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?

The Poetry of Meg Day and Malachi Black

Liberty Park Salt Lake

I am in awe of Meg Day’s work and intellect. I first met her some time in 2014 when she featured at the poetry venue I host. I bought her book and didn’t really get a true sense of her poetry until I read Last Psalm at Sea Level over Christmas break, 2015, in one of the loveliest mountain retreats on earth. I hadn’t gotten much out of her reading: I’m not a great listener and her writing is so intricate it works much better on the page than the stage. Meg Day is a very approachable, down-to-earth artist, and I somehow don’t think I was prepared for the ambitiousness and complexity of her poems. It’s not that they’re difficult or obscure, but there’s so much going on in every sentence, in every word choice; these poems need your full attention. Day doesn’t write directly about how she feels or what’s happened; instead, she uses events and experiences as points of departure to weave an elaborate web of metaphors and conceits, and she does so with a vocabulary three times the size most of us can ever hope to amass.

I put down her book around Christmastime, and over the last several months the piece that has most stayed with me is “On My Way to Meet Her in Liberty Park Before the First Snow.” I’m not saying it’s the best, but for me it’s the most striking and typical. Here it is:

I walk tilted so as to let the violent wind anoint my head
or take it from me. Lord, you give me so little courage:

like a ship aimed seaboard, wavering in the surge, I come to you
listing & hungry for cert, rushing each gust’s inhale with the beams

of my legs, lurching in empty airstream toward some chance harbor
invisible behind that solid hill of green slurry. Why, as I tear

toward it, won’t you right me? A chalk wharf only lends refuge
with a lighthouse to baptize its mouth—& though this full season

wills all its ochre leaves to fold around me the grandest
of canyons (the wind bending its breath through the harmonica

of pines), no amber is bright enough to project the forecast
as shadow or shade. Is it water that carves the gully to gorge

to valley, or the sheer face of rock that bows, a deep grin,
& rips open at its seam to welcome the flood?

Knowing something of Day’s bio, I figured out this is the Liberty Park in Salt Lake City. The “her” in the title never returns in the body of this sonnet. Is it a friend? Probably much more than a friend. Meeting a lover in a lovely park in late fall or early winter: this is what we learn in the title. Day sets the stage, gives us the bare facts; there’s windy weather and anticipation. We never learn much more: the setup is introduced in the title and first lines, and off we go to the high seas. The wind is the poet’s antagonist: the poet is up against many headwinds, was we know from the previous forty pages of the book—sexual orientation, disability, and now romance, the biggest headwind of all. She invokes God, but who is this God exactly? Not John Donne’s, I think, but her own personal higher power (and the word “courage” is found in the Serenity Prayer).

Struggling on the high seas—this has been done in poems before; Day has many illustrious forebears. And it’s very vivid, the way we go from Liberty Park to the middle of the ocean. That’s how Day’s mind works. I am intrigued and baffled by her use of the word “cert.” Not sure why she has chosen it, but I think it has something to do with “certitude” the way Arnold used it in “Dover Beach”: “for the world . . . / Hath really neither joy nor love nor light / Nor certitude nor peace nor help for pain . . .” She is hungry for certitude—but  when one is in love, one does not have absolute certainty, and one has to say the Serenity Prayer many times a day. Instead of despairing the way Arnold does and turning exclusively to the beloved object (“ah, love, let us be true to one another”), she still clings to her concept of Lord. The “you” in the poem is not the lover, but God. He (She?) is somewhere beyond the “hill of green slurry” that the poet’s ship must surmount without sinking. But then we shift from day to night. The lighthouse “baptizes” the mouth of the chalk wharf. (Earlier in the poem we had the term “anoint”). The poet is searching for a haven in the storm. Thus the sonnet’s octave.

In the sestet, we are once again on land. The ochre of late fall leaves puts her in mind of the Grand Canyon, a natural phenomenon as awe-inspiring as the ocean in a storm. I confess to not getting these words: “no amber is bright enough to project the forecast / as shadow or shade.” When I see “forecast,” I’m once again believing we are in the tricky territory of romantic attachments and trying to predict the future. I note that in this sestet, there’s no more mention of God; everything’s more secular. Is Day thinking of the amber as a gem that casts light and predicts the future? As if to increase the new uncertainty opening up in the poem, we end with a question of a quasi-geological kind: “Is it water that carves the gully to gorge // to valley, or the sheer face of rock that bows, a deep grin, / and rips open at its seam to welcome the flood?” She’s now questioning, no certainty here. I take the water as the tumult and violence of the sonnet’s first eight lines, whereas, after the sonnet’s turn, the “sheer face of rock” bowing with a “deep grin” is the “higher power” or Lord whom the narrator is trusting to see her through life’s vicissitudes. A kind of Rock of Gibraltar.

As you can see, Meg Day’s work is exceedingly (some might say excessively) rich and layered. She doesn’t use drama or fanfare to ease us into her world: we have to be attentive to every detail, every nuance. She’s more like the Metaphysical Poets than any contemporary writer I’ve read. She doesn’t deal with primary or even secondary colors; she’s alighted on the tertiary colors and stays there. (Thus a poem “about” the San Francisco quake of 1989, after an accessible epigraph, begins with these lines: “The buttons were the hardest: // baby teeth folded tightly into piano silk . . .”) This is work to read and reread. Somehow, at a young age, Day understood what poetry is all about—not the poetry of quick Facebook postings and Twitter fandom, but real poetry as it’s been practiced since the time of Homer and Sappho. Clearly the future is in good hands.
*****************

Storm Toward Morning
And this applies to the work of Malachi Black as well. I hadn’t been familiar with him until he contacted me to do a reading from his collection Storm Toward Morning. What’s fascinating is the contrast between Black and Day. Malachi Black comes across as very formal and erudite, and a bit intimidating, and yet when I finally read his book (in the same snowed-in mountain retreat where I read Last Psalm at Sea Level), I found it less dense and easier to get into than Day’s work. And whereas Black invokes the Metaphysicals in epigraphs and so on, he doesn’t actually write like a modern Donne or Herbert. He’s digested their influence and seems to have moved on, at least in his manner; as far as his matter, he’s even more concerned with God’s presence in our lives than Day. When I interviewed him before his reading began, I asked him about favorite poets, and one of the names he mentioned was Ted Berrigan. I can’t remember if he said Plath too.

I also asked him about translations. He doesn’t much believe in them—too much gets lost. When he teaches, he only has English-language poets (as I recall) on the syllabus. In his own work, the music of language is paramount. Listen again to the book’s title: Storm Toward Morning.

At the heart of this collection is a suite of poems, known as a “crown of sonnets,” devotional lyrics that explore faith and doubt; it is titled “Quarantine.” Though some of these intense poems were published individually prior to the appearance of the book, they are really not meant to be separate entities and shouldn’t be discussed in isolation from one another. So I’ve chosen another poem, one that can stand more on its own without context, “Insomnia & So On.”

