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

Belisarius

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

Secular failure was called sainthood in the Middle Ages.

*

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

*

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

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

And you knew where you were then

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

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

Thirty Years of Carolyn Kizer’s YIN

Hypatia Death

Death of Hypatia

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

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

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

 

Most people from Idaho are crazed rednecks

Grown stunted in ugly shadows of brick spires,

Corrupted by fat priests in puberty,

High from the dry altitudes of Catholic towns.

 

Spooked by plaster madonnas, switched by sadistic nuns,

Given sex instruction by dirty old men in skirts,

Recoiling from flesh-colored calendars, bloody goods,

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

 

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

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

The poem begins:

At first, it was only a trickle

Of eminent men, with their astrolabes and armillae,

Who passed cautious notes to each other, obscurely worded.

Of course, the terrible news leaked out

And the peasants were agitated.

Moans arose from the windowless hovels.

Men, hardly human, shouldering crude farm implements,

Gathered in knots along the roads and raved:

Storm the great houses! Smash the laboratory,

The retorts, the lenses—instruments of Satan.

But the minions of the manors

Lashed them back from the bronze gates,

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

Praying for us.

 

(“Us” here means the nonbelievers.)

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

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

 

The magnificent correspondence between Madame A.

And the more eminent, though less notorious,

Monsieur B. reveals a breathtaking indifference

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

They move intently towards their prime concern:

Which voice, this time, will loose

Its thunderbolt? The straggling troops of revolution

Must be rallied yet again.

In perfect confidence of their powers,

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

Despite their attainments, had replaced you;

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

They so supremely compose.

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

 

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

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

Out there, on the edge of the familiar world,

Are knots of men, burned dark as our own peasants

Used to be, but better armed, we know;

We armed them.

From time to time they bang their heads on the sand

And shout, unintelligibly, of you.

Their version of you, of course, quite different

From the blandness you metamorphosed into

Over the centuries, progressively edited.

Holy war! Can they be in earnest?

After all, this isn’t the fourteenth century.

Is it the uneasiness we feel, or the remnants

Of ancestral superstition, which makes us ask ourselves,

Can this be your planned revenge?

 

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

If only the weight of centuries

Wasn’t on your side.

If only unbelief was more like faith.

 

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

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

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

If only unbelief was more like faith.

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Swimming into CloudsIMG_0732

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

To One Now Blind

What you have lost is not so great a losing

As many think, or say in smothered phrase:

The green and yellow-throated hills, refusing

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

Familiar whiteness; count of birds combining

Their narrow wings in patterns on the wall;

The curving cone; the languor of declining

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

Which, by this subtle cheating, have been hid.

How shall you lack the pageantry of these?

Color and shape and thought still pyramid

From undiscovered sources; still they please

And, one world gone, the galaxies arise

To spires of light behind your darkened eyes.

 

And here is a later poem:

shadow river

once

            the river was young

as we were

            graced with small summer islands

that entice   lead us toward the shallows’

lucent brimming pools

 

each island different   though every

windward shore churns with rapids

            wild shudders and foam

            a ragged din

            that swings fear up the throat   drives us

headlong past the tumult

 

to stagnant shoals

soft as fresh ferns

to long hours that grow feet sunk in mud

fingers

            straining after driftwood

            shells   crawdads   whatever

the river sends

 

show-offs we put together dams and pyramids

skip rocks until the river’s skin

is stamped with silver rings

or wade   beguiled

            among the lazy fish

            torn bits of honeysuckle buds

 

we claim it all – islands   the brindled crescent beaches

the mud and gnats –

the river   too   is ours

until

            one golden buoyant August afternoon

traps

an unknown child on the windward islands

            face down in the reeds

            fishlike body striped

            bluegreen from algae

the tawny hair a net for water spiders

 

some mistake   we think   some sort

            of knife change in the weather

            bringing him here

            without heat or breath

a child like us

but not like us

 

tears

singeing our cheeks

we cut him loose

and let the rapids fling him near the town

 

then

run   go

give up forever

            the sunlit pools   the dams

            the honeysuckle islands

abandon summer

            to the waves

            of this hypocrite river

we never mastered or owned or understood 

*

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Shadow of Silver Birch, a Novel by Terez Peipins (Black Rose Writing)

