Category Archives: criticism

NOLA zoetrope

The last time I was in NOLA – way before Katrina – I dismissed the city as a theme park. This time, I’m not here as a tourist. I’m in a real neighborhood at a residency established by the people responsible for the first Free Tibet concerts back in 1995, in a little house behind their own.

This is the Bywater, formerly the Upper Ninth Ward. It runs along the river bordered by the French Quarter and Treme. I stand in front of the levee looking up – I am beneath the river! Enormous freighters with names written in foreign alphabets crawl back and forth along the Mississippi. I climb the the steep rusty bridge over the freight train tracks and the levee and come back down to a pretty green walking trail called Crescent Park. The day is gowing hot. People wearing spandex ride fast bikes toward the French Quarter while others, heads down texting, are walking their dogs. Dogs are everywhere and they are lucky dogs because New Orleans has hundreds of dog parks made out of empty lots when the river broke the levees, buildings collapsed and eventually the rubble was taken away.

I ran into one dog today, in a voodoo supply store, a fat hairy dog riveted by something on a top shelf.

NOLA is a bowl in a swamp, where it seems the apocalypse has already happened. The survivors are in various stages of getting over it, standing up and falling down, like a Laurie Anderson song. It is a port – freight trains run along the commuter lines. it is commerce and joy, voodoo and nunneries, community and desolation. People on the street smile, they nod, they say,”how’s your day goin'” and sometimes they stop to tell you how their day is going. The clothes! Prints on stripes, dresses over shorts – this is a city that loves its skin. Po-boys are delicious, gumbo not so much, hipster cafes painted shades of orange behind shutters next to drink dives and one-stops, BMW’s with Jersey plates drive behind construction trucks and Havana Chevys and then there’s the Bark Market that sells pet supplies on one side and art supplies on the other. And the Death, Pharmacy and Chicken museums. An Improv theater in the Healing Center along with the food co-op and trance making supplies.

On my (white) side of St. Claude, soft bellied bearded men sit in cafes eating cake and reading novels, while on the other side an emaciated Haitian rides a stolen bike around in circles. The Quarter is a 20 minute walk away, as is Treme, as is downtown. It is a city of writers. Walter Percy lives on, his old writer’s group still meeting every Friday at a certain bar.

One wonders, where do the people who get pushed out go?  Houston?  Katrina didn’t do them in, they say, it was the government building substandard  levees and infrastructure, the broken pumps; it was America that almost killed them. NOLA, they explain, nodding wisely, is a blue dot in a red state.   

The cats, however stayed and multiplied.  You see them everywhere, in the stores, on stages, grooming their tails in art galleries, hunkered down on stoops, sneaking out of alleys. Always single, They patrol grocery stores, pose on cafe counters and have serious expressions. On every other porch there is a plate of half eaten food. They don’t need water because, as I said, NOLA is a bowl in a swamp.

My computer pings. It’s a weather alert but not for me: a blizzard is sweeping West to East across Northern Vermont.

Fiction wins

I’m deeply involved in a writers community in my city. It’s a Meetup group that has maybe 200 active members. When the founder disappeared (who knows the real story behind this), they (who are they?) formed a 501C3 that required a Board, so that was formed, and after their terms ran out, a second Board came forth but a year later almost all of them quit in a huff without telling anyone why, without a transition plan. Then a transitional team tried to form, but they too quit (what is it with quitting boards?) and now there is an emergency community meeting because we have to pay the rent.

This has been going on for months, and now half of us who used to be copasetic in community don’t speak to the other half: being writers, we started sending each other overly long, acrimonious, analytical and philosophical emails and neglected our own novels.

I unapologetically fled. I was able to get out of town to a residency where I determined to convince my novel to forgive me.

I’m thinking of something that happened to a famous writer whose name I’ve forgotten. She tells the story of having thought of writing a novel about – I’m quoting from Amazon here – “a researcher (female) who sets off into the Amazon jungle to find the remains and effects of a colleague who recently died under mysterious circumstances.” But she never wrote it, and in due time her idea went away and settled in the brain of another writer, Anne Patchett, who actually wrote that story, which she titled “State of Wonder”. These writers met and kissed.

