A HYBRID NOTEBOOK OF POETICS AND PORNOGRAPHIES

Pornography Disclaimer

This is a an imaginary diary of facts, confessions, or messages. This is a notebook of working but broken ideas, lines, images, notes on books I'm reading, writers I admire, and brief fantasies of language. Here unfiltered  all mannerings pseudo-private, publicized, ur-. Here I am art and unrevealed: poetic, political and pop. These are my moonlit rough beginnings and should not be taken literally, directly, truthfully, reliably, and none of it is legally binding. These lies are all choreographed, but only haphazardly. Beware.

5.7.13

ELEPHANT DERVISH

Peter Høeg's latest novel translated into English, The Elephant Keepers' Children takes its departure from other literary mystery/crime novels (in my little stack it belongs with say, Natsuo Kirino's Grotesque, Manuel Puig's The Buenos Aires Affair, and more recently Roberto Bolaño's Woes of the True Policeman) is that it's actually a picaresque meditation on faith, the sources of religious belief, the human impulse before the doctrines of the world, all of which teach inward detachment, prayer, the dark night of the soul, in order to meditate and commune with divinity, whatever that may be. That paradoxical song in which chanting to lose the self will fulfill it.

Narrated by Peter Finø, the youngest of a family of highly precocious and memorable characters, a gangly assortment of misfits--three children and a dog--of a pastor and wife duo who fraudulently find ways to enact miracles, gaining them fame and fortune across their Danish island, and eventually a police record, the novel is the account of a young teen's struggle to listen to and understand the mysterious metaphor of the inner lives of the book's adults. "They're elephant keepers without knowing it," the only daughter, Tilte, says of her parents when the children realize they are con-artists, even if their fraudulent schemes were done with the best intentions: "to sweeten our childhoods and our futures with gold and platinum bars." On the one hand this is the story of a family told from the young teenager's point of view, the reliance the children must have on one another since their parents are neglectful and criminal.  "Tilte and Basker and Hans and I realize that if ever you should hold ambitions of being indulgent toward others, then you must also be able to forgive their elephants," admits narrator about halfway through the novel.

On the other hand, this is a mystery novel, in which the children must track down their missing parents, escaping not only the police, the Bishop, and child services, but also investigating the crime scene: their parents' hidden rooms, forgotten clues like a wood shaving, a cigar wrapper, ending up as stowaways on a yacht by impersonating religious mystics, and as a high class john secure the help of an entrepreneurial prostitute. The parents it turns out have planned to steal the priceless jeweled religious artifacts from an upcoming religious conference, and the children are in pursuit. The myriad of plot twists does the work of a mystery novel, and we find ultimately that that plot thickens, as the parents, in their meticulous planning, the children learn, have stumbled onto a terrorist plot.

The prose itself reads like a comedy, and the precocious quality of the children is at once as unbelievable as it is unforgettable. Høeg's genius is in making what might otherwise be a YA novel into a relevant and moving bildungsroman, and at 498 pages, I wasn't so sure I'd be that interested, as least not as I was for Høeg's last brilliant novel, The Quiet Girl. And yet, I read through the whole thing in two days. Skipped the pool parties and bbq's and fireworks and all the nationalistic madness for this thriller. A thriller that is nothing less than a meditation on human spirituality contemplated by a fourteen year old high school football star:

"I try to refrain from seeking solace in the thought of some miraculous reprieve. I refrain from seeking comfort in the thought that most likely a light will simply go out, or that Jesus will be waiting for me, or Buddha, or whomever else you might imagine stepping forth with a broad smile and an aspirin to say it won't be anywhere near as bad as you think. I refrain from imagining anything at all. The only think I can do is to feel the weight of the farewell none of us can ever avoid. At the very moment I sense that everything will be lost, and hence nothing is worth holding onto, something happens. . . . What happens is that a little gleam of happiness and freedom appears. Nothing else."

Steal it if you can!

. . . . . . .


3.7.13

KNELLS IN THE HALLS

I'm a newcomer to the poetry of Laura Kasischke, and finally picked up a copy of Space, in Chains, her eighth collection (not to mention 6 novels, and two YA novels). What's interesting is the rapid variability of her line, which breaks completely free of neo-formalist constraints yet still seems to retain its music. She's her own thing, completely, and I like that. Sometimes the lines are short, metaphorical meditations, and at other points she's in the middle of a prose passage, all in the same poem. This affords her a great deal of lyrical mobility, and everything seems to be available to her. I caught myself more than once thinking of Dickinson, her daily preoccupations, her private thoughts about the incidents of life, a moment of looking into the garden and what does she have? What else, but a little magnificent song. Knells in the halls, and at the end of one, a fallen vase, a tulip like a limbless doll. A still life, with broken glass and bees.

