Tag Archives: Moby Dick

The Book I Read: Works Unfinished, Finishing the Appalachian Book of the Dead, and a Prayer for October

Listen to the Podcast version of this blog entry here!

True confession: I often abandon books before I finish them. Sometimes I go back, sometimes I never do. The reasons for the abandonment vary–but rarely, is it because I am disinterested. Only a couple of times have I ever stopped reading because I thought the book was awful. I’m not going to talk about those books. I’m staking out a philosophical stand here, in this podcast, that I’m really not interested in slagging on books. So, most often, I will stop reading a book because I have been distracted by another reading, wooed away, if you will, by something more tantalizing and shiny (and likely, less challenging). Often, I am interrupted by the beginning of the school year, and here we are–when there are so many other responsibilities in preparation and in keeping the ball in the air for September and October. I just run out of time for recreational reading of any kind. Sometimes I will abandon a book simply because I have bit off more than I could chew. I’ve chosen something ambitious or difficult. I have read IN Finnegans Wake, for example, but I have never even attempted to go from cover to cover. In a similar vein, I think I tried Ulysses four or five times–each time I’d go back to the beginning and start all over again, get about as far as I got the last time, and then give up again. I am proud to say, that one year I did finally read all the way through the great Joyce novel. I felt pretty good about that, even though I knew that I understood it poorly–knew more from things I had read about it than I did from the actual reading of it. It’s on my bucket list to read again; Finnegans Wake, too, is a book that I would like to tackle before I die–just so that I could say that I did it. No–I’m sure it would be more than that. I don’t think I read ever simply for bragging rights. Although, that would not be nearly as bad as bragging about not reading. I hate to hear people speak about getting all the way through school without reading a book from cover to cover as if it’s some great accomplishment. Just stab me in the heart, why don’t ya.

Two of my favorite books I’ve never finished are The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I think I got maybe 100 pages or so into Melville’s masterpiece on a couple different occasions, and it was a simple lack of stamina or commitment that stopped me–much of it I found absolutely engaging and astonishingly MODERN. I really loved it. Ishmael and Queequeg and Ahab–just fascinating characters. Someday soon I will return to those guys. Writing it, or saying it out loud like this, I think, makes it more likely to become a reality. What is that pattern? Thoughts become words become actions. This is how things happen. I spoke about the Thomas Mann novel very briefly in my last episode, and I think it is, in this time and moment, a book that I must come back to–like right about now. It’s a pandemic novel, for crying out loud. And I think I will experiment. I put that novel down a year ago. Instead of what I have done with Ulysses and Moby Dick, that is, every time I pick it up I go back to the beginning, Sisyphus-like, and start again, I think what I’ll do this time is just simply review passages that I’ve marked, jar the old memory banks, and begin exactly where I left off a year ago, about 230 pages into a 700 page tome. It won’t be that hard. I did leave behind a series of reflections on my progress–an experiment with the ubiquitous “reaction video”–that petered out after about 4 episodes.

. . . So, while I am diving back into–or climbing back onto–The Magic Mountain, I have finished Appalachian Book of the Dead by Dale Neal. So let’s talk about that. In the last episode I introduced you to the main characters, an aging couple recently married (Cal, the retired commodities trader and his younger wife, Joy, the pottery artist, formerly a physical therapist), Ainsley, a young bohemian woman practicing Tibetan Buddhism, and Doyle, the superstitious and handy caretaker of the abandoned Camp Bee Tree for girls–all of them living in the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains–pretty isolated save for each other’s strange company. However, there may or may not be an escaped convict–a psychopathic murderer, no less, hiding in the woods. When Ainsley, our Buddhist yurt dweller, who has recently shaved off her dreadlocks and is completely bald, starts feeding a visiting coyote, can we be sure it’s the coyote and not the convict that’s taking the food she leaves out? And who or what is killing Joy’s barn cats? Are these folks in danger? So that’s part of the drama, always percolating, but just beneath the surface. If you were to call this novel a “thriller,” you’d be on to something–but you wouldn’t be capturing the essence of this thing–which is, to my understanding, realistic, literary fiction–and I say literary for two reasons. One, the writing is exquisite, beautiful, finely crafted. And the characterization is deep. It seems to me, a standard kind of horror story or thriller novel turns mostly on plot–what’s gonna happen next. While literary fiction often turns on character. Who are these people? What makes them tick? And why do I care so much? What am I learning? How have I been confronted with new ideas? While you’re likely to be entertained by a popular thriller, you’re more likely to be CHANGED by literary fiction. That’s what we have here with Dale Neal’s novel.

