Thursday, February 28, 2013

True Story


Some passing thoughts on the events at work is only a grieving for the passing of notes in fifth grades when the two sisters were turned to the blackboard chalking up the High Math of The Second Coming.

It was a note Tony Graciano  penned saying that after school he was going to kick my ass because I slammed his hand in the cloak room door .I looked at Tony behind me, the note under the desk,
and he was smiling the best his gummless mouth could manage, vapors of bacon and death on his breath.

“Would you like to share that with every one, Ted?” keened a voice, piercing with a hint of whistle swirling around each slippery  ’s’ that slid against the tongue to the enamel of each capped tooth .Sister Marie, basketball tall and looking grim as grime in her stiff, consigned vestments, held out her hand, wrinkled and thick veined at the knuckles, demanding to see the note .I looked up at her, knowing   God sees everything on a too-big TV screen as wide as the sky, and then handed the note up to her.

Her. long fingers wrapped around the paper like a satchel of loving snakes.

I remember from the fourth grade that Tony had said he wanted to be a writer when asked
by a lait teacher what he wanted to be when he grew up. Why, asked the teacher, and Tony enthused over the adventure stories he liked too read, and that he wanted to write his own someday that’d be even more terrific.

Terrific, said the Teacher, Then you ought to take pride to signing your name one everything to write from now on. Tony beamed  that same gummless grin and nodded his head rapidly as though he’d just snapped a spring.

Sister Marie held Tony’s note in front of her face, an inch from her thick-lenses glasses that made her eyes seem to bulge frog like, and read the words quietly, a silent mutter moving her lips. Her face, already creased and lined with years of pure Catholic rapture, hardened even more as she lowered the paper and stared over and past me down the aisles of neatly lined school desks, her eyes finally stopping where Tony sat.

A vein popped out on her forehead. I looked back and saw Tony looking back at the sister with an innocent expression only guilty could provide. Sister Marie didn’t let him say a word.

“Mr. Graciano, into the hail, pleases, and bring your books with you” 

She walked up the aisle briskly, as Tony stood after closing his books, and turning around for a good view, all I could see was the broad sweep of her water blue cloak spread like Superman’s’ cape that seemed to absorb Tony in whole. Next I remembered the classroom door slamming, and then there was silence, one nun and a class of scared kids observing
a ceremonial gravity. It was as though Tony had not been in the class at all, not even on the planet.

Sister John Mark, whose name I never understood, picked up a rubber tipped pointer and said “We must be well behaved when we’re learning of the good news of Christ.”





Saturday, February 23, 2013

Tone is King

As regards harmonica playing, tone is technique, in my book. What's important for me isn't the amount of technique a player has, but rather the quality of what he does with it. Billy Gibbons, guitarist for ZZ Top, doesn't have a great deal of harmonica technique on their song "Waiting for the Bus", but his tone is perfect, blasting, crisp, distorted just right. The few notes he plays are punchy to say the least, precisely timed.

The same thing can be said of Taj Mahal's "Leavin' Trunk" and 'She Took the Katy"--neither are complicated, but Mahal's playing is sublime. In the solos in either song, his phrases are brief, terse, emotionally gratifying. This is a musician who, though not a virtuoso by the arbitrary standards of current thinking, still had the genius to compose memorable statements. Tone or technique isn't a real choice one needs to make, in most cases.
Tone is technique, for all reed  instruments. Technique is merely a fluent accumulation  of know-how. Tone represents the talent, the real genius to make it human, moving, worth taking note of,

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Rollilng Stones were not hippies

Honestly, I think this is one of the weakest songs from their most interesting and innovative period. The psychedelic sound and the druggy hippie vibe never suited them, and it shows in the general directionless sway of the music. So much is heaped on this track--angelic chorus, harpsichord--that is something of a bottomless pit of effects and fake sentiment. 

I doubt Jagger and Richard believed this stuff for a moment;sometimes great artists do great work in pandering to what they think is what the public flavor of the minute is,  but this happens when there is an angry energy that distances the nuanced likes of The Stones from the base sentiments the lyrics and the song's  ragged pastiche of  elements espouse. It's as if they wanted us to believe that they were on with the Haight-Ashbury thing.  Perhaps they were, though I suspect ambivalence more than belief was a more likely response from them regarding the Utopian thinking of the more addled minded in the counter culture.  

