Book Review: Penina’s Letters

Over at the It Kind of Got Away From You blog, Dan Hennessy has posted a thumb’s up review of my novel, Penina’s Letters. Paddle on over and check it out!

Dinner Walk & Theatre

The Willamette River flows north through the Valley roughly parallel I-5, and after making the turns near the Falls at Oregon City, moves through Portland before joining the Columbia on its way to the Pacific Ocean, but no worries, this isn’t going to be a geography lesson.

IMG_20160320_172506

Ross Island, from the west bank of the Willamette River, south of Portland (Mar 2016)

After passing under the Sellwood Bridges (there are two currently, the old one and the new one, side by side), the river wraps around Ross Island, across from the Old Spaghetti Factory’s rococo restaurant – where we met friends last night for dinner before heading up river to the Headlee Mainstage of the Lakewood Center for the Arts, tickets waiting at the Will-call window, to see Spencer Conway play Hugh in a live production of BULLSHOT CRUMMOND: THE EVIL EYE of JABAR and THE INVISIBLE BRIDE of DEATH.IMG_20160320_172520

The four of us shared a carafe of house Chianti and ate lasagna, pasta with clam and tomato sauces, fresh oven hot bread, salads and minestrone soup. We sat upstairs, at a booth in the bar area, paying scant attention to the river slooming below about sixty feet to the east. After dinner, we took a short, giddy walk along the river and paused for a few silly, group selfies with the island in the background.

After the short, after dinner walk, we hopped into one car and drove upriver to the theatre and picked up the tickets with still time to lengthen our river walk down to the local historical park to check out the 19th Century iron smelter.

We had seen Spencer Conway a couple of years ago in NOISES OFF at Portland’s downtown Newmark Theatre. All acting is, in a sense, a physical activity, and Spencer excels at employing his entire body in his work. When, for example, as Hugh ‘Bullshot’ Crummond, Spencer is hexed by a magnetic trance and becomes a human magnet, or slips into a parachute prop of sand, or rides the magic carpet, and more, he’s as good at physical acting antics as the great Jerry Lewis.IMG_20160321_093427I had not heard of Bullshot before last night. The form is satire, not quite farce, since there are targets – a causal argument of British colonialism reduced to buffoonery via the vehicle of a B movie on stage. Using inventive props in what seemed a record number of scene changes, the cast and production hands succeeded in creating the stage magic that allows the audience to suspend for a couple of hours and float effortlessly down the drama river. Rick Warren was perfectly cast as the evil Otto Von Bruno. Stephanie Heuston and Kelley Stewart each created original replays of B film vixen and heroine. Andrew Harris and Burl Ross filled out the cast, each frequently quick changing costumes to play multiple characters throughout the laugh-out-loud play.

IMG_20160320_180306

All the world is a smelter.

Out on a Limb, and Text Mess Age

Out on a Limb

Out, out
reach,
be

Wary
stool
legged three,

Eye on
far off
complacency.

All that fall must
spring from this
stretch sketch.

Text Mess Age

  1. time u off?
    W?
    eta u gt hm?
    IDK
    Udu 2
    LEAF ME BEE!
    yr so techy
    U WATY?
  1. dry clothes pinned
    drift aloft couple
    leaning from window
    two squirrels wrestle
    in grass & chase
    after one another
    across clothesline,
    hopping over
    upside down
    stick figures,
    cell phone lost below
    in rampant weeds.
    VERY NICE. U WASH DISHES? VACUUM?
    FIRE UP BBQ?

Flashing Lights and Random Noise in the City of the Brain

The ophthalmologist asked if I was still seeing the flashing lights. Rarely, but hard to predict. So the brain has gotten used to them, and is ignoring them, she said, and I immediately wondered why that same brain couldn’t ignore the tinnitus sounds also.

Sophisticated sound systems increase chances of distraction from random noise. If you must cough, wait until the crescendo is about to peak. Clarity of sound is valued. Increase pixels, dots, from cartoon to photograph. Whatever might muddy the waters is considered distraction. Clarity is a value that dithers. We must learn to connect the dots.

But what is distraction? And when might distraction be desirable? Rocks viewed through water look different after the creek dries out. The transistor radio is the perfect transmitter of the three minute basement tape composition recorded on a single track hand held device. Form may distort or obscure content so that we might hear, see, feel, smell, or taste what we might otherwise have missed, though the effort often fails.

Kindness, sense of humor, forgiving, joy of life.

Culture provides for cloistered clarity, photographs viewed through filters, the eye a sieve. The ear a strainer. We may not wince quite as much from scenes in a film when intoxicated from the smell of buttered popcorn.

