Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tracking Trakl

Ventrakl, poetry and translation by Christian Hawkey
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010

Emulation has been called the daughter of admiration. It is a generous disposition because it reveals a high esteem for the work or author it seeks to inhabit, and embody. “Emulation,” observed Samuel Johnson, “includes in it a laudable curiosity, as one of the characteristics of a vigorous intellect and a keen appetite for knowledge, which should always be encouraged, especially in youth. A mind that is emulous has a vigilance which permits nothing to pass without notice, and a habit of reflection that suffers nothing to be lost.”

The subject of Christian Hawkey’s immersion is the German expressionist poet Georg Trakl. Trakl, whose life demonstrated a prodigious appetite for strong stimulants and fulfillment without restriction, and was in all respects a fascinating and mysterious being. He has been described by at least one author as a difficult subject for biography, the antithesis of a man of letters, existing solely in his poetry where a strange blend of sensuality, rapture, and despair simmer and bubble in an unlikely and uncanny compound of decayed sunflowers, fairytales, and evil dreams. Trakl’s very name is synonymous with the phrase “Poète Maudit.” The drugs that he used to “keep himself in life,” as he put it, included opium, morphine, Veronal, and cocaine. He would often speak of spiritual degeneracy and his poetry gapes with abyssal stupefaction, cold and evil, white birds and black rain, moments of resplendent stillness, cold metal walking on his forehead while drinking the silence of God.

For a poet who burns this brightly and yearns for a fulfillment that transcends life on our sad planet of war and mud and blood and the whine of shrapnel, the First World War was especially cruel. After becoming (appropriately) a chemist, but unable to keep a job, Trakl volunteered in the Austrian army and was made a medic, caring for 90 men with scant medical supplies on the eastern front in the Austrian campaign. He was witness not only to men in incurable pain, but those who, no longer able to endure their suffering, hung themselves from trees. Trakl cracked. He was diagnosed with dementia praecox and hospitalized. He died, at age 27, from a cocaine overdose while under psychiatric observation in a military hospital in Krakow, Poland.

Ventrakl, as stated on the back of the book, is best described as a collaboration. Hawkey employs a number of strategies to rev the engine of Trakl’s poetry, including translation, photographs, poetry and prose poetry. Its primary method of composition is compared to Spicer’s experimental procedures in the production of After Lorca. Spicer, who seemed completely at home communicating with spirits in the afterlife, observed wisely, and enigmatically, and echoing Wittgenstein not a little, that when all was said and done, “it,” the writing, the letters to Lorca, the poetry, the collaboration, “was a game.” “It was a game made out of summer and freedom and a need for a poetry that would be more than the expression of my hatreds and desires. It was a game like Yeat’s spooks or Blake’s sexless seraphim.” “Yet it was there,” Spicer continues. “The poems are there, the memory not of a vision but a kind of casual friendship with an undramatic ghost who occasionally looked through my eyes and whispered to me, not really more important then than my other friends, but now achieving a different level of reality by being missing.”

I would not, however, characterize Trakl as an “undramatic ghost,” and I seriously doubt Hawkey would either. Trakl is a very dramatic ghost, a phantom burning a hole through the other dimension and smoldering on the page in a surge of scintillating ink. His agitations and spiritual convulsions still seem very much alive. Palpable. Breathing. Corporeal. And this attests to the high level of invention and commitment that Hawkey has brought to this enterprise.

Hawkey, who did not speak or read any German at the outset of his project, seems to have found that more of an asset than a liability in his initial attempts to cross the boundary of subjective and historical limits and enter into a true collaborative spirit, one that would otherwise have been marred by a too literal or faithful translation. His methods of translation are inventive in the extreme. Here is how Hawkey describes his processes in his introduction:

For the poems here, the modes of composition deployed are numerous and varied. Some were composed by combing through all of Trakl’s available poems in English for lines in which a given color appears; I then rearranged, cut, and altered (slightly) the lines to build poems -- centos. No poet before or after Trakl deployed such a limited set of colors so frequently and suggestively and without any apparent fixed cosmology of meaning. Nearly every stanza of every one of his poems contains color as valence, and at some point I realized my procedure was exploring the poetics of inventory as yet another translation mode. Other procedures involved the generation of what might be called homographonic drafts (building on the growing tradition of homophonic translation), where a word (or words) from one’s native language is identified within a foreign word or text by either sound or sight (i.e. one sees and/or hears ends or bends or sonnet cradled within abandonee), in part because the textual surface of an unknown language becomes so intensely visual. Sometimes, inspired by a procedure invented by the poet David Cameron, I typed into Microsoft Word a Trakl poem in German and used the spell check program to produce an initial draft. Other strategies involved typing the poem into an online translation engine and then translating the poem back and forth, line by line, between English and German; or shooting, with a 12 gauge, an open Trakl book from a distance of ten feet, then translating, with a dictionary, a remaining page of perforated text. Still other poems were generated by working from a book of Trakl’s poems which I had left outside to decompose over a full year in a glass jar filled with rainwater and leaves and mosquito larvae until its pages, over time, dissolved into words, pieces of words, word-stems, floating up and rearranging themselves on the surface of the jar.

Nabokov, who argued in favor of a word-for-word translation, a method of scrupulous equivalencies, would have hated this. “The ‘arty translation,’” he sneered, protects poets “by concealing and camouflaging ignorance or incomplete information or the fuzzy edge of limited knowledge.”

Point taken. But I think what Hawkey did is pretty cool. I especially like the 12 gauge approach, though it would distress me to destroy a book I loved. I would prefer shooting a book by Ayn Rand or Alan Greenspan, but more for the sake of catharsis than translation.

Walter Benjamin addresses the creative collaboration versus faithful, literal translation with stirring clarity: “It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.”

I like what is suggested here, that there is a language behind the language, a pure language, a sonorous stream of essences, a beating heart, a blood circulating through vowel and consonant in arteries of otherworldly crimson, and that to reach that intensity requires a trance equal to that of its original composition. It takes translation out of the library and into the rarefied air of revelation.

