Richard, the dragon who lost his tail

The day after my best friend died on June 9, 2003, when my son was at his dad’s and I was alone, I twirled as fast as I could on the hardwood floor. The pain that had launched into every nerve was so intense, I was trying to spin it away from me.

As soon as I heard the words, “This is Cindy, Richard’s niece,” I knew he was gone. My son Jorel, four years old, stood in the doorway watching me drop to my knees. I remember the knowing look on his young face, his dark brown eyes behind blue-framed glasses, the sun behind him spotlighting his short blond hair into gold. We had heard the phone ringing when we got home, and I had rushed in to answer it.

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My favorite picture of Richard, at his friend’s wedding circa 2000.


Jorel remembers Richard as my generous friend who had taken us to see Spirited Away and then found a T-shirt for him at an Asian gift store in Seattle, with an embroidered “dragon without wings” flaming across the front. Jorel had become obsessed with dragons without wings.

Now, 14 years later, and just a little more than a year younger than Richard was when he died at age 53, I’ve moved back to Washington State and am going through boxes of old papers I had been storing in Denver for years—getting rid of decades-old utility bills, Atlantic and Harper’s magazines from the 90s. But what do I do with this?


Piles of Richard’s writing on thin airmail paper. These pages are so upside down, right-side up, and out of order, they may have been the ones he was holding when he fell to the floor and died.

Most of the pages are out of order and unnumbered. Boxes of them. Sometimes he used napkins.


Or paper towels, on both sides—probably while mopping bathrooms as a janitor at the University of Washington. The words would start flowing in his head. He had to capture them before they were gone:


Some of the pages are essays and notes for his dissertation on William Blake. He attended the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley and continued working on his PhD in Comparative Religion from a distance in Seattle. A former United Methodist minister, he studied Chinese philosophers along with Eliot and Blake, trying to build a bridge between Western and Eastern thought. He moved to Seattle because I was there, and then I left about a year later when I was five months pregnant, to marry my son’s dad and live where he lived, in Denver.

Most of the pages are from our fantasy novel we were coauthoring (an altogether different book than the one I’m now coauthoring with my brother). Richard died after he had just finished giving the typed manuscript, along with his handwritten additions, a final proof and was leaving his usual generous tip at the Atlas Grill (I’ve been working on a poem about this for about a decade). The pages went flying into the air around him as he fell down from a pulmonary embolism. He had been at that restaurant (now a different restaurant) in the University of Washington District almost every day for years, continuing to work on our book while I was away. The staff would have a pitcher of iced tea waiting for him when he showed up in the late morning, after cleaning classrooms, halls, and professors’ offices until 1 am. He was the most well-read and scholarly-minded friend I’ve ever had. He should have been a professor himself. There is, by the way, a janitor in the fantasy novel I’m writing with my brother.

Richard and I corresponded via phone and mail after I moved to Denver. I would type up and revise what he wrote. He had never learned how to type.


Every once in a while, as I go through the boxes I’ve neglected since he died, I find a relatively uncrinkled page. This one had a note at the bottom for me. We often disagreed, but our back-and-forth, intense, jovial arguing was what made the whole coauthoring project so much fun:


Richard and I met at the University of Montana, in the MFA program. One of his stories—always fantastical—featured a dragon. Our professor leading the workshop introduced Richard’s story: “This is either really really good or really really bad. I tend to think it’s really really bad.” Richard still quoted him years after that with a mournful laugh. I hated that professor for his soulless arrogance.

Green Mill Lounge

Richard at the Green Mill Lounge, Chicago, circa 1995.

In Seattle, Richard started calling himself Eeyore. His favorite phrase was, “The universe hates me.” We could never decide if he was humbly arrogant or arrogantly humble. Even with the dishevelment of the pages, much like the disorder of his personal hygiene, Richard’s handwriting was almost always impeccable. I called him my slovenly king. He had a noble air about him, despite his Kentucky accent. When I mixed up my words after my head injury in 1997, he said, “You really do have a brain sprain.” We were ruthless in our teasing. It felt necessary, I guess, so we could keep laughing at ourselves in the world instead of letting our lack of anything close to conventional success destroy our spirits.

