Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Two Fragmentary Fictions (on Gerhard Roth's The Will to Sickness and Eva Sjodin's Inner China)

How did Kalb endure the inconclusive events in his brain? The word-fragments
that were caught incessantly by his ear, his absorption of idiosyncratic time, bits
of incidents, snippets of events? What made him suffer through this uninterrupted
series of fragments? What made him experience these agonizing circumstances as
—Gerhard Roth, The Will to Sickness

Gerhard Roth Die Wille zur Krankheit (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973). Translated by from the German by Tristram Wolff as The Will to Sickness (Providence, Rhode Island:
Burning Deck, 2006).

Eva Sjödin Det inre av Kina (Stockholm: Norstedts Förlag, 2002). Translated from the Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida as Inner China (Brooklyn: Litmus Press, 2005)

Made up of 99 paragraphs and a short section of 34 “notes,” The Will to Sickness tells the story—if you can describe this as a “story”—of a man named Kalb who wanders about an unnamed city encountering various visual and visceral sensations that, in their ability to set off a series of reactions in his brain, are ultimately painful, and lead to his recognition that he is undergoing the “symptoms” of some strange sickness. The astute reader recognizes the “symptoms” quite easily as those of a man of the edge of despair, a man whose connection with others is limited primarily to unsatisfactory meetings with prostitutes, waitresses, barkeeps and others he accidentally encounters on the streets, in restaurants and offices.

The financially and emotionally impoverished Kalb spends most of his time alone in his room or simply wandering, like the hero of Hamsun’s Hunger, following various individuals and, occasionally, even attempting some vague sort of communication with them—all to no avail. Kalb’s most daring interchanges include an occasion in a restaurant where he approaches a man at another table, asking for his glass; when the puzzled man nonetheless reaches for it, Kalb “boxes he ears” and is dragged to the door by the waiter. In another restaurant a middle-aged woman nods to him, and as Kalb sits down at her table she puts hand upon his knee. Later, while drinking cognac on a sofa, the two suddenly undress each other and engage in sex.

By this time in Roth’s surrealist-like tale, however, we recognize that what seems to be happening may in fact be a hallucination, for as the narrator has told us, “Kalb hallucinates reality.” By the end of this short fiction, what we formerly thought might be a mimetic description has slipped into utter fantasy:

Through the telescope of his isolation he examined the image of the street.
Today’s dream came in green and red. The elderly lady hauled a jug of milk
along the sidewalk, overtook and tread upon her own shadow, which ac-
companied her anew immediately thereafter, on the other side of her body.
Two flies buzzed about angrily. He engaged them in psychic congress….

Combined with Roth’s medical-like examination of Kalb’s surroundings and the author’s inclusion in the text of various scientific terms, The Will to Sickness presents, in fact, a dream-like reality that may suggest a complex subtext, but also self-mockingly recognizes itself to be the delusions of a fláneur, an aimless intellectual trifler.

Accordingly, any great significance we seek in these 99 paragraphs, given its completely fragmentary structure, are of our own making. But that is exactly why this fiction is so compelling. For we cannot help ourselves: it is almost impossible not to attempt to connect the pieces with which one is presented and discern a significance in their whole. Of course, that is exactly what we do in every day of our living experiences; we make meaning often where there is none. Is that a sickness? Yes, the symptoms are clear; as with Kalb “the physiognomy of objects [touch] us” just as the safe societally-condoned distances at which we remove ourselves from others equally draws us toward them, for it is only through our connection with the world and one another than we can comprehend who, what and where we are. Man not only desires meaning, he demands it, must have it in order to survive. It is a grand sickness, and living life is to accept that one is willingly infected with the disease.

Swedish author Eva Sjödin’s Inner China may at first appear to be a short narrative poem. The publishers, however, describe it as a “tale,” and I am inclined, despite the work’s obvious poetic aspirations, to agree with them. Like Austrian-born Roth’s The Will to Sickness, Sjödin’s work is a fragmentary fiction. The two works are similar in other ways as well. As in Roth’s work, Inner China is a story of sickness, different kinds of sickness. The central narrator is a young girl whose sister Edith is obviously retarded. The mother, evidently, is a alcoholic (or suffering some other drug or drugs) who spends most of her life in bed, coming only to life when she can bed a passing lover. Forced to be the caretaker of her sister, the young narrator creates a world outside of the home—in the forest, fields, deer and other habitats around their troubled house—a world apart from the emptiness within her supposed domicile. Creating a fantasical world of lost children amid dangers of kidnap and death, the young girl “plays” the game of Tehseng and Laiseng, two imaginary Chinese children subject to various rules and regulations of her creative imagination.

Like Kalb, these two explore a world of visual and physical sensuality as among the rocks and fir trees they eat dirt, dog biscuits, worms and other debris. Although the two are never sexually accosted, they are approached by a man and sense sexual danger everywhere in the rural world they inhabit. Neighboring children mock Edith, and in one instance, as they attend a village festival, an old woman appears to attempt to lure Edith away, but just in time her protector-sister steers her in another direction, warning her never to trust anyone in the town.

