Saturday, February 28, 2009

Going Gentle

[This piece appeared in January 2009 on the blog site of The Kenyon Review. I want to repeat it here partly in the interest of completeness and partly to help contextualize some upcoming material.]

. . .voices

talking, in Eternity:
names being mentioned,
things cleared up finally;
what he said, what she said,
who got pensioned;

deaths, deaths and sicknesses;
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened.
She died in childbirth.
That was the son lost
when the schooner foundered.

He took to drink. Yes.
She went to the bad.
When Amos began to pray
even in the store and
finally the family had
to put him away.

“Yes . . .” that peculiar
affirmative. “Yes . . .”
A sharp, indrawn breath,
half groan, half acceptance,
that means “Life’s like that.

We know it (also death).”

–Elizabeth Bishop

My father died on December 17, 1994. When his lung cancer had been diagnosed a few years before that, I was not surprised. I have never seen a more intransigent case of nicotine addiction than his. He smoked unfiltered Lucky Strikes and Camels for decades; in later years he switched to filtered brands, but was never able to give up tobacco, though he tried many times. He was a poster boy for lung cancer. Still, the small-town doctor he insisted on using missed it, for how long we still don’t know. Emphysema was diagnosed; cancer, no.

Surgery for the initial cancer went well; the upper right lobe of his lung, with a “self contained” tumor in it, was removed; he recovered. For a couple of years, he did well. The removal of part of a lung caused him some difficulty; decreased lung capacity coupled with emphysema made it hard for him to breathe at times. Still, on the whole, he was in reasonable shape, and his prognosis after radiation treatment was guardedly good. But his health began to decline, and in the fall of 1994 a new diagnosis came in: brain tumor.

An intelligent man without much education, reared on a farm with a farmer’s intimacy with the up-close-and-personal knowledge of the fate of the body that farmers have, and a non-combatant but nonetheless real participant in World War II (serving in England during the Blitz), my father was a fatalist. He never talked about faith or things of the spirit, whatever one may mean by those things. The closest he ever came, in my presence, was to say once, after the lingering death of one of his uncles, “When my time comes to die, I want to go off by myself in the woods alone like an animal; animals understand how to die.”

He was hospitalized in late November of 1994. I was living and teaching in Eugene, Oregon at the time, and was prepared to go home for the holidays to be with my parents in any case; I stayed in touch with my mother to monitor his progress (toward what at first we were not sure). His tumor was diagnosed at first as inoperable and then as operable, but on the eve of surgery his case was studied by an anesthesiologist, who said, “This man cannot be put under general anesthesia; his lungs are too weak: it would kill him.” In the end they opted for a less intrusive procedure to attempt to shrink the tumor: draining it with a syringe, which could be done with a local anesthetic.But that procedure failed; the tumor, to the doctors’ surprise, contained no fluid, and so there was no benefit from what must have been, to my father, a terrifying and demeaning process.

My office phone rang one afternoon while I was revising an essay I had long been struggling to write–”Ex Machina: Reading the Mind of the South,” which is about race and class in the Mississippi where I was born; my father figured in it, as he had to do, as the racist he was, and I was there as the bewildered boy I was, trying to understand his loving, brutal lessons about how to be what I was supposed to grow up to be: by his definition, a white man. The essay had been in and out of my thought for a decade, and I was finally wrestling it onto the page; it was a deep emotional struggle, and I was exhausted by it, as I was exhausted by the knowledge of my father’s illness

When I answered the phone, my mother said–without preamble, as I recall–”Your father says he wants to leave the hospital, go home, and die. What do you think?”


My mother is a person of strong and to all appearances unquestioning religious faith; my father, I think, was a nihilist: a home-grown country-western meat-and-potatoes anti-philosophical nihilist, but a nihilist nonetheless. His ideas, insofar as I know them, were atavistic, pragmatic, materialistic, and pessimistic. He was quiet about all this, as he was quiet about almost everything; strong opinions erupted from him only when he felt threatened. Impending death, you might say, is the ultimate threat; in the end he had one opinion and he expressed it.

The morning he died, my mother woke me at 4:30 a.m. I was sleeping on the living room sofa so I would be as close as possible to what we knew by then was to be his deathbed: a rented hospital bed placed not in my parents’ bedroom but in the guest room that had originally been a garage, but had been converted years before for my grandmother when she could no longer live alone; after her death, that room was largely deserted.

“I’m sorry to wake you so early,” she said, “but your father’s having a hard time breathing. Come see what you think.”

What do you think; what do you think? What can you think? What is there to think?

When my mother asked me that question a week before, when she called me in my office in Oregon, my answer was the only one I could make: “I don’t know. What does his doctor say?”

“Why don’t you call him?” my mother said, and gave me the number of an oncologist in Jackson, Mississippi, where the hospital was.

The oncologist was a sympathetic and yet no-bullshit man. “When your father came in here two weeks ago,” he said, “I thought we could do a lot for him. Now, I think there’s nothing we can do for him. You might as well honor his wishes. Take him home.”

We made arrangements. My parents lived in a remote rural place, 120 miles from the hospital in Jackson, 15 miles from the hospital in Macon. We signed up for home health care: a nurse would visit every other day, starting on Monday, the 19th of December. A bed and an oxygen bottle were rented. I bought an overpriced short-notice airline ticket.

“How long does he have?” I asked the oncologist.

“Impossible to say with any kind of certainty,” he told me. “I’d estimate somewhere between one and three months.”

So we were preparing for a siege.


In old novels the term death rattle is shorthand for a host of unpleasant things neither author nor reader wants to dwell on. Stridor seems to be the word most used in contemporary medical literature for the sound a dying human makes struggling to breathe, or not to breathe. My father was clearly struggling. He was not unconscious, but whether he was conscious in the usual sense was impossible for me to tell. His breathing was loud and labored–

A sharp, indrawn breath,
half groan, half acceptance. . . .

“Let’s give him oxygen,” I said, and we broke the seal on the new oxygen bottle. If the oxygen helped, neither of us could see it.

“I’m calling the nurse,” I said, and when the rented health care professional groggily answered her telephone, I said to her the same thing my mother had said to me: I’m sorry to wake you so early. What do you think?



Most films do a very poor job with death scenes. A gut-shot soldier, or policeman, or criminal, closes his or her eyes and quietly goes. This is the cinematic version of the literary term death rattle. My experience tells me death is harder than that, and noisier.

One film that is an exception to the rule is the excellent Carrington, in which the death of the author Lytton Strachey is anything but dignified. In the midst of his own death stridor, he pauses and says his last words: “If this is dying, I don’t think much of it.” Then he carries on with the noisy, messy process of shutting his body down.

I flew from Oregon to Dallas, where my brother met me at the airport, and we set out immediately for home. We drove through the night and arrived in Jackson in the morning, just in time to check my father out of the hospital. When we got there, he was alert and clearly glad to see us, but he did not speak. He seemed to have given up speaking.

My mother took us aside while the nurse got my father ready for the two hour ambulance ride home. “He stopped speaking a couple of days ago. He hasn’t said anything at all.” At some point a little later, when we were alone for a moment, I asked her “What was the last thing he said?” With a stricken look, she said “He told me ‘I’m ready to die; I just don’t know how to do it.’”

Just how do you do it? What do you think?

I think we’re in rats’ alley
Where dead men lost their bones.


“It sounds like he’s not getting enough oxygen,” the nurse said sleepily. “You have oxygen there, right?” Of course. And we’re already using it. We had a small clip on his nose that held the oxygen tube in place. “Try the mask,” said the nurse; “That should work better. Call again if you need me. Otherwise I’ll see you Monday morning.”

The oxygen was useless. I tried keeping the mask on, but it clearly didn’t change anything.

I imagined my father in a room, in the dark, looking for a door.


My father and I did not have a terribly close or easy relationship. We loved each other; his love for his children was enormous, and instinctual, like his love for the farm on which he was born. He wanted to return to that farm to die; he wanted us with him.

