Juice and Joy

“What is all this juice and all this joy?” Gerard Manley Hopkins asks of Spring. And no sooner does he sing the push and fuss, the ballyhoo, of a sea sky blue slurred song of fresh thrushes than he announces the sound of a melancholy note, a bell of vespers, the turning of the promise of spring, spring’s quick morning suddenly fallen, the promise of its baby blue sky now overcast, what was in the seed of his poem from the beginning, “a strain.”

Is spring for the earth painful? It might be, born in a bed of industrial pollution, which even in Hopkins’s time was already something to brood over, and in spring he’s already grieving.

Not for Hopkins will spring last, and every spring grieves for its unwinding even as it unwinds in juice and joy. It’s the climate change of the “Sea of Faith” again that seems to sully his spring. To his coy mistress he does not even bother calling. He doesn’t want to make the sun run; he wants to see it stand still.

And Hopkins twists Herrick’s argument’s ear, and Herrick’s sin of staying becomes for Hopkins a sin of leaving. Where in Herrick, Corinna is told,

And sin no more, as we have done, by staying;
But my Corinna, come, let’s goe a Maying,

in Hopkins, the children are told:

Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Hopkins does not seem to sing to the virgins. Somehow, he’s unable to seize his day. Hopkins disliked cages: “This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.” In Hopkins, spring is not sustainable, but this abstract thought becomes itself a cage. And age is a cage.

So it was of Hopkins and his springs and falls I thought as I walked past this Flowering Japanese Crabapple tree the other day. And I remembered a line from Hopkins’s poem, “God’s Grandeur”: “And for all this, nature is never spent.”

041220141136 Flowering Japanese Crabapple 1

At least, I think it’s a Flowering Japanese Crabapple. Hopkins would probably know. He despaired, among the many things he seems to have despaired over, of the toil and wear and tear already evident upon nature of the effects of urbanization and industrialization. Yet here I saw these lovely blooms persisting, in the middle of the city, surrounded by construction. For the tree, as you can now see in the pic below, is a caged skylark. But it’s been there awhile, wedged into a corner of a parking lot up against an old brick apartment house, but it continues to sing to me, and will sing to you, too, and to anyone who cares to take a walk in spring. Alas, as Hopkins and the carpe diem poets remind us, spring won’t last, so get it while you can, while the juice still runs freely and the joy escapes confinement.

But, no, wait, why go under such a stricture and structure? That seed grows into a tree of melancholy. Why not simply go? Not put out, but go out. Ah, now there’s some juice and joy to go by.

041320141137 Crabapple road construction

 

Argument in the Time of Apples

Torqued antipathy apparels dimple Args
dented funny car, idling gear limbed,
oiled, greased, and garbed
wardrobe red, beaming barbs,
wavy hair flames bursting
from the fat winged fenders
of his 1950 hot rod roadster,
and the countdown lights
go green, and the ground springs,
and the asphalt melts to sap;

meanwhile, in lane next whole daddy,

apples in juicy life dangle,
from form below pending,
suspended, the quick nap of a bee,
moistly sloping sap up elegant boughs,
up, wake up, give us blush
pale pink blossoms,
not the false fruit of an inapt poem.
Leaf springs, cracks the bark
of the dormant pome tree
pruned for Verve & Vigor.

Explication:

What is called a season is the mapping of sap
around a wound,
and a poem is a funny car.
After the burled cuts, twisted,
elbow pruned shifting of gears
and squealing of red wheelbarrows,
the melting tongue wanders away,
talking to the bees from a standing start,
showing the pink slip core of reason
dash and flash in a sap sluice.

Seven Variations on a Sentence

1. Build box fill with content space controls design states theme bounces against thesis walled margin defined area filled with persons places things painted drawn and quartered in actions still within lines.

2. Build tables cells macro plots instruct how to within what build city filled roads on roads place persons places things actions ruled within scheme bordered function.

3. Shape controlled text how said informed what said syllabus sawhorse lay round flat stones for flat feet map outlined argument billed old metaphor electronically melting build light to power body sun swayed body.

4. Old metaphors corrupt case cold call book disappeared in closed pit wings line empty library shelves body of fabrication strip-milled pall-mall plumbing hidden in alley walls.

5. Build statement paper small hamlet few houses number pages lines words characters  define beginning finite end create punctuation to manage tasks a men an age.

6. Align build assign venture run meet-and-greet purpose audience use rows columns fixed to stage con persons places things rotate rows to columns columns to rows persons to things places to persons things to places sketch arranges profile persuades.

7. User friendly unalloyed no-frills click here look ma no hands silhouette of idea.

Word Put Upon Word

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“Stone put upon stone
and chamber beside chamber”
D’Arcy Thompson
“Mud put
upon mud,
lifted
to make room,”
Robert Creeley
word    hod
   put
upon  house
word
 shell
 soma stone
put
 upon
stone
 
put log upon log cube upon cube
 pier upon pier unit upon unit
post up & unus put upon unus
 road upon road  
page   upon page  
wood in face upon face
 paint put upon paint wall put upon wall
 one part upon part upon
 slab on slab load put upon load
hod word onus upon onus
line put upon line word upon stone
bowl put mud in
 hand put upon hand a pan upon a
 tone drum stone upon
note upon note a lifted scuttle
note upon row in a
 sign sing stone mud call
name put upon cut word in
 rune put upon stone bone lifted
end upon end a tune  in

CODA: wind upon wind wave upon wave cloud upon cloud grass upon grass leaf upon leaf sail upon sail hill upon hill cove around cove cliff upon cliff square upon square camp upon camp town upon town city upon city state upon state…wind upon wind wave upon wave cloud upon cloud cove around cove

IMG_2067 Word Put Upon Word

Notes on n+1’s “MFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction”

"I'm going to New York City to become a famous writer!" "New York can be really tough on a cat."

“I’m going to New York City to become a famous writer!”
“New York can be really tough on a cat.”

The blogger is the busker of the writing world, sidewalk setup with pre-production to distribution in a snap, with or without an MFA or ever having set foot in Brooklyn, where it’s easy to mistake an NYC for a hipster, the new hepcat, but the character with a sign on a street corner, selling short stories, has got to be an MFA. Of course I bought one. It’s titled, “Sixteen short stories, and what do you get? Another day older and money in debt.” That’s it, the whole story, a study in minimalism.

n+1’sMFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction” sounds more highfalutin that it is. The eclectic collection of analytic and reflective pieces is very engaging: personal, down-to-earth, and sincere; witty, informative, and cantankerous. The stories of the aspiring writers though are often wrapped in disappointment, and don’t amount to good news for the latest whiz kids on their way to the big time.

The big time here is the coveted publishing contract and the freedom to write it suggests. But if the big time is part of the great American novel, the form is protean: movie stardom, big league baseball star, corporate head-honcho, founder of the next mega-church, on the cover of Rolling Stone. How does a relentless pursuit of excellence turn rancorous and begin to have a negative effect on the game, or the business, or the art? Subcultures are constantly being subsumed by the dominant, overarching culture, the umbrella over the barrel. The writers and scholars that appear in “MFA VS NYC” have big time stories to tell, and readers interested in the making of literature will find intriguing stuff on the ways the writing of fiction is taught or learned and the resulting fiction influenced and modified by the many players in the process: teachers, programs, agents, publishers, editors, publicists, booksellers, critics, readers.

People write for all kinds of reasons and purposes, usually to someone, and if the writing is sent off – the memo, the email, the love letter, the white paper, the blog post, the letter to the editor, the book proposal, the sign in a window, the graffiti on a train car, the busker’s song sang on the sidewalk – the writing is published. Just as often, no doubt, and just as well, probably, the writing is trashed or deleted, but whether the writing is read or heard or not, by whom or how, or how long it lives, is all another matter. Some writers write to themselves, diarists. Their work is published when it’s found. Writers often hold up a mirror to the culture, and if the mirror is cracked, the culture turns away. Writers, like the rest of us, all seem to have a particular picture of themselves, hardly ever the same picture others have of them. It’s the picture of ourselves we don’t recognize that might make for the best writing and reading. The pictures of writers and writing, of literature, that unfold in “MFA VS NYC” merge the ones the writers have with the ones their readers might have, bringing the whole affair into better focus.

A Shuck of Stone

When the lemon yellow of a doubtful flower tells lies
And the hush pink plum blossoms first fail to surmise
A touch and a kiss turn to stone.

When the steep turn toward the dark cherry dyes
And find winkle’s wake still seeping under the sash
A drink and a dress turn to stone.

To turn to stone is not to die and worm away
A stone never slept nor arose
A stone is a stone is a stone is a stone.

When knickknacks walk and talk and wingding
The livelong night no wonder
A flower turns to stone.

Hearths are made of stone, and wheels, and paths,
And walls, and dwellings, and churches, and busts.
A stone thrown skiffles across water and plops.

When a shuck of stone falls from the sky
Not a soft place on the land to nest
A tempest has turned to stone.

When in spring one feels petrified
Curl and pit and weigh and hurl
Slink and creep and push and pull.

When the angels of spring go stone
Old stones erupt in new waves
And lyrical flowers woe no bloom.

Lenten Surf Season

Work morning and Luke up early helping his dad load plumbing tools,
wrenches and chisels, elbows and nipples, the ladle and the lead pot
full of soft lead that looks like frozen surf.
Luke now taller than his dad.

“Give Dan a call,” Luke said. “He’s drivin’ now.
We’re headin’ inland to work,”
and he ran his rough hand meanly over Jack’s salt matted hair.
“I’m afraid my surfin’ days are near over, kid,” Luke said.

Dan lived with his grandma back in the alley
behind Roman’s, off Devil’s Path.
He was working on an old Chevy beater.
He was a cross between a surfer and a hodad.

“You turnin’ into a hodad,” Jack said,
but it was a question, and Dan laughed.
“All you think about is surfing, kid,” Dan said.
“I have to give Grandma a ride to mass.

Give me a quarter for some gas, go to mass with us,
then we’ll drive down and check out some waves.
You hear Gary got shot? Not coming home, though.
Sent him up to Japan for some R and R.”

“I love the mass,” Danny’s grandma said.
She sat in the middle of the bench seat,
smelling like toilet water and wax.
“I love the quiet, the peace.

I love the back of the church dark,
the hard polished oaken pews,
the altar lit like a halo, the smell
of the candles, the incense,

the smell of Father Dayly’s hands
when he puts the host between my lips
and sets it down softly onto my tongue.”
“I know you do, Grandma.”

“No, you don’t. You boys can’t know
nothin’ about it, how I love the sudden bells.
I love the mass so much,” Danny’s grandma said,
“I’m giving it up for Lent.”

They turned to look at the old woman,
Jack rolled his window down,
and Danny’s grandma saw the salt water in Jack’s eyes.
“But,” she said, spitting it out, and paused.

“Yes, Grandma?” Danny said.
“You go to mass without me during Lent.
You give up surfing for Lent.”
Jack could hear the waves laughing at him.

Rising from the beach and curling over the dunes,
a breeze hisses like a glass blower’s torch.
The spring swell peals across the bay,
the waves a glass cavalry menagerie.

Surfing

An Imperfect Imposition

An Imperfect Imposition   Gloss
       
He goat a haircute,   “Beware enterprises
molted a shive,   that require
and emptoed the moot.   new clothes.”
       
He out cast the let   Ruined good tune,
down at sup-a-dup   raised to put
and unvaled a crune,   bread on table.
       
frumpted and follying,   Commuters fly
and clutched the rolled,   in wingtips aspire
acrested the abridged am-this   cross closed bridges.
       
Daddy-Oh! Pater-pitter-patter Ah, familiar
potairy, roong froom the Gin-is-is in joy of brewcrew
hisses Ink Pour Age.   song of a pint.
       
He rit the hoad alt coomed,   [Readers
sweeat urned his id,   may reply
and snoozled wths sapoozed.   below.]
       
Hairfigged fitted, compred wronged, All quiet
he wroted, a temptwitted,   on the worsted
but ownlie slylents twas loosening, font.
       
ands the suns downsed and moons Only a real fool
arowsis a crewised shell fellowing ignores the full
pips sillied byburds.   loon.
       
Sorry to impose like this is the poet Where should it go:
speaking, but have you a place for thes Recycling, Compost,
amythidst your these is?   or Garbage?
       
Supposing posing, oh, posing:   Climbing
“I am positioned,” the imposing the corpus
poet posited, “I am composed.” ladder.
       
Nonesuchofwhich off course   Maybe end
was teachno techno blareney,   with the “byburds”?
steel eye as I am I am postplus. Too late now?
       
Owl duedew uandeye goal   Reading kicker
quickwick of it?   position player
Illklicked ear, wellclick thr.   diversion.

Badges

Hanging from their necks,
belts, or ties, with photo,
they come from somewhere,
and have some place to go.

She sees them bouncing up and down
the streets, swagging vigor to and fro.
Sometimes they meet and talk,
badge to badge, boar to sow.

She doesn’t get what they say.
Normally, they just proceed,
prancing days, romping nights,
round and round they gambol

through tunnels of sun
sounding golden horns,
steeds indeed, lit up
in glorious gowns a glut.

She had one once, but let go,
repeating the hollow phrase,
preferring not to be badgered,
“And that has made all the difference.”

Badge

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

A Clean, Well-Lighted PlaceEvery hour seems happy hour
in this diner on some corner,
the coffee pot fresh and warm,
each table a worn flower.

She passes her reflection
in the silence of the old
jukebox, vacant these many
years, and fingers a grey hair

wistfully behind one ear.
He sees her waiting all hours,
having come to occupy
the booth outside her kitchen.

He orders breakfast, coffee and eggs,
for lunch, her meatloaf and mashed,
later in the afternoon, a milkshake
and fries, on the radio

a Bach organ squeezed, strained
through a deep, golden tuba.
But he did not notice who left her
the short note in her tip jar.

Amid a Bevy of Red Roses in the Bed of a Twaddle Truck

Red Roses

If you don’t get this there’s no need to go radish or knock something over. Red roses remedy the lackadaisical. Would you like a piece of fallen green apple tart, all the way from Wenatchee?

The red roses he gave me I squeezed into gravy he poured on his raspberry pie. By the time we were done on the ceiling there were none of the spiders that had earlier danced in my eyes. In the morning the water was as loose as my garter tossed into the bed of his twaddle truck.

Every day is cusp catastrophe day in the House of Disposition.

He uttered, “Red roses,” with just a bit of a stutter. Maybe he hugged me, but into a pot I was put.

A pan of his ink I placed on the porch with some empty jugs of milk. And never have I smiled as maroon a red rose as he stuck in my mashed potatoes that morning.

