Monday, November 25, 2013

More Vendler on Stevens

On Twitter @lit_hum alerts us about this article at The New Republic. I've always liked reading Helen Vendler on Wallace Stevens. This article reminds us the abstract can be a matter of blood.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Three Random Comments

1. The movie Little Buddha is fraught with problems, not the least of which is Keanu Reeves's roundly berated Indian accent, and yet it is a decent movie for those with an interest in Buddhism and an extremely compassionate cinematic heart.

2. I have another idea for a fictional documentary piece that I will write, and yet it seems irresponsible to publish it here. Publishing as a concrete thing and as an abstract idea continues to pose problems for me, both in the how and in the why, to say nothing of the who and the where.

3. Maintenance of outdoor bonsai in the winter is tricky for those attempting it for the first time, particularly in the question of how damp they should be.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Story about a Destroyed Neighborhood

Cori Faklaris has written a story in The Indianapolis Star (click here) about her family's neighborhood destroyed in Washington, Illinois. It shows us some of the details we never think about when such events happen. Best wishes.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Lovecraft's Providence, Literature and Reality

Illustration of Lovecraft's story "The Shunned House"
in Weird Tales (October 1937).

It's hard to mention Lovecraft without some cough of apology. Lately he's not just the darling grandfather of horror; his work has gained prestige from the attention of a number of literary figures, Joyce Carol Oates among them . Gawky as Lovecraft's oeuvre may be, he wrote with unique power about a kind of horror that he first--at least apparently--perceived and recorded. It's not because of his roots in pulp writing, then,  that Lovecraft remains an embarrassment. Many apologies, some more edifying than others, can be made for the nauseating views of Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, but for Lovecraft--whose racism, whose complete loathing of anyone religious (particularly Jews and Catholics) stood out in his writing as a sign of the cosmic horror for which he is praised--for him the apologies always fall flat. And one wonders, after all, if that vision of cosmic horror, exquisite as it may be, is inextricable from his racism, or at least from a deep conservative longing for the familiar in its author.

Horror fans who plunge into Lovecraft's longer works will not be shocked most by Dagon's mutant minions in the fictional town of Innsmouth. They will find most surprise by contrast in the peaceful descriptions of rural New England, and then find themselves in wonder at his loving portrayals of his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, for it is here--in the words and, apparently, in the place of Providence--that Lovecraft's longing finds moments of solace.

Lovecraft put this desire to striking use in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. I find this story too long and fantasmagorical, its dreamscapes and bestiaries of dreaded creatures almost encyclopedic in their excitement as they appear before the dreaming Randolph Carter. But the narrative does have shape, one of departure from ordinary reality--a move Lovecraft always executes quiet nicely--to a lengthy dream of increasing horror, then back again to the real world. The crescendo of gaping cosmic emptiness, a kind of relief after dull pages of chimeras, arrives barely before the story's end. With it also come signs of creation.

Then in the slow creeping course of eternity the utmost cycle of the cosmos churned itself into another futile completion, and all things became again as they were unreckoned kalpas before. Matter and light were born anew as space once had known them; and comets, suns and worlds sprang flaming into life, though nothing survived to tell that they had been and gone, been and gone, always and always, back to no first beginning.

Carter's homecoming upon waking follows.  Nominally the homecoming is to Boston, but I suspect the city to be the New England capitol of Providence. The following is not Lovecraft's best writing, but, after the stupifying novelties described in the dream, we see where the true wonder of existence belongs.

So to the organ chords of morning's myriad whistles, and dawn's blaze thrown dazzling through purple panes by the great gold dome of the State House on the hill, Randolph Carter leaped shoutingly awake within his Boston room. Birds sang in hidden gardens and the perfume of trellised vines came wistful from arbours his grandfather had reared.

Descriptions of Providence appear in several stories, but in none better than The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. In a description of the titular hero we may see an outline of Lovecraft himself and his relationship to the city.

Charles Ward was an antiquarian from infancy, no doubt gaining his taste from the venerable town around him, and from the relics of the past which filled every corner of his parents' old mansion in Prospect Street on the crest of the hill. With the years his devotion to ancient things increased; so that history, genealogy, and the study of colonial architecture, furniture, and craftsmanship at length crowded everything else from his sphere of interests. These tastes are important to remember in considering his madness; for although they do not form its absolute nucleus, they play a prominent part in its superficial form.