What stood between us was nothing less than a world view. We could not see eye to eye on virtually any issue. Race was the deepest rift between us. His racism was intransigent and virulent. After a series of confrontations when I was in my late teens, we hardly ever discussed the matter again; it was clear to both of us that we were on opposite sides of an abyss. If we had continued arguing about it we would have ended up hating each other. I visited my parents often during the years of my adulthood; we all wanted to see each other. But we hardly talked about anything of any real importance. In a very real sense we all knew there was nothing to discuss. We lived, so to say, on different planets, in different mental worlds. There was no bridge across.

No bridge save one.

His dying–the process of it–changed things by reduction. In that state, my father was incapable of ideas. He had no world view, or his world view was reduced to a single question: where is the door? How do I get out?

The night before, late, I was with him alone. My mother had gone to bed, worn out. My brother had left earlier that day; he needed to go back to his office in Dallas, and planned to return for Christmas; we had time; hadn’t the doctor said my father had at least a month?

I’d given him pills, which he took easily enough. He had a lot of medication, including a mysterious drug called Zocor; I had no notion what that was, but a little research revealed that it was a new antidepressant. Antidepressant? The man is dying; isn’t he entitled to be depressed? Still, I counted them out, I gave him water.

He seemed to be asleep. I sat in a chair beside his bed, reading. The death stridor was still hours away. But he became restless. He threw back the sheet. He sat up, for the first time since he’d been home. And for the first time in over a week, he spoke.

“I want.”

Clearly speaking was nearly impossible for him. His voice was a rasping whisper. He seemed to have to struggle to find the words he wanted.

He said it again: “I want. . . .”

“What do you want, Dad,” I said. “Do you want water? Ice chips?”

“I want . . . I want . . . .”

I went near him and put my head down so as to be certain not to miss what he might say. “What do you want?”

Then he found it, and said it all in a tortured breath: “I want to be a corpse.”

Having delivered that sentence on himself, he lay down and went to sleep.

By 6:30 the next morning, he’d found the door, he’d turned the knob, he’d gone.

The doctor had said at least a month. My father lasted four days.


At 7:00, the doorbell rang. It was my uncle, the middle brother of three; the oldest had died a decade before, also of cancer. As he came in, he said “I just stopped by to see how Cap is.” He was a farmer; 7:00 was already the middle of the morning as far as he was concerned.

He must have seen something in my face, because he paused and leaned forward. “What’s wrong?”

“Dad died about half an hour ago, Uncle Earl,” I said.

I might as well have struck him in the face. This was his little brother, the baby of the family, the smartest and handsomest, in many ways the darling of the whole community. When he was a boy they started calling him “Cap,” short for Captain; his other nickname was “Wheel,” short for Big Wheel. He was the little captain of his world, the CEO of the family. He couldn’t be dead.

I took my uncle into the bedroom where my mother stood beside my father, holding his hand, stroking his forehead. He looked peaceful, as they say, but hardly natural. He looked very dead. As he had wanted, he turned into a corpse.

My uncle hugged my mother, and they both stood silent there, reduced to helplessness by my father’s death. It was up to me to be the grownup; they were incapable of it.

“Well,” I said. “I have to call the coroner now.”

At that point something happened that, remembering it, I still find unbelievable, while at the same time I know it was utterly predictable. My uncle, roused from his shock, looked at me so angrily he might as well have run at me with a naked knife.

“NO!” he shouted. Literally, he shouted; he was almost screaming.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“You will NOT call the coroner. I will NOT have that–that–nigger woman–come into this house and paw over your father’s body!”


I thought hard for us all, my only swerving. . . .

About fifteen minutes before my uncle appeared, and about fifteen minutes after I was certain my father was dead, I had one of those unwelcome epiphanies that often arrive at such moments: I had no idea what to do next. Generally deaths such as my father’s occur in hospitals, with plenty of authority figures armed with forms to fill out waiting in the wings. But there was nobody here but my mother and me. Neither of us had thought to ask what the aftermath of my father’s dying would entail; we thought we had plenty of time.

“Call your cousin Glen,” my mother suggested. “He’ll know what to do.”

My cousin–who happened to be Uncle Earl’s son in law–was a doctor who lived forty miles away, one town over. I called him up and repeated the formula, “I’m sorry it’s so early.” He was kind, and professional. I must call the coroner, he said. The coroner will come and examine the body, and then take it to the funeral home of our choice.

In the moment of my uncle’s outburst, I had to think. I felt, frankly, like kicking his racist ass out of my mother’s house. I felt like screaming back at him. He was standing on the far side of my father’s body from me; my father, who might well under other circumstances have sat up and agreed with him, said nothing, having assumed his corpsehood fully. My mother hardly seemed to have heard what my uncle was saying; she continued stroking my father’s forehead, crying quietly.

In the end I said nothing. I needed to spare my mother any further trouble. I dialed my cousin’s number again. Let the son in law deal with the old man. I had other things to do.

. . . then pushed her over the edge, into the river.


Not an angel. Not a spirit. Not a ghost. A corpse.

As he was dying, all my differences with my father evaporated. I stood by his bed through the last couple of hours of his life; I gave him ice chips, which he accepted thirstily: the “death rattle” dries the throat powerfully, and even a dying body, turning into a corpse, wants water. He was no longer at a distance; the ideas that separated us were gone. He was a man, dying, and I was his son.

Even the violent, familiar ugliness of my uncle’s outburst did nothing to change that understanding.

The county coroner in that part of the world is elected; for years, the electoral process had belonged to the white minority. By 1994, that had long changed, and virtually every elected official there was African American. That fact alone was enough to enrage a man like my uncle, or my father either, come to that. In his mind, too, there was something especially intimate about the ministrations following death that he found simply unbearable.

I made certain he was gone by the time the coroner arrived. She was cool, smart, sympathetic, and thorougly professional. She arrived in a hearse, with an assistant; she examined the body. I signed some forms. She shook my hand and gave me a gentle, tired smile.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll take care of him now.”

(Quotations are from Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose,” T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” and William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark.” The title alludes to Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Presidential Politics & the Consciousness of the Poet, or: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Racist

[I wrote this piece last November, on the day I voted for now-President Barack Obama. It appeared on the blog site of The Kenyon Review. I want to repeat it here partly in the interest of completeness and partly to help contextualize some upcoming material.]

He was level on the level,
Shaved even every door,
Voted for Eisenhower
‘Cause Lincoln won the war.
–John Prine

Election day 2008—my vote is cast, and, along with the rest of the country and much of the world, I settle in to await the outcome. For me, it is a moment of introspection, and I realize with something of a shock that this is the 15th presidential election that has occurred in my lifetime.

In 1950, when I was born, Harry Truman was the president; the first election I lived through was the one that elevated Eisenhower, though of course I have no memory of it, nor do I remember anything of the process of his reelection in 1956 (my earliest recollection of a television image is of Eisenhower’s presidential Christmas tree, which I saw on our brand new RCA black and white set in 1954—that may have been the first thing we watched on the new gimcrack).

Of the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, I remember a great deal. The bitter campaign against Nixon arrived in nightly segments in our living room via that same seemingly immortal black and white RCA television; my father, addicted to the evening news (though even more addicted to the evening weather report) would sit in his big chair quietly swearing, basically consigning Kennedy to hell. I sat watching too, trying at 10 years old to make some kind of sense of what was happening. I remember the day JFK won, and the consternation of the adults in my family. I remember my teacher cautioning us children to speak respectfully of the new President, no matter how we might actually feel about him. I remember his inauguration, which presents itself to me in grainy television black and white: Kennedy and Eisenhower in a limousine together, the dislike between them palpable on Eisenhower’s tired, strained face. It dawned on me: Eisenhower dislikes this man. What does that mean? How could I trust this new president if the old president was against him? Neither the realpolitik nor the ideology of the situation were at all clear to me, and so they didn’t matter. This was personal. Eisenhower, about whom at that point I knew nothing, had presided over my early childhood like a distant grandparent (he looked like a grandfather ought to look, as far as I was concerned; and since both my grandfathers died before I was born, perhaps I needed him to). How could I accept this new man, disliked by my father and my presidential surrogate?

