Shelley on Poetry and the Art of Seeing


“Poetry… reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.”


Shelley on Poetry and the Art of Seeing

“We hear and apprehend only what we already half know,” Thoreau wrote in contemplating the crucial difference between knowing and seeing. To apprehend reality unblinded by our preconceptions, to truly see rather than pre-know, takes a special receptivity, a special channel of perception that bypasses our ordinary, habit-blunted ways. Poetry provides one such opening, perhaps the supreme one — a subtle portal of receptivity that allows us to take in the universe anew. Poetry unlatches the backdoor of the psyche to rewire the optic nerve of our perception, giving us new eyes with which to regard the world, inner and outer, personal, political, and cosmic. Ursula K. Le Guin knew this when she observed that “science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside”; John F. Kennedy knew this when he proclaimed that “when power corrupt, poetry cleanses”; Adrienne Rich knew this when she wrote that “poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire”; I too intuited it in turning to poetry to celebrate the science and splendor of the natural world, and to protest their political assault, with The Universe in Verse.

But no one has articulated that singular power of poetry more beautifully than Percy Bysshe Shelley (August 4, 1792–July 8, 1822) in a piece titled A Defence of Poetry, originally composed just before his untimely death and later included in his Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments (public library | public domain) — the posthumous collection his equally visionary widow, Mary Shelley, edited and published in 1840.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint

Shelley writes:

All things exist as they are perceived: at least in relation to the percipient. “The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” But poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions. And whether it spreads its own figured curtain, or withdraws life’s dark veil from before the scene of things, it equally creates for us a being within our being. It makes us the inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know. It creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.

Complement with This Is a Poem That Heals Fish — a lovely French picture-book about how poetry works its magic — and Elizabeth Alexander, one of the great poets of our own time, on what poetry does for the human spirit, then revisit Shelley’s prescient case for animal rights and the spiritual value of vegetarianism and savor some highlights from The Universe in Verse.


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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

First, BlogWriter shows it’s never too late to read Graham Greene:

Just finished Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, almost half a century after I first became aware of its existence. A great author, he compels you to step into his characters’ shoes and live their agonies and tribulations from the inside. And then he leaves you thinking.

Duffy is the MD of IPSOS Mori so knows a lot about surveys of people’s understanding of political issues. In this book he explores the gap between what people think and reality. Depressingly, the gap is often enormous. A typical example is on immigration. When asked what proportion of the population are immigrants, British respondents said 25% when the reality is 13%, almost half. They also thought that refugees and asylum seekers made up a third of that number when the actual figure is 10%. What is worse, when confronted with the facts, those surveyed tried to justify their ignorance or deny the statistics altogether … One of the challenges he sets is to make your own guesses at the facts before he reveals the true answers. To my shame, I often got things wrong. It certainly made me think.

His Emperor of All Maladies knocked my socks off and educated me about cancer. This is doing just the same about the gene and genetics. I often look out to the stars and think ‘How has all of this come about?’ This book has me looking within and getting answers to the same question. How these singular building blocks come to work together to create such complexity is fascinating – and elegant and beautiful.

Here, the women of a Mennonite community debate whether to leave their home after finding out that a group of men in their community has been tranquilising and raping the women and children of the village. It is based on the true story of a Mennonite community in Brazil. Some sentences here hit me very close to the bone and I had to sit back and take the occasional breather. A gripping read.

An utterly bleak vision of contemporary Australia. The Doll, a pole-dancer in Sydney’s King’s Cross, is mistakenly identified as a terrorist after a scare about three bombs in a Sydney Sports Stadium. (In Australia you could blow up the Opera House and get away with it, but blowing up a sports stadium is just unforgivable.) A media pile on, led by a sleazy TV journalist, Richard Cody, convinces the country and the government and opposition that the Doll is a major terrorist, when all she has done is slept overnight with a young Arab, also mistakenly identified as a terrorist … what is truly disturbing about this book, set in the too-real sleaze and corruption of early 21st century Kings Cross, is that with the current overreach of Australia’s terror laws, which Flanagan brilliantly exposes, it could happen to any of us.

‘Hippos often come up to the lawn in front of the pub to graze at night; in any case, they’d dispensed with the need for a mower. ‘Careful not to walk up a hippos’s arse in the dark’, Dad always warned if I left my barstool to venture into the pub’s ablution block.’

You may have read Fuller’s earlier books, my favourite of which is Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, where she recalls coming of age in a family of white settlers in Zimbabwe in the early seventies. Sadly, she loses her beloved father in this volume but his presence pervades the pages. Her mother, “Nicola Fuller of Central Africa” is still very much alive and has more than a touch of Nancy Mitford about her. Fuller is unsentimental and often amusing about a tough life and her love of the country she grew up in.

“To me, a proper dictionary is a book of spells,” says Jeanette Winterson.

The 10 writers who have just won MacArthur genius grants.

Jerome Boyd Maunsell considers Susan Sontag’s Duet for Cannibals, 50 years on.

On the best small library in the United States.

When William Burroughs met Francis Bacon.

Continue reading…



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5 Questions for Choosing a Protagonist Who Represents Your Story’s Theme


choosing a protagonistChoosing a protagonist is often more of an event than a process. Writers sometimes feel more like the protagonist chooses them than the other way around. While most of us heed our first instinct to simply chase after this character to see where he goes, it’s important that at some point we analyze the soundness of the story idea by considering whether we have the right protagonist for the right story.

Although many metrics may inform this analysis, theme is usually the best measuring stick. Because theme is the peanut butter that gloms together the bread of the plot and the jelly of the characters, it always provides a good criterion for determining whether the entire recipe is coming together in a way that tastes right.

By itself, a plot is just a series of events. It’s not a story until we zoom in to focus on what these events mean to specific people. Usually, there are many people involved in these events. As seen in the recent fad for retconning classic stories from the viewpoints of supporting characters, a story may offer the possibility for many potential protagonists. As the common saying goes, even characters who look like traditional antagonists inevitably see themselves as the heroes of their own stories.

It usually isn’t difficult for authors to choose a protagonist; we just write about whichever character most interests us. If we feel there are additional characters who dramatically impact the plot, we can always throw in their POVs as well (although, I should say, this should never be done lightly). The most important decision is not choosing a protagonist or choosing a plot or even choosing a theme. Rather, the most important calibration you can make is to ensure all three are aligned.

5 Questions for Choosing a Protagonist Who Is Thematically Correct for Your Story

You know you’ve chosen the right character in the right plot when, together, they create a harmonious theme.

If this sounds easier said than done, it both is and isn’t. Most authors (or rather most people) have pretty good instincts about lining up a story’s parts—or, at the very least, an intuitive understanding of cause and effect. But because writing a story soon becomes an exercise in herding many different bits and pieces of theory and technique, it can also be easy to lose your way through the forest thanks to all those crazy trees.

We talked recently about how to properly balance plot and character, so you avoid “too much” of either. Today, let’s look more closely at how a few well-chosen questions can help you check whether you’ve chosen the most thematically-powerful character as your protagonist. If you discover your protagonist isn’t ideally positioned to both advance the plot and “prove” the theme, these questions can also help you to either identify a better protagonist or tweak things to bring plot-character-theme into better alignment.

1. What Does Your Protagonist Bring to This Particular Conflict That No Other Character Does?

If you could switch out your protagonist for another member of the cast without significantly changing either the events of the plot or the thematic intent of the Climax, you can be pretty sure you’ve got a deadbeat protagonist on your hands.

This is also true if you could mix-and-match your protagonist for a brand-new character who is (or at least seems to be) completely different. For example, if the heroine of your YA romance is a mousy introvert, but the events of the story wouldn’t be much affected if you turned her into an angry stoner—then she’s two-dimensional and thematically-vapid in either case.

The protagonist is the monarch of characters. The title raises this particular character above all other characters. But there must be a reason for this elevation. The character must prove worthy. This doesn’t necessarily mean the character needs to have special powers or mad skillz. What it does mean is that the character must have or develop qualities that qualify her interaction with the plot events to represent the thematic meaning of those events.

