Demon Ship

November 26, 2016

demon-2

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]

 

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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.”

Time Enough at Last

June 14, 2016

 

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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.

 

 

PART FOUR Let Some Caterwauling Commence

In 1966 along with Donavon’s “Sunshine Superman” and The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City”, Billy Stewart had a hit with “Summertime” http://youtu.be/Mr7Qq_qUKb0 . It reached 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and eventually became the biggest selling single for both Mr. Stewart and “Summertime”. It joined the legion of warm weather choruses that casually accompany vacations, graduation and summer romances like best friends. The Beach Boys and other surf bands, The Drifters, and Nat King Cole were all part of the transistor radio soundtrack that for three months accompanied Bermuda shorts, burnt hot dogs and the peculiar scent of Coppertone. Generally there was a song rotation of 2’30” songs lauding the bright brief season of navel gazing, and hopefully not only at one’s own.

 

Like secular Christmas carols, summer songs possessed shared cultural pleasures, magical optimism, and the promise of emotional acceptance. When the Summer of Love came along its musical precedence was well established. With that “Why not?” spirit “Summertime” has been recorded with, Theremins, twin guitars, twangy guitars, reggae skanks, jazz orchestras with strings, Hammond B-3 organs, angry pianos, every type of wind instrument from pan pipes to gold inlaid flutes and vocals ranging from smokey to saccharine. Many were experiments that for the promised eternity of the Internet might have found a quiet oblivion. Each interpretation brings its special palette, but perhaps not as much in the way of enlightenment.

In the legion of questionable recordings of “Summertime” here are some of the more eccentric starting with Clara Rockmore’s Theremin version and ending with the esteemed, but angry, Duke Ellington. Some “Summertime”:

http://youtu.be/j0c7p5geJZs  Clara Rockmore,

 

http://youtu.be/fNAFClBagfs Santo & Johnny,

 
http://youtu.be/LFWDpxqrOWU The Ventures,

 
http://youtu.be/JbWg_xKyi-M Herbie Mann,

 
http://youtu.be/j1bWqViY5F4 Charlie Parker,

 
http://youtu.be/q6L34MhPRak Ricky Nelson,

 
http://youtu.be/YlxxmNP2MKw Billy Preston,

 
http://youtu.be/e1nXeaE9og8 Eumir Deodato,

 
http://youtu.be/D7J4YWrZa80 The Zombies,

 
http://youtu.be/mPGG4SL7aFE Lloyd Clarke,

 
http://youtu.be/4JesgKVLqrA Johnny G Watson,

 
http://youtu.be/Tk90QyrkRTY Friends of Dean Martinez,

 
http://youtu.be/fGGJoTmlmAg The Walker Brothers,

 
http://youtu.be/0Rr_6VNF2To Booker T & the MGs,

 
http://youtu.be/5lAQltfRLfM Lawrence Welk, and

 
http://youtu.be/JzG3G4C8jMY Duke Ellington.

 

I’m indebted to John Tangari for his research on variant versions of “Summertime”. If you find you’d like more “Summertime” variations I suggest you visit his site, after that seek your own salvation diligently. http://everygreatsongever.tumblr.com/post/5767727618/30-versions-of-summertime .

IMG_20140308_141334025 Summertime

 

It is, as some say on the Gulf Coast, “hotting up”. Not quite change your shirt twice a day hot, but already stay in the shade hot. Among other things hot weather is good for ripening tomatoes, iced coffee and arguments over small things. My college roommate and I have been arguing out the fine points of topics like Victorian adversaries for decades. Over time we’ve become familiar with one another’s tastes, beliefs and exaggerations. Not long ago, quite unexpectedly he proclaimed an affection for Julie Andrews, Broadway musicals, professionally trained voices and proscribed all else to the exile of “caterwauling”. Late in ones’ life I expect a certain amount religious retrenchment, dietary conversions, even divorces, but a Pauline conversion to musical theater surprised me. Broadway repertoire has charms, but deleting the astonishing range of 20th Century recordings we had shared for years set me wondering.

 

In my life I’ve enjoyed friends who could sing long selections of musicals a cappella, who were dogmatic collectors of recordings of chanteuses, and others who had framed “Playbills” on their walls. I admire obsession. I get it, at the same time I confess too much of my childhood was tortured by overexposure to “The Sound of Music”. Julie Andrews did nothing culpable: she remains Maria Rainer. Her soprano was lovely and expressive; whatever problems I have with the singing are mine. So I did find myself taking less exception to the canonization of Broadway, but more the loss of so much music to the lesser realm of caterwaul.

 

To my ear, the rigid tonal structures of western music, while pleasing, seem an artifact of a lost age I often appreciate as a tourist. It requires little from me but a credit card, suspension of disbelief and a cultural predisposition to sit still for three acts. That’s not derogatory; it’s in the nature of Western art forms. “The Sound of Music” is entertaining. It pits romance and the diatonic scale against Nazis and monastic vows. While reinterpreting history is one of the basic mythic devices of western theater, the more complex differentiation isn’t about historical melodrama and artistic interpretation, but between attractive and beautiful. Attractive has a broader range, or conversely beautiful has a deeper, narrower range. Both are noble human endeavors. What is easy or pretty draws us away from the unpleasantness of our lives; what is demanding and transformative takes us back to something that may be less pleasing, but more a more demanding useful truth.

