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Editor’s Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10 FICTION
Christine Lincoln, What’s Necessary to Remember When Telling a Story . . . . . . . . . . . . 45 Tom Bissell, Creative Types . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 87 Alexander Kluge, In Medieval Angelology, There Are Nine Orders of Snow . . . . . . . . . 105 Amparo Dávila, Moses and Gaspar . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 173 INTERVIEWS
Alasdair Gray, The Art of Fiction No. 232 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18 Claudia Rankine, The Art of Poetry No. 102 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 138 Albert Murray, Art and Propaganda . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 184 POETRY
Stephen Dunn, Historically Speaking . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17 Tadeusz Dąbrowski, Four Poems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41 Frederick Seidel, Seven Poems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 49 Fanny Howe, Tapestry . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 86 Timothy Donnelly, After Callimachus . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 125 Cyrus Console, Two Poems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 167 Tony Hoagland, Entangle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 182 Sarah Manguso, The Bear . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 196 PORTFOLIO
Alice Neel, East Harlem Portraits, curated by Hilton Als . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 60 Contributors . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 199
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Stephen Dunn H I S T O R I C A L LY S P E A K I N G
It was a year of pirates in speedboats, anonymous bullies spreading privacies on the Internet, and the worst of them doing worse than that and wishing to be known for what they’d done, their perfidy an advertisement for a cause. Thus it was a bad year for historians, whose stories couldn’t be correct for longer than a few days. More than ever the imperfections of memory would combine with the slipperiness of documentation to produce versions only people who need not be persuaded could agree with. It was a war where the enemy sometimes was wearing the same clothes as its opponent, and both sides believed their cause was righteous, and years from now the victors, if we were unlucky, would tell it as it wasn’t, unless we were the victors, and our historians would tell it from so many angles that both was and wasn’t would read like a symphony of discordancies, an honoring of so many counterpoints that I, for one, might find a place to rest uneasy, historically speaking, among all the bloodshed, the horror, which would stop for a while and continue. 17
Manuscript pages of Lanark: A Life in Four Books. “I found, when drawing and imagining things in words, that each was a complement to the other.”
The Art of Fiction No. 232 ALASDAIR GRAY
he Scottish writer Alasdair Gray, now in his eighties, lives in a two-room flat in the bohemian Hillhead neighborhood, near the University of Glasgow, where for many years he used to teach. Described by Will Self as a “little gray deity,” Gray is widely credited with blazing a trail for Scottish-identified fiction in the 1980s—although his books themselves have rarely encouraged imitation. His first major work, Lanark: A Life in Four Books, published in 1981, was thirty years in the writing and came in at nearly six hundred pages, including a false prologue, a false epilogue, footnotes, and a partially fictional “index of plagiarisms.” (The entry under “Burns, Robert” reads, “Robert Burns’ humane and lyrical rationalism has had no impact upon the formation of this book, a fact more sinister than any exposed by mere attribution of sources. See also Emerson.”) Cover illustrations, frontispieces, and design were done by Gray himself, whose drawings 19
often recall the engravings of William Blake. Lanark’s urban realism, playfulness of form, and imaginative splendor emboldened a generation of Scottish writers to look locally for inspiration. The book, Irvine Welsh told Gray’s biographer Rodge Glass, “is probably the closest thing Scotland’s ever produced to Ulysses. What it said to me was, it would be fucking great to be a writer.” Since then, Gray has published plays and poetry and is nearly as celebrated for his short-story collections—Unlikely Stories, Mostly; Ten Tales Tall and True; and The Ends of Our Tethers—as he is for his major novels: Lanark; 1982, Janine; and Poor Things, which won a Whitbread Book Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1992. He is also a fierce advocate for socialist causes, has written two books in support of Scottish independence, and never misses an opportunity to promote the work of a friend. His 2014 autobiography, Of Me and Others, explicitly set the record straight on fellow artists he feels have been underrecognized. Gray is a notoriously digressive and polymathic conversationalist. He has a high voice capable of a range of reedy, shrill, or menacing intonations, and he does humorous accents, often slipping into a facetious, hollow, pompous tone when discussing his own achievements. When I visited him, he had recently returned home after a year in the hospital—a bad fall has left him confined to a wheelchair. An assistant was working on a large painting in the book-cluttered front room. The author sat by a window in his bedroom; he has lived alone since the death of his second wife, Morag McAlpine, two years ago. Although the apartment is sparsely furnished, its walls are covered with Gray’s artwork; a grouping of nudes like muses clustered around his mechanized hospital bed. Throughout our interview, Gray gallantly struggled to quell his discursive tendencies, sometimes shuddering and saying, unprompted, “I’m trying to stick to your question!” as if to do so caused physical pain. —Valerie Stivers
Are you writing anything now? GRAY
No, but I have recently written a rhymed paraphrase of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I cannot call it a translation as I do not know Italian. My version 20
is based upon eight different English translations, none of which satisfied me. It will be published in three parts, the hell section to be launched for Christmas 2017, purgatory and paradise in following years. The delay is due to my work on the illustrations. The American publisher Gabriel Levinson will publish a book of my recent poems, some of which are translations. But I now have no ideas for more works of fiction and expect none. INTERVIEWER
You’ve said that many times before. You said it to Kathy Acker and later wrote that “such announcements were truthful but not honest,” admitting that you’re always hoping for new material. Is that still the case? GRAY
Oh, yes, I’d be delighted if I suddenly got a good new idea, but I think it highly improbable now. I don’t think there’s scope now for me. All my notions for poems and things or new works come generally through reading. INTERVIEWER
That hasn’t always been the case? GRAY
No. The earliest verses I wrote were written mainly out of sexual or adolescent frustration and written through the loss of people I loved, either because they got sick of me or had died or gone away. Then I had the intention to write “A single huge novel!” “A single book of all my poetry!” “A single book of all my plays!” [sinister silly voice] “A single book of all my art!” INTERVIEWER
Why was it important to you that each be just one book? GRAY
I didn’t think I had a lot of books in me. And I meant my first novel to be an epic which would contain, in an artistic narrative, “everything I knew” and would in fact be a modern Divine Comedy. It took me a long while to write it because I realized at one point that I had to combine two books that I’d started. One was going to be a modern Glaswegian version of A Portrait of the Artist 21
Gray, left, with his sister, Mora, in Auchterarder, Scotland, ca. 1939.
as a Young Man, which would be autobiographical. My artist was a painter of murals who would eventually go mad and commit suicide and maybe even murder because he was insufficiently attractive to women to . . . uh . . . “attract one.” And also it’s hard to be an artist in Scotland if that’s all you’re keen to do. 22
The other book I wanted to write was a Kafkaesque novel. I felt that Kafka’s Trial and, for that matter, his Castle were taking place in urban communities not totally unlike Prague, where he lived. This world in which an ordinary citizen—well, not all that ordinary, a member of a bank!— finds himself summoned to a court which is held in the attic of a tenement in a slummy quarter of the city—I felt yes, that’s something that could happen. Except, unlike many who read The Trial, I came to the conclusion that in fact K. was guilty, even though he wasn’t quite sure what the crime was, unless it was the crime of being a prosperous member of a bank. Because you’ll find in his dealings with his mistress and other people that he’s utterly selfish and ruthless. Could that be the fault? Could that be where his guilt is located? In any case, as I say, at first I saw these as two different books, and then I read a book called The English Epic and Its Background by a Cambridge don called Tillyard. In a chapter dealing with a Portuguese epic, Tillyard mentions how the author, writing an account of Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India on behalf of the expanding Portuguese commercial empire, has mixed up with it episodes which involve Neptune, Venus, and nymphs. After da Gama successfully got to India, after a stretch of immense trouble and hardship, there’s a period in which the Portuguese crew are allowed an erotic indulgence with nymphs, et cetera, et cetera. Things straight out of classical Greek mythology! Tillyard was explaining that a true epic could blend all literary forms into one. It was that which decided my Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and my Kafkaesque after-death parody of our society were going to be one book instead of two. INTERVIEWER
When did you have this realization? GRAY
I think it was my third year of art school. INTERVIEWER
In 1954. So still twenty years before you finished Lanark. What was that process like?
Well, I was advancing very slowly. The first part of the book would end with Duncan Thaw being accepted to art school, and that was very closely based on my own life. But you see, I believed that as a writer I should have experiences of fatherhood and family life, more adult experience than that of childhood. I was afraid those things might not happen to me. But they did. My first marriage, which lasted for about nine years, was a turbulent but vital one. It provided me with essential experiences that I could not have had if I’d married a decent, wee Scottish girl instead of a rather wildly precocious Danish one. I wasn’t particularly attracted to the decent, wee Scottish girls. And the ones I was attracted to weren’t at all attracted to me, except as a good friend. And I didn’t want a good friend, I wanted a passionate love affair! INTERVIEWER
What was it about the experiences of your first marriage that helped you write the novel? GRAY
I hope there is a suggestion that Lanark really loved Rima and was desperately sad and unhappy that she left him, and that he loved his son. It’s meant to be the story of a man who, though he wants very much to love, is very bad at expressing love, but tries. INTERVIEWER
I read somewhere that you like to write in bed. GRAY
Yes, quite a lot. But I could write anywhere. I carried a notebook around with me and could wake up early in the morning on somebody’s floor and continue the writing because I was doing it in my head a lot of the time. INTERVIEWER
May I ask where you’ve gotten your ideas? I know it’s a terrible question, but in your case it seems warranted.
