Sunday, November 30, 2008

Jericho Brown's PLEASE

PLEASE (Western Michigan University Press) is a terrific first book by Jericho Brown, a young poet who's teaching at the University of San Diego. It's only fair to note here that Jericho was my student, but the book has such life and fire that I'd be writing about it here if I'd never met him (though Jericho's a delight and I'm very glad that I have). One of the things I admire about this book is how boldly it steps into the difficult double territory of being black and gay, without resorting to any kind of familiar certainties about either. There's an energetic un-ease about this book, and one of the ways that's accomplished is by employing a wild range of multiple speakers; Diana Ross, the lion, tin man and scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, Luther Vandross, Janis Joplin.

Here's just a brief sample, a sweetly elegaic poem that gives us a scene that barely exists in American literature: two black guys in bed.

FAMILY PORTRAIT

My breath is also released
As I shiver onto my boyfriend's back.
Then open my eyes to the faces
Of my children, faintly

Sketched in white swirls
On brown skin -- the only place
He can carry them. Out of my body,
They look less like me

Than like my mother and father
Who will die when I do. Their mouths
Poised to blame, I wipe them away
Before they can speak.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Invisible Strings: Amy Hempel, Max Ernst


This afternoon Paul spent about an hour trying to find three Amy Hempel stories he wanted to use with his class at NYU, and once he'd dug them out of his files in the closet he went out and photocopied them. Then we went up to Lincoln Plaza to see Milk,but the next three shows were sold out, so we went across the street to a coffee shop, and who was just about to step out of a drugstore onto Broadway but -- Amy Hempel. I love Amy, and it was great to catch up a little, even in the chilly hustle out on the sidewalk. This seems an example of the invisible strings binding elements of the universe together; Paul is concentrating on Amy Hempel's stories, and then there she is, she whom we run into -- every three years?

Then we walked across the lower half of the Park, and down Fifth to look at shop windows. The little shadowbox windows at Bergdorf's are incredible, like surrealist dreams, and the big splashy ones are startling too; see the fashionable Max Ernst-style birdwoman above. Then the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, which isn't lit yet, and then Bryant Park, which has suddenly filled with this village of small metal and glass buildings, like greenhouses, each containing a little shop full of colorful things you would never want, and there's a skating rink called The Pond where the tents sit for Fashion Week. The Pond, it seems, is brought to you by Citigroup. Hmm, didn't we just give them 300 billion dollars? The Pond probably did cost a pretty penny,

Cavafy Reprise

James Robert Hopkins sends another version of the Cavafy poem, this one from Aliki Barnstone's recent volume. Thanks, James!


IN THE SAME SPACE

Surroundings of the house, meeting places, neighborhoods
that I see and where I walk, for years and years.

I created you with joys and sorrows,
so many events, so many things.

And you've made yourself all feeling for me.


This version makes me think about the final line in a different light, since in each of the three translations, the speaker doesn't seem to have actively transformed the neighborhood; it's never "I have made you into feeling", but rather, "you've made yourself," or "the whole of you has been transformed," or "you've been wholly remade" -- in other words, it's the world that transforms itself in us.

This is especially interesting after the active work of line three: "I created you" or "I crafted you..." But it would seem from the final line that it's the world that's really in charge here, not the artist.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

In the Same Space

Here's a poem of Constantin Cavafy's that has been crucial to me for years, in Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherard's translation:

IN THE SAME SPACE

The setting of houses, cafes, the neighborhood
that I've seen and walked through years on end,

I created you while I was happy, while I was sad,
with so many incidents, so many details.

And, for me, the whole of you is transformed into feeling.


This poem speaks so much to my own sense of memory, and of the way we take cities into ourselves and make of them an interiorized imaginative landscape, that I stole the title for a poem of my own in SCHOOL OF THE ARTS, a poem that recalls Washington Square in the days before the destruction of the World Trade Center, when the two towers would loom in the south in the evening, softened and blued by twilight. It was the only time I ever thought they were beautiful, or had any aspect of friendliness about them. I even reprinted the translation above in the notes at the back of my book.

I've been reading Daniel Mendelsohn's exciting new versions of Cavafy, which are forthcoming early next year from Knopf. I trust Daniel won't mind if I post here his version of this same text.

