Thursday, September 20, 2018


Dear The State,

Last night, as I was reviewing the Utah Driver Handbook, once between my last student consultation and my evening workout, and once after my evening workout, I came across questions like these:

and I tell you, I felt a little panicky. I have been driving since I was seventeen, and I mostly think I know the rules of the road, and drive safely, generally, etcetera and so on and what have you. But I began to feel a sense of foreboding as I contemplated my appointment at the Driver License Castle upon the morrow, when I would be forced to confront

1. my deep recalcitrance in letting my driver's license expire for twenty days. Twenty!
2. the State's deep and abiding disapproval of same
3. my knowledge or probably my lack of knowledge! of the laws and regulations governing the privilege of driving
4. my tired and aged eyes
5. an unreadable driving skills test evaluator who would probably be wearing mirrored sunglasses and would not crack a smile


Flash back two years, when I went into the Driver License Castle to renew my license and I was two years early! Ha ha! I misread the expiration year, although in my defense, the background they print the license on makes reading the details a wee bit tricky, and a six, under certain conditions of the lights, is only one curly line away from an eight. Well, that was a fine day, I can tell you what. Reprieve! Live it up! Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die, and so on!

Flash forward to this summer, when the renewal form came in the postal mail to my house, and I laughed bitterly, because I DID NOT HAVE TIME TO TAKE CARE OF MUNDANE BIZ LIKE DRIVER LICENSE RENEWAL, I said loudly and bitterly to whoever was listening (the historian, of course), and cast it aside in a devil-may-care/despairing fashion. "I will have to take care of that after the [swear word] NEH thing, and then the arrival of the family carnival, and then our trip to Santa Fe. AFTER THAT," I said, in a hopeful/hypothetical fashion.

Well, America, I found that my birthday arrived in late August, and lo, upon that day, I said, with a start: "ACK my driver's license expires in, like, one day," as we were leaving for Idaho etcetera.

And then it was September. > EXPIRED < and also the semester and every other [swear word] thing.

So, okay, I ransacked all the stacks of papers in the whole universe, aka my house, and of course the renewal form was nowhere in sight, and nowhere to be found, and had indeed been taken into the void of papers, whence nothing returns. Or so I assume. So I made an appointment with the Driver License Robot, and gathered papers to prove I was a person and a citizen and legit on all accounts. I assumed, basically, that I would be required to prove myself from the ground up. Knowledge test, skills tests, general genuflection before the Driver License Castle Lords.

So I walked in, with all my documents clutched in my hands, and my application form, and went to the first person, who took my picture. "You have an appointment! Awesome," she said. She gave me a ticket with a number on it, and said, "So just take a seat till they call this number." Which happened immediately: I looked up, and there was the number, no time to even take a seat.

I advanced to the requisite station. "What are we doing today?" the Driver License Castle Lord said. He was wearing a polo shirt with the Driver License Division logo on it, standard Castle attire, I guess.

"Renewal," I said, with my documents ready to proffer.

"Look into the vision thingie," he said.

I read two lines of letters perfectly.

"You passed," he said.

"Yippee!" I said, or something more appropriate with that same gist.

"Sign this," he said. I read it. Basically, I was promising that I was actually the person I said I was. AM I? AM I THAT PERSON? Yes, I decided. I am. I signed.

"That's $37," he said. And after I paid, he handed me a receipt, my old license with holes punched in it, and a print out of my temporary license. "Your plastic one will arrive in four to six weeks."

"THAT'S IT?" I said.

"Yup," he said.

"You are lord of all you survey!!!!!!" I said, or words to that effect.

And thus, my interpellation by you, The State, was concluded. My interpellation was, in fact, so delicate, that I went to Target to buy some celebratory mints, and also a new purse.

I'm v. cheerful, in fact, and it's all due to you.



p.s. on the other hand, this is apparently what you think I look like now:


Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Field Guide to a Figured World.

Field Guide to a Figured World

The bridge is out, a woman tells me. I query: 
did you walk across it anyway? No, she says,
she didn’t try it. The bridge is out, I’ve been told
this now for years, but still I’ve walked across it,
leaned, even, against its railings to look 

into the water rushing down a decline, as all
rivers do, or they wouldn’t be rivers at all.
Looking at the barn swallows, hieing 
themselves from the water into the cross-
currents, playing the drift, in what seems

from here, the bridge’s edge, a kind 
of idling, purposeless, all their gleanings invisible. 
The air is thick with what they seek, and 
the cloudy world of blue and mist and gathered
rain potent and withheld. I inspect the bridge,

its seven spans, with care, its closure announced 
in definite terms: DANGER: but also provisional: 
the sign’s enclosed in a plastic sleeve, like 
an assignment turned in for grading, before paper 
turned obsolete. They’ve propped cattle gates 

across both ends, but left them slanting open. I read 
the message as DANGER, but not for you, 
not really. I take its invitation—the provision 
signaling in two directions. I want to see the whole 
panorama of the birds, flying up from under 

the bridge’s beams in extravagant loops, wings 
open to take the air, then tucked to glide 
back under to their nests, the thunder 
of the water over rocks as their contra basso, 
their chatter a countermelody, the wind moving 

through grasses at the banks maybe the motif,
recurring, that holds the whole composition together?
Anyway, that’s a little conceit I consider briefly, 
standing on the bridge that’s a ruin, or about to be, 
as the birds perform their aerial feats: 

I come to see it every year, I hold it sacred, 
though I know they soar and plummet for no one 
but themselves, and certainly not for me. 
And really, the birds are almost beside the point, 
rather that I come to them every year, 

at home in this world, its grasses and snaking river 
a garden out of which I grew, always knowing 
I could return, could watch for decades
as the bridge began to fall apart, and people
considered its repair, and the birds made

their nests and the water ever tore its passage 
downhill, and made the banks yield to its fury. 
Rocks, river, the wide sky and its rookery, its hawks 
wheeling overhead: all this I have studied, 
with a little field guide fit to my hands, 

lenses trained to loop and soar in the patterns 
of bird flight: and you, whom I have invited 
to cross this possibly treacherous bridge with me, 
you might read that sign and believe it, believe 
that the river I show you is not yours to cross, 

in fact you may not see yourself in it at all: for you, 
perhaps, the field appears nearly blank, does not 
welcome you, its tract is not your book, its sphere 
is not your ground. It should be no epiphany 
to say so, I should have known it by now. 