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Me and Richard in Seattle, circa 1995. (Pardon the cropping. The fellow in the middle was a friend of a friend. I no longer know him.)

Richard grew even neater in his writing over time. He started carefully marking out his deletions in perfect, black rectangles.


We first met at the orientation party at the MFA program director’s house. Richard was wearing his rainbow sweater of squares. The first tale he told me was true and effusive. He had been walking while reading about the legendary Chinese butterfly, when a small white butterfly appeared before him, flitting his way forward, urging him to apply at Montana. I had never met such a strange human being. He was earnest in his 80s sweater, the palms of his hands pressing together and waving gently before him, as if he had finally landed where he was supposed to be.

By that first winter in Missoula, his big toe stuck out of the hole in his sock and the hole in his brown shoe, his toenail catching snow like a tongue (I’ve also been working on a poem about that for about a decade). He had worn white pants and fancy hats in Beverly Hills when he was married to a woman from Vietnam. They had expensive, original paintings hanging on their apartment walls. She had left him because he “drank too much iced tea.”

His wife’s sister had bribed her away from her white husband (the family disapproved), promising a loan to start her own cosmetic shop. He went through bankruptcy that first year in Montana. He had taught high school history in California and was now a janitor at the university. He would be a janitor at universities until he died. But even with his sad, humorous tone in telling the story of his divorce—he was clearly still in love with his ex-wife—he maintained a state of ecstasy, always, those first few years I knew him, oblivious to his poverty, to the possibility of a frostbitten toe. “We need to get you some new shoes,” our friend Tim insisted. I haven’t been able to find Tim since Richard died. Let me know if you see him. Last name Kelly. There are way too many Tim Kellys in Chicago. Timothy J. Kelly (not the lawyer). He was/is a better writer than either of us. He’s Irish-American, grew up in Chicago, street-wise, taught high school English there the last time I saw him, and is a master reciter of poetry. He had me memorize Dylan Thomas’s “Altarwise by Owl-Light”—all ten stanzas—after my auto accident, as a way of retraining my brain. It worked. Not long after that I could read again without getting sick.


Me, friend Katri, Richard, and Tim in Chicago, circa 1995.

Richard & Tim in Chicago

Richard appeared in at least a couple of my dreams after he died. The first one was a bit disturbing. It was all in black-and-white, and his skin was gray. He walked up to me and kissed me on the cheek, like he would every time he gave me a book. He gave me a whole bookshelf-full of books. One time, as we crossed the street in Missoula toward campus, he opened a book of Rilke to show me a poem he had just discovered, “The Archaic Torso of Apollo.” I hadn’t read the poet before, and we were both so in awe of the poem as he read it out loud—we followed the words on the page like little kids, oblivious to the occasional car that could have run us over.

In the dream, where everything was gray, I noticed his familiar body odor was gone, but he had the same glimmer of ecstasy in his expression. He had been in love with me our whole friendship, after he got over his ex-wife, anyway, even asking me for just eight years (I never understood why eight years) of romantic togetherness. I refused, and it almost ruined our relationship. But we bounced right back into jovial friendship. He died ten years later.

When I was leaving Missoula once to visit family in Seattle, he said goodbye to me in the airport parking lot. “You’re so beautiful,” he said, smoothing the top of my head as if my hair was silk spun from the sun. That’s another little poem I worked on for years and never published. I still plan to gather my poems about him into a collection. Maybe a chapbook.

In my final dream about him, he was wearing his rainbow sweater of squares. He was walking in a line behind other ghosts, high up in the blue sky, on the other side of a long row of windows toward an open door, where they would all disappear into the light, one by one. I could only see the side of his face, far away and small, as he walked. He was finally ready to face the universe.