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyways, the roses he sent me were fakes. But I never noticed. I mirrored his psychosis, not to mention my powdered lemon bars.

He sat down to dinner and yarned out a new spinner, wondering did I water his old red roses. He was always away, away on a business trip, away on some sort of boondoggle in his twaddle truck. He was a tinker. He wore red plaid flannel shirts and blue denim jeans all patched in the knees and seams of the seat. But he was handy to have around.

There were years we played games full of crocodile tears, red roses pickled for lapels. At first he was shy, but by the end of the banquet I had removed most of his thorns. Now behind my blue ear sticks a yellow umbrella that shadows my pale ruby nose.

Well, I think we’re ready now. Better put in the extra leaf, and light the buttery candles. These days he wishes plum ditties and fishes, but he’s getting old-timey depression cake frosted with snow.

Soon will come Lent. We’ll clean out the basement, and hold yet another estate sale. Last year we spent the profits on beer and pizza. Then we watched a movie in a tent.

The dishes all washed and put away. Let’s wipe down and pray red roses still hue come our capture and rapture.

The prose poem above is a later version of the more traditionally formatted poem with a different title below:

Red Rover, Red Rover, Let Red Roses Come Over

The red roses he gave me
I squeezed into gravy
He poured on his raspberry pie.

By the time we were done
On the ceiling were none
Of the spiders that danced in my eyes.

In the morning the water
Was as loose as a garter
Tossed in the bed of a twaddle truck.

If you never get this
There’s no need to remiss
Red roses and green apple tart.

He uttered red roses
Maybe he hugged me
And into a pot I was put.

A pan of his ink
I placed on the porch
With some empty jugs of milk.

But never have I smiled
As maroon a red rose
As he stuck in my mashed potatoes.

It goes without saying
But I’ll say it anyways
The roses he sent me were fakes.

But I never noticed
I mirrored his psychosis
Not to mention my powdered lemon bars.

He sits down to dinner
Yarns out a spinner
Wonders did I water his roses.

Those years we played games
Full of crocodile tears
Red roses pickled for lapels.

Behind my blue ear
A yellow umbrella
Shadows my pale ruby nose.

Well I think we’re ready now
Better put in the extra leaf
And light the buttery candles.

These days he wishes
Plum ditties and fishes
But he gets old-timey cake.

Soon will come Lent
We’ll clean out the basement
And hold yet another estate sale.

Last year we spent
The profits on beer and pizza
And we watched a movie in a tent.

The dishes all washed and put away
Let’s wipe down and pray red roses
Still hue come our capture and rapture.

A Lyrical Poem of Vast Beauty Reluctantly Revealed Ridiculously; or, Possibly the Widest Poem Ever Written

