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Sunday 8 March 2009

Goodbye, and Thank You

It's time for me to end this blog -- I think for good. The flimsiness of its anonymity has always felt like a liability, and the truth is I simply don't feel like posting any more.

Stuff is happening in my life at the moment. A lot of the groundwork for that stuff was laid with some help from this blog, which was a sounding board, a creative outlet, and a means to connect with some wise and wonderful people. Not for the first time, I'd like to thank C. L. Hanson for some unconventional common sense on sex and feminism, and the Exterminator for some encouragingly useful poetry feedback. I thank L. L. Barkat for her open friendliness and a window into a different viewpoint, and the chaplain for commenting sometimes when no-one else did. And Ebonmuse -- dare I say that you enriched my life gratuitously? I didn't need your blog, I just happened upon it and couldn't stop drinking it up (I think I'm still responsible for a couple of hits per day, even though I don't comment as much). Then I must thank Joffan and Eshu, who I remember engaging with in the comment section, and of course all the Nonbelieving Literati contributors -- and I must thank and apologise to everyone else who I have neglected to mention. Although I've stopped writing, I haven't stopped reading, so you may find me commenting now and again.

Sorry, this is sounding like an Oscar acceptance speech, but it's heartfelt. I have gained so much from all of you.

Now, I always meant to blog about this clip from Doctor Who, and by luck the BBC have put it on Youtube almost exactly as I wanted it. Regrettably, it cannot be embedded, so if you wish to watch it, please disregard the youtube title. It is in fact the creation of the Earth, not the Universe, and it's a wonderful exposition of humanist philosophy, too.

No, but that's what you do, the human race. Make sense out of chaos! Marking it out with weddings and Christmas and calendars!

Yes. Yes, and blog posts. This blog has helped me to mark out a few things, but now its time is done. Goodbye, and thank you all.

Saturday 21 February 2009

Eliot, Woolf, Plath, Mitchell...

I live and exist through art.

The older I get, and the further I get from my rebellious pre-teen years, the more it seems like my identity and existence are defined through my interactions with others. To be a thing, I must communicate, and no meaningful self can be communicated without artistry.

Further complications arise both from my liberal upbringing and from the near-proverbial "changing times" in which we live. In a conservative society, the basics of identity come from ideas which are well-known to all and easy to communicate: gender, religion, social class, familial relationships. By contrast, in a more liberal society, such things must always be in a state of flux.

Personally, I find that it's the changing status of women that affects me most. Partly this is due to being a woman in a male-dominated field, but mostly I would like to cantankerously blame it on the fact that nearly every notion of feminine sexuality out there either stinks or doesn't suit me. Creativity is clearly called for.

I look back gratefully to the strident feminists who fought for space, who took principled stands and rejected all that came before. Yet I must also bow before the artists who filled that space, borrowing from the culture that feminists repudiated even as they showed how it was flawed or how it might be changed. I'm thinking of George Eliot, whose women accepted the social order and yet you could always see how it was wrong for them. I'm thinking of Virginia Woolf, who could sneak female sexual desire in behind literary curtains. Sylvia Plath, whose self-absorption preserved a somewhat unconventional femininity that others might borrow from if they wished. All three of them had skills that took them far beyond the subject of femininity, yet all three of them could fold in their womanhood as they understood it. For all three of them, that womanhood was cutting edge.

In the past five decades, novelists and singer-songwriters have pasted cutting-edge pictures of womanhood all over the map. I admire Joni Mitchell, who has an unquestioned strength behind her self-questioning. Then there's k. d. lang, who was, I think, my first introduction to the way the queer movement completely redefined sex. The women in many of Anne McCaffrey's novels seem to be inhabiting a different universe (funnily enough...). Sometimes I wish I lived there.

None of what has gone before me is enough. I have a task to do; I believe that every woman does. Perhaps every man does, too. But I look on in awe at the creativity and courage of men and women, past and present. They are my inspiration and my light.

Saturday 17 January 2009


Dear Orchid,

I didn't know what it was you needed. In fact, I still don't. Did I give you too much water, or too little? Is the controlled environment indoors too warm at night? Do you need sunlight on the windowsill rather than artificial light, or would the sunlight fry you? Was the statement on your packaging about fertilizer a command rather than a suggestion?

I realise, of course, that it's probably too late by now. I should not have kept thinking your remaining leaves would save you. I guess now all I can do is hope that you don't turn into a metaphor for something more important.




Dear Blog,

We've been limping along for a while now, haven't we? I was considering just resurrecting you for the Nonbelieving Literati, but then LL made that cool suggestion, so I kind of had to do that, too.

I guess we're still friends, funny old blog.




Dear Readers,

This post from Ebonmuse made me feel really guilty, a while back. My blog is a shambles. I'm not going to tidy it, either. All I can say is this: I appreciate you dropping by, occasionally, and when I'm not here there's a fair chance I'm over at your place, reading very quietly and commenting if I've got something to say.

I wish you all a happy new year.


Monday 12 January 2009


Currently the Nonbelieving Literati are writing posts about, or in response to, The Postman by David Brin.

