Words with Hats–Matthew Batt

“Consider the lilies, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin.”

                                                            —Luke, 12:24

My wife and I traveled recently to New York City with our six-year-old boy, and every so often he would point out a detail that, to him, was emblematic of the New York he’d seen in Spiderman comics, or on Night in the Museum, or in the beginning of the first Madagascar movie, or lord-knows-where. A detail of a mosaic while waiting for a subway, an advertisement for an Irish play starring two bowler-hatted English actors, the impossibly shiny spire of the Chrysler Building, the Easter Island sculpture at the Museum of Natural History, all of Times Square, the webwork of the Brooklyn Bridge . . . “that’s awfully New Yorkish,” he would say.

Technically, everything in New York is awfully New Yorkish, of course. But, for a moment, you might bicker. What about all the crappy tchotchke hawkers and their spangly wares of foreign provenance? What about all the Connecticut investment bankers who are just there on a day’s business? The oafish Minnesota tourists (us)? The hopeless Irish busker outside a falafel shop in Dumbo (you)? The gilded heiress fighting with me over the last puffy-vested FAO Schwartz commemorative teddy bear (I lost)? Little Italy? Chinatown? Hell. Vast swaths of Manhattan don’t even resemble themselves anymore. Chelsea? The Village? What Village, I ask. Most of the Village feels like a riff on a song co-written by Whole Foods, Lululemon, and Martha Stewart.

But still. Isn’t that perfectly New York? All of it? After all, it’s not meant to be a theme park of itself as though it were torn from a page of a George Saunders’ story (with the conspicuous exception of Times Square, which is not so much a place as an occasion for data, aspiring actors, tzatziki sauce, and a continuous flash mob eager to prove that everything happening all at once is the same as a void). But New York is New York when it isn’t Old York. There is no way for New York to remain itself without always redefining what’s so, well, New Yorkish about New York.

The way to find this out, of course, is to wander. All of Manhattan and its surly boroughs too, you just can’t take it all in at once. Which is true, of course, of everywhere, of everything, of everyone. Nabokov says we must read each work of narrative art at least twice because we don’t know its frame nor its limits until we’ve reached its end, therefore its perspective, its balance, its priorities are unknown. So we must read and we must reread. In that fashion, as somebody vaguely famous said, all writing too is rewriting. But our cities and our lives and, when we think about it, our texts too, evolve. Not usually while we’re looking at them—unless we’re on some heavy duty pharmaceutical influence and/or trapped under something heavy and thereby able/forced to stare at the same thing until robbed of our consciousness—but rather change, evolution, difference emerges like the dew—from both above and without and also from beneath and within.

So wander we must. Wander to discover the change. Wander to make the change possible. Wander to be the change, you beautiful, hopeless Irish busker, you. You fierce Quatarian princess with your unquenchable affection for plush things sporting jaunty sleeveless outerwear. You silly, six-year old from St. Paul skipping through Hell’s Kitchen. Change is the comet’s tail. Change is the Doppler effect echoing ahead of us. Change, too, is the vacuum left when we’re neither coming or going. When we’ve been there but aren’t any more. The pivot, unwobbling. The world wobbling all around it.

There are, too, many ways to wander, and, if we’re so inclined, we might crank up the stuffiness of this conversation and invite, say, Walter Benjamin and a few of his affected friends on this walking tour. For there is a word for this—a word for this literary wandering—this wavering—this wondering—and it is a word, too, with a bonus diacritical mark in the rough shape of a beret to make it not only French in etymology, but conspicuously, physically, concretely Super French.    The Flânuer.

But the word comes not only with the regular baggage of its conspicuous Frenchiness—because there is no cognate, no English translation or equivalent—but it also comes with the fancy brass-cornered Louis Vuitton valise-style baggage of the 19th century aristocracy. To be Baudelaire or Benjamin’s flaneur, one was not only intentionally wandering the city streets, one was idly strolling. Loafing practically. Egad.

To invoke Benjamin is to be pre-wearied for most but the supplementally-oxygenated. This notion of the flaneur as it steams across the Atlantic aboard the SS Condescension is staggeringly pretentious, studded like a tufted chaise lounger with pointless shiny buttons. I can barely even write the word Benjamin without trembling in anticipation of being slapped with a dough-white glove for yet again mispronouncing it—It’s not been-JAM-ing, you silly tart, it’s bin-ya-MEEEN!

But we need not be shamed to invoke a little French—think of how embarrassing it was when we tried out “Freedom Fries”?—after all, there is another very germane, very Frenchy word that goes right alongside flaneur—or rather right before it, alphabetically anyway: essay. Or rather: essai.

It is not as it was when we were in school: a tedious, strictly academic exercise in futilely trying to replicate in only thinly veiled original language the thoughts, prejudices, and other constipations of our teachers.

It is: a try, an attempt, an endeavor.

And, it is not only a noun (a paper).

It is a verb. Try. Attempt. Endeavor.

Whereas “flaneur” is the linguistic equivalent of spats, when coupled with “essay” and beat adequately enough with the disrespectful stick of Americanized English so that most of the Provencal mites are flung to their doom, we can take both back—from the 19th century Continental elitism, as well as from our very own slovenly selves. And we can both justify the seeming sloth of the wanderer, and praise and embrace the momentary ignoramus. We don’t have to wear cravats or great velvet capes or dot our walks with silver-tipped canes or anything. Words, after all, are defined not by dictionaries, but by usage.

Just last week, after all, the phrase “‘selfie’ trumps ‘twerk’” appeared as a headline in the New York Times.

We can flaneur if we want to. (We can leave our friends behind.)

 

In his acrobatic essay “Not Knowing,” Donald Barthelme writes that “art thinks ever of the world, cannot not think of the world, could not turn its back on the world even if it wished to.” However, he continues, “this does not mean that it’s going to be honest as a mailman; it’s more likely to appear as a drag queen.” Because, when it comes down to it, unless we’re only trying to learn cursive or its literary equivalent by simply tracing letters or words on the page, life, consciousness, and the literature that comes from it must be supple. “Art,” Barthelme writes, “cannot remain in one place.”

So then, neither should we. Not in terms of what we write about, nor where we sit, nor where we put our texts, nor in which genre our texts are situated.

Perhaps we can return then to Benjamin—howsoever the hell you pronounce it—who suggests that as the flaneur walks, “his steps create an astounding resonance on the asphalt. The gaslight shining down on the pavement casts an ambiguous light on this double floor. The city as a mnemonic for the lonely walker: it conjures up more than his childhood and youth, more than its own history.” The writer, as he wanders, both discovers and remembers his past in his present, and his present, of course, inscribes a new story on the city. The city is a mnemonic for the walker, and the walker, too, is a mnemonic for the city.

We not only remember each other. We member each other too.

And in that fashion, all good writing is travel writing.

And all good travel is writing.

Text, after all, is no longer just a noun either, nor is it merely something our students do while we’re jabbering away about past-participles and the like. Text is what we do to one another, with one another, to and with and through and because of our writing. We text one another.

We inscribe the world with our footprints and our trash, with our exhaust and our expired breath, with the texts we create and the texts we read and the texts we alter and the texts we are, and in that way, the world inscribes itself upon us. Upon our flesh, beneath our skin, into our eyes, and then—after that most complicated of upside-downing-and-backwarding of translations through various rods and cones and all the other metaphors and mysteries of vision—upon our minds where foreverafter—regardless of whether it was a physical or an intellectual or an olfactoral or whatever experience—regardless of the vehicle, LIFE has been texted upon our minds, and not through a lifetime of analysis and psychopharmacutical curing and aging will we ever be able to tell what was fact and what was fiction because—ask the neuroscientist—ask the psychiatrist—ask the seminarian—ask the poet—there is no difference between fact and fiction in the world of our memory and imagination. All of it is just bombardment—all that gregarious and grotesque and freakish and beautiful pornographicopia of data—all of it raining down like a waterfall of electric light on a triptych of paralytics—a little whorl of Midwesterners around which, for a moment, the whole of Times Square spins like a top, when then, in return, the string now taut, we spin right back.

Essays and Encyclopedias–Ned Stuckey-French

I was reading S/Z: An Essay, Chapter LXXXVII – THE VOICE OF SCIENCE.[1] In the previous chapter, THE VOICE OF EMPIRICS, Barthes argued that the narrative, like Sarrasine, will die; now he adds that the cultural codes “will also be extinguished.” There is, however, one small difference. The narrative will come to an end, whereas the references will be used up. The Voice of Empirics is silenced when the end of the long chain of the “already-written, already-seen, already-read, already-done” is reached, when last domino has fallen. At such a point, we are finally at the tail end of the tale. 1001 Nights minus one and counting.

Roland Barthes

The Voice of Science, on the other hand, is paradigmatic, rather than syntagmatic. Field theory applies, not linearity. The Cultural or Referential Codes live in neighborhoods, not on the street. They are grouped in farragoes, medleys, or conglomerations, a little here, a little there. Or, alternately, one might say they reside in books—a “set of seven or eight handbooks accessible to a diligent student in the classical bourgeois educational system,” says Barthes (though he then lists nine).

I was a diligent student—hardworking, curious, the straightest of arrows—and when I was a kid, my parents bought me, because I was their oldest child and so diligent, a child’s encyclopedia. It was called the Book of Knowledge. For a long time, it was for me the “anonymous Book,” the “anterior Book” to which Barthes refers, a kind of Platonic Realm wherein all answers resided. I would ask my parents why cats had whiskers or the sky was blue, and they’d tell me to look it up in the Book of Knowledge. Soon, however, I found that I had to go beyond the Book of Knowledge and so I moved down the shelf to my parents’ Encyclopedia Americana, sure it would have the missing answers and that soon I would learn everything.

To be honest, I’m still possessed of some of that same pride, or at any rate, I still like to look things up. I own a Columbia Desk Encyclopedia, William Rose Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, the American Family Encyclopedia, an O. E. D. (with magnifying glass), Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers from Plato to John Dewey, a Hammond’s Natural Atlas, several field guides, Jeremy Hawthorn’s Concise Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory, M. H. Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms, and so on and so on. Part of me still hopes my reference books will join forces and become Barthes’ “anonymous” or “anterior Book.”

Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert

It’s the same dream Diderot had in 1751 when he launched his encyclopedia. In the entry for “Encyclopédiein the Encyclopédie, he wrote, “It would have been difficult to propose a more extensive object than covering everything related to human curiosity, duty, needs, and pleasures.” Then, apparently having already caught some guff, he quickly added, “For this reason some persons accustomed to judge the possibilities of an enterprise by the limited resources they recognize in themselves have pronounced that we will never bring ours to completion.” Diderot gave the project twenty-five years of his life, continuing on even when his co-editor (and now former friend) d’Alembert dropped out in 1759. D’Alembert was discouraged because the government (in league with the Church) had banned their attempt to make all knowledge available to all people. By then, however, the Encyclopédie had become a big business, employing 140 contributors (including Jefferson, Franklin, and Voltaire) and scores of illustrators, engravers, typesetters and printers. The shear size of the project enabled Diderot to keep it going. It became a kind of open secret. He would eventually publish 28 volumes, containing 71,818 articles and 3,129 illustrations.

To those limited persons who dared judge the possibilities of his enterprise, Diderot said,

They shall have as sole reply this passage from Chancellor Bacon, which seems to address them specifically: “As for the impossibility, I take it for granted that those works are possible which may be accomplished by some person, though not by every one; which may be done by many, though not by one; which may be completed in the succession of ages, though not within the hourglass of one man’s life; and which may be reached by public effort, though not by private endeavor.”

He took this passage from Bacon’s unfinished De augmentis scientiarum (Partition of Sciences).  We essayists are now, I think, mostly Montaigneans and reading the passage, we’re liable to dismiss it as typical of Bacon, who was, after all, a systematizer, originator of the scientific method, utopian novelist, and writer of closed, careful, didactic, aphoristic and short impersonal essays.  But we might do well to remember that Montaigne, though certainly more hesitant, humble and forthcoming than Bacon, was not without ambition. In his own way, he too was after it all. In the three editions of his Essais (1580, 1588, 1595), Montaigne rarely subtracted. Instead, he added—sometimes just a word or a sentence, sometimes a whole essay. He may have been less afraid of contradicting himself than Bacon was, but the fact remains that his book kept growing, and his search for what he knew stopped only with his death.  Essai means a trial or an attempt, and we usually characterize the attempt as provisional, but the root leads also to assay, an analysis or trial meant to tell us once and for all whether we’ve been fooled or the gold is real.

The essay, split at its root between Bacon’s empiricism and Montaigne’s subjectivity, is still split, or at least its practitioners continue to maintain different relations to knowledge. They include generalists and specialists writing as generalists, all of them trying to figure out what they do and don’t know. Scott Sanders has nicely called the essay “an amateur’s raid on the world of specialists,” but it’s also the genre of choice for specialists who want to shake off their jargon and talk to the general public. Among twentieth-century American experts alone who were also essayists the list includes at least Aldo Leopold (M.S., Forestry, Yale, 1909), Rachel Carson (M.S., Zoology, Johns Hopkins, 1932), Loren Eiseley (Ph.D., Anthropology, Pennsylvania, 1937), Lewis Thomas (M.D., Harvard, 1937), and Stephen Jay Gould (Ph.D., Paleontology, Columbia, 1967).

I’m no expert but as I said, I do know how to look things up. The reference books on my shelves still get some use, but I’m no fool. I know the Digital Age means publishers will no longer be printing dictionaries and encyclopedias. Why would they when a digital version is so much easier to search? We say Google makes us stupid, but our iPads and smart phones have resurrected Diderot’s dream. All of us have all of the answers right at our fingertips. Google Books makes every book available to everybody, or at least it will, says Google, if we can loosen the copyright laws and usher in Lewis Hyde’s gift economy. Then, everyone will have borrowing privileges at Borges’ Library of Babel, which contains every possible book.

But will we?

Google is trying to scan every book, but every book is not – as both Borges and Barthes knew – the same thing as every possible book.

First, I outgrew my Book of Knowledge, then I outgrew my parents’ Encyclopedia Americana, and then, I went off to college and outgrew my parents. No one knows as much as a college freshman, or at least the college freshman that I was. I thought I knew everything, or at least, with the help of my college education and some new smarty-pants reference books, I soon would. Suddenly my parents seemed hopelessly middlebrow. My father the college professor might be an intellectual, but he was just a G. I. Bill intellectual, and my mother…well, she only had an associate’s degree. She was just a Book-of-the-Month Club intellectual, which was no intellectual at all. Oh, I was full of myself.

I came home from college for the summer, but this time I didn’t have a job lined up. June was edging toward July and my lollygagging was driving my dad crazy so he hired me himself. Every year for maybe a decade he had written the World Book Yearbook entry on Agriculture and now he was getting tired of doing it. Plus, he had a lazy ingrate in the house who needed a job. He handed me a file full of clippings and said, “Here’s last year’s entry, some articles, and the current data from the USDA. Update the entry. I need a draft in two weeks.”

I did need the money. And how hard could it be? A G. I. Bill intellectual had done it on autopilot. Boredom would probably be the big challenge.

But, I would come to find out, both encyclopedia articles and the middlebrow people who write and read them were more complicated than I had thought.

“‘Middlebrow,’” according to cultural historian Nicola Humble, “has always been a dirty word.” From the beginning it has been equated with smugness and avidity, an unseemly grasping after status, the contamination of real culture. The O. E. D. says the word’s first appearance in print occurred in the December 23, 1925 issue of Punch, where it was used to describe “people who are hoping that someday they will get used to the stuff they ought to like.” I’d not come across that reference yet, but already I knew that my parents were trying too hard and that as hard as they tried, they weren’t quite up to snuff. After all, I’d gone away to college and was reading real highbrow stuff – Milton and Donne, T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, Shakespeare for Christ’s sake. Now, home for the summer, everything seemed thrown into high relief. My mom’s Michener novels and Utrillo prints had become downright embarrassing.

I hadn’t even read the New York Intellectuals yet, but already they were warning me against my parents and their pathetic attempts to acquire cultural capital. The Revised Standard Version on Sunday morning and Omnibus on Sunday afternoons would no longer cut it. For twenty years, without me knowing it, Dwight Macdonald and his cohort had waged and won the Battle of the Brows. Clement Greenberg blamed middlebrow for “corrupting the honest” and “stultifying the wise.” Robert Warshow labeled it the “mass culture of the educated classes” and warned that it was bringing about a “disastrous vulgarization of intellectual life.” Macdonald called it “a tepid ooze” that was “spreading everywhere.” He dismissed the Encyclopedia Britannica’s 54-volume Great Books of the Western World as nothing more than “The Book-of-the-Millennium Club.” I didn’t need to have read the New York Critics on middlebrow, my college roommate’s mother had done it for me and passed on their wisdom through him to me: “Life magazine is for people who can’t read, and Time magazine is for people who can’t think.” My mother read Time cover-to-cover every week.

But here’s the rub, essayists: isn’t the essay—that translator of specialized knowledge, that kissing cousin of the journalistic article, that product of memory and research rather than imagination and art, that service genre used to explain the more literary genres such as fiction and poetry, that fourth genre that, as E. B. White reminded us, “stands a short distance down the line”—isn’t it finally…I mean if we face facts…well, isn’t it middlebrow?

But contradictions abound and here is another rub. When I went away to college in 1968, at the same time I was getting a heavy dose of high culture, my classmates and I were marching in the streets and occupying buildings, fighting not just to end the war but also to democratize culture. We were arguing for women’s studies and African-American studies programs, for a canon that included women and minority writers as well as dead Englishmen.  Soon, we’d begin to read theorists of the French generation of 1968: Barthes, for instance, who in Mythologies took seriously such products of mass culture as professional wrestling, soap ads, plastic, strip joints, and Garbo’s face.

It would be a while but in time these French critics would even take middlebrow seriously. Would take my parents seriously! For Pierre Bourdieu, the point was not that middlebrow taste is good or bad as taste, but rather that it is indicative of one’s position within class society. Middlebrow culture is caught in the middle. Its contradictions are of a particular kind. For Bourdieu, the middlebrow is a figure that is at once pathetic and noble, an earnest autodidact who never quite finds the “good” taste she is after. They are, he says, “divided between the tastes they incline to and the tastes they aspire to.” The G. I. Bill intellectuals and their families were part of an expanding middle class, one that included my mom and dad as well as Ward and June Cleaver. They had acquired some new capital but did not have a lot of cultural capital. To fill that gap, they subscribed to what they though were the right magazines, joined book clubs, and learned to play bridge. For Bourdieu, their rush to display their culture seems more tragic (or comic) than threatening. I still wasn’t sure.

And then there’s the question of the essay as middlebrow. According to Bourdieu, “the producers…of middle-brow culture” who make up “the new cultural intermediaries (the most typical of whom are the producers of cultural programmes on TV and radio or the critics of ‘quality’ newspapers and magazines and all the writer-journalists and journalist-writers) have invented a whole series of genres, half-way between legitimate culture and mass production (‘letters,’ ‘ essays,’ ‘eye-witness accounts’).”

Carl Van Doren with Bust of Benjamin Franklin by Luis Quintanilla

Bourdieu’s analysis would, in time, help explain Omnibus, Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, Eric Severeid, the rise of PBS, New Yorker profiles, and even Terry Gross, but back then I still had a World Book entry to write. And little did I know that didn’t have to go to high falutin’ French theorists to get a good take on encyclopedias. In fact, one of the best middlebrow critics, Carl Van Doren, had already written about “the idea of the Encyclopedia.” Reviewing a new French encyclopedia in 1962, Van Doren wrote,

The idea of the French work is also radical. It appears to be statable in five propositions, each of which may sound strange to the reader of an ordinary encyclopedia. The five propositions are these:
1. The primary aim of an encyclopedia should be to teach. It should only secondarily be to inform.

