At a party last Thursday night after a full day at this year’s AWP conference, I broke one of my own absolute rules – never, under any circumstances resort to quoting The Big Lebowski. Out of some mixture of awkwardness and that day’s hang over, I recited a line from my high school idol the Dude to another poet. I was simply passing a good piece of advice along, a bit of practical philosophy – some times you eat the bar, and, well, sometimes he eats you. It seemed appropriate, as she’d just finished a tirade, and we’d both lost interest in the subject. By the time I got to bar, she was speaking the line loudly, with panache. She was in on the joke, eager for me to know it, which is what I continually find so gross. At some point in the last 5 years (maybe longer?) seemingly everyone was let in on a joke that I once selfishly held as my own. In turn, The Big Lebowski stopped being the reference-pantry raided by me and my small circle of friends, the endless source of weird one-liners good for boggling those unhip to the film. It’s now become collective knowledge, and worse, quoting the movie has become a norm for so many people my age (who hit puberty mid to late 90s) who probably, I assume, have no understanding of the Cohen brothers’ meticulous talent, or worse, in fact appreciate it as deeply as I do, making it that much less special. So many voices right now across North America are attempting their best Donny or Walter, again trying to remake that initial Edenic moment when someone dropped a burrito down their T-shirt and their friend turned, laughed a little, and coughed out, this a bummer man…that’s a bummer. In that first instant—a miming of the already dramatic, immediate recognition, and thus a new context invented. Lebowski became a movie not only to buy late at night in a Wal-Mart bargain bin, to watch again and again noticing new congruencies and minutiae, but a movie to quote. And in that instant, that quotation became the thing to mimic, rather than the movie itself.
So how does one function in a post-Lebowski world? A world where the thing you loved growing up—the sense that a unique moment is possible, the comradery built around the surprise of both responding to a new joke and remembering it all at once—feels played out? Do you take it to the next extreme, attend an official Lebowski Fest donning shooting-range glasses and a canvas vest? Would you find those beloved people waiting there for you, the real fans, or would you still feel that sense of competition and frustration?
The next day was Friday, and I was prepared for a repeat—hung over, sitting through panels and readings at my first ever AWP conference, conveniently set in my home, DC. I would greet even casual acquaintances warmly, stalk my favorite publishers, push myself to try and drink in all the poetry I could stomach, given my nausea from the last night. I had avoided the conference in past years for practical reasons like money and semester workload. I’d also pictured a monster: a sea of writers confined to a single space all vying for attention. I had imagined the conference as one long stretch of feeling bad like you do when a guy by the metro asks for change and you keep walking, or when a shiny BMW full of laughing college kids pulls up by you at a red light. Pity in the first, envy in the second. Self-deprecation on both fronts. I imagined being sick of people selling me their artistic ethos and ranking it against mine.
In part, I was right. By the end of Saturday, I had a strange feeling, uncanny, some mixture of confidence and deflation, of me and not me. I felt a sense of writerly persona, but also the sense that I had to recoup something important. Some good college friends were in town for the conference, and so there was that—the long, nostalgic nights of bar hopping I so often drunk-dial demanding. There were wonderful readings by some of my favorite writers, and even better by writers I’d never heard of. And there was the realization when I first arrived on Thursday that in a moment I’d be surrounded by thousands of like-minded people, all scraped from the floor wearing similar dirt.
But there was also the feeling that somehow the nametag around my neck stood as a two-word resume, making me easier to read. People cut in line after readings to pass a card or book to a speaker, and subsequently drew out conversations while the rest waited. There were questions after panels which included mostly credentials and never actually reached a question mark. There was the too-muchness of the book fair in an endless basement of rooms busting with people. There was an air of emptiness to so many that sprang from more than beer or jet lag. People who seemed large to me in the past now looked tiny.
The writers who convinced me to believe in writing were Kerouac and later Ginsberg. In college when I was so ready to be moved by something and directed, I found ‘On the Road,’ which preached no direction, and ‘Howl,’ which celebrated revolt. I had my first transcendent experiences walking through crowds of students who I imagined couldn’t possibly understand the world’s beauty at that moment. I read and believed in what writers do: drink and yell together, break the past, push their every limit, and sing each others’ praises. So I helped a friend edit a home-made journal and organized a reading series in the back of a bar. I read and reread Bukowski. I caroused with and debated the poetry kids. Got smashed like any college student. I took every possible poetry workshop and then applied to MFAs looking to continue in that same vein. I’ve now lived in DC for almost 3 years honing my craft, attending readings, meeting the local writers. All of this under the assumption that I’m following my love, that poetry is my creative vehicle, and that along with my few acquaintances, I’m pushing this thing forward, keeping it alive. It sounds ridiculous, but how else to go on in a medium that favors the individual, without on some level believing you’re an individual?
So this past weekend, walking into my first AWP, the conference that consistently draws a wealth of today’s talented writers and teachers of writing, what should I have expected? Culture or the mime of culture? Ginsberg first reading ‘Howl’ in 1950s Frisco while Kerouac passed cheap jugs of wine and shouted? Or that moment’s retelling in the recent film Howl with its more gorgeous Ginsberg, its less gorgeous Kerouac? Poets like so many thousands of Jeff Bridges decoys, all in matching white v-necks, pacing like lunatics, uttering the same 10 lines back and forth? I think as a poet and person, I often live too much in the imagined past, reliving memories, idolizing personas invented through literature, saving friends in my mind as they once were. But that doesn’t mean I believe the present isn’t real, and that poetry should accept its place as just a teacher’s art, though teaching is incredibly important. There is a reason so many poets are right now budding in MFA programs, and it’s not simply the push for professionalization, the economy, etc. Nor do I think, looking back on my full experience, that AWP should be cornered as some sort of backwoods, yet fancy, family reunion, rife with inbreeding, as was my initial cynicism. I did hear moments of life, feel excitement, swallow poetry and sweat it out. On Friday, Sonia Sanchez stood up during the Split this Rock panel on Langston Hughes, for which she presented. She paused to keep from crying, and said something to the effect of: You don’t understand what this is all about; you have to read Langston Hughes, I mean really go back and read him. I knew she really felt it, even if she couldn’t explain fully just then—just like any good artist really means what they make, no matter the layers of irony we’re asked to sift through. The dramatic voice, fragmentation, wrenched syntax. The CVs, business cards, mingling. Underneath, there must be sincerity, and so often there is. Most writers I meet really believe in the vitality of their craft, even if it doesn’t immediately show. Not everyone’s confident, and not everyone’s talented. The next poet will always on some level be the competition; it’s there in the edicts of contemporary art. But I think we all savor those moments we don’t have to suspect, that just happen, really happen. Those moments you can’t manufacture, which make all the bullshit tolerable. If I have the money, I’ll be in Chicago this time next year doing it all again.
It was the novel, specifically The Brothers Karamazov, that once and for all set me on the path toward dedicating my life to literature. Only recently has poetry come to occupy a similarly sacred space as the novel in my outlook. This delay is not due to any prejudice on my part, but more to a simple lack of sufficient exposure.
The main catalyst for this awakening was John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” When I first encountered it, I had been studying Pynchon, Barth, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace. Namely, practitioners of the massive, whose major works will undoubtedly stand as monuments to our historical and cultural moment. “Self-Portrait” is one such undertaking.
The sheer philosophical, epistemological, formal and emotional scope exhilarates me every time I read it. It is a virtuosic, dynamic, and ultimately heart-wrenching meditation on self-consciousness and loss, central notions of late twentieth-century art. Like those masters of narrative I mentioned, Ashbery causes me to pause and reflect with awed humility that I could never do what he did in this poem.
Don Paterson, the leading contemporary Scottish poet, throughout this book cites previous critical studies of the Sonnets (especially those written by Stephen Booth and Helen Vendler), but when he does it’s almost always to differ from them. Did he expect to get applause or even grudging acceptance from literary scholars? I’m not sure. To the task of exegesis and evaluation, Paterson brings neither academic credentials nor a rigorous critical method but instead a sharp mind, some serious homework, emotional engagement with the topic, a willingness to take risks, and the technical experience of a practicing poet. Apart from having written sonnets himself, he has translated (or “imitated”) Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and is the editor of the Faber anthology 101 Sonnets. Clearly he has a partisan interest in the form itself and for that reason alone might want to comment on one of its greatest practitioners.
Still, if someone had told me a year ago that we were soon going to see a book in which a contemporary poet would read one of the central works of Shakespeare and assign grades to various parts of it, I wouldn’t have believed it. To remark that it’s too late for our likes and dislikes to have any effect on the reception of canonical literary works like Shakespeare’s raises a more general question, one that can’t be instantly resolved. To what extent do the classics belong to our actual, lived experience? How can we make use of them? These questions may sound shocking or naïve, but consider the following. Even if the best of Shakespeare’s sonnets were submitted to magazines today as being the work of a living poet, no editor would publish them. As for the stage, producers wouldn’t get past the opening scene of Hamlet or King Lear before tossing these plays on the reject pile. Renaissance or Jacobean English is not what we speak, in fact, we’re almost at the point now when Shakespeare, like Chaucer, requires a translation for new readers coming along. We know that our response to Shakespeare isn’t and can’t be the same as his original audience’s because the weight and connotation of the words he uses has shifted (and sometimes vanished) since he wrote. Apart from that, no historical reconstruction of the staging and performance of Shakespeare could have the same effect on us as it did for Elizabethan audiences unless our minds, too, could be reconstructed in a 16th century mould. It has always struck me as too blithe when critics say, “Yes, of course we read Dante differently from the way his contemporaries did. It’s in the nature of great literature to support many kinds of responses, each valid for its time.” But then why, if a literary work is just a Rorschach test whose meaning is nothing more than what we attribute to it, are certain figures (Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton) consistently deemed worthwhile occasions for our projected meanings while others (Hesiod, Ennius, Ariosto, Jonson, Marvell) are much less often considered? Besides, if we say that we don’t mind if our way of appreciating Shakespeare differs from his audience’s, we’re implicitly dismissing as irrelevant the actual abilities and targeted efforts of an author who wanted to evoke specific responses.
In fact, it’s the aim of most literary scholarship to reconstruct the mental and verbal compass of classic authors and of their audiences, so that we can measure the success of a given work according to the author’s own aims and, in varying degrees, appreciate that work roughly as its first audience did. This is the literary equivalent to time travel. Without the specialist’s literary archeology, we’d have only partial access to any work dating from earlier than the 19th century. Hence Auden’s well-known finger-wagging at Yeats for his poem “The Scholars,” a satire mocking academics who, “Edit and annotate the lines/ That young men, tossing on their beds,/ Rhymed out in love’s despair…” Auden reminded Yeats’s ghost that without scholars we’d have erroneous texts and mistaken notions about what their authors intended. Scholars can also inform us about prevailing tastes in the era when a given work was written. For example, dealing with Shakespeare, they can tell us that punning and metaphorical conceits were highly prized during the age of the Virgin Queen. This makes a sharp contrast with our own day, when “the lowest form of humor” is always met with a groan, and audiences experience literary conceits as excruciating artifice, contrary to our demand for seriousness and for discourse that is direct and uncensored. That same demand would put a low value on the hyperbolic tendencies of the Elizabethan sonnet sequence, which, following Petrarch’s lead, hoists praise of the beloved to a level that contemporary taste would find overblown and dishonest. (Granted, we’re not under oath when we write love poems or epitaphs, but even Shakespeare is aware of the problem, to judge by his sonnet “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun,” a stab at anti-Petrarchism that, despite its truth-telling aims, seems less successful than its hyperbolic counterparts.)
