Three Favors

I’ve been reading a lot of online postings lately about people dealing with their grief over loved ones—brothers, sons, parents, spouses—who have died. I suppose I’m sensitive to the subject at this time because the anniversary of the death of one of my loved ones, my grandson Jamie (the model for Toby in my mystery series), came around a week and a half ago.

Jamie was twenty-five when he died, and we all loved him dearly; his brother Alex used to say Jamie was the glue that held the family together. He was in a year-long vegetative state that preceded his death, and that somewhat prepared us for losing him. But we still weren’t ready for the 2:30 a.m. phone call from his mom telling us he was gone.

Who is ever prepared for that call?

Even now, eight years on, his loss is still hard to manage. I find myself talking to him almost every day, narrating my life, telling him how much I miss him. When I find feathers on my walks, I like to think Jamie left them as reminders that he is still around in some form.

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Wishful thinking, I know; dead is dead.

So when I’ve been reading about how people are trying to come to terms with their grief over loved ones who have died, I empathize with their losses deeply.

But there’s another kind of grief—the grief that comes in the wake of losing someone you should have been close to, but weren’t. Sometimes what you grieve for then is not the loss of the person from your life, but the loss of the possibility that any closeness could ever happen.

While that could describe my entire family of origin, I think of it particularly in terms of my brother Cal.

His name was Charles, but everybody called him Cal because of his initials: Charles Allan Levin. He died in 1984; he was only 41 years old. He was older than I by six years, and for a variety of reasons we weren’t close as brothers. Or even as strangers, for that matter.

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My brother, 1960

Not only were we completely different personalities. Much of the problem in our adult years came from his long-term drug use, which wreaked a seemingly endless havoc on the family, as these things will do.

It’s conventional to say people died after a “long battle” with drug abuse, but that’s not quite true in his case. He didn’t so much fight against the drugs as embrace them like a lover. Yet even as I write it, I know that’s not exactly accurate either.

He died in a YMCA in Honolulu after failing to complete a lavish drug-treatment program in Hawaii that he conned my father into paying for. My father told everyone (including me) that Cal died from emphysema, but on the death certificate I saw the actual cause of death was amphetamine poisoning.

The only surprise was that his usual drugs of choice were barbiturates and pain-killers.

My last contact with him was several years before he died, when he called to ask me for money because our father (his usual touch) was out of town. I refused, and he hung up on me.

As you might expect, my anger at him and what he did to the family was profound and corrosive. It lasted for a long time, both before and after his death. He sucked up all the oxygen in the family for years; he and my parents formed a demented triad of mutually-assured destruction that left me on the outside looking in on my own family.

As I grew older, however, and gained some distance on it all, and began to deal with my own issues created by our family which was, if not broken, then really really bent, my attitude toward my brother began to change.

I started to get some insight into why he turned to drugs, and why he had such a hard time giving them up, or even admitting he couldn’t live without them. I started to see that, far from being the reason for the upset in the family, his drug use was a reaction to existing family problems, which of course only worsened because of his addiction.

I came to realize that the pain affecting me from my family pre-dated his antics, and also affected him. I understood we each tried to deal with that pain in different—albeit equally ineffective—ways.

When I started writing poetry, I found myself writing some about my brother. One in particular helped me come to a sort of accomodation, if not forgiveness, with him, in part through a recognition finally of both what he had lost and of the similarities between us. I think this poem captures those insights.

A version of this poem appeared in the April 2004 issue of Saucyvox.

Three Favors

1

It is 1966 and I’m struggling

to figure out the chords for “Desolation Row”

needle-dropping on my turntable

when my brother calls from next door where

he and the neighbor are watching a movie

and the 16mm projector jammed.

“Can you try to get it going?”

A simple problem to diagnose:

the worn sprockets on the well-watched film

have twisted over one of the feeders.