 It is interesting for historical reasons, though, one of the few times the Rolling Stones ever followed the Beatles lead for a musical idea. We can be thankful that the Stones stopped making music that reflected the way they dressed--like dandies--and returned to the rhythm and blues and cynical realism that keeps them musically brilliant and philosophically relevant. 

Think about it: how many times have we had designs, made plans, had reasonable and out-of-proportion expectations of what we thought our lives, short and long term, would amount to, only to have our daydreams thwarted in business, love, art, friendship? Plenty , I suspect.Things break, plans don't work out, people grow apart. Life, as it happens, has no interests in what plans, whatever the scale, we might have cobbled together  in order to conquer the world.

And how many times have you just sang the refrain from the Stones tune, "...you can't always get what you want..." as a means of gaining perspective. At first you might not believe it, but in time, choosing not to do drugs commit suicide, you accept the premise out  need.  A wise reflection needn't be verbose nor poetic, just direct.


Friday, February 15, 2013

Traci Brimhall's renegotiates the marriage contract

The poem ""If Marriage is a Duel at  10 Paces" by Traci Brimhall is  less a ritualized settling of grudges than it is a supremely phrased and acidly etched sequence of couplets lampooning the hackneyed metaphors that are applied to timeless institutions .In this instance absurd comparisons between marriage and something other. Brimhall seems to draw from a period of having to listen to platitude-dripping testaments from husbands, her own and likely the remarks of other nervous men, who needed reassurances about he stability of the contract with bromides and sage cliches that were a form of emotional blackmail. Brimhall takes up the game and posits her own thinking , mimicking the analogies and interrogating the logic; every statement contains it own contradiction and counter argument."


"If marriage is a war for independence, I’ll find a feather 
for my cap and shoot you from your horse. Darling. 
If it’s a hunt, salt and cure me. If it’s a plague for two, 
my dear, let’s quarantine ourselves in the cemetery wearing 
aprons and snakeskin belts. Let’s disfigure each other 
with praise. My beautiful. My fugitive..." 

There is a tangible anger at the entire "'til-death-us-part" solemnity of the wedding vow , which sets the poet up splendidly for an extended take down of the premise. There is , of course, the issue that this only one side of the story and what we lack is a the complexity that would make this poem even more dynamic; honestly, that does not bother so much if for reason that Brimhall gets the tone and the poking-finger earnestness of the stream right. The story that happens off stage, that is unmentioned during this narrator's confession of resentment, is palable, conspicuous by the lack of reference. Anger, frustration, bristling irritation has given the tongue , or at least the mind, an articulation it may well not had seen  before. 

The strength of this power, its power , in fact, is that the poet simulates the verbal dexterity a long brewing dissatisfaction can give you and which comes out in one especially articulate explosion of well-turned sarcasm. Reading this made me think of those times when I had entered someone's living room by invitation only to get the sense that there is a narrative under the subterfuge of polite chatter and mannered hospitality, that at any second the lid might blow off the pressure cooker. This poem is one of those moments when it finally does.


This is a caustic rant and it would be a fitting speech for a character in a yet to be written play ; the wife, fed up with years of her husband's laziness, stupidity, infidelity , financial irresponsible and an over reliance on the easiest phrase that comes to mind when justifying his onerous acts, responds at once with bazooka and blow torch. There is the neat, efficient trick of mocking with great exaggeration while revealing the harm cliches, evasions and lies cause, as in "let's disfigure ourselves with praise..." While the truth sets you free by liberating you from falsehoods that coerce you into making amazingly bad decisions, lies mar the landscape, destroy trust, create unhappiness for all those involves, makes it a requirement that one carry equal amounts of dread, self loathing and resentment under a cracking veneer of calm resignation. 


