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Not too long ago, blessed with my usual late summer/fall insomnia, I woke up at 2 in the morning and knew I would not be going to bed again anytime soon. I’d fallen asleep at 11, and so I’d had the 3 hours most insomniacs know, are just enough to preclude any further hours of sleep. The next day I would be at the university from 10 until 7:30 at night. I resigned myself to this state of affairs, and wrote a diatribe against vacuity which I then erased. I read some Lorca. I wondered why they had made Brad Pitt, buff as he may have been, Achilles. I searched for my old video of Kalifornia since for some perverse reason, movies about serial murderers or bad action films lull me to sleep. Brad Pitt is much better in Kalifornia, and I decided it was not his lack of physical stature, but of gravitas that made him a bad Achilles. Around three I heard my infant daughter cry. Clare was up and about and I was grateful. The loneliness of thee night was enormous and I had run out of things to dither over.

At almost nine months, the top of her head still smells, for no reason at all, like timothy grass. She was drunk with sleep, but waking from it, and her cry was visceral–the sound of a child caught between worlds, which is about the same as when she manages to crawl under the coffee table and get stuck there–plaintive, sharp, and impossible to ignore.

I lifted her from her crib, felt her burrow into my heart as we bumped down the carpeted stairs. I tried to put her down on the soft carpet to sleep while I watched the sort of television my wife nixes, but she wailed whenever I let go of her. I was secretly happy that I meant that much to Clare at this moment because, being selfish, I didn’t want to be without the feel of her against me. Soon, very soon, she is going to be far more autonomous and I might even prove an embarrassing figure–someone she quickly passes by in the hall on her way to more acceptable folks.

Because of her need, which was raw, and immediate, and not really like her, I held her the way I have not been able to when she is awake since she was a newborn: head cradled in my left palm, neck and shoulders supported by my forearm, my other arm cradling and supporting my left. I rocked her, cooed, rocked some more, put her down, saw her wake and wail, picked her up, kissed her forehead, and, finally, when I was able to lie on the living room carpet with her, and she had recovered the equilibrium of being fully awake, she reached out for my lower lip, wrenched it (with a little too much bravado) and said: dah dah. When I recovered my lip from her strong little death grip, I said: “Yes, it’s da da. Wannuh, watch Goodfellas or Mad Men on Netflix?” She decided to answer by lovingly gouging one of my eye balls. I decided this meant Mad Men. We watched four consecutive episodes until the Netflix developed a glitch, and the first hint of dawn came to the picture window. By that time, she was asleep, her mother was asleep, and I was floating through a depiction of the 1960s.

To abide with this daughter is deeper than any understanding. Forget understanding. Forget mystery, too. This sort of love is the closest I will ever get to being the shadow of a great stone–something still, and stolid and beyond both understanding, and mystery–a presence, a weight that does not need to be lifted, and is no weight at all. When my wife came down the stairs, I kissed her, explained that I stayed down stairs so as not to wake her with my insomnia, and the baby awoke as if on cue, for her banana with cereal. Clare had slept soundly on the carpet. I think like her dad, she loves floors (you can’t fall from a floor). Her mother lifted her slightly above her head to do the sniff test (pee and poop are recurrent themes in our house) took her up to be changed. I got my computer ready for work, my syllabi, my mind–all in readiness, but, for the first time in years and years, perhaps since I was little, the awful dread of the first day of school overwhelmed me. Leaving, I hesitated, stalled. I held both my wife and Clare in my arms, and, since Clare has the good sense to avert her baby cheeks from my scraggly beard, I whispered to her: “I love you. Thanks for the hang.”

If asked what my greatest ambition was, I’d admit it was still to write a great poem–not a great poem as per some throng of critics, or high powered literary figures, but great to one talented, intelligent, engaged reader who I trust to never let me down in terms of aesthetic judgment. This reader exists only in the mind, as a sort of faith. At times, this reader has found partial embodiment in certain individuals, but never full, and never in that “Admiring bog” Emily Dickinson joked about. The bog never liked me much and, at an early point in my so called writing life, I had to realize the in crowd might patronize me, even hold me in a sort of pleasant regard, but I am not idol material, and on those rare occasions when I have been “Worshipped” I did my best to dispossess my worshippers of that opinion, even highlighting my flaws (usually ad-nauseum).

To put it succinctly, I am a failure, but I am a failure in a worthy game, and that is better than being a success in a rigged contest. The University encourages networking so as to build your profile, ballyhoo your accomplishments, and promote your career. I must be some anachronism because I find that sort of ongoing and relentless self promotion to be immoral, even evil. If you are not standing for something more than yourself, then you are not standing. That’s my own personal feeling on the matter, and I am, no doubt wrong. The self Whitman stood for was as much a creature of faith as the “ideal” reader for whom I wish to write a great poem. The self of networking differs in this respect from the self of true community in that it sees others only as means to an end, public service only as a means to an end. It does charity to be “Seen.” It is Machiavelli Lite. Its self is all Ayn Rand meets Machiavelli and has a blood drive. It believes in nebulous words such as excellence and achievement. When I speak of greatness, I mean it in a far from nebulous way: I mean to fail at something so magnificent, so sublime, so beautiful and good that even your failure seems, in the best light, holy. I sound like third rate Don Quixote, but why not? Better that than a third rate Ayn Rand.

I did things lately I would never normally do: I asked a student of mine who has become celebrated to write a blurb for me. This was not easy, or even close–not because of pride, but because I love this former student, am proud of him and felt I was taking something good and decent and lowering it to the level of business–which I was, but I did this because I have a wife and baby, and most of the people who have power over me do not think like me: they think in names, they think in terms of who is published where, and who went to what school blah, blah, blah, and, frightening as this may be to me, they are true believers in this crap. I need to care about my daughter and wife–not myself. My former student was gracious enough to write something for me, but I am in great conflict and pain about it. We spent years eating very unhealthy food together, sometimes at 2 in the morning, talking about everything–including poetry. He helped me as much as I helped him, and I don’t mean in terms of a career–I mean in terms of helping me remain a human being, helping me do time in this existence, in this place. To sully that by asking for an intro or blurb was hard to bear, but, I feel necessary. Oh I don’t know. I don’t know what is necessary anymore. As you grow older, you think you know and that is horrible. I really don’t understand what it truly necessary. I do know I chose the vocation of marriage and children, and this is greater and more important than my vocation to teach or write a great poem–but if I don’t promote myself, or do what I can to meet the world where it is–am I a good husband or father? Hell, no. To compromise and cheapen myself in this respect is holy, but it is not holy to be a true believer in this crap: it’s all a lie. All of it: the kudos, the achievements, the publications are all a lie and a lie can be a beautiful thing–like a great fish story–provided you don’t start believing in it yourself. My greatest ambition is to write a great poem, and I know this is also true of my student who is now somewhat famous. I know I did not fail him in this respect. I did not teach him to believe the wrong sort of lies.

The reader you wish to write for is an act of faith. If I teach this poetry at its highest level, then I teach you to fully immerse yourself in the study of poetry as a way of life–not as a course. You cannot teach poetry as a course. Work shopping is not enough. Anything done in a workshop could be taught online: any form, any aesthetic, any period of literary history is available online–just Google it. What I have to give is complete immersion in a faith that failing at the highest levels is worthwhile. I am teaching you to stand for more than just yourself. If I don’t teach you that, then Obama ought to replace me with an online course, and the babble of faux achievements ought to rule forever. Amen. To be a failure in the best way possible is a worthy thing. The world won’t understand it. The world understands “published in” and “Studied with.” When you go to get tenure, or into graduate school, you’ll be lucky if they look at the work first. I won’t lie: network, schmooze, do good things in order to be seen, do all that stuff, but remember if you are truly ambitious as I am, as my former student is, this won’t ever satisfy you. The crap they put on school promotions will be just that: crap. I want you to want to write a poem as great as Keats. You want to believe that somewhere, in some room late at night a great reader Whitman claimed every poet needed is reading your poem with compassion, and understanding, and more skill than you could ever imagine. This reader is more important than you are–because he or she is your soul stripped of the ego, the flaws, the petty envy and ambitions, and he/she exists when everything else is damaged. I can teach you to believe in this reader. If I can’t, then let’s just follow the syllabus. I’ll assign, you execute, everyone will be happy or not happy according to the usual process, you’ll get your grade, I’ll get my paycheck, and my daughter Clare will have a roof over her head. None of these are bad things. On paper, we will call it an education. That’s the neutral term for being processed. I want to believe there is more to life than mere process. Hell if I know, but I want to believe this is an amazing privilege–to preside over something greater than myself. The jury is out. Who knows? Judging by University Facebooks, and bios, and vitae, I’m wrong. That’s OK. I’ll cross that bridge when I burn it.

If you read the Bible with no authority other than your love of story and your lack of “judgment” (meaning without the lust to prove yourself justified by an authority), it opens up to you like the long love between you and an old family member–like the way my heart opened up to my grandmother. In real peace, there is room for ferocity. In real feeling, there is room for contradiction. God instructs the heart not by certainties but by pains and contradictions. The Bible is full of pains and contradictions.

Because I read the Bible and knew the story of Ruth, I knew how wonderful and brilliant Keats had been to yoke himself to that long ago figure standing and hearing the nightingale “amid the alien corn.” I didn’t have to look the story up, and it had the force for me it had had for Keats: the nightingale’s song was the continuity between myself and an ancient woman who had been the direct ancestor of my lord, Jesus Christ. It was this ability to connect the vast to the intimate that made Keats such a great poet–and he made the connection in one brief, so brief stroke.

Because I knew how Abraham had traveled under a night sky so vast, so glutted with stars and had heard God’s promise, I wept when I first read Mark Twain’s description of Huck and Jim looking up at the night sky and wondering about the origin of the stars, and I was awed by Cervantes when he had Quixote and Sancha under the same sky. My dream was always to retrace the journey of Abraham/Yahweh, Huck/Jim and Quixote/Panza under those same night skies. How would the night speak to me in each journey, over the Spanish plains, in the desert, on the river? I remembered night fishing with my own father, the slow burn of his Chesterfield King and how he warned me about the sharp fin of the catfish. All of this was what Keats moved toward: the collapsing of brevity and eternity.

This afternoon I hung out with Clare as her mom went on some errands. It’s one thing to do constructive activities with your child and another just to hang. She has two teeth now and is very proud of them. We put on the television and hung out on a pillow and I stood her up from time to time to give her practice, and she grabbed my beard and/or chest hair to give it a yank. When her mom came home Clare was asleep with the bottle still in her mouth. What would it be like if we could just hang out someday in Spain and Israel and on the Mississippi and retrace the books–the Bible, Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn? The river, the plains, the desert are one–they are where you encounter God and yourself. But the living room is also one, and the porch stoop is also one, and the hoods of parked cars late at night when you are 15 and hanging with friends is one: all of them the place that is sacred, ground set apart.

I want my students to know that this is the ultimate place of learning–this communion of “hang.” The kingdom of hang is like this: you are old or young, or somewhere in the middle and always claiming you are busy and then, some night, without planning, you sit down at the table where brevity and eternity are the same thing–and you hear the nightingale singing inside your own soul–in joy and grief at once, and you know that death hath no dominion– not over this Eucharist, this Eucharist of there–wherever there is, you’ll know, and if you don’t, a thousand years of life will not be enough to teach you.

At Dashanzi

798, also called the Dashanzi Art District, is Beijing’s premier art community. Since it formed in the early 2000s, a number of Western art dealers and corporate entities have set up shop here, and a few of its first tenants, including Ai Wei Wei, have become a powerful force in the art world.    IMG_4787a

My visit to 798 in February 2013 confirmed this description. Walls and light posts are plastered with exhibition billboards and fliers. Weird public art proliferates.  For example, in the first three courtyards closest to the entrance, there is: a resin statue of a scorpion, an airplane wing embedded upright in the ground (its engine looking much like an unblinking camera eye) and a 7 foot tall cement man bound in rope, BDSM style. Spray paint stencils and graffiti coat the exteriors of buildings, buses, and signs.  Street sellers hock potatoes and fur pelts as fashionable visitors wander in and out of galleries and cafes, snapping photos.  In short, the site bears all the tell-tale semiotics of frenzied artistic and commercial production consistent with international art communities like SOHO and Chelsea.

