“A Sri Lankan Truthsayer” — poem by Alejo Rovira Goldner

A Sri Lankan Truthsayer

We heard the cries of the law courts
as they sank into molasses.
We heard teens sing “Sumer Is Icumin In”
to Muslims locked in wicker men.
And the smoke of the dark burned.
And from the disneymost compartments
of his sleep our Leader moaned
not for Pottersville but Berchtesgaden.
Even the simple among us heard whisperings
of Bring back Robespierre, philosopher!
If America fought Mexico, cables showed,
Mexico would win hands down, in other words:
a hundred jurists sworn to secrecy,
two hundred FBI handsomes
and the Under Secretary of State for Enlightenment
all led us to confirm the obvious:
lamps were going out across the plains.

And so that troubled January of 2020
some of us sought out a seer
Charles Aerdnaissor
a.k.a. the Blind Sleeping Boy of Sri Lanka
a convulsionary who awakens once a year
to hold court behind the curtains
of his four-poster bed.

As disciples took notes
Aerdnaissor grunted and squealed.
His apothegm-loaded voice called out
to our desperate delegation:

—“Why, sirs, your Jehovah is an amateur
easily cowed by influencers
inside the mercantile exchange.”

—“Every book is a dream invented by wildfire
but the horse of wisdom is water.”

—“What happens to the sun’s arrowheads?
They live short lives that burn in your flashlight.”

—“In the womb of every soul sits a cripple
without an axiom to his name.”

—“Whence come the kendo swords of contentment?
Why, sirs, from incense and aloe vera.”

—“Time can be extended or intended.
Contemplate the snows and icebergs of Sierra Leone.”

—“Life is the story of worry.
Pain soup is the center of the early rainbow.”

—“I am the son of puzzles.
I am the parent of puzzles.
In my quiver I house silver bugs
who’ll give their livers for me.”

—“Why do well-fed, unhappy folks flock to this shrine?
Weaklings, all of you!”

Curtains parted
the “boy” poked out his head
(he was over a hundred with a wrestler physique).
Barking twice, he blessed us with a single index finger.
“Open your noses and say tomorrow!”

Three organ chords shook the land
and Aerdnaissor died.
On rain ships they carried him into the monsoon.

His acolytes assured us
he’d only returned to his sleep state
but left these handwritten words:

After the Rage
(and the Rage will come)
flags will congeal, fizzle
into sculpture and sand.
Embers of Crusader gear
will grace the austral ponds.
Waves will die down
and a day will come for the lucky
to start over in caves.
Folks, it’s Year One!
Your fossilized masters
still helpless in molasses
will become the funniest circus acts.

In front of an ancient mirror
a last glass Robespierre
will turn and turn on its music box
like a beloved husband.

Three New Poems by Alejo Rovira Goldner*

O Wise Rat of Venice, Come
                                    Venezia, 1619
 
Time was I rode up to the edge of cool
ultraconfident in a minigondola
strutted about in whiskers and cape
casino nights, chinchilla babes
stint as a Rodent Scholar
deep-seeing astronomer.
 
Now what? Monks come and go
dismal with prayer
chant “Pathway Through the Grand Canal.”
A bacterial storm is brewing
left and right I’m throwing up gruel.
Please think of me
next time you see a dying rat.
Like you I thought I was a somebody
because I knew how to work a telescope
and watched the newborn stars.
 
Uh-oh.
The Wise Rat of Venice
gnaws open my cell.
Is this it? Help!
But who can reason with Him?
As he slits down my middle
innards worm out artfully slow.
Wise Rat prettifies this act with words
   Thus we rise from refuse and nest
   scamper through ignorance, expire in shame
intones the promises—
soon I’ll be trying to smooch
with a Hamster Lady always out of reach
soon, soon I’ll become my own Fury
tumbling through a rush of canal.
 
 

 
 
Pacem in Terris
 
The flayed cadavers of urchins
hung upside down in the square
by the Monument to World Peace.
A charwoman sobbed by the wishing fountain.
Bedbugs sensed and targeted me
mined into my very thoughts.
 
Dissident 31850
(said the underground paper)
would not confess even after
they coaxed his innards out
then tied them to a maypole.
 
Tourists were shown
(said the official press)
lovely Old Tamerlane Street
and the Temple to Silicon VII
and sat in cafés scribbling on postcards
“Why this here is a very cool town.”
 
I saw the high wall and ran.
I ran at the recommended speed.
It was outrageous how I ran.
I ran past anger corpsmen
and dignity clubs
past vendors and pedicabs and goons
I climbed and felt a hand lifting me
a hand one hundred percent a source
of wisdom and charity—
 
I leaked blood right and left
but had strength to ask
“Is this private land I’m on?
Where have I come? Am I of flesh?
Is this freedom or am I by the East Sea
with a bath of sea-foam
running sheep down my eyes?”
 

 
 
But If There Is No God, Then Must We Submit to Oriana Grand?
 
Alexander de Grote perished from a lack of Twitter fans
on the nineteen-hundredth night of his beauty.
 
Like most of us he lived for all kinds of likes
in the flamelight of his machines.
Alex was a diamond worker
in the very mouth of Rome.
 
He died at the feet of Invictissimus King H—
or a statue of Such in the town center.
A sect of astrologers spotted the corpse,
got a load of students to help.
“It’s a shame,” they said,
“but who the hell was he?”
 
A sullen crowd attended
in front of the College of Prosperity.
Ten men-to-be-ordained, passing by,
beheld an image they called “the true sunshine at night”
and took it as a sign for this old stumble world.
 
The sirens bloated, the polyglot crowd thinned out.
They clearly didn’t give a Bronx dollar.
A dog of some sort came to sit on the corpse
and, crying, formed a miniature oasis of respect.
Some said it knew the corpse.
Some said it was just crying for the sirens.
 
A few translations claim this story ended there.
Most others say that two blocks north
a parade of Oriana Grand fanatics
happened to come marching in boisterous tribute.
It was fifty-two million souls strong,
including heads of industry
and many other members of the Game.
No amount of soldiery could contain such a horde.
God was only Prime Minister
for the first eighty-five seconds of this Earth,
but Oriana—in kimono and heels, she sat in a sedan chair
held aloft by girls and men and the axis of life,
a moment nineteen thousand years in the making.
People held phones and chanted for Oriana
and it was beautiful for a long time.

*Alejo Rovira Goldner left Spain in 1995 to make his home in Los Angeles. For many years he taught in the barrio and now lives quietly in the Highland Park area. He was once known as “Marcel J. Frankel” and is usually still known as “Alex M. Frankel.”
 

Maybe It’s OK to Be Small Fry: Reflections of a Wallflower Narcissist

I.

An uncomfortable and even taboo topic but I will proceed nonetheless. This post is like a share at a 12-step meeting in that it is more for the speaker than for listeners, although a few might relate…

I found out yesterday by chance that a SoCal wheeler-dealer was the primary mover behind a big new coronavirus anthology. Many years ago I had tried to get into that person’s good books by having him read at my poetry series and saying a few absurdly laudatory words about his work by way of introduction. Alas, it didn’t work, and I later went on to delete my fatuous words about him on my series website. I am known to this person and he is known to me. We’re strangers to each other.

I have often asked myself what went wrong (in regard to this anthology and in general)? Is it because my work (either prose or poetry) isn’t of the first water? Is it because I’m not a people person and not particularly popular? Is it intelligence (my SAT scores were average)? Is it because (as Bob Foster used to say about me) I’m not a particularly good hustler? Is it now (now in 2020 at a very crucial time) because I’m old and not just gay but the not-decently-married-respectable kind of gay that people find acceptable? All of the above, I suspect. Absence of good interpersonal skills; heavy introversion; combined with a lack of interest in and Too Much interest in what others think. And: I am deeply uncomfortable being the center of attention, anywhere. (WTF).

A long time ago at a writers’ conference, the poet David Daniel said to me, in response to my question about the value of networking, that the very highest level of writer/artist etc (he cited the example of Robert Frost) can get away with just doing the work and not actively trying to promote him- or herself; but the rest of us, he said, who fall into that great middle–below the greats–can’t just sit back; it’s our job to work to actively promote ourselves, rub elbows, etc. So if one falls into the category of “talented but no Robert Frost” and just writes but doesn’t do one’s “social-climbing homework,” one is screwed. (David Daniel, editor of Ploughshares, also mentioned his lifelong dream of being published in the New Yorker. He continued to receive very nice personalized notes from the editor there…)

My grandiose mistake, from age 15 until my 50s was to imagine I was in the “Robert Frost” or “Nathaniel Hawthorne” category and just needed to write without doing any of the boring stuff. (Though even they might’ve had to do some boring stuff!). Now it is firmly established that I am not in that league but rather in the vast and modestly talented middle, and I still resist doing the glad-handing and other legwork. Sometimes I wonder: since I’m not in the highest rank that will be remembered and since my work falls in the vast middle that will be washed away like sand castles anyway, why not just enjoy the process of writing for me and my desk drawer and a few friends?

II.

Okay, and so how to deal with this, how to go on, assuming one has put aside or is incapable of any thought of suicide, and continue living and even being creative?

Ever since my conversion last year I have listened to a lot of sermons and I finally figured out their purpose: in general people may claim to be, and may indeed be, Christians, but they are not doing quite enough to lead truly Christian lives; in other words, they’re falling short. Well, may preachers continue to preach and may the words of (for example) the great Andrew Murray still find resonance in our lives, because I am one of those people who continues to fall short. A long time ago, in Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, I used to listen to men and women share about how they avoided “acting out” sexually: making outreach calls, getting on the treadmill, attending meetings, getting on their knees and praying. At this point in life (age 59) things have quieted down in that department, but when I heard I was to be excluded once again, my reaction was not good. Why continue to write if I can’t be popular? Why continue if I don’t even enjoy the process of trying to be a better hustler? (I know some may take exception to that term so let’s say “go-getter.”) These thoughts don’t leave me. As an old mentor of mine once said, “It’s hard, being a writer.” We all know there are very few readers. When I saw that Mary Trump has now millions in line to read her book about her uncle I said to myself, “Every poet’s dream, for sure.”

So like my old fellow addicts in Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, I must metaphorically get on that treadmill and do the work of healing from my rage that people won’t do exactly what I want them to do. I will not be in the COVID anthology. My work will reach very few. I will have to find peace with this. As I’ve said on this blog before, the primary reason to write—I belatedly discovered—is and has always been the process itself.

“Grant that I may die to all worldly things, and for Thy sake love to be despised and unknown in this world.”   —Thomas a Kempis

III.

Should all this go into creative work? As much as I would like to write a poem called “On Hearing I’m to Be Excluded Again From a SoCal Anthology” I find that I cannot. Why? Simply put, if I were to write such a poem, it would be banal and prosy; the topic is better suited to a blog post. If I have ideas about something, I write prose. If I want primarily to do something interesting with language, I write poetry. I see this as my limitation; others, many others, might very well be able to write such a poem. Currently I’m reading Everywoman Her Own Theology, essays on the work of Alicia Ostriker. Her skill, her genius, is to be able to write very “plain”-appearing poems and still have them be poems, not prose with line breaks. I’m not there yet. This is especially the case since, in early 2019, I discovered a method of recycling newspaper articles, poems from the past and present including my own, passages from books, etc, by putting them through the whirlpool/cement-mixer of both Google Translate and Spell Backwards. Thus a passage from William Blake mixed with a New York Times article plus an old poem of my own, translated into Urdu, Amharic, Yiddish, Hawaiian, Polish and myriads of other tongues, then back to English and put through the second machine of Spell Backwards yields thirty single-spaced pages of “nonsense,” where I discover my poem. The allegiance here is to words and images, not what happened to me today or how I feel. Moreover, the results can be somewhat Frankenstein’s-Monsterish. Here is a recent example, somewhat related thematically, it turns out, to the topic of this post:

People Who Are Asleep or in Love Do Not Know
Whether a Child With a Match Is Watching
 
I caught a little bird and glued it to a rock
and painted the bird and the rock
the color of my hand-painted house.
I started and knew I would never stop.
My new windshield is splattered with eyelids.
If my wind moves north, my rock moves west.
They call me a compassionless hoodlum
because I can’t let go of the game.
My shoes are wooden boxes or purple carrots.
Automobiles groan when I pass by.
When I bump into a fig tree in the air
it’ll run alongside me for hours begging pardon.
I’m made of bone power, this is development hell,
no one can play my music.
 
