Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas night post

Seven days before Christmas Eve I joined my old friend Bridget to sing Christmas carols.

Backing up some: Bridget was a colleague during during my employ at the Quaker retreat center circa 2012. She is a practicing (and exceptionally devoted) Quaker, and earlier this month she invited me to sing Christmas carols with her monthly meeting in the Philadelphia exurbs. In going willingly I probably forfeited the rest of whatever goth cred I had left, but what the hell. I like spending time with Bridget and besides, I was promised cookies and hot cider.

The evening was the antidote to a month of recorded & compulsory Christmas music at the workplace. Singing the seasonal standards ("We Three Kings," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," etc.) in a meeting house with a group of the Christian faithful (even if I am myself an atheist and apostate Episcopalian) who WANT to sing is the polar opposite of having recordings of the same songs pumped into your workplace eight hours a day. Fellowship makes the difference. So does contributing to and experiencing the music as a living shared event rather than as a digital artifact. For about 45 minutes I actually enjoyed these songs again.

Afterwards I chatted with Bridget and with a gentleman named Chip, who I believe was one of the meeting's elders. I asked him how old the meeting house was, and in the course of his answer he related a story about the pair of farmers who were responsible for its construction. As luck would have it, a version of the story is on the meeting's website (and was probably composed by Chip himself), but it was more striking to hear it told. Some people are better orators than authors.

But in the spirit of the season, I'd like to share an excerpt of Chip's story here:
Today, the Pocopson creek flows unrestricted through Chester County farmland until it reaches the Brandywine. This was not always the case. Towards the end of the 18th century a water-rights dispute arose between two Quaker farmers. Isaac Baily’s farm was upstream from that of Richard Barnard and Baily had built a dam for his own irrigation purposes. Unfortunately, this dam significantly restricted the flow and had a serious impact on the availability of Richard Barnard’s water.
Water use rights clearly identify Barnard as the injured party. However, all of his attempts to explain this to his neighbor were met with contentious replies. Quakers (Friends) were loath to take anyone to court, let alone another Quaker. Thus, no legal action was taken and other Friends became involved, but Isaac Baily remained intransigent.

This state of affairs caused much frustration to Richard Barnard. One day Barnard described the issue to a traveling Quaker Minister. The response was brief but pointed. The minister said “Richard, more is required of some than others.” This answer precipitated some deep reflection. After some consideration and prayer, the next step became clear.

Early one morning Richard Barnard collected a bottle of water and cloths before beginning the hike upstream to his neighbor’s farm. He arrived and knocked on the door, only to find out that Isaac Baily was still in bed. Undeterred, Barnard pushed forward, entered his neighbor’s bedchamber and expressed a deep desire for friendship. To consummate this friendship, Barnard announced his intention to wash Baily’s feet. At first, the response to this overture was the same contentiousness that Baily had become known for. Barnard had to be quite insistent to accomplish his purpose. However, as Baily’s feet were washed and then dried, a calm fell over the scene. Afterwards, Baily rose, dressed and accompanied Barnard to the door.

The day did not pass before Richard Barnard overheard the work of the dam being breached so that the water could flow unrestricted. The story does not end here. Richard Barnard and Isaac Baily soon became fast friends. Several years later, Barnard broke his leg in an accident. This kind of event can be devastating for any farmer whose livelihood depends on physical activity. Fortunately, Isaac Baily was there to invest much of his own time and effort to sustain the Barnard farm through the crisis.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

In memoriam: Jack Collom (1931–2017)

the ogre said to his daughter:
sixteen miles from this place
is a tree
round the tree are tigers
and bears, and scorpions
and snakes
on the top of three
is a very great fat snake
on his head
is a little cage
in the cage is a bird
and my soul is in that bird
——Jack Collom, from Exchanges of Earth and Sky (2006)
Solstice. This taxing, time-dilated Common Era Year 2017 is finally ticking down to its end, and I doubt many of us will be looking back fondly on it.

This year I lost two people who were important to me. The first was Hannah, who I've already talked about. Three months later, she's still completely unaccounted for. I'm not ready to say anything else about her yet.

The second was Jack Collom—teacher, poet, naturalist—who passed on this last July the second. I've mentioned him before. Until this month I had no idea he died. It didn't come as a shock: he was already an old man wearing a nasal cannula and wheeling a tank of oxygen around with him when I met him in Boulder, Colorado, in the summer of 2008. Occasionally while leafing through his work in the years since, I'd think to google him and make sure he was still among the living. This time the answer was finally 'no.'

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Fernand Léger: some words and pictures

August 19 [1955]—This journal records too many deaths. Now it is Léger's. He was the greatest artist of our time. He will not only live, he will father an art.

—John Berger, A Painter of Our Time (1958)

For several months now I've been in the employ of an art museum, though my job is really only enviable for its setting (if anything). Not long ago the gift shop was cleaning out its storage space and came across a trove of Fernand Léger postcards left over from a 2013 special exhibition. Many of the cards feature artworks that were on loan from other museums and private collectors, and even if there were willing buyers for 1000+ of these things, the expiration of the temporary reproduction rights makes selling them somewhat dicey from a legal standpoint. So the only thing to do was toss them out. I intervened to rescue a batch from the dumpster, so I'm pretty much set for my epistolary life. Some of them I'm going to tape to my walls. When you're wealthy, you acquire original artworks to display in your home and impress your guests. When you're poor, you grab postcards of artworks to stick up in your bedroom to suit yourself.