But there was Kennedy, suddenly front and center on the RCA—Kennedy and his family. As I watched them take the stage, other things dawned on me. They were beautiful! My father’s mutterings from the big chair in the corner of the room notwithstanding, this family was riveting. There were children in the White House! Kennedy’s Christmas tree was more than just a national symbol: there were children beside it. Certainly Ike and Mamie rolled Easter eggs on the lawn with a flock of younglings, but that was not the same. Kennedy was a father, not a grandfather. He was up close and personal with his kids.

Something in my worldview began to shift.

Of course I know now that it was not merely my personal worldview that was changing; it was the zeitgeist.


Let me now provide some context. I was born in 1950, in a very remote and rural part of the state of Mississippi. We lived on a farm 15 miles from the nearest town—Macon, which then had a population of about 3000. When I came to light there, we were still before the Great Flood of the civil rights movement, which washed away so much. Our county, a thoroughly agrarian area, was about 70% African American, but everything that was worth anything was owned by the white minority, which used Jim Crow laws and customs to keep a hammerlock on everything. It was a racist time, a racist place. My family all were deep dyed in the wool Mississippi racists, with all the accessories and trimmings. And so of course—since a child’s world is not the child’s to determine—was I.

There is much in this brief statement that cries out to be unpacked—more than I can attempt at present (though this theme will recur as Mindbook unspools itself). For the present, suffice it to say that in 1960, when JFK was elected, Mississippi was already a war zone. I did not know that; but my father did. And the coming of Kennedy, as it turned out, was the sign of an escalation of the hostilities.

I think that the 1960 election was the fulcrum of my father’s tipping from Democrat to Republican, as it was the fulcrum that started the whole South tipping that way. I suppose Dad must have voted for Eisenhower in the preceding two elections, but I don’t know that for certain. It makes sense that he would have. He was a soldier in World War II, and Eisenhower was his general. My guess is that he voted for Eisenhower without much attention to ideology; his motivation would have been dutiful loyalty.

Kennedy represented something different. Young, brash, Catholic, identifiable in his every utterance as Bostonian (read Yankee), Kennedy represented everything in the potential future of America that my father, and indeed the whole Old South, feared and therefore hated. Every evening my father sat at the altar of the RCA, quietly swearing—cursing, and at the same time stating his allegiance—and I, though this was never said, was meant to absorb his depth of feeling; I was meant to internalize that hatred.

I can remember that I tried. But it just didn’t stick. The images I saw on the black and white RCA prevented it. There was Kennedy with his brilliant smile; there was Jacqueline with her intelligent stylishness; and there were the children, younger than I was, but children just like me. I could not hate those children, and by extension I could not hate their parents. It was a family, like mine. They sat in their house, just on the other side of the television screen, carrying on their lives. Their lives differed from mine in the details; but surely, surely a life is a life. What, in the vision presented to me, was there to hate?


Election day 2008: it is now almost exactly 45 years since November 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was assassinated. It is a cliché to say that everyone then living remembers exactly what they were doing when they heard the news; I too have my story.

I was walking from the junior high school building to the football field with my alto saxophone case in my hand; it was time for marching band practice. I remember it was cold, but not terribly so; I remember walking across a playground where just a few years earlier I had spent my elementary school recess periods: just there, Eddie Agnew fell from the horizontal ladder and cracked his head on a concrete piling; just over there Clifton Cockerel and Bobby Bland had fought until both their faces were covered in blood and snot. I rarely enjoyed recess completely; it always seemed fraught with anger, nastiness, or out and out violence, and it was generally necessary to watch one’s back, even while in the middle of playing games.

As I walked to practice, I felt something shift around me. There seemed to be people running aimlessly in various directions; I could hear shouting. I had to cross a street to get to the football field. Just as I reached the sidewalk, I heard music coming from the stadium. Some of my older band mates had got there ahead of me with their instruments, but the band director was not there yet. The drummers were playing a cadence, and suddenly a trumpet burst out: someone was playing “Dixie.”

None of this was usual. Something was happening. The world felt suddenly and inexplicably anarchic.

Just then a band member ran past me, clutching a French horn case. “What’s happening, Freddy?” I said.

“Ain’t you heard?”

“Heard what?”

“They shot him. They shot the son of a bitch.”

“Shot who?”

“Who do you think? Kennedy!”

Over on the football field now, four or five horns were playing “Dixie.” Kennedy was shot. It was a celebration.


I graduated from Noxubee County High School in May of 1968; in the five years between Kennedy’s death and that month, much had happened, but where I lived, little had visibly changed. The school system was still completely segregated, and remained so until 1972. Desegregation came to Mississippi county by county, town by town, building by building, brought by federal marshals, and they started with the areas of densest population; my remote home was low on the list, and change was a long time coming.

A month before my graduation, April of 1968, in a moment of horrible déjà vu, Martin Luther King was murdered; a month after, June 1968, it was Robert Kennedy’s time to die. By then, people no longer celebrated such deaths out in the open, though I’m sure plenty of people in my hometown did their own personal victory dances.

In the living room, my father sat in his chair cursing; his hatred for Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy was a palpable atmosphere in our house. By then, my feelings were clear to me. I mourned though those months, but no one else in the house knew it. I mourned in solitude, and quietly. And I was infinitely grateful to leave that place for college. I wanted out so badly that I enrolled in summer school. I was no longer of that place, though a part of my soul was so deeply wounded that it would require decades—no, a lifetime—to repair the damage.

In 1963, though, when John Kennedy died, my thinking was less clear. I found the celebration of his death shocking; at the very least, it was in bad taste, and at the very least, I was born with taste. But how was I supposed to feel? I was thirteen; I didn’t know how to feel about anything. The man with the brilliant smile was gone. The father of those children was dead. They were playing “Dixie” on the football field. Who was I? Why didn’t I know? What was coming? What did any of it mean?


The first vote I ever cast in a presidential election was cast against Nixon. By the time I was old enough to vote, I had begun to know my own mind. You would think it would all have been obvious, even to a child. It is a testimony to the power of tribal law, to the bewitchment of mores, that it took me so long to sort out the obvious from the heinous.

Today I cast my vote, proudly, for Barak Obama. This afternoon, when she is released from school—from an excellent school attended by children of many races, taught by men and women from every walk of life—my seven-year-old daughter will accompany my wife to the polls to see what it means to cast a vote. There is not a day that passes when I am not grateful for all the change that has been wrought in this country in the past fifty years—and the change that has been wrought in me. At the same time, I do not and will not forget where I came from. Both my daughters—one 31, one 7, members of different generations—have grown up differently than I grew up, and if I am proud of one fact about my life, it is that.

If I am proud today, and hopeful—I am convinced that Obama will win this election—at the same time I am afraid. The old hatreds from the time of my childhood have lurked not merely around the edges but at the very heart of this political season. Racism is more complicated now than it was in 1960, but it is no less stupid, no less insidious, no less dangerous. Barack Obama reminds many of us of Kennedy. He has a similar radiance, a similar presence. He has a beautiful family.

If he wins this election, may the gods protect him—the gods and the secret service. But more to the point, if he wins this election, we all must protect him. If he wins this election, many things will change. Our prayer—to call it that in the absence of a better word—must be that, if he wins, enough will change, and will have changed, that history, in our hands, refuses to repeat itself.

