The Rapture of Dissonance

I broke four times this year—four things broke me. Who cares, but the breaks all came after October 1st. When the breaks happen all at once it feels like bad luck. Like that “nothing is going to come my way” dock-of-the-bay feeling. Like snake bit.

 

But it wasn’t luck. The breaks were a long time coming, and when I broke again, and again, I had my little cries and didn’t call anyone and didn’t get off the freeway.

 

After so many years of so many breaks you start to get used to the broken version of yourself. Start mocking your own limp. And then you start to laugh even though no one has said a joke and no one else is laughing.

 

It doesn’t happen all at once. One day you just rouse yourself after all the years of breaking and you realize you’re not afraid of breaking anymore.

 

Not being afraid isn’t the same as being brave.

 

Lately, to make the pain go away, I’ve been making a personal study of pianos and piano players. I mean, pain and piano are kind of similar words. Eight-eight keys to eighty-eight locks.

 

Heller-Enduring-Artistic-Life1-1200

The other night I watched Seymour, a sort of rambling biography documentary interview thing about the pianist Seymour Bernstein. One thing he said: “Without dissonance, there can be no resolution.”

 

Well no one ever had to tell me that. I’ve always loved the Dissonance Creed.

 

The harder thing is that just because there is dissonance doesn’t necessarily mean there will be resolution. Dissonance without resolution, well that’s what breaks you.

 

There isn’t any hope but maybe technique and patience are two things that get you from no chance of resolution to maybe a fifteen percent chance. And sure, I’ll take those odds.

 

From my broken state, New Year’s resolutions seem so silly.

 

Last week I wondered if my goal for the New Year should be to only review poetry books written by poets with five syllables in their names. Sadly, I wouldn’t be able to review myself, but there are lots of others with appellation mouthfuls so I could probably always be reading.

 

Instead, my two goals for the New Year are pretty small. So small, nearly impossible to fail, but still, more than what I’m used to. The first is that I want to eat more slowly. Like, after putting a fork to my mouth I want to set it on the table rather than head straight for another bite. So call that one, put the fork down after each bite.

 

On a related subject, I’m also going to try to scoop peas with my knife rather than my fingers. Even when no one is looking.

 

My second goal is to stop bashing MFA programs. This isn’t something I’ve done in the past, but I could easily see myself becoming the sort of person who did this, who would put his smart-ass bone to not very positive pursuits.

 

I guess, no, I don’t like or agree with all of them but for the most part the teachers are trying to help others turn dissonance into resolution.

 

And that’s worth some love.

 

Trimming the Tree (1989)

After I set the tree in its screw-eyed stand by the bay window, I have to re-train the dog. It makes him think he’s outside. And then I decorate with costume jewelry and lace nipped from bustier tops and bodices. That night, Sara calls from the desert.

“Problem?” I ask.

“You sent me the ornaments by mistake. Where are my clothes?”

I’m cutting white doves from her nightgown as we talk. Her neighbor is a weaver. He made her a blanket last week. I guess they talked for days, and ate pineapples.

My neighbor is a quality wood distributor. He gave me sawdust.

Later, I move our old bed beside the Christmas tree. The fir is whirling with secrets: brassieres snapped like Greek symbols for infinity, cranberries on G-strings, a shimmering pair of dancing shoes where David’s star should be.

The deerhound sleeping at my ankles stirs. Him, such a restless dreamer, digging-up, burying anew. He nudges part of Bambi’s hock to my chin, as if wanting to play a new round of give-away, and take-back.

I do.

 

Swim Club

Pool-Lanes-300x300I went back to the pool last night. It’s a saltwater pool so it doesn’t smell like chlorine. Most of the other people were doing butterfly strokes with lots of expressive limb gestures. Like they were urgently trying to say something and no one was listening.

I was just walking back and forth. I’d walk the 25 meters, tap the coping, and turn around and walk the other way. I’m sure some people must have thought I was pretty tall to do all that walking in deep water, but I was wearing a flotation belt no one could see.

Except when the other swimmers splashed me I didn’t even get my head wet. One guy was frog kicking. He popped his head out of the water to breathe and went under again. Kicking and breathing and disappearing.

The thing about water is that it makes me feel weightless. Like my body is finally free of itself. Dolphins must think about this all the time. If you’re always weightless, do you realize you’re weightless?

Walking the pool, I quickly ran out of things to think about so I read the warning posters. Obviously, no diving. But also, something about not hogging the jets when others were waiting. And this pool wasn’t very friendly to people with open wounds.

The hot whirlpool could hold up to fifteen persons, but bathing caps were strictly forbidden.

