Poem on Fickle Muses: Sisyphus Ponders Escape

My Poem on Fickle Muses “Sisyphus Ponders Escape”

My poem, “Sisyphus Ponders Escape,” went up on Fickle Muses’ site today. Fickle Muses is ending publication soon, and I am honored to have work published there before the site’s long run comes to an end. While I’m sorry to see the site coming to a close, I can appreciate the deep commitment that has sustained Fickle Muses thus far at the same time I as understand the need for one chapter to end so that another can begin.

If You Were Sisyphus

Often we think ourselves trapped — by life, other people, commitments, hopes, challenges…and by forces we can’t even conceptualize. Forces which we could never have imagined would bring themselves to act on our lives.  And we think there is little we can do about our situation.

I’m not sure that’s always true.

There’s plenty of times we can’t control anything except our own actions and reactions.

But many times, we can do more, if we only believe it is possible.

If you were Sisyphus, trapped in unending torment for something you were only a little sorry to have done, what would you think?  Would you think you had any control?  The punishment is intended to take control away, replace control with unending effort and drudgery at someone else’s whim.

Bad enough that the various problems and circumstances of life seem to go on forever.  But what if the punishment for trying to control events beyond your allowed scope doesn’t just seem but actually goes on forever?  That’s the situation Sisyphus is in.

The while the modern notion of punishment is that it is intended to rehabilitate the one who is punished. In the case of Sisyphus, there is no allowance for the potential of redemption.  No possibility of parole, no time served for good behavior.

Sisyphus rightly knows that, unless he acts on behalf of himself, the endless repetition of punishment will continue. No one is coming to rescue him. If he wants out, he must engineer the escape himself.

That’s what this poem is about.

Is there more?

Some of you probably know that I am working on a collection of Sisyphus-related poems.  The collection is shaping up nicely. While I’d like to say it will be ready for this winter, I’m not completely sure about that.

Thanks to Fickle Muses for the publication!  Enjoy!


Go Look at Issue 8 of Sediments Literary-Arts Journal posted 9/11

New Publication:

Issue 8 of Sediments Literary-Arts Journal went up today, 9/11 — take a look!https://sedimentslit.com/

On this 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the first poem of the current issue, “in America we like our heroes dead” by Matthew Bendert, has particular significance.

Where were you on 9/11?

I was at work.  I walked through the basement level of the research building I worked in and saw several people huddled around a television set. Some were crying.  I couldn’t see, at first, what was happening.  I had to push myself to the front of the group.

It was an old-style television, set on a tall, narrow cart, too heavy to move easily on its own.  By today’s standards, it is now ancient.  By the standards of its time, it was a little out of date, but not ancient.

It reminded me of the first moon landings, when I was in kindergarten.  I watched film of those landings from the floor of the gymnasium, staring up at the huge, bulky television with its tiny black and white screen atop the towering audio-visual cart. My friends, silent as I was, watched with me.  We craned our necks up, as if we were looking into the night sky.

But this was no moon landing.

That day, I watched the news on that basement television set as the second of the Twin Towers fell.  I missed the fall of the first.

Whatever sound played, whatever newscaster spoke, I have no memory of.

Just that picture, over and over, being replayed: the first plane hitting the tower. The tower coming down.

Later that day, I had a call from a client in New Jersey.

They had spent most the day on their rooftop, watching what seemed like the world coming apart. They felt we should wait on the next delivery.  I agreed.  I wasn’t sure there would ever be another delivery of anything again.  I wasn’t sure what might happen tomorrow.

Tomorrow is never assured.  We get so used to the sun coming up, so used to the next day being so much like the previous, that we think is has been assured to us.  We think  we can count on the tomorrow we envision.

Of course, there is far less we can count on that we realize. Yet, there is a positive side to this uncertainty.

If we lived with the knowledge of the raw uncertainty of life foremost in our minds, we could accomplish nothing.