Still,798’s current role—part art-zone, part shopping center—is relatively new.  East German architects originally constructed the site as an electronics factory in the 1950s, and until its insolvency in the 1970s, 798 was a paragon of the state-run worker commune. Outside of the storefront facades and the self-consciously asymmetrical, iceberg-shaped gallery at the center of the district (whose presence seems as new as it does out of place), most of the architecture in 798 looks original, and it’s easy to imagine the site as it was 50 years ago.

East Germans in Beijing: Building Factory 718

IMG_4914The Danshanzi Art District in northwest Beijing, architecturally speaking, is a modest endeavor (perhaps unsurprising for a factory). The site is a rectangular compound arranged on a grid. It is composed of thick, horizontal buildings made of plain red brick. It has unadorned walls dotted here and there with a few windows, arranged in uniform blocks.  The avenues are wide and open. The public squares feel tiny and intimate.  Pipes and vents of all colors and ages reach between buildings, supported by metal gantries.  Some poke up from the ground, releasing steam into the street. In a lot of ways, this is a pretty unassuming space, one that follows its own iterations of style in an absolutely unconscious way. Even today, with its contemporary art veneer, it still looks more like a place where you make or build things rather than sell them.

The district is a favorite subject of contemporary articles on urbanization and gentrification because of its shift from an industrial production space to a creative development area, an unusual occurrence in China. The story of 798’s construction, operation, decay, and revival parallels a broader story of changes in the modern urban and cultural landscape of Beijing.

 

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798 is a smaller subunit of a much larger factory complex called 718. It was one of a number of projects initiated by the Communist government after their victory over the Nationalists and their subsequent consolidation of power in Beijing. It’s part of a Mao Zedongs’s incredibly ambitious proposal to industrialize China, after two decades of civil war and nearly two centuries of political and economic decline.

Mao envisioned a future China that outgunned Britain in steel production and a new modern capital whose sky would be populated with a “forest of smokestacks.”  The journalist Jianying Zha notes (somewhat sarcastically) that when Mao came to Beijing, there were only 15 architects there, and less than 5 of them knew how to construct a three-story building.

It was the Soviet Union, initially, that made the realization of Mao’s urban plans possible. Though they may have spitefully IMG_5911destroyed their coal-mining factories in Manchuria in 1946 to keep them out of Chinese Communist hands, by 1950, they’ve changed their mind. By 1951, there are 156 Soviet projects in the works, in Beijing and across the country.

Factory 718 would become project number 157, initiated by Premier Zhou Enlai.  He requests an additional factory to produce electronic components specifically for the People’s Liberation Army. The Soviets lack the necessary expertise, but they arrange a meeting with their electronics supplier, the head of the East German government, who agrees enthusiastically to work on the project. Between 1954-1964, a total of 300 East German experts traveled to the site to cooperate with Chinese construction workers and engineers, as thousands of tons of materials made their way from Germany to Beijing by way of the trans-Siberian railroad. At its completion in 1957, the “North China Wireless Appliances Friendship Factory” covered 500,000 square meters and had 7 separate operating units.

The East German and Chinese construction groups, with minimal interference from their Soviet overseers, made an excellent team. Both countries understood the necessity of making much out of little; both were in the process of rebuilding and were eager to reboot (or in China’s case, establish) their industrial sector through any means necessary; both worried greatly about the ability to withstand foreign attacks.

The East Germans built 798 with all of these things in mind, and it’s apparent in certain aspects of the architecture. While the Soviet leadership initially disliked the undecorated, sparse German design and demand something more “historical” (whatever that means—most likely something that bears more obviously the mark of Soviet domination through kitschy entablature), the Germans refused; records of their conversations with Soviet and Chinese leadership, luckily, show the detailed case the East Germans made for the particular components of their design.

Consider, for example, the oddly Romanesque-looking arch supports, with their massive interior buttresses, that line the inside of some of the larger factory spaces. (It is an odd effect—the buildings look like they’re leaning backward and resting on their haunches.) Why this odd design? Presumably, because it’s much stronger than walls simply built perpendicular to the ground and topped with a triangular prism of a roof  (the Germans repeatedly insist that they’ve designed the factory this way to ensure that it will survive an air raid—something they certainly know a little bit about.)

Consider also the humble type no. 500 red bricks used in every warehouse and wall.  This particular type of brick was not available in China, but the East Germans insisted that without it, they could not guarantee the integrity of the design in the event of an 8-magnitude earthquake. To solve this problem, the Germans built factories to make them.  (Factories producing factories in an infinitely recursive fashion—this is the ultimate modernist dream.)  They then proceeded, according to a former factory worker, to test the psi of every single one. When a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the neighboring province of Tangshan a few months before Mao’s death in 1976, one can only assume the German team felt particularly validated.

Reform Follows Function: Ideology and Urban Policy

In the creation of a new Beijing, both construction and destruction were necessary. When Mao moved to transform Beijing into a socialist masterpiece, a “proletariat-peasant metropolis,” his makeover was brutal. The hútòngs, distinctive alleys with dense, infinite recursions of space, were destroyed en mass, as were the city walls and gates; hundreds of teahouses, temples, and residential courthouses (sìhéyuàn) were also systematically bulldozed. Why was this? Jiaying Zha suggests that, from an entirely aesthetic and symbolic perspective, Beijing couldn’t function as the capital of communist nation in its existing state; she calls the city walls, for example, symbols of the “feudalism and claustrophobia” that Mao was trying so desperately to purge from the city.  They were too much of a reminder of the old ways, of rigid imperial hierarchies, of out-of-touch emperors and stale customs, of decadence and decline and luxury. The city needed to change because Chinese people needed to change too, in the way that they thought about one another and the way they lived together.

IMG_4728Architecture and urban planning worked in an advisory capacity here, attempting to engineer social behavior from the top down. There is no better example of this (at least, that still remains intact from this period) than the state-run factories, 718 in particular. Like many other Soviet-built factories of the time, 718 was intended to be an entirely self-contained entity; each unit included residential, commercial, and work-spaces for its respective denizens. This is in contrast to the previous division of space in old Beijing, in which living and commercial quarters were kept distinctly separate.  In communist Beijing, the basic of unit of cultural, spatial and social organization was no longer the neighborhood, but the factory.

This is why 718 is more than just a factory. It is supposed to be a site for both work and play, for sleeping and eating, for new communal identities to form and thrive.  While the compound has a distinctly utilitarian vibe, its form seems patently aware that its function is not only mechanical, but human too.

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At first, it’s hard to identify just what about the complex (outside of great care put into its construction) makes it seem so livable, so pleasing to look at and walk around in. The original site didn’t have much in the way of decorative effects, save the red Cultural Revolution slogans added to the interior walls in the late 60s.  Maybe it’s because the East German design, while sparse and practical, is also incredibly livable, human-sized, and intimate. Rather than trying to overwhelm you with the grand authority of the state (perhaps the goal of Tiananmen Square, a former imperial garden) 798 is trying to amuse and comfort you, to be the proverbial Matissian armchair for the worker at the end of a long and tired day.

Perhaps the best illustration of the designer’s ambition to create a space that is both beautiful and functional (both human and machine, and in that way an ideal “machine for living”) is the silhouette of the factory roof in the main square, often described as “saw-toothed.” These buildings, in addition to a few others within the compound, are capped by a series of what look like sawed-off barrel vaults.   The red brick portion of the roof completes about 60 degrees of a circle before it terminates in a slab of paneled glass. From the inside, this forms a gigantic hall, a long wedge-shaped prism that now functions as a gallery space, but was formerly the main factory floor. From the outside, the structures make a scalloped pattern that chunks up the skyline in a pleasing, whimsical way.

This feature is a particularly creative solution to a relatively banal problem. The factory spaces required lots of natural light; the north-facing skylights filter in angled sunlight, bright enough to illuminate a space, not so direct as to overwhelm. It’s hard to imagine, though, that the Germans designed these skylights, which look so much like open-mouthed sea bass, without a hint of humor or pleasure in architectural oddity merely for its own sake.

While all this discussion of form-follows function, the elevation of the worker, and the creation of livable machines might sound familiar, it’s worth pointing out that this structure wasn’t actually designed by the Bauhaus (the progressive German architectural school terminated by the Nazis in 1933). In terms of materials and style, there are few comparisons to be made here.  Architects like Mise Van der Rohe were famous for working with volume, and not mass; Van der Rohe defined the quintessential Bauhaus-inspired building as a glass skin hung on a steel frame, plastered with stucco on the inside—glorious and white, radiant and lifted. 798, by contrast, is horizontal and heavy. Its red brick masonry is the definition of mass and not volume. Where contemporary Bauhaus was cinematically stark, Dashanzi is stolidly plain.

Still, one gets the idea that Walter Gropius’ ghost implicitly approves of the project. The structure absolutely fulfills and realizes Gropius’ greatest vision for the Bauhaus (somewhat ironically, outside of a Western European context)—that its architecture would operate in service of a great class transformation. For a time, 798 oversaw such a transition in China.

The Socialist Utopia that was

798 was a total space built by a total state, meant to fulfill completely the requirements of a life. Into this comprehensive environment, then, the most privileged of China’s factory workers and engineers went.

In its first iteration, 798 seems to have been a success, from both a social and economic standpoint. For nearly two decades, 798 served as the model of a centrally-planned, government run, self-contained industrial center.  Workers had furnished housing IMG_4793aavailable at 1/30 the price of their wages; their children enjoyed free public education, and their families had access to some of the best medical and dental care in the country.  Grainy black and whites from the 60s show happy workers congregating for group exercise and nurses petting the heads of babies at 798’s daycare center. In 798, recreation also played an important role.  The site boasted basketball, volleyball, and soccer teams, literary clubs, swimming pools, a stadium, a theater, a library with books in both Chinese and German, and an orchestra that played revolutionary hymns and Western music.  I even saw an image of one man doing an Evil Knievel on a German motorbike.

What was propaganda and what was reality? From an outside perspective it’s hard to judge. 798 was in many ways the ideal exception to the general rule of reorganizational failure and poverty in Communist China. Part of why 798 received such generous resources and became a flagship of model factory life was because it produced some of the most valuable (and top-secret) products in the country.  When a U.S. U2 plane was shot down in China in 1962, it was workers at 798 that reverse-engineered electrical components found on board (like an insulator) and began producing them for the PLA and for the North Korean military.  (Though this is a bit speculative, some writers suggest that 798 was also where the components of China’s first nuclear bomb were created.)

If indeed 798 was ever the socialist utopia it promised to be, it did not last. While workers at 798, due to the selective and important nature of their trade, were shielded and isolated from many of the effects of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and in particular the Great Famine, a radical shift in economic policy under the reformist and moderate leadership of Deng Xiaoping would knock the factory from its privileged state position. Like many state-run enterprises, 798 (and its larger encompassing unit, 718) was essentially insolvent by the mid 90s; over 2/3rds of the work force had been laid off and only one of the original 7 factories, factory 750, was still operational.

Unsustainable as it was, though, 798 was for the Maoist regime a cultural ziggurat; it did not represent the de facto reality of what the country was or necessary would be, but echoed its highest ideals and aspirations. Perhaps Factory 798 was in some ways a huge performance piece, a “culture zoo” that displayed the ideal version of a Communist system, and that became less and less viable as the country struggled with internal divisions, poverty, and the heinous outbreak of the Cultural Revolution. It was, as so many great artworks are, an exercise in articulating not what a society is, but the way in which it sees itself.

