Could You Tell This Story in a Bar?
April 22, 2012 – 10:01 pm
it’s a question I’ve heard used many times in fiction workshops to gauge the success of a narrative. As a writing instructor, I’ve posed a similar question to composition students by asking, “How would you summarize this?”
Provided with two stylistically different pieces of short fiction—Raymond Carver’s “Popular Mechanics,” and “Sleeping Bear Lament” by David Means—I’ll ask students to write individually and then to produce a class summary for each text. Students dispatch “Popular Mechanics” with ease. They are in agreement as to the events of the piece, as well as to what details are key to its summary. Based on their work, here is how Carver’s story could be re-told: A man is preparing to leave home. As he fills a suitcase, he and his wife fight. The man intends to pack a framed picture of their baby, but the wife takes the photograph and refuses to return it. In retaliation, the man says he’s going to take the baby with him. The wife, now holding the child, will not allow the man to do so. The fight between the man and the wife escalates, becoming physical. Enraged, each parent, using their full strength, pulls on one of the baby’s arms.
A class summary of “Sleeping Bear Lament” is not so easy a task to complete. This is, in part, because Means’s story lacks a linear narrative that would lend itself to summation. Rather than a series of causal events—each leading to the next, building to climax—“Sleeping Bear Lament” has a fractured plot line, leaping backward and forward through time. Movement is motivated by sensation and emotion—the grit of sand underfoot or a moment of embarrassment—that hurdles the reader into the narrator’s childhood or far into his future. It is a story more reliant on thematic connections rather than step-stair relationships between events. In Means’s story, plot is secondary to voice, style, and form.
“Sleeping Bear Lament” requires students to interpret and analyze in a way that differs from work they have previously done with “Popular Mechanics.” As a group, they frequently discover that they are unable to agree on a summary. For some readers the story is about class issues, others see it as a reflection on masculinity, others as an exploration of the corrosive nature of guilt; but regardless of the narrative strains identified, their discussion focuses on ideas, concepts, and themes rather than on what happens next, and next—and students revel in their individual experiences of engaging the text. To analyze a story (or any text, really) only through plot analysis can be limiting and may sacrifice attendance to other aspects of the piece that are just as important, if not more essential, to its success.
— Jenny Hanning
The Truth About Poor Poets
April 8, 2012 – 1:15 am
when people ask me what I do, I don’t hesitate to tell them that I am a performer. They automatically get excited. “Do you sing?” they ask. I ignore the obvious sexism associated with the question and reply, “Sometimes. I’m a poet. I perform Spoken Word.” After this statement is made, one of two things happens: either a) their interest is peaked and they straighten their shirts, lean in, and nod their heads in anticipation of the details, or b) their lights dim and the drink rises to their lips as they try to disguise disappointment and/or confusion. From the latter, I then, normally, receive the following question, “But I thought you said you went on tour during the summer. Aren’t poets like always poor?” And, of course, I laugh.
I am poor. I literally did a jig in my bedroom one Thursday night to celebrate the fact that I had just been able to make ten whole American dollars buy me a week’s worth of groceries at the local market. I’ve officially stopped using lotion for my ashy elbows and now use the olive oil for both my cooking and my facials. I order water at the bar and have begun to perfect the art of telling the truth about why I’m not exactly pitching in for so-and-so’s gift. I sold my laptop to pay a couple of bills. Recently, a homeless guy gave me the finger on Sixth Street in Austin (true story) because I said I didn’t have any extra cash on me. Yeah, I would say I’m pretty broke.
But go ahead and ask me about last summer. I’ll tell you about how the “broke” poet made several immediate dreams come true, with just her words and her gall. Come on, really, let’s have a conversation about Chicago. I met Marc Smith—the founder/creator of Poetry Slam—the night I featured at the historical Green Mill in downtown Chi-town and he remembered my name. Or what about Atlanta? I literally watched hundreds of poets gather in an abandoned warehouse, light candles, and pay respects to a community pillar who had been murdered a few weeks before in Philly. I’ll tell you all about my city-crush Albuquerque and my city-crush Taos. I found god in the mountains, and I loved her. I loved her deeply. We can even get into a debate about which city is worst: Detroit or Indianapolis? I’ll tell you how to get anywhere you want on the Red Line if you’re in D.C. and even let you know about my favorite spot to eat in Boston.