The illusion of permanence, the illusion of safety, lets us forge forward into the future. It lets us create, and build.  Invest, educate, sow, reap. Without the expectation of safety, we would accomplish nothing as a people.

9/11 reminded us of the fragility — and preciousness — of living in our illusions just enough to forge a society, a people, a future.

Review Links: Levis’ “The Darkening Trapeze”

What Comes After Elegy?

The appearance of The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems, by Larry Levis, Graywolf Press, 2016, surprised those who expected that Elegy, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997, also published posthumously, was probably the last collection of Larry Levis’ work. Since its publication in January this year, however, The Darkening Trapeze was has been received to high acclaim, and has been widely reviewed and contemplated in print.

Full disclosure: I studied with Levis at the Warren Wilson College MFA for Writers Program in the early ’90’s, so I am absolutely biased. I agree with most of what I see in the press about Levis in general and The Darkening Trapeze in particular.  Rather than re-state what has otherwise been very well said, I will list below various links, grouped into the three categories of reviews, remembrances, and other. Of course this cannot be completely comprehensive. Please feel free to leave any adds or misses in the comments.

Reviews of Levis’ The Darkening Trapeze:

Ploughshares Review of The Darkening Trapeze from February, 2016. A particularly perceptive comment is “If humor offers a way of coping with the self-consciousness of sentiment, one of the great tropes of Levis’ work is that jokes often spiral out of control into tragedy”.

In Tess Taylor’s NPR review of The Darkening Trapeze,. I especially like the description she gives of Larry’s poems as “mournful, quicksilver inhabitations.”

Publisher’s Weekly posted Ada Limon’s review in which she calls The Darkening Trapeze “a book in which hope is only delivered in increments, slowly and under the door”.

In David Biespiel’s review of The Darkening Trapeze for the NY Times, Biespiel says of Larry’s work: “Rarely have life’s joys and bitterness been embraced with such decency.”

Kathleen Graber reviewed The Darkening Trapeze  –and referred back to earlier collections, in her post for the LA Review of Books. She covers a lot of ground in this in-depth consideration, but I like that she’s pointed out “how hypnotic the unfurling of Levis’s sentences can be” — a characteristic which I think intensified over the span of his work.

In a review for Graywolf Press’ blog, Mark Doty describes Levis’ work as confessional and post-confessional, “bound in time” and yet leaking into timelessness. I agree with his assertion that “people will be reading Larry Levis a hundred years from now, should there be readers of poetry, or readers at all.”

Remembrances of Levis:

David St. John–first student, then long-time close friend and colleague of Larry’s–who edited Levis’ Selected Poems, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000, also compiled and edited The Darkening Trapeze. As part of Graywolf Press’ blog series, David St. John muses on an iconic Larry Levis moment.

An impressive Levis moment at a reading, is told by a then-PhD student, Pam Houston, from Graywolf Press’ series of remembrances of Larry.

Charles Baxter’s lithub post — in which he recalls Larry Levis, and calls him a “lizard poet”.

Erika L. Sanchez’ describes what Levis’ work means to her, in particular the feeling his work creates of “a sharp ache for something I can’t quite identify”, in another post for Graywolf Press.

Also available to purchase, in The American Poetry Review’s March/April 2016 issue, is the long piece The Darkening Trapeze: A Conversation which is a conversation between the poets Gregory Donovan, Linda Gergerson, Terrance Hayes, and Tony Hoagland in which they span the range of Levis’ poetry and its development over time.  Also in this issue are three poems from The Darkening Trapeze.

Other Levis Links:

Not a review about the newest book, but a good bio and bibliography of Larry Levis’ work: Poets.org Bio and Bibliography

Want to hear Larry Levis discuss poetry, and, in particular, the elegy?  On the Warren Wilson College MFA site, you can buy a digital copy of Levis’ lecture from January, 1994:  On Elegy: Seamus Heaney’s “Station Island”

Joseph Fasano’s 2015 examination of the theme of banishment running through Levis’ poetics was also published at poets.org.

