Lost in Translation – Why it Breaks Your Heart

lost-in-translationI re-watched Lost in Translation the other day – I got the idea after stumbling onto this interview with Bill Murray on the Charlie Rose show. (Do yourself a favor – take 50 minutes out of your life and watch this clip. Three-quarters of the way it becomes a spiritual experience.) One of my life’s dreams is to have Garrison Keillor read a poem of mine on his Writer’s Almanac radio show. Now I have a new one, and that’s to spend an hour or two hangin’ out with Bill Murray.

But that’s not likely to happen, so I streamed Lost in Translation over my laptop in the afternoon on the kitchen table (it’s on Netflix) instead. And even under those less-than-ideal movie watching circumstances, I was so completely taken into the world of this film that 48 hours later I’m still heartbroken. That’s really the only word for it. I fell for it pretty hard ten years ago, but this time it’s a whole different thing. Why would a beautiful film leave me so rattled?

In one way, this movie leaves an impact because it is such a total sensory experience. It’s filmed using natural light exclusively – apparently this is rarely done – so it looks warm and real. There’s very little camera “action” or panning – it’s like a documentary made of perfectly framed photographs – so it’s slow, and peaceful, and hypnotic. The acting is as subtle – and sublime – as life. It has Scarlett Johansson (sigh). And the soundtrack is as enrapturing as a Buddhist temple.

But there’s something else at work here. I suppose my personal circumstances – divorced, surprised, wondering here at the halfway mark if this is all there is, and what could possible come next, if anything – make me particularly susceptible to elegiac paeans to love and delayed gratification and the meaning of life, especially when so gracefully, honestly presented, with characters you can’t help but like.  I also know, as a poet-wannabe, I’ve been mostly silent for two years, trying to translate deeply felt experiences into words but finding it impossible to do, a kind of poetic laryngitis. And this is just like the characters in the film, who are so bewildered by their circumstances – physically as well as emotionally exhausted – they seem to lack the vocabulary to express what it is they’re experiencing in their own lives, even as they experience it. So this is a work of art that transcends commercial appeal, and gets right to the heart of what it means to be lost – in another country, in one’s life. And it leaves you wistful and moved and yes, heartbroken – for them, and I suppose for yourself, if that’s where you are at that moment in your ride.

Over at Wikipedia there’s an analysis on the movie’s themes and aesthetics, which is cool. But first, go stream it while you can, and break your heart in the best way possible.

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I Bet Robert Frost Never Needed an MFA

OK, so this is going to sound bitter.

I grew up in a house with books, the same books that probably filled a lot of mid-century, book-of-the-month-club suburban homes – there was Michener and Wouk and The Thorn Birds, and there was The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird and Fahrenheit 451.Sometimes I’d stand there quietly with my father, looking over the titles until, with a grunt of remembrance, he’d take one down and hand it over. I can remember very clearly the time he pulled down a paperback copy of Catcher in the Rye – I think I was fourteen – and I don’t care if this is a cliche, but it’s been in every living room I’ve ever had since and it ruined me as a fiction writer. But it started everything.

Poems-of-Robert-Frost-Modern-LibraryAnd so did the other one that still sits on my bookshelf and always will: My father’s Modern Library, schoolboy collection of Robert Frost, published in 1946 with a forward by the poet himself. I love that book, not just because it’s filled with my father’s junior-high sketches. It was the first time I got that ringing thrill from reading a poem.

I’m sure you don’t hear Frost’s name in graduate programs anymore. But here in the real world, his work feels as relevant as anything you come across in the poetry journals today. Too often, a lot of contemporary poetry suffers from an “MFA-style,” a secret code of wink and nod allusions that only graduate students care about. You look at poetry contest winners and inevitably they’ve got that MFA, and at the same time they’re writing inscrutable works, basically verbal acrobatics. Yes, the poems are well-crafted and ask a lot of the reader. But they’re often cold and barren, lacking emotional – or human – impact. Poems are not written by computers as an analytic exercise in word craft. They’re aimed squarely at our humanity. Or should be, anyway.

Maybe I am bitter. I’ve not won a poetry contest and probably never will. So maybe it’s all about that. I write poems about felt experiences, and I use straightforward language that anyone would understand, so it could be I’m just too simple-minded for the deep thinkers out there. It’s possible.