2. An encyclopedia should be primarily a work of art. It should only secondarily be a work of reference.

3. The point of view of an encyclopedia should be primarily human. It should be only secondarily historical and/or scientific and/or literary.

4. The ideal reader of an encyclopedia should be primarily the curious average man. He should only secondarily be the specialist and/or the high school student.

5. An encyclopedia should be primarily a document that hopes to change the world for the better. It should only secondarily be a document that accurately reflects the knowledge, opinions and prejudices of its time.

That sounds pretty good, but as I said, I knew nothing about Van Doren’s piece. As I began to work on my World Book entry, I did however begin to experience something Van Doren had observed: “Most encyclopedias, particularly the American ones, have little or no idea of themselves. They just grow; they are not created.” That is, the whole mystique of an encyclopedia, indeed of writing itself, began to fall apart for me. It was, as Barthes would say, de-mythologized. The World Book, which I knew stood on our shelves both literally and culturally between The Book of Knowledge and the Encyclopedia Americana, might be middlebrow, but it was also tricky and asking something new of me. Where once I had used it for my school reports, now I was writing it, or more properly, ghostwriting it. And that was both weird and a little unnerving.  My dad had been contracted to do the job. They’d bought his byline, not mine. But if I didn’t get the byline, I did get some money. I don’t remember how much now. It wasn’t a lot, but it felt like a lot. It was the first time I’d got paid for a piece of writing, which was a big deal to me. Still is. My dad had trusted me to write the piece and then when I did, he took my draft seriously. He gave me criticism and asked for some changes – it was going out over his name after all. We revised, we collaborated, and when it came out, he sent me a copy. I’ve still got it.

Which is not to say everything was hunky dory. I told my friend Brent Beebe about this job my father had given me, and he in turn told me how his stepsister, Lou-Ann Smith, had set herself the chore the previous summer of reading the entire World Book. This revelation did little to lift the World Book in my eyes—quite the opposite in fact. Lou-Ann Smith seemed nice enough, if a little dorky (she was overweight and played the pipe organ at the Episcopal church), but I didn’t really know her. She was just Brent’s stepsister. She, her mom, and her younger brother and sister had joined Brent, his father, and Brent’s two younger brothers in a kind of odd and uncomfortable precursor to The Brady Bunch. The Beebe men had been on their own since Brent’s mom ran off with a graduate student when Brent was in about fifth grade. Brent’s father, a Joyce scholar, a real intellectual, drank too much. The basement was a man cave with a bar, a TV mounted above the bar, a pool table, and the boys’ bedrooms. Lou-Ann’s brother Clay fit in okay. He seemed thrilled in fact to have all of a sudden acquired some brothers, but even then I could tell that the girls found their new house to be less congenial. Lurlene, Lou-Ann’s mother, had been married to an Army man. She was a strong woman who corrected my grammar once and often stood up to Brent’s dad. Once, I saw her try a few puffs of cigar. It was something I couldn’t imagine any mom doing, certainly not my own.  In any case, it pissed Brent’s dad off. “Who do you think you are? Amy Lowell?”

To which she shot back, “Relax. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” All of which went over my head.

Brent and I laughed at Lou-Ann behind her back and made fun of her (apparently successful) attempt to read her way through the World Book. To our thinking, reading an encyclopedia from A to Z did not save you from being a dork; it confirmed that you were one. But we were adolescent boys who stupidly thought we knew everything, or at least we thought we knew everything about Lou-Ann who was stupid enough to think she could read an encyclopedia and then know everything. If indeed that’s what she thought. Maybe she was bored. Maybe she was trying to escape the weird house of boys in which she found herself. Maybe she missed her father.

Of stupidity and the cultural codes, Barthes has this to say: “In fact, the cultural code occupies the same position as stupidity: how can stupidity be pinned down without declaring oneself intelligent? How can one code be superior to another without abusively closing off the plurality of codes? Only writing, by assuming the largest possible plural in its own task, can oppose without appeal to force the imperialism of each language.”

Major General Homer D. Smith

Brent and I were right to think that not everything is in the encyclopedia, but we had no idea about what actually lay outside in the real world. Years later, I found out that at the same time Barthes was writing S/Z and I was writing my World Book entry, Lou-Ann’s dad, Major General Homer D. Smith, was serving as Chief of Staff of the 1st Logistics Command in Vietnam, the largest in the United States Army at that time. His operation, with an assigned strength of over 100,000 troops, provided logistical support to all the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines engaged in combat in the Da Nang area. On February 20, 1969, about 200 kilometers north of Da Nang, in Quang Tri province, Denny Cripe who played football with me and Brent, was killed by “an explosive device,” one of 58,220 Americans and perhaps a million Vietnamese who died in the war. Six years after that, General Smith was still in Vietnam serving now as the Defense Attaché at the U. S Embassy. As such, he was the senior military officer in the country and oversaw the evacuation of 1,373 U.S. citizens and 4,595 “Third Country Nationals and Vietnamese citizens” from Saigon. General Smith was in one of the last helicopters to lift off the roof of the U. S. Embassy. The evacuees he helped escape included hundreds of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American orphans in what was called Operation Babylift. Unfortunately, on April 4, 1975, during this operation 138 people were killed in the crash of a C-5A Galaxy transport plane, including 78 children and 35 Defense Attaché personnel.

To Barthes, the idea that there is something called life that we might know (or that, according to two know-it-all boys, Lou-Ann Smith might not know) is a mistaken one. For Barthes, even the word “Life” must be capitalized and put inside quotation marks. It is a creation of the “anterior book” that is at once a book of science, wisdom, and all “the didactic material mobilized in the text.” All of these references, says Barthes, these cultural codes, by “a swivel characteristic of bourgeois ideology” turn “culture into nature” and appear to establish reality, [or] ‘Life.’” Such setting in stone is what I was trying to do when I wrote the definitive article about U. S. agriculture for the World Book Encyclopedia. It wasn’t an essay.


[1] And here, as a footnote, without its footnotes, is that chapter:

LXXXVII. THE VOICE OF SCIENCE

The cultural codes, from which the Sarrasinean text has drawn so many references, will also be extinguished (or at least will emigrate to other texts; there is no lack of hosts): one might say that it is the major voice of minor science that is departing in this fashion. In fact, these citations are extracted from a body of knowledge, from an anonymous Book whose best model is doubtless the School Manual. For, on the one hand, this anterior Book is both a book of science (of empirical observation) and a book of wisdom, and on the other hand, the didactic material mobilized in the text (often, as we have noted, as a basis for reasoning or to lend its written authority to emotions) generally corresponds to the set of seven or eight handbooks accessible to a diligent student in the classical bourgeois educational system: a History of Literature (Byron, The Thousand and One Nights, Ann Radcliffe, Homer), a History of Art (Michelangelo, Raphael, the Greek miracle), a History of Europe (the age of Louis XV), an Outline of Practical Medicine (disease, convalescence, old age, etc.), a Treatise on Psychology (erotic, ethnic, etc.), an Ethics (Christian or Stoic: themes from Latin translations), a Logic (for syllogisms), a Rhetoric, and an anthology of maxims and proverbs about life, death, suffering. love, women, ages of man, etc. Although entirely derived from these books, these codes, by a swivel characteristic of bourgeois ideology, which turns culture into nature, appear to establish reality, “Life.” “Life” then, in the classic text, becomes a nauseating mixture of common opinions, a smothering layer of received ideas: in fact, it is in these cultural codes that what is outmoded in Balzac, the essence of what, in Balzac, cannot be (re) written, is concentrated. What is out-moded, of course, is not a defect in performance, a personal inability of the author to afford opportunities in his work for what will be modern, but rather a fatal condition of Replete Literature, mortally stalked by the army of stereotypes it contains. Thus, a critique of the references (the cultural codes) has never been tenable except through trickery, on the very limits of Replete Literature, where it is possible (but at the cost of what acrobatics and with what uncertainty) to criticize the stereotype (to vomit it up) without recourse to a stereotype: that of irony. Perhaps this is what Flaubert did (we shall say it once again), particularly in Bouvard et Pécuchet, where the two copyists of scholastic codes are themselves “represented” in an uncertain status, the author using no metalanguage (or a suspended metalanguage) in their regard. In fact, the cultural code occupies the same position as stupidity: how can stupidity be pinned down without declaring oneself intelligent? How can one code be superior to another without abusively closing off the plurality of codes? Only writing, by assuming the largest possible plural in its own task, can oppose without appeal to force the imperialism of each language.

Captivating Fractals Found in Nature–Kate Rosenberg

A LETTER WRITING CAMPAIGN. Four days after my brother was struck by lightning and I was still wearing my pajamas. Four days and I had to teach my writing classes so I added a necklace, cardigan and boots to my pajamas. I sat on the desk in the front row, my pajama-ed legs indelicately dangling, and told my class that I did not give a shit about writing today (or maybe never again, who knows?) and then I told them the story that’s, by now, been told hundreds of times, spreading like a fractal from family to friends to friends-of-friends to postal clerks and priests, florists and my gynecologist who asked me, “what’s new?” at the wrong time.

I made my students sit at their desks and write a letter of gratitude to someone they love and three girls cried while they did it and I didn’t feel bad at all for them. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw the tarp slung over a rope strung between trees; my brother’s makeshift tent, unmarked by the lightning; the image captured by his friend who rode a horse up the side of the mountain to retrieve the gear my brother left behind. I kept my eyes open, eagle eyes on each student, to make sure their heads were down and their pencils were moving.

AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION. There has never been a single soul who has searched the internet for ways to prevent a tension headache (too little, too late) and yet, with a bag of frozen lima beans jammed up against the base of my skull, I furiously scroll through the lengthy paragraphs about stress reduction and proper spinal alignment, both of which would have spared me my current situation. I’m enraged and crying now because, well, I haven’t properly prevented. I am only satisfied when I read that sometimes doctors will prescribe narcotics for debilitating headaches. That seems reasonable.

Severe headaches are a common, lingering effect of lightning striking the body. So is memory loss (short and long term), depression, phantom pain, cataracts, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But the headaches? If that’s what my brother gets, I can deal with that. I can deal with that because I have awful headaches more days than I don’t and I do things with frozen vegetables, heating pads, caffeine, and pain killers that make them better and I am not fundamentally changed by my headaches. I cannot abide my brother living a life in which he is suddenly held captive by bouts of depression or shadow memories of trauma that squeeze him so tightly he becomes nothing but cells of pain, stitched together by his body’s relentless desire to stay alive. I cannot deal with that; I have lived most of my life slipping in and out of depressive states and, unlike the headaches, I will not give my approval for that pain. I will take it from him; I will steal it and I will make it mine; I will close my eyes and we will be 9 and 6 years old again and I will have slid the Butterfingers from beneath a pile of crinkly Halloween candy and he will be none the wiser. We are thirty-nine and thirty-six now. He is 1833.92 miles away. If my friend Leigh were here, she might say, “Let go and let G-d.” It seems right. Except I will not let go. Except I do not believe in god.

SHELTER. My brother longs to move back east from his home in the long shadow of the Colorado Rockies; his heart is in the Appalachians, the world’s oldest mountains, and his carpenter’s eye and hands are drawn to the fine woodwork of homes built to outlast the builder. Six weeks ago, I visited a friend who lives in an historic building in Philadelphia, a city that is less Brotherly Love and more a museum of American history as told through its cobbled streets and architecture. I wouldn’t sleep well, my friend said, because the goddamn garage door is right below us and it shrieks up and down all night long. I take a lot of drugs to sleep. I was fine.

That night my brother slept on a peak on Squaretop Mountain, part of the Rocky Mountain Range in southwest Colorado—baby mountains; mountains that my friend would say were probably younger than the goddamn garage door’s mechanical system. At some point in the middle of a night that I imagine was as soundless for him as it was for me, he was struck in the head by lightning. The lightning entered his body behind his right ear and exited through the top of his left foot. There was no storm. There was just my brother, alone and asleep beneath a tarp, the air around him in turmoil, silent. The trees, silent. Unmarked.

Hours after I learned that my brother survived to make the two-hour hike down off the mountain, my mother called with the first hospital update. Center City shoppers parted around me as I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and asked her again and again about my brother’s heart. My mother told me things about his kidneys and I said, okay, but his heart? She told me about a social worker, a neurologist, x-rays, and burns and I said, his heart? His heart? His heart? His heart? On an angiogram, the heart’s arteries, veins, and capillaries look like lightning erupting from a clenched fist. Lit up, the heart is electric; lit up, the heart wants to hold a thousand metaphors. Jolted, it hurts; my chest ached beneath my rib cage and I called it my heart because who really knows where the organ stops and the metaphor begins? My mother hadn’t heard anything about his heart. It must be fine, she said. Silence is fine. No news is good news.

Most survivors of a direct lightning strike require resuscitation, but my brother didn’t. Good news. Good news in the vast, cold night; the garage door below me shrieking up and down, oblivious. Though his heart didn’t seize and stop, my brother was paralyzed for an hour? Two? Paralyzed but for one arm, which he used to hold his head up so he could breathe until the paralysis passed. Reduced to mind, his body a thing, an unwieldy object that no longer belonged to him. I wonder, but don’t want to ask: could he feel his heart beating?

Approximately 50% of sibling DNA is shared and my body feels it; my inconsequential heart is with him on a mountaintop, too late; scared shitless that this is it, that this is the end of things. My brother figured out what happened through the smell of ozone in the air. He didn’t know if he would ever move again. This is loneliest image I can imagine. I want to take every minute back and make them mine, weave his fear and pain into the threads of the DNA that belong just to me.

Our hearts are young, are Rocky Mountains, prone to the drama and vistas of the young. We are meant to weather the inclines and descents, the anomalies of air, of molecules bursting around us. This will toughen our hearts, make them old forests, make them wiser, seamless shelters. The path to the Appalachians is easy. Go east. Feel the respite in the long, sleepy plains. I am writing in the violet light of dawn. I can see the trees beginning to take shape, the tendrils of their newly naked branches cracking the dome of the sky. In other words, come home.

In Conversation with the Vacanti Earmouse–Steven Church

   Image I

In 1995, Dr. Charles Vacanti, an anesthesiologist from the University of Massachusetts and Professor Linda Griffith-Cima of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology implanted a pink hairless mouse with bovine cartilage cells and generated an ear-shaped structure that grew like an appendage from the animal’s back. The mouse became an overnight sensation. Pictures of the “Vacanti Earmouse” circulated widely on the internet and in newspapers, creating a brief but worldwide sensation.

The project was intended as an experiment in prosthetic ear transplantation for humans—with the potential for other applications–but the photographs caused an uproar amongst liberal animal rights activists who claimed the ear was cruel to the mouse, that the mouse was being used as a mere vessel for dubious human needs. Equally outraged conservative critics claimed that Vacanti and Griffith-Cima were “playing God” by manufacturing something—a human ear–that only the Allmighty can create.

Not too long after the initial crush of media attention had subsided, this writer caught up with the infamous Vacanti Earmouse in a laboratory facility at the University of Massachusetts. I was left alone in a cold room with the Earmouse, who had just awakened from a nap. After some initial pleasantries, we began our conversation, which I have transcribed here in an effort to record the reality of this amazing creature.

Writer: So, tell me what it’s like to have an ear on your back?

Earmouse: I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Can you speak into my ear, please?

Writer: Um, OK.

I leaned forward over the lab table, dipping my face over the edge of the cage, and inhaled the sharp cedar smell of traditional cage floor-covering. The lab was empty and quiet, save for the hum of an electrical pump somewhere and the ticking of an old analog wall-clock, the kind you find in school classrooms and government buildings. I wondered what someone might think to see me with my head in the mouse’s cage—which was less a traditional cage than it was a Plexiglas habitat. I stared down and the hairless mouse, his nose twitching frantically. My face was just inches away and I could smell the cedar chips stinging my sinuses. I started to ask my question again, aiming for the ear on his back.

Earmouse: I’m only kidding. It’s a little joke I like to play because of, you know, the ear on my back. Because it can’t actually hear anything . . . It’s a joke.

I pulled back from the cage opening, looked around to make sure nobody had seen me get punked by the earmouse, and readied myself to take notes. I could do this. It was just like any other interview.

W: Yes, right. Can you tell me a little about that ear?

E: Of course, of course. I know that’s why you’re here. That’s the only reason anyone ever wants to talk to me. I understand.

W: It IS rather extraordinary, even if not so newsworthy any longer

E: Yes, I suppose so. It’s not really an ear at all, you know. I mean it LOOKS like an ear, but it’s made from cow cartilage, grown from cartilage seeds. And it is part of me, I suppose. But it’s mostly cow. Most mice would reject such things. Their immune systems would kill it or kill them. But they engineered me so that I wouldn’t reject the ear, and so I’d be the hairless beauty I am today. There’s nothing human about that ear except for the way it looks. And there’s nothing truly extraordinary about the ear. What’s extraordinary is context.

W: It’s small. Like a child’s ear.

E: It’s bigger than the ear on your back.

W: OK, how about if we talk about something else? What can you tell me about Dr. Vacanti?

E: The gas passer?

W: Excuse me?

E: He’s an anesthesiologist. It was a joke. Gas passer? Like in MASH? The movie? Do you even know who Robert Altman is? Or Jim Jarmusch. And that new kid, Wes Andersen. I like what he’s doing with film. LOVED Magnolia.

W: MASH was a movie? Did it have Klinger in it? I like Klinger.

E: Oh, never mind. I don’t know why I bother to try and have these intellectual discussions with people. Most of you are pretty dense, you know.

I stopped taking notes for a moment and reminded myself that I was talking to a mouse. A mouse with an ear on his back.

W: So you’re . . . uh . . . pretty bitter about having that ear on your back, huh?

E: Do I sound bitter?

W: Yeah, actually you do. Kind of jaded. Like one of those pop stars who nobody really cares about until she goes on some kind of celebrity rehab or dancing show, or gains a bunch of weight, shaves her head and runs off with a paparazzi photographer.

E: You’re probably right. I’m sorry. Really, I am. It’s just that I don’t get to talk to people much these days. Reporters and photographers don’t come around so much. Not that I really ever wanted them around. Not me. I mean, some of them were nice. Some of them actually wanted to know about things besides the ear. A lot of them wanted to feel it. Only a couple asked things like whether it bothered me when I slept. One of them, this real pretty young reporter from the AP, she actually asked Vacanti if he’d tried putting me in with other mice. She wondered how they would treat me. Now, that’s a good question?

W: What did he say?

E: He said, “No. Never tried it. Not in the parameters of the project,” or something like that, and just ignored her. I was scurrying around in the cage, rising up on my back feet, nose twitching at the glass, looking all cute and hairless, just to try and get him to listen to her. But he was too busy talking about the project and himself.

W: Well, I guess I was actually wondering what sort of relationship you have with Vacanti. I’ve seen pictures with you crawling around on his arm. It seems the two of you were pretty close.

E: Yes, it would seem that way wouldn’t it? I mean, after all I’ve done for him, you’d think we would be closer, that I’d be like a pet or something, that maybe he’d take me home, away from this lab, back to his house, away from all the prying eyes and maybe he’d let ride around in his pocket or sit on his shoulder while he reads the paper. Those are all things you might think would happen. But they haven’t. What can I say except that we don’t have much of a relationship at all? I haven’t heard from him in weeks, to be honest. Linda doesn’t speak to him much, either. He’s withdrawn a bit, I think. What now? So you can grow and ear on a mouse? So what? The last time he came into the lab, he was dragging all these reporters and cameras and strangers behind him like a dust cloud . . . Hey! What are you doing? Stop that! Don’t touch me!

