May Day, 2015

The girls — Tink, Zeugma, and Tash — are happily devouring their birthday tuna, and it’s International Workers’ Day, and it’s also the day about which Chaucer said:

The briddes, that haven lefte her song,
While thei han suffrid cold so strong
In weeres gryl and derk to sight,
Ben in May for the sonne bright
So glade, that they shewe in syngyng
That in her hertis is such lykyng,
That they mote syngen and be light.
Than doth the nyghtyngale hir myght
To make noyse and syngen blythe,
Than is blisful many sithe
The chelaundre and the papyngay
Than young folk entenden ay
For to ben gay and amorous;
The tyme is than so saverous.
Hard is his hart that loveth nought
In May, whan al this mirth is wrought;
Whan he may on these braunches here
The smale briddes syngen clere.

The birds sing. The cats eat their birthday dinners. And today is the workers’ holiday, as well, a day of rest from work: a day of play. Chaucer, of course, was a media theorist:

How have I thanne suche a condition,
That of al the floures in the mede
Thanne love I most these floures white and redo,
Suche as men callen daysyes in our tonne.
To hem have I so grete affeccioun,
As I seyde erst, whanne comen is the May,
That in my bed ther daweth me no day
That I nam uppe and walkyng in the merle,
To seen this floure aye in the sunne sprede
Whan it up-ryseth erly by the morwe;
That blisful sight softeneth al my sorwe.

The mede and the merle: the space for interaction between God and man. Media. Poetry, as representation, served as medium.

Chaucer’s May is amorous. It’s the young lover basting his sleeves as he walks out the door. It’s throwing away books as work, on this day of work and pleasure. In some ways, it’s Julie Andrews in the Lerner and Loewe that gets such scant appreciation:

It’s May, the lusty month of May
That darling month when everyone throws self-control away
It’s time to do a wretched thing or two
And try to make each precious day one you’ll always rue

It’s May, it’s May, the month of “Yes, you may”
The time for every frivolous whim, proper or im-
It’s wild, it’s gay, depraved in every way
The birds and bees with all of their vast amorous past
Gaze at the human race aghast
The Lusty Month of May

I like the birds reference (Chaucer again), and Lerner and Loewe clearly knew what they were doing in their comedy-turned-tragedy, despite all the unfortunate critical emphasis on the Kennedys. Camelot is a fine bit of light opera that bewilders audiences because of the shift in tone. May might remind us, for all of our work and celebration of work, for our pleasure, for all our amatory adventures, there’s also what comes after: after winter, spring, and after spring, summer.

And after.

Now We Are Six

A wet and humid first of May, and Tink and Zeugma’s sixth birthday. Thirty-seven in cat years, apparently, which seems like a fine age for them. Lerner and Loewe on the stereo, of course, and of the small plates they got (catnip, a tiny bit of cheese, the rare wet food), Tink immediately inhaled all her catnip and went into the other room and fell down, while Zeugma ate the cheese and then the wet food, did her catnip, then went and ate Tink’s cheese and wet food.

Cops in a Bar, Overheard

“This guy, he was all busted up. He was all upset about this cat. He was going on about the ASPCA. So he goes away, he gets on his cell phone.

I took out my weapon, I shot that cat eight fuckin times. Blam blam blam! Like that. It was fuckin awesome.

I threw it in the fuckin woods. My captain didn’t even give me any shit about it. He was OK.”


For me, there are some seriously rotten things happening now, and some genuinely hopeful things as well — both in far more extreme degree than in a long time — and I can’t really talk about either of them except in the tiniest of metonymies.

Full moon, shining bright and pale across the ice. Tink and Zeugma, prospective mousers, spending the night away from home, and this cold house wind-rattled and empty except for me.

I feel, in Strand’s words,

And weird. The shivers
Wash over
Me, shaking my bones, my loose ends
And I lie sleeping with one eye open,

but that’s where I have to cut the quotation. I know what I hope, and it’s not for nothing.

More About David Foster Wallace

It’s 9:58 at night and I’m on my back porch, with two cat carriers — one open, one closed — sitting on the concrete about a meter from my feet, both facing away.

I’m thinking more about David Foster Wallace and his suicide. I’ve looked at the considerations and obituaries in their various venues; thumbed back through some volumes. I’m dismayed (albeit unsurprised) by NYT reviewer Michiko Kakutani’s true-to-form small-souled nastiness, and find Laura Miller’s writing on Wallace for Salon probably closest to a true, careful, and generous account of what he seemed to be trying to do.

There’s a kitten in the closed carrier. The other one’s empty. There’s a breeze, and the temperature’s dropping.

