Tuesday, January 24, 2017

150. Survival } into a Rubble Age.

Asked to write 500 words “…for SPR about what written thing… you most loved this year”; I did here. What follows is addendum.

During the early fall, I attended two house readings. I wrote about the first at SPR; the next was hosted by Kate Colby. I brought my right-arm, Fatima. I was sorry I’d not brought my eldest—there was a child her age in the audience. John Cotter was there. Scared the bejeezus out of Cole Swenson’s husband when the entire houseI kid you not—tilted. I mean, not just a little bit! Fortunately, I was braced in a doorway. Darcie Dennigan and Elisa Gabbert read. My favorite moment: Elisa read, “…outside the glass is green…,” paused and read the line as she wrote it. Darcie Dennigan read from a group of poems that I grew convinced was part of the libretto she read at Ada Books earlier in the year. I was wrong.

On Election Day, Darcie read for my contemporary literature class. One student asked if the nude featured on the cover of Madame X—painted by Darcie’s husband—was Darcie.

Bella Bravo also read for my class from her collection The Unpositioned Parts (pictured). I didn’t include her collection in my SPR essay, but it's one my favorite written things. I admired it so much, I proposed to interview Bella for Drunken Boat—she and I are now conducting an interview by postcard. It’s a slow process.

If I’d had more that 500 words, I would’ve included the Fantagraphics English translation of The Eternaut, too. It’s an Argentinian work of 50s sci-fi with a political subtext—largely lost on me. My one complaint is that it’s grossly sexist—women are gorgeous housewives or gorgeous betrayers, largely ineffectual on both counts. There are barely any women in the book at all; if you include the Eternaut’s very young daughter, there are three women in the book, and fifty pages will go by without a woman in sight. Nonetheless, a diverting read in an absolutely beautiful package.

Right around the election I read John Darnielle’s Master of Reality, which was fantastic. I was especially taken by a scene in the second half of the book when the narrator, who is the manager of a restaurant, operates a huge burger-patty-making machine, and, while listening to Black Sabbath on a boom box, revels in the noise of the machine and the texture of the ground beef. I listened to a lot of Sabbath in November. And Philip Glass, while I read his methodical autobiography Words Without Music.

And Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man. Here’s a passage that struck me as extraordinary and ties in neatly with my previous post:
These experts say that it doesn't really matter if there's a war, because enough people will survive to run the country with. Of course, the people who survive will tend to be those with money and influence, because they'll have the better type of shelter, not the leaky death traps which a lot of crooks have been offering at bargain prices. When you get your shelter built, say the experts, you should go to at least three different contractors, so nobody will know what it is you're building; because if the word gets around that you have a better type shelter, you'll be mobbed at the first emergency. For the same reason, you ought to be realistic and buy a submachine gun. This is no time for false sentiment. George laughs in an appropriately sardonic manner, since this is what Grant expects of him. But this gallows humor sickens his heart. In all those old crises if the twenties, the thirties, the war--each one of them has left its traces upon George, like an illness--what was terrible was the fear of annihilation. Now we have with us a far more terrible fear, the fear of survival. Survival into a Rubble Age , in which it will be quite natural for Mr. Strunk to gun down Grant and his wife and three children, because Grant has neglected to lay in sufficient stores of food and they are starving and may therefore possibly become dangerous and this is no time for sentiment. 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

149. “Carolers are singing } underneath the mushroom cloud.”

“Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Christmas At Ground Zero” is penultimate on Dr. Demento Presents the Greatest Novelty Records of All-Time Vol. VI: Christmas (1985) and ultimate on Polka Party (1986), the nadir of Al’s commercial success. I don’t know on which I first heard the song, but my father is certainly responsible, as he bought both LPs. He didn’t like the song. At the time I assumed he found it sacrilegious, but in retrospect I realize what troubled him was the song’s manic despair.

“Everywhere the atom bombs are dropping / it’s the end of all humanity / no more time for last-minute shopping / it’s time to face your final destiny”

I like the song. It’s better than Al’s “The Night Santa Went Crazy” (1996), in which Santa Claus goes postal in the North Pole—this sounds stupid, but among its other weaknesses, “The Night Santa Went Crazy” lacks depth.

