Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Growth Of A Poet's Mind

Clearview/Lie, memoir by Ted Greenwald
United Artists Books, 2011

Ted Greenwald does not live in a subordinate clause. His life, as they say, is an open book. Clearview/Lie is palpable evidence of that. His writing speed is in sync with his mind speed. There is nothing subordinate about it. The writing is ascendant in its handling of a set of problems inherent in autobiography.

There is the problem of time. Chronology is an illusion, a mental organization. It is natural to give time a line, a timeline, as it were, but this would be false. Time does not go in a line. I was invited once during an Indian sweatlodge ceremony to think of time as a broad landscape extending to the horizon; those people and buildings in the far distance are people that no longer exist in our time, but still have an existence. They are not outside of time. Nothing is outside of time. History is continuous. What Gertrude Stein aptly phrased a “continuous present.”

Augustine wrestled with problem of temporal order in his autobiography, what may have been the first written autobiography, and developed an interesting theory. In book 11, Augustine writes: “It is now, however, perfectly clear that neither the future nor the past are in existence, and that it is incorrect to say that there are three times - past, present, and future. Though one might perhaps say: ‘There are three times - a present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future.’ For these three do exist in the mind, and I do not see them anywhere else: the present time of things past is memory; the present time of things present is sight; the present time of things future is expectation.”

Then there is the problem of self. How does one stand back, zoom out like on a Google map, to get a bigger picture of one's personal geography?

“I hate the self,” writes Blaise Pascal, “because it is injust in wanting to make itself the center of everything. Briefly, the self has two characteristics. It is injust in that it makes itself the center of everything. It is pernicious to others in that it wants to subjugate them, for every self is the enemy and would like to be the tyrant over all others.”

This is putting it pretty harshly. I prefer Whitman’s notion: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And What I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

Greenwald disburdens himself of these problems with a simple solution: the fragment. He has strategically gone outside time and the tyrannical or celebratory self by fragmenting his history in small blocks of prose. Roland Barthes, who used a similar technique for his Roland Barthes By Roland Barthes, writes: “Liking to find, to write beginnings, he tends to multiply this pleasure: that is why he writes fragments: so many fragments, so many beginnings, so many pleasures… The fragment (like the haiku) is torin: it implies an immediate delight: it is a fantasy of discourse, a gaping of desire. In the form of a thought-sentence, the germ of a fragment comes to you anywhere: in the café, on the train, talking to a friend (it arises laterally to what he says or what I say): then you take out your notebook, to jot down not a ‘thought’ but something like a strike, what would once have been called a ‘turn.’”

That’s it, then. That’s what makes Greenwald’s autobiographical prose poem such a pleasure to read: it is full of turns. It is not bogged down in a linear narrative. Each fragment is a vivid aperçu gleaned from memory. A limpid pool or lens through which we gaze telescopically into Greenwald’s boyhood in Queens, New York, in the vicinity of the Clearview Expressway. We see snippets of basement, piano lessons, Paris, movies, books, family, Sky King, Howdy Doody, at least one louche uncle and Wilhelm Reich and the orgone box. Life as it was lived by a teenager growing to manhood in Queens in the 50s and 60s. Growth of a poet’s mind.

The recollections are remarkably vivid because they’re charged with the kind of details that would be overlooked in a more conventional autobiography. “The sense of being a controlling center of consciousness or a unified source of causal efficacy is an effect of language,” writes Louis A. Sass, “one that, paradoxically enough, can only be experienced if one lets oneself be taken over by this pre-existing, transcendent transpersonal system.” Greenwald loses himself in language, but more like a dolphin than a log bobbing downstream. The trick is to write as far into the accidents as one can before collapsing into statement. “Insouciance,” writes Alice Notley, “is a freeing quality that can open poetry to truth.”

It is Greenwald’s eccentric, slightly off-balance language I find so alluring. Sentences are densely constructed though leavened with a curiously offhand style, as if spontaneously created, which they may very well have been. Phrases are delightfully idiosyncratic and halting at times, spurting forward spasmodically, reflecting the mind’s convulsive operations in fresh new words as mental images pop and dive in one’s consciousness.

Peculiarities of phrasing charm the attention and thicken Greenwald's aperçus with a discreet adhesiveness. In jazz, this quality of dissonance is called syncopation, the deliberate upsetting of the normal accent. Instead of falling on what is supposed to be the strong beat of the measure, the accent is shifted to an off-beat. Sometimes these syncopated prose rhythms are hurried, blunt, and telegraphic, as in this paragraph: "School, school yard hang out with friends, listen to radio stories, dinner, homework, bed. It's a week night and school's tomorrow. Halloween. Christmas, pea shooters, yo yos. Then, it's summer."

Or, as in this paragrah, there is a more irregular, chromatic texturing, as if the words were like the sharps, flats, and accidentals in a musical composition: "To augment piano lessons I'm taking going nowhere fast. The bios make sound interestng and set me on the way to being Beethoven, love his work. The lessons go nowhere, but I buy some music paper and compose a short song (in fountain pen)."

Accidentals are alterations of pitch, sharped or flatted notes that diverge from the prevailing key and might also serve to exemplify Greenwald's chromatic ingress into the terraced dynamics of memory.