“How do you know but every bird
that cuts the airy way
Is an immense world of delight,
closed by your senses five?”

Just so, but in any case,

“A fool sees not the same tree that a
wise man sees.”

(Two quotes above from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).

I first heard of random noise working with some actuaries on multivariate analyses. In the context, noise is unpredictable and therefore unreliable. Random noise does not appear to correlate, nor can its causes or effects be accurately tracked or explained. Probability becomes problematic. The treatment is the same as for tinnitus, where smoothing or dithering renders the unwanted noise invisible. Random noise is asymmetrical, or anti-symmetrical, and expressed by numbers, sounds, colors, or any other output, a given sequence of random noise probably cannot be duplicated.

Things are rarely right on, but approximate; why then the need for clarity, for perfection, for proper grammar, pronunciation, spelling, punctuation? Prescription is an attempt to clarify, but description is far more accurate.

“Bright lights, big city, gone to my baby’s head” (Jimmy Reed, 1961).

Here is a four stanza composition, each stanza four lines long, expressing random noise in hexadecimal format. The piece can be played musically if each letter is expressed as a note and each number expressed as a duration (the absence of g might be noted, because the base is 16). There are no more instructions. The fewer instructions, the more random the results. Randomness may be the prefect solution for writers with copyright issues. Interested readers may reproduce the exercise below at the ANU Quantum Random Numbers Server, but no matter how many times you try, you will probably never come up with the same sequence shown below. Plus, each line below has been truncated from its original. Other arbitrary changes made to the original output from the server include all zeros removed, and spacing and line breaks added.

Dither # 1

1ee 9f 9f7454 cd2 a a77114 da a4
6f2 8eab 4fc1 bad b9a13 c8 d23
19f e3 5a 27bd 4c361 e8 dec c211
b3 6a f5 4645407 d85 9 fa 35 efcbbacb

86c c3 681 d5 f5 74bc c3a 8ee8 6 f2 92 c5
91 c5 1 b3 4 b7 f68793753 dd 38ba 34f1e2d
814 eff c6884 aa 30d4 e1 a8 dc5 6c 4b
182986 bfd 982 d5 805854 c7

fc6 6e2172 eab fb 2b5
74 4afef c8 40 c57 c9 4 bab 1
b86fa 8c 4 9a 39 ffba 99ac 89 bd5 be
97 b8 8c f79 477 a c5 7d 9d d 13b 2

53 79 53 d3 61d3b178c68882aa 6 cefbbf77
d8b449 efaf 73fa8917 bfb 473774ffc1 d7 d9dfe8
1d3c c8 99761685 c21cd9 2569935ca2de6b7 ebb
23513e76b828b a5 ac

And the lines below were copied from “The matrix” streamed live from the AUS Lab and pasted without changes, except to color – the original contains the matrix green flavor, but it wouldn’t copy, so I’ve approximated the color with a font change. As I read through the composition, I could find no distractions, but upon preview of the post, it appears that WordPress coding has been added, probably because of the change I made to the font color. I find the result distracting.

È[Õ‚‚ω9(C∫}¾„õ°v¸JËBؾ{ΨÉŠq®ψξ
.Ó½ïpÚ±/zò→‹πɲ˼ΦÏ‚óæ;MIÅ<9Ð9š֑±ªGæ↔Ñ
ïΧ8β)hDœa1tR˜Χε¯Š4∫ÈQ”R/Ì),¦êí‰f9õÚ¯Xîé:
#¿7{‘‡ÆÙ™κë‹g¡ÖÀoªyÖ‡ƒPiDë»öÝ√üÄΩ¹+∪ÊDγÌ
xKòÁNπ:∂t-Eh픉#.=φðρ—yœ9UR—λY¤ω→ÂZãé}:σ
öÝ=±¨Íθ*Ší%τ~νËÍ[&αζF7ÏòUœκ_λωW#θ‡ûqº•Ëã
ú‡LêμÞÑÖ2:λ∂F↓°ψÌ¡pΤ›e–à.N!ÎûƒûˆhqÔÏa?ƒ</span>
<span style="color:#00ff00;"> ↔ζÆ~8ΤºÇ!#∄8ÃLLØθ¡&amp;∪ß|cZk±xÁúο@∪ÏDÜþè'¡{</span>
<span style="color:#00ff00;"> ù’;θfÑÆÏ7ψμE„&lt;ºÙ∃’a√ÖΧŠΣσÕ¢¥æÆ5Æρ
ÄO“jJω

Readers often ask what a poem means. Usually, if nothing else, what poetry means, in spite of repetition in form and sound and sense, is that you can’t guess what comes next:

What is correct in quantum indeterminacy?

