The Decline and Fall (and Rise) of Walter January

Fred Half Pic

There is one loss that still hurts.

I made the journey back to New York City for a short stay. That’s where we’d known each other. I thought of Walter January day and night. What went wrong?  I had a stranger’s apartment all to myself, the kind of place Walt or I might have rented in the old days. As I lay on the couch, I looked over at the dining-room table, and I thought, Walt and I should be sitting there over food talking about our lives. What happened?

*

We met in front of the gates of Columbia, introduced by a mutual friend. I was twenty and dumb and extremely immature. Walt was four years older and a graduate student in philosophy, also my major. After that first day, we ran into each other from time to time, went for coffee, went to museums, went to hear Allen Ginsburg read Howl, went to the symphony; once we drove to West Point and Hyde Park. Walt was mild-mannered, sharp, heavily academic, homely in appearance, a Marxist and an atheist. He’d been raised in Ohio. I’m uncomfortable saying this but I need to: over the first couple of years and maybe all the years, he would’ve liked to be more than friends, but I never thought about him in that way.

He did not live in the fast lane, my Walt.

I was in denial about the nature of his feelings. I valued him as a friend. He was my first grownup friend. Both of us spoke German: I because my parents were German; he because he’d mastered it in school. He could read Kant, Hegel, and Marx in the original. Even though he wasn’t a show-off, he did confess to me how status-conscious he was, how he thirsted for fame and recognition. Of all the people I remember from the early ’80s, he was the gentlest, but… even so… at times I sensed another side of him:

  • As when my beloved dog died, and I cried and said to Walt, “You met him, didn’t you like him and wasn’t he the most adorable puppy you ever saw?” Walt answered this way: “Oh Alex, I don’t get attached to animals.”
  • As when I applied for Christmas work at Macy’s but failed the arithmetic test, and, distraught, I said to him, “How would you have felt?” He answered coolly, quietly, “I wouldn’t have failed.”

He appeared humble and unpretentious, but he was also young and therefore growing into the personage he’d later be. He was, like me, an adult in the making. He hadn’t reached his full Walterness.

*

In those days I was awkward. I was slim and blond. I imagined I’d always be twenty-two. New York City was a fine place to be that young. In those days there were still bathhouses where you could find ten or twenty studs a night. I semiconsciously understood how immature I was and knew one reason for this: it could keep me young; and if I was young, then I’d be desirable.  Walt, on the other hand, never went to a bathhouse in his life. He wanted a relationship, and then he found one, with a young architect from India who shared Walt’s ideas of a male couple making a life together.

Our friendship went on as before. I couldn’t imagine any day in the future we wouldn’t be in each other’s lives. I loved him as an older brother, and yet I always believed our friendship was at heart one-sided. I was the more interested party. I always wanted to hang on when we talked on the phone.  Even when I decided to leave New York for good and move to Spain, I imagined things would stay the same, despite the presence of an ocean between us.

*

After college I was just a proofreader in an accounting firm, and that couldn’t go on. It was too meaningless—“alienating” as Walt put it in his Marxist lingo.  I visited Spain in the fall of 1984. I decided to move there and teach English as a second language and find romance and passion, maybe.

It was Walt who saw me off at the airport. He said, “It looks like you don’t believe you’re leaving that much behind.”

“It’s true,” I replied.

Maybe it was hurtful of me to say that, but I didn’t believe in my life in New York. I was young enough to fantasize about a new life in a far-off country. Everything would be better in Spain, wouldn’t it? And perhaps I sensed that I wasn’t getting that much from Walt. There was such a formality to him. He was so staid and proper that one always had to set up an appointment with him days or weeks in advance.  And he wasn’t curious about my writing—unless I insisted that he read something and give me his opinion, which he’d consent to do if I bugged him enough.

Youth!

*

As soon as I settled in Spain, I started the work of idealizing our friendship. He always wrote back with his aerogrammes and always responded wisely and insightfully. From time to time I phoned him.

*

Walter January was the first person who told me I should try therapy. No, I’ll rephrase that: he told me I needed to be in therapy. Until I knew Walt, I’d always laughed at people who saw “shrinks.” But after I went through love and loss and melancholia and even thoughts of suicide in Spain, he wrote this to me:

I hope you do seriously look for a therapist in Barcelona and that when you start feeling better (as you’re certain to do), you don’t just drive the whole idea out of your mind. I have felt almost everything you describe, but is there something in you that makes you always pick men like José Luis? The answer is probably “yes,” but is that what you really want? You asked me if it’s possible to love and be excited by the same person, a question I cannot answer. Is it possible for you? Why or why not? I don’t think you can answer these questions yet. Taking ice-skating lessons is a great idea. It’s something fun and affirmative. Yet I doubt that it is a substitute for a prolonged, serious self-reflection (i.e. therapy).

Sincerely,

Walt

 

“Sincerely”? What close friend writes “sincerely”? And the academic style: “Why or why not?”

Walt and I had always thought of our friendship as one of mentor/mentee, though we never said so explicitly. I relied heavily on those who knew more than I. And he? What did he get out of our relationship? Was there a physical component I was—and still am—struggling to deny? Or better yet: the physical component we’d occasionally acknowledged was there, was that what kept him in a friendship with me—me, whose writing he wasn’t interested in, who had little grasp of philosophy (even though it was my major), who was very young and silly. “You’re so dumb” he’d said to me more than once.

As to the content of his letter, of course it was decisive. I started therapy and have been in therapy ever since.

In all my time with the analyst, Walter’s name didn’t come up, not once. Why would it? We had a long-distance friendship, a solid one. In therapy one tends not to dwell on the good relationships.

*

One day he wrote on one of his aerogrammes that he’d been hired “—by Harvard!”  I’ll never forget that well-positioned em-dash and that lofty name. He’d been accepted by The Castle, and I was glad for him.

At first things appeared to go on as before, but we lived on different sides of an ocean. I didn’t at first want to admit to myself that I saw changes in him.

His demeanor was different. He seemed very sure of himself. During one of my visits back to the States, I had dinner one night with him and his lover (they maintained a long-distance Boston/Manhattan relationship) and I noticed that, when we parted for the night, he didn’t say “bye”’ or “talk to you later” or “see you soon” but “good-night.” Maybe that doesn’t appear so strange on paper, but it was also his tone of voice. Businesslike. Aloof.

And from that time on it is possible that if I hadn’t kept writing to him three or four times a year, we wouldn’t have stayed in touch. No break-up. No quarrel. Just a natural ebbing over time. He was now a Harvard professor. Imagine all the doors that were opening for him! He was on a first-name basis with icons in his field.

 

When he spent half a year in Germany, I wrote him with dumb enthusiasm about going to visit him and received this response: “I’m afraid the dates you suggest for visiting Germany won’t work.” The letter said more but that’s the line I remember. Its unadorned coldness.

The next year I found out that while I’d been seeing family in the U.S., he’d gone on a trip with his lover—to Spain!

And then it happened that I visited him in Cambridge one summer. He’d offered to put me up in his apartment for a few nights.

He buzzed me into his building and I took the elevator up to his floor. His door was open and I walked in and shut it behind me. There was no Walt. I peered over into an adjacent room and saw him with his back to me, talking on the phone. He hadn’t just picked it up to say “Sorry I’ve got a guest.” No, he remained on the phone another ten or fifteen minutes before he emerged to greet me with a light hug.

We had a few days in Boston. Sometimes he appeared his old self, but what I most remember are the first few minutes of the visit: me sitting in his living room picking up one coffee table magazine after another, waiting for him to get off the phone. I tend to forget that he told me how unhappy he was, how unfulfilled in his relationship with the architect (who seemed the more interested party), how worried about his future at Harvard, how dissatisfied with Boston (too much “Middle America” in Boston).

I have this theory about Walt. He came from a working-class family in rural Ohio, but spent his life pursuing German culture and philosophy. He even spoke English—to my ear—with a German accent, almost the way I do. I think he hated his roots and did everything possible to run away from them—and even Cambridge, Massachusetts was not far enough, full of too much “Middle America.” If Harvard could’ve been uprooted and put in the middle of Manhattan, he would’ve been happy.

He told me about some of his students from just a few years earlier who’d already become hot-shot authors. “Does that bother you?” I asked him.

“It would,” he replied, with his old candor, “if I were not a Harvard professor.”

*

A committee approved Walt for Harvard tenure, “but it’s not a rubberstamp,” he said ominously as we sat in the Hungarian Pastry Shop on the Upper West Side, almost like the old days, a year later. “Not by any means. It’s up to the president now.”

Even though we lived thousands of miles apart, we no longer broke bread together whenever I visited New York. He would only allot me short sessions—a quick coffee, or a quick drink in the presence of other people. He did not laugh anymore. There wasn’t much spontaneity or fun in him—not that there ever had been, even in our heyday.

I didn’t feel at ease around him, this new and important Walter.

I was about to leave Barcelona after ten years and move to Los Angeles. Walt was horrified when he heard “Southern California.” He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live in Stupid Country (as a character in The Buried Child calls it).

 

After our quick coffee, we walked toward Broadway and 116th Street, and I asked him where the subway was.

 

“You don’t even remember where the subway is!” Walt exclaimed. “You really are a stranger here.”

A stranger here…

After that day, I never heard from him again.

*

When I moved to “Stupid Country,” I sent him a postcard with my new address. I wrote a short letter at Christmas—still to his Harvard apartment. Then in the spring I sent him a birthday card and wrote “I hope we don’t get lost to each other forever.” I didn’t really expect a response, and none came. It would’ve been undignified to write any more letters. I promised myself I wouldn’t, and I’ve been as good as my word for the last twenty-two years.

*

My biological father, a philosophy professor, told me one day, “Guess what. Your friend didn’t get tenure!”
“But how do you know?”

“He’s working down at UC San Diego.”

 

San Diego? My backyard? I found out he’d been there for years…Then I used the Internet to discover he’d left “Stupid Country” and gone to work at Cornell. And some time after that I read he was back at Columbia in his beloved New York.

*

The other day I walked my dog and stood outside his home and looked up. He lives on the top floor of a fancy building on the corner of 109th and Broadway. He can walk to work. No commuter train or subway for Walter, at least not to get to work. I saw the janitor polish the railings in the elegant foyer. Walt’s done pretty well for a Marxist.

And then I walked on. I walked through the gates of Columbia and a girl came up to me smitten with my dog and practically begged me to let her pet him. I sat by the Alma Mater statue and enjoyed a very good view of a young man’s extremely athletic back. I walked by Tom’s Restaurant. I went to Riverside Drive and sat on a bench, the same bench where the old Walt and I had once talked about meaning in life.

*

I understand what the alternative to just vanishing would have looked like. He could have written to say—and couched it in nice language—that we’d outgrown each other. That I would’ve accepted and even respected.

There are many explanations for what happened, and I’ve thought of all of them. Not getting tenure at Harvard probably sent him into a crisis, and reaching out to me was not a priority. He needed to look good in front of me. He needed to stay on a pedestal. Now he wasn’t a Harvard professor anymore, but just regular professor who would have trouble with the successes of all his brilliant ex-students.

It’s also possible that his gradual withdrawal from me all through the early ‘90s had built up so much resentment in me that I’d occasionally let it show in snide remarks.

It’s possible that since I was older now (thirty-four), I wasn’t interesting enough to look at, assuming that physical attraction may have played a bigger part on his side of things than I realize.

It’s possible that there were mysterious (intangible) reasons he didn’t feel comfortable around me anymore but couldn’t bring himself to say so. He’d outgrown me. I’d also outgrown him but couldn’t let him go. He was Walt. He was family.

It’s possible, above all, that as he rose in his field (even as a non-Harvardian) I was not a suitable friend. His friends (though perhaps not lovers, where one’s criteria tend to be different) needed to be other academics and people of influence, people who lived and breathed in a world of Fichte, Hegel, Marx, and Rousseau, and also people who admired Dr. January’s work.