On the school bus I’m busy getting pregnant.
School is too small for small boys like me.
Crime is anger that can’t go to sleep.
There was an old man and he was upset
by the light from his husband’s light in their room
so I inserted my knife into both of them.
Now both men carry their love’s light clean
into the great light of the Throne Room.
I wear the skirt I was born with.
 
When I wake up, Mommy says I go a-trumpeting,
she says I follow a puppy god.
I wake up but my mouse gut is well asleep.
Time for SFUSD.
The principal has proclaimed this Despair Week.
Once at a Giants game I yanked Mayor Alioto’s hand
and asked him to ask me how I loved my Giannini school.
It’s hell I said and the riots began.
 

Pity Anger Shame & Love



Pity Anger Shame & Love: A Play for One Actor

(Soon to be retitled: A Rather Long, Mostly Pointless Play About a Madman

By

Michael Moret & Alex M. Frankel

Cast of Characters

Priest

Freedom Fighter

Angelica

Frank-Mundo

Psychiatrist

Grim Reaper / Stagehand

Child

Scene: A graveyard in a desert near an American town; a South
American jungle; a Maui beach/mental hospital; a room on a
farm in Northern California

Time

Around 2012

SCENE 1

A graveyard in a desert near an American town. Different parts of a
store mannequin are scattered around. PRIEST
enters holding a teddy bear.

PRIEST

Thoughts and prayers! The children come up to me.
“Father Joshua, can you explain what happened? Why did
nine kids have to die today? Why are fifteen people in
the hospital? If that kid was so depressed, why didn’t
he just shoot himself?

I am a golden retriever bitch and they’re grabbing for
me.

And I have to give them some answer, because I wear
this collar. Because my voice is deep and comforting.
Because I’m Father Joshua. Fuck it.

I went to the memorial and I grabbed this bear when no
one was looking. I couldn’t–I grabbed the bear and I
came here to finish this charade. This whole priest
thing–it was all my mother’s doing! And I didn’t fit
in anywhere else. They always made fun of me. Maybe if
I had a gun I would’ve massacred my school as well. But
that wasn’t God’s will. “God”! I’m done.
(He tosses the bear on the ground.)
I don’t even remember what I told them when they came
to me. The usual line about not blaming God. Turn to
Him for comfort. Whatever. I don’t have the answers any
more than those children did. All the sirens and the hugging and crying people on their phones. People asking what did those kids do
wrong that they had to die?

Instead of asking what we did wrong!

That night after Bible study I saw thousands of candles
all over town.

“Breathe, mourn, and pray,” I told them. “Everyone on
the planet is praying for us. Even people who never
heard of our town.”

“But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun
of justice with its healing rays.” Yeah, right.

I wonder…if the morning of the shooting someone told
that boy that he was loved. If somebody ever made him
feel important.

Mom said, “You’d make a good priest.” We all wanted to
please her so bad. And so I did. Never could get along
with anyone above me.
(To God.)
And I guess that includes you, God, whoever you are.

He drinks from his hip flask and looks up at the
sky.

Inside the sun there’s a moon, and inside that moon
there’s three hyenas fighting over a man’s body. And in
that body, where the heart should be, there’s a rat
running on its rat wheel and it’s healthy and horny as
fuck! And inside this heart…

(Puts his hand to his heart, addresses
the stage and the “body parts”)

there’s a nightmare of falling sky and ashes, dust and
body parts. And the Beast screwing me with a grin on
his face.

Electronic fusion music [Track Two] plays as the
PRIEST rises with a part of the mannequin.

I loved you with all my heart and all my soul and all
my mind all my strength! And all my broken. For an
hour we were one! And then we were two again. You said
thanks and shut the door. That was the last time I saw
you. One hour. And the world lost its star. Before I
loved you, there was something like life. Just one hour
in a one-bedroom apartment. You kicked me out and so I
loved you harder. Went to you for healing, and I found
more sickness.

PRIEST takes another swig from his hip flask.

Been carrying you around with me all this time. The
first year I was in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous I must’ve mentioned you every single time I shared at a
meeting. All the fellows there, they knew exactly what
you looked like and sounded like and–within
limits–what you smelled like.
Sex and Love Addicts. How many years did I go to those
rooms?

Years of sobriety. Made speeches! Took on sponsees.
And, when they asked what I did for a living, I
confessed I am a Catholic priest.

Of course I had to drive to the big city where no one
knew my face. And when my sponsees slipped in their
addiction they called me in the middle of the night,
just like I told them to. “You’re doing the right thing
kiddo, keep up the good work.” “You are taking care of
you tonight and I am proud of you.”

(He drinks again from the flask.)

There was one: Alex. I’ll never forget him. He was the
saddest schmuck who ever came to me for comfort, but
how could I turn him away? He talked so fast and he was
so goddamn needy. But I was there for him, I mean I
pretended to be.

Alex, wherever you are, forgive me! Years in basements
and community centers with battered upright pianos
broken ceiling fans and fluorescent tubes and me
listening to a bunch of addicts and pervs. And then go
“home” to some rectory that was never really a home,
with a son-of-a-bitch Indian pastor to order me around.
Couldn’t stand a word that came out of those slurpie
motherfuckers. At least the congregation liked me;
sure, they liked my sermons and my accent.

At Christmas I’d tell people to focus less on Santa
Claus and more on Jesus. Uplifting shit like that, you
know? The poorer the people, the more they loved me.
Just thinking of them gets me so tired.
(He drinks from the flask. Then: To
himself.)
Tired.

The PRIEST curls up with the teddy bear as pillow,
and, very briefly, sleeps, and is awakened by his
own loud screams. Dreamy music that ends with a
bang.

I always dream of the Himalayas–or is it the Alps, or
a volcano in Mexico? I am in a garden all the way at
the top, but there isn’t any snow; it’s a flower
garden, and there’s
(Begins dancing.)
a party going on. It’s like one of those moments I
truly believe God put us on earth to be happy. I’m not
a priest; I’m just a man. And they come by and offer me
drinks and I stuff myself silly with hors d’oeuvres and
I am feeling fulfilled for the first time. But someone
says to me, “Are you here for the burning?”
(Stops dancing.)
I look at him and he says, “It’s the day of the public
burning. The heretics!” I stare and realize I’m one
of the heretics and that garden party is my last meal.
And they’re going to burn me…but then I’m at the foot
of the mountains, in a caravan on the Silk Road. I’m a
camel. A camel. Well, fuck that shit.

The music fades. The PRIEST seems now to wake up
from his dream.

I heard that I had a twin, but he died in the womb.
Died so I could live? Sometimes I took my parishioners to the Holy Land!
(He waves a tour guide flag.)
A fucked-up priest and a bunch of pious old freaks.
Those hot sweaty days and nights in the Holy Land–Lord
have mercy! They loved everything that came out of my
mouth, as if every phrase I strung together was a
miniature Sermon on the Mount.
(Addressing the void and using the tour
guide flag as a microphone while he
“sermonizes”)

Sagittarius 1992 unsuccessfully rise city fuel,
invisible mirage rushed to be liked got the
mystical magic material now vortex, this Mecca
April 21 feeling outcast illusions into beautiful
drugs dragon spinning classic beyond hyper...(etc etc in this absurd vein)
(To Audience, as he again waves the tour
guide flag.)
I remember an old couple, drove me insane. They must
have been nearly a hundred years old, it was torture
dragging them from place to place. I wanted to strangle
(MORE) them. One morning I was–frankly, I was in bed jerking
off ahead of a stressful day, and the lady comes
bursting into my room. First time I was ever caught.
From then on the way she looked at me, that sly,
knowing, matriarchal way. I knew she had dementia but
what if this was the one act she couldn’t forget? It
was our last night in Jerusalem–I took a bottle of
maximum strength Ambien tablets and ground them up.
When she wasn’t looking, I slipped them into her soup.
May God forgive me! She was about to taste it when I
gave the bowl a subtle push off the table and it went
crashing down on the floor.
Ego sum solus est amor et sexus addicta apud est
confringetur contritos corde et corpore.
Miseremini mei meus fidelis: Ora pro nobis, male ad
mortem.
Igne natura renovatur integra

“Oh Father Joshua, Father Joshua Sunday that was the
best sermon, you have filled me up for this day, please
tell us that it’s not true you are moving on to another
parish, how will we manage without you? Your
voice, your way with words, your skill at saving
souls.”

Yes, I am there for your soul care, folks, Father
Joshua will bear your burden. Ye are so blind and so
meek. You came to me for comfort, but you didn’t know
that I was the shooter. I was the boy that shot and
killed nine kids. I had the rage in me. That was me
inside that shooter the other day in the midst of your
safe school and wholesome town and close-knit community
bullcrap, that was me, because I know where he was
coming from, because we both hate our fellow man.

The PRIEST takes out a concealed gun from his
concealed holster and shoots himself in the mouth;
he collapses. In black, the STAGEHAND/GRIM REAPER
comes in and drags away the body.

*I am just an old sex and love addict with a broken heart
and broken body. Have pity on me, my faithful: for your
shepherd is sick unto death!

SCENE 2

The FREEDOM FIGHTER enters, wearing combat pants
and a wifebeater shirt. He is in the jungle. He
looks around suspiciously at his environment. The
mannequin from the previous scene, now
representing a dead body, is lying there
prominently.

FREEDOM FIGHTER
“A revolution is not a garden party, or writing a play
or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot
be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate,
kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A
revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by
which one class overthrows another.” -Chairman Mao.
Words to live your life.

In the far distance, gunfire and voices. These can
be heard periodically during the FREEDOM FIGHTER’s
monologue.

The jungle will be raining body parts.

What a style to go. I was hoping to take a few Fascists
with me. Don’t look like that gonna happen. So where do
terrorists go when they go? No heaven. No hell. God is
dead. So where do we go?
(As if listening for the mannequin’s
answer.)
Non-existence? Correcto mundo!
(He pretends to ring game show bells.)
Like when you blow out a candle. Or like when you go
under a general anesthetic.
(He marches.)
Four Three Two One! That is it. Nothingness. Why is
that so hard to accept? Pure, unadulterated nada.
(As the video ends, to the mannequin
while putting a Che Guevara poster on
its face.)
Long life to you, Comandante Ernesto Guevara de la
Serna! Long life to Stalin and Mao and especially
Comrade Pol Pot–he had the right idea. Take the
intellectuals out of the city and make them to work in
the fields. No no no no no no no no. Those were not
“killing fields”–that was supposed to be the
new Eden, where men and women and childrens work the
fields and everyone become equal. Comandante Che, the
world has lost its head.

The FREEDOM FIGHTER places the mannequin head on
its torso.

But you live forever. Thought everyone would know my
name. I thought I would be your next incarnation. Don’t
look like that gonna happen.

The FREEDOM FIGHTER takes out his phone and films
himself as he goes on, sitting pensively on a
stool:

Burn my body. Scatter the ashes in the Caribbean Sea!
Burn me in uniform.

To my mother in Medellin, I leave my watch, my ring,
and my diary. To my father, all my books. Father, I
taught you how to read. Read the fifty-one books in my
collection.Read them and you will understand why I
could not believe that Jesus Cristo was my Savior.

To Nicolas–I leave my machete that have been with me
since the beginning. Nicolás–who I tried to educate in
socialism. Nico–just sixteen when we met. I rescued
you from a village before the Government could burn it
to shreds. Sweet, strong Nicolás, a young man in your
prime, and then we became lovers. Now you’re
twenty-three already. Take the machete. I love you more
than life. I love you more than Revolution! Si. Boys
and bombs–that is always my motto. Never imagined I
would find one until I met you. In the village, they
slaughtered your mom and dad like pigs, then I became
your new papa and teacher and mentor and lover. Nico, I
think on you before I sleep even before Mao’s Prayer.
Te amo.

The FREEDOM FIGHTER sings badly:
Guerrilleros de las FARC/ con el pueblo a triunfar ;/
por la patria, la tierra y el pan./ Guerrilleros de las
FARC / a la voz de la unidad / alcanzad la libertad.
(Bis)/

Last and least: Alex. I leave you all the money I
have in the world: eight hundred fifty-five thousand
five hundred and thirty seven pesos: two-hundred
forty-three American dollars. All for you, my friend,
my materialist friend.