Brimhall's poem starts from the point where her narrator seems to have dropped the last dish to the floor, stands straight, hands on hips , and begins a thorough dismantling of each lie she participated in. This is a powerful poem, unusual, punchy and full of a crackling good wit. This is a warning to readers to not flatter their spouses with the foul essence of stale sentiment , promises and vague assurances that destiny will be great if you just stay the course. Talk long enough and you will create the verbal rope that will coil around your neck even as you speak the words, or someone speaks them back to you.t

Monday, February 11, 2013

SYLVIA PLATH:The Worship of the Dead

There is a bit of noise concerning the cover of the 50th anniversary edition of the late Sylvia Plath's touchstone novel, The Bell Jar, an understandable misgiving on the part of the book's loyalists. The book, a wrenching , semi-autobiographical narrative about a young woman's slide into mental illness, is a serious, unfunny, poetic evocation of female
insanity and is a hallmark of a good amount of Feminist literary criticism. it is not a laughing matter, but publishers, like other media corporations with long term holdings , at times feel compelled to update a commodity's image for a younger crowd that has yet to read a masterpiece of misery. Presto, the 50th Anniversary Edition features a woman's profile gazing into a compact mirror, applying make up; Plath's attempt to write her demons out of commission is made to resemble the worst version of Chic Lit. Plath deserves better. It's a good book and it requires an honest presentation.


Has anyone said that they are exhausted by the relentless attention accorded the late and legendary Sylvia Plath?Am I the only one who thinks that we ought to stop metaphorically digging up Sylvia Plath's body so we may once again gawk at her bony remains through a lens of deferred yearning? Generation after generation discovers and rediscovers her work, which is fine, but the grave robbing worship that goes on here elevates her literary worth beyond sane judgment. There is a death cult within the legions of her admirers whose applied aesthetic insists that the extreme personalist poets achieve greatness only when they perform their final and greatest act, their suicide.It's disgusting stuff, and it's perverse to think that there was once an active set of famous poets whose art could be deemed successful if their lives ended under odious circumstances.

I'm not averse to regarding Plath as a major American poet--she showed a compelling, surreal, tortured brilliance that was fully realized although her time was brief. What concerns me is the virtual cult of Plath who mistake her tragedy as having something to do with her art, and regard her writing as perfect precisely because committed suicide. This has more do with martyr making and nothing to do with her powerful , sometimes brilliant writing. The cultist obsession with her brief life causes many to miss the fact that she was a poet to be considered as an artist, not an example of  skewed notion of beauty. There seems to be an addiction to a what many of created as a figure of Mythic Suffering, another Jesus stand-in, upon whose rumored visage and back story one may read their own sufferings and take solace that their shared misery's finest expression was from a victim who never overcame their ills, travails and psychic deterioration. It stops being about poetry and the empathy it creates, the connection it brings the reader with larger experience; the poems become stations of the cross, with each wound ogled and slathered upon. It is messy.

One wonders what it would have been like had Plath found sufficient reason to live on, and what sort of writing she might have done with all the years she might have had. Might she become a depressed dowager internalizing each private grief to the extent that her dry skin might literally crack under pressure. Would she have abandoned poetry altogether and found religion, spending her remaining years and charisma attacking the secularist tradition? Written a cookbook? Or might she have developed a sense of humor and dismissed her early work as her own form of "rhythmic grumbling".

The problem with short artist lives is that they usually leave behind a brief body of work, which prevents us from speculating where she might have gone with her work, or the kind of person she may have evolved into. As such, her poems and her novel are lyric agitations, occasionally brilliant, often hysterical and shrill, always at the pitch of a clenched fist pounding a trash can or a car horn stuck on it's one long, loathsome note.It's a vicarious thrill thing, I suppose, a loose fitting necrophilia. Those sensitive souls who died young also died perfect, cut down in their prime, never given the chance to grow old, to fail at something or to betray anyone's expectations by maturing. This, I guess, is unavoidable and there's not much one can do except perhaps react to four decades worth of repeated hype and hoopla about Plath. What is especially aggravating has been the seduction of many a otherwise fine reviewers who've embroidered the allure of her suicide into their evaluation of her standing as a poet; it's a bizarre kind of affirmative action, in which her death and her gender and her craziness entitle her to a pass on an analysis based solely on her writing. She is, in fact, an unfinished talent, and how good she might have become is an aspect that's unknowable. Better poets have died young who haven't garnered a scintilla of posthumous adoration as Plath has. It's marketing, I think. Ted Hughes and literary agents knew they had an exploitable commodity with the deceased Sylvia Plath, and sustaining the myth around her certainly has kept the holders of her literary rights flush with money from fans who are attracted to Plath for all the reasons except the right one, a love of good work.

The Plath we know was a tragedy in one and a half acts. Enough. Put her back in the coffin, lower it into the grave, and throw on the dirt. Life isn't for everyone, and she made her choice. It is to her enduring  credit that she wrote some brilliant poems despite her encroaching instability; we should read and discuss her poems and stop valorizing the condition that  compelled her to leave this world. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

How To Glow: a poem by Dean Young


How to Glow by Dean Young.

