Suzanne Lummis: Our Lady of Beneficent Talent

Lummis Open 24 Hours Over the past thirty or forty years, one of the most popular and visible people in the Los Angeles spoken-word scene has been Suzanne Lummis. She is admired as a poet, an actress, a performer, a festival organizer, a poetry promoter, and a skilled promoter of herself. Last year Lynx House Press published her most recent collection, Open 24 Hours.

I’ve got to confess, right off the bat, that most of my interactions with Lummis have not been positive. For example, I once approached her at an event to ask if she might like to read at the series I host. She asked if I paid. I told her I couldn’t.  She then informed me that, due to her popularity, she only did readings for a fee. “Wherever I perform, it’s standing room only!” she declared. Recently on Facebook, when asked why more writers of color were not included in an anthology she’d put together, she began her defense by saying, “No one knows the L.A. poetry scene better than I do.”

And, speaking of confessions: a priest friend of mine always tells me, based on what he hears from me about the L.A. poetry scene, “It just sounds like a bunch of people shouting Look At Me, Look At Me!” On the other hand, I doubt people can get very far in the arts, or in any field for that matter, without vigorously and tirelessly promoting themselves the way Lummis does.

I have heard her read aloud. She is a good performer and always gets the laughs she’s looking for. So I was curious to find out how her work holds up on the page. Open 24 Hours has been my first exposure to Lummis as a writer.

Last week I read the whole book, and just now I’ve opened to a random page, to a piece called “Eurydice Finally Finds a Working Phone Booth.” After a long quote used as an epigraph (having to do with a massive L.A. sardine die-off), it begins:

I’ve got bad news

and worse news: first, I’m in hell

and, secondly, I’m calling collect. Come get me.

And hurry up, will you, I don’t like the weather—

muggy most days. And this seaside town

that maybe served once as an annex to heaven,

is shot, well, to hell I guess, the wharf eaten,

strewn with threadbare nets, stalls

where fishermen displayed the open-eyed shine

of the day’s catch just rotted sticks now,

the storefronts turning to salt then

to thick and itchy air. Wow—

what was that? Can you believe all those words

jumped from my mouth? Don’t know

how I did it . . .

This material is nice, and it’s entertaining, kind of funny stuff. If read aloud by Lummis herself, I’m sure it does well at spoken-word events. One of the “schools” Lummis belongs to is the Stand-up Poetry school; as a performance piece, it would work. She has a good voice: it’s feminine, well-trained, expressive, just the right volume; and her appearance usually includes her trademark red or black beret, jet black dyed hair, dark clothes, and a deathly pale face, which brings me to the other school she belongs to, that of the “poem noir.” And what is the poem noir? There are two ways to define it. In a broad sense, as explained recently in a lecture given by British scholar John Challis, the poem noir takes characteristics not just from the famous ‘40s and ‘50s U.S. movies commonly labeled as noir, but much later ones such as Taxi Driver and more recent ones still, such as the series Breaking Bad. What do they all share? Here are my lecture notes on the films:

“Ordinary people get into extraordinary situations in which they break the law . . . Complex studies of the human condition . . . we are in the age of the film noir: hopelessness, sense of speculation . . . anxiety, paranoia, obsession, pessimism, death.”

And Challis goes on to cite some poems whose characteristics are (again from my notes): “running through the city at night . . . cemeteries . . . hard-boiled tone of voice . . . seen-it-all-before tone of voice . . . wit . . . unresolved endings . . . drinking & smoking . . . black and white: shadows . . . descent into underworld . . . hellish urban environment . . . tattoo parlors, clubs, etc. Hopelessness, despair . . . being trapped . . . ALSO: bars, trench coats, booze, cigarettes, diners.” Interestingly, he states that the poets he mentions (all males with international reputations) are not aiming to actually write noir poems and might even be unaware of doing so.

As far as Lummis’s own, more specific definition, I have not had a chance to read her essay in which she spells out her ideas (there’s a paywall for anyone wishing to read it, or the journal it appeared in can only be ordered). What I gather from her poems, however, is that many of the above characteristics apply to her work too, with the crucial difference being the tone Lummis is going for: she works and thrives in a noir atmosphere, yes, but we’re not supposed to take it seriously. There is no hopelessness or anxiety in her work, at least not on the surface. There’s not much crime; there are no tortured souls. On the other hand, she does give us an atmosphere, a setting reminiscent of the film noir world: Los Angeles, night, diners, rain, tenements, people down-and-out, definitely a “seen-it-all-before” tone of voice, a “hellish” city of night. I put that word in quotes because it’s not of course really hell. Films noirs took themselves very, very seriously. What Lummis gives us is, essentially, high camp.

I note from Challis’s lecture the phrase “descent to the underworld” and this applies perfectly to the poem I quoted above, which is all about someone stuck in hell. It ends:

Get me outta here! And this time,

Orp, we’ll make it. Because at this dump,

believe me, you will not look back.

Oh, but one good thing—no flames here,

no brimstone, like the Fundamentalists believe.

Although when I wade thigh deep

in that infected, oil-glossy tide, it kinda burns.

She calls to Orpheus to get her out. Yes, it’s hellish here all right, but the tone is worlds away from the films noirs of old, or even the deadly serious poems which Challis quotes from (one of them is by Paul Maldoon, I believe). Lummis inhabits the world of noir, but she doesn’t want us—on the surface at least—to take her seriously. Under the surface, I believe she does have a very serious intent (doesn’t all comedy?). “When things are really hellish, all we can do is laugh”—that’s what the poems communicate. The subtitle of her poem noir essay is “Too Dark to Be Depressed.”

Lummis as stand-up and “noir lite” poet—she succeeds in being both. Her poems are the edgy contemporary artifacts she wants them to be. How good are they, though? Hold on! What is “good”?!

Lummis does not try to be anything like Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens. That’s not her intention. She is not a “failed Wallace Stevens.” She is very consciously doing something different. We can’t fault her for not being Frost-like or Stevens-like any more than we can fault Andy Warhol for not being more Rembrandt-like. We judge Warhol’s Campbell soup and Marilyn Monroe and Mao prints as “important” and “successful” by a different set of criteria than we would a Rembrandt.

Having said that, it does seem that Lummis’s poems work better when read out loud, and especially when read out loud by Lummis, than they do on the page (she even warns us in subtitles, just half-jokingly, that some poems do not “work on page”). She has her good voice, her good beret, her pallid face, her very black hair, but on the printed page? In recent comments on KPCC radio, she quoted from some of her writing about what good and bad poems are (and not specifically stand-up or noir poems): First the good:

Well you have to be absolutely engaged with language, you have to be in love with language. And it would be helpful to have some talent.

Then the (more fun) bad:

I mean poetry in which the language is not alive — holds no charge, does not spring from precise observation, vivid recollection, luxuriant or stark imaginings. I mean poetry couched in platitudes, generalities, absent of imagery, physical details, texture and surprise. Or, I mean poetry with language that’s energetic but chaotic, murky, unfocused. Or, I mean poetry that’s careless, ungrammatical, not because the poet has set out to capture the vernacular of a particular speaker, but because the poet has not bothered to learn the basics of language.

Let’s go back to the last part of the Eurydice poem I quoted above. Where’s the charge? Where’s the precise observation? Where is the vivid recollection? Where are the luxuriant and stark imaginings? Where are the textures and surprises? If we go to the first part of the poem, the only interesting lines (and they are very good) come here: “where fishermen displayed the open-eyed shine / of the day’s catch just rotted sticks now, / the storefronts turning to salt then / to thick and itchy air.” I enjoy this, especially the “thick and itchy air.” But we see that, going by Lummis’s own criteria, there’s not much going on (verbally) that’s worthwhile, that can stand alone on the page without the femme fatale, phantom-like presence of the poet herself.

In another poem, “About Misses Iverson,” narrated by the voice of a low-rent building’s super/handyman, we have an old lady locked up in her apartment, dying in her bed. It has the noir characteristic of taking place in a sleazy residential hotel; there’s death; there’s Los Angeles; and above all there is an inconclusiveness to the piece, and an air of speculation, which are both noirish things I jotted down in my lecture notes. But what of the actual writing? The style on the page? Here’s how the poem starts:

She don’t open the door,

that old lady there, four-oh-six.