Léger has become one of my favorite painters. I was introduced to him pretty much accidentally three years ago, when I was reproducing William Carlos Williams' The Descent of Winter and searching for visual art I understood as 'modernist' to align with Williams' diary entries/poems/miniature essays. That was how I first came to know Léger and his 1919 opus La Ville (The City). A lake of curatorial ink could be spilled (and has been spilled) in the exegesis of this painting, but the work needs nobody to speak for it. The composition, its title, and its date tell the whole story, and all the rest is critical salary work. La Ville is a dream or hallucination of the modern metropolis, looming and labyrinthine, blazing with electric lights, thrumming with motor traffic, and checkered with vivid pictoral adverts. The city as a dense human settlement has existed since at least 4500 BC, but it was only in the first decades of the twentieth century that the city as we recognize it emerged onto the world. This new composite organism of humanity and machinery so captivated Léger that he made it the singular focus of his oeuvre during the years between World War I and the Great Depression, the moment of his artistic prime.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Amy, Her City

No news from St Thomas. Still in a freeze here. But:

I recently had a new short story appear in the virtual pages of The Matador Review. It's called "Amy, Her City" and is about cities and stalkers and dreams. I have to thank Ms. Grassi (whom I first met indirectly when my story "How You Sleep at Night" appeared in issue #20 of The Puritan alongside her "Air Show"), who not only helped me revise the piece, but actually catalyzed it by humoring me when I texted her some months ago to ask her to toss a writing prompt my way. As it happens, the finished story doesn't much resemble the two-sentence zygote from which it mitosed—but as the analogy implies, that's just natural.

Anyway, you can read the story here. I think you'll like it.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Not so much a hiatus. More of a suspension.

It's not what you think. Not entirely.

Here. Read this.

So. Anyone (not sure if there's anyone, but you know) who's been following for the last few years might remember me occasionally mentioning someone named Hannah, moving to the Virgin Islands, breaking up in the Virgin Islands, reconciling a bit later on, and so forth.

There are only two dots to connect here. Get it?

I'm not going to pretend that everything is just business as usual.

Maudlin though it may be, one of the reasons I've kept this blog going is because she never stopped reading. Not the only reason. But if there's an audience for whom I've been writing in the last four, five years, it's her. You—you, who checks this thing from time to time—I know you're out there, and this one I'm writing for you. But: these last few days, whenever I've sat down to complete a fragmentary and long unfinished post about the misapplication of Moore's Law in casual talks about technology, and how specious it is to invoke "increases" in tech as factors of social change without specifying what is increasing, I feel as though I'm just talking to the wall in an empty room. 

This is not business as usual.

I'm stepping back until she's found, with a prayer that she's found alive.

EDIT: Finally actually read the Newsweek piece from start to finish.
When Upp was missing in 2008, police reports said she spent a lot of time in places like Riverside Drive, which overlooks the Hudson River, according to The New York Times. After she was found, she said her attraction to the area made sense—an answer that may also shed light on why she found her way to Sapphire Beach almost 10 years later.
My advice to Newsweek staffer Josh Saul is to refrain from speculating about people he doesn't know, especially when he's reporting a story without actually visiting the site. Also to fuck off.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Progress report

Not that I have any illusions about how many people are actually reading this blog and clamoring for updates, but this is my excuse for the last few weeks' inactivity. Been workin' on something. Hoping I'll arrive at point where I can logically pause, step back for a little while, and work on some other stuff a bit before diving back in.

Friday, August 11, 2017

stray thoughts: the rhyming spiral of history (pt 2)

Ary Scheffer & Charpentier, Portrait of John Calvin Meditating

Elsewhere in The Western Intellectual Tradition from Leonardo to Hegel (1962), authors Bronowksi and Mazlish relate the brutal methods of theocratic dictator John Calvin in settling a dispute with Michael Servetus:
Calvin enforced his regimen with great vigor and, frequently, with outright ferocity. One of his "citizens" was beheaded for writing a set of what Calvin called obscene verses. A card player was pilloried, and an adulterer whipped through the streets and then banished.

Among these, the persecution of Servetus was the gravest incident of Calvin's rule in Geneva. Servetus, who was a doctor and scientist living in France, wrote a book attacking the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Thereupon, he and Calvin became engaged, by letter, in a violent theological polemic. Calvin's anger mounted to the point where, himself a heretic from the Catholic Church, he secretly accused Servetus of heresy to the Catholic Inquisition in France. Servetus was forced to flee; and, as bad luck would have it, his escape route took him through Geneva. Although his book had been neither written nor printed at Geneva, Calvin had Servetus seized and burned at the stake.
I'm not saying that John Calvin invented or even prefigured the au courant practice of "swatting," but you've got to admit that going through back channels to anonymously rat out a despised ideological adversary to the Inquisition is similar in spirit, if not substance, to sending a SWAT team to someone's door on a bogus report of a hostage situation because they offended your sacrosanct beliefs regarding ethics in gaming journalism (or whatever).

