Saturday, March 25, 2017

Wood duck, whistling

I saw just a few scraggly early rue anemone blossoms this morning but not much else on the ground; however, there was a whole lot going on up in the trees. I found the patch of woods where the turkeys are hiding, heard pileated woodpeckers and towhees, and saw phoebes, red-winged blackbirds, finches, and all kinds of other birds. Best of all was the male wood duck sitting on a branch about 50 feet up in a sycamore tree next to the creek. He was whistling softly for a while before he flew off, and later I saw him fly back alongside a female. The tree where he was sitting has a hole about halfway up that looks like a perfect spot for a wood duck nest. Let's hope they use it!

(The pictures are horrible because of back-lighting, but at least you can see his elegant crest.)


Spring, finally

It was not the red-tailed hawk that flew just over my car when I turned up my road yesterday or the flicker that disappeared into the woods, and it wasn't even the turkey gobbling to its harem in the meadow last night that told me spring had finally arrived.

It was the mockingbird running through its repertoire just outside my bedroom window first thing this morning and the spring peepers down by the creek calling out Spring! Spring! Spring! But mostly it was the fact that the window was open, that the night was warm enough to merit opening up the house and hearing the turkeys and the mockingbirds and the spring peepers--and, yes, the hawk shrieking out by the edge of the woods and the sudden early cacophony of birds finding their spring voices.

I saw a bright red male cardinal offer a sunflower seed to a female the other day and I wondered what other signs of spring I'll find. This morning I'll go hunting for bloodroot and other early wildflowers. My photo files tell me that last year on March 27 I found spring beauties and rue anemone blooming here and trout lily leaves poking up at the edge of the meadow, but I didn't find the first bloodroot until April 1. What will I find today? Considering that the whole place was covered with snow a week ago, maybe nothing.

But that won't stop me from setting out to search. And that's the clearest sign of spring: the annual search to find its signs.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Entering the Empty Prose Zone

I read the phrase "inherit simplicity" and briefly thought what a nice heirloom to pass down before I realized that the context demanded "inherent simplicity." But at least in that case the intended meaning was obvious; later I read about a person who cast off all "implications," and I had to stare at the sentence for an embarrassingly long moment before realizing that the writer was looking for "inhibitions."

Yes, we have once again entered the realm of the not-quite-but-almost-right word, which is next-door neighbor to the black hole of tautology: "the character commodifies nature by turning nature into a commodity," or "the scenery is important to the way the performance of the play is performed," which raises the question: what happens to a performance that is not performed? The unperformed performance is not worth performing, or something like that.

Empty sentences written by students desperate to meet the word count: this is not the only problem that raises its ugly head at this point in the semester. Yesterday I was talking with a colleague whose students think she's doing some sort of magic when she identifies passages in their writing that are clearly plagiarized, as if recognizing sudden shifts in writing style were some sort of superpower. "I know they're not illiterate," she said, "but maybe they don't read and write enough to recognize that differences in style exist."

I think she's onto something: the tone-deaf sentences, the near impossibility of getting most students to feel rhythm in lines of poetry, the blindness to differences between writing styles, the willingness to grab words out of the thesaurus without any clear understanding of their meanings or connotations--all are signs of inadequate immersion in texts. Not text messages but real texts, big fat books and meaty articles written by skillful writers who know the difference between "implications" and "inhibitions."

If this is the wave of the future, the implications are frightening. Inherently.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

When teaching is like talking to the wall

After bragging about the great stuff my students are reading and discussing, I encountered a class determined to do neither. It was like trying to teach a doorknob or a potted plant, an overstuffed sofa or a blob of Jello--or like teaching a stone to talk.

Which is the title of a great collection of essays by Annie Dillard published in 1982. My copy was a gift from one of my college professors, an immensely erudite gentleman who practiced great patience with his students even when we were uninformed about or uninterested in what he was trying to teach us. I wonder how often I sat like a blob of Jello in his classes, nose to the textbook and unwilling to open my mouth? 

He must have known that I'd have days like that too and that reading Annie Dillard would be good therapy. The first essay in the collection, "Living Like Weasels," urges readers to "grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you," but today I'm looking at the title essay, "Teaching a Stone to Talk," in which Dillard discusses a friend who spent a certain amount of time every day devoted to teaching a stone to talk. "Reports differ on precisely what he expects or wants the stone to say," writes Dillard, but the teaching required "sacrifice, the suppression of self-consciousness, and a certain precise tilt of the will, so that the will becomes transparent and hollow, a channel for the work."

A transparent and hollow channel does not gripe over whether the work is well received or appreciated or even understood, so in that way it's very much like teaching literature. But Dillard takes the topic in a different direction, musing on the messages we seek in nature. "Nature's silence is its one remark," she writes, "and every flake of world is a chip off that old mute and immutable block." Given nature's silence, she continues, all we can do is witness the world around us and welcome its meaningless hum.

