to be

When my daughter was born, I almost died. That may not be true, but it felt that way. It felt that way more than once, in gradations of immediacy, throughout the first year of her life outside of my body. Entering the second year, it still sometimes feels that way. It may also be technically true.

I ate a children’s sundae and drank an Arnold Palmer at Beer Baron. I was nearing my due date, which was August 16, and the day before had made an acupuncture appointment for the 16th to try to get labor started if it hadn’t already begun organically, because I was terrified my baby would be born 10 days late and I’d be stuck with a goddamn virgo daughter to go along with my goddamn virgo mother and they’d take turns nitpicking and anxiety-soaking me until I killed myself. I went to the bathroom and folded some toilet paper and put it in my panties to soak up a substance that was leaking from my vagina, which turned out to be amniotic fluid. When I got back to my husband’s apartment I called the advice nurse who told me we should come into the hospital for induction because it sounded like my membranes had ruptured.

Things I did not understand at that time:

Leaking amniotic fluid because your membranes rupture is not the same thing as your “water breaking”, though technically, they both involve amniotic fluid coming out of your vagina.

ruptured membranes leave the amniotic sac wide fucking open to bacteria and can lead to serious infections, complications in labor, fetal and/or maternal death.

There are far worse things than having a virgo child. Or a virgo mother, or even both a virgo child and a virgo mother.

I was induced. I labored for several hours unmedicated, using breathing and nodes that delivered electric currents to my lower back. what my body was doing of it’s own volition was awfully, unimaginably, shockingly painful. I did this up to almost 7 centimeters. At around the time I began shaking and spiked a fever, I requested an epidural. The painkillers began to flow into my lower back and pelvis just as the Chorio- the infection I didn’t know enough to have been afraid of- set in. At one point, while my body was laboring on it’s own and I was blissfully numb from the ribcage down- I spiked a fever of 103. I had an oxygen mask on my face and I was shaking uncontrollably. My husband was in the room with me, and he was crying because the way I looked, shaking violently with the mask on, was so terrifying. Also, the baby’s heart rate was up and down. I had no idea he was crying. I had no idea I was in a very serious and precarious state, medically speaking. I was just extremely irritated that I couldn’t will the shaking to stop. I had a vague notion in my very foggy head that I should drink water- lots of water- and I kept asking my husband to bring me big cups of ice water, which he did, and I drank them all, not greedily or thirstily, but with an iron will bent on making the shaking stop, and a certainty that if I drank enough ice water, it would. I drank a lot of ice water, and had a lot of antibiotics and tylenol and fluids run into my veins through an I.V, and the shaking did stop. Suddenly, the nurse was telling my husband to hold up my leg. Suddenly, my doctor, and all the nurses and the midwives were there, and some very bright lights were on overhead, and they were telling me to push, and I was pushing again and again, as hard as I could, and I couldn’t feel pain because of the epidural, but I could feel pressure, the pressure of her head descending through my separating pelvic bones, and they said she was sunny side up, and they said she was stuck, and they applied a vacuum suction to her head (it took a couple tries), and they snipped me and they sucked her out, and they sewed me up.

I could make this about my daughter, but everything since has been about her, so I’m going to make this about me.

Things I didn’t know before giving birth:

Giving birth, whether vaginal or surgical, is like being hit by a bus, but unlike when you are hit by an actual bus, you’re not allowed to sleep, rest, recuperate, eat, bathe, care for yourself, etcetera, because the bus that hit you is an extremely helpless and precious and scared and overwhelmed and hungry and tired and very hungry and very overwhelmed and vulnerable small creature who immediately after running over you needs you- ALL OF YOU non-stop, for several months. There is no recuperating. Or maybe there is, but not until a very long time after the moment of collision, by which point, let’s be honest, you’re probably permanently damaged in some way or other. I did not get more than 2 hours of sleep together in the 72 hours after my daughter was born because she was cluster feeding. Which means nursing all the time and screaming and crying in a blood-curdling horrible way when not breast-fed every 20 minutes or so, around the clock. When your brain is flooded with post-partum hormone slushie, it is impossible to not respond immediately to these noises. I was taking tons of maximum strength ibuprofen for the pain in my vagina, pelvis, and specifically the stitches from the episiotomy which were new, raw, and very painful, especially when I peed. If I missed a pill, I spiked a fever. I was too sleep deprived and hormone-addled to realize this was a warning sign and quickly popped some pills to make the fever go away so I could get back to quieting the howling clusterfeeder. A few days later I realized something was very wrong and called the advice nurse who told me I had been masking a fever and most likely had a post-partum infection that had picked up where the Chorio in labor had left off. I went to the E.R. I did have a serious infection. By this time I couldn’t eat without projectile vomiting. Food was disgusting to me. I couldn’t even look at it, and I was producing tons of breast milk which I was pumping into bottles like a one-woman dairy farm because I was beginning to suspect I may have to check myself into the hospital, where I would possibly die, and I wanted my husband to be able to bottle-feed our daughter this milk I was still able to produce because I was still alive. The combination of not eating and making tons of breastmilk caused me to lose close to 40 pounds in a week and a half. I was flagged for sepsis, which turned out to be a collection or lab error, but for a couple hours had me thinking I was going to die of multiple organ failure in a hospital in Oakland, leaving a 2 week old daughter who wouldn’t even remember me.