 

The curl in the plastic needs to be freed

and the film rethreaded. I start

the old machine and in the square of light

thrown on the screen in the neighbor’s bedroom

appear grainy black and white images

of a truly epic blow job

in extreme close-up, a woman’s lips

and sinuous tongue slaver up and down

a monster phallus glistening with spit

for longer than I would have thought possible.

 

My first stag flick makes me gape in wonder

at the animal rawness of it

as though it is a documentary

about an encounter between two apes

and the camera morbidly scientific

instead of pornographic—exactly

the opposite of erotic, with

a sound track filled with soggy sucking

and a man’s hammy moaning

tinny on the project’s tiny speaker.

 

When another actor enters the scene

and begins to take his own clothes off

I judge I have seen enough and leave them

to their whoops and fun. “The world’s longest

blow job,” the neighbor chortles. I return

to the silence of my own room

where I take up my guitar again

and rest an ear on the curve of its shoulder

to let the hard vibrating wood

ring the bones of my head like a bell.

 

2

The second time, 1971,

we stay in the Southfield apartment

where our parents moved when they fled Detroit.

My brother needs a ride to a job

to meet a friend, this contractor,

he tells me, and he can’t drive himself

since he wrapped his Mustang around a tree.

I am in another room, this time reading

(I’m in my hard-boiled mystery phase)

when his spare and stricken figure heaves

 

into the doorway. “Can you give me a ride?”

he asks, his scarred right arm hanging limp

at his side, casualty of a scalding bathtub

he had fallen into once while stoned.

This is the time when he makes phone calls

day and night cadging prescriptions for pills

from shady physicians. He tells them

he is a cancer patient from out of town

grappling with terrible pain. He makes

his voice quake in pretend agony.

 

He directs me to a cracked and potholed street

on the east side of Detroit where we roll

to a stop outside a house with black paint

hiding living room windows and high grass

gone to seed in the lawn. He steps from the car

uncertainly and hobbles stiff-legged

up the walk. Rings the doorbell and waits.

It occurs to me this is not about a job.

No light escapes from the front door

that cracks to allow him entrance.

 

A minute later he is out, walking fast.

“We’re done,” he says, and drops into the car.

“Take off.” I smell his sour sweat and his voice shakes,

this time for real. In his lap he cups

something small, like an animal he shelters

and gives me a sidelong glance that says more

than I want to know about fear and shame.

For the rest of the day he wanders around

the apartment with a spoon in his pocket

and I stay in my room and read about Sam Spade.

 

3

‘Seventy-seven, in another room,

grading essays for my classes at Wayne State

when my brother phones, which he never does.

Our father is away for the weekend. “Can I borrow

fifty bucks?” he asks. “I swear I’ll pay you back.”

I don’t even remember why he said

he wanted the cash, but I thought I knew.

He must have been desperate indeed

to try me. But I am through granting favors.

I blame him for every unhappiness

 

visited on our family, for all the problems of my own.

“Don’t lay that on me,” he spits, and hangs up.

It is the last time I speak with my brother.

Years later he is dead, found in a room

at the Y in downtown Honolulu.

Today, older than he would live to be

I imagine bars of tropical sunlight

peeking through his window blinds, striping

his decomposing body, his mouth twisted

in lines deep as cracks in asphalt, hair wild

 

as stalks of unmown grass as he sprawls,

melting after seven undiscovered days,

across his narrow bed, forlorn as a poor woodsman

in a dismal tale who has squandered his three wishes

and died alone, without family, friends, job,

or money, having lost, along with his

precious time in the sun, his last lucky chance

that some indifferent lips might try,

tirelessly, to coax him, childless and self-

abandoned, back into despondent life.

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On Advice, and Where It Comes From

This morning over coffee I saw one of those ubiquitous bits of Facebook wisdom attributed to everyone from Anonymous to Abraham Lincoln to Morgan Freeman. It said, “Some of the best advice I’ve ever been given: Don’t take criticism from someone you wouldn’t ever go to for advice.”

