Friday, September 28, 2012

Queen Jane Redux

I’m invisible. I float through conversations sparkling and esoteric. I am on the periphery, always. The periphery is where margins of darkness are etched in the blood like skeins of delicate abstraction, where life is fringed with vast, unfathomable tempests, and one is at home in shadows, bathing in afterglow and purifying the crude wax of the honeybee. The periphery weighs less than the wing of a dragonfly. I watch as the local politicians put a dead idea in a burlap sack and the sky weeps and I erupt into moss because I am a wall of stone and dead ideas look like squids that have washed ashore and the sprawl of their tentacles and foul bloated bodies and dead jelly eyes invoke the hollow communion of rule and putrefaction. It is the kind of depravity that fuels the cynicism of the boardroom and predations of joyless men. Trees are different. Trees argue with the wind. Trees fidget and toss finding the sky boiling in their leaves. Water crawls into being as scarabs and frogs and I rejoin the herd of mankind growing antlers whose syntax incubates moonlight. I eat Chinese roots and blush to see reality walk on bones. Look: the grammar of steam absolves the ceiling of the monstrosity of birth. The tarantula, meanwhile, delights in solitude. This sentence once harbored a laugh but it burned into ash. All that was left was the sound of boots crunching in the snow. If you haven’t already guessed, I live in a library. I celebrate the improbability of molasses. I watch people read. Those who read books are totally immersed. Those who read electronic gadgets are outside themselves. Poetry walks on tiptoe. The door misquotes its hinges. Fingers dance on shrines to digital gods. It is all so vain and vapid. The laptop has ruined the sanctity of the library. And so I get up and go see Queen Jane. If you’ve been wondering where these words might be headed they’re headed toward Queen Jane. Queen Jane sits on a sofa sewing syllables into frost and romance. Her needles are icicles. Her threads are dreams. Don’t be frightened by my wealth, she says. I’m not, I tell her. You can drop your pretense, she responds. And so I do. And I stand there naked, trembling and real and out of the periphery and into the light.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Reflections in Late September

Why does a candy wrapper look so trashy and unattractive when it is crumpled and empty, but so happy and pretty when there is candy in it?

I know. It is a stupid question. But if I apply the same question to animals, it acquires a deeper significance. A body with a living being in it is far more attractive than a body with no one living in it. Even old people with all their wrinkles and blotches and liver spots and varicose veins and scabrous sores and gnarled, arthritic hands are more attractive when there is life behind the eyes and breath going in and out of their lungs and animation and speech and warmth in the flesh and crotchets and idiosyncrasies then when the body is stiff and the eyes (if they are still open) are balls of lifeless jelly.

There is in all things, even objects, a certain quality that is the source of their appearance. It is indefinable. There is more to life than breath and blood and enzymes. There is a pulse behind the pulse that is divine and unnameable.

Can you go on strike against yourself if you don’t treat yourself fairly? September is the month of encroaching austerities. Harvests. Curfews. Return to school.

I like autumn. This is strange. Because I hate winter. I hate the cold. So why do I like autumn? Autumn should fill me with gloom. But instead it makes me feel happy.

Here is one reason: it is quieter. There are fewer children in the park, fewer people playing with their dogs, and the woman next door has finally closed her window so that I do not hear her shrieking baby anymore.

There are fewer kids setting off fireworks at night. Fewer festivals involving pirates and jets.

Movies are always better in the autumn. Maybe because the kids have all gone back to school so the movies with fewer special effects and fart and poop jokes and Adam Sandler are gone and the movies with greater substance and humanity and quieter narrative arcs have a better shot at getting an audience without being in competition with the blockbuster junk.

The air is still fairly warm in late September but possesses a chill that gives it a vividness and edge that is pleasant to the skin invigorating and silver.

There is also that underlying sadness implicit in loss. Though as autumn progresses, loss becomes less implicit and far more explicit. That maniacal grin of pumpkins lit from inside by a candle eye sockets gold and flickering teeth sharply silhouetted against that inner light says it all: death is pretty. Strangely, wonderfully pretty.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Color of Sleep

Have you ever seen a body of words give birth to a paragraph? I won't lie. It's a little gross. But quite moving. First there is the biology of reproduction. A blackbird living in an electric guitar, for instance, and its inexplicable urge to mate with an elephant. The noise of which sounds like a croque-monsieur falling through a sheet of plywood. There are screams and moans followed by the roar of Jules Verne speeding through Nice in a sports car. This is what makes writing such a strange occupation. It is like sewing a haunted temperature to an oasis of inalienable yearning. Paint becomes an animal and the wealth of unbridled idea dangles its power from the end of a stick. Or pen. Or keyboard. Doesn't matter. It's all symbolic. All a matter of signs and omens and anonymous tips. Think of a lotus blossoming on a sheet of paper. It pops open like church doors after a wedding and is then washed by the tears of the sky soon after reality sets in. Thunder breaks on the face of a mountain and in the distance can be heard rings of the Viking swordmaker as he brings his hammer down on a blade of hot steel. My comprehension of time is imperfect, I know, but bear with me. I've been fired several times already and I know what that feels like. I can share that with you later if you'd like. But for now I'd just like to draw attention to my new wallet. It's whalebone and leather and big as a library. It is the product of many forces. Mass, velocity, torque, and friction. It is why I am including it in this paragraph, because this paragraph needs a direction, and must eventually learn to walk on its own. When the world was newly formed, a body of water crawled into an amphibian and began to crawl around nibbling on ferns. Everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Except for this paragraph. Death is the ultimate voyage, but this isn't that. This is a body of words pushing meaning to its furthermost frontier. That place where the earth is freshly awakened by rain and the roots of speculation multiply in the fertility of darkness. We see a body of words oozing from the canal of a fertile imagination and find that is we ourselves who have formed this thing in our minds, and later heard tinkling in the kitchen, and awakened to possibilities so nebulous they resembled blackboard crickets sneezing the color of sleep.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Basket of Rain