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

stray thoughts: the rhyming spiral of history (pt 1)

Walter Raleigh (artist unknown) and Donald Trump (via Vasco Gargalo).
Note the politicians' shared affinity for ruffs.
Given all the signs and wonders promulgated daily in the sci&tech news, it can be tempting to believe the hype, to conclude that our present epoch isn't merely brighter, more diffuse, and faster than earlier ages, but that it signals a social mutation no less explosive than the genesis of agriculture. Maybe so. But as long as one can turn to the literature of earlier ages and still relate to it, and find consonance between accounts of historical moments and today's current events narratives, one must admit that all our extracutaneous prosthetics haven't entirely reinvented humanity and its social institutions (not yet?), but rejiggered them, accelerated them. This isn't to say that our age isn't unexceptional, but it's often difficult to tell where the quantitative changes end and the qualitative transformations begin.

Case in point: I've been reading Jacob Bronowski and Bruce Mazlish's The Western Intellectual Tradition from Leonardo to Hegel (1962)—I grabbed a used copy ten years ago from a "take these or we're throwing them out" table at my alma mater and finally dug it up and cracked it open—and am routinely writing "cf. virilio" or "we use twitter for that now" in the margins. For example, the chapter on the Elizabethan Age contains a few paragraphs about Walter Raleigh:
[Raleigh's] progress at court was made simpler by the fact that he was a handsome man. He was also helped by his intellectual accomplishments. For example, he read not only the learned tongues but French and Spanish fluently; and none of this was lost on Elizabeth, who was also proficient in languages (it is said that she knew five or six fluently, and read Machiavelli in the original).

Monday, July 31, 2017

Poland slide show

Earlier this year I went to Poland to visit my father. That was...gosh, it was almost two months ago. I do believe another slide show is in order.

A memorial in Pruszków's Park Potulickich. Monuments like this are everywhere around the Warsaw area, and from what I've been told they all tell pretty much the same story: "X Poles murdered in this spot by the Nazis in 1940–45." Even a cursory glance at Polish history makes Americans' histrionics about "border security" look like an infantile hissy fit. We have no concept, no inkling of what it's really like to have "bad hombres" coming onto our turf.

This was my fourth trip to Poland. The first was in the summer of 2009 when I visited for my father's wedding. The subsequent two visits were for Christmas. So I've seen Poland during the winter, and it's as cold and grey and grim as popular lore has it. Pruszków in December is fucking dreary. Pruszków in May, however, regards the mild green joy of the mid-Atlantic United States' effort at springtime with bemusement and says hold my beer. You want verdure? You want perfect temperatures? You want gentle breezes and blue skies? How about eighteen hours of daylight and green like you've never seen green? Central Europe, motherfucker. Get here (it says).

Anyway yeah, these are the steeples of the Catholic church (Katedra?) in the middle of Pruszków. I just remember snapping this while walking to my father's place and just feeling intoxicated with the springtime on a quiet Saturday morning. I sometimes envy my old man for ending up here.

Narcissus. Pruszków. 1 of 1. (My father's wedding was near this plaza, actually.)

Atlas. Warsaw. 1 of 4.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

arguing with something someone saying something about warhol said

Andy Warhol, Flowers (1970)

Periodically throughout Passions for Nature: Nineteenth-Century America's Aesthetics of Alienation (2013), Rochelle Johnson shifts her aim from the intelligentsia of nineteenth-century America to the academy of twenty-first century America, whose "pursuit of reason tends to dismiss the physicality of nature altogether." She doesn't name names (these are her colleagues, after all), but it doesn't take much reading between the lines (or beyond the book) to deduce that she's talking about that species of scholar who would  announce the nature of nature as a "social construct." Poststructuralism has become a hammer, and there's pretty much nothing left on the planet that doesn't look to the catechized academic like a nail.

Most adherents of poststructuralist thought argue that nature's meaning is culturally constructed ... Proponents of this view suggest that we can not understand nature beyond our cultural and ideological blinders because all we have are those blinders ... Nature cannot have any "truth," "meaning," or "inherent value," according to this line of thought, because all truth, meaning, and value must be mediated by the human mind and, therefore, by culture. Other theorists argue, however, than an emphasis of the cultural constructedness of environmental understanding aggrandizes humanity at the expense of the physical world ... In the words of Onno Oerlemans, the risk of what has been called the "ecopoststructuralist" position is "ultimately erasing the materiality of nature through a kind of ontopomorphism in which human subjectivity and discourse become the sole reality."
I'm sure Oerlemans wouldn't need it pointed out to him that for expediency's sake he commits an ontopomorphic error in his formulation of the ecopoststructuralist folly: discourse can no more erode the materiality of our world than can changes to scientific nomenclature affect the physical status of the trans-Neptunian object we call "Pluto." What actually suffers is our ability to to apprehend the world beyond human culture and its artifacts. In a strictly utilitarian sense, it dampens our receptiveness to feedback from "wild" systems, inhibiting our ability as an aggregate to respond in a timely fashion to climactic or ecological tide shifts brought about by human activity (and overpopulation). From an intellectual, aesthetic, or even spiritual standpoint (take your pick), it amounts to the droughting of human experience, the loss of our capacity to look beyond ourselves.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Aesthetics of Alienation

Asher Brown Durand, Progress (1853). Observing its similarities to Cole's
Mount Holyoke (below) helps to clarify the paintings' shared "message."