Mao is not the only 20st century world leader to find in modern architecture the promise of social reform on a massive scale. Like many other contemporary modern leaders in Western countries, Mao absolutely believed in the transformative power of spatial planning; unlike modern leaders in the west, he had the state power behind him to compel people to realize his vision, in which material reality, social organization, and national ambition merged into one harmonious society, pointedly directed at the future.

798: Factory and Art

How did 798 shift from its previous life as a model socialist electronics factory to its present iteration, an arts and culture center that garners increasing international attention? There are, of course, many unromantic and incredibly practical reasons for this transition, having to do with such boring and obvious things as real estate markets. Jen Currier and Rene Dekker both note, with a touch of irony, that the same market reforms that consigned factory 718 to obscurity, emptying it of its workers and devaluing its property, are what allowed artists to develop it at relatively low costs into an aesthetic enclave in Beijing.  The low per-square foot cost to rent was key. Also important: high availability of light, massive high-roofed spaces that function dually well as studios and exhibition spaces, and the orientation of the district far away from the city center and (at least initially) reasonably far away from the watchful eye of Chinese sensors.

Still, convenience aside, it’s clear from reading descriptions from some of the artists and culture workers who were instrumental in the repurposing of the site that there’s more to it than that. Berenice Angremy (2006) of Thinking Hands, an architectural conservation group in Beijing, summarizes it in this way:

“It was very obvious that this area could be where contemporary culture could develop. It contained an architectural testimony to an industrial past that was absolutely very precious, and that’s why we wanted to have an art district here.”

In China, a generation of artists born in the 30s and 40s worked in the factories alongside their parents and peers; they remember the transition from a state-centered economy to Deng Xiaoping’s socialist market system. They witnessed the end of a shared vision of classless prosperity and a culture that glorified the worker. Small, wonder then, that this same generation of artists continues to be preoccupied with factories as culturally resonant spaces and aesthetic objects. There are several 798 artists, including Sui Jianguo, Huang Rui and Xu Yong, who have worked part of their lives in a factory (Huang at a shoe leather factory, Xu at a needle factory).

IMG_5883Sui Jianguo in particular has an interesting history.  He was the head of the sculpture department when, in 1995, the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing moved from Wangfujing to another electronic component factory nearby.  Two of his sculptures are here at 798. The first is a three-tiered red mesh cage with dinosaurs inside, probably from his “Made in China” series. The second one is the Diskobolus. The copy I see tucked away in a back courtyard, acting as a doorstop shows a thinly-smiling Chinese in a business suit winding up to pitch a discus; Sui’s most famous version of the piece, however, currently on exhibition at the British museum, is a stony-faced Greek, nearly a perfect copy of Myron’s ancient sculpture, wearing the iconic Mao suit.

Lately, Sui has been making copies of the suit itself, signifying (by his own admission) that “the Chinese people have not yet taken it off. “

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798 may not longer be the center of experimental avant-garde art and culture in Beijing (that title may go to the districts of Caochangdi and Songzhuang); it may fast become a commercial center for aesthetic commerce and speculation, a hub for the international art community in Beijing, and drive out local talent (indeed it may already have, as climbing rent prices have meant that few artists can afford to have residences there). Still, at the moment it serves a dual purpose, allowing Chinese artists and denizens of Beijing to communicate with a complicated past—part industrial, part idealistic. There’s a historical resonance here that is different from the Forbidden City, so neatly sanitized and so clearly a feature of a distant and far removed era. 798 preserves a past-present, a history still on the heels on contemporary China that haunts the memories of its citizens. It stubbornly carries into the affluent present memories of building industrial Beijing, of the construction of state ideologies and their equally rapid dismantling.

I live in a nation that has three year olds becoming life time members of the NRA, and anti-bullying seminars that force a draconian language of the politically correct so technical and nit-picky as to be a form of bullying in its own right. Guns to the right of me! Jargon to the left of me! All volley and hold the thunder (after all, thunder may be perceived as a semiotic indicator of male patriarchy). I look at my daughter and say: “I’m so sorry, but I wanted you to exist.

Into this vale of tears, I have introduced a magician giant who lifts the vale and give me moments of clarity and peace–he’s the friendly giant of old poems I can return to, the Giant who goes “presto!” and behind the vale of NRA nut jobs, and academic jargon spouters, there appears my mother’s favorite Robert Louis Stevenson, my favorite poems by Theodore Roethke, a couple of poets whose names will never be on the lips of microbrew swilling grad students: Walter De Lamare, Robert Francis, May Swenson, JV Cunningham, Kenneth Patchen, Carolyn Kizer. Sometimes I return to them by picking up the books, and sometimes by the faulty yet passionate vehicle of memory: I remember lines or whole poems, or the time of day and the quality of light when I first read the poems. A jet plane scratches its autograph across a blue Saturday afternoon spent down by the railroad tracks, reading where no one would bother me. I forget current poets then (I don’t always like poets. They sometimes wear capes and sweep into rooms and piss me off). I forget that I became a poet and remember that I am a reader of poems–not a poet. To be a reader of poems is still a lovely thing–a better thing. There is little ego involved in it compared to being a poet. It makes me forget the borderline sociopathy of English department brag fests–kudos to Henry, hype for Margie, and blah, blah, blah. Some working class anger in me denies the idea of “major poet.” I don’t believe in them. I believe in major poems.

Long before Centos became a fad, long before I knew what a Cento was, I was dicing and splicing in my mind as I walked to school or rode my bike, or drove my first car. I used to play like this:

Winter uses all the blues there are,
yet the wet sides of stones can not console her
She runs out of the sea, shaking her long green hair,
runs from the bleached valleys under the rose
this maimed darling,this skitterry pigeon.

It would be a paratactic (one short line after the other) recall of lines or mish-mash from poets I had been reading. In this case, A poem “Winter uses all the Blues there are” by Francis, a paraphrase, of Elegy for Jane, a splicing of Joyce’s I hear An Army with Olson’s The Lonely and Isolate Satyrs.” It’s what I did for pleasure or distraction, or the pleasures of distraction.

I never wanted to express myself in a poem; Fuck the self. Of all the things I know, the self is most fraudulent. I wanted to express the light on bricks at dusk, a certain ghost presence on a wintry day, the eyes of someone peering at me over a broken down fence, characters I made up, most of all–the haunting veracity of presence: what it is that is there in the world, but you do not know exactly–that haunted and haunting energy we might call the felt-life.

I’ve failed miserably to accomplish any of these goals. Whatever MFA programs teach poets to be, I pretty much don’t get. I blame myself–not the MFA programs. I am pretty stupid. All I ever had to go on was the faulty ardor of someone who liked the soundings and whisperings of things. Poetry now seems military to me. “Careers” are plotted out. Magazines march out their contests and fees and winners. Awards are given to the usual suspects. Most poets aren’t poets–they’re A students, a whole different species of excellence. They achieve. Whenever I hear the ghastly shriekings of “Achievement,” I recall Auden’s concept of “Achieving your corpse.” That puts it in perspective.

Today, when I woke up, I wanted to see a construction site. I wanted to pick up a clod of turned over dirt and throw it at the ghost of my own childhood–whack my ten year old self in the back of the head with a dirt bomb–the way my big brother used to do. I wanted to look at the crane and bulldozers sleeping in the early morning frost, glistening with their bright reds and yellows. I didn’t wanted to be young again. I never wanted to be young. I desired the power of a shape shifter. I wanted to be the milkweed pods on the verge of the site, and the point of merging where the crane’s neck met the sky–but all of it as consciousness, dizzy and reeling with consciousness. I wanted neither return nor recompence, but the presence of a thing made out of words.” It’s a strange courage/you give me ancient star/ shine alone in the sunrise/ toward which you lend no part.” I wanted that. Three year olds are being taught to shoot guns and confuse them with manhood. On the other side of the absurdity, words like globalization and transdisciplinary studies, are wrenching the arms off poetry. The poets have meetings and win awards, and sail passed their lesser brothers and sisters like Williams’ yachts. Who will sit with me at the table of our sins and breathe his word? What poetry will be found in the ears when I die? Who will make me forget how much I fear for my child who is asleep in the kitchen as I write. On flows the river/ A hundred miles or more/ other little children/ shall bring my boat ashore. I sure as hell hope so.

So this morning I wake up, give my daughter a long bottle of formula (she is now able to wield the bottle on her own) and await my wife’s return from Dunkin Donuts. Yes. My wife has gone out to hunt. I am reading Across The Land And Water (Selected Poems, 1964-2001) of W.G.Sebald, Author of Austerlitz (that’s what’s on the cover). Austerlitz is a very trendy book among graduate students for I hear them dropping Austerlitz the way they dropped George Saunders or Anne Carson: long sentences I hear, like Henry James (only not)–German dude.

So I am reading poems by the author of Austerlitz. That way, I can say to someone: “but have you read his poetry?” They will say “no… no I haven’t,” and then I can raise an eyebrow, give them a significant stare, and respond, “You must” and walk away, having avoided mentioning that I have not read Austerlitz of the long sentences.

I open the book to page 74 because I am sick of hearing all about the arc of the book. Next to the pretentious rock albums of the early 70′s many of which I loved and which were all “operas” there is nothing more loathsome to me than the arc of the book. If you can’t enjoy a book of poetry in a non-linear fashion, then the hell with it. Poems exist in dynamic relation to each other–but not the relation the author chooses. They exist in the reader’s mind–a dynamic relation that is from the book but not of the book. A poem is an isolated particular until some blue spark shoots forth from the poem Z to the Poem q and you start to see how the poet’s poems are wired–but forget his arc. That is not organic. If he or she really has an arc, it will begin to show itself as you proceed skipping about. This is an age when people read from page one until the end because we are a fascist country in love with order. As we fall apart, we keep sending roses to order, and inviting it to dine. Then we prattle on about how there is no real order. Of course, there is no real order. Order is imposed. Order of this sort is date rape. The author is not a prussian general. He does not know the true order of his troops.He probably never even asked their permission. If I am wrong (and I probably am) then poetry books are unified works of art and each individual poem adss to the overall artistic effect, and reading the book out of order is a mistake at best, and evil at worst–or both, an evil mistake. It is 6:30 am, give or take a few minutes, and my wife shall soon return, and my baby daughter has thrown the long bottle to the floor, and I am making an “Evil mistake.” Evil error is even better. I am making an evil error. Somehow that fills me wth mute mirth. So page 74 of the selected which because they were culled from other works, from other “arcs” should not have to have an arc. Page 74:

Poetry For An Album
Feeling my friend
wrote Schumann
are stars which guide us
only when the sky is clear
but reason is a
magnetic needle
driving our ship on
until it shatters on the rocks

Because I often read stupidly, and because there are no italics, no quotation marks, etc, I see this as “feelings wrote Schumann.” Schumann is the composer I judge the merits of all pianists by. You can not merely show off with Schumann. He isn’t a show offy type. You have to play the middle voices, and your true talent as a pianist rather than a show off comes forth. You can’t hide in the fast notes. Anyway, I like the idea that feelings wrote Schumann. Was he not a man written by feeling? Can we not be authored by our feelings? But it makes no sense syntactically and so I realize this is being attributed to Schumann the writer–and, furthermore, it is “reason” that leads us to shipwreck–not feeling, the mind whose compass of reason is both infallible and infallibly leading us North to our doom. Very nice moody idea. Might even be true. Schumann goes on to allude to his crippled hand that ended his career as a pianist (the real Schumann, or, rather, the historical Schumann, made a crazy device he thought would extend his reach, but which maimed him). Suppose he had not been maimed, and the hand’s reach had been extended, and Schumann was able to play 12ths, and do all sorts of crazy fancy tricks? (his wife Clara could bend Florins with her bare hands) Would he have become just another show off? Would he have developed the inner voices that make him the criteria for all my favorite Pianists? Beats me, but one could make the case that injury lead to the sort of choral piano Schumann wrote–deceptively simple. I remember a story where Schoneberg defended Traumerei against the charge that it was simple. He showed all its inner voices. It was a favorite encore of Horowitz. I am sailing away from the poem–sometimes a good thing. I already want to put the poem next to Transtromer’s Schuberttieden which begins: “So much we have to trust just to stay alive.” So let’s read the rest:

It was when my palsied
finger stopped me playing
the piano that calamity
came upon me

These are very drab sentences, but as I tell my students poetry draws attention to itself as language first and last. Uber flatness–a prose denuded of character or flourish certainly draws attention to its manner of utterance first: the dead pan makes everyone look at the face. The rest of the poem reads like a show and trell of some student who is dressed up as Schumann for the purpose of a fourth grade history project, except that the North–the compass, the mathematical basis of a mind gone to ruin is the main theme. In this poem Schumann longs for the North:

I know I shall steer
for the North I have yearned for
though it be colder there
even than the ice on
gemo metry’s intersecting lines

My mind begins racing. I think of Fellini’s Casanova starring Donald Sutherland, that last scene of the seducer left to circle for ever on a frozen lake–his hell being the cold reasoning of seduction, the ultimate inability to feel anything except desire to achieve the target. Music is mathematics. I think of that. Schumann, the arch romantic, the one who had characters for all his piano pieces, the composer of Manfred , the one who envisioned his music as unified with the feelings that arose in him from literature,,, was he taken North by reason? The very flat, deadpan informative quality of the poem makes me bounce all over the place–but I know schumann’s music and I know the tricks of post modern deadpan, and I think of Oppen’s bright light of shipwreck, and of Gatsby’s green light across the bay–longing as a trope of doom, and all of them, in a way, calculating rather than passionate: “a rigorous test of sincerity.” I think of reasoning–some sort of inability to feel except in fine weather. I am staring into a camp fire and imposing images so I must wonder: perhaps I have read too much to truly read this poem except as part of a tradition–the arc of post-modernity, the inability to say anything except in pieces, in Empson like fragments of ambiguity. A lay person would say: “So what?” Must one be trained to Sebald’s art? Must one know he is the author of Austerlitz?

So I think of what I told my students: all poetry, all of it is on a spectrum between the poetic and the prosaic–neither of which is better or worse than the other. The more toward the poetic, the more the language is drawing attention to itself as language, either by sounding poetic or by being intentionally flatter than most prose. The more it exists to convey information, or meaning, or an agreed upon concept, the more it leans towards the prosaic. Non-cognition is always an attempt at pure poetry–and it most often fails. Narrative is often an attempt at coherent, linear reality and it, too, often fails. The best poems use both poetic and prosaic elements. But what about Sebald? This is certainly flat. It draws attention to some details and a couple of ideas but abandons them. It draws attention to its own flatness but does not heighten that by any particular ritual. So I go to the intro to see if anything is said about poesis or prose. and sure enough the intro begins speaking on that subject:

’My medium is prose,’ W.G. Sebald once declared in an interview, a statement that is easily misconstrued if a subtle distinction the German author added is overlooked… ‘not the novel.’

Sebald does not write the novel. He writes prose–and he writes prose even when he writes lyrical poetry–flat, speculative prose bereft of character, plot, all the usual suspects. This is not an artistic failing; it is, rather, an artistic intention. Where have I heard this before? Ah yes… MArianne Moore who, decades before the author of Austerlitz, called her poems “lucid prose.” The intro goes on to bring forth the name of Said and the idea of the exile inhabiting the “median state”–that place that is neither here nor there, but somehow between–liminal spaces that can not be defined yet call forth an almost obsessive trope of attempted definitions–all failing in the end.

Ok. So I have a bead on Sebald, but what do I think of his poems. I have read Trakl and I prefer Trakl. I have read Celan and I prefer Celan. But Sebald has his merits–the merits of shipwreck. So I skip around a language washed up on the shores where the water is neither salt nor fresh. So I skip around again, and land on page 1 (where the junkies of order think I should have landed to begin with):

So hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish

So now I want Transtromer, and Schumann’s Carnaval, a couple of paintings from the German expressionists, the last scene of Casanova, and I want to know how reason and feeling, prose and poesis cohere or fail to cohere. I want someone to talk to me–someone so smart I will nod my head and say, “you must be right,” but even then… not believing the rightness. My wife thinks Sebald is pretentious, but that he can’t help but be pretentious because he is Sebald. His name writes him, determines him. He is a brand of rock dropped into the pool so that ripples will ensue. He is pretentious in his poetry (she liked Austerlitz). I don’t know…Does feeling write us? Does the landscape watch us vanish without trying to understand us? Are certain modes of stupidity genius? And If it is hard for us to understand the landscape, then how much time does the landscape spend on understanding us? Is watching a form of understanding or, is it a form of vanishing? I will have to read more poems to find out, and I may never know. It’s 7:49 now, and I have gone from breakfast to a speculative essay. My coffee is cold–the way I like it when I am writing. So much can be built upon a poem once you abandon the question of whether or not you think it is good, or whether or not you like it. I think I’ll go listen to Schumann. I will sit in the living room, listen to Schumann and read more of these poems by the author of Austerlitz. Should I listen to Traumerei? Sure.

IMG_0753The two women in the adjacent garden, draped with thick woolens, braids hanging down from both sides of the skull, hitched together with a string between their shoulder blades. They pause their spade, their hoe, or their small hand trowel and admire a mating pair of Hoopoe birds, audaciously mohawked with tangerine and flashing zebra stripes, as the birds drill their beaks into the sheaves of a wooden shed. The garden stops. The women stop. I stop, though I don’t know if I was moving at all. And aside from the birds the only things that seem to move are the clouds, scraping their bottoms against jagged Himalayan teeth. For a moment it looks as if we are all characters playing out a scene in one great, gaping jaw of rock and sand. It looks like the world is trying to eat the sky.

___

At the airport there is a sign advising the steps one should take to avoid Acute Mountain Sickness. I know the steps: rest on day one and maybe on day two, as well; drink plenty of water; avoid strenuous activity; ascend to further altitudes with great caution and only after acclimatizing. I IMG_0767have landed in Leh, at 3500 meters, it’s a city that sits between dusty, ragged mountains which, in turn, sit in the lap of massive summits capped with snow. The air is short on oxygen. Should one feel dizzy, or get a headache, one should consider ceasing all activity. Should one become disoriented, confused, develop a dry cough which produces a foamy pink sputum, one should immediately seek medical attention. All of this can develop gradually or with unpredictable speed. Often the more insidious symptoms exhibit themselves at night when one’s breathing is less deep, so avoid sedatives, which is what one might naturally reach for because one also will likely experience disruptions in one’s sleep.

The first night I am sure that my breath stops every time I doze off. Also, I am dizzy. My hands get tingling cold and I’m certain that they are turning blue.

The following evening I develop a pain in my chest, behind my sternum. It could be indigestion from the chili sauce that I added to my Thentuk soup at lunch. It could also be a definite sign that my throat is closing, that my lungs and diaphragm are infuriated by the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere. Somehow I sleep. I wake the next morning and cough up pink. I am sure I am dying. The nice man at the Hayan Himalaya tour agency did advise me to see a doctor when I told him about this dull, clenching ache. He was probably right. I have got to find a hospital. I should have found one last night. Then I drowsily remember that I chewed several Pepto Bismol tablets the night before in a desperate attempt to alleviate the pain. Three Advil later in the day make the pain disappear. I have not died. Also, once I stop the altitude medicine Diamox, the dizziness and hand tingling subside.

By the third evening, I accept that I most likely will not die from AMS, but decide that I am not going to tempt fate. I avoid seeing far-flung beauties like the quaint Ladakhi villages of the isolated Nubra Valley or Pagong Tso—a lake surrounded by salt flats said to inspire near-tears in those who witness it by the light of a full moon, which it almost happens to be during my trip. They are too high. My bravery only functions at sea level. I do not want to die, alone, in a cold bed in the Himalaya.

___

 

IMG_0526 (1)I am lonely. The room at my guest house is huge and empty except for a low table, a plastic lawn chair, and two twin mattresses pushed together for a bed. I only sleep on one side of the bed, having left my partner David behind in New York. After nearly four years, and despite thinking that I love solitude above all else, it seems that I’ve lost the ability to comfortably sleep alone. The power goes out every hour or so and this can last for minutes or hours. I buy a bootleg of Seven Years In Tibet because in the black silence I do not know what to do with myself without television or the internet or a light by which to read a book. I waste the charge on my laptop down every night, watching Brad Pitt abandon his life in Austria for a dream that turns nightmare that turns dream. At least this is what I think happens. I never make it through the film, but only see it in waking snippets, usually when the score swells and a momentous event has transpired. I know enough to know that Brad Pitt’s German accent bothers me, and that one should not lie about injuries, physical or otherwise, when high in the mountains. And that the Dalai Lama, as a child, liked music boxes, as children often do.

___

 

No, I am not Buddhist.

            Then why are you visiting all of these monasteries?

            Because I chant.

            What do you say when you chant?

            Om mani padme hum. Nam myoho rengekyo.

            Those are Buddhist.

            I know.

I discover a small, modern temple at the top of a dun colored hill outside of town, adjacent a monumental stupa built by Japanese Buddhists. I am telling two British girls who have invited me to eat with them about the place when the inevitable line of questioning comes: are you Buddhist?IMG_0579 It’s hard for me to say what I am, where I stand, other than somewhere between a vehement atheist and an agnostic in search of a source and a meaning. I need more definite answers.

I hike back up the steep, switchback stairs the following day. I’m sure this hike is part of the process, as these temples always seem to be atop crags and rocky spires. I stare at the placid face of a gilded Maitreya Buddha. Om mani padme hum. Nam myoho renge kyo. I freely switch between the chants—Tibetan then Japanese and back—appreciating their similar syllabic cadence, however, I’m unsure if there are proscriptions against this sort of freewheeling. I switch between those Buddhist chants and Hail Marys because I know of no other way to approach holiness or the sacred. I chant until my jaw hurts, until my face aches. And when I stop, I notice the way my cheeks seem to vibrate, the way my head feels syrupy and light. I notice the comparative stillness in the rest of my body.

This must be what they mean by serenity.

And Indian family takes several photos of me, with flash, as I hold my eyes shut and clutch the string of wooden Mala beads.

Say the mantra.

Say it again.

___

I hang up the phone with David. I’ve been choking back tears. It has been hard to talk. I feel as though I’ve done something I shouldn’t when in truth I’ve done nothing wrong. The only thing I’ve done is decided to travel by myself, far from home. I’m regretting the choice. I hate that I can’t truthfully say that I am in awe every day, that I’m inspired every second. It is hard to be here, to be present, to take it all in—these huge mountains and churning turquoise Indus and the wide swaths of stars at night—the way everything feels so static and shaking at the same time.

IMG_0575I walk up the hill from the phone booth and see an advertisement for a company that drives its customers to Khardung La—the highest motorable road in the world—and then lets them ride mountain bikes down, back into town. It sounds awesome, and doesn’t require long stays at high altitudes. But I’m sure that this is something I should do with David. For a moment I forbid myself to have any fun. That moment lasts a few days. I restrict myself to the monasteries because I know he wouldn’t care if he missed that sort of thing.

I’ll come back and do the bikes some other time, though I know I’m not coming back at all.

___

I make traveler friends. The British girls, another man from the U.K. in town to teach, an Israeli, a couple Indians in Ladakh for trekking, a German guy, and a French man, as well, I think. We eat dinner together and sometimes lunch, too. At first I hate the conversations: where have you been, where are you going, what have you seen, what you should see, how much you’re paying IMG_0617for your guest house, how there are a million cheaper places, how there is always something better, more amazing, more peaceful, further away from the rest of the world. Everyone has their best, favorite places. Everyone has their knowledge of the world and its secrets.

