New Classics Spin: Summer Edition

  1.  Laurie Colwin:  Family Happiness
  2.  Anne Perry:  A Dangerous Mourning
  3. Toni Morrison:  Jazz
  4. Pym:  The Sweet Dove Died
  5. James Longenbach:  Earthling
  6. R.C. Hutchinson:  March the Ninth
  7.  Yates:  Cold Spring Harbor
  8. Yates:  Young Hearts Crying
  9. Brookner:  Family and Friends
  10. Vendler:  The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar
  11. Sharp:  Cluny Brown
  12.  Shamsie:  Home Fire
  13. Plumly:  Against Sunset
  14. Logan;  Night Battles
  15.  Wharton:  Summer
  16.  Wharton:  Bunner Sisters
  17.  Wharton:  The Pot Boiler
  18. James:  The Spoils of Poynton
  19. Logan:  Guilty Knowledge, Guilty Pleasure
  20. Ann Patchett:  Commonwealth

A Message from the dead….

What if you sit many hours by a dying woman’s side and she many times begs you to deliver a final message to her daughter?

My aunt Marjorie was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer in the autumn of 1995 and died in January of 1996.  My mother and I largely took care of her.  My aunt had been visiting her daughter when she received the diagnosis and she never went home.  But her daughter was unable to do all that needed to be done, so she asked my mother to become the primary caretaker.   She also had me fly in for several periods throughout the illness.

One time the daughter, my cousin, needed to go on a Disney cruise with her children to console her because her mother was dying (no, I don’t understand her logic but the optics were not lost on me).  Her mother asked me repeatedly to see to it that this daughter would make sure her own daughter received  a college education.  It was my aunt’s regret that she had never gone to a university.  She wanted this so much for her granddaughter.

Many times she clutched my wrist and looked earnestly at me and said:  “Please tell Barbara that she must send Norah to college.”   In truth, I rather assumed that Barbara was planning to do that in the fullness of time.  But her mother kept telling me:  “Please tell Barbara that my final wish is that Norah go to college.”

Months after Marjorie died, I wondered if I should share that her final thoughts had been about the future college education of her granddaughter.   She had become monomaniacal about the issue.  And she was not speaking too much to Barbara, who was assuming the role of Camille.

Several months later, I decided that I did owe it to Marjorie to let her family know what her final wish was.  I had made a promise.  Of course, it might insult her daughter, but it also might enlighten her as to the inner nature of her mother—facing death, Marjorie regrets her own lack of formal higher education and is determined that her granddaughter get one.

22 years later and I remain the family pariah.  I told Barbara (with as much diplomacy as possible) about her mother’s thoughts.  Barbara decided that I was drunk and/or on drugs and/or mentally ill.

What do the dead know?  What do the dying know?  Are we obligated to convey the thoughts that they urgently want to convey?  Are they capable of understanding the relevance of their messages?  I think that my cousin’s older brother believed that I was “stirring the shit” by speaking of his mother’s thoughts.

These cousins “out-sourced” the care of their dying mother.  She knew it.  She must have been furious that her daughter was snatching the final prima-donna moment away from her.  Family life is  dark and murky.

I’ve become a lot less compassionate since then.  I will no longer go running to the call of entitled people.



Ted Kooser: “Carrie”


“There’s never an end to dust
and dusting,” my aunt would say
as her rag, like a thunderhead,
scudded across the yellow oak
of her little house. There she lived
seventy years with a ball
of compulsion closed in her fist,
and an elbow that creaked and popped
like a branch in a storm. Now dust
is her hands and dust her heart.
There’s never an end to it.

from Sure Signs, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980

I’ve been enjoying some poems that are “simple” but nicely wrought.  They typically have  central metaphors:  “a ball of compulsion” a rag which is a “thunderhead”.  The old woman’s elbow creaking and popping.  And all to become dust.

I’ve been indulging in an old woman’s mimsy whimsy.  I’ve always tried to be inconspicuous, wearing black and navy garb and never daring beyond “neutral” colors.  Recently I developed a “compulsion” to find purple and red handbags; yellow and green shoes.   Rebelling against my innate frugality, I wanted to show pops of color in my outfits.

I’ve also turned to Wendall Berry.  I mourn Donald Hall more than I might have a decade ago.  In these times I want my poet’s to be “well-versed in country things” and I want them to be the opposite of Donald Trump and that terrorist group, The Republicans.

My mind can no longer handle the baroque or the intricate.  I need to escape–whether it’s via a word from Donald Justice or a phrase from Ted Kooser.  Whether it’s a red shoe or a purple one—anything that is not prosaic in today’s sense.

How I wish Aunt Carrie were a round to dust the detritus out of the White House!  Look at the beautiful image of Mr. Kooser and the deep and warm browns.  Then look at my gaudy shoes.  How can I live with such conflicting ideals?




Classics Spin

  1.  Edna Ferber:  American Beauty
  2.  Anne Perry:  A Dangerous Mourning
  3. Toni Morrison:  Jazz
  4. Pym:  The Sweet Dove Died
  5. Mann:  Death in Venice
  6. R.C. Hutchinson:  March the Ninth
  7.  Yates:  Cold Spring Harbor
  8. Yates:  Young Hearts Crying
  9. Ibsen:  An Enemy of the People
  10. Ibsen:  The Wild Duck
  11. DuMaurier:  The Scapegoat
  12. Marquand:  H.M. Pulham, Esquire
  13. Plumly:  Against Sunset
  14. Logan;  Night Battles
  15. Hardy:  A Pair of Blue Eyes
  16.  Wharton:  Bunner Sisters
  17. Butler:  The Way of All Flesh
  18. James:  What Maisie Knew
  19. James:  The Beast in the Jungle
  20. Hawthorne:  The Scarlet Letter

Routine is my enemy….