You know she shy, quiet, and never

do nothing, never call attention.

But the manager come for rent and she

don’t open. And he, you know,

’s calling Misses Iverson!—Come

back the next day—Heriberto—she

don’t open.

All very plain and simple. This would make a good passage in a screenplay or play. And the poem ends with speculation about Iverson’s motives:

The way I see it,

she work for some boss,

you know, some little place, her whole

life, where they do your taxes or sell

you insurance, something like that,

and she shy and she never do nothing. Well—

she do what she supposed to do.

Now she dying she push back some—

she don’t have to answer to nobody.

Don’t have to jump up for every knock.

Ahh no, she think, Uh Uhh.

I ain’t gonna open the god damn door!

This piece, with its lack of resolution and its speculations, works as a bit of noir; but how does the poem hold up if divorced from its avowed noir and stand-up intentions? Can it really stand on its own? Would you want to commit this to memory? Again, where are the precise observations, the vivid recollections, the luxuriant and stark imaginings? Okay, I admit there’s plenty of starkness here, nothing but starkness. What we have is a kind of torso, a short speech from a play.

In another piece, “Last List: Tenement Lexicon,” Lummis writes a list of things she is (or may be) called, things such as “Boss Lady” and “Tough Little White Girl” and “La Roja Loca.” Then she has a list of things she should be called, and one of them is “Our Lady of Beneficent Talent.” She also says “She Who Should Be Paid Attention To.” And she goes on to say “Miss Netherworld” (again, a reference to hell) and concludes:

Astarte   Leaping Deer

Philip Marlowe

 

Late-Night Sue

A Relatively Sober Dorothy Parker for the New

Millennium

 

Frank O’Hara in a

                     Joan Didion Mood

La Mujer Bellisima

Amiga

My Friend

 

My Love

This is fun and it’s revealing. She no doubt does fancy herself a kind of L.A. Frank O’Hara for the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. She does, I’m sure, fancy herself a kind of poetry incarnation of Joan Didion. Lummis is a good performer and a fabulous self-promoter, but, I have to ask once again, where are those precise observations and vivid recollections and luxuriant imaginings she imagines we’ll be dazzled by in her poems?

Where is the love affair with language?

The empress of L.A. poetry has no clothes.

New Books by Jack Bowman and Sherman Pearl

JackBowmanNewShermanPearlNew

Recently Jack Bowman (left, or top on mobile devices) and Sherman Pearl (right, or bottom on mobile) read at the Second Sunday Poetry reading series that I host once a month. Over the last week I’ve been reading their books.

Sherman Pearl has been around the L.A. poetry scene for many years. He started out as a journalist and began writing poetry relatively late in life. His book, Elegy for Myself (Conflux Press), is excellent for its unity and the way he has of bringing some poems to surprise endings that work. Many poems are about the poet/narrator alone in the desert or in front of abandoned stores or contemplating a traffic “crossing guard.” They deal with getting old, forgetting things in rooms, ruminating about the past.

One of the best poems is “Crosswalk.” The poet contemplates the seemingly boring, unfulfilling life of the elderly “crossing guard” at his grandchildren’s school; the guard “holds up his sign like a martyr’s crucifix.” The poet wonders if he should come out of retirement and become a “crossing guard” too:

I’m thinking of retiring

from the morass of retirement, of starting a life-

ending career. I scour the classifieds

for openings in the field of boredom, which

I’ve become highly qualified for. And what could be

more boring than waiting for death to cross

before the children do.

 

Sherman has chosen a great subject for a poem: the kind of character only artists would pay any attention to. We have seen this kind of person again and again in American cities, and yet we see him with fresh eyes with the help of this poet’s insight. The poem ends, “As I step off to start / my own crossing the guard leaps / from his chair, raises his sign, and leads me.” I love the religious tone of this: it’s understated and touching. The poet is at once observing the guard and identifying with his outwardly insignificant life. But what could be more significant than safely shepherding children (and grownups) across the street? There’s a lot to think about here.

In another poem, “Salvation in the Dead Zone,” the poet is gently critical of the country/western sounds moaning out of his car radio when he’s far from civilization and unable to hear anything more interesting. Soon the music dies and he winds up with only religion:

Then twist the dial

like a gambler betting everything

on his last toss of dice.

A faint voice comes through the haze,

some snake-oil preacher

hissing about Jesus and life everlasting.

You turn up the volume.

 

That last line is a surprise, but it makes perfect sense because the narrator is getting old and he’s driving through the “dead zone.” He’s cast off his big-city cynicism and opens himself to what the preacher has to preach. The poem is written in the second person, which serves to universalize the theme of aloneness and dread of mortality and isolation.

And there are many other similar good last lines in these pieces. If the poems have any faults, they have to do with a tendency to write too much, use too many words, not allow for white space and suggestiveness rather than spelling everything out. You get the feeling reading these pieces that everything was planned out, premeditated, like a magazine article. In fact, a few of the pieces might have worked better in prose. Sherman is at his best when he’s using fewer words, trusting the reader more to read between the lines and bring the reader’s own life wisdom to the experience of the poems. For instance, in “Man and Boy” what we have is a really magical encounter that involves an unnamed man and boy who are none other than the poet looking at himself at two different stages in life. It verges on the sentimental, but it’s not that at all; it’s a touching, lovely little poem that needs to be read in its entirety. Towards the end, the nimble, girl-obsessed boy reaches out to help the older man along, and tells him, “Good game. You’ll be a star some day.”  ( ! )     I suggest you buy the book.

***

Jack Bowman’s new The Troublesome Tales of Frank Macabre couldn’t be more different from Sherman’s book. The lines are shorter; more is (often) suggested rather than said directly; there’s little punctuation; the eye runs down the page easily in a vertical way very different from the horizontal orientation of Elegy for Myself. Jack’s world is rougher, his spirit crazier and more spontaneous. Sometimes he hits the jackpot, so to speak, with these poems; other times the pieces seem like hastily assembled thoughts on life. I love the way he has an alter ego, Frank Macabre, who enters into a good many of the poems and gives the book unity it might not otherwise have.

Interestingly, this is the only book I’ve ever read without page numbers. The poems here are numbered (there are eighty-one), not the pages.

When he’s good, he’s very, very good. In one poem, “Simple,” Frank Macabre plugs himself into some kind of device to get himself “clear” (as the Scientologists would say) and ready to start his day or whatever he needs to start. It’s a terrific poem. The device could serve as a metaphor for the many ways we use substances to zap us into shape for what we need to do. I’ll quote the full poem in this case:

Simple

In an effort to reduce stress

and back away from the razor,

Frank decides to sweep out his mind,

rinse out his heart

and hallow out the demons in his soul

 

he prepares the devices; cleans them

thoroughly,

straightens the wires,

untangles the conduits,

connects it to power

and begins

 

he shudders, trembles, as each chakra

fires;

sending blue fluorescent beams into

his head,

hair changes color,

skin adds green and violent hue,

translucent scales then shed,

feathers grow then detach

 

he mumbles phrases in Aramaic,

Swahili

and Togolese

each a proverb of strange, unknown

import

and then . . . he is back

exhausted, clear and ready to press on.

 

In another poem, the first one of the book, entitled “Nightmare Ave.,” we have, similarly to the above poem, a kind of little story, this one equally weird, about a home invader who tries to strangle a woman in her bathtub. That poem was very well placed at the beginning, because it’s strong and sets the tone well to head the collection. Jack works as a psychotherapist, so not only does he write from a place of exhaustive self-knowledge and exploration, but he has plenty of material from those he has sought to help. One poem, called “I Am Hurting,” has twelve lines that all read “I am hurting” followed by: “I am still hurting / And I want it to end.” And that’s a kind of sonnet, I guess, minus the “volta” that sonnets are supposed to have. It’s risky, it’s raw, and it works.

