Thursday, April 28, 2011

During Times Of Stress

During times of stress I like to imagine myself in a spaceship. I sit at a dashboard, the lights blinking, gleaming, glowing in red and blue and yellow. The way lights on a dashboard shine when you’re driving at night, say in the southwest, a gazillion stars overhead that become dizzingly apparent each time you stop for a rest, or to relieve yourself.

Of course, as soon as I realize that, unlike a car, I would not be sitting at the controls of a spaceship, unless I was strapped in. I would most likely being floating around, like the astronauts at the space laboratory. Some rock ‘n roll classic plays, Maggie Mae, Nights In White Satin, Good Morning by the Beatles, and the president calls and says he is proud of them as they twist and turn and their hair floats and they all grin broadly, sober, mathematically inclined astronauts with engineering degrees.

That ruins my spaceship fantasy. So I think of swans instead. Wild swans on a lake at night. Slowly, languidly gliding, heads tucked under their wings.

Too pre-Raphaelite, I think. I need something else.

Roberta draws to relieve stress. Her drawings are amazing. No way could I draw like that. And I inherited my father’s aptitude for drawing.

When I was 8 years old I got a tremendous crush on a girl in my third grade class named Cathy. The name had significance because I had just seen Wuthering Heights on TV, the one with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, and even though I was only 8, I identified completely with Heathcliff, especially as he strode out onto the moor shouting for Cathy. My dad was an illustrator by profession. Cathy liked horses. I asked my dad if he could teach me how to draw horses. He taught me how to draw horses and I began producing drawing after drawing of horses, which I presented proudly to Cathy. She received these gifts gratefully, though nothing like a romance developed. I was 8. I had not yet learned the equitation of romance.

I have a lot of movies going on in my skull. They come in handy during times of stress. Hard Day’s Night. Dances With Wolves. Heat. It Could Happen To You. Raising Arizona. Mulholland Drive. Help. Alien. Red River. The Searchers. Henry V. Hamlet. Open Range. The Matrix. Unforgiven. Rain Man. Notting Hill. Green Card. Groundhog Day. The Last Of The Mohicans.

My head is a jumble. Everything gets jumbled in my skull. Clint Eastwood gets mixed up with Shakespeare. Hamlet carries a navy revolver. John Wayne delivers soulful soliloquys.

The best movies, sometimes, are the movies I make up. Visiting a house after someone has died. The creaks in the floorboards. The smell of bread and coffee. The hallways empty. The echoing of a realtor’s voice pointing out the highlights of the house.

My first memory is a movie: John Wayne wrestling an octopus. The movie was Wake Of The Red Witch. 1948. I must have been one, or two. Is that possible? I remember my father carrying me into the theatre in his arms. The theatre was packed. And silent. Everyone’s eyes were riveted on the screen as John Wayne wrestled an octopus, those slithering arms, bulbous head, the flash of a knife, a cloud of blood, John Wayne floating to the surface, exhausted, spent, his back arched as though being lifted to heaven.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Home Sweet Home

I like this planet. I really do. For starters, it’s round. True. All planets are round. This seems to be a fundamental law of the universe. No one has yet reported a square planet. Or a rectangular planet. Or an octagonal or triangular or polyhedral planet.

It’s not strictly a matter of shape. The planet has water and clouds. How can anyone not fall in love immediately with water and clouds? How can anyone not love water? Aside, of course, from somebody drowning. Or clouds. What is there not to like about clouds? They drift. They change shape. They drop water on the ground. They curl around mountains and trees and make everything lush and wet and beautiful.

The Internet has made the world much smaller. Mostly in a good way. You can go on Facebook and be friends with people in Iceland and Egypt. Though it is arguable what the quality of that relationship may be, it’s nice to write someone in Cameroun and get an immediate response. A response that, in some beautifully serendipitous way, brings you to the real Cameroun.

And as you look down from your window seat on your way to Cameroun, you can see the folds and ripples and rivulets of the planet, its crinkles and wrinkles, glittering lakes and opulent fields, and abstracted like that you cannot see the fine, exquisitely balanced ecology of these things, and so your worries of environmental depredation are momentarily abated. I believe that was the allure of the movie Up In The Air. Up in the air, you aren’t connected to anything. In reality, you are: the bolts, operation, and structural integrity of the plane on which you are moving through the air. But the illusion is sweet. The illusion of being high, in an abstract place, where your only worries are how to get to the bathroom by stepping on the fewest toes. Or making conversation with the person sitting next to you. Or trying to get your plastic bag of nuts open without smacking that person in the face when you lose your grip and your arm goes flying.

It’s easy to be cordial to people with whom your relationship is only going to last five to ten hours. Maybe a tad longer, if you’re headed to Australia, or Fiji. But the upshot is its blithe temporariness. You can like almost anyone within a prescribed timeframe. Or pretend to like someone within a prescribed timeframe.

Although the confines of your seat and the plane itself rather dictate a policy of amenability. What a shame such courtesies cannot be extended on the ground. Where there is seemingly much more room, but the actuality is a little more harsh. There is not that much room. And the planet is round. Meaning everything rebounds. Bounces back to you one way or another. If you’re an industrial tycoon blowing the tops off West Virginia mountains, one day it will affect you. Or your children. It is inevitable. The air you breathe. The water you drink. All affected. Poisoned. Too bad tycoons don’t get this. If they did, they wouldn’t be blowing the tops off West Virginia mountains. Or building nuclear reactors on notorious fault lines.

And although our apartment is really small, there is room for Shakespeare and Proust and Paul Celan. Jack Keroauc and Michael McClure. Philip Lamantia and Edgar Allan Poe. Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. André Breton and Tristan Tzara. For the coffee table, which Roberta’s brother built in high school, in woodshop, and is solid as a Swiss bank vault. For the refrigerator and all of its odd noises.

For all our implements of hygiene, toothpaste, brushes, shampoo, balms and lotions, razors and combs, tweezers and nail clippers and hair dryer and towels.

For the TV, which is becoming increasingly useful as Seattle’s movie theaters shut down. And TV5, which brings us France, and Marie Drucker. Thalassa, Le grande librairie, and Des racines and des ailes.

For Matisse on the wall, and Magritte and Man Ray and Peggy Murphy.

For Toby, our cat, who sleeps under the gooseneck lamp on the table by the window. Where I look out, and see that it is raining, and that there are splots of raindrops on the blue shingles of the house next door, and the fronds of the ferns tremble just enough to register a lightness of breeze.

How can you not love this planet? It’s the jewel of our solar system. And the apple of my eye.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Frankenstein Meets Wittgenstein

Three Sea Monsters, poetry by Tod Thilleman
Spuyten Duyvil, 2011

Monsters are anomalies of ferocity and size, beings whose grotesque appetites and malformations run wild and contrary to the harmonies of nature. Their scales, claws, fangs and wings terrify and fascinate. We flee them, but are drawn to them. We chase them with pitchforks and torches, but revere and worship them. Sometimes we create them. Give them being and life with our own perversions and resources. We defy gods. Government. The natural order. We put them in museums. Feel them lurk in our emotions, seeking egress and expression. Turn them over in our minds, absorbed in their terrible beauty, their exhilarating ability to exist outside the bounds of intelligibility.