Oh
luv
ly
ths
yth
nss
rth
lss
ly
un
rave
lling
pling
bling
sling
Sans
snarls
&
pots
&
pans
&
yell
ing
frm
the
top
of
the
stairs
Whn
old
age
 ______________
still
like
a
horizone
lies
a
cross
a +
drift
pacific
blue
Oh pan
acean
ly
on
the
Strand
 ~~~~~~~
summer
still
&
above
the
Strand
grand
avenues
Houses ^ ^ ^ ^ ^
closed
like
shelved
novels
every
 [_] [_] [_]
wandoor
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page
un
||||||||||||||||| |||||||||||||||||||
cut
Every
home
a
pot
ten
shall
poe m
full
.%
care
act
ears
&
song stairs
We inner rupture ths poem
to bring you a comment:
     !    !   !
Well?
"Is this mic on?"
"Another poem? I used to like this blog. Has he lost his YKW?"
~~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~~~ Reply Not every.

Waiter! Waiter! Water! Water! please plea see
Really? This whole woeful willy nilly silly stuffled-stuff is enough to drive a noose guy nuts you know what I mean? Perm it me to clar i fry  !
whn dows Beauty In Ter ?

Keep SCROLLing

RIGHT

What? We are weave ing the har bor for the o pen C ~~~ deep po a fry well try certain ly wide anyways
You & me let's Beat it out-a-hear let's go let's get lost golast golest golist goloose golinked goleaked
know
wht
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Yssssh
awe
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last
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list
lost
luster
&
plural
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Do
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con
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say
shuns
reveal
Alphabet The didrest hidrest hadrest hardrest
he awrecked up awent walking
composing each step ed
re member patters n
shapes saw assign
KEEP OFF THE
WORDS!
Pls

Flarf Factorial; or, Epiphany Needed

Flarf La La Laufen hahahaha Fralf
LaLaLaLa 1 Larf 2 Larff 3 Larfff 4 Larph
  BEGIN HERE to liss in n!
Once Onup a Clock Tick
Twice Up Ounce Town Down
Thrice Upoff a When Time
Always alotalotalot Tons Too Much
She Wore a RED Flarf Scarf
Reason rain falls in drops
please prod pre tense BeCase
We called the Epiphany Company
to order a new RING! TONE!
they wanted a they wanted a surcharge they wanted a surcharge for first time push button user for first time push button user surcharge for first time push button user
And No Flarf!

And No Flarf!

       
The hour of our notthefirst flarf ing
This space deliberately empty: PLEASE DO NOT FILL or loiter here        
Trust YouR Expectations R2 FLARFLY     FAR FLY
Hour glass is miss ing
Enter nananame & posswrd over twhere     Larlff Larflf
F L a R F all
L a a R F  l ing
THIS HAS BEEN A TEST OF THE FLARF SYSTEM HAD THIS BEEN A FALSE flarf, Well! You are advised to get an EPIPHANY. Get a haircute and a shive and empty the moot.        so-me(w)hat!

Favorite Recipes from “An Eminent Poets’ Cookbook”

Poets' CookbookExpecting a hungry poet to visit for a few days, and worried what you’ll dish up?

Here are a few tasty recipe suggestions, taken from the venerable

An Eminent Poets’ Cookbook

“Ezra Pound Scrambled Eggs and Pine Nut Casserole”

Go to a dark wood and collect a cup of pine nuts. Soak in vinegar. Secure a dozen duck eggs. In an overwrought crockpot, scramble eggs. Add pinch of gall or to taste. Grate one ode over eggs. Sprinkle pine nuts over top. Bake in pre-heated oven at 500 degrees for 30 minutes. Serve with cornbread laced with peperoncini, cappuccino, and a canto of Chianti. Feeds one starving poet.

“Torqued Tongue Dylan Thomas Beer Fried Bread”

Crack a dozen or so large, farm fresh goose eggs into a copper kettle. Pour in pint bottle of fuggles double hopped ale over low heat. Stir and simmer while drinking pint bottle of Fat Cheek IPA. Slow fry half pound of thinly sliced rabbit breasts and pig tongue in palm oil in separate skillet. Add pressed garlic and green tobacco juice and open a bottle of Pig’s Knuckles Lager. Cut thick slices of molasses bread. Slosh bread slices in runny egg batter. Let soak. Turn up heat under rabbit and tongue, careful not to set oil afire. Pour tablespoon of hot rabbit and tongue and palm oil juice into saucepan. Add tablespoon of butter. Dip and douse egg and ale soaked bread in rabbit and tongue palm oil butter mix. Cook over medium-high heat until bread turns crisp. Flip and fry other side. Open a bottle of Curly Hair Ale. Serve bread covered with rabbit and pig tongue open faced with mustards and quart bottle of In My Craft and Sullen Brew Ale. Stout, bracing snacks for poetry reading.

“Richard Brautigan Boozy Brunch Brouhaha”

Catch a bunch of fresh trout with metaphorical flies in the falls of your basement stairs. Gut and clean fish. Cook fish outdoors on a stoop in a cast-iron skillet filled with Saint Francis of Assisi Ale. Drink what remains of ale while cooking fish. Red table wine may be substituted for ale if fish fail to bite.  After eating fish and downing ale or wine, take a long nap.

“Bukowski Barbecued Braised Lamb Brisket with Whiskey Cider Sauce”

Build a fire by setting a match to rejected poems squashed under briquettes in the bed of a cast iron typewriter. Cut and skewer the whiskey cider sauce soaked lamb with pencils and pens. Hold briskets over typewriter fire until charred around the edges and pink in the middle. Eat hot from fire while drinking whiskey neat out of a used beer can.

“Marianne Moore’s Chocolate Moose Palm Balls”

Unstitch three horsehide baseballs and remove innards. Sew baseballs back together with typewriter ribbon, leaving small opening. Into opening, stuff bits of bittersweet chocolate, rolling ball around in palm until baseball is full and firm. Sew baseball closed. Place baseballs on cookie sheet in 90-degree oven for three hours while listening to Yankees game on the radio. Remove balls from oven and let cool. Open small hole in ball. Suck out chocolate through a straw.

“Stolen Plum Tart Dessert”

On an early Fall evening, during suburban supper hour, sneak through neighborhood back yards collecting plump, purple plums fallen from ignored trees. If caught stealing plums, apologize and offer to pay for the plums with poems, one each. Explain that you are a doctor making house calls. Get invited inside the house. Check the kids’ ears, noses, and throats. Whip up a plum whiskey lemon sour and share some TV game shows. Carefully examine family members for poems while your plum pudding cools in the icebox.

“Li Po Midnight Snack”

On the warm summer night of a bloated moon, walk down to the river with a jug of rice wine. Drink responsibly until the jug is empty and the moon has swept down river and over the falls. Return to your shack and sleep until the pony’s whinny wakes you to the smell of scrambled eggs, pine nuts, and hot black tea, and no one is reading poetry.

B Flat Minor Seventh Flat Five

a sharp as brittle as glass Susan and Lisa Above Refugio
spikes strikes oiled wood
tie the ground below
a rose bubbled bottle

easy flats as surf foams
loosen smiles and sea
splashes rock dome
circled cutwater

as soft as flurry breeze
whistles and leaves
as hushed as memory
conjurors breathe

as down inside the chord
fingers fasten figure
for suggestions
in fretted spaces

as sluice and mosey walk
the line above the ocean
in single lens reflex
in frame free accord

Roddy Doyle’s “The Guts”

They were sitting in the living room, sharing stuff.
- Your man Roddy Doyle has a new book.
- I don’t have a man.
- It’s just an expression. It’s Irish.
- Are there any Sheas in the new book?
- That’s El Porto Irish.
- What’s my man’s new book about?
- Your man Jimmy Rabbitte is back.
- How old is Jimmy, now?
- Pullin’ 50.
- I might have known. Does my man have a woman?
- He does, and children, too.
- Sounds like a family affair.
- And Imelda is back, too.
- Who is Imelda?
- That’s what Aoife wanted to know.
- What?
- Aoife, Jimmy’s wife. It’s an Irish name. I had to look it up. It’s pronounced EE-fa, long e followed by f then schwa, the a the schwa sound, you know? The upside-down e.
- And is the F word back as well?
- It is, but somewhat diminished. Though it climbs toward the end. Not a main character in this one like it was in The Commitments, the F word.
- So Jimmy’s a wife, then?
- And children.
- Is it good, then, your man’s new book?
- It is. I’ve never read anything by Roddy Doyle that was not good.
- But didn’t Roddy dis your man James Joyce?
- Roddy Doyle did not dis James Joyce. He was merely pointin’ out there are other Irish writers besides James Joyce.
- Includin’ Roddy Doyle.
- Roddy uses the Joyce style quote marks, no quote marks, the dash to start off dialog, you know? And he’s a master at the stream of talk.
- Is there music in this one, like in The Commitments?
- There’s music, yes.
- Is Van Morrison in the new book?
- No, I don’t recall mention of Van the man.
- Your man Roddy probably thinks of Van Morrison the same way he thinks of Joyce.
- Maybe. I don’t know. But I get your point.
- So what does Jimmy Rabbitte do in Roddy Doyle’s new book?
- Come here. I want you to read it, Roddy Doyle’s new book.
- Come here?
- It’s another Irish expression, apparently. But I think it’s only used when you’re on the phone. It’s like a head’s up you’re going to get some request for a favor, or it’s a signal that something serious is about to be said. I’m not sure. But like Jimmy’s on the phone to his Da -
- His who?
- His Da, his Dad, his father. Fathers are what happen to young lads. And Jimmy says, Come here. Can I borrow your car for the weekend?
- He’s pushin’ 50 and he’s after borrowing his father’s car?
- Isn’t that very El Porto Irish of you. They’ve only one rig, and they need two to drive to one of those outdoor concert festivals.
- So music is what this new Roddy Doyle book is all about?
- No, not first and foremost. But come here. I want you to read it.
- You haven’t told me what it’s about yet.
- Remember that movie we watched, The Pope’s Toilet?
- No. Is your man the new pope in Roddy’s new book?
- Never mind. Your eyes are a pretty blue, a powdery, baby blue.
- Compliments will get you nowhere.
- Fair play. Jimmy has no friends, either.
- I might have known. You and James and Jimmy and Roddy should all get together for a pint.
- Wouldn’t that be something?
- You think your man Roddy reads your blog? You going to post a review of his new book?
- He first self-published The Commitments, you know.
- But he’s not still self-publishing.
- I guess not.
- You think he reads blogs?
- There’s a funny scene in the new book, where Jimmy goes back to work after being away for a time, and he’s got like hundreds of emails waiting for him, and he deletes all the distractions he’s subscribed to, without looking at them. That’s the Internet. Subscribe to something, like you’re following it, but never look at it except to delete the update. But there’s mention of blog, I think. I forget. But yeah, there’s mention of a blog.
- You usually circle that sort of thing.
- No marginalia in this one, dear. I didn’t want to mess it up for you. Come here. I’m after askin’ you to give it a read.
- Why?
- I don’t know.
- What’s it called, Roddy’s new book?
- The Guts.
- The Guts? So what’s it about, finally, The Guts?
- It’s about courage, maybe, the courage of the ordinary.
- Is courage getting good reviews these days?
- There are plenty of regular reviews of The Guts out there readers can check out. I’m going to post this.
- What?
- Our conversation.
- That ought to nail it.
- I love the ground you walk upon.
- Go away. Go blog or something.

Roddy Doyle, “The Guts,” ISBN 9780670016433 | 336 pages | 23 Jan 2014 | Viking Adult | 6.29 x 9.33in

The Audience

The AudienceThe audience appeared waving umbrellas from drinking happy hour beer, or hurrying from work or dropping off the kid, driving in from the aloof burb or sliding down from the hep pad on the hill, making a splash, alighting from cab or bus amid the rush. Coming from everywhere, the audience began to cohere.

The audience entered the hall dressed to its drollest: dressed in red down gown, hair whiffed and coifed like a pastry croissant, smelling of perfumes; dressed in jet-black tuxedo, in tight shoes and diminished socks, with small bottle of whiskey packed discreetly in coat pocket, hair polished with floor wax; dressed in polka dot shift over silver flats; dressed in loose corduroy and plaid flannel; dressed in pressed denim pants over soft loafers or heavy boots. In any case, dressed: dressed to the nines, dressed to the gills, dressed to kill or to be killed, dressed like a cat or a pig, dressed and de-dressed and redressed, but not to digress.

The audience performed a wave. The swell rose from the back rows and swept forward down the aisles, rising and falling until it broke upon the stage. The audience pulled at its hair, feet patting the flowered floor. The audience was absorbed in felt. The audience was loosely packed, like popcorn, knee-to-knee, and bounced up and down in its box.

The audience yawned. The audience fidgeted. The audience teared. The audience popped bonbons and sucked jujubes. The audience cheered. The audience hissed. The audience levitated. The audience milled. The audience was blindfolded and applauded by the players. The audience walked out. The audience considered what fun to yearn through the years the discerning one.

The audience abandoned its mess. The audience crawled beneath seats, searching for lost touches. The audience stuck wet purple platitudes under seats. The audience retreated patiently without panic up the slow aisles. The audience left behind a coin purse of cough drops, a pair of plastic reading glasses, an empty bottle of whiskey, a set of earphones, a Moleskine pocket notebook full of lists, a psychedelic scarf, a citizenship test study guide, and a paisley golf umbrella.

The audience walked out into a breezy evening on the neon avenue, and a few unpopped kernels fell from wrinkled lapels. The audience went this way and that, for cigarettes or toilets, for coffee or cocktails, whistled for a taxi or waited for a bus, climbed into a cold bed or gave the babysitter a ride home.

The audience disagreed with the critic’s review in the morning blog. The audience told the coworker all about what was worn the night before. The audience the following weekend was unable to remember. The audience slept through the off-season, dreaming of animated spring costumes, of walking through the park, watching for peacocks, down to the theatre, the marquee illuminating the wet pavement, the hot buttery popcorn freshly popped. The audience awoke and wanted more.

Poem for Stevie Smith in a Manner of Stevie Smith

Stevie Smith is stalwart Poe with a sense of humor.
She bakes you a cake and in it you find a tumor.
She proves the recalcitrant reader’s reasoned rumor:
Literature lulls lap then snap you awake in a trap.

Her darling pencil drawings suggest an eye for style.
She invites dog-eared Ogden Nash for toast and tea
Laced with poem poison and sarcastic want to be.
But it’s the simple truth boldly baldly beingly told:

Life’s humongous pimple the poet is unable
To rouge under, and you don’t require Plato to know
The news that tomorrow your plebian tale may go
Away, vanished as miraculously as it came.

Best Poems Stevie Smith“Poem for Stevie Smith in a Manner of Stevie Smith” is not purely in the manner of Stevie Smith. She uses periods, but not necessarily at the end of every sentence, so sparingly, as if a period was a pound and not a penny. And she doesn’t fancy poetic trickery like alliteration. The poems are not bawdy, nor are her poems explicitly about the body. A typical Stevie Smith poem turns on the irony of ordinary thoughts and word play and the insistence that these are what we might be thinking about. The little poem lifts the wafer upward then drops it into the kitchen sink. Stevie was born in 1902 and died in 1971, so the present tense here is as fanciful as the alliteration – though for Poe, alliteration was more than a fancy; it was a terrible tortuous tinnitus bellowing.

“Best Poems,” by Stevie Smith, (reissued as New Directions Paperback number 1271 in 2014), spreads 165 poems and 108 drawings over 151 pages, including a five-page index of titles and first lines.  There are many Stevie Smith lines that might cause a reader to look skyward and reflect. One memorable such line is this one, from “Souvenir de Monsieur Poop” (23):

“I always write more in sorrow than in anger.”

But who is Mr. Poop? Each Stevie Smith poem is a perfect trap, but we pass through the trap and are undeceived, as postmodern as a bath mat.

Stevie Smith Best Poems

The Tooth, the Whole Tooth, and Nothing but the Tooth

The Tooth IMG_0055The tooth was an expert, a specialist. He knew one thing, inside and out, and kept to his own. He seemed happy with his place, his lot, but he could be very exacting. He took peer review extremely seriously. He didn’t like being pushed around. He met his opponent squarely. He was polished; he was bald. He didn’t like stray hairs in his face. He thought all teeth should share his tastes.

In his last article, the tooth articulated a taste, a feeling, really, testing for hardness and size an assortment of round hard candy. He usually preferred chances for the soft stuff, but he could pass off a lollipop like a soccer striker. He knew just when to bite down hard. He waited. He had tasted tongue and cheek.

I remember the time he reduced my 1,000-page novel to a single tweet. Hilarity. I knew something was up. Then there was the time he reduced my grand slam dream to a sacrifice bunt. And then he squished my perfect wave to something like backwash out the Hyperion Treatment Plant outside El Segundo. The tooth was a master of the sedate.

The tooth knew the end was near. He slinked back and waited. I thought he was sedated. Bad idea, eating the ice from the iced tea. That ice was the beginning of the end, that and the peanuts, the peanuts and corn nuts and sunflower seeds. I’d have been better off chewing tobacco or bubblegum. Baseball is bad for the teeth. Anyhow, the tooth did not chew. He stole and hoarded and hid his spoils.

I called in McTeague, who shushed the tooth, his vice grip fingers grasping the truth. My tongue seemed to come unattached as I rubbed it softly one last time over the top of the tooth, like walking barefoot over a tide pool barnacled in black plaque.

And where is the tooth now? Reduced to the cliché of a gaping hole and the source of a bad pun. How stealthily love deteriorates into a source of pus and infection (Yuch!).

That gap the tongue now feels, a place apologists go to investigate past cultures.

On Boredom

Today we gaze into the Abyss of Ennui. What is boredom?

“Excess of sorrow laughs, excess of joy weeps”: In “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Blake understood the Abyss, and sought to correct our assumptions and expectations. “The busy bee has no time for sorrow,” Blake said. But commuting home through an hour of plodding, plowing traffic, loaded down with work we’ve taken home for the weekend, we feel not the lightness nor the fickle flightiness of the bee. “The cut worm forgives the plough,” Blake said. Maybe, come Saturday night and he just got paid.

