Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike, R.I.P.

Television is - its irresistible charm - a fire. Entering an empty room, we turn it on, and a talking face flares into being: better than the burning bush. (Roger's Version, 1986)

I remember reading The Poorhouse Fair and The Centaur as a sixteen year old who desperately wanted to write fiction, especially enjoying The Centaur for the father-son relationship. At the time, I was also reading a book by a stern Easter European about how to write fiction, and didn't understand a thing he was saying, or what I was doing. I'd go into the basement laundry room and sit at a stern, uncomfortable table and stare up at the exposed beams and insulation and copper pipe and write badly in pencil in a steno notebook.
In such a moments of adventure he is impatient with his body, that its five windows aren't enough, he can't get the world all in. Joy makes his heart pound. God, having shrunk in Harry's middle years to the size of a raisin lost under the car seat, is suddenly great again, everywhere like a radiant wind. Free: the dead and the living alike have been left five miles below in the haze that has annulled the earth like breath on a mirror. (Rabbit is Rich)
Reading Updike made sense, though, he wrote so clearly and brilliantly and complexly, but with so little sign of effort, that he made me feel smarter and gifted just to be listening to him.
I was guilty of heresy, the heresy of which the Cathars and Fraticelli were long ago accused amid the thunders of anathema - that of commiting deliberate abdominations so as to widen and deepen the field in which God's forgiveness can magnificently play.

This is somewhat how I feel when I listen to Mozart, for example. Senior year in high school, we read Rabbit, Run. I gave an oral presentation on the short story, "The Lucid Eye in Silver Town," and was degraded for wearing a dirty raincoat, not making eye contact and picking at my face with my fingers. That said, I still got an A. How couldn't I? I loved the story, loved John Updike. "When Everyone Was Pregnant." One of the better short story titles I ever, I thought. His play, "Buchanan Dying," also inscrutable to me but part of his mystique, the cloud of his genius: he could write anything. He knew everything.
The world keeps ending but new people too dumb to know it keep showing up as if the fun's just started. (Rabbit Is Rich, 1981)
Then in college I read Couples in a "Contemporary American Fiction" class and figured that was it, I'd never be able to write. Of course, he also wrote a half dozen books of poetry along the way, always described as light verse by Updike himself, but often transcending that label. Here's a gorgeous sad one:
Another Dog’s Death by John Updike

For days the good old bitch had been dying, her back
pinched down to the spine and arched to ease the pain,
her kidneys dry, her muzzle white. At last
I took a shovel into the woods and dug her grave

in preparation for the certain. She came along,
which I had not expected. Still, the children gone,
such expeditions were rare, and the dog,
spayed early, knew no nonhuman word for love.

She made her stiff legs trot and let her bent tail wag.
We found a spot we liked, where the pines met the field.
The sun warmed her fur as she dozed and I dug;
I carved her a safe place while she protected me.

I measured her length with the shovel’s long handle;
she perked in amusement, and sniffed the heaped-up earth.
Back down at the house, she seemed friskier,
but gagged, eating. We called the vet a few days later.

They were old friends. She held up a paw, and he
injected a violet fluid. She swooned on the lawn;
we watched her breathing quickly slow and cease.
In a wheelbarrow up to the hole, her warm fur shone.
And the very ringing "Seven Stanzas at Easter," in which Updike, after his lifelong self-noted "tour of Protestantism" (the grandson of a Presbyterian minister, he was raised in the Lutheran church, but joined the Congregational church as an adult, though in his later years, he became an Episcopalian and dated a Methodist chaplain), seems to be professing his more Catholic incarnatory urges:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing" first came to my attention in a review of "children's book." My wife pointed out the article to me, and Octavian particularly, and said, "I'm not smart enough to understand this book, I don't see how it's written for children." True dat. It's about a child and that's the only child-like thing about it. Set in Massachusetts on the eve of the American Revolution, the novel is a full-blown examination of the cruelty and irony of early American slavery practices, where Africans were captured, pressed into agricultural labor and domestic service, and then found their chains bound even tighter when the American colonists feared the British were fomenting trouble by offering the slaves freedom if they would fight against their masters on the British side.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

W. D. Snodgrass, R.I.P.

April Inventory

by W. D. Snodgrass

The green catalpa tree has turned
All white; the cherry blooms once more.
In one whole year I haven’t learned
A blessed thing they pay you for.
The blossoms snow down in my hair;
The trees and I will soon be bare.

