January 31, 2021 § Leave a comment
1. The Tabby
Our tabby cat, Malachi, was euthanized this past Friday. A cold, sunny January day. He was somewhere around nineteen years old; his kidneys were shot; he’d deteriorated slowly over the past four years; and finally, a massive stroke (we think) was the final blow.
He lived with us for eighteen years. Born sometime in early 2002, he was found in and rescued from an alley in Rogers Park by our across-the-hall neighbor at the time, Faith. He immediately began beating up Faith’s other cats. Luckily, we’d just decided we’d like to get a cat. Win-win. Malachi moved across the hall at the beginning of 2003.
For most of his life, he was a runner, a prowler, a leaper. Stalker of intruding insects; batter of pen caps and bookmarks; scratcher of posts and furniture alike. Malachi loved to roost in boxes, bags, and even amid the shoes by our front door. Once, I wrote a Murakami pastiche about a cat who would disappear into other dimensions through a shoebox left on the floor. That was Malachi.
He was an indoor cat. For eighteen years, he was always here, in our various homes. We liked his “tough guy from the mean streets of Chicago” persona–and yeah, he’d get fiesty, and used to bite me quite often for minor offenses–but he was quite gregarious. At parties he’d come out, sit in the middle of the circle of people, and preen. He knew he was handsome.
Probably this all sounds familiar, if you, too, have had a tabby cat. This is the smallest of potatoes, I know, amid our ongoing catastrophes. It’s so much easier to comprehend and feel the death of one small elderly cat than the unnecessary deaths of 400,000 people in just your own country.
We loved him. We’ll miss him.
2. The Tiger
In what I now think of as Early Quarantine, The Poem came around again on Twitter:
“The Tiger” was written by six-year-old Nael in 2016 as part of the 826DC writing program, in Washington, DC. The anthology in which it first appeared, They’re Singing a Song in Their Rocket, appears to have been a very limited run (and booksellers, if you’re listening out there, I’d love to get my hands on one), and it didn’t take off online until its publication in the larger, glossier anthology from which the screenshot above is drawn, in 2018.
I have always thought it a brilliant poem, perfect for the Internet–akin to William Carlos Williams’ infinitely memed “This Is Just to Say,” but sort of its opposite in terms of its utility and its effect: “This Is Just to Say” invites infinite adaptation, makes you want to play games with it, while “The Tiger” is so efficiently and effortlessly itself, about what it says it is about and about what you bring to it as a reader, that it resists all such reuse: you just post the poem again and again and marvel at how there’s nothing to make it better.
The poem is rather catlike in this way.
And then the spring of 2020 came along, and I could not stop thinking about this poem, The Poem for this moment. I have always loved it on its face–the joy and excitement of the tiger escaping his cage that it conveys. But its “little lower layer[s],” as Ahab says in Moby-Dick, the endless interpretations that a reader (I) can bring to the poem: these have continually shifted and resonated these past months. Tiger King, human confinement and cabin fever, the detention and isolation of immigrant children, righteously angry protests, ugly white populism and incipient fascism–it could seem to accommodate and respond to all of these, from opposite poles. The reading of the “Yes/ YES” repetition could shift from fist-pumping enthusiasm to dumbfounded horror, depending on the context.
3. The Tyger
Cats are not made for old age. Malachi clearly lamented his lost muscle mass and dexterity in the later years. But he enthusiastically clamored to be fed, curled into his bed, or enjoyed a lap as his royal birthright up until close to the very end.
“The Tiger” can also be read metaphysically, as William Blake’s “The Tyger” inevitably is. The fearful symmetry, the fiery eyes, the sinewy heart, the deadly brain–the powerful body of a cat, big or small, should not be caged. But that body itself becomes a cage, eventually.
Yes. YES. The tiger is out.
October 10, 2017 § Leave a comment
25. “Insider” (with Stevie Nicks)
The perfection of the drums leading their harmony into the chorus.
24. “Ways to Be Wicked”
The perfection of the title. (Also made into a perfect cover by Lone Justice.)
23. “Make It Better (Forget About Me)”
Perfect horn-section earworm.
22. “Won’t Back Down”
Oh Lord, the perfection of Mike Campbell on the guitar in this song.
21.”Learning to Fly”
Perfect sing-along at a Heartbreakers show. (I will always remember Tom Petty leading us on the chorus both times we saw him live.)