No matter who said it, when we’re starting out as writers, we’re always (or should be, anyway) looking for advice and help from established authors. When I give talks, I’m sometimes asked what was the best advice I ever received. I’m hardly ever asked what was the worst advice, yet that can sometimes be as useful as the best advice.

Back in the seventies, when I had written my first novel, I gave the manuscript to the author John Gardner to read, comment on, and, I’d hoped in my wildest dreams, recommend to his agent. Gardner is no longer with us, but at the time he was quite a famous guy. I was hungry for what he could tell me.

Not to be confused with the John Gardner who took over the James Bond series, this one wrote some best-selling literary novels in the late seventies and early eighties (including Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues, October Light, and Mickelsson’s Ghosts) in addition to children’s books, well-regarded books of criticism, and—guess what—advice for writers (The Art of FictionOn Moral Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist).

At that time he was running the creative writing program at the State University of New York at Binghamton, New York, and he was friends with my wife, who was also teaching in the English Department.

I was an adjunct instructor in the department, and had met him on several occasions. He had the reputation for being extremely helpful to apprentice writers. I’d see him around the department, and in my interactions with him he was warm and friendly, and treated me like a colleague. He asked to see some of my writing, and told me he’d publish me in the new literary journal he had started at Binghamton, he’d recommend me to his agent, he’d help get me published, and so on.

I had written a draft of a novel, my first, a kind of bildungsroman about a young man who gradually learns to get in touch with “the life he had lost in living,” to paraphrase T.S. Eliot. Called Vital Signs, it was a typical first book, not groundbreaking, I knew, but still I thought it had its merits.

I put it off as long as possible, but I finally screwed my courage to the sticking place and with high hopes I gave him the manuscript.

Time passed.

More time passed.

Even more time passed and I hadn’t heard back from him. So one night, when we were both at the English Department’s annual Christmas party (a huge event, since the department was large, with large undergrad and grad programs), I took the opportunity to approach him to ask if he’d had a chance to read the book.

He told me he had.

And he told me my book was evil.

He didn’t mean it as a compliment. Not like, “Dude, your book is eeeeevillllll!”

No, the best-selling author of On Moral Fiction had just told me I’d written an evil novel.

Evil, as in morally corrosive.

As in bad. As in no good.

I’d read On Moral Fiction . . . I knew what he meant: it was trivial, it was boring, it was a lie.

He told me there wasn’t much to do with an evil book.

As you might expect, this was not good news. Here was this big-time, best-selling, hot-shot author known around the English department (and indeed, around the country) as a generous and helpful mentor of young writers, and all he had to say about my book was that it was evil.

It was a blow it took me a while to recover from. (If you’ve read my June 4th blog post, you’ll know this was one of a series of blows that drove me away from writing for awhile.)

Two things happened that helped me come to terms with it. One was what I subsequently learned about that night. Not only was he drunk when I talked to him at the party, but his wife had sued him for divorce earlier that day. 

So he was not only plastered, but he was in a particularly foul mood.

The second thing was, a few days later, I got a note from him, apologizing. He told me he enjoyed the book, that he meant to just skim it but it engaged him so much he read it through entirely, that there were many good things about it, and that he would gladly write a blurb for it.

That salved the wound, but the constant little demon-critic who lives on our shoulders still had me wondering: was it really such a bad book that it took drunkenness for him to be honest about it? In vino veritas?

Still, I gained a lot from this interaction with Gardner—not so much that I am an evil writer, but that you really do have to be careful about whom you seek criticism from (despite all his gifts, Gardner was, I subsequently discovered, an extremely, even reactionarily, conservative critic); you have to be careful about when you ask for it; and—most of all—you have to be very careful about investing too much in what you hear. Another writer, even the hottest, best-selling peddler of moral fiction, is just another point of view, a man or woman with problems and limitations of perspective and weaknesses and failed marriages that sometimes color the advice.