There is, admittedly, in a case of extreme invention such as Hawkey’s use of Trakl, or Spicer’s use of Lorca, a point where the literary work ceases to bear the imprint of either author and becomes a strange, mutant creature of raw, unbridled existence. A mass of unstable particles roiling with deviant impulses. A peak into the fourth dimension. A hyper-ontological mailbox or science of imaginary solutions.

“In An Alternate Stomach,” is a poem of nine lines, four couplets ending with a single line.

      Ovaries dipped in gold. Steel-tipped semen.
      Wallets crafted from the wings of swans.

      In the heat a black hearse, shimmering.
      Later, blue sand spills between the stars.

      Her lichen-covered eyelids.
      The small glass jars affixed to her lips.

      Let the elegantly dressed boatman carry us across.
      Let money like a swan on fire

      light the way out of this harmony.

This is a remarkably intense poem. The imagery flourishes in bizarre aberrations, objects opposite in quality and provenance are soldered together like fragments from a shattered world.

“Steel-tipped semen” provokes a number of associations: bullets, aggression, sexual perversity. It is not an erotic image, that is for certain.

The language is structured in a hectic, telegraphic manner, spitting images in a rapid staccato. There is no apparent voice or identity uttering these words. They burst on the page like a string of firecrackers thrown into the street. The black hearse, elegantly dressed boatman, and eyelids covered with lichen all suggest death and its underworld.

The last line is ironic: Harmony is the one quality least apparent in this cataloguing of death and hallucination. Swans, which are normally associated with serene, graceful movement, are transformed into wallets, or incendiary guides.

Hawkey also includes some prose passages, eccentric constructions devoted to some aspect of Trakl’s life, or sober inquiries modeled on literary exegesis mixed with biographical information. Some, such as the block of prose on page 45, are meditations on translation, epistemology, and snippets of Trackl’s life. It consists of one, long sentence, beginning with a German word, Umdicthtung.

Umdichtung: not a poem translated from another but a poem woven around another, from another, an image from another image, a weaving or an oscillation around or from, a form of understanding, of knowing that whatever is under descends, step by step, even if there are not steps, no staircase, nothing to stand on but the soft forehead of a stranger, O you signs and stars, your eyes appear to be on the verge of weeping, if a child can weep, a face that already sees its future face, sees the soldiers, their cheeks unfolded by shrapnel, sitting up, leaning toward the camera, toward life, a man left in charge of a tent of 30 soldiers, let the song remember the boy, July 28th, 1914, March 20th, 2005, I agree, wars have their own reunions, as if violence were its own end, seeking its own form, autonomous, seeking to repeat itself, a weaving or an oscillation around or from, form from form, hence this slow sinking into the forehead of a stranger, a stranger long departed.

This energetic sentence, which seems propelled by a fomentation of high emotion, a mixture of malaise and exhilaration, bangs along its imagined terrain like a tenacious jeep, bursts and lurches from phrase to phrase, empowered by its own momentum.

The juxtaposition of the two dates, July 28th, 1914, the day Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and its army bombarded Belgrade, and March 20th, 2005, a date that could refer to events in Afghanistan or Iraq, underscores the uniting principle between Hawkey and Trakl, which is that of war.

Though there is another, perhaps greater, unifying principle, which Hawkey states in “The Licker Of Texts:” “that one feels, reading your poems, touched by words.”

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Two Mountains

In May, 1816, Percy and Mary Shelley, accompanied with Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairemont, traveled to Geneva, Switzerland. They stayed in a cottage a stone's throw from Lord Byron’s luxurious Villa Diodati named Mont Alegre, near the southernmost tip of Lake Geneva, with a view of the Jura Mountains to the west, and the Alps and Mont Blanc to the east. When the lake was calm, Mont Blanc could be seen reflected on the water, its image cast by the sun rising behind its peak. Sunlight that year, however, was a rarity.

The weather that summer was unusually cold and wet. This was due, ostensibly, to the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, in 1815. “An almost perpetual rain confines us principally to the house,” Mary wrote in a letter, “but when the sun bursts forth it is with a splendour and heat unknown in England.”

During their confinement in Byron’s villa, they gathered around a blazing fire and read German ghost stories to one another and talked about galvanism, the twitching, contraction, and seeming animation of muscle stimulated by electric current. Their intellects were stimulated in particular by the experiments of Erasmus Darwin, “who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.”

Bryon suggested they each write a tale of the supernatural. The rest is history. Villa Diodati became the birthplace of Frankenstein.

On June 23rd, the lake was calm. Percy, Mary, and Claire rowed to nearby Hermancé. From there, they traveled, by sailboat, to Nerni, Yvoire, and Evian. In Melleire, they dined, and, according to Percy Shelley, “had some honey, the best I have ever tasted, the very essence of mountain flowers, and as fragrant.” They visited the dungeons and towers of the Castle of Chillon, where they observed columns with iron rings attached, each column “engraved with a multitude of names,” “one date was as ancient as 1670.”

They visited Vevai, where Jean Jacques Rousseau “conceived the design of Julie,” which Percy happened to be reading. Eventually they arrived at St. Martin, and proceeded from there on mules to Chamouni. At Servoz, Percy Shelley took in Mont Blanc for the first time:

Mont Blanc was before us - the Alps, with their innumerable glaciers on high all around, closing in the complicated windings of the single vale - forests inexpressibly beautiful, but majestic in their beauty - intermingled beech and pine, and oak, overshadowed our road, or receded, whilst lawns of such verdure as I have never seen before became darker in their recesses. Mont Blanc was before us, but it was covered with clouds; its base, furrowed with dreadful gaps, was seen above. Pinnacles of snow intolerably bright, part of the chain connected with Mont Blanc, shone through the clouds at intervals on high. I never knew - I never imagined what mountains were before. The immensity of these aerial summits excited when they suddenly burst upon the sight, a sentiment of extatic wonder, not unallied to madness. And remember this was all one scene, it all pressed home to our regard and our imagination. Though it embraced a vast extent of space, the snowy pyramids which shot into the bright blue sky seemed to overhang our path; the ravine, clothed with gigantic pines, and black with its depth below, so deep that the very roaring of the untamable Arve, which rolled through it, could not be heard above - all was as much our own, as if we had been the creators of such impressions in the minds of others as now occupied our own. Nature was the poet, whose harmony held our spirits more breathless than that of the divinest.

