Monday, December 29, 2008

Housing Works

Tonight at the Housing Work Thrift Shop on W 17th they were unloading some elaborate gilt chairs and a big gilt console, kind of Liberace-goes-to-Versailles. I don't think I'd usually think these were beautiful, but there was something about them being stacked in an open truck, at night, gleaming in the streetlights -- they seemed strange and splendid.

The End of Mr. Payne

This morning a locksmith came to install new locks in our house, since it came with locks but no keys. In however many years the previous owner has been here, he'd never locked the place, and didn't know where the keys might be found. The locksmith, it turned out, was a fellow -- maybe 70? -- who'd lived close by all his life, and who'd known the house well in the past. It was occupied for decades by a Mr and Mrs Payne; Mr Payne's sister lived next door. Mr Payne developed Alzheimer's, and late in his life he wandered -- and here the locksmith gestured off toward the west -- "into the swamp." He wasn't found for four or five days, and of course he didn't survive.

Paul found this story just awful. I said, Well, maybe he didn't suffer so much, maybe he was just thirsty or cold. Maybe he didn't suffer existential dread. Paul said, Oh, I think they suffer existential dread. Clearly he was thinking of his mother, who has senile dementia, and doesn't seem to recognize anyone anymore.

But I am holding out for some alternative view, though I know it may be a romantic construct. Maybe the woods welcomed Mr Payne, and ushered him easily into a dark sleep. Maybe he liked going out into the liminal zone, land becoming water, and relinquishing himself to that. Roots and stones.

The Paynes, said the locksmith, worked hard all their lives, had no children, and scrimped and saved every penny. And for what? he said, laughing as he shuffled off.

And then in a few minutes I had to go running out to chase him, as I realized he'd put in the shining new locks but forgotten to give me the keys.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The New World

It's amazing to be living in a place where there are wildly different bodies of water right nearby. To the south of us is open Atlantic, a rough-ish beach, a wide expanse of sky. That's the top picture, taken yesterday afternoon, December 26,and the ones below are from my walk today at Louse Point, just down the road from us. That's East Harbor, a salt marsh which this afternoon was covered with mist. There were two swans feeding, and a great blue heron holding resolutely still; one of the swans is swimming by, a tiny flash of white in the middle picture. If you embiggen the bottom one, you'll see a blur of a great blue.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Pensees: "Pastor Rick"

In the ideal world, there'd be no religious leader of any sort at the inauguration; we'd keep those people at a safe distance from the state. I don't think, personally, that the primal creative force of the world has anything at all to do with nations and governments. And even if I'm wrong, we'd be better off behaving as if this were true.


Obama and his team could have chosen anyone, who wouldn't agree to pray? The Dalai Lama. An activist nun. A schoolkid from DC. Joel Osteen, for heaven's sake, who at least doesn't run around condemning people, so focused is he on prosperity as a sign of divine love. Maybe the nation could use him just now?


Obama and his team made a mistake; this was an unvetted choice in the McCain-Palin tradition, and that's a painful thing to have to acknowledge. Did they know Warren said Jews go to hell, or that gay marriage, pedophilia and incest were equivalent acts? I'd bet not. This could have been an occasion to unify the country, or at least the prayer part could have been a non-event, but now, for many of us, the inauguration is actually ABOUT Rick Warren, which is awful. I want to be celebrating the extraordinary victory of our first African-American president, 146 years out from the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as the election of a literate memoirist, a liberal, and a leader of great promise -- not to mention the end of the last eight miserable years of public life. If the guy had real concern for civic life, he'd step down gracefully and acknowledge it isn't the right time for him to be in this particular spotlight. But doesn't, an dhe won't. If you'd like some evidence of this, and you have a strong stomach, you can see for yourself while he addresses the faithful this week, with enough smiles and smarm to induce the need for a good spike of insulin, or a shot of vodka, whichever is handier.


I actually like the coalition-building idea. We've been stymied in terms of social progress by polarization, and Obama has the right idea to bring people with many different points of view together so that we can move forward. Does this mean that people who deny the civil rights of others should have a favored spot, blessing our next national venture? I said the other day that if Warren were denying the rights of any other minority group, there's no way he'd be up on that podium, but then the poet Alison Hedgecoke, who's Native American, pointed out to me that he could bash Indian rights and that'd be just fine. I think she's right; queers and Indians you can always throw under the bus.