I’ve stolen them from other people and other books and other things I’ve read. In the index of plagiarisms in Lanark, I list H. G. Wells and various science-fiction writers. And of course Lewis Carroll, all kinds of legends and short stories, and occasionally dreams. INTERVIEWER
It’s funny that you say you’ve “stolen them from other people” because your work is full of startling twists and dislocations that seem as though they could only have occurred to you. Like the moment in the short story “Job’s Skin Game” when the protagonist goes from picking at his skin to collecting and cooking the material. GRAY
That came to be written because I was commissioned to write a short story based on a book of the Bible, and the Book of Job came to mind. And I have been bothered by eczema, a skin condition, for much of my life—not recently very much. That business of collecting the scabs and frying them was a thing I once did. I never entered into arguments with doctors about it, or with my wife, as happens in the story. I don’t think I was married then. INTERVIEWER
So what you invented was the other characters’ responses. GRAY
And I made the main character a fairly successful businessman, which I’ve never been, and an alcoholic. There was a friend of mine, dead now, who while apparently drinking water at meetings was drinking neat vodka. That was a detail I could use. Many details of a fairly realistic kind that have slipped into my novels and stories were picked up from other people. I’ve often been amazed how certain details that strike you as most improbable are actual and are part of the web of somebody’s life. Whenever I’ve come across one of these, it’s rather stuck in my mind. INTERVIEWER
And how did your second novel, 1982, Janine, come about? 25
After Lanark was done, I had many short stories and wanted to finish a number of them for a collection I was calling Unlikely Stories, Mostly, because it was to contain my realistic stories. One of these was going to be a rather depressingly realistic story, a first-person narrative by a Scotsman, an alcoholic, but not obviously so, whose alcoholism was a way of maintaining his work at a job he didn’t particularly like and wasn’t interested in. It was partly inspired by Dostoyevsky’s book Notes from Underground. It’s a long monologue by a bloke who despises himself and everybody else. I thought, I can’t take this bloke seriously for very long, but I can maybe make him sound interesting for two or three pages. And then, to my surprise, it started swelling up. And I started putting in his pornographic, sexual fantasies. And I’d suddenly found that this was expanding hugely, and in fact, it became my second and, I think, my best novel, 1982, Janine. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce wrote that a true work of art should not move people to any activity, saying only improper arts, pornography and political propaganda, do that. And I was inclined to believe it, but then I found that, in 1982, Janine, I was putting in pornographic fantasy and political propaganda. I was very impressed by the fact that Jonathan Coe, who liked the book, said that in reading it he’d not realized it was an argument for socialism, or political independence. It was only at the end that he realized it was a criticism of modern Britain. INTERVIEWER
In that essay, he also said that he didn’t really like the pornography. Did you feel like your peers and critics rushed to disassociate themselves from the sexual content? GRAY
I was amazed so many didn’t. I thought it would be denounced widely, on a huge scale. It wasn’t denounced widely. Half the critics didn’t like it. Some feminists found it disgusting. Other feminist critics said, Oh, we know that’s how men’s minds work anyway. The fact was that the main character, McLeish, was somebody who didn’t like the way his own mind worked and, in the end, was attempting to change his mind and his way of life.
And his sadomasochistic sexual fantasies ended up playing a negative role. He had been using them to distract himself from the real problems of his life. Do you think that’s true about that kind of sexual fantasy? GRAY
Because you know, it has become much more acceptable . . . GRAY
Yes, I’m surprised by that. It’s quite funny, I read most of my work out loud, as I go along, to friends or whoever will listen, and I used to read the pornographic bits aloud to folks quite cheerfully. I do regard them as containing many of my best bits of writing, but now I can hardly reread them at all. I think, Oh dear. INTERVIEWER
Was there a big bondage scene in Glasgow at the time? GRAY
None I ever encountered! INTERVIEWER
Now it’s a fairly easy thing to find. There are clubs and parties and apps on your mobile phone where you can connect with people who share those same kinds of ideas. GRAY
Maybe so, but . . . INTERVIEWER
It wasn’t happening here back then?
Well, no. And it wouldn’t have for me. After my first marriage ended, I had one later partnership that lasted exactly the duration of the university vacation—because the person in question was a lecturer who started the affair with me when the vacation began and had it all wrapped up by the time school was back in session. At one point, she suggested that she might find it entertaining if I spanked her, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it! I’ve always hated physical violence. Even in pretense I find it repulsive. INTERVIEWER
This could be a good time to ask about your childhood. GRAY
I agree with Freud and many other psychologists that our memories of being a baby and a very young infant hardly exist consciously but do shape us subconsciously. Investigating as far as possible into my own memory, there are things—I put them into Lanark, of course—that take me aback. I met an elderly lady who had known my grandparents, and she said how fond I’d been of my grandmother. I couldn’t remember. I had memories of her, but I didn’t remember a very great fondness. But she said that whenever I quarreled with my mother, I would run away to my grandmother’s house. And that after my grandmother died, I was found outside the back door, banging and crying . . . I thought, How very touching. What a Dickensian detail. But I don’t remember anything like that, you know. I do remember quarrels with my mother—always about food. She would present me with something and I would refuse to eat it. Generally because it was white and soft looking. This extended from stewed pears to any form of fat, even possibly to mashed potatoes. She would get very upset about that. The reason, I know, was that she came from a working-class family, where it was regarded as a matter of pride to give your children meals. And she was quite proud of the food she made, which I greatly liked in later years. Had she decided to say, Well, don’t eat it then, just do without, I would have done without, and without much fuss, because what there was to eat was sufficient, what with the pudding. But to her, I realize now, it was a terrible insult to the best thing that she could give, to be rejected just like that. She’d never strike me, she never struck any of us, but she’d say, You wait till your father gets back. 28
In the studio, 1970s.
Years later, when I was having my bad asthma attacks, my father said he wondered if it didn’t have anything to do with me having been chastised so often in infancy, and he reminded me of my defiance over food and how, when he came back from work, he would have to spank me for not eating the meals. He hated doing it, but he felt he had to. And then, since this did not calm me down, I would go into hysterics and start banging my head against the wall. To quiet the hysterics, they would fill the bath with cold water and plunge me into it. Which quieted my hysterics right away. I’d be put to bed. One thing was that we were given a good-night kiss. Being put into bed, I would think, I’m not going to let her kiss me tonight. But I could never refuse it, somehow. I’m quite glad, because I think it did shape my character. And see, this is the thing—I didn’t remember any of it. I only remember it because my father reminded me. INTERVIEWER
You’ve said that your early impulses to write were through sexual frustration and liking women who didn’t like you back. Surely that changed after Lanark was published. Women must have started to fling themselves at you. 29
Undoubtedly in 1981, when it came out, I did become confident, as it’s called, and was involved in two love affairs [very silly voice] and one of them became a quite steady partnership in which . . . [laughs] INTERVIEWER
Why are you laughing? GRAY
I’m just remembering. I met her at a party, which was held on the occasion on which Diana and Prince Charles were married. INTERVIEWER
An ironic party? GRAY
Rather, because we were none of us royalists. I proposed to this lady that she come home with me, and she said she couldn’t because she was having an affair with so-and-so, who was there, but she would meet me a time when he wasn’t. And I thought, No strings attached! How wonderful! And then the lady, she came to me in an excited way, not long after, and explained that she’d found that the man she’d been having the affair with had also been having an affair with one of her best friends. She told to me in high glee how she’d gone to see him and said, I’ve got something to tell you! I know you’re having it off with so-and-so, and it’s quite all right, you can go on doing so, because I’m having it off with Alasdair! And suddenly I realized that she regarded me as a fixture in her life, and I became one. INTERVIEWER
Lanark has been described as opening up possibilities for writers in Scotland and creating a movement of local literature. Are you happy with how Scottish literature has developed? GRAY
That’s just because a lot of young writers found the book used immediate, contemporary Scottish experience in a way they hadn’t imagined it could 30
be successfully used. I think they would have come to it anyway. And in fact, I had no influence at all on James Kelman and Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead, who had their first writings successfully published before mine, though theirs didn’t make such a big bang, because mine was very ambitious and very, very long. As well as getting good reviews. INTERVIEWER
Let me ask you about your reading habits. GRAY
My main reading nowadays is in books I used to read—biography and history, and I suppose popular science more than anything else. Nowadays I’m chiefly rereading Dickens, though I’ve been rereading a lot of Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould, about how discoveries in the Burgess Shale changed people’s understanding of evolution. INTERVIEWER
Do you read contemporary literature ever? GRAY
I read the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books, which I think keeps me sort of abreast. INTERVIEWER
One thing that distinguishes your work from almost anyone else’s is that you’ve managed to keep creative control of the entire publication—you do the illustrations, design the cover, write the jacket copy, write fake blurbs. How did that come about? GRAY
Lanark was published by a small Scottish firm called Canongate, which was started in 1973 by Stephanie Wolfe Murray and Angus Wolfe Murray, in order to publish Angus Wolfe Murray’s first novel, which was quite a successful novel and, I’m told, rather a good one. The firm kept running into economic difficulties, which were got out of whenever Stephanie would get a new partner with enough money. Eventually one of her new partners, Charles Wild, 31
wrote me a hugely enthusiastic letter about Lanark, saying he hadn’t read more than the first few chapters of it but there was no doubt that Canongate would have to publish it, despite its length, and they could probably get money from the Arts Council of Great Britain to assist them if they couldn’t afford to do it themselves. I explained to Stephanie that I wanted my paragraphs to be read as a unit, without indentations, even for new speech. I asked that there be a line-and-a-half space between each unit instead. And that struck her as a bit eccentric, but she had a number of pages printed in that style and discovered that it looked quite conservative. And therefore she allowed me to design the book, my initial decorative title pages for each of the four books, and one for the book as a whole, and to design the cover and the jacket. And it was successful. They even got an award for the art—they did, not me! INTERVIEWER
What’s the story behind the cover copy that you write, and the fake blurbs? They’re often negative in a roundabout way. GRAY
I do that to make it more entertaining! For 1982, Janine, since it received some negative reviews, it occurred to me to print both the for and the against, alternating. What did that fellow Levi say? “I recommend nobody to read this book . . . It is . . . hogwash. Radioactive hogwash.” Which I thought very good. Of course, many of the most antagonistic reviews would get people interested in the book. The ones I’m most pleased with are the quotations I invented for Poor Things. INTERVIEWER
It is also notable that, in many of your books, there is a subject heading at the top of every page. GRAY
Yes, you get that in the novels of Dickens, in Martin Chuzzlewit for instance. On one side you have the title of the novel and on the other a heading. “At the Old Fingerpost,” “Dawn Among the Packets,” “Mrs. Gemp’s Anxiety,” “Jonah Summoned Back,” “Tom Pinch as Landlord.” And for the start of each chapter, you’ve got often quite a lengthy chapter summary. 32
One of the earlier books I read, The Rose and the Ring by Thackeray, was copiously illustrated, and I remember being highly amused when I first read it, before I was in my teens. He not only had commentaries at the top of the page, but they fell into rhyming couplets—“See the Monarch in a Huff / Look at Lovely Gruffanuff.” INTERVIEWER
You do that in Lanark in the Oracle prologue. “A Bleak Man Tells Why He Likes Bleakness / It Seems a Strength But Proves a Weakness.” GRAY