Fat bed, lick the black cat in my mouth
each morning. Unfasten all the bones

that make a head, and let me rest: unknown
among the oboe-throated geese gone south

to drop their down and sleep beside the out-
bound tides. Now there’s no nighttime I can own

that isn’t anxious as a phone
about to ring. Give me some doubt

on loan; give me a way to get away
from what I know. I pace until the sun

is in my window. I lie down. I’m a coal:
I smolder to a bloodshot glow. Each day

I die down in my bed of snow, undone
by my red mind and what it woke.

A Petrarchan sonnet in a loose iambic pentameter. Given that the subject is insomnia, how could it be strict iambs? The octave is about the urge for rest; the sestet is more about trying to escape. I was at first confused by “Give me some doubt / on loan.” One would think that doubt is the very thing one wouldn’t want to be plagued by, that doubting is the reason the poet is unable to get to sleep; certainty, on the other hand, would be therapeutic (Day, remember, was hungry “for cert”). But he goes on: “Give me a way to get away / from what I know.” And that clears it up: it is knowledge and certainty, being stuck with what and who one is, that keeps the would-be sleeper awake.

But is this a poem about sleeplessness? It is “Insomnia & So On.” Yes, it is ostensibly about the traditional literary insomniac, but this literary individual is also cursed by his vision and his genius. The rest of us can rest fine because we aren’t burdened with genius. He knows too much, sees too much. His status is that of a quixotic outsider.

There isn’t a line in this lean poem that is overwritten or unmemorable. Consider the first: “Fat bed, lick the black cat in my mouth.” To call a bed “fat.” To have the bed lick a black cat. To have the black cat in the narrator’s mouth. It’s all so new, so unusual, and yet Black (playing here with own name, too, I guess) has found a way to fit the new into the centuries-old form of the Petrarchan sonnet.

 

Like most poets, Day and Black are professors. When I met Black, I remember thinking, “I wish I were eighteen again so he could be my teacher.” I imagine that Black’s students might have an easier time with his poems than Day’s have with hers; his poems might be easier for them to use as models for their own early efforts. Black’s vision is brilliant, but he isn’t as far-out as Day: he deals with the primary and secondary colors that most of us encounter and process every day and night. Undoubtedly Day, being part of both the deaf and gay communities, has had to contend with obstacles most of us haven’t and has thus learned to hew her own fierce path in a jungle of words and voices. Hence the extreme individuality of her writing. Black’s lapidary and more dramatic style owes less to the Metaphysicals than to Sylvia Plath (at least to my mind). I suspect his poems will last. We are lucky to have both these new voices. As I said, the future looks good.

A Song of the Cliffs

This is an ambitious, unwieldy fragment from 1993, then 1997, then 2001, then 2005. Interestingly, I still haven’t given up on it! I decided to publish it here on my blog so it will live somewhere, until it gets into my story collection. The one person who enjoyed “A Song of the Cliffs” was my dear friend poet Ann Vaughan-Williams, who lives in London and is just a train-ride away from the cliffs at Beachy Head. Partly as a result of her encouraging words, I decided this torso should find a home online. If you’d like to make your own suggestions on how to rework/improve the suicide-note story, you’re welcome to leave a comment below…or perhaps you’ll be inspired to write your own story/suite of poems…

Beachy Head

Beachy Head, England
December, 2199

I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual.
—Jerzy Kosinski

 

A female soldier from the Third Persian War     4 Dec. 2199

The hills stop abruptly as if sliced by a colossal carving knife. The fields drop, gape down to sea and rock. All those who jumped before stand with me, as if to give me courage, as we look out at a lighthouse that hasn’t beaconed in decades.

 

A teacher

All I wanted was a dog, a little one. That would have made the difference. I can’t keep up. Moths are spontaneously generating out of old bags of tea in unclean cupboards. The loo stinks and the whole place stinks of loo, no matter how much cleaner I pour in. All day I’m demolishing moths, bills appear on my screen, journals appear on my screen that I no longer read, my toenails are out of control, the phone hasn’t rung in weeks, I never ever hear from Father Paul. But I keep your hair in a jar, it’s holy and soft. Thank goodness you let me trim your young hair the last time you came by!
I couldn’t fight for myself. I always believed there would’ve been hope for me back in the twentieth century, people were kinder then.

 

A man

Dear Keyon,

I thought I was getting better. I hardly have anyone to turn to. I couldn’t even get excited about a voyage to Europa and Callisto.  I can’t stand this anymore. When i think i hit bottom it just gets worse. There was someone in my life for such a long time, and she keeps trying to reconnect, even though she found someone else. No one gets how bad this loss has been.  I’ve tried everything to feel better and nothing is working. Everyone just goes about their business. And I’m expected to show up for work. I know you have your own load. Tonight for the first time I realized I can’t go on. This is the only way. I’ve walked for hours to these cliffs. I hope they are high enough. I am anxious to see the other side.

 

A bedlamite with a tin plate on his arm 13 Dec. 2199

ABOUT PHYSICAL TORTURE: I’ve had acid put on my feet while I slept, and mosquitoes on my back. I’ve had a rope put around my neck and was choked till I had rope burns. I have endured beatings, some severe. I’ve been dropped on my head onto concrete. My neck was gouged by two different people. My education was sabotaged. I was molested by a neighbor when I was seven years old. First time I was gassed with poison I was 17. Knowing I would be looking for a way out, and not telling me what it would do to me they hooked me on t.c.o. When I tried to quit they poisoned me severely. Now that I’m at the Cliffs I know I can escape. I was terrorized into a nervous breakdown. Then I was raped. I’ve been framed. I’ve been robbed. I’ve had three m.r.n’s sabotaged and systematically destroyed. I’ve been unlawfully sued. I’ve been turned into a freak. I’ve been blackmailed with manufactured evidence. I’ve been a victim of mass psychological oppression. I’ve been made to nearly freeze to death without a blanket 70 nights in a row. I’ve been cheated out of all the basic Fundamental Human Rights you take for granted, I swear on all that I hold as good and true that what is written is 100% the truth.

 

A man, 56

Friends:
I walked in my sleep again. The same bad dreams of swans on fire and Mother’s inflated feet. In the emergency room everyone was sleepwalking. “You have a deep bruise,” said the sleeping doctor. “Rest,” he said, and wandered off.
Lesions on the mid-face and trunk. A proliferation of bacteria. Drooping eyelid and other complications. Unilateral pain. Tingling. Burning. The infection of the brain by parasites spreading dementia and quick decline.
Paleness. Confusion. Bone pain. Worsening of the lesions. Crackles in the lung, unease, numbness. The malignancy. A pernicious hoarseness and drooling. The beginning of disfigurements. Blindness.
Dear friends, they say people always change their minds as they fall, but I don’t know. I would have gone to the Golden Gate Bridge in America if it was still intact, but this will have to do.
Bodhi

 

A mother and her mongoloid daughter 13-12-2199

A magpie flew into the house the day my little girl was born, so we brushed her face with a rabbit’s foot to keep away the Evil One. For good luck we stole a bone and set it on a windowsill.
It’s no use going on, for with the new M.E.R.C.Y. laws sooner or later they’ll find out about her and take her to one of the Dignity Camps. I’d rather we end peacefully, by the old lighthouse.
I’ll leave this note on the edge, tidy in a shoe.
Look! An orange balloon! When I was wee I thought that all the stars were balloons that had floated up to the sky.