Also not a review– a documentary film A Late Style of Fire: Larry Levis, American Poet will be released this fall.  I’m looking forward to seeing the film, though of course revisiting the past always brings up so much that is bittersweet–like much of Levis’ work.

My Own Opinion

As I said at the beginning, you have to remember that I am biased.  Hayes talks in the APR article about Larry trying to “expand the edges” of the poem.  Others have written about the long, sometimes recursive, lines that mark his later work. a sort of circling about the subject as a means of eventually containing what cannot be contained. Donovan says they “swirl” and Hoagland and Graber describe the poems as having “unfurled.”

When I think of Larry writing in his later style, all the above seem apt descriptions.  But I am left with an image of the poet as fly fisherman, casting a line out into life’s stream, tugging and reeling it back through the moving water, patiently casting again, tempting and entrancing, until the mesmerized fish strikes and is able to be brought into the light.


The Lost Neruda Poems, Trans. Forrest Gander

Then Come Back, The Lost Neruda Poems —Translation by Forrest Gander

I love reading translations into English–the imagery and metaphors of another mindset, worldview, often come across so fresh and startling when they come from another language. But translations bring challenges. First, how good is the translation of Then Come Back, The Lost Neruda Poems? Second, how good is the reader?

hardcover image, Then Come Back, The Lost Neruda
Then Come Back, The Lost Neruda

Challenge: How Good Is The Translation

Unless you are a native speaker of the original language, it is difficult to know the quality of the translation. And the original language and the language of the translation don’t always allow for the same intent, effect, meaning in roughly the same form, line, structure. The translator’s skill in general, and affinity in particular for the poem in its native language, come into play here.

Challenge: How Good Is The Reader

Some poems, in translation or not, present everything directly within the poem which the reader needs to experience the poem.  But some require the reader to know more. They rely on the reader to know the political, cultural, artistic, intellectual background out of which the poem or poet operates. Some require the cultural subtext associated with charged vocabulary to inform the reader.  The translator of such works needs to ensure denotation and connotation come across in the translation appropriately. So the reader must bring the necessary knowledge, but the translator is still critical—the translation must adequately represent the poetic and cultural background from the native poem in the second language.

It’s a three-way dance: poet, translator, reader

Then Come Back, The Lost Neruda Poems is a translation of 21 poems culled from the notebooks and other writing left by Pablo Neruda to his estate. They were published in Spanish in 2014. The English translations are by Forrest Gander, who has previously translated some of Neruda’s work. The bilingual edition was just recently available, published by Copper Canyon Press in Spring, 2016.

Reading Translations—Inhabiting Another Mindspace

When I read translations I like to start with the translator(s) note(s) or introduction.  This helps me understand what the translator believed was most important — connotation, denotation, form, music—what could be represented in English, what could only be represented in compromise, what could never be compromised without gutting the poems themselves. It often tells where the translator felt that s/he fell short, was unable to make the translation capture the original to his/her satisfaction.

So, full disclosure: I have not fully read the translator’s introduction to Then Come Back, The Lost Neruda Poems.  I’ve tried, but I’m currently limited by my inability to get past the parallels between Gander’s having to deal with his mother’s decline due to Alzheimer’s and my own mother’s recent passing. My mother’s death was due to complications of COPD, but for the last year or two her lucid moments had been growing too far apart for any kind of comfort.

Also, full disclosure: I have not finished thoroughly reading the poems of Then Come Back itself, short though the work actually is at only 21 poems. I kept getting stopped by the imagery. These poems are arresting, at least in English.  They operate mostly on images and personal impression (vs. political and cultural commentary). Also I kept getting interrupted, by the demands of family and job and eventually my mother’s passing. So I’ve read the poems but some have not had the reading they deserve, the attention from this reader which allows each poem to fully speak.