It is no accident that Mnemosyne is the goddess of poetry, the mother of the nine muses by Zeus. Memory is, after all, an odd phenomenon, and when we fish in its waters for remembrances of a previous time - sensations, feelings, discoveries, epiphanies, disappointments, romances - we don’t always get fish. Sometimes we get an odd creature like a squid or an octopus. Or parakeet:

I have a pet (it’s probably the family pet), a parakeet from Woolworth’s named Admiral. We leave the cage open, he’d fly out and hang out up on the curtain rods, eventually would light on the edge of a glass of water in front of me, dips a beak in for a drink.

He lets me hold him, bites me lightly with his beak. Periodically, for no apparent reason, he freaks out, flies around weirdly, jumps around the cage. One morning wake up and he’s lying still on the bottom of the cage, the inside of his throat visible, he got caught between the bars and the perch. He died.

Greenwald is fond of ending blocks of reminiscence with the word ‘anyway.’ The word takes on a variety of value, sometimes dismissive, sometimes a relaxed dissipation of energy after a concentrated effort, sometimes a ball tossed to resume a story, bounce down the page to the next paragraph, flight of steps, hallway or block.

Humor abounds. Greenwald’s early life is informed largely by the movies. From which he learns some things gleaned from the silver screen, practiced in real life, produce dubious results. As, per instance, his take on Broken Arrow:

One Saturday afternoon, come home after seeing Jeff Chandler in Broken Arrow. He plays Cochise trying to work things out in the Old West, with James Stewart and, lurking Debra Paget, opposed to the idea of compromise by Geronimo, played by Jay Silverheels (the real-life Tonto).


After eating I guess buffalo meat sitting around the campfire Ira Gossel, from Brooklyn, who is Cochise finishes eating with his hands and uses his biceps as a napkin, wiping off the fat rubbing it into his arms, opines how it wards off the chill.

That night for dinner we have chicken. I pick up a piece, munch away from my hand, finish, put down the bone, proceed to rub the grease from my fingers into my arms, dignified with a thousand mile stare. My parents, everyone at the table, don’t all talk at once, what the hell are you doing. Just rubbing the fat in, I say, it’s good to ward off the chill.

Go wash. Don’t do that again.

The next Broken Arrow I see (for the name of the earlier one) is John Woo’s with JohnTravolta. Wonderful, two A-Bombs go missing. Someone says the only reason for John Woo to have two, you know, for shit sure, and he does, he’s going to blow one up. It’s great!

Saturday, September 24, 2011


Hello in the midst of kettledrums and silliness. Hello hello hello.

Hello to the sun. Hello to the window. Hello to the stove on which the coffee pot stays heated.

Hello to the dictionary and TV and refrigerator. Which hums its hellos back to me. And keeps my cheesecake nice and chilled.

Grape juice too. Hello grape juice.

Hello shoes. Hello shirt. Hello pants.

Hello throat you feel a little sore today. I hope I didn’t walk away with a bug from Paul’s birthday party. I guess I’ll find out later but there is codeine in case the microbes get serious and put me on the couch.

Hello bacteria. Hello Dolly.

Hello hello hello.

I say hello and you say goodbye. Hello hello. Hello hello.

Hello universe. Hello probability. Hello improbability. Probability is no more improbable than improbability. And thusly my fingers skip along the computer keyboard saying silly things.

Which is the essence of poetry. Silliness. As if you didn’t know.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Capital Stain

I felt something moist beneath my foot this morning. Under my heel, to be specific. It took a while to register. I wasn’t fully awake. I turned on the hall light next to the bathroom. I looked at the floor. There was a small brown stain in the shape of New Zealand. Toby must have coughed something up. I reached under the kitchen sink for a bottle of stain remover, aimed the nozzle at the stain, and squeezed the trigger. A fine spray came out. It made a sound that was one part whisper, one part hiss, and one part gurgle. I rubbed the stain with a paper towel. It came up easily.

Morning is a delicate time. I emerge into consciousness slowly. If it happens too fast, I’ll be in a shitty mood all day. If it happens gently, calmly, quietly, there is a change the day may flow forward as gracefully as a Yankee clipper.

Dolphins leaping at its side.

I dollop out some food for Toby, pour some coffee, and sit down in front of the computer. I google the New York Times. The state of Georgia executed Tory Davis. I find this deeply sad. They quite possibly executed an innocent man. Seven witnesses recanted their testimony. There was significant doubt that Davis had murdered Georgia police officer Mark MacPhail. Davis insisted on his innocence right up to the last moment before he was executed with lethal injection. Amnesty International, Jimmy Carter, Al Sharpton, and even the Pope pled for clemency and a stay of execution. Carter wrote “executing Troy Davis without a real examination of potentially exonerating evidence risks taking the life of an innocent man and would be a grave miscarriage of justice.”

The news is a stain, but this stain can’t be removed. It is a stain on humanity. A foul discoloring of the soul.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Ghost Of An Adjective

The ghost of an adjective chews a noun into supple ambiguity. My skin eats the sun. A man wandering the streets of San José in search of an apartment sits on a curb to read William Carlos Williams. A giant crocodile is found in the Philippines. Some men try to make the creature vomit so that a man can find his brother.