Doppelgängers of Darkness and Light

In Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, the novel’s characters, metaphors, and images mirror themselves into an infinity of doppelgängers—evil twins of innocence, fascists vs. members of the resistance, coal dust vs. orphans in a German mining town, and shining jewels vs. a jeweler corrupted by greed, stealing gems for the Nazis and stalking France for the most prized gem of all: the Sea of Flames he hopes to keep for himself. The bright jewel hiding in darkness is the novel’s center and title image. The treasure propagates both light and dark as a healing, mythical stone and a cold, impotent ember.

The novel’s two main characters are doppelgängers of each other: Marie-Laure, a blind Parisian girl, and Werner, a well-intentioned Hitler Youth whose father died in the mines. While Marie-Laure sees nothing and does much to subvert the Nazis, Werner sees too much and—over and over again—manages to do too little, despite his intelligence and his sought-after skill with radios. He allows his brilliant, birdwatching friend to be bullied into a severe state of disability, and, unlike his friend who refuses (before he is beaten up), Werner joins in torturing an old Jew as part of their Nazi training. While Werner manages to win the reader’s heart and sympathy, he falls far short of matching the character strength of Marie-Laure and his sister, Jutta—another doppelgänger—who is able to see right through fascism yet fails to convince her brother until it is too late. Werner is stuck, both physically and psychologically, inside Nazism—trapped so long in the dark beneath bombed rubble he is thirsting to death, and held captive so long by the mental trickery and oppression of those in authority he is unable, in the end, to escape Hitler’s long-armed candlesnuffer.

Darkness is the doppelgänger of light, often but not always sporting a swastika. Marie-Laure’s blindness is a universe of light inside her head. Her innocence—protected and nourished at first by her father’s love and then via her own intense imagination—gives her an uncanny ability to overcome the ever-present destruction of WWII. Her father, locksmith and woodworker, whittles little boxes into puzzles she has to solve before finding the tiny gifts inside. He builds a wooden model of Paris for her to memorize with her fingers and find her way around their neighborhood, and later, after they escape to the village of Saint-Malo, he carves a model of that ancient town as well, walled inside a peninsula jutting into the sea, where Marie-Laure eventually helps the resistance by carrying loaves of bread hiding small paper messages. Papa’s gifts of books in Braille foster her powers of imagination, most notably Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, its own world of symbolism correlating with the metaphors in Doerr’s novel.

Often, like the girl’s blindness, the images of darkness bring forth light—the night sky arching over Marie-Laure and Papa, stars shining down while the girl sleeps in his lap outside in an open field, during their long journey to escape the bombing. Doerr’s metaphors, while often disturbing, are as numerous and beautiful as the stars or the myriad snails covering the walls in the grotto where Marie-Laure loves to visit, the tide sometimes rising above her ankles. Note how Doerr writes in the present tense, keeping every image present and alive:

But the grotto itself comprises its own slick universe, and inside this universe spin countless galaxies: here, in the upturned half of a single mussel shell, lives a barnacle and a tiny spindle shell occupied by a still smaller hermit crab. And on the shell of the crab? A yet smaller barnacle. And on that barnacle?

Doerr’s portrayal of love between father and daughter is the novel’s most powerful light we “cannot see,” so beautiful it hurts. Even when Marie-Laure discovers the world outside her father’s arms, her memory of him buoys her joy:

She moves along the tide line, almost crawling at first, and imagines the beach stretching off in either direction, ringing the promontory, embracing the outer islands, the whole filigreed tracery of the Breton coastline with its wild capes and crumbling batteries and vine-choked ruins. She imagines the walled city behind her, its soaring ramparts, its puzzle of streets. All of it suddenly as small as Papa’s model. But what surrounds the model is not something her father conveyed to her; what’s beyond the model is the most compelling thing.

A flock of gulls squalls overhead. Each of the hundred thousand tiny grains of sand in her fists grinds against its neighbor. She feels her father pick her up and spin her around three times.

