WHY SOME HYBRIDS WORK AND OTHERS DON'T
The chili-chocolate gelato didn't work because the chili numbed my mouth, as did the cold—and all that activity canceled out the chocolate.
Cockapoos and Labradoodles work well for owners, but they really hack off the breeders whose business is promoting and maintaining singularity. I'm sure the dogs are nice (and really, what's not to like in Labs and Poodles and big-eyed Spaniels) but for me, they don't work because the names are dumb and make perfectly dignified animals sound like toys. Of course, we, who have a standard poodle, also irk breeders since we refused to have her tail docked and she has no haircut to speak of. Most people assume she's a Labradoodle. I can see it's hard to be a breeder.
The wild yellow trim on the staid, dark green house down the street could've worked, but then my neighbor went and used a different yellow on the door and now everything clashes. The problem here is consistency—not the wild-domestic hybrid itself. For example, satyrs work—one end is all thoughtful and conversant, the other, all animal-action. I'm not sure exactly how they work. Nymphs would know best. But I do know, in a satyr, the wild part stays wild, the cultivated part stays cultivated. Satyrs are complicated but consistent. Friends, your best, most redemptive love won't change a satyr.
One can buy a hanging indoor/outdoor fixture to serve as either a porch-light or living room light, and if you're undecided, need both, need one temporarily, then that's a good idea. But the halogen office lamp used on the porch, as a porch light: that doesn't work. Many things work in new contexts, but not if their initial purpose dominates. Then porches go makeshifty; then they start looking like scrappy undergrad rentals.
The fig tree in our yard is a hybrid gesture, a combo of Mediterranean botany and Mid-Atlantic desire. (That it was given to us by our Greek friend, Constantine, who's a Japanese historian, is even better). The tree didn't work for two years, but we kept at it, pruning and watering and mulching, because we liked the leaves so much—they were so (we couldn't help it) Biblical, and then lo! on the third year the tree took and produced 7 good figs. Sometimes a hybrid gesture takes a long time to root.
Chocolate-covered potato chips worked for me, but not for my friend who likes both chocolate and chips a lot, but couldn't see them together and so didn't even try one. "They don't look right," she said, "the chip is deformed by the chocolate." I felt the chip was reformed, brought back from the edge of way-too-salty, by the good and loving hand of dark chocolate. "It looks like tree lichen," she said. "It tastes like perfect union," I said, "you have no idea what you're missing." My friend is not an "opposites attract" type. Nor does she fancy the syanaesthetic swooning of Nabokov, on whose prose I regularly gorge.
I'm pretty sure that celebrating Christmas and Hannukah together in the same house doesn't really work out. Same with Easter and Passover, though they both share a lamb. Holidays are micro-climates; they greet you at the door and waft and settle. Balsam and ham. Latkes and candle-smoke. Rituals are jealous entities: the hannukah bush, the tree decorated with dreidles—they seem sad and deflated when made to sit nicely next to each other and conjure small talk.
This morning, the ad in the Baltimore Sun, for the latest ritzy harbor-side restaurant read: "Max's: A New Tradition." Well, no. That doesn't work. Tradition, I thought, had something to do with time.
Mules—the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse—don't "work" in one sense. Neither do hinnies (female donkey and male horse offspring). I mean they don't reproduce. But they are real characters. In other words, some hybrid gestures produce singular things. One-time-onlies. Anomalies that are stubborn and ornery. That know their own mind. It might be better to simply enjoy them. At a distance. No use teaching them as "models."
Zebras look like hybrids—product of one white and one black horse-like animal—but aren't. The debate rages on (black with white stripes, or white with black stripes) but either way, they're just exactly what you see: a black-and-white beast. Beware the assumed hybrid. In other words, some people are amused to find they write a thing called "the lyric essay" when all along they were just doing what felt natural, simply asserting the sum total of who they are as writers. That no two zebras have the same pattern of stripes—now that's more interesting, by far.
Starbucks offers a mass of senseless hybrid gestures. Just to start, there's the tyrannical and embarrassing naming system you have to comply with, or risk irritating your barista. Why "tall" and then "grande"? Why "crème" and then "wet" or "dry"? Why "double" and not "doppio?" What's with the random Italianate leanings? Then there's the "you call it/ have it your way" culture that allows for such excesses and hybrid disasters of taste as the "iced decaf, triple grande, no whip soy, five pump, Mocha-mint."
Here's a scene: I am just out of college and back home in NY, working all day, and writing at night, and it's causing the the usual problems. I am in a starkly beautiful sushi bar, eating my one weekly allowance of uni, and drinking my half-price Miller Light, slowly. It's the roaring, late-80s and one of those baby millionaires sits down next to me and we get to talking. "I'm going to retire at 30 and write a novel," he tells me. He tells me he has "so many ideas." I was tired and righteous and broke. I said something like "nice dream bub, but if you're not doing it now, if you don't need to do it, it's not gonna happen." I meant, some things have to be there at the outset. I meant—though I wouldn't have said it this way at the time—"You have no drive to hybridize! If you needed to write, you'd be, right now, a banker-poet. An insurance guy-novelist. A waiter-playwright. That hyphen would be a little table where you set your work, nightly. A little bridge you crossed, after dinner, to far realms, and crossed back again, in the morning."
