On the Moon

Moondance 1A group of moonstruck locals climbed to the top of the park Sunday night to view the rising of the super moon. In Italo Calvino’s short story “The Distance to the Moon “ (1965), the characters climb to the moon from Earth using ladders:

“Climb up on the moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.”

It’s the same moon Leonard Cohen had in mind when he sang,

“Ah, they’ll never, they’ll never ever reach the moon, at least not the one that we’re after.”

But which moon are we after?

In Buckminster Fuller’s book “Nine Chains to the Moon” (1963), he explains the title:

“A statistical cartoon would show that if, in imagination, all of the people of the world were to stand upon one another’s shoulders, they would make nine complete chains between the earth and the moon. If it is not so far to the moon, then it is not so far to the limits, – whatever, whenever or wherever they may be.”

Fuller may have climbed up to the moon to write some of his books.

When the Brooklyn Dodgers first arrived in Los Angles, they played in the Coliseum, which was not built for baseball, and the fence in left field was so close that a screen was put up so homers would not be too easy. But a Dodger player named Wally Moon cleared the fence so often his homers came to be called “Moon shots.” The Space Race was on.

For most, the dark side of the moon will remain forever dark. Apollo 8 circled the moon late in 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive, so there were other things on minds besides the moon. Eric Sevareid, for one, was unimpressed with the promise of pics from the dark side of the moon. From his short article, “The Dark Side of the Moon” (if following link, scroll about ¼ down):

“There is, after all, another side— a dark side — to the human spirit, too. Men have hardly begun to explore these regions; and it is going to be a very great pity if we advance upon the bright side of the moon with the dark side of ourselves, if the cargo in the first rockets to reach there consists of fear and chauvinism and suspicion. Surely we ought to have our credentials in order, our hands very clean and perhaps a prayer for forgiveness on our lips as we prepare to open the ancient vault of the shining moon.”

Of course, as it turned out, the dark side was no different than the bright side. Go figure. Speaks more to the mystery of metaphor than to the mystery of the moon.

Joyce had, in “Ulysses,” given his version of the perigee. From the penultimate episode of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” written in catechism form:

“With what meditations did Bloom accompany his demonstration to his companion of various constellations?

Meditations of evolution increasingly vaster: of the moon invisible in incipient lunation, approaching perigee: of the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way, discernible by daylight by an observer placed at the lower end of a cylindrical vertical shaft 5000 ft deep sunk from the surface towards the centre of the earth: of Sirius (alpha in Canis Maior) 10 lightyears (57,000,000,000,000 miles) distant and in volume 900 times the dimension of our planet: of Arcturus: of the precession of equinoxes: of Orion with belt and sextuple sun theta and nebula in which 100 of our solar systems could be contained: of moribund and of nascent new stars such as Nova in 1901: of our system plunging towards the constellation of Hercules: of the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving wanderers from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.”

No, the answer is not as brief as those in the Baltimore, and we still seem to be nine chains from the moon. In any case, must it always sound so cold? Not at all. Joyce follows up with a question and answer that deconstructs the man in the moon.

Moondance 2Sevareid had acknowledged the emergence of a new moon:

“The moon was always measured in terms of hope and reassurance and the heart pangs of youth on such a night as this; it is now measured in terms of mileage and foot-pounds of rocket thrust.”

Joyce also allows for a double moon, one of science, one of metaphor, in Bloom’s catechism answers:

 “What special affinities appeared to him to exist between the moon and woman?

Her antiquity in preceding and surviving successive tellurian generations: her nocturnal predominance: her satellitic dependence: her luminary reflection: her constancy under all her phases, rising and setting by her appointed times, waxing and waning: the forced invariability of her aspect: her indeterminate response to inaffirmative interrogation: her potency over effluent and refluent waters: her power to enamour, to mortify, to invest with beauty, to render insane, to incite to and aid delinquency: the tranquil inscrutability of her visage: the terribility of her isolated dominant implacable resplendent propinquity: her omens of tempest and of calm: the stimulation of her light, her motion and her presence: the admonition of her craters, her arid seas, her silence: her splendour, when visible: her attraction, when invisible.”

081020141748Pic to left: back from the mountain, down from the moon, in the backyard, a somewhat diminished super moon over the apple tree. I picked up a guitar. There are many more songs with moon in their title than sun. The reflection is not as blinding as the reality.