Doerr’s short chapters, sometimes less than a page long, alternate the points of view of both major and minor characters, and he often repeats the same image pages apart but with marked contrast in metaphorical connotation. While in Vienna looking for resistance radios with fellow Nazis, Werner notices a little girl swinging in the park. She has red hair and wears a maroon cape. Later that afternoon, Werner triangulates radio signals and thinks he sees an antenna wire (which turns out to be nothing more than a painted rod for a clothesline) on the side of an apartment building. He and his small team search the flat. One of them is spooked by the sound of residents hiding and shoots them all dead. Werner notices the maroon cape hanging on the mother’s doorknob. Inside a closet where the girl from the park had been hiding, she sits on the floor with a bullet hole in her forehead. “Her moon eyes are open and moist.” Twenty-five pages later, “God is only a white cold eye, a quarter-moon poised above the smoke, blinking, blinking, as the city is gradually pounded to dust.” A few pages more, Werner cannot forget the girl: “She passes through trees and road signs, veers around curves; she is as inescapable as a moon. . . . Dead girl in the sky, dead girl out the window, dead girl three inches away. Two wet eyes and that third eye of the bullet hole never blinking.” Moon, eye, blinking—each image works together to represent both innocence and death.

Werner’s innocence, while destroyed, remains intact like the ghost of the Viennese girl. Hitler cannot prevent this boy from experiencing the beauty of young love. Marie-Laure’s grandfather, before he died, broadcast in French the very same children’s radio show that reached all the way from Saint-Malo to Werner’s hometown in Germany, inspiring him as a child to learn everything he could about radios. The irony is potent, but so is Werner’s love:

Werner thinks of her, whether he wishes to or not. Girl with a cane, girl in a gray dress, girl made of mist. That air of otherworldliness in the snarls of her hair and the fearlessness of her step. She takes up residence inside him, a living doppelgänger to face down the dead Viennese girl who haunts him every night.

Who is she? Daughter of the broadcasting Frenchman? Granddaughter? Why would he endanger her so?

Brief notes on writing synchronicities and a new favorite author:

When I was young, I used to pretend to be blind in my big backyard, closing my eyes and making my way across the grass and around the shrubs. My little, humble-in-comparison novel Glassmusic was published in 2014, the same year as All the Light We Cannot See. Both books happen to feature the close relationship between a father and daughter, where one is blind and the other can see. Whereas in Doerr’s novel, the girl is blind and Papa can see, in my novel, Papa is blind and his daughter Ingrid, the main character, becomes his “seeing eyes.”

For the last twenty-five years, my favorite character in literature has been Sylvie, from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. She prefers to eat in the dark, and Robinson wrote some of the most lyrical scenes in near-darkness, in a room with one dim bulb in the back of a house in France while working on her PhD. I have finally found Sylvie’s equal in Marie-Laure, another character living both in darkness and incredible light and from, as it happens, the country where Robinson worked on her novel (set in Idaho). I have also discovered an American writer, though a bald white male, who writes at least as well as Robinson (and who lives, as it happens, in Idaho, where Robinson is from) and who also writes as well, I think, as another stellar favorite, Toni Morrison. Now I must read everything—short story or novel—by Anthony Doerr.

Bly vs. Fulton: Tranströmer’s Poem “Allegro”

Last year, after hearing the news of Tomas Tranströmer’s death, I renewed my effort to sneak poetry into my English composition classes. When the Swedish poet and psychologist finally won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011, I was thrilled. His poems linger with me in clear and powerful images. We focused as a class on one of my favorite Tranströmer poems, “Allegro,” and we made a quick comparison of two different translations.

We discussed Robert Bly’s translation first:


After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.

I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
“We do not surrender. But want peace.”

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.1

One of my students from Africa gazed at the words projected on the screen with rapt attention. She nodded a little and smiled during the class discussion, in that wondrous moment when she understood a line of poetry in English, maybe for the first time—a turn of phrase, the juxtaposition and progression of imagery from stanza to stanza, a metaphor’s meaning and impact. This is when I really love teaching.