Jack’s pieces that use a lot of long words, jargon, and abstractions work less well than the ones I’ve quoted above; one poem starts, “From the moment eyes open / sounds echo throughout the cool / house / things known and unknown / emerge to connect / this world and the others.” A lot of this is generic sounding, empty. I think he’s at his best when there is some kind of story involved, even if (or especially if) the story is jaggedly-madly told. In “Threadbare,” he masterfully describes a spider imprisoned in an upside-down goblet. I think it’s just a wonderful metaphor for not just spider life but the whole human condition. There’s no escape. The poem concludes:

this is it,

was it worth it?

Was all that webbing and trapping

and spinning

worth it?

 

Hope so.

 

 

(You can purchase a copy of this book by writing to:   Jack Bowman L M F T @ yahoo dot com )

 

 

 

 

“Not Even a Memory on the Dust of Time”: Thoughts on the Death of the Universe (a Found Post)

EarthThe Huffington Post recently ran an article entitled, “Don’t Panic, but Our Universe Is Dying.” It begins: Don’t get too attached to the universe. It won’t be around much longer. The universe will long outlast Earth. However, in the cosmic sense, it is slowly dying. A team of international researchers measured the energy output across a large portion of space and found that it was only half of what it was a mere 2 billion years ago. And that decline will continue. In the simplest terms, the universe is not only burning out… it’s also fading away. “The universe will decline from here on in, sliding gently into old age,” Simon Driver, leader of the Galaxy and Mass Assembly (GAMA) project, said in a news release. “The universe has basically sat down on the sofa, pulled up a blanket and is about to nod off for an eternal doze.”

Hundreds of expert commenters then weighed in. I have only copied and pasted the first few here. Never have I seen such an amazing discussion. We are (I mean this sincerely) getting to the point at which the comments have become more interesting and provocative than the articles that inspired them. It is a crime that these short pieces won’t ever be collected into a book. I’m doing my part here to point out how much wisdom and knowledge and wit and poetry are out there, “unpublished,” anonymous, smart, untamed, unappreciated. This is the real Cultural Revolution. Forty years ago the “Yellow River Concerto” was written by the “Central Philharmonic Society of the People’s Republic of China.” We are getting there: Mao is winning: anonymous writers and composers and artists are here to stay, and gone are the old-fashioned bourgeois heroes on their pedestals.  Eliot (sort of): “Do not let me hear / Of the folly of men, but of their wisdom.”

 

Timothy A. Wilkerson · Lab Manager/Technician at Laughing Lady Bug Botanicals

First of all, the only way this could be true is if the Universe is a closed system. We don’t know if it is or not.

Secondly, just because we haven’t found a part of the Universe that is regenerating doesn’t mean it’s dying.

Thirdly, since when has science believed the Universe is alive? I thought scientists think everything is a machine.

Furthermore, planets release hydrogen and other gases from their atmospheres into space, and even planets without atmospheres do the same. It is believed that the gravitational compression of hydrogen creates new Stars.

Also, hydrogen is released from heavier elements by bacteria in what we call decay. Hydrogen escapes our atmosphere at a rate of about three kilograms (and 50 grams of helium, the two lightest gases) per second. There is an estimated 60 billion planets that could harbor life. The Universe isn’t going anywhere soon and so the number of planets with life could reasonably go up.

 

Jeffrey S. Samuels

I would think that the dying thing was metaphorical, sort of like a fire dying without fuel.

 

Jerry Beauchesne · Wayne, New Jersey

We don’t even know if there are other universes are out there. The one we live in is over 13 billion years old, and originated from a starting point, that being the Big Bang. Who’s to say there are other multitudes of Big Bangs in the deep vastness of space?

 

Dieter Heymann

Jerry Beauchesne: You have raised a very fundamental issue. Was the BB 13.7 billion years ago ordered by some supernatural power or not? If it was, then our universe is unique, that is to say there are probably no other ones according to most believers in a supernatural power. If it was not then there is no evidence to assume that ours is the only one.

 

John Jones

I must be getting younger: over the years, I’ve converted much of my energy into excess mass.

 

Marsha Crom

Like a good program to protect your computer, you need to reject cookies. Especially the double chocolate ones with walnuts.

 

Tommy Morris · University of Dallas

First of all, our biggest concern is our own SOLAR SYSTEM…the Universe will be around long after our solar system dies out…the next order of concern would be our GALAXY…the Universe will be around long after our galaxy has died out…

My suspicion is mankind will not even be a memory on the dust of time by the time the Universe “dies.”

If EXISTENCE has taught us nothing else it should be that “life” is recycled and existence simply changes from one form to another.

But, since, it is illogical that ONLY one Universe exists, even if one died there would still be others remaining and there would be others being born still. Existence continues but it will not matter to humans who will not exist long enough as humans to worry about it.

One only has to look at the ignorance emanating from the Republican Party to see just how fragile human existence is. That Party is a cancer that would easily destroy mankind with its asinine policies.

 

Kee Llewellyn · New York, New York

Humans will be a bare memory in 100 years. We’ll never know what happens to the universe, much less our own planet. We are committing rapid sequence global suicide on a massive scale. The greatest likelihood is that the children born in this century will die in the mass destruction of all human life. All in the name of Gawd and the PROFITS.

The only good thing is that we cannot (yet) destroy the planet. In 1,000 years there will be almost no evidence we were ever here. In a million years even that will be gone. In less time than humans have walked upright, the planet will utterly erase its greatest failure: us.

 

Zachary Nicholas Heigle · Delgado Community College

Kee Llewellyn: Do you consider YOURSELF a failure?

 

Torrin Shusty Fields

Kee Llewellyn: Who spiked your LSD?

 

Brad Luring

Again, how was energy created spontaneously? If there was no energy already in the system, where did the energy come from, and why did it spontaneously erupt at a particular moment?

 

Michael Runyan · University of Arkansas

It came from nothing, if you add everything together, matter and anti-matter, energy, dark energy, gravitational energy, it all adds up to zero (1+ (-1) = 0, we happen to be living in the 1 area.

 

Kee Llewellyn · New York, New York

Right. So the ONLY POSSIBLE explanation is an anthropomorphic human Caucasian male in a long white robe with a long white beard sitting on a cloud making it all appear out of nothing instead. It’s only LOGICAL! And it’s turtles all the way down.

 

Richard Schiffman · SUNY Potsdam

Actually the universe is both space and TIME. It will only die off completely when both concepts cease to exist. So even if say in a few trillion or so years every single star and galaxy “dies” off, any substance of matter even one as small as a photon will mean that the universe isn’t dead and as far as science is concerned photons can never die completely thus the universe lives on because both time and space i.e. matter still exists. This concept is known as “heat death”.

 

Stuart Hamilton

Richard Schiffman: time isn’t something that exists on its own. Time is merely an observation of entropy, where in a closed system entropy tends to increase.

This answers a very important question: How do we know the universe is a closed system? Because, entropy exists.

Now, when the universe has expanded to the point where there is nothing left but photons, entropy will have grown to its absolute maximum. At that point time itself ceases to exist entirely.

That is how the universe will end.

 

Ray Kraft

It doesn’t matter.

I will be dead millions and billions of years before the universe dies, and so will you and everyone else. Nothing lasts forever.

But it is interesting.

[someone responds] Yes, you Sir, will be Star Dust. Though Pixi Dust would be more fun.

 

Robert Lewis · Kent State University

Not to worry. Long, long before the universe fades away, the Sun will begin to run out of hydrogen to fuse into helium. The Sun will become a red star, expanding to the present orbit of Mars, combusting our atmosphere, destroying all life and turning everything on Earth into a cinder, so . . . .. at least there’s that to look forward to. Earth’s last human, Keith RIchards, has promised to tidy up on his way out.

 

Roderick McNeese

Total oblivion. How novel.

 

Robert Lewis · Kent State University

Roderick McNeese: Unless, as Stephen Hawking has pointed out, we manage to get humans off this planet. he thinks we have a 200 year window . . . . I think he’s being uncharacteristically optimistic

 

Michael Fraser

It’s worth noting that this only takes the electromagnetic spectrum and not dark energy/matter into account.

 

Stuart Hamilton

Dark matter and dark energy have nothing to do with this.

