Sunday, November 19, 2006


This is what happens when you drink too much coffee. This morning we went over for brunch at a friend's house, and the second cup of coffee awaited (I normally only drink one). I remember when I was taking creative writing classes and we had a deadline ("one new poem a week") my writing buddies and I would drag ourselves off to a coffee shop called the Daily Grind (apropos) and try to caffeinate ourselves into inspiration. Often we could get something going, but the question is whether it would hold up at all the next day or next week in the light of full posession of our faculties.

That's the problem with coffee-- and with writing. They are fully compelling and enthralling while in the midst of them. Their ardored anticipation (laying in bed in the morning wishing someone else had already done it for you) and the dissolution of their state and effects, not so much. And more seriously speaking, it was never writing itself that I had a problem with. It was always what came in between writing, the before-and-after stuff that dragged me down.

So now it's the afternoon, the child crashed into his nap headlong and as we drove home from the brunch, the across-the-street neighbor had finally surrendered to his task: He had already plucked all but the topmost t.p. streamers from his shade tree. The whole shape of the thing had changed. It maintains its diameter only if seen from above. The concept has discintegrated.

I was catching up on reading and found an article in today's NYT Magazine about good old Paul Muldoon. For those of you unfamiliar, Paul Muldoon is an Irish poet who won the Pulitzer prize for poetry. He also judged the Graduate Poetry contest at U of M while I was there and chose my poems to receive the prize.

This single event was such a strange mixed blessing: It was at once a huge recognition of my poetry and at the same time drew me into the competitive crosshairs of the other grad students. The day after my prize reading, I had an anxiety attack that led to prolonged depression. I left two weeks later and never returned to complete my degree.

Before my prize reading (though after they had announced I had won it) I had the honor of introducing Paul Muldoon at the U of M. Afterwards I had volunteered to drive him to his hotel which was near Georgetown, in the D.C. area affectionately called "Foggy Bottom". For as much as I should have been able to (or wanted to) discuss with him (how often do you get to chauffeur a Pulitzer-prize winner?), I just couldn't. He seemed so tired to me. And also not quite a little concerned about being driven around by some random grad student.

It turns out that he should have been a bit weary of being in the car with me: I didn't know my way around D.C. well at all, limiting my flight patterns to a tired groove which spanned the Beltway between Bethesda and College Park. As anyone who even knows about D.C. knows, there are lots of parts of D.C. you should manage to avoid. I had picked a route that made sense on paper (though I didn't manage to bring that paper with me) and was abandoned to a mere directional sense. As evidenced by the NYT article, all's well that ends well. Paul Muldoon is still alive and kicking, despite my failure to perform.

And yet my graduate poetry award lands on my resumes, it lands on my web site. It seems like something someone should know about me, the me that's on paper. The me that is qualified, the me that's uncomplicated by failure.

As I was reading the article, I started to think: Who is it that I associate with this writing? Who is this other person who has the backstage access, who dispatches the words? She's certainly not the idea I have of myself. There would be too many expectations.


When I was at Trader Joe's last week, there were no balloons. That's a big deal for someone who uses the promise and posession of said balloon to partially tame an explorative toddler into shopping cart submission. I asked at the checkout why no balloons. The guy told me-- I lie not-- there's a helium shortage. I began to ponder what that might mean. Where did helium come from, anyway? Are there helium manufacturing plants with little cleansuited guys running around? The cashier boy suggested that there were Helium mines, pockets of it trapped in the earth. Hmm...

A few days later I was listening to NPR and there was a listener letter responding to a story they'd apparently done on said helium shortage. The listener admonished the reporters for inhaling helium to affect their voices, saying it could cause your lungs to overinflate and burst.

Not that I took that danger vary seriously. Nor do I think it will keep small kids from sucking helium from balloons (once they return). It did make me think, however, about how many small things we take for granted, all of which make up our ideal concept of a balloon.

There is the tensile surface of an inflated balloon which causes a light source to be reflected just so; there is the long strand of ribbon (seems far too puny as a tether for something so buoyant); and there is the weightlessness, the suspension. The top of the balloon like the perfectly-defined arch of a question mark, posed mid-air for the asking.

So many of our concepts are like that: So fragile. Often we can only start to parse them if something is awry. Then we ask: What is wrong here? What is askew? Even slight violations of form or function can catch us off guard (as a helium balloon which, losing its luft, hovers sort of halfway between up there and the ground).

Maybe we should grant even the partial things their wholeness, their own gestalt. The trees half-decked, the laundry partially folded. The writing and the people somewhere hovering in the middle.

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