Finally, I admit to a certain trepidation when I started reading the poems. I began with solemnity and intent, then soon found myself slipping into this other head space, communing with the virtual poetry-mind of Neruda. It’s a place full of Neruda’s characteristic patterns, rhythms, sensuality. I was in the midst of the revision on a series of linked poems and felt I couldn’t risk losing myself into that other space. It would be too easy to bring some of Neruda’s vernacular and tone back with me, into poems where it didn’t belong. So this, too, delayed me. Perhaps that was an unfounded fear. Yet Gander says it better than I just did, in his introduction:

“What do I ever give up to take on a translation project? My own writing goes on hold, but when, eventually, I come back to it, I bring to it something new—a feral vocabulary I’ve adopted from the translation, a fresh set of syntactical and rhythmical strategies, the image repertoire of someone else’s imagination. I always come back changed.”

How Does Then Come Back Fare in Translation?

Simply: it fares beautifully.

One is hardly aware of the translator’s presence at all, at least in English. There is no stuttering, no awkwardness of vocabulary, no over-use of obviously literal translation which doesn’t work in English. If I were a native Spanish speaker I could tell you how is the contrast between the English and Spanish versions. I’ll speak to that more below, but my suspicion is that the bilingual versions are highly compatible with poetic intent.

As poems in English, the first thing that strikes one is the simplicity of language, combined with the strikingly original imagery. This is Neruda as seen in so many other works—able to take precise and common language and rearrange it to evoke uncommonly arresting images and emotions.

Because I have gone back so many times, starting with Poem 1 and moving each time further through the book, I have spent the most time on the first poem and I’ll use it as exemplar here. I should note that the poems are not titled but numbered, in deference to Neruda’s lack of titles for them in his papers.

Poem 1

Here is the first line of the poem: simple, precise, intense, drawing you in with sensual possibility:

I touch your feet in the shade, your hands in the light,

And then the second lines dives in out of some other world, falls from the clouds at intense speed, bullets its way down into the poem, and strikes deep into the heart of the subject:

and on the flight your peregrine eyes guide me

That image has stayed with me for weeks. Imagine: peregrine eyes. A sense of sexual connectedness, enabled not by the poet’s sensual exploration but by the fierce, taking-my-prey eyes of the lover. Guiding is almost too soft a concept for the peregrine, except that the guidance is provided by the eyes—the potential for explosive danger remains in the beak, talon, everything else the peregrine is, with all that energy barely restrained, but spoken to by the eyes which hold back nothing. A charged, coiled potential is channeled into that moment of touching “your feet in the shade” and “your hands in the light”.

How much of this impression is the poet, how much the translator, how much the fancy and reaction of this reader? It is probably impossible to say. One might suggest that, with language so clear and simple, the job of the translator here is merely to scribe literally the move from Spanish to English. Yet even in such straightforward language, if we look closer, we see it isn’t simple.

Changes in Translation—One Example

Bilingual editions often give the same poem in both languages on facing pages. It makes for interesting reading if you are bilingual, to see them presented together. Or even if you are only poorly conversant in the original language, you can see the correspondence of word choices, wonder at their correspondence, or not, of effect.

Then Come Back doesn’t do this. In this version, the English language poems are first and then the same poems are given in the same order in Spanish. I imagine that for the Spanish language reader, this makes for a completely immersive experience, as it does for the English speaker reading only the English translations.

Here are the same two first lines of Poem 1, in Spanish:

Tus pies toco en la sombra, tus manos en la lus,
y en el vuelo me guían tus ojos aguilares

Notice that the eyes are “aguilares” not “peregrino” as I might have expected. If it were me, I would have translated “ojos aguilares” as “eagle eyes”. Why choose the less obvious peregrine over the eagle?