 

Michael Fraser

Stuart Hamilton: Considering they contribute more to the rotation of galaxies and expansion of the universe than gravity, I’d reckon they have quite a lot to do with it.

 

Stuart Hamilton

Michael Fraser: Yes, but they have nothing to do with these direct observations that prove even more precisely than before that the universe is expanding exponentially.

Just because dark energy is causing the expansion doesn’t imply it has anything to do with our sidegrade electromagnetic observations of an expanding universe.

Basically, you claimed that the observations didn’t take dark energy into account. But they do. They reinforce the existence of dark energy, but since dark energy hasn’t yet been directly observed, it has nothing to do with how we prove its existence.

That’s why dark energy has nothing to do with it.

And, dark matter–along with its mass and subsequent gravity–especially has nothing to do with it, because the universe isn’t heavy enough to contract at all.

 

Jordan Kratz · Kenmore Square School of Rock

BUT………….first we have to deal with the Galaxy colliding with Anrdromeda Galaxy.

 

James Geiser · Cashier at Rite Aid

No. Actually we don’t have to deal with 2 Galaxies colliding. We will long be dead, so it won’t matter.

 

Cassandra Bradbury

According to a study, Our planet will most likely be fine, as long as no stars go too near our solar system we won’t even notice it happening besides changes in the sky

 

Jeff Grotke · La Verne College of Law

in some sense it may be true that the universe is the “nothing”, if you look at the Higgs approach, none of us has any mass to begin with, unless passing through a Higgs field. So to become nothing we would be returning to the primordial soup.

 

Of Axons and Dendrites and Mass Spectation (Short Post + Note on the Genius of Foster Wallace)

guppy fishI came across these lines while reading David Foster Wallace’s great essay “Ticket to the Fair” about the Illinois State Fair, circa 1994:

The fairgrounds are a St. Vitus Dance of blacktop footpaths, the axons and dendrites of mass spectation, connecting buildings and barns and corporate tents.  

If I hadn’t known before that moment, I knew then that I was in the presence of genius, that I could no more write a sentence that good than swim across the Pacific Ocean. I was absolutely certain then that he will be remembered, known, commented on, celebrated for at least the next few decades. As T.S. Eliot says in one of his essays, there is an excitement and thrill that comes from reading the work of one’s contemporaries that usually doesn’t happen when reading words from fifty or a hundred or three hundred years ago; this happens because our peers start at the very same point in time we did, are given more or less the same opportunities, the same tools and idioms, respond to similar events. Wallace was two years younger than I am. As recently as this year he was honored posthumously on the cover of Newsweek. A film about his book tour is now out, based on a journalist’s thoughts. A biography is also available! . . . The crucial question then becomes: How is one to go on in the face of genius, knowing one’s work will amount to little more than a wavelet in a pond next to the tsunami of a gigantic figure like Wallace?*

It is not good to think continually of those who are truly great. One could just give up writing altogether and become a “sensitive reader” (one’s proverbial “aunt”). Or: one can go on, knowing everything and everyone matters, knowing there are no “nobodies,” though the media would have us believe that reality TV stars matter more than lowly Syrians and Afghans risking their lives on the high seas to get to Greece (Greece!). The book Status Anxiety is great on this topic; it’s a book to read and reread.

For those of us who write (or paint, or compose etc.), there is an urgency about the task that’s as necessary as REM sleep. Many wise and smart people (including Edmund White in his Paris Review interview) have poo-pooed the notion of “I must write.” They’re wrong: writing is, for some of us, as necessary as the nightly dream state in order to work through life’s events/vicissitudes, and stay in balance. We have to get something out of our system—even if what we produce is “just” a wavelet. But a wavelet, from the point of view of a guppy, can be as big a deal as a tsunami.

Eliot again, from Four Quartets:

And what there is to conquer

By strength and submission, has already been discovered

Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope

To emulate—but there is no competition—

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost

And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions

That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

______________________________

* In this context it is fascinating to contemplate Wallace’s own suicide.  (In the 1990s I read his short story “The Depressed Person”; the flippant attitude to depression and therapy put me off, but I was of course not aware of his own state—how could I be?) When the man had everything, when he had a level of validation, attention and celebrity that most of us can only dream of, what could possibly lead him to take his own life? This is a question the “child” in me keeps asking; and the “adult” in me keeps answering that there are many forms of depression. Some are situational, others chemical. The chemical ones wouldn’t have anything to do with his actual life circumstances. But there could even have been a situational component: maybe he thought he was washed up, no more big books in him? What a predicament when he was still so young! With my limitations, I can’t begin to fathom what was going on in his gifted mind. For those despondent about being less than Wallace, his manner of death provides much food for thought. On the other hand, recently I saw William Inge’s play Picnic. Inge too committed suicide. I believe in his case (and I say this knowing next to nothing about the actual circumstances) his state of despair did arise from a lack of recognition for his later work, in spite of a Pulitzer Prize earlier in life. Italian composer Mascagni, another one-hit wonder, wrote a great opera in his youth that no later operas of his could equal: “I was crowned before I was king,” he once said. Thankfully, he died of natural causes.

My Journey Ends in Your Eyes, the Graveyards of Everything Mysterious: Desert Sorrows by Tayseer al-Sboul

Translated by Nesreen Akhtarkhavari and Anthony A. Lee (Michigan State University Press, 2015)

It is very hard for English speakers to find anything on the Web, in bookstores, or in libraries, about the Jordanian poet and fiction writer Tayseer al-Sboul, who was born in 1939 and died young, by his own hand, in 1973. Now translators Nesreen Akhtarkavari and Anthony A. Lee have gone some way to rectifying this situation with a bilingual volume entitled Desert Sorrows, containing all of Tayseer’s poems. It is an impeccably made book, with long and informative pieces at the beginning to help readers get acquainted with the late Jordanian writer. Translator Anthony A. Lee’s preface, in particular, stands out. It is beautifully written and touching, and it explains the deep kinship he feels with Tayseer’s struggles and work.

As Lee says in his piece, some of the writing may at first strike a sophisticated Anglophone reader as clichéd and simplistic. This is a problem that has as much to do with cultural differences as with the act of translating. There is a reason (beyond language) that North Americans and Brits and Australians (etc.) know so little about Nigerian and Palestinian and Egyptian (etc.) writing, whether it be poetry or prose: there remains a huge divide between people of different cultures. And it’s not just “relatability”; it has to do with the question of what is considered good/new/fresh. For example in much early 20th century Spanish poetry, writers were still referring to the soul, el alma. But for Americans or Brits, the word or concept of soul seems, and has seemed for a long time, abstract and old-fashioned. Antonio Machado, who mentions the soul a lot, just hasn’t traveled as well as Lorca outside the Spanish-speaking world. What is anointed a good poem within a comfortable MFA context in 2015 is not so easily going to be accepted as a successful poem on the occupied West Bank, and vice versa. And I’m not even referring to the intricacies of translation.

Which brings me to Tayseer, who had a tragically short life but produced a novel, a few stories, and poems still much admired in the Arab world. Lee cites the following lines as examples of what could strike us as “flat. The images of the desert [are] too clichéd, and the narrative [seems] too stereotyped to represent the author’s real experience”:

From time before time,

in the darkest caves of eternity,

it [a Bedouin’s voice?] stretched through the Arabian Desert

flowing like a dream, magic, melancholy,

like the nights of Scheherazade.

As Lee discovered more of Tayseer’s poems, he realized there was more to him than he first realized. He cites these lines, and recognizes depression:

Winter has ended.

Boredom has ended.

I know I love the spring.

I long for it with desire.

But my suffering heart, full of winter,

……………………………………………………..

Appears at no fixed season.

……………………………………………………

My life is winter.

 

I read the preface after the poems, and I confess those lines jumped out at me too; they are especially poignant if read in the context of the whole poem.