We were so young. I was an exile in Spain and you were
an American expatriate living off your rich dad. What
did we have in common? Both of the same orientation.
Both outsiders. We roomed together as lodgers in the
house of an aging Flamenco star. And then I convinced
you to go East Berlin, when that paradise was still
blooming. You spoke German and you said you would help
me. So we took the train into the East.
(He places his phone on the mannequin.)
We went to the Communist Party.
(He stands at attention, raising his
right fist in a Communist salute.)
We said to the policemen that I wanted to defect! They
looked at each other puzzled and amused but they told
us okay and put us in one of their little toy police
cars and drove us to a serious grey building where they
locked us up in a cell. Alex Frankel, in a cell in East
Berlin- you got down on your knees and said a bunch of
stupidities. You prayed to Ronald Reagan.

They took us building to building and everywhere I saw
the picture of the East German leader Honecker looking
down at us and smiling. And after–it was past
midnight–they finally took us into a high-class
apartment and there was Erich Honecker himself, in
pajamas and smoking a cigar. He came near to me and
said it was not safe for me there. East Germany was
going to…poof, just question of time, and I would be
a man without a country. “Go back to South America,” he
told in perfect Spanish. “Take fire weapons again. Help
the people to open their fucking eyes and stop sucking
Yankee cock!”
(Toasting the image of Che Guevara on
the mannequin and looking into its face,
using his phone as champagne glass.)
“A la salud del Che!” and the three of us lift our
glasses to you, Comandante.

They put us on a train and the next day we woke in West
Berlin where we could worship MacDonalds and Burger
King. Your night in East Berlin. That is your
inheritance, Alex–thanks to your Colombian terrorist
friend, Juan Quixote.

The PSYCHIATRIST enters as the the FREEDOM FIGHTER
finishes his lines. The PSYCHIATRIST puts his
hospital gown on him and takes the gun, the
holster and the cellphone away. The FREEDOM
FIGHTER undresses as the last video starts.

PSYCHIATRIST
Isn’t those lice boo-booing a day? Or are you by slap
Magellan?

FRANK-MUNDO
I have the distinct impression the parish priest who
shares my body just went on an outing. The man who
tries to carry the world’s load like a camel.

PSYCHIATRIST
Picken your boner calsters, aren’t ya? With a fact and
a wack and ballad wop.

FRANK-MUNDO
And then this body turned into a freedom fighter in the
jungles of South America. He was like some great puma.

PSYCHIATRIST
Spining up around the whelp of your easement, I see!
All that jam and whole fricken oddment twap. I gander
you’re pointedly wenchin’ a wee, but that’s not, I
magdelen NOT, what dew-flaps a pol.

FRANK-MUNDO
I share this body with three dears who have concerns of
their own.

PSYCHIATRIST
Do not wong-van for the dong sumption unless your
rumdations shoe-misty.

FRANK-MUNDO
And what is this body? Grew up in Guatemala City where
my people owned a villa with servants. Did I forget
introductions? My name’s Frank-Mundo. I was determined
to be an actor! Arrived in Hollywood on July 4 1989. I
went there to cause a stir! I starred in a man’s first
play. The man was Alex J. Finkel and the play was
Revocable Tryst. He paid some a-hole to write a fake
review. I assumed I would have Hollywood at my feet.

PSYCHIATRIST
A droll starps to flum a purdaction, that.

FRANK-MUNDO
Wine, women and song.

PSYCHIATRIST
You splain a jordi prebble but never wind.

FRANK-MUNDO
Of course nobody noticed Finkel’s play. Couldn’t even
get his friends to go see it. That was my first and
last hurrah. Thirty years. In and out of psychiatric
wards. Odd jobs. Car wash assistant. Lawn mowing.
Errand boy. Pet-sitter. Window-washer. Stable-cleaner.
But in my mind I heard the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare! The drums, the trumpets! The torches and the red carpets! Ended up homeless. Ten years on Skid Row.
Somewhere along the way a shrink told me he’d found the
key to me: I’m juggling three strangers in my brain.

PSYCHIATRIST
You could’ve weened or chaffed a gulleon stump.

FRANK-MUNDO
(Beginning to remove his clothes.)
There’s three of me inside this head and your science
can’t do a thing. Then one day the rumor went around
that Maui was the ideal place for the homeless and the
penniless. So I pan-handled like crazy and five months
later I land in Maui. Great life by the shore, kind of.
When the cruise ships come in, people take pity and
here and there I get twenty dollar bills. Then one day
a few years ago along comes this distinguished man with
a cane and I know I’ve seen him somewhere… It’s Alex,
the playwright! It took him a minute or two to believe
he was looking at me, star of his play. Told me he’d
given up on getting the world to like his work and
whatnot, and he was just living the good life on cruise
ships. He gave me a hundred dollars. Bless his heart.

PSYCHIATRIST
You’re skwauked. Cal unten riff a beta-mor.

FRANK-MUNDO
It’s good to be three. Kind of a Trinity.

PSYCHIATRIST
I’ve haten about a marrow den. You’re over-fortinbras
funtin.

FRANK-MUNDO
I feel my third self coming on! You’ll like her, she’s
soft like a muse.

PSYCHIATRIST
That a parturition on your roski?

FRANK-MUNDO
Double-Dutch to me, whoever you are, but the coat suits
you, fellow. Now the third me’s a-comin’ out of me,
like the Alien baby busting out of my chest, whoa!

Lights out. A recorded voice over a loudspeaker
(with different effects) announcing the turning
back of the clock of time.

RECORDED VOICE SOUNDS & PROJECTED IMAGES
“I did not have sex with that woman, Ms Lewinsky!”

Nixon: “ will resign the office of president of the
United States effective tomorrow at noon.”

“One step for a man; one giant leap for mankind”

(Beatlemania) “I wanna hold your hand..”

Celebrating the end of World War II

Wall Street Crash

Surrender of Robert E Lee

French Revolution Reporting Marie Antionette has
just been beheaded

Columbus discovers America- except from Colombus‘s
letters

Signing of Magna Carta

Gregorian chant
Gregorian chant
“All men’s souls are immortal but the souls of the
righteous are immortal and divine” (Socrates)
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in
the east, in Eden; and there he put the
man he had formed. The Lord God made
all kinds of trees grow out of the
ground—trees that were pleasing to the
eye and good for food. In the middle of
the garden were the tree of life and the
tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
(Genesis)

SCENE 3

ANGELICA, a woman in her thirties, sits pouting on
her stool. Her body is in pain from advanced
arthritis. With her left hand she massages her
right wrist and hand, and then does the same with
her right hand. She looks out the window. She’s
wearing a kimono.

ANGELICA
I adore my Jane Austen novels. What would I do without
them? I can spend my life inhabiting her little world.
Except it’s not that little to me! Gentle, so gentle.
I’m sleepy, if only I could fly to Brussels. The woman
I love lives there. I haven’t seen her since I got
sick. The other day a lovely grey cat came to court my
kitty; I call him Mr. Bingley. How slowly the days go
by since I was diagnosed. An hour with my Kona dog and
the music of the rain. The new medication kicked in. I
think it’s helping, but it’s too early to know. People
can’t grasp what it’s like to be an invalid. Only a
matter of time before I lose the use of these hands.
Look at these, they were pretty once! A letter from
Bonnie, says she waited in the cold, almost got a
glimpse of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones!
Her favorite stars, she’s seen everything they’re in.
Not my cup of tea–too much violence and mayhem in
their films for my taste. I wrote back to say I’d seen
102 Dalmations. I was hoping for a peaceful afternoon
at the movies, but I found some of it very disturbing
and would she please, please in the future not
recommend such graphic material. I couldn’t sleep at
night thinking of the violence. Healthy people would
rather not know there’s such a thing as rheumatoid
arthritis. What it does to you. How vulnerable and how
demanding it makes you. I took a walk down to the
creek, just me and the Kona dog. The hills are
greening, sprinkled with popcorn flowers. It is so
quietly secure as the soldiers fight and the bombs fall
halfway around the world. Clouds glide by my window
like vacant thoughts.
I try to nap but I can’t. It’s worse than insomnia, to
live a day without a nap. I call it the marathon way!
The other night I dreamed there was a man on top of me.
He was in soaking wet rain gear like out of a horror
show. I couldn’t get him off me. I grabbed a kitchen
knife and slashed him and sliced him till he wasn’t
moving. Why in heaven’s name did I go see 102
Dalmations?
(ANGELICA attemps to get up but then
falls on the floor, where she remains.)
No, even when healthy people pamper me, I see they
can’t really empathize. I can hardly remember when I
was whole. I learned to play the cello once a hundred
years ago! I married a Portuguese man who could fly
airplanes, he flew me all over the world. I was a
school teacher in Japan and Thailand. Then one day the
pain and the swelling and the weakness. At first it was
misdiagnosed as Lyme Disease, believe it or not.

(ANGELICA picks up a mirror and looks
into it.)

Not the naive face of my twenties! Pain will do that. I
was the most stunning in my class. Now I wake up and I
don’t recognize this… It’s a cloistered life here on
the farm. My parents wait on me hand and foot. I’m the
princess–some people say I did this to myself
deliberately so I will always be the princess.
(With great difficulty ANGELICA picks
herself off the floor and limps to her
writing desk.)
Seems like eons ago that I got my masters degree in
conflict resolution. People still come to me for
advice, they still see me as some kind of Earth Mother.
Axel is like that. What a troubled little man. He
thinks everything is an encounter group, he thinks
everyone approves of his… deviancy. Well, I don’t! He
never saw into the real me, he just wanted someone to
mother him. One day–it was in Santa Barbara–we went
out to dinner and while we were waiting for our table,
Axel insisted on playing Twenty Questions. It went on
for ages, and when I finally gave up, he told me he
was… Charles Manson! How could anyone utter that name
in my presence. And then all through dinner he
insisted on telling me the details of his addictions,
as though I could wave some magic wand and make
everything better. So last night, right here at this
desk, I sat down and cut him off clean with a letter. I
mailed it–no return address: “Axel, we have been
friends for many years and we’ve had some very good
times, but despite my pointed warnings to you about the
graphic stories you tell, about other people and your
own life and your past, you continue to carry on as if
it was some kind of joke. So it seems the healthy thing
for me is to take a break. I hope you understand.”
(ANGELICA rises with difficulty from the
desk and once again goes to the window.)
If only life were more like a Jane Austen book. Would
that be asking too terribly much? Delicate, refined,
peaceful. Last night I dreamed I was an advice
columnist who had the ability to shrink men. They would
write emails to me asking for advice for their lives
and when I wrote back I included a formula at the
bottom of the message that would–over time, say a few
months–shrink a grown man into a microscopic organism. One day when I still lived in Santa Barbara I saw some little boys playing rough on the beach, anin their games I understood everything that’s wrong
with our world. Let life be a gentle Jane Austen novel,
but only for ladies. Why not? We’ll find our way…
When I was at my lowest ebb, I started painting to
cope with illness and, you know, my marriage coming
apart. A surgeon once explained to me that our hearts
are resilient. You can cut a knife into a heart and it
will recover. Our hearts can break but we find
wholeness again. That’s what my exhibit was all about.
They showed my paintings at a local gallery! Angelica
Paterson–artist!
(To the audience, breaking the fourth
wall.)
Would you like to see? Just one?
(With childlike pride ANGELICA retrieves
and shows off one of her paintings: it
is a very bright and colorful still life
of flowers in a vase by an open window.
ANGELICA appears uplifted with this
thought until she notices the mannequin
in the corner as if for the first time.)
Who are you?
(ANGELICA brings the mannequin closer
and strokes its cheeks.)
Let me forget my life. Take me into your breasts and
ease me out of the world.
(ANGELICA kisses the mannequin.)
The world drops away. Let’s never wake up from our
ecstasy.
(Sensing that the mannequin is an
attacker, an early memory of sexual
abuse takes over as ANGELICA gradually
transforms back to the hobo/actor
FRANK-MUNDO sitting on his beach in
Maui–which is really a psychiatric
ward.)
Who are you? Trying to fool me again. Get off me! Get
the hell off me, Papa. Motherfucker I’ll kill you, I
swear, miserable old cunt. I swear, I’ll kill you, Dad.
“Dad”–that’s not a father, that’s a pervert, that’s a
sicko.

In the course of the above paragraph, FRANK-MUNDO
has stripped his kimono off and now appears as he
did in the earlier dialogue with the PSYCHIATRIST,
in a hospital gown. The PSYCHIATRIST approaches
him slowly, holding a hyperdermic needle and ready
to give him a shot to calm him down and put him
into a trance-state.

