Re-reading Hope Mirrlees’ 1920 Paris. There’s a section that simply documents advertisements in the Paris of 1919. One heartbreaking one: DEUIL EN 24 HEURES. Literally, “mourning in 24 hours,” which wouldn’t be a pun in English but simply a service. In a time and place where almost every woman was in mourning, there’s a service to dye your clothes black.
About a mile from my house, on the Newark border, is a t-shirt and skate shop. One of their specialties? R.I.P.s. 

Cura: A new journal of art and action

Late last spring, a group of Fordham students got together with Sarah Gambito, our Director of Creative Writing. They were frustrated that all the work they were doing on the student literary journal resulted in a pretty little booklet that sat in stacks on the radiators of our building, ignored. How could they convey their passion for art and their desire to change the world in ways that would touch other people?

Lots of brainstorming, conversations, coding, and a few visits to Zuccotti Park later, and Cura is the result. I’ve been tweeting about this for a while, but I haven’t written about it here.

Cura is going to be an online magazine, available on Kindle and with a number (how many? we’re not sure yet) of print editions. Four times a year, we’ll publish a prompt, each one related to the theme, and select the best art—fiction, poetry, photography, or any new media that can be displayed on a website—we get in response. The students write the prompt and they’re also writing the Muse, the blog that riffs on that prompt.

Our theme is Home.

Our first prompt is “What does your white picket fence keep out? And what has slipped in?”

Our first deadline is October 17th.

But that’s not all. We are committed to art and action and with the theme of home we’ll be hosting some fundraising events to benefit Covenant House, a nonprofit that benefits homeless youth. Any money we make from sales of the print journal will go to Covenant House, too.

We are so excited about this! I am super proud to play a small role as a faculty advisor. I hope that you’ll pass the call for submissions to all your friends, that you’ll submit your work, and that you’ll come back at the end of the month and read what we’ve put together.

A. A. Milne, women, and moving through modernity

I’m working on a little something on Woolf and taxicabs—an outgrowth of the Woolf and the City conference--and so have been thinking about women moving through the modern city: all the dangers and possibilities of walking, bus-riding, and taxis that the modern city suddenly opened up for women. Think about it: for centuries, moving through the city, for a respectable woman of the working, middle or upper middle class was severely circumscribed: to and from work, to and from the market, chaperoned or subject to being accosted when alone.

This led me, through a circuitous route (with, clearly, a detour to my children) to a favorite poem from my childhood, A. A. Milne’s “Disobedience”:
James James
Morrison Morrison
Weatherby George Dupree
Took great
Care of his Mother,Though he was only three.
I remember finding this poem deeply upsetting and moving as a child. Once you ask yourself what kind of mother would want to leave her child, it’s not a very far leap to imagine the heretofore unthinkable: my mommy might want to leave me for an afternoon. It’s not just that she’s a bad mother, careless about babysitters and urban danger, but that she has desires that are not about caring for her children. The poem seems to lift a veil from adult life.

And then, there is that strange notion that James “Took great | Care of his Mother, | Though he was only three.” I was very aware that I needed caring for as a young child and I see that same awareness in my children now: they remind me (as if I needed reminding) constantly of what they can and cannot do on their own, what they need help with. Assertions of “I do it myself” are followed, in mere seconds by “Can you help me, mommy?” Surely, then, I thought, this poem must be one of my first encounters with literary irony.

So, I thought, how would I explain the puzzle of the poem to my daughters? Defining “irony” is, clearly, the least promising route, so the idea must be approached through questions: can a three-year-old take care of his mother? Isn’t it really the other way around?

Or is it? (I give you my thoughts as they came to me, as Woolf says.) The first stanza continues:
James James
Said to his Mother,
"Mother", he said, said he;
"You must never go down to the end of the town,
if you don't go down with me."
This is a masterfully ironic patriarchal poem: a little ditty about a (bad) woman chafing under the demands of home and childcare and paying the price with her disappearance. I'm not fully sure where Milne's sympathies lie, but he nails the dilemma. Its humor and power and creepiness comes from the way in which Milne captures the tyranny of children and family responsibility. In a way, James does “take care” of his mother, for the demands of motherhood circumscribe a mother’s desires. Suddenly, a once taken-for-granted freedom—like running an errand when one wants—becomes a brazen liberty. When I am home alone with my kids, I cannot just run out and get milk—even if the store is only a block away. So, yes, James maybe does take care of his mother for, in making women into primary caregiver and then in setting up small households consisting in nuclear families only, we make it impossible for women to “go down to the end of the town” if they don’t go down with their children.