 

A young lady

Dear Vihaan,
Congratulations on your marriage. I hope you and Lathan find happiness.
By the time you get this you will probably have heard. Maybe you’ll get the news in the middle of one of your parties. I have come to the Devil’s Chimney.  I see your face, Vihann, I see only you.
I love you,
Aleydis

 

 

An old-fashioned poet

The decimation of Tashkent
did not stir up much deep lament—
don’t folks in turbans count for less
than Nicky, Peter, Ted or Bess?
The loss of Rome from Fire and Quake
was harder to assimilate.
But in our compound all went well
far from city, bomb and Hell.
You flew to work, you flew back home,
pollution lurked outside a Dome.
You had a child with flaxen hair
by filling out a questionnaire.
Everyone was smart, magnetic
fast at math and so athletic.
If bombs went off up on the Moon
the pundits would be feuding soon
in smooth and cultivated tones
while you went on with tea and scones. . .

Well, such was my life until Doc said
“Son, you’re one of the Infected.”
They handcuffed, stripped and branded me,
there was no time to plan or flee.
They forced me into quarantine,
I felt like that sad Florentine
who went down deep into the Earth
a thousand years before my birth.
But at least he had a friendly guide,
I had no one on my side.
A sports arena and a cot—
this was my home, this my lot.
I hardly slept for all the noise,
families, kids, infernal toys
that bleeped and blipped the whole night long
and then at six that horrid gong!
But worse than all the idle chatter,
they never gave us reading matter.
So I began to lose my mind—
a thing, once lost, you rarely find.
They did more blood work, all agreed:
no harm in letting me go free,
but “freedom” meant a rooming-house
with bedbug, roach and sickly mouse.
I looked for work, clerks shook their heads—
some days I lived on milk and bread.
Since Eastern wars lurked in the dawn,
I thought the army’d need some pawns,
but at the Ministry of Discord
I was courteously ignored.
I sat in pubs for the Infected
where I never once connected.
The coup d’etat of ninety-three
at last got rid of Royalty—
now Good King Hal astutely rules
a large estate in lush Peru.
But funding’s gone for those in need,
it makes no odds how much you plead.
Flop-house days were never sweet
but they were sweeter than the street.
Then I thought of this white cliff
renowned in pop song and in riff,
I got to thinking of Release—
that “time” when everything will cease.
Preludes to the Afterlife
are played all thru our routine strife.
A taste of Death’s when you despond,
Death is watching others bond.
A hint of Death’s in notes you get
from Committees That Regret:
The Panel has decided
your petition is misguided. . .
I knew a priest once, Father Paul—
three years since he’s returned a call.
“I’m here to listen anytime”
he’d tell me while he drank his wine.
Very moody, very odd,
hardly ever mentioned God.
He loved to say “You’re not alone”
then loudly yawned into the phone.
Nature? Clouds? Where do we flit to
when a body’s work is through?
Is Death a general anesthetic
or wild and whistling and electric?
But light a flame, watch till it’s spent. . .
no one wonders where it “went.”

All we wish for, all we shun
from cradle to crematorium
is no match for that great Space
we always crave but can’t embrace
not in waking, not in dreaming
not till we fall to riptides screaming. . .

 

The acclaimed artist Steve “Trystan” Sweezey

Viveca, my love,
When you succumbed to plague, and our son with you, long ago, I grieved in a frenzy of self-pity but now I know it was better that you didn’t live to see this war and what has become of me.
It is most curious that my pushing of one button should be the cause of misery to so many millions.
I tailed the Uzbek jet. It was a passenger plane. Four hundred twenty-one people. I can’t write this properly, Viveca. I received the order to fire. I had to obey, I had no choice, otherwise it would have meant a court martial, do you see? I pressed the button. The airliner was hit, mortally, it took seven minutes until it slammed into a mountainside. And the thought of those seven minutes has occupied my life.
In a sanatorium after my breakdown, they encouraged me to draw. And so I took up painting, imagine, Viveca! And for years painting was to be my obsession. The war went on in Central Asia, but I was out of it forever. After my release I stayed in Mama’s little flat, in a room all to myself. I painted. I, the cause of all  this war, sat in a quiet room painting. I painted everything I had done. I painted panic, screams, above all screams, tried to get voices on canvas. Over and over. Giant canvases of screams, terrified eyes, blood, bedlam. The room filled up with these things, overflowed with them, soon I had to move out, to a bigger space in the suburbs. I painted like a madman, worked twenty hours a day, it poured out of me, I never abandoned my cabinful of sufferers, never. How much time passed like this? I do not know. But one day by chance my work was seen by someone. And then by another. And then by another. This third one owned a gallery, and bought six of my paintings. I was grateful for the money because I was running out of paint. He later offered me a show, and I accepted but all I wanted was to paint. The show led to other shows, I still had to get more horror out of me. Soon there were many shows, and many distractions, people began to disturb me. I got a cottage far out but even there they kept trying to see me. I needed to focus on my obsession. So I came to Sussex where they didn’t know me. I worked and worked until I collapsed.
I was institutionalized again. When I left the mental home, I had no more painting in me. And still I felt trapped in a cabin with all the innocents I had slaughtered. I could not paint away my guilt.
So I have come here to fall now. Fall as they did. This is my answer. What awaits me? Have I done penance enough for my crime? Wind blows mightily, all I need to do is stand on the edge and the wind will help me over. Viveca, my beloved!    –Steve

 

Interlude: A Closer Look at the Wreckage

Earlier
much earlier
rivers
bathed people quick ice-cold
above glaciers summer high
and miles   miles of wings     wide     long
where butterflies—

Correct: Man extracts the fang and tooth of nature
Incorrect: Cattle know no pain

Heat    rioting    rotting

Correct: The rain remembers green and coveted slopes
Correct: Valleys shape voices that shape valleys

The damage to light itself

Woods are pulled to desert
Words tremble on the verge

Correct: Ferries are waiting for evacuees to take them to the other side
Not Selected: Feral parrots flutter in the ruins of St. Paul’s

 