Peipins novelTerez Peipins couldn’t have known while writing The Shadow of Silver Birch, which is all about European wartime immigration and partially set in Catalonia, that, by the time she published the novel, Europe would be engulfed in its worst refugee crisis since World War Two, and Catalonia would be making news around the world for declaring (sort of) its independence from Spain. The Shadow of Silver Birch is thus a very timely book and worth reading for its strong, believable characters and its depiction of the way the Latvian nation struggled all through the twentieth century and particularly during and after WWII.

I have known Terez Peipins since the early ‘90s. We both lived in Barcelona at the same time, though she spent even more years there than I did. For a while, we workshopped our stories and poems in the same writing group. Now I live in Los Angeles and she’s in Atlanta. Though born in the U.S., Peipins has always been closely connected to her Latvian heritage—more closely, I would say, than most second-generation Americans of foreign-born parents. Interestingly, she chose to settle for a long while in Catalonia, which, like Latvia, is a small nation dominated by bigger states around it, and “occupied,” for hundreds of years, by Spain. Peipins has visited Latvia often and has all her life been immersed the Latvian language and culture. Her love for her parents’ homeland is plain to see on every page.

This is the story of Juris and his two daughters, Olga and Laura. During the war both daughters leave Latvia, Olga spending time in a DP camp before eventually emigrating to Canada, and Laura falling in love with a young Spanish soldier and settling in Barcelona (though not with the soldier!). Peipins is at her best when she describes the immigrant experience. She has heard stories about immigration and exile since childhood; characters, situations, and locations have an authentic ring to them that can’t just be the result of research. Take this passage—the virtual exile of the one character who stayed at home—as an example:

Sometimes Juris, who had spent his entire life in Riga, felt displaced. The names of the streets had been changed so many times that no one knew what to call anything anymore. First the Russians, then the Germans, and now the Russians again were trying to erase any sign of Latvian.

Or this one:

Today there was a familiar thin envelope from Latvia. Envelopes revealed the economic status of each country. In Latvia, the paper was so thin as to be almost transparent; in Spain it was a bit thicker, and the letters from Canada always had a pleasant weight to them.

What was especially convincing for me was the description of one character’s life in a Siberian gulag. Whether Peipins knew about this from family stories or research, it’s amazingly well done:

While Juris had been chopping down trees and working outdoors, he was never sick. Now that he worked indoors, he had a persistent cough he couldn’t shake. He rationed out his tea, making endless pots from one spoonful which he shared with his companions. It was still stronger than what they got with their meals. Juris tried to breathe in the warmth of the tea as if it were Lilly herself, as if he could capture her essence.

The writing has an authentic feel, and the style is lyrical and serene. Here’s how Peipins describes Laura at home in Catalonia:

Laura sat in the garden with her needlework, marveling at the warmth of the sun in the garden. At the end of the winter when absolutely everything was dead in Riga, here orange blossoms filled the air with a sweet fragrance. The white blossoms could even be made into a tea used for its relaxing effect. Aina was learning to talk and Laura laughed as the little girl tripped every other step and looked up at her mother from the ground, surprised, as if to ask how she got there. Laura could keep one eye on her and one on the tapestry she was cross-stitching from memory of one which hung in their living room in Riga.

This gentle style, and Peipins’s portrayal of the Latvian diaspora, are the reasons to read this book. We sense, on nearly every page, a longing for homeland. Both Laura and Olga do well overseas, but somehow never find happiness. Ironically, their father Juris who remains in Lativa, feels more contentment by the end of his life than his daughters do abroad. The material well-being that life in Canada and Spain brought to these immigrants was not enough to heal a very old wound. As in Herbert Gold’s Fathers, one immigrant-character just can’t adapt to his new land, and slips into permanent depression.