We discussed the way the poet gives sound the color green, contrasting the “black day” in the stanza above, and how “a little warmth in my hands” implies the poet was cold—both physically and emotionally—before he started to play.

Every time I teach a poem, I always learn something from the students—another reason I love to teach. One student said the “house of glass” was both music and the person playing the piano, at once—a mysterious juxtaposition of a human being merging with the music his fingers are playing, a surprising (physically impossible, yet emotionally real) metaphor of glass not breaking despite the rocks flying through it.

Sometimes we discover a literary moment together as a class, like the way Tranströmer leads us to believe he is raising a flag of surrender in the fifth stanza, but the “haydnflag” is instead a flag leading troops to battle—“We do not surrender”—and yet, at the same time, no battle—“we want peace.” We fight for peace without bloodshed, the nonviolent protest for freedom persisting in the best of human spirit throughout history, and persisting in music.

Regarding the fourth stanza, we discussed how acting calm, even though we are not calm, can help us be calm, just like smiling can help us feel happy when we’re not. One student gave a lovely example from his own life—how the glass house is like staying calm and quiet while a family member is trying to get you to argue.

From my own older and getting-wiser years, I pondered the fact that “someone pays no tax to Caesar” in the third stanza comes from a mature sensibility. Even though Tranströmer (or the narrator) may have to pay taxes, someone doesn’t, and this is something to celebrate. He has developed the ability to feel freedom just because it exists for someone else, even if not for himself—just as in my life, I am starting to discover the mysterious and liberating ability to feel joy because joy exists somewhere in the world, even if I myself am sad about things. Hey, if I’m not in love, at least love exists! At least two people are in rapturous joy together, somewhere, and that makes it easier for me to tolerate my solitude, instead of harder as it did in my less mature days (and still sometimes) when I felt jealous and bitter about it all.

Then we got to the poem’s sound and rhythm, comparing Bly’s translation above to Robin Fulton’s below:

I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a simple warmth in my hands.

The keys are willing. Soft hammers strike.
The resonance green, lively and calm.

The music says freedom exists
and someone doesn’t pay the emperor tax.

I push down my hands in my Haydnpockets
and imitate a person looking on the world calmly.

I hoist the Haydnflag – it signifies:
“We don’t give in. But want peace.”

The music is a glass-house on the slope
where the stones fly, the stones roll.

And the stones roll right through
but each pane stays whole.2

We all seemed to agree, Bly’s is much better—both in sound and imagery. None of us knew Swedish fluently, so we couldn’t give a true analysis, but as far as the English translations go, Bly rocked and rolled American style without losing the poem’s literary and solemn flair. In the first line, Fulton is true to the word order in Swedish, beginning with the English version of “Jag spelar Haydn.” While this may work well in the original language, Bly makes it flow like we would say it in English, beginning with “After a black day, . . .” In the second line, “a little warmth in my hands” is more natural and less awkward than “a simple warmth in my hands,” and the two translations go on like this—Fulton making us think too much about it being a translation because of the stilted word choice, Bly making us unconscious that it’s a translation, but making us fully aware, at the same time, of the poem’s originality, power and grace.

Fulton fails, for example, to capture the powerful sound of Bly’s version of the last two stanzas. In Fulton’s English, “where the stones fly, the stones roll/And the stones roll right through,” the repetition of “stones roll” sounds to me like a kid writing a poem for third grade. Not that kids can’t write spectacular poetry, but there is an adult brilliance in Bly’s version, where “rocks” is repeated but not the verb form of “roll”—the variation of “rolling” and “roll” works a lot like an imperfect rhyme—less stilted, “rolling” with more movement, just like the literal image of the rocks, and with better music. So when we find the “glass is still whole,” it is more surprising, jolting, and beautiful. Or, one could argue, does “rocks” juxtaposed with “rolling” conjure up American rock-and-roll when we’re supposed to be hearing Haydn? It’s there in the background, like a subliminal metaphor for freedom (not that Sweden isn’t free, but you do have to pay high taxes in Scandinavia). The imagery and sound crash above the subliminal tone and make the rockslide work despite almost a tongue-in-cheek allusion.

