Saturday, December 27, 2008

Out of the marvellous

I'm writing a review of Peter Cole's book of poetry, Things On Which I've Stumbled, and just came across this poem, “The Wrong Angle Righted” about searching as a child for a "skyhook." This is an old scout trick – I myself looked in vain for a "left-handed wind-strainer", the younger boys being sent out by the older ones to search for a gadget that doesn’t exist.

He’d point, and we’d trudge on, grumbling,
in search of that wondrous device,
the last word in wilderness dwelling,
which would make for us that immaculate crease

and yield, over our heads, a prize ceiling –
that weightless, matchless, unnerving and skyey,
legend-like feeling of being,
a last, held up from on high.

Something about the lines above remind me of the striking Seamus Heaney poem in Seeing Things (1993), about the men sailing in the boat in air.


The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
`This man can't bear our life here and will drown,'
The abbot said, `unless we help him.' So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back

Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Superman and the Mole-Men, 1951

Recently saw this, the full-length Superman movie that come out of the TV series, for the first time in, oh, call it 35 years. Saw it with the kids: they were as creeped out by it as I was way back in 1973. Dismal lighting values and a cheap creepy soundtrack are all it takes, people, take it from me. The racial edge to the film -- the townspeople rise up in full riot configuration, with guns, chain, broken sticks, pitchforks, even BARBER POLES. and rush off to annhiliate the thus-far harmless, tiny, if odd and furry, Mole-men -- is pretty sharp for the early fifties. That's clearly what they are going for, and it's highlighted by the absence of anything other than white actors in the production.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Barbara Jordan, We The People

The amazing sound of Barbara Jordan's voice during the Watergate hearings. She struck me then and she strikes me now. Robert Pinsky has a strange, wonderful, strong, confusing poem about her.
On "Eve Tempted by the Serpent" by Defendente Ferrari, and in Memory of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas. It begins like this:

Rare spirit remembered with a pang
Of half forgotten clarity or density
A quality, quilled, a learned freshness

Unshattered though not perfect not Eden
No rippled meander through new islands
The parentless leaves and branches tender...

and then, at very end:

We fowl of a feather we feel we fail
And not that she made it look difficult
Or easy but possible and we fall

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Playboy, Shadow of the Glen

Saw the extraordinary Druid Theatre Company's production of The Playboy of the Western World and The Shadow of the Glen at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theatre Thursday night. 150 minutes plus of spell-binding language. Synge would be the Irish Shakespeare, if there were such a thing, but he's too Irish: not one word when a hundred will do, a black comedy that has your face splitting with a grin until the last fifteen minutes when it gets mighty grim might fast.

CHRISTY -- [turning to the door, nearly speechless with rage, half to himself.] -- To be letting on he was dead, and coming back to his life, and following after me like an old weazel tracing a rat, and coming in here laying desolation between my own self and the fine women of Ireland, and he a kind of carcase that you'd fling upon the sea...

WIDOW QUIN -- [more soberly.] -- There's talking for a man's one only son.

CHRISTY -- [breaking out.] -- His one son, is it? May I meet him with one tooth and it aching, and one eye to be seeing seven and seventy divils in the twists of the road, and one old timber leg on him to limp into the scalding grave. (Looking out.) There he is now crossing the strands, and that the Lord God would send a high wave to wash him from the world.

WIDOW QUIN -- [scandalised.] Have you no shame? (putting her hand on his shoulder and turning him round.) What ails you? Near crying, is it?

CHRISTY -- [in despair and grief.] -- Amn't I after seeing the love-light of the star of knowledge shining from her brow, and hearing words would put you thinking on the holy Brigid speaking to the infant saints, and now she'll be turning again, and speaking hard words to me, like an old woman with a spavindy ass she'd have, urging on a hill.

WIDOW QUIN. There's poetry talk for a girl you'd see itching and scratching, and she with a stale stink of poteen on her from selling in the shop.

Then I went to Giant at 11:15 PM to buy coffee, not a soul in the store except one guy in the Coffee aisle, an old friend I hadn't seen in two years, about to finish his undergraduate degree at the age of 42.

Last night, cross-dressed at a Halloween party.

