Everyone who knows me has heard me go on about my grandfather. A colonel under Patton, he retired at age 60 and spent the next 30 years of his life raising me and giving me more as a model and guide than I had any right to have. I picture him now in one of two places: the living room of his big Edwardian house in Norwich or the main room of the beach cottage where he and my grandmother spent the summers. After a morning at the beach, or before he set out for the day, he’d collapse into his chair in the center of the room, beachbottleglass lamp to his left, open door to the porch on his right, light and gull sounds coming through. He always had a book or a magazine beside him or on his lap (I still run across things all the time I wish I could send on to him, talk to him about; then there’s that arresting moment when I realize that he’s gone — nothing to do with that feeling, no place it goes), and beside the book or the magazine, and maybe a highball glass of iced tea with fresh mint floating on top of it, that black telephone. Of course I moved away from Connecticut when I was 17, and though I was back at the cottage at least a couple of times a summer (I can remember so perfectly how the place felt, drawers and doors hard to shut because they were swelled with the summer humidity, smell of must and sandalwood and the salt from the ocean, the low ceiling and the steep staircase and the deep darkness when night fell) the way I talked to him most often was through that black rotary phone. It had a satisfying heft to it, and it chimed when jostled.
When my friends Jeff and Maureen got married down that street from that cottage at Harkness Memorial State Park, a bunch of us stayed overnight at the cottage, which had been all but abandoned by then, my grandfather gone and my grandmother no longer making the trip in summer. We took the fallout pills that the Millstone nuclear plant had sent to all the nearby homes in the ’70s and sat around waiting for what turned out to be mostly iodine to have some effect. Meanwhile, Shafer took picture after picture of that phone. He seemed to connect with it, not just as a pleasingly shaped object but as something more, an symbol potent with duende. When we cleaned out the cottage two years later I put the phone aside to save for him. Last month I mailed it out to Houston as a housewarming present. So imagine my pleasure to find this poem on his blog tonight.
I miss you old man.
IF THE COLONEL EVER CALLS
by Shafer Hall
If late at night there is a ringing
and it’s the Colonel, don’t be frightened.
Remember that the funny twists
of the heron’s neck are posture too.
Perhaps the hair on your cheeks
is bristling? But the Colonel was clean-shaven.
The Colonel’s prayers were more communication
than supplication; the old phone
is more of an appliance than a relic.
If the Colonel asks for a report, tell him
everyone’s fine; the rocky island in the bay
is white with birds.
Gombrich on taste (via Herr Golaski):
The old proverb that you cannot argue about matters of taste may well be true, but that should not conceal the fact that taste can be developed. This is again a matter of common experience which everyone can test in a modest field. To people who are not used to drinking tea one blend may taste exactly like another. But if they have the leisure, will and opportunity to search out such refinements as there may be, they may develop into true connoisseurs who can distinguish exactly what type and mixture they prefer, and their greater knowledge is bound to add to their enjoyment of the choicest blends.
Admittedly, taste in art is something infinitely more complex than taste in food and drink. It is not only a matter of discovering various subtle flavors; it is something more serious and more important.
I’m taken by this description of a wedding reception (or is it a tempest-tossed barque?) in M. John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart.
The Marquee was warm enough, but its floor tilted sharply to the left, so that everyone sitting at that side felt as if they were sliding out of it. The supporting poles, dressed with yellow and white ribbon, creaked uneasily in an offshore wind which that evening had bulged and slackened rhythmically; the electric chandeliers swayed. Halfway through the meal, the tennis court had begun to squeeze itself up through the coconut matting. Apart from Lucas and Pam, I didn’t know anyone there. I sat on my own with my back against the tent, drank some champagne, and stared up into the roof where, far above the central tables on which the ruins of the buffet lay scattered among yellow bows and springs of artificial flowers, a bright red helium balloon was trapped. Four or five children were staring up at it too, heads tilted back at an identical angle. Events seemed to have piled up against all of us.
Is the title a pun on coeur? The Hearts of the Heart? And it’s so perilously close to The Curse of the Heart that you keep looking and re-looking to make sure that isn’t it after all.
