February 27, 2013

The Art of Description, by Mark Doty


Mark Doty is a poet and essayist whose Art of Description is a volume in the "The Art of" series of books curated by Charles Baxter. If you ever want to take a stroll down memory lane and experience the kind of "literary appreciation" that used to characterize literary criticism but has been out of vogue for decades, check out his parsing of Elizabeth Bishop's poem "The Fish" or George Herbert's "Prayer." I also love his proposal that what description describes is not the world but rather a particular consciousness (that of the author or narrator) at work.

February 20, 2013

9/11 Memorial in New York

Finally had a chance to visit the site of the 9/11 memorial at the World Trade Center this month. We have been blessed with a lot of really beautiful, strong memorials in recent years, from the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, DC, to the Oklahoma City memorial with its empty chairs, to the FDR Memorial, again in DC. There have been only a few stinkers (the World War II memorial and, to a lesser degree, the MLK memorial, both on the National Mall).

The 9/11 memorial consists of two pools situated on the footprints of the twin towers. Names of the lost are inscribed on a metal counter that goes around them. They include not only the names of the 9/11 victims but also those of the earlier 1993 attack. In cases where a victim was pregnant, "and her unborn child" is included.

From under these counters, water falls in thick sheaths down to a pool the same size as the tower, gathers at the bottom, and then falls further into a small dark rectangle whose bottom is not visible. In this elegant design are intimations of tears, falling, disappearance. I so admire that dark rectangle in the middle of each pool because it is terribly sad, it's allowed to be terribly sad. The water not only reminds us of tears and falling but also creates a soundscape that isolates the memorial from the quotidian noises of the city: construction, car horns, and the like. It helps create a sacred space that is graced with the so-called Survivor Tree, the one tree at the World Trade Center that survived the attack.

February 17, 2013

Warm Bodies

Spoilers, natch.

How do I love thee, Warm Bodies? Let me count the ways.

First, I love your slyness. Like how you work in references to Romeo and Juliet (the protagonists names are Julie and "R" and there's a good balcony scene) without hitting us over the head with it. How you show the zombies meandering around the airport while R thinks about how it must have been in the old days, when people could connect with each other and interact, and then cut to a flashback of people meandering around the airports with their heads dropped down, riveted to their iPhones---a flashback so quick you could miss the joke if you weren't paying attention.

Second, I love your leads. Nicholas Hoult has it all: the perfect slouch, a great way with a comic line, and the rarified art of acting with your eyeballs (which is about all he's got to work with for the first half hour of the film). Teresa Palmer has the casual naturalness and attitude of Kristen Stewart with the dewy sex appeal of Scarlett Johansson.

Third, I love your humor because it's subtle and quiet. I like a good Melissa McCarthy scene as much as the next girl, but it's refreshing to be have jokes sent your way like a wink, quick and light.

Quick and light, too, is the moral of the story, that connection makes us human, that most (but not all) of us are salvageable if we try. There are no big speeches and no lengthy wrap-up. Just an image here, a line there, and the trust that the audience can put it all together.

February 6, 2013

February 5, 2013

The Wisdom of Helen Keller

Helen Keller famously wrote, "True happiness . . . is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose." I often apply this formula to my daily life, according to circumstances: "True happiness . . . is not attained through playing another round of Red Dead Redemption but through fidelity to another load of whites."

I've never read her autobiography, but every quote that I've read is full of that clear-sighted wisdom that sounds obvious when you're young but whose depth and meaning become clearer with every year that you age.

On religion: "It is wonderful how much time good people spend fighting the devil. If they would only expend the same amount of energy loving their fellow men, the devil would die in his own tracks of ennui."

On loss: "What we have once enjoyed, we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes part of us."

On work: "I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble." 

And with that, back to laundry.

February 1, 2013