Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Poem: In the Waiting Room

I love the poem In the Waiting Room, by Elizabeth Bishop, published in the 1970s. I don't really get it though. I mean I could get through an English exam with some analysis about the realization of the Other and of separation between oneself and others (notice my cultural studies-ish capitalization distinction there!) and a dash of gender/bodies/pain/social waiting, etc., but really, I just don't feel like I get it.

The reason I bring it up here, other than to bring it to your attention if you haven't come across it yet, is to talk about its essayistic quality of watching a mind process things. The narrator is a child, and has a child's blunt and and keen observations coupled with the cloudiness of mind that we all have, whether due to immaturity, or fear, or bias, or lack of information. This girl is curious, and questioning, and she doesn't come to any real answer to her questions, any more than I can answer what this poem means to me.

I also like the ending of this poem, as it goes from heady, massive, disorienting ideas back into the grounding specifics of time and place: Worcester, Feb. 5, 1918. Although, of course, there is a war on, and what can be more a source of questioning and disorientation than that.

In the Waiting Room

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist's appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist's waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited and read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
"Long Pig," the caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
I read it right straight through.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
--Aunt Consuelo's voice--
not very loud or long.
I wasn't at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn't. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I--we--were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
--I couldn't look any higher--
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How I didn't know any
word for it how "unlikely". . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn't?

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

An Essay on the Essay

This 2002 Poets&Writers essay on the essay form by a Lousiana journalist named Michael Depp isn't particularly exciting, but it's a solid analysis of what the essay is with quotes by some major current essayists.

Here's an excerpt that pretty much nails it:

So what occasions the essay? If a writer has no surefire argument to make, no point to sway the reader toward, why flaunt personal vacillations in print? Why not leave the questions and doubts to the rough draft rather than give them life?

For Richard Rodriguez, the attraction is the essay's public rehearsal of ideas. . . . "For me, the drama of the essay is the way the public life intersects with my personal and private life."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Let's Edit!

Hi Everyone,

A lot of writers or would-be writers are interested in how people edit. Some writers edit as they go, and some, like me, write a huge gush of junk and then go and do heavy cleanup. But no matter your method of arriving at a good first draft, you will pretty much always need a further edit.

Having a good external editor is an incredible and rare luxury, so in most cases you're own your own. In this case you really need to set the piece aside for as long as you can and take it back up with a fresh eye. If you have a deadline, you might only get an hour or two away from it, but in this case I want to look at something I wrote in grad school about 4 years ago. I like it, but it needs a serious edit. There's a chunk near the end that feels exotic, in the geological sense; there are some rhythmic clunks; and it feels a little bit shallower than it should given the underlying situation.

Below is the draft. The next post will have the edit.

The Draft:

It so happens that Elkhart, Indiana is about halfway between my parent’s home (Virginia) and school (Minnesota). It also happens that my paternal grandfather lives in an assisted living home in Elkhart, and that I can find absolutely no reason not to visit him on my drive from to the other. I stay overnight at my aunt’s house and together she and I drive over to Eastlake Terrace to meet my grandfather for breakfast.

“I sure wish you were staying for a couple of days,” says Grandpa. “You could help me buy a new CD player.” Half blind and deeply nostalgic, my grandfather has racks of Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo, and Tony Bennett spilled out over his bureau, but his CD player has begun to shut off without warning, leaving him in a world both dark and silent.

“Well, we could go right now,” I say, really half joking.

“I’m ready,” he says.

We turn to my aunt. “Linda?”

Linda wavers.

To Linda, like much of my family, action is a great heaviness, and action that may result in spending money---no matter whose---carries a yacht anchor of lethargy.

“Let’s go.” I say. “Let’s do it.”

Linda suggests that buying a CD player will slow me down on my trip, which it will, but I am caught here between my turbulent past with my grandpa and my conscience; my wish to make Maryland before nightfall and my guilt for doing little to nothing for an old man in assisted living.

“No, it’s ok,” I say. “Let’s do it.”

We collect grandpa’s walker and wallet, turn out the lights, and he goes to turn off the CD which is miraculously still playing New York, New York. “Leave it,” I say. “Maybe it will be there for us when we get back.”

Going anywhere with the elderly is hard, I have learned. Linda pulls up to the curb at K Mart and deposits me and Grandpa, I collect the walker from the trunk and fold it open, Grandpa grasps it in fingers that shoot out every which way from the knuckles, and we head step by inching step to the electronics section at the back of the store. Grandpa is slightly awed by the size of K Mart. This is a new place to him. I know very little about electronics, but there are only a few CD player choices, one reason I’d rather come to a place like this than a more specialized one like Circuit City, even if there were one in Elkhart.

On the way here, in Linda’s tan Honda, Grandpa had said, “I guess I could buy any player I wanted, but I’d like to stay under $150. Do you think we could do that?” Despite, or perhaps because of, his monthly rent of over $2000, this is a major purchase for him. In fact the one we choose, which plays 5 CDs, a fantastic number in Grandpa’s eyes, is on sale for $80. We don’t have a cart, and this thing is heavy, so Grandpa insists I heave it onto the seat of his walker, which he pushes steadily to the checkout.

The few other K Mart shoppers flipping through racks and pushing carts of toilet paper and lawn care look at us. I wonder what they think---Making that old man carry your electronic equipment? Buying it for his granddaughter maybe? They could at least get a cart. We try to cram Grandpa and his walker through the check out aisle, and we finally succeed by folding and unfolding the walker, two clerks gaping at our gymnastics.

My grandfather’s other hobbies, apart from listening to his CDs and romancing the ladies ( he dumped the last one after she broke her hip and entered a nursing home) is bridge. He is a Life Master, but because of his blindness, his fellow players read out their cards play by play and he must keep it all up in his head; consequently his game has suffered. He has played at a major bridge tournament in every state except for Delaware and New Hampshire. Delaware and New Hampshire do not boast bridge communities large enough to very often move beyond the local chapter competitions. If Grandpa makes Delaware, he’ll work on New Hampshire to realize a dream. I imagine him dying right there in the Concord community center, slapping down his last trump card for a grand slam and declaring victory with his last breath. The New Hampshire paper reads: Man fulfills dream, uses heart to take trick.

But when he is not playing bridge (or romancing the healthier ladies) he is inviting anyone he can to come hear Glen Miller, Tony Martin, the lone tolerated woman, Ella Fitzgerald do their stuff, and they gladly accept, especially if there is gin or bourbon offered from the wet bar/ pharmacy----a liquor stash, sink, and repository for arthritis, cholesterol, and vitamin pills. My grandmother had once told me that in her youth, dancing was de rigueur, that live music wasn’t so expensive, wasn’t even a luxury. It was radios that were luxuries, and victrolas an absolute splurge.

Those guests will be happy to see us reenter East Lake Terrace, check ourselves in, pass a woman asleep in her chair, snoring, under a pastel painting of geraniums and cats. They will be happy to know that in Grandpa’s tiny apartment I have set up and hooked up his new machine, and transferred the old signs I had taped on the play and stop buttons to help Grandpa’s dimming eyes. I am about to put in the CDs, which I worry will be hard for Grandpa’s stiff hands to manage, but he shoos me off, reminding me that I’ve got a road to take, and it leads away from here.

* Note: my aunt's name has been changed for privacy, which I can be fanatical about when it comes to writing about others. We can discuss writing about people you know in another post.