Ultimately, welfare workers, recognizing that the often sick child is not being properly cared for, take her from the home. Almost at the same moment, the young girl’s dog grows ill, and she if forced to carry it to the village veterinarian, who recognizing it is beyond saving, mercifully kills it. The girl takes the body home, forcing her unwilling mother out of bed to watch her bury it.

The fiction ends with the young girl caring for her own now child-like mother almost as she has previously had to care for Edith, forcing a bit of porridge into her Mother’s mouth while the older woman whimpers: “I-do-not-want-to-I-do-not-want-to.” She too has become another being who the young girl must take into her the unknown terrain of “inner china.”
I should qualify my statements above, however, by saying that this summary represents my reading. Others will take these same poetically fragmentary paragraphs and weave the tale together in another pattern, willing these evocative germs of meaning into another kind of “sickness unto death.”

Los Angeles, January 21, 2008

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Review published of Sens-Plastique/Messerli review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button on Nth Position

Barry Schwabsky has devoted a full page review in the new Bookforum (February/March 2009, p. 28) to the Green Integer publication of Malcolm de Chazal's Sens-Plastique, translated with an Introduction by Irving Weiss, with a Foreword by W. H. Auden. That review begins:

"Sens-Plastique is a book beyond classification, and the same might be said of its author. Malcolm de Chazal was born in Mauritius in 1902 to an old and prosperous colonial family resident there since the eighteenth century. A surprising number of Rosicrucians and Swedenborgians dot his lineage, and one might detect some echoes of their beliefs in his own eccentric thought. Except for a few years studying engineering in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he spent his life on the island, working first in the sugar industry and then as a civil servant. Chazal's first writings concerned political economy, but then he gave himself over to literature, publishing several volumes of Pensées with a local printer. Somehow his work came to the attention of the gray eminence of French letters Jean Paulhan, who prompted Gallimard to reprint in 1948 Sens-Plastique, a collection of over two thousand short texts of a genre somewhere between the aphorism and the prose poem. The book had been issued in Mauritius the year before; writers like Francis Ponge, André Breton (who compared Chazal to Lautrémont, a compliment that was, for him, the highest imaginable), and George Bataille (for whom Chazal was "the first writer to achieve the equivalence of sexual pleasure and language") were flabbergasted by this visionary from the other side of the world."

Schwabsky ends his inteligent review:

"...Sens-Plastique alone is enough to make Chazal one of the great heretics of literature—a heretic above all because he refuses to accept the distinction between metaphoric and literal language. Likewise, he overrides any absolute distinction among the senses or between the human realm and that of animals, plants, and natural forces like wind and water: spiritual energies all."

You can visit the Bookforum site here: http://www.bookforum.com/
To order the book directly from Green Integer, click here: http://www.greeninteger.com/book.cfm?-Malcolm-de-Chazal-Sens-Plastique-&BookID=216

You can also order books by André Breton.
Earthlight can be ordered here: http://www.greeninteger.com/book.cfm?-Andre-Breton-Earthlight-&BookID=117

A review by Green Integer Blog author Douglas Messerli of film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, nominated today for the Academy Awards Best Picture, has been published recently

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Flying Over the Heart (on a flight from Los Angeles to New York City)

Not since my earliest days of flying has a flight been quite as pleasant. Most of the country was very cold, but the trip occurred over mostly clear skies and, while I usually sit on the aisle, this time a beautiful Black woman—an actress, as it turns out on her way to President Obama's inauguration—claimed the aisle seat, "confining" me, so I first thought, to the window.

For much of the trip, during the flight over the deserts of Nevada and Utah, I read. Despite the rather spectacular scenery of Colorado, I focused instead of Heimito von Doderer's "Divertimenti 4" and "Divertimenti 5." Nebraska in my estimation is a rather boring state from 39,000 feet. I felt much the same, I have to admit, when my family drove through that state when I was a child. But this time I became fascinated with its small towns, whose streets and houses I could just make out, despite our height and the few seconds it took to pass over them. Every now and then the flat perspective I was witnessing would flash into a row of light as the sun suddenly played on the windows of houses and cars below.

Then came the Missouri River as we passed over into my home state of Iowa, with its square-faced division of every country mile and an absolutely splendid vision of the state capital, Des Moines, with a sudden projection upwards of its downtown skyscrapers. I waved to my sister, who works in the city for the State Department of Education.

A few moments later I spotted, a bit higher on the horizon, my hometown of Cedar Rapids-Marion. I threw a kiss to the rest of my folk. Then came the great Mississippi with what I presumed was Dubuque upon its banks.

For a while I returned to reading; von Doderer is a very compelling writer. Just as suddenly I caught a glimpse below of what I knew to be the outskirts of Chicago, and soon after witnessed the vast layout of what used to be called "the Second City." At first I thought we were too far south to be able to see the Center City—but almost immediately after, as if I had donned 3-D glasses, the heart of the city sprang up into dimension directly below, with Lake Michigan following after. I was awed by the beauty of the city.

After Chicago the clouds hovering over the great lake stole my view and I returned to my Austrian master. Von Doderer was lamenting the failure in all of us to enjoy the sensuous pleasures of life. I stealthily glanced out the window at his command to notice a break in the cloud layer and note how cold the water of Lake Michigan appeared dressed in its skeins of occasional ice, just as quickly conjuring up the possibility of crashing into those icy waters. A fearful thought, I said to myself, for no one could possibly survive those frigid waves.