A chaotic poem at first reading, but it does have a rhythm and vibrant sense of starting off with one proposition and concluding with an end , a result, that one did not expect. "And end" is just the word, as in death, because each of the concrete things that poet Dean Young mentions seem find a connection with death ; all things lead to demise here, peaceful, painful, glorious, infamous, mundane.  Dean's attack is  a credible simulation of someone under anesthetic narrating the stream of images and attending conversations of his life, a slurred and surreal accounting of various transactions with doctors, families, friends, bright ideas and bad faith all, with a mind that discerns where all agendas wind up.

 That which we busy ourselves with in order to adhere to an existentialist principle that our lives have meaning drawn from only the decisions we make and our commitment to live by the results of our projects has , as well, a parallel function, to distract us from obsessing from that which we know is inevitable. Young, who I understand was once in need of a heart transplant and was fortunate enough to receive one, is fatalistic in this poem, but not without being playful as he inspects the dead ends of the propositions and ideas that are initially championed. One might despair and declare that the poem means to tell us that what we do and dream and build is all for naught because each endeavor results in a metaphorical dustbin ; I sense something else, hinted at in the title; if you want to glow, to seem holy and spiritual, shine at what you do, aspire and achieve. Go forth and do good works.Appreciate the abyss, step away from it and return to the business of being alive, in this moment.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Mother of God, turn that shit down granpa!


Truthfully, I used to like Aerosmith quite a bit and still get an adrenaline rush when I hear their best tunes. Guitar-centric rock was my preference in the Sports Arena days, but where other bands of the era now bore me and dated themselves badly, AS were pretty much the best at catchy riffs, savage, terse guitar solos and absurdly clever double -signifying lyrics. 

The combination of riff -craft and professed cocksmanship was made to order for any frustrated 20-year-old genius yearning to abandon his book learning' and take up the microphone, center stage, instead.  As you know, my tastes have gravitated, gratefully, towards mainstream jazz and blues over the last thirty five years--classic Miles, Coltrane, Mel Lewis, Wayne Shorter, Joe Pass, lots of Blue Note, Atlantic, ECM, Pacific Jazz, Verve, Impulse, Fantasy record releases--and rock and roll no longer interests me in large measure. But I still get a charge when a good AS is played--I rather like Tyler's rusty drain pipe screaming and I believe Joe Perry is one heck of a good chunk-chording guitarist. It helps, I guess, that these guys never got far from some rhythm and blues roots, even if those roots come from the Stones and not Motown or Stax. This may be damning with faint praise, but they were a brilliant expression of a young glandular confusion. 

What makes this art is this band's skill at sounding like they never learned anything fifty feet past the school yard and not much else beyond the age of 25. As we age and suffer the sprains  , creaks and cancer symptoms, inherited and self-inflicted,  our past gets more gloriously delinquent more we talk about it and we find ourselves gravitating to those acts of yore who seemed to maintain a genuine scowl and foul attitude.  Nearly any rock band based on rebellion and extreme bouts of immaturity just seems ridiculous after awhile--Peter Townsend is lucky enough to have had more ambition in his songwriting with Tommy and Who's Next to have lived down the dubious distinction of having written the lyric that exclaimed that he would rather die before he got old.  Aerosmith, in turn, still sounds good and rocking as often as not simply because they have mastered their formula. The sound a generation of us newly minted seniors occasionally pined for  remains the audio clue to an idea of integrity and idealism; what is disheartening, if only for a moment, is that this band's skill at sounding 21 and collectively wasted is a matter of professionalism and not an impulse to smash The State.

Rock and roll is all about professionalism , which is to say that some oen of the alienated and consequently alienating species trying to make their way in the world subsisting on the seeming authenticity of their anger, ire and anxiety has to make sure that they take care of their talent, respect their audiences expectations even as they try to make the curdled masses learn something new, and to makes sure that what they are writing about /singing about/yammering about is framed in choice riffs and frenzied backbeat. It is always about professionalism; the MC5 used to have manager John Sinclair, story goes, turn off the power in middle of one of their teen club gigs in Detroit to make it seem that the Man was trying to shut down their revolutionary oooopha. The 5 would get the crowd into a frenzy, making noise on the dark stage until the crowd was in a sufficient ranting lather. At that point Sinclair would switch the power back on and the band would continue, praising the crowd for sticking it to the Pigs. This was pure show business, not actual revolutionary fervor inspired by acne scars and blue balls; I would dare say that it had its own bizarre integetity, and was legitimate on terms we are too embarrassed to discuss. In a way, one needs to admire bands like the Stones or Aerosmith for remembering what it was that excited them when they were younger , and what kept their fan base loyal .