My path to the river will not be yours, 
and your path to wherever you’re going, 
folded into the map you hold that I can’t see, 
will not be mine. And what of it? This bridge 
is going to fail, and no tentative bravado of mine

will stop that disaster from its event. Will it interest you 
to know that today, I saw, fleetingly, a swallow, 
violet-green, and a tanager’s red neck? my missal 
is a folded page, tucked into a pocket 
next to a pen, for when the word occurs to me, 

set into flight by the downward swoop 
of passerines. And yours? I am curious: 
if I show you the figures the birds make of the air, 
tell you that I am of the people who build and then 
neglect bridges, will you open your book, 

its alphabets inscribed both faint and bold, 
interpret its languages, unfold it, show me
the print faded into the creases? Tell me
what birds, if birds, inscribe your skies? what 
the grasses are, if grasses, that score your music?

Thursday, June 07, 2018


A year ago or so, a woman I didn't know wrote to me to ask if I would be interested and willing to be the poet in a summer camp in a school district a couple of counties south of here. The Poet? "Sure!" I said.

There were a bunch of things I did not factor in to that "Sure!" To wit:
  • other, bigger grant I was also nominally a person of interest in/on/wherein/what have you. We hadn't yet been awarded this grant, but still.
  • there was big life-altering medical stuff happening in my family.
  • I had a book coming out--whatever that means.
The key here is, I didn't factor that stuff in. I just said yes

I'm sure you're ahead of me here, but a few weeks ago, I heard back from the woman. They got the grant. Was I, perchance, still available? 

Here's the part where I talk about my conception of time:
Time is infinitely subdividable into increments which can contain, potentially and approximately, three times the amount of stuff you think you can get done, and actually, twice the amount of stuff you can get done, if you don't mind a little bit of sloppiness and stress-induced forgetfulness and if sleep doesn't actually matter to you whatsoever.
I realize that this sounds like I'm saying that, through application of this theory of time, I get twice as much done as other people. But what I'm actually saying is, the sloppiness, forgetfulness, and sleep-deprivation you see me exhibit is the side-effect of a conception of time that is, quite frankly, inadvisable. 

Flash forward to this week, when I drove to points south each day, Monday through Thursday, for a morning with young people--first through twelfth graders--to write poetry. I said to one of my colleagues, "I've had the drive south and back again every day this week to consider my sins." We laughed, ha ha ha, because clearly what I meant was, don't ever do that again, LISA. But if that's the lesson that life was dealing out to me, via a lengthy drive forth and back each day, pray tell why I found myself feeling bereft today, when I realized I would not be working with these kids again? 

Today, everything went pretty well. The little girl, probably a first grader, who wanted nothing to do with poetry writing, was happy to dictate to me, so I could transcribe, an acrostic based on her own name.

"What's an H word?" I asked. "Huh huh huh?"

"Honey!" she said, while playing with three rather hazardous looking unbent paper clips, which she was imagining as characters.

"I have two names, Josh and Joshua," another little one told me.

"Which name do you like better?" I asked him.

"Josh," he said, with a tiny smile.

Before the various rotations of the summer camp started today, I arrived to see a part of circle time. This camp is located in a community with strong Native heritage, so upon arrival, the kids all took part in hoop dancing, or grass dancing, or fancy dancing, or jingle dancing. The littlest ones were the happiest to explain these various dances to me, showing me a little bit of their footwork and the positions in which they held their arms.

"You also keep nodding your head," one boy told another boy, who was showing me how you tapped your feet for the grass dance. They all nodded their heads.

Today, the woman in charge was showing the children how to put up a girl's hair in a traditional Navajo bun. One girl knelt while another girl and a boy helped the woman bind the hair with a tie, then secure it. The woman explained that putting the hair up was a way of showing respect for traditional ceremonies, such as dances, and that different tribes might have different traditions, for both men and women. I watched as the bigger kids paid attention, their little brothers and sisters sitting on them, or near them. 

I was watching--lucky enough to take part, even--in the intimate work of binding together a community.

The woman, when she first asked me to be a part of the summer camp, had told me that the curriculum had a strong Native American emphasis. But clearly, I didn't have any idea, really, what this meant, and for whom. And only by being there, by figuring out how to engage these kids in processes of writing, could I begin to understand. That, of course, is why I felt so bereft when I left today.

I told my colleagues about all this unexpected emotion at the meeting to which I raced after leaving the summer camp poets behind. It was, of course, a meeting for the bigger grant, which kicks into motion in T minus nine days. 

"One of the little boys [it was Josh, with the little smile] saw me in the gym as I was leaving. He had a little cookie in his hand. He said, 'I guess I'll see you tomorrow.' But he won't see me tomorrow." 

And then I cried into a Del Taco napkin, because even when time is infinitely subdividable, you still need lunch. 

"I'm fine, I'm fine," I said from behind the napkin.

