The King of the Cats is Dead by Peter Porter*

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The light on his thigh was like

a waterfall in Iceland, and his hair

was the tidal rip between two rocks,

his claws retracted sat in softness

deeper than the ancient moss of Blarney,

his claws extended were the coulter

of the gods and a raw March wind

was in his merely agricultural yawn.

Between his back legs was a catapult

of fecundity and he was riggish

as a red-haired man. The girls

of our nation felt him brush their legs

when they were bored with telling rosaries-

at night he clawed their brains in their

coffined beds and his walnut mind

wrinkled on their scalps. His holidays

were upside down in water and then

his face was like the sun: his smell

was in the peat smoke and even his midden

was a harmony of honey. When he stalked

his momentary mice the land shook

as though Atlantic waves were bowling

at the western walls. But his eyes

were the greatest thing about him.

They burned low and red so that drunks

saw them like two stars above a hedge,

they held the look of last eyes

in a drowning man, they were the sight

the rebel angels saw the first morning

of expulsion. And he is dead – a voice

from the centre of the earth told of his death

by treachery, that he lies in a hole

of infamy, his kidneys and his liver

torn from his body.

 

Therefore tell

the men and horses of the market-place,

the swallows laying twigs, the salmon

on the ladder that nothing is

as it has been

 

time is explored

and all is known, the portents

are of brief and brutal things, since

all must here the words of desolation

The King of the Cats is Dead

 

and it

is only Monday in the world.

 

*Published in Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times, Edited by Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney

 

Note: WordPress does not allow you to indent lines significantly, a frustration for anyone transcribing poetry. Thus, please not that the stanza breaks are really supposed to be indents.

 

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Apricots by Jennifer Grotz*

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I judged them very carefully, as though

I’d been given the charge to determine

which are good or bad, and they were all good,

even the slightly overripe ones with bruises,

had a better ferment that only brightened

the scent. And the too young ones, firm

and slightly sour, not yet softened by the sun.

And the ripe ones, which felt like hiring into

my own flesh, slightly carnivorous.

 

They had been elegant in the tree, tiny coquettes

blushing more and more until I picked them,

then they were minimalist and matte-colored

in wooden bowls, so barely furred one couldn’t

help but clothe them, enclose them with your hand,

caress each one thoroughly before taking a bite,

exploring the handsome freckles left

from some minor blight.

 

Now I stand under the tree and

pluck them one after the other.

Each one tastes different, like a mind having

erratic thoughts. Going into the trance

halfway between eating and thinking,

the thought of an apricot, the apricot of a thought,

whose goodness occurs over time, so that

some had been better earlier, others soon

would become correct, I mean ripe.

 

*Published in the January 13th, 2014 issue of The New Yorker

Child Burial by Paula Meehan

Your coffin looked unreal

Fancy as a wedding cake.

 

I chose your grave clothes with care,

your favorite stripey shirt,

 

your blue cotton trousers.

They smell of woodsmoke, of October

 

your own smell there too.

I chose a gansy of handspun wool,

 

warm and fleecy for you. It is

so cold down in the dark.

 

No light can reach you and teach you

the paths of wild birds,

 

the names of the flowers,

the fishes, the creatures.

 

Ignorant you must remain

of the sun and its work,

 

my lamb, my calf, my eaglet,

my cub, my kid, my nestling,

 

my suckling, my colt. I would spin

time back, take you again

 

within my womb, your amniotic lair,

and further spin you back

 

through nine waxing months

to the split seedling moment

 

you chose to be made flesh,

word within me.

 

I’d cancel the love feast

the hot night of your making.

 

I would travel alone

to a quiet mossy place,

 

you would spill from me into the earth

drop by bright red drop.

The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton by Vivian Gornick

ImageVivian Gornick succeeds in writing a biographical account of Elizabeth Cady Stanton that captures her very essence as a woman and an activist. Gornick argues that Stanton’s radical position “among radicals” makes her the most forward thinking feminist thinker of the nineteenth century, one whose ideas gave birth to the present ideals of feminism. However the ambitiousness of her goals for women did not always lead to admiration by her peers. Indeed her decision to fight for suffrage in the late eighteen forties caused her fellow activist and friend Lucretia Mott to initially exclaim, “O Lizzie, thou wilt make us ridiculous.” (41) In her own time, Elizabeth was seen as erratic and impractical, sometimes even racist and insensitive. Gornick notes, “She hardly ever spoke before she thought, but she always spoke without consultation or strategic consideration.” (46) It is this lack of “strategic consideration” replaced with pure passion that led her to say things like, “for the negro can be raised to the dignity of a voter if he possess himself of $250; the lunatic can vote in his moments of sanity; and the idiot too, if he be a male one…” (51) Though her contemporaries judged her harshly, it was her unbridled enthusiasm for women’s rights and individualist spirit that make her such an essential figure for present-day American feminists. Indeed Gornick goes as far as to say, “We are beginning where she left off.” (16)

