Mind Reading for Luddites

What to look for on entering a room:
clues littered across coffee tables,
hunt for well-thumbed evidence
in bookcases, fading pictures
on the wall. A world of
insight in ruffled magazines,
yellowed newspaper.  I am curious,
hello, what have we here?
Scraps of mind-litter, dandruff
of human longing, a slough
of dear forgotten things.  It
pays, I tell you, to probe
the printed marrow,
the pulp
if you wish to
get down to the bone
and troll for
buried whimsies. Go
only by the book:
accept no offhand offerings
of electronic screens
flickering in every nook.
They won’t let you off the hook,
for you and I know they are but black holes
that suck you in
and spit you out
and leave you
none the wiser.
                        — 3/12/2014

Shelf Life


Back in the days when I thought it would be a cinch
to command a print run of, say, thirty thousand,
I used to dream of being read, dozens of readers
dawdling over every inch, dallying
with each irresistible insight.
I thought of our intercourse
as a fertile two-way street,
spurring us all onto a higher
plane of understanding. You,
reader, would root
for me, and I, purring, would give you my all;
deposit it humbly at your feet, or at
your local library.

I wondered if there would be an electric spark,
a charge
for every profitable connection made
between my promiscuous brain
and yours;
a morse-code in the dark, winking on, off —
a wild firefly cotillion.
Being read would reveal
how many soul mates I had in the world.
I’d be pelted with flowers,
sent stricken fan letters,
quoted profusely,
invited to speak to your assemblies.
I’d never be alone again. Ah,
but how could I, a virgin author,
be expected to know better? Uncracked,
untouched, not even a blip
on the literary radar screen,
I had only my daydreams to go on.
As I sat there at my desk, smitten with
some piece I had just written,
it seemed impossible that
there might not be any takers for
the fresh, ingenious thoughts I had
to offer.

One fine day, having penned that final line,
I would read it over
one last time as the public
hovered with bated breath. And then,
still clammy and glistening with the
sweat of my brow,
I would emerge from my cell
and step out into the world.
I’d be delivered of my first book, and
there would be such a stir, such rapture,
such a rush to whisk me away
into the literary pantheon,
that I would never be alone again.

The dawning has been slow.
I can now see reality
snoring in the second row; I mean, my first is still
waiting in the wings
hoping for a chance to be pushed onto the stage,
but now it has siblings crowding behind,
just as eager to have a go.
I worry about this: what if
one of the others,
younger in age but
more savvy and bold, were
to elbow its way in ahead
of my first-born? Which
would then be ‘first’?

I try not to think of my plucky
bundles, sent
out into the world in all
feckless innocence, only
never to be returned or even
stamped with the courtesy of a reply.
Some, to be sure,
did find their way home eventually,
sordidly stained,
hustled by agents who
courageously stuck their
necks out for a while
but had to give up on me in the end.

Still alone,
an old maid now, my works
wallflowers wilting on the shelf,
I am drained
of the old illusions.
Posthumous perhaps,
but in this lifetime? Not a chance in hell.
Oh, but deal with it!
Reality check:
Who wants to have her words niggled at
by cocky copy-editors, her choices derided
by a sullen jury, her meaning misunderstood —
— a target of puzzlement,
heckling, contempt, offense,
boredom, indifference
or fury?

For I know now that being read is not enough.
It needs to be done
with dedication, and with pleasure. And
being read with pleasure is not enough, there
has to be a concrete response, a positive
And a positive response is not enough,
it has to come from someone you respect,
because what do most people know
Even a positive response from
someone you respect is not enough,
since you can never be sure if it is quite

Who wants to be parachuted
around the globe anyway,
cloned creepily a thousand times over
like Charlotte’s offspring,
each squiggly thing vulnerable to
harm and neglect?
A single pristine volume hung
on the wall of some hushed museum
suddenly seems a
more sensible option. Look
but don’t touch, it ought
to read in red letters:
No yawning
No snickering
Not to be left out in the rain
Not to be read in the john
And never
ever to be remaindered for a dollar

So let me state it here,
for the record:
Being published isn’t for me. You can keep
your three-martini lunches at the
Four Seasons, your
five-city book tours, your
six-figure advances. Phooey
to your oohs and your Oprahs,
your bouquets and your Charlie Roses.
Don’t even try to woo me with Pulitzer
prizes or teaching posts, a
by-line or fame beyond my crudest
dreams. Honestly, it’s not my thing.
I’m sure I’ll
get along
without it