*

It troubles me how keenly I still feel the loss.

When I reflect on how much I’ve changed, I realize that similar changes had to have been going on inside Walt. And when I think about things this way, I can begin to stop feeling guilty-dirty for having done something wrong, or for not being good enough to share in a Columbia professor’s life.

*

Walter January has been gone a long time. It’s time to bury him. But a few more thoughts before I close the coffin?

I saw him on YouTube, interviewed a few years ago about his work. Often during the session, he shut his eyes while making particularly profound points. Once, his eyes stayed shut for a full minute while he lectured. His whole manner is affected; he’s putting on a show. The old Walt would have laughed at such pretentiousness.

*

The last time I ever saw him was twenty-two years ago, on the corner of Broadway and 116th Street, at the same spot where we’d first met all those years earlier.

I wonder about the intervening time: his sojourn in my “backyard”—San Diego—his stay, later, at Cornell, and eventually his resumed life at Columbia. All this time I’ve been in Los Angeles, and I think about the visits we could’ve had, the conversations, the insights I would’ve gotten from him. Maybe, if I’d matured faster, he would’ve seen me as an equal and not abandoned me. Maybe, if I hadn’t made a certain snide remark that last visit in New York… Maybe…

I sometimes have visions of waiting another twenty-five years and visiting him in a nursing home and grabbing his shoulders and demanding an explanation for the decades of silence.

I believe friendship has been compared to clothing: having a shirt for a certain amount of years, and then discarding it. Some friendships, I know, are not meant to go the whole way, from schooldays to death. It’s understood that romance often fails to make the long journey, but people seem to take it for granted that friendship is by definition more permanent.

I have gained insights from other people’s losses. I’ll say, “Are you still in touch with so-and-so?” and they’ll say, “No, no, they lost interest years ago.” It’s helpful to keep things in perspective, to realize that I’m not the only one. The common thread in all these cases is middle age. The young mind hasn’t fully developed; it’s open to many things; it’s spontaneous; it’s flexible; and it’s fine with being dumb some of the time. The older mind has thickened and ossified into a state of cozy pickiness and prickliness and odd prissy rules and boundaries; it’s not as accepting of peccadillos and slights; it’s set in its ways and just doesn’t have time. And maybe Walt is just as ashamed of his 24-year-old self as I’m ashamed of mine. Who wants to go back and relive the beautiful and stupid days? Not Walt, I’m sure. And not me.

If he were sitting across the table from me now, I’d say something simple and banal like, “I am sorry we lost touch.” I wouldn’t ask him why. I’d be diplomatic, even though most of the time I despise him. What I need to do is release the anger. Put on my boxing gloves and pound the punching bag at the gym, and then do some deep breathing and affirmations, the way I learned in therapy.

One of the best concepts I got out of therapy (and therapy is the thing Walter, more than anyone else, steered me toward): “It’s not what happened; it’s how you deal with what happened.” Over the last twenty-two years I have dealt with it poorly or not at all. Releasing anger, as I’ve described, is one way to come to terms with the loss. Writing this post is another. The slogans of all the 12-step work I’ve done are useful. But as another member of group therapy (an old-timer) said in one of our meetings, “You do all that stuff, you do the meditations and affirmations and the anger work and it’s still gonna hurt.”

I’m sorry that Walt didn’t get a chance to know the mature me. But looking at the tape of him in tweed ensconced in his philosophy chair, I’m not all that sorry I didn’t experience the new him. I like what he has to say about recognition and fame and its relation to evil—I am, like him, preoccupied with thoughts of accomplishment and posterity. I like his thoughts, but the actual Walt I see before me is, for the most part, not the person I knew.

 

I wonder if the attraction he admitted to in the early days wasn’t in some part reciprocated by me in a purely platonic form. I never viewed him as an object (I was into young jocks). But in some way he may have been the “love” of my life. I had the kind of friendship with him that you only get a chance to have in your young years, when you’re free to be dumb and smart and mean and compassionate and giddy with life and future hope in one long session over French toast and coffee at Tom’s Restaurant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carol V. Davis’s “Because I Cannot Leave This Body” (Truman State University Press)

Carol V DavisAs I was reading Carol V. Davis’s new collection, Because I Cannot Leave This Body, I was often reminded of Sidney Lumet’s great 1964 film The Pawnbroker, about a troubled Holocaust survivor in New York City. Even though he has managed to escape the horrors and evils of the Old World, he can’t—understandably—let them go. They haunt him and they add depth as well as an atmosphere of doom to all his encounters in what should be the capital of the Free World and the Land of Opportunity. No matter what happens to him, the ghosts of the Old Country will not go away. And they don’t go away in Davis’s poems, either. Superstition hovers over this collection like an ominous Easter Island statue, and often the “old wives’ tales” come from the Jewish experience in the Old World, though not, in this case, the Holocaust.

From the beginning, the reader is made aware of this dark, almost Gothic atmosphere with Davis’s affinity for words like raven, crow, willow, omen, hemlock, ghost, dybbuk, witch and Satan. One of the early poems is called “Long Shadows,” and that could be an alternate title for the book. It’s the long shadows of the past that can’t quite go away, even in an American landscape so different from (and supposedly much cheerier than) that of Poland and Russia. The shadows and the burdens of an antique European and Jewish past come into particularly sharp focus in “Speaking in Tongues,” in which Davis, an avid traveler, has come face to face with cowboys in a Wyoming bar. Even though she’s an American, she finds that on a deep level she doesn’t speak the cowboys’ language, nor do they speak hers:

In unfamiliar landscapes
Yiddish diminutives, terms of endearment,
drop from my tongue, morsels, a little sweet, a little sour.

Then the curses begin their training: bulking up
on a diet of sarcasm and sneers, centuries of practice
honed to this art.

The Wyoming cowboys in the bar
stare at me in disbelief.
They’re used to horses that whinny but this sounds
like something you’d attach to those decorated manes,
the kind no real cowboy would get near.

What exactly “this” is remains intentionally mysterious. Davis is condensing whole conversations, gestures, looks, into very concise language, but the key word is “curses.” It’s not spelled out entirely what she means, but I take it as a way of looking at the world that is tinged with, as she says, sarcasm and sneers, and a heavy load of shtetl suffering without (as she tells us in another poem) the usual humor we might associate with that worldview. “Speaking in Tongues” continues:

A geologist, also not from these parts, explains in a tone
reserved for restless third graders, just how to find a vein of coal.
Never mind the tops of mountains sheared off crew-cut style.
If he doesn’t find it, someone else will.

In Virginia they asked if
I’d ever seen a real movie star. I’ve seen plenty:
without all that makeup, they’re not so special.

In these two stanzas she does something very interesting: she dares to introduce people and set up quite a bit of “exposition” in a short poem. Normally this isn’t a good idea, and the way Davis does this doesn’t always work well, but here it’s fine. Nor does she ever attempt to be too musical; I sense she has no time for musical musings. She wants to get to the point in her direct, austere way. As for the content of these stanzas, she temporarily removes herself here from the persona of a shtetl survivor, to a conscientious (blue-state) American concerned about the environment in a state that ought to be protecting it; then suddenly she’s in Virginia—a big leap—confronted by people who believe Angelenos are always running into movie stars.
But she returns to Wyoming in her last stanza:

These curses didn’t know where to go. The bar was full.
Every time one fiddler sat down, another jumped in.
Barely room to squeeze in between one slide of a bow and the next.
The windows fogged up; outside the snow thickened like insulation.
It was time to get serious: the curses hauled out
everything they had and let them have it.

The fogged windows and thick snow happen in a Wyoming bar, but inside the poet, she’s somewhere in the Old World. Instead of embracing nature, she’s fighting the elements. Instead of enjoying herself with the locals, she’s engulfed by the old curses. She’s more in the world of Fiddler on the Roof than that of the American West (could the reference to fiddlers be unconscious?).

As for actual superstitions, they are mentioned time and again. In “Animal Time,” she relates how her parents “drove cross-country to / Death Valley, last leg of their escape from New York, / the thick soups of their immigrant mothers, generations / of superstitions that squeezed them from all sides.” In another poem, “Flying Off the Page,” she writes:

After I had babies, I’d rise in the dark, sleepwalk
to their rooms to check their breathing.
People once believed the soul escaped the body at night

to return to heaven and had to be enticed back every morning.
And a sneeze, an omen of death, expelled the soul.
Only a blessing would prevent Satan form snatching it.

And then, toward the end of the book, there is a really remarkable poem called “On a Suburban Street,” in which the superstition imagery reaches quite a climax. It’s got almost everything: snakes, spiders, scepters, a Greek chorus, crows, squirrels, lanterns, mockingbirds, warblers, an evil eye, tree roots, and an earthquake.

So what’s with all the superstition? Different things are going on. She is not noticeably religious, nor is she—I sense—genuinely superstitious, but all the old tales have come down to her as a quasi-religion, as her cultural inheritance, as a way of coping, and a way of connecting to a mythical past. Christian Americans have their religion, and Greek and Roman myths before that, either as something to believe in or as a reference point and a way to decorate their work. Davis lays claim to superstition as her own personal stock-in-trade, if you will. As much as it infuses her work, though, she’s not obsessed with it, and there are plenty of places where she reveals she’s a fine nature writer. From “Late January: Wyoming Storm”:

Sediment to rock, trilobites
in the sandstone and shale.
Minerals float to the surface, limestone
to marble. Pink-tinged granite,
there for the gathering.
You can track this landscape the way
a phrenologist traces protuberances of a skull.
Topography that expands, then
compresses to its vanishing point.

Davis is by no means always on the lookout for the czar’s horses and sabers; she may have concerns that haunt her book, but she lets her poems breathe. She has a whole series of fine ekphrastic pieces, for instance, and in her last poem she valiantly touches on a topic dear to all creative people, and maybe all people full-stop: the wish for applause and recognition. Here she is in “Master Class,” sitting in an audience but nervous for students singing their difficult arias in front of a demanding teacher:

They may not be here for applause, but isn’t that what we all want,
if only once: to be tossed a bouquet onstage, cheered and greeted
by throngs of well-wishers at the stage door.

Alicia Ostriker’s Waiting for the Light (University of Pittsburgh Press)

I have been reading Alicia Ostriker’s newest book, Waiting for the Light. When I saw that ethereal title (Ostriker is a senior now),  I was preparing for sunsets, tunnels, and late autumn days. That title, however, is a tease, but I will not reveal how exactly, except to say that most of the poems here are far from autumnal, and in fact are emphatically contemporary and relevant. I doubt she composed most of the poems after the election returns came in, which means they speak about our times and our country in general, but they do have a particular resonance during the weird era we’ve suddenly found ourselves in since November 8 of last year.

 
One of the most memorable pieces is called “America the Beautiful.” It is a ghazal. I’ll quote from the middle of it:

 
School days school days dear old Golden Rule Days
when we learned how to behave in America

What to wear, how to smoke, how to despise our parents
who didn’t understand us or America

Only later learning the Banner and the Beautiful
live on opposite sides of the street in America

Only later discovering the Nation is divisible
by money by power by color by gender by sex America

We comprehend it now this land is two lands
one triumphant bully one still hopeful America

 

 

What I notice about this work is its fresh wisdom and directness of approach. It is not glamorously layered writing meant to dazzle and impress, the kind an ambitious up-and-comer would write to make a big splash in the world. On the contrary, this is the style of someone who “arrived” long ago and no longer needs to show off. This style is the only thing remotely “autumnal” here. As for this poem in particular, the references to the bully and hopeful America are clear to us in 2017, but what is striking is that there have always been two Americas: this was true during Ostriker’s school days circa 1950 (a time of a rising middle class, a time of optimism free of Depression and—more or less—of war, but also a time of puritanism and continuing racial injustice); and this was still true in 2010 (with a shrinking middle class and less prosperity but also more rights and freedoms for large swaths of the population). In our new post-November 8 world, however, the skies seem to have permanently darkened and an era of disbelief and gloom has set in. Those who resist our new Overlords are often now referred to as belonging to the Indivisible movement. Ostriker’s ghazal could be, and maybe should be, the anthem of that movement.