Tayseer’s voice is lugubrious and heavy with abstractions; it is rife with lines that in most American workshops and MFA programs would meet with disapproval, lines like “The flowers of love will not grow in my barren heart. / If you come, my heart will not remember you.” Consider the first of these. It was written in the 1960s but could strike the sophisticated American as something from 3000 B.C.: the issue is the pairing of “flowers” with “love” and the phrase “barren heart.” If you look at much of this work from an “MFA perspective,” you’d say there’s not much here. But in this sense the three introductory prose pieces at the beginning of the volume do help us put Tayseer’s work and words in perspective. We do need a lot of background. We do need to know that he lived in Syria and Lebanon for a time and believed passionately in Arab unity, was suspicious of Western cultural intrusions, and was deeply (catastrophically) thrown by the outcomes of the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1967 and 1973. If we as readers come to know about his life and times, his struggles and passions, then lines that may at first seem dull take on new meaning.

I believe the poems in this edition are not presented chronologically. (I could be wrong about this.) For some reason, the strongest poems come in the last third of the book, when the poet, never cheerful to begin with, goes into exile, despairs, and takes his leave. I love “Andalusian Song” and “A Gypsy.” When I first read these pieces (before reading the introductory remarks), I imagined the poet  temporarily in exile in Spain and visiting Seville. I took “A Gypsy” to be about the stirring song of “ancient” Flamenco performers as they sing and play castanets and guitar and stomp their feet. They remind the poet of the splendid days, a thousand years ago, when the Moors prospered in Spain and Arab culture thrived all through the Mediterranean. My interpretation could be off, but it is an enjoyable poem to read; speaking of Lorca versus Machado, it invokes the spirit of the great Gypsy poet from Granada who also died young and violently:

Gypsy!

I am running away, carried along by distant roads,

my black faith, unknown, terrifying.

My journey ends

in your eyes, the graveyards of everything mysterious.

Gypsy!

If I make a sacrifice to you,

it will be my heart.

Rain on me!

Rain on me

torrents from your cloud of mystery.

Rain on me! You are still wealthy

with the scent of grass on your breasts,

and the dew-drenched earth.

If Tayseer hadn’t shot himself in 1973, he might still be with us, and would be in his seventies. I wonder what he would have made of developments over the last forty years. Possibly he would have seen some good in the way his country has developed, an enclave of relative peace and prosperity. Given what we know about his character, he probably wouldn’t have much positive to say. Recently Jordan was in the news because of the savage killing of a Jordanian pilot by Islamic State fanatics; he was burned alive in a cage. I wonder what Tayseer would have made of that atrocity. I wonder what he would have made of the Iraq War and the Arab Spring. Obviously he left the world—for reasons we’ll never know for sure—much too soon.

 

 

The Biological Half-Sister I Never Got to Know

 

Samantha

Bio half-sister Samantha Havens in the early ’90s.

As I wind down work on my memoir about adoption, I realize that one character will not be appearing until the end, and then only a little: my biological half-sister, Samantha Havens. Why only at the end?

The memoir, Fallen David, chronicles my childhood with my adoptive parents, Henry and Vera Frankel and my accidental discovery at the age of seven that I wasn’t theirs. It wasn’t until 1990 that I asked my father for more information. When I found out that my birth parents were Marcia Cranston and Frank Verges, it was easy to track them down. The book tells about our reunion and its aftermath.

In the early ‘90s, when I was living in Spain, I made a trip back to the States and met more of my birth parents’ relatives, including Samantha, a year younger than I am. Our father (how odd to put it this way: “our father”!) Frank Verges, after leaving the young Marcia Cranston to take care of her pregnancy situation on her own in 1960, went on to date many other young women, and one of them was Penny. What the two of them shared was guilt: both had given up children. Frank (through Marcia) had let me go; and Penny had let go of a child whose whereabouts are still, to this day, unknown. This fact from their pasts—so I am told—was the glue that held them together, for a time, a very short time. They married, and less than a year later, Frank took off again, leaving Penny behind with a daughter, my half-sister Samantha. Penny had to raise Samantha on her own, with rare visits from Frank after the divorce. In the ’80s father and daughter began to get acquainted a bit more (both lived in California, she in the north, he in the south). And then in ’90s I came along. Samantha—usually known as Sam—was living in Sacramento when I first met her. She had a tall, serious husband, Lyle (a lawyer, I think) and three children. Our meeting was pleasant. We had lunch in a beautiful restaurant by the river and toured the capitol. We were a large party: my birth parents and I, Sam and Lyle and their three young children. We toured Sacramento as one big, awkward blob, and Sam and I had no chance for a tête-à-tête or anything remotely resembling a tête-à-tête. What was she like? I’ll say it again: pleasant! She had a friendly, warm, candid face. She talked a lot and very, very fast, and didn’t listen much. It was a struggle to wait for her to stop talking so you could get a word in edgewise: you really had to plan carefully when to jump in—she was an express train going by, oblivious to everything. I’d always wanted a sister when I was little. Not a brother, but a sister would have been perfect. Could it be that even when I was seven or eight I sensed that she was out there? Nothing much happened in Sacramento except sightseeing. I thought it was an all right start.

I moved back to the States three years later, in 1995, and around that time we met again, when my birth parents rented a house in Laguna Beach. She was visiting for a few days with her children (by that time she’d already divorced her husband). I was excited to see her. I went up to her in the living room and asked when and how we could find time to talk and get to know each other. I was struck by her manner: she seemed guarded, cautious around me, evasive and puzzled when I asked questions. Later that night my birth father said, “Obviously a lot of sibling rivalry on her part, and almost none on yours!”

It wasn’t until many years later that we met again, in Frank’s old Fullerton house this time. I was not good company: my adoptive father had just died a few weeks before and I was grieving. Once again Sam was very, very talkative, and I couldn’t help noticing how much she loved her beer. Her beer-guzzling boyfriend loved his liquor even more; he was an L.A. transplant up to the Central Valley, who, when he had enough liquor in him, would begin pontificating about urban planning, baseball, Eastern Europe, and related topics. She was like an empty vase next to him, needing to be filled up, always playing the role of the co-ed hungry for knowledge about the world, hungry for instruction by strong male figures. I know I’m using an overused phrase—“no there there.” And I almost want to delete it. So I’ll take something from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt: a character who compares himself to an onion; you peel and peel and there’s nothing at the core. I could have said to her, “I might go to Peru to spread the Gospel and father eighteen children,” and she would have said, “Oh! Nice, when are you leaving?” and her big, open face would have looked at me untroubled. I could have said, “Now that my adoptive father has died, I have no one and wish to end my life, do you have any suggestions on how to do so?” and her big, open face wouldn’t have looked concerned or the least bit emotional, and she would have fired away questions, cheerfully asking to be fed more facts and opinions on suicide as she drank her beer. Nothing of substance ever really got started.

I complained (to some people) that she never tried to reach out to me, include me in her family, invite me to be an uncle to her children. But I myself didn’t reach out, and didn’t particularly care. I didn’t care, but I wanted her to. Biological siblings—whom adoptees have no history with—are like dog littermates. When your puppy is weaned and whisked away from “brothers” and “sisters” there is no ceremony, no expectation of later bonding, nothing. They just go their own way. Samantha and I are littermates.

My birth father—a heavy smoker, drug user, and diabetic—began showing signs of senility several years ago. I lived thirty miles away and saw him often. I tried to communicate to Sam—still in Davis—how badly he was failing; it took her a long time to catch on, but when she finally did, it wasn’t long at all before she took charge. She helped him sell his house, and moved him up to Davis. After that, I always had to hear news about him from third parties. With all the money she’d inherited after the sale of his house, Sam took an extended tour of Europe. Then she bought a house in Oregon, and he went along (he had to, now that he was declared incompetent). There isn’t much left of the old man. He talks a bit, walks a bit. The last time I spoke to my sister, six months ago, she was in an awful hurry to get off the phone, and as for him, he only had the strength to chat for a few seconds: “I’m stuck here at the house, lost my license. Not much to do. Well, okay, bye.” She promised to text me their new Portland address, but I didn’t hear from her again.

A friend said to me, “I’m sure she’ll call you when he dies.”

Samantha. Who is she? Who are her children, my “nephew” and “nieces”? I don’t even know their names. Sharon, Brenda, Brandon, Brennan, Brandy? Who knows? I doubt they remember they have a biological half-uncle. Why would they?

This is what many reunions are like.

