The Political Fray Replay

What does it mean to “vote one’s conscience”? Isn’t the conscience that comfortable place where sleeps one’s presuppositions, unquestioned assumptions, background biases, wishes, wants, and whimsy?

James Joyce was three months old when in May of 1882 two high-level government men associated with British rule were assassinated in what came to be called the Phoenix Park murders. The resulting fallout probably delayed home rule decades, destroyed more lives and families, fed family arguments over politics for decades, was absorbed into history and myth. Charles Stewart Parnell’s career faced new challenges, and Parnell’s early death was a tragedy for Ireland.

In “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Joyce’s Stephen recalls his family arguments arising from the topic –

That was called politics. There were two sides in it: Dante was on one side and his father and Mr. Casey were on the other side but his mother and Uncle Charles were on no side. Every day there was something in the paper about it.

It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak. When would he be like the fellows in Poetry and Rhetoric? They had big voices and big boots and they studied trigonometry.

Joyce’s Stephen, in “Portrait” and again in “Ulysses,” considers himself the servant of two masters, the Church and British rule. Stephen wants nothing to do with either. That Britain has its own church separate from Ireland’s complicates issues:

— Really, Simon, you should not speak that way before Stephen. It’s not right.

— Oh, he’ll remember all this when he grows up, said Dante hotly, the language he heard against God and religion and priests in his own home.

— Let him remember too, cried Mr Casey to her from across the table, the language with which the priests and the priests’ pawns broke Parnell’s heart and hounded him into his grave. Let him remember that too when he grows up.

— Sons of bitches! cried Mr Dedalus. When he was down they turned on him to betray him and rend him like rats in a sewer. Lowlived dogs! And they look it! By Christ, they look it!

— They behaved rightly, cried Dante. They obeyed their bishops and their priests. Honour to them!

— Well, it is perfectly dreadful to say that not even for one day in the year, said Mrs Dedalus, can we be free from these dreadful disputes!

Uncle Charles raised his hands mildly and said :

— Come now, come now, come now ! Can we not have our opinions whatever they are without this bad temper and this bad language? It is too bad surely.

Mrs Dedalus spoke to Dante in a low voice but Dante said loudly:

— I will not say nothing. I will defend my church and my religion when it is insulted and spit on by renegade catholics.

Mr Casey pushed his plate rudely into the middle of the table and, resting his elbows before him, said in a hoarse voice to his host:

— Tell me, did I tell you that story about a very famous spit?

The young Steve tries to understand the arguments, the claims and evidence and reasoning. He does not name the fallacies, not yet:

Stephen looked with affection at Mr Casey’s face which stared across the table over his joined hands. He liked to sit near him at the fire, looking up at his dark fierce face. But his dark eyes were never fierce and his slow voice was good to listen to. But why was he then against the priests? Because Dante must be right then. But he had heard his father say that she was a spoiled nun … Perhaps that made her severe against Parnell. And she did not like him to play with Eileen because Eileen was a protestant and when she was young she knew children that used to play with protestants and the protestants used to make fun of the litany of the Blessed Virgin. Tower of Ivory, they used to say, House of Gold! How could a woman be a tower of ivory or a house of gold? Who was right then ? And he remembered the evening in the infirmary in Clongowes, the dark waters, the light at the pierhead and the moan of sorrow from the people when they had heard.

Stephen tries to understand the allegiances:

He was for Ireland and Parnell and so was his father and so was Dante too for one night at the band on the esplanade she had hit a gentleman on the head with her umbrella because he had taken off his hat when the band played God save the Queen at the end.

But all the young Steven can really understand and what seems to stick with him over the years are the tears:

At the door Dante turned round violently and shouted down the room, her cheeks flushed and quivering with rage :

— Devil out of hell! We won! We crushed him to death! Fiend!

The door slammed behind her.

Mr Casey, freeing his arms from his holders, suddenly bowed his head on his hands with a sob of pain.

— Poor Parnell! he cried loudly. My dead king! He sobbed loudly and bitterly.

Stephen, raising his terrorstricken face, saw that his father’s eyes were full of tears.

The older Stephen decides not to join the political argument, but will devote himself to his art, his writing:

 A tide began to surge beneath the calm surface of Stephen ‘s friendliness.

— This race and this country and this life produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am.

— Try to be one of us, repeated Davin. In your heart you are an Irishman but your pride is too powerful.

— My ancestors threw off their language and took another, Stephen said. They allowed a handful of foreigners to subject them. Do you fancy I am going to pay in my own life and person debts they made? What for?