A few choices, though, amp up the thrill and the drama: Neal’s decision to write a few chapters in the Coyote’s perspective as she appears to cross paths with the escaped convict, and his super creepy choice of giving chapters to the convict as well, delivered in second person no less, so that the reader in a sense becomes the bad guy in the story, the bad guy whose chapters are punctuated with instructions in italicized print, which, I’m guessing, are taken directly from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, instructions for passing through the various stages of the Bardo, the in-between, before emerging into the next life. Perhaps, the convict, lost in this in-between of the mysterious and wild Appalachian Mountains, is metaphorically in a kind of Bardo. Meanwhile, we spend a significant amount of time with our four main characters–we learn more and more about them as the novel progresses; questions we have about their pasts are answered–and in some cases, like the fate of Ainsley’s boyfriend Bernie, our assumptions from earlier in the novel are corrected. It turns out that each of these individuals, including our lurking boogie man, have these incredibly vivid and often tragic back stories. And while I call this novel realistic fiction–it’s full of ghosts. They may be psychological ghosts–but they are delivered by our narrator, in the point of view of the character of focus for each chapter, as if they were literal. In one of our convict’s chapters, he sees the smoking, charred–and still alive–body of the man he murdered in the very first chapter. He even hears him speak. But, you know, our convict, Angel, has been out there so long in the wilderness, surviving on what? on food left out for coyotes and on unsuspecting barn cats?–that he might be beginning to lose his mind.

And I must warn you, that the concluding chapters of Appalachian Book of the Dead contain a veritable mountain picnic basket of surprises, that to talk very specifically about anything else that follows, seems like treading in some dangerous spoiler waters. But here are some questions: Will Ainsley realize her dreams of revitalizing her family’s mountain camp for girls? What might be the consequences of her brief and torrid interest in the old man and his interest in her? Why does the old man, Cal, who has been sober for seven years, ask Doyle, the caretaker of Camp Bee Tree, if he can score him some moonshine? Where is that murderous escaped convict? Who belongs here? Who does not? The pinnacle of the action in this novel, oddly enough, takes place around a kind of campfire gathering of the four main characters as they sit by a firing kiln that Doyle has engineered and constructed for Joy’s crazy pottery art. It is, perhaps, the single longest scene in the entire work–plenty of time to build steam. It is an absolutely wild ride from that point on. And answers are forthcoming, I promise. There’s some mighty karmic justice at work here in the end of Neal’s novel. It’s a satisfying ending, not much is left dangling. Appalachian Book of the Dead is a novel that brings together a lovely philosophical swirl of competing beliefs and values, an incredibly wicked landscape, and deep, vivid, believable, fully fleshed out characterization. Two thumbs up. If I had some more thumbs, I’d put them up as well.

I’d like to close, as I have over the last few episodes, with another poem by a friend of mine. On a personal note here, we’ve had significant rain in Portland, Oregon over the last few days for the first time in months. It’s been a warm, dry, summer. Fires are raging all over, but for us this year, the smoke has not reached us. The rain was welcome–and even though it’s been warm, all the autumn pyrotechnics are in full throttle. Before the sky opened up with precipitation, it was raining leaves and acorns from our giant oak trees. In a month’s time we will be buried in them. So my friend David Ruekberg, from his book Hour of the Green Light, has written this poem for the fall, “October Prayer.” It also seems fitting here today for a number of reasons. I’ll leave that open ended for you, dear listener, to play around with. From David Ruekberg’s Hour of the Green Light:

October Prayer

If a grey sky can be indicative
of a life lived in the long echo
of the snap of umbilical cord

and a farewell to the self of pure love
floating in a green light near the origins
of particle and wave,

then let leaves high in the maple
turning to their first autumn orange
be messengers of messengers

from the tallest, most foriegn
angels that death is waiting
for your next accident

and, no matter how cautious
you are, you will only ever
catch one glimpse.