“It’s Christmas at ground zero / just seconds left to go / I’ll duck and cover / with my yuletide lover / underneath the mistletoe”

The reference to “duck and cover,” to the emergency broadcast “that let us know / that this is not a test,” the inclusion of a Christmas message from Ronald Reagan (“Well, the big day’s only a few hours away now, I’m sure you’re all looking forward to it as much as we are”), and the air-raid siren that finishes the track grounds the song in political reality. “Christmas At Ground Zero” is punk rock.

As a kid, anxiety about the bomb seemed a concern of the past. Mention of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative—“Star Wars”—only irksome because it wasn’t about the real Star Wars. A little older, I worried more about the “hole” in the ozone layer. Gradually, I discovered I was anxious about the bomb, but it was a familiar anxiety, low-grade, constant, maintained by news of plutonium 239 smuggled out of a collapsed U.S.S.R., of North Korean missile tests, of Iran’s nuclear program, etc. Now, our commander-in-chief-elect Trump.

My father is not easily shocked. Maybe “Christmas At Ground Zero” was too flip for a man who watched “Duck and Cover” as a school boy, or who followed the news as Kennedy blundered through the Cuban Missile Crisis. Maybe it just troubled him to see me, at 10, blithely bopping my head to a song so utterly nihilistic.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

148. Dumb jokes from } the Upper Cutz.

I don’t like to be the choir, sung to by entertainers. I can’t listen to post-election, political commentary by comics. Trevor Noah, John Oliver, et al—toothless, broadcasting in an echo-chamber.

# # #

Taught “Kin & Kind” by Jonah Lehrer (“self-plagiarizer”); it’s about E. O. Wilson’s recent (2012) reconsideration of “inclusive fitness.” When Wilson declared he was wrong about inclusive fitness—that it was too simple an explanation for altruism, he “set off a scientific furor.” Protest, that is: “denunciations in the press and signed group letters in prestigious journals; some have hinted that Wilson, who is eighty-two, should retire.” When Wilson argued in support of inclusive fitness, in 1975, he “sparked a bitter controversy.” Protest: “Wilson was attacked by eminent scientists…. There was a group letter in The New York Review of Books.”

Lehrer is clearly convinced Wilson is right, which means Lehrer is convinced Wilson was wrong. Don’t be fooled. Wilson is either right, or he’s wrong, or he’s neither.

# # #

A map of protests appeared in The New York Times. “Thousands of people have turned out to protest….” Thousands? The map does not inspire.

I’ve noticed something else in the Times, and maybe it just stands out because it seems so weird: photos of protests show lots of white people; photos of Trump supporters are of black Trump supporters. See the photo essay, “Scenes From Five Days of Anti-Trump Protests Across a Divided Nation”; the last photo shows a young, black, Trump supporter arguing with a young, white, protester. See the photo accompanying the Times article “Many in Milwaukee Neighborhood Didn’t Vote — and Don’t Regret It” (Nov. 20): a barber shop, where “Four barbers and a firefighter were pondering their future under a Trump presidency at the Upper Cutz barbershop last week.” All in the barbershop are African-American. The photo caption reads, “Justin Babar, seated at center, said he voted for Donald J. Trump as a protest against Hillary Clinton.” Are these photos deliberate commentary, meant to complicate the idea that Trump was elected by uneducated whites?

# # #

If half the registered voters in the U.S. didn’t vote, we can stop saying that half the country voted for Trump or Clinton. Half of half the country voted for Trump or Clinton. And, as votes continue to be counted, it appears that more than half of those who voted voted for Clinton.

[ Photos, by me, of a bus shelter in Providence, R. I. That's my bag on the bench. ]

Friday, November 18, 2016

147. “…then we have problems” & } “the night.”

To my students: Music matters. To write matters. Art matters—and not just art that’s overtly political or confrontational: art requires us—artists and audience—to see. To see what actually is. What good practice that is.