Reader, I did not die. I am here today, a year and two weeks later. I forced myself to eat 5 ritz crackers and an oral antibiotic twice a day for ten days and after about 4 days I was able to drink some bone broth and by the tenth day I had a bowl of chicken noodle soup, and I did not die. But I came so close to death that it breathed on me, and that breath was cold and quiet- so very quiet- and I don’t think I can ever fully forget it, though I may be able to put it mostly out of mind until the day- the inevitable day- when I feel it again.

To die is to disappear, and dying is the experience of being completely, utterly alone with the quandary of your own existence: your appearance, from nothing, your being, your disappearance, back to nothing. A three act play. being and nothingness and nausea. The whole shebang. I now understand why some philosopher whose name I can’t at the moment recall said that the practice of philosophy is the practice of learning how to die. I think perhaps he meant it is good to think about things, and to consider them well and at your leisure, before you’re on the slab staring at a ticking clock saying “oh shit oh shit oh shit” and suffering physically in a way that is not conducive to arriving at good and helpful, possibly insightful or even brilliant ideas. Yeats said something about man in old age being like a dog dragging the body around like a bunch of tin cans tied to its tail. meaning physical ailment and deterioration sure is a distraction, isn’t it. So practice philosophy. Try to figure something out before you have a pressing reason to. You’ll think better when you’re not crushed by pain, fatigue and fear.

I felt for several months that I had disappeared. I kept saying I am a ghost, I am a shadow, I only exist in the sense that I am keeping this infant alive, she doesn’t know, she doesn’t know I’m dead. Only after the winter (really, after we started sleep training her, and I started getting some sleep for the first time in 5 months, and began doing some reading again), did I begin, like Persephone, to emerge from the underworld, to look around and raise my head a bit like a sun-struck prairie dog when the frost is finally off the grasses. Maybe, I thought, maybe I’m still alive.

 

Things I think about since I looked Death in the face that I didn’t really think about before, except through the lens of literature (Proust and Flaubert specifically):

Aging, friends, memory, the narrative arc of a life, the signifigance or insignifigance of character, what people remember about other people, what they forget. Maya Angelou famously said “people will forget what you said, they’ll forget what you did, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel”. Is that true though? Lately I have been reconnecting with lost friends, old acquaintances who I knew and spent time with as a child, as a teenager, back in Boston. I live in California now. I haven’t lived in Boston for 14 years. Yes, this is related to the fact that I almost died when my daughter was born. I think on some level having gazed into the abyss made me feel a deep need to have my existence verified, to feel around me and find some people who know my name, who remember that I was a 14 year old roaming brick sidewalks and capsizing a mercury in the Charles river deliberately in order to swim in it and shoplifting hello kitty stuff from FAO Schwartz and shooting pool in the bowling hall under Fenway Park, banging on a typewriter in piss-stained doorways and walking through Southie projects at 1 am because I’d missed the last Ashmont train back to Dot. If I was, then maybe I still am. How do I know for sure that I was? Witnesses. I suddenly (and strangely, having been drifting and solitary for years, if not forever, having left my hometown behind in a manner both deliberate and torn) felt a need to call witnesses who could tell me not how I made them feel, but rather what I said, what I did, or at the very least that I was, that I was with them, in Boston, many years ago, and I was as real in my young body and my same name as the bricks beneath our feet had been, as the muggy summer air we breathed. I need now more than ever for somebody to say “I remember that face. It’s so good to see your face again.”

 

last samurai (upon reading Helen DeWitt)

Grammars and vocabularies

Kanji, Alphabets,

A single page of translated and footnoted Greek

say, from the Iliad

Which could serve, a thousand years hence, as a key to the scriptures and literatures of human civilization in the 21st Century

The mind must somehow

outlive and live outside of the body

and until this planet casts us off

Words will drape and swim around her

Mind will stand stubborn in the warp and the woof

of her garment

 

