Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mystical Horizons

There is a Stonehenge in North Dakota. It wasn’t built by Druids. Or Mandans or Ojibway. It originated with my father.

My father spent his final years living in the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota. He and his wife Georgia bought a modest, two-bedroom house overlooking a small woodland lake whose serene waters were only occasionally broken by a landing mallard, the churning webbed feet of a red-necked grebe or blue-winged teal, a northern pike or largemouth bass dimpling the surface as they fed on various insects, or a beaver moving a piece of birch or cottonwood to a nearby den. Two wild turkeys lived next door, sometimes gobbling on his rooftop, upsetting the TV antenna. He erected a sign at the entrance of the little dirt road that led to the house that identified this little Eden as Tranquility Base. This was a tongue-in-cheek allusion to his job as an aerospace engineer at Boeing, in Seattle.

My wife and I visited them in 1997. I remember, on one of our trips down to the prairie for a sightseeing tour, my dad mentioning something about a site for a Stonehenge he had envisioned. This was not unusual, coming from my father. He loved space, animals, and innovation. He was curious about everything. He painted, photographed, and sculpted. He was always busy doing something. Especially making designs. Inventions. Schemes. Sketches and drafts. His brain was constantly churning up ideas, tools to make life easier, designs for implements that he felt were awkward or just plain ugly, vehicles for exploring space, doodads for the kitchen.

He did not like the occult. He loved science. Facts. Data. Observable, quantifiable phenomena. Most of all, he liked being busy. He hated being idle. His last months were torture. The cancer that finally killed him laid waste to his body and made it impossible to remain active.

I forgot about his Stonehenge. I had only heard him mention it as he casually pointed to the site where he had planned to put it. Then, one evening, it popped into my head. I wondered if anything had come of it. I fished around on the Internet, and found some images of it. I was eager to find more information. How had it come to fruition? It even had a name: Mystical Horizons.

It surprised me to see the word ‘mystical.’ It was not a word normally a part of my dad’s vocabulary, and if he did use this word, it was more apt to be in a disparaging tone. This bluff overlooking the prairie where he had chosen to imagine a modern-day Stonehenge had, it would seem, ignited a reverence for the mystical, a significance that exceeded the bounds of the quantifiable and pragmatic that were so closely identified with the man. I found this highly intriguing, since his appreciations of our universe were always so sober and scientific and had so rarely acquired the more elusive hues of the celestial and otherworldly. Nine years after his death, I was still discovering things about him. In Mystical Horizons, my father had managed to combine science with the sublime, the explicable with the inexplicable.

Mystical Horizons is located 9 miles north and 4 miles west of Bottineau, North Dakota, along the Scenic Byway, or Highway 43. It is on a bluff, overlooking the vast prairie extending to the west as far as the eye can see. You can see the curvature of the earth. Buildings are rare. With the aid of a pair of binoculars, you might make out a grain silo, copse of trees, barn, dust from a harvester or steeple of a white, clapboard Lutheran church.

I called the Bottineau Chamber of Commerce and waited for the usual menu of options. Press one if you’d like to make a payment. Press two if you’d like to speak to the mayor’s office. Press three if you’d like to speak to a representative of human resources. Instead, within one ring, I was speaking to a human being. A woman. Who remembered my father. And was delighted to hear I was his son. I asked her about Mystical Horizons and she gave me the number of Brad Robertson of Wold Engineering, P.C., who had been the engineer in charge of bringing my father’s design into reality.

Brad Robertson was a friendly man who was quite enthusiastic about my father’s project and offered to send me a Power Point display of its evolution from sketch to stone. The CD arrived a week or so later. I slid it into the tray on our computer and pressed the enter key to go from slide to slide, taking in information about the difficulty in finding true north, calculating where to put the stone slabs so that their position would frame the setting sun during the winter and summer solstice and autumn and vernal equinox, and positioning a tube for viewing the north star.

My dad’s “Rough Layout” Sketches of October, 2000, do not look rough at all. They’re full of precision, meticulous calculations and arrows and angles and mathematically precise sites for the structures designed to register the sun’s movements in stone and shadow. At the very bottom of one of the sketches, in parenthesis, is the phrase “sculptural ideas welcome,” which implies my dad’s intent to talk about his project (not surprising, considering my dad’s natural garrulity), and says something also about the creative process. A monument this size implies community. Each time a faucet is turned and water flows out a statement is made about the level of organized effort to create and maintain such a luxury. It is the same with a modern day Stonehenge. Vision thrives on affiliation.

When Brad Robertson began the project, my father had passed away. I don’t know the particulars of how my father’s sketches managed to find their way to Brad’s office at Wold Engineering, but the sketches must have passed through a number of hands before wonder, curiosity, and enthusiasm acquired the kind of momentum that garners sponsorship from state coffers. This in itself must have been an interesting story, and one that suggests how strongly knit a rural community can be. I wonder how much longer communities such as this will endure in the face of global corporatization and agribusiness.

The first task was to find true north.

There is more than one north. There are four: Magnetic North, Grid North, Polaris North and Geodetic North.

Magnetic North is a point on the North Pole at which the Earth’s magnetic filed points vertically downwards. The points are not very accurate because their location and intensities vary with altitude.

Grid North is a navigational term referring to the direction northwards along the grid lines of the map projection. Polaris North is the star that the earth’s axis points toward in the northern sky. All other stars seem to revolve around the north star. Hence, its efficacy as an aid to navigation and to chart navigational maps.

Geodetic (True) North is the direction for an observer’s position to the geographic North Pole, or the north direction of any geographic meridian. Determining Geodetic (True) North is the key to properly placing the structures to view the sky’s wonders. What the Druids used to determine true north is a mystery. Brad used a GPS. An experiment was conducted on Wednesday, May 5th, 2004, to confirm Geodetic North using the sun’s shadow at Solar Noon and the calculated north direction.

Solar Noon (the time when the sun reaches its highest apparent point in the sky and is equal to true or due geographic south) was calculated to be at 1:38:44 p.m. central daylight savings time.

High Noon is a movie starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly and may be viewed at any time of day and in whatever geographical location, be it Ireland, Ethiopia, or the swirling gases of Neptune. It is worth noting since it was one of my dad's favorite movies. That, and Bad Day At Black Rock, starring Spencer Tracy. Dad didn't go for antiheros. He liked heros with a clear sense of purpose. Nothing ambiguous. Nothing murky. Nothing ironic or detached. Pole stars.

Another experiment was set up to confirm the position and time of the sunset for the summer solstice. This experiment was performed on June 21st, 2005. Sunset was calculated to be at 9:50:03 p.m. central daylight savings time.

Sunset on the North Dakota prairie is a phenomenon of astonishing beauty. The sense of open space is acute on the plains. There is a majesty to the slow dissolution of the sun on the earth’s edge that is charged not just with solemn beauty but the cosmos itself. One can feel the earth move beneath one’s feet. Not literally, but in a deep, transcendental sense. It is not arcane. It is a signature of universal proportion available to anyone who is paying attention. It is written in the rocks, the grass, the wind, the stars, the graceful shimmer of the northern lights. It is an awareness that anyone willing to open their eyes can fully grasp as evidence of immutable laws in a universe of vast, inscrutable phenomena. To witness such an event as the sun’s light narrows through columns of stone or concrete, is to see proof of events put into motion long before you - before human beings - began to rise up and take notice of such things.

The next step in Brad’s exploration of the site was to complete a comprehensive topographical survey of the area. A 3-D Surface Model Design was created to help shape the bluff overlooking the prairie (the property on which the site is located was donated by the North Dakota Forest Service) and to create plans sheets for construction.

My dad’s plans included a center viewing pad and a wall on which the sunlight would be slashed into a ribbon of light as the sun set during the vernal and autumnal equinox. Stone slabs with gaps for viewing the sun during the winter and summer solstice were inserted at each side of the center equinoctial slabs, flanking them at precisely calibrated angles. Plans also included a Polaris Sighting Tube, a telescopic looking device set at the exact latitude of its geographical position to view the north star. The base was set at 6 feet high so it can be viewed by tourists of all sizes and ages.

There would also be a sundial. The sundial was set for Central Standard Time, and the angle of the gnomon had to be set at the exact latitude of its location.

The druids had included a sacrificial slab at Stonehenge, but my father no doubt saw the practice of human sacrifice as inappropriate to his overall designs. He just wasn’t into that sort of thing. He preferred the gentler art of kinship and conversation. If sacrifice were needed, it would be more apt to be an unforeseen expense put on his credit card than a human being.

Brad had hoped to use stones from the foundations of the local barns to construct the slabs for my dad’s Stonehenge. These stones had been very neatly chipped and sculpted to fit together in a manner not unlike the polygonal stones of the Incan towns and palaces, such as Machu Picchu or Ollantaytambo on the Urubamba River. There were worries, however, that these structures would not prove stable enough, and someone might get hurt. They decided instead to use concrete and make a mold to create a shape that resembled stone.

Pictures included in Brad’s Power Point display included shots of a bulldozer blazing a trail, men in a trench with shovels, men laying concrete stones like bricklayers. An immense amount of work went into the project. Bottineau County being a farm community, generous amounts of time, sweat, machinery, and skill were provided by the local citizenry, many of whom, no doubt, had known my father.

A dedicatory medallion reading "Mystical Horizons, Century 21, Stonehenge, October 14, 2005" was installed upon completion.

Another dedicatory plaque reads: Mystical Horizons, Dedicated to Jack Olson’s Vision of a Century 21 Stonehenge, built in partnership by North Dakota Forest Service, North Dakota Department of Transportation, North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, Bottineau County, Wold Engineering, P.C., Federal Highway Administration and Turtle Mountain Tourism Association, October, 2005.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Advice To A Young Poet

Bend the jaws of January chip its granite walls get loaded on ambiguity. Sand a plank of wood. Hunger for presence. Jingle syllables, but answer nothing with a definition.

Touch these words with your mind. They will create an elephant with an unidentifiable itch.

Power is a seductive force. Give in to it. Power is good. Provided you do not use it to hurt people.

Shop around until you find the right scarf. Scarves are important. They give you a look of panache, and refinement.

Throw yourself into pleasure whenever pleasure offers itself to you. Probe the meanings of the human face. Fables of war and beauty.

And the faces of cats and lions.

Eyes, in particular.

Watch how the hawks hover and dive.

Steal money. Button your coat if it’s cold outside.