This story of course sounds too good to be true, but even if it isn’t, there’s a lesson behind it, which is more less that there are only so many ideas floating around the universe and if you don’t write your novel, someone else will.

Moby Dick and Me

Kavanaugh won. The deficit rose 17 percent. Mitch McConnell says he’s concerned, but no problem, we’ll just pay for it by cutting entitlements.

I’m reading Moby Dick.

In high school,  I read to where QQ squatted in a cold fireplace with a wooden doll on his head, causing Ishmael, watching from their shared bed – now there’s a story untod –

to conclude that no religion was more interesting than any other because all was chaos and “it is better to sleep with a cannibal than a drunken Christian.” I agreed with both conclusions and brought the book straight back to the library. Reading Moby Dick was not then cool.

Forty years later, I picked it up on the night of September 11th. This time, I read all the way to the end. Savoring the metaphors, instructions, alliterations, the mood swings.  The book obsessed me. Ahab was the fury sacrificing the ship for revenge in swirling metaphors. The imagery was so potent, so contemporary, so driven that I spent the next three years painting them.

My images were of submerged cities where inhabitants sat in restaurants  eating at tables while whales watched through broken glass. I have to say no book has inspired me like this since. September 11th 2001 was insane, and so far an anomaly, except for Donald Trump who could be the Ahab of our century.

This time around it occurs to me that Ahab is, in some infernal way, as much  the hero of the book as is the whale:

He asks Starbuck, “how can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?” and answers rhetorically, “To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white wale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun it it insulted me.”

This statement is appalling and yet it is profound. While Ishmael is content to explore without malice a ride on whatever spiritual vehicle he encounters, Ahab is the personification of defiant despair beyond comfort. The whale is his personal personification of evil, to kill the whale is to purify humanity from radical evil. If there be an evil God, then the way to freedom from that evil is to “thrust through the wall” that is the white whale.  So his obsession is not only for revenge, but also to learn for himself if God be evil, even if he fails and learns nothing.

And he knows he cannot succeed alone. Like any totalitarian power obsessive, he is precise, and he accomplishes his goals with various strategies, i.e. winning over Starbuck’s “soul and mind” – that is, subjecting the ego to a mob  obsession, gathering a military and prophet (Fedullah and friends), pretending his motive is mere capitalism,  giving his men heroic significance in his campaign to purify the world of evil. And in moments of rage and sniffle, he demonizes the entire wet world…”Panting and snorting like a mad battlesteed that has lost its rider, the masterless ocean overruns the globe” and anoints himself and his ship as the vehicle worthy of plunging into this chaos.

What a line.

.

This is, of course, the argument of totalitarianism,  in the mid 19th Century as Europe headed towards reactionary nationalism that would explode decades later,  and is resonant today as our world slips ever deeper and deeper under the weight of kleptocratic oligarchies.

 

 

 

Rachel Cusk et al vs Don Quixote

After coming to the end of the delicious, rapturous, repetitive, raving, magnificent most-engaged-knight-in-the-entire-world Don Quixote, I’ve become obsessed with Rachel Cusk’s trilogy; Outline, Transit and Kudos. She’s the anti-Cervantes, the “dissociate artist for a dissociate age, asking from the back seat; ‘is this real life?'” So writes Patricia Lockwood in the London Review. Like so many others, I started off disliking her, and still do, but I read on.

Probably it’s the Voice. It drones seamlessly from one person’s story into the next, commenting when it feels like it, then going on to the next like a distracted, OCD dog. The voice is monotonous, without nuance. At times, it’s indistinguishable from the person it’s supposed to be conversing with. You get the sense that the Voice listens, but that it can only respond to what mirrors itself in the teller’s stories. When the Other Voice, the one telling a story (mostly men strutting their stuff) stops for breath, the Cusk Voice comes out like the cuckoo in the clock, presents its rebuttal, or its insight, which are at times so embedded with “it seems to me” and “in a kind of way” and “perhaps” as to be unfathomable, pretentious, as if ones point of view is the only proper response to a story being told by someone else.