W: I just want to see what it feels like.

E: Oh, for God’s sake . . . All right. Go ahead. Run your finger around the hard anti-helical ridges. Feel the cartilage. That’s the best part. Very real, don’t you think? Pretty impressive work, really. And my skin is always supple and soft as the underbelly on your arm. Go ahead. Wiggle your finger in there. Softly, please. Be gentle. Tug on the lobule a bit.

W: Thanks. I was curious. It feels soft. Not that different, really, from a human ear.

E: Yeah. I know. Everyone is curious. An artist used me in her work recently, or at least a model of me. Patricia Piccinini. That was her name. She posed naked women with me and my ear. Or really a model of me. Or some kind of digitized version of me. It’s not like Vacanti would actually let me out so I could go run around on naked women. But Piccinini made me all fat and grotesque, almost like a street rat. And the ear is flat as a pancake, not like my ear at all. And there’s like hundreds of me. It’s creepy.

W: Naked women? Seriously.

E: Is that a question? Are you even a reporter? I mean, why would I lie about something like that? Don’t you think she’s trying to make a statement about humanity or something? She’s making some commentary about body image and objectification of women, I think. Or something about science and freakishness. I’m not really sure, to be honest. But it’s undeniably compelling. I mean, you just can’t look away.Image

W: Interesting the way people seem to objectify you, to see you as some kind of human-animal amalgam. They even seem to fetishize you, the rat, the other, the marginalized creature burdened with this human appendage, as if you’re a side-show.

E: Oh, you don’t even know the half of it. One woman who visited the lab, she wanted to nibble on my ear.

W: That’s disgusting.

E: Is it? Don’t you nibble on your girlfriend’s ear?

W: Well, sure. But that’s different.

E: Is it, really? I mean, I know it’s just an ear. Or something that looks like an ear. And I don’t know if it would be better or worse for everyone if it wasn’t attached to a mouse, like if it was growing in a Petrie dish or something, maybe sprouting from a lily pad or clinging to the side of a glass jar like a shellfish. Maybe that would be better. But there’s something frightening in what’s been done to me—something funny and tragic. Perhaps it’s the slippery slope of this image, this picture of a mouse with an ear growing out of it’s back, and the fear is only partially related to the odd wonder of humans making their own parts and attaching them to a mouse, and instead more connected to how the singular instance of manufactured appendages suggests an image of the many and, before you know it, your imagination conjures up cages filled with ear-mice, thousands of hairless skittering surrogates growing new ears or noses or penises, or even aquariums of salty uterine brine tiled with ear-mussels, their lobes waggling in the artificial currents, fake rocks crusted with nose-coral, and the glass floor studded with the cartilage seeds of sprouting dicks.

W: I’m sorry. Can you repeat that? I wasn’t listening.

E: Very funny.

W: No, seriously. I think my recorder ran out of batteries. I missed that whole thing. Can you say it, again? I’ll take notes. Whatever it was, it sounded incredible. I’m listening.

MOCKINGBIRD–Final Girl

When I first saw the mockingbird at my feeders, I felt I had succeeded at making a home.

My yard was welcoming to a mockingbird.  I loved its colors: gray, white, and black.  I loved how it flew like a kamikaze plane.  I loved the pitched line of its tail, like a razor blade.

In the early mornings, it would perch outside my bedroom window and sing all the new songs it had—which were not, I would realize, anything.

***

Once I was a writer.

Early on, I was plagiarized.  A woman cannibalized chunks of my writing, which she had read online, passing them off as her own in her printed book.  I was shocked. I didn’t even have my own book published—and here she was, stealing mine.  I wanted her book to die, to disappear.  Instead, I almost did.

***

I became a graffiti writer.

I became a graffiti writer because I had something to say, something I couldn’t actually say, not with words.  There are some stories that must be seen.  Some you can only sing.

So I took a picture of my body.  I projected it onto a screen.  I traced the image onto cardboard, and cut the outline with a blade, then held the homemade stencil onto a wall, balancing it with my knees and hips.  I sprayed aerosol paint into the outline, holding my breath as the paint met brick, adhered, and became the black and blue shape of a woman holding a flashlight, illuminating the word rape.

***

Graffiti is ephemeral.  It’s defaced; it’s painted over. But my anti-rape piece seemed to shame a normally active scene into silence.  No one wrote anything.  No one tagged my work.  No one bombed or painted over my piece.

Until a group stole it as their own, painting a logo around my piece, purposefully using the same paint colors I had used, and claiming me as a collaborator on their website.  Then the image was picked up by other websites who gave all credit for my piece to the group—an organization whose aggressive and murky philosophy I disagreed with, and with whom I would never willingly work.

But they lied.

My artwork was appropriated to further an agenda.

My anti-rape art piece—a very personal and very difficult work for me to make—was turned into an ad by a thief.

***

My mockingbird sang the songs of other birds.  It sang the cries of babies.  It sang the blare of alarm clocks, and the robotic chirps of cell phones.  It sang everything it stole from both sides of the window screen.

It also attacked birds.  It claimed, not just the sounds of my house, but the seeds, dive bombing any bird who dared come near the feeders, chasing off finches, sparrows, wrens, chickadees.

***

When someone claims your work without claiming you, when someone wants your words without wanting you—only the product of your heart, but not the beating bloody muscle, not the lived-in body; just the image and not the imaginer; just the dreams and not the dreamer—when someone pretends she dreamed your dream herself… it’s hard not to shut down.

***

I took the seeds away.  Now I have no birds.

***

Someone took my words.  Someone took my body.  Someone took my story.  Once I was a writer.

***

You have to do it again, the street artist who trained me tells me.  You have to do your piece again—and then you have to do something else.

***

But plagiarism is not just a matter of stealing another’s voice; it’s a matter of not using your own.

Don’t you have your own lived experience?  Don’t you have your own memories?  Are you soulless?  Are you mindless?  Are you a shade?

I realize it makes me sad for the stealers, those who distrust their own dreams.

Because they came from somewhere—these stories, these images I made.  I made them; they are created from a brew of my past, my body, my brain filled with memories, heat, and hope.  They are me.  They would not have life without me.

I lived, so I sang.

***

I did a new graffiti piece the other day: another outline of my body, facing a wall on which I had written my name.  In the piece, my body is naked, seen from the back, seen the waist up, and in my hands I was holding a pencil.

Then I changed it to a knife.

Then I changed it to a can of paint.

I sprayed the piece up on the bottom step of a flight of cement stairs, a small piece, half-disguised by dead leaves. October: the leaves are almost all fallen now.  I stood, brushed the rot from my knees.

I looked at the blank trees and I wondered: Did no one teach you to live, mockingbird?  Did no one trust you to sing?

 

Final Girl a writer based in the Midwest.   You can see examples of her graffiti, including “I Believe You,” the piece described in this essay, at: http://www.finalgirlgraf.tumblr.com

 

The Aisles Light Up –Amy Wright

1

When I was around seven years old and starting to formulate the tenuous boundaries of my own existence, I stopped in my tracks once in the hallway between my family’s bedrooms. It was carpeted then. The walls were angled such  that no one in the house could see me from that position. I stood there becoming aware of myself, slowly filling with a sense of prideful estrangement that no one knew precisely where I was at that moment. Later, it would dawn on me (so slowly), first-born and ajangle with love, the lastingness of that privacy. Once boundaries grow impermeable, the illusion of separation is what must be overcome.

 

2

My grandfather gave his larynx to the lord. A retired Pentecost Holiness preacher, he holds his voicebox like a stethoscope under his chin. Adjusting it to find that tiny muscle to sound it, he tells me “People think you prepare the soul for eternity, but eternity is something we live in.”

 

3

To prefer. To lean to, to collect. Walter Benjamin writes that the collector orders a “World of particular secret affinities: palm tree and feather duster, hairdryer and Venus de Milo, champagne bottles, prostheses…” A collection reveals its psychic system.

But thoughts too are material: one might study the patterns of herself, the idiosyncratic cycles and motivations, toward a manifestation and elucidation of what it is that collects, the collector as the sum sans cogito, sans ergo.

Like a clerk in a brain store, one grows receptive to what the collection is collecting, what individuates it. She lights a composition of compulsions in private devotion, like the passage Benjamin takes through the Paris arcades.

“Get an escort and a good cart,” Basil Bunting tells her, “Come.” 

 

4

The mind is a “husk of words,” Antonin Artaud reasons, bound of fibers. And the body, “one’s inner equilibrium,” is  mind. As such, his work manifests the volcanic thrust of what he calls his “monotonous crucifixion” and Susan Sontag calls the “event” of a single body straining perilously toward self-transcendence.

Artaud cannot be assimilated, she says, illustration that he is that individuality pushed to its conclusion is social madness. Madness, she adds, being a sliding-scale system of measurement that is culturally and politically defined.

I am not a lunatic but a fanatic, Artaud says. The singular body erupts—he writes in Art and Death—to encompass the whole extent of the living body. Breath unfurls, and one is all space: “And this is what it is, and it is this forever.”

He walked by feeling around his body for the head. “The star eats,” he says.

 

5

“But what target in its right mind wouldn’t move?” Lucy Lippard asks, an unintentional but perfect question of the mind itself.[i] One prods a lump of cake batter not to watch its slow dissolve, but to make the cake better. Airy as a dune.

 

6 

Kafka quotes Zeno on being asked whether anything is at rest, Yes, he says, “the flying arrow rests.”

 

7

In some way, when I read Antonin Artaud or Jean Genet I am thinking of the Jackson boys, the stringy, no-collar mountain boys whose stop was after mine on the schoolbus—the last one. I never wondered if they walked over a mile every day to get home, since our bus didn’t cross the creek. I didn’t cross the second creek for years. And then one day almost by accident, as alone as I’d ever been, did.

We have all known, Sartre says of Genet, the personal affront when one of those frank-eyed children whom everyone takes to be an angel steals. 

 

8

We are a biological urge who are ourselves the urging. Use your words, we tell children. The world is how you make yourself known.

Aloneness is part of the equation. Each finds herself reflected against other tracks to unmarked snow. Each tracks his final loneliness to the longing of that snow.

 

9

On my grandparents’ farm sat an old bus inside which a couple, two of its paid laborers, lived—at the boundary of human experience I call the Appalachian sublime.

On the side of what my brother and I referred to as Grandaddy Hill, daffodils have been coming up every springtime to line the walk of a house that has been gone for more than a hundred years. 

 

10

Paired with a tendency to stare swall-eyed  into clouds, Odilon Redon describes being yoked to a culture that works “obscurely but beneficially for the necessary duration” of the earth. In a letter to a good friend, he describes the influences attending his artistic evolution, including the French countryside of his youth—the skyclad arid plains, the villages where one meets the eyes of humanity on the verge of abandoning themselves to place.

 

11

 A healthy body will last you forever,” a fortune cookie says. 

 

12

If one could gather, Redon says, the “immense chain of materials” on which humankind has scrawled or hatched or hummed its living matter, it would be the Code—the confluence of consciousness it is our nature to fulfill.

It is painful that “the da Vinci code” bears the name of a Hollywood movie, because it implies we have been so close to knowing it without knowing it all along.

  

13

“That knife,” my mother tells me, drying dishes, “came from the bandsaw at the old knitting mill” where my grandparents worked. Lloyd Crigger made it by bolting that carve of steel to a hickory handle. He taught my father how to whet its edge by holding it to the light. “When it’s sharp enough,” he said, “you can’t see it at all.”

 

14

“Art is a representation of your insides in a different form.”[ii]  Kiki Smith says. Many people misinterpret the creative process, think it less grunt work than it is, she says, “But I never have a moment in my life where I don’t know what to do.” She adds that ninety percent of her job as a sculptor is “showing up, filing out mistakes. I always know there’s some filing to do.”

 The stark whiteness of her porcelain “Woman with Owl” (2004) http://www.paceprints.com/artist/779/779-188 in the Gund Gallery caught my eye, followed by the spread of wings, the woman’s nakedness, her bird merger. They seem about to lift off in flight, or land. Either way, they loom larger in partnership than either would alone.

 

15

Soft-paste porcelain, which can be cut with a file, was discovered by trial-and-effort by medieval European potters to imitate the fine translucent grain.

Bone china was produced c. 1800 when Josiah Spode II added calcined bones to the hard-paste formula.

 

16

I consider what the owl might represent in the figure, since symbolically owls conjure stealth, wisdom, enlightenment, night, femininity, and, according to one animal totem website, the “voice inside you” by which things are revealed.

But as I read it, the woman with her owl parachute and the owl fitting itself for stilts stand in for life and limb caught in delicate ceramic. One gives the other wings. The other, arms raised and heart spread, lends a place to touch down, legs in the shape of a mountain over which is sky. 

 

17

The grand opening of a new neighborhood grocery came with a manna of blood oranges, Tuscan figs, pomegranate preserves, and fresh pastas to which I am now accustomed. What still catches my notice, since I do not go to the frozen food aisle often, is the eco-friendly lighting that maintains a dim setting until someone approaches a cooler. A section blinks on, and I squint back, imagining the atomic world operating the same way though invisibly—electrons scurrying like amphetamine bedbugs underfoot, every cat Schrödinger’s collapsing possibility into reality, thoughts absorbing into matter.


[i]    Lippard, Lucy, The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Essays on Feminist Art. The New Press: New York, 1995, 3.

[ii]   Smith, Kiki, PBS documentary “Kiki Smith.” 

Columbus Day: Mimesis Is Thievery–Jacob Paul

I never went to a proper kindergarten. I was the first child. My father was an academic, a scientist at Columbia, just over 50. My mother was an idealist not yet 30. They enrolled me in a place called the free school, at which, in the socialist spirit of New York City’s upper west side intellectual elite of the late Seventies, parents took turns teaching, cooperative style. This led to poor discipline:

  1. There was a child with whom I fought. Omar. He kicked me hard with his little kid cowboy boot’s pointed toe, and my parent determined that cowboy boots were evil.
  2. One of the parent-teachers led a pizza-making session. We were given pepperoni to taste before choosing to make our pizzas: with or without. I chose with (pepperoni is delicious!), but when my mother came to pick me up, the pizzas about baked, and she hoped aloud that I hadn’t chosen the pepperoni as it was pork, which was unkosher, and it was mixing meat and milk, which was unkosher, I insisted that I’d chosen without.
  3. My father made an elaborate model using Fisher Price people to demonstrate the physics of pulleys to the first and second graders.  He insisted that it was not a toy, and that the children not play with it when he wasn’t there. It was a toy though, an irresistible toy; and the other parents let their children play with it when my father wasn’t around, pooh-poohing his concerns. This, I reported dutifully.

This last was proof of things amok. My parents walked me home though Columbia’s campus in the midday September glare, and explained that I’d just go to school the following year, for first grade.

I was a wimp, a liar, a cheat and a snitch and pulled out of kindergarten; I was not yet quite five.

Thus it was that October 13, 1980, was my sixth birthday and my first that fell while I was enrolled in school, at PS 75 on 95th Street at West End Avenue, to be exact. We lived on Riverside Drive at 118th Street in a classic six on the sixth floor of a Columbia-owned prewar building, the kind with parquet floors and ten-foot ceilings and painted over buzzers that once rang the suite past the kitchen designed with a maid in mind and a fireplace and a bench to store wood beneath a broad window overlooking Riverside Park and the Hudson below it.

My father would walk me the mile south through the park’s upper level to school most mornings. The park’s lower level, much like the elementary school in Harlem for which I was actually zoned, deemed unsafe. For my birthday, my father brought bagels and cream cheese enough for my entire class. This wasn’t an easy feat. Ms. Fruitkin’s was a combined 1st and 2nd grade, administered by aid of two teaching assistants, with over 40 students. No small measure of deliberation had transpired between my mother and father that preceding weekend about how many bagels this mandated, and what variety would best appeal, and whether they were really obligated to do anything in the classroom at all. Somehow, the notion of serving cake never came up.

We walked the unusually quiet morning through the park’s just falling leaves, my father weighted with shopping bags, his pinkie free for me to hang upon. And he insisted I hang upon it: my afternoon return in my mother’s charge often featured dalliances with leaves and twigs and trees and other children; not so the walk to. We were earlier than ordinary so that my father might have time to set up breakfast for all of the children, and perhaps it was to that he attributed the park’s extra-sleepy calm.

The school was gated, dark, abandoned. It wasn’t that we were that incredibly exceptionally early. PS 75 opened to feed children breakfast hours before classes began.  My father cast about for someone to flag, someone to ask. There weren’t many pedestrians on 95th street, and those few there were didn’t want flagging. We walked east to Broadway, me frantic about my birthday, my father frenetic with inexplicable school closure.

Broadway had better foot traffic, but my father was beyond impeding the peasants passing, preferring a vegetable stand beneath the scaffolding ubiquitous since a falling façade-stone brained a Columbia co-ed.  He dragged me past the stacked cucumbers and apples by my wrist, his shopping bags of bagels in his other hand before him like the swinging anchor on a warship’s prow in chop, and, as I would observe every time after that he accosted strangers for information, assumed a charm whose character I still can’t quite qualify but that it was completely out of keeping with his internal disorder, in order to petition man at the till. And thus we learned that it was Columbus Day: Schools were closed. Banks were closed. The post office was closed. The federal government was closed. Columbus Day!

Columbus Day!

He was supposed to walk to his office after dropping me off. He had all these bagels. Since when had schools closed on Columbus Day anyway? And, besides wasn’t Columbus Day the 12th?

To my father’s credit, Columbus Day, celebrated, had only been unpegged from October 12 and moved to the second Monday of October a decade earlier, in 1970; and, apparently the holiday didn’t impact my father’s research and teaching schedule.

October 13, by all rights, ought to be reserved for the commemoration of the formation of the US Navy, which prefigured my inception by 199 years.

My parents said that we could have the birthday party the next day, that we’d bring the bagels back. But we didn’t. I’m probably the only kid in the history of the world to have been bummed out about having his birthday off from school, but I wanted a birthday party damn it, and my birthday was replaced by Columbus Day.

My birthday had been replaced by Columbus Day because in 1970 fidelity to a 478-year antecedent was replaced by the utility of a guaranteed three-day-weekend roughly equidistant between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.