Plunge into yourself. Tease your intentions. Plan on one thing and then surprise yourself by doing something altogether different.

Beat the wind with your fists. Jiggle the toilet handle if it doesn’t flush right. Use strange foreign accents to stab the air with the sound of the stratosphere. Crawl across a ballroom floor creating puddles of indecorous meaning. Behave as an animal deep in the wilderness.

Change is essential. Burst into music if you have to. Fold yourself into an airplane.

Smell things touch things describe things.


Attack the monolithic insults of capitalism.

Stir oddities of food. Bloom into yourself like a pretty thought. Scream at the morning. Aim at the truth with a big fat lie. Hop on a fresh perspective and sail away. If you meet a metaphor press its meat. Mutate into a creature with fins.

Treasure any perspective that changes your mind.

Cut the air into ribbons of light. Battle webs of sticky vanity. Walk across a prairie pulsing like a distant star.

Lounge in eiderdown. Cry like an electric guitar. Sink into the glow of the morning. Lie in bed and dream. Banish worry with a cockatoo and a long red stick. Pump images from the unconscious. Sizzle with intensity. Spit fire. Roll around in propositions. Appear to be well-adjusted. Murmur the meaning of gold. Explode into space.

Fight the asphyxiation of conformity.

Write a story about pirates.

Listen to the stethoscope of the imagination pressed against the ribs of the night.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Ontology 101 Part Four

Is existence a genus or general class that is simply divided up by specific differences?

The answer, according to George Berkeley (1685-1753), is no.

Berkeley’s argument offers phenomenological evidence (onions, French, mermaids), for the conclusion that an abstract general object is inherently predicationally incomplete. Thus, in A Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge, (1710), Berkeley states:

If any man has the faculty of framing in his mind such an idea of a triangle as is here described, it is in vain to pretend to dispute him out of it, nor would I go about it. All I desire is, that the reader would fully and certainly inform himself whether he has such an idea or no. And this, methinks, can be no hard task for any one to perform. What more easy than for any one to look a little into his own thoughts, and there try whether he has, or can attain to have, an idea that shall correspond with the description that is here given of the general idea of a triangle, which is, neither oblique, nor rectangle, equilateral, equicrural, nor scalenon, but all and none of these at once?

In other words, “esse est percipi,” “to be is to be perceived.”

Which means biology is everywhere and enthusiasm is holy.

Un coup de ton doigt sur le tambour décharge tous les sons et commence la nouvelle harmonie.

A communion of sand and salt water. Movement in silhouettes around a raging bonfire. This is where the story of each person on the freeway comes to reminisce and find themselves among specific steps in the mud.

The depth of water in a marsh. The acceptance of cloth, and what it means to wear clothes, and enjoy a sense of skin against silk, or water, or the warmth of another body.

Carve a face in a piece of wood: you will come to believe in the ardor of motion. Motion is sublime. Emissions of light sweeten the day, glance from the blade of the chisel. There are men who personify the sun and women who personify the moon.

The moon as its light strikes a wall of ice in Iceland. Fading of stars as daylight breaks. Compressions of night geyser into composition. Mud bubbles. Fumaroles vent. Fafnir stirs.

Puffins bob on emerald water. There is a shoulder of stone rising into a churning sky.

The diving of grebes. Raucous parliament of auks. Scree scree scree of glaucous gulls.

Language warms the air. We see it in steam. A meditation on the density and meaning of dreams. Bouillon in a black bowl of Zen pottery. Explorations of sound on a violin by a musician haunted by a life not yet lived but only dreamed.

Reflection of a mountain on a pond on a mountain.

Reflection of a mind in thought. In a hammerhead of green glass.

William Burroughs in Kansas. Plywood shot with a pattern of holes.

Predicaments awaken the mind. Umbilical pink. Naked and blue. Paint it whatever color you choose.

Or use words.

Use words to describe what cannot be described.

Use words to describe a thought bouncing around the room.

Like an Earl.

In amber and pearl.

Tubes of light in the solemn Kansas night.

Vacancy! Vacancy! Vacancy!

Spots of light, stains of abstraction. Sympathetic greens, noble reds. The loneliness of blue. Ginsberg’s hydrogen jukebox in a bar in Abilene.

Record flops down, begins to spin: little scratchy sounds. Then hello cowgirl in the sand. Is this place at your command? Can I stay here for a while?

Name your tune.

Existence needs choice. Decision. Everyone is urged to confess their woes. Pressed against a rock. Apparitions of ourselves in a different history. In a song we didn’t write. But sung. As if it were our song. Which in some way it is. And in some way it is not. But a song nevertheless. A sweet, ineffable tune. A sound consisting of silence. And later and never and soon.

Butter sliding down a mound of mashed potato. Blue flame from a canister of propane on a winter night. Bodies shadowed on the snow. Where the wind moves. You can see it in swirls. Spirals of white whirly snow. A trickle of icy wind down the back. Which feels like a kiss from the moon.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Napoleon's Penis

This morning I checked to see if there had been any newspaper coverage of yesterday’s protest of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in front of the White House. Democracy Now carried a story, including a quote from Mike Prysner, Iraq war veteran and anti-war activist:

Mike Prysner: They’re not going to end the wars. And they’re not going to do it, because it’s not our government. It’s their government. It’s the government of the rich. It’s the government of Wall Street, of the oil giants, of the defense contractors. It’s their government. And the only language that they understand is shutting down business as usual. And that’s what we’re doing here today, and we’re going to continue to do until these wars are over. We’re going to fight until there’s not one more bomb dropped, not one more bullet fired, not one more soldier coming home in a wheelchair, not one more family slaughtered, not one more day of U.S. imperialism.

135 people were arrested, including Daniel Ellsberg, Chris Hedges, Ray McGovern, and FBI whistleblower Colleen Rowley. This occurred at the same time that Obama was touting progress in the war in Afghanistan at a press conference yesterday, flanked by Defense Secretary Gates and a very solemn and bitchy looking Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton.

Are these people douche bags? Lying, manipulative, power-mongering, psychopathic monsters of deformed humanity? Well, yes. But that should be obvious to anyone with their humanity still intact.

The real heroes, as always, were arrested and hauled off to jail.

George W. Bush was easy to hate. He was loathsome. He mangled the language, he joked about the lying and chicanery he used to defraud the American public and start not just one but two wars which led to the deaths of millions of innocent people, he created a culture of torture, he implemented policies that favored the obscenely rich and made life for the average citizen harder than it’s been since at least the Great Depression, and he made a mockery of our nation's environmental laws and values. He gutted our public school system, engorged our debt to astronomical proportions, spurned science, turned a deaf ear to Cyndy Sheehan's questions about the death of her son, "teared up" like a country western star when he visited grieving parents, and so on. No need to belabor it. That nightmare is over.

But then another began. This one was different. More subtle, more divisive, more lethal.

Obama's campaign presented an image that was virtually Bush’s opposite. Here was a man who was eloquent, poised, charismatic, and noble-minded; a man who was not only impassioned about redressing the abuses of the Bush administration, but eager to go into the world and demonstrate what truly good people we Americans are, and can be. Yet almost immediately, with the choice of his cabinet, and his total reluctance to investigate anyone in the Bush administration for criminality, it became increasingly evident that Obama was not on the side of the American people, but on the side of capitalism and corporate pillage. Here again were the same policies, the same psychopathic greed and deceit, the same chicanery to defraud the public -- progressives especially. The same egregious favoritism displayed for the rich; it is now, thanks to Obama, that the Republicans are realizing their long awaited wet dream of drilling into social security. I still find it hard to dislike Obama. That's how successful his whole image manufacturing campaign has been. It is all fizz and evanescence. Chris Hedges got it right: Obama is nothing more than a brand. If Bush was Mountain Dew, Obama is Dr. Pepper.

And that's what got me thinking about Napoleon’s penis. Yesterday our Lapham Quarterly arrived in the mail. Each quarterly is devoted to a specific theme: this season’s theme is Celebrity. I was flipping its pages when I happened to come to a section called “A Piece Of The Action,” in which certain personal items that once belonged to celebrities are now for sale: Presley’s peacock jumpsuit for $300,000, William Shatner’s kidney stone for $25,000, John Lennon's toilet for $14, 500, Andy Warhol's silver wig for $10,800, and so on. In 1977, Napoleon’s penis sold at a Paris auction for $2,900.

$2,900 for a penis? Hey, if anyone is interested, I have a sweaty running shirt I'm willing to let go for $189.00, this week only. It's my Christmas Special.

Of course, I'm forgetting a key element with this entrepreneurial flourish, namely, I am not a "name." I am not famous. I am neither a general or a rock star. I am not a captain of industry. I have never been in a Hollywood movie. I am a poet. And poets inhabit an obscure asteroid at the outer fringes of our solar system called Solitude.

What is it with these personal items belonging to the mega-famous? Religions preserve the bones of their saints. New Guinea highlanders eat the brains of their enemies. Clearly, there is something totemic about these items. They have power. Magical power. Perhaps, if I owned John Lennon's toilet, shat on John Lennon's toilet, something of John Lennon's spirit would communicate with me. Fill me with song. Imagine.

But Napoleon's penis? What do you do with an emperor's withered old penis? Put it on display in a glazed hutch in the living room? Hang it, like a mobile, from the ceiling? Travel the country and charge people admittance to see it? A little extra, maybe, to touch it? And touch what, exactly?

I’m sure you’ve already formed an image. What I pictured was a normal penis, a little pink implement with the foreskin still on it. But then, just as soon as that image came to my mind, another image formed, a 181 year-old penis. And what would that look like? A wrinkled, desiccated little stem tinted a deep Van Dyke brown; something a bit leathery, perhaps, and like an ancient bean pod? Was it in a jar? A little pink tube preserved in formaldehyde?

I don’t want to belabor the subject too much since so much has already been written about it. An Englishman named Tony Perrottet managed to track it down and discover it in a closet in Inglewood, New Jersey. He has written a book about it, titled Napoleon’s Privates. And yes, the item is in surprisingly good shape considering its age.

The discovery of this penis on the same day as Obama touting what was once Bush’s war, and which is now unquestionably Obama's war, are linked. Both are symbols of power. Both are symbols of impotence. Napoleon lost his empire, and Obama is fast losing the American empire, flushing it down the toilet of imperialism. Everything: infrastructure, public education, Medicare, Social Security, jobs, pensions, homes, everything. Down the toilet.