I’m not suggesting that we start elevating Hallmark Card writers to Nobel Laureate. Clearly there is a distinction between sappiness and seriousness. Ultimately the kind of work that I enjoy is the stuff that hits you in the gut and the brain. It’s a fine line between sentimentality and sublimity, and writers who live in that space are the ones I admire. My guidelines are poems that can be spoken out loud and make an impact without a thesaurus and mental jackhammer to comprehend. People poems, I suppose. I understand part of this is taste, and some will prefer more cerebral poetry and I suppose that’s OK.  And obviously there are great exceptions to my complaint. Fabulous poetry is being published in plenty of establishment publications. Take a spin through The Writer’s Almanac and you may never leave your laptop. I’m very specifically talking about the journals and contests where unknown writers, outside of academia, don’t have a chance. It hurts writers everywhere, because it makes it appear that poetry is too sophisticated for “the rest of us” who don’t attend graduate schools, and just want to be moved by a work of art.

For the record; I have an MFA (more accurately, a “Masters in English with a Concentration in Writing” he says imperiously). There’s nothing wrong with MFAs. I had a great experience with mine and learned a great deal. What I’m complaining about is this “old boy/girl network” where a prosaic approach is promoted to the exclusion of other less academic styles, and which seems to fill up poetry journals today.

So back to Robert Frost, whose work connects on both the deeply felt and cognitive level, and I don’t know what else poetry is supposed to do. His work is about the pains, joys, wonders and sorrows of being alive. I’ll leave you with this one, a Frost poem which continuously grows in meaning as I grow older, as I look for emotional peace in the midst of conflict, uncertainty, and fear, much of it self-created, to find the wonder and humor in it all:

On Looking Up By Chance to the Constellations

You’ll wait a long, long time for anything much
To happen in heaven beyond the floats of cloud
And the Northern Lights that run like tingling nerves.
The sun and moon get crossed, but they never touch,
Nor strike out fire from each other, nor crash out loud.
The planets seem to interfere in their curves,
But nothing ever happens, no harm is done.
We may as well go patiently on with our life,
And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun
For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.
It is true the longest drouth will end in rain
The longest peace in China will end in strife.
Still it wouldn’t reward the watcher to stay awake
In hopes of seeing the calm of heaven break
On his particular time and personal sight.
That calm seems certainly safe to last tonight
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Carl Sagan, Denial, and Our Little Blue Jewel

Carl Sagan's CosmosThe other night, on a whim, I watched Cosmos on Netflix. I remember watching it as a kid, on my parents’ Sony Trinitron, back in 1980. I figured it would be hokey, dated and laughable.

I was wrong.  It’s a moving, provoking experience. Everyone on the planet ought to give it a try.

I think what’s so striking about this show is how it captured that stunned sense of wonder we experience when, on a dark night, with a quiet mind, we look to the stars. And then we’re struck: everything we are, just a spec of dust, floating in a universal expanse on an unfathomable scale of distance and time. Mostly we experience our lives in such an immediate, moment-to-moment way that when the scope of the universe hits us, we’re completely undone. It’s a kind of shock. All those galaxies, filled with all those stars, like droplets in the blur of a cloud. And that’s us on one of those drops, our entire history – protozoa to pyramids to iPhones – just a single note in an enormous symphony.

And that’s the macro cosmos. What about the micro cosmos, the uncountable cells just in our own bodies, each cell as vast, relatively, as the space between galaxies? The mind blanks at the glare. If the macro and micro cosmos are that vast, random and uncertain, where does that leave us?  So there’s the best explanation for religion that I can think of – it grounds us with perspective, gives a base to organize the immensity into a safer, sensible place. It’s more pleasant to pretend that we live in a human-centered cosmos with a kindly wizard directing events in a just manner.