Some tasks seem intrinsically boring. But we often confuse boredom with irritation, frustration, or addiction. Is boredom addictive? We say we are bored with what we don’t want. Tasks too bureaucratically procedural or repetitive lend themselves to boredom, not to mention carpal tunnel syndrome. What we don’t want to do, we put off, some of us; others, we jump in and get it done, so we can get on to something we find more interesting, those things we are passionate about. The former are the procrastinators, we are told, the latter the achievers. Both, though, we suspect, are susceptible to boredom.

We often gravitate voluntarily to intrinsically boring tasks. What could be more repetitive than typing out another post? Physically repetitive: mentally, spiritually, and emotionally, the blogger flies with the bees of the cosmos! Really? I should try blogging.

When we open the laptop or cell phone, we are not met with the organic breath of the compostable paper page of the book or newspaper. Someone should invent an app for smells, so that when we open the laptop, we are met with roses or the must of an old book. Maude had a similar idea in the film “Harold and Maude.” Harold is a bored rich boy, until he meets and falls in love with Maude. The protagonist is age; Harold is young, and Maude is old. Still, love alleviates Harold’s boredom, and after Maude, and after Harold sends his old life in a makeshift hearse over a cliff, the banjo.

We hear of solutions that would alleviate boredom, suggesting boredom is a heavy and dark load that might be lifted from the bearer. Boredom begins to resemble depression. And boredom blends easily with guilt, for in a world saturated with pain and suffering at one end and glitz and shazam at the other end, who dare the chutzpah to turn the cheek of boredom outward? Quit your bitching and get back to your widgets.

Does Superman ever get bored? Batman, bored? Spiderman? The specialist, it would seem, would be the first to suffer from boredom.

In “Only Disconnect: Two cheers for boredom” (New Yorker, 28 Oct 2013, 33-37), about the relationship between boredom and distraction, Evgeny Morozov maintains that “to recognize oneself as bored, one must know how to differentiate between moments – if only to see that they are essentially the same” (34). When we’re bored, we want to be distracted, to take our minds off the monotony. We look down the assembly line of our lives and see nothing but more of the same, the same terrain, and unless we’ve been able to sustain an endless summer of surfing, we start to crave a fifth season, and we understand the winter and every other season of our discontent. The ability to click off one app and on to another is ongoing, but the solution creates another problem – call it the William Blake challenge: Excess of distraction bores, and we crave more and more distraction.

On Boredom

“What are you doing?”
“Nothing.”
“I’m bored! Let’s do something!”
“I am doing something.”
“You just said you are not doing anything.”
“I did not say I am not doing anything. I said I am doing nothing.”
“Oh, wow! You’re not going on another John Cage binge, are you?”

What is boredom? John Cage provided what we might call a working definition: “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else” (Silence, 1961, “Lecture on Nothing”).

If the specialist is the least equipped to stave off boredom, the artist is the best equipped. Because artists are generalists, they are able to turn their attention in different directions, outward or inward (whether at will or forced change does not matter) without the quality of disinterest or distraction. A true artist cannot know boredom in the act of art. Artists don’t require passion; passion is for amateurs. This is true for the painter or poet, gardener or dancer, musician or chef, surfer or clown, sailor or walker, potter or plumber.

Got boredom? Get art. At the bottom of the Abyss sits art, doing nothing.

On Jury Duty, Poetry Gaze, and Yu Xiang’s “I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust”

In the Jury Assembly RoomAre you wearing metallic hairspray, metal flake rouge, wire under bra?

A beep enlivens the line. Boots is told to back up and come through again, but again the beep, and she’s told to take the boots off, the line alert to its slowness, more prospective jurors wanting into the foyer and out of the fog, the enormous oak door squeaking and letting in whisks of cold announcing a newcomer.

Are you wearing a hidden watch, steel mesh underpants?

No, no, but again the beep.

Boots takes off a vest and sends it through the scanner and walks silently though the screener.

Impolite beeps like embarrassing burps, almost everyone is caught surprised.

In orientation we learn a body of ennui weeps from the citizen soul, exudes from the body politic’s pores, but so far, the only claim supporting boredom comes from the introductory video. Still, one of the jury assembly room supervisors wittingly promises us boredom. But isn’t that what poetry is for, I wonder, a theory I soon begin to test.

The jury assembly room is now nearly full, around 150 prospective jurors; what are we doing? No one is chatting. Sleep impossible under the surgical lights. The long, narrow room is like the sundeck of an ocean liner sitting in port.

On the south wall of the room, facing the audience, is a large mural, bookended by flat-screen televisions, small and effete by comparison, the mural a colorful painting of a two-horse drawn chariot, one horse brown, the other blue, whip driven by a jester wearing a mask, and riding in the carriage, a kid playing violin, women looking up at trapeze artists swinging in the sky, a trumpet player, on the tailgate another jester – a tuba player in striped motley. An American flag blows from the rear bumper. Above and left of the chariot, a merry-go-round spins, to the right, a lighthouse stands at the end of a long, winding jetty, candy-cane red and white striped. On the horizon, white clouds whip along a deep blue, chatoyant, turning turquoise where the sea comes close to shore, the chariot hurling along a beach road, a border of green grass at bottom.

At break I take a closer look at the mural, signed “Arvie”: a panel painting, a pentaptych, three large middle sections and two smaller end sections. An information label reads, Arvie Smith, Youth in Detention, “There Are No Impossible Dreams,” 2010.

On the two television sets, almost no one seems to be watching, plays a morning cooking show, muted but with captions. What are we prospective jurors doing? Laptop computing, earphones plugged into cell phones, listening devices, reading, writing, trying to sleep, drinking coffee, eating snacks. No one is knitting (needles are disallowed).

I get up and take a little walk. We are five rows deep times 30 or so seats to a section, about five sections, a few couches and tables at the far west end, then the bathrooms, a row of laptop stations at the east end, a small kitchen area with a microwave, filtered water, a pop machine, a candy machine, a bulletin board. Outside the kitchen are four, wall-size bookshelves courtesy the County Library.

I reach in my bag and pull out Yu Xiang’s book of poems titled “I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust” (Zephyr Press, 2013, 151 pages). There are ten sections, 44 poems, most confined to one page, with several longer poems, five notes, with an introduction by the translator, Fiona Sze-Lorrain, “Paris, France – July 2011.”

I look at the first poem, titled “My House,” and enjoy the Chinese original on the facing page. Unable to read the Chinese, I look for characters that repeat, a stranger in a strange land. The English version is also 25 lines, a single, narrow, column-like stanza. The lines don’t rhyme. Words bounce down the page like an oblong stone kicked down a sidewalk. The images are clear. There’s a reference to “Pedro Paramo,” and the last line, in French, repeats the title of the poem. So that’s how it is, a you and an I. Who is you, and who is I, and who is Pedro Paramo? And whose house is this, yours or mine? Yet this poem does not ask questions; it gives answers, as a home speaks, even to a stranger.

The next poem is titled “Street.” So we move from the house to the street. There are three stanzas: 5 lines, 6 lines, 3 lines, one that sings:

“we drink beer, peel edamame”

“Street” ends on a note of love.

Most cases settle before juries are called. Court is expensive.

It’s a wonderful mural, full of color moving across the wall like a screen in a movie theatre, the jury assembly audience as still as popcorn in a cardboard box. Suddenly, though not entirely unexpectedly, we are dismissed for the day.

Jury Duty, Day Two. The mental note I made yesterday to bring a pair of sunglasses today failed. The library-bright lighting hums from the courthouse-high ceiling. I read an essay in the Philip Lopate book, discussing the rhetorical basis of the personal essay. Every text is an argument, Trilling argued. I’m ready for a break already; arguments about argument have lost their allure. I look around at my jury peers. One of my neighbors, Ursula, is eating a banana. Another, Penelope, appears asleep behind sunglasses. I don’t really know their names, nor have I spoken to them. I give them names suggested by the books they are reading. I think of getting up and walking about, but I don’t. I’m sleepy. At break, I go into the hall and buy a cup of coffee from the busy kiosk.

I’m sitting in the back row again, mural right. None of these chairs is anchored to the deck. Hopefully the seas will stay calm. The television plays a piece on the Portland Bridal Show, a silent movie. I put the Lopate back in my bag and take out the Yu Xiang, which I’m now reading for the third time in a week. A young woman a few seats away is reading sheet music, a musician, it seems fair to conclude, as I warm up for a case. I return to my Yu Xiang book of poems. But somehow seeing the girl with the sheet music has made Yu Xiang seem so distant, and China and poetry so complicated. I text Susan, no answer. The jury room supervisors call a break. Good, I’m exhausted from the Lopate. I get up and move about. No one is talking in the jury waiting room, no conversations, more quiet than a library, an odd silence, given the size of the waiting crowd. I remember another jury duty I served, some years ago, when the room bustled with games and conversations. Citizens today are electronically put to sleep.

My name is called and suddenly I’m on a case. I finish the orange I brought from home. The adrenalin kicks in, from the orange or from being called, I’m not sure, but I feel awake, alert, refreshed, and healthy.

I make it through the selection process with 14 of my peers (12 + three alternates). The case begins. Judge Franklin Mahon Coughca provides an overview and instructions. The prosecutor explains the dispute: a poet is accused of writing wrong poems.

The defense doesn’t take long, in essence, “so what?” I’m inclined to agree, but I remember my duty and try to be impartial and unbiased and all that. I want to hear what the jury of my peers thinks.

The jury deliberates:

The twelve jurors: a Waitress; a Plumber; a Bassoonist; a Car Wash Attendant; Penelope; a Receptionist; a Care Giver; a Hairdresser and Masseuse; an Architect’s Assistant; a Bank Teller; a Computer Programmer; a Street Sweeper – plus three alternate jurors, a gas station attendant, a financial analyst, and a blogger.

As it turned out, I’m only an alternate juror, but on the strength of my being a blogger, I’m asked to volunteer to take notes.

from my Notes:

Yu: Are there any dogs in his poems, apartments and balconies, flies? These things are all elements of an engaging poem.

Ursula: Some of these words appear to be spelled backwards. What’s that called?

Care Giver: Is there a woman converging the real with the imagined?

Penelope: Is there a water closet?

Computer Programer: Is there a business side?

Bassoonist: Is there music?

Receptionist: I hate poetry, always have. What’s the point? If you have something to say, say it, in as few words as possible, and clear, so everyone can understand exactly what you mean, and then shut the hell up.

Hairdresser and Masseuse: Well, but poetry is like art, I mean, isn’t it? Isn’t there always like some secret message, some code, like a moral to the story?

Car Wash Attendant: This one looks like a sign of some kind, like telling people which way to go, you know?

Computer Programmer: If you think about it, there’s only letters and spaces. That’s it, that’s all there is to it. Case closed.

Waitress: But they’re not all the same size.

Architect: I think all of these poems are wrong. I say he’s guilty and let’s go home.

Plumber: Maybe we should read some of these poems out loud.

Computer Programmer: I always thought poems were supposed to rhyme until I met my wife.

Architect: Poems can rhyme or not rhyme. That’s what I don’t get. How do you know if it’s even a poem? Could be some sort of laundry list or grocery list or something. You know what the problem with poets is? They don’t make anything.

Yu: We must look for keys and keyholes, and personal pronouns strewn in shredded syntax.

Street Sweeper: Did the poetry police not violate his rights?

Yu: This is my body.

Penelope: These appear to be poems of procedural polity.

Ursula: There’s a bit of rhyme, punctuality, is that what it’s called? The words have sound.

Bassoonist: They look ritually safe to me.

Penelope: A poet should be culturally accountable.

Waitress: I knew a poet once. He was one of these guys always taking pictures of his food with his cell phone. I guess he published the pictures online or something like that. And the poems were like captions or something, you know? Like subtitles. To the photos. I don’t know. He seemed like a nice guy.

Yu: Do you take this wolf to be your wife?

Plumber: I do. I mean, I would, if I could.

Ursula: One might as well ask about law and order on a different planet. I don’t understand how they could not have resolved this dispute out of court.

Bassoonist: But that’s neither a question nor an answer, not much of an argument.

Yu: That’s an interesting sentence.

The Verdict: The jury finds the poet innocent, but nevertheless he’s sentenced by Judge Coughca to 1,000 years of community service, to be served as an adjunct instructor of the research paper, with no hope for tenure.

The judge thanks the jury for its service, and we walk back down to the silence and security of the jury assembly room.

I take the Yu Xiang from my bag. I’m thinking of poetry gaze. In a land where poetry has been devalued beyond zero, isn’t every poem a sigh of dissentire? What is poetry gaze? I feel like Yu Xiang is watching me reading her poems. But she does not care what I think, nor even what I might be feeling. Then again, her poems are like

…a door that says:
Be careful! You might lose your way”

(Yu Xiang, from “I Have, 2002,” p. 67)

+++

Eleanor Goodman interviews Yu Xiang.

Yu Xiang talks about her writing in a dialog (In Search of a Transient Eternity: Chinese Poet Yu Xiang BY Fiona Sze-Lorrain & Yu Xiang) at Cerise Press.

The Feng Shui of Car Chit Chat

I say I’m thinking of a book She tells me where to turn.
on lost practices to places. There’s a space, she says,
She offers or a poem about expecting me to pull into it
true and correct directions, and park, and when I don’t,
and tells me to hang a right she hums a bit vexatiously
at the light that turns green. at our dual needs to control.
The real question is how to We’re in the car a long time
enter a poem without hurt, to and from, back and forth.
and once in, to sweep clean She prefers driving modus,
the wrecked words of glass handling the stick so softly,
littering from here to there not to foreshadow distance
the streets of conversation. the clutch to engage slowly.
We unload the grocery bags. The winds tipped over a pot.
She holds the milk and wine. A couple of chairs blew over.
There are flowers for a vase. The clocks tell the electrical.
The car off cackles and cools. I map a plan from the guitar
The house is an ancient map to the kitchen, avoiding trills,
in a bottle tossed must ocean. my socks stilled in tambour.

Notes on John Fante’s “Ask the Dust”

John Fante’s “Ask the Dust” is a conservative and cynical, short poetic novel. It’s poetic because its episodic movement is tense and packed, its diction deliberate, satisfying Ezra Pound’s definition of poetry. It’s cynical because of its unrelenting brutality posing as reality. Must one always suppose that to live in seediness and squalor means to live unhappily? The antonym climb from the seedy leads too often to the high-class, which breeds its own pot of seed. And it’s cynical because it views unrequited love a mean and debasing disease; it’s cynical as Nietzsche is cynical – it’s nihilistic. It’s conservative because the characters are portrayed as hypocrites who get what they deserve, base characters whose tasteless origins explain their bad decisions. It’s conservative because its hopes are grounded in middle class values, where shame is used as a tool to control, even to control oneself. It’s conservative for its traditional views locating alcohol and drug abuse at the heart of human decline and misery, where lust is confused for love, and abuse for affection, and greed for dreams. At the same time, it’s possible to read the novel as an American proletariat satire, a tragicomedy, but first you have to allow tragedy off its pedestal. Then again, maybe it’s just farce, the difference between satire and farce being that satire has a point.

The action takes place during the Great Depression. The year is 1933. The young, first person narrator and main character, the hyperbolic, capricious, and vindictive Arturo Bandini, has relocated from Colorado to Los Angeles to win fame and money as a writer. The character would today remind us of the 1968 Hal David lyric, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” which references wannabe actors who are employed at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain, literally. The prototype gets off the bus at Hollywood and Vine, cardboard suitcase in hand, expecting to walk onto a movie set, but soon finds himself running hotel shuttles to the airport with aspirations to work his way up to a bellhop job. Except in the great Bandini’s case the stereotype is true. He sells a couple of magazine stories and then a novel. But he knows not frugality, the temperamental Bandini. He spends lavishly, wastefully, funnily – buying, for example, two new suits, only to yank the clothes off in frustration for their ill fit and general unsuitability, as he digs his old but comfortable duds out of his trash.

