05 October 2007

Australia Project: Will of the Cockroach

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing some new plays in Manhattan, part of the Australia Project, a production of the Production Company, an Australian-American alliance, which put on eleven new plays over the past three weekends at Chashama 217, on East 42nd St between Third and Second Aves.

Stupidly, I'd written the address down as 217 *West* 42nd St, believing that this was the same Chashama Theatre in which I'd seen my friend Lan Tran's performance piece How to Unravel Your Family some years back, and so emerged into the flashing lights of the Times crawler only to find the building I sought boarded up, the only door to the construction site guarded by a screaming woman who attacked anyone who came near her. You gotta love Times Square.

Thinking quickly, I whipped out my cellphone and dialed the author of the play I'd come into town to see, Alexandra Collier, an Australian lass I'd met (by phone only) in the heady days of Arts Hub US, for which she'd written three wonderful features. Ally gave me the proper address of the theatre, and said she was sure I could sneak in, but at that point I'd have to cross half the island at its widest point, so we agreed to meet at intermission; fortunately, her play went on last of the four in that evening's offering.

No one looking like Ally's AH contributor photo appeared before the second act started, so I sat in the back alone to watch Continuing Occupation by Van Badham, a savage latter-day David-Rabe-type satirical comedy with a dotty-to-the-max Mom; Jenni, the cool narrator daughter, home for her 21st birthday party, and her nasty violent incestuous necrophiliac brother, who works for Halliburton Iraq and brings barbecued baby limbs to the party for everyone to eat. Fun for the whole family.

Ally's play, Will of the Cockroach, was less phantasmagorical than Continuing Occupation, but had its surreal dimension as well. A young Ozzie pair, D and Susie — he a writer, she a dancer (I think) as well as D's support and stay — try to cope with no money in a vermin-infested dump in Brooklyn. They're on a road trip from Oz, which has tested their relationship, but they're still very much in love, not to mention lust. The point of divergence is living in NYC, which Susie finds exhilarating (if forgivably exasperating) because Americans are always looking FORWARD, on their way, the past doesn't determine them, they can make themselves over — something it seems she's burning to do. But D is rooted in his homeland — this is what the road trip has taught him — he even has an imaginary channel on the map on which he writes his stories that leads straight through the earth to the beach where he longs to be, and every once in a while he gets a whiff of that clean ocean air that he's suffocating without.

Into this interesting mix of emotions erupts the Cockroach, a hefty guy in a brown leather coat, wearing a mask with antennae and extra appendages under his arms (the costume was very poor theatre, but, had the lighting been better, was otherwise perfect). Both D & Susie are horrified and disgusted by him, but Susie is also fascinated by his staying power: he's a survivor, and that's what she wants to be; a survivor, in fact, is what she is.

Predictably, Cockroach comes between D and Susie, though he's only symbolic of what's ultimately going to pull them apart: she wants to stay, he needs to go back home. So even though D manages to kill Cockroach off, Susie gets the last word: she repeats Cockroach's refrain, I'll be here until the end.

Much more engaging than its predecessor, and the acting, given the dismal circumstances of the production, was quite good: Tim Major (from Brisbane) was folorn as you could want as D; Mary Jane Gibson (from Newfoundland) sexy and spirited as Susie; and Joel Israel (from NYC) a stolid but winning Cockroach. Were I directing, with unlimited budget, I'd have done something creepier with the lighting and choreography, but I thought May Adrales did a servceable job in letting the play tell its own story.

Ally portrayed the relationship between D and Susie with wise compassion and a sure hand — unhappily, they seemed headed for a break-up even without the Cockroach's intervention, but that development itself was also deftly handled.

If I had a quibble, it would be that Cockroach's wisdom about surviving in New York was rather abstract, rather than exhibiting the native New Yorker's absolute and detailed mastery of the subject. On the other hand, in his terms, New York's a fairly recent development on the planet, which is his bailiwick, not just NYC today.

In short, I was charmed, and look forward to seeing this play in a more robust production, which it definitely deserves.

As it happened, Ally was delayed, and snuck in herself just before her play started, sitting next to me, unwittingly for both of us. After the curtain call, we got to chat very briefly, but she was mobbed by admirers, and I really had to fly in order to catch my boat, which in the event I missed by six minutes, stranding me for another hour until the next one. But the ferry terminal's always a rich environment for people-watching, not to mention having Roberto Bolaño's fine story "The Insufferable Gaucho" to read in the New Yorker. So the minutes flew. And I got home in one piece, my main goal of the day.

05 July 2007

My Mother and the Snake

I had seen the snake before.
I had watched the copperhead unwind itself
from the gut and leather bindings
of a pair of snowshoes that hung on the wall
in my father's woodshop, though what
it was doing there, I do not know. Another time,
it slithered away from the woodpile,
what at first seemed a nest of dead leaves
unfolding in one smooth rope of molasses
and honey. Its scales sparkled in the sun
as it paused to look back at me, the topaz
eyes so unlike anything I'd ever looked into
it froze me with its cool enchantment,
like a girl in a fairy tale who forgets
who she is, a small bell at the back
of my head chiming poison, poison,
until I turned and ran.