For an organized-religion skeptic like me, it’s hard not to see this as classic denial, an eyes-closed way to give order to the randomness. We prefer certainty; uncertainty is a scary way to go through life. But at what cost? Certainly tricking ourselves that the universe is meaningful and our souls are immortal does make getting up in the morning a lot easier. But taken to other places, denial could be one of the biggest dangers to our existence, because it keeps us from acknowledging all the real and growing threats to our fragile blue bubble. I’m thinking about congressmen from certain reddish states who claim the world is really only 9,000 years old, or that evolution is a scam, or that global warming is the biggest lie since Joseph Goebells. Mass denial always looks flimsy when it happened “back then” – witch trials, the Inquisition, flat-earthers – but the denial we live with today is a lot more potent: Nuclear warheads on hair-trigger alert, rising seas, melting ice caps.

I get where denial comes from. Most of human history – as brief as it has been – has existed under a kind of warfare; war with each other and war with the environment, a daily exercise in survival against what was “out there” which might and often did kill you. Until yesterday, just about, we’ve been living through unrelenting battle fatigue. Add to that, we’re probably the only species on earth to have an awareness of our own mortality. We are sentient, we are finite, and we know it. What an unlucky draw of the evolutionary cards. Denial seems like a welcomed biological pain killer.

The problem is that it’s outlived its usefulness – most of us in the industrialized world don’t have to worry about our day-to-day physical survival. I’m not talking about denial in the Freudian, emotionally protective way. I mean a kind of macro, social denial that’s keeping us from tackling big problems, because it’s easier to pretend they don’t exist. But when you see that little pebble of ours floating in so much immensity, you can’t help but feel alarmed. I think this is what astronauts talk about when they come back from space, and why many have become passionate environmentalists.

Joseph Conrad got it right in the Heart of Darkness; mix power with denial and all kinds of horrors follow. What started out as a beneficial defense mechanism now threatens our willingness to address serious, man-made challenges. We are capable of creating the circumstance that can lead to our own annihilation. We know better, but we do it anyway. Has any other species in earth’s history acted in such a dysfunctional manner, wherein their own actions led to self-annihilation? I’m sure there have been times where a species’ natural behavior caused a change in their environment leading to extinction.  This is certainly the cause for many extinctions, give or take a meteor or two.

The difference, until now, was that such situations were localized; never before has a species been able to negatively impact the biosphere on a global level. And it’s a remarkable bit of chance that we’re here at all. Maybe, as Carl Sagan says, there are billions of bubbles of life like our earth; maybe life is as ubiquitous as the planets around the stars. Who’s to say. I only know about this one, and it’s a jewel.

We have great tools at our disposal to positively impact many of our modern dangers – human tools built through uniquely human capabilities of ingenuity, creativity, curiosity, organization, empathy, adaptability, and reason. We know how to fix our problems. We’re fixing some now.

So I’m hopeful – although it remains to be seen – that we can collectively look at reality straight on and not blink. Although I don’t know for sure, I imagine that this was one of the goals for Cosmos, a way to show the astonishing odds that we’re here at all, and the urgency needed to protect our home. Otherwise we are destined to be just another failed experiment, a dead-end branch of DNA that flourished beautifully but briefly in the immeasurable void.

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Me and the Mets

mr.metI am a Mets fan, in the full sense of the word: I am a fanatic. I like to rail against fanaticism in the real world, but I get a pass for baseball. It’s ridiculous, basically. It’s a game and it doesn’t matter. So why does a horrible ending to a Mets season cut me off at the emotional knees?

Because I’m a fanatic, that’s why.

These days the team is bad from start to finish, and I think I prefer it that way. The creeping certainty that your season’s over around May 15 is a lot easier to bite down on than a sudden-death, kick-to-the-gut, season-killer in October. Still, it has become an annual ritual for me, just as the leaves start to fall, to look at the sky and ask an irrational universe why, oh why was I born a Mets fan?

I got to thinking about it when I read this friendly reminder from the NY Daily News about one of the worst home runs ever against the Mets, the one where Mike Scioscia – he of the puny three-homerun season – came out of nowhere in the ninth inning of the ’88 playoffs to break my heart. Against Dwight Gooden, no less, at the top of his game. I was there, perched in the stands watching the whole thing. I blame myself. The Mets were up two runs in the ninth, about to take a “commanding three-to-one lead” in the series, when Doc walked the leadoff batter, putting the tying run at the plate. Up came Scioscia. And silly me, I turned to a friend and said, with all the innocence of the innocent, “can this guy hit runs?” And bam, there it went.