I also learned the importance of being kind when dealing with a young writer, something I never forgot when I became a professor, and, ultimately, a published novelist and poet interacting with other writers, both beginning and established.

I never did publish that manuscript I gave Gardner to review, but I published lots of other things, and why I was able to go on writing was due in part to something he wrote about being a novelist. In fact, it was the best piece of wisdom I’ve ever read about writing in his On Becoming a Novelist:

”Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or ‘way,’ an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious—a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand—and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.”

I’ve gone back to this paragraph time and again for its wisdom. While the episode with Vital Signs was demoralizing, it turned out that Gardner’s words have seen me through some difficult times, after all.

Two Poems about Summer

I haven’t been writing much poetry lately, but it wasn’t so long ago that I thought of myself exclusively as a poet. I had always written occasional poems—poetry for special occasions like weddings—but I identified as basically a fiction writer.

I came to love writing poetry, though . . . for the intense use of language,  of course, but also for the experience of writing a poem as opposed to a long work of prose, and most especially for the craft of poetry. I wrote a lot of poems, and they began appearing in print and e-journals, and I even brought out two small collections of poems.

I stopped for a variety of reasons, but mostly it was because I had to write a 300-plus page accreditation report for the school where I was teaching. It not only brought my poetry-writing and -publishing to a screeching halt, but it made me remember how much I enjoyed working in the marathon of the long prose form. So I started back to fiction.

I was reminded of all that this week when I saw a YouTube video by Michael Martin, a great friend and one of the most talented poets I know. In the video (you can watch it here), he reads two poems: his translation of a poem by Virgil and an original poem responding to the translation. Michael and I used to share poems with each other almost every day . . . one of us would churn one out and immediately send it off to the other for a response . . . we inspired and trusted each other.

Michael has continued writing poems, as well as lots of other things, and his video inspired me to drag a couple of my oldies out of the crypt for this week’s blog entry. The title of today’s post says, “Two Poems about Summer,” but of course they’re not really about summer. I picked them because they’re both set at exactly this time of year (August) and because they gave me the chance to revisit a couple of my favorites and share them with you.

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The first one, “Et in Arcadia Ego,” I reworked a bit from its original version, but the second, “Steve Allen Returns to Weekly TV,” is pretty much as it appeared first in the online publication Tryst and then in my first collection, In Praise of Old Photographs (Little Poem Press, 2005). (BTW, that handsome devil on the cover is my grandfather.)

Enjoy.

 

Et in Arcadia Ego

About suffering they were never wrong, 
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position.
    W.H. Auden

Standing waist deep in the water,

my older brother slaps a hand

on the surface of the startled round

blue sunny mouth of the above-ground pool

on the driveway in our back yard

to mark the seconds advancing

in the breath-holding contest.

Beside him, buoyant, his best friend

does a perfect dead-man’s float—

face down, arms outstretched, legs limp

and trailing in the water—

passing ninety-nine one-thousand

as tiny waves slosh over the edges

of the corrugated metal sides

burnishing a dark halo

in the sand cushioning the pool.

 

The day warm, the sky blue and cloudless

in Detroit in 1962.

 

“Aguirre on the mound,” announces

Ernie Harwell from the transistor

on the webbed chair beside the pool

where I am sitting, watching.

“Swing and a miss,” Harwell calls it

and a tinny approving murmur

issues from the ballpark’s August crowd

in the summer of my thirteenth year.

 

At once the door to the porch

off my brother’s second floor bedroom

flies open and our mother, stricken,

thrusts her head out. “Marilyn Monroe

died!” she cries, voice raspy from smoking,

her shocked grief compelling her

to notify someone, anyone, and

we are all she can find right now—

we for whom that churl death is still 

a stranger mocked by a boyish game

(“How long you can hold your breath,”

Death will chide back; “good practice for forever”),

unaware as we are this is how

it enters our lives, with the surprise 

burst of a swinging screen door.