The Forest, the Haircut, the Pothole, and the Hedgehog

Em Self-PortraitComic book characters are often unreal, fantastic, hyperbolic distortions of people. But the exaggeration may work like an X-ray, revealing the inner monster, or showing some virtual reality, or uncovering a facsimile of truth or beauty. The cartoon form exaggerates features, of a landscape, an idea, a face, enabling the author to make fun of some relatively small tic by accenting it, drawing it out of proportion. But out of proportion to what? The feature could be a pothole in the street, the idea of chivalry, or a haircut.

Speaking of haircuts, I got one last week. I went to a place I’d never been before, over in the Hawthorne district, a small, stand-alone, two-chair shop. I get my hair cut only about twice a year. Not because I’m losing my hair. My hair still grows like, well –

It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear.”

My hairdresser whispered Dante to her partner as I left the shop.

A hard thing to speak ofIt’s not the first time I’ve thought of my hair as a forest or jungle, wondering if the curly mess didn’t suggest an objective correlative for the syntax mess within. In any case, one is easily lost there. And it’s a hard thing to cut, let alone speak of – continuing in the hyperbolic realm of the comic book.

After my haircut, I continued to wander, and I found a copy of “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” in a thrift store over on Division. One of my sisters recommended the book a couple of years ago. I glanced through it and saw this:

“’Who cut your hair like this?’ asked the hairdresser indignantly once I had, with a Dantean effort, entrusted to her the mission of transforming my head of hair into a domesticated work of art.”

The girl handling the thrift store exchanges said nothing about my hair, but she did complement my selection of “Hedgehog,” in agreement with my sister.

As I left the thrift store, hedgehog in hand, a car screamed to a stop in the middle of the street, its driver, a damsel in freaked-out distress, teetering on the edge of a pothole the size of the Chicxulub crater. I chivalrously placed my hedgehog over the pothole, and Beatrice drove safely on, a beatific look of driving peace on her face. “Nice haircut,” she said, as she drove by.

I’m on page 60 of “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” the chapter beginning “Homespun Cowls.”

“The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” 2006, by Muriel Barbery, translated from French, “L’Élégance du hérisson,” by Alison Anderson, Europa Editions, 2008, 325 pages.

Actually, Clarice Lispector

Guardian Angel“The Hour of the Star,” Clarice Lispector’s final book, is a study in narration, how to tell a story. The style is more industrial and electronic than “Agua Viva.” And more colloquial. First published in 1977, a time of candlelight compared to today, “The Hour of the Star” is dedicated

“…to the strident cries of the electronic generation.”

The short dedication, signed, “Actually, Clarice Lispector,” brings attention to the difference between the author and her narrator, between experience and fiction that tries to bring the experience to others, and suggests the angle of the work, and why she chose the strategy.

Writing, for the narrator, is not easy:

“No, it’s not easy to write. It’s as hard as breaking rocks.”

Maybe his difficulty comes from his being an amateur:

“Anyway. It seems that I’m changing the way I write. But it so happens that I only write what I want, I’m not a professional.”

But as an amateur, he’s free to go his own way, to address his own needs:

“I am not an intellectual, I write with my body…I swear this book is made without words. It is a mute photograph. This book is a silence. This book is a question.”

This book may also be an act.

“Is the fact an act?”

Actually, it’s all an act. He’s obsessed with facts. But what is a fact? The narrator tells a story about how he wants to write a story about a girl he seems to be haunted by. What’s he haunted by, the girl, her story, or his story? But she has no story. And he has no story without her story. So he has to come up with one, and he invents it on the go. The girl is described as being poor, ugly, and stupid. She’s hopeless. She would be invisible were it not for the fact that she is annoying.

The girl looks into a mirror – no, the narrator sees the girl looking into a mirror, but she sees him in the mirror,

“we’re that interchangeable.”

Actually, is the author interchangeable with the narrator? Is it possible to see Clarice’s face when the narrator sees Macabea looking at herself in the mirror?

He’s obsessed with her, and so, obsessed with his writing. That he’s an amateur is evidenced by his having to “give up sex and soccer” in order to write. That’s the difference between amateur and professional writers. It’s a hilarious line.

“Or am I not a writer? Actually I’m more of an actor because with only one way to punctuate, I juggle with intonation and force another’s breathing to accompany my text.”