Let the call of crow bobbing
in the pines be the ungainly ugliness
in your life that you must accept,

and let the digging in the yard for grubs
be your digging–acrid food
of your often-rehearsed regrets.

Crow gives way to silence
in which you hear
another kind of stirring.

Perhaps skies stretching,
preparing rain, watering
the suffering earth.

David Ruekberg

As a fiction writer, or essayist, I love poetry and in particular the poet’s close attention to the sentence. I just think that the most exquisite sentences in the English language can be found in poetry–and prose writers of all stripes, and writers, generally, whether they are pros or beginners, would do well to study the sentences of poets. I mean, this is kind of a wonky thing to talk about, but I love that the first five stanzas of this poem form a single, beautiful sentence, the next two stanzas form a single sentence, and then the last two stanzas each form their own, short little sentences, haiku-like. So this poem just has a beautiful shape, a funnel shape, or a kind of leaf-falling shape. But holy cow, more importantly and more beautifully is what the poem says–what it says about birth and death, what it says about a kind of welcoming acceptance to everything, about what is possible to hear or to understand in silence.

Thanks for reading, friends. Coming up next: I think we have to return to The Magic Mountain. Cheers!

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#356: Another Triolet for Moby Dick

Almost seven years ago today, I wrote a triolet about not being able to finish Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Here I am, in the same boat, so to speak, in 2020. A double poetic feature today: first, the triolet from 2013 (with some minor revisions), then today’s triolet. What’s a triolet, you ask?

On Trying to Read Moby Dick Again (2013)

I’ve never finished Moby Dick,
I’ve attempted it again and again.
It’s not, for me, that it’s too thick–
I’ve never finished Moby Dick.
Perhaps commitment is the trick,
I love what I’ve read to no end,
but I’ve never finished Moby Dick,
though I’ve attempted it again and again.

On Trying to Try to Read Moby Dick Again (2020)

The novel Moby Dick I still have not read,
but during the pandemic, I’ll have time on my hands.
If I could just get through this stack by my bed!
The novel Moby Dick I still have not read.
All these other titles begging to be read instead,
a problem only the book collector understands:
The novel Moby Dick I still have not read,
but during the pandemic, I’ll have time on my hands.

 

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#92: On Reading The Wake Out Loud

Me and the Wake

I’ve written before
how it’s been impossible
for me to finish Moby Dick
and now I’ve once again
picked up another formidable
tome, Finnegans Wake.
This one, too, I’ve tried
many times before and failed
but nevertheless keep
coming back to it,
a glutton for punishment.
But with neither Moby Dick
or the Wake do I feel punished.
Something there is that
doesn’t care for an easy
read, that takes great
pleasure in the difficulty,
that has fun, especially
in the case of Joyce,
with the pure playfulness
despite enormous, near
insurmountable obstacles
to comprehension. And,
maybe, too, it’s a way for me
to get in touch with how
my students feel
sometimes when asked
to read Shakespeare
or Heaney or Morrison.
Although, it’s true that they may be
crying while I am laughing,
unable to get themselves
into the space of really
loving what seems nigh
impossible to understand,
allowing all that difficulty
to pass over their tongues
and out into the space
of the room, listening
to the voice of Joyce
coming out of their mouths.

 

 

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The Power of Retreat

St. Mary's College, Moraga, California

St. Mary’s College, Moraga, California

The truth of the matter is I didn’t read a single word of Moby Dick. I remain today on the same page I was on a week ago. Thanks to the generosity and kindness of my wife and son, I have been on retreat for a week at St. Mary’s College in Moraga for the Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference, to write, to learn from and listen to and play with the best writing community my world has ever known, and, with some extra time left over, to read Moby Dick.  Only the last thing on this list got absolutely no attention.  I’ve forgiven myself already, mostly because the rewards of these other items were so immensely bountiful, and so I want to spend some words today reflecting about the power of this thing I’ve been able to do, the power of a thing from which everybody could probably benefit no matter what their work or vocation, the power of retreat.

