Demon Ship

November 26, 2016

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Demon Ship

Last Sunday I’d been rereading D H Lawrence’s “Ship of Death” with the slow careful reading I lavish on revising. Revision is a peculiar human act, I don’t think any other creature revises its past to effect its present. I awoke that Sunday hearing Lawrence reciting from an unbidden memory I carried from a recording I used to listened to in 1975. Reading Lawrence on line during travel in the mountains of New Mexico near where his ashes are buried briefly felt apropos enough to disguise my unconscious attraction to the voice asking “Have you built your ship of death…?”. It’s been a year of changes.

It began in January with a family death. For most of my life I’ve been estranged from my relatives, so when we share passages the distance is more apparent and unforgivable, the summer family reunion was only a little less awkward than the wake. Then came an unusually despairing spate of manuscript rejections. The top of the guitar I played for thirty years split. I began the frenetic task of opening another new second chance campus in a defaulted church community center. Happily and tearfully, I walked my daughter over a rough bridge to the meadow where she was married. I turned sixty-five. Donald Trump was elected. A water leak changed my library into the room that used to contain my library. Erasure/revision has directed me to re-think what I believed I knew in different, sober directions.

 Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul // has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises. “The Ship of Death”, D.H. Lawrence 1929 [41-42]

Some days I’m lucky enough to stay in a house on a mesa road above an abandoned cloister. It possesses enough quiet I can pretend to hear the hiss of the earth rotating. I spend the days in a few chores, walks in the cold, arranging visits, and preparing meals. Without the distraction of paid work, the days feel pleasant, refreshing, but fraudulent. Learning to re-think emptiness borders on the barely possible. I failed at my first retirement, the burden of filling the hours with myself was too exhausting. That effort also taught me to recognize that the dream I carried of being a writer was probably only going to make me an interesting correspondent, a private poet, and romantic author of blogs a few people read. Still, adjusting to leaving dreams behind seems nearly impossible too.

The dreams of writing and literature I’ve carried unquestioned since I was an altar boy, in turn they have carried me to quiet, to repose. They give me license to disengage and observe the world. In payment I dutifully provide a few decomposed sentences that have been revised, rewritten, questioned, tortured for more information, and then filed as magnetic data. It’s something like religion. Writing has been my monastery. A near silent lifetime of reading and writing has been the defining and confining discipline of my life.  And still its secretive possessive revelations, archane processes, and continual self-criticism attract me. It rewards me with spiritual struggle and a community of phantoms, living and dead. It sounds pompously creepy.  I go there to serve; ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.

But my days of confession, redemption, or therapeutic explanation are past. In this cold now, the signal traumas of my personal past mean less and less, whether Freud, Jung, Maslow, Bill W., or Dr. Phil was right, doesn’t matter. There are plenty of drugs to help me not feel any specific discomfort I choose. Even if I were more cured, more self-actualized, or even more published, it will do little to change the day to day of my future. I will write. I will die. We don’t have to talk about the why of it anymore. It seems a fitting time to consider the captain of the Ship of Death.

For many of my generation the shock of the election of Donald Trump has been like encountering a Tibetan Demon in person…or more accurately, on social media. The Internet is a distant image of a nearby world, constantly scrolling, infused with confession, anger in minutiae, religious and poetic imagery, mendacity, and a menu of fears d’jour. Many of my FBBFs are negotiating anxious apocalypses, released depressions, moral catastrophes, and dooms writ large and small. Many are writers,  I understand their stylish flourishes of dismay.Many are defriending. I will allow my age to permit me to declare much of this, illusion. Maya. Mara. Mirage. Mr. Trump may be as horrible a demon as some suppose, perhaps worse. He should be credited for the intellectual and spiritual havoc that surrounds him already. But the specific and social versions of our responses are our own projections. Those are our own orange headed demons. I read a woman’s post describing being overwhelmed, “I have to see it on social media to know if it exists.” A Twenty-first century variation of reality.

Mr. Trump’s projections are presently beyond my ken. Saying nothing ameliorative about the politics of the moment, Mr. Trump won’t be on my ship; I doubt I’m on his. He’s an active symbol in this depressive moment, but I don’t want him to possess my moments. He’s just one more part of the struggle for me to revise personal change. As I grow older, most change is revising losses. So I use some of the accreted wisdom from writing about being conscious for fifty years to attempt to write and revise this experience into a meaningful nothing special, a not inspired, a commonplace. Right now I need to write a vehicle of perseverance and appreciation to travel into these moments.

I need to see them in writing to be sure they exist. At the same time, drawing on my recent experiences I know any and  every one of the pieces I create, revise and complete can be washed away in plumbing mishap, bagged in black plastic at the curb awaiting heavy trash day, or just kicked around like any other thing in the material world until it falls to nameless ruin. Although it’s  years of invention, concentrated self-criticism, re-revisons and labor unfulfilled or completed, I know my work is already traveling in the continuum of the random past. It’s a ventriloquist’s dummy in a suitcase I carry to tell you my life. It’s already on board the ship of death.

darkness at one with darkness, up and down // and sideways utterly dark, so there is no direction any more // and the little ship is there; yet she is gone. “The Ship of Death” [68-69]

However, encountering a demon is both illusory and real. Demons serve a transformative purpose in our world.Random annihilation exists for all things. I have no notion if inanimate objects know fear or pain. There are quite beautiful experiments showing clear water possesses the molecular capacity to reflect both serenity and distress. My cosmological universe begins with Ovid and Lucretius and finds its ceiling at chapter five of “A Brief History of Time”. I can’t conceive of the fractal my sixty some light years of motion would delineate in the space/time continuum without feeling dazed. Theoretical physics has the same effect on me as Zazen. For me the nature of being alive is to continue on in the arc of life for as long as we can endure. At a friend’s suggestion, I read The Hidden Life of Trees, an account of the consciousness of the arboreal world. According to Peter Wohleben trees have prescience of their impending demise and flower abundantly. Most humans don’t possess the prescient grace of trees; that’s why we need apparitions of demons like D. H. Lawrence and Donald Trump.

Ages ago as a species we internalized the herd instinct to flee into intellectual worlds of panic and anxiety. We evolved internal migration clocks into obsessions with mechanical timekeeping. We continue to travel in migratory urges in a proud variety of vehicles, in rigid commutes, and vacation pilgrimages. But more essential to our character, we can translate personal death into abstraction. We’re not the only creature that understands or mourns death; we are the only creature that mourns its own death before it happens. We also belong to a species that has learned to distract itself from death by fixating on revising its world. We defer the simple processes of living and species procreation to construct abstract tasks. It’s as selfless and self-serving as building a church or writing an essay. I abandon living my life temporarily to write about my life. Writing is like reading only better, it empowers writers to slowly revise the tenor and details of our existence. But we always read and write in a burning library.

So…One evening I’m walking towards a labyrinth and as a bell sounds I see a Tibetan Demon.

If I revise this sentence enough times the factual details blend with what the reader needs to have happen. For instance, the labyrinth and bells do exist in my neighborhood, but the bells didn’t ring. Those realities don’t matter. But when I wrote I live near a labyrinth, readers began to doubt me more than when I wrote I saw a demon. However, for the sake of the one line story it’s imperative a Demon arrive,  although it’s the most improbable of the three  events. More fantastically I have chosen a demon that bears a passing resemblance to Donald Trump, and that fabrication makes all of it more credible. Writer and reader create an imagined bond of shared veracities in the process of writing and revising.  Not everyone lives near a labyrinth, but everyone lives near a demon.

Recall initially I was writing about “The Ship of Death”, contemplating my mortality by stanza. Instead you and I now seem to have strayed off task pursuing a Tibetan Demon that vaguely looks like the President elect. We will collaborate on this distraction only for as long as it provides us the shared pleasure of belief. Belief allows us to endure absurdity. I contemplate sad nuances of my demise and you enjoy it. What holy demonics are we looking at?

Tuesday afternoon I met friends for lunch in Santa Fe. New Mexico’s capital prides itself on being spiritually hegemonic. As we strolled around it was impossible not to see the borders of belief are constantly crossed. Posada style skulls embroidered on linen aprons, Ganeshes molded in local beeswax, milagro embossed crosses made of dried chiles, clan totems and fetishes in silver and turquoise laid on the sidewalk, prayer rugs hung in display windows next to crocodile boots, santos night lights, sandalwood malas, gemstone malas, greeting card prayers to the patron saints of domesticity, a three foot polished brass Shiva surrounded by earrings, cartons of scented votives, hand knotted Persian Qoms stacked in rolls as makeshift office walls, Kachinas scaled human and rendered in glazed ceramic and gold, mandala coloring books, calavera coloring books, sitting Buddhas in garden stone, sitting Buddhas of hardened clay, Our Lady of Guadalupe marking a ladies room, illuminated Mughal manuscript pages, imported Polish painted wood crèches, pinon incense in miniature pueblo houses, gold pendants of Gaia, prayer flags hanging above a tamale cart, Palladium prints of Angkor Wat, a startled Mexican peasant hand carved on a crucifix, bundles of white sage next to an image of the Dali Lama, nazar amulets in blue glass, Mudra broaches, nazars by Swarovski, Quan Yin standing on a sea of cashmere pashminas and, of course, windows and walls decorated with brilliant demons from Tibet in a variety of formats.