If you’re a good listener, I’ll start off with the beginning and get into how I sold everything I owned at the time (about seven hundred dollars worth of stuff), bought a Greyhound ticket and made it from San Marcos, TX, to New York, NY, and back. Combining the tips I made performing at various venues with CD sales and the very welcomed donations of several individuals, I happily traveled via Greyhound across parts of the Southwest, Midwest, and East Coast in just three months.
Twenty-three cities and a lifetime later, I returned to San Marcos and prepared for classes. But suddenly, everything looked different. I walk past a mirror nowadays, glance at the woman there and wonder, what really happened out on the road? It seems I came back half a suitcase lighter, with a savvy new haircut, a new tattoo, and some ancestral tarot cards. But I came back fundamentally changed. The things I had worried about so much seem to have been eliminated from my priority list. Things like fancy clothes, brand new books, and even schmoozing with the cool cats at the too-expensive-for-me local restaurant all seem to matter just a little bit less.
Lately, I can’t help but stare at clocks and wonder what Jugh Jeffner might be doing right now. But hey, don’t worry about it. He’s just some guy I met in Columbus. The stage name’s real, the story’s hilarious, and the fact that I didn’t end up in jail, again, that night, is a relief. Maybe I’ll tell you all about it one day when we meet up for refreshing aguas on da rocks.
I mean these are the things I think about when people tell me poets are always broke. I think to myself, “You don’t even know the half of it.”
March 24, 2012 – 10:05 pm
i am not a particularly religious person but I am comforted and inspired by certain rituals, particularly the observance of seasons and holidays. As a one-time New Orleanian, my favorite season is naturally the carnival season, a season of decadence and abandon that reaches a climax on Mardi Gras day. I also practice Lent—the season of abstinence and reflection that balances the hedonism of carnival. For me, observing Lent has been a way to experience and experiment with various forms of asceticism. One year I eschewed the wearing of make-up; another time I abandoned the use of cutlery and ate with my hands for six weeks—I was single then; needless to say, I didn’t have many dinner dates.
This year I instituted a new Lenten tradition: to re-read one of my favorite novels, Franco Ferrucci’s The Life of God (as Told by Himself), which I discovered for the first time last spring. I mention it here because it can be appreciated by anyone, from snake-handlers to steadfast atheists. The book reads like God’s memoirs, and as someone who is fascinated by human notions about and experiences of the divine, I found Ferrucci’s take refreshingly original. Part satire, part poetics, and part romance, the book recounts God’s youthful struggle to understand himself and the universe he unwittingly creates.
Ferrucci’s God is the original artist, a being possessed of such creative power that his every whim is concretely manifested. The stars, for example, are explained as the product of an emotional outburst. Ferrucci’s God has the tempestuous nature characteristic of artists and is, at turns, self-absorbed, inspired, philosophical, and despairing. “Creation,” he tells us, “was a superabundance of hypotheses.” And yet, Ferrucci’s God also attempts suicide following a severe bout of something like writer’s block.
Ferrucci’s God is also an innocent, and the book is as much a chronicle of God’s quest for self-understanding as it is a humorous account of miscommunications and experiments gone awry. Winter, he concedes, was a “half-baked idea.” His early days are spent exploring the parameters of his power—and there are parameters. For instance, Ferrucci’s God cannot unmake any of his creations. Once realized, the creations take on lives of their own, developing in ways that dismay or delight their creator. For instance, the evolution of Man takes place while God’s attention is elsewhere, preoccupied, but it is in humankind that God at last finds the companionship for which he has longed. God’s so-called “adult” years are spent rubbing elbows with the Who’s Who of human history, including Heraclitus, Einstein, Satan, Christopher Columbus, Mozart, and, of course, a prostitute named Mary with whom he has a one-night stand and the son dubiously attributed to this union, Jesus.
Ferrucci’s subtle humor and clever reconception of God would be enough to make this book worth revisiting each year, but as a writer I’m particularly fascinated by the book’s description of the creative process—both the disappointment and the exaltation. According to the laws of Ferrucci’s universe, all works of art contain a kernel of the genius that inspired them and as such are able to infect others with creative energy. This premise holds true, proves true, not only within the novel but of it as well.