My friend and colleague said, "Well, sometimes you just have to cry." She has said this to me before, and she's right. Otherwise, you just try hard not to feel things. And in the end, I'd rather feel things, to say yes, and to make sure that I show up at the powwow at the end of the month--"bring a lawn chair and a sun umbrella!" says the woman in charge--so I can see the kids' fancy dancing, help showcase their writing, and remember their names.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

When the archaeological dig is of your own stuff. (a memoir)

As I considered the ivy growing into my study

As I swept the floor under my easy chair

As the historian and I moved the easy chair downstairs, so that I could clean under and around it and maybe get a slightly sleeker chair

As I threw away a dozen old copies of the New York Times Style Magazine

As I rolled up an old rug so that I could clean under it

As I burst into tears

As the historian told me the reason I have so much stuff is because of a whole bunch of things that are right with me and not because I'm a horrible person





Lord, there are so many ways to begin this post.

Earlier this week, I sent my daughter this text:

my rescuer.

America: it is time, apparently, to reckon with my life. And why not? Tomorrow, I start a Poet in the Schools gig down in Spanish Fork, and in two weeks the NEH Extravaganza starts for four weeks, so why not excavate and simultaneously judge my own chaos? Because it just can't freaking wait one minute longer, that's why. And because my study is, has been for awhile, and as God is my witness shall not be anymore starting. right. NOW, a nightmare.

"What a nightmare," I said, as we turned the giant chair on its side, the better to wiggle it through a doorway.

"No, it's not, sweetheart, don't say that," said the historian. He was probably hoping I wouldn't burst into tears. TOO LATE.

"Actually, it's more of a description than a freakout," I said, calmly.

And THEN I burst into tears.

But we moved that massive chair downstairs. I've thrown away some stuff, and put stuff into bags to give away, and there is still way more stuff to go through. But I'm going to do it. I'm going to do it because it is time to be able to work in my study without having to either (a) ignore what is plainly in front of me--piles and piles of little books I've made, books I've bought, papers I've sorted once and then left to drift into other papers until they've probably procreated; receipts, art supplies, little notebooks; sharpies, pens, pencils; flash drives of various sizes and eras; drafts of poems...the list is endless! or (b) feel I am drawing near to becoming a hoarder or Miss Havisham or both. And (c) I want--need!--to have a calm, peaceful place to work, for crying out loud.

I am summoning up my most ruthless self, clearer of decks and restorer of order. I have been this person at times in my life, and I think I can become her again. Especially if my daughter is with me. She has offered me incomparable aid at various intervals. 

"I'm glad Sophie is going to help me," I told the historian. "She'll help me out, and all I have to do is let her make fun of me a little."

Once, she helped me clean out my kitchen. She held up a small pile of accoutrements (which shall remain unspecified and undescribed). I wilted.

"But [beloved person] gave those to me," I whispered.

"Mom. Things are not people," she said firmly. And into the box they went.

Things are not people, America, and the things are damn well not staying in my study.  

Friday, June 01, 2018

Bulletins from the outposts of writing.

Perhaps I haven't bumped into you lately, and so you have not heard me recite the saga of the Summer of 2018 and Its Epic Activities (most of the activities still to come--it's only June, yo). Oh boy can I regale you with this story, which has the following key plot points:

  • Summer has come, by which I mean 'the cessation of winter semester and the academic year,' and lo the Season of the Little Lows has crept upon us, even though it so creeps every damn year, and still it surprises me
  • My esteemed colleagues and I got a big ol' NEH grant, and lo in little more than two weeks, the two dozen participants in our Institute will be arriving in Salt Lake and whoa.
  • My roses are blooming their heads off!
  • I am going to learn SO MUCH from this NEH grant and all the things that will happen in the four weeks that our two dozen participants are here.
  • After the NEH extravaganza, there will be a family extravaganza, with children coming into town from far and wide and across an ocean!
  • Man, that NEH extravaganza seems massive. And awesome! (also: massive.)
I think academics have mythologies about the summer, which usually include stories of writing and research and progress on projects, etc. I know I do. I always imagine that there will be loads of writing in my summers, and this belief is both a promise and a little whip I flagellate myself with when it proves harder than I thought--again, happens every summer, and still it surprises me--both to set aside the time and to make the time pay.

All this is to say that this week, I found a way to lay hands upon three days without commitments, and thus I committed myself to write. 

Here how it went:


To be more specific:
  • On Monday:  

 ...which I did.
  • On Wednesday, I felt vaguely like I might be coming down with a cold, or, like a cold was on the doorstep, or maybe it was driving by the house. Yes: a drive-by cold that also was making me feel sad. Sad and tired. Making me feel like the best of mylife was over for me, and all the people I loved might love me back, but probably they had better things to do. Better things than, you know, being present at this very specific moment, making me feel less lonely. Also, I felt lonely. I sat at my laptop and wrote in a desultory fashion, some lines that had flowers and a balcony in them, and a pink house (the balcony was part of this pink house), the kind of crap writing that is basically just going through the motions. The poem I felt simultaneously calling to me, rather sternly, and simultaneously signaling that I probably wasn't up to writing it--the poem leered at me, and suggested that I was probably a failure, and without discipline, and a lazy writer, to boot. So I lay down in my bed and reread a novel I have read one billion times, then fell asleep. And then cried about it.
Oh boy.
  • Today, I put on some smart-ish clothes and went out to the new Roasting Co. (verdict: nice new place, much less food, the new second story makes one long for the old second story), and wrote some notes toward the forbidding poem. 
In between Wednesday and today, though, I went to therapy, which was useful. I have at this point in my writing life had loads and loads of experience with The Zero, which is what I call the feeling that I'm starting again from scratch, I know nothing, and various even more judgmental versions of these ideas. Judgmental of myself, of course. 