When Napoleon died, he was living on the island of St. Helena, way, way out in the South Atlantic. This is a tiny island, all by itself, not part of a chain. We are talking total isolation. It is said that Napoleon took up gardening in his twilight years on the island. It is piquant to think that this general’s last days were spent marshaling troops of lily and marigold. Brandishing a trowel instead of a scepter.

As for Obama, I really do not know how much actual power he possesses, or, for that matter, that any president possesses. I was shocked at the scene in Michael Moore’s movie Capitalism: A Love Story, when Donald Regan, then Secretary of the Treasury, leaned forward and told Ronald Reagan to hurry up with his speech. That revealed a great deal. Now we know who’s boss: Moloch. “Moloch the loveless,” as Ginsberg chanted at the end of Howl, “Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!”

Moloch whose penis is a microphone in Limbaugh’s mouth.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ontology 101 Part Three

Is existence a property?

If the existence of a thing is its sheer ontological presence, its thatness, then to ask what the properties of a thing are in order for it to exist is to ask about the whatness of this thatness. The thatness must have a whatness.

We are in the realm of whatness.

Existence exists by virtue of existence. The idea of existence comes into existence tangled and weird, like roots deep in a German forest. Flaming eyes in a fairy tale. It is partly imagined, partly constructed. Made of words, rags of dream. You break an egg and a hand comes out holding a giant atmosphere. Chaotic gases and lightning. The clash of titans. A conception of space and time boiling in the mind. Existence exists because pathos is piercing and there is an ox bearing a load of wood.

Can there be a pure existence stripped of all properties? Can there be a section of cheese without the things that make cheese, cheese? Cheese without smell, or shape, or density, or color? Without flavor? Without history? Without fatalism, or February?

Existence is a property because property itself has an existence. It is a presence felt as a vibration, or peculiarity.

Butterflies smell of words dipped in metaphor.

It is therefore marvelous to have access to drinkable water and electricity.

And cardboard.

Cardboard is wonderful. But what is rattan?

A pretty abstraction, a prickly enigma. Rattan is rattan. A tautology of sticks. An object you can feel with your fingers. And the weight of your body. And the idea of existence. Which is sometimes a circus, sometimes an elegy.

As soon as a conception obtains purchase on a canvas, we begin to see war, and how it is magically ugly, and cold and brutal.

Language is language. Orange is orange.

This is why we are always busy embracing one another. The mystery of pain remains veiled. It is a form of fruit, a digestible meditation. Later analysis reveals how clumsy toys are. And sometimes I feel like drawing rattlesnake. Who knows why? I love diversions. Maybe that’s it. There is a glittering presence in drops of rain. A palette larded with vibrant colors and a seminal snake tied to the Big Dipper. The sky, curiously alive, swallows itself. The pencil moves and a sphere appears. A skull. With two black sockets where a pair of eyes once moved, and blinked, and viewed the pageantry of existence.

There is always a fire burning somewhere.

Describe fire.

To an extraterrestrial.

Who has never seen fire.

And now you begin to see the problem of language. And existence.

This is a word, and it is on fire. Draw the flames naked and alone on a beach. A nearby sculpture begins to talk. A woman on a horse gallops by. There are paths leading nowhere and a fish that is orthogonal and wise. Like the Louvre at midnight. Or a passage through time.

Time is an existence. But what are its properties? An hour is round like a wheel but a minute is sharp like a knife. It is the same as a chisel. An instrument gouging shapes out of space. But by who? Who is it that gouges shapes out of space? What existence? What presence? Or is it all simply an accident of creation? Arbitrary as a bathing suit. An impairment, or hospital. May you enjoy this hat. I am giving it to you. It is shaped like a head full of eyes. Hundreds of eyes vulgar and round and misunderstood.

Consciousness splashes around in the head. A drug is a frequency, waves of energy. Most of the time I just look out of the window. Or slither across the floor bending time. Or float monstrosities in my mind, huge leviathans with diamond wings and blazing eyes.

Movement has existence, but does it have a property? And what about grace? Movement can exist as a mathematical modality. It can be measured, quantified. But grace is a quality. This raises another question. The question of quality. These are slippery rocks. The river is moving and it is graceful. Gracefully moving. Its grace alone has an existence but it is the river that brings the grace into meaning.

We are soothed by its water. We are carried by its being.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ontology 101 Part Two

What is existence, i.e. what does it mean for a being to be?

Existence is a feeling. It is to be gallant as a whale, a dream hatching out of a paragraph, the incisions of surgery left in the skin as a mark of unction.

The hospitals are full of people injured in the coarse of existence. Existence isn’t easy. It invites eloquence. It is a matter of fencing ghosts. Illusions. Folds of air.

Need begins us. Need is a staircase huddled against the wall, steps creaking as someone rises to tend the dying, or the agonies of birth.

Steel rails guide the locomotive. Attraction guides the heart. Attractions draw the escalator upward.

And downward.

Alpaca feels parenthetical against the skin.

History is the denim of consciousness. Mosquitoes plague the neck and arms. Incense swirls when the door opens. These are the rhythms of existence. These are the rhythms of being.

Imagine yourself as an extraterrestrial, deep in the quiet of reflection. You would look good in court in such manner, in a costume of wizardry, encrusted with jewels, as outside a rocket ship lands, bringing a wealth of information as you climb into yourself, and prepare to explain the paraphernalia of peacocks to a room of beings in a hive of honeyed thought.

Action is where we find the animal within. The brightness of Brighton, rocks and butter, the pigments of dawn breaking over the crest of a mountain. Waves slapping against riprap. The slop of elements. Images created by brush. A bowl of chowder blushing with butter.

Experience yourself as a living entity of bone and blood, muscle and skin. Propellers churn the water as lightning illumines the waves. The world is a ripe, resplendent logic of illogical buds and bubbles. Fire is a paradox. Quarks are quirks.

For example, birds.

Most things begin with an abstraction. An idea held in the hand like an eyeball. A late, midnight lyric squirting horses in pink anticipation of a light traveling through the nerves, an impulse dripping words of one’s existence. Each word is a fist of thunder. If anything, for the sake of teasing gravity, which is the same as sweating as a feeling rises upward through the spine. For the mind is for thinking, and the throat is for sounding diversion.

Slow words lead to fast thoughts. Fast thoughts lead to slow words.

Opposites, expansive as a barn, generate the play of embryonic colors. Apparitions in the straw. Horns, powerfully kinetic and smooth. A philodendron on a neck of green. Elegance and sweat.

The horses gallop in panic as a form develops in the sky. The sky lowers and walks on the hills, singing. Its image excites the nerves. An old man plays an old guitar. Gravy flows over a mound of mashed potatoes. Mosquitoes brocade the air. The horses slow to a stop, and begin to graze. The sky combs through space leaving trails of orange and pink and gold.

Bolt this dream to the door in blots of damp thought.

The grapefruit merits attention. And the desk has a skull on it. The skull of a human, which now grins, its sockets hollow and dark.

Admire fingers. Admire thumbs. Admire everything that grows into maturity and labors and dies. Admire the cartilage in a spine as a body rolls into a somersault.

Syllables puddle into images. A pyramid under the stars. A destiny predestined in a tattoo. A cap on a bottle. The peristalsis of intestines. Cézanne working a texture into granite.

The mysteries of existence are opened by spirit.

Death is an insult.

And a balm.

The incongruity of it all tastes of peach and dough and rolling pin.

Wrinkles and cuts on an old man’s face. A woman dancing on the wings of a biplane. The feeling of silk against the skin.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Interesting Times

Present Tense, poetry by Anna Rabinowitz
Omnidawn Publishing, 2010

We live in interesting times. Economic collapse, environmental catastrophe, climate change, endless war, and here in the U.S. an attack on the middle class by a cabal of psychopathic plutocrats. People are destitute, starved for something other than shopping malls and slick choreography. People know, in their guts, that the manner in which we inhabit this world is not working. Poetry, which is now so marginalized in the U.S. that it barely functions as a whisper in the ears of the fat cats in power, clutches at what remains of spirit and subversive instinct.

Present Tense, the title of Anna Rabinowitz’s new collection of poetry, presents a present tense of heaving geometries and “pellets of time.” Time is, as it were, of essence. It is the laceration behind the light of her language, the friction from which she derives her heat. We are out of time, in time, on time, claimed by time, wrestling with time, dreading time, shredding time, shedding time, sparing and spearing and spending time.

Time is the condition of our mortality. It is an obsession. We are either racing against it, or wasting it. Caged in it or pickled in it. Our one and only real escape from it is to focus on the present. Live in the present. The way robins and reptiles and leopards do. Moment to moment, and every moment an overture.

Present Tense is divided into acts rather than chapters. The poetry is presented as theater, à la Anne Marie Albiach, or Stephan Mallarmé, in which the page is a stage and the words are parabolas of meaning, arcs and lines in a drama of acrobatic maneuver. To write is both to unveil, and propose, the world. It is a drama of predication and prestidigitation.

In the second part of “Present Tense I,” the lines are fragmented, fractured, in space, declaring the lack of a center, an unambiguous allusion to Yeat’s “The Second Coming,” in which it is stated that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

“Present Tense I” embodies the madness of a militarized culture, the militarized culture that is now the United States, in which, for many young people, joining the military has become a viable and popular career choice. Yet the poem makes very clear the insanity of the situation: “So tell us what we’re fighting for / We want to know, deathless commander… “ And, on the adjacent page, “A grenade within you / From the center / Therefore the story has no center…”

In “Present Tense II,” the situation is even more grim, more burdened with soul-killing “harsh logic of the homeland” and its militarized barbarity. The “Dawns are groggy” and the “Nights are relentlessly cold.” “Leash Girl,” the nickname given to Lynndie England and the photograph in which she stands grinning as she holds an Iraqi prisoner on a leash, “still refuses to ponder barbaric glee.” The last line of the poem, “I have felt alien every day of my life,” is the poet herself remarking on what is a familiar feeling for most artists and writers in the new millennium. The fact that she has felt this way for her entire life suggests that the toxicity of a militarized culture has been with us for a long time.

Where does this impulse in American life come from? I, too, have felt alien most of my life. And yet I grew up in this country. I have assimilated its values. Which would indicate that there is more than one United States. There has to be. There is the United States of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Dickinson. But there is also the United States of William McKinley, J.P. Morgan, George W. Bush and Boss Tweed. A United States of progressives such as Mark Twain and Howard Zinn and Emma Goldman, and a United States of psychopathic, war-mongering barbarians and Wall Street banksters. Right now, it is obvious which side is winning.