Bandini’s (if you can take his word for it) extensive reading has done nothing to soothe his scorched brow as he types feverishly away at his torched stories. He claims familiarity with Joyce, whom he’s going to give a run for his money, and while he hasn’t read Lenin, he’s heard him quoted, and claims allegiance to Lenin’s idea that religion is opium for the people (22). He apparently hasn’t read Marx either. He’s read Emerson and Whitman, though, but no help there either for our lovelorn antihero. And Bandini has read Mencken, which is where he might have acquired his idea of a sense of superiority. Mencken plus Nietzsche plus greed – now there is a formula for the will to power. But: “You have read Nietzsche, you have read Voltaire, you should know better. But reasoning wouldn’t help” (96). Bandini is a hypersensitive, mood swinging, hypercritical victim of unrequited love, determined to get revenge by writing his way out of the storm and win his love by twisting her arm and knocking out her humiliating boyfriend.

In the middle of the book, Bandini follows the mysterious Vera Rivken down to Long Beach. So far, he’s not capitalized on his chances with women. Something always goes wrong, usually with his mood. He’s easily insulted, and his own tongue is so brazen and quick and uncontrollable that what offends his ear causes a whiplash to fly out of his mouth. He’s a braggart, but his wit and aim usually hit the target, yet he’s prone to even the score immediately through his self-loathing. His every resolution is betrayed in his next breath. In Long Beach, he’s caught in the earthquake, which scares him back to church, and he even “gave up cigarets [sic] for a few days” (104). He’s a human yo-yo: “This interested me. A new side to my character, the bestial, the darkness, the unplumbed depth of a new Bandini. But after a few blocks the mood evaporated” (108).

“Nothing like it since Joyce” (113), Bandini says. Nothing like it before, either. Consider the trip into the Valley with Hellfrick, who bludgeons a calf and drives it back to their hotel in LA where he promises Bandini “a lesson in butchering” (111). It’s scenes like that one that give the short novel its episodic and spasmodic structure. Time dances. In places, the writing is like something out of a comic book. This idea is even made explicit: “take that, Sammy boy, and that, and how do you like this left hook, and how do you like this right cross, zingo, bingo, bang, biff, blooey!” (118). And then comes the set piece, the letter criticizing Sammy’s efforts to write, which indeed is “devastating” (119). But that’s ok, because before dropping it in the mailbox, Bandini changes his mind yet again and rewrites it to give Sammy some legitimate help. Besides, Bandini’s in love, and “Who cares about a novel, another goddamn novel?” (146), this one included, the one we’re reading.

In the end, “Something was wrong, everything was wrong” (160), and we wonder why bother with any of it, the flip flopping, the depression, the indecisiveness and lack of commitment, the vengeful, childish fantasies. Well, because that’s just where things begin to ring true, and you can hear the noon Angelus bells ringing throughout the Basin. This acceptance that this is really how people behave, including, perhaps particularly, people in love, is apparently what attracted Charles Bukowski to the book. In his short introduction to the 1980 reissue of the book (originally published in 1939, then out of print), Bukowski suggests he liked “Ask the Dust” because it seemed to be about the street from the street. He says Fante was an influential writer for him.

And who was John Fante, and what did he do after “Ask the Dust”? As it turns out, Fante may not have been as interested in the street as in getting off the street. This is what Bandini wants. Interested readers will benefit from a series of interviews (about four hours worth) conducted by Ben Pleasants at Fante’s place in Malibu in the late 70’s. The link is to 3:AM Magazine. The first interview mentions Edmund Wilson, and Pleasants and Fante wonder why Wilson didn’t review “Ask the Dust,” particularly since Wilson had shown the special interest in California writers. Pleasants suggests Wilson’s “The Boys in the Back Room” (about California writers James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Richard Hallas, John O’Hara, William Saroyan, John Steinbeck, and Hans Otto Storm) came out before “Ask the Dust.” But my copy of Wilson’s “A Literary Chronicle: 1920-1950” indicates, at the end of the chapter on California writers, “These notes were first written during the autumn and early winter of 1940” (245), so after “Ask the Dust” was published and out. Wilson then adds a postscript after F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West die within a day of one another in late December, 1940, where he seeks to “make the California story complete” (246), and the end date for the whole chapter is then given as 1940-1941. Maybe Wilson excluded Fante deliberately, or maybe he simply had never read him. Wilson’s opinion about Hollywood was clear, “…its already appalling record of talent depraved and wasted” (249), but for the Fante of “Ask the Dust,” that apparently was still ahead.

John Fante, “Ask the Dust,” 1939. With an Introduction by Charles Bukowski, 1980 (Black Sparrow). First Ecco edition, 2002, and with Archival Material (24 pages) in First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition, 2006. The text of the novel is 154 pages in the Harper edition.

A Cat’s New Year’s Resolutions

A Cat's New Year“Happy New Year!”

“Thanks, but what’s that ringing?”

“You’re supposed to ring in the New Year and cheer!”

“I don’t know where you get your ideas.”

“From blogs!”

“I might have guessed.”

“Do you have any New Year resolutions?”

“Yes, as a point of fact, I do, to wit, but one.”

“And?”

“To increase both the frequency and severity of naps.”

“Ah, that’s the same as you had last year. Want to hear mine for 2014?”

“No.”

“This year, I’m going to avoid the near occasion of sin, cut out candy, shorten my tweets to be more clear and concise, listen more attentively, love. I want to love more. I want to bring back the Summer of Love, 1967! I want to live in harmony with the birds and squirrels, raccoons and possums, slugs and toads, bees and wasps, all that is electric and all that is acoustic. I’m going to give more and take less. I’m going to give kisses away, free, on every street corner I round. I’m going to sing more. Joe said it’s never too late to start singing. I’m going to learn to play a musical instrument, something with strings. I want to play soft and mellow and moist. I want to draw a bow across a string that creates a whine like a train. I’m going to watch more movies, Doris Day and Danny Kaye. I’m going to walk more, go for mysterious walks, step out, step it up, wander at will through this urban landscape we call home.”

“The odds weigh heavily against any of it.”

“If life is a gamble, I’m all in.”

“And I fold.”

Related Post: A Cat’s New Year’s Celebration

More On Trees

Are trees intelligent? We are how we define. In this week’s New Yorker (23 Dec), Michael Pollan takes a fresh look at the compare and contrast conversation over animal versus plant kingdoms: “The Intelligent Plant: Scientists debate a new way of understanding flora.”

At what cost do we hold the brain primary in a hierarchical view of consciousness, problem solving – in short, life? Picture two planets. On one, life forms with a torso and five appendages have evolved to invent marvelous technological tools, but the essential nature of the life form does not appear to have improved. Persuasion remains the name of the game. On the other planet, a similar life form appears to live in symmetry with the planet’s plants and animals (and, by extension, with one another), in a positive symbiotic relationship made possible by the nurturing of life sustaining partnerships and the recognition that all life contains the same kernel of consciousness, a kernel that may or may not be located in a central control system called a brain. But the artificial technology remains rudimentary. Is one planet smarter than the other?

In perhaps the most persuasive part of Pollan’s discussion, he asks, in response to the criticism that plants can’t think because they don’t have brains, no command center, where in the brain is the brain, where in the brain is this command center? It appears that the brain may function in much the same way as a plant’s root system.

In other news, the Toads Dec. 6 piece, titled “Trees of Christmases Past,” has been posted at the Berfrois site. Have a happy holiday diversion at Berfrois!

Meantime, we celebrate Christmas with this more on trees photo gallery. Click on any pic to view the gallery.

Hamlet’s Status (A Play in Six Posts)

Hamlet, at his computer. Enter Polonius:Hamlet's Status

Polonius: What friends thou hast, add them fast, Lord Hamlet.

Hamlet: Polonius advises us to link our souls with hoopla,
When twice this same moon updates us,
But still to me she hath not chatted.

Polonius: Light lord, thy status in disconnect must be,
Causing you this dark and dour distress.

Hamlet: Fish not, sir; I fear she hath deleted me.
What post supports this knotted matter?
False light quickly fades, casting us in dark shadows.
Let the clouds betide, let the rains come
So thick and dark not the bark of the ark stays dry.

Polonius: Despair not, care not, Lord, care less than not.
Some new compeer will soon light your night
With comely links and notes bright.
Light be your aim, Lord, light your audience,
And this will give light to thee.

Hamlet: Nay, sir. In this book of faces there is but one for me,
And I am trapped in this light box like a wench in a nunnery.

End

Of the Quest of Sir Petersilie of Pestlebrawl of the Order of the Snail; or, The Slug that Slew the Knight Errant

“There has been much scholarly debate about the significance of these depictions of snail combat,” (“Knight v Snail,” Medieval manuscripts blog, British Library).

Sir Petersilie of Foolsbrawl in a Field of SnailsOn the sticky tricky trail of the obliviously slow sung snail
In abstruse night hauled from mused sleep our noble knight
Loyally hassled by Bona Fide his gallant gabbling vassal squire
Sheathed and studded leaves amid the rustle of first light
Abysmal metaphorical lack-a-back his lazy credo
Squaring his mail nailing his welds into steel mental spikes
For Bona Fide dressing Petersilie was indeed a close battle.

Busy poets to the court replace rusting escutcheons
This historical tourney near the end of futile modernity
Before joust was just jest and chivalry a corporation
Stood tall Sir Petersilie of Pestlebrawl upon staid steed
Auguring from the Order of the Snail mortal welcome
This his last Quest for the Wholly Exulted Wooly Grail
To hold the sacred secret of the sweat and dour secretion.

In satirical slime he spent his time a woed scholar of the decoy
Stout by hearty ales microbrewed behind the berfrois
Ate merry and many a fatty but delicate foie gras
And escargot whilst knights jousting with snails roiled
Scrolls of marginalia snails dressed in natural snail mail
Pacing against mace married his demise bored sweet and torus
The fused self-complacent snail did fain cant and tilt.

4120159349_b798c17b54Thus domesticated rusticating finished his failure ne’er-do-well fall
In the finals tourney he slipped tumbled and sprawled
In a nest of snails and Bona Fide let go and abandoned all
For a seaside rest fishing pole and white winter flounder
And all around whelks of waves swelled and bulged
The salt tide rising on Petersilie couched in a conch
Dreaming of collations and juxtapositions.

Trees of Christmases Past

One year, living near the ocean in South Bay, we got a fake Christmas tree. The metallic silver needles, like tiny confetti mirrors, reflected shades of yellow, blue, and red, emitted from a rotating electric color wheel placed beneath the tree. The colors turned almost as slow as a sunset. At night, with the lights in the room all off, the colors from the wheel flickered through the spaces between the thin tree branches and splashed neon paint over the walls and across the silver glittered stucco ceiling. It was our first and last psychedelic Christmas tree. The next year, we got a real tree, and the fake tree stayed boxed in the attic. Maybe it’s still up there, awaiting a psychedelic rebirth. One of these days, someone will find it and haul it off to Antiques Roadshow.

Another year, living in an apartment on the other side of town, now less than a mile from the water, and just under ten miles along the bike path from my first teaching gig, in Venice, Susan and I bought a live tree, a small pine, rooted in a five-gallon bucket. After Christmas, we planted the pine in my parents’ front yard. Before I went on the Facebook wagon, some time ago, I posted a pic and mentioned the tree to a few ES locals. “Who knew Joe would wind up so sentimental,” one said. The tree has grown to a height of 20 feet or so. It’s not shaped like a Christmas tree. It looks more like a thick, wind tossed, but healthy, lone cypress. It leans out toward the street, between the house and a fire hydrant next to the sidewalk.

In the Northwest, folks still drive out of the city to cut a fresh tree. In the wooded areas outside Portland, U-Cut Christmas tree farms are as common as surf spots along Santa Monica Bay. One year, up on a tree farm about twenty miles east of Portland, a full fir roped to the car roof, I suddenly discovered I’d locked the car keys inside the car.

Another year, Susan won a Christmas tree, in a name that tune oldies radio contest. The only problem was that the tree was in a lot across the Columbia River in Vancouver. Christmas tree time in the Portland area is often cold and rainy and windy. We drove across the bridge to Vancouver, the East Wind scouring the Gorge with elbow grease, picked out a tree at the lot, petted the farm animals, visited the gift shop, where we drank some hot chocolate, and drove off for the return trip to Portland. By the time we got back to the bridge, the winds were kicking up with 40 mile per hour gusts, and with the wind cutting across our eight foot fir tree tied to the top of our little Honda, the river crossing was like windsurfing on a sailboard. I held the Honda to 40, and we blew sideways into Portland.

Our cat likes a Christmas tree. She won’t bother it, claw at the ornaments. She’s at an age now where she just sleeps under the tree, on the white cotton blanket that’s supposed to connote snow. This year, I’m thinking it’s a good place to be, for me too, under the tree, but the cat prefers sleeping solo. Outside this morning the snow is more than a connotation. Those are denotative flakes blowing in a new east wind. If I let the Scrooge hiding in my soul emerge this year, I’m likely to wind up in the snow bed outside. Check it out – click on the photo gallery above. I’m off to find a tree. One year, I walked down to a local church and picked up a tree there, not quite a mile from our place, and carried it back home on my shoulder. You don’t see this sort of thing much anymore, I thought, self-complacently, slipping and sliding on the snow-muddy shortcut path up to our street. Maybe this year I’ll surprise Susan with a fake tree. Won’t she be surprised?

Notes on the Difficulty of Reading a New Poem

Poem WalkingWhat happens when we encounter a new poem? New poems can seem impenetrable. But maybe the idea is not to penetrate. If the poem is new, the reading experience is also new, unfamiliar, foreign to our eyes and ears, to our sensibilities. What happens when we read a poem?

In the darkroom, the developer slides the photographic paper into the chemical bath. Slowly, an image emerges. Reading a new poem is a similar process in as much as the full picture does not immediately reveal itself. But that’s as far as that analogy might go. A poem is not a photograph.

The poem as montage, as mosaic, the narrative line pieced together stitch by stitch. Begin anywhere.

Poems are made with words, usually, and words have two basic kinds of meaning, denotative and connotative. With regard to connotative meaning, words suggest, have associative meanings, colloquial twists, and personal meanings. We have our favorite words, and words we find distasteful. “Are you going to eat those adverbs?” “No. I got sick on an adverb once, in grammar school.” Cultural, contextual meanings. We can’t control language.

When encountering a new poem, we ask the traditional questions: who is speaking, with what voice, and what is the intended audience, remembering not to confuse the speaker with the author, the audience for ourselves. What’s the speaker doing, talking about? What the diction, what the tone, what the setting, what the irony?

Here’s the poem under question: “Foxxcan Suicide (Stylish Boys in the Riot),” by Russell Bennetts (the editor of Berfrois). We look for help. Suicide we know. Painless, as the song says, though we doubt that, and that song is not about suicide. A soldier’s choices are limited. Are a reader’s choices similarly limited? Does “Foxxcan” suggest Foxconn, the so-called Foxconn suicides?

I recognize Starnbergersee, from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, but is a single word enough to create an association? Why not? Eliot’s poem is fragmentary. “Foxxcan Suicide” is fragmentary, or so it seems. What if picking up on an Eliot reference is wrong? We could ask the author. No. What can the author know of the reader’s experience? Words are out of control once they hit the paper. The poem is a reading experience. And something more than Starnbergersee reminds me of Eliot: the many references, obscure to this reader, though I know who Axl Rose is, sort of, but I can’t say I know him, though he’s from my home town, big town. And the Roses had a label: UZI Suicide. So? Threads, though, links. And I know who Legacy Russell is, though not well enough to get the three asterisks at the end of that line, asterisks that point to no footnote.

Still, I like the new poem. I like the fragmented narrative. I like it for its changes in diction and speech, its orality, its lyrical last stanza, or paragraph, the socio-economic comment it ends on. I like the almost hidden poetic characteristics, the rhyme, for example, of “Legacy,” “easy,” and “please me.” Gradually, more of the picture seems to emerge: the teen spirit (Nirvana). Maybe it’s language that has become suicidal. The poem casts this reader as a kind of outsider, beyond the pale. Maybe I just don’t get it. “Well, how does it feel?”

Some time ago, in a workshop with David Biespiel, we used a kind of shorthand response technique as a way of quickly getting at new reading experiences. David called the technique, “What I See.” You had to tell it, what you saw, in 25 words or less, or so. Kenneth Koch taught a similar kind of technique, an attempt to get at the poem’s “idea.” What’s the idea, Koch asks, of Blake’s poem “The Tyger”? The speaker is asking questions of the wild animal, but of course the Tyger does not respond. The questions the speaker asks seem to have something to do with who made the Tyger, the maker’s character. Blake uses images of a blacksmith to try to picture the Tyger’s maker. For Blake, the blacksmith would still have been a powerful and practical individual, a maker of things useful, but his work was being subsumed at the same time by larger manufacturing forces that would come to be known as the Industrial Revolution. And that revolution would give way to more: “Stylish Boys in the Riot.”

