Forbidden Fictions

by juno on June 24, 2014

forbiddenfictionFirst published one year ago in The Public Humanist

My husband is teaching a class called “Forbidden Fictions” this summer, to a self-selected group of high school almost-seniors. One of his first thoughts: “This might be the only opportunity I ever get to teach Lolita to high school students.”

He reread the book with far more discomfort this time around, for now he is the father of two 13-year-old girls. I noticed odd behavior when he took it out in public. He practically had to slip it inside a magazine or brown paper cover to read it in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. And the girls’ gymnastics gym, full of pre- and barely adolescent girls? No way. He sat in the car reading that night.

“Well, then,” I said, goading him as is my duty, “if it makes you this uncomfortable, why are you going to subject these poor young minds to it, traumatizing them forever?”

My sister supplied one answer as we stood around discussing the book over coffee on a sunny weekend morning. Wuthering Heights and Lolita were the first books she read, she said, that changed her “understanding of what literature is for or what is possible.” They expanded her ideas about “what might motivate me to read to something that goes beyond escape pleasure.”

(My other sister, telling me about a book she just read, said, “I haven’t loved a book so much since I read…Lolita!”)

My husband sent an email to a group of teacher and reader friends, asking for ideas about supplemental texts for the class, and one woman suggested he look at the 50 Shades of Greyphenomenon, how the book began online in an arena in which people often don’t censor themselves at all. The point is a good one—what does censorship, what does “forbidden” mean in a world in which we have direct access to the sordid contents of each other’s minds from the comfort of our homes? “But,” I howled in dismay, “you can’t teach 50 Shades—it’s not literature!” Maybe the subject matter is risqué—so what? If you enjoy redundant writing, and get a thrill following the jolly antics of a woman who screams “Holy cow!” whenever what’s-his-name tightens the handcuffs, then you go, girl, or boy, but I’m pretty sure this is reading for “escape pleasure.”

Does this sound snobbish? I don’t think so. Genre fiction can get us through hard times, and so can pop music, but we’re talking a literature class here, a bunch of bright kids preparing themselves for the rigors of college reading, not the reading they’ll do on the weekends to put all thoughts of their gimlet-eyed English teacher out of their minds. If they can crack Lolita, if they can extract even a portion of its juice, if they can broaden their understanding of what literature is for, they’ll be closer to ready—not just for college lit classes, but, as my sister says, “for the actual shades of grey that a full rich life must be lived in.”

Lolita starts with language so poetic, so unusual, that even once you know of what, and of whom, our unreliable narrator Humbert Humbert speaks, the words still dance around in your head like a refrain, still beg to be spoken, to spill from your tongue as the syllables of his beloved’s nickname slip from Humbert’s: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” Nabokov, in the voice of Humbert, seduces us with that language, draws us in, and in so doing makes us wonder if we are complicit in Humbert’s deeds. Our percolating discomfort lets us know his actions are wrong, wrong, wrong, but it’s hard not to feel sympathy for the devil. He’s pulled us inside his head. We feel his pain. Should we believe him? And the language is so gorgeous. We’re squirming not just in distaste, in revulsion at Humbert’s actions, but in delight, in awe at what that clever bastard Nabokov can do with language, at his power over words and through them his power over us. If we feel that thrill, that pressing desire to read on, then are we partly to blame for what happens?

If you want to be made even more uncomfortable, listen to Jeremy Irons read Lolita aloud, or read it when you have adolescent daughters—or, perhaps, read it in Tehran. But read it. Read it to understand how writing can be so powerful that people fear it, governments fear it, religions fear it. Read it to understand the possibilities inherent in literature, and to be grateful that, for the most part, we are free to read what we wish, from oft-banned books to forbidden fictions.


Sorting the Books, part 1

by juno on May 29, 2014

First published a year ago in The Public Humanist. Wonder where we are today?


It’s that time again. If you read, if you have a weakness for shiny stacks of paperbacks in airports, or the carousel of sale books at the library—they’re only a dollar!—then you know what happens. You stack a few sideways in the space between the upright books and the bottom of the next shelf, and then a few more. You clean up one set of shelves, and leave books you’ve cleared away—“Oh, I don’t want to read this right now”—in leaning towers on the floor of another room. You put some in boxes, which also have to sit somewhere.