What I know now is that I am currently gathering what I need to write this poem. I might be gathering for awhile longer. And this summer might not have all the space in the universe for writing in it, but writing will still be there when the various splendid, massive, challenging, unpredictable and superb projects and delights of the summer have passed. Writing will be there, and so will I, and I will have gathered more of what I need to write this poem, to imagine this next manuscript, and even to align my life so that future Lisa will have more time to write, to gather and to deploy, and time to lie down with her feeeeelings, too. Because writing, for me, calls for all of that. 

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Swearing: a memoir.

Well, let me first just say that I began cursing as a small child. There is a small legendary story told in my family, about a time when I drove to California with my grandparents (is that correct? I was too small for this to be an actual memory, just two. My mother was having or had just had my little brother, and we were moving, so yes, I think it was my grandparents). Anyway: they had bought me a little set of stuff to do in the car that somehow involved scissors. The little plastic kind. Maybe it was paper dolls, which used to come with handy scissors, because you had to cut stuff out. (Bless these modern times! in which things come pre-cut-out, and thus you can play with them straight out of the box, instead of having to excise them from their papery origins!)

Cue a super-cute kid-swear: I am reported to have said, "These damn scissors simply won't cut!"

It's a very short journey from this adorable cursing to using the f word, with which I got comfortable as a freshman at BYU.
An interlude: 
BYU was a pretty weird place. 
1. Evening prayer in the dorms. Every evening? Seems improbable, but I think it actually was? 
2. I think the girls at the end of my hall smoked dope on the regular. 
3. You could legit get a pizza delivered through your window, courtesy of The Rusty Nail, which was across the street and down the way. (Also: I knew someone who saw some Osmonds at the 7-Eleven just next door to said pizzeria.) 
4. So. Much. Righteousness. 
...which made a perfect petri dish for people like me to experiment with lite wickedness, such as swearing.
At Ann Cannon's book launch tonight, she read a column about finding a swear box underneath one of her sons' beds, with a detailed list of all the possible swears and what they were worth, in terms of a dollar penalty. It was filled with IOUs, which were eventually supposed to be paid up and donated to a worthy charity. Mostly, though, just IOUs.

When we got home from this literary event, we picked up Game 1 of the NBA finals, Cavs v. Warriors--we got home just as the first half was ending. The second half started. Sometime early in the fourth quarter, a Cav who shall remain nameless missed a rebound he should have snagged and I swore up a blue streak.

"Maybe I need a swear box," I said. The historian laughed.

Well, that's probably never going to happen. However, I probably don't need to get exercised at an NBA game to the extent that a swear-dense utterance comes out of my mouth at an inconsequential missed rebound. (In my defense, the Cavs lost the game, and I am not [insert a density of swears] happy about it.)

I'd like my swearing to be mostly recreational, if I have anything to say about it. Do I? Have anything to say about it? I suppose I do.

I'm basically leaving the door open on whether I will reconsider my swearing ways, or whether--as with my erstwhile shopping moratorium or my desire/resolve to put away my clothes and/or not have more clothes than I can actually put away, let alone shoes, let alone books!--I will be a backslider and a fence sitter, etc., with regard to these and plenty of other self-improvements.

However, after hearing Ann Cannon talk about how writing a newspaper column helped her pay attention to her life--and also that keeping a blog, however intermittent, and something like the same effect--I swear that I am going to really, really try to blog. Which is to say: write. The world cannot be worse with just a little more writing, paying attention to my life, and turning that attention into words. Some of which will be swear words, but not most.

for Ann Cannon

Friday, April 13, 2018

On voice.

Perhaps you haven't heard, but I have been going to see The Doctors as of late. It is my new hobby.

Let me offer a brief history:

1. I was born, and apparently a doctor was present.
2. I had stitches when I was approximately four or five. Right by my eye, so that was scary, for everyone.
3. I had multiple episodes of strep throat, throughout my childhood and adolescence. I believe that my identity as a poet was formed in the Fevers of Strep, wherein once I thought I saw a spider as big as my fist in my bedroom but was too weak to even call for my dad to come get it, for like, five whole minutes, and then I faintly, feebly called Dad. DAD.  because literally it was as big as a truck. (See? hyperbole.)
4. I gave birth to one two three four five children, with no anesthesia, except for childbirth the first when I had a local, because no one was going to stick a needle in MY backbone, no sirree (see also: Our Bodies, Ourselves, and other accounts of heroic going-without-anesthetic from history).
5. I had no doctor for literally years.

But then my dad had a stroke and then my sister had a stroke, and, come to think of it, my MOM had had a brain aneurysm/repair. So my other sister and I figured we needed to make sure our brains weren't busy cooking up additional strokes on our behalf. Obviously, we needed to get scanned.

In my case, this meant finding a doctor first, so I could get a referral to get scanned.

Let me offer a brief history:

1. I asked my friends for doctor recommendations.
2. I asked my daughter for doctor recommendations.
3. I called doctors that had been recommended to me, and in short order, I had a doctor, and ergo, a doctor's appointment.
4. Thus was borne my new hobby.


At the reception desk: Please fill out these one billion forms and also please take this quiz about your state of mind. Are you sad? Are you ever anxious? Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you sometimes have trouble taking pleasure in normal things?

Me: WHAT!? please.

Me (in writing): I would be glad to talk about these things with the doctor.

Me (in my mind): ...but I am NOT WRITING THIS DOWN, hell no, and you can't make me. (that last part I said out loud to the historian.)

In the room:

Nurse: Here is your blood pressure, not bad. How's about a flu shot? Take off your clothes, so you can be defenseless and vulnerable, because that's how we like it.

