For weeks, maybe months, I’ve been hobbling alongside compromised implements: all my fountain pens were writing choppily, or out of ink (or both). There are giant problems in the world, but a functional, pleasing pen is one small texture of my day that matters a lot (to me). (Neglected, deferred, the increasing row of pens waiting for service at the edge of my desk becomes a metaphor for a woman who is not taking care of herself.) Last week, overwhelmed by important and unimportant work to do, fumbling through the soup of distraction, I decided I needed to do something physical, tangible.
I needed to clean the pens.
Jim Kruose (whose book Parsifal I blogged about recently) suggests ammonia for clearing clogged pens. I finally bought some at the hardware store. It took more than an hour to clean all ten pens (two of which belong to my mother). The sink and my hands were a beautiful mess.
I refilled them with Noodler’s Ink, Concord grape. (I love Noodler’s. I even love the way it smells.) Some are flowing better but not perfectly, seem to need more than one cleaning. But most of them are working now.
“If a person will only think about it, the first fountain pen was
undoubtedly the human body itself, with its seemingly endless
(till death do us part) supply of ink.” —p. 165, Parsifal
“A fountain pen forces no one to read its words.” —p. 224, Parsifal
As I read Jim Krusoe’s writing, which I’ve been doing for a decade and a half, I find it simultaneously familiar and strange. In his work, I hear a persistent drumming behind the prose, a call. My ears strain to grasp the sound; it’s just beyond my reach. It occurs to me that it’s similar to how the musician Bill Frisell allows his past themes to reemerge and weave into the texture of the new, Don’t I recognize that from somewhere? Familiar, strange. By these haunts, I’m both lulled and awakened. What does that memory mean this time?
In Krusoe’s work, that mystery gives me permission to dream while I’m awake. Or, perhaps, as Krusoe puts it on p. 75 of Parsifal: “Somewhere there must be a word, some technical term, for a combination of anticipation, nostalgia, and dread.”
Then there are the pens. The protagonist of his last novel, Parsifal (Tin House, 2012) repairs fountain pens. (Reminiscent of the protagonist in his first novel, Iceland, who repairs typewriters.) This persistent loyalty to archaic means of capturing story on page is a comfort in our era of disembodied ones and zeros. In the narrative weave of Parsifal, a sort of Aesthetics of The Fountain Pen emerges:
“‘In my experience,” Parsifal tells those who ask, ‘there are two kinds of people: those who enjoy complications and subtlety, and those who do not. If you are not the sort of person who enjoys complications and subtlety, then a fountain pen is not for you.’”—p. 191, Parsifal
I write first drafts on paper. The fountain pen is my primary tool. Wait! Am I “the sort of person who enjoys complications and subtlety?” Am I really? Or do I like things more tidy? Complications and subtlety are so messy! So uncomfortable! But evidently so appealing, so attractive. As a person who (apparently) enjoys complications and subtlety, the fountain pen thread was one of the primary pleasures as I read this novel. If we can trust the narrator of Parsifal:
“During the first years of fountain pens, prior to the actual Golden Age, which was roughly from 1910 to 1950—prior to the invention of the ballpoint, in other words—it is a little known fact that no fountain pen came with the small clip that holds it snugly inside a pocket of a shirt. That was invented by George Parker, of the Parker Pen Company, and ever since then it’s hard to imagine a pen without one (though some pens are still made this way, primarily for the Japanese market). So it is possible for something to come from nothing: no clip for many years, and then suddenly, a clip. And now, with the fountain pen practically extinct, the clip lives on, attached to ballpoints, and roller balls, and mechanical pencils, and laser pointers.”—p. 246
Jim Krusoe was my mentor in graduate school, and since then has continued to be a significant influence, inspiration, and support. In the classes I teach, we sometimes discuss why different writers write. I’ve never asked Jim why he writes, but I wonder if there’s a clue in Parsifal on p. 181, “Who was it that said our sole glory as humans is to leave behind a record of our crimes and desires?”
Here’s a found poem, found in that I found this written in my Antioch Writers’ Workshop notebook from July 12, 2010 for my graduate school mentor, the novelist Jim Krusoe. I wrote this almost-poem in a morning class three years ago, before I learned more about how people write poetry, but today something about it seems quaint, and worth reiterating, so I am posting it. Bad poetry, admittedly, but its DNA is true.
Editing (for Jim Krusoe)
lopping several pages
from the front of my story
like a severed limb
I had muscled
(the now-partial body, I thought)
I thought I saw blood–
not a Monty Python spurt,
but a trickle.
But I was wrong.
There was no blood.
It was a good cut, the right cut;
the story stood stronger
without those pages.
What on earth does getting this email on December 15 mean?
“We now have delivery date(s) for the order you placed on October 22 2009 (Order# 103-4260598-6558627):
Lynda Barry “Nearsighted Monkey”
Estimated arrival date: November 08 2010 – November 15 2010″
They’re testing me!
Actually, it kind of reminds me of Jim Krusoe’s novel, Erased, of which I’ve read about 60 pages so far. But in Erased, the protagonist is receiving postcards from his mother, who he believes is dead. Jim Krusoe’s novel is engrossing. But I want my Lynda Barry book!