I’m starting my fiction class today and I’m suddenly sorry I didn’t include one of Harrison’s stories on the syllabus. He’s the kind of writer who’s books pass urgently from hand to hand (Course of the Heart was, in fact, handed to me) and he’s a tight and tricky blogger too: http://ambientehotel.wordpress.com/.
Never switch on the Mac in the night to make a note: by the time it’s woken up you’ve gone back to sleep again. You’ve forgotten who you were, let alone what he was thinking.
His Light changed the way I think about science fiction and has to be one of the major books of the last decade. Go read him.
and I’m home from a dozen Christmas visits and a half-dozen airports. Home to a great conversation with Andrea Dupree at Lighthouse Writers Blog about staying on task and lessons learned:
Q. You’ve said in other interviews that your novel was borne out of a desire to “write about identity and the formation of that identity.” You took on, like Eugenides in The Marriage Plot, college age kids in love with ideas and books and each other. Do you feel you came up with new ideas about identity formation by writing the novel? Did anything surprise you?
I think I was more of a utopianist before I wrote the book, more closely allied with some of my characters’ aspirations. I was younger. Then, as I wrote and re-wrote the book, I watched as they relentlessly disassembled one another’s dreams. Jack, my protagonist, tries to step into his friend Bill’s life by impersonating Bill as best he can. His friends Paul and Corinna assume they can marry young and settle down in a respectable little village and both security and happiness will arrive at their door.
Did I learn anything? I suppose I learned how you can’t custom design your own life because the world has its own ideas for you, thrash against it as you will. And even when you achieve what you were struggling for you find it’s different from what you’d expected. It was about 1994 when I first started browsing bookstores, fingering those fiction spines and wishing my own book was tucked in between them. That’s what I wanted my life to be, an integration with those voices. Flash forward so many years and it turns out the road I was running didn’t take me where I expected it would. That old bookstore I used to browse is closed, I live in a different city, and all of the books on my own shelves are new. Astoundingly, it turns out I didn’t want to publish a novel after all, or rather, I did, but I wanted to do it exclusively in 1994. I wanted to be 35 and accomplished in 1994 instead of 18 and oblivious. But of course I wasn’t a real person yet, just an aspirant. The characters in Under the Small Lights are like that too.
The body of the chat (and a louche picture of this writer) can be enjoyed more fully here: http://lighthouseblog.org/2012/01/08/real-people-weird-creatures-novelist-john-cotter-on-life-and-fiction/.
And if you live in the Denver area and you’d like to take that workshop we’re talking about, you can sign up here: https://lighthousewriters.org/workshop/detail/id/489/
We’ll read stories from Maureen McHugh and P.G. Wodehouse and other unlikely workshop specimens and we’ll be writing and jawing our hearts out. It’s Saturday afternoons in January and February, and a little bit of March.
translated by Edmund Keeley and George Savidis
dressed up as “friends,”
came countless times, my enemies,
trampling the primeval soil.
And the soil never blended with their heel.
The Wise One, the Founder, and the Geometer,
Bibles of letters and numbers,
every kind of Submission and Power,
to sway over the primeval light.
And the light never blended with their roof.
Not even a bee was fooled into beginning the golden game,
not even a Zephyr into swelling the white aprons.
On the peaks, in the valleys, in the ports
they raised and founded
mighty towers and villas,
floating timbers and other vessels;
and the Laws decreeing the pursuit of profit
they applied to the primeval measure.
And the measure never blended with their thinking.
Not even a footprint of a god left a man on their soul,
not even a fairy’s glance tried to rob them of their speech.
dressed as “friends,”
came countless times, my enemies,
bearing the primeval gifts.
And their gifts were nothing else
but iron and fire only.
To the open expecting fingers
only weapons and iron and fire.
Only weapons and iron and fire.