The first two sections of this three section book I found myself trying hard to navigate new territory. I stumbled, and swam, and swam when I should have hiked, and hiked where I should have swum. I had the distinct feeling I was camping back in the Colorado watershed, and the first few climbs were difficult, but by the third morning I understood how to pace myself, and climb, and stop, and breathe, and I found a lake high in the mountains, and my brother and I lay down on the flat rocks in it and let the door open up inside of us, where the red beating filled each of us in our own separate grave-site, with our eyes closed and the sunlight furiously far off.

By the third section of Kasischke's book I was trying to tear out every page, to hide it, crush it in a pocket and find it to read again, and find that same amazement. Dickinson, and also, strangely, Frederick Seidel. I can't explain it, these mighty twins.

These kinds of sentiments are why I'm writing this blog, and not an essay.

Here's a poem from the book, that I want more of:

The Pleasure Center

It was tucked for us into the hypothalamus. Thank you, our lopped-off heads
rolling all around the earth. Thank you, radio, movies, booze.

And thank you, too, racquetball court, video game, throbbing bass in the car
at the stoplight as it pulls up next to ours.

Little fragment of a magnet.
Shrapnel in the attic.
Child on a bike.
Old woman on her knees beneath a suffering Jesus.
ADULT SUPERSTORE NEXT EXIT!

All of it crammed into a thing the size of a tadpole's eye.
That terrifying tininess. Thrilling, flickering, wet. Space and Time writhing
around in a bit of slippery shining. God decided to stick that in our minds.

And even the miniature golf course on fire.
The fatal dune buggy ride.
The smell of some teenage girl's menthol cigarette.
The whole amusement park, and the cotton candy--that
pink and painful sweetness beside you on the seat of some rollercoaster's silhouette
in the pinwheeling sun as it sets.

We were perfect test subjects for this.
As God is my witness:
I woke one morning when I was seven to find

the most unhappy man I've ever known
laughing in his pajamas. "What

are you laughing about?" I asked him,

and he said, "I don't know."

. . . . . . .

Friends and Strangers, steal it if you can!

. . . . . . .

2.7.13

A SHORT STACK: THE GREATEST OF SARCASMS

Here's a list of novels I think belong together:

And they're all related somehow to Kafka's The Trial, or better yet, The Castle:

And from there, to Jean Cocteau's Les Enfants Terrible, or The White Book:

The Color of Summer, by Reinaldo Arenas
The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares
Pubis Angelical, by Manuel Puig
Our Lady of Flowers, by Jean Genet
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the Edge of the World, by Haruki Murakami

I'm always wondering where are the women on this short list? I'd include of course something by the great Kathy Acker, My Mother: Demonology, or Pussy King of the Pirates.

Perhaps something by Jeannette Winterson, HD's novels, or Cixous'. . .

In any case, my little stack is for the beautiful nightmare, phantasmagoria and peregrination. The tragicomic novel in which characters parade grotesquely in the face of absurdity.

My most recent addition to the list is Edith Grossman's latest translation (Yale U Press):

The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico García Lorca Ascends to Hell, by Carlos Rojas. In it, the famous poet, assassinated by Franco, shot in the back with two bullfighters and a school teacher and buried in an unmarked grave, details his confinement in Hell, a rising spiral of theater rooms, each dead man to his own, alone, to view onstage the scenes of his own life:

"Eternity was the greatest of sarcasms, an illogicality more absurd than perishable life. In this untransferable theater before his trial, he was nothing but a spectator of his past in an endless succession of shades condemned to the same wakefulness."

Death is an eternal wakefulness, and Lorca meets the living version of himself, an old man who refuses the Nobel Prize, and teaches on faculty in Ohio, if only he had fled Granada and not returned. His last day alive plays on the theater, and we witness his telling interpretation of events. "I wanted to write a dream" Rojas writes, and he has. This short, 200 page novel is a dream like a sonata is a dream. In my dream the other night, it was sunlight, and his hand was combing my hair, and he called it The Treehouse Sonata, his favorite. I was mesmerized, and woke up as if it were a memory and not a dream. I hope it's waiting for me in some theater where I can go back again. I hope the feeling of being asleep feels like the marigold.

Lorca was murdered when he was 38. Mendelssohn died at 38. The same age I am now. The number is a strange condemnation, and a consolation, a capacity: "The real injustice is the destiny of men like me, born to be someone and doomed to be no one." Oh Rojas, oh Lorca, oh Alchemy.

Steal it if you can!

. . . . . . .