 

 

AN OLD SLUT PONDERS GAY MARRIAGE

Rodin ThinkerThe biggest moment in the gay rights movement since Stonewall has arrived. Now straight people, when referring to a queer acquaintance, can say not only, “He’s gay—but he’s in a loving, long-term relationship”; they can also say, accurately, “He’s gay—but he’s about to be wed to his long-term partner,” as if to counter the notion that all gays are whores and pederasts (a stereotype that doesn’t apply to lesbians). The truth, of course, is that gay marriage is much more than the right to marry. It’s about human rights, after a long, long history of discrimination and persecution. And yet I can’t help seeing a giant index finger rising cobra-like out of the Supreme Court building; unlike the “Uncle Sam Needs You” finger in the famous poster, this one is pointing sideways—toward churches and city halls, with the understanding, “You folks are all right if it’s all about love and commitment till death do you part.” The stirring language of the more liberal justices is important for posterity and an absolutely necessary milestone, but what about us sluts?

Today great actor Ian McKellen was interviewed on the radio. Speaking about the 1950s and ’60s in Britain, he said, “[Homosexuality] was against the law, so you kept quiet, but within the confines of a play or a screenplay or a script or a piece of fiction, you could indulge your emotions, which you weren’t allowed to do publically, as an ordinary person. Now, once I came out, once there were no restrictions on being myself, once I could hold hands with somebody I loved in public, once I could draw attention to my feelings, acting for me changed from being about disguise and came to be about revelation, about telling the truth.” The experience of coming out turned him into a better actor, and he makes this point eloquently in the Fresh Air interview. Notice the words I’ve italicized. Coming out and being oneself, in this instance as in so many others, are lumped together with “holding hands with someone I loved.” The long-term, caring relationship, is set up as not just the ideal but the norm: “See! We may be queer but we can love just as well as you!”

Many of us have tried and failed in that endeavor. Due to the way we’re wired, “relationships” can’t last. Some of us love too much, too obsessively, while others can’t love at all. Then, in the absence of anything big, we go for gratification where it’s fast and easy. We still dream (some of us do) about “someone special,” but as Quentin Crisp told us in The Naked Civil Servant, “I have never found the great dark man because there is no great dark man.” Perhaps (no, for sure!) we’re fantasists. So we go on, without abstinence, often without boundaries, occasionally without condoms. On the June day the decision came down, I could almost feel every bathhouse and sex club and peephole in the country starting to crumble, termite dust aplenty pouring down the walls, roofs giving way . . .  Marriage is here: suddenly going into one of those establishments, or pleasuring oneself in front of a computer screen, or obsessively checking Grindr profiles, has taken on a new significance. This is lust trying to survive in the age of marriage. This is lust prowling the parks wondering if good things like groping and exploitation will ever come our way again.

That June day everything changed. While the loving couples, of both sexes, celebrated, the sluts sensed—with varying degrees of awareness—that the act of entering a porn theater or an adult bookstore was taking on a new meaning. The government of the country had given us a way to official recognition and respectability, and yet we (some of us) were denying it, as if it were 1975, and slinking back into our outmoded ways. If straight society saw us as “bad” before, how much worse are we now that we (some of us) have rejected a path to legalization? Are we doubly depraved? But maybe the opposite is happening:

One could say we’ve been granted a general amnesty that spreads beyond marriage and into the walls of the sex clubs and bathhouses that we (many of us) have always loved and needed. The government has in the broadest sense completed its evolution in the direction of accepting homosexuality, which could make all the lurking in the shadows obsolete. In their final phase of decadence, the sluts’ old haunts are becoming relics, soon to go the way of Gold Rush ghost towns or the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas.

Sartre’s well-known words come back to me now: “We were never so free as we were under German Occupation.” A  British friend of mine in Barcelona always used to say, “The Catalans were much more interesting under Franco, when they had something to fight against.” What’s going away is the thrill of the forbidden and the illicit, the quick heartbeats on finding the perfect hooker within reach, the delights of exploitation and abuse. Now, post June 2015, if these acts occur between two men or two women, they are boringly legal.

At any rate, these are the issues I ponder when I (still, occasionally) enter one of those dying establishments in which most of the patrons haven’t been young since 1975. Are we more depraved now than ever? Or are the glory holes and the slings and the orgy room more “vanilla” than ever before? But there’s no doubt that U.S. society, represented by the high court, is recognizing queer men and women as never before in the same breath that it asks us to behave like straight men and women—or, I should say, asks us to behave. We left the age of free love behind decades ago and have entered a new age in which nearly half of all marriages end in divorce.

I celebrate the court’s decision (with my dog, not my lover—lover, where are you?). Nor is the rightwing radio commentator right to casually and flippantly assert that most gays don’t want to marry and would’ve been content with the pre-June status quo. I am speaking (writing) mostly from what we may call a personal, psychological point of view, as someone whose vocation it is to be single and unattached, a stoical worshipper of the ideal young buck who might consent to sleep with me once or twice, but who ultimately demands his freedom, the way Carmen does in Carmen:

Libre elle est née et libre elle mourra!

Free she was born and free she will die.

 

 

RADOMIR LUZA’S TWENTY-FIFTH BOOK, “NEW YORK NADIR” (AuthorHouse, 2014)

 

New York Nadir is Radomir Luza’s twenty-fifth (!) book. Two things, I believe, set it apart from his other efforts: it chronicles marital break-up, mental illness, homelessness, and institutionalization in a journal-like manner; and also the poet recently rediscovered it (as he tells us in a preface) “under a pile of newspapers after it had been long forgotten.” New York Nadir was originally composed “in ten days in the [appropriately named!] Journal Square section of Jersey City, NJ.”  A poetic journal about being down and out, a manuscript forgotten and then dug up years later: the reader is prepared for something rough, confessional, brutal, crammed with brilliance as well as first-draft chaff, and that’s what’s delivered. If this were a polished, meticulously crafted book years in the making, it would not be the honest account of manic depression and outsiderness that it is. Since Luza produced this manuscript in just a few days, it no doubt served as a form of emergency therapy for him. I have done this kind of writing, too, and know how healing it can be.

When I read this collection, I realized (and not for the first time) that Luza is one of the most naturally gifted poets around Los Angeles. Here are some examples of what I mean:

[America], where you and me and every person in their house should take the TV set and ram a dictionary through it.

Then look up imagination. (“America”)

 

The Starbucks on West 6th matters tonight

It slices through the poetry critic in my head like

The birth of death (“Cleveland”)

 

The wooden confidence taker

Has me in its grip

I think

Because its brain is bigger than my heart (“Stage”)

 

The streets shimmer with sweat like housebroken monkeys

The addresses don’t fit the buildings

The toys aren’t big enough for the boys

The traffic light over there way over there

Should be over here (“Mineola”)

 

There was academic poetry in all its cold uncanny warmth

There was jaded you and jaded me

Def Poetry Jam in its television performance mode

Three minutes for half an idol (“Just Do It”)

 

There was no air conditioner at the Al Gore movie

The one about global warming

 

There was no air condition at Gladys’s beating today

Her husband Al wiped himself clean afterwards (“Air Conditioner”)

 

I wonder every night

Why the train passes,

Without stopping,

To help the lost,

 

Why the priests

Give such magnificent homilies,

Then hide in their rectories,

Like mice without a soul. (“Under Oasis”)

And there are many passages like these; I, for one, was in awe of Luza’s intellect. There aren’t many poets who would consider starting a poem with the air conditioner at the Al Gore movie! He’s quirky; he’s spirited; he’s more alive than most of the “academic poets.”

What makes this a great document about manic depression is also what keeps it from being a masterpiece: Luza was not concerned with meticulously editing/sculpting/refining the pieces here. He had a therapeutic goal in mind; his allegiance was to the process of restoring sanity, not to crafting little poems that would please academicians. For instance, he has quite a few lines like these:

[America], Where ecstasy has replaced cocaine as the mature drug.