A young man with a suitcase contemplating the foam below

Dayesi,
With my Father—and at his expense, of course—I have traveled. How do I look? I’m filming this for you: so you will see the work you’ve done.
In Paris the boys are wearing Mars boots and flaunts and riding about on little jeepneys, just like you. In Cairo, a city of thirty million, a mess of mosques reaches up to a dirty sun: I left my father dozing in the Holiday Inn and wandered through reeking shantytowns for hours until I found a youth who would help me forget you for half a crown. Afterwards he asked for my watch and I told him to fudge off. In Delhi one of my father’s business friends took me to a bowling alley. All I could do was think of you and remember how graceful you are at anything athletic, so I tried to imitate you. All the Indians laughed at the English ladybug. We spent a week in the Cantonese countryside. While my father talked business in the icy lobby of the Hyatt I toured with a group by landrover. We came upon a massive fish market teeming with strong brown youths like you, but it wasn’t they who excited me, no, no, it was the smell: the whole place smelled powerfully of you. Life is for the young.
Dayesi, I was never good enough. When I started exercising, when I added hair, when I changed my name to be more hip for you—it didn’t matter, there was nothing I could do, there was nothing.
Lately a mother went over the edge with her deformed daughter in her arms. The innkeeper at the White Horse told me tourists were taking pictures of the dead child’s expressive face staring up as it was being devoured by crabs and insects and whatnot. Bodies stay down there for days. Scooping them up is no priority with all that’s gone wrong.
In Bangkok, after an interminable meal, I wandered thru the gardens of the Imperial. A cat began to follow me. I told it: “Don’t! I’m nothing, why are you following me? Dayesi longs for others.” So this mustn’t be called suicide, since you have already succeeded in demolishing what was left of me. But still that cat followed me. “Why are you following me?” I repeated. “I’m nothing. So I thank you, Dayesi, for helping me to know my place. I will leave this camera on the edge. Will it pick up the body break-up, do you think? This is for you, so enjoy. I’m going to dive. See me dive. Athletic!

 

A young seer

Beachy Head Dec. 21, 2199

Dear Mohammed,
When you went to your cave in the mountains, did you ever get lonely? My name is Alicja and I am thirteen, and all my life I have been your servant. At first when my Gift was discovered it was a blessing for my family, with my father and brothers on the dole, that was six years ago, when they found out that everything I said would come to pass really did come to pass. I was put on Channel One, and this caused people to be excited, and overnight all my family could live with enough good things. Only they stole my childhood. I told the world three years ago about Mt. Etna, I described the beings on Triton long before the astronomers found them, I predicted the fires of Teheran and Tashkent. But no one has listened to me when I greeted, no one has thought about what has been taken from me. The Wonder of Humankind is a quill who’s got no friends, who’s never had dolls or sat in a treehouse or sucked on popingel. So I often think of you when you went to your cave to pray and when God called you to be his prophet. Was it ever lonely? I have had one last vision, and this one I can’t bear.
I saw the earth overgrown with plants, I saw butterflies and dragonflies, deer and rabbits and toads. I saw Sun and great big clouds, I something of the world my great-great-great Grandpa remembers. But I saw no grownups or boys and girls. I saw the Houses of Parliament spread over a field covered in ferns and moss, a world of serpents and turtles and crawling things. The dogs, free of their masters, explored the crumbling theaters and empty stations. Sheep without shepherds wandered, wounded. Ornamental birds and ravens became the cities’ lords. The only human speech still uttered was what the oldest parrots could recall: Hello world! I’m Merlin! Wow! Hello world! Wow!
Twenty billion people are asking Where is Alicja? I think I don’t know where Alicja is, or where she will go. But I’ll leave this note on the edge.
I want you, who sit next to God and talk to Him, to ask Him to forgive me for what I’m about to do, perhaps He will understand and bring me to Him to console him if He mourns and greets and help Him turn His eyes to other Worlds.
Alicja

 

Father Paul on Christmas Eve, to his counselor

Dear Seraphina—

I know how hard you worked to help me heal.
If it hadn’t been for you I’d long ago have quit.
When you hear about me, don’t give up, please.
It’s just that even when I cover my ears
the news gets worse: in Asia a million corpses left to rot,
and Rome destroyed, while in Britain one man

wallows in years of couch introspection—one man
comes twice a week at five hundred crowns an hour to heal
a hurt inflicted long ago, clean out the rot
that spreads inside the mind and never quits,
even in sleep: ten years of insights that go in one ear
out the other. . . no, I won’t stay on just to please.

Perhaps you’ll miss the turmoil of my case, but—please—
(now it’s me who’s counseling you): I’m just one man,
there are more out there who need an ear,
who need a way to heal and can be healed
and, unlike me, they will not quit,
they will not waste your time by talking rot.

We built a Byzantine basilica with all my rot:
rich mosaics of dream, spires of lapsus linguae, pleasing
to the mind of an intellectual kind of man
who seeks a couch and shelter from the world, quits
the fray in search of understanding if not healing,
a soothing female voice and well-trained ears.

Did I progress or did we go in circles?—How my ears
freeze in this wind! An old-time lighthouse rots
among the rocks ahead: too late for it to heal,
they ought to knock it down, it’s no sight to please
the eye of any wholesome or morbid man
bent on falling off the edge of England. . . “Quitter!”,

I never felt a true Calling, now all I know to do is quit.
Two steps more and these ears
will hear just my own voice crying out to no man,
no Son of God—that’s all a myth, let’s face it, dead and rotten.
I’ll just drop into empty expanse—please,
let that be the long-sought healing.

I trust you won’t judge me for quitting this place, rotting
with war and pestilence—inside me I hear only pleas
to stop the pain, a pain no Son of Man can heal.

 

An aged gentleman

Dear Samaritan:
Indeed you were there when I needed you. Near the precipice your number stood out on the lone phone box with the message WE’RE ALWAYS THERE, NIGHT OR DAY. I phoned you, but my arguments were better than yours. Samaritan, you have not studied your history or your biology.
I am not going to recycle any of my arguments here. This world no longer seems like home to a civilized man who remembers the way it was. I am one hundred forty-one years old. I have lived enough. I cannot imagine what Earth will be like in a century from now for billions of the unborn.
Please do not condemn me. The work you do is worthwhile; you must get results with some. Your voice sounded so young. The voice of a generation I am out of touch with. I hope you will accept the enclosed donation and trust that it will do something to help save the lives that are meant to be saved.

 

Age and gender unknown

I’ve got no dreams left.
My brother made it, I failed.
I want death so much.

 

Another Interlude: At Sunset

We’re looking forward to a journey, crushed liver
twenty-seven broken ribs,
a journey
to that undiscovered country, bring us to the brim,
the fishermen like mice below and a lighthouse dead for decades.
Need someone to talk to? Day or night,
we’re always there, so choose LIFE and CALL US,
poor Tom shall lead thee,
within a foot of the extreme . . .

lungs collapsed, damaged spleen

We’re looking forward to a cliff
whose high and bending head looks fearfully, electrodes on the body showed
it suffered . . .
as day mulls into night
as hills and waters rock the gulls
to undreamed-of serenity,
a pair of running shoes points out to sea,
It’s only the edge of England
but it looks like the edge of the world

and there’s a note:
“I feel certain I’m going mad again.”

Neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain

Keep the porch light lit for those expected late,
wait for them by the window fingering curtains,
wait alone for the constable’s call
(Family often have an inkling says the coroner)

Light candles, buy carnations and take them to the edge.

“I feel I can’t go through another of those terrible times and I shan’t recover.
I know that I am spoiling your life.”

Carefully choose a friend, a rabbi, a priest, someone who is likely to listen.