FRANK-MUNDO
(Still acting as if he is being attacked
and molested.)
Get off me! Just die! Te odio!
(Noticing the PYCHIATRIST with the
needle and recoiling.)
“You are not the gentleman I was expecting!”
(Crouching in a corner. After this
point, FRANK-MUNDO is alternately the
PRIEST, the FREEDOM FIGHTER and
ANGELICA; following this, the three
“alters” converse with each other.)
(As ANGELICA.)
The other day a lovely grey cat came to court my kitty.
I call him Mr. Bingley. The hills are greening,
sprinkled with popcorn flowers.
(Rising assertively. As the PRIEST.)
Inside the sun there’s a moon, and inside the moon
there’s three hyenas fighting over a man’s body. And in
that body, where the heart should be, there’s a rat
running on its wheel.
(Raising a clenched fist in a Marxist
salute. As the FREEDOM FIGHTER.)
A revolution is not a garden party, or writing a play
or painting a picture, or doing embroidery.
(As if with a great load on his
shoulders. As the PRIEST.)
Years in basements and community centers with battered
upright pianos, broken ceiling fans and fluorescent
tubes and me listening to a bunch of pervs…
(Dainty and vulnerable. As ANGELICA.)
Would you like to see? “There are always flowers for
those who want to see them.” “I do not literally paint
the table but the emotion it produces upon me.”
(As the PRIEST.)
Because my voice is deep and comforting. Well, fuck
that!
(As the FREEDOM FIGHTER.)
Guerrilleros de las FARC / con el pueblo a triunfar–
(As ANGELICA.)
It’s so quietly secure here as the soldiers fight, as
the bombs fall.
(Turning to the PSYCHIATRIST.)
There’s three inside me, there’s been three to look
after me ever since that day, that day of
the…unspeakable.
(As ANGELICA.)
Father Joshua, I loved your sermon about the exorcising
of the demons into the herd of swine.
(As the PRIEST.)
Thank you, my child. If only one day we could exorcise
the demons out of Frank-Mundo.
(As the REVOLUTIONARY.)
Hate breaking the news to you two, but Jesus Cristo is
as dead as Zeus and Apollo. We are on our own on this
planet.
(As the PRIEST.)
Such thinking won’t get you very far, Juan Quixote, I
fear.
(As the REVOLUTIONARY,)
You don’t believe in God any more than I do! You’re a
fake. At least I work for something worthwhile. You
have no beliefs. You’re still hanging onto your mama’s
apron strings.
(As ANGELICA.)
Please, men, don’t quarrel in front of me. Aren’t we
all hear to help Frank-Mundo cope?
(As the PRIEST.)
Yeah, right, help him to cope with special guidance
from our fake religions and fake revolutions and fake
art. (To the PSYCHIATRIST.) And our fake science. Yeah,
you heard me right.
(As the REVOLUTIONARY.)
I say it’s valid as long as we help him through life.
It doesn’t matter if the stories are true or not. As
long as they’re good stories.
(As the PRIEST.)
Two cheers for stories, I suppose.
(As ANGELICA, suddenly noticing the
PSYCHIATRIST, who has stepped very close
with his syringe. FRANK-MUNDO screams,
the PSYCHIATRIST injects him, and he
falls back. Long pause. FRANK-MUNDO
gazes at the PSYCHIATRIST.)
“Whoever you are, I’ve always depended on the apathy of
strangers.”
(Relaxed, sedated, and falling into his
last identity, his own self as a CHILD
of seven, a personality that comes to
the surface whenever FRANK-MUNDO is
heavily sedated. The PSYCHIATRIST
exits.)

CHILD
One day my stepmother kicked me out of the house. I
walked all night in the forest and I saw this, er, big
dripping shape in the trees. It was like a big, huge
blob and inside of it, I saw a red light shining at me.
The red light spoke and said “You’ll be safe here.”
There was one man with a deep voice and he was like a
churchman, a minister, and there was another and he was
like a hero, like the Wolverine, and there was another
and she was this gentle, kind mother, like I always
dream Momma was like before she died, I mean, passed
away, and they made me a bowl of chicken soup, I think,
chicken soup and anyway, they told me a bedtime story
and said I’d be safe any time my stepmother kicked me
out of the house, or my father, er, put his hands on me
like he shouldn’t, and they all hugged me and I fell
asleep and then I woke up up when the tree was shaking
like crazy. It was my father and stepmom and they shook
me out of my home in the tree and dragged me back to
the cottage. But the next night when they were asleep,
I went back to the tree in the woods, and there was the
big white blob with the red glow in the middle and I
heard their voices again. I went back every night and
it was like home. And they taught me and told me
stories and we played. I was at home in the world. But
then my father, he came out one night and he chopped
the tree down and he, he, chopped up the blob with the
red glow until there was nothing left and he dragged me
back to our cottage. But I had the priest man and the
Wolverine man and the mother lady inside me, that’s
what Father didn’t realize, and so from then on I went
out of myself and I turned into one or another of them
when I needed them. But what’s, er, funny, is they need
me just like I need them, it’s like I’m the house they
need to live in and I take care of them more than they
take care of me. I mean, what would the world be
without a church man to take care of things and a hero
man to fight for you and a mother lady who paints
paintings and gives you hugs? But there’s one more,
like a doctor-scientist man who gives me shots and
talks in Dutch or German, he needs me too. He’s always
there with a needle to poke me. Well, if it makes him
happy,I say, right? My father and my
stepmother–they’re gone now. They’re both dead–I
mean, they passed away. Nobody knows what happened. One
day someone found them in bloody chunks, like they’d
been hacked to death, and it was the worst crime
anyone ever saw. Could only have been done by some
kind of superhuman strongman and nobody knew why.
(Pause.)
I feel bad I don’t miss them. Should I? I’ve got a
priest man and a superhero and a mother lady–and a
science friend! I wish you too will find a family like
this someday. Listen to the waves. I’m gonna fall
asleep to them. Nobody’s ever heard waves this good
before, I bet. This is an island nobody’s heard of. And
they’re not going to hear about it either. The priest
will keep watch, or the hero, or the mother lady. It’s
like one of me is always up there at the front line,
fighting for us.

The CHILD curls up and goes to sleep.

CURTAIN

The Fork Must Roam

                                                                                                            Oct 1, 1994

Four rough drafts of a letter to Tim Matson:

Dear Tim,

            All of us in Paris missed you for a long time after you left, but gradually we’re getting used to your absence. We’re starting to understand you only now. My walls are busy with your work—Swinkish dangling feet and loud crowns and hearts and enigmatic roaming forks. But the artist responsible for enriching these walls has vanished. I would appreciate it if you could get my Cosmos back to me. Perhaps you remember how I am about my books!  -Alex

                                                                                                            October 9, 1994

Hi Tim

            I am beginning to see it all. People were right! And yet sometimes I think I was the one who let you down in some mysterious way. It would be nice, by the way, to get back my copy of Sagan’s Cosmos. Could you possibly send it? 

Sincerely,

Alex

                                                                                                            11/12/94

Tim,

            I’ve been meaning to ask for my Cosmos, which, if I’m not mistaken, you’ve been hanging on to since the last time we saw each other. I expected to hear something about your stay in Seattle, your new place in Dreux, your American roommate, your life and thoughts and painting and wonderful Brian and Sue. Do write,

Alex

Dear Tim,

            So here we are with Christmas upon us and still I have no news. You’re welcome here in Paris anytime. The guest room will always be at your disposal. But you know that. Love to Brian and Sue. It would be lovely to hear from you.

Alex

  • The letter to Tim Matson:

                                                                                                Begun May 29, 1995

Dear Tim,

            I went to see Brief Encounter again last night. There were about ten people in the audience, and all of us were on our own. I thought I might enjoy seeing that film, but I realized I don’t like going to the movies alone, especially when everyone else is alone. So much aloneness.  I went to a bar afterwards. It was a cold night and I remembered how you and I used to talk about the movies during your season in my apartment.

            I took the Métro home. At the second stop I noticed a homeless man standing by the door. A moment later, after I’d already forgotten about him, he opened his mouth and announced to everyone that he’d just gotten out of prison and had a family to support. It was a sad thing to beg, he said, but it was sadder still to go hungry. I hated being assaulted by the loud deadness of his voice. I felt guilty for not giving and guilty, too, for wanted to look away: “Why are you looking away, Alex? You’re supposed to be a poet and face things, why can’t you face this man and at least study his face for some future description?”

            I went home and thought of the times you’d said “You’re so bourgeois, Alex!”—how right you were. I should’ve looked at that homeless man and some of the other people on that train, or maybe I should’ve tried to make friends, absurd as that may sound. And then I thought of the way you used to talk to me about me and how I loved it.

            I tore up so many letters to you, Tim. But now I won’t be the way I was in the
Métro. I will look at the truth of what happened. Truths hit me in stages.

            What do you run away from when you go clubbing? Why go clubbing? Tim Matson, the oldest clubber in Dreux. Thirty-two now, three years younger than I. The new arrival from England. Artist and teacher. The day you and I met I made a pot-au-feu. It was like finding a soulmate. We discussed Thomas Mann’s novels. Do you have anyone in Dreux to talk about Thomas Mann with? 

            Truths about you hit me in stages.

            We met through friends of friends, or something. I don’t even remember exactly how you ended up on my doorstep. But you came to Paris without knowing anyone, and I was your first friend.

            You left a message on my answering machine; I didn’t know what to expect. But I did have a guest room and was willing to put you up until you got settled here. I knew nothing about you except that you were born in Nova Scotia and that you were an artist. It seemed an attractive idea to house a stranger for a few nights and introduce him to Paris.

            That first night you told me you’d made your decision to relocate after skimming through The Rough Guide to France at a Camden bookstall.

            We had terrine de canard and a pot-au-feu. You smiled and helped me set the table and we discovered things about each other. You told me your favorite book was The Waste Land and you showed me a copy of Ulysses, which you were excited about starting. And I told you some of my story: spending the last ten years in Paris, writing poetry and translating a great but neglected French poet. We discussed Messiaen, Debussy, Brecht, Stanislavski, Jung, physics, cosmology, Batman. It was May and after dinner we sat in a café on the Boulevard Montmartre.

            “Alex, you’re a groover-and-a-half,” you said to me. “Can’t tell you how much I appreciate you letting me kip up in your place. Really am chuffed. And what a dinky little pad you’ve got! This’ll be the right move for me, I know it. That is, once I get enough dosh together to settle in properly. The thing is, I was sick of London and I didn’t want to go back to Scotland—that’s water under the bridge, Scotland. And Seattle is boring—my folks live there now. Didn’t like Prague. It’s pretty but I almost went gonzo. Had a fling with a German lass. Don’t know why. A lot of yanks up there in Prague—no offence, Alex! I bet you don’t take offence that easily! Smoke? No? Hope you don’t mind having a smoker in your flat. Think you’ll find me livable for the most part, though neatness ain’t my forte, gotta admit. But I do cook. Love it. Dig doing dinners, too. You like dinners? Hate parties—far too promiscuous. But intimate dinners with a few close friends over—heaven! Brandenburg Concerti in the background, or a bit of Vivaldi or Scarlatti. Good red wine, stuffed peppers, pasta primavera, and to finish it off, a lemon mousse and after-eights and a glass of Bailey’s. (That pot-au-feu you made tonight was something else, by the way!) But the raison d’etre of these gatherings would be conversation. We’d of course steer clear of politics. Boring! No, the talk would center on art and music and literature. Read any good books lately? I’ll be badgering you, I’ll have you know, till you give me something of yours to read. And I’ll show you some slides of my art in the morning. Another round? C’mon, it’s early. And it’s on me. Seriously, I got enough bread to last a few weeks till I start working. And I will be working. I realize it isn’t the best time of year to be looking for a job as a teacher, but I have faith. The kermits gotta learn English, no? They taught us great things at International House. Cuisenaire rods, wow! Never saw anything so wacky in my life. Hey I said that’s on me! Yes indeed Mr. Alex I shall not leave you in peace until I see some of your work. What do you think of Pound? ‘The dew is upon the leaf. The night about us is restless.’ Gives me goosebumps. And Frank O’Hara, there’s a giant one: ‘The razzle dazzle maggots are summary tattooing my simplicity on the pitiable.’ Sublime! Yep, I wanna see your stuff. And I can already sense you’re good. My instinct tells me this about you. By the way, any idea where I can point my percy at the porcelain around here?”