If hybrids fail because they produce dumb, goofy names, as noted earlier, then they succeed when they offer new, sonorous ones. The pluot, a hybrid of plum and apricot is lovely. (Ah! hints of "plie" and "Roualt") The tangelo's great (bite in and there's "Tango" and "Angelo" waiting). Not the papple, a too-hard, slightly mealy crossing of pear and apple, with the unfortunate echoes of "nipple" and "pimple" and "pap". Not the peacotum, a peach/apricot/plum hybrid, with its echoes of "cotyledon." Though it might have been worse. The peacotum's early developer wanted to name the fruit after the nice, soft fuzz it retained, scientifically known as "pubescence" which would have given us—I'm serious now, this was the guy's plan—the "pube-plum." The best thing at the Farmer's Market in Baltimore: the apples. Apples are, a priori, hybrids—or graftings, to be clearer. Adam and Eve on one side, the power to keep Drs. away on the other My favorites, the Stayman-Winesap and Jonagold, have names that work. They indicate fruits that take their essential qualities seriously. They want you to believe in them—not laugh at them. The wine descriptions on the little tags at Well's Discount Liquors in Baltimore are fantastic, and the impulse there, to present taste as an essentially hybridized experience, to be accurate by way of complexity, is right on: Snow and shale, squid and wolf, rose and lichen...forgive me...A.R. Ammons slipped in here—that master of hybrid states of being.
Hybrid tenses work because they help us bend time. Consider the neat and quick gesture the future perfect allows: "By next year/ I will have done X". Such projection and back-tracking rolled into one. I also love the similar veering I undergo when reading certain poems of Marvin Bell that take place in what he calls the "posthumous present."
The hybrid word "Ginormous" works and doesn't. Officially, it's in the new Webster's. Aurally, it's euphonious (whereas the other option, as I figure it—"Enormant"—sounds like a sci-fi bug. And the even more messed up "Enormgi" is wierdly bacterial.) But I don't use the word "Ginormous"—it doesn't work for me, because I'm not 15 and in Jr. High.
Hybrid times of day and night work, and have much spiffier names than "day" or "night." On one end there's day-break, dawn, aurora. On the other, twilight, gloaming, crepuscular. Such is the poetry of the liminal dark.
The hybrid car, Prius, works, though not without all kinds of battery problems I hear, and some longer-term problems with toxic disposal. And also it sidesteps the issue of over-consumption, since rationing is likely what we need to do, now and forever—but that's pretty radical. Rationing's un-American. And as of yet, hybrid cars don't have industry backing or any real government muscle behind them. Then again, there are also no accredited MFA programs offering degrees in the prose poem. Thankfully, for the clever, rogue prose poem. Institutionalizing hybrids is complicated.
In a recent letter my novelist friend Kent Meyers described for me the wonders of hybrid corn varieties, whose purposes include increased yield, rootworm and corn borer resistance, early ripening and alkaline soil compatibility. And of the hybrids of his youth, how fondly he recalled the legendary XL-45, the gold standard hybrid for corn farmers in Morgan MN. Is it any wonder that he's just completed his own hybrid, a novel-in-stories (whose title is, by the way, "Twisted Tree")?
So hybrids respond to need, and thus are vital and heightened forms of attention. Consider the split vision and special alertness of the sad kid laughing along with the rest while secretly monitoring jolly, drunk Dad for the first signs of meanness. Or the cop on a date, queued up at the movies—scanning for trouble, mentally noting, annoying his girlfriend who claims he can't ever relax. Or those of us who have trained ourselves to hold one conversation while following a few others at nearby tables in restaurants.
In her memoir Seeing Through Places, Mary Gordon writes of her mother's reverence, her love, really, for the priests in their life, and of the priests' mutual deep regard for her mother. One might be tempted to call such love "stunted," "unrequited" or "sad." Or, one might call up the term "passionate restraint." That's a hard one...love is, whose origins are mysterious, whose success requires odd and challenging integrations, whose future is always surprising.
I took on "hybrids" in this wide-scope way, so—to be completely honest here—I wouldn't have to talk about my work on a panel. I'd much rather talk idea and concept and leave my stuff untouched and free in the field, unconcerned about nakedness and without its maker hovering all over it, fussing and discussing. Once a good lens gets affixed ("the hybrid" for instance), it's easy to see; everywhere you turn, wild hybridity. I'm grateful that Nicole Walker, our panel organizer, asked me to turn my attention to this subject in the first place.