Where America dons a disguise too ugly for

Halloween and too pure for Christmas. (“America”)

 

Where a truck driver like Elvis Presley changed the world. By not listening to it. (“America”)

 

These lines don’t contain much that is new or interesting, and then suddenly we come across pure brilliance: the next line reads: “Where Jesus speaks every Sunday morning. And is mute the rest of the week.” Yes! This is just great. This book is loud, uneven, inspiring, weird, fun, and touching. Let’s finish with some of Radomir Luza’s own words, the complete short poem “On the Set”:

At dawn the world finally makes some sense

The agonies and compromises of the night no     longer matter

Words sabers

Garnished like razors

Cutting through this moss of misery like pizza

 

Then the night

And sirens

I don’t care if

 

And the night

Covers my head

Bleeding from the wrist

I trip

 

Susan Sarandon breaking my fall.

 

OBAMA GETS 295 PAGES, JUSTINIAN THE GREAT ONLY 81!

Justinians FleaI am referring to the number of pages these leaders are allotted in the current Encyclopedia Britannica, if viewed with a rather large text-size on the Britannica iPhone app. Does this really mean that Obama is almost four times as important as the Roman historical figure who did so much to change the world?

And to think that on May 17, 1983 I sat near Barack Obama in the graduating class at Columbia University while school president Michael Sovern delivered his boring homily on U.S.-Soviet relations and Isaac Asimov rose to silently receive his honorary doctorate. I didn’t know the future president. I knew very few other seniors. Neither Obama nor I graduated with honors, as can be seen in the Columbia Senior Class Day booklet, handed out the day before.

I realize more is known about Obama than Justinian, but surely the editors at Britannica are doing their readers a disservice when they devote so much more space to a contemporary politician than to the ancient ruler. Can Obamacare really compete with Justinian’s Code? I note as I type these lines that Microsoft Word does not try to correct me when I type “Obamacare”: it’s now part of the lexicon! And yet the Affordable Care Act remains a lesser achievement than the aforementioned Code, the Hagia Sophia (ah! Microsoft wants to correct “Hagia”!), and the re-conquest of Italy.

All of which is by way of introducing the volume JUSTINIAN’S FLEA: THE FIRST GREAT PLAGUE AND THE END OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE by William Rosen, published in 2007. It’s a fun and memorable read, especially of course for history buffs; but it is flawed. The problem is the title and the way the book has been marketed. Its main thesis can be summed up simply: the (for us) little-known sixth century bubonic plague had a role in toppling the Roman Empire. Due to depopulation, the Empire was left vulnerable to the spread of Islam in the following century. The emphasis on the plague serves as a great hook, but most of the book isn’t even about the plague; it’s more a survey of Late Antiquity as it transitioned into Medieval times. When Rosen finally gets to the “demon,” he delivers a dramatic and eloquently scientific chapter on bacteria, flees, rats, and the conditions that carried plague to the world at large from its original “home” in Africa. These are very intricate and detailed passages; I felt he was building a grand pedestal. But the statue never arrived. I suppose I wanted Camus. I wanted novelistic scenes of the first arrival of rats, the piling up and mass burial of bodies, the spread of hysteria and pain. A solemn overture is played—no fully realized opera ever shows up. What’s missing is a detailed account or even imaginative speculation about how people living back then experienced the spread of humanity’s first great plague. Instead, Rosen veers off to . . . Persia, and then the Franks, and the Silk Road. The topic of the plague comes up often enough following its arrival, but it’s not developed, not in the right way. Just twenty or thirty pages of cinematic description of what the plague felt like, and then a chapter with some concrete theories connecting the scourge to Rome’s fall would have made this book a masterpiece.

Nevertheless, what we do have is a well-written, engaging look at Late Antiquity that whets the general reader’s appetite for such classics as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and the histories of Justinian’s contemporary Procopius. There are enough scintillating facts and nuggets to keep the reader engrossed. What Rosen does especially well is create an atmosphere; we read his words and we know we are in the presence of something mighty and dreadful and grand. Oliver Stone succeeded in creating this kind of atmosphere in JFK. There is a scene in which the New Orleans district attorney is seated at a round restaurant table going through documents and photos related to Kennedy’s assassination and the Illuminati-type characters who might have been responsible. The lighting, the camerawork, the eerie choir music in the background—I get goosebumps just remembering that scene. Rosen has the same gift. There’s isn’t a page that’s dull. Like Stone, he opens doors for the reader, in this case doors that lead to wide open spaces of depopulated farmland, horrific battle scenes and massacres, heresies, dark theology, glorious architecture, “barbarians” on the move across wide swaths of land. From Part III, “Bacterium”:

When the demon began the last stage of its own evolution, its immediate ancestor may have been living anywhere between the River Nile and the Bay of Bengal, but for now, it is probably more useful to adopt the creature’s perspective, and to say that it lived in a somewhat more circumscribed universe: the mammalian gut. Like all bacteria for the previous three and a half billion years, it was very small—so small that it approached the lower limit of life itself. Fifty of them, stacked atop one another, would just about equal the thickness of a dollar bill. Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, as it would one day be called, was, by the scorecard kept by natural selection, a highly successful organism: wide ranging, gigantic in numbers, and, in general, so innocuous in its effect on its host that it could survive for decades in the same human intestine, causing little more than an occasional flulike stomachache.

Most of us have heard about the Black Death, but Justinian’s Plague is less famous, even though it may have been even deadlier and more consequential for Europe and the world. Rosen has done a fine job of shedding light on those almost forgotten times.

HOT JOCKS SPOUTING APOCRYPHA: ON ALEX LEMON’S “HAPPY” (SCRIBNER, 2010)

Happy_AlexLemonAt the end of 2014 I took a two-week cruise to Hawaii and read like mad in preparation for the next draft of my memoir (but also for pleasure!). I didn’t mingle much with others. This was my third adult cruise (I mean since the ’70s): the first one, in the Caribbean, at the end of 2011, I sat at a table every night with a warm group of fake friends. We almost bonded, but then came the cutoff. I never heard from any of them again. My second cruise was to Alaska. I went with my birth father, Frank Verges, and during the course of the week I realized he was suffering from dementia. And still I managed to have a good time. This last cruise I was both traveling alone and not scheduled to share my meals with anyone. A real retreat. I sat in the nicest parts of the Grand Princess. I ate a lot, exercised, slept better than ever in a dark interior cabin. One book I read was Alex Lemon’s Happy.

I don’t have great memories of Lemon. I saw him at the 2007 AWP Conference, heard him read, bought his first poetry collection, Mosquito. I got him to sign it for me. “Thank you for purchasing my book!” he said. Later I noticed that in addition to being young and good-looking, he was popular as hell. I watched him from a distance at an AWP event as people came up to him and shook his hand and so on. I read his book—mostly poems indirectly about his  battles with brain disease—and of course realized how gifted he was. I tried to write a review and submit it to Alehouse, the now defunct journal created by my New England College fellow-student Jay Rubin. Jay insisted the short review go through weeks and weeks of revisions. It was like being thrown back into grade school again. Jay emailed me, “I hope you are enjoying this process!” After weeks of back and forth, I gave up. I never published the review of Mosquito. But I never forgot Lemon in spite of these negative associations.

So when I opened Happy I was hoping for some fine writing. Or maybe I was hoping it wouldn’t be so fine. I discovered the only really top-notch passages are the poetic ones related to his catastrophic illness. This book has people coming and going but no characters. Lemon doesn’t make the least bit of effort to draw anyone here except himself. We have a series of names; we have girls, boys, bodies, body parts, parents, doctors, nurses, teammates, coaches. But the book is strong in two areas. It is, as the blurbs on the back tell us, poignant and persuasive when it comes to a body’s succumbing to disease. And this after all was the main point. Lemon knows he’s not really a novelist. But what was equally interesting to me was his vivid depiction of his relationship with his buddies—his bros. Oh and what’s a bro? NPR will help: “[The] pillars [of bro-ness], which may overlap, are stonerish-ness, dude-liness, preppiness, and jockishness.”(For more, see here: Jeah! We Mapped Out the Four Basic Aspects of Being a Bro.)