20. “You Got Lucky”
Perfect mid-80s synth-rock.
19. “The Waiting”
The perfection of the chorus in this song.
18. “Walls (Circus)”
The perfection of “You’ve got a heart so big, it could crush this town.” (And the perfection of Lindsay Buckingham on backing vocals.)
17. “Straight Into Darkness”
The perfection of tone here; and of Benmont Tench on the piano.
16. “Free Girl Now”
The perfection of shouting out freedom. (This is a criminally underrated album, by the way.)
15. “The Wrong Thing to Do” (w/ Mudcrutch)
The perfect swampiness of this song. And of that first verse, the kind of thing that seems utterly effortless but only Petty seems to be able to do. Not to mention that chorus.
The perfect tempo. The perfect cool.
13. “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)”
The perfection of his delivery of “she’s a complex kid.”
12. “You Wreck Me”
The perfection of “Now and again, I get the feelin’/ If I don’t win, I’m gonna break even.” (Also a sucker for “I’ll be the boy in the corduroy pants/You’ll be the girl at the high school dance.”)
11. “Keeping Me Alive”
The perfection of this song’s throwaway quality. It makes my heart hurt.
10. “Listen to Her Heart”
The perfect first line. (And another perfect Mike Campbell guitar solo.)
9. “Runnin’ Down a Dream”
The perfect driving song.
8. “Change of Heart”
The perfection of the bridge… “Oh yeah, oh boy, looks like we’ve finally reached a turning point.”
The perfect anthem.
6. “Don’t Come Around Here No More”
This song… just a perfect pop song. With a gorgeous match of lead and backing vocals.
5. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
The perfect karaoke song.
4. “Even the Losers”
The perfection of “Even the losers get lucky sometimes.” And of longing, here.
The perfect ballad. Perfect summer music.
2. “Free Fallin'”
The perfect note: on “Jesus,” on “free,” on “good,” on “bad.”
- “American Girl”
The perfect story song.
January 19, 2017 § Leave a comment
Just finished: The Stammering Century, by Gilbert Seldes.
Reading now: Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler.
I still can’t believe it, honestly: that we went all the way down the rabbit hole and elected the demagogue. The racism, the sexism, the xenophobia: that was the worst of it, of course, but it’s not why I couldn’t bring myself to believe he’d be elected. No: I thought it was just so transparent that he was a fraud, a con man, a bad, bad salesman. Incompetent. Obviously in it for the “winning,” for the chase, and not for the opportunity to do something good or to serve the country.
Honest to God, I thought we were smarter than this. (The “we” here, throughout, stands for the citizens of the republic as a whole–we all get the same elected officials, after all, whether we voted for them or not–but this all happened because of we the white people. Particularly we the white men.)
Now obviously, had I thought about it and been less often curled into a mental fetal position of terror and rage and loathing, I would’ve recalled the long tradition of confidence men in American literature, who are there to point out that Americans love to be conned.
The Stammering Century is about radical religious movements in the nineteenth century, so of course it’s also about con men. It really seemed as though anyone in nineteenth-century America could proclaim himself (or, sometimes, herself) the Messiah and get at least a few people– including many socialites and nouveau riche and intellectuals–to follow along and do his bidding. One of the most compelling chapters concerns Robert Matthews, aka Matthias, who decided he was God and was put up in style in 1830s New York by his well-heeled acolytes, at least one of whom he very likely murdered by poisoning (after having been cut off monetarily by that disciple, and having taken the wife of another as his own).
People getting conned, over and over again, through the course of 120 or so years (the book was published in 1928), out of money and rights (given the timing of publication, there’s a lot about temperance and prohibition) and, yeah, immortal souls. If someone tells us with enough repetition and clarity that they are our ticket out of whatever horrible circumstances we think we’re in and back to or on to a new golden age, many of us buy it on whatever flimsy evidence. The Fox sisters, who are the focal point of another wonderful chapter, started the spiritualism craze in 1848 more or less as a goof by causing the sound of rapping under a table (thanks to the slightly dislocated toe of one of the sisters) in response to questions posed to the dead.
Of course, many of the self-proclaimed messiahs, then as now, believed their own bunk–either due to mental illness or by simply convincing themselves of their own righteousness. As George Costanza said: “It’s not a lie… if you believe it.”
January 8, 2017 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Cries for Help, Various by Padgett Powell.