 

*** I feel that failing to acknowledge the problematic nature of Columbus as ‘discoverer’ of the ‘New World’ threatens to derail my objecting, exclaiming, rightfully outraged readers – yes, I mean you, all three of you, though that you’ve bothered to engage this thus far requires that I pretend your act is one anyone would undertake, and that there are at least four readers; pretend that my diminutive quantification of your numbers, if any, is simply self-deprecatory humor – I expect this derailment especially much as this is an essay about replacement, and what replacement carries higher stakes than that of one people by another? And I do mean replacement, not displacement or repurposing or absorption or some other feeble word implying the persistence of a precursor original. Addressing the problematic nature of Columbus Day would also derail this writing, the construction of the essay itself, and I’m selfish enough to say that the theft of my sixth birthday is enough for me to suffer for Columbus Day, observed. If anything, this is an attempt to replace Columbus Day with the injustice of my purloined bagel party. I could have been…I don’t know what I could have been, had I only had that party: probably just the kid who distributed bagels instead of cake. ***

I’ve been struggling with theories of mimesis for the last several years. Mostly, I just like saying that at cocktail parties. Mostly, mostly, I just like qualifying topics and knowledge as cocktail party material, mostly to my students. Cocktail-parties, like singles-bars, is a fun-to-use term for a thing I at once imagine anachronistic; and yet these are also likely exactly the parties I go to and the bars I frequent. When I say “I struggle with mimesis, theories of,“ at bars or parties, one of two things happens:

  1. The rarer circumstance is that my fellow conversationalist has a theory of mimesis, into which said fellow immediately launches, no doubt as a merciful act meant to alleviate the suffering inevitably consequent to struggle.  He doesn’t struggle; I do; he can offer me his peace, his confidence, his reconciliation with mimesis, theorized, theoretical, whatever. It’s generous of him, damn it. It’s magnanimous.
  2. The more common response is that my fellows made captive nod and fiddle with their beverages. In this more common circumstance, I then begin explaining mimesis, and how it’s the theory of representation furthered by Socrates in Plato’s Republic in which everything exists first as an ideal form, the truth of which can never quite be matched by the manifestation of that ideal, and how this understanding is mostly useful when it comes to art and poetics. If I’m really on my hobby horse, I’ll explain how the chair a carpenter makes is a mimesis, and Socrates viewed the painting of that chair as the mimesis of a mimesis, or a representation of a manifestation, merely imitation, and thus really far from the truth, originality, genius, etcetera, embodied in the ideal. I suspect that the dutiful (trapped) audiences of these diatribes never quite abandon the notion that mimesis is some kind of recurrent venereal disease.

*** Mimesis, when theorized, and when that theorizing proves a source of moral unease to its practitioner, is almost certainly evidence of malvenereality. Malvenereality is a kind of new word for which I’ve coined the neologism, neomalopropogism.  The fourth syllable of neologism is no accident. ***

At stake in my struggle with mimesis is this: if, as the postmoderns seem to claim, mimesis is ultimately without agency to effect change, or, if anything, its agency was always contained in the subjectivity of its audience, if, really, nothing actually matters, then why do people get so freaking worked up about art? Why do they get worked up about art they find inadequate as well as art they find offensive? What could possibly be at stake in ‘selling out?’ If art is arbitrary, then why does it matter? If the big toe is the same as Rembrandt, why doesn’t Georges write about Rembrandt? Why does Kristeva’s privileging of the abject matter if everything is abject and nothing is abject?

In a scene in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridien, the Glanton Gang is camped in sandstone desert surrounded by petroglyphs, thousands-years-old rock art etched by long-disappeared peoples native to the American Southwest’s canyons. The Judge carefully sketches the best of these in his notebook, and then scratches the originals off of the rock. The Kid asks The Judge what he’s doing, and The Judge tells him that now no one else can experience them, that he’s taken them for himself. But The Judge has also tremendously changed the mode and character of the experience of the etchings.

 

I think that throughout the book, by using the figurative language of poetics in his descriptions of violence, McCarthy is arguing for a theory of Mimesis organized not around representation, but replacement, and the Judge’s act is his baring of this claim. By this measure, the petroglyphs replace the long eradicated peoples and gods and harvests and game that they portray. The Judge’s sketches replace the petroglyphs. McCarthy’s book replaces the Judge and his sketches and the etches etched into and out of the stone. Certainly, the novel replaces the historical Glanton Gang, the unsettled interior west between Civil War and bison slaughter, the west of filibustering deployed and returned back above the border.

But this replacement, all replacement, mimesis wholesale, is not an equal mirroring. It is a substitution dependent upon erasure. It is appropriation. It is eradication in the interest of building something new. It’s pod people. It’s changelings cradled, children long spirited from their cribs.

 

*** So maybe Derrida’s idea of the “trace” is not completely different than what I’m saying, in that the mimetic act, as its own signified, carries the trace of any other signifier pointing back at it, so that replacement is not absolute, but contaminated by the original, and the original, even if able to overwhelm its would-be replacement, is tainted by it. ***

 

In her essay “No-Man’s-Land,” Eula Biss claims that the term pioneer embeds in it the greatest mistake we of the Americas ever made as a people: that of treating as uninhabited inhabited land. Perhaps experience is always an inhabited land; its discoverers always false pioneers. Perhaps every act of mimesis is a land grab, a willful refusal to acknowledge that the expanse of experience is a plain already subdivided, collaboratively opened, purposed, precious, potential.

Perhaps we ought to realize that every narration is a development that no matter how pure, noble, or necessary is also consuming, erasing, replacing, is the ravaging, would-be ubermenschen of a Nietzschean exertion of will.

It’s time we acknowledge that whatever our theory of mimesis, we must, as would Socrates, remember that it applies not only to how we represent the world in art, but what we make of the world with ourselves, that there really is no barrier between expression, representation, creation, culture and life, that every discovery is actually an appropriation, and every appropriation precludes a different usage, reserves for some what others might otherwise use.

If we had not made of Columbus Day a convenient midway recess in the fall season, something else might well have been done with that date. Perhaps we could cease to treat it as a celebration and instead commemorate the horrors wrought by that ‘discovery.’ Perhaps not. We can never now know anymore than I can assert what shift in the universe the provision of bagels to Ms. Fruitkin’s combined second and first grades might have made.  And I feel petty demanding that this writing replace my jilted sixth birthday, but I’d be lying if I denied I want that reparation, and that in the interest of that recompense, I’m willing to risk whatever else this essay might erase.

Self-Portrait; Questionnaire–Marcia Aldrich

What category do your dreams fall into?

  1. Car Troubles
  2. Faulty Machinery
  3. Trapped
  4. Being Chased
  5. Falling

If you chose being trapped, where were you trapped?

  1. In a closet in the library of your elementary school
  2. In a corn combine on your neighbor’s farm
  3. Under the weight of the neighbor boy
  4. The ice on the river above you
  5. Behind the doors of the yellow school bus that wouldn’t open

 What do you dislike about your current job?

  1. The pay
  2. The hours
  3. The people
  4. The workplace
  5. The work
  6. All of the above

 How do you cope?

  1. Dancing when the local football team loses
  2. Yelling at strangers in the car
  3. Going ten miles slower than the speed limit
  4. Reading about extinct species
  5. Putting chewing gum on walls and under seats
  6. All of the above

 What is your least favorite activity?

  1. Yard work
  2. Meetings
  3. Paying Bills
  4. Cleaning the gutters
  5. Overseeing children’s’ homework
  6. Filling out annual reports

 What word describes your view of mankind at this point in your life?

  1. Joyful
  2. Enlightened
  3. Robotic
  4. Bankrupt
  5. Whiney
  6. Trapped

 What issue most concerns you?

  1. Your children’s future
  2. The state of the economy
  3. Yard waste
  4. The local football franchise
  5. Hair loss
  6. The disappearance of bees

 If you had it to do over again, what describes your attitude about having children?

  1. I’d have more
  2. I’d have exactly what I have
  3. I wouldn’t have any
  4. I’d have some for others
  5. I’d adopt

 If you have a partner, what noun describes your current feelings for them?

  1. Admiration
  2. Resignation
  3. Indifference
  4. Hostility
  5. Suspicion
  6. All of the above

 At what point did your feelings change for your partner, if they did?

  1. Shortly after the start
  2. After the first child
  3. After the second child
  4. Recently
  5. Before you began
  6. All of the above

 For Christmas, which would you prefer to receive?

  1. Scrooge Mini-Nutcracker
  2. Bavarian Santa Nutcracker
  3. The Bob Cratchit Nutcracker
  4. An animated Musical Toy Chest playing Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer

 Which of the following wouldn’t you like to receive?

  1. The Horticultural Institute’s Tiered Floral Display
  2. Handmade Kathe Kruse Margretchen Doll
  3. A policeman’s megaphone
  4. The Lorenzi Cigar Rest with Continuous Burning Wick

 Which of the following objects suggests your essence?

  1. Cordless insect vacuum
  2. Body fat analyzer
  3. Step-on garbage pail
  4. Long-reach bulb changer
  5. Stop mud in its tracks slippers
  6. Washable leather potholders
  7. Chinese rickshaw

 How would you describe your experience taking this questionnaire?

  1. Comfortable, like being reunited with the cherries in a Shirley Temple you drank at the bar as a girl
  2. Excited, like seeing a strange new butterfly
  3. Expectant, like when you see a kiss quivering inside your partner
  4. Bored, like picking up ticket stubs in an empty movie theater
  5. Angry, like seeing the plucked neck of a slaughtered hen
  6. Sad, like reading an obituary of someone you once loved

 

Wild Rabbits–Jacqueline Kolosov-Wenthe

 

Wild Rabbits

On the cusp of June, baby rabbits skitter in and out of the garden’s delphiniums blue as the Virgin’s robes. The rabbits are fleet but not fleet enough to escape my terrier whose collar I hold when one of the rabbits hurries past, jumping up the jagged flagstone porch before disappearing into a hole beneath the small house.

If your mind is empty, a Zen proverb says, it is always ready for anything, open to anything. Emptiness is the luxuriant potential within the porcelain cup on the windowsill, the cup my grandmother carried with her from Europe after the war. Though I have drunk tea from this cup, I’d rather gaze into its whiteness. Only when it is empty does it suggest possibility, the unknown.

We humans are left-brained creatures. The left brain fills spaces, holes, voids; it fills them with word and thought. Whereas the right brain is silent, spacious, undulant as the New Mexico sky buffeted by the ancient mountains the Spaniards crossed and named, the left brain is always interpreting, counseling, and chattering. It is quick to remind that language requires a speaker and a listener, communication, yes, but a joining that comes with the separation of I and you.    

This evening, three hundred miles from home, I sit on the flagstone porch, my terrier beside me. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains’ colors, in this light, at this hour, resemble the blue delphiniums, though in the time it would take to cook a pot of rice, the mountains will have purpled, the sky behind them incarnadining to a pink I have seen only in roses at that crepuscular hour before dark. My terrier and I have come back from a four mile run. I stretch my muscles on the mat; she sits beside me, her hazel eyes watchful, attentive. She seems to expect nothing more than the sound of the wind and the arrival of the day’s last birds. It is only when a baby rabbit pops up in the tall grass that her ears prick, and I reach for her collar.

The right brain is at peace with the emptiness I hear in the wind tonight, the wind coursing through this parched land where the forest fire signal is “high.” This country is known as the Land of Enchantment, but enchantment comes at a high price. Real estate prices are high, and most of the cars here are imports, SUVs. Bears rummage through the garbage bins, their own wildness increasingly encroached upon. (And don’t get me started on the deer.) Downtown, in the Plaza, Indians hawk their wares in a courtyard, spreading silver and turquoise jewelry and other handmade objects on rough-hewn blankets. “You buy?” one woman asked me earlier when I stopped before silver droplets like tears. “No,” I said smiling, “but thank you.”

Consider again the baby rabbits skittering in and out of the blue delphiniums, the baby rabbits jumping up the jagged flagstones and then disappearing into a hole beneath the house.

We could ally the left brain with reason and the right with energy, what the Chinese call Chi. When the Chi is flowing freely, one arrives at a feeling of unity, wholeness. How does one arrive at this wholeness? By following the energy—by trusting in it—moment to moment.

Energy is not matter. One should not try to contain it—think atomic bombs, oil spills, the vertigo of cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix. Energy is not matter, though we recognize it in the fleetness of the rabbits and in the openness of my own body tonight. Breathing in, I close my eyes, imagine the breath loosening the tight places between my shoulders, that knot at the base of my spine.

Well before darkness enfolds the mountains, the rabbits will have found shelter for the night, but for now I can see one amid the irises, already past their purple bloom. The rabbit’s ears twitch in the wind, and although the rabbit is not looking at me or my dog, this creature small enough to fit in the palm of my mind is conscious of our presence. Were the terrier or I to move, the rabbit would bolt from the flowers.

Energetic will requires that one focus her energy by visualizing the end result before she begins. However, this is not the same thing as being invested in an outcome.

When I was seven years old, the neighbor’s calico cat killed a wild rabbit, orphaning her babies. My father found the nest while working in the garden. By the time he reached it, all the baby rabbits but one had died. “Look at what I have here,” he said, uncapping his palms so that I could see the tiny creature, all eyes and ears and pounding heart. “Do you think we can care for it?” “Yes,” I told him. “Oh, yes.” All summer, we fed the rabbit with an eyedropper, proceeded to a tiny bottle. We kept the rabbit in a hutch near the roses, and near summer’s end, once it was big enough, my father told me that we had to let it go. I could not argue against keeping this twitching, fleet being in a box, and so despite my tears, I was the one to unlatch the door. For months afterwards, even years, I became convinced that a particular rabbit that appeared in the garden was the very rabbit we had saved.  And when the calico cat killed a rabbit in our yard, I likewise believed that she had killed our rabbit.

If your mind is empty, a Zen proverb says, it is always ready for anything, open to anything.

The rabbit’s death happened more than three decades ago. And I am still learning how to be at peace with the emptiness I hear in the wind moving through the branches of the trees and in the fleetness of the rabbits that, once gone, leave no trace that they were ever here.
 

The Uprooting of the Bierock–Matthew Gavin Frank

When we prick the dough of our bierocks like this, we imagine the fork as a shovel, and we are digging for precious things like gold, like water.  We find beef and we find sauerkraut, and, in these, we try for something else—for escape, for all the way to China, for anything to remind us of anything other than our exile from Russia, from Germany, from Poland, to Kansas.  Our exile: another cow ground down to crumbs, another cabbage chiffonade allowed to ferment until hay-blonde, until the soft, unwashed hair of the daughters we were never destined to birth in Middle America.

*

Instead, my imaginary son Arlo asks about the intersection between algorithms and the weather.  Why Kansas has an earthquake index of 0.05 compared to the country’s average of 1.81.  A tornado index of 252.53 compared to the average 136.45.  A volcano index of 0.00.  I want to tell him to take comfort in the fact that the earth’s stuffing will never attack us.  We have no chance of being lit gloriously by upwardly spat fireballs.  He asks—and this is so cute—if it’s better to be wiped out by the earth’s hair dryer than its acid reflux.  I tell him, mussing his own hair, that there’s medicine for heartburn.  That to keep our hair wet just a little longer, all we need to do is unplug the machine from the wall.  Though I’m not sure exactly what we’re talking about, the meteorologist on TV talks about the high winds ripping off roofs in Topeka and, though I’m not sure what we’re talking about, my heart stutters when Arlo says, taking his first bite of bierock, this is lava hot.

*

The bierock, according to The Lawrence Journal’s Tom King, is like “the empanada, the calzone, the Hot Pocket,” is “almost always beef,” is almost always yellow onion and sauerkraut “wrapped in a bun of sweet leavened dough,” is “golden” is “palm-sized,” is portable, should be cradled in the hands or kept warm in one’s inside jacket pocket, where it can continue to steam, commune with its cousin, the pierogi, can dream of a life as other-than-dumpling, as other than a tight knot of sustenance that, in spite of its ability to keep its heat, “freezes,” according to Tom King, “great.”

*

I want to tell Arlo that lava can’t freeze, though I don’t know if this is true.  He asks me that, should our house flood again, if a bierock can be used as a raft, if he can float his paper cowboy dolls from carpet to prairie on the back of this sour, golden horse, which, it must be said, is far too big to fit into his palm.

*

Kansas is a stressor, a bird of prey.  It says, I flew once, but I’ve been pounded into my own ground by the bison.  It says, when I used to be singular, when I used to be the name of a semi-nomadic tribe called The People of the Wind, I was Kansa.  Now, I am plural, many.  What else can I do, but flood my banks?

*

We’re all wind here.  So many Winds.  When we get wet, we are the agent of our own drying-out.

*

To cool our bierocks, all we have to do is open our mouths, and blow.

*

Now, the land agitates its own river, and the river floods Manhattan and Wamego and Topeka and Lawrence.  Lecompton loses five of its six churches, barely recalls a time when it was known as Bald Eagle, Kansas.

*

Here, our crust is a shell, the intermediary between our mouths, and hot things that wish to burn them.

*

On the benches of Lecompton’s Riverview Park, overlooking the limestone bluffs of the Kaw Valley Basin, twelve picnickers today eat their bierocks, the sauerkraut waving like viscera in the wind after which the state was named.  Here, the wind can be the sort of predatory equation it takes a golden dough to solve.  The dough as levee, as saving us from releasing the sweet air in our lungs.

*

We can forget to cool things with our breath.  Forget about the panic inherent in each required inhale.  Here, two bald eagles scream as they couple over the river.  Their voices sound nothing like Kaw.

*

Nearly 100 years before the Great Flood of 1951, during which Harry Truman flew over Kansas in the airplane he privately nicknamed The Bald Eagle, staring down at the 1,074,000 flooded acres, his voice wavering as he spoke into the CB, “…one of the worst disasters this country has ever suffered from water…” the water of the Kansas, ran red, as the anti-slavery Free-Staters and pro-slavery Border Ruffians fought a proxy war along its banks, Northerners and Southerners immigrating to the territory in order to duke it out for their side.  Pistols and canes and rocks and broadswords later, men blinded by, and drowning in, the fluid that, just moments earlier was held inside them by levees of skin, the territory became known as Bleeding Kansas.

*

“Nostalgia,” says Tom King, “is a sublime seasoning.”

*

In Kansas, when we fall to the earth dying, we fall to seed and to root.  We stain with our bodies the stuff that once sustained us, bleed-out into the agriculture.  In this way, we become the blanket, the blemish, the outermost layer of the earth.  We tell ourselves, as we blink out, that we are keeping some essential filling at bay.  We imagine we are brushed with a little melted butter, that we are cooking at a breezy 350-375°.  Until we are bitten, we are exactly this golden.

*

The introduction of the bierock to Bleeding Kansas by Volga German-Russian-Polish-Mennonite immigrants coincided in 1861 with the end of the proxy war and the admission of the territory to the Union as a free state.  That this is an innocuous coincidence is obvious.   Less so: the early dough was flavored with the same red wheat seeds and peony roots that once collected so much of our blood.

*

The River Volga, Europe’s longest, is home to some of the world’s largest reservoirs.  The name Volga refers both to moisture (literally, wetness), and veins, blood vessels, a mythical juice.  As such, in Russian folklore, the river is both a waterway, and an animal.

*

Arlo tells me about his dream.  That addition became confused with subtraction.  That a drought, like a flood, is an addition to a landscape.  Just look at all that new brown—all that wheat and sorghum, all those sunflowers sloughing to dust, taken into the wind, adding gaps to the rows, the illusion of stars exiled to our state, whirling now, about twenty feet over our roofs, and rising.

*

Here, when the river breaches its banks, it sounds like slurred speech, a mispronunciation of the healthy flow.  I’m not sure what sort of medicine can solve this, but watch how the dough sponges the juice of the cabbage.  Watch how the heat, if not the lava, allows the wet to forget itself.

*

In a mispronounced incantation, is a false healing.

*

The Volga Delta, deep into Russia, supports anomaly.  Though the river is frozen for at least a quarter of each year, the Delta supports a thriving community of flamingoes and lotus flowers and the same red wheat seeds that once covered Bleeding Kansas, grew over our bodies.

*

Toward the Nebraska border, folks pronounce “bierock,” brook.  In this way, we allow our heaviest of foods a communion with the most benign of our waterways.  On the border, our mouths full, it is our babbling that we believe will protect us.

 

We give back.  In April 2012, the Volga basin flooded, forcing the villages of Saratov, Tambov, and Volgograd to declare states of emergency, to evacuate.  The waters devastated much of Tatarstan and the Republic of Mordovia.  One Moscow official, unnamed, perhaps mistranslated, said that urban planners have set about “building a golden shell” against such future disasters.

