Department of Unmagical Thinking

Image: '1688 miracle,' by nebojsamladjenovic on Flickr.com

[Image: “1688 miracle,” by nebojsa mladjenovic on Flickr. (Used here under a Creative Commons license; thank you!) For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

A certain man… once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish—but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.

(Vladimir Nabokov [source])

and:

Making a Fist

We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.
—Jorge Luis Borges

For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.

“How do you know if you are going to die?”
I begged my mother.
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
“When you can no longer make a fist.”

Years later I smile to think of that journey,
the borders we must cross separately,
stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
clenching and opening one small hand.

(Naomi Shihab Nye [source])

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Genii Locorum

'81,' by user Fu Ke on Flickr

[Image: “81,” by the user known as “Fu Ke,” on Flickr. I came really close to using a half-dozen or so photos by this user instead; finally decided that this best aligns with today’s theme (such as it is). It’s very… Escherian, no?]

From whiskey river:

For we human beings are used to inappropriate things; we are accustomed to the clatter of the incongruous; it is a tune to which we can go to sleep. If one appropriate thing happens, it wakes us up like the pang of a perfect chord.

(G. K. Chesterton [source])

and:

Nights Our House Comes to Life

Some nights in midwinter when the creek clogs
With ice and the spines of fir trees stiffen
Under a blank, frozen sky,
On these nights our house comes to life.
It happens when you’re half asleep:
A sudden crack, a fractured dream, you bolting
Upright – but all you can hear is the clock
Your great-grandfather found in 1860
And smuggled here from Dublin for his future bride,
A being as unknown to him then as she is now
To you, a being as distant as the strangers
Who built this house, and died in this room
Some cold, still night, like tonight,
When all that was heard were the rhythmic clicks
Of a pendulum, and something, barely audible,
Moving on the dark landing of the attic stairs.

(Matthew Brennan [source])

and:

Listen: I am ideally happy. My happiness is a kind of challenge. As I wander along the streets and the squares and the paths by the canal, absently sensing the lips of dampness through my worn soles, I carry proudly my ineffable happiness. The centuries will roll by, and schoolboys will yawn over the history of our upheavals; everything will pass, but my happiness, dear, my happiness will remain, in the moist reflection of a street lamp, in the cautious bend of stone steps that descend into the canal’s black waters, in the smiles of a dancing couple, in everything with which God so generously surrounds human loneliness.

(Vladimir Nabokov [source])

and:

Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window—
at most: column, tower… But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
Ever dreamed of existing.

(Rainer Maria Rilke [source])

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Ecstasy in the Commonplace

'Mill City is Crumbling and I'm going to Art-A-Whirl!,' by user jadammel on Flickr

[Image: “Mill City is Crumbling and I’m going to Art-A-Whirl!,” by user jadammel on Flickr. com. (Used under a Creative Commons license.) This is an example of something called a Holgarama: a panoramic photo taken with a camera called a Holga, whose cult status is attributable to the weirdly and unpredictably flawed photos it takes. Wikipedia calls this, delicately, “its low-fidelity aesthetic.”]

From whiskey river:

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate

the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window

and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.

The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.

The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.

(Derek Mahon [source (and elsewhere)])

and:

Every day my early morning walk along the water grants me a second waking. My feet are nimble, now my ears wake, and give thanks for the ocean’s song.

This enormity, this cauldron of changing greens and blues, is the great palace of the earth. Everything is in it — monsters, devils, jewels, swimming angels, soft-eyed mammals that unhesitatingly exchange looks with us as we stand on the shore; also, sunk with some ship or during off-loading, artifacts of past decades or centuries; also the outpourings of fire under water, the lava trails; and kelp fields, coral shelves, and so many other secrets — the remembered and faithfully repeated recitations of the whales, the language of dolphins — and the multitude itself, the numbers and the kinds of shark, seal, worm, vegetations, and fish: cod, haddock, swordfish, hake, also the lavender sculpin, the chisel-mouth, the goldeye, the puffer, the tripletail, the stargazing minnow. How can we not know that, already, we live in paradise?

(Mary Oliver [source])

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All the Directions of Time

Marc Chagall: 'Clock with Blue Wing' (1949, oil on canvas)

[Image: Clock with Blue Wing, by Marc Chagall (1949, oil on canvas). Translator Susanna Nied identifies this painting as the source or inspiration for Inger Christensen’s poem, below.]

From whiskey river:

A mysterious thing, this branching structure of life: one senses in every past instant a parting of ways, a “thus” and an “otherwise”, with innumerable dazzling zigzags bifurcating and trifurcating against the dark background of the past.