We’d like you to call someone, now. You are not alone.
Crushed spleen, twenty-seven broken ribs.
“If anyone could have saved me it would have been you.
I don’t think two people could have been happier.”

Act your old age. This won’t hurt.

 

A woman 25 Dec 2199

I was just bored with everything & eight years of treatment did not ease my addiction in fact it got worse & I had to get away had no one left in London so I went off to France with the money I came into after Mum died & I opened a creperie in St. Malo I don’t know what I expected I thirsted for something but from the first day on first it was the movers imagine I’d moved into a quaint walk-up in the old quarter & I offered the two sweat-soaked Young Men refreshments when their work was finished one was Algerian the other Nigerian & I plopped down between the two & giggled and they grinned worked their hands under my skirt & I threw rubbers at them & they laughed and tossed them out & the Nigerian took me from behind the Algerian from the front & we did it there in the sitting room ah moments of insane wedlock & one of them said “This is the closest two men can get and not be ladybugs!” & when it was over I made them Turkish coffee oh that was my first day in St. Malo & I’d thought things would be different why didn’t the treatment cure me France is dark now with Arabian and African machos my first August I binged on eleven in one weekend an army corporal on leave from the Central Asian Wars a goateed tea importer from Brest a diver with the whitest teeth he was sixty but looked thirty-nine after just one procedure and there were more I can’t remember them all why didn’t the treatment work I couldn’t stand the emptiness I couldn’t but I won’t go on & on because listen whoever reads this listen it happened in the train one night he was wearing a Jo-burg Olympics T-shirt & shorts & sandals he had a criminal sort of face the other passengers were sleeping & he grabbed my hand & pulled down his pants “We’ll go to the loo” I whispered but he shook his head & we did it there among the sleepers it was degrading it was beautiful males have never loved me even though I’ve been with 2,000 or more I was no more than a release for them not all males are that way just the ones I want & that night I got home I couldn’t bear the solitude of my flat the relentless stillness & that night I got a message from the only person I still correspond with & she wrote that a priest we have both known for years Father Paul has leapt from the cliffs in Sussex I was stunned he would give such solid advice such a comfort she mentioned drink and possibly he’d tested positive but he was a well-liked man & seemed so sane I can’t understand what the world is going through & he wasn’t the first there was Bodhi Malone the media personality of course & so many others no one ever gave me a good reason to go on perhaps it was foolish of me to expect that from the treatment but what I want to tell you who are reading this and don’t give a damn is that the Cliffs began to call me as well I can’t put into words how I felt or words would make it small & so I got on the next train to Sussex I hurried because I heard they want to close off those Cliffs to the public forever too much death but I thought I’d try & the old barman in the pub looked at me perhaps he could sense something & we began to talk he even asked me my name & I thought how new really novel in this world a barman asking your name & I told him I lived in Brittany & he said lovely country there’s nothing like it left over here but I didn’t feel much like chatting yet I was moved by his humanity & he didn’t look at me the way most Males do & I almost forgot to feel alone but once again I heard the wind out there & I walked out of the pub without a word I ran towards the Cliffs & the grey sea was heaving & the rocks were waiting & what I heard as I stood out there was like a faint choir of all the jumpers before me & all the jumpers to come & I’m looking over the edge & the water & the dead lighthouse where the lights must’ve gone out half a century ago & I know I need to do it now now otherwise I won’t I can’t delay it I have always been courageous the rocks down there look miles away & suddenly I hear the voice of the barman from the pub it’s his aged voice like thunder he’s calling my name I don’t know why but at last someone is calling my name “Aviana! Aviana!” he’s shouting & running towards me at last I am hearing the sound of my name & it’s something more than a caress or a fondling it’s something more than a moment of insight in treatment or even the lights of meditation for in the end all that is solitary and pointless but this man is calling my name and it is a beautiful sound as I hover on the edge between the known world & the depths—

 

The Frenzy of Renown: A Book That Can Change Your Life

Belisarius

Justinian’s General Belisarius, now a blind beggar, recognized by one of his former soldiers

 

Yeats’s Byzantium is starting to look better every day. I say this as someone who has always fantasized about traveling back to medieval times, and specifically Constantinople circa 1100 A.D., but also as someone living in the celebrity-obsessed U.S.A. circa 2016 and looking back nostalgically to a time in history when pre-existing class conditions, and the absence of any notion of upward mobility, meant that people were confined to the caste where they were born with no fantasies about becoming “stars,” unless they were nobles or monarchs or maybe in the military or the church. The advent of the idea of a meritocracy, which began especially after the American and French revolutions, meant that anyone could aspire to anything. The process of democratization only accelerated in the 19th and 20th centuries, so that, when I was growing up, it was common to see TV people hovering over a newborn and exclaiming, “Just think, he could be president someday.”

At one time that’s what I wanted to be. First, mayor of San Francisco, then senator, then governor, and finally the White House. I was about twelve then. Later, when I started writing poetry and stories at fifteen, I believed I would be the most beloved author in history. I was sure that when I turned fifty, telegrams from all over the world would arrive to congratulate me, as they did for Thomas Mann when he turned fifty . . . All my life, at least since the age of twelve, I have been plagued by the wish for honor, but it is only now, in my mid fifties, that I am able to come to fully grasp, delve into, come to terms with, and attempt to heal the fantasy of fame. In my adult life, this preoccupation has often taken the form of not being able to accept my immediate reality/circumstances/situation—including work, relationships, creative life—with the knowledge that there were not thousands of approving onlookers and clapping hands. A life outside the limelight was not worth living. I suppose it’s a bit like the reverse of the 1990s film The Truman Show. Unless paparazzi were documenting my life, unless I was being talked about and praised, there was no point in going on. When I was twenty-one, I remember saying to a very wealthy young lady in New York, “Only celebrities matter.” She didn’t approve at all.

From the psychological point of view, the origin for this need is clear: I was given up for adoption at birth; I received little praise from my adoptive parents; I had few friends growing up. But even though I have understood my motivations for some time, what has recently helped me more is to have a greater awareness of the very concept of fame, recognition, and status.

Fortunately, over the past thirty years, some very good books have come out on this subject. Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety is a witty, smart, fun book. He has also produced a memorable documentary based on his book, available for anyone to watch on YouTube. Even more important, I think, is the massive tome The Frenzy of Renown by Leo Braudy, a professor at USC. It look him ten years to write the book, from the mid ’70s to the mid ‘80s. I have just finished it, and it felt like it took me ten years to read: it’s over 600 pages of small print, and no Kindle edition available. But it was abundantly worth the effort—or I should say, mostly, the pleasure. Until Braudy wrote The Frenzy of Renown, there had never been a history of fame compiled before. His main thesis, which I touched on in my first paragraph, is related to Botton’s, but of course predates it: the concept of fame has been around since the time of Alexander the Great and, especially, the Romans, but it was only in the 18th century, with the coming of liberté, egalité, fraternité, that ordinary people felt they could aspire to anything, be anyone. That was that time of the Enlightenment. Prior to that, for over a thousand years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Europe lived in what some have called the Age of Faith. The Church was dominant in ordinary people’s lives, with its teachings of piety, humility, and selflessness; bliss (or damnation) came in the Life to Come, whereas this life was all about tilling the soil, being virtuous, and knowing one’s place. From St. Augustine’s Confessions:

 

If I were given the choice of being universally admired, though mad or wholly wrong, or of being universally abused, though steadfast and utterly certain in possessing the truth, I see which I should choose. I would not wish the approving voice of another person to enhance my pleasure at the presence of something good in me. But I have to admit not only that admiration increases my pleasure, but that adverse criticism diminishes it. When this symptom of my wretched state disturbs me, self-justification worms its way into me, of a kind which you know, my God. But it makes me uncertain . . . You have not only commanded us to be continent, that is to restrain our love for certain things, but also to maintain justice, that is, the object on which to direct our love. Your will is that we should love not only you but also our neighbor . . .

