Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Salvatore Scibona's THE END

I'm en route to Ashland, Oregon, and it's been a pretty hellacious travel day: a missed flight, serious turbulence, a "wind shear warning," and four hours of sitting around in LAX. The one good thing I can say about today is that I finished the novel I've been reading, THE END, by Salvatore Scibona, which was a National Book Award Finalist last year. Just at the moment any sort of architecture of praise I might attempt to build for it feels inadequate -- the book has that sort of largeness of spirit about it, as well as a remarkable sense of cadence, as well as portraits of people so ferociously drawn they feel indelible. I thought I'd just quote one paragraph here, rather more discursive than most of the book, but a passage which reveals an intimate sense of the space of childhood and the scale of memory.

"Night, for children, was more a place than a time. For a child, to wake in the night and race downstairs toward the bed of parents was to plunge into a forest from which he might never emerge. A man could never hope to fully feel again the deep night in childhood; he could at best recall the fact of it faintly. For a man of his age, nothing could be as vast as the nighttime of childhood except the extension of thought toward his distant past, where flickered, flickered, and evanesced -- My brother and I were on our knees picking the favas when a snake shot up and bit my chin; my father held me under my arms and dangled me over a well -- and the distinctness and the isolation of the flickers, the utter obscurity of what must have happened before and after, imparted to the imagined world in which they had to have taken place dimensions infinitely wider than those of the world in which he now found himself recollecting them."

Walt Whitman for Levis (2)

A while ago I did a post here about the new Levis campaign that makes use of Whitman, sometimes directly and sometimes in spirit, to promote blue jeans. Denim, with its democratic character and iconic associations with America, would be just fine with Whitman, who'd doubtless be wearing Carhartt were he walking the streets of Brooklyn today. A thoughtful reader, though, sent me a link to this commentary on the campaign from another blogger, and it's certainly worth a look. This link also includes a TV spot where you hear in the background the Edison wax cylinder recording of a voice that's probably Whitman reading a bit of verse. I don't agree that this is the most offensive commercial ever produced -- actually I think it's pretty beautiful, taken sheerly as a piece of videography on American themes -- but Webster's points about the folks who bring you Levis are crucial ones. I personally reserve that "most offensive ad" tag for those oil company commercials that show you a shining natural world, or suggest that big energy companies are out to make the planet a marvelous, clean and safe place.

Anyway, the contradictions inherent in the Levis ad (America is noble and cracked, jeans belong to everyone but somebody very rich owns the company, work clothing is the language of the people but you look really hot and sexy in them) all seem present for Whitman, too. How can he be a booster for development and forest-clearing (see "Song of the Broad-Axe") and talk about the nobility of Native Americans"? How can he be at once a spiritual visionary and a tireless self-promoter? How be a sexual radical and an avuncular sage? Do I contradict myself, very well then...

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Madea's Family Reunion

Yesterday I saw my first Tyler Perry movie, and took great pleasure in this completely whacked-out hybrid of a thing. Madea's Family Reunion ends with a wedding in which a Christian couple is united while Maya Angelou reads a poem,people dressed as angels hang from the rafters, a guy who beats up women gets a pot of hot grits thrown in his face, and a black drag queen celebrates the church, Jesus, revenge, discipline and matrimony. HOW Perry manages to throw all those elements into the pot is beyond me; the wildly varying tones ought to wrench the whole thing into incoherence, but somehow it just remains so delicious. And all those mesmerizingly beautiful guys! It's as if Perry puts everything he enjoys (suffering but brave women, muscular and soulful men, righteous old church ladies, uplifting messages about the family, and drag comedy) all in one place, and therefore accomplishes an impossible reconciliation: the upright black family, with its emphasis on unity and moral uplift, is on the same stage with the camp comedy of a wild drag queen and a whole lot of sexiness. And I haven't even talked about the playful reclamation of stereotype! I'm in awe.

The only thing is, I also watched an interview with the writer/director/filmmaker/performer, and it was a little alarming to see how deeply he professes his Christianity, and how much pressure he seems to feel as a public figure.He talked about his own abusive father, which brings into focus the fact that the film both makes abuse a criminal reality (with the hot grits man) and a source of comedy (Madea is always grabbing some miscreant kid and wailing away). Like the relationship between Perry viewing the world in terms of the "saved" and the fallen while still dancing onscreen in huge false breasts and butt under a huge purple dress, this feels bizarrely incoherent. And yet he has this area of safety, in the films: a chaotic, contradictory, multitude-containing stage that I bet Shakespeare would have loved. Go figure.