“One aspect of the monster concept,” observes Stephen T. Asma in his book On Monsters: An Unnatural History Of Our Worst Fears, “seems to be the breakdown of intelligibility. An action or a thing is monstrous when it can’t be processed by our rationality, and also when we cannot readily relate to the emotional range involved.”

Sea monsters are particularly alluring. This is due, in large measure, to the magnitude and mystery of their medium. There is something monstrous about oceans; the recent tsunami that devastated a major chunk of Japan’s geography is testament to its ruthless force.

“Off a Bermudan island in 1930,” writes Asma, “William Beebe and Otis Barton witnessed swarms of bioluminescent creatures -- transparent eels, shrimp, and nightmarish fish -- and giant shadowy figures looming just outside the range of their spotlight. They could descend only a fraction of the actual sea depth, but when asked to describe the receding waters below them, Beebe said that the abyss ‘looked like the black pit-mouth of hell itself.’”

Tod Thilleman’s Three Sea Monsters plies the waters of the eccentric and grotesque, the aberrant and unnatural. Prodigies of jelly. Miracles of breath. The flora and fauna of tropical imagination.

It is not strictly a matter of theme. It is also a matter of style. Thilleman’s hybrid creations of poetry and prose combine exposition with a welter of epistemological mania; his ardent exploration of human consciousness and its representation in sign and design revels in verbal extravagance. His sentences unravel in long, energetic yaws of deviating play. Words crackle with Van de Graaff simulations of the human sensorium. One can feel the energy of struggle and investigation in his words: “Image can contain the or any meaning,” he observes in “Notes On The Matter Within Three Sea Monsters,”

knowledge, understanding, ideation. What has happened since experimental ‘inductive’ art movement(s) in American letters gained momentum is the attendant reality of the impossibility of any idea. If idea is only and always its coming forth with and into Being, in Being’s shining forth (that elevation) then it has done so without poetry simply because the growing centrality of image as a kind of automatic application of ideation has become the mainstay of ‘meaning.’ What does a word SYMBOLIZE? In the round of one day it symbolizes at the level of one day.

Thilleman alludes, throughout, to names associated with vision, mythology, linguistics, and dream: Carl Jung, Ludwig Wittgenstein, William Butler Yeats, Saul Kripke, Ezra Pound, and - especially - Ernest Fenollosa.

I had to look Saul Kripke up. I had never heard of this guy. Here is what Wikipedia had to say:

Saul Aaron Kripke (born November 13, 1940) is an American philosopher and logician. He is a professor emeritus at Princeton and teaches as a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center. Since the 1960’s Kripke has been a central figure in a number of fields related to mathematical logic, philosophy of language, philosophy of mathematics, metaphysics, epistemology, and set theory. Much of his work remains unpublished or exists only as tape-recordings and privately circulated manuscripts. Kripke was the recipient of the 2001 Schock Prize in Logic and Philosphy. A recent poll conducted among philosophers ranked Kripke among the top ten most important philosophers of the past 200 years.

Kripke has made influential and original contributions to logic, especially modal logic, since he was a teenager. Unusually for a professional philosopher, his only degree is an undergraduate degree from Harvard. His work has profoundly influenced analytic philosophy, with his principal contribution being a metaphysical description of modality, involving possible worlds as described in a system now called Kripke semantics. Another of his most important contributions is his argument that there are necessary a posteriori truths, such as “Water is H2O." He has also contributed an original reading of Wittgenstein, referrred to as “Kripkenstein.” His most famous work is
Naming and Necessity (1980).

Most readers of contemporary poetry will be familiar with Ernest Fenollosa. Fenollosa’s seminal essay, “From The Chinese Written Character As A Medium for Poetry,” is the second essay in Donald Allen’s and Warren Tallman’s The Poetics of The New American Poetry, following Walt Whitman’s letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ezra Pound, who provided many of the footnotes for Fenollosa’s essay, was hugely influenced by Fenollosa’s emphasis on image and metaphor. “You will ask,” writes Fenollosa,

how could the Chinese have built up a great intellectual fabric from mere picture writing? To the ordinary Western mind, which believes that thought is concerned with logical categories and which rather condemns the faculty of direct imagination, this feat seems quite impossible. Yet the Chinese language with its peculiar materials has passed over from the seen to the unseen by exactly the same process which all ancient races employed. This process is metaphor, the use of material images to suggest immaterial relations.*

The asterisk refers to a footnote by Ezra Pound at the bottom of the page: “Compare Aristotle’s Poetics: ‘Swift perception of relations, hallmark of genius.’”

The universe is alive with myth, Fenollosa observes elsewhere. Thilleman’s concern with mythology is acute. “I have set these poems around an appropriation of myth,” he writes, “working in a similar pattern attained by earlier ‘interpreters.’” He argues that mythology provides humanity with a “mode of seeing” “inherent in the creation of time itself,” and provides an excerpt from Anne Birrell’s Chinese Mythology: An Introduction, alluding to it as the “core translated source” for Three Sea Monsters:

Ancient China had no Hesiod, Homer or Ovid to retell the mythic oral tales at length. Instead, Chinese writers introduced fragmentary passages of mythic stories into their works of philosophy and history to illustrate their arguments and give authority to their statements. Chinese myth thus exists as an amorphous, diffuse variety of anonymous archaic expression that is preserved in the contexts of philosophical, literary and historical writings. They are brief, disjointed and enigmatic. These mythic fragments incorporated into miscellaneous classical texts vary in their narration, and authors often adapted myth according to their own point of view. The result is that Chinese Myth survives in numerous versions, the content of which is broadly consistent, but which shows significant variation in the details. Whereas the reshaping of archaic oral Greek and Roman myths into an artistic form of narrative literature implies the loss of the authentic oral voice, the Chinese method of recording mythic fragments in a wealth of untidy, variable stories is a rare survival of primitive authenticity.

Thilleman reads into “primitive authenticity” an antidote to groupthink and tepid, stale MFA writing, i.e. accredited, indoctrinated, institutionalized creativity. “One needs a certain bravery mixed with foolishness in order to tackle the totemic and seemingly omnipotent assumptions of this or any cultural landscape,” he remarks. He attests that his poetics is driven by five key impulses: “Temper, Hubris, Love (Fondness), Will and its direct co-conspirator, Joy.”

I find these discussions not a little curious since we live in a time bereft of mythology and poetic imagination. The movies have preserved some of that imagination, but there it has been cheapened to look like video games. Balls, whistles, programmed monsters whose digitalized forms, however impossibly muscled and sinewed, are fake, manufactured, electronic vomit disgorged from the corporate juggernauts devouring the world. They, the corporate giants, are the real monsters: Goya’s Saturn Eating His Children.

The United States has never really had its own mythology. It has borrowed from the Greek and Romans, or the stories of the Old and New Testaments of the Judeo-Christian bible, but has never produced a mythology that is uniquely American. Our tall tales and myths tend to revere public figures, quite generally rich and powerful men like Warren Buffet or Bill Gates. Ours is a highly materialistic culture. Rather than a Zeus hurling lightning bolts at a trireme on the choppy Aegean sea, angry over some mortal’s éclat of hubris, we have the young, geeky inventor Bill Gates amassing unthinkable amounts of wealth by obsessively tinkering with gadgetry, `a la Ben Franklin or Thomas Edison, unleashing his indispensible product to the world and manipulating the market with savage, sociopathic savvy. I would not be surprised to see a marble statue of Bill Gates scattering Monsanto seeds to the hungry mouths of sub-Sahara Africa like some modern-day Augustus Caesar.