I was lucky that I found a job that (mostly) involved few routines.   Yes, there was a calendar and things went along in a steady sort of way but a few times a year they picked themselves up, put themselves away, and started differently–different people, different books, (even if Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 appeared where some might say it did not belong–I could fit it into a class on the 19th or 20th century novel).  I don’t like routine; I recoil from the tyranny of a list.  I am not precisely a free spirit:  I must begin my day by feeding and cats and steeping strong tea.  But I am a dud when it comes to challenges, patterns, commitments, steadiness, sturdiness, and repeating on Tuesday what I did on Monday.  If I were an Olympian (ridiculous thought), I would be a quick sprinter rather than a marathoner.  And thus we arrive at one of the reasons why I like to read poetry so much.  I can sprint into the world and dash out with celerity.   While I don’t think I have ADHD (I’ve read The Tales,  The Faerie Queen, PL, The Prelude, The Ring and the Book) I do think a little dab of reading will do me for many purposes.  Just as some people need oatmeal or The Today Show to set them up for the day, I need to get out of my own little geriatric mind.   Of course, as a professed enemy of habit, I don’t do it the same way every day.

More and more I come to appreciate the value of quotations from those other than poets.   I have a little book of quotes by Henry James.  And there’s no way I will ever read it methodically, but turning to some of its pages, I find much of delight.  The editor, a well-known James scholar, Michael Gorra, has made some superb selections:

“He saw more in his face, and he liked it the better for its not telling its whole story in the first three minutes.  That story came out as one read, in short instalments.”  From “The Lesson of the Master,” 1892.

“Will she understand?  She has everything in the world but one,” he added.  “But that’s half.”…”What is it?”…”A sense of humor.” The Awkward Age, 1899.

“When Milly smiled it was a public event–when she didn’t it was a chapter of history.” The Wings of the Dove,  1903

“She was as undomestic as a shop-front and as out of tune as a parrot.”  “The Marriages,” 1892.

What delightful ideas, figures of speech, and wit these quotations provide.   Gorra wrote a superb book called Portrait of a Novel:  Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece.  If I could recommend a quatrain of books to you right now, it would be Gorra’s two books, The Portrait of a Lady, and John Banville’s Mrs. Osmond.  

While I cannot hew to routine, I admire those who follow a schedule such as Henry James and Anthony Trollope.


“Sing for Me”


For several years in middle age I fell in love

With celebrated women, Maria Callas and

Miss Monkey Business (from a local band),

Then Dolly Parton. O Dolly, in the spirit of the flesh,

Dolly any woman met any place I’d ever been.

And later in the evening of that night

I asked if she would shed

That blond Aldebaran wig and the make-up, please,

Spike heels and that tightest

Cowgirl sequined dress she wore,

Then the reins that held her breasts.

There in the mirror we beheld

The girl she’d lost along the way –

She was so tiny I was taller

Than I’d ever been.

Sing for me, I begged.

I’m any man met anywhere

Who does not matter, and will not, ever.

She sang that song about lost love and bad men,

And there was me, a bad, lost loveable man again,

Full of too much whiskey, tired

Of ogling the ladies in the mirrors

Of the roadhouse bars. I’d lost my job,

I’d lost our tickets out of here, become that man

Who stuttered, howled, wept,

Fell down in the gravel parking lot, cursed,

Swallowed my tobacco, and said I’m sorry, Ma’am,

And she said, to the bunch grass,

To the cows, He’s just a bad man

Gone good. Or maybe he’s just mine.

She took my arm and off we walked

To charm the hollows of the glens

Where every rock and tree could be

A member of the wedding of the rocks and trees.
Steve Orlen


I love this poem! It opens up the deep-held, sometimes mortifying, obsessive feelings that some may dismiss as “crushes”. Do you have crushes? I am a specialist on the post-humous crush (safer than focusing on the living human!). I’ve done it with John Keats (could I have shown him long lingering pleasures of love?) and Wallace Stevens (might I have been a perfect dinner and concert companion, admiring his wines and his chocolate covered prunes). And Jane Austen was a huge crush, although I was a little bit afraid of the acidulous judgements she would deliver about me.

Orlen’s “Sing for Me” celebrates falling in love with voices first The poem reads quickly at first, with the breathlessness of love. We don’t have a full stop until the end of line 10. Notice the repeated words and the focus on “M”, “D”, and “L” sounds which add music to the poem. Both lust and love have deep transformative powers here and the “bad, lost, loveable man” will go “good” because of the powerful charms of love and song.

I also like Orlen’s use of nature here. The final lines personify the “rocks” and “trees” as being charmed by Dolly and the speaker, as members of the wedding. Orlen is probably alluding to Wordsworth’s famous “rocks and stones and trees”. Does Dolly have the mythic, unscrutable power of Wordsworth’s Lucy? I think so. She is both tiny and enormous at the same time. We don’t know if Wordsworth’s Lucy is compost, a heavenly being, a subterranean figure, as enduring as a rock, stone, or tree, or as eternal as rock, stone, tree. The same is true with Dolly in this wonderful poem.

I am printing this poem by special permission of the author, Steve Orlen, who has written several books. He has published six poetry books (available at among other places) including “The Elephant’s Child: New & Selected Poems 1978-2005” “A Thousand Threads,” , “Kisses”, and “This Particular Eternity.”