occasions that induce half-heartedness

I wake in the middle of the night convinced I have forgotten to do something important, but what?

The windows all are open so the sounds of traffic drift in, always cars and trucks speeding by. It is comforting to know that even as I sleep, a certain kind of progress is being made outside this room.

I lie in bed for a time in the dark. I try to sleep. Finally, although it is too early, I rise. I drink water. I sit upright in a chair.

In the evening I drive down to visit a friend and we sit on her porch overlooking the marina. The sky is gray; fat clouds hover. A break now in the rain that has fallen for days. We talk about our work, our children, the friends we have in common.

She tells me about the man she has been dating now for the last year. How much she enjoys his company, how infrequently they are together. His work schedule is erratic, the demands on his time are complicated and unpredictable.

“We don’t talk about the future,” she says. “It’s fine. It’s fine.”

There is a sudden streak of blue in the sky. The white sailboats docked in the distance are awash in it.

“It’s good. I’m happy. It’s fine.”

I am up early enough to hear the first birdsong of morning. A cheerful, expectant call. I wonder about his companions. Where are they? When will they come?

Inventory of desk(top):

  • Printout of first 30 pages of Keith Waldrop’s The Silhouette of the Bridge (Memory Stand-Ins) for a class I started but will not complete;
  • Spinoza in Her Youth, Norma Cole;
  • Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau;
  • A green, hardbound notebook, the first entry of which is from July of last year:

    the brown pod of the praying mantis
    they emerge tiny and fragile their bodies
    black dots for eyes and voracious
    we all know this hunger
  • A printout of a short essay by Noy Holland called “Everyday Magic,” for class, as above
  • A printout of a short essay by Matthew Goulish called “The Example of Glass,” ibid.
  • A printout of my 2013 booklist (100 books) compiled at the end of 2012, reflecting great (and largely unrealized) ambition;
  • A book-length manuscript of terrible poems (which should not be confused with an earlier book-length manuscript of terrible poems that I have abandoned);
  • Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell, Charles Simic (I borrowed this from M. weeks ago and have not yet returned it);
  • The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, Peter Gizzi, Ed.
  • Nine Ways to Disappear, Lilli Carre (an unexpected gift from a charming friend);
  • The Book of Men, Dorianne Laux;
  • Holding Company, Major Jackson;
  • A Whaler’s Dictionary, Dan Beachy-Quick;
  • And my Anne Carson stack (a special corner of the desk reserved for her, the thinking being that I could need any book of hers at any time, best to be prepared and to have her within arm’s reach): Eros the Bittersweet; Glass, Irony & God; The Beauty of the Husband; Autobiography of Red; Plainwater; red doc >; If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho;
  • Pocket Oxford American Dictionary & Thesaurus, Third Edition;
  • The Elements of Style, Strunk, White, Kalman;
  • Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle (as with Carson, could need this at any time);
  • Stack of articles, stories, and poems I have printed from online journals or torn from magazines. At top of stack (one I have already read, but want to save for future reference): Colin Dickey’s “We Will Bury You,” from the LA Review of Books, an essay about Michael Kammen’s Digging Up the Dead; Bottom of stack, George Saunders’ “Chicago Christmas, 1984,” from The New Yorker, December 22, 2003 issue.
  • Files for two projects I have brought home from work;
  • Stack of bills, unopened (awful) mail.

I look up from making my list and see that the sky is now light. The birds are quiet. Where have they gone?

Here is something I have been thinking about: Do I want too much?

My friend and I talked about wanting. About ambition, professional and creative. “It’s important, that wanting,” she said. “The striving. It’s how you know you are alive.”

But is it? I think I would like, if it were possible, to want less. The wanting is often nameless and inarticulate and so disappointment and heartbreak are sure to follow. How to mitigate disappointment? How to protect oneself from heartbreak?

Last summer, I was reading The Pillow Book of Sei Shonogan. I had listed, in the hardbound green notebook referenced above, the first lines of each entry, which served the function of titles. There were 229.