The Real

Years before I knew about the Cave
Or those double-sexed science fiction
Archehumans of the Symposium,
I first heard of him

On a second-grade field trip tour
Of my miserable hometown library
Where he was reduced to nothing

But a small white bust
Of marble (fake), a couple
Of terms (philosopher, Greek),
And that singular-sounding name

Alien as the name of a planet.
It was awesome; I had no idea
What any of it meant. But if a man

Could have his head turned
Into that smooth, undifferentiated object
On a dusty oak stand in a corner
Of a room full of books,

There had to be something behind it.
Nights I tried to remember
Plato’s face on that bust

So I’d know him if I met him, or saw
His picture in the paper,
But it was useless. There was nothing
To remember him by, and I grieved

The way you do when you forget
The face of someone you care about
Or deeply hate. Later on, he made me feel

Like a fool for not knowing
He was older than Jesus, and just
As dead. Jesus I knew about,
Since he was an obvious American

Institution. Jesus and I
Came to an understanding early on.
When I was seven, my eyes went bad,

Nearsighted, and I prayed for vision.
What I got was glasses. Ashamed,
I thought if Jesus thought
I was worth anything,

What I’d prayed for
Was a small enough favor.
I already knew the objections

To thinking that way:
You asked for the wrong thing.
You asked in the wrong spirit.
Jesus always answers your prayers,

He just says no sometimes.
That cut no ice with me.
What I wanted was real,

I believed in it, I needed
To see things clearly.
Do unto others, I thought.
But Jesus sees everything.

I know my theology was faulty,
But I was born in Mississippi,
A Methodist. My education was bad.

If Jesuits had brought me up,
I would have been different, I’m certain.
I would have known the reasons for human suffering.
I would have known who Plato was.

As it happened, all I had to go by
Was what passed in me
For common sense, and an imagination

Undisciplined and overactive.
By the time I was twelve, I’d confused
Plato and Pluto and plutonium.
It was 1962. We were going through

The Cuban missile crisis
When a girl in my science class
Started screaming: There’s going to be

A war, we’re all going to die.
The teacher calmed her down
And we prayed together, but I
Would not close my eyes.

We’d seen films of Hiroshima
And diagrams of nuclear explosives.
We knew about chain reactions and fallout shelters.

We knew that when the fireball comes
You look away. Maybe that girl’s fear
Was what made me want to kiss her.
No, she said, let’s be platonic.

I didn’t know that soap-opera word.
I thought it meant dead. It worked.
It was like a force field

Or a terrible embargo.
Platonic love preserved me
Years in a dictatorial state
Of tortured virginity.

In the dark bedroom, my body glowed.
I could take off my glasses and see
In the night sky out my window

Not pinpoints of light, but cold
Distant balls of fire, white, unreal
As constellations, but unimagined, visible.
What does it mean that I became a shadow

In my own untrustworthy mind?
What does it mean I could only love
Other shadows like me?

The winter John Kennedy died
Some of my classmates cheered.
I didn’t, but I didn’t know
If it was right to grieve.

That’s a hard thing to admit.
But I was confused. Those were confusing times.
The South had spent a century

Perfecting the purity of hate.
It was them or us, we said.
We hated the North, communists, Russians,
Catholics, Negroes, liberals and atheists

Everywhere. How could I know what to love?
Everywhere I turned I found a world
I was afraid to touch,

Unreal. If there was truth
It was somewhere else.
I knew it. Everybody knew it.
But no matter. That was our idea of heaven.

We were dying blind, turning into permanent shadows
Caught in some meaningless moment
Of what we prayed was not

The only life: burned childlike
Out of ourselves at any given instant
Of grace: touched by the fire, etched white
Against a pure black wall.

(This poem was originally published in my book Lower-Class Heresy, published by University of Illinois Press in 1987. The book is out of print and all rights belong to me.)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Eight Entanglement Assays / Spooky Action at a Distance

Quantum entanglement is a physical resource, like energy, associated with the peculiar nonclassical correlations that are possible between separated quantum systems. Entanglement can be measured, transformed, and purified. A pair of quantum systems in an entangled state can be used as a quantum information channel to perform computational and cryptographic tasks that are impossible for classical systems. --Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Einstein famously called this "spukhafte Fernwirkung" or "spooky action at a distance." -- Overcoming Bias (

The poem, for the individual reader, is continually in danger of being overwhelmed by Poetry, just as the I may be overwhelmed by Humankind.


The reader reads the poem; does Humanity read Poetry? Is there a "book" of Poetry read by the body politic alone?


The body politic is an epic dream projected by the desire of people to be one body; the body politic is its own and only Poetry.


The mind, inclusive of the senses, filters the world through myriad flues, traps, refractions, and transformations down to the DNA.


Poems, reflective of the senses, filter the world, through myriad tropes, prosodies, and figure-tortured utterances, into the body politic.


Universal laws of reciprocity (hypothetical) favor the efficacy of art, in areas of Being that are invisible to the individual consciousnes.


The leviathan that is the body politic depends for its effective existence on some mechanism analogous to quantum entanglement.


At least from Whitman forward, the relationship between the poem and Poetry depends on the principle of entanglement.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Hotel California

The noble animal Man for his amusement smokes his pipe–the Hawk balances about the clouds–that is the only difference of their leisures. This it is that makes the Amusement of Life–to a speculative

–John Keats, Letters

And she said, we are all just prisoners here of our own device. . .

–Eagles, “Hotel California”

A huge room crowded with hundreds of slot machines produces a peculiar sound, like Philip Glass on Quaaludes. I recognized it, after awhile, as a kind of music, quite distinct from the sounds the people in the room were making, of far greater magnitude and yet unobtrusive unless attended to, like a great elemental sound, but thoroughly and obviously synthetic when approached and examined, tuneless and yet somehow orderly, like a dust devil or a cloud.

Not a habitue of casinos–my last foray had been fifteen or so years before, under peculiar circumstances–I was mildly surprised at how familar the scene was. The machines had changed a little; they looked more futuristic and more obviously computerized than the last slots I had seen; they still had slots, but there was little if anything left of the machine these devices evolved from. Beyond that, it was as if I had never left this room, though I had never been in this particular establishment before. The people were exactly the same: intent but distracted, staring at the whirling ideograms the slots deployed; they seemed semi-comatose and yet thoroughly alert to some inner vision of which the screens before them were the projection. As John Keats said of a stoat encountered a field: “The creature has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it.”

Not only was my presence at the casino unusual, I had entered via a route that was, for me, peculiar. I had parked my car and was making my way across the parking lot when a security vehicle pulled up beside me. A guard rolled down his window and said, “Are those instrument cases you’re carrying?” I was to enter, then, not through the front door but through the employee entrance on the side of the building. When I approached, the same guard was waiting for me. “Let’s see what’s in those,” he said, and I opened each case for him. It took me three trips to bring everything in, and all the cases were examined: soprano, alto, tenor, bari sax, plus flute. His examination of my gear was not as thorough as an airline’s security but it was close. His disinterest in the contents of the cases was as complete as his scrutiny was professional (how can you not be at least vaguely interested in an object as peculiar as a baritone saxophone?). He gave me his approval and passed me on.

I entered the main cavern of the casino from the back, through a nondescript corridor and an unmarked door, and made my way across the casino floor to the bandstand, easing my way around the clientele with my wheeled bari sax case in particular, which is the size of a small coffin (you could easily bury a medium-sized dog in it). I had to pass through several rows of gamblers in my journey, and it took me three trips to move all my gear; the experience was thoroughly anonymous, almost like moving among creatures of a different species who were unable or unwilling to acknowledge my presence. Hardly anyone noticed me as I passed; even the middle-aged man whose foot I ran over looked away from his slot only long enough to scowl at me and respond to my apology with a grunt.

The casino was about to be replaced. The Pima Reservation, at the southern border of Phoenix, Arizona, operates several such establishments, all prospering; difficult economic circumstances, perhaps, feed the gambling business. This facility hardly seemed in need of replacing–the fixtures all seemed in reasonably good shape, well frequented but not worn out–but some of the amenities obviously were not all one might hope for. The situation for the band, for instance, was not ideal. Music here, the bandleader had told me, was an afterthought; the new casino, which would open within a few days, had been built, in part, with entertainment other than gambling in mind, but this one had not. The band played on a temporary bandstand made of risers shoved against a wall near the bar; there was no separation between the horde of slot machines and the band.

“Sorry the stand is so small,” the bandleader told me as I started unpacking. Small it was; the keyboardist had to set up off to one side, on the floor. My cluster of horn stands barely fit at center stage, in front of the drum kit. It took me awhile to figure out how best to arrange things reasonably conveniently; in the end the big baritone sax had to sit offstage, on the end opposite the keyboardist.