I don't know where the snake came from,
or how it found its way to my parent's farm,
just that my mother feared it, as she feard
for us kids that summer, running half-wild
in field and forest, as cancer spread its slow
venom from her one breast to the other.
I feared it too, but abstractly,
its danger coiled like the secret
of my mother's illness in some
dark crevice of family.

Until the afternoon the blunt,
wedge-shaped head rose,
hissing from the grass
where the sprinkler spun
gold over our bodies, and my mother
whirled in out of nowhere with the ax
from the wood pile, chopping
and chopping — my gentle mother
whom I'd seen save a choking chick,
turn a birthing lamb, murse baby rabbits
the dogs brought in with droppers of warm milk —
hacking and hacking at it.

Until the writhing, bronze ribbon lay still
and she pulled us close, tears
running down her face, and sent us
to bring stones to pile on the body,
while the sprinkler twirled on,
splashing us with water from our own well,
washing the snake's blood away.
As if it were not the beginning of the end
of a world, as if what I saw written
on my mother's face was not the story
of just how many ways there are
to be exiled from Eden.

— Allison Townsend, in River Styx 74, 5-6.

15 June 2007

Brave New World at 75

As physics has developed, it has deprived us step by step of what we thought we knew concerning the intimate nature of the physical world. Color and sound, light and shade, form and texture, belong no longer to that external nature that the Ionians sought as the bride of their devotion. All these things have been transferred from the beloved to the lover, and the beloved has become a skeleton of rattling bones, cold and dreadful, but perhaps a mere phantasm. The poor physicists, appalled at the desert that their formulae have revealed, call upon God to give them comfort, but God must share the ghostliness of his creation.
— Bertrand Russell, in The Scientific Outlook (1931), writing about Huxley's Brave New World 75 years ago, cited in Caitrin nicol's "Brave New World at 75"in [link] New Atlantis: a Journal of Technology and Society, Spring 2007.

Unlike the other great dystopias, Huxley's World State, though totalitarian in its orthodoxy, is ostensibly ordered on the wants of the goverened rather than the governors. Threats are rarely used or needed. Rule by bread and circuses has proved more potent than force — and more pernicious, precisely because every means of control is a perversion of what people really want. The only people with any capacity for dissatisfaction are a handful of Alphas, who are as unable to articulate their objection as Russell is. It is difficult to reject the sinister when by slight distortion it masquerades as the sublime. Why feeling should be able to distinguish these things while reason cannot is an interesting question, one which could be left forever unsettled by tinkering, through biotechnology or psychological control, with what Huxley (in a later foreword to the book) called "the natural forms and expressions of life itself."
— Caitrin Nicol, ibid.

All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.
— Aristotle, from Quote of the Day

03 June 2007

On becoming kipple

He wondered, then, if the others who had remained on Earth experienced the void this way. Or was it peculiar to his peculiar biological identity, a freak generated by his inept sensory apparatus? Interesting question, Isidore thought. But whom could he compare notes with? He lived alone in this deteriorating, blind building of a thousand uninhabited apartments, which like all its counterparts fell, day by day, into greater entropic ruin. Eventually everything within the building would merge, would be faceless and identical, mere pudding-like kipple piled to the ceiling of each apartment. And, after that, the uncared-for building itself would settle into shapelessness, buried under the ubiquity of the dust. By then, natually, he himself would be dead, another interesting event to anticipate as he stood here in the stricken living room alone with the lungless, all penetrating, masterful world-silence.
— Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, 447-8, LOA edition.

25 May 2007

Sunset Blvd blazed...

Sunset Boulevard blazed, empty, rinsed in sunshine, the stray cars like bugs streaming in the footprint of a vast lifted rock.
— Jonathan Lethem, You Don't Love Me Yet, 124.

13 May 2007

It takes a long time...

It takes a long time for a mouse to realize he's in a trap, but, once he does, something inside him never stops shaking.
— Laurie Anderson, quoted in New Yorker Rock & Pop listings, for May 21, 2007, 10.

11 May 2007

Shall I tell you about the land where people hurry across?

It was a strange land,
With many roads and few destinations.
There were signs everywhere
Instructing people to do this
Prohibiting people from doing that,
But mostly people did as they pleased,
And the only rules that were enforced
Were the one protecting those people in power,
The people who broke the rules most often.

In the blink of an eye,
The soft, irregular shapes of the land
Became hard and regular
And the people swarmed over them
At incredible speeds.
No one remembered the voice of the land;
They had forgotten it had one at all.

But the land cannot forget.
Everywhere are sad traces of its history.
Confused and astonished at how quickly it is dying
The land grieves and waits.

What does it wait for?
For someone to listen, to recognize its voice,
To hear its story.
But it also waits for its eventual rebirth.
It will happen, sooner or later.
The question is,
Will we be there to see it?

— Sharif Ezzat, from Like Stars in a clear night sky, in Electronic Literature Collection Volume One, October 2006. See also his site, www.youwerehere.com.