The poem dilates in turmoil. Syllables engorge with blood. The feeling is violet and silly, but I’m not authorized to be sticky. Vertigo is good for you. Please believe me. If I tell you there is a cow wandering the garden, it does not necessarily mean I have a new wallet. It means that the lobster has turned into a prince and an aging widow is gazing out of the window. This is how words work. They groan into action, lifting big ideas out of a well encrusted with lichen and moss.

If I happen to say anything at all, it’s because I have to go to a wedding next month. I will arrive, white eyebrows under a black fedora, and introduce myself as Walt Whitman.

Or Madonna. Growing a personality is hard. It’s an ugly process, and has very little to do with writing poetry.

Please sit down and tell me what you think. About anything. As for me, I never thought I’d live long enough to see the end of capitalism. I savor the taste of maladjustment. I love its awkward speculations and tart atomic enzymes. There is no true answer for the phantom bikini as it crashes through a wall of Montmartre plaster. Life is a beautiful disease. One might speak of an Ovidian feeling, or pound or two of effervescent poverty, but nothing compares to the fierce sexuality of nitroglycerin.

And yes, life can be lonely. It helps to float through a conversation, meander in talk, follow a strange eccentric thread of meaningless jabber, enter a bistro in muddy boots or open a box of incandescent perception. My name is Abraham Lincoln and I approve this message.

Here comes the night. Darkness hugs the horizon. A sheet of paper offers itself as a trampoline for the bounce of ideas. I carry a basket of rain and spill it onto the paper where it becomes a gardenia, a long augmentation of muscle. The sky weeps. Trees argue with the wind. Hope explodes and the walls drip with scarabs and hummingbirds.

Creation simmers in the sugar of a word. Whorls of color in the hollow of a shell.

I was asked, just the other day, what I thought about innovation in poetry. I didn’t know what to say. I mean, I was totally at a loss for words. And that’s when I realized that the force that drives biology is the same as the force that drives poetry. Letters crawl toward the vivifying power of breath and the syntax of existence incubates in appearance. That’s all anything is: appearance. Fill an alphabet with breath, though, and those appearances can awaken the most distant stars frozen in eternity.

I remember when I was in high school trying hard to learn algebra. Algebra taught me a lot about language, which can be dissolved by boiling. Sex is faster than language. It is similar to the flickers of television in a late night living room when no one is paying attention to anything but their own strange feelings and sensations.

The retina is buttered with color. The chiropractor explodes into cats. Don’t worry. Think of me as a misdemeanor in the mirror. Think of me as a glandular malfunction. Opals and denim applauding the smell of light. I have sewn these syllables together for a reason. Not a very good reason. In fact I forgot the reason. There is no reason. There is only December. Chimney sparks. The naked splendor of a lost black shoe.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Everlasting Universe of Things

The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark—now glittering--now reflecting gloom--
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings-

                  Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mont Blanc, 1817

McClure’s poetry, which has been a remarkable force in world literature for over five decades now, has evinced one consistent property that marks it immediately as a creature born out of McClure’s hand and brain: it is alive. Each poem is a lump of jelly startled by its own energy. Each appears to have its own DNA. Each undergoes a metamorphosis of self-perpetuating change. Each is a theatre of mutation and flux. Emotion rides into the world on the back of desire. Wings form in a pod of silk. Words form on a palette of flesh. Senses bloom “in tendrils of spirit.” Dramas of soul tremble and incandesce “in the sky of the room.”

Transmutation has long been a driving force of poetry. Imagery jubilates in transition. Words thrive in interrelation. Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Ovid composed a long narrative poem called The Metamorphoses whose very theme was transmutation. He presents a world of exciting instability in which universal being comes to life in a war of winds and fills with images of its own kind. Change follows change. The elusive Daphne, whose floating hair falls in tendrils at her throat and forehead, runs from Apollo’s lust, “swifter than light air that turns to nothingness as we pursue it,” and turns into a laurel tree, her “white thighs embraced by climbing bark, her white arms branches, her fair head swaying in a cloud of leaves.” We hear in Ovid’s lines the “roaring echoes of the ceaseless river pour from cliffside and cave.” Jove turns the young maiden Io into a cow. The ever-shifting Proteus rides two great whales, “gliding through glassy waves.” The young Phaethon drives the chariot of the sun across the sky, pulled by a team of horses “fed with ambrosia and breathing fire, wing-spread and flying feet through cloud and wind, charging, wild, wherever their desire turned, tossing their chariot through wilderness of air.”

