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Ruminations on literature, art, politics, music, photography, design (architecture and landscape), wine and spirits &c.

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    There has always been a strong tradition of fantasy in Hollywood films, and the re-cycling of classic material was present from the beginning. In theatrical productions, big panoramic narratives were limited to a few set-scenes in which the sweep of landscape and large-scale adventure was merely referred to off-scene. What movies brought to historical fiction and recorded historical or Biblical accounts was a sense of the dimensions and echoing reverberations of crucial events.

    Keira Knightly--is that a hair-lip, or an expensive plastic surgeon's mistake? 

    Straightforward narrative adaptation carries risk. There is always the danger of conducting a slavish adherence to a plot line, which can be very powerful and convincing in a novel or a narrative poem, where the author can throw emotion and implication into sharp relief with explanation or interior meditations; but in a movie, slow moving, heart-rending involvements among characters can put an audience to sleep. Daytime television soaps have been built on this fluff and nonsense for decades, but movie-makers have known for a long time how dangerously melodrama--as a generic alternative to action--can turn out.

    Did this guy wander in from the set of Sailor's Night Off?

    In the 19th Century, hand-wringing cliff-hangers were born. Dickens, a popular purveyor of the early forms of schlock in literary fiction, picked up on the theme of the billet-doux (Richardson had invented it a century earlier), and expanded it into a vehicle for muckraking and vicarious serial obsession. Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is many things, but it is first and foremost a story of adulterous degradation, romantically driven, among the European upper-classes, amidst the tumult of late 19th Century Russia.

    What Tom Stoppard, the playwright/screenwriter, and the director, Joe Wright, seem to have wanted to do with this old warhorse was to provide a camp, post-Modern conceptualizing frame, taking the story on its face and dressing it up in exotic drag. There's precedent for this, of course. Ken Russell, in the Music Lovers, or Mahler, or Lisztomania, indulged in a kind of free-lance variation that glorified the over-romanticized fantasy-vision the subjects' music seemed to evoke. The pop-operas of Andrew Lloyd Webber, which contain elements taken from grand opera, musicals, music-hall, to front essentially uninspired musical ideas to audiences unfamiliar with real opera.

    Tom Hooper's recent Les Miserables, a pathetic light opera dramatization of Victor Hugo's towering novel, set the stage for fellow "innovative pioneers" like Wright, looking for precedents to justify the dismantling of other seriously conceived works of literary or dramatic art. It's really only a hop, skip and a jump from Johnny Depp mugging and smirking in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or the latest Pirates of the Caribbean episode, to the mooning, dewy-eyed Aaron Taylor-Johnson sashaying in circles around Keira Knightly as the anorexic Anna. There's about as much erotic energy between these two onscreen to keep the energizer bunny strutting for one half second. Pardon my indelicacy, but am I the only one who's grown tired of Knightly's weirdly constructed face, which looks as if she's had an operation for a cleft palate?

    The early scenes of the film take place on a traditional stage. The curtain rises, and the action begins. As things progress, scene shifts take place right in front of the viewer, as if we were following a hand-held through a round-robin of shifting sets. This constant shifting gets a little trickier as the movie progresses, but the point seems to be to emphasize the dramaturgical clunkiness of trying to make a movie out of static stage set-ups. In some scenes, the extras go through choreographed syncopated motions, in once instance, clerks at desks all thumping ink stamps in unison. In another scene, dancers in a formal ballroom are frozen while the lead couple moves among the inanimate groupings. Actors move up wooden stairways to the catwalks above the stage, where other scenes take place in suspended  space. In another, a horse race begins right on the stage, and in a screwy climax, the horse takes a flying leap off the stage into the audience. With all this chaotic, expressionist nonsense, I half-expected the participants to break out in song. If this were Les Miserables, they would have. If Woody Allen were directing, Konigsberg would leap out of a flaming ring in a cossack's cloak, spouting Spinoza or Nietzsche.

    Undermining your own drama with awkward theatre props and surrealistic effects may work with something like Orlando [1992], where the story-line is already an elaborate fantasy with sci-fi pretentions, but attempting to treat a straight late Victorian novel by Tolstoy as if it were a Philip K. Dick daydream is just dumb. Like everyone else in this mess, Jude Law was miscast as the "older" husband of Anna, but at least he soldiers through with something like honest conviction. The rest of the cast probably understood very early on that they were trapped inside an absurd flop, and did their darndest not to be noticed. Joe Wright apparently believes that he was born to direct movies, that he's more comfortable behind a cameraman than doing anything else. Since Robert Altman did Nashville [1975], directors have come to believe that the less control they exert over the making of an ambitious movie, the better. Wright's enormous failure here is but another demonstration--if one were needed--that "accidental" movie making is just an excuse for being unclear on the concept.

    In the end, we're left wondering whether this new Anna Karenina is destined to become one of the great camp spoofs. If it doesn't, it won't be for lack of trying. What's next, the Disney version of Boogie Nights? Maybe Coppola could come out of retirement and do a remake of Hairspray!                    

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    As non-human species continue to be pushed into extinction, so must the intellectual metaphors derived from them become extinct too. Trends in human expansion and exploitation of the earth are nearing crisis stage, or are already here. 

    In the 2013 Consensus Statement from Global Scientists by the Millennium Alliance for Humanity & the Biosphere, released this last May, there are five major areas of concern: Climate Disruption, Extinctions, Ecosystem Transformation, Pollution and Population Growth and Resource Consumption, in addition to an "interactions" summary which describes how all these effects produce accelerated and compounded synergistic consequences. 

    Over the last quarter century, birth rates, primarily in the major developed nations, have been declining. As the report details, however, the population of the earth, which presently stands at roughly 7 billion, is expected to rise to 10 billion by mid-century (2050). While birth rates have been declining in some places, in others they've been rising. The human population of the earth has tripled in just a little over half a century. The wave of increase will continue to push the numbers ever higher, despite an expected moderation of increase in the immediate coming decades. 

    As the report says, although each individual contribution to global change and consumption is tiny, when multiplied by billions, the effect becomes inordinately large. The loss of habitat (and open space), the exhaustion of available resources (including food, energy, raw materials for clothing and shelter and goods), the extinction of other animals and plants, and the growing mass of pollution (sewage, garbage, and industrial waste) all are direct consequences of rapid, uncontrolled population growth. 

    Today, 80% of the world's population lives below the poverty level. A third of the world's people lack basic sanitation. 15% lack access to fresh water and any kind of health services. And these numbers are growing worse. 

    Despite the most dire predictions for human catastrophe, including famine, plagues, poor quality of life and hopelessness, the issue of population control has virtually disappeared from the public political arena of debate. 

    Here in California, despite a mathematical decline in domestic birth rate, we've seen a 30% increase in population, almost exclusively the result of an increase in immigration (10 million of a total population in the state of 38 million), most of it illegal. The population of Mexico has tripled, in the last 50 years, to over 105 million. The direct effect of the poverty of third world nations, such as Mexico, has been to drive populations, as "diaspora" refugees, into neighboring regions, such as the U.S. Critics point out that what the streams of illegals are seeking is economic freedom and opportunity. But the real driver is uncontrolled population growth, in a country that cannot support them. 

    We have seen how the "global economy" exploits these inequalities, at the expense both of the industrial nations, and the backward ones. The great irony of the modern world is that, had population not so rapidly overtaken us, the improvements of technology and farming and health and transportation would have permitted a prosperity around the world that would have astounded thinkers and dreamers just a century or so ago. The quality of life which we enjoy in what used to be called the "civilized nations" of the world--if it is to be perpetuated--depends on a sustaining balance between numbers of people, and the available resources and space.  

    There are those who point out that if and when prosperity can be spread, birth rates will come down there as they have here. But the new global economy model has had just the opposite effect, by driving down the standard of living, and therefore encouraging over-population as a consequence. Rather than helping deprived nations to streamline the consumption of resources, which will only deepen the crisis, we need to be devising ways to slow population growth. 

    Population growth inevitably drives demand, and over-demand destroys the environment, and the quality of life, not just for people, but for all living things, with it. Do we want a crowded planet, perpetually teetering on the edge of eco-bankrupcy, or a sustainable pathway where fewer people live better, more fulfilling lives? There are certain subjects which almost no one wants to address. Even the Sierra Club has abandoned the issue of population, worried that the public will think it's too "un-PC" a topic. When all the forests have been cut, all the rivers dammed, the aquifers drained, the atmosphere fouled, the seas barren and polluted, will it be a place anyone wants to live? 

    The capitalist model demands more, always MORE! More people, more stuff, more consumers, more money. 

    When the world population crashes, as theorists and economists and scientists believe it is on a course to do, the "correction" that will bring humankind back to "level" will likely involve the miserable death and suffering of billions of people--the dreaded apocalypse predicted in early religious texts. Whether this occurs as a war, or a famine, or a plague, or some combination of these, is imponderable. But we do know it will happen, without some moderation of current trends. Business as usual won't get us out of this dilemma.    

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  • 09/20/13--07:18: Eggleston's Tricycle

  • William Eggleston - Memphis [circa 1969-70]. Dye-Transfer Print

    It's not always easy to say why a certain photograph works. Often, that difficulty is a measure of a picture's success. 

    Our brain processes visual data in ways that are not completely understood, but we do know that it begins by transferring initial signals into an adjusted orientation--upsidedown to right side up, transposing left and right, so that we can respond to our "actual" position in space. Sensitivity to color varies from individual to individual, but the color spectrum can be objectively represented on an accurate graph, based on frequency of the waves of light. 

    The symbolic and intuitive and denotative senses of things among perceivers are ambiguous and never completely specific. We all see and feel experience a little differently, and even if we share the same rough history or environment, there will always be isolating qualities of our selves which are fixed inside our uniqueness. But common properties can still be assigned to "universal" objects and relationships. As children, we enter the world by stages; we aren't mature enough to drive an automobile, or to handle guns, or to experience sexual interaction. Instead of driving cars, we learn to navigate on small scooters, or tricycles, like the one above. 

    American childhoods are built out of "toys" like this, and over time, these toys become iconic symbols or images of our common heritage of shared memory. We've all ridden tricycles as children, and we've seen them from a million different vantages, in as many different ways as there are. But there lies hidden, in and around the world we live in, views and angles of vision which we may not notice, may never know are there, simply because no one ever had thought to bring them to our attention. 

    Most of the time, in our lives, things seem "normal"--that is, they seem as if they're the way they're supposed to be, where they "belong." So as our eyes scan our environment, we tend not to "see" a lot of what's there--it just all fits in to the general gestalt of our familiar surroundings. There's a sense of permanence, constantly being altered by the progress of decay which is the entropic fact of the universe.

    When we grow up, we can remember some of what happened to us as children, but not all. Some people recollect more, some less. What we tend to forget is how things may have looked to us when we were just "little people"--only 3 or so feet tall. What did it feel like to look "up" to adults, those monstrous big creatures ambling around, towering above us? We wanted things to be smooth, and happy, and fun. Adults moved in a world of commands, responsibilities, stern denials and mysterious motives. We were under their power. They praised us, or scolded us, or ignored us, or kept us moving in the right direction. 

    The photographer William Eggleston's work presents art that is superficially bland, even banal--made up of people and buildings and vehicles and landscapes that aren't asking to be seen, or studied, or appreciated. The things in his pictures just are. You can see scenes like this every day of your life and not have any particular feeling about them at all. But when you look at an Eggleston photograph, something else is definitely happening. I could go on talking about his work generally for a long time, but I need to focus on this one image.

    The vantage-point of this image would be about 1 foot or so from the ground. The photographer was probably lying right on the ground, or maybe sideways. He liked the relationship that the trike created, framed against the neighborhood house in the background. The bike seems huge from this view, and that is precisely what we notice, perhaps subconsciously, right off the bat. We're returned to the perspective of our childhood, when we saw things from nearer ground-level. As a kid, I remember I used to like to turn my head upsidedown and see things from that perspective. The perspective in this photograph might be just a bit exaggerated, i.e., the lens might have been just a bit wider that "normal" focal length, making the background appear further away than it really is. 

    So there's this trike, and it's not being ridden. There are no people in this photograph. There's an implied narrative, unspecified, that could be deduced from the placement of things here. Has the trike been left out on the sidewalk? Is the distance between the trike and the house a kind of measure of the degree of freedom or attachment the rider senses? The trike is a metaphor for getting some place. As kids, we will grow up and leave home, and our bikes, then the cars, become the vehicles for that departure. 

    Of course, there are disturbing narratives too. The owner of this bike is gone, or he/she is missing. What might that mean? Has the kid been kidnapped?! We don't know. How much should be deduced from a situation like this? It's certainly possible to read too much into any situation. And yet this is something we do all the time. We make up stories.

    Is childhood a time of certainty, or of doubt? Riding a trike is just a pleasant activity, feeling the sense of efficient movement, control, performing a simple task.