I'm exhausted.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Sonnet to Liberty, Oscar Wilde

NOT that I love thy children, whose dull eyes
See nothing save their own unlovely woe,
Whose minds know nothing, nothing care to know,--
But that the roar of thy Democracies,
Thy reigns of Terror, thy great Anarchies,
Mirror my wildest passions like the sea,--
And give my rage a brother----! Liberty!
For this sake only do thy dissonant cries
Delight my discreet soul, else might all kings
By bloody knout or treacherous cannonades
Rob nations of their rights inviolate
And I remain unmoved--and yet, and yet,
These Christs that die upon the barricades,
God knows it I am with them, in some things.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Roaming of Bacchus

This great phrase, the title of a drinking game, is from "Wingstroke," a story Vladimir Nabokov wrote in 1923, about a widower on a ski vacation, tormented by a beautiful woman staying in the room next to his, vistited by an angel-like apparaiion. The widower is drinking with another man at the hotel bar, who suggests they try each cocktail as listed in the drink menu, working through their way through the entire selection, circling their favorites, then going through the list again drinking only the circled items. "Some people approach their daily life the same way," the second man comments.

The picture, of course, has nothing to do with this. I just like the expression on the mouse's face. Rather, I don't like it, but there is something character-driven about its world-weary eyes: like a Malamudian sufferer.

More Nabokov. From the very sexy "A Dashing Fellow":

She's making up everything. Very attractive, though. Breasts like a pair of piggies, slim hips. Likes to tipple, apparently. Let's order from the diner."

from "Ultima Thule":

I think laughter is some chance little ape of truth astray in our world.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

my father read creepy books

... and now I have read them and become in his image also creepy and yet... and yet... somewhat lame. Would recommend Harrad first, pornographic cover nottotallywithstanding. And then Castle. And then... and then... Also, is there no end to the ways by which we must get at our parents? It is becoming positively joyful to remember him badly. Sometimes I look at my own son and think, And yet... and yet... Shan't let him read any of these. Although we own two of three, in original mass paperback glory. He disdains all of my books so far. In that way, we don't resemble one another. By my son's age, I had already taken a healthy bite out of all that was forthrightly pornographic or wrong or downright rude in my father's library.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

So I’m at this like weird dinner party in Hollywood, sitting at a little japanese tea table with Benico del Toro

So I’m at this like weird dinner party in Hollywood, sitting at a little japanese tea table with Benico del Toro and he’s telling me about this rock climbing hike he took that ended up on a mountain cliff over a sea where he finds this little cave with all these gazelle bones in it, and just then Renee Zellweger comes into our little room ( a purple room, with black and brown lights, all the rooms in the house where the party is are very small and different exotic colors, like oxblood and purloin silk, and only a couple people are in each room), and I lean over to Renee (I’ve only just met her) and she’s got this cunning little video camera attached to her wrist with a delicate silver chain like it was a charm bracelet and she is recording the party and I know she’s just there to make time with Benicio but I’m like, Hey, I’m sitting with him, I’m trading stories (even though I don’t rock-climb or hike and am not Latin, I’m that weird suburban washed out white, part orcestra conductor, part pig, with grey buttocks and lank dry hair), but I lean into Renee and press my nose against her neck and feel thir coarse fabric sweater like coat thing she’s half-wearing and I murmur, Thank you, thank you, even though it’s not her house and not her party and we just met and she must think I’m del Toro’s little gimp white chimp drug dealer or something, but she squeezes me back and moans a little back at me and then floats on her with her outlandish clotted strawberry and cream complexion and Benicion lift his chopsticks at me like guys used to raise an eyebrow and I say, whatever, man, tell me about using yoga to fit through the crevice, and did you crack the antelope bones for the tasty, hieratic marrow? after we finish eating in about four mintues (the portions are tiny, it’s not like the suburbs where you eat until you’re sick and then go... click here for full story

Monday, September 15, 2008


Devestating, blanching news that David Foster Wallace died Friday, apparently a suicide. Nothing swallowing its own tail. A brilliant, mischievous, warm and cold and hot and sterile, funny and deadly serious talent, Wallace hung himself at his home in California for his wife to discover. The story refuses to provide any hand-holds for meaning, any crevices for a joke to hang. I wrote to him in November 1997 -- one of the few writers I've ever written to -- as I was blown away by Infinite Jest and had a clipping, a fragment really, of an old Smithsonian article that seemed to echo a crucial part of Infinite Jest. My letter to DFW went as follows:

"The enclosed reminded me of the wonderful first broacast of Madam Psychosis in Infinite Jest, so I have to send it on to you. I don't quite remember the source, but suspect it was from an old Smithsonian magazine about a photographer of freaks, since the reverse contained the fragment '- unfortunate freaks, living or dead, afflicted with every kind of physical oddity. Graphic as they are, they radiate a sublime beauty, and have made Joel-Peter Witkins one of the most-'"

And here is the clip I sent him (click to see full-size image):

Full disclosure: I also whined to him about what I'd written and never published. DFW wrote back in December thusly (again, click on image for full-size):

Needless to say, I was thrilled at his response. Getting up the nerve to write had been my achievement: I didn't expect a reply. As Wallace has been lionized thus far in obituaries and notices and appreciations, both for his off-the-charts brilliance and ambition, and for his warmth and graciousness, I just wanted to chime in, enthusiastically if amateurishly on the first count, and from real life on the second.