Examine your primary cast and ask yourself what sets your protagonist apart? How will this story change her in ways it will not change the others? How will she drive the plot in ways no one else could? How will other characters be impacted by her in a way that could have happened with no other character?

2. Why Is This Conflict Your Protagonist’s Plot—And Not Anyone Else’s in the Story?

Why is Star Wars about Luke and not Han or Leia? Arguably, both Han and Leia are more interesting personalities. Certainly, a story with Leia in the lead could have mirrored many of the same plot beats and revelations as Luke’s—since they share Force talents and a parental relationship with the hated antagonist who murdered their surrogate families.

Although a story with Leia in the lead could potentially have been just as interesting, it would not have been the same story. The central plot in the original trilogy belongs to Luke because it’s naïve, idealistic farm-boy Luke who starts out as the zero. When the story begins, Leia already seems ten years older than her twin. She’s too experienced and worldly to represent the story’s underlying thematic arc of the journey from Fool to Master. To try to tell anywhere close to the same story from Leia’s POV, you’d have to start earlier in the timeline and completely change her personality.

Princess Leia Star Wars New Hope Carrie Fisher

Han and Leia may have gotten more zippy dialogue than Luke did. But the purity and the power of the Hero’s Journey could only have been represented in this particular plot by this particular protagonist.

More than that, this choice is reinforced structurally throughout the story. Despite the time given to Han and Leia’s subplot, the structural backbone of the conflict is always and obviously Luke vs. Vader—which ties in perfectly with the thematic throughline of Good vs. Evil.

Luke Skywalker Darth Vader Star Wars Return of the Jedi

3. What Is Your Protagonist’s Greatest Virtue?

Sometimes it can be difficult to determine what specific offering a protagonist-elect brings to the table. If you think about it too hard, the lines can start to blur to the point where it seems as if the story could be told with just as much interest and power from any POV. Fortunately, there are a couple additional questions you can ask to help you understand a proposed protagonist’s unique offerings.

The first thing to consider is your protagonist’s good qualities. What virtue does this character represent that is not initially present in any other character? It may be the protagonist teaches this virtue to other characters as you go, so think specifically about the contrast between your protagonist and the rest of the cast in the first half of the story.

For example, your protagonist may be kind when all others are cruel. He may be brave when others are cowardly. She may be smart when others are ignorant. He may cling to hope when all others despair.

It’s possible this “virtue” may also encompass a special skill. But skills don’t usually represent theme in the same way as virtues. Whatever the virtue, it should not be random. This character’s kindness, bravery, intelligence, or hopefulness should prove crucial to the development of the plot—either directly or perhaps ironically.

4. What Is Your Protagonist’s Greatest Flaw?

Even more telling is the second question you can ask about your protagonist’s moral relationship to the theme. What is her greatest flaw? To maintain thematic continuity, the flaw/weakness is very often the mirror image of the virtue. It is the virtue taken full circle, to its farthest extreme, to the point where it is no longer admirable or helpful.

The virtue of kindness may arise from a painfully conflict-averse character. Physical bravery may mask emotional cowardice. Intelligence may ride side by side with socially-destructive arrogance. Hope may be blind.

Most protagonists start out with enough good qualities to endear them to audiences (or at least to stoke interest when juxtaposed against less likable tendencies). But those qualities will rarely start out dialed all the way to ten. Rather, when the virtues are held back by a partner flaw, they represent both the possibility and the need for thematic change.

5. How Does This Virtue and This Flaw Directly Influence This Plot—and What Do They Say About Both the Plot and the Protagonist?

In a well-constructed story, the plot will be constructed to initiate the latent change found in the tension point between the protagonist’s specific virtue and flaw. The machine operates only because all the pieces are designed to work together.

When the plot is created from actions arising out of a specific protagonist’s virtues and flaws, you’ll never have to wonder if you’re choosing a thematically-pertinent protagonist. You’ll also never have to wonder if your plot and your theme are organic to one another. When the protagonist is both creating the plot and deriving personal meaning from its events, you know you’ve chosen the right character.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the most crucial factor in choosing a protagonist? Tell me in the comments!


Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

The post 5 Questions for Choosing a Protagonist Who Represents Your Story’s Theme appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.



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AMY WU AND THE PERFECT BAO: Author & Illustrator Behind the Scenes (plus a giveaway)


Recently a film by Pixar called “Bao” received the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film at the 91st Academy Awards. The short featured a Canadian-Chinese mother whose son grew up and moved away, so she was feeling lonely. Enter a perfect, plump bao to give her a second chance at motherhood.

Since then, I’ve been a tad obsessed with the yummy bao. I enjoy one every time I shop at the Asian grocery. So I was excited to learn of a new picture book coming out on October 1: AMY WU AND THE PERFECT BAO.

What a cover! Not only is there a perfect bao, but Amy and her kitty are pretty darn adorable, too.

I asked the author, Kat Zhang, and the illustrator, Charlene Chua, a few questions. I also had them interview one another. They discussed the story and the delicious ideas behind it.

Kat, what inspired you to write Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao?

Making bao and mantou (another kind of Chinese steamed bread bun) with my parents is such a treasured childhood memory for me. As I grew older, and the whole family got busier, we made them less. It wasn’t until I was in late high school or early college that the bao-making bug struck me again, and I became obsessed with making bao that were as good as the ones I had in restaurants. Many, many rounds of lumpy, leaky, over-and-underfilled bao later, I not only had a darn good bao recipe, but an idea for a new book!

What was your reaction to Charlene’s illustrations?

AMY WU AND THE PERFECT BAO is my debut picture book, and seeing Charlene’s illustrations has honestly been one of the most thrilling parts of the whole process! I had a general idea of how I pictured the characters and illustrations, but I was eager to see how an illustrator interpreted the text and the characters as well. Charlene did such an amazing job giving Amy’s family dimension and character through the illustrations, and I especially loved the addition of the little kitty, who wasn’t mentioned at all in the original text. Now I can’t imagine the book without it!

What do you hope young Asian-American/Canadian readers will get from this book?

The opportunity to see people like yourself in media is such a big deal, and honestly, something I don’t think I fully grasped until I was older. As a kid, I don’t remember specifically thinking that I wished there were more Asian-American characters in media. But not seeing myself reflected in the books and movies I consumed definitely contributed to my internalizing a lot of things as a kid about what sort of things I “fit” into. I was perpetually on the outside looking in. I hope that AMY WU is just one more opportunity for a kid to recognize themselves in Amy’s family. And of course, on the other side of things, I hope it lets non-Asian American kids explore a culture different from their own.

What is your favorite detail from the book that reminds you of your own homes/households?

I absolutely loved all the details Charlene snuck into Amy’s house! My mother has a total green thumb, so when I was growing up, we definitely had the bamboo plants, and the big leafy plants all over the house. Our steamer was metal, but I totally wish we had a cool woven one like Amy’s family!

What is your favorite bao?

I have a sweet tooth, and I love red bean paste bao and lotus paste bao!

Charlene asks Kat: Did the story change a lot from 1st draft till the version I got to illustrate? If so, what were the big changes?

Amazingly (at least for me, since my stories often undergo big changes from my first idea to the final draft!), AMY WU AND THE PERFECT BAO didn’t change much from the very first draft I wrote. The biggest tweak was probably having Amy herself come up with the solution of cutting the bao dough into smaller pieces so that they fit her hands better. In the first draft, it was Grandma who came up with the idea!

Kat, which is your favorite page/s in the book?

This is so hard to choose! I love, love the page with the phoenix and dragon surrounding Amy’s vision of a perfect bao, but I also laughed out loud when I first saw the page of her and Kitty with the three “messed up” bao. The “Perfect Bao Plan” page is also amazing. Really, I just love them all!

Did Amy and her family turn out looking like what you originally imagined them to be?

They did! I hadn’t originally imagined Grandma with pink hair, but I think it adds something great to her character. Amy is every bit the spunky, vivacious kid I wanted her to be!

Charlene, what was your inspiration for Amy Wu’s look—her hair, her clothes, her body language, etc.?