If your children read as you do, they too hoard books, packing them into the cracks between bed and wall as a squirrel lines its nest with nuts, tucking them into drawers, into bins that are supposed to hold something practical like hats or scarves. If they’re industrious they also periodically throw a bunch in a box and leave it on the floor of your bedroom for you to trip over. You walk around your house wondering where you could squeeze in another bookshelf—just one more, you’re going to get rid of most of the books that won’t fit, but you’ve culled, oh, the fiction collection, as much as you can stand to. You need the rest of those books. You haven’t read them all yet. Your children might want to read them when they’re older.

This is where I am on a dull gray day, though the memory of the last big sort has not yet faded. Leave aside the boxes and boxes of books I’ve never even looked at, moldering in a neighbor’s barn—don’t even ask. Leave aside other family books I may have to deal with someday: when my father moved abroad he left his substantial collection in a friend’s attic, and since then has had time in his new life for many cycles of collecting and divesting. That house, attic and all, is for sale, and my father is thousands of miles away. Still, all I have to face now are the books on this property, in the house and in the studio, between which two buildings many books get carried back and forth.

In my youth, I confess, I looked at people’s bookshelves and thought they might hold the key to someone’s character or personality. Age has cured me of such nonsense, and the awareness that comes with age that unless we cull relentlessly—objects, mementoes, books, ideas, opinions, habits—the dregs of the past can weigh us down. People’s books can mean anything, who they were, who they hope they’ll be someday, what they can’t let go of, what they want more of in their life. Can I trust I’ll remember what I need to about my past without keeping all the autobiographical criticism I read in grad school? Can I accept that certain future selves are no longer a possibility, and get rid of the sign language dictionaries (not yet), Yoga Spandakarika(maybe), Carl Sandburg’s four volumes on Lincoln during the war years? Another no. I’d rather get rid of Yoga Spandakarika, and anyway my husband wants any book about Lincoln, and anyway—Carl Sandburg wrote four volumes about Lincoln during the war years!

Further considerations arise, from the mundane and practical to the existential and back:

  • We need to move the tall bookshelf out of the girls’ room. It lurks over my daughter’s bed and makes it hard for her to sleep. Plus, books get dusty—too many in a bedroom disturb the air quality, so in mine I try to keep it to just the hundred or so that I might want to read next. But oh, so many books to find a home for!
  • I’m pretty sure I could free a living room wall for additional bookshelves, but not until summer. Or maybe the summer after that.
  • If we build shelves over the toilet in the new basement bathroom, I might be able to move the entire poetry collection down there. But when?
  • What if it gets harder to buy real books? Won’t I wish I’d saved more for our dotage? Or will the words I want to read just be beamed, shimmering and vivid as tropical birds, into the foliage of the tree above the hammock in which I’m spending my last years?
  • Do I really need so many gardening books? So many plays? Livres en français? Health books? Who’s going to read about…? But when I walk around trying to find examples with which to finish that sentence, no matter what I use to fill in the blank, my answer is, “I mightI might. I might.”

You see the difficulty.



This piece was published one year ago in The Public Humanist:


It’s National Poetry Month, and while we could drink our way through an entire month of pure poetic delight without the well ever running dry, we (whisper) might not want to stop reading stories. Or, we might feel more at ease reading stories. Poems might be for us, as a friend of mine described recently, those things that don’t make sense.

“Grief calls us to the things of this world,” says the poet, and a love for words, for the sounds they make when pressed against each other, for the shock of surprise or recognition certain juxtapositions create, calls us to more words. Once we’ve tasted the joy of poetic language in our mouths, once we’ve heard words sing into our open ears in the voice of a beloved parent or friend, we want more.

But where does the first taste come from? One way is to fall into poems from fiction. Not just any fiction, but the sort in which the writer cares for every word and its place among its cohorts. I present you with four books. Each, while seducing you with the story it tells, will appeal to your ears and eyes, will seduce you into desire for poetic language, for more, more, more!

pishposhI believe fervently that if we want happy, brilliant, empathetic children we must read to them early and often (and talk to them endlessly, too—the studies are in). But beware the myriad dumb boring books read to kids in the misguided belief that they can’t yet understand anything more complex. They never will if that’s what you read them! Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch, by Nancy Willard and the Dillons, is a book with pictures that will thrill and delight kids of any age while their ears learn to love the sound of words and grow toward understanding the meaning behind them. What kid doesn’t want to ride to school on the back of a pickle-winged fish? In the meantime, you, the reader, get to weep and sigh over beautifully spoken truths:

They’re not what I wished for. When women are young

they want curly-haired daughters and raven-haired sons.