    As our childhood inexorably recedes from us, the part we played in the time of our life becomes smaller and smaller, like a shrinking memory. In the picture, the tricycle occupies a foreground between the viewer, and the recession of time represented by the house in the distance. The house may stand for the world we were born into--its pleasures and terrors, its security and ephemeral stability. In the suburban paradigm, this home is not a farm, or a cave, or an apartment building, or a castle; it's the American mid-century world that Eggleston is documenting: The slightly over-rich Kodachrome color palette, the post-War preoccupation with building up pathetic little archives of personal, familial history, which seem so futile in retrospect . . . . It has a quality of sad absence, a wistful sense of passing that is not grandeur, or monumentality, or joy. The trike, though, is magnified in our vision of it. They say that as we get into old age, our mid-range memories recede, while our earlier, or earliest memories become more vivid. A favorite doll, an early playmate, a special toy, a certain place may expand in importance, in retrospect.

    The photograph is like a diagram of the structure of mortality, how the material world, which surrounds us, and of which we are a part, is moving gradually towards an end which is our death. Reality can only have a meaning for us in the brackets of this segment of consciousness. The rusted tricycle exists only in a ghostly suspension, a context we outgrew. In the brief slice of time represented by the trike--the color slide of the shutter's click--a whole civilization comes and goes in the blink of an eyelid. But in our mind's eye, which is where memory lives, there is the fragile template of our own regard. We may long to return, or resist that disintegrating legacy, but it is beyond change. We escape the past, only to discover the inevitability of the present--a presence that is constantly dissolving into an irretrievable past.  

    You can't go home again--Thomas Wolfe.  


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  • 09/27/13--07:50: The Expostulation Surveyed

  • Ever noticed how many kinds of sneezes there are?

    The word sneeze has precious few synonyms. There's sniffle, snuffle, snort, sputter, wheeze, whoosh, sneer and puff. But none of these really is an equivalent noun. Most of them seem to be a description of the sound. In English, onomatopoeia refers to a word that "sounds like" what it means. But onomatopoeia is of course a Greek word (ὀνοματοποιία), a compound of "name" and "I make". Thus the Greek word actually means to "create a name"--not a word that imitates a sound. We actually misuse the original meaning of onomatopoeia; but that's a common thing in language: distortions and misapplications are happening all the time, either through creative redefinition or ignorance. Ignorance could be a driver of useful simplification, though it can also create havoc, as words are abused and lose their accuracy.

    I've catalogued a lot of the kinds of sneezes there are, through simple observation. Types of sneezes seem to organize themselves into the following categories:




    Stiflers are people who for one reason or another want to deny or suppress their sneezes. They may think that sneezing in public is not hygienic (spreading germs), or is indelicate (rude), or they're uptight and want to control their natural nervous energy. Stiflers will often use their hands to pinch their upper lip, or to put pressure on their nostrils. I've even seen some people make fists and close their eyes tightly, in an effort to hold down a sneeze, as if they were concentrating on a pain, or on some especially resistant mental quandary.

    The Sprayers like to--or feel no alternative to--let it all hang out, so to speak. They accept the sneeze as a natural occurrence, even of enjoyment, and they welcome the sensation of release it provides. Snuff, of course, the finely ground tobacco powder, popular in Europe during the 16th to 19th Centuries, was an inducement to sneezing. Art and literature contain many representations or mentions of snuff-takers. The artificial inducement of the sneezing reflex is something which came to be identified with snuff, though it doesn't seem to have been the point--sniffing snuff was just a way of ingesting nicotine. Sprayers will either sneeze openly, or hold their hand or a handkerchief or tissue to their nose, to prevent the unwanted spread of the spittle or snot into the air around them. Snot could of course be added to the list of words that refer to or suggest sneezing.

    Virtuosos are sneezers who make a veritable performance of a sneeze. With the consciousness of the approach of a sneeze, they engage in a "warm-up" including an intake of breath or a straightening of the back and neck, and then express the sneeze through both the mouth and the nose, even making singing or wailing or humming sounds during the performance. These people have taken spraying one step further. Sneezing, after all, is akin to having a small orgasm. Our autonomic nervous system, which is largely involuntary, runs the heart, breathing, swallowing, sexual arousal, as well as sneezing.

    The capitulation to sneezing--or even the greeting of it--might be considered as a symptom of personality type. Stiflers may be people who habitually conceal their feelings, or at least any histrionic demonstration of them, as if they were "in church" all the time. Sprayers and virtuosos may be more uninhibited, more likely to express their emotions, or more forward in their human interaction. These are merely speculations, you understand, though I think many people would agree.

    Then there are the variations in the kinds of sounds that sneezers make:






    Stiflers are often chirpers. Women, especially, will often make a high-pitched "choo" or abbreviated "chuffing" sound. Since sneezing is associated with illness, the addition of a high-pitched note to a sneeze is perhaps an attempt to make the sneeze seem ephemeral or innocent, rather than the symptom of infection. Really sweet high-pitched "ah-choo" stiflers are a delight to listen to.

    Grumblers are people with deeper voices, who seem to be holding the sneeze below the voice box, then, reluctantly, capitulating to it but with the "protest" of a kind of cough or grunt. They may be especially willful types, who want to master the body's unruly tendencies. Actually, grumblers are related to coughers, who may try to turn a sneeze into a cough, believing or feeling that that is a small victory over a full-blown, no-holds-barred, sneeze.

    Hissers make sibilant sounds--s's or z's or whirring sounds--often with just a hint of a tone underneath. These variants often seem deliberate, as if the sneezer wants to "silence" the sneeze into a toneless rush of air.

    Gulpers may be related to whoopers. Whooping is not accurately sneezing, but many sneezers may employ a kind of whoop voice wave sound, either as a build-up to the sneeze, or as an enhancement of the performance. The build-up is a common characteristic of many Sprayers and Virtuosos, who seem to be adding an enunciatory fillip to the impending act, or to give it a little boost of energy.

    Pyrotechnics are the real virtuosos of sneezing. They regard sneezing as the opportunity literally to ex-press themselves, and will voice loudly and vehemently, or even operatically, through the sneeze, from build-up, release and sighing aftermath.

    I have also noticed a variation in the number and frequency of sneezes. My wife, for instance, who was once a stifler but now tends towards chirping, always sneezes in groups of three. I seem to be either a one sneeze guy, or a two sneeze guy. Having more than two sneezes in quick succession makes me feel light-headed or even dizzy. I've always been a sprayer, though of course I always try to contain the spray, unless I'm outside or alone somewhere. Getting to have a really intense sneeze, outside, is actually a pleasure.

    Physiologically, the sneeze is the body's way of expelling unwanted matter from the air passages. We can't reach in and clean the nasal passages, so the body needs to have a way of dealing with stuff in there. Nasal discharge helps lubricate the soft sensitive lining of the nasal cavity, to gather up dust and pollen and other substances that may irritate. When a boy, I had allergies to dust and cat-hair and certain pollens. In my thirties, I finally outgrew them, and have happily lived with two or three indoor cats for the last 30 years with no ill affects.

    No one enjoys the feeling of being ill with the flu, and sneezing with the affects of nasal or throat infection is no fun. But sneezing as a momentary event or minor occurrence is perfectly natural, and not the evidence--as it was once thought to be--that one has been inhabited by a satanic influence. Even today, in our very post-superstitious world, people will obsessively exclaim "bless you!" if they hear you sneeze, as if the saying were a little prayer for righteous virtue. Some years ago, when I worked for the government, I had a Chinese client with the name Ah Chui. He was a nondescript and polite little man. In Chinese, the word for sneeze probably doesn't sound anything like "ah-choo!" since it is recognized that different cultures actually "hear" things differently.

    Do people in other cultures sneeze in characteristic ways, different from our own? Is sneezing--the manner of it--something we "learn" to do at an early age? Is it possible to learn to discipline the body to suppress the sneeze impulse deliberately? These are important questions which remain to be answered. For my part, I'm neutral on the issue of sneezing. I don't want to sneeze more, but if a sneeze comes, I'm not opposed to experiencing it, without attempting to suppress it. On the other hand, I'm wary of repeated sneezing, which is often the harbinger of the coming of a case of flu.

    Bless you! 

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    Popular historians describe the "Roaring Twenties" as a kind of dionysian revel in which people were inebriated, partying, senselessly throwing inflated money around, and generally getting into mischief. The first great American fortunes of the 20th Century were being made and spent, and the children of the rich were just getting their sea legs for the latest yacht race in the harbor. Of course, this fantasy was never true, though yacht racing as a pastime continues to live on.   

    This last week, the America's Cup races were held in San Francisco Bay. Don't ask me to describe the technicalities of the elimination process, which reduced the number of participants to just a small handful of competitors, because I can't. Actually, I'm not much interested in sailing, never having been sailing in my life. (I know people who do, and have, but none who took the sport seriously enough to want to compete in races.) Sailing a sailboat is difficult at best, and often dangerous, especially when the seas are rough and the weather uncooperative. I haven't any desire, at this late date, to volunteer as a deck-hand on a sail boat, and I don't have any rich friends who own one, so the likelihood of my being involved in any sailing venture is nil. Owning a boat is an expensive hobby, and isn't something one undertakes lightly, as I surmise. 

    The America's Cup

    The self-made billionaire Larry Ellison, whose company Oracle is among the most successful software companies in the world, decided that he wanted to "challenge" the "holder" of the "cup" in 2013, and the race was contended in the San Francisco Bay. The style of the boats competing for the Cup has changed over the last century and a half, the present versions being "wing-sail catamarans" with multiple hull designs. These are what I like to call the new "formula one" racing boats. The America Cup races were "sold" to the City of San Francisco as a tourist and revenue-generating event, and there was some controversy about whether this was really going to be a suitable investment for the Bay region. Like most ordinary people, I suspect, I wasn't very concerned about the financial side of it, I just had mild curiosity about the sport itself. 

    As a spectator sport, viewing is limited to watching from the shore. Like most large-scale events, it was more efficient and revealing to see it filmed from helicopters and "chasing boats" which circle around the action, than simply to sit in low grandstands on the shore--in this case, along the Marina Green along the Crissy Field near the San Francisco Yacht Club harbor. Wife and I had the occasion to be near the yacht racing event a week ago today, when we were queuing up for the annual Friends of the San Francisco Public Library book sale, held here each September. There were groups of avid photographers gathered at the ends of the Herbst Pavilion piers, which were wind-blown promontories from which to catch glimpses of the racing craft as they plied back and forth from East to West and back again over the waves of the Bay. Not being a sailing buff, it wasn't clear to me who was "winning" but it was clear that when the big vertically mounted sails were in a strong following easterly, the boats were almost elevating at 50 miles per hour!, with white spray flying. 

    The money it takes to mount a craft and a crew to sail competitively is such that only the very rich can participate. Contenders represent "clubs" so the Golden Gate Yacht Club was officially the challenging entity, though the actual winner of this year's competition was Oracle Team USA. At the end of the competition, Team Oracle overcame an enormous deficit of eight points to win on the final day of racing.    

    Yacht racing is clearly a holdover from an earlier era, when rich men made public demonstrations of their power and wealth. New Money supplants Old Money, and the dogs bark but the caravan moves on. Rich men still like to show off, and there is of course the pride of nationhood which infuses everything that involves people from different countries competing with one another. The rest of us just get to watch and marvel at the spectacle, the same way we do professional baseball, football, basketball, ice hockey, soccer, auto and bike racing, or the international Olympics. But yacht racing is so exclusively a sport of "kings" (or knights of commerce), that it's difficult to imagine oneself ever having a hoot in hell chance of participating--even in our dreams.

    So, in the spirit of imagination, vicarious and mild, here are a few recent cocktail mixes I've come up with at the stainless steel bar in our kitchen. I haven't had the inspiration to name them, though I think they all qualify as contenders in the free-for-all of mixology. After a day of racing, one could do worse than hit the local tavern for a celebratory toast, or two.  

    As always, these drink recipes are by proportion. (One needs to be able to navigate homeward after indulging, so moderation is always recommended, unless you're already in your digs, or have made arrangements to have the chauffeur available with your car.) We live in a time of diminishing prosperity in America these days, as the post-war boom continues to wind down, and the fruits of our hyper-indulgent means continue to be more concentrated among the top 1 percent of the economic pyramid. Yacht racing's days may be numbered, but we can still dream of a time when the playthings of the rich carried the spirit of our folly. We play to win, or do we simply play to play? Who can say? Cheers!                  

    3 Gin
    1 Galleano
    1 Cocci
    1 Cointreau
    1.5 Lemon
    Shaken and served up

    3 Gin
    2 Peach Schnapps
    1 Fresh Lemon
    1/2 Triple Sec
    1/2 Pomegranate Liqueur
    Shaken and served up

    4 Bourbon
    1 Becherova Liqueur
    1/2 Drambuie
    1/2 Angelico
    Swirled and served up

    3 Bourbon
    3 Ginger Beer
    1 Amaro
    1/2 Fresh Lime
    Swirled gently--in order not to over-excite the Ginger Beer, which is carbonated--and served up 

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    This post is a reflective response to a recent podcast, Talking Tender Buttons, featuring a panel/response group moderated by Al Filreis, and including Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Bob Perelman, Julia Bloch and (by remote connection) Ron Silliman. The link to the podcast is via Silliman's Blog, here: 

    Back in the mid-1970's, after I had dropped out of graduate school, and was rather at loose ends, I contemplated returning to Berkeley to pursue a thesis on the writings of Gertrude Stein. There was at that time a department full professor named Richard Bridgman, who had published a book, Gertrude Stein in Pieces [1970], and I met him in his Wheeler Hall office, probably in 1973, to explain my interest in Stein, and inquire of him whether he thought such a thesis might be welcome in the department. He responded negatively, to my surprise, saying that as a result of his thorough-going study into her work, he felt serious literary attention devoted to her writings would not be a worthy pursuit. As a result of that meeting, I decided to put off returning to grad school, and ended up starting work for the government about a year later. It was a turning-point for me, not just in my work-life, but in my attitude towards Modernist literature. I had been reading Stein's work for several years, and it seemed to me that there was fertile ground for study and appreciation, ground which had not even been acknowledged, much less developed in the academy. The English Department at Berkeley was on the threshold of a convulsive period of change, a change which would turn much of the official critical and appraisal values of art and literature in the preceding half century on their head. I'm not sure I understood that at the time, but I did have an inkling that the recognition of Stein's contribution to the history of experimental writing, and of the understanding of experimental processes in art, was in its infancy. Whether or not the revelation of that possibility would ever be acknowledged officially was another question.