10 May 2007

Between City

A week ago I attended the ELO/MITH Symposium on the Future of Electronic Literature at the University of Maryland, College Park. It had been a long time since I'd seen many of my friends and colleagues from what we used to call the hypertext community, and it was wonderful to catch up on what they were doing.

My first job upon returning was to write it up as a feature article for Arts Hub (subscription, sorry), my masters in Melbourne, since ostensibly I went on their nickel for just such purpose. That deadline met, I'm now sorting through my take-aways, and as soon as I get fully unpacked, I'll post a proper trip report.

In the meantime, I'd like to recommend to you, gentle reader, that you clear out some reading time for the first volume of the Electronic Literature Collection, published last October, and available for free both online and on a CD you can get by sending a non-virtual print artifact requesting it to ELO at its new home.

I'm enchanted by the work of J.R. Carpenter, whose short piece The Cape appears in the ELCvol1. I followed a link to other work, and was intrigued by ENTRE VILLE, that appeared at Web Biennial 07 at the Istanbul Contemporary Art Museum.

On a single page, an open notebook appears, with a text box on the verso, containing some eight short poems (or sections of one poem) in a simple scrolling text box, and on the recto a line drawing of the front of an apartment building. Many of the windows and doors are rollovers, and clicking opens a windoid that plays a short QuickTime video depicting what you might call a landscape shot of the immediate environment of the building, where one imagines the author lives. In a halo around the notebook pages are isolated objects such as a telephone pole, a mismatched pair of gloves, a Canadian 8¢ stamp, two Montréal postmarks, house number plates, and a graffito. The only animal life depicted visually in the work is an old dog with what looks like a giant cigarette in its mouth, and two diving boys on the stamp — but human voices are heard in much of the ambient noise of the videos.

It's a scorching summer day in Montréal, and the slow lazy movements of the camera, the limp clothes and curtains barely moving in the weak breeze, depict a kind of stunned happiness, or at least peace, except for the old Greek lady in the first poem — "Foul-mouthed for seventy/ her first-floor curses fill/ my second floor apartment;/ her constant commentary/ punctuates my day."

Almost everyone's got a summer-in-the-city memory like this one. It's lovely to relive mine through exploring Carpenter's elegant version of hers.

26 April 2007

A tale that is told...

The idea that our life is a story is by no means new. Thus the great bard Shakespeare said that life"... is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." (Macbeth) However, it took philosophers some time to discover the philosophical import of this view of life. It was actually a German chap called William Schapp who first gave this age-old idea a philosophical twist. He maintained that we live our lives in a host of stories, which have connection with the stories of other people in various ways; so actually our selves are nothing but cross-sections of stories. Our identities are created by a vast web of stories, as is our relationship with reality. We understand and identify things by placing them in the stories we tell about them: just like selves, things do not really exist outside of stories. We are caught in this narrative web because we cannot exist outside of it. There is a world-wide web of stories: the world is that web.
— Stefan Snaevarr, "Don Quixote and the Narrative Self," in Philosophy Now, Issue 60.

pareidolia: the perception of patterns where none exist (some recent, "real" examples: Jesus' face in a tortilla, the Virgin Mary's outline in a semimelted hunk of chocolate, Mother Teresa's profile in a cinnamon bun).
— David P. Barash, "The DNA of Religious Faith," The Chronicle Review, April 20.
Happens with computing all the time: "You piece of shit! Why are you doing this to me?!!"

21 April 2007

Write down certain things (not others)

In a motel in Iowa City I looked at the journal of the first day and a half of my trip. I've learned to write down certain things I've seen rather than the banal thoughts that don't bear rereading, or when you do reread them your soul yawns in the stuffy air...
— David, in Jim Harrison's Returning to Earth, 187.

19 April 2007

Chess Club

In 8th grade, I was a founding member of the Chess Club, which met on Tuesdays during Activity period. I'd originally tried to join the Science Club, but found out that there were two Science Clubs: the one that looked through telescopes and studied the stars was full by the time I got there, and I had to take the other one, the one that did Nature hikes on Saturdays and studied pond scum. Didn't last long there.

The default Activity if you weren't in a Club was Study Hall, and I already had a couple of those, like the other nerdy boys who found homework pretty easy and hadn't joined (or couldn't get into) a Club. After a few weeks, to stave off boredom for the endless 53 minutes of the period, a couple of us brought in portable chess sets and started playing. And naturally the rest of us wanted to watch and kibbitz.

My playing was decidedly second-tier; the real killers were Rich Kenny, Ivan Mann, David Snyder, and Charlie Obler — all of them not coincidentally great at math. Well, Rich was more like a normal person at math (though still better than me), but his native intelligence was keen, and his spirit indomitable, which made him a dangerous opponent, unlike the others, who were usually satisfied with outsmarting each other. Rich had the killer instinct, and liked to destroy his adversary; more than once he got caught in a sneaky checkmate because he was too busy mounting Sherman's March through his opponent's backfield.