In this vale of tears we must take what we’re sent,

feathery, leathery, lovely, or bent.

habibiOnce the kids are old enough for chapter books, read them Habibi, by poet Naomi Shihab Nye. Her love and feel for language inform every sentence she writes. In Habibi—darling, sweetheart, in both Arabic and Hebrew—you get not just a moving and profound story of a 14-year-old Palestinian-American girl transplanted from her American life in Saint Louis to a house between Jerusalem and Ramallah, a school in the Armenian section of Jerusalem, but writing that will make your mouth and ears happy as you read. Each chapter starts with a title, like the clang of a bell, and then a brief phrase—the resonance that carries in the air long after the bell has been rung. Her sentences are short and crisp, and her paragraphs are precise as poems.

thegoldengateBut I’m a grownup, you say. Well, start with Pish, Posh and Habibi anyway—you will always remember both. But for adults, with lives that we complicate so necessarily or unnecessarily, we have The Golden Gate. Vikram Seth, bless his mad heart, has written a whole novel in Onegin stanzas—sonnets with an ababccddeffegg rhyme scheme. I read it for the first time just after rereading Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, and so approached it with the question in mind: if it’s verse, can it really be a novel as Forster defines it? Yes, it has story, people and plot, fantasy and prophecy, pattern and rhythm. And such joy in language!

Directly to the morning after.

The sun shines brightly in. The birds’

Aubade replaces last night’s laughter,

Professor Pratt’s impassioned words,

The broken glasses, the emetic

Sheep music, even the splenetic

Yowls of the vengeful Charlemagne;

And all is quiet once again.

Slack, honey-humming weekend morning,

Sweet sanctuary from a world

In which we’re whipped and whisked and whirled!

John sloths in bed awhile, then, yawning,

Attends to coffee. Liz sleeps on,

Though once or twice she murmurs, “John.”

little.bigOne of my persistent sensations reading John Crowley’s Little, Big: or, The Fairies’ Parliament is that if he can write this well, if he can put such care into choosing just-right words, string them into extraordinary sentences, weave those into knock-my-socks off paragraphs, arrange those into lay-me-bare chapters (you can see I am naked by the time I set the book down), then why aren’t more of us getting in bed with language in this way and having the best sex of our lives? “Like a centrifuge, with infinite slowness accelerating, spring flung them all outward in advancing circles as it advanced, seeming (though how it was possible they couldn’t tell) to untangle the tangled skein of them and lay their lives out properly around Edgewood like the coils of a golden necklace: more golden as it grew warmer.” It’s National Poetry Month. Indulge. Poetic delight!


anniversary poem

by juno on March 31, 2014

I’m not a poet, but I am a fool for love. Happy anniversary, dear husband.

Rule-breaking Ghazal for Christopher
Gardens grow where we intend, I and thou—
Plants and cells divide portending two.
Spade in dirt, feet dark with soil,
My heart I—kneeling, bending—threw.
You fled when autumn came,
All gelid winter letters sending through.
Phlox, cosmos, spring from earth that we have tended.
What are you intending, though?
At summer’s end you kneel and ask—will I?
No less than my heart I’m lending thee.
Gardens, children, house and home—
Through all these years we’re tending true.




do a lot of work!

by juno on March 24, 2014

THE GAP by Ira Glass from frohlocke on Vimeo.


On Writing Letters

by juno on March 14, 2014

This piece was published one year ago in The Public Humanist:

onletterwritingFor years I wrote letters. “Have you ever heard of The Collected Phone Calls of Gertrude Stein?” Rita Mae Brown says in Starting from Scratch. “Writers should learn to write letters and save the telephone for business.”

I took her words to heart. Not just because I was a writer, but because I loved the looseness, the intimacy of the form. No word-count limits. No thesis statement, no final paragraph with the thesis reworded, biting itself in the tail like an ouroboros. No lede to grab the reader, draw him in, keep him reading. Sure, if you begin with a few choice words—“He finally asked, and I said yes,” “Remember how I told you I wanted a baby,” “I’ve decided to leave”—you might thrill your correspondent, but even if you don’t he’ll read on, because the fact of the letter, no matter how prosaic its contents, means you were thinking of him, you took the time to write.