If you can stand to watch that Warren video, you have a higher threshold for nonsense than I do. But I did make it halfway through, and there are two elements of his remarks -- each common in fundamentalist discourse -- that intrigue me.

One concerns the idea of choice. Warren says that we all have the freedom to choose to do God's will or not, and that he himself hasn't always made this choice. The notion that same-sex desire is something you choose is a fascinating view of sexuality, and it's obviously not one most people share. Do you recall CHOOSING what sort of person you'd be attracted to? Warren suggests, as Ted Haggard and Jimmy Swaggart did before him, that we live in a state of undifferentiated wanting, surrounded by pitfalls, and at any moment we could give in. Does he believe it's an act of will to remain heterosexual, does he experience his own desires this way?

The other peculiar thing here concerns the ferocity with which Warren wishes to limit the definition of the word "marriage," as though the word has such meaning and power that to use it broadly or loosely were some tremendous danger, some terrible loss. I am, of course, a person who lives by the word, and I don't have anything like this forceful clinging to definition. (Maybe becauase I'm a poet. Say the trees and sky are married, the cardinal and the feeder are married, me and my blog are engaged, I don't care, that's all a potentially rewarding line of thinking.)

Anyway, there's a wonderful book on this subject called THE SCANDAL OF PLEASURE by Wendy Steiner. It's focused on the culture wars and the Mapplethorpe flap, but it's as relevant as ever. She notes the way, when the photographer's work was on trial,
liberals defended it on purely formal grounds; conservatives attacked it because it meant something, because a photograph represented the REAL. Same with words. For Pastor Rick, marriage is X, goddamn it, always has been, always will. Fundamentalism (one of the greater scourges of the planet at the moment) is a failure to read complexly, an insistence that the values of words are absolute rather than relative. Fundamentalism gives authority to THE book, be it gospel or Koran. Writers (and more thoughtful readers) live in a world in which authorship (read "authority") is shared, distributed, and never absolute.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Monster Cable

Paul and I left many things behind in our Fire Island house -- now on the market -- because the custom there is for houses to be sold furnished and ready to occupy, right down to the knives and forks. So we're conducting our own personal economic stimulus package by buying what we need for the new house. Tonight we went to a major NY/New Jersey appliance chain and bought a TV. This is an arduous experience, since the salespeople (our guy told us they are referred to as "sales counselors") are very eager and clearly have been trained to offer you many warranties, service plans, and accessories. Picking the television was easy, but then we had to have the lengthy explanation of the potential hazards of not buying the extended service plan; score one for me, I declined that one. (Paul prefers, in these situations, to smile and make the occasional charming remark to put everyone at ease. If there's yes, no, or What do you mean? to be said, it will be said by me.)

Then came the matter of the connecting cable. We had been specifically warned by Joey, the cable installation guy, that this chain would attempt to sell us a special cable which we certainly did not need. Our sales counselor explained the vital necessity of this product, and I told him what Joey had said. He said, Why should you believe this dope? and I said, Why should I believe you? Suddenly things felt combative, and I felt strangely like my father, trying to protect myself from being taken advantage of in a harsh world full of pitfalls for the unwary.

Our counselor led us to a display -- two identical television sets side by side, one hooked up with the ordinary old cable, one with the sixty dollar "monster cable." A sign read, See the monster difference! Once the sets were turned on, we studied the side by side pictures. Could I see a difference? Maybe a little. I asked Paul, who couldn't tell any difference at all. I asked the counselor, who said, Well, I see it every day...

Now that this approach had failed, our counselor began to extol the virtues of having one cable to plug in instead of the five you have to deal with in the unmonstrous type. I pointed out that he had just changed his argument and suddenly the whole thing started to be funny. We both warmed to our task: comic persuasion and comic resistance.Experts were called from around the room and testimony given. It was sworn that I could go home, research the matter on line, and come back to get the necessary cable.Or that I could of course muddle through with the plain cable and never know the singular outlines of the blades of grass on the luminous football fields flashing on the screens around us. (Fields, weirdly, made of liquid crystals that apparently untwist to just the right degree, when electrically stimulated, to make a tiny portion of the image of a blade of grass.)