In “Anna Speaks,” the author presents a poem dramatizing her own dark side. “Perhaps I should let you in / On the time I threw a knife / At my brother,” she confesses. And why? “Just that I was mad as hell, / The blade gleamed on the table, / And he was there.”

Rabinowtiz tends to gravitate toward dark themes. Her previous collections of poetry, Darkling and Wanton Sublime, dealt with themes of holocaust and early Christianity. She likes to delve into history’s darker, more troubled episodes, times of catastrophe and spiritual disruption. Yet her work is often filled with humor. In “William Siegfried Bitter Aspic,” she presents a questionnaire, the kind of forms we find in academies and bureaucracies, surveys asking questions in such a rigidly formatted way that no question can be truly answered.

Here is a question with its set of possible answers: “You will be pleased to know I have been cited for: 1. A tenacious urge to battle extremes of rodents. 2. A brash indifference to personal safety. 3. Intrepid skill when eating sand. 4. Failure to file my tax return.” The answers, as in all surveys, do not give us a means to fully divulge our nature. Which seems to be the point of all bureaucracies. The individual is squeezed into a Procrustean template of boredom, routine, and interminable spreadsheets.

“Gun Moose Snow” is an allusion to Sarah Palin. “’Pay dirt! I’ve hit pay dirt,’” she squeals with glee.” “So it goes: / blood-letting -- / unraveled chevrons of crimson / darn white snow, a toppled body / ringed by the broad, black wheel / Of eagleflight.”

The eagle is pertinent: symbol of American freedom. In this case, the symbol hovers a scene of infantile impulse and grotesque waste.

In “Present Tense III,” Rabinowitz states “We try to find the sublime but nightmares ambush our quest.” The quest to make a poetry of pure, unmediated experience is thwarted by the fact of its own fabrication and position in a historical framework. The conflict is intrinsic. The intent of the poem is to elevate awareness in the hope that something sublime will emerge from human consciousness and bring a healing energy to the world and external reality. The poem, therefore, is automatically in opposition to consumer culture, which is why it is the ultimate anti-commodity.

“Commerce. Production. Consumption. Who makes? Who Takes?” Rabinowitz elaborates further in “Present Tense IV.” “It’s useless to give up cashmere shawls, gold armatures, SUVs, furs and silks to achieve cross-cultural pollination or transcendence.” There is a big difference between the joy of making, and acquiring something that has already been made. And there is always, in a materialistic culture where philistinism is so pervasive that opposition to it is almost futile, a sense of the absurd at the heart of the poem. A weird giddiness that confounds representation with a lust for the immediate, a “Turkey on the chairlift,” a “view of the abyss / Over which the bridge now sways.”

Friday, December 3, 2010

Ontology 101 Part One

Using the human nervous system as a representational medium, are there parts of the universe that are innately unknowable to us?

Artists struggle to extend our perceptions through the library and out into the world where the wild things hurry and hurdle and hurl in turmoil and proposal.

Explain the ocean. Trumpet your perceptions in sonnet and paint. In squares and circles and heaving tongues of steel. Vibrating chords. Scurrying fictions.

There is a marbling in the mind, intermixtures of transcendence and bewilderment. Hold a rock in your hand. What does it say? Whatever it says will convulse in the mouth. Ooze life and garret, pavilion and dock.

Braque and his rocks.

Increase is decreased by the increase of decrease. Whereas decrease is increased by the decrease of increase. And increase is outdoors whereas decrease is apparent in concentration.

The world is remembered in copper and clapper. And the way the waves move and the tides come and go and a seagull is reflected on the sheen of the shore.

In your left pocket.

The universe we do not see is tangential to our blood. A radio squawking, hugged in vibration.

I love this chair and its framework. The neck is a structure. The head is an explosion. The voice emerges from the throat and its sounds are shaped by the lips and tongue. The bones bend, but the muscles describe. The fire burning in the words is an apparition, an amiable prodigality. The thunder feels like candy in the bones. It crackles and spits and sparks fly. It is luminous and jaunty. Congenial or indifferent. Unpredictable as a poem.

Granite speaks to us of duration. The sky struts across the water and coils around an idea. The idea of floating. The idea of wood. The idea of ballast and sail. The idea of eating. The idea of scale.

The world spins and the stars pulse explicit as time. There is always room for reflection. Volume employed to expand the music of mass.

A low murmur by the milk pail radiates purple haze. The intestines wobble by the wall. The universe is so big that we cannot see it. But it is there. It disturbs the surface of our coffee. Our faces. Our sugar. A buffalo stampede in 1850. Converging in a thought. The eye of a hawk.

Emphasis is the poet’s best friend. Roar, shout, cry against injustice. There at the headland where the sea crashes. Address the world as you would a lover.

Sensation creates emotion emotion creates linen.

And indispensability.

A feeling glows and burns and circulates. You can hear it. Diving into books. Entertaining words. Pouncing on illusions. Eating them. Digesting them. Coughing up diversion. Squeezed rawhide. Punches and cogs.

This is a drug. A composite of thoughts and oceans and spoons.

I am bringing an ocean into your head. I am carrying it with my mind. I am spilling it in words.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Big Kaboom

Is there any preparation for getting old? It's just like you wake up one day and you're a senior citizen -- Kaboom, just like that, totally exposed, totally in denial, thoroughly hammocked in disbelief, and then, what's next -- obliteration, ... how does one prepare for that? is the notion of "preparation" obsolete/trite/or misled in these contexts? can one maneuver these shifts gracefully? why would one want to ... this is not a Random House book or Hollywood Movie with Julia Roberts foraging the age sequences, this is about out and out Confrontation, the Do Not Go Gentle of Dylan, the fire to unload while we can, to maximize in the face of imminent annihilation, to boogie our arthritic knees onto the dance floor and say dithyramb or die ......

So wrote Heller Levinson in a recent email. He states the situation brilliantly. Life goes by at such a dizzying pace that it seems more like a carnival ride than a journey. You arrive at a mature age without preparation. Without warning. Without signage. Without course or bearing. Without a toolkit or proper clothing. You stand on the shore of a new country without a clue as to how to negotiate its geography, its flora, its fauna, its geysers and deviations, its rills and hills and chasms and cracks. You do not have a compass. You do not have a map. You’re just there. Stunned and dizzy.

One day in your twenties you go to bed. Your skin is smooth, your limbs are supple, your libido is strong, your muscles are firm, your gums are pink, your teeth are intact. The next day you wake up to find hair growing on your ears, your paunch hanging out, your joints creaking, your face sagging and craggy, your muscles aching, your hair (if you still have any) brittle and thin, and your former set of perfect teeth full of bridges, crowns, implants, amalgam, or possibly even dentures. You have far more past than future. Your tolerance for anything new is negligible, your irritations have exponentiated into towering agitations too legion to number, and your eyebrows have gone totally insane.

Your prostate has enlarged to the size of a truck tire, while your libido has shrunk to the size of a snow pea.

You once got erections so quickly it was embarrassing. Telephone poles were sexy. You had to restrain yourself from pumping on people’s legs. But now it takes a porn movie, generous amounts of Eurycoma Longifolia extract, yohimbe bark, muira puama, ginkgo biloba, and a potent vasodilator to even get interested.

This, surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly) has become a plus. In your twenties, your life was not your own. You were, as Dustin Hoffman put it, chained to a maniac. Getting laid was your top priority. You would do anything to get laid. Crawl, beg, demean yourself in a thousand different ways to have sex with (ideally) a fellow mammal.

Now, older, much, much older, you have the luxury of neutrality. Which is not the same thing as being neutered. You are not neutered. Desire continues to flash like a distant pulsar. But its gravitational pull in no way threatens the stability of your voyage.

I can’t speak for women. But age is not kind to them. That much I know. The leverage of sexual appeal lessens with age. But where there are liabilities there are sometimes unanticipated assets. The loss of looks means no more unwanted attention from horny slobs. No more cajoling. No more coercion. No more begging or emotional extortion. And some women, such as Sophia Loren or Catherine Deneuve, become sexier with age.

One thing is certain for both sexes: with age comes metamorphosis.

I remember Robert Creeley remarking in an interview that when one enters old age the body becomes phenomenal. You are in a situation similar to that of adolescence, when the body goes through a number of dramatic changes. You no longer inhabit the same body. Adjustments are necessary. Resignation is highly recommended. You cannot fight mortality. The gods do not like it. They will kick your ass.

And then there is the big D. Dying. Death in your twenties is an abstraction, a chewy, bittersweet philosophical candy. Unless you’ve signed up with the military and gone off to fight in some war, the prospect of dying is pretty distant. You have a lot of life ahead of you. But as soon as you get into your fifties, and friends and relatives begin disappearing, and you no longer recognize any of the celebrities in Parade magazine, or the tabloids at the grocery market, dying becomes a reality.

It is very similar to floating down a river. You are on a raft. The raft cannot be stopped, and you cannot get off of the raft. This is life. You know there is a waterfall awaiting you at the end of this journey. A huge waterfall which you will not survive. When you are in your twenties, you do not hear the waterfall. The water is serene. Then turbulent. Then serene again. And so on. Rivers are like this. They meander and change. But all this while you do not think about the waterfall. It may enter your mind occasionally, but it is not an imminent threat. Then, in your late forties, you begin to hear something. A continuous susurrus. This, you recognize, is the sound of the waterfall. And as your raft continues downstream, the sound of that waterfall gets louder and louder. It becomes a roar. And the current is growing stronger. Faster. And faster. And there is nothing you can do.

Animals are lucky. They don’t suspect a thing. Don’t know they are going to die. Maybe cows at the stockyard sense something of a bloodbath going on. But until that moment they live in the present. Life is simply a matter of chewing grass, giving milk, and sleeping.

You would think that knowing that death is a certainty, that one day you will die, would make the frictions of the workplace much smoother. Why worry about satisfying a boss, a supervisor, who is most likely to be a total asshole, when you’re going to die? When life is a quick little carnival ride? Why take anything seriously?