IN THE SAME SPACE

House, coffeehouses, neighborhood: setting
that I see and where I walk; year after year.

I crafted you amid joy and and amid sorrows:
out of so much that happened, out of so many things.

And you've been wholly remade as feeling; for me.


This startled me at first, since I'd so internalized the rhythms of the previous version, but it didn't take long to begin to see its considerable strengths. That first line is artfully rendered by four nouns in a row, and something about simply naming those four things with only the connective tissue of punctuation seems to suggest from the beginning what this poem is up to, bringing that setting into the self, so that it becomes the loved internal map, a city crafted and remade within.

I love the authoritative cadence of the last line in the first version; it seems to sweep up the details in the lines that precede into it a singular, ringing affirmation. But the Mendelsohn version does something quite forceful itself, by italicizing "remade as feeling," as if to point to this act as the poem's center, a kind of definition of the common work of both memory and art.

And isn't that semicolon there, after the italicized phrase, brilliantly placed? It throws "for me" into a kind of small room of its own, at line's end. It pushes us back to the title, to contemplate the way that "in the same space" where an external city once stood, now there is the self. And for whom did I remake it? For me.

Mendelsohn's version of the poem is beautiful, and pleasingly unexpected. It has the right feel of contemporary speech to it -- just what translation ought to do, refresh the great poems of the past, bringing them into the discourse of the hour. The splendid Keeley-Sherrard versions were published first in 70s, so this feels like just the right timing: thirty years later, a bold, confident, gorgeous new Cavafy.

And it occurs to me that Daniel's version is now "in the same space' as Cafavy's original, and the Keeley-Sherrard text, too -- the three poems overlap, making a zone of meaning.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bitten

Late this afternoon there was a rustling around in the dry leaves outside the fence at the Fire Island house. That particular sound can only be a bird rooting around for bugs or a passing deer, and when I went down the walk to look there was a small doe, quite young-looking, staring through the wire fence at me with that look that seems to ask if food is about to be offered. We were only staying a few hours so we hadn't brought much, but I went in and got a handful of raisins for her. When I went outside the gate, I walked toward her, and she toward me on the shady deer path under the bamboo. She was slowed down by a bum hind leg, so she wobbled a little as she walked, and just as she got close to me she got nervous and hopped clumsily into the bamboo. I knelt down and held my hand out, and in a while she brought her face nearer to sniff, reached her mouth toward the fruit, and bit me on the finger. I think it was that she wasn't clear about what was food and what wasn't, and the idea of licking something from my palm seemed foreign to her.

The bite only hurt enough to wake me up thoroughly, and actually I liked finding out that deer's teeth are very flat on top; they must be perfect for their assigned work, tearing up leaves. It did startle me though, and the raisins wound up on the ground. I think she enjoyed them.

I should add that I know perfectly well you aren't supposed to feed wildlife. The Pines is a special case; a contained little population, no cars, no predators, and the deer just thread their way through human lives, sometimes interested, often indifferent. (When we walked up on the boardwalk to the beach at sunset, a stag walked right underneath our feet, just pausing for a moment to glance up at us before moving on.) Somehow it doesn't seem quite accurate to think of them as "wild"; they're citizens of a different species, and they're already deeply involved with us, and there's no wild state to go back to.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Hope for us all (#2)


Photo taken a few days ago at 23rd St and 8th Avenue.

Packing up the books

I'm packing up the apartment in Houston. I've already been working on this a bit here and there, but now things are getting serious. Books going into boxes, the accumulated stuff we picked up in Salt Lake a decade ago or during my/our time in Texas. While I was packing I began to think about how many times in my life I've moved, and felt myself resisting the attempt to count: just let it be a large, inscrutable number. With a new job looming that I'm truly excited about, and a new summer home almost ours, I'm thinking that the number of moves ahead of me perhaps isn't very large. Could it be true?

This line of thinking brought to mine a poem of Stanley Kunitz's. Mobility, through much of Stanley's life, was harder to come by than it is now; for him, the prospect of turning your back on love and property and wages becomes a cry of freedom. I think the poem must have arisen out of one of those moments of being on the move -- the in-between state, or the about-to-be-in-between, when one's exhilarated by possibility.



