Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Seventeenth Summer

It's when the lilacs begin to bloom, come late spring, that I always feel the urge to re-read a rather silly, but sort of lovely, little book. Seventeenth Summer was written in 1942 by Maureen Daly. A quick internet search of Ms. Daly doesn't reveal great abundance; she wrote Summer when she was still in college, presumably in the late 1930s or early 1940s, and she went on to write other novels for 'young people'. It would be easy to assume that once she married, Daly went on to lead a rather conventional mid-twentieth century life; she was a woman, after all, and the time period would have easily placed her in apron and house-dress, a gaggle of children at her table. But Daly did otherwise. When she married the writer William P. McGivern in 1947, he didn't stow her away in the suburbs; instead, they wrote together, chronicling their travels to Africa, Spain, and Ireland. No mention of children in my research. No mention of house-wifery. Daly was a writer from a very young age, and she lived her life as such, pursuing a passion that may not have brought her incredible fame or fortune, but one that answered in her a simple and elemental need. 

I'm not really sure why I love so the life that Daly lived. I'm not really sure why I love her book Seventeenth Summer, which, by most standards, is overly simplistic and nostalgic. But I do love these things. I take great comfort in the fact of their existence. Seventeenth Summer is a simple tale; it's about a quiet girl named Angie who graduates from high school and begins a summer romance with one Jack Duluth, a popular but humble basketball star from the high school across town who now drives his father's bakery delivery truck. Angie has college designs; Jack, on the other hand, will live out the rest of his life in a small town, working for his father's business. The story is about Angie's first brush with romance and freedom, but in its own quiet way, it's also a commentary on the way small town life--and the way our families--can so easily, so stealthily, encircle us with their comforting but sometimes stifling familiarity and refuse to let us go.

There is a heaviness in Daly's writing. Angie's mother is kind and keeps a clean house, but she also sleeps a lot, pulling the blinds against the summer heat for long afternoon naps. Angie's older sister Lorraine returns home from college for the summer with fashionable clothes and a grown-up air, but she also spends a lot of time fussing in the bathroom and dating 'shady' men who have certain expectations. None of this is examined outright; Daly simply puts it on the page, surrounding these muted realities with descriptions of McKnight's drugstore on a Saturday night, and the way Angie and Jack's romance strengthens as the summer passes by.

This is a book about a girl coming to life. Sure, she falls in love with Jack, but she also falls in love with the things that surround her. Angie loves life. She loves the way her fingers feel in the garden's earth when she harvests beans for her mother. She loves the way the wild grasses by the train tracks scratch her bare legs as she walks with Jack. She notices the heavy shadows below her father's eyes when he returns home from work; she sees the red imprint of fabric pattern on her sister's cheek when she wakes from sleep.

I love Seventeenth Summer because it is simple, but also because it carries a deep awareness of the weight of life. It doesn't seek to give answers or explanations for this weight; I think Daly wrote because she was an observer. She watched people. She took notice. I know next to nothing of her; still, I like to imagine that she sought to live the way she wrote--paying attention to that which is beautiful and transformational beneath the catchings of a routine life. There is beauty in weeds by railroad tracks, if you let them brush your bare summer legs and you happen to find yourself with a boy in a clean white shirt. Somehow, as Daly seemed to recognize, seeing this kind of beauty becomes easier when the seasons turn, and we sleep with windows open to the smell of night rain and blooming lilacs.

I turn to Seventeenth Summer as a kind of physical calling; my world has just become lush, and I want a story that understands what this season prods again to life: the truth that the months of most unencumbered vitality throw into greater relief the heavy living that darker seasons nourish. That in all of its miraculous abundance, summer is the season of greatest bittersweet.

Thanks for reading.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Found Poems

Once a month, I lead a writing group at the public library. There is mostly constant turnover every month, which I've come to see as a kind of blessing in disguise: those who are old hands bring their familiarity, their continuity. Those who are new always have something to add that wasn't there before. This month, a new member of the group brought us this idea: Found Poems. The way she explained it--and the way I understood it--is that Found Poems are poems created from writing that already exists on the page. Take a book. A magazine. A newspaper. Circle words. Find poetry in the stuff that's before you. Piece the words together as a stream, or use them to birth your own new thoughts.

This girl was fantastic; she read us her work, and we were all floored. Amazed and eager to try our hand at this kind of creation. And we did, and it was wonderful.

I left the writing group feeling so buoyed by the amount of creativity that exists in the world; often, it comes before us when we're not even looking, and when it does, it takes us by the nape of the neck and tugs us into wakening. I've got to pay better attention.

I didn't study poetry in school, but on the timeline of my writing life, poetry came early (albeit the angst ridden, dramatic stuff of teenagers) and sometimes when I sit down to write, I realize that what I really feel like writing is a poem. But, I tell myself, that's not what you went to school for. That wasn't your 'focus'. So what? So I don't know how to do it? Bull.

Julia Cameron tells us that at bottom, we're all writers. We're all aiming to communicate; we're all constantly practicing the art of the word; we're all essentially seeking the best vessel for our story. The vessel is going to change depending on what we're needing to say, and that's okay. Pay attention. Let the story be carried the way it wants to be carried.

So for this Sunday in early May, the vessel of the Found Poem:


If the prophet came to my house, I'd show him the exposed pipes
in my basement.
'Bones,' he'd say, and we'd be in agreement,
the single understanding of structure a uniting force
for which I am grateful.

I'll abandon the prophet after one month, 
and rake up a new journey,
my own chorus a silent but pregnant calling of blessings
anointing the page with predawn feedings of the war that still
is asking to be fought. 

Mine are battlefields of flowering weeds,
careful where you tread.
There are hidden mines
trick wires
snares as thin and sturdy
as fishing line
ready to catch you up.


The perfect farewell would not be a farewell at all. 
I am meant to protect, take care, of what I know, and what I know
is you.
How to protect what is no longer around me? 
We two, are victims of previous floods; a lot of our old trees are down, 
and we mourn the sparrows that lived among them.

Once I told you this story.
On a Sunday, in the California summer, the cat caught a bird,
delivered her into the house
I spent an hour wondering at the fluttering,
the threshing, desperate, muffled
sound that filled the room
until I saw her, wing mangled,
behind the drape of curtain on the floor.

Gather her up with bare hands
and take her to the lilac bush, blooming. 
Place her between the roots, a heady blossom
hanging low to shade her.
Then walk away. Do not stay. 
Not our business how wild things die. 
Theirs is an alter too big for us.

Thanks for reading.