And a little later we read a full-blown paean to Lovecraft's home.

Old Providence! It was this place and the mysterious forces of its long, continuous history which had brought him into being, and which had drawn him back toward marvels and secrets whose boundaries no prophet might fix. Here lay the arcana, wondrous or dreadful as the case may be, for which all his years of travel and application had been preparing him. A taxicab whirled him through Post Office Square with its glimpse of the river, the old Market House, and the head of the bay, and up the steep curved slope of Waterman Street to Prospect, where the vast gleaming dome and sunset-flushed Ionic columns of the Christian Science Church beckoned northward. Then eight squares past the fine old estates his childish eyes had known, and the quaint brick sidewalks so often trodden by his youthful feet. And at last the little white overtaken farmhouse on the right, on the left the classic Adam porch and stately facade of the great brick house where he was born. It was twilight, and Charles Dexter Ward had come home.

And one wonders why the exclamation mark didn't appear at the end of the last sentence was well as at the end of the first.

*   *   *

I had occasion to visit Providence a couple of years ago while attending a conference about Zen and its teaching of paying attention to bare reality, waking up to it in a way as Randolph Carter woke up from his bizarre dream quest. Colleagues and I visited the Federal Hill district with its marvelous Italian restaurants and narrow streets where pedestrians, thankfully, always have the right of way. At all times in Providence, down near the smaller inlets, inlets and harbors of Naragansett Bay, I was aware of a large hill overlooking it all. I'm sorry that I don't know its name, or even precisely which direction it lies from Federal Hill, my visitor's disorientation having gotten the better of me. But always I had this bit of Charles Dexter Ward in my memory:

Westward the hill dropped almost as steeply as above, down to the old "Town Street" that the founders had laid out at the river's edge in 1636. Here ran innumerable little lanes with leaning, huddled houses of immense antiquity; and fascinated though he was, it was long before he dared to thread their archaic verticality for fear they would turn out a dream or a gateway to unknown terrors. He found it much less formidable to continue along Benefit Street past the iron fence of St. John's hidden churchyard and the rear of the 1761 Colony House and the mouldering bulk of the Golden Ball Inn where Washington stopped. At Meeting Street—the successive Gaol Lane and King Street of other periods—he would look upward to the east and see the arched flight of steps to which the highway had to resort in climbing the slope, and downward to the west, glimpsing the old brick colonial schoolhouse that smiles across the road at the ancient Sign of Shakespeare's Head where the Providence Gazette and Country-Journal was printed before the Revolution.

And from this memory of a text I felt completely oriented. I was squarely in Lovecraft's Providence. I was not lost but at home in a text while I was lost in a new place. Fortunately I was able to enjoy my time in an area of town Lovecraft might have associated with "polyglot squalor," though there was no squalor visible. I had my own experience, but Lovecraft seemed to look down on me from that higher, unnamed promontory.

Literature can do funny things to us. Read Dante's Paradiso, then look up at the night sky and see if it is the same. At one time I believed literature could be graded by its ability to contaminate our perception of reality: the greater the better. Then there are those of us unfortunate enough to have grabbed a text--be it a novel, scripture or even one deployed in the spectacle of a movie--and used it as a guide in life; as a way to navigate in a world either unknown or too full of possibilities to discriminate one course from another. We are beset by bugbears that existed in print before they inhabited our minds and made us inflexible.

Of course we remain responsible for our imaginations and how they interfere with our perceptions of the real world and of our tasks within it. I fear I share some of Lovecraft's desire to stay home at all times or at least to see home as some kind of reward for the adventure taken. My hope is that I refrain from the hateful sentiments and ideas Lovecraft expressed and lived. But my home has often been in texts of all sorts, and an atrophy has set in with regard to life, one I hope to remedy through clear sight and action. I would refer to the prospect of "personal adventure," but the term grants it too much importance.