Instead of rules you have this: a blank page in front of you, or a napkin, a flyer advertising flamenco music in some foreign city with empty space on the back, a postcard, and all you have to do is pour your heart out on it. You’re allowed to ramble, to be boring for a paragraph or two—it’s a letter, after all: your recipient will be glad to get it anyway, to walk to her mailbox in the country on a spring day, her feet bare for the first time in months, gravel sticking to the soles of her feet and the gravel of a long winter still sticking to her soul, and pull out the thin blue envelope, the fat pink envelope, the envelope made from a perfume ad, from a photo of cupcakes torn from a cooking magazine.

Inside she finds the sights and sounds and stories of your day, your week, your year: “I’m sitting in a café in Rome, and a boy—honestly, he’s just a boy!—has been flirting with me for an hour. ‘Please,’ he keeps saying, and he tosses his head back, not a dark hair on his head displaced.” “On the bus this morning I saw a little girl who looked just like you at five or six. Made me miss you so much I had to write.” “I spend a couple of hours at Grandma Lee’s house most days. It’s funny how even so deep into dementia—she barely ever knows who I am—she has moments of lucidity. She was telling me about meeting her first husband the other day, when they were young teenagers, right before the war. She was only fifteen and felt so certain she’d met the person she was going to grow old with.”

Rita Mae Brown didn’t anticipate the especial conundrum: email, which almost feels as if it could approximate letter writing. And it’s instant, and closer to carbon free, and you don’t have to put a stamp on it. But think of what you’ve lost. You’re no longer making your friend puzzle through the tangled briar of your handwriting, and she can’t see where your tears have fallen and blurred your words. She’s not holding the same pages that you were holding days before, in some near or far city or town. As for speed, why should that be an advantage in human communication? Isn’t it more spacious, restful, to know that I wrote you this letter over several days—you can see that I headed sections “Monday,” “Thursday,” “Saturday—finally home”? I was in no hurry. By the postmark you know that it took several more to reach you. Now you read my words, ponder them, sit with them. Sometime, in an hour, a fortnight, a month, you might want to respond, but you take your time. “The tranquil heart may yet outrun/the rocket and the car,” said E. B. White, paragon of letter writers.

Me, I’ve come back to the fold. I gave email a chance, and it never delivered. Beloved friends have died, and I want to be intimately connected to the ones who remain while we still have the chance. I don’t want to send them emails. I want to send them a heap of scrawled pages, the shape of my days in words, and tell them what they mean to me. I want to tuck in poems and newspaper clippings, a pressed flower from my garden, a photo of my kids. I want to write them a letter.


It’s the mid-‘90s and I’m in the old kitchen of the Red House—summer sunlight slants in and music spills from a little boom box. “Sailin’ up,” Pete Seeger’s voice sings into this room we’re all hanging out in together, and my cousin Bill echoes, “Sailin’ up.” “Up.” “Down.” “Down.” “Up.” “Up and down the river. The river may be dirty now but it’s getting cleaner day by day.” Bill’s more of a fisherman than a sailor, but he’s acquainted with rivers. IBM exec, Catholic deacon, man of prayer, family and food, husband, father, grandfather…not yet, at this time, a painter—evidence, as all those we love are, that people can’t be contained within mere words. What does this have to do with Pete? Nothing except to say that public figures, and especially artists, the ones who inspire story in us, become intertwined with our own stories, become part of the story of the real people we love in real life. The tracks change, Pete and Arlo serenade us. “Just when I thought…all was lost…you changed my mind,” Pete is singing now, and then after the first go-through, he makes his usual invitation: “Hey will you sing it with me? I’ll give you the words.” He sings AND he gives us the words. “You gave me hope…” “Not just the old soft soap,” Bill chimes in as he cooks. “I’ll keep plugging on, Your face will shine through all our tears…” We’re all singing now, I’m singing with Pete and Arlo, with Bill, and with the man I’m in love with, the man I’ll marry, though I don’t know it yet, and I’m thinking that if I’m ever called on to sing a song at Bill’s funeral, this is the one.