Padgett Powell writes unclassifiable things that mostly get classified as “short stories” or “novels.” His newest book of short Powell-things contains a story, two pages long, called “Dizzy.” It’s a wonder, this very short piece of writing. It contains multitudes. To me, it feels a lot like being alive at the turn of 2016 to 2017.
I knew several distinguished older men who have died who had a better grip on things than I do. I wonder if they can see me floundering…. They had the astute capacity not to deign, presume, meddle. They hunkered down within the castle walls of their particular potency, whatever it was, and did not send loose emissary of themselves about the uncharted ground of their purlieu.
It seems to me that if you do not deign, presume, and meddle, though, that the forces of the world at large, sometimes in the form of a kind of anonymous aggregate power, will pile up on you in an ambient deigning and presuming and meddling that will render you helpless. It is this way today: I am helpless here, dizzy and looking through badly fouled glasses at the bright, challenging world.
That’s just the middle. Somehow this three-paragraph “story” also interjects an imagined discussion with the reader (also involving deigning, presuming, and meddling, which get interesting treatment throughout) and develops an inimitable voice that is distinctly Powell’s own: a succinct and cryptic mix of working-class syntax (“I need to drink me some…”), vocabulary b0th broad (aerie, purlieu, deign) and scatologically deep, eclectic but distinctly American and often Southern subject matter, humor from unexpected angles and unforeseeable juxtapositions, and a goggling disbelief at our infinite human absurdity that somehow leaves this overwhelming sense of loneliness and sadness lingering under everything.
Padgett Powell is, I’m afraid, the writer who most strikes me as laureate for this moment, in which it seems as likely as not that “loose emissary” from a thin-skinned old confidence-man with a Twitter feed and an a-bomb will get us all killed. Sorry, Padgett.
November 28, 2016 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Great Expectations.
There’s a theme throughout the second book of GE that feels uncomfortably familiar. It also feels very American, and very modern. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it handled quite so well.
Pip comes into money and leaves his rural home for the big city. He is ashamed of where he comes from, and who his people are — which is to say, who he is (and claims no longer to be).
It is the narration of GE that makes this so effective: since Pip is narrating the story from far into the future, as a bildungsroman, he realizes how shameful his earlier attitude is. On the other hand, he has also made great hay out of the homespun, undereducated ways of the folks back home, and will continue to do so with great clarity of vision. This beautifully written (fictional) memoir is a testament to precisely the good that comes from leaving home, and seeking wider cultural pastures.
Pip wants to “confess exactly” his attitude toward his hometown and the people he knew there: for instance, he receives the news that Joe, the man who has been both best friend and father-figure to him, is going to visit London, “with considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity.”
The elder narrator Pip twists the knife in his subject — his own younger self — in a variety of ways in chapters XXVII through XXX. The excuses he makes for himself not to have to stay with Joe when he returns home; his narration of the fact that he keeps Miss Havisham and Estella strictly separate from Joe “because I knew she would be contemptuous of him” (and therefore believing her to be right in being so, to a great degree), just a day after his emotional reunion with Joe in London; many other lines and phrasings.
It’s not all gloomy, though. A lot of it is very funny. The best fun is reserved for “Trabb’s boy,” who serves as a kind of unwitting audience surrogate in his hilarious mockery of Pip the dandy. He struts through the streets like Pip’s own subconscious, “wriggling his elbows and body, and drawling to his attendants, ‘Don’t know yah, don’t know yah, pon my soul don’t know yah!” to humiliate Pip–rightfully so.
This comes to a head in chapter XXXV, when Pip returns for the funeral of his sister. His disdain for the artificiality of Victorian funerary customs is palpable, as is his disgust for the ways in which small-town funerals can so often become weird festivals of a kind: the sensation that something has actually happened overriding any sense of grief or loss, for those at the margins of that loss. Pip’s insistence that he will return often to check in on Joe and Biddy, and his older self’s admission that he would not, that he was a hypocrite and a liar, is really heartbreaking.
This is a particularly raw subject for me at the moment, I suppose, because of the complicated feelings about where I come from, dredged up by the past presidential election. I hope to God I’ve never been as insufferable as Pip; but in general, those thousands (millions?) of us who left small towns and rural areas for bigger cities do seem to share some of his attitude toward the place he left. We love those places — parts of them, anyway — but we prefer not to engage with their politics or their bigotry overmuch. Those of us who have the connections in those areas we come from probably have more talking to do (including about why we left) and more honest engagement with our people there — not to mention issuing more invitations for them to come visit us in the cities.