 
Many of the poems in this collection celebrate the Big Apple. Ostriker does a fabulous job of evoking what is glorious and hideous and sublime and shameful in that most neurotic of cities (and other cities like it). In this vision of the metropolis, things aren’t black and white. “The Glory of Cities” is an Ostriker poem that pushes us headlong into the crazy capitalist soup without heavy-handed irony:

 
Let us now praise famous cities, our human fists against heaven, let us praise
their devotion to wealth and power and art, goals toward which we swim
ferociously upstream, tearing ourselves apart, to lay our eggs and die

along with swarms and herd of our brothers and sisters, let me especially praise
the cities of the Northeast Corridor from Boston to the District
of Columbia, birth-lips of trade and industry, thumbs of unbeatable deals,

their mayors and their mistresses, their Chinese and Korean neighborhoods
their Pakistani taxis, their Afro-American subway systems igniting
their steel drum arpeggios, moonwalks, laden shopping bags, all superb

for staring at people while sinking into invisibility.

 

All this is great writing, as good as it gets when it comes to the urban experience, or at least the Northeast Corridor urban experience. It’s a poem that doesn’t lecture but sings. And then it takes a turn in its last two stanzas. Having covered cool men and hot women and anarchists and waitresses, it now focuses on an immigrant:

 
I watch this boy

he is off the boat, he is thinking food and freedom, he is sending
the money order back home, it is so easy, there is a bank
on every corner of the Upper West Side,

he is a little high, so when the officer detains him,
he is slow producing his ID. Fuck. Fuck.
Watch his hands. Now watch the cop’s fast hands.

 

 

What could be more timely? The restraint and the artistry are exquisite. I can just see the poet sitting in an outdoor café recording her impressions. They have the smell and flow and rhythm and taste of real life; Ostriker never gets on a soapbox. It is a loving, generous voice we find in these pages.

 
Gotham really serves as the foundation of this collection, which after many urban poems proceeds to explore America and the world more broadly. Ostriker was right to put so many New York poems at the beginning, since that city contains everything that is fabulous and hideous in this world, and not just the USA, and helps build up the rest of the collection. In “Times Square,” which I’ll quote here in its entirety, Ostriker offers the history of that iconic place from about 1950 through its low ebb in the ’70s and ’80s (as I remember it!) to its current more clean-cut incarnation:

 
Great white way when I was a tender ten
first time downtown agape at cheerful billboard

smoke rings every four seconds puffed form the painted
lips of a man who would walk a mile for a Camel

then sordid shabby & sleazy, risky & stinky & low
digital Godzillas catapulted from manhole

now crazy clean your Disney scene
warrior girl in heels, boy with banana

sky-high waxed torsos & the crawl at the bottom
to let us know how the Dow is doing this very minute

selling everything in the world—luxury limos, lattes
fashion entertainment & sport—your neon fire

forever changing forever displaying the same
intolerable unquenchable human desire

 

 

I hope this poem will still be around in a thousand, two thousand years, so that people of the future will know what the capital of “civilization” was like. How much will they be able to understand? Will they have a tough time with words like “Disney” and “Camel” and “Dow”? But from our viewpoint, now, this poem offers a rich history and slice of life. Her last word is, importantly, desire. Mad, crooked, amazing desire simmers in almost every part of this collection. Here she modifies desire brilliantly with two adjectives: intolerable and unquenchable. This desire—what we might also call the Will—is responsible for all that is wonderful and awful in this world. Left and right, First World and Third Word, bully and victim, cop and immigrant, sheriff and protester, mogul and peon—wherever we turn in this book, there are likely to be conflicts and tensions, and desire is at the root of all of them, a raucous desire that hums along like crazy New York City itself.

Revocable Trust

 

Ambition and greed in fashion woman with jewelry in hands on black background

Ambition and greed in fashion woman with jewelry in hands on black background

a selection from the last part of my memoir, the only selection I’m publishing here on my blog………….

 

            The house never changed at all, and neither did our old San Franzisko neighborhood. The big house withstood the fog that came in most days from the ocean. It withstood daily gunfire from the rifle range across Lake Merced as well as earthquakes, some of them severe. People withered and died, but the house just stood there stoically facing the lake as well as the lions that roared and the seals that cried out at midnight from the zoo. I could go back to my old room and it could easily be 1974, until I looked in the mirror and discovered a man in his forties, with more than a few gray hairs. I loved the house so much that I sometimes pitied it, as you can pity a living thing. It remained empty nearly all year long, since my father spent most of his time with his lady-friend in Beverly Hills Adjacent, not far from me in the northeast corner of Los Angeles. And so, whenever I went back, I spoke to the house and assured it that one day it would welcome a young family living there again; one day it would be warmed by children and animals within its walls.

Henry Frankel shriveled and shrank, but neither of us wanted to fully accept that he was older than fifty or that I was much more than nineteen. We worked to keep me innocent and young about money, and I still called him “Deddi.” I reached my forties before I realized the significance, for Americans, of the date April 15. I sometimes didn’t pick up my paycheck from the university for days, and then would leave it in my backpack for weeks before I deposited it. The phone company often threatened to cut me off for not paying my bills. I never listened to the stock market report, and why should I?  I had a checking account, a few thousand dollars in savings, and a Visa card linked to my father. I never paid for my own gas. And yet I lived simply in a one bedroom apartment near Cal State L.A.; I dressed in the careless way of most male college instructors; I drove an old car; I didn’t travel. I accepted my unusual condition of dependence and thought about it as little as possible.

One Friday morning I lay in bed until late in the day. When I checked my voicemail, I heard a message from Deddi’s companion, Rhoda Goldfarb: my father had driven to San Franzisko, weak with kidney stones and diabetes, and had fallen in the bathroom. He’d struggled on the floor for twelve hours until he could crawl to a phone. The paramedics had climbed in through a window and taken him away. “He’s not doing well,” said Rhoda. “You need to go up there and act like a son for a change. Good-bye.”

By that evening—after a daylong drive and frequent updates from nurses who inexplicably found my father “sweet” and “kind”—I was sitting at his bedside in a hospital near my old high school and synagogue, the same hospital where my mother had died of cancer so many years before (we never truly lived in the wholesome American San Francisco, but in our own moldy German-Jewish San Franzisko).  He lay in bed awake and frail, his eyelids drooping every time he made the effort to speak. He’d taped a picture of Rhoda to the wall. “This is my love,” he declared to the nurses.

Henry Frankel now turned into my grandfather. I learned to carry his briefcase and his belongings from the house to the hospital. I learned to open his bills and his checkbooks and enter his inner sanctum of high finance. I was going to have to grow up now.

I stayed in San Franzisko two long weeks. Rhoda Goldfarb phoned from Beverly Hills Adjacent with instructions, opinions, demands, but never came up.

I stayed alone in the empty house. Sometimes, at night, I avoided listening to music, because I was afraid it would mask sounds of trouble somewhere in that big house. I could imagine an orchestra playing, but in the midst of the concert, I pictured a doorknob turning, a door opening, and a hooded intruder standing there wielding a carving knife. At night I needed absolute silence, so I could keep track of all the creaking floors, all the rumblings from distant corners.

When people want to insist on the beauty of San Franzisko, they can’t be thinking of days and weeks alone in a big house with a father in the hospital. They can’t be thinking of days of visiting a sick father and coming home to an empty house with gunfire from the rifle range always in the background. They can’t be thinking of thick fog and foghorns and a phone that never rang, unless it was Deddi calling with feeble instructions or reprimanding me for something I’d forgotten to do for him.

After I returned to L.A., Rhoda Goldfarb consented to a break from her bridge tournament in Beverly Hills Adjacent; it was now her turn to come up and take care of him in our house. My father spent days readying the place, even summoning the strength to do some of the dusting and cleaning. He knew how exacting she was about housekeeping.

She threw out my old toys, my seven unique clocks, all my art from grade school, my stuffed baby cobra, my bust of Thomas Jefferson.

He appeared to improve a little. He regained some of the weight he’d lost. He walked without a cane. He paid his bills. He read. He yelled at waitresses and left insulting tips. But his body was consumed with the internal business of shutting down.

Rhoda did not see any need to keep me informed of my father’s condition, so it came as a shock one day, near the end of October, when by chance I found out he’d been re-admitted to the hospital.

I was there when the doctors and nurses rolled him back to his room after his latest procedure. He smiled in the fake-saccharine way that might have been in vogue around 1930 somewhere in Europe: “I invite you gentlemen to the most marvelous feast!”

I was there when he saw Bill Clinton on the ceiling. “Really?” I said.  “But everyone’s talking about Hillary.”  And I began to feel my side warming up pleasantly; a moment later I realized it was his urine.

I phoned Deddi’s lawyer and asked, “If he passes away, what is the first thing that will need to be done?” He answered with a more general and ominous point: “The first thing that will have to be done is sell the house.”

I rushed home and, while Rhoda was out with her new San Franzisko bridge partners, I rummaged through the hiding place, under a bedspread in his closet, where my father had always told me I’d find his will. I saw my name: “All assets shall be distributed to ALEX M. FRANKEL” and then I saw the other name: “$100,000 shall be distributed to RHODA GOLDFARB.” A moment of relief but, just based on the lawyer’s words and tone, I continued my search for papers: I needed to know what my future would look like, I needed some firm, or unfirm, knowledge—anything. In the top right-hand drawer of his desk, I found an innocuous manila envelope with a new will that invalidated the old ones. It was dated May, 2007, after his fall, when he was weak and helpless. I turned the pages: solemn language handed down from a misty but implacable Roman and medieval past, words like declaration, restatement, hereby, pursuant, codicil, amendment, revocable, inoperative, attestation, witness, testator, trust. Trust—an interesting word, I wondered what it meant, in this context. I didn’t know many legal terms. Trust. I had always trusted my father. A twelve-step sponsor used to say to me, “You are so trusting, you take people at their word.” I turned pages, looking for changes, sensing they were coming. Falling, falling alone, more alone than ever before. I was bad, unclean—maybe people were right to want me invisible: the schoolyard children from the seventh grade, the exciting young men from the streets and the gay bars, and now my own father. “The sum of $100,000.00 (One Hundred Thousand Dollars Exactly) shall be distributed to Settlor’s son ALEX M. FRANKEL, currently residing in Los Angeles, California, if he survives me for 30 (thirty) days. If she survives trustor for ninety (90) days, then all of the rest and residue of the trust estate and assets of the Trust shall be distributed to RHODA GOLDFARB, currently residing in Beverly Hills, California, outright and free of trust, and the trust shall then terminate.” What did it mean to revoke trust? Who was doing the revoking? I had done most of the trusting, but it seemed to me that someone else, now, was doing the revoking. What did it mean to be “free” of trust and to “terminate” trust? Now, in my hands, I held the answer to my future. A hundred thousand from my father to me, and Rhoda Goldfarb—almost a stranger—had won. I began to do primitive calculations in my head. I knew the house was worth over a million. I knew my father had a million in investments. Where had I made my mistake? When had I been bad?

*

Before I left his bedside that night, I recited my boyhood German prayer. He didn’t seem at all surprised or annoyed, and he even joined in, with his eyes closed. He said the words meekly, innocently, together with me. What a gentle old man he could be, what a good Deddi.

           

Tired am I, and go to rest,

            Close both my little eyes.

            Father in heaven may your eyes

            Watch over my little bed.

            Amen 

 

I had an idea. I took out my phone: “Record a message for me, please! Tell me good-night!”

He smiled and nodded faintly and, still with his eyes closed, said in a strong voice, “Nighty night, sweetie!” as I held the phone to his lips.