Adventure for Lovecraft was a journey from beloved a home to a vast, meaningless void, and it ended in a return to the hearth. The process of that adventure caused no great change in its heroes. That's a particularly hard limit to any literature, and yet in that author's narrow vision we glimpse a world, albeit an inhuman one at its horrible depths, that we very well might not have known without his efforts. Even if we decide to throw off that vision as useless or not our own, we are left with the old, nagging suspicion that our true home, or the reality, or the suchness we wake up to is not as real as it could be, authors and advertisers and family members have hopelessly contaminated us to see a certain way that is not to anyone's benefit. This is to say nothing of the strange filters we make for ourselves to peer at the streets and houses and hills of our world, its history, the expanses endlessly calculated and tentatively charted.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Encounter with Borges

Jorge Luis Borges

I trouble myself posting this fictional story about a real author. Elsewhere in this blog I have written true accounts of real writers, some of whom have passed away. In a real world where people have real lives of real effort it seems irresponsible to mix it up with lies, and yet I can't resist. What follows is false. You can research it all on the internet and find it to be complete nonsense.

Willis Barnstone, in his humane memoir With Borges on an Ordinary Evening in Buenos Aires, excludes an account of one of the Argentine's visits to Bloomington, Indiana, and only in my old friend Peggy Seaforth's article about him in The Cage is there even passing mention of Aziz, the young Arabic scholar who sometimes accompanied Borges on travels when his wife stayed home. It is at this time in my life, with myself afflicted with partial blndness along with the usual struggles of a breathing person living in a time--like all times, Borges would remind us--of broken culture and cruelty, that I choose to offer a few words about my encounter with the literary giant.

I do not recall the name of the hotel in downtown Bloomington but remember it always--except for the night in question--as an image in my rear view mirror, so to speak, that tall, prismatic building out of place had it not been clad in Indiana limestone. (Even an internet search for the hotel will not reveal its location, although mention is made of another lodging from the city's downtown history.) I prefer to remain quiet about the business that brought me to his room that evening in October, 1982, and not because I stand to lose anything by  the revelation, but because some other people concerned are still alive. Suffice it to say I was a student, the evening warm and glowing with leaves, and I was excited in a way I have seldom experienced since. This was all in the era before the internet, a time when the pace of human competition was languid yet much warmer by comparison. It was also a time for Indiana before it was awash in the larger, international culture it so stubbornly resists even today, and it was also before the hope and depredation brought on by the Hoosier Chic movement moved the State to cultural notice. I perhaps shared the innocence of the times, but only with a hostility toward them covered by a veneer of timidity.

Aziz, a thin man in his early thirties, whose eyes froze me with their steadiness, greeted me at the door of the sixth floor room.  "You are John? Please come in." The room had a round, paper-and-book strewn table in the middle. The shaded west window still glowed with daylight. Hung on a wall--picture or mirror--was a large frame draped in cloth that seemed the same shabby taupe as the walls, except for a brown stain in the lower left corner of the fabric. Perhaps it was the combination of Aziz's intensity, the room's dull inhospitality and my own excitement that I noticed Borges last of all, sitting on a chair in the corner, dressed in a suit, eyes closed, leaning forward on his cane as posing for one of his book covers. Aziz took my elbow and sat me at the table facing Borges's direction. It was then I looked down and saw the photocopies of sigils, the cracked, leather-bound editions of John Dee, von Junzt and a lead-black copy of The Book of Eibon, all part of his continuing scholarship. I put the envelope I was sent to deliver on the table.

"So kind of you to do this for us," were his first words, smiling, keeping his blind eyes closed.

"It's nice to meet you, Mr. Borges."

The conversation we had lasted longer than I can recall. I'm not even sure how it developed except that it was Borges who kept it going. As for Aziz, about whom I'm afraid I have little to say, he took off his sport coat, lit a cigarette after offering one to me that I gratefully accepted, and leaned back in a silence that seemed amused in a quaintly friendly way. Looking back I'm amazed I did not feel more uncomfortable in the situation than I did in my nervousness, but that was the kind of trust Borges inspired.