 All I would say is that it's not a matter of rock and roll ceasing to be an authentic trumpet of the troubled young soul once it became a brand; rather, rock and roll has always been a brand once white producers, record company owners and music publishers got a hold of it early on and geared a greatly tamed version of it to a wide and profitable audience of white teenagers. In any event, whether most of the music being made by Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and others was a weaker version of what was done originally by Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters et al is beside the point. It coalesced, all the same, into a style that perfectly framed an attitude of restlessness among mostly middle class white teenagers who were excited by the sheer exotica, daring and the sense of the verboten the music radiated. It got named, it got classified, the conventions of its style were defined, and over time , through both record company hype and the endless stream of Consciousness that most white rock critics produced, rock and roll became a brand.

It was always a brand once it was removed from the the black communities and poor Southern white districts from which it originated. I have no doubt that the artist's intention , in the intervening years, was to produce a revolution in the conscious of their time with the music they wrote and performed, but the decision to be a musician was a career choice at the most rudimentary level, a means to make a living or, better yet , to get rich. It is that rare to non-existent musician who prefers to remain true to whatever vaporous sense of integrity and poor.

Even Chuck Berry, in my opinion the most important singer-songwriter musician to work in rock and roll--Berry, I believe , created the template with which all other rock and rollers made their careers in muisic--has described his songwriting style as geared for young white audiences. Berry was a man raised on the music of Ellington and Louie Jardin, strictly old school stuff, and who considered himself a contemporary of Muddy Waters, but he was also an An entrepreneur as well as an artist. He was a working artist who rethought his brand and created a new one; he created something wholly new, a combination of rhythm and blues, country guitar phrasing and narratives that wittily, cleverly , indelibly spoke to a collective experience that had not been previously served. Critics and historians have been correct in callings this music Revolutionary, in that it changed the course of music , but it was also a Career change. All this, though, does not make what the power of Berry's music--or the music of Dylan, Beatles , Stones, MC5, Bruce or The High Fiving White Guys --false , dishonest, sans value altogether. What I concern myself with is how well the musicians are writing, playing, singing on their albums, with whether they are inspired , being fair to middlin', or seem out of ideas, out of breath; it is a useless and vain activity to judge musicians, or whole genres of music by how well they/it align themselves with a metaphysical standard of genuine , real, vital art making. That standard is unknowable and those putting themselves of pretending they know what it is are improvising at best. 

What matters are the products--sorry, even art pieces, visual, musical, dramatic, poetic, are "product" in the strictest sense of the word--from the artists successful in what they set out to do. The results are subjective, of course, but art is nothing else than means to provoke a response, gentle or strongly and all grades in between, and critics are useful in that they can make the discussion of artistic efforts interesting. The only criticism that interests are responses from reviewers that are more than consumer guides--criticism , on its own terms in within its limits, can be as brilliant and enthralling as the art itself. And like the art itself , it can also be dull, boring, stupid, pedestrian. The quality of the critics vary; their function in relation to art, however, is valid. It is a legitimate enterprise. Otherwise we'd be treating artists like they were priests

notes on a poem by Mark Strand


The quiet side appeals to me as well, much as I love abrasive post-bop jazz improvisation ala Cecil Taylor or the raucous cacophony of Charles Ives;  there are those moods when what I need from art—and art is something which is a need—is a short harmonica solo, a small water color in a simple frame, or a lyric poem that dwells comfortably, musically on it’s surface qualities. One loves grit, but that doesn’t exclude finess. Mark Strand’s poem here won me over with it’s surely played music.



My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer
by Mark Strand

1
When the moon appears
and a few wind-stricken barns stand out
in the low-domed hills
and shine with a light
that is veiled and dust-filled
and that floats upon the fields,
my mother, with her hair in a bun,
her face in shadow, and the smoke
from her cigarette coiling close
to the faint yellow sheen of her dress,
stands near the house
and watches the seepage of late light
down through the sedges,
the last gray islands of cloud
taken from view, and the wind
ruffling the moon's ash-colored coat
on the black bay.