I can answer this: health care. If you’re old, you’re going to need health care. If you’re lucky enough to be living in Europe, you’ve got it made. Your health care is taken care of. But if you happen to live in a third world country like the United States, you had better get rich, or do what you can to please your employers, however disgusting they may be. Because you will be needing as much financial help as possible to take care of your arthritis, diabetes, stroke, cancer, or any of the other thousand shocks that flesh is heir to.

The United States has never really been known for its enlightened social policies or kindness or inclination toward peace. Quite the contrary. But the generation of people that survived the Great Depression and fought in World War II were honorable and moral. Materialistic, yes, and oftentimes maddeningly, fatuously parochial, but they assumed accountability for their actions, understood completely what is required to make a democracy work, and could be trusted. My generation fucked all this up. Our carpe diem philosophies and dope-smoking and party hearty attitudes culminated in a generation of slackers. TV viewers. Video game players. Knuckleheads. Glenn Beck. Sarah Palin. Britney Spears. Fast food, big cars, disposable relationships and wallets crammed with credit cards. The Me Generation.

Many of the same people I marched with in the 60s against the war in Vietnam went ditzy over mirror balls, mood rings, hot tubs, cocaine, prestigious careers and upward mobility and voted for Ronald Reagan. I’ll bet they’re sorry now.

Which brings me to another aspect of age, and one of its more frustrating sides. When you arrive at a certain age, your social criticisms lack credibility. If you’re a man, you get labeled a curmudgeon. If you’re a woman, you get labeled menopausal.

Take rap, for instance. Rap sucks, no two ways about it. It is obnoxious, boring, and void of originality. In 1991 the comic Sam Kinison was dismayed that rap hadn’t been more like disco and gone away like a bad fart. I can go through a litany of things pointing out the total inanity of rap, compared to the beauty of soul and rock, and merely get called a curmudgeon. I cannot enlighten a fourteen or fifteen year old kid with the monumental joy of listening to James Brown or Otis Redding. Nothing I can say will carry any weight. Why? Because I am a curmudgeon. Arguing with a twenty-something about the vapidity of rap compared to the richness of the Beatles, or Smoky Robinson, or Sam and Dave or The Temptations, is as futile as arguing with a tea party imbecile about the true meaning of democratic socialism.

On the other hand, maybe they’re right. I am a curmudgeon. I have become my father. Who hated rock. I mean really hated it. He blamed it for the vulgarity, stupidity, shallowness, and ditziness of my generation. I swore I would never do the same thing. Make sweeping generalizations. Damn entire generations.

But hey, wait a minute. Did I say sweeping generalization? After 63 years on the surface of this planet, 63 years of experience eating, conversing, struggling, playing, reading books and meeting people, you do not make generalizations. You have a lifetime of experience to back you up. You have seen things. Tasted things. Touched and felt and breathed and held things. You do not make generalizations. Generalizations are for adolescents. Sophomoric twenty-somethings. By the time you’ve made it to your 50s, you have earned the right to make judgments. Criticisms. Observations. Authoritative statements. Because you have lived it. Done it. Seen it. Smelled it.

You do not make generalizations at 60. Or 70. Or 80.

You divulge.

You lay bare.

Disclose. Impart. Reveal.

It’s called wisdom, sonny.

So there.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Again The Sun

A Place In The Sun, a novel by Lewis Warsh.
Spuyten Duyvil, 2010.

“Passion,” observed Joss Whedon, creator of the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “it lies in all of us, sleeping... waiting... and though unwanted... unbidden... it will stir... open its jaws and howl. It speaks to us... guides us... passion rules us all, and we obey. What other choice do we have? Passion is the source of our finest moments. The joy of love... the clarity of hatred... and the ecstasy of grief. It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion maybe we'd know some kind of peace... but we would be hollow... Empty rooms shuttered and dank. Without passion we'd be truly dead.”

Whedon is right. What would life be without that inner chafing, those infernal storms, those nagging incitements, that relentless driving hunger for a moment of sharp, stabbing, mongrel gratification?

Hollow. Dismal as an urn in a mausoleum. Mouldy as a chunk of brie. Hollow as the hull of a tanker askew in the dust of the Aral Sea.

Desire, as we all come to discover the instant we come into this world, can be cruel, dictatorial, and insatiable. It is the engine of all our literature. It is the driving force of all our art. It is what feelingly persuades us that we are alive.

A Place In The Sun is a collection of short stories and novelettes united by the theme of misaligned desire. Cinephiles will recognize this title as the title of the 1951 film starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, in which a young man (Montgomery Clift) becomes romantically involved with two women, a poor factory worker (Shelley Winters) and a spirited, devil-may-care socialite (Elizabeth Taylor).

“A Place In The Sun,” the centerpiece of Warsh’s collection, is a voyeuristic look at the life of Montgomery Clift and his intense association with Elizabeth Taylor, who worshiped him.

Clift, a major heartthrob of the 50s, was gay. This was rigorously kept from the public, and even many of the film stars of that era were unaware of it. In many ways it was like a cruel joke fate had played on the men and women who were touched by Clift’s handsomeness and vulnerability.

“Everyone wanted to sleep with Monty,” Warsh writes, “He loved being around women but he rarely went to bed with them. ‘We settled for friendship,’ one of his earliest girlfriends confessed. Women would fall in love with him, as Elizabeth did on the set of A Place In The Sun, refusing to believe that he wasn’t interested in sleeping with women. Most of the women he met were ignorant of the possibility of men loving men or women loving women, Most of the actors and actresses whom Monty met were in love with themselves.”

The story that unfolds around Clift’s life is that of a man always standing wobbily at the edge of a cliff. Holding a bottle of whiskey. Taunting the fates. Flirting with the void. Wanting desperately to fill himself with something ineffable. Something -- anything -- that wasn’t him.

Warsh’s portrait encapsulates a tragedy of lurid details and tragic dimensions. We see Clift sitting on the wooden stoops of the Lake Tahoe hotel where he and Elizabeth Taylor were filming A Place In The Sun, passing her a bottle of Jim Beam and trying to keep their conversation focused on the movie, on acting, on Theodore Dreiser, while Elizabeth, taking a swig every now and then and wiping her mouth off with the back of her hand, silently puzzles over why this intense and vulnerable man wasn’t making any moves toward a more romantic involvement.

Is this true? I have not read biographies of either film star. True or not, it makes for a very intriguing intertwining of two lives living in a world of high glamour and yet feeling constantly tortured by essences they cannot grasp, rare wines whose fragrances tantalize but can never be sipped.

Much of Taylor’s personal life and tragedies plays out in Warsh’s tale as well. Her marriages to Michael Wilding, Eddie Fisher, Mike Todd and Richard Burton. Her love of jewelry. Her need for more and more money. “It’s hard,” Warsh writes, “to live in this world and not feel an insatiable craving for objects and money (for all the objects money can buy).” “It’s also hard,” he elaborates, “to feel free of the need to be around other people, easy to become addicted to their need for you, to become dependent on their need.”

Warsh’s observation nicely articulates my imagining of that world, the Hollywood world, the life of glamour and money, drugs and sex and romantic intrigues. We are among people with the means to fulfill almost any desire, but the undercurrent of frustration plaguing every attempt at fulfillment adds a seasoning of irony to this culture. The empowerment of wealth and fame exacerbate desire. They do not relieve it. It would almost seem that by the ability to have everything, these people have nothing. Lives are lost in a wilderness of infinite possibilities that never bring them what they really want, which is a rest from wanting.

Warsh’s collection begins on a note of extreme violence. Rape, murder, guns. A demented intruder. Police in the street with bullhorns. The story is called “The Russians,“ and reads a great deal like a movie. The events are explosive, the characters “prone to extreme solutions.” The first sentence is a duzie: “The two Russian women were in the kitchen of their apartment when Eddie Perez came in through the window with a gun.”

The next story in the collection, “Secret,” segues into a quieter realm, the realm of the secret, the realm of the confession. A writer with the ability to listen and put people at ease and allow them an opportunity to reveal their secrets, particularly ones involving sex. The narrator hears a woman confess an affair she had with her dentist. “She was the last patient of the day and he locked the door of his office behind him. There was a couch in a room behind his office, away from the bright lights and the X-ray machines and the plastic gloves. She had the feeling that she wasn’t the first patient he had seduced. ‘I leaned over the arm of the couch and he lifted my skirt,’ she said.”

“Sometimes,” the narrator continues, “people tell you more than you want to know. I had simply asked if she could recommend a dentist and this is what she told me.”

In “Mysterioso,” another story of infidelity, the narrator reveals that he was working on a novel, which happens to be the characters of the first story in Warsh’s collection, two Russian women and their louche Russian husbands and lovers. A Place In The Sun might best be described as a collection of frame stories; a "frame story" is a literary device that acts as an organizing mode for a set of narratives related by theme, character, circumstance or setting. Boccaccio's The Decameron, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Sanskrit epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, are examples of the frame story.

As I progressed through A Place In The Sun, it became increasingly apparent that everyone craved sexual intimacy, quite often in dubious circumstances, the “forbidden fruit” dynamic at full play.

I thought of Freud’s Civilization And Its Discontents and its central premise of desire versus propriety. One way or another, what we want, what we really want, is either against the law, or our personal code of conduct. Why else do we revere rock stars so much? When the Rolling Stones sang “I can’t get no satisfaction” some 45 years ago, they were summing up the human condition.

Warsh states the problem succinctly, and in a way I think Freud would appreciate: “I sometimes wonder,” states the narrator of “Endless Embrace,” “why laws exist at all, since most people seem to be following their own instincts anyway, no matter what. No penalties for anything you do. No jail sentences. If you do away with restrictions, you might end up creating an atmosphere where a new kind of love -- a love that evolves out of freedom, not fear -- is possible.”

I would argue against this, using Wall Street and its pillage of the United States as an example. What the narrator proposes in the above paragraph would be a dangerous experiment. I also remember similar experiments in the 60s, people attempting to enjoy multiple lovers and sexual partners. These experiments either ended badly, or culminated in lot of hidden, neurotic torment, people trying to convince themselves that their jealousies were the stuff of a benighted, Puritanical culture and needed to be done away with so that people could rediscover their innate innocence, and learn to love one another on a deeper, more cosmic level. Jealousy was shameful, a toxic emotion identified with the possessive asphyxiations of the mainstream, bourgeois culture.

The idealists promoting free love were sincere, but wrongheaded. It looked good on paper, but the reality was far more thorny. Free love was intended to be an antidote to war. But what ultimately stopped the war in Vietnam was a lot of anger and protest. Free love was pretty much a bust. The hippies I knew were either vapid, or promising candidates for therapy.