THE SUMMING-UP

When young I scribbled, boasting, on my wall,
No Love, No Property, No Wages.
In youth's good time I somehow bought them all,
And cheap, you'd think, for maybe a hundred pages.

Now in my prime, disburdened of my gear,
My trophies ransomed, broken, lost,
I carve again on the lintel of the year
My sign: Mobility - and damn the cost!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Friday, November 21, 2008

Tales of the City

The guy on the top floor of our building is renovating his apartment, as in gut renovation. So when we opened the door this morning to go out to start the day, the hallway and the stairs were covered in plastic, and the plastic was covered with plaster dust, and a row of silent Mexican men were sitting on the steps waiting for something to happen. I said, "Hey," and they said nothing. I said, "Demasiado trabajo!" and they said, "yes, good morning."

Later, at the gym, a guy working out next to the bench where I was doing a back exercise said to his trainer, "Very rich people always serve plain food because it makes them feel like common people. I hate it when I go to the Lauders and they have meatloaf."

Let's see: probably-illegal immigrants dusted with old plaster, sitting on the dim stairs, and meatloaf at the home of one of the richest men in the world?

And although it bears no clear relationship to economics, I can't resist reporting one more overheard line, from a construction worker out on the street below my window, who shouted to somebody, sort of affectionately, "Hey, my shadow's better looking than you."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Work of Accepting Good Fortune

Every now and then I say to Paul, "I won the National Book Award," and he nods or says yes, understanding why I need to do this. I'm working on making this real. How can it be the case, how does one admit such news?

I have a fair amount of critical distance from awards, having been on both sides of the process and understanding how peculiar the whole thing can be, and how many factors come into play. Fifteen years ago, when Gore Vidal won for nonfiction, he sent a message from Rome saying, in effect, "Awards are always wrong. You've already chosen the wrong poet and the wrong novelist, and now you've chosen the wrong nonfiction writer." Readers of poetry are a stubbornly independent lot, I am happy to say, and don't care what anyone says they ought to read. They make their own way. Poetry is made for the long haul and what's honored this year isn't necessarily what will stick around.

All that said, I just couldn't be happier about winning. It feels different from the inside; the honor has a deep kind of glow about it. It lends both validation and a funny sense of permission - something along the lines of license to play, to chance.

I don't like the fact that my winning means my lovely brilliant fellow makers don't. Richard, Frank, Patricia and Reg are extraordinary. We all know there's no real way to judge between us; you can't take such individual, potent achievements and say this one is "best." It's just built into the structure of the prize.

And I'm still happy. And feel like I haven't woken up yet somehow. Which is why I will send interested readers to Paul's blog for the kind of good details that might give the texture of the night. I've just been made too, umm, hydrogenated somehow to write it. But he's done a great job with just the right fizzy, dramatic, pleasurable, kind of giddy feel.

Big Shining Moment

I'm speechless just now, in the big swirl of last night and this morning...
maybe by tonight I'll be able to form some sentences?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Lit Life (2)

The NBA finalists reading tonight was pretty great, and I have to say the poets ruled the house: Frank Bidart, Reg Gibbons, Richard Howard and Patricia Smith all made me so glad to be in their company, and enlivened by the intelligence and music and heart of their speech.

I was especially thrilled by Richard's poem, in which the speaker, looking at a postcard of a Gustave Moreau painting, addresses Constantine Cavafy, who as a young man wrote a poem he later rejected about the same work of art -- except that Cavafy had never actually seen the picture, just read a description of it by a French art critic. Richard's poem is a marvel, moving from the ridiculous (Moreau's devouring sphinx is surrounded by the corpses of men who didn't get her riddle right, and she defecates jewels) to the sublime, when Howard evokes Cavafy's movement beyond the Oedipal to adult poems of desire, of (and here I paraphrase, since my copy of the book is in Houston) "human reports on the inhuman." I don't know any one else who could take such an elaborate set-up and produce a meditation on art, maturity, and the relationships between artists of such power -- both grave and over-the-top at once, almost absurdly refined in its sensibility and somehow absolutely powerful and authoritative. Bravo!