One of the things I’m proudest of is that I am a twin.  I do realize being a twin isn’t really something to brag about, since you're just born that way, and it can also make you feel like a freak sometimes, but there it is: being a twin is part of my identity, and I like it.
     Another thing I am proud of is that I speak more than one language. Which isn’t really such an awesome achievement either, since I lived in five different countries growing up, so speaking more than one language was a necessity. At home in Geneva, my sisters and I spoke (and sometimes sang) a medley of English, French and Dutch.
     It won’t surprise you to learn that I was a bookworm. I especially loved English Literature, so when the time came, off I bravely marched to King’s College London for a healthy dose of Shakespeare and linguistics and such. Then, after a couple of years working as a paid slave — i.e. copy editor, or "sub" — on a couple of women's magazines, I decided I missed Literature, so back I went for another degree at London U.
     The next chapter in my life had nothing to do with Literature, and instead was spent sending news footage around the world at an international TV news agency, first in London and later in New York, which was very exciting and stressful.
     After a decade of thinking that unless I was in the newsroom the world would come to a screeching halt, I quit, got married, and moved to the (calm and peaceful) countryside. Home with young children (of whom I must tell you I am also quite proud, this time with reason) I started writing novels, most of which never saw the light of day, although my children’s book Isabel of the Whales was a surprise national bestseller.
     One thing led to another, and I discovered that by using my languages, I could pursue Literature in a whole new way. Translating opened up new worlds for me, filling me with fresh love and respect for the three languages I thought I knew so well.
     I’m an old hand at it by now, but every time I start on a new book it’s a new adventure, and the thought that I am enabling readers to immerse themselves in the Literature of a different culture gives me yet another reason to feel fiercely, and unreasonably, proud.


Don’t you remember how
We clasped each other and stared
In the icy lobby
And you held me at arm’s length and shook your head;
“You haven’t changed a bit!” you said
As if you really meant it,
Although I understood instead
A different incredulity:
You, reading as never before perhaps,
Your old abandoned self
In the altered mirror of me.

How I wished then for once
Not to be imprisoned behind these eyes
But able to peer the other way, to see
What you saw, looking at me!
Definition I crave,
Not these snippets inhabiting my history
Or myth, it seems, of others’ making
Slapped onto my impostor soul.

“But nor have you!” I lied, and pressed your hand
To squeeze the bones
Metacarpal and capitate,
Aching to find
Some fossil of forgotten time.
You let go. Gazing past my head—
“I’m late,” you said, “But let’s catch up soon!”
“We’ll do that,” I said.
“Promise!” you chided,
Still checking out the room.

Then the party started
And the day ran away,
And by the end of it
So much of us had been sloughed off,
And already replaced (at the cellular level, I mean)
That it no longer really mattered

And she to me: “No sadness is greater than in misery to rehearse memories of joy"

Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice ne la miseria  (Dante Alighieri)

Not in the USA

In Europe, where I’m from, children are expected to learn at least one foreign language at school, if not more. It’s not seen as a great hurdle; the younger you are, the easier it is to pick up another language. When they are a bit older, teens are sent abroad in the school holidays to perfect their languages. Similarly, in Asia and Africa, young people who want to get on in the world make an effort to learn a foreign language. Often it is English, the lingua franca of Hollywood and pop music. This in addition to having to speak both one's native dialect and the country’s official language. In Cambodia, I saw tiny street urchins trying out several different languages on tourists in order to wheedle money out of them.

The United States is an exception. Children here are not expected to learn another language; indeed, the ability to speak a foreign tongue tends to be regarded with awe, as though you need some special talent to master it. It’s sometimes even viewed with suspicion or contempt, as if it’s somehow  un-American (you may recall that presidential candidate John Kerry was dismissed as a snob for knowing French). Language proficiency is an 'elitist skill', reserved for the highly educated—except in the case of immigrants, especially those on the bottom rung of the income ladder, who are expected to be fluent in English if they want to live here. I find it ironic that immigrants are not admired for their ability to pick up the language, but looked down upon if they fail to do so.

It’s only the elites and the immigrants, therefore, who are multilingual; the rest of society is blithely, proudly off the hook. This applies to our most recent U.S. president, Donald Trump. I can’t imagine there are many politicians outside the U.S. who would aspire to the highest office in the land without having the ability to communicate with their foreign counterparts in at least one language not their own.

6/30/2017  But something has happened to romance. Something happened when “love” was demoted to “relationship” and “commitment”. In our age, romantic love is old-fashioned, passé. It is more important to be realistic, cynical even; to have your heart toughened for the inevitable disappointment. Whatever happened to rose-tinted glasses?