I recently finished reading Rochelle Johnson's Passions for Nature: Nineteenth-Century America's Aesthetics of Alienation (2009). I was remiss in not tackling it in earnest months earlier: I didn't even need to read past the title to surmise its relevance to matters I've had on my mind lately. I did Professor Johnson and myself a disservice by sitting on it for so long.

Johnson's thesis is that most of the major nineteenth-century American writers, artists, and culterati who ostensibly celebrated the wild splendor of their (usurped) New World homeland actually exacerbated Americans' estrangement from "nature." She examines three figures in particular: Hudson River School prime mover Thomas Cole (whose gorgeous paintings subtly but decidedly celebrate the European-American "taming" of the continent), landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing (whom affluent suburbanites may well have to thank for the social pressures compelling them to maintain "tasteful" lawns and front-yard garden beds), and the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson (who called nature "the incarnation of a thought" and declared "the world is the mind precipitated," boldly epitomizing the latent doctrine of anthropocentrism). As contrarian voices, Johnson names Susan Fenimore Cooper and Henry David Thoreau, who questioned the contradictions in their contemporaries' views and practices, but were in many cases no less constrained by the dominant assumptions of the cultural moment.

I'd like to reproduce a long passage here, one that introduces the penultimate chapter—"Passion for Nature Beyond Metaphor"—which deals primarily with Thoreau, especially his unfinished and long-unpublished post-Walden work. It very cleanly encapsulates much of Passions for Nature's argument, including the proposition that nature's "truth" lies in its very physicality. The fact that this idea—that the world's nonhuman constituents have meaning and value simply by virtue of their material/temporal existence—has become so difficult to articulate and assert within the framework of Western thought testifies to how far we've allowed ourselves to drift in our insulated self-importance.

(Certain lines boldfaced by me for emphasis. Apologies for any typos I might have made in the transcription.)
[Thoreau] believes that natural phenomenon hold a "meaning" that humans generally fail to recognize. Thoreau's understanding of nature's "inexpressible meaning" invites us to think beyond our common uses of the term "meaning," which we typically associate with the specific significance that human beings ascribe to something. Key to our common use of the word "meaning" is the fact that we generally think of this "specific significance" as something generated by human beings; that is, we presume that human minds determine the significance of things, thereby determining their meaning. Because we humans are the meaning-makers, we can typically articulate the meanings we create. We make meaning, and then we name it in language. As Thoreau suggests here, however, his particular understanding of nature's meaning centers on its being——a being beyond human expression. As he says, this sort of meaning resists conventional representation in language but is, instead, "the language that is" (emphasis added). In spite of Thoreau's use of the word "language" here, the notion of "meaning" that he employs resists language because it presumes that existence is significance, or that being brings along with it a value——even if that value is "inexpressible."

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

ghost malls, the denudation of place, & The Process

Hmm. Been a month since my last post. Guess I fell out of the saddle and have had a hard time getting back up in it.

Since I was in Jersey a couple weeks ago and had an appetite for the ramshackle (having recently digested Sputnik Photos' Lost Territories Wordbook during a visit to Poland), I paid a visit to the The Shops at Ledgewood Commons, colloquially called the Ledgewood Mall.

If there was any mall in Morris County, New Jersey destined to become a ghost mall, it was Ledgewood. Of the three indoor shopping plazas in the immediate area (less than half an hour's drive away), it was the obvious runt. You really only took a trip there when you had last-minute Christmas shopping to do and lacked the strength for another plunge into the yuletide vortices at the Rockaway Mall, or when your budget restricted you from patronizing the upscale mall at Short Hills. Ledgewood didn't even have a food court, and was in a one-story building. In retrospect, the surest sign of its moribundity (even before the Great Recession revealed the depths to which the irreversible rot had seeped) was that Starbucks never bothered with colonizing it. Seattle knew which way the winds were blowing in Ledgewood.

I only remember four of the shops that used to be there, and of them I only remember one by name: Hero Town, the area's premier destination for Magic: the Gathering cards, comic books, and Warhammer 40,000 miniatures. Directly across from Hero Town was an arcade, and for a while it was a pretty good one: in 1997 it had X-Men Vs. Street Fighter, Samurai Shodown 2/Metal Slug/Bust-a-Move, Gunblade NY, and Time Crisis cabinets, and the legendary Twilight Zone pinball table. When I needed a break from Magic during the Wednesday night Arena League sessions at Hero Town, I'd go see if anyone was playing X-Men Vs. Street Fighter, and then head down the corridor to a little eatery that sold hot dogs and Jolt Cola for a dollar each. Most of the other warbling 13- and 14-year-old misfits opted for the nearby pizza shop, where they'd park at a table together and peel open Alliances and Mirage booster packs.

Now that I think of it: none of the shops I patronized in Ledgewood were franchises.

Holy time warps, Batman! I just found a zombie website (last modified in 2007, but clearly much older) listing local businesses in North Jersey. Most of its images are broken, but one of the extant pics is a photo of Hero Town from when it was alive and well.

Quaint memories.

