are common sense, rules we all understand from experience. A sleepy brain doesn't learn or retain well. Exercise boosts brain power, etc. Nothing startling. But what is startling, and fun, are the reasons behind the rules.

So, if you're interested in education or in how the brain functions or in how scientists think and view the world, you might fine this easy-to-read book a nice introduction.

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I Can Sympathize

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from The Selected Poems of Wang Wei
tr. David Hinton

The Way It Is

Faint shadow, a house, and traces of rain.
In courtyard depths, the gate's still closed

past noon. That lazy, I gaze at moss until
its azure-green comes seeping into robes.

Yep, been there, done that, and I have the souvenirs still here about my person.

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How to Read a Book--John Sutherland

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As though we need another book with anything like this title; however, I must admit to being a sucker for every one of them, if for no other reason than in their discursive tour of the literary world, I might fasten on to a few monuments or even wrecks that had not yet come to my attention.

So, too, with this book--refreshing because it comes from the perspective of a publisher and literary Judge whose primary work takes in the U.K. Frequent reference is made to the Man Booker prize and to recent prize winner and nominees--Ian McEwan, John Banville, Alan Hollinghurst.

But one of the delights of this particular excursion is that Mr. Sutherland vouchsafes us a glimpse behind the scenes into the marketing and promotion of literary works and into the mechanics of the judging of books for prizes. Even more he illuminates the great John Banville/Ian McEwan (mostly unheard of) debacle in which a negative review of Mr. McEwan's Saturday may have helped clench for Mr. Banville the Man-Booker Prize for The Sea.

If you love books and the stories behind them, this book may be for you.

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Ballistics--Billy Collins

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This newest collection of the poetry of Billy Collins highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of his ability. The notable poems in the collection deal with the details of everyday life and illuminate the human experience in such a way as to surprise and delight us. This is the final effect of poetry. There should be a little aha, an amused laugh, or a sudden piercing insight--not necessarily of anything terribly important, but just a way of looking at something that hadn't been considered before.

As a poet, Collins has a way of hijacking his own poems and taking them off to some other place. For example, in the poem "Dublin," there are exactly two stanzas devoted to anything about Dublin, the remainder being dedicated to an exhibit of the Codex of Leonardo. This is not a bad thing--it is part of the poet's rhythm and surprise. And when it works, it works wonderfully well, to help you see things in a different way.

Sometimes the very good may be a trifle overplayed as in this example from "Despair."

Today, with the sun blazing in the trees,
my thoughts turn to the great
tenth-century celebrator of experience,

Wa-Hoo, whose delight in the smallest things
could hardly be restrained,
and to his joyous counterpart in the western provinces,
Ye-hah.

While it provokes a laugh and certainly rounds out the point of the poem, it may be over the top. (Note, may be. I like the poem so much that I'm not certain I'm willing to admit that point yet.)

The poems that speak most to me are those that highlight the magic implicit in everyday life. I quoted in an earlier entry from the poem "Tension." Poems such as "Searching," "Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant," and "Looking Forward" are other examples. The middle poem also indulges in a bit of subject-hijacking I spoke of earlier.

References to previous poets abound. Bloom, if he chose to direct his attention this way would relish the anxiety of influence so obvious in some selections. For example, the title "The Idea of Natural History at Key West," and an explicit mention in "August" reveal the influence of Wallace Stevens. In "No Things" we are threated by a "Philip Larkin who waits for us in an undertaker's coat." Ovid, Paul Valéry, Charles Lamb, Juan Ramon Jiminez, Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson, Whitman, Amy Lowell, and (I think) Randall Jarrell all make guest appearances as well.

A collection worth some time and attention--at time humorous and slight, humorous and gigantic, but almost always joyous with a real sense of play and delight in language that should be a Poet's hallmark.

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The Beginning of October

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I think I've said before that October is my favorite month. It has long been so. Apple harvest is in, the beginning of pumpkin pie and spice season, and that gradual lowering toward the deep dark of December, but not yet there.

Another thing about October, and perhaps this is just another sign of my calling, is that we celebrate two major Carmelite Saint feasts and the Feast of the Holy Rosary (which is neither Carmelite, nor a favorite of mine, but it adds to that month in which we also celebrate St. Francis of Assisi and indeed, All Saints).

For today, I just wanted to remind everyone of the gentle power of St. Therese, the entrenched determination to love. She is a saint who said she wanted to spend her heaven doing good on Earth, and the good she did, does, and taught/teaches continues to support us all in our journey toward God.

Happy October. Happy St. Therese Day. And a joyous conclusion to Rosh Hashanah, with hopes for a blessed Yom Kippur.

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Two Slight Poems

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Dancer's Tights

Not only had I never considered
but I'd never known
the deep mystery of the circular
hole in the foot of a dancer's tights

Naked

Of course, he'd seen
himself naked
in the mirror
but he hadn't
ever looked. That
would be so gay.

Well, I did say they were slight.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by Steven Riddle in October 2008.

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