Some of this artwork is genuine, some religious replicas pretending questionable provenance, and some mere decoration, but all of it is for sale. It’s an ironic market of distractions designed to help a supplicant overcome worldly distraction. Negotiable memento mori. Visiting spiritual bazaars like these I feel at ease, floating, as if I’m almost at home, arm and arm in the company of friends. I saunter in raw weather surrounded by iconography.

A gypsy refrain played by a band of itinerant musicians drifts across the plaza. Probably I’m not much different from a medieval peasant daydreaming during services in an unheated cathedral. It was near the eve of a holiday for me, the secular-religious feast of Thanksgiving. Walking down San Francisco street, I found myself devoutly grateful to be back in love with the world. Pleased to wander through this reconstructed city of commercially celebrated death, not yet surrendering to Lawrence’s silent sea of abandon, or enduring Trumpian rule, but still alive, looking for my car along the transcendent backstreets of holiness. The lesson of the demon is always to make one see the virtues of the ordinary life, to appreciate a sip of water, a shivering afternoon drifting past silver breath by silver breath.

The flood subsides, and the body, like a worn sea-shell // emerges strange and lovely.    “The Ship of Death” [97-98]

Hegelian Timex

October 30, 2016

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Since August I’ve been wearing a watch again. A cheap Timex, my Internet fancy from summer, delivered for less than the price for lunch for two. Periodically I fixate on looking at watches, for a while I tried out their intimate ticking to cure insomnia, one more failed cure. At weddings and family funerals, I wear my father’s Enicar. I bought it in Switzerland; I was fourteen. It doesn’t bother to keep time more than a day. To know today’s real time, I use my phone. My new handsome Timex used to be what was termed a whim, a trifle to look in. Around dawn I woke up on the couch. “The Isle of Dead” that I was watching as I fell asleep morphed into a teenage girl (portrayed by an older actress) who discovers an odd text on hypnotism that entrances adults portraying adults into romantic slapstick. It was Saturday, I didn’t have to make a time clock click, so I tucked back under the covers upstairs. Back in bed Carol & I read our phones in luxurious weekend pace. We were waiting for Junior to come by to explain why the roof leak I traded a months’ pay to disappear, reappeared.

Since August completing simple tasks at my job have been shifting from middling stressful to middling chaotic. Friday my coworker & I shared an AM commute to work with Devo singing along to “DNA Smart Patrol” until we turned at the block the new campus shares with sex workers. Silence seemed inadequate. Stressful and chaotic are relative vocational terms. Confusing innocence with not having done something, I imagine I might be cast as one of the passing townspeople in “Nights of Cabiria”. In reality from, poets to prostitutes, we all get paid, or pay people to act in tasks we don’t want to spend time from our own lives to do.

My job at my new school remains frustrated by temporary technology and backorders. For five days this week I’ve been salaried to waste time walking up and down stairs to check pages at a printer, deliver a form for a signature, or travel one office to another to ask or answer a question. Hopefully I’ll replace myself with devices. Clever machines that are manufactured, and later disassembled, by people invisible to me. Those lives may appear a bit better than the women walking the street in a moral sense, but not much different in a qualitative or quantitative sense. They’ll be abused, abandoned, die early. Everything moving takes us along willing or not.

This year is also the 246th birthday of Hegel. Most of my life I’ve been willful in misinterpreting Hegelian Dialectics as egocentric relativistic analysis rather than a reflection of an absolute bipolarity. This morning that process appears roughly equivalent to memories of a former lover’s expression, sighing the line from J. Alfred Prufrock, “that’s not what I meant…”   Still I’m older than Hegel ever was (longevity being a different relative value). Being philosophically orthodox has currency, but life accrues like tree rings. I’d rather profit by dark parsing with a lost lover than diagraming reflexive arrows, but I can’t now.

What matters in this current now, is the ceiling has been leaking from the room above the library. The leak is real and metaphorical, it’s symbolic, but it doesn’t symbolize anything specific. Who Carol thought to be Junior calling from his habitual tardiness, was a friend explaining their tardiness returning a call with a date for dinner. Time, as Dali depicted it in Tempus Fugit feels less painful than the exegesis of that intoxicated distortion, time is a narcotic.  We hoard time in dreams, cut it like addicts with razor blades and triple balance scales dividing years into minutes, seconds and femtoseconds. We decorate gardens with sundials, astrologically measure out futures on ancient charts of stellar sand, reckon time in disintegrating atomic fountains of combed atoms, crust clocks with filigree, or construct private time machines like my father’s watch. They are legerdemain, illusions to slur perception of our time’s inexorable passage, at best, like a Hegelian dialectic, they allow a transitory sense of correctness. It was now 9:41, but 9:41 has already disappeared. Yet that once misinterpreted lover’s glance continues, she continues brushing back her hair and brushing back her hair, if only to me, only lost without periodization.

The dinner engagement in the telephone call was being postponed due a trip to Brussels, polite domestic disarray, and his Halley’s mind is slowing, dissolving, cognitive slippage. She has forgotten more than I’ll ever…her lyric goes twisting off, a comet disappearing as her past present future. She’s dying by many names, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis. It’s monstrous and horrifies me. The prayer to St. Joseph I memorized as a devout pre-adolescent seemed inconceivable then, now a desperate, sincere sentiment. Even the iconography, a robed figure resembling Santa Claus carrying a lily, come to fetch life from peaceful sleep is attractive. It’s exponentially more attractive than the 1945 Boris Karloff portraying a Greek general opening his wife’s grave on an island quarantined by a disease that can be stopped only by a sirocco. Still the plot’s misguided cinematic fellow travelers will forever share a film of life inhabited by thieves, servants, and a semi-comatose killer in a negligée.

That’s where I fell asleep. Mr. Karloff, expending a last sigh of screen time into his near canine expression of pathos, the sad grimace of television, we the unseen audience, aren’t anticipated to recognize until the ironic last line. “He was only trying to protect us.” He wasn’t such a monster after all, just pretending…another patriarchal titan obliterated as the credits rise to disappear. William Pratt (Boris Karloff) spent much of his time exploring bipolarity of a dialectic inherent in the artifice of monster and victim. His craft was a construction of flickers, nuances, voice tones and eyebrows to encompass intimate loss and cosmic rage. At the films’ end our common factual knowledge returns as words superimposed, in a contrived order for a floating instant, then replaced by the name of the second assistant director, the key grip, part of the union contract with Marx and Hegelian dialectics. Who does work, who profits?

That morning I had been reading [How to Legally Own Another Person] in bed by touch screen phone. The article began nuancing behavior between employees and contractors, then somehow concluded the Saudi Government profited from subcontracting monstrous men to fly stolen planes into 9/11. For a minute it resonated within my experiences (excepting Saudi references), at least the detailed behaviors in the P/L food chain resonated enough to allow me time to contextualize the frenetic running I had been doing for days. We bind people to tasks we won’t exchange our time to accomplish. The pay, the trade of monetized time for real time builds the scaffold. Why do I tie my own tie?

My dialectic shifted with St. Basil’s chapel high noon chimes. I’m not sure if they signify arrival or loss. Junior knocked. He arrived to survey the residue. He wasn’t wearing a hat, uniform, or any branding (or a watch). He looked annoyed and hurried, according to the article, that made him a contractor, or a terrorist. Another exchange, an additional reflexive line. The longer the arrow, the greater the opportunity for interference. I work for a woman, a devout and apostolic believer. She points to a continuous relationship with her personal salvific moral imperative, direct and vigorous. Her prayers get answered by God’s Bullseyes, no deflections. Her information demands obedience, powerful as a shaft of sunlight extending from a divine furnace. Miracles, martyrs, ecstasies and mystics don’t require wrist watches. It’s my contemplative, bent reflexive arrows that require waiting to reflect on what desire means, the lunar pulling that turns, waxes and wanes. My arrows diagram the tenuous.

This morning in my pajamas I think I’d like to have breakfast and I’d like to travel to Bayreuth to endure    the Ring Cycle Festival. Two thoughts, the first simple, requires no historical exploration beyond the blind physiology of hunger. It doesn’t matter if it’s morning or midnight. Bayreuth can point tangentially to Hegel, to my experiences visiting historical localities. Maybe some detail in the geography or architecture will signal an idea. Another diagrammatic arrow strays, points to Nazis.  Did Richard Wagner unconsciously write the theme music for the NADSP? Wagner’s admirer, Adolf Hitler, never missed a production of the Cycle at Bayreuth until he decided to invade Poland. Der Fuehrer made Wahnfried, Wagner’s villa, his second home. I treasured Niebelungen since I chanced on the Arthur Rackman illustrations.  I was just a boy. However even moral imperatives as relative as mine struggle justifying Hitler and Nazi iconography with a vacation impulse.