Monday, September 01, 2008

the abyss between isolation and having one ally

"Through all this ordeal his root horror had been isolation, and there are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one. That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy." The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton.

Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity.

This is one scary-ass novel, equal parts The Metamorphosis and The Third Policeman, with a little PG Wodehouse thrown in just to completely confuse you. It starts out about poetry, then moves to politics, and ends up being about divinity and metaphysics. It's an artlessly-almost-all-male book, stranger in concept than in fact, but unique.

"Bad is so bad, that we cannot but think good an accident; good is so good, that we feel certain that evil could be explained.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Playboy of Hoboken

Sligo Crumlin, the American narrator of The Playboy of Hoboken, is in seclusion on the Aran Islands, pursued by an Irish gangster for a mistaken bad debt and stolen drugs. Sligo has come to Ireland for two reasons: to pursue a mysterious Irish girl, Maeve, whom he fell in love with in New York City, and to try to break through his writer’s block and write a play that reflects his own life and adventures but is still, somehow, interesting. Sligo’s narration is funny, irreverent, bleak and sincere, often in the same sentence. A 1980s misfit, he hates Ronald Reagan and grandiose prosperity, cadging drinks himself any place his friends bar-tend, living on a shoestring, depending on his mother for occasional cash handouts, meals and laundry services.

In New York City, Sligo and a group of his college friends have started the Tool and Die Theatre Company and are planning a series of showcase performances to raise money – a “subway series” of scenes from various plays to be performed on-train and in the stations of the #1 train on the West Side. Sligo thrashes about, trying to start to write a play, doing his moribund standup routines at a local comedy club, and then packing it all in to fly to Ireland and pursue Maeve. There he does begin writing his play – an updating of Synge’s famous play The Playboy of the Western World about an ordinary young man from the country who invents a heroic life for himself and gets an entire village to fall in love with him – as Sligo pursues Maeve, helps out her ex-fiancĂ© in his chip-van business, and eventually flees from the dangerous Liam Lott.

From a folk festival on the grounds of haunted Charleville Castle in Tullamore, to a bloody face-off with Liam Lott among the ancient granite spars of a prehistoric fort on the Aran Island of Inisheer, Sligo perseveres. When he finally returns to New York City, he arrives home on opening night of the theatre company’s triumphant premiere of Sligo’s new play, based on his adventures in Ireland, called The New Playboy of the Western World.

Total word count: 96,000 words.
First two chapters: click here.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Just Add Water: 49:00 of your Life

Paul Westerberg's newest release, 49:00, is a single (well, not quite) .mp3 file containing a dozen or so songs home-recorded and rough-mixed. (Westerberg plays all instruments: his young son adds vocals on the final track)He put it up on Amazon for sale for the price of either .49 or .99, depending on whether you added it to your shopping cart as a "song" or as an "album." Westerberg is reported to have said, "I figured about a penny a minute was what it's worth." One tends to agree with him. The initial .mp3 file was actually only 43:55 seconds long, and two weeks ago it abruptly disappeared from Amazon, and its place was a single .mp3 file of a song called, brilliantly, "5:05." (bringing the full release length up to 49:00: get it?) If it sounds like genius, or if it feels like rage, or it ends up being exhaustion, or laziness, or malice, you're probably having an accurate feeling. I started cutting up the original 49:00 .mp3 into songs but gave up after awhile: if Westerberg didn't care to, why should I? The first several songs are strongest: "Who Ya Gonna Marry," "To Be Risin'" and "Something in My Life is Missing," and the stand-alone "5:05" might be the best of all, but then it gets a little hairy (like most of Folker and Come On Feel Me Tremble, his most recent albums, which I didn't care for at all). With 49:00, all along the way, any time you start to get into a groove on something, it's liable to disappear into a hiss of overdubbed noise tracking or bleeds from other songs. That said, the production fits, and yet, and yet... almost everything about Westerberg's solo career continues to confound. As he himself once memorably sang, "Just add water - I'm disappointed."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

And grateful too

The Sunlight on the Garden

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.

by Louis MacNeice

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Cocoon cocoon, have I come through too soon?