We are all searching. Fire feeds on straw. Straw feeds on dirt. 40 years later, the corn still grows, the fire still burns. It has become a nebulous form sparkling in the fog. Some call it the hammer of justice. Some call it a monster. Some call it syntax, others an allegory in search of a theme.

Words cry continually for the nourishment of eyes. Curious eyes. Interested eyes. Absorbed and brooding and searching eyes.

My cuticles gleam pink. The universe fizzes like a root beer. Robins in a state of confusion. The gleam of the limousine compensates for the drabness of the garage. One thing balances another. There is deliverance in a guitar, and breath to fill a song. Coffee answers the need for hardware. The wind confers the scent of clover. Even the rungs in the refrigerator shelving ring when I shut the refrigerator door, thus proving that there are common essences naturally apt to be present in and predicated of many similar individuals.

For example, people are rarely the people that we think they are. The alchemist searches for gold in the chaos of existence and discovers that words create their own safari, their own savannah, their own sense of freedom. I love the scene in the movie where King Kong breaks loose of his chains and sends the audience fleeing into the streets.

The mind is a climate. We live in a language of paint and light. This is how oblivion was born. This is how nothingness becomes somethingness. Rungs in a refrigerator. A spoon. A fork. A thousand regrets.

One day in October I discover the true meaning of doughnuts. That a doughnut has a hole, and in that hole is a world, and that a doughnut without a hole has red jelly inside, and a thick skin of powdered sugar, and the less we just stare at the doughnut, and the more we seize hold of it and eat it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and that the involvement has a distinctive phenomenological signature, until the doughnut is gone, and we debate within ourselves whether to have another, so that a great moral is shaped, and a corresponding transformation in the mode of one's being.

Did you know that winter is written in the wind? That space dangles from a string?

And twirls. Ever so slightly. Twirls.

I hear a helicopter. I can feel the pulse of a painting. Spectral ponies on a hill in Wyoming. The sky exploding into orange and gold. Cheyenne tepees in a valley of white dogwood and weeping cherry.

The dishwasher is noisy. But it works. It gets the plates and silverware clean. The telephone rings. It’s Roberta. She wonders if she should get a box of oranges at Costco. I tell her that’s a lot of oranges to invest in. I ask her to pick one up and weigh it. If it’s heavy, that means it’s got a lot of moisture in it. She tells me it’s not that heavy. We decide to pass on the oranges.

What is light? It is a landscape spreading into flax. Opium eyes opium thumbs. Photons and scones. A bell hanging from an easel. An alphabet glowing in a riot of color.

Here comes Moses with a Geiger counter. We welcome him with mirrors. I tell him there is a cat sleeping in my dictionary. He tells me this is natural. The Sun King sneezes. Gesundheit, says Moses.

Life is often difficult. One requires so many things. Food. Shelter. Lingerie.

As for me, I enjoy sunlight, friendly dogs, and cleavage. The accordion is not a problem. But there is no remedy for poetry. I’m afraid not. My advice is to buy a motorcycle and visit Australia. Do push-ups. Awaken the words that are sleeping in a book. Show them around your head. Stir them. Churn them. Tumble them in thought.

I sometimes read Finnegans Wake in the bathtub. I am forging a new conscience for our race. There will be scones for everyone. Darkness illumined by a contagion of chandeliers.

I’ve been behind bars at least once in my life. This is where one learns how to sew clouds to the sky. How to visit a slice of toast with cinnamon. Imagine tidepools stirring with life. Note how the silhouettes on the wall mimic the beginning of time.

Time is a monstrosity. But so is space. Together, they make silverware shine in the sunlight, marriage and divorce, sticky fingers and rubber. The butter does handsprings. Words squirt from a bad headache. A man dives in the Rhone searching for Caesar. He finds the head of Caesar in the muck at the bottom and brings it up with the aid of a crane and a highly skilled crane operator. The life-sized bust is believed to be the oldest of the Roman emperor ever discovered. It portrays the Roman ruler at an advanced age, with wrinkles and hollows in his face. Not surprising. It had been in conversation with the Rhone river a long time.

Structure wanders through the poem looking for invisible entities to flesh out into meaning. An elf sits down to breakfast and notices how the whole thing turns delicate and strange, three arms holding three margaritas in a gesture of farewell.

Did I mention the pliers? They, too, have their importance in the scheme of things. Evergreen. Turquoise. The kimono the sky wears in late summer, early autumn. Somewhere between appearance and reality there is a wealth of entanglement. The enfoldment of lips. Brass doorknobs in an old Norwegian house. Silent operas of dripping fish. Soft fur on a kitten’s belly.

The ghost of an adjective goes around dressed in the lost scarves of an ancient rhetoric. Reading becomes honey. A soft translucence, like twilight. A fetus of thought turning syntax in jelly.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Dream Of Language

The Spiritual Life Of Replicants, poetry by Murat Nemet-Nejat
Talisman House, 2011

“Every living language, like the perspiring bodies of living creatures, is in perpetual motion and alteration,” observed the 17th century British scholar and critic Richard Bentley. “Some words go off, and become obsolete; others are taken in, and by degrees grow into common use; or the same word is inverted to a new sense or notion, which in tract of time makes an observable change in the air and features of a language, as age makes in the lines and mien of a face.”

