Monday, December 25, 2006


For a lot of people, at the center of Christmas are family, friends, laughter, and cookies. Call me cold and heartless, but the center of Christmas, to me, is still the religious principle, the magnum mysterium of the divine becoming earthly, the ideal becoming real (maybe I've been reading too much Plato). This morning's gospel reading was the beginning of St. John, my favorite passage in the Bible--you know, the "in the beginning was the Word" one. One line particularly struck me because of our running theme in Chaucer class all semester, and in thinking about it I realized that in those lines is what I believe to be the true meaning of Christmas:

And the Word became flesh;
And made his dwelling among us.

My Chaucer professor got us all quite interested in the poetics of dwelling: what it means to dwell and how we express that meaning through language. Dwelling, we learned, originally implied a temporary state: to dwell meant to linger, but only for a while. Part of learning how to "dwell" on this earth is learning how to deal with our own temporariness. God, in theory, never needs to deal with this sense; he is the binary opposite of temporality. But in Christianity, the birth of Christ represents God allowing himself to become temporary for a time, to "dwell"--to linger--among us.

But dwelling is not just being. It's a way of being (see Heidegger); it's the way we interact with the space around us. Dwelling means dealing with that world, its people, its weather, its fate, its greenery. To make a dwelling means both to build a house, and to build this kind of relationship with the world. Christ, John is telling us, built his home here on earth, with all the temporality that that implies.

There's something marvellous there, especially in the idea that it's the "word" that's coming to build its dwelling with us. John was so deeply aware of language that he managed to write the entire opening to his gospel writing about it and its limits--and God--all at the same time. The word become flesh indeed.

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate, and much love to everyone else.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

early grey

the spring-sounding birds (you know the ones i mean) are chirping ferociously outside, as the fog is beginning to lift over newly-greened night-rain grass. the temperature's low, but swiftly rising with the clouds, making me feel like wearing pretty bright colors and light things, struggling through with only a sweater when i really maybe should be wearing a jacket on top. there's even a holidayish smell to the air, a twinge of stillness and excitement and worry whether i remembered everything i wanted to do for the family gathering. yes indeed, it sure feels like easter morning.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


Fine, fine. I'll give it a go.

The first poem I remember reading was...
Just with my eyes? "Where the Sidewalk Ends." Really understanding that there's more to poetry than rhyme and a meter? "The Waste Land," senior year of high school. I remember writing, in green ballpoint pen, on the top of the first page, "THIS is poetry???"

I was forced to memorize numerous poems in school and...
...this statement is not as true as it should be. Kids should have to memorize far more poetry than they do. The only poetry I ever had to memorize before college was in French; to this day I can still recite "La Cigale et la Fourmi" and wow my friends in the French Department here (thank you Madame Amiry). But memorizing these poems and the Middle and Old English verses I learned by heart in college gave me something more than brilliant party conversation material. Memorization heightens awareness. Knowing each word, each pause, each punctuation mark and accent made me think about them more, makes me feel them more. On a practical level, such close attention taught me the grammar of each language better than any fill-in-the-blank quizzes or parsing assignments; I also thing that memory games like this help strengthen memory itself. But on a soulfully practical level, I feel like I could really only begin to read a poem once I'd memorized it. It's partially the fact that you have to spend a good deal of time with a poem to memorize it (if you're me anyway), and partially the power that comes from knowing how it all fits together and what comes before what, being able to keep the whole poem in your head simultaneously at the same time as knowing how it runs chronologically. If only I had the discipline to keep memorizing poetry makes me wonder how my poetry papers would be different if I memorized each verse before I wrote.

I read poetry because...
I am looking for an expression of something I feel strongly, with or without knowing it.

A poem I'm likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem...
is Wordworth's "Tintern Abbey." It's so comforting and homey and absolutely revolutionary and transgressive all at once. And probably more importantly, Wordsworth and I agree about the importance of place.

I write poetry, but...
...nobody is ever meant to see it. It's me venting, and is very teenage-angsty. No pretensions of greatness. Line breaks occur entirely for dramatic effect and have nothing to do with meter. In her self-effacing introduction to "I Won't Be Your Yoko Ono," Dar Williams captures exactly the combination of fondness and contempt that I have for my poetry.