Me: (defenseless and vulnerable) (possibly doing a small amount of light crying) I hate this.

The historian: I know. I know.

With the doctor:

Me: I haven't been to the doctor in nine billion years. I have a skeptical relationship with the medical industrial complex (actual thing I said, which I was pretty proud of at the time).

Doctor: Sounds pretty reasonable to me.

Okay, then, Medical Industrial Complex, we have  a match.

Doctor (palpating): hey, now, what's that nodule in your throat-stroke-thyroid region?

Me: the hell you say?

Doctor: how about we get that ultrasounded? Also, give me all of your blood.


At the dermatologist. 

Dermatologist: And now I will take a divot, I mean this mole, out of your back. Also, wear sunscreen unless it's a blizzard (actual thing the dermatologist said). Hey: benign!

REPORT FROM THE LABS (aka, my blood).

Doctor on the phone. You are not a diabetic. (confetti!)

AT THE RADIOLOGIST (brain scan).

Technician: what music would you like to be played in earphones that you'll barely be able to hear over the sound of the universal gears grinding while we look at your brain?

Me: Joni Mitchell, please.

[machine grinds]

Joni Mitchell: love came to my door with a sleeping roll/ and a madman's soul

AT THE ULTRASOUND CLINIC (throat nodule investigation, part 2).

Technician: lean back and expose your throat like a sacrificial victim.

Me: uh, okay.


Technician: Yup, that's a nodule.


(a) you got no aneurysms in your brains. (confetti!)
(b) yup, that's a nodule.

Doctor: well, you can wait a year and get that nodule ultrasounded again. Or you can go to the endocrinologist and get a fine needle aspiration.


Doctor: So we're agreed then.


Endocrinologist: thyroid thyroid thyroid (points to diagram) thyroid cancer (points to thyroid model) thyroid cancer?

Me: I can't hear one thing you're saying because the word cancer is somehow in usage in this room?

Endocrinologist: So we're agreed then.

Nurse: lean back and expose your throat like a sacrificial victim.

Me: FINE (used to it by now)

Endocrinologist: (sticks a needle in my nodule) Are you all right, ma'am?

Me: Well, it's not exactly delightful, but I'm okay.

(they spirit away some of my vital animal fluids and probably a little bit of my soul)

Nurse/Endocrinologist: stay right here--we need to make sure we have enough of your vital animal fluids and we may need just a wee bit more soul-juice

Me: (lays there like a sacrificial victim)

Endocrinologist: I need to stick a needle in your throat a couple more times

Me: ugh, fine.


Endocrinologist: Yup, cancer. You should get the left lobe of your thyroid removed within the next six months. Call my head and neck surgery guy.


Surgeon (who has a cold or something? so is wearing a mask, and is also carrying a huge knife(not really, just making that up. Hyperbole!)): I concur with your endocrinologist. Let's remove that left lobe within the next six months. Surgery surgery surgery. Also, the thyroid comes pretty close to your recurrent laryngeal nerve, so there's a chance, less than 1%, that we might damage that nerve, resulting in temporary or (very unlikely) loss of voice.


Surgeon: (who knows what he's doing/thinking behind that mask)

Me: (actual thing I said): Well, I have a lovely singing voice, and I am a poet, and I need to be able to read and also to break into song at the least provocation.

Surgeon: (thinks I am a loon, apparently, although who knows what he is doing/thinking behind that mask)

Me: (settles down) Ugh, fine. Less than 1% chance, you say?

Historian: (taking copious notes)

Surgeon (swishes out of room in a lordly way with his cutlass)

And thus, I will be having thyroid surgery on Monday. And I will be fine, and also my recurrent laryngeal nerve will be fine (less than 1% chance that it will not be fine). Statistically I will be fine.


Today, after work, I went to KRCL and talked with Lara Jones about poetry. (It's National Poetry Month!)(In related news, I have been too busy/preoccupied to write a poem a day, which I wish were not the case, but bygones.)

I have been thinking for the last year or so about voice, specifically my poetic, political, citizen's voice, and what I want to do with it. Ms. Jones asked me, after I had talked about a few poets who give me courage and make me want to write poems that might give other people courage, and beauty, and the will to act: What about your own poetry? When you teach students about poetry, or read  work in the community, or send it out, what do you hope will happen?

It's a question I realize, at this late date, I don't have a final answer for. I am hoping that's a good thing. Not so long ago, if someone asked me why poetry? I would have answered, because I can. But now, my answer is different.

This week, I read with Neeli Cherkovski, who said, among a bunch of other things, that all poems are instruction. The historian asked me if I thought that were true. Horace, the Roman poet, famously wrote in Ars Poetica that poems should both instruct and delight. I told the historian that I thought Cherkovski's claim might be true if you took a certain view of instruction--something like an Emersonian notion, that by reading or hearing poems, and thus experiencing the poems' ins and outs, turns, reversals, we are engaged in the forms of thought they embody. This, I guessed, would be a kind of instruction, I said.

I want poems, which are an embodiment of my voice--not the only embodiment, but one--to make beauty, to enact thought, to take the mind and the ear and the body, to incite movement and strike fellow feeling. I don't think it's too much to ask of myself as a poet, to aim for all of that.

I also don't think it's too much to ask of my surgeon, he of the head and neck and the fictive big knife, to be extra careful around that recurrent laryngeal nerve, because I need my voice, for itinerant singing, and because using it is one of the forms of my courage.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Breaking it down, finally: the movies I saw in 2017

2017 was a hell of a year, America. I know you know this. There are a lot of movies I didn't see, and I'm a little sad about that, but in the end, I chose the movies, for the most part, that I thought would buoy me, one way or another. There were movies I didn't see that I thought might, in whatever moment, sink me. And so it turned out that there were a lot of weekends when we could have gone out but didn't. 