Reader, I bought it. The sales counselor was surprised. I did it because I had become entertained with an exchange that felt sour and then was converted, as Alan Shapiro puts it in a wonderful poem called "Old Joke," "to a rightness." And because I didn't want to feel like my father, ever-vigilant about being taken for a ride. Better to be taken for a few rides, or that's how I've conducted myself, anyway.

And what do you think, does one actually need a monster cable?

Temple of Beauty on 23rd St.

Last night I went back to my New York gym, after having been away awhile. The locker room there is theatrically lit; I have to make sure I find a locker that's beneath one of the small spotlights or I can't see to work my combination lock in the dark. There was something wrong with the electrical circuit, so some of the lights were flicking on and off, and it made for an amazing effect, as if strobes were freezing images of some of the most astonishing men in the world. I'm not being hyperbolic. This is Chelsea, where the standards are set very high, and though plenty of the members are just gay men who want to look good, there are also bouncers, go-go boys, personal trainers and various other fellows for whom physical beauty equals making a living. It's a glorious scene, and it spurs me on when I really don't feel much like doing those leg-lifts, and never fails to make me think about the spirit-lifting combination of sexy and esthetically pleasing that a body can be. You don't ever get used to that.

It was thus lifted that I returned home, through the quiet cold of Monday night, to read about the Pope's latest. He's somehow conflated saving the rainforest with saving the world from homosexuality, and he's declared that behavior beyond the hetero range that the Lord intended is "a destruction of God's work."

Curses and invective aimed at same-sexers from the institutional managers of the divine word will come as no surprise to anyone -- but it's still a fine Merry Christmas, Benedict, thank you very much. And I wanted to set that pronouncement beside the heart-stopping beauty of that locker room on W 23rd, where what's taking place is, slyly or with undisguised affection, the adoration of the universe's handiwork.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Assembly Required

Isn't this image instantly disheartening?

I do like the man in the upper right though, who appears to be saying, "Screwdriver" as a pictograph. The pictures on the right, which tell you how to perform the first two steps, are actually confusing at first and then begin to make sense as you understand that the circular forms represent close-ups, and the rectangular boxes give you extra information either about what piece you need or what you shouldn't do.

Would this be easier in words? Or a combination of words and pictures? The assembled result is a dining chair. I bought a coffee pot from IKEA, too, which came with a tiny brochure in 18 languages, including Hungarian. There is something dazzling about it, the notion that this same coffee pot might be unwrapped this evening in the Czech Republic, in Finland or in Portugal or China. I know that global capitalism can streamline the individuality out of practically anything, but nonetheless there's something pleasantly populist about my coffee pot and these drawings intended to be read globally. (That's a nice thing when you're shopping there, too, how wildly diverse the place is, as if every sort of citizen were on hand, all cheerfully intermingling.)

On the way home from IKEA we stopped at the grocery store, and our dinner purchase included a bag of frozen organic vegetables called Eat Your Greens -- pretty attractive, as it had asparagus, edamame, spinach, green beans... I didn't read the rest of the package till I opened it up over the stove, only to discover that it was a product of China. How much carbon, to get these frozen greens (which truly were pretty good) all the way to the eastern end of Long Island? Ugh. The world has been moving through our dining room tonight, for better and for worse.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ten Books of Poems I Loved in 2008

Jericho Brown, PLEASE
James Allen Hall, NOW YOU'RE THE ENEMY
Richard Howard, WITHOUT SAYING
Alan Shapiro, OLD WAR
Brenda Shaughnessy, HUMAN DARK WITH SUGAR
Patricia Smith, BLOOD DAZZLER
Craig Morgan Teicher, BRENDA IS IN THE ROOM

New Dependencies

The general technological muddle described in the last post continued until this afternoon, when we went out and bought a new router, and, after some fiddling and fussing concerning set up and password and blah blah blah, it works, for both our computers! And the sudden, descending feeling was, Ah, now we're at home!