There was a sign inside the co-educational steam sauna that discouraged anyone with a disease, but how could anyone read it with all of that steam wafting around? I sat under the sign and began coughing.

In the locker room it took me twenty minutes to break into my locker. I’d used a combination lock and I’d been so worried about remembering the odd-number, even-even combination, that I’d locked my glasses inside.

After the work out, I tell you, I was starving. I confided to Julia I’d lost four pounds. “Really?” she said. She added the dinner napkins to the pile of laundry that included my bathing costume. “I didn’t know you were counting.”

But I wasn’t counting. Standing on the scale was just something to do while I waited for someone to walk into the locker room who could open my lock. Still, I wondered if she were curious about my new lithe swimmer’s physique and how tall it made me feel.

Failure Fridays

June is my big rejection month. I can usually count on a little rejection all the time but by the end of the semester editors and judges seem to want to wrap things up. There’s a boat to catch, or a Yankees home stand, not to mention all the summery commitments.

“Bookstock, in Vermont,” I can hear poet and judge Kim Addonizio grieving into her glass. “So that’s my July.”

Pass the whiskey. Electronic mail lets me tear into those rejection envelopes while sitting inside the comfort of my own petty horror. One friend once told me she dealt with rejection by immediately sending her rejected poems to five new places. I was never that brave, and I never knew that many magazines.

A few months ago, my stepdaughter and her boyfriend applied to a theater program. It was like a residency thing. Last month, he called her to say he got in. “Thanks for serving up my rejection,” she said. “If they contacted you already and not me then I know what I’m not doing this summer.”

They broke up, which was unfortunate, since she wasn’t able to call and tell him she got her own fellowship to Sewanee. Instead, she called me. “That’s great news,” I said. “I guess they didn’t take me. We could have gone together.” “Oh Bear,” she said. “I’m sure that white male confessional essay is really competitive.”

I think of Face Book as my desk manager. But one of the bothersome things about social media is that so many of my friends post their brags. It only reinforces my sense of failure. I mean, failure isn’t so bad. Sort of makes me feel like Icarus. But how many times can one person drown?

My cousin Eduardo C. Corral announced last week that he intended to post all of his failures and rejections. Although I’m not surprised by the presses who love him I was shocked by the ones who didn’t. This June, every Friday will be “Failure Friday.” I plan on posting all of my rejections accumulated for the week.

If I’d done this last month you would have learned that I wasn’t going to the Millay Colony, or the Vermont Studio Center, or Bread Loaf, or Sewanee. You would have discovered my disappointments at Agni, Iron Horse Review, Dogwood, Indiana Review, Boiler, and countless other magazines. There was even one time I rejected myself, pulling a piece that had been accepted for publication.

CoverV7-186x300It wasn’t all bad. The high water mark came when I received my contributor copies of Consequence Magazine. My poem “The Brig” was one of only a handful to be included which didn’t conform to the Persian theme. Another contributor was poet Tom Sleigh who ironically had rejected “The Brig” in at least three contests. “How sexy am I now?” I wanted to ask him, in my best Scarlett Johansson.

“What poem did you get published?” Julia asked, when I showed my wife the glossy copies. “The Brig,” I said. “You know, the one about the imaginary prison.”

“Oh that poem,” she said. “Actually, I never liked it all that much.”

Putting Some Buzz into Your Starch

StrykWhenever I’m ironing a shirt I have to keep running outside to make sure I didn’t leave my car running. It happened again last week, and since I was also feeling a little punk, it reminded me of Henry, my roommate at the hospital one year.

He was an OK kid, laughed a lot, and could fall asleep in three seconds. The main thing was that he’d never eaten rice before. His Asian parents had wanted to raise him as American as possible. One night, as the nurse lifted the hoods off our plates, he was delighted to find a scoop of ice cream in the middle of his creamed welsh rarebit.

“That’s not ice cream,” the nurse said. “It’s rice.”

I was standing outside in the cold, looking at my “silver” Toyota. Of course, it wasn’t running. The keys were in my pocket. Still, I pressed my hand in the hood to be sure. The odometer read 93,000 miles, so it had to have been doing something.

And maybe it was all the piles of snow but I couldn’t get ice cream out of my head. And I was thinking, boy, I could really use some coffee-flavored ice cream right now. But there wasn’t any ice cream in the freezer.

coffee riceI wondered, what if I made a pot of Basmati rice, and instead of adding water to cook it, I used coffee instead?

For this recipe, I used a dark roast. Starbucks tends to char their beans—their French and Italian roasts are usually just the over-cooked remnants of their lighter coffees—so you might want to use a better brand. Peets would be my choice.