The Postman takes place in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. After wars and famines and the breakdown of civilisation, people have -- yes, I'll say the word -- they have lost faith. They don't believe in their fellow human beings any more. People band into groups whose attitude to outsiders varies from apathetic to completely ruthless. The social contract has broken down. There's no point in showing compassion to a stranger who might never be able to repay -- who might, in fact, be much more likely to simply take advantage of your weakness to steal the things that you need to survive and leave you to die. So Gordon Krantz struggles across America as a sort of wandering minstrel, trading scraps of half-remembered Shakespeare for small things where he can and trying to survive off food found in the wilderness and valuables salvaged from the shattered cities, and finds himself, as the book begins, just about to enter Oregon.

Perhaps because of its distance from the major trouble spots in the war, or perhaps just because enough time has passed since the destruction, Oregon is the most civilised place that Gordon has seen. It's a borderland. Times are harsh, but the potential for civilisation bubbles around the edges. It only takes one thing to make a big bubble of civilisation.

All it takes is a lie.

Gordon's lie is initially inadvertant. He's found an old postman's uniform and he needs the clothing. Stopping at a little village he finds that the people there are nice to him because of it. He offers a nice reminder of the old world they miss. They give him food, a soft bed, even sex. They also give him letters.

Gordon Krantz, in his small way, has been trying to peddle hope for a while now. Maybe that's why he's chosen to try to survive through a little one-man show, through art. He doesn't like lying, but hey, the next village is rougher and the people are nastier and he starts to feel like maybe lying to people like that would be justified. So he blazes right in as an official of the Restored United States. It's a scam. But he has the letters to prove it, and by life-saving luck, one of the ones from the previous village is to an old relative, now living in this village.

Soon Gordon has convinced others to become postal officials of this 'Restored United States' (It's too far off to communicate with us, just take the existence on faith. After all, I'm here, aren't I?). There's a whole chain of post offices, restoring communications between people who thought they'd lost each other and bringing the hope of civilisation wherever they go.

Then Gordon discovers that his lie is not the only one. There's a whole other civilisation further along, based on the hope of technology -- and on a big lie supporting that hope.

Partway through the book, Gordon starts to wonder if America was a lie to begin with. "We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . " Really? Are you sure about that?

Is justice a lie? Are we lying to ourselves when we think that there exists a true notion of justice? Mercy, charity, morality -- are these lies? If so, then they are lies which make all our lives better and happier and more worthwhile, and my commitment to the truth must be hampered by my love and respect for such notions. But perhaps they are not lies. Perhaps we can say that morality and charity and justice exist because we believe in them. They are ideas, and ideas exist only in the human mind as a matter of course.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is not that the Restored United States is a lie, but that the mere idea of such a thing can cause so many true and good things to spring up. It's a sort of stone soup. The real substance is given by the people themselves.

What will save us? We will. But do we need to be lied to in order for that to happen?

Tuesday 25 November 2008

The Land of High Metaphor

Plain-language poems are easiest. Say it honestly, say it in verse, say it without obvious contrivances of rhyme or style and you've done well. But once you enter metaphor-land, well, it's a bit like pulp science fiction. Anything is possible, but not everything is advisable. "You have eyes like vampire fangs," I once wrote of a man. It was true, but a bit lurid, and the poem it was part of had every pitfall of free verse, from ramblingness to, yes, metaphors shoved in purely for the purpose of reminding you that this is a poem rather than just some stuff I felt like getting off my chest.

In improv there's this idea known as the absurdity curve. Those new to improv -- the brave sort, rather than the ones who start off hiding in a corner -- occasionally enter a scene and jump straight off the wall:

"Hello, Jess."

"Hello, Joe. Here, help me move this crate."


"Oh, no! An octopus just fell on my head!"

Now don't get me wrong, this can be a great way to approach improv when you're new to it. Just jump out there and say whatever and don't be afraid to look silly. However, as you get slightly better at it, it's as well to develop a little more finesse. The idea of a 'rising absurdity curve' is that you start a scene with the small and ordinary. If you do introduce anything remarkable at the beginning, you take the time to establish it. But sudden dramatic events do not happen until later in the scene, as you reach the climax, at which point elements of the story that seemed normal earlier can and do blossom into full-blown absurdities.

Poetry doesn't have a set 'curve' of the sort that improvisers are taught to consider. Nonetheless, the effectiveness of a vivid metaphor really does depend on context. A poem might go with the improv curve, starting with the ordinary and deepening into metaphor as it draws you in. If you do start with a strong metaphor, you might need to broaden and establish it to make it seem at home. And, as I said at the beginning, sometimes you'd do just as well to leave the metaphors out altogether.

So anyway, I'm fiddling with a memory that I'd love to put into poetry. I write

I never saw a man so golden
as you were, lying by my side.

It's a shoddy approximation of what I felt, but the tone is right. I can't really go anywhere with it, though. I'm writing about something I don't understand. I don't have enough angles. Reluctantly, I give up on describing the exact feeling and decide perhaps I'll just put a little of that in a poem that includes some other stuff.