Lispector’s unconventional and idiosyncratic punctuation and syntax. Themes seem to play on identity of narrator and character: and author? The girl forlorn, he does not seem to pity her. At the bottom of one paragraph,

“Not that it mattered. Nobody looked at her on the street, she was cold coffee.”

And at the bottom of the next paragraph, he says of her,

“What a thin slice of watermelon.”

But he learns more about her as he goes, and here’s Lispector having some fun:

“I’ve just discovered that for her, besides God, reality too was very little. She could deal better with her daily unreality, living in sloooow motion, hare leeeeaping through the aaaair over hiiiill and daaaale…”

It’s a short book, 77 pages, a novella, but if writing can be hard, so can reading. He’s sarcastic and frustrated by his inability to get going on his story about the girl. We’re a quarter of the way into the book before we get her background and a traditional narrative seems to have begun. What was all that about, that meandering prologue? He seems to be improvising. He claims he doesn’t know how her story will end.

She lives in a tenement in a hard part of town; nevertheless,

“…the girl’s life might have a splendid future? I’m pleased by the possibility and will do everything I can to make it real.”

Macabea asks questions. She listens to Clock Radio, which is often incomprehensible to her, but fuels her questions. The narrator wants facts, is bored with description and other traditional writing requisites. The center of the book is devoted to a long section of dialog between Maca and her boyfriend, Olimpico, and Maca asks him questions he can’t answer. He leaves her for another, another typist. As a typist, Macabea is another kind of writer. But she’s not a female Bartleby.

Yes, she has a job, even a skill, though she’s not very good at it, and she doesn’t earn even minimum wage. She lives in a room with four other girls, all named Maria. She subsists on a diet of hot dogs. She’s never had a gift from anyone, never a party given in her name. Her parents died when she was a child. She was raised by a mean and ignorant aunt. She collects advertisements.

She hears on Clock Radio that

“there were seven billion people in the world. She felt lost. But with the tendency she had to be happy she immediately consoled herself: there were seven billion people to help her.”

Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but the world population in 1977, when the book was written, was only 4.2 billion. It was 7 billion in 2011, when the translation was done. So much for the narrator’s quest for facts? Of course, as with all the other facts in the story, this adds up to nothing.

The end comes as no surprise, though the narrator says he’s tried to avoid it. We’ve been told Macabea has no guardian angel. Really? Should he have tried harder or was he simply being true to the story, the girl, or was he projecting some drama within himself that did not need to happen?

In the end, Macabea’s life does have significance, and all the narrator’s arguments fail to persuade. It might be trite to say it, but his criticisms say more about him than about Macabea. He’s a critic, the worst kind, a literary critic, but with this difference – he’s created and is criticizing his own work. Nothing else matters. It’s so fiction. Was he the driver of the Mercedes? Or is he the fortune teller? Who is he? But this is asking for something that is not there. He seems to have told a true story, after all, criticisms included.

Did the girl “exist”? It’s fiction, so she did not exist. That’s the whole story. He claims not to know the ending. But it becomes clear, in the end, that he knew the ending all along. In fact, he started with the ending and worked backward to a beginning, but he couldn’t find a beginning, so he began by telling about himself, limited to his struggles to write the story. He introduces himself as Rodrigo, but we forget his name since it’s not mentioned again, while he goes on talking about “the girl.” We have to wait a long time to get her name, Macabea. When she tells Olimpico her name, he says,

“Sorry but that sounds like a disease, a skin disease.”

Her poverty is all she possesses. She barely exists. She does not exist.

No, not actually. Actually, she does exist, as fiction. We believe in her. The book begins and ends on a “yes.” Still, the narrator grows tired of it all. Maybe a different narrator would have come up with a different ending. But no. This is the story. Take it or leave it. Except that, in her poverty, in her worldly nothingness, she is as beautiful as a weed struggling through a crack in the asphalt, and Clarice, her guardian angel, waters the unwanted flower with tears of words.

“The Hour of the Star,” 1977, by Clarice Lispector. First published as New Directions Paperbook 733 in 1992. Newly translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser, 2011, and Introduction by Colm Toibin, 2011, in New Directions Paperbook 1212.