But eventually, these friendships accelerate and pass the usual backpacker one-upmanship and note-comparing. Eventually the conversations turn towards families, towards the way they approve or do not of our collective wanderlusts, towards illicit international romances, towards how we feel as we celebrate a birthday so far from home and the people we love or think we love, how we latch on to one another so quickly in grungy little restaurants that serve killer Tibetan momos. We find out about another’s careers—their starting or failing or refusal to present themselves altogether. Inevitably, we are all flight risks, we have all come running from something and towards something else. This is what forces us together in these high mountain towns. This is what makes me stop feeling lonely.

___

 

From the big balcony attached to my room, I look out on the Zanskar Range. I’m saying thank yous to the world, to the skinny poplar trees and the valleys and ravines and impromptu mountain blizzards. In these eight days the moon has grown steadily brighter, on its way to an engorged show for Buddha Jayanti, which I will be celebrating in Bodhgaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. But as the moonlight grows louder, the million and one stars in the sky seem to die. They disappear and fade until on this last night it is just a blaring round hole in the inky sky. The light makes the snowcaps glow, makes the shadows heavier and the rest of world a dark quiver.

Now that it is time to leave Ladakh, I would like to stay. The enormity of this chance hits me all at once—that this is something once in a lifetime; that I’ve spent eight days wound up in baseless worries and simple human longings. I wish I could have put myself to the side. I would like another shot at all of this, way up here, in this part of the world so very cut off from the rest.

My skin prickles in the cold breeze. I wonder which glaciers the wind has passed, exactly which version of cold is caressing my arms. This is something I would like to know. Did it come from Tibet? From that holiest peak, Mount Kailash.

Tell me that’s where it came from; that the wind I’m feeling means something more than wind.

I have done physical labor in my life, and never found it harsh or unrewarding except when it was under the scrutiny of a manager (foremen, overseer, take your pick). They’re job was to make sure I was “doing it the right way,” or that I was doing it quickly, or that I was doing it both the right way and quickly (a contradiction in terms that causes almost all the heartbreak of blue collar life). It was never right enough or quick enough for my boss, even when it was right and quick. I am strong, but not well coordinated, and I am also slow to catch on to things. When it comes to anything in the physical world, I need to be stupid before I am smart. When it comes to piece work, this does not bode well.
I am verbally intelligent, and that helped me get by on being “comic relief” and charming until I learned to be competent. I relived the life of the most ancient bards as a result. My theory is that the original story tellers were often maimed, or clumsy, or old, and to earn their place at the fire, they needed to be ingratiatng, funny, wise,able to act as emotional buffers and consolers in times of stress..I dont trust when writers make themselves the heros of working life stories. I’ve known very few verbal folks who were the best machinists or tool makers, or riggers or fishermen. Some were middle of the pack,, and some held their own, but that’s about it. On the other hand, Musicians were often top notch at the more skilled forms of labor (eye/hand dexterity) and I knew several great tool makers who could play piano, guitar, banjo, and any combination thereof with great skill. So now I’m going to theorize further and submit that the original bards fell into two camps: those who were verbal in the communicative, prosaic way, and those were not verbal except where verbal was a conduit to pure sound–to rhythmic, musical grunts, to cadenced words, to the mimicry of animals (vital to a hunter): to pattern, and spatial/kinetic awareness. Let’s say both theories were right: if so,then, you have two trends in poetry from the very beginning: that which is social- manners, narrative, and communicative, and that which is ritualized, lyrical, and not based on the cognition of social order but on what Whitman called the Barbaric yawp–he tribe in its state of trance, its impersonal possession by a God. One is fully conscious, the other recieved as if via the intuition. If you’re not good at physical labor, at hunting, at weapon making, you better know how to compensate and have value in some other way. Ineptitude and adjustment to ineptitude thereby constitute the beginning of subjective consciousness. The other type of non-verbal yet vocal expression is not conscious, but a sort of received acumen for pattern–a sort of intuitive knowledge of pattern and rhythm, and the ceremony of verbal being within space.. Such poets are not facile with words. They experience words the way a toolmaker experiences raw material–as something to intuit. I would not privilege the conscious or the unconscious–divine aflatus, or native stealth and conscious shrewdness, but I would say one developed from the compensatory need to be a character, a personality, and the other from the impersonality of divine aflatus and what Plato called possession by a “demon.” Being physically inept, I compensated in two ways: I was very strong (could out wrestle most people), and so I was good at brute force (a bull in a china shop), and I was very verbal and this made me a force for comic relief by being able to “talk shit.” I couldn’t put these two together since, their togetherness is contingent upon grace and I was an oaf.
Brute force is hardly ever needed in its pure forms. All labor I know is skilled labor. A good ditch digger does not just have a strong back; he has a singular fineness and grace of motion so as to conserve energy and avoid being injured. To be strong in the way I was strong was to accentuate the clumsiness and create an incongruity between force and grace. When I learned to hide, compensate, or make light of this, I developed my verbal intelligence beyond normal, but living there was always a sort of ongoing sadness: I was strong, and loved the physical, but did not flourish in the skilled trades. I was verbal, and could get away with a lot of things because of it, but I felt cut off by my jester’s personality from the part of me that was physical. Jesters are often lame, or blind, or somehow malformed, as are clumsy but strong giants. The jester retreats into logos–the conscious verbal universe of the mind: sarcasm, invective, travesty, melancholy, whimsy. The giant hurls rocks, has his one good eye put out, and cries “no man” to the sea. Caliban is oafish and not adept at skilled work. For this reason he is called lazy, and beastial, and uncouth, yet Shakespeare shows Caliban has an advanced hunger for beauty (both in wanting Miranda and by his reaction to music). He has no ability to express this hunger except in forms that make others feel contempt. To be in a factory where even the graceful are often told they are not right or quick enough is to exist under the yoke of third rate Prospero–to be always compelled to do what one would do without being asked if the world were not glutted with managers and something needed doing.
As for those who “receive” words, far from being inept or maimed, they were often the ones in the group with the greatest fine-motor skills, hunting abilities, and intuitive sense of pattern. This creates a different kind of poesis: a poesis of intuitive ceremony, of hyperbolic praise, and the free play of word-puns, repetition, and call and response. Poetry did not privilege the lyrical or the narrative for thousands of years, but rather emphasized the lyrical in the mysteries of religious ceremony, sympathetic magic, and group lamentation, and emphasized the narrative in terms of reenacting the story and news of the people. One played out the rhythms of the hunt or the planting, the sacrifice, the pattern of emotions, while the conscious form of verbal ability (what we associate most with prose) played out the mythos and history of the people. One was far more mimetic and invocatory, and the other was far more based on an evolving cult of personality, individualism, and on cognitive, sequences of meaning. One was intuitive and sensing, the other thoughtful and feeling–one received from the gods, from an unconscious, the other worked out by the machinations of those who needed to be ingratiating in order to have value..
The trend in modernism and post modern poetry has been to return to a privileging of the received, the unconscious, the automatic, the ritualized, the irrational, the “primitive” forms of the lyrical voice–to put intuition and the “derangement” of the senses in prime place over the rational functions of feeling and thought. The phrase: No ideas but in things, could be rephrased as: All ideas from totems–from fetish, from the intuitive reception via physical stimuli of the objects and patterns. I think modernism’s largest error is this hangover from the romantics: that they see one system as superior to the other. Both systems have flourished from the beginning. One (the intuitive and sensing) based on physical/pattern genius, and the other on the genius of compensating for a lack of physical/pattern acumen. The two are blended now for the most part–a remnant polarity that has lost any truly clear lines of demarcation.
In the factory, after I became competent at what I did, I no longer needed to play the joker, but people preferred the joker to the merely competent tool maker. My rep as a really smart and funny fuck up never went away. When men needed tools they came to me last. When they needed advice on a fight with their wives, or in how to handle the death of a mother or father, they came to me first. I don’t know if I was ever as incompetent as I felt. After all, I play a decent piano and I play by ear. I can fake guitar fairly well, and harmonica, and have a good singing voice–so my sense of pattern must be better than I think, at least for sequences of sound. Sound is vital to a toolmaker because you can “hear” when a piece is wrong. It just has a different way of sounding. My visual intelligence and my ability to learn by watching always sucked. I need to fuck up in order to learn. Error is my friend. Left alone, with no one to watch my sorry ass, I figure things out or find a new way to do them. The modern world rewards quickness rather than depth and slow knowledge. This I know. What does it reward in terms of poetry? Nothing truly new looks like anything to most people except for error. Error must find a way to charm bias. I have lived my life through adjustments as per error. Do workshops allow error? I’m afraid they work too often like motion study experts. It not the quality of the work, but its facility and quickness that gets confused with quality. I don’t know. I started this essay wanting to meditate on how joyous physical labor can be when there is no overseer to threaten you with being fired or calling you a lame ass. perhaps the same holds true of poetry.

I’d love to teach a course centered on The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
Tolstoy’s great novella cannot be studied in isolation from certain foundational texts standing at it were behind Ivan, and pushing him into the literary foreground. These are, but are by no means limited to, The Confessions of St Augustine and Rousseau, Tolstoy’s own tortured diaries, Paul’s Romans, Christ’s teachings on the world as opposed to the kingdom of God in the New Testament, and sundry Russian books and essays on the nature of the peasants, their aristocratic “fathers,” and this new dominant professional class to which Ivan belongs and which has neither loyalty to the land nor the simple faith of the peasant, and which has neither the refinement nor complicated decadence and aesthetic taste of the nobility. This “functionary class” is co-optive, incapable of originality, grafting onto its evil and mundane tree the native “shrewdness” and greed common to the worst peasants, and the pretentiousness and faux complexity/ haughtiness of the worst nobility. They are a class in love with Poshlost–forerunners of smart sets and hipsters. They are not merely middle class, but the Professional class. This is important to remember: They are the executors of the state and civil society–functionaries, masters of the machine of civil process. Tolstoy as a Christian anarchist can think of no more distasteful creatures. Their life is a form of death for him, and Nabokov is right to submit that, to Tolstoy’s mind, the characters who survive Ivan are the truly dead.

Through most of the text, Ivan fits the Biblical category of the lukewarm: “I would that thou were hot or cold, but being lukewarm I shall spit you forth from my mouth.” Being lukewarm, moderate, steady on the wheel is considered necessary to professional success. The motto might be mediocrity of the very best sort. He also enacts a narrative arc of two sayings attributed to Christ: First, the parable of the rich farmer who plots to build an extra barn for his abundant harvest and is told by God “thou fool! Does thou not know that your life is required of you this very night? Store up riches in heaven, and not on earth.” The second is more attributable to both Ivan and his so called “friends”: “And they were buying and selling, and giving and taking in marriage unto the last hour, and were caught unaware.” As for the surface of Ivan’s friends and family and world, we are reminded of the ruling citizens of Christ’s Israel (Pharisees and Sadducees) who were, according to, Jesus, like tombs: “all white on the outside, but on the inside, filled with all matter of decay and filth.” Finally, the question that goads Augustine into ontic crisis also lurks behind Ivan Illyich: “what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his only begotten soul?”

In addition, we must understand that Tolstoy himself was terrified of death–especially after his own brother’s horrible illness–and, at the same time, obsessed with death in its most clinical details, not only in its spiritual mysteries, but in terms of its pathology and sheer progression. Ivan’s death is very much a clinical as well as spiritual process and it is this long, drawn out, agony–in some ways as mundane as the false world it unravels, that is one of the marvels of the novel: the boredom of the dying, the tedium, the way it reduces a person to a corpse pending, the dying man’s exclusion from the living, his interminable otherness–this is all beautifully imagined in this masterpiece.