weathering

Planning for winter storms
in the first week of September.
it will rain, and the wind will come in, furious
from the open ocean
rattling my home
before it runs into the hills
to hide its face.
Burgers watches as I pull old nails
hammer in new nails, shift the hanging
clay pot of sweet basil (flowering, going to seed)
to face North, not West,
move the Thai basil (tiny purple leaves, brittle twiggy stem)
to the stairs beside the lemon tree, dill, and fruitless strawberry
then she closes her yellowgreen eyes to doze
in the dirt beneath the one small, slowly ripening tomato
that emerged from the shady cave of the porch this summer.
Weird summer, summer of fires in forest
and suburb, tear gas hanging over the cities
summer of (Home Depot tiki) torches aloft,
vehicular homicide, and the open stating of allegiances to Devils
naiively assumed, in many blinkered quarters, to be extinct.
Now comes the Fall of hurricanes and floods
of rot and rubble.
in the wake of isolated and celebrated examples
of survival
of countless refusals to connect the dots, to repudiate
ill-begotten theories of coincidence, synchronicity
accident or innocence
it will be claimed that benevolence is a noun, and not a verb.
So I’m shifting everything around.
the Rosemary fell from a ledge, and I righted it.
The jade holds our instruments upright-
guitar, banjo, ukelele-
but can’t keep them in tune.
In the months ahead,
Whiteness willing
we’ll still be here, but under blankets
refusing the full shelter of the indoors
singing loud and drunkenly.
our imperfect harmonies
will contest the wind.
*
*
*
*
*painting by Liam Golden www.liamgolden.com

sorting pages, smelling September again…

Where there once was an abstract landscape                                                                           crossed by quietude, nostalgia, perhaps                                                                                        insufficiently sophisticated but deeply personal ideas                                                           poetic loneliness in doorways, chips in curbstones leaking words                                        visions of the Virgin over floodlit parking lots                                                                            now there are photos of favorite writers- Didion, Colette, Baldwin, Lorca-                          taped up on the wall.                                                                                                                  Insecurities and petty bloodless blood-feuds of a smattering of Others float,                glowing particles, in a neutral pool of days I must traverse.

 

*******************************************************

“I have lived in equatorial America since 1935 and only twice had fever. I am an anthropologist who lost faith in her own method, who stopped believing that observable activity defined Anthropos. I studied under Kroeber at California and worked with Lévi-Strauss at São Paulo, classified several societies, catalogued their rites and attitudes on occasions of birth, copulation, initiation , and death, did extensive and well-regarded studies on the rearing of female children in the Matto Grasso and along certain tributaries of the Rio Xingu, and still I did not know why any one of these female children did or did not do anything at all. Let me go further. I did not know why I did or did not do anything at all.”

-Joan Didion, from the book of common prayer

 

“What I am trying to conceptualize with the help of the philosopher is that which I have already intuited” -Charles Simic

 

“The poet of the Kosovo cycle rebels against the very idea of historical triumph. Defeat, he appears to be saying, is wiser than victory. the great anti-heroes of these poems experience a moment of tragic consciousness. they see the alternatives with all their moral consequences. They are free to make a fateful choice. They make it with full understanding of its consequences. For the folk poet of these poems, true nobility and heroism comes from the consciousness of the Difficult Choice.”

-Simic

 

****************************************************************

Finger-worn and foot-buffed steel and linoleum. Deep knowledge of the insides of occupational objects….

 

I see the Paysage of my near-decade of choices                                                                      it seems a system                                     of baked ochre and orange canyons, entered almost by accident.                                                                                               A place of occasional tedium, doubt, self-doubt, where thirst                                                     has sometimes summoned a feeble, ice-cold spring.                                                                   Twice while wandering up the side-cuts I stumbled on a hanging garden so extraordinary, Edenic, revelatory, that I cried out.                                                                         I’ve learned to smell and listen, to observe and follow wiser, smaller creatures.                   I received a proffered word: Survival.                                                                I picked out a trail when there wasn’t one, and it took me years- seven and a half, to be exact- but I made it to the deepest point, a descent of many fathoms.                                                    I drank my fill from a wide and swiftly running river and then                                                              I rode it                                                                                                                                                   out.

 

 

 

*Drawing by G.F Marlier (the old College Ave. Safeway, right before they tore it down)

 

on style and being

“Chomsky remarks that when one speaks a language one knows a great deal that was never learned. The effort of criticism is to teach a language for what is never learned but comes as the gift of a language, is a poetry already written- an insight I derive from Shelley’s remark that every language is a relic of an abandoned cyclic poem.” –                       —- Harold Bloom

“I can’t worry about Masculinist geeks who don’t read books by women on principle, any more than I worry about lit-snob dweebs who don’t read genre literature on principle. I don’t write for bigots.”                                                                                                                           — Ursula K. LeGuin

“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”                                                                                                              —Oscar Wilde

…nothing is absent. all you could know is here in front of you- everything is in the visible . elemental and ancestral knowledge are at the tip of your tongue, literally…

“In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world- in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings”. It is to turn the world into “this world”. (“This world”! as if there were any other.)”                        — Susan Sontag

“In place of a Hermeneutics we need an Erotics of Art.” —Sontag

“Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us,  the soul assumes the form of the body.”                                                                                                             — Jean Cocteau

 

“Even if one were to define style as the manner of our appearing, this by no means necessarily entails an opposition between a style that one assumes and ones “true” being. In fact, such a disjunction is extremely rare. In almost every case our manner of appearing is our manner of being. The mask is the face.”                                                                — Sontag

