Friday, July 31, 2009
The Writing of History
Purchased at Talking Leaves Books when I was in graduate school. I put it on one of my oral exam lists, "The Philosophy of History," with Rodolphe Gasché (click here to view list). I certainly read the book, as I wrote all over it, but I'll be damned if I can remember it this morning. I have no recollection of the argument at all. I don't recall that it played a huge role in the exam itself, where we focused more on Adorno, Hegel and Foucalt, which is probably why I don't remember it. Even copying out the following, which I underlined, I still remember nothing.
from the Introduction
"Studious and charitable, tender as I am for the dead of the world...thus I roamed, from age to age, always young and never tired, for thousands of years." The open road--"my road"--seems to take hold of the text of this traveller on foot: "I went, I wandered...I ran along my path...I went...as a bold voyager." Walking and/or writing is a labor knowing no rest, "by force of desire, pricked by an ardent curiosity that nothing could restrain." Michelet multiplies his meetings, with "indulgence" and "filial fear" in respect to the dead who are the inheritors of a "strange dialogue," but also with the assurance "that never could anyone ever stir up again what life has left behind." In the sepulcher which the historian inhabits, only "emptiness remains." Hence this "intimacy with the other world poses no threat": "This security made me all the more charitable toward those who were unable to harm me." Every day he becomes "younger" by getting acquainted over and over again with this world of the dead, and definitely other.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
This is an autographed copy given to me by the author, or possibly by Dennis Maloney, publisher, when Aleš came to Buffalo in, I think, 2004.
Aleš Debeljak is a Slovenian poet. There must be something in the water over there, as they produce quite a lot of good poets despite the fact that there are only 2,000,000 citizens and only a few more speakers of Slovenian. Apparently, the poets actually have some status in that society, another remarkable fact.
Aleš did a week's worth of events in Buffalo, including several school visits. I remember it being kind of a crazy week. The first day we went to a Buffalo public school and I failed to prep Aleš about the U.S. education system. He gave a great lecture on aesthetics that flew right over the heads of the tenth graders to whom he was speaking.
On the second day I left him at an honors school all day, which apparently went fine until the school had a fire drill. The teachers and administrators marched everyone out to the sidewalk, including Aleš, who thought that, being outside, he might as well take advantage of the opportunity to light up a smoke -- in front of all the students. I guess the principal nearly keeled over when she saw that and was on the phone to Just Buffalo all afternoon.
(My how times have changed. I had teachers in high school who used to smoke in class, and students were all allowed to smoke in our last two years, juniors off campus and seniors in the senior lounge.)
Another day, I took Aleš to lunch at Betty's cafe. Right as the meal was ending, I had an attack of vertigo. I have a "condition' (meaning doctors can accurately describe the symptoms but can do nothing to cure them) known as "labyrinthitis," which causes me on occasion to get such intense vertigo that I can't even walk. It's like being blind drunk without the alcohol. As it came upon me, I told Aleš what was happening and said that I couldn't drive. He said he would try to drive me home. We got in the car and the vertigo was so bad I could barely open my eyes to tell him where to make the turns. We made it home, where I promptly popped some anti-nausea medication and fell asleep.
At the end (or was it the beginning?) of the week I invited two other poets from (or descended from) the former Yugoslavia: Semezdin Mehmedinovic and Ammiel Alcalay. All of them knew one another so it was a big reunion of sorts. Everyone stayed at our house in Black Rock and I can remember hearing the screen door opening and closing all night as they went outside to smoke.
from Sketches for the Return
Your story's simple. You won't see many loved ones when you return, like and otter surfacing in a lake to catch its breath. You won't find words for short greetings, the seasons, unsuccessful missions, white phosphorous lighting the passion in soldier's eyes, a distant whistle on steep hillsides you never climbed, children's cane baskets floating silently across a river basin, the way you have a constant burning pain, the constellations discovered in a premonition, Oriental love songs, the disappointment of everything we wee and will be. Believe me: this is your story. Later, I'll tell it again -- only better.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Comments on the Society of the Spectacle
I also purchased this at St. Mark's books at some point in the mid-nineties. In fact, I may have purchased this book before I purchased the original because I was unable to find a copy of Society of the Spectacle.
The thing I most recall about reading this is that it is tinged with a note of sadness. The author looks back on his original book (and on May 1968) and determines that his description of the spectacle was in fact accurate --- that is, the spectacle IS modern life to such an extent that even the May revolution represents just a slight disturbance of its operations and must in the light of the success of the spectacle be considered a failure.
As I recall, it's a bit less abstract than the original, a bit less concerned with the concept of the spectacle on the grand scale and more focused on looking at how the spectacle has developed over time in very specific ways.
There's an excellent commentary on the use of "experts" by television news organizations who purport to know something about a subject, but whose main function is to deliver messages from the powers that be with "authority."
I remember he spends a fair amount of time examining the use of the term "terrorist" to describe anyone who speaks out against the form which society takes in the present, especially those with the gall criticize a democratic society.
Beyond what is strictly secret, spectacular discourse obviously silences anything it finds inconvenient. It isolates all it shows from its context, its past, its intentions and its consequences. It is thus completely illogical. Since no one may contradict it, it has the right to contradict itself, to correct its own past. The arrogant intention of its servants, when they have put forward some new, and perhaps still more dishonest version of certain facts, is to harshly correct the ignorance and misinterpretations they attribute to their public, while theday before they themselves were busily disseminating the error, with their habitual assurance.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Society of the Spectacle
Purchased at St. Mark's Books at some point in the early-to-mid-nineties.
I became aware of Guy Debord and Situationism reading Greil Marcus' book Lipstick Traces.
I can recall wandering around Paris in 1993 hoping I might find some surviving trace of graffiti left over from the student uprisings of May 1968. I managed to find a few postcards, but that was all.
