Friday, November 30, 2012

Pseudo-slurs and Oxford shirts

1. Is there a linguistic term for words, like "niggling" and "niggardly," that aren't slurs and never were but make everyone uncomfortable anyway? I'm keeping a mental list of these pseudo-slurs, between "Negroni" (my favorite cocktail) and "jigger" (also cocktail-related) and today's "fucknig" typo (which Gmail's spellcheck, for some unfathomable reason, wanted to correct to "McKnight").

2. Whenever I wear an Oxford shirt and jeans, John, without fail, tells me I look nice (even without the airbrushed cleavage). If I put on a plaid flannel, forget about it; it's like he falls in love with me all over again. This seems to be a well-kept secret. Fess up, fellas: Do you too have a fetish for a button-up shirt? (Not a "button-down" shirt, NB; that's a type of collar.)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The topaz lanthorn-light

I love the first stanza of this poem, "Revelation" by Sir Edmund Gosse:   

INTO the silver night
She brought with her pale hand
The topaz lanthorn-light,
And darted splendour o'er the land;
Around her in a band,
Ringstraked and pied, the great soft moths came flying,
And flapping with their mad wings, fann'd
The flickering flame, ascending, falling, dying. 
Behind the thorny pink
Close wall of blossom'd may,
I gazed thro' one green chink
And saw no more than thousands may,—
Saw sweetness, tender and gay,—
Saw full rose lips as rounded as the cherry,
Saw braided locks more dark than bay,
And flashing eyes decorous, pure, and merry. 
With food for furry friends
She pass'd, her lamp and she,
Till eaves and gable-ends
Hid all that saffron sheen from me:
Around my rosy tree
Once more the silver-starry night was shining,
With depths of heaven, dewy and free,
And crystals of a carven moon declining. 
Alas! for him who dwells
In frigid air of thought,
When warmer light dispels
The frozen calm his spirit sought;
By life too lately taught
He sees the ecstatic Human from him stealing;
Reels from the joy experience brought,
And dares not clutch what Love was half revealing.

The great soft moths! Ringstraked and pied! I read it -- the first stanza only, several times -- in an old volume of English verse that was sitting in the upstairs bathroom at John's parents' house in Connecticut, and made a mental note to look it up again later. The rest of the poem doesn't do much for me, though it's hard not to be fond of the third stanza too, with its furry friends and saffron sheen and rosy tree.

(Edit: Just realized this poem is about a guy masturbating in the shrubbery. He "dares not clutch what Love was half revealing"? I'm sure!)

Monday, November 26, 2012

5 things that happened in the past 10 days

1. My latest essay on "The Poneme" went up at Lemon Hound (new issue with lots of good stuff). I wrote about Darcie Dennigan's mysterious use of ellipses in Madame X. Here's an excerpt from the essay, "Elliptical Machines":
The ellipsis is often used casually (in email, for instance) to indicate a pause or a trailing off. But technically it means “omission,” something excised or left out. And this is why ellipses can be frightening. What is being withheld? 
In Madame X, the ambiguity is doubled – it feels as though we’re receiving the message (via radio? a telegram? a Ouija board?) in bits and pieces, but it seems equally possible that the poet “received” it that way herself, that she is merely transcribing the poem, a la Jack Spicer’s “poetry as dictation,” wherein the poet records transmissions from an “invisible world.” Is she withholding something from us, or is something being withheld from her? 
Read my essay and read Darcie's book!