Mallarmé describes the same essence with opalescent felicity: “Words rise up and in ecstasy; many a facet reveals its infinite rarity and is precious to the mind. For our mind is the center of this hesitancy and oscillation; it sees the words not in their usual order, but in projection (like the walls of a cave), so long as that mobility which is their principle lives on, that part of speech which is not spoken.”

Poet Murat Nemet-Nejat uses the Turkish word Eda, meaning mien, or carriage, to describe this principle of mobility and oscillation as a quality unique to a certain species of poetry in which what is written, and how it is written, cannot be separated from the dream or desire animating the work. “Eda,” he writes, “is a poetics of Sufism embodied in the structure of the Turkish language. This linguistic quality -- thought not as statements, but thought as a linguistic tissue -- is achieved in Turkish primarily through its syntax: Turkish is an agglutinative language, that is to say, declensions occur inside the words as suffixes. Words need not be attached to either end of prepositions to spell out relationships, as in English. This quality gives Turkish total syntactical flexibility.”

The poetry in The Spiritual Life Of Replicants is not written in Turkish, but English. The reason, I believe, that Murat Nemet-Nejat makes these distinctions in the essay at the book of the book titled “A Few Thoughts On Fragments,” is to underscore how one linguistic behavior might inform another linguistic behavior. Eda is not a quantifiable phenomenon like temperature or steel, or even an identifiable style such as Japanese haiku or Elizabethan sonnets; it is an immaterial, ontological essence similar to the 12 century Islamic philosopher Suhrawardi’s Light of Lights, the divine light animating all existence, or the invisible force of Shelley’s “Hymn To Intellectual Beauty,” “the awful Shadow of some unseen Power,” consecrating human thought with its multiple hues and rapturous spells.

“If one considers The Spiritual Life an attempt to translate the flexibility of Eda, the spiritual universe of Sufism into English,” Nemet-Nejat writes, “one sees the antagonist the poet must encounter: the nearly absolute inflexibility of English syntax. English turns into a prison within which Eda must move and, more importantly, from which it must escape. The spectacle-ization of the poem in The Spiritual Life, fragments becoming basic poetic units, is the path to achieve that goal.”

The most striking feature I noticed when I first opened this book was the huge amount of empty space on the pages of much of the work. Some of the fragments, such as the three lines on page 39, aggregate in a compact image at the top, left-hand side of the page:

the yellow of the carpet
lurks in the yellow of my eye.

and waits.

The static tension of this piece charges the image of the carpet with divine significance. Why yellow? Yellow is, of course, a bright color, the color of the sun, lemons, crocus flower, yellow pages of the phone book and their allure of service and appliance, but is also unsettling. Its brightness is aggressive, unrelenting. It is associated with spirituality and enlightenment, but also cowardice and unrequited love. It is arguably the color with the most contradictions associated with it, and so makes an appealing ingredient in a poem mirroring two separate realities of uncertain relation: the object of the carpet and the consciousness of the poet.

The stillness of imagery in these three lines is deceiving. The final two words, “and waits,” give it an ominous, somewhat menacing tinge. And below it is the lush whiteness of the page. Space is of primary importance. It confers authority upon the line, makes a spectacle of the word-aggregation, multiplies possible directions and combinations, unites or destroys the union of opposites, makes the written work appear less utilitarian and hence more artistic, and makes the inert, immovably fixed print more dynamic. In some ways, space appears to be the subject of the text, not just something to be viewed, but stands as the most definite or stable element on the surface of the page. Space has body, existence, being. It has a presence that is both literal and psychological. It stands as an entity of final and unanswerable nullity: the void surrounding, imbuing, and articulating all things. In the case of the poem, it determines where the image stops, begins, and argues its course. It delays or disrupts the development or movement. It increases attention to the material fact of words. It dramatizes the Non-being of Being.

The poem on the following page is even smaller: it consists of three lines, four words. This tiny constellation occupies the far, upper left corner of the page, and is so modest in its appearance it reminds me of those strands of webs one encounters when reaching into an unused, forgotten corner for an errant movie ticket or ping pong ball. The object in this instance, however, is not a web, but a dart:

A dart’s

The use of the word ‘license’ at the end is exquisite. The sharp bright piece of metal that constitutes the dart’s essence is an immediate license - warrant, privilege, latitude - to fly and impale its target on the wall. I feel a sleekness in that word, and allowance and function. The very function of a dart is explicit, immediate in its shape, density, point. When one has thrown a dart one might also know what it means to make a point, hit the target, literal target in a basement rec room or noisy bar, and figurative target, the points we struggle to make in argument and discourse, which might also occur in a basement rec room or noisy bar.

A few of the poems and the title of the collection reference Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie Blade Runner, which was based on a novel by Philip K. Dick titled Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep. The central plot of the movie concerned a line of genetically engineered organic robots called replicants created to perform dangerous or menial work on off-planet colonies. Their use on planet Earth was prohibited. A world-weary expert on replicants named Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, is persuaded to track down a particularly brutal and cunning group of replicants hiding out in a rainy, dystopic Los Angeles.

