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Cloister “not to vex the senses”

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So this is a little off the beaten track. I thought I’d share a taste of what I’m studying for my dissertation. Early Modern Women contributed to women’s issues throughout the end of the sixteenth and all through the seventeenth centuries. As I read Margaret Cavendish’s plays, faux letters and essays, I kept thinking, “Why? Why were women not successful with this movement?” And then in a wonderful text edited by Ostovich and Sauer Reading Early Modern Women, they cite Suzanne Hull who conducted extensive research on my question. The answer? “Eighty-five percent of the 163 books in 500 editions addressed to women or largely concerned with women’s behavior or rules were published between 1570 and 1640. That is — manners books telling women how to act, what not to write, how not to speak, etc. But, at least women had a small come back, and contested these texts in ones like Margaret Cavendish’s play “The Convent of Pleasure from Plays Never Before Printed.”

In this play, the main ingenue named Happy is beautiful and wealthy. The opening scene shows three gentlemen discussing/scheming how they should marry her and all benefit from her wealth. But in the next scene, Happy speaks with her servant:

Servant: Madam, you being young, handsome, rich, and virtuous, I hope you will not cast away those gifts of Nature, Fortune and Heaven, upon a person which cannot merit you?

Happy: Let me tell you, that Riches ought to be bestowed on such as are poor, and want means to maintain themselves; and Youth, on those that are old; Beauty, on those that are ill-favoured, and Virtue, on those that are vicious: So that if I should place my gifts rightly, I must Marry one that’s poor, old, ill-favoured, and debauch’d.

Margaret was condemned by some who told her she didn’t write the play according to the “play rules” by Aristotle, which was a way to keep women from publishing. This passage not only reveals an individual mind, but a clever one, one who has considered the world at large, the problems in society, and offers herself as example to right its wrongs.

The play goes on to reveal Happy cloistering herself in a women’s only club, the “Convent of Pleasure” where the goal is to get away from men because they only cause displeasure. Happy describes this cloister as “not a cloister of restraint, but a place for freedom, not to vex the senses but to please them” (Cavendish 101).

I’m crazy to post right before my comprehensive exams, but I haven’t posted in so very long and need to be somewhat human again. I can only hope that this utopian feminine cloister gave some women hope, gave them strength in a society that took away rights and limited speech. Margaret calls to us today, to protect our successes, our speech, our bodies, and our rights.

 

 

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What you usually call disgusting is my beauty.

lydia-davis

Lydia Davis

While I was supposed to be reading Herman Melville’s poetry and Literary Criticism throughout the ages, I received The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis in the mail and I couldn’t read anything else. What the title of this entry suggests is how Lydia Davis turns everything we’ve ever known on its head. Where was she fifteen years ago for my beginning fiction courses? I can’t regret the years I haven’t read Lydia Davis. Let’s just be thankful, right?

I title this entry in reaction to the story: “Cockroaches in Autumn.” She begins:

“On the white painted bolt of a door that is never opened, a thick line of tiny black grains–the dung of cockroaches.”

Not a word wasted, this first line sets theme, character and introduces plot through a fragmented thought.

Later:

“I am alert to small moving things, and spin around toward a floating dust mote. I am alert to darker spots against a lighter background, but these are only the roses on my pillowcase.”

This dispassionate assessment of the infiltration and nerves that can set one into an anxiety spiral sheds new light on the subject: herself as an experient. It’s as if she sat down with the thought: I wonder if I can show myself as a removed observer and anxiety ridden at the same time? Mission accomplished.

She ends with the fragment:

“The white autumn light in the afternoon. They sleep behind a child’s drawings on the kitchen wall. I tap each piece of paper and they burst out from the edges of pictures that are already filled with shooting stars, missiles, machine guns, land mines…”

All of these fragments study, at arms length, relationships of sharing our spaces and environment with others, whether they have goals to subsist or to gain insight.

The entire collection asks: what do you know of the world? And the answers are many, layered, not over-thought, on the page at least, and will reside with you for the rest of your life. Thank you, Ms. Davis!

 

 

 

 

She Was Trapped in and by Her Job

Henry James

I’ve read too much to comment on in any kind of articulate way. I’m entering my second year (yay!) of a PhD program at DU in Literary Studies. I thought I’d consumed books before, but now, I know the difference. Out of my first year’s grouping, let me isolate at least one sentence. A challenging task –and if you befriend me on Goodreads, you can peruse the list– though I must choose Henry James. I thankfully was tasked to read his novella In The Cage: a tale about a telegrapher woman who fantasizes about her high-society customers. She doesn’t want to break the fantasy by joining them, though. That wouldn’t do.