When I think back on that period, I'm amazed at how difficult it was to find a book like this. After reading the Marcus book, I wanted to read all about Situationism and Dada and Surrealism and so forth. It was difficult to find a proper bibliography on any of these subjects without access to a university library, and then even if you did have access, there was no guarantee a library would have a book or that your local bookstore would have one either, and finding a used copy required a combination very hard work and happenstance.
I feel little nostalgia for that kind of scarcity.
I was convinced at some point that Debord was a kind of oracle and set about trying to decipher his Delphic pronouncements. My copies of Society of the Spectacle and Lipstick Traces are both filled with notes and drawings and so forth in which I was trying to make sense of what Debord was saying. I read SS long before I had read any kind of theory and so had absolutely no experience with that level of jargon.
I remember once being very excited because they were going to show Debord's film of the same title at the Anthology FIlm Archives. The screening was sponsored by an East Village anarchist collective that took itself very, very seriously. They put fliers on each chair in the theater that we were asked to read before the film was introduced. The fliers said things like -- "there is no humor in this film," "laughter is counter-revolutionary," "those who laugh reveal their lack of political commitment," and so forth.
The head of the collective, who was named John X. Doe or something clever like that, and who wore combat books and dark Ray-Ban sunglasses, introduced the film. Instead of speaking directly to the audience, he carried a boom box to the stage, set it on a stool, pressed 'play,' and stomped off. His intro was more or less a rehashing of what the fliers we had received beforehand said.
I guess it was performance art or political theater or something, but if it was, they never let on, and I think everyone in the audience felt assaulted. People started shouting things like, "Shut up and start the film." The performance would have been pretty funny except that it wasn't.
Thanks to ubuweb, you can now view the film online here.
You can also read the whole book here.
From Society of the Spectacle:
In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.
The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudoworld that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world evolves into a world of autonomized images where even the deceivers are deceived. The spectacle is a concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the nonliving.
The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as society itself, as a part of society, and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is the focal point of all vision and all consciousness. But due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is in reality the domain of delusion and false consciousness: the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of universal separation.
The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.
The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective.
Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the result and the project of the dominant mode of production. It is not a mere decoration added to the real world. It is the very heart of this real society’s unreality. In all of its particular manifestations — news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment — the spectacle represents the dominant model of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production. In both form and content the spectacle serves as a total justification of the conditions and goals of the existing system. The spectacle also represents the constant presence of this justification since it monopolizes the majority of the time spent outside the production process.
Separation is itself an integral part of the unity of this world, of a global social practice split into reality and image. The social practice confronted by an autonomous spectacle is at the same time the real totality which contains that spectacle. But the split within this totality mutilates it to the point that the spectacle seems to be its goal. The language of the spectacle consists of signs of the dominant system of production — signs which are at the same time the ultimate end-products of that system.
The spectacle cannot be abstractly contrasted to concrete social activity. Each side of such a duality is itself divided. The spectacle that falsifies reality is nevertheless a real product of that reality. Conversely, real life is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle, and ends up absorbing it and aligning itself with it. Objective reality is present on both sides. Each of these seemingly fixed concepts has no other basis than its transformation into its opposite: reality emerges within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real. This reciprocal alienation is the essence and support of the existing society.
In a world that is really upside down, the true is a moment of the false.
Monday, July 27, 2009
The Long Loneliness
I think someone gave this to me in college, but I don't remember who it was. Dorothy Day's memoir was a sort of bible for my friends, many of whom were equally devoted Catholics and Socialists, as was Day herself.
A lot of this had to do with my real life experience working in activist circles on various collective projects. While I find the idea of voluntary collectivism at the societal level a very compelling and beautiful one, I find the realpolitik of working in a collective situation among collectivists absolutely maddening. Part of this has to do with my personality. When I want to work on a project, say, protesting a war, or feeding the homeless, or educating kids in poor urban areas, I want to focus on that one thing and to do it well. The tendency of many of the collectivist groups I've worked with has been to want to mix it all together at once, which often causes a kind of paralyzing inability to move forward with a project in any kind of coherent or effective way.
A good example of this was when a group of us got together to try to start a charter school in NYC in the early 90's. We had a few planning meetings, which started off in a very promising way -- lots of good discussion about educational philosophy, school activities, facilities, administration and so forth, but after a few meetings, things started to lose focus. People wanted the school to not only educate kids, but also their parents, not only to provide education in general, but also to fight poverty and homelessness and hunger and to have a resettlement program for refugees from countries in which the US was meddling, etc etc etc. In other words, the school was swallowed up by everyone's desire to combat injustice at every level of society. The long and the short of this was that we put in a farcical application and didn't get the charter.
Anyhow -- I am short on time, so no excerpt this morning. I feel like am ranting a lot now that I've reached the D's. I wonder what that is all about.
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Active 24 Hours
I am not certain how I obtained this book, but I can narrow it down to two circumstances:
Either I got it when I worked at the Segue Foundation back in the mid-nineties or I got it from Charles Bernstein when I was in graduate school. I am pretty sure the latter is the case.
Charles, as I think I may have mentioned before, often had stacks of single book titles sitting on the window sills and bookcases in his office at SUNY Buffalo. Many times as we arrived for class he would hand out free copies of those books he'd received in large quantities. I have a vague memory of him having handed us all copies of this title.
On the other hand, I also remember seeing Alan Davies read at the Segue Foundation back in 1996 or 1997 and I remember really liking the poems he read that night, which might very well have lead me to walk down to the basement office and to pluck a copy of this book off the shelf to take home.
Either way, here it is.
from The Outer Layers of Nervousness
A: The churning world charms its cadaverous tracks.