    While still an undergraduate at Berkeley, Robert Grenier, my poet-teacher during my junior and senior years there, had introduced me to selections from Tender Buttons [1914]. How such obviously obscure and odd and fascinating work could have been written three quarters of a century before, by a woman living in Paris, was a mystery beyond my comprehensions then. But its liberating qualities remained a touchstone for me in the succeeding years, and when I left graduate school in 1972, I continued to delve into her other writings, and found that TB was but a small morsel in a great banquet of delights and mysteries. The more of her work and lectures I read, the more I realized how original her position had been with respect to other Modernists, and what a revelation her insights and accomplishments were, not only in light of her own work, but to other writers and painters as well. She had much to teach me. That she might be ignored, or dismissed, or even condemned by the regnant centers of artistic or academic power, couldn't have mattered to me, since I had no conflicting commitments in my life, having abandoned professional writing and teaching for the "secular" workplace.  

    Listening to the Tender Buttons podcast yesterday, brought all of my accumulated thoughts and concerns of the past 40 years or so back to attention, and I thought this might be the opportunity to enumerate some of the ideas I've had about her work over time. A list like this is by no means exhaustive. The proof of the value of Stein's work is in the wide variety of applications which may be brought to bear on her work and life--applications, in many cases, which she actively anticipated and even considered. Indeed, one of the aspects of her personality was her keen awareness and sensitivity to the social milieus and contexts not just of her work, but of her presence in the world--its reception and the meaning and importance of that reception. She understood, I feel, that her writing had a palpable future, a measure of appreciation that she would certainly not live to see; and in addition, she understood (and was not above manipulating) the public media world against which her experimental investigations (and rather exclusive "life-style") were shown in ironic relief. Her identity as a Jewish intellectual, and an openly co-habiting Lesbian, required that she adopt stances--by turns supremely confident, at others indulging comic self-caricature.

    So here is a kind of almanac of probable areas of study or inquiry, which have occurred to me over the years, as a result of my reading of her work, and reading and thinking about her life.        

    Stein and time.  No time.

    There is no question that one of the primary departures that Stein undertook, after publishing Three Lives in 1909, was to abandon narrative. Narrative--by the time of late Henry James [The Golden Bowl (1904), The Ivory Tower (1917)], and early James Joyce [Ulysses was composed beginning in 1914]--had become, in a creative sense, exhausted. In the work of both late James, the Joyce of Ulysses, as well as the somewhat later efforts of Virginia Woolf, we can see a frustration both with the temporality of sequence, and with the limits of the sentence and the paragraph to adequately portray the complexities of thought and feeling. Stein's solution to this problem, which she had addressed head-on in The Making of Americans [written 1906-08, but not published until 1925], had led her to perceive that the landscape of contemporary narrative prose was either exhausted (and probably beyond her specific aptitude or interest); or she saw other possibilities, largely in the new early Modernist painters (Picasso, Matisse, Gris, etc.), which suggested objectifications of representation that she could make more out of than just telling "stories". Besides, she was no longer interested in interpreting the course of American life (i.e., of Sinclair Lewis or John Dos Passos), as she had chosen to live permanently in France in a kind of determined state of quixotic exile. The "continuous present" one experiences in Stein's experimental writing is a consequence of her rejecting all temporal development, in favor of focusing on the progress of her mind through language. This rejection of past and future, or an unfolding of event, constitutes a repudiation of mimesis. Her work exists in a nominative flatland of named things and relationships, infinite in its enumerations. Nothing is quite "real" except the verbal qualities which suggest interactions and stitches in the duration of consciousness. Once you get over this hurdle in her work, it all makes sense.          

    Stein and knitting.

    I used to wonder what it was about Stein's work that made it "feminine". As a self-confident Lesbian, she possessed a forthrightness and a certainty about her place and function in the world, which was supported by her financial security. Her confidence in her own work was of the kind that takes as perfectly natural a sense of itsown necessity and value. One of the qualities of Stein's experimental work is her use of the woven variation. For those familiar with her work, there is repetition, nesting, steady augmentation, and an overall design of color and contrasting elements which evolve out of the process of the order of her words and phrases.

    Knitting is a complex art, and one whose particularities and variations aren't a metaphor for Stein's work on any scientific level. But there is an imaginative process which is similar in its methodology in experimental writing like Stein's, in which the accrual of apparently simple, though subtly continuous altering, functions is allowed to develop into larger structures which carry the valence or bias of those functions. Threads of meaning interlock and reappear, but do not build into complete pictures or related sequences of event. There is something comforting about her work, a comfort which is akin to the settled devotion to a task, rather than the working out of problems which constitute the usual business of fictional or non-fictional prose. Stein's work exists only in the time of its reading, not as reference to another spectrum of event. Its ostensible "subject" addresses only the play of its immediate, undulating surface. It is not "about" in the sense of being an account of another thing; without its own self-referentiality, it quietly dissolves into nonsense. It can be replayed, but not re-told. In that sense, it has the quality of pure music.      

    Stein and narration

    Stein was perfectly capable of making adamant sense, and this was something she did over and over again in her letters, and in her conversation and lectures--as well as in her "straight" prose accounts, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas [1933], Lectures in America [1935], Picasso [1938], Paris France [1940], Wars I Have Seen [1945], and so on. She may be the first important author who acknowledged the demarcation between popular and academic audiences, addressing each discretely, playing to each one with an amused irony of their difference and contradictory natures. She understood how providing each with a coherent "story" could satisfy their respective curiosity and hunger for digestible meaning(s). Her academic audiences wanted architecture and tropes; he popular audiences wanted fun and bite-sized treats. She provided both.     

    Stein and Childhood - In the Round

    From her earliest works, Stein's language plays with the juvenile apprehension of reality. Much of it is simplistic enough to be read by children, and in 1939 she published a book, The World Is Round, intended specifically for children, with illustrations by Clement Hurd. In Stein's cosmology, aesthetic productions are deliberately roundThis circularity has a functional purpose not just in the style of her writing--its rhythm and tenor--but in what she saw as the self-referentiality of the artistic act. This roundness is demonstrated by the sanctimonious and often frustrating repetitiveness of her phrases and sentences. Their "nonsense" quality--like deliberate gibberish which delights the childhood mind--is both stubbornly naive and covertly witty. Stein--the voice of her writing--is by turns matronly, child-like, and authoritative. Like a child, she will make over-simplified pronouncements as if they were revealed wisdom, and then be amused by them, with perfect delighted mischief. Her writing often seems to taunt, or tease the reader, as if it were a kind of game. This kind of behavior seems contradictory in a serious writer; she is challenging the limits of the relationship between author (artist) and reader (audience), asking what the ground-rules are, and imagining new play-books.         

    James and The Making of Americans

    The Making of Americans is a steamroller of gerunds. The participial insistence--they were listening and they were making conversation a conversation about food as they were thinking and eating and tasting what was being said--has an accretive propulsive inertia that overwhelms the reader. The continuous happening of event in this flat time-line erases separate agency (individual volition), and makes everything two-dimensional. Tenses and individual perception are erased. Whereas James had sought to delve more and more deeply into the involved connotations and iterations of thought, feeling and implication through an increasing complexity of sentence structure and multiple points of view, Stein sought to escape from these complications by simply ignoring them or pretending they didn't matter. The abstraction of modern painting, in which form and recognition were stretched and transformed, had shown her that an attempt to alter reality was as interesting an enterprise as attempting to mimic or mirror it; she could create interesting works of prose without having to be accountable to the vivid outlines or relations of people, society or the phenomenal world of inanimate objects, colors, sounds, shapes, etc. It opened up a whole realm of possibility. Things could be things without having any other intended or necessary purpose. The Making of Americans today looks and feels like some immense monument to a dead tradition, almost a camp performance intended to block future efforts. I have described it, elsewhere, as a kind of cathartic throwing-off of the yoke of responsible narration; she could think of having disposed of that duty once and for all. The Great American Novel.            

    Stein and Cubism

    Much has been made over the decades about the relation between Cubism as a technique of the modern movement in painting, and Stein's concept of literary form. Hemingway's early stripped down prose style in his first published stories appears to owe a debt to Stein's syntactic tricks--the build-up of conjunctive phrases, the reduction of event to a series of basic statements, the directness and lack of any descriptive or interpretive leavening. It's difficult to define precisely how Picasso's visual language affects Stein's work. There's a mosaic quality in some of the canvases which derives from Cezanne's patchy constructions; the Pointillists and the Fauves used bits or daubs to build up larger visual pictures. The closer you get to those canvases, the more they resemble computer generated screens, whose totality is revealed to be made out of dots. If an object could be seen from multiple angles simultaneously, then the limits of space in time in a painting might be overcome. The result could be intriguing but ultimately fragmentary. In writing--where time is a continuous tape running from the beginning to the end, with pauses and rests, and varying speeds, and nodes of meaning, and echoing relationships among words and things--you could literally examine things or groups of things, successively holding them up and turning them this way and that to reveal their opposite sides--their three-dimensional form(s).              

    Stein and Domesticity

    Stein established a permanent lesbian relationship with Alice B. Toklas, beginning in 1908, a relationship and commitment which lasted until Stein's death in 1946. The domestic world of their household was in many senses traditional, with Alice performing the "feminine" duties, while Stein produced her serious work and entertained guests in her atelier. The works of art and furniture which they acquired over the years were taken into this interior world, and became talismans of their highly articulated life together. In Stein's writing, the immediate settled locus of her speaking voice comes out of a strong sense of place, of being in place. This sense of being is the actual "subject" of much of her experimental writing, of the speaker's pace and wending of meditation. The voice of her work does not strive to get outside itself, or to reach out to the world at large for issues or interest; it is content to peruse things in idleness, in the quiet seclusion of her study. On the circumscribed common of her meditative surface, she toys with and regards things the way a curious child might. The thinking and circling and fidgiting are like knitting, or any domestic task one might engage in, in the protected precincts of the home. Also, we now know that Stein's and Toklas's relationship was characterized by a complex private language, hermetic and intense, emotional and meticulous. Both were creatively engaged with the world: Toklas handled the practical requirements of their life together, while Stein addressed the world of art and philosophy. Together they were a self-sufficient unit that functioned efficiently and got a lot done.     

    Stein and Genius

    There is a sense of presumption in nearly everything Stein did, a cockiness which is partly the consequence of her financial position, and partly an over-compensating insistence to balance the anxiety of being a woman artist, a lesbian, a Jew, and a kind of gifted amateur among artistic (or literary) professionals. She was reportedly a haughty egotist, convinced of her own artistic genius, and she was not embarrassed to condemn younger writers and artists whom she regarded as her inferiors. At a time, during the 1920's, when her work was little more than a rumor in America (or anywhere for that matter), she presumed to tell Hemingway and William Carlos Williams what she thought of their attempts. She could be cutting and malicious. This sense of her own genius was a myth constructed partly out of her prescience in being among the earliest champions of Matisse and Picasso and Gris, and partly out of the astonishingly novel compositions, most of which she was obliged to self-publish, since there was no publisher who would dare to. By the time she came back to America, in the 1930's, the "reputation" of her "influence" and literary conjurings was large enough that she could use it as a launching pad to assume the populist image of the diminutive little grandmotherly figure, the genius she always had known herself to be.         

    Stein and populism

    When Stein came to America after the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas [1933], she was lionized and satirized in the press. Her lectures and interviews made her an object of curiosity but she understood how her public persona could be put to good use. She maintained a kind of double identity, one side the serious private experimentalist, the other the media puppet of A Rose is a Rose is a Rose, and she was content to let both versions co-exist. And when the Americans liberated France, she seized that opportunity to celebrate her own patriotism, welcoming the young soldiers and waving the stars and stripes for the cameramen. Whereas on the one hand, her exile from America symbolized a dismissal of the cruder aspects of American culture, its provincial commercialism, its artistic backwardness, she was not against showing the colors when it served her needs.        


    This only scratches the surface of a possible array of the aspects of Stein's character, and the different categorical headings one might enumerate. And I intend to cover more of them in future. Among the subject areas, I would include Stein and Class, Stein and Toklas, Stein and Jewishness, Stein and Hermeticism, Stein and Self-Publication, Stein and Sexism, Stein and Automatic Writing, Stein and Exile. Biographies of Stein provide fruitful areas of research as well. One good recent book about her is Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, edited by Wanda Corn and Tirza True Latimer [University of California Press, 2011]. 