I returned to reading, stimulated with a Bombay Gin (probably the cause for my eating, later that evening, at the Indian restaurant The Earthen Pot on New York City's Columbus Avenue and 72nd Street), witnessing, soon after, the city of Cleveland, which I had previously seen only by bus on a trip back from New York City to Madison, Wisconsin as a young man.

And then, nothing more until we were barreling into Newark, with the sun, appearing through dark snow clouds catching the spectral colors of the rainbow outside my window. How do you explain these sites to a plane load of individuals who have all, save me, closed their small window blinds to watch mediocre Hollywood films, television reruns, computer games, and to sleep?

Our destination reached, I awaited my limousine in the bitter cold for a half an hour, and when I finally hailed the driver, an affable Haitian for whom today was his first day on the job. There had been a huge backup in the entry to the pickup spot and, he excitedly reported, a plane had gone down into the Hudson River! Fortunately, all the passengers, including an infant, had been plucked from the frozen waters to safety. "What a miracle!" he proclaimed, a statement reiterated in the media numerous times the next day.

Having missed the exit to the Lincoln Tunnel, we took the Holland, which to our surprise was free of its usual rush-hour traffic. As any good driver trying to reach the upper West Side might, he opted for the West Side Highway, which also was amazingly quick until we reached 40th Street, whereupon we encountered dozens and dozens of police cars and, soon after, television and radio trucks. The myriad blinking of red, yellow, and blue lights created a strange and almost surreal aura about the place, as, for a few blocks, we were trapped in a traffic jam—which turned out to caused not by the terrifying accident but a collision of a SUV and a large truck. Since the police were all gathered in that spot, however, we were quickly sped around the impediment and for a couple of blocks we raced forward before spying, just to our left, the airplane sinking into the freezing Hudson's waters.

We quickly turned off, moving over the 8th street and up into Central Park West were I was to stay on this visit at the apartment of Sherry Bernstein. Sherry had been worried by my late arrival, had called Charles in alarm. "Had my plane also crashed?" she, like any worried mother, wondered.

I assured her it had not.

New York City, January 15, 2009

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Beverly Hills Housewife (on Betty Freeman)

David Hockney, "Beverly Hills Housewife"

On Saturday, January 3rd, 2009 the world lost one its "great ladies"—as Earl Powell III, the former director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art once described Betty Freeman. She died in her Beverly Hills home at the age of 87 of pancreatic cancer.

Born as Betty Wishnick, the daughter of a wealthy chemical engineer, Betty grew up in Brooklyn and New Rochelle, New York before studying music at Wellesley College. Upon graduating, she married the investor Stanley Freeman, moving with him to Los Angeles, where they had four children.

Like so many wealthy citizens of Beverly Hills, Betty could have easily spent the rest of her life as the "housewife" type as David Hockney had portrayed her, a woman living in relative ease in her well-appointed home. And, in fact, Betty remained in that famed house for the rest of her life.

Yet Betty was anything but the iconic image Hockey had portrayed in his 1966 painting. In 1964, two years earlier, she met the American composer and inventor of unusual instruments, Henry Partch, who was living in his car. Freeman provided him with a studio and covered his living expenses for ten years until his death in 1974. She had already taken a great interest in contemporary music, and in 1961 contributed to the bail out of Fluxus composer La Monte Young, who had been arrested on marijuana charges in Connecticut. He responded by dedicating a work to her.

The same year that she encounted Partch, she became the producer of a new music series at the Pasadena Museum of Art (now the Norton Simon Museum of Art). In 1969, she underwrote Partch's opera Delusion of the Fury at the University of California, Los Angeles. And so began a philanthropic endeavor that included support to most of the great experimental composers of her time, including Elliott Carter, Philip Glass, John Cage, Pierre Boulez, Harrison Birtwistle, Steve Reich, Lou Harrison, Kaija Saaiaho, and John Adams, whose opera Nixon in China was dedicated to her.

While producing a documentary about Partch in 1972, she was asked to help with the photographs, which resulted in a new career of photographing noted musicians, works later shown in galleries and published in several books.

In the early 1980s Betty began celebrating her musician friends through salons in her Beverly Hills home. My companion Howard and I attended several of those events, including one for John Adams, an event celebrating a series of pieces written for singer Joan LaBarbara, a performance of works Gordon Getty, and others. Being able to hear the composer and performers in the intimate space of a large living room was a memorable experience, and Howard and I always felt saddened when we were unable to attend. After these Salotti, Betty's second husband, the Italian artist Franco Assetto, would serve up large bowls of pasta and salad, accompanied by various drinks. Guests would mingle, discussing what they had just heard with one another, the composers, and performers. It was at one such event that I first met director Peter Sellars. The salons ended with Assetto's 1991 death.

Over the years Betty became a dear friend who, at times, would invite us over for small dinners, usually with one or two others. I recall one evening she invited us upstairs to her bedroom to listen to Nixon in China.
While Freeman was a magnanimous individual, with the ability to inspire a true dedication to the new, she was not without her eccentricities. People who attended more traditional concerts with her, found her intolerant of older work. And in the last years of her life, she had seemingly abandoned American composers for contemporary European figures, the fact of which understandably upset many friends.