I am not sure exactly when wireless internet became a necessity of life. We're both perfectly capable of doing without it for lengths of time when we're traveling; if it's not there, it's not. And yet it seems somehow to have become fused with the notion of relaxing at home, this ability to look things up, read the mail, talk to practically everybody. I don't want to think of it as an addiction; aren't we always adjusting to the next thing, incorporating it into the day-to-day to the point that you can't quite remember what you did without it? Which is just where the lovely human quality of practically endless adaptability and the tentacles of capitalism potently intersect. We just keep being introduced to whole new needs.

But still -- what if the new product brings us closer to community, what if you can use it to go exploring, what if it's an amazing way to play?

Friday, December 19, 2008

First storm in Amagansett

It's snowing like mad in Amagansett -- the first storm we've seen in our new house. It's our second full day here, so there are many firsts already and more to come. The snow came down very quickly, in tiny sharp flakes, and it brought with it an icy wind that's stil blowing, though the snowfall seems lighter now that it's mid-afternoon, the sky already darkening. Paul's asleep on the living room floor beside the Christmas tree; he looks particularly adorable. I've spent the last two hours in new-tech hell, the inevitable flummoxed state when you start with a new computer or modem or anything of the kind. How to get the cable modem to talk to the airport to talk to the laptop? I know I'd rather set this aside and go look out the front door, at the woods across the road over our gate.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Nature of Lost Things

I've been reading the photographer Rosamond Purcell's book OWL'S HEAD: The Nature of Lost Things. It's a chronicle of her years of engagement with an astonishing junk dealer in Maine; "junk dealer" doesn't really seem the appropriate term, as what this fellow did was to build, over decades, an enormous site of cast-off and reclaimed things, sorted according to sometimes mysterious principles, and then simply allowed it all to decay. Purcell loves the damaged, the thing marred by use and by time, and she's especially interested in objects in the liminal state of being almost unrecognizable, so far gone in their entropic directions that you almost can't tell what they are, or were. When does a thing cease to be an object, what are the limits of an object's identity? Is a doll without arms or legs a doll?

I'm reading this just after moving out of my apartment in Houston, a process which always involves sorting through things, letting go of some stuff, packing up and sending on others. And though I've been moving all my life, it calls into question the value or ownership. Why do I need these books, where did I get this plate or bowl, and why am I carrying them onto the next house in my life. Maybe this is why Purcell's compelling book unsettles. Her clarity about this vast, outrageous collection makes me nervous.

Here's how she catalogues the condition of the stuff in the Maine junkpiles: "I had never seen so much stuff to which so much had happened. Fraying, tattered, cracked, flattened, swollen, dried, scrawny, collapsed, shredded, peeling, torn, warped, weathered, faded, bristling, moldy, clenched, tangled, punctured, battered, bashed-in, scooped-out, withered, engorged, trampled, toppled, crushed, bald, listing, leaning, twisting, hanging, buried, wedged, jammed, impaled, straggling, stretched, disjointed, disemboweled, skinned, docked, gnawed, entrenched."

Yesterday I went out to East Hampton, to close on our new place there. The seller hadn't finished moving out yet. He's been in the house for years and had a large, rather exotic accumulation. When I arrived for the walk-through you do before a closing, the entire front yard was covered with his stuff, in various states of dishevelment. And in truth I felt sorry for the guy, in his rather overwhelming situation, but somehow I was also right back in the world of Purcell's incredible listing of things that happen to objects, and my own weariness with moving and packing, and it's not really an exaggeration to say I felt a kind of vertiginous horror: stuff, stuff, free me of stuff!

From which no one can be quite freed, and of course I don't really want to be. Most of the time.

Here's a slideshow of Purcell's work.

Splendid Displays

Here's more on the theme of mysteries and displays. I'm back home in New York, and today the biggest snowflakes I've ever seen fell on W 16th Street, about the size of those paper umbrellas they put in cocktails, and as they fell they seemed to become little cones of snow, pointed end downward, looking for all the world like badminton birdies dropping from the sky. The flakes got smaller, disappeared, came back, and by nine o'clock the city had a Christmas aspect. Above: lights in the trees on a playground on Hudson, a fountain in Jackson Square and, from earlier today, a shop window on W 44th Street. Those musical instruments are each about three inches long, and each comes in a perfect little case; they seem to have migrated from the Museum of Jurassic Technology, another wonder-cabinet of miniatures. Who wants a very tiny mandolin? I do, naturally, but I think you'd have to have a lot of them for these intricate little replicas to make any sense.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Soviet Space Dogs