Inimitable thin louvers of wrath reels
twist waste outer fabrics worn luckily less.
Crags sweater this festered sling remorse.
C: Infrequently substantive intensives luff creases,
wake creases nurturing in trended wears
surfing sloughlingly hard lines of soporific pathos.
Warbled surceases amound a laxer contrivance
Saturday, July 25, 2009
The Prose Of Fact
Purchased at The Strand several years ago. I think I must have shown up after Bernadette Mayer sold off a part of her library. This volume is inscribed by Michael Davidson thusly:
in recognition of her own prose
in fact, effect
Aug. 25, 1981
I can't imagine this was inscribed to another Bernadette. But who knows? Maybe it was. Maybe there is another Bernadette that is also a writer and who also happens to run in the same circles as Michael Davidson and whom he also happens to admire.
Anyhow, I am pretty sure my dually autographed copy of Bill Berkson and Philip Guston's Enigma Variations also came from Bernadette's library, as I bought it at the same store on the same day. I probably should have stuck around a little longer to see if there was more!
At the same time
is a few degrees away
but he thinks
it starts over,
the Bear stepping into place,
and to the right
whose month he is
has never seen
is to the south
what connects us
keeping their distance,
with the Minotaur
have been recorded
have been recorded
Friday, July 24, 2009
I bought this several years ago at Talking Leaves Books. In fact, I am pretty sure it is the first Krupskaya book I ever purchased and that I was seduced by the beautiful packaging. I love the stark white letters on the orange-white cover. I asked Lori this morning to name the color -- she said it was scarlet or orange-red. I think I like the way the latter sounds.
Scarlet makes me think of Gone With The Wind, which I have never seen. I can't rightly say why I have never seen the film, other than that it's been going on so long now it's become a point of pride. I have seen several thousand movies in my life, many of them two or three times, and I do try to have a sense of the history of film. But then I think there is something interesting about having gaps in one's knowledge, and that in many ways it's the gaps that are the most interesting parts of our knowledge. Lacunae. And then thinking that gaps are the most interesting part of our knowledge I think that having intentional gaps in our knowledge is even more important and more interesting. There are just some things we should not know about. There are things about which we should refuse to know. We can know they are there, that they exist, and that they have had possibly huge cultural and historical ramifications and that they have meant many things to many people, that they have changed people's lives in significant ways and for just that very reason we should refuse to know about them. To say to ourselves, "I will not allow this one thing to touch me." And then of course we realize by not letting it touch us, by turning our backs to it, it has already affected our lives in a new and completely unexpected way, giving it a kind of talismanic or anti-talismanic power over us. It becomes a magical gap into which we might imagine ourselves one day leaping. But never do.
Game, a cavalcade of desire, cleaning all. Every infection is mine to invest, lingering to arrive, levels around scarcity, bodes of forbearance. There is a direct route, access being denied. This is a guess: attention, density, tension, identical locations. A range blocks the day, hand passing money at it then. Known is a lie, walk along, vent the limit, insist and predict, status renames. Hold up your head, if you want. This is playing a game, a cavalcade of desire disguised as traditions, contained and framed in a thirty second grip.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
The Descent of Man
I think this was also purchased for Elizabeth Grosz's course when I was in graduate school. I should note that if I bought a book for a graduate school course, I almost certainly purchased it at Talking Leaves Books. However, in this instance, I have a vague recollection that Grosz, newly arrived in Buffalo at the time, ordered her books through the campus bookstore, and that we had to purchase them there unless they happened to be in stock in the same edition at TL.
The campus bookstore at SUNY Buffalo sits in a sort of hidden corner of the student shopping mall at the center of the campus. Said shopping mall is, for me, at the heart of everything that is wrong with modern higher education, at least insofar as it is practiced at SUNY Buffalo. The min-mall contains restaurants, bookstores, a travel agent, a tanning salon, etc.(Or, at least it did then). Add to that the fact that every student's ID card doubles as a debit card that can used throughout the campus and you start to see that the model for present day university education is not the Jeffersonian one, wherein those that want to attain knowledge for its own sake seek out the university and the great minds housed therein in order to attain it from them.
Rather, today's system is based on a consumerist model. Students are taught to save, shop and manage debt. All valuable real world skills that have nothing to do with higher learning. This kind of thinking is then extended into the classroom, where students are given the opportunity to shop around for two weeks before deciding on a class, thus shortening the actual semester by two weeks and wasting the time of those students and professors ready on day one.
But the most insidious element of all is that the students see their education purely and simply as a commodity. They are paying tuition in order to get the grades required to be accredited for future employment. Professors are seen as sales reps who help the students shop around for a career they might enjoy and then cash them out at the end of the course with one more necessary piece of the career puzzle.
When I was teaching, I was continually amazed at the students' incredulity when given a bad grade, or their inability to admit error, failure, lack of effort, cheating, lax thinking, or anything else. Most of them had completely assimilated the consumerist mindset:
"I am paying you money, you give me what I want. I don't care what it is or how it is packaged, I just know I need it to get something else I want (more money) and I've got the money to pay for it so give me an "A." Now."
This is not really an argument for a grading system or anything of that sort -- I would prefer the Jeffersonian model -- but if you are going to have a grading and merit system in education, then it should at least count for something. In the current situation, the consumerist model undermines any effort to create a truly merit-based system and renders the idea of a Jeffersonian one a fool's paradise.
Anyhow, enough of my yakking.
From The Descent of Man:
The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely, that man is descended from some lowly organised form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many. But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians. The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind- such were our ancestors. These men were absolutely naked and bedaubed with paint, their long hair was tangled, their mouths frothed with excitement, and their expression was wild, startled, and distrustful. They possessed hardly any arts, and like wild animals lived on what they could catch; they had no government, and were merciless to every one not of their own small tribe. He who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame, if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins. For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper, or from that old baboon, who descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs- as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.
Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future. But we are not here concerned with hopes or fears, only with the truth as far as our reason permits us to discover it; and I have given the evidence to the best of my ability. We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system- with all these exalted powers- Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
The Voyage of The Beagle
Purchased at the Niagara Falls Outlet Mall Discount Book Store. I don't know how little I paid because, as you can see in the picture, I removed the price sticker. I never actually read this one myself, but I recall that Lori read it a couple of years back. I know this because Lori runs a decorative painting and mosaic business and the bookmark on page 402-3 is actually a Benjamin Moore Paint Sample. It contains three colors (in descending order from dark to light): greenfield pumpkin (HC-40), richmond gold (HC-41) and roxbury caramel (HC-42). It looks like the client (or Lori) may have chosen HC-41, richmond gold, as there is something written on that square (1/1 c 235) in Lori's hand.
Here's an excerpt from the page on which she left off:
The Mosaic account of the Creations is so intimately connected with that of the Deluge that I must ask my young reader (whom I alone presume to address this subject) to turn to the first chapter of Genesis, and refer to a very few verses with me. We soon find a remarkable fact, which shows to my mind that the knowledge of Moses was super-human: his declaration in an early age that light was created before the sun and moon, which must till then have appeared to be the sources of light.
(This is actually Robert Fitzroy writing in the appendix.)
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
The Origin of Species
Purchased in graduate school for a course taught by Elizabeth Grosz called something like, "Being and Becoming." Grosz only taught at Buffalo for a couple of years, but she quickly developed a huge following because of her unbelievably brilliant lectures on philosophy.
I recall she drew a line that ran from Darwin to Nietzsche to Bergson to Deleuze (fitness - eternal return - duration - difference & repetition) and that it was pretty thrilling to listen as she wove it all together each week. She presented Darwin's theories as far more radical than they are taught even by well meaning college professors.
the final paragraph of Origin:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Monday, July 20, 2009
Sinclair, John D.
The Divine Comedy
The professor who taught the class for which this book was purchased encouraged us to ask ourselves three simple questions about each work:
1. What does the author say?
2. What does he mean? (Yeah, he used the "universal" he. Sigh.)
3. Is it true or beautiful?
I always liked the "or" of the last question because it both creates and destroys the equivalence between the two terms. The first question asks about the text. The second asks how to interpret the text in an old-timey-author-as-authority kind of way. The third is about making a value judgment. In this formulation the text at hand can be considered valuable in three situations:
1. If it is true
2. If it is beautiful
3. If it is true AND beautiful
I like the fact that it could be either true OR beautiful and still have value. Presumably it would have optimum value if it were both. I also like the little Keatsian ring this formulation has to it. It's kind of a nifty little snap shot of New Criticism, don't you think?
For the third and final paper in this class, we were again asked to compare our experience to Dante's. And Jesus fell.
Looking back, I could have easily written a paper about ascending toward sobriety and some sort of religious awakening. I would almost certainly have received another A ++. Alas, it was not to be. I got a B+ and and then an A- for the course. I guess the extra pluses didn't have any real numerical value.
My problem with AA from the first minute was the whole religious thing. AA makes all kinds of claims about being unaffiliated with any single religious idea. This is a bit of a lie. AA is steepednot just in religion, but in Christian religious thought. When I started going in the early 90's it was also seized with a passion for all kinds of self-help, new age, guru-driven hoo-ha that just about drove me mad.
The few times I tried to express my sincere doubts about the religious elements of the program I was told in the most condescending terms that everyone felt that way at the beginning and that I would eventually come around. I never did, and I eventually stopped going, though I have managed to remain sober all these years.
Anyhow, in my third paper I sort of made my own value judgment that although something might be beautiful, it is better for it to be true, and that the Paradiso, though quite beautiful, was the least believable, the least attainable, the least comprehensible, and therefore the least relevant of all three books to my life (or to anyone else's for that matter.)
Suffering I got. Paying penance, ditto. Seraphim and cherubim, golden altars and piercing beams of light, not so much.
The same went for AA, where I used to go to three kinds of meetings:
1. Student Meetings
2. Bronx meetings
3. Manhattan meetings.
Student meetings were alright because we were all kind of in it together, trying to stay sober during college, when everyone around us was getting plastered 24/7. It helped to be among those who shared your suffering. Bronx meetings had a tough, hard-bitten, no-nonsense character about them. People often said things like, "Don't drink. Go to meetings. Or die. It's your choice." I always found that kind of thing useful, despite the fact that my life as a middle-middle class kid from the suburbs had little to do with the lives of the people in the Bronx.
And then there were the Manhattan meetings. My friend Jerome from the Bronx used to call Manhattan the Isle of Self-Importance, which is quite an apt description. Manhattan meetings were often long bitch sessions that included people talking about their therapists and their marital problems and their stalled/failed/former/future acting careers and so on and everyone seemed to believe they were owed something. There was a lot of talk about about meditating and using crystals and incense and getting colonics and taking vitamins and on and on and on, none of which I found useful beyond the fact of sitting in a room with a group of people not drinking or getting high.
Somewhere back in this post I knew where I was going with this -- I guess I was thinking that the Bronx AA was like the Inferno and Purgatorio -- visceral, practical, real -- whereas and Manhattan AA was like the Paradiso -- detached, removed, unattainable and fantastical.
Of course, as soon as I graduated from college I moved to Manhattan and lived there for the next 5 years. Then I moved to Buffalo, where have lived for 12. I guess I prefer the hard-bitten.
from the Paradiso:
O ye who in a little bark, eager to listen, have followed behind my ship that singing makes her way, turn back to see your shores again; do not put forth on the deep, for, perhaps, losing me, you would be left bewildered.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Sinclair, John D.