Late one night, when I'm supposed to be going to sleep, I hammer out a couple of lines that capture so much more of it.

The dawn that rose when I awoke tonight
was only in the halo of your hair.

I can't abandon those lines. They work. It's just that they set a level of metaphor that's going to be jolly hard to keep up with sensibly. This isn't going to be a plain-language poem. Look out, darlin', you're in the Land of High Metaphor. Whatcha gonna do to continue that? Bring out the octopi?

I've started in High Metaphor and now I need substance. Lots and lots of substance, because metaphor, if done well, can eat up substance like nothing else. It's a powerful and dense way of expressing things. One of the reasons I'm finding this so hard to write is that I'm expressing something remarkable that I haven't felt before. It's in the 'Whisky Tango Foxtrot' subgenre of love poetry. However, there have been several times in my life when I've felt something remarkable that I haven't felt before, so I have a better handle on that part of it than on the feeling itself. That helps. I might be able to use that in the poem, but, of course, this now means I'm negotiating two dangers. On the one hand we have Scylla the octopus. On the other hand we have Charybdis, the never ending whirlpool which consists of saying things in a poem like "I don't know how to say it" or "words cannot express this". If words can't express it, why are you trying, dude? Give up and start writing drippy pop songs instead.

It's been a few months, now, but so far I've been able to build this:

The dawn was rising when I woke, tonight,
but only in the halo of your hair,
and I, bemused, perceiving by its light
a whole horizon waiting for me there,
say nothing. I am waiting for a phrase
to catch some faithful gleam inside the haze.

If I could always have a minute more
to stay within the compass of your hand,
then by your touch and mine I could explore
the whole of you and I, and understand
the half-remembered dreams that shimmer through
this little world that takes its light from you.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

Jumping the Broom

In marriage, let communion of the mind
meet with your bodies on the earthy ground,
and as the ordinary days unwind,
embrace the roses where they may be found.
Together, let your understanding grow.
Have patience when you think you've grown apart.
I revel in the joy and love you show,
and give you my support with all my heart.
By lies and lucre, in a narrow race,
today we lost a battle in this land,
and you may think your love must hide its face.
Well, let me speak for those who understand.
For better, for worse, whatever may arise,
have hope. Lovers, be married in our eyes.

Grad Student Election Night

Slightly altered excerpt from my most recent email home:

There were two tubes of paint: one red, one blue. The rule was, generally, that you couldn't paint the state on the map until CNN had called it. Occasionally, polls would close all at once and CNN would call several as soon as they closed -- I guess when their exit polling made them sure. Illinois, for instance, turned blue immediately. By contrast, North Carolina stayed yellow on the screen and white on our map for as long as I was there.

The plan was that we would start watching Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart on Comedy Central at 7pm. Perhaps that might have worked in previous years, when the outcome took forever, but I left to go make myself some dinner before it started, and when I got back the room was full of people and the grudging consensus seemed to be that it was better to be watching CNN. If nothing else, the information on CNN was visible despite the noise in there, but the election jokes on Comedy Central weren't. Besides, things were moving fast. Obama had more than two hundred electoral college votes. People were sharing their voting stories: when they voted, how long the lines were. The polls in California closed at 8pm, our time. CNN was counting down, and we counted down with it: "Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! . . ." CNN's screen suddenly whirled away from the countdown ". . . Two! One!" we shouted, and the room bubbled with applause and cheers, as CNN, having called California immediately, called the race for Obama, and someone stepped up to the map to paint California blue.

It was about then that the pizza arrived. Nobody was leaving yet. You could see a slight smugness on people's faces whenever we switched over to Fox News while CNN had advertisements.

We had a respectful silence for McCain's concession speech. There were nods and occasional slight applause. The only flicker of tension was after he had finished, as Sarah Palin walked past the microphone. "Don't let her speak!" someone yelled. She didn't.

Then we waited. The crowds in Chicago were going wild for I don't know how long as we chatted and wondered how Obama's speech would go. What's he like, now that he's won? We had silence again for the President Elect, but it wasn't the same silence. There was an edge of resistance. This speaker had newfound authority. We listened critically. We had a few smiles and applause through the thanks, especially as Obama's campaign manager was mentioned, and patient silence as Obama said that those who thought real change could never come were now proved wrong.

Then Obama's speech got Presidential, honest about the challenges as he asked for the support of the whole nation and pulled his central campaign message of hope into a faith that America would get through the financial crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He stepped boldly into the leadership vacuum and we listened. We listened without noticing or caring how we were listening until Obama got into the recitation of what one century-old woman had seen through her life, and the challenges she and the country had faced in that time. By the third 'Yes we can", some guy over to the right was repeating it back with a parodic edge: "yes-we-CAN!" Obama was losing us; we were still mostly quiet, but we shifted a bit, until Obama mentioned how science had connected the whole world, and someone at the back yelled "Science!" and we all grinned.

Yeah, we'll be there, Mr. President Elect. Just don't ask us to recite slogans.

Over and out.