“In art, “content” is, as it were, the pretext, the goal, the lure which engages consciousness in essentially formal processes  of transformation.”                                            — Sontag

“The complex kind of willing that is embodied, and communicated, in a work of art both abolishes the world and encounters it in an extraordinary intense and specialized way. This double aspect of the will in art is succinctly expressed by Bayer when he says: “each work of art gives us the schematized, disengaged, a memory of a volition. Insofar as it is schematized, disengaged, a memory, the willing involved in art sets itself at a distance from the world. All of which hearkens back to Neitzsche’s famous statement in the birth of tragedy: “Art is not an imitation of nature but its metaphysical supplement, raised up beside it in  order to overcome it.”                                                                                                      —- Sontag

The idea that all great art is founded on distance on artificiality, on style, on what might be called “dehumanization”… But- the overcoming or transcending of the world in art is also a way of encountering the world and of training or educating the will to be in the world…

 

“Every style is a means of insisting on something.”          — Sontag

 

“In what language can impudence be spoken? A national language? Which one? A crossbreed language? How so?”                                                                                                   – Julia Kristeva in Colette

 

“Colette, who knew nothing of politics, dreamt only of revealing feminine jouissance. In fact, her alphabet of the world is an alphabet of feminine pleasure, subject to the pleasure of men but marked by an an incommensurable  difference from it. There is no emancipation of women without a liberation of women’s sexuality, which is fundamentally a bisexuality and a polyphonic sensuality: That is what Colette continually proclaims throughout her life and works, in a constant dialogue between what she calls “the pure” and “the impure”, describing herself from the outset as a ‘mental hermaphrodite’. ”  —Kristeva

 

“The formality of style is only an aspect of her participation in Being.”  -Kristeva, Colette

 

 

*Illustration by G.F Marlier

Unedited notes from a 2009 notebook part 2: on Poetic Vocation

Cyclical time, how you mock me. Time moves from past to present to future, but it also moves from future to present to past. I’ve gone westward to succulents and packed dust fire-trails and that must mean… that I am again 17 years old, in a saltmisted and sandswept sailor’s grave-yard, Provincetown, overlooking the dunes and the chopped lichen-green high surf with Conor Sullivan, the weekend of the Hurricane, and I say “don’t worry, we’ll sleep under an overturned boat”…

Part of morality is to not be at home in one’s home…

“Poetry is the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another” -Frost

“I should like to be so subtle at this game as to seem to the earnest person altogether obvious. The earnest person would assume I meant nothing, or else came near enough meaning something he was familiar with to mean it for all practical purposes. Well, well, well.” -Frost

Pound’s exhortations to the poet- objectivity, and again, objectivity. “Direct treatment of the thing”. Clarity and precision.

the “emotion of art is impersonal”, and “Permanent literature is always a presentation”   -Eliot.

Yeats and ideas of the audience-

“For Yeats, poetry couldn’t exist without an actual, defined audience to ground it. Just what that audience was vacillated in his mind between the peasantry and the aristocracy, from writing “as an Irish writer and with Ireland on my mind”, to writing for an elite international audience, “fit though few”, which is “greater than any nation, for it is made up of chosen persons from all”. At other times he declared that his ideal audience was, respectively, “the town of Sligo”, “Young men between twenty and thirty”, “a few friends for whom one always writes”, and “A man who does not exist,/a man who is but a dream.” -Michael Ryan

“Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.” -Hazlitt

The poet as an “unacknowledged legislator of the world”… (Shelley)

Civilization is a “botch”. Poetry can do something about it (?)

“A multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident  which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies…reflecting upon the magnitude of the general evil, I should be oppressed with no dishonorable melancholy , had I not a deep impression of certain inherent and indestructible qualities of the human mind, and likewise of certain great and permanent objects that act upon it, which are equally inherent and indestructible.” -Wordsworth

Memory and Imagination

Nature

Eliot working in a bank…into his old age…wrote “Waste Land” essentially during a 2 week vacation from his job. Pound trying to fund-raise a little pension so Eliot could quit the bank to write poetry.

the “best thoughts of mechanics and farmers” that “wait unspoken, impatient to be put into shape” (Whitman)…

to go out every day among the people. essentially a Whitmanian research and development methodology for poetics. No ordinary, everyday person, but a poet who, in Yeats’ words, is “never the bundle of accidence and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been re-born as an idea, something intended, complete.”

 

Once, beautiful girls serenaded my blue jeans                                                                                                      in a bar, their faces gathered to splendid                                                                                                          bouquet above a puddle of well-vodka                                                                                                                    on the round linoleum table.                                                                                                                                  There were no stages                                                                                                                                             though there should have been. Instead,                                                                                                                   a dusty couch in the corner where cobwebs                                                                                                       held the pipes as gently as we held each other.                                                                                                     we kissed and intertwined our limbs                                                                                                                       and dozed, our brows together, til first light.

 

the idea of VOCATION.

from Whitman’s “deathbed edition”, 1888:

“I have had my say entirely my own way”…

Whitman’s certainty that America would become a nation of poets and prophets.