 

Ears submerged but thinking from her tone

she is agitated about him,

the teenager still drifting face down

like a felled log lifts a calming hand

and sends her up an okay sign

while my brother keeps splashing his count—

up to one-hundred-twenty one-thousand—

as the cruel seconds race past.

 

 

Steve Allen Returns to Weekly TV (August 1967)

Lying shirtless and pantless in the heat

of an overwhelming Detroit summer

at the end of my seventeenth year

alone on an unmade narrow bed

watching the Steve Allen Show

through a murk of endless cigarettes

 

on a black and white TV with an unbent

hanger for an antenna, I imagined I dwelt

among the habitues of Hollywood Boulevard

who stopped along whatever path

they were traveling to stare into the red

eye of the camera trained on the street

 

for a slice of southern California life

primed to catch their random amblings

and report the findings out to America

for the amusement of the nation’s viewers

who, like me, laughed along with

the host’s high giggle and comic invention

 

of lives for ladies with shopping bags

bubbling over with ripe oranges

and hose drooping at thick ankles,

and crazy-eyed men with dirty

pants cinched with neckties bunched

around their waists, and young men

 

bare-chested as I was, raving

about the government’s intrusions

into their lives, and now and then

a man wearing, say, a shower cap

might wander down the street at the wrong

time and turn up on snowy screens

 

across the country, his story concocted

for the occasion, and what is amusing

about such desperation, you might ask,

and if you do then you must not be

staring down the maw of your eighteenth

birthday, or understand how

 

the dusk of LA is as desolate

as the cruel deserted nights of Detroit

or how a camera’s glare can peer into

the deepest fears of those who dream

their truest lives into being, or even

how these could converge with your own.

Six Sure-Fire Ways to Kill Your Writers’ Group

I rarely take part in writers’ groups anymore. I totally get their usefulness—writers need support from peers, they need responses to their work from actual readers who won’t just say they loved it, a sharp reader can point something out that a writer might not have thought of, and so on. A good writers’ group can be beneficial, no doubt.

In large part, I don’t do it because it’s not how I work best. When I came of age as a writer, I learned to do most of my work alone. I wrote projects to order and under pressure of deadline; there wasn’t the time or the opportunity—or the expectation—to get other writers’ perspectives on what I was doing. My boss—or the client—had the final say.

In larger part, though, my avoidance of writers’ groups comes from my having run or taken part in so many of them over my careers as a writing teacher and writer. The other day, I  estimated how many writers’ groups I’ve been part of over the years. I came up with the semi-astonishing figure of roughly 1,200 groups over twenty-plus years, both inside and outside the classroom.

That’s 1,200 groups of writers, ranging in number from three to thirty, where people responded to each other’s stories, poems, novel drafts, or essays. I was either an active participant or a facilitator helping the writers themselves carry the conversations.

I was deep into collaborative writing, see. The whole being the “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage” thing, to use one of the more ridiculous clichés of education that still makes me gag.

I thought a lot about the subject. I took courses in how to run writers’ groups. I attended workshops in how to do it. I even gave workshops for my colleagues and others in the benefits of writing groups and how to work with them.

In all that time, I saw how and why groups could be valuable. But I also saw what could go very wrong. In particular, I came to learn that certain behaviors will kill a writers’ group dead. If you’re a member of a writers’ group and you want to make your partners miserable, try some of these out:

Screen-Shot-2016-08-28-at-6.07.19-PM1. Everybody’s a Critic.

Interpret “critique” to mean “criticize mercilessly” (instead of, say, “offer careful judgment about”), and criticize the hell out of the workshopper (the one who reads or presents a piece for discussion). Pick every single nit you can find, from structure to grammar, regardless of what stage the draft is in. Find fault, instead of reflecting your responses to the piece back to the author, who can then make decisions about how well she/he framed the writing in preparation for revising.