Cinema re-mix

This is the marquee of the moviehouse in East Hampton on this rainy Sunday. I like how the titles run together. CAPITALISM WILD THINGS pretty accurately describes some of the local bandit citizens with their mansions fueled by Wall Street dollars, and I am sure there's more than one CHANEL INFORMANT around here, too. NEW YORK MEATBALLS are sandwiched between the other options. There seems to be an invitation here to re-edit the movies into new juxtaposed versions, in which one text would comment on the other.

Friday, October 16, 2009

My Diva

It was a total pleasure this afternoon to be part of a reading at the CUNY Graduate Center to celebrate Michael Montlack's anthology MY DIVA, a collection of essays by gay male writers about female figures who've possessed their imaginations. Wayne Koestenbaum read an essay on Anna Moffo, Michael himself a piece on Stevie Nicks, Jason Schniederman read a kind of cautionary meditation on Liza Minelli, and Richard Tayson celebrated an early infatuation with Helen Reddy (who, it turns out, is now a hypnotherapist in Australia). Alfred Corn read a poem in which Billie Holiday figured, and yours truly read a piece about Grace Paley. I'd been feeling that the diva as glamorous and glittery figure had been pretty well explored, in her role as a mirror of gay men's longings for beauty, power and authority. What about other kinds of female figures who might embody different aspects of our interiority? So I decided to see if I could tap into my inner grandmotherly upper West Side Jewish anti-nuke activist. Anyway, the reading and conversation after were welcoming and lively.

One aspect of the conversation I liked was the acknowledgement of the big range of ways in which men think about "divas" -- as "role models," as objects of curatorial interest, as obsessive touchstones, as icons of eros, as emblems of courage, or mirrors of vulnerability and shame.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Produced by void and fire

I've just read a fine new book by Maggie Nelson called BLUETS, just published by Wave Books. It's an essay (though the term fits only loosely, as this is a passionate, lyirca meditation) on the color blue, in short numbered sections the speaker calls "propositions." Here, as a preview, are two consecutive sections:

156. 'Why is the sky blue?' -- A fair enough question, and one I have learned the answer to several ties. Yet every time I try to explain it to someone or remember it to myself, it eludes me. Now I like to remember the question alone, as it reminds me that my mind is essentially a sieve, that I am mortal.

157. The part I do remember: that the blue of the sky depends on the darkness of empty space behind it. As one optics journal puts it, 'The color of any planetary atmosphere viewed against the black of space and illuminated by a sunlike star will also be blue.' In which case blue is something of an ecstatic accident produced by void and fire.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Lost at Sea (continued)

When I left off on the Hart Crane post below I was in a hotel room in Cleveland, and running off to lead a workshop for grad students there. Now that I've been back a few days, I've found myself turning to the materials on Crane that my good hosts in Garrettsville provided: some of his letters, and some interesting essays on the poet's life and work in a back issue of THE HIRAM POETRY REVIEW, which is published at the college in Garrettsville. (Where, by the way, a sandstone statue of James Garfield, a Garrettsville citizen, was recently cleanly beheaded; his incompletely body stands beside a chapel, looking quite lost.) I also re-read Richard Howard's poem on Crane -- with its compelling moments in a cruising area down under the shadows of the Brooklyn Bridge. And I've been thinking of "Voyages" -- Crane's masterwork -- in relation to a terrific chapbook I'm introducing for the PSA by a young St. Louis poet named Haines Eason. The speaker is "Voyages" takes the greatest ecstatic pleasure in being "lost at sea" -- rocked in the ocean of passion, where "sleep, death, desire close round one instant in one floating flower" -- as good a description of orgasm as any I can think of.

Now I think I have to add to what I've said below only a note about the poignancy of Crane's grave. The cemetery in Garrettsville is hilly and sloping. The leaves were turning, and I brought home a few mottled maple leaves fallen near the gravestone. One of our hosts' parents were buried just down the hill, which made it seem like we'd entered into a community. And because Hart's body wasn't there, and because he had no stone of his own but was forever inscribed under his father's shadow, he seemed permanently fixed on the margin: regarded from a distance, and yet still somehow one of their own, forever an Ohio boy yet never entirely claimed.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Lost at Sea: Garrettsville, Ohio, October 2, 2009

The picture above was taken on a bright gray Friday afternoon in Garrettsville, Ohio -- thus the harsh light. You can't see that on top of that same stone is inscribed the name and dates of Clarence Crane, Hart's father, a businessman and candy manufacturer, inventor of Life Savers candy and the proprietor of a shop and restaurant in nearby Chagrin Falls called Crane's Canary Cottage. Hart, of course, leapt from a ship called the Orizaba in the Gulf of Mexico in 1932; his body was never found. Exactly why his name is carved on the side of his father's headstone is mysterious to me; I don't know whether to ascribe it to lean times or family shame about the fate of their notorious ne'er-do-well son.