1.7.13

CRUEL SUMMER

I was excited to find a copy of Luis Negrón's first collection, Mundo Cruel, translated into English by Suzanne Jill Levine, the fantastic biographer and translator of Manuel Puig's, especially considering the short blurb on the back by Antonio Jiménez Morato: "Negrón is perhaps the most intimate and unsuspected heir to Manuel Puig," an assessment I find partially offensive and distracting. This smart collection of short fiction put out by Seven Stories Press looks and feels like a poetry collection--it's a mere 91 pages of fairly large and easily read font, 24 lines to a page, a good 10 to 15 lines shorter than most contemporary books of poetry. Still, it's size is part of its appeal. I love it actually. You can carry it around with you. You can hide it under your pillow for a night.

Jiménez Morato's assessment is bothersome because once you begin to read Negrón's collection, perhaps the only solid similarity between he and Puig is the fact that they're both gay. I'd have to think more about this, but my initial reaction was irritation. The only story in Negrón's that even approaches a stylistic inheritance is an epistolary one, "For Guayama," in which the writer is leaving letters and messages for a friend who owes him money, money he needs to pay to have his dog's fur coat treated so that it can be embalmed and stuffed. Otherwise, the stories are built on the clear voices of its characters who tell them. He might have some debt to Puig there, but I thought more of Reinaldo Arenas' great tragicomedy, The Color of Summer, a scathing depiction of gay life under Castro in which all our homosexual versions are caricatures running around in the flamboyant madness of a persecution from which the only escape is death, or America. It's dark humor is funny and terrifically sad at the same time, everyone, including Arenas, is laughing at the monstrous condition of the world in which identity itself is heroic, and the punishment for difference is extreme suffering. What can we do, but put on our wigs and pull down our pants and give in to the pageantry of our inner lives and laugh loudly in the face of it?

So too, the characters in Negrón's stories are themselves. The whole book is set in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Negrón's hometown, and he does a stunning job of opening the doors to private conversation, private lives, and he transforms the town into a complicated maze of brutality faced with exuberant promiscuity. This is a portrait of the gay life of Santurce, and I'm so grateful for it, mostly because it feels like a portrait of my own gay life here in the states. This is the genius of Negrón's work--he's given voice to the gay kid beaten up at home and at school, voice to his fearful homophobic religious zealot relatives, voice to the gossipy wit-lipped queen, voice to the insecure and overly-quaffed and unloved, voice to the man who's lover dies, voice to the macho father who loves his gay son no matter what. These are touching vignettes, striking for their stark humor and the vulnerability of characters who you both like and dislike at the same time. Take the old gossip of "La Edwin," who can't wait to call every friend he has and tell the story of La Edwin, the closet case, who tries to seduce a straight man and fails:

"He said the part that bothered him most was all that wasted energy. . . You know he talks that way. Waste? Waste? Girl, you don't know what waste is. But, I'm going to tell you. 1985. Seven. Not one, not two. Seven of my best friends including my lover--and no more and no less than 8 months of being in a relationship--all died! Pum, pum, pum! One after the other. That, honey, is what I call a waste. So, girl, stop with all these experiments and nonsense and accept what you are. Queer. Q-U-E-E-R. Your'e a queer. 100%."

As a collection, Negrón's builds quickly and hits its peak with the penultimate story, "The Garden," the story of a man who lives with his lover dying of AIDS and his sister. You'd think with such a morbid topic these stories would be bereft and sentimental, but no, they're filled with sharp portrayals of real people who have to face the real miseries of life with laughter, in love with their own perfections, and he makes a celebratory condition of the monstrosity of our "unacceptable" lifestyles. Negrón isn't afraid of complication, and his portraits illustrate without judgment, giving us depictions often opposing viewpoints without allowing any of them to have complete power over another. In the title story he revels in the juxtaposition of two friends, one vain and insecure, the other melting into this first lover in a public parade kiss.

Mundo Cruel is an excellent read. I'd love to give you a copy. My hopes are that Negrón will continue to write, and to sustain the voices of his stories. If I had a criticism, it might be that the book is prematurely published, it goes down fast if memorably. I can imagine it 400 pages long, a novel comparable to something Puig or Arenas would have written, so that the portrait of Santurce takes on the dimension of the pageant our private lives deserve.

Steal it if you can.
. . . . . . .
My photo
I've got one foot in the grave and the other's in my mouth.

Poetry Disclaimer

My work has been awarded the Katherine C. Turner Prize from the Academy of American Poets, a Swarthout Award, and has twice been nominated and shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. My first book, A Book Called Rats, was selected for the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry (Eastern Washington University Press 2007). I'm curating editor for the online journal of poetry: PISTOLA and my poems and reviews most recently appear in Massachusetts Review, Beloit, Ploughshares and RAIN TAXI. I currently teach writing and literature at Santa Monica College in southern California.