HIgh-speed Lit Life in NYC

This week feels like a wild ride, with some literary event in NYC every night. Tonight all the National Book Award finalists are reading at the New School; tomorrow night's the big award hoopla downtown; Thursday evening I'll be reading at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at CUNY; Friday night I'm at Teachers & Writers Collaborative with the wonderful young poet James Allen Hall, whose book NOW YOU'RE THE ENEMY came out from the U of Arkansas earlier this year. And sometime while all this is going on we're going to get busy and get all the stacks of paper and piles of books in the apartment in order, since some people from Borders are coming over to make a short video on Saturday. As my mother liked to say, Lord help us and save us. Time for some deep breaths.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A visit to the future


Walking through Galveston, it occurred to me later, was like being dead. It was as if a hundred years had passed, and we'd come back to revisit one of our old haunts. Everything had been destroyed, more or less; the buildings were still standing, but whatever had occupied them was gone, and either they were sitting derelict or the workers were busy working on the gutted interiors. Every surface seemed covered with dust. The parking meters didn't work. The workers didn't seem to register that we were there, which made me feel more ghostly, like we were just slipping through unseen. That's odd, for a ruined place to make one feel like a phantom -- as if I had been carried away by the storm myself. There were huge piles of debris here and there, and other places just the emptied buildings sitting waiting for something new to happen. The trees downtown were all leafless; either they perished from wind and salt water or they're still waiting, months after the storm, to make a comeback.

In a hundred years or two, will we all be walking unnoticed through the remnants of this world?

This photo was taken down by the sea wall, where things seem a bit more hopeful than they do on the Strand. By the water, there are souvenir shops open, and crab shacks, and people are coming out to have a look and pose in front of the disaster. This ruin was the Mermaid Pier. Now the elements (and the seagulls) move right through it. That blue rectangle on the left moves when the wind blows. If you look closely you can see some strings of light bulbs still festooned from the eaves; the walls are gone but the lights are still there.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A useful antidote for literary prize stress

This wise quote from Tillie Olsen's SILENCES is courtesy of Michelle McGrane:

Literature is a place for generosity and affection and hunger for equals - not a prize-fight ring. We are increased, confirmed in our medium, roused to do our best, by every good writer, every fine achievement. Would we want one good writer or one good book less?

DENIED: Partner Health Benefits


Here's Paul at today's rally for Marriage Equality in Houston. That sign he's holding is no joke. I've been a Professor at the University of Houston for ten years, and for most of that time I have held an endowed chair as John and Rebecca Moores Professor.
But unlike my married heterosexual colleagues, I'm not eligible for health care coverage for my family. How long will this discriminatory practice continue? When will the academy, or the State Board of Regents, or even the "creative writing industry" say no more, that's a tacit form of genocide, to say that we don't care if your families have medical care or not.

I'm leaving Houston at the end of this semester. I've loved my students and my work here, but I have to say I'm happy to be moving to an institution -- Rutgers University in New Brunwick, New Jersey -- that respects difference. How many more decades of this, Texas?

Friday, November 14, 2008

My most fundamental name

David Hinton is a marvelous translator who has for years now been dusting off classical Chinese poetry, giving wonderful poems a fresh idiom and a newly clean surface. He's just published CLASSICAL CHINESE POETRY: AN ANTHOLOGY, from Farrar Straus, and it's splendid, just as his previous volumes would have led us to expect. I could quote this book half the night, but here's a poem that feels especially apt to me as I'm getting a little wound up about the NBA next week. It's by Wang Wei, and it dates from the 8th century.

OFFHAND POEM

I'm ancient, lazy about making poems.
There's no company here but old age.

I no doubt painted in some former life,
roamed the delusion of words in another,

and habit lingers. Unable to get free,
I somehow became known in the world,

but my most fundamental name remains
this mind still here beyond all knowing.