 

Vanity, the need for praise, is a form of lust—not exactly how we define lust nowadays, but a refreshing concept to consider. And for a thousand years this sort of teaching held sway. In the late Middle Ages, with Dante and Petrarch, we have the beginnings of a more modern concept of honor, a revival of Roman ideas within a Christian framework. Men (for it was usually men) were given permission to find honor in this world without having to wait until the next. There was now nothing ungodly about striving for fame and praise. We don’t usually think of Dante as modern, but with him began the fusion of “the Christian emphasis on the afterlife with the classical urge for earthly fame and honor.” And Leo Braudy continues:

Dante [was] the first writer of the Middle Ages to write at length of himself and of the fame of his work, the poet most conscious of reputation and its meaning in the present and the future, the exile whom Ernest Hemingway seven hundred years later was to call (with self-exonerating glee) “the Florentine egotist.”

And he contrasts this with a description of Fame from Chaucer’s “House of Fame”:

On a dais sits Fame herself, who seems at once both tiny and tall, with as many eyes as birds have feathers and as many ears and tongues as beasts have hairs. Around her the Muses sing of Fame. On her shoulders stand Alexander and Hercules… Fame dispenses her favors with total arbitrariness and instructs her herald Eolus, the god of wind, to blow from the trumpet named Slander or the trumpet named Praise as the whim takes her.

A bleak view of fame, and Dante and Petrarch held different opinions on the matter, as  did Boccaccio and much later our very own Founding Fathers and Napoleon and Byron and Lincoln and P.T. Barnum and Hitler, all extremely self-conscious and ambitious self-promoters, who developed our own modern concept of fame, which has reached its apogee in the years after World War Two.

I say that The Frenzy of Renown can change your life because with its abundance of ideas, its thoroughness, and the relentless way Braudy has of pursuing his study through the ages, the reader is taken on a historical and sociological journey like no other, and given a complete picture of how we have arrived at our own contemporary notions of fame, honor, and recognition in 2016 A.D. I don’t doubt the book took ten years to write. The author’s patience, restraint, and erudition are extraordinary. I see why there is no Kindle edition (though there should be): this volume is not much in demand by casual readers because, of course, it takes time and dedication to get through, and in scope resembles something the Victorians might have envisioned and brought to completion.

I say that The Frenzy of Renown can change your life because, having come through this journey, you might never think of status and recognition the same way again. The book, in fact, is so important and so dense, that I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say it needs to be reread, preferably once every few years. It’s not just about fame. It’s about us—our history, our morals, our foibles, our lusts. And along the way the reader encounters many gems. Here are just a few:

Cicero was probably not the first to wake up at the top to realize that the hunger for recognition is rarely satisfied with any particular object or honor. In 60 B.C. he is clearly suffering from the consequences of his discovery of the hollowness of fame.

*

Caesar fell, arranging his toga so that even in death he would have control over his image.

*

Real appreciation, truly filling, truly satisfying, occurs only when the audience is God.

*

In a sense Francis of Assisi was the Crusades brought home. Instead of liberating the Holy Land, the places of Christ’s birth and ministry, the Franciscan rule brought the meaning of that life out of the cloister, out of the hands of glory-seeking crusaders, and into the world of the towns. His fame would be a fame of the spirit, capitalizing on the theater of earthly life in order to deny it.

*

So much Greek and Roman biography and autobiography was lost in the Middle Ages, not through some willful attempt to erase the past but because the individual details of someone’s life, what made him interesting or exemplary to Greeks and Romans, were less important to the monk copying ancient manuscripts than those timeless attributes that fit the pattern of a Christian soul.

*

[T]he increasingly popular French word for fame, renommée, literally “renamed,” indicates the potential separation of the writer from his royal, aristocratic, or merely wealthy patrons to achieve a status of his own.

*

Boswell’s elaborate self-examination makes him a prime modern case of those who believe that fame and recognition will satisfy their desires to be complete, “uniform,” and filled with character, only to discover that nothing is really sufficient to satisfy the hunger within.

*

The modern preoccupation with fame is rooted in the paradox that, as every advance in knowledge and every expansion of the world population seems to underline the insignificance of the individual, the ways to achieving personal recognition have grown correspondingly more numerous.

*

The more dependent on the audience’s approval the performer seems to be, the more the audience is monarchical itself, approving or disdaining in part to titillate itself with its own power.

*

[T]o be talked about [to be famous] is to be part of a story, and to be part of a story is to be at the mercy of the storytellers—the media and their audience. The famous person is thus not so much a person as a story about a person—which might be said about the social character of each one of us.

*

Secular failure was called sainthood in the Middle Ages.

*

Is it any longer possible to do one’s work, whatever it may be, without periodically opening the most impersonal and high-minded ideal only to discover inside the grinning skull of ambition? The fear that something is done not for itself but for what it may mean to others is implanted in our brains by every glimpse of advertising, publicity, and news trumpeting the constant need to slather product with hype, face with makeup, and event with interpretation.

*

St. Augustine’s paradox: After all the sins have been purged, only the sin of pride remains. And after the sin of pride has been purged, the last and most difficult sin to purge is the pride in being humble, the desire that an audience witness (and applaud) your contempt for it.

So we’re back to Augustine, which is fitting. At no point in Braudy’s book does he suggest humanity was better off in Augustine’s time, or Charlemagne’s time, or Justinian’s. And yet sometimes I do fantasize about stepping out of my meritocracy, my fame-obsessed America of 2016 A.D. and living in a simpler time. Archie Bunker’s song (remember?):

And you knew where you were then

Of course, you don’t have to go far back in time to experience the worst aspects of the Middle Ages. Imagine North Korea today, about the worst place one can conceive of. In this society, no one needs to worry about becoming a celebrity. In this kind of society, there is by definition only one celebrity. In a totalitarian state, Braudy writes, “the leader absorbs and thereby replaces every individual desire for recognition.” But, perhaps romantically, I tend to think of authoritarian Constantinople circa 1100 A.D. as a lot more benign than North Korea. I know they had plagues and short lifespans and they were intolerant in ways we can’t begin to comprehend. And I know the world smelled a lot worse than it does today.