At first Mr. Nyswaner, a shy Norwegian in his first year as a teacher (which got him stuck with study hall — no club for him either), was inclined to let this go on, perhaps believing that it did no harm, and certainly out of pity for us, since the rest of our social lives were so obviously inept. But one day, after we'd already set up our chess boards and were well into Round 1 of our weekly tournament, Mr. Nyswaner suddenly materialized behind Rich, who was just bringing out his Queen for a vicious assault on Charlie's front line of pawns, and told us to put the games away. We looked at him stupidly.

(In those days, you didn't talk back to your teachers — i.e., didn't ask why when they told you to do something you didn't want to do. You looked at them stupidly, as if they'd spoken to you in a foreign language. Sometimes this would flummox the teacher in question, resulting in a cascade of explanations and justifications, and once in a while she (or more rarely he) would retire from the field in embarrassment, and you could go on doing whatever it was they didn't want you to do. The older teachers would simply repeat the command sharply, and the implied threat of physical consequences, should you fail to obey at once, was not an idle one: laws against corporal punishment in schools were years away — the chances were good that if your parents found out a teacher had slapped you in school you'd get slapped when you got home. Ah, the dear dead days.)

In this instance, the pole-axed look we gave Mr. Nyswaner was real — what was he talking about? We weren't playing games, this was *chess*. But our hesitation broke his confidence, and he started to backpedal, saying it was distracting the other students who were trying to work; besides, this was a study hall, not a game room. He went back to his desk, very red in the face, and resumed whatever it is that teachers do when they're not teaching.

This presented an awkward situation. He hadn't stayed to make sure we put our chess sets away, so maybe he wasn't really serious. On the other hand, if we went back to playing, it would constitute a direct flouting of his authority, and because he was new, we didn't know where the line was with him. Still, what was he saying? That playing chess was somehow illegal? Then why'd he let us do it for so long?

Having been a teacher myself for over three decades, I can now plausibly reconstruct what had happened. Mr. Nyswaner was a newbie, and wanted everybody to like him. In the teachers' lounge one day, during a round of Listen To What Those Idiot Kids Did Today, he'd tried to impress his elders with the funny story of the geeky boys playing chess in his Tuesday study hall. No doubt they'd looked at him stupidly, unable to comprehend how he'd permitted such a Bohemian situation to develop. He'd faltered, stammered, maybe even asked for advice, having realized his only hope of survival in this rural high school was to cringe back into his colleagues' good graces.

I'm pretty sure his mentor in this would have been Mr. Douglas, the avuncular ruddy Scot who taught math and liked to punch you jovially on the upper arm (right where it hurts the most), by way of saying, "You're not gonna act up in MY math class, now ARE you, Laddie?" Grasping Mr. Nyswaner's upper arm (right where it hurts the most), Mr. Douglas likely told him in a firm but friendly voice that if he didn't nip this little insurrection right in the bud, he'd have chaos on his hands in that study hall. Mr. Douglas knew boys like that: he'd been one of them.

Chaos in the Classroom: the worst catastrophe you can incur your first year out — you don't come back from a C in the C.

Now Mr. Nyswaner was in a bind. His fledgling reputation as a nice guy had already earned him the condescension, if not yet the scorn, of the oldest and nastiest of his colleagues, I'm pretty sure of that, but Douglas was a man whose respect he could not afford to lose; he'd have to do something about our "little insurrection," whether he wanted to or not. So he gave it his best shot.

But Rich, as I said, had the killer instinct, and he smelled irresolution in Nyswaner's order for us to stop — Nyswaner would never get physical with us, twerpy as we were: he didn't have the nerve.

I was standing behind Charlie watching the game; Rich was facing the front, where Mr. Nyswaner had just sat down and was fussing with a pile of exam books. When I turned back from looking stupidly at Nyswaner, Rich had that hard gleam in his eye I'd seen so many times before when he was about to do something crazy, just to discombobulate his opponent (worked every time with me). He picked up his Queen and plowed into Charlie's secondary, taking the pawn right in front of the King. "Check," Rich said, loudly enough to be heard out in the hall.

Now Charlie was likely the only real genius among us (the senior math teachers used to ask him for help with their equations), which also made him the weakest chess player in the top tier, because he couldn't comprehend the illogical moves the rest of us would make when we didn't know what else to do. This was about the stupidest move he'd ever seen — the Queen was completely unprotected — and he looked at Rich for a moment, utterly baffled.

But Rich wasn't looking at Charlie, and it was soon apparent why: the defiant expression on Rich's face drained away, and a shadow loomed over the board: Nyswaner had returned. He said not a word, just stood there, a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier, and stared Rich down. The rest of us silently slithered from the field.

In response to his humiliation, Rich turned activist. I'm not sure of the sequence here, but I believe it's no coincidence that about this time he launched the samizdat journal The Pickpocket's Packet (described elsewhere), in which he editorialized in favor of official recognition of the Chess Club. He circulated petitions and lobbied his classmates to sign, and even enlisted faculty support — his advocate in this crusade was, perhaps not surprisingly, Mr. Douglas, who must have admired the boy's spunk, because he had, after all, been just such a bairn himself, once upon a time.

So the Chess Club became an official Activity, with Mr. Douglas as its Advisor (he even joined in once in a while, when an odd number of players showed up); Mr. Nyswaner survived a challenge to his authority, and his rookie year as a teacher; Rich Kenny learned the limits of aggression, the effectiveness of diplomacy, and the rudiments of publishing; and I got this story to tell.