— For our freedom, said Davin.

— No honourable and sincere man, said Stephen, has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell but you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another. And you invite me to be one of you. I’d see you damned first.

— They died for their ideals, Stevie, said Davin. Our day will come yet, believe me.

Stephen, following his own thought, was silent for an instant.

— The soul is born, he said vaguely, first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.

 

How to Build a Bed

Readers of “Penina’s Letters” may recall Salty talking about sleep. In the short excerpt below, he would have us believe he can sleep anywhere, anyhow:

But one thing I had learned in the Army was the useful skill of how to sleep. I had written Penina I could now sleep in private or in public, in a bed or on a floor, with blankets, in a bag, fully dressed including boots or naked, amid noise or in silence, in the dark or under a light, stomach full or hungry, head to toe or hanging upside-down from a chandelier. I could sleep under water if ordered to. But what I wanted now was to curl to sleep with Penina. I didn’t know I’d soon be sleeping with Penina head to toe.

We awoke uncombed, our sleep disturbed, disrobed and distraught, un-wombed. We climbed downstairs. All the beds upstairs. Why not a bed in every room? Where the cats make their beds, now here, now there, anywhere.

Joyce’s Bloom’s bed is built with springs, like the spring, in Bloom’s description, used in a ring toss game. When did you last quoit?

No. She [Molly] didn’t want anything. He [Bloom] heard then a warm heavy sigh, softer, as she turned over and the loose brass quoits of the bedstead jingled. Must get those settled really.

Beds can be awfully noisy at times.

We used to make tables, desks, beds using the same, simple, two-by-four construction design. A 2X4 frame supports a slatted or plywood top. Tools needed: hand saw, hammer, and nails. Nails allow for quicker assembly, but screws allow for easier deconstruction – so add a screwdriver. Parts needed: 2X4’s, plywood, or slats, nails, screws. Sandpaper for very rough spots, but this is not cabinetry work, not furniture, but practical and economical and time-efficient. The pieces are made to easily deconstruct, an important feature in our nomadic days.

I made a futon frame bed this weekend. I made the base, or platform, in two parts, so easier to move up or down stairs, around corners, easily strapped to the roof of a car.

The wood used was purchased years ago, having previously been used in the making of an extra long twin bed, and a desk with bookshelves installed against a wall (not so nomadic, that project). I’m not sure what the wood cost new would be today, and it’s possible that you might be able to pick up a frame unit lighter and cheaper at IKEA or some such store. If so, the utility of this bed construction design is already disappearing, like newspapers. But there are several deconstruction and recycling stores in our area where one can pick up used wood materials cheaply – as well as used tools, nails, and screws.

Note that with a futon mattress, no box springs are needed (the lower mattress in the common, two mattress bed set). And the futon itself is much simpler than the standard mattress: it’s made of cotton, can be rolled up, smells delicious, conforms to your body’s sleep design. The futon also can be deconstructed, though it should last a very long time.

The wood may be hand-rubbed with coconut oil to soften, protect and preserve, and add a flavorful scent to the bedroom digs.

Cherry Trees in City Park in Spring

031920152271It was such a perfect day in the park. You might have been reminded of the Lou Reed song “Perfect Day.” The cherry trees were drinking sangria:

Oh, it’s such a perfect day
I’m glad I spent it with you
Oh, such a perfect day
You just keep me hanging on

The second person is often tricky. “Who is you?” the cherry trees sang above the fresh open water of the reservoir.

“And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Galatians 6:9 KJV). But the world will likely not end with a moral but with a song of thirst. “Do you think your cherry blossoms will sink or swim?”

031920152268

“The depths below the surfaces must be equal.”

Joyce uses the word cherry only three times in “Ulysses,” and he may have thought of cherry as a word that triggers a genre, of sangria fruit and not the white wine of the cherry blossoms:

Did you try the borax with the cherry laurel water?…
always with a laugh in her gipsylike eyes and a frolicsome word on her cherryripe red lips…
she of the cherry rouge and coiffeuse white…

Cherry TreeSit down on the grass and listen. You can hear the water flowing out of the ground pipe and into the reservoir, the waterfall fountain breaking the still blue water white and frothy like surf. Like John Cage, wherever Joyce listened, he heard music:

O, look we are so! Chamber music. Could make a kind of pun on that. It is a kind of music I often thought when she. Acoustics that is. Tinkling. Empty vessels make most noise. Because the acoustics, the resonance changes according as the weight of the water is equal to the law of falling water.