*

            And so we began a life together. After the first few days we realized we got along so well that it would be absurd to imagine you living anywhere else in this city, at least until you found work.

            I showed you around, I helped you out with the language, I introduced you to people. And they loved you. You had something for everyone. And you listened. It was startling to me, your appetite for people.

            And all the while, no matter where we were—in the Moreau Museum, in the Bois de Vincennes, in cafés and walks along the Quays—there was conversation.

            As the year wore on and you still couldn’t find work as a teacher, you began to spend more and more time at home reading Ulysses. I worked in my study and you would be out in the living room absorbed in your book. We never got in each other’s way. When both of us were tired of working (for reading Ulysses was work, even with—or especially with—an Encyclopedia Britannica and an unabridged O.E.D. on hand), we’d stroll down to the Boulevard Montmartre and sit for hours in cafés. Since you were running low on cash, more often than not I treated you. You liked the cafés and I could see how much you liked your beer—you loved your beer, you didn’t stop.

            By July you had formed a definite opinion of Paris: “What do I think of it?” you said one day on Place de St. Michel. “Big. Spectacular. Civilized. Except the Métro. And the prices. People stick to s’il vous plait and bon appetit and merci, but how do you see into their hearts? There’s a lot of glitz, a lot of dosh, but what’s underneath? You get the feeling this place lives on its past. It’s a relic. Unreal. Maybe in the fifties or sixties there was something still going on here, but now? And the people:  they put up with foreigners. Where would they be without the tourists? Probably they’ve seen too many of us. It’s a cold, lonely place. Wouldn’t particularly fancy living here on my own here. Admittedly, not knowing the lingo is a major hindrance. So what happens for us? THE FOREIGN GHETTO! And I see a look of infinite disgust comes over your face, Alex, but I find the ghetto inevitable and not in the least objectionable. People who share a language are going to stick together. No use fighting it. In fact, the trouble I’m having here is there’s not enough ghetto. People don’t call here, don’t you find? I go out and have this great sesh with radically interesting cats, we exchange numbers, and they don’t call or even return calls. It’d be nice to know someone’s out there! Like I said, I wouldn’t like to be alone in this city. Of course, there are a large number of foreigners here who are just plain out of their gourds. Let’s face it. Never seen people with so many hang-ups in my life. Milton What’s-His-Name with the beautiful white beard, the spitting image of Hemingway, who goes from bar to bar like a bumble bee spreading gossip and wisdom. And Jimmie the Northern Irish madman who limps about the neighborhood singing ‘God Save the Queen’ at four in the morning. Or Tony the ex-British army dildo who’ll stop you on the street and buy you cognacs and meals all night long just so he can tell you his latest romantic woes. And then there’s…Alex! Mad as a hatter, you are. absolutely crazy and insane, but the difference is that you are productively mad. (I still want to read your poetry, by the way.) No, Alex, seriously, you’ve got to be one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. And dippiest. I mean, you’re a walking miracle. For one thing you don’t look a day older than twenty though you’re pushing thirty-five. You have a totally British accent though you were born in San Francisco. You allow mounds of dust to collect everywhere for months but you decide to give a dinner and suddenly the place is looking snappy as the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. You read Pascal and Thomas Aquinus and yet you’re capable of shelling out a fortune on pedicures and sunlamp studios. Madness, I love it. A gay man with no gay friends and no wish, apparently, to settle down with anyone, but you go to the local saunas to have ‘relationships’ with Arab youths who charge you. You’re a tragic eccentric and a great guy. Of course, I worry about you. You need to get out a little more often. But working on it, I see. I’d like to think I’ve had a little something to do with that.”

*

            You took up painting again, and the apartment filled up with big, garish works of art. You painted on wooden boards and signed everything “Squink.”

            Like you, these paintings were lively. And, like you, they seemed to let fresh air into my moldy old place. One of the paintings was a gift to me; you called it “The Fork Must Roam.” I’m glad I still have it on my wall, as tangible evidence that we were once friends. It depicts a pale green fork set against a wasteland and a cheerily setting sun.

            By the middle of the summer you were almost broke, so I treated you to a trip to St. Malo one weekend. We strolled through the old town and beyond the city walls and we sat and watched the tide come in and we went out to the little island and saw Chateaubriand’s tomb and listened to the gulls. We were still on the island when I mentioned a passage in The Magic Mountain: Hans Castorp sees an x-ray of his hand “and for the first time in his life he understood that he would die.” I told you how as a boy my parents could never share my world, how I’d read Mann at fifteen and asked my mother, “Did you feel anything eerie when you first saw an x-ray of yourself?” I wanted to convey to you something of my mother’s blank look and incomprehension when I asked her that question. You almost shouted: “Alex! I know exactly what passage you are referring to—‘Sudden Enlightenment’ I think is the chapter. Dynamite! The kind of writing that brushes the soul!”

            I looked straight ahead of me and couldn’t speak, knowing I had found a soulmate.

*

            I wrote your name in large capital letters and sealed the envelope which contained my chapbook. I left it on the dining room table and went out to eat with friends. I’ll always remember that day. I was in high spirits and so were my friends. But as much as I enjoyed their company I kept thinking I had more in common with you than I did with them. I went back to their flat and we watched Broken Blossoms. Both my friends complained about my choice of such an old, silent movie, and promptly fell asleep. I let myself out of their apartment and got home after midnight. You jumped up:

            “Congratulations of your chapbook, Alex! Found the envelope when I got up at noon and I was like ‘Ace!’ I ran down to the café and ordered a café crème and started to read. I read the first couple of poems and yelled ‘Fucking-aye!’ so loud that people turned around and looked at me as if they thought I’d gone bananas. I’m telling you, Alex, you’ve got something here. The first thing I read was ‘Whiteness.’ When I read that line—‘White is the color of the bone that dresses alone’—I nearly fell off my chair. I mean it was brilliant, big-time! And the next poem, ‘A Last Iris Fully Filigree’—it was stunning. Where does all this come from? You write in a world as far away as Pluto and yet your beautifully modulated voice manages to move the reader. ‘Communion’ is dark, foreboding, but it’s got that image, what was it? Yeah: ‘The ragged rosebush of duckling yellow.’ It’s solitary, difficult poetry and yet it’s rewarding. You ought to give up exile and go home and get more of your work out there. I mean, it’s what you deserve. What else did I like? What didn’t I like! ‘Bells Fill the Battignolles With Their Laughter’—perhaps not one of your greatest titles but it has that ending: ‘Undaunted, a man travels the horizon / Translated to a line of verse.’ Whoa! So much of you is here: your father walking out of the family when you were still in your teens did leave its mark. But in your work you are capable of rising above biography and capturing something universal. ‘Delirium Days” is almost perfect. Well-done, ten outa ten! Of course, my own personal favorite will always be ‘Whiteness.’ It’s a classic:

Painstakingly the eye watches over us.

The mother walks under bare branches,

Her hand white among angels.

*

            September came and once again you busied yourself looking for work in the language schools. And you had no luck at all. You’d wake up early and grease down your hair and you’d take your resumé and go out and spend all day in the streets criss-crossing this city in search of work in a language school. You’d come back in the evening smelling of beer and sweat but undefeated.

*

            One afternoon—you must have thought I was out—I heard you on the phone with your parents in Seattle. You were asking them for money and you started crying. I covered my ears and lay down on my bed and covered my head with my pillow so I could tell myself it wasn’t true and you weren’t crying.

*

            And then you heard about a school in Dreux, an hour by train outside Paris. You went there for an interview. When you got home, you told me you were now going to be a teacher.

            So you wouldn’t have to leave France and would only be an hour away. We were both ecstatic.

            I took you out for couscous in the Latin Quarter and we talked about the last four months and celebrated most of the night. The next day—your last—you asked me if you could borrow a book, Cosmos, by Carl Sagan. You were worried there wouldn’t be any English-language bookstores in Dreux (and of course you were right to worry). And so you took my Cosmos. I always thought I would get it back.

            That day we returned to the Musée d’Orsay and saw the Van Gogh room again. We woke up unusually early and when we got to the room it was strangely empty. I have never liked that museum. It will always be a train station to me. But that day was different. We stood in awe in front of “The Church at Auvers-sur-Oise.” Many times you had said that painting was the reason you’d come to Paris. We stood there, and the bright, contorted haunting image of the church hypnotized us. We shared a moment of exploring light, demented fields and pastures. It was even frightening, the way we penetrated together. And until that day I’d thought I wasn’t really susceptible to the visual arts. In you I’d found a soulmate, and for a moment I was even glad you were going to Dreux. Maybe seeing too much of each other might somehow take away from this moment. Our intensity was so deep that we would have to partake of it in instalments, sparingly, so that it would never diminish.

*

            After you went away, the apartment felt a little different. Dust began to collect again. During your stay, you’d gotten into the habit of dusting the whole place every couple of weeks, but now that I was living alone again no one ever dusted. Often in the kitchen I’d glance over at the feather duster in the corner, but I refused to pick it up.

            I had assumed that Dreux, a dull town in the middle of nowhere, would be the kind of place you would want to get away from at least every other weekend. After all, you’d come to France to be in Paris and not Dreux.

            But weeks and months went on and I got the feeling you were content to spend your time in the town where you worked. Apparently, you were living in an apartment without a phone, so the only way to reach you was by calling the Happy Language School. But the two or three times I called, we could never have much of a conversation, since you were always rushing into, or in the middle of, one of your classes. You were always still friendly, though! Friendly and chipper.

            I started watching a lot of television. I watched three or four hours a night. I watched game shows. I watched talk shows. I watched operas and soap operas. I watched anything.

*

            One day I took the Métro to St. Sulpice. It was already the Christmas season and it was cold. Thousands of people brushed past me. A few stops before the Odéon my car emptied out a bit and at the opposite window I could see a dirty bloated man carrying a bag of water with a goldish inside. I felt no curiosity about him and felt guilty for my lack of curiosity. I didn’t even wonder about the bag with the goldish. At the church I sat in one of the back rows. I’m not religious at all but wish I were. I wished someone would play an organ. I have only been able to enjoy the churches of Spain and Italy. I had gone to St. Sulpice to be transported but felt nothing. On the way home I watched a young couple—I assumed they were a couple—sitting across from me. I looked at the young man’s nails, rough and dirty. He started biting them. I felt no curiosity at all about these people. I felt lucky to be a poet and not a fiction or prose writer who had to have a deep journalistic interest in or fascination with other people. I missed Tim and thought of him often. I’ve started to write about him in the third person! I do that, sometimes.

*

            A few weeks into the new year I phoned the Happy Language School and asked about you. The secretary told me you were having a show at a Dreux gallery. So you’d been busy painting and all those weekends could be explained.

            I went to Dreux and stayed in a hotel. The night your show opened was a memorable one, and everyone was drinking. I met your new Dreux people. There was your American roommate and your close English friends, Brian and Sue. You were pleasantly drunk, surrounded by people who seemed to know you all your life. We managed to talk a little:

            “So how the hell are you, Alex? It’s been while, hasn’t it? Welcome to Dreux. I’m telling you, this town is a total mindfuck. After nine p.m. it’s Creepshow City and I’m being serious. I walk dark streets listening to my Walkman and all the proper citizenry are asleep. I’m like Antoine Roquetin in Bouville, know what I mean? I know you do, I know you do. Jeyesus, Alex, what they need here is plague. Yeah, something to happen. Maybe a blob from outer space. SOMETHING TO HAPPEN.  No wonder all the kids get into drugs. Never seen a town crawling with so many nonentities. I do wish I could get to Paris more often. Been busy lately. Terribly. I ought to call more often but not having a phone is a definite hindrance.”

            And on the walls was your show. There were nine imposing canvasses forming a series called “A Brave Ulysses.” These works were bigger and brasher than the art you’d done in Paris. “All very derivative,” I heard someone say, “and very Keith Haring.” But the remark didn’t mean much to me. I liked your work. The paintings dealt with what seemed your favorite theme: the exploits of a hero who wanders through the world, a kind of messenger or guide, determined to dazzle and enlighten. This hero never lingers anywhere for very long. He’s been sent to touch mortal lives for only a brief moment before moving on to new disciples and fans.