The reflective arrows for my trip grow a dandelion crowned with 180 degrees of yellow fingers pointing accusingly. I’d be disingenuous to pretend the direct impulse that Dylan Thomas christened “green fuse”, to be catechism or intellectually less, (or even genuinely here). It’s always louche to be irreligious, I can’t be. Theology might be argument, but religion is held in bodies. It’s an instinct, a need to follow backwards, to touch water and light. The shadows set by monoliths at Stonehenge, sun tunneling into Newgrange, stone gates of a bull star, laurel left in the Parthenon debris, crawlspace down in chambers of a Zapotec pyramid, temporary blindness in Muir Wood, Raven’s stolen fire told with salmon on the table, the raw beginnings of Heaven. It’s who we are. I love the Fool, but not the foolish, I know morning’s Hegelian dandelion has exploded in tetrahedral parachutes, floating past recall or recapture.

In another week I’ll be back in a hotel room. Following God, or more likely where God used to be.  It’s the overture that opens the way over the mountain pass, a perfumed breeze after winter. We are so often pilgrims without destination, hearing the hush between stone columns, blinking in a granite pool holding the sun’s circle, hunching on plastic hospital chairs. We seldom find what we’re looking for. We seldom find anything. Old God, my God, why have you forsaken me here of all places? In the muddle of a dialectical as familiar as dead relatives, as aimlessness as looking for a ghost wandering the corridors of the Pollard Hotel. Below me lurk bears and early snow vowing a late summer marriage.

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This is what he told me when we were sitting in one of the office chairs by way of an explanation of how he came to be in one of the office chairs in the office I had been borrowed to sit in with him who I had no relative idea of why I was watching over or why he too was sitting one of the office chairs fortunately no one was bleeding unfortunately I wanted to be somewhere else and had it not been for the incident of the two people in the hallway and a 36” set of headphone wires I would have been on my way to return from the airport via the gym and into my specific sense of a personal envelope of purposeful balanced  existence instead I was sitting in an office chair and in forced companionship with the bored curiosity that opens genius to view I listened to him tell me he had been in a history classroom when he was told to leave and then another person deliberately stood in his way blocking the hall and he said I’m not trying to hit you it was a linguistic misunderstanding at that point as well as a situational misunderstanding if he were an armed person threatening to fire a warning shot it would be interpreted to mean stop or the situation will become even more violent deadly force it would in that situation have a tone of malevolence over what was formerly referred to as much a veiled threat such as adjusting a jacket to reveal the pistol nodding to a gun rack or a NRA decal in a car window the prelude to or worse violence issuing from unassailable power justified and mimetic of  myth, a threat of a petit divinity’s retribution from a tradition of secrets the old world of breaking a child’s spirit breaking a slave’s spirit I’m not trying to hit you is a creole grammar determined by the placement of the negation the inflected “not” could be misinterpreted as I’m trying not to hit you which implies  the potential for violence is eminent, more so than I’m not trying to hit you which is colloquial I’m not trying to is an expression used to introduce an activity one is attempting to refrain from engaging in as I’m not trying to sell a call when LeBron James explains a contested foul call, he is both sports sophisticated and grammatically and mildly dominant culture transgressive it is an act of self-expression my friend at school was following roughly the same model LeBron James who is the highest paid athlete in the world NBA  Champion hero of Cleveland my friend is not LeBron any more than my Uncle Joey was Phil Michelson because he played golf left-handed imitation this is a form of attaching to a perceived symbol of power and a sixteen year  old person does little else but imitate it’s reasonably appropriate behavior to try to learn how to continue living in the world it’s a fundamental survival activity in any culture it would be over obvious to describe our culture as confusing and fluid that cellphone that was originally about to be refused to be confiscated is the current instrument of cultural fluidity currently capable of disposing the tasks the expensive history text  attempt to accomplish passively remaining in the room my friend was sent out of for engaging with a computer an ironic exaggeration nonetheless the point is made flexibility is a social elitism depends on your class  you’re skipping school to wait on line for a new iPhone or texting in class the consequences aren’t the same they aren’t equated equally even in a school of second chances like the one where we sit in the office and discuss what happened as if it happened to someone else in another  life a miniature version of a movie watched on a cracked cell phone screen something heard faintly on cheap earphones.

 

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KA TA SEE Persona PART TWO

Some persona poems are a double distilled poetic form. Basically a persona poem requires a voice speaking from a dramatic situation. Since the Modernist Period dramatic has diminished to a context that allows for a kind of oblique self-portraiture.  The poems require a literate, alert audience. Like wearing a mask, it requires the observer to know who is being portrayed and then appreciate the nuances of the delivery. If one arrives at a masquerade ball as Edgar Allen Poe, but is mistaken for Count Dracula the droll charm in describing one’s cocktail with sad alliteration is lost. The persona poem is both formally demanding, and imaginatively freeing.

Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues in iambic pentameter were the model of persona poetry for Ezra Pound. Browning revitalized the form by fragmenting the traditional epic into shorter dramatic monologues. Robert Frost wrote some wonderful dramatic monologues like “Witch of Coos” and “Death of the Hired Man”. They were traditional in that as readers we understand the voice is Frost, but not the persona. Pound discussed fragmenting the form into masks of portraiture with his colleague, T.S. Eliot. He also made some arrangements to have Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” published in Poetry Magazine and now millions of students know what to do with the bottoms of your trousers when you grow old. Prufrock is the Twentieth Century’s most familiar persona character. J. Alfred wasn’t T.S. Eliot and he was. Eliot’s favorite poet growing up was Byron, yet ironically Prufrock seemed his poetic antithesis.

Byron is an underappreciated master of the use of poetic persona. Byron’s masterwork, “Don Juan”, was considered scandalous, primarily because Byron himself was considered a scandal. Often the biographical character of Byron as the melancholy, erotic, wandering Romantic poet overshadows his craft and production as a poet. Judging from the behavior of graduate students frequenting cocktail lounges like Poison Girl, even today I suspect most would rather be Byron than be able to write like him. It’s a persona young poets like to adopt, it allows them to speak both as sexy, sophisticated, and world weary, when in fact they often studious, ambitious, and bookishly unworldly. Through the course of his career Byron was able to develop a poetic voice that was distinctively his, but wasn’t exactly him.

Although he was a historical character who didn’t seem to need much permission, he did need a poetic voice that allowed him to be heard without being the “Lord Byron”. Don Juan was already a literary mock hero defined as a womanizing, wandering scalawag whose life is complicated by paramours and their husbands. As a subject Don Juan is separated from traditional epic heroes and scalawags, like Odysseus, primarily by tone. Consider the BBC version of “War & Peace” and Woody Allen’s “Love & Death” plenty of death and suffering in both, but the introduction of satiric wit by Allen’s nebbish character relieves “Love & Death” of the gravitas of Tolstoy, and allows for the additional of a personal commentary.

The nebbish, or fool, descends to us from the European tradition of divine lineage. A fool was a persona given a dispensation to satirize royalty, that’s why he wears a mock crown. It was dangerous work. It’s worth remembering that during Byron’s life (and even Elliot’s) royalty and peers possessed genuine power especially in taste, literary matters and publication. We still classify much of English Literature by the monarch reigning during the time the work was produced. The fact that Byron was a genuine baron gave him education, class privilege, and entre that currently would make him one of the maligned “1%”. Nonetheless he became perhaps the world’s most fashionable rebel.

One of Byron’s poetic models was Alexander Pope, his poetry is what separates undergraduate from graduate literature students. Pope was one of the first writers who made a living from writing, subsequently he was very cognizant of who he offended and flattered. He had to publish his verse form “Essay on Criticism” anonymously. He translated The Iliad into heroic couplets and used the same couplet form in his mock heroic satires. Couplets both put an edge on Pope’s wit and extended him a certain amount of fool’s dispensation in powerful circles.

Know then, unnumber’d spirits round thee fly,

The light militia of the lower sky; (Rape of Lock)

 

Formal rhyme was, and still is, a verbal mask to draw attention to the fact that what is being said is both true and artifice.

Following the example of Pope, Byron’s gift for rhyme was initially topical and referred disparagingly to literary figures of his age. Not too unlike rappers who challenge each other’s skills, it was a way of representing, of demanding attention. Although he was facile in many forms, ultimately Byron choose to write his poem “Don Juan” in ottava rima, an Italian form often used in mock heroic epics. Ottava rima uses Cantos made of formal stanzas, each stanza end rhymes ab, ab, ab, cc.

Brave men were living before Agamemnon[22]

And since, exceeding valorous and sage,

A good deal like him too, though quite the same none;

But then they shone not on the poet’s page,

And so have been forgotten:–I condemn none,

But can’t find any in the present age

Fit for my poem (that is, for my new one);

So, as I said, I’ll take my friend Don Juan. (Canto I, 5.)

 

In the first six lines the poet refers to Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces at Troy who returned home to be murdered by his wife’s lover, and claims he can find no contemporary. He roughly rhymes the name with the word “none” twice. In ottava rima the final couplet also serves to undercut, joke, satirize or re-address what has come before in the stanza. The couplet then re-introduces the mock hero (self) with a forced two syllable rhyme, new one/Juan, that introduces his friend, Don [jew one]. The couplet end rhyme changes the Spanish name to an Anglicized pronunciation. He cleverly identifies the character as both the Don Juan and English.