I used 1 and ½ cups actual water, and ½ cup of coffee, and two or three rubs of salt. I kid you not, this made the best rice in the world…brown in color, not tasting of coffee at all, but carrying its sweet, nutty notes. Like brown rice, but without all the heaviness.

I ate two bowls of it, thinking about sweet Henry and wondering whatever became of that poor sick kid forty five years ago. Then I remembered the iron.

Breaking Lines (from The Tishman Review)

My buddy E. J. loves his iambic apartment in Catonsville. “Ten feet to the kitchen, ten feet to the bathroom, ten feet to the living room.” It’s the sort of home where everything is close without feeling small or short. You can climb to the top of an association and see the next one and climb on top of that one and see the next. Every possible abstraction has an actual doorway and a chest-high dimmer switch. E. J.’s apartment is one of fourteen in the building, in a cluster of anonymous stanzas, within walking distance of a coffee shop if you’re thinking eastward, and the Patapsco River millraces if you’re thinking west.

In spite of its perfect pitch, E. J.’s bedroom community wasn’t designed by a poet. On the other hand, anyone who breaks a line is a draftsman. In addition to being a dreamer, a lover, a soothsayer, and a thief, a poet is an architect. No one can really teach you how to sleep or feel desire or pickpocket a little tradition, but line breaking—architecture—is the one skill in poetry that can be “learned.” So why is it something we all try to avoid? Come to my house, everyone, and you’ll find boxes of notes on Edna St. Vincent Millay, including my pedigree analysis of her secret racing stable. But you’ll need to spend a month in the attic before coming across a wadded piece of yellow ruled paper with the fragment: Try not to end a line with a preposition.

The trick is that line breaking can be learned but it cannot be taught. It’s a process of constant trying out, plugging in another amp, going acoustic. Musicians rehearse the same song every day. There’s writing a song—that’s one thing—but arranging a song is quite another. And unlike most poets, songwriters must scan every word and chord into charts for others to perform. Shouldn’t all of us be more like guitarists and pianists?  There’s writing a poem, but there’s also arranging the poem. Not every composer is the best arranger, and not every arranger is the best poet.

Seductive language in a poem is modulated language. Iambic pentameter is about that modulation. Its premise is that the average non-smoking Elizabethan poet can modulate five times per breath, resulting in five stressed and five unstressed feet. Speaking (and breathing) are instinctive, but language isn’t. Even bird calls can be scanned. That’s the trouble: breathing is so personal, so instinctive, so reflexive, so organic. And rules for breaking lines are so ruling and impersonal and inorganic. But without that scaffolding a poem isn’t a poem. It’s just the dream of a poem.

The best way to learn how to break a line is to breathe and speak over and over and over. No one can do this for you. No one can teach it.

Here’s a poem fragment from Selected Unpublished Blogposts of a Panda Express Employee, by Megan Boyle:

i can’t stop using my tongue to feel my chipped tooth
last night i got drunk and cleaned my room, it was okay

i don’t know why i just wrote ‘it was okay’
i think it was because it would make the line look complete
that line was a little too long that one was a little too short
but since they were together it looked okay

Here, Let Me Be Angry for You

Everyone is supposed to do the thing they’re good at doing, whether two-part harmony, or rage.

Let me be the angry one. I’m angry enough for the both of us. I’m good at it. I’ve been angry since I was born the month Jimmy Dean sang Big Bad John all the way to number one.

The kitchen floor—ours is made of maple barn siding—that is not how to break a jar of honey. Real anger is smashing it on the ceramic counter beside the sink where we washed your hair when your left arm was mangled somersaulting with your horse.

It never would have happened if you hadn’t named him Husband.

Hungry for love? Lots of bitter suck apples on this old tree. If you chew them slow enough the bruised ones turn to hard cider when you pout.

The secret to life is lettuce and propane. Why not make a salad and listen to Simon and Garfunkel while I go outside and fire up the anger?

Put down that gun, give me the knife. Your mother is dead. Your father is dead. Nothing to be done about that. But if you want the world to suffer as much as you then I’m your man. Just say the word and I’ll crash that truck into the boy who pissed you off when you were eleven.

johnny cashThat fucking jar of honey…You call that anger? My grandmother can rage better than that with one hand tied behind her back and sick, diabetic feet that bleed when you look at them. Grandma Betty is nearing a hundred—it’s hard to kill a prick, her words.

I know anger is your right, but so is making do. Life is a mess, but it’s a lovely one. The floor never tasted so good.