Yes, I put into the Oracle all the typographic devices I’d seen in any books. For instance in Flann O’Brien’s Third Policeman, he has long footnotes that provide a commentary on plot, but they’re also giving information about the fictional philosopher de Selby. The narrator of The Third Policeman is an enthusiast for the writings of de Selby, which are full of mad theories. One of de Selby’s theories is that there is no such thing as night. It is a periodical pollution of what he calls “black air,” whose source seems to be partly industrial pollution and volcanic eruption. This black air has a toxic effect that induces the state called sleep, and de Selby says he gives no chemical analysis of this black air except to suggest that it is of inflammable quality, in order, perhaps, to explain how it can be dismissed by the simple operation of striking a match [raucous laughter]. INTERVIEWER
That is gorgeous. GRAY
But he has many other equally daft accounts of things. And in the footnotes you’ll find a parody of academia, in the form of secondary opinions on de Selby quoted from those who attribute the daftness of his theories to a fundamentally not only stupid but vicious nature, and those who attribute it to the mistaken workings of a great mind. I’ve read no work on a major philosopher—from Plato to Hobbes to Nietzsche—in which the author does not, no matter how highly they regard him, point out where he’s gone wrong and why, because every commentator must show the superiority of his own intellect to the more influential person he’s commenting on or introducing. 33
That brings us to the topic of academia. There have been whole books written on the postmodernism of your work. I know you don’t like that word. GRAY
Oh, no. INTERVIEWER
What does postmodernism mean to you, and why do you reject that category? GRAY
Well, one thing postmodern novels have in common with mine is their attitude to time. They present their story in something other than a simple chronological sequence, so it’s only in the mind of the reader that a chronology can be laid down. But by all the other definitions, I can see nothing in postmodern novels that I haven’t enjoyed in earlier books. The business of having the author himself as a character in the book? I suppose you could say that Dante’s Divine Comedy was one of the first to mingle autobiographical events with that of the story he was telling. But of course, you get it in Wordsworth’s The Prelude, and then The Excursion. And then the business of using different kinds and forms of stories. Again, I found that first in my preteen reading, in Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies. You’ve got the story of the exploited chimney sweep in a quite believable early nineteenth-century setting, but after his death and drowning he is resurrected as a water-baby. As he becomes cruel in his dealings with the underwater creatures, he grows a prickly hide, so nobody can cuddle him. Eventually he realizes that to get rid of these prickles, you must become a better and more acceptable person. INTERVIEWER
Was that the inspiration for the dragon hide grown by the main character in Lanark? GRAY
Oh, I think many things were. For example Pinocchio, one of the earliest Disney films, hugely excited me. There are strange transformations and the 34
business of him joining the bad boys who are led by a satanic coachman to a town where they indulge themselves, which turns them into donkeys. You see them shattering stained-glass windows and getting drunk and playing pool. And the friend Lampwick turns into a donkey, and Pinocchio begins to turn into a donkey, being rescued in time with nothing but his huge ears and long nose and a donkey’s tail. Another very big influence was reading Tristram Shandy. Sterne is a writer who insists upon his own voice and insists on having dialogues with his readers and discussing his own book and what its purpose is. INTERVIEWER
I find your epilogues, when you speak directly to the critics and explain the book, to be very cleverly subversive. Because critics usually assume that the text should stand on its own—and that it’s up to them to determine the meaning. GRAY
There was one editor at Canongate—quite a nice bloke, he wasn’t there very long—who said to me, Won’t this annoy the critics and put them off ? I said, Not at all! They’ll see me as one of themselves! Though one I know— Scottish, and a woman—said quite rightly that this method of anticipating people’s criticism is a sign of cowardice and manipulation. INTERVIEWER
In a New York Times review of your novel Something Leather, the reviewer was offended by the explanations in the epilogue. He felt you were implying he might have missed something, and he seemed indignant because you had admitted to writing the book because you needed money. GRAY
Hmm. Well, there it was. Tom Maschler, the managing director at Jonathan Cape, had written to me saying that he knew I had no ideas for new novels, but he was so keen. And I thought, Oh, God, I need money. I had written the first chapter of Something Leather, in which the heroine finds this shop where they prepare to make fetishistic leather garments with strong S&M overtones and she decides to order one. I had written that as the start of a 35
pornographic novel when I thought I would never get a publisher to take Lanark. I sent it to Jonathan Cape, asking whether this could be the first chapter of a novel. He wrote back in a state of high excitement—not what I was expecting—because he said this class of pornography hadn’t been written before, et cetera. Then I started thinking, I shall do something truly postmodern and incorporate short stories, reflective essays, that kind of thing. So I started taking plays, half-hour plays I had written for BBC Radio Scotland, all kinds of ideas, and fitting them together. I also decided to put four women in it representing different social classes. Because I was quite desperate for money, I wanted an advance of forty thousand pounds for it, to be delivered in three quantities. A third of it on signing the contract, on condition that I receive that payment the same week of signing the contract. The second third when I delivered the manuscript. And the last quantity on publication. None of my previous agents had asked publishers to offer anything like those big sums before. Anyway, I asked for that and he said yes to it. And so I said yes. INTERVIEWER
You’ve been an outspoken socialist your whole career, in essays and nonfiction as well as in fiction. To what extent has politics been a concern in your writing? GRAY
I think social justice is necessary to everybody. There are those who can take the political establishment of the time for granted, as being something quite good enough, to get on well with and to live well in if you exercise enough tact. This is certainly the opinion of Jane Austen. But it’s a view that very few people—well, very few thinking people—would adopt nowadays, because we’re all aware that our society is in transition, and that there is no normalcy to return to. INTERVIEWER
Society is in transition to what, in your view?
At home, in 2010. “I’ve often been amazed how certain details that strike you as most improbable are actual and are part of the web of somebody’s life.”
What one can be sure of is that things aren’t going to go calmly onward. After the Second World War, I thought Britain had become an example to the rest of the world, because the welfare state had been set up on the assumption that, from now on, a person’s health and education would not depend upon the amount of money owned by their parents. And of course, we had national ownership of transport, metal production, public services, if one takes the BBC as that. And, you know, we could take it for granted that we were better than Russia because Britain was not a single-party dictatorship. But in Thatcher’s time, I suddenly realized that the government was deliberately proceeding to reverse all the things that made us think that Britain was a better country than most others. INTERVIEWER
Perhaps as a socialist, you’ve always been very generous in collaborating with friends and in promoting the local community of artists. GRAY
The more of us there are, the better. I know I’m not the only one. Maybe it’s vanity, but I have no sense of competition with the other contemporary Scottish writers. I don’t see how my work could receive much recognition for its qualities unless other writers, whom I think as good or as interesting, also receive recognition themselves. INTERVIEWER
How have you managed to divide your time between painting and writing? GRAY
They both come naturally to me. I found, when drawing and imagining things in words, that each was a complement to the other. Take the embryo inside the skull in my mural at Òran Mór—I got that idea from Leonardo’s notebooks, where he sketched skulls and wombs. I noticed that the ovoid interior of his skulls was very like the ovoid interior of his wombs and that it invited the transferring of the embryo into a human skull. It would fit very neatly there. That particular image seemed to represent life within death in a very condensed way, with death itself as the protective cocoon. 38
In Poor Things, you turned that into the premise for a plot. Did the image come before the idea for the book? GRAY
Oh yes, long before. Years, decades before. Though in fact, the notion came from a friend—I mean, the notion of restoring a drowned woman to life by giving her the brain of her own fetus. I was reading the earlier phases of the story to my friend, Bernard MacLaverty, and wondering, How could a brain be got? I thought of a surgeon who deals with bodies of suicides that have been reclaimed by the Glasgow Humane Society, whose house existed, and still exists, beside what was a jumping-off point for suicides. It’s a pedestrian suspension bridge in Glasgow. Grim. I was thinking, The Glasgow Humane Society—that’s where he would get both a body and a brain. It was Brandon who said, Wouldn’t it be ideal to use a brain from within the body of the mother? My immediate thought was, Nonsense, oh dear, certainly not. And then—as often happens when I have been given ideas which I reject—later, as if I’ve had them myself, I think, What a good idea. Of course, it must be! But, as I say, it came together later. And that image, the embryo in the skull, keeps cropping up. I’ve used it in the auditorium ceiling of Òran Mór as well. INTERVIEWER
What is it that attracts you to grotesque or horrible material, as a writer? GRAY
The same question has been asked of Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens and Dostoyevsky. INTERVIEWER
I am asking you. I’m thinking of a YouTube video I’ve seen in which you read your short story “Pillow Talk.” After the last line, you pause, then start laughing, and say, “What a horrible story!” GRAY
“Pillow Talk” is a marital story in which the man is apparently quite happy but he’s had a dream in which he got an e-mail from his wife saying she wanted 39
to leave him. He doesn’t know it was a dream, so he confronts her. He says, What about this e-mail earlier? And she says, I sent you an e-mail?! He says, Yes, and why did you send it to the office so that everybody else could read it? And she says she didn’t send any e-mail but admits that she would like to leave him, but that she’s certainly not going to—it would be too inconvenient. INTERVIEWER
And then he says, I’m glad! I don’t want you to ever leave because I love you, and she says, Then you’re luckier than I am. And they say good night. It’s a perfect portrait of a marriage. GRAY
What I find horrible is that it strikes me as possible. INTERVIEWER
You’ve always described your second marriage as a happy one. How did that relationship feed your work? GRAY
A few of my later stories have come from things my wife told me about. She worked for a book supplier, and a story I wrote took a letter of complaint she’d written to her head of department, which started, Excuse me if this letter sounds as if I’m flaming angry, because I am! And then went on to mention almost numerically the complaints she had about the running of the firm. I found her letter so funny that I used it in a short story. I added a number of complaints that she hadn’t mentioned in the letter. And she discovered that when the book was published, the head of department had it on his table and that it opened automatically to that particular story! In other words, he’d read it more than once. And because her complaints eventually reached people in authority via my short story [raucous laughter], something was done about them! INTERVIEWER
That’s very satisfying. What do you see as your contribution to literary history? GRAY
I will be happy if I’ve written books that people want to read. 40
Four Poems by Tadeusz Dąbrowski BUNNY SLOPE
When I’m writing a poem, there’s less and less of it. As I approach the mountains, they vanish behind a gentle hill, behind the bunny slope. And once I’m standing with them face to face, they take away my speech. The very best poem finishes half way
VA N I L L A B O Y
Sadomasochistic rain in Leipzig. It slaps the sidewalks. It sticks its fingers down their drains. It relieves itself in the city center, then washes away the evidence, so that on Monday the boss won’t notice anything. But the boss is no better, he beats his wife, who takes it as the usual marital tempest. I’m having a smoke in a hotel window, I stub it out on the windowsill, which reminds me of your back. Below there’s a young poet circling the parking lot, fag in mouth, unaware that in ten years’ time he’ll meet you after a failed bourgeois marriage, in which there was neither love, nor even violence (now that is real BDSM). He’s walking among the vehicles before his first public reading, trying to assume the mask of a master, but there’s a gag in his mouth. He’s rooming at a hostel. I watch him from above, from the window of a five-star hotel. We’re getting wet. Fortunately he doesn’t know anything about you yet. I call him, I swap rooms with him, I dry myself with his towel, on which there are specks of blood. I wish he’d always keep writing poems.