The breeze coming up the hill and over the water was blowing the blossoms off the trees and into the air. If you look closely at the left hand side of the photo below, you will see the blossoms in the air, as dry as your virtual kiss:

031920152264

Mkgnao!9: Alien Cats from Outer Space (A Minidrama)

Mkgnao!9

Abducted by alien cats from outer space and whisked away to a faraway planet then shot back to Earth from a circus cannon cocked with physicist rubber string theory, a cat cannonball, Scamble tries to interest Cramble in a tabloid worthy extraterrestrial tale!

Cramble: [Silence]

Scamble: “And you have nothing to say?!”

Cramble: “Does this have something to do with my recent cloture motion?”

Scamble: “No! The cat planet is called Mkgnao!9. It’s all bushes and trees, birds and fish, and dunes of kitty litter. It’s a cat’s paradise. Everyone there is a hep cat!”

Cramble: “If all are hep, none is hep.”

Scamble: “Nonetheless, no matter what radio station you play, Mantovani! The planet is lush with the sounds of birds and strings and bugs flirting about hither and thither and streams of white wine full of fish on the lark. I’m thinking of moving to Mkgnao!9. Do you want to go with me?”

Cramble: “Sounds too good to be true. What’s the catch? I’ll bet there’s a downside.”

Scamble: “Their oceans are filling with used kitty litter.”

Cramble: “Making it difficult to know how to pack. In any case, how will you get back to Mkgnao!9 if the hep space cats don’t come pick you up again?”

Scamble: “Silence, Exile, and Cunning.”

Cramble: “Here you go with that James Joyce cheap cheat imitation literary allusion stuff again. Anyway, I don’t get the connection.”

Scamble: “Joyce is the patron saint of cats up on Mkgnao!9.”

Cramble: “Lucky Jim.”

Scamble: “I’m going to write a memoir about my Mkgnao!9 experience!”

Cramble: “Sounds wild. I’ve heard the memoir form is popular these days. I was thinking of writing one, but I can’t seem to get past chapter one, “Begot to Nap.” But why don’t you create something new? Wasn’t that the gist of Joyce’s gig, to repair in the garage of his brain the broken bicycle of his island, rally the folks to a new way of riding, or words to that effect?”

Scamble: “I just did!”

Cramble: “Did what?”

Scamble: “Create something new!”

Cramble: “What?”

Scamble: “Mkgnao!9!”

Cramble: “It’s a good thing the id is kept out of sight.”

Scamble: “Do cats have an id?”

Cramble: “Everything’s got an id, if only you can find it.”

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

Kirill Medvedev: “It’s No Good”

Kirill Medvedev’s poems are easy to get into. He explains situations, tells stories about people. You don’t mind listening and want to hear more. He’s contemplative and calm and reasonable, even when he’s making a wakeup call, dissing and dressing down, asking why things can’t be rearranged. The vocabulary isn’t hard. The figurative language is sparse. “I don’t like metaphors,” he says (74). The poems are slim, fat free, figureless. In some lines, he’s almost like a stand-up comic, in his delivery, his next move always a surprise. But the poems challenge in other ways. If you’re not laughing, you might be his subject, and the venue seems either oppressive or empty tonight. Medvedev’s concerns are the Man (government, politics, power), Work and Money (economics, business, family), and Free Time (culture – what we do when we get off work – trust, honesty, values). He puts those concerns into his poems, essays, and special pieces he calls “actions.”

It’s No Good: poems / essays / actions” includes selections of Kirill Medvedev’s writing from 2000 through 2012. Published in December 2012 by Ugly Duckling Presse, you can get a copy as a giveaway incentive with a new print subscription to n+1. While Medvedev, like Faulkner’s Isaac, has renounced his copyright, the English translations from the Russian original are copyrighted by Keith Gessen, who provides an introduction, and several other translators. “It’s No Good” is an argument. What’s no good? The title is from Medvedev’s first book of poems. Gessen explains the Russian title, “Vsyo plokho,” can be translated into “Everything’s Bad.” Medvedev is talking about the predicament of a nascent generation, and poetry becomes the window through which everything can be thrown.

Poetry, for Medvedev, is “an authentic way of seeing, the degree of its expressiveness the only criterion by which you can determine its quality” (125). This would seem to be a good, and it is: “I am, of course, exaggerating,” he says. “I’m forcing reality to fit under my favorite rubric of ‘it’s no good.’ It’s not entirely true; some things are good; there are oases” (124). The problem, why everything might be bad, is that our contemporary predicament includes more than poetry. But to know what poetry is and what you are trying to make with it is not a bad predicament. It’s a good start to know

“…your own worth)
…to determine
THE CAPACITY
to see and accept yourself
as you are” (74-75).