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  • 10/14/13--07:58: Tropic of Capricorn

  • Pescador

    Un remo flotante
           sobred las aguas
    fue tu solo epitafio


    An oar floating
           on the waters
    was your only epitaph.

    --Pablo Antonio Cuadra from "Songs of Cifar, 1967-1977"

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  • 10/17/13--14:48: The Gift Outright

  • The Gift Outright

    The land was ours before we were the land’s.
    She was our land more than a hundred years
    Before we were her people. She was ours
    In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
    But we were England’s, still colonials,
    Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
    Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
    Something we were withholding made us weak
    Until we found out that it was ourselves
    We were withholding from our land of living,
    And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
    Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
    (The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
    To the land vaguely realizing westward,
    But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
    Such as she was, such as she would become.

    I have always wondered about the message of this poem of Frost's, which was published in 1942 (but written as early as 1936), and read, by Frost, at President-elect John F. Kennedy's inaugural ceremony in January 1961. I can distinctly recall watching Frost on television at the time. The telecast was facilitated in my junior high school library, where a handful of us (I was a second year student at the time, in 8th grade) viewed it. I had campaigned for Kennedy that Fall, going door to door with my white, blue and red plastic Democrat hat, handing out leaflets. That was about the apex of my patriotic feeling for America; I don't think I've felt that good about my country since. 

    But Frost's poem, which he read instead of the poem he'd composed for the occasion, has stayed with me over the years, and I've turned the lines (and their meaning) over and over in my mind, in time, and have come to think of it as a much more complex work than it first seemed. 

    The poem has traditionally been viewed as a jingo-istic, smugly complacent excuse for the forceful colonization of the New World, full of righteous presumption. Frost has been seen as defending America's claim to occupancy, as if it were a sacred privilege, setting aside three hundred years of ambiguous, conflicted history. 

    But Frost was never more complex and ambivalent than when he seemed to be making broad statements. In nearly every line he ever wrote, there is a slipperiness, a slyness, which withholds full assertion in the interests of ambiguity. "Not so fast," Frost often seems to be saying, if you think you've caught him, "what do the words actually say?" Frost often seemed like a kind of aphorist, whose clever rhymes and phrases sounded like Biblical homily mixed with a dose of Franklin's Poor Richard, the trusty New Englander's taciturn skepticism turned into art. 

    In the first place, there is the issue of voice and personification of address. Is Frost speaking in his own voice--the "voice of the poet"--or in the generalized voice of his people (Americans). The personal pronoun, after all, is "we" not I. In other words, before we impute any motive to the writer of the poem, we have to acknowledge that the poems is, in effect, a dramatic monologue, rather like the expression of a Greek Chorus. You could say then that the sentiment in the poem is not in any sense Frost's, but a dramatic exposition of a certain feeling or dialectic which the writer is representing. It is certainly possible to deduce patriotic fervor in a writer who handles the question of national sovereignty, but we'd be wrong if we simply identified Frost with the statements made in the poem. 

    The title of the poem, The Gift Outright, announces the poem's ostensible subject-matter, the whole meaning and implication of giving and receiving gifts. There's a lightly religious tinge to the word gift, which is often used in hymns and devotional texts to signify God's generosity, or humankind's debt to the creator. Anything given outright suggests that there are "no strings attached," that what is given is given without reservations, without implied debt or recompense. This sense then, of generosity, and/or of a simple right of possession, is clearly implied by the title. Whatever has been tendered, can be accepted with a clear conscience, without guilt, without moral obligation.

    That first line, "The land was ours before we were the land's" is one of Frost's most famous, not least because its meaning, while pretending to be clear, is really very vague. In what sense can you possess something before you've occupied it? Or, in what sense can an inanimate object, such as a body of land, possess its occupants? People may lay claim to something simply out of hubris or an excess of confidence, but it doesn't become theirs until they actually occupy it. Or, again, it may be possible to be possessed by something you identify with or feel an attachment to or an affection for, simply by long, determined occupancy. You can own a sentiment simply by duration; but owning a piece of land, or especially a nation or a region or a whole continent, is a more complicated matter. And to return to our earlier observation, who exactly are the stand-ins for the "we" of the poem's voice? Are they all just Americans? Or are they some amalgam of natives and colonials and slaves? Is it possible even to speak of a country and its inhabitants as broadly as the poem implies? Has America ever been as unified and monolithic as the "we" voice implies it is, or could ever be? Perhaps the poem's greatest presumption of all is Frost's intention to speak for "all" in such a generalized way. And, to be precise, just what gift is being given, and to whom, and by whom? Who but a deity is empowered to give away lands?   

    The second line sounds more straightforward, "She was our land more than a hundred years/Before we were her people." In other words, we didn't have a country of our own, we were mere colonial settlers, subservient to the Mother Country (England). England owned her colonies, so we weren't "her" (the land's) owners. "She was ours/In Massachusetts, in Virginia . . . still colonials" etc., but "possessing what we were still unpossessed by/Possessed by what we now no more possessed." That last phrase is a tricky one, much like the poem's first line. What does Frost mean by it?

    He seems to be making a distinction between different classes of ownership, one kind which is the official title (like a deed to a property), the other a connection which goes deeper, as a man's connection to a land which he works (as in farming or building a water-mill), takes sustenance from, and nurtures. 

    We know now from history--perhaps we always knew, though our super-awareness of our own culpability has been a bit delayed by our human vanity--that the Native American populations had rights and claims that we simply ignored. The "indians" didn't have customary property and land-use traditions, though we made "treaties" and "contracts" with them, designed primarily to hoodwink them out of their birthrights as people occupying a place for a long time. There's an ironic tension here between the rights of possession Frost suggests about the Colonists, and the rights of those from whom these properties and rights of access were stolen. But it's also important to remind ourselves that Frost, again, is speaking through a generalized chorale of voices, not as an ordinary citizen making historical arguments to explain a naked appropriation.     

    Something we were withholding made us weak
    Until we found out that it was ourselves
    We were withholding from our land of living,

    This has a much more direct and less conciliatory tone about seizure and possession. Frost suggests that Americans deliberately "withheld" some power or prerogative, as if our sense of our own destiny was simply an option, instead of an inevitable tendency. 

    And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

    The argument here begins to seem even more self-serving, as if the only issue of conscience was in the realization of our (Americans') own "right" to make of the new continent what we chose to, as if it had always belonged to us, even before we "occupied" it--as citizens of our own declaration. It is almost as if the only kind of independent spirit of action lay in throwing off the yoke of British tyranny, rather than in stealing the country from its rightful aboriginal inhabitants. "Surrender" has a passive connotation, whereas what is being described is anything but passive. The conquering and settlement of the West--from Ohio all the way to the Pacific Coast--aside from the legal purchases and annexations (Louisiana, Alaska, parts of the Southwest)--was a simple seizure, involving military conflict and diplomatic treachery. 

    Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

    To the land vaguely realizing westward,

    This has a charmingly innocent ring to it--"such as we were" is deliberately non-commital and bland, "we gave ourselves outright/To the land vaguely realizing westward."We gave ourselves to the land sounds, again, like a very evasive rationalization of what was, indeed, a violent taking, not a "vague""realization". But sandwiched between these two parts of a single sentence is the parenthetical 

    (The deed of gift was many deeds of war)

    The taking we know occurred was never something "given" but something seized. To describe America's settlement of the North American continent as a "surrender" or as the passive acceptance of a gift (from whom?) seems like a wholly undeserved exoneration, the whitewash of the Colonial myth of taming the wilderness and turning the empty land to profitable account. 

    But Frost of course realized all these implications, and understood that the dramatic expression of them was a poet's license. To stand in place of a nation's conscience--of a nation you love and believe in--involves a deeper exploration of her character than any un-nuanced patriotic declaration. The poem isn't an anthem to the promise of America's destiny, but a portrayal of the myth we created to justify our avarice and selfishness. Frost is holding up a mirror to our half-hearted commitment to the spirit of ambition and exploitation which lies just below the surface of the official American character. 

    But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
    Such as she was, such as she would become.

    Here the protagonist of the poem is transformed from the "we" of the first 14 lines, to "she" (the nation we would become). Personifying the nation as a female entity is a crucial and abrupt turn at the end of the poem. It is almost as if the choral body is claiming an innocence that it knows is bogus. Could innocence excuse the transgressions America committed in its own interests? 

    It's important, I think, to note that Frost makes no claims for America's usual politically correct hallmarks. The poem isn't an argument in favor of blind devotion; it's a portrayal of a certain over-simplified vindication, through the glass of an American chorus of voices. It has the familiar rhetorical sound of formal speechmaking, the sort of language we're expecting to hear at a funeral, or at the consecration of a special piece of ground. It's even a little stiff-backed in its manner. It has the '"sound" of purposeful credence, even as it displays a pompous self-regard. 

    On balance, Frost's poem is a dramatic panel against the backdrop of a larger historical panorama--not intended to make us feel either  a national pride, nor a personal conceit. A country, as Frost is careful to insist, that was, and is unstoried, artless, unenhanced. On balance, the poem poses a challenge, not the challenge that America posed for itself--to conquer an empty continent that lay before us as if it were a gift from God--but for a future of accomplishment. 

    Frost is a poet of representation; he rarely makes direct unambiguous statements, except lightly or in jest. There is a kind of objective distance he sets up between his personal view of the world, and the assertions that he makes in his verse. He usually speaks in a "voice" that he learned to cultivate in his poems, a kind of rustic New England voice, grudging, clever, diffident, and not very friendly. One wonders what Frost the man felt about his fellow citizens--their attitudes, their history, their presumptions. He didn't suffer fools gladly. There's a fierce independence in his character. I don't think I'd have wanted to know him, but I still find his poems very compelling, despite their formal blandness. 

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  • 10/21/13--08:05: Indian Summer

  • In the San Francisco Bay Area, we have what is often called a "Mediterranean climate"--by which is meant a temperate zone median, without much wide fluctuation in temperature extremes. Just a few miles inland, temperatures soar into the 90's (and even the occasional 100's). Just a few miles north, the annual rainfall jumps up, from an annual mean rate of about 28-30 inches per year here, to 60 and more in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. Typically, on most nights, we get a damp marine fog that is sucked in to the Bay by the warmer air in the Central Valley. Typically, we don't get below freezing for more than a couple of days a year, sometimes none at all. Our summers aren't that hot. Another regular aspect is our "Indian Summer"--which comes each year in October, or even November--days when the temperature may climb all the way up to 80 degrees, at a time when most of the rest of the nation is getting snow, freezing temperatures, or thunderstorms. Most of our weather comes to us from the Northern Pacific Ocean, but the brunt of the systems is almost always born north of here. Santa Rosa can be drowning, while San Jose is having a typical annual rain total of 22 inches. That's the dividing line--we're right in the middle. 

    Which is one reason why so many people--refugees from the freezing North, or the stifling South-- migrate to "Sunny California" where you can retire to 9-10 months of vacationing a year. When I was growing up in the 1950's, people who were "native" to the state were almost in the minority, because so many people had come here from someplace else. 

    Here are two new drinks appropriate for our Bay Area Indian Summer weather--balmy days to celebrate the good life, a brief respite before the dependable return of Winter. Global warming has meant that our usual weather patterns are becoming rather unusual. But, whatever the pretext, life goes on. Living on a hill, as we do, means we will never become inundated by a rising sea, even if we lived another 100 years. In another 1000 years, perhaps people will routinely live to be 130 years. Odd thought. Cheers!     

    Indian Summer I 

    4 Parts (Cabo Wabo) Anejo tequila*
    2 parts Key Lime Liqueur**
    1 part Triple Sec
    1/2 Part fresh lime

    Shaken and served up

    *Take your pick with the tequila, there are a lot of choices to be had.
    **I suspect that this concoction could be easily imitated simply by putting some cream and sugar into simple lime juice. Mixers and aperitifs are usually proprietary recipes, but this one seems pretty straightforward (though it might even have a little gin in it).

    Indian Summer II

    3 parts dry vermouth
    2 parts cocchi
    1 fresh lemon juice
    1/2 part triple sec

    Shaken and served up

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  • 10/31/13--10:51: A Valentine from Satan

  • This last weekend, Dick Cheney, former Vice President under George W. Bush ("Dubya"), was tramping the media road hawking his new book Heart: The Story of a Patient, A Doctor, and 35 Years of Medical Innovation, co-authored with his physician, Jonathan Reiner, M.D. Cheney was interviewed on the television news program 60 Minutes, by Sanjay Gupta. In it, Cheney appeared in cheerful contrast to his formerly frail self, and seemed to be prepared for one last lap of political partisanship for the radical conservative Republican agenda. Viewers were treated to a gruesome shot of Cheney's actual diseased heart, just removed from his chest, lying in a stainless steel pan beside the operating table. It was a deep red color, even redder than the image below. As it was explained, Cheney's original heart had grown immense inside his chest; without a transplant, Cheney would probably have been dead by now.     