 

I have lived in a fortuitously peculiar period. The sonic variety of our collective musical mind has been infected by recordings. People like me, born in the 1950s, have heard more different types of music than perhaps any other generation before us. We have heard it and responded to it, but been physically present for proportionally very few actual performances. Radios, records, CDs, tapes, television, movies, MTV, iPods, download and YouTube provide a constantly changing kaleidoscopic soundscape possessing both novelty and historical delicacy. As with most things, we know more than we have experienced. The Nazis came and went before I was born. Race, jazz, poverty and class struggle have remained part of the conversation of my lifetime; I’d like to consider “Summertime” from America’s first major opera “Porgy and Bess” and the notion of expressive caterwauling.
Like the performance of most operas, a performance of “Porgy and Bess remains precious. More people have seen Lady Gaga perform “Monster Ball” in its two years of touring than the combined audiences for every performance of “Porgy and Bess”. “Porgy and Bess” is another of America’s awkward masterpieces. It has an unaccountably erratic history of productions, enjoying limited runs in 1935, 1942, 1952 and notably 1976 as a revival by Houston Grand Opera. The 1959 film version was a production melodrama nearly more dramatic than the script. It too is assumed to be well known, but also seldom seen. The film was never given wide theatrical release and was shown only once on network television in 1967. Like many, I claim to having seen it and recall scenes and songs, including “Summertime”.

 

Most operas exist in the repertoire of storage. They are an antithesis of ‘popular’ music, to most people there are musical fragments or costumes that are almost recognizable. Mel Blanc may probably be the most recognized voice of the Valkyrie for the overwhelming majority of Americans. By nature opera is caricature; in America opera is an intellectual cartoon. It represents pure music with extensively trained performers and a demand for educated attention that is expensive in many ways audiences are not often willing to purchase. Nonetheless Americans assume operas will exist whether or not they like them, understand them, or attend their performances. As an opera George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” has struggled to find an audience identity outside of its composer’s roots in Tin Pan Alley, the Jazz Age and Broadway shows.

 

George Gershwin published his first hit song at seventeen. He had some classical piano lessons and positive experiences in that realm, but found his immediate future and fortune in popular music. He wrote Al Jolson’s black face signature “Sewanee” in 1917. He wrote songs for theatrical productions that were primarily musical reviews, song and dance, chorus, comics and hits. He understood his audience, the task of the song, and wrote to its commercial potential. The term “selling a song” came from this Tin Pan Alley period.

 

The piano industry reached its peak in the 1920s then declined with the Great Depression. Until the crash, pianos were the most common ‘must have’ item for every household, school and public business. Even today, a hundred years later, that prevalence of pianos remains part of our cultural memory. We aren’t surprised if a piano player appears in Western movie, in fact they’re cliché. Nor does it strain our imaginations when the Little Rascals rescue someone from piano practice to play football, when Mickey Rooney sits down to write the show to put on, or in the background music for tenement scene, dive bars, or cocktail parties comes as the trebly sound of a nearby piano player. We not surprised to find a piano anywhere. Legendarily in the 1920’s there were so many composers sitting at pianos picking out so many different songs at the same time on West 28th Street that it sounded like beating tin pans as opposed to music, Tin Pan Alley. Pianos and sheet music were a profitable industry, those without a trainable daughter or son purchased player pianos. Gershwin both wrote songs families could sing around a piano and arranged songs for piano rolls. He was extraordinarily successful at it.

 

Like all people of ambition he aspired to something more without the knowledge of what shape that would take. Like many from immigrant families, he recognized it would demand acculturation, invention and energy. He flourished with the jazz age, studied in Paris, and saw his “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris” performed at Carnegie Hall. The music he composed for “Porgy and Bess” was in some aspects the culmination of his successes. It possessed sweeping themes and singable tunes. Gershwin’s seasonal “Summertime” was composed for “Porgy and Bess”.

 

“Summertime” was originally set to a poem by DuBose Heyward from the novel Porgy by Mr. Heyward.” “Porgy and Bess” was initially described by George Gershwin as a “folk opera”, that is, inspired by common songs and rhythms and interpreted in classical musical form. No different from works by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartok, or Aaron Copeland all contemporaries of Gershwin. It’s generally assumed “Porgy and Bess” drew melodies from spirituals and other tunes Gershwin heard traveling in the South. In preparing the music he made an extended visit to a North Carolina barrier island. (There is an alternative interpretation asserting that “Summertime” is based on Yiddish and Ukrainian lullaby melodies.) The style of symphonic composing that was Gershwin’s forte was a style of musical interpretation and invention with a long history in Western classical music dating from Bach and certainly Beethoven. It was, as Ezra Pound wrote “…what the age demanded.” [Hugh Selywn Mauberley]. The age demanded overblown nationalistic symphonic music for growing radio audiences, American music sanitized from the jazz of the Jazz Age. Unquestionably the most popular and resonant song from Gershwin’s American opera was “Summertime”.

 

Many summers ago I was driving in Austin and a local disc jockey spent a silly and obsessive two hours playing nothing but different renditions of “Summertime”. I was fortunate to have escaped that easily; there are between 25,000 and 30,000 recorded versions. But I did came away wondering what “Summertime” could mean, even to me. Today Catfish Row is like the village Pagliacci’s wagon arrives in. The Harlem Renaissance is archived, along with Vachel Lindsey’s “Congo”, the St. James Infirmary and the Cotton Club. The roar of the twenties retains perhaps an academic allure, but in its moments it was quite the wild party. Stocks soared, religion was booming business, evolution was on trial, people seemed blissfully surrounded by a bubble of debt too big to burst, and sex, race, gangsters and music met for cocktails in glamorous lounges. It was summertime as the Depression arrived in its own wagon.

Here is the first recording of “Summertime” Abbie Mitchell sings and George Gershwin plays the piano and conducts:
http://youtu.be/x0g12TrSnIE
Why this version is heard so seldom surprises me. It’s gorgeous, and not just for 1935. It feels both human and ethereal. It seems to speak in an almost ambient religious tone. However this is not the version that Gershwin decided to finally employ. Perhaps it was too ethereal to attract investors, or not in the swing fashion. He continued re-working the setting as he worked on “Porgy and Bess” making adjustments, although he clearly was pleased with the basic “Summertime” as a piece and employed it three times in the opera.