The image above is a portrait of Laika, the first dog to be sent into the sky as part of the USSR's space program. Like the other dogs these missions employed, Laika was found on the streets of Moscow, and trained not to be bothered by loud noises and motion. She was launched with no plan or means of returning her to earth; she simply went further into space, alone. This portrait of her hangs in the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, and there's a lit candle burning just beneath the image. Below are portraits of other dogs sent into space painted by the same painter. Of these, only the white one at the bottom returned to earth.

The World is Bound with Secret Knots

I went to downtown Culver City because I had a little extra time this afternoon and wasn't quite ready to go back to the hotel yet and get ready for tonight's reading. I thought I'd just walk around briefly and see what might present itself; I had no idea that I'd enter into a chamber of secret knowledge. I went down one block looking at shops, got to the corner thinking that was that, I'd turn back, and there across the street was the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I've heard about it, though I haven't read Lawrence Wechsler's book -- but I hadn't known where it was. Or really visualized it. Its combination of genuine mystery, parody and homage is unlike anything else; it is a splendid work of disorientation, and it partakes of shadowbox, theatrical lighting and sounds, the pleasures of science and optics, pseudoscience and sheer artful fakery, a whole spectrum of ways we might know the world outside of narrow, familiar pathways of cognition. I could write all day about it, and not get it right, though I'm sure I'll keep trying. Suffice for now to show you these mysterious photos; they were taken in deep darkness, so they're as elusive as their source: a model of a divination machine designed by the 17th century genius Athanasius Kircher. Inside glass jars etched with the zodiac, the winds, and who knows what else are wax figures who turn on their axes when magnets move. Kirshner made a sort of unified field theory; he thought that magnetism moved everything, and all the complex interactions of the universe were a dynamic push and pull of magnetic force. These haunting globes hold gods and angels and animals, turning to point out the weather or the movement of the stars or simply to enchant, in the deep darkness of their chamber, while bells ring and music chimes and somewhere a dog barks and a long-gone opera singer, who sang her final performance beside Iguazu Falls early in the twentieth century, accompanied by the dull roar of the great waters -- while her voice unspools in some antique recording of German lieder a few rooms away.

Athanasius Kircher, by the way, invented a clock powered by a sunflower.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Alan Dugan/ I and Thou

Last night at a party I was talking to a poet friend who hadn't been familiar, until recently, with Alan Dugan's work. That isn't unusual, as Dugan's been a bit off the radar for most poets working now. At the time that he won the Yale Younger Poets Prize he'd been working in a factory in New York which made -- I kid you not -- plastic vaginas used to demonstrate the proper way of inserting a diaphragm. The book went on to win the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. Imagine having all that fall into your life, at 40! He wasn't so interested in engaging in the poetry world -- or was interested but wasn't comfortable there, or had an ongoing stake in thinking of himself as outside the mainstream. He lived in Truro for decades, with his wife the painter Judith Shahn, and taught some local workshops, gave readings, and lent a huge amount of time to the Fine Arts Work Center while he went on publishing his books over the decades. His collected poems, published by Seven Stories Press late in his life, won him a second NBA, and it's a monument, an amazing compilation of cranky, acerbic, unexpected poems that somehow seem to slip by effortlessly till you read them aloud and realize how incredibly well made they are. Here's his most famous poem, a classic piece of dark comedy I never weary of. He's a figure whose work needs to stay in circulation, for all kinds of reasons -- one of which is to remind us of the huge range of tones that a poetic voice can allow. Who was ever better at a poetry of grumpy, sardonic, rebellious directness?


Nothing is plumb, level or square:
the studs are bowed, the joists

are shaky by nature, no piece fits
any other piece without a gap

or pinch, and bent nails
dance all over the surfacing

like maggots. By Christ
I am no carpenter. I built

the roof for myself, the walls
for myself, the floors

for myself, and got
hung up in it myself. I

danced with a purple thumb
at this house-warming, drunk

with my prime whiskey: rage.
Oh I spat rage's nails

into the frame-up of my work:
It held. It settled plumb.

level, solid, square and true
for that one great moment. Then

it screamed and went on through,
skewing as wrong the other way.