This story is one of my favorites, the kind that I tell eventually to every new friend, once we get past the acquaintance stage. It's a tale of daring, of resolution in the face of bureaucratic oppression, of perseverence and resourcefulness — and it has a happy ending. Best, it's about geeks, who've become fashionable characters in American lore ever since technology took over our lives.

But back in the day, we were ridiculed and picked on, because we were puny and talked funny and read all the time. In Science class, when Charlie and David made a computer, housed in a cigar box and wired with Xmas lights, that could add and subtract, they got no awards from their classmates, who were vying with each other for prizes we didn't have a prayer of even competing for — popularity, esteem, good looks.

It was a heady experience to actually succeed in making a place in the world, however circumscribed, for our otherwise incompetent selves. It made us feel like men, however short of stature and shrill of voice, to marshall our forces, make our case, and win official recognition of something that was important enough to fight for.

A short-lived victory, as it turned out. The following summer half of us went through puberty and moved on to more grown-up things; the rest of us, left behind by that rapture, lost heart and fell back on reading science fiction in study hall, the cheap pocket paperbacks tucked inside our math text, to be sure — no one but Douglas would check, and he was an sf fan himself. We served out our sentence of humiliation with fatalism, and consoled ourselves with the dream of someday saving our benighted planet with brilliant schemes our former colleagues were too doped up on hormones to be able to imagine.

Of course, some of us did better than others at class reunions some years later...

Geeks' Nite Out

17 April 2007

Capt. John Smith on baseball

In "Our Town," a most edifying article in the April 2 New Yorker, Jill Lepore considers the reputation of John Smith, one of the founders of Jamestown, the first successful English colony in what we once innocently termed the New World. Summing up at the end, she addresses the idea some scholars have that Smith was one of early America's best ethnographers. "After all, compared with his contemporaries, Smith was a keen observer," she says, "although it's worth remembering that most of what he saw... was altogether new to him, stranger than strange, and he wasn't always able to make sense of it. Two historians, James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle, once tried to imagine how Smith might have reported a July afternoon spent at Yankee Stadium:
Being assembled about a great field of open grass, a score of their greatest men ran out upon the field, adorned each in brightly hued jackets and breeches, with letters cunningly woven upon their Chestes, and wearinge caps... upon their heades, of a sort I know not what. One of their chiefs stood in the midst and would at his pleasure hurl a white ball at another chief, whose attire was of a different colour, and whether by chance or artifyce I know not the ball flew exceeding close to the man yet never injured him, but sometimes he would strike att it with a wooden club and so giveing it a hard blow would throw down his club and run away.
In other words, you can count on Smith for abundant detail, and admirable accuracy, but he's fairly likely to leave out what you most want to know: 'Yankees 10, Red Sox 3.'"

12 April 2007


These big-hearted men, the poets — I don't trust them suddenly. Not that I trust anyone or anything, but... distrust of them is special, cuz they say the truth, or see it & say what they saw, which is never quite the same thing, is it?

Point is, what do I see in their sawing? — to use an antique form, with its seven types of ambiguity: 1) seeing; 2) saying; 3) cutting in, between 2 things once 1, or rather making 2 things of 1; 4) further: taking something apart to build something else, perhaps; 5) or cutting down to size, to make more digestible, by the mind (or the furnace); 6) grinding teeth back & forth, back & forth, wearing something down & down, making it dust; 7) see-sawing, a game for 2, poet & reader, or poet & someone else, as the reader, nonexistent in the poem, looks on in impotence, envy, frustration, rage.

11 April 2007

Massage Therapist

Every day you touch the slopes
of strangers' bodies; warm,
springy muscles; skin
smelling of garlic, or lotion;
buttocks kneadable as bread dough;
and the funny, sweaty, monkey feet,
freed of their boots and stockings,
lolling passively, nowhere to go.
The whole beautiful landscape
laid out before you like an unmapped country.
And every week at the same time
an old man climbs up on your table.
His only grandchild died last week.
He's kept an orchid from the funeral.
You spread almond oil on your palms
and rub his tough old thighs,
reminding him of the unique shape
of his strength, working
up and down the withered flanks
in a rage of tender concentration,
like a mother brooding over a hurt child.
The ghost of a grin touches his face
when you say it's OK to fart
if he needs to. It's OK to do anything here.

Having lived through more
than a body can stand,
he lays down the unbearable:
Here is the stripped truth of us,
in all its tragedy and ungainly glory.
This is the end of striving and luck.
Everything goes. You touch what's left.

— Alison Luterman, The Sun, October 2005, 31.

06 April 2007

So leave it alone

To torment your body, [Buddha] discovered, is really to value it every bit as much as when you coddle it. So leave it alone; do it no harm. Do not harm anything. Time, the recycler, takes care of that job, constantly, dispassionately, inevitably. Which means you're free: free to be nothing, or nothing in particular, which really is freedom when you consider the grief you caused yourself trying to be something special.
— Holland Cotter, review of "Awakening: Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan" at the Japan Society, New York Times, April 6, 2007, E31.