In October or November of 2006, Betty called me, suggesting a luncheon to discuss some new projects she was considering publishing. The day of the luncheon she called, saying she had just broken her foot! We met, accordingly, at her home a few weeks later on December 28.

The glorious Beverly Hills home had been radically altered. We dined on excellent carry-in food, but the kitchen was overwhelmed by piles of dirty dishes. Obviously, the maid had not been in for several days. The grand hallway was filled with piles of photographs and various applications for musical aid.

She took me upstairs to her study. She had three books which she was interested in publishing. One was a semi-critical study of the art of her friend Sam Francis, the second a collection of interviews by music critic Alan Rich of the figures who had appeared in her Salotti, and the third a book of reproductions of visually entertaining faxes sent to her over the years by director Robert Wilson.

I explained to her that I was not the right publisher to do the Francis book, but that the other two were interesting projects, particularly the interviews with the musicians. She seemed, however, more engaged in placing musicians within the context of her salons (each section was introduced by the salon invitation, often hand-corrected and of little visual interest) than in Rich's interviews with the artists.

A call to Alan Rich revealed that he had been somewhat frustrated by Betty's focus, and that he would rather move ahead with the book without her. I had lunch with him a few weeks later, and we signed an agreement for the work in which we would explain the context of these interviews in an introduction rather than reproduced invitations.

Betty was still interested, however, in publishing the Wilson book—which she wanted to be published in the size of the large 8 x 12 faxes (an idea from which I tried to dissuade her)—and called me in late March of 2008 proposing another meeting which, unfortunately, because of my procrastination and my own illness soon after, never took place.

Our last encounter with Betty was at the opening on May 9, 2007 of "Dan Flavin: A Retrospective" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Betty, in a wheel chair propelled by a young man, was radiating with joy from the artist's fluorescent tubes of blood-red lights. "Isn't this just glorious?" she rhetorically asked. She literally glowed against the banks of Flavin's lights, convincing me, in fact, that everything was glorious. I leaned over to kiss her as she almost giggled with delight.

Betty has one of the most gracious women I have even known, a woman who had a passion for life, and who was a grand and original philanthropist who contributed to music and art not only with money, but with her heart.

Los Angeles, January 13, 2009

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Spiders' Webs (on Bela Tarr's Satantango)

Béla Tarr and László Krasznahorkai (writers), based on a novel by Krasnzhorkai, Béla Tarr (director) Sátántangó / 1994

Many film critics have written about the endurance it takes to see Béla Tarr’s 7 1/2 hour cinematic masterwork, Sátántangó (Satan’s Tango), so I undertook my attendance at the Los Angeles County Museum’s premier of this work—which requires sitting through two hours before a ten minute break, sitting through another 2 ½ hours before a dinner break of one hour, before undergoing the final segment of about three hours in length—with some trepidation. Would my bladder hold out? Might I fall asleep staying up so late beyond my usual early bedtime?

The first long take of the film, in which for over 10 minutes we watch the muddy yards of a farming cooperative as a herd of cows slowly meander from the barn to their outdoor positions, defines the near-maddeningly indolent rhythm of everyday life of the community of failed individuals this film depicts. Yet from this first scene on one quickly becomes astonished as the bleak emptiness of the landscape is transformed, through the slow and intent revelation of Tarr’s camera, into a world of startling beauty. A narrative voice describes the wondrous sound (and sound is particularly crucial to the experience of Sátátangó) of church bells which awaken Futaki, a man having just arisen from the bed of his neighbor’s wife. But where are the bells coming from, the narrator asks, when the nearest church was bombed out in World War II, and all other churches are too far away to be heard in this small village?

The woman’s husband, Schmidt, has planned to abscond with the profits the cooperative have made from the year’s crops, but Futaki, who sneaks out the back door and reenters through the front, is on to him, and demands he immediately receive his share. Soon after they are told by a neighborhood gossip that Irimías and his sidekick Patrina (a mysterious pair reminding one of Laurel and Hardy or, in more literary terms, Flaubert’s Bouvard and Péchuchet) have been spotted nearby—and Schmidt’s plans suddenly change.

Through the next several rain-sodden hours, the movie, broken down into 12 parts (as in the movement of a tango, six steps forward and six steps back), reveals the interrelationships of Futaki, Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt and the other members of this community (the Kráner’s, the Halics, the local Doctor, the nearby innkeeper, the village Principal, Mrs. Horgos and her two children Sanyi and Estike) as they slowly move about the small town—or in the Doctor’s case, as he voyeuristically observes them, writing down their dreams and failures in what appear to be school notebooks.

By dinner time we have become so familiar with these individuals as we witness the events of the day in which they split up their farm profit—most of them preparing to leave their commune for the city—that they have been transformed from mere characters into life-like figures interacting with our own world.