Barak Obama in Berlin: “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, and particularly in an age of social media when so many people are getting their information in sound bites and off their phones, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”

Jay-Z, from Deconstructed: “The problem isn’t in the rap or the rapper or the culture. The problem is that so many people don’t even know how to listen to the music.” and “…the Fox News dummies. They wouldn’t know art if it fell on them.”

On election day, early in the morning, I read from the new SHARKPACK Annual, “the night.” Editor Joseph Spece writes, “We believe strongly in the duties of high art; the ‘intimate revolt’; the simultaneously inscrutable and substantive spirit of the avant-garde; and the Sublime that exceeds us.”

1 – 6 of my OUTLAND begins the issue (if a digital publication “begins”). [The image above is a working draft of OUTLAND 7.]

Except for OUTLAND 1 – 6, the poems can both be read and listened to; do both. Check out Nels Hanson’s retelling of Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” written in triplets with muted rhymes throughout—the second stanza: “children, said I was a shiftless / simpleton, idiot who couldn’t  / tell sun from rain. She swung”—“children” and “simpleton”—and the alliteration of “shiftless / simpleton idiot… couldn’t.” I was struck by the last couplet of Katie Howes’ “Have you been found?”: “She then climbed to the top / of the yellow shed and waited.” Brought to mind The Epic of Gilgamesh, when Sidhuri escapes to the roof of her tavern as the ragged Gilgamesh breaks down her gate, and saw correspondence with C. D. Wright's “What Do You Think’s In the Shed?” Struck, too, by Peter Longford’s line, “Lullabies, tender. Hoodwinks, loverly.” from “Majuscule.” He reads well, too. By Sue Robert’s “Meat”: “forgive me, I would say to them, / long dead, sourced and distal, even their beautiful long / bones useful.”

“In addition to letters,” editor Spece writes, “this issue features a mixtape of experimental music from Onga and the Italian alt-label Boring Machines”—he suggests we set aside an hour and “a spliff” and listen. I hit exhaustion instead. I like the mix—Everest Magma and, Mai Mai Mai: check out Mai Mai Mai's version of the soundtrack from Fulci's Sette Note In Nero (“The Psychic”)—AWESOME.

Penultimate, a pair of drawings by Colleen Maynard—graphite and charcoal; presumably close-ups, as in her Fossil Collection series. The way getting close can make an object hard to see. No, hard to know. The universe, as seen from Earth.

Friday, November 11, 2016

146. Protest } no. 2.

Police—lights and sirens—raced up College Hill to the corner of Angell and Brown; there they sat, visible through the tall windows of the Granoff, where Steve Stern related his Arkansas days with Caroline (C. D.) Wright, of the poets who gravitated toward C. D., of other friends—Hillary and Bill Clinton, in fact. (A detail from Stern’s account: Hillary’s thick glasses, ever-smudged.) Stern whispered, “Poor Hillary.”

When I left, a little before 10pm, the police were gone to different destinations.

Not gone. Police were visible everywhere I went.

Nov. 10,
4am, as I drove 6 west, past the house with a wooden “Trump Proud” sign nailed to a tree, I saw police all over, anonymous in their S.U.V.s. On those early AM drives, I drive paranoid. Interior lights low as they’ll go, cruise control at the speed limit—I’ve been pulled over too often for no good reason (“Do you know why I pulled you over?” “No.”—that officer practically apologized when he gave me a ticket: “It’s only a hundred bucks,” he said.) My paranoia was heightened. Who, to protect and serve, in the name of “law and order,” voted Trump?

Oct. 18,
sometime after 3pm, John and I walked through Norwich, CT., and spotted a house with a Trump/Pence sign. John, impulsive and theatrical, spat on it—just as I called attention to the police cruiser parked in the driveway.

Nov. 10,
2:18pm, at the Granoff for second tribute to C. D. Wright: I find comfort in the company of poets.