Dirty, Poorly Dressed

I've been reading Roberto Bolano's poems, in a new collection called THE ROMANTIC DOGS, translated by Laura Healy and published by New Directions. I am not completely convinced by these translations, which seem faithful but don't necessarily make for vivid poems in English. But there are amazing moments along the way. Here's the opening of a poem called Sucio, Mal Vestido (or, in English, Dirty, Poorly Dressed)

On the dogs' path, my soul came upon
my heart. Shattered, but alive,
dirty, poorly dressed, and filled with love.
On the dogs' path, there where no one wants to go.
A path that only poets travel
when they have nothing left to do.
But I still have so many things to do!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Eros in the middle of the last century



Thinking about Tony Dow got me to considering other early erotic imprints, and how I used to love Steve Reeves movies, especially from, umm, third grade till sixth or so. I'd look forward to Saturday's TV movies, usually Italian and weirdly dubbed, concerning the adventures of Hercules. These films always included dwarves, and busty Italian women playing princesses in danger, but the center of it all was Steve Reeves, in a loincloth and maybe a leather harness or a jeweled belt. I was fascinated by him, of course in part because in the years I'm talking about, roughly 1962 to 1966, there weren't a lot of available images of good-looking and mostly naked men around. But there was also something about the allure of the ancient world. Hercules moved through a landscape in which the gods might show up at any time, or whisper through the lips of a statue. They blew a gust from their lips and ships crossed the dark Aegean. The hero was always held captive in some temple where braziers burned in the dark, smoke going up to heaven, and the ancient world was perfect, sealed away, splendid.

A few years before, we'd lived in Nashville, and I have a very vivid memory of visiting the reproduction Parthenon there. Inside there were replicas (?) of Greek marbles -- horses' heads with their wild eyes, and fragments of centaurs. The twisting bodies were shockingly alive, even though they were unthinkably old and gave off a kind of damp, stony cold, almost an odor.

It was just a step, from the Parthenon to the movies I knew even then were silly, though they were completely compelling, too, centering as they did around the unveiling of beauty -- in another age, remote enough to be safe to look at, but somehow close enough to enter into my imagination and take hold.

Mixed media drawings by Rory Golden


Rory Golden is a poet, printer and artist's book-maker I met in New York who's now living in Atlanta. These are recent mixed media drawings from a series called "Chickenbones." I love the emotional urgency of Rory's work, and the way these pieces talk about sexuality, slavery, animals and appetite. He's amazing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Proof there is hope for us all




'Leave It to Beaver' Actor to Show at the Louvre

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: November 11, 2008

Filed at 7:40 a.m. ET

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Eat your heart out, Eddie Haskell. Tony Dow, best known as the actor who portrayed The Beav's big brother, Wally, in the '50s TV series ''Leave It to Beaver,'' will have one of his abstract sculptures on display at the Louvre. Several sculptors from the Karen Lynne Gallery -- including Dow -- will have their works shown at the historic art museum in Paris as part of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts exhibition.

''Having something shown at the Louvre is about as good as you can get,'' said Dow, who lives in Los Angeles, ''especially when it's a juried show like this where there's a panel of judges who pick the pieces to be in the exhibition. I'm a little humbled by the whole thing but grateful nonetheless.''

Dow, who has also worked as a director and visual effects producer on several TV shows, has been painting and sculpting since he was a teenager. The 63-year-old artist's sculpture that will be shown at the Louvre from Dec. 11 to Dec. 14 is titled ''Unknown Warrior,'' and is a bronze figure of a woman holding a shield.

''Of course, I'm really proud of 'Leave It to Beaver' and my directing career in television,'' said Dow. ''Those are great accomplishments. I'm really proud of them, but this is interesting because I don't think they know anything about that at the Louvre.''

Monday, November 10, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

I've been thinking about how much I like Charlie Kaufman's new film, Synecdoche, New York, and wanting to talk about it, but in truth it isn't easy to begin. The movie is startlingly alive and ambitious, and more than a little overwhelming. The first thing I noticed is that it takes a kind of narrative practice that's become familiar from inventive films like American Beauty or TV shows like Six Feet Under, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy or dream, but soon it's clear that there's no point in the viewer trying to keep the worlds separate; this film's more interested in the branching possibilities of narration, and of using all kinds of gestures to get at its characters' inner lives. Thus a man gets facial sores, blood in his urine, a limp, a dry mouth and eyes, just to name a few of his symptoms, all because he feels himself falling apart -- and in this movie's terms, indeed, the self can't be held together; our common lot keeps us leaking, and leaking into one another, open to interconnection and recurrence and beginning again.

But I've said all that and I haven't said anything yet. I don't know when I've seen a film so vibrating with feeling: people vibrate, weep, love each other, abandon and betray each other, get sick, die, lie, have sex, make art; nobody seems able to move without screwing somebody else up. And somehow or other, often because it's so awful or so extreme, this manages to be funny, too. Nothing here is stable, not your age or your gender, not your love or your desire or the parts you play.