In the course, we would read subsidiary texts that go with some Tolstoy. Here are some possible examples that share common ground with the quotes from the text:

“He in his madness prays for storms, and dreams that storms will bring him peace”

“Blow, blow thou winter wind. Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.” Also, Elijah in the cave.

“Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”

Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil.

“Morning or night, Friday or Sunday, made no difference, everything was the same: the gnawing, excruciating, incessant pain; that awareness of life irrevocably passing but not yet gone; that dreadful, loathsome death, the only reality, relentlessly closing in on him; and that same endless lie. What did days, weeks, or hours matter?”

Ecclesiastes, the Book of Job.

”The very fact of the death of someone close to them aroused in all who heard about it, as always, a feeling of delight that he had died and they hadn’t.”
“But it seems to me that a man cannot and ought not to say that he loves, he said. Why not? I asked. Because it will always be a lie. As though it were a strange sort of discovery that someone is in love! Just as if, as soon as he said that, something went snap-bang – he loves. Just as if, when he utters that word, something extraordinary is bound to happen, with signs and portents, and all the cannons firing at once. It seems to me, he went on, that people who solemnly utter those words, ‘I love you,’ either deceive themselves, or what’s still worse, deceive others.”

“Can it be that I have not lived as one ought?” suddenly came into his head. “But how not so, when I’ve done everything as it should be done?”

“He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.

Paul: death, where is my death, where is it’s victory?”

“In place of death there was light.”

“All who attempt to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for my sake shall have eternal life.” and “All that is brought to light shall be made into light– John’s Gospel

“At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them.

Augustine Confessions, where the boys steal the fruit.

“But that what was for him the greatest and most cruel injustice appeared to others a quite ordinary occurrence.”

Auden’s “Beaux Arts”

“The example of a syllogism that he had studied in Kieswetter’s logic: Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal, had throughout his whole life seemed to him right only in relation to Caius, but not to him at all.”
“Death is finished, he said to himself. It is no more!”

Paul: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“Come, what did I say, repeat it? he would ask. But I could never repeat anything, so ludicrous it seemed that he should talk to me, not of himself or me, but of something else, as though it mattered what happened outside us. Only much later I began to have some slight understanding of his cares and to be interested in them.”
“He was much changed and grown even thinner since Pyotr Ivanovich had last seen him, but, as is always the case with the dead, his face was handsomer and above all more dignified than than when he was alive.” (zen saying: nothing is more valuable or dignified than a dead cat. Or the Native American tradition of praying over the killed game, or the religious injunction to witness to the dead, even in so far as witnessing to road kill.

Almost any Buddhist teaching.

“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”
“When the examination was over, the doctor looked at his watch, and then Praskovya Fyodorovna informed Ivan Ilyich that it must of course be as he liked, but she had sent today for a celebrated doctor, and that he would examine him, and have a consultation with Mihail Danilovich (that was the name of his regular doctor). ‘Don’t oppose it now, please. This I’m doing entirely for my own sake,’ she said ironically, meaning it to be understood that she was doing it all for his sake, and was only saying this to give him no right to refuse her request. He lay silent, knitting his brows. He felt that he was hemmed in by such a tangle of falsity that it was hard to disentangle anything from it. Everything she did for him was entirely for her own sake, and she told him she was doing for her own sake what she actually was doing for her own sake as something so incredible that he would take it as meaning the opposite.”

“That is not what I mean/that is not it at all”–Prufrock.
Hopkins: Spring and Fall.
Also husband and wife relations in the Bible (Sara and Abraham, Job and his wife) as well as wives and husbands in Russian folk tales.

There are a couple subsidiary texts we would have to read in addition to Ivan, all having to do with the dying or the spiritually dead: King Lear, Issa’s memoir of his father’s death, and Chekhov’s “In the Ravine.” We would also look at Augustine’s Confessions and relate Tolstoy’s exaltation of the peasant to variations on the myth of the “Magic negro.” How does Tolstoy’s sometimes sentimental fondness and adoration for the peasant differ from Gunga Din? How does it differ from takes on the noble savage, or for that matter, from often sentimental tropes on the poor? How does his disdain for the middle class differ from Marxist views? How does it resemble the Marxist view? Why does Tolstoy attack simple and ordinary here, when in most works, and even in this text, he lauds the simplicity of the peasant. What sort of simplicity and ordinariness is he calling most terrible?

We would consider Kierkegaard’s teachings on despair: despair of not being oneself, despair of being one’s self, and the sickness unto death: a despair so deep and total, that one is not even aware of being in despair. And so in addition to King Lear, Issa memoir on his father’s death, and Chekov’s The Ravine, we will be reading The Sickness Unto Death.

For historical background, read up on Christian anarchy, the post-liberation/pre-revolution civil life of Russia, and various works on chronic illness and its pathology.

Is this the kind of class you’d take?


ONE

 

Delhi is hell. It is hot. It hits one in the face like the exhaust pipe of a long-haul trailer spewing thick blackness into a pristine sky. It smells like ruin.

IMG_0489The impression is delayed, of course, as the city puts one its best feet forward at first. The sparkling, new T3 at Indira Gandhi International—the second largest air terminal in the world, they point out with great pride—greets arrivals with four giant gold hands in lotus positions, and a shining, gleaming, blazing white expanse of an epic duty free. It all feels very proper and clean. But as one exits through the swish of sliding glass to a throbbing mass of hired drivers and calls for taxi, taxi, taxi, one first smells the flaming soot. The sweet burn of wood and diesel. The Delhi bonfire. And yet, the pulse races because this is it, the most foreign of foreign places. It is the rush of unknown possibilities.

Misters! Misters! Here please, yes! and suddenly we are in a car. We are being bounced from one side of the road to the other. Horns blare. Lights flash. The roads grow narrower and more crowded and the whole mass of traffic moves faster. Buildings zip past, haphazardly stacked on top of one another so that one concrete block looks as though it has tripped over another.

There is Red Fort! Purana Qila, Sir!

A mass of red, Agra sandstone lurks in the distance. We careen and weave until we slam to a dead stop. This is it, sirs, Hotel Tara Palace. There is a bonfire—an actual bonfire—of trash and books its appears. Emaciated children scamper off into the tight, unlit alleys, beyond this main road. Goats chew through knee-high rubbish heaps. Swarms of flies tick the skin—flies at night, I think. The smell of propane and burnt milk; the blaring horns; ringing bicycle bells; white eyes in brown faces glued to the to white bodies of the men who’ve just stepped out of a cab and into the crumbling, choked bazaar known as Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi.

IMG_0499We will be shoved and beckoned, Sir, please, you come look, you like, as we are pushed from behind for the sin of stopping, or run off of the crumbling sidewalk porticoes to hop like froggert across the choked boulevard through a broken iron fence to the other side in search of the liquor stand. We will be surrounded by a pack of screaming children putting stickers on us, clasping and unclasping their hands for money. We will be scolded in Urdu or Hindi or Punjabi for letting them do this.

On the Rajpath a parade-route boulevard connecting the houses of Lok Sabha, or Parliament, with the massive triumphal arch of India Gate, a man with a wicker basket will stop us—Sir! Sir! Please, you have look. Look! Look!—as he dashes the basket to the ground so that a hooded cobra springs up hissing and bobbing in the dusty, gold afternoon. Three transsexuals might walk by, giggling in their saris and heavy makeup. They are considered mystics here, or something like mild witches. They are hired for weddings to say prayers and tell fortunes and are known to aggressively solicit money for services, wanted or not. They might bee-line for us.

Sir, sir, where are you going? Says the rickshaw driver

Sir, that is such and such road. You are looking for such and such other road, says the nice, paunchy, balding man in a crisp oxford shirt. I am just helping you with your going. You go this way for nice pashminas, saris, ali baba pants. The ticket off is this way. I can take you. He follows and follows and finally gives up.

Packed like sardines against the window of the metro. The shoving in and out at the same time. Elbows. Forearms.

The way it costs different for Indians and for us—for soda, for sites of archeological significance, for rickshaws, and water and anything.

The way it made him never want to come back.

The way I swore I never would either.

 

TWO

 

Backpacker ghetto. Paharganj. Just west of the train station which is really an open-air sleeping facility for anyone in transit or not. Whole families pile on top of themselves and on top of their belongings. Everything seems held together by tarp and string. It is six months later and I’ve returned, telling myself that I have unfinished business with India. It harbors secrets. It made me run to quickly. I must know why.

This way, sir.

            I will take you to your platform, sir.

            That office is closed, sir, I will show you new office.

            You need to come this way for that train, sir.

IMG_0495Backpacker ghetto, because this time I’m not staying in Old Delhi and I promise myself that I will only stay in this city as little as possible, and if a night can be avoided I will avoid it, but that can never be the case because everything in India runs through Delhi. So I stay on the cheap in an airless, windowless room in Hotel Cottage Yes Please, a name I love. At least it is clean. At least the air conditioning works. At least is feels separate from the chaos of the bazaar outside where anything bootleg a mind could conjure is for sale.

But they have no rooms on my next pass through Delhi I must find somewhere else, somewhere recommended by a hostel booking website, a website with real and honest reviews according to their banner. Another windowless room, barely fitting a bed. A room up steep, dark, wet stairs with holes in the wall opening onto the stench of the alley and open sewer below. I spend as little time there as possible, afraid to touch anything. I wake in the morning to find a bedbug, dead, surrounded in my blood, having been crushed by my head in the course of the night. I am sure I will have to put everything into plastic bags when I get home. I’ve lived in New York City for nine years. I’ve never seen one and according to the billboard and subway signs there, those fuckers are an epidemic.

Delhi. Damn it.

 IMG_0492

THREE

 

I haven’t stopped talking about India, so I am back. I’ve collected a holy trinity of visits by now. Ask me why I keep coming back and I have ten thousand answers because I love this place and I hate this place. I think this country has some secret teaching, some small pebble that is the key to setting things straight—me and the thousands of backpackers that stream through T3 every month.

Being back means Delhi. And As I’ve seen enough red sandstone mausoleums and forts and shrines, as I’ve been hassled in the outdoor mall of Connaught Place, as I’ve been jostled amongst every living beast in the world in the strangled, collapsing alleys of Old Delhi, as I’ve tried slumming it with the dreadlocked hippies in Paharganj, I’ve decided to see some new aspect of the city. It’s a neighborhood I’ve heard about and read about, but never seen as it lays way out in the never ending sprawl. Hauz Khas Village—south of the madness, surrounded by trees. Artsy, say the blogs. Hip, writes the Lonely Planet. And what that means is that while it is still India—still a dusty mess of a crumbling road, still concrete blocks stacked too high on one another, still a bit fly-riddled and sometimes the air is punctured by the scent of rotting vegetal matter—it is westernized. It’s the Williamsburg of Delhi. It has cafes and art galleries and bars and swank restaurants and intentionally grungy ones and little shops packed tight with bright, kitschy wallets and shoulder bags trimmed with leather, and smart t-shirts emblazoned with the wry winks a New Yorker would appreciate. Half of it looks out onto crumbling Mughal ruins and tombs and beyond that a lake—a clean lake with swans and ducks—and manicured paths and shrubbery and peacocks and monkeys and owls and flowering vines and roses. It is gated off from the rest of the world—rickshaws can’t get in; honking, hulking Ambassador cabs are forbidden. In fact, no cars may enter unless with the permission of the village.

IMG_0502So just like that, Delhi becomes immediately easier and more palatable. My hotel serves fish and washes their vegetables with filtered water and has local artists hammered up all over the walls and oversized pillows are dashed on wide benches and the wireless internet works and the air conditioner, too. So I have come all this way, come to this place I swear I need because it is exactly the opposite of my ordered life—this place where gods jump off of every surface or can be in any stone or tree, where one can always smell incense and sandalwood on the air, where the smell of burnt milk means wafts down wide alleys as a temple bell clangs into the heavy air, where the world is a magical realist bonanza—I’ve come all this way to finally say I love Delhi because of its proximity to my own life: its New York comforts and American happinesses.