The PERSON who has to live the poet’s life, and what he suffers in the service of a grand creative undertaking. Whitman’s anonymous review of his own book, where he says the poems have “fallen stillborn on this country”, and “certainly wrecked the life of their author.”

Why is it considered an inexcusable crime to be Utopian? Particularly post-WWI?

Being a poet is like being a monk of a forgotten order- a druid in the 21st century- keeping knowledge and form alive because you yourself would suffer too much without them.

“Paradoxically, by virtue of the material worthlessness of his product, the poet has a unique chance to become a free agent with a free imagination. He doesn’t have to tack on happy endings or direct his message to urban dwellers between the ages of thirty-four and thirty-nine who make over a hundred thousand dollars per year. Knowing how important it is to have “worthless” art in a market-driven economy, some foundations, endowments, and universities do not want the poet starved into extinction, although the poets they choose to support are not likely to be the ones who challenge the ideological premises by which they themselves exist.” –  Michael Ryan

 

“how can I know what I think, until I see what I say?” -Forster

Eliot- try, as a poet, to look into “a good deal more than the heart…into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system and digestive tracts.”

 

to look very hard and very gently at things. observation is a serious activity. observe- towards keeping, for holding. Love desires intimate knowledge and shows itself in close observation. Self-definition as a “believer in total immersion” (Bishop).

Saint Ignatius’ Jesuit meditation formula: Memory, Understanding, Will.

Bishop- showing the break between the object and the mind that perceives the object by using qualifications in the poems, i.e: “It was more like the tipping/of an object toward the light”; “If you could call it a lip”- etc.

“Making something secret gives it value. Indeed, a secret creates in us a sense of interior life” -Sisela Bok

smell of citrus on the warm wind, blowing through a glass door as it swings…

you have to observe something closely before you can render it vividly. The strangeness of identity, of the accident of being human.

“We think in generalities, but live in detail” -Whitehead

a formal exercise is sterile unless it uncovers some rich, unavoidable secret.

“I write the way I do, not because it pleases me, but because no other way pleases me.”-Stevens

Smell of citrus on the warm wind                                                                                                                    blowing through a glass door as it swings                                                                                                              on Labor Day the jobless think that living is a job itself                                                                         awkwardly, opportunity                                                                                                                                          seems to elude all but the traveller                                                                                                                         who casts her lot with Luck

 

“I dream of an art so transparent you can look through it and see the world”-Kunitz

“One of my unshakable convictions has been that poetry is more than a craft, as important as the craft may be: It is a vocation, a passionate enterprise, rooted in human sympathies and aspirations.” -Kunitz

“If it were not for the poet’s dream of perfection, which is the emblem of his life-enhancing art, and which he longs to share with others, generations of men and women would gradually sink into passivity, accepting as their lot second-rate or third-rate destinies, or worse. If one is to be taught submission, in the name of progress or national security, it is redemptive to recall the pride of one (Keats), who averred that his only humility was toward “the eternal being, the principle of beauty, and the memory of great men”.” -Kunitz

The poet is “an embodiment of resistance”-

“resistance against universal apathy, mediocrity, conformity, against institutional pressure to make everything look and become alike- this is why he is so involved with contraries” -Kunitz

“The poet, in the experience of his art, is a WHOLE PERSON, or he is nothing… he is uniquely equipped to defend the worth and power and responsibility of individuals in a world of institutions.” -Kunitz

“The poet speaks to others not only through what he says, but through what he is, his symbolic presence, as though he carried a set of flags reading have a heart, let nothing get by, live at the center of your being. His life instructs us that it is not necessary, or even desirable, for everyone to join the crowds streaming onto the professional or business highway, pursuing the Bitch Goddess.” -Kunitz

POETRY IS A VOCATION INHERENTLY SUBVERSIVE TO CORPORATE IDEOLOGY

“Poets are subversive, but they are not really revolutionaries, for revolutionaries are concerned with changing others, while poets want first of all to change themselves. “-Kunitz

A LIFE OF INTERNAL EXILE IN A SOCIETY BUILT FOR PROFIT AND CONSUMPTION

“We have to fight for our little bit of health. We have to make our living and dying important again. And the living and dying of others. Isn’t that what poetry is about?”-Kunitz

The way you use language is inherently political- even apart from what you are saying. deliberate use of language AS gift. sincere use of language. A way of using language that is meant to share, and not to manipulate. These all challenge the dominant order, and a wide-spread and quite cynical understanding of, quite simply, what language is FOR.

the poets first obligation is survival. No bolder challenge confronts the modern artist than to stay healthy in a sick world.

“To squeeze the slave’s blood out of my veins” -Chekov

Yeats: “gaiety transfiguring all that Dread”

Dickinson: “My business is circumference”

 

Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Tao Te Ching and the poems of Yeats. When pressed to re-locate only what I needed, these are the books I carried. the Tao Te Ching because its proven and re-proven truths need constant re-enforcement. There have been times I read it cover-to-cover every morning, and times when I traced and retraced parts of  it on my forearms for easy reference. I have found it too easy when afraid or full of lust to let these truths fall by the way. 