One year, we went to hear the jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles. But he was too loud, and we had to leave. I’d already had some hearing damage, forgetting my ear plugs at the Fort Bliss rifle range, working the jack hammer from the compressor truck without plugs, thinking I guess that I was born with immortal hearing. Should have known better; my father suffered from ear damage. The high school I attended, Saint Bernard, in Playa del Rey, sat next to the runways of LAX, the planes taking off often a welcome break to a hard-boiled lecture.

My father often heard what was said, but muffled, without clarity. He taught himself to read lips. He was a good listener, and an avid talker, in spite of a stutter. I suspect he stuttered because he was unsure of pronunciations, the result of his hearing difficulties. Or maybe because he could not hear himself talk. One year, hearing aid technology having improved, he had surgery on both ears, to clear out rotted bone and crud, and was fitted with new hearing aids. In no time, his stutter disappeared. My mother was sure this was a miracle.

We went back to the Ash Grove to hear the guitarist John Fahey. We were seated in front. John came out with his guitar and a giant Bubble Up bottle. He sat down and drank the entire bottle of Bubble Up in one long swig, its neck stuck deep under his duck-like protruding upper lip. He put the bottle down on the floor and began to play guitar. I thought maybe he might use the Bubble Up bottle for some bottleneck guitar, but he did not. He said not one word the entire evening, nor do I recall a single burp. In short, he was not too loud. I still have his “The Yellow Princess” in vinyl album format, the one where you can hear the door close and footsteps.

The ophthalmologist asked me if my eyes felt like sandpaper. She said one of my optic nerves was larger than the other. I told her I also had asymmetrical hearing, which she apparently considered a distraction. She suggested artificial tears for the dry grit in the eyes feeling.

The brain is a megacity of flashing lights and random noise, a conurbation of neighborhoods in various stages of going to seed.

Migrations

Migrations“Not far from seedy Sandy Boulevard,” a local newspaper article read, some time ago, attempting to describe a seeming paradox of a nice neighborhood limited by the desolation of the average urban street, where Easter bonnet parades have given way to noir glassed evenings, streets that help distinguish the right from the wrong side of the tracks, spring from winter, beauty from irony.

The planet Earth seems a benevolent seedy place, and how from this abundance of fruit and flowers moved easily about by breeze and bees come the ideas of poor taste, of good form, of appropriate policy and procedure, of social mores?

History is an argument whose occasion has lapsed, the audience mesmerized, hypnotized, and a quick exit of pathos, the persuasion a torn curtain. For Joyce’s Stephen, in “Ulysses,” history was “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Part of that nightmare might include migrations: caused by drought or famine; escape from prejudice and persecution; exile from war; fallout from economic, climate, or technological calamity; eviction notice from landlord; or perceived opportunity, where the grass simply looked greener on the other side of the street. There is an ongoing, small but worldwide, migration of corporate workers essentially homeless from forced relocation every few years, happily scattered about though, rare seeds, often heirlooms.

The nightmare is humanity’s pollinator, its vector, its wind and breeze, river and sea, bee and fly.

Gentrification causes migrations. Local news recently broke of a 127 year old building to be torn down on Belmont, where the century old trolley rail lines occasionally reappear, rising through the wear and tear in the asphalt street. By local standards, a 127 year old building is old, but not so old, maybe, by Parisian standards. Some might see the old Belmont building as having gone to seed, seedy, associated with sleazy; others might see history, a story that cannot be razed or covered. Whether it’s torn down or fixed up, the building’s current occupants will have to find new digs.

But what is seediness? Why is the seedy scorned? Who creates the seedy? And how does seediness move? Who moves toward the seedy rather than away from it? How is life different for those gone to seed from the well bloomed and harvested? Behind the façades, however rich or seedy they might appear, is life in the back of the five star hotel the same as life behind the one star motel? Is five star bitterness five times more bitter than one star bitterness?

One year, in Los Angeles on a boondoggle, we met up with some of the old gang for a couple of days adventuring in the façade capital of the world, Disneyland. We got rooms at a local hotel. The lobby looked friendly, the lounge ready for a beer, the courtyard intimate, the rooms dark but plush. Not five star, but not one star, somewhere in between, we imagined. We settled in for a nap with plans to reconvene later in the lobby and head out for some gumbo at the Blue Bayou.