Here's what the Ledgewood mall's interior looks like as of June 2017:

Thursday, May 25, 2017

In praise of the cigarette break

Marcel Duchamp

I was out of a job for two and a half months at the beginning of the year. During that time, I nearly stopped smoking cigarettes. I'd only buy a pack of American Spirits during my weekly or fortnightly visits to Ray's Happy Birthday Bar, and afterwards I'd give away most of the cigs that hadn't disappeared in pursuit of Johnnie Walker. This isn't to say I went completely cold turkey: I did invest in a vaporizer, but it's hardly a replacement. For one thing, I only use it at home. There's really no way to suck on one of those things in public without looking like a goober, so I deposit mine in my desk drawer whenever I go out.

In March I rejoined the workforce and resumed blackening my lungs. You might guess, prima facie, that this means I'm dissatisfied with my new gig. You'd be wrong: I can't complain too much about what I'm doing for money (and where I'm doing it) these days. But it's rarely the case that a member of the working class truly savors his time on someone else's clock, and even if he finds his wage-earning activities more or less agreeable, he'll probably need a few moments of respite from time to time. Sitting in a break room and absorbing photons from a personal device seems to be the most popular method of on-the-job decompression these days. That's not for me, thanks: I'll take a good old-fashioned cigarette break.

Look. I know it's the twenty-first century. I know the mystique and glamor of the smoker has all but dissipated. I know smoking is awful for one's health, I know that nicotine is tremendously addictive, and I know that someone who's just smoked a cigarette smells awful to anyone who isn't currently smoking one. But the cigarette break is an edifying, even ennobling thing, and I'd like to say a few words on its behalf.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Mar Saba & Melville's memory

For the last month or so I've been taking my time wending through Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), Herman Melville's last major work and the single longest poem in American literature. (Longer than the Iliad, longer than Paradise Lost.) I'm still thirty-one cantos from reaching the end, and maybe I'll have more to say about the book as a whole at a later date. For now I'd just like to share something that surprised and touched me.

Likening Clarel to Canterbury Tales would be a mostly facile exercise, but areas of overlap can be found in the bare outlines of the cast. The cavalcade we follow on a tour through the environs of Jerusalem to the Dead Sea to Bethlehem is composed of archetypal figures with differing perceptions of the nineteenth century's accelerating social transformations and the state of Christianity under the siege of science. We have the benignant but ineffective liberal clergyman, the biblical literalist millennarian, the disillusioned European revolutionary, the atheistic man of science, and so on.

The titular Clarel plays the part of the sheltered, privileged theological student who takes the trip to bolster his flagging faith and ease his doubts. But it is not Clarel into whom Melville breathes the most of himself: that would be Rolfe, a middle-aged dilettante who speaks with volubility and exuberant frankness, and who paradoxically combines a penchant for austere theology with a distrust of religious and moral absolutism. And, like Melville, Rolfe was a mariner in his youth.

During a visit to the ancient Greek Orthodox monastery Mar Saba, we have a sequence in which five of the pilgrims, positioned at different heights upon the cliffs and terraces, regard a lone palm tree on a ledge, reputed to have been planted by Saint Sabbas himself over 1300 years before. The soliloquy Rolfe delivers here is by far the most interesting, and it's eye-popping for a Melville fan.

Before we go any further with Rolfe and the palm, we'll need to revisit Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), Melville's first (and most contemporaneously successful) novel.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Animation April: [scene missing]

Well, this is embarrassing.

I'd planned to conclude the month with a large writeup on Young Justice, Greg Weisman's animated celebration of everything fun, bizarre, and dramatically convoluted in the DC comic book universe. It...didn't work out. The piece I'd almost finished wasn't much fun to write or interesting to read, and a second version I started from scratch earlier this week was practically erased when a Windows update caused my computer to restart while I was asleep. (Thanks again, Microsoft.) I tried rewriting version 2.0, but it wouldn't have been finished before May. I spent a few hours these last few nights retooling the old draft, but it still wasn't anything I could be happy with.

So I'm throwing in the towel. Please accept my apologies along with three truly excellent Betty Boop shorts from the early 1930s.

Monday, April 24, 2017

NPM: The rape joke

I make a point of buying the newest volume of the Best American Poetry series whenever I see it on a bookstore shelf. There's never been a bad one, but the overall quality does vary with the tastes of its annually rotating guest editor. At least once in the best volumes, and several times in the iffier ones, I'll read a poem for the second or third time and wonder how the hell it got published in Ploughshares or Tin House or one of the more esteemed Quarterlies to begin with, to say nothing of how it ended up between the front and back covers of a book claiming to represent the acme of American not-prose.

Patricia Lockwood's "Rape Joke," which I first read in The Best American Poetry 2014, is not one of those poems.

Rape Joke
Patricia Lockwood (1982 – )

The rape joke is that you were 19 years old.

The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend.

The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee.

Imagine the rape joke looking in the mirror, perfectly reflecting back itself, and grooming itself to look more like a rape joke. "Ahhhh," it thinks. "Yes. A goatee."

No offense.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Animation April: Rock & Rule (1983)


This...this is a weird one.

It's much weirder than Project A-ko, even though A-ko is a movie about dueling schoolgirls and men with vaginas directed by a pantyshot-obsessed twentysomething missing at least two of his incisors. A-ko can't even touch Rock & Rule.

At least A-ko belongs to a distinct and recognizable clade in the evolutionary annals of animation. It's an anime from the 1980s, iconic during its time, and it had a perceptible impact on the cartoons produced in Japan. For all its screwiness, we can place it. Rock & Rule is an aberration.