—E. D. Watson
March 7, 2012 – 2:01 pm
let’s do away with “flat characters.” Let’s also do away with “round characters,” “believable characters,” and “unbelievable characters.” These terms have been driven into the ground and I don’t even know what they mean anymore. Round characters are supposed to be fully fleshed-out people we could recognize in the real world. But fidelity to the “real” in fiction is a bizarre concept—it’s all made up, none of it is real. The characters that truly stick with me are those that behave in ways so true to themselves, and to their own personalities, that they commit acts that feel weird or frustrating.
Saul Bellow is the master of the agitating protagonist. The strength of his narrative voice and the aggressiveness of his protagonists’ points of view make Bellow’s books truly unique. A reader who hasn’t discovered Bellow yet is missing out on some of the most inward looking, selfish, and frustrating characters in all of fiction.
Take, for instance, Henderson from Henderson the Rain King. In the first hundred pages of the novel, Henderson leaves a post-it on a dead woman, goes out of his way to remind his wife of how her father committed suicide, ignores the baby that his teenage daughter is suddenly carrying around (and may have given birth to), sends the baby to an orphanage, travels to Africa, and destroys an isolated tribe’s cistern, which is their only source of clean water.
He’s a jerk, he’s impossible, he’s the kind of guy who would keep you from going to a friend’s party if you knew he’d be there. And he’s absolutely spellbinding.
When I say “agitating” I don’t necessarily mean surprising or sudden. Character actions are generally predictable because characters act from their own personalities. The reader knows Henderson is going to blow up the cistern because he can’t help but make a mess of everything. Bellow could have made it easier on the reader—Henderson could have learned his lessons some other way. But that’s just the point; Henderson has to flail about and act as if no one else in the world matters. That’s who he is, and it doesn’t matter if it’s unpleasant on the reader.
Elissa Schappell’s Use Me is a collection of linked short stories that focus on Evie and Mary Beth, two women who over the course of a long friendship go to college, make it through the death of a parent, the birth of a child, and a series of heart-wrenching crises.
The reader learns early on that Mary Beth makes some questionable decisions when it comes to men, especially older men. In the second story of the collection, “Novice Bitch,” high-school age Mary Beth is having an affair with a thirty-three year old man and is about to have her third abortion.
In “The Garden of Eden,” Evie and Mary Beth are spending a post-college summer in Amsterdam. Evie’s father comes to visit, and the reader knows that eventually Mary Beth will come on to Evie’s father—not because she wants to, or because she’s even that attracted to him, but because that’s who she is, and that’s what she does. The reader expects this moment from the first page, and the story’s tension lies in seeing how Mary Beth will do it and in the brief, flickering hope that it won’t happen. Maybe Mary Beth will do the right thing and not make an impact on this man just because she can. Of course, on the last page, in the last paragraph, in the last sentence it happens. We knew it was coming. We cringe while it happens, and we hate Mary Beth for doing it, but we keep reading the book, wondering how Mary Beth will piss us off next.
These aren’t totally unredeemable characters, and I’m not saying that frustrating characters are the only ones I like. But I do think that the best writers create characters who aren’t afraid to occasionally challenge us, and who dare us to stay on their side. It’s all the more rewarding when we stick with them and see their journey to the end.
—Richard Z Santos
Epigraphs: New Beginnings
February 28, 2012 – 11:50 pm
a few days ago, I put Facebook to good use and asked friends, “What do you think about epigraphs?” An aspiring fellow writer responded: “What the hell is an epigraph, anyway? I don’t read epigraphs, I don’t use them, and I don’t think they add/detract from the writing. I don’t get them.” Another one said, “I sometimes put them into early draft stuff, as a kind of kick-starter, but I usually end up taking them out later.”
I didn’t find the responses surprising, considering that I’d heard the workshop mantra: “Stay away from epigraphs!” This warning reflects some concerns: 1.) Epigraphs give an air of pretentiousness (e.g. quotes from the Bible or Shakespeare), 2.) Epigraphs risk telling us how to read the text, and 3.) Epigraphs serve as a sort of false advertising. They might promise more than the book delivers, especially when the tone of an epigraph is different from the rest of the book’s tone (I’m thinking of the one in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).
Other times, an epigraph is a mere throat clearing in the hands of an amateur writer. Or, overdone, even in the hands of a master—for example, the notorious triple-epigraph in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the long and endless one in Moby Dick. The most annoying one, I was told, is the epigraph in another language from the book’s text—as in Sophie’s Choice—that leaves the reader clueless. At its worst, an epigraph can cause readers anxiety.
