Reading the Winter
When it’s cold I take comfort in how Louise Fitzhugh drew people wrapped up like onions. She did it at least twice in publication -- once in Harriet the Spy, where Harriet is dancing (as an onion) and once in Suzuki Beane, where Suzuki comes home to find find Hugh and Marcia asleep on the mattress. Sleeping or dancing, the people are curled the same -- ankles crossed and arms twisted around the body, not fetal but about to roll. “I want you to feel,” says Miss Berry, Harriet’s drama teacher, “that one morning you woke up as one of these vegetables, one of these dear vegetables, nestling in the earth, warm in the heat and power and magic of growth… waiting for that glorious moment when you will be…” (“Eaten,” Harriet whispers to her friend Sport) “…once and for all, your essential and beautiful self, full-grown, radiant,” continues Miss Berry. Fitzhugh leaves Miss Berry in a pose, one arm stretched skyward and half her hair falling into her face. “I am warm here,” I tell myself when I wake up and the cold’s skritched little stars on the inside of the windows. I imagine Miss Berry in the corner, then I stumble out in longjohns to make coffee.
When it’s cold and I spend days eating mugs of soup and writing and not really talking to that many people outside my apartment, I think too about the beginning of Stacey Levine’s Frances Johnson, which has a novel’s structure but chapters like prose poems—early on, Frances describes her favorite game. It’s a quiet one, by herself with “a bowl of salty water.” Frances doesn’t say how it works -- does she dunk her hair? Does she wash her hands? -- just that it’s a religious type of game, involving punishing and bathing herself and others. One of the most important parts is that the door is locked. In January, I understand Frances.
And at night—Peter O’Leary, who edited a beautiful new edition of Ronald Johnson’s ARK, he recommends reading cookbooks before going to sleep. The only other person who’s ever suggested that to me was anorexic when we were teenagers, so at first I was like, what? And then I was like, but do I read with Post-Its so I can make shopping lists? Then I just started reading, and of course Peter was right. It’s an especially helpful routine when you’re working on a longform project. To make steamed broccoli, you take broccoli and clean it, and then you steam it. It does not turn into carrots. You do not doubt your abilities. In particular I like reading Johnson’s cookbooks, which he wrote to fund writing-poetry-time and around, for example, riding cross-country on a motorcycle to San Francisco, which is where he spent his adult life. In The American Table, underneath the recipe for Senate Bean Soup, Johnson writes that his mother used to make stewed butterbeans, which were basically the same thing, served over a slice of wheat bread. “I still like it that way,” he writes, “so I usually double this recipe and freeze batches of it to have as a simple dinner with a glass of beer and a salad.” It’s good with whiskey soda too.
This month before bed, also I re-read Edie Fake’s Gaylord Phoenix, which I bought again because I forgot which friend I loaned it to last. I clapped like a kid when I read that this fall, Dorothy, a publishing project is releasing Joanna Ruocco’s novel Dan. I read stunner new work I’ve been waiting for forever: Douglas Wolk’s Judge Dredd comic Mega-City Two, David Stuart MacLean’s memoir The Answer to the Riddle Is Me, and Kush Thompson’s first book of poems, The Church Beneath the Bulldozer. I read Brian Torrey Scott’s Green Candle the night it came in the mail, and again after that and it is still on my bedside table. And like every January, I went to the basements of Seminary Coop and the DePaul Barnes and Noble, to read course book lists and take notes. (This year I came home with Padden and Humphries’s Deaf in America and Hebdige’s Subculture, whose cover is red, black, yellow, and blue with perfect eye makeup.) I read Kazim Ali’s poem “Autobiography” until I knew it by heart. I fell asleep, onioned, reading Fanny Howe’s The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation with the cat perched on my hip, and I dreamed I’d tattooed Rachel Melis’s ferns on my arm like Black Flag bars.
I tried to write every day and most days, I did. Some days I played possum. Every morning around ten o’clock, my neighbor comes out on the porch to shake the rug the pets use, and we wave at each other. If I’m writing at night, I hear another neighbor playing the drums. If he stops before I do, I feel melancholy.
I read Carolee Schneemann's Imaging Her Erotics, which includes the tables from her 1971 project Sexual Parameters, in which she makes a spreadsheet detailing "some main parameters of lovemaking, exclusively from a woman's point of view." Schneemann calls all forty men "respondents," like she put out signs. In a 1991 interview with ND, she says what it's like when she sees auras -- "sometimes, neon signs appear over people's heads with messages, and I might not know what they fortell. I somehow have to go meet these people without telling them, 'I saw a neon text go over your head.'" Once she saw a man (who turned out to be Bill de Kooning) drinking in a booth at the Cedar Bar. "A golden ray of light sprang out and sizzled around his head." I read Hannah Weiner's Open House too -- in 1970 she started seeing pictures and energy fields. For nine months it was just words, floating small and blurry over curtains and feet, and then, at a retreat with Swami Satchitananda, she saw words printed clearly on her forehead, in all-caps. "Art is live people," Weiner wrote. "Self respect is a job if you need it."
I’ve been gobbling Rosmarie Waldrop’s work since Richard Froude quoted her in a lecture last summer, and these are my favorite lines this month, all from “Conversation 10: On Separation.” “In my mother’s mirror, which staged dialectic and confused my instincts.” “Only out of body could we be out of the panic of time.” Waldrop talks about “flimmers” above the lake (“flimmer” comes from flimmern -- glitter or tinsel) and how “father and son walk away from the bed in opposite directions.” Sometimes she drops the mic when her sentences end, like how Primo Levi ends The Periodic Table. “The now always already darkening, the way a sentence anticipates the period it will stiffen in.” I want to write her name across the back of my hand.
William Maxwell’s novel So Long, See You Tomorrow is just one hundred thirty-five pages but it reads like watching a house be built. I read it alongside Kathryn Davis’s Hell, which is like the house was built so long ago now it wants to tell you about itself. I told Ed in January my writing does not feel like a house, it feels like stacked wood and some sweet three-legged chairs and a trap door, but if it rains ack we’ll all get so wet, and then he read me this passage from Manny Farber’s essay “White Elephant vs. Termite Art.” Farber’s talking about painting here, but it could work for novels: “The idea of art as an expensive hunk of well-regulated area, both logical and magical, sits heavily over the talent of every modern [maker].” The houses. The homes. “The painting, sculpture, assemblage becomes a yawning production of overripe technique shrieking with precosity, fame, ambition.” Farber mentions Raymond Chandler’s “ant-crawling verbosity and sober fact-pointing” as evidence, which I suppose are really Lish’s. Then -- and this essay should really be read in full; it’s terrific -- Farber mentions termite art, which “feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into the next achievement.” Termite art is “eager, industrious, unkempt.” It is different than white elephant art, or “beaverish endeavors” and is I think -- thanks, Ed; thank you Chicago cold -- a really good way to read in January.
Mairead Case (@maireadcase) is a writer, editor, and teacher. An MFA-W candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and graduate of the 2013 Summer Writing Program at Naropa, Mairead is Youth Services Assistant at the Poetry Foundation Library and an editor-at-large for Yeti Publishing, featherproof books, and elsewhere.