A Pickpocket of a Poet Rips Off Wallace Stevens

circa 1940: A pickpocket at work in New York. (Photo by William Davis/General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

accompanied by a labored window unit

 

A motion, the sea voice fluttering, a cry

understood word for word, a summer sound,

tilting in the air, perishing, erased by rain.

 

A serenade, a night wind sigh, out of the spirit

of black waves, the virtuoso ocean

drowning out a song.

 

The wind blowing, a metaphysician

in the dark, a woman, drunk,

dancing a stumble on the shore.

 

Dee Dee Ramone, master of the mamba,

tell me in a doo wop how to get from East Erie

to the Commodore Club. All I know

it’s way above of the Crosstown.

Dee Dee Ramone

 

For That Hard-to-Buy-for Failson

 

failson boy cave

Let’s face it, there’s one in every family. The failson, flunked out, holed up in his childhood bedroom, laundry strewing the floor as if SLED had just stormed in looking for narcotics. Game cartridges with titles like “Postal 2” and “Thrill Kill” scattered around in a dystopian array of cultural decline as if some future museum curator had decided to create an emblematic space screaming Age of Trump!*

If you’re unfortunate to have a failson on a holiday or birthday shopping list, what in the hell are you supposed to do? The easiest copout, of course, is money, but that means you’re probably aiding and abetting the purchase of some illegal substance or enabling the boy’s insatiable addiction to sadistic or pornographic images. This option, especially if you’re a godmother, borders on moral dereliction.

On the other hand, you want to make him happy, which means gifting him with something that’s countercultural; however, for your conscience’s sake, you want your gift to offer some sort of practical positive attribute.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I have a suggestion.

Last Saturday, at my favorite anthropological outpost, the bartenders were playing a game of surreptitiously attaching clothespins to each other — to the tail of an untucked t-shirt, to a dreadlock, to the back brim of my signature panama fedora.

I mentioned that although clothespins seem pretty damned obsolescent, I use them in the pantry to help seal opened bags of potato chips, etc. One of the bartenders called them “the poor man’s roach clip.”

I hadn’t seen a roach clip in probably a quarter of a century. Most readers of this blog won’t need a definition, but just in case you’re a graduate of Bob Jones University, a roach clip is a small device designed to hold what might best be described to the uninitiated as “a marijuana cigarette.” The idea is to consume as much of the product as possible without burning your fingers.

I wondered aloud if in the age-of-vaping roach clips had gone the way of Blockbuster, so one of the barkeeps produced for me a piece of clothing, which, as it turns out, would be perfect for that hard to please failson on your shopping list.

Please note the image below.

Check out the cords for securing the hood of the sweatshirt. Attached to each is a roach clip.

So on the rare occasions when the failson leaves his lair to go outdoors on a chilly day to fetch from the mailbox some abomination he’s ordered from Redbubble, he can continue toking away right down to the bitter end.

Also, the sweatshirt provides a secret hiding place in the hood itself for his stash.

can’t figure out why this came out in black-and-white

And, not only that, unzip the pocket in front, and there’s a hard surface for rolling joints.

Now, let me be clear. I don’t condone the use of cannabis, which studies have shown affects the amygdala in a way that reduces your ability to experience pleasure, which means overuse might render you incapable of appreciating a glorious sunrise or a Muddy Waters groan. Why not embrace mediation to naturally enhance your perceptions of the everyday wonders we so often ignore?

However, explaining this possibility to a failson is like trying to convince a Koch brother than the destruction of the planet from global warming is more important than his personal wealth. In other words, doomed to failure.

At least with the Nugg It sweatshirt, you’re providing warmth  in the context of perhaps the most innocuous illegal substance in states where the use of cannabis is outlawed.

Hey Jude


  • Here’s a description of Postal 2 from the blog ask.men: [Postal 2]  is a game in which it is not uncommon to drop-kick grenades and whip scythes at unsuspecting civilians if they refuse to participate in your everyday life story (which is, after all, the plot behind the game). Of course, this includes using cat carcasses as silencers on your gun, hitting people with anthrax-laden cow heads and playing “fetch” with dogs using the severed heads of your dismembered victims. Postal 2 is the epitome of senseless, over-the-top video game violence.

Dom Pérignon and Reefer

 

(Clicking on the above is worth it.)

Roy Cohn, J Edgar Hoover

no doubt no approve of Muddy Waters,

amassed, I reckon, a dossier on his ass

duly noting his non-workin’ mojo,

dat black cat bone,

his association

with John the Conqueroo.

second cousin of the accused.

Accused of what?

Possession of champagne and reefer.

 

O, the Years, the Years

Jack, cat killer

33 years ago yesterday Judy Birdsong woke me up with this message: “I have some good news and some bad news.”

She was a week overdue, and I had slept in the guest room to avoid the ocean swells generated by our waterbed when she turned over or got out of bed to use the toilet.