One of the things I liked best about this movie were the ingenious tests used to identify a replicant masquerading as a human. It was assumed that robots would not have the same emotional response to certain situations as humans, and so the questions were designed to elicit a bizarre and revealing reaction. The replicants are made with a four-year failsafe life span to prevent them from developing emotions. Needless to say, the strategy doesn’t work. I am always deeply moved at the end of the movie (spoiler warning: skip to the next paragraph this if you have not seen the movie), when Rutger Hauer, the lead replicant named Batty, is dying after a titanic battle with Ford, stands against the dark with rain running down his face, and says: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.”

Blade Runner raised serious questions about consciousness, machinery, and emotion. Not to mention death and mortality. In the poem “Limbo,” Nemet-Nejat writes “The soul, the mechanical eye we are born with, stealing the body to tell its dream. Then it dies, its specific mode of existence, and it continues its wanderings to find another host. That’s why the classical thinkers knew the ghosts of the dead wandered in the nether land -- not searching for god, but yearning for another body.”

The dilemma of soul and body has been with us a long time. I have tried imagining a state of existence in which I was pure essence, pure energy, with no fingers or thumbs or legs or eyes. No ears to hear sounds. Not skin to feel textures. No bones and muscles to feel the gentle push and pull of gravity. It is this dilemma that goes to the heart of this collection, and reveals itself most tellingly in the word ‘replicant.’

Language is the ultimate replicant. It is the living tissue in which the soul finds another body, and begins to dream.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Metaphysical Dashboard Cackle

Let me make myself very clear. This is not just another argument with Pythagorean doors. The world isn’t numbers. The world is a blister on the dream of a filmstrip.

The imagery of fiction is squeezed from a gray exclamation point. If it has the pathos of olives and the clasp of a trunk, it will open its lid to subtleties of menstruation.

I can carry an experience to its fullest expression as an allegory. I can wrestle a parameter, or shoe a groundhog with sparkly C-clamps. But I cannot burn a kiss with bagpipes.

Always Cézanne. Cézanne is the palette where we find the right colors for osteopathic conjecture.

Sail the cause with its only hoe. The bruise is a mark that murmurs the same.

Twig everything the finger hawk may jerk. Respectable complex sandstone hats have the advantage here. Why? Because the ripple moves through vermilion buying warrant along the way. If you can twine a brain stem, you can flex a lung. Life is a parody of death.

Astronomy pressed its energy toward a galaxy of sloth.

The tiger is the same as Cubism.

You know this is true because its chatter has turned its back to desire.

A sticky barking sternum. You are your blast. Your atmosphere. Your rubbing alcohol. The soothed yellow sparrow that dipped its music in hell.

The jaw fondles the sonnet it initiates. The blaze is perceived as such. It comes as no surprise that abstractions are faster with chrome than chitchat.

Hit the sphere if you want your wash to come out pepper.

Arabesques predicated on the alarm system are now going crazy. I have an intuitive sense that hockey is a slippier game than we thought. Absence by staircase, elegance by shoal.

I agree. The lobster is ocher, not gawky, or gay. It is simply a lobster. Unrivalled in the tattoo department. Better than a snake. Pineapple snow or a flaming orthogonal limousine.

I wanted to say something about potter’s clay. But the sentence was too thick to write. It swarmed with cloth like a spark of insect milk.

Your physical clay is the science in your climb. So much reflection in your eyes that your vision treads asteroids of hurling fire. Deepens in pools of Beowulf green.

Everything culminates in blood. The oysters dispel the spoons, but the suspension thickens in indentation. Until finally it all makes sense. The world is a redeye on the emerald of a dashboard.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Solace In Adjectives

The world is divided into facts: floods, seasons, diseases. Clouds, bluebells, harmonicas.

Perforations aren’t what they used to be. I used to be able to tear off a section of paper towel in one shot. Now I have to saw it in half.

Have you ever tried to drive a car while prophesying?

I love travel. I am sympathetic to anything in motion. Especially if it is moving away from me. Or if I am moving away from it. I’m not saying I’m an unregenerate misanthrope. All I’m saying is that if you swing from a trapeze 50 feet above the ground, you should be able to trust the person that is going to catch you.

Propositions resemble arrows. The fingernail clippers are in the bathroom in the drawer to the far right. That’s one arrow. Here is another arrow. There is a Geiger counter on the dashboard ticking wildly as we approach Fukushima. And Obama wants to build more of these things. Are you kidding me?

Some people do not know how to follow arrows. Even if that arrow happens to be a wolf baring his fangs in the Yukon. Or hot water squirting out from the valve when it gets turned open.

I marvel at the way cameras assert themselves. A face behind every camera. Clumsy particles of light walk around inside the camera and become an image. A birthday. Variegations of green in an avocado. A man ruminating on a shoe.

If you let the world in, you have to let it back out. Choose a color, rub your arm. That will do the trick. If not, write a mentally indigestible letter and mail it to the president of a clumsy particle.

A meaning is anchored in words. It may be heavy as a truck tire, particularly in its relation to the world. To the road. The proverbial highway. Where things happen. A man and his violin waiting for a bus. Swallows. Bing cherries. A woman riding a lawnmower off Highway 17 near Moses Lake.