    As everyone knows, Cheney was the "real"President of the United States, Bush II serving in that capacity in name only. The real architect of American domestic and foreign policy was Cheney, who directed his superior's actions as a puppet-master does his puppet. There is no question that Dubya believed in what he was doing, but he lacked the intellectual nuance to formulate and implement action. That was Cheney's strong suit, having been a former Presidential advisor, with a vast personal knowledge derived from practical experience. Our real President was Dick Cheney. It was Cheney who engineered the Congressional resolution for the preemptive invasion of Iraq, the concoction of fake "intelligence" designed to "prove" that Saddam Hussein was a threat to world peace and American security. The real culprit for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, of the thousands of American service deaths, of the hundred of billions of wasted American dollars, was Cheney. Cheney's personal interest was as former CEO of Halliburton, a giant defense contractor which stood to make billions from the Mid-east conflicts. Cheney's personal wealth, derived primarily from Halliburton, is estimated to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million dollars.     

    There are many kinds of evil. There's the evil of the naive ignorance of the implications and consequences of great power, wielded without a sense of import, the willing servant of villainy. This was Dubya's evil. Then there's the evil of a fatalistic malice, which feeds off vanity and an inebriation of raw power, manipulating events behind a screen of secrecy. Cheney didn't need to be President. Indeed, being President carries too many distractions. Much better to be the shadow architect than the wooden figure-head. 

    Since leaving the Presidency, George W. Bush has been effectively silent. No one knows better than he does how odd and telling his incompetence would appear, now that he has no immediate "handlers" to feed him policy agenda and fake rational justifications for his opinions. We've had figure-head Presidents before; Reagan was a good actor who could regurgitate his lines flawlessly, an ability honed during his years as a Hollywood B movie heavy. No, the real President was Dick Cheney.

    Now, after three years of recovery from heart replacement surgery, we're treated to a polished, rosy-cheeked Cheney, smiling and tapping the table with righteous optimism, forging ahead with renewed vigor, ready to help his daughter Liz's Wyoming Senatorial campaign, offering advice on foreign policy, recommending military intervention in Syria and Iran. The old devil has been outfitted with a new heart, and has years more mileage added to his balance-sheet. 

    Does America deserve another dose of Cheney's brand of common sense demagoguery? Apparently, the media believes it does. It likes lapsed radical old warriors like Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney, to give the country some "perspective" on the political spectrum. 

    The enticing tidbit which Cheney revealed last week was that, due to his severe heart condition, he actually prepared a letter of resignation, to be submitted to Dubya, in the event of his incapacitation, just a few days after being elected to office in 2000. If only God had seen fit to take Cheney from us then, how much less destructive our nation's course might have been? It's sad to contemplate. Are we expected now to be inspired by Cheney's miraculous endurance and recovery?  

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    Phenomenology is the study of the structure of subjective experience--how we perceive the empirical world. Wittgenstein reminded us that whenever we attempt to describe anything in the world of perception, we are doing so through a system that is self-referential. Nothing that can be thought can be described without a language. Language itself has a structure, a structure which is linked to how our brains are wired. Anything we perceive through our senses may be a metaphor for the manner by which it is understood, and described. 

    Mark Truscott is interested in the way in which language can be used--as an aesthetic tool--to lay bare the elemental connections between perception, meaning and description. There are many ways to say this. The closer art gets to an accurate description about the relationship between sensory apprehension and verbal technique, the more closely it may resemble a linguistic exercise. Linguistics, the study of language, is difficult to describe without reference to psychology (or epistemology (how we think)), or logic (the study of the structure of meaning in language).

    Mark Truscott is interested in all these things, and his work is a kind of short-hand, an outline of how one might approach talking about the relationship between language and being (or being-in-the-world). I share Mark's interest, and find his work an attractive instance of the exploration that all minimalist poetry represents. 

    Toward Branches (Toronto, 2012) is self-published (1/32 numbered copies, the whole edition, bound in stapled stiff grey wrappers, 26pp.)--which is a way of saying that the artist is controlling all aspects of the process of composition, through production, to finished material object (the book). A book in this sense has a wholeness, an entirety you rarely find in traditional publishing, where the composition, production and delivery of the material object is so fragmented by the separate influences of the process that the clarity of the initial intention becomes muddled. In Toward Branches, all the variables are valued and denoted. This frees the reader from having to see the artist's intention through a cloud of social or economic obscurity. Everything is clear and unobstructed. And clarity is a crucial precondition for the kind of artistic statement Truscott is attempting to make. 

    Wittgenstein's Tractatus has served as a model for much of the interesting post/post-Modern poetic experiments over the last quarter century--the building up of a system of values through the incremental enumeration of discrete logical or non-logical assertions. Such an approach has a linear accretion that can be very satisfying, or frustrating, depending upon its underlying assumptions. Creeley's Numbers (Stuttgart, Germany: Edition Domberger, 1968) was a signal effort to explicate the metaphysical implications of the prime integers.

    In mathematics, a proposition is proven when the terms of the argument are brought into logical alignment. In science, proofs are built up out of axioms of accepted truth; but in art, metaphysical demonstrations may be constructed out of forms and relationships that are not logical, or empirical. Language is its own system, a set of relationships, which function according to rules and habits established through use. These rules and habits in turn form an adjunct to thinking. The mind is only an analogue for the properties of the physical world. Language is its tool, as well as its template: Mind speaking a code apprehensible according to the laws of its own accepted usage.

    In Truscott's Toward Branches, the constituent parts of the book are all of a piece, a sequential progression of statements which builds towards an open-ended structure of words. We begin with a line, which is like a single vector of intention:

              a branch like a line like a branch  
                                                                   [page one]

    Truscott takes full responsibility for the implications of all the words that occur in the book. What other choice is there? 

              branch like a line like a branch
                                                                [page two] 

    --the lost indefinite article augmenting the nature of the initial definition both as a variation on the original proposition, and as a literal branching of logic to an alternate pathway forwards into the poem.

              a line near artless
                                           [page three]

    As inauspicious as this may seem, in the context of a long poem sequence--which this book is--its very dryness, resisting the rich resources of language, and the world of things, is the precision with which each increment is an augmentation of the terms of the unfolding dialectic. This is the real subject of the poem. If minimalism has any advantage over the unbridled flow of consciousness, it is in its discrete poise and restraint. 

              Then  the

              hand moves

              over in

              front the


              stills and

              shades and


              (some ends

              are withdrawn)

              you can't

              see the

              forest for
              the trees

              you can't 

              see the

              trees without

              the hand
                             [pages 4-5]

    As the poem progresses, control is relinquished to the expanding field of its own limit, making a paper-cut in the white space of the bleached pulp, pressed into the smooth white plane of infinite two-dimensional space. Any poem moves into the world of its own gnosis

              like a rounded
                         [page 21]

              A patterned
              layer of
              matter or
              letters lies
              across the
              glass there
              where the
              light glints
              and shines
                               [page 19]

    A patterned/layer/of matter or/letters delineates the ambiguity of inter-relationships which the poem addresses, the interconnectivity of contexts and frames proposed. The author suppresses the autonomous (and jealous) identities of objects, in order to make finer distinctions. This is one of the functions of a certain philosophy--Logical Positivism in particular--whose preoccupation has been with the nature of analysis, or how to make a more perfect model.

    Every artifact attracts its own propagating set of interpretations, and these can be traced. The burden of proof is contained inside the conundra of its means. If you want to understand a poem, you must deconstruct its underlying etiology. No one explanation can be wholly unique. Truscott's work mimics the care and attention of linguistics, but its aesthetic duty is to beauty, not science. Its strength is its obvious awareness of all these questions, not percolating with elaborations, but reductive and calm, like the grey light of a foggy morning, the subdued cooing of doves in the pre-dawn hush, sitting in the branches of our Camphor Tree.  

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    Robert Creeley's collection Pieces was published at the end of the Sixties [New York: Scribner's, 1969], at the height of his minimalist period. It was important not just because it expressed a radical tendency in his own oeuvre, but because it defined a leading edge of inquiry into the possibility of deconstructing ordinary language, a major preoccupation of the time. 

    Unlike the Concrete movement practitioners, Creeley's interest in minimal form wasn't transparent and ephemeral. He was tortured by personal demons, and his obsession with the conundra of words and phrases and formal structures wasn't casual or easy. He saw moral implications, traps and opportutnities in the smallest combinations. 

    Unlike most other minimalist verse, Creeley's small poems always have something fascinating and unresolved about them. They vibrate and echo in the mind, and can't be discarded once you've read them. 

    In traditional poetry (and more specifically, in light verse), wit and rhyme are employed in a spirit of play or clever emphasis, and in the vast majority of cases, it's an application upon language, rather than an investigation into the subtler shades of meaning. Tolling rhyme and light wit have their place--Pope's whole life work hinges on them--but they are expressions of, or elaborations of the resources of language, rather than meditations about the medium itself; and in addition, their tone and quality do not derive from conversation and speech, but rest upon higher platforms of rhetoric. 

    Riddles, proverbs, gnomes, wise-cracks,  and folk-sayings are handy receptacles for the transmission of wisdom or humor, and they often convey more than people initially think. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush is a saying that expresses an inequality, but which may have several different interpretations. Its original meaning is probably lost, though its power derives from the vividness of its formulation, since holding a wild bird is a difficult proposition, and birds are very difficult to catch without elaborate means. Catching and watching, possessing and coveting, confinement and freedom--there are many ways to go with it. It's like an open ended proposition which has the power of idiomatic speech. Creeley's poems in Pieces are anything but simplistic riddles, though they may masquerade as that to some readers who have limited patience with the magnification required to read everything that the poems say and do. 

    Creeley is above all a moralist. Every utterance, every remark, no matter how casual-seeming, carries a burden of responsibility and irony. He's always on edge, pushing each stanza, each phrase, each word, each punctuation mark to an absolute limit. Once a Creeley poem gets into your head, it's nearly impossible to get rid of, short of exorcism or a surgical lobotomy. One such poem for me is--           

    One thing
    done, the 
    rest follows.

    Though it's deceptively simple, its deception isn't the issue. There's often a sense of disquiet in a Creeley poem, a feeling that you've understood only part of the message the words convey. One thing/done is composed of six words, two to a line, divided into two groups of three by the comma. Syntactically, it's straightforward and sensible. It's a logical presumption: Every human action occurs in a sequence of duration, every act is an increment of measure, the measure of our lives meted out, the measure of the poem's beat, its cadence and setting. 

    The poem functions as an injunction to duty, or as an apology for any kind of failure or resistance to obligation. It's the reductive conundrum, that anything can be broken down into a series of simple linear increments, and so mastered, managed. Turning the poem around, it's also the lazy man's expedient: Now that I've done just one thing, I've earned my rest. What's next?

    You could set the poem as two pyramids:

    One thing

    rest follows.  

    but the interlocking of the done, the which splits along the poem's dialectical fracture, links the initial completion of accomplishment to the (deserved?) rest of the conclusion. Yet rest means not only relaxation, but everything else--the rest of what will happen, the rest of everything! The isolation of a single function does not release one from the necessity of going on living, one to one to one, in a long sequence of events or acts which comprise a life lived in the continuous present. Oneness--the singularity of purpose which defines the committed life--is a virtual obsession in Creeley's work. One thing. And the joke cuts too, you've only done a single thing, written two little words, simple words, so you deserve to rest? To rest from your labors. Seems silly, actually. Except that rest is a necessity, not only in the sense of needing sleep every day, needing to rest from every motion our muscles make, and of course everything follows. Follows in the logical sense, if we're talking sense. 

    A Creeley poem is like a charm, a rabbit's foot you carry in your pocket, finger it while you're walking down the street, where no one can see it. Might bring good luck. Whatever. Ca va. The penetrating irony locked inside the words is revealed by the ingenious simplicity of their arrangement, and the resistance to elaboration. The poem's reluctance, curtness, standing pat--isn't a bluff. It means exactly what it says, is wholly self-contained, full. Wants nothing. Needs nothing. The least qualification would throw it off balance like a top that loses inertia. It spins forever in gravity-less aether, like a gyroscope in outer space.              

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  • 11/14/13--08:19: Padgett's Collected Poems

  • Ron Padgett's Collected Poems has just been published by Coffee House Press [Minneapolis: 2013]--and it's a monstrous big collection, 50 years in the making. 

    I've been reading Padgett's work for almost that long, since becoming interested in poetry in high school and publishing my first poems in the high school literary magazine at 17 in 1965. 

    I first saw his work in mimeo magazines in the late 1960's. Great Balls of Fire [Holt, 1969] was published during my first year at the Writers' Workshop at Iowa, and I remember reading it with a mixture of curiosity and vague incomprehension. The obvious facts of Padgett's biography--born and raised in Tulsa, removal to New York City, study with Koch, collaboration with fellow Oklahomans Ted Berrigan and Joe Brainard, Fulbright to Paris, French translations--seemed reflected in his work: The Dadaist sound translations of Reverdy, the distinctly surrealist air of many of his poems, the tongue-in-cheek humor, and an enveloping aura of camp (of Pop Art, Warhol and cultural mischief) which was so much a characteristic of the art scene in those days. 