23 March 2007

He She

He plays a train
She plays a whistle
They move away travel.

He plays a rope
She plays a tree
They swing.

He plays a dream
She plays a feather
They fly.

He plays a general leader
She plays people
They declare war.

— Dunya Mikhail, Iraqui poet living in Michigan, emended by Emna Zghal in War: an Essay (2005).

17 March 2007

Inspector of spiders' webs

To appoint oneself... an inspector of spiders' webs for many years in succession, and for long seasons, means joining a not overcrowded profession. No matter: the meditative mind returns from that school fully satisfied.
— Jean-Henri Fabre, quoted in "Spider Woman" by Burkhard Bilger, New Yorker March 5, 2005, 73.


I found this in Ye Antient Blogge:
Every new medium is a machine for the production of ghosts. (Kafka knew this.) As Friedrich Kittler argues [in Grammophon, Film, Typewriter, 1986], "The spirit-world is as large as the storage and transmission possibilities of a civilization." The oldest available print of a printing press is a 1499 image showing skeletons cavorting about a press, pages in hand, doing a dance of the dead. Spiritualists, as we have seen, did the danse macabre of the telegraph, celebrating the spirits conjured by electricity, the first of many in the nineteenth century to recognize that the realm of the immortals had expanded from the remembered dead to the transmitted and recorded dead.
— John Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air, 139.
And then there's the recorded dead re-recorded in saecula saeculorum...


Gentle Reader...

Billy's Downtown Diner
Bethlehem, PA

When my wife Deb was associate editor for the exquisite (late) quarterly Books & Religion, editorial meetings would often concern the needs & desires of what they affectionately (and not without irony) called Our Reader. Unfortunately, this mythical creature, at least among her masters upstairs in Corporate, wasn't enough of an abstraction, and B & R tripped — or was pushed — over the bottom line into its grave.

I know it's different somehow with a blog, but my grasp of economics (which, if my Greek has not completely abandoned me for a more fertile frame in which to dwell, once meant something like "customs of the home," maybe even "Cider House Rules" without the "Cider" part) is insufficiently sophisticated to apply it to the case, and besides, the dang thing won't stand still, but keeps on transmogrifying, markets merging & splitting, devouring & excreting each other, and sometimes, like Neo inside Agent Smith, busting the matrix — i.e., "the way things are" — apart.

I've strayed from my original intent, Gentle Reader, which was to greet you after a long absence. I've brought along a few gifts, some no doubt of dubious value, as is often the case in such reunions, like the T-shirt your friends brought you upon their return from a vacation in Ireland, when what you really needed was for them to have taken you with them, and never come back.

Rambling again, sorry. Trouble with being my age is having so many damn stories to tell, & so little time to tell them in.

Which brings me round to my point at last. I'm going to perpetrate a subtle hoax — but then it's not a hoax if you're in on it, I guess — by backdating posts that actually I'm only loading in now, which will give the impression of an uninterrupted logorrhetic flow since my last "real" post of nearly two years ago. These false posts date (I *love* the ambiguity of "post" in this context, don't you?) correspond to jottings in my vademecum (if I'm using that term for my pocket notebook correctly — help me, some *REAL* classics scholar!) during my exile from the blogosphere, so I'm not lying about that.

But how can you trust me now? — short answer: you can't, and I invite you to apply that insight as widely as you wish.

What this means is that I'll be adding old stories as time allows, and they'll show up *under* this post, to preserve the appearance of chronological posting.
Enough already — except to say thank you for your patience, if you're not already long out the door, if you even exist, Gentle Reader. I hope you'll let me know if you do; I'd be grateful.

11 March 2007

New life for an old kompyootr

Yesterday I set up a new computer in my apartment. It was paid for by my new employer, an online journal, for whom I'm the work-at-home managing editor. I've been on the job a couple months, and am just starting to feel like I know what I'm doing.

The new machine orphans the laptop that's been my main workspace for most of the millennium so far, and upon which I'm typing these words, through the soft rubber cover I put over the keyboard a long time back — a lesson learned from spilled coffee and flakes of paint falling from the old ceiling.

Naturally, I'll still use this battered re-conditioned pre-Intel Mac PowerBook for work, when I go on trips to conferences and weekends in New York City. But it's slow, one of its memory slots is hosed, and the screen's pretty cramped (though not as bad as the clamshell iBook, my first digital vademecum, fondly remembered as the ToiletSeat model or iCommode®).

Something occurred the other day that made me think of another way to use this ole thang. The details — "what really happened" — don't matter: it was just the most recent disillusionment, the kind that stops you dead in mid-stride, making traffic pile up behind you on the sidewalk. You know, when it dawns on you that things ain't what you thought they wuz?

You don't have to live very long upon this bank and shoal of time for this to happen more than once to you, though about the umpteenth iteration you have to start to wonder if you're *ever* gonna learn how to pay attention.

