now that the ocean is gone

Untitled [The child thought it strange]

The child thought it strange to define words with other words. What did you draw? The man thought he was looking at a purple oval with a touch of yellow. I drew that, the child answered ecstatically, feeling the paper with his finger. The frost is a little behind the shadows. A slash of tree trunk and the L of the roof. We hate a work of art that finds designs inside us, better to lie in the fog of melting snow and see the lake that remains and the person who has left, the ones we would rather not see but do in this reduction. What I loved about the little box full of hair elastics and bobby pins was my own wonder at the little squares of wood, 6 to a side, each of which had its own cross-section of branch, as if it had found something that could be wholly repeated when dispersed. The child, between the toilet and the window, liked the way it opened and spilled the many-colored elastics. An after-image of the monks spot-welding an iron fence in orange robes at night while we drove past fell apart in the nest of elastics, blue and orange among them. The ruins of December are full of people. Feeling is lost. The melted lake, re-frozen, clear as a picture plane in the public park, drags in its current a bit of duckweed torn at the root, bright-green, but it stops when the skater does and reveals its stasis. Further out, a void that can be seen clearly through this fiction starts the world in orbit around involuted space. Participation is voluntary as the wind pushes a glove and a cry faster through the deeps of sky and cloud than the ear and hand that released them. Now that the ocean is gone I am sail and ship, but the embargo on motion means he can only be thrown away, the hour you were queen. Go to work we tell the child. Go to work, go to work, go to work.


by Richard Meier
from Shelley Gave Jane a Guitar

April is Poetry Month. We’re celebrating here with a poem a day, by giving out poems like candy when you visit us, and discounting all poetry books by 10%. Because reading poetry is a fairly acceptable form of social deviance. And we’re all about that.

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not endorsing it


Space, in chains
Things that are beautiful, and die. Things that fall asleep in the afternoon, in
sun. Things that laugh, then cover their mouths, ashamed of their teeth. A
strong man pouring coffee into a cup. His hands shake, it spills. His wife falls
to her knees when the telephone rings. Hello? Goddammit, hello?

Where is their child?

Hamster, tulips, love, gigantic squid. To live. I’m not endorsing it.

Any single, transcriptional event. The chromosomes of the roses. Flagella,
cilia, all the filaments of touching, of feeling, of running your little hand
hopelessly along the brick.

Sky, stamped into flesh, bending over the sink to drink the tour de force of

It’s all space, in chains– the chaos of birdsong after a rainstorm, the steam
rising off the asphalt, a small boy in boots opening the back door, stepping
out, and someone calling to him from the kitchen,

Sweetie, don’t be gone too long.

by Laura Kasischke, winner of 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award

from Space, in Chains


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Turning Pages

This morning, there was a knock at my office door. When I opened it, standing in front of me was a box of books… with legs (and a few more on the ground, without). Gail Craven read Katie’s story yesterday and decided to help. She’s in the business of helping, you see. A teacher at Colfax Charter Elementary in Studio City, Gail is also the Executive Director of the Turning Pages Foundation, a nonprofit in support of literacy, enrichment and leadership programs in local and global communities. Having recently organized a successful community book drive, Gail is now donating a good deal of these books to Katie’s learners in South Africa.

I am personally so grateful and so heartened by this. Sure, it’s all small beans if you start to compare, but who’s to say what the value is of a cycle such as this — a recent college graduate uproots herself to be of use somewhere where she’s needed, she reaches out to a bunch of people who like to read, they in turn reach out and are met by the open palms of members of a community that is just dying to help wherever and whomever it can. We’re only talking about a few boxes of books here, but just one of these books could be the sole thing a man or woman in South Africa will one day point to as the beginning, the source of meaning, of purpose and of hope.

Please visit the Turning Pages Foundation website here, and consider volunteering, helping out in any way. Whether you’ll donate a book, funds, mentor a child, help set up the stand at the Farmers Market where they sell plants, encourage your children to participate… whatever you want, however big, however small.

Also, and this is for those of you who eat food, the Whole Foods  in Sherman Oaks on Riverside Dr. will be donating 5% of all of tomorrow’s profits to the foundation. You buy groceries, a bunch of kids get help with their math homework. Please shop there tomorrow, April 4th, if you have shopping to do. It’s a multidimensional win-win if ever there was one.

Last but certainly not least, thanks to all of you who’ve donated, those whom I haven’t thanked personally, those of you who leave behind sacks of books anonymously… thank you!

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how’s your taste these days?