*

            I tried to get hold of Tim in April, hoping that he would think of coming to Paris again. The secretary at his school said he’d gotten into a fight outside a Dreux club at five a.m. and had broken a boy’s nose with his head. I wonder if my message ever got to him. The next time I tried, in the middle of the summer, the secretary told me he was no longer working at the Happy Language School and couldn’t offer any further information.

*

            I was sick soon after that, and I’m never sick. And I was silly one night. I couldn’t get into my new obscure book and turned on TV in the middle of Doctor Zhivago. But I had missed the first half. I was angry about this and threw a yoghurt at the screen. I turned on the radio and listened to the latest news bulletin. I should improve my French. It’s adequate but it’s not what it ought to be. I should never have moved to France. Only extroverted people succeed in foreign countries.        

            I was weak and feverish and went to bed. Once asleep, I was back in middle school with my bullies. They sat behind me in social studies class. One of them flicked his fingers against a bad pimple on my earlobe and it started to open and bleed. Everyone turned and laughed. The lady teacher laughed, too. I ran into the hallway without permission and there Tim Matson was hanging his paintings for an exhibit. I offered to help him. “I know San Francisco United School District isn’t any good,” said Tim. “But you’ve got to make the best of it. Start acting tough and they won’t pick on you so much.” Tim drove me to a town outside the city, on the coast somewhere, and we sat in an outdoor café eating shellfish. “This is like a dream,” I said to Tim. “You are here again, with your art and it’s wonderful. You’re back!” But suddenly Tim was gone and I was alone and without money to pay for my meal. “But I’m an old friend of Tim’s,” I said to the waiter. “Please, he is my friend, he’ll tell you that I have enough to pay you, just not today, please.”

            I woke up and found myself in a bed so disheveled that my skin touched the naked quilt. Touching the underbelly of a quilt nauseates me. I slept again and this time I owned a new encyclopedia and looked up the C volume: Capitalism, Civil Law, Cameroon, Caviar. A chameleon jumped out of the article on chameleons. It began babbling about Marcel Duchamp and lay down on the floor delivering a well-rehearsed monologue on Chausson and Corfu. Suddenly the encyclopedia set was gone. I walked the streets and finally at Galignani’s Bookstore I complained to everyone who’d listen. I showed my receipt to the manager but he just shook his head the way the French do.

            For a while I doubted myself to the point that it was hard to buy half a kilo of ham or a duck confit at the charcuterie. I reviewed almost every day of the four months Tim had spent in my apartment. I’m a loner, and we all know loners aren’t attractive—and the same goes for people who have too high an opinion of themselves. I didn’t want to see anyone; I wanted my soulmate back. Perhaps I owed Tim an apology, but I couldn’t think for what.

            At the end of that summer I was in San Francisco, and spent an entire afternoon phoning all the Matsons in the Seattle area. “Tim Matson who lived in Paris? No idea who that is but he sounds interesting”—that’s the kind of response I got. I wondered about his father’s first name. It was exhausting to phone all the Matsons in Seattle, and I don’t recommend it. I returned to Paris and my translating work. I thought of putting together a new chapbook. Time went by. I wondered if I only stayed in Paris because of my psychoanalyst and considered returning to America. But I had almost no one left there, except an old father I didn’t get along with. One day his young girlfriend phoned to tell me he was dead and buried and had left everything to her.

            I thought of moving to Morocco. I thought of bright, sizzling beaches packed with hungry brown bodies. For a while all I could talk to my psychoanalyst about was the fantasy of Morocco.

            Last weekend I was determined to finally acquire a new copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I went to every bookstore in Paris, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. “I’m very surprised!” I said, throwing a tantrum wherever I went. “I mean, that shouldn’t be allowed, not having Cosmos!” I walked along the Seine. The Pope waved to me from his boat, and I waved back. “You’re doing well for your age!” I called; he laughed and shouted back, “So are you!” “Any idea where I can buy Cosmos?” I asked him, but he didn’t hear, and passed under the bridge where I was standing. I ran to the other side of the bridge as the Pope re-emerged under it. “I have a death problem!” I called to him but my words were badly answered: the Pope gave me the finger. I ran in the rain to a loft where Picasso was preparing for his latest show in Dreux. “Where’s my Cosmos?” I asked. “But the fork must roam,” he answered, and turned his back.

            After I woke up I sat on the balcony listening to an accordion in the distance.

*

            I had dinner with friends last night. We went to see African Queen at a cinema by the Sorbonne and then tried a new Lebanese restaurant off the Place de la Bastille. Many new things have come into that quarter since the building of the opera house. When we left the restaurant it was snowing. My friends asked me if I’d ever heard from Tim Matson again. I told them I hadn’t heard from Tim in more than seven years. The last time I ever saw him was the night of his show in Dreux. My friends told me they’d heard a rumor that he’d moved to the West Indies and had married a Hungarian yoga instructor. But they also mentioned they could have sworn they spotted him just the other day crossing the Boulevard Voltaire near my apartment. “That’s very strange,” I said. “To think he’s been right around the corner all this time, and it’s been seven years.”

            By the time I said good-night to my friends I’d missed the last bus. I took a taxi home.

New Poetry Collections by Kathryn Cowles & Mary Ruefle

Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World by Kathryn Cowles. Milkweed Editions, 79 pp., $16 (paper).

            Beneath—or rather inside— the dry, somewhat arch tone of these landscapes and still-life poems, lies a wealth of vitality and wit. Kathryn Cowles does not linger over stories or explicit emotions; she trusts that with carefully chosen (often very basic) wording and judicious line breaks, she can render both the world in front of her and that within her. In “Three Poems Called ‘The Basil,’” she writes: “It is amazing the basil / how the water was sucked dry / its wilt and fall / how it took to the new water / and how back to normal.” The word “amazing” carries the same weight here as it does in the first line of John Ashbery’s “Some Trees” (“These are amazing”). Like Ashbery, Cowles reclaims the original energy of a tired adjective so that the plight of the basil and its worried owner turns into a garden mini-drama. In the following stanza, she hints at the thinking behind her method: “I cannot write about my dead dog / he is dead / the basil I can write is big and alive.”

            Far from the garish colors and hectic inanities that bombard us in everyday life, Cowles provides an islet of quirky calm. Sometimes, however, her voice can be understood as that of a victim calling for help within an onslaught of deadening modernity; this is most apparent in “I Am on a Plane” in which Cowles captures her state on a long jetliner journey. “Nothing” happens but sleeping, waking, and seeing: “The lady dispensing / the coffee is / halfway down the plane / and I am at the end. / Sometimes they start / at the end / but this is not / one of those times. / I go to sleep.”

Dunce by Mary Ruefle. Wave Books, 99 pp., $25.

            The world of Dunce is a strange one: it is approachable but aloof, austere but elaborate, cheeky and yet dead serious. Dunce, moreover, contains poems that do not need to be, and probably shouldn’t be, studied in any particular order. There is unity here in the sense that all the pieces are short and fanciful, with almost all written in the first person. But, beyond that, each poem exists as its own little gem and deserves to be appreciated the way a painting is, without undue regard to what came before and what is to come later. “Muguet des Bois,” for example, begins: “I was an unopened / action figure / hidden inside / an egg inside / an ovary. / The next thing / I knew I was / on the couch / reading / Madame Bovary.” The title (named after a perfume), the funny rhyme of ovary and Bovary, the short lines and deft line breaks—all these play together to deliver a rich, heady and most peculiar atmosphere, which is then completed by the lines “And when I finished / I could not move.” The poem continues with Anna Karenina and, having invoked “action figures” who die by suicide, ends with tragic paralysis.

            In “Happy Birthday,” Ruefle takes the most special but ordinary of occurrences, the birthday, and proceeds to embroider in the humorous and dark style that is her trademark. This style is mannered and literary but also soaked with real-life wisdom and an extraordinary consciousness:  “This day / wherein we love one another more than ever / but lose the desire to prove it // This day / once upon a time and maybe / nowadays who knows // This day / knows exactly where we are / and how much time is left.”

Only By Being a “Nobody” Can You Begin to Be Somebody

One Last Post on Status Vs. Spirituality

This is going to be my last post about letting go of the need for likes, followers, status, fame. I’ve said almost everything I need to say on the topic. And yet I realize that, until my dying day, it will bother me on some level that the world didn’t do what I wanted it to do for me. I also realize that it doesn’t matter. What the world values is who owns a Maserati and how many diamonds decorate someone’s fingers and neck and whether you have the latest gadget and the smoothest face so people will take you for twenty until you’re eighty-nine. What the world (or a small part of it) values is publication in The Carolina Quarterly and The Paris Review. At readings it is common for writers to be introduced by citing the number of high-prestige journals their work has appeared in. But at graveside memorials it would be an unusual state of affairs to include such advertising in a eulogy—although, come to think of it, that’s exactly the sort of thing one routinely sees on Facebook. Maseratis, diamond rings, fifty-million-dollar estates, Carolina Quarterly, twenty-year-old face—those are the world’s worries, not God’s.

I’ve delved into Christian teachings enough to know one cannot serve two masters. There is the spiritual realm, and there is the material. One cannot honestly aspire to both. A friend once told me the story of how, in searching for a new therapist, he came across one who wore several diamond rings on his fingers, and it even hurt my friend to shake the man’s hand when he left the room. “Why would I ever go back to that therapist?” he said. “He represents everything I’m trying to get away from!” And I have a similar story. One of the most elitist and snootiest people at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, which I attended in the late 1990s, was Jay Parini. I’ll never forget the sight of him physically brushing off an aspiring writer as the young man walked into a classroom seeking advice (it was my roommate—Parini was a bit kinder to me). And now I see he writes for CNN. And I note his latest book is on the life of Paul the Apostle. Why would I ever go to Jay Parini for wisdom on Paul the Apostle or anything else?  He represents everything I’m trying to get away from.

Lately I’ve begun to help the homeless. Sometimes I seek them out and give them five-dollar bills. I know it’s not much. Yesterday outside a Starbucks in West Hollywood, a homeless man asked me for money and I turned around and gave him a dollar. He said it wouldn’t be enough to buy food so I gave him three dollars and he thanked me and said “God bless you.” If I had it to do over again, I would not only have given him some money, but would have asked him what he wanted from the coffee house and bought it for him. Well, next time…

I can imagine my old Barcelona psychoanalyst, a strict Freudian, shaking her head and scoffing at what she would probably call my “God delusion.” I can visualize my old Scottish Marxist/Leninist/Stalinist/Pol-Potist roommate turning in his grave (he died in 2017) and railing against my “idiocy” and “naiveté.” Let them scoff and laugh. In front of the supermarket a woman asked me for money and I gave her some and she asked me if I was a believer in Jesus Christ and I said I was. She said she would return the favor if I ever needed help someday.

There was a time in 2015, after signing up for Twitter, that I began to tweet and count my followers. I celebrated whenever I had a new follower. Five years later, I can count 150, a number slowly dwindling since I don’t tweet anymore. Often over the last few years I’ve commented on YouTube hoping for likes and, even with insightful and elegantly phrased comments, I was lucky to get three likes, while a thirteen-year-old whose sage utterances are riddled with misspellings, gets seven thousand thumbs-up. I got to a point where I couldn’t compete in the world of likes. In 2014-2017 I wrote a good memoir but eighty different literary agents said no. And at roughly the same time I attended the AWP convention in Los Angeles, where a huge convention center filled up with thousands of writers, publishers, agents, etc. I happened to glance over at a panel discussion which took place, not in a separate room, but on the edges of the colossal main convention floor. Six or seven people sat in the panel discussion with a handful of people as their audience. And yet several of the panelists were wistfully gazing over at the thousands milling about the great hall who were not listening and would never hear or care about their talk.

I attended a Sunday service yesterday and got a lot out of the sermon. The pastor talked about the Greek word for “sin”—hamartia. This is a term used in archery meaning “missing the mark.” It is also a way of describing a “tragic flaw” in Greek drama. And I was reminded of my statement to a friend when I came back from my trip to the mountains last summer: “I haven’t been on the right track in life.” I spent almost sixty years focusing on my own version of a Maserati.

