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.
I’m teaching Fiction I at Grub Street this season, after a short tricky stint in Fiction II over the winter. Maybe it was just the winter that was tricky. I met some truly fine people, though, and I’m happy still to know them after the class is through.
I’ve taught Fiction I before & Grub Street wants the same basics covered each time (character, dialog, plot — I’d cover them anyway), but I’ve picked a few different stories for this go round. I’m a little pleased with my picks, I have to say. The’d make a nice pocket-sized anthology for anytime, anymind.
1: Fiction Basics
reading: “Twenty-Two Stories” by Paul Theroux
(I was never a Paul Theroux fan until I started reading him closely, then I realized there was nothing, nothing he didn’t know about craft)
reading: “The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge” by Evan S. Connell
reading the first half “The Old Order” by Katherine Anne Porter
(of course this could just as easily been any number of stories by either writer: “He” or “Magic” or “The Fisherman from Chihuahua”)
3: More Characters
reading: “1917” by Mary Swan
reading: “The Bees, Part 1” by Alexander Hemon
(after reading “1917″ in Harpers I was so excited to read The Deep, then I realized with some disappointment that “1917″ was the best thing in it. I recently read a story that ripped it off, as a matter of fact, though now I can’t remember where.)
reading: “Love and Hydrogen” by Jim Shepard
(he does his research)
reading: “Bingo and the Little Woman” by P.G. Wodehouse
(It’s really hard to find someone who writes good dialog. Odd because it feels so easy to write. I’d hardly call Wodehouse ‘accurate’ but I’ve never read any dialog that’s funnier anywhere)
reading: “The Hermit’s Story” by Rick Bass
(its the snipe that sell this one)
reading: “A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga” by Julia Whitty
(eerily, this was another one from Harpers where the story bests the book. Still, it’s a hell of a story. I will go to Tonga)
reading: “Big Blonde” By Dorothy Parker
(one of the saddest of all of her sad, pitch-perfect stories. Honestly, who writes better prose than Dorothy Parker? I think its criminal that we’re so familiar with the quips we don’t bother spending time with her best art)
reading: “Toward the Interior” by Joshua Harmon
(why doesn’t this guy write more fiction?)
reading the conclusion of “The Old Order” by Katherine Anne Porter
“… I seek many kinds of pleasures in poetry — of story and discourse, of sound and rhythm, of lyric subjectivity and dispersal of lyric subjectivity, of disjunctiveness and discursiveness, familiar and unfamiliar form, heteroglossia and suburban historiography, archival erudition and crude wit, the strangeness of idioms unknown, the commonplace perfectly deployed to re-emerge into value and clarity, the exotic for its own sake, the ephemeral and everyday, the imagination in extremis, all that I don’t know and don’t know I want to, language loping back and forth across the boundaries of sense and nonsense — even sometimes, God forbid, the well-turned phrase.”
– from Keith Tuma’s enlightening & hugely readable Fishing by Obstinate Isles: Modern and Postmodern Poetry and American Readers
Circling down on Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, I was startled to see how the land rolled. The portions of Ohio I’d traveled before — the north parts — were flat as a floor, but the land around Cincinnati was all rilled. Dana, the venerable designer and all-’round Moneypenney at Miami U Press collected me in Kentucky and brought me through five minutes of Indiana and into Oxford where I had a great dinner with some of the folks at the school and woke up in an antique guest house with a sunny porch and unseasonably springlike weather.
The visit followed on like this, one good encounter after another. David Schloss, my editor and benefactor, turned out to be as fun to spend a day with as he was to edit a book with. Ken Tuma, head of the press, was entertainingly salty. Cathy Wagner and her young friend Ambrose delighted. And Margaret Luongo, who I didn’t talk with enough at dinner, turns out to be one of the best short story writers I’ve read in years. I’ll be bugging her.
Out in Washington DC a few days later Open Letters‘ Editor-at-large, J. Eaton took me for a ride in his Harley Sportster down Dolly Madison Blvd. . Coming back to DC he said, “watch how the tops of DC appear to our left — they suddenly come into view, like you’re coming into a European city.” They did. Later, I nearly stumbled into/destroyed Henry VIII’s Christmas-list-under-glass at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I toured surrealist cinima with forthcoming book writer Maureen Thorson. I read outloud in Adams Morgan for Barrellhouse and the gracious Dan Brady. I puffed cigars & ruminated weightily on Paradise Lost on a wrought-iron porch with our Editor-at-large and Adam Golaski.
Home and hungry, I swung by my local Indian place and tried the special, Duck Masala. Nine hours later I woke up sweating, throwing up and, eventually, losing consciousness on the floor. It was the time that I threw up after losing consciousness when both Elisa and I decided a visit to the Emergency Room was in order. They filled me with four (4) bags of fluid to get my heart rate down.
On my birthday, two nights ago, Elisa and I saw a marvelous play: Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid by the Whistler in the Dark theater company. The actors depended from aerial silks and assumed perfect godlike and falling-human-like poses as they chorused some of Ovid’s richest stuff (Procne and Tereus, Myrrha and Cinyras). The silks were sails and threads and beds and air currents and seas and sheets. Unique for Theater in Boston there wasn’t a hint of the amateur. This was a stirring, rolling full-throated and full-bodied production, and I’ll be following Whistler in the Dark.
Hey all — I haven’t posted in a while because the Buffalo & Ithaca trip wore me out & I sunk into my next novel to recover. But I’m surfacing again, and soon (along with my trusty compañero A. Golaski) to read in Washington DC on a bill with really awesome writers Maureen Thorson and Sherrie Flick for the Barrelhouse series at The Black Squirrel (info to the right). I’m excited to hang out in DC again w/ Maureen & Jeff (& all of you who brave the tepid air to where the air is posey-light and full of resonante song) and to walk around without a sweater for a bit.
For those of you in or near Oxford Ohio, please know that I’ll be reading for Miami University — my benefactors — the Tuesday prior (again, details to the right) & I would love to see as many friends as I can.
Meanwhile, in news of the world, the new issue of Open Letters Monthly is out featuring beautiful new poetry and art by Sarah Goldstein (whose new Fables will be appearing from Tarpaulin Sky sometime this spring) and fantastic essays about such diversions as George Elliot’s secret heart, James Franco’s soul, and The Battle of the Somme.
What else? Well I had a nice conversation with the Cornell Daily Sun, I’ve been reading and loving Lance Olsen’s new novel Calendar of Regrets (at Steve Donoghue’s always-wise suggestion), Jeff tells me they’ve just found a dinosaur skull in a church in Milan; oh, and just the other day I forgot one of my best friends’ birthdays … Happy Birthday Kevin! No forgiveness!
more soon …