As Shelley’s language suggests, it is an ecstatic moment. His being is thrilled with a profound sense of the sublime. He makes it his mission to communicate this energy in a poem. Poetry, with its purer language and divine energy, is the ideal vessel for this supernal wine. “Mont Blanc” achieves Shelley’s vision. Realizes its energy in words galvanized by a sense of immanent divinity.

He sees the universe naked in rock and snow, an ethereal gloom of cold mist swirling around the peak of Mont Blanc, half in this world, half in the world beyond. Waterfalls plummet from dizzying precipices, everlasting as stars or space itself. Crags and chasms are remembered around the crackle of logs hissing out of their moisture. The mountains speak to his heart. He becomes a conduit for the divine. Which is ironic. Shelley has signed his name in the Swiss hotels in Greek words meaning ‘democrat,’ ‘philanthropist,’ and ‘atheist.’ He sounds remarkably shamanic for an atheist. But it is important to remember that Shelley’s divinity is not a being with a face and a personality but a unifying energy of which we are aspects.

The splendor of Shelley’s words describe a sense of life and being of ineffable and terrible beauty, impossible to describe as moonlight. Until this energy galvanizes us, we are but ghosts, traveling through life like zombies, somnolent and half-dead. We must hear the divine music in nature before we can come alive. The universe glittering on a lake, its secrets spilled in glacial milk tumbling down a rocky slope. The mind glitters on the lake of the page, the whiteness of paper, the winds in the needles of the pine galvanizing the words as they spill from a pen, rapid and wild. Wave upon wave crashing, undulating, swelling in meaning, a wild thing rippling in the air we breathe, dark and full of fragrance among the ancient whispers of an invisible force. A bubbling in the dark wood where the mountains are alive, ceaselessly alive, now a river lost in the forest, now a sound ghostly and lone, as someone bursts out in laughter, in raptures of thrilling nature.

“Mont Blanc” is an ode in five stanzas. “The everlasting universe of things,” it begins,

Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves
Now dark - now glittering - now reflecting gloom -
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters, - with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume
In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.

What is remarkable about this vision is the fusion of human mind with the things it perceives. Which perceives which first is impossible to say; they are implicit, folded in upon another like a gestating fetus, a gastrula. As development proceeds, fold upon fold forms mouth, nerves, skin, anus, eyeballs and arms. And “some say that gleams of a remoter world / Visit the soul in sleep.”

The fields, the lakes, the forests, and the streams,
Ocean, and all the living things that dwell
Within the daedal earth; lightning, and rain,
Earthquake, and fiery flood, and hurricane,
The torpor of the year when feeble dreams
Visit the hidden buds, or dreamless sleep
Holds every future leaf and flower;

What is outside of us, thrilling and sublime, wild and uncontainable, is also in us. We contain that which cannot be contained. Hence, poetry. Poetry is the fountaining of the ineffable. That which cannot be realized in expression, nevertheless yearns for expression. In paint, in clay and marble, in dance, in words. Nothing that is created is purely created because we are not the ultimate creators. We channel the universe. Whatever that was that exploded into being those billions of years ago is in us, among us, around us, between us, over us, under us, and emanates from us.

If one were to put Tony Hayward at one of the human spectrum - representing that which is infantile, brutish, insensitive, arrogant, malignantly narcissistic - Percy Bysshe Shelley would be at the other end of the continuum, representing that which is wild, instinct, charged, electric, acutely aware of being a part of all things, even that which is most remote, serene, and inaccessible. One grubs for money. The other yearns for wholeness with the divine power generating the cosmos around us. One leaves dead oceans in his wake. The other leaves wild words alive and seething with force and lightning. Enlightenment. Rapture. Ecstasy.

Poet Michael McClure, who comes very close in his poetry to Shelley’s vision of nature and the universe, has recently suggested a “twinning” of Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” and old friend Jack Kerouac’s series of poems titled “Desolation Blues,” which is presented in the collection Book Of Blues in 12 choruses. These poems were inspired by Kerouac’s time spent on Desolation Peak in the Washington Cascade range at a fire lookout.

He was there for 63 days in 1956. He did not like it. He missed booze and company. But Kerouac is a very complex man. He had a deep spiritual side that certainly benefited, as he had hoped, from being there. His imposed asceticism worked to his advantage.

I see Shelley everywhere in “Desolation Blues.” Space surrounds him, and us, charged with divine energy, possibly benevolent, maybe not, but terrible and awesome in its power. The stars hang in silence while his brain shoots image after image in its sweet cerebral juices, stars streaking across the void, or clinging to his sleeves as moss. He drips words, and bacon and coffee in the morning. Earth spins and wobbles and spins while Kerouac stands on the peak gazing at nearby Hozomeen. His mind is awakened. He notices small things in acute detail, beetles, raccoons, rock tumbling down rock spitting water and fragment. The universe is at our toes, or frost in the window. Crazy patterns of breath and air that inform us we are one with the universe of things. Want is ephemeral. An hour is a minute or a month. The brilliant wizardry of light shoots into our world igniting bells and brisk air. Kerouac takes it all in, yearning to swallow the whole thing, free himself from himself, burst out of himself dripping words, squirting the juice of his mind in vibrations delicate as waterfall mist and strong as iron.

The 1st Chorus begins in silliness: “I stand on my head on Desolation Peak,” he opens,

And see that the world is hanging
Into an ocean of endless space
The mountains dripping rock by rock
Like bubbles in the void
And tending where they want --
That at night the shooting stars
Are swimming up to meet us
Yearning from the bottom black
But never make it, alas
That we walk around clung
To earth
Like beetles with big brains
Ignorant of where we are, how,
What, & upsidedown like fools,
Talking of governments & history
- But Mount Hozomeen
The most beautiful mountain I ever seen,
Does nothing but sit & be a mountain,
A mess of double pointed rock
Hanging pouring into space
O frightful silent endless space
- Everything goes to the head
Of the hanging bubble, with men
The juice is in the head -
So mountain peaks are points
Of rocky liquid yearning

The style is different than Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” but not remarkably so. The feelings of awe and rapture are identical. The vision of being at one with the universe is identical, aspects of the surrounding terrible void and its beauty. Shelley’s “secret Strength of things” is echoed in Kerouac’s “rocky liquid yearning.” And Kerouac’s “frightful silent endless space” is echoed in Shelley’s “unfathomable deeps, / Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread / And wind among the accumulated steeps.”