*

We eat our bierocks in Reading, close to the river named by the French explorers for the nearby marsh, and for our Trumpeter Swans, the river famous for its flash flooding, floods so powerful, we give them names like Big Water.  Before we officially settled on the French name, we called this river Old Aunt Mary.  We called every person she killed—over 100 in 1844, 86 in 1909, 60 in 1915, 39 in 1928, 35 in 1944, 28 in 1951, and 0 in 2007—Old Aunt Mary, too.

*

Eagles hunt swans, but swans fight back.

*

Arlo asks: How can so much water take so much away?  He tells me that in school, he leaned that the human body is mostly water.   He asks me if we’re always flooding on the inside.

*

I answer him.  I say, Nesho, Spring, Shoal, Cottonwood.  Verdigris, I say.  I say, Caney, Chikaskia.  I say Whitewater and Cow and Rattlesnake and Walnut.  I say, just to make him feel better, Little Walnut.

*

From our bierocks, we bake the water, if not the names of our rivers.  As Kansans, we want the cabbage to put up a fight.  We like, as Tom King likes, “some snap, not mush.”  We can always wet it down afterwards with a little spicy mustard.  In this way, we allow the dough to hold back mostly solid things, things whose forward movement we can stop with our bodies—our hands and mouths.

*

On special occasions, Arlo paints his bierock dough with red food coloring, and I try not to tell him about Bleeding Kansas.  Instead, as if recalling a better, if fictional, inheritance of statehood, he taps two finished bierocks together three times and, even while muttering There’s no place like home, looks disappointed in the kitchen, if not the entire spread of land beyond it.

*

We’re almost a perfect rectangle, Arlo says, and I imagine all of the twine-y things meandering through this almost perfect shell of a state.  I bite the upper right corner of the bierock.  All sorts of mutilated things pour out onto the napkin.

*

The rivers will split in two and flow around us.  Arlo calls us the barrette to the braid.

*

So: Logic dictates that I muss his hair after the bath, watch the water run from it to the towel on which a nondescript bird—certainly not an eagle or swan—reaches in vain for the beautiful fringe at the border.

*

For supper, we eat bierocks.  Two for Arlo, four for me.  Arlo: milk.  Me: dark ale.  Last winter, we pre-made 120 of them.  You should have seen all the yeast.  Arlo told me it felt like the entire kitchen was rising.

*

Along with the warm water, butter, flour, milk and salt, we add more than a pinch of sugar to the dough to recall the roots of the peonies.

*

We eat our bierocks and think of Paeon, the physician to the Greek gods, so deft with his healing practices that his tutor, Asclepius, god of medicine, became jealous and hatched a plan to eviscerate Paeon in his sleep with his snake-entwined staff.  Zeus caught wind of this and, in order to save Paeon from this bloody fate, turned the young healer into a flower, or, every peony.  We eat our bierocks and imagine that, with each bite, we are getting better.

*

Here, better does not necessarily mean, drier.  Our confusion is appropriate, I think.  Here, there are flamingoes in Russia.

*

Other names for the peony, depending on, among other things, the arrangement of the petals: Athena, Scarlet O’Hara, Madame Butterfly, Semi-Double Anemone, Paula Fay, Buckeye Belle, Bomb-Double Raspberry Sundae, Paul M. Wild, Shame Chamber, Lair of the Mischievous Nymphs, Ant Attractor, Dough Flower, Flower of Wet Riches, Flower of Dry Honor.

*

Drought, flood, drought, flood.  Which Athena and which the ant?  If the bierock is not a middle ground, it is nothing.

*

Middle ground is not necessarily higher ground.  We stuff our inheritances into dough in order to protect them.  When we bite through the shell, we’d like to imagine that, in the cascade of ground beef and yellow onion and sauerkraut, we are releasing some kind of flower into the world.

*

If this filling is a flower, it is another sort of anomaly, another pink bird with ice in its wings, wondering how the hell it woke up in Kansas.

*

I whisper now to Arlo.  I think I may be singing: Big Blue, Little Blue, Stranger, Mission.  When I say Buffalo, and Prairie Dog, and Beaver, and Wolf, he thinks I’m speaking of animals and not rivers.  When I say, Marais des Cygnes, he has no idea that I’m mispronouncing it.

Jill Talbot–Get Going and Stay Gone

I want to tell the story of a different woman.

Maybe if I figure out why I’ve been writing the same woman for too long, I can.

Sometimes I think I was missing Kenny before I met him. He was always ready to get going, stay gone.  It’s as if my natural state is missing, and he came along and said, “Yes.” Always that space between us. Our first kiss a fissure. The Eagle River and the moon an erosion. The back porch all those nights a split-trail to distance. When I slept beside him, I’d stumble down a jagged trail, a canyon. I settled into where he unsettled me.

 Give me distance, and I’ll give you an essay.  Here:

A wooden staircase leads up to a closed door, to what used to be the Wormy Dog Saloon.  Peanut shells on the floor, saddles for barstools. That kind of place. A fuchsia teddy teases the antlers of a moose head on one wall, and balls roll and clack on two worn pool tables.  In the back, a yellowed Budweiser sign keeps bar time.  Rainy afternoon, and maybe because we’re in Oklahoma somebody plays Three Dog Night’s “Never Been To Spain.”  I’m the girl in a red tank top, denim shorts, flip flops.  I haven’t met Kenny yet.  This is 1996, when I’m in graduate school, and every chance I get, I’m dropping the 4 ball into the side pocket, smoking Marlboro Lights, and sharing a pitcher of Bud Dry with anyone who can break. A couple of guys in Carhartts shuffle around the next table. I lean toward and long for their just-worked-all-day-with-my-hands scruff. I’m half in love with any man who wears a tool belt.

I met Kenny three years later.  He wore Carhartts, shrugged a tool belt in the morning, and worked so much with his hands the callus on his right hand scratched my skin. He was always ready to get going and stay gone. And after all these years, I’m beginning to think what drew me to Kenny was that he was a cavern. Because when what you are is words, choosing a man who can build a bookshelf but has no use for one guarantees you’ll end up alone.

I’ve written this bar a few times before, climbed those same wooden steps. Do I simply write what I miss? In this version, I think I’ve figured out that the moment I swooned at strangers in coveralls was when I knew:  It’s being far away from where (who?) I should be, which is where I go when I write.  Or to put it this way: All my essays have peanut shells on the floor. Some man I don’t know. Three Dog Night on the jukebox and another round.  It’s all one long, lonesome afternoon.

I’ve been trying for ten years to end this essay.  Here are some possibilities:

§

Kenny once told me about the moment he knew we wouldn’t last. We were in bed and he said he wanted to make me happy. I tried to explain why I never wanted to be. Because I don’t want to lose my capacity for longing, for missing, for wondering what might be, for yearning for what has come and gone before I had the chance to save it.  I want a window to stare out of or a dark bar where I can buy my dissatisfaction another drink.

§

I used to lean into the hard curves on Chardonnay Road to write, but the dull oak of apple-pears slammed me into walls, and I’d reel on the page like a runaway hubcap.

This one seems more like a beginning than an ending.

§

When Kenny abandoned us in 2002, I don’t know where he went. It’s as if got on a road to somewhere and never stopped. Not even Google could find him. And then, in 2007, a woman from Child Support Services called to tell me he was living in California. For the first time, there was a way to measure the distance. But a month or two after that, he left.   Still ready to get going, stay gone. Thinking about him feels the way it does when a car with a spare tire passes me on the road—somewhere—something ruptured—and still that stranger insists on getting to a place, or a person, that has nothing whatsoever to do with me.

§

Maybe all I’ve ever written is the woman I’m afraid I’ve been.  The one I will goddamn-guarantee be again.

§

I asked my friend, Charles, the one who says I write fiction, the one who says I “manipulate persona,” why he thought I began to write (and wine) so much during those months Kenny worked construction in other states.  His answer: “Because he was so distant.”  So why, I wonder, when Kenny was home for a week or two, did I stay up hours after he had gone to bed, insist he not join me at the bar some nights, or ride my bike home from the café instead of letting him drive us home?

I like the way this one ends in a question.

§

I worry that being with me is like waking up with someone who’s been dreaming about someone else all night.

§

Our daughter, Indie, now old enough to know the story of her father, of our love, of his leaving.  When I tell her, I balance the weight of our undoing between both of us, admit that some of the rumblings were my own.  “Like an earthquake?”  Yes.  And then she said this:  “Earthquakes start beneath the surface and they go down, but when they come up, they come back to the same place.”  Oh, yes. I ask her to tell me again what she said so I can write it down. She knows I write her father, the man she says is just like every other person she doesn’t know in the world.

 §

I first read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets on the summer shore of the Grasse River in northern New York. When I read,  “Above all, I want to stop missing you,” the ledge where I had been standing for ten years gave way, and I stared off into the farthest bend of the river to hide my sobs.  Our daughter, Indie, splashing in the distance.

§

A bar in Fort Collins, Colorado, 2000:  I’m the one in a gray tank top and khaki shorts sitting next to the man who built me a bookshelf, the man I’m afraid I’ll write for the rest of my life, the one who complains when I turn to talk to the man on the other side of me.

Maybe one of these should come back to those wooden steps of the beginning, something about the way writing opens all the closed doors of what used to be.

§

Every essay I write is about missing Kenny. Even if he’s not mentioned, he’s there.

§

You see?  If I don’t have distance, I construct a new map. Move. (I’ve moved seven times, to seven states, in the past ten years.) I’ll assemble my own country, build a border.  “Even when you’re here,” Kenny would tell me, “you’re not here.”

§

“If the reader prefers,” Hemingway writes in the preface to A Moveable Feast, “this book may be regarded as fiction.”  This essay, too.  My omissions—what’s missing—their own essay, another story.

§

If I got into my car now and drove the seven hundred and sixty three miles non-stop to those wooden steps, the distance I would cover would be as staggering as the one between the woman I am and the woman I write.

§

Because I wanted Indie to love words, Kenny and I read aloud from books while I was pregnant.  The first one was A Moveable Feast. We shared the couch and took turns reading, talked about the sadness of every chapter’s end.  I think we were already missing each other.

I’m thinking Didion: “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” 

§

Who knows how we end up in the rooms we do, saying things to people we’ll never see again in a year or two?  And what might we say, or not say, if we knew it might lessen the missing?  I think I write somewhere between what I said and what I didn’t.

§

A few days ago, I read a story and got caught by the way one sentence answered the question of the sentence before it:   “Missing people are the most spontaneous ones I know. Construction workers. . . .”  I don’t remember what happened in the rest of the story.  For me, that was the story.

I don’t think anyone ever reads the same story, the same essay.  We make each one our own.

§

How can I possibly wish to experience again the hour he told me he was leaving?  How can I long for the way I howled through every room of the house while he sat in the chair in the living room?  How can I not remember where Indie, only four months old, was while I gasped and grasped the kitchen counter against the ground swell? Will I ever stop writing around and around and around the way I went to the bathroom mirror to make sure it was real, it was me?

§

I don’t drink as much as my essays say I do. The woman I write insists on at least three glasses of Chardonnay, sometimes a second bottle. But I still don’t drink when I write.  Sometimes I revise. Write sober. Revise tipsy. Sorry, Hemingway.

§

I have a memoir with the word “miss” in it twenty-six times.  “Chardonnay” comes in at twenty-five.

§

I’ve driven Indie past the fuchsia-teddy bar in Oklahoma, but I can only point to what used to be. So much, I think, has gone missing.

§

I don’t think it’s ever been about missing him at all.

I write because I used to be someone I miss.

So, go.

Please.

Let me write another woman.

Maybe this isn’t an ending at all, just another way to begin the same essay.

You’re a Wonder–William Bradley

Hippolyta created Wonder Woman out of clay, though I’m not sure why.  Artistic expression?  Boredom?  Did she often sculpt babies?  Were there earlier, imperfect sculptures, made as Hippolyta learned her craft, not granted life by the goddess Aphrodite?  I imagine there were.  This woman, this queen, beloved by her sister-subjects on Paradise Island, but so painfully alone.  So she sculpted a little clay brood to delight her in a utopia where life could be enjoyed but never created.

I’m lonely myself.  If we can’t live in the same place, my dear—and at the moment, we can’t full-time—I think I’d like to sculpt you, then ask Aphrodite to do me a solid, allow me to create you and breathe life into you, perhaps with a kiss.  Although that sounds more fairy tale than comic book.  But she’s the goddess of love—maybe she’d go for that.

I’d bring you to life, then regard you with a smile and a, “Hey.”  And you’d reply, “I’ve missed you,” and you’d put your arms around me.

But what would you say next?  You have the wisdom of Athena, so I imagine it might be something like, “Shakespearean scholars think about Shakespeare as but one of a cluster of playwrights in the period. Knowing this — and thinking about the broader question of ‘Who were all of these men who wrote the plays?’ — means that Shakespearean scholars are looking for a different set of information and operating with different assumptions about the fundamental concepts in the issue.”

But then again, maybe not.  You’re an intellectual, true, but you’re also a woman of passion.  It’s unlikely that you’d mark our reunion with scholarly discourse.  You’d be more excited to see me, I think.

“Fuck me with your huge cock.”

Tempting, but no.  In the 11 years we’ve been together, you’ve never issued such a greeting.  I’m confusing you with pornography.

“Shall we open a bottle of wine?”

That suggestion raises some problems too.  You are, after all, made of clay, and clay dries out quickly even without the dehydrating effect of alcohol.  Hippolyta and her daughter never had this problem, but as we drink I notice you begin to look a bit ashen.  I spray you with one of the water bottles we use on the cats when they fight; this helps for a little while, but the reality that we do not have much time begins to sink in.  You are turning white and beginning to crumble; so, for that matter, am I.  It’s unavoidable—the reality that underlies this ridiculous fantasy. We’re human, and crusty, dry decay is what awaits us.  You are not the only one here who came from—and will return to– dust.

In reality, neither of us can sculpt, let alone create life from clay.  All we can do, I guess, is write.  We can at least hope that my essays and your scholarship will give us some form of immortality.  But on days when we’re too hungover or uninspired to get any writing done, let’s resist the temptation to sit in front of the TV or spend the day focused on chores or stressing about all the money we don’t have.  Let’s enjoy this time we have together.  Let’s get out of here, away from wasteful, banal distractions, and have some adventures together.  If we can’t procure an invisible jet, we can take the Corolla, which just got an oil change and has new windshield wiper blades.

In Hennepin–Ander Monson

Bored by the slick disposability of ebooks and deletable pdfs, I’ve spent the last five years loving on the print artifact, haunting libraries of various sorts, writing short essays in response to things I found there (a bookplate, a forgotten sentence, a human hair, a found text, homophobic marginalia, an overheard conversation) and publishing them on 6×9 cards back into the books/libraries where they originated as letters to a future reader. In 2015 Graywolf will publish Letter to a Future Lover, an unbound and unordered box of these essays in a limited edition followed by a bound trade edition.

*

I would gladly be a creative person if I could, but I fear it is my lot in life merely to organize and arrange what others have created.… It was only natural that I should begin to acquire books on [the gay liberation] movement. After I filled two shelves with books, all of which were marked HQ 76, with a Cutter number for the author, I began to realize that the Library of Congress had failed to make adequate provision for this subject. I decided I would make some changes.” —David Allen White, “Homosexuality and gay liberation: an expansion of the Library of Congress classification schedule,” Hennepin County Library Cataloging Bulletin #28, 35-38, 1977.

Sometimes the forms we cleave to need revision. As in the television’s thirty-minute blocks, the length of our commute, the familiar thought of His and Hers, driving on the right, our days are more structured by convention than we like to think. Dear David Allen White, I was married here, in Hennepin County, Minnesota, at the county courthouse, our wedding vows witnessed by a judge between cases of Criminal Sexual Conduct, Classes C and D.

Our errors are classified this way as felony or misdemeanor, minor, major, venal, incidental, mortal, thoughtful, supersexy, supermax. The cataloger knows you can’t have coding without syntax, meaning without sorting, so how a book is sorted means and resonates beyond the shelves.

There’s my wedding photo on the shelf. I’m all Alabama bulge and drinking neck, full from weekly trips to the Krispy Kreme just down the street where dough was hot and now and I was always hot to eat it now and so I did. But Megan stars in that bright dress: such loveliness! In what ways did I deserve this state-sanctioned shot at happiness, and what have I done with it? In Alabama we voted just a year before to legalize interracial marriage. It passed sixty-forty. Hard to take part in a thing still denied to friends, but knowing this we chose to stitch ourselves to each other and hold fast, make that joining mean.

That’s how it starts: with a little thing, a decision made, a hack. A reclassification in a system spreads. Just a kludge, a snip of DNA to reduce the likelihood of your future sickness, an asteroid laser nudge to save a continent: what happens to the redirected? An accidental introduction shifts the ecosystem: kudzu to the south, Asian carp to the Great Lakes, buffelgrass to Arizona, Banana Bunchy top virus to Hawai’i, Europeans to the new world, Hi-Yo Silver on WXYZ radio in Detroit.

These words are just small, on cards, parasites riding inside the spines of books. But everything’s a vector, even if I can’t understand how or why it moves, how slowly, or where it’s going to. Like bottled letters chucked into the water, I hope—or maybe trust—for a good current to carry this news as far as it will go.

Sometimes it takes a collector to make a difference in the system, adjust a filing algorithm, point out an oversight or error, suggest a shift. Don’t worry, David Allen White: your reclassification is no less a creative act than that of novelists. It takes some provocation to prompt a beast that big to shift, to get the Library of Congress subject headings moved from “Sexual Perversion” into “Sexual Deviation,” and to liberate “Homosexuality” from that container into the wider world of “Sexual Life.” Never mind that these are incremental steps: what life is not sexual, we might wonder? Everything is form, but under stress a form will change, and should, because form’s just history. The river overfills with monsoon rain and reroutes, collapsing a bridge ten miles out, and redirects itself.

Elsewhere in this cataloging bulletin there’s a proposal to add a new subject heading for “Unnecessary Surgery,” perhaps judging those who choose to have their sex reassigned to the one they always knew it was? From my arm I had a cyst removed the year before we left Tuscaloosa: the scar is still visible, the interloper gone. Almost a decade later tornadoes cut a one-mile swath through the Druid City and obliterated both our last house and the apartment we lived in, miles away, the year before. Photographs show there is nothing left of us and where we were, who we used to be, no evidence of our neighbor’s house, like ours, built post-WWII for those coming back to school on the GI Bill. Alabama and eventual NFL quarterback Joe Namath once lived there, we were told by a pilgrim snapping photographs. Now that too is gone. The Krispy Kreme’s rebuilt, but there’s no remainder of the feral cats we fed and buried there, the friendships that we started, or those that ended.

Except for us, our pitch-shifting bits of memory and how we unreliably encode it, and what’s here on this page or others, there’s no reminder there or anywhere of our attempts, however small, to change or reclassify our world.

Yet twelve years later I can feel the vector moving. Our friends Jon and Clint now have several states from which to choose to host their wedding vows: maybe even Arizona. Twelve years later I still want a doughtnut badly.

*

Tether–Jenny Boully

I didn’t realize until later, after the lights were out and the sheets were tucked around her, that when my daughter asked that I hold on that I hold on tight to the balloons that what she really wanted was for the party to not end and she thought that if we held on to the balloons that the party would not end and she needed my help in this one sure party-saving act and that is why she had what we call a meltdown: her mother failed to help her in this one act that was sure to keep us here at the party forever.