Yeats because my courage comes from him- his book a well of defiance and fearless craft. I must have it near to lower the bucket into when I’m parched. Whenever I think, briefly, that it’s useless to keep striving for intangible ends, he reminds me, as no-one else can, of vocation. That the poet is somebody, that what I do is necessary. Firefighters and Doctors save lives- so do poets. How many times has a writer long dead sent a sentence- a heroic combination of WORDS- into the burning house of my being, and rescued me, from one kind of death or another? How many times has a poem sewed up my gaping wounds and soothed insistent pain?

 

 

The Commons sense

When I was about 16 or 17, I read every book I could get my hands on by or about the hobo. As a result I became acquainted rather early with the poems of Robert Service, as well as tales of and quotes from many an anonymous bard and philosopher. I recall one hobo in particular, someone who was going by the name “Red”, offering the following critique of modern industrial Capitalism: “Work has wasted more human life and happiness, and cemented the foundations of more inhuman wrong, misery, and oppression, than ever did the combined forces of War, Physics, and bad whiskey”. You can imagine how much this impressed me, since I recall the quote I believe verbatim, some 18 years after reading it. I ran into the same thought a few years down the line in a poem by Octavio Paz (sadly, I can’t recall the name of the poem, though again I believe I’ve still got the part I memorized down word for word):

“mejor ser lapidado in las plazas

que dar vuelta a la noria que exprime la sustancia de la vida

cambia la eternidad en horas huecas

los minutos en carceles

el tiempo en monedas de cobre y mierda abstracta”

or, in english:

“better to be whipped in the public square

than to tread the mill that grinds out into nothing the substance of our life

changes eternity into hollow hours

minutes into prisons

time into copper pennies and abstract shit”.

 

and I recall Ginsberg also (speaking of eternity): “who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for Eternity outside of Time, & alarm clocks fell on their heads every day for the next decade”…

And now I’m older, and I still have these what consider to be truths etched in my brain. I’ve been reminded recently because I’m reading the collected writings of T-Bone Slim, who was a hobo/itinerant laborer/tugboat captain, who wrote a regular column for the IWW (Wobblies/Industrial Workers of the World) newspaper in the 20’s. Here’s T-Bone in 1926:

“Only recently I read a statement that ‘Truth, alone, will set you free”, and being of an inventive turn of mind, I got to wondering if “Truth” could be harassed so’s to lift one of those heavy hand-cars on the track. My partner suggested I’d better stick to perpetual motion (he’s a sarcastic cuss). That’s what comes of having too many chestnuts in the fire. But I couldn’t very well give up the idea, because if truth can set me free, there must be power- and power certainly ought to put that car on the track. Once on the track we could take it off the track by using a little falsehood. It occurred to me that it isn’t enough that truth sets me free. We got to hitch it up some way so that it will do some of the work.”

And as I’m reading T-Bone, I’m also watching news of the protest against a pipeline on Dakota-Sioux land in South Dakota, and reading of a group of activists in Oakland who were arrested and are now facing up to a decade of jail time and fines of up to 100,000 dollars for daring to live in (and make improvements to) a long-abandoned house.

I am wondering how, when and why human beings have turned (or been turned, more accurately) from the logical common holding and stewardship of land and resources (see the IMF and World Bank offering bribes to the governments of developing nations all over the world in exchange for the privatization and monetization of what has been commonly held indigenous land since the beginning of time). Take a person’s land away from him (or his right to use the land, or as with the Dakota Sioux, destroy the ecosystem, groundwater, etcetera, of the land), and you will almost certainly force him or her to sell hours of life in exchange for  the means of mere survival. Through the (quite new and modern) hex of landlessness, you have effectively produced a wage slave- a human being yoked to someone else’s profit incentives, and forced to tread the mill that Paz speaks of….

Here’s a final unedited quote from an e-mail I sent to a good friend this week, just to sum it up in the most bare-naked way I can:

“It’s been such a long time since I was in school for anything, and I’ve never really been in school for writing, although I guess in a way that is what all my reading is for- to inform and shape the writing I do- but my adult life involves so much pressure, mostly financial pressure, and time constraints, that the magical feeling I had at at Sarah Lawrence where work for pay was a minor fraction of life and most of what I had to do was learn and read and think and yes, write…. it’s so far off now it seems like a fantasy. Part of me (a large part) despises capitalism and the pressures it puts on people including myself to essentially waste their best years, the years that should be the most creative, the richest, the most personally productive, just trying to fend off homelessness and hunger. Part of me is grateful that I personally am not homeless or hungry (at least for now), and thinks that it is absolutely crazy and amazing that I got to spend so many years in high school and college essentially just doing what I enjoy, reading and learning and making things, not worrying about food and shelter, which is more than most people on this planet will ever get, so I have nothing to complain about. Why should I be entitled to more than what I have? Why should I have the leisure to think and write? maybe I only deserve it because everyone deserves it. But what are the chances of everyone getting it?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gleanings: Mona Hatoum, Andy Warhol, Megan Abbott, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Ty Dolla $ign+TC…

In her film ‘corps étranger’, Mona Hatoum brings us, with a special medical camera, literally inside her body. We enter more or less all of her orifices as an eye, and we see her mysterious, vulnerable, gross, beautiful, pulsing interior territories.