Our messiahs do not self-sacrifice, lead the way to spiritual transcendence, or shield us from apocalyptic forces. They get rich and buy mansions in the Hamptons with 32 toilets and a fleet of sports cars in the warehouse sized garage. They do not protect us from the apocalypse. They are the apocalypse.

Thilleman’s Three Sea Monsters begins with four long poems: Jellfyfish, Catfish, Hugefish, and Soma. Each poem functions as a theater of oceanic space, enactments of incarnate moment, trembling articulations embodying a primordial energy in language. Thilleman uses sound and image -- image particularly -- to recreate the principles of creation itself, a palpable realization of life forms in pullulating interaction. Phrases appear to float, disconnect, then congeal in ventricle and shell. Soma, stoma, and stomach.

The jellyfish referenced in the first poem evoke images of those giant jellyfish inundating the waters off of Japan’s coast, a phenomenon freakish in number and size. These things are huge. Their stingers dangle in thick, translucent clusters, sickening to look at. Thilleman alludes to Medusa, “snakes in the hair / whorls of water-braid,” calls them “multitudinous gelatinous / Jejune ballooning portions of Earth disanimated.” He puns, says they are “Flambouyant,” sees comedy and tragedy aligned, tangled, as they generally are.

Catfish references Xibalba, the “place of fear,” or underworld, in Mayan mythology. He recounts the story of the twin brothers, Hunahpu and Xblanque, who were ballplayers, who go to play ball in Xibalba, but must survive a number of tests along the way. The gods of the Mayan underworld are treacherous, and mean to trick the brothers with one fatal ploy after another.

Hugefish employs what appear to be primordial Chinese ideograms. Thilleman weaves his text in and out through these symbols, retelling the tale of Kun Hugefish, a giant fish that becomes a bird, whose wings are so big they “are like clouds all over the sky.” The story of Kun Hugefish comes from the Daoist classic Zhuangzi, whose first chapter is called “Free and Easy Wandering.” One can easily see the appeal of such a creature to the poetic imagination. A being that begins in water, grows wings, and flies to the Lake of Heaven.

Soma references Vishnu, the Hindu god described as the “All-Pervading essence of all begins, the master of -- and beyond -- the past, present, and future… who supports, sustains and governs the Universe and originates and develops all elements within.”

Thilleman tells a story of Vishnu in fragments, abrupt, telegraphic shards of clay and claw and “soft blue-veined milchy udders.” My knowledge of Hindu mythology is shamefully limited, so I’m not entirely sure what is transpiring in this section. Thilleman talks about Vishnu assuming the form of a boar in order to have sex with the earth, sleeping “on the long Serpent Night,” a poet named Hiranyagarbha watching “swimmers in the river’s shining,” “Blue lotus blooming in all directions,” “demonic glory seekers,” “false shelters, righteous wounds,” “Chthonic Serpent-Demon dripping flat-liner, Gautama / Ananta the eternal the only one the matter the mind conceives.”

Quite fittingly for a book of poetry premised on monstrosity, Three Sea Monsters is large, disparate, and vigorously aberrant. Thilliman explores everything from semiotics to Eternal Will, Chinese characters to Jungian vision. What holds the book together is a faith in the primary forces of universal stories to twist objective assumptions about the knowable into deviant agons of slippery, mythopoetic being. The knowable is set adrift on a sea of shifting presuppostions, all tantalizingly buoyant, but equally unstable. The fullness of the mystery that is existence lurks many fathoms down in the sludge and steep abysses of the ocean floor.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Gross Beta

What do John Wayne, Dick Powell, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead and Pedro Armendáriz all have in common?

If you were to answer that all participated in one of the worst movies ever made, you would be partially right. But the correct answer is radiation poisoning.

The movie in question, The Conqueror, finished production in 1956 and was produced by Howard Hughes. The movie was so bad it wasn't shown until many years later, in the 80s, on TV. It starred John Wayne as the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan and Susan Hayward as the Tartar princess Bortai.

John Wayne as Genghis Khan? Not a brilliant casting choice. This movie was doomed from the get-go.

Exterior scenes for The Conqueror were filmed in St. George, Utah, 137 miles downwind of the United State’s government’s Nevada Test Site where numerous above-ground nuclear detonations occurred, including, in 1953, Operation Upshot-Knothole, a series of eleven nuclear test shots. That’s a lot of radiated dirt. Hughs shipped 60 tons of that dirt back to Hollywood so that the color would match the scenes filmed in California.

Cast and crew for The Conqueror totaled 220 people. By 1981, 91 had developed some form of cancer, and 46 had already died of the disease. And while it’s true that Wayne and Moorehead were heavy smokers, these statistics are fairly alarming.

But what the hell is radiation? Isn’t it just a form of energy? How can energy make you sick? Would watching The Conqueror make you sick? Probably. But not from radioactive dirt.

Living tissue consists of different types of atoms united by chemical bonds. Healthy functioning of these atoms depends upon their composition and structure. Ionizing radiation (particles or electromagnetic waves energetic enough to detach electrons from atoms or molecules), interferes with that functioning. It alters chemical bonds. Composition and structure are disrupted. Black, ugly, gooey tumors form. DNA molecules are scrambled into crackling illegibility. Cell reproduction ceases. Mutations occur. Giant 50 foot tall women crush Hondas and Cadillacs. But most people just flat out get sick and die.

Intense radiation will cause burns. I saw the burns on the arms and legs of those brave men that entered the Fukushima plant to try to get the coolants going and the wires untangled.

The flight distance from Tokyo, Japan to Seattle, Washington is 4,792 miles. I wish I could double that. Triple it. Hell, I wish I could move to Mars.

Elevated amounts of radioactivity have been discovered in French and Massachusetts milk. We now live in world where distances cease to matter. Anyone who has dropped acid, eaten psilocybin mushrooms or peyote knows that everything in the universe is interconnected. This is especially true on our little blue and white planet. Not just cosmically true, scientifically true.

The day-to-day, minute-by-minute leakage occurring at the Fukushima nuclear power plants will affect all living creatures. Which is why I, and I’m sure thousands of other people, are all wondering the same thing: when the hell are those smarty-pants scientists going to stop it? And whose idea was it to build a nuclear power plant right next to the goddam ocean on one of the most geologically unstable countries of the planet?

Nor do I feel at rest hearing that General Electric built those plants.

This kind of anxiety is weird. Because you can’t see radiation. It’s not like the smoke and flames of an oncoming forest fire, or people hacking and coughing and sneezing because they’re down with a virus. A virus is invisible, too, but there are evident signs of it affecting the human body. Who knows what the cancer and leukemia and birth defect statistics are going to be ten years from now? How much more abbreviated will my life, or the life of my wife, or cat, or the neighbor upstairs be because TEPCO couldn’t get a handle on their nuclear catastrophe?