"When I was young," Borges said, "I believed in God. Now I am an atheist," and for a moment he opened his eyes and gazed in blindness, not at Aziz or at me, but at the documents that lay spread before us. "It has been a long inquiry. Aziz helps with his experience in the matter. Our work is coming to an end. Yes. Tell me, John, what interests you?"

I told him I wanted to be a writer.

"It is easier to be a reader," he said. "It was hard for me to read Arabic, but as soon as I discovered a copy of the orginal in Buenos Aires, it was inevitable I learn that tongue. But I was," and here he paused and pressed his eyelids together, "impatient. So I read the translation by Dr. John Dee. He was Queen Elizabeth's astrologer, you know." Borges chuckled. "A poor translation, but effective." He explained how after reading Dee's translation of The Necronomicon he had a dream about a vast library of horrifying dimensions, stairwells that led to infinity. "I always thought those shafts might be too melodramatic a touch for the story I wrote, but I don't mind melodrama, and one must sometimes remain truthful in talking about reality, especially," and here he paused again and looked, if "looked" is an allowable word, away from the table, "especially about the things one sees."

It turned out that the reason for Borges's visit had nothing to do with Indiana University or his friends there, but it had to do instead with a previous visit from William S. Burroughs . "Bill visited your university last year and lodged in this hotel room. He is a very powerful writer. Anyway, he left unfinished business, and he has asked me to settle it." At those words Aziz pursed his lips and glanced toward the draped wall hanging. He fidgeted with an unlit cigarette.

"But all this trouble is avoidable," Borges continued. "Avoidable. If I had a choice now, I would have continued only to read Chesterton. He is terrifying enough." Here Borges opened his eyes and looked at me. They were eyes of great kindness and great loss. "I appreciate what you have done for us this evening. Yet none of it is necessary or even advisable. I did not need Dr. Dee's works. Nor do you. You don't even need mine. Or if you do need them, better sell shoes, young man. Better sell shoes." He ended in a quiet crescendo punctuated with a bob in his throat. His eyes closed again, and at that moment Aziz rose. I took this as my cue to leave. The last I remember of the room the drapes had gone black.

No more impersonal details remain worth relating. The ones I withhold are matters of embarrassment to others and have little to do with that great author's biography.  It should come as little surprise that Borges was a Necronomicon scholar, since his home town was one of that book's capitols, and since Borges was Borges. The scandal surrounding that book of black magic has lost its cachet now that its contents lie entirely open on the internet.

We are instructed to let go of the past. Letting go the past is freedom. Apart from a kind of past that is made of negative memories we play over and over in our hearts, it turns out there are infinite kinds of past that need letting go. My memories related here are paltry, made under the influence of youthful awe, but I will always remain indebted to Borges. In that brief interview I learned enough to begin in earnest as a writer. As for the mistakes I have made, of course I have no one to blame but myself. That I have abandoned writing for other ventures just as dubious and just as infinitely fraught with opportunities for failure, well, that I also owe to Borges, or to no one. In whatever I have left to do. In whatever I have left to see.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

When Quotes Go Wrong

Don't be fooled by the viral graphic in this post. Al Pacino did not say those words. Maybe it would have been neat if he had. They sound tough, like the tough little kid we might imagine Al Pacino was. But the more you think about the quote, when you imagine the kid asking for forgiveness, the quote sounds much more appropriate for a character Pacino might have played, such as Michael Corleone. But thinking about the quote some more, the words aren't as earnest as the words Michael Corleone would use. No, there's a sneaking bit of satire in them, the criticism of a certain view of God as someone who makes it okay to do anything to anyone as long as you say you're sorry. Suddenly there's no kid involved in this quote at all. Now there's some wisecracker lurking behind them.

A little googling reveals that the quote is close to something Emo Philips said in a comedy routine. This origin makes complete sense. And yet... wouldn't it have been cool if Al Pacino had said this? If Pacino had said this, it would have affirmed some kind of gut-sensed psychopathology that many of us nurse. "Yeah, screw you, Right and Wrong. I get the bike. God can sort out the prissy details." Somehow, for a moment, Al Pacino has affirmed our inner mobster. And, I regret to say, the words hit us a lot harder when accompanied by a picture of Pacino than they do by one of a skinny, pale guy wearing a big wig. Sorry, Emo.