The band I was working with that night was assembled for the sole purpose of working the Phoenix casino scene, which is mid-level bread and butter work in these parts. Phoenix’s culture of working musicians, as I have come to know it, is much like similar cultures elsewhere; within certain strata one comes to know everyone sooner or later. Of the five musicians on hand, I had worked with four in other configurations; the fifth (the aforementioned keyboardist) was new to me, but everyone had worked extensively with the bandleader, and most with one another elsewhere; some had been colleagues for years. There had been no rehearsal, but for purposes of casino work none was needed. Everyone was thoroughly professional, and we shared a broadly eclectic musical vocabulary. The whole point of casino work, from the musician’s perspective, is pragmatic: the money is decent; the demand is that the band be prepared to please anyone who cares to listen, to take on requests with good humor and a reasonable chance of being able to reproduce pretty much anything anyone wants to hear, and not to disturb the surfaces of things too much. One might well wonder, surveying this scene, why they bothered with music at all; the casino’s clientele did not come here to listen to music. Somewhere, in other rooms, people were playing poker, shooting craps, throwing their money down the vortex of the roulette wheel; all of that was elsewhere. The band shared the room only with the slots, and the band was hugely outnumbered.

Playing a few scales quietly to warm up my instruments, I began to attend more closely to the sound the room was making. I had my back to the casino, pointing my saxes toward the wall behind the stage so as not to bother anyone with my purposeful noodling. The room, I realized, was noodling back–uninsistently, aimlessly, and yet tonally, the room was musical, and seemed to be warming up for something just as I was. There was nothing melodic in it, though here and there I could pick up scraps of phrases emitted by this or that slot nearby or at a greater distance; some of them played similar riffs, some were weirdly divergent; there was no regularity to any recurrence or variation. Tonally, the effect was bell-like but artificial; the multifarious heartbeat of the room was a synthetic chiming. It was not loud, exactly, but it was pervasive, impenetrable, like a thicket of brambles.

How in the world, I thought, will we play music in the same room with this music?

“It’s in C,” the bass player muttered. I didn’t quite hear him the first time; he might have said “It’s a sea,” or “I’m asea.” But I immediately knew what he meant, because I had noticed it too. Part of the smothering power of the sound of the room came from the fact that all the slots were in the same key. Had it not been so, the effect would have been off-putting, perhaps even unbearable; as it was, it enfolded the gamblers like a cocoon. This was a casino in the key of C major.


The band wended its way through its precise mosaic of tunes. A B.B. King number went by, a Journey song, one by Elvis. The keyboardist sang Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” (she had Leon Russell chops on keys, but also knew her Floyd Cramer, and her voice did country as well as rhythm and blues) and I played a Boots Randolph-flavored solo; the bassist sang Tower of Power’s “Down to the Nightclub”; the drummer sang “Some Kind of Wonderful,” which turns out to be an excellent vehicle for baritone sax; the bandleader/guitarist did a Santana tune followed by a George Strait hit. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas passed through our sound system, Howlin’ Wolf, and the Dave Matthews Band. “This is sonic wallpaper,” the bandleader had said, and so it was; we were not there to chart out the future of American music, but to deliver a central core of its recent and not so recent history to folks who didn’t want to have to pay too much attention. We were there to fulfill the contract and make a little money; subversively, we were also there for the pure pleasure of playing music with musicians who knew what they were doing. That pleasure is both well documented and indescribable, and I won’t dwell on it here. Suffice it to say, it worked; each tune created its own logic, its own fate, and everyone on stage understood. “Just like in rehearsal,” the bandleader said, laughing, after we landed an especially complicated ending that none of us had ever done together before. The musical telepathy was online; we were all hooked in, and it pleased us.

It is just here, though, that we might begin to regard the casino gig as a kind of microcosm of art and audience. Why were we there? For whom were we playing? If we were only there to please ourselves, we were falling into one trap; if we were only there for the money (playing, then, for management) we were falling into another. The key in each proposition is the word only. It’s impossible not to play, in some sense, for yourself and for your fellow musicians (”Poets,” the familiar refrain goes: “they only write for other poets”); and, if you accept the terms of a gig, you cannot escape playing for management, especially if you ever want to work again. There is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with any of that, as long as you escape the only.

The casino was full of people. Almost none of them had come there to listen to a band; they were there, in various degrees, to gamble, to drink, to smoke (the casino was the only venue I had visited in years in which smoking was legal everywhere), maybe to eat. Gambling, of course, was the main point; and, in terms of what confronted us, playing the slots was the core of the experience that brought people in.

It is always dangerous to generalize, but it’s fair to say that the slots cast a peculiar kind of spell, one that has been well analyzed by people who know more about it than I do. I have not spent much time with slot machines, but I can understand their attraction; there is a mesmerizing monotony about what they do mixed with a tantalizing promise: one is hypnotized and seduced simultaneously. The screen of a slot machine (and it is a screen, now, not the workings of anything remotely mechanical) pretends to be a window into the heart of the universe. Hazard is all. You watch the repetitive images go past: you might be staring into the penetralia of a particle collider, or your mother’s womb at the moment of conception, or into the core of the sun. That’s an illusion of course; the whole room is, within the confines of the law, governed by the casino’s algorithm: how much taken, how much given back? But for one of a certain metaphysical mindset, that too is how the universe works. The player has no control over what happens; the player merely puts money in the slot, sits back, and hopes.

Hope in one hand and shit in the other, my grandmother used to say, and see which fills up first. Needless to say, Grandmother was not a gambler.

Beneath the illusion, of course, there sits a pure material fact: money in, money out. The slot’s screen is a window not into the mind of God, but the ebb and flow of capital. The gamblers sit on their stools in various degrees of being hypnotized by the motion of money. It’s in there somewhere; you can see it moving. You can hear it breathing. It breathes in a nonlinear, amelodic chaos, all in the key of C major.

After the first set, the bass player leaned over to me. “We’re doing OK with the crowd,” he said.

“How do you know?” I asked him.

“I’m watching that woman over there,” he answered, nodding toward a stool beside a slot in the middle distance of the room. “She hears us. She’s dancing on her stool.”

I understood, then, the schematic within which we were working. The sound of the room, that C major bog, was a bubble like an atmosphere within which the gamblers played. I had worried, before we began, that it would muffle what we were doing, or interfere with it, or–if we were in a dissonant key–destroy it. I need not have worried. The casino’s bubble was soft and malleable. Our music created a bubble of its own, that pushed the other back to its strong perimeter and held it there for the duration of each song we played. While we were playing I was completely unaware of, unable to hear, that other sound; from time to time I listened for it, but it was banished from the circle we made.

Some of the people in the casino entered our circle. We were next to the bar; some people came to sit and drink, and when they did, they were wholly within the circle of the music. If they were so inclined, they listened. Many did (some even danced). Some came, it seemed, to get away from the casino’s weird atmosphere for a few minutes and then return to it; some seemed to find a refuge near the music, and they lingered, some for hours. People tapped their feet; people applauded. Requests came in. “‘Freebird!’” someone inevitably shouted. “Sorry,” the bandleader said into his microphone, “we don’t know ‘Freebird.’” “No,” the bass player said behind me, off-mic, “we don’t do ‘Freebird.’ On purpose.” “‘Mustang Sally!’” somebody else yelled. Can we stand to do that warhorse again? Well, OK; it’s worn out but there’s still a good song in there. “‘Margaritaville!’” All right, but only if we make fun of it while we play it, something that particular song makes it generously easy to do (”Where’s the salt, where’s the salt, where’s the goddamn salt” everyone in the bar sings along; they know the joke in advance). And so on. So the room separated into a core of people who were inside the circle of the music and another (doubtless much larger) core of people who were outside it, those who were simply not interested, or were too far from the bandstand to know that a band was even present, or were too deep into the hypnosis of the machinery of the place to be drawn away from it. You could run over someone’s foot with a bari sax case and he wouldn’t even know it.

