We like exegesis too.

Over at About Last Night, Our Girl in Chicago wants to see more close reading in the blogosphere. As a still card-carrying member of the Partnership of English Majors (tm Garrison Keillor), I’m happy to oblige, but first I’ve got a frantically busy week to finish. Actual exegesis to follow eventually (as will the results of the pseudo-aria pseudo-contest).

En français, in italiano

Thanks to le blogue de Rana en français, I see that this blog, in French, is Opéra de ménage. C’est drôle, n’est-ce pas?

Did I ever post about Edward Gorey’s The Blue Aspic, which recounts the rise of a soprano named Ortenzia Caviglia and the parallel decline of Jasper Ankle, her most insanely devoted fan? The made-up opera titles and arias, when translated into English, are hilarious. Ortenzia appears in operas entitled La Reine des Iguanes [The Queen of the Iguanas] and Gomiti di Rammarico [Elbows of Regret], and sings arias like "Una tazza di cacao" ["A cup of cocoa"] and "Ah, paese dei bovini hispidi!" ["Oh, land of the shaggy cows!"]. Which leads me to formulate a theory: nearly anything can sound at least vaguely operatic if you translate it into Italian, German, or French.

And because I’m feeling lazy, I think I’ll make this an audience-participation post: come up with a silly or mundane or random English phrase, post it in the comments, and I’ll do my best to turn it into the first line of an imaginary aria. (Or post your own foreign-language phrases if you like.) Best pseudo-aria gets…er, I don’t have any prizes to give away, sorry, but you can bask in glory nonetheless!

Any takers?

(Also: I’m currently listening to this recording of Mozart’s Mitridate, Rè di Ponto on the Sunday Opera Matinee, and oh, Cecilia Bartoli, I love you madly. Natalie Dessay, you too.)

A (snowy) whirlwind tour of the NYPL’s image collections

If you haven’t yet visited the New York Public Library Digital Gallery, you must. Among many other things, it offers the joy of serendipitous image-discovery. I browsed around the collections for a while and then tried a keyword search for "snow." I used the selection tool to grab everything that looked particularly interesting, and ended up with a tiny eight-image gallery consisting of the following:

Splendid. Love the selection tool. Love the ease of searching. (I wonder if they’re hiring?)

Life in ten poems, eight song titles, and five movie lines

You who read this blog regularly know I can’t resist any meme involving poetry, and hence it was only a matter of time before I succumbed to the Ten Poems meme. The idea is to post ten poems that represent what you want to write. Here are a rapidly-chosen ten of mine:

John Ashbery, "Wet Casements"
Elizabeth Bishop, "The Shampoo"
Anne Carson, "Hopper: Confessions"
John Donne, "A Valediction of Weeping"
George Herbert, "Prayer" (1)
Andrew Marvell, "The Mower’s Song"
James Merrill, "The Victor Dog"
Paul Muldoon, "Milkweed and Monarch"
Susan Stewart, "The Forest"
Cole Swensen, "The Invention of Streetlights"

(That was harder than it looked.)

Via Poesy Galore and TangognaT. Also from TangognaT is this one, on a related note:

Step 1) Pick a band or singer
Step 2) Answer the questions using only song titles
Step 3) Post

Artist: The Magnetic Fields (all titles from 69 Love Songs)

Are you male or female?: Queen of the Savages

Describe yourself:
Very Funny

How do some people feel about you?:
A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off

How do you feel about yourself?:
I Think I Need a New Heart

Describe what you want to be:
The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side

Describe your current mood:
Yeah! Oh Yeah!

Describe your friends:
Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing

Share a few words of wisdom:
Love Is Like A Bottle Of Gin

Note: the Magnetic Fields’ songs count as poetry as far as I’m concerned. This is not quite true of random movie lines, but I’m on a roll. Asks OGIC: "What are the first five movie quotes that pop into your head? They must be from different movies." Okay then:

"Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up." (Sunset Boulevard)
"Well, I think you should quit." (The Royal Tenenbaums)
"A wolf without a foot!" "A bride without a head!" (Moonstruck)
"Put the blame on Mame, boys, put the blame on Mame…" (Gilda)
"You’d make an excellent Dread Pirate Roberts." (The Princess Bride)

So there you have it. Propagate at will.

Only in Thomas Jefferson’s home town

Overheard in a used bookstore near the University of Virginia this weekend:

Family friend [addressing six-year-old child]: "So! Do you like books?"
Father [to child, prompting]: "Remember what Thomas Jefferson said?"
Six-year-old child [a bit hesitantly, as if reciting]: "I can’t live without a book."*

Only in Charlottesville…

* The child was paraphrasing a bit, but got the gist of it; the actual quotation is "I cannot live without books." If you spend any time at Mr. Jefferson’s university, and especially in the libraries, you’ll come across it frequently.

Personal anthology: Stuart Dybek

For once, a prose passage for the commonplace book. This is the beginning of Stuart Dybek’s wonderful short story "Pet Milk," in The Coast of Chicago (New York: Vintage, 1991):

Today I’ve been drinking instant coffee and Pet milk, and watching it snow. It’s not that I enjoy the taste especially, but I like the way Pet milk swirls in the coffee. Actually, my favorite thing about Pet milk is what the can opener does to the top of the can. The can is unmistakable — compact, seamless looking, its very shape suggesting that it could condense milk without any trouble. The can opener bites in neatly, and the thick liquid spills from the triangular gouge with a different look and viscosity than milk. Pet milk isn’t real milk. The color’s off, to start with. My grandmother always drank it in her coffee. When friends dropped over and sat around the kitchen table, my grandma would ask, "Do you take cream and sugar?" Pet milk was the cream.