The Divine Comedy
Also purchased at the Fordham University Bookstore for the aforementioned course on the Spiritual Journey. (Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, Bruce Andrews was teaching two buildings away -- I wish he'd offered a class on the Inferno!). One thing I like about this edition is the covers, which feature Gustave Doré's illustrations. I recall we were required to purchase a collection of all of them, which I have since lost.
For our second paper, we were given the same assignment as the first -- that is, to compare our own experience to Dante's, only this time in the Purgatorio. As I mentioned, I wrote the first paper comparing my experiences with drugs and alcohol to Dante's experience in Hell.
Naturally, I compared my experience of getting sober through the 12 Steps of AA to his experience in Purgatory. Whereas those in Purgatory were their to purge their guilt in order to ascend to Paradise, so was I following the twelve steps to purge myself of all that lead me to drink in order to ascend to ... what? I can't quite remember. The important part was that the 12 steps were a process of purgation leading somewhere up. Anyhow, I got an A ++ again!
from the Purgatorio:
To course over the better waters the little bark of my wit now lifts her sails, leaving behind her so cruel at sea, and I will sing of that second kingdom where the human spirit is purged and becomes fit to ascend to heaven. But here let poetry rise again from the dead. O holy muses, since I am yours; and here let Calliope rise up for a while and accompany my song with that strain which smote the ears of the wretched pies so that they despaired of pardon!
Saturday, July 18, 2009
Sinclair, John D.
The Divine Comedy:
Purchased at the Fordham University Bookstore, most likely within the first year after I read the Ciardi translation mentioned in the previous entries -- 1989 or 90. To give you an idea of the education I received there -- this was taught neither in the literature department nor even in the modern languages department. It was taught in the theology department. I remember the course well -- it was called something like: Dante's Divine Comedy: The Spiritual Journey. It was taught by an older professor of theology named Ewert Cousins, who I earlier described here.
Whereas Ciardi's translation has the virtue of actually being a poem, Sinclair's has little if any virtue other than as a kind of pedant's guide to the DC to be read alongside a verse translation to check the accuracy of the content. It is also in prose, which tells you right off the bat that content is of primary importance, not form. All you need to do is read the first two paragraphs to see that it is a mind-numbingly accurate rendering of the "story," which pays little if any attention to the aesthetic realm of language.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita
Anyhow, I remember the focus Cousin's course was on our own spiritual development. He asked us to write papers that showed we understood how Dante's spiritual journey in the DC pertained to our own lives. At the time, I had been sober somewhere between six months and a year and that process was very much on my mind. I wrote a paper comparing my experiences with alcohol and drugs to Dante's experiences in Hell. I got an A ++.
from the Sinclair translation:
In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell of that wood, savage and harsh and dense, the thought of which renews my fear! So bitter is it that death is hardly more. But to give account of the good which I found there I will tell of other things I noted there.
Friday, July 17, 2009
My brother Chris confirmed in a comment yesterday that I did in fact steal these from him. No hard feelings, apparently, as he says he never made it all the way through.
Comparing the older covers with the newer one on my copy of The Inferno, I must say I prefer the trippy watercolors of the older version. This one, with its abstract crucifixion at the center, is especially pleasing.
I have been thinking back to that summer when I read these in my parents' basement, trying to recall everything that I read. Somewhere there is a notebook that records it all, or at least proudly announces that I read something like 50 books in a single summer. I mostly tried to read all of the books I hadn't read in high school, which is why I was pilfering my brother's bookcases -- he was still in school at the time and so had all of the books I hadn't read as I was achieving my usual C's and D's in high school English.
I recall starting with The Grapes of Wrath and then reading my way through a lot of Steinbeck. I remember being particularly inspired by a passage in East of Eden, in which Steinbeck narrates the story of a member of the main family deciding to go off and become an artist. The young man must choose either the loneliness and misery of the artist's life or the comforts of a quiet married one. The binary he sets up is between greatness (artist) and mediocrity (regular guy). What inspired me about the story of the artist, who eventually kills himself, escapes me now, as does the logic of this simplistic opposition. But then my recollection of Steinbeck is that although he is a fine storyteller, his moral universe is quite stark and simplistic, which is why I suppose I have never returned to read him again.
(I guess maybe I should save some of this for when I get to "S." When he was here this winter, Kevin Killian asked me if I thought I was telling all the good stories too soon and did I think I would run out before I got to the end of the alphabet. I sometimes ask myself the same question.)
I also remember reading Native Son and Black Boy by Richard Wright. I borrowed a whole pile of books by Hemingway from my friend's mother and read all of those. They were in rough shape then, ad I never returned them and eventually they all fell apart and now I don't have a single title by Papa on my shelf.
I read The Iliad and The Odyssey and The Aeneid. I think I may have read a collection of four or five of Shakespeare's tragedies. I read a primer on Western Philosophy called, From Socrates to Sartre. I read the Alcoholics Anonymous book and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions several times. I may have tried (and failed) to read the Bible, though that may have been the following summer.
I should really look for that notebook. Or not. The problem with old notebooks is that they contain all kinds of embarrassing and depressing things one would like to forget. Every time someone opens a notebook in a film or a book, something bad happens. A lesson worth remembering.
The Paradiso begins:
The glory of Him who moves all things rays forth
through ll the universe, and is reflected
from each thing in proportion to its worth.
I have been in that Heaven of His most light,
and what I saw, those who descend from there
lack both the knowledge and the power to write.
For as our intellect draws near its goal
it opens to such depths of understanding
as memory can plumb within the soul.