Ovid used the mythology of his time to enact his poetry of change. McClure draws from a cauldron of multiple ingredients, a mélange of biology and eastern philosophy, Whitehead and Blake and Shelley and Francis Crick. Schiller and Goethe and Kerouac and Zen Master Dogen. McClure’s blending of biological science with older mythologies and classic Greek and contemporary philosophy reveals a stronger link with Ovid’s predecessor Lucretius than with Ovid. Or perhaps Augustus Caesar’s wild granddaughter Julia, who may have been partly to blame for Ovid’s banishment to a coastal town in Romania on the Black Sea, and in whom I imagine a Jean Harlow of flippant disdain for stodgy Roman convention. It is not so much Ovid the man - Ovid the old Roman poet who was married three times and went shopping for onions and garlic in Rome’s hectic streets - in whom I find McClure. I do not sense much rapport there. Ovid is too distant in time for me to flesh him out, and the overall architecture of his poetry is as classic as a colonnade. It is in the theme of metamorphosis that is enacted so brilliantly and with so much imaginative force and psychological realism that I see parallels with McClure’s protean energy.

McClure’s poetry evolves and expands the meaning of being itself in its celebrations of the genius in nature. Transformation is experienced as immanence, transcendence, ecstasy, apricots, hailstones, lichen, and modalities of birth and death. “Mozart playing with the universe.” “Ants / celebrating rites / of blackness / in the sweetened air.” The landscapes are large and thick with the kind of oil Van Gogh gobbed on his canvas in swirls and whorls of dynamic exploration.

The same energies that drive biology drive poetry. In nature we find caterpillars becoming butterflies, tadpoles becoming frogs, and tiny seeds becoming giant sequoias. Thunder breaks on the face of a mountain and minutes later raindrops plop from the brim of an old man’s hat. Mass, velocity, torque and friction combine to produce waves of pulsing energy, “A LAUGH / OF / PASSION / with the nothingness of meat / expanding in all directions.”

Nietzsche refers to the “I” in lyric poetry as an expression of human consciousness that is as much a phenomenon of nature as a sunrise or rainbow. This is most definitely the case in McClure’s poetry where the identity involved with the writing has less to do with personality than with a harmonizing and dilation into cosmic realities. “It is the edge of the precipice that the Fool on the tarot card is strolling along,” McClure remarks in a short essay titled “Self-Experience of the Other.” “It is the edge of matter, of what the Greeks call φύσις [physis: nature, natural bent, or outward form] where material and spirit come into being in nothingness. We write ourselves, our bodies, on what we presume is a common darkness behind our eyes.”

It is the sense of otherness that Rimbaud had in mind when he wrote “I is other.” Rimbaud used the predicate for third person singular to emphasize just how other that sense of being happened to be. What we think of as personality is a crazy-quilt amalgam of incidents, accidents, random occurrences. It is superficial. Soul, or essence, is where the ghostly other scintillates from nothingness into being. It might be described as a form of systole and diastole, a rhythm of being and nothing ness in which both are the same and both are different.

For example, in the poem “Portrait of the Moment,” from which I’ve been borrowing lines, we find the play and energy of transmutation everywhere. “Maya and molecules / and nothing are the same” McClure proclaims. The ultimate reality is change. Nothing is static. The universe is everywhere. Scales of big and small are collapsed. We find the huge in the small and the small in the huge. It is a world of quantum flux where nothing of real value is quantifiable, or frozen, or twinkles expensively and ridiculously in a diamond engagement ring. It is all a continuous melting and fusion. “All there in the iris / WHICH / IS / THE / WHORLING, / / WHORLING / CONDENSATION / / of / the / moment / into the purr and feather of hands / with the mouth slightly open / in a pose.”

“A creature is about itself,” McClure observes in his collection of essays Scratching the Beat Surface. “A living organism is perceived as a complex chunk, or lump, or bulk, or motile body of reproductive plasm. And of course it is that.” “A way of seeing an organism,” McClure continues,

…. other than as a lump or bulk of self-perpetuating protoplasm (and there’s nothing wrong with that) is the view that the organism is, in itself, a tissue or veil between itself and the environment. And, it is not only the tissue between itself and the environment - it is also simultaneously the environment itself. The organism is what Whitehead and Olson would think of as a point of novelty comprehending itself or experiencing itself both proprioceptively and at its tissue’s edges and at any of its conceivable surfaces.

There is, in fact, a central force in the organism and it IS the environment.

The organism is a swirl of environment in what the Taoists call the Uncarved Block of time and space (a universe in which time and space are not separated into intersecting facets by measured incidents).

The veil, the tissue (or the lump or bulk), is created by the storms from which it protects itself - and is itself the ongoing storm. Herakleitos saw it as a storm of fire, the raging of an active and energetic principle.