There was a yellow plastic radio on her kitchen table, usually tuned to the polka station, though sometimes she’d miss it by half a notch and get the Greek station instead, or the Spanish, or the Ukrainian. In Chicago, where we lived, all the incompatible states of Europe were pressed together down at the staticky right end of the dial. She didn’t seem to notice, as long as she wasn’t hearing English. The radio, turned low, played constantly. Its top was warped and turning amber on the side where the tubes were. I remember the sound of it on winter afternoons after school, as I sat by her table watcing the Pet milk swirl and cloud in the steaming coffee, and noticing, outside her window, the sky doing the same thing above the railroad yard across the street.

(I was reminded of this story by Dale’s ode to diner coffee. I too have gotten hypnotized by the sight of cream slowly swirling and unfolding through coffee.)

And a young opera fanatic is born.

This post from Bitch. Ph.D. is making me rethink my decision not to have children:

Saturday, we were running an errand and I was flipping around the radio
and came upon a broadcast of the Met’s production of La Boheme.

Pseudonymous kid:  Wait!  Stop.  That music is beautiful.
Me:  Do you like it?
Pseudonymous kid:  Yes, let’s listen to it.

Pseudonymous kid:  Is the lady with the beautiful voice the person who has tuburculosis?
Yes, that’s right. And the man who loves her is sad, because he knows
she is going to die. And he is very poor, so he cannot help her.
Pseudonymous kid:  That is sad.  Oh, it’s starting again, shhh.


Do it yourself roundup

I have an abiding fondness for the how-to format. (When I taught writing, my favorite assignment was always the "how to" essay; my students seemed to enjoy it as well.) Here are a few recent favorite links from others who appreciate a good process analysis:

Lifehacker, a new blog about "the downloads, web sites, and shortcuts that actually save time," collects instructions for life, like an illustrated tutorial on how to tie a tie, how to make a hipster PDA out of index cards, advice from Ask Metafilter on maintaining peace of mind, and how to kill evil spyware.

It’s not strictly a how-to site, but Musictheory.net teaches the fundamentals of music theory; if you’ve already studied music, it’ll be too basic for you, but I (whose musical training ended more years ago than I care to count) am finding the tutorials very handy.

DigsMagazine offers domestic advice geared toward twentysomethings, on topics such as hosting a last-minute dinner party and building one’s own bookshelves. But my favorite place to go for interior decorating inspiration (read: my apartment looks nothing like this, but I like to imagine optimistically that someday it will) is Apartment Therapy.

For Elizabeth Bishop’s birthday: roosters and moths

Tuesday was Elizabeth Bishop‘s birthday. Here are some thoughts, inspired by the list-meditation thing that LiL has
been doing

1. Chinese New Year also fell this week. It’s
the Year of the Rooster, so I can’t resist mentioning Bishop’s poem
"Roosters," which it took me multiple readings to realize is a war poem. (Then I couldn’t believe my density, what with all those details like the roosters’ "protruding chests / in green-gold medals dressed" and their cries "marking out maps like Rand McNally’s.")

2. Bishop borrowed the stanza form for "Roosters" from an
obscure poem, "Wishes to His (Supposed) Mistress," by the
seventeenth-century poet Richard Crashaw. She liked the metaphysicals.
George Herbert was a favorite poet of hers (he’s a favorite of mine, as

3. She described one of her early poems, "The Weed," as an attempt at a metaphysical poem. One can hear Herbert’s presence in it, but it’s her own voice as much as any.

4. Recordings of poets reading their work always surprise me
because the actual voice never sounds like the voice I imagine while
reading. You can hear Bishop reading "The Armadillo" at Poets.org, and "The Man-Moth" at Bold Type.

5. I once taught "The Man-Moth" to a group of undergraduates. They were baffled until I told them the backstory about how she saw a newspaper misprint — "manmoth" for "mammoth" — and turned it into a premise for a poem.

6. My students helped me notice again how breathtakingly strange "The Man-Moth" is. Especially the last stanza:

          If you catch him,
hold up a flashlight to his eye.  It’s all dark pupil,
an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens
as he stares back, and closes up the eye.  Then from the lids
one tear, his only possession, like the bee’s sting, slips.
Slyly he palms it, and if you’re not paying attention
he’ll swallow it.  However, if you watch, he’ll hand it over,
cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.

But everything about it is defamiliarizing in the best way: the Man-Moth’s underground travels on the subway, "facing the wrong way"; the "shadow dragging like a photographer’s cloth behind him"; the lunar landscape of rooftops much too close to the sky.

7. I wonder what Bishop, with her interest in the animal kingdom, would have made of the star-nosed mole?


I’m back, at least for the time being. Things are still very far from all right, but the outlook is a little less dire than I initially feared. I’d still rather not talk about the situation; it’s in the category of "things that are too personal to share with the entire internet." I don’t want to post on as if nothing were the matter, either. But I’m also realizing that I need to find ways to feel "normal," and writing has always helped with that. (That, and I missed you guys!) So: more posts to follow before long.