 

The next oldest recording I could locate of “Summertime” was recorded in 1936 by Billie Holiday about seven months after the show opened in New York. http://http://youtu.be/9xpq1pLk-sA . There are echoes of tawdry jazz age colors in the introduction. Then Billie Holiday’s vocal moves the song from a lullaby into an ironic despair tinged view of life and the false oblivion of childhood. The insistent tom toms and Artie Shaw’s clarinet bring a kind of faux jungle decadence that speaks to both the Porgy story and the political oblivion of the times, simultaneously containing the guarded slumber of a child and the monsters of Jim Crow and worse. By comparison to the 1935 recording this isn’t as fully realized, but it possesses qualities of expression that allow the singer and song to engage. The band allows itself to become an shorthand of clichés and within the vocal I sense a hesitancy and inexperience, which lend to the recording’s the overall effect of singing to an infant amid jostling. If that was the intended effect or not, I can’t exactly determine. The band was between styles, the singer young, but already abused, and the recording hurried in order to take advantage of what publicity there was surrounding the opening of” Porgy and Bess”. It arrives more as an etude for something larger and later, which is how the song is initially employed in the opera.

http://youtu.be/IG4nPM9uxwg

Sidney Bechet recorded “Summertime” June 8, 1939 with Teddy Bunn on guitar. Summer is the character; there may be a baby and it may or may not be sleeping. Mr. Bechet’s interpretive soprano voices some sense of an alley between Montmartre and Basin Street as the afternoon’s heat is abating. Mr.Bunn’s blues-influenced guitar counterpoints the free musical extrapolation with a feeling of languor and restraint. Already the song has traveled some distance away from Gershwin into the hands of the interpreter, and Sidney Bechet was seldom shy about taking possession of a song. “Summertime” was well on its way home from the opera.

End of Part One

Quanah Parker

Quanha Parker

Somewhere between Waxahachie and Fort Worth driving west from my home in Houston to New Mexico I missed a turn and found myself with my map unfolded in my lap calculating the mileage of various legs of hypotenuses to return me to my intended route. I had time, so I wasn’t as distressed about being off schedule as I was at having to add hours to an already long driving day. Between the imprecision of my map and a few false turns on my part, I settled for a series of highway repairs on Rt. 380, if for nothing else, for the novelty. On 380 just west of Denton, Texas and a long hundred miles before Quanah, is a fenced open space with a metal sign fixed to the chain link that reads Muslim Cemetery. Not too far from the graveyard was a familiar roadside silhouette of a cowboy on one knee in prayer while his horse waits patiently. It’s not an uncommon sign, The Cowboy Church [www.cowboyfaith.org] has about 885 churches in the US and Canada. Not much farther I passed a large well-constructed Kingdom Hall that looked as if it used many of the architectural materials common to nearby stockyard auction rings. There are plenty of cattle and plenty of genuine cowboys in this part of the US. It’s a hard business built with long hours, tough weather, and plenty of labor. Animal husbandry is a Biblical occupation. The distance between many of the literal activities depicted in the Christian Bible or Koran is not metaphorical, only technological. There will still be blood, dust and lonely sky to contemplate as part of the day to day existence of many of these families. There were roadside signs for the Full Armor Biker Church, a “Commandments not Suggestions” billboard, I came to a rest area where two old boys had decorated their camper with hand lettered signs proclaiming why “Homos Go to Hell.” Dialing around on the radio I heard a man declare “My wife and I refuse to purchase any item that breaks God’s Heart.”

As I drove towards Quanah, Texas I kept wondering about the Muslim Cemetery.
There are approximately 125 Islamic mosques or religious centers in Texas and 425,000 members, the largest Muslim population of any state. 425,000 out of 26,000,000 doesn’t seem like much of a minority, but it’s still larger than the Native American population left in Texas (by contrast there are over 125,000 members in just the five largest Texas Christian mega-churches). In the Houston area there are nearly 50 Mosques and Islamic Centers, enough that they hardly draw attention. The greater Dallas Ft Worth area has about 20. The remaining mosques are spread throughout the state with about one in every city. Denton had a mosque. The growth of Islam in Texas remained a puzzle to me. In Texas instead of “What do you do?” you’re asked “Where do you go to church?” Perhaps those conversations don’t transpire the same way for everyone. But I wasn’t sure why any follower of Islam would be called to move to west Texas.

Buffalo SkullsBuffalo Skulls
I was wandering through the southern boundary of the now non-existent Comanche nation towards a town named after Quanah Parker. The area where I first became lost wasn’t far from Fort Parker, a small blockhouse fortress built by in 1836 by a Predestination Baptist Community in what was considered “Comancheria”. That fort was the actual location of the infamous Cynthia Ann Parker kidnapping portrayed in John Ford’s, “The Searchers”. Her story inspired a film that remains both one of the best westerns ever produced, but also an intimate and epic consideration of American racism. Following her rescue, and subsequent return, she was famous throughout the Western World as the “White Squaw”. She was a Caucasian woman who chose to leave white society and return to live with the Comanche people. In racist symbology of the Victorian Post Civil War Era of respectable parlors, churches and taverns little could have been worse a worse crime against God, the white race, or culture. Ms. Parker’s plight was to choose the less cruel redemption.