(Vladimir Nabokov [source])

and:

One advantage in keeping a diary is that you become aware with reassuring clarity of the changes which you constantly suffer and which in a general way are naturally believed, surmised, and admitted by you, but which you’ll unconsciously deny when it comes to the point of gaining hope or peace from such an admission. In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today, when we may be wiser because we are able to look back upon our former condition, and for that very reason have got to admit the courage of our earlier striving in which we persisted even in sheer ignorance.

(Franz Kafka [source])

and:

If I Stand

If I stand
alone in the snow
it is clear
that I am a clock

how else would eternity
find its way around

(Inger Christensen [source])

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The Truth in Sudden Joy (and Vice-Versa)

'Interior with Sudden Joy' (1951), by Dorothea Tanning

[Image: Interior with Sudden Joy (1951), by American surrealist Dorothea Tanning. This is as reproduced in grayscale for a 1990 Bomb Magazine interview. To see a (smaller) version in color, click on the image; to see the grayscale somewhat larger, click here.]

From whiskey river:

Don’t Hesitate

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

(Mary Oliver, Swan: Poems and Prose Poems [source])

and:

I became aware of the world’s tenderness, the profound beneficence of all that surrounded me, the blissful bond between me and all of creation, and I realized that the joy I sought in you was not only secreted within you, but breathed around me everywhere, in the speeding street sounds, in the hem of a comically lifted skirt, in the metallic yet tender drone of the wind, in the autumn clouds bloated with rain. I realized that the world does not represent a struggle at all, or a predaceous sequence of chance events, but the shimmering bliss, beneficent trepidation, a gift bestowed upon us and unappreciated.

(Vladimir Nabokov [source])

and (italicized portion):

Prayer

Over a dock railing, I watch the minnows, thousands, swirl
themselves, each a minuscule muscle, but also, without the
way to create current, making of their unison (turning, re-
infolding,
entering and exiting their own unison in unison) making of themselves a
visual current, one that cannot freight or sway by
minutest fractions the water’s downdrafts and upswirls, the
dockside cycles of finally-arriving boat-wakes, there where
they hit deeper resistance, water that seems to burst into
itself (it has those layers), a real current though mostly
invisible sending into the visible (minnows) arrowing
motion that forces change—
this is freedom. This is the force of faith. Nobody gets
what they want. Never again are you the same. The longing
is to be pure. What you get is to be changed. More and more by
each glistening minute, through which infinity threads itself,
also oblivion, of course, the aftershocks of something
at sea. Here, hands full of sand, letting it sift through
in the wind, I look in and say take this, this is
what I have saved, take this, hurry. And if I listen
now? Listen, I was not saying anything. It was only
something I did. I could not choose words. I am free to go.
I cannot of course come back. Not to this. Never.
It is a ghost posed on my lips. Here: never.

(Jorie Graham [source])

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Little Figures, Big Contexts, and the Distance Between Them

[Video: Ariana Grande, “Tattooed Heart.” I’m probably making people sick of this performance.]

From whiskey river:

When we remember our former selves, there is always that little figure with its long shadow stopping like an uncertain belated visitor on a lighted threshold at the far end of an impeccably narrowing corridor.

(Vladimir Nabokov [source])

and:

Why We Tell Stories
(excerpt)

for Linda Nemec Foster

I

Because we used to have leaves
and on damp days
our muscles feel a tug,
painful now, from when roots
pulled us into the ground

and because our children believe
they can fly, an instinct retained
from when the bones in our arms
were shaped like zithers and broke
neatly under their feathers

and because before we had lungs
we knew how far it was to the bottom
as we floated open-eyed
like painted scarves through the scenery
of dreams, and because we awakened

and learned to speak

(Lisel Mueller [source])

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Mark This Moment

Worker's gloved finger, scanned with old book on Google Books

[Image: partial screen capture of a page at Google Books. The worker scanning the pages of The Coquette has allowed his or her gloved finger to be recorded for posterity.]

From whiskey river (italicized portion):

You will lose everything. Your money, your power, your fame, your success, perhaps even your memories. Your looks will go. Loved ones will die. Your body will fall apart. Everything that seems permanent is impermanent and will be smashed. Experience will gradually, or not so gradually, strip away everything that it can strip away. Waking up means facing this reality with open eyes and no longer turning away.

But right now, we stand on sacred and holy ground, for that which will be lost has not yet been lost, and realising this is the key to unspeakable joy. Whoever or whatever is in your life right now has not yet been taken away from you. This may sound trivial, obvious, like nothing, but really it is the key to everything, the why and how and wherefore of existence. Impermanence has already rendered everything and everyone around you so deeply holy and significant and worthy of your heartbreaking gratitude.

Loss has already transfigured your life into an altar.

