Emily Dickinson’s Birthday; Or, This World is Not Conclusion


This piece was also published by The Houston Chronicle in the Gray Matters section on 10 December 2014.


Emily Dickinson was born on 10 December in 1830, but on Monday at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C., they celebrated early with a day-long marathon reading of her poems–over 1700 of them, in order.  How many other American poets would get this kind of birthday recognition?

Try zero.

I may be far away in Texas, but as Dickinson herself wrote, “There is no Frigate like a Book,” and I can be all the way in Houston and feel her angst (and joy) in my beaten-up, highlighted, and dog-eared collection of her poems.  Sometimes it takes awhile to wrap your mind around her poems, because she can turn on a dime, turn it up a notch, even turn on you–sometimes even before you know it.  Like all drama queens, she keeps it lively, even 184 years after her birth.

If you read her poems individually, you might think you could figure out her position on a few things.  The doyenne of the declarative statement, she can define things with confidence, letting you know that “Publication– is the Auction/ Of the Mind of Man–“, or that she would rather be “Nobody” rather than “Somebody” if it means that one is praised by “An admiring Bog.”  Yet, there is a wistfulness, a desire to be heard, by someone, maybe a better reader than most of us are, as when she wrote the famous Atlantic Monthly editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson.  She wanted to know if her poetry “breathed.”  In an age of click-bait and Buzzfeed, it might be hard to comprehend that she didn’t care so much about crunching the numbers or what would be the equivalent of “breaking the internet,” but that doesn’t mean she did not want to be heard at all.  Her poems were her “Letter to the World,” but she was also okay with selecting her own “Society.”  Dickinson has something to say to us about being “discriminating” before that word became so politically charged.

You cannot read her poems individually and figure out her final word on anything. You have to see her as a poet who can channel the contradictory emotions we all feel through the venue of the poem.  Think of the poem as her stage, and her words as the monologues that fit her mood at that moment:  it is great theater, something to see.  Just when you think she couldn’t be angrier at God (a “burglar” who makes her lose twice–and that is “in the sod”) then you witness her turning to God for inspiration–a way to define the divine, even if she is conflicted about it.  I know it sounds sacrilegious when Dickinson says “The Brain is Wider than the Sky” followed by “The Brain is just the weight of God”–but the point is her frame of reference is what she can imagine, and that changes.  For someone who claims she doesn’t like “Paradise,” she sure spends a lot of time thinking about it. And, through Dickinson’s queenly decrees, so do we. Continue reading

The First of December; Or, The Angels of November

This piece also ran in the Gray Matters section of The Houston Chronicle on 2 December 2014


For David E. Wilson and James Meredith

Today it is the first of December, the month that seems to outshine all previous months through lights, cameras, action.  There is so much to be done.  We have Christmas and its hopes; New Year’s Eve, the promise of a clean slate.  Still, it is a lot to juggle.  We shop a lot, looking for things.  Things for others, maybe for ourselves.  Sometimes, a lot goes into being merry and bright.


But November was a heavy month.  Some months are harder to let go.  Maybe we need to think about them a few more days, hold off on the next big thing.  Although it is December, ready or not. I know that, but still.

I.  Angels Above Us

The first weekend in November I take  my son Christopher and his friend Matthew to the Wings Over Houston Air Show.  I don’t really want to go–my father, who retired as a full colonel from the Air Force Reserves, has taken him in the past.  But he is out of town, and Christopher is obsessed.  Space City Parent Magazine tells me that if I donate a gift card to a needy teen I can get tickets.  Who can say no to that?  We are going.  It is a good thing, as it turns out it is the most amazing thing I have seen in years, and I am no recluse.  My resistance is just one of those times when I have no idea what I am talking about.  Luckily, my guardian angel intervenes, sets me straight, gets me to where I need to go, which is the Air Show, at Ellington Air Force base, in Webster, minutes from my home.  They have it every year–don’t ask me where I have been. I have been prejudging things, dismissing miracles, missing out.

When we arrive, the first thing we see is a replica of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C.  It is the memorial that lists the names of the fallen in the order of their deaths.  There are so many names, I can’t even wrap my mind around it.  We stay there awhile, donate money to its upkeep.  It seems so paltry, but it’s so sad to see those names you want to do something–anything.  Most of those men and women listed were just kids.  But then we get our tickets scanned, see so many in military uniforms at the air show.  Some are in uniform, some are in fatigues.  Some of them are in wheelchairs, back from Iraq, Afghanistan.  Some have lost limbs, maybe part of their minds, maybe more–more than we will ever know. So many of them look so young to me. Just kids.

We see replicas of the planes that dropped the bombs on Pearl Harbor–the planes were used by Hollywood in the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!”  Later, those planes will ascend into the sky–reenact that fateful day.  They have something to remind you of almost every war–the pyrotechnics are amazing.  They are real–just done at a different time.  Like now.  You can’t really picture any of this from pictures–you have to see it in action.  My eyes go up to the sunny Houston sky over and over–it does not matter if it is the woman from La Porte, Texas who has won more military championships flying her plane than anyone, or the huge plane known as “Fat Albert” that soars through the air as graceful as the smallest fighter jets–you are amazed, and you cannot look away. Continue reading

“The Birthday Present”; Or, Sylvia Plath at 81

Today Sylvia Plath would have been 82. We still have much to learn from her stirring words.

Reflection and Choice

For Linda Wagner-Martin

Sylvia, you were so young.


If you had lived, you might have been on a television show, with Oprah fawning all over you, cooing about your brilliant career.  You might have been a spokesperson for so many things:  surviving infidelity, channeling betrayal into art, being a grandmother while winning awards for spinning out words.  You would have known something about multitasking. You could have helped others live Their Best Life Now, or something close to it.  You might have been an endowed chair at a university and taught whenever you felt like it.  You might have said things like “I have never felt more alive” and had a line or two about knives and lying to prove your point.

You could have written poems about your tragedies, and how they leave one reeling, but then there is a center, and it holds, and then it is flying, not…

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Monday, Monday: Two Years, Two Writers, Two Words


Deborah Eisenberg and Antonya Nelson


Last Monday marked two years of writing essays for Reflection and Choice, so I went and celebrated by hearing two writers who are far better than I am do a reading at the Wortham Center in Houston.  Two words:  Lucky. Me.

Honestly, all day the two words ringing in my ears were “Columbus Day,” since it was Columbus Day, and a certain anxious part of me that really wants readers is always seduced by exploiting bank closures for hits on the site.  More people are available, and, weirdly, people want to read stuff about Columbus on Columbus Day.  But last year I already wrote about him in an essay on writing for ONE year, and it was starting to feel a little cheap wracking my brain figuring out how to redo that essay.  In an irritating addition, I had to hope that no one platonically recollected my first stab at getting people to get on some figurative ship that will change the world forever.

Sometimes, a voyage is just over.

Plus, a lot of things have happened since then:  death, love, trips, books, retail therapy at the Chanel counter, love, writing, books, chauffeuring my son Christopher to orchestra practice, nature, religion, poems, love.  The super shallow that gets us through, the profound that lifts us up.

You know, the usual.

Plus, if after another year, you are the same kind of writer, with pretty much the same message, the same turn of the phrase, something is wrong.  You aren’t moving, you aren’t going anywhere.  People will start leaving you behind.  You start to parody yourself, wear a costume that maybe you should have put in the back of the closet, and not for Next Year, but for Never Again.

Continue reading