During the entire month of April we’ll be stuffing poetry down throats and into hands and pockets, giving away sealed-up poems like fortunes, discounting our entire Poetry section by 10%, and going around singing sonnets set to the tune of “Volare”. You’ll see — there’ll be something in all of this that’ll make your toes sing.

I Have Not Loved Enough

I’ve never been in love enough
with chairs.
I’ve always turned
my back on them.
I can’t tell this from that
or hold one in the mind’s eye long enough.
The ones at home I clean
with a glance
in seconds flat.
It takes effort now
to visualize
the chairs I sat on as a kid,
ordinary chairs of wood
belonging to our dining room
which, once we gave the place a face-lift,
were demoted to the kitchen.
The most ordinary
of ordinary chairs.
Yet we never understand
the real
simplicity of chairs.
We can strip down
the humblest of chairs,
cut away for good an angle here,
the curving edges there,
but never grasp the chairness
of chairs.
I’ve never been in love enough
with anything
to realize that it takes
assiduous lingering,
not snatching things up on the wing.
I let the moment disappear
and get no thrill from it.
I disappear myself. It’s only when
submerged in things
I exist. And if I make the effort
now, it’s wasted,
for truth is blunted
to banality.
I’ve fooled around with far too many things
to really see them,
dismissed too many things as ornaments.
Now when I let simplicity
seduce  me,
a passion for profundity
has spoiled my taste.

by Fabio Morabito
translated by Geoff Hargreaves
anthologized in The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry

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Excerpts from a Letter

Well, we have been back in school for a few months now and much has changed. First, I no longer sit like a lump at school. I have a lot to do at the primary school now that my observation period is over. I focus mainly on remedial work. I work with the three to five of the slowest learners from grades four to seven. I was originally supposed to be teaching them the same lessons that the English teacher does in class. After my initial assessment, however, it was clear to me that this would not be possible. The majority of the kids have trouble or cannot read a book meant for an American second grader. A few of them cannot read at all.
… I am working individually with [Grace,] a girl from grade six. She didn’t know the alphabet when I first met her, let alone letter sounds. Last week she read her first book. It is a simple book called “Cat”, but it is a book all the same. The teachers here are all really hard on the learners… When I had a parents’ meeting with Grace’s mother and the English teacher… they told me that she was a lost cause, beyond help, lazy, and doesn’t want to learn… After she finished reading the book, I went and brought that teacher into the room. I asked Grace to read for her while this teacher watched. She read the whole book with no help and no difficulty. The teacher sat there dumbfounded, while Grace proved her wrong.
Grace is one of my many learners who improve daily. My boy from grade seven who had trouble even writing his own name also read his first book last week. Lesego from grade five was able to tell me the entire alphabet correctly for the first time Friday. My learners who are more advanced than these kids and do know the alphabet and letter sounds have improved a grade level at least in their reading. I will take many things away from this experience I am having in the Peace Corps. What I will never forget, however, is the smile on a child’s face when they are proud of themselves. The small things are why I am here.
My library is underway. Nine other Peace Corps volunteers and I have teamed together to get a huge shipment of books through Books for Africa. With a lot of help from our friends and family back home, we are coming along nicely. The Department of Education here will help deliver the books to the different schools [when they arrive]. I have managed to get shelves donated and other things I will need for my library, so I believe it will be a success.
My primary school also wants to start a garden. It is a big task to undertake in a village with sand as soil and no water. I am doing what I can with my principal to try and make this happen, however. I will be attending a Permagarden workshop put on by the Peace Corps in the beginning of April. I also recently attended a Permaculture workshop organized by Food and Trees for Africa. Food and Trees for Africa is a great organization. They give trees for free to schools that will take care of them. A school can ask for as many as they want and whatever kind they want. I could ask for 500 plum trees if I wanted. I will partner with them in a project called Trees for Homes. They give a tree to every person of the village. The people are able to choose if they want a fruit tree or a shade tree. If they choose a fruit tree, they choose the kind of fruit. A person in the village then gets paid a stipend to make sure the trees are being taken care of properly. It is a big task to organize, but being able to bring hundreds of trees to my village gets me beyond excited.
…It is cooling off a bit. That means it is no longer 104 degrees in my room. Now it is down to a chilly 80. It is funny to think how cold everyone was, myself included, when it got down into the 70s. We were all wearing sweatshirts or jackets and shivering. I was under my nice cozy blanket. Winter is going to be brutal.
That is it for now. I just returned from my neighboring truck stop (kind of like a 7-11 with a smaller selection open for less time) where ten kids came to greet me screaming “Ausi Lerato, Ausi Lerato,” and it looks like they have now followed me home.
Love to everyone back home,
Katie or Ausi Lerato (Ausi- sister, Lerato- my African name, meaning love)
To donate to the Siphumelela project and help get these books shipped to Katie’s learners, click here. Please spread the word, tell as many people as you can about this… all these kids want are books.
And, of course, we’re your happy depository, so drop off whatever you can, whenever you want.