Once familiar with the earlier standards, do we then enjoy or at least admire Shakespeare’s double-entendres and those elaborate metaphors extended for a dozen lines, along with his promotion of the beloved to quasi-divine status? The tutored reader can, I think, admire them at one remove, or at least acknowledge the author’s vast resourcefulness in devising effects he knew his readers would approve. Yet it’s not easy for us to suppress habits of thinking and feeling like those that led Max Beerbohm to write Savonarola Brown, a wicked parody of a Shakespeare play. What seems to happen when we read the Sonnets is that we remain in a kind of affective limbo, half believing, half disbelieving in them, yet consistently impressed by Shakespeare’s wordsmithery, his inventive figuration, and sonic finesse. It doesn’t matter that present-day editors would consider them overdone and their author a show-off meriting only a printed rejection slip: the Sonnets will never go out of print or cease to be included in English Lit courses. Nor can we rule out the possibility that a later age will place a high value on elaboration, artifice, and hyperbole: in cultural history, shifts in taste have often taken surprising turns.
Don Paterson certainly doesn’t attempt to transform himself into a contemporary of Shakespeare. Though familiar with Elizabethan literary standards, he evaluates individual sonnets according to contemporary taste or else his own. Apparently not bothered by the fact that his strictures won’t stop them from being read, he’s quite ready to pronounce the first seventeen of the Sonnets (the so-called “procreation sonnets”) as “rubbish,” a judgment based on the artificial and implausible feelings they express. In a speculative vein, he cites and gives some credence to the narrative premise behind A Waste of Shame, William Boyd’s BBC drama of several years ago. In Boyd’s plot, the rising playwright is commissioned by the mother of the young nobleman William Herbert to write the “procreation sonnets.” The widowed matriarch, distressed at her son’s celibacy and failure to provide continuance for the family line, pays a handsome sum for the bardic propaganda, and eventually arranges a meeting between the two men. At which point Shakespeare really does fall in love and begins writing out of emotional rather than financial motives. Though it made for an entertaining play, I don’t find this narrative plausible. Moreover, it involves some harum-scarum speculation about the nature of Shakespeare’s sexuality, a topic on which Paterson has no doubts whatsoever:
The question ‘was Shakespeare gay?’ is so stupid as to be barely worth answering; but for the record: of course he was. Arguably he was a bisexual, of sorts; though for all the wives, mistresses and children I’m not entirely convinced by his heterosexual side. Mostly, his heart just wasn’t in it; when it was, his expressions of heterosexual love are full of self-disgust.
In that period, though, there were no homosexuals, only homosexual acts, these termed “sodomy” and punishable by death. The “gay identity” hadn’t yet been formed, so the most we can say is that some people of the time were gay without knowing they should be classified as such. A man so prominent as James I could marry and produce heirs, while still spending the lion’s share of his hours in bed with a series of young favorites, concluding with George Villiers, eventually made Duke of Buckingham. As evidence contrary to the assertion that James had sexual relations with men, scholars cite the very harsh legal stance he took towards “sodomy.” Yet the full account of the struggle for acceptance and civil rights for gay people includes incidents of strong opposition coming from figures who were later revealed to be gay. Opposition was simply throwing dust in the eyes of potential enemies as a clever way of avoiding arraignment and prosecution. Any person who “protesteth too much” should be aware that those very protests to strike us as a card played in order to evade exposure or at least self-knowledge.
Paterson doesn’t do anything like this, in fact, he is more than sympathetic to the attraction that one man might feel for another. Discussing Boyd’s TV play he says:
Certainly if Herbert [William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke] looked anything like the young actor who played him on the box, I can see WS’s problem. (Although he almost certainly didn’t, if we’re to trust portraitists of the time. Wriothesley [Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, often proposed as the subject of the Sonnets], on the other hand, is clearly gorgeous. Though I admit that playing the game of ‘who’d you rather’ at 400 years distance does not, perhaps, represent the leading edge of scholarly research.)
This is funny enough to inspire in me a response just as unscholarly. We have no proof that Shakespeare did or did not sleep with the young man described in the Sonnets, or with any man. My speculation is that Shakespeare was no “gayer” than Paterson is, who, precisely because he isn’t threatened by any imputation of homosexuality, can be so relaxed about the topic. On the evidence of the Sonnets, Shakespeare could recognize male beauty and form strong bonds of affection with men, bonds that could be described as love (or, nowadays, “bromance”). But the keen bite of physical desire for men that we discover in Marlowe or Whitman is absent in his writings. Where we do find it is in the so-called “dark lady” sonnets. Further, if Shakespeare did in fact have sex with a man, he wouldn’t be so imprudent as to record and publish his desires, thereby risking arrest and a pre-mortem funeral pyre. On the other hand, there was no law against one man loving another so long as that love never involved sexual expression. A quasi-biblical text for the European Renaissance was Plato’s Symposium, which concludes by recommending a non-physical love on the part of an older man for a younger, as a means of transcending Nature and attaining knowledge of the realm of Pure Ideas. In Dante and Petrarch, the gender of the beloved changed to female, but there was still no physical consummation, and the purported result was the same: propulsion (by sublimation, we would say) into the upper atmosphere of divine truth. Meanwhile, if we’re going to read the sonnets as autobiography, then number 121 “’Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed” can easily be understood as a repudiation of slander to the effect that Shakespeare’s feelings for the beloved were ever actualized sexually. In Sonnet 20, he had already spoken of the physical mismatch (which further demonstrates his total lack of experience concerning male-to-male sexual relations) between himself and the young man:
Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.
The pun on “pricked” was active for Shakespeare’s time as for ours. The sense is clear: “I can’t make use of your genitalia, but we two have a non-physical, Platonic love, and that’s the most essential thing; where sex is concerned, women can handle that for you.”
Paterson represents this conclusion as tragic, but the tragic note is nowhere sounded. The speaker calmly accepts the impossibility and is, if anything, only too content to keep their love on a Platonic plane. The poem includes a couple of instances of what Paterson describes as Shakespeare’s “knee-jerk misogyny” (found elsewhere in the Sonnets, not to mention the plays) without going so far as to say that it is proof of the poet’s gay orientation. A good thing, because, as we know, gay men are far less misogynist than straight, indeed, the greatest percentage adore women, beginning with their own mothers. That adoration often takes the form of diva-worship, and some individuals will carry it to the point of simulating their iconic figures, cross-dressing as Judy, Barbra, or Madonna. Dismissing women as “stupid cows” or “bitches” is more the habit of straight men because of course a woman can grant or withhold what they most desire. Frustration and anger when desire isn’t reciprocated take the form of misogyny, whereas sex with women is for a gay man “one thing to my purpose nothing.” He’s fully satisfied with women’s company and friendship, which they are much more often willing to offer than sex. Paterson wants to see the misogyny of the “dark lady” sonnets as the inevitable side-effect of his homosexuality; in fact, it suggests the opposite, to the extent that evidence drawn from these poems can be used to argue anything about his biography.
Putting aside Plato, in what human narrative is it psychologically plausible for a man in love with and lusting after another man to urge the beloved to marry and have children? That is the burden of the first seventeen Sonnets. On the other hand, if we decide that Boyd (or Paterson) is right about the far-fetched commissioning theory, we have to regard Shakespeare as the most mercenary sort of hack, his palm crossed with enough silver to stimulate the drafting of sentiments passionately expressed and yet never in the least felt. That hack (to follow the hypothesis) couldn’t automatically rule out the possibility that the young beloved would accept the faked protestations of love as genuine and possibly begin to have feelings for their author in return. In that eventuality, how would the perpetrator of this literary imposture then behave? It’s too damning a scenario to conjure up and amounts to a character assassination of Shakespeare.
Even when we decide that the first 126 Sonnets are dealing with a purely Platonic relationship, the sheer number of them and the variety of tacks taken suggest that a “marriage of true minds” needs as much treatment as a full-blown union would. In the real world, would it be salutary (if the author really meant to make use of them) to devise so many literary approaches to self-therapy, some of which seem like pettifogging or avoidance? Modern readers can’t help wanting to recommend a professional counselor, at least in those moments when they forget that the poems are fictions. To a degree that we find disturbing, it is literary convention more than autobiography that governs the production of poems in the Elizabethan era. Nothing requires us to believe the Sonnets had more than a casual basis in Shakespeare’s life; it’s even possible that they were written not to win over or reproach any existing beloved but instead simply to produce poems, poems exploring feelings more hypothetical than actual. We certainly don’t suppose the Shakespeare underwent the experiences of the characters represented in his plays, no matter how intricately and convincingly developed their feelings may be. Many contemporary poets, though presumed to be working within an aesthetic of sincerity and authenticity, are ready to admit that they invent the subjects of their ostensibly autobiographical poems. How much more likely it is that Shakespeare did the same thing. The speculations we make about his motivations reveal more about us than about the author.
That sort of revelation, in fact, is the value-added aspect of this book. It provides us with an indirect portrait of the mind, technical preoccupations, and emotional commitments of Don Paterson. Because of his first-rate work elsewhere, we’re interested to read this practical account of his own literary standards—well, more specifically than that, the motions of his thinking as he confronts the subjects dealt with in each sonnet and the rhetorical strategies used in their composition. Judging by the diction he uses, you can see (and this is useful information about him) that he wanted to avoid academic pomposity at all costs, the result, that the prose sounds spoken, informal, and American, with lots of slang and some Scottish diction thrown in for flavor. Sentence fragments abound, along with interjections, and the text deploys as many underlinings as Queen Victoria’s diary. If the zingy style wasn’t sufficiently noticeable in the excerpt quoted above, here’s another example:
Yikes. SB [Stephen Booth] explores the various textual knots and cruces here at some length, and very instructively, but let’s see if we can find a more direct route through the poem, and take it line by line. OK. Suit up, scrub, and on with the gloves. This is going to get messy. At least five lines here present real interpretative problems. Scalpel….
The ensuing analysis is presented through the conceit of a surgical procedure, involving metaphoric use of artery clamps as the poem’s “blood pressure” drops, and a final stitching up. It’s as though the Sonnets’ persistent use of conceits had overtaken their critic, this time in prose. The effect of using diction more often heard on talk shows and Facebook is unsettling at first, but the fact is I quickly stopped minding and focused instead on the content being conveyed. Reading pace through these pages is brisk, and they never have the sleeping-pill effect of most academic prose. Yet, though Paterson circumvents the dead hand of scholarly style, he never entirely abandons the explicator’s task, even when says, “Sorry, it’s late, and I’ve been drinking.” If I were teaching the Sonnets to undergraduates, I’d assign this book, knowing in advance that they would sense an ally in the author, one who understood their language and mental universe. So primed, they would also be able to absorb content in the commentaries apart from what’s based entirely on the author’s personality.