And how is it that a brilliant scientist capable of writing all those mystifying symbols on a blackboard or figuring out the fundaments of matter can go along with something as monumentally dumb as using nuclear fusion to boil water? Or build one of these plants on the frigging coast, like the ones in California, Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo and the San Onofre in San Diego, both aging, both smack dab next to the surf lapping the sand of numerous fault zones?

The mind boggles.

Lately, I have begun checking radiation levels just as I check the weather each day. I go to a special site developed by the Washington State Department of Health that has been daily monitoring gross beta levels in the air. They update the information each day at 3 p.m. They also assure worried people such as myself that there is no real health risk. “Several factors,” they say, “play a role in protecting us from the release of radiation occurring at the damaged reactors in Japan:”

Most of the radioactive material is contained at the damaged plants; there does not appear to have been any large release to the upper atmosphere. The trace amounts of radioactive material that have reached Washington are not in concentrations high enough to cause a health risk.

The fires and explosions at the Japanese reactors have not been as intense as the 1986 Chernobyl incident. Radioactive material ejected into the jet stream from Chernobyl reached Washington in small amounts. Even after the Chernobyl disaster, protective action was not needed in our state, and the Japan incident is much smaller than Chernobyl.

Even if radioactive material is released in Japan and reaches the jet stream in larger quantities, only very small amounts would be carried the 5,000 miles from Japan to our state. In the time it would take to cross the Pacific, the material would be diluted as it’s blown in the wind. Rain would also wash some of the material from the air into the ocean.

Radioactive decay, especially for short half-life radioactive materials such as iodine-131, would substantially reduce the amount of the radioactive material that could reach here.

For these reasons, it’s unlikely that we will see an increase in background levels of the normal radiation found in Washington. The small amounts of radiation that have reached us from Japan have been well below levels that would pose public health concerns.

This information is reassuring. And I wish I could believe it. But frankly, I don’t know what to believe anymore.

Today’s gross beta reading (radioactive decay emits beta particles) is 11.

I don’t know what that means. 11 doesn’t sound bad. Not that it would make any difference if it was 12, or 13, or 172.

It’s not like there’s anywhere else to go.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Some Particulars Pertaining To My Life On Planet Earth

The park offers serenity and grass. Coffee tastes of clairvoyance and rain.

I do push-ups. My wife decorates cakes.

Once I owned a pair of beautiful gloves. They warmed my hands and inclined toward music. They were so beautiful that surrealism evolved a new form of neck and haberdashers worldwide sensed a new form of meat in the air.

Our stove is old but the burner bowls are new. The old ones had holes in them. The new burner bowls were hard to find. We looked all over the internet. We finally found some at Sears.

The planet orbits a corpulent yellow sun and wobbles on its axis creating four seasons: horrible, less horrible, velvet, and so-so.

I work on a farm with Guillaume Apollinaire. I have grown feathers. There are feathers all over my body. I constantly itch.

The air is heavy. The rain comes and goes.

The mirror in the bathroom is large and honest. A bathmat hangs from a chrome bar on the shower door. It has a light blue background and a motif of arabesques and flowers rendered in white. One of the edges is frayed. White threads in impish dishevelment.

There is a large pitcher and washbowl on the bureau that once belonged to my grandparents in North Dakota. It’s porcelain and very, very white. I used to think it was a ghost when I spent the night on my grandparent’s farm and saw it glowing in the dark while the weather vane creaked on the roof and branches of a nearby sycamore scraped the wall. There is a pair of earphones and a flyer for the Columbia Tower sticking out of the bowl.

I am comfortable in my life. More or less. But then, I don’t know any other life. I would have to live it to tell you how it feels.

The city we inhabit is rich, restless, and ruthless. My private life is perforated, huckleberry, and hyperbolic. My public life is mindful, chalky, and subterranean. Together, they create a feeling of awkward duplication. For example, it would be more agreeable to indulge a celestial ductility than grovel in fruitless subjunctives.

I need some fingernail polish for retouching the corner of the wall by the door in the bathroom where it was scratched by carpet layers maneuvering a roll of carpet into the bedroom. You can hardly see it, but it bugs me. I hoped to find the paint that I used to paint the bathroom when we cleaned out the utility closet under the stairwell. I thought I had saved a pint, but apparently not. Hence, fingernail polish. I don’t want to buy a full pint.

The most perfect abstraction is horses.

Most of the time, I am clean shaven. I grew a beard once when I was in my thirties. It didn’t feel right. My mouth felt like a hole in a forest of hair. Nor did I feel comfortable sporting such an evident sign of masculinity. I prefer presenting to the world the mordant and alienated look of a clean shaven Charles Baudelaire. Being nothing in front of no one.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Letting Go

There is a saying in AA I like that goes “Let go let God.” And even though I don’t believe in God, or at least a monotheistic supreme being who looks like a cross between Fabio and Walt Whitman staring at a butterfly on his finger, I still feel good when I hear that phrase spoken.

It means nonattachment.It means the world flows. It means the green mountains are always walking and the eastern mountains travel on water. Letting go means the mind as it is in itself is free from ills. If from the Mind arises this world, why not let the latter rise as it pleases? Or, for that matter, fall apart.

Letting go means letting go.

Letting go of the radioactive waste spilling into the ocean from the shattered Fukushima nuclear plants. Letting go of the sociopathic bastards on Wall Street and Obama’s cabinet. Letting go of Tea Party wackos who want to put a summary end to the social services that keep them and their grandmothers and children and crazy uncle Fred in his ramshackle Topeka mobile home fed, warm, clothed, medicated, and educated.

Letting go of the soulless corporate CEOs who want to kill higher learning and replace it with competition and meaningless tests.

Letting go the West Virginia mountaintops getting blasted into eternal annihilation. Letting go of the stumps and barren slopes that were once the Amazon rainforest. Letting go of the oily goop suffocating the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico deposited by 4 million gallons of British Petroleum crude.

Letting go of the fact that not one person was arrested for the Deep Horizon disaster, or the collapse of financial institutions on Wall Street. While 15 million people languish in jail for possessing marijuana.

Letting go of the rape, pillage, murder, torture and horror that is war.

Letting go of everything that makes me mad, frustrated, impotent, and depressed.

Why worry? Why care? What is the point of that? Wouldn’t it be great to sit back and watch as it all crumbles and realize right down to the marrow in your radiated bones that there was nothing you could do?

To worry about something is like trying to solve a math problem by chewing gum.

Or so I’ve heard it said.

Letting go is different from not giving a damn. You still care. You still have feeling for the things and people that are being destroyed, or destroying themselves. It is the simple recognition that you are not in control. Of anything. Except yourself.

Letting go does not mean surrendering to futility, or giving in to those darkly thrilling nihilistic impulses that sometimes awaken in the blood after a few shots of tequila and a line of pure Bolivian coke. It does not mean (although it is tempting) that since you do not have control over the things and people enmeshed in destructive behavior, to join in on the havoc and fun and buy a Hummer, load it with cases of Jack Daniels, and going fishing with sticks of dynamite lobbed into the local pond. Or draw the curtains, kick back, and watch war porn and Glee until the bank kicks you out onto the street. Or go about your business in a Brooks brothers suit making gobs of money by manipulating the market or shuffling fraudulent mortgages or denying health insurance coverage to somebody’s leukemic kid.