*

I drove around until late. I needed to avoid our house with his lady-love in it. At dawn I parked by the windmills at Ocean Beach and fell asleep.

There were four messages when I awoke. Impossible—I’m never that popular. Then I realized who they were from. “Where are you? Go to the hospital immediately,” instructed Rhoda Goldfarb. “You need to go to St. Mary’s now,” she said in her second message. In her third she said, “I left you two messages already. Go and see your father. Go and see him at once.” Her final message: “This is the last time I’m calling. It’s almost nine in the morning. Go to the hospital. You know where it is.”

On the fifth floor of St. Mary’s, someone had taped a sign on the door to his room: “Please see nurse before entering.” I opened the door and found my father in a bag.

Ten, twenty years of preparing for this moment and I wasn’t prepared. I unzipped the bag and saw his face—what an odd expression there. He didn’t seem in pain. His lips were pursed, as if he were about to speak.

I said the Serenity Prayer over and over. What was going to happen to me now without a Deddi?

He hadn’t really been sick. He hadn’t had either a heart condition or cancer. Eighty-seven was too young. I needed him there another few years; I even needed an angry father, anyone, anything, just not alone.

I put his glasses on him so that he would look more like himself. I felt his hands, cold but not stiff. Why hadn’t I been in the room when he died? Someone mentioned it happened at 3:00 a.m. No one around him but the professionals.

*

I brought his graveclothes to Sinai Memorial Chapel. I stood under what memory insists was a silver and gold rotunda. I brought his blazer, slacks, a dress shirt. And suddenly, standing on the other side of the room, I saw another man, also carrying clothes for the same reason. Our eyes met. We didn’t talk. What is the proper form of conversation for such a meeting? He looked at me; I looked at him. We said nothing. I turned away.

I sat down with the undertaker, a reserved and businesslike fellow who did not shake my hand. Because I’d often heard how mortuaries take advantage of people in distress, I chose the cheapest coffin I could, which seemed to displease the man.

I still had Deddi’s voice on my phone. I needed it. “Nighty-night, sweetie!”

I drove around San Franzisko and walked in the park, where rich young couples pushing strollers greeted other rich young couples pushing strollers. I spent yet another night in my car, not willing to face our old house taken over by Rhoda.

And then, the day of the funeral, I drove up to the Hills of Eternity and walked uphill to the grave where my mother had now been for thirty years. My father was to be buried next to her. I went to the coffin, hugged it, wept into its shiny brown contours and imitation gold.

About six or seven people showed up.

I watched Rhoda Goldfarb arrive; she looked like royalty decked out in black. She did not acknowledge me. I watched her walk on the grass among the graves in her severe attire. She knew how to dress for these events.

The cantor who’d officiated at my bar mitzvah conducted the service—what a comforting act of continuity! As if all those years hadn’t passed. Rhoda Goldfarb did not speak. I did speak: I’d written up a eulogy at 4 a.m. I still have it; I keep the torn, coffee-stained pages in my glove compartment. It reads, in part:

The happiest I ever saw him was the night we went to see Life is Beautiful. It may seem odd that a film about an Italian Jew condemned to an extermination camp would be so uplifting and so positive and would make him so happy, but it was the happiest I’d ever seen him. He was a survivor. Being a German-Jewish refugee in Shanghai taught him how to survive. Life is beautiful. Life will be hard without him. He lay there in the hospital on Friday morning and all around him life was going on even though he had left it behind. On his door, someone had put a note: Please see nurse before entering. You don’t say “death.” But I say “death” and I protest.

People talk nicely by the grave because the sun has broken through. Neckties. Dresses. A scent of Sunday even though it isn’t Sunday. That coffin, glossy as a baby grand, gets eased casually, with little ceremony and no protest, into the earth.

Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord . . . 

Sprinklers. Neckties.

To lead him into paradise . . . the bosom of Abraham.

No one is crying.  Orchids, dresses, light, sprinklers, bugs. There should have been music. Too late now.

The coffin is covered up with dirt by sullen men. People scatter quickly.  Rhoda departs without appearing to notice me.

*

The day after my father’s funeral, a tall, grizzled lawyer appeared at the house, rang the doorbell. Maybe my time in hell would be over soon. I was swallowing a Xanax tablet in my childhood bathroom when I heard the chimes ring. “Alex!” called Rhoda Goldfarb, and let the lawyer in. Like the undertaker, the attorney did not shake my hand and chose to get down to business, dispensing with polite preliminaries. Since I had taken a look at the will, there were no surprises when the man gestured to Rhoda, who sat on a distant couch, and said, “Your father left his estate to Rhoda Goldfarb, with a provision of $100,000 for you.” I remember his hand: he sat in an armchair and so easily gestured to Rhoda, so easily, so casually with his right hand indicated that she was to receive what should have been mine.

The lawyer handed us papers. “Here are copies of all his previous wills,” he told us, “so you can note the changes.”

Where we sat seemed important: I was in the round armchair that swiveled and had belonged to my mother, her favorite chair—“Mami’s chair,” where she’d sat the day she told me about my adoption. The attorney was seated in a stiff fancy-fretwork chair from Thailand, a gift from business people of the ’70s. And Rhoda sat in the new sofa she herself had selected, having thrown out the old one which had been in our family for twenty years. And everything in the room—as per Rhoda’s instructions and wishes—had been re-upholstered in white: beautified, purified by the cool simplicity of whiteness.

“It might take as long as a year to sell the house,” the lawyer said.

“A year!” Rhoda didn’t like this one bit.

It had been a good idea to medicate with the sedative. Sometimes I caught Rhoda looking at me, perhaps wondering why I wasn’t more surprised by the news the lawyer had brought. And that interested me: the lawyer brought us news; we didn’t have to present ourselves at his office. This scene didn’t resemble—physically, at least—the classic movie or TV image of relatives sitting in a dark, wood-paneled law office while a dignified man of years, seated behind his desk, informs those gathered around of a deceased person’s good or bad last decisions.

There were quite a few boring details to mention—and the lawyer mentioned all of them.

The talking went on and on; I felt so thankful for the sedative.

And the lawyer slipped out as quietly as he’d come in, almost bashfully, like a waiter.

*

Most of Henry Frankel’s possessions went into boxes and crates.

I stopped sleeping in my car and faced up to spending a few last days and nights in my old room. Constantly I heard high heels in the walk-in closet and the master bedroom. Once I picked up the phone and overheard Rhoda talking to a man whose voice I didn’t recognize. Instantly, I understood that she already had a new admirer.

One night, while I was sitting on the floor packing books, she appeared in the doorway of my room. “You left a mess downstairs,” she said.

“Did I?” I was trying to fit venerable old volumes of my Encyclopedia Britannica into boxes they’d given me at the market. I tried not to look up. “I’ll get to it later.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Rhoda crossing her arms over her chest. “Your father was right about you. So untidy. So scatterbrained . . . You had difficulties in school, didn’t you?”

“Just with math and science.” Still without looking up, I tried to focus our attention on the books in my hand. Before there was the Internet and Google, there was the Encyclopedia Britannica—a source of hours and hours of wasted time. “I used to love these books,” I said. “I even loved the smell of the pages.”

“Yeah,” said Rhoda. “Math and science, math and science. Your father told me about your troubles. Summer sessions, private tutors, afterschool classes and whatnot, but you never got it, did you?”

“I never got it.”

“You weren’t too studious either, were you? Except in English. Except poetry!” I noticed she made an effort to showcase the word “poetry.”

Near me I kept bubble-wrap and tape as well as a pair of rusty old scissors we’d had in the family ever since I could remember. They were classic and rather frightening office scissors.

“Maybe,” I said, “I inherited a few traits from my birth parents, have you ever thought of that? My biological father was an intellectual, no head for business.”

“Oh Alex, don’t get me started on that,” said Rhoda. “You hurt your father—I mean the man who brought you up. It sickened him when you came up with those people out of the blue and announced you were going through with a reunion. A reunion!”

I went on with the motions of packing.

“Those were my birth parents. I had a right to find them.”

“Who gave you that right?”

I was nearly finished with a box but feared grabbing hold of the scissors to cut the tape, feared what I might do with them in my hand.

“Well, he’s at peace now,” I added quietly, looking at the floor.

“When are you going to get to the mess? The dining room’s a disaster.”

“I’ll get to it soon.”

She took a step into the room and, hands at her hips, looked at the walls. “Pictures of composers! They must be worth something. You should have them appraised.”

“I might,” I said.

“Most American boys collect baseball cards, but you had to collect portraits of composers and classical records,” Rhoda observed.

“I guess that’s the way it was.”

“You didn’t talk baseball and football with your father, you talked music!”

“There’s nothing wrong with that.”

She stood close to me, in my old room, in her new house. I could smell her Chanel. I looked at the scissors, shiny and sharp.

“He worked so hard to put you through high school and college and grad school, Alex, he wanted you to make something of yourself.”

“I did make something of myself.”

I heard her laugh. I was still on the floor and she was still standing over me. “It wasn’t his idea of success,” she said. “What do you make, fourteen dollars an hour?”

“Seventy.”

“But no retirement, I heard, no benefits . . .”

With the scissors it would have been so easy to do so much, but it would have taken too long and been extremely messy. I liked where my imagination took me.

“What are you now, fifty?” she said to me.

“Forty-five.”

“I thought you were older.”

“Forty-five.”

Then she was walking around in my room—freely, openly. She had taken possession, even of this space that had once been my sanctuary. She’d been my father’s higher power, no use denying it. Was she mine too?

I wanted her out. I wanted to get the packing done. Soon it was going to be time for Ambien and sleep. What would I have done without Ambien?

“Your father worked hard for you,” I heard Rhoda say. “It’s a shame you treated him the way you did.”

“We didn’t dwell on it.”

“Oh, you’re wrong about that. He dwelled on it. When you weren’t there.”

“No doubt,” I said. “No doubt.”

“He was such a kind, generous man, but you never got to know him, did you? Sometimes he’d come back from having lunch with you, and he was so down. I didn’t like to see him that way. He was suffering.”

Hundreds of more things to pack. I’d barely started. I looked around at the piles of books but kept snagging my eyes on the bright scissors on the floor beside me.

“He knew you didn’t love him,” said Rhoda. “I wish you’d tried, but you were always too selfish for that, weren’t you?”

“I tried. You only knew him a few short years. He was my father, and I was the best son he could’ve asked for.”

“You weren’t. You never came to visit, you neglected him. That’s not how a son behaves.”

Maybe if I hadn’t been grieving, the rage in me would have shot to the surface and I wouldn’t have been able to control it. I knew that since Rhoda was not grieving, it was easy for her to pick a fight as if these were just normal times.

“You weren’t there when he had pneumonia last year,” she went on. “Or when he had  the gallstones removed. Or when he almost lost his hearing. You were never around. I did everything.”

“Yes, you did it all. He was lucky!”

But she wouldn’t be sidetracked. “I used to tell him he was too permissive with you when you were growing up. With a little firmness, a little old-fashioned strictness . . .”

“Yes, what then?”

“Why, you might’ve turned out more normal.”

I looked at the floor. “More to his liking? More to yours?”

“More normal.”
“Normal, I see.”

“With just a little strictness. I don’t know how often I told him—”

“Rhoda!” I jumped up, startling her, but she was in her element, prepared for battle, pleased with where this might be going. “Rhoda, I want to give you something.” I groped for a box full of odds and ends on the shelf behind her. I took out a picture of my father on a Caribbean cruise, circa 1974. He was strong, tanned, slim, hardly a grey hair on him yet. “I bet you haven’t seen this one.” For a second she looked confused. “You only knew him when he was older,” I said. I took her hand and placed the framed picture in it. “I want you to have this, please.”

“Oh.” She looked down at the picture. “Yes, it’s lovely, thank you.” Deddi was standing on a sun-deck in a beige leisure suit and smiling at us with lips tightly shut. “I hadn’t seen this one, you’re right.”