November 20, 2016 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens.
I recently finished Stuart Dybek’s wonderful book of short stories, The Coast of Chicago. It has an epigraph that sticks with me, by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “De toda la memoria, solo vale / el don preclare de evocar los suenos (Out of the whole of memory, there’s one thing / worthwhile: the great gift of calling back dreams).”
That’s an evocative, marvelous, ambiguous, highly arguable line, but I don’t mean to tangle with it here. I mention it, instead, because it’s been coming back to me throughout the first quarter of Great Expectations: the book (at least, so far) is like a recounted dream, as much as a recalled childhood.
And since it is, quite deliberately (and famously), a story framed as a memory of childhood, that makes sense: our dreams and our childhoods — when so many sensations are new and confusing, when so many of us are often confused and conflicted, when everything seems larger than life — are so closely connected. As with most of Dickens’s books, there are archetypal figures and scenarios from folklore and fairy tales near the surface of the text, particularly at the beginning when his protagonists are children. But to a greater degree than most of Dickens, from its very beginning, the emotions in GE feel heightened, jumbled, confusing, as they do in dreams. Pip introduces himself in the graveyard holding the tombstones of his parents and siblings, and then, by page two, we have abruptly shifted to Pip being accosted by an escaped convict.
That abrupt shift itself struck me as rather oneiric, but what follows is really the stuff of nightmares: the pervasive sense of being trapped and compelled to commit what seems a grievous sin (even if it is actually not, seen in the light of day), and the overwhelming fear of being exposed for your wrongdoing. The first seven chapters or so of the book are essentially an anxiety dream with melancholic interludes. I don’t mean that to seem negative. It’s shockingly effective. (The setting of the marshes also adds to this sense; I happened to begin the book on a very foggy day in Chicago, and reading on the train as we passed through white clouds made me feel slightly less than real.)
Then there’s Miss Havisham and her ramshackle house. The strangeness of Estella’s conduct toward Pip, the bizarre scene of Pip’s one-sided fight with the “pale young gentleman,” and of course of Miss Havisham herself, all feel like dream sequences. I can’t get over the weirdness of the scene that Dickens creates in Chapter XII. Pip’s routine upon his visits to her home is to “walk” Miss Havisham around her suite of two rooms, and then to continue by pushing her in her “garden-chair.” “Over and over and over again, we would make these journeys, and sometimes they would last as long as three hours at a stretch,” Pip says, and then states that he does this “every alternate day at noon… [for] a period of eight or ten months.” Finally, Miss Havisham commands that Pip sing as he’s pushing her in her chair, in an endless loop around two rooms, and so he sings the song that comes first to mind, the tune used by blacksmiths to keep time at their work, “Old Clem.” Miss Havisham likes it, so she joins in, and so does Estella at times.
This scene, of a boy pushing an old woman in a bridal gown around a closed circuit of two rooms, accompanied by a beautiful girl, all three of them chanting “With a thump and a sound — Old Clem! Beat it out, beat it out — Old Clem!” Amazing. Set it in Mississippi and I’d believe it was written by Faulkner.
November 14, 2016 § Leave a comment
It’s been over three years since I wrote anything here. There are a number of reasons for that: laziness, first and foremost, but also a busy and at times exhausting work life, and a feeling of burnout with my own thoughts on what I’ve been reading.
I’m restarting now, and committing to writing at least one weekly post here for the foreseeable future. Here’s why.
- To combat my own laziness. Reading literature has always been one of the most important parts of my life; I don’t feel like a whole human being if I go too long (like, more than a few days) without it. The impulse for this blog, way back in 2008, was to ensure that I was actually thinking through what I was reading — to engage, not simply consume. I need some form of accountability to ensure that that happens, even if it’s self-imposed, and making my engagement public (for a widespread audience of half a dozen people!) is a big part of that.
- For sanity’s sake. Every age seems a dark age, but some are darker than others, and it’s always a matter of perspective. My perspective is that we’re (I’m) going to need as much empathy, beauty, intelligence, artistry, complexity, and ambiguity as we can get in the coming years. I need to make myself as conscious of that as possible, and share it with people who might care. And I honest to goodness worry about what my media consumption over the past year has done to my brain. I need to slow down and step away from the churn of news and work more often, if only to step back with a greater sense of purpose and energy.