God damned it. This is hell,
but I planned it I sawed it

I nailed it and I
will live in it until it kills me.

I can nail my left palm
to the left-hand cross-piece but

I can't do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,

a help, a love, a you, a wife.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tuesday Afternoon, Seal Beach

I read tonight at Cal State Long Beach, to a big and warm audience, and I was welcomed by a great bunch of writer-hosts, including Patty Seburn, Lisa Glatt, Suzanne Greenberg and Charles Harper Webb. I'm so grateful that they housed me down the road in a hotel in Seal Beach, so this afternoon after I arrived there was just time to walk out onto the long pier here before sundown. Seal Beach is like an old-fashioned Jersey Shore town, but with eucalyptus trees. There were Christmas decorations on the lampposts along the pier, and the lights came on just as the sun went down. Down in the Pacific, surfers in the water -- something an east coaster never tires of seeing in December. Isn't it winter?

The pier is quite high up in the air, so you look down onto the beach from some distance above. Two little girls in long greenish princess skirts were carrying a red velvet armchair down near the shoreline. There were two adult women with them, taking pictures I think. Something wonderful about the image of the elaborate chair beside the sea, and the girls in their party clothes: a festive little flash of surrealism.

Monday, December 8, 2008

"Weaponised Hounds": A reader writes from London

"I came to see you read at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London a few weeks ago. I was able to introduce a few friends to your work that night, which was great. There was a story I wanted to tell you but the general throngingness made it feel inappropriate - never mess with a London poetry crowd.

The story was this. All my life I've had a phobia of dogs. Most dogs I can't even look at them - I just see a shadow, something unnatural moving. But - you know - I like your work and I know what comes with the territory, so I read Dog Years. Now, in London from about two, maybe three Summers ago, it got really fashionable for the local big Y Youth to wander about with what I can best describe as Weaponised Hounds - bull terriers and dogs like that. They'd seem to parade with the dogs up and down the Harrow road, near where I live. I was reading your book as I got off the tube at Royal Oak to walk home, and suddenly came to what my surroundings were. And somehow spending time with the attention you'd given to describing Arden and Beau meant I could see this dog right in front of me on the arm of a swaying boy in a hood in all of its devotion and creatureliness, - even though it looked more crocodile than dog. I followed that dog about a hundred metres before sanity prevailed and I realised this was not one of the dogs from the book. The story ends there, I'm afraid; I didn't let it guide me any further. But it was a remarkable experience, and I thank you for it.

With best regards,

Mat Paskins"

Sunday, December 7, 2008

"Say goodbye to her..." (part 2)

Here's the Cavafy poem I was quoting in the previous post title, in the Keely/Sherrard translation. Plutarch, I understand, tells a story about Marc Antony, how he heard in the night in Alexandria the sounds of a procession outside, music passing in the dark; it was his patron, Dionysus, leaving him behind. It was the end of his divine protection. For Cavafy, it's the city itself that is divine, and all holy cities will be lost.


When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

I don't mean to say that Houston is a great capitol, quite -- I'm not sure anyone would want to say that they were "worthy of this kind of city" -- but any place you spend ten years become dense with memory.

Here's an article I wrote about this particular Gulf Coast Alexandria that appeared in SMITHSONIAN this fall. It was written, of course, before Hurricane Ike, so it's a little ironic to read this stuff about those big tropical rains now. And I should mention that a reader has informed me that the gangs of birds I describe in the piece are not boat-tailed grackles (which like the coast) but great-tailed grackles, a wonderfully noisy urban species who've migrated up from Mexico. Talk about strange musical processions!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

"Say goodbye to her, the Alexandria you are losing..."

I've spent most of the day packing, and it's not like I've done that much physical labor, but for a while thia afternoon I was so weary I had to lie down. It wasn't til later, when I went up onto the roof deck at dusk to look at the lights and get some air, that I realized that what I was actually feeling was an underlying sadness. I took some pictures of the skyline and the traffic on Montrose below, thinking about the way this strange jumble of a city has been part of my life for ten years now. I'm ready to go, but there's also something poignant about moving on.