My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature...
In some ways, a lot. Intensity. It's just so rich. I wonder if a poem could survive if it weren't in some way like chocolate ganache. But I also like to question why we don't call prose poetry; in children's literature, for example, they overlap a lot. Is The Cat in the Hat a poem? Is Goodnight, Moon? Czeslaw Milosz wrote prose poetry, as did Baudelaire. How does the opening to Bleak House differ from these works? Indeed, how does it differ from the opening to "Prufrock"?

I find poetry...
...everywhere I look? on the third shelf up on my big bookcase? difficult?

The last time I heard poetry...
We read most of the poems on our syllabus aloud this semester in Late Victorian lit. It's amazing how few of us know how to read poetry aloud (me included, definitely). One or two of the readings were okay. But we don't know how to relish words without making it sound forced. Hence we either over- or undercompensate, with effects that leave the poet turning in his grave and the rest of us squirming in our seats. It's a delicate and difficult and rigid balance--but somehow it feels so right and free and easy when you finally hear it.

I think poetry is like...

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Future of U.S. Involvement in Iraq

Seriously, read this.

"Whatever the military force to be maintained in Iraq, it is clear that it should be local. The American military system has now had three years' trial, and has failed in every point in which failure was prophesied. The officers, hating Iraq, and having no knowledge of native languages or customs, bring our Government into contempt among the people; recruits in the States dread enlistment for service they know not where..."

OK, fine, so I did some substitution of terms. American for English. Iraq for India. But the rest of this was written in 1868 by historian Charles Wentworth Dilke, concluding his work on the British military in India. What haven't we learned?

"Moreover," Dilke continues, "medding in Afghanistan [has] long since proved to be a foolish and dangerous course..."


Since I've now entered some 200 of my books into LibraryThing, I've been spending a lot of time looking at copyright pages. It's interesting how the effort to catalog books, or to provide concrete, categorized information about them, has evolved over time. From my recent wealth of experience, the ISBN was created to help solve this issue around 1965 (turns out it was 1966).

Since then, CIP (the Library of Congress's Cataloging-in-Publication program) data has been added as a way to quickly summarize a book's metadata. But Oxford University Press has apparently recently decided to stop providing CIP data on their copyright pages, and even fails to include the book's ISBN, leaving the cataloger hunting on the back cover, where more often than not there are a few layers of dirtily peeling university bookstore price tags which prove irkingly difficult to remove. Why has OUP stopped providing CIP data? Is it because it looks so unintelligibly commercial? It seems awfully unkind to their books' cataloguers, of whom, let's face it, there will be tons since most of their books will end up in libraries.

Then there's a book I have by Rudyard Kipling. It's old, but nowhere in the book does there appear a single date. The only information on the copyright page is "Printed in the United States of America." This publisher, presumably from about a century ago, apparently did not care about including publication information. But the impulse to include metadata on or near the title page wasn't anything new in the twentieth century; I'm thinking primarily of the lavish self-description of John Bunyan's publisher, Nathaniel Ponder, who took all pains to put dates and his address etc., etc. in the first editions of "Pilgrim's Progress." Why would Kipling's American publisher leave all the info out? Is it a pirated edition? Does that matter?

Back to ISBNs, I've also managed to memorize the ISBN prefixes for several major publishers. It's a neat trick. "Oh, you read 0-14-043916-1 today? How do you like Penguin's new style for their Classics series?" I'm definitely going to bust that shit out at holiday parties. Good times.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Scarring Children Everywhere This Christmas

I'm wrapping the presents for my small cousins in wrapping paper covered in big, happy snowmen. On two of these presents so far, the end of the paper that follows the gift lengthwise has coincided with the level between the head-snowball and the middle-snowball. Hence a lot of headless snowmen parading around my small cousins' presents. Do you think this will be traumatizing to them? (Provided that they don't rip all of the paper off before they even notice that it is covered in big, happy snowmen.)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Thank goodness that it's no secret that I'm a huge dork, or else this post might disillusion some people.

Thanks to Liz, I have discovered and therefore completely devoted my morning (and probably most of break) to LibraryThing. Check out my catalog so far under my username, agwieckowski. I've only done the books in the living room so far, which is mostly the nonfiction that I've selected to bring here from my parents' house. There's more nonfiction there in PA, and also in my bedroom...and then there's fiction.

Oh, thesis. I was so psyched to write you! And then I got to do something that involved both organization and books, two of my favoritest things ever. Poor thesis.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Pink Elephants on Parade

Jessica's post reminded me of the Moan and Dove in Amherst, where they actually have delightfully appropriate Delirium Tremens glasses. The lighting is poor but you get the idea.