The trees have more than I to spare.
The sleek, expensive girls I teach,
Younger and pinker every year,
Bloom gradually out of reach.
The pear tree lets its petals drop
Like dandruff on a tabletop.

The girls have grown so young by now
I have to nudge myself to stare.
This year they smile and mind me how
My teeth are falling with my hair.
In thirty years I may not get
Younger, shrewder, or out of debt.

The tenth time, just a year ago,
I made myself a little list
Of all the things I’d ought to know,
Then told my parents, analyst,
And everyone who’s trusted me
I’d be substantial, presently.

I haven’t read one book about
A book or memorized one plot.
Or found a mind I did not doubt.
I learned one date. And then forgot.
And one by one the solid scholars
Get the degrees, the jobs, the dollars.

And smile above their starchy collars.
I taught my classes Whitehead’s notions;
One lovely girl, a song of Mahler’s.
Lacking a source-book or promotions,
I showed one child the colors of
A luna moth and how to love.

I taught myself to name my name,
To bark back, loosen love and crying;
To ease my woman so she came,
To ease an old man who was dying.
I have not learned how often I
Can win, can love, but choose to die.

I have not learned there is a lie
Love shall be blonder, slimmer, younger;
That my equivocating eye
Loves only by my body’s hunger;
That I have forces, true to feel,
Or that the lovely world is real.

While scholars speak authority
And wear their ulcers on their sleeves,
My eyes in spectacles shall see
These trees procure and spend their leaves.
There is a value underneath
The gold and silver in my teeth.

Though trees turn bare and girls turn wives,
We shall afford our costly seasons;
There is a gentleness survives
That will outspeak and has its reasons.
There is a loveliness exists,
Preserves us, not for specialists.

W.D. Snodgrass, “April Inventory” from Selected Poems, 1957-1987 (New York: Soho Press, 1987). Copyright © 1987 by W.D. Snodgrass. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: Selected Poems, 1957-1987 (1987).

Monday, January 12, 2009


I have resolved two things for the new year: start drinking whiskey and start dancing occasionally. Will it be a lot of whiskey that I drink, with just a little dancing? Or will I dance a lot and drink only a bit of whiskey? Let's hope it's the latter. Also, I only have Bushmills, which is clearly not Jamesons and could get me in trouble with my Irish drinking ghosts. And that only kind of dance I've paid any attention to recently is the "Walk It Out" hip-hop step, which is dumb and I already am pretty awkward at it.

I like coffee but it's not like coffee is going to save my life. I remember a time when I thought flesh, not my own, would save my life. I like good beer but it is on no help, except in killing time, where it excels. I like reading books: ditto, a time-murderer if there ever was one. I like my children and my wife, but I'd like to give them more money and more things than I currently give them, instead of less. I don't like driving. I don't like meetings. I don't like waiting around for stuff. I don't like reading the newspaper much anymore, that is, I read it a great deal more deeply than I used to, but almost all the news me with dismay. I don't like the sun rising. I do like the moon coming out but lately it's been too cold to take much more than a quick look at the moon and then leave it be. It's hard to remember the moon the next morning and how it was particularly nicely.

Memory on the whole is harder. There is more and more to remember. Much of it I've already remembered at least more than once out loud: it's annoying to revisit and re-remember and try to do something different this time around.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

about the highways of freedom where evil is like a Ferrari

2666 by Robert Bolano is an enormous, exhausting, depressing effort – but a wild ride at same time, his writing has this lyrical edge to it that never stops, and the form of the story (five short novels originally meant to be published separately) means the narrative target seems to keep changing: who do I care about here? Whom am I following? Under such a regime, it takes a beating, the idea of fate or redemption or just desserts. The endlessness of the infamous fourth section about all the murders and rapes, takes on its own unique beauty: part crime report, part Dosteovsky. Not for the unfortitudinous. If you’re not pre-disposed toward experimentation and indeterminancy (and pre-anesthetized toward numbing, repetitive, violence), I don’t think you’ll find much to admire.