She had asked me, previous to the balloon-time-stopping attempt, to give her the moon. Can’t reach it, she said. I, too, could not reach it, knew I could not reach it, but showed her that I was trying that I would if I could.

And she has said the sentence as clear as a bell tonight: Mommy, let me have it.

And it was stunning: the message, the sentence, the want, the clarity of that.

We have given her the balloon at the top of the balloon tower; it is a giant shimmering silver star balloon that, after we had dismounted it, was discovered to be full of the buoyant helium. Hold it tight, I tell her, so that it doesn’t fly away so that it doesn’t go up and stay with the other stars that are too far away.

I try to placate her so that she will not cry the whole ride: someday Mommy will get you the moon.

I realize now that that is what I do when I hold her at night: I am trying to keep us here; I am trying to keep her from floating away and staying where I cannot reach her. And between the darkness and the bad dreams, it is the solely the hold that makes her trust the deep drowning of sleep.

Tour, Part II-Kevin Haworth

I am reading the streets of Tel Aviv for their genre affiliations.

There are streets named after rabbis and streets named after politicians.  Streets of royalty and streets of revolutionaries.  There’s Shalom Shabazi Street, named for a poet who wrote in three languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic) and who dreamed of Israel from 17th century Yemen.  Just a quick walk away—look closely or you’ll miss it—is one small block named after George Eliot, who challenged both gender and genre and somehow wound up here, holding a convenience store and a shoe repair on her tiny lap.

There are relationships in the map grid, if you look closely enough.  Dizengoff, named after the mayor, runs parallel to, but does not intersect with, Ben-Yehuda, the linguist—except that if there were no Ben-Yehuda, all the street signs, including Dizengoff, would be in a different language.  Weizmann, the chemist-president, leads to David, the poet-king.  Ben-Gurion runs east-west, while his great political rival, Menachem Begin, runs north-south.  (They do not meet.)  One of the shortest streets of all is Ha-Nevei’im—the street of the prophets.  Genre-defying folks, for sure, though their stories all end the same way.

No matter how many times I’m here, the street signs are never just designations to me.  They bend and they open, revealing all their connections and contradictions.  My apartment looks out on Basel Street, the city in Switzerland, sure, but really marking an event and an idea—the first Zionist congress, held there in 1897.  One way or another, we’re all here in this city, Tel Aviv, because of Basel.  But my children don’t know that, nor, perhaps, do they need to, when they walk down Basel Street every morning for their daily pastry. 

What happens to street names when you encounter them every day?  How do they fade, shift in their purpose?  Israelis are as aware of history as anyone I’ve ever met, but it’s human nature to skew to habit and complacency.  Here, Ben-Gurion takes you to the beach, and Basel takes you to the bakery.

Ask one of my Israeli neighbors how to get from point A to point B, and you won’t get a history lecture, or a discussion of changing literary conventions.  (A long cab ride might be a different story.)  In fact, they’re likely to dispense with complicated instructions and street names altogether, especially when dealing with tourists. Instead, it’s just an energetic wave of the hand in the general direction of wherever it is you want to go.  You’ll probably also get, unsolicited, the standard Israeli advice for finding your way.  Yeshar, yeshar, yeshar—ad ha-sof.  Straight ahead, until the end.

A Violence From Within: On Waiting for Word–Lia Purpura

A recurring nightmare with variations: I’m on a stage, about to give a reading, but when I open my mouth, no words come out — or a kind of gargling sound does, which makes my audience yawn with impatience then file out of the room. Or, I’m stuck in wet concrete and can’t reach the podium. Or, bending to read my poems, the words scramble, blur into nonsense, appear to be in a foreign language. Not uncommon themes for writers I suppose, who daily weigh, scour, reject, seek adequate language, and for whom, as Thomas Mann said, “writing is more difficult than it is other people.”  If this pressure is a daily, occupational hazard, then it shows up most ferociously when words are most needed, in response to enormous, unthinkable events.

      Months after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I’m still trying to get my bearings, to steady the wobble between a fearsome sense of fragility and a jarring sense of normalcy.  As a poet/essayist – and as a citizen and mother: what to speak of? And how — grieve, accuse, rage ? To whom? To what end?

      A first step: examine the shapes fear takes. The weird guy whose house I used pass every day on the way to class when I lived in Iowa – he owned a gun (why make a point of telling me, I wondered, even then.) Might he crack? And why not? Pain abounds, much of it private, relentless, unsolvable. Would she lose it, home all day with two kids, a loud  dog, a frayed marriage? What about the agitated guy in line at the post office yesterday? Reading another’s demeanor is complicated, intensified now: is that normal impatience, or a very thin, internal wire about to snap? Was he a “disgruntled employee?” I’ve certainly been disgruntled at work. But the word no longer means “displeased, discontented; sulky, peevish,” hitched, now, as it is to “gunman” and mass killings.  I used to like crowds — the press of bodies, moving as part of an organism. In seasonal crowds, say at Christmas tree lightings, I used to feel taken in, part of a surging, expressive moment. Now, just sitting in traffic makes me nervous; with nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, rush hour downtown looks like a tragedy waiting to happen.  A “powder keg” with “sitting ducks.” In elevators, offices, stores, I start dividing people — possible shooters, likely victims — and then subdivide the victims: the canny, the lucky, the doomed.  I devise escape plans in grocery stores. In the very aisles where I used to edit poems in my head, listen for interesting conversations and phrases, I’m now sharply alert, suspicious of anyone lingering. At the movies, anxiety nibbles the edges of what used to be a delicious moment: the lights dimming, the dark rising. The loss of imaginative civic space, peace, reverie, a sense of sanctuary in the small, inconsequential seeming moments of a day. . . we’re all suffering that.

      And this, too, feeds my unease: that mythical sense of elsewhere, the illusion that mass shootings happen in far off cities and neighborhoods, has dissolved completely. I tally my own list of proximities: a writer friend of mine taught the Virginia Tech shooter.  The granddaughter of a family friend was shot in the head at the movie theater in Aurora, Co. In Baltimore, where we live, the DC sniper slept overnight in the parking lot of a 7-11 not three miles from our neighborhood. And just recently I learned that the partner of a friend is related to the Sandy Hook shooter.

      In trying to think, speak and write about the unspeakables, the language we use takes on the predictable features of disbelief: it was a normal evening. It was a beautiful day. They’d just eaten dinner. They were on vacation. On a whim, she stopped in at a coffee shop (as I did, in Tacoma, WA recently – the very same shop where, just months later, four people were ambushed and killed). He seemed so harmless. He never spoke. He was odd but never bothered anyone. We didn’t know. We hadn’t guessed. The guns were stolen/hidden/legal. Rampage. Gunman. The heroes. The miracles. After a while, the plot feels predictable. The scripts, the characters, the grief: familiar.

      And here’s the twinned anxiety, masquerading as reprieve: for big swatches of time after the shooting at Sandy Hook, I’ve moved about normally – -and then, been rattled by normalcy. I remember eating a carton of yogurt that day, then unloading the dishwasher, for long minutes completely unencumbered by thoughts of the scene. By way of a phone call or the small task of an egg to boil, shock and disbelief flip over and the underside of a day shines on with ease. Rows of collards flourished in our neighborhood community garden all winter, and even now, when I stop by to pick some for dinner, the beds richly mulched, promising, serene, the scene often flips again, and having any bearings at all feels wrong, misaligned, insubstantial.

      Just yesterday, while walking my dog, very suddenly, the opening lines from Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” came to me:

“About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position: how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just

                      walking dully along . . .”

 

To say the poem “came to me” understates the experience. The stanza burst back, wholly unsought. As I spoke it aloud, I wanted to know again what the Old Masters – Breughel, and by extension, Auden – understood about suffering, what certainty about it might be had. At home, I took down my Collected Poems of Auden, and read the whole poem. Here’s the final stanza, where he deepens that phrase “the human position”:

“In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely form the disaster: the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive, delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

 

      The poem was not a “comfort” or a “balm” though it confirmed my own experience of brutal simultaneity, of the inexplicable, side-by-side existence of the mundane and the tragic.

      I remembered my first reading of the poem in high school, where it was presented as a study of indifference. Easy enough to see – the turning away, the frightening, calm ease with which people remain absorbed in their lives, in the midst of the falling boy’s tragedy. Now, though, the poem weighed differently. Its more shattering feature was its patience, the way it studied the vastness of co-incidents. Of course, a poem takes on and throws off different lights, and a reader absorbs angles of the spectrum at different ages and times of life — but something else happened, too, when the poem returned with such force.  A clear, new thought formed: “what is the myth that’s taking place now, that none of us can see, that we’re living alongside?  How will it be told and by what Ovid? Will it be pinned to the sky, like Orion’s belt, and used to navigate epic journeys? Will its telling become a seasonal event, the way Demeter’s loss of Persephone overlays fall?” With this briefly flowering question, finally, a nap of thought caught, a kind of phrase/image cluster. It’s the sensation of passing a rough hand over silk, or when a pencil catches on paper and produces a pleasant snagging resistance. This is the moment the bolt slides out and the gate swings wide — and I know I’m “in.” Language roots. The wavering firms. Here was a moment I recognized. It opened, breathed, extended in familiar ways. A working thought is a promising thing, a solidity to move into, live with, lean on.

      Writers labor under many anxieties – a common fear, shared by many is that one’s chosen genre isn’t agile enough to respond to the violences of the day; that one’s work, or soul, as it wrangles with a poem, or story, is not up to fulfilling Wallace Stevens’ definition of the imagination, the force that “Press[es] back against the pressure of reality”; a  “violence within that protects us from a violence without.”    

      A moment when all air has been choked out, when one can hardly breathe for the grief is not necessarily the time to make something. In this moment, on my walk, Auden’s poem confirmed a vast and frightening vision, but it also kick-started  . . . something. A trail, a thread, an inkling of my own to follow. 

      Reading “Musee des Beaux Arts” again, at this age, at this time, I had the sense that the poem knew me better than I knew myself, that it had been waiting for me to grow into it. Or waiting for this occasion to speak again. Or really, who knows why, just then, it surfaced. The finely shaded responses to suffering (the ploughman may have heard the splash, the ship must have seen the falling boy), those degrees of complicity, the way in which fate – ours, others’ – is ever-present, at work, concealed, partly glimpsed — I’ll study them. I’ll weigh, repeat, live with Auden’s words while I sign petitions, get up and do my part, lobby for the basic rights of children to be safe in school; that is, while I wait for language of my own, some way of seeing, recording and shaping that might be adequate to the violence without. 

Being a Boy-Man–David Lazar

Around Father’s Day, 2013

An ex-girlfriend used to call me her lesbian boyfriend, and this used to please me, flatter me. I felt it gave me the aura of transcending my gender, which, I must say, was, is, much to be desired. Because, after all, who wants to be a “man.” The qualities I associate with manhood I experience in the ways I imagine the descendants of slaveholders feel– shame mixed with disgust. What are these qualities? Condescension, argumentation, arrogance, smugness, entitlement to power, discomfort with powerful feelings. Though gay masculinity has begun to re-define manhood, slowly, in the larger culture, when I hear the word “man,” a kind of monolith with a penis appears in my mind, perhaps with graying temples. I’m Jewish, so the graying temples make sense.

My father was powerful, scary, charming. My mother was warm, accepting, scary. My dog was diffident. I became a kind of gender patchwork: confused, heterosexual, feminized, feminist, inconsistent, wounded, queer. Yes, I know the last is a minefield, fraught, territorial. It evolved out of a sense of strangeness, difference.

When I was a boy, I thought manhood was a prize the Wizard would give me, one of the secret medals he had hidden in his bag. Here is my song: (to be sung to the tune of “If I Only Had a Brain”)

When a boy is wracked and worried
He gets so awful hurried
He’s tight as a tin can
Still I’d know life were easy
And I wouldn’t be so queasy
If I only were a man

You know, I need to grow
Right out of the bonds that seem so slow
Life is happening outside of my window
Accelerate! How great!

If you think that boyhood’s pleasant
A charming adolescent
Engagement in the show.
I can’t bear my position
It’s my sole and dear ambition
To stop being young and grow.

But the Wizard didn’t give my manhood medal.

And years passed and I became a man, by default. First I ran towards manhood, and I’ve spent the last few decades running away from it. Because, in my way of thinking: who wants to be a man? I’ll say more about this. First, though, there is there is the stage which we call in which males in our culture are neither men, nor boys, which we call young manhood. I’ve actually never heard this noun form alluded to in anything other than the singular form, but someone must have. This stage of being men with training wheels. It might also be called Late or Old Boyhood, but we don’t do this, because at this stage most American males are yearning to throw off the shackles of adolescence. “Old Boy” also has connotations that make it slightly distasteful.

I think I liked being a young man. “Man” was modified. Man always needs to be modified, in my opinion. One never has the opportunity to say to someone, “I’m a man.” What would the situation, the conversation, the unfortunate event be that led to this circumstance? A hospital admittance? A date? Pulled over by a cop? A cop who was a man, no doubt. And what would be the response of someone to this announcement, to saying, perhaps peremptorily, “I’m a man” (are you in a football stadium? Is the ballet about to begin? Giselle?)?

Here are some possibilities:
A woman: I’m sorry.
A man: Can I have one?
A Transgendered person: Are you sure?
A Dog: Woof.

As a young man, say between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, I felt sophisticated beyond my years thanks to my years of traveling, full of unidentified yearning, compulsive in ways I couldn’t control which scared me constantly, and completely confused about whether or not I was an attractive human being. The cauldron of my early political radicalism and the second wave of feminism, a kind of insistent desire to resist convention, and, and . . . what to call it? An aversion to certain masculine norms that had seeped into me from an early age: aggression, loudness, insensitivity, indifference or antipathy to intense emotion and self-reflection. I identified these, stereotypically, of course, with masculinity. Along with my politics, and what Hazlitt called The Spirit of the Age, while sexually heterosexual, I was spiritually and politically engaged with the (here the writer taps the table impatiently) LGBT movement. My own sense of “maleness” or “man-ness” became diffuse, deconstructed over the years.

I’m a boy, I’m a boy, but my mother won’t admit it
I’m a boy, I’m a boy, but when I say I am I get it.
–The Who

I run away from “man,” but I could embrace some version of boy, some version of the open, still-evolving biological masculine nomenclature, even if it carried a whiff of Andy Hardy or comic books. Look, I’m not talking about Peter Pan, about clinging to youth. I think of most boys as more emotionally supple than most men. More sensitive. Charles Lamb referred to himself as a “boy-man.” I like that.

The truth is I don’t often think of my gender, except when I’m thinking about gender. That’s probably patriarchal privilege, in disguise. When I do, I think of it as a kind of male-queer construction, painted with feminine outlines. I’d like to define my gender as Fred Astaire, actually, if I were asked. Fluid but focused. Dances alone, however, much of the time.

Dearly Beloved– Dinty W. Moore

We are gathered here because I officiated my first wedding just a few weeks back: a graduate student in the writing program where I teach was marrying an instructor in the German program.

They married in my living room.

The bride wore blue.

The maid of honor wore shorts.

~*~

We are here today – before God – because marriage is one of His most sacred wishes – to witness the joining in marriage of GROOM’S NAME and BRIDE’S NAME. This occasion marks the celebration of love and commitment with which this man and this woman begin their life together. And now – through me – He joins you together in one of the holiest bonds.

I became a minister in the Universal Life Church easily enough: visit a webpage, click a button.  Ordination is simple. Knowing what to say when two people marry is something else altogether.

The boilerplate language italicized above showed up on a website devoted to helping novice officiants like me find the appropriate words, but even such humble a declaration caused me considerable cognitive anguish. It wasn’t clear if both bride and groom believed in God, for instance. I was pretty sure at least one was not on board with the default masculine pronoun. I certainly wasn’t ready to claim that God acted through me.  And to be honest, I doubt that marriage is one of God’s “most sacred wishes,” or that God, whatever that word means, even bothers to notice our silly little organized religious rituals.  He/she/God surely has better things to occupy his/her/God’s time.

But we like to think that we are the center of everything, don’t we? And that someone is keeping track.

~*~

With respect for individual boundaries comes the freedom to love unconditionally. Within the emotional safety of a loving relationship – the knowledge self-offered one another becomes the fertile soil for continued growth. With care and responsibility towards self and one another comes the potential for full and happy lives.

Now there’s a mouthful of passive jargon.  “Individual boundaries,” “emotional safety, “the knowledge self-offered one another becomes the fertile soil…”  Perhaps if I had been negotiating a settlement between Israel and one of its neighbors, the language would have suited, but I couldn’t deliver those words to my two friends with anything like a straight face.  I’m a writing teacher after all; clarity of language is my sworn cause.

Still and all, it was my job to offer some sort of advice. My wife helped by repeatedly suggesting, “Don’t mention ‘hard work!’” She was referencing a ceremony we had witnessed many years before where the preacher seemingly talked of nothing else; pointing out in every other sentence that marriage was hard, grinding, bone-wearing, teeth-gritting emotional labor. His wife was in the pews when he said all of this, and I can only speculate what she was thinking.

I eventually came up with a few nuggets of advice I wanted to offer, until it occurred to me that at this wedding, my wife would be in the audience, listening to me, and soon enough every sentence I composed sounded horribly hypocritical.

Renita and I are just about to celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary, which is pretty good stuff these days, but goodness knows this didn’t happen because I was good at marriage, or because I held some special key to making my wife’s days happy and joyous. These thirty years have happened because Renita was willing to put up with me, and because she is stubborn, and because I am lucky.

That’s not exactly advice.

~*~

Do you GROOM’S NAME take BRIDE’S NAME to be your wife – to live together after God’s ordinance – in the holy estate of matrimony? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse, in sadness and in joy, to cherish and continually bestow upon her your heart’s deepest devotion, forsaking all others, keep yourself only unto her as long as you both shall live?

One other oddity of my first marriage ceremony was that neither GROOM’S NAME nor BRIDE’S NAME was new to the nuptial altar. They had three or four weddings under their collective belts already, and were in no way naïve as to the perils, challenges, and odds.

So what do you tell someone who is not innocent, not wide-eyed, not filled with naïve optimism.  If I promised them that each day would be as wonderful as the first flushes of love had been, that they were entering into a union of perpetual bliss, I suspect the bride would have laughed out loud.

So what to say?

I didn’t tell them much.

I mentioned that marriage is like writing: you need to show up at your writing desk and at your marriage desk.

I mentioned that marriage is not like writing: writing needs to be attacked, relentlessly, while people need to be handled tenderly, coddled a bit.

“Show up, be tender.”  That’s the best I could muster.

The bride and groom smiled and nodded.  My wife did not guffaw.

Lee Martin–Snow

          Once, when I was five, a snow storm came overnight and lingered into the morning. We lived on the farm then, and for some reason I can’t recall, my mother and father set out up the lane in my father’s Chevrolet pickup, leaving me in the care of my grandmother. I dragged a ladder back chair to the front door and stood on it, so I’d be tall enough to look out the glass. I watched the back end of the truck slide a little in the deep snow before finding purchase and going on. My father turned onto the County Line Road, and I was still watching when the truck, nearly to the crossroads, slid into the ditch.

           I still remember the sight of my parents walking back up the lane, heads bent against the force of the snow, my mother’s scarf tied beneath her chin, the skirt of her dress flapping around her legs, the bill of my father’s cap dusted with snow, his cheeks red from the cold.

           Although I didn’t know it, then, this must have been one of the first times when I sensed that my parents lived inside imperfect bodies. They’d tried to move through space and failed. I didn’t know, as I felt the cold they carried back into our home, that this was only one of their many rehearsals for leaving this world.