To give the story mythic grandeur the film was shot on archetypal John Ford cinematic locations in Arizona and Utah. North Texas isn’t Monument Valley, Utah. It’s a peculiarly open claustrophobic landscape where it’s easy to get lost, even with a map. The geography rises from the piney Edwards plateau up through the hundred or so square counties in the high and rolling plains to the horizonless table of Llano Escondido. It’s hard dust hillsides, dry creeks, scrub oak, and hay fields that farther west give way to caliche, cholla, cotton and cattle feed lots. In summer its character is even harsher and even less inclined to generosity. This geography was once ruled on horseback by Comanche clans, legitimately feared since they had driven off the Spanish. The warfare between the Plains People and the US Army was a horrific culture of suffering on both sides. Take the worst images portrayed in stereotypical cowboy and Indian movie matinees, think of them re-envisioned in Quentin Tarantino’s nightmare and imagine them happening in 105 degrees, or in a relentless freezing wind.
Quanah, Cynthia Parker’s son with her husband, Peta Nocona, is famous as being the last Chief of the Comanche People. Legendarily he was wounded by Billy Dixon using a Sharpe’s rifle from a mile away (the distance varies based on the source) during the fighting at the Second Battle Adobe Walls. The Sharpe’s rifle was the weapon that allowed herds of buffalo to be exterminated at long distance without causing stampedes, and it is still possible to purchase a Billy Dixon model ($2,885.00). As a warrior Quanah Parker was a formidable tactician, a merciless fighter and was one of the last Native Americans to surrender in Red River War in 1875. He was also a participant in the inter-tribal Sun Dance of 1874 to restore the buffalo herds and the Plains People in the spiritual cycle of regeneration. Participation in a Sun Dance, along with numerous specified and unspecified Native American religious practices, was forbidden by Federal Law from 1830-1923, and was not de facto legal until the1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

The terms of peace following the Red River War forced Parker to live on the reservation formed by The Medicine Lodge Treaty.
That was one of the treaties that beginning with the Indian Removal Act of 1830, reduced the lands of the indigenous tribes of the Central Plains from an area roughly two thirds of the Louisiana Purchase (60,000 square miles) to designated portions of Oklahoma. The Red River War had been brought on by Manifest Destiny’s continual encroachment on traditional Indian territories and also by what is termed the great buffalo massacre of 1870. Buffalo Bill Cody earned his nom de guerre for purportedly killing 4,200 bison in eighteen months. Then he said he’d had enough (We all have limits.). Buffalo Bill’s departure notwithstanding in less than twenty years the vast herd of buffalo that ranged in the millions was slaughtered to near extinction for pleasure and to deprive the Plains Indians of food…or both.

Sharpes

Buffalo Hunters posing with Sharpe’s Rifles.
Increasingly since the Civil War the pacification of the Plains Indians” took the form of starvation and systematic destruction of resources. It was like Sherman’s March through a Sea of Grass (General Sherman was actually in charge, but the dirty work fell to Gen. “Bad Hand “MacKenzie). By destroying crucial portions of the symbiosis in a traditional nomadic route, the capacity of that lifestyle to remain viable is ended. Without open range, buffalo and horses the Plains People were doomed to a life they neither desired nor understood.
This statement by Paruasemena of the Numunuu Comanche, one of the signatories of both the treaties and the surrender following the Red River War like much of the literature of that genocide is romantic, brutally poetic, and true… psalmlike in its sensuality and lament.

“But there are things which you have said which I do not like. They were not sweet like sugar but bitter like gourds. You said that you wanted to put us upon reservation, to build our houses and make us medicine lodges. I do not want them. I was born on the prairie where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures …and where everything drew a free breath. I want to die there and not within walls. I know every stream and every wood between the Rio Grande and the Arkansas. I have hunted and lived over the country. I lived like my fathers before me, and like them, I lived happily.” October 21, 1867.
Shortly after the resettlement of Plains Tribes on reservations, the US Congress passed the Dawes act that effectively allowed the Federal Government to allocate parts of reservation lands to individual tribal members and sell the surplus to Euro-American settlers. This was one of many measures like Indian Schools, to help ‘civilize’ Native Americans into patriarchal nuclear families. The federal government in collusion with real estate investors planned and actively worked to use its power to force its new “citizens” to abide by the majority lifestyle and mores, and actively sought to suppress their practice of religious belief with armed intervention. They corruptly divided of tribal lands into private property and sold the rest. Quanah Parker is considered the last leader of the Comanche People because following the individual land allotments, the tribal life and culture that had flourished for generations was made practically impossible. Males were considered citizens and liable under Federal and Local laws, while suffrage didn’t come to Native Americans until 1924. In spite of this Parker became a successful cattleman. He hunted wolves with Teddy Roosevelt in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the government from selling more land from the Comanche Reservation, and built Star House that still stands today.

Beyond all that or because of it Quanah Parker became a religious figure.
Throughout his life Quanah Parker, not only refused to convert to Christianity or monogamy, he was one of the early proponents of organizing and protecting the rights of the Native American Church. There are currently approximately 250,000 members of the Native American Church. Quanah practiced his religion until his death in 1911. Native American Church observes rites that have been practiced on the North American continent for centuries. Some ceremonies also employ a sacramental use of peyote. Texas is the only State in the Union where peyote can be sold legally for religious purposes. Unfortunately the Native American occasionally makes news when some Anglo defendant claims he was in possession of various drugs as a religious sacrament. Ironically the sacred aspects of the religion have been appropriated and co-opted to such an extent that non Natives are discouraged from participating in most ceremonies.

I was also driving within a hundred miles of the Mount Carmel Compound of the Branch Davidians. Three members of the Texas Values group who demand the theory evolution be removed from science textbooks and replaced with biblical interpretation live and work relatively near. Texas was also home to Madalyn Murray O’Hair who founded the American Atheists. Continuing west towards Gaines County at the New Mexico Border several communities of Mennonites have resettled to escape the corrupting life in nearby Lott and other cities. Either unfortunately or by Divine guidance they’ve chosen a desolate area in a county adjacent to Clark County where a private nuclear waste dump has recently started disposing of radioactive materials from Los Alamos. I’m not sure which requires greater faith.  If I wanted to find another semi-arid bit of geography where people had felt more empowered by God to act cruelly towards one another, I’d have to drive to the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Placing the center of a compass on my location and extending the leg out 150 miles the circle it would inscribe would contain all of these religious activities and white clapboard churches on gravel roads, storefront ministries, and religious home schools with Internet curriculum. This could have been Dante’s dark forest and Quanah Parker could be my Virgil, I felt I was lost in sacred counties.