We had an extraordinarily moving day in Garrettsville. A number of friendly and helpful residents met us for lunch and proceeded to show us around. We'd parked on Main Street, right in front of the tavern that nows occupies the space where Crane's grandfather's maple syrup business stood. He used the roiling waters of the river coursing behind the storefronts to cool his product. Just down the block Arthur Crane's house still stands, a distinguished and solid-looking white frame residence from the 1890s. Next door he built a house for his son Clarence and Clarence's wife Grace, near the beginning of a spectacularly unhappy marriage. Hart was born in the house, in 1899, probably in a small room beside the kitchen. The current owners of the house, Dave and Kym Kirk, are proud of its history, and they welcomed us in and very kindly allowed a whole troop of visiting poets and scholars to wander through.

Garrettsville's position toward Crane seems a somewhat mixed one. There's the plaque in front of the house, but then there's another monument too, on a sidestreet near Main. It's an undersized boulder of very pink quartz, with a bronze plaque affixed to it, and it has a bit of a random look to it, as if it were a well-meaning gesture that has been set off to one side so it won't be too noticeable.

One of Crane's cousins, I'm told, gave quite a bit of money to a local academic institution, after her death, stipulating that the library that would be built with the money would be called the Hart Crane Library. They took the cash and gave the building no such name; apparently some college administrator didn't want the library to be known as "fairyland."

This puts me in mind of William Logan's absurd recent review of Library of America's newly issued edition of Crane; the critic asserted that the poet's life (and thus his work) had been damaged by "too many sailors." Presumably Logan knows the proper number of sexual encounters for good health, but I hope he never fills me in. I joke, but in truth the whole thing just makes me sad; the homophobia that did so much to swallow and erase Crane during his life continued long after his death, but who'd expect it to continue now? Logan has joined the company of Yvor Winters, who thought that Crane's poetry was permanently deformed because it lacked a "great subject" -- i.e., heterosexual love and reproduction. I suspect both critics may wind up being remembered more for these sad revelations of shoddy thinking than for anything else.

(And now I must go teach. More to come on this post later.)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Traveling Life

At Penn Station yesterday morning, I went to board my train to New Brunswick, but a huge crowd of people with suitcases blocked the entrance to the escalator. They'd called an Amtrak train on the same track, and when you board Amtrak you have to show your ticket to demonstrate that you are not a terrorist. I had two minutes to make the train. When I made it to the front of the line, the Amtrak official said, "Sir, this is not New Jersey Transit." I protested, she fulminated, I spoke in a fashion which indicated I might become temperamental, she let me go down to the track. I was annoyed at nearly missing my train, but it also struck me that it would have been pretty easy to get past Amtrak security. Does it actually have anything to do with safety at all?

Then I taught my wonderful undergrad class at Rutgers -- a twice-a-week joy -- and jumped back on the train to go to Newark Airport. The rails were rocking and the car warm, my thinking slowed, and the next thing I knew I came back to conciousness past my train stop. Off the train I leap, through Penn Station Newark, which has the aura of a grand civic past fallen into the new century; it could be an old Soviet station in eastern Europe someplace. Onto another train, which slowly rumbles its way to the airport.

Once I get to the station, I'm headed for the turnstiles when some young soldier/cop (who knows?) shouts "Sir!" He's standing behind a folding table and announces he's searching my bags. I say, "For what?" and he replies "Whatever." I want to say, well, in a police state I have no choice, but I don't, since I do plan to get to Cleveland today. He gropes around in my bag for thirty seconds and then says, "I tried not to make too much of a mess" as if by way of apology, as if when I said "For what?" I'd somehow called him on his pretense of purpose.

On to the Air Train. It's not functioning and you have to get on the wrong side, go one stop, get off, then get on the same train again. Don't ask. It's packed. We get over the highway, and it slides to a halt. We sit. The recorded voice says "The TRAIN is not in the station," which is so self-evident that I'd laugh had I not already lost my sense of humor.

Once we arrive, I check my bag, get to security, and set off the metal detector, for no known reason. When I walk through again I'm clear, declared to be no threat: I can go to Cleveland, teach a workshop, give a poetry reading.

My old student/friend Michael Dumanis picks me up at the airport, funny and voluble and full of tales, and I am immediately cheered up and glad I came. Cleveland is unfamiliar and intriguing; Paul arrives later today and we'll read together this evening. Friday we're going to Hart Crane's house, which I didn't know was possible. Saturday Michael, Joanna Klink and Kazim Ali are reading in a botanical garden. I don't have to see another airport till Sunday; I am not suspect till then, or if I am I don't have to know about it.