Kaufman's film is finally most about what it is to be an artist, to have the will or the desire to represent your whole life, to use every element of it -- to, as the politicos say, "leave it all on the road." I think it's maybe 15 minutes too long, and goes a little conceptual at the 7/8 mark, but I don't care in the least: it's uncomfortable, unnervingly moving, maybe sublime, and makes you glad to be alive at a time when such things can be made.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Where do you write?

Somehow I've fallen out of the habit of writing at home. It began when Paul and I moved into an apartment in Manhattan, which is -- like the home of every middle-class person in the city unless you've been there forever or have fantastic good fortune -- tiny. Urbane, cozy and welcoming, but very small. I couldn't work there when Paul was working, because he's just too much of a presence; I can practically hear him thinking. So I started to go to coffee shops in the West Village, which worked well for me -- just enough background noise, usually nobody there I knew, other people working too so there weren't loud cell phone conversations. Of course, these places are full of other people thinking, but I don't have the same connection to their electric impulses that I do to Paul's.

Now I'm in Houston, and though I'm here by myself, I still can't work at home. Either I've forgotten how to sit still in my own space, there are too many distractions (wireless!), or my imaginative process has just adapted itself to circumstance and I haven't adapted back. Today it's a gorgeously sunny, cool Sunday, a rarity here, so all the usual places I'd go are packed, and I've wound up at a coffee shop in my neighborhood. I don't like the vibe indoors, so I am outside, at a table which does not inspire confidence in its stability, and some guys next to me (who just left, thank goodness) were talking about how they'd only date white girls with at least a GED. Now I think I can settle down to work.

Is this just me, or do you find you have trouble concentrating in familiar places the way you used to? My idiosyncracy, or cultural shift, or some of both?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Remembering May

Last night I read here at Utah State to very receptive, warm audience; it was just a total pleasure. The reading was part of the May Swenson Reading Series, so named because Swenson was a Logan native, and Utah State University Press has been a champion and advocate of her work. To my delight, about eight of Swenson's relatives appeared at the reading. She was born into a characteristically large Mormon family, and grew up just a little down the hill from the campus, and though she took off for Greenwich Village as a young woman to pursue the adventure of her life, she kept a connection to this place and to her big Swedish clan.

After the reading, and after I signed books for a lot of enthusiastic young readers, there was a reception at a house a few blocks away. The Swensons all came, a very distinctive presence among the crowd of students with their slightly alternative look and the forty-something faculty in their sportcoats and nice dresses. The Swensons ranged from Paul, May's youngest brother, who's 70, to Roy, the oldest surviving one, who was born right after May, and who's now 94. Both write poetry, and both belong to a writing group that's also attended by some of the young writers who were in the room.

Turns out the Swenson's childhood home was right next door. It had been given to the University, after they'd all grown up and moved on, and the school bulldozed it to build a parking lot. (So much for preserving writers' homes...) There was something very moving about these lively people remembering their childhoods eighty and ninety years ago next door. And after we'd been talking for a while, I looked up, and all the young people had left. The Swensons closed down the party.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Cache Valley at twilight


I'm staying on the campus at Utah State, and late this afternoon I walked down toward town for coffee. The campus is up on the edge of the foothills -- benches they call them in Utah -- and so the mountains loom dramatically behind it. This view is just on the edge of the campus, where you can look down across the whole valley. The picture's a little blurry because it was getting dark, but if you click on it to enlarge it you make out the startling presence of the snowy mountains on the other side. Those glowing towers are, of course, the Holy of Holies. Today in West Hollywood thousands of people protested in front of the Temple there, furious about the church's twenty-five million dollar intrusion into the lives of gay families.