And then we saw the rats scurrying up and down and all around the courtyard palm trees, arms length from the balcony, plump, healthy looking rats, but did we want to share the night with them? We rustled up the energy to confront the front desk clerk concierge, and checked out free and clear for a clean well lighted place without rats. It did not take long to relocate and we were happily ensconced in a new place apparently fortified against rats. I did not disturb the group’s peace of mind, but I wondered where management might have kept the rats in this new place. In an urban landscape, one is never more that fifty feet or so from a rat. Something is always going to seed, never mind the season.

The classy squirm away from the seedy, the swank from the stink. But they often meet in the noir. The cancer of cynicism does not distinguish the posh from the pinched. Textbook history often sounds like it was written from an airplane circling over a city cleansed of its seeds, and we see nothing of the city’s underground, where we might come face to face with its rats.

“To become imbued with shades of grey, to blend into the drab obscurity of blind spots, to join the clammy crowd that emerges, or seeps, at certain times of day from the metros, railway stations, cinemas or churches, to feel a silent and distant brotherhood with the lonely wanderer, the dreamer in his shy solitude, the crank, the beggar, even the drunk – all this entails a long and difficult apprenticeship, a knowledge of people and places that only years of patient observation can confer.”

We are in Nazi occupied Paris, in Jacques Yonnet’s “Paris Noir: The Secret History of a City.”[i] Most able Parisians have escaped and are on the run, many at the last minute, by train or car, bicycle or walking, long crowded lines moving generally south to southwest, ahead of the advancing Nazi army about to reach Paris. This migration is of course history: dates, names, and numbers dutifully recorded, but for a bird’s eye view of the ordinary trauma, conversations, blunders, hopes, and fears of the average Parisian fleeing the city, many packing as if for a vacation to the Midi, turn to “Suite Francaise,” a recently uncovered account in the form of a novel by Irene Nemirovsky, who died in Auschwitz.[ii]

Yonnet’s book takes place in Paris during the occupation and after. The narrator works for the Resistance, running several missions and establishing connections and communications, always an eye on the patrolling Nazis, living in squalid conditions, associating with all kinds of gone to seed characters with names like “Keep on Dancin’.” The narration reads like a journal or diary.

For the characters in Nemirovsky’s book, the trip out of Paris is a nightmare. Food is quickly scarce, as is petrol, cars are abandoned, train schedules uncertain, everywhere long lines of refugees on the move, unable to carry much, villages and towns empty of provisions, families sleeping out, feeling lucky it’s June and the nights warm, but then again it’s too hot. There’s nothing to drink, nothing to eat. A few enemy planes buzz overhead, explosions heard in the distance, and a few bombs drop near, the strategy uncertain, apparently to take out train stations, rail lines, fuel depots, but there are civilian casualties and injuries. And throughout the telling of it, Nemirovsky focuses close in, describing ordinary people caught unprepared in extraordinary circumstances.

Samuel Beckett and his life long partner Suzanne would have been on the road out of Paris, walking, sleeping out, hiding by day, moving at night. Later, it would be said the roadside scenes in “Waiting for Godot” might have been first suggested to Beckett on his way out of Paris. And James Joyce and his family would have been on their way out of Paris, for Switzerland, Joyce concerned that the war would distract people from reading his latest book, “Finnegans Wake.”

Some of Nemirovsky’s characters describe their predicament as horrible, nothing like it ever seen before, but they are reminded by others they are not the first, nor likely to be the last.

New ethical environments quickly evolve, wrongs are met with a patient retribution, if not justice, both in Yonnet’s occupied Paris among the down and out, the deadbeat and seedy, the sick and infested, the fallen, and in Nemirovsky’s trail of humanity moving away from Paris, away from the city, away from an old life toward something new and unknown.

Back in mid-January, the Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha posted to this blog, “The Sultan’s Seal,” a photo essay by the Reuters cameraman Antonio Denti (@antclick on Instagram). Titled “Upstream,” Denti’s essay begins:

“I drove alone from Rome to the Balkans to cover the refugee crisis on the borders of Eastern Europe in September 2015. I saw the physical and human landscape changing slowly. I saw the faces, and I heard the sound of the words. I saw history flowing from Florence to Venice, to Trieste, to the forests of Slovenia, to the Alps and the well kept chalets near Austria, to the flat agricultural peripheries deeper into the former Austro-Hungarian empire, eastwards, towards Serbia and Hungary…”

Denti’s photo essay focuses on the parents and children of the recent migration and refugee crisis. He calls his project a photo diary. It is “terrifying and beautiful.”

[i] Jacques Yonnet, Paris Noir: The Secret History of a City, translated and with an introduction and notes by Christine Donougher. First published in France in 1954, first Dedalus edition in 2006, reprinted in 2009. 280 pages, paperback.