Nov. 9,
1:43pm: txt from my sister: “…it is so horrible. Everyone here is so sad. It is like being at a funeral.” Later, my wife forwarded to me a photo of my sister’s family—my brother-in-law and my niece and nephew in the streets with two signs—“We will fight for what’s right” and “Fuck Trump”—the latter held by my niece, and with the shadow of my sister’s arm and phone an “L” across it. My sister wrote, “The mood was consoling and angry but also sad. Many people saying how they felt better to be together and in the street.”

Nov. 10,
1:43pm, John asked how I answered Zet’s question [re. what to say to the girls about Trump’s election]. My txt: That Obama is still president. That we should learn about local politics and thus affect change. That we can’t panic even if we are upset and don’t see easy solutions. That I love them. ”

4:03pm, txt sent to myself: “Young people kissing, dog leashed at their feet.”

Sometime after 8pm, I watched another drone descend, hover before me, lift away.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

145. Protest } no. 1.

Nov. 9,
5:50am, at the bus stop, txt from Zet: “So I’ve been crying off and on all night. I don’t know how to tell the girls that trump won without scaring them. Because I am scared. I’m sad. What should I say?”
8:30am, to my class: I don’t usually discuss my politics with students, but I am horrified by the result of the election. I assume many of you are exhausted and may be worried, too. We must not succumb to anxiety, but figure out what’s next. I can point to a value we all share: education. We need people to be educated. Not told what is true, but educated so as to be able to read the world. For that, we need context: that’s why we study—not to accept what we’re told without question, but so we can question all with intelligence.
[I then attempted to transition into a discussion about the assigned reading—Hua Hsu’s essay “White Plight?” (published as “Pale Fire”). Assigned in August, but entirely relevant—Hsu writes, “as whiteness becomes a badge of dispossession, earned or not, it’s likely that future elections will only grow more hostile, each one a referendum on our constantly shifting triangulations of identity and power.” The essay is flawed—Hsu makes generalizations, is patronizing—but he identifies ideas he’s come across that I value. For instance, he summarizes a point Carol Anderson makes about “…our tendency to characterize moments of racial crisis as expressions of solely black anger…. The issue… was not just ‘black rage’… [but] the direct consequence of ‘white rage’”—which I usually hear characterized as, simply, anger.]
2:37pm, a txt to my sister: “Doing ok? I found myself weeping in my office & barely got through class—I kept choking up & one of my students burst into tears. I feel better now, but fucked up.”
[I went home early. Spent the afternoon with my family. When my eldest went out with Zet, I made a huge pile of leaves for my youngest to jump into and dealt with her scraped knee and blew bubbles for her to chase. I told my daughters that, whenever I am upset, I remind myself that I get to go home to them, and what a comfort that is.]

7:20pm, at Trump protest. I stood on the steps on the capitol in downtown Providence and listened to a man with a megaphone. Sent txt to myself: Men doing the shouting. A woman speaking is drowned out by the crowd & corrected by male leader. As I walked down the steps a drone buzzed above the crowd. The man with the megaphone shouted that I must reject my whiteness. A white teenager nodded his head enthusiastically. I stood beside a young woman and said I was frustrated that the men's voices drowned out the women's. She said, Thats society. Channel 10 news had a camera just behind me; I wanted to be seen there. I asked the woman if she was a student. She said no, she worked as a corporate adviser. She was an elementary school teacher, but was dismayed by the corruption she saw first hand. She introduced me to a student with a retainer and a Yarmulke. A man to my left introduced himselfanother professor. A professor of music. I was recognized by a woman who taught my daughter art at the RISD Museum. I overheard a woman say she has a pussy with teeth. Another woman explained to a girl that pussy wasn't profanity. Some people came to shout at us, that we knew nothing, but quickly lost interest. A band began a woeful tuneI'm pretty sure the same band that led the Halloween parade through my neighborhood. I turned to the music professor: "Would you call that a dirge?" He laughed, said, "It sounds like the blues to me." And then he caught it"It's 'When the Saints,' but messed up."