Kerouac’s language is more limber; he does not follow a Greek model, but allows his language freer rein and spontaneity. But that limberness was initially spawned in Shelley’s searching words. Shelley, too, was searching for a new language, a more supple language, to capture the mind’s more spontaneous moments, its raves and raptures, visions and dreams. This was a defining characteristic of Romanticism such as it existed at the beginning of the nineteenth century, following the classicism of the 18th. In both works, the mountains feel alive. The mind of the universe emerges from a similar solitude and yearning. Both tend toward a sense of hanging in the void, of brisk mountain air moving in endless and invisible currents, full of electricity, the galvanizing, animating force of something ineffable and grand.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What Am I Doing Here?

The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, non-fiction by Nicholas Carr.
W.W. Norton & Company, 2010

Man. Am I confused.

After reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, I’m left in a quandary. Am I, by maintaining a blog, contributing to the erosion of something I treasure?

I love blogging. I love doing this blog. But I also love books. And, quite emphatically, and rapidly, the Internet is pulling readers away from print media - books, magazines, journals, newspapers, guides - and diverting them with an activity that appears to be similar to reading, but is it reading? The answer, according to Carr, is no.

He states the case repeatedly, soberly, and compellingly: the reading we do on the Internet is more akin to skimming than reading. I have long suspected this to be the case, and have often been perplexed by my own inability to concentrate as easily on a computer screen than in a book. Carr explains why this is the case. “On the Web,” Carr remarks, “there is no such thing as leisurely browsing. We want to gather as much information as quickly as our eyes and fingers can move.”

That’s true even when it comes to academic research. As part of a five-year study that ended in early 2008, a group from University College London examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a U.K. educational consortium. Both sites provided users with access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. The scholars found that people using the sites exhibited a distinctive “form of skimming activity” in which they’d hop quickly from one source to another, rarely returning to any source they had already visited. They’d typically read, at most, one or two pages of an article or book before “bouncing out” to another site. “It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense,” the authors of the study reported; “indeed there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”

Carr also cites neuroscientist Michael Merzenich: “There is absolutely no question that modern search engines and cross-referenced websites have powerfully enabled research and communication efficiencies. There is also no question that our brains are engaged less directly and more shallowly in the synthesis of information when we use research strategies that are all about ‘efficiency,’ ‘secondary (and out-of-context) referencing,’’ and ‘once over, lightly.’”

It gets worse. “It’s not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind,” observes Carr, “it’s also empathy and compassion.”

Psychologists have long studied how people experience fear and react to physical threats, but it’s only recently that they’ve begun researching the sources of our nobler instincts. What they’re finding is that, as Antonio Damasio, the direct of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, explains, the higher emotions emerge from neural processes that “are inherently slow.” In once recent experiment, Damasio and his colleagues had subjects listen to stories describing people experiencing physical or psychological pain. The subjects were then put into a magnetic resonance imaging machine and their brains were scanned as they were asked to remember the stories. The experiment revealed that while the human brain reacts very quickly to demonstrations of physical pain - when you see someone injured, the primitive pain centers in your own brain activate almost instantaneously - the more sophisticated mental process of empathizing with psychological suffering unfolds much more slowly. It takes time, the researchers discovered, for the brain “to transcend immediate involvement of the body” and begin to understand and to feel “the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation.”

This is disturbing.

“It would be rash,” says Carr in response to this, “to jump to the conclusion that the Internet is undermining our moral sense. It would not be rash to suggest that as the Net reroutes our vital paths and diminishes our capacity for contemplation, it is altering the depth of our emotions as well as our thoughts.”

This explains a great deal: the continuing popularity of idiots like Sarah Palin, who makes as much as $75,000 for a speaking engagement and was given a 7 million advance for her memoirs, or why the majority of books published by the mainstream publishing companies are so maddeningly insipid, crass, and mediocre, and the more interesting ideas and titles are marginalized into oblivion.

Ten years ago these things did not bother me so much. They worried me, but did not, as they do now, lead me into despair. Ten years ago when I visited Suzzallo library at the University of Washington, at least half of the students were sitting at carrels and desks reading books and periodicals. Now, they are all gazing into the luminous shallows of their laptop. It is rare to see a student reading a book. The books sit on the shelves, unused, collecting dust, relics of a bygone age.

As for the periodicals, they’re gone. There used to be a section of the library devoted to browsing through recent editions of Film Quarterly, Figaro, Mind & Language, Artforum, American Book Review, and Rolling Stone. There were lush chairs and couches available for more comfortable perusing. It was a wonderful place for serendipitous discovery, or just a delightful way to pass the time. And now it’s gone. As for the magazines, I’m guessing they’ve been bound, shelved, and relegated to library limbo.

It is the same with coffeehouses. I dread going to them. Everyone, as at Suzzallo, is gazing into laptop screens. They make me feel as if I’ve been hurtled through time and space to a parallel universe where people prefer ignorance and superficial content over earnest, intellectual inquiry, exciting ideas and beautiful writing.

Elsewhere, at airports, banks, the post office, or standing in line to see a summer blockbuster, one is far more apt to see people using smartphones and feature phones rather than reading a weekly or paperback.

When Roberta and I saw The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo at a local multiplex, the young woman sitting in front of me began text messaging shortly after the movie began. The light from her phone was distracting, but I thought it might be an emergency and waited for her to finish. It embarrasses me to complain about such things. But she didn’t. After fifteen minutes, I leaned forward and asked her to put it out. She complied, and put her device away. But it left me wondering: why would anyone go to a movie and text message? And the answer to that is that people have become accustomed to what they call “multi-tasking.” Multi-tasking means, essentially, not paying attention to a damned thing. You’re just feeding your brain popcorn; bits of diversionary information with no nutritional value. Or dividing your attention between a movie, a sale at Nordstrom’s, and a short note to a friend.