There’s good fear, fear can be good when you’re keeping a family of Jews in the closet or under the floor, as long as you keep them there they’re people, as long as they’re there, you’re better. Fear can be good, if you’re keeping in confinement those that don’t exist, your own worries, while you nurture purgatory inside you. Sometimes one of them can’t hold out and goes outside forever. Sometimes you let one of them out, to understand why your fear has meaning. He too let out his son.
A B O TA N I C A L G A R D E N I N W I N T E R
Instead of flowers and annuals in livid snow a forest of nameplates: Ammobium alatum (everlasting), Myosotis (forget-me-not), Textus ubiquitus. All thatâ€™s left is to believe in the roots and tubers buried in the earth. Though what does it matter in winter? Only in the palm house is life richly flourishing, words spiral into stems and leaves, entwining to form epics and philippics. They wither and rise again under the caring dome of a plexiglass sky. In a nursery at the edges of the garden, in perfect order, new words are already germinating.
â€”Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Whatâ€™s Necessary to Remember When Telling a Story CHRISTINE LINCOLN
he was half the length of my little finger. A grown woman not much bigger than a bullet. My job was to keep her safe. A manâ€™s mission, no doubt. So I ducked into this room whose ceiling was a planked, hardwood floor painted army-fatigue green. Everything had been turned on its head. Behind one of the planks in the corner was a hidey-hole. I stuffed the woman into my mouth, scaled the wall, and crawled inside. I could hear them in other parts of the house, rustling. My heart thumped hard in my chest. I tried to quiet it, but one of them, a girl, found the sound of my beating heart beneath the floorboards of the ceiling and followed it. 45
I guess you could say my heart gave me away. When the girl broke through to where I was hiding, we tumbled down. We fought. The girl’s skin was dark. I grabbed a pillow and mashed it over her face. The stark white of the pillow against her skin was beautiful, like walking the backwoods of Pennsylvania in a blizzard and no one in sight for miles and miles. She fought like hell. I’d never smothered anyone before. Surprised me how long it took, how much effort, too. I sweated. Killing that girl was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do. When I woke up, I reached for you, but you were gone. he told her about his dream, she left him for good. Years later, he would tell his grandsons that she was the one who got away. The one who broke his heart. He would tell them that she should have been their grandmother. Then he would swear them to secrecy, a kind of blood oath between boys, and don’t let your nonna find out, he would tell them. The day of her leaving, he came home from a twelve-hour shift mounting tires and called out for her the same way he’d called out the night of his dream. Once he realized she was no longer there, he stood in the center of all that emptiness and thought of his father. When he was a boy growing up in Vermont, his father’s silence was so impenetrable at times it was like colliding with a human black hole, the constant collapse, an ever-present falling away. And now this vacuum of her. He spent the rest of the night slouched in the mamasan chair they’d once shared, staring at the deck he’d added to the back of the house two summers before because she’d wanted to sit outside, drink tea, and read novels thick as dictionaries. Beyond the deck rose the small, dark woods. He regretted some things. Like those times he’d called her out of her name. He hadn’t meant those words. Not all of them. He wished he hadn’t pressured her, gone on and on about how much he hated kids and was never going to have any, he didn’t care who the woman was or how much he loved her. Maybe he would want kids one day. Who knew these things? T H R E E D AY S A F T E R
He regretted the practical jokes, especially the one that ended with the shower curtain ripped from half its rings and her lying wet and naked in the bathtub—it had been hilarious in his head. And Call of Duty, two in the morning and she’s asking him to please come to bed, and why didn’t he just turn the TV off and climb in bed with her? Why didn’t he ever sit with her on the deck some summer evenings? Drink a cold Modelo and ask about the book she was reading? Truth is, he’d been jealous of her books. He couldn’t understand the quiet brooding contemplation of words, of worlds and happenings that had nothing to do with him. Once, he’d grabbed her arm, not hard, though it scared the crap out of her anyway. For weeks she would startle and shrink from him, even after he’d apologized, begged, and pleaded for her to forgive him, as if he was her father or one of those other animals she’d been with before him. He wasn’t that guy. And the other women. She didn’t know about the other women and there weren’t many, just two, three, at the most, but he regretted them anyway. Maybe he regretted the women most of all. He was still sitting when streaks of sunlight broke through the woods. He thought about his dream. He shouldn’t have told it to her. Perhaps the dream portended her leaving. What if the girl from the dream hadn’t been coming to hurt him? What if she had been coming to save him, his heart? Maybe killing her heralded his abject failure with those delicate things like beauty, mystery, and love. Maybe the dream foretold his inability to find love, to ever be loved. Maybe he would spend the rest of his days sitting here alone. Maybe he would die this way. almost to the week of her leaving, they ran into each other on a lunchtime-busy city sidewalk and agreed to have drinks that evening at the new cigar-and-wine bar. He’d gotten there forty-five minutes before they were supposed to meet and spent the time sipping lemon water and reassuring the waitress that yes, he was waiting for a second party to arrive. He looked down at his pilled pullover sweater and blue jeans and wished he’d worn something unexpected. When he looked up, she was standing in front of him as if she’d never left him, as if she’d always been right there.
S E V E N Y E A R S L AT E R ,
“You’re here,” he said. He tried not to sound surprised. He tried to rise to his feet but she was in the chair and removing her sleek leather jacket before he could move. He wished he hadn’t gained so much weight. “What happened to your eye? I noticed it this morning,” she said. “About a year after you left, I had a stroke in my eye. No clue what caused it.” At the expression on her face, he added, “It’s not as bad as it sounds. I get shots every couple months so I won’t lose my sight. Got one yesterday, which is why it’s so red. Hurts like hell, but that’s a small price to pay to be able to see. If you think about it, what price can you put on being able to see, right?” He was aware he was rambling, but he was unable to stop himself. They talked about things he would not remember even an hour later, when he sat in his car in the driveway, listening to the radio and watching his new girlfriend through the bay window. Maybe he should marry her. What he does remember years and years later is that all the while they talked, a separate part of himself watched himself, and her, watched the two of them as if searching for clues. He took in everything he could: the silk blouse and expensive skinny jeans she now wore, her freckles, the way her braid snaked from one side of her head to the other and hung down in front of her left shoulder (or had it been her right shoulder). He memorized her wrists, because that watchful part of him knew that whatever he’d thought might happen when he ran into her that morning, this would be the last time he ever saw her. He realized, too, that he was waiting for something. He was waiting for her to tell him how much she’d regretted leaving, that it hadn’t been so easy to walk away. He wanted to know that he had been missed. He’d been waiting a long time to hear those words, but there would be none of that. There would be no tears, no apologies, confessions, epiphanies, or explanations. There would be no closure, no tying up of loose ends. Instead, they drank cocktails with cute, local names and chatted about everything and nothing. They simply caught up, and years later, if he ever told this story, he would be sure to tell it exactly this way.
Seven Poems by Frederick Seidel TOO MUCH
When even getting a haircut seems too much, And trimming your toenails and fingernails takes too much strength, When more than you have is what’s required, At least that’s what you think, And even the thought of reading a book makes you tired, Then it’s time to get on your motorcycle and ride far out to sea And run out of money and blink SOS and sink. I was once in love myself. I loved politics in those days as well. Now I stare up at the sun. I stretch out on the sidewalk under the moon And greet each day as an adversary. I thought I knew everything, then I met you. It’s rather like how a bald man once was hairy. Everyone should be an optimist, of course. Have the experience of marriage so you can have the experience of a divorce. Sing, or rather scream, until you’re hoarse. Actually, you’re acting like a baby. You don’t mean anything you’re saying When you’re the middle of a volcano And your lava starts to flow. Actually, I’m screaming like a baby for a breast or the bottle, Maybe a bottle of red, either Italian or French. I’ll get a haircut. I’ll cut my toenails. What’s come over me? I’m ready to fall in love with life. I’m ready to drink her pee. I’ll take a shower after. 49
I’m ready to travel the world Except I’ve already been. Cape Coast Castle in Ghana Is literally whitewashed white. The building moans like a ghost under the enormous African sun. The dungeon holding pen for slaves is a sacred place. At the so-called Door of No Return, tourist African Americans pose. Triste Afrique! Every single African head of state is corrupt. Yesterday I was francophone and snowing, today I’m July. I hear the whine of the mosquitoes. They land on their oil rig of legs and drill down. They’re sort of our nurses In the form of a proboscis of six hollow needles drawing blood. I fell in love once and then it was over. I found a long dark hair of hers long after. I believe in the power of love to enslave. Oxygen enters a vacuum of not and explodes. Our slave ships unload us on the dock, Prodrome of everything to come. Too much is often enough. Too much is almost enough.
A D I P I N D AV I D S A L L E ’ S P O O L
This is a different sort of space race. To the stars through adversity! A right hook to the jaw, and the planet sees stars! I’m doing laps in a pool to escape Earth’s gravity And liftoff from world poverty and climate calamity. From East Hampton to the stars! To the stars through prosperity! The pledge of art is to lift. Liftoff from world poverty. Liftoff from climate calamity. Liftoff from the insanity. Liftoff from my own inanity. Life crawled out of a warm ocean, oozed out of the ooze, Into the Parthenon. Every person alive has his/her/their very own first name. But when the Earth ends no one will read this poem. I think about the folks back home several million miles away. I feel quite dizzy thinking. I feel I’m Far away. I watch the dark go by. I left the solar system, looking forward to Another system. I saw an eye not looking at me. Spacetime spangles starry spaghetti on the pool’s surface. Space is what it comes to. Space is what you live through. The galaxies are what is left. Everything is different. I’d never met a woman who didn’t drive a car.
I thought, that’s just not who they are. I’d never known one who didn’t know how to. Women fight in the army now. Their change of costume changes the world. Women have changed into themselves. Women do everything and one will be president. Consommé of Comets. Roasted Breast of Nearby Stars. Black Hole Pie. Brandy and Cigars. Menu for our colony on Mars. On Sunset Beach on Shelter Island, Time magnified my dying hand Into so many grains of sand. In this saltwater lap pool behind this splendid house, Time floats into new spaces in space. The pool-length slot of water without a ladder to get in Reflects the bird-soaked sky—and once I’m in, I spacewalk tethered to the eighty-year-old man swimming.
ENGLAND NOW For Paul Keegan
I like to be dead. That’s what the dead say. I’d rather be dead than so-called alive. I like the lack of feeling. But you know what? That’s the way I’ve always felt. That’s my way. I’m feeling good. I haven’t been big on feeling. I haven’t been alive that much. It rains all the time and it’s cold in July. Somewhere down south, In the tropical humidity and heat Of my brain below the belt, Is where I vote. I don’t want any. I eat what’s there. I don’t import. I am England Under these newish circumstances. A people who are proud to be dead said So loud and clear.