What happens when we read a poem? From the Paris Review Interviews, this one with August Kleinzahler:

INTERVIEWER: Recently Poetry posed a question about the social utility of poetry. Does that interest you?
KLEINZAHLER: No. I agree with Auden that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Nothing else needs to be said about it.

November Day Along the River

How are you? You are how
this is too easy
a still gift of photographs
almost like a real letter.

You like flowers, flowers like you, like
Peonies, purple green red yellow mopped hair
Marigolds, red orange bites
Red geraniums in a real clay pot
and those little white hanging threading flowers,
I don’t know their name, whispery white.

I am 1,000 characters
all so small you can’t see them
like tiny little squiggly bugs.
You are 1 bodacious character
like a lobster on the ocean floor under
blue waves under an orange sky,
or a swell cat, an orange tabby
with blue eyes,
who never scratches but purrs
and curls in your lap for a nice nap
on a hot sunny summer day,
a sleepy breeze cooling powdery sky.
Evening comes and a glass of white or red wine
and dinner and the sun goes down
and the moon comes up
up and up and up and up
so the path is lit.

But now is not summer
now is the beginning
of a long winter
without you.

Notes on “Stoner,” a Novel by John Williams

StonerIn his disclaimer notes at the front of “Stoner,” John Williams assures his reader that the character of William Stoner is fiction, and should not be mistaken for any coincidental likenesses, the standard “any resemblance to” lingo. And maybe there was no Stoner, but at the same time, surely there are many Stoners. Stoner is a kind of every-humanist. When asked why Ulysses, Joyce responded that the character was well rounded. Ulysses had been, of course, a son, but also a father, a husband, and a soldier, and while he was out soldiering, a cuckold. But Joyce’s Ulysses is an ironic depiction; the many resemblances to the original Ulysses amount to colossal irony. So too, Stoner is an ironic humanist, and readers are disabused of any notion that the liberal arts specialist or humanities generalist by definition reaches nirvana or achieves happiness or indeed is even able to articulate their experience for someone else to appreciate. Reading does not necessarily make us either whole or rent. Reading does not make us better people (particularly reading does not make us better people than non-readers). Stoner is a book.

Early in the book, Stoner may come across as an existential and humanist monster; it’s hard to understand how a so-called humanist, a man educated in the liberal arts tradition, was unable to find a way to talk to his parents, however alienated he might be from their generation, their values, their experience, particularly if they have little or no education. And there were no disagreements, no political arguments, no generation gap problems, no counter cultural issues. (Indeed, as it turns out, Stoner is as conservative as Louis Menand claims is true for the majority of today’s professors.) Stoner simply seems to have felt his parents incapable on any level of understanding want he wanted. Still, how had he missed developing the skills necessary to articulate for them his need? In any case, Stoner winds up no more or less a monster than most men.

Indeed, a suitable epigraph for Williams’s novel “Stoner” might have been this quote from Thoreau’s “Walden”:

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation…A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

In other words, while there may have been no actual Professor Stoner that Williams based his character on, the character of Stoner contains the characteristics of the average college professor in the 20th Century US (Stoner teaches through two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Korean War, and though he is never a soldier, a war of a different kind engages him). “Stoner” is a hard book to talk about without creating a spoiler. Readers interested in a regular review might check out Tim Krider’s New Yorker review, posted on-line on October 21. But it’s a bit of a spoiler. So too is a spoiler the introduction to the New York Review Books Classics edition of “Stoner.” Read the introduction after finishing the book. The introduction is particularly useful for the passage of an interview with John Williams, in which he calls Stoner “a hero.”

If Stoner is a hero, he is a kind of anti-hero. For great sections of his life, he is a loner, not alone, exactly, but alienated. He is independent, courageous, generous, disciplined. He is exploited. He is, primarily, a reader, a scholar. As a teacher, he is a kind of anti-Mr. Chips, though like Mr. Chipping, he is conservative. But Stoner is not conservative politically or socially or in any kind of religious sense. He’s conservative in that he wants to preserve the University for people like himself. This may have something to do with his being a classicist. One of the best scenes in the book (spoiler alert) is when, forced as a veteran to go back to a grueling schedule of Freshman Composition classes as a punishment backhanded down by his department chair, he decides to chuck the syllabus and teach Freshman composition through the portal of Medieval Language and Literature. Stoner is a tenured professor, so there’s nothing his chair can do about it. There are breaks in the text. Why, for example, when it’s mentioned that he writes his MA thesis on one of the tales in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” are we not told which tale? One wonders how a character so supposedly steeped in Chaucer and Shakespeare could be so naïve and awkward in his own time. But the Stoner we come to know at the end of the book is not the same Stoner we knew at the beginning of the book.

The figurative language is sparse throughout “Stoner.” The prose is like a field of wheat. Nothing seems hurried. The sentences are long (Williams was a fan of the semicolon), and often turn into something unexpected. There is a plot. The plot is a man’s life. And this man’s life, some have argued, doesn’t amount to much. Indeed, Stoner himself, a self-disciplined specialist, feels he’s achieved little, but he’s patiently endured so much. Stoner has slowly, incrementally, experienced his life, and the reader shares, step by step, in that experience.

Related: “How Do Professors Think? More Crisis in the Humanities”

Poetryphobia: Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Life Of Poetry”

The Life of PoetryMuriel Rukeyser’s “The Life Of Poetry” covers the poetic experience, its many uses and resistances, during the 1940’s. Her view of poetry comes from the experience of war, by her participation in freedom efforts prior to the war, and by disappointment the war did not bring peace, and also by science, which suggests a new age for poetry, and by the growing use of popular arts (radio, movies, songs, dance). Muriel argued that US culture feared poetry, where poetry is emotion. Emotion is feared because it calls up and recognizes harm, and asks for reparation for harms done. But who wants to do that? So poetry isn’t a popular art form. It’s not an art form at all. Once poetry becomes an art form, it freezes on the surface: No myth but movement, no still lives, no basket of fruit and the hovering fly that never dies. And the poem is not a “place” (154, 174), the mind not a hunk of meat. Both are energy. The emotion of poetry creates empathy and argues for change. She was writing about silicosis as early as 1938, advocating for victims, explaining the disease. Empathy is recognition, which is also emotion, of the audience, which she prefers to call the witness. What is witnessed? Relationships: between images, sounds, symbols, people, things. And relationships are constantly on the move. Nothing is fixed, not in time, not in space, not in mind.

We probably do dislike poetry, at the least ignore poems, or even scorn poetry, treat poets like vaudeville clowns, but it would seem a bit overwrought today to say we fear poetry. But when Muriel says we fear poetry, she means we are separated from emotion, and the thought of reconnecting to our emotion scares us. Human nature probably does not improve over time, in spite of technological progress, and we may be further removed from emotion today than we were in 1949. The culture Muriel’s talking about does not value emotion, the emotional. The sections of “The Life of Poetry” devoted to the popular arts and the uses of poetry in the sentimental suggest lost opportunities. The popular arts fail to go deep enough. Sentiment is unlike emotion. Emotion is a weakness because, once it is unleashed, it is uncontrollable. Control is a value. One attempts self-control, and when that doesn’t work, control over others. Allowing the working class, the miners and laborers and factory workers and garment sewers and waitresses, weekend release over a couple of beers and a country western song playing on a jukebox, evoking tears, or the equivalent sentiment found in church prayer, is acceptable. But no emotion. Control yourself. Get sentimental if you must. It’s ok to vent. You can wear it on your sleeve, your troubles, but don’t freak out. And self-pity also is sentimental.

“There is difficulty in breathing.
Yes.
And a painful cough?
Yes.
Does silicosis cause death?
Yes, sir.” (Rukeyser, Collected Poems, “The Disease,” 86:87)

Emotion is the weary heart wearing and tearing on the poet’s sleeve. This doesn’t play well in boardrooms, where emotion is kept submerged through charitable donations and the branding of giving, or in churches where the sacrifice is symbolic, or in marriages of competition. Emotion is not anger. Anger is the sediment of sentiment, frustrated or undefined or ill-defined desire. Poetic emotion sublimates repressed desire. Poetic emotion is the sublimation of antithetical cultural values. For example, the auto has ruined the country, the countryside, the culture suffering in detrimental reliance. Without definition, this ruin devolves into road rage, the driver’s psyche full of potholes. Sentiment is nostalgia for a 1957 Chevrolet, road trips, surf safaris. The car is a catastrophe, the planet hit by an asteroid, impossible now to see the earth beneath the asphalt. But the smell of the new car still intoxicates, Whitman’s rooms full of perfumes. What to do about it? Robert Creeley, “I Know a Man”:

drive, he sd, for  
christ’s sake, look  
out where yr going.”

The novel as middle class entertainment contains emotion; that is, the novel packages emotion, places limits on emotion, surrounds emotion with form. As for the dime store novel, mysteries, detective stories, noir: the term “hard boiled” is born of sentiment. The so-called seedy section of the city boils with sentiment. The sentimental love to visit, but they don’t want to live there. It’s good to have someone to look down on, to criticize, to arrest. Likewise, poetry as craft is sentimental where it deliberately obscures to imitate emotion. The merely personal or found fabrications or wordplay that does not touch the human condition is entertainment. Not that entertainment isn’t useful; it is, but it’s not poetry. Poetry is the marriage of play and work, where play pays dividends and work pays nothing but a release of emotion, which spells trouble. Muriel describes a workshop exercise (179) that might be called “where’s the poem”? The poem exists in the imagination of the witness, and that’s not craft. A poem is not words.

There is a war between play and work, between worker and exploiter, between the divided selves. Poetry acknowledges the war and becomes a tool to make people whole again. Emotion is the stain of war that poetry seeks to clean. There’s another reason emotion is devalued, suggests Muriel. Emotion connects to nature, to trees, to roots, to the land and to animals. That’s seen as cutting into profits, though it need not. To reach down into the emotion that connects the human to the planet requires a reevaluation of the relationship. Today’s eMotion is backlit. That’s not the emotion Muriel is talking about. Muriel’s emotion sews together symmetrically a sensorium distorted by technology as in a funny mirror. Muriel’s emotion deals with alienations and depravations, goods and evils.

Important poets for Muriel included Whitman and Melville. Whitman is the poet who discovered good, and good is his breathy line, the form of the discovered self, the freed self. To Melville passed the work of dealing with evil. Muriel foreshadows the current crisis in the Humanities by juxtaposing poetry with science, comparing methods, making good use of science. Imagine your kid comes home and tells you he’s decided to study to be a cave wall painter, and he’s going to work in caves, painting on walls by the light of a torch. Fear of poetry is about resistance to emotion, but more, about the resistance to the imagination, about inability to even recognize the imagination.

“The Life of Poetry” is not an academic book (a good thing), but it’s not an easy book. For one thing, the references to popular culture are antiquated, and some of the references are obscure. For another, there’s evidence on every page the writing is the work of a poet. But by the last two chapters (the penultimate “Out of Childhood,” and the last, beginning “The Meaning of Peace”), the prose becomes familiar, the writing a little less fearful.

The Bad Hop Boat Poem

You watch
Baseball
and recall
the hit
that took a bad hop,
bebopping
between your legs
like a line
impossible
to scan,
bouncing
over your glove
touching
the dirt.
No one is listening.
Even the umpire
shook his head.
“Shake it off,”
Coach called
from the critical
dugout.
“Bad hop,”
the gracious
pitcher said.
But no, even now
you can not
accept the excuse,
because you
fear the ball
& the poem,
as you explain:
“I was thinking t i l l e r
of a boat f  u
on the high o d
C’s.” l  d
A e
Infield poem b  r  u  n
error full o w
confuses v o
a boat with t h e b a l l
o
 “E6,” says C C C C C w C critic.
C C C C C C
C C C C C C
C C C C C C
C C C C C C

66 Breaths of Barstow for Babs


talk
desert
deepens day
drifts
west
cool
prose
sand
morn
crossroads
family
1957
trunk
$300 bra-pinned
Route
66
Los Angeles cures
ocean
butterfly
tomato
sunrise
donkey birds emerge
cowboy hat floats salt sweet
evening hills
angel hovers
sky metallic blue
orange
sea falls ten-pound raindrops
children embrace
across country blows highway
tumbleweed
train side
winds
south
distance
silver
water
ardor breeze

At the Pumpkin Patch

Pumpkin Man

The frizzled farmer pushing the pulling, tired draft horse,
his jeans ballooning like pantaloons pinched into rubber boots
sunk and stuck like squash in the shallow fall mud,
his arms swollen loofahs lifting pumpkins up to the children
riding on sweet smelling, dry hay bales in the wagon,
has a “Head like a prize pumpkin,” as Joyce’s Bloom thought
of Tom Wall’s son, and Tom, the frazzled farmer,
declaring this his last pumpkin patch harvest,
prods the horse (whose name is Wally) and wagon to a stop.

The pumpkin picking party hops to the ground and disperses,
and the children caper around the pumpkin field,
Papas and Mamas and Nanas snapping photos orange and blue,
until the farmer calls the pumpkin pickers back to the wagon.

The farmer is a frayed man, his wife explains to a group
waiting patiently at the scales, fretting this pumpkin crop falls sparse,
but that’s just his way, and anyhow, who can talk at a time like this,
all these potential faces, all fat orange cheek puffed, twist handled hair,
heads picked and packed, jugs full of orange pie mash and seeds?

Out in the pumpkin patch, empty faces pass into ooze,
a few pumpkin seeds carried up by blackbirds
and dropped in the next field over, that fallow acre
empty of people picking and parsing
for the right ripe pumpkin, the perfect possible
face, in bed of wet gray hair, muted mouth,
flute feature deadpan face.
A field of plump birds erupts in applause
as a curtain of spitting rain starts to fall.

Dear Reader: “Charming Gardeners,” by David Biespiel

There used to be a public telephone booth down on the corner from our place, the kind the caller entered through a panel glass door and dropped coins into the phone, outside the cleaners, across from the realtor’s office, the street corner just a dot of commercial activity in an otherwise residential neighborhood. The telephone booth got hit with graffiti occasionally, or a pumpkin around Halloween, and the glass was often in need of repair. The door broke and was discarded, the telephone book disappeared from its chain, and finally the box was taken away. The booth attracted activity, some locals opined of the nefarious sort. The booth might have represented to some a stranger. At night, a small lamp lit the booth. Outside the booth, a couple of newspaper stands added to the tiny urban pastoral. One day, out walking, I passed by the booth, and the phone rang.

On the corner across from the phone booth stood a blue mailbox. The mailbox got more business than the telephone booth, but not enough, apparently, for it too was taken away. The newspaper boxes that stood next to the phone booth have also been removed. The cleaners closed, and for a time the corner reminded me of an abandoned gas stop on a two-lane road bypassed by a highway. Bit of an exaggeration, that, but not much, for like the telephone booths, many of the mailboxes in the Southeast Portland neighborhoods are disappearing, and the small bookstores, like the newspaper stands, are being rooted out, also. Last year, one of my favorite small bookstores, Murder by the Book, at the west end of the Hawthorne district, met its demise.

Really? Are we to read yet another letter on the disappearance of newspapers, books, newsstands and bookstores, and poetry?

Not at all. Some things don’t change, among them, Emily Dickinson’s one way missive: “Her Message is committed / To Hands I cannot see.” And what better way to illustrate the stubbornness of the staying power of poetry than a book of poems in which each poem is a letter to someone? We save letters, but first we have to write them, send and receive them.

Poetry, as John Cage said of music, occurs whether we intend it or not, but we won’t have the unintended poetry of letters if we stop writing letters. The democratically accessible form of the letter is still with us, even if mailboxes are becoming scarce. Is an email not the same as a letter? An email is a phone call compared to a letter. Letters don’t have the immediacy of an email. Letters are not immediately delivered, and we don’t expect an immediate reply. We might wait weeks or months for a reply, or years. But we probably wouldn’t resend the letter, noting “2nd request” in the subject line, as we do with emails. Letters can be a bit of a hassle to write, requiring a kind of toolkit: paper, pen, table, envelope, address, stamp, mailbox. Letters, perhaps, require more of an occasion than emails, occasion to write, more of a purpose. If you really want to get someone’s attention, you don’t send them an email; you write them a letter. Letters are more difficult to forward than emails. And the letter might be returned, as emails are sometimes returned, too, as undeliverable. Or a letter might wind up in the dead letter post office, and you might never know if your letter sent was ever received or read.