Letting go does not mean giving in. Entering the domain of the amoral and apathetic. That’s a dull, stultifying, brain-numbing place to be. A swamp of fetid, miasmic rot. Dead bloated dogs. Rats big as terriers. Sinister boot-swallowing muck. Things may look sweet and manageable on the outside, but inside, you are dark water under a coat of shit-brown algae.

I’m not sure what letting go would ultimately mean. But I do love that speech George Clooney gives in Up In The Air in which he takes all those imaginary items - house, car, marriage, relatives, job - out of his backpack and invites you to feel the lightness of that. Every time I hear that speech I feel a little giddy.

Impotence is not inevitable. There are options available. One can join, say, Chris Hedges and Ray McGovern as they chain themselves to the White House fence to protest Obama’s wars in Iraq and Aghanistan and now Libya, get arrested, cuffed, shoved into a police van, and spend the night in jail hoping you don’t get shuffled off to a black site when no one is looking.

“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” observes Thoreau, rather grimly, in his essay “Civil Disobedience.”

Civil Disobedience is not incongruous with the idea of letting go. It is not incompatible with having, and exercising, a conscience. One can let go of worry, feelings of impotence, take the high road, and do something noble and altruistic to fight corruption, tyranny, and evil, even though you will not see positive results within your lifetime.

Which means you will have to let go of ambition, self-aggrandizement, or any notion of heroic action that will have the dramatic impact that is the stuff of cinema and Shakespeare.

Civil disobedience is a private and unheralded act with highly uncertain results. But it is better than armed rebellion. Revolutions usually end in rubble, heads tumbling into baskets, and another form of tyranny.

The words conscience and consciousness are so similar they must be intermingled. And not just semantically. “Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded?,” asks Thoreau. “Through this wound a man’s real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.”

I do not envy the life of the sociopath. Being without a conscience means being without feeling. Empty of everything that makes life rich and meaningful. Including, I guess, worry. Anxiety. Which brings me back to square one. The idea of letting go. And letting God. Which I take to mean fate. Destiny. Kismet. Karma. Throw of the dice.

Or that divine essence, whatever it may be, holding the universe together and imbuing the consciousness of living beings with a sense of awe, and caring.

How do you let that go?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Allen Ginsberg Phones Me From The Dead

Last night Allen Ginsberg phoned me from the dead.

How are you, I said.

I’m dead, he said.

What is it like being dead?

It’s nice being free of the timeless sadness of existence. But I miss bon bons, the flowerness of any given moment, and Japanese lampshades. What’s it like up there, in the world of the living?

Same old same old, I said. Endless war. Three wars, in fact. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Four, if you include Pakistan. Our roads are going to hell. The Pentagon sucks up trillions of American dollars and pours them down in the form of bombs. Shitty electrocuting showers. Feculent bottled water. Privately contracted thugs. People are hungry. There’s an ad on the radio asking people to donate food. You never know, the family next door might be going hungry. Poverty is pandemic. 42 percent of financial wealth is controlled by the top 1 percent. 37 million Americans are on food stamps. I miss your voice, Allen. You were always a force for the good.

That’s nice of you to say. I wish I could be there, too. But frankly, I like being dead. It’s like being high on laughing gas. The universe is a void, in which there is a sweet dreamhole. It’s the instant of going into or coming out of existence. But here, here among the permanently dead, the permanently non-existent, one is free of the sadness of birth, the sadness of changing from dream to dream. Can you dig this?

Yes, my time is coming. One thing though. If you no longer exist, who am I talking to?

You are talking to your imagination of me.

Oh yeah. That makes sense. I can dig that. Anything you miss about being alive? You know, like food, flowers, walking around in a body?

Well, sex obviously. The wiggle and play of my cock. Autumn gold. Wet glaze on an asphalt street. Holy sunlight. The great crystal door to the House of Night. Eyeball kicks on storefronts. The gaiety of tables in flirty restaurant rowdiness. The vast lamb of the middleclass. The crazy shepherds of rebellion. The rich rank smell of old apricots under October leaves. The breath in my nose. Auto lights in the rain. Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown visions. My books piled up before me for my use. My texts, my manuscripts, my loves.

Have you seen Jack or Neal? Are they there? John Lennon? John Keats? Shelley? Janis Joplin? Shakespeare? Christ?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re all here. Everybody’s here. But not in the way you think. The human personality is, after all, a very ephemeral thing at best. People die all the time and reinvent themselves. One way or another, dead or alive, it all comes down to yearning. There is yearning all over the universe. The universe is a universe of yearning. Not even the human imagination satisfies the endless emptiness of the soul.

So what is the difference between life and death?

Death is larger and larger loops. The dull sleep of idealistic brains. Life is work and frenzy. Insults and smalltalk. Threats and dollars. Thick men in dark hats. Wall Street cashmere hiding iron muscles of money.

That doesn’t sound so good.

Well, money was always a problem. Even in death I still think about it. And remember. This is a me imagined by you. You are in the realm of money. Hairy buttocks and brainwaves. Abandoned buildings gutted and blackwindowed from old fires. And you’re lifting lines of poetry from my big red book of Collected Poetry. Aren’t you?

Yes, it’s true. You got me. But tell me. What are ghosts?

Ghosts are animal trumpets below the abdomen. Visceral sensations of acute loss. Leaving us flying like birds into time. In and out of time. When you’re dead, time ceases to exist. I miss the tick of clocks. The elegant joke of Swiss cuckoos poking out to tell you it’s noon. Or three o’clock. Or the garbage truck at four backing up the driveway to take away crumpled plastic bottles and newspapers and pizza boxes with the cheese still stuck to the bottom. Ghosts are everywhere. They are the soot that falls on city vegetables. They are your own forlorn soul making itself at home in the void. They are your eyes weeping tears. Kennedy throat brain bloodied in Texas. That’s when the coup that took over America began you know.

Yes, I pretty much figured that was the case. Hey, guess what. Remember your pal Dylan? He’s coming up on 70. Can you believe that? Dylan as an old man? It’s a bit jarring to see that old jowly wrinkled face under a broadbrimmed cowboy hat. And those Texas swing jackets he’s taken to wearing are weird too. He performed in China last Tuesday. Just before Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei was arrested.

That must have been awkward. Did Dylan say anything?

Not that I know of.

Mmmm. Well, Dylan was always hard to figure.

I remember a movie in which you showed Dylan the grave of Jack Kerouac and said that’s where we all end up. Got any advice for me?

Sit down crosslegged and relax. Storm heaven with your mental guns. Don’t abuse the planet. Enjoy life. Prepare for death. Pogo to garage bands. Make haiku of birds.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Lettre de Seattle

Ma femme et moi avons été nourir une menagerie des petits animaux pour les derniers mois. Principalement écureuils, mais pas un peu d’oiseaux d’ailleurs, geais de Steller, muguets, moineaux, mésanges. Parfois, la nuit, nous verrons les ratons laveurs à notre fenétre, regardent vers nous avec une curiosité amusée.

Notre appartement est partiellement souterrain, de sorte que notre grande fenétre est de niveau avec le jardin et le trottoir. Notre chat aime assis sur le rebord de regarder tout se passe. Nous l’appelons “la television pour les chats.”