Which is great advice for a walk in the woods but not so great for a classroom full of students who really need to learn the stuff I'm trying to teach them. I am not here to merely witness their silence; I have to motivate them to read, to write, to think, to speak--even when they prefer to sit there like mute and immutable stones.   

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

And now she's talking to sequins

A single green sequin sits on the floor in my office, just below the chair where visitors sit. Who left behind that shiny sequin?

Was it the student seeking help on the paper due tomorrow, who admitted that he'd intended to work on it over break but forgot to take home power cord for his laptop computer and so put it off until today? He'd be more likely to leave behind a pork rind than a sequin.

What about the colleague who came in early this morning to ask a question and show me her new rubber duck? She was wearing spectacularly colorful socks but no sequins.

Then there was the student who plopped her backpack down in that spot and then proceeded to pull out one massive text after another--it seemed like a Mary Poppins backpack, capable of comfortably containing a floor lamp, a disco ball, and a Harley Davidson. The magic backpack could have accidentally disgorged a sequined ball gown big enough to clothe a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon portraying Miss Piggy.

Or maybe the sequin hitched a ride to my office on someone's shoe. Does it matter?

Whatever its source, I welcome the unexpected spot of color on an otherwise gray day. In fact, I ought to pick up  the sequin and save it for the next time I need to add a little sparkle to my life. But--where did it go? 

Maybe it walked out the same way it walked in. Good bye, little green sequin! May you bring a glint of light into someone else's life.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Feeding on the syllabus

We've reached the point in the semester when every class period provides an opportunity to share with students a sentence, stanza, or entire story that inspires me to employ the word "favorite" (although if they're all favorites then the word loses its meaning), to open their eyes to literary works that simultaneously provoke argument and awe.  

Today, for instance, my Concepts of Nature students discussed Louise Erdrich's story "Line of Credit," in which contractor Jack Mauser crows about his creative abilities--"I do things from plans. I make them real. I could build myself if I could get a guy that could design me"--only to have his hubris challenged by farmer Moen, who looks at the field of sunflowers that Mauser wants to transform into a housing development and says, "The more you fill it up the emptier it gets."

We had to chew on that concept a while: how can filling the land with houses make it emptier? Emptier of what? Why does it matter?

On Wednesday in American Lit Survey we'll look at Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People" and interrogate that word "good," asking how accurately characters judge "goodness" and what happens when they're left without a leg to stand on, and then we'll look at Philip Roth's "Defender of the Faith," in which Sergeant Nathan Marx returns from  Germany in the waning months of World War II with a heart hardened by the horrors of war but finds a softening beginning when an incident sparks a memory:
I felt within as though a hand had opened and was reaching down inside. It had to reach so very far to touch me. It had to reach past those days in the forests of Belgium and the dying I'd refused to weep over; past the nights in those German farmhouses whose books we'd burned to warm us, and which I couldn't bother to mourn; past those endless stretches when I'd shut off all softness I might feel for my fellows, and managed even to deny myself the posture of a conqueror--the swagger that I, as Jew, might well have worn as my boots whacked against the rubble of Munster, Braunschweig, and finally Berlin. 
I'm not a huge fan of Philip Roth but that last sentence feels delicious on the tongue (that half-rhyme of "warm" and "mourn"!) while packing in immense understanding of the human condition.

But will my students feel and understand what great stuff they're reading? I wonder how they'll take tomorrow's reading in Creative Nonfiction: "Whaling Out West" by Charles d'Ambrosio, who wastes no tenderness on the gray whales finds about as attractive as bridge abutments:
Gray whales don't look especially dirigible. You'd hate to have to park one. They have a lumpy crudeness of design, a banged-up body and a crimped ugly mouth and a dented snout, a color that seems to come from a supply of government surplus paint, and all around they have an unrefined and ancient and also untrustworthy aspect; they look like a mock-up of the kind of practice animals God was making in the early days, before he hit his artistic stride and started turning out wolves and apes and chipmunks; and they've got that useless megaton bigness, a gigantism that's pretty dramatic in a circus-freak way or like other types of colossi or prodigies, the sheer extravagant enormity of which inspire sublime fascination or wonder or fear, but don't register much at the refined and fragile end of the emotional spectrum that includes the various colors of love or tender or chummy feelings of any sort.
It's kind of amazing how he manages to convey a real affection for the animals while describing them as repellent. I love his massive baroque sentences that wander on and on effortlessly, making the short, simple sentences stand out so much more sharply, like "You'd hate to have to park one." Yes you would. Yes indeed.
I look ahead and see on my syllabi Toni Morrison, Raymond Carver, Billy Collins, Li-Young Lee, Jeff Vandermeer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, Elizabeth Bishop, and more and more, and I want to thank my past self for arranging such a marvelous menu for my future self. So thanks, Past Me! I don't know whether my students will be quite so grateful, but at least I'll enjoy the feast of words.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Derek Walcott: An asterisk the size of the sea

Near the end of Derek Walcott's epic poem Omeros, the poet/narrator takes stock of his attempts to translate the history and people of St. Lucia into poetry, and he realizes the transience of his efforts:

I was an ant on the forehead of an atlas,
the stroke of one spidery palm on a cloud’s page,
an asterisk only.