I lived in California for ten years. Believe me, that’s where things happen. Big things. Like boiling water for tea. Daubing paint on a canvas. Manicuring your cuticles. Examining the sternum of an Egyptian mummy. Who happened by one day to ask: why does water glisten so brightly? There are times when the division between the organic and non-organic ceases to exist. Dry yourself by the fire and mull it over. The division among things is blurry. The border is sparkling. It could be demonstrated in tin, or a paragraph riding on my tongue.

What holds atoms together? A grain of salt and a pinch of thought. A smile adhering to a simile. Like a fetus. Of smoky quartz. Or the creak of an old oak desk as the pen pressed down to form a string of words. Which will one day change the world. Because it is a fetus. Of corn silk. Which will one day evolve. Into Wild Bill Hickok sitting at a table in a saloon holding a hand of cards.

The origin of language was hectic and hairy and teeming with adjectives. You should have seen it. You wouldn’t have believed it. There were spider webs in all the windows corresponding to a definite wavelength of light. Ominous cows. Preposterous frogs. The Beatles on YouTube.

As butterflies probe for a pollen, I feel an expectation growing in me. What does it feel like to punch somebody? Somebody assembled in 1868. By Emily Dickinson.

The poem is a contraption, a flirtation with death. Nipples, glaciers, gloves. Poke the anemone and watch it close. You can find sensitivity in the most unlikely places. It is pure sorcery. My hands are numb as my spaceship approaches Neptune. Last night I saw my face floating in waves as I was pulled inexorably toward the sun. I had a hell of a time removing the two bottom screws of the license plate. And then the elevator doors slid shut and the predicate sleeping in the breast pocket of my shirt awoke and set the universe on fire.

The U.S. government is run by thugs. This is why I dislike doing laundry on Saturday. Said a man in a man town near Williston. Over the thin clatter of silverware. All kinds of things get discussed out on the prairie. And when there are no women around, a man thinks of women. In this sense logic is different from biology, since it is more general, but it is also similar to biology in that it is a science that aims to capture a certain body of truths. This way of looking at logic is often associated with the refrigerator. There is a shout from a bank of sand, and the little bulb inside is crying like the soft eye of the antelope in a blaze of snow.

Rumination is always coffee on the dark side of the moon. But this isn’t why France is so poorly represented in the annals of rock. And even though it is conceivable to shave with a license plate, a herd of elk on a bar of soap is not resolved in the analysis. It will continue to smell like Wisconsin (I love Wisconsin) but solve nothing about the government.

What can you learn from growing old? Open a window. Let the air in. Hear the birds. Throw a rock at the neighbors.

There is a certain solace in adjectives. Thick, thin, noble, iconoclastic. Plucky, jumpy, mutinous, adamantine.

The cat swims through his fur. A silver light trickles down the wall of the cave illustrating the differentiation of matter into galaxies and stars. Blades and birds and words and worms.

The idea of wealth blazes with red hot veins tangential to consciousness. If you shake a bottle filled with earthquakes, it will erupt into imagery faster than a sofa humming along a string of Christmas bulbs.

The word ‘extent’ is rough as the skin of an elephant, solar flares exploding into space. Mallarmé’s swan glides by like a root beer in a bingo parlor. Why is life so hard? I am ravenous for an answer. I will attend a meeting at City Lights with Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

My ancestry is bashful. I don’t blame them. They were Vikings. Raping and pillaging. Shame on them.

There are far better things to do in life than rape and pillage. What, for instance, can you learn from growing old? Open a window. Strike a note on a piano. If the sound is blue, so are you.

Wrinkles elaborate the face with the flavor of understanding. Let us say thought is expressed perceptibly through the senses. What can you say about Utah? Utah is insoluble.

Abstractions of tin ornament the head of an airplane. It is the head of Dwight D. Eisenhower. His nose is a propeller. His chin is a ramp. His eyes are cockpit. It is clear we are not concerned here with hockey but the expression of plums.

Flip a coin. Jingle a bell. The ripeness is all. I have a friend who lives in Santa Cruz. There is a large stone chimney in his house and a sonnet dancing on his lip.

There is little you can do about space except fill it. Space is profligate by nature. Time is a map of space bleeding crystals and cities. Yes, life is hard. But there is a great deal of solace in adjectives.

Think of them as fish flip flopping in a net.

Fauve elegies on a collar stud. A vapor in nature, breath in a caboose. Cubist pipes in a Cubist house. Oddities of willow written on an old oak desk. Mushrooms in Portugal.

A mood is a mode of mustard, but a canvas flooded with color cries out for revelation. Gulp it down. Faith obviates the mystery of rags, and raspberries enhance the surface of a cake.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Right Place At The Right Time

It Happened In Monterey: classic photographs by Elaine Mayes.
Britannia Press, 2002

Nico of the Velvet Underground looks amused. Her hair is long and blonde. Her lips, full and sensuous, are on the verge of a smile. Her eyes, artfully darkened with eye liner, express a calm, affable elation. Her cheekbones are prominent. Her presence is unmistakable. I feel I am about to have an enjoyable conversation with her. And I would, if she weren’t a photograph.