The classroom would allow me the space (as a review doesn’t) the to single out the many brilliant insights Paterson arrives at along the way and to disagree with just as many others. Well, one of each then, beginning with a disagreement. I don’t find all the “procreation sonnets” worthless, an assertion Paterson tries too hard to prove. Discussing Sonnet 12, for example, he says that its first line, “When I do count the clock that tells the time,” is padded out with the phrase “that tells the time,” since, as he says, all clocks tell the time. But the etymology of the word “clock” is from “glokken,” which meant “bell.” The first public clocks were bells, intelligible to a populace unable to decipher a clock face yet still able to count. The association with “passing-bells” rung at funerals is part of the meaning. Beyond that, a master theme in the Sonnets is the passage (and ravages) of time, so it fits to get the word into the first line of this sonnet. Further, time takes on a numerical aspect in an art that requires counting—counting of metrical feet and lines, and, for that matter, some thought about the numbering of individual sonnets. Paterson (and here is where I agree with him) thinks that Shakespeare did indeed arrange the Sonnets in the order given to them in the Quarto; and that in the great majority of instances the number assigned to a given poem in the sequence is connected to its meaning. Numbers have a kabbalistic or magical dimension (think how much has been made of the Trinity); and, while we can’t say that Shakespeare was a mathematician, he was certainly an arithmetician, one whose rhythms and numbers were a key component of the spell being cast. In Paterson’s keen analyses of the numerical aspect of the Sonnets, he demonstrates his own skills with numerology, plus an awareness of at least one poet’s opinion to the effect that, “Poetry is speech that counts.” This book has sustained some heavy attacks in the press, so much so, that, to use a Shakespearean conceit, Paterson could be described as “down for the count.” However, because he is a poet, he’ll be able to use the experience and soon be standing up for the next round. A review is never a permanent impediment to the marriage of true minds, in this instance, between the poet and his reader.
NOTE: In this new series, THEthe writers share their first experiences with poetry or discuss the first poems they ever loved.
My first sense of poetry was music, songs my mother told me taught me, as they say. My father loved to scream Milton at me, so my first memory of my father is: Hurled headlong flaming! Or Disemboweled (the word alone).
He also loved to say: Bah Humbug! Or Latin poems: Non amo te nec possum dicere quarere hoc tantum scio.
I do not like thee Doctor Fell–my mother read poetry to me at night and my father had the family recite Shakespeare: Be not afeard the isle is full of strange noises.
My father and my uncle the pianist were best friends in high school and they both loved to write poems. My uncle was often in the NY Times with a sonnet–my father would test us as violinists memorizing many pieces–Who dost defy the Omnipotent to arms–My father also did a good Tyger, Tyger.
Now it comes back to me a lot, my father screaming Lasciate ogni speranza you who enter here. Longer and longer passages I memorized and received money from a neighbor for Paul Revere. And I certainly knew Antony’s oration.
If you had memorized your concerto you could just practise with no music-stand and walk around the room and think. I knew the genius of music listening to my grandfather pray and sing at gigantic Brooklyn synagogues and his records.
Later I loved reciting The Waste Land–at least the part l knew by heart–and I set some of it to music composed (too Coplandy).
I hated school because the poems were terrible or Mrs Popper’s apothegms: Before you spread a rumor Put it through the three sieves–the golden sieve of truthfulness, the silver sieve of kindness, and the pearl sieve of necessity.
I did love speed in counting and multiplying and concentrating. I loved music and words together madrigals, Christmas carols. (We hid from our grandfather in case he saw my Mom singing and carolling delightedly. We felt such guilt I felt God would kill me when I played O Come All Ye Faithful.)
Yahia Lababidi remembers late nights in his dorm room at George Washington University, tossing in bed as the voices of Wilde, Rilke and Kafka reverberated around him. Words or phrases, even the tiniest snippets of philosophy, would teem, pulse and swirl to a boiling point, until he could no longer resist formulating his own response, entering the conversation. “They were literally bouncing off the walls,” he told me, “I would go to bed with a stack of napkins or receipts, and I would never put my glasses on because if I put my glasses on it would scare the thought away. The fox would not leave its hole if the hunter was outside.”
But he persisted, and his haphazard notes, over time, became numerous and provocative enough that multiple professors and mentors encouraged him to compile and try to publish them. The result was Signposts to Elsewhere, published in 2008, containing his meditations, in the form of a long list of aphorisms, on what he sees as the central human questions: “We’ve always been wrestling with the same things…It’s still a human being, in a body, trying to deal with other human beings, in a society. It hasn’t changed that much…I’m more interested in those who can distill the matter to its essence.” Just such a project begins in Signposts, where Lababidi liberates the essence of these ideas from the shackles of cliché, which, he believes, are truths that have “lost the initial shock of revelation.” The aphorism is “not just an aesthetic thing, but an edifying thing. They are truths with an –s that we stumble across and hopefully try to live up to some of the time.” Not greeting card rhetoric, but, actually, “we think in aphorisms. If we quote the outcome of our thoughts, they are aphorisms.” Consider the following, from Signposts:
The thoughts we choose to act upon define us to others,
______the ones we do not, define us to ourselves.
Opposites attract. Similarities last.
Time heals old wounds because there are new wounds to attend to.
With enigmatic clarity, Life gives us a different answer
______each time we ask her the same question.
The primary challenge for creators is surviving themselves.
A good listener is one who helps us overhear ourselves.
Previous iterations of these ideas have probably occurred to us, but the delicacy of Lababidi’s aphorisms resides in the fact that, as James Richardson asserts in his foreword to the book, “Unlike the poet, [the aphorist] doesn’t worry whether we’ve heard his exact words millions of times. Nor does he have the Philosopher’s care for consistency. He doesn’t mind that today he warns ‘Time is money’ and tomorrow contradicts that with ‘Stop and smell the roses.’ He has neither the ambition nor the naïveté of the systematizer, and his truth, though stated generally, is applied locally. When he says ‘Like father like son,’ he doesn’t expect anyone to object, ‘Wait, I know a son who’s not like his father.’ He means that right here, right now, a particular son has behaved just as his father might have.’” This dialogic interplay between the universal and the local provide the aphorism its applicability (and popularity). It has a special quality of speaking to the particulars of life while remaining unstuck from time and space.
After Signposts to Elsewhere, Lababidi turned to poetry, for which he is now more widely known. He has published in World Literature Today, Cimarron Review, Agni, Hotel Amerika and many others. Two poems are currently up for a Pushcart. Recently, however, Lababidi has returned to the figures who originally inspired him. Evoking Azar Nafisi, he asserts, “It was these ‘dead white men’ that really did a number on me. It wasn’t a matter of influence, but of initiation. They are closer to me than my own blood.” Lovers of literature have had similar moments. Mine was weeping over the end of The Brothers Karamazov, under a dim desk lamp, with my college roommate sleeping nearby. As budding thinkers, we want to let our copious thoughts, despite whoever else may have already had them and articulated them much better, out into the open. In short, to write. Lababidi remembers how his notes in the margin became journal entries, which became essays, which, we now see, became a book.
Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Bellydancing (2010) is the type of book critics want to write. It is an intellectual memoir, a sharing of one’s own personal engagement with those who have had a dramatic impact. In the spirit of Susan Sontag (who receives an entire chapter), Lababidi replaces systematizing and arguing with a Montaignian (whose idea of the essai opens the Preface and serves as inspiration for the title of the book) of figuring things out as we go along. “I’m always in a state of discovery and beginning,” he told me, “what I think I know, I’m trying to communicate. You have to get out of your system whatever is yours, whatever speaks to you.” This, for him, is a refreshing departure from the work of academics, who too often “go to the same well to drink, excluding the regular people who perhaps may be more curious. If you give it to me in a way that is forbidding, I’m not interested.”
Trial by Ink, therefore, strives for the opposite. He stresses as much in the Preface:
This…is a subjective work where I attempt to evaluate what I care for and generally test my responsiveness to literature and culture. In the course of such investigations particular judgments emerge, expressions of taste and values. They are my trials, where I am simultaneously scratching my head and my pen across the paper, to determine what I think about a given subject….In turn, what you have before you is a catalogue of interests, possessions, exorcisms and even passing enthusiasms, derived from what I was thinking, reading, watching, dreaming, and living over a seven-year period.
I envy the intellectual freedom, which Lababidi takes up here, to, say, write about Dostoevsky, without the requisite knowledge of Russian language or history, simply because I love him so much. Lababidi has such a relationship with Nietzsche, Wilde, Rilke, Baudelaire, Kafka and many others. He reminded me, though, that to do this, one must always come from a place of relative authority. “Not to dis the blog,” he says, “but they are not essays.” They don’t partake of the type of “deep and continuous mining” and “literary soul-gazing” that are the rudiments of a trial, of an essay.
I agree with this. The first of three parts of Trial by Ink, titled “Literary Profiles and Reviews,” exhibits his mastery of and, frankly, unique and refreshing insights into his masters. He works most provocatively when he puts figures, who, on the surface, don’t seem to have much to do with each other, into an intricate dialogue with each other. Just this occurs with Nietzsche and Wilde. Chapter 3, “The Great Contrarians,” is a lengthy comparison of the two, on the levels of style, their affinity for and belief in the importance of appearances, and their threshold for pain and suffering, especially since they each met with similar types of struggles, including certain levels of moral degradation, which have had occasionally negative effects on their legacies. One need only, as Lababidi does, compare the content of their aphorisms (they were both virtuosos of the form) to begin suddenly to see uncanny similarities:
What fire does not destroy it hardens – Wilde
What does not kill me makes me stronger – Nietzsche
The simple truth, is that not a double lie? – Nietzsche
The truth is rarely ever pure and never simple – Wilde
Public opinion exists only where there are no ideas – Wilde
To say it again, Public opinions, private laziness – Nietzsche
We possess art lest we perish of the truth – Nietzsche
The telling of beautiful untrue things is the proper aim of art – Wilde
Conscience and cowardice are really the same things – Wilde
Not to perpetrate cowardice against one’s own acts!…
The bite of conscience is indecent – Nietzsche
Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or nation – Wilde
Every great progress must be preceded by a partial weakening – Nietzsche
This type of analysis occurs across the first part of the book. Whereas it might not be critically expedient to place Nietzsche, Wilde, and Susan Sontag into a dialogue, this is nonetheless how they speak to Lababidi. And that’s all he’s worried about. Consequently, “I was told not to write this book, in the sense that it was ‘unpublishable.’ Who didn’t tell me that? Academic publishers thought it was too literary. Literary publishers thought it was too academic. I was stuck.” Perhaps. But, ultimately, Lababidi’s book occupies a space of dialogic freedom in which the personal and the critical mesh with refreshing enjoyment.
The cultural dialogue continues in the second and third parts (“Studies in Pop Culture” and “Middle Eastern Musings,” respectively). While Part II contains interesting ruminations on Michael Jackson, Leonard Cohen, Morrissey, serial killers, and the values of silence, Part III was particularly illuminating. Here Lababidi returns to his Muslim heritage in Egypt and Lebanon (where he spent a good amount of time growing up). His discussion juxtaposes the repugnant effects of draconian sexual repression in Egypt (especially contrasted with ritual belly dancing) with the Lebanese’s zest for life in the face of seemingly constant and imminent death in a way that can enlighten a Western reader to the diversity of the “Muslim World,” a term Dr. Nafisi derided at the Aspen Institute’s Cultural Diplomacy Forum, for obvious reasons.