(Jeff Foster [source])

…and:

The Good Life

You stand at the window.
There is a glass cloud in the shape of a heart.
The wind’s sighs are like caves in your speech.
You are the ghost in the tree outside.

The street is quiet.
The weather, like tomorrow, like your life,
is partially here, partially up in the air.
There is nothing you can do.

The good life gives no warning.
It weathers the climates of despair
and appears, on foot, unrecognized, offering nothing,
and you are there.

(Mark Strand [source])

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What Doesn’t Change

[Video: “Every Day the Same Dream,” based on the Flash-based game of the same name]

From whiskey river:

I do not believe the meaning of life is a puzzle to be solved. Life is. Anything might happen. And I believe I may invest my life with meaning. The uncertainty is a blessing in disguise. If I were absolutely certain about all things, I would spend my life in anxious misery, fearful of losing my way. But since everything and anything are always possible, the miraculous is always nearby and wonders shall never, ever cease.

(Robert Fulghum)

… and:

Formaggio

The world
was whole because
it shattered. When it shattered,
then we knew what it was.

It never healed itself.
But in the deep fissures, smaller worlds appeared:
it was a good thing that human beings made them;
human beings know what they need,
better than any god.

On Huron Avenue they became
a block of stores; they became
Fishmonger, Formaggio. Whatever
they were or sold, they were
alike in their function: they were
visions of safety. Like
a resting place. The salespeople
were like parents; they appeared
to live there. On the whole,
kinder than parents.

Tributaries
feeding into a large river: I had
many lives. In the provisional world,
I stood where the fruit was,
flats of cherries, clementines,
under Hallie’s flowers.

I had many lives. Feeding
into a river, the river
feeding into a great ocean. If the self
becomes invisible has it disappeared?

I thrived. I lived
not completely alone, alone
but not completely, strangers
surging around me.

That’s what the sea is:
we exist in secret.

I had lives before this, stems
of a spray of flowers: they became
one thing, held by a ribbon at the center, a ribbon
visible under the hand. Above the hand,
the branching future, stems
ending in flowers. And the gripped fist —
that would be the self in the present.

(Louise Glück)

and:

You normally have to be bashed about a bit by life to see the point of daffodils, sunsets and uneventful nice days.

(Alain de Botton)

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Book Review: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

I’ve (finally!) posted my review of Nabokov’s Lolita, over at The Book Book.

It certainly made for a discomfiting read, on some levels. Anyone with a niece or daughter, as young as the title character or simply once that young — and, I’d bet, any one who herself was once that young — will find in its pages plenty to squirm over.

And yet, there are all those other levels: the annoyingly hard-to-resist charms of the voice of the narrator, the protagonist, Lolita’s stepfather (and abuser) Humbert; the lavish stylistic flourishes; the mounting tensions — leading first to the central “Will he or won’t he?” answer and, later, finally “…will he really kill? kill whom?”

Of course I’m writing here as a guy — a middle-aged guy, at that — and maybe this alone invalidates all my disclaimers to the contrary. But I have to admit that even while being most horrified, I could also feel a little frisson of titillation from time to time. This was especially true early in the book, before the “Will he or won’t be?” question got its (maybe inevitable) answer. It was like inspecting close-up the carapace of what looks from a distance like a beautiful beetle: the ugly hairs and horrible eyes jump out at you, and you almost can’t wait to back off again. It’s a grotesque parody, in a way — a Bruegel‘s-eye-view of infatuation.

(Of course the publisher knows and is quite willing to trade on, to toy with this. Just look at that cover from the book’s 50th-anniversary edition. Do you see the horrors of pedophilia there? I don’t, either.)

Anyway, obviously there’s a lot to feel ambivalent about. If you don’t mind ambivalence and messy morality, love language, and of course haven’t read Lolita, you might want to give it a try. Just don’t be surprised if, like me, you can’t imagine yourself ever reading the book again — and being grateful to have read it once.

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Experience, Meet Hope

[Video: “Wiley vs. Rhodes,” a live-action Road Runner cartoon]

From whiskey river:

Ten Thousand Idiots

It is always a danger
to aspirants on the Path

when they begin
to believe and act

as if the ten thousand idiots
who so long ruled and lived inside

have all packed their bags
and skipped town
or
died.

(Hafiz [source: none canonical, as far as I can tell, but it’s quoted at various places around the Web, including here])

and:

Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. It’s true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that appears above the ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers away – an ephemeral apparition. When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity. Yet I have never lost the sense of something that lives and endures beneath the eternal flux. What we see is blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains.

(Carl Jung, from Memories, Dreams, Reflections [source])

and:

They say that every snowflake is different. If that were true, how could the world go on? How could we ever get up off our knees? How could we ever recover from the wonder of it?

(Jeanette Winterson [source])

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