It would probably be best grouped with the Bakshi-and-allies aggregate. (Incidentally, bootleg copies of Rock & Rule passed around at conventions erroneously attributed the film to him.) Ralph Bakshi is/was a ballsy chap: he had the then-outlandish idea that feature-length cartoons could be something other than family-friendly adaptations of children's storybooks, and made a handful of films during the 1970s and early 1980s that were not, not, not for kids (and he also cast Tolkien onto the silver screen decades before Peter Jackson). Other Western animation studios took notice, and followed Bakshi's example in pushing the envelope in which Disney had sealed the industry for almost half a century. Watership Down (1978) and The Last Unicorn (1982) were a couple of films about rabbits and a magical horsey marketed to general audiences—but everyone I know who watched them as youngsters walked away seriously rattled. (Alex McLevy of The A.V. Club wrote a very nice piece about The Last Unicorn and how it once scared the hell out of him.) Oppositely there was Heavy Metal (1981), brimming with graphic violence, exposed breasts, and lurid juvenility, and inappropriate for anyone but seventeen-year-old males.

And there was also Rock & Rule, but nobody noticed.

Friday, April 14, 2017

NPM: Wordsworth's daffodils

Had you pulled me aside when I was seventeen and asked me about English class, about what we'd been reading and which author I least enjoyed, I might have answered William Wordsworth. Long, dense, meditative pieces like Tintern Abbey and Intimations of Immortality had absolutely no chance at pulling my attention away from Final Fantasy IX, and lines like "trailing clouds of glory do we come/from God, who is our home" were anathema to to a kid whose entire wardrobe consisted of Marilyn Manson and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac T-shirts. But I did have enough patience to read and digest his lyric verse, and I found I liked him even less when he wrote stuff I could understand. He was too quaint, too twee in his sentiments, and even a little fruity. Daffodils, William? Who gets all goopy about flippin' daffodils? Take it back to Hallmark, you damn Care Bear.

Over the last six years—or so—I've changed my mind about Wordsworth.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Animation April: Project A-ko (1986)


I'm sometimes amazed at the depths of the inroads anime has made into United States pop culture in just twenty years. Americans are a bunch that doesn't much care for other countries' pop music or watches many foreign films, and yet we love Japanese 'toons. Bros gush about Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, and One-Punch Man. The internet brims with thinkpieces, written in English, examining and lauding Sailor Moon as a feminist keystone for Generation Y. The manga section at a given Barnes & Noble easily sees more traffic than any other aisle in the store. Cosplay! There are cosplay magazines on the rack at Walgreens, for god's sake!

Two decades ago, things were much different.


Thursday, April 6, 2017

NPM: Field Guide

(Actually a damselfly. You can tell by the wings.)

Tony Hoagland might be my favorite living poet.

Field Guide
Tony Hoagland (1953 – )

Once, in the cool blue middle of a lake,
up to my neck in that most precious element of all,

I found a pale-gray, curled-upwards pigeon feather
floating on the tension of the water

at the very instant when a dragonfly,
like a blue-green iridescent bobby pin,

hovered over it, then lit, and rested.
That's all.

I mention this in the same way
that I fold the corner of a page

in certain library books,
so that the next reader will know

where to look for the good parts.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Animation April: Rooty Toot Toot (1951)

If you've been slavishly checking this URL for updates for the last six years (and I hope you have!) you might have noticed that our annual National Poetry Month festivities have dwindled in scope. This isn't because I've lost interest in poetry—that's not the case at all. But a fan isn't necessarily qualified to be an anthologizer. I've virtually exhausted my repertoire of favorite poems and poets. Coming up with, say, fifteen meaty, worthwhile NPM posts this April (one every other day) would require me to find fifteen authors, poetic themes, forms, or traditions that we haven't already covered, and I'm just not up to it.

But I do miss dedicating an April's worth of updates to celebrations and expositions of an art form. Also, my wristwatch tells me it's been far too long since I've taken a break from whatever it is I usually write about to dissect some fun pop culture artifact or other.

So! Instead of National Poetry Month, this year we'll be observing ANIMATION APRIL, starting today. First up, we've got Rooty Toot Toot, United Productions of America's Oscar-nominated 1951 short.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

NPM: The new cathedral

Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, NJ
(image: Newark Public Library)

I hadn't intended to post anything for National Poetry Month this year—I've got something else planned instead. But old habits die hard. It's April, it's spring, and my various tissues and glands can no more capably resist the vernal compulsion than the robins can stop singing, the peepers can cease peeping, or the forsythia can abstain from getting all up in everyone's face. NPM must be observed!

In the months since I finished reading Paterson I've been flipping through my beat-up copy of The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: 1909–1939. Here's one that recently jumped out at me, one that I'm not sure I noticed/appreciated before now.

