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annotation: “At the Dam,” by Joan Didion

This is a first: because of one commenter’s interest in my original post on The White Album, I’m just going ahead and publishing the craft annotation I wrote for school on “At the Dam.” You’ll have to let me know if this is interesting or the opposite. Call it an experiment.

10/14/2017
Annotation 14: Finding the Star Map (or central image)

Didion, Joan. “At the Dam.” The White Album. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

“At the Dam” is an essay less than four pages long, which describes Hoover Dam and its ongoing fascination for the narrator. Its very short length and the scale of its subject (literally, in terms of the dam, and figuratively, in terms of its large pull on Didion) make it an interesting study for me, especially because it deals with place. I found that my reactions to the essays of The White Album varied widely: some interested and involved me more than others. This essay inspired my imagination.

Only five paragraphs: and what work do they do? The first paragraph begins, “Since the afternoon in 1967 when I first saw Hoover Dam, its image has never been entirely absent from my inner eye.” Didion goes on to say where she sees the dam appear in that “inner eye”: Los Angeles, New York, while driving; and what it looks like: pristine, gleaming white, vertiginous, shadowed, ominous; its setting: harsh rusts and taupes and mauves. She hears its turbines (a sound as yet undescribed). She wonders how much water is being released (a fascination more generally revealed in an earlier essay in this collection, “Holy Water”). This is all good setting of the scene and the stakes, and includes images.

The second paragraph juxtaposes two ways of thinking about the dam: she compares it to the Mindanao Trench or the stars (baffling enormity), then calls dams “commonplace.” She places the Hoover Dam in history. It “made the Southwest plausible… convey[ed], in the innocent time of its construction, the notion that mankind’s brightest promise lay in American engineering.” This is a short paragraph, but important in that it provides these choices of context. The dam is as vast and inexplicable as the stars; it is familiar; it embodies the American dream, its promise and hubris. This last holds extra significance, because the essence of “America” (here meaning the United States) is one of Didion’s themes in this collection.

Paragraph three develops this idea, “that sense of being a monument to a faith since misplaced.” Images include a memorial plaque, a model city, “a toy triangular grid of green lawns and trim bungalows,” bronze sculptures, “Winged Victories guard[ing] the flagpole,” the flag. My favorite is an empty Pepsi-Cola can: how American, and how expressive of disappointment and disillusionment. Someone has littered at this failed American monument, which however still works, in the practical sense.

The fourth paragraph begins, “But history does not explain it all,” and so Didion will have to keep trying. The practical work of the dam–its capturing and transforming of energy into a form more useful to our human society–does not explain it either. She describes touring the dam with a man from the Bureau of Reclamation, and I pause to look this up: it’s the federal institution that manages water and power in the west. In this paragraph, Didion allows “Reclamation” to stand in for the man himself, a metonymy with religious overtones: “‘Touch it,’ the Reclamation said, and I did.” (A typo for “the Reclamation man”? I like it this way.) In this paragraph she describes the physical features of the dam, its workings, and the area around it, emphasizing its weirdness. Sexual overtones, parts where visitors do not go, alien, complete and beautiful, unpeopled; cranes move as if on their own, machinery roars and hums and vibrates. She finishes with the odd statement that the peculiar moment was “so explicit as to suggest nothing beyond itself.” This one made me stop to think.

The fifth and final paragraph makes a final attempt to grasp something “beyond energy, beyond history.” Didion again juxtaposes everyday Americana with the alien world of the dam. And then she fixes on an image: “the marble star map that traces a sidereal revolution of the equinox and fixes forever, the Reclamation man had told me, for all time and for all people who can read the stars, the date the dam was dedicated. The star map was, he had said, for when we were all gone and the dam was left.” This, she decides, stands in for the dam, “a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world where no one is.” In five paragraphs, she has stated her fascination (obsession, even?) with the Hoover Dam, explored its significances (history, energy, sheer scale) without finding its true significance to her, and then found it at last.

In reading this essay, my personal background inspired an initial gut reaction: Edward Abbey and my father agree that big dams like this are bad for the natural world. But on closer reading, I think that a) Didion doesn’t necessarily deny that truth and b) it doesn’t matter; she is not making a value judgment, but an observation of the dam’s power over her. That dynamo free of man (more metonymy–I’d prefer humankind) is impressive whether we agree with its rightness or not.

“At the Dam” has inspired me to write an essay modeled on hers about a place that matters to me, although I haven’t figured out yet what that place is. I’m okay with this. I’m working on the essay in my head without knowing what it’s about yet, and sometimes they come out this way: I work on them for six bike rides and then come home and the thing bursts out fully formed like Athena (but a lumpy and misshapen Athena that requires editing, of course). I want to model an essay on the form and structure–and length–of hers, and I hope to find its star map. I’ll be on the lookout for such a place in my own personal history; I’m sure it exists.

movie: Twelfth Night (1996)

Last week I reviewed the play. But wait, there’s more! My required reading for residency also included a viewing of the movie, from 1996, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring such names at Helena Bonham-Carter, Richard E. Grant, and Ben Kingsley.