Hier, tout est arrivé à sa fin. Nous avons regardé une episode de Glee. Jane Lynch se mariait à lui-même quand il m’arrivait de regarder par la fenêtre et de voir un rat manger les grains que nous disperser pour les écureuils. Il était énorme.

J’ai pensé, d’abord, il pourrait être une opossum. Mias non, c’était un rat. “Uh oh,” j’ai dit. “Qu’est-ce que c’est”? m’a demandé Roberta. “Un rat.”

Roberta est sortie si vite que ma tête a pivoté. Elle est apparue sur le trottoir avec un grand sac en papier et une pelle et a commencé à creuser et à renverser la terre. Ainsi, une époque d’innocence et de l’intimité avec le monde de l’écureuil est venu à une fin abrupte.

Ce matin, comme je me préparais à faire un cours, j’ai vu l’un des écureuils me donner un regard de la stupéfaction. Je me sentais triste. J’ai dû resister à lui donner des aliments. J’espère que, pendant les mois que nous les a nourris, ils n’ont pas perdu leur capacité à trouver de la nourriture par leurs propres moyens.

Que les rats aillent se faire foutre!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Words Fail

Yesterday morning on La Revue de Presse Internationale presented by Cécile de Kervasdoué, a Japanese journalist was quoted as saying “I returned just now from an overdue trip in the northwest region of Japan… Never have I been witness to such extreme destruction… as if human life had been eradicated with a single blow. In the middle of a pile of debris there was a sewing machine, a wig, a little Buddhist temple with photos in it, a pair of glasses and a toilet bowl… everything within view was broken, ripped, twisted, damaged… all which served to remind me of the words of the Japanese novelist Takeishi Kaiko when he visted Auschwitz: ‘I had the impression that words had lost their meaning, as if they had become as useless as dead leaves.’”

“What a dreadful pretention,” the journalist continued, “to have believed that my eloquence and words could help these devastated people. There is such a profound gulf, so completely irreconcilable, between those who have survived a disaster and others such as myself who have only been witness.”

“I wept and I wept some more and could not finish weeping,” a woman confided to the journalist in the midst of a mountain of debris.

“I would love to find the words to comfort her," said the journalist, "but it’s impossible, totally impossible: words have lost their meaning!”

“We love the beauty of the obscure,” commented the Vanguardia of Barcelona. “It’s a tendency inherited from Romanticism, which loved the mythic tragedy; and it is the drive of our western poetry.”

“Poetry is the echo,” said Rabindranath Tagore, “of the melody of the universe in the human heart.”

“Except for today,” commented the Vanguardia, “there are fewer and fewer places for these words.”

There is too much noise in the world. Too much self-interest. Too much greed. Too much materialism. Too many brutalizing industries. Too many mind-numbing TV shows. Too many cell phones. Too many cars. Too many guns. Too many dictators. Too many demagogues. Too much propaganda. Too much poverty. Too much predation. Too much bullying. Too much rudeness. Too much careerism. Too much narcissism. Too much corruption. Too much dogmatism. Too much hypocrisy. Too much too much too much.

Not enough joy. Not enough delicacy. Not enough wet dreams. Not enough rebellion. Not enough pure glittering water. Not enough trees. Not enough wind power. Not enough curiosity. Not enough crazy lazy drifting. Not enough housing. Not enough solitude. Not enough huckleberry. Not enough prairie. Not enough Japanese flowering cherry.

Not enough whales. Not enough nails.

Too many jails.

Not enough birds. Not enough herds. Not enough words.

Too many words.

Keith Richards called Allen Ginsberg a windbag. I don’t think Allen Ginsberg was a windbag. I thought he was incredibly smart. I miss Allen Ginsberg.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Say What?!!

Many thanks to Robert Mittenthal for recovering this essay for me.

Death Of The Liberal Class, nonfiction by Chris Hedges
Nation Books, 2010

I have enormous respect for Chris Hedges. I look forward each Monday to his column at Truthdig and have read, thus far, two of his nonfiction books: Empire of Illusion: The End Of Literacy And The Triumph Of Spectacle, and Death Of The Liberal Class. His writing is forceful, lucid, cogent. His insights into the social and political malaise of the United States are stunning and razor-edged. A graduate of Harvard, he has had abundant experience as a journalist, having spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News, and The New York Times. He has won the Pulitzer, and was quoted at the beginning of the movie The Hurt Locker, from his bestselling book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning : “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”

Hedges, too, has become an addiction. At least since Reagan assumed office in 1980, I have had an unsettling feeling about living in the United States. I am quite positive I am not alone. Those of us in the middle class have felt under assault by an unregulated, predatory and corrupt corporate juggernaut and witness to the rapid erosions of benign government legislation designed to protect the poor, the environment, and education. One senses a profound, ubiquitous evil engulfing the globe with war, exploitation, and toxic nuclear waste. I need writers like Chris Hedges to explain the sources and perplexing behaviors of groups such as the Tea Partiers, Christian fundamentalists, devious, profit-grubbing corporate CEOs such as Tony Hayward or Jeffrey Immelt, who Obama recently appointed to head his outside panel of economic advisers. That’s like appointing the thug who just mugged you to be in charge of your retirement plan.

Obama is a mystery. I voted for him. Big mistake. The choice, once again, of the lesser of two evils, I knew Obama wasn’t a progressive, but a center-right, savvy politician, who would most likely support the kind of nefarious legislation Clinton signed into actuality when he was in office, noxious bills like NAFTA and the Telecommunications Act of 1996, but would, at the very least, end the insanely stupid wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the abysmal dark stain on humanity that is Guantanamo. I was wrong. Obama turned out to be way worse than Clinton. Worse, even, than Bush. Hard to believe. But there it is: increased militarism, more erosion of our civil rights, more torture and human rights abuses, and the biggest bank robbery in history. So much for Obama’s “change you can believe in.” Yeah, right.

It would seem countraindicated to read books on political science and contemporary culture when times are this evil. Why make yourself more miserable by dwelling in it? But that’s not at all how I look at it. If I had a mysterious disease, I would want to know as much about it as possible, in order to feel a modicum of hope and control, even if it meant an immersion in information with the potential to make me feel worse. And so I read Hedges, and many others: Ted Rall, Henry Giroux, Morris Berman, Naomi Wolf, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Lewis Lapham, James Kunstler and Howard Zinn. And listen to lots of progressive radio: Mike Malloy especially. Stephanie Miller and her pal Hal Sparks drive me crazy. They continue to be apologists for Obama. Hedges has a very strong and particular appeal because he has been a witness to war and genocide. He has seen this things up close. He saw the Balkans dissolve into sulfurous, bloody ruin. He knows what fascism looks like. He knows what seething, internecine hatred can do. But when I read, in Death Of The Liberal Class, that the core qualities of corporate capitalism (the cult of the self, political cynicism, hedonism, abandonment of the urban centers) were promoted, fueled, and nourished by the Beats, I about fell out of my chair.

Say what??!!

You’ve frigging got to be kidding.