When I first read Kat’s manuscript, I thought that Amy was a very cheerful, enthusiastic girl, with a good amount of confidence in whatever she set her mind to doing. It was great to have a story with a young Chinese girl who isn’t afraid of expressing what she wants or how she feels. Amy is also character that sort of needs to be All-Amy, all the time, and I tried to match her design to those qualities. Amy’s actions are depicted with bigger gestures, because she’s not shy at showing how she feels. Her clothes allow her freedom of movement, and feature bold and eclectic colors.

What inspired you to create Amy Wu’s cat friend?

I had attended a kidlit conference shortly before starting work on the book. At one of the talks, the speaker mentioned that animals were a way to add more visual interest to a story, without altering the narrative. The thought stuck with me, and I’ve been trying to incorporate it ever since. With Amy’s story, I also really like Amy’s personality, it’s very strong – but to really show that, sometimes you need to contrast it with a softer character, such as a younger sibling that can look up to or copy the ‘stronger’ character’s actions. Since Amy doesn’t have any younger siblings, I thought that maybe her having an animal companion would be able to achieve the same effect. I also just like cats, and will take any opportunity to stick one into a story!

What do you hope young Asian-American/Canadian readers will get from this book?

I hope that readers who identify with Amy and her family will be excited to see a family like their own in this book. But I also hope that readers from all backgrounds will enjoy it too. You don’t have to be from an Asian family or know about Chinese food to enjoy the book—it’s very accessible so I hope that people will check it out just because it’s a neat story.

What is your favorite detail from the book that reminds you of your own homes/households?

The kitchen stove in the story is more or less based on my actual stove. It’s a gas stove, because I’ve cooked with gas all my life. My mum cooked with gas, and my grandmothers did too (one grandmother liked using charcoal as well, but that’s another story). The rice cooker also looks similar to the cooker I grew up with, although the one I use now looks different.

What is your favorite bao?

Char siu bao! (Chinese barbeque pork.)

Kat asks Charlene: I loved getting multiple versions of the illustration for each page during the initial stages of book coming together. How do you brainstorm various ideas for an illustration? What factors do you take into consideration?

I like trying out different layouts to see what works best – usually the first idea I come up with isn’t the one I end up going with. Most of the art for Amy Wu was done digitally, but the thumbnails were done with pencil on paper. I like to sit in a comfy chair and doodle out thumbnails—it works better for me that way as it’s just me and the paper, no fancy screens or Undo buttons to concern me. When working on thumbnails, I consider the text for a particular page or spread, and how best to bring that to life. I also think about what I could possibly add to make it more fun or impactful. When all the thumbnails are done, I try to look at them as a whole to see which ones connect the best. Sometimes there’s a thumbnail for a page that looks great on its own, but when it’s strung together with the rest, it doesn’t work as well.

Artists often have a very unique signature style. What would you say are the elements of yours? Do you feel like it’s still evolving a lot, or something that’s remained stable? 

It’s kind of hard for me to pin down my own style (I think many artists have that problem!). I guess my art tends to be quite energetic, usually with pretty strong colors. I think it’s evolved over the years, especially now that I’m working with more non-digital art for some other projects. But at the same time, I think if you looked at the older and newer work, it’s still possible to see the same artist behind it.

Thank you, Kat and Charlene, for sharing the stories behind the story!

Blog readers, you can win a copy of AMY WU AND THE PERFECT BAO when it is released.

Just add one comment below and a random winner will be selected soon! (Tara has many winners of recent contests to select!)

Good luck!

You can visit Kat Zhang at KatZhangwriter.com and Charlene Chua at CharleneChua.com



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Laura Renauld’s Storystorm Success Story (plus a giveaway)


by Laura Renauld

Online writing challenges have been key to my career as a children’s author. I’m the kind of writer who needs external goals and deadlines to jumpstart my internal motivation. Challenges have helped me develop my craft, given me strategies for revision, and connected me with a vibrant writing community. Some of my favorites include NaPiBoWriWee, ReFoReMo, Susanna Leonard Hill’s writing contests, and, of course, Storystorm.

I’ve been participating in Storystorm since 2011. Back then, it was called Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo). That same year I joined SCBWI and found a local critique group. I was finally taking myself seriously as a writer!

Fast forward three years. PiBoIdMo 2014 was in full swing and I was filling my notebook with ideas. After reading Tammi Sauer’s guest post about attempting ‘How-To’ books, I jotted an idea in my notebook that involved a pie and a porcupine. Little did I know that this alliterative idea was going to propel my writing career forward! Almost one year ago, in October 2018, my debut picture book, Porcupine’s Pie, was published.

Happy first birthday, Porcupine!

As I reflected on my journey to publication, the amazing connections I’ve made in-person and online in the Kidlit community, and the writing challenges that have motivated me along the way, I became aware of three things. First, I have benefited greatly from the generosity and support of other children’s authors and illustrators. Second, a debut author has an uphill climb when it comes to connecting with readers. Third, I wanted to find a way to give back. What better way to do that than to start my own challenge?

Introducing the DEBUT REVIEW CHALLENGE!

We’ve all heard about the importance of customer reviews. They act as a proxy for word-of-mouth recommendations. While there is some debate over how many reviews are “enough”, I think we can all agree: the more reviews, the better. Reviews lead to exposure and book buzz, which allows our books to get into the hands of more children. What could be better than that?

Anyone with a book can benefit from a review, but this challenge is designed to give a boost to first-time authors and illustrators. The Debut Review Challenge will encourage kidlit creators, teachers, librarians, and parents to write book reviews, specifically for debut books.

Here’s how the challenge will work:

  1. Read a debut book by a Kidlit creator.
  2. Write an honest review. Post it on Amazon, Goodreads, or other online sites
  3. Repeat! Once you complete 10 reviews, fill out this ENTRY FORM. You could win a signed book, a free Skype visit, or a manuscript critique, to name a few of the fabulous prizes donated by participating debut authors and illustrators. And you can enter every time you complete 10 reviews!

Be sure to follow #DebutReviewChallenge on Twitter and Instagram for debut creator interviews and chances for bonus entries. You can also find more info at my website, including a downloadable Review Record sheet. Go to LauraRenauld.com.

(And if you are a traditionally published debut kidlit creator who would like to shine in the challenge spotlight, click HERE!)

The first challenge begins in October. Won’t you join the fun?

Thanks, Laura! And congratulations!

To celebrate the first birthday of her debut picture book, Laura is giving away a signed copy of Porcupine’s Pie.

Leave one comment below to enter. A winner will be randomly selected soon!

Good luck!


Laura Renauld is the author of Porcupine’s Pie and Fred’s Big Feelings: The Life and Legacy of Mister Rogers, which will be available January 14, 2020. (Just one of the many fabulous new releases from the 2020 Comeback Crew: @2020comebkcrew.)

Find out more about the Debut Review Challenge at laurarenauld.com, where you can also subscribe to her newsletter and blog.

Follow Laura on Twitter: @laura_renauld, Instagram: @laurarenauld, and Facebook: @kidlitlaura.



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Year of the Monkey: Patti Smith on Loss, Love, and What It Takes to Mend the Broken Realities of Life


“One cannot ask for a life, or two lives. One can only warrant the hope of an increasing potency in each man’s heart.”


Year of the Monkey: Patti Smith on Loss, Love, and What It Takes to Mend the Broken Realities of Life

“Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us,” Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando — her groundbreaking novel that gallops across centuries of history, across lines of logic and convention, to telescope a vision for a different future of the human heart.

There are moments in life when it is no longer clear whether we dream our dreams or are dreamt by them — moments when reality presses against us with such intensity, acute and overwhelmingly real, that all we can do is sit on its sharp edge of uncertainty, feet dangling into a dream, hoping for clarity and fortitude. And then, on these dream-drenched feet, we get back up and march into the uncertainty, then soar over it on the wingspan of perspective we call hope.

That is what Patti Smith offers with uncommon elegance of thought and feeling in Year of the Monkey (public library) — a dream-driven, reality-reclaiming masterpiece, laced with poetry and philosophy and surrealism and the hardest realism there is: that of hope.

Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)
Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)

Where her stunning memoir M Train rode on the arrowy vector of time and transformation, Year of the Monkey revolves around the cyclical nature of time and being — of personal, cultural, and civilizational history — evocative of the Australian aboriginal notion of “dream time.” The story — part dream and part reality, haunted and haunting, unfolding in a place where “the borders of reality had reconfigured,” a place with “the improbable logic of a child’s treasure map” — begins at a real motel called the Dream Inn in Santa Cruz, where Smith has traveled just before her 69th birthday to visit a friend of forty years, now comatose at the ICU. The motel sign comes alive, speaks to her, becomes her ongoing interlocutor, demands that she admit to dreaming, insists that she assent to unreality — conversations that become the book’s undergirding creative trope.

“Dream Inn. Santa Cruz.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

As she moves through this unfamiliar world of side streets and taco bars, each unvisited place radiates the aura of what Mark Strand called, in his gorgeous ode to dreams, “a place that seems always vaguely familiar.” At the Dream Inn, she dreams many dreams that are “much more than dreams, as if originating from the dawn of mind.” She dreams of being left behind — on the side of the road, in the middle of the desert, in a flooding apartment; dreams of being a young girl in the 18th century, gazing at Goethe’s color wheel, “bright and obscure”; longs for her long-dead mother’s voice. In that liminal space between wakefulness and sleep — the space Nathaniel Hawthorne so memorably described as “a spot where Father Time, when he thinks nobody is watching him, sits down by the way side to take breath” — she hears her mother recite a Robert Louis Stevenson poem about the meaning of home.

Through it all, there is a fierce commitment to facing reality — the disquieting reality we live in, a reality of unrest and injustice, of ecological and moral collapse. But there is also something else, something mighty. Beneath the blanket of gloom — friends dying, strangers’ children dying, species dying, icebergs melting, truth burning, justice crumbling — she senses something buoyant pressing up, insisting on existence, “like the birth of a poem or a small volcano erupting.” It is this sort of optimism that animates the book — optimism that feels not human but geologic, more kindred to the optimism of a tree, rooted in deep time, in strata of cultures and civilizations who all lived and died, hoped and despaired, foraged for meaning, dwelt in dreams; the optimism of uncertainty, the kind Václav Havel recognized as the willingness “to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

Lurching into the lacunae between self and world, between poetry and politics, between history and future, Smith invites us to relinquish the different names we give to the living of life and just live it, with all its disorienting uncertainty. Reading this small, miraculous book, I get the feeling of being at open sea, far from land, on one of those rare nights when the surface of the water becomes so still and the reflections of the stars so crisp that the horizon line vanishes and there is no longer a sense of sky or water, of up or down or East or West, of what is reflection and what is reality — only the feeling of being immersed in a cosmic everythingness, with pure spacetime stretching all directions, star-salted and possible.

She moves through this world as a time-traveler, an eavesdropper, a vagrant, a vagabond in the land of literature and life, where people, always seemingly unwitting of her identity, engage her in diners to talk about Roberto Bolaño novels, take her on as a hitchhiker so long as she pays for the gas and vows to keep perfectly silent, ditch her at a gas station when she breaks the vow to compliment a playlist of songs from her youth. She is nameless, fameless, a human mirror held up to the world — a Borgesian mirror, in which each reflection sparks another reflection, never quite clear whether real or dream-drawn, in an infinity-leaning regress of memories and meditations.

“Fortune cookie. Venice Beach.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

In Venice Beach, passing by a mural of Fiddler on the Roof, she nods at the Yiddish fiddler “commiserating an unspoken fear of friends slipping away.” A woman waves her into a restaurant called Mao’s Kitchen, “a communal kind of place,” which sparks the memory of journeying with a poet-friend “through endless rice paddies, pale gold, and the sky a clear blue, staggered by what was an ordinary spectacle for most,” looking for the cave near the Chinese border where the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence was written. She reads a fortune cookie — “You will step on the soul of many countries.” — only to realize she has misread “soul” for “soil”; she doesn’t belabor the poignancy of the inadvertently revised prophecy and nor will I. She packs her few possessions — “jacket, camera, identity card, notebook, pen, dead phone and some money” — to go visit that same poet-friend in Tucson and remembers him sitting on the wide veranda of a temple they had visited together in Phnom Penh long ago, singing to the children that congregated around him, “the sun a halo around his long hair.” Radiating from the pages is the delicious bittersweetness of life lost to time but fully lived in the course of being. The memory-portrait she paints is suffused with this bittersweetness, tender and transcendent and Blakean:

He looked up at me and smiled. I heard laughter, tinkling bells, bare feet on the temple stairs. It was all so close, the rays of the sun, the sweetness, a sense of time lost forever.

There is also, of course, Smith’s ferocious lifelong love of reading, animating the book as it animates the self from which it sprang. She dreams of a street named Voltaire and a horse named Noun. Shakespeare, Nabokov, and Proust, The Magic Mountain, The Divine Comedy, and Pinocchio flit in and out. Lewis Carroll bends her logic. Gauss and Galileo taunt her with the necessity of proof. A mental trick inspired by Melville helps her salve insomnia. “Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live,” Marcus Aurelius scolds her on the eve of her seventieth birthday, as he has scolded millions of us across the millennia from the pages of his timeless Meditations. She meets the Stoic’s charge with a Jimi Hendrix retort: “I’m going to live my life the way I want to.” All the while, the Dream Inn sign continues sending her dispatches from the recesses of her own unconscious:

Nothing is ever solved. Solving is an illusion. There are moments of spontaneous brightness, when the mind appears emancipated, but that is mere epiphany.

“Joshua Tree cactus” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

A recurring dream-companion she meets in a Virginia Beach diner — a Russian-Mexican Bolaño-lover named Ernest with a melancholy, metaphysical bend and eyes that “kept changing like a mood ring, from pure grey to the color of chocolate” — tells her:

Some dreams aren’t dreams of all, just another angle of physical reality.

I hear the voice of the painter, poet, and philosopher Etel Adnan whisper that “the logic of dreams is superior to the one we exercise while awake” as Ernest’s words become the soundwave of Smith’s unconscious mind:

There’s no hierarchy. That’s the miracle of a triangle. No top, no bottom, no taking sides. Take away the tags of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and replace each with love. See what I mean? Love. Love. Love. Equal weight encompassing the whole of so called spiritual existence.

Her daily routine at the motel is itself an existential allegory:

Every morning I’d make my coffee in a tin pot, rustle up some beans and eggs and read of the local occurrences in the newsletter. Just negotiating zones. No rules. No change. But then everything eventually changes. It’s the way of the world. Cycles of death and resurrection, but not always in the way we imagine.

“My trusty suitcase.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

Dead friends travel with her as the Collected Poems of Allen Ginsberg — “an expansive hydrogen jukebox, containing all the nuances of his voice” — warm her pocket on a lecture tour. A book acquired in a thrift shop — Gérard de Nerval’s proto-surrealist novella Aurélia, the manuscript of which was found in the author’s coat-pocket when he hanged himself in 1855 — seems to speak to her directly: “Our dreams are a second life.” Billie Holiday sings Strange Fruit from the radio in the wake of an election that uncorked the madness of hate and the madness of apathy.

Her voice, one of laconic suffering, produced shudders of admiration and shame. I pictured her sitting at the bar, a gardenia in her hair and a Chihuahua in her lap. I pictured her sleeping in a rumpled white skirt and blouse on a diesel-fueled tour bus, turned away from a white Southern hotel despite the fact that she was Billie Holiday, despite the fact that she was simply a human being.

Patti Smith pictures this while sitting in a late-night bar in Hell’s Kitchen, mourning for her friend and for her country, and I picture her silver braids falling to either side of the shot of vodka and the glass of water she has ordered, despite the fact that she is Patti Smith, aglow with the fact that she is simply a human being.