As with others at such moments, my first response was to wonder where I went wrong. That's what it feels like: being in the wrong, having fucked things up. And my natural reaction is to cast about for a way to fix that problem. But, as always, every solution is lame, or the cure's worse than the disease, or "all the river crossings/all the way to the sea//have been bombed" — as Galway Kinnell's exquisite new poem puts it — "and we must make our way by pure balance."

Easy for him to say. He's achieved apotheosis, he figured out years ago how to transmute his mistakes into Pure Poetry, to inspire and daunt the likes of scribblers like me.

The Buddhists are occasionally helpful in a circumstance like this, with their sad smile at mad humanity flailing about in the muck, sinking ever deeper into the morass of illusion. But it's hard to maintain that detached-though-compassionate attitude towards the human condition when a crushing deadline's bearing down on you, your feature writers are "having problems," and your server's gone down in Australia, where it's the middle of the night.

On the other hand, is it ever any different? That question encapsulates my insight du jour, and it's precisely no help, like saying, "Well, if you'd been watching where you were going, you wouldn't have stepped in front of that bus."

Not long ago, I awoke in the predawn dark, writhing to the jabber of my monkey brain haranguing and jeering at me, reciting the litany of all my failures and fuckups. I couldn't get awake enough to shake off this onslaught of self-denunciation, but I clearly wasn't going back to sleep any time soon, either. Then, into this turmoil, there dropped ten words from a quiet but commanding voice that shut up everything else: "Have a little respect, BBly. There's a soul stuggling here." In the ensuing silence, I heard the first cardinal of the morning give his wake-up call.

Hard to remember these moments of clarity — or rather, to reconstitute the immediate calm they produce. Dumping my possessions and cutting all ties with the world to go meditate in a cave in the mountains might enable me to persuade these epiphanies to come a little closer together, with less racing around and shrieking in between. Maybe not.

One thing is clear, however. I could use "a place apart" in my digital life where I can ponder such questions — including "Where did I go wrong?" — that isn't completely entangled in the wired world that sometimes appears to me to be like Ahab lashed to Moby-Dick, beckoning us all to follow him down.

Well, that's probably a bit operatic. Fact is, I love this little machine, not least because it's very comfortable to write upon, and I can set it up in front of my bedroom window, out of reach of the cable modem, and contemplate the here and now, even as it's passing away.

And because I'll be doing it for free, I can do it freely. Yeah. That can work.

01 March 2007

Updike on the new authorship

In my first 15 or 20 years of authorship, I was almost never asked to give a speech or an interview. The written work was supposed to speak for itself, and to sell itself, sometimes even without the author's photograph on the back flap. As the author is gradually retired from his old responsibilities of confrontation and provocation, he has grown in importance as a kind of walking, talking, advertisement for the book — a much more pleasant and flattering duty, it may be, than composing the book in solitude. Authors, if I understand present trends, will soon be like surrogate birth mothers, rented wombs in which a seed implanted by high-powered consultants is allowed to ripen and, after nine months, be dropped squalling into the marketplace.
— John Updike, "The End of Authorship," New York Times, June 25, 2006.

26 February 2007

Beckett on the afterlife

Samuel Beckett, on what it will be like in the afterlife: "We'll sit around talking about the good old days, when we wished we were dead." — Louis Menand, "Notable Quotables," in New Yorker, February 19 & 26, 2007.

24 February 2007

There's no

There's no care except hunger
No favors but from an enemy
Nothing edible but a bale of hay.
No lookout but there's a man asleep
No clemency without crime
No safety but among the frightened
No good faith but a disbeliever's
Nor any cool heads but lovers.
— François Villon, from "Ballade," translated by Galway Kinnell

13 February 2007


These are the desolate, dark weeks
When nature in its barrenness
Equals the stupidity of men.
— William Carlos Williams, cited by Lourie's Word of the Day, 2/11/07.
First snow day of this winter. Class cancelled, streets white.
Septentrional: pertaining to winter.
Thanks, Jeffie!

11 February 2007

on Regular Information

Every check we write is drawn on exactly one bank, for precisely one amount, and each has exactly one check number. If we need to record checks, we don't need to worry about checks that are not drawn on a bank, or where "check number" is not a number, or where "amount" is a poem or a drawing.
Mark Bernstein, The Tinderbox Way, 43.
This blog is made with Tinderbox. The book is more than useful in figuring out how to use a software program. It helps find useful ways to think about all the information we seem to have been put here to herd. I wish there weren't so many typos, but I love the calm reassuring voice, and the examples are — well, exemplary.