8pm, at Granoff Center for “Come Shining: In Tribute to C.D. Wright. Someone—a student, I presume—led me to a chair. The man to my left asked if I was a professor. I confirmed, and then recognized him. “Our paths have crossed before,” I said. Peter Gizzi. “I saw you interview Clark Coolidge at Flying Saucer.” We talked until the tribute began. Forrest Gander, C.D.’s husband, sat a row ahead of me, beside his son. We listened to a recording of C.D. read. To tributes and regrets. I mourned.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

144. A note } on ‘salem’s Lot.

Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, about two could’ve-been Stephen Kings—Ben Mears, a modestly successful literary author and Matthew Burke, a high-school English instructor “two years from mandatory retirement”—who defeat a vampire named Barlow. It’s a dull novel. I wasn’t interested in any of the protagonists (Ben, Ben’s girlfriend, Susan Norton, Matt, Dr. Jimmy Cody, Father Callahan, and mature-for-his age Mark Petrie). The antagonists, Barlow and his familiar, Straker, never quite impress—especially Barlow, who writes notes and shouts IN ALL CAPS. And then there’s the parade of local residents, each introduced in a similar manner: name (first and last), occupation, general skill-set, their role in “the Lot,” how much they do or don’t drink, and if, in general, they are good or bad.

Some of these episodes are diverting. The corrupt selectman-realtor who essentially sells the town to Barlow, the gravedigger who buries and then unburies the vampire-boy Danny Glick, and the hunchbacked, rat-shooting, dump-manager—uh, I don’t remember what happens to him, but he entertained (he’s a proto Trashcan Man [from The Stand]; a King type).

Two ideas in ‘Salem’s Lot interest me, and King deserves credit for… probably not inventing them, but recognizing them (he’s an astute reader of horror) and incorporating them into his vampire tale: 1. vampires are an evil that pre-dates Christianity, and possibly predates the innovations of the Hebrews; therefore, while Christianity—specifically Catholicism—is the modern religion best equipped to destroy vampires, other religions were employed in the past, with success, against vampires—all this is implied during the confrontation between Barlow and Father Callahan; and 2. vampire-killing will invariably involve destroying what’s left of people you knew and maybe even loved, and that’s not going to be easy, and in some cases won’t even be possible.

It’s in service of that idea that King takes the time to introduce us to so many townspeople. He wants his reader on the hook for each vampire-staking. Every vampire has a name. When Jimmy and Mark yank a vampire into the sun where it writhes in agony, Jimmy feels sick, and lets the vampire crawl back into its hole.

Good ideas aren’t enough. King’s writing, fine in places, is too often hackneyed. I cringed at the novel’s lone romantic sex scene: “She was looking up at him, her eyes wide in the dark. She said, ‘Make it be good.’ ‘I’ll try.’ ‘Slow, she said. ‘Slow. Slow. Here…’ They became shadows in the dark. ‘There,’ he said. ‘Oh, Susan.’” And I laughed when Ben discovers all that’s left of Barlow—his teeth—and they snap at him “like tiny white animals.” Ben “whispered,” “Oh, my dear God. Please let that be the end. Let it be the end of him.”

# # #

There was a reason why I borrowed ‘Salem’s Lot from the library—but as soon as I left the library, I couldn’t remember what it was. I read the book to remember the reason—I trusted myself. Yet, I still don’t remember. I know why I also borrowed and read Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (also dull, a short story stretched out to barely novel-length). That was research. And, coincidentally, ‘Salem’s Lot contributed to my research:

on page 67 (of the Signet paperback edition, August 1976), Floyd Tibbits picks up a newspaper and reads the headline: SATAN WORSHIPPERS DESECRATE FLA. CHURCH. He skims the article, “…a bunch of kids had broken into a Catholic Church in Clewiston, Florida, sometime after midnight and had held some kind of unholy rites there.” And, “although some of the blood was animal… most of it was human.” When Floyd discusses this with Dell the bartender, Dell says, “The kids are going crazy.”

The late ‘80s Satanic Panic, which is what I’m researching, may have its roots in the decades preceding—the Manson killings in ’69 (a real tragedy linked to long-haired rock ‘n’ roll weirdoes [The Beatles and The Beach Boys, specifically]), as a possible origin point.

It's possible, though, that I just wasted my time.