The New Cathedral Overlooking the Park
William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963)

The new cathedral overlooking the park
looked down from its tower
with great eyes today and saw
by the decorative lake a group of people
staring curiously at the corpse
of a suicide——Peaceful dead young man
the money they have put into the stones
has been spent to teach men of
life's austerity. You died
and teach us the same lesson.
You seem a cathedral, celebrant of
the naked spring that shivers for me
among the long black trees

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The invisible sky

Paul Klee, Reconstruction (1926)

After sitting on my bookcase for over two years, my secondhand copy of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (1972; trans. William Weaver) has finally found a place in my lap.
When you have arrived at Phyllis, you rejoice in observing all the bridges over the canals, each different from the others: cambered, covered, on pillars, on barges, suspended, with tracery balustrades. And what a variety of windows looks down on the streets: mullioned, Moorish, lancet, pointed, surmounted by lunettes or stained-glass roses; how many kinds of pavement cover the ground: cobbles, slabs, gravel, blue and white tiles. At every point the city offers surprises to your view: a caper bush jutting from the fortress' walls, the statues of three queens on corbels, an onion dome with three smaller onions threaded on the spire. "Happy the man who has Phyllis before his eyes each day and who never ceases seeing the things it contains," you cry, with regret at having to eave the city when you can barely graze it with your glance.

But it so happens that, instead, you must stay in Phyllis and spend the rest of your days there. Soon the city fades before your eyes, the rose windows are expunged, the statues on the corbels, the domes. Like all of Phyllis's inhabitants, you follow zigzag lines from one street to another, you distinguish the patches of sunlight from the patches of shade, a door here, a stairway there, a bench where you can put down your basket, a hole where your foot stumbles if you are not careful. All the rest of the city is invisible. Phyllis is a space in which routes are drawn between points suspended in the void: the shortest way to reach that certain merchant's tent, avoiding that certain creditor's window. ...

Millions of eyes look up at the windows, bridges, capers, and they might be scanning a blank page. Many are the cities like Phyllis, which elude the gaze of all, except the man who catches them by surprise.
It's said that familiarity breeds contempt, and there's truth in that. I think it's more often the case that familiarity breeds indifference, disregard—especially when the familiar person, place, thing, or event exists in the vicinity of ourselves and our habitual pathways, and when we are not required to engage with it. My friends from New York profess to be proud of living in the same city as so many world-class museums, theatres, and other cultural sites, but rarely if never visit any of them. And people who live in Denver or Boulder don't habitually stop what they're doing to gaze at the mountains for a while (unless they're taking a smoke break, I suppose), while a visitor from the East Coast such as myself will sometimes halt in the middle of the parking lot, neck craned, mouth slightly open, gawking up into the distance, oblivious to the traffic he's blocking.

Marco Polo tells the Great Khan about a city called Phyllis, whose splendor is lost on its residents. Incidentally, Polo has already admitted that his accounts of Phyllis, and of all the other cities in his reports, are all descriptions of one city, the same city, permutated, rotated, cropped, zoomed in and out. Insofar as the strangeness and beauty of our environs are generally lost on us all, yes, Phyllis is every city, and we are all of us residents. The entire anthroposphere is Phyllis.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Some themes, elaborated: cities and straight lines

It happened, eight years ago, that a friend of mine was visiting her parents in Jersey and needed to get back to Washington, DC on the quick. I was happy to give her a ride, and then to spend the night with her. It wasn't for the first time.

She's been living in Minnesota for a few years now, and got engaged last winter. Less than a decade ago we were smoking cigarettes together outside Paul's Diner on Route 46 after closing shifts at the bookstore, but to recollect those nights with her now, to remember myself then, is like imagining the life of a stranger. The day-to-day state of things seems so obvious, so unneedful of an explanation until one thinks back to a past he's lived, history he's experienced, old acquaintances he's made and lost, and then the present becomes a mystery beyond all reasoning or utterance. How did we get to where we are?

I believe that if most of us are honest with ourselves, we perceive the arcs of our lives being determined not principally by will or fate, but by a conspiracy of accidents, chance meetings, impulsive swerves into the exit lane, mistaken boardings of the wrong train, last-minute changes of plans.

So: I took my friend to DC. While she was at the office the next day—a Monday—I sauntered for hours through the National Mall and Capitol Hill in the languid dogday heat. The National Air and Space Museum was my first priority. I believe I hit up the Hirshhorn next, and peered inside the National Museum of the American Indian afterwards. I know that before meeting up with my friend in the afternoon, my last stop was the United States Botanic Garden, and I know I visited it on somebody else's advice—someone who knew I'd be taking this trip. I don't remember who it was.

The medial chamber of the Botanic Garden's conservatory is called "The Tropics," and is designed to simulate an area of rainforest that has subsumed the remains of an abandoned plantation. Entering the room for the third or fourth time, I came upon a guide giving a tour to a small group of visitors, and listened from a distance. She invited her flock to take a look around, and asked them to pretend for a moment that they were looking at an actual landscape in an actual rainforest. Just on a glance, she asked, how would we know which of these plants were cultivated by humans?

Monday, March 6, 2017

Stuck in my craw: woketweets

As somebody who still thinks of George W. Bush as a war criminal, who cut his subscription to Digitally Imported because its CEO bashed the Occupy movement, who has no compunctions about saying that black lives matter, and who recently wrote his congressman and senators to urge them to grow six balls among them and push back against Trump's "Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States" executive order (and will be doing so again now that the sequel has dropped), it makes me sad to say that I'm feeling increasingly alienated by the progressive left. But here we are.

When I first gravitated towards progressivism during my early twenties, it wasn't entirely because I was drawn in by the raw appeal of leftist ideas. My disgust at what I saw conservatism espousing was a powerful impetus.