Retreat: a quiet or secluded place in which one can rest and relax.  Well, yes, sort of.  But this sounds kind of like a vacation to me–only one that strives to avoid the usual hustle and bustle of tourism or the kind of camping trip that is chock-full of activity.  My sense of retreat has to do with a certain amount of quiet or seclusion, yes, and a level of rest and relaxation, yes–but a rest and relaxation that comes with work that one truly desires to do, work of the soul or heart or mind, creative work, work that sustains rather than exhausts.

I know of two such  retreat experiences in my life.  They have become for me pivotal, profound, powerful touchstones, helping to revitalize my work and my mind, providing inspiration for my creative output and the heart to pursue with humor and courage the more mundane aspects of life, domesticity, and gainful employment.

The first of these is the annual Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference.  Every summer, thirty to forty individuals who have graduated at some point in time from (I think) the oldest low residency MFA program for creative writing in the country, descend upon the campus of St. Mary’s in Moraga, of Mt. Holyoke in Amherst, or of Warren Wilson in Swannanoa, to recreate in a week’s time only the best aspects of their experience at Warren Wilson, jettisoning any and all of those parts of the program that made them anxious, tentative, or afraid.  What results is a veritable love fest (mostly platonic) between a huge diversity of individuals who have these things in common: they burn for the word, they revel in the art of poetry or fiction, and they benefit mightily by geeking out on all of this surrounded by a great number of highly talented, extremely generous, immensely forgiving, and supportive fellow writers.

We teach each other cool things we’ve learned about craft; we explore writing questions we don’t have the answers to; we turn each other on to new and old writers; we read each other’s work closely, honestly, kindly; we listen to each other read each night and applaud with wild abandon; we hole up in a dorm room or a library carrel or an outside porch somewhere and write for hours at a stretch; we buy each other’s books; we sing sometimes or drum on chairs; and finally, without fail, we dance.  No conference is complete without dancing.  And to say something about the unique gift of this experience, it is about the only place on the planet where you will see this writer dancing. And I do dance. Wildly.  At the alumni conference I retreat inside my fiction writer brain for a week’s time in a community that is intent upon supporting this nutty endeavor for each of its members, in whatever shape or form it takes. And I made no progress in Moby Dick because I was retreating in the way I most needed to retreat, and apparently, as it turns out, this did not include Melville’s novel.  I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.  And I danced.

My second pivotal, profound, and powerful retreat experience is my continuing participation in a teacher-renewal, formation-work program called The Courage To Teach, inspired by the work of educator-philosopher-Quaker-writer Parker Palmer.  It’s a totally different thing, a thing during which there is next to no dancing, but a thing that does for my teaching soul what the alumni conference does for my writing soul. I believe that this retreat work has made it possible for me to be continuously engaged in and rewarded by teaching and has been a key antidote to burnout.  Impossible to describe effectively in a paragraph, the Courage To  Teach work eschews talk about what teachers do and instead focuses completely on who they are, recognizing that each teacher, each individual for that matter, has inside of them sufficient wisdom to answer all their deepest questions, to solve all their most difficult problems in work and in life; they only require a community whose job it is to help the individual listen to that inner teacher.  In a very intentional way, we write, we read poems, we draw pictures, we invite silence, we meditate, we walk and talk, all toward the goal of helping each individual to know and trust themselves better.  No one ever tries to fix you or give you advice. While having almost nothing to do with classroom strategy and practice, it has been the most profoundly influential “staff development” experience I have ever had.  Life changing and career saving.

These are my retreats.  I find retreat also whenever I have an opportunity to be by myself for a time to write, whether it be at home or over a short couple of days in a cabin or a tent somewhere, but in both the cases I’ve described above, a community exists in which the solitude of the artist is honored and supported; these experiences exemplify the paradox described by Parker Palmer in The Courage To Teach, his pivotal exploration of the teaching vocation: “My inward and invisible sense of identity becomes known, even to me, only as it manifests itself in encounters with external and visible ‘otherness.'” This is the wonder and the gift of these kinds of retreat for me.

What does it for you?  How will you carve out of your life time for retreat?  And what might be the cost if you don’t?  Ultimately, it’s a kind of selfishness that I encourage.  Making yourself whole will send waves of positivity outward and benefit every one and every organization touched by your life.