Hedges draws much of his argument from a book by Lawrence Lipton titled The Holy Barbarians. I have not read this book. It could be there are more compelling arguments to be found in Lipton’s book that support the idea of hedonistic amorality in Beat culture leading to the kind of rampant consumerism infecting contemporary life, but the central charges that Hedges lists are wobbly and unconvincing. Here is an excerpt:

Lawrence Lipton, who wrote a book on the Beats called The Holy Barbarians, argued that the Beats “expropriated” from the upper classes their arts, sings, and “privilege of defying convention.” The Beats, like the Bohemians who populated Greenwich Village after World War I, also flaunted a self-indulgent hedonism that mirrored the ethic of the consumer culture. Lipton called this “the democratization of amorality.” The Beats in the 1950s aided the dissipation of the intellectual class by abandoning urban centers, where a previous generation of public intellectuals such as Jane Jacobs or Dwight Macdonald, lived and worked. They romanticized the automobile and movement. Russell Jacoby points out in The Last Intellectuals that the Beats had a peculiarly American “devotion to the automobile, the road, and travel, which kept them and then a small army of imitators crisscrossing the continent,” as well as a populist “love of the American people.” The Beats not only bolstered the ethic of consumption and leisure as opposed to work, but also they “anticipated the deurbanization of America, the abandonment of the cities for smaller centers, suburbs, campus towns, and outlying areas.”

This is patent nonsense. It sounds like Lipton and Jacoby are basing their arguments on a very shallow reading of Kerouac’s On The Road. Yes, speed and movement are a large dynamic fueling the excitement and lust for adventure and life experience at the heart of Kerouac’s seminal novel, but it has nothing whatever to do with consumerism or leisure or the avoidance of work. On The Road is a clean, open celebration of spontaneity and raw, immediate experience. It is ferociously anti-materialistic and celebrates the joys of a life unsullied by Babbitry and pedestrian ambitions. It offers a vision of life based on feeling and fellowship. There is a great deal of compassion, sympathy, and above all humanity in the lines of this wonderful novel. There is nothing in it remotely sympathetic to the kind of regimented, predatory, depersonalizing obduracy of the corporate mindset.

The corporate appetite is pure, unadulterated id. It is reptilian. It is driven solely by profit. By greed. By ruthless competition. It attacks and eats everything in its path that it can use to further its growth. It has more in common with a Tyrannosaurus Rex chomping on the neck of a hapless hadrosaur than the HOLY GOOFS and desolate angels of Kerouac’s books, mad with energy, covered with sweat and throbbing veins saying “Yes, yes, yes,” to everything life has to offer. If that’s consumerism, I want in.

Hedges does not begin with the beats in his criticism of artistic complaisance among the avant garde; he goes further back in time to the art-for-art movement of the belle epoch and dada and surrealism of the early 20th century. He criticizes these movements for turning away from the social injustices of the working class and indulging in a spectacle of Bohemian whimsy and sybaritic excess. “Artistic expression,” he writes, “soon became void of social purpose. It created, as [Malcolm] Cowley wrote, ‘the religion of art’ that ‘inevitably led into blind alleys.’”

I would counter that with something Michael McClure wrote in Scratching The Beat Surface: “For the artist or animal there is but one religion. At first glance it is simple. As simple as the animal (a sessile polyp or sea cucumber) or as complex as the animal’s nervous system – as with a dolphin, a panda, or a man. The religion is being itself.”

Hedges argument is an old one. I have heard it many times before. Art must shoulder its burden of social injustice, fight for the liberty and dignity of humankind, elevate the masses with its message of fairness and justice for all, or relinquish its title to integrity and virtue. If art refuses these distinctions, it is of no value. It is craven and decadent. It merely feeds the narcissistic vanities of the bourgeois, furthers the ambitions of the powerful elite.

I could not disagree more vehemently. This argument fails to recognize the reality of art. Its truest essence. Art, in order to be art at all, must first be free of any and all forms of utility. It becomes a political force by virtue of its own internal dynamic. “It refuses,” wrote Herbert Marcuse in his essay “Art as Form of Reality,” “to be for the museum or mausoleum, for the exhibitions of a no longer existing aristocracy, for the holiday of the soul and the elevation of the masses - it wants to be real.”

Being real means being autonomous. Being dangerous and quiet and seditious as the breath in a clarinet. Being detached from the empirical world in order to bring forth another world. Being liberal and beautiful as the black air in Maldoror. Thick and muscular as the tongue of an adrenalin tiger exploring a stick of incendiary henna. Lush as a daydream and twice as brash. Volcanic. Spiral. Soaked in infinity. A castle of milk groveling in arbitrary taffeta. Hot as veins and labial as a red rag bristling with beets. “Art is transcendent in a sense which distinguishes and divorces it from any 'daily' reality we can possibly envisage,” Marcuse further elaborates.

No matter how free, society will be inflicted with necessity - the necessity of labour, of the fight against death and disease, of scarcity. Thus, the arts will retain forms of expression germane to them - and only to them: of a beauty and truth antagonistic to those of reality. There is, even in the most 'impossible' verses of the traditional drama, even in the most impossible opera arias and duets, some element of rebellion which is still 'valid'. There is in them some faithfulness to one's passions, some 'freedom of expression' in defiance of common sense, language, and behaviour which indicts and contradicts the established ways of life. It is by virtue of this 'otherness' that the Beautiful in the traditional arts would retain its truth. And this otherness could not and would not be cancelled by the social development. On the contrary: what would be cancelled is the opposite, namely, the false, conformist and comfortable reception (and creation!) of Art, its spurious integration with the Establishment, its harmonization and sublimation of repressive conditions. Then, perhaps for the first time, men could enjoy the infinite sorrow of Beethoven and Mahler because it is overcome and preserved in the reality of freedom. Perhaps for the first time men would see with the eyes of Corot, of Cezanne, of Monet because the perception of these artists has helped to form this reality.

Lost Work

I lost my essay on Chris Hedge’s indictment of the beats and surrealists in his recent publication Death Of The Liberal Class[which has since been recovered, thanks to Robert Mittenthal, and reposted; see above]. I found a link that took me directly to the edit page at my blog, deleted my Hedge’s essay (“Say What?!!”), and pasted in a new posting. When I noticed after I had made my new post that the date had not changed, I realized my mistake. I hadn’t made a separate file for that essay, don’t know why, no excuse for that, and looked to see if it had been saved as an “edit”at the blog. It had not. It was gone.

I apologize to anyone that may have gone looking for it. Though the most important information in it were two excerpts from Herbert Marcuse’s essay, “Art As Form Of Reality.” That was really the heart of the essay.

Out of curiosity, I went looking on the internet for articles or information about lost manuscripts. I remembered reading somewhere that the poet Jackson MacLow, one of my favorite poets, had lost a manuscript on the New York subway. I have no idea how I would deal with such a loss. I hope that MacLow’s involvement in Buddhist philosophy proved of some benefit.

A Wikipedia entry titled (aptly) “Lost Work,” popped up immediately.

I was surprised at the number of lost manuscripts listed at the Wikipedia site. Not so surprised about the number of lost work from ancient Greece, but very surprised to see so much missing from the Old and New Testaments of the Judeo-Christian bible. Things I had never heard of: Book of Samuel the Seer, History of Nathan the Prophet, Acts of Uziah, Gospel of the Four Heavenly Realms, Gospel of the Seventy, Gospel of the Twelve, and the Secret Gospel of Mark, “written for an initiated elite.”