Ironically, this convoluted and extended verbal construction of “Don Juan” is often described as the truest voice of George Byron, who was neither Don nor Lord. Byron employed this form and proceeded to narrate the invented adventures of Don Juan for over two hundred stanzas per Canto, with seventeen cantos completed and more planned at the time of his death (that works out to approximately 3,500 stanzas, so a kind moment to consider Browning’s genius in concision might be in order.

Although to poets of the 21st Century considering a persona in the cantos of “Don Juan” seems incalculably far off, they were published less than a hundred years before Prufrock, which itself is now over a hundred years old. Byron/Don Juan as a persona continues to survive. Perhaps it was best exemplified in my generation by Jim Morrison. He adopted Byron’s dark, troubled, jaded, Romantic persona down to the flowing opened collared shirts and sadly early death. As a poet and performer he was able to inhabit a parallel Byronic construction as a persona to speak through, a possession with obvious risks.  Unlike some of his musical contemporaries like Miles Davis or David Bowie he didn’t invent his artistic persona and subsequently couldn’t re-invent himself as a periods of artistic invention evolved.  I have friends whose son-in-law makes a living portraying Jim Morrison in a Doors tribute band, Strange Days (not be confused with other, inferior, Doors tribute bands). Jason Tosta impersonates a person inhabiting the persona of another person. He recreates an image of Jim Morrison in studious detail, even attempting to have Frye make him replica boots, but he is an actor. His audience pays to watch him re-present a performance of a completed act. He doesn’t (I hope) allow himself to try to speak through the late Mr. Morrison.

My professional introduction to the dramatic monolog/persona poem came through the generosity of Richard Howard, the poet, essayist, and translator. At 86 he is still a master of the  literary style of the persona form, a style that employs formal precision, intimate historical erudition and poetic revelation. His literary maestro was Henry James who didn’t write persona poetry, however Richard did serve a sort of apprenticeship with W.H. Auden whose “The Age of Anxiety” used four characters in barroom to poetically explore their failure to actualize.

Since the publication of Untitled Subjects in 1969, Richard Howard has populated poetry with dramatic conversations between, about, with and from a humbling variety of personae both real, fictional and fictionalized. Richard anticipates a salon of sophisticated, literate readers to participate in his invented conversations. Using his encyclopedic knowledge of culture and translator’s apprehension of belle lettres he produces poems that express his view of the world as paradoxically sad, unpredictably revelatory and elegantly disconnected. One may hear the voice of Goliath speaking from the severed head cast in the Donatello bronze, listen to a peasant’s description of the poet Holderin found worshiping ancient gods in his garden, eavesdrop as Oscar Wilde gives Walt Whitman a copy of Fleurs de Mal, submit a letter composed by gifted fifth grade students asking for a cure for coitus, or read the response written by the Envoy in Browning’s “Last Duchess”. They are ballet-precise, intelligent poems drawn from a life of conscious immersion in art and culture. They’re designed to be performed aloud to an audience capable of appreciating the nuances of the dramatic situation, as well as the poet’s wit, consummate craft and unashamed genius.

That stylistic braggadocio is part of the style. It is a demonstration and a proclamation. Howard sees himself as a poet in the tradition of Pope, Byron, Eliot and Auden. A formal tradition carried on through today by other poets like Rita Dove, Frank Bidart, and my friend Veronica Golos. These variations of persona poem are poems bound to literature in form and existing characters, and allow the poet to speak only within those structures. They can ask the questions their persona answered, but they can’t extrapolate to resolve questions beyond the text. The poet willfully imprisons their life in the persona figure and performs a dramatic escape act.

Persona Bones

June 29, 2016

KaTa See

KA TA SEE

Persona Stories

Last Saturday was Persona Day in the Jemez Valley. Two of my favorite poets, Leslie Ullman and Veronica Golos came to support the Friends of the Library. Veronica is excited about her new book Rootworks. Leslie has a new volume Oblique Strategies in galleys. It was the type of casual weekend that only English teachers imagine might be part of their vacations. Bright, skilled writers talking about their experiences writing as other people, everyone on their better behavior, cookies in abundance and literary discourse without having to call on that person who wasn’t paying attention. Genuine poets and home baked cookies I don’t expect much more from life.

Both poets were insightful and responded with the kind of spontaneous interplay that make these type of discussions worth preparing for and having. Veronica and Leslie discussed the complicated ethics, individual techniques, and their personal experiences inhabiting other voices. Then there was snack break and the listeners wanted a writing exercise. It fell to me to provide one. As I gave directions and allowed time for responses, a momentary blank came, and then I heard a voice say “Write down what you want to leave behind.” The voice was mine. It was the kind of unconscious burble that happens under social pressure. You adjust and deal with it, it’s a writing exercise, some disorientation is expected. Forty minutes later we were at a buffet dinner. By noon on Sunday everyone had dispersed. Carol and I had an appointment with a traveling shaman for an afternoon of Ka Ta See, Peruvian bone reading, and soaking in the pools at Giggling Springs.

Growing up Roman Catholic visiting a fortune teller was regarded as a Mortal Sin. It was demonic, Satanic and, the priest added, probably a con. We weren’t even supposed to put coins in the Madame Fortuna machine in the Penny Arcade at the amusement park. I felt guilty if I read the fortune in my cookie. There were some gypsies in town, but they didn’t act like Maria Ouspenskia in the werewolf movies. Religion seemed determined to prevent any contact with spiritualism.  However, when I was twelve my grandfather got lost driving the family to visit the shrine of St. Anne Beaupre. Unexpectedly I had a waxy vision and told my grandparents and cousins in a few minutes we would see a man on a tractor wearing a green shirt and red hat who would give us directions in French, but we would understand them. It happened; everyone shut up about it immediately. After all it was a religious pilgrimage, visions were appropriate for saints, but apparently not as a backseat activity. Silence was my Grandmother’s default setting for children, especially on car drives. She had had experience from the end of the Golden Age of Spiritualism at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

Mediums and the Spiritualism Movement were as popular in the Modernist Period following The Great War as “Game of Thrones” is today. In the world just before radio and movies, performance was the only kinetic art form. Magicians like Harry Houdini were the equivalents of rock stars. Vaudeville, tent shows, circuses, carnivals and even riverboats were still the vehicles that brought entertainment to cities and towns. Even simple acts (or complicated ones like Houdini’s) had to be ‘put over’ in person. The actors and musicians may have been bored, but their performances were regarded as genuine by those who watched. For the most part Houdini only pretended to struggle in order to manipulate his audience. He could get away with this because there were no recordings of his act other than gossip, still photographs, newspapers and advance publicity. Each new town was allowed to believe what they were seeing was death defied in their presence. It was harmlessly exploiting the naiveté of the age. Mediums fell into that category of symbiosis, but not perhaps as harmless.

For one preternaturally hot summer I was involved a married woman. The romance was ending badly in final sweaty assignations and denial. She took me to visit a psychic she knew who lived in Kentucky. Not backwoods Kentucky, but a trailer park, a little north of Independence. By night he was a short order cook at the truck stop off the Interstate, by day he would swipe at flies and have visions for $15. He put three small black stones on his head and kept them in place with a stocking cap. He fluttered his eyelids and talked about giant yellow winged Venusian angel creatures whom we would soon contact, he saw a desert where life could breathe ammonia. He didn’t answer my friend’s question about leaving her husband. Opening his eyes, he looked at me as if he knew me. “You’re an only child. You’re the only male heir. You are the last of your line.” Nothing he should have known, nothing I wanted to hear. She asked about my future, looking to see if she were there. “I see arc carbon.” was his reply.

We stopped seeing one another. The following summer, I had a job managing an old cinema. One night I was visiting with the projectionist up in the soundproof, fireproof booth. In a tray next to one of the projectors I asked about the bronze lined stubs the size of bullets. “They make the light…electricity arcs through carbon.”

Sensitives speak things they shouldn’t know into a world that might understand them. It’s an old tradition in nearly every culture. People want to converse with spirits and get their advice about the future. Both literally and figuratively it’s a marginal world. I’ve made a long sporadic study of seeking out practices, seers, healers, spiritualists, card readers and sacred locations. I found it ran in my family. I’m respectful but skeptical, one never knows where lightning will strike.

So Sunday afternoon I sat on the grass beneath an enormous cottonwood and watched a woman toss a double handful of bones onto the woven rug of the world. She held an owl’s wing and walked around in and out of the shade. She began, “This is about what you want to leave behind.”

 

What you see

 

Time Enough At Last

Part Two

In the last hour I’ve reached for my glasses five times. They’re not there. I’m feeling nervous as a racehorse that has to wear blinders. Spooked is the equine parlance for that sense of needing to pull back from something in your periphery that isn’t there. My vision seems clearer if I keep moving my focus, chair to cabinet to wall to my arm then hand then around the room again. Sustaining that initial clarity demands a conscious effort, an effort I can maintain about long enough to identify letters on a Snellen chart during an eye exam. But currently without my glasses I’m at a higher state of subconscious alert. Even though I’m in my favorite chair, alone in a sunny morning in a familiar house, I’m vaguely alarmed, called to vigilance by something near-visible. Sometimes you can see a similar expression exaggerated on men who wait by the freeway exit.