Inn
From the free range of the Comanche territory to finding a place to dump nuclear waste took considerably less than two hundred years. As a perennial passing stranger, I remain in awe at the variety of intricate systems of belief that hold us in our various places. For the most part I can only believe what I learned as a boy in my catechism classes, that I don’t know, or frequently I don’t possess the same answers as other people. Theology tries to be logical; religion demands to be hard.

There is a fundamental part in us that seems to desire to be connected with things ancient, difficult and mysteriously cosmic, and there needs to be some trial or sacrifice to achieve our worthiness to accept belief. That desire to have contact with something primal fuels many the behaviors we don’t understand in others. We need a parental approval far deeper than the school counselor imagined when she tried to explain why we were disrupting class. Regardless of how it manifests itself, if we don’t somehow believe we are in contact with a genuine touchstone to our past, we are as lost as an old newspaper ad. People share some need to suffer correctly, obedience is somehow wired into us beyond a behavior to merely survive. It is a path to salvation, just as hard as this state highway bending through the villages left outside the storm linked Gates of Eden.  We traverse a series of speed zones built in townships where paradise has been postponed by a cruel variety of reasons and life continues amid the ungodly. Only here there are so many types of ungodliness buckling up with the pavement. When I stop for gas, it feels easy to believe.
A homing instinct for authenticity brings our bodies to places on this earth and allows us to endure and hope to understand. Perhaps it is in rare desolate places that religion seems most attractive. We’re misguided if we believe the people I’ve referred to are somehow primitive or inadequate because they don’t shop at Whole Foods, or employ the heels on cowboy boots for purposes other than style. Nor do I contend that they are privileged to a higher communion with the universe than an elderly widow living in a one bedroom apartment in Philadelphia. If a wrought iron man gets off of his horse to kneel and pray to the sense of order that keeps his allotment of land from spinning away from him whether by godless savages, or a government intent on persecuting his religion, or Stephen Hawking re-calculates the Higgs Boson’s relative value as a dark matter at the simultaneous beginning and end of the limits of our universe in the same frozen posture that has held him for decades, I may need both of those things and more to continue driving lost on this religious highway where theology has been written in blood down the way from the Dairy Queen.

E-Grace (part one)

September 11, 2013

E-grace

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Bride of Frankenstein, Universal Pictures 1935

“Muster no monsters, I’ll meeken my own…” W. H. Auden

The day before Christmas a friend sent me an e-mail requesting me to blog about Teilhard de Chardin. I hadn‘t thought of de Chardin since I was an undergraduate forty years ago. Some of us may vaguely recognize a pop contemporary image of Pere de Chardin as the film character Father Merrin from The Exorcist series of films. [There is a more arcane and perhaps more rewarding intrigue linking  Father de Chardin with papal demonic possession proposed by theologian/fiction writer Malachi Martin,  but I’ll just allude to it and allow Amazon to profit from the passing curious. [Hostage to the Devil ].

A few actual philosophers have reflected a demi-existence as semi-fictionalized characters in film, mostly it’s a typecast for a harmless, hermit.  A notable likeness of St. Jerome and also Martin Buber, I and Thou, befriends the Frankenstein monster in “Bride of Frankenstein” teaches it to speak, smoke and drink, then ironically is destroyed by his own recently civilized “friend”. A relationship only the tortured film genius’ of James Whale and Mel Brooks explored for filmgoers juxtaposed with variant images of the rough stitched Promethean that reaches beyond the limits of responsible science. Theirs is the warning in the first act that goes unheeded.  Philosophers are generally characterized as hermetic, disengaged and often ridiculed. For most American audiences they are European contemplative residue, a curious wasted life. In Romantic literature were the early stereotypes for ‘mad scientists’, individuals who linger in places ‘men should not go’. Faust and Viktor Frankenstein are examples of these demonic scholars.  Mary Shelly’s novel was published anonymously in 1818, and then publically fifteen years later, around the time of the Burk and Hare grave robbery/murder scandal, but fifty years before Darwin. The film “Bride of Frankenstein” was released in 1935, about the same time de Chardin was finishing The Phenomenon of Man, the same year Charlie Chaplin released his last wordless masterpiece “Modern Times” and Hitler became Fuehrer of Germany.

Monsters and comedians are one of the vocabularies we have for describing our subconscious thought to ourselves. Philosophers enjoy a posthumous regard, but generally as authors of aphorisms, i.e., “brainy quotes”. But we seldom think they are expressing what I’ve been feeling for a long time, more often they typify what I’d like to think if I could. They belong in old universities, movies, operas and novels, but even cable television can’t fill a late night rotation with “Top Ten Existentialist Diet & Exercise Programs“. Excepting actual philosophers, philosophy is a conscious activity, like a second language generally approached with uncertainty and a dictionary.

Marshall McLuhan famously portrayed himself in “Annie Hall” rescuing Woody Allen from a pompous bore on line at a movie. Coincidentally McLuhan’s theoretical global village was influenced by de Chardin’s writing particularly the concept of the noosphere. McLuhan was a devout Roman Catholic who initially read de Chardin from a hand distributed proscribed publication.

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St. Jerome removing a Thorn from a Lion’s Paw

Niccolo Anton Colantonio, c.1445

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Marshal McLuhan rescuing Woody Allen

Annie Hall, United Artists 1977

 

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Martin Buber, Charles Darwin and Gene Hackman.