This novella is stream-of-consciousness only because James is fond of the comma. One can read along but it takes fortitude and the kind of alertness one stores in the marrow for poetry.

Coming from retail myself, there are points at which I am plunged back into the service industry, regardless of time or station. The smells of retail are visceral and come with any category of work. They are always assailing and strong and give one a delayed repugnance long after the job is left behind.

Case in point:

“Her function was to sit there with two young men—the other telegraphist and the counter-clerk; to mind the ‘sounder,’ which was always going, to dole out stamps and postal-orders, weigh letters, answer stupid questions, give difficult change and, more than anything else, count words as numberless as the sands of the sea, the words of the telegrams thrust, from morning to night, through the gap left in the high lattice, across the encumbered shelf that her forearm ached with rubbing. This transparent screen fenced out or fenced in, according to the side of the narrow counter on which the human lot was cast, the duskiest corner of a shop pervaded not a little, in winter, by the poison of perpetual gas, and at all times by the presence of hams, cheese, dried fish, soap, varnish, paraffin, and other solids and fluids that she came to know perfectly by their smells without consenting to know them by their names” (James 118).

Immediately, I’m reminded of patio duty at The Westin Resort’s restaurant. 6 am, when the nose is not used to any smell, being attacked by egg and onion and Pine-Sol. Or 6 am at Crabtree and Evelyn, the store would ooze into the mall a woody-rose combination. Once in, the powdery scent of Nantucket Briar took over. Chucking lunch and sometimes dinner into the tiny, souring fridge…

What is Henry James’ lesson here? Part POV, part illegal use of prepositional phrases all piled up…commas, semicolons, smells and sounds all contribute to character and this character is the plot.

She Fell Asleep on the Stagecoach

The_Old_Curiosity_Shop_11

I’ve been absent for a while. I apologize for that! I’ve been reading about the inception of the novel. Ian Watt believes Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders was among the first…while others have contested or included him in their critical reports.

I’m still reading Dickens, all along, but right now, among all critical reading, I’m in the near 3rd of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Goethe, which will be my next entry.

Let me go back to The Old Curiosity Shop, the last novel I read outside of my PhD. There’s a reason Francine Prose and E.M Forster refer to Dickens when discussing the “how” of writing. In one of my fave “break the rules as you learn them” texts: Tom Romano’s Writing with Passion, he reveals all of Grammar B – the rules we break but know.

Here’s the labyrinthine sentence from The Old Curiosity Shop (Dickens 325). First, let me set the scene: Little Nell and her Grandfather have been on foot for months and this is Little Nell’s first ride in a Stagecoach (in her life).

“What a soothing, luxurious, drowsy way of travelling, to lie inside that slowly-moving mountain, listening to the tinkling of the horses’ bells, the occasional smacking of the carter’s whip, the smooth rolling of the great broad wheels, the rattle of the harness, the cheery good-nights of passing travellers jogging past on little short-stepped horses–all made pleasantly indistinct by the thick awning, which seemed made for lazy listening under, till one fell asleep! The very going to sleep, still with an indistinct idea, as the head jogged to and fro upon the pillow, of moving onward with no trouble or fatigue, and hearing all these sounds like dreamy music, lulling to the senses–and the slow waking up, and finding ones’s-self staring out through the breezy curtain half-opened in the front, far up into the cold bright sky with its countless stars, and downward at the driver’s lantern dancing on like its namesake Jack of the swamps and marshes, and sideways at the dark grim trees, and forward at the long bare road rising up, up, up, until it stopped abruptly at the sharp high ridge as if there were no more road, and all beyond was sky–and the stopping at the inn to bait, and being helped out, and going into a room with fire and candles, and winking very much, and being agreeably reminded that the night was cold, and anxious for very comfort’s sake to think it colder than it was! What a delicious journey was that journey in the waggon.”