In photographs and in general my expression appears solemn or severe. People often think I’m more serious than I feel. What they regard as deep thought is my struggle to keep things clear. Binocularity and depth perception have always provided a questionable quality to my vision life. I’m astigmatic in one eye and myopic in the other. I perceive detail probably better than motion and distance.  That anomaly made it easier for me to draw things than judge fly balls. Drawing is the illusion of deciding where a line should travel, catching is calculating a fixed point. I became better at anticipating than sustaining. Measured in those diopters was the frustration that shaped my early education. It’s in those minute levels of perception that we effect the habituation of our mental processes.

We construct reality because of what we expect to we see, not what we actually see. Our sensorium is wondrously flexible. We can feel terrified by a wasp buzzing on the other side of a window, yet delight to a lion’s roar on the other side of a glass barrier. We make our own sense. We transform the light reflecting off objects into what we expect to see. Consider the last time you were looking for someone in a crowd. You are going to meet a friend on the mezzanine.

You search faces, scanning for the features you identify as theirs. The other faces constantly disappear; their bodies don’t register as immediate motion. Nearly every object quickly goes out of focus except for the object that isn’t there, your friend. That kind of perception requires conscious, trained effort. When people meet in these situations they generally respond in one of two ways, glee (You’re here!) or dismay (Where have you been?). It’s the response we learned as infants waiting for our mothers. We recognize our mothers first by smell, then develop vision to add meaningful detail to the relationship. We teach ourselves to see.

Over time vision becomes our dominant source of information. Homo Sapiens are constantly attending information in front of them (as opposed to horse’s lateral vision). Without a specific task our other senses tend to diminish in the same way the crowd on the mezzanine diminished. They are present, but we disregard the information they present. Learning to accomplish that is a primary lesson of school, to concentrate on visual focus. A child must first be taught to ignore their instinctive impulses to wander and explore, and then taught to sit in close proximity to other children and focus on symbols. It’s the technological miracle and operatic tragedy of our educational system.

Books and economics were the machines that brought us to this perceptual form.  Public Education as a trope was essentially a construct to socialize children into workers as traditional economies gave way to urban industrialization. As Huckleberry Finn reminds us the disciplines demanded of a schoolboy are fundamentally different from those of a school aged boy. In prior centuries children physically followed their parents around and learned how to survive in the world, parents had to be respected not because of any moral dictum, but because they were the fountainhead of knowledge and survival. Life made immediate sense.

If I ask an Econ student at a community college to define the world. She may describe it in a language of terms beginning with capital, Industrialization, mention choices at the margin, express a curve model, game theory, or any of a number of meaningful perceptual tools. For approximately 80% of families in the world, their economic definition of the world is a little under $10, a few days of food, shelter and tentative safety. For most of that world, siblings are day care and the relationship with your daughter-in-law is your long term care insurance. Family traditions were crucial to survival before religion, culture, or politics. Religion follows food; economic culture follows abundance. The more fundamental difference is some are allowed to consider what they’ll eat for dinner, and others if they can have dinner.

Anyone reading this blog functions in a physically removed yet subtly interdependent world. Collectively we can be effected by the stock market in China, an erratic router, the price of a barrel of oil, the last cell phone message of a deranged murderer, or in my case, if I can negotiate a replacement for my glasses between my doctor 1,000 miles away and a stranger following the policies of an invisible bureaucracy. And all of strands of this web are credited to an unseen economy no one can explain, but everyone believes exists. This symbolic world is a world of perceived abundance and physical disengagement.

My father and grandfathers lived their lives in a small industrial city where nearly everyone still labored to produce products. Their work was physically demanding and required skill and experience they delivered through their bodies. At the end of their work days they could look out on a flat car of steel bars, a two ton milled part, or a rack filled with baked goods. They came home worn, and I don’t recall any of them having difficulty falling asleep watching television. Grampa Hetner could fall asleep standing up “like a horse” he said. I loved and admired their lives, but I can’t live that life, except in a romanticized fantasy.

The city we shared disappeared. The children of the steelworkers who used to go to Waterford Park bet on  futures in Texas and Florida. The next generation of family members suddenly saw themselves as visitors. We became economic migrants, nowhere as tragic as the nomadic existence facing millions of our fellow human beings, but genuinely distressing. In the shift of the economy from manufacture to information we fell into the category of unintended consequence. Capital was redirected, labor became superfluous. But my vision of myself never included a life in a steel mill. The world my astigmatism envisioned was going to be filled with formal language and poetic transformations, and include level of predictable quiet. We perceive what we desire.

Now I’m an at will worker for a second chance charter high school. The tools I carry to work are a pen, a magnetized photo ID, and sometimes a jump-drive which I carry in a company branded briefcase with a book or some poems to read after lunch. I read at two computer screens, go to meetings, answer my cell phone, occasionally use the land line intercom, walk through classrooms, compile reports, plan out details for educational programs and once a month participate in an Internet conference.  Any complaints I have are minor or broadly existential. I’m treated well, my work is engaging and useful, and I enjoy the people I share my days with. The reports I conscientiously compile are randomly audited, otherwise seldom read, in three years they’re archived, and then in five destroyed. My year’s records of meeting notes and observations will be shredded, the dividers will be saved, and the notebook will be refilled. At the end of my day I try to make my office space to look as exactly as it did at the beginning of the day.

My tasks get completed, if I have to come in early or stay late, but I still have a time clock. Many days after work I’d like to go out to drink, but I’m too old for that, so I go to the gym or run (where I may be too old as well). There was only one person older than me who set foot on my campus, mostly I work advising smart, younger teachers and students with hanging thin thread stories. The skills I possess and sell are invisible and conceptual. I’m useful because I can manipulate landscape visions of information into complicated action. When I do it right, I believe the world is a better place. My success has been in part because I am like a racehorse in  one other way, I’ve been over-engineered to one task.

I admire racehorses. That I type badly is a tribute to that affection. As a youth I cut Intro to Typing in night school to sneak off to Waterford Park in time to make the Daily Double. After a brief luckless career as a tout, I abandoned the betting windows, but never the rail. Thoroughbreds are aptly named. They’re born to do very little else than eat well and run on a racetrack. The accumulation of their physical characteristics and hard training that make them a race horse, also makes them worthless in nearly any other equine endeavor. Injuries, falls, collisions, the long term effects of being forced to run dangerously close to other horses, and factor in the now common extension of racing careers, long term side effects of drugs and travel, when they’re through at the track, if they’re lucky, they’re pasture ready. Every May before I sign next my year’s contract I run a slow, serious lap around Memorial Park and ask myself how close I am to being pasture ready.

Having my lenses ruined reminded me how I have been delicately constructed by an extended dialectic that includes the genetics of my birth, refracted light, the class values of a disappearing city, the corporate policies of businesses I do my best to avoid, my learned capacity for enduring sitting still, vague skills in making discrete adjustments to a changing real and symbolic landscapes, my ability to remember and manipulate language…and that my body is on its downward trajectory.

It’s not uncommon for me to wake up on the couch wondering what the outcome of whatever I was watching was. Physical tasks are harder, my joints and ligaments are giving way; HIPA prohibits me from listing all of my nagging ailments. The metrics might be less organized than The Daily Racing Form, but my obituary wouldn’t read much differently from that of a midlevel race horse. Game.

Happily, my optometrist friend sent contact lenses through the mail. I found a place on the Internet that will make me a pair of glasses for $65,no questions asked. In the meantime, I bought a pair of pristine readers at Family Dollar that my wife said make me look European. “What you see” sang The Dramatics “is what you get.”

Time Enough at Last

June 14, 2016

 

IMG_Glasses

I had my vacation reading packed for travel, the last Umberto Eco, the newest Murakami, several volumes of poems I wanted to reread without distraction, and my new travel companion, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a novel I read only in places other than my home. Literature has developed specialized contexts for me. When I think of myself, I think of myself as ‘the reader’, one writers imagine, engaged, articulate, and active. In spite of my handicap of reading slowly, I am patient and willing to stay in a literary relationship. I’m a cash customer, I purchase the books I read. I ask no mercy from my authors and in turn demand they deliver sophisticated thoughts and ideas, not merely kill time or invent thrills. Beach reads and murder mysteries annoy me. The farthest I’ve gone down that path was Sherlock Holmes, but only as self-required reading in my Victorian period. A fascination that actually started as a teaching project when I was working in Galveston Alternative Center for Education. I wanted to connect the curriculum with preparing students to visit and participate “Dickens On the Strand”.

It was an edgy, complicated social and literary endeavor. Thestudents were ‘alternative’ to being thrown out on the streets for the greater good of their high school, but still required by law to have a school placement. ”Dickens On the Strand” is the traditional celebration of Charles Dickens imaginary visit to Galveston. Nine blocks of the old historical district fit themselves out for hand bells, charming parades and an open street costumed party. It’s the beginning of Christmas. Quaint shops, twinkling lights, buskers and carolers. It was less racist than Victorian England, but it was de facto segregated (as much of Galveston was). Although the majority of the students I taught lived no more than ten blocks from the Strand district, none of them had ever attended. To my belief they were far more Dickensian than the folks who rented gowns, capes and canes to stroll the fantasy laid out in Galveston’s historical district.

My students believed they lived in G-town and they were G4Life.

When fantasies collide they best one often hopes for is irony.