I have long had fantasies of the discovery of a steamer trunk or wooden box in Harar, Ethiopia or farm in the Ardennes containing poetry by Arthur Rimbaud. So I was surprised to see a listing for a lost notebook of poems that Arthur had, presumably, lent, or entrusted, to a schoolmate. I wonder if he worried that his mother would discover it, and so had entrusted it to his buddy, whose parents might be a little more liberal than Arthur’s stern mother.

I have also long had fantasies of biographical or - better yet - autobiographical work concerning Shakespeare. I did discover a listing for a lost play, Love’s Labour’s Won, presumably a sequel to Love’s Labour Lost. Also, an Ur-Hamlet, written by Thomas Kyd.

Another later play attributed to Shakespeare, The History of Cardenio, was known to have been performed by The King’s Men, a London theatre company, in 1613. It was attributed to William Shakespeare and John Fletcher in 1653 in a Stationer’s Register entry by the bookseller Humphry Mosley. Mosley, however, had falsely used Shakespeare’s name in other such entries, so the authenticity of this listing is dubious.

A lot of Incan quipu were destroyed by the louts that were the Spanish Conquistadores. The quipus, also called (wonderfully) “talking knots,” were recording devices which consisted of colored, spun, and plied thread or strings from llama or alpaca hair. Information was encoded by knots in a base ten positional system. Each quipu might have from a few to as many as 2,000 cords.

Speaking of conquistadores, there is also an interesting story about several missing pages in Herzog’s Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes. The pages were thrown from the window of a bus after one of Herzog’s football team-mates threw up on them.

Maybe the oral traditions got it right. You can’t lose something stored in your brain. Unless, of course, you lose your brain. Losing your mind is one thing, but losing your brain is another. The idea is to share your knowledge with other people. Pass it on. That way, nothing gets lost. Work is transmitted by tongue and ear. Far more reliable than pixel and paper.

Or talking knot.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Big Aluminum Door

Each time we open the big aluminum door to our storage space I get profoundly discouraged. So many boxes, so many books. How are we ever going to reduce it? I have more books than the library of congress. I was born long before laptops. Long before computers became household items like refrigerators and toasters. I won’t say buffalo were still roaming the prairie, but uniformed men operated elevators, gas was 15 cents a gallon and the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in a cave in Khirbet Qumran.

Today it’s early spring. Buds are beginning to burst. Leaves are beginning to appear. Tremors of green. I feel, I don’t know, old. But if I paddle through to the end of this paragraph and open the door I begin to feel differently a ship sails across the sky and a plaster lion falls out of the back of my mind. As you can see, I like to smear words across paper. I am Jackson Pollock. I am a pink towel on a chrome rack. I am an oasis for your tired eyes. I am a naked taxidermist reflected in the serene water of an indoor swimming pool full of incandescent fish. Fish that I have put there. With words. Yes, words. You can’t slam wool it’s too soft. And I don’t know what I’m saying I’m saying rejoice among the begonias. Let the world wade through your eyes.

Some emotions are too vague to describe with words. You have to use drums, or cash registers. There is a full spectrum of emotion in the human voice: use that. Sing. Hum. Murmur a strange deep reflection. Waves of revelation, like propositions of oil.

I hear a siren. I wish I had a siren. I love the color red. Especially when it spins around on my head and is unofficially violet.

The problems of existence burden the blood like sticks scattered among the ivy. This is why it’s good to act on impulse. Do everything on impulse. Even when you have to accept the consequences and remorse bites and your suitcase won’t close. You’ll have to take something out.

I hate traffic lights. Don’t pack any traffic lights. We won’t need them where we’re going.

The horse is old. Here is my diagnosis: the horse is old.

But the day is young and beautiful. So beautiful that we must go slowly, savor every minute. The roundness of life is a wheel of power. It measures the wind with an extra scrotum. Reflections in a broken mirror. A table of laughing people. John Mayall on the radio.

I seek autonomy. Pirate treasure buried in cinnamon sand. I rejoice among the begonias. I kiss the moon. I dig a hole and plant a name. Its implications undulate in ink. Its name is legion. Its name is wild. Its syllables are visceral. Sticky as the keys on an old piano.

The logic of increase alters the jingle of syntax. Chiaroscuro is indispensible. The very air feels tangible. Serious as two o’clock in the afternoon.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Barista Blues

A barista of my acquaintance recently told me an interesting story. A family stopped by for some hot chocolate on their way to the ballet. The hot chocolate was made, served, and paid for. The family left. Later, they called to complain that their three-year old daughter had burned the roof of her mouth on the hot chocolate.

What intrigues me about this story, aside from the sheer imbecility of these people, is their assumption that the heat of the hot chocolate was the fault of the barista. What do they not understand about the word ‘hot,’ first of all, and why would they blame the barista for their negligence and inattention in not warning their child that things that are hot have the capacity to burn, and recommend blowing on the chocolate first, so as to cool it a bit, the way everyone else does? What strange, inexplicable mental process acquitted them of their own fully evident ineptitude and prevented them from learning an important lesson in the raising of a child?

It is becoming increasingly evident that we live in a culture of unaccountability. George W. Bush starts an illegal war in Iraq, a war premised on lies, and nothing happens. Two passenger jets slam into the World Trade Towers, and no one is fired for gross negligence. Wall Street perpetrates the greatest heist in world history, which results in millions of lost households, not to mention a sharp rise in hunger in the U.S. (45 million, to be exact), and the only person to go to jail is a two-bit rascal named Bernie Madoff. Meanwhile, some of the figures most centrally involved in the Ponzi scheme that has helped bankrupt the United States, such as Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and Henry Paulson are given positions in the Obama cabinet.

The mind boggles.

Whistleblowers such as Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, Karen Silkwood, Sherron Watkins, Joe Wilson, Daniel Ellsberg and FBI special agent John Roberts are humiliated, harassed, arrested, tortured and sometimes murdered. But the thugs and thieves and incompetents that find themselves in positions of power and wealth go free.

Has it always been like this? Has human history been as corrupt and vile as it is now?

My barista friend tells me that the public has changed in the last few years. They’ve become more demanding, mean-spirited, and crabby. There are people that demand that their coffee be served at an exact temperature. I am not exaggerating: an exact temperature.

There are customers that complain about too much foam in their cappuccino (or not enough), expect to get service when they’re blabbing away on a cell phone (as if the barista were required to read minds), demand that their ice tea be diluted so that the ratio of water to tea is meticulously adjusted according to whether it is Guangdong Oolong, Moroccan mint, or black Darjeeling, calibrated according to tthe temperature of the water, the ambient temperature of the room in which it is served, level of humidity, atomic weight of the spoon, and specific gravity of the mug.

When did people get this fussy? Is it because this is one of the few areas of their life in which they have some tiny measure of control? The easiest way to get attention? A way to postpone going to work? A way to fill the void of black tepid despair fuming radioactive waste at the core of their empty, toxic, neurotic lives? A way to exercise control over another set of human beings all waiting in line and growing impatient by the second?

One thing is sure: if the moron who just ordered a vanilla cappuccino drizzled with caramel syrup sits down at a table, twitters a message of stunning banality to Bono or Yoko Ono while admiring their reflection in the window and spills some of their cappuccino on their lap, they won’t blame themselves, they’ll blame the barista.