I have decided not to send out any more work for publication. If someone wants something I’ve written and they come to me, I will accept—gladly. But it was getting too hard to send work to some very mediocre journals and always hear no. I could no longer base my state of mind on the endorphin rush caused by some 19-year-old in faraway Podunk typing a casual yes (Yes Alex You’re a Poet and We Love You). One result of this? I now write more poems than ever. And if they only “live” in my desk drawer, that’s fine: it’s the process of writing that I love. Recently, after a workshop, the facilitator came up to me and asked for my work for his website. And late last year an actor came to me to work with me on a new play. These are small things. Yes, it does bother me that the actor too often mentions “fame” and that his favorite play of all time is called Famous… I take a deep breath, and withhold the sermon.

I’ve started praying for my enemies—fortunately they aren’t in my life, but they are still living, albeit faraway. I wish them the best health and happiness and do it in sincerity. I have been able to let go of so much anger against the woman who took half of my inheritance. Jesus asks a lot from us but gives a lot in return.

I came across this quote in Thomas Merton’s No Man Is an Island: “The one who has most in the realm of the spirit is the one who loves least in the order of the flesh.” And, on a more macro level: here’s a quote from Galatians 2:20:  “It is no longer I that lives but Christ that lives in me.”  And we can say with our friend the Old Possum: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

Do You Need to Be the Smartest Poet in the Room?

“The contrariety between the most opposite things on earth, between fire and water, darkness and light, vanishes into nothing when compared to the contrariety between God and mammon.”                                                                                                                 —John Wesley

I was not on the right path. For well over fifty years, almost sixty.

I wanted praise. Or you could call it love from the world. I was spoiled, as an only child in a middle-class German-Jewish family, but my parents were critical, status-conscious, Holocaust-scarred people never lavish with their praise. In school I carried a briefcase and wore my shirts buttoned up tight all the way to the neck. During some of my childhood I was heavily bullied and made fun of. Then, starting around the age of twelve, I imagined that I might go into politics. The qualities that my parents and classmates did not appreciate would surely be recognized by a wider public. First I’d be mayor of San Francisco, then senator, then president. When I was fifteen and began writing a little poetry and fiction, I imagined that eventually I would be known all over.

I went to high school with an extremely popular, athletic boy who, only a few years after we graduated, began to be known the world over for his stories and novels. My father sent me newspaper clippings about him. I was in Barcelona then. I spent ten years living in Spain and this was the answer I gave to one of my students who asked me why I was there: “As an expat, it’s all right not to be well known for anything.”

I dreamed of publishing work that I had written. I imagined that I would open my mailbox and finally an answer would come with an acceptance; this would be “paradise,” as I told my Freudian therapist. And, eventually, when those acceptances did come I got a fleeting feeling of excitement and bliss. But that soon faded when I realized how much further up the ladder I still needed to climb.

I never cared much about money or material possessions, but praise from the world was another matter.

I’ll give an example of how this disease got worse. In 1998, with the airwaves full of Frank Sinatra songs on the day of his death, I went to pick up a new pair of glasses from the optometrist. I remember sitting there and trying on the glasses and speaking to the employee but feeling completely invisible and unworthy because I was not of the stature of the larger-than-life personage who had just died. Why would someone be nice to me? I had done therapy in Spain and now I was in Los Angeles with an even better therapist, and yet, to some extent, nothing much had penetrated into my thinking. I was still dominated by the tween in me who didn’t believe I could be worthy without some form of even limited renown.

I had begun therapy for what seemed on the surface something else: an intense romance addiction and the almost complete loss of self whenever a breakup occurred. But when I think about it, was it really more erotic loss or a horrific sense of wounded pride that brought me down into such a low? Perhaps it all had to do with ego much more than libido.

The search for approval never led me to experience as many depths as the ones at the end of (or during) romance, which is a much more primal thing. And yet, eating away at me all those years, was a nagging feeling of being less-than, an emaciated figure in a room full of bodybuilders, of never being able to catch up with my successful high school classmate or the women and men whose accomplishments got written up in the papers.

Years went by and I reached my fifties, at which time the romance and sex addiction waned to (comparatively) nothing. And yet the hungry ego raged louder than ever.

At some point during work on my memoir about my adoption, while reading many memoirs from the past, I dipped into St. Augustine’s Confessions. It struck me how much he talked about praise and his own temptation (if I recall right) to overvalue praise from the world. It was the first time I’d ever really seen praise talked about in this way. I knew about other vices; I knew about lust and gluttony, etc., but I never considered the extent to which hunger for praise from the world could be considered detrimental to having a good life. My upbringing had been (weakly) in the Jewish faith, which doesn’t dwell on humility—at least that’s not one of its salient features. And all that time in therapy, this simple concept of praise- and honor-hunger (or call it pride and vanity) hadn’t come up in precisely this way.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s I’d been active in 12-step groups and had worked through the steps though never quite reaching the twelfth step of a spiritual awakening. The prayers—especially the Third Step Prayer with its line “Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will”—had touched on my area of difficulty, my narcissism (I use that word loosely since I don’t technically have a narcissist personality disorder), but the focus of the meetings had been sex addiction; what I needed more, perhaps, was Fameseekers’ Anonymous, if there were such a thing. Eventually I dropped out of the program but their (basically Christian) language and sayings stayed with me, especially, of course, the idea of God or a Higher Power. I believed, but I didn’t have much of a relationship with God.

Last year, while wandering around Santa Monica Boulevard as a human billboard in search of people I could persuade to maybe come to my plays, I listened to the whole Bible for the first time. The contrast was so stark between the words I was listening to on my headset and the loud words of my director, worried about filling seats: “Nobody knows who you are!” The experience of (desperately) trying to get people to fill seats made an impression on me. I had assumed that almost everyone I knew would (at least) be curious to see what I’d done, after all the hard work I’d put into both my plays. But it was hard even to get friends to show any interest. Of the two theatre groups I joined, in which the people seemed friendly and encouraging enough, no one at all showed up—even at severely discounted rates! Then I began to re-evaluate the poetry groups I belonged to as well: Did I really work so hard on my poetry so it could be discussed and even praised and then quickly forgotten by people around the table who obviously had concerns of their own? And when I made comments, I felt I had to be not just smart and learned, but the smartest and the most learned in the room. Why? Where did that really get me?

Between last year (the theatre year) and this past summer it all came to a head. I was, in a very deep and primal sense, not being nourished by the world/people. I couldn’t get them to do what I wanted. I thought of some of the old Barcelona friends like Karina and Alberto who’d dropped off the map, even some L.A. friends who rarely if ever called. People were not coming through. I was not getting what I wanted from “the world.” In a very real way, I was still that infant left by my birth mother for days before I was picked up by my new parents. “Where’s Mommy?”

At that point I realized it was time to try prayer again.

During my trip to the mountains in late spring, one of my last stops was (near) Durango, Colorado. I rented a cabin for a few nights and one of those nights I finally prayed. I got down on my knees out on the cabin’s porch and said the Serenity Prayer and the Third Step Prayer. In the days that followed I put away all my reading from the Enlightenment period, reading which I thought had nourished me, and once again read Status Anxiety—the perfect name for my condition. Then I reread The Imitation of Christ. I read Ellen B. White’s The Desire of Ages, her expansion and explanation of the Gospels. I began to reread the New Testament. I listened to Huston Smith’s lectures on world religions. Now I am listening to John Wesley’s sermons—a hundred and fifty hours of more wisdom and insight than I ever got in college or graduate school. I came to see that the big book in every motel nightstand drawer, the Gideon Bible, contains on every page more nourishment than a whole library of poets and novelists eager to climb their ladders and establish their legacies. All that time in therapy and all that 12-step work hadn’t quite gotten me to the point where I realized the futility of my search. In all the new (and old!) books I read, I found my status anxiety constantly addressed and challenged, as in this passage:

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world (1 John 2:16).

In my years in Barcelona, I had often mentioned to my analyst how important it was for me to exist on a more exalted plane in the eyes of the world and to be more than and better than others, people like my portera (the lady who sat in her little curtained room on the ground floor and knew everyone’s business and read ¡Hola! magazine). I was many rungs of the ladder higher than her, wasn’t I? Just as people who got their short stories published in the Carolina Quarterly were many, many rungs higher than me, in this way of thinking.

I wasn’t on the right path. Far from it. Little by little, though, things are beginning to change. I will always suffer to some extent from status anxiety (just as an alcoholic with fifty years of sobriety will always be an alcoholic), but a change is happening. What they call in AA the “stinking thinking”: I bought into the world’s notions (and what we can call the “Devil’s” notions) of talent and genius and prestige and renown (much amplified by the media). I feel I am only at the beginning of getting to the right path. I pray more often. I haven’t yet found a church. I believe the Southern Baptists accept this one prayer as conversion: “Dear God, I know I’m a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe Jesus Christ is Your Son. I believe that He died for my sins and that you raised Him to life. I want to trust Him as my Savior and follow Him as Lord, from this day forward. Guide my life and help me to do your will. I pray this in the name of Jesus. Amen.” Not so different in some ways from AA prayers. I believe other denominations have different requirements (the Methodists, for example). I haven’t yet said the above prayer but the moment is coming.

You may know the old saying: Religion is for people who don’t want to go to hell; spirituality is for people who’ve been to hell and don’t want to go back. I haven’t given much (enough) thought yet to heaven and hell, but I can say that in these teachings and doctrines that have been around for two thousand years, I am—even in the midst of this market-driven, status-mad, secular world—beginning to find a home.

Walking now with joy, and not with fear, in a clear, steady sight of things eternal, we shall look on pleasure, wealth, praise–all the things of earth–as on bubbles upon the water.” –John Wesley

The Work of Being Ordinary

Rousseau refers to amour–propre (self-love) as a “universal desire for…preferment and a frenzy to achieve distinction.” -Fred Neuhouser

Isn’t it now high time to accept being ordinary?  It would be nice if one trip to the mountains could make the difference to get me finally to a place of peace.

It’s been with me most of my life, the fantasy of being a VIP. It has to do with my adoption; it has everything to do with my adoption. And when I started writing at 15, I assumed that I’d eventually surpass the greatest greats. A larger-than-life figure whom fans would be amazed and astonished to see entering a room. In having these fantasies I wasn’t that unusual. Many adolescents go through such a phase.

Once, a long time ago, I upset a prickly lady with the comment that “Only celebrities matter.” The word “celebrity” now means, for me, people notable and recognized in their field, say, those who have a Wikipedia article written about them. People who have a following and a reputation. People, in other words, who are in some sense popular. And speaking of Wikipedia, any article on any town bigger than a hundred persons will likely have a section called Notable People. When there is an airline crash, there is always mention in the press of Notable People on board.

If I think about fame as popularity writ large, then I should be able to understand why it was going to be hard for me: I’ve never been particularly popular. In my thinking, lack of popularity writ large is actually an essential ingredient of ordinariness. Last year I produced two of my own plays; the hardest part of the experience was getting people to care, getting people off their couches and away from Netflix. This year, no theatrical productions at all, but instead: five weeks in the mountains! Which is better?

But this idea of Promoting myself: Not only is it boring; I didn’t realize until a few years ago that there was any need to do it. But I always loved the process of creation more than the final product. I used to care about being published, but now, when a journal which has my work in it arrives in the mail or appears online, I’m pleased for a moment and then forget about it. It’s the act of writing, the joy of putting together a poem or essay or story that fulfills me—or it should, until I hear a comment such as “I like Alex; he’s my favorite unknown.”

*

Ordinary: not a public figure of any kind, not visible on social media, without a following, without extraordinary talent or abilities or intelligence and without a huge drive to promote oneself. In other words, the challenge is to be an extra in a movie, and not one of the stars. Just being an extra. A face in the crowd who appears in the movie for a moment and never again. But, in advanced societies, and especially in the U.S.A., most of us are not content to be just extras.

How does one (how do I) come to terms with being ordinary/average and get to a place of living without pretensions, living with a notion that I am not better than others. I do wish there were one simple answer, to be explained in a single paragraph, but it’s a lifetime’s work, like being in AA. Here’s the beginning of a beginning of some answers:

In another blog post I wrote about Rousseau and my old (estranged) friend, Fred Neuhouser, an expert on Rousseau. The biggest takeaway from Neuhouser’s writing on Rousseau is this (and I realize it’s a simplification): There is a kind of self-love peculiar to humankind, even primitive humankind, that drives us to want to be better than our peers. Even in a non-inflamed, non-neurotic stage, we have a natural desire to want status. It’s almost as natural as the sex drive and the urge for survival.