Sherlock Holmes, even in film version, was incapable of holding our collective attention. The dialog was too overwrought, the restraint of the English class system too condescending, and Sherlock himself was just too annoying for us to battle through, and any essay topic from a Sherlock Holmes story is constantly doomed to explanation rather than interpretation. Dickens we could bring to life, a bowdlerized version of Jekyll & Hyde and by way of Internet “Jack the Ripper” these fired synapses and made connections. I made the same bargain with my students that I make with the books I read. I won’t waste precious reading effort with foolish practice exercises. If they’re going to work hard, they’re going to get paid. Freshman read A Christmas Carol, sophomores took on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Juniors and Seniors combined to work through Oliver Twist.  As we wrote we explored Dickens’ works and life, life during Queen Victoria reign, websites in England, the US and Japan, and the wonderful Brown University Victorian Web. They wanted the real literature, the same as other students. We all swam in Victorian literature and history. As the Strand date approached they knew more about our reading than anyone in the school that expelled them. They knew why gentlemen didn’t button the bottom button on the waistcoats, why ladies walked on the inside of gentlemen, where treadmills came from and what the staves in “Christmas Carol” were. On the day we attended “Dickens On the Strand” they recognized what was portrayed and they in turn were recognized as apropos portraits. It’s the type of genuine relationship more and more frequently denied students and teachers. It was one of the possiblitites teaching literature can provide. Reading was life changing.

In spite of burgeoning MFA Writing programs, there is a painful decline in the appreciation of capital L literature. There are many inter-related explanations for this, increasingly moderated curricula, focus of standardized testing, social media hive mind, loss of program funding, CAI lessons, the decline of libraries, anti-intellectualism, data driven values, and like philosophy, there’s not much money in reading literature. Beyond these cultural forces reading faces much more competition than it did when I was young. As I grew up it was books, senseless TV, family movies, church,sports or go to your room and build models. But now television and movies have transformed their forms from a half an hour or forty-five minutes of instantaneous gratification into long, brooding, completive inventions.

In spite of my predilection for bound books, I try at least, to remain neutral and open about the current and future states of reading. Consider the classic “The Untouchables” versus “The Sopranos” or “The Wire”, or the brilliant use of real time aging and realized fiction of the Harry Potter film/book franchise, or compare Batman as he appeared in Detective Stories #27 with Batman: Year One, Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke , or the variant toned film versions. I laud the collective genius of modern forms. I can divert myself to a binge of series, excellent graphic novels, thoughtful blog communities, complex multiplayer video games, Netflix, Tennis Channel, Hulu, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, e-mails and e-versions of magazines and newspapers, and constant texting to distract me from my chosen struggle to enforce my attention on a device that is a remnant of the end of the Middle Ages.

On vacation I can read or watch any of this without leaving my favorite chair…unless.

Unless something happens to my glasses. I’d been meaning to visit Dr.K., my longtime friend and Optometrist to have an exam and adjustment. It seemed my glasses weren’t clear no matter how often I cleaned them. But the school year and domestic events unexpectedly demanded days and suddenly I was gratefully driving to New Mexico. Except my eyes bothered me. They watered. They ached. Something seemed to be on my lenses. It was overcast and breezy on the drive, generally a blessing driving across west Texas, which in summer can be like driving on a brilliant griddle. Instead it was twelve hours of driving through sharp, gray glare. By the time we arrived in Amarillo I had a headache, a short temper and was an hour too late to get to the gym. The motel I used to have an ugly dog affection for had taken a few steps deeper into the surreality that makes a good story but a terrible night’s sleep.

It took fully twenty minutes of grimacing for the computer to yield a room number, a key and a registration to sign. Our room had been selected by the manager to be a recently renovated one, with wood floors, a queen bed and a flat screen television.  The door was the first one at the end of makeshift stone pathway near the empty swimming pool. After changing the air conditioner setting from frigid din to din, I looked up and noticed the smoke detector near the ceiling had been skillfully covered with a towel. When I attempted to call the desk to inquire about this anomaly, I noticed there wasn’t a phone. Fortunately, I didn’t sit down in the room’s single chair to make my non-call. It had been sloppily employed for other things, fluid things, terrifically non-hygienic things. The flat screen television the manager had proudly promised had indeed been recently screwed into the wall. Judging by the residue, patch and spackle work, it had put up a struggle.  After multiple trips to the lobby, it was clear the Internet was free, but didn’t work. I stood in line at the desk behind a dazed tourist from Germany whose room was flooded by the air conditioner and a man on his way to Missouri who had just spent two hours traveingl two miles on I-40 because a wreck closed the freeway. Waiting in line I recognized my situation could have been worse, and there was nowhere else to go. Cheerfully I mentioned to my wife that the dishabille of the room reminded me of our honeymoon room at The Chelsea Hotel; some things are better left… So I took an aspirin and sang myself to sleep trying to remember all of the lyrics to “King of the Road”.

In the morning I felt much better as I was the only person in the lobby who seemed to know how the waffle maker worked.  Any day that starts with a waffle shaped to resemble the State of Texas is bound to get better. In New Mexico it did. Miraculously there was an Optical Shop in a warehouse store open on Sunday afternoon. I took a number and surveyed the unfortunate selection of frames. In the past twenty-five years I’ve only had two pair of frames, number three was not going to come from their collection. I’m obsessive and my prescription is complicated and easy to get wrong. With the exception of sleeping I do everything with my glasses on. It’s been that way as long as I can remember. I feel about my glasses the way Vikings did about their swords. I want to be cremated with my glasses.

When Maggie called “#95” she looked around and hoped I wasn’t there. She was already tired out by the previous ninety-four. She straightened my wife’s frames and told her not to use the soft needlepointed case. We agreed on something; I liked Maggie already. She took my glasses, surveyed them and looked at me.

“I can’t get them clean.”

Immediately she seemed to know what that meant.

“The coating is coming off. What kind of coating do you have on these?”

None I knew I had paid for, but coatings are already applied to most lenses, so I had no genuinely useful information. I did however; possess a copy of the prescription. Presenting my prescription, I asked if she could use it to make me a pair of contact lenses without my reading correction so I could drive. We still say “make” in a nostalgic sense. No shop “makes” lenses in that they manufacture or grind them anymore. It’s too expensive to fight the economy of scale. I can buy glasses on the Internet from e-businesses that already know who I am, what I want and sells cheaper than Walmart. Most optometric offices examine your eyes, order your lenses and frames, and make sure they’re correct. They provide expertise and relationships. It’s why I visit Mark, both because he’s careful and competent, and because his father was my optometrist and we’ve know each other longer than my last two sets of frames. We call each other by our first names. In Maggie’s world I was the ninety-fifth person she’d seen on a Sunday afternoon in a crowded store that was still grabbing numbers. She wouldn’t even unfold the prescription. But about the coating…

“Dawn.” She said handing back my glasses. “Clean them with Dawn. It will take a long time and then they’ll get cloudy, but Dawn.”

I know I have Dawn at the place in New Mexico. I love Dawn.

So I’m in the mountains of New Mexico slowly, gently washing my glasses, coating them with Dawn, soaking them, waiting and repeating. Little by little they’re getting clearer. Mark called back. He didn’t know about Dawn. I asked him about an Internet hack I read of using SP30 sunscreen as a cleaning solution. It took over twenty years of building our relationship for him to be able not to sound like he thought I was vacationing next door to a meth lab. He’s sending me an emergency set of contact lenses. When I return we’ll make a new set of glasses. Neither of us want to think about finding new frames.

 

 

June 9, 2016

 

IMG_20160609_095649

The Night Cassius Clay Sent Me to Bed

 

The Old Man was working 12:00 to 8:00 at United Engineering & Foundry. It was a school night. We were living on Glenhaven upstairs in a duplex. My father and I were going to listen to the championship fight on the radio in the kitchen before he got picked up. Fighting was one of the my father’s ways of holding on to the world, like showing up for work for fifteen years without missing a day. His was a creed of a body alone at war with the world. Absorb your beating and take your turn, your brief, brutal chance at being even. We try to teach our children the lessons that cost us the most pain to learn. Slip the jab and throw a short right hook to the body. In the Old Man’s bargain, five or six jabs for a liver shot, or breaking a couple knuckles on a heart punch was a fair deal.

Under a bare bulb in the basement is where the Old Man demonstrated the trigonometry of boxing, the family physics of self-defense. On my better days I was a remedial student. We both recognized when the fight came, I was inevitably going to take a beating, the only question was how bad. In its way he thought of a beating as a representative good…being taught a lesson. Bruises build character. His knuckles were misshapen from fitting steel and his nose was broken. I was a cream puff who talked too much, wandered around the public library, and didn’t understand what work was. The first time I tried to pull my head back to avoid a punch he looked at me as if I had deliberately broken a window. It was not going to be like bestowing a Biblical blessing.

Sonny Liston wasn’t liked, but he was understood. He taped and gloved heavy hands with pure violence. He possessed a prisoner’s patience and moved with the bored gait of a mob enforcer. He was inevitable. Dependable as silence.