Later, after the gym, I went to a Vietnamese restaurant I like, and a Ukrainian waitress took my order. While I was dipping half-circles of dry translucent rice paper into a bowl of hot water and then rolling up herbs and lettuce and cucumbers and the most delicious fried onions, some guys went through the dining room carrying a huge Christmas tree, so big you couldn't see all of it at once as it passed horizontally through the doors. When I left, the staff were decorating the tree. A man and a woman in bad glam-rock costumes, with butterfly swirls painted on their faces, came in for dinner.In the parking lot, I stopped to listen to the loudspeaker from the gay bar across the street. "This is for you, James," the DJ said, "for your birthday, bitch." Then he proceeded to play a very funny, dirty parody of a popular ballad sung by an emotive black woman, so loud that it filled the whole parking lot, louder than the traffic going by:

You can fuck me in my bedroom
You can fuck me in the kitchen
You can fuck me with a dildo
Just fuck me when you can.

Viet Nam, the Ukraine, Christmas, glam rock, the tacky old sweet and filthy world of old-school gay bars: all at once. Oh, and I got a fortune cookie with my dinner. Goodbye, Houston.

A Patron Saint of Revision

The wonderful photographer Nancy Crampton just sent me this photo of yours truly and Peter Matthiesen at the National Book Awards ceremony. I think we look a bit like two old Chinese poets briefly returned from exile to meet at some ceremony the emperor's conducting. I've been thinking about Peter's astonishing project in SHADOW COUNTRY -- taking three novels published years ago, revising and condensing them, letting go of literally hundreds of pages. This is one of the more commercially unlikely projects I can think of; I can only imagine a somewhat tentative response from an agent or editor presented with such a prospect: I'm rewriting my three old novels, okay? And it's artistically brave, too, to acknowledge that we seldom really feel done with anything, and to attempt to go back and get it right, or at least make it better.

And look what happened.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Weeping Ink

I'm in LA to read for the Poetry Society in about an hour. The delightful Rob Caspar took me to a terrific Mexican restaurant near downtown called Chichen Itza, and the food was delicate and arresting, but I have to say the most fascinating thing (aside from Rob's very good company) was the waiter, a trim Latin guy in his 30s with a chiseled face and a sweet yet slightly distant demeanor and, just beneath his left eye, a tattooed tear. I couldn't take my eyes off the tear. I managed to be attentive both to Rob and to ordering and eating lunch, but my gaze was hostaged, every time that beautiful blue tear floated anywhere near our table.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Ozymandias on Bissonet

I'm just a little cotton-headed today from last night's hoopla -- a reading at Brazos Bookstore, Houston's independent/literary bookshop on Bissonet Street-- and a party afterwards celebrating my National Book Award and the end of my ten years here in Texas. I drank enough red wine that I don't feel like such a sharp-witted blogger today, but I did want to write about a lovely thing that happened at the reading. There's a poem in my new book called "Apparition: Favorite Poem" which describes an evening a few years ago at that same bookstore. I'd been in a bad mood about the fate of poetry, "the old books turning into dust and sleep." Who was reading this stuff, why did we lavish such obsessive energies on its making? Then I went to the Favorite Poem event at Brazos, one of those occasions organized by Robert Pinsky, when civilians (i.e. non-poets) read or recited their favorite poems. It was a diverse crew of citizens, and a great night, but there was one young man who stood out in my memory, because he read, with great conviction, Shelley's "Ozymandias." It seemed so of another age, that poem, and yet here it was with us in the room, alive and breathing.

So, a while later I wrote my poem describing that performance, and who should appear in the audience last night but the same fellow, Craig, now maybe eighteen or so, and luckily for me he was happy with his representation in my piece, and so were his parents, who proudly introduced him and bought copies of the book for their friends. Here was something of the gift-giving nature of art: Shelley gave Craig a gift,
Craig gave one to me, now I've given something back to Craig. The giving is not direct and not even really personal; Shelley gives him poem to anyone, Craig read to anyone who was there that night, I wrote my poem for whoever to read. But the very impersonality of it somehow enables the gift to be received personally, to matter to the recipient in a way the giver doesn't usually know. That's where the odd, sweet generosity of poetry resides.