2. John and I watched this video about five times, until it started to become slightly less hilarious:

3. I saw the Art of Scent exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City on its opening day. I talked with Chandler Burr about the exhibit back in February of 2011, so perhaps I'd had too much time to build it up in my expectations, but I was mildly disappointed. The implementation was cool: It's an empty room with twelve indentations in the white wall. You step up to one of these indentations, lean over it, and a little nozzle at the bottom automatically sends up a wee puff of scent for you to breathe in. It's not the same formulation as perfume in a bottle, so your face doesn't get wet and the scents don't disperse into and mingle in the air. It's similar to the impression you get when passing someone on the street and catching a whiff of their sillage. Also cool: The descriptions of each scent on the wall fade in and out (they are provided by a light source, not printed directly on the wall) so you don't always know what you're smelling. Some of the reasons I found the exhibit a little weird/disappointing:
  • The indentations are shaped such that it kind of feels like you're sticking your face into a urinal. 
  • Because the context for each scent is so minimal, the experience is not very different from going into a Saks and sniffing 12 perfumes in a row, aside from the fact that Chandler Burr has "curated" which 12 perfumes he wants you to sniff. This made the $15 entry fee seem mildly exorbitant, though it gets you admission to the full museum, not just the perfume floor. Putting perfumes in a museum makes you experience them differently, yes, but most of the time, the art you see in a museum isn't accessible anywhere else. You're paying for an exclusive experience.
  • This effect was magnified because the 12 scents are all pretty commercial and all still in production. I imagine Burr was limited in his choices by which companies were willing to sponsor the exhibit. Still, a few of the choices seemed odd. Angel and Pleasures, though ubiquitous, were structurally groundbreaking. But Light Blue? The most perplexing choice to me was Prada Amber. Amber perfumes have been around forever, and Prada's version isn't even a very good amber.
  • Burr has claimed he is "completely opposed" to the "idiotic reductionism of works of olfactory art to their raw materials," but most of the descriptions of the scents include mention of raw materials (vanillin, aldehydes, dihydromercenol, galbanum). In any case, it is not unusual to discuss the materials used in other forms of art, if something interesting or innovative is being done with them.
I guess that the exhibit would be most interesting to people who have a passing interest in perfume, not aficionados and collectors like me, who have kinda smelled it all before, and don't need convincing that perfume is an art form.

4. I did karaoke at a real cowboy dive bar, Rocky Flats Lounge, which is between Golden and Boulder and across the street from a superfund site (our friend Katie has a tank top that says "I Got Nuclear Wasted at Rocky Flats"). This is me rocking out to "Wanted Dead or Alive" (I sort of want this to be my author photo):

And here's John, taking the Johnny Cash version of "Hurt" very seriously:

5. I won this goofy little web award from Westword, the alt weekly in Denver, for "Best Artist on Social Media." How did that happen?! And who said I'm an artist? Thank you to whoever nominated and declared me the winner. I'm excited and confused! 

I hope my American friends ate well and traveled safe. What have you all (international audience too) been up to?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


I have a poem up in the new issue of The Collagist: "After the Piano." My friend Tina is in it, as well as Rilke. My favorite part is the slant rhyme between "struggle" and "subtle"; my least favorite part is the ending. What about you?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Some thoughts on Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

I sat on the couch with a book after dinner and read until I had finished it, something I hadn't done in long enough that I was starting to fear I was no longer a reader. The book was Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, the perfect novel for this moment of my existence since it's about a literary type who either suspects himself or is in fact a fraud. It's the opposite of Catcher in the Rye: Holden is self-important and desperate to expose everyone around him as a phony; Adam Gordon (Lerner's protagonist, who, like Lerner, is a poet from Topeka spending a year abroad on fellowship) is constantly exposing himself as a phony, to us the readers if not his companions, toward whom he projects a carefully constructed persona, a man of few words because his thoughts are too complex to be expressed in a second language.

I loved reading this book, which is full of ideas about the self (the self!), about identity and worth, and funny enough that I was snickering like a jerk at nearly every page. Lerner is better known as a poet, but he's very at home in prose, and this is one of the few novels I've read that depicts the plight of the poet accurately, that precipice between potential and absurdity. (See Lucinella for another.) Because Leaving the Atocha Station takes place entirely in Madrid and its environs, where Adam is forced to speak less-than-fluent Spanish on a daily basis, usually while drunk and high, there is almost always a lovely doubling happening; Adam interprets most statements he hears as ambiguous and, rather than revealing his ignorance by asking for clarification, entertains all these options as possible simultaneously, so the world outside the space he immediately occupies hangs in quantum suspension. Too, language (and in parallel, experience itself) is always being interrogated, meta-analyzed: is it real? is it a mistranslation or misinterpretation? is it poetic pretension? is it cliche? is it the drugs talking?