[ii] Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise, a novel, translated by Sandra Smith. Originally published in France in 2004, first Vintage International Edition, May 2007, 431 pages, paperback.

Ruminations

RuminationsHamlet, talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams” (Act I, Scene II). Hamlet’s body does not seem to be the problem. Uploading Hamlet’s mind into a supercomputer and dispensing with his body would only make matters worse.

Raffi Khatchadourian, in “The Doomsday Invention,” mentions the scientist and sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, “who envisioned advanced civilizations inhabited by intelligent robots (each encoded with simple, ethical Laws of Robotics, to prevent it from doing harm)” (New Yorker, 23 Nov 2015, 71). In other words, the robots would be eunuchs.

“Extropianism,” Raffi says, “is a libertarian strain of transhumanism that seeks ‘to direct human evolution,’ hoping to eliminate disease, suffering, even death; the means might be genetic modification, or as yet un­invented nanotechnology, or perhaps dispensing with the body entirely and uploading minds into supercomputers. (As one member noted, ‘Immortality is mathematical, not mystical.’)” (67). So much for immortality. But isn’t eternal youth the goal, a never ending Spring dawn, not to grow old indefinitely, like a wintry universe?

In the conclusion to his study “The Human Body” (1963), Asimov, trying to explain the primary difference and advantage of the human relative to other animals (and other life forms), focused on the number of cells in the human brain (a part of the body he devoted an entire other study to). “The human brain is nothing short of monstrous in size,” Asimov said (309). Monstrous in relative size to the human body, and the human body is no small thing, and, Asimov points out, “a large animal is less the sport of the universe, in many ways, than a small animal is” (308). These are interesting perspectives, to say the least. Will we be able to upload the brain but leave the “bad dreams” behind, in the vacated body? Is the body simply a room for the brain, a room the brain might move out of some day, for new digs? I don’t know if it was Asimov’s idea or his publishers, but the “The Human Body” was kept separate from “The Human Brain.”

Monstrous, too, the harm a brain might bring to its own body, in some attempt to escape, or bring to another, in some attempt to enter, particularly when disguised as a heart. To inhabit another’s brain for purposes of manipulating and exploiting its body, but only for a time, the body a motel room, a rental, a sentence fragment.

Orville Prescott’s January 21, 1948 review of Truman Capote’s first novel, “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” (New York Times) criticizes Capote’s writing for its lack of “narrative clarity”: “Reality for Mr. Capote is not material and specific; it is emotional, poetic, symbolical, filled with sibilant whispering and enigmatic verbal mysteries.” But how else was Capote to tell his story and get it published in the United States in 1948? Capote was not a beatnik.

“Should I get married? Should I be Good?” the Beat poet Gregory Corso ruminates in “Marriage,” his poem that ironically considers the choice between the mores of his time and the impossibility of pretending to be someone he is not. There is only one room he can live in, and it must have poetry written all over its walls.

Or, as Whitman put it in “Song of Myself”:

“Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes, I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it, The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it. The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless, It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it, I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked, I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”

Another room book is James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” (1956). The first person narrative concerns David, an American in 1950’s Paris who tries to satisfy a growing disparity between what he thinks he might want and be reasonably satisfied with, unopposed to society’s equivocal mores and arguments, and what he increasingly, as he crosses the existential divide of honest self-knowledge and acceptance, knows he needs.

Where Capote might have deliberately disguised his themes, Baldwin’s style is clear and realistic. Neither the brain nor the body are shrouded in the mystical, but the action is full of compromise, deceit, and betrayal. “Giovanni’s Room” is a rumination on love and unrequited love. How hard is it to love another as yourself if you not only don’t love yourself but grow to abhor yourself? Many men and women have tried it, usually to great disappointment. Baldwin’s David is honest some might say to a fault. He looks for expiation in all the wrong places.

Some of the scenes with dialog in “Giovanni’s Room” emulate Hemingway’s style where what is said best is what is left unsaid, as indeed Baldwin’s characters move in and out of cafes and bars like Le Select, a Jake Barnes of “The Sun Also Rises” old haunt, where Jake might have met them with a smile, and Lady Brett Ashley might have danced with them, the various merry but unhappy groups drinking and carousing through the well-lit but ambiguous Parisian night. Baldwin’s style is generous, almost absurdly gentle in places, beautiful in the way that unabashed beauty might cause pain. Love involves sacrifice. The body is a lamb, the brain a beast. Will machines ever be capable of human love and sacrifice? Wouldn’t the human brain, uploaded into a machine, simply crave a body?

Dog eared persons, categorized and shelved, used books. Ruminations. Room and ate shuns.