Anyway: not all of these movies are great movies, but I'll tell you the ones I loved and why. A star (means that this was a movie I thought was worthwhile. No stars means I have a thing or two to say about the film, but do not, for whatever reasons, recommend it.

★ Hidden Figures: It took us a minute to get to this film. Honestly, the deciding factor was how much both my parents loved it. So I went with that in mind--my father loved it for the science, my mother for the story. I loved it for both. This is not a great film, but it's a great story, and I loved seeing it. 

★ Paterson: This film was like a long drink of cool water. It's a movie about a poet, beautifully played by Adam Driver, someone who writes and has a job and a marriage and an apartment and is a regular at a bar and so forth. The work that he does with words is a ground note that sounds through his days. I thought that this movie did the wonderful work of suggesting how writers think with words, phrases, sentences, line breaks, sound. A true beauty. 

★ 20th Century Women: I loved this movie. It broke my heart. It was a love letter to women of all ages, and I loved how it represented a big, messy, headstrong life--times three--from the point of view of a boy, a point of view which did not seek to dominate but to observe and to love. Beautiful.

Fences: Glad to have seen this, in part to become more familiar with the play, which I imagined would be magnificent. I would have loved to see these performances on a stage. The film, however, was stagy. Splendidly acted but stagy.

★ The Founder: I watched this on a plane, I believe coming back from Scotland. I can't vouch for that. However, I found it to be pretty fascinating and absorbing, an American story with all the dimensions of America that fascinate, appall, even sicken. And yet--not in the least a trudge to watch. A special valentine to Nick Offerman, who enlivens every role he takes.

★ The Big Sick: My memory is that this film got a lot of love just in advance of its release, then people wanted to pick at it a little. But it's a good film. It's funny and sweet, and one of the big pluses is Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as the parents--so soulful and beautiful. Loved this film.

★ Personal Shopper: I loved this--a friend who's a film professor found this to be flawed, and sure, I agree, at least in theory. But I was mesmerized by it. It was creepy and beautiful and thrilling by turns. I loved its meditation on loss. Kristen Stewart is superb in it.

★ Florida Project: An indelible film. The little girl who plays Moonee, Brooklynn Price, the central figure of the film, is unforgettable as the full-of-play and mischief child, living in a rent-by-the-week motel with a mom who's scrambling to make a life for herself and her little girl. Scruffy and gritty, but nonetheless full of magic. I knew, I planned for, whatever form the heartbreak would take at the end of the film, but I was nonetheless unprepared for how it broke my heart. So, so good.

★ Wonderstruck: Another beautiful magic trick of a film, binding two time periods together through two gorgeous performances by children. One, Millicent Simmonds, is from Utah, and she is beautifully cinematic. This film could be seen and enjoyed in a multiplicity of ways by families, or by anyone, really. Worth seeking out.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: I saw this film twice, once with the historian, once with the historian and my son. It has its pleasures, chief among them the three starring performances. I love Frances McDormand, and because she is formidable, it was easy for me to miss what was wrong with the film, including its troubling politics, and a casual racism that is flirted with, a sleight of hand that gets more difficult to ignore the longer you think about it. I love Sam Rockwell, too, but as, by now, many people have pointed out, you're expected to invest in the recuperation of his racist character, while simultaneously never being invited to care one whit about the characters he has damaged. It's a testament to how good he is that you might not notice right away. This is a film that declined in value for me the further away I got from it.

★ Lady Bird: It is a perfect thing, this film. Like many comedies, people can pick away at it, but I found it beautifully constructed, with performances that were so dimensional and so subtle that I could take almost endless joy from it. The beauty of Saoirse Ronan and her entitled rage. The absolute splendor of the meaning Laurie Metcalf can wreak from the mere tilt of her head. Let us not forget Tracy Letts, who has given us joy in so many films this year. I know I will enjoy this film for years to come.

★ Wonder Woman: Lucky me, that I got to see this film with my son. He had already seen it, but he knew that it wouldn't be the historian's thing, and that I would love it, so he invited me to come. I expected to enjoy it but did not expect to be so moved by it. Gal Gadot is truly remarkable, her beauty fiery and intelligent. I'm enjoying Chris Pine these days, too, in side-kicky roles, totally present and, it must be said, piercing blue eyes that, whatever, okay, they work for me. Anyway, this is a film that needed to be made and is gorgeous and worth every penny they need to pay GG for the sequel, since they clearly underpaid her for this film.  

The Hero: Sam Elliott is an icon, first of all. And this film gets at at least some of why this is the case. In terms of elegies to iconic actors of mostly western roles, I prefer him in the last couple of seasons of Justified, even though this film is certainly competent and affecting. If you love Sam Elliott, just watch Justified. And also, of course, The Big Lebowski.

I, Daniel Blake: A fine piece of agit-prop from Ken Loach that I felt cleansed and scarified after watching. As argumentative and didactic as it is, it does a pretty good job of showing the logic of late capitalism as it plays out in people's lives. 

★ Dolores: Tremendously galvanizing and inspiring, and also frustrating and inspiring of a deep soul-search. How shall we live, when there is so much to do? Dolores Huerta made decisions that it would have been very hard for me to make, and it was hard for me not to feel judgmental about her decisions, but then I think: what about the work she did? Who would have done it, if it had not been for Dolores? It's entirely worthwhile to see the film to engage in this kind of questioning.