           Now I think of their footprints in the lane, proof that they once walked upon this Earth—those footprints disappearing even as I celebrated my parents’ return, all sign of them filling in with snow.

Brooding–Michael Martone

Seventeen years ago.  The house in Syracuse, on Fellows Avenue.  A sun porch on the second floor, windows all around, she had painted a pencil yellow, a school bus yellow.  The squat computer, a putty color, sat on the sterilizer table, dialed up, squawked for the first time. Tone and twinkle, hiss and static sigh, ripping zip, twist and ratchet. O. O. O. “Hello.”

In the cloud of trees, canticles of cicada barked, waxed and waned, tinkered with their tuning.

 

 

stillness

penetrating the rock

sound of cicada

—Basho

 

 

Lycos…

Magellan…

Excite…

Northern Light…

Alta Vista…

Yahoo!!!

Netscape…

 

May. Now. Seventeen years later, Brood II emerges in the east.

 

Magicicada Septendcim

Magicicada Septendecula

Magicicda Cassini.

 

Cicada, cicada, cicada.  The name (though it is not onomatopoeic but Latin for tree cricket) mimics the song. The long sibilant. The cawing caw. The dada da of the of the of the denouement, a trill falling off, entropic, unable to escape the gravity of, of, of a marble, dribbling on, each rebound lessening, dribbling on a concrete floor.

Just now, just now (another window is open on this machine, a program running) the chirrup of an alert.  As I type this this, a comment has emerged in my timeline.  The comment palimpsesting into place on the Facebook.  Two tones, two tones like like the clicking cricket the nuns (I remember) used to use to time our genuflections.

 

a cicada chirrs—

there! and there!

stars appear

—Issa

 

One billion buried grubs per square mile.  Buried for seventeen years but not asleep, no, no suspended animation, no dreaming dreams of waking, of falling upward.  A lot of rooting around down there.  Rooting for roots.  The earth crawling with them, coiled like the watch springs they are.

All one needs to do is type into a field and enter.  In seconds, millions of returns return in seconds, scores and scores of hits, hints from hither and yon, hinterlands come out of hiding.  The lists and lists come back in instants and after years one wonders no longer about an other, another one.  Another other emerges.  Emerges.

Now that I think about it, the @, the “at” symbol, the ampersat, that balled-up bug, has the look of burrowing bulging-eyed nymph.  Or the @ is a map of absence.  A sink of seeking.  A sink of sought.  All that time circling down the drain.  Screwed.  Worm-holed.  Bored and bored.

Then, the elm trees were still living, and they were scaled with the spent shells, the papered and papery leavings the bugs bugged out of.  I had to pry them from the trunks they were stuck to.  Pointing up the brick siding of my grandparents’ red brick house as well, grappled in the grout, a kind of fossil ivy.  I kept them in a glass jar, a mess of little brittle blisters, those bugged-out eyeless eyes, blown glass, goo goo googly, bulging orbits.  Shifting shifts.  Slit open sleeves.  A thousand thousand-yard stares.  What were they thinking?  Thought balloons configuring their own empty empty-headedness.  And all around me, invisible, was the busy full-bodied buzz buzz babbling of the brooding.

 

a cicada shell

it sang itself

utterly away

—Basho

 

I wonder what happened to her or her or her.  Carol Clay Clay Clay.  The scuffed anthills on the walks home from school.  Nancy Carrollllllll.  The lightning bugs made into ashy jewelry.  Maripat Golf, a estuary of silence after that graduation party in somebody’s backyard where seeing her through the screen of the lilac bush, obscenely in bloom, touch David Esinbarger’s hand (I’ve looked him up—he’s dead, he died after that but before this writing now) I ran back home through the alley ways of North Highlands and the tunnels of screaming sirens, cicadas sawing, seeing what I saw again and again.  Where are you now?  You and you and you.  Why after all these years can this song or that one or this one here not be unsung?

 

“Over the course of an emergence, male periodical cicadas congregate in huge choruses or singing aggregations, usually located high in trees.  Females visit these aggregations and mate there.  Males of all species have typical calling songs as well as special courtship songs, the latter being given only in the presence of females.  In Magicicada septendecim, the calling song is a prolonged buzz that drops in pitch at the end:  weeeeeee-ah. This song is very low pitched around 1.3 kHz….  When a male approaches a female, she responds by clicking her wings after each song, and he slurs his songs together.”

The Songs of Insects by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger

 

I stare at my screens.  Images of zombies back from the dead staring back at me.  I believe I am to identify with the living in these dramas, but secretly I have much empathy for the re-animated dead.  Their staring reminds me of my staring.  Their predation of brains is done too literally, I think, for the sake of an audience’s visceral response.  I like to think of that hunger more metaphorically, a desire not for the biological nutrient but the virtual one.  There is a mad curiosity I see. “What’d I miss?” Suspended under ground, out of time, as you were, poor zombie.  It is a hunger for the synaptic recording of time, the looping tapeworm of memory.  The past needs to be tapped.  Stare at me now, staring at this screen as I scroll through the searches, searching for what?  What?  What?  My shuffling, stuttered scroll.  My clicking.  My stalling.  My missing.  My finding.

 

even with cicada—

some can sing

some can’t

—Issa

Moments of Attention–Robin Hemley

We can never entirely recover what has been forgotten.  And this is perhaps a good thing.  The shock of repossession would be so devastating that we would immediately cease to understand our longing.

2-26-2010

Train clacking on its track, blurred landscape, pink trees, misty hills.

La la la la la la

Do you know These are all what happened the night almond trees  blooming La la la la la la la la before last night?

No.

Train clacking on its track, pink trees, misty hills.

“I actually had a heartburn.”

Oh really?”

La la la la la la

Found, rediscovered, when I returned an old computer on loan and its information was transferred to a new computer, the old computer wiped clean.  A dozen or so micro clips several years old, taken by my wife of days I remember broadly and moments I remember not at all.  Their heartbreak lies for me in their resurrection.  Had I never discovered them, I would not have missed them.  But now, viewing the images, I want these lost moments back.  What happened next?  I wonder.  These beautiful children – they’re lost to me forever even as I tuck them in at night, read to them at bedtime, wish them sweet dreams and pleasant dreams as they wish me pleasant dreams and sweet dreams.  My daughter cannot finish the ritual without being the last to say I love you.  If I said I love you, again, she would have to say it, too, and we might go on this way until the moment . . .

Here and Gone.  That’s what it is to be human, I think.  To be both someone and no one at once, to hold a particular identity in the world (our names, our places of origin, our family and affectional ties) and to feel that solid set of ties also capable of dissolution, slipping away, as we become moments of attention

“Daddy, in the olden days did they only wear Afros when they went dancing?”

— Quotes by Walter Benjamin, Mark Doty, Shoshanna Hemley, Naomi Hemley, Margie Hemley, Robin Hemley.

Flow–Mary Cappello

When a friend of mine was dying, she told another friend who called to visit her that her call had come too late. She was “already in the flow,” our friend had said from the bardo of her deathbed, “she had already entered the flow,” so she couldn’t accept a visit. When I heard this story, I pictured a telephone with a coiled cord stretched between the two friends—no passing of cellphones for this exchange, but a cord attached to receivers that couldn’t possibly reach far enough. The cutting of a second cord already in progress and set to drift.

And I wondered about what my dying friend was telling us: if we enter the flow when we die, where is it that we live? On the shore; beneath the sky; at the table or the lathe; in interruption? Before the cup and saucer; at the casement window; ascending the hill? In the envelope of voice and mood, does writing anticipate the flow or work to staunch it? Run against its current or alongside it?

Pausing to interrupt the workshop vernacular of flow—as in “I like the way it flows”—I screech to breaking point: “Menstrual blood flows,” I say, and “milk is expressed. Let us dispense, therefore, with the application of these terms to discussions of writing.” You’d think I was averse to the female body what with my examples of its effluvium, glistening or matte. “The poet writes the history of his body,” Thoreau pronounced (or uddered) one liquid day before the invention of a sharpener for his pencil. Is it the Oscar parade of flowing gowns and ram-rod suits that makes me want to forget my body when I write, or at least get past it? Or past some hetero-norm of flows and sticks that break my bones and words that ever hurt me?

Where did this phrase come from—“it flows”? From music and the assumption that all writing be lyrical. From the idea of writing as a craft set to glide on still waters. From a romance with a several century’s old Coleridgean attitude of waft—Wordsworth’s poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of emotion.” From assembly line culture and factory output. From electricity and tears.

One kind of flow makes another sort of flow possible. Flow begets flow as when the stark O of my friend’s absence floods and drenches me. (“To set the eyes at flow”:  to cause to weep).

One night I dream that dying is a coming into and out of consciousness until you can’t find the energy to come in: the energy instead becomes you. It could have been a dream of how to stay asleep without dying, or an image repertoire for the stuttered breathing of my snoring. On a busy street, I might add, because the setting was a city thorough-fare, thick with noise and people, and I remember thinking in the dream, “Why am I trying not to die on such a busy street? Why did I choose such an impossible place to die?”

The day before I had run into a friend and colleague whom I hadn’t seen in some time. Just before noticing her, I had been fighting a sort of autism I occasionally experience in grocery stores, when, frozen by the sensory over-load of rows of stacks of aisles of pyramids of vegetables and fruits, labels and prices and colors and shapes, I temporarily freeze and forget what I have come for. Seeing D—in a periphery partly broke my trance, and I wandered toward her, brightening, “It’s so good to see you”!

D—  and I had been diagnosed with breast cancer in the same year, so whenever we saw one another there was always a degree of checking in to the land of our living. Though D— “looked great,” and seemed to be about her daily business, she said she wanted me to know that her cancer had metastasized. Pain flowed into her hands from her sternum, she explained: a sudden sign of cancer in her lungs and bones. She wanted me to hear this, she said; she wanted me just to know that cancer follows the flow of a pre-determined path we can never know.

There was no time to suggest we plan to get together, and at a certain point in the deepening of our conversation, I realized we were probably seeing each other for the last time. “I have really enjoyed knowing you all these years,” D— said, hugging me, while streams of shoppers flowed around us, bumping into us. This was clearly no place for such a conversation—“you’re in the way!” one woman blurted as, embracing, we blocked access to the tomatoes and the kumquats, the grapefruit and asparagus.

Strangely, we didn’t cry; we laughed a good deal. We were in the bardo of the dying, our thoughts and words even our bodies on a plain apart from the bustle and flow.

See how beautifully this paragraph misses the boat of its calling. Tune your intelligence to the drip drip drip of this novel’s leak. I won’t refuse the complement of a writing being compared to butter—also said of a second hand cashmere sweater by a store proprietor in Rhode Islandese, “It’s just like buttah!” Here’s to prose-like-butter better to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes, and breasts, and groins. We read to get lost in the flow.

We want the writing to flow because we want writing to complete or satiate us—complementi! We want it to flow because we want when we read to be met even though we know we will never be met, not ever fully, not really, that we will only be met halfway. I want writing to meet me as a cascade of swirls. I want writing to take me on board for fear that life is passing me by. I want writing’s surface to shimmer rather than reflect.

Writing isn’t flow: it is mood modulations, fine tunings, or coarse. Writing is not a flow but a vibration, not a pulse but a recombinant re-chording: the song we sing, orchestrate or divine, the duration of a here, and here, and here.

If it must flow, then why not praise it for its murmur, that low indistinct continuous sound as of a stream. No sullen discontent of a half-articulate voicing, why not say of writing, “it murmurs well,” “I like the way it murmurs.” I like the octave of its murmur, the hollow, hum, and buzz. I love its bumbled hovering between spoken-ness and flight. The way I have to strain to hear it, like the sounds we have to bend to hear beneath the surface of audible flow: on the thither side of complaint, a joyous murmuration.

*           *           *

Thanks to poet Talvi Ansel for introducing me to murmurations of starlings, and to this beautiful video by Sophia Windsor Clive and Liberty Smith; and, thanks to Robin Keller, a student in my Honors seminar in “Literary Acoustics” at the University of Rhode Island who, in writing about the difference between murmurs and mumbles helped me to hear what voices do, anew. I come to the idea of the “bardo of the dying” by way of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s meditations on Tibetan Buddhism in the posthumous collection, The Weather in Proust (Duke University Press). “A privileged instance, but not the only one,” Sedgwick writes, “dying is one among a group of states—also including meditation, sleep, and dreams—that are called bardos, gaps or periods in which the possibility of realization is particularly available. Bar in Tibetan means in between, and do means suspended or thrown” (210).

Tour–Margot Singer

 Bath to Bradford-on-Avon

Out the window of the 10:42 to Cardiff: feathered grasses, rolling hills and fields, wheels of hay, grazing sheep, a knot of cows. The river is a faint slip of blue beyond a screen of leaves. Here we are: blue plush seats, mid-morning travelers—mums with children, college students, older men and us, tourists—grasping for image, for the detail we’ll remember, for some authentic thing. We’re riders on a fairground carousel, stretching, straining, arms extended, out of balance, reaching for that brassy ring.

 

Bradford to Avoncliffe

In Bradford we rent bicycles, follow the dirt path down the hill behind the pub to the canal. It is like entering a verdant tunnel: shaggy grass and mossy water, overhung with willows, hawthorn, weeds. Narrow boats moored along the edge. We swing our legs over our bikes and ride.

A canal: the river nudged into a channel, routed over aqueducts, funneled into locks, a towpath rolled and staked. It is 1797. Stonecutters, masons, ironmongers, surveyors, mapmakers, cattle drivers, navvies—any man strong enough to wield a shovel or a pick can join the crew. Palms cut raw by ropes, backs bent beneath the rain and sun. Hacking through open rock and beds of clay. Hauling wooden wheelbarrows of dirt and stone. Twelve years, it will take, to engineer and dig the trench, to construct the aqueducts and locks. By the time it’s done, it will be nearly obsolete, trade and travel already given over to the train. The men dig and dig. A clay-caked boot stomps on a spade, a heave, a shove. The earth gives way. Far below, the river roils free. Tumbles over falls.

 

Avoncliffe to Limpley Stoke

The water is milky-green, opaque in sunlight, darker, dappled, in the shade. A moving, secret thing. The temptation of the water: its surface and its underneath.

I am thinking of Ophelia, hair streaming like pondweed snagged on a floating log, her drowned face bloated, greenish in the watery light.

The other day, on the Avon near the Pulteney Bridge in Bath, we watched a group of divers tipping backwards off a rubber launch. Tanks and snorkels, wetsuits, fins. A rope line to the bank. Were they practicing, we wondered? Or searching? If so, for what? And then we watched them haul it up, long and heavy, wrapped in a plastic sheet. Did they find it lodged in silt, weighted down by rocks, or caught along a mooring line—just there, beneath the place the tour boats dock, beyond the ducks?

 

Limpley Stoke to Dundas Aqueduct

On the flat rooftops of narrow boats: wooden stumps, a rusty bike, a garden gnome, a folding chair, a wheelbarrow, solar panels, pots of grass and marigolds, a coiled hose, a string of Buddhist prayer flags, a broom, a barge pole, a propane tank, an anchor, a fishing rod, a grinning gargoyle, a plastic jug, a pile of sticks, a stroller, a satellite dish, a life preserver, a rainbow pinwheel, a kettle grill, a stuffed brown bird, a child’s floppy doll.

 

Dundas to Avoncliffe

The noontime breeze is rising, nudging puffs of cumulus across the sky. Time runs faster, going back. Water runs downhill. There’s the gate, the pub, the sign, the lock. There’s the narrow boat we passed an hour or so ago, still chugging on its way. The pilot at the tiller waves. His wife, sitting in the bow, reading a book, does not look up.

We ride past the Medusa, the Firefly, Foxglove, Titanic, Serendipity, Lady Eleanor, Topsy Annie, l’Escargot, Serenity. Some people live on narrow boats. Some are just on holiday. Some are just adrift.

Smells of weeds and river water, honeysuckle, cowbane, rose. A whiff of diesel, the stink of a latrine. Drifting cigarette smoke, toast. A clump of horse shit. Smells of dust and mud and rain.

In a narrow boat, you can follow the canal for fifty-seven miles, from the Thames at Reading all the way to Bath. You’ll pass through twenty-seven locks, including sixteen in a row at Caen Hill, Devizes. On foot, you’d have to walk for days.


Avoncliffe to Bradford-on-Avon

And now we’re looking at our watches, pedaling harder, thinking about returning our bikes before the deadline, whether we’ll have time for lunch, whether we can make the 13:21 return to Bath. The railway clock—the now and future—the travelers’ impatient tick-tick-tick—have overtaken river time, swamped it, drowned it out. We are turning off the towpath, pumping up the hill. What will we remember? At the road, I turn around, look back, but there are only houses, buses, shop fronts, cars. It’s gone—the boats, the flowing water, the walkers, drifters, cyclists, the ancient aqueducts and locks— all vanished, like the midway at the fairgrounds after the carnival is gone, folded up and packed away and vanished, as if it was never there at all.

Ices–T Clutch Fleischmann

It is spring and I do not think there will be more ice this year.

In the late fall I developed the habit of leaving empty jars on my porch, having sat on my steps in the morning with coffee or tea, there for the sun. I am always distracted by myself, and often eight or nine empty jars would collect before I removed them weeks later. As winter came, rain would sometimes fill the jars during the day and, as the temperature dipped in the evening, the water would freeze, cracking the glass in its expansion. I’d come outside as the sun hit the porch in the morning, the ice melting and water leaking from another fractured vessel.

Jar after jar broken, I began to obsessively chronicle the images. The blue of the white, the sheens and the luster, the obfuscating, dewy clouds. I poured water into glasses in the evening and, waking with the sun, hurried outside to see if the frost had set hard enough. Ice breaks differently than glass breaks, and I realized it was the ice in which my interest resided.

In part, it is the potential to melt and the potential to shatter.

Months have passed, and I have other projects in the air– a long essay on Felix Gonzalez Torres, a cross-media collaboration with a dancer, freelance reviews. Instead, with my time I continue to describe the breaking ice. I have pages and pages of these descriptions, repetitive to the point of tedium when read, but alive, even surprising, as I write them. I try to venture away from the obsessive focus, but descriptions of still ice are eventually cracked, and when I look at water, crystal or glass, they demand a comparison backward. I visit a friend in another city who tells me unprompted of his own imagistic obsession with glass breaking, a disclosure that heightens my affection for him and my need to write of ice. For days, my writing routine has the slight glow of his presence.

The surface is a crisp thing. It is eidolon blue, a blue that is grey. I put my hand above the ice and hold it as close there as I can without touching. My hand aches both from holding the position and from the radiation of cold, somehow more than the cold dry air moving above the bed of the creek.

I wonder how I might get to the Arctic, what grants might allow this. Maybe Alaska would be easier. The pages continue to accumulate and I mention my infatuation to the dancer. She tells me that she crawls through the woods for hours, no project in mind but that movement. I think maybe that I could even show her or another friend the accruing paragraphs, but whenever I go backward and read again, I tire after only a few pages. Videos of crumbling glaciers are nice but insufficient.

It is not the ice as form or substance, the potential to shatter or the splintered moments after, but the precise instant of the break with its inaudibly high-pitched screech. How could the language hold this, and only this?

In winter, there are thin spirals of ice around the bases of some small plants. The whorls are birthed when the freezing temperature causes the stems of certain weeds to split, the water vapor inside released and then frozen into a white garland, which the plant itself might not survive. This is an instance of the ice breaking something else. As such, I am only interested in the whorls when I bend and pick a frostweed, when trying to transport the delicate icy petals into a jar inevitably causes them to craze over.