I turned around and sat back down on the floor and went on with my packing. She passed through the room and out the door without another word.

Rhoda packed; I packed (I almost wrote “we,” but there was no “we”). Days went by. Sometimes her new boyfriend would leave soft, flirty messages openly on my father’s answering machine. One morning I woke up and realized she’d left for Southern California—along with her new china and stemware, as well as two Persian rugs, several lamps, and a miniature Chinese village carved into ivory, complete with temple and tower. I never saw her again.

*

A few weeks after the funeral, while the house was being readied to go on the market, I took a train and then a bus up to Yosemite.

It was winter now.  The first snow fell the night of my arrival, and the next morning I struggled to walk in the wet unplowed whiteness of the valley. I gazed up at the mountains and took pictures and, when no one was looking, I cried. My Deddi and my Mami and my grandmother! It was true that as an adult I’d tracked down my birth parents, but we hadn’t become close and I didn’t mourn them after their deaths. I had only one set of parents, those who’d raised me. And so what was I going to do now, all alone? In my cabin late at night I listened to radio voices speculate about space aliens, poltergeists, sprites, goblins, UFOs, alternate universes, life after death. An expert spoke: “Always there is life, always.” If that was so, where was Deddi now? Was he anywhere besides just gone? By day I walked in the cold and the slush—cold as Siberia here—and at night thawed out in the lodge and warmed my feet as near as I could get to the fire without burning myself. One evening I sat by an immense fireplace in the lobby of the Ahwanhee Hotel and watched partygoers in costumes file into the great dining hall. They were wearing Tudor-style costumes—bodices and petticoats and ruffles and lace cuffs—and they were laughing, life was good, life seemed to have at least a temporary purpose for them. I could never have imagined my father Henry Frankel dressed as Henry VIII, though for me he’d been as important and as mighty. On my way back to my cabin I communed with a snowman in the moonlight. “Such a good snowman out here in the cold!” I said, a child of eight rapidly turning into a man of forty-five. I patted his ice-cold belly and kissed his pine-cone nose. Slowly I walked back to my cabin. What was waiting for me there? Energy bars and talk radio. I prayed to God to ease, to deliver me from, the hatred I felt for the woman who’d stolen my inheritance. I lived mostly without God, but if ever there was a time for the Serenity Prayer, it was now. A full moon lit the way to warmth. “My Deddi,” I said out loud to just cold air. It was a comfort to have his voice on my voicemail, and there it remained for a whole year, until one day I woke up and realized I’d accidentally deleted it. The good-night message had vanished, along with my father.

 

My Night With Zsa Zsa Gabor

zsa-zsa-gabor

I was only eighteen. It was the late 1970s. I was working as a houseman (assistant to the maids) at the famous Fairmont Hotel on San Francisco’s Nob Hill. It wasn’t at all glamorous, though a lot of celebrities passed through, either to stay at the hotel or perform in the Venetian Room, or both. I was working the night-shift, five in the afternoon until one in the morning. It was my first job. The ladies who ran the housekeeping department were very strict Germans who all but terrorized us employees–she-wolves of the SS! The parts of the hotel that the guests didn’t see were crawling with giant roaches and busy with fast-moving mice. The place stank. There was no joy there. Some days, in the beginning, I cleaned out toilets in the men’s locker room, a dungeon where the vermin fed on the garbage left by workers. Whenever I could, I sneaked into maids’ closets and read Henry James or Kafka or Garcia Marquez. I was taking a year off from college.

 
When I became an assistant maid, I no longer had to clean out toilets; instead, I helped bring towels to rooms and create king-size beds out of (I think) two double beds. This was how I met Zsa Zsa Gabor.

 

Late one night I received an order to go up to a suite and make a king-size bed. When I got there, I saw the night manager, a distinguished older man in a black suit and bow-tie, fussing around and straightening things out. There were also two women speaking a foreign language. I recognized one of them and said to the night manager, “Who is that?”

 
“Miss Gabor!” he whispered.

 
A few minutes later I proceeded to roll the beds together, put a strip between them, and so on, in this makeshift way creating a king-size bed.

 
“What are you doing?” said Miss Gabor. “I can’t sleep like that.”

 
I explained to her that this was how we made a king-size bed in rooms that didn’t have them. When I was finished, I stood in the middle of the room. The night manager and Miss Gabor’s Hungarian lady assistant had dropped out of sight and it was just us in the bedroom. She accepted the bed I’d made for her now, but still complained how standards had gone down since the 1950s. She was friendly and impressive. I felt I was in the presence of royalty. She must have been in her early sixties then. She was  at once innocent and domineering. As she spoke, she put her hand on my cheek. I’ll never forget that. I was so young then, almost a child. I wonder if her gesture would be considered appropriate today. She didn’t stroke my cheek, just put her hand there gently for a second or two. It was her right hand and my left cheek. Then she went to her purse and took out a five dollar bill and handed it to me. I wished her a pleasant stay and said good-night.

 
I was star-struck and everyone down in Housekeeping could tell, and whispered about it and laughed.

 
The next evening, by coincidence, I got a chance to enter Miss Gabor’s suite after she’d checked out. I was helping the maids and noticed Zsa Zsa’s pillow. It was black and brown and every color in between, the relics of her nightly beauty regimen. One of the other housemen looked at the dirty pillowcase and shook his head. “Not very glamorous, if you ask me!”

 
This happened over thirty-five years ago. At the Fairmont that year I rode the service elevator with Ella Fitzgerald, brought a rollaway bed to Tony Bennett’s suite, and was stopped and questioned by security guards outside the Pavilion Room the night of Princess Margaret’s banquet. But the most memorable moment was the one with Zsa Zsa Gabor. RIP.

Bombing at Fierce: An Old Poet Tries His Hand at Playwriting

fiercebackbone-pic

At an advanced age I decided to start writing plays, or at least try one play. The initial inspiration took place while I was actually standing in a theatre, the Studio Theatre at St. Denis Building, where I host my monthly poetry series. I had done poems, nonfiction, and fiction, so why not plays? I started attending the theatre regularly and rereading some of the classics. After six months, I began writing a play about a homeowners’ association, basing it on meetings I’d participated in and characters and conflicts I knew about. It didn’t go well. Then nearly a year later, I started on a new project, Revocable Trust, based on a chapter in my memoir. This time I managed to finish the project: two acts, ninety pages, an old house in the fog, people fighting over an inheritance. . .

 
I’d been going to writing workshops for twenty years, but where was I going to take my play to be workshopped? I brought bits and pieces to my Saturday poetry group, and they were very well received. My workshop co-facilitator, Bob Foster (who used to act with Katharine Hepburn), was initially skeptical when he just heard one scene, but when I showed him the full manuscript he was won over. Where, though, was I going to take the manuscript to be read and performed and, ultimately, staged?

 
I heard about a theatre company, Fierce Backbone, that meets every week at The Lounge on Santa Monica Boulevard. Their format works like this: every Monday, from 7 to 10 pm, playwrights bring in scenes from new or revised work, and it’s then read by actors in the company and critiqued by everyone.

 
I was getting a bit fed up with the written word, the word that sits squarely on the page and never rises from it. On the one hand, I have come to see poetry as mostly FOR THE PAGE. Many poets (especially in Los Angeles) get too excited about the performative aspects of their art. I’ve become disenchanted with the limitations of performance-oriented poems, and excited by the quiet subtleties available on the page. On the other hand, there’s something creepy about living only on the page or computer screen. The written word has been exalted to the point where the human voice is on the verge of going quiet, or not mattering. So, outside poetry, I was pining for the naked voice with all its splendor and imperfections.

 
Another thing I was looking for was actual warm human contact. When I recently won a prize for a memoir excerpt, I never heard any of the voices awarding me this prize. I simply received an email and, later, a check in the mail. I was dissatisfied with the coldness of the purely literary world. Too many people were hiding behind the written word!

 
When I started going to the weekly sessions at Fierce Backbone, I discovered that human warmth was not on offer. Even if you just glance at the picture I’ve posted, you get an idea what the people are like. I realize they are in the middle of a scene, but even when they were not acting, the were acting: it was like being in high school again and unable to get into the long-established cliques. The actress in red, second from left—De Ann M. Odom—was one of the most cliquish people in the clique. In four months we never exchanged one word. I tried, but she, and most of the others, were unapproachable. I think she is a fine actress, but I never felt that she—or any of the others—wanted me there.

 
And who were some of the others? Bob Telford, veteran actor and now on the board of directors, always sat haggard and downtrodden against a wall, and never opened his mouth to opine on anything. If I wanted to cast someone in the role of a depressed sex offender at the end of his rope, it would be him. Then there was Clifford S. Blackburn, another person on the board: an imposing nonentity currently working on a two-hour monologue about the life and times of Ulysses S. Grant. If you ever want help getting to sleep, find a recording of someone reading from this monologue. And finally, there was Paul Messinger, a roly-poly, sheep-clad wolf of a man who relished his power and authority as a board member in the little world of Fierce, and someone thoroughly accomplished in the art of the pointed baritone question and the slap-in-the-face rebuke.

 
So why did I stay? 1) I didn’t know where else to go. 2) I thought I’d give them a chance. 3) They are all serious and committed to their art. I tried to disregard the clubbiness and the weekly snubs, hoping that better things would follow.

 
It was clash of personalities from the start. They probably sensed right away (and correctly) that I’m more a literary than a theatre person. And this brings me to maybe the heart of the conflict: poetry is an extreme example of a purely literary enterprise; theatre, on the other hand, straddles the world of serious art and show business. What most actors end up doing is not Shakespeare or Sophocles or Ibsen or even Neil Simon: it’s commercials, it’s TV, it’s Netflix, etc. etc., though SOME of the time what they do is in the service of “serious art” and “literature.” Way back in college I read an essay by Arthur C. Danto on the question of whether philosophy was literature. His conclusion was that while there were many overlapping areas, philosophy was certainly not literature. The same with theatre. This explains why, to an extent, I was such a fish out of water. Theatre’s another discipline. When Fierce actors raised their hands to announce that they had just landed a part in a commercial, or in a new Netflix series, I had to ask myself, “What am I doing here?”

 
Here’s the good news: One of the actors from Fierce, Anne Ryerson Hall, came to my monthly poetry group and read a scene from my play with actor Beverly Swanson. This went extremely well and, as the Brits would say, I was chuffed. A few weeks later, at Fierce, the first three scenes from my play got a solid reading. Again, it went well—the actors there are so talented. But the comments, when they came, were not always useful. I knew that I was expected to make revisions and bring the piece back in a few weeks. In theatre you’re always revising, and I understood this. And revise I did—but I didn’t rewrite. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next, during the last phase of my “audition period,” after which I was to receive a  verdict about being accepted into the Company.

 
November 21 was a busy night (four different plays were to be done, I mean scenes from four different works-in-progress). My scenes from Revocable Trust came first. The actors read very, very fast and quietly. I was cupping my ears to understand them. The audience was losing patience. If these actors had been trying to sabotage me, they would have done exactly what they were doing: reading so fast and with no expressiveness or interest or care for what they were doing. Even before they were done, I was almost in tears. Playwright Tom Cavanaugh, sitting right in front of me, was taking copious notes and vigorously shaking his head. The scene ended and the applause was scattered and weak and deadly. I went up on stage, alone, to hear comments. The knives were out, and the assembled clique was gonna be Fierce. (I do not doubt this manuscript needed work.)

 
And when I say the knives were out, I need to stress that most of the comments were not that negative. It was the atmosphere in the room, after the miserable “performance,” that was so discouraging. But three of the room’s heavyweights—Paul Messinger, Clifford S. Blackburn, and Tom Cavanaugh—came at me hard. “Did you even try to rewrite after we saw this last time?” said Paul. Clifford said, “I don’t like any of it, not the characters, not anything.” Tom Cavanaugh (who’d been shaking his head so vigorously) now gave a deep critique that I couldn’t take it in because I was too upset. I then said to him, “So, I have too many words, I’m too verbose.” He got angry: “What kind of word is “verbose”? That’s a poetry word! This is theatre!”