- I miss you all. People who mean a lot to me are strewn about the country and the world. I want to talk books with you, and I talk better in writing than in actual conversation.
- I’m going to be reading some really good stuff. My plans for 2017 involve a lot of poetry, particularly by black and indigenous poets, and a focus on gothic/weird American fiction. I want to savor these books, not just gobble them up and forget them, and my experience has shown that writing posts here helps me retain a lot more of what I read.
Happy reading. Talk with you soon.
August 16, 2008 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Been Down So Long It Looked Like Up to Me.
Tear off your own head
Tear off your own head
It’s a doll revolution
This is not an advice column, but I’m going to go ahead and give some anyway: you probably don’t need to read this book. But if you’re interested in Pynchon, you might want to take a look at his introduction sometime. (Mine is a 1983 Penguin paperback, which I believe is the first with the intro.) It’s surprisingly heavy on the personal detail, rather tellingly uninterested in much of the book itself, and seems to have been written while Pynchon was writing or at least planning Vineland, since the phrase “karmic adjustment” pops up.
But there are some interesting things in the book — it’s overstuffed, is all, and rather pompous — including its use of ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is the description of an artwork in a medium different than that artwork (although it’s often used for descriptions of books within books, too): in this case, there’s the use of jazz rhythms and descriptions of other music, but there are also paintings. I tend to be a sucker for this in literature: it’s one of the things I love Paul Auster for (the movies were the best part of The Book of Illusions, for instance). The most important painting here is kept rather cryptic, but in a useful way. And it strikes a strange chord (to engage in ekphrastic metaphor) with the Elvis Costello song quoted above.
It’s a mural-sized canvas by Calvin Blacknesse, Gnossos’s friend, advisor, and guru. Blacknesse is, apparently, a figurative painter, rather out of step with the art-world trends of his time, even anachronistic, I should think (although there may be a hint of early psychedelia, here). His canvases appear to be heavy on symbolism and mythological imagery. When we first meet him, he’s painting “the dark goddess.” Here’s our first brief description of the painting most important to Gnossos: “That one with the tapestry look, a beheading. Must have it sometime.” Gnossos then goes on a very bad mescaline trip in the Blacknesses’ house, and is terrified of the painting. “No, I saw him,” he says of the figure in the painting. “He cut his head off. All by himself.” (This leads to one of the funniest scenes in the book, the tripping Gnossos fleeing to the bathroom to hide all the razor blades to protect the family from themselves.)
Nevertheless, he takes the canvas and installs it over the mantel in his room. Like a lot of ekphrastic devices, it serves, I think, as a kind of compact allegory of the character with which it’s identified. Gnossos is, indeed, on a mission to tear off his own head, it would seem: his quest to receive a vision, to get out of his own skin, to remain “Exempt”: from death, societal convention, and ordinary consciousness. In another funny touch, the canvas nearly falls on him when the spurned Pamela attacks him with a knife: “the nearly decapitated profile rushed at his own.” Funny picture, a man in profile presumably with a knife cut through most of his throat, with the medieval look of a tapestry.
Some more lines from “Tear Off Your Own Head”:
What’s that sound?
It will turn you around
It’s a doll revolution
They’re taking it over
And they’re tearing it down
It’s a doll revolution…
(Costello wrote this to be recorded by the Bangles, I’m told, and they did so, after his version was released. It’s a very sixties song, for a very sixties-sounding group.) At the end of this book that’s exactly what’s happening: Alonso Oeuf, Gnossos’s nemesis, has successfully led a coup of the university administration with a demonstration of thousands of students who will do pretty much whatever they’re told. A doll revolution. I suspect it’s supposed to be read as a microcosm of the university unrest of so much of the sixties, with both its good elements (increased academic freedom, decreased repressive sexual regulations) and its ugly (wankers who play at being revolutionaries following the mob’s every whim).
Gnossos has an ambivalent relationship with the real: he wants the mystical “real,” as his name implies, the layers of reality behind the mundane. But he’s terrified when a vision does strike — it happens to be a death-vision, unpredictable as visions tend to be — and when real death occurs, he’s rather unprepared for it. He’s a kid, and an unlikeable one at that. Anyone who says “Oh, Thanatos baby, kiss my wicked tongue” as he threatens to jump off the side of a boat for a lost love is not terribly likeable, or prepared for the reality of death.