There are lots of quotes that get better when the wrong person says them. My unscientific sense is that such misattributions account for 2% of all Facebook posts (don't quote me). This sort of meming has been going on at least since the advent of email, and it only got deeper when it became easier for people to alter photographs with cheap software. It used to be all quotes people wanted you to pay attention to were attributed incorrectly to Winston Churchill, George Carlin or Mark Twain. Lately there's a real psychological sophistication in this practice.  Wiggy, sort-of-scientific spiritual stuff sounds best misattributed to Albert Einstein and a picture of his frayed hair. Sometimes a vaguely racist rant has more cache when misattributed to Bill Cosby pictured frowning as he lounges on a studio set couch. People who agree with the words can say, "See, a black guy said that negative stuff about black people. So it must be true."

Don't expect anything to change except for the memes to become more compelling, so watch out. If you think someone didn't say something, chances are you're right.

The memers and the misquoters resemble the faux Pacino who didn't really say what they say he said. They steal a quote and ride off in glee, throwing the moral consequences to the wind. I still kind of wish Pacino had said he stole that bicycle. But now that I think of it, is that really even Pacino's picture?

Friday, November 15, 2013

First Published Poem In Over a Decade Now Available in Print

"Cherry Tree," a poem I wrote about the vanishing physical culture in Noblesville, and the first poem of mine to be published in over a decade, is in print now and can be purchased through The Polk Street Review website. If you happen to be in Noblesville and visiting the downtown you could also drop in at The Wild just across the street from the courthouse and purchase an issue.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Monday, November 11, 2013

Words as the Form We Choose

In Noblesville, Indiana, Kurt Meyer and Bill Kenley, supported by community patrons and grant money, have just printed their third annual edition of The Polk Street Review. Their publication is based on a simple premise: publish what has been written about Noblesville or what has been written by people who have lived there. At a time when the most rigorously studied languages belong to computers and when megacompanies control our media, this bit of literary hyperlocalism is a marvel. I attended their third issue launch party last Saturday.

The size of the magazine and the number of its contributors have swollen in three years. Bill Kenley noted that a surprising number of poets have swarmed to the grasshopper-emblazoned annual, a fact I noted with conspiratorial pleasure because I sometimes write poems, but not because I am part of any organized conspiracy of that controversial craft.

The party happened at The Logan Street Sanctuary, a church that John Gilmore has recently converted into a place for performances, art shows and the like. We sat in pews and listened to magazine contributors read what was printed in the new issue. The forms the authors chose to express themselves ranged from bare haiku to what I can only call "wonderfully expansive Hoosier memoir." And whenever you attend a reading you get the fullest possible sense of the reader, from tone of voice to color of dress. Speaking as someone who grew up in a fairly sheltered childhood in Noblesville, I have to admit that hearing the range of behavior revealed among residents in this former small town was utterly refreshing and reassuring.

These people who go up in front of others to read are brave. The number of reasons they are brave would be difficult to count. The first one that comes to mind is the general hostility people feel toward those who write. That level is tamped down at an event like The Polk Street Review launch party, but it's a fear all writers carry, usually only modified by the thickness of the individual artist's skin. The other fear is the fear of failure.

My personal and probably biased opinion is that those who choose written words as a form for expression have chosen a very difficult method. The opportunity for messing up starts at the typo and extends to, but does not end at, the accidental connotation that will ruin pages of material. Let's add stage fright and all that goes with public speaking and performance to those who do readings. It's a giant house of cards writers build. In the end whether that structure stands or falls seems more dependent upon some form of providence than it depends on individual talent or effort, but we always look to that author to take blame when things go wrong.

In all the risks the writer takes with words--the risks with fragile emotions using a fragile medium--the considerable value of the written word shines brightest. In the vulnerability of the words we can always see the infinite vulnerability of ourselves as humans, and we are reminded of our true place in the world. Keep reading and writing if you can.

Hats off to The Polk Street Review for reminding us what literature is all about. And many happy returns.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Then Again, The Cage....