We're deep in the semester all of a sudden and my inbox is burgeoning with all kinds of texts to read and review. The most literary of the lot: proofing my own prose. It's a lot of donkey work for the next few weeks and I'm finding it hard to leave it behind even in my dreams.

Last night? I was an apprentice in a sighted (i.e. not blind) John Milton's print shop, keeping him company as he composed an elegy for John Donne. Then, I fashioned an ear of corn out of straw: the sole decoration on the pinecone wreath. He saw this as a delightfully frivolous touch and wondered aloud at how beautiful the other mourners would find it. He felt that he was really pulling out all the stops.

No Puritan, I knew that others would be leaving gaudy wreaths of yellow and gold mums. Still, I saw how starkly beautiful it was and thought that it would be the most unusual and glorious wreath in the graveyard.

Yes, it’s February.

Pure Poetry, Alaska style

via Andrew Sullivan, a quotation from Sarah Palin's communications specialist, Kate Morgan:
Other issues facing the state — what some people consider to be inaccurate — how would I put that — listings of certain Alaskan animals as endangered or what is that second term that they use? They’re at risk? No… That’s not the technical term. Anyway, there’s two listings there specifically dealing with polar bears and there’s also the issue with beluga whales. So there’s different things and the issue there is of course wanting to provide a substantive lifestyle for our first Alaskans here which are the indigenous people and also wanting to protect our environment wanting to be good stewards to that and to take care of the animals that make Alaska. What it is however if they are improperly categorized then that can run snags on other types of development that would benefit not only people of Alaska but the world such as depending on certain kinds of drilling that we do off-shore either or people are in a hurry to list groups of whales as endangered or at risk than that might impede the progress that we’d be making to free or to lighten the the load that America has us obtaining oil from overseas. Emphasis added
I don't know whether to be amused or alarmed by the utter lack of knowledge--and lack of embarrassment about that lack. Or the free-floating "also" and "anyway" and "of course" as filler. Or all the sentences that begin one way and then veer off in an entirely new grammatical direction.

Putin may not be rearing his head, but literate people everywhere have their sights trained on Alaska. Oh Alaska!

Yes we did! Still smiling edition

Well, we did it: President-elect Obama. What a great week.

I'm still exhausted and overwhelmed. And just now, in my little stolen hour (my husband took the kids to the park), I'm listening to Jonathan Schwartz' very old-fashioned standards on WNYC. Critics say it's like being stuck all afternoon at a stuffy great-aunt's house, but I love all the Sinatra and Sondheim.

He's been playing a version of "It's not Easy Being Green" for weeks, one in which the singer stops to talk & says, "Maybe one day, we'll even have a green president. Hmmm...a president of color...." It's very dear--just as dear and touching as the song has been for 40 years.

Today, though, he opened with Sondheim: "Our Time" from "Merrily We Roll Along."
Something is stirring,
Shifting ground …
It's just begun.
Edges are blurring
All around,
And yesterday is done.

Feel the flow,
Hear what's happening:
We're what's happening.
Don't you know?
We're the movers and we're the shapers.
We're the names in tomorrow's papers.
Up to us, man, to show 'em …

Oh, I'm weeping like a baby. And not for the first time this week. So happy. So relieved.

Winner of Sorrow

I promised some Cowper news—not something anyone has every day, Cowper being long dead. But when I wrote about Dalkey in my swoon over Michalopolou’s I’d Like, the press’s associate director popped me an email to say, among other things that Dalkey’s going to be publishing Brian Lynch’s historical novel, Winner of Sorrow, about Cowper this winter.

I can’t wait.

And the title is utterly beautiful.

Here’s what the press says:
A fictional imagining of the gentle but troubled zealot William Cowper—best known as a precursor to Romantics such as Wordsworth and Burns—Brian Lynch’s The Winner of Sorrow brings to life the mind and times of an eighteenth-century poet. Intense and exhilarating, this is literary fiction at its finest—the reader will be hard-pressed not to rush ahead to see what happens next. Yet you’ll want to savor every word as Lynch traces Cowper’s tragic descent into madness, which is presented matter-of-factly so that the novel is not sentimental but austere, not precious but serious, and yet, remarkably, lively, sensuous, and blackly comic.
I first learned of Cowper from Woolf, as he wrote “The Castaway,” the deliciously self-dramatizing poem that Mr. Ramsay recites in To the Lighthouse. The poem, about a man who falls overboard in a storm and gets left behind. Cowper at first seems to be celebrating this scary, humble, brave death, but the gem of the poem is its final lines, in which the poet’s own depression—and all our solitude—trumps this sailor’s watery grave:
No voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone,
When, snatched from all effectual aid,
We perished, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.
I love this poem and love Cowper.
While you wait for Lynch’s novel, you might read some Cowper or Woolf’s wonderful essay on him, the first of “Four Figures” in The Second Common Reader.