It turns out that removing caffeine entirely from my life has a good effect on that deafening roar in my ears. I’ve been buckling under that awful siren for years and everyone who knows me has heard me sob about it (though I have not heard myself, I have heard a roar). Since I quite morning coffee, afternoon tea, and chocolate of all kinds I find I can hear pretty well– certainly enough to teach, talk on the phone, and be an okay boyfriend. I have been told that I also seem more energetic, though there’s lots of ways you could slice that. Am I energetic because I can hear the world? (As today I overheard a woman four tables away tell her friend “It’s not my cut of tea because it’s mostly meat” — I smiled because I could hear the words, at least I think I could.)
So when I hang out in coffee shops these days I drink herbal tea. It’s not so bad. It tastes like berries or mint. Today I discovered a place I’ll be going back to: Gypsy House Cafe on 13th & Marion. By Gypsy they mean nonwestern as there’s an African painting for every hookah and a bodhisattva for every fiddle strain. I love it. There’s incense, odd drapery, trustafarians. Edward Said would set fire to the place but it’s exactly the bastardized ‘otherness’ of the place that appeals to me. I feel as though I’ve stepped out of the world I know, that there are other possibilities in life. Like there’s another world, non-threateningly exotic and portable. Listening to stuff like this, not knowing what on earth is being sung, and smelling the world’s most unfaithful Turkish coffee cannot possibly be a shameful pleasure. I refuse to intellectualize this. What’s good is what feels good. And the cold air felt good on my walk home.
I’ve been writing a bit about art in the last few issues of Open Letters Monthly. Last month it was my very special relationship to John Singer Sargent, this month, the glam and decay of John Bonath’s Strange Beauties at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science:
In order to reach A Strange Beauty, which is entirely worth a visit to the mountain west, you’ll cross the museum’s T-Rex-occupied entryway and take a right through the Space Odyssey rooms (spinning projections of the earth, Is There Water on Mars?, children jumping and pointing and squealing) until you emerge on the West Side. The room, the gallery, is three stories high with glass walls displaying the finest view in Denver: City Park Pond, backgrounded by the steel and glass towers of downtown, themselves backgrounded by the gold foothills and the white-topped Rockies.
At a distance, the images on floor one resemble their photographs (like the photographs accompanying this article), but as you get closer, the illusion of verisimilitude breaks down, and their painterly qualities become apparent. These are, in fact, paintings. They’re single objects: gold nuggets, skulls, a bat, tagged birds, ammonites, set against black backgrounds that seem to let them float in space, anchorless. This makes them more solid, more tangible. Further inspection reveals other alterations to enhance their contours—pointillist colors invisible at a distance cause the objects to swing free of their frames, to pop. A transparent medium mixed with iridescent pigments catches the room light and makes the objects more real still. They’re splendidly alive, far more than their originals, some of which are present under glass, and look, in comparison, strikingly dead.
Speaking of those white-topped Rockies, they’re my new friends in life. In case you’ve not heard I’ve moved west. Elisa and I drove out here just over two months ago in a straight line from Boston. On the afternoon we arrived in Boulder in time to catch my friend Katie’s sculpture opening (electronic ligaments in milky plasticine, hung translucently along the gallery’s windows) and saw a double rainbow in the fuzzy mist of the sky, plains side. It has been an adventure since. We’ve been up in the mountains a few times (the red clay looks purple with the sun going down) and we’ve made some intriguing new friends and picked up where we left off with some old ones.
I’m not used to moving and very much unused to the way it clears your mind — ten thousand things that seemed so breathlessly important in Boston aren’t important at all out here; they’ve just fallen away and disappeared. I’m spending at least half of my time in mind of my new classes — Blake, Baudelaire, Tolstoy, and how do you write a persuasive essay after all? Funny enough, I wake up early now, up before Elisa half the time, which never happened in Boston, even once. Like everyone always said, it’s cold in the morning and sunny in the afternoons. I’ve been listening to Brian Eno (Tracks and Traces) and of course I picked up the new Tom Waits. Humming “Back in the Crowd”:
I encountered a student in tears in the hallway yesterday afternoon. He’s no one I’d paid much attention to until then except for, in the back of my mind, the suspicion that he was quite rich and some chagrin that he seemed to always arrive late to class. But he was crying his head off and over the next day I heard about all of the trouble in his life. So I was reminded again of something I too-often forget, phrased here from two quite distant points in time:
Solon, seeing a very friend of his at Athens mourning piteously, brought him into a high tower, and showed him underneath all the houses in that great city, saying to him, “Think with yourself how many sundry mournings in times past have been in all these houses, how many at this present are, and in time to come shall be, and leave off to bewail the miseries of mortal folk, as if they were your own … Suppose, if it please you, that you are with me in the top of that high hill Olympus. Behold from thence all towns, provinces, and kingdoms of the world, and think you see even so many enclosures full of human calamities. These are but only theaters and places for the purpose prepared, wherein Fortuen plays her bloody tragedies.”