And, like that, I hate it all over again.

I owe my reading life to wildly disparate loves: an anthology called 101 American Poems, a copy of George Bernard Shaw’s Man And Superman, Wuthering Heights, and Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. I read Wharton in the 6th grade. The librarian, Yolanda Zeke, the daughter of Cuban refugees–the fucking worst Republicans I know (Next to Irish Catholic republicans)–insisted Ethan Frome was too “advanced” for me. She stared me down the long corridor of her elitist Cubano nose, and I lowered my head the way an abject peasant should and said, ‘Alright Ms. Zeke.” (She was all of 21) Then I waited until the next day and stole it.

I can still remember both the bliss and terror I felt as I walked out onto Rahway ave, on a blustery day in the early 70′s, when “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was a huge hit and I had a ranch style coat with fake sheep collar on, under which Ethan Frome lurched with every beat of my frantically pounding heart. I didn’t really “steal” Ethan Frome. You might say I borrowed it sans library card.

Two weeks later, after devouring it 4 times, I slipped it into the “redemption slot” at eight PM, well after dark. I loved the fact that this little metal shoot, tucked into a side wall of the library, was called the “redemption slot.” Soon I sought redemption on a daily basis. Thirty seven years after the fact, I can still remember Mattie fussing over the plate of pickles just before Ethan arrives. For some reason, I see snow in her dark hair, snow that melts almost instantly, though this never happened in the novel. I knew who Matty was. She was a dead ringer for the actress Bonnie Bedelia, who played both the lover of Jan Michael Vincent in Sand Castles (A great tv movie of around 1971/72), and Joe Cartwright’s doomed wife in the last season of Bonanza. Maybe it is a little scary that I do not have to look such things up. They are imbedded in my memory along with such lines as “A boy’s will is the wind’s will, and the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts,” or “All over the world, simple pleasures of the flesh are being ruined by people screaming to be understood.”

What is trivia? Are the blue, pinching sparks above electric trains, at that time of day when it is almost dark, but not utterly dark, trivia? And is the smell of dead leaves, or the sound of of your father, who you suddenly realize is no longer strong, the sound of his steps on the porch, trivia? And when it is not heard, and when all the “important” ideas have filled out your life, is that really significance? I love Christ, but I have always hated the followers of Christ because they scavenge through the details of his Gospel only for the generalities. I remember, that the first thing Mary wants to do when he reveals himself as Jesus and not as the gardener is to touch him. I cannot be an academic, except an academic of the concrete, the felt. I would like to teach a year long course in detail recovery. Oh stupid little girl who looks at me as though I have 3 heads, and thinks I am not the best writer to say of “I studied with”…what did you do on that perfect day when your mother could have made a fuss over the blue jay feather you held in your hand, but didn’t? Do we die by general truths? Take my Class!

I realize now this memoir is a class in details. Surface becomes interior. If I could convey, with all my heart, the exact co-ordinates of that cold day, and how I slipped

Edith Wharton under my coat, time would cease to exist; for the continuation of time constitutes a failure in style. In this respect, Derrida was right. The smallest gaps are infinite.

I am tired of my life, which is why I stroke it, and murmur into its fur, and hope it scratches me that I might bleed and revive.

I am walking out of the library. The sky is dark, but not completely dark–a Stonehenge blue. I have enough money on me for one slice of pizza and the angelus rings. I pass the cemetery in Elizabeth where all the revolutionary war heroes have a mixer with the homeless. I am vast. A book is under my coat. The stars are out. Last week, by accident, I saw a poem by Wallace Stevens, and, though he never mentioned blue sparks, I knew he had mastered them, and the poem was “The Rabbit as King of The Ghosts.” Yolanda, who is beautiful, and serious beyond her years, and a future doctor, would. no doubt, tell me Wallace Stevens is beyond my capacity–but God knows I am about to lose my mother, and my father, and the house I have lived in since I was three, and so I am, beyond all reasonable expectations, ready–not advanced, but beyond, a wholly different thing. Yolanda sees a gringo. She’s right, but I am also beyond. I do not wish to escape being white (That’s something fashionable people do). I wish to escape being a survivor. I don’t know it, but everyone in my family, within the next few years, will be destroyed. I must know this poem. The saddest thing is that, even at this age, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, too advanced.

Download a PDF of the strip here.

I misremember the words of the Shakespeare Sonnet because my book is back at the office: “Those who have power to hurt and yet do none….” It’s something very much like that, and this is the gist of what I want to speak of in terms of mercy.

The power to hurt
It is said blessed are the merciful, they shall receive mercy and so mercy is a force that can only be matched by its return–which should tip us off that it is tied to highest powers. It is both a giving and a withholding. We give love and we withhold judgment. We also withhold pity, sentimentality, and, most especially, the sense of our own superiority. Then: it is the state of love opposite of courtship. In courtship we plight our troth. We adore. In the state of mercy, we do not bend to serve, nor rise to condescend, but find the exact height at which relationship is eye to eye. So to have mercy on another is to level with him or her–to see them face to face. This is why I always thought of Chekhov as the great writer of mercy–because he did not distort, yet he had the power if he wished to fully destroy the other. So mercy is strength that is dispensed in “seeing” the other. “You have seen me brother, you have not turned away.” Thus mercy is deep and abiding witness wrought not of weakness, nor servility, but of a sort of leveling Isaiah implies when he says, “the mountains shall be laid low and the valleys raised.” It is a leveling that is based on power and yet does not seek to defend, attack, or defeat the other. In mercy, seeing, witnessing is everything. And so this is the ground of mercy. And so I know that at the heart of mercy lies a contradiction: power, enormous power that seeks with its whole heart, and mind and soul the equanimity of witness. And there are other qualities:

Charity
Charity is that love mercy carries as its chief defining action. The action of mercy is charitas–which, unlike many gifts, is just the right gift at the right moment. This means it is grace derived good works–not merely good works. It is the work of the Holy Spirit inside someone who has power to hurt and yet chooses, instead to bear witness to the other– to truly “see” them. Again, it has ties to the highest form of what the Greeks call Xenia–the right treatment of the other, the stranger, the recognition of the other’s hidden majesty. This gift raises both the giver and receiver to an almost divine height. It elevates the relational scope of all being. Nabakov speaks of such charity when he says that while he would commend a man who saved a child from a burning building, he would take off his hat and bow in great reverence to that man who went into the fire a second time to retrieve the child’s favorite doll. Why? Because that man is the poet inside us–the one who sees the true heart of the other, who does not merely attend to the material, but goes the extra mile that Jesus speaks of in his preaching. I encountered an example of this aspect of mercy in an essay by the writer, Natalie Kusz. In her essay “Vital Signs” which details a long stay in the hospital, she gives a brief account of a nurse who “sees” an injured child in just the way I am speaking of. Consider this the example of mercy and its action:

And overseeing us all was janine, a pink woman, young even to seven year old eyes, with yellow, cloudy hair that I touched when I could. She kept it long, parted in the middle, or pulled back in a ponytail like mine before the accident. My hair had been blond then and I felt sensitive now about the course brown stubble under my bandages. Once, on a thinking day, I told janine that if I had hair like hers, I would braid it and loop the pigtails around my ears. She wore it like that the next day and every day after for a month.

Janine truly “sees” the little girl who has been in a devastating accident. She instinctively knows the little girl’s crush on her, and she has power to ignore or hurt the girl, yet, not only is she responsive, but, as if with the supernatural eye of a divine being, she sees that her cloudy yellow hair is also the little girl’s–that they share this between them. Her act is the charitas of true mercy–which is power to hurt converted into powerful witness, and an act of love beyond the call of duty. it is the right gift at the right time, with the effortless gesture of grace.

Mercy is always Unprecedented
Because mercy is always particular to an act of witness it can not have precedent, What constitutes mercy at one moment, constitutes mere good manners, or formality at another. mercy is in the moment, of the moment, for the moment, and without a future so to speak. there is a reason for this: acts of mercy are forms of prophecy; they teach us what true justice could be, what true equality, and love, and witness could be. Mercy is both mystery and pedagogy: a mitzvah that creates mitzvah consciousness. Empathy must be taught through stories of mercy. As a child, going to mass, I heard about the woman taken in adultery, the prodigal son, the woman at the well, the good thief recognizing Jesus on the cross, the love of the enemy–over and over and over again. Because stories were always beautiful to me, I took them to heart, saw them as real events. Mercy was everywhere, waiting to be enacted. It ennobled my being, made me want to be someone on the right side of an issue. I was also wild, intense, easily hurt, and I hoped with my whole heart God would forgive me my wildness if I showed mercy to others. I figured that was my only chance. My heart is a wildheart and I cannot do the yoga, serenity, soft-voiced thing people seem to do so well these days. I suspect this niceness has more to do with middle class manners than mercy. I have seen vegetarians show little or no mercy to anyone who does not share their life style. Perhaps I am a strange man, but I feel just as endangered among nice academics as I do among street kids. In point of fact, I always felt more at home with street kids. There, in a world where nothing is polite or well structured or “nice,” mercy visits on a regular basis. I think of Fariha, the kid from Bangladesh who befriended Kajah Jackson, a tough, black girl from the projects who had her mother’s brains splattered on her clothes by her father. He murdered her mother in front of her. Kajah was more than depressed; she was destroyed–talked to no one, played with no one, did the one thing in the ghetto you can’t do: dressed poorly and did not “wash yo ass.” She had “stank” as one kid called it. Farihah was impeccably dressed, brilliant, popular, and had two loving parents, and yet she risked her popularity,her reputation, everything to befriend Kajah. She helped me reach Kajah when I worked with children who had lost their lives–their childhoods. When I asked Farihah why, she said, “I was not always popular, Mr. Joe. Like when 9/11 happened, I was not in the Arab section of town and the kids threw stones at me. They called me names. I was in fifth grade, and I tried to kill myself. My mom cried, and I remembered I didn’t just belong to myself. I belonged to her, too, and I would break her heart. When I saw Kajah, I just knew I should be her friend, and that I was just like her under everything. I took her to my house and my mother called her a dirty little project girl. ‘Why do you hang with such people?’ My mother said. I told her, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself mommy. Kaja is just like me.” It took a long time to see it, but now my mother wants to do Kaja’s hair, and buy her clothes. She wants her to be her daughter.’

This leads me to my final observation on mercy: Mercy, unlike good manners or social nicety, can exist in hell. It can exist in the worst situations. it goes deeper than all wounds. It retrieves the dead from Hades. It barters for our souls when we would sell them out. It is violent in the best sense. It sees and refuses to be blind, Without it, all the welfare programs, and systems, and reforms are useless. Mercy is the majesty of vision, and it is the only true power we have, the one we seem all too often unwilling to exercise.

A prayer to be merciful

Remove the scales from my eyes, oh Lord,
and the scales from my hands.
Replace them with the ferocity of sight,
with the hands by which I wield
no weapon and all grace. Have mercy
on me who is so unmerciful. Give me your love
your eyes, your hands, so that I might see
the stranger, and know you–at once
forever, without hesitation,
in all places high and low.

PHOTO: MARCO MUNOZ

When I was young, I wanted to stain the world with my permanence which is why, I suppose, I became a poet.

This is no longer the case. Old Four seasons songs from the early Sixties are more canonical than the vast majority of poems. In point of fact, a good poetry trivia question would be “name four poems from the 1960′s not written by Ginsberg, Bly, Merwin, Plath, Sexton, or Creeley.” Hell, most students could not name four poets prominent in the sixties other than these poets, much less poems. They probably could name five or six rock bands. I am as guilty as anyone. Although I can name perhaps thirty poets who became well-known in the sixties, and perhaps 20 poems (I know more, but have a terrible memory for titles). But I can name at least two hundred pop songs, dozens of televisions shows, and movies. Poetry is not even close in terms of having pride of place in my long term memory. It’s not as enjoyable as “Surfer Girl” for most people, and you can slow dance to “Surfer Girl.”