That said, it IS one of those revolutionary books that forces you to slow down and read each word and each sentence as if they are the first words and sentences you have ever read. I don't know how else to describe the sensation. And it's certainly not altogether pleasant: there are boring stretches, there are flat stretches, there are obscure stretches, and over 900 pages, a stretch can sure stretch. But (and I use a favorite word here) those with great fortitude in their reading habit (fortitude at times verging on masochism) will gain by the effort it takes to read this book. And by gain I mean it ain't ever even going to show up on your permanent record how this book affects you, and what the narrative teaches you, but it is something large that will lodge within you. For me, the real misstep is the longest section, the fourth section, "The Part About the Crimes," which is nearly 300 pages long and feels more like 3000 pages, since it is a listing, a la a detailed, colorful, narratively-tuned crime report, of dozen and dozens of raped and murdered girls, building a little short story out of each one, with a rotating main cast of detectives, policeman and grieving (and not grieving) family members. It's withering to read, and takes on its own rosy sadistic glow, but was my least favorite. Not badly written, not at all, not in the slightest, just too long.

The near-deranged monologue by Amaltifano early on, about Mexican intellectuals losing their shadows when they go to work for the Mexican government, is a powerful example -- of something. I can only quote as much as I have transcribed so far, it's about six times longer in all:

“I don’t really know how to explain it,” said Amalfitano. “It’s an old story, the relationship of Mexican intellectuals with power. I’m not saying they’re all the same. There are some notable exceptions. Nor am I saying that those who surrender do so in bad faith. Or even that they surrender completely. You could say it’s just a job. But they’re working for the state. In Europe, intellectuals work for publishing houses or for the papers or their wives support them or their parents are well-off and give them a monthly allowance or they’re laborers or criminals and they make an honest living from their jobs. In Mexico, and this might be true across Latin America, except in Argentina, intellectuals work for the state. It was like that under PRI and it’ll be the same under the PAN. The intellectual himself may be a passionate defender of the state or a critic of the state. The state doesn’t care. The state feeds him and watches him in silence. And it puts this giant cohort of essentially useless writers to use. How? It exorcises demons, it alters the national climate or least tries to sway it. It adds layers of lime to a pit that may or may not exist, no one knows for sure. Not that it’s always this way, of course. An intellectual can work at the university, or, better, go to work for an American university, where the literature departments are just as bad as in Mexico, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get a late-night call from someone speaking in the name of the state, someone who offers them a better job, better pay, something the intellectual thinks he deserves, and intellectuals always think they deserve better. This mechanism somehow crops the ears off Mexican writers. It drives them insane. Some, for example, will set out to translate Japanese poetry without knowing Japanese and others just spend their time drinking. Take Almendro – as far as I know, he does both. Literature in Mexico is like a nursery school, a kindergarten, a playground, a kiddie club, if you follo me The weather is good, it's sunny, you can go out and sit in the park and open a book by Valery, possibly the writer most read by Medican writers, and then you go over to a friend's house and talk. And yet your shadow isn't following you anymore. At some point your shadow has quietly slipped away. You pretend you don't notice but you have, you’re missing your fucking shadow, though there are plenty of ways to explain it, the angle of the sun beating down on hatless heads, the quantity of alcohol ingested, the movement of something like subterranean tanks of pain, the fear of more contingent things… Sometimes intellectuals take up permanent residence on the television procscenium. The roars keep coming from the opening of the mine and the intellectuals keep misinterpreting themselves. In fact, they, in theory the masters of language, can’t even enrich it themselves. Their best words are borrowings that they hear spoken by the spectators in the front row."

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Paul Newman

I picture my epitaph: "Here lies Paul Newman,
who died a failure because his eyes turned brown."

Always that same old story— Father Time and Mother Earth, A marriage on the rocks

I gotta tell you: I like this album! Byrne and Eno were so meaningful to me 25 (count'em!) years ago, between Fear of Music and Remain in Light and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and the score to the Catherine Wheel, but neither of them have done a thing for me since then. So it was with time-lapsed dismay that I listened to this collaboration. But it's the shit. It's mostly about Byrne's voice (which it never used to be) but Eno's treatments and production creep up slowly and also end up singing by the end. No big favorite single yet -- I just did the whole thing -- and have tried desperately to try to hate it, which usually works just fine. But not here. It's so damned ordinary, the way Byrne sings it, even revelation, in "Home" and "Life is Long:"
The dimming of the light
Makes the picture clearer...
I memorized a face so it's not forgotten...
Come back anytime
And we'll mix our lives together

Heaven knows what keeps mankind alive
Every hand — goes searching for its partner in crime.