Well, it is always possible that “peregrine eyes” is the more colloquially used translation of a common phrase, but I think not. I’ll give you three other reasons that “peregrine” is a better choice than “eagle”, and then I think you’ll see why the translator is so essential to the process here:

  • Peregrine doesn’t drag along all the English-language connotations we have of eagle in the West and in the U.S. specifically. It doesn’t bring along all the political imagery or our emotional connections to eagle which have become so common as to make the eagle seem almost tame. By contrast, using “peregrine” keeps the focus on the animal, sexual, wild world.
  • The peregrine hawk is the world’s most widely known bird of prey because it is so broadly occurring. Peregrine hawks are found everywhere in the world except the arctic and the rain forest. It therefore doesn’t intimate a place beyond the wilderness—which is important because until the end of the poem we don’t get a place reference.
  • The place finally referenced in the poem, at the end, made synonymous with the lover’s heartbeat, the peregrine eyes, and the syllable which represents the lover (or which has been represented by the lover all along) is in southern Chile and western Argentine — the home of the Araucano, a pre-Incan people. The Auraucanos are known for their independence and for insistent resistence to being colonized by the Incas and later by the Spanish.  This fierce spirit fits perfectly the lover’s “peregrine eyes”. (It also helps to know that the Matilde mentioned in the poem is Neruda’s third wife and widely recognized as his muse.)

Neruda did not precisely choose the word peregrine in his original. However, in translation, “peregrine eyes” is a much better choice than the more literal “eagle eyes” might be.

Here’s the last line of the poem:

my blood pounded out your Araucan syllable.

Here the spirit of the Araucan lover is equated with the peregrine and its coiled energy, it’s insistent eyes, and oddly, a syllable, a specifically Araucan syllable. With this line, the poem takes a turn from celebrating the sensual and sexual. It requires you read back upon the poem the metaphors of syllable as lover, lover as syllable, and syllable standing in for the poem, the poetic, and lover standing in for muse. You are compelled to reach back up into the shade and light of the poem’s beginning, to see this poet as loving a poem, seducing it, being seduced and guided by it, as much as by any untamable lover. It’s a startling turn, unsettling in its unexpectedness. Most of all it is fitting, and hardly fits with my connotation of an eagle at all.

You can see why it takes me so long to get through this book—I stop and start and review the Spanish versions and look up words (English and Spanish) on line. I consider and then revise my considerations—I “Then Come Back” from impression to impression within the same poem.

So much richness, packed into so few lines.

Whether you are a long time Neruda fan, or never yet knew his work, I highly recommend this new book.

Poet Elizabeth Bishop’s Armadillo — Or Not

Poet Elizabeth Bishop’s Armadillo Bobblehead — Or Not

How A Place Fires Your Imagination Matters More Than Any Facts About It

Have you had the ability to meet a person you’ve admired from afar? No, I don’t mean admire in that stalker-ish manner. I mean admiring someone you have no real contact with, perhaps a musician, artist, writer. Maybe a leader in your field, one you’d like to emulate. Maybe someone whose work or ethics you admire, or an historical figure.  For me, that person was Elizabeth Bishop, who of course I had never seen in person.

Maybe you weren’t able to meet your idol because he is no longer alive, or maybe she lived a long time before you were born. Hence our preoccupation with visiting places connected to the famous or infamous.  You go to Graceland if you like Elvis. You go to Mount Vernon and learn more about George Washington.

In the case of the poet, Elizabeth Bishop, I went to Samambaia House. Samambaia House, or Fazenda Samambaia, is one of the places Bishop lived in Brazil.  It is near Petrópolis, in the mountains.

Elizabeth Bishop has long been one of my favorite poets. I especially admire the way the words and lines feel right: not forced, not contrived. If playful, then playful without being showy. If disturbing, then disturbing in a quiet, understated, precise manner, the embodiment of let-me-elegantly-put-that-dagger-between-your-ribs.

Visiting Bishop’s Home in Brazil

Occasionally I’m able to make a business trip to Petrópolis; my employer has an office there. One year, my visit coincided with my birthday. When I was asked what I would like to do to celebrate my birthday, I’d said it would be great to visit the site of Bishop’s home in Samambia.

Our manager in Petrópolis, a transplanted Dutchman, probably has a two or three degree connection with everyone around the globe. So of course he had a connection who had a connection with Fazenda Samambaia. The daughter of one of our suppliers had married into a family with a large shipping business. The family owned the house, and the daughter was living there at the time.