She was smiling, so I knew the bad news couldn’t be all that bad. “Okay, let’s have it,” I said.

 

Judy in Rantowles pregnant with Harry petting Jack’s mate Sally

“The good news is that I’m in labor. The bad news is that Jack’s killed a neighbor’s cat.”

Jack was a springer spaniel, very agile, adept at killing cats, squirrels, and raccoons. This was when we lived in Rantowles off Chaplin’s Landing Road in our first bought home, a ranch style three bedroom brick house overlooking Log Bridge Creek. Judy had taken Jack for a walk through the woods, and he had bolted and snagged and dispatched a cat.

Judy explained where the crime had occurred, on the corner of the adjacent street, Burrow Pit Road. So I went to deliver the news to the cat’s owner, retracing Judy’s steps through the woods. When I reached the house, I encountered a couple of fossilized automobiles, you know, the kind with four flat tires. The good news was the place was crawling with cats.

scene of the crime as it appears on google maps today

I went up and knocked on the front door. And older lady opened up and greeted me.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but my dog killed one of your cats.”

She actually chuckled. I’m not making this up. “Oh, don’t worry about that, honey,” she said. “That’s just human nature when it comes to dogs and cats.”

So that was that. I hightailed it home and got into the Lamaze mode of timing contractions. Harrison was born the next morning in the wee hours.

Time flies, but actually it doesn’t seem like yesterday at all. It seems like a hundred years ago.

17 July 1984

 

A Thing Called Perception: A Review of “Portraits of a Marriage” by Sándor Márai

[…] all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,

And what perceive.

Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”

 

Whether your sunglasses are off or on

You only see the world you make.

John Hiatt, “A Thing Called Love”


I’ve just finished at a former student’s strident insistence the Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai’s last work, Portraits of a Marriage. I don’t know if we lose something in the translation of the title, but the narrative might more accurately be dubbed: Satellites of Love or Chain, Chain, Chain of Partners or A Sociological Study of Class Relationships in Hungary from 1930 – 1950.[1]

The thing is that no title can do justice to the mighty compression of meaning that the novel holds. Divided into four parts, the narrative unfolds in the style of a Robert Browning dramatic monologue, with each section narrated by a different character. We are in a concrete setting, a bar or bed, and along with us there is someone listening to a monologue, but we never hear that person speak. Instead, we get remarks like: “Sorry . . . What did you say? Why I started weeping when I saw him just now?”

This auditory technique may be off-putting in a culture dominated by visual imagery where we expect cinematic quick cutting, and I admit the conceit does add a bit too much ballast to suspension of disbelief; however, the articulation of the perceptions of the first three monologists is at once meaningful and conversational.[2]

It begins in Budapest between the wars. Here is Ilonka, the first wife of Peter, an industrialist, describing to a female companion her reaction to finding a decades-old love token in her husband’s wallet, a token that predates her relationship with him:

And now I knew that whatever wonderful or terrible things were happening in the world, it was pointless to accuse myself of selfishness, lack of faith, lack of humility, pointless comparing my problems to those of the world of nations, the problems of millions suffering their various tragedies, because there was nothing I could do – selfish and petty as I was, obsessed and blind as I was – except to get out on the street and search out the woman I had to confront face-to-face, the woman I had to talk to. I had to see her, to hear her voice, look in her eyes, examine her skin, her brow, her hands.

We can’t blame Peter for fleeing such suffocating obsession, and in the second section he tells a colleague what that first marriage was like and how he fared in his second marriage to a servant girl of his household named Judit, the girl who had given him that token, a peasant who literally grew up in a ditch. In England, after she leaves the household, she transforms herself into a highly credible Pygmalion-like creature who knows which fork to pick up. Upon her return, Peter defies social convention and marries this underclassling.[3]

Here is Peter describing the object of his obsession:

It wasn’t a “lady” or a glittering socialite I yearned for. I hoped for a woman with whom I could share a lonely life. But she was terrifying ambitious [. . .] wanting to conquer and take occupation of the world.

The only things she fears is

[h]er own hypersensitivity to offense, some mortal wound to the pride glowing in the depths of her life, her very being. That was what she was afraid of, and everything she did by word, silence, and deed was a form of defense against it. It was something I could never understand.

So what we have here is the Rashomon effect, contradictory accounts of the same event. In the course of these dialogues a quarter of a century passes; we see the class stratification of Hungary before the war, Budapest’s leveling during the war, and its Soviet occupation after the war. All of our principals but Ilonka become ex-pats.