Bring back the all-girls boarding schools for pedigreed girls Where, morning and night, girls dressed and undressed. Luxurious lawns and trees rode to hounds. Horses the girls owned waited in padded stalls. Think of the cold showers these aristocrats took. Think of the dorm-room mirrors which sometimes saw A cold girl lying on top of a warm girl While a pretty girl with a pimply face on her bed on her back watched. Have two rules, Miss Charlotte said: Hard, good work and much fun. She was addressing two favorites, Grits and little Bun-Bun. There was gymkhana and dressage and raising the flag and French. Keep up with the times, Miss Charlotte said. Donâ€™t be narrow. Pile up on traditions and remember, With God all things are possible. On, on, with Foxcroft. Dare not let her die. These ballgowns were tomboys who curtsy and bow. These tigers were geldings life milks like a cow. In lifeâ€™s cotillion, girls had to learn how To be kapos at Dachau. Kapos at Dachau, kapos at Dachau, And pigeon-shooting on horseback at their plantations. Once upon a time, du Pont, Mellon, Frick, Whitney, Astor . . . Astor was a disaster. What got into Bun-Bun Astor To make Miss Charlotte, who loved her, walk right past her? Each child learned how to be her horseâ€™s master And complete the dressage routine a little faster. 54
Night softly turns into light. The gun Bun-Bun lifts out of her bra Fires, blinding the room, flashing delight, killing Miss Charlotte outright. Now the sun is fully up hurrah. Miss Charlotte thought she heard a scream, And woke from her dream. Then began to weep. Then went back to sleep.
AND NOW GOOD-MORROW TO OUR WA K I N G S O U L S
I wake each morning To the sound of awful coughing Coming from the street Six floors below. The same man sits there, Wide awake at dawn, On a narrow ledge, low to the sidewalk, Barely wide enough Not to cough and fall off. The store heâ€™s outside is a Petco, Closed of course at this hour, Food and treats and toys for pets, Leashes and collars And bondage for dogs. I wake early. I let the light wake me. I leave the bedroom curtains open To have the light in the room. From the bed, still in bed, I listen to the coughing. I walk over to the window. The window is open With the air conditioner on. Time to be someone. Time to put clothes on. What have you done? What will you do? What will I doâ€”what have I done!
AU T U M N
A man walks briskly away from his body And from feeling slightly sick on a blazingly fall day. The sky is fresh perfection, without a cloud of illness. The air is clean and cool as a fountain. The heat of the last few weeks deflates. The man walks as fast as he can up a mountain In the middle of his head, In the middle of a city. Notwithstanding your attempts to indict me, I will not fall ill, I refuse, he says. He says, Some things are more delicious than other things, Minister of doodle-y-doo, Prince of sky after sky of blue. Even in almost a drought, Things can be succulent and full And capable of merci beaucoup. Sky after sky of blue, to match his eyes, Is also the color he looks best in, And also what these fall days have been so far, a fresh perfection. A man should be wearing the sky. A fellow should wear what he is walking under, And when the day clouds over, especially so. Heâ€™s ready to travel via his smartphone to her gloriousness Faster than the cars go in a Formula One race. Behold his angel far away, Who might as well be cocooned in outer space, But in fact sheâ€™s in a country where the sky is always gray, And where the sky wants to stay that way. If you make up your mind to, You can be together in her weather.
Or if you’d rather, And can’t live without her, you can die. Round head, round brain, jagged heart, Your heart barnacled by too much . . . A space traveler incapable of space travel, Back from a failed mission, Lands out at sea on the deck of a nuclear submarine With armed warheads that has surfaced for this purpose. It is a spectacular fall day, and the gorgeous air is dressed in blue, And the worshipper turns to her neighbor and gives the kiss of peace. The leaves will be falling soon to make things fresh and clean and new. People walking their dogs bend down To pick up after their dogs the dog doo, People obeying a city ordinance they’ve finally got used to. No one expected where they were heading. They join hands at a worldwide wedding. The police commissioner is there, the mayor. On the steps, kilts are wailing bagpipes.
BAU D E L A I R E I N B R U S S E L S
Some people say sex is like riding a rainbow. Maybe theirs is. I say I fall on a grenade each time. My rainbow-on-a-runway took off practically Straight up from the infirmary To reach the thermosphere, And blew up above Brussels, Paris, etc.— And here’s the nurse. Nurse! I had a stroke. I had another stroke. I can’t lift my prepuce head from the bed. Someone said my poison poems Are flowers someone brought into the room, Flowers that leave behind a sonic boom.
Ron Kajiwara, 1971, oil on canvas, 67 ⅞" x 35 ⅛".
East Harlem Portraits ALICE NEEL c u r at e d b y hilton als
Recently Hilton Als has been choosing paintings for “Colored People: Alice Neel, Uptown,” a show that will open at David Zwirner, in New York, in late February 2017. He discussed his curatorial process with Lucas Zwirner, editorial director of David Zwirner Books, which will publish a catalogue based on the show. AL S
One thing that has always impressed me about Alice Neel is that she painted so many people of color. I never understood why there hadn’t been a show of these portraits. I see it as diversity within diversity, meaning, how do you represent the diversity of the world you’re in—East Harlem, for example, where she lived. And not just African Americans, but the full scope of racial diversity. Alice was and was not 61
a part of that world, by virtue of being a white woman from Pennsylvania, but it attracted and interested her. I think political correctness has done a lot to obscure the ways in which people are much more diverse in their interests than we give them credit for. INTERVIEWER
What do you mean? ALS
For example, five years ago people would not have been inclined to do a show on Alice Neel’s paintings of colored people, meaning people of nonEuropean descent, because they would feel that we—the curators, the gallery—were essentializing the people in the pictures. But in fact, what we’re doing is talking about one of Alice’s major interests, meaning these communities, the people, the men. These were not blind points in her work, so they shouldn’t be obscured, and I always feel that Alice is taking as many risks as the subject, that what she sees is really all of the things that make up a person. She wasn’t afraid of race. She just wasn’t. And that must have been a weird thing in the 1930s, and later, too—especially today! But she wasn’t glorifying race either. These were people to her. INTERVIEWER
How have you selected paintings for the show? ALS
It was largely aesthetic—whatever felt like the strongest image. Alice would often do things very quickly, more like sketches than paintings. I didn’t want those unfinished works. The images I picked needed to be fully realized pieces, whether they are drawings or paintings. I’m happy to arrange them chronologically when it comes time to hang the show, but they needed to be really strong pictures to get in there. INTERVIEWER
Were there specific subjects in her work whom you knew you wanted to include?
There is a kind of eros in some of the pictures, especially with men, that I found very interesting. That erotic energy is compelling to me. And you can see it in the later paintings of Georgie Arce, a Puerto Rican boy she painted many times, and who was eventually sentenced to a twenty-five-year term for murder. For example, I’m thinking of the painting in which Georgie is holding the knife [see page 79] and you can really feel Alice taking a kind of delight in his terribleness. INTERVIEWER
Yes, you see it in the late Georgies, and I actually think there’s an earlier drawing, from 1950, where you see it, too. ALS
Yes, yes. Like she’s teasing it out of him! INTERVIEWER
As the subtitle indicates, this show has to do not only with race but also with New York City—the character of the city and its effect on people. ALS
Yes, it’s also about the city, about how nothing stays the same. In East Harlem in particular, things are constantly in flux, unstable. I spent a good amount of time in that neighborhood because I had a friend who lived up there, and it was not an easy place. You get the sense that some of these people welcome the opportunity to tune out of their daily lives, that they welcome the attention that comes with being looked at in that way, by a painter. It’s an honor to be paid attention to, to have someone really concentrate on you. INTERVIEWER
You see that in some of the subjects? ALS
Yes. I think you see it in the painting of the woman holding the mentally challenged child, a little girl [see page 67]. The look of complete beneficence she’s giving Alice is one of the greatest looks I’ve ever seen. It’s almost as if she’s saying, I have value now because you’re painting me. 63
Untitled (Indian Woman), 1966, oil on canvas, 46" x 31".
The Arab, 1976, oil on canvas, 43 ⅞" x 32 ⅛".
Opposite page: Spanish Woman, ca. 1950, oil on canvas, 38" x 22". This page: Carmen and Judy, 1972, oil on canvas, 40" x 30".
Stephen Shepard, 1978, oil on canvas, 32" x 24".
Harold Cruse, ca. 1950, oil on canvas, 37" x 22".
Girl with Pink Flower, 1940s, oil on canvas, 24" x 17 Â¾".
This page: Georgie Arce, 1955, oil on canvas, 25" x 15". Following spread: Ballet Dancer, 1950, oil on canvas, 20 ⅛" x 42 ⅛".
Rudolph Christian, 1951, oil on canvas, 30" x 24".
Three Puerto Rican Girls, 1955, oil on canvas, 32" x 28".
Cyrus the Gentle Iranian, 1979, oil on canvas, 40" x 30".
Black Spanish-American Family, 1950, oil on canvas, 30" x 22".
Kanuthia, 1973, oil on canvas, 40" x 30".
Georgie Arce no. 2, 1955, oil on canvas, 30" x 22".
Nurse, 1954, pencil on paper on cardboard, 13 ⅞" x 10 ⅞".
Armando Perez, 1945, oil on canvas, 30" x 24 Â½".
Alice Childress, 1950, oil on canvas, 29 â…ž" x 20".
Call Me Joe, 1955, oil on canvas, 34" x 22".
This page: Horace Cayton, 1949, oil on canvas, 30 Âź " x 24". Opposite page: Benjamin, 1976, acrylic on board, 30" x 20".
Fanny Howe TA P E S T R Y
The ruin we made of our garden Is confusing even today. Seven trees times three Planted for the first children Now dread covered. Bastards I could never have lived with Occupy that land today. My love cried when it lost Its place of rest. It died for me. It died for us. Gray apples, a rotten bone. Love and time that sucked on them. Water draws strength from stones And tries to move them And this way prevent erosion Of something deeper down That supports them all. We should have watered more. Or bought more hydrangea To decorate the groundswell Before the great flood Of warriors and moneymen.