Lorrie Moore says this: “We see that we are experiencing a presentation: a midair collusion of storytellers and pronouncers. Faye’s voice and those of the characters she encounters sometimes merge—and that is the point. However underperforming our lives may be, the stories of them are always performances. Faye makes statements that seem to announce the book’s narrative strategy: “I was beginning to see my own fears and desires manifested outside myself, was beginning to see in other people’s lives a commentary on my own.”

The Voice is hypnotic. I’m mesmerized. Cusk is traveling, and her fellow travelers are as mundane as mine are.

I’m also reading Sigrid Nunoz, The Friend, Houellebecq’s Submission and I’m paging through Karl Ove to see if it’s possible to  commit to The Struggle, which I’ve been saving for when I’m convalescing from flu. Strangely, I find no pleasure reading these authors. With some exceptions, mostly their sentences ring pithy as hammers banging through rock, stripped of imagery, lacking sensuality, self-involved with their own drama. And yet, and yet – they are driven, relentless, trance inducing.

I came to Cusk late because along with Sheila Hati and Claudia Day  (whose recent article in the Paris Review begins with “I wrote the first draft of my novel Heartbreaker in a ten-day mania in August 2015” – I’m supposed to want to read this?) she was part of the New Motherhood, what it means, what price you pay, how to write a novel with children hanging from your clothing sucking your blood. I admit that the topic doesn’t interest me, I simply don’t care;  the topic brings out the worst in me, the me that says, Yes, giving birth is a big deal, yes domesticity is the death of freedom, yes, it is the birthing of the death of another and yes, it’s also a big deal to write a novel while a mother. Yes yes yes, there are consequences for everything, get over it, find something else to write about.  Aside from Patty Smith and Keith Richards, who have a ball writing about their =interesting, demonic lives, I can’t think of a memoir worth writing.

What it boils down for me to is this: Everything in life is someone’s drama, and eventually, unless it is transformed into language, paint, color, rhythm, movement, conversation; story; into beauty, it feels like just one more voice  grinding away in the background with the clothes dryer.

Which, if you’re DeLilio, or Robert Altman and maybe Rachel – well, drone on.

Rusdie and the “Rubble of Truth”

I start this new day indoors with a warming fire, dog in the vicinity of my feet. Outside it rains hard. I look at my planet from the safety of my window and marvel. How the brown earth is a skin with the color green bursting from every pore with haze sweating off the surface of the pond, how tears flood the gulley, how the lilacs have been and are now gone without protest, how the swallows investigate the eves of my house as further nests, and how I wish they would accept my invitation to stay.

This is from Rusdie in the New Yorker. I’ve always disliked him, but this version of “why we write” reminds us of possibillities beyond ego and mood.

“In Germany, after the Second World War, the authors of what was called Trümmerliteratur, or “rubble literature,” felt the need to rebuild their language, poisoned by Nazism, as well as their country, which lay in ruins. They understood that reality, truth, needed to be reconstructed from the ground up, with new language, just as the bombed cities needed to be rebuilt. I think we can learn from their example. We stand once again, though for different reasons, in the midst of the rubble of the truth. And it is for us—writers, thinkers, journalists, philosophers—to undertake the task of rebuilding our readers’ belief in reality, their faith in the truth. And to do it with new language, from the ground up.”

 

If you see this woman, call….

So, say the perpetrator returns the rock to its rightful owner, the river. Does the river owe her $17,500? Does Yoko owe the river for the rocks she took? If  she took 200 rocks from the river, that makes $3,500,000.00 minus gallery rental, transportation, labor, taxes, adjusting for inflation.  Still, not bad, for a river.