So maybe there is a comma splice in there, but the plentiful “ands” mimic for the reader the ride. We are swept up, pushed along lazily and wake with Little Nell in the cold night, safe and illuminated in her luxurious moment. Constance Hale referred to this as parataxis. She says, “…parataxis links phrases or clauses with short pauses, creating a percussive effect, or perhaps a steady drum of ideas.” Try this. Repetition also aids the patterned sentences. It’s not what English teachers usually support, but don’t you feel lolled by the ride? Aren’t you suddenly waking to see the glowing room? It’s all worth breaking the rules. Use parataxis wisely, though!

 

The Prairie Depressed Me

my antonia

This is not a book review, nor are any of my posts. They are word reviews. I didn’t mean to sit down and read My Antonia. Ever. I lived in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota all at once in Sioux City for 8 months. It was gorgeous at times and other times I felt like the wind had taken my soul with it, up into the colder atmosphere where all the souls go that get swept up by arctic gales. But then I saw an old 80s version of the movie My Antonia and had to dig into the novel’s language. I’m so glad I did.

This duality of beauty mixed with nature as killer of humans and their spirits is perfectly distributed throughout My Antonia. Cather explores collectivistic culture against grassy and snowy fields that are sometimes hard to differentiate from the sky.

Here’s one passage where the narrator recounts the prairie.  Throughout the novel he grows but in this particular instance he’s still around 11 or 12 and hasn’t experienced winter in the plains yet. He muses in chapter 6:

“Winter comes down savagely over a little town on the prairie. The wind that sweeps in from the open country strips away all the leafy screens that hide one yard from another in summer, and the houses seem to draw closer together. The roofs, that looked so far away across the green tree-tops, now stare you in the face, and they are so much uglier than when their angles were softened by vines and shrubs.

In the morning, when I was fighting my way to school against the wind, I couldn’t see anything but the road in front of me; but in the late afternoon…the town looked bleak…The pale, cold light of the winter sunset did not beautify — it was like the light of truth itself. When the smoky clouds hung low in the west and the red sun went down behind them, leaving a pink flush on the snowy roofs, and the blue drifts, then the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said: ‘This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath. This is the truth.’ It was as if we were being punished for loving the loveliness of summer.”

I know this is a lot to swallow, but I had to capture the whole passage. Cather uses a few adverbs and that elusive “seems,” but look at how she converts the song of the plains into punishment. Fighting, blue drifts, frivolities, mask of green. Also, that echoing of “loving” with “loveliness” as the last line you read reverberates back to the “ugly” truth, which is the opposite of that summer green that sheathed it for a season. The truth wins every winter.

Some Pearls…

turning life into fiction hemley

Yes- I am reading some novels right now but I’m heavily submerged in craft, since I’m teaching it. My biggest gem lately emerged: Robin Hemley’s Turning Life into Fiction. Why is this text such a big deal? It doesn’t only apply to fiction. In fact, I applied its exercises to Memoir.

The “M” word. It’s fiction backwards. It’s reconstruction of a story given only half of the painter’s palette.  So why do we continue to write memoir? I believe for the same reason we write fiction: to send a message to the souls who need it.

Hemley is practical in his direction. He describes the focus in your writing as the “handle.” In fact, “Anything can be a handle. What we’re ultimately after is focus. Your handle is simply your focusing element.” But besides the handle,  Sue Silverman (of Fearless Confessions – More of this in a later post) calls this authenticity  “writing along the bone.” The story of our lives emerges from our bones. Both Hemley and Silverman refer to that focus but also that it might not emerge “organically” until after you have written the entire memoir.

I always direct students to go to the emotion and exploit it until drained. Go to the bone. Or it doesn’t have to be dark. Go to what you remember. Hemley champions mining the childhood “places” of our past. He writes, “Lift your grandmother’s teapot off the mantle – you know, the teapot that played ‘Tea for Two’ when you lifted it. Notice the aromas. What’s your grandmother cooking? Take a peek outside. It’s a fair day, take a walk. Go through the neighborhood. Wave to your friends and acquaintances. It’s been a long time.”

This might seem like memoir 101, but go and do it. You’ll be surprised at what you get by remembering one room in particular.

Robin Hemley is at LitFest Lighthouse this week. If you can get a chance to see him, please do.

Aside

(David Copperfield and Micawber) “Go upstairs, give my complements to Mr. Dick, and say I wish to speak to him,” declares Betsey Trotwood (Dickens 159) who opens the scene where Charles Dickens first introduces the character of Mr. Dick. Dickens’s … Continue reading