★ Get Out: One of my favorites of this past year--so sharp, so smart. So dread-inducing, so discomfort-provoking. It's a film so entirely relevant to this moment, and it might feel like an interrogation if it weren't so totally entertaining. Special props to Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener for being super creepy, and to Daniel Kaluuya for being perfect and for getting the (white) audience to identify with his character fully, and also feel implicated in what's happening. So good.

★ A Ghost Story: This movie is a deep and unhurried meditation on loss. By 'unhurried,' I mean meditative but also, yes, slow. And Casey Affleck is wearing a sheet for 75% of the movie. With all of that, I still recommend it. I've never seen a single thing like it, and there are images and scenes from the film I'll never forget. It's a work of art, and it works at soul-level.

★ Beatriz at Dinner: I saw this movie twice, and I found it riveting and heartbreaking. Salma Hayek has maybe never been better, in my opinion, and the ineffable John Lithgow was so perfect as the entitled tycoon/entrepreneur who was nonetheless a fairly compelling character. Connie Britton is also perfect as Hayek's client who thinks of herself as a good person, and who isn't exactly a bad person, but definitely a compromised person, albeit a person with absolutely gorgeous hair, which--let's be honest--is never not the case. I think this movie was flawed, but I think its flaws actually are part of why I liked it. It was one of my favorites of the year.

The Beguiled: Sofia Coppola, I love you and I will never ever not be grateful for The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation and even Somewhere. But you cannot make a movie set in the Civil War and not have it be at least a little bit about slavery, and if you try, it will be morally compromised. That's all I can tell you about this film. Anything else that is good about it--the cinematography, for instance, or the acting--is beside the point.

★ The Lovers: The wonderful Debra Winger and the excellent Tracy Letts (and the great Aiden Gillen and Melora Walters) all in a comedy, sort of, about love and letting go. All the things you could say--like about how a sex comedy with middle aged people is so refreshing, blah blah blah--are not really what's good about this. It's really just so good to see these splendid performers in a complex story. 

★ Wind River: Things about this are wrong, like, telling this story from the point of view of the white guy, even if the white guy is Jeremy Renner. But here's what I liked about this film: that it's a story about sexual violence that doesn't make it pretty. That it takes as its canvas the bleak Wyoming wilderness. And, aside from a couple of clunky parts, the writing is very good. I rank Taylor Sheridan's films (he's written a bunch, performed in some, and directed this movie) thusly: Screenplay for Sicario #1; screenplay for Hell or High Water #2; performance as Danny Boyd in Veronica Mars, the TV show, #3; director/writer of Wind River #4. I would say that the directing was better than the writing in Wind River. Anyway, I still am a fan of Taylor Sheridan. And if you haven't seen Veronica Mars the television show yet, for the love of everything good in this world, just watch it already.

Despicable Me 3: perfectly fine and funny, especially with some kids, which is how we saw it.  Also, I still get a little charge out of Steve Carrell doing this voice work. And I think minions are basically pretty funny. Sue me.

Spider Man: Homecoming: Saw this for the historian's son's birthday, with a whole theater full of friends and family, and it was a blast. I can remember approximately 3% of it. But that doesn't mean it wasn't wonderful. I'm sure it was.

★ I Am Not Your Negro: I had never heard Baldwin's voice, although of course I had read his writing, here and there. Not only an elegant writer but an elegant speaker, the anguish of his critique cries out. I was riveted by and grateful for this film.

The Lego Batman Movie: Luckily, I saw this movie with grandchildren. It was delightful. A highlight for me was Batman, in the Batcave, eating Lego lobster, which had a crunch redolent of Legos. Well done indeed.

★ Chasing Trane: A lovely film which also educated me about the deep and wide brilliance of John Coltrane. So glad to have seen this.

★ Colossal: I gave this a star because it was so strange but also sort of gripping. Another of the idiosyncratic great Anne Hathaway performances (I like her, but every once in awhile, she takes a great role that's way off her beaten path, and I like her even more). Also, I am a fan of movies where women have outsize powers that they have to come to grips with.

Born in China: One of those Disney 'see the world' movies that are totally worthwhile, especially if...say it with me see it with grandchildren. This had pandas, snow leopards, and golden monkeys. I especially liked the snow leopards, but that was a pretty sad story.

Snatched: Amy Schumer, whom I love, and Goldie Hawn, whom I also love, a lot, in a movie that should have been better. Funny and touching and woman affirming, so good for them. Not as good as Trainwreck, which I basically think is a masterpiece. 

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul: Grandchildren. Cute and funny and passable. Alicia Silverstone as the mom--I'm glad she's still around.

Wakefield: Bryan Cranston gives a full on whack  performance in a movie that is not easy to like because his character is not easy to like. Worth it, I think, for the commitment he gives to it. And for the thought experiment--what would the life you live look like without you in it?--not a super comfortable thing to think about, which is not a bad thing to occasionally do with your movie-going dollar.

War for the Planet of the Apes: Whoa, this movie felt like a slog. Thoroughly well done, but dark and long. Good performances by all the apes, and Woody Harrelson.

★ Logan Lucky: One of the delights of the year. I love-love a heist movie, and this one felt pretty open-hearted. There's a sweetness to it. One of my favorite performances by Adam Driver as Channing Tatum's brother--Adam Driver had a terrific year, what with Kylo Ren and this, and his beautiful performance in Paterson. Kati Holmes is a riot as Channing Tatum's ex. And also: Channing Tatum. Very handsome and extra good in this role. I love the way, in nearly everything, he inhabits his own physical being.

★ Battle of the Sexes: A perfectly enjoyable film, with great performances and a retelling of a great story. I was in high school when all these Bobby Riggs/Billie Jean King shenanigans were going on, and it felt pretty freaking meaningful then. 