Lababidi was at the forum as well, and was intrigued by Nafisi. When I reached out to him to discuss Trial by Ink, he responded with the type of enthusiasm Nafisi showed me. “Conversation is very close to me,” he asserts, not just the type of conversations he has with the likes of Nietzsche, “who is very much alive,” but with contemporaries and collaborators. He was generous enough to meet with me about his work, and about this type of work in general. At the end of our discussion, I asked him what was next for him. In addition to more poetry, he says, “I am returning to these conversations in a much more direct way.” Namely, he is continuing his conversation about his conversations with Nietzsche, Wilde, Rilke, Baudelaire, Kafka, and others in a strictly dialogic way. Chapter 2 of Trial by Ink consists of a back-and-forth with poet and critic Alex Stein about these figures. Like the college-aged Lababidi who refused to put on his glasses so as not to scare away his thoughts, “I will call Alex in the middle of the night, without turning the lights on, and just speak.” The result is a series of conversations (I hesitate to call them interviews) between the two that digs deeper, that “mines” for answers.
From my time with Yahia and by reading the early stages of these new dialogues, it is apparent that face-to-face conversation, where one can engage another on more dynamic and intimate levels, suits the type of broader cultural and intellectual dialogue he has spent his career trying to foster. He doesn’t mind living like an aphorism, unstuck from time, space and generic classifications, asserting, “I don’t think of myself as an aphorist. I don’t think of myself as a poet. I don’t think of myself as an essayist, which leaves me with nothing to say, so to speak…but I’m clarifying something that I suspect I see. I don’t get why from 18 to 22 I chose aphorisms, or aphorisms chose me. It seemed like the most instinctive way to talk, to communicate…at some point it shifts to poems…words have a life of their own…ideas have a life of their own. They decide how to dress themselves…the form doesn’t matter as much as trying to communicate a territory that on some days I have been privileged to have been shoe-horned into.” This openness has organically led him to the dialogic form as the best (only?) way to convey what he sees as the real essence of all these thinkers, “and this is where I wish that the lights could dim and I could whisper it into your ear so no one can hear. This is about the artist as mystic. If you think it’s mad, it’s mad. If you think it makes sense to you on a personal level, then it does…If it works as literary soul-gazing, take it. If it works as pure fiction, then it does.” The ambition, and the already apparent spiritual depth of this new trial, is titillating, the type of book I want to write. But what happens when the conversation is finished? “Ten years of silence, under a rock somewhere.”
Grammar didn’t come natural to me. The first time, when I learned there was such a thing as grammar, when we were introduced — like, “Daniel, meet grammar,” “Grammar, Daniel” — things did not go smoothly.
It was more like sliding bare-bottomed down a sandpaper hill.
I was in first grade, and we had “writing time.” The teacher was young and teaching a split, first-and-second grade class. There were too many students, and even at 6, 7, 8 and 9, we knew her control was kind of tenuous. The class was always on the edge of anarchy. As the year went on, the teacher, Miss Lane, added an increasing number of “quiet times” into her lesson plan. We had story time, where all of us were supposed to put our heads down and listen to the story. We had writing time, where you could go anywhere in the class room, sit anywhere, lay anywhere, as long as you were quiet and turned something in at the end of the hour that looked like writing.
I loved writing time. I went to the little side room where the assorted recess equipment was kept and spread out on the floor and chewed my pencil and wrote. I remember the first story was about a saber-toothed man. It was awesome. He was part superhero, part prehistoric creature, and he was walking through the woods, a saber-toothed man.
I’m pretty sure that was the whole story. My strong suit was description, not narrative arc.
I got it back about a week later. Maybe it was two weeks. Miss Lane had, in that time, very carefully murdered my story. As far as I could tell, she hadn’t paid attention to the story part of the story, which was awesome, but she had marked each and every sentence as wrong. That’s how I learned what grammar was. She’d written “GRAMMAR” on the top, in the same bleedy, red, felt-tip pen she’d used to draw angry squiggles all over my story.
I felt kind of like I’d just been criticized for walking. Or breathing. Like, this was something I felt I knew how to do. It seemed like it was just natural, I’d been doing it and everything had been fine, and now someone stops me to tell me there are rules. And I’m doing it wrong. I was walking along just fine, and now I’m getting yelled at.
“STOOOOOP! That’s NOT how you walk!”
“Are you ignorant? Are you from a bad family? Is your family poor?”
“I don’t understand.”
“There are rules. And everyone knows them except you. It’s called GRAMMAR. Now everyone thinks you’re stupid.”
This was how I became a descriptivist. I have since learned that there are some really good reasons to be a descriptivist. At the time, though, it was purely defensive. I was a descriptivist in exactly the same way I was a put-your-arms-around-your-head-and-duck-tivist when the 6th graders yelled “faggot” and threw rocks. It wasn’t exactly a philosophical decision.
The one grammatical correction I remember, from that murdered story, was about how you shouldn’t start sentences with conjunctions.
“What’s ‘conjunctions’?” I said.
“Like ‘and,’” she said, “or ‘but.’”
“You can’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’?”
“It’s against the rules. It’s GRAMMAR.”
The whole idea that there were rules, out there somewhere, was a little disturbing. How was I supposed to know what they were? Who decided the rules were the rules? Also, they seemed kind of arbitrary. What was wrong with conjunctions? Was I the only one who was starting sentences with conjunctions and I just never noticed that no one else did it?
This is a little like wondering if you are retarded, and everyone’s just been too nice to tell you. Or maybe they tried to tell you, and you were just too slow to actually get what they were saying.
But wait — I wasn’t the only one who started sentences with “but” or “and.” The Bible has sentences that stat with “but” and “and,” which meant that my grammar was like the same as God’s.
I tried that defense with Miss Lane, but she said I was still wrong. She didn’t say so, but apparently she would’ve marked up God’s writing too.
Which didn’t really make me feel better. And I still didn’t like grammar.
I did learn grammar, eventually, though not from Miss Lane. A whole slew of copy editors and editors taught it to me during my time as a journalist, and I took several years of Latin in college, where I got poor grades but finally figured out what “dative” meant and what an adjective was. I figuring out how clauses worked in the middle of an Episcopalian morning prayer service, where they used the old prayer book, which has a lot of archaically-constructed sentences. I’ve actually spent a lot of time with grammar in the last few years, as I’ve been working as a grammar teacher, teaching German university students who want to study English, and as a freelance proofreader and line editor. I think about that first experience I had, though, that slide down a sandpaper hill, when I hand back papers I’ve marred with my markings.
I try to remind them and to remind myself what grammar’s good for. Besides beating people over the head, besides flaunting one’s class or excellent education, besides pedantry and dickishness, what grammar does, what grammar can do, is give one excellent control over language. I am still a descriptivist — I believe usage is paramount, that there are no rules, really, only use — so grammar is not, for me, about being right, but about breaking down the language and taking it apart, so that one can know how it works and can make it work most effectively. I try to teach it the way I would teach mechanics.
It’s like, I sometimes tell my students, I know you know how to breathe, but I want to teach you how to breathe so you can run for hours.
What grammar did for me was enable me to analyze sentences. This has made me a better writer, but also — and this is something I’ve never seen promoted in a grammar book, never heard in a grammar rules rant — it made me a better reader. I am able, now, in a way I wasn’t before, to analyze a writer’s writing by looking at the writing itself. I can dig in, on the sentence level, and see what’s happening.
Consider a few examples, just looking at how independent and dependant clauses are used. I teach clauses to my students so they’ll know how to avoid sentence fragments and comma splices in their academic writing. I want them to be able to identify simple, compound and complex sentences, and use a variety of sentences to write with a more sophisticated rhythm. Too often, beginning writers, especially those, like my students, who are writing in their second or third language, write with the rhythm of a Dick and Jane book. It’s just DUM dum dum, DUM dum dum, forever and ever. I teach it for the sake of their writing, but it’s also helped me be a better reader.
For example, Joan Didion opens her novel Democracy with a single complex sentence, followed by fragmentary rephrasings, followed by a simple sentence that’s repeated with increasing complexity, increasing specificity. It’s structured as a struggle to find the right phrase, and the altered iterations expand outwards like ripples:
“The light at dawn during those Pacific tests was something to see.
Something to behold.
Something that could almost make you think you saw God, he said.
He said to her.
Jack Lovett said to Inez Victor.
Inez Victor who was born Inez Christian.
He said: The sky was this pink … ”
Then, in crescendo, Didion lets this sentence that’s the sentence of a writer trying to write, trying to find the right words, take off and just go. It’s a description of the pink of the Pacific island sky after the blast of a test bomb and it starts with a banality and unfurls from there, a description that tells us more about the man than the sky described, and then as it almost falls apart she puts in a comma and a complete sentence — a comma splice, technically an error — as if everything should be ignored and this is the thing, the sentence has resolved with the phrase the narrator wants:
“The sky was this pink and the air was wet from the night rain, soft and wet and smelling like flowers, smelling like those flowers you used to pin in your hair when you drove out to Schofield, gardenias, the air in the morning smelled like gardenias, never mind there were not too many flowers around those shot islands.”
Her comma splice communicates this need to re-state or re-phrase, which captures both the problem of the moment of these two characters and the whole novel’s expression of an ennui that isn’t boredom but an inability to exactly say. The whole problem or project of the novel is expressed, actually, in that comma splice, which is brilliant, I think, and which I wouldn’t have known except that I’ve been focusing on clauses.
Or consider, for another example, Walt Whitman’s poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Almost the whole first stanza is dependent clauses — “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking, / Out of the mocking-bird’s throat,” — cascading down in one long sentence without a subject until, finally, in the 20th line, we get the subject “I.” There’s a missing “what” for 19 lines, and an ambiguity about the subject of the poem that is sustained by the structure of the sentence.
A lot of times people talk about Whitman like he was just wild, like his free verse had all the structure of a kite-high hippie dance. If you look at it, though, if you look at the grammar of it, this is a very carefully constructed sentence that very carefully puts the “I” of the poem in a very specific relationship to the world around it. The grammar isn’t incidental to Whitman’s poem; it is the working out of a major part of Whitman’s project.
One doesn’t need grammar to read Whitman or Didion or anyone else, of course. It’s not even necessary to read them well. Part of what makes good writers good, though, is their ability to sometimes, somehow, do everything they’re trying to do with the placement of a single comma. I want to be able to read that comma, to see what’s happening when the subject of a sentence turns up in a place you wouldn’t usually find it.
I know that’s not the point of grammar, and it certainly wasn’t what Miss Lane was trying to teach me when she wrote GRAMMAR on the top of my paper, but this is the other thing that grammar’s good for.
For most of us, I think, grammar is a brutal, brutal thing. It doesn’t come natural. Most of the time, even the word signals a fear, a panic even, at being embarrassed about being wrong. There’s something about it that can evoke deep shame. We imagine our mothers’ being embarrassed for us, as embarrassed as if we’d went out in shit-stained pants. We’re afraid of grammar because “grammar” means making stupid mistakes — there, their or they’re, or something like that — and we imagine stupid mistakes being taken as evidence of our real intelligence and value. That’s too bad, though, because it doesn’t have to be that way.
Grammar can be empowering. It can be about being a better writer and a better reader. It was, eventually, for me. I now know that it can be about knowing how the language works, instead of just driving along, listening to the rattle and choke under the hood, waiting, clenched up tense inside and waiting, until the whole thing breaks down.
