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Memory and chaos are recurring motifs in Read’s conversations and writings. She had joined the Navy after spending years taking care of her father and sister; after her mother’s death, the family never gained any sense of normalcy. She was looking for order and identity, but found chaos instead. The ideas and themes come together in Read’s poems.

In a poem called “Fado,” she writes:

  • Your memory is fado
  • Singing circles,
  • Cracking in desperation
  • In the theatre where
  • My little heart
  • Sits swaying
  • Rigid and trembling with vibrato
  • its hands are clenched tight
  • and cheeks wet with tears.

Fado is Portuguese for “fate.” It’s also a musical genre that dates back to the 19th Century, popularized by sailors to express the loneliness and deprivation of a life at sea. Musically, it is unironically sentimental; the vocal styling is warbly and tremulous. To sing it right, you have to embrace its treacliness. Fado’s embrace of the past and a sense of longing is pre-industrial and certainly pre-modern. For some, it’s a bit tacky. But the perceived quaintness of fado has to do more with our inability to engage with suffering in an authentic way than with its inability to be relevant. We put an ironic face onto suffering to deaden the blow.

The poem’s approach to memory is Read’s approach to the memory of her mother, and there are often faceless or hidden female figures in her writing. The death of a parent

often registers as a rite of passage. It’s a reminder that we’re next, and it creates a reckoning within ourselves about what we’ve accomplished. But Read lost her mother long before she had the emotional or intellectual capacity to appreciate the enormity of the loss.

“I didn’t really cry about my mother until I was 23,” Read said. “Growing up, I never noticed the absence since I took on her role. I did the laundry, the dishes, made sure my sister and my dad were taken care of.”

Read felt the distinct loss of her mother twice in her life. Once, right before she joined the military, she wondered what this carefree hippie mother would have thought of her joining the Navy. The other time was when she had gotten pregnant at 20 and felt like her life was over, racked with shame and uncertainty. The pregnancy ended in a miscarriage.

“That pregnancy came into my life like a storm brewed sky, full of dark and vibrant energy; it glowed orange and midnight blue, exciting and domineering,” Read wrote in one of her essays for class. She had used her art writing class’s final project as a vehicle to discuss her pregnancy. The subject was Frida Kahlo’s Still Life, Round, a vibrant capturing of native Mexican fruits onto a copper plate. But look closer and the fruits resemble open-eyed pudenda, mushrooms with fingers outstretched like ovaries, a portrait of unabashed female fertility. Read’s own close brush with motherhood, more than any other experience, made her long for her own mother.

Her relationship with her father has always been characterized by vulnerability. He lives in San Diego, and she still comes by to take care of him regularly. She recalled reading letters in boot camp from her dad expressing concern for her sister as if Read were a co-parent.

Still, there were some pleasant memories growing up. Read revisits them in her poem, “Noise”:

  • It’s six am and he’s fixing oatmeal
  • cooked in coconut rum
  • slathered in whipped butter and brown sugar
  • the silver spoon scrapes against the pot
  • clanking the breakfast
  • into flower-painted bowls.
  • the noise tears through the silent hall into
  • silent rooms
  • Pang! Clink! Cvush!”

The “cvush” is the sound of the suction created by the refrigerator seal as it closes and opens.

Full strength

It’s a cool afternoon, and I’m sitting in Seth Lerer’s Shakespeare class in University of California San Diego’s Cognitive Science building next to Geisel Library. The play being discussed is Henry IV, Part 1. Lerer is reviewing the play’s concepts: it’s about control, self-regulation. Hotspur lives in dream and nightmare, and may be suffering from post-traumatic stress. Prince Hal’s corpulent drinking companion Falstaff embodies the theme that this is a play of rhetorical amplifications.

Lerer has taught at Princeton and Stanford and carries a reputation as an electric teacher. He paces around the room while discussing the nature of insults as a form of power.

“You,” he told a student, “insult me.”

“Uh, I don’t like your tie,” the student said. “It looks like a sock.” Lerer was wearing a knit tie with a square tip.

“That’s all you got? Try again. ‘Your tie, sir...’”

“Your tie, sir,” the student intoned, “looks like you tried to hang yourself, failed, and went to work anyway.”

Lerer fell into a heap on the floor guffawing and the room erupted in laughter. “He roasted you,” a student said. “Like bacon,” said another.

“There’s a lot of bacon in the play,” Lerer said, still on the floor. “This is a Christian world. We build it out of bacon. If you’re not in pig world, you don’t belong.”

For Lerer, the wall of porcine descriptions in the play is built up against an imagined non-Christian threat. It also alluded to the expulsion of Jews from England that lasted through the Elizabethan period. He asked students who are not able to partake in pork to raise their hands. A young woman in a hijab and several others did so.

Sitting in the middle of the room was 19-year-old Alex Vollhardt, an English-literature major with an interest in German literature. Today, she was alert to young prince Hal’s admission that when it came time, he would renounce Falstaff to become king: “I do; I will.” There was something matrimonial in it. It would be a pivotal rite-of-passage scene in Hal’s life as he casts aside Falstaff later on with the line, “I know thee not, old man” as he became Henry V.

Every few months or so, some cranky Boomer pens a missive in an op-ed section about today’s youth: they are soft; they are entitled. They want to wear elf costumes and live in their parents’ basements. Vollhardt and others like her put all these tired arguments to rest. She’s sharply ambitious, knows her field. UC San Diego could do more to attract and accommodate students like her.

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Comments

dwbat May 6, 2017 @ 7:39 p.m.

It can't be just a coincidence that Makenzie's last name is Read.

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Visduh May 7, 2017 @ 5:25 p.m.