Home where my world is breaking in two
Home with the neighbors fighting
Home — were my parents telling the truth?

I'm sure it's just me, but I heard an echo of the Merrill poem, "The Broken Home":

"The Broken Home" by James Merrill

Crossing the street,
I saw the parents and the child
At their window, gleaming like fruit
With evening’s mild gold leaf.

In a room on the floor below,
Sunless, cooler—a brimming
Saucer of wax, marbly and dim—
I have lit what’s left of my life.

I have thrown out yesterday’s milk
And opened a book of maxims.
The flame quickens. The word stirs.

Tell me, tongue of fire,
That you and I are as real
At least as the people upstairs.

My father, who had flown in World War I,
Might have continued to invest his life
In cloud banks well above Wall Street and wife.
But the race was run below, and the point was to win.

Too late now, I make out in his blue gaze
(Through the smoked glass of being thirty-six)
The soul eclipsed by twin black pupils, sex
And business; time was money in those days.

Each thirteenth year he married. When he died
There were already several chilled wives
In sable orbit—rings, cars, permanent waves.
We’d felt him warming up for a green bride.

He could afford it. He was “in his prime”
At three score ten. But money was not time.

When my parents were younger this was a popular act:
A veiled woman would leap from an electric, wine-dark car
To the steps of no matter what—the Senate or the Ritz Bar—
And bodily, at newsreel speed, attack

No matter whom—Al Smith or Jose MarĂ­a Sert
Or Clemenceau—veins standing out on her throat
As she yelled War mongerer! Pig! Give us the vote!,
And would have to be hauled away in her hobble skirt.

What had the man done? Oh, made history.
Her business (he had implied) was giving birth,
Tending the house, mending the socks.

Always that same old story—
Father Time and Mother Earth,
A marriage on the rocks.

One afternoon, red, satyr-thighed
Michael, the Irish setter, head
Passionately lowered, led
The child I was to a shut door. Inside,

Blinds beat sun from the bed.
The green-gold room throbbed like a bruise.
Under a sheet, clad in taboos
Lay whom we sought, her hair undone, outspread,

And of a blackness found, if ever now, in old
Engravings where the acid bit.
I must have needed to touch it
Or the whiteness—was she dead?
Her eyes flew open, startled strange and cold.
The dog slumped to the floor. She reached for me. I fled.

Tonight they have stepped out onto the gravel.
The party is over. It’s the fall
Of 1931. They love each other still.
She: Charlie, I can’t stand the pace.
He: Come on, honey—why, you’ll bury us all!

A lead soldier guards my windowsill:
Khaki rifle, uniform, and face.
Something in me grows heavy, silvery, pliable.

How intensely people used to feel!
Like metal poured at the close of a proletarian novel,
Refined and glowing from the crucible,
I see those two hearts, I’m afraid,
Still. Cool here in the graveyard of good and evil,
They are even so to be honored and obeyed.

. . . Obeyed, at least, inversely. Thus
I rarely buy a newspaper, or vote.
To do so, I have learned, is to invite
The tread of a stone guest within my house.

Shooting this rusted bolt, though, against him,
I trust I am no less time’s child than some
Who on the heath impersonate Poor Tom
Or on the barricades risk life and limb.

Nor do I try to keep a garden, only
An avocado in a glass of water—
Roots pallid, gemmed with air. And later,

When the small gilt leaves have grown
Fleshy and green, I let them die, yes, yes,
And start another. I am earth’s no less.

A child, a red dog roam the corridors,
Still, of the broken home. No sound. The brilliant
Rag runners halt before wide open doors.
My old room! Its wallpaper—cream, medallioned
With pink and brown—brings back the first nightmares,
Long summer colds and Emma, sepia-faced,
Perspiring over broth carried upstairs
Aswim with golden fats I could not taste.

The real house became a boarding school.
Under the ballroom ceiling’s allegory
Someone at last may actually be allowed
To learn something; or, from my window, cool
With the unstiflement of the entire story,
Watch a red setter stretch and sink in cloud.

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