The organism is a constellation (like a constellation of stars or molecules) or resonances between itself and the outer environment. The organism is a physical pattern of reflections and counterreflections that we call a body and we see it clearly as a physiology. Ourselves. A rose bush. An amoeba. An apple.

One of the reasons I have always felt at home in a McClure poem is the warmth and sensuality that animate his lines. He is not at all like the more forbidding modernists Stevens and Pound and Marianne Moore. He is scholarly, but not like the regal Kenneth Rexroth, or stentorian Charles Olson.The only other poet that offers such warmth is Robert Duncan, in whom I find many similarities. Proust also comes to mind because he was able to theatricalize a very intimate experience of human consciousness while simultaneously preserving a sense of universality. I despise aristocrats and snobbery. I cannot, in fact, stand most of Proust’s characters. I pretty much hate them. But Proust allows me entry into this world at a very deep level, a phenomenological level, where I can see Henri Bergson’s philosophy of thought and movement come to life.

McClure’s world is one I am far more familiar with. It is fundamentally that of biology and creation itself. Raw, unmitigated being. It is a world in which, as Zukofsky put it, “contemporary particulars may mean a thing or things as well as an event or a chain of events.” McClure’s eye for detail is positively exquisite. He is able to find such remarkable beauty in the everyday, in much the same way the eighteenth century French painter Jean Baptiste Chardin was able to paint objects into existence so that they veritably glow with phenomenal, palpable charm. His mugs and partially eaten fruit and wine glasses are imbued with a voluptuous numen.

McClure is about to turn eighty. This is a venerable age. And yet he doesn’t seem old. He is wrinkled, his hair is blazing white and his body may creak like an old galleon after many a rough sea voyage, but there remains a spirit that is quick and mercurial. There is a very moving poem in a recent collection of his work called Mysteriosos in which he addresses the pathos of growing old. The poem is situated in one of those coin-operated photo booths like the one that plays such a pivotal role in the movie Amélie. They used to be a common sight at bus stations and fairgrounds and have all but disappeared, gone the way of the pinball machine and jukebox.

The poem appears in a section titled (appropriately) “Dear Being,” and is dedicated to his wife Amy. I will conclude by presenting the poem in its entirety:

         of my young manhood
glittering and lovely
an ostrich boa and smashed mirrors
                  seen on acid.
Now: I am an old man with a handsome face
         and after the bloody movie full of guns and stabbings         
         and helicopters, I stop at the photo booth
and in the mirror is a dog with jowls, a silver fox,
         an eagle in the whirlpool. Here’s the strip of four photos
         a sincere man with white hair and eyebrows,
                  eyes almost inside-out, staring from a black
                           Armani collar
         Then the same man , still in front of scarlet drapes, with his eyes
         looking up into science fiction in his forehead.
Now his head rests dazed against the side of the booth.
         In the last photo I am fully alert: JUST AS I ALWAYS AM,
as the dragon world with its hundred eyes passes.
         - And I still long to be Shelley.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

                           Works Cited

McClure, Michael. 3 Poems. New York, New York. Penguin Books. 1995.

McClure, Michael. Mysteriosos and Other Poems. New York, New York. New Directions Books, 2010.

McClure, Michael. Scratching the Beat Surface. San Francisco. North Point Press, 1982.

Ovid. The Metamorphoses. Translated and with an introduction by Horace Gregory. New York, New York. Signet Classic, 2001.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. English Romantic Writers, edited by David Perkins. New York. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1967.

Zukofsky, Louis. Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays of Louis Zukofsky. Berkeley, California. University of California Press, 1981.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Story of the World

I’m carrying a gun. It’s an imaginary gun. It shoots hungry words. The words are hungry because the stars savor of oblivion. Because the ghost of an emotion sparkles in a pronoun, and horizontal feelings trigger tinfoil snakes.

I want out of the world. I’ve had enough of the world, and now I want out of it. The time has come to construct a rocket. Time has no texture. Inflation is attacking our money. The Kantian definition of the sublime is driven beyond its boundaries. A mongrel vowel crawls into a consonant and barks. No one listens. No one listens to poetry anymore.

Here is the world in a nutshell: an old woman with long gray hair shoveling dirt into the back of a battered truck. Self-reflection anticipates reconciliation with nature. And sometimes that happens. Evaporation never ceases to amaze me. Thick wet secrets of existence turn to vapor and float west.

Or east. It depends on the prevailing winds. Air pressure gradients and temperature. The colors of Corot, undulations in a field of alfalfa, a crack in the wall, a goldfish pausing to gaze out of its bowl.

Analysis is muscle. Opinion is spit.

My grip is strong. My spin is explicit. A metaphor writhes in a strangled lake. How do I explain incense to a bottle of gin?

Memories sleep in the morphine of wood. Bas-relief divinities hammer the stars. Kettledrums ooze from the syringe. I remove my sweater and hug the sky.

The house of poetry is made of air. It’s a haiku for refrigerating snow. It was that type of summer. The staircase exploded into birds.