Cassius Clay disturbed the simplicity of the boxing dialectic. Punching was the tool and taking a punch was the test. Avoiding a punch was weakness. Cowards were revealed in the ring. He believed in “you can run, but you can’t hide.” I don’t think my father ever actually used the word cowardice, but boasting, slipping punches and winning on points he considered legal cheating. Cassius Clay was merely a constantly annoying jab. He was the loudmouth at the end of the bar you wanted to shut up. He was the company man in a short sleeved white shirt who looked through you and laughed as he did time/motion card studies on your job. He was the three card monte guy.

When you feel the punches start to slide off…  (He demonstrated the difference between hammering and peening on my shoulder.)  …then you set your feet. This was his illustration of recognizing your moment of opportunity. It seemed easy at eleven to dismiss this terrible wisdom as real.

When we turned it on, the radio broadcast could have been prattling about Liston’s two one round KOs of Floyd Patterson, or a commercial.  We both stood in the kitchen listening. No beer, no potato chips. The bell rang, the crowd screamed over the exaggerated tone of Les Keiter. He called Clay’s eyes “big as door knobs”. He criticized him for pulling his head straight back. At the end of the first round the Old Man nodded, vindicated. The rounds proceeded, on the radio it was less clear what was happening, except Liston hadn’t killed Clay. I was giddy. By the sixth round Liston was plodding, lunging, and bleeding; Clay was still circling and jabbing, delivering sharper combinations, and taunting the ringside press. His moment of opportunity had arrived.

Sonny Liston lost the heavyweight championship sitting on a stool; my father sat down in his usual chair in the corner of the kitchen. I wanted to hear more about the fight. Cassius Clay, wild with relief, proclaimed himself “King of the World” over and over, screamed “Greatest” as Howard Cosell asked chuckling questions. I wanted the beautiful chaos to continue, it felt like being allowed into an amusement park. Cassius Clay had jabbed and danced the inevitable world into surrender. Maybe I wouldn’t need to take the beating after all.

“Turn off the radio.”

My father said it as if I had done something wrong, as if I had something to do with the outcome of the fight. He was a good parent and I was a difficult child. He never hit me in anger, or complained about my continual problems at school, or made fun of my eccentricity. He took me places; we did things together. I thought of our six rounds as fun in the kitchen listening to a boxing match; we didn’t know we had been fighting. Father and son we listened to a bout of heavyweight boxing and left as mysteriously injured as Sonny Liston’s shoulder.

In my room I turned on the transistor radio I got for Christmas and listened to it under my pillow. It was jabber. Dad left for work.

 

 

Summer II

 

 

 

The End of It

http://youtu.be/UkKo-jXl2CQ    Annie Lennox “Summertime”

It’s a couple of days after Winter Solstice. What sun there is, comes cold, strained, and weak. Christmas feasting is over; I’m tired of liking FB pictures of other people’s children holding toys. There’s low grade despair on the streets as shoppers exchange gifts for bargains. Nobody really wants another cookie, but another one gets eaten. There’s no miracle to believe in or reason for wonder or song. In another age, I’d have been tending toward Romantic melancholy, now I’ll have to content myself with Seasonal Affect Disorder or a call to my Health Care Provider’s Call-In Advisor. Today was the day I found Annie Lennox superb version of “Summertime” and the conclusion to this piece I’d been searching for since the summer ended.
“Summertime” being farthest away seemingly brings it closer, makes it precious in its absence.

Beyond her evocative voice, Ms. Lennox has a pulse of zeitgeist that has kept her a successful pop star (over 85 million records sold), in her various public avatars for nearly three decades. She seems to know in detail what she’s voicing, and is able to sense what her audience is searching for, perhaps before they know it themselves. She remains one of the consummate rock/video artist from the brief golden age of that art form. Each of her video productions displayed her ability to interpret collaborative images into collective portraits that are both emotionally expressive and wryly self-conscious. “Nostalgia” and this version of “Summertime” won’t diminish that oeuvre. Ms. Lennox remains one of the most intelligent and creative of the vocal artists to undertake “Summertime” and this rendition on her recently released “Nostalgia” possesses that mélange of memory and expression that has made faux memoir the form of our current age.

The version I’ve been listening to in a cold room is a pristine emulation of a Blue Note recording from the period of the early sixties. Mid-century style being just beyond the cusp of its current trend, “Nostalgia” comes as a slightly askew interpretation of standards from that period. I doubt this recording will either increase or diminish her stature. It is pleasing and smart, but not overly ambitious. It speaks more to utilizing talents in an interior mode than exploiting them to the pop audience she has attracted in earlier years. She lends her intelligence to “Summertime” and a personal taste in interpretation that has a feeling of historical fiction. She recorded it at the legendary Blue Note Studios and engineered it for a vinyl recording.

This is the only version of “Summertime” from this century I’ve reviewed. I had considered including the pleasant enough Nora Jones/Marian McPartland version, but there seemed more etude than interpretation for my taste… at least not enough to bring me back from my autumn stasis. The Annie Lennox version revived my “Summertime” thought with its subtle invocation of the tradition of “Summertime” as a vehicle, sometimes awkward and other times inspired to carry a complicated cultural sensibility. In some still moments afterwards I can hear the conflicted spirituality of the original George Gershwin /Abbie Mitchell recording. In her singing I heard hints of Miles Davis, and Billy Stewart mixed with a smoky Rudy Van Gelder living room intimacy, longing for a past that could have, but never quite existed.

Perhaps there is a fundamental artificiality in “Summertime” that shivering, bleak weather brings clearer. I’ve been wandering holiday airport lounges. I overheard a stranger’s unexpected intimate confession to a child. I walk my daughter’s dog as frigid evenings empty another day after the holiday’s passing…it’s that long night when summer is a luxurious memory rather than a relentless presence.

Creating both “Summertime” the LP itself, required creating a sophisticated illusion to make the interpretation a real space for the listener. Its tone reminds me of the more intimate Frank Sinatra of “In the Wee Small Hours” (which included “Mood Indigo”, also on “Nostalgia”). Lennox’s version of “Summertime” is a song hinting at a cabaret license, cigarette smoke and violins, serious cynical drinking and a slow, beautiful exposition populated with loss. Like other pop, and rhythm and blues singers such as Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, or Diana Washington, Ms. Lennox has found a mature interest in visiting “The Great American Songbook”.

“The Great American Songbook” is the traditional canon of Broadway and Movie tunes from the turn of the Twentieth Century Tin Pan Alley and ended in the1960s in the Brill Building (or with the invention of Bob Dylan). My travels with George Gershwin’s “Summertime” have deepened my familiarity with many of the Songbook songs, singers and styles that I had regarded as items folded in my mother’s bureau. They are songs that are easily memorable, relatively easy to sing (badly), and capable of enduring interpretation from a wide variety of styles, as my extravagant “Summertime” exercise has demonstrated. However they are mostly adult songs, complicated by experience and reflection. To interpret one, not merely musically correctly, but personally is what provides the challenge for the performer. Recalling Julie Andrews’ “Favorite Things” and John Coltrane’s interpretation provide examples of how much interpretation one of these standards could endure without losing its character. They are a treasury of two generation’s dreams and loss.

However, in the Twenty-first Century a standard like “Summertime” exists in a simultaneous multiplicity of interpretations. Annie Lennox in discussing her preparation for recording “Nostalgia” cites YouTube as a major resource. Ms. Lennox and I shared the kind of sonic research that began this essay six months ago that requires only an Internet connection, headphones and obsessive curiosity. The Internet is a portable research library, with semi-anonymous suggestions, hints, and wild hare tracks to follow. In the realm of language and opinion, the Internet has both sharpened and blurred the differences between academic and amateur scholarship. What were once Reviews of Literature, or anthologies, are now almost impossible to accurately compile because of the constant revision, insertion and invention of information on any given subject. In an area like criticism algorithms rule taste.

In the early eighties I recall purchasing a cassette tape of The Eurhythmics, “Be Yourself Tonight”, from a Boots Drug Store in London; they were breaking out of the hip dance club circuit and becoming MTV stars. Evenings after returning in rainy walks from the tube station I listened to it on a hand held tape recorder. Those nights harkened to the days when as a child I would listen to rock, girl talk, and rockabilly on a pocket sized transistor radio I kept hidden beneath my pillow. Both were relatively the same size, and just a little thicker than the phone I carry around now. The songs played over and over as I puzzled out meanings and nuance quite literally as if I were receiving personal coded messages from nearby space. Now they come to me as lullabies releasing scents of a Proustian memory.

I doubt the androgynous masked Annie Lennox of “Sweet Dreams” would have envisioned such a project as “Nostalgia”; still experience teaches the limitations and adjustments our talents. Ms. Lennox’s chosen repertoire has supported her voice with amplified inflection, style, and gesture. Regardless of her work’s high art aspiration, she’s in show business, in direct descent from the line of chanteuses, who have as Gershwin would have requested, can “put over” a song. What has made the difference is experience has deepened her emotional pallet, and created spaces for her share the spotlight with a song. My supposition is the intention wasn’t to possess “Summertime” the way her persona inhabits songs like “Why” or “Walking On Broken Glass”, rather something else more personally reflective and self-satisfying. It’s the accumulation of loss and disappointment, of age and maturity that makes this “Summertime” an interesting interpretation. It embraces the deep artificiality of the song’s original operatic premise as part of the broader reality of its interpretations.