 

Woman Steals $17,500 Rock from Yoko Ono Installation

 

The new songbirds of North America

Today I read there are people who net pigeons in New York City and drive them away in minivans. Where do they take them? Here, in the country, the dawn is empty of sound. Now and then, a pair of flycatchers darts across the lake. A robin rests on the lawn studying my next-door neighbor who is riding around on his lawnmower masticating worms, slugs, grubs, grass, frogs, all their eggs and the footprints of his tiny little granddaughter who runs before the machine trailing a balloon. Four Senatorial black crows shoot across the blades, scream off to the beach where thousands more convene. In the evening, the bunnies show up and my next-door neighbor shoots them from his porch. He also shoots the cormorants nesting on the island off his boat dock because they slime the teak on his 1924 Chris Craft Cruiser that he drives across the bay twice a year for dinner. Also, the raccoon families residing close to his garbage, these he catches in have-a-heart traps and carries them off to shoot in the woods. We still have racoons, but my sky fills with bird song.  Sixty-eight percent of the songbirds have vanished. I have been wondering about their replacements. I mention this to my neighbor, who has invited me over for a cocktail. My neighbor doesn’t understand why I am pessimistic. No birds were missing at his place, he tells me. Ditto for the bats and mosquitoes. I ask him, how then does he explain the muteness of the dawn? The lack of Birds on the Wires? The lonely morning dove mourning on my roof?  Hasn’t he read Ferlinghetti, I ask, smirking, because I know he believes all poets, like annoying animals, should be shot.

They were putting up the statue of St. Francis in front of the church of St.Francis
in the City of San Francisco In a little side street just off the avenue
where no birds sing
and a lot of old Italians were standing all around on the little side street

just off the Avenue watching the wily workers who were hoisting up the statue
with a chain and a crane
and other implements

and a lot of young reporters in button-down clothes were taking down the words of one young priest who was propping up the statue
with all his arguments

and all the while, while no birds sang any St. Francis Passion
and while the lookers kept looking up at Saint Francis 
with his arms outstretched
to the birds who weren’t there

a very tall and very purely naked young virgin
with very long and very straight straw hair
wearing only a very small bird’s nest
in a very existential place

kept passing through the crowd all the while
and up and down the steps in front of St. Francis
her eyes downcast all the while
and singing to herself

 My neighbor’s daughter came to my garden to help me pick off the red beetles eating my lilies. She’s hiding from her father because he is teaching her child to step on newborn baby voles. They went for a walk in the woods where he demonstated how to do this. I imagine a giant vole with a mouthful of poisoned teeth scurries up the path to the porch where her father sits drinking gin and tonic. The rodent will climb up his legs, hoist itself on his shoulders and squirt a stream of baby voles up his nostrils.

Then all the songbirds that used to be will open their beaks to sing their hallelujah for everyone in the world but my neighbor to hear.

 

Food In A Box

This afternoon, on NPR’s On Point, I’m listening to a conversation about Trump’s idea to feed low-income people meals in a box. Trump wants to tell us what to eat? How crazy is that? Look at him, listen to him – do we want to eat what he eats? We know that he likes food in a box, that he eats MacDonald’s because the food is in a box so no one who wants to poison him will know it is his food. The box will keep him safe. Does it follow that by giving poor people their food in a box, they too will be kept safe?

I don’t think so. I think they’ll be kept malnourished. There’s tons of food waste in America, and he wants children to eat, what? A box of what? No choice of fresh vegetables, fruits. Instead, how about canned peaches, Kraft cheese; remember when Reagan tried to convince us that Ketchup was a vegetable?

I’m thinking about the Republican war on poverty, which more accurately means a war on poor people. The rules are: don’t build affordable housing, take away fuel assistance, refuse a minimum living wage, make sure health care and pharmaceuticals stay unaffordable, get rid of food stamps, legal abortions, contraception and keep them in jail.

I’m standing in front of the stove listening to this conversation, scrambling eggs when Robert walks in. He’s the director of a community action program. He runs the food shelf, he knows about poverty, he’s at the heart of our regional conversation about food. The conversation goes like this: when people are hungry, we have to feed them, but feeding them also encourages people staying in poverty. If we don’t feed poor people, the argument goes, they will have to work,  even if the work offered is dead end servitude without a living wage and they will be hungry anyway,

Do we have to ask why people self-medicate? Opioids?  Alcohol? Junk food? Suicide? Prison? Join the military? Become twitter trolls?