But I can’t help believing something was lost when the Age of Faith gave way to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, when Augustine was forgotten and Augustus once again triumphed. We’re not living in “love thy neighbor” times—well, most of us aren’t. Faith versus Humanism. For me personally, for whom the urge for recognition has been damaging for close to forty years (and as if that weren’t bad enough, I attended high school with a conceited fellow who became a renowned novelist, and I apparently graduated in the same college class as our current head of state), Augustine’s words still have resonance. His words give me hope. Humanism might just be a dead end, bequeathing us the likes of P.T. Barnum, Paris Hilton, Donald Trump, and Bill Cosby.

Thirty Years of Carolyn Kizer’s YIN

Hypatia Death

Death of Hypatia

This year, 2015, shouldn’t come to a close without some mention of the thirtieth anniversary of Carolyn Kizer’s Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her book Yin (published in 1984).

I was lucky enough to see and hear Kizer read from her work. I didn’t realize until recently that she had died a year or two ago, from Alzheimer’s, in a nursing home. That time I saw her at a writing retreat in Southern California, I was sitting in the audience and she was on a panel about to speak. The event hadn’t started yet when I noticed her focusing on my T-shirt. It had a picture of George W. Bush and it read HE’S NOT MY PRESIDENT. She liked the shirt and mentioned something about her son having one like it (or needing to tell him about it). Well, that was my only direct contact with her. Later that day, she read before a much larger audience, and Gerald Stern was upset by how “mean” one of her poems was.

I didn’t pick her up and read her until this year. Yin is a strange collection. One of the strangest poems is “Running Away From Home,” a lengthy “Howl”-like outpouring comprised of neat quatrains that begins:

 

Most people from Idaho are crazed rednecks

Grown stunted in ugly shadows of brick spires,

Corrupted by fat priests in puberty,

High from the dry altitudes of Catholic towns.

 

Spooked by plaster madonnas, switched by sadistic nuns,

Given sex instruction by dirty old men in skirts,

Recoiling from flesh-colored calendars, bloody goods,

Still we run off at the mouth, we keep on running.

 

It is a big, bold, bald declaration of freedom; it is admirable and provocative, but I have trouble loving it the same way I love the first two poems in the book, especially the first one, “Dixit Insipiens,” so relevant for our times.

The title references Psalm 14, which begins, “The fool has said (dixit insipiens) in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ / All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; / There is none who does any good.” It is a poem about Western civilization’s rejection of faith over the centuries; the cause that the West rejects is now fanatically taken up by those of the East who cry out for armed jihad. The poem contrasts the sophistication of the intelligentsia with the crude, rugged faith of the European masses. God was “swept out” by the enlightened few; science took God’s place. But then, centuries later, the East, which had never lost God, came at the West armed to the teeth with weapons and holy books.

The poem begins:

At first, it was only a trickle

Of eminent men, with their astrolabes and armillae,

Who passed cautious notes to each other, obscurely worded.

Of course, the terrible news leaked out

And the peasants were agitated.

Moans arose from the windowless hovels.

Men, hardly human, shouldering crude farm implements,

Gathered in knots along the roads and raved:

Storm the great houses! Smash the laboratory,

The retorts, the lenses—instruments of Satan.

But the minions of the manors

Lashed them back from the bronze gates,

Back to the foetid darkness, where they scoured their knees,

Praying for us.

 

(“Us” here means the nonbelievers.)

I love the witty ominousness of this voice; and, even more, I love the way the poem gets at truth without a pretense of historical accuracy. Were scientists and intellectuals ever the objects of mass scorn and uprisings in the way this poem describes? The only episode I can think of is the famous death of Hypatia in fifth century Alexandria, depicted beautifully in the film Agora. She represented science and the Hellenistic tradition. As Christianity took over the later Roman Empire, she became isolated, and eventually died at the hands of the Christian mob. Perhaps Kizer had Hypatia in mind when she wrote this poem. In any event, the episode was symbolic of the way that, for the next thousand years, faith reigned unquestionably supreme.

The poem continues, we seem to go from the age of astrolabes to the Enlightenment:

 

The magnificent correspondence between Madame A.

And the more eminent, though less notorious,

Monsieur B. reveals a breathtaking indifference

To you: not even the target of a bilious epigram.

They move intently towards their prime concern:

Which voice, this time, will loose

Its thunderbolt? The straggling troops of revolution

Must be rallied yet again.

In perfect confidence of their powers,

As if they, who after all are people of flesh and bone,

Despite their attainments, had replaced you;

Not by storming the throne-room, nor by those manifestos

They so supremely compose.

You were swept out, and they swept in, that’s all.

 

Here, “you” is introduced and refers to God. This stanza and the rest of the poem are now addressed to the Deity. (Kizer is not afraid of using sentence fragments. For example, the lines that begin with “In perfect confidence.”) This reads like a kind of bloodless palace coup. God is out; nonbelievers are in. It happens quietly, insidiously. And it happens without naming Rousseau or Marx or Nietzsche. The poem recreates the subtle evolution of thought and opinion in an organic, unpedantic way: no dates, no proper nouns (except Satan), no celebrities except the shadowy Madame A. and Monsieur B. Notice they are French: all this Godless thinking is somehow wittily connected with the French, the City of Light, and the lofty Encyclopédistes.

In the last act of the poem, we go from the Enlightenment and Evolution to the late twentieth century of violent religious fanaticism:

Out there, on the edge of the familiar world,

Are knots of men, burned dark as our own peasants

Used to be, but better armed, we know;

We armed them.

From time to time they bang their heads on the sand

And shout, unintelligibly, of you.

Their version of you, of course, quite different

From the blandness you metamorphosed into

Over the centuries, progressively edited.

Holy war! Can they be in earnest?

After all, this isn’t the fourteenth century.

Is it the uneasiness we feel, or the remnants

Of ancestral superstition, which makes us ask ourselves,

Can this be your planned revenge?

 

How can you be vengeful when you don’t exist?

If only the weight of centuries

Wasn’t on your side.

If only unbelief was more like faith.

 

The angry ancient and Medieval Christian peasantry have turned into Muslims, with a starker, wilder religiosity than Christendom ever possessed. I initially questioned the phrase “but better armed.” Weren’t the Crusaders well-armed? Weren’t the armies for Fernando and Isabel la Católica very well-armed? Or the armies of Charles V, when Spain brutalized the Low Countries (Christians killing Christians)? But Kizer is referring to the peasantry of the first two stanzas and their “crude farm implements” and is, as we have seen, not concerned with literal history: her poem is getting at larger truths.

Kizer quickly adds, “We armed them.” It’s remarkable that this poem was written in the early 1980s, long before it became tragically clear how Osama Bin Laden got his start! (Of course, by then the Iranian Revolution had given the West its first major taste of Muslim fundamentalism.)

Religious fervor has passed from West to East, and it hits and hurts with its “well planned revenge.” Now in 2015, the religious feeling has gradually declined in the West as a whole; the very notable exception to this rule would be the good old U.S.A., where God is still alive and well, more so, probably, than when Kizer wrote her poem. If by the West we mean Europe and the U.S. coasts, then Kizer’s vision remains valid.