So what? What’s my point? I guess my point is there’s no point to writing poems except to write them. Being published, even winning major awards, are activities quickly swallowed up by the youth obsessed, pop culture obsessed amnesia of our so called “civilization.”

This past summer, I refused to write. I turned down three readings, none of which paid, because after thirty years of doing this shit, spending money, even gas money just to get in front of people’s faces (usually familiar) does not have the same glamor it once did. I understand poets who are just starting out wanting to read anywhere, even if they have to pay for the privilege. When I was 24 or 25, taking a thirty minute car ride, or hour train ride to read in an open (not feature, open) was something I enjoyed. First, gas was a lot cheaper. Second, the poetry scene seemed full of promise. It had that indefinable whiff of possibility–almost sexual. Now I don’t catch the scent and gas is always hovering near 4 bucks a gallon, and it seems every poet out there has taken the same fucking workshop, or is writing the same brand of spoken word. When I first got on the scene, I met poets who were avid readers–and they read some amazing poets, poets you would not consider par for the course of bar readings: Oppen, Olson, Reznikoff, Creeley, Ignatow, Paul Blackburn, Louis Zukovski, Levertov, Kathleen Frazier, Robert kelly, Larry Levis, Charles Wright, etc, etc, and we would go to diners after readings and actually talk poets and poems, and music, and art–not grants, not who is winning what or teaching where. I loved the poets I knew and they varied widely in age and background. This has vanished. This is how the scene now goes:

1. It’s all open readings, and one I heard about where the host begins and ends the open with a ten to fifteen minute recitation of his own work–which means he is the featured poet every month.
2. Slams where it’s as much about acting chops and looks as poetry and in which nothing truly different ever wins–just like academic poetry
3. Closed readings where the feature is not followed by an open and he or she has credentials that qualify him or her as a “noteworthy” poet.

Other trends:
- Features no longer stay for the open readers.
- Open readers show up late in order to miss the feature and read, or show up, do the open and split before the feature.

In my home state of Jersey, there are still a good amount of readings, but no one seems to go out to the diner anymore. It’s pretty business-like. I remember in 1991/92 I sometimes had as many as twenty poets go out the diner after a Poets Wednesday reading, and Edie Eustice, when she ran the series with Sofran Mcbride in the late 70s, early 80s had ten to twenty poets come back to her house. People would drink, eat, talk, play the piano and stay sometimes until the wee small hours–not anymore. There is less friendship on the poetry scene, and yet more scolding of me for not seeing it as a “social” event. Well, where the fuck is the social event if people don’t break bread together, eat, drink, flirt, fall in love, sit around a piano? Spare me. Social my ass. I was raised better than that. That’s what the Irish call a teetotaler’s orgy–six pieces of watercress, one cracker, and not a smile cracked to compete with the sticks up their arses. The aesthetic is BORING. Even when I helped the students run the Belmar reading here in Binghamton, we’d go to Kennedy Fried Chicken after a reading and get chicken and coco bread, or we’d do something. If no one is getting paid, then it ought to have a festive atmosphere. Someone ought to puke, or fall in love, or stare gloomily at the bushes and pee on the azaleas. Forget it. We are all so “functional” but is it functional to be this lacking in spirit? If so, why do it?

So now I do things to stain the world with my impermanence. Yesterday I made a fence completely out of tree limbs that had fallen in a storm. I used a potato peeler to take off the bark, and made one rule: no nails, or rope, everything done by the force of gravity and placement. The fence pleases me. It is about a hundred feet around, and rises and falls in height. I loved peeling the bark, fitting the limbs just so, knowing a really good wind storm or a drunk friend will send the whole thing crashing. I made mirror fish out of pieces of broken mirror. I did everything except write poems. My wife writes a poem everyday. I don’t want to write. Two years ago, it was all slammers at the Belmar, and I felt an ugliness I can’t explain. I paid people out of my own pocket at the Belmar (to the tune of about four thousand dollars over three years), helped the students, and, in the end, all it did was get me a bad reputation as a “drinker.” Hell, half the time I was not drinking–just having fun, but having fun in this modern bung hole we call the arts is deemed dysfunctional. In the end, no one was grateful for what I did. Instead, I had to listen to them act like Puritan Burgomeisters. I was thinking: Put all these snob ass, hypocritical purists on a cigar box!” Freedom and the arts? Horse shit. I know when its time to leave.

I am three and my father is about to take me up to bed. Everything about my father is suddenness and the rough, yet not unpleasant abrasion of fine grit sandpaper: his stubble, his hands, the flannel shirts he wears with a plumb line stencil, and a soft pack of Chesterfield Kings tucked into the pockets. His cigarettes are always slightly crooked. My parents, being born before people know better, throw me up in the air and carry me about with cigarettes dangling from their lips. I grow up in a strange, mystic fog of second hand smoke and lit cigarettes. It is the early sixties. People still use Brylcreem and the older, more “classy” types refuse to take their cue from Kennedy and give up their fedoras. My dad dresses like Jack Kerouac–or, rather, Jack Kerouac, and Jackson Pollack, and all those guys dress like my dad: working clothes, work boots. The difference is my father doesn’t write novels. he works 12 hour days in a paper factory, comes home to throw the ball around with me, is sometimes so tired that he falls asleep eating supper at the kitchen table.

I am burrowing my cheek, my face, the whole of my life in the smell of him–cigs, wood shavings, old spice, sweat. I will never know him again at this most basic of levels: sheer smell and touch. The flannel is red checkered, soft, and I like how I can rest myself against him. I know he won’t drop me. He would rather die than drop me. The television is on in the background because it is 1961 or 62, and the television is always on. I have fallen asleep on the living room floor, watching Bonanza with my family. At three or four I never make it through Bonanza. My father says: “Ok Kid, time to climb the mountain,” and we go up the stair. “Fee, fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishmun.” I smell the beer on my dad’s breath, clasp my sweaty, child’s hands around his neck, pull closer to the smell of the beer, pretending I’m still asleep. When I am older I will smell like him, and have all sort of pencils with which to draw plumb lines across the kitchen wall.

The first time I read Roethke’s Waltz poem, my father has been dead for a year.

The whiskey on your breath
could make a small boy dizzy
but I hung on like death
such waltzing is not easy.

The much more suburban students in my class at Rutgers claim the poem is about abuse. I am stunned, full of anger at them. What sort of roughness do they understand? Are they so attached to nice behavior that they don't know who this father is? We are all abusive, and the world we try to create and the world we inhabit are so oddly disparate: even when everything goes our way, even when it seems the will does not fail us, there is a gap between who we are and who we intended, and love must be born there--in that gap, where the wind howls, and all the things we believed we were protected against squeeze through. That is where the love of my father, and my love lives--where there is no semblance of protection, even though I know he would rather die than drop me. I go into the bathroom. I am 19, and soon I will have to drop out of Rutgers. All those people who loved me with lit cigarettes dangling, who smelled most wonderfully of beer and cheap after shave, are dead.

I am dizzy, falling onto the bathroom tiles. I puke up my breakfast, catch my breath, wash up, towel myself dry, burrow my face into my own flannel shirt. I smell of something other than my father, but the flannel is enough to bring him back to me. If he was here, I would kiss him, the way no one kisses in my family. I would tell him "fee, fie, foe, fum." My crying is so strong it gives me hiccups. I do not go back to class because if I look at the end of the poem again "And Waltzed me off to bed/ still clinging to his shirt," I will lose it in front of all those nice children. I will bring death into the village, and I am sick of death. Outside, the urban Ginko trees do not look especially spectacular in their Autumn foliage, but there is one Sugar Maple, at a part of campus which few seem to trouble with their frisbees, and I go there. Half the leaves have fallen already--a deep rich orange. The bark of the sugar maple is shaggy in places--thick, light gray strips of bark. I lay my cheek there. It is rough and doesn't lie to me. It will not support the weight of the seasons for much longer, but why live in those sorts of truths? The bark is also a truth, and the deep mulch stench of fully advanced Autumn, and the ants crawling in the rising sap of the maple's wounds. The way the wind riffles my flannel. this is just as true. Inside my pocket, lies an eraser, a pencil nub, a ticket stub from the train. My flannel, blue plaid, feels so good around me. On my head is a ski cap--black. I look like I could be dressed for the docks. I sit under the tree and write:

The night cannot invade my pockets,
I believe there are lamps within
illuminating photos, flecks of
laundry lint, ancient ticket stubs.
I will dig deep into these caves
and survive,
by some great epic of my hands.

Sometimes I no longer desire to teach the way I have been teaching–not because I am ungrateful, but because I wish to do a fair day’s work. I wish I could have nothing but independent studies, work from the morning until the late afternoon–9 conferences a day (One hour for lunch) five days a week. By the end of the week, I could see forty five students in an intensive, close hour where they would get far more from the experience, and so would I. Once a week, for another two hours, I could meet with them all together and we could break bread, have a reading and a party–maybe even a dance.

Everything about my life, all its pains and losses, its odd twists and almost impossible paths, has been a call to communion. I have something to teach, but not in this sad thing we call a “class room” where it is so hard to break down the wall between talking head and passive recepter. I would like my young men and women, and occasionally older men and women coming to my office to show me a poem or story, and I could truly respond to it–like a friend who is also an expert on this particular thing–and I could give them tea or coffee and pull books down from my shelf and loan them the books. And if the conference went over an hour, I’d have the next person come in anyway, and we’d all have a brief chat–and we’d look at this next poem or poems together.

First, I have true solitude so that I never really need to be alone. I always am. Second, I could do all my reading and editing right there–and the student would get my response immediately, and I would have my time away from the school truly free and so would they–in terms of my class. The other professors would hate this. It makes no sense for lecture classes, but for writing workshops–or creative writing students, this would be the best of worlds. I would be on campus from 9 until 6, with an hour lunch, or I could eat lunch in. If the weather was nice, the student and I could take a brisk walk and read the poem under the trees. Literature is learned through friendships–by building a rapport with another mind so that you know when it is hitting its stride or getting caught on a snag. If you leave me alone with all the free time I have , I never do any work, because I am always writing or thinking, except working on what I should be working on. For me, this “free time” is no good. I am not self-motivated. Left to myself, I can sit still all day and do nothing but stare, or walk for miles. I need a routine, a series of relationships that fill my day.

If I ran classes this way, I could take as many as forty five kids, and they would get a vast amount of attention, and still meet once a week for a reading, and a party (optional). They could workshop each other’s poems through e-mail, or get together for a cup of coffee.

My perfect life: I would “sit” in prayer five days a week–from 7 in the morning until 7 at night at my house, which would be my hermitage. Part of my prayers would include recieving visitors all day who could bring me a poem or poems to look at and work shop, or simply need me to listen or pray, or have a cup of tea. I would live on donations, and a small reading fee ($3 a poem). After 7 I would write my own work, or pray my rosary, and relax. On weekends, I would see friends or attend readings and exhibitions. I would be a “poetry monk.” I think I’d like to wear a robe–the color called “ashes of roses.” I want my life to be simple, and completely not my life at all.

Perhaps I would do this seven days a week–when I needed to journey, a novice would take my place until I returned. I love to go to the eucharistic adoration chapel at St. Patrick’s in Binghamton. It is silent, and I adore the eucharist for an hour. I don’t want “peace.” I want true engagement, the opportunity to give back whatever God has given me. I want this with all my heart, but the world is stubbornly in love with its gadgets of control. The world is always trying to complicate the simple, and make simplistic the complex. So my monk’s life is out the window, and I remain a “fuck up” in this system. I feel so bad. I want to be used, but I have to figure out where my handle is, so then I can convey to others: this is how I am most useful. This is how you pick me up and pour.