This piece seems to be as much about a person's odyssey in life as it is about study of literature. As to UCSD, it is supposed to be a full-fledged, well-rounded campus with a full slate of offerings. No longer, we are told, is it just a place for pre-med students to attend while majoring in a life science. But old ideas die hard, and it is likely that humanities are getting the short end of the stick. But, if that is true, it is due to lack of interest on the part of students. As long as a university education is seen as vocational training and not as a foundation for life in general, things like literature will take a back seat to STEM. Really, where are the jobs that need a degree in English (or French, Italian, Greek, German, Russian, Japanese or . . .) and how many of them are there?

But what I wonder is why, after four days of this piece on the website, no lit major or other language type has bothered to post a comment. Come on you artsy-fartsy people, share what you think.

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dwbat May 7, 2017 @ 6:23 p.m.

Doesn't that show that lit majors don't read the READER?

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Ponzi May 7, 2017 @ 8:14 p.m.

I guess students would now study language for the art of it. Translation technology is advancing rapidly and human translation of languages will be of little use except to scholars that need to translate language from written text.

Those computers that understand what you're saying in English when you make an airline reservation or talk to a bank, those systems learn and store their learning in cloud databases. They get smarter everyday and they are embarking on every human language that is commonly used. We won't need human translators in a decade.

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dwbat May 7, 2017 @ 9:08 p.m.

A decade? I'll predict it happening in 5 years.

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Ponzi May 7, 2017 @ 9:35 p.m.

I'm conservative. I like to give my predictions a little cushion. But you are probably right the way things are developing at a lightening pace.

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milesjwatson May 9, 2017 @ 12:45 p.m.

Translation is a washing machine process. Most translation is really translation and adaptation, like the Hugo play Hernani I translated when I was a UCSD Lit Major (confession). See http://amzn.to/2qomNLK.

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milesjwatson May 8, 2017 @ 4:24 p.m.

I graduated from Warren in 1979, majoring in French Lit, with a minor in Chemistry and European History. When I started, Warren was still Fourth. To graduate from Warren then, you had to pass a two quarter Writing course and either double-major or get a major with two minors. You had to pick majors and minors from at least two of the three: sciences, social sciences, and humanities. The idea was developing critical thought - the renaissance. There was one frat. There were no teams. Mascot? Please . . . Business or marketing degrees? Disneyland had just opened.

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clockerbob May 9, 2017 @ 4:31 p.m.

“The Times Higher Education placed UC San Diego first in its new ranking of the world’s top “Golden Age” universities, which specifically looks at schools founded in the aftermath of World War II.”

http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/education/sd-me-ucsd-ranking-20170406-story.html

Oddly, the picture on top of the UT article linked and quoted above is of the Geisel library. The Geisel library was built in 1970. The structure has been modernized to provide computer stations for a student body of around 10,000 students. However, there are close to 37,000 students enrolled for the 2017 academic year. I believe that this survey was funded or propelled by sources who want to throw shade over this problem.

None

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monaghan May 10, 2017 @ 11:50 p.m.

UCSD is a different place from the one which graduated MilesJWatson. What a great description of that liberal arts campus at that time. But the "business model" has infected every aspect of western life, and most notably education which is rapidly sidelining the arts and humanities and their essential exploration of human values.

Globalization and world trade, production and profit, industry and mechanization, economic bottom lines, metrics and prediction, technology and communication shorthands, wealth and celebrity -- these are what count in 2017. You see it personified in our deeply ignorant President and his "beautiful" family, in members of Congress from both political parties who are mirror images of each others' limitations.

Even Mayor Sunny wants to cut the city's arts budget by 30% -- although the arts here are as important as beaches and climate as economic engines creating a desirable community. Unlike the poet, we live blinkered and unreflective, under the illusion that we will prosper "being" in this new way.

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milesjwatson May 11, 2017 @ 4:25 p.m.

Monaghan, UCSD was never a liberal arts campus. It is very much in many ways the same place now as it was then, founded by UC Manhattan Project scientists like Harold Urey, James Arnold, and Herb York, to name just three, who didn't mind living in La Jolla. It was always about the sciences and so remains. Arguably UCSD's greatest contribution to the humanities, to the very essence of human thought, Beavis and Butthead, came from the mind of a physics major - Mike Judge '86, who, like me, left to trek north to the Santa Clara Valley for work after a couple years working DoD in San Diego. Odds are Judge probably took some writing classes to keep from going insane doing physics. I may have majored in French Lit, but I had a minor in Chemistry.

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monaghan May 13, 2017 @ 12:56 p.m.

It is useful to be reminded of the science-military-industrial foundation of UCSD. But in the 1970's I learned Spanish there in a brilliantly designed immersion-model program with native-speaker grad-student teaching assistants from different Spanish-speaking countries (with distinctive accents) rotating every quarter through small sections of students, with a single separate weekly grammar section led in English and segregated from the heart of the matter, which was speaking, reading (literature) and writing in Spanish.

I also knew UCSD graduates who majored in literature, history, music, theater and fine art and some of the excellent professors who taught them. These days the importance of the humanities in a UCSD education may be drowned out by noise about the lucrative business of science, technology engineering and math.

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Joaquin_de_la_Mesa June 6, 2017 @ 2:29 p.m.

Part of the problem is self-marginalization. Instead of humbly reading and discussing the masters — Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Tolstoy, Melville, Hugo, Cervantes, Homer, and dozens of others — these lit and humanities profs are teaching their own goofy thoughts on queer theory and vampires. I read about a women teaching up at UC Santa Barbara whose focus is black women in pornography. Prima facie nonsense like this drives serious people away from the humanities, which in turn drives the humanities further into the margins of academia.

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