Here's an example; in this scene, late in the novel, Adam is at a party with his friend, translator and would-be lover Teresa; his constructed reality is crumbling, and he has decided, uncharacteristically, to reveal self-doubt:
"You are the most graceful and protean person I know. The way you handed me the coffee right when I awoke or the way just now you took the tequila from me or, " I paused to think of an example not involving drinks, "the way you can move without apparent transition from your stylish apartment to a protest." 
"Why do you keep speaking to me in English?" she asked, with something like concern. 
I ignored the question and went on. "But I'm worried you're too cool for me, that you'll realize I'm in fact a fraud. An inelegant fraud. I won't be able to fool you and you'll get bored." As I said this, I thought it would be impossible to hide my pills from her. I had a sudden, involuntary memory of the Ritz. 
"All you're describing," she said in Spanish, "is the personality of a translator. From apartment to protest, from English to Spanish." If she had spoken in English, I would have found it a little grand; in Spanish I experienced it as profound. I wondered if she'd weighed the sentence in both languages before selecting the one that would produce the desired effect.
Teresa started to remove her clothes and for a second I thought she had lost her mind. But she had a swimsuit on underneath, and she left her clothes in a little pile and slipped noiselessly into the heated, lighted pool, as if to punctuate the ease with which she could move between media.
I like how Lerner does exactly what you're not supposed to do there, explaining the symbolism of the image. It's more true to his protagonist, to articulate the meaning to himself and bask for a moment in its resonance, the last refuge of the lonely poet. It's also, paradoxically, less arrogant: creating an opportunity for the reader to recognize a symbol belies a kind of projected satisfaction. By making it explicit, Lerner removes the possibility of any readers being left out of the joke.

My only real reservation was about the ending, which was too redeeming and feel-good to be truly satisfying, as if to imply that after embodying failure for 175 pages, Adam (and presumably, a younger Lerner) could emerge fully formed and suddenly at ease with himself. I also disliked his tic-like use of the phrase "a wave of X washed over me," which was usually euphoria and usually small; though the book has many intentional repetitions, this one lacked resonance or meaningful intention. Still, a wonderful first novel and handy guidebook for the fragile ego of the overachiever.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Mini-Reviews: Spice Girls (and a Spice Boy)

SOIVOHLE Rosa sur Reuse – I love Liz Zorn’s work, so when I saw that this relatively recent composition was getting lots of love on the blogs, I had to have some, rose (rosa) and tuberose (tubereuse) being my favorite floral notes. I bought a small bottle unsniffed while she was running a special, and I’ve been trying to figure it out ever since. Zorn has an uncanny knack for re-creating smells from my childhood: Sonoran Leather smells like gunpowder, like a skeet club in the desert of New Mexico where I spent many afternoons in the early 80s; Meerschaum reminds me powerfully of my dad, of old work gloves and man-hobbies like hunting and car repair. Oddly enough, RsR too recalls my Southwestern youth – there’s something about the combination of fiery cinnamon, fruity-sweet raspberry-rose, and creamy tuberose absolute (which can smell mentholated, woody, or even meaty depending on which aspects you play up) that results in a tamale accord. I know! It’s crazy, but I swear in the top notes, Rosa sur Reuse smells like Hot Tamales two ways – like Red Hots, like Goldschl├Ąger, but also like corn masa and red chile. However, this is one of those classically structured perfumes that changes a lot over time. Eventually it ends up feeling like a variation on Feminite du Bois (see below) or the closely related Poussiere de Rose from Parfums de Rosine: creamy cedar, warm spice, and soft fruit. But for the first few hours, it’s one of those rare perfumes that doesn’t smell like any other perfume out there.

Parfums DelRae Bois de Paradis – One of the first perfumes dear Elizabeth shared with me was a hefty sample of Bois de Paradis, which I emptied to write this review. I remember that the first time I wore it a couple of years ago, I was gravely disappointed, because it was a beautiful warm, sunny day and BdP is definitely a winter perfume. I haven’t made that mistake again, and it’s lovely on cold, crisp days when coziness is in order. Bois de Paradis is basically Christmas potpourri in perfume form – it smells like a spiced warm punch my family used to make in a crock pot for holiday gatherings, a combination of apple cider, cranberry juice and mulling spices. What differentiates it from all the other cinnamon-spicy woody scents out there (Feminite du Bois and friends) is the berry note – there’s a bit of Byredo Pulp in here. I love tart fruit notes, blackcurrant in particular, and it gives the whole composition a bracing freshness, such that I think of this as a scent for frosty days rather than nights. Can’t you just see a cardinal alighting on the snow-dusted holly bush? I thought so.