Nevertheless, whatever portion time
still leaves me of the treasure of that kingdom
shall now become the subject of my rhyme.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Again, no recollection of when or where I bought this. I may have stolen it from my brother, but I feel like I only took the Inferno from him and that I bought the other two volumes on my own. As I think back on the summer I recounted in the pervious post, I can't say for certain if I read the entire DC at that time or just the first volume. I am pretty sure I read the whole thing.
Anyhow, my parents' basement, where I read all of this, was built into a sort of sub-living room. It had dark brown, wall-to-wall carpeting, light-colored-wood-paneled walls and a pop-tile drop ceiling. 7 or 8 steps led down to the basement from the living room. A small storage close stood to the left at the bottom of the steps. Straight ahead was the wall of the "work" room, which was the enclosed center around which the living area and game area were built. The whole basement was a shaped like a U around the "work" room.
So, down the stairs, turn right, walk through a short corridor to the living area, turn left, the wall of the work room is still on your left and the outer wall of the house with two windows on your right, then left again to the game area the third wall of the work room on your left, the one with the door leading inside.
The living area contained a sofa bed and television and video game console (Atari, as I recall). The game area had a small pool table. The work room was built to hide the furnace and drain and it had a concrete floor, storage shelves and a work bench. No one in my family knew how to use tools of any kind, which didn't stop the neighbor who built the basement (a CIA agent!) from building one for us.
I was not allowed to smoke in the house, but I often used the work room as my smoking area. I would extinguish my cigarettes by dropping them down the drain that caught the water expelled from the air conditioning system. I also did a lot of drinking and getting high in the basement. When I finished a bottle of something, I would pop up on of the ceiling tiles and toss the bottle into the ceiling. One time I popped a ceiling tile and something like $10,000 fell out of the ceiling. Stunned, I ran upstairs to tell my mother. She took the money and told me it was cash from my father's parking business. Apparently that was how he hid our college money from the I.R.S.
Another time, a friend visited from NY and we spent the evening smoking Swisher Sweets cigars in the work room. I think we got caught that night and my friend was sent to stay with another friend. Next morning my father held up the plastic wrapper from the cigar box and demanded -- which one of you brought the PCP? I had to laugh. He was so completely clueless about and fearful of drug culture that it made him paranoid.
Our house was broken into through one of the two basement windows when I was a teenager. The crooks broke a window, despite the fact that the other of the two windows was unlocked. They stole some costume Jewelry and my father's briefcase, which contained a book of blank payroll checks. The briefcase was found in the woods up the street. It had been unlocked also, but the brilliant thieves broke it open with a crowbar. They got caught because they forged one of the checks and convinced some sap to co-sign at the bank. I think the poor guy got stuck with the bill.
The Purgatorio begins:
For better waters now the little bark
of my indwelling powers raises her sails,
and leaves behind that sea so cruel and dark.
Now I shall sing that second kingdom given
the soul of man wherein to purge its guilt
and so grow worthy to ascend to heaven.
Yours am I, sacred muses! To you I pray.
Here let dead poetry rise once more to life,
and here let sweet Calliope rise and play
some far accompaniment in that high strain
whose power the wretched Pierides once felt
so terribly they dared not hope again.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
I suppose you could argue this belongs in either of two other sections of my library. Obviously, Dante's last name begins with "A" and so you might want to place it there. On the other hand, any translation of Dante into English is almost by definition the work of the translator, given the impossibility of translating both the sound and sense of this terza rima epic.
Being as my alphabetized library is organized as it is so I can quickly remember where things are, and since nobody calls Dante anything other than "Dante" and John Ciardi is one of the less memorable poets of the school of quietude, well, there you have it. Dante is filed under "D" and that is that.
I think I stole this particular set of the DC from my younger brother. Or, at the very least, I stole The Inferno and bought the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. However, I gave away the original to a high school student of mine in NYC and ended up replacing it a few years later with this one. Not sure when or where I replaced it, though I do recall having an incomplete set for several years before I did so.
I read the DC on my own one summer while I was in college. I basically spent the entire summer in my parents basement smoking cigarettes, playing guitar and reading everything I could get my hands on. I had just stopped drinking and taking drugs a few months earlier and was trying to keep away from anything that might remind me of the "good old days." When I went out of the house it was usually to go to an AA meeting or to 7-Eleven for a pack of Marlboros.
This translation, which actually attempts a a sort of "two-thirds" rima, was a good one for me to read first because it has useful introductions to each canto, extensive footnotes about all of the mythological characters populating the poem, and notes about numerology, astrology, and theology as animating principles in the structure of the DC as a whole. To say I knew nothing about any of this at the time I read the book would be to give my young self way too much credit!
From the opening Canto:
Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood. How shall I say
what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
Its very memory gives a shape to fear.
Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
But since it came to good, I will recount
all that I found revealed there by God's grace.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Also received in a trade with the author when we read together in LA in September 2007. I think the book was hot off the presses when I received it. I ran into Catherine again a few months later. It was in February. It was New York. It was in a hotel conference room. People hawked books all around us. Suddenly a petite woman with blond hair obscured a black felt pirate hat approached. It was Catherine. We laughed. She smiled. I took a photo. If you would like your own pirate's hat, you might like to visit Captain Jack's Haberdashery. I am not in a typing mood this morning and the poems are longish and not so left-justified in this book, so I'll just excerpt a poem.
From 21 Days
Madinat as-Salam ("City of Peace")
21 Days to forget Arabic
open sesame cave
street "street arabs"
can you tell me how to get
heresy an irresponsible text
a Scheherezade keeps her death at bay
Shahrazade in the shadows of the room
a singer, the war
we live on razor thin illusions no graven images
this is the frame tale, and the end
when will it start again?