 
After the night was over, I sometimes thought of the play scene and critiquing scene as my Fierce Baptism of Fire. Perhaps they all had a plan for me? Perhaps this was a ritual? To be taken apart by them and put back together in their image. Like fraternity hazing. “Yes, I’ll probably go back,” I said. “They have a plan for me, yes.” And I told myself, “Maybe they can see things I can’t.” But that wouldn’t account for the very poor reading. That wouldn’t account for the weekly awkwardness and snubs.

 
A few more days and nights went by and I knew my sixteen weeks at Fierce were at an end.

 
But it won’t be the end—trust me—of Revocable Trust.

 

 

 

Stop Inflicting Her on Our Ears! (Thoughts on Upspeak and a Radio Voice)

Amy Nicholson

A new voice surfaced one day on my favorite public radio show, Film Week on KPCC. The roundtable format is simple and predictable: the host is joined by two or three film critics, out of a pool of eight or so, to review new releases. I sat down to breakfast expecting to learn something, expecting to smile, hoping to be entertained, even though I rarely go to any movies. But that day a young lady talking “mall talk” joined the panel. I felt an immediate hostility to her, and changed stations.

From then on I was elated whenever they didn’t feature the voice. I suspected it would return, and it did. It was now going to be one of the regulars.

The young lady’s name is Amy Nicholson.  I flipped the dial, or found another podcast, whenever I realized they’d invited her back. I was angry at the station, which at one time I supported with donations, for unleashing that voice on a whole region, when so many other reviewers would have done better. I was even angrier at Ms. Nicholson It was not only her voice: it was also what she did with it; the issue was the hip, nonchalant persona she oozed onto the airwaves.

I am not alone in my dislike. Film critic Nicholson has many critics on the station’s website. AlfaRomeo911 says, “Amy is an immediate reason to skip the show.” Shadow Lady says, “Another show made unlistenable by Amy Nicholson.” Terminatrix666 says, “Amy is dreadful. Please replace her with any of the others. When she’s on, I’m afraid I skip the entire show.” Webstuff says, “I just have to join in the chorus. I don’t mean to be mean but Amy has the perfect voice for a phone-sex worker. Please do us all a big favor: stop inflicting her on our ears and return her to her desk job for God’s sake please!” In response to these protests, the station features Ms. Nicholson more prominently than before, and on more programs.

So what does she sound like? First, what she’s not: the other panelists have meaty, engaging voices. They aren’t of course actors; what they do have is personality, three-dimensionality, and a soothing atmosphere of authority. Listening to them is like listening to brilliant dinner guests. When the show is over, you can’t wait for them to come back.

Amy, of the texting generation, talks very fast in a tone devoid of discernable emotion. She fails to fully appreciate she’s on the radio. Like many people nowadays, especially middle-class whites, she tends to upspeak, bending her statements into questions: “I like what low-budget horror movies do in terms of taking risks?” Or: “This film doesn’t just tap into nostalgia?” Or: “It’s not often in a teen movie that the female love interest gets to be recognized as her own person by the protagonist?” Upspeak is an irritant, conveying a kind of in-your-face lack of confidence as well as mistrust in the listener’s ability or willingness to listen (“You know what I mean?”) and even demanding attention in a subtly admonishing way with the unstated message “Are you still there? Do you get me? Do you feel me?” Besides the upspeak, Ms. Nicholson’s speech is plagued by a fussy, very Californian overemphasis on certain operative words: “Adam Sandler’s characters are so negative and sour, and yet he thinks that’s adorable.” “José Morales has this movie star presence.” “Rosamund Pike plays an annoyed wife better than about anyone else on the planet.” I don’t think anyone knows for sure how or where upspeak got its start, but it’s here to stay (at least for the next decades) and almost as common among young men as among young women. Alongside this habit, Nicholson often gets grandmotherly when singing a film’s praises; it’s a Julia Child/Valkyrie shrillness that grates, so that in one sentence she can go from Valley Girl to octogenarian. And not only that: she often finishes utterances with “vocal fry,” a low, growly Valley way of sounding sophisticated. As if that weren’t enough, she slurs and even mispronounces so many words that a good part of her speech becomes unintelligible. Amy Nicholson’s voice and delivery are a disaster. One listener, Peteski Archer, has put it well: “Amy, you’re awful.”

Radio voices talk from a space that is at once the idealized ether and the untidy den of the inner head. Those I know exclusively from the airwaves have never been burdened with faces or bodies: they are just smudges, analogous to mental images of abstractions like “over the last few weeks” or “in the eighteenth century.” I accept these voices as stand-ins for actual persons whom I never trouble to picture in a precise way. I’m satisfied that for me they will always be voices only. In fact, I need them to stay voices: they’re complete as they are.

One Saturday, back in the States after living in Spain for ten years, I turned on the car radio and heard a wise, comforting storyteller-voice that told an ethereal tale about a youth with terrible acne who wandered into the north woods and fell in love with the sight of a doe in the distance. Before that day I’d never heard of A Prairie Home Companion, but from then on I tuned in every week. I looked forward to the drive home from the gym on Saturday evenings when I could hear Garrison Keillor paint a picture of a forlorn, frozen, funny Minnesota town. I would have been less interested in the same material on the page. Half the charm was the voice’s music, the timing, the pauses, the baritone alternating with an occasional sententious falsetto, the cunningly crafted breaths, the downhome talk spiced up with New York style. It was also a voice that suggested twilight and farewells. It looked back to an era long-gone but cherished, and part of its genius lay in its always threatening to fade away, its continual and somber message to the audience that not only were the old days dead, but the artificially revived radio show was itself a precarious artifact forever teetering on the edge of extinction.

In the two decades since I’ve lived back in America I’ve never owned a television set. I’m content with my radio. Even with the advent of YouTube, I still get most of my facts, news, updates, and entertainment from disembodied voices. And when they leave, I often mourn them. I liked Canadian personality Barbara Budd  on my favorite station late at night. First the cheesy, tired jazz tune “Curried Soul,” iconic theme music since the ’60s, then Barbara’s matronly, mellifluous voice came on to introduce CBC interviews with the famous and the obscure, mostly the obscure, on topics ranging from the London Underground bombings to bald eagle sightings and fishing mishaps. It felt as if Barbara were talking to me, looking after me, watching over me, and so of course when she retired I felt betrayed and abandoned. She wasn’t looking out for my welfare after all.

Some voices don’t depart voluntarily. One such was NPR’s Neal Conan. I’ve never seen a picture of the man, but out of his voice I hazily, lazily construct a tall, lean, bearded, bespectacled man a bit past his prime. This urbane voice gently introduced me to MySpace; his was a voice of reason and restraint when we were attacked in 2001 and when we twice went to war and when Trayvon Martin’s death started the country soul-searching about racism and prejudice. I came to trust Conan’s warm blend of wit, polish, and aplomb. When Talk of the Nation was suddenly cancelled, it was a calamity in my quiet little world almost as shattering as the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban.

When I turn on NPR and hear Paula Poundstone , the oxytocin is released into my bloodstream and I’m experiencing something akin to euphoria. Amy Nicholson, on the other hand, is a third-grader squeaking out her practice sessions on a recorder. I loathe her voice so much that I almost get physically sick listening to it. But just as interesting as the voice itself is my reaction. I’m intrigued by my hatred; I want to learn more about it.

I live alone. Most of my voices emanate from the radio or the computer. I prefer these to be older than me: I need to be guided and entertained and protected by the droll, experienced brains and mouths of my elders. It is disturbing to hear so many junior voices born twenty years after me. I’m reminded of the passing of time and of other people’s successes, i.e., my own failures. I’m reminded that most of world is younger than me. I now know a few men and women in their nineties; I sometimes ask myself whom they have, among the living, to look up to. When they turn on their devices, they’re met with the same thriving post-collegiate faces I am, hear the voices of boys and girls talking politics and poetry and medicine and talking very smart, voices of their grandchildren’s or great-grandchildren’s generation. What can these children know? It must be common to die of loneliness in such a young world.

In Amy Nicholson’s youthful voice, I hear my own mortality.

Most of us dislike listening to the sound of our own taped voices; I didn’t realize this until late in life (I’d thought I was the only one). I was playing back the recording of a friend talking—to me he sounded like himself—when he suddenly cried out in pain. I felt satisfaction in realizing I was not alone. It was a moment of solidarity with the rest of the world. But I go further than others in that I dislike my own voice not just when it’s played back, but even when I hear it from inside me. It’s not the voice as much as the accent. Though from California, I was adopted (at four days old) by a Jewish couple, refugees from Nazi Germany, and used to speak with a heavy German accent, whereas now I speak with a light one. I don’t sound like wholesome American folks and hate my messed-up accent. True, Amy Nicholson sounds American, but I nonetheless hear much of myself in her: a lack of control, an inability to enunciate, an effeteness of presentation, a disparity between her fluid, smart prose style (she is a good writer) and her quick, mumbling voice (it’s as if she originally learned to talk in an abandoned house with a troubled single parent as model). When the other panelists opine, they do so as confident players in a larger group: there’s the lively, well-trained tenor of the show’s longtime host that plays off against the urbane, distinctively gay baritone of the animation expert that harmonizes with the wide-open, exuberant tenor of the show’s lone African-American voice that makes music with the affable, very white soccer-mom soprano of one of the other female regulars. Amy demolishes the mood of this madrigal ensemble like a baby screaming bloody murder in a theater’s front row.

In Amy Nicholson’s voice, I hear my own undeveloped voice.

Like a lot of adopted people, I searched for and reunited with my birth parents. After years of being “in reunion,” my birth mother died, and not long after that my birth father began to display signs of senile dementia. I tried to help with daily tasks like shopping and housework. I alerted his daughter, my biological half-sister Samantha, but at first she couldn’t accept that anything was wrong, and even gave him a big new dog. After a year she finally caught on that he was sick and helpless. She sold his house and moved him far away, to another state. She is now the sole inheritor of his estate. Samantha talks very fast and has a chaotic voice. Her favorite words are “Oh. My. God” and “totally.” In her presence, you have to plan carefully when to jump in, so you can get a word in edgewise—but it’s hard work and requires cunning, the kind you need when swatting a fly with your hands. I once spent Thanksgiving dinner with her. She talked incessantly and anyone could see how much she loved her beer. Her boyfriend loved his beer even more; he guzzled it down and held forth on baseball and football and motorcycles and NASCAR and his favorite topic, urban planning, as she peppered him with questions. Around him Samantha, though over forty, turned into a co-ed constantly in need of an assertive male to instruct her. She was every inch my biological half-sister: we had nothing in common. If I had said to her, “I am tired of life in the States and plan to hitchhike to Bolivia and join the Mennonites and father eleven children,” she would have looked at me untroubled with her candid, inscrutable face and asked, “Oh my God that’s totally awesome, when are you leaving?” If I had said, “Life’s not good and I wish to end it all; do you have any ideas on how I might do so?” she would have gazed at me in her chipper way, free of emotion and concern, gone on drinking, and inquired about the many available forms of suicide. Samantha’s voice is so much like Amy Nicholson that when I juxtapose the two, I hardly discern a difference. I have not heard from my bio half-sister in a year, while her ward, my birth father, languishes in his darkened room, ungroomed, unwilling to shower, deaf and half dead, looking not seventy-nine but ninety-nine.

In Amy Nicholson’s voice, I hear the silly, rejective voice of the sister I never got to know.

I wish I could say that understanding the origins of my allergy to Amy has made it possible to listen to her. But insights alone aren’t enough. At most, insights have allowed me to channel my hostility into writing down my thoughts here instead of leaving caustic comments on the show’s page. I do feel guilty about some of those comments. But what I wrote was the result of a sense of loss and betrayal: the old voices are going away, the sonorous public radio voices I grew up with are disappearing, and kids born in the ’80s and ’90s are taking over and becoming stars. This generational shift is inevitable and I should try to come to terms with it.