In Utah the mountains always seem startling. I think that to the 19th century arrivals, they must have looked like engravings of the Holy Land, with those looming peaks over huge open expanses of dry grassland. And even now, it's like the mountains pull your attention up, away from the social world beneath them. This is an inviting kind of transcendence (I lift mine eyes to the hills...) but it's dangerous, too; if you've got your eyes on the sublime up there you might not notice the human landscape around you, where love and desire are not monolithic and singular, but various, diverse and uncontrollable. No matter how much you try to channel them into some kind of pre-determined template. All the repression in the world won't work, though it will make people miserable along the way.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Stealing the Angel's Trump

I'm flying to Utah in the morning for a reading in Logan, May Swenson's hometown. Swenson took off for Greenwich Village as soon as she was old enough to leave home on her own, but Utah State is a loyal publisher and advocate for her work -- which is sprightly, formally inventive, wild, and under-read. I know that there will be a warm and receptive audience there, and lots of thoughtful and interesting people at the school, but I have to say just at the moment I am not looking forward to stepping off the plane in Salt Lake and seeing, in the distance, the white towers of the temple, where the golden angel Moroni perches on top, holding out his golden trumpet. Just now I would like to get ahold of that horn and blast out a message on homophobia, imposing your values on others, using fear and distortion to promote legislation you approve of, and using a busload of church money to influence public policy. Would someone please take those people's tax-exempt status away now? Jon Stewart notes that the LDS has such a long history of defining marriage as between one man and one woman! Is that why they're so anxious about my marriage?

But speaking of May Swenson, here's a delightful and startlingly contemporary stanza from her poem, The Key to Everything, which appeared in her book ANOTHER ANIMAL in the mid-fifties:

Is there anything I can do
or has everything been done
or do
you prefer somebody else to do
it or don't
you trust me to do
it right or is it hopeless and no one can do
a thing or do
you suppose I don't
really want to do
it and am just saying that or don't
you hear me at all or what?

A song to celebrate the day


You can ignore the pictures; the performance is too great to miss. Happy day after to all; this morning the nation's a bit of a different place.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Good Luck with That

The Hour that the Ship Comes In

And the words that are used
For to get that ship confused
Will not be understood as they are spoken
For the chains of the sea will have busted in the night
And lie buried at the bottom of the ocean...

Bob Dylan

Monday, November 3, 2008

En Route to Houston

At O'Hare this morning the airport security people opened up my laptop, to make sure it was really a laptop, and had me open a bottle of prescription oral rinse. I've been carrying this stuff all over America and to the UK too, and nothing like this has happened. I asked how I was chosen and they said, "random." Of course I happened to be wearing an Obama t-shirt. Maybe I'm being paranoid, but I don't trust those people for a minute, and I don't believe in "random."

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Corrupted Language in Chicago

We saw an amazing Jenny Holzer show today at the Museum Of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Most of the pieces were her signature streaming LED words, pouring through the gallery space like headlines on the news marquees in Times Square. But the words were instructions for detention and interrogation, and in their multiple strips of cascading text they seemed both instruction and disinformation, untraceable, as if they came from no human agency but simply directives pouring from above, from authorities. They abstracted torment, as government language does. They made you feel that language had been so removed from its referent, and came twisting or spiraling down in such anonymous cascades, that it bore almost no relationship to the work it so clearly effected: one person harming another.

On some walls were blow-ups, on canvas, of documents Holzer had gotten through the Freedom of Information Act, censored pages deacribing the torture of detainees in Iraq, along with the half-blacked images of the handprints of American soliders accused of harming Iraqi civilians. In one room, there were two tables of bones, arranged by size and shape, very orderly, some with little metal cuffs on them engraved with almost unreadable texts. But the dominant thing were the streaming electronic words, going across the floor, through the wall, curving down to the floorboards, barreling across a horizontal scaffolding, many lines of text echoing and repeating. A few of the lines seemed to belong to the tortured, the violated, but most of the words were in the language of directive, and some of them seemed to echo Elaine Scarry's description of torture in THE BODY IN PAIN, how the torturer takes away the identity of the victim, becoming the center of the victim's world, destroying any stability.

Holzer's show, which is called PROTECT PROTECT, is amazing; it somehow makes the reality of what our government has done alive to us, perhaps by avoiding the expected used of photographs or much in the way of concrete evidence. Nothing here but words and bones. This is political art that doesn't use any of the standard methods. The terrible reality of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo is made of language; words permit and proceed the pain, justify and normalize it. Words are my stock in trade, they're where I place my belief, and here that medium goes streaming, dealing out lies and murderous instructions, bending and sliding under our feet.