I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. What to embrace -- a filthy ragtag cocoon? What style to wield -- cruel and ranting, cool and panting? Music? Musings? Muscularity? There's nothing that says something like... something.

from Netherland by Joseph O'Neill: ... the deeper grew my suspicion that his work finally consisted of minting or perpetuating and in any event circulating misconceptions about his subject and in this way adding to the endless perplexity of the world. That puts very fine point indeed on what I wonder about at my most successful instants of writing or teaching or thinking -- that I'm stirring up what's already hopelessly mixed, that I'm obscuring the already-obscure.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Greetings from Frontbutt, New Jersey

1. Alphonse Galway met Phoebe Slur at a reading in which they were both featured speakers. She was the only women under 60 in attendance, and wore a tight black jersey with the words Bone is bad printed on it in Chiller font. 2. He knew who she was, she did not know who he was, which was surprising. 3. They were both supposed to read for 20 minutes: he read for 18 and she read for 46. 4. Among the poems she read were “I’d Like to Pop Your Earhole,” “licorice, lavish, loutish”. 5. Among the poems he read were “1971” “1980” and “First Year.” 6. Alphonse had just won a chapbook contest for his thin volume of confessional verse which he wanted to entitle Greetings From Frontbutt, New Jersey, but which the publisher wanted to call 1971. Alphonse thought he could probably live with that. 7. Phoebe had earlier that year published an actual book of poems from an actual New York publishing house (no names but its initials were FSG) called Getting the Hang of It. Her poems consisted of transcriptions of letters she’d received from a man on death row in Houston. The letters were heavily pornographic and she had used a black laundry pen to censor the dirtiest words. 8. Alphonse’s favorite poets were John Donne, Andrew Marvell and Robert Lowell, Phoebe’s were Alicia Ostriker, Mina Loy, Cesar Vallejo and Amiri Baraka. 9. Alphonse couldn’t take his eyes off Phoebe: she had a flat steel stud in her upper lip and food in the corner of her mouth.

Monday, August 25, 2008

change is cliche perfecting itself

The Democrats are just silly looking. I know we're ascending. I'm glad. But still. The stage makes it seem like a great big people's church of cheering. Ted Kennedy sounded like he was going to keel over at any moment. [I have already been upbraided for this uncharitable remark about TK. I am a big fan, though, and he is clearly running on fumes. Perhaps I should have gone on to salute his heroism for even showing up, but that just didn't occur to me.]

There's a line from this great "list" poem by James Richardson called "Vectors 2.0: More Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays." # 9 reads:

9. Most of what looks like change is cliche perfecting itself.

who wasn't born standing up?

Three years ago I posted my first blog, about how I didn't understand blogging. That was also my last entry. But now I back. And more ignorant than ever. I'm rediscovering myself here -- I have a lot to talk about, and little regard for hearing back from people, and an urgent need to self-aggrandize -- isn't that the Blogger raison d'etre? But first! NOT writing for a while. The way people use blogging -- as a diary, for instance -- is just mortifying to me. I could never do it. Even mentioning elements of my personal life makes me shudder: they're so context-less, it's just words. So then, more words.

Steve Martin's book Born Standing Up is great (pictured above is a fantastic photo of him marketing himself as a hippy-friendly entertainer in the early 1970s - even the Eagles wouldn't have stooped to that odd shell necklace!) -- I hated his two novels, but heard great things about his play about Picasso -- this is a memoir of his standup years and it's concise, detailed and very funny. [CB Ed. Note: 8/28/08: Just finished. Not that good. Early stuff the best. "no comment" picture best thing in book.]

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Space Walk By Tom Sleigh

Space Walk By Tom Sleigh (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) (Buy it)

(originally published in Provincetown Arts Magazine)

Tom Sleigh’s invigorating new book continues his musical braiding of disparate lines of intellectual reflection. His taste for experience is healthy. There is a first-person tale of a trucker trying to deliver 91,000 tons of ice cubes. There is a creepy portrait of a writer now struck dumb by Alzheimer's and a three-stanza semantic house-of-cards riff on a sentence by Nietzsche. The specter of war hovers throughout the book, and Part II is devoted entirely to horrific images of the Iraq war.