For me, this film contributed to the play as printed on paper in its music, its scenery (shot in Cornwall) and, as always with Shakespearean productions, the lively acting. As much as I love the written word, Shakespeare’s comedy always benefits for me from performance–maybe this is definitive of theatre. Of course as well the lack of stage direction leaves the filling out of the drama to the producers (actors etc.). And Twelfth Night is somewhat special in including lyrics, which only improve when set to music. Imogen Stubbs and Steven Mackintosh as the twins, Viola/Cesario and Sebastian, make a perfect pair: I’m impressed at the likeness, and wonder if every production gets so lucky. (I so wish I could go to Houston for the Festival!)

While Shakespeare never feels particularly dated to me–I would not be the first to call him timeless–this movie somewhere feels more placed in time, despite being set in a different time than when it was filmed. Perhaps the pacing felt a little slow? I’ll always recommend seeing this stuff performed, though.


Rating: 7 scenes in a barn.

residency report

I’m sorry I missed y’all last Friday, friends. It has been madness. There are some changes underway in my personal life; but also, as you know, I’m just reentering the world again following my second residency in West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in creative writing.

Thus begins my second semester in the nonfiction track. At the beginning of this month, I spent 10 days attending seminars on subjects including poetry as protest; the life and work of James Wright; Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; writer’s block; acquiring an agent; the sonnet; and the lyric essay. I workshopped my peers’ work and heard them critique my own. I got to meet and hear from Jason Howard, Yuri Herrera, Rachael Peckham, Rahul Mehta, Jon Corcoran and Rodney Jones; and I enjoyed again the company and the work of Jessie Van Eerden, Eric Waggoner, Mary Carroll-Hackett, Kim Kupperman, Doug Van Gundy, Katie Fallon, Mesha Maren and more. My classmates are a wild, talented, weird, supportive bunch. These are the best times ever; also the most exhausting.

This semester, I’ll be working with Kim Dana Kupperman, author of I Just Lately Started Buying Wings and The Last of Her. (Also the editor of You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person and founder of Welcome Table Press.) I’m reading another 20-25 books and writing many pages myself. And in this moment, frankly, I’m a bit overwhelmed. So I’m going back to my books. Thanks for being patient with me.

Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice, ed. by Francisco X. Alarcón and Odilia Galván Rodríguez

Back to residency today, and so here is one of the assigned readings, for a seminar entitled “Boy Breaking Glass: Political and Protest Poetry,” taught by Mary Carroll-Hackett. (She assigned a good-sized packet of poetry and articles, additionally.)

You know that poetry often mystifies me. I struggle to release my need to understand or dissect every line and choice; but I’m getting better at that (and of course I’m in school to help me understand such choices). This collection was easier than usual for me to get behind. For one thing, it begins with a lovely foreword by Juan Filpe Herrera, and introduction by editors Alarcón and Rodríguez. These gave clarity, context and passion to the poems that follow; they made clear the backstory that yielded these works, and made their point matter to me. In a word: this collection began when nine Latino students chained themselves to the Arizona State Capitol building in 2010, in protest of Arizona’s SB 1070, the “reasonable suspicion” bill. The students’ civil disobedience was followed immediately by a poem Alarcón wrote in response; and then by the Facebook page, “Poets Responding to SB 2070,” which in turn gave birth to a spreading protest poetry movement. This book is one of the many results of that movement.

The poems selected for this collection were voted on by poet-moderators; their authors are diverse in geography and ethnic/national backgrounds; some are new and emerging writers and others are well-established. Most of the book’s contents are printed in English. Some are in both Spanish and English (and one, in Irish, Spanish and English). A minority are printed only in Spanish, so those of us less than fluent in that language will miss a few pieces, or struggle over them. I appreciated this as an effect, though.

I feel less confident about my ability to write about these poems’ content. I don’t generally review poetry. But I found this reading engaging: politically moving, thought-provoking, stimulating, and comprehensible in a way poetry isn’t always for me. I’d recommend this book to anyone, for its artistic value as well as for its political worth. That’s all I have to offer today; Poetry of Resistance has it all.


Rating: 7 poems become bread or water.

best of semester 1

Today I am traveling north and east to West Virginia for the residency that begins my second semester in WVWC’s MFA program. All semester, I’ve been posting reviews of the books I read for school (along with the odd Shelf Awareness review). So, you’ve been seeing these books as they come; but I wanted to make a note, for your information and my own records, of what I loved most this semester. As always, these are only my personal reactions.