But to really understand how well the gig was going, where you had to look–the bass player knew this before I did–was at the boundary of the music’s bubble. Out there in the middle distance there were people who were close enough to hear the band, but far enough away that the music did not entirely envelop them. Once I began to pay attention, I could see the pull and counterpull of the two bubbles in the room. The woman the bass player mentioned danced on her stool all evening; at the end of the last set, she came over and put a twenty dollar bill in the tip jar. “That’s all my winnings for the night,” she said. “You guys did a great job; thanks!” Here you could see someone suddenly noticing a favorite song and looking away from the slot machine’s glowing window–you could see him virtually tear his attention away to listen, to a riff or a chorus or a solo or a whole tune. There you could see someone intent on the whirling images nodding in rhythm to the bass drum. Those were the people whose reactions counted. There was–symbolically if not actually–an edge of distortion out there a certain distance from the band; some people were caught on the cusp of it, and drawn to change the nature of their attention. They were the ones we were really playing for. To break the hold of that other realm, even for a few seconds; to bring people out of the room’s bewitchment: that was an achievement. If someone danced on her stool, even without looking away from the riveting screen, that mattered.

Near the end of the evening, a man who’d been gambling for hours on a stool with his back to the band stood up and turned around. Up until then I’d only seen him from behind, and had scarcely noticed him. Now I saw that he was a handsome young Latino man, beautifully dressed in a dark blue suit (sartorial choices in the casino are weirdly mixed, from shorts and baseball caps to Armani suits and evening gowns, and everything in between). He chose his moment carefully. His voice was not loud, but it carried across the room to the bandstand between tunes.

“Can you do ‘Hotel California’?” he said.

“Jesus,” said the bandleader. “The Eagles. I haven’t played that in a long time. Can we do it?”

“What the hell,” said the bass player, “I think I can sing it. Can I remember the whole thing? I’ll try. What’s the worst that can happen?”

We did it, and we did it well; the whole thing laid out as if it were inevitable. Through it all, the young man who’d requested the tune stood in front of his slot machine facing the band; as we played he whole countenance changed, softening: clearly, for whatever reason, he loved this song; it meant something to him. And he knew the song completely. He mouthed the words; at a couple of points he might even have cued the singer. The guitarist played a flawless ride; I crafted a suitable tenor sax solo. He stood there virtually at attention, as if we were playing the national anthem. For the duration of the song his consciousness changed. His eyes were bright with purpose: a new purpose.

When we finished, he applauded loudly, turned around again, and sat back down.

“Wow,” said the bass player, “I think my cerebellum is lying on the floor in front of the stage now; I can’t believe I remembered the whole song; it’s like a bleedin’ novel.”


Later, on my way out, I found a new security guard posted at the exit, a large young woman. “What’s in your cases?” she asked. I had my gear on a dolly now; she didn’t have to inspect anything that was leaving the establishment; she was simply curious.

“Saxophones,” I told her.

“You have four of them?” she asked.

“I do,” I said. “And a flute.”

“Interesting,” she said. “What’s a saxophone?”

Rim shot.

[This piece first appeared on the blog site of The Kenyon Review]

Poesis & Promise / The Roulette Wheel of Process

Having spent, now, some forty years seriously assaying not so much the possibilities of poetry as the pragmatics of my own residence in that particular wilderness, I have wondered continually just what it is that keeps poets going. This week's New York Times Book Review features a piece on poetry and greatness, "The Greatness Game" by David Orr, that seems to me quite beside the point.

The poetry "game" and the greatness "game" can never be the same; even if we have moved on, culturally, from an era in which "greatness" in poetry, however defined, was possible to one in which it is not, the fact remains that if we define "greatness" as that which poets seek, or ought to seek, then we are left with a hopeless realm of continual failure. Why would anyone subject himself or herself to such torture? Doesn't it make more sense to define "greatness" as an accident, a cultural side effect that has little or nothing to do with the real work of poets? If Eliot was "great," why wasn't Vachel Lindsay? The answer to that question may seem obvious: Eliot's poetry is great, we may say, and Lindsay's is not; we know that because in our canon Eliot is a great poet, and Lindsay nowhere to be found.

At this point, our tautology alarm ought to be ringing like mad. It is quite true that in the present, we define Eliot as a great poet. In 1925, Lindsay was so defined. Greatness, then, is a slippery slope. Any practicing poet who cares about "greatness" is playing a fool's game (though careers have imploded for that very reason). Philip Levine once observed to me that if you marched all the most "famous" poets on the planet down Broadway on a Friday afternoon, no one would know who the hell any of them were. That's "greatness" for you.

Meanwhile, poets go on doing what they do: writing the best poems they know how to write, when they can write them. I don't think it's the chimera of greatness that drives them most of the time.

A longish career in the classroom working with young writers interested (sometimes) in writing poems has taught me the unpredictability of the profession and the vagaries of the word talent (which I'd say belongs in roughly the same trash bin as greatness). Many times I have encountered young "poets" of genuine promise who write with wonderful facility (in the best sense of the word), or have a splendid innate linguistic grace, or an instinct for form, or . . . extend this list wherever you want: young writers who seem ready to take the art somewhere. They appear in the classroom, do what they do, and depart. Very often, if such "talented" folk reappear ten years down the road, they are lawyers or chemists or businessfolk; they have left poetry behind with their youth and gone on to other things. Another student may write more awkwardly but seems undiscourageable, rewriting the same hopeless poem forty times trying to improve it, and reads his or her way through piles of books with only flickering comprehension of the subtleties of what he or she is reading -- many times such people reappear years later as "real" poets, writing wonderfully.

What's the difference? The best word I know for it is obsession. For whatever reason, poetry has got under this person's skin, but not under that person's. It may be that the writer for whom the task comes easiest is the least likely to stick with it (though that is certainly not a law; it just happens that way sometimes) and the one who has to stretch for the gold ring--the one who has to transform to make it happen--is the one who stays in what Orr calls the "game."

This morning on the ever-pneumatic web site Boing Boing a piece called "The Neuroscience of Gambling" caught my attention; some of its findings go farther, I think, toward explaining the motivation of poets than Orr's misguided meditation. "One of the mysteries of gambling," we are told,

is that even when we should know we're going to lose, we somehow think we're going to win. Dr. Luke Clark, from the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge, may have discovered one of the reasons why. Using MRI, he studied brain activity in people gambling, looking particularly at "near misses" in which a loss seems close to a win. He found that the brain activated the same reward system that is activated in a real win, despite the fact that people report that these near misses are unpleasant.

Bingo. Some chemistry in the brain--call it the Muse Neurotransmitter--is capable of turning continual failure into the perception of success. If this is not a good description of poesis, I don't know what is; it seems to me, at least, a better explanation for the obsession that drives most of the poets I know than the quest for a nonexistent "greatness."

I realize there is a paradox built into this scenario--though it's a paradox built on actual human behavior. Personally--perhaps because I am a victim of that particular vortex myself--I would take a paradox over a tautology any day.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Googling Atlantis/The Search Engine of Omniscience

Caroline McCarthy reports today on CNET News that Google Earth has discovered Atlantis. "From what it sounds like," McCarthy writes, "a British aeronautical engineer was playing around with the new Google Earth 5.0, which includes undersea data, and noticed something funny off the coast of Africa, about 600 miles west of the Canary Islands, that resembled a pattern of a street grid. According to the U.K.'s Press Association, the pattern of streets equated to an area the size of Wales." Certainly to all appearances this grid on the ocean floor is either Atlantis or another inundated city with the same name.

Google, naturally, denies that this image represents a ruined city at all, the party poopers; they present (as McCarthy reports) a more rational and mundane explanation. What is really revealed is the still-beating heart of the myth-making impulse. Cruising the planet via Google Earth from his computer chair, an engineer sees something he can't explain and he plugs it into a master narrative that has been around at least since Plato. That's the easy route; had his observation not fit so handily into the Atlantis story, he'd have found another (Evidence of Alien Visits Beneath The Ocean! Square Crop Circles Found Beneath The Atlantic!) or made up a new one. The good rationalists of science are spinning off so many mysteries and such powerful informational technologies that even engineers are succumbing to mythopoeia.