“Polaroids. New York City.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

Again and again her thoughts return to her dying friend — the poet and music maverick Sandy Pearlman — and with him, inevitably, to death itself, to the finitude of being with which we all must live:

We met in 1971 after my first poetry performance, Lenny accompanying me on electric guitar. Sandy Pearlman was sitting cross-legged on the floor in St. Mark’s Church, dressed in leather, Jim Morrison style. I had read his Excerpts from the History of Los Angeles, one of the greatest pieces written about rock music. After the performance, he told me I should front a rock ’n’ roll band but I just laughed and told him I already had a good job working in a bookstore. Then he went on to reference Cerberus, the dog of Hades, suggesting I should delve into its history.

— Not just the history of a dog, but the history of an idea, he said, flashing his extremely white teeth.

I thought him arrogant, though in an appealing way, but his suggestion that I should front a rock band seemed pretty far-fetched. At the time, I was seeing Sam Shepard and I told him what Sandy had said. He didn’t find it extreme at all. He looked me in the eye and told me I could do anything. We were all young then, and that was the general idea. That we could do anything.

Sandy now unconscious at the ICU in Marin County. Sam [Shepard] negotiating the waning stages of his affliction. I felt a cosmic pull in multiple directions and wondered if some idiosyncratic force field was shielding yet another field, one with a small orchard at its crux, heavy with a fruit containing an unfathomable core.

“For Sam. Rockaway Beach.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

The harsh reality of it all takes on a surreal air. She watches anime clips on a loop as she slurps flying-fish-roe spaghetti in San Francisco, waiting for visiting hours at the hospital. The Pied Piper haunts her days and dreams, until on her way to sit vigil with Sandy, she suddenly realizes that the story is “not essentially one of revenge but of love.” The prospect of imminent loss clarifies things in this way, reminding us that every story — no matter how enturmoiled by the surface confusions of jealousy and blame — is at bottom a love story and a time story.

“You don’t follow plots you negotiate them,” she wants to write with the candy-stripe pencil that rests on her dying friend’s bedside. Instead, exhausted with travel and grief, she drifts into another existential dream:

The pencil seemed far away, well beyond my grasp, and I actually watched myself fall asleep. The clouds were pink and dropped from the sky. I was wearing sandals, kicking through mounds of red leaves surrounding a shrine on a small hill. There was a small cemetery with rows of monkey deities, some adorned with red capes and knitted caps. Massive crows were picking through the drying leaves. It doesn’t mean anything, someone was shouting, and that was all I could remember.

“My room. New York City.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

Yet, somehow, life tumbles on; somehow, we must make meaning. Watching the terrifying turn of her age — age in the sense of cultural era, age in the sense of the personal timespan one is allotted between the bookends of nothingness — Smith writes in the dead of New York City’s coldest winter on the record:

Across America one light after another seemed to burn out. The oil lamps of another age flickered and died.

[…]

The cat was rubbing against my knee. I opened a can of sardines, chopped up her share, then cut some onions, toasted two slices of oat bread and made myself a sandwich. Staring at my image on the mercurial surface of the toaster, I noticed I looked young and old simultaneously. I ate hastily, failing to clean up, actually craving some small sign of life, an army of ants dragging crumbs dislodged from the cracks of the kitchen tiles. I longed for buds sprouting, doves cooing, darkness lifting, spring returning.

Marcus Aurelius asks us to note the passing of time with open eyes. Ten thousand years or ten thousand days, nothing can stop time, or change the fact that I would be turning seventy in the Year of the Monkey. Seventy. Merely a number but one indicating the passing of a significant percentage of the allotted sand in an egg timer, with oneself the darn egg. The grains pour and I find myself missing the dead more than usual. I notice that I cry more when watching television, triggered by romance, a retiring detective shot in the back while staring into the sea, a weary father lifting his infant from a crib. I notice that my own tears burn my eyes, that I am no longer a fast runner and that my sense of time seems to be accelerating… I try to be more aware of the passing hours, that I might see it happen, that cosmic shift from one digit to another. Despite all efforts February just slips away, though being a leap year there is one extra day to observe. I stare at the number 29 on the daily calendar, then reluctantly tear off the page. March first.

By springtime, the strangeness is no longer the Lewis Carroll kind but an outright collective insanity:

April Fool’s Day. A kind of madness swept the course of every action, magnifying every reaction. Balls of confusion rolled toward us, scores of steely shooters, tripping us up, keeping us off-balance. The news pounded, and minds raced to make sense of the campaign of a candidate compounding lies at such a speed that one could not keep up, or break down. The world twisted at his liking, poured over with a metallic substance, fool’s gold, already peeling away.

By summertime, as she wades through “an atmosphere of artificial brightness with corrosive edges, the hyperreality of a polarizing pre-election mudslide, an avalanche of toxicity infiltrating every outpost,” personal, political, and planetary realities entwine with overwhelming urgency. In a passage evocative of Rebecca Solnit’s poignant observation that “the grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect,” Smith writes:

It is the unprecedented heat and the dying reef and the arctic shelf breaking apart that haunts me. It is Sandy slipping in and out of consciousness, battling a run of bacterial infections, while mapping his own apocalyptic scenarios straight from the bowels of the Heart o’ the City Hotel. I can hear him thinking, I can hear the walls breathing. Perhaps a break is needed, an intermission of sorts, withdrawing from one scenario, allowing something else to unfold. Something negligible, light and entirely unexpected.

“Walking Stick. Ghost Ranch.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

Again, she converses with the Dream Inn sign in desperate search of clarity, of reassurance, of that inextinguishable flicker of hope:

I did not ask the sign how my husband fared in whatever space was allotted to him in the universe. I did not ask the fate of Sandy. Or Sam. Those things are forbidden, as entreating the angels with prayer. I know that very well, one cannot ask for a life, or two lives. One can only warrant the hope of an increasing potency in each man’s heart.

Slowly, methodically, the tapestry unspools from the enchanted loom of this uncommon mind, revealing the pattern Smith has been weaving all along, reminding us that dreams — that the secret lives of the unconscious — are not an indulgence or a plaything, but a vital vessel into which reality is poured, lifted to the lips, and tasted more intensely.

“My father’s cup.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

In the final chapters, she writes:

I was never so hungry, never so old. I plodded up the stairs to my room reciting to myself. Once I was seven, soon I will be seventy. I was truly tired. Once I was seven, I repeated, sitting on the edge of the bed, still in my coat.

Our quiet rage gives us wings, the possibility to negotiate the gears winding backwards, uniting all time. We repair a watch, optimizing an innate ability to reverse, say, all the way back to the fourteenth century, marked by the appearance of Giotto’s sheep. Renaissance bells ring out, as a procession of mourners follow the casket containing the body of Raphael, then sound again as the last tap of a chisel reveals the milky body of Christ.

All go where they go, just as I went where I went… These were not ungraspable dreams but a frenzy of living hours. And in these fluid hours I witnessed wondrous things until, tiring, I circled above a small street lined with old brick houses, choosing the roof of the one with a dusty skylight. The hatch was unlocked. I removed my cap shaking out some marble dust. I’m sorry, I said, looking up at a handful of stars, time is running and not a single rabbit can keep up with it. I’m sorry, I repeated, descending the ladder, conscious of where I had been.

Reflecting on these clarifying dreams, vibrating with worry for our shared future, worry that “the blood of benevolence may not be infinite and will one day cease to flow,” Smith reminds us that the only remedy for a broken reality is more truth:

One cannot approximate truth, add nor take away, for there is no one on earth like the true shepherd and there is nothing in heaven like the suffering of real life.

Patti Smith, Rockaway Beach, from Year of the Monkey.

The book ends with “A Kind of Epilogue,” in which Smith fathoms the oceanic abyss of losses in the Year of the Monkey — Sandy’s death, the last white rhino’s death, the massacre of schoolchildren, the injustices against immigrants, “the flames engulfing Southern California the collapse of the Silverdome and men falling like chess pieces carved from the weight of centuries of indiscretions and the slaughter of worshippers and the guns and the guns and the guns and the guns” — and reaches, with a lucid and luminous hand, for the source of buoyancy that is our only lifeline:

This is what I know. Sam is dead. My brother is dead. My mother is dead. My father is dead. My husband is dead. My cat is dead. And my dog who was dead in 1957 is still dead. Yet still I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen. Maybe tomorrow. A tomorrow following a whole succession of tomorrows… No one knows what is going to happen… not really.