So much for the natural man, the villagers competing to do the best dance in front of their huts. Then millennia passed and Christianity came along, and through the long period of the “Age of Faith” most of the populace, at least in Europe, lived simply with their simple faith that stressed the Afterlife, the real world beyond the present world, and annihilated all sense of vanity and status. My favorite image is that of artisans at work on a cathedral, gifted but humble souls who don’t even sign their names; so pious and modest are they that worldly renown is foreign and incomprehensible them. (There is, it seems to me, something profoundly Eastern about the way the West was at one time.) That all changed with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. As faith declined, worldly love of status rose. Often I think about what used to be called the Dark Ages (the men of the Enlightenment came up with that term!). To be a peasant in Europe in 1100 was to live a hard life but a life with faith. The book from roughly 1300 called The Imitation of Christ could be a handbook on how to live for all people, for all time.

Books like Status Anxiety and The Frenzy of Renown make, in different ways, the point about medieval man versus people now. As the Middle Ages gave way to the modern era, in which anyone could rise to become a Benjamin Franklin or an Abe Lincoln and we progressed to meritocracy, our religion came to be money, status, success, renown, the buzz generated by other (lesser) people talking and thinking about and emulating a Star. Being extraordinary. Since God “was dead,” the only answer was inventing a way of life that worshipped Madonna and Justin Bieber which included dreaming of someday being Madonna and Justin Bieber.

It’s not an accident that I mentioned AA . Ultimately an AA-type of approach to status anxiety is one of the only answers I can think of. AA stresses spirituality (as opposed to religion). The other answer is outright religion.

Spirituality? Religion? But that’s hard for someone like me who has no real background in a spiritual life. I recently read Thomas Paine; even though he lived over 200 years ago, his analysis of the Bible’s flaws and inconsistencies is devastating. Rousseau didn’t go quite so far: in his Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar he writes about the Bible’s problems but still values it as a book that could not have been written merely by a human hand. And Tolstoy’s desperate crisis, I believe, was healed by the sound of a simple peasant in the field saying “God is great.”

Maybe it takes having a kind of spiritual awakening to shake off fame lust and fully embrace the supremacy of the ordinary. Maybe it takes surviving a plane crash or finding oneself caught up in the midst of riots and revolution to finally shed illusions of grandeur and just simply live.

I laugh at people who care about driving fancy cars and wearing fancy clothes and living in fancy homes. I hope (dare I say “pray”?) for the day to come when I can laugh at people desperate for status, prizes, followers, a book deal, Facebook “likes,” YouTube views, praise from the New York Times, and a place in people’s hearts a hundred years from now. May the awakening come soon—an awakening, to be sure, that includes the wisdom to realize that status lust will always be there to some extent (as someone in AA will introduce himself as an “alcoholic” even after decades of being sober).

But may that lust shrink; may I find a way to minimize it on my “inside screen” to a more manageable size than it is today.

“No man is much regarded by the rest of the world. He that considers how little he dwells upon the condition of others, will learn how little the attention of others is attracted to himself.” –Samuel Johnson

“Know you that the love of yourself is more hurtful to you than anything else in the world.” –Thomas a Kempis

Rousseau, Neuhouser, and Me

I picked up Rousseau’s Critique of Inequality by Frederick Neuhouser and read it with sadness and regret. A long, long time ago, way back in New York in the early 1980s, Fred and I were close friends. I left America to move to Spain in 1985 and Fred was the person who accompanied me to the airport. Even though I was not unhappy about leaving New York, I assumed we would always stay close, and that did happen for a few years. But in 1988 Fred found a position at Harvard and his personality began to change: he grew colder, more aloof. We still took meals together when I visited from Spain but I could feel a little difference. By the mid ’90s—when I was about ready to return to the States (California) after a decade overseas—he had cooled even more toward me. Being a Harvard professor—he told me—was inextricably linked to his identity. When he mentioned phenomenally successful students who appeared in The New Yorker magazine a few short years after graduation, I asked him, “Is that hard for you?” and his answer was, “Yes, it would be hard if I weren’t a Harvard professor.” We no longer had meals together, just “a drink” in the presence of others. We said good-bye on Broadway and 110th street only a few blocks from where we first met; we hugged, and I never saw or heard from him again. I found out (because my birth father was a philosopher, too!) that he didn’t get tenure at Harvard and was now at U.C. San Diego. How he’d always hated California and called it stupid! That first year that I lived in L.A., I wrote him several times but heard nothing (I was “ghosted”). Almost twenty-five years have gone by and it’s still hard. I have often theorized to myself that if he’d gotten tenure at Harvard, we might still be friends. But the experience of losing the status that meant so much to him must have been excrutiatingly hard, and I wasn’t the appropriate person, during those wandering-in-the-desert years, to confide in, so he let the friendship lapse.

Thanks to the Internet, I found out that he later worked at Cornell and eventually ended up at Columbia in New York City, just a few blocks from the spot where we first met. I’ve seen him lecture on YouTube. He’s changed a lot. In the old days he used to laugh at older professors for being pretentious stuffed-shirts, and when I watch his lectures I see a pompous stuffed-shirt. I recognize him as the same person, the same look, the same voice, but at the same time not the person I knew. He sometimes lectures with his eyes closed. He does a lot of teenage uptalking (Valley Girl Speak) but mixes it with a trace of German intonation (he’s fluent in German) so it sounds respectable.  It’s sad to look at those videos and ask “What happened?” and it’s sad to read his book, and to suspect what happened: I don’t think my above theory is wrong. His life was changed by Harvard and the departure from Harvard, and I had no place in it. Here are some thoughts about the book and about Fred (but this is not a book review!).

  • Fred, being fluent in German and an expert on Hegel and Fichte, was always “supposed” to stay in the realm of German thought and letters, but what happened? Since leaving Harvard, he has written not one but two books on Rousseau (I’ve only read the second) and they both have to do with status and the quest for recognition. Very doubtful that this is a coincidence. His elevation to Harvard and his later loss of his perch there were life-changing experiences, and thus began his interest in Rousseau (who is required reading for most undergraduates and with whom he must already have been quite familiar). Let me backtrack. Recently I’ve become interested in Enlightenment thinkers and especially Rousseau. This is what led me to Fred’s book. The Second Discourse is all about how humankind started in a theoretical “state of nature,” went through a kind of “Golden Age,” and then ended up in our present situation where status plays such a negative part in our lives (especially in many First World countries). Rousseau and Fred don’t use the term status at all but this is what it amounts to. The term Rousseau prefers is amourpropre, a kind of self-love that didn’t exist in the “state of nature” but developed when men and women stood in front of their huts and thought about things like “Who can dance better? Who can shoot an arrow better? Who’s prettier? Who’s more accomplished?” And from there things pretty much went downhill. According to Fred, “Rousseau isolates amourpropre—a passion to be looked at, to be highly regarded, to acquire public esteem or respect—as the principle source of social inequality.” Back in the old days in New York, Fred talked about his craving for recognition and attention from people, but he hated this aspect of himself, especially because as a Marxist, such vanity went against his egalitarian principles. Then he rose to Harvard (the pinnacle of civilization), where he found esteem, but was lowered again in the world with his departure. I believe that Fred turned to Rousseau to painfully and comprehensively ruminate on the whole concept of amourpropre as the motor which has driven not just Fred but many if not most of us (definitely me too!), whether it be in the arts or sciences or in a company or at a university (where people compete for tenure). So much for the autobiographical impetus behind the fascination with Rousseau.
  • Rousseau’s Critique of Inequality is a long, laborious and intricate book (not a difficult one, exactly). It’s considerably longer than Rousseau’s original treatise. I don’t have the expertise or space to go into it in depth, but, given the ubiquitousness of amourpropre, does Rousseau offer any way out, any hope at all? These aren’t self-help books (here I’m referring to Rousseau’s treatise and Fred’s dissection of it). It’s all speculation and theory, but the long and short of it is: Rousseau concludes (according to Fred) that a certain amount of relatively benign (not “inflamed”) amourpropre is inevitable in our present societies as long as it doesn’t get too out of control. In our present societies and even in much more idealized societies or situations (which Rousseau goes on to develop in The Social Contract and Emile) a certain dose of “amourpropre light” is all right as long as it doesn’t harm other people too terribly much. I can’t remember exactly, but I think Fred does mention, indirectly, very competitive academic institutions where inflamed amourpropre gets a bit out of control. The way I see it, Fred’s Rousseau envisions a kind of Dutch or Scandinavian model of culture where amourpropre exists but in moderation, unlike in the U.S.A. or Britain or France.
  • Here’s a thought Fred dwells on: Is it enough that I’m okay and you’re okay and we are both equals? That would be nice, but according to Fred the whole amourpropre urge includes the drive to be not just equal but better than one’s peers. It’s not keeping up with the Joneses; it’s proving one’s superiority to the Joneses. Here’s Fred: “It remains an important question whether these political measures [as in The Social Contract] by themselves constitute a sufficient solution to the entire range of problems generated by social inequalities and inflamed amourpropre. The answer to this question turns in part on whether winning equal respect in the political sphere is sufficient to satisfy completely the longings of even non-inflamed amourpropre. There is plenty of evidence in the Second Discourse to suggest that this is not the case…Rousseau refers to amourpropre as a ‘universal desire for…preferment and a frenzy to achieve distinction.’” And yet, if this “frenzy” can somehow be tamed a bit, then it won’t be so bad? So: Obama’s pomposity instead of Trump’s monstrosity?
  • Just one or two more thoughts. Early in the book Fred makes a fascinating point: “[P]ossessing a good—wealth, prestige, power, or authority—is inseparable from someone else being disadvantaged by the other’s possession of it; the goods that make up the stuff of social inequalities are goods that can be enjoyed only ‘to the prejudice’ of another.” I don’t think he goes on to elaborate on this later in the book (I could be wrong). So my high school classmate Canin’s selling thousands of books in many languages is somehow not just “better than” me but actually existing at my expense? Jim Carey’s having millions of Twitter followers is somehow coming at My expense? I never, until now, thought of Canin or Carey as taking away from me, but I guess (on this theory at least) they are.
  • A word about Fred’s style. As I said, it’s complex and very analytical (in the Anglo tradition, though he is explicating a Continental thinker). I never found it difficult and since the topic is fascinating I followed almost everything with relative ease. But I object to the way he writes (as opposed to “thinks”). Couldn’t he have learned something from Rousseau’s prose? Of course, then he wouldn’t be “analytical”: he’d be “sloppy,” as Rousseau was (very sloppy). It would be unacceptable to write in a more literary way. Or, in Fred’s language: “inacceptable.” I realize “inacceptable” is a valid word (somewhere, in some circles), but please tell me one good reason for using it instead of “unacceptable”! Later on, he says “non-compossible.” Microsoft Word has never heard of this word. Why couldn’t Fred simply have said “incompatible”?  And on page 195 occurs Fred’s worst assault on the English language: “universalizability.” Okay here I recognize there probably is no exact synonym, but couldn’t he have put it another way? Does he actually use that word during lectures? Even my birth father Frank Verges, who published many papers but never (sadly) wrote a book, was a better writer than Fred, with many colorful and smart turns of phrase…On the other hand, perhaps this kind of writing (while too technical for Harvard?) is just the kind that is expected and valued almost everywhere else. He has to write this way to please his higher-ups and impress his lower-downs. So he is participating in a strict kind of caste system that I doubt Rousseau would have approved of at all. Rousseau got to where he was because of the elegance of this style (not just the thoughts themselves). Fred inhabits a very different world. Rousseau might have looked at Fred’s life and work and said, “That is a man in chains.”  ………And yet, for all that, I did get a lot out of the book. There is fascinating material here and it is written in the thorough, logical (not beautiful) style that allows no confusion, as in First I’m going to discuss A, then B, but before getting to C I will delve into certain aspects of both A and B as they pertain to X (studied in the previous chapter…) As Fred explained to me when I visited his Harvard office in ’94, he had good reasons for writing in the precise, dry way he did because to write in another way would mean not capturing his precise points and would be a kind of showing off. (NB: My critical tone does not reflect the way I ever felt at the time, but only in the wake of his distancing and later estrangement. When a person is still a friend and “on our side” or “in our camp” we permit many things and sweep others under the rug. Friendship strives to be blind.) So I guess I understand. It’s a pity we have never, over the last quarter century, been able to discuss any of these matters at our leisure in the Hungarian Pastry Shop or over breakfast at Happy Burger or at Tom’s Restaurant or walking through Central Park on an autumn day, as we did so many years ago, way back when we were young adults. Ah well…