On our day off, my host took me to visit Fazenda Samambaia, designed by Sérgio Bernardes. Bishop shared this house and an apartment in Rio for about 15 years in the ’50s and early ’60s with the architect, Lota de Macedo Soares. Bishop wrote many of her most famous poems while living there–including those published in 1965’s Questions of Travel. In letters, she wrote of the difficulty of making the poems match her vision. She would leave gaps where she knew a word should go–and Robert Lowell and other poets commented on her extreme patience and need for precision. The gaps might persist for long periods of time–months, years.  She wrote of gazing out the huge windows at the tropical landscape, and considering, waiting, for the right word.

It’s hard for me to imagine following such a process. If I’m trying to find the right word, I can’t leave a space blank for long. I’ll put in a word that is close, maybe mark it in brackets or note it as not quite right, but I can’t just leave it blank. I grope and experiment my way to a solution.

If I’m not sure about that one word or phrase, probably I am not sure about the whole line. That Bishop was so certain about a part of the line, all except for one subset of the line —that’s an artistic process I can’t fathom.

I also can’t fathom how Lota de Macedo Soares managed to build such a modern house in what, at the time, must have seemed a very remote location.

I’ve a summer birthday — so that means it was winter in Brazil. Chilly and rainy in the mountains. The drive from my host’s home in the hills above Petropolis to Fazenda Samambaia seemed a short time. If it had been a sunny day, it might have seemed even shorter, because we would have had better visibility. We drove narrow roads through small villages, switchbacking our way up and down. Some roads were dirt, some paved in asphalt, or even lined in brick. It wasn’t pouring rain, just a steady drizzle. The mist settled into the mountains. We drove in and out of the arms of the clouds.

When we approached Bishop’s one-time home, I realized it was almost exactly as you see in pictures. It’s well known for its architectural value. You can see pictures of it here: Fazenda Samambaia

Of course, the pictures I took that day, before the availability of good digital cameras, were terrible. Fazenda Samambaia is a modern building full of glass and natural materials coaxed into sleek lines. There’s a large, long space where, through the tall windows, you could see shelves and shelves of books. Bookcases were arranged on an angle like you might see in a stylish library. There was nothing to stop us from parking as close as seemed practical, walking up to the house, and knocking.

We didn’t have an appointment, and our contacts were not at home. A housekeeper came to the door and let us in out of the rain. We stood just inside the door and my host discussed the situation with her, translating for me.

For a few moments I thought I was going to have to prove my poetic credentials by reciting a poem. I desperately tried to recall some of Bishop’s more famous lines. That’s what would be required, right? But I blanked. All I could come up with was the beginning to The Cars in Caracas:  “The cars in Caracas / create a ruckukus, / a four-wheeled fracacas, / taxaxis and truckes.” — which is from a John Updike poem originally published in The New Yorker. It wasn’t even a Bishop stanza! Great. I would sound like an idiot. The housekeeper might not understand me, but my host might think I’d lost my senses.

Thankfully the few questions about Bishop that I answered appeared to satisfy the housekeeper. It seems she knew the site was famous but didn’t know about the poetry. About the architecture, yes. People came to take photos, professional photographers. But she didn’t know about the poetry. And why would she? Bishop isn’t well-known except amongst literary circles—and sometimes not even then. Those circles are pretty small, as compared to society at large.

We saw a little bit of the house. My host and the housekeeper had a long conversation in Portuguese while I tried to imagine Bishop here in the rain inside what appeared to me to be a stark and cold building design, its sharp corners and harsh lines almost unforgiving. Yes, I realized I’ve probably just admitted to poor taste the equivalent of architectural heresy. It’s not that I don’t see a clean and strong appeal to the design. I just can’t imagine living in it. There’s stone, and lots of tile, and nothing but long panes of glass to separate the rain and tropical forest from the shelter inside. The lush surroundings appeared to cut the house off from the world, like a curtain of greenery enclosing the home. Bishop wrote masterpieces here, and all I was doing was dripping on the tiles.