In one segment we watch the Doctor in a perpetual fog of alcohol and smoke while he eavesdrops on his neighbors until finally he is forced to leave his house on a journey for more brandy. On several occasions along his way, we encounter, through him, other characters tangentially connected to the story, including, outside the bar, a young girl who calls out, as he sends her away. The Doctor collapses before he can reach his destination, and is not rescued until the next morning by a passing farmer in a cart.

Later, we follow the same young girl (Estike) through her day as her mother forces her to remain outdoors in the rain while she beds down with one of the farmers. The girl’s brother, Sanyi, has previously tricked her to give up some coins which he buries, promising her it will grow into a money-tree. Powerless, she tortures her cat before poisoning it; upon discovering the coins have been dug up by Sanyi, she wanders aimlessly, clutching the dead cat to her side, ultimately arriving at the inn where she witnesses through the window the strange and almost comic tango of the drunken villagers within, and calls out to the passing Doctor as we have seen her do in the earlier section. Near a local ruin, she swallows the same rat poison she had fed the cat, and stretches out peacefully to die, convinced that in her acts she is now linked to everything else.

In another movement forward, we wait within the inn as the villagers gradually gather to reap their profits, and watch the tango from another vantage point, recognizing it, this time round, as a true devil’s dance, the haunting song played again and again upon the accordion as the locals weave—in a Brueghel-like dance of death—and wind around each before they collapse. The camera catches Estike this time at the window, looking in.

Through Tarr’s intricate interweaving of time and space, we gradually learn to both love and loath each of these characters for their unfathomable fears and hopes, their sexual and spiritual greed and pettiness. Mrs. Schmidt’s easy virtue, Halics’ closeted sexuality, the Principal’s inflated sense of superiority, the Innkeepers’ passive hatred, Schmidt’s coarse stupidity, Futaki’s clever schemes—all reveal these men and women as being so locked into the patterns of each other’s lives that we know they will never escape. All they can do is wait for the inevitable, the return of Irimiás. As if bound to one another with spiders’ webs these people have no other choice.

Indeed, when Irimiás arrives he uses the discovery of the dead girl to his advantage, stunningly preaching a sermon over her dead body, convincing these poor peasant folk to turn over their new-found wealth to him for safe-keeping. He will meet them the next day at a nearby ruined manor, where, after he has arranged everything with the government, they will begin a new morally-grounded life. Like outcasts from their own land (ironically, these folk vengefully destroy everything they cannot take with them so as to make them unusable to the gypsies—people even more outcast than themselves) they trek the pot-holed roads on their way to new possibilities. The Manor, they discover, is in complete ruins, gutted, and they are forced to huddle together in open rooms through the cold night.

The next day, as Irimiás does not arrive, it begins to dawn on them that they have been tricked (we already know the mysterious charmer is planning to use their money for some vaguely revolutionary purpose—in the city he has ordered up vast quantities of explosives); yet surprisingly he does return, lamely reporting that the government has decided against their use of the Manor House, and incredibly convincing them again to move on, this time scattering to separate locations where they will bide their time until they can move back to the Manor House.

One by one, the charming conniver calls out each couple’s new destinations, providing them with enough money only until they are established in their new positions. All blindly accept his definition of their new lives except for Futaki, who insists we will work as a watchmaker, as a man, perhaps, unlike the others, who will “fix” time.

The time Tarr (and the novelist on whose work this film based, the wonderful Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai [see My Year 2007] portrays is indeed in need of fixing. In the next step backward we discover two government bureaucrats rewriting a devastating report of these very people—a rhetorical attack on every figure with whom we have now become so acquainted—by Irimías! He may have radical aspirations, but he works, clearly, as an informer. Only Futaki is described as having any intelligence, but dangerous for that very fact.

To be fair, we have witnessed an earlier scene wherein Irimías and Petrina—having been called into headquarters—are chastised by a government official for slacking. Clearly he has been ordered to provide infor-mation on the commune workers, so we are uncertain whether the reports have been readily offered up or whether Irimías has been forced or bribed to report on his former “friends.” Given the virulence of his report, however, it hardly matters; the informer has exceeded even the Doctor’s brutal observations of his neighbors. And by substantiating their unworthiness he further prevents them from taking action for his robbery of their money.
In the last section of this film, the Doctor, after weeks in a hospital, returns home, filled cask in hand. The rain hides from him the very fact that his subjects have all disappeared, as he dismisses them for remaining inside all day, probably, he projects, sleeping in.
Suddenly, the church bells we have heard in the first scene eerily begin to ring again, as the narrator’s voice—which we now recognize as being the Doctor’s—repeats the first sentences of the film. Where are these bells coming from? A visit by the Doctor to the local bombed out church only reveals a madman banging upon a metal bar, shouting “The Turks are coming! The Turks are coming!” But the bells we and the Doctor hear, the bells Futaki heard, are oddly melodious, haunting in the tune they seem to play. The Doctor imagines that he may be losing his mind, and slowly and patiently closes himself within his room, boarding up his windows, retreating at the very moment when news from some unknown source is traveling through the air.
What is coming their way? A change? Are the “turks,” a young, new force truly on their way? Will the weak, the foolish, the poor, be able to rise up against the fumblingly arrogant men like Irimiás, or is the future Irimiás himself, a world in which such charlatans will continue to cheat the everyday men and women from their just rewards?
All but my eyes remained dry. I was wide awake.