Cowper footnotes

Reading a few William Cowper (1731-1800) poems the other day in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, I came across the following footnote: “Cowper exercised his hares on his parlor carpet of Turkey red.”

Well, there is a lot about Cowper that I don’t know, but, reading these lines from “Epitaph on a Hare”:
A Turkey carpet was his lawn,
Whereon he loved to bound
I could have figured out that this domesticated rabbit, now dead, used to run around on a Turkish carpet.

Why on earth note this?

Or, on the next page, “Puss, the longest-lived of Cowper’s three hares.”

There is so much else that I would love to know, there are things I know that I think other readers might take an interest in. But this is an old Norton (1975), from the new critical days where biography and history were anathema: there are no historical footnotes, no biographical notes. Most of the footnotes identify classical and Biblical allusions. Fair enough. But one of these storied editors must have been an animal lover…

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master...

Elizabeth Bishop's great poem has been much in my mind these days. I haven't lost any "you," the devastating loss that ends the poem with a bang, but, boy, have I lost things.

And I am familiar with and tired of that feeling of panic when one does--the feeling that ALL is lost--not just the keys, but everything. I lost my keys yesterday. I was too tired to fully enter the vertiginous sense grief, but I still went through a cascading range of emotions. Losing a small thing makes me feel that I've lost control of the world and of my mind both. I doubt the many little tricks that keep the day perking along smoothly and, in doubting them, I see how much of my day depends on those little tricks (swipe your MetroCard and turn right down the stairs; walk up 58th if you're getting a latte, 60th if you're saving your money; always take your keys with you to the bathroom; remember to grab your keys on the way out). All these little habits give me the mental space to plan my class (or worry about it), to go over my list of the things I need to do, to listen to a song and release myself from those lists.

Babies struggle to learn about "object permanence." The "fort-da" game or peek-a-boo teaches them the big but ultimately gentle lesson that things that go away often return. But when we adults lose something, it reminds us of the dark side of that game: sometimes things don't return; sometimes they are lost. And, as Bishop's catalogue forces us to confront, sometimes it's not just keys that we lose.

I came across Woolf's version of this in Mrs. Dalloway the other day, lovely because it inverts the usual proportions: Clarissa's unhappiness, arising out of imperfect relationships, is as bad as the feeling of losing a thing. Or rather, her inability to remember why she feels unhappy is like being unable to find a pearl in the grass. Odd, dramatic, certainly contributing to Clarissa's tinselly self, but also wonderfully right:
But--but--why did she suddenly feel, for no reason that she could discover, desperately unhappy? As a person who has dropped some grain of pearl or diamond into the grass and parts the tall blades very carefully, this way and that, and searches here and there vainly, and at last spies it there at the roots, so she went through one thing and another.
I gave a big lecture yesterday--ill-attended, but stressful nonetheless. I left my keys in the bathroom just before--though, thank goodness, I only noticed them missing afterwards. Instead of being able to reflect on my performance, I had to trek to my husband's office, borrow his keys, and walk home, tired, wrung out, and a bit ashamed. Of course this is precisely when one does lose things. And it's precisely when one has the least elasticity to absorb the loss.

Someone turned the keys in to security. I picked them up this morning from the supervisor, running in late with oil on his hands--he had a flat tire on the way to work. So it goes. It's November. It's a wonder the world turns at all.

Intelligence and Navel-Gazing

I really want to feel, when I’m reading a book, that I’m in the company of an intelligent person. I do get a kick out of books with literary allusions in them. But it’s so very, very dull to read books about self-conscious English majors who are fond of making literary allusions. The occasional tumble into some postmodern rabbit hole is fine, but I like my novels to inhabit a more diverse world.