Borges would approve:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
From Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, Translated by Andrew Hurley

It appears that the great Borges, among his many other achievements, is the true author of Google Earth--or of another omniscient search engine going by the same name.

Eleven Aphoritters

The relationship between "the poem" and "poetry" is a subset of the e pluribus unum problem: what does the cell know of the body?


The cell knows nothing of the body in which it manifests, and yet it carries the whole of that body within the double helix that is its soul.


The speculation that our reason for being is to act as a deluxe vehicle for our DNA has merit -- from the point of view of our DNA.


The speculation that the poem exists to further the cause of poetry has merit -- from the unthinkably unhuman point of view of Poetry itself.


The nebulous disappointment many people feel when encountering a poem stems from the poem's being itself, and not Poetry.


When I meet you, am I disappointed that you are not America, or Humanity, or God, or a spiral nebula?


The poem stands tenuously at the heart of a storm, both upholding and opposing Poetry.


The power of a poem declines as the storm around it abates; hence the receding power of many poems over time.


Over the human individual there breaks an unabating cyclone of ghosts.


The existence of the category "ghost" is indicative of a deep ambivalence in culture toward memory.


The poem is part of the technology of memory; Poetry is the machine at the heart of the ghost.

Ex Machina: The Birth of the Aphoritter

Increasingly I experience the mundane circumstances in which I, like everyone, am enmeshed as a mechanism of exponentially increasing complexity designed to produce less and less. If that's the tendency of our culture, the best thing I can think of to do is to subvert it by making unplanned use of it.

Lately I've been diddling with Twitter. For those unaware of it, Twitter is not my next-door neighbor, at least not exactly: it's a messaging or social networking mechanism that limits its users' messages to 140 characters. A user is invited, in that brief space, to answer the continuous question "What are you doing?" In increasing numbers, people are doing just that.

Not being terribly interested in answering that question straightforwardly (which logically would lead to the continual reply "Answering this question") I first ignored Twitter, not caring much for 99.9% of what I encountered there (and immediately disliking its silly name). Who would be interested in knowing that right now I am washing the dishes; right now I am visiting the toilet?

But Twitter kept popping up, in one guise or another, on my computer screen. It wouldn't go away. In the end, to make a long story short, it occurred to me, as it probably has occurred to many others, that Twitter might function best not as a tool of communication but as a sort of journal of ideas. I can access it quickly from pretty much anywhere (via my cellphone if I want), write something very brief (which if I'm using my cellphone is about all I want to do), mark it as a favorite, and it's saved. I began using Twitter that way, and rather quickly I realized its real potential for my subversive purposes: Twitter can be an aphorism generating machine. Attempt to say something free-standing and significant in the space of 140 characters, and you are very quickly in the domain of the aphorism.

Obviously, there are other ways to create aphorisms. One could simply buy a notebook and a pencil. But, for whatever reason, nothing in my circumstances was leading me that way. Twitter came and took me by the collar. What could I do but obey--and disobey?

For me, this is not so much a "less as more" but a "less as other" practice. I have invented a technique for myself, the production of the aphoritter (the term "twitterism" doesn't work well for me, being too cutesy and too etymologically vague; I have a feeling that a "twitterism" exists, but is something quite different from what I'm interested in). I make no claim to originality in this: no doubt others elsewhere are reaching or have reached the same conclusion. But it does give me some pleasure to find my way into unexpected territory via the (to me) most utterly unexpected of means.


The New York Times reports today on the efforts of the descendants of Geronimo to recover his skull from its apparent present location squirreled away in a glass case belonging to the secret society Skull and Bones. That the skull (and perhaps an odd bone or two as well) resides at Yale is already a scandalous fact; that Geronimo's descendants must file a lawsuit to have a shot at having the remains returned is an absurdity; but it is a revelation to learn that the bones probably came to Yale in the first place as the graverobber booty of Prescott Bush, the grandfather of the 43rd President of the United States.

Skull and Bones tradition has it that in 1918--nine years after Geronimo's death in an Oklahoma prison--young Prescott Bush "broke into the grave with some classmates during World War I and made off with the skull, two bones, a bridle and some stirrups, all of which were put on display at the group’s clubhouse in New Haven, known as the Tomb."

This narrative is so fraught with significance that it would take a weighty tome to unpack it all--a tome which ought to be unnecessary because the moral of the tale is so very obvious, one might think, but might alas be very wrong in that assumption. Evidently the present membership of Skull and Bones is insufficiently wise to see reason simply to return Geronimo's bones to his family with abject apologies for past wrongs. The mental atmosphere that allows people to see the very bones of others as trophies and playthings is apparently not easily clarified of its pollutants.

What was in the mind of young Prescott Bush, assuming it really was he who stole Geronimo's skull? A schoolboy prank is one thing, you might say, but a Yale student is no schoolboy. For whoever stole the skull, it must have been a great joke, and a vaunting over a vanquished enemy of a larcenous war. It's easy to imagine the beer-drinking that preceded the act and the quality of laughter that attended it.

That snarky laughter echos though the continuing residence of Geronimo's remains at Yale, as tribute to the ethical blindness not only of Prescott Bush (who was a member of Skull and Bones under the blank gaze of that skull regardless of whether he stole it or not) but of all the POTUSs who have been members of that organization from that time to the present--a lineage that includes, among others, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. What keggers have the empty eyesockets of the great chief watched during its 90 years of imprisonment? What illegitimate wars have those graduates presided over?

"The past is not over," Faulkner famously wrote. "In fact, it's not even past." And some facts are so obviously invidious (not to mention embarrassing) that it's a shock to realize they need to be elucidated. This is an issue so broad and so egregious that even to bring it up may seem to some like a cheap shot. And so it would be, if it had been redressed decades ago.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thirteen Assertions


It has been a long time since our culture has deemed poetry necessary. We may be entering such a time again.


We have at our disposal stunning modes of discourse. We may shortly have little else


Of all textual modes thus far evolved, poetry is the most efficient shape shifter.


It is possible for poetry to infiltrate the cellular structure of the body politic, like fine sand sifting into the gears of a clock.


Language is a mental environment. Poetry is its most complete distillation.


The nervous system of the body politic is a cultural artifact, a species of fiction, but it constantly evolves.


No assertions here are logically supportable; rather they are incantations, uttered in extremis, out of a desire to create.


“God” created the universe via the in extremis incantation that is “himself.”


Everything that is is an expression of that expression.


Poetry, as utterance in extremis, is an emergence, and as such, it represents the core of Being.


Representation is manifestation. Manifestation is Being.


The poet in our culture is the entrepreneur of a nonexistent selfhood.


It is useless to attempt to apply capitalist models to the conditions within which poetry manifests itself: how much gold is a ghost worth?

[These "assertions" were originally posted on the blog of The Kenyon Review.]

Dead Writer, "Extinct" Form, The Power of the Small

In the latest issue of The Nation, Alexander Provan observes:

To write aphorisms is to partake of "a minor art of the intellectual asthma," Austrian author Thomas Bernhard once wrote, "from which certain people, above all in France, have lived and still live, so-called half philosophers for nurses' night tables...whose sayings eventually find their way onto the walls of every dentist's waiting room." The most common complaint among revisionist biographers and doting critics of Franz Kafka is that, in the eighty-odd years since his death, the deification of the writer has reduced his work to the level of the aphorism. If Kafka has not yet found his way onto the walls of every dentist's waiting room, the photograph of his stony countenance and doleful eyes, so frequently invoked as a stand-in for his vision of the world, sometimes seems to be everywhere else. . . .