Spiritual Doppelgangers

Do you ever see people and realize that they're having your life, but an alternate version? This happens to me most frequently when it's someone I envy--I just find myself thinking, "Wait, that should be me!"--indignantly. They usually share some attribute with me (more often than not it's both hair color and vivacity), and then they have also got things that I have not got, that I then fixate on. One girl I know is cheerful, smiley, has a head full of brown ringlets, loves Victorian novels, and now she's engaged to a boy she fell in love with in a classroom as they argued over books. Wait, that should be me! Once upon a time, it was Amanda, the ballerina fairy who found the right things exciting and happy, and got Tristan in the deal. Wait, that should be me! It's not that I'm unhappy with my life. It's just that sometimes I get these flashes of alternative lives, some better, some worse.

Amanda and I, luckily, became good friends. Maybe it had to do with the discovery of realism, or the reality of, the alternate life. But more likely than not, I've found, these spiritual doppelgangers and I don't actually get along, despite my best efforts.

Sometimes, when I imagine my subjective universe (that is, God has built the world as my personal boot camp)(and he's built your world as your personal boot camp--don't worry, I'm not that self-centered), I wonder what I'm supposed to learn from seeing these people and knowing them to be my alter egos. Perhaps I'm supposed to see that their lives may not be that great after all, and that I'm lucky to have what I do. Maybe I'm just supposed to learn to keep my envy under control and learn humility. Or maybe I'm supposed to just be aware that I'm being tested. Or maybe that it really, despite everything my mind tells me, is not all about me.

Reviewing the Holocaust

I'm really interested in this conference in Iran questioning whether the Jewish Holocaust really happened.

In theory, when I first heard about it (from some indignant person or other), I actually liked it because (ow, stop throwing stuff at me!), as a liberal, I believe questioning the basis of what I have been taught to believe. Furthermore if they were to find that the Nazis did, in fact, do these horrible things, it would only make our outrage even more firmly grounded, and would silence all of the naysayers.

But perhaps everyone's outrage stems from the fact that they are less idealistic than I, and they realize that it never really works that way.

The problem is that this conference, which is priding itself on being removed from the knee-jerk reactions of the West, is no more removed from bias. The speakers are made up entirely of supremacists and others who deny, a priori, the slaughter of the Jews during the Holocaust, primarily because they see its major outcome as the creation of Israel. It's infinitely unlikely that they'll come up with any kind of unbiased conclusion. Therefore the only outcome of the conference will be the propagation of the theory that the Holocaust did not happen, and the further characterization of Zionist Jews and (despite the conference's very interesting efforts to the contrary) Jews everywhere as militarily aggressive, dangerous lying bastards.

What I'm now interested in is everyone's reactions to the conference, and what that can teach us about how far we've come since 1945. Or 1948.

One of the participants says that they are so glad that this is the first time they have been able to speak their mind freely, having been imprisoned for some years in Germany for expressing the idea that the Holocaust did not happen. Germany has very strict laws, which are, as far as I know, fully supported by the majority, that preclude anything like the Holocaust ever happening again. Many of these laws admittedly deny civil liberties. Is it worth it? It's just interesting to hear a supremacist speaking like a victim. But I guess that's what this is all about: it's a big game of Just Who Is The Victim Here.

One of my friends has pointed out that the intensity of the reaction in the West should be proof enough that the Holocaust did happen. I don't think this makes sense. The West is reacting to our image of the Holocaust. If that image is not well-founded, then that doesn't mean people wouldn't react to it. On the other hand, if she's saying that the intensity of the reaction is based on the stories of individuals who have told them to their families, that's something else--hard to make up that conspiracy.

I also have a Zionist friend who sees this conference as proof that Israel is legitimated in its military aggression. His comments are the most emotional thing I've ever heard him say. And for sure this conference is revealing the deep rift in the ways history is taught in the Islamic world and in the West: I myself had never thought about how political Islam saw the Holocaust. And so it becomes another legitimation for U.S. aggression toward the Islamic world.