All of which is a preamble to praise for Gayle Brandeis’ compulsively readable, moving, and intelligent book, Self Storage. She gives her main character a genuine love of Walt Whitman--a love inherited from her beloved and dead mother--and not much else. We believe in her love of Whitman in spite of everything because she’s a smart young woman who still hungers for more education; we believe in her love of Whitman because the Whitman she quotes is always just exactly right for the moment. She doesn’t just quote the high points, the old chestnuts, the anthology pieces. She gets deep into Leaves of Grass and pulls out tiny little nuggets.

This is the first time I’ve really regretted not spending more time with Whitman. I loved the Whitman she led me to.

I grabbed the book off my shelf for some light reading on the plane to L.A. a couple weeks back. It’s got a picture of a red bra in a jar on the cover. Lauren sent it to me. I expected to be diverted. I was not entirely prepared for such a happy, happy read: it’s just a great combination of a fun, fun, happy book and a smart one that makes you think and care. It goes down easy--which is nice--but it doesn’t disappear.

So. Self Storage is about a young mother, trapped in a depressing faculty housing ghetto in Riverside. She has two grimy, sweet, demanding little kids and her husband is depressed and is so stalled on his dissertation that the topic has become off limits. To relieve all of this, she begins going to the auctions of abandoned self-storage units and selling the junk on eBay and at garage sales. At the same time, she becomes obsessed with (and then, entangled with) the Afghani woman down the block (who doesn’t speak to her and wears a full burkha). Scenes of her in a hospital when a child is ailing cut me to the quick: like the protagonist I, too, failed my daughter in her hour of need (a broken arm only) and it’s a humbling feeling.

It’s a fun premise. She manages the plot--which is compelling and apt--really well and the ending is redemptive and cool. I really liked this book: it seemed to me to solve that problem with which I began. Brandeis is book-smart in ways her characters are not, but some literature matters to some of them and she is never condescending to any of her characters, even that lout of a husband!

Our Byzantium

It's Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead week over at the LBC (say that three times fast) and this is cross-posted from there. Alan DeNiro's collection is amazing and fun--full of powerful, clever fantasy and emotion. There is a lot of activity there--many of us are posting on one of the stories from the collection--so hop on over and check it out...

I’ve always loved--loved--the Ron Carlson story “What We Were Trying To Do. You may have heard it on NPR, too. It’s about the first people under siege who tried to pour oil on the invading forces: they don’t heat the oil, everyone gets slippery and messy but the invasion continues. The lesson: next time, we’ll use boiling oil…

Alan DeNiro’s “Our Byzantium” is not purely silly the way Carlson’s story is, but it has that perfect pitch deadpan. I was hooked from the first line: “In your absence, the Byzantines infiltrate our city.”

The story goes on with a double plot-line: one plot trying to figure out how it came to be that the Byzantines are invading at all (did they escape the fall of Constantinople [in 1453, DeNiro helpfully “reminds” us] and lie dormant in the hills of Eastern Pennsylvania for centuries?) and one plot about how “you” left Eastern Pennsylvania, driving all the way out west to Pittsburgh to visit “Todd.”

Alone, either plot might be fine. The Byzantium plot could be a good, funny story, akin to Carlson’s. The story about how the narrator tries to figure out why he is more attracted to the elusive and unavailable “you” than to the present, kind, and pretty Jerilynn (who has her own unavailable object of desire) might have been a sweet tale about our fickle hearts.

Together, they are magical, poignant, and, because of the constant threat of violence from marauding Byzantines, not too sentimental.

And then, there is this lovely moment near the end. “Yeats had it wrong,” DeNiro writes. “This is a country for old men.” I love a nice allusion and when a buried one emerges and enriches, well, then I’m doubly pleased.
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees--
Those dying generations -- at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

Fear No More

Shakespeare was born on this day in 1564. WQXR was celebrating with songs from Shakespeare and speeches read by Julliard students. Caller number twelve who correctly identified the source won a little parcel of plays. I was one for three only: Othello.

But I’ve been thinking about Cymbeline today, since that’s the play that’s quoted in Mrs. Dalloway. WQXR played a really gorgeous setting of the song “Fear no more,” the very song that links Clarissa and Septimus in the novel. I found a folksy version of it on iTunes to download. Then, with the play on my mind, a postcard arrived from BAM. They’re doing Cymbeline the first two weeks of May…Oh, how I long to go. Here, then, is the gorgeous dirge, sung over what the singers believe to be a dead body. He need fear the sun’s heat no more, for he is dead:
Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
And that final couplet is so glorious, so poignant. Yes, chimney-sweepers, covered in dust, remind us that we are made of dust and to dust must return but, the song reminds us, even golden lads and girls share that fate.