Spencer gently chides the NYT and the Washington Post for superficial imitations of what they perceived as Wallace’s style. I worry that I’m probably doing here something like what Spencer decried: trying hard to think like Wallace; trying to work through — via feeble approximation — why his writing was important to me.

I talked to K. at the market tonight. I asked her if she knew anyone missing a kitten. No, she said. But there were five down at the laundromat last week and one got its paw stuck under the machine. Just wandering around.

Wallace’s prose avoided the bathos I’m performing here. The appeals to emotion he made tended to be complex, nuanced, and — for me — embarrassingly honest in his nonfiction. That essay about the cruise? My immediate, gut reaction: what an arrogant prick. It took me a while to figure out how hard one had to work for that unvarnished an account, and how what seemed like narcissism was its opposite, its undercutting. And not just its opposite, but something more: a scrupulous, sometimes obsessive concern with what was ethical in writing.

Saturday night, my own cats were all a-bristle, so I wandered outside with a flashlight. Three pairs of amber eyes reflecting back at me. Gray mama and two black tortie kittens in the side yard. No collars. I asked the neighbors: nothing. The next afternoon, in the garage, one lone black tortie, maybe six weeks old. Right now, she’s sitting out here in the closed carrier, getting hoarser as I type with how much she’s meowing.

I re-read Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” today. It’s remarkable: a meditation on suffering, written for a culinary magazine. And it got me thinking: that’s really what everything he wrote was about. As far as music goes, my generation’s artist was Kurt Cobain, for whom nearly every song was in some way a suicide note. Our writer is Wallace, and everything he’s written, in one way or another, has been about suffering.

The gray mama’s been back twice. She’ll approach within about two meters if I bait her with food. No second kitten: five down to three down to two, and now, here, alone in her carrier, one. And me sitting beside that lone kitten, typing away, using her as bait, as well. Hoping to trap mama. I went inside about an hour ago, and peeked out from the kitchen window. Without me there, mama was there at the carrier, paw out, touching kitten; kitten with both paws out through the grate.

Again: bathos. But trying to negotiate that line between emotion and critical self-consciousness. And that question of emotion and its associated concern with cognition is at the heart of “Consider the Lobster,” just as cognition and its association with suffering travel throughout Wallace’s work. Tomorrow morning, I’ll take the kitten to the shelter, where she’ll be spayed and tested and get her shots, and — I hope — perhaps eventually forget that, as angry and bitchy and hissy as my cats were to have her in the house, she could not stop from wanting to go toward them, could not stop from being lonely, could not stop from wanting to be with beings that looked like her. Or that I used her to try to catch her mama, out here, tonight.

I began this wanting to make a point about how Wallace wasn’t our Pynchon or our Gaddis. I wanted to use that quotation pseudo-literati like me think nobody else has heard, that “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” to assert that Wallace was, in fact, our Kafka. But that feels like a pale and small assertion to end an overly long and maudlin post with.

I’ll go to the shelter tomorrow.

A Libelous Display / Blissfully Astray

It’s that day today, one of my favorite days, of budding trees and fecundity, of celebrating work and celebrating play. My lawn is already overgrown, the daffodils in the back yard come and gone with the crocus and bluebells and now the tulips in full bloom, the first sprigs of green on the grape vine.

There are, as you might expect, stirrings among the cadets, as well. Classroom discussions bubble over easily into jokes or teasing or just into that uncontainable energy, and today, I let it go. How could I not? I had an observer in the classroom, evaluating my teaching, and my lesson plan called for small group work in the second half of class, and the groups got loud and excited and sometimes off-topic — but it’s May! How can you not let that energy go?

It’s May, the lusty month of May
That darling month when everyone throws self-control away
It’s time to do a wretched thing or two
And try to make each precious day one you’ll always rue

It was a good class, however blissfully astray we might have gone.

It was also my morning at the shelter for the week, and the cats are as wound up as the cadets, full of impulsiveness and energy, fat and noisy Clark making the rounds of the room for the first time and falling into the tub, little megasophagus Willie climbing up top to bat at cross-eyed Laverne, and Sean and Joey and Ben performing their alpha-male drama on the reduced stage of the counter by the sink with no one else paying attention.

It’s May. It’s May.

And Tink and Zeugma are five years old today.

Tink: Striker; Zeugma: Grappler

When they mock-fight, Zeugma always goes to the ground. If my dining room’s the Octagon, Zeugma’s my Hoyce Gracie. Tink, while more tentative, has her own moves, and she’s good about cornering and using those front paws in conjunction with her weight: she’ll get in close to put Zeugma down, which Zeugma’s willing to do and go to work with the hind legs, but then she’ll break contact and go for the high ground, usually the arm of the chair, and whap Zeugma around the face from the stand-off distance.