Here are some of my favorites:

(9) The eastern side of the temporary palace
(21) Women without prospect
(22) Dispiriting things
(23) Occasions that induce half-heartedness
(30) A priest who gives a sermon should be handsome
(42) Unsuitable things
(100) A branch of plum from which the blossoms had fallen
(116) Deeply irritating things
(117) Miserable-looking things
(145) Times when someone’s presence produces foolish excitement
(177) People who feel smug
(186) It’s very unseemly for a man
(229) It is lovely to see, on a day when the snow lies thick

Later are my my notes from reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I had started responding to each of the 240 numbered sections of the book. Some notes were a line or two; others as long as a page. I stopped at 86. That entry was:

86. Women always underestimate their pain.

Anobium's Grand Alchemical Amalgam of All Things Awesome in 2012

I got to talk about my personal top 5 albums, films, and books of the year for Anobium. Here are mine. Read the rest of the staff’s picks here


1. Perfume Genius: Put Your Back N 2 It (Matador, 2012) – Mike Hadreas’ haunting ballads travel deep into the dark lands of trauma, abuse, and personal struggle, and emerge offering moments of light. A short, searing record that lingers long after the final strains fade.

2. Bat for Lashes: The Haunted Man (Parlaphone, 2012) – The production on Natasha Khan’s latest record is as stark and austere as its cover art. These songs vibrate with the intimacy of a woman processing a failed relationship and finding a kind of transcendence in its aftermath.

3. The Walkmen: Heaven (Fat Possum Records, 2012) – This album resurrects the urgency of 2004’s excellent Bows and Arrows, layered with a stately wisdom afforded by the intervening years. A dramatic slow burn.

4. The Tallest Man on Earth: There’s No Leaving Now (Dead Oceans, 2012) – Kristian Matsson’s follow-up to The Wild Hunt may displease purists with its lush instrumentation, but it is hard to resist this rhythmic, poignant, and urgent record and its elliptical and rapturous treasures.

5. Niki & The Dove: Instinct (Sub Pop, 2012) – This Swedish duo calls to mind the heat of Stevie Knicks and Kate Bush’s breathy abandon, without feeling retro or derivative. This debut album is fresh and thrilling.


1. Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, 2011) – Herzog follows two men convicted of a triple homicide, one on death row and one with a life sentence. He offers a sober, quiet narration of the weeks leading up to one convict’s execution and the impact on the lives of those that the murders affected, including the families of the victims and the families of the convicts in the small Texas city of Conroe.

2. Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, 2010) – French film that tells the story of nine Trappist monks who were kidnapped and executed during the 1996 Algerian Civil War. They are beheaded in winter and the final sequence of the men being marched out in the snow is heartstopping. A somber, beautiful, provocative film about faith and war and ultimately, too, about love.

3. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008) – Kym’s arrival from rehab for the occasion of her older sister’s wedding reveals the complicated dynamics of family history and dependence. This is a sad, quietly incandescent film about love and forgiveness, loss and redemption.

4. Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, 2012) – How does the fantasy of romance and desire compete with the domestic realities of a marriage after the honeymoon is over? A young writer struggles with her desire for a handsome stranger as her five-year marriage shows signs of collapse. A touching film about love and desire and the very human impulse to be seduced by the promise of the new at the risk of what is known.

5. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011) – The title describes the emotional state of a young bride and is also the name of a rogue planet that is on a collision course with the Earth. A study of severe depression that is at turns absurd and terrifying. Released at the end of 2011, this film about apocalypse – in the grandest sense as well as on the scale of personal breakdown – seems a suitable film to haunt 2012.


1. Bluets (Maggie Nelson) Wave Books, 2009 – An urgent, pulsing book composed of 240 numbered fragments. An obsessive interrogation of love and its limits. A document of struggle and despair, but ultimately, a testament to a quiet resilience that allows the writer and the reader to move forward, even if haltingly: 
A warm afternoon in early spring, New York City. We went to the Chelsea Hotel to fuck. Afterward, from the window of our room, I watched a blue tarp on a roof across the way flap in the wind. You slept, so it was my secret. It was a smear of the quotidian, a bright blue flake amidst all the dank providence. It was the only time I came. It was essentially our lives. It was shaking.