Still. It’s a nice thought, and one could argue that its reverse, a strictly monogamous culture in which sex is considered embarrassing or shameful, leads to even worse abuses. It could also be argued that choosing a partner for life is a decision that should be made in middle age, or at least weighed with a full consideration of what that decision entails. Monogamy ain’t easy. But neither is adultery.

In “Harry Cray,” the last story of this series, we find more information about the two Russian women, Marina and Irene, of the first story, “The Russians,” in which Harry Cray made an appearance as a detective, and becomes Irene’s lover. A third voice emerges in the narrative, a woman named Judith, who lived in the same building as Marina and Irene, and became quite intimate with them, as well as a prostitute named Yvonne de Marco.

“Harry Cray” has the flavor of a film noire. The sex is intense, rain batters the windows, the night holds dangers and mysteries. Much of the drama takes place in Brighton Beach, a neighborhood adjacent to Coney Island dubbed “Little Odessa” because of its large population of Ukrainians, which has long been associated with crime and gang-violence.

One of the most moving speeches occurs in this story. Judith, who has a brief affair with Harry Cray, and also gets involved with Dimitri, one of Irene’s and Marina’s Russian friends, essentially a thug, and who also has a huge crush on Marina, remarks on the strangeness of being intimate with someone (in this case her husband of eight years), and then -- with the kind of ironic reversal that turns our lives inside-out -- becoming so distant as to be more than a stranger; a stranger, at least, has the promise of novelty and mystery, and has not yet been judged, or reduced to the dreary rank of the familiar. “The opposite of intimacy -- of sharing everything with someone else -- is distance,” Judith remarks in an interior monologue. Her words breathe with the slow rhythm of heartache, of extremity, with the pain they are unable to contain.

I felt my heart had split into a million tiny fragments. Shards of someone no one cared about anymore. Broken -- that’s what it means -- split in two. Shattered. There are all these words you can use to describe this feeling, but words don’t do it justice. There’s always something beyond the words that can’t be defined.

Monday, November 15, 2010


I heard the following prose poem on France Culture’s “Poem Of The Day” series this morning, presented by La Comédie-française. Its profound physicality struck me, a physicality emanating from the production of language. The sensations are sharp. The work is from a collection by Bernard Noël called Extraits du Corps. I hoped to find a copy at the University of Washington or Seattle Public Library, but alas, no such luck. I will have to order a copy from France. Meanwhile, here is the prose poem, titled “Insaisissables, les mots,” followed by my translation.

Les mots éclatent au ras de ma peau. Le regard est fixe et le buste conjoint bizarrement des elements mobiles et des elements immobiles. Les gestes se rassemblent à l’intérieur de la poitrine, comme les circles sur l’eau. Et le cou se prolonge loin dans le corps. C’est depuis l’estomac qu’a poussé l’abre qui empale ma gorge. Il monte jusque dans mes narines. Un court-circuit coupe le courant des nerfs dans ma nuque. C’est alors que ma tête se penche vers un lac d’argent lisse, qui tout à coup s’éparpille dans l’espace comme un bac de mercure. On me trépane pendant que mes jambes s’allongent, et perçent des nuages. D’un côté, il fait mal; de l’autre, il fait nuit. Entre les deux, une hélice tourne dans le ventre, et l’air reflue vers ma bouche… j’ai la gorge pleine de plumes, avec de bruissement agreeable. Je crache des cellules…

Words burst on my skin. The gaze is fixed and the chest strangely mingles mobile elements with immobile elements. Gestures assemble themselves at the interior of the chest, like circles on water. And the neck lengthens far into the body. Since then the stomach pushes the tree which impales my throat. It rises as far as my nostrils. A short-circuit cuts the current of my nerves in my neck. It is thus that my head leans toward the lake of smooth silver, which all at once scatters in space like a tub of mercury. They drill my skull while my legs stretch out and pierce the clouds. On one side, bad weather; on the other, night. Between the two, a propeller turns in the stomach, and the air surges back toward my mouth… I have a throat full of feathers, with an agreeable sense of rustling. I spit cells…

Thursday, November 11, 2010

New York, Part Five

Our hotel was wonderfully quiet. With one notable exception: the man in 720.

Each evening, some time between 7:00 and 10:00, could be heard a man shouting in room 720. Things like, “don’t touch me,” or “I’m not signing it.” We did not hear anyone else. Just him. Shouting, in a voice full of desperation and anguish, “get away from me,” “no I won’t.”

We speculated. Roberta suggested he might be an actor rehearsing his lines. I thought he was recently divorced, or about to be divorced, and had taken refuge in a hotel room until he found his bearings and a new place to live. We also thought of a third possibility, which is that he was psychotic, his wealthy parents in denial, renting him this room to prevent him from being institutionalized, or homeless, and who knows, maybe his parents owned the hotel, and had placed their psychotic son here, not knowing what else to do.

That was the only disturbance. We did not hear any street noise, people walking above our heads, people slamming doors in the hallway. The outbursts of the man in 720 were very short, and he was far enough down the hallway that his voice wasn’t that intrusive.

We were also impressed with the room’s cleanliness. There was no dust. Anywhere. Not on the molding, the TV, the curtain rod, the lamps, or the top edge of the doors. The décor was warm and tasteful. Even the artwork on the walls was good, not the usual clichés of touristy iconography. Each day the cleaning staff arrived and cleaned the room and made the bed timing their visits perfectly to our own erratic rhythms.

It rained heavily and persistently on our last day in New York. We went to a Bank of America automated teller on Broadway and West 79th. There were two machines in a locked room. Opening it required a swipe of a bank card, similar to the Metro subway turnstiles. Roberta’s card wouldn’t work. Fortunately, a woman happened by and let us in. I took out a sum of cash and as we left and were getting sorted out a man shouted at us from a magazine stand. I had dropped my driver’s license. I thanked the man, and put my driver’s license back in my wallet.

We took the subway to MOMA on 53rd street. We wanted to see the abstract expressionist show we had heard so much about. It was spectacular. The abstract expressionists had a tendency to do things on a grand scale; many of their canvases are huge. You need to be standing in front of one to really appreciate its magnitude. Same with the colors. They’re intense, and thick, and daubed on with great energy and physicality, qualities that do not come across in a book, or print.

I took notes, scribbling my impressions down hastily at the canvases that most impressed me, so that I might be able to find them later on the internet, or a book, and study them more closely.

The first that knocked me out was right off the elevator on the fourth floor where most of the paintings were on exhibit. This was The Vertigo Of Eros, by Roberto Matta. I took my little spiral notebook out of my breast pocket and scribbled: A meditative space of brown and black triangles spheres lines a pebble toward the center rings of water moving out as in a pond. The more one looks the more elusive and evocative the shapes become. A tangle of delicate little bones toward the bottom are encompassed by an overall sense of volume. Litter of bones as if in a cave with echoes of Cro-Magnon past. A sense of power and magic amid an existential vastness. A dark whose light is buried in corners, leaking through the canvas from some elusive source.

The She-Wolf, Jackson Pollock. Ferocity savage raw colors leaping circulating alive as if fed by veins of color.

Gladiators, Philip Guston. Vivid primary colors tension release curves of energy dramatized in color.

The Flame, Jackson Pollock. A red flame red heat crackling energy.

Shimmering Substance, Jackson Pollock. Just that: shimmering substance.

Slow Swirl At The Edge Of The Sea, Mark Rothko. Elegant fine shapes arabesques understated colors.

Summation, Arshile Gorky. Huge canvas of drawn bone-like shapes.

Personage With Yellow Ochre And White, Robert Motherwell. Bold hard shapes circle in black two lines beneath evoking a torso two sharp triangles to right and left a surface like a table with a single leg. Something like a head at the top of the circle triangle neck egg-shaped head with black shadow extending to the right. Helicopter blades at the very top representing a woman’s coiffure perhaps.

Tournament, Adolph Gottlieb. Warm colors dots spheres lines crisscrossed star at the center.

Painting, 1948, Willem de Kooning. Black and white a shape like my hat in the upper right corner.

One: Number 31, 1950, Jackson Pollock. Gigantic.

White Light, 1954, Jackson Pollock. Energy incarnate.

Purchase, 1953, Willem de Kooning. Angry demented demonic form slashes of paint violent and fast. “Flesh is the reason oil painting was invented.”

Photograph, Untitled, 1949, Robert Rauschenberg. Carriage with hole in the background that looks like a moon.

1951-T No. 3, 1951, Clifford Still. I love the black in the Still painting huge and majestic with jolts and runs of warm orange and light beige.

A Tree In Naples, 1960, Willem de Kooning. Electrifying blue powerful alive explosive.

We returned to our hotel room to rest before dinner. James Heller Levinson had invited us to dinner at a restaurant on East 67th Street near Lexington called L’Absinthe. We emerged from the subway at West 59th Street and got lost. Our plan was to catch an E train and go across town to 59th and Lexington and walk up 3rd Avenue to East 67th. But we could not find the E train. We tried catching a taxi. This proved howlingly unsuccessful. I would have had an easier time hitchhiking nude and carrying a sign that said “I love socialism President Obama and gay sex” in Greeneville, Alabama. We continued walking and eventually made our way to the restaurant, which proved to be an elegant place with art nouveau furnishings, tulip-shaped chandeliers and dark wood paneling.

James, who is by nature ebullient and outgoing, greeted us warmly. He and Roberta ordered some champagne and I ordered some cranberry juice. James seemed completely at home there. He told us a story.

He was dining alone at L’Absinthe, spending an hour or so writing and enjoying a cocktail before dinner. To his immediate right was another gentleman dining alone. James avoided conversation in order to concentrate on his writing, but then the man began to pay his bill and commented to James about how great the place was, except for the music, James felt a responsive cord. He fully agreed. He confessed his love of music and expressed his dismay at how most of the restaurants in New York had poor music emanating from their speakers.

A conversation began. The man said he was from Vermont. “I love Vermont,” said James. He loved the seasons there especially, and further elaborated that when he was living in Los Angeles he subscribed to Vermont Life and pinned the seasonal issues to his wall so that he could see the seasons change.

“Thank you,” the man replied, revealing himself as the publisher and head editor of Vermont Life.

“Only in New York,” said James, “does this sort of thing happen.”