While reflecting on Amy’s oice and all that it does and doesn’t do, I’ve come to realize how unusual it is to hear a media or public-figure voice (even a drastically uptalking voice) that completely fails. And never in history have there been more voices or more choices. When I first moved to back to the U.S. from Spain, the Internet hadn’t yet taken off and people were still listening to shortwave radio. I struggled with my antenna and even attached a wire that I dangled out the window just so I could listen to Radio Exterior de España and the BBC World Service. Half the time the reception was so bad I had to give up. Now I not only listen to Radio Exterior but also regular Spanish radio and myriads of local Spanish stations. The way they read their news is urgent, bellicose—the authoritarian style I remember so well, though most of the voices have gotten younger. The World Service announcers read everything much more slowly, in their gracious, post-imperialist accents, though the names have become more exotic: the Francis Lyons are dying off, making way for a new era of Ritula Shahs and Razia Iqbals. What would meals be without them? Music won’t work: my racing-around thoughts won’t pause enough with music. I need to travel somewhere, hear stories; food needs to go down to the sound of a good voice telling me a story.

I’m ashamed to admit that my favorite voices come on late at night. I avoid the computer and the tablet and the smartphone and turn on my oldest radio, part of a dusty RCA stereo from the ’60s, the same one I listened to when I was little. The hour is too late for politics and debate or well-considered critiques; it’s past time for the rational and enlightened.  A host and his guests  are discussing UFOs and alien abductions and poltergeists and Ouija boards and sprites and leprechauns and raising the dead—even the embalmed dead—and truckers from all over America are calling from their lonely rides through the night to share about their ghosts and their close encounters and near-death experiences and miraculous cures. What better way to spend the time when no one is around, when all you can hear outside are the coyotes in the hills? I turn off the lamp; the ancient radio gives off its frail glow. Through venetian blinds, slatted moonlight floods a patch of bedroom near the window. The gun-show and smell-good plumber and Roto-Rooter commercials out of the way, it’s time for the host to introduce his guest and his topic—mindless stuff, you could argue. But it doesn’t matter. I manage to forget everything I found out in college and beyond, and let myself be seduced by those Middle American voices that so easily, so earnestly, spin story after story from the Outer Limits. I couldn’t imagine those voices in daylight: maybe the sun’s first rays would shrivel them up as if they were vampires. Here they come! I curl up with my chamomile tea and feel my pleasure chemicals percolate and circulate as night voices draw me in with the latest “report”: sonic booms and brilliant blue pie-plates are hovering in the darkness over Utah.
Vocal Fry

Radomir Luza: From the Crowded Chaos of His Closet

Eros of AngelsRadomir Vojtech Luza has a new collection out and it’s called Eros of Angels. A few months ago I was pleased to be present at the launch of this book, which is a big one: nearly four hundred pages and well over three hundred poems. Radomir writes like the Patron Saint of L.A. Poets, Charles Bukowski, who often wrote several poems a night while he drank beer. Radomir doesn’t go down with alcohol but up with caffeine, though in moderate amounts. He goes to a Coffee Bean or Starbucks, orders one coffee, and spends an entire day writing multiple poems. And the results of this way of working are often brilliant, and often fall flat. I wish Radomir had chosen me as editor or collaborator on this project, because then the book would have been much shorter and a little more polished. However, as I may have said before about Radomir’s work, it wouldn’t be a good idea to get it too polished, because then you risk taking away his voice and replacing it with something else.
One of my favorite poems in Eros of Angels is called “Full Moon Over Laguna Beach”; I’ll reproduce it here in full:

The medication cannot be missed
for even one day

The music vanishes
If it is not taken

Poetry unfocused
Vision unclear

Steps to the door of the castle
Replaced by ankles
Trees rotten on the inside

They tell me to get off of it
It will break me
Take my talent away

But I walk in the moonlight at Laguna Beach
Staring the future in the face
The past in the back

Words come like spaghetti
Passion like a green forest
And love like a cowboy

Medication leading to synonyms and subjects
Dancing under the full moon
Like wolf on tundra

Illness medicated must be
Insanity at bay
Lingering like salt water
Floating like ice cream on soda

Feet fueling faith
Frolicking fingers feeling like
Free form floating

Spirit and psychiatrist one

I just love this. A lot of Radomir’s poems are marred by heavy-handed rhyming and over-alliteration, but not this one. Not at all. I like the images a lot: a wolf in the tundra; words coming like spaghetti; a poet walking on the beach in the moonlight meditating on his medications! What really makes this stand out is its stance: he doesn’t ask to be free from his medications and embrace some kind of “natural high”; rather, this poem is like an ode to those medications, an acceptance of science and its role not just in keeping insanity at bay but stirring up and managing creativity. The last line is amazing.

There are a dozen or so poems in here that are really first-rate. What Radomir has done is, in essence, present us with a sketchbook. We choose what we like and leave the rest. It’s a very illuminating glimpse into the creative process.

He’s at his best when describing homelessness, being down and out, being institutionalized. How many of us can say we have had such experiences? It’s like we’re looking through a peep-hole at something we’re not supposed to see. In the poem “Me” he calls this the “crowded chaos of” his “closet.” Here it is in full:

I am beginning to like me
All commas and apostrophes
Mostly Shakespeare and Hemingway

Living through this rusted day
I am starting to appreciate me
All subjects and clauses

Mainly Dvorak and discipline
And the kind of lows only my highs know

I am loving myself more these days
Holding back the avalanche of acrid alliteration

Moving forward on the clear sky sanity of the promised city
Forgetting the vanquished vowel of vanity

I am speaking up more these days
Secrecy no longer a floating carp
But an avenue away from the
Crowded chaos of my closet

I enjoy the way he makes fun of his alliterative tendencies. He’s able to step away from inside himself and take an honest look at himself and at the same time like what he sees. Rereading this poem just now, I was thinking about one day in forty or fifty years when Radomir (and the rest of us) aren’t here anymore, anyone who finds this poem will find it very touching. Right now Radomir’s poems both thrive and suffer from being close to (associated with) his larger than life persona. When he’s no longer there, how will these poems fare without his voice to back them up? I think some of them will fare quite well, when people of the future will be able to read them without his big voice reciting them: these pieces—the best of them—do have quite a lot of life on the page, as all good poems should.

Three Books I Bought at AWP

I don’t like the Associated Writing Programs annual convention. You feel so small. It’s like trying to go on a date in a fluorescent-lit garage. It’s like walking around O’Hare Airport and brushing against the multitudes and not being recognized by anyone.  I don’t think too many other writers like it either, for the same reason. But these conventions, I guess, are a necessary evil.  I felt I had to go this year, because this event was held right here in LA and I could pick up some good books and go to some good talks. One of the highlights was seeing a tribute to John Rechy, the iconic gay novelist from the 1960s and ’70s. Very few people showed up! This was surprising. Maybe because he wrote most of his great books over forty years ago, the hot young things of today do not know him or care. He’s now 85 and looks and sounds great. Another highlight was hearing Alicia Ostriker read a prose piece (not sure if she’d call it a prose poem—I think it was) about childbirth in ’60s/early ’70s, which were still fairly unenlightened times. It was included in the anthology Far Out: Poems of the ’60s.

I bought three books (and a few journals I’ll discuss in another post). They are Swing State by Michael T. Fournier; I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life by Michael Czyzniejewski; and The End of Being Known by Michael Klein.

Swing State is a gripping tale of life in a contemporary New Hampshire small town. After about page 40 or 50 I couldn’t put it down. Fournier tells the story from the point of view of three young people; two are in high school and one is in his twenties, a vet from the war in Afghanistan. Each character’s narrative is told in a different way, with a distinctive voice. Zach is an overweight boy who lives in a dreamworld. He’s obsessed with and tormented by Dixon, a female bully fond of firecrackers. Roy occasionally encounters these two in the street and elsewhere, but doesn’t know them: he’s got enough problems of his own. He can barely get by. He has PTSD and shoots pool in his spare time. And he has nothing but spare time. All these characters are struggling and desperate. Fournier is even able to get the reader to sympathize with Dixon the bully during her monologues. We come to understand how she became a bully. She’s often beaten by her stepfather, just as Zach is often beaten by his single father. All the portraits are nuanced, subtle. And Swing State is an apt title because the fortunes of these three characters swing dramatically. Towards the middle, there’s hope. I wanted to believe things were getting better . . . I won’t give away how it all ends. Fournier’s plot is ingenious. Sometimes the book did have the tone and atmosphere of young adult fiction. It could probably have been marketed as such. But maybe not; maybe it’s too literary. I also would’ve liked to see a little more New Hampshire local color: descriptive passages, regional accents/colloquialisms. But read Swing State for the grim, masterfully constructed plot, and for Roy’s voice in particular:

Wasn’t sleeping. Heard noises. Weren’t there before. Or didn’t notice them. Maybe there before. But kept waking up. Sitting up in bed. Yelling. WHO’S THERE? Falling back asleep. Basic dream. Over and over. Standing with everyone. Heads into clouds. One after the other. Always woke up before it was his turn. But had to watch.

***

 

Michael Czyzniejewski’s I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life is an unusual collection of very short stories. The common theme: they are all, in one way or another, about breaking up, but never in a conventional way of typical romantic breakups. One of the most memorable pieces is the first, “A Change of Heart,” a perverse and deliciously sick version of O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi.” Czyzniejewski has an amazing imagination. Where do all these ideas come from? I’m curious about his process.

The short story is now a somewhat alien art to me. At one time, in the early ’90s, before I turned to poetry, nonfiction, criticism, and memoir, I did write short stories myself. The issue I have with them has to do with character. There’s a sketchiness, even a bloodlessness about most short story “characters.” This applies to the above-mentioned O. Henry story and Maupassant’s “The Necklace” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and Thomas Mann’s “Disorder and Early Sorrow” and Updike’s “Pigeon Feathers” and most other stories I can think of. And this is especially true of contemporary American work. The language, the situations, the atmosphere, the action, can all be brilliant; but when it comes to character, I always feel the reader is expected to, if you will, go potluck: supply his/her own characters (based on hazy mental stereotypes) to fill in what cannot be done in the confines of the story itself. Short story characters generally don’t have three-dimensionality. In Flannery O’Connor’s novels we also get fascinating characters—not in her stories, which may be admirable for other reasons (what we get are hints of potential characters). I recently read a whole issue of The Santa Monica Review. I saw good craft and ingenious turns of phrase. But no people with flesh on them, just the stock characters from the back of my mind that I recruited to bestow life on what I was reading.

Here I am going on a rant. In spite of the (for me) traditional constraints of the genre, the pieces in I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life are surprising, fun, sick, slick, diabolically clever, and very individual. Just listen to some of the titles: “Pregnant With Peanut Butter”; “The Last Time We Had Intercourse”; “You Had Me at Zoo”; “Night of the Scallop.”  I like “When the Heroes Came to Town” most because 1) it’s like a poem and 2) it’s about a whole community, thus skirting the whole issue of individual character. It’s about a team of “heroes” who mysteriously appear in town and fix everything, make everything “right,” and then just as mysteriously depart. He begins:

The consensus, among many of us, was that we were unimpressed. Before the heroes, things weren’t that bad, and, depending on whom you asked, they were going pretty well. The county had just paid to have the throughway resurfaced, our boys had made it to the state semis, and business boomed at the tire factory up by the mall, which in turn, made business boom at the mall as well. Everyone felt confident about the economy, the kids were getting into good colleges, and if a town with prettier women existed, we hadn’t been there. . . . Which is why we scratched our heads when these heroes showed up, their jaws, their capes, their stoicism all in tow.