    Padgett's early work had at least two separate aspects then: One, a kind of dumbed-down simplicity and credulity which seemed to demand acceptance as honest description (think William Carlos Williams), and Two, a weird abstraction associated with French Surrealism and the spirit of Duchamp. One thing seemed clear: Padgett wasn't a lyric poet; he seemed either entirely incapable of, or completely uninterested in writing musically. Nearly all his poems were either prosaic statements, or satiric or absurdist spoofs. I deduced then that his biggest challenge was in writing a poem that he wouldn't feel embarrassed by, a self-consciousness that fed off of insecurity and an habitual reluctance to express personal feelings. Conviction (or sincerity) seemed entirely lacking in this early work. 

    All this became clearer to me as my reading of the preceding  first   generation of New York School Poets widened and deepened. Padgett had clearly followed a path blazed by his mentor Koch (with whom he studied at Columbia). Koch, of the original four key core members of the group (Ashbery, O'Hara, Schuyler being the other three), functioned as the clown. Almost nothing that Koch published could be taken at face value; it was obviously a kind of put-on, an extended joke against the traditional grain of form and pretension. Koch was well-versed in classical literature, but his pop epics and giddy frivolity seemed just for laughs. Padgett seemed to me then, initially, to have invested in this spirit of early French Modernism (think Apollinaire, Satie, Jacob, Duchamp, Jarry, Artaud, Cocteau, Larbaud), as a literary strategy, both as a talisman of loyalty, and as a protective camouflage against straightforward appraisal. Humor, in your work, might save you from being considered trivial or emotionally fragile.   

    Still, there were occasional early poems which, in their simplicity and frankness, seemed genuine and clean.


         An orange and blue box of Poulain chocolate
         Is what I think of often
         As I sit just outside the late afternoon sunlight--
         I see it in another light
         Sitting on a brown oak or something table,
         Maybe a white kitchen one,
         And when I reach out for it
         My hand touches it
         And I pick it up  
                                     --from Great Balls of Fire [1969]


    The poem, though initially guileless and direct, is actually a witty turn about the problem of representation and reality in art. A branded artifact, presented initially as a verifiable object from the world of experience, is seen in a symbolic poetic field, which is in turn pierced to obtain the actual physical object ("I pick it up"). The other light in which it is seen ("afternoon sunlight") is the flat context. The position of the speaker shifts, while the object rests just beyond him, until, at the end, he grasps it. It's a small victory over abstraction, and though relatively modest in intention, a small miracle.    

    There was a modesty about Padgett's early poetic persona, perhaps a humility or bashfulness which derived from his plains roots. But rather than conceal this, he seems to have embraced it.

                        Post-Publication Blues

              My first book of poems
              has just been published.
              It is over there on the table
              lying there on the table, where
              it is lying. It has
              a beautiful cover and design.
              The publishers spent a lot of money
              on it and devoted many
              man-and woman-hours on it.
              The bookstores are ordering copies.
              Unfortunately I am a very bad poet and
              the book is no good.
                                                --from Toujours L'Amour [1976] 

    Of course, nearly every book of poetry published in the United States is a publisher's loss leader. A prominent bookseller once commented to me that Padgett's first trade book, Great Balls of Fire, had "bombed"--leaving excess copies that were unceremoniously dumped on the remainder tables. There's a certain pragmatism in using your own embarrassment as an aesthetic tool, and Padgett seems to have learned a good deal from his own modesty, and to have figured out how to use this to his advantage. 

    Once Padgett had settled on camp humor as a métier, he abandoned the Dada-ist tricks, and concentrated on straightforward comedy.

                        Poema del City

              I live in the city.
              It's a tough life,
              often unpleasant, sometimes
              downright awful. But it has what
              we call its compensations.

              To kill a roach, for example,
              is to my mind not pleasant
              but it does develop one's reflexes.
              and that's that.
              Sometimes, though, the battered roach
              will haul itself onto broken legs and,
              wildly waving its bent antennae,
              stagger off into the darkness

              to warn the others, who live in the shadow
              of the great waterfall in their little teepees.
              Behind them rise the gleaming brown and blue mass
              of the Grand Tetons, topped with white snow
              that blushes, come dawn, and glows, come dusk.
              Silent gray wisps rise from the smouldering campfires. 
                                                                                        --from Toujours L'Amour [1976]

    How seriously can you take a poet who's willing to front silliness like this? Indeed, what has seriousness to do with it at all? Perhaps, approaching the problem of honesty, or verisimilitude, is best conducted in an atmosphere of light-hearted casualness. Poets who write with grave implication in every phrase, every line, risk sounding grim; is there anything worse than trying to sound deliberately profound, even if the muse is off visiting her mother? 

    There are poets who never seem to approach the page with anything less than a feeling of ultimate dread--a poet like Louise Gluck, for instance, for whom every poetic occasion feels as if it were a grim and unrelentingly difficult task. Probably, we need both kinds of poets, those who would be reluctant to display any kind of levity, and those who would be equally shy of being seen being upset or angry. 


              The black-and-white terrier
              flexed his body
              in midair, turned
              and yelped

              It was his birthday
              and he was two
                                          --from You Never Know [2002]

    For me, small but successful poems like this are ten times better, and more useful, than ambitious narrative poems of 100 times this length, that require a commitment of hours of devoted attention. They're never easy, and they come when you least expect it, and even with absolutely no effort. They are like simple gifts.   

    Cover art by Joe Brainard

    Padgett's work seems at its best, to me, when he's least concerned with impressing the reader with his conviction, and more concerned to share a discovery he'd made. Many of Padgett's later works are about the difficulty of trying to write decent poems. That difficulty isn't writer's block, but more like a secret way of sneaking into a poem or a subject, so as not to disturb it, not to alert it to the fact that you are stalking it. Because trying too hard, or being too obvious about it, may scare inspiration away. We don't really know where good poems come from, but it's often possible to "sense" when it's in the room, or hovering just outside the window. We're not even sure what "it" actually is.

    Padgett has worked in the schools teaching poetry writing, like his mentor Koch, and seems interested in the idea that poetry is something that almost anyone can do, given a few simple tips. If writing poetry were that easy, perhaps we wouldn't admire poets as much as we do. Does everyone have at least one good poem in them? Can practice improve the odds?   

    I used to wonder about the collaborative implications of Padgett's co-authored book (with Berrigan), Bean Spasms [Kulchur Press, 1967]. If two young poets could work so closely together that the two became indistinguishable, or simply melted together into a new hybrid being, what might that mean to the integrity of an individual identity? The same question arose with respect to Ashbery and Schuyler's camp novel, A Nest of Ninnies [Dutton, 1969]. Was it like Auden and Isherwood, or Ellery Queen, with one person doing the dialogue, the other the description? Could Ron and Ted write alternate lines of a single poem, and have it make any kind of sense? Collaboration in this way was a novel concept, which spread through the literary community in the late 1960's and early 1970's. 

    But Padgett is the author of all the poems in this big book. Still, one has the feeling that the idea of an "automatic" poem, or the disembodied voice of poetry, was a notion that appealed to the comic and mischievous sense of these guys, and suggested compositional variations that could bring new energy into the act of writing. Berrigan used it to create his Sonnets [Grove Press, 1964], mixing quotation, reportage, and expedient personal detail together to cobble an ingenious sequence of linked interactive poems. 

    Padgett, on the other hand, less interested in formal complexity, seems to have been drawn to making two-dimensional personae, rather in the manner of Pop Art. He went on record as claiming to enjoy watching cartoons on television, something no traditional or academic poet would be likely to admit. (Reportedly, Padgett has even been involved in making software apps for writing poetry on computers.) The construction of comic masks--or, self-effacing personal parodies of himself--would become a crucial element in his work over the coming decades. 

    In a sense, Padgett is one of the earliest examples of a writer who tended to see artistic problems in terms of the distortions that modern media imposes on its material. We may think that radio, or movies, or television, or computer games, succeed to the degree that they may compete with the earlier narrational tropes of fiction or classical literature. But it's also possible for writers to adopt some of the qualities of the new media, and bring them back to the written word.   

    Padgett's willingness to allow the cruder aspects of the language and imagery of cartoons, for instance, to find a place in his straight poetics, might constitute an appropriation that lightens and intensifies its affects. 

    Again, the example of Pop Art is instructive. Warhol and Lichtenstein and Oldenburg weren't just critiquing their subject-matter; they were borrowing some of its power--its sensuality and durable shine--as well. Padgett and Berrigan were harbingers in the recognition of the ironic significance of popular culture. If their works occasionally seemed like insincere ad-copy, this was right in step with the prevailing innovations of the epoch. And, unlike the predictable condemnation of the official cultural organs, they embraced and celebrated its energy and giddy charm. 

    Padgett is in no sense a romantic poet, but a kind of neo-classicist, one who sees creative writing as an artificial reduction of the complexity of speech and meditation, a simplification of the layered, elusive surface of actual experience. His close childhood friend, the late Joe Brainard, whose art was always associated with the work of Padgett, Berrigan, Elmslie et al--really, the whole New York poetry and art scene during their heyday--wrote I Remember [1970-73], a work closely allied in feeling and mood to Padgett's poetry, though more openly emotional and personal than his. Both I Remember and Padgett's early poetry bear comparison, as ingenious comic projections of two-dimensional personae. Such resemblances might seem gratuitous, except that both men grew up going to the same high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, together with another classmate, Dick Gallup--each of whom, in the tradition of the New York exile artists--grew up elsewhere, but came to Gotham to realize their artistic selves--artists, too, who came to view the rest of America as a crude caricature of itself, placed in relief against the fast-paced, ruthlessly hip New York art scene. They adopted the tough, mannered style of city life, and mocked it by putting up hard, emblematic symbolic totems, whose style derived from signage and advertising tropes--

    Cover art by Joe Brainard


              The waitress
              at lunch today
              could have been
              in a 1940's movie,
              an innocent,
              cheerful, and open
              young woman--ah,
              girl!--with a smile
              that brings back
              a time
              that probably
              never existed.
              Did people
              really say Drat?
              Or just characters
              in films
              and comic strips
              who now
              are as real
              as real people. 
                                          --from How Long [2011]

    How much more typical could a poem of Padgett's be? An ostensibly real human being met in the workaday world is compared to a character in a movie. If people in comic strips or cartoons are as real as people you see in real life, which version has the greater integrity or significance? Like Brainard, Padgett seems to see "real life" as having taken place in the past, when people "acted" in naive ways, and were filled with surplus sentiment, not realizing how stupid and clunky they were. We can be nostalgic about this imagined past, perhaps even wistful, but we're too sophisticated and suave and impatient to invest in anything so obviously un-hip. 

    A lot of the poems in this Collected Poems are long, which makes quoting them difficult in a blog. 

                        A Train for Kenneth

              One train may hide another
              or it might hide the mountain
              into which it disappears and
              hides itself. You step
              into that tunnel, stop,
              the tracks gleaming at your feet
              but no light further on.

              (This is not a metaphor.)
              (So what is it?)

              It's a stanza, in which
              the train is hiding. You
              can't see it because 
              the letters are so dark--
              the light around them
              makes them even darker.

              But now the train comes
              out the other end and smoke
              is trailing from its stack, for
              this happened in olden days,
              when chugging existed. 

    When I was a kid, my stepdad used to use the phrase "thinking out loud," which meant airing your views as you were formulating them in your mind. I think "thinking out loud" might be one way to summarize Padgett's modus operandi. He's a straight shooter, but he often misses life's elusive complexity by choosing instead to prod us with goofy cop-outs. They're all mildly amusing, and the light touch is better than the heavy-handed. Still, I often wonder what Padgett "really thinks" about life, when he's being completely serious. Maybe the poems are as serious as he really gets. That would be odd. 

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    What is it about the moon? 

    An astrological, astronomical object of curiosity since before the beginning of time. Object of inspiration, fascination, speculation, apprehension. We know a great deal about the moon now, since the advent of astronomy as a science. 

    Recent theory has proposed that the moon was created from a "proto-earth" by a giant meteor collision in which the moon was "calved" away, throwing it into orbit around the newer, smaller earth. There is still widespread skepticism about this, though.

    The moon affects the tides, and exerts other less noticeable affects on the earth. Ancients from many different cultures included the moon in their religious cosmologies, and artists and poets still see it as a symbol of various kinds of metaphysical forces and tendencies--of having feminine qualities, for instance.  

    I think of the moon associated with night, with coldness, of a clarity unobscured by any atmosphere. The last two nights have produced a beautiful full moon, so bright that on clear nights the moonlight falling through our kitchen skylights illuminates the room enough that I can actually see what I'm doing there. Moonlight is a little eerie, and it is this faint, grey illumination which has captured people's imaginations over the ages. Outdoors, in the moonlight--associated with dreams, the mystery of the dark, obscure occurrences. 

    So here are two new concoctions which celebrate the cold clarity and mild seductive qualities of the full moon. The first is a weaker drink, with a kind of evanescent crispness and sweetness which I associate with clarity of vision and thought. The second has more character, more complexity. Both should be shaken very vigorously so that as much ice fragmentation as possible ends up in the glass. That crush or slush is very important to the mouth feel of the taste, especially the first drink. 

    Both are shaken hard and served up.      

    3 shots dry vermouth
    1 shot Green Chartreuse
    1 shot  Cointreau
    1 shot fresh lemon squeeze

    3 shots gin
    1 shot creme de cacao
    1 shot Mandarin Napoleon
    1 shot amaro
    1/2 shot applejack
    1 shot fresh lemon squeeze

    Personally, I don't like to drink late at night. Besides, single malt or brandy is better for that than a cocktail, which ideally comes just before dinner, or during a mid-afternoon lunch in the city. 