I put an asterisk next to Omeros on my fall Honors Literature syllabus, uncertain whether to assign the book instead of Life of Pi; then I saw that Walcott had died today and I picked up Omeros again to find a fitting epitaph, and soon I was certain: I want to teach this book again, even if today's first-year students are ill equipped to understand it.

I've assigned "The Sea is History" and other short poems in the postcolonial literature class, but I encountered Walcott first through Omeros, which remains among my all-time favorite books, growing deeper and richer with each reading. I love the way the incidents wash up like waves, each adding a new layer of meaning, and I love the echoes of other works, from The Odyssey to Ulysses to Hamlet to Moby Dick to Heart of Darkness.  

But most of all I love the way Walcott weaves together so many stories to show the complexity of the history of one small wounded island: the rivalry between Hector and Achille over the love of Helen; Major Plunkett's attempt to unearth a lost history; Achille's dream-vision of a journey to Africa to encounter his ancestors; Hector's selling out the sea to drive tourists around in a taxi; and Ma Kilman's quest to cure Philoctete's suppurating wound, a cure combining emblems of the island's history: a plant grown from seed brought from Africa, a copper kettle reclaimed from a defunct sugar mill, an herbal litany intertwining obeah with Catholic liturgy.

The poet appears as a character within the epic, occasionally commenting on and questioning his own motives. In the first book, he encounters his father's ghost, who leads him to the harbor and reminds the poet how he used to watch women "climb / like ants up a white flower-pot, baskets of coal / balanced on their torchoned heads" to feed the engines of steam ships. The ghostly father gives his son a burden of his own:

                                           They walk, you write;

keep to that narrow causeway without looking down,
climbing in their footsteps, that slow, ancestral beat
of those used to climbing roads; your own work owes them

because the couplet of those multiplying feet
made your first rhymes. Look, they climb, and no one knows them;
they take their copper pittance, and your duty

from the time you watched them from your grandmother’s house
as a child wounded by their power and beauty
is the chance you now have, to give those feet a voice.

Many pages later, though, after the poet has sent his characters through hell and back, he wonders whether he is simply exploiting their pain for his own benefit. Seven Seas/Omeros, who serves as muse, reminds him that 

                                           there are two journeys
in every odyssey, one on worried water,

the other crouched and motionless, without noise.
For both, the ‘I’ is a mast; a desk is  a raft
for one, foaming with paper, and dipping the beak

0f a pen in its foam, while an actual craft
carries the other to cities where people speak
a different language, or look at him differently,

while the sun rises from the other direction
with its unsettling shadows, but the right journey
is motionless; as the sea moves round an island

that appears to be moving, love moves round the heart—
with encircling salt, and the slowly travelling hand
knows it returns to the port from which it must start.
Walcott kept returning to his home port throughout his poetry, reaching out in every direction to reel in all the world. No matter how many waves of meaning came washing in on his native shores, he consistently heeded the advice of the ghostly father in Omeros: "simplify / your life to one emblem, a sail leaving harbor // and a sail coming in." He leaves behind a legacy of poetry that will stand among the greatest of the ages, but he also leaves a hole the size of the sea in the hearts of his readers.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

But I don't even own a bikini!

What would you consider a "typical Spring Break activity"?

I'm asking because I recently had to clear up a misconception cherished by a (not very close) relative, who thought my thwarted trip to Florida would be devoted not to visiting my ailing father but instead to participating in "typical Spring Break activities." Did she think I was planning to appear in a Girls Gone Wild video or get plastered and dive off a hotel balcony?

Most professors of my acquaintance spend Spring Break grading piles of papers, prepping classes, and perhaps grabbing a few free days to devote to advancing their scholarly research and writing. The three Spring Breaks I've spent chaperoning students on trips were strictly atypical; normally it's all about spending a few days visiting family and then getting caught up on work. One year I painted a room over Spring Break, but again, that's hardly typical.

In fact, as I look back over the years, the one constant, the only activity guaranteed to appear in every Spring Break, is work. And in fact that's how I plan to spend the final days of my break, now that I'm home again: work, work, and work.