Employers love multi-tasking. They think it’s a way to get more work out of people. It’s not. It’s merely an excellent way to lower the quality of their work. Multi-tasking does not result in greater efficiency. It results in incompetence, shoddy workmanship, stress, anxiety, and disasters like Deepwater Horizon.

The marginalization of print media and the gargantuan juggernaut that is digitized media is partly what led me to begin a blog. It would seem that that is where the audience has gone. And what I like best about blogging - publishing instantly and foregoing the usual hassles of submission, waiting weeks, often months, to get a negative or (more rarely) positive response - is exhilarating. It is hard not to want to take full advantage of that. Time I used to spend researching possible venues in print media for my essays, poetry, stories and book reviews is now freed up to let me concentrate on my writing.

Another major plus is getting feedback from readers. Feedback allows a blogger to further elaborate or defend their ideas, and the reader to challenge and further engage the writer. The discussions that follow a posting are sometimes more provocative than the original article.

But what is the cost of doing these things? If the quality of attention potential readers are bringing to something written online is dramatically inferior to the attention they would otherwise bring to the soft, alluring pages of a book, it does anyone little good to post their writing online.

I feel like someone living exclusively on a diet of milkshakes, cheeseburgers, and greasy fries. I love milkshakes, cheeseburgers, and greasy fries. I love it so much I feasibly could live on such a diet. But it wouldn’t be good for me. I’d become obese, easily fatigued, and malnourished. My cholesterol would go through the proverbial roof. I’d be risking a heart attack or stroke. Is that what I’m doing by posting on a blog? Is blogging the intellectual equivalent to a cheeseburger?

Obviously, I hope that isn’t the case.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and generalize: I strongly suspect that people in my age group, which is to say people over fifty years of age, have, like me, deeply ingrained reading habits. The computer is useful for making plane reservations, reading restaurant and hotel reviews, ordering books and CDs, buying antiques on eBay, enjoying YouTube videos, and getting news that is vastly more truthful and superior to what can be found on television, newspapers, or radio. Sites such as Truthdig, Truthout, Salon and the Huffington Post are excellent sources of information. But when it comes to reading, I mean real reading, deep, focused, contemplative reading, a book is always preferred. A book is essential. And I worry a great deal about younger people whose reading habits are not nearly as ingrained as mine. They will become, if they are not already, surgeons, lawyers, airline pilots and electricians. I want these people to be fully accustomed to the art of contemplation, deep focus, and earnest concentration.

The evidence has not, so far, proven encouraging. I have visited the apartments of younger people without a single book on the premises. College graduates, no less. I frequently wonder what their papers are like. Do they pay any attention to style? Does style matter at all to them, or is it strictly a matter of content? I wasn’t surprised when a French instructor recently told me that her younger students hated Samuel Beckett. Beckett made no sense to them at all. Well, of course he wouldn’t. Beckett’s language is rich. Highly stylized. Anyone with a sensitivity to language can read Beckett with deeply absorbed pleasure and “get it.” People who view language as little more than a conveyance of information, a somnolent string of words, a kind of television on paper, won’t. They're at home in Harry Potter, bewildered in Molloy.

Carr talks about this too. Silent reading, his research shows, developed slowly. There was a time when reading by oneself, silently, was considered to be a very strange, almost rather disturbing phenomenon. But as books proliferated, silent reading became the norm. And the impact of this was astonishing. “Authors, able to assume that an attentive reader, deeply engaged both intellectually and emotionally, ‘would come at last, and would thank them,’ quickly jumped beyond the limits of social speech and began to explore a wealth of distinctively literary forms, many of which could exist only on the page.” This led, in turn, to a “burst of experimentation that expanded vocabulary, extended the boundaries of syntax, and in general increased the flexibility and expressiveness of language.”

Now, Carr laments, as do I, “the context of reading is again shifting, from the private page to the communal screen.” Authors will have to adapt, though adaptation as Carr describes, sounds more like death. Authors “will increasingly tailor their work to a milieu that the essayist Caleb Crain describes as ‘groupiness,’ where people read mainly ‘for the sake of a feeling of belonging’ rather than for personal enlightenment or amusement. As social concerns override literary ones, writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favor of a bland but immediately accessible style. Writing will become a means for recording chatter.”

And so I ask myself: what am I doing here? Why am I blogging when I have such an anxiety about the erosion of reading skills? Aren’t I contributing to this erosion?

Thank goodness for cognitive dissonance. I don’t know how I could survive in this world without it. I would not be able to enjoy a cheeseburger but finally and irrevocably commit myself to becoming a full scale vegetarian.

And I would have to quit this blog, if not quit the computer altogether, and search for a manual typewriter, and its requisite ribbons.

Cognitive dissonance aside, I do foster the hope that, despite all the neurological testing and research, the scientists will prove wrong, and that people will evolve along with the new electronic medium and find means to read with the same quality of attention that people bring to books and paper.

There are a few articles, essays, and blogs I have been able to read online without printing them out. It’s harder, but it can be done. I can only hope that the writing I post here, as well as the writing I enjoy on other blogs, find readers with the generosity to fully immerse themselves in the pixels, the words, the sentences, the images and ideas, helping to recreate, in their engagement with the writing, what the author imagined. Savoring not merely the lucidity with which an idea is presented, but savoring as well the wilderness of words that people our skulls with such fugitive seductions, such peculiar milk, such potent wine, such vast and alternating currents.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Swans On A Squeezed Accordion