It also helps if you gang up on the writer with other members of the group.

2. Do As I Say, Not As I Do.

Understand that your other main job as participant (besides telling authors what they did wrong) is to tell the writers what they need to do to improve the work. Regardless of your own experience of literature and writing, don’t be shy about telling the author what to do with a particular work. The wronger the advice, the louder you should insist on it.

3.Tu Casa Es Mi Casa.

Take over the author’s writing completely. Pay no attention to an author’s intentions, but respond to a piece of writing based on how you would have written it yourself. Don’t give the author any chance to make decisions about what to do or change based on how well you got what she/he was saying. This works especially well if you’ve never written anything like what the author is sharing.

4. If You Can’t Say Something Bad, Don’t Say Anything, Part 1.

Don’t mention any of the strengths of the piece, and don’t bother telling the author what you liked or appreciated about the work, or thought the author did well. Your job is to focus on the bad parts. The good parts are already good, aren’t they? Why talk about them?

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Besides, agents and editors aren’t going to go easy on a writer, so why should you? You’re helping to toughen up the workshopper. Writing group as WWF Smackdown!

5. If You Can’t Say Something Bad, Don’t Say Anything, Part 2.

Never mind articulating any questions you have about the piece, or points of confusion you wonder about, or interesting places where you’d like to hear more details; these might be too helpful. Your criticisms are enough.

6. I Object!

When you’re the workshopper, defend your draft loudly and vociferously. Don’t bother trying to learn from your partners’ responses and get ideas for revision, but instead show them how wrong they are in their appraisals of your work. If you have to explain or defend what you said, it just shows how little your responders get you (and how much smarter you are).

If you try all these strategies in your next writers’ group, I promise your group mates will develop some very special feelings for you.

If, on the other hand, you find yourself doing any of these, you might try to back off from them and maybe—just maybe—your writers’ group will be more enjoyable, and a whole lot more useful.

Brutal Reviews of Classic Books

As part of my efforts at getting my name out in the world, I’ve often asked (begged? cajoled? pleaded with?) my readers to write reviews of my books after they’ve read them. Most of us have done that at one time or another, right?

While generally things work out for the best, occasionally we do get a review that shows a reader was, shall we say, singularly unimpressed with our creative initiatives. The blogs are filled with advice on how to deal with bad reviews . . . some say don’t read them, some say read but disregard them, some say imagine the reviewers in their underwear, and so. My own way of dealing with the problem is to remind myself that even the best got lousy reviews, and it didn’t stop them.

Here’s a selective listing (culled from the Internet) of twenty scathing reviews of books that are now considered classics of literature. Most reviews were published contemporaneously with the books they review. They range from the snarky to the morally outraged, and they’re a good reminder that not every book is to every reader’s taste . . . and reviewers, like everybody else, are sometimes not very good at what they do.

Enjoy, have a laugh—and then get back to work!

 

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“Whitman is as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics.” —The London Critic, 1855, on Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

“It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.” — Thomas Wentworth Higginson

 

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“The final blow-up of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent. . . . This is a penny dreadful tricked up in fancy language and given a specious depth by the expert manipulation of a series of eccentric technical tricks. The characters have no magnitude and no meaning because they have no more reality than a mince-pie nightmare.” —The New Yorker on Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

 

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“It was not necessary for a writer of so great refinement and poetic grace to enter the overworked field of sex fiction.” —Chicago Times Herald, 1899, on The Awakening by Kate Chopin

 

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“Miss Willa S. Cather in O Pioneers (O title!!) is neither a skilled storyteller nor the least bit of an artist.” —Dress and Vanity Fair Magazine

 

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The Great Gatsby is an absurd story, whether considered as romance, melodrama, or plain record of New York high life.” —L.P Hartley, The Saturday Review, 1925, on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

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“Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë) are magnified a thousand fold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.” —James Lorimer, North British Review, 1847, on Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

 