Los Angeles, March 25, 2008

Two People I Thought I Loved

It may be difficult to explain to many people today that being gay in the mid 1960s often resulted in a series of surprising discoveries about oneself. Today, perhaps, with all the public discourse, the many movies about gay life, and even a kind of glamorization of gay living, young people are more perceptive about who they really are. In 1966, however, as a freshman in college, I could not truly identify what was missing in my sexual life—except sex. I was a good boy, and attributed my lack of sexual interest in and sexual arousal for the opposite sex to my good intentions.

I began college early, eager to leave my family behind, attending the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the summer session, when I enrolled in a freshman English course. The teacher was a stern and elderly woman, a bit gruff. She began the semester by reporting that in all her years of teaching—which my classmates and I might have suspected consisted of several decades—she had awarded her students only two grades of A. “B’s are excellent, C’s are what most of you might expect,” she proclaimed.

It may have been that that announcement was her way of inspiring slackers, for, although my educational efforts had thus far primarily resulted in B’s, I was determined to be an exception to her perverse rule.

In that same classroom sat a young woman, Nancy (whose last name, amazingly, I no longer recall). She was not exactly beautiful, but had long and angular features, with a slightly crooked smile that made her face lovely in a plain way that might remind one of Meryl Streep in her earliest film, The Deer Hunter, or of her appearance as the Polish holocaust survivor in Sophie’s Choice. Like many citizens of Milwaukee, Nancy was of German ancestry.

No sooner had she introduced herself to me than we began studying together, then dating. Soon I visited her home, run by her clearly overpowering mother and grandmother, whom Nancy, it was apparent, was desperate to escape. Always polite and solicitous, however, I got on splendidly with these ogres. They loved me perhaps more than their grandchild and daughter.

Quickly I found myself in intensely passionate kissing sessions to which this young girl attached severe restrictions. I could touch her breast under her blouse and even occasionally explore the sanctum inside her bra, but I was not permitted to grasp her crotch—although she was not restrained, evidently, from touching my slightly flaccid cock. I did not comprehend that these rules were possibly meant to be broken, that a “real” heterosexual male might one day impatiently cross over the line, in essence raping the reluctant virgin she advertised herself to be. I was a miserably good boy: when a woman said “no,” I thought she meant it!

I presumed that I was in love. Weren’t my behavior patterns, after all, what heterosexual love was about? Before long, she met my parents, who were delighted in my choice—delighted, I might imagine, of my having even made a choice. Nancy and I never had sex, but even more importantly, we seldom talked. I’d been swept up into something that secretly horrified me, and made me suspect that I was living a lie.

On several occasions she would pull away from me, protesting that she wasn’t worthy of my love. “Worthy?” I queried, “what does that mean? I’m the one… Well,” I admitted, “you don’t really know me very well!” At those times she seemed as innocent as I.

The end came, strangely enough, on an outing with my pleased parents. Plans of marriage were clearly in the air—although we’d never discussed the issue between us. We stopped by a furniture store where my mother and Nancy were suddenly, I discovered, hatching plans of how our living room would look. I was appalled—not as much by the subject matter as by their choices of kitsch, mass-produced couches, side-tables, lamps, and reclining chairs.

“I would never allow anything like that in my house,” I asserted, somewhat in shock.
“Your house?” shouted the normally sweet-tempered Nancy. “Your house?”
“Doug,” my mother interjected, “these things are a woman’s choice.”
The semester was coming to a close, and despite our English teacher’s warning, I received an A. All good boys do fine.

A few days later, I was invited by someone to a poetry reading in a local bar. The Beats were still all the rage, and I can imagine, in retrospect, that it was a dreadful event. I recall someone reading a poem about his tie, a tie which pointed, so he declared, “to you know where!”

Across the room I spied one of the most beautiful males I’d ever seen—outside of my high school heartthrob, Doug Reed [see My Year 2005]. His name was Brian O— (how easily I recall his last name). Brian and I met, and he suggested I visit him for dinner at his house. I stayed the night, him upon the bed, me upon a palette on the floor next to it. I was desperate to jump into bed with him, and even imagined that he whispered something to that effect.

“What? Did you say something?” I pleaded.

“You heard me.”

But I was uncertain whether I really had heard what I knew he’d spoken. Good boys do not rape other boys either—unless they’re invited to. And Brian, I later perceived, was a passive bisexual.

Nothing happened again. He did, however, radically change my life. Brian announced that he was transferring to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and suggested that I should visit him there in the campus YMCA.

I must have been striken with love, for I decided to take him up on the offer, clearly hoping that this time something might happen between us. If only, like Nancy, he had embraced me—even once—I knew I would spring to life!

Inaction repeated itself. But I loved the sprawling Madison campus nestled against a lake. Despite the fact that I had now met some upper classmen, and had even been asked by poet Bruce Renner to take over the editorship of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee creative writing magazine, I decided to transfer.

In Madison, after ROTC provided me with the transcendent vision that I was an atheist, socialist, gay man [see My Year 2005], I invited Brian into my bed in my little room across from the football stadium and, in the middle of night, jacked him off. It couldn’t really be called sex, but it was a start!