2. Speedboat (Renata Adler) Random House, 1971, to be re-released NYRB Classics in 2013 – Darkly comic, energetic dispatches from a disjointed social reality of decades past that in many ways, resembles our own. A witty, abrupt, cool-eyed assessment of the people, places, and times of a young journalist in the late 1960s: 
Nobody died that year. Nobody prospered. There were no births of marriages. Seventeen reverent satires were written – disrupting a cliche and, presumably, creating a genre. That was a dream, of course, but many of the most important things, I find, are the ones learned in your sleep.

3. Alien vs. Predator (Michael Robbins) Penguin Books, 2012 – These poems are exuberant and fearless and sharp. They suggest an utter giddy freedom with their unexpected juxtapositions and high culture/low culture mash-ups. They are vulgar and witty. They are playfulness and swagger. There is bravado and importantly, there’s also great heart: 
The Smallest Accredited Zoo in the Nation
Let’s go to Laurie in our Eye in the Sky
for a look at traffic. Thanks, Don.
It’s an hour in from the Hut of Intelligent Design
to the saddest tapir in the nation.
Nothing left of the Sharper Image but ashes.
All fall down, Laurie? All fall down, Don.

4. Are You My Mother? (Alison Bechdel) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012 – Beautiful graphic novel that explores the author’s relationship with her mother. It is heady, weaving in literary criticism and psychology, but its emotional power comes from a careful and rigorous treatment of her own motivations and actions and a great sense of empathy and compassion for her family members, who are presented as whole and complicated people. Haunting and memorable: 
My depression at age twenty-six lasted only a few weeks. But as a child I used to experience occasional fleeting pangs of a terrible sadness. They almost happened in church… As an adult, I have continued to experience these brief spasms of melancholy — and worse — on some of the rare occasions I’ve attended church… and also sometimes after sex.

5. Three Novels (Agota Kristof) in collection, Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 1997 – A trilogy of three short novels: the Notebookthe Proof, and the Lie. Stark and brutal, the prose is stripped of all sentimentality, which makes the descriptions of the horrors of wartime all the more shocking and haunting. These books interrogate the nature of identity and truth and the act of storytelling itself: 
One day we hang our cat, a ginger tom, from the branch of a tree. As he hangs, he stretches and grows enormous. He has spasms and convulsions. When he isn’t moving anymore, we cut him down. He lies sprawled on the grass, motionless, then suddenly gets up and runs off.  “Don’t worry, Grandmother, we’ll take care of the mice.” We make traps and down the mice we catch in boiling water.

outline for your novel

  1. A woman loves a man she cannot have. They meet, for a time, in secret. They attend the openings of art exhibits in the cities where they meet. There are pleasures. There is heat. But it cannot last forever. 
  2. A woman takes a journey to learn something about her past. Is she running toward something that she hopes to discover? Or is she running away from a life she no longer loves? She is sad. She is broken. She is at a turning point. 
  3. Everything is broken. The woman is divorcing. Her mother is dying. Her father moves away and leaves her with nothing. She changes her name. She watches a man die. 
  4. Meditation on death. A catalog of all the people she has lost.


  1. The woman takes a physical journey, which is a metaphor. She is constantly getting lost. (For a time, she loses her sight?)
  2. She meets a man she does not love but he desires her and for a time, this is sufficient. 
  3. Meditation on love and desire. A catalog of desire. 
  4. The woman expects the journey to change her. She is always looking for transformation and is always disappointed. She receives news of her father’s death. She expects that this news, too, should transform her. 
  5. She is the same as when she began the trip, except that now, she is divorced and her parents are gone. 


  1. The man she could not have says that he will leave his wife. She learns that his wife is ill. She tells him she cannot see him and that he should be with his wife who is ill. He agrees, which sends her into despair.
  2. She receives a considerable and unexpected sum of money from her parents, who have died.
  3. Years pass. The woman lives comfortably on her inheritance. She spends most of her time alone. Sometimes, she will go to the opening of art exhibits at the museum and she will wear a brightly-colored scarf and paint her lips red. Sometimes, she will drink too much wine and laugh too loudly. 
  4. The wife of the man she loved but could not have passes peacefully one night in her sleep. The woman learns this not from him, but from someone they knew in common. She wonders if he will try to find her. 
  5. Years pass. The woman is alone. Her vision is failing and she is too tired to go to the openings of art exhibits. Some nights, she will drift to sleep thinking of the man. Nothing is ever the way you want it to be.