For dinner, I ordered the choucroute royale à l’Alsacienne which came on a silver tureen: bacon, ham hock, bratwurst, knockwurst, and boneless pork loin on a generous mound of sauerkraut.

After dinner, James ordered some absinthe for he and Roberta. An apparatus arrived with little spigots and doodads. It was filled with a greenish liquid. Sugar cubes were places across their glasses and the liquid in the hookah-like bottle trickled over the sugar and into their glasses. James offered his glass for a sniff. It smelled like licorice.

Roberta, who is a very light drinker, commented that the flavor was superb, but that it actually had very little kick to it.

James helped us hail a cab, which are easier to get after seven or so, when the rush hour has dissipated. James opened the passenger door as Roberta and I clambered into the back and shouted directions to the driver. I found out later, when I went to pay the driver, that James had also paid our fare!

Thank you James!

The flight home was a tad smoother than our initial flight (there was less turbulence over Montana’s Bitterroot Range), though longer, since we faced headwinds rather than tailwinds this time.

Back home, I went to buy some cat food the following day. Everything seemed in slow motion. People walked differently than people in New York. Less hurriedly, less determinedly. The constant rush of people in New York, frantic to make a buck in order to hang onto their houses and be able to feed their kids and maybe one day send them to college, or just plain survive amid a merciless hustle and bustle, was conspicuous by its absence on the streets of upper Queen Anne in Seattle, where people strolled, ambled, moseyed.

Mosey. Such a western word. People do not mosey in Manhattan. People zoom. Zing. Streak. Whiz. They leave the moseying to us. Those of us west of Weehawken.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

New York, Part Four

We saw two shows at the Met: Miró: The Dutch Interiors and Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance.

We began with the Mirós, the smaller of the two shows.

Miró had a great admiration for the Dutch masters of the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly the innkeeper and painter Jan Steen, whose scenes were full of exuberance and chaos, the messiness and lustiness of everyday living.

Miró made a trip to the Netherlands in 1928 and visited the art museums in Amsterdam, where he bought a series of picture postcards of the paintings. He used these as a point of departure, mirroring the compositional arrangement of the paintings to his own renditions.

For instance, in Jan Steen’s Children Teaching A Cat To Dance, in which four youthful figures are grouped around a wooden table, one of them holding a cat erect by its paws while a young lady in a vivid blue dress leans in while playing a recorder as her companions laugh heartily and a Cocker spaniel barks and an old man in window looks sourly down at the event, Miró transmutes Steen's figures and objects (tureen, spoon, towel, stool, lute on the wall), with the caprice and whimsicality of his inimitable style. The woman in the blue dress becomes an amoebic blue blob with a narrow waist, the youth holding the cat becomes a big white blob with a circle for a head and a dot for a nose and a crescent moon for a mouth, the dog becomes a cow and the sour old man looking down out of the window becomes a spider. The cat is still somewhat recognizable as a cat, and there is a tiny lute hung on a background of light green. A large brown ribbon swoops up energetically from the back of the cow and bends over a black strip with an arrow at its tip. A face distorted in green, its features delineated in black, gazes up at the cat. We find the details of Steen’s 17th century household scene translated into the manic abstractions of the 20th.

The Jan Gossart exhibit was breathtaking. The beauty was intense. Uncanny.

It was a huge show. We spent several hours there and didn’t finish.

I took some notes on some of the works that I found especially striking. I wrote “beautiful moonlight scene angel descending behind a crescent moon luminous among diaphanous clouds” for Christ In The Garden Of Gethsemane. I had never seen a quality of light rendered so beautifully.

Gossart’s colors were warm and luminous, his details meticulous and fine. All the themes were Christian, taken chiefly from the New Testament, which was the dominant trend of the time.

The reason Gossart’s colors exuded such intensity and light had partly to do with a fresh development in fixing pigments to the canvas. Painters Hubert van Eyck and his younger brother Jan van Eyck discovered that a combination of linseed oil and nut oil mixed with some resinous substances formed a quickly drying varnish, and that by mixing it with pigments an unsurpassed brilliance was achieved.

We returned to our hotel to rest before my reading. We passed an Italian restaurant on the way called Al Dente and decided to have dinner there.

The pace at Al Dente, like all the restaurants in New York, like all of Manhattan, was intense. Waiters and busboys moved with astonishing speed and alacrity. Except for the owner, they appeared to be Latino. I found this to be the case at all the restaurants.

New York, I discovered, has no minorities. Races are so proportionately diverse and intermingled that no one race stands out. A good third of the population were the progeny of mixed marriages, which, considering the racial and ethnic diversity, are inevitable.

The only time I visited a place where nearly all the people were white, was in the high end restaurants, and the financial districts.

It was dark when we left for the reading. We arose from the subway at 14th Street and walked the rest of the way to St. Mark’s between 10th and 11th Streets on Second Avenue. We passed a lot of shops whose fronts were open to the street, their wares on display on the sidewalk. We passed a shop selling hats and Roberta spotted a hat she thought I would look good in. I needed a hat. I brought my wool running hat, but it was always a little damp after running in it, and took forever to dry. A man with a Russian accent was on us in no time, inviting me to come and try on the hat. I told him I didn’t care for that particular hat and he immediately produced another, a black fedora. Roberta was eager that I try it on, and so I went in, put it on, and looked in the mirror. I had to admit, it looked pretty damn cool, so I decided to buy it. It sold for $13.00 bucks. I asked the salesman if he could remove the tag. I expected him to produce a pair of scissors, but instead he flicked a cigarette lighter on, put the flame to the plastic cord, and severed it with the flame. I thought this a curious way to remove tags, though don’t think I would try that at home, where I would most likely end up burning our building down.

I felt funny in my new hat. Like Frank Sinatra. Or a Bowery punk. De Niro in Mean Streets. I didn’t know whether to burst out singing “Strangers In The Night” or shoot someone.

Joanna greeted us at the church. We went in. They were just setting things up. A young woman sat a table by a little tin box to take money.

Eventually, people began to arrive. Andrew Joron and Will Alexander appeared. They had read the night before at the Poet’s House, which John Yau had set up. I hadn’t seen John since he visited Seattle in 2006 and looked forward to seeing him, but he hadn’t been able to come. John’s wife Eve Ascheim, who had provided the magnificent cover for my novel The Nothing That Is, was out of town and so John was home babysitting.

My eyes popped out of my head when Seattle friends Nico Vassilakis and his partner Crystal Curry walked through the door. It turns out by chance that they happened to be in New York at the same time as us. I’ve known Nico for almost 20 years back home in Seattle, so it was an unexpected joy to see he and Crystal stroll through the door at St. Mark’s in the Bowery.

Truck Darling (formerly known as Jeni Olin) was the first to read. She is a diminutive, elfin, sparkly and energetic woman with a lot of panache and feeling. Her poetry is written in the New York style, à la Frank O’Hara, full of conversational zest, bizarre images and comparisons, lively allusions to the contemporary and particular, itchy scrotums and seasick clairvoyants, a poetry of plenitude and fists, sonic booms and palpable pleasures, a poetry that is physical, hectic, incisive, “sharp & warm & exclusive like after-swim bowel movements.”

There was a short intermission after Truck’s reading. Will got up and played some jazz on a grand piano that happened to be in the room.

I read for a half hour. I felt relaxed. At home. It was nice. A good feeling.

We returned to our hotel after the reading. I was thirsty. A rabid need for water. I thought about going to the Duane Reade across the street for some Gatorade but was just too tired. We entered the room and I spotted a bottle of Evian water. Hurray! But Roberta told me you had to pay for it. It was $6.95 if I took the cap off. I went to the bathroom and drank from the tap.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

New York, Part Three

Belvedere Castle is a Victorian folly built in 1869. Like many other of Central Park’s charms, we came upon it without knowing it was there.

In architecture, a folly is a building constructed fundamentally for adornment, to enhance a location with its charm and oddity. Originally, these buildings had no other use, but over time they often assumed a secondary purpose, which was the case with Belvedere Castle. In 1919, the National Weather Service began taking measurements from the castle’s tower with scientific instruments that determine wind speed and direction. Rainfall data was recorded just south of the castle and sent to the weather service’s forecast office at Brookhaven National Library on Long Island. The castle is still used for this purpose today.

I like stone. Stone structures particularly. I like to feel the stone with my hand, its roughness and density, and take in the weight and massiveness of it with my inner, proprioceptive barometer, mounting granite steps, leaning against the wall of a parapet or balcony, matching soft skin to hard stone.

Solidity is calming. It offers cloister from the chafing of the rough, chaotic world. It endures the vagaries of time. Fronts the blasts of foreign trumpets. Its roughness is a balm. Its density dazzles the blood.

The castle is mounted on Vista Rock and takes in a broad, panoramic view of the park. Roberta hadn’t been able to find film for her camera at the Duane Reade drugstores all over town. It would seem that the digitalized camera is now so popular no one bothers to stock film anymore.

A trim, well-dressed young man with black hair happened by when we were standing on the balcony and asked if we could take his picture. I held Roberta's purse while she photographed the man. Three young women happened by and stood behind him. "What luck,"I said, "you've got some pretty girls in the background." I have a facility for saying dumb things. One of the women glanced embarrassedly my way, though I think there was a hint of amusement on her face as well. Roberta got the picture, and I asked the young man where he was from. Columbia, he said.

We climbed a narrow spiral of granite steps to the very top of the castle and looked out, then returned to the balcony below. We passed through a room where a man sat a desk with maps and merchandise in a glass counter. "We'll take it," I said. He looked at me with confusion. "Take... wha.... " "The castle. We like it. When can we move in."

There is a serene body of water below the castle called Turtle Pond, which is man-made, and filled with New York drinking water. There are five species of turtle in the pond: Red-Eared Slider, Snapping Turtle, Eastern Box Turtle, Musk Turtle, and Black Skimmers. The pond is also full of little fish, pets people discarded when they moved and did not have the heart to flush down the toilet.

Below the castle, scattered on the ground below a deciduous tree with thick, blunt, lumpy branches were a litter of long black pods. Roberta picked one up and said it was a Kentucky coffee tree. Kentucky pioneers roasted the seeds as a substitute for coffee, a practice they relinquished with relish when the real thing became available.

Monday, November 8, 2010

New York, Part Two

On our second morning in New York we decided to go for a run in Central Park. Which I had always thought was flat. Central Park is not flat. It is quite hilly. Not big hills, but hills.