    Most poems about the moon focus on some event or other scene in which the moon is just window-dressing. When men first walked on the moon, it dispelled centuries of myth and surmise, took much of the romance out of our human-centered projections of it. It was just an empty place of white dust, airless, dead and bone dry. It was no place for life. 

    My own imagination of the moon always takes me back to childhood, when my dad and I went camping in the woods. We'd sleep out on the ground under the stars, looking up through the pitch-black conifers at an astonishingly clear night sky, the Milky Way and the moon, shooting stars etching briefly at the edges, the moon's vivid pocked surface.     

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    Back in the days when The Paris Review actually represented avant garde writing, they used to commission covers by important modern or post-modern artists. For the first 34 issues, they retained a standard vertical and horizontal margin format (as shown below), which tended to limit the effect of the design. But with issue #35, they dispensed with the margin frame, a gave freer reign to the artist, and this permitted the necessary space for the design to make a purer statement, without the impinging edges.

    But with issue #35, they dispensed with the side margin, 

    and by issue 36, the frame was eliminated altogether, giving freer reign to the artist, and permitting the space necessary to make a purer statement, without the impinging edges.

    That opened up things considerably, and two issues later, this design was chosen for #38. 

    I can't say that I've ever paid much attention to the work of Jack Youngerman, the artist, but judging from the images of his work that pop up on Google images, this is a fairly representative piece. 

    Youngerman also works in minimalist sculpture, and he's still going strong, apparently, at age 87. The style of the PR cover seems typical, based on these images:

    I think I would have described Youngerman as an Abstract Expressionist, just based on his age, since he began to work seriously in the 1940's, when pictorial values were beginning to be shunted aside in favor of all kinds of abstraction. But looking at these other images, I think I'd put him into a different category. As his work developed, he began to seem more like a decorative artist. These big color images remind me of late Matisse, or Arp, not Pollock, de Kooning or Motherwell. Youngerman's work seems to come after abstraction, tending towards suggestive representation. 

    The Paris Review design reminds me of icebergs floating in a big dark blue ocean; the red, blue and yellow piece an angel fish. Such suggestions are gratuitous, though innocent, in work like this. The flat sculptures are pleasant and would fit into any modern interior design scheme. They're just a bit like like Stella's early linear paintings, but more flamboyant and free. I think I would tire of seeing very much of it, but just one or two can be inspiring. 

    That's how I feel about PR #38--a real triumph of graphic design. I would buy a magazine like this just for its cover, but I wouldn't need that excuse here, since it contains a story by James Salter, and poems by Michael Benedikt, Joe Ceravolo and Peter Schjeldahl. The mag had really his its stride by the mid-1960's, and would continue to be interesting for another decade or so, before becoming vague and unfocused by the late 1970's. So much for nostalgia . . . .   

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    "The best artists don't invent; they steal." 

    This has been one of the semi-apocryphal adages in the arts for a generation or three. Each generation of makers builds on the shoulders of the one preceding, so it goes, or ransacks history for inspiration not immediately available in the present. The best kind of inspiration is often an immersion in the many examples of the past, which fill your imagination with fresh approaches. This has been true across the artistic spectrum. Ultimately, we cannot NOT know about things that have been done in the past, though certain works or texts may be forgotten or neglected, only to be "re-"discovered at a later date. Combinations of forms or ideas can lead to new inventions--this principle was the basis for a diverting BBC/PBS series called Connections, presented by its Author james Burke. Though Burke was primarily interested in science and technology, the same kinds of synergistic principles he discussed apply to art and literature. One thing leads to another, and different applications of one idea may open up a whole area of research and experiment. 

    On a very basic level, cross-fertilization in the arts is a commonplace of our time. Musical composers in the classical tradition may try their hand at composing movie music, or theatre music. In this instance, a very skilled cinematic composer, Jerry Goldsmith, whose rap sheet includes hundreds of full movie scores, in addition to straight orchestral music, was active for over 50 years in Hollywood ; during his career, he was nominated countless times for music and movie awards, and won several. LA Confidential [1997, Regency/Wolper/Warner Brothers]was a surprisingly faithful adaptation of James Ellroy's hard-boiled contemporary noir account of the Los Angeles Police Department corruption during the early 1950's, seen through the eyes of a smut-raking "police gazette" journalist, and two competing department lieutenants, one a tough no-nonsense muscle-guy, the other an ambitious by-the-book self-promoter.

    The story is filled with violence and sex, and Goldsmith's score addresses those themes directly; but the lyrical central theme owes much to the "urban romantic" styles of the 1930's, and you can clearly hear his back-channel inspiration in a piece like Aaron Copland's Quiet City [1940, for trumpet, English horn and strings]. Other mood sequences from Goldsmith's score can be heard here (particularly the conclusion 'The Victor').     

    Composing for the movies requires a clear comprehension of the part that music can play during narrative action. There's seldom time to lay out an unfolding musical line of any length, since the focus of the audience's attention is on the story, not the music itself. In addition, a movie composer hasn't the luxury to apply just the preferred stylistic trope he might feel most comfortable with; he has to be familiar and skilled with all kinds--classical, jazz, folk, pop, advertising, and novelty. All may be used in a single production, and the most successful in the field usually must adapt to the projects they're given, rather than having the advantage of choosing what to work on. 

    Some modern classical composers have tried their hand at movie music. A good example would be Aaron Copland, whose did scores for The Red Pony [Republic Pictures, 1948], Of Mice and Men [Hal Roach Studios, 1939], Our Town [Sol Lesser Productions, 1940], The North Star [Samuel Goldwyn, 1943], The Heiress [Paramount, 1949], in addition to writing for the ballet [Appalachian Spring, 1944], and the theatre. All these pieces, I suppose it should be noted, belong to a certain period in American art when nativism and social conscience were important commitments. In the movie business (as well as in the musical theatre), the bottom line has almost always been more important than the underlying production values. 

    Is it possible to make great art under conditions of commercial pressure? We know that it is, though the factors legislating against it can seem insurmountable. In Goldsmith's case, the ability to make important scores is subservient to his record, and the opportunity that only comes with a reliable reputation. If you've not proven you can provide a decent product, new ones aren't likely to come your way. Making a musical score for a movie that's never completed is really wasted work; it will almost certainly never see the light of day; whereas, a "pure musical" composition may still exist in time, not needing its initial scaffolding of visual expression. 

    Certain works may transcend the medium to become pure musical experiences in their own right. That's true of Copland's scores, which are concert hall pieces now. Though rare, certain original movie scores may also deserve concert hall versions. The score for the cinematic epic Braveheart [Icon Entertainment et al., 1995] [soundtrack here on YouTube], composed by James Horner, has become something of a concert hall favorite, contrived into two separate suites [1995, 1997]. The film, filled with a myriad of historical inaccuracies, was successful to a considerable degree for its effective romantic score.

    The score for Gladiator [2000, Scott Free/Dreamworks/Universal], one of the most successful films of the post-modern era, benefitted from a score (by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard), whose originality was challenged by the Gustav Holst Foundation for plagiarism (of Holst's concert suite The Planets [1914-1916]). 

    Normally, straight adaptations of existing musical material are acknowledged as a legitimate endeavors by the Motion Picture Academy, but purportedly "original" scores must pass the originality test for consideration for awards. Clearly, there is a degree of cross-fertilization between media, legitimate (and acknowledged), or not.

    I've discussed this issue of programmatic versus pure music before, and will doubtless do so again. Nearly all musical expression has some kind of programmatic content. So-called "pure" music--i.e., Beethoven's Quartets or Bach's Brandenburg Concertos--may simply be more abstract in the way the listener's meditative space is opened and elaborated. Music may be song, or dance, or ballad, or elegy, or march, or anthem, or even narrative. Certain kinds of music may inevitably key certain kinds of feeling or events or actions. Tradition may be nothing more than a series of well-worn clichés, which we accede to without question. 

    Creative innovations may suggest new kinds of sensibility, or new ways of thinking about how old "sounds" really "sound". The electronic age has opened up many new kinds of musical elaboration, but it hasn't done much to change our characteristic response to familiar associations. 

    Sound may be produced through impact upon a rod or shaped object, or by friction against a string or cord, or by air forced through a tube with alternate fixed or variable stops (or holes). Music is vibration, transmitted through air to our vibration-sensitive ear-drums, interpreted by our brains into sequences of changing degrees we call notes. Systems of such notes along a spectrum organize themselves into fixed relationships we call tonality

    Recently, I heard about an instrument that had been invented by Leonardo da Vinci, the viola organista or piano-cello. This instrument was "invented" 500 years ago, but wasn't built until now. How many other kinds of instrumental inventions await us in the future? Though technically the viola organista doesn't make new sounds, exactly, it does permit new ways of organizing and presenting stringed music. My Kurzweil synthesizer acts in much the same way, allowing me to "play" violin and guitar and choir sounds by way of a keyboard, though the sophisticated nuances of each instrumental sound are severely limited.

    Classical music seems to be on a shallow decline lately, as musical reproduction shifts from material to digital access. Symphony orchestras, concert halls, dance companies, etc., are under financial pressure as society's attention is re-focused and re-organized around the new internet media. But the ways that musical ideas are used and reinterpreted are not limited by venues alone. A movie can be a kind of symphony in sound and imagery, just as the naked symphony once served as the public's official entertainment. Pure music once told a story too, albeit one less specific and narrational. 

    They still wear wigs in the British Courts of Justice--in a style that went out 200 years ago. 

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    Coco Rose Faville -  

    Dates: 7/15/94 - 11/24/13

    For almost 20 years, we lived every day with Coco, a "mini-" Siamese cat whom we acquired from a family on the Peninsula shortly after she was born. This family nicknamed her "Popcorn" because she was so bouncy and energetic. He middle name was "Rosey" as a result of her rose-tinted nose (which doesn't show in the picture). 

    As a kitten, she was a ball of energy and curiosity, and would not be deterred from pursuing something she had fixed her attention on. An aggressive eater, she would binge and regurgitate, almost like a little bulimic. She was very intelligent, and could usually anticipate everything before it actually happened. Whenever we returned home after a day's work or a weekend away, she invariably greeted us with cries of welcome and excited anticipation. She was a happy creature, delighted to be alive, delighted to share her life with us.  

    We had gotten her because we thought we wanted to breed her. First, we placed her with a professional breeder in Stockton, who put her into a cage with a large feral male who bullied and intimidated her, and the mating was unproductive.  We purchased a young male from this same breeder, thinking to have the two of them breed, again without success. Later, we learned that her uterus was defective, and she was neutered. The little male, too, turned out to have defective equipment. But we didn't regret ending up with either cat. 

    Coco lived gracefully into old age. At about 18, she began to develop kidney problems--a not uncommon ailment among domestic felines--and to be chronically dehydrated. She would wake up in the middle of the night demanding to be hand-watered from the sink faucet.

    In her youth, she loved to be put on her little red leash, and walked out in the yard. She was inventive in play, and would chase a toy mouse around for hours. Though slight of build, she could defend her turf, and took no nonsense from the two males she shared the house with. Always affectionate, she never was temperamental, was always tractable, easy to bathe and groom, and cooperative on her visits to the vet. 

    We thought of Coco as the perfect family pet, and grew to regard her as a permanent and enduring fixture in our lives--the spiritual anchor and rock of stability in a world of change and jeopardy. When she became seriously ill a few months ago, we refused to accept that she might not live forever, and tried every kind of medical treatment short of dialysis to extend her life. Finally, last week, she began to fail, despite all our efforts. Rather than put her down, which we hadn't done with any of our previous cats, we opted to let her die at home. She drew her last breath on Sunday morning, without any apparent pain, and passed into heaven. We have been in mourning since. Coco is irreplaceable, and we'll never quite get used to the idea that she isn't somewhere in the house, sleeping curled up on a pillow, dreaming cat dreams.  


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  • 12/04/13--08:04: Green Season

  • As the holidays approach--well, I guess they've already arrived, since Black Friday has happened, and "holiday shopping" has already begun--our thoughts turn to celebration, and partying, and family reunions. Family reunions used to be a tradition in certain parts of America, but they're much less common today. Our economy tends to split families apart, as the restlessly mobile culture encourages people to leave the farm, or the neighborhood, or the town where they grew up, and look for greener pastures elsewhere. America used to be a "westering" culture, one looking for new opportunities in unspoiled country. That dream is mostly history now. We aren't pioneers anymore, at least in the geographical sense. The world shrinks, and there is less open space, and so we become pioneers in other ways.  

    Here's a pretty easy cocktail which will tantalize your tongue. I've been trying combinations with white vermouth lately, in preference to harder spirits, and the results have been encouraging. The Midori/Chartreuse combination is a natural, but the vermouth lightens it perfectly. Chartreuse is a classic French digestif, which can be drunk by itself (cold) or in combination (in cocktails). It needs to be used sparingly, in my experience, lest it overwhelm other flavors. Midori is a straightforward melon liqueur. 

    Shaken and served up with lots of ice-fragments, it's a real winner.     