The best (and most useful to me) craft books I read were

I had less success with The Art of Subtext, The Situation and the Story, and The Art of Attention (which I did not finish and therefore did not review). In fact, I’m beginning to fear that Graywolf’s The Art of series is not for me (recall also The Art of History), which is a shame, because I’m generally a fan of Graywolf Press, and I love the idea of these succinct pocket-sized craft books.

The memoirs/essay collections I loved most, and found most useful, were

I hadn’t realized until I made this list that five of these six books were written by women. Interesting, and perhaps not surprising.

What I am able to take from these talented writers and make my own is another question. Having reviewed books for a number of years now (see my first review for Shelf Awareness!), I feel fairly comfortable pointing to what I appreciate, and articulating why. (Most of the time.) But making it my own, that’s a newer challenge I’m still working to master.

And so, into semester 2.

Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon

Full disclosure: Katie Fallon is my faculty advisor this semester, meaning we’ll be working closely together. I read this book just before meeting her.


Mid-April in our southern mountains is a gentle time; blooming forsythia lights up yards like bursts of yellow fireworks, magnolia trees sport gaudy white and pink blossoms, and median strips swell with lilacs and tulips.

cerulean-bluesCerulean Blues is a book about the cerulean warbler, a migratory songbird in danger but not listed as endangered (yet); it is also a book about the author’s becoming a fan and ally of the little bird, a year in her life.

It is organized by seasons: spring, summer and fall. In spring, Fallon discovers the bird and its possibilities for her, and the danger it’s in. This just happens to be as well the spring of 2007, and she is teaching at Virginia Tech when a school shooting takes place there that kills 33. The trauma of these events will shadow everything that follows for her. But she continues on through summer, when she travels to visit the cerulean in its northern habitats near her own Appalachian home, and fall, when she goes further afield to its migratory home in Colombia.

While Fallon is reflective and personal throughout, and the reader gets to know her husband and their rescue dog Mr. Bones as well as the narrator’s own insecurities and grief, this is very much a book about a bird species and its plight. While also showcasing some lovely language (see quotation above), she teaches us a great deal about cerulean warblers and the research (and personalities) that have taught her about them. It’s ultimately a work of science reporting by a non-scientist, as well as a memoir. I found her emotions and minor human flaws easily accessible, and the bird facts equally so. I felt that I got to know her by reading this–which turns out to be particularly applicable to my own studies, but will be rewarding for any reader. The Katie Fallon of these pages is an easy-to-like, easy-to-read instructor, and I think the cerulean warbler will gain more than a few more allies in its readers. (Quick hint: be sure to buy shade-grown and/or bird-friendly coffee!) Nice to meet you, Katie.


Rating: 7 colored bands.

Keep your eyes out for Katie’s next work of nonfiction, available in March of this year. I am especially looking forward to this one, titled Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird. Vultures are among my favorite birds, as they were Ed Abbey’s.

new beginnings: graduate school (again)

I am checking in only briefly today from Buckhannon, West Virginia, where I am midway through my first residency in West Virginia Wesleyan College’s low-residency MFA program. It’s been almost, but not quite, overwhelming; and all in a good way. I had lengthy and complicated travel from New Braunfels through San Antonio, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and Fairmont, WV. I saw snow! And I was greeted by the friends I made on last summer’s visit. Even though this was my first residency as an enrolled student, I felt like I was coming back home into a place & a community where I belonged.

I started writing a line several days ago that began “early highlights definitely include…” but the list kept growing until it included pretty much everything. I have enjoyed readings by both core & visiting faculty too many to name, and seminars on a variety of topics like authors in correspondence, writing about ecology, and braided structures. I’ve had several writing exercises or prompts go especially well (and they don’t necessarily go well for me usually) – in particular, I found Nickole Brown’s talk on imitation, and her writing exercise, kind of a breakthrough. My writing sample got workshopped early on, and that went well and was productive. I’ve done some revision that I’m feeling good about continuing with. I’ve met with my faculty advisor, Katie Fallon, and enjoyed many conversations with Doug Van Gundy, who I especially hit it off with last summer. My classmates are truly a family to one another and already to me. In other words, yes, I’m overjoyed with what I’m finding here. I’m inspired & looking forward to this semester & beyond.

On the other hand, the schedule is rigorous, there’s plenty of work to do in our scant time “off,” and I miss my husband and dogs. Chris and I have hardly spoken, although he’s such a dear and is being patient with me (I warned him).

Most of all, I’m so excited to be embarking on this new challenge: two years of becoming a better writer and producing work.

Thank you, reader friends, for supporting this change on the blog.

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