Creative Types TOM BISSELL
he night before their appointment, they sent Haley one final e-mail in which they reaffirmed the when and where and tastefully restated their excitement. But Reuben managed to smuggle in a request: Would Haley mind wearing “normal clothes”? He was about to hit send when Brenna, proofreading over his shoulder, announced that his use of “normal” was, in this context, “problematic.” “Problematic,” he said. Their son had been asleep for an hour. Bren, looking at the laptop’s screen, only nodded. Reuben poised his e-mail-sending finger above the enter key like a scientist about to launch something toward Pluto. “Bren, come on. I’m sending it.” Bren paid this no attention at all, probably because she knew he wouldn’t send it, not without her go-ahead. “ ‘Normal.’ It just seems like a very classist thing to write. Normal to whom?” 87
For as long as he’d known her, Bren had worried about classism. These days, of course, he and Bren were doing well, perhaps even embarrassingly well. However, their many years of doing less well had made Bren afraid of succumbing to the thoughtless consumption patterns of their friends, such as Annabelle and Isaac, who recently built a thirteen-thousand-dollar outdoor pizza oven with imported Umbrian stone. To Bren’s way of thinking, success, particularly Hollywood success, was mostly an accident; she never wanted to condescend to those who hadn’t been as lucky as she. But this meant that virtually everything Reuben said to servers and valets was later subjected to Bren’s undergrad-Marxist rhetorical analysis. He didn’t mind. If anything, he admired her for it. When Annabelle and Isaac whipped up their first batch of pizzas, everyone politely chewed and smiled on their sunlit patio. Bren was the first person to actually say, “Is it me or is this not very good?” Reuben kicked back in his chair. “Well,” he said, “you know what you’re assuming, right?” Bren looked at him. “What am I assuming?” “You’re assuming a woman in her line of work is automatically of a lower class.” “I am not.” But as Bren thought about it, as he knew she would, her face fell. “Oh God. I am.” “And given her rates, I’d say that’s a pretty dubious assumption, frankly.” Bren nevertheless convinced Reuben to put normal clothes in scare quotes, so “We’d appreciate it if you wore normal clothes (neighbors!)” became “We’d appreciate it if you wore ‘normal clothes’ (neighbors!)” Minutes after his no longer—or at least somewhat less—problematic e-mail finally went out, Bren was rereading it on her phone. (She’d been cc’d.) “A lot going on in that sentence,” she said unhappily. Haley’s response came ten minutes later: emoticon thumbs-up, emoticon rose, emoticon kiss. Haley arrived the next night in a plain black circle skirt and kimonoish green blouse. She looked like the hostess of the type of sushi bar that had Mexican sushi chefs, so the outfit was normal enough, and already Reuben had a good feeling about how the night was going to go. This good feeling grew apace when Haley wrapped him up in a big tight hug. “It’s so nice to see you again!” Haley said, her neck warm with spice and citrus, her hair a cascade of coconut, her clothes all powdered lavender. Reuben’s hands were on Haley’s back. They felt good there. They fit. Her blouse was satin, gem 88
green, smooth and slick and glossy. Hugging Haley was like lying in a strange bed you didn’t want to get out of. Then, beneath his hands, Haley’s shoulder blades flexed; their hug was ending. Reuben stepped away, closed the door, and turned to see Bren standing in the long entryway hall, clasping her enormous wine glass by its stem. Haley moved toward her. “Oh!” Bren said, as though Haley were a dirty-pawed puppy about to jump into her lap. “Okay! Hello!” While they embraced, Bren held her wine glass—a festive red orb of Malbec—up above her and Haley’s heads, which somehow made Reuben think of mistletoe. His hands had been respectfully stationary on Haley’s body, but Bren’s free hand moved familiarly up and down Haley’s back. That was one great sociocultural advantage of women’s hands, wasn’t it. They could go where they wanted to go. They had free rein. Haley released Bren, after which she took up a position in the front hall that allowed her to look at both Bren and him simultaneously. She obviously wasn’t in the habit of putting her back to people she didn’t know well, and for that he blamed her not a bit. No one said anything for a moment. They were all smiling like naughty children. “It’s nice to see you again,” Reuben said finally. Haley laughed. “Ah. That. So when I arrive, I always say, ‘Nice to see you again,’ even if it’s my first time somewhere.” At this point Reuben realized that Haley was subtly chewing gum. She had nice lips, and nice everything else, at least as far as he could tell. He wondered if he’d get to kiss her tonight. He and Bren had worked out some ground rules for what he could and couldn’t do to Haley, but when it came to kissing, Bren was conflicted. It depended, she said, on how everything felt in the moment. What doesn’t? “Hey,” Haley said brightly, “can I use your bathroom?” Bren showed Haley the way. Reuben went to the kitchen and gulped down a swallow of red wine so large he was able to track precisely its journey from pharynx to gullet to gut. Around the corner from the kitchen area he heard the dull closing thunk of their half-bathroom door. Bren came back into view and mouthed, She’s pretty! As though this were surprising. As though they had literally not gone shopping for Haley together. What surprised her, he guessed, because it surprised him, was how closely Haley resembled the lingerie’d human they’d seen in the JPEGs on the escort website. Despite the check of authentication next to Haley’s profile, they’d been preparing for the absolute worst on that front. Now he wanted to know: 89
How did the site authenticate? Was there a lab-coated team driving around Los Angeles right now, skillfully authenticating escorts? Bren approached and kissed him with warm parted lips. The Malbec and the Listerine breath strips they’d both been popping for the last two hours had not paired well, concocting a vaguely mephitine compound in their mouths. They’d agreed that the only way to do this was at least a little drunk, which was convenient. Since their son’s birth fourteen months ago, they’d been spending a couple hours of almost every night at least a little drunk. Reuben couldn’t remember the last time he and Bren had kissed like this, slow and tonguey and in no particular hurry. From the bathroom they could hear the compressed gush of their sink at half blast. Beneath the sound, Haley’s voice maintained its steady murmur. Bren pulled away. “Who do you think she’s talking to?” She was rubbing Reuben through his gray wool trousers the same slow way she’d been kissing him. His hands were under her skirt, rubbing her through her underwear, which felt like lacy Braille stretched over warm moss. “I think they have check-in policies. Like, I’m here. If you don’t hear from me again in an hour, call the cops.” Bren inhaled sharply; he was touching her just right. “Probably not the cops.” “Okay, not the cops.” Brenna stopped rubbing him, stilled his hand, and looked back at the bathroom. “I wonder if she’s talking to her boyfriend.” Before Reuben could say anything, the bathroom door opened with its quick efficient pop, and here was Haley, smiling, walking back into the kitchen area. Please, he wanted to tell her, make yourself at home while I finger my wife. Yet Haley somehow didn’t notice he was fingering his wife. Instead, she set her carry-on-size Hermès bag atop their granite-topped kitchen island and looked over the crackers, cheese, and olives they’d set out there. She smiled at the spread in a sadly amused way, like a woman who’d been proposed to by a man she’d just met. “Snacks,” she said. “That’s so nice.” (The snacks were Bren’s idea. It’s not like we’re hosting a dinner party, he’d said, watching her lay them out. Bren’s retort: Company’s coming. That means fucking snacks.) Bren began to rub Reuben through his trousers once again, but with faster, more performative gusto. This Haley noticed, saying, “Hel-lo,” and 90
putting an affectedly scandalized hand to her cheek. Interesting: he’d never been “watched” by a stranger doing anything like this before. In fact, the one prerequisite for doing anything like this was that a stranger wasn’t watching. Being watched by this particular stranger turned out to be a lot more arousing than he’d anticipated. Haley seemed to think so, too. She actually steadied herself, for a moment, against their kitchen island. The snack tray was within reach, and for no reason Reuben could explain—maybe decadence was reason enough, for all of this—he reached out, secured a fat, green olive, and popped it into his mouth. Salt, oil, brine: these were sex tastes. Probably why Bren put them out in the first place. Yet again, she was smarter than he was. “Sooooo,” Bren said, stopping to retrieve her wine glass, “do you need to ask us if we’re cops or something?” Haley crossed her arms and gave them a mock stern look of appraisal. “Pretty sure you’re not cops. Also, it’s a myth that cops need to tell you they’re cops.” “Oh really? I didn’t know that.” Bren sipped her wine. “I have a friend, a good friend, who met a client in his hotel room. This was like five years ago. In Hollywood. She sits down with the guy— good-looking, nice looking—and asks him, Are you a cop? No, he says. No way. So she goes down on him. And he comes. And he arrests her anyway.” Bren, after a nearly literal spit take, said “Wow” in a loud, flat voice. “Obviously my friend is upset—” Bren: “Well yeah.” “—and says she’ll narc him out. Who are they gonna believe? he says. You or me?” “Not cool,” Bren said. Meanwhile Reuben was thinking, What happened to my hand job? But Bren was locked into this conversation now. Processes of all kinds—and from all realms of legality—were of cardinal interest to her, and no wonder: Bren worked in unscripted television. She said to Haley, “So how do you deal with the cops? If you don’t mind me asking.” Haley plucked from its dish a pitted black olive so wizened and oily it resembled the liver of a vampire bat. “Not at all! So what I do is I have a friend. She sleeps with a vice detective pretty regularly. He tips her off where the cops are gonna be that week. Which hotels. Like maybe it’s ‘Stay away from the W’ on Saturday and ‘Avoid the Roosevelt’ on Tuesday.” 91
Thoughtfully, she ate her olive. “I prefer homes anyway. I really don’t do that much hotel work. A lot of the entrapment rules were relaxed.” Bren: “Entrapment rules?” “So yeah. Cops can get naked now. They can arrest you even if you just walk into the room in some places. Obviously certain states are better than others. California’s actually okay. But if you have to get arrested, Hawaii’s the place. They can’t search your stuff without permission in Hawaii. Which is amazing. I got picked up in Maui once with three grams of pure Molly in my purse, and when I got out and got my purse back, I looked inside. Still there.” She reached into her vaguely squarish Hermès bag, which really was a stunner, resembling an unusually elegant picnic basket. “Speaking of which.” Now a white pill was pinned between Haley’s thumb and forefinger; she showed it to them. “Do you mind?” “That’s Molly?” he asked. “Yeah. I’ll warn you, though—once I get rolling, I’m very friendly.” “Go ahead,” Bren said encouragingly. Haley stepped toward them. Actually, no. She was ducking under Reuben’s arm, getting between them, squirreling herself right in there. Haley placed the pill on her tongue and closed her fingers around the stem of Bren’s wine glass, just below Bren’s fingers. She asked Bren, “Do you mind?” Bren shook her head. Haley guided Bren’s glass to her lips and washed down the pill with a tiny first-communion sip. And then Haley’s hand was in Bren’s underwear with his. “Do you have any more?” Reuben asked her, meaning the Molly. “Sorry,” Haley said. It sort of felt as if their fingers were oil wrestling inside Bren. Bren was breathing hard; her hand was taloned around the knob of Reuben’s shoulder. “We used to do coke,” she said, between breaths. Haley kissed Bren on the neck while the blood in Reuben’s body began its vascular stampede. “Why’d you stop?” Haley asked her. Reuben knew the answer: they quit doing coke because they’d had a baby, but Bren couldn’t say that because they’d agreed they wouldn’t tell Haley they had a baby. (The baby was staying with their nanny overnight, under the nearly accurate auspices of their need for “couple time.”) They also wouldn’t tell Haley that the whole point of this evening was to forget things like babies. They wouldn’t tell Haley that, until they began 92