One's acceptance of Provan's opinion of the state of Kafka's reputation is made to depend on one's acceptance of Bernhard's judgment of the aphorism, which he regards as worthy only for cross-stitch. While anything that has ossified into cliche is worthy of suspicion, I see no reason to vilify either the aphorism as such or samplers as such. Friends of mind used to have a sampler depicting cute mice and cats dancing around a slogan from Chairman Mao: "Reactionaries must be punished." Regardless how one may feel about Mao on the one hand or dancing mice on the other, the juxtaposition was bracing.

The opinion of the Austrian writer Bernhart about the status of the aphorism seems to me positively American in character. Europe has a long tradition of aphorists; America as far as I know has produced practically none, and there is indeed something about the aphorism that strikes me as fundamentally non-American (I don't want to say "unAmerican"). Americans seem to have little use for a short form of assertion that carries such authority as it can muster on its own back like a snail carries its shell. Authority is a big deal for Americans; each of us wants his or her own portable authority, but does not want to accede to the snail shell of anyone else. For the reader of aphorisms, the form generally demands a willing suspension not of disbelief but of personal authority. Someone says something provocative, and if we are to pay any heed to it at all, we must grant them their right to assert in a mode that carries no citation, stands in no range of experiment, and is in that sense entirely free-floating. So, when E.M. Cioran says something like "Consciousness is much more than the thorn, it is the dagger in the flesh"--an utterance which, like so many others in Cioran's corpus, stands entirely alone--if we are to read him at all, we have to grant him, at least for a moment, the right to speak so: categorically, and aggressively, as this statement is in a very real sense an assault on my own sense of being.

Doubts about this sort of experience stand in the way, for American audiences and probably for others, of a full appreciation of the possibilities of the aphorism. Our tradition of radical individualism stands, rather hypocritically, in opposition to the nature of the aphorism's claim to, and its toying with, authority. We claim the right to our own authority, but let another claim a similar right, and there's trouble in River City.

I am convinced that there are historical situations, even American ones, that require the acid of the most incisive aphorism: moments when all uses of authority have become so mangled or so filthy with disuse that they need to be cauterized, stripped bare, or even obliterated. The potent aphorism is a revolution wrapped inside a sentence. It is highly portable, and extremely volatile, and yet its volatility is entirely mental. The aphorism is an excellent analog to, and perhaps the truest antidote for, the suicide bomb.

"A golden rule: to leave an incomplete image of oneself," Cioran writes. This is precisely the work of the aphorism: in its brevity and its focus, the aphorism seems to call into being an entire cosmos, one which is sharp and clear and clean, yet completely evanescent: as soon as it appears completely, it vanishes, leaving a black pinhole and concomitant event horizon in its wake.

Is the aphorist a "half-philosopher"? If that means a sort of dilettante, then the answer is no, not unless one is willing to allow the opposite proposition: that systematic philosophers are "half-aphorists." Nietzsche, one of the profoundest practitioners of the aphorism in our history, called his practice "philosophizing with a hammer." If one is not willing to allow the hammer into one's philosophical toolbox, then certainly, Nietzsche is a half-philosopher.

The novel, which seeks, as Conrad said, to capture the human animal whole, is a totalizing form; so is the treatise or major-length work of nonfiction. The essay and the short story work differently, totalizing less; the lyric poem even less; the aphorism least of all. The aphorist is a thinker who is allergic to systems, who is all method, and whose intention is anarchic. In that sense, it may be that the genius of Kafka--about whose work the spirit of the aphorism creates a distinct and indelible atmosphere--lies in his being the only author ever to write epic aphorisms; that label, to my mind, fits The Trial better than any other.

The aphorist is the nanotechnologist of literature. Reuters reports today that scientists are making breakthroughs in the area of nanoelectronics that make possible previously unheard-of and in many ways bizarre powers: "tiny transistors . . . a fraction of the size of those used on advanced silicon chips," and "a film material capable of storing data from 250 DVDs onto a surface the size of a coin." Soon, I thought when I read this, we will inscribe poems on quarks for storage in the 15th dimension. Moby Dick might fit inside a hydrogen molecule.

Kafka's work finds a natural place in the horizon of such thinking, as does that of Nietzsche, and of Cioran. If this constitutes "intellectual asthma," I can only say that most asthmatics are allergic to necessary, but microscopic things: pollens, dust, the nano-irritants of nature. And if the aphorism is a "minor art," so be it: some of the most powerful, disturbing, and anarchic of our musics are written in minor keys.

Dead Chimp

The Times (UK) Online reports picketing at the New York Post over a political cartoon depicting a chimpanzee shot by the police, with the caption "Now they'll have to get someone else to write the next stimulus bill."

For future generations who will have forgotten the details: the chimp alludes to a recent very nasty attack by a "domestic" chimp (!?) on a friend of its "owner"; the chimp was killed by police.

I hesitate even to call any more attention to the incredibly invidious subject of the Post scandal, but there is something obvious about the cartoon in question that I haven't heard anyone say: leaving the racial issue entirely out of account for a nanosecond, the cartoon not even isn't remotely funny, it makes absolutely no sense. Let us assume that Bush were still president, and had just signed off on a stimulus bill: would this cartoon even exist? What connection would there be between the chimp story and the stimulus bill? Would someone have imagined it worked THEN? This becomes the litmus test, for me, as to whether this thing is purposely racist or not: it MUST be, logically. Otherwise it would not exist. Let the Post and the cartoonist deny it until they're blue in the face, the fact remains: this is a blatantly racist cartoon. That's its whole reason for being.

"Extinct" Bird Rediscovered, Then Eaten / The Ghost of Poetry

A story up on the blog Cryptomundo tells of this Worchester's buttonquail, an animal thought extinct, captured by a hunter in the Philippines, photographed, and then sold to a poultry market. Cryptomundo, naturally, laments the waste of the bird: "What if this were the last specimen of its species?" That is indeed a horrifying thought. My own mind, having gone there, then makes a metaphoric leap: the buttonquail shares the fate of poetry in our culture, a rare, possibly extinct thing--once it is found, it is first sold, and then eaten, probably as the appetizer course of an inconsequential lunch, quickly forgotten: except insofar as, once eaten, poetry again assumes its status as an absence, lamented and valued only as something to be lamented.

Meanwhile, of course, real poetry flourishes in the cultural underbrush, ignored and therefore invisible no matter how multitudinous its brood.

In The Beginning

In the beginning there was Facebook. Facebook divided the heavens from the earth, the skies from the firmament, the water from the land. Facebook looked around itself and declared itself Good.

Then there came creatures from every corner of Chaos (because, as it is written, if you build it they will come). And Facebook rejoiced, because where the creatures were, there followed advertising dollars.

But time passed, and Facebook began to wonder at itself. And, wondering, Facebook became arbitrary. And having become arbitrary, Facebook became angry. "The Facebook thy Facebook is an angry Facebook," it declared, and it began to send plagues of boils and locusts down on the people. And therein was the beginning of the end.

Which is a way of saying: I have for the past several months been using my Facebook account as a means of creating--both for myself and for others--a node of conscience in the strict sense of the word: shared knowledge. One of the means I have used has been the posting of many links--all to a variety of points of information available to anyone in cyberspace. In short, my Facebook account has been among other things an aggregator, which I have used for my own ends but also for the use of others, and many others have communicated to me that they both enjoyed and benefited from the nature and the range of the content I was posting.

Today, however, I opened my Facebook page and found the following note:

Please Read This!
Warning! Your account could be disabled.

Your use of our Share feature indicates that you may be in violation of Facebook's Terms of Use. Continued misuse of Facebook's features could result in your account being disabled. If you have any questions or concerns, you can visit our FAQ page.

Given the nature and tone of this "warning"--which does not say that I have actually violated any rule, but that I might have done so, and that continuing to do so (rather in the vein of beating your significant other, which you might not be doing, but when did you stop doing it exactly?) could result in actual banishment.

As a consequence, I have decided to move the bulk of my activities to a blog, where I am not subject to the whims of Facebook moderation.

Hence, the problematical breach birth of mine own private Mindbook--my own, but anyone else's as well. Welcome participants (if any): anyone may enter here, without abandoning any hope whatsoever.