Bishop commented in her letters that she would watch storms roll in through those huge windows. Storm watching I could imagine: the dense greenery eventually fading to gray as storms slowly shrouded the house in mist. Is it any wonder that Bishop’s poems each appear to be singular, similar to each other in some ways but self-contained, cut off from the rest of the world? The setting of Fazenda Samambaia is so self-contained, cut off, separate by site and design from everything around it. Just slightly foreign to the surroundings. If you had told me we had traveled through a magical portal to another world where everything was familiar and yet simply non-adjacent to our world, I wouldn’t have argued the point.

We turned to leave, and my host thanked the housekeeper. I pulled my jacket hood back up. We were just about out of the door when she asked us to wait. She went off into another part of the house and came back a few minutes later with a carved armadillo. It’s head and tail were both attached so that they could sway. It was a birthday gift, something to remember Elizabeth Bishop by, she said. I stammered my thanks in English, and poor Portuguese, and even some lousy Spanish for good measure. My host, who speaks seven languages, translated back and forth for us. (Side note: seven languages? No, I’m not kidding. No wonder the Dutch were masters of global trade for so long.)

Bishop’s Armadillo — Or Not

I think the housekeeper chose her words carefully. Something to remember the visit by, remember Bishop by. Not something that had belonged to Bishop.  Probably the housekeeper had no way to know if the little bobblehead had belonged to Bishop or not.

The amadillo was probably something that didn’t belong to the current residents and had been left behind by someone who’d lived there prior. That kind of thing happens. We still have an end table and a few other pieces scattered about our house that we call ‘roommate furniture’. Something that someone left behind when they moved out. Not trash, but not something they wanted, and not something we’d purposely accumulated. But useful, or at least not in the way. So it sticks around.

In any case, the housekeeper hadn’t felt right giving us an extensive tour, and I can’t blame her for that. For all my gregarious Dutchman’s efforts, we were still strangers. Likely the couple currently living in the house wasn’t attached to the trinket. Likely it never belonged to Bishop. But as a souvenir, it has purpose.

In the poem Questions of Travel, from the book of the same name, Bishop says:

Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?

and at the end asks:

                                            Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?

These questions put voice to the world of “what if?” Maybe we should have stayed, maybe we should have gone. Maybe we would have been different if we had not traveled. But having traveled, and being now who we have become, we cannot know if that other, potential version of ourselves, would have been better.  And like we (would not be happy returning to the state wherein we would be happy to have stayed home.  Or, As Bishop says:

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,

(That’s the thing about poems. If you can truly paraphrase a poem, you don’t need it.)

I took the armadillo home and put it on a shelf. It’s not fancy and not exactly cute. Every so often, I move it to a different shelf. It is hand-carved, not entirely symmetrically. I think it is made from the husk of a large tree nut that grows in Brazil, kind of like a coconut, not from a solid piece of wood. It’s charming and unique. It sits apart wherever I put it. If jostled, the head and tail bobble a bit. I have the feeling it is just fine with itself. It knows there isn’t really a way to improve upon it. It doesn’t wonder if it should have been a different version of itself. It is at ease with itself. It has been handcrafted, and it is clear that the maker knew it was finished.

Bishop wrote many of her famous poems while living at Fazenda Samambaia. Slowly perhaps. But more importantly, with deliberation. She perhaps gazed on occasion at this armadillo, or something similar. Something handmade. Something that wasn’t quite perfect but was complete regardless of its imperfections. She channeled her need for perfection and precision — of both word & image — into her poetry.

The things I’d been told, but couldn’t imagine before this visit, suddenly seemed possible to me: that Bishop’s poetry had not sprung fully-formed from her brow; that she sometimes waited long periods, leaving a space in a poem where she knew something was missing or not quite right, until the correct word or phrase came to her, perhaps as a storm crawled up the mountain, and the poem was suddenly finished.