seriously considering a night like this, with someone like her, they’d gone eight full months without having sex to completion, “to completion” being the operative term here, one or both of them having fallen asleep in the middle of the act on three different occasions. After they’d booked time with Haley, late last week, they’d had sex four times in five nights, though they wouldn’t tell her that either. What else? They wouldn’t tell Haley about the many times, before the birth of their son, that they’d privately mocked those couples with children who succumbed to literally knee-slapping laughter when asked if having kids had adversely affected their sex life. They wouldn’t tell Haley about how confidently they’d reassured each other that their sex lives wouldn’t be so easily assassinated. They wouldn’t tell Haley about the night, five years ago, when one of Brenna’s on-set friends, Gemma, who was actually sort of Bren’s subordinate (which: cue future problems) and going through a messy divorce, stayed late after a dinner party and somehow started kissing Bren, whose record of staunch heterosexuality had gone hitherto unblemished, which ultimately led to the three of them—Reuben, Bren, Gemma—groping on the couch and then retiring to the bedroom, and how this unsought but nevertheless astounding arrangement went on for a few weeks until Bren realized that Gemma, whose messy divorce involved drug use (hers) and infidelity (her husband’s), was actually in love with Bren, or at least thought she was, and how after a couple weird incidents Bren told Gemma she felt obliged to report the whole sordid affair to their supervising producer, after which a duly mortified Gemma apologized and left the project, and how as upsetting as the whole thing was in the aggregate (the weird incidents included Gemma’s seeming threat—feigned, thank Christ—that she’d recorded their ménages), what did Reuben and Bren go back to, what did they talk about and relive in so much of their sex that followed, including that which, he was pretty sure, conceived their one and only son? Of course, they talked about and relived those strange, silvery nights with loony Gemma and how utterly crazy they’d been for what they did to her separately and together. The very last thing they wouldn’t tell Haley was that they now understood why people with small children stopped having sex. It wasn’t because they were tired or no longer attracted to each other, though that’s what it often felt like. Intimacy between men and women begins as a hungry, prickly current that recharges itself by moving back and forth along a straight line. It was an exchange. But when you add a child to this line, it bends until 93
it’s no longer a line but a circle that goes past, through, and around you both, self-replenishing and internally regenerating. And this was a process. Once you’ve intimately bathed and dried and kissed your baby’s knees and belly before bed and held your spouse afterward, perfectly and sexlessly content, the other, former, carnal intimacy—once so overridingly important—felt like nothing more than a low, disreputable road traveled in the dark. Or: It wasn’t possible for Reuben to read Hippos Go Berserk! twice in a row to their son and then go fuck Bren. Bren couldn’t breast-feed and then return to bed and spread her legs for Reuben. Thus, Haley. Thus, this one night to walk again along the low, disreputable road. “Drugs are fun,” Bren said, in answer to Haley’s question about cocaine. “For a while. Then you get old and discover Netflix.” She leaned toward Haley to kiss her. But Haley pulled away. “Let’s take a little break,” she said, removing her hand from Bren’s underwear. “We’ve got plenty of time.” This was true: they’d booked her for four hours. Haley walked over to the couch, removing her green satin blouse as she went and dropping it like a big shimmery lily pad on their fake hardwood floor. Tattooed on the small of Haley’s back, in so-called tramp-stamp territory, were the words cla$$y lady. Haley sat down, unhooked her bra, and patted the couch cushion next to her. “Come. Join me.” On her way to Haley, Bren took off her blouse, too, but left her bra on, so Reuben untucked and unbuttoned his shirt. They sat on either side of Haley, who gently took their hands and placed them on her breasts, which were small and warm. “Sometimes,” Haley said, “it’s nice to get to know each other a little first.” “Totally,” Bren said. She looked at Haley’s breast in her hand and quickly burst out laughing. “I’m sorry, but this is just too funny.” She extended to Haley the hand that did not have a breast in it for a quick shake. “I’m Bren, by the way.” “Haley,” Haley said, shaking. “So! What do you like, breast-wise? Should I squeeze or pinch or—?” Haley put her hands on both their thighs and rubbed and kneaded. “Do whatever you like, so long as it’s not too rough.” Bren began to touch Haley with teasing lightness, which was the way she liked to be touched, at least initially; Reuben followed her lead. Haley, enjoying herself, or at the very 94
least convincingly pretending to enjoy herself, made a vaguely feline sound and fell back against the couch cushion. “So tell me. What do you guys do for work?” Bren and Reuben looked at each other. They’d talked about this, too— what to say, and what not to say, in case Haley asked. They’d decided they’d just tell her the truth. She had their e-mail, after all, and now their home address. That said, they couldn’t imagine Haley actually would ask. But here she was, asking. “I work in TV,” Bren said, after which she started to kiss Haley’s breast. Haley smiled. “You and everyone.” “I know, right? We’re everywhere.” With that, Bren gave her a big widetongued lick. Haley responded with a pleased shudder. “Oh really? Which show?” “It’s unscripted. A reality thing.” Haley’s head swiveled over to him. “Let me guess what you do.” “Please don’t.” “Okay.” Haley was beginning to undo his trousers. Bren reached over to help: she knew the small, covered button on this pair of trousers was notoriously tricky. Unfortunately, Reuben was no longer hard. The culprit, he suspected, was Haley’s cla$$y lady tattoo, however small of him that seemed, and it did seem small of him. He knew it did. Reuben scooted away from their reaching hands. His hope was that if he stalled and watched them go at it a little more, his erection might return. “Actually,” he said to Haley, “now I’m genuinely curious. Go ahead. Guess what I do.” Bren stopped licking Haley’s breast and looked at Reuben with smiling neutrality. He knew this look. It was her “Exactly what are you trying to accomplish here?” look. She did not unleash this look very often, and the times she did it was invariably justified. Take now, for instance. Reuben in fact had no idea exactly what he was trying to accomplish here. Haley’s arm was around Bren. But for the fact that Haley was naked from the waist up, one of Bren’s pendulous breasts had escaped her bra, and Bren’s mouth had recently been suctioned around Haley’s nipple, they looked like tousled old friends spontaneously posing for a photo. Haley carefully studied Reuben while playing with a strand of Bren’s hair. “I’d say . . . you direct.” Then, she cunningly refined her guess: “Industrials.” 95
“Ouch,” Reuben said. “Also: no. Nice try, though.” But Haley had another guess in her chamber: “Then I’d say you’re probably a writer of some kind.” Bren laughed too hard too quickly. Haley turned to her for affirmation. “I’m right, aren’t I?” Bren buried her nodding face in Haley’s neck. She asked Haley how she knew. Again Haley looked at Reuben, her eyes less judgmental now, softer. “I don’t know. He just looks like a creative type. You both do.” Reuben had published his first book, a short-story collection, at twentyseven, three months after he’d finished his M.F.A. at Columbia, where he was widely loathed by his fellow fiction writers. Columbia was also where he’d met Bren, who was getting a master’s in social work. Six months later, in December 2001, armed with fifty pages of prose and a febrile outline, Reuben sold a high-concept novel, a retelling of Henry IV set during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in which a young Saudi fighter named Hassan has to contend with the influence of his stern, bin Laden–like father while an irreligious and overweight Afghan fighter named Fahad urges him toward a less violent life. The following spring, a pen prize and a Whiting Award rolled in, after which Reuben set forth on the residency and fellowship tour—Bread Loaf, Yaddo, MacDowell, assorted European castles and estates—and occasionally worked on his Afghanistan novel. He never published his Afghanistan novel or, indeed, anything else. He taught briefly in Alabama and Virginia and finally moved to Los Angeles, at Bren’s suggestion, to try his hand in the notoriously friendly and uncompetitive world of professional screenwriting. That didn’t work out either. His longest-held job in Los Angeles was as a security guard for Barneys, which he told himself was research for a short story he never wrote. Happily, and totally accidentally, Bren found her calling in Los Angeles, lucking into a PA job on Fear Factor. From there she forged an actual career, working her way up from a noted Hollywood sociopath’s assistant to becoming one of three executive producers on For Richer, For Poorer, which took married couples of disparate financial circumstances and forced them to trade places for a week. In the landscape of unscripted, it was a show with an unbudgeable vision of civic morality, of fairness, a lot of which was directly traceable to Bren’s influence. Still, three days a week, Reuben went to an office in West Hollywood ostensibly to write, and sometimes he actually did—sometimes he actually sat there and gave shape to airy nothings. He wasn’t sure if Bren would be 96
relieved or horrified to know that all he’d written for the last three years was poetry. Was it good poetry? Unclear. Really, how was he supposed to even know? Like any sensible person, he disliked poetry. All of which meant Bren was the winner of bread in this particular household, Bren was the wearer of pants. Reuben didn’t find the largesse of his generous, supportive partner emasculating or depressing—at least, it was no more emasculating or depressing than his failures as a writer. Often he thought back to the young writers whose careers launched simultaneous to his. He’d read with them at City Lights, had dinner with them at the American Academy in Berlin, did lines of pitiful coke with them at n+1 parties in Brooklyn, and walked along the sea with them in Saint-Malo. These days almost all of them were utterly and completely absent from what his former agent used to refer to as “the conversation,” their sole published books selling for a penny on Amazon and their Wikipedia pages cruelly flagged for “notability.” For a young writer, the most humiliating fate imaginable was to end up middle-aged and unnoted. As it turned out, this fate wasn’t humiliating in the least. On the contrary, it was distressingly endurable. It didn’t even hurt. Maybe if Haley had asked Reuben what he did fourteen months ago, before the birth of their son, he might have said, with that familiar combination of pride and embarrassment, Who me? Oh, I’m a writer. But his son was his world now, a living story he had all to himself, because Bren routinely worked seventy-hour weeks, whereas he was lucky if he worked a seventy-hour year. Reuben wondered, suddenly, what he and Bren were doing here with Haley when they could have been watching their son sleep, or talking about him, or sleeping and dreaming about him. Which is when Reuben knew. His boner had indeed been killed stone-dead by Haley’s cla$$y lady tattoo. “My turn to ask you something,” Reuben said. Haley and Bren were making out and touching each other, and so her response was half spoken into Bren’s mouth: “Go ahead.” “Your tattoo.” Haley stopped kissing Bren. They both looked over at him. “My tattoo,” she said. “Where’d it come from?” She shrugged. “It’s a tattoo. Where do you think it came from?” 97
