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.

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.


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!


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:


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.


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


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.


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!

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.


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

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.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween in Chicago

Near the Navy Pier, this little girl in her wings -- like a Vivian Girl from a Henry Darger painting! -- was climbing a lamppost while her mother sat on a bench talking to another woman and watching the fiery waters come shooting up out of a fountain. They'd lit the water all molten lava colors for Halloween, and there was fog-machine mist pouring out too. But the winged girl was the enchanted thing.