But apart from the obvious risks, epigraphs can be a valuable literary technique. Epigraphs don’t have to be like miniature umbrellas floating in a cocktail, doing little more than garnishing the text. They can foreshadow the events or main actions in a novel, provide intertextuality, or simply become part of the text. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, for example, the search for truth is not only done by shifting the point of view but through epigraphs. Thus the epigraphic narrative becomes inseparable from the text. Epigraphs can also lend a title, as in John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra—which he took from a two-page epigraph.
My favorite part of the discussion was rediscovering favorite epigraphs. There are poetic epigraphs (in Drown, Junot Diaz quotes a Cuban poet, Gustavo Pérez Firmat) and profound ones (Joyce Carol Oates uses an aphorism from Nietzsche in With Shuddering Fall: “Whatever is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.”) And, there is Vladimir Nabokov’s genius epigraph in The Gift, a quote from a Russian textbook: “An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable.” There is even a postcolonial subversive one in Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown. And let’s not forget the postmodern brilliant kind, such as from Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book: “Never use epigraphs, they kill the mystery in the work.”
Right now I am rereading The Great Gatsby, and Fitzgerald’s brilliant epigraph makes me want to use one in my own writing. What about you?
— Real Prufrock
A New Formula for Poetry Readings
February 19, 2012 – 11:43 pm
nights at the bar and any time spent with fellow students seem to involve some of literature’s great debates: Austen or Eliot? Stevens or Williams? Sedaris or Saunders? The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye? Sexton or Plath? Young Yeats or elder Yeats?
We don’t always agree. We never will. In ten years I’ll probably wish I could discuss with my present self my preternatural fixation with Louise Glück’s The Triumph of Achilles. My older, wiser self will prefer Wild Iris, and when I decide to rank the Pulitzer-winning book as her best, again, it will remind me of the time when I first came across Glück’s poetry. It will be like returning home.
The truth of the matter is as students we aren’t debating which work is ultimately better; we are often arguing in favor of our current obsessions and what is presently guiding us as we stare, pen in hand, at the page. Not all readers are writers, but all writers are readers. We trade book titles like the hot pieces of gossip they are; spotting influences in each other’s work has become a game of sorts. When we meet successful writers and ask what may seem like stock questions—to be used in case of uncomfortably long, nervous lulls in conversation—they are, without fail, followed by answers that leave us reading and discussing long after.
Who are your influences? Who are your favorite contemporary writers? Who are you reading now? Actually, these are not filler questions; their answers are central to our lives as writers. It is often just as relevant to find out who your classmates are reading as it is to discuss their latest piece (somebody’s been reading Dickinson again…).
To celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of Elizabeth Bishop, I took place in a commemorative reading for one of my biggest influences. I wasn’t reading any of my own writing, but reading Bishop’s work taught me how it feels to truly captivate an audience. (Hunter S. Thompson typed The Great Gatsby just to feel what it felt like to write a great novel.) It’s odd to me now—though it never crossed my mind before the reading—that writers seldom read the work of another writer to an audience. I can think of only two occasions when I’ve heard writers read the works of their influencers.
One instance was when Michael Dickman read at Texas State University; he began by reading a poem by Pablo Neruda. I had one recurring thought: Dickman reading Neruda sounds very different from myself reading Neruda. Hearing Dickman read and discuss the poem taught me how he worked through a poem, how he saw lines running, one into the other, and dropping off. Most importantly though, hearing Dickman read a personally influential poem reminded me that being a fan of other writers’ works is what brought me to the writing world. Perhaps the best way to honor our experiences as writers and readers is to unabashedly sing the praises for our writing idols and to share their fandom with our own audiences.
—Stephanie Anne Motz
A Nice, Tidy Category
February 11, 2012 – 5:44 pm
i’ve decided to start a movement against blurbs on book jackets.
I’m reading a novel called Toward You by Jim Krusoe. I have nothing against this book. I like this book. I have nothing against Tin House Books, the publisher. They seem like cool people. They’re from Portland, so they must be.
The jacket for this book is relatively restrained. It’s not dying for you to buy the book. It wants you to want it, but it doesn’t want to seem desperate. It’s not going to say or do anything just to seal this deal. It wants to remain mysterious right up until the moment when the cover is opened.