“A tattoo parlor?” Haley laughed and went back to kissing Bren. Bren’s hand played along Haley’s inner thigh before finally going for it. Haley’s back went as straight as an icicle and she pulled Bren toward her. It was curious, how unbothered he was watching Bren’s intimacy with another person. Earlier in his life, he’d been what was politely known as the possessive type. The older he’d grown, the more absurd behavioral ownership of any kind seemed to him. Fidelity was an insurance company, and roughly as reliable. Better to see the person you loved enjoying herself. He wondered if it would make any difference if Haley were a man. He didn’t wonder long: of course it would. Which meant what? He was sure Bren could have explained it to him. “It just doesn’t seem very you, is all,” he said to Haley, after a while. Her tattoo, he meant. At this, Bren backed away from Haley and fixed upon Reuben a more burningly interrogative version of her “Exactly what are you trying to accomplish here?” look. That’s when Bren noticed her boob was hanging out of her bra. Almost shyly, she tucked it back in. “Okay,” Haley said. Although her voice was playful, her eyes had the flat, eerie calm of a storm-dark lake. “How is my tattoo not me?” Over Haley’s shoulder, Bren was making an urgent new face, a face Reuben had never seen before. If he were forced to translate what this face was trying to communicate, he would have essayed something along the lines of “Fix this situation you’ve created now immediately, you blundering fucking dolt.” Reuben, taking Bren’s point, put his hands up. “Haley, forgive me. If I’ve offended you—” “You haven’t offended me,” she said quickly. “I’m—what did you say before?—I’m genuinely curious.” “I like your tattoo,” Bren said with such obvious condescension she winced immediately after saying it. Haley didn’t even bother to acknowledge her. Reuben concentrated on holding Haley’s gaze, which had grown colder by several centigrade. He tried to speak carefully: “It’s just that your Hermès bag is, I think, ten thousand dollars”—the cost of women’s luxury goods had always baffled and impressed him while he was working at Barneys—“and your tattoo, meanwhile, your tattoo seems . . . ” Haley stared at him with a sniper’s malevolent patience while Reuben struggled with a respectful conclusion to his negative analogy. 98
“Seems like what?” Bren finally said when the silence became unbearable. Reuben just shook his head. “I don’t know.” Haley removed her arm from around Bren’s shoulder. “Maybe,” she said, “it seems like the opposite of a ten-thousand-dollar Hermès bag. Is that it?” “Yeah,” Reuben said. “Maybe.” He watched as Bren’s face tipped forth into the waiting platter of her hands. For a moment, Haley said nothing. Then she rose from the couch and walked over to the notorious Hermès bag itself. In went her fishing hand and out came an LG V10 phone, which she efficiently swiped awake. The startled light emitted by its oversize screen was so radiant the room instantly went from crepuscular monastery to lurid discotheque. After tapping in her code, Haley came back to the couch and sat. On her home screen was a picture of a younger Haley and another equally young woman. This other woman was brown haired and less conventionally pretty than Haley, but taller, bustier, thicker, more sexually weaponized. The photo had been taken during or immediately after a night of vigorous partying: they both had greasy we’vebeen-dancing-for-hours hair and were throwing up fake gang signs. It seemed like a photo whose documentary survival absolutely depended on something terrible happening to the person in the photo shortly after it was taken. “This is Vanessa,” Haley said. “We ran away from home together and came to LA ten years ago, which is—God—kind of amazing.” “Why’d you run away?” Bren asked her. “You’ve obviously never been to Moon Lake, Florida.” Haley began cycling through other curated photos of her and Vanessa. Most had been snapped in nightclubs or bars. Compositionally, they were all the same photo. With every swipe, though, Haley and Vanessa grew thinner, blonder, harder, colder, while the backgrounds became darker and more frenetic. He could almost hear the ventricular music of these douche-bag pandaemoniums. After a dozen swipes, Haley said, “I found a place for us in Studio City, and we did the whole amateur-porn-circuit thing for like six months. Vanessa convinced me porn was a good way to get a modeling and acting career going. I was so stupid I believed her. See, I’m kind of a creative type myself. We made decent money for a while but spent it as fast as we got it. I really hated doing porn. The day I finally quit I had two scenes. First this guy comes in my eyes when I was promised he wouldn’t. Then, what was supposed to be a girl-girl had the director trying to get in on it. He offered me twenty-five 99
hundred dollars to go bareback with him, and that was enough for me. I walked away, discovered escorting, took some classes—” At this, Reuben couldn’t help but interject: “Wait. Classes?” “Courtesan classes. Led by an ‘intimacy coach’ who lived in Venice and made us refer to her as Goddess. She taught me about posture, which is all in the shoulders, and about diction, and how to eat well, how to take care of my skin. I also took some personal-finance classes.” “From the Goddess?” “No. Not from the Goddess. See, there’s two kinds of escorts. The ones who do it because they choose to, and the ones who do it because they have to.” Bren: “And you’re a Choose To.” “I am.” “Okay. Good.” “I tried to get Vanessa into escorting, but she liked porn better. It was faster, and she didn’t have to take care of herself. It didn’t really matter if she looked and sounded like a Moon Lake hick because she was doing this gonzo, hillbilly porn, so it worked for her. Some of it was really disturbing—incest, daddy’s-girl stuff.” Here Haley paused. “Which wasn’t exactly healthy for her.” To this, Reuben and Bren said nothing. The screen of Haley’s phone had become some kind of reverse Medusa: look away now and turn to stone. Haley came to a photo of Vanessa wearing a spectacularly feathered white wedding dress. “Here she is getting married. Now that’s a story. I was her bridesmaid. Check out her ring. Sixty-five grand.” Haley slid the photo down and reverse pinched the screen to enlarge Vanessa’s $65,000 ring, but all her enlargement did was exaggerate the pixilation: what was Vanessa’s recognizable hand and ring at one moment became a smashed digital sculpture the next. “Her husband was an eighty-year-old widower from Vegas. They met on Facebook. His kids managed to block Vanessa with a prenup, and she wound up cashing out with something like a hundred grand. Of course, she didn’t put it in a bank account because she didn’t trust banks—don’t even ask—and almost everyone she knew socially was a porn person or a crack dealer, so she couldn’t ask them. I offered to introduce her to my financial adviser, but by that point she didn’t trust me either. She was all messed up: meth, pills, coke. I do Molly, but that’s pretty much it—other than weed, and only edibles. But drugs pushed Vanessa into some crazy situations. Like this one time, she goes to a party in Vegas and meets this guy, this rich Arab guy. At the end of the night, he asks her if she 100
wants to go with him to Gabon, which is in, like, West Africa. Private jet. But there’s a stopover first, in London. Vanessa thinks, Great. I’ll go shopping. She gets twenty grand out of a hole she’s dug in her backyard and flies to London with the Arab. When she arrives, she changes her twenty grand into pounds. But after eight hours in London, the Arab decides they’re going to Paris instead. Vanessa’s like, Great, okay, and changes her twelve thousand pounds into sixteen thousand Euros. But they don’t stay long in Paris either, and by this point the Arab is making her fuck every other Arab they meet. Eventually they get to Gabon. Vanessa’s never been to Africa, obviously. It’s not like I have, but even I’d know not to change sixteen thousand euros into six point eight million African francs. The Arab guy does whatever he does in Gabon—she’s back at the hotel, fucking his friends—and they leave after three days. Vanessa lands back in JFK with six and a half million African francs, which no one—literally no one—in New York will convert back into dollars for her. The only way for her to get her money back is to fly to Gabon, change it, and come back to New York again. Which she does. She still doesn’t know what she’s doing in Gabon, so she gets ripped off, but to make a long story short, she makes it back to JFK with a little under four thousand dollars—and she never even got to go shopping. The rest of her money she eventually spent on a new nose and boobs. My best friend—even when she stopped thinking of me as her friend, she was always my best friend. Before her head got all twisted, she’d do anything for anyone, if she could. Once, right after we first got here, I watched her give her last twenty dollars to a homeless lady. I asked her why—I was actually really pissed about it—and she said because the lady needed it more than she did. Which, you know what, was true. Last year, Vanessa finally wound up OD’ing on roxy, though I’m pretty sure it was suicide. There were only three people at her funeral.” Reuben and Bren were now looking at a photo of Haley and Vanessa as teenagers on what he gathered was a street in Moon Lake. Haley was wearing an *nsync T-shirt. Vanessa had braces. “As for my tattoo,” Haley said, “I got it on Hollywood Boulevard with Vanessa three days after I turned eighteen. I had other tattoos, a bunch of them, actually, but I got rid of them all. Lasers, followed by microdermabrasion. But I couldn’t get rid of that first one, because it was Vanessa’s idea. Her design, even. It’s a stupid tattoo and I hate it, believe me, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t burn it off. So I kept it, and when people ask—really ask, like you did—I decided I’d always tell the truth.” 101
“Why?” This was Bren. Haley turned off her phone. “Vanessa’s family failed Vanessa and Vanessa’s friends failed Vanessa and Vanessa obviously failed Vanessa. She let people rip her up and throw her away. So I use that. I use her memory to remind me why I’ll never let anyone rip me up or disrespect me or make me feel shame. Okay? Like I said, I’m here with you because I choose to be. And I’ll give you a great time. But I won’t be shamed and I won’t be pitied, so if you have any more comments about my body or who you think I am, I’d like to hear them now before this goes any further.” That’s when Reuben noticed that Haley’s pupils resembled beads of dilated black oil floating atop her eyeballs. “And holy shit did I just start rolling.” “Would you like a glass of water?” Bren asked her. “Absolutely,” Haley said. While Bren was fetching the water, Haley got Reuben’s pants open, reached between his legs, and closed her hand around the formless squish there. She looked at him. “Everything okay?” “I kinda lost it,” he said. “Well,” she said, smiling, “let’s find it.” Bren came back with Haley’s glass of water. She sat down on the couch, still holding the glass, and watched while Haley went down on Reuben. Bren had the trapped look of a secretary with unpleasant news waiting for her boss to finish a trivial personal call. As for Haley’s blowjob, it felt no more or less erotic than being rinsed with a warm hand towel. When Haley finally stopped and looked up at Reuben, he could only shrug. “Is there anything I can do?” Haley asked. “I don’t think so,” he said. Haley looked back at Bren, who handed Haley her water. She drank half the glass in one gulp. Bren, with a sad smile, said, “Incest porn—that’s pretty much where you lost me.” Haley finished her water and set the glass on the floor. Her eyes were flicking everywhere, two water bugs trapped in the tiny ponds of her face. Thoughts seemed to tumble around in her skull’s unwashing machine of drug logic, mismatched and unassociated. Finally, she stood. “All right. I’ve got an idea. Let’s go to your bedroom. We can make this right.” When Reuben and Bren didn’t move, she grabbed their hands and pulled them up from the couch. She was gorgeous and he felt nothing. 102
“Okay,” Bren said. “Sure.” As they walked