2
Soon the house, with its shades drawn closed, will send
small carpets of lampglow
into the haze and the bay
will begin its loud heaving
and the pines, frayed finials
climbing the hill, will seem to graze
the dim cinders of heaven.
And my mother will stare into the starlanes,
the endless tunnels of nothing,
and as she gazes,
under the hour's spell,
she will think how we yield each night
to the soundless storms of decay
that tear at the folding flesh,
and she will not know
why she is here
or what she is prisoner of
if not the conditions of love that brought her to this.

3
My mother will go indoors
and the fields, the bare stones
will drift in peace, small creatures --
the mouse and the swift -- will sleep
at opposite ends of the house.
Only the cricket will be up,
repeating its one shrill note
to the rotten boards of the porch,
to the rusted screens, to the air, to the rimless dark,
to the sea that keeps to itself.
Why should my mother awake?
The earth is not yet a garden
about to be turned. The stars
are not yet bells that ring
at night for the lost.

Mark Strand is someone who often works overtime to make the small things he chooses to write about into subjects that are poetically overpowering. Though he wouldn't be guilty of some fever pitched overwriting that makes the work of Nobel Prize Winner Derek Walcott seem like a riotous thicket of over simile’d  commonplaces--it has been said that the prize winner has never met a qualifier he didn't fall in love with and promise a home to--Strand has always seemed to fall just short of adding an item too many to his verses.

He does have a leaner, more genuinely lyric movement than does Walcott, whom I find more ornate than satisfying. Strand , to his credit , doesn't obscure the emotion nor the place from which is figurative language is inspired, arch as it occasionally reads. Walcott the poet, the world traveller, the cultivated Other in the presence of an Imperial Culture, reads like someone how is trying to have an experience. Strand convinces you that he has had one, indeed, but that he over estimates the measure of words to their finessed narrative.

That said, I like this, in that Strand trusts what his eyes sees, a series of things his mother was doing in a wonderfully framed triptyche that might have been conveyed by Andrew Wyeth. It is a little idealized--the lyric spirit is not interested in the precise qualifier,but that adjective or verb , that rather, that both makes the image more musical and reveals some commonly felt impression about the objects in the frame--but Strand here has a relaxed confidence that is very effective. Brush strokes, we could say, both
impressionistic and yet exact.

Soon the house, with its shades drawn closed, will send
small carpets of lampglow
into the haze and the bay
will begin its loud heaving
and the pines, frayed finials
climbing the hill, will seem to graze
the dim cinders of heaven.
And my mother will stare into the starlanes,
the endless tunnels of nothing,
and as she gazes,
under the hour's spell,
she will think how we yield each night
to the soundless storms of decay
that tear at the folding flesh,
and she will not know
why she is here
or what she is prisoner of
if not the conditions of love that brought her to this.

This is the image of someone going about there daily chores and fulfilling their obligations thinking they are out anyone else's view, or better, the agenda of someone who hasn't interest in impressing any set of prying eyes. The mother seems less a figure in solitude than she does to contain solitude itself, comfortable and with intimate knowledge of the grain of the wood the floor is made of, the smell of the changing weather, the different pitches of silence and what the nuances of small sounds forecast for that evening and the following day. Most of all, this is about watching the world, the smallest world , both grow up, grow old, become frail and die, finally, aware of the seamlessness of going about one's tasks and the preparation for the end. This is a poem about preparation, I think; we, like the Mother, come to a point in their life when the gravity of things are finally felt through accumulated experience, as one's responsibilities have been added too over the years, and one develops a sense that what one does isn't so much about setting ourselves up for the rest of our lives, but rather in preparing the ground for what comes next, who comes next.

Somewhere in the work , toil , the bothersome details we get to rest and earn an extra couple of hours to keep our eyes close. The change happens slowly, unperceived,but it does happen, and the planet is a constant state of becoming, of change, and what changes too are the metaphors one would use to determine their next indicated jobs.

Why should my mother awake?
The earth is not yet a garden
about to be turned. The stars
are not yet bells that ring
at night for the lost.


While Strand writes of his mother's preparing the day for the days that will follow,May Swenson finds comedy and tragedy lurking in the same set of skewed images with this poem. It has a fine elegance that nearly obscures the ominous tone that clouds the final lines, an effect that's artfully deferred.





Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Randroids punk the canon

A bill brought forth in Idaho would make it a requirement for students to have read Ayn Rand's free market fantasia  Atlas Shrugged and past a test on the novel in order to graduate. There's no need to go into my usual harangue against Rand's beliefs and her writings, or to reiterate that her fiction , both as art and reading experience, is an experience , seemingly,only devotees of miserable experiences would praise. No, this shows us the heart, or lack of heart, at the center of the Randroid mind set, the walking contradiction: an army of free thinking libertarians, self-confessed protectors of liberty want desperately to be the boss.

This proposed law reveals the lie contained in the Cult of Rand: the mistress of misery advocates on the one hand absolute , unconditional individual liberty, and on the other hand, and in practice, she and her followers excoriate, punish and shun those who do not kiss her ring , her feet and rubber stamp her irrational, reductionist, hairbrained philosophy.

In other words, these folks are closeted elitists and totalitarians. They do not believe in freedom, they do not believe in democratic values or practice. Requiring , by law, that any student should have to read ANYTHING extrinsic to his field of study ought to repulse true Randians. But I guess it doesn't. So much for their brand of freedom, free will and free inquiry.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

No more , no more

 Lowen Liu does a savvy take down of later day deconstructionist  David Shields and his new book, How Literature Saved My Life. 
Click the link and relish the reviewer's astute debunking of a writer too lazy to be a genius on his own terms.  The implied evidence here is that David Shields has concerned himself far too much with the last fifty years of literary criticism and not enough with an inquiry as to how literature, for all its obviously failings at achieving fidelity with what is lazily termed The Real World, nonetheless creates meanings, subtle distinctions between character psychology and exterior narrative events, and , frankly, a language that is at times moving and beautiful.

He focuses instead on the generalized failture of the singular book to dissolve contradiction and bad feeling , curse it for exploiting his supposed gullibility, and mounts an argument that the whole thing needs to be taken apart , pieced out like old autos in a scrap yard, existing as no more that a rusted husk of a thing that houses spare parts that are used only when needed. Collage indeed. 

A move away from narrative fiction is not a "gigantic innovation" by any means; more novels are written and published than ever before, and the readers for them are steady.


What Shields does is a symptom of any age with too many databases and too many comedians passing off one liners as stinging editorializing. The elevation of nonfiction to literary status is as well hardly innovative or provocative--the list is too long long and expansive of nonfiction books with profound literary merit to mention even a few. Pastiche, Shields' actual stock in trade, is also an old ploy. What Liu gets right in her review are the disguised symptoms of writerly slackerhood. He engages Shields rather nicely and reveals him to be a bright boy with a lyric bent who hasn't yet given us an idea worth debating.

This makes his books little more than trash can robots, noisy things of no particular elegance that are books by a rewrite of existing definitions. It is the worst of the post-modernist tricks that writers have fallen into, the smart chap in the audience cross talking a string of authors who have actually written books, beginning to end, those who have done the work of writing.

This grazing approach to literature and writing is a stale substitute; Shields might well be able to write a whole book without lifting large chunks from the canon to obscure his lack of depth--he does manage a nice paragraph here and there--but his sensibility is that of an editor, someone with solid tastes in writers and ideas who , in their own efforts to engage the muse, manage only minor key ironies achieved at little or no personal expense. Shields hasn't the strength to go into the deep end of the pool.
For publishers, major or minor, issuing forth writers doing something close to what Shields does , first we have to realize that what the author under review is doing isn't something that hasn't been done for a very long time , which is writing about writing and pondering the efficacy of the written account of getting beyond the phenomenal world and apprehending that reality perceivable only by whatever god of convenience is ruling a reader's psychic worrying. 

The self-reflective aspect , the writing about writing, the lyric hermeneutics is old stuff by this point, starting , I suspect, with Tristam Shanty and coursing thorugh the decades through Robbe Grillett, William Burroughs, Roland Barthes, Tom Robbins , Kurt Vonnegut, Derrida, Ron Silliman, Kathy Acker, many, many others. Shields really is only doubling down, to use a deadening cliche, on what others have already fretted over or had fun with. Jamming all the varied activities of late modernist writing into one volume does not create an innovation, it makes a mess, an untidy mess.