Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the best film I saw in 2018. Last night, Jon Frankel told me it is an elegy, and that it certainly is, for the early 90s in New York when the sun did not shine, for people who sat in bars and talked, for those who cared enough about other people to write books about them, and those who cared enough to read biographies. It’s an elegy for wit, for mischief, and most of all, for letters–on paper, real tokens of energy moving between people. I came of age at the end of the era of letters and spent my college years and early 20s writing them vigorously. Recently I confronted a rotting cardboard box filled with letters covered with black ink sketches by Joel Schlemowitz, collage art letters from Marchette DuBois, arch postcards from Eric LoCastro, Catholic school handwriting missives from my mother, and so on. Letters from those I met and loved in Ireland. I thought about chucking the whole box in the recycling bin–the dust is not good for my lungs–but I softened, and transferred them to an indestructible plastic bin. They will endure, these physical tokens of my friendships and lovers of my early 20s.

I first started using email in 1994, and since then, I have written many a witty and ephemeral missive. I have even started texting, enjoying the flirtatious brevity of the form. But that is all gone, or perhaps somewhere in the cloud but not accessible to me. It’s ok to mourn the lost artifacts. Don’t even get me started on the box of snapshots…


Whitman, as always

Whitman loved democracy, the idea and practice, and celebrated it over and over. The corpses of the Civil War still stank and yet he was enamored of our guiding principles, perhaps ever more because they had been tried so terribly. “Democracy rests finally upon us. I, my brethren, begin it.” I am thinking of this poem today:




As I walk, solitary, unattended,
Around me I hear that eclat of the world—politics, produce,
The announcements of recognized things—science,
The approved growth of cities, and the spread of inventions.


I see the ships, (they will last a few years,)
The vast factories, with their foremen and workmen,
And hear the endorsement of all, and do not object to it.


But we too announce solid things;
Science, ships, politics, cities, factories, are not nothing —they serve,
They stand for realities—all is as it should be.


Then my realities;
What else is so real as mine?
Libertad, and the divine average—Freedom to every slave on the face of the earth,
The rapt promises and luminé of seers—the spiritual world—these centuries-lasting songs,
And our visions, the visions of poets, the most solid announcements of any.


For we support all,
After the rest is done and gone, we remain;
There is no final reliance but upon us;
Democracy rests finally upon us, (I, my brethren, begin it,)
And our visions sweep through eternity.

The Man with the Trap


Who knows, except him, how that grey squirrel

got into my basement and began racing around,

knocking over the basket of overwintering clothespins,

the bucket catching the drip from the leaky pipe.

He had a great thirst on him, the manic rodent,

tearing up a cushion in frantic industry.


He started to gnaw the door leading to the kitchen.

The elderly cat hunched blindly, interested but ineffectual.

Drinking my tea, hearing the crashing and chewing,

I pretended, for a moment, all was still well.


Then I called the man with the trap.

The squirrel—with his soft grey fur, so touchable,

his sharp claws and teeth, bared when scared—

went for nut butter, sweet and rich.

Now he is watching me warily from the top of a tree,

and I am here, with my cooling tea, alone.


Dolores O’Riordan has died at age 46. I know it’s a cliche, but sometimes there is a song on the air at just the right moment which seems to be about you and your life. For me, it was “Linger,” by the Cranberries. In 1993, I was working in a pizza shop in Belfast and the pop station had it on heavy play. Irish pride and all that. The lyrics, of course, could have been taken from my life at that moment,  one of those woeful times in one’s life when you love someone who loves you and loves someone else at the same time. All was bittersweet as I made ham and pineapple pizzas for the hungry drunks.

In “Zombie,” another song from just around that time, you can hear the sean nos heritage in her singing, and also a lack of concern for sounding pretty. She makes her voice ugly as she mourns the senseless death of children in an IRA bombing. It was in the air at the time, you could taste it in your mouth, moments from the ceasefire–the grief, the rage, the utter disenchantment with the words and deeds which had inflicted so much pain. Sean nos, in my understanding, is a form of singing in which the singer gives up agency to a greater power moving through her or him. It takes a strong person to give up control in such a way. But it tires one out, it does.

Dolores was just about my age. The root of her name is dolor, meaning sorrow. Why would a mother name a child that?

Ah Dolores love, I was such a fool for you. Could you not have lingered with us a bit longer?

The Heavy Bear

The first poem I ever read deeply was Delmore Schwartz’s The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me. I was 17, in my senior year in high school, taking a special freshman English class through Syracuse University. This was the first poem I read word by word, parsed closely, learned to understand.

the scrimmage of appetite everywhere

No one seems to read Schwartz any more and it was an odd poem to share with teenagers. It’s about our greedy, tiresome, fallible bodies, how our appetites are ungovernable, how we have a shining essential self which is separate from our corporal beings. It’s about desire, about sex and alcohol and eating, how we are hungry for honey of all sorts and lose our minds in its presence.

But I understood it, in theory, living inside a female body which already had its own urgencies. Teenagers understand, on some level, that the madness of their bodies is governing their minds.

Now, in middle age, the poem makes even more sense. How many times have I–and you–been defeated by my base appetites? How much joy there has been in those moments, and how much regret afterwards.

the secret life of belly and bone

My 14 year old son, still mostly a child, has a fever and dreamed of a bear in the house, one who could sense his emotions and would attack if he felt sad. Yes, I said, I know that bear, and I thought of this poem, which I haven’t read in 30 years. Maybe those teachers were right to share it with me then.

Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,   
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,   
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,   
A sweetness intimate as the water’s clasp,   
Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope   
Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.