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…

 

 

from Robin Wyatt Dunn’s Farewell Ode to L.A., Carmina Burana

Here are the first few cantos of a book-length poem, Carmina Burana, by Robin Wyatt Dunn, who recently left Los Angeles and now resides in New Brunswick, Canada. The whole poem is read by the author on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVAN0i0CJMI

Carmina Burana

by Robin Wyatt Dunn

Come, come, come!

You old wastrels; bored and beautiful. Bountiful and diseased men and women of Los Angeles.

Bad men. Wanton women. Lackadaisical omnipaths! Ritual seekers and golf caddy sundressers.

Bogey men. Bench-sitting men. Black white and yellow, red. Ocean red.

Gay and straight garrulous hulks, masking mad fakirs orchestrating disaster, who are you come to?

What pork and pasture milks your great orison, bad chalker, mercurial disaster. Who walks the name out of your feet, and writes his peace into your sleeve, black blistered and calked into the sea of asphalt, attenuated. Broad feet, no mare, in east coast hats and west coast hair, lost to memory.

Philter philanderer of drugs; teetotaler. Ritual garbanzo bean. Maze being.

Come into the maze with me for a minute; it won’t be long; I’ve seen you before, scab.

I’ve seen you in your mighty hat, old gun, oath keeper, totem breaker, salt mine son, who was it hurt you, in the mud and main drag, over my beckon and breach, dear heart, I told you, in the taxicab, that it was I who made your mother scream, such tremulous things, written over the yellow yellow yellow city;

Well, maybe it wasn’t you. But you could be guilty anyway. You never know.

We’ve been keeping count, on our phones, like a metronome, for the right hour to speak. The right name to forget. The ordination.

Which is it, priest? My mighty priests and priestesses of los angeles!

You horrible cultists!

We’ll have a song for you.

Humming under the sleeve.

1.

O Fortuna

Ritual mad!

Written in lightning!

gabled and garmonized!

Glee goat and gull!

Hull me under your two bottom car, noxious methamphetamine afternoon somewhere in echo park in your gangster death.

O Fortunate Angel!

Cut into squeak.

Set sail to hair.

O Fortune

Riotous rumor

Over the telephone

Who heard your name

Who photographed your face

whose history

muddled and forgotten

in your changed name

in your new religion!

Cut down your hair!

Let out your semen!

Open your legs!

You’re in Los Angeles!

2.

We’re counting now; underneath the blue daisy. Where the hot plate has been heating the water but will not boil it; where the squirrel has stolen your avocado; because it was his avocado. But then it was your avocado.

Where the black man from Rhode Island explains that he will make it big honestly, and will prove it, right before he leaves in his white Acura, never to return:

No love song for you!

Not yet.

We must sing of your ambition!

ambire, ambire, delicate child, around the mountain!

Come around the mountain with me!

She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes, so demon eyed, made into music.

LA Woman, snakes in her hair.

Radiant and with no comeuppance, archangel cut into the weight of the cut of the book in wood, lightning and red, shaped into memory for your children, some story they never heard.

It wasn’t your story, not from the angels.

No rhyme with reason with your fury woman, for we’re going to burn you at the stake again, and every night, on the pier.

burn well and heavy for our dreams.

3.

We’re counting now;

We’re counting up

We’re counting to the memory of the event.

Some black space in our minds, filling with regret.

There is no sweeter regret than in Los Angeles, where we all came to die. I died for you in Los Angeles, like Jesus Christ, and you died for me too here, that fucking child rapist, improbable divine, made over the Emperor a lover, and sign from god, or at least some good graffito on the toilet, a good bloody mob death, to please the finest nobility of the land, in El Sereno and Highland Park, and even in grumbling Glendale, where we came to sun, and persecute our enemies, we’ve heard your name, your glorious name.

We salute you in your absurdity, bloody red, racist capital of the world. holy rocker, lone and old, broken on the cross of love.

© 2018 Robin Wyatt Dunn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

for staring at people while sinking into invisibility.

 

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

 
I watch this boy

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

forever changing forever displaying the same
intolerable unquenchable human desire

 

 

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

Revocable Trust

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

           

Tired am I, and go to rest,

            Close both my little eyes.

            Father in heaven may your eyes

            Watch over my little bed.

            Amen 

 

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

About six or seven people showed up.

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

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

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

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

Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord . . . 

Sprinklers. Neckties.

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I never got it.”

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

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

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

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

I went on with the motions of packing.

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

“Who gave you that right?”

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

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

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

“I’ll get to it soon.”

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

“I might,” I said.

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

“I guess that’s the way it was.”

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

“There’s nothing wrong with that.”

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

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

“I did make something of myself.”

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

“Seventy.”

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

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

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

“Forty-five.”

“I thought you were older.”

“Forty-five.”

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

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

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

“We didn’t dwell on it.”

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

“No doubt,” I said. “No doubt.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, you did it all. He was lucky!”

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

“Yes, what then?”

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

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

“More normal.”
“Normal, I see.”

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

 

Radomir Luza: From the Crowded Chaos of His Closet

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

The medication cannot be missed
for even one day

The music vanishes
If it is not taken

Poetry unfocused
Vision unclear

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feet fueling faith
Frolicking fingers feeling like
Free form floating

Spirit and psychiatrist one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Books I Bought at AWP

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

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

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

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

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

And the essay ends:

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marsha de la O and a New Translation of Rumi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was also struck by these lines:

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

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

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

The Poetry of Meg Day and Malachi Black

Liberty Park Salt Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Belisarius

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Secular failure was called sainthood in the Middle Ages.

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

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

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

And you knew where you were then

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

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