                   

Although he didn’t die of a heart attack during an exorcism, Tielhard de Chardin’s actual biography is almost beyond believable cinema. He also belongs in the group of historical re-explorers like Highram Bingham and Howard Carter. His life was an awkward marvel of adventure, discipline, correspondence, and distance-made-personal as only someone from a religious order, in prison or having multiple affairs  can compartmentalize life. He was a renowned paleontologist participating in the identification of both the forged Piltdown Man and the authentic Peking Man. He was a frequently denounced by the Church he loved, denied both Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur for any publication during his lifetime, but simultaneously a well regarded Roman Catholic theologian who was both heretical and obedient. His theological work was condemned, removed from shelves by some conservative clergy, yet surreptitiously published, translated and distributed throughout the world by others. Among those who privately promoted and simultaneously publically disparaged his ideas was one of the hidden hands that shaped Vatican II, an ambitious, but terribly un-photogenic, cleric named Ratzinger who went on to the papacy.

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The fictional Father Merrin, the real Teilhard de Chardin, and the former Father Ratzinger.

It’s rare in the Twenty-First Century to discuss this heretic, mystic Jesuit. It’s rare since there are, to my knowledge, few Neo-de Chardinists who have translated his ‘transformative’ into something more profitable. The American Teilhard de Chardin Society is sponsored by the peripatetic Union Theological School, while its homepage is hosted at Yale. A membership costs $35 a year, $400 for a lifetime card. The society offers annual awards of $500 for the best research and $300 for the best lecture by a graduate student. No one has claimed either award for five years. For $15,000 one can purchase an original banned mimeograph of Le Phenomene Humain (by comparison a presentation copy of “Howl” recently sold for $75,000). In the tax-free world of religion this isn’t even walking around money. What neo-notion there is, is Progressive Theology which I assume still remains in the untroubled shallows of doctrine. His philosophical work dwells somewhere in the realms of Process Philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead, Henri Bergson and Bertrand Russell, or in the tiny, exotic hothouse of Christian or Ecumenical Evolutionism. His notions of Omega Point theology may not be a heavy cross, but they’re certainly a complicated cross to bear.

Ostensibly, a request to produce a few hundred words on a philosopher wouldn’t be something I’m historically unfamiliar with, it was more like attending a college reunion. Writing other people’s papers was how I received my education in philosophy and writing fiction. de Chardin along with Hegel, Royce, Rahner, Sartre, Bonheoffer, and Martin Buber were worn tools of obfuscation and utilitarian quotation sources for my collegiate philosophy/theology ghost writing business. What topic can long endure a Hegelian Dialectic or an epistemological scrutiny? If Sartre or Buber wouldn’t provide a bon mote with pith, the cigar loving ethicist executed by Nazis could lend an unassailable, if sentimental, turn to even the most rambling essay. Where in the world of forced contemplation wouldn’t Bonheoffer’s term “cheap grace” be an undeniably summative critique?

Generally in writing philosophy papers my modified rhetorical form was to show a struggle, insert the apropos terminology with a modicum of awkward accuracy and then produce an epiphany. The more genuine task was to present that struggle, vocabulary and appropriate coming to understanding in a stylistic language that mimicked my customer’s classroom character and eradicated the existence of the actual author. That was a fair amount of sophistication for under $50, but my philosophical enterprise then (and now) was guided by a few cynical, but useful precepts:

  1. Writing about philosophy is portraiture for the unattractive; nearly every academic study desires flattery (and by extension the actual academic). In most institutions being an undergraduate professor is more like dulling office work than professing anything. For the most part papers are skimmed, then graded en masse by bored, disillusioned, frequently partially sober professors, who believe they should be doing something more important. For a ghost writer it’s crucial not to disturb that trance; ennui encourages self-deception. Although their professional vocation may be to see through illusion, they are nearly always willing to believe they’ve done a better job than they have, and students have done a worse job than they have. It’s more like a bad first date than an academic discipline.
  2. Philosophy starts with the premise whatever you think you know is wrong, and theology corrects what you thought you believed to be true. Philosophy is truth; theology is Truth.
  3. Common phenomenon in philosophical discourse are investing words with special single use meanings, violating syntax and inventing words, neologisms, portmanteau concoctions, triple-hyphenated-terms, retranslated etymologies and employing italics and parentheses needlessly. Philosophical writing displays the linguistic and grammatical ethics of an ambitious marketing executive. (Norman Denny, one of de Chardin’s translators, described using variant spelling of reflection [reflection and reflextion] to signify two totally different ideas as symbolic of the translator’s task.) One can pass sophomore Philosophy, by failing sixth grade English. Ghost writing success rests in employing as many tortured terms as closely together as possible and understanding the salvific potential of the word ostensibly as the first word in the sentence. No sentence can be too complicated or too dull.
  4. Modern philosophy, theology or religious philosophy are simpler subjects than historical philosophies since they only exist for specific realizations encrusted in self-described nonsense. In the philosophical, publish or perish world, garnering attention or selling a book is an understandably ambitious task.  Imagine when writing about Sartre or Derrida, ect. you are talking to your drunken great uncle, as soon as you repeat what he’s said twice he’ll stop jabbering, otherwise he goes on until one of you passes out. Your task isn’t to debate; it’s to figure out what he wants to hear, rattle your ice cubes and agree.
  5. If you can’t grasp a philosophical text by a close reading of the preface, introduction, and index, the chances of understanding the main themes are slim regardless of the quality of stimulants involved.
  6. Any book or article you have been in the same room with goes into the bibliography. You did use them to reach that crucial point in your thinking. And at the end of the philosophical day who doesn’t find more direction from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel than The Archaeology of Knowledge?
  7. Turn down all offers for short answer essays; you’re writing fiction not poetry.

In the years I wrote term papers the notion of plagiarism was a less negotiable standard of the Student Code of Ethics. My anonymity was the foundation of our bargain. Exposure of academic collaboration held strict penalties for my clients. Currently in our age of social networking, YouTube, apps, Moodle, blogosphere (there are Existential Web Rings among other unpredictable items http://www.webring.org ) and cooperative learning, my lack of identity and ability to finesse a personality struggling to a romantic enlightment on command would be considerably less valued.