My political awakening came during the Bush presidency. I understand the right not only as warmongers and wiretappers, but representative of an uncompromising moral absolutism and a streak of fundamentalist Christianity that preached damnation with far more vigor than it espoused and took to heart the Beatitudes. They stood for intolerance and orthodoxy, and I was glad to throw in my lot with the crowd that professed inclusion, egalitarianism, and the primacy of reason over doctrine.

But over the last few years, I've noticed the left making noises that sound an awful lot to me like the smug self-righteousness and brimstone that set me against the right.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Nature and the English Language

The legendary Pizza Rat

Not too long ago I cobbled together a comic strip based on a couple of conversations I had at different times with different people. It's true that during one of these chats I uttered the word "bitches" rather glibly—but I think in the actual conversation I wasn't maligning any actual persons as "bitches," but rather referring to the "first you write the novel, then you get the bitches" lie that set me on the lonely, misty path I walk. And then we did volley some ideas back and forth about what "bitches" signifies, how its meaning and semiotic timbre change depending on who's saying it (and to whom), and how the singular "bitch" differs from the plural "bitches," etc.

Old news: language is labile. The definition of a word determines the circumstances of its use; over time, the idiosyncrasies of its use alter its definition. And "definition" is, well, difficult to define. Without getting into the "which came first, the word or the abstraction?" conundrum, let's just say that by "definition" we mean the physical object, quality, action, or relation, abstracted, that a word represents. ("Stone" isn't any particular object; it's the bundle of qualities common to the things we point to and say "stones.") A word's relative location in the involute webs of the lexicon can potentially have as much bearing on its meaning as Merriam-Webster's indexed blurbs. Just as we can better understand a person by the company they keep, we can clarify the meaning of a word by examining the words related to it.

The relatedness of words has as much to do with synonymity and etymology as with unconscious exercises of association on the part of speakers, and these linkages don't necessarily have anything to do with linguistics, per se. This most often seems to be the case when a word's referent is something that's neither tangible or visible, and also assumed to be ubiquitous, or fundamental in some way.

"Capitalism" is a good example. If you play a word association game with a liberal and pitch her "capitalism," her answer will probably be "greed," even though that isn't what capitalism is. Play the same game with a conservative, and his answer will be more likely be along the lines of "free enterprise"—which is hardly any closer to what the word "capitalism" actually means. Unless our partisans both dabble in political science or economics, any personal definitions of "capitalism" they submit will be reiterations of their first answers, elaborated into "greed system" and "enterprise system."

"Freedom" is a word whose meaning in most contexts is colored entirely by its associations and piled depositions of emotional content. It is employed so frequently and exclusively as a blunt rhetorical object that it's been pounded out of whatever shape it once possessed. Its closest synonyms are "we're number one" and "WHOO." As far as I'm concerned, the word is a lost cause. Approach somebody who habitually uses it in conversation or on Facebook. Ask them: "Freedom to do what and at whose expense?" Or propose: "if you grant that our actions are directly influenced by our genes and environment by any margin greater than 0%, it has to follow that nothing we do or think is not in some way determined by circumstances beyond our control, and so freedom is more likely a subjective feeling and not an ontological attribute."

The ensuing discussions will not be productive. But "freedom" is as locked into our discourse as MIDI is into our music, and so our ideologues and political leaders continue to harp on "freedom" as though it were something real, something quantifiable, when in actuality its has transcended all practical meaning and become an amorphous, religiously charged cultural totem.

We sure could use a man like David Rees again.

The word "nature" is afflicted much in the same way.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Sometimes I still draw things.

I forgot to mention this earlier, but I threw together a comic for the first time in several moons. It felt pretty good drawing again, but I wish these things didn't take so long to make.


Huh. This is comic #81 on Comics Over Easy. Nineteen more and I'll have some sort of meaningless milestone to celebrate. (Tigt's guest comic is #68, but whatever. I'm perfectly comfortable secretly counting that awful Ponycomic as two strips so I don't have to wait until #101 to halfheartedly pat myself on the back.)

Monday, January 23, 2017


Remember back when I said I was working on a new novel-length project? Well, I've been a bit stalled out this week. Call it a crisis of confidence: the more trouble I have writing a chapter or section, the more faith I lose in myself, and the more faith I lose in myself, the more trouble I have writing that chapter or section or any other chapter or section. I've got myself in what the Romans called a circulus vitiosus (lit. "shit sandwich").

While wasting some time and avoiding writing earlier tonight, I revisited those old Moby Dick Magic: the Gathering cards I produced with Magic Set Editor a few years ago under similar circumstances. Man, most of them were really poorly designed. I'm zero for a billion tonight.

So I rethought some of them so as to keep wasting time and deferring What Is To Be Done. I hope they will waste some of your time, too.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

From the freezer: no recess

Hey. Been busy finalizing a batch of short stories en masse, which means I haven't had much time to update this sucker.

When we were reviewing a few items from my catalog of abortive writing projects last month, I mentioned the possibility that I might post the first dozen or so pages of a stillborn comedic novel/novelette if things ever became stalled here. Well, I believe that time has come.

What follows is the beginning of what was going to be a much longer project. I'm one of millions who has recurring nightmares about going back to high school for some inexplicable reason, so I thought it might be fun to write a story about a scenario where it actually happens. For a while, it was kind of fun.

And then it wasn't. But I still like how it gets out the gate.