Rachel B. Glaser is a rule breaker, which is a terrible way to start off talking about this, Pee on Water; bland as more haughty platitudes, but, whatever: when I was reading this book, the most promising short fiction I’ve encountered in near forever — I was, like, What am I going to write on the Internet about this rakish, precious creature; or Where am I going to put, in my understanding, the way this thing makes everything feel, in this room, on this bed, holding these stories, in the world. Two possibilities, in the matter of even figuring out how to open my mouth about it, occurred eventually. One mentions the technical mutant-ness (product of an implicit, albeit devious, acumen) of the book upfront or one’s smitten foremost with the charm, wit, emotional derring-do, hilarious truth, and clever bruises in the thematic treatment of woolliest angles of this human problem/definition. Whatever approach, the major accomplishment is really how fiction achieves in all this.
Here is a special book; I read it, it made me feel happy, and I had to write a friend an email asking her why nobody else contemporary or comparable to the young Rachel B. Glaser writes as epiphanic structures as these or plays with the purpose and effect of fiction with such verve. In the consideration of recent stories, I want to read Rachel B. Glaser all the time instead of anybody else her age and range who somebody publishes — even though I am wracked for anything cognizant in the way of my response or critique. She woke me up sneakily, Glaser, in a fashion hard to articulate — or, like, just put things out of order in a way that made it all hurt and shine. Something like this, as has been pointed out, is not supposed to work. Given more general attention, the Pee on Water stories might meet with some critical harrumphing over the giddy-rude-earnestness, the diamondy lumpiness, the sophomoric timbre. These are the sort of stories that flip backward through the glass of tall windows instead of taking the stairs.
She remembers, for us, fiction can do anything, actually, and just forgets to — lethargically flopping shy of new capacities because we don’t desire what we don’t expect. The opportunities allowed the form are incredible: as long as a writer architects for her fiction a hermetic operational math (whatever that is… I guess I mean, as long as a readable method is presented for the prosaic world we’re accessing), she can tear it the fuck up: laterally, through the bizarro dark places of the heart, wormed about at witchy exercise. The narrativity of a kind of story like Glaser’s spews contrarily and wide — astonishing readerly expectations for how literary structures ought to play out. Glaser’s debut collection punches open with “The Magic Umbrella,” a laughing, stitched-up ramble that’s, closer looked into, the upsettingly smart and adventurous intro to a whole new kind of way to get at us and leave it all crumpled and amazed. A cute snatch of grade school juvenilia — “One day there was a girl whose name was Jen. She was a secondgrader. Jen was running to catch the bus when she saw that it was raining. She ran back to get her umbrella” — provides a site for launching into a textuality that, umbrella-like, springs into a dream song on authorship, on authoring, out to where the fictive realizes.
“If I don’t know what is going to happen in a story, it feels like it is happening to me,” said Rachel. Read Pee on Water: it’s surprising — accessible, even friendly, it’s far away from callow complexes, morbid distancings: the more fun-house it gets, the less rote, the riskier its whole shtick pulls it off. Glaser’s technical moxie demonstrates most “experimentally” in the toy-like, fluidly intricate, textual prowess of, for one example, “Iconographic Conventions of Pre- and Early Renaissance: Italian Representations of the Flagellation of Christ,” wherein the essayistic unspools into vociferous considerations of repetition/transmission. The piece jumps from site to site straying after its thematic resonance. We discover how there is room, in a consideration of the flagellation of Christ, for Kobe Bryant describing an alleged sexual assault, and before it really makes sense, everything is dancing together, everything, put up, is poetry.
Pee on Water takes the upsettingness and glory of the information used to puzzle out what we are, takes this stuff and, with existential sass (rather than sickly irony and mock criticality — looking at you, hipster writers), puts chunks in a car together, or programmed within a video game, or trapped in an escape pod adrift in outer space, or confusedly standing in front of an old lady’s cadaver, or yearning out on the lawn, desperately sentimental; the familiar and its opposite toss around and turn out mirroring each other. In a standout story “The Jon Lennin Xperience,” a regular-esque, semi-uncomfortable guy is introduced to an immersive bootleg video game that simulates the daily experiences of John Lennon; the gamer, increasingly obsessed, eschews his participation in the dimensional world to assume the virtual identity of the musician-character. What the Lennon experiences and those outside the simulation mean for each other, nested further into each other, trouble the narrative; and, whether the game life is an analogue for the “real” life, a commentary, or whatever — the technology and the humanity wrap around each other imperfectly and significantly. There are miracles in every story in this book, seriously, and still I’m overwhelmed too much to attempt cataloging them comprehensively.
When done with Pee on Water I wanted to keep holding it, I wanted to gift it away quick to friends, I wanted to watch the author answer some emails, but then I didn’t immediately have anything to say about it, though I knew that Glaser’s formal temper and emotional intelligence, and everything else, here in this Pee on Water are definitely, now that we know, what we need. I almost didn’t remember reading a chapbook of her poetry some months back, so maybe her verse doesn’t fascinate as readily (as to be forgotten blithely) as this, but damn is this collection a loud promise that there’s still something left to do, right now, with this form, here in America; easily, it’s one of the most notable titles released in ’10, also, which piques my interest in the small venture called Publishing Genius for putting it out. There is, yeah, Gary Lutz, but besides him I’m not confident I’m wetting my pants over any living American short fiction writer in recent memory the way that it happens when I think about this gorgeously written book and its author. So let me say this: These are thirteen stories that will be read and believed in.
The history of my reading life (and I consider it a life, somewhat independent of my so-called “real” life) has been littered with strange and utterly intuitive encounters with what now seem, in retrospect, the very things I needed. And so, when I had just turned fourteen, and was well-built and morose, and spent long hours staring in moody silence at nothing in particular (perhaps a pimple), I came upon a poem by a dead French man (or maybe he was Polish, or a gypsy, or an alien come down from the stars) named Apollinaire. A cousin had left it on our kitchen table. She was “in college” and planning to be a nurse. She came back for it only at exam time– such was her disdain. By then, I had cached it away in my underwear drawer, and the pain of giving it back to this nurse pending was palpable. The book contained Apollinaire, and George Trakl and Rilke, and I think it was an anthology of 20th century European poetry, but that detail is lost. What caught me first, and last, and has stayed with me for 38 years is a poem by Apollinaire called Le Pont Mirabeau (Mirabeau Bridge):
Under the pont Mirabeau flows the Seine
Our loves flow too
Must it recall them so
Joy came to us always after pain
May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain
Facing each other hand in hand
Thus we will stand
While under our arms’ bridge
Our longing looks pass in a weary band
May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain
Love leaves us like this flowing stream
Love flows away
How slow life is and mild
And oh how hope can suddenly run wild
May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain
May the long days and the weeks go by
neither the past
Nor former loves return
Under the pont Mirabeau flows the Seine
May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain
I must describe the physical sensation this poem had on me. It was a hot and humid day, and the house was full of fans whirring, and flies buzzing, and no one was home. My mother and father were out shopping. My sister was with them. My brother was off somewhere putting hickies on the neck of his girlfriend. I lay on my bed, trying to find the cool spot on the pillow, sun burned, a little feverish, and goose bumps rose on my skin because I knew this poem was true. I did not know what the particular truth was, but there it was–in all its sad and whimsical, and undeniable glory–light, and yet heavy as a stone you have just plucked from the bottom of a river. What grabbed me was the way that, each time the refrain returned, everything had somehow changed, as if the laws of repetition led not to regularity, but had, instead, provided the pulse, the throb of what can never be fixed, made stable, made “whole.” I read it again, and on the second reading, I was even more excited. As is my habit, I just kept reading it until my mother yelled up the stairs for me to come down and help bring in the groceries. It was now as if I had a mistress upstairs, and everything in the universe was interfering with my hidden love. I knew I must behave myself, and the attempt to “behave” myself, triggered my mother’s intuition: “What’s wrong, Joseph? Are you sick?”
I guess I had that startled look, as if I had been caught at something (masturbation, grand theft auto, making moody faces in the mirror), I said: “I feel a little weird.” She said: “Lay down for a few hours. Don’t go in the pool. Rest up, Joseph.”
And so I had more time with the poem, all the time I wanted. I memorized it. I took it with me on my bike. I brought it with me down to the deserted train tracks glutted with chicory weed and Queen Ann’s lace, and old shoes, and used condoms. It seemed at home there. I waited for the Angelus to ring at six o’clock, from all the churches of Elizabeth, and I said the poem aloud. Poetic truth can not be pinned down, and I already knew that. It is a pulse under things– not the things themselves. Years later, when I spoke to my students about the use of refrain, I said it was all about “circular transformatives”– circling back to see how everything has changed, how the repetition gives a pulse to movement– not a stop, but a pulse. This is the power of song, and music. The return, if justified, creates rather than impedes suspense. I used this poem as an example, and I also used a song I first heard done by Johnny Cash called Long Black Veil:
Ten years ago, on a cold dark night
Someone was killed ‘neath the town hall light.
I wasn’t there, but they all agreed that the slayer who ran
Looked a lot like me.
And she walks these hills in a long dark veil,
She visits my grave when the night winds wail.
Nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody knows but me.
The judge said son, what’s your alibi?
If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die.
I spoke not a word, though it meant my life.
I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife,
When I die, I want to be buried under the ground under the floor of a library. I want the musty smell of turned-over pages to seep down through the wood floor, through where the wood turns black around the nails. I want to dream of ink, through the stone-scattered earth and a plain pine coffin, of ink pressed as words into the pulp of paper, of the way the afternoon light comes yellow through the high windows sprinkling down on floating flecks of dust. I want to hear the footsteps of a kid looking for the first time for a particular author as the joists creak. I want to feel the shift in the weight as a girl stands on her toes to find the place her books will be on the shelf, when she writes them. I want to see the sigh escaping a man who’s finally found a book he once loved, once lost.
I bought my first book shelf at an estate sale, after they’d sold everything worth something, everything but the clothes and the cat and the press board shelf. My granddad, the girl said, as an answer. He was 74. It had five shelves, the top shelf too small and the bottom one too large so the books had to be arranged by size. I set it by the head of my bed, and stacked my books all there, with only a few left on the floor unshelved. I lined the top shelf in paperbacks, pushing in the penguins and the signets, the bantams and the ballentines, until there wasn’t room for another full book. The last one I pried in, trying to keep the cover from crushing back. At night, trying to see the shelf in the dark light of the alarm clock, I smelled the old owner’s cigar smoke seeping out of the pressed particle wood. For weeks or maybe longer it hung there, in the dark, the soft scent of hours spent smoking and reading, paper turned and leaves burned and a life spent rocking quietly into the night.
The books you read, as a boy, they’re about men of action. Knights and cowboys and heroes and adventurers. Men who went over the horizon, into the next day, and if they die they die gloriously as a testament to things accomplished, to deeds done and victories claimed. You never read, when you read the books of a boy, about men who die wearing a bathrobe and reading until the end finds them half way through a cigar, half way through another book. But you read, when you’re a boy like I was a boy, with glasses and a book shelf and a penchant for words that aren’t usually used, you read and you see things in books like you’re the first one to see. You read and, as word follows word follows page follows cover, you see that specter. You get a glimpse of the outer limit, of your mortality.
In books, the man said, in books rowed up on the shelf you see, for the first time, your own death. You begin to measure the time this way. To come to feel the passing of life in titles. You come to look at a library the way the alchemists kept skulls on their desks, as a time check. Remember death, reads the space of every shelf, remember the limitations. I read 47 books, this last year. And 43, the year before, and 40 the year before that.