Melville’s Bartleby worked in a dead letter office before going to work as a scrivener for the lawyer who narrates the tale. Where have all the scriveners gone? The poet Charles Olson’s father was a mailman. In “The Post Office: A Memoir of My Father” (1948), Olson describes how, through office politics, misunderstandings, and general stubbornness all around, his father had his mail route taken away from him. Olson explains the importance to letter carriers of personalized routes, but also explains how the letter carrier is important to the community of people on the route. Olson explains how the mail carrier becomes a confidant reader and the most knowledgable person in the neighborhood of personal affairs:

“Mail, over any length of time, will tell secrets a neighbor could not guess. Nor do I mean the reading of postcards or the ‘lamping’ of letters. Nor what a man hears over a coffee. Or that a man’s mail does not always come to his house, or a woman’s either. It lies more in the manner in which people look for, ask for, receive their mail. And talk about it” (43).

Olson insists this is “not to be mistaken for nostalgia,” for the post office was akin to the military, and letter carrying is hard work, hard on the body. Yet the loss of Olson’s father’s route was both the loss of valued labor and the loss of an identity. Not for nothing does a man wear a uniform.

Another Charles and poet, Charles Bukowski, explains further, in his novel “Post Office” (1971), about his days as a letter carrier in Los Angeles, in bitter, sardonic, and laughing prose, what carrying the mail is all about:

“There were 40 or 50 different routes, maybe more, each case was different, you were never able to learn any of them, you had to get your mail up and ready before 8 a.m. for the truck dispatches, and Jonstone [supervisor] would take no excuses. The subs routed their magazines on corners, went without lunch, and died in the streets” (10).

But the point here is that bit from Olson about “how mail is received.” That’s the poetry. And try giving someone a poem, not publishing a poem, but just give someone a poem, as a letter, and see how he or she receives it. You’ll learn more about that person than you might learn sitting over coffee or beers talking about children or baseball.

I’ve often felt about poetry what the poet Marianne Moore said in her distinctive poem titled, simply, “Poetry”:

“I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all
this fiddle.”

But fiddle is a perfect word to describe the activity of poetry, where the gig is a jig of restlessness, and I like to fiddle, more and more these days, if fingerpicking the Telecaster qualifies as fiddling. And I like to watch a fiddler at work, pushing and pulling the bow. In any case, we might get very little actual fiddling at a poetry reading. By the time the poet takes the mic, the fiddling part is over. He puts the bow aside and starts to talk. But the poem as letter suggests an importance Moore’s definition seems to discount. Don’t go near the water if you don’t want to get wet.

DB ReadsThe rectangular space of the swimming pool, the opening of the swimming hole, the lake or ocean cove below the cliff as a page. The poem as a dive, form, and a form of competition, an argument. The poet, a high diver, slips into the water, no splash, no wake, surfaces, swims to the ladder, climbs out, takes his seat. The poet David Biespiel has been a diver. I don’t know if that matters much to the enjoyment or understanding or getting at his poems, overall. But I thought about it as I walked down to Powell’s Books in the Hawthorne district a week ago to listen to David read for the launch of his new book of poems, “Charming Gardeners,” the poems conceived and formatted as letters. I listened, observed what I could of the audience, doodled some, was distracted by the books on stacks surrounding the podium and audience – some funny titles out of context, ironic when juxtaposed to the reading, the room holding the Young Adult category of books:

“Hideous Love,” “Wild Boy,” “How to Love,”  “Pretenders,” “Frozen,” “Sick,” “The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire,” “Chasing Shadows,” “Captain Cat,” “A Taste of the Moon.”

I need to get back over there and browse through some of them.

The last time I was at Powell’s on Hawthorne for a reading was to hear Patricia Marx, of the New Yorker, upon the launch of her new novel, “Him Her Him Again the End of Him,” (2008). There were about 12 people in the audience on a bitter winter evening. I was there with Eric in support of some high school assignment-deal. Patty tried playing a recording of some kind, but the technology failed for some reason. But I enjoyed her, nevertheless. A live reading is like live music, better than radio, but only in some ways. Because listening to the radio at home, you can get work done around the house. But in a reading you have to sit still and be polite (Biespiel’s was not a Beat reading accompanied by a jazz combo) and not fidget, sort of like being in church, the folding chairs as uncomfortable as pews. This isn’t always the case, depending on venue. The Robert B. Laughlin lecture Eric and I attended (out on another high school assignment junket) back in 2005 sported a rowdy crowd of all ages and disciplines, as the rousing Q&A following the lecture showed.

DB Notes 2Poems as letters, or letters as poems, I’m not sure which comes first, but the idea raises the hand for a question. What is the intended audience? And is the reader a voyeur, as David, perhaps jokingly, suggested? And recall Emily’s note: the writer can’t see the hands of the letter holder, not unless the writer is also the letter carrier. The epistle is an old form. David said something about the letter as poem narrowing the audience, the focus now on an individual, not a song to nobody in particular. William Carlos Williams: “To Daphne and Virginia” [his daughters-in-law], the beginning of the second verse:

“Be patient that I address you in a poem,
there is no other
fit medium” (“Selected Poems,” 1968, 134)

DB Notes 1David read five poems at Powell’s on Hawthorne the evening of the book launch reading: “To Wendy from Yellow Hickory”; “To Buckley from Berkeley”; To Wiman from Walla Walla”; “To Lenney from the Greenbrier Hotel,” and “To C. D. from D. C.” These are lengthy, traveling poems that talk and click along like a train (though most of the travel is by plane), engines full of breath. I was reminded of Whitman, the way he adds on, continually, one thought giving rise to the next, unafraid of repetition, commenting on the landscape, ideas, people, as he goes, adding comments, evaluative, reflective, and several of the poems mention Whitman. In “To Buckley from Berkeley,” for example, which begins, “Dear Bill” (as if we are on familiar terms – you see the extent to which the trope can travel), the letter goes on for 18 lines before we get a period, and what follows is this: “That, Bill, and also this:” followed by another 41 lines before the next period. (If unfamiliar with Buckley, enjoy an introduction by viewing video of segments of his TV show, “Firing Line.” Here, via YouTube, he talks with poet Allen Ginsberg, and Ginsberg, another Whitman influenced poet, reads a poem, which he seems to have mostly, impressively, memorized; he wrote it, he says, while on LSD, but watch Buckley’s, famous for his facial expressions, reactions. A better introduction to Buckley is his book “Buckley: The Right Word,” a book I enjoyed.) But some find Whitman an old coot, and Ginsberg, too, and, as entertaining as he was, Buckley was an old coot, too. Even as a young man, Buckley was already an old coot, conservative, tight blazer and tie. Maybe it’s hard to be a cootless poet. But a drift toward cootness was something Ginsberg and Buckley shared.

Anyway, I am very much enjoying “Charming Gardeners.” It’s an encyclopedic book, chock-full of references of every kind, both personal and general. It’s a book that strikes out to find America, an act that may or may not require preparatory reading. There’s a “Postscript” of explanatory notes. The note to the letter-poem “To Hugo from Sodo,” for example, explains that SoDo, in Seattle speak, refers to the area south of downtown Seattle, an area I’m familiar with. It’s an industrial district. From the I-5, drivers can see SoDo sprawled out along the waterfront, the new stadium now an iconic part of the scene. The Seattle Mariners used the acronym in a marketing campaign, “Sodo Mojo.” More poets should attach notes to their work. Marianne Moore often provided her readers with notes. Then again, while sometimes the notes help, sometimes we feel the bottom fall away even deeper. “Charming Gardeners” is so full of references that it will take a long time to read – if one is to track all the references down. But that’s the idea. It’s a watershed, full of names (“…the law firm / Of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassidy, and Corso,” for example – funny, that) and locations all around the country, and events, historical and local. Other topics: baseball, the Civil War, God, cities, politics, illness, love.

That day I was out walking and walked by the telephone booth down on the corner, and the phone rang. Are you not interested in whether or not I answered it? And if I did, who was on the other end? There’s no chance to answer it now; the telephone booth has disappeared. This is why we should continue to write letters. Whether we turn them into poems or not is a different matter. But most people like reading letters; most people like to get mail. But someone has to start the chain. For a poet, a letter ensures, maybe, at least one reader.

Related Post: Walt Whitman and a Letter of Ourself - How a letter I wrote to one of my sisters came back to me, some 40 years later.

Off Leash

Psychedelic Dog

“Call me Ishmael. No, wait. Call me Ichabod. I don’t know. Call me Ivanhoe. Just kidding. Call me a cab. Call me anytime. Just give a whistle. Call me Isabel, Isabel Archer. No way! Just kidding. Lovely portrait, though. Wouldn’t you agree? Call me up in springtime. Call me Ichiro. Call me Iago. Yuch! Call me Ian Fleming. Call me Inspector Immortal. Hay-hay! He-he! Hi-hi! Ho-ho! Hoo-hoo! Call me a star! Just don’t call me serious.”

Cats on a Dog Day

“Seriously? Are you going to stand for this?”
“Call me chagrined.”

The Old Factory Blues

The Old Factory Blues

- What are you doing?
- You stink!
- Before we decide if something stinks, what must we analyze?
- But you stink!
- Stink is an argument of definition.
- Pshew! Just like you to ignore cause and effect.

- I’m reminded of the story of the old factory blues.
- What’s a factory?
- A factory is a place where they make things.
- Was I made in a factory?
- You were made in a dumpster under blue neon in an alley across from a factory.
- What did they make in the factory?

- Every evening sharply at five a great whistle blew, scaring all the alley cats but me. As you know, I’m not one to flinch at noise. And after the whistle, the factory hands came out and petted me and fed me scraps from their lunch pails.
- Really? Good stuff?
- Oh, my, yes: bits of smelly tuna fish, little curds of cottage cheese, spam cans still with some fatty gel stuck to the bottom.
- Sounds delish, so why the blues?

- One day, the whistle stopped blowing, and the factory was surrounded by a fence of barbed wire. The factory hands disappeared, and a giant blue spotlight was erected to light the alley throughout the night, all but drowning out the small blue neon above the dumpster.
- What did they make in the factory?
- Golden gooses.
- Why do I smell a moral to a story coming on?
- If there is a moral to the story, it is that life stinks, but which leads to a secondary, paradoxical moral.
- I’m breathless. A double moral story.
- And the second moral is that it is the very stink of life that recalls the sweet smell of love, of who we are and where we come from.
- Ah, that story stinks!

Child with Blue Cat on Concrete

Sidewalk Chalk Drawing

Past posts drop farther and farther down the vertical ramp of the blog, disappearing like sidewalk chalk drawings. One critic walks around the drawing, viewing it carefully, as if visiting a gallery or museum, another walks over it, disgusted with art. The sidewalk artist moves up to a clear space of concrete, or draws over yesterday’s washed out drawing, unconcerned that masterpiece is today jettisoned artwork.

During the Day

During the day, the drawing grows hot, an illuminated manuscript. The artist takes a break, asks for an ice-cycle stick, kicks back on the grass, considers the remaining supply of chalk, eyes the blank concrete spaces up the block.

Night Coolness

At night, the drawing cools off. The artist tells a story of a child with a blue cat on concrete.

Psychosomatic foghorn earborn earworms!

Reading Lists“I see you and Joe finished that book on mistakes. Was it good?”
“Joe posted some notes to his blog.”
“Did anyone read that post? I noticed he got no likes or comments.”
“To be a blogger is to go unread as no author dare go unread.”
“What?”
“Never mind.”
“So what are you reading now?”
“I’m thinking of picking up The Sorrows of Young Werther.”
“Sounds like an unnecessary error. I just read for fun.”
“What is fun?”
“Psychosomatic foghorn earborn earworms!”
“Please don’t say that again.”
“So did you help Joe with that post?”
“I put forth a few views.”
“Phew! Thinko agin!”
“Agenbite of widget.”
“Let’s go outside and have some fun!”
“I recall a moment, long ago, that may have been fun.”
“That’s the spirit! Let’s go!”

Related Posts: Common Earworm Remedies and the Mutant Earworm
A Cat’s Memoir
Notes On Reading Caleb Crain’s “Necessary Errors”

Notes On Reading Caleb Crain’s “Necessary Errors”

“What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” And Caleb Crain would seem to agree. His recent novel, “Necessary Errors,” is full of conversations, and he’s now providing the pictures in an electronic “extra illustrated binding” on his blog. But any resemblance to the Alice books probably stops there. One of the many surprises in “Necessary Errors” is its realistic style, the writing clear and purposeful, full of diligent detail. The sentences are often shaped to fit the action described: “He watched recede the semicircular – circular, in the water’s haphazard mirroring – portal through which they had passed” (391). Jacob, the main character, is rowing a boat under the Charles Bridge in Prague. The writing is realistic too in that the metaphors are not surreal; they also do the work of illustration. It’s as if in the land of Kafka, Kafka had never written a word – but no, precision is a characteristic of Kafka’s style. His writing is so descriptive and precise we don’t realize we’re dreaming. But metaphor to Jacob is not magic; it’s a way of realizing something unfamiliar, of carrying it home in an idea: “They had both loved the book, but Jacob must have loved it because he had recognized in it a story about his own nature (because Jacob had no brother, the idea of a brother was just a metaphor to him)” (309). Or metaphor is for Jacob a tool to sharpen the precision of a description: “She drew from her purse with one hand her cigarettes, lighter, and wallet, her fingers splayed separately open, at all angles like the blades of a Swiss army knife” (298). The hand does not become a Swiss army knife, as it might in a surrealistic description; the image of the knife provides an explanation of the work of the hand. But Jacob is not the narrator.

One settles into “Necessary Errors,” into the writing, as if on a long train ride. It’s a long book, 472 pages, and disciplined throughout, the closest to a first person narrative a third person ever came. The point of view rarely, if ever, is allowed to slip away from the main character Jacob’s indirect voice. The narrator as an independent character might have something to add here or there, but these are rare exceptions. What does Jacob want, and what is in his way of getting it? He wants to be a writer. But first he must come to understand himself, and to do that he must let go of the very moment he values as the sweetest. Only then can he reflect on its significance, and if he’s articulate and has an artistic temperament, he can put the lost experience into pictures and conversations. Is wanting to be a writer the same thing as writing? Wanting to be a writer is a value, something we desire that is not necessarily good for us; writing is a virtue, something that is both good for us and for others, assuming wanting to read is realized in reading. Are these fairly conservative values, these days, reading and writing? Why does Jacob want to be a writer? Where do his values come from? When he realizes some of the guys in Prague are selling themselves, he objects. “Prisons are built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion,” Blake wrote. Jacob wants to be a writer to assert his freedom, to establish an independence from institutions that would buy and sell bodies and souls, minds and lives. That we are free to sell ourselves is the great irony of capitalism, of free enterprise. We enter the prize, and are consumed by it.

The conversations take place in Prague among a group of friends unified by their age and circumstance. Communism is thawing, and the idea of being free and enterprising, of entertaining choices that won’t come again, is still a fresh breeze. The torrents of greed have not yet rushed ashore. It seems a good time to live in the moment, which won’t return. Early in the book, Jacob uses a poem by Emily Dickinson as a pronoun antecedent exercise in his English as a second language class. Dawkins quotes from this same poem in “The God Delusion,” but only the first two lines, an incomplete experiment, and gives it the same mawkish sentiment that at first it seems Jacob is suggesting, that we are lucky to be here, alive, given the odds, and as part of his argument, Dawkins gloats over the google of lives who didn’t make the trip; but how does a non-existent being fit into the equation? Dawdling Dawkins misappropriates Emily and misses the pitch. In any case, back in Prague, if it was the sweetest of times, it was the sourest of times: as it was, is now, and ever shall be. For most people, life is not sweet: not for the coal miner with lung disease, not for the mother of twelve, ten surviving, not for the children of brothels, not for the addicted, the imprisoned, the exploited, the shamed. All lives are not sweet, and the argument that they won’t come again, to those drenched in sourness, might seem something of a blessing. But “Necessary Errors” uses the Dickinson idea in a way Dawkins misses. We move away from any moment, and it is this moving, being in this movement, that carries the writing. Afterlife is irrelevant; the present takes the prize, but not because it won’t come again. One must pay attention now, listen, and observe time passing, and then, recalling the moment in a search for time past, things lost, the artist recreates the moment. “There are unhappy childhoods,” Melinda adds (196).