It’s the “we” that makes this so memorable. It’s the voice of a community, and it has character, insofar as a whole community could be said to have a character, a spirt. And it proceeds like a poem, in a vaguely sinister way. It has both the analytical, doggedly prosy style of Kafka and yet the potential to be a narrative poem. This subtle, quiet first-person-plural story—along with several other of Czyzniejewski’s creations in this book—could and should show the way to the short story of the future, which might consciously shed the tired “miniature novel” mode and develop an aesthetic that combines the best qualities of the essay and the prose poem.

***

And speaking of prose poetry, that is what Michael Klein’s memoir/essay collection The End of Being Known really is. This is a stunningly beautiful book, one that I will be rereading, often. Is it a memoir? a collection of essays? It’s neither and both. Klein writes about incest and abuse and being gay in New York in the ’70s. Every sentence, every paragraph is a work of art. After a while I got tired of underling passages, because I was underlining almost the whole book.

Many readers might have a hard time with Klein’s leisurely pace and idiosyncratic wording. This book can’t be read like a conventional novel. He’s dismissive of chronology. And he’s an uncomfortable writer to read. Many of the things he writes about, particularly his incestuous relationships, are grim in the way I’ve always felt French New Wave and Italian neorealist movies are grim: no sweeping Hollywood music, not much music at all, just gritty interiors and drab street scenes and drab people trying to cope. Hollywood is where we might want to be; these gritty mid-century European films are where we actually are. And it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes savagely uncomfortable. Here’s an example of Klein’s prose, from “A Wedding in the Sky”:

I loved a man named Richard. I told my parents. I moved away from one house into another house. If the family is a cult, the journey out of Brooklyn was leaving the cult for love life. I knew I wasn’t going to get the love kit down in Brooklyn. Thomas Wolf said only the dead know Brooklyn.

I’ll let Klein speak for himself and end with “Once, My Brother.” Its first paragraph:

Once my brother was in a hospital. He walked around in a paper crown after the nervous breakdown. The crown was made by a group of fellow crazies who gave it to him because he used to let them circle around his bed at night and jerk off on him. The dirty light in the public ward made my brother look old. I didn’t have a lot of family around at that point to go with me to visit him in the hospital. I was relegated to going with a cousin of my stepfather’s, who was at least as crazy as my brother was. Her name was Miriam, and she took medication, the residue of which painted the corners of her mouth with white powder. Toothpaste or drug? I never knew for sure. I was going to the crazy house with a crazy person.

And the essay ends:

I came home one night with a stranger from the park and my brother stormed into my room while I was sleeping. He screamed into my face,  “You’re the devil. You’re the devil.” I told him to leave. He stormed down the stairs and left the building after shattering the plate glass in the front door and becoming the ex-mental patient, without a place to live. My brother had become the kind of New Yorker that has always lived here, but one that nobody knows. The kind of person (the future will make this happen more often) who pushes people in front of trains because they hear a voice that tells them to do that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marsha de la O and a New Translation of Rumi

I’ve been reading Marsha de la O’s new collection, Antidote for Night. De la O edits the literary journal Askew and lives and hosts readings in the California seaside town of Ventura. Her book, which won the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award for 2015, is published by BOA Editions.

Two strands come together in de la O’s work: one is edgy and urban, and the other ethereal and—for want of a better word—“moonlit.” The edgy, urban poems always come with a dollop of moonlight, and this gives them strength and depth. On the other hand, the moonlit and more delicate/pastoral pieces live in a realm inhabited by poets since ancient times.

“Antidote for Night” is a poem of the latter kind. And it is very consciously for night, not to night. Nighttime for de la O is not, in and of itself, some malady that she needs a remedy for. It is a time fraught with uncertainty, struggle, speculation; it is a time not to eradicate but to survive and maybe thrive in, when ideas come and go, some gentle, some monstrous. And like any conscientious artist, she is intent on using her nocturnal tossing and turning to feed her art. As a therapist once told me, try not to say “Oh no!” Instead, say “Oh boy!” In a sense her whole art is an antidote for night: she accepts the dark side and allows it to feed into her creative process. Here are some lines from the poem:

There’s the moon, in the high window, her wall-eye
glancing off me, and a few bobbing stars,
every tawdry shining thing.*            [*indentations in the text can’t be reproduced here]

I’ve identified Venus more times
than I can count as an agent for insomnia,
a broad sail that catches the wind and slides away.

This is elegant and understated. De la O never tries to hit the reader over the head with any thoughts or images or words that call too much attention to themselves. (I don’t think there’s one exclamation mark in the whole book!) But the most striking passage comes near the end, when the narrator is momentary startled: her bed-partner seems to stop breathing:

Not even halfway through the hours,
his fitful sleep, wheeze of a saber saw,
waves receding on a rocky shore,

breath whip-snaking down a chute, until his body
forgets—how still, how close the kingdom,
one stalled-gulp away,

and I jostle his dying shoulder—he recoils, yes,
rebels, back now, mouth full of silver,
What? he moans to darkness, what?

I can’t be sure, but this may well be (?) the best description of sleep apnea in literature. I love the way de la O says “how close the kingdom.” And “breath whip-snaking down a chute, / until his body forgets.” It’s all vivid, and at the same time so restrained.

This piece, like so many—if not all—of de la O’s poems, uses a lot of the vocabulary handed down from a well-worn tradition: night, heart, breast, breath, moon, moan, stars, wind, kingdom, silver, darkness. Anyone who’s been with me in workshops knows how I feel about the moon. When I was much younger and still writing short stories (or trying to write them), I disliked reading poems because they were always going on about the moon. That’s why I was excited to discover Auden, one of the first poets to embrace the twentieth century (of course he did slip the moon in on occasion). I liked Auden’s urban, industrial voice, which for me was a way into poetry. So when I come across the well-worn words (usually having a nocturnal or pastoral setting), I tune out a little. “Antidote for Night” is a very strong poem, but there are some in this book that don’t turn me on as much because they linger—for my taste—in a kind of pre-Industrial Revolution atmosphere.

What really works for me is when de la O weds the feminine pastels of poetry’s Ancien Régime with the scuzzy realities of contemporary Southern California. De la O now lives in Ventura but she’s from LA and, I believe, worked there as a teacher for many years. Like most big cities, Los Angeles is a heap of contrasts. There are well-educated, well-heeled whites with glass houses on stilts in the lush hills of South Pasadena; but living at the bottom of the hill are the less fortunate, usually not white, with bars on their windows, attack dogs in their yards, and walls sprayed with graffiti and gang symbols. As a teacher in the public schools, de la O negotiated her way through both worlds, and my favorite poem is one that beautifully braids the two; it’s called “Sanchez.” What a name. Like Smith. How many thousands of Sanchezes are out there? And the name is even more ordinary if we say it with an American accent. Sanchez. A teacher reminisces about a boy who used to be in her fourth-grade class; towards the end of the poem, we learn he died in a drive-by shooting years after he was her student. It begins:

I don’t recall how dark or gold his eyes were. I remember
a darkness that might
not have been iris, something that put me in mind of my dog,
his grateful look

and underneath, a well of grief. Maybe not his eyes, more
the way he bore pain
with dumbfounded dignity, his trouser leg going black with blood,
and Sanchez quiet

and far away as it ran freely down his leg, the fastest
blood in class.

It’s a lovely, understated description. There are the poetry words/expressions: darkness, iris, put me in mind of, well of grief, bore pain. But they serve a purpose. The title is “Sanchez”—connoting immigrants, underclass, danger, manual labor. But the poet’s voice is that of someone from a different socio-economic class. It’s also a feminine voice—nurturing, warm. And this joining of the two realities is what makes the poem: there’s white, female, relatively privileged teacher who narrates, and then there’s the brown, underprivileged, undeveloped but already tragic Sanchez, the subject of the poem. His bleeding wound is a harbinger of things to come. The nicest touch is when the narrator speaks of the boy’s jailed father:

he knew there was nothing
his father could do—
locked up at Rose Valley. I wanted to tell Sanchez only the best
ones go to prison there—

addicts prone to beauty set down in a backcountry clutch
of Quonset huts crouched
beneath their discourse with the wind. Rose Valley didn’t
bother with prison walls,

a six-foot cyclone fence was all there was, each link crying
go if you want to,
but nobody did.

This is magnificent. The sounds are magnificent. I love “only the best / ones go to prison there.” I love “prone to beauty.” The ambiguity and gentleness really work. It’s the gentleness of the voice and at the same time the roughness of the situation that’s unique. And, by the way, why call him by his last name? Not “Joe” or “Peter” or “Pedro”? Sanchez could well have been his nickname, but to call him this all through the piece! His last name makes him into a kind of statistic, a name on a roster, a name in some bureaucrat’s file, or on a mausoleum wall.

It’s poems like “Sanchez” that make this collection worthwhile: to study, to learn from, to show what the heightened language of poetry can accomplish with many unusual touches and never a false note.

***

I’ve also been reading Nesreen Akhtarkhavari and Anthony Lee’s translation of some of the Arabic poems of Rumi, the first time, I think, the Arabic poems have appeared in English. They were written some eight hundred years ago in a language and within a culture and religion light years away from the U.S.A. circa 2016. And yet he’s just about America’s most popular poet. I suspect this could be as much for the wisdom and humanity in the work as for its literary merits. This new book, Love Is My Savior, does not have as many memorable quotes and stories as the Rumi most of us are familiar with. But like that other side of him, this is work that the reader turns to for comfort, for healing, and to get in touch with mystical states.

I note the dictionary definition of mysticism:
1) belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender. 2) belief characterized by self-delusion or dreamy confusion of thought, especially when based on the assumption of occult qualities or mysterious agencies.

Interesting duality, if one can call it that. This isn’t a book to pick up the way one picks up Antidote for Night. This is a book to reach for the way Queen Victoria reached for In Memoriam, which she always kept on her bedside table after she was widowed. These are poems to read for knowledge, comfort, enlightenment, and also to transport the reader to a distant time and place.

This is also work with much moon in it, and on a literary level it doesn’t hold up as well as on a purely human and, yes, mystical level. I was struck by these lines:

If you’re not in love, life has passed you by.
The foundation of life is love’s sweet cry.
On the face of the Beloved holy
verses lie. Blessed be he who will read them.

Love just in the romantic sense? Or does it extend to family, friends, animals, country, God? I believe it does. One needs context to understand these verses and, to an extent, this is provided in the Preface, the translators tell us, “Rumi’s devotion to Shams-e Tabrizi . . . is the central theme of his poetry. Rumi expresses his mystical passions for Shams, his guide and teacher, in joyful lines as a symbol of his love for God. Rumi’s poems virtually pulsate with desire, longing, sensuality, and ecstatic celebration. His experiences of yearning, pain, lust, and joy flow out in timeless verse. These poetic visions move easily between dreams and real events, between internal states of luminosity and encounters with mundane external reality—always in a state of loving. . . . Rumi offers an interpretation of Islam that knows nothing but love. . . . The purpose of faith is to unite all human beings in their quest for the Beloved.”

I was also struck by these lines:

Without a mouth, I drank. With no soul,
I found bliss. With no head, I was proud. No feet,
I walked. Without a nose, I smelled perfume.
With no mind—suddenly—I understood.
Then, with no mouth, I laughed. No eyes, I cried.
God bless the place I found my beloved.

These are poems at once very easy to get through and hard to fully grasp, which makes Rumi at once the easiest and hardest poet, a rare distinction. The Essential Rumi may still be the best place for a novice to start: it has the imagery, the humor, the brilliant parables he is known for. These Arabic poems are more like ecstatic songs, in which the poet is freer, more drunk, if you will, and more sensual than in the better-known Persian texts.

No doubt all the yahoos hell-bent on banning Muslims from the U.S. have never heard of Rumi, let alone picked up one his books. But in our current climate of hate and division, what better sage to turn to than this gentle mystic who lived in medieval times but speaks with as much relevance as if he were still among us?