As for Nancy, I later heard that she got married soon after I left Milwaukee to a worker from a local packing plant. Obviously he had known what to do—and wanted to.

New York, May 3, 2002

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Danish "it" Girl (on the death of Inger Christensen and her book "it"

More sad news, this time from Denmark: on Friday, January 2, 2009, the great poet Inger Christensen died in Copenhagen at the age of 73. Below I have reprinted a review I wrote in 2007 on her great work of poetry, det (it), published in 2006 by New Directions. For a complete biography and bibliography of Christensen's work, please click here: http://pippoetry.blogspot.com/2008/11/inger-christensen.html

Inger Christensen det (Copenhagen: Gyldendahl, 1969), translated into English from the Danish by Susanna Nied as it (New York: New Directions, 2006)

It seems rather ludicrous to dredge up the name of the silent film star Clara Bow—known as the original “It Girl”—in connection with the great Danish poet Inger Christensen, but in 1969, at the time of the publication of her important collection of poetry, det (the Danish word for “it”) Christensen might have herself been so described. And while we all know that literature has a less immediate impact upon popular culture than film—certainly Christensen did not have the sex appeal of Bow and, unlike the actress, did not triple the national sales of henna (Bow’s hair was an unnatural red), nor start a craze for heart shaped red lips—but the author did alter the whole scene of Scandinavian literature and bring major changes to the writing of her own nation that is felt among younger poets even today.

Furthermore, coming as it did at the end of a decade known for its social, political, and sexual changes, Christensen’s work was very much about love—and a great many other things; Anne Carson, writing in her introduction to the new English language translation of it, suggests one must understand this work within the context of figures such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono, James Brown, Allen Ginsberg, and Valerie Solanas (of the “scum manifesto” and the attack on Andy Warhol). Translator Susanna Nied writes of its immediate and later effects:

On its publication in 1969, det took Denmark by storm. It won critical praise
and became at the same time a huge popular favorite. It was quoted by polit-
ical protesters and politicians alike; lines from it appeared as graffiti around
Copenhagen; some parts were set to rock music and became esoteric hits.
When portions were translated into German, det brought Christensen inter-
national critical acclaim. Today, over thirty years later, det is considered a sem-
inal work of modern Scandinavian poetry. Some of its lines are so familiar to
Danes that they have slipped into conversational use. For example, the journal
of Denmark’s city planners took its title, Soft City, from a line in det.

Of equal fascination is that this popular and moving document depicts the beginning of life grown out of nothingness, is a kind of cosmology of life on earth that is structured, as are many of Christensen’s works [see My Year 2004], according to systematic numeric units that could only be matched by the Oulipo writers of France. The work overall is divided into three sections: Prologos, Logos, and Epilogos. The Prologos is broken down into eight sections, the first consisting of one poem with 66 lines, the second of two poems of 33 lines each, the third of three poems with 22 lines each, the fourth of six poems of 11 lines each, the fifth of 11 poems of 6 lines each, the sixth of 22 poems of three lines each, the seventh of 33 poems of two lines each, and the final of 66 poems of one line; each line in the original Danish publication represents 66 characters. In short, as the number of poems in each section increases so does the number of lines decrease, creating a kind of double helix pattern, the very essence of DNA or life itself.
The central portion of the work, “Logos,” is organized into three sections, each with eight subsections of eight poems, the eight poems in each section titled “symmetries,” “transitivities,” “continuities,” “variablilites,” “extensions,” “integrities,” and “universalities”—grammatical categories philosopher Viggo Brøndal (in his A Theory of Prepositions) explores, among others, that express the various “network of relationships that writing builds up as it goes along,” “terms that could stay in a state of flux and at the same time give order to the indistinctness that a state of flux necessarily produces” (statements in quotations represent the words of the poet).
The final “Epilogos” is a long scree of 515 lines, a language after language, that alternates between a sense of despair—

losing your strength
your mind
your dreams
and of ecstasy
and emptiness
of vestiges
of dissolution
and transformation
Fear of death
Fear of death

and what might be described as the ecstasy of conquering those fears—

to conquer the fear
of informing others of
your conquered fear
it’s theirs
Eccentric attempts
when a man
steps out of himself
steps out of
his daily life
his function
his situation
steps out of
his habits
his peaceful
we call the process
when he says
that he is dancing
with the Earth
hanging limp
between his legs
and when he summons
the sea
to rise up
and spurt from his organ

It is indeed this alternating pattern, the wonderment of life itself—the fact that our being has come out of nothingness—and the recognition “it” will return to nothingness that functions as Christensen’s engine for meaning in the poem. The bleak reality she expresses at the very beginning of “Prologos”—

It’s burning. It’s the sun burning. For as long as it takes to burn a sun. As
long before and as long after times measurable in terms of life or death. The
sun burns itself up. Will burn up. Some day. Someday. Intervals to whose
lengths there is no sensitivity. Not even a tenderness. When the sun goes out,
life (death) will long have been the same as it ever was. It. When the sun goes
out, the sun will be free of it all. It. That’s it.—

is juxtaposed with a stunningly lyrical and joyful cataloging of the human race and their various activities as they wait for the inevitable death. And although Christensen’s humans are presented abstractly as “they” and “someone,” we begin to sense by the end of “Prologos” their possible interconnectedness with one another.