All through this book, but specially near the beginning, I noticed a dramatic contrast between the rich inner life of the main character, on the one hand, and his easy relationships with his seemingly shallow, generic regular-guy-friends on the other. First some background: during college he was beginning to have vision and balance difficulties, headaches, dizziness—couldn’t, for example, catch the baseball when he needed to, surprising everyone. He brushed these off at first as maybe symptoms of a bad hangover or the flu. Finally he went to the college doctor, who immediately knew something serious might be wrong. The rest of the book is a chronicle of his descent into illness, his experiences in the hospital, his relationship with his mother (“Ma”), and his limping journey to recovery. An interview with the author serves as an epilogue to the book; I was struck by the fact that Lemon speaks about his wish to write a series of essays on masculinity (I have the feeling he’s now published those thoughts). In this book I could experience first-hand, as never before, how virile, popular guys interact with one other. I always suspected, especially in school, that the tough guys, the “real” guys, were continually acting, putting on a good show, role-playing. They may have had inner lives, but they concealed these lives and became the male equivalent of cheerleaders: cool surfers and lifeguards, shut-down ballplayers, taciturn studs emitting the occasional formulaic phrase. In this memoir we see what an act it is—at least for some of them. And definitely for the protagonist. He’s smart. He reads poetry! He does not talk poetry with anyone in the book, especially his teammates. Here’s a passage. Note: Tree is a fellow bro; the narrator’s nickname is Happy.

Tree stares at me, leans to Rick, and says something about the freshman being fucking worthless, just loud enough so everyone can hear it. “Kidding, brudda!” he shouts, punching my arm.

“Man, check your shit.” KJ pushes me. “You’re fucking bush league! BUSH LEAGUE, HAPPY!”

Rick spits in a bottle, pulls down his hat, and nods hello. “Nice to see you, Happy.” He smiles. “Glad ol’ Chester got all his shit done.”

“Whoo ha!” I yell like Busta Rhymes, punching my fists and forcing myself to laugh. “Whoo haaaa! I’m canned already. What a fuckin’ night! Sorry, fellas.” Everyone chuckles watching me fall sideways onto the couch. My head throbs. The world bounces in time with my heartbeat. I hiss a beer open with my key chain, and Rick tosses me a tin of Skoal. When we clink out bottles together it feels like I’ve got a tuning fork inside my chest.

The drinks spill as we spout our apocrypha, and I tell them how good my life was—the big game, the Super 8, at the farmhouse, the playoffs, in the cornfields, the state tournament, the superhero, the pond, jumping naked off the cliffs. And then the tapioca-thick sex stories—the backseat of a Buick, the church parking lot, a friend’s mom’s minivan, with the parents upstairs, while my friends pounded the car’s steamy windows, under the stars on home plate.

“Moving to Iowa Falls was like going back in time,” I say, belching out weed smoke. The light is frayed, grayscale. Empty bottles turret the tabletops.

“BACK IN TIME!” KJ slurs.  “Fucking Huey Lewis and the News!”

And this is typical. The bros are shooting the breeze, not much to say, and yet the narrator is capable of the beautiful “Empty bottles turret the tabletops,” using a poetic trick he is fond of (as are many poets): transforming nouns into verbs. And yet when Happy tries to say something a little bit deeper (“Moving to Iowa Falls was like going back in time”) his friend playfully upbraids him (“BACK IN TIME! Fucking Huey Lewis and the News”). At one point the narrator actually admits, “I don’t usually talk to my teammates about how I was raised because I want to fit in with them.”

Much of this book is devoted to the disconnect between bros joking around and a lonely inner soul contemplating both the world around him and his illness, his body betraying him. This reminds me of Genet’s Thief’s Journal: an articulate, sensitive “ruffian” surrounded by inarticulate, insensitive ruffians. And so we witness a divided self: Alex Lemon, “Happy,” plays a role in order to be accepted by his buds, a role helped by genuine enjoyment of drink and baseball and appreciation of the opposite sex, but inside his head he’s comparing the beer bottles to turrets; inside his head he is capable of dazzling language to describe his own pretended superficiality: “We spout our apocrypha.” Apocrypha?  Well, that’s stretching the meaning of a word, but it’s spot on: apocrypha as in fakeness, tall tales, a façade of masculinity, easy camaraderie. But inside him he’s focused on the great poets; inside him he’s struggling with the first signs of loss of heath and even of life. In the same vein, here’s a baseball passage; it’s now becoming harder for him to play:

My eyes roll in their sockets, and everything between Coach and me goes blurry. It’s like he hasn’t yet thrown the pitch. Like there is no ball at all. I feel myself falling, legs quivering to right myself, and then, suddenly, the baseball appears right in front of me, shooting celestially through the watercolored light, snipping over the dish. The ball hits the net, and I’ve barely started to swing. The guys watching hoot and clap and I shout, “Fucking shit!” and toss the bat off the ground.

“Happy, you’re swinging like a bitch.” KJ laughs. “Let’s go, man. Punish that shit!” He sticks a bat between his legs and thrusts his hips. “PUNISH IT, MAN!” He makes gorilla noises. “Get primitive on that shit!”

I love the contrast between “shooting celestially through the watercolored light” and “Happy, you’re swinging like a bitch.” The inner and outer worlds. A lovely and strong bit of writing about how a sensitive boy can be one of the bros. And that begs the question: The other pack members may not be poets, but they must have inner lives too. Maybe they’re not thinking about celestial shots and watercolored light, but something is going on inside them; they’re just keeping it well-hidden. They’re doing what guys do, especially adolescents. In a sense, you could call Lemon a “closeted artist/intellectual”; his peers might even have the same reaction as Wallace Stevens’s fellow lawyers did to Stevens being a poet: “What?! Wally a poet?” (I realize Lemon is still very young in the passages I’ve quoted, but even at that age he knows he’s an artist.)

As the memoir proceeds and illness takes its toll, the baseball “friends” gradually recede, and there’s much more now about Ma, doctors, girlfriends, etc. The memoir doesn’t have an upbeat ending, though the poet is still very alive and successful in the world. I’ve been looking through my copy of the book and see that I underlined most in the first fifty or so pages. It’s like a horror or disaster movie: the set-up and the first premonitions of disaster are the most intriguing moments. But I found the pleasures of Happy lay mainly in its candid examination of outer coolness/inner depth. On a bigger scale, I’m reminded how our lives are full of different discourse modes: we talk to our pets differently from the way we talk to our boss; we have one way of talking to a spouse, another way to a shoe salesman. Most of us are split into many different voices throughout a single day. Even when, back at AWP in 2007, Lemon said to me, “Thank you for purchasing my book,” he was using the formal word for “buy” that he never would have used with Tree, KJ, or Ma.

Happy contains (among many other things) a complete portrait of a late adolescent who can have it both ways: a rich life as a budding artist alongside easy relationships with other males and acceptance in their peer group. And yet I can’t help juxtaposing the Lemon from this book and the Lemon I observed at AWP, a center of attention, surrounded by supporters and friends. I always used to believe that high school popularity was a very different thing from success later in life, which I assumed depended solely on “artistic,” “intellectual” merit. Now I see that, usually, knowing how to work a crowd, connect with potential followers and influence them, build a network, and fit in with life’s teammates is what most successful people know how to do well, no matter the field. Lemon was training for his later role in the arts when he bonded with fellow bros. These days you are much more likely to hear about Lemon than Christopher Davis, phenomenally talented, reclusive, shy, but not shy in his writing about gay love. At AWP I watched them on a panel discussion together. Lemon stood up at the lectern and read a beautiful elegy. Davis didn’t even want to leave his seat; a somber, ghostly presence (or absence), he didn’t care if the audience liked him or not. And thus high school and college mostly continue, most of the time.

l’ll end with some lines from a Christopher Davis poem:

For My Pen Is

a pink glass office tower erection dominating
our brand new south downtown. Designed
by Chinese architects to intensify evening,

its sun-burned, glaring panes refract twilight,
hot air blossoming, dyeing dull gray sidewalks
bloody, rosy, color of a bad taste in the mouth.

A possum, ripped apart, reminds me of a men’s
room, brown liver served upon a bed of noodles,
death’s stench not unlike ammonia, piss, cologne.

(from the Project for Innovative Poetry blog)