Nothing comes from nothing, except the marble block in which a sculpture waits to come walking out. Soap feels good, not because sterling is unswayed by soothsaying, but because little bells jingle on the horses as our sleigh is pulled more deeply into the night. Beans painted delicately in acrylic heave with wisdom. You can leave, but you can’t come back and expect the same beans. This aphorism is indulged because it coughed, and its pigment sweated a strange geology. Sometimes texture is best expressed by squeezing a potato. Needs are fitted to the individual. Volumes are exchanged. A man walks around in his skin believing morality begins with anarchy. This could be true. Time is metal. The hours flame with anguish. The minutes droop in tiny incisions as the sky breaks into little pieces. When our lives have finally begun to be fulfilled, a mirror will reflect them on a sphere of crystal on a sideboard in the library. It is as if a smear of music were bumped and rolled and chronicled in the headlines of a muffin thermometer seen to whisper at the edge of the cemetery. If you open that drawer of rivers you can expect to get wet. I’m not kidding. The tombs murmur of granite and vertebrae. Kerosene plays at emanation in the diagnosis of a rock. Constancy brims with sequence, but uncertainty exults in fire. Perforations look good in either aluminum or birch. I really like what you’ve done to the studio. The sweat on your veins insinuates the pathos of pushing. All the paper is tangible. All the canvases are formidable. All the palettes are palatable. The expansion we find in Whitman is everywhere buckled in cream. This conclusion is garish but dry. Here is a knot of tilted light. Bite this shape into an evolved explosion. A spoon with a prominent osprey on the handle. Then expand it into astronomy. The events at the bistro will become apparent. The leather grammar of extension creaks when we sit on the horse of language. Some of these metaphors may not be sweet. Your tattoos are leaking a violent image, the tin ocean of a stern heart. Or is it a calculus congealed into mustard? I can no longer be sure of anything, unless it squirts, or offers a form of diversion based on the bugs in the garden. All that sculpture does for ancestry is provide a pound of war and an ounce of paradox. In illusionism, it is always the card tricks that hatch into lanolin, elude our keener perceptions and lapse into antiquity where all the ghosts of our weekends are stirring in oblivion. Everything jaunty and touching is tied to some action or another. A bas-relief anchored in stone announces a paradigm of locomotive dominion in the rails of our belief. But what is our belief? Beliefs have a tendency to change from day to day unless you nail them to a camera or moor them in a religion. Everything is indispensable. Nothing is literal. Except maybe an orange canoe. Floating is wet. But oysters are palaces of discarded conclusions, rain on a purple flower, or an ear of hectic curlicues. Each car has a destiny written into it before it even leaves the manufacturer. This could be the sternum of a hill or an ontology of insects and highways. Ooze life. Hold your ticket firmly in your hand. Moss and mosquitoes knit the world into Fauve boxing matches between truth and perspective. It is always a joy to study a problem that can never be answered. There will sometimes be a prominence of gowns at such events, plugs of cinnamon and a table at the side of the road. Insults are rarely explored. There is no need to. The train is arriving. We can finish our argument later. The frictions are random as rain. Opinions have roots, and frictions are knives that slice the air into conversation, swans on a squeezed accordion.

Friday, July 9, 2010


Shoes enfranchise the feet. The terrain is no longer an obstacle of sharp rocks and broken glass, barnyard manure and hot pavement. Our feet are armored against the prick of a syringe in a city park, rocks encrusted with barnacles, the thorns of the forest.

Shoes, like people, become old. Wrinkle and crack. Canvas tears. Rubber wears. Laces fray. Shoes are never long in letting us know when they are done with us.

There is a mythology of shoes. Hermes, the ancient Greek god of thieves and messengers, inventors and tricksters, a patron of athletes and bringer of dreams, and whose name gave us the word ‘hermenuetics’ for the art of interpreting hidden meaning, used winged sandals to fly freely between the mortal and immortal worlds.

In Part Two of Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles arrives on stage in a pair of seven league boots. He dismounts, and the boots continue on their way.

In Peter Schlemiel: The Man Who Sold His Shadow, by Adelbert von Chamisso, Peter Schlemiel sells his shadow for a purse that tenders unending riches, but discovers that the lack of a shadow prevents the possibility of finding love. The magician offers to return his shadow in exchange for his soul. Peter refuses. Instead, he acquires a pair of seven-league boots and redeems his foolishness by becoming a dedicated naturalist and hurdles the world taking notes, drawing sketches, and identifying species.

Wittgenstein associates Schlemiel’s shadow with speaking and thinking. “Thinking is not an incorporeal process which lends life and sense to speaking, and which it would be possible to detach from speaking, rather as the Devil took the shadow of Schlemiel from the ground.”

The sole is the bottom of the shoe. The welt is the intermediary between the sole and the upper portions of the shoe. The eyelets are perforations for the shoelace, which weaves in and out over the tongue. The heel is the stern of the shoe. The toe is the bow.

The oldest pair of shoes in the world are a pair of sandals made of tightly woven sagebrush bark. They were discovered in central Oregon and radiocarbon dated to be approximately 10,000 years old.

On October 14th, 2008, an Iraqi journalist named Muntadhar al-Zaidi hurled both of his shoes at George W. Bush during a Baghdad press conference. “This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog,“ al-Zaidi yelled as he threw the first shoe. “This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq,“ he shouted as he threw his second shoe.

In December of 2009, Madonna confessed to legendary shoe designer Jimmy Choo that she enjoyed shopping for shoes more than having sex with a man.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Something Was In The House

An Dantomine Eerly, a novel by J.R.D. Middleton
Dark Coast Press, 2009

“Something was in the house,” remarks the narrator of this poignant and mysterious book, “The poems and letters that were in my hands trembled, then were folded.” The letters comprise a poem, “folded in thirds, knotted with a gold tassel.” If this reminds you if those beautiful volumes of poetry one sometimes finds in used bookstores, volumes of Shelley and Keats and Coleridge and Blake, you would not be far from the mark.

The “something” in the house is the ghost of a murdered woman. A woman the narrator yearns to discover, having had sexual relations with her spirit. Identities are never fully clear in this Gothic tale of romance and sex. The language that provides clues as to their appearance and character shines and shifts with something larger than beings of skin and bone. Its language is a liminal one, haunting the borders of life and death, ideas and reality, with a mournful, incendiary resonance. At the heart of this book is a deep romanticism, a dusky tenuity that thwarts and lures, conceals and reveals, confusing actuality with hallucination in a language that has a peculiar mid-Victorian veneer to it, as if Poe or Hawthorn were lurking in its shadows, or mediums in the author’s ink.