10 February 2007

Of Love and Other Disasters

Of Love and Other Disasters

The punch-press operator from Flint
met the assembler from West Virginia
in a bar near the stadium. Neither
had anything in mind, so they conversed
about the upcoming baseball season
about which neither cared. We could
be a couple, he thought, but she was
all wrong, way too skinny. For years
he'd had an image of the way a woman
should look, and it wasn't her, it wasn't
anyone he'd ever known, certainly not
his ex-wife, who'd moved back south
to live with her high school sweetheart.
About killed him. I don't need that shit,
he almost said aloud, and then realized
she'd been talking to someone, maybe
to him, about how she couldn't get
her hands right, how the grease ate
so deeply into her skin it became
a part of her, and she put her hand,
palm up, on the bar and pointed
with her cigarette at the deep lines
the work had carved. "The life line,"
he said," which one is that?" "None,"
she said, and he noticed that her eyes
were hazel flecked with tiny spots
of gold, and then — embarrassed — looked
back at her hand, which seemed tiny
and delicate, the fingers yellowed
with calluses but slender and fine.
She took a paper napkin off the bar,
spit on it and told him to hold still
while she carefully lifted his glasses
up on his forehead, leaving him half
blind, and wiped something off
above his left cheekbone. "There,"
she said, lowering his glasses, "I
got it," and even with his glasses on
what she showed him was nothing
he could see. He thought, better
get out of here before it's too late, but
knew too late was what he wanted.
— Philip Levine, New Yorker, February 5, 2007

04 February 2007

Leaving The Road

In the evening the murky shape of another coastal city, the cluster of tall buildings vaguely askew. He thought the iron armatures had softened in the heat and then reset again to leave the buildings standing out of true. The melted window glass hung frozen down the walls like icing on a cake. They went on. In the nights sometimes now he'd wake in the black and freezing waste out of softly colored worlds of human love, the songs of birds, the sun.
— Cormac McCarthy, The Road, 229.

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate* patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes, a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.
The Road, 241. Last passage. The end.
* marked with close wavy lines. from medieval Latin vermicularis, from Latin vermiculus, diminuitive of vermis, worm.

03 February 2007

The black shape of it

He got up and walked out to the road. The black shape of it running from dark to dark. Then a distand low rumble. Not thunder. You could feel it under your feet. A sound without cognate and so without description. Something imponderable shifting out there in the dark. The earth itself contracting in the cold. It did not come again. What time of year? What age the child? He walked out into the road and stood. The silence. The salitter drying from the earth. The mudstained shapes of flooded cities burned to the waterline. At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but wind. What will you say? A living man spoke these lines? He sharpened a quill with his small penknife to scribe these things in sloe or lampblack? At some reckonable and entabled moment? He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt.
— Cormac McCarthy, The Road, 220.

01 February 2007

Sitting over words

Riding the W train headed for South Ferry, on the adrack above the windows:
Sitting over words
very late I have heard a kind of whispered sighing
not far
like a night wind in the pines or like the sea in the dark
the echo of every thing that has ever
been spoken
still spinning its one syllable
between the earth and silence
— W.S. Merwin, Poetry in Motion, from Migration: New and Selected Poems, 2006.

26 January 2007

Lost patterans

They began to come upon from time to time small cairns of rock by the roadside. They were signs in gypsy language, lost patterans. The first he'd seen in some while, common in the north, leading out of the looted and exhausted cities, hopeless messages to loved ones lost and dead. By then all stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land. The world soon to be populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell. The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches drod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes. Out on the roads pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sister-world in the ancient dark beyond.
— Cormac McCarthy, The Road, 152-3.

25 January 2007

Where men cant live/with the last god

Where men cant live, gods fare no better.
— Old man in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, 145.

... to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing...

14 January 2007

If only...

He lay listening to the water drip in the woods. Bedrock, this. The cold and the silence. The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath. Trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone.
— Cormac McCarthy, The Road, 9-10.

05 January 2007

Make notes

Pure Balance

Wherever we are is unlikely.
Our few kisses — I don't know if
they're of goodbye or of
what — or if she knows either.

Neither do I understand why it's
exhilarating — as well as the other things it is —
to know one doesn't have a future,
or how much longer one won't have one.

Future tramples all prediction.
Hope loses hope. Clarity
turns out to be
an invisible form of sadness.

We look for a bridge to cross
to the other shore where our other
could be looking for us
but all the river crossings

all the way to the sea
have been bombed. We look for a tree —
touch it — touch
right through it — sometimes nowhere

is there anything to hitch oneself to,
and we must make our way by pure balance.
This is so and can't be helped
without doing damage to oneself.
— Galway Kinnell, Strong Is Your Hold, 64.

... Weren't you cheered to see the ironworkers
sitting on an I-beam dangling from a cable,
in a row, like starlings, eating lunch, maybe
balone on white with fluorescent mustard?
... What did you imagine lies in wait anyway
at the end of a world whose sub-substance
is blaim, gleet, birdlime, slime, mucus, muck?
Forget about becoming emaciated. Think of a wren
and how little flesh is needed to make a song...
Ibid., from "Why Regret?", 65.

Make notes and make notes and make notes.
The music will appear.

03 January 2007


Bethlehem Diner

Overheard at breakfast:

Widows Club. Reservation for 14. 1 o'clock.


01 January 2007

Practical use from a torn up life

A woman can always get some practical use from a torn-up life, Gabriel decided. She likes mending it and patching it, making sure the edges are straight. She spreads the last shred out and takes its measure: "What can I do with this remnant? How long does it need to last?" A man puts on his life ready-made. If it doesn't fit, he will try to exchange it for another. Only a fool of a man will try to adjust the sleeves or move the buttons: he doesn't know how.
— Mavis Gallant, Paris Stories, 183.