The only issue I had with this narrative was the lack of drama and big scenes. I missed more intensity, someone losing their temper at some point, a little bit of tension here and there: real life, in every stratum of society except maybe in a Buddhist monastery, has people angry, excited, in suspense. In Silver Birch we have a convincing chronicle of characters’ lives through fifty years of history, but not enough conflict. In this sense, the depression one character falls into is significant: depression, they say, is anger turned against oneself, directed inward. And to the outside world this inner conflict is perceived as deadness and resignation. This atmosphere of wistful resignation I think intentionally permeates the book. Still, with so many characters and situations and pages of history covered here, I would have loved to see Peipins make more of the potential for intensity here and there, and a couple of evil or semi-evil characters. Perhaps Peipins meant for the real antagonist to be the cataclysm of World War Two? At a few points toward the end, characters remind each other of why things turned out the way they did, with statements like, “It was the war, you see, all because of the war.”

And it’s this wistful resignation that seems to shut out, for all the characters except one young girl, the comforts of religion. First the Nazis and then the Russians and the Fascists and the factories of Canada, seem to have shorn away the last traces of faith in God or a higher power. But there’s something else going on. More than once in the novel, if I recall right, Peipins talks about religion in Latvia, how it was one of the last parts of Europe to embrace Christianity, and how some Latvian places retained pagan practices till only a few hundred years ago. This absence of faith makes the book more poignant, as does the absence of artistic pursuits. Laura, for example, started out as a pianist, but later gave up her concert hall ambitions. Many characters who started out as professionals ended up working in factories. This brought material prosperity, but there was always something missing from most of these people’s lives, forever changed by war and occupation and, yes, stunted, condemned not to really know their true potential and to always ask, “What if? What if?”  I’ll end with a lovely passage that takes place in a church; it seems to exemplify better than any other the mood of quiet determination mixed with sadness that pervades The Shadow of Silver Birch:

Now that she attended church, Olga tried to believe in a larger figure who controlled, who decided who lived and who died, but she still couldn’t make any sense of it. It was impossible to imagine a God who would let Laura be so stupid or let Astrid die, let alone permit the war they’d all lived through. She took her comfort in the space of the church itself, in the candles and smell of incense.

I wonder what kind of German and Swedish novels those second-generation Syrian-Germans and Syrian-Swedes will be writing in thirty or forty years from now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suzanne Lummis: Our Lady of Beneficent Talent

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve got bad news

and worse news: first, I’m in hell

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

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

muggy most days. And this seaside town

that maybe served once as an annex to heaven,

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

strewn with threadbare nets, stalls

where fishermen displayed the open-eyed shine

of the day’s catch just rotted sticks now,

the storefronts turning to salt then

to thick and itchy air. Wow—

what was that? Can you believe all those words

jumped from my mouth? Don’t know

how I did it . . .

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

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

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

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

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

Get me outta here! And this time,

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

believe me, you will not look back.

Oh, but one good thing—no flames here,

no brimstone, like the Fundamentalists believe.

Although when I wade thigh deep

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the (more fun) bad:

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

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

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

She don’t open the door,

that old lady there, four-oh-six.

You know she shy, quiet, and never

do nothing, never call attention.

But the manager come for rent and she

don’t open. And he, you know,

’s calling Misses Iverson!—Come

back the next day—Heriberto—she

don’t open.

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

The way I see it,

she work for some boss,

you know, some little place, her whole

life, where they do your taxes or sell

you insurance, something like that,

and she shy and she never do nothing. Well—

she do what she supposed to do.

Now she dying she push back some—

she don’t have to answer to nobody.

Don’t have to jump up for every knock.

Ahh no, she think, Uh Uhh.

I ain’t gonna open the god damn door!