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assuming there is such a thing


Today is the first day of April. Many things are celebrated on this day. Here at Portrait, we’re celebrating poetry. See you back here tomorrow with more. And that’s no lie.

The Secret

Two girls discover
the secret of life
in a sudden line of
I who don’t know the
secret wrote
the line. They
told me
(through a third person)
they had found it
but not what it was
not even
what line it was.  No doubt
by now, more than a week
later, they have forgotten
the secret,
the line, the name of
the poem.  I love them
for finding what
I can’t find,
and for loving me
for the line I wrote,
and for forgetting it
so that
a thousand times, till death
finds them, they may
discover it again, in other
in other
happenings.  And for
wanting to know it,
assuming there is
such a secret, yes,
for that
most of all.

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“Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,”… elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.”

See what Your Brain on Fiction looks like.


Just when you think a phenomenon has gone and died forever, someone ends up in the hospital over a LITERARY ARGUMENT. Can’t wait to know what this was about. (“Tolstoy was the master!” “No, you ignorant scum, Turgenev is God!” “How dare you! [Punch]”)

Kidding aside, I hope the poor guy is okay.

However, I can’t say the same for this brilliant commenter who chose to type the following words at 3:37 pm on March 19:

“This is why I don’t read books. People who read tend to be anti-social and violent as we see here. Plus aren’t all great writers drunks? Probably rubs off on their fanbases.”

So right, yet so wrong.


Books I can’t wait to read next week:

V.S. Ramachandran, the Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at UCSD: “In this elegant and provocative book, Sam Harris demonstrates—with great intellectual ferocity and panache—that free will is an inherently flawed and incoherent concept, even in subjective terms. If he is right, the book will radically change the way we view ourselves as human beings.”

Free Will, by Sam Harris


“A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe—and built her back up again.”

Listen to the NPR interview here.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed


“In When I Was a Child I Read Books [Marilynne Robinson] returns to and expands upon the themes which have preoccupied her work with renewed vigor.

In “Austerity as Ideology,” she tackles the global debt crisis, and the charged political and social political climate in this country that makes finding a solution to our financial troubles so challengin. In “Open Thy Hand Wide” she searches out the deeply embedded role of generosity in Christian faith. And in “When I Was a Child,” one of her most personal essays to date, an account of her childhood in Idaho becomes an exploration of individualism and the myth of the American West. Clear-eyed and forceful as ever, Robinson demonstrates once again why she is regarded as one of our essential writers.”

When I Was a Child I Read Books, by Marilynne Robinson


Books I’m glad I read last week:

“Stunned to learn that her son, Sam, is about to become a father at nineteen, Lamott begins a journal about the first year of her grandson Jax’s life.”

For those of us who cherished Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year this is something wholly different, but still in possession of the same wit and tenderness.

A Journal of My Son’s First Son, by Anne Lamott with Sam Lamott


Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth: “Susan Cain is the definer of a new and valuable paradigm. In this moving and original argument, she makes the case that we are losing immense reserves of talent and vision because of our culture’s overvaluation of extroversion. A startling, important, and readable page-turner that will make quiet people see themselves in a whole new light.”

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain


“Julia Severn is a student at an elite institute for psychics. Her mentor, the legendary Madame Ackermann, afflicted by jealousy, refuses to pass the torch to her young disciple. Instead, she subjects Julia to the humiliation of reliving her mother’s suicide when Julia was an infant. As the two lock horns, and Julia gains power, Madame Ackermann launches a desperate psychic attack that leaves Julia the victim of a crippling ailment.”

Doesn’t that sound like loads of delicious fun? It was!

The Vanishers, by Heidi Julavits

Have a quiet, wonderful weekend, everyone. And happy reading!


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I have never…

…seen a star fall without making a wish.

…met my wife.

…stopped thanking God for saving my son.

Patron 1 …been to Europe.

Patron 2…No need to go. Obama is turning the U.S.A. into it.

Patron 3…We should be so lucky!

…been taken seriously.

…seen an aura.

…run a full marathon. This won’t be true tomorrow!

…not doubted myself.

…been with a man who deserves me.

…doubted myself.

…been to Barcelona.

…flown a plane.

…danced in public.

…been without hope.

…saved a life.

…had a daughter.

…been a mom.

…loved someone as much as I love Greg.