It’s Judit who devours the narrative scenery, talking to her latest lover, a jazz drummer whose stage name is Ede. They’re in Rome in a hotel bed after one of his gigs.  Judit possesses the most experience, having risen from abject poverty to enormous wealth. She’s the least socially conditioned one, and she is able to look upon the events of her life with a sort of anthropological detachment:

High culture, it seems, is not just a matter of museums but something you find in people’s bathrooms and kitchens where others cook for them. Their way of life did not change, not a bit, not even during the siege, would you believe it? While everyone was eating beans or peas, they were still opening tins of delicacies from abroad, goose liver from Strasbourg and such things. There was a woman in the cellar, who spent three weeks there […] on a diet, a diet she maintained even when the bombs were falling. She was looking after her figure, cooking some tasty something on a spirit flame using only olive oil because she feared that the fat in the beans and gristle everyone else stuffed themselves with out of fear and anxiety might lead her to put on weight! Whenever I get to thinking about it, I marvel what a strange thing this thing called culture is.

There is one other character, Lazar, who doesn’t get his own monologue but who appears in every section. He’s a writer, perhaps Márai’s alter ego. Of course, I identify with him because, not only is he bald, but he’s also a pessimist (and who wouldn’t be scrounging around a bombed out city).  He has several quotable passages throughout, but I’m going to have Judit describe him instead of having him speak for himself:

What’s that? Was he a snob? Of course, he was, among other things, a snob. He couldn’t stand being helped because he was solitary and a snob. Later I understood that there was something under this snobbish manner of his. He was protecting something, trying to preserve a culture. It’s not funny. I expect you’re thinking of those olives. That’s why you laughing? We proles, we don’t really get the idea of “culture,” sweetheart. We think it’s a matter of being able to quote things, of being fussy, of not spitting on the floor or belching when we’re eating, that kind of thing. But that’s not culture; it’s not a matter of reading and learning facts. It’s not even learning to behave. It’s something else. It was the other idea of culture he was wanting to protect. He didn’t want me to help him because he no longer believed in people.

As I was reading through the individual sections, I found myself put off by these people’s egocentricities, their obsessiveness, but once I got halfway through Judit’s monologue, the cumulative effect suddenly came upon me like revelation. What we have here is a deep meditation on love, loneliness, obsession, culture, family, and perhaps most profoundly, the limitations of personal observation.  The gulf between these people’s perceptions of themselves and others’ perceptions of them is an unbridgeable breach.

This might not be a great novel – I won’t judge until a second reading – but if you’ve reached this final sentence, you’re likely to find it worth your while.


[1] In Spanish the title translates into “The Righteous Woman”

[2] The 4th narrator Ede, a jazz drummer-cum-bartender, lives in “a pad.”

[3] Let’s not forget that Hunagry in the early part of the previous century was not L.A. I can’t come up with a good analogy. Prince Phillip marrying Billie Holiday?

Sándor Márai as a child

Hank, Cormac, and Daddy

from left to right, Cormac McCarthy, Hank Williams, Sr., Wesley Moore, Jr.

“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses


I want some old school raspy voiced chain-smoking musician from Alabama or Mississippi to write me a song called “Crushed Out Cigarette in Hank Williams’ Ashtray.”

Hank was high-strung, jittery, an ADD-riddled Cormac McCarthy. The glass ain’t half full with them two, and their assessment of the glass ain’t even as positive as half empty. The glass is half-empty and carcinogenic. [1]

I remember being a kid at The North-52 Drive-in with my parents and seeing the trailer for Your Cheating Heart, a biopic of Hank’s life starring George Hamilton with Hank Jr. providing the soundtrack vocals.[2] In the olden days, I’d have to describe the trailer for you based on my short-circuiting memory, but now you can see for yourself.

 

 

At the drive-in some of these scenes hit home a little too familiarly. In other words, I could relate. Like Hank, my daddy could be sweet and generous, but, like Hank, he had a fuse so short static electricity could set him off, especially if he’d been drinking, Nor was my daddy what you would call a feminist.

Like Hank, Daddy felt the urge to create. He rendered in shoe polish on our dining room wall a credible copy of the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner’s The Lesesne Gates, 14 Greene Street. Late in life, he sculpted gnomes, which weren’t nearly as good as the mural. Not only was he creative in the visual arts, he was also scientifically inventive. He received a patent for a sonar-operated weir for sewer treatment plants, but rather than selling the patent, he tried to manufacture the product himself and went broke.

I wish I had a photo of the wall, but I don’t think we ever owned a camera. The wall’s been painted over three or four times. I do have half of a gnome, though, which I keep hidden in the closet of my classroom. Because they were never baked, they eventually fell apart.

Hank’s works, however, survive and will as long as humans are around to strum guitars. His pain lives on in a meaningful way. Listen to Lucinda pass it along to us.

 

 

I raise my glass to dissonance, to sweet songs of sorrow, to Hank and Cormac and Daddy.

Wesley Edward Moore, Jr.


[1] To my ear “ain’t” is a lovely word with that mournful diphthong.

[2] Actually Hamilton looks more like Townes Van Zandt than he does Hank.