And then what? “We need to do away with this false notion of ‘poetry as private activity'” (136).

Charles Bukowski is precursor to Medvedev’s poetic attitude. Medvedev translated Bukowski from English to Russian, but he knows he’s not Bukowski, nor does he want to be. Bukowski is rude and raw, cusses in his poems, drinks to excess, and is apolitical and not socially engaged. He’s an outsider, sits alone at the end of the bar, but when he talks, he’s clear. What Medvedev has in common with Bukowski is an absence of compromise, honesty (which means speaking clearly of your predicament, your situation, in a contemporary voice), and a disdain for the various fine clothes and perfumes that poems are sometimes made to wear:

“everything is
nothing, everything is
nothing, just the way it
started, I kiss statues
and the flies circle singing
rot, rot, rot” (Bukowski, from “Song of the Flies“).

Bukowski, a son of Los Angeles, grew up in good weather, but the Great Depression hit from without and from within. He grew up in a “house of horrors” (see “Ham on Rye“).

“From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State” (see Randall Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner“). Yes, from mom’s syrupy womb, we all slip and fall into our father’s house, a country governed by an attitude, and if your father happens to be temperamental, poetry may be one of the few options available to escape his pincer plier grasp. “I’m a child of the Russian intelligentsia, I’m a person of culture” (122) Medvedev says (his italics), another difference between him and Bukowski, I thought, until I got to his definition of culture. Culture, for Medvedev, is connecting to the predicament of the weary. He speaks a kind of “Weary Blues,” as Langston Hughes wrote. The Soviet Union has collapsed, but there are problems with the renaissance. In the Dylan song “It’s All Good” (“Together Through Life” 2009), the phrase is used sarcastically. The phrase is a political speech, an aphoristic tip of the hat to the power of positive thinking folks, an advertisement for soap or cigarettes, Faulkner’s lament that the US has found no other place for the artist than to use his celebrity to sell something. The phrase it’s all good suggests art must remain a positive thing, to clean up everything bad. Art must not contribute to the bad. Medvedev’s title “It’s No Good” is an opposing viewpoint to the hollow socio-political phrase “It’s All Good”; or is it:

“so everything’s all right.
although, maybe the fact that
everything’s all right is the problem?
no, that’s not a problem.

or maybe it’s that when everything’s all right,
that just doesn’t sit well with me?
no, it sits well.

(then what the hell?)” (note: ellipsis in penultimate line is part of the poem, 213).

What’s a good poem in Medvedev’s view? You don’t hear Medvedev talking about craft. A good poem must be new (if what you’re into is craft, your poem is old at conception), and a good new poem must contemplate a new audience, one that didn’t exist prior to the poem. The poem draws a crowd (184). This may sound like a fad or pop art call-out, but it’s a great challenge to “light out for the territory ahead of all the rest,” as Huck said, to avoid the old ways of getting civilized. This is the reason Medvedev turned away from the traditional forms of writing, publishing, and hobnobbing in the literary world. Most of “It’s No Good” was published originally on his website following his renunciation of his copyright. He explains why he started a blog. And “It’s No Good” ends with selected poems originally published by Medvedev on his Facebook page. Imagine John Ashbery or Billy Collins starting to self-publish their poems on a Facebook page. Imagine the look on their literary agents’ faces. These guys have agents, but it should be noted that very few poets have agents, because there’s no money in poetry: a poet could craft a manned spaceship to Mars in a poem, solve the riddle of dark matter in a metaphor, steal the Pope’s hat in a trope – there would still be no money in his poetry. So why shouldn’t Ashbery and Collins earn a bit of dough with their poems? It’s all good.

It’s not that Medvedev did not have status as a poet. He studied at the Moscow “Lit. Institute,” was published as a poet, journalist, and critic, is a translator, gave readings, but apparently, with regard to those things, “it’s no good.” Contemporary poets like Medvedev take risks, and there’s a certain kind of toughness required. Poetry is no good; it’s all good. Throughout “It’s No Good,” Medvedev talks about past Russian writers, imprisonments during the Soviet era, all sorts of harassment, the risks of failure and loss, and particularly the political engagement that often results in exile, censorship, or worse (Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, comes to mind; and in the US, the McCarthy years of blacklisting and the numbing that came from the naming of names), and Medvedev speaks clearly, eloquently, and with great empathy for oppressed individuals and peoples. And throughout all of this he emphasizes a perhaps obvious but powerful point: you don’t have to be a politician to participate in politics. This is why the anthologized poem is effete and a waste of Medvedev’s time and energy (198). One of Medvedev’s poems, titled “How’s This for a Poem?,” is made from the text of a press interview with a crane operator given after he was fired from his job for trying to help organize workers. Medvedev gets out the caps in the last stanza:

“BUT IT’S ALRIGHT life goes on
and as for me, given all the free time
Surgutneftegaz has accidentally presented me with,
I INTEND TO USE IT EVERY SINGLE DAY
TO FIGHT FOR PEOPLE’S RIGHTS – THEIR HUMAN
RIGHTS” (note: caps are part of the poem, 220).

“It’s No Good” doesn’t so much end as stop. Because it’s now today, and we are free once again to move about. Or are we? In the last section of the last poem a young widowed mother soothes her child to sleep in a working class nativity scene. She wants her child to grow strong to continue the fight. The fight for what? We’ve been through two decades of “It’s No Good,” witnessed, of course vicariously, the exploitations and losses, the external chaos that seems to galvanize the internal despair, wars and fights, and the competing interests of groups and individuals. That’s all a reader can do, witness vicariously, but a writer like Medvedev is both a reader and a person of action, a true poet, which for him means to influence change. But what if the child wants to “light out for the territory”? Can that right be subsumed too? But there is no territory that is not somehow enabled by connections, Medvedev would say. How should we act, behave, in a fatherless state – this is now Medvedev’s concern. Father Bear has finally wandered off for good, isn’t coming home anymore. We are free to move about, must move about.

And once up and moving about, then what? “No work of art is a thing in itself, as bourgeois thought claims,” Medvedev says. He carefully considers the values of pure art, straightforward utterance, the new sincerity (or the new emotionalism, which sounds like the breakout of memoir here in the US), and dismisses them all as avoidances, enablements, co-optations. Nor is art “a divine reflection, as religious thought claims, but evidence of all of society’s defects, including the relations of the dominant and dominated. The task of innovative art is to insist on the uniqueness of the individual while revealing the genuine relations between people, the true connections in society, and, as a result, to forge a new reality” (199-203, 237).

Joyce comes to mind, who at the end of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” has decided to leave his country and home and family:

“—Look here, Cranly, he said. You have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning….

Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order. She prays now, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels. Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Joyce was on the run from two masters, the Church and imperial Britain (“Ulysses“), but while Joyce would have, in Medvedev’s view, influenced literature, he would not have influenced politics. He would not have made a difference in his reader’s lives. And what difference he did make might now seem a disaster given how buried and anthologized he’s become in the academy, how many lives have been lost to peer review, a country with a stingy father and stiff immigration laws. Again from the final poem in “It’s No Good”:

“…for the moment
the progressive labor activists have a higher political consciousness
than the intellectuals,
than the professors,
it’s just too bad there are so few of them” (271-272).

“It’s No Good” is full of history, past and present, stories and anecdotes, commentary, reports of daily events. It’s significantly more than a book of poems, more than mere literature. It’s a book to be read and re-read, a book that encourages reflection on one’s place and activity in the web. Gessen’s introduction and the many footnotes throughout are helpful, and there are many paths pointed out for further reading.

Kirill Medvedev, “It’s No Good.” (2012). Edited and introduced by Keith Gessen. Translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen with Mark Krotov, Cory Merrill, and Bela Shayevich. n+1 / Ugly Duckling Presse, Eastern European Poets Series #30. ISBN 978-1-933254-94-4.

30 Jul 2013: Interview with Kirill Medvedev at Boston Review
30 Sep 2013: “Kirill Medvedev’s Personable Provocations” at The New Yorker Blog

Notes on Experience, Story, and Voice

Joe Linker Pizza Face by Emily“The idea that everyone has a story to tell (which underlies the notion that anyone can write since all a writer needs is a story) is strictly correct,” Jenny Diski said, writing in the London Review of Books (7 Mar, 21) about Marco Roth’s memoir, “The Scientists: A Family Romance.” Well, Henry James thought so, anyway. Continued Diski, echoing James, “If you were born, you’re in there with a story.”

“Every talk has his stay,” James Joyce said. But does every story have a voice? Is the writer’s job to tell the stories of those without voices? Is the critic’s job to decide how long the voice’s stay is welcomed, if at all? Not if Joyce had anything to stay about it: “Why? It is a sot of a swigswag, systomy dystomy, which everabody you ever anywhere at all doze. Why? Such me” (FW, 597). But even if one has a story with an illuminating voice, should one talk? And once one starts talking, must one tell all? Well, maybe not all, there are time and space constraints, after all. Ah, and there’s the rub, what to tell, and what to withhold.

Memoirs, like all forms of writing, have narrators: is he, or she, reliable? What have they left out? And even if they’ve tried to put everything in, there’s the problem of point of view. Would the story tell of the same experience related from another’s point of view, someone else who was witness? A memoir doesn’t contain fictional characters, but real people, but to the reader who has never met them, they may feel and sound like characters. The characters speak, but are their words reliable? The memoirist creates a set, described, composed, like a family photo album, and adds tone, the attitude toward the experience, all drawn with words that suggest as well as denote. And there is that slippery, mercurial ball of memory we always seem to be chasing after. We might call that ball ambiguity.

And writing in the March 18 New Yorker, Adam Gopnik says, “Thanks to the Internet…anyone can write” (21). The assumption is that not everyone should. All these amateur bloggers serve up knuckle balls to the professional writer, though the proliferation of adult amateur softball leagues doesn’t seem to hamper the work of pro baseball players. How many family garages or basements sport bands? That they don’t all reach Nirvana doesn’t invalidate their experience, as much as it might hurt our hearing. Why is the amateur spirit more tolerated, if not enjoyed, in music, arts and crafts, gardening, cooking, and sports (golf, anyone?) than in writing?

Henry James, in his essay “On the Art of Fiction” (1894), talks about experience, and answers a question about whether or not one individual’s experience might be more valid and valuable than another’s when it comes to writing about that experience. James is speaking of fiction, Diski of memoir. But memoir might be the most flagrant of fictions, since it attempts to disguise its narration as truth. But what makes any experience worth writing and reading? For James, the more cloistered a life’s experience the more opportunity for close reading of that experience. The only requirement is that one pay attention: “The young lady living in a village has only to be a damsel upon whom nothing is lost to make it quite unfair (as it seems to me) to declare to her that she shall have nothing to say about the military…The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it – this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, ‘Write from experience, and experience only,’ I should feel that this was a rather tantalising monition if I were not careful immediately to add, ‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!’”

Maybe everyone has a story, but not everyone has a voice, but through certain kinds of experience one might discover one’s voice, the expression of which might be realized in writing. But the expression of one’s story might also be realized in music, nursing, or plumbing. Maybe the writer’s job is to tell the stories of those without voices. But a more instructive way of thinking about experience, story, and voice might be to say that the writer’s job is to reveal voice where story is found in any one individual’s experience (not necessarily the writer’s), so that a reader might enjoy a kind of reading epiphany, realizing it’s the significance of their own experience being reflected. The reader hears her or his own voice. One need not be a writer, or a reader, to experience one’s own voice. But first we must find our voice, and where will we find it amidst all the wrack and ruin, the dry brine, the commercialism and the consumerism and the garbage sloughing like wax dripping from our ears, and deep in our ears a muffled sound like gigantic iron church bells echoing? But if indeed that’s our experience, how should it be voiced, or should we keep it silent?

We might read something and question the author’s authority, the authority of his or her voice. But the author of the writing should not be confused with the speaker of a narrative. Even if the writer who tells us the “I” of her poems is indeed her own voice, and that is the reason she writes, to describe her world, her reality, using her own voice, we still might think in terms of author and narrator, not necessarily the same. How does the writer decide what to put in and what to leave out of her poems about her reality? That decision making is the process of narration. Because as authors of our own narratives, our own stories, we still create characters, even if we call those characters ourselves, as in the memoir. This is why I said above that the memoir is perhaps the most flagrant of fictions.

Maybe no one has a voice, and we are all voiceless. We might all have stories, but we are all helpless, writers and non-writers alike, to voice those stories. This is why we keep writing, why there is no end to storytelling, amateur as well as professional. Earlier this year, a couple of houses on our block replaced their sewer lines to the street. I watched the workers and the job progress. I had done this kind of work with my father, years ago, and I marveled now as I did then at the simplicity of the technology, which has not changed much over the years. “Just remember, shit runs downhill,” my Dad said, handing me the shovel to dig a sewer pipe ditch. “That it do,” he said, concluding his short story, the voice of experience slowly dripping off as he walked away to more complicated, but no more important, matters on the job.

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