In “Oracle” Sleigh combines autobiography and the life of the imagination. His family drives to a test of the booster rocket fuel his father is developing. Sleigh uses his customary extension ladder of independent clauses set off by colons to telescope thought after thought. First the father contemplates the engineering problem in his head during the drive, and then the setting broadens novelistically to include co-workers and the speaker’s brother, and the test firing of the rocket engine itself. Sleigh ends this section with a period, the only one he uses in a long poem otherwise dependent upon colons, ellipses and em dashes for pauses of various unconscious lengths. He challenges the reader by piling on the story: the speaker imagines the breakfast to come after the test, and then conjures a vision of his father—gone ten years—and the look on his father’s face when a friend visits him on his deathbed. The scope of the poem changes again, to imagine a September 11-like urban catastrophe:

The scales, weighing
one man’s death and his son’s grief against
a city’s char and flare, blast-furnace heat melting

to slag whatever is there, then not there –
doesn’t seesaw to a balance, but keeps shifting,

And the speaker draws the connection between the mentality of the 9-11 hijackers and his own father’s scientific mind:

a vacuum of fire calibrated
in silence in a man’s brain like my father’s—

the numbers calculated inside the engineer’s
imagination …

This is likened to a da Vinci sketch of a mortar invention and its explosive rainfall that he once shared with his father, the uneasy peace between the theoretical and the practical, the engineer’s civil scientific calculations and the war-maker’s use for them, the inflation of a two-dimensional drawing into a three-dimensional reality, another blueprint coming alive. Sleigh’s sentences unleash ambivalence, using logical parallel constructions to yoke together opposing images and ideas.

In “Space Station,” Sleigh sets the scene of a son, a mother, and their dog in an ordinary kitchen. Physical laws of the universe are suspended; gravity takes a hike, allowing the dead back in as well. Then new emotions are revealed:

My mother and I and the dog were orbiting
In the void that follows after happiness
Of an intimate gesture

What might otherwise feel like a science fiction convention becomes a momentary human transcendence, consciousness and empathy transferring between the speaker, his mother and their dog,

though only a dog
Who chews a ragged rawhide chew toy shaped
Into a bone, femur or cannonbone
Of the heavy body that we no longer labored
To lift against the miles-deep air pressing

We move from empathy with the dog, to the dog chewing a bone that might as well be human, which returns us to the initial setting and its suspense of gravity. Again, we are reminded of death. When the dog senses the dead father’s presence in the room, a long sentence takes over in the last three stanzas, re-ordering the flow in the transfer of thought, so that when the dead father “moving with the clumsy gestures / Of a man in a spacesuit” himself caresses the dog, gravity, mortality, and loneliness all return. Quite a movement for one poem!

In “Achilles Dream,” a version of Book XXII of The Iliad, the warrior is visited in his sleep by a vision of his just-killed comrade Patroclus, who entreats him to make sure he gets a proper burial, and that Achilles leave room in the urn for his own remains— Partoclus assures him that, he, too, will soon be dead. There are extraordinary passages early in the poem, where Sleigh shakes off the classical text itself and insinuates Achilles within a much more modern idiom, the first a view of Achilles sleepless and grieving on the beach:

if you’d been there
with a camera, if you’d taken his picture,
a cruddy snapshot snapped in bad light,
the flash giving his face the look of someone at a party
who holds a candle just under his chin,
that’s what you’d have seen:
eyes red,
face drained white; a shape blurry and huge
as an All Pro defensive end, a Big Daddy Lipscomb
crying out his eyes in desolation.

Big Daddy Lipscomb, a ferocious giant of man, practically invented the modern pass-rushing defensive tackle position, standing six foot six inches tall and weighing 300 pounds. He also was a “pro wrestler” in the off-season, but died young, at age 31, of a heroin overdose. Perhaps a modern Achilles. Certainly a vision of ferocity, fearlessness and vainglorious recklessness.

Sleigh does not address an audience as much as he interrogates his own experience, and interrogates the process by which we tie up or down experience in language. He thinks about life until he snags on language, and then he floats on the language he’s uncovered until it lands him back near life, always fluid and comfortable, a natural swimmer, and easy enough to follow if you don’t mind going without breath for long periods of time. If there are any weaknesses in the poems, they are failures of complexity and ambition, but the beautiful music of his complex meditations is never absent.

Music of thought requires more time from a reader than the music of speech: its greatest reward is cumulative rather than discreet, a developed rational song that pierces the noise of the world. So even when Sleigh meditates in a poem about the despair and omnipresence of a distant war (“The Breeze”), he can still wonder at words that have somehow over time been given “repletion and ardor.”

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