Andrew Loog Oldham, manager of the Rolling Stones, leans into the back of a folding chair, his feet resting on two chairs in the row ahead of him, revealing silk, gray stockings. He wears a broad brimmed fedora and a heavy coat lined with black fur. His hair is shaggy, and he sports a neatly trimmed beard. A necklace of beads hangs from his neck in a long, pendulous loop on his sweater. His gaze is directed to someone or something on what must be a stage. Two people sit next to him, a man with short, well-groomed hair and sunglasses, and a woman with long dark hair whose head is resting on the man’s shoulder. A pretty young woman with a charming overbite and long, thick wavy hair, a pair of sunglasses resting on top of her head, a short striped skirt revealing a pair of shapely legs, looks bemusedly in the same direction, her hands clasped lightly and resting on her lap, the tips of her fingers holding a daisy, a roll of paper pointing upward from her other hand. Since there are quite a few empty folding chairs, one imagines a rehearsal in progress, a musical group getting their equipment set up.

A woman wearing a black wool sweater, seated a row or two behind Andrew Loog Oldham, looks off to the side, her attention distracted by something else.

Eric Burdon, his eyes closed, his mouth open, stands before a microphone in a bluish light. He wears a scarf and a striped wool shawl with tassels. His facial expression is beatific. He could almost be a figure in a medieval religious painting.

These are some of the photographs included in a book called It Happened In Monterey, by photographer Elaine Mayes. The photographs, which were done on assignment in three day’s time, chronicle a time and a place but mostly an aura, a confluence of energies and musical genius that happened in one of the world’s most beautiful settings, the town of Monterey, California, where John Steinbeck staged Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row and East of Eden.

The Monterey Pop Festival of June, 1967, was an extraordinary event. It was the first full manifestation of a feeling that began several years earlier, circa 1964, with the so-called British Invasion and a sudden elevation of consciousness helped, in large measure, by the introduction of LSD and growing popularity of marijuana. Alcohol was frowned upon in those early, halcyon days of mind exploration and spiritual expansion. Drugs of choice were all hallucinogens: LSD, psilocybin, peyote, mescaline, nitrous oxide, fly agaric mushroom, even Morning Glory seeds. Alcohol was rightfully perceived as a depressant whose effects diminished rather than expanded the mind. It was associated with the people in mainstream society who supported the war in Vietnam. Obnoxious cowboy truckers whose bumper stickers read “Love It Or Leave It” and whose bruised, bullied wives worked in sullen resignation washing dishes on cracked linoleum floors. Bitter, bridge-playing spinsters with snippy poodles, pink sunglasses, and cyanide personalities. Cynical, hardcore military men chewing tobacco by the backyard barbecue.

The sixties was neither a political movement, cultural movement, religious movement, or hedonistic celebration of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It was a social and cultural dynamic whose engine was fueled by all these things. The sixties cannot be analyzed, broken down into components. The sum was quite definitely larger than the sum of its parts. It was quintessentially a feeling. A feeling of rapture and change, excitement and romance, joy and rebellion.

The sixties have been so trivialized it is impossible to utter that phrase without automatically reducing it to lava lamps, long shaggy hair, sappy naiveté and colorful clothes. That was not the sixties. The sixties were incendiary, joyful, and monumentally open. The 70s, which ushered in Disco and Studio 54 and cocaine, consumerism and celebrity culture, were its polar opposite: exclusionary, aggressive, competitive. How the coin got flipped so suddenly, I’ll never know.

The joke “if you remember the sixties, you weren’t there” is funny, but not true. Quite the contrary. My memories of the sixties are extremely vivid, the most vivid I have in my 64 years on this planet, and I was quite definitely there. I lived in the Bay Area just south of San Francisco throughout most the 60s and the early 70s. I took a small hiatus home to Seattle in 1966 due to a bad acid trip, and was working at Boeing’s Plant No. 2 on the Duwamish in June of 1967, so I missed the Monterey Pop Festival. I quit that same month, but didn’t make it back to the Bay Area in time for the festival. This would remain an ongoing frustration, since all my friends could not stop talking about how wonderful the music had been at the festival.

Two huge artists emerged from the Monterey Pop Festival: Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Elaine took Hendrix’s picture as he wandered with a female friend by a flower stand before she knew who he was. He had not yet appeared on stage, and was new to quite a few people. There is a shot of Janis Joplin standing in the audience, although the audience itself is not visible. The focus is on Janis and her look of delight as she watches an act on the stage, and a young man with black hair and a black coat next to her, lowering his head as he readies to light a cigarette. He is virtually invisible, save for a little sheen on his hair, the white stick of the cigarette angling down from his mouth, a glimpse of his shirt, and a large button on his coat. Janis looks so wonderfully casual you wish you could hug her. It is unimaginable that she has been dead for 40 years.

There is a beautifully expressive shot of Laura Nyro. I had a close friend who loved her singing and song writing, but she was not a hit at the festival. According to the commentary provided by Michelle Phillips, “Laura Nyro was devastated after her performance. She was sure she had bombed. I took her aside, and we drove around Monterey for a while, and I tried to make her feel better.”