Monday, July 13, 2009
Received in a trade with the author along with another title when the two of us read in LA at the Late Night Snack series in September of 2007. When Human Scale came out, I set up a series of readings on the West Coast. Lori and I drove cross-country, stopping along the way in Cleveland, Louisville, Memphis, Norman (OK), Palo Duro Canyon (TX), Santa Fe, Tucson, LA, SF, Portland, Yellowstone, Badlands, and Minneapolis. If you dig into the archives of this here blog you can read all about it, including a report on the aforementioned reading with Catherine.
A rose is very complicated. Folding a rose -- I almost got it. But when I read the rose poem, I faked it and held the tattered piece of paper together.
The patterns here indicate folds to make a rose, but they must be folded in a specific order. After that, there are twisting folds and other folds I did not know how to indicate here.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Because I Was Flesh
Another barely read title by Edward Dahlberg. I bought it at Rust Belt Books. If you look closely, you can see the spine is held together by scotch tape.
Rereading the following I find myself giggling at D's overblown sexual metaphors (Oops. did I just make one myself? Must have been seeing Brüno last night made me do it (oops again).
These are just from the first two paragraphs:
songs of desire
wild concupiscent city
those bound closely to the ground are more sensual
a young, seminal town
The bosom of this town nursed men, mules and horses as famous as the asses of Arcadia
Kansas City is a vast, inland city, and its marvelous river, the Missouri, heats the senses; the maple, alder, elm and cherry trees with which the town abounds are songs of desire, and only the almonds of ancient Palestine can awaken the hungry pores more deeply. It is a wild concupiscent city, and few there are troubled about death until they age or are sick. Only those who know the ocean ponder death as they behold it, whereas those bound closely to the ground are more sensual.
Kansas City was my Tarsus; the Kaw and the Missouri Rivers were the washpots of Joyous Dianas from St. Joseph and Joplin. It was a young, seminal town and the seed of its men was strong. Homer sang of many sacred towns in Hellas which were no better than Kansas city, as hilly as Eteounus and as stony as Aulis. The city wore a coat of rocks and grass. The bosom of this town nursed men, mules and horses as famous as the asses of Arcadia and the steeds of Diomedes. The cicadas sang in the valleys beneath Cliff Drive. Who could grow weary of the livery stables off McGee street or the ewes of Laban in the stockyards?
Saturday, July 11, 2009
Can These Bones Live
I don't recall where I bought this. I have vague memories of having looked at it in St. Mark's. I have vague memories of having looked at it in Talking Leaves Books. I have even more vague memories of having looked at it in Rust Belt Books. All I can say for sure is that I bought it somewhere for $6.50.
My fleeting interest in Dahlberg stemmed from my interest in Olson, as he was an important mentor for the latter before he produced Call Me Ishmael.
I have a memory of reading the opening paragraph to an old girlfriend, also a writer, whose response was, "This is the kind of prose that needs to stop being written."
I never got very far in either of the Dahlberg books I own. I suspect that's the case for most, hence the decline in his reputation over the years.
From The Man Eating Fable:
Truth, Good and Evil revolve like the perpetual wheel to which Ixion was bound. Tamburlaine, the "Scythian thief," sprinkles Asiatic lands with the brains of men, and thirsts the far infinities of the Milky Way; unambitious and loving Hamlet, who can "be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself king of infinite space," embitters the earth; Macbeth speaks truths from Gothic caves of terror; the evil and saturnine Ahab, soaked in a metaphysical revenge and in blood "older than the Pharoahs'," knows moral ecstasies as tender as "...let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into the sea and sky; better than to gaze upon God." Resolve these ambiguities who can?
Friday, July 10, 2009
Bird & Forest
Received as a review copy from Ugly Duckling Presse upon its release a few years ago. Unlike with most review copies I receive, I actually wrote a review of this book. However, it is not online, so no link.
Brent, who many folks know from his work at SPD, arrived in Buffalo in 1997, the same year I did. A whole bunch of interesting people arrived in Buffalo that year and in the following few years, including: Joel Bettridge and Jonathan Skinner and Linda Russo and Roberto Tejada and Chris Alexander and Kristen Gallagher and Barbara Cole and Graham Foust and Anya Lewin and Thom Donovan and Kyle Schlesinger and Rosa Alcalá and Sarah Campbell and Patrick Durgin and Sasha Steensen and Gordon Hadfield and Doug Manson, not to mention those that were already here before we arrived like Alicia Cohen and Yunte Huang and Tom Fisher and Ben Friedlander and Nick Lawrence and Eleni Stecopoulos and Joel Kuszai and Taylor Brady and Scott Pound and Bill Howe and so on and so forth. It was a pretty exciting few years to be around here.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Mairowitz, David Zane
R. Crumb's Kafka
On our first date, I took Lori to the Frankenstein Haunted House in Niagara Falls. As we stepped outside, I joked that we should next try the Dracula Haunted House. She said, "Let's go. I'll pay." On our second date, she came to my apartment and we watched Cronenberg's "Dead Ringers." Amazingly, there was a third date, on which we watched a movie of Lori's choice, which was "Crumb," which is at least as disturbing a choice as Cronenberg. And the rest, as they say, is history. I bought this book for Lori for her birthday, or maybe just as a gift. I am pretty certain I bought it at St. Mark's Books.
K himself was slowly becoming The ADJECTIVE, which would be known by many more people than would ever read his books. Of course -- let's face it -- this has not a little to do with the sound of his terrifiK name and its terrifiK Germanik "K"s, Kutting their way like Kutlasses through our Kollective Konsciousness.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Chicago and the
Purchased online a few years ago. This book takes Cronon's eco-historical approach and applies it to the history of a great city. I think I read it fairly soon after I read the previous title. No memories cropping up except an image of the book itself sitting behind glass in the upstairs bookcase in our last house. A reclaimed set of built-in kitchen cabinets, the bookcase stood in a room we had remodeled into a laundry area that lead to the bathroom. Our bedroom was in the next room and I would have read the book in there, late at night, lying in bed.