Denim absorbs the attention of elves. I tell a joke. The joke drills into a buffalo and dances on a heresy of grass. I look at the buffalo. The buffalo looks at me. Its eyes are castles of ice.

It’s tempting to inflate our conversation with the helium of orchids. Energy lingers in the tide. My emotions turn into squirrels. The garden is hard to decipher, but with enough effort, we will come to understand the architecture of dirt.

I don’t like to travel. I like to flirt with metaphysics. My pancakes swim with blueberries and syrup. The atmosphere stirs with oracles. Each blueberry is a chapter in a novel of bald telepathies.

Symmetry is always a little intimidating. The oboe laments the inherent sadness of aluminum. I yearn for the endurance of fish. My chemicals release adjectives into the atmosphere. Swimming deepens my feeling for water. I would describe water as wet and clear and charming, like the shampoo of angels.

Have you ever been to North Dakota? You can go miles without seeing anyone. It’s marvelous to plunge a shovel into the dirt. They say that musicians paint with sound. Solitude paints with dirt.

Poets sell insinuations of elsewhere. Elsewhere is anywhere there is a stirring in a flower. The song is varnished with tears. Grebes swirl in the morning light.

I hate noise. I prefer the odor of thought. I prefer ink and emotion. The odor of thought is warm and gold. The hills of Iceland are stupefyingly green. The sky postulates rain. Morphine travels through my arm like a chocolate airplane. Elves ride by in chariots pulled by magnificent swans. You can’t beat elsewhere for its scenery.

The older you become, the weirder life gets. A headlight crawls out of the sand and points to the horizon. The leaves of perception eat the scorching sunlight of truth. Gravity has an ugly disposition, but beautiful imperatives. Light is transcendent. Ice cubes are ventriloquists.

I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time. Early in life, you learn how to fake it. You fake smiles. You fake civility. You learn to restrain your more primitive urges. You discover the grammar of the universe. You discover nouns and oceans. Clouds are paragraphs. Lightning is punctuation. Eggs inspire participles. Verbs thrive in diversion. Indirect objects induce silhouettes, and cork.

The poem runs on eye gasoline. The tongue is a truck of emotion. Emotions are pulled from the deep swamps and bayous of one’s inner being and rolled out onto the highway. The cracks in the asphalt imitate the democracy of time. There is always a sense of urgency surrounding insects. Gas stations are chapels of extraversion. The wind fingers a vocabulary of iron. The sympathy of vagabonds is never restrained. Have you ever had an itch you couldn’t find? Follow your bones. Rejoice in the serenity of autumn.

I make abstractions of henna and lace. I make elevators of sticks and glucose. I’m hungry for altitude. I carve daybreak out of a vowel. I wander through books looking for cerebral sugar. The rattle of coffee cups. Heavy machinery, shouting men. Jack Kerouac sits in an armchair watching TV. The brain crawls to the horizon and cries.

I like the feeling of old shoes. I spread raw umber on my voice. Each time we write, we struggle to remove ourselves from our habits. An idea is just a caged utterance. If you open the cage, the idea disappears. The idea becomes a string in a jar of awkward guitars.

I live in a violent culture. The story of the world smells of blood and rain. Borders are hallucinations. I hover the world on crystal wings.

Inflammations of experience generate proverbs of scope and acceleration. Grape juice dribbles down the chin. Infrared bullfrogs hop into the future. Sweet melodic sounds swirl in the jukebox. There are over 300 songs in the jukebox. But only of one them burns like snow.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Losers Gallery

I like losers. Partly because I am one, but mostly because there is a heroic dimension to their feckless attempts at adaptation. That is, if there is an attempt at adapation. A keen disinterest in adapting to the world at all, à la “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski or Henry Chenaski in Barfly, is highly engaging material in and of itself, and supremely heroic.

Chaplin’s The Tramp was one of the first of a long line of losers to grace the screen. But the tradition is much older, and might well be compared to the role of the Heyókȟa in Lakota culture. The Heyókȟa was a contrarian, jester, satirist, or sacred clown whose antics and eccentric behavior were intended to subvert convention and open a space where people could be a little freer to be themselves. The intent was to provoke people into seeing things differently.

The loser is a modern day fool. In Shakespeare’s plays, such as Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and King Lear, the fool is in fact a highly intelligent provocateur, mocking the lords and ladies with exquisite panache. But the contemporary fool, such as “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski or Annie Walker in Bridesmaids, is a peculiar blend of intelligence and naiveté. They make assumptions about other people that open them to vulnerability and mishap. Losers appeal to our insecurities. We see ourselves in them. We feel ourselves exonerated. We feel more at ease about being ourselves and accepting our flaws. Losers are antidotes to the mania for achievement.