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“That a book like this could be written—published here—sold, presumably over the counters, leaves one questioning the ethical and moral standards…there is a place for the exploration of abnormalities that does not lie in the public domain. Any librarian surely will question this for anything but the closed shelves. Any bookseller should be very sure that he knows in advance that he is selling very literate pornography.”  —Kirkus Reviews, 1958, on Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

“There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.” —New York Times on Lolita

 

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“A gloomy tale. The author tries to lighten it with humor, but unfortunately her idea of humor is almost exclusively variations on the pratfall. . . .Neither satire nor humor is achieved.” ⎯Saturday Review of Literature, 1952, on Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

 

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“Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer.” —Le Figaro, 1857, on Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

 

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“Never have I read such tosh. As for the first two chapters, we will let them pass, but the third, the fourth the fifth the sixth – merely the scratchings of pimples on the body of the boot-boy at Claridges.” —Virginia Woolf on Ulysses by James Joyce

“The average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from it … save bewilderment and a sense of disgust.” —New York Times on Ulysses

“[Ulysses] appears to have been written by a perverted lunatic who has made a speciality of the literature of the latrine… I have no stomach for Ulysses.“—The Sporting Times, 1922

 

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“This is easily one of the worst books I’ve ever read. And bear in mind that I’ve read John Grisham.” Susan Cohen on Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With That Dragon Tattoo in the Charleston City Paper

 

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“I have two recommenda­tions. First, don’t buy this book. Second, if you buy this book, don’t drop it on your foot.” The New Yorker on Chesapeake by James Michener

 

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“Occasional overwriting, stretches of fuzzy thinking, and a tendency to waver, confusingly, between realism and surrealism.” —Atlantic Monthly on Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

 

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“[Kerouac] can slip from magniloquent hysteria into sentimental bathos, and at his worst he merely slobbers words.” —Chicago Tribune on On the Road by Jack Kerouac

“That’s not writing. That’s typing.” —Truman Capote on On the Road

 

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“Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and  hit her over the skull with her own shinbone!” —Mark Twain on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

 

On sonnet chains, mercy, and wisdom

In one of my former lives, I was professor of English and, toward the end of my career, dean of the faculty, at Marygrove College in Detroit. In 2012, a few years before I retired, I was invited to be a speaker at the baccalaureate ceremony for the graduating seniors—a kind of run-up to the Commencement Exercises that would happen in another few days. 

The catch was, my invitation was specific: my contribution would be to offer a reflection on a reading from the Gospel of Luke, which was to be the evening’s reading at the Catholic college’s mass for the graduates.

At first I thought it was a prank. My friends who had invited me couldn’t have picked a more inappropriate faculty member for the job. What could I—non-Christian, confirmed atheist, stubborn pusher-against of the institution’s core (and often more honored in the breach than the observance) religious values—possibly have to say about the Gospel of Luke?

When I realized my friends were serious, I started to take the request more seriously. The more I thought about it—and read and thought about the section of Luke that formed the evening’s reading—the more I warmed to the idea. 

I decided to accept the invitation. I thought it might be a way to invite the students to take a brief look backward at their education, and forward to the rest of their lives. My challenge would be to walk the line between meditating on the spirit of the Gospel to an audience of true believers without violating my personal beliefs—or more properly, lack of beliefs. 

In one of those creative decisions that seemed to come from nowhere, I crafted my reflection in the form of a sonnet chain (a collection of sonnets where the last line of one poem becomes the first line of the next). Today I’m not sure why I picked that form; I’m not even sure I could have said then. Maybe I thought it would be best to write an extended meditative poem in short hops.  

I was reminded of the project when a good friend reminded me last week that the school’s 2019 Commencement had just taken place. I don’t do much with poetry anymore, but I thought posting the poems along with this introduction as this week’s blog would make an interesting entry. And maybe it would help get me back to thinking about poetry again.