“Every style embodies an epistemological decision,” observed Susan Sontag, “an interpretation of how and what we perceive.” This is especially pertinent to Middleton’s novel. Events, yearnings, appearances, disappearances, everything that occurs in the theatre of this book occurs in a language colored with the hues of high emotion, intuitions, and imaginative surmises, the unfathomable sense of loss, and incompleteness, that Keat’s poetry arouses in us, sometimes amid outbursts of rapture, as if no emotion were possible without its obverse curve.

Middleton’s language is chimerical, but the exterior world it sometimes describes is crass. “The aesthetic crimes of neon-signs and halogen beamed their bath-confessionals from the vacant sides of liquor store lots, gas stations, and, farther up in the distance, the sky-world of highway cross bridges, off ramp dining holes, and worn out truck stops. The hazy illuminations sank dusk into the ground the way pins and roofing nails tack bedsheets to crackhouse windows.” It sounds as if Charles Bukowski had suddenly been possessed by the spirit of Matthew Arnold. As if Dover Beach suddenly became Venice Beach, and the acerbic barfly a quixotic scholar gypsy. As if they could somehow be both, in the same body.

One of the novel’s more seminal events occurs when the narrator is visited by female spirit during the night. Middleton’s prose turns purple with erotic intensity.

“You’re gentle to me,” she whispered, ethereal palms searched their way across my hips. Where do they rest in the moments where I am so taken? I emerged from beneath the blanket of her body which had been tossed on me from above. She crawled upon me and disrobed.

When the moonlight hit in gleaming silver, her back arched, blazoned; a slender line descending down into the center of her wet fire. “That line,” I said aloud. “O, that arched back is where I measure my despair!” It is the breaking back of us all that my hands slid down, along the liquid silver of night. From a distance, the far-off hill which I’ve departed rises, and with it my wish to return. But there she was, knelt above me, taking the fuck-drunk night’s perfumed air in through her open nostrils, … flushing her breasts with the sentiment of her sex and pushing them out into space,… her areolas fluttering and opening up,… budding, bee-ravaged stamens swaying in the fields,… nipples thick and crying for love,… for real teeth marks and red hand prints,… for the abusive cursive of force,… her thighs stung all over with it,… my eyes knifed by her beating tits, her falling chest,… our coming spirit fucks, body thrusts.

The narrator wakes to find the woman gone and his walls covered with poetry. With “black, cursive writing.” The narrator does not remember writing. Nor does the writing appear familiar. “It appeared as if a hundred voices had collided.” “But it was not me, I would never think in such a language, such terms, and I would certainly not scrawl my own tongue all over my own walls…”

And so begins a quest. A quest for the woman, a quest for the identity behind the strange, lunatic poetry, which he refers to as “the Voice within,“ and a quest for the everlasting secrets of the grave. Language, it has been said, always comes to us from elsewhere.

This is not Mickey Spillane. The narrator’s search begins not among mug shots but in the local library. Public registries, historical archives, consensus reports. It leads to the discovery a poet named Dallin, and a house address in the Northeastern Territory of, presumably, Canada. Dallin is, or was, married. His wife’s name was Aìsling. She was a painter. The name is Irish, and of Gaelic origin; it means “dream-vision,” or “vision-poem.” And so the course is set for the rest of the book. But the mystery becomes increasingly violent, murky, and macabre. The conflicts are phantasmal, but there is evidence of real physical suffering. Division between the real and unreal grows puzzling and vague. Underlying the narrator’s quest is an anxiety that his discovery will not be redemptive so much as catastrophic. A presentiment that the author is at once the agent of desolation, its harbinger, and its witness.

What I like best about this book is the notion that our largest adventures, our noblest conflicts, do not occur in the trenches of actual warfare or scaling, with frost-bitten fingers to the tops of Himalayan peaks, but occur within, are conflicts of self and soul, Eros and Thanatos.

“In looking at objects of nature while I am thinking,” observed Coleridge, “as at yonder moon dim-glimmering through the dewy window-pane, I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking for, a symbolical language for something within me that already and forever exists, than observing anything new.”

Saturday, July 3, 2010


The elevator is a form of transport. It is like an airplane transformed into a box, a cube of space enjoying a conversation with gravity.

Up and down and down and up and up and up and up and down and down and down and down.


What an astonishing forehead, you think, as the doors slide open and a woman stands inside holding a bag of potatoes.

Or an octopus hugging a grizzly bear.

Or Meg Ryan. Or the Rolling Stones. Or Dilbert. Or Ferdinand Magellan.

What is your notion of beauty? Mine is an elevator with mahogany panels and warm pink buttons on a shiny brass panel. Numbers inscribed in LED.

Elevators are curious public spaces. They become private and intimate for short durations when the doors close. They are like little theatres, tiny enclosed stage sets.

The elevator in Drive opens on a heavyset, tough looking man in a blazer. Driver (Ryan Gosling) and Irene (Carey Mulligan) step in. Driver spots the handle of a revolver under the man’s lapel and knows what he is there for: to kill them. Driver gently maneuvers Irene into the corner. He turns, kisses her passionately, then turns to the man just then pulling out his gun and smashes his head against the panel. He beats the man to the floor. The doors open and Irene recoils in horror as Driver continues kicking the man in a fury of rage and disgust, crushing the man’s head like a watermelon.

There is the lively scene in The Departed when Matt Damon and Vera Farmiga enjoy a sparkly repartee of brisk flirtation in a crowded elevator.

Elevator stops. Doors open. Farmiga gets off, expecting Damon to follow. “I’m one more up,” he says cockily. “Oh, fancy policeman,” she says. “Yeah, that’s right, fancy.” “Are you a statie?” “Yeah, I am,” he answers, catching the doors before they close, “I’m actually going to law school also.” “Suffolk, nights?” “Yeah, they don’t run Harvard at night, last time I checked.” “When’s the last time you checked?” “Before I went to fucking Suffolk.” “Okay, listen,” Farmiga says, turning around, worried that she insulted him, “I went to U Mass. I wasn’t insulting you.” “Well, I thought you were. So now you gotta buy me dinner.” “Maybe you can shoot someone and then see me professionally.” “I’ll stab someone in the heart with a fucking ice pick if it gets me dinner with you.”