By the way, the last few milliliters I was hanging onto smell slightly less magenta-bright and slightly more spicy-dusty (a bit like old Christmas decorations kept in a wooden chest) in the top notes than I remember, so it’s worth noting that this one might degrade a bit over time (or we can blame it on the plastic purse spray). In any case it all evens out in the drydown, which smells like berries and vanilla. This is a good one and I’m sorry to see it go. Perhaps more will find its way into my life.

Viktor & Rolf Spicebomb – Spicebomb was released earlier this year as the male counterpart to 2004’s Flowerbomb. The truth about Flowerbomb is that I never remember what it smells like, beyond it being sweet in a post-Angel, post-Hanae Mori way, but it’s not as jolie-laide as Angel or as beautiful as Hanae Mori. Cute rarely cuts it with me, and I can only assume it owes its continued popularity to the existence of a large number of women who want something slightly less recognizable than Coco Mademoiselle. Thankfully, Spicebomb smells nothing like Flowerbomb, and nothing like most other mainstream masculines on the market, which tend to be abrasively "fresh." Despite the name, it’s not really a spice bomb. Instead it’s a gently spicy tobacco fragrance with a niche-y heritage, reminding me of L’Artisan Tea for Two, though not as aggressively BBQ-smoky, and even a little of Serge Lutens Chergui, though not as rich as all that. Basically it smells like leathery gingerbread, and what’s not to like about that? It's definitely not so great as to unseat my all-time favorite tobacco frangrance, Laurie Erickson's Tabac Aurea – it commits the same flaw as a lot of mainstream fragrances I like, making use of some synthetic material that causes it to smell less delicious up close and on skin than it does on paper, mostly in the top notes. Once it settles in it’s got a lovely almond-vanilla vibe which must be due to tonka bean (see also Midnight in Paris). Considering the source, I was fairly blown away.

Parfumerie Generale Un Crime Exotique – Parfumerie Generale is known for its gourmands, and Un Crime Exotique (sent my way by Ines – aren’t perfume bloggers just the most generous people in the world?) is a complex gourmand that pairs a burning hot cinnamon note with the smell of fruity tea (osmanthus). The effect is almost piercing – there’s a vaguely uncomfortable, metallic edge to this fragrance. I suppose the titular “exotic crime” is the act of stabbing someone and then drowning them in molten honey. There’s also something doughy about this, especially in the drydown, like hot glazed doughnuts. I should admit, at this point, that spice notes are tricky for me – they can get overbearing really quickly, reminding me of Dentyne and scented candles. Clove seems especially easy to overdo, and I like it best when it’s the subtlest accent (as in the aforementioned Tabac Aurea). The dosing on the pumpkin pie spice in Un Crime Exotique edges just past wearable for me. If I want a festive eggnog perfume, I prefer the balance of citrus, spice, and creamy notes in Roucel’s Oro for Roberto Cavalli.

Shiseido Feminite du Bois – My decant of the original Shiseido version of FdB, now housed by Serge Lutens, comes via another kindred spirit, Alyssa Harad (whose name, by the way, rhymes with mine, and not the way you think). When you smell all the variations it spawned, something always leaps out as a little funky – Dior Dolce Vita, which I love, is both sweeter and somehow sweaty; Kenzo Jungle L’Elephant has more clove plus a weird buttery note. But Feminite du Bois is a smooth, balanced whole; it seems calm and assured in itself – a perfume with perfect posture. If, like me, you always think spicy fragrances smell like candles, this is a great lesson in the potential of the genre. It’s not a gourmand; the cinnamon is there, and the “dried plum” (we don’t call them prunes anymore, don’t you know), but it doesn’t smell like cinnamon-raisin bread. FdB, or “femininity of wood,” really is about the wood. My favorite part is the musky, animalic growl of the drydown; it’s somehow fuzzy. Along with Belle en Rykiel and Incense Rose, this is one of my top comfort picks for airplane travel, on the cuffs of a cozy sweater. Yes, I wear perfume on the plane. Suck it, haters.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Adding on vs. taking away