What a statement this film is (as I see it), about the bodies of women and about the bodies of the colonized (she is of Palestinian origin)- and not, by the way, unrelated to the current and ongoing waves of tragic murders of Blacks in America by police- these bodies subject to surveillance and suspicion,  unlawful imprisonment, beatings, rape, murder, dehumanizing desire, rage, incomprehension, assumption, a range of questionable scholarship, debate, and regulation. All this and yet you will never see these pulsing pink opalescent passages, the pools of bilge and the blue capillaries, never hear the resounding, insistent- and yes, miraculous, awesome-passage of blood and air, unless, as Hatoum does, she invites you in, unless she decides to radically risk herself by taking you there and showing it to you.

Watch ‘Corps Etranger’ here.

 

Extraordinary- Andy Warhol interviewed in 1966. He is asked whether he cares what people think of him- that “they” have an opinion about him good or bad, and he literally refuses to answer. He tells the interviewer, “you tell me what to say and I’ll just repeat what you say”. He even suggests that the rest of the interview might proceed very well in this manner, with the television interviewer supplying both the questions and the answers, with Warhol merely mimicking the answers he provides. It strikes me as a profound (and yes, also playful) rejection of the artist’s prescribed role as exalted ego and anointed producer of cultural signifiers. What if the artist himself refuses to play along? And what if his modus operandi is far more consciously subversive than Warhol’s is commonly thought to be (his behavior often written off as whim, eccentricity, lack of seriousness)…The unacknowledged and unplumbed power of fey queer refusal/a sideways tactical advantage/you really don’t understand how dangerous we are, do you?

watch the interview here.

 

And lastly a couple quotes from The Fever by Megan Abbott, which I happened to be reading last week. I think these quotes jumped out at me because of Alton Sterling’s +Philando Castile’s murders, watching/listening to Ty Dolla $ign’s song “No Justice” that he recorded with his brother TC (watch/listen here)… Something about how these events, this ongoing violence and injustice makes me feel came through in these words:

“Gabby paused. Then her voice dropped low, like she was right there beside her. ‘There was this shadow’, she said. ‘I could see it from the corner of my eye, but I wasn’t supposed to look at it.’

Deenie felt her hand go around her own neck. 

‘If I turned my head to look’, Gabby continued, ‘something really bad would happen. So I couldn’t look. I didn’t dare look.’

Deenie pictured it. That smile on Gabby’s face. After, when everyone surrounded her on the stage. Like something painted on her face. A red-moon curve.

‘I didn’t look, Deenie’, Gabby whispered, ‘but it happened anyway.’

I’m okay, she’d said. I really am. I’m fine. 

That smile, not a real thing but something set there, to promise you something, to give you a white lie. “

-Megan Abbott, The Fever

***********************************************************************

“‘She didn’t faint,’ Deenie said. ‘But her body. What was happening to her body?’

The pensive look on Deenie’s face, like when she was small. Finding a cat drowned in the ditch by the mailbox. He didn’t know how long she’d been staring at it, her brother next to her touching it gently with a stick, hoping to nudge it to life. That night she’d had nightmares, her mouth was filled with mud. He’d tried to explain it to her, how accidents happen but we really are safe. But there was already the sense that nothing he said touched what was really bothering her, which was the realization that you can’t stop bad things from happening to other people, other things. And that would be hard forever. He’d never quite gotten used to it himself.”

-Megan Abbott, The Fever

***********************************************************************

“Bad things happen, and then they’re over, but where do they go? Deenie wondered, watching Gabby. Are they ours forever, leeching under our skin?”

-Megan Abbott, The Fever

 

 

*painting by G.F Marlier 2006

Of Confidence Men

 

“Well then”, the costumed man began his oratory, “We have come all together in this place to commemorate, to mark and celebrate, the passing of an era.”

He removed his cap, revealing a wisp of thin hair on a very large, mostly bald head.

“For some time now I have been bringing forward and back a leg, pointing a toe, turning a wrist, causing an eye to follow me, smoldering. You know how it goes. They said I was dancing and I kept my shuffling and my whiff of a spin to dizzy myself, if not my peace. But who am I to say what is truly a dance, and what a mere routine?

Those who think upon the subject have yet to agree on how much in life comes from knowing and performing the correct steps. It’s possible that life is everything else, and the steps one memorizes and performs a mere intimation of Death, which is needed to cast life, undefined, in relief.