…had sex.

…admitted to anyone or even myself the exact nature of my defects.

…loved without losing something.

…eaten a PB & J sandwich.

…stopped believing in the goodness in people.

…loved a person as much as I love Helena.

…been published.

…asked the right questions.

…thought with my head.

…counted myself among the lucky.

…loved anyone as much as I love myself.

…cut myself on purpose.

…been able to look away from open windows when passing by other people’s homes.

done anything I’m proud of.

…cared enough about anything to worry about losing it.

…been as filled with joy as I am today!

…considered other people’s feelings.

…walked out of the house naked. There is always tomorrow.

Thanks to all those who wander through and stop to share themselves with us.

Photo: Beijing Modern Dance Company

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“one of those magical places wise people like to talk about”

“Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night.”

~Rainer Maria Rilke

Welcome, Spring!
Here’s how Lilly feels about you:
“Such Singing in the Wild Branches”
Mary Oliver
from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
It was spring
and finally I heard him
among the first leaves –
then I saw him clutching the limb
in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still
and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness –
and that’s when it happened,
when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree –
and I began to understand
what the bird was saying,
and the sands in the glass
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward
like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing –
it was the thrush for sure, but it seemed
not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfectly blue sky – all, all of them
were singing.
And, of course, yes, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn’t last
for more than a few moments.
It’s one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,
is that, once you’ve been there,
you’re there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then – open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.


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Take me home!

Austin Kleon, of Newspaper Blackout fame, gives you permission to steal. He also tells you what’s good stealing and what’s stupid stealing. Also, why you’re stealing even if you don’t know you’re stealing. And, importantly, how to get out of your own way while stealing. In Steal Like an Artist, a tiny adorable book with lots o’ drawings, Kleon shares maxims, tips, quotes, anecdotes, rules… inspirations(!) for the creative person.  For those who need permission to screw up and write/paint/dream/grow/      insert creative verb here      drivel before they produce the masterpiece each of us is capable of (it’s okay, even I can’t tell if I’m being ironic here.)


Here’s Ray Bradbury in 2008  for The Big Read, presented by the National Endowment for the Arts. Definitely worth eight minutes out of your life.


The Guardian, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, asked some authors for theirs. Here’s Geoff Dyer’s list. Click here for the rest.

1 Never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project. That stuff is for agents and editors to fret over – or not. Conversation with my American publisher. Me: “I’m writing a book so boring, of such limited commercial appeal, that if you publish it, it will probably cost you your job.” Publisher: “That’s exactly what makes me want to stay in my job.”

2 Don’t write in public places. In the early 1990s I went to live in Paris. The usual writerly reasons: back then, if you were caught writing in a pub in England, you could get your head kicked in, whereas in Paris, dans les cafés . . . Since then I’ve developed an aversion to writing in public. I now think it should be done only in private, like any other lavatorial activity.

3 Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.

4 If you use a computer, constantly refine and expand your autocorrect settings. The only reason I stay loyal to my piece-of-shit computer is that I have invested so much ingenuity into building one of the great auto­correct files in literary history. Perfectly formed and spelt words emerge from a few brief keystrokes: “Niet” becomes “Nietzsche”, “phoy” becomes  ­”photography” and so on. ­Genius!

5 Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary.

6 Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.

7 Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I ­always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.

8 Beware of clichés. Not just the ­clichés that Martin Amis is at war with. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought – even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are ­clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation.

9 Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it.

10 Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give up and do something else. Try to live without resort to per­severance. But writing is all about ­perseverance. You’ve got to stick at it. In my 30s I used to go to the gym even though I hated it. The purpose of ­going to the gym was to postpone the day when I would stop going. That’s what writing is to me: a way of ­postponing the day when I won’t do it any more, the day when I will sink into a depression so profound it will be indistinguishable from perfect bliss.


From a section titled Daily Program:

Mornings: If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.

If in fine fettle, write.

Evenings: See friends. Read in cafes.

Explore unfamiliar sections- on foot if wet, on bicycle if dry.

Write, if in mood, but only on Minor program.

Paint if empty or tired.

Make Notes. Make charts, plans. Make corrections of MS.

Note: Allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride…

Henry Miller’s Commandment #5:

When you can’t create you can work.


Did you know that the most creative companies have centralized bathrooms? That brainstorming meetings are a terrible idea? That the color blue can help you double your creative output?

I didn’t. But I do now, because I read this book. And today I am one book smarter than I was two days ago. What is smart, anyway? This book answers that question, too. Pretty good book,  wouldn’t you say?


In conclusion, watch this. Ideas are such funny little guys.

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