The Ballad of the Happy Cafe: Mimi Pond’s “Over Easy”

Heart Shaped Rock on Windowsill

Heart Shaped Rock on Windowsill of Old House

Mimi Pond’s “Over Easy” (2014) made the Times graphic book bestseller list this Spring. “Over Easy” is another portrayal of a young woman working to define herself in a confusion of shifting cultural mores. Pond’s story is set in Oakland, around the same time as the first parts of Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis.” There are more similarities than the time frame, but in “Over Easy,” the risks are different, the scale closer-in. Pond’s theme is the counter-culture revolution. Bit of a pun there, for the stage is the “Imperial Café,” where Madge, like Marji of “Persepolis” an art school dropout, works her way up from dishwasher to waitress. In Madge’s view, the flower children have wilted, and we know what comes next, wintery thorns and fed-up punks and stones and drunks. The tone is set in comic book humor, in turns bawdy and raunchy, tough and touching. There’s less history, a smaller stage, than we find in “Persepolis,” but like Satrapi, Pond is a wit aiming at cultural targets.

I wrote about Marjane Satrapi and graphic writing in a post last week over at The Sultan’s Seal, Youssef Rakha’s blog. Rakha is a journalist and novelist. The Kenyon Review featured an interview with him in their “The KR Conversations” in June 2012. Regular readers of the Toads may note a bit more clarity and less ambiguity in style in my piece on Satrapi, not to mention shorter paragraphs, thanks to some nimble editing, but the dry sentence that skews and curls like the branches of a twisted cedar cypress remains my aim. That is the kind of sentence you don’t often find in graphic writing, though, where brevity of breath is necessary to allow the drawings to speak. Readers expect writers to conform to conventions encased in the style of a recognizable venue. Menu changes at the cafe can be disruptive. But graphic books challenge the experience and definition of literature.

“Over Easy” contains a few sentences that function like concrete poems, a coffee cup twirl, for example – you have to turn the book around in circles to read the sentence, a dizzying effect. And a sentence clothed, literally, in a dress. And another that wafts and waltzes across Oakland. The book is drawn in one color, the pale green of the 50’s and 60’s grammar school classroom. But the pacifying, school purpose green is thwarted by the counter-culture themes. Yet the tone is natural and realistic, in spite of the drug-hazed setting. There’s not much of a plot, unless you consider moving from the café to the bar for an after work beer a plot development. The book succeeds on its characterization and illustrations, and on the strength of the observations and reflections of the main character, Madge. Those reflections are limited though to her immediate environment. There’s not much engagement of life beyond the boundaries of the café. The war is over, and now this. But the close details of life within the café, the walks and bus rides to and from, in which we get a feel for life in Oakland, amid observant comments and informing dialog more than make up for the day-to-day storyboard episodic plot.

The realism and close-in detail of the drawings suggests an affinity with Edward Hopper, a link given the reader by several references in “Over Easy” to Hopper’s work. Hopper was not a cartoonist, but maybe he was, Madge seems to be saying, because the cartoon draws us into an atmosphere of assumptions and signifiers, the effect also of Hopper’s work. The idea of the signifier as a key to understanding Pond’s technique is also made explicit:

“It’s a busy weekend morning, and it’s very crowded. The crowd that piles up waiting for tables is a cavalcade of hipsters. And if you know anything about hipsters, you know that their signifiers tell you everything.”

Hopper’s paintings are significant in one aspect by their focus on the ordinary, the working class, the underclass, and how a crowded urban landscape can hurriedly empty out at night, leaving the focus on the light from a streetlamp or a neon light on a lone person or two, maybe sitting in a café or a bar or a small motel room, or standing on a corner waiting for a late night bus. This can be realism or nostalgia, naturalism or pastiche, and writing about it can lead to complex characters or caricature. Certainly parts of “Over Easy” are exaggerated, usually for comic effect. In places, the satire devolves to farce, particularly with the themes of drugs and sex, where no one seems to burn out and even free love can still be discounted to a quickie in the bathroom off the kitchen counter at the Imperial.