    1 part dry vermouth
    1 part Midori
    1 part lemon juice
    3/4 part yellow Chartreuse

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  • 12/05/13--10:59: The Bachelor

  • All men are bachelors at some point in their lives. Except, I suppose, those of cultures in which boys are matched from birth to a picked bride. Bars or taverns used to be places pretty much restricted to men, though women eventually broke through that barrier. Today, singles of either sex can go to a bar alone, though there are some where no respectable woman would want to go. The idea of a bachelor is a little solemn. 

    I recently saw again the movie Anatomy of a Murder, made from Robert Traver's (John D. Voelker) novel of the same name. In it, the defense attorney, Paul Biegler, is played by Jimmy Stewart. Biegler is a bachelor, who enjoys fly-fishing, talking the law and sipping whisky far into the night with his alcoholic x-attorney Parnell McCarthy, and playing jazz on an old upright piano. He isn't married, and there's no reference--at least in the movie--to his ever having been married, or having any plans to be.

    A bachelor, like any single person, may become slightly eccentric in his ways, since he has no one to moderate his habits or interests. It may be that people who are single are just not the marrying type, or they've tried it and failed (divorce). Solitary drinkers may become drunks, without a woman around to keep them honest. 

    Anyway, I like to think of a bachelor as one who might like a drink like this one, a little seductive, but proper, and serious, like a well-pressed grey suit. Straightforward and relaxed, with an orderly structure. A drink you could have over and over, not cloying or flamboyant. I haven't been a bachelor for almost 44 years.     

    Swirled around in a cocktail shaker with ice, and poured up. 

    4 parts rye
    1 part praline liqueur
    1 part triple sec
    1/4 part amaro
    dash of herbsaint
    dash of Angostura bitters

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  • 12/08/13--19:15: O'Hara / Dean

  • James Byron Dean - 2/8/31 - 9/30/55

    On September 30th, 1955, the popular young screen actor James Dean was driving his new Porsche 550 Spyder convertible towards a racing event in Salinas, California. Using newly acquired earnings from his two movie roles in Rebel Without a Cause, and East of Eden, he'd been buying fancy racing cars and competing in amateur and professional racing events, with some success. Racing had become a passion for him. Proceeding in stages towards Salinas, he was speeding at 85 mph, and had already received one speeding citation earlier that day, when, trying to beat another oncoming car to a cross-over intersection, his vehicle impacted a 1950 Ford Tudor coupe head-on, in a horrific crash. 

    Dean sustained serious injuries, and was pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital in Paso Robles early that evening.         

    For those too young to remember him, James Dean [2/8/31 - 9/30/55], had taken Hollywood almost by storm in the 1950's. In his first movie role, as Cal in East of Eden [Warner Brothers], directed by Elia Kazan, he blossomed overnight into a major star in the current "Actor's Studio""Marlon Brando" mold, with a kind of sullen, smoldering eccentric persona that captured perfectly the confused, rebellious, over-emotional, adolescent spirit of early Beat Era youth. This role was followed closely by Rebel Without a Cause [Warner Brothers, 1955], in which Dean played the classic mixed up teen-ager, a gang-member with a death-wish and a flashy fragile sexiness that drove fans wild: Drag-racing, switchblades, sex, booze, delinquency--all the vital ingredients of the underground frustration with the conservative middle-class world of 1950's America. And in his third major role, and his last, he reprised this persona one more time in Giant [Warner Brothers, 1956, released after Dean's death], playing a poor white neighbor of a big Texas ranch family who strikes it rich and rises to prominence as a super-rich, emotionally wounded, but morally debased, oil baron. 

    In his private life, Dean followed a parallel path. He liked to be on the edge, and automobile racing was the perfect vehicle for it. Reports concerning his love-life are contradictory, and clouded, but it seems probable that he was mildly bi-sexual, and enjoyed relationships with both women and men. Fatally handsome, and with a charming combination of flirtatious sexiness, and feinting vulnerability, he had his pick of partners. Audiences projected every kind of obsessive regard upon him. If he had not died when he did, there seemed almost no limit to the dimensions his career might have attained. 

    But like the fallen heroes of history and literature, Dean's early death made him into a classic romantic idol, in the Keats/Shelley mode, and in this sense, the perfect subject for elegy and memorial. His funeral on October 8th, 1955 in Fairmount, Indiana, was attended by more than 3000 mourners. America had lost one of its true media heroes, and a movie-star legend of major proportions was born. 

    In our media-obsessed contemporary milieu, it may be difficult to realize how unusual and novel the idea of turning a movie matinee idol into poetic subject matter would have been in 1955. The movie promotion system was already well into high-gear in the 1920's, and it only grew bigger over the succeeding decades. But famous figures from popular music, the cinema or the theatre weren't commonly regarded as "serious" personifications in highbrow art forms like opera, poetry or drama. 

    In the early 1950's, the original New York School Poets--John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest--who of course weren't known as that then, and certainly didn't think of themselves as a "movement" at the time--were experimenting with form, and seeking new strategies to express the meaning of their time. As Gay writers in the immediate post-war period, O'Hara, Ashbery and Schuyler (not to speak of Edward Field, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Goodman, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, John Wieners, Jonathan Williams, and James Merrill, to name a handful), they were seeking to express themselves using either older traditional structures and themes, or by adapting exotic European models, or simply by trying something new. 

    O'Hara, a lyricist, a social creature, voluble and daring, ventured to declare his homosexual nature directly through his poetry. Trained in traditional literary styles and models (he won the Hopwood Award at the University of Michigan as a graduate student in the M.A. Program, before moving to New York in 1951), he was attracted to the revolutionary writings of the French Surrealists (as well as to Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Reverdy), the (early Soviet) Russians (especially Mayakovsky), and was strongly influenced as well by the new painting of the period (Abstract Expressionism etc.). Also, particularly, he was moved by cinema, and was keenly aware of the relationship between the cultural counter-currents, and the the ways that movies might mirror or inspire changes in the zeitgeist. As a progenitor of a rising Gay consciousness, he was acutely sensitive to the subtle revelations of behavior and coded cues that might be revealed on the silver screen. Gays had traditionally enjoyed the ironic privilege of identifying with both the male and female protagonists, with the femme fatale stereotype who draws men to her sexuality like a moth to the flame, as well as the male heart-throb who functions in both genders/dimensions at once. In the case of James Dean, the sexual ambiguity of his "underground" reputation did nothing to discourage this kind of fantasy-projection. 

    During 1955, O'Hara had spent a good deal of mental energy meditating about the persona Dean portrayed in East of Eden. It wasn't simply that Dean was gorgeously endowed with a photogenic face, and a rustic, lyrical (almost balletic)  physical grace; O'Hara saw aspects of his own emotional development in Cal's (Dean's) intuition of his own difference, a metaphor for O'Hara's homosexual awakening, with associated guilt and confusion. O'Hara saw in the narrative a psycho-drama of his own emotional history, and when Dean was killed, he responded predictably by attempting to address the tragedy as a personal loss--not merely as a private projection, but as an allegory for society's condemnation of homosexuality, with Dean as the symbolic martyr to the cause of sexual emancipation. 

    It didn't matter that Dean mightn't have been a full-fledged homosexual; what mattered was how O'Harafelt about him. Inspired by the death, O'Hara re-read Milton's Lycidas, Tennyson's In Memoriam, and Shelley's Mourn not for Adonais, as warm-ups for a serious attempt at an elegy on the late young actor's demise.     


    The poem O'Hara eventually completed has entered the canon of post-war American verse as an artifact in its own right. O'Hara's own tragic and bizarre death--run over by a dune buggy on the beach at night [7/24-5/68]--enhances the poem's interest, in retrospect--an ironic parallel.   

    For James Dean

    Welcome me, if you will,
    as the ambassador of a hatred
    who knows its cause
    and does not envy you your whim
    of ending him.

    For a young actor I am begging
    peace, gods. Alone
    in the empty streets of New York
    I am its dirty feet and head
    and he is dead.

    He has banged into your wall
    of air, your hubris, racing
    towards your heights and you
    have cut him from your table
    which is built, how unfairly
    for us! not on trees, but on clouds.

    I speak as one whose filth
    is like his own, of pride
    and speed and your terrible
    example nearer than the siren's speech,
    a spirit eager for the punishment
    which is your only recognition.

    Peace! to be true to a city
    of rats and to love the envy
    of the dreary, smudged mouthers
    of an arcane dejection
    smoldering quietly in the perception
    of hopelessness and scandal
    at unnatural vigor. Their dreams
    are their own, as are the toilets
    of a great railway terminal
    and the sequins of a very small,
    very fat eyelid.
    I take this
    for myself, and you take up
    the thread of my life between your teeth,
    tin thread and tarnished with abuse,
    you still shall hear
    as long as the beast in me maintains
    its taciturn power to close my lids
    in tears, and my loins move yet
    in the ennobling pursuit of all the worlds
    you have left me alone in, and would be
    the dolorous distraction from,
    while you summon your army of anguishes
    which is a million hooting blood vessels
    on the eyes and in the ears
    at the instant before death.
    the menials who surrounded him critically,
    langorously waiting for a 
    final impertinence to rebel
    and enslave him, starlets and other
    glittering things in the hog-wallow,
    lunging mireward in their inane
    moth-like adoration of niggardly
    cares and stagnant respects
    paid themselves, you spared,
    as a hospital preserves its orderlies.
    Are these your latter-day saints,
    these unctuous starers, muscular
    somnambulists, these stages for which
    no word's been written hollow
    enough, these exhibitionists in
    well-veiled booths, these navel-suckers?

    Is it true that you high ones, celebrated
    among amorous flies, hated the
    prodigy and invention of his nerves?
    To withhold your light
    from painstaking paths!
    your love
    should be difficult, as his was hard.

    Nostrils of pain down avenues
    of luminous spit-globes breathe in
    the fragrance of his innocent flesh
    like smoke, the temporary lift,
    the post-cancer excitement
    of vile manners and veal-thin lips,
    obscure in the carelessness of your scissors.

    Men cry from the grave while they still live
    and now I am this dead man's voice,
    stammering, a little in the earth.
    I take up
    the nourishment of his pale green eyes,
    out of which I shall prevent
    flowers from growing, your flowers.

    --March 1956 Poetry Magazine

    In searching for metaphors for his sardonic, smoldering indignation against the generalized prejudice of the cultural machines of taste and permitted behaviors, O'Hara extemporizes a collective persecution originating in a kind of Hollywood of the gods--all the machinery of production-executives, publicity departments, gossip columnists, fellow aspirants and groupies and parasites to fame and talent--and imagines that he is "this dead man's voice" from the grave ("a little in the earth"), who will "prevent flowers from growing, [their] flowers." 

    As a plateau in the historical progression of literary archetypes, it's probably among the very earliest examples of the use of a modern public media figure. One might have imagined that George Gershwyn, or Dylan Thomas, or some similarly early casualty could have inspired some of the same kind of classical martyrdom. But Dean wasn't just a talented actor, he represented the struggle of a whole society to come to terms with some of its biggest demons. The exploitation and debasement of talent, the relentless inquisitiveness into privacy, the corruption of innocence, the ephemeral (and empty) fruits of success. Youth identified with him as an ambassador of its own adolescent frustrations and thwarted desires.

    The poem's openly fatalistic, petulant, depressed mood struck a new chord in O'Hara's poetry, one which would come to seem familiar in his work as it developed over the next decade. Its impassioned rhetorical flourishes ("the ambassador of a hatred""I speak as one whose filth is like his own""lunging mireward in their inane moth-like adoration of niggardly cares and stagnant respects paid themselves"), on the precarious edge of sense, are just barely admissible as serious writing. They owe more to the work of someone like Neruda, for instance, than they do to any American literary examples (except, perhaps, a work like William Carlos Williams's Kora in Hell). Bringing in a real pop cultural icon allowed O'Hara to perform a kind of exhibitionism which was a characteristic of his nature, drawing friends and acquaintances and figures from the New York art and music scene into the sphere of his public utterances. Like Ginsberg's Kaddish (for his mother Naomi), For James Dean strives for rhetorical extremities which are well beyond the bounds of "good taste" and proper practice. "Nostrils of pain down avenues of luminous spit-globes" evokes a kind of adolescent futility, of self-pity and impotent dejection, wallowing in a sort of fashionable, camp melancholy. 

    But it also makes for an effective poetry. What is especially effecting is the combination of high address ("I speak as one""you still shall hear""I take up the nourishment") with the over-the-top imagery ("the sequins of a small, very fat eyelid" "a million hooting blood vessels""muscular somnambulists"), which produces a quality of barely controlled distress, or stress-induced nighmare-visions. But O'Hara's intelligence never permits the complete loss of control, and the poem ends on a determined, albeit mordant note: "I shall prevent flowers from growing, your flowers."   

    If any teenager could have expressed the suppressed projection of the "cool" empathy, of the tragic "hip" shape Dean's life and romantic death embodied for them, it might have signified something of what O'Hara's poem conveys. Its level of ambiguity is such as to partially conceal the true nature of its point. Dean was among the earliest figures of the Teen Idol craze, not a rock music or torch singing musician, but an enormously charming but "immature" actor, just feeling his way in a difficult profession. O'Hara, too, was in many ways a struggling young writer, finding his way to the means to express what was, for him, his artistic eidelon.      

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