Movies about losers have a great deal to say about conventional ideas of success. Success in the industrialized nations is evaluated according to money and real estate. It is quantifiable. And toxic. Success according to these terms has nothing to do with our inner being. It destroys the spirit. This is what renders losers such magnificent heros. A comprehensive list of losers as they appear in the movies would merit an entire book. But here are few of my personal favorites:

Annie Walker
Annie Walker, the lead role played by Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, is not a classic loser, not a down and outer on the far margins of society, but assumes those dubious honors in the course of the movie. You don’t need to be a woman to feel Annie Walker’s pain. She’s lost her bakery store and her best friend is about to marry into serious money. Her primary competition as bridesmaid is an overachieving bitch named Helen Harris, III. Annie is neither irresponsible or incompetent. She is a bad judge of character (her no-strings-attached sexual relationship with the wealthy narcissist Ted (played by Jon Hamm) is empty and exploitative, but she is a fundamentally decent and capable person. Annie’s plight is familiar to anyone who has had to compete with douche bags and suffered one indignity after another.

Jeffrey Lebowski
The first time I saw Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) wander a grocery store in his bathrobe and write a check for 69 cents for a pint of milk, I thought, that’s me. That’s me up there on the screen. I don’t, however, have anywhere near Lebowski’s ambition to do nothing but smoke dope and bowl. That’s where he exceeds all my worldly and spiritual goals.

Henry Chenaski
Henry Chenaski, played by Mickey Rourke in Barfly, is based on the poet Charles Bukowski. I’ve never been much of a Bukowski fan, his poetry has always struck me as inanely one-dimensional and simplistic, but there have been times I enjoyed its candor and raunchiness. And I can’t help admire Bukowski’s (Chenaski’s) tenacious grip on sleazy, booze-fueled all-nighters of flagrant, Dionysian riot. The subversive undercurrent of Rabelaisian contempt for bourgeois respectability is a total delight throughout. I love every minute of this messy, delinquent movie.

I’ve been a non-practicing alcoholic for 22 years now. But I still fondly remember, and fantasize, the joys of sitting in a bar for hours at a time getting snockered. Alcohol is a very imperfect drug, to say the least, but if you want release from a world of tedious regimentation and appalling banality, booze is a pretty good legal high.

My favorite lines from Barfly:

Wanda: I hate people. Do you hate people?
Henry: I don’t hate people. I just like it a lot better when they’re not around.

Rob Gordon
It’s hard to feel too sorry for Rob Gordon (John Cusack), he’s actually kind of a cool guy, leading a fairly good life. His record store isn’t thriving, but he appears to be a safe remove from bankruptcy. High Fidelity is a movie about the pangs of rejection, and in that regard, I find all kinds of sympathy for Gordon. I know exactly what he’s going through. I know exactly how it feels to be rejected, and then endure the added pain of seeing our former partner couple with a douche bag. Life is funny that way. Why do ex-lovers, husbands, wives, always seek out such terrible people when they leave us? Is it the final stab to the gut? And why, if they’re the dumpers, are they the ones that are mad? Is their awful choice of partner a weird form of revenge, or a kind of self-punishing purgation for rejecting us? Or did we find ourselves partnered with a person we only thought we knew? High Fidelity brings this issue to the fore in the guise of Ian “Ray” Raymond, played by Tim Robbins. WTF, you think. Why this guy? Raymond is precisely the kind of guy your ex is going to end up with: a yuppie douche bag with a vegan diet and a copy of the Kama Sutra on his book shelf. Gordon is a prince by contrast. Though he is something of a cad. It is revealed that he once cheated on Laura, his beautiful girlfriend, played by Iben Hjeljle. Hard to sympathize with him on that account. But when Laura’s new romantic partner enters the store, it is all painfully familiar: the condescension, the smugness, the narcissism, it’s all there, played beautifully by Tim Robbins. Who wouldn’t want to leap over the counter and pound the shit out of this guy?

The real scene that emphasizes Rob Gordon’s full status as a loser is when he visits his colorful ex-girlfriend Charlie Nicholson, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. She is wealthy. Her friends are wealthy. When Rob enters her posh apartment, and is virtually ignored by the other guests, who ooze nothing but toxic, malignant narcissism, he has all my sympathy. My one frustration is that he is too nice, too polite. He sets himself up for abuse.

Mavis Gary
Charlize Theron brings glamour and eye candy to the role of the loser. She plays a writer named Mavis Gary who isn’t a full-fledged author but a ghost writer for a young adult series. Hence the name of the movie, Young Adult. Mavis is credited as a contributing writer but she is not listed as the author, a point which is comically staged in a bookstore where the clerk tries to deter her from signing one of the books that is the last of the series. The books have been put on a table so that they don’t have to shelve them. Mavis insists she is the author, and points to her name on the inside of the book, but he clerk remains skeptical.

Mavis is living a lie. Her life is modest success financially, but is otherwise a sham. She comes across as single, detached, and incomplete. She enjoys promiscuous sex, but is emotionally distant. It isn’t until the snapshot of her ex-boyfriend’s baby pops up on her computer screen that she registers any real emotion. She goes into attack mode. It’s as if she suddenly realizes how empty her life is and decides she is going to return to her rural hometown in Minnesota and rectify the whole thing by deploying all of her feminine wiles and stealing her boyfriend back from his wife, who has just delivered the baby. Her delusions are large, and wide-open. You know things aren’t going to go well, and there is more than a little schadenfreude in seeing such a fox go down in flames. Until she begins to go down in flames. And then she hits a sympathetic cord. She might be a fox, but her life is so distraught, her emotional turmoil so alcoholic and damaged, that she becomes a figure of compelling interest. High drama. You can see the irony in the unexpected rapport with the maimed and crippled Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a catastrophic loser who rises above his tragic circumstances to become a figure of tremendous wisdom, courage, and humor. He’s fun to be around. He is fundamentally decent, someone you can trust and feel comfortable with, but he does speak his mind, and his insights can hurt. He does not pull his punches. And the guy makes whiskey in his garage. How cool is that.