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#50: On Trying Again To Read Moby Dick (Again)

moby-dick

I’m not reading again, but instead,
trying again to read for the first time,
the problem being, as I’ve said before,
not one of starting but of finishing,
which, I fear is, but hope is not,
a general pattern in my life.
Call me Ishmael.
What a great first line.
I read it twenty times before moving
to the next sentence.
But this time I make a vow
only to read the passages I’ve marked
from my previous three efforts,
and in this way, I will proceed
through the first 160 pages,
which I have read before,
in record setting time,
being able then to begin my endeavor
where I left off–with a sense of that thing
many of our favorite television shows do for us:
“Previously on The West Wing. . .”

Moving quickly through the etymology
and extracts, and, even though it hurts me,
skipping 1, 2, and 3 entirely, I arrive quickly
at the first passage I marked last time,
Ishmael’s words of wisdom as he climbs into bed with Queequeg:
“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”
Amen to that, Brother. And then,
“A good laugh is a mighty good thing. . .and the man
that has anything bountifully laughable about him,
be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think for,”
and I immediately remember how funny this novel is,
and how much I thoroughly enjoyed every failed attempt at reading it.

I can’t move too quickly, though, through my review
of the first 35 chapters because I discover I am
completely out of book darts–little post-it notes
I use to mark key passages when I’m reading a fancy edition
in which I am loath to make permanent or pencil marks.
To slow myself down, I think I may write a poem
about every passage I’ve thus far marked, or,
to the chagrin of all my “friends,” turn every key
passage into a facebook post.  Nothing but Moby Dick
from me for the next month or so.  There’s no good
reason it should take me that long to purchase a new
package of book darts–but it is entirely in the realm
of possibility. But I want to know more about Captain Ahab,
who has been in hiding, who finally comes out to give up smoking,
place his peg inside an augured hole for stability,
and tell Stubbs he was “ten times a donkey, and a mule,
and an ass,” and that if he didn’t get out of his sight,
he would “rid the world” of him.
I get out immediately to the local office supply store
and get me some book darts.

I continue my review.  I want inside that big boat.
Starbuck says, “I will have no man in my boat who is not afraid of a whale,”
and I say out loud to Starbuck that I am afraid of the whale and of Moby Dick,
Herman Melville’s beautifully intoxicating and totally intimidating novel,
and my fear is what will ultimately push me toward the conclusion.
Quickly moving through Chapter 35, Cetology, Whale Studies 101,
the attempt to answer Ishmael’s question: what is a whale?
He admits and then heroically accepts his failure
at being able to satisfactorily answer the question,
and then comes to this most stirring conclusion:
“God, keep me from ever finishing anything.
This whole book is but a draught–nay, but the draught of a draught.
Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience,” and once again I say Amen,
amen to never finishing anything, amen to a draft of a draft,
amen to the desperate need for time, strength, lots of cash, and patience.
Ishmael, I love you like a brother
and I will finish this novel if it kills me.

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#23: On Trying to Read Moby Dick Again (A Triolet)

moby-dick

Moby Dick has become my white whale, not that it’s bitten off my leg, but that it haunts me, taunts me, torments me, because this novel by Herman Melville has the distinction of being the ONLY book I truly love that I have not finished reading–after repeated attempts! It baffles me, because every time I go back I thoroughly enjoy myself.  It’s such a radically inventive and lively thing.  But something always happens to me about 130 pages in, duty calls, some more pressing affair distracts me from my purpose, I set this beautiful thing down, and then–it will be a year or two before I return.  And I always go back to the beginning!  And, so far at least, I always and only get about 130 pages in!

The assignment today was to write a thing called a triolet. It’s an 8 line poem in iambic tetrameter which employs a repeating couplet at the beginning and the end and a refrain line almost in the middle.  I cheated here and there on the syllable count but otherwise stayed true to the form.  Here’s my triolet about not being able to finish Moby Dick.  

On Trying to Read Moby Dick Again

I’ve never finished Moby Dick,
I’ve attempted it again and again.
It’s not, for me, that it’s too thick–
I’ve never finished Moby Dick.
Perhaps commitment is the trick,
I love what I’ve read to no end.
I’ve never finished Moby Dick,
I’ve attempted it again and again.

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