The cover shows a painting by J.M.W. Turner. It’s from the National Gallery in London (according to the fine print), so respect, as Ali G would put it. The sun is setting. Things look a little blurry. The title hovers in a golden sky.
What irks me, though, is what’s above the title, at the top of the book’s cover. “A masterpiece of deadpan absurdism,” writes Kirkus Reviews.
I have nothing against masterpieces, I have nothing against the so-called deadpan, and I have nothing against absurdism. I just wish this book hadn’t gone ahead and told me how to read it.
On second thought, maybe I do have a little something against masterpieces, because the moment you tell me something’s a masterpiece, I think, “Great, thanks for sucking all the fun out of it. Now I have to sit up straight when I read.”
The only masterpieces I’ve ever enjoyed are ones that I read before I knew or cared what a masterpiece was. Think about it.
But the word I really take issue with in that glowing and ridiculous sentence by Kirkus Reviews is “absurdism.” Damn you, Kirkus, why couldn’t I go into this completely unaware and say to myself after a few pages, “Man, this shit is weird.” Or maybe I wouldn’t think the story is absurd at all. What does “absurd” even mean in a world with cable television? More importantly, why do I have to put the book in a nice, tidy category before I read a single page of it?
I realize the goal is to sell, but I’m just saying. Consider the reader who likes to be mostly clueless when he encounters a new work. Put the blurb on the back with quotes from the writer’s buddies. The back of the book I can avoid. As for the copy on a jacket’s inside flap, don’t get me started.
“…I contain multitudes.”
January 29, 2012 – 10:59 pm
in creative writing workshops, a clichéd piece of advice for novice writers everywhere is to write what you know. Like most writers, my early experiences formed the basis of my early writing, and even later stories. I grew up in equal parts America and Pakistan; some of it here, some of it there. People call me a Pakistani-American, and when I write, I am a Pakistani-American writer. Sure, lots of my stories have characters that I would recognize as straddling two worlds but unsure of themselves in both. But is it fair to categorize myself and my writing into minority literature?
When I first became fascinated by writing and literature, I was into the Americans the most: Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and Kerouac. I considered myself an American writer as well. After all, my literary aesthetic had been formed by those above. However, there is no escaping the classification of myself and my writing as Pakistani-American, exploring the experiences and struggles of the Muslim (not necessarily practicing) in America. My blue passport says that I am American. It doesn’t have a particular shade of blue or a crescent moon to designate what flavor of American I am. Jack Kerouac wasn’t a French-Canadian writer even though that was his heritage. Both of Kerouac’s parents were French-Canadian, yet he is always put into the pantheon of American Literature. Only one of my parents is Pakistani.
But maybe it doesn’t matter. I was at a reading this past fall for Dagoberto Gilb’s new short story collection, Before the End, After the Beginning. A man said that although Gilb wrote Mexican-American characters, the complexity of thought and emotion that these characters expressed were so universal that he thought Gilb was writing about him and the people he knew. Gilb thanked him, saying that was one of the greatest compliments a writer could receive. Dagoberto brought up Tolstoy, calling him the most Russian writer out there. Yet, when you read Tolstoy, you see yourself in the story. It reads real to you. This is the accomplishment of the greats.
I continue to write what I know, but I hope that what I know goes beyond only what I know. Maybe you recognize a character, an emotion, a situation, or something that I thought was unique only to me but really connects us all. For me, the cliché to write what you know—so boring and lame on the surface—expresses the greatest truth.
January 6, 2012 – 11:12 pm
sometimes, on the very first day of fall, the angle of late afternoon light starts to slant, almost imperceptibly. No more than a ghost shiver along the nape of the neck. A shimmer at the brink of wherever you find yourself looking. Almost as if a whisper of wind were rustling the leaves of the trees that autumn set on fire—but there isn’t even a breath of a breeze. It’s one of those instants that, nevertheless, feels like a forever. Somewhere between an already forgotten inhale and exhale, the daylight is dying. No, failing. No, falling. And I would swear on the Bible I once believed in that even in San Antonio, Texas, where I live—a far cry from the North Carolina of my undergraduate years—I can actually feel the cascade of light’s fading slipstream through my body. I call this inkling, with a nod to Gerard Manley Hopkins, the fell of fall.