All the questions of my habits come to mind. I want to tease out my interiority, using the words to make myself of the world rather than a person further displaced from it. Why, then, this moment, so plain even while beautiful, so private in my devotion? I worry that as I long for the ice’s fracture, the drawn-out hours of writing only mark disassociation.

As always, the trilliums are one of the first blooms in Tennessee this spring. The folded and slender purple petals of the flower come when they always come, their two-greened leaves spreading in the last weeks of March. I think the whorls of frost would be beautiful if they split the trillium’s stem, but the flowers come just a moment too late, and I’m unsure if their biology is even prone to these ruptures. The sun hits my porch just as I step outside in the morning. I stretch, which is not something I typically do. The cedar decking I laid weeks ago still smells like a pungent, dry-mouthed cinnamon. Because I have not planed the wood it is possible to move my bare feet in such a way that a splinter enters them, but this does not happen without my intention. The water in the few jars is white with motes. I find myself hoping that someone will walk by and, seeing me in my concentration, decide not to say hello.

Newport Journal–Kazim Ali

Walking down the mossy steps to the beach.

Long green whips, the seaweed we saw at Point Reyes once, each with its green-ghost head, piles of them everywhere and sometimes one calligraphed across the sand.

Swift air, water always rushing three different ways.

Newport at the edge of the continent, ocean here not receding away into depth but dropping immediately.

In Seattle, the pines were so tall, with no low branches, my mind went quickly back to Jenpeg, to my cold cold childhood.

Like Madison, living in water, between lakes, water on three sides.

But Seattle, unlike Newport, protected from endless horizon by the islands. Here you only look and look.

Portland on the river, driving through at night, ablaze with lights.

I thought, turning off the highway to drive to the shore, I would be trapped in the rainy night forever.

Coming through the last stand of trees into town I was shocked to find it, big, dirty, grittier than Beacon, plainer than Shippensburg, a fishing town without fishing anymore.

Only last week, five different people told me on the same day, a couple had been swept from the jetty out to sea.

As I walked I thought: I love it, this, walking along the edge of the sea. The sea without end.

Everything without end. Duras gave it to me: other languages, a softer sense, other ways of knowing through the sea.

Language without knowing, without sound, without sense. Sans cesse.

Now sitting in a warm restaurant, drinking spicy coconut soup and reading poetry by Larry Eigner and Jean Valentine.

Lost always in loss.

I want to look at my hands. I want to say something in the language of the ocean, the language of the rain.

Tonight I go to the art gallery overlooking the ocean to read poems. I drink coffee and dream about transforming.

Hurrying back to the hotel I miss my chance to see the second lighthouse, the more famous one at the northern end of town.

At the reading the people are very friendly and excited and then leave one by one. My co-reader is going to have dinner with friends and I am left in the middle of the parking lot, cold and getting colder.

There is a café down the street that serves vegetarian food and hot drinks, I am told.

La mer sans cesse. I hurry down the road. I miss my father.

If I Lived–Brenda Miller

If I lived in France today, a child would slap a fish on my back. The Poisson d’Avril. April Fish. The mark of the fool.

If I lived in Switzerland, spaghetti would grow from the trees. The harvest might be especially abundant this year.

If I lived in the Indian Ocean, I could bike around the island of San Seriffe. I could live on a semi-colon. A perpetual pause.

If I lived in the rain forest, penguins would fall from the sky, stinking of Antarctica.

If I lived in Denmark, all dogs would be painted white.

If I turn off my computer today, the Internet will close for cleansing. Flotsam and jetsam of useless information purged.

If I go on a fool’s errand….

If I try to pick up a dime glued to the ground…

If I fall for it.

I always fall for it.

I eyed doorways, watched for the tricks, a dreaded day—this child already foolish, so gullible, and the hot shame that rises when you’ve been had.

Had. As if the trickster now owns you: they got you, got you good.

I tried to be good all the time, everywhere: at home, at school, at the grocery store. A constant vigilance that made my head ache. Trying so hard not to be the fool.

I always get the Fool card in the Tarot. The fool lost in his daydreams as he stumbles off a cliff. The dog, white, prancing by his side.

I’m a Pisces. Pisces are fish. Pisceans are often fools.

April Fish are invited to bogus parties. They come to the door with wine in hand. So eager.

They are sent on fool’s errands. The trick is successful only when the fish knows she’s been had.

Is all life a fool’s errand? Is it? If so, go ahead and laugh. Let the joke be on us.

On us. The fish swinging from the back of the fool. Wiggling in dry air. The Kick Me sign.

The fish of April wakes up from winter to the outlandish story of spring: yes, the perennials hunker underground and burst forth at some signal, as do the buds in the weeping cherry tree. Yeah, sure. Got it.

If I lived in Burger King, I could get a left-handed Whopper.

If I had a spaghetti tree, I would never go hungry.

The first spaghetti of spring. Tender and delicious. Next year the meatball shrub should bear fruit.

The fish of April always gets caught. Stuck in an eddy. Fooled by the current into believing her way upstream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Wanted to Eat Light Bulbs–Steve Fellner

I wanted to eat light bulbs.  I wanted to hear my teeth crunch the little pieces.  I wanted to swallow them.  I wanted to feel them cutting the insides of my throat.

On some days, light bulbs scared me.  There is a light directly above my treadmill.  When I ran, I was afraid that the light bulb would burst and some pieces would pierce my skin.  Maybe one would even make its way into my eye, blinding me.  During my exercise, I would unscrew the light bulb and put it on the dryer, and then get back on.  Everything would be fine for a few minutes until I realized that there was the possibility the light bulb would roll onto the floor and then crack.  My husband Phil would hear the noise, and then yell at me, I imagined, for not keeping the light bulb in a safe space.  “Why are you down here in the dark,” he’d say, “You’re going to trip and break your neck.”

*

I told my psychiatrist about my run-ins with light bulbs.  She wasn’t as amused as I pretended to be.  “Why do you think you’re having these thoughts about light bulbs?  What’s a light bulb standing in for?”

That’s when I knew I hated her.  I needed to find a new psychiatrist.  I humored her and offered some possibilities.  I felt bad for her.  If she failed me, no doubt she had failed a lot of other people.  It’s not like I was anything special.

I told her that I’m afraid of the dark.  When I was a child, I would curl up in bed, my blanket over my head, and no matter how hot it got, I would not come up for air.  I’d sweat.  I’d anticipate the morning when my mother would turn on the lights.

I told her that my dad worked for Commonwealth Edison.  He was a meter reader.  Perhaps the light bulb was a stand-in for my father.  I was sad.  I was processing our relationship which had been estranged for a number of years.  (Happily, it’s now better than it has ever been.)

I told her that when I was young I used to burn myself.  I liked the way the skin peeled back.

I told her a lot of things.  I can’t remember a lot of them.  All I remember is the resentment in trying to find a metaphor for her.  Perhaps madness is when you can’t control what you’re substituting things for.  Everything becomes something else and you lose track of the literal, the real.  Or you believe that the real was never there to begin with, and that begins the descent into paranoia and anxiety.

I don’t know.  After I started to rehabilitate myself, I began to grow resentful towards metaphor.  The Universe, I made myself believe, is a beautiful and troubled thing.  And no matter how troubled, metaphors are a lie; the people who feel the need to use them are weak.  To use metaphor is to sin against The Universe.  God has made everything so unique you can’t replace something with something else.

Maybe I believe that.  Maybe I don’t.  All I know is that metaphor lurks in places that I never willingly want to go again.

The Deep End–David McGlynn

As a younger man, I loved few things more than snowy weekends—those endless stretches of duty-free hours to read or watch movies or hide beneath an old quilt dreaming about my future.

Ten years later, my future has arrived. My sons, Galen and Hayden, are eight and six and snow-bound weekends are seldom restful. Close in age and nearly equal in size, their energy is as contagious as a virus. If one boy’s feeling wild, the other can’t help but join in, and vengeance rides hard on the heels of every provocation. A finger in the ear is met with a sneaker winged across the room. A dollar stolen from Hayden’s wallet results in Galen’s underwear floating in the toilet. Their wrestling wakes us on Saturday morning and continues until we shoo them upstairs at night. Even then, we hear them jumping on their beds, taunting each other from behind their closed doors.

By Sunday afternoon, we’re all on edge and desperate to escape. My wife volunteers to go to Woodman’s, but only if she can go alone. I gather the boys’ swimming trunks and goggles, bundle them in heavy parkas and gloves and set out for the YMCA. We hang our jeans in a locker, tie our suits tight, and exit through the showers to the pool. The boys long ago declared the shallow water for babies. They head straight for the deep end.
When they were younger, the boys used to take turns playing “elevator” by holding onto my shoulders as I slid down the wall toward the bottom. As a boy, I learned to hold my breath this same way: clutching onto my own father’s shoulders as he plunged toward the deep end of our neighborhood pool, the shadowed grates to the pumps like a door in the earth’s crust, a realm accessible only to him and to me. It’s a father’s job to lead his sons into the deep end, to show them that every abyss eventually has a bottom, to teach them not to fear it.

I’ve taken my sons swimming on so many Sunday afternoons that they have become good swimmers by nothing more than repetition. They jump over my head and slither through my legs. They can hold their breaths almost as long as I can. They can touch the deep end without my help. Most Sundays I float beneath them, in the quiet enclosure of the water, watching their legs bicycle above me. When they scurry up the metal ladder and disappear from view, I understand a little of what it will feel like when they grow up and move away. Before I know it, my Sundays will be as quiet as they once were. Already I miss the days when the boys clung to my neck. I call their names, and my words bubble silently toward the water’s mirrored surface.

But, just as I start to feel sad, Galen dives in. His eyes are wide behind his goggles and his hands are outstretched, reaching for me.

On What the Watcher Wants–Barrie Jean Borich

I am watching a man, what seems a private moment. Though this is a film he appears to be actual, not a fiction. He splashes water on his face. I don’t know much more.

I am in Pittsburgh when I watch the film about the man, the last leisurely night of a work trip. The friend I’m staying with pulls out an old Super 8 projector to show home movies against her white living room wall, old film canisters she’d picked up for fun. The antique store sold each reel for a few cents each. These are not her memories but someone’s, anonymous and random, fished out of a vintage bowl.

The movie we watch is shot in color, a woodsy setting with a mountain, a river and a truck camper in the background. This looks to be the 1970s, and the man has wavy reddish hair grown out to the nape of his neck and jeans hanging loose at his hips. As he takes off his shirt and walks toward the river he flexes his lean copper muscles.

My friend and I lean in close. Was this a gay porno? Who is this man and what will happen here? We lean closer, hold our breaths, but all the guy does is walk down to the river and splash water on his face. Then this little movie comes to an end, the flipflipflip of the film coming loose from the reel.

We will never know more. We can only change our questions. His mystery was what we leaned into then. Since, I’ve lost interest in story. Stories change. Desire changes too, but also sustains. Who held the camera? Who followed him down to the river? What did the watcher want of the redheaded man in this ruddy sunlight, in the cold sting of the river against his skin? His body? His fidelity? His attention held forever?

What do any of us want when we watch? Here is another home movie, three-and-half-minutes by another anonymous watcher, that I fished out of the big bowl of the internet.

One desire expressed six times, or maybe six desires, contained by ground, reach and dahlias. The man’s muscles are copper. The bridge to the city is burnished purple. The road curves against green fields. What did the watcher want of this watching? A respite? A new place? A dog who lives forever? What do I want, aside from another past, already gone?

—Barrie Jean Borich/ barriejeanborich.com/ March 11, 2013

Old Things by Dave Madden

In aging, the body gives in to a whole horde of clichés. I rise from a chair, my hand at my hip, and I’m a faceless man in a TV ad, the red bolts throbbing radially. I’m given the title Professor and within a year go grey at the temples. Something put a hemorrhoid on my asshole, and hangovers last a day. My body, I’ve been forced to see, is so sadly unspecial.

I’m 34 years old. The other thing to know about aging is its privilege. Older people won’t allow at cocktail parties or within web essays the aging of the young to be expressed, much less felt. I imagine the septuagenarian’s despondency at no longer hitting a full swimmer’s mile each morning equates Weltschmerzlich to the tween too suddenly big for her dolls, but to that tween I am old and to myself I am old, and while to 52.3 percent of the U.S. population I am young I plan, as an old man, to wallow in it. We’re all old.

*

Frank Conroy published Stop-time when he was 31. In its weariness does his narrator-self read old. The book came out in 1967 when Conroy was a young nobody no one could trust. Said critic Roger Ramsey:

Stop-time is not read for information about the author nor for the exposition of a philosophy of life. As a consequence, the question of adherence to the facts is beside the point. My own experience with the book tells me that the facts are relatively unimportant, but also that the literary imperatives demand and produce an illusion of fiction in which facts are manipulated and interpreted—“invented”—for aesthetic purposes.

Those words got published in 1974. I wasn’t even born yet.

Stop-time pleased critics and sold modestly. David Foster Wallace once called it “arguably the best literary memoir of the twentieth century.” My Penguin copy reads “A Memoir” on its cover, but these words don’t appear on the first edition. Conroy’s book antedates this marketing category the way I do millennials, which is to say just barely, which is to say I score just 7 points away from true millennial on the Pew Research Center’s How Millennial Are You? quiz.

Now Conroy’s dead, as is Wallace. Once, in a poetry workshop, a fellow student pointed out how the poem at hand captured the experience of a dying person.

“We’re all dying,” our professor said, helpfully.

*

Of siblings, of peer groups, I’ve been the youngest. It’s a way to get away with being ignorant. We expect nothing from them, the young, running at reunions through the legs of the grown-ups looking one another respectfully in the eye.

Youth’s a kind of womb, too safe a place to stay in. We can grin, patronizingly, at the grandma who pronounces herself, delusionally, “eighty-four years young” because to say “I’m old” is, we understand, to take a dim view of aging. It is not. It’s to embody it. “Wherever there is power, there is age,” Emerson tells us. “Don’t be deceived by dimples and curls.” 

Emerson’s older than I’ll ever be, and ditto the genre he climbed aboard. That there is no new thing under the sun is a lie, unfortunately, and so our work slouches on.

February 25, 2013

bending-genre-cover.jpg

The world is getting better:

BREAKING: Today a coalition of citizen groups, states and U.S. EPA announced a landmark settlement agreement with American Electric Power (AEP) requiring AEP to stop burning coal by 2015 at three power plants in Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky. AEP also agreed to replace a portion of these coal plants with new wind and solar investments in Indiana and Michigan, bringing more clean energy on line to meet the region’s electricity needs.

The world is getting worse:

The giant Swedish furniture retailer, IKEA, on Monday said it had recalled a batch of frozen meatballs sent to more than a dozen European countries after tests detected traces of horse meat.

The world is getting better:

Roughly half of Republicans — and 71 percent of Americans overall — support raising the minimum wage to $9 per hour, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center and USA Today.

The world is getting worse:

The New Republic author Adam Kirsch writes:  Essayists such as Rothbart and Crosley and Sedaris, one might say, represent the prose equivalent of reality TV. They, too, claim to be recording their lives, while in fact they are putting on a performance; and they, too, count on the reader to know the rules of the game, the by now familiar game of meta. What makes this kind of performance different from the performance of a fiction writer is that, by “acting” under their own names, they inevitably involve motives of amour-propre. The essayist is concerned, as a fiction writer is not, with what the reader will think of him or her. That is why the new comic essayists are never truly confessional, and never intentionally reveal anything that might jeopardize the reader’s esteem. “Love me” is their all-but-explicit plea.

The world is getting better:

Moonday meditation today at 5pm. Full moon tonight at 9.

The world is getting worse:

Dear Nicole Walker,

Thank you for your unwavering patience in receiving a response from The Believer. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to take “Micropreemies” for the magazine; however, we wish you luck placing it with another publication.
Thank you for thinking of us!

Best regards,
The Believer

The world is getting worse:

Nicole — we have some bad news.After spending hundreds of millions trying to win the White House, the Koch Brothers are shifting their millions to blocking President Obama’s progressive agenda.

You and I worked too hard in 2012 to let murky, ultra-conservative billionaires, like the Kochs, prevent us from making real progress.

The world is getting better:

Name: Nicole Walker
Suggested Support: $3.00

The world is getting better:

If only poems could heal…. “The healing power of art is not a rhetorical fantasy….For some, music, for some, pictures, for me primarily, poetry, whether found in poems or prose, cuts through noise and hurt, opens the wound to clean it, then gradually teaches it to heal itself. Wounds need to be taught to heal themselves.” (Jeanette Winterson)

The world is getting better or getting worse:

Feb. 25, 2013
Dear Readers,
On behalf of The Onion, I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars. It was crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting.

No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.

The tweet was taken down within an hour of publication. We have instituted new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again.

In addition, we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible.

Miss Wallis, you are young and talented and deserve better. All of us at The Onion are deeply sorry.

Sincerely,
Steve Hannah
CEO
The Onion

The world is getting better:

We have some nice large Cara Cara Oranges and Blood Oranges for only .69 lb. We also have 5 lb. bags of Texas red grapefruit for $1.99 each. If that’s not enough for you, we now have 3 lb. bag Cuties (clementines) for $2.00 each.

And better:

A Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil and a little wine can cut the risk of heart attacks and strokes by 30 percent, researchers reported on Monday in a study that shows the real-life benefits of a diet long encouraged by doctors.

And better:

A Cautionary Tale. Why are some artists more fated to the dustbins of history than others? Obviously, social, demographic, gender, racial, economic, and other issues are in mad play. But might there also be an innate flaw of CHARACTER in some artists? Something that doesn’t allow an artist to fully let loose, probe their own work as deeply, ruthlessly, relentlessly, honestly as it might need? Not always, but sometimes self-criticality is all. “What sucks in my own work? How can I fix it?” Especially in moments of change. Sometimes out of fear, delusion or just wanting to stay comfy and get love or enough money we fetishize our own ideas, turning them into private in-adaptable ideologies. Do we embalm ourselves? Protect ourselves from fear or failure? Or something else? Becoming rigid Miss Havishams, over-coding our work, making it merely competent, repetitive, limiting it and ourselves, when FLEXIBILITY is one of art’s life-bloods? Our excuses are many and true. “I have no money.” “I have no time.” “I didn’t go to the right schools.” “I’m a bad schmoozer.” “I am a short over-weight middle-aged balding Jewish long-distance truck-driver with glasses and no degrees and no idea how the art world works and am a bit of an asshole.” And yet …. One-hundred years ago this month ‘The Armory Show’ opened. The meta-balance of art shifted; art was in the balance. As were artist’s characters. In moments like this, maybe all moments, like today, do we shutter our mansions or open ourselves to an unknown new? Which is also here every day. – “Jerry Saltz Revisits the 1913 Armory Show.”

And truly better:

Bananas Are supposed to help with blood pressure. I bought us some at New Frontiers and they are in my office.

XO

In celebration of Bending Genre’s release, we will post a new mini-essay by our contributors every Monday every week until the middle of June. Next week, Dave Madden!

Bending Genre at AWP Thursday 4:30 to 5:45

Room 209, Level 2 Bending Genre. Margot Singer, Nicole Walker, Robin Hemley, Dave Madden– The hot debate over ethics in creative nonfiction has sidelined important questions of literary form. Hybrid, innovative, and unconventional, nonfiction is arguably the most exciting area on the literary scene today. But how does nonfiction actually work? How does it recombine and transform elements of other genres? What techniques distinguish nonfiction from other kinds of prose? Contributors to a groundbreaking new anthology of critical essays share their perspectives and ideas.