Freehauf is the perfect counterpoint to Mavis. Nearly beaten to death in high school for being mistakenly perceived as gay by the very jocks that Mavis used to give blow jobs to, he is physically unattractive, in many ways similar to Charles Laughton’s hunchback in the 1939 Hunchback of Notre Dame directed by William Dieterle. One might also compare him to the beast in Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, except that there isn’t any real passion or romance at the core of their relationship. Each offers a healing energy, a profound respect and acceptance for who they are, which isn’t exactly love, not romantic love, but deep, primal redemption.

Hamlet is the Jeffrey Lebowski of brooding. A total loser. He shuffles about feigning madness and getting in everyone’s hair instead of doing the right thing and shoving a sword into his corrupt uncle, King Claudius. By the time he gets around to doing that, five other people have died as a result of his fuck ups.

Terrific soliloquies, though. Best loser soliloquies.

Hamlet 2
Steve Coogan stars as Dana Marschz, a recovering alcoholic and failed actor who is now teaching drama at a high school in Tucson, Arizona. Things are not going well. He is notified that the drama program is going to be shut down, his productions continually receive bad reviews from a prepubescent student, and his wife Brie (Catherine Keener) leaves him for their dimwit boarder. Dana ‘s response to all this is to write a sequel to Hamlet, which will include all the previous characters brought back to life, and introducing Jesus Christ, played by Marschz, in which he sings a song-and-dance number titled “Rock Me Sexy Jesus.”

The kind of fool Coogan plays is sweet. He has no meanness whatever in him. He is a perverse Candide, a man who believes in the ultimate goodness of everything, no matter how many times he is mocked, tricked, deceived, and kicked in the pants. As losers go, he is the least cognizant of his shortcomings, the most absurdly optimistic. I almost didn’t include him because he is more of a caricature than a real character, but Coogan’s vigor in this role is so irresistibly lunatic it would be remiss not to include him.

Miles (Paul Giamatti), from the movie Sideways, has been divorced for two years but is still in mourning for the death of his marriage. He has also written a novel, for which a publisher has shown some interest, and is eagerly awaiting news of its acceptance, or rejection. He makes a living as an eighth grade teacher. He is a sad sack, depressed and fraught with anxiety, and has made plans to take his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) to the wine country near Santa Barbara for a week of wine tasting, relaxation and golf, before Jack gets married. His friend Jack, however, has other plans. Jack is intent on getting laid as much as possible before taking his vows and marrying into a wealthy Armenian family, and getting his friend Miles laid as well. Miles has no interest in getting laid at all, which quickly becomes a source of conflict. Miles just wants to kick back and play golf and teach Jack about the magnificence of wine. Jack is a middle-aged actor, still recognized for his role as a doctor in a soap opera, with a permanent hard-on and testosterone drooling from his ears.

The characters in Sideways are so familiar to me I feel completely at home. I know exactly how Miles feels. I, too, suffered horribly after a brief marriage of not quite three years, believing, somehow, that we would one day get back together again, despite all the evidence to the contrary. I, too, am a writer, and have eagerly awaited news from a New York literary agent. The only thing separating from Miles is that I have stopped drinking, whereas Miles and Jack have carte blanche to drink the Santa Ynez Valley dry. I envy them.

I also know what it’s like to be depressed and try to have a good time, or pretend to have a good time, for the benefit of a friend. It’s miserable. There is nothing worse than putting yourself in a situation of fun and pleasure when you’re in the midst of despair and it is all you can do to muster the energy to take a shower. You see all the pleasure-inducing sensations, but you can’t feel them. You pretend to feel them, and the pretense makes it worse. Miles, at least, is not quite so depressed he is beyond the reach of alcohol. With a little pharmaceutical help from Xanax and Vicodin, he is still capable of getting drunk, God bless him.

Miles discovers at a critical point in the movie that is novel has been turned down. We know that he is a good writer. There is a scene in which he describes his passion for pinot noir that is captivating and beautiful. His novel has been turned down because the publishing industry is corrupted by profit motive. They don’t know how to market his book. In this sense, Miles becomes a loser by virtue of his real success as a writer. When the level of competence and overall aesthetic quality of the writing become too high, the writing ceases to be marketable.

I have long lost count on how many times I have seen Sideways. It’s not even a movie anymore. It’s a second home.

Little Miss Sunshine
The entire cast of Little Miss Sunshine are losers. Who later turn out to be winners. Not in the conventional sense, but in the deeper, more humanistic sense. The entire family is a microcosm of dysfunctional, toxic, Americanized ideals of success. But the two principle losers are Frank Ginsberg (Steve Carell) and Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear).