I think of myself as living a pretty healthy lifestyle, far from perfect but probably in the 90% percentile of Americans. But I just realized something about myself: I'm rarely willing to give something up, for health reasons alone, that brings me pleasure, but I'm perfectly willing to adopt new practices that might improve my health.

For example, take my diet. I eat very few processed foods -- stuff like packaged cookies and crackers, frozen meals, processed bread, even cereal -- partly because a lot of them make me sick, but also because, even when they're gluten-free, I genuinely don't enjoy them. So it's no chore to "give them up." If I want a cheap and quick meal, I'd much rather make a salad or some eggs. But then there's sugar. I know sugar is bad for you, but I get so much pleasure out of having a little sugar every day (always in my coffee, and usually a bit in some other form during the day, like a piece of candy) I'm unwilling to give it up. Same goes for alcohol, my only other real vice (unless you count rampant consumerism). A little alcohol is good for you, sure, but I regularly go past the one-glass-a-day required for added longevity. After being overweight, drinking regularly is the biggest single risk factor for breast cancer. But I get so much pleasure out of it, I'm unwilling to give it up. As for smoking and other drugs: I never had any desire to use them in the first place. So I can hardly be considered virtuous for abstaining.

On the other hand, I'll happily add new foods to my diet because I know they're good for me. I always buy the eggs with extra omega-3 now, and I try to buy some kind of super-green every week (as in kale and friends ... truth be told I think kale is a pain to prepare, but John loves it). I started taking vitamin D in the morning because I read that's when you get the most benefit out of it and that it helps you sleep. I even tried doing the standing-desk thing for a while, though I fell out of the habit when I changed desk setups. All in all, adding on seems like a better bet -- if it works, great, and if it doesn't, it didn't actually detract from my life in any significant way. (If it did, I'd stop doing it.) But when you give up things you love, you run the chance of dying young anyway. And what's the point of living to 100 if you're not having a good time?

I guess another way of saying this is, I'm pretty good at forming new habits, but bad at breaking old ones.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Negative voting

I think it would be cool if you could elect to cast a negative vote instead of a positive vote. For example, you could vote -1 for Romney instead of +1 for Obama, effectively taking one of Romney's votes away. It seems to me there are a lot of people who don't fully support Obama or his platform, but at the same time acknowledge that Romney would be worse. In general it would be interesting as a sort of "hate index," and we could observe that a candidate lost due to a large number of negative votes, which would be different from losing a close race due to slightly fewer positive votes. What do you think?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

My 50 favorite words

Because it'll take me a while to figure out my 50 books, here are 50 favorite words, as they came to me:
  1. Profound
  2. Inscrutable
  3. Insofar
  4. Nevertheless
  5. Chandelier 
  6. Cantilever 
  7. Concertina
  8. Chiffonade
  9. Heuristic
  10. Pristine
  11. Uncanny
  12. Unheimlich 
  13. Nemesis 
  14. Mnemonic 
  15. Mumblecore 
  16. Thundersnow 
  17. Miserable
  18. Syncope
  19. Busker 
  20. Tether 
  21. Tessellate 
  22. Quean 
  23. Pompadour
  24. Ottoman
  25. Pretty
  26. Gritty
  27. Glittery
  28. Jammy
  29. Glossy
  30. Cherry
  31. Poppy
  32. Spritz 
  33. Fuzz
  34. Happenstance
  35. Boulevard
  36. Silhouette 
  37. Rook 
  38. Foxy 
  39. Fix
  40. Decoy
  41. Koi 
  42. Joy
  43. Lexicon
  44. Horizon 
  45. Meniscus 
  46. Shimmering   
  47. Capacious
  48. Delirious 
  49. Oblique
  50. Mystique 
This is a delight. I could easily name 50 more.