Lazlo, Madge’s boss, has four children, the oldest a 14 year old daughter, but children or old people don’t figure prominently in the book. Each character is well drawn, in illustration and dialog. The strips flow. Madge seems somewhat conservative compared to her peers, thus her attitude reaches toward a kind of desired normalcy based on reactions to her environment. She doesn’t like hippies. She makes fun of Patty Hearst, whose problems surely resulted, Madge thinks, from her choice to be an art history major at Berkeley. There are foil characters, each waitress highlighting another, the cooks playing off one another. Lazlo knows Latin, is “over-educated,” and the book ends with a sudden idea for a poetry reading at the café. The poetry surprises everyone in one way or another. It’s hard to hide behind a poem. Something gets revealed. The book ends in a poetic vision, where poetry is a kind of felt atmosphere that suggests longing and quiet in a particular light.

“Over Easy” is a kind of comedy of manners, or a satire on the comedy of manners. One might assume, given the setting, no manners, but the counter-culture creates its own rules of respectability and values. Besides, Madge says:

“I need approval. I need respect. I want it to be clear: I’m not just a waitress.”

She is an artist, but she wants recognition in some established venue.

How should a story be told? Madge’s observations are keen, the interior of a bar, for example, “lit only by the juke box.” In another example, the Hopper like details convey tone and atmosphere and signify or trigger assumptions as Madge describes her rented, old house (which in today’s gentrified markets she couldn’t afford to rent):

“In these old houses, you will find, on old paint-flaked windowsills…tiny bronze hands, dried rosebuds, crystals, dead butterflies, heart-shaped rocks…old medicine bottles….”

Gentrification removes those items from the house and replaces them with a real Edward Hopper hanging from a refinished wall. Where does Madge get the idea that to be a waitress is to be “just a waitress?” Like Marji’s predicament in “Persepolis,” there are parents still at work in the background of one’s influences. Is the graphic book the recognition Madge was looking for as a waitress? Is the graphic novel gentrifying into literature?

“Over Easy,” by Mimi Pond. Published by Drawn & Quarterly, April 2014. 271 pages in a sturdy hardcover edition, thick paper, sewn and bound.

Abaft the Blues Fest

Red-orange earworms admonish taptoo! fashion,
now clear the drum is an old, beat suitcase
rigged with foot pedal, and, too, there they are,
tin bells on his curled toes, as literal as pencil lead,
as calloused as an oak pew hymnal.

Lavender fresh, she sang at Hop’s Hootenanny,
sipped mint juleps from a food cart pulled
by a calico cat in zither shade by a stream
under an old willow, but the bell pull string broke
under the weight of his monolog cartogram.

On top of it, academic aristocracy whizzed
by dressed in pressed berets and scholarly drafts -
what difference they followed the leader or not?
Collectors yodeled passwords, unlocking a juke joint,
and raspberry chords popped up oily fishes.

No need now to call placid plumber, three blue
hydrangeas wilting in bath humid heat,
down by the river, down by the wash,
down by the singing and the top posh posts
written with plush plumes of lacks and noods.

Safe sound spillway falls, noise overflows,
ears carp and loud lips cop bad press,
but dolce glissando this urgently close still
makes some sense, and at the first aid tent
they polish their moonstone eyes.

Paste fast food milk turns cast iron sour,
and butter curdles her chlorine-yellow hair
as they stuff bitter newspapers with trust,
dogpaddling thru pull duck old cobwebs,
but empty, golden juke boxes near finish him.

On Line 15 on the way back home, the night
quietly spinning, the river sparkling crinkly
as the bus crosses the Hawthorne Bridge,
a lone accordion pulls and lulls images only
understood asleep or listening to music.

Sidewalk Chalk Pastel with Haiku

Over at Miriam’s Wellan invitation to a haiku. And why not? As it happened, I was working on a post of pics that lacked captions, not that they needed any, but a bit of word garnish on a gallery augments the gadzooks. The haiku, posted on Miriam’s site, came in walking stride:

a            long            old            side            walk

a            child’s            pastel            chalk            drawing

blue             orange            bird             feathers

Oh blue bird’s posit
bald caw clears scald orange glory
down green wave evening.

Oh quick bird’s message
clear and cold sweet morning wake
again post evening.

Oh to be a bird
who sings each morning sunup
and feathers sundown.

Oh drifted droop bird
lands on hand chalk covered walk
feather dust bath wash.

Oh rabbit molt moon
rises on sun’s dwilting back
enough for one day.

Oh quiet streetlamp moon
paper birds rise up to you
words fall to sidewalk.

Oh artist angel
dance brushes painterly dust
sidewalk chalk drawing.

And don’t forget to check out Miriam’s Well.