Our Internet makes it possible for anyone to be near the information people need to know and a lot more they don’t. It’s an experiential flooding, not a teaching tool in the way libraries once were used to lead students to a particular truth. A library is a dedicated resource more like a labyrinth than a maze. It’s designed, like books themselves, for a kind of communal privacy, and like a book, it’s a self-contained, contemplative structure.  Library collections are focused on preserving and reflecting the architecture of a civilized mind. A private library, like a private art collection, has always been a signal of cultural status and identity. On Beauty, a book length essay by bibliophile and philosopher, Umberto Eco, includes by way of examples of illustrations of beauty, the plan for the Medici Laurentian Library by Michelangelo. It was built over a cloister enclosed by graceful light passing through walls both protectively enclosing and expressing the spiritual and cultural value of books. We can appreciate its form as well as its contents.

The Internet library is an occasionally visible, floating machine that meanders after ghosts; relentless motion seems more important than contemplation. It resembles Borges infamous Library of Babel more than the Bodleian, Papal Lateran, or any research library.  More than occasionally I use the Internet to augment my riddled memory. But usually when I wander around the Internet I’m not hoping for a specific answer, but rather an intellectual satiety akin to overeating.  I become intoxicated with information. Some Internet engine records where I’ve wandered, it tracks my site visits, runs them through its incessant algorithms and begins to silently guide me where it constantly re-calculates I would be attracted to visit and to buy something.

Unlike the libraries I used growing up and  where I occasionally did research for my term paper business, there are no shelves of selected volumes, no peer reviews, no periodicals assigned Roman numerals and consecutive numeration on a specialized topics, no reserves, no special collections, no perfume of aging leather, no soft spoken librarians to ask direction.  In the Internet there is little direct moderation, only a staggering tide of information displayed ten items to a page, and an invisible code that follows every visitor…a mathematical creature like a mirror with a memory…a busy little shop clerk bringing items into your periphery. The noise to shush in this library is in your head.

Ironically apropos of these distinctions I began composing this without a reliable working Internet connection, or a library. Earlier I found a volume of de Chardin in a used bookstore (clean, no notes) and copied a skeletal chronology of him before a server somewhere collapsed. Between composing and contemplating I’ve squandered hours in the ritual of disconnecting, counting to twenty, and then reconnecting the modem. I received direction by invisible technicians from all over the ethnic world of dialects answering my telephone calls of complaint.  I am now, as I was as an undergraduate, surrounded by a stack of a few opened books, some note cards, an erratic memory, insomnia and a willingness to revise whatever I write into something someone can have enough faith in to allow our common constructed epiphany.

Nothing brings me back to de Chardin like a common constructed epiphany.

End part one

Washing the Corpse

July 17, 2010

  

 

“and since they knew nothing about his life

  they lied till they produced another one.”

                                    Washing the Corpse, Rainer Maria Rilke

                                                            [translated by Edward Snow]

Tuesday my friend, Michael Silver Dragon died. He had been fighting his illnesses for as long as I knew him. He had been in hospice care for nearly a year. He was lifelong motorcycle rider; two summers ago he sold his motorcycle because he couldn’t ride anymore. A couple weeks ago he wanted to take me out for drive in his Tiburon. Over the last months he had taken up driving the mountain roads by himself and smoking little cigars while using his oxygen respirator. “I’m going to die soon” he told me” so cigar smoke isn’t going to kill me.” I suggested the exploding tank might; he laughed. It was a hacking laugh that suggested he was whacking things with a hatchet. I went on the condition that he wouldn’t smoke cigars while he was using oxygen. He took the curves and hills a little too fast, and drifted over the  line a bit while telling me what once was down this dirt road, or what Fenton Lake looked like before the highway went through. We laughed a lot with the loud laughter you sometimes hear in bars—that vague coughing sound that usually has little to do with what’s been said, but is releasing something that isn’t being said, but wants to. The paved road ran out and we decided to turn back. He was tired, but wouldn’t let me drive. We stopped in Seven Springs and visited a friend. We sat in her kitchen drinking tea and listening to the brook that runs outside her back door. It was a painterly moment…maybe a little too restless to be Romantic or Impressionist.

A silence fell into our conversation as our friends ate lunch. I looked at Michael and saw suppressed surprise in his eyes. He was lost, but I didn’t know where I should look to find him. Eventually the tea and honey found him and brought him back. Like most return trips we don’t remember many details, that was true of us and soon we were saying good-bye in the library parking lot where we left my car. By chance his wife and friend, Berta, was parking her car to attend a meeting. We all stood hugging and thankful. It would have been a kind perfection for things to have just evaporated into those instants of affection and fullfillment.

But they didn’t.

That is the kind of vignette that makes genuine human character rhetorical. It’s warm, sentimental and allows itself to be contrived by the pathos and a hinted knowledge of death. At this point Michael Silver Dragon is really dead. But in these scenes I have replaced him with my desire to produce an elegiac fictional Silver Dragon. I’m not writing an obituary; rather contriving a sweet eulogy intended to make my reader abstrusely sad, but also to engage in my fictionalization as a form of easy belief. You as my reader must believe this, in order for it to grow to be the truth. I confess to knowing practically nothing factual about Michael. For me he had little history other than our private shared adventures on my holidays and vacations. He could have been my Great Uncle Johnny. The day after he died I was asked to write the obituary. Those dictated facts were a series of revelations, which I suppose a certain amount any obituary actually is, but an obituary is also a symbolic punctuation indicating when the dead receive a new life as adjuncts to those of us who remain and construct memories. They belong to us, like movie characters or pop stars. We build the dead out of need. We shape them as the  poetic corpse washers shape the lies they need to tell one another. This is more about me, about my need to remember and forget the same thing. 