Returning to Virginia Beach, that epicenter of her dreaming away from and into reality, she finds herself pacing the boardwalk in search of Eamsean telescopic perspective:

I knew there had to be a brass telescope mounted somewhere on the boards and I was determined to find it, not exactly a telescope but an instrument of beyondness, right on the esplanade… My pockets were brimming with coins so I set up camp and concentrated, first on a freighter, then on a star, and then all the way back to Earth. I could actually see that ball the world. I was in space and could see it all, as if the god of science let me peer through his personal lens. The turning Earth was slowly revealed in high definition. I could see every vein that was also a river. I could see the wavering illness air, the cold deep of the sea and the great bleached reef of Queensland and encrusted manta rays sinking and lifeless organisms floating and the movement of wild ponies racing through the marshes overrunning the islands off the Georgian coast and the remains of stallions in the boneyards of North Dakota and a fleet of deer the color of saffron and the great dunes of Lake Michigan with sacred Indian names. I saw the center which was not holding… And I saw the ancient days. There were bells tolling and wreaths tossed and women turning in circles and there were bees performing their life-cycle dance and there were great winds and swollen moons and pyramids crumbling and coyotes crying and the waves mounting and it all smelled like the end and the beginning of freedom. And I saw my friends who were gone and my husband and my brother. I saw those counted as true fathers ascend the distant hills and I saw my mother with the children she had lost, whole again. And I saw myself with Sam in his kitchen in Kentucky and we were talking about writing. In the end, he was saying, everything is fodder for a story, which means, I guess, that we’re all fodder.


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Year of the Monkey: Patti Smith on Loss, Love, and What It Takes to Mend the Broken Realities of Life


“One cannot ask for a life, or two lives. One can only warrant the hope of an increasing potency in each man’s heart.”


Year of the Monkey: Patti Smith on Loss, Love, and What It Takes to Mend the Broken Realities of Life

“Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us,” Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando — her groundbreaking novel that gallops across centuries of history, across lines of logic and convention, to telescope a vision for a different future of the human heart.

There are moments in life when it is no longer clear whether we dream our dreams or are dreamt by them — moments when reality presses against us with such intensity, acute and overwhelmingly real, that all we can do is sit on its sharp edge of uncertainty, feet dangling into a dream, hoping for clarity and fortitude. And then, on these dream-drenched feet, we get back up and march into the uncertainty, then soar over it on the wingspan of perspective we call hope.

That is what Patti Smith offers with uncommon elegance of thought and feeling in Year of the Monkey (public library) — a dream-driven, reality-reclaiming masterpiece, laced with poetry and philosophy and surrealism and the hardest realism there is: that of hope.

Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)
Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)

Where her stunning memoir M Train rode on the arrowy vector of time and transformation, Year of the Monkey revolves around the cyclical nature of time and being — of personal, cultural, and civilizational history — evocative of the Australian aboriginal notion of “dream time.” The story — part dream and part reality, haunted and haunting, unfolding in a place where “the borders of reality had reconfigured,” a place with “the improbable logic of a child’s treasure map” — begins at a real motel called the Dream Inn in Santa Cruz, where Smith has traveled just before her 69th birthday to visit a friend of forty years, now comatose at the ICU. The motel sign comes alive, speaks to her, becomes her ongoing interlocutor, demands that she admit to dreaming, insists that she assent to unreality — conversations that become the book’s undergirding creative trope.

“Dream Inn. Santa Cruz.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

As she moves through this unfamiliar world of side streets and taco bars, each unvisited place radiates the aura of what Mark Strand called, in his gorgeous ode to dreams, “a place that seems always vaguely familiar.” At the Dream Inn, she dreams many dreams that are “much more than dreams, as if originating from the dawn of mind.” She dreams of being left behind — on the side of the road, in the middle of the desert, in a flooding apartment; dreams of being a young girl in the 18th century, gazing at Goethe’s color wheel, “bright and obscure”; longs for her long-dead mother’s voice. In that liminal space between wakefulness and sleep — the space Nathaniel Hawthorne so memorably described as “a spot where Father Time, when he thinks nobody is watching him, sits down by the way side to take breath” — she hears her mother recite a Robert Louis Stevenson poem about the meaning of home.

Through it all, there is a fierce commitment to facing reality — the disquieting reality we live in, a reality of unrest and injustice, of ecological and moral collapse. But there is also something else, something mighty. Beneath the blanket of gloom — friends dying, strangers’ children dying, species dying, icebergs melting, truth burning, justice crumbling — she senses something buoyant pressing up, insisting on existence, “like the birth of a poem or a small volcano erupting.” It is this sort of optimism that animates the book — optimism that feels not human but geologic, more kindred to the optimism of a tree, rooted in deep time, in strata of cultures and civilizations who all lived and died, hoped and despaired, foraged for meaning, dwelt in dreams; the optimism of uncertainty, the kind Václav Havel recognized as the willingness “to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

Lurching into the lacunae between self and world, between poetry and politics, between history and future, Smith invites us to relinquish the different names we give to the living of life and just live it, with all its disorienting uncertainty. Reading this small, miraculous book, I get the feeling of being at open sea, far from land, on one of those rare nights when the surface of the water becomes so still and the reflections of the stars so crisp that the horizon line vanishes and there is no longer a sense of sky or water, of up or down or East or West, of what is reflection and what is reality — only the feeling of being immersed in a cosmic everythingness, with pure spacetime stretching all directions, star-salted and possible.

She moves through this world as a time-traveler, an eavesdropper, a vagrant, a vagabond in the land of literature and life, where people, always seemingly unwitting of her identity, engage her in diners to talk about Roberto Bolaño novels, take her on as a hitchhiker so long as she pays for the gas and vows to keep perfectly silent, ditch her at a gas station when she breaks the vow to compliment a playlist of songs from her youth. She is nameless, fameless, a human mirror held up to the world — a Borgesian mirror, in which each reflection sparks another reflection, never quite clear whether real or dream-drawn, in an infinity-leaning regress of memories and meditations.

“Fortune cookie. Venice Beach.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

In Venice Beach, passing by a mural of Fiddler on the Roof, she nods at the Yiddish fiddler “commiserating an unspoken fear of friends slipping away.” A woman waves her into a restaurant called Mao’s Kitchen, “a communal kind of place,” which sparks the memory of journeying with a poet-friend “through endless rice paddies, pale gold, and the sky a clear blue, staggered by what was an ordinary spectacle for most,” looking for the cave near the Chinese border where the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence was written. She reads a fortune cookie — “You will step on the soul of many countries.” — only to realize she has misread “soul” for “soil”; she doesn’t belabor the poignancy of the inadvertently revised prophecy and nor will I. She packs her few possessions — “jacket, camera, identity card, notebook, pen, dead phone and some money” — to go visit that same poet-friend in Tucson and remembers him sitting on the wide veranda of a temple they had visited together in Phnom Penh long ago, singing to the children that congregated around him, “the sun a halo around his long hair.” Radiating from the pages is the delicious bittersweetness of life lost to time but fully lived in the course of being. The memory-portrait she paints is suffused with this bittersweetness, tender and transcendent and Blakean:

He looked up at me and smiled. I heard laughter, tinkling bells, bare feet on the temple stairs. It was all so close, the rays of the sun, the sweetness, a sense of time lost forever.