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.

Readers of Tranströmer, what do you think of Fulton vs. Bly as translators of the poet? I am curious, now, to read the published correspondence between Bly and Tranströmer. Being close friends with Tranströmer must have helped Bly understand his sensibility, his poetic intent, and his soul, and to me Bly is just better at writing poetry in English (though my own sensibility there could have to do with the fact that Bly is American, which is more what I’m used to, whereas Fulton is a Scottish writer).

At the same time, I prefer Stephen Mitchell’s translations of Rainer Maria Rilke to Bly’s, which I will try to write about in a future blog. What do you think of Bly vs. Fulton (or vs. Mitchell) as translators in general?

And have you read Bright Scythe: Selected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Patty Crane? World Literature Today touches on her translation of “Allegro” in the link above. The book is on my “read soon” list.


 1From The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations, trans. Robert Bly, Harper Collins, 2004.

2From Tomas Tranströmer, New Collected Poems, trans. Robin Fulton, Bloodaxe Books, 1997/2011.

Seaside Writers Conference

My week in Seaside, Florida as a poetry fellow was spectacular! I would recommend this conference to all creative writers from beginning to advanced stages of your literary pursuits. I had such a memorable time swimming in the sea, reading the work of fellow writers on the beach, making wonderful new writer friends, and workshopping my poems. As an emerging poet and newly-published novelist, I was honored to read from Glassmusic at the local bookstore, help teach poetry in the local schools, and learn more (we can always learn more!) about the craft of writing from co-directors Seth Brady Tucker and Matt Bondurant.

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I really enjoyed teaching writing to students in the neighborhood schools. Wow–they were respectful and articulate! I taught a poem from RYPA 2014, Rattle‘s first youth anthology, to an 8th grade class, and one of the students said something like “This poem is an existential inquiry.” The youth poet, Savion Harris, should be proud that his poem, “Questions,” elicited such an intelligent response. And the teachers at Seaside Neighborhood School should be proud of such remarkable students. After the brief craft talk, they worked on writing their own poems, and some of them didn’t want to stop. Teaching at Seacoast Collegiate High School along with poetry fellow Kimberly O’Connor was so much fun as well. We taught poems including “Allegro” by Tomas Tranströmer and “The Black Snake” by Mary Oliver. The students listened, asked great questions, and wrote their own poems. It was especially rewarding to hear students from both schools read from their work the final night of the conference, followed by a reading by headliner author Jacquelyn Mitchard.

Cultural Arts student authors program

In the Seaside Academic Village, we got to stay in our own, adorable single-unit cottages. Local market, restaurants, and food trucks provided plenty of great food & drink–especially, of course, seafood & mojitos!

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Here are some additional photos, including ones of me reading and otherwise enjoying myself, from the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County, a local sponsor of the conference along with Sundog Books.

group shot first night

Cultural Arts Alliance me reading

Cultural Arts Alliance me & Rose

Cultural Arts Alliance book table

Cultural Arts Wine Bar photo

Links & Writerly Info

A review by Annie Dawid + a Poetry Fellowship award this week!

In her review of Glassmusic, Dawid brings up Ingmar Bergman’s films and T.S. Eliot!

And then to be awarded my first fellowship this week (in poetry!) is really making me feel honored as a writer. I get to write on the beach at Seaside Writers Conference, work with poet Seth Brady Tucker along with fellow Kim O’Connor and other writers, help teach the craft of writing at local schools, and meet with an agent! Check back after the conference (May 11th-17th) for a blog about my experience there.

Links & Writerly Info


Reviews of Glassmusic


Blogs & Reviews by Snow

A few blogs written for Lighthouse Writers Workshop

Author Interviews and Panels

Conundrum Press