What if we offered all our people a decent life? We live in Vermont. Here, we encourage gleaners, we distribute organic eggs, we give away chicks to families to raise, chicks turn into chickens who turn into pot pies. At the food shelves, there’s meat in the freezers, whole grains in bulk, food that otherwise will be thrown away. This delicate, crude system depends upon volunteer labor, supported by taxpayers with help from the federal government.

This system is shameful, difficult, unreliable, self-perpetuating – but this is what we have. People – more and more each day –  come to the food shelves, and sometimes the food is fresh from the farms because we produce more food than non-poor people can eat. Why would it please us to make it worse?

Robert has brought me a Valentine’ gift. A recyclable jar of CBD Gummies in a bright red package. Let’s watch a movie, I say. Let’s eat them all.

What’s in a parade?

Our great leader wants a parade! He deserves one. After all, he stopped our American Carnage, just as he said he would in his  inaugural speech.  And  didn’t he vow to bring back our borders,  (although he never said where they went)? Also to get back the wealth that the world ripped away from the middle class, at least get it back to him, and make “America First”, although this last has not gone over well with some, but hey, they’ll figure it out? And didn’t he invent that great phrase “alternate facts”? Get that old failed Washington Post to add up all his 2000 lies, falsities, misleading statements? Fire an FBI director? Decide to deport a home grown gang? Grab pussy because he could?

So much to celebrate, America.

He didn’t get a military parade for his inauguration, so let’s make up for that. Remember that his inauguration was the biggest crowd ever, that he won the popular vote, but someone stole it, and maybe those are the people who should  pay for the parade, like they will for the border wall, although that’s Mexico.  Beside, that  fatter guy, Kim Jong-un has parades all the time, so why shouldn’t he? Bigger ones, because of his bigger button.

So while it’s will be heartening for us to see all his hardware, and know our great leader and his generals will be there to protect us, I still wonder, is there anyone around to stop him?

Let the people decide

Tonight, avoiding the (not my) president’s State of the Union, I’m realizing (again) that without systemic change, our country’s governance will only sway from left to right, consolidating power from one party to the other; elections will be determined by the party establishment over the will of the people.

I’m writing a novel, part of which takes place in the sixties, so I’m researching, rehashing, reliving the times.

In 1968, after Robert Kennedy’s assasination, his now non-committed delegates which, coupled with those of Eugene McCarthy, had a combined majority. These candidates were the favorites of the anti-war and pro-civil rights left. Instead of acknowledging this, the delegates were assigned to Hubert Humphrey. He was a man of corny wholesomeness with a perpetual smile, he sounded sane on civil rights, but he was associated with LBJ’s highly unpopular Vietnam policy. He had no charisma, had never campaigned in any primary and was unwinnable, even against the equally untelegenic Richard Nixon, who handily won. Another way of saying this was that we got Richard Nixon because of the machinations of the Democratic party.

All these years later, it’s 1968 redoux.  The DNC assigned its uincommitted “super delegates” to another unwinnable candidate instead of splitting them with the increasingly popular Bernie Sanders, and now we have Donald Trump. Of course Sanders might not have beat him, but again, the machinations of the party, turning its back on its growing progressive wing, refused to give his canditacy a chance. Of course one could argue that Bernie was not “really” a Dem (he did call himself a Democratic Socialist.) But his running as a Democrat, rather than as a progressive third party candidate, prevented a splitting of the vote, which could have ensured a Republican win. 

Who are these super delegates? Quoting Mark Plotkin in thehill.com, March 2016,: “The whole deal stinks. It’s wrong, unfair and undemocratic. The central element of democracy is elections. Why, oh why, should the supposed “party of the people” reserve nearly one-thirds of their delegates for a select group of individuals who don’t have to stand for election?” 

Getting rid of the College won’t solve our screwed up election system: there’s still the enormous power of big money, of corporations as people, of special interest lobbying, of corruption, of dispicably immoral candidates, of kleptocracy – in short, what we got.