Or Jim Kerry, in Fun With Dick And Jane, when, after his coworkers gradually disembark from the elevator in the tall corporate headquarters building, he ascends to the top floor to accept his new position as vice president of Communications for Globodyne, he sings “I Believe I Can Fly,” hesitant at first, a timid tremor in his voice, then bursting out in passionate lunatic zeal, “I believe I believe I believe.”

Or Ving Rhames and Brendan Gleeson in Dark Blue, two police officials who despise one another. Rhames, Assistant chief of the LAPD, a decent man of high moral character, and Gleeson, the self-satisfied and totally corrupt police Commander who is mastermind of a cover-up involving multiple murders, stand, hands clasped, alone together when the elevator doors close.

“Sailboats,” says Gleeson calmly, but with menace, “I don’t understand them. I prefer a big boat with a big motor on a big lake behind a big dam. How about you, Arthur? You a motor or sail guy?” “I don’t like boats,” says Rhames, “and I don’t like you.”

The wait in the hall is one of anticipation. Sometimes frustration, sometimes a calm interlude in a busy day. We wait for a light to light up or a bell to ding. The up arrow to light up. Or the down arrow to light up.

Sometimes it is a moment of confusion. Does that light mean up or down? Which elevator is going up? Is that the one with all those people? Or is it that other one that’s completely empty?

We board. The doors close. We look at the panel. Numbers, sometimes with letters, ‘p,’ for parking, or ‘l,’ for lobby. Or does the ‘p’ stand for plaza? Or the ‘l’ for lavish, or lullaby, or lithia water, or living wage.

There are more than five senses. There is also the sense of seceding from gravity. Of flowing upward into the sky. Aboard a box. A box within a box. A box within a box within a city within a country within a continent. A point in time and space. Rising, rising, rising into the sky. Where God and his angels look down in pity at the world and its hustle and bustle. Up and up and up and up. A slow ascension of smooth steady support beneath our feet, numbers lighting up on a burnished brass panel, up and up and up.

Or down and down and down we return in a slow measured descent to the lobby. The cold hard lobby of marble and stainless steel that feeds into the street. The city and its daily complexities. The city and its crowded sidewalks and meters and zones and syndicates and sins. Its gazillion details and pigeons and delirious alcoholics and beautifully tailored lawyers and people embracing and people racing to catch a bus and people people people.

When they're not functioning as mini-theatres in the movies, elevators are chapels of calm. The calamities of life are given a momentary respite. This is where people talking on cell phones become especially obnoxious. The calm is desecrated. The spell is broken.

A book has many of the same features as an elevator. It can take us up in thoughts of high exaltation or down in gloom and desolation. Up in learning, down in unlearning. Up in adjectives, down in nouns. Up in ideas, down in silly diversion.

Nonfiction currents are slow, but deep and reflective. The currents of fiction are rapid and rousing.

Elevators, like books, can be opened or closed with minimal effort. And elevators, like books, are contained dramas, wood-paneled chapels of chance concentration, transient encounters of hushed conversation.

Elevators are choreographed by counterweight and cable. Books are choreographed by sentence and phrase.

Elevators have gears and pulleys. Books have words and grammar. Elevators are floors and doors. Books are forests and metaphors.

When we open a book we encounter a wilderness of words. When elevator doors slide open, we encounter a frieze of faces.

When we enter an elevator we invest it with our trust. When we enter a book we invest it with our time.

What would Euclid say of the elevator? He would say that it is a theatre of geometry. A machine for providing the drama of up and down.

What drama does not involve going up and down? People do not go sideways in a drama. They go up and down. Otherwise there is no drama. There is only monotony. The monotony of the horizontal.

The skeleton lives in a house of muscle and bone. The cabbage climbs into itself. The elevator is a mechanical correlation to the breviaries of hope. The psalms of the vertical. The cables dancing in the shaft.

Pulleys pull the elevator up and down. It is a stratagem of balances and counterbalances. Traction steel ropes wrapped around sheaves.

When you rotate the sheave, the ropes move too. An electric motor turns the sheaves one way and the elevator rises. The motor turns the other way, and the elevator descends.

The ropes are also connected to a counterweight. The counterweight conserves energy. With equal loads on each side of the sheave, it only takes a little bit of force to tip the balance one way or the other.

The system is just like a see-saw. Both the elevator car and the counterweight ride on guide rails along the sides of the elevator shaft. The rails keep the car and counterweight from swaying back and forth, and they also work with the safety system to keep you from plummeting to the ground if something goes wrong.

And what would that feel like? That sudden plummet.

Something snaps. Gives way. And you and the elevator fall. Straight down. Until the safeties kick in and brings the hurtling death trap to a stop. You are jerked, fall to your feet, maybe hurt your back. But you’re alive.

Safeties are braking systems on the elevator car that grab onto the rails running up and down the elevator shaft. Some safeties clamp the rails, while others drive a wedge into notches in the rails. The safeties are tripped by a counterweight overspeed governor.

Or possibly a group of screaming people.

Has anyone ever gotten married in an elevator?

The elevator is small, like a chapel, and modest. There is sometimes a mirror, but most often the interior is geared toward decorum. Wood paneling and thick red carpets. Brass doors. Shiny buttons.

A heated argument seems unthinkable in such a space. And because it is in movement, no one feels trapped. We can get off at such and such a floor. We can ride it to the top, or perhaps to the basement, where the janitor keeps his mops, and buckets, and calendar, and empire.

It is the elevator that made the city’s skyscrapers possible.

But it began with steel. Bessamer steel. A lightweight steel with great strength and flexibility.

The world’s oldest working elevator is in a Potbelly sandwich shop in Washington, D.C. The shop used to be a furniture store. Litwin’s Furniture. Mr. Litwin used the elevator to move furniture around. Now it languishes in a plexiglass case erected by the Smithsonian Institution. So it really no longer works. But you can get a good sandwich and gaze into it with a flashlight.