Elaine’s photo shows Nyro looking profoundly sad, the microphone barely visible in the darkness of the stage next to her long, black hair. Her hand rests on her upper chest. Her eyes are partially closed in a deep, pensive moment. Her shoulder is bare, smooth and vulnerable.

It could be Nyro’s music was a tad too nuanced and urbane for this crowd. People in the sixties liked their music forceful, jubilant, and intense. The lyrics were of a very high quality, and the musicianship was prodigious. These were very smart people. But there was a strong, anti-intellectual side to the sixties which I did not like, a forced naiveté that exalted a false, childhood innocence that was one part Jean Jacques Rousseau and one part Mr. Rogers. In that respect, the sixties were not too unlike the current Zeitgeist. The preferred literature - if people took out time from getting stoned to read a book - were titles of inane fantasy such as Tolkien’s hobbit series, or science fiction thrillers like Dune. Richard Brautigan was hugely popular, Trout Fishing In America especially, which revealed a nicer, more benevolent side to sixties anti-intellectualism, a receptive appetite for drollery, for anything quirky and bizarre, particularly if was expressed in language that was deceptively simple in structure and tone. Brautigan was far outside academia and its pompous, over-complicated literature. The hippie ethos sought simplicity and innocence in all things. Brautigan managed to command extremely high sales without ever becoming remotely commercial, and for a time enjoyed the fame of a rock star.

I never understood the connection with the beats and the hippies, Kerouac especially. Kerouac was edgy and often full of despair. He was a fairly easy read in terms of phrasing and vocabulary, but the prose expresses an intensity and gritty, working-class veneration for male toughness and goofy bravado that was beautifully expressed in figures such as Neal Cassady, James Dean and Marlon Brando. There is no false grab for innocence in Kerouac’s hectic, Benzedrine-driven prose. With the arguable exception of The Dharma Bums, Kerouac’s writing is not utopian. Compassion is emphasized and there are numerous allusions to Buddhist philosophy, but states of malaise and tragedy are just as common, and appreciated for their inherent nobility. The bop spontaneity Kerouac espoused was meant to liberate everything trapped in the human psyche, be it monstrous or screwball or disdainful or full of compassion. Beat could mean beatitude, or beaten down. Juju beads on cold knees. Bleak coffee tired hope. Sunlight smashed through forbidden window panes. Kerouac would have felt awkward at the Monterey Pop Festival. Bodhisattva toasting ants with a bottle of Ripple.

I can see some of the frustrations Elaine experienced with lighting working in such chaos and with such little time available to take in all the variables in the environment. But there is often a plus side to certain liabilities, chance elements that injure a perfect picture, but allow for something more natural and revealing to occur. This is certainly the case with a shot of Brian Jones as his attention is held by something occurring on stage, though all that is visible is Brian’s head and part of a blurry figure next to him. The blondness of his hair and paleness of his face fuse in an ethereal gaze. The light is a bit washed, which heightens the ethereality, the ghostly quality of the photograph. He appears to be flooded with soft, yellowish light. He could easily be one of England’s romantic poets, another Keats or Shelley, a spirit visiting from the realm where the authors, as Blake put it, live in eternity.

“It helps to realize that the frame is not a natural thing at all,” observes photography teacher Philip Perkis, “it is an imposition on vision. The paradox, of course, is that the frame is a very important contributor to content in a photograph. What is included, what is left out, and what is cut can be, and frequently is, the central meaning in a photograph.”

Throughout It Happened In Monterey, you can feel the “it” happening, whether it is in the frame or outside the frame. The eyes of the musicians and audience are often directed elsewhere. This is the joy and meaning of any festival: its thousand distractions. The uniqueness of this festival is clearly outside the frame. That’s what made it so special. It was one of a kind. Terra incognita. By the time Woodstock rolled around, the media had framed the sixties’ movement so thoroughly, it was already as saturated with cliché as a tie-dyed t-shirt.

There is no imagery or vocabulary to describe what occurred between 1965 and 1967. It helps considerably that I lived in this area during this time, which gives me a leg up, but it will always elude analysis. This makes it impossible to put down in words an event whose chief qualities were utterly intangible. What might someone who came of age during the Reagan years when non-commercial values had become virtually extinct and everything became concentrated on profit and commerciality see in this book? Someone for whom the swaggering belligerence of rap with its materialistic obsessions have become the norm, or the glitzy, in-your-face, semi-pornographic theatrics of Madonna and Lady Gaga, or the brassy, corporate polish of Beyoncé?

They would see a policeman stringing orchids on his motorcycle antenna.

People gathered together in shared communion but gazing in different directions.

Musicians in various states of rapture, joy, meditation, or radiant consummation just as a brilliant, unexpected note has been reached and sent echoing out among the audience.

A melding of cultures, ethnicities, modes. Ravi Shankar. Otis Redding. Jerry Garcia.

Paul Butterfield, his eyes squeezed shut as he opens his mouth in front of the mike, his hair parted down the middle, his double-breasted jacket buttoned, he could be a crooner from the roaring twenties.

David Crosby smiling under a thick fur hat as a woman with long brown hair gives him a hug.

Jimi Hendrix bent over his guitar in a frilly shirt looking as if he has just discovered the source of the universe.