I don’t know what I expected to get by visiting Bishop’s former home. Did I think some of her skill would rub off on me? That I would be able, by looking at the view she’d once seen, to suddenly see through her eyes? That it would somehow help me as a poet? Or was it just one of those curiosities, the way people want a piece of a rock star, want to see where their idol has lived, worked, fallen, gotten back up.

Regardless of my expectations, what I got was a renewed appreciation for patience. For separating myself from everything around me, just enough. Patience to wait for that storm to roll in. Confidence that it eventually will arrive. If need be, I can move forward and come back to the troublesome bit later.  The storm may wash the trouble from the very air.

When I am frustrated with my writing, I take a look at the armadillo. Move it to another spot. Shake it gently. Let it be a reminder. You can’t second-guess everything, and forward is always possible. The armadillo always agrees with me.

Later in the same book, in the poem The Armadillo, Bishop says:

Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,

and that is the only direct mention of the armadillo, despite the poem’s title.  Can you see that armadillo in this bobblehead?  I think, perhaps, I can.

Bobble-head Armadillo, supposedly once belonging to Elizabeth Bishop
Bobble-head Armadillo, supposedly once belonging to Elizabeth Bishop

Have you ever visited the former home of a literary (or other) idol? Did it match you expectations or change the way you saw your idol?

Writing, Distractions, Productivity

Writing, Distractions, Productivity

Causes of Lack of Focus

Most days, I can focus well even if there are a lot of noises and distractions all around me.  Today wasn’t one of those days.

For one thing, I had a lot to accomplish at work.  For another, I have a number of personal stressors to manage: illness in the family, kids’ activities, a teen learning to drive. Even small things, like the jury duty summons I received in the mail. It’s as if all these are rattling around in my head at the same time

Add to that a desire to work on my poems or finish drafting a blog post, and my productivity seems to have dropped into low gear. I’m like the computer loaded with more programs than it can efficiently run.  Something is getting done, but only with maximum effort, and not rapidly.

At this point, even one more thing in my way — papers scattered on my desk, an empty pop can, the stapler that I know needs to be refilled with staples — can reduce my minimal forward progress to zero.

How I Combat Lack of Focus

I manage lack of focus in one of several ways:

  • Power thru it.  Tough it out until I am immersed enough in something I am doing that the ability to focus becomes natural again.
  • Give up on big tasks and concentrate on checking off the little mindless tasks that eat up my focus and have to be done eventually.
  • Do whatever I can to control my environment in order to get as quiet a frame of mind as possible.
  • Give it all up and go take a nap or a walk.

Experts in productivity will tell you there’s a hierarchy here, and you should never do those little mindless tasks if it results in you procrastinating on more important tasks.  While I generally agree with that statement, I think you have to admit that there are times when you are just too ineffective to do anything else.   In that case, you will feel better if you get those minor tasks out of the way.

Dealing with Distractions: Controlling My Workspace

Today, powering through distractions didn’t work for me, and it wasn’t really an option to shift my efforts over to my mindless task list.  Taking a nap or a walk was also off the table.

That left battening down the hatches, so to speak.  Controlling my environment to keep visual and auditory distractions outside my perimeter.

Here’s my hierarchy.  I take each step, and if it’s not enough help, I take the next step:

  1. Close the door, if the workspace has one.  If not, turn my back to where the door would logically be located and pretend it is closed.
  2. Remove clutter from my line of sight.  Meaning: pile it behind me and deal with it later.
  3. Put on headphones, without music.
  4. Play music through the headphones–using a tried-and-true playlist that I know helps me focus.
  5. Give up on 1-4 and go hide someplace quiet, such as the one in the photo above.

Usually, step 1 is enough.  Today, I had to go all the way to step 4.  I am definitely ready for the weekend!

How Do You Handle Distractions When You Need To Focus?

Leave a comment with your distraction-fighting go-to.  I’d love to see your ideas!