★ Loving Vincent: A glory. The animation in this film was a moving painting, a mesmerizing work of art that also told a compelling story about Van Gogh. Entirely worthwhile.

★ Blade Runner 2049: Why was this film basically forgotten, except for technical stuff, at the end of the year? I thought it was magnificent, from top to bottom. The soundtrack was utterly original--the whole sound design, in fact. Well acted, melancholy and beautiful, and the special effects truly stunned me. There was a scene where the Ryan Gosling replicant character interacted with a hologram that was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

Marshall: This, the third of Chadwick Boseman's worthy biopics, was again interesting and he is something, totally charismatic and able to embody, it seems, just about anyone. So glad he is, I hope, going to be moving on into better and richer territory. However, I'm also glad for each of those stories about compelling American men, and I think he has tremendous gifts. Also, Josh Gad is no slouch as the lawyer Thurgood Marshall/Chadwick Boseman presses into service for the case.

Murder on the Orient Express: Fun, but I also feel like the star of that movie was Kenneth Branagh's facial hair. It upstaged him and everyone else, including the storied train, at every turn.

★ Coco: What a gift. This vivid, full-hearted, beautiful film. My film professor friend says that this has nothing on The Bread Winner, which I did not see and which I regret not seeing. Even if she's right, that doesn't take away at all how beautiful and light on its feet and  full of verve Coco is. 

★ Disaster Artist: I enjoyed this film quite a bit. What a strange and interesting story, and I loved, at the end of the film, when they showed, in split screen, the parts of The Room that Disaster Artist reenacted. No invented thing can be as strange as what actually happened.

★ The Shape of Water: I thought Sally Hawkins' performance in this film was utterly transfixing. She moved as if she were dancing, always and in wholly imaginative ways. She was the best of a lot of great things in this film, including Michael Shannon (my movie star boyfriend), Richard Jenkins, the lovely sets and designs, the monster, and--my second favorite thing in the film--Michael Stuhlbarg, who had a triple play of excellence this year, with this role, his role in The Post, and his performance as the father in Call Me By Your Name. 

★ Thor Ragnarok: I can't tell you one thing about what happens in this movie, but (a) Chris Hemsworth is, don't kid yourself, super hunky; (b) Tessa Thompson as a valkyrie was just excellent; (c) Tom Hiddleston is always, always a pleasure, and very good as Loki; (d) Jeff Goldblum! I coveted every single thing about the way he was decked out for this film, including his superb eyeliner. There were some fights and Thor got pretty banged up. Also, no more fabulous hair. There will be a sequel. I saw this with my cousin and my aunt, we ate popcorn, we had a fine, fine time.

★ The Last Jedi: Whooooboy, have I had some heated discussion that caught me unawares, with friends and acquaintances who hate this movie. Hard for me to figure out why. Clearly, I am not a purist and do not have the correct attitude about this whole Star Wars project. I won't get into it (for instance, I liked The Phantom Menace and loved The Force Awakens, which makes me a heretic and a dummy), but I really did love The Last Jedi. I thought it was visually gorgeous and engaging, with lots of good character work. (I am basically having an argument with the friends and acquaintances as I write these humble words--shut up, friends and acquaintances! I'm trying to write a capsule review of my opinion!) Anyway, I saw it with my two sons, who both liked it too. Strength in numbers.

Movies I meant to see in 2017, but did not (the starred ones were 2017 movies I saw in 2018):

Brad’s Status

★ Dunkirk: Very glad I finally saw this film. I thought its concept--land, sea, air--was pretty brilliant in depicting the way the Dunkirk rescue went, and I liked very much that the film did not spend too much time, at least not over much, with a character, so that you used the character as your lens for seeing the conflict. It moved spatially, and used, I thought, sound very well indeed. I thought it was quite a wonderful film, very smart, and it felt quite original to me. 

Girls Trip
Good Time
Baby Driver
The Little Hours
The Meyerowitz Stories

 I, Tonya: All about the performances, which are excellent to a person. Sebastian Stan, who played Harding's husband, and Paul Walter Hauser, the guy who moron-minded the knee-capping plan, were both quite amazing. I read a lot about this film, including a really wonderful profile of Harding in the New York Times. There's a critique about how it views class, and whether the film lets Harding off the hook. I thought the film was pretty fair-minded, and I thought it had a lot of insight about women, beauty, social class, and the idea of winning in America. I thought it was a worthwhile film.

Pitch Perfect 3

★ The Post: While I was watching this film, for the most part it felt pretty deft. And I was glad to see it, this film, right now, at this political moment. So I'm glad it got made. I'm also glad it didn't win any awards. It didn't need or really deserve to. It was enough that it got to make its statement and be in the mix of discussion. That's this film's real purpose, I think. 

All the Money in the World
Molly’s Game

★ Phantom Thread: Oh, the beauty and weirdness of this film. I loved the detail of it, the attention to the craft of design, dressmaking, and (of course!) its analogue in the work of filmmaking. What great performances, the three leads. What a beauty, an original. So idiosyncratic and so great.


★ Faces Places: Agnes Varda, in her 80s, goes around France with photographer and muralist JR, a very young man, in his van/photobooth, taking massive photos of people who live in the small villages they visit. It is a meditation on art, on age, on loss. It was perfect and completely unique. I'm so glad I got to see this film in a theater.


★ Call Me By Your Name: I feel like my experience of, and memory of, this film, lives in a protected corner somewhere in my heart. It gutted me and made me feel all the way alive. I wanted to see it again in a theater but didn't find the time. To me, it said everything about love and connection, about why it is precious even when it doesn't last. This film is radiant with beauty.


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