Eighty-one summertimes have arrived and dissipated since George Gershwin adapted a spiritual fragment into a minor key blues lullaby. Only the song has remained constant in its dreamy dynamic of post card weather, someone else’s hope, and underwritten despair. It hasn’t brought anyone fortune. An almost incomprehensible 25,000 voices have waded in to record its melody and search for a way to negotiate its personal and cultural currents. Like a Christmas tree at the curb, or the string of lights outlining an RV window, an imaginary authenticity brings us past the original meaning, past decoration, to a strange, dark place, not without its agency of beauty.

Iconography @ Starbucks

 

Dogg @ Starbuck’s brunch

“Summertime/Doin’ Time” was a vague adaptation of the Gershwin song, but apparently enough to warrant legal credit. It appears on the album entitled “Sublime” which sold over two million copies and was certified double platinum. Their interpretation opens with a rough choral singing of the first line of the original; it wasn’t sampled and mixed in. Sublime’s use of “Summertime” was literally a cover for “Doin’ Time”. In 1997, Bradley Nowell, the band’s guitarist and founding member, died of a heroin overdose. The band had already been under increasing contractual pressure to tone down their anti-social activities, although it was the same behavior had made their reputation as a live act and sold recordings. That same story has been nearly a trope for bands and musicians in the rock, hip hop, gangsta, bad boy industry.

Also during 1997, rapper, Snoop Dogg, was acquitted of a murder charge, nearly instantly he become nearly omnipresent on recordings and videos. Although Timothy McVey was the genuine face of terrorism, magazine covers showing Tupac Shakur’s “Thug Life” tattoo terrified parents even posthumously. Loose Dickies, cornrows and bandanas became chic, gang tags appeared on shopping malls. There were heartfelt televised discussions of casual misuse of the “N-word”, while white America fumed both oblivious and outraged by athletes and entertainers surreptitiously flashing gang signs and colors on network television. The ironic phenomenon of suburban and mainstream co-opting urban gang culture became a burgeoning industry. Notorious B.I.G. was shot in a drve by shooting and Strom Thurmon became the longest serving Senator in US history. Into that pre-Millennial incarnation of Catfish Row the Sublime interpretation of “Summertime” was released in three different versions, and a fourth version I have chosen was unreleased except on the Internet.

In all four of the Sublime interpretations, “Summertime” appears first as a syllabic substitute for the words, doing time, then fragments of the melody blend ironically into the atmosphere of exhaustion and excess. It uses the feeling, first line and musical refrain of Gershwin, then inserts a secondary lyric describing constriction in a relationship with a philandering woman in prison terms. In spite of the heavy-handed metaphor, the song maintains a summery pop feel. Like much of the work of Sublime, the song asks little of its listener and borrows melodies and styles from other genres. At best it’s a pleasant pastiche for beer buzzed fantasies of rebellion, at worst it’s three chubby party boys usurping musical styles and masquerading as criminals. That’s been the business of rock and roll since its inception.

In spite of, or perhaps because of its shortcomings, unfinished qualities, limited invention and technological theft, this version of “Summertime” is intriguing to me, at least for dissection. The seventy-odd years from the first Gershwin recording to Sublime may appear much greater than three generations, but it’s a period not much different from that separating the Emancipation Proclamation from that same recording. It does seem too far of a distance to recall Al Jolson’s contemporaneous black-faced 1927 performance in “The Jazz Singer” was widely regarded not as minstrelsy, but as an assault on racism and prejudice. In some readings of that performance Jolson’s character finds his true identity by changing his name and singing in blackface. In the film, as the character , Jack Robbins, (formerly Jackie Rabinowitz) Jolson produces a heart breaking “Mammy” sung in blackface to his mother as an explanation of refusing the constraints of his Jewish roots. http://youtu.be/PIaj7FNHnjQ . In spite of ts cultural impropriety, Mr. Jolson knowingly employed a racial mask, not to diminish cultural conflict, but to express it.

Sublime has no similar context to mitigate their cultural investment in “Summertime”. Instead of a sophisticated sentiment, Sublime produces a sluggish melange of complaint and then embroiders it with Snoop Dogg’s rap. A rap intended to lend a depth of street credibility “wickedness” and represent “The strong beach, the wrong beach, the L.B.C.”. Mr. Broadus rented his reputation as a Death Row “G” in the attempt give the song depth by making it appear dangerous. Sublime became guys pretending to be in the same barroom as Stagger Lee. It is a peculiar artistic choice for either a pop version of “Summertime” or a lover’s complaint. Unlike Jolson’s complicated adoption of a temporary race, Sublime chooses a convenient mask to hide behind for commercial advantage and intoxicated bravado.

Crown, from Porgy and “Porgy and Bess” was Dubose Heyward’s Doppelganger, a shadow symbol to wrestle with Porgy in Heyward’s struggle to resolve his own identity issues. As a stereotype, Crown, was a mask for racist fears and African Americans sense of powerlessness. To accomplish these ends, regardless of their ethical values, Crown has to be dark, fearless, savage and violent, a character incapable of change. Crown is always a manifestation. Nearly all of the racial stereotypes from the Jazz Age persist nearly a century later. The Mammy, Jezebel, Magic Negro, Sambo and Mandingo Savage continue to function as roles in artistic media shorthand. Al Jolson attempted to re-interpret the blackface mask outside of the realm of stereotype. Sublime made the artistic choice to draw on a diminished, but still corrupting image, Crown as criminality. Crown, who from “Birth of a Nation” on, must be subjected to extra legal control.

Our culture continues to profit from and manipulate these images, in some ways they are more sensitive, subtle and thoughtful depictions. If anything, in the current information age stereotypes are more vital to emotionally support talking points, substitute anecdotes for facts and swell emotions and fears. The tragedy of the death of Trayvon Martin rests, in part, with the superimposed residual image of “Crown”. It was the image George Zimmerman shot at; it was a seventeen year old student he killed.The current controversy and discussion regarding Kara Walker’s installation of “A Subtlety, or The Marvelous Sugar Baby,..” is acerbically insightful in revealing how much race does still matter in stereotypical imagery. http://indypendent.org/2014/06/30/why-i-yelled-kara-walker-exhibit I would ask you not only to read the article, but the pursuant comments for a sense of the depth of feeling. Yet in spite of academic discussion or subtle artistic changes, African American stereotypes remain vital in mass and social media.

The super-imposition of the Savage onto the faces of young African American men has been a contributing factor to abnormally high rate of arrest and imprisonment of African American youth. And perhaps even more corrosive are the residual complications from the internalization of that image withn those young people. Regardless of its value as a shorthand to sort groups or entertain, it’s both dehumanizing and inaccurate. A believed stereotype feeds in the invisible realms of ignorance and insecurity until it’s strong enough to force its way into the physical world.

 

 

It has been part of my good fortune to have taught English in an alternative school (State mandated alternative to expulsion) in Galveston, TX in the late 1990’s, in the midst of a gang war fought in two square miles. Students were quite kind to me in spite of the fact that I’m obviously obsessive, long-winded and dry. It was a small population, we enjoyed lunch together, students brought what effort they had to class and we enjoyed the work, projects and growth. We all made the school a safe place. Still they were routinely tried as adults,  rousted by police, beaten going home across the crazy quilt of gang sets and territories and in one year particularly horrific school term they murdered four of their classmates. All this was described as the price of “being too deep in the game”. They taught me how to read gang signs, tags and the alternative street map of G-town. They were victims, but not innocent. In writing they often perseverated on 2Pac’s death the same as other generations collectively mourned the loss of their idols with that mixture of shared fantasy and sudden vulnerability. Although violence and shootings were nearly commonplace in their neighborhoods, the death of a media deity meant something more to them. He was a stereotype they believed; he was “real”. The intensity of the internal beliefs they attached to this shadow figure I only guessed by topic frequency and their willingness to revise.  Mr. Shakur was shot in Las Vegas following a Mike Tyson fight. (Mr. Tyson was another human being who had to grow up and live inside the “Crown” stereotype). Also wounded in the shootout was “Suge” Knight the CEO of Death Row Records, the recording label of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and 2Pac. Mr. Shakur, like Mr. Broadus and Mr. Tyson made substantial sums of money allowing themselves to be manipulated as stereotypical African American thugs. Like the seventy year old image of Crown they were portrayed as powerful, violent, criminally out of control and lacking interiority. They were paid to carry racial fears and prejudice into public arenas of resolution.

 

 

 

The life of a psychopomp brings visions that few other humans have to experience: the daily realities of their business are exaggerated illusions. We ask pop artists to act out our stereotypes without disturbing our sense of personal responsibility. As the media world has evolved since the Jazz Age the demands of creation, performance and marketing have both increased the sizes of audiences and the nuances of intimate manipulation. As an industry, music finds continually newer, more malleable replacements. Each artist struggles to both create and emotionally survive in a cynical industry. Not infrequently they disguise themselves; they wear masks, it is an act fundamental to performance. The danger comes as my Jungian friend pointed out in underestimating the power of shadows and types like Crown. Even though the song was a faded echo of “Summertime”, barely recognizable, the images it invoked were still potent enough to take the life of Mr. Nowell.