I saw a gorgeous production of Cymbeline in Oxford when I was twenty-four. When I was twenty-three and taking my orals, John Hollander examined me on Shakespeare. He asked me if I could talk for a minute about how plays-within-plays worked. Somehow, thanks to Woolf, I had already grown fond of Cymbeline and I was canny enough to guess that a vaguely competent answer on that play would stand me in better stead than a pedestrian answer on Hamlet. So, I said, “Well, the play-within-a-play in Hamlet is the obvious place to go, but what I find really interesting is the one in Cymbeline as it takes the form of a Jacobean masque within a romance…”

I think that was the moment in the ninety-minute exam where I passed. The subsequent hour was just confirmation. So I always feel grateful to Shakespeare, to Tennyson for loving the play and teaching Woolf to love it, and to Woolf who taught me to love it and helped me pass my exams to become a professor.

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

How to Write a Negative Review

I love reading negative reviews but I have a hard time writing them. And I wonder about their usefulness, too. A book’s author is often the most attentive reader and I always think of her--of Virginia Woolf’s eloquent and pained responses to reviews, of the reviews I hope and fear to read of my own work one day. (One does exist, by the way, in the new issue of Woolf Studies Annual, but I haven’t seen it yet.) It seems churlish, knowing how hard it is to write a book, to be mean about someone else’s.

But not all books are good, and every book, even a great one, has limitations.

It seems to me that Emily Nussbaum’s review of Deborah Garrison’s new collection of poems in Sunday’s NYTBR offers a great model of a kind of negative review. This is a second collection, a follow-up to a popular and successful first. Nussbaum establishes that with generosity and this pads us against feeling too bad for Garrison (after all, the implication is, she is going to be just fine--as the picture of her, smart, good-looking, and, apparently thriving in a backyard in New Jersey, seems to attest). Nussbaum is careful, too, to note that Garrison’s “Sex in the City”-type poems appealed to her; she found them light but pleasant; she likes “Sex in the City.”

Then, in the last three paragraphs of the review, she zooms out to take a look at the bigger picture.

Garrison is writing about motherhood now. Of poets on that topic, how does her work stack up?

Well, not as well as one might hope. Nussbaum puts Garrison in a large constellation dominated by the stars of late-twentieth century women’s poetry: Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, and, finally, Sylvia Plath:
But is it wrong to want more? Since …midcentury, … there has been a flood of smart, morbid, searching, sometimes outrageous writing on maternity. The best such poems burn off the pink sentimentality of motherhood in favor of something wilder and more surprising. …
This, “is it wrong to want more?” is, I think, a key question of reviewing. I’ve just finished a book that didn’t do it for me and that wanting more was the whole problem: the author built a world for me and then didn’t really do much with his creations. All the lovely sentences built towards predictability, beauty without momentum, cruelty. I wanted more.

Nussbaum continues, comparing Garrison to Sylvia Plath. It’s an unfair fight--and Nussbaum acknowledges that--but the point here is to remind ourselves as readers what it feels like not to want more, to read poems about something common--being a mother--and be left feeling stunned, amazed, transported.
To my mind, the great unsung poet of motherhood is Sylvia Plath. She may have a reputation as the ultimate misery chick, but in fact, her writing overflows with talk of birth, of breastfeeding and motherhood, much of it, despite sad undercurrents, loving and celebratory. In the gorgeous “Nick and the Candlestick,” for instance, Plath writes “O love, how did you get here? / O embryo / Remembering, even in sleep, / Your crossed position. / The blood blooms clean / In you, ruby.” The poem ends with one of her most moving images: “You are the one / Solid the spaces lean on, envious. / You are the baby in the barn.” In poems like this, and in her finest descriptions (as when a newborn’s “clear vowels rise like balloons”), Plath makes strange what should be familiar — which is, after all, a central task of poetry.

It’s unfair, of course, to expect Garrison to be like Plath. She has her own gifts and an audience sure to appreciate them. In real life, I’d rather have a likable next-door neighbor than a bipolar goddess as a confidante. But in writing? Give me the strange mother over the sweet one any day.

Poetry for Children

Whenever I go to a children’s bookstore of the children’s book section of a chain store, I’m dismayed and disappointed by the choices of children’s poetry on hand. True, Chris Raschka has illustrated some gems and John Hollander, a personal hero, has made some amazing selections. Overall, however, the choices are slim.