The paths in Central Park incline toward reverie. They meander. They encourage strolling. The easy, dawdling steps of the flâneur in a state of insouciant absorption. The park is antithetical to the neatly patterned efficiency of New York’s streets. Consequently, we found ourselves having to switch trails frequently in order to match our goal of doing a three mile loop of the park to the labyrinthine whims and crotchets of the paths.

We encountered a section of the park called The Ramble. This was the essence of Central Park’s contrariness to the regimentations of commerce. Small secluded glades, hollowed out of rocky outcrops of glacially-scarred Manhattan bedrock, charm the north shore of The Lake. It is densely wooded with black locust, serviceberry, shagbark hickory, American holly and black cherry. One of the paths is named “Poet’s Alley.”

I particularly liked the bridges. The Ramble Arch, for instance, is a small stone bridge under which The Gill, a tiny stream, burbles beneath. It looks like something out of a fairy tale. A story of forbidden love in sixteenth-century Prague. A romance between a saleswoman and a quixotic frog. The birth of a metaphor amid the idleness of indigo swans.

It was cold. We stopped at a runner’s shop on the way back to our hotel. I saw a jacket that was a little heavier and warmer than the light blue nylon jacket I brought with me, but they wanted a $100 bucks for it. Roberta bought a hat for $26 dollars. It was black, and suitable for any occasion. She looked good in it.

We showered and dressed and went to breakfast at Nice Matin. There was a door in the lobby next to the elevators that led directly into the restaurant.

We really enjoyed this place. We’d had dinner there the night before. It was festive and noisy and crowded and busy. I had the pasta forté, bacon, dandelion, tomatoes, ricotta, garlic and jalapeño. It was spicy and filling.

What I liked best were the nonalcoholic beverages. Few restaurants take the trouble to offer any good nonalcoholic drinks. I find this frustrating and strange. Not a few waiters turn perplexed when I ask for something nonalcoholic. They rattle off a list of pedestrian substitutes, Coca Cola or ginger ale, with absolute dreariness. The spirit goes out of you. Everyone else is provided with a list of wine and cocktails of extraordinary diversity: banana daiquiri, sea breeze, gin fizz, tequila sunrise, Japanese slipper, golden dream, rusty nail, mimosa, etc.

We non-alcoholic beverage drinkers need beverages with panache. Mixtures of grenadine and ginger ale. Names like Beads Of Nebulous Dream. Flash Burn. Inertial Guidance. Eternal Passion. Pullulating Ladders Of Scintillating Foam. Cochineal Cock-A-Doo. Arapaho Peach.

Italian sodas are excellent. But strangely, few restaurants offer them. Pasta Bella, here in Seattle, on upper Queen Anne, makes wonderful Italian sodas with a broad range of flavors.

Chinook’s, by Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal, offers some tasty non-alcoholic beverages as well.

I ordered a Soleil du Tropique which was delicious. I can’t remember what was in it, but it sure was good.

We entered the park at 79th Street and meandered east. We stopped by a house that looked like something out of a fairy tale, a Baltic fir log cottage which was transported to the United States from Sweden and exhibited at the U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. The structure was showcased as an example of Swedish woodworking. Frederick Law Olmstead, Central Park’s chief landscape architect, purchased it for $1,500 and had it taken apart, transported to New York City, and reassembled at its present site in 1877. It was first used as a tool house, then a library, then a comfort station and lunchroom, then an entomological laboratory, then the district headquarters for the Civil Defense during WWII, and finally, in 1947, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses established it as the official workshop for the Park Department’s Traveling Marionette Theatre. In 1970, a permanent theatre was constructed inside, and it continues to this day to present marionette performances, classic tales like The Magic Flute, Rumpelstiltskin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

A young black woman happened by and asked us to take her picture. She had an accent, and I wondered if she might be from French-speaking Senegal, Cameroon, or Ivory Coast. I craved hearing French. I’ve grown accustomed to hearing French every day on TV5. I didn’t think I would miss hearing it so much.

The woman handed me her camera and I looked through the viewfinder, which was blank. I said I couldn’t see anything in the viewfinder. Roberta told me to look down. I looked down and saw the woman in a screen. She smiled sweetly, and I snapped her picture.

There was a garden next to the cottage with several plaques featuring quotes from Shakespeare concerning flowers. “A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” “That strain again! it had a dying fall: / Oh, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound / That breathes upon a bank of violets / Stealing and giving odors.”

As we leaned over the rail to read Orsino’s words on the copper plaque, one of New York’s finest came trotting by on a beautiful brown horse. The sun was out, and the sheen on the horse’s body coruscated as the horse and cop trotted by at a vigorous clip.

Our next stop was Belvedere Castle.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

New York, Part One

On our first morning in New York I awoke to a massive nosebleed. I believe this was due to the dry air circulating our plane on our five hour flight from Seattle to Newark. It was worrisome, but not serious. It did interfere with our plans to go for a morning run in Central Park. Instead, Roberta ordered some coffee which arrived promptly a few minutes later, carried by a soft-spoken young Latino. It felt odd and embarrassing to be lying in bed while a strange man entered the room, performing a service. Roberta asked him how much he usually received as a tip. The question embarrassed him. He did not know how to answer. Roberta gave him a 20% tip. I don’t know if he was satisfied with this, but I think we were also supposed to have tipped the doorman who carried our bag from the trunk of the shuttle to the hotel lobby. He was a Japanese American man who seemed to wince with acute humiliation each time he opened the hotel door for people.

He had my sympathy. He seemed very ill at ease in his double-breasted doorman's uniform. I would have felt the same way. I wondered if, in fact, he might have been a surgeon or architect in Japan and must now feed his family by ministering to a door in Manhattan.

It was an imposing door, to be sure, but not so formidable as to challenge the strength and ingenuity of anyone accustomed to the marvels of the hinge and doorknob.

I enjoy opening doors. There are numerous things in life I continue to have difficulties with, not the least of which are the turnstiles of the New York subway system, but opening a door is certainly not one of them. Opening doors comes naturally to me. It stems from a grasp of the oposable thumb, an alacrity with the concept of pushing and pulling.

Nor do I mind in the least carrying a bag twenty-five feet. I may not feel that way twenty years from now, if I am still living, but for the time being I have sufficient strength and agility to carry a bag of some 20 or 30 lbs.

The flight to New York had been smooth and serene. There were no children aboard, no crying babies or fussy toddlers, and a benevolent tailwind eased our passage to the east.

I watched the landscape change during our flight from an altitude of some 35,000 feet. The aridity of eastern Washington, turbulence over the Bitterroot Range, forbidden wastelands of eastern Montana which revealed rocky crevices and outcroppings interspersed with fields of wheat or pasture land, the desolate plains of the Dakotas, the green and silver patchwork of Minnesota, the vastness of Lake Michigan, the sprawl of little streets and houses in Detroit, neighborhoods which, from the air, seemed to be empty, void of traffic. The eeriness of Lake Erie, a brown, disturbing water. The mountains of Pennsylvania, which easterners call Penntucky.

By far the prettiest state was New Jersey. I can see now why they call it The Garden State. It really is full of gardens. It looked like England.

The area around Newark, however, is not pretty. It reminded me a lot of south Seattle: interspersions of industry, motels, and residential areas. Copses of trees and shrubbery, tangles of staggerbush, black locust, and oak. Gravel pits, backhoes, ducts.

Tuesday, November 2nd, was our first day. We decided to visit MOMA. We were eager to see the Abstract Expressionist exhibit everyone had been raving about.

We caught the subway at Broadway and West 79th and got off at 50th Street. The hotel desk clerk, a young woman with a Brooklyn accent, had told us that MOMA was between 51st and 52nd Streets. It’s not. It’s on 53rd, between 5th and 6th Avenue. We must have wasted a good hour walking around blocks, up and down, this way and that, trying to find it. We were in the theatre district, not far from Times Square, at mid day, so the traffic was heavy. We were disoriented, both by having no sense of direction, and the intense noise and activity of the area. After an exhaustive search we finally the found the building, which is modest in the extreme, one would hardly know it was a museum of any sort, and wondered where the line was. There seemed to be no people at all. I thought we were in luck. We would have an exceptionally serene visit to the museum. But then we discovered why there were no people. The museum is closed on Tuesday.

IMPORTANT MESSAGE TO HOTEL MANAGEMENT: please make sure your desk staff are able and willing to provide information about museum schedules and have the correct addresses and other pertinent information. If there is a gap in their knowledge, I would recommend use of the computer. It’s easy to google up most places and pass the relevant information on to your guests.

We wondered what to do. Call it a day and return to our hotel, or try to find some other place to visit. Andrew Joron had mentioned a show at a gallery on West 57th, surrealist paintings by Gordon Onslow Ford.

Ford was one of the last surviving members of the 1930s Paris Surrealist group surrounding André Breton. He was influential in getting the Chilean painter Roberto Matta to segue from architecture to painting, organized some important surrealist shows in New York in 1941 which had a seminal influence on the Abstract Expressionist painters, established a haven for artists aboard his ferryboat named Vallejo moored in Sausalito, California which grew into a popular cultural center on the waterfront, and in 1998 co-founded the Lucid Art Foundation with Fariba Bogzaran and Robert Anthoine. “Lucid Art,” state Ford and Bogzaran, “is the convergence of the universal creative force expressed in a spontaneous work of art that elicits in the viewer a sudden awakening of an aspect of the inner worlds.”

The Ford exhibit was one of numerous galleries in The New York Gallery Building. It was tempting to see some of the other exhibits, but we were getting tired. We returned to our hotel, rested, and then went to have dinner at Nice Matin, the restaurant which was part of the Lucerne Hotel.

Roberta remarked on how much she enjoyed the rumble of the subways. It sounded like a stampeding herd of buffalo. It gave rise to excitement.

I had trouble with the turnstiles. The idea is to run your metro card through a slot which signals the turnstile to let you through. I would slide the card through, and slam against the turnstile at mid-torso, abutting the pubis bone. I would try again. Still no good. I saw a digitized message: card must slide through more slowly. Or: card must slide through faster. The computerized gadget was unbelievably fussy about the speed with which I swept my card through. It did not seem to like any speed with which I swept it through.

No one else had this problem. People sped through without even thinking.

Without pause. Without reflection. Easy as breathing.

Not me. The turnstile and I continued to have disagreements during our entire stay.