– Justus Lipsius (trans. John Stradling), from Two Bookes of Constancie (1594)
If you stood on the approach to the Nihonbashi bridge in Tokyo, which hundreds of people cross every minute, and were able to elicit from each individual that went past what turmoil and confusion lay buried in his heart, you would find yourself bemused by the knowledge of that this world can do to a man, and life would be come unbearable. There would have been no applicants for the job of standing at Nihonbashi and waving a flag to direct the trams were it not for the fact that the people a man in such a position meets come as strangers, and as strangers they go on their way.
– Natsume Soseki (trans. Alan Turney), from Kusamakura (1906)
translated by Edmund Keeley
I got lost in the town.
The gardens are hidden by the hospital of Don Juan Tavera.
Advertisements wrapping up the streets.
Each man walks without knowing
whether he’s at a beginning or an end,
whether he’s going to his mother, his daughter, or his mistress
whether he’ll judge or be judged
whether he’ll escape, whether he’s escaped already;
he doesn’t know.
At every corner a gramophone shop
in every shop a hundred gramophones
for each gramophone a hundred records
on every record
someone living plays with someone dead.
Take the steel needle and separate them
if you can.
Now what poet? Do you remember what poet
tried out the steel needle
on the seams of man’s skull?
Do you remember his song that night?
I remember that he asked us for an asprin
his eyes moved inside black rings
he was pale, and two deep wrinkles
bound his forehead. Or was it you
maybe? Or me? Or was it maybe
silent Antigone with those shoulders
rounded over her breasts?
I kept her with me ten nights
and each dawn she would weep for her child.
I remember I was looking for a pharmacy. For whom, I don’t know.
they were all closed.
I got lost in the town
no one is going to remove the hospital
full of crippled children gesturing
at me or at others following me.
odors of medicine in the air
turn heavy, fall in love and mesh
with vapors from cars going off
to the country with pre-Raphaelite couples
thoroughly blond if somehow a bit evaporated.
In the spring of 1923, Livia Rimini,
the film star, died in her bath;
they found her dead amidst her perfume
and the water was not yet cold.
yet in the movies yesterday
she gazed at me with her useless eyes.
From Tampa, a town ineptly conquered by Hernando de Soto in 1539 and currently staffed by the world’s best EMTs, comes one of my two favorite reviews of Under the Small Lights so far. I can’t express how happy I am when someone seems to really get what I was going for in the book. Other reviewers with other ideas are welcome and of course they’re fascinating to me, but there’s a satisfaction I feel when somebody shares my own take, reads through all the variants to arrive at what I was aiming for with my eyes closed …
What makes Under the Small Lights work is what Cotter doesn’t do. There are no heart-broken soliloquies, no painful pages of self-analysis by hyper-self-aware characters. Rather than trying to describe the tension, Cotter creates it, builds it up out of little things. Corinna snuggling Jack in bed while visiting him alone, biting his ear in bed and kissing him quickly in hallways, Paul’s mounting hostility, drinking, and the revelation that he is a failure at his new job as lawn mower salesman. Hovering in the background of Jack’s life is Star, who wants him, who he can’t help teasing and leading-on just as Corinna is doing to him. Cotter lets these things stand as they are, mostly without comment, and weave themselves into a web of meanings that don’t need to be explained.