There is also, of course, Smith’s ferocious lifelong love of reading, animating the book as it animates the self from which it sprang. She dreams of a street named Voltaire and a horse named Noun. Shakespeare, Nabokov, and Proust, The Magic Mountain, The Divine Comedy, and Pinocchio flit in and out. Lewis Carroll bends her logic. Gauss and Galileo taunt her with the necessity of proof. A mental trick inspired by Melville helps her salve insomnia. “Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live,” Marcus Aurelius scolds her on the eve of her seventieth birthday, as he has scolded millions of us across the millennia from the pages of his timeless Meditations. She meets the Stoic’s charge with a Jimi Hendrix retort: “I’m going to live my life the way I want to.” All the while, the Dream Inn sign continues sending her dispatches from the recesses of her own unconscious:

Nothing is ever solved. Solving is an illusion. There are moments of spontaneous brightness, when the mind appears emancipated, but that is mere epiphany.

“Joshua Tree cactus” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

A recurring dream-companion she meets in a Virginia Beach diner — a Russian-Mexican Bolaño-lover named Ernest with a melancholy, metaphysical bend and eyes that “kept changing like a mood ring, from pure grey to the color of chocolate” — tells her:

Some dreams aren’t dreams of all, just another angle of physical reality.

I hear the voice of the painter, poet, and philosopher Etel Adnan whisper that “the logic of dreams is superior to the one we exercise while awake” as Ernest’s words become the soundwave of Smith’s unconscious mind:

There’s no hierarchy. That’s the miracle of a triangle. No top, no bottom, no taking sides. Take away the tags of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and replace each with love. See what I mean? Love. Love. Love. Equal weight encompassing the whole of so called spiritual existence.

Her daily routine at the motel is itself an existential allegory:

Every morning I’d make my coffee in a tin pot, rustle up some beans and eggs and read of the local occurrences in the newsletter. Just negotiating zones. No rules. No change. But then everything eventually changes. It’s the way of the world. Cycles of death and resurrection, but not always in the way we imagine.

“My trusty suitcase.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

Dead friends travel with her as the Collected Poems of Allen Ginsberg — “an expansive hydrogen jukebox, containing all the nuances of his voice” — warm her pocket on a lecture tour. A book acquired in a thrift shop — Gérard de Nerval’s proto-surrealist novella Aurélia, the manuscript of which was found in the author’s coat-pocket when he hanged himself in 1855 — seems to speak to her directly: “Our dreams are a second life.” Billie Holiday sings Strange Fruit from the radio in the wake of an election that uncorked the madness of hate and the madness of apathy.

Her voice, one of laconic suffering, produced shudders of admiration and shame. I pictured her sitting at the bar, a gardenia in her hair and a Chihuahua in her lap. I pictured her sleeping in a rumpled white skirt and blouse on a diesel-fueled tour bus, turned away from a white Southern hotel despite the fact that she was Billie Holiday, despite the fact that she was simply a human being.

Patti Smith pictures this while sitting in a late-night bar in Hell’s Kitchen, mourning for her friend and for her country, and I picture her silver braids falling to either side of the shot of vodka and the glass of water she has ordered, despite the fact that she is Patti Smith, aglow with the fact that she is simply a human being.

“Polaroids. New York City.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

Again and again her thoughts return to her dying friend — the poet and music maverick Sandy Pearlman — and with him, inevitably, to death itself, to the finitude of being with which we all must live:

We met in 1971 after my first poetry performance, Lenny accompanying me on electric guitar. Sandy Pearlman was sitting cross-legged on the floor in St. Mark’s Church, dressed in leather, Jim Morrison style. I had read his Excerpts from the History of Los Angeles, one of the greatest pieces written about rock music. After the performance, he told me I should front a rock ’n’ roll band but I just laughed and told him I already had a good job working in a bookstore. Then he went on to reference Cerberus, the dog of Hades, suggesting I should delve into its history.

— Not just the history of a dog, but the history of an idea, he said, flashing his extremely white teeth.

I thought him arrogant, though in an appealing way, but his suggestion that I should front a rock band seemed pretty far-fetched. At the time, I was seeing Sam Shepard and I told him what Sandy had said. He didn’t find it extreme at all. He looked me in the eye and told me I could do anything. We were all young then, and that was the general idea. That we could do anything.

Sandy now unconscious at the ICU in Marin County. Sam [Shepard] negotiating the waning stages of his affliction. I felt a cosmic pull in multiple directions and wondered if some idiosyncratic force field was shielding yet another field, one with a small orchard at its crux, heavy with a fruit containing an unfathomable core.

“For Sam. Rockaway Beach.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

The harsh reality of it all takes on a surreal air. She watches anime clips on a loop as she slurps flying-fish-roe spaghetti in San Francisco, waiting for visiting hours at the hospital. The Pied Piper haunts her days and dreams, until on her way to sit vigil with Sandy, she suddenly realizes that the story is “not essentially one of revenge but of love.” The prospect of imminent loss clarifies things in this way, reminding us that every story — no matter how enturmoiled by the surface confusions of jealousy and blame — is at bottom a love story and a time story.

“You don’t follow plots you negotiate them,” she wants to write with the candy-stripe pencil that rests on her dying friend’s bedside. Instead, exhausted with travel and grief, she drifts into another existential dream:

The pencil seemed far away, well beyond my grasp, and I actually watched myself fall asleep. The clouds were pink and dropped from the sky. I was wearing sandals, kicking through mounds of red leaves surrounding a shrine on a small hill. There was a small cemetery with rows of monkey deities, some adorned with red capes and knitted caps. Massive crows were picking through the drying leaves. It doesn’t mean anything, someone was shouting, and that was all I could remember.

“My room. New York City.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

Yet, somehow, life tumbles on; somehow, we must make meaning. Watching the terrifying turn of her age — age in the sense of cultural era, age in the sense of the personal timespan one is allotted between the bookends of nothingness — Smith writes in the dead of New York City’s coldest winter on the record:

Across America one light after another seemed to burn out. The oil lamps of another age flickered and died.

[…]

The cat was rubbing against my knee. I opened a can of sardines, chopped up her share, then cut some onions, toasted two slices of oat bread and made myself a sandwich. Staring at my image on the mercurial surface of the toaster, I noticed I looked young and old simultaneously. I ate hastily, failing to clean up, actually craving some small sign of life, an army of ants dragging crumbs dislodged from the cracks of the kitchen tiles. I longed for buds sprouting, doves cooing, darkness lifting, spring returning.

Marcus Aurelius asks us to note the passing of time with open eyes. Ten thousand years or ten thousand days, nothing can stop time, or change the fact that I would be turning seventy in the Year of the Monkey. Seventy. Merely a number but one indicating the passing of a significant percentage of the allotted sand in an egg timer, with oneself the darn egg. The grains pour and I find myself missing the dead more than usual. I notice that I cry more when watching television, triggered by romance, a retiring detective shot in the back while staring into the sea, a weary father lifting his infant from a crib. I notice that my own tears burn my eyes, that I am no longer a fast runner and that my sense of time seems to be accelerating… I try to be more aware of the passing hours, that I might see it happen, that cosmic shift from one digit to another. Despite all efforts February just slips away, though being a leap year there is one extra day to observe. I stare at the number 29 on the daily calendar, then reluctantly tear off the page. March first.

By springtime, the strangeness is no longer the Lewis Carroll kind but an outright collective insanity:

April Fool’s Day. A kind of madness swept the course of every action, magnifying every reaction. Balls of confusion rolled toward us, scores of steely shooters, tripping us up, keeping us off-balance. The news pounded, and minds raced to make sense of the campaign of a candidate compounding lies at such a speed that one could not keep up, or break down. The world twisted at his liking, poured over with a metallic substance, fool’s gold, already peeling away.

By summertime, as she wades through “an atmosphere of artificial brightness with corrosive edges, the hyperreality of a polarizing pre-election mudslide, an avalanche of toxicity infiltrating every outpost,” personal, political, and planetary realities entwine with overwhelming urgency. In a passage evocative of Rebecca Solnit’s poignant observation that “the grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect,” Smith writes:

It is the unprecedented heat and the dying reef and the arctic shelf breaking apart that haunts me. It is Sandy slipping in and out of consciousness, battling a run of bacterial infections, while mapping his own apocalyptic scenarios straight from the bowels of the Heart o’ the City Hotel. I can hear him thinking, I can hear the walls breathing. Perhaps a break is needed, an intermission of sorts, withdrawing from one scenario, allowing something else to unfold. Something negligible, light and entirely unexpected.