Glad I am, then, to have the books of my girlhood. Today, my daughter chose the Golden Treasury of Poetry (c. 1957; 1974, ed. by Louis Untermeyer) as her reading tonight. The pictures are by Joan Walsh Anglund: charming but a little insipid. We flip through the book: a big, 300-page treasury, and she chooses based on whether the pictures are in color (every page is illustrated, but only 10 percent or so are in color) and if that color picture appeals. I don’t generally read either the title or the poet but just dive right in.

Tonight, she loved two by Robert Louis Stevenson, Ogden Nash, Louis Untermeyer, and an Untermeyer modernization of part of Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” (“That’s a very good knight!”). She could tell that Lewis Carrol’s “Father William” was funny without understanding it, but, when I read a bit of Wordsworth to her, she closed her eyes and began to pretend to snore.

That’s always been my feeling about The Prelude, too…

*(I admire and respect Wordsworth and I genuinely love the Intimations Ode, Tintern Abbey and many other shorter lyrics. I just can't do The Prelude.)

More Poetry

I don’t get a lot of comments on this blog so it was a delightful surprise to find 3 awaiting my long-weekend post on Byatt and John Donne. Clearly there’s a hunger for poetry our there. If you’re still not sated, you should hop over to the Poetry Foundation website. This week, Mark Thwaite of ReadySteadyBook (and who may be the Dan Wickett of the UK) is contributing a journal—five longish blog entries beginning with, he tells me, one on Bishop.

Before you read Mark’s though, do read the previous one, by my friend and colleague Rachel Zucker. She’s a great poet: her book The Last Clear Narrative is intellectual and unsentimental and passionate and funny about marriage, motherhood, pregnancy, and all their attendant losses and gains. In this journal, she writes movingly about a miscarriage and the decision to write about it.

If all of that leaves you hungry to chime in, Cam has created a poetry meme. You can find it here.

And with that, I must go re-read “Lycidas” for a guest lecture I’m giving this afternoon!

Inside the TLS: John Donne edition

The September 22, 2006 edition of the TLS has been sitting around the house for a while. Donne is on the cover. He is a writer whose poems I don’t know well, a great writer about whom I’m not all that curious. I feel a little sheepish about this. And, feeling this way, it’s long interested (and artificially confirmed) me that Woolf’s essay on John Donne—a lead essay for the TLS as it happens—seems so dutiful.

In any case, I’m glad I hung on to the issue. A. S. Byatt’s essay on Donne, “Observe the Neurones,” is a revelation: smart and crazy. I’ve gotten obsessed by it in the couple weeks since I read it. Byatt opens by “trying to work out why [Donne] is so exciting” and she finds the answer in neurology. (I am embarrassed to confessed how slowed I was by not realizing “neurones” is simply the British spelling of “neurons.”)

Thought really is physical, Byatt reminds us, and each thought lights up a neural pathway. Building on this, Byatt seizes on another’s hypothesis---that perhaps “we delight in puns because the neuron connections become very excited by the double input.” That is, a pun lights up two paths at once, giving our brain an extra jolt of electricity. In short, there may be a physical pleasure to some kinds of thinking.

For the rest of the essay, Byatt develops this neurological hypothesis with regards to Donne and another “exciting” poet, Wallace Stevens, using neurology and the work of Harvard literary critic Elaine Scarry. (Scarry’s most famous for The Body in Pain but Byatt is working with Dreaming by the Book.) If puns bring pleasure, might metaphysical poetry, too, be “exciting” for similar physiological reasons? I think that’s a good guess.

In graduate school, we each had moments of great enthusiasm for our own projects. It comes to seem, at a certain moment, that you are writing the argument, the key ot all mythologies. Of this, my friend would say, “Oh, she’s at the phase where everything is everything.”

That phrase became a kind of limit and warning to me: anytime I felt on fire with the sense that everything fit, that “everything is everything,” I would pause, check my pulse, and back down.

Byatt describes a Donne poem, “The Cross,” that suffers from the enthusiasm of the everything is everything moment: having compared his own body to a cross (and thus, to Christ on the cross), he moves to what she calls “a mad bravura demonstration of the brain’s power to detect—or confer—abstract forms.” As she notes, after listing the many crosses in Donne’s poem, “this is nonsense at any level of logic except the brain’s pleasure in noticing, or making, analogies.” Ultimately it seems that the pleasure of reading Donn is like that of the pun: Donne ignites a spark. Reading this gives me a way to enter his poems again.