Ginsberg, a noted Proust scholar and homosexual, has just attempted suicide. Hoover is a motivational speaker with a pathological devotion to the power of positive thinking. They are opposites. Ginsberg, his wrists still bandaged from his suicide attempt, gazes forlornly from his sunken eyes, resigned to endure whatever indignity life has to offer. He has lost the will to fight. Hoover, who is not receiving positive feedback from the nine step program he is aggressively marketing, hovers the abyss of failure with furious determination to stay airborne. Their mutual dislike becomes immediately apparent as soon as Ginsberg’s sister Cheryl Hoover (Toni Colette) brings Frank into their suburban Albuquerque home where he must share a room with Dwayne Hoover (Paul Dano), Cheryl’s teenage son from a previous marriage who has taken a vow of silence until he is accepted into the U.S. Air Force Academy in order to become a test pilot, and who has mounted a huge portrait of Frederic Nietzsche on the bedroom wall, ostensibly for inspiration. Richard eyes Frank at the dinner table with poorly disguised contempt. Frank, incredulous at Richard's callous obsessions with winners, turns to Dwayne and asks "how do youd stand it?"

Richard Hoover is every loser’s nightmare. He will not admit any deterrent to the progress of anyone’s success, however huge and compelling, however tragic and calamitous. He is void of sympathy and has no deep philosophical views. He does not look at anything from multiple viewpoints. He sees everything as black and white and one-dimensional. He believes that success is due in part to hard work, but one’s attitude is key to obtaining it. Being morose is a mortal sin. You can work your ass off at something, but unless you’ve got the right attitude, unless your every pore is beaming radiant positive energy, success will continue to elude you. “Losers don’t get what they want,” proclaims Richard. “They hesitate. They make excuses. And they give up. On themselves and their dreams.”

Richard’s simplistic formula is maddeningly shallow. It reduces all of life’s unforeseen complexities to a cookbook recipe. It overlooks individuality and is utterly blind to nuance. It is the exact opposite of Proust’s sumptuous prose. Richard is pushy, arrogant, insensitive, and insanely, pathologically optimistic. You’ve got no one to blame but yourself for your misfortunes. You want to strangle him. Fortunately, Richard’s setbacks do have a humanizing effect on him, and it’s hard not to like him at least a little by the end of the movie.

There is a wonderful, revelatory moment in which Frank and Dwayne, who have taken a break from the beauty pageant and are standing at the far end of a dock overlooking the Pacific ocean, come to terms with the real meaning of success and failure in life. Dwayne, who is fed up with the phoniness and emptiness of competition and the whole toxic obsession with winning, tells Frank “Sometimes I wish I could go to sleep until I was eighteen and skip all this crap. High School and everything. Just skip it.” And Richard responds:

You know Marcel Proust…French writer. Total loser. Never had a real job. Unrequited love affairs. Gay. Spent twenty years writing a book almost no one reads. But he is also probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare. Anyway, he gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, those were the best years of his life because they made him who he was. All the years he was happy, you know, total waste, didn’t learn a thing. So, if you sleep until you're 18, think of the suffering you're gonna miss. I mean high school? High school-those are your prime suffering years. You don't get better suffering than that.

The real perversity of success as it is perceived in the United States is brilliantly realized in the movie’s climactic scene at the beauty competition for ten year old girls, who have been dressed up to look like glitzy, Las Vegas showgirls.

John Keats

Keats was not only a great Romantic poet of England’s Regency era, but he invented couch surfing. Most of his adult years were spent as a guest of his more financially secure friends, such as Charles Armitage Brown, where he lived for seventeen months, taking the front parlor at Wentworth Place. This is where he met the love of his life, Fanny Brawne. Jane Campion’s Bright Star focuses on this part of Keats’ life with great feeling and sensuality. The opening scenes shows a needle going in and out of a piece of white fabric. It is a beautiful metaphor for writing, as it shows all the concentration and inherent delicacy of putting words together artfully.

Ben Whishaw, who also played the poet Arthur Rimbaud in the movie about Dylan, I’m Not There, gives us a Keats who is sensitive, fun, at times irritable, and who must endure the fate of any poet in love, which is that of deep frustration. Unless one is born rich, one assumes a vow of poverty if one is to devote one’s life to poetry. This is as true now as it was in Regency England. If the poet finds a woman, or man, able to go along with this program, the scenario is still precarious, but promising. In the case of Keats and Fanny Brawne, it was simply to be assumed that marriage would never be possible. And so much of the movie shows the two being cautiously flirtatious, and falling in love despite themselves. The outcome, as we all know, was deeply, terribly sad. Most movies about losers are funny and uplifting. This one is not. It is not until the end, when Keats has succumbed to tuberculosis, that his true greatness becomes apparent to everyone. Not just as a poet, but as a human being. Fanny Brawne went into mourning for six years, and although she married in 1833 to Louis Lindon, she kept all of Keats’ letters, and wore the gold engagement ring that he gave her until she died on December 4th, 1865.