If a year of my life means 45 books, then I’ll read 270 by the time I’m 34. A few more than 2,000 when I’m 74. Two thousand titles I’ve yet to choose that will mark my accomplishments. Two thousand titles that could be any titles but whatever titles will pass, will pass shelf by shelf, author by author, passing my time. All of them could be bound together as the book of my days, the record of my lamp-lit nights.
If Martha Stewart had a child who went rogue, moved to New York City, and started writing poetry and making books, that child may have turned out to produce something as crafty-bohemian as Small Anchor Press does. Their carefully assembled chapbooks are often made with hand-marbled paper, complete with twine, stitching, high resolution images, and tiny folded windows and flaps.
The Dory Reader ($21 + $8 shipping / 12 print and audio issues) is a monthly periodical for subscribers, featuring a single established or emerging voice per issue. Each subscriber can feel special since each series is editioned according to the number of subscribers and is “intended to be read or listened to on a morning commute.” Subscribers receive a “kit” which consists of a letterpressed box (beautifully done) to store all the incoming pamphlets.
Issue I, featuring the incredibly innovative artist-poet Jen Bervin, almost self-consciously begins with lines seemingly echoing a creative process: “the best part of the weaving / was the drawing pressed / up against threads so / carefully arranged / to look simple.” The issue caters to Bervin’s love of the look and texture of words, with beautifully rendered close-ups of the lines done on the typewriter, so every blob of white-out and slight bleed of a letter becomes another element of the poem, another aspect of poetic form, a tiny work of art. Small Anchor clearly wants to make an objet de’art, but they are also concerned with lyrical quality in the poetry, which is what I find most enjoyable about Issue I. Lines like “I am waiting for you / I cannot leave until / you answer with a poem” or “glassed over shelves / books wild in their selves / give light back” all seem so wonderfully inviting for the reader and are aware of the space in which they exist. It leaves one looking forward to the next issue with anticipation.
When gaining a foothold among the establishment, it is important the so called “outsiders” or mavericks have a figure fully anchored within the establishment who can be “acceptable” to the degree that he is:
1. Friendly to their cause, or, at the least, suffers their presence gladly.
2. Perceives himself (or herself) as being “forward thinking” (it does not matter if he or she is truly forward thinking as long as he or she considers his or herself as having a nose for future value).
3. Often someone with disposable income or privilege fully willing to dispose of it.
4. A disgruntled, black sheep member or son or daughter of the highest inner circles willing to defect and lend their support and contacts and influence to the “new” order.
In terms of the Black Mountain school let’s fill out that order. William Carlos Williams, especially in his more objectivist, socialist form was perceived as friendly to the cause of poetic innovation, and was enough of an outside/insider to prove acceptable as a substitute for Eliot whose triumphant followers in the form of the post-war formalists, and metaphysical poets had a lock on academic positions and public adoration. As the Agrarians had done twenty years before, the Black mountain school found a camp in the wilderness, but, unlike the agrarians (John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, etc, etc) they did not embrace a local, southern aesthetic, but used the isolated camp in the mountains of North Carolina as a meeting ground for international figures of the “new.” The romance of this camp caught the imagination of one of the most “inside” figures in all of poetry: Robert Lowell. Lowell, bi-polar and supremely gifted, and from one of the most powerful and gloried families in New England, was the chief darling, along with Randal Jarrell of the late thirties and early forties elders. In post-war poetry, he was dominant.
His “conversion” to free verse and to writing from life in mid to late fifties put a stamp of approval upon what had been the outsider’s position. I forgot to mention the idea of the “sacrificial lamb” or “innocent victim” around which the outsiders rally, and thereby seize power. In this case, the most comical, and unlikely lamb in literary history: Ezra Pound. Lowell’s championing of Pound, and the defense of Pound, the fight to get Pound out of jail for treason, brought Williams, Pound’s college buddy, and the Black mountain school, as well as Lowell into alliance, putting the final seal of “greatness” on Williams which had begun with Jarell’s introduction to his selected poems, and the rich James Laughlin’s interest in publishing Williams’ work, This rallying around Ezra brought certain poets into prominence much as the Vietnam war protests of the sixties brought Bly, Merwin, and the Deep Imagists to the fore. So that’s the other condition for outsiders becoming the insiders: a proper “victim” or martyr they can rally around. (“Free Mumia” t-shirt anyone?)
We will be studying these mechanisms in detail through both the poems and essays in the following movements:
1. First and second generation romantics.
2. The Imagists.
3. The Black Mountain school
4. The Beats/ San Francisco/Confessional schools
5. New York School/L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E/Surrealists
6. Deep Imagists
7. Multicultural (or the cannon warriors)
8. Gender, queer, and green theory
And their various alliances, misalliances, temporary marriages of convenience, hybrids, and finally:
9. Slam and spoken word, and its mixture of multi-cultural, beat, gender/queer identity and post-Lenny Bruce menology (as well as aspects of the self-acceptance movement).
1. With the possible exception of spoken word and multiculturalism, none of these “mavericks” were truly outside the power structure, and all of them depended on converts within the power structure to gain a foot hold.
2. All movements, once gaining a foothold, take on the characteristics of power against which they rebelled, and the re-affirmation of elitist exclusion/inclusion tactics. All end up being part of the academic and publishing establishment, and are distilled beyond their original definitive traits into what I will call “establishment and normative” sea. All rivers run to the sea, and that sea is both the death of a dynamic, and the force of the power in all dynamics.
We will be studying these power games through certain theories of co-operative evolution, and one thing the evolutionists are never interested in and ought to be: the tendency of movements and isms to create abnormative, non-breeding “heroes”– not unlike priests who function in the realm of what I will call “virtual mate selection” and produce “virtual” progeny. The way this is done bears many common traits with actual mate selection and the bearing/raising of children. So we will study these movements in relation to “courtship.
Why do we make lists? I tend to agree with Paul Tankard, who wrote in Prose Studies, “[A list makes] an implicit truth claim that subverts prose…a list in a novel is part of the fiction, a list in a poem is part of the poetry, but in both cases the list introduces a pragmatic element. What a list does in pragmatic circumstances it will seem to do in a literary circumstance. It stops us reading and starts us counting…It moves the reader, for a moment, outside literature.” Or perhaps Umberto Eco’s thesis of his book on literary enumerations is more to the point: “we like lists because we don’t want to die.”
That pretty much accounts for the pragmatic elements. But what about this “stepping outside of literature” business? Every year around this time (especially since the advent of Twitter) we are flooded with Best-of-the-Year-Books lists. This year was the first time I saw a few Best-of-the-Best-of-the-Year-Books-Lists-Lists. Why? Any discerning reader knows that you can’t just rank your favorite books, that nothing stacks up in a neat little row like that. We need individual books to fulfill individual needs, and some do certain things really well that certain others can’t, or don’t intend to. That’s the beauty of literature. But here we are, and here I am, delivering my list. I’ve been doing it independently since ’08, but I am glad to share with you my year in fiction. The reason I (we?) do this is not too far from Eco’s – namely, we can take stock of how much we have read, but in doing so don’t we always become even more morbidly aware of how much we haven’t read, and how many more years like this there are to go? Death would be a rather unfortunate inconvenience in the yearly reading campaign.
In the past, I’ve posted my broad results of yearly reading. The lists included any book that I read that year, young or old. This runs the risk, in the long term, of becoming repetitive. That is, anytime I read Underworld, Infinite Jest, or The Brothers Karamazov (which I hope will occur often), they will automatically make the top five. It’s nice to flaunt, but it’s completely unhelpful to a reader looking for my opinion on the best fiction of a given year (that is why you’re here, right?) Now, I wish I could be like Maureen Corrigan or Ron Charles and have a hundred books delivered to my door every week for review. I wish I could come from a place of having read all the relevant novels of the year. That’s not the case. I missed new ones from Tom McCarthy, Emma Donoghue, Jennifer Egan, David Grossman, Louise Erdrich, and John Banville, among many others. Still, I feel like I’ve been lucky enough to have read five novels that many would agree are “Best Of.” But since I don’t have high authority, I feel unqualified to label this a “Best Of” list. So, like Oprah, I give you my Year-End Favorites.
The first question most newspapers, magazines, and blogs have asked is, “Will Freedom make it?” The literary event of the year has made mine, perhaps because of its literary-event-of-the-year status. It’s too important to ignore. So, I’ll begin there.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Franzen may not be The Great American Novelist the way Time has set him up to be (only Time will tell if that is true). But he is a great stylist, and his sentences make the book. His characters are deplorable and spend most of the novel engaged in one Girardian mimetic triangle after another, repeating the mistakes of their parents, with potentially ruinous effects. I have friends who hate the novel on the grounds that they believe that Franzen actually likes these people and hates pretty much everyone else. A certain snobbishness does pervade, but it can be overlooked thanks to the same type of page-turning fun that characterized The Corrections and the scathing satire of his near impeccably crafted sentences.
Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields. So, I cheated. Shields’ portentous rap against the state of fiction in favor of memoir is technically nonfiction, but it’s so artfully produced that I must comment. Namely, he argues that contemporary fiction, forty years after Barth’s “Literature of Exhaustion” is, finally, exhausted. Memoir, in its emotional authenticity and basis in fact, is gaining more steam by the year. While he’s at it, he spends a good deal of time addressing the issue of plagiarism, i.e., if we’re dealing with memoir, how much can be made up, borrowed, stolen, etc.? In his opinion, anything goes. The content of the argument is relatively compelling, but about halfway through the book you have an epiphany. It has to do with the structure. The book consists of twenty-six chapters, each named after a letter of the alphabet and dealing with issues of nonfiction (“overture,” “mimesis,” “reality,” “memory,” and “blur” are just a few of the chapter titles). Each chapter is comprised of a series of aphorisms ranging from a sentence to a paragraph in length. There are 618 such aphorisms. But, halfway through (or earlier, if you’re sharper than me), you realize that Shields didn’t write any of these aphorisms. They are all lifted from somebody else. No quotation marks, no citations. I can’t tell you how much this added to the reading experience. I hadn’t encountered anything quite like it. To Shields’ dismay, he was forced to include a works-cited appendix at the end, slightly undermining his argument for total and credit-less sharing. I was still compelled, if not convinced.
Solar by Ian McEwan. “The Master of the Macabre” surprised me here with an homage to Updike and Rabbit Angstrom in the figure of Michael Beard, a Nobel laureate who is charged with the task of solving global warming. He has more than a few problems, though, mostly pertaining to the amount of potato chips (and women) he consumes. This sets the stage for a Rabelaisan romp that, stylistically as well as structurally, provides laughs at nearly every turn. Ultimately, the bureaucracies whose job it is to solve the world’s problems are bitterly satirized here in a refreshing turn from the recent darkness of On Chesil Beach.
Zero History by William Gibson. “The Bigend Trilogy” concludes with a journey into London’s underground fashion trade. At the center of it all is multi-billionaire Hubertus Bigend, whose single goal in life is to fulfill his many curiosities. Here, it is, in an elaboration on the idea of pattern recognition (also the title of the first novel in the series), a fascination with predicting trends in the market. That fascination manifests itself in an attempt to corner mass produced military wear for civilians. This is vintage Gibson, a commentary on the simulacrous state of consumerism, the invisible workings of desire and demand. But can those workings be manipulated? In addition to all this, Gibson is so enjoyable because he brokers in cool. Apple products and Twitter pervade the novel, as well as a good amount of motorcycle courier-ing. His comments at his reading in D.C. this fall tell us the most, however. “For anyone serious about writing,” he asserted, “genre is only useful as a narrative strategy.” This best sums up this recent trilogy. He deftly made the transition from out-and-out SF into what a London writer called, in reference to Spook Country (the second part of the trilogy), “one of the most important books of the decade.” Count that for all three.