“Walking Stick. Ghost Ranch.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

Again, she converses with the Dream Inn sign in desperate search of clarity, of reassurance, of that inextinguishable flicker of hope:

I did not ask the sign how my husband fared in whatever space was allotted to him in the universe. I did not ask the fate of Sandy. Or Sam. Those things are forbidden, as entreating the angels with prayer. I know that very well, one cannot ask for a life, or two lives. One can only warrant the hope of an increasing potency in each man’s heart.

Slowly, methodically, the tapestry unspools from the enchanted loom of this uncommon mind, revealing the pattern Smith has been weaving all along, reminding us that dreams — that the secret lives of the unconscious — are not an indulgence or a plaything, but a vital vessel into which reality is poured, lifted to the lips, and tasted more intensely.

“My father’s cup.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

In the final chapters, she writes:

I was never so hungry, never so old. I plodded up the stairs to my room reciting to myself. Once I was seven, soon I will be seventy. I was truly tired. Once I was seven, I repeated, sitting on the edge of the bed, still in my coat.

Our quiet rage gives us wings, the possibility to negotiate the gears winding backwards, uniting all time. We repair a watch, optimizing an innate ability to reverse, say, all the way back to the fourteenth century, marked by the appearance of Giotto’s sheep. Renaissance bells ring out, as a procession of mourners follow the casket containing the body of Raphael, then sound again as the last tap of a chisel reveals the milky body of Christ.

All go where they go, just as I went where I went… These were not ungraspable dreams but a frenzy of living hours. And in these fluid hours I witnessed wondrous things until, tiring, I circled above a small street lined with old brick houses, choosing the roof of the one with a dusty skylight. The hatch was unlocked. I removed my cap shaking out some marble dust. I’m sorry, I said, looking up at a handful of stars, time is running and not a single rabbit can keep up with it. I’m sorry, I repeated, descending the ladder, conscious of where I had been.

Reflecting on these clarifying dreams, vibrating with worry for our shared future, worry that “the blood of benevolence may not be infinite and will one day cease to flow,” Smith reminds us that the only remedy for a broken reality is more truth:

One cannot approximate truth, add nor take away, for there is no one on earth like the true shepherd and there is nothing in heaven like the suffering of real life.

Patti Smith, Rockaway Beach, from Year of the Monkey.

The book ends with “A Kind of Epilogue,” in which Smith fathoms the oceanic abyss of losses in the Year of the Monkey — Sandy’s death, the last white rhino’s death, the massacre of schoolchildren, the injustices against immigrants, “the flames engulfing Southern California the collapse of the Silverdome and men falling like chess pieces carved from the weight of centuries of indiscretions and the slaughter of worshippers and the guns and the guns and the guns and the guns” — and reaches, with a lucid and luminous hand, for the source of buoyancy that is our only lifeline:

This is what I know. Sam is dead. My brother is dead. My mother is dead. My father is dead. My husband is dead. My cat is dead. And my dog who was dead in 1957 is still dead. Yet still I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen. Maybe tomorrow. A tomorrow following a whole succession of tomorrows… No one knows what is going to happen… not really.

Returning to Virginia Beach, that epicenter of her dreaming away from and into reality, she finds herself pacing the boardwalk in search of Eamsean telescopic perspective:

I knew there had to be a brass telescope mounted somewhere on the boards and I was determined to find it, not exactly a telescope but an instrument of beyondness, right on the esplanade… My pockets were brimming with coins so I set up camp and concentrated, first on a freighter, then on a star, and then all the way back to Earth. I could actually see that ball the world. I was in space and could see it all, as if the god of science let me peer through his personal lens. The turning Earth was slowly revealed in high definition. I could see every vein that was also a river. I could see the wavering illness air, the cold deep of the sea and the great bleached reef of Queensland and encrusted manta rays sinking and lifeless organisms floating and the movement of wild ponies racing through the marshes overrunning the islands off the Georgian coast and the remains of stallions in the boneyards of North Dakota and a fleet of deer the color of saffron and the great dunes of Lake Michigan with sacred Indian names. I saw the center which was not holding… And I saw the ancient days. There were bells tolling and wreaths tossed and women turning in circles and there were bees performing their life-cycle dance and there were great winds and swollen moons and pyramids crumbling and coyotes crying and the waves mounting and it all smelled like the end and the beginning of freedom. And I saw my friends who were gone and my husband and my brother. I saw those counted as true fathers ascend the distant hills and I saw my mother with the children she had lost, whole again. And I saw myself with Sam in his kitchen in Kentucky and we were talking about writing. In the end, he was saying, everything is fodder for a story, which means, I guess, that we’re all fodder.


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Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day's real-life happy ending


It took 70 years for Winifred Watson’s novel to get the attention it deserves after world war scuppered her writing career – though Hollywood should have left it alone

When I introduced Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day as our reading group choice at the start of September, I told a small part of its publication history: a feelgood story in line with Miss Pettigrew’s own triumph over adversity. Winifred Watson stood her ground, persuaded her publisher to put the book out in spite of their worries about its risqué nature, and it became a huge hit. But that’s only part of the story – which has an unusual and enchanting afterlife.

Most of this story is beautifully told in the 2000 introduction to Persephone Books’ edition by the retired Cambridge academic Henrietta Twycross-Martin. She describes it as a Cinderella-style fairytale full of surprises, ups, downs and then, happily, more ups.

Related: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: has naughtiness ever been so nice?

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Amanda Palmer Reads “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver


“You too have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.”


Amanda Palmer Reads “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver

“Aside from the appearance of a tree by day or night, is it not kin of the human family with its roots in the earth and its arms stretching toward the sky as if to seek and to know the great mystery?” the artist Art Young wondered in the 1920s in the brief preface to his stunning Rorschach silhouettes of trees at night. Artists, poets, and philosophers have long turned to trees as a clarifying and consolatory force for our human struggles, from William Blake’s most beautiful metaphor to Walt Whitman’s reverence for their wisdom to Martin Buber’s arboreal existentialism.

Still, I have encountered no lovelier celebration of trees than the one Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) offers in her poem “When I Am Among the Trees,” originally published in 2006, later included in her farewell gift to the world, Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (public library), and read here by tree-lover, poetry-lover, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer:

WHEN I AM AMONG THE TREES
by Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

“Shine” by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Complement with the fascinating science of what trees feel and how they communicate, the story of Wangari Maathai’s inspiring movement of planting trees as a form of resistance and empowerment, which made her the first African woman to with the Nobel Peace Prize, and another stunning tree poem by another of the rare seer-poets of our time — “Optimism” by Jane Hirshfield — then revisit Mary Oliver on how books saved her life, the two building blocks of creativity, how to live with maximal aliveness, her advice on writing, and her moving elegy for her soul mate.

For more of Amanda’s generous indulgences of my poetical demands, hear her readings of “The Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich, “Questionnaire” by Wendell Berry, “Having It Out With Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, “Possibilities” by Wisława Szymborska, and “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman.

Amanda’s work, like my own, is made possible by patronage — join me in supporting her music so that she may go on donating her voice and goodwill to trees and poems and kindnesses to friends.


donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


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Not the Booker: Spring by Ali Smith review – topical but not plausible


A touching love story is not enough to redeem a novel that strains too hard to reflect the times

Brexit has brought division and anger. Social media companies don’t have our best interests at heart. Refugees are treated appallingly. “Facts” have been undermined. People in power say the the truth is not the truth. Dreadful jokes are made about Muslim women in newspaper columns. And so on.

You don’t need me to tell you any of this stuff. I’m also unsure about how much you’ll gain by hearing it from the writer Sebastian Barry called “Scotland’s Nobel laureate in waiting”.

Related: ‘Brexit’s divisions are fracturing our time’ – Ali Smith on writing Autumn

We want to hire people to attack anyone powerful who says stuff about us that we don’t like, regardless of whether it’s true. We want the black and Latino people who work for us to feel a little less important and protected and able to rise in the company hierarchy …

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