And there it still goes, apparently, thank you NY Daily News. The reason that one sticks around in so many memories is because, in hindsight, it basically killed the team for a generation. It’s become what Mets fans look back to and say “there’s the moment when the rails came off.” And no, being a witness to history does not make up for it.

I’ve been a Mets fan since I was ten years old – I’m 47 now – so this is the longest relationship I’ve had  in my life. It’s been mostly an unhappy marriage. I could list out all the excruciating New York Mets failures, but why waste good bandwidth. Here’s a Google search with 1,220,000 results. Have it.

My sister – a Yankees fan – once asked me to come up with a good metaphor to describe the feeling you get when your team’s season ends with bitter disappointment. I told her it was like having your heart broken. It’s like when you’re a kid and your girlfriend goes to Florida on a family trip and falls in love with the lifeguard.  The baseball season runs day after day for months; you live and die with these guys night after night. You can’t help but get to know the personality of the team in what can only be described as an intimate way. When your team wins it all, you never lose them, because they’ll come back every anniversary to re-live the season. When your team loses, they go away. You never see them again.

So when the Mets season ends with a tough loss the whole world turns thin, gray and bleak. For a few weeks, anyway.

After a few weeks you realize that holding emotional water for a baseball team is pretty dumb, and anyway the Mets are in the running for that off-season’s big free agent. So you start reading MetsBlog again, and glancing at the sports page for trades now and then, and pretty soon it’s Christmas and “wait ’till next year” is actually almost there.

The last time they collapsed on me was 2008. What made that year particularly gut-kicking is that it coincided with the last game at Shea Stadium, and so it was a double dip of heartbreak. My grandfather took me to Shea Stadium in ’77; thirty years later I took my own daughter there. We did the whole thing: Number 7 subway out of Grand Central to Flushing Meadows, train loaded with Mets fans juiced up for the game. When the car rounded that last bend near Willets Point and the blue hunk of Shea rose into view, I watched her seven-year-old eyes open in amazement, just like mine on my first trip, when I kept asking my grandfather what all that green grass outside of the field was for, until he told me that all that green grass WAS the field. The reality is that Shea Stadium sucked – a leaky, smelly, cracked concrete dump. But my grandfather’s there. My daughter’s first game was there. They won two world series in that place. I still miss it.

Meantime, the world series is about to start, but I don’t really care. What am I going to do, root for the Cardinals? The Red Sox? I’m just biding time now for the Hot Stove. The Mets have a great, young core of pitching. So I’ll repeat that annual vow made by Mets fans everywhere: Just wait ’till the year after next year.

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Reading at the Princeton Library

I’ll be reading along with poet Dan Maguire on Monday, August 12 2013 in the Princeton Library, Fireplace 2nd Floor.

More information at http://www.princetonlibrary.org/events/2013/08/poets-library.

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Reading at the Bucks County Bards – Newtown, PA

I’ll be coming out of hibernation to read at the Newtown PA library as part of the Bucks County Bards series on Feb 15, 2013. More details: http://www.newtownlibrary.com/Events.html.

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Reading at the Hamilton Library – April 23

I’ll be reading along with poets Nancy Scott, Ray Brown, and Peter Dabbene at the First Annual Hamilton Library PoetryPalooza. In celebration of National Poetry Month. Open mic follows. More details: http://www.hamiltonnjpl.org/

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Reading at Farley’s Bookstore, New Hope June 2, 2011

I’ll be reading for the “First Thursday Poetry Series” on June 2, 2011 at Farley’s Bookstore, 44 S. Main Street, New Hope, PA, at 8 p.m. with one of my favorite poets, Nancy Scott. Call (215) 862-2452 for info.

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Reading at the Princeton Library – Dec 1, 2010

I’ll be reading at the Princeton Public Library along with Bernadette McBride, the Bucks County poet laureate, on Wednesday, Dec. 1.

Hope to see you there.

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Your Daily Poem

Thanks to Jayne at Your Daily Poem for selecting Poetry Night, First Grade for the October 12, 2010 edition. If you’re looking for a daily dose of great poetry with your coffee in the morning, head over to Jayne’s site and sign up.

If you’re visiting from today’s email, you might want to see some other works I’ve posted on the poetry page, here.

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