Anyway, I guess my point is that there's something scary in the West's reaction to all this. We're so worried about letting it all happen again that we're shutting ourselves off from any, any conversation about it. I'm not, not, not suggesting the Holocaust did not happen. I am one of those people that has individual family stories. Stories that make me angrier than anything else ever has. The conversation I want to have doesn't have to do with whether the Holocaust happened or not, but with our ability to talk of the Germans as victims, with our ability to not be overwhelmed with guilt to the point of putting lines on someone else's map, etc., etc. I'm not defending the conference, which is chock full of biased people and, as I said, isn't going to do anything but perpetuate conservative, racist, religionist, and generally cruel views. I'm also not suggesting that we undertake some campaign to dull our own reaction. I don't think that's right. My comments are more of an observation than a call to arms (which I guess is my style). Rather I'm suggesting that if a similar conference happened in fifty, a hundred years' time, that the reaction would be different, and that wouldn't mean that we were any closer to letting it happen again.

Monday, December 11, 2006


The Philadelphia Museum of Art, as seen from below. The red flags advertise their current exhibit of Latin American art from the first three hundred years of European conquest.

Graduate School Exams

Is there any situation in which being essentialist or reductive is acceptable, useful, or positive?

We have final exams as graduate students here at UVA. Readers of my plan will already know how irate I am about them as well as my reasoning: they don't say anything about how much we read or how well we read it; they stress us out; professors don't read them; they are a big waste of time. But today Carolyn pointed out the basic reason why such exams are, in her (irate) opinion, harmful: they force us to essentialize what we learn. If our job as scholars is to identify nuances and to make accurate statements rather than generalizations, then these exams have absolutely nothing to do with our true work here. Are they just to make us do the reading over the course of the semester? Shouldn't the $20,000 per year that I'm paying to be here, or the six years of her life and a future of ease and wealth that she's giving up be enough to convince us to do our work dutifully?

Carolyn is equally irate over having to give reading quizzes to her undergraduate students; she feels that one-page response papers not only give students a chance to think for themselves, but assures them that such thought is as or more valuable than the ability to reproduce the information that has already been presented to them. As a graduate student, Carolyn feels particularly angry that professors are asking her to lower herself to the level of regurgitating information or summarizing a topic so broad that it would be laughable as a dissertation topic ("Question 2: Simply put, what is the novel in the eighteenth century?"), sensing that there is something wrong in the department's valuation of its graduate students if this is the sort of "work" they are expected to produce, even as just a sidenote at the end of a semester.

Mark, equally frustrated, was trying to come up with reasons why such essentialization is useful. Are these the kind of questions that will be on our orals (in which case, I would ask, what are our orals trying to accomplish)? Or will a journalist come along once we are famous professors and ask us for a sound byte about something that has about 34,208 dimensions but that they'll only give us twenty-five words or less to discuss?

The question seems to me to be the difference between being correct, and being practical. Whatever answer Carolyn gives in the hour she has to explain what a novel is in the 18th century, it's not going to be correct, which is what frustrates her. But perhaps being able to be incorrect in a particular way is valuable as well. In my family, that means being able to explain why poetry is amazing to a Christmas table full of people who wouldn't know a poem if it ran them over. Certainly Carolyn's answer won't be useful or even valid to a scholar. But perhaps this is the only method of translation to a culture that isn't as interested in what is correct as they are interested in easy definitions of things. I think back to when I used to work in the corporate world, and the greatest skill you could have was to be able to say what you needed to convey as quickly as possible, to hell with nuances. To be able (technically and emotionally) to make the concessions necessary to essentialize is perhaps a (dare I say) essential part of exporting our work to the non-academic world. Because if we can't do that, what are we really doing?

And, furthermore, perhaps it's even academically useful to be able to synthesize. If you're doing work on nineteenth-century novels, knowing what a novel was in the eighteenth century will be useful, even if what you remember from that eighteenth century class is somewhat generalized and dumbed down, don't you think? And, if the complaint is that this generalized snapshot of the eighteenth-century novel is the "generally accepted" view only, isn't that interesting and useful to know too? I find that one of my biggest problems in developing and writing criticism is that I don't know how the majority of people will read the text; I have a hard time saying that "at first blush, it seems that x is the way that this should be read" because I just read things differently from most people, even the first time around. That eventually makes writing original criticism easier, but first I have to figure out how other people read the text. Obviously this can and should be done by every critic by consulting other criticism, but I think I have a harder time than some other people knowing how "everyone" reads a text. Which is maybe where knowing the essentialized version of what other people think of something might come in handy.

So again I ask whether this kind of re-presentation of learned material is useful. What do you think?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Welcome, me.

Well, it's about time I had a blog.

The name comes from my favorite series of children's books, of course. I'm inviting you into my wardrobe, that magical (liminal!) space where the crazy happens.