It’s the early ‘80s. At Wightwood School, in Branford, CT, we gather every morning in a half-circle on the wide stairs down to the older kids’ wing of the school. I sit among kids of every color, far from the cold white northern village where I’ve mostly been raised. One of my teachers leads us in song, and today it’s a hymn to the country we all come from. “This land is your land,” we sing, “This land is my land.” Woody may have written it, but Pete taught everyone to sing it over and over, so it’s his song, too, in my heart. “As I went walking I saw a sign there, And on the sign it said, “No Trespassing.” I can picture it all, the ribbon of highway, the high wide blue sky arcing above me, can see the split rail fence and the prairie stretching out in every direction, though I know the prairie only from books. When we sing, “But on the other side it didn’t say nothing, That side was made for you and me,” I feel I’ve been let into a divine secret, have been given a gift by a trickster god: the truth that rests beneath the rules and regulations, beneath the laws that govern us. A 3rd grade lesson that resonates through my life, whether reading Alchemy of Race and Rights in grad school, explaining eminent domain to my kids, or listening to the speech about what the land means to us, no less beautiful for its inaccurate attribution to Chief Seattle.

Now it’s early in the new century, and we’re in the kitchen again, my husband and I and our two daughters. This is after Deacon Bill married us one cold March morning at sunrise, out behind my mother’s house, after the trickster god gave us another gift, or rather two gifts at once: twins. Pete is still singing to us: “All around the kitchen, cockadoodle-doodle-doo.” We all dance, the two of us and our clothing-averse toddlers. “Put your hands on your hips.” We do. “And let your right foot slip.” There they go. “Now stop right still.” Everyone freezes, the girls’ eyes wide, beaming with excitement. This is almost the best bit, because the best bit always comes right after it. “Turn all around.” We turn ALL around. Then, at bedtime, we sing, “I know a little girl in red pajamas,” or blue, or green, or purple, because we do—we know two little girls in pajamas, and Pete has taught us songs to sing to them.

January 18, 2009. Pete is up there on stage standing between Bruce Springsteen and Pete’s grandson, a choir of every hue behind him, and behind them, Abraham Lincoln looks out over their heads, gazes upon the well-bundled crowd stretching far out across the mall in Washington on a cold winter day. The occasion is the inauguration of the first black president of the US. Bruce Springsteen is wicked cute—his voice is powerful. Abraham Lincoln has presence. The new president is young and handsome, his wife strong and beautiful. But Pete is the one offering the anthem to the crowd, feeding them the words so that even though the choir is singing straight through after practice and preparation, the crowd can join in, too, can own the song if they want to. Pete is the one—apple-cheeked, righteous, courageous and true, forever young—whose soul is so large that it shines out of him, out of his eyes and face, out of his whole being.  Pete is the one who’s not even wearing a coat.

94 years. It’s hard not to become an icon when your career lasts more than 70 years. Pete modeled the act of staying human for all of us. He found a place he loved and stayed there caring for it, he found people he loved and stayed, caring for them, he lived as a human, not a god, while letting the inspiration of the trickster god shine through nonetheless.

Thank you, Pete, for touching me in my private life, for giving me and all of us stories, songs and images that nourish, sustain and teach us, for bringing joy into our kitchens, and for touching us over and over in our public, communal lives as well. “My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation.” When I think of you, Pete Seeger, how can I keep from singing?


God says yes to me

by juno on January 10, 2014

God says yes to me

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

by Kaylin Haught


January First

by juno on January 1, 2014

January First – Octavio Paz

The year’s doors open
like those of language,
toward the unknown.
Last night you told me: tomorrow
we shall have to think up signs,
sketch a landscape, fabricate a plan
on the double page
of day and paper.
Tomorrow, we shall have to invent,
once more,
the reality of this world.
I opened my eyes late.
For a second of a second
I felt what the Aztec felt,
on the crest of the promontory,
lying in wait
for the time’s uncertain return
through cracks in the horizon.
But no, the year had returned.
It filled all the room
and my look almost touched it.
Time, with no help from us,
had placed
in exactly the same order as yesterday
houses in the empty street,
snow on the houses,
silence on the snow.
You were beside me,
still asleep.
The day had invented you
but you hadn’t yet accepted
being invented by the day.
––Nor possibly by being invented, either.
You were in another day.
You were beside me
and I saw you, like the snow,
asleep among appearances.
Time, with no help from us,
invents houses, streets, trees
and sleeping women.
When you open your eyes
we’ll walk, once more,
among the hours and their inventions.
We’ll walk among appearances
and bear witness to time and its conjugations.
Perhaps we’ll open the day’s doors.
And then we shall enter the unknown.


Translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Bishop with the author


Thanks, Neil, you made my day

by juno on November 27, 2013


Found and borrowed from here, while trying to find this quote, paraphrased here, from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

“I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.”