Trafficking In Mockery

illustration by Pawel Kucynski

Constant change, or anicca, is a central concept of Buddhism, one of the three marks of existence, along with dukkha (suffering) and anatta (non-self). The Gautama Buddha (c. 567- 487 BCE) taught that attaching to impermanence (e.g., your childhood goldfish, your adolescent puppy love, your undergraduate hairline, your spouse, your existence) ultimately results in sorrow. To escape the natural inclination to become attached to objects of desire, Gautama Buddha points out a pathway that enables one to transcend ego, i.e., to enter a state of anatta, in which one becomes not even zero but this [1] [                    ].

The concept of constant change is inherent in quantum mechanics, cellular division, and, more obviously, in the shifting shapes of the clouds above. Everything is always in a state of flux. Not only did Eastern sages like Gautama come upon this concept of constant change, but also so did the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher — a contemporary of Gautama — Heraclitus, whose dates are c. 535 BCE – 475, BCE.

It’s easy to imagine Heraclitus’s most famous saying “No man ever steps into the same river twice” coming come from one of Gautama’s sermons. Unlike serene Gautama who suggested “a middle way,” Heraclitus, known as “the weeping philosopher,” was profoundly pessimistic. No doubt his pessimism contributed to what I hope are apocryphal accounts of his death.

According to Neanthes of Cyzicus, Heraclitus, suffering from dropsy, attempted to cure himself by covering his body with manure and lying out in the sun to dry, but he was made unrecognizable by the dung covering and was finally eaten by dogs. [2]

Heraclitus and Democritus
Johanness Moreelse

Not surprisingly, impermanence has been the theme of many a poet, and my main man WB Yeats is no exception. Take his masterpiece “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.”

Many ingenious lovely things are gone

That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude.

He offers examples of ancient art that has been lost:

[ . . .] There stood

Amid the ornamental bronze and stone

An ancient image made of olive wood –

And gone are Phidias’ famous ivories

And all the golden grasshoppers and bees.

Or as the latin poet Aaron Lipka puts it:

Vita brevis, ars longa,
tamen non est sempiterna.

 

Yeats goes on to lament the end of the pax Victoria when “a great army [was] but a showy thing.” However, in 1919 the “days are dragon-ridden,” and “[t}he night can sweat with terror as before/ We pieced our thoughts into philosophy.”

He adds that he (or she) “who knows no work can stand [. . .] has but one comfort left: all triumph would/But break upon his ghostly solitude.”

He ends the first section of the poem with this stanza:

But is there any comfort to be found?

Man is in love and loves what vanishes,

What more is there to say? That country round

None dared admit, if such a thought were his,

Incendiary or bigot could be found

To burn that stump on the Acropolis,

Or break in bits the famous ivories

Or traffic in the grasshoppers or bees.

(Or, in the case of Hobby Lobby, traffic in stolen ancient Mesopotamian clay cuneiform tablets, perhaps looted by ISIS.)

Is what Yeats calls “ghostly solitude” anatta?”

Probably not. In Section 3, he refers to a Platonic theory of an afterlife. This theory holds that the greater a person’s accomplishments, the more likely those accomplishments will encumber her in her passage to the next world. Therefore, “if our works/Could vanish with our breath/That were a lucky death/For triumph can but mar our solitude.”

From the Cambridge Introduction to WB Yeats:

Before the poet can take comfort in his conclusions, it dawns on him that the evanescence of mortal triumphs is precisely what makes us love them. The fact that great works vanish does not make it easier to cast off our attachment to them. Indeed it makes it harder.

Andrew Wyeth

Today marks the 8th Sunday since my Judy died. The Buddhist ideal of total detachment, although wise, is better suited for one with a monastic temperament. If you are a husband or wife, a father or mother, a pet owner, a lover of Billie Holiday or the Marx Brothers, detachment is inexcusable. That doesn’t mean, however, you should embrace Heraclitus’ model and wallow in melancholy.

Weep when you must; party when you can.

Also, cynicism, though not ideal, can offer some satisfaction:

Come let us mock at the great

That had such burdens on the mind

And toiled so hard and late

To leave some monument behind,

Nor thought of the levelling wind.

 

Come let us mock at the wise;

With all those calendars whereon

They fixed old aching eyes,

They never saw how seasons run,

And now but gape at the sun.

 

Come let us mock at the good

That fancied goodness might be gay,

And sick of solitude

Might proclaim a holiday:

Wind shrieked — and where are they?

 

Mock mockers after that

That would not lift a hand maybe

To help good, wise or great

To bar that foul storm out, for we

Traffic in mockery.


[1] Insert “the sound of one hand clapping? The formula “form = emptiness; emptiness = form? The inexpressible mental concept of non-concept? Your original face before you were created?

[2] Janet Fairweather.“The Death of Heraclitus,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies.