Throwback Thursday

Thursdays at ClimbingSky feature re-posts from almost 7 years of MontanaWriter and ClimbingSky. This post was previously published on October 27, 2011.

In Praise of a Good Place to Read

For the past couple of months, I have felt like a wandering Aramean. A complicated series of furniture misadventures with more plot twists than a Robert Ludlum novel had meant that for awhile our living room –the place where I do most of my reading and writing– had been transformed into a sofa storage and staging area. I was displaced and lost.

A perfect place to read

(photo by m.a.h. hinton)

(photo by m.a.h. hinton)

At different times in my life it has been different places. I have read Auden in a tent by flashlight late at night on the Continental Divide Trail in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness in Montana and Hugh MacDiarmad on a battered Lazyboy in a dingy St. Paul studio apartment overrun with box-elder bugs. I read Ezra Pound at an Irish bar in Chicago and Ford Madox Ford on long city-bus rides going to and from a downtown editing job I never really liked. I read Paradise Lost in a hospital waiting room and Ted Kooser in a cabin on Lake Superior. On beaches in Florida I read Travis McGee and in a dimly lit apartment of borrowed furniture in Saginaw, Michigan, I read Kafka and Yeats.

For the past few years, I have done most of my reading… and writing… in the living room of our Bloomington home overlooking our less-than perfect front yard and our quite-perfect suburban street. Since I never close the shades on the big window that faces the sidewalk and street and routinely read late into the evening, I have heard that the neighbors are well aware of how I spend my evenings. Whether they approve or not… I cannot say.

With my Kindle app on my iPod, I now find I can read almost anywhere… and frequently do. Sitting in the car waiting for a daughter, sitting in some waiting room or at a desk waiting for a computer I am working on to reimage or update…. And yet in the end, I spent the past few months feeling homeless because my living room, lined with books, was in disarray… and in a house with many rooms I had no place to go.

I am in the northeast corner of my living room again which is in southwest corner of our house. The room is a long rectangle. In front of me, in the southeast corner, is one tall bookcase with westerns and chess books and books about Montana, and next to that another small four-sided bookcase that spins filled with Modern Library classics. In center of the wall is a big picture window looking south over a yard that needs to be raked again. On the western wall, is one bookcase, a piano, and two more bookcases with glass doors on top to protect older books.

On the coffee table in front of the couch I am sitting on is a chess board and a few piles of books in various states of being read, and more books on the coffee table’s lower shelf. I look around the room, at spines of books I have read and plan to read. On books of history, and theology, and poetry, and mysteries, and science fiction, and fantasy, and French Literature, and Russian Literature, and books that have changed my life, and books that may change my life in the future… and I am as content as I am hard-wired to be. I have my home back. I have a good place to read.


A Whirlwind is Gathering

It is difficult to admit how angry I can get sometimes these days about the relentless onslaught on Truth that the present administration and their media and congressional lackeys seem to daily commit. Lies pile up on lies and there is no real accountability.

Maybe the resignation of Flynn will change that. But when G.O.P. politicians and voters continue trying to look for the positives that can come from an administration based on untruth, I fear it will not happen soon enough.

Each day our nation becomes more anti-intellectual, more anti-science, and more anti-Truth. We also become more hard-hearted. Let the poor fend for themselves. Tax breaks for billionaires. Cut regulations that protect the most vulnerable.

They say the election of Trump was a surprise because so many underestimated the simmering anger of white middle America. The G.O.P. has been feeding that fire for decades believing that somehow they could harness that power for “good.” Now they are trying to manage a forest fire out of control.

To be fair, leaders of both political parties in this country have cynically used anger and resentment to increase their own agendas and power over the years. But in America, it was a race to the bottom that the G.O.P. was destined to win.

And now we have truth-crime upon truth-crime, and a whirlwind is gathering.



Throwback Thursday

J_Merrill_CoverI do not go to a lot of poetry readings. Seeing poets in person and hearing them read has just never struck me as a way I want to spend a free evening. I would much rather go to a baseball or basketball game to be entertained. For an evening of poetry, I prefer a quiet bookstore where I can read the poet myself while sitting in a comfortable chair in silent solitude.

A number of years ago, on a whim, I went to the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis to hear James Merrill read. I must have read in the paper, or heard on the radio that he was going to be there… and Sue must have been otherwise engaged. For whatever reason, I went and listened to him read.

I do not remember if he was good at reading his work. I do not remember much about him at all: what he wore, what his voice sounded like, what poems he read that evening. I only remember feeling uncomfortable sitting amid so many outwardly “artsy” people in such an outwardly “artsy” place. I remember thinking that a modern art museum is no place for poetry to be read… I already knew that outwardly artsy people are not the kind of people I  want to spend an evening with.

I have always liked Merrill as a poet. He is admittedly difficult at times and has a tendency to make a number of obscure references. But I am fine with that. I have never felt compelled by any poet or writer to spend a great deal of time trying to chase down footnotes and references. If I fail to “get” some of the references, I am fine with that. I feel neither cheated nor diminished. I spend most of my life feeling like I am missing important references anyway.

I do not remember the first time I encountered “The Victor Dog.” It may very well have been the night I heard Merrill read at the Walker. But I suspect it was sometime before that.

“The Victor Dog” is a good example of Merrill’s poetic style and word play and the great intelligence he brings to his art. It is also, to my mind, an example of how W.H. Auden’s work influenced Merrill.

In “The Victor Dog” Merrill uses the familiar music company logo to think about music and the nature of art and artists.


The Victor Dog

Bix to Buxtehude to Boulez,
The little white dog on the Victor label
Listens long and hard as he is able.
It’s all in a day’s work, whatever plays.

From judgment, it would seem, he has refrained.
He even listens earnestly to Bloch,
Then builds a church upon our acid rock.
He’s man’s–no–he’s the Leiermann’s best friend,

Or would be if hearing and listening were the same.
Does he hear?I fancy he rather smells
Those lemon-gold arpeggios in Ravel’s
“Les jets d’eau du palais de ceux qui s’aiment.”

He ponders the Schumann Concerto’s tall willow hit
By lightning, and stays put.When he surmises
Through one of Bach’s eternal boxwood mazes
The oboe pungent as a bitch in heat,

Or when the calypso decants its raw bay rum
Or the moon in Wozzeck reddens ripe for murder,
He doesn’t sneeze or howl; just listens harder.
Adamant needles bear down on him from

Whirling of outer space, too black, too near–
But he was taught as a puppy not to flinch,
Much less to imitate his bête noire Blanche
Who barked, fat foolish creature, at King Lear.

Still others fought in the road’s filth over Jezebel,
Slavered on hearths of horned and pelted barons.
His forebears lacked, to say the least, forebearance.
Can nature change in him? Nothing’s impossible.

The last chord fades.The night is cold and fine.
His master’s voice rasps through the grooves’ bare groves.
Obediently, in silence like the grave’s
He sleeps there on the still-warm gramophone

Only to dream he is at the première of a Handel
Opera long thought lost–Il Cane Minore.
Its allegorical subject is his story!
A little dog revolving round a spindle

Gives rise to harmonies beyond belief,
A cast of stars . . . . Is there in Victor’s heart
No honey for the vanquished? Art is art.
The life it asks of us is a dog’s life.

Throwback Thursday

Thursdays at ClimbingSky feature re-posts from almost 7 years of MontanaWriter and ClimbingSky. This post was previously published on December 21, 2010.

A poor scan of a great cover

A poor scan of a great cover

There remain hundreds of books on my reading “to do” list, yet sometimes I find myself re-reading an old favorite. With poetry this is a fairly straight forward venture. I browse through the volume looking at notes I have made, lines I have underlined or otherwise marked in some way. It is interesting to see where my tastes have changed, to be reminded of lines, to see again poetic influences I may even have forgotten about on anything but a sub-conscious level.

With a novel or book of non-fiction this is a different experience altogether by definition. Re-reading a novel or full length non-fiction work is more of commitment. And since it is more of a commitment, it needs to be a real special book.

Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa is such a book for me.  It is special for me because it was the book, more than any other, that introduced me to real writing and real literature. It was the book that made me want to read something more than comic books and sports biographies.

I spend a part of every working day in and out of a middle school media center (library). In middle school, juvenile fiction is king. It has also become huge business. In the early 1970s, there was not a lot of juvenile fiction… and what there was did not interest me in the least.

In 1972-73, I was in 7th grade and 12 years old. I did not want to read about kids like me, I wanted to read about men. I knew about the kid world… what I wanted to know about was the world of adults… the real world.

One day I pulled down a copy of Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa from the library that was in our English teacher’s classroom. I suppose I liked the cover and that it was about Africa and hunting. Who knows why we choose some of the books we do?

Whatever the reason, that moment changed my life. Until that moment, when I had to read something I always chose non-fiction (and that is probably another reason I chose it). As soon as I finished Green Hills of Africa, I started The Sun Also Rises and after that… book after book, novel after novel, poetry book after poetry book until this day.

I am pleased to say that The Green Hills of Africa holds up well. It is Hemingway. It is memoir in muscular prose. Ostensibly it is about a safari he and wife, Pauline, took to Africa in 1933. It is more than mere travelogue though, for Hemingway intersperses with details of his hunting, discussions of writers and literature: Twain, Dostoevsky, Stendahl, Flaubert, and Tolstoy. All these writers I began reading within a few years of having first read The Green Hills of Africa, precisely because Hemingway recommended them.

When I am in the middle school media center, I will often look at the books that are there. There is no Hemingway. There are plenty of books about boys and girls, and many of these are very well written… but there are few about men and women doing the kinds of things that I was interested in as a middle schooler.

My life was changed because I picked up The Green Hills of Africa and discovered great writing and great literature, because I found out about Tolstoy and Stendahl and Dostoyevsky. I am forever grateful for that serendipitous moment. I am forever grateful that I had access to adult-level books like this in my classroom when I was just 12 years old.