In her first chapter, “1840 to Begin With,” Gornick begins with Stanton’s stepping down from her position of president of the National Woman Suffrage Association with her “The Solitude of Self” speech. She explains that Stanton felt distant from her beloved cause because of the “kind of single issue, nuts-and-bolts politics she had come to deplore.” (4) For Stanton, pragmatism was less important than principle, thus she felt isolated in this practical, lifeless environment. The book begins with a perceived failure or surrender, yet then continues to Gornick’s own personal journey in feminism, recounting experiences of sexism, “I remembered my young husband and me talking for hours about what we would do with the future, both clearly taking it for granted that his life was to be our life.” (12) Gornick argues that contemporary American feminists share the ideals of the once perceived radical Stanton. “Reading Elizabeth Stanton,” Gornick remarks, “made me feel on my skin the shock of realizing how slowly (how grudgingly!) politics in the modern world has actually moved…” (16) Though Stanton was born nearly one hundred years before Gornick, their politics are incredibly similar.  The fact that some people today may even see Gornick as a radical in the twenty-first century, demonstrates how much of an extremist Stanton must have seemed to be.

In her chapter “Radical Among Radicals,” Gornick highlights how even in a movement seen as radical, Stanton’s goals were more ambitious than the rest. Ironically in one way Stanton was a “true woman.” She was a diligent mother of seven, and looked like a modest grandmother from a fairly early age. However she was certainly neither submissive nor pious. She detested religion as she felt it was the institution that most prevented women from advancing. She regarded religion as an “old and worn-out theology full of bigotry and prejudice.” (121) This was not true of some of her peers; Susan B. Anthony was a very pious Quaker. Stanton’s speaking out against Christianity in that period of time was to court public hatred. Stanton spoke openly in favor of divorce causing scandal for the National Woman Suffrage Association. The New York Observer wrote about Stanton, “no true woman could listen to what had been said without turning scarlet, yet words that would turn the world into one vast brothel had been read unblushingly by a person in woman’s attire, named in the programme as Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton.” (67) Though her radicalism may have been a perceived danger to her cause, she never agreed to compromise her own beliefs. Without this strength or stubbornness, it is unclear is modern feminist would be what it is today. Stanton pushed boundaries that no one else was willing to, and therefore remains incredibly pertinent and influential today.

The final chapter “From There to Here” focuses on the far-reaching consequences of Stanton’s politics for modern feminists and an explanation of why feminism is American. She argues the Emersonian ideal of self-reliance is a distinctly American phenomenon, “That famous American loneliness, with its fierce credo of self-reliance, has time and time again become a source of collective dissident strength. It allows us to stay the course of alienation when a protracted action is required to fulfill the (broken) promise of inclusiveness into which the country was born.” (131) Citizens of countries like Israel who are built on the bedrock of family are unable to see themselves as pure individuals the way Americans do.  In Stanton’s “The Solitude of Self Speech” she speaks of the isolation and loneliness that perhaps gave her the bravery to speak as openly as she did. Her ability to fight for her own beliefs without concern for the immediate consequences for the National Woman Suffrage Association make it clear that she perhaps had “the long view” in mind.  Stanton’s individualist tactics allowed her to become the most influential female activist for woman’s rights in the 19th century: a model and an inspiration.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

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** SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read this book and are still hoping to be surprised by the ending do NOT continue reading, regardless of how provocative this bold, starred writing is!**

      The Elegance of the Hedgehog is told from the perspective of a French concierge of an upper class building, Renée, and a pre-teen genius, Paloma who lives in that same building. Renée is determined to hide the fact that she is well read and brilliant while still enjoying the literature, film, and music for which she lives. To reveal her intelligence would be to betray the role society has given her. As a concierge she appears stupid and obtuse in order to allow her tenants to maintain the illusion that everything is as it should be. Thus Renée is seldom allowed to reveal her true self and remains isolated. Paloma is similarly alone. As a brilliant child, she is unable to reconcile her family’s elevated role in society with their inherent stupidity. Paloma decides to commit suicide in order to escape from a world that she sees as useless and distinctly unfair. 

            The story continues as Paloma searches for beauty in the world and Renée struggles to suppress and hide her own. Though there is very little action in the book, it is nevertheless engaging. Barbery’s focus on the minutia of life allows the reader to appreciate the subtleties which are so often taken for granted like the universality of culture, and the beauty and simplicity of grammar. Both Renée and Paloma are grammar sticklers, which apart from being hilarious, also allows the reader to appreciate the elegance of the construction of language. Paloma in her journal writes about her own view on grammar:

Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty. When you speak, or read,          or write, you can tell if you’ve said or read or written a fine sentence. You can recognize a well-turned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language. When you use grammar you peel back the layers to see how it is all put together, see it quite naked, in a way. And that’s where it becomes wonderful because you say to yourself, ‘Look how well made this is, how well-constructed it is! How solid and ingenious and rich and subtle!’ I get completely carried away just knowing there are words of all different natures, and that you have to know them in order to be able to infer their potential usage and compatibility. I find there is nothing more beautiful, for example, than the very basic components of language, nouns and verbs. When you’ve grasped this, you’ve grasped the core of any statement. It’s magnificent, don’t you think? Nouns, verbs…

      The book speeds up considerably when Kakuro Ozu moves into the apartment of one of the deceased tenants.  Kakuro not only suspects Renée’s cultural refinement, but also recognizes Paloma’s brilliance, and thus befriends them both and brings the kindred spirits together. Renée and Kakuro begin a very intimate friendship, which Renée finds not at all appropriate. She thinks that a concierge has no business crossing class divisions. It becomes clear that Renée’s mistrust of the upper class stems from her sister’s experience with a rich man. Kakuro assures her that she is not her sister, yet Renée is still frightened. Meanwhile Paloma and Renée discover each other and realize that regardless of class, age, and life experience, they are very much the same.

            The ending is where my relationship with the book gets complicated. Renée is hit by a delivery truck, which happens to be from the same dry cleaners from which she stole a dress for her dinner with Kakuro, and dies. Her final thoughts for her loved ones fill the page, thoughts for her dead husband, Kakuro, her cat and especially Paloma.  The most wonderful thing about the ending is that Paloma decides to forgo suicide and to live her life for both her and Renée, for Renée has shown Paloma that beauty does exist. To me, the event driven ending seemed incongruous with the subtlety of the rest of the book. The fact that the delivery truck belongs to the same dry cleaner from which she stole a dress does seem divine retribution her trying to escape her class role. I very much hope that isn’t the case, because the rest of the novel shows that class is irrelevant in cases of brilliance and love.

             This book is witty and heart wrenching, sassy and earnest. It shows that in this mundane world beauty and love are hidden in strangers. 

Not Like That by Adrienne Rich

It’s so pure in the cemetery.

The children love to play up here.

It’s a little town, a game of blocks,

a village packed in a box,

a pre-war German toy.

The turf is a bedroom carpet:

heal-all, strawberry flower

and hillocks of moss.

To come and sit here forever,

a cup of tea on one’s lap

and one’s eyes closed lightly, lightly,

perfectly still

in a nineteenth-century sleep!

it seems so normal to die.

Nobody sleeps here, children.

The little beds of white wrought iron

and the tall, kind, faceless nurse

are somewhere else, in a hospital

or the dreams of prisoners of war.

The drawers of this trunk are empty,

not even a snapshot

curls in a corner.

In Pullmans of childhood we lay

enthralled behind dark-green curtains,

and a little lamp burned blue

all night, for us. The day

was a dream too, even the oatmeal

under its silver lid, dream-cereal

spooned out in forests of spruce

skirting the green-black gorges,

thick woods of sleep, half prickle,

half lakes of fern.

To stay here forever

is not like that, nor even

simply to lie quite still,

the warm trickle of dream

staining the thick quiet

The drawers of this trunk are empty.

They are all out of sleep up here.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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My “mother-daughter book club” (my Joy Luck Club) consists of my best friends (for 13/14 years) and our mothers. There are a total of six of us in the group, and each mother daughter pair brings different preferences to the table. We have all brought in a book that has been unpopular, but we have also exposed each other to books that we would never otherwise read. Lauren has always been prone to fantasy. Whether it was transforming her kindergarten drawings of horses into Pegasi (God help you if you think it’s a unicorn) or writing about her new crush, Harry Potter, in her elementary school diary, she has always lived in a world more fantastical than the average girl. She and her mother brought in The Night Circus, which admittedly, I never would have picked up. The picture of the gothic priestess A.K.A. author on the back flap was enough to scare me away. The last book we read was Elizabeth Bowen’s Death of the Heart, which Lauren had found far too dull and ordinary. So Olivia and I took pity on Lauren, voting for her choice because she had just endured our literary drudgery. It seemed only fair.

While The Night Circus wasn’t necessarily “my-type” I did recognize its merits.  The book revolves around a mysterious, mythical circus whose descriptions are absolutely exquisite. This beauty of description is somewhat undermined by the haphazard organization of the book. The storyline distractingly bounces around thorough time leaving the reader confused about the age and development of the characters. While the setting is beautifully rendered, none of the characters reach their full realization.  The plot revolves around a love story between an enchanter and enchantress who are bound to compete in a possibly fatal game that will affect the fate of the circus. The romance is not built up enough to have the readers rooting for it with any sort of passion. In fact, I felt indifference for the characters and concern for the fate of the circus rather than their lives. The protagonist Celia remains a bit too aloof, while her lover Marco is distinctly unlikable.  There are other interesting characters introduced, but, again, they lack development. While the book is certainly entertaining, it is not particularly moving. I enjoyed the ride, however I won’t be dwelling on it for long.