Then again, the cage is like a shark cage, by which I mean its contents are oceanic.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Misguided Angel

Margo Timmins, from linked video.
A Facebook friend posted this link to a performance by The Cowboy Junkies of their incredible song "Misguided Angel." It is softly beautiful and terrifying. The central persona in the song seems to assert her own will in the teeth of her family's wishes, but by the end of the song that apparently strong personal agency is revealed to be a complete illusion. I've listened to the performance from the Junkies' famous Trinity session a million times. This version has one voice and a single Telecaster strumming clean. Amazing.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Haiku, Form and Content

The title of this blog is about an old wish I had that I could craft poetry out of pure form, and for years that was the sort of effort I put into its making, trying to produce that bird of soul and content that Seamus Heaney said Yeats could conjure by working on the cage of form. Part of the motivation for exclusive work on the cage came from Richard Hugo's advice for students in his book The Triggering Town. The part of poetic form he singled out for his students was the most obvious one for poetry: sound. His advice was to use sound, and not imagery or ideas, to hold poems together.

It was a dogged effort on my part, a method I clung to far too long. Hugo said his sound strategy was for beginning students and meant to set them up for the long haul. Sound was not the haul itself. Once in the long haul I found no alternative to sound, and after about eight years my efforts dried up. I had almost no content. All dressed up and nowhere to go: that was the situation.

Of course you never can really separate form and content in poetry, and Heaney's comment actually points to that fact. Sometimes the content becomes clear in the process of concentrating on meter, alliteration and assonance. Working on the cage can also provide an excellent means of finding one's voice even in the absence of a conscious use of content. Such a practice puts all the formal elements in place.

After not writing much at all for a long time, I still find myself with little to say but also with an old desire to work with the words in lines again. Producing this blog has helped rejuvenate the process of writing somewhat. Another practice that has helped is the simple act of moving a pen on paper. That may seem silly, but the neural pathways that have to do with the physical act of writing and the mental one must have some overlap. I also admit to liking writing my alphabet with a pen. Don't ask why.

In January I took on the simple task of writing one haiku a day. I've not been entirely consistent with this vow, and the form is one I've never done with any success until a little bit lately. My haikus often, but not always, try to contain the reference to season and the turning of subject that classical haiku requires. The haiku is a small cage. Manageable for literary invalids.

That's a terrible way to put it, making haiku sound like something not quite grown up, like sets of building blocks with letters on them. I only mean to say that is the way I've used haiku, a form I'll never master. Working on a small cage has helped me write in other forms again, and it has made me see more clearly what content actually is about.

A realization came to me when I thought about what I'd write next year. I thought instead of a haiku a day, I'd try a tanka a day, a tanka essentially being a haiku with two extra lines. The prospect struck fear in me. Would I actually have enough to say to write tanka, to fill up those extra lines? That led to a new consideration.

Maybe I never really lacked things to say. Maybe I worked on cages that were too big, too boomy, so expansive you'd never see the bird even if it showed up. Writing haiku has brought me to a sense of how content can become central to the poem again, as long as the content is meant, is appropriate to my scale of knowledge and concern.

All of this is a rather sorry revelation, one better suited to someone younger than I am, but I'll take it. And I'll recommend a course of study in haiku to anyone lost working on a cage or lost in one. Give it a try. It might help you see more clearly until the next lesson.

Metafictional Aside from Story "Rosalind"

I keep quoting from this abandoned story. Apologies.

    There are many versions of this story of The Dramatic Car Ride. In one the protagonists find Petrucchio, but Mark’s rage vanishes the moment he locks eyes with him. In another the Z has to refuel, and in a gas station restroom Rosalind launches into a soliloquy that is an attempt to explain to Linda the full intricacy of herself and the situation they are in, but the attempt fails. In one Linda and Steve discuss, in a hushed and coded way, the romantic possibilities between them, though it goes nowhere then or later. In another possibility, the one I find most alluring, they come upon an abandoned rural church where surreal and wonderful things happen to them in a kind of Hoosier magical realist mode, events that transform them in ways at once drastic and indefinable. I choose the story that most favors the events I know surrounding that night, the one that allows the protagonists to enter and exit as themselves and better prepared for what would come, though I admit as author to a level of exploitation.
Taming of the Shrew, 4.1. (public domain image)