And the winner is (but who’s counting?)…
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. I will re-post my review from the summer here:
Until three days ago, I had not read anything by Gary Shteyngart. But, true to form, the YouTube trailer of Super Sad True Love Story (released July 27) intrigued me enough to spend my birthday money on it. I was aware of Shteyngart’s propensity for hilarity, and this novel delivers. But it was layered in unexpected ways. It is the story of Lenny Abramov, an – ahem – middle-aged Russian-American with a taste for books. Only, in Lenny’s America, books have become physically repulsive (they stink), and every citizen is perpetually linked to his or her apparat, a media streamer good for all things data and entertainment. Reading has been replaced by “text scanning for data”; dollars are now “yuan-pegged” due to China’s global economic dominance; Credit Poles are set up in public spaces, which flash people’s credit scores as they walk by; people are subsequently divided into HNWI, and LNWI groups (High/Low Net Worth Individuals), your membership of which determines your social prospects; similarly, women’s “Fuckability” and “Personality,” their apparently only two appealing traits, are broadcast by their apparats; like David Foster Wallace’s near-future, Shteyngart’s is saturated with acronyms and product placement, with the vulgarity turned way up. JK (“just kidding”) is replaced with JBF (“just butt-fucking”), and name brands such as Polo and J. Crew are replaced with AssLuxury and JuicyPussy. Americans get their news from Fox-Liberty Prime and Fox-Liberty Ultra (“the Fox”). This alone indicates the hyper-conservate policies that run Abramov’s America, a nicely woven sub-plot that comes to a surprising head by novel’s end. Citizens are constantly screened for their credit ratings and, if returning from abroad, for how many foreigners they’ve slept with. Almost precisely this happens to Abramov, whose story centers on his love for Eunice Park, a Korean-American he falls for while abroad in Rome for a year. The narrative is told from their alternating perspectives – one chapter will be comprised entirely of his diary entries, the next by her e-mails and online chats. A nice dichotomy between old and young, literate and “post-literate.”
And ultimately, that’s what this book ends up being about. The gaps (emotionally and technologically) between generations (Abramov works for a company that helps people try to live forever), and the (im)possibility of love, romantic or otherwise, between them. Amid his satirical romp that lampoons, cleverly, the future of American political and consumer society, Shteyngart rounds the narrative out to address what Abramov realizes are life’s only two truths: my existence and my demise. This novel shows us that how we get from the former to the latter is, yes, a super sad true love story.
To help get my mind around what Synetic Theater was trying to do with their adaptation of Bulgakov’s oppression-defying, faith-affirming romp The Master and Margarita, I turned to Linda Hutcheon’s helpful study of postmodern adaptations, her 2006 book A Theory of Adaptation. For too long, she asserts, we have evaluated adaptations as products, in terms of accuracy, verisimilitude, and the like. But, in true Hutcheon fashion, we should be focusing on the process as well as the product of an adaptation. We can best do that by examining not so much the form of the piece (novel-to-screen, novel-to-stage, etc.), but what she calls “modes of engagement.” There are three types, which are all, as she says, “immersive”:
Some media and genres are used to tell stories (for example, novels, short stories); others show them (for instance, all performance media); and still others allow us to interact physically and kinesthetically with them (as in videogames or theme park rides). These three different modes of engagement provide the structure of analysis for this attempt to theorize what might be called the what, who, why, how, when and where of adaptation. Think of this as a structure learned from Journalism 101: answering the basic questions is always a good place to start.
This seems simple, but it is quite obviously very useful in an age of hyper-interactivity and myriad Hollywood adaptations. Hutcheon studies opera extensively, so it would be interesting to see what she would have to say about The Master and Margarita. In short, it is an exemplar of this theory, in that it is a dynamic hybrid of the latter two modes. In the program distributed by the Landsburgh Theatre (the host venue, in DC’s Chinatown), we learn a little about Synetic Theater. Their slogan reads as follows:
Synthesis: the coming together of distinct elements to form a whole
Kinetic: pertaining to, or imparting motion, active…dynamic…
Synetic Theater: a dynamic synthesis of the arts
In other words, before the opening curtain, a clear idea of what you are about to experience–or engage with–is murky. Not shortly afterward, however, are confusions assuaged (and expectations met).
We sat in the front row, a few seats away from a friend and colleague who is a dancer and has many more intelligent things to say about that side of things. But from our vantage point, it fully seemed that this troupe, in the words of P90X’s Tony Horton, flat out “brought it.” Or, to quote The Washington Post’s Nelson Presley,
The Performers of Synetic Theater seem to have made up their minds about what they are: rock stars…As performers, [director Paata Tsikurishvili, who also played Master, and choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili, who played Margarita]…are mesmerizing, melding intensity and craft…But no matter how striking the staging and effects, which include creative decapitations and even a zombie scene, the story is consistently clear and forward-moving.
More on the story in a minute. But to finish about the execution–the sheer physicality of the entire ninety minutes left us breathless and exhilarated. In addition to the Tsikurishvilis’ performances, Alex Mills’ contorting Azazello and Philip Fletcher’s Behemoth dazzled. And Armand Sindoni’s Voland was hilarious in an appropriately demonic way. I can’t drift too far out of my territory to comment on sets and choreography, but when you’re coming away from a night at the theater muttering, and pardon the pun, “damn, damn,” something must have gone pretty well.
But I did have an agenda. The third part of my Bakhtin-Dostoevsky-Bulgakov Masters thesis analyzed the novel within the novel, the source of the Master’s troubles, “Pontius Pilate,” a subversive re-telling of Jesus’ condemnation and crucifixion. It is a prototype for what would come to be known in the postmodern era as “historiographic metafictions” (Hutcheon again), the underpinnings of which are encapsulated by Voland in the early going, when he asserts, “Of course Jesus was real…But you should know that nothing in the gospels actually happened!”
“Pontius Pilate,” therefore, attempts a re-conceptualizing of Jesus’ conversation with the title character. And the final chapter of my thesis dealt with just that. As opposed to the Jesus of the gospels, the Yeshua of the Master’s imagining converses at length with Pilate, eventually converting him–not to Christianity as we know it, but to the simple idea that everyone is inherently good, just unhappy sometimes–only too late. The rest of the novel depicts Pilate’s regret in the form of a hallucinated dialogue in perpetuam with Yeshua, as they walk up a moonbeam into space. Very Bakhtinian, no? Long story short, I was most interested in how Synetic was going to stage this encounter.
The first few scenes from “Pontius Pilate,” staged as the Master’s memories of his now-burned manuscript, are consistent with Synetic’s set pieces, substituting verbal exposition with interpretive dance, music, and sound effects. They are effective, emotionally, but I was wondering when the conversation, the intellectual centerpiece of this encounter, would begin (we never even see Yeshua’s face in multiple flashback scenes). But just as some discontent began to brew, Synetic put its most creative stamp on their project. Toward the end, the Master and his cell mate in the insane asylum, the poet Bezdomny (Ryan Sellers is formidable in this role as well), are bound to chairs, seated back-to-back, and interrogated. Bezdomny by a Soviet officer, the Master by Pilate himself. Here we get a decent amount of the dialogue between Yeshua and Pilate, envisioned, perhaps, as Bulgakov intended. The parallel between the Roman authority of the first century and that of the Soviets is made explicit as Bezdomny and the Master alternate lines from Yeshua’s conversation, asserting the goodness of humanity and the trouble with totalitarianism. While much of the actual conversation is still left out, we are given the force behind it, and the force behind The Master and Margarita–that is, even if we, as the Soviets wanted to do, strip the story of Jesus of its mystery and miracle, we are nonetheless left with the very simple message of love in the face of authority, a miracle in itself. That Synetic chose to stage it this way emphasizes the dialogic nature of our relationship with history. And it no doubt effectively fits their own mode of engagement. They deliver.
Was I nitpicking? Perhaps. You need not do that here, nor will you really have time to, in this frenetic and ecstatic adaptation.
Piety: We will be using this term in its extra-religious sense as first defined (in that sense) by George Santayana, and greatly expanded upon by Kenneth Burke in his work Permanence and Change. I strongly suggest you read Burke’s chapter on piety since it is an astounding critical work. At any rate, you can get the whole of Permanence and Change on PDF by Googling it. Do so.
For now, let us give Santayana’s definition of piety: “loyalty to the sources of one’s being.” Now this is not confined to physical being, but to one’s cultural, sexual, political, professional, and symbolic being, also one’s semiotic being (for example, brand names and fashion). A person may contain conflicting pieties. This is why a “noble” person who does the grand gesture of forgiving a criminal and is gladly arrested while protesting his execution might, a week later, fly into a fury and rage and think evil towards someone who has messed with the order of the pencil’s on her desk. In rational terms, they are just pencils. What’s the big deal? In symbolic terms, they may represent her sense of control, her sense of private space. Once we see this as a loyalty to the sources of her being, but realize that those sources are complex and varied, and might even be in conflict, we get an idea of why human behavior is so complicated. A theory in current evolutionary psychology might offer insight.
David Buller, in his wonderful work, Adapting Minds, both takes to task, and explores a belief common in 1980′s and 90′s in evolutionary biology known as the modularity thesis:
Evolutionary psychologists claim that human psychological adaptations take the form of modules, special purpose “minicomputers”, each of which is dedicated to solving problems related to a particular aspect of survival or reproduction in the human environment of evolutionary adaptness (EEA). Summarizing this view, Steven Pinker says, “the mind is organized into modules or mental organs, each with a specialized design that makes it an expert in one arena of interaction with the world. The modules’ basic logic is specified by our genetic program. Their operation was shaped by natural selection to solve the problems of the hunting and gathering life led by our ancestors in most of our evolutionary history.” Given that evolutionary psychologists claim that there are hundreds or thousands of modules comprising the human mind, this view of the mind has been called the “massive modularity thesis.”
Such division of labor, such independence and non-coherence of modules might well explain why a person dead set against the death penalty might fly into a rage over a shifting of her pencils. Of course, if the module of her anti-death penalty belief, if one of the mini-computers in a set of mini-computers, and her reading, political mind set, and awareness of semiotic piety is in full force, then she might not rage, even if she feels infuriated. After all, someone might think it odd that a person against the death penalty is “freaking out” over her pencils. She might keep her voice at a “peace activist” level. She might patiently and gently express to the sinner that she likes her pencils just so. She may even make a little self-deprecating joke about her own “OCD.” It depends on the level of stress. Still, if this person continues to fool around with her pencils, our activist might find a way to exile her from her life. She will keep the murderers close, and exile the pencil terrorists! After all, a murderer might kill a family in cold blood, but he never fucks with your pencils. To put it in an adage: “men may forgive murder, but they will never forgive a mooch who never has his own money or cigarettes.” This is the loyalty to the sources of one’s being in a nut shell. But notice the conflicting piety. Perhaps we can see piety in the following manner (cheap but effective):
Macro-piety: Those core loyalties to one’s being concerning how you and others should live, how the world should be, and how it really is (idealism/criticism/ realism)
Micro-piety: Those little habits, those beneath which nots, your sense of space, choice of music, quirks, tendencies of personality that define you moment by moment.