If only unbelief was more like faith.

 

The poet flouts strict grammar again here: the fussy, more correct subjunctive “were” in this last sentence is replaced by the more colloquial “was.”

And the “weight of centuries”: this poem beautifully illustrates that weight in just a page and a half. Now, instead of Crusaders, we are confronted by violent jihadists. Our sophisticated unbelief, the unbelief of Madame A. and Monsieur B. is a very brittle thing confined to an ivory tower constantly threatened by the vengeful masses.

Thirty years since Kizer’s Pulitzer Prize: she wrote a poem in the early ‘80s that could have been written today. And many like it are being written (by bad poets posting their hasty thoughts on Facebook and Twitter), but few of them come close to her wit, her sophistication, her prescience, her keen sense of irony and the deep currents of history and belief.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary Trautmann: July 26, 1920-Oct. 12, 2015

Swimming into CloudsIMG_0732

Mary Winfrey Trautmann was born in Des Moines in 1920, and raised in Indianapolis. Her father was the theologian Frederick Kershner, who wrote many books including PIONEERS OF CHRISTIAN THOUGHT, a great book I read a few years ago. She began writing poetry in the ’30s and helped her father by reading to him, since he lost his eyesight in late middle age. She got married, moved to Whittier, California, and had three daughters. She lived in the same house from about 1955 until earlier this year. Mary was active in the women’s movement in the ’70s. She lost a teenage daughter to leukemia and wrote a memoir about it, called THE ABSENCE OF THE DEAD IS THEIR WAY OF APPEARING. In 1979 she lost her husband in a plane crash in Chicago. Another daughter is mentally ill and has been institutionalized for over thirty years. In the early 1980s Mary helped found a publishing house called Cleis Press, which just two years ago came out with her book of selected poems, called SWIMMING INTO CLOUDS. Her third daughter Julie Trautmann lives in Seattle and is a speech therapist in a hospital.

Over the past twenty years, ever since I first arrived in Los Angeles, no one has been a better friend to me than Mary. She was wise, funny, supportive, a good listener–she was a patient, dear friend. I had been writing mediocre short stories until I first met her in 1995 at a writer’s group in Pasadena. She was one of the first people who inspired me to start writing poems seriously at the ripe age of thirty-five (I had dabbled a bit as a teenager and in my early twenties). She was always so funny and smart and kind-hearted and giving. She’d experienced so much loss in her life but she didn’t dwell on it, she bore it lightly. Though very talented, she was never really comfortable promoting herself and hunting for a long list of publication credits and renown. I admired her for this. I admired her for her strength and modesty.

I learned so much from Mary: how to craft a free-verse poem; how to edit my own prose, watching out for awkwardness and unnecessary repetitions; how to keep prose elegant and muscular. In the realm of living, I learned from her about fortitude in the face of adversity. She was not plagued by status anxiety. It so happened that the author Kurt Vonnegut went to her school at the same time she did, was in a class below hers at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis.  I asked her if his world renown etc. ever got her down, and she answered, “It would, if I let it.” I’ll never forget that. (I myself went to high school with a fellow now sort of world renowned, and later went to college with a world-mythical figure now living in Washington DC in a big white house–and so I try to keep her attitude.)

Where is Mary now? I know she is with her daughter Carol and her husband Paul, and with her parents and her beloved brother Fred and sister Bea . . . How do I know? Can anyone know something like this? Probably not. From the last pages of Thomas Mann’s BUDDENBROOKS, here’s some of the dialogue. The decline and fall of a great North German dynasty is now complete. Some ladies, left behind, remember all who have passed on:

“Hanno, little Hanno,” went on Frau Permaneder, the tears flowing down over her soft faded cheeks. “Tom, Father, Grandfather, and all the rest! Where are they? We shall see them no more. Oh, it is so sad, so hard!”

“There will be a reunion,” said Friederike Buddenbrook. She folded her hands in her lap, cast down her eyes, and put her nose in the air.

“Yes–they say so.–Oh, there are times, Friedericke, when that is no consolation, God forgive me! When one begins to doubt–doubt justice and goodness–and everything. Life crushes so much in us, it destroys so many of our beliefs–A reunion–if that were so–”

But now Sesemi Weichbrodt stood up, as tall as ever she could. She stood on tip-toe, rapped on the table; the cap shook on her old head.

“It is so!” she said, with her whole strength; and looked at them all with a challenge in her eyes.

She stood there, a victor in the good fight which all her life she had waged against the assaults of Reason: humpbacked, tiny, quivering with the strength of her convictions, a little prophetess, admonishing and inspired.

 

Here is a poem from Mary’s early, formal phase:

To One Now Blind

What you have lost is not so great a losing

As many think, or say in smothered phrase:

The green and yellow-throated hills, refusing

Winter’s black stare; the violence of day’s

Familiar whiteness; count of birds combining

Their narrow wings in patterns on the wall;

The curving cone; the languor of declining

Wet birches; rainbows; fire—are all, are all

Which, by this subtle cheating, have been hid.

How shall you lack the pageantry of these?

Color and shape and thought still pyramid

From undiscovered sources; still they please

And, one world gone, the galaxies arise

To spires of light behind your darkened eyes.

 

And here is a later poem:

shadow river

once

            the river was young

as we were

            graced with small summer islands

that entice   lead us toward the shallows’

lucent brimming pools

 

each island different   though every

windward shore churns with rapids

            wild shudders and foam

            a ragged din

            that swings fear up the throat   drives us

headlong past the tumult

 

to stagnant shoals

soft as fresh ferns

to long hours that grow feet sunk in mud

fingers

            straining after driftwood

            shells   crawdads   whatever

the river sends

 

show-offs we put together dams and pyramids

skip rocks until the river’s skin

is stamped with silver rings

or wade   beguiled

            among the lazy fish

            torn bits of honeysuckle buds

 

we claim it all – islands   the brindled crescent beaches

the mud and gnats –

the river   too   is ours

until

            one golden buoyant August afternoon

traps

an unknown child on the windward islands

            face down in the reeds

            fishlike body striped

            bluegreen from algae

the tawny hair a net for water spiders

 

some mistake   we think   some sort

            of knife change in the weather

            bringing him here

            without heat or breath

a child like us

but not like us

 

tears

singeing our cheeks

we cut him loose

and let the rapids fling him near the town

 

then

run   go

give up forever

            the sunlit pools   the dams

            the honeysuckle islands

abandon summer

            to the waves

            of this hypocrite river

we never mastered or owned or understood 

*

NOTE:  On November 8, following S.A. Griffin’s reading at the Second Sunday Poetry Series (3433 Cahuenga Blvd West, 5 pm) I will read a few poems from Mary’s books, SWIMMING INTO CLOUDS (available from Cleis Press and Amazon); THE ABSENCE OF THE DEAD IS THEIR WAY OF APPEARING (on Amazon); and KEEPING CAROL (which can be purchased by writing to me: alex m frankel 2000 at att.net )