From the Prologue:
My earliest memories of Chicago glide past the windows of an old green and white Ford station wagon. I was not yet in grade school. Each summer, my family drove from our home in southern New England to my grandparents' cottage on Green Lake, in central Wisconsin. Most of what remain are backseat memories: looking at comic books with my brother, checking odometer readings to measure the tunnels of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, counting different state license plates on passing cars. I remember the dramatic vistas of the Appalachians, and the descent into Ohio, but as we moved deeper into the Middle West the landscape became at once more uniform and less interesting. Little of it survives in my memory.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Changes in the Land:
and the Ecology
Of New England
Isn't it funny that I haven't posted about a history book for 30 odd entries, yet suddenly there are two in a row by historians whose last names (Cronin/Cronon) differ by only one letter?
Not that funny, I guess.
Anyhow, this is a pretty fascinating piece of eco-history, which I think I purchased online. I was going to say that Jonathan Skinner turned me on to it, but I don't think that's true. I recall telling him at some point that I was reading it. I think he was in the middle of writing his dissertation at the time and when I told him about it he said, Oh yeah, that's a classic.
from the Preface
I have tried in this book to write an ecological history of Colonial New England. By this I mean a history which extends its boundaries beyond human institutions -- economies, class and gender systems, political organizations, cultural rituals -- to the natural ecosystems which provide the context for those institutions. Different peoples choose different ways of interacting with their surrounding environments, and their choices ramify through not only the human community but the larger ecosystem as well. Writing a history of such relationships inevitably brings to center stage a cast of nonhuman characters which usually occupy the margins of historical analysis if they are present at all. Much of this books is devoted to evaluating the changing circumstances of such things as pine trees, pigs, beavers, soils, fields of corn, forest watersheds, and other elements of the New england landscape. My thesis is simple: the shift from Indian tp European dominance entailed important changes -- well known to historians -- in the ways these peoples organized their lives, but it also involved fundamental reorganizations -- less well known to historians -- in the regions plant and animal communities. To the cultural consequences of the European invasion -- what historians sometimes call the "frontier process" -- we must add the ecological ones as well. All were connected by complex relationships which require the tools of an ecologist as well as those of a historian to be properly understood.
(and thus Jonathan Skinner found a calling...
Monday, July 6, 2009
A History of Ireland
I bought this a few years ago after reading Tom Hayden's Irish on the Inside, which I think I mentioned previously. I am pretty sure I bought it at Talking Leaves, but beyond that, I remember little, except in a general-knowledge-of-Ireland kind of way, which is, I suspect, what I bought it for in the first place. It's very concise -- 251 pages. I am certain that influenced my purchase as well.
From Chapter 1
The history of Ireland stretches back into the depths of time. The first settled inhabitants of Ireland were groups of hunters and fishers who travelled the short distance across the water from Scotland into north-eastern Ireland during the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) era. Remaining artifacts of these people are few and far between, but archaeologists are certain they inhabited the areas around modern-day Antrim, -Down, Louth and Dublin in the years after 6000 B.C.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
Debts and Obligations
I am back from my hiatus. Thanks for waiting.
Just before I left, I realized I that had left this book out of the C's. It had been sitting among a pile of recently received titles on my bedside table and hadn't yet made it to my shelves. It is a review copy I got it in the mail from the publisher, O Books.
Alicia Cohen lives in Portland. We go way back to my first days in the Poetics Program. In fact, I think she was the first Poetics student I met after arriving in Buffalo in 1997. I was standing outside of Clemens Hall at UB, smoking a cigarette, when this tall, smiling, friendly woman approached and asked, "Are you the new poetics person?"
We've been friends ever since.
I saw Alicia most recently when I read at the Spare Room reading series with Kathleen Fraser in 2007. She gave me and Lori the grand tour of SE and SW Portland, including her Alma Mater and former employer, Reed College, as well as the site of an out of the way apartment she once shared with Joel Kuszai. Most importantly, she took us to Stumptown Coffee, near PSU, where she and her husband, Tom Fisher, teach. Stumptown makes just about the best lattes I have ever consumed.
I have lots of fond memories of Alicia in Buffalo, including parties and various other events she threw in her different abodes.
One apartment was on the third floor of a house on Ferry St. At the time it was owned by a woman named Rose, who sang folk music. Joel Kuszai also lived in the ground floor apartment. It was a beautiful house in a marginal neighborhood (and is now, sadly, boarded up. O Buffalo, when will you rise from the ashes?).
I recall one party there at which Alicia had a book on, I think, Chinese medicine, which included a chapter on divining the character of a person by determining the shape of their hands. I think there were four basic shapes -- earth, fire, water air -- something liked that. Alicia spent the evening explaining to each of us what kind of hands we had and what our destinies were based on these forms.
I also remember there was a video camera and that I had a long, rambling, sarcastic conversation with Bill Howe that was recorded on said apparatus, and which recording I hope has been lost.
When Alicia and Tom got together they had a great a apartment on Upper College St. in Allentown. I remember sitting in their kitchen eating portobello mushrooms grilled in a balsamic/olive oil/garlic marinade while listening to John Fahey and playing with their now-deceased pooch, Stumpy (RIP).
I once recited a poem at a reading in their apartment that named everyone I had up to that time met in the Buffalo poetry scene.
I also remember discussing poetry communities in their dining room with Devin Johnston and a few others over breakfast, and that Devin remarked on how the conversation was incredibly utopian, which was almost always true about such conversations in Buffalo at that time.
Their apartment had a beautiful bay window in front topped with some floral-patterned stained glass. I think the bay was used as an office for either Tom or Alicia. I always think about them when I walk past it.