They wait in incubators, beds, baby carriages, nurseries, orphanages, preschools.
In schools, jails, homes, reception centers. Institutions for wayward youths,
disturbed adolescents, and higher education

They wait in gymnasiums, riding schools, public pools. Wait in cars and ambu-
lances, emergency rooms. Wait and wait in operating rooms and on respirators,
in deeper chemical sleep oblivion hushed.

They wait in barracks for draftees and conscientious objectors, contagious illness
and poverty. In control towers, on permanent commissions, in supersonic
transports. On security councils. Launch pads.


They wait in places where they live while they wait. Wait to live while they wait.
Live to live. While they wait. Live to live. While they live. While they wait. Wait.

Despite her obvious fears Christensen bravely moves forward with the flow of these beings, transforming the general fears she has for the human race to very personal admissions, a sudden first-person expression of her own fears and loves. By the time she has reaches the fourth section of “Stage” in “Logos,” the abstract pronouns have switched from the general to the specific as she admits her own methods and the fears behind them:

I’ve tried to keep the world at a distance. It’s been easy.
I’m used to keeping the world at a distance. I’m alien.
I’m most comfortable being alien. That way I forget the
world. That way I stop crying and raging. That way the world
becomes white and inconsequential.

And I wander where I will. And I stand completely still.
That way I get used to being dead.

It is this utter honesty, her willingness to face the “dog’s bray,” that ultimately makes it such a glorious work. Her need to reach out to her fellow beings, to convert her fear to happiness (“Happiness is the change that comes over me / when I’m afraid”) leads her into the social, political, and sexual spheres of experience. Throughout Christensen’s career she has been notably anti-war, and in det she vents her angers and frustrations concerning the “stone-hard” society that sends soldiers to “improbable places,” to “further the interests of wealthy cartels,” in process mutating human genes—the helix structure with which she has begun her poem—by converting “their semen” to “superheated TNT.”

Obviously, given these concerns, Christensen is quite politically sensitive, and although she does not bog down her poem in events current to the time of its creation, she does make references to the Viet Nam war (“napalm is merely America’s trademark”), to incidents in Chile, Italy (which she refers to as Mafia), Romania and elsewhere, and to other occurrences of the 1960s (“They dance in the streets. They have flowers in their mouths.” “Naked as John and Yoko Ono”). In a section of “Text” and elsewhere, moreover, Christensen describes various normal and abnormal sexual actions (“They masturbate their skeletons.” “The orgasm makes normal cities quiver”).
Such hyper-sensitivity to life, combined with her self-acknowledged fears and her sense of being “alien” all lead the author to speak throughout much of the poem—particularly in the
“continuities” section of “Text”—about the psychological conditions of people institutionalized—patients in mental hospitals, workers in factories, as well as soldiers in barracks. The repeated phrase “So I don’t think he understood me” serves almost as a talisman to make sense of a mad world that often points to its prophets as being insane. And it is here in particular that Christensen reveals a wry sense of humor:

Today all the patients agreed to say it was snowing. We all took our places by
the windows and pressed our faces to the glass and exclaimed joyously over
the snow and described it and dreamed about how wonderful it would be to
play in it. Meanwhile the sun was shining away and the doctors got confused
by our total agreement and couldn’t figure out if they should act like they
were crazy and say it was snowing or act like they were crazy and say it wasn’t
snowing. …But it really doesn’t matter. Because the press showed up and took
pictures of the employees running around and throwing snowballs and sledding
and making snowmen and rolling each other in the snow. In the newspapers
it said that all the employees had gone crazy. …

It is this kind of craziness, Christensen makes clear, that is necessary to save the world. For these are the lovers, “any and all / generously spreading their virus around / persisting in their fear / even when those in power kiss them….so it catches / fire throughout the world / so it heals all / who catch it / any and all / all who / are enthroned on the pillar of despair why not.” It is only through a parallel, non-rational language, the poet argues, that one can tell how to “waken the dead,”

to let this
parallel language
to let
the cells
in it
find their way
to the parallel mouth
lips that speak
as they never
have spoken
as they always
have spoken

Given the fact that the original “It Girl” spent most of her later life in mental institutions suffering from schizophrenia, perhaps the distance between this Danish “it” girl and the sexy silent film star is not as vast as one might have thought.

Naples, July 8, 2007
Reprinted from Rain Taxi, Winter 2007/2008, on-line

Soon after finishing the essay above, I sent a copy to the superb translator of the work, Susanna Nied, who expressed appreciation for the piece, but also joked that Inger would be upset that she was not found to be as sexy as Clara Bow. To my way of thinking, I retorted, Inger Christensen was far sexier than the film star—but then I’m gay!

Susanna was particularly happy that I had seen some of the humor in the work; evidently few others had and she feared that perhaps the tone of her translation had gotten in the way. I assured her that the humor came through just fine, but we live in a time where humor is in danger of being forgotten.

I should add that Inger Christensen was our choice for the America Award of 2001.

Los Angeles, August 16, 2007