 

“The good merchant looked puzzled.

‘Still you don’t recall my countenance?’

‘Still does truth compel me to say that I cannot, despite my best efforts’, was the reluctantly-candid reply.

‘Can I be so changed? look at me. Or is it I who am mistaken?- Are you not, sir, Henry Roberts, forwarding merchant, of Wheeling, Pennsylvania? Pray now, if you use the advertisement of business cards, and happen to have one with you, just look at it, and see whether you are not the man I take you for.’

‘Why’, a bit chafed, perhaps, ‘I hope I know myself.’

‘And yet self-knowledge is thought by some not so easy. Who knows, my dear sir, but for a time you may have taken yourself for somebody else? Stranger things have happened.’

The good merchant stared. “

H.Melville, from The Confidence Man

 

Carlos C. claimed to be a shaman. He made multiple beautiful PHD students become his wives and sex-buddies. They all changed their names multiple times and cut their hair and dyed it blonde. He made millions of dollars selling bags full of sand that you are supposed to put on your back while lying on a bed doing an ‘ancient shamanic resting exercise’ that only he could teach you if you had paid thousands of dollars to go to one of his workshops. He taught that women had to be celibate because sperm is poison. But his sperm wasn’t poison because he was the Nagual. he was born in Peru in 1925, went to sculpture school in Lima, and died in Los Angeles in 1998. His ashes were then sent to Mexico. He said squash your parents because they are fleas. He had a vasectomy. He died of cancer. He refused to be photographed after 1973. Joyce Carol Oates did not think his books should be shelved in non-fiction with the other anthropology books. Every woman who ever met him wanted to have sex with him. Like Pablo Picasso, he was only 5 foot 3. A woman who wanted to have sex with him once said that there was immense sadness in his left eye because she was married and would not have sex with him. After he died, most of his wives disappeared, but one remarried and still lives in California, but won’t talk to writers. His daughter/lover who he called the blue scout drove her car into the desert and died of dehydration instead of becoming a ball of light and ascending into the Nagual, as he had promised she would. At one workshop, he had said that the blue scout was not really human. At another he said she was a bitch who could not complete her designs for paperweights in time for them to be mass-manufactured. All former followers agree that Carlos C. had a wonderful sense of humor.

Of Innocence

Fleeting youth could have fooled me. It seemed so permanent. Before I had a past, before anyone I knew had a past, we were not aware as we drank our smoothies and smoked our spliffs on curbs and tore our bread into pieces to share and took the plastic wrap off the brie and listened to Dylan and the Gypsy Kings on scratchy vinyl in a room furnished with castoffs from our parents houses, where we shrouded all the lampshades in amber and rose-hued scarves from Nepali shops and our mothers drawers… We didn’t know that we were in the act of past-weaving, that we were stitching our personhood with future hauntings, that we would wear those evenings, sometimes heavily. It is innocence steeped and cured that makes the most potent kind of nostalgia. Years later that blind time becomes a bit of almond cake lodged between back molars, worried by a searching tongue.

From The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman):

Mary: Summer is better than Winter, because you aren’t cold. 

Joseph: But Spring is best of all. I’ve written a song about the Spring.

Mary: Our guests may not care for your songs.

Squire: Oh yes, I write songs myself. You see, there’s one about an amorous fish which you haven’t heard, and you aren’t going to hear it either. Some people don’t appreciate art, so I won’t bore you. 

Knight: We worry about so much.

Mary: It’s better to be two. Have you no-one?

Knight: I had, once.

Mary: And now?

Knight: I don’t know. 

Mary: So solemn! Was she your beloved?

Knight: We were newly married. We played and laughed. I wrote songs to her eyes. We hunted, we danced, the house was full of life!

To believe is to suffer. It is like loving someone in the dark, who never answers. But how unreal all this is in your company. It means nothing to me now.

Mary: You’re not so solemn now.

Knight: I shall remember this hour of peace-

the strawberries, the bowl of milk-

your faces in the dusk.

Michael asleep, Joseph with his lute. 

I shall remember our words-

and shall bear this memory between my hands

as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk-

and this will be a sign and a great contentment.

 

 

Indigo eyes of murdered children set in the sky like gemstones. Voices that had been gagged by war join a celestial choir which is never silent and louder with every passing moment of bombs, bullets, bludgeons, blades. A chorus of the disappeared, of the human collateral. A three-year-old Syrian girl sits on the ground in a refugee camp in Jordan. She looks like any child anywhere- like a child in relative safety- which could be a tent or a house or an airlift helicopter or getaway car out of a conflict zone, out of an exploded illusion of peace. I want to say to her: This is when life really begins. After you know its impermanence. That’s when the Devil comes to question you- to find out if you’re God’s or one of his.

 

Big One

The tremor sleeps beneath our life

cracks in our plaster walls

are signs of its breathing, its hunger

its restless dreams of our destruction

 

 

*painting by Pat Burson