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

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

Astarte   Leaping Deer

Philip Marlowe

 

Late-Night Sue

A Relatively Sober Dorothy Parker for the New

Millennium

 

Frank O’Hara in a

                     Joan Didion Mood

La Mujer Bellisima

Amiga

My Friend

 

My Love

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

Where is the love affair with language?

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

New Books by Jack Bowman and Sherman Pearl

JackBowmanNewShermanPearlNew

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

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

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

I’m thinking of retiring

from the morass of retirement, of starting a life-

ending career. I scour the classifieds

for openings in the field of boredom, which

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

more boring than waiting for death to cross

before the children do.

 

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

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

Then twist the dial

like a gambler betting everything

on his last toss of dice.

A faint voice comes through the haze,

some snake-oil preacher

hissing about Jesus and life everlasting.

You turn up the volume.

 

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

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

***

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

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

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

Simple

In an effort to reduce stress

and back away from the razor,

Frank decides to sweep out his mind,

rinse out his heart

and hallow out the demons in his soul

 

he prepares the devices; cleans them

thoroughly,

straightens the wires,

untangles the conduits,

connects it to power

and begins

 

he shudders, trembles, as each chakra

fires;

sending blue fluorescent beams into

his head,

hair changes color,

skin adds green and violent hue,

translucent scales then shed,

feathers grow then detach

 

he mumbles phrases in Aramaic,

Swahili

and Togolese

each a proverb of strange, unknown

import

and then . . . he is back

exhausted, clear and ready to press on.

 

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

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

this is it,

was it worth it?

Was all that webbing and trapping

and spinning

worth it?

 

Hope so.

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jeffrey S. Samuels

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

 

Jerry Beauchesne · Wayne, New Jersey

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

 

Dieter Heymann

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

 

John Jones

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

 

Marsha Crom

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

 

Tommy Morris · University of Dallas

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

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

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

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

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

 

Kee Llewellyn · New York, New York

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

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

 

Zachary Nicholas Heigle · Delgado Community College

Kee Llewellyn: Do you consider YOURSELF a failure?

 

Torrin Shusty Fields

Kee Llewellyn: Who spiked your LSD?

 

Brad Luring

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

 

Michael Runyan · University of Arkansas

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

 

Kee Llewellyn · New York, New York

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

 

Richard Schiffman · SUNY Potsdam

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

 

Stuart Hamilton

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

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

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

That is how the universe will end.

 

Ray Kraft

It doesn’t matter.

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

But it is interesting.

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

 

Robert Lewis · Kent State University

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

 

Roderick McNeese

Total oblivion. How novel.

 

Robert Lewis · Kent State University

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

 

Michael Fraser

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

 

Stuart Hamilton

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

 

Michael Fraser

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

 

Stuart Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jordan Kratz · Kenmore Square School of Rock

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

 

James Geiser · Cashier at Rite Aid

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

 

Cassandra Bradbury

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

 

Jeff Grotke · La Verne College of Law

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eliot again, from Four Quartets:

And what there is to conquer

By strength and submission, has already been discovered

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

To emulate—but there is no competition—

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost

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

That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.

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

______________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

From time before time,

in the darkest caves of eternity,

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

flowing like a dream, magic, melancholy,

like the nights of Scheherazade.

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

Winter has ended.

Boredom has ended.

I know I love the spring.

I long for it with desire.

But my suffering heart, full of winter,

……………………………………………………..

Appears at no fixed season.

……………………………………………………

My life is winter.

 

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

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

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

Gypsy!

I am running away, carried along by distant roads,

my black faith, unknown, terrifying.

My journey ends

in your eyes, the graveyards of everything mysterious.

Gypsy!

If I make a sacrifice to you,

it will be my heart.

Rain on me!

Rain on me

torrents from your cloud of mystery.

Rain on me! You are still wealthy

with the scent of grass on your breasts,

and the dew-drenched earth.

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

 

 

The Biological Half-Sister I Never Got to Know

 

Samantha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what many reunions are like.