Pietistic integration: The attempt to make macro piety and micro-piety accountable to each other, and to live as a seamless whole.
Pietistic conflict: Those conflicts between pieties that cause us to be unique, complex, contradictory, and weird or misunderstood.
With this knowledge we could have no trouble doing a typical romantic comedy eco-disaster movie: in romantic comedy, boy and girl or girl and girl, or boy and boy meet, dislike, are thrust into a situation with each other, compromise, fall in love, have one more major falling out, then reunite: lights outs. Now for the movie:
Wendy, a crusading, passionate ecology doctoral student is hired to work with the world renowned Peter Thorndike, the leading authority on studying glaciers for evidence of global warming. She has heard that he is called the “monster.” But she has read and admired all his work. Like Katherine Hepburn in the days of yore, she is undaunted and believes she can work with the monster. In point of fact, she is looking forward to the challenge. She is 100% eco: hemp, her whole being expressing a life of hiking, veganism, chanting, political activism, etc, etc.
Enter Peter Thorndike, the monster. Peter, about six years older than Wendy and a thousand galaxies removed semiotically: never saw a cheese burger he didn’t like. Listens to death metal. Wears shirts given to him by his aunts at Easter from Wal-Mart. Smokes, and not hand rolls, or American Spirits, but Pall Malls. Drives a gas guzzling pick up. Gets along with the locals, talks hunting, and has no patience with tree huggers, though he is, at heart, a profound lover of the woods and of nature. He is grouchy, prone to getting ranch dressing on his reports, a person who any tree hugger might hate if he wasn’t so brilliant and dedicated to his work.
Wendy’s perfect boyfriend (there are always these perfect boyfriends in such movies, a man with a perfect integration of macro/micro pieties, all except for one thing: he’s too perfect. No one likes too perfect. they are the kind of romantic character we despise). He’s hot, plays bluegrass bass & fiddle in a eco-cowboy punk band, and always says the right thing to Wendy at the right moment except they are too comfortable with each other: no tension, no real passion. He’s wonderful in bed, but when she tells him she’s going to work with Peter Thorndike in some back water town in Alaska, he barely misses a beat and has no problem with it. His fatal flaw is he doesn’t care enough to stop “caring” in all the expected ways.
The first scene would be the meeting of Wendy and Peter under the rules of antipathy common to romantic comedies. She might enter his office while he is finishing a bacon double cheeseburger, polishing it off with Orange cream soda, and dancing around his charts and stats to a speed metal band. They conflict, but their common thread is the work. One night they get stranded on a mountain, and of course, this is where the bonding takes place (like the drunk scene in Jaws). They become friendly in spite of all their difference. We first know she might be falling for him when she Googles speed metal. We might know he is falling for her when he brings his bottle of hot sauce to the dinner she has made him of Tempe, and goes to pour it on the food, and then desists, looks at her, takes a bite, and actually likes it. We can see the romantic comedy in terms of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. We can go all Hegel on this. But the active literary interest and drama/comedy will be created by a creative between conflicting pieties, and over all growing affinity.
Piety then is what we value, or that loyalty to the sources of our being, but it is more than value. In the full complexity of human constructs it is the rhetoric of conflicting and supposedly coherent values. We will now look at a famous poem, and see it in the terms of this piety (loyalty to the sources of one’s being). The poem is by William Carlos Williams. He is considered an arch-modernist and an enemy of the sentimental tradition of Edwardian and romantic literature. Some claimed his poems are “anti-poems.” Nicanor Parra, a South American poet heavily influenced by Williams, had the temerity to call his Williams-influenced poems “Anti-poems.” At the same time, Stevens charged his friend Williams with the sin of sentimentality (a terrible charge against a self proclaimed champion of the new). Both Parra and Stevens are right, for, in Williams, as in many dynamic and important poets, we find what I will call pietistic conflict. On the one hand, Williams was all for throwing out flowery speech and the overly rhetorical convolutions of the European (read English) tradition. On the other, he was raised in a world of flowers and color; his mother was a gifted painter, and Williams had a blind spot in his otherwise clear headed doctor way of thinking—or rather than a blind spot, let us call it a conflicting piety. Also Williams, in his earliest years, was completely enthralled by the poems of John Keats. In his poem “The Act” he makes two characters, but I believe they could be seen as a dramatization of his own inner aesthetic conflicts, his conflicting pieties. At any rate the poem:
There were the roses, in the rain.
Don’t cut them, I pleaded. They won’t last, she said.
But they’re so beautiful where they are.
Agh, we were all beautiful once, she said,
and cut them and gave them to me in my hand.
In this poem, Williams plays the aesthete to the woman’s practical and unsentimental notions. He is defending the source of his being in beauty. To cut the roses in the rain would be a sin against the source of beauty. That is the speaker’s piety. She is enforcing a piety or an impiety of utility, of “brutal” realism. This explains the dynamic energy of the poem. It is an essay on conflicting realms of piety. Burke, in the beginning of his chapter on piety, speaks of a man felling a great tree. He needs it for firewood. After felling it with his axe, he feels strangely at odds with himself. He may associate the tree with the father, with the sacred strength of the father. There may be a symbolic parricide in this act, one a poet might perceive more readily (of course, in the Mother earth realm of present day ecology, the great tree might as well be a mother). In ancient cultures such “sins” could be purged by a ritual act of cleansing. In a sense, the modern man’s act of cleansing is to fall upon the rampart and “piety” of the utilitarian. “nonsense!” The man says. “I need the wood. It’s just a tree. There are plenty more where that came from.”
We may not be aware of many of our pieties until they are trespassed against. As Burke points out in another book, The Rhetoric of Religion, the words Quoseth (Hebrew), Hagios (Greek) and Sacre (Latin) are traditionally translated as holy or sacred ground, but they are not that limited. A truly more literal translation is “ground set apart”—in which case, that ground can be sacred or accursed depending on the piety or impiety of the situation. Piety, in a sense is ground set a part, isolated from its semiotic indicators and its symbols, until those indicators and symbols are threatened or made unstable, or come into conflict with others. Let us look then at another poem grounded in piety as we are discussing it here: Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.”
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
There are several conflicting pieties here. The section where Oliver goes on about penitents seems to be an implicit slap upside the head of standard, “guilt ridden religion.” The New Agers cheer! Yes! I don’t have to be good; all I have to do is let my body love what it loves. The overt piety of this poem is nature as a form of salvation, but the covert piety of this poem is the natural (as in organic), self-love, choice culture of spiritual consumerism. This choice culture only has to love what it loves. It doesn’t have to be good. It has to be a shopper. In point of fact, nature, in the later part of the poem “offers.” Now that’s a word dear to every consumer’s heart. I don’t know if Oliver intended this piety to be there, but it’s there in spades.
Also, it harks back to an earlier Protestant piety: the rejection of good works in order to emphasize faith and grace—election. We are “elected” if only we let our bodies love what they love. So, in going against the piety of guilt and repentance, she embraces the theological concept of election. She goes on to say (I am paraphrasing here): “Tell me your troubles, I’ll tell you mine.” This sounds like a good deal, except she immediately cancels troubles by implying they are negative in comparison to the majesty of the world as ongoing and healing process, all of which is at our disposal. How dare we waste time looking at our troubles? That is the lesser choice, the “bad” choice. So, to amend her opening gambit: you do not have to be good, but you can’t focus on despair because that is bad. You do not have to be good. You have to be positive. Could a new age consumer be more thrilled? I have seen otherwise sensible poets go into ecstasy over this well made, very good, but not great poem.
Unwittingly, it is touching and massaging every button of our choice culture, (the knee jerk I am spiritual, not religious) and the piety of choice, middle class privilege, consumer satisfaction, and positive thinking, plus “green think.” The geese are personified. They are angels, the angels of the new order which is an order of post-Wordsworthian salvation through communion with all sentient being. OK, fine. But this poem contains even more conflicting piety than Williams, and it reeks of the chief contradiction of the new age: A conflict between choice, and unlimited vistas, and very real concerns about conservation. In a more sensible argument, these conflicts might be resolved with: “you have choices, and you do not have to be good, but make sure you are organic.” At another point, Mary Oliver would not be so ready to say: “you do not have to be good”—if a group of hunters were out there, plugging away at the geese. God forbid! This would hit her dead center in her conflicting piety. Of course, if they were Native Americans, taking the geese and singing praise over them, that would be a different story.
This is the danger of piety: it shows all our utopias to be greatly compromised by our pietistic contradictions. I think of the squatter I knew when I was homeless, returning to his parent’s Scarsdale mansion on the weekend to do his laundry. I think of the radical feminist who I saw torture a waitress because she wanted her toss salad “just so.” In terms of piety and even in terms of the “modularity” thesis, these are not acts of hypocrisy. Our pieties are hidden, especially the ones that conflict with our core sense of self. They jump out at odd times to bite us on the ass.
But I want you to question your own piety and so, here, so I must figure out why Mary Oliver’s lovely poem enraged me.
It is probably not the poem at all, but the fact that I saw it raved about by affluent well-educated poetasters who were snobbish towards me. After all, I was not a wild goose. I was a working class prol who, somehow, because of my odd predilection and knowledge of poetry, had blundered into having authority over them in a work shop. They were all fans of Mary Oliver, and they hated anything brutal, or violent, or outside their piety of New Age epiphanies. They savaged a woman who had brought in a poem by Philip Larkin. I am not a big fan of Larkin, but I consider him at least the equal of Oliver. They savaged him for being a pessimist. I countered: “yes, but can you extend beyond your dislike of pessimism to look at his craft and skill in being a pessimist?” They could not. They savaged him for rhyming (someone had told them rhymed poetry was always suspect unless it was before the 20th century). One woman spoke up and said: “he’s just a clever dead white male.” I said: “so is Shakespeare… Do you think Mary Oliver is a better poet than Shakespeare?” She paused, thinking it out, then replied: “Shakespeare was good for his time. Mary Oliver is more relevant to ours.” I then launched into my knowledge of all of Shakespeare’s nature poetry, his superior knowledge of animal husbandry, his closer, almost daily encounter with a pre-industrial world. She said: “Well, you don’t like Mary Oliver because she’s a strong woman.” Then, unable to hold back, I said: “No I don’t like Mary Oliver because I think she’s just an upgraded version of self help drivel. I think her love of nature is privileged. I think John Clare far superior to her. As for strong women, I was raised by five aunts and a strong mother. They got dirty. Bugs didn’t eat sugar from their hands. I think her easy spirituality is horse shit, and I think you can’t love nature in that way unless you come from an income of at least 100,000 a year, and can afford to have such wise sentiments. Every time I see a Mary Oliver poem, I hear the eco-friendly middle class trampling on the graves of working people. You don’t have to like what I say, As Mary tells us, I do not have to be good.”
I went away greatly puzzled by my anger. I felt awful. I actually liked “The Wild Geese,” but they also claimed it was superior to the sixth part of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” and that I could not stand. I examined my conscience. I had slipped into demonizing mode. It was not Mary Oliver I disliked. It was her gatekeepers. I went back the next week, apologized for my vehemence, and we entered a new realm. We started talking about received value and piety. I conceded it was a good poem. They conceded Larkin was funny. So it goes. Know your mechanisms before you proceed. More importantly, know that you can never know them fully. That is both to the pain and the glory of the human construct.