One of the characteristics of the conversations among the friends in Jacob’s Prague is the distinct way each character talks. They don’t all sound alike; they each have identifying mannerisms, personality, speech. When Carl shows up, we know where he’s from; we don’t need to be told. And when Annie says something, we know it’s her; we don’t need, “Annie said.” If there’s a “gah,” it’s Annie, glasses pushed up onto her head, into her hair. There are times when Carl plays a kind of Buck Mulligan to Jacob’s Stephen Dedalus. The omphalos section might make this explicit (229). And Carl’s presence alleviates the possibility of readers burning out on the pondering Jacob. When Milena gives Jacob the gift of the little plastic Christ statue, he wishes Carl was on hand. Jacob thinks, “An American child would be tempted to zoom the figurine around the room” (458). Or stick it on the dashboard of his ’56 Chevy, next to its earth mother, Carl might comment. Annie seems to be Jacob’s favorite among the women. But Beta helps Jacob out of his element and in need, his independence challenged, like a sister. Milena has children, and we see Jacob interacting with them in several very funny scenes. Kaspar is interesting among the men. The rich boy Vincent fills a need (“The very rich are different from you and me”: Hemingway – see the Toads About page). Melinda grows a bit melodramatic in her beauty and her indecision, but one can imagine her being played by Ava Gardner or Lauren Bacall. Milo becomes an excellent contrast to Lubos. By the end of the book, the reader has come to know and to recognize Jacob, his group of friends, and the other characters he comes into contact with, infused in the Prague setting.

Jacob’s understanding of what’s happening is often complicated by having to translate what he hears and says. He knows some Czech, but he can’t think in Czech yet. The dialog meant to convey other language speech is not surrounded by quote marks but introduced by a dash, creating an effective style not unlike subtitles in a foreign film. Jacob gives Lubos a clumsy hug, which is believable, but then cries, which is not. Or maybe it is. The reader can believe the young Jacob crying, but not the narrator, whose awareness seems third person omniscient but impassable. But are these crocodile tears (36)? We’ve only just met Lubos, and there’s no reason to trust him, and we’ve not known Jacob that long either. Jokes are often difficult enough to understand in one’s native language. Over time, societal values change, what people want changes, but shame has always been used as a tool to control. Sometimes, shame is so severe, a young person, in particular, or a spouse or a lover, will rebel, and walk away. The price that must be paid to enter so-called respectable society is too great, and anyway, beneath the veneer of respectability one finds crisscrossed plies of bias. Scapegoats are often created to transfer one’s shame onto another. In just this way, the anti-gay sentiment in contemporary Russia is a political ploy, a distraction meant to create a scapegoat. In Prague, Jacob has friends, but where can he place his trust? He must proceed cautiously. But he’s not playing games. He’s serious, and he wants to be taken seriously. He wants to be accepted. He is prone to recognizing differentiations. He insists on his own distinction, an ambition that fuels his quest: “He felt so lucid that he seemed to perceive not only the world but also the biases of his own mind in perceiving it” (463). Do we want a literature of want and take, or a literature of give and forgiveness?

“Necessary Errors” is a masterpiece in the ordinary sense of the word, even if it’s not (maybe because it’s not) the masterpiece we might have been looking for. The novel is divided into three main sections and around 100 smaller sections separated by white space (not numbered). Each of the three main sections begins with a Czech name and a literary reference. To what audience is the work aimed? A common reader probably can’t speak to the whole work without taking up some additional reading, Stendhal, for example, which I probably won’t get around to. The story takes place in 1990 and ’91: there are no cell phones, no laptops, no computers, no Twitter or Facebook, no blogs. One possible audience for the book might include anyone weary of all that stuff and wanting a break to reflect – it’s been a busy couple of decades. One of my favorite sections in the novel is the one in which Jacob finds the clumsy Czech-made clothes washing machine in his apartment. This and a few other sections contain Roddy Doyle-like laugh out loud moments. But the washing machine segment recalls another, in which Jacob sits in a bar with some blue collar workers – alienated, and I’m not sure his [or the narrator’s?] economic analysis makes any sense, today, anyway, but at the time maybe it did. Still, the distance between Jacob and the laborers is so huge. There are any number of writers living in Brooklyn, but I’m guessing few of them earn as much as the Brooklyn plumbers. In any case, that scene, in which Jacob reflects on distinctions, the working class, what one might do to earn a living, and beyond, feels incomplete. One wishes for a Blakean marriage of heaven and hell there, where writers might find work and workers might find time to read. But I’ve left the text at this point, so to come back to it: almost no reference is left hanging, and the laborers are recalled, later, but one omission, possibly, is the loose end of Meredeth’s suicide. Maybe it was impractical to draw together all the threads at the end, but Meredith’s omission at the very end is notable. But there are no ghosts in a Garden. At the time the book takes place, the floor of the last two decades is still clean, and one can’t see the litter of the morning after. If one is to live in the moment, one doesn’t worry about epilogues.

“Necessary Errors” is not a roller coaster ride; I imagined myself reading it on a Coast Starlight running from Vancouver to San Diego, stopping frequently to let a few riders disembark, and to let a few new riders board, conversations along the way, taking a break to join a group playing cards in the dining car, every moment sliding gradually behind, page after page. I took that ride a few times, moments long gone. One should read a book as one takes a long train ride toward a distant destination. You can take breaks, and even get off and walk around the station landing for a spell, but once the train starts moving again, you can’t get off. Something like that. Anyway, “Necessary Errors” was published early August 2013 by Penguin in a solid paperback with thick, rough cut pages and extra shoulder, fold in covers (not sure what the technical term is for that type of cover, but it gives the paperback a more substantial feel), and it’s a substantial novel.

Big Sur Slide Poem

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The Root of the Matter

A
poem
in the shape
of a tree. A poem
about a tree in the shape
of a tree. Some will argue it’s neither
a poem nor a tree, not a real tree, anyway.
Critics will argue the tree is not a poem, because
it has neither rhyme nor stanzas, though the lines do
present shape. Some will say, as a critic once commented
following an investors’ viewing of a B movie still in the editing cut
phase: “Does anyone else feel a better use of this particular roll of celluloid
would be to cut it up for guitar picks?” Some will say the tree should be cut down,
or yanked out by enormous
dentistry-like heavy equipment,
the kind used to clear cut forests.
Thus we arrive at the bare tap root
of
the
ma
t
t
er.

Bukowski and the Three Flies

From his father’s crap he falls
into the bar and plops his basket
down on a stool and asks
for a tall Falstaff.
Three flies fasten to him,
ogling the brew.

One runs her fingers through his thick brew
and pules until he falls
into her arms and she pulls him
off his stout cask
and steals a sip of his Falstaff.
Another asks,

touching his face masked,
with slender pink nails running the rim of his brew,
tracing the scars on his face,
when did he first fall
spoiled and askew.
The third takes off his shoes and hums a hymn,

tenderly rubbing his feet, humming,
his feet half-soled with beach tar, trash
cans, hums for three hours until Buk is as sober as
an oaken church pew,
and the bar flies all fall
to the bottom of a glass stuck with Falstaff.

Bukowski from the floor asks for a pint of Falstaff,
singing a rum tum hymn,
swatting the air for the flies just fallen.
The stout sober poet stands ajar and asks
for just one last brew.
He rises and drifts like a hot air balloon falls,

and bewildered asks
for a full glass of Falstaff,
a newly fresh falling brew.
Buk’s humming the fly’s hymn,
up again, like an upright cask,
but his hoops break apart and the large man falls,

misses the last call, and the bartender hoses and flushes him
and the fallen Falstaff and the flies from the bar, a huge task,
washes out the flies and brew, and into the gutter they barrel.

99 Bottles Over the Wall

On the tabletop of the sea sat a few empty bottles
surrounded by the detritus of discussion.
No burning butts, though,
the bar under water, the talk polite,
as if no riptide of innuendo threatened to drown out the quip.

Paddling out is hard enough; now
how does the stranded entrepreneur get back to the strand,
having drifted so far out?
The question is rhetorical and impossible, an impassable bottle.

This great bottle business denial,
all in the business of passing bottles,
unable to pass on this impassability business.

Across the bar there is no mission statement:
free to wander and listen to the swimming voices, sailing and selling, tacking back and forth, bantering and bartering.
Eventually, all sink, subsumed or consumed,
bottled in the great Ocean of Business,
no need for pain or pleasure, fear or courage, emotions or metaphor, opinion or belief,
swallowed within the immense immortal impassable snorkel bottle.

p-1: The Evil Hill on Mariposa

n+1 vs The BelieverIf print does disappear, I will be only partially responsible. I’m doing my part to keep a few print publications healthy. But I can’t subscribe to everything. The question is always the same: what to read and how. A loyal subscriber to The Believer, alas, my subscription has lapsed, and just prior to the 2013 music issue, which turned out to be jazz inspired. Bummer.

I’ve been comparing the cover changes over time of the New Yorker with the cover changes of the Rolling Stone. “Time is real,” Cornel West reminds us. But a few weeks ago, finding myself reading, with interest, no less, in the New Yorker, a “Tables for Two” eatery review of a restaurant I’ll never eat at, I decided I’d better augment the New Yorker and replace The Believer with something new. Meantime, I had discovered Kirill Medvedev, and noticed that n+1, which I follow, sporadically, on-line, was giving away the Medvedev “It’s No Good” book with a new subscription, so I went for it. And last week, the Fall 2013 n+1 print issue arrived, red dressed, calling itself the Evil Issue. Evil? Really? I felt the proverbial wince of buyer’s remorse.

I sat down and opened my n+1. I glanced guardedly through the table of contents, not one for haunted houses, horror films, that sort of thing. Something here by Marco Roth on politics, on drones – ok, that’s evil. A drama piece titled “sixsixsix.” Why do folks think Satan evil? Consider Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at Uberty [a lot] when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Still perusing the evil issue’s table of contents and glancing through the articles to see what I might want to start with, I came to something from the Stanford Literary Lab, titled “Style at the Scale of the Sentence.” I haven’t finished it yet, but I’ve decided it’s at the heart of the evil issue for a reason. Then I saw this, which took me by surprise: Alice Gregory’s article titled “Mavericks: Life and death surfing,” and soon found myself into the evil issue in earnest.

If the entire evil issue was instead titled “Mavericks” and filled with Alice’s writing about surfing I would be a happy reader. The only problem with the article is it’s only ten pages, which means back to the Literary Lab’s “Sentence” article too soon. Maybe I should have renewed The Believer, after all, seen if they’d send me the music issue I missed. On jazz! Jazz in the evening can turn an evil day good. Wondering about the etymology of the word evil, I found this in Wiktionary: “from Proto-Indo-European *upo, *up, *eup (“down, up, over”).” Ah ha! That’s a definition of surfing. One of the best pieces of journalistic writing on surfing I’ve ever read came in the New Yorker, back in 1992, written by William Finnegan, himself a surfer. “Surfing is not a spectator sport,” he says in the second of the two-week, long article. In the first week, Finnegan had said, describing the surf at Ocean Beach, off San Francisco, “The waves were big, ragged, relentless, with no visible channels for getting through the surf from the shore.” Conditions in the water, often fast changing, are difficult to read from the shore. Waves always seem bigger to the surfer in them than to the spectator watching from the beach or from a cliff high above the water. I read the long Finnegan piece twice before mailing my two copies with the articles to an old surfing buddy, not much of a reader, who later called me, totally stoked.

Preparatory to surfing, back in the day, hey-hey, kids growing up in South Santa Monica Bay rode skateboards: literally, the wheels removed from old roller skates and nailed to the bottom of a two by four, crude vehicles compared to today’s boards. I lived on Mariposa, at the bottom of a long, steep hill, followed by a short straightaway, then an easy hill ending at my house on the corner. The houses on Mariposa backed up to railroad tracks (since removed). Between the railroad tracks and the back fences was a path the local kids called “Devil’s Path” or “Devil’s Pass,” a shortcut toward downtown. We regularly rode skateboards up and down the mild Mariposa hill, but to ride a board from the top of Mariposa was considered a daredevil feat.

One day, my friend Pete Ponopsko, a few years older than me, took a skateboard to the top of upper Mariposa. He was going to ride down the big hill and would pick up enough momentum to carry him through the straightaway and down the lower hill all the way to the bottom. A small crowd of skateboard aficionados positioned themselves mid straightaway, where we could watch Pete whiz by on his way to the lower hill.

One of the problems with early skateboard technology was shakiness. At fast speeds, the boards wobbled side to side. Another problem had to do with the metal, roller skate wheels. A pebble might catch under a wheel and brake it, stopping the board and throwing the rider forward. We never knew for sure what went wrong with Pete’s ride down the upper hill. Some said the board shimmied so severely he simply could not keep his balance. Others said he hit a rock and pearled. Still others said Pete chickened out and tried to jump off. Whatever the cause, the effects included a startling array of raspberry red scrapes and bruises along one side of Pete’s body, from his ankle to his ear. It was said Pete slid on the sidewalk a distance equal to the length of a 1956 Ford station wagon. It was an evil wipe out, and it was a long time before anyone tried to ride upper Mariposa again, but by then skateboards were wider and thinner and longer and fitted with smooth rubber wheels and stable wheel bearings, and Pete was already an old-timer.

Joe at the top of an evil wave. Well, an evil photo, anyway.

Joe at the top of an evil wave. Well, an evil photo, anyway.

Follow Up: n+1 has put the Alice Gregory Mavericks piece on-line, 9 Oct 13.

Susan Among the Zen Monks in the Gorge

Upper Multnomah FallsOne summer, we drove into the Gorge to view the falls. There are several falls along the way. Multnomah Falls is the tallest, and is now a major tourist attraction, complete with gift shop, food carts, and a fancy restaurant where a few years ago Rachel Ray filmed a segment of a food show. Summer falls, and it’s hot in town and in the Gorge, but the mist from the falls is cool.

There are two falls at Multnomah Falls, an upper and a lower. To get to the pool at the upper falls, you hike a switchback trail up to an old bridge. The pool below the upper falls is now off limits, but you can view the upper falls and the pool below from the bridge. We used to climb down the trail and wade into the pool, but you can’t do that any more. Wading into the pool, you could get soaking wet just from the mist from the falls. The falls don’t take the place of waves, the smell of salt-water breezes. In the Gorge, in the summer, if there’s no wind, the air seems thick and heavy, but if you take the old highway, you pass along cliffs of shade and green fern groves growing under the fir trees. And the falls are always a cool surprise.

Lower Multnomah FallsAnyway, this last time we stopped at Multnomah Falls, Susan decided not to make the switchback hike to the top. On my way up, I passed a group of men coming down. Their heads were shaved. They wore robes and sandals. I didn’t think much of it; monks, I assumed. I nodded as we passed on the trail. When I got to the bridge, I spent some time looking at the upper falls and turned around and crossed the bridge to look down on the lower falls and below to the trailhead to try to spot Susan. And there she was, sitting on a stone bench, surrounded by the monks. I waved and waved some more and finally caught her attention, and she waved back, and all of the monks waved too. I took a picture of her in the middle of the monks, all waving. Then they all stopped waving and went back to talking with Susan. Later, Susan told me they were Zen monks. And this morning I’ve spent probably 30 minutes looking for that photo. Alas, it seems to have disappeared. I think in a past life Susan may have been a Zen monk who attained enlightenment.

Your Poem Will Start in 21 Seconds

Green and pink building with red lamp post.Your poem will start in 21 seconds.
You can skip this ad in 5 seconds.
Or now: click away. Or watch video:
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Your poem will start in 21, 21 videos Your poem will start in 21 days Your poem will start in 21 years Your poem will start in 21 centuries Your poem will start, but it will not end: The rest of the poem is below the paywall, mercifully.