“Not all truth comes in beautiful words; not all beautiful words are truth.”

 Last Saturday morning Berta called from her panic. Michael wouldn’t wake up. Again. He had died several times in the years I’d known him. Yet he returned from the hospital again and again. He had fallen and hurt his neck, he had  pneumonia and he didn’t want to eat. When I arrived I found him twisted awkwardly on his bed. Berta was trying to support his neck. He moaned and pulled at bed clothes and the neck support pillow until his head drooped forward in a posture that made me cringe. Together we lifted and shifted him in their bed. He made noises, but not to us. Then he fell back to heavy sleep. Berta had hospice on the telephone. They were suggesting a hospital bed and neck brace. They were willing to bring them out that afternoon.

Things were collapsing too quickly.

Berta and Michael had scheduled respite care in a facility in Albuquerque so she could go to her father’s birthday party. I was supposed to spring Michael from the rest home the following Saturday. We would eat dim sum, find some mischief, then I’d bring him home. Berta and I surveyed the available space in their home. It would take some significant rearranging, but we could squeeze a hospital bed in somewhere, shifting out her study and furniture .

Things were spinning apart.

We tried giving Michael his medications. It took two of us to try to open his mouth. The pills drooled out on the wild goatee he’d been growing for twenty-five centuries. He was thrashing weakly. He was moaning. The medication took effect, he seemed quiet. I drove 30 miles to the Walgreens in Bernalillo for a foam cervical brace. We got it on him. The collar didn’t provide him any comfort. The hospital bed didn’t seem such a good idea. There were no beds available at the hospice hospital unit.

We’d have to wait for someone to die. 

The next morning Berta called.  A hospice bed on the unit was available. Michael would be transported by ambulance to Albuquerque. It would take most of the day to transport him and get his paperwork checked at the hospital. She wanted to do it by herself. She said she done it so many times, that alone was better. She suggested I come

later in the afternoon.

I drove to Santa Fe to the International Folk Arts Festival for diversion. I wanted to get lost in the crowds and ersatz open market of rugs, jewelry and carvings for a couple of hours. I had a couple of artists I wanted to see specifically. One made fantastic painted resin dioramas of Bolivian peasant life crossing barriers into other realms where they might be suddenly drinking or dancing with devils, angels or skeletons. The other was a Mexican muertos artist from D.F., who carved intricate calaveras on matchsticks. It was the last day of the festival; many of the artists were tired of listening to English. They sat sullenly painting, or dully detailing metalwork with small hammers. I couldn’t find the two artists I wanted to see. By chance I ran into Jacobo Angeles, a wood carver whose studio I had visited in Oaxaca. He was exhausted from shaking too many hands. His English met my Spanish and he turned me over to his nephew. “We have a website.” He handed me a card angeles@tilcajete.org. I bought a glass of iced tea made with all renewable resources. It had rooibos leaves, beet roots and ginger; I had a stomach ache, albeit a healthful one. It served to keep me from being dulled by the early afternoon sun.  There was drumming and dragon dancers were leaping on the plaza as I boarded the bus to the parking lot.

Driving back I found the World Cup final on the radio. It was being broadcast on a Spanish station. With the score zero, zero and cinque minutos left in regular time I spotted my favorite used bookstore in Santa Fe and a place to park. I found a used CD of the master copy of “John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard” and Edward Snow’s translation of Rilke,  A Head of All Parting. These items seemed essential in my immediate future. When I returned to World Cup the game was in extra overtime. Although I, along with the entire Spanish speaking Western Hemisphere, had waited for the elongated scream of “G-o-o-o-o-a-l!” when it happened I wasn’t much relieved. I stopped at the Santa Domingo reservation for gas. $2.59 a gallon. I chewed a few berry flavored Tums and drove towards the hospice hospital in Albuquerque.

Berta called on my cell phone, room #1029.

In Lovelace Hospital if you press the elevator button for the tenth floor any employee on the elevator, or getting on later, first is suddenly silent, tries to smile, then looks blankly away. Modern hospice care is a hospital service, not a dread Hotel Dieu, but quiet, orderly and intensely humane. What judgments the staff makes, they keep to themselves. They don’t use euphemisms; it’s death and dying. They look at you when speaking with you. When I asked at the desk, they knew who Michael was and that Berta was in the room with him.

Michael looked worse than the day before.

He was restless and more jaundiced,

He appeared to be suffering less.

We had had our last conversation.

I smoothed his hair and sat down.

Berta was exhausted and dazed.

We went out to find some dinner,

it turned out to be salads we pushed

with our plastic forks and then threw away.

She drove back home and I returned to #1029.

I sat as the sun was starting its slow summer setting. The hide-a-bed love seat sunk me deeper than was comfortable, but there was nowhere else to go. As distraction I wondered about Walt Whitman’s days as a nurse. How he must have learned, as these nurses had, how to intimately diagnose each detail of approaching death. I wondered how he was able to keep experiencing the buzz and yarp of the world. I wondered what that change meant to him as he walked home, or worried about enduring his persecutions and keeping his position a little longer. Did he still see the great cosmic body transcendent…or like me in this golden evening, seeing it struggling minute by minute, breath by breath, cell by cell, system by system, moving towards absence.

 Four years ago Michael completed translating The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. Having no Chinese, only his ambition translated the notion of wei wu wei.

[ http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/tao-te-ching-of-the-way-and-integrity/856790?productTrackingContext=search_results/search_shelf/center/1 ]

At the party when he finished it, I imagined, he’d discretely disappear along the huts at the Great Wall. But he didn’t, he continued living inside his dying.  Less than a century after the man who was the original author of the Tao Te Ching died, no one knew precisely when or where he disappeared along the frontier of the Empire. There were arguments over his family name, afterwards he was just called Lao Tzu, Old Man.

Michael Silver Dragon McKain (1939-2010)