A psychologist would no doubt call this being “seasonally affected,” but I like to think Wallace Stevens might call it seeing the aurora of autumn, a fertile but often languorous season. For years I felt the season portended nothing but the doom and gloom of endings, but this past September I began to think, instead, about beginnings, about origins. Because I am beginning my M.F.A. thesis this spring, I returned to those poets who first taught me what was possible in poetry, whose words watched over my fledgling attempts to sing on the page, and whose books stood guardian over my desperate attempts to reconcile how a preacher’s son and a gay man could inhabit the same body without ripping it apart. I still carry these books as if they were talismans: Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language, Joy Harjo’s She Had Some Horses, and Lorna Dee Cervantes’s From the Cables of Genocide. These women reached me in a way that Whitman or Ginsberg couldn’t have at the time. They are my literary lineage, as are books by three other writers gone beyond the veil. Audre Lorde’s The Black Unicorn, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, and Lucille Clifton’s Blessing the Boats changed my life in a way I can only describe this way: I survived; a fact by no means guaranteed—as their writing makes piercingly clear―if you are born not white, or not male, and/or not straight in this country.
This past November, as I observed El Dia de los Muertos for the first time, I gathered my cherished, well-traveled and worn copies of books by Lorde, Anzaldúa, and Clifton. I lit three candles. And as I read their words aloud, I gave thanks for the gift of company their words gave to the confused queer white boy I was in a small south Texas town when their words first found me.
And I want to ask you, who read this, whoever you are: Whose words were bread for the hunger you didn’t know how to name? Whose words have you slept beside at night? Whose words combed nightmares from your hair? Who stole fire from the gods and placed the ever-burning coal of language on your tongue after touching it to your lips? Who first whispered in your ear something like this?
This belongs to you you have the right
you belong to the song
of your mothers and fathers You have a people
—Adrienne Rich, “Poetry: II, Chicago”
John D. Fry
Among the Graves
November 29, 2011 – 4:13 am
when i first see Oscar Wilde’s gravestone, from a distance, it seems to be covered in blood. The letters of his name are not the ordinary, graveyard gray, but a deep red; and, walking along the tree-shaded path of the Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France, I feel that this apparent bloodiness is somehow a breech in etiquette: We erect monuments that seem eternal so that we can forget this time-bound thing called man, the way he bleeds and ages and dies.
I remember a sentence from Wilde’s “De Profundis”: “Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground.” And I continue walking toward the grave, my backpack tugging at my shoulders, my stomach stuffed with espresso-soaked crépes, feeling like a drunk in a cathedral.
On closer inspection, I realize that what I saw as blood is, in reality, lipstick. The gravestone—which is large and topped with an Egyptian-looking carving—is covered with lipstick kisses, wreathed in flowers, stamped with innumerable Je-t’aimes and I-love-you’s; there are palimpsests of love letters, stories about how Wilde’s writing saved people; and above the Egyptian statue’s calves, there is an arrow-punctured heart filled with the names of lovers.
The gravestone is joyous, I think, but I can’t completely forget the blood. And Oscar is still dead. I feel, suddenly, a bit holy.
We come to literature, I believe, for moments like this. All painful stories—which is to say all true stories—are predicated, to some extent, on the idea that what appears terrible could in fact be terribly beautiful, or, at the very least, meaningful. We come to freshen up old wounds, to peel a scab from an elbow and hold it, for a moment, over one eye, and to look at the world through the pain. We come to appreciate the blood and the lipstick, the monument and the buried bones.
But there is also the flipside: we come to literature to see how the lovely is ruined, the joy turned to pain. Homer provides a perfect example in The Iliad. Hector, we read, has just died at the hands of Achilles. The Greeks, awe-struck, crowd “closer, all of them gazing wonder-struck / At the build and marvelous, lithe beauty of Hector.” Even dead, even seen by the eyes of enemies, Hector is still beautiful. But the sting comes out in the next line: “And not a man came forward who did not stab his body….” The Greeks see Hector’s beauty, acknowledge it, and proceed to destroy it. The lipstick kisses grow more vivid; they begin to drip, to run together; and, suddenly, we realize: the gravestone is covered with blood.
I stand before Wilde’s grave. I have neither lipstick nor open wound with which to stamp the stone. I take a picture. I tighten the straps on my backpack, and I watch the other visitors, all that life, wandering among the graves.