Either way, it’s a look into a part of my writing background that was important at one time. Hope you enjoy it.

BTW, please check back this Thursday May 23rd, when I’ll host an interview with Joan H. Young, award-winning Michigan author of the essay collection North Country Cache and two mystery series, the Anastasia Raven cozy mysteries and a series for children.

The Day is Fulfilled: A Meditation on Luke
Dedicated to the 2012 graduating class at Marygrove College, Detroit

Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
—Richard Wilbur, “Love Calls us to the Things of This World”

1
On the pavement by the side of the road
a man walks—no, not walks: staggers, stumbles,
does a slack jitter step down the sidewalk,
hops about to preserve his feet beneath him
(assuming there are feet somewhere inside
those laceless tatters that once were spanky brogans)
as rush-hour traffic thickens, occludes
near the corner of 8 Mile and Woodward
on an overcast weekday in May, warm,
windy, threatening rain, the sun a distant hint
behind a scrim of clouds, a promise, really, or
reminder. And as you idle at the stoplight
on your way to somewhere, late, your mind absent,
you see him halt, stand, and fix you in his gaze.

2
He halts, stands, and fixes you in his gaze
if gaze there is in eyes that squint, almost closed,
through the soupy blue haze of exhaust, seasoned
with the sweet scent of gasoline; he could be
blind for all you know, looking not at you
but in your direction, puffy-eyed, bruised,
his head a mass of greasy hair and tangled beard,
lanky frame monkish in a hooded coat
stiff with dirt and britches of a startling
cranberry hue, his shape narrow as a nail;
and don’t think I mistake this ragged man in such an
altered mental state for Jesus, though you may,
but I wouldn’t advise it because now
he’s fastened upon you, and here it comes—

3
He’s fastened upon you and here it comes—
“Yo, chief! Got something for me today?”
At least that’s what you think he says, words gleaned
from the sustained confusion of traffic,
the hiss of tires, the shriek of faulty brakes
behind you, as if you’ve often seen him
before, and maybe you have, and you think
about how much there is in this world,
and how little; how close we are, and how
impossibly far apart. And you think
you hear music, floating in the air, remote,
the roar of city buses, the thunder of trucks
unable to veil the strains of a tune
you can’t quite catch but you’re sure it’s there.

4
You can’t quite catch it but you’re sure it’s there—
and “Yo, chief!” he says again, and this time
you hear him plainly, this cumbersome twitchy
bird-man. And you start to believe that you do
have something for him: because all at once
you recognize that face, that snarled beard, that
in-your-face query; and you intuit
the heartbreak that brought him to this corner;
the despair that keeps him reeling down the sidewalk;
whatever illness it was that stripped the flesh
so fully from his spare lurching frame. Luke,
evangelist, patron saint of healers,
artists, students, tell us how we know him,
teach us what we owe him, this austere outcast.

5
Teach us what we owe him, this austere outcast.
Teach us how we know, what we owe each other.
Move the spirit upon us, finally, that
makes us love the least and most among us.
For we must love, we know this in our hearts.
Such is, surely, the central lesson mastered
from your rigorous years of study, which
we assemble here to celebrate today,
paused not at the end of your education,
but its beginning; for now are you primed
to learn to love the world in earnest, and spread
a gospel of your own of mercy and wisdom,
hope and liberation, your truths suffused with
that music whose soft melodies you hear.

6
That music whose soft melodies you hear—
gentle, distant, undulating on the wind—
now swells, crescendos. Listen: It is the air filled
with the rustling wings of angels wheeling
overhead in the dusk; it is the murmur
of departed spirits who swim through the sky
as they watch over us. It is the inspiration
which some call god, or Christ, or whatever
immense mystery we feel that impels us
past the insufficient sight lines of our world.
It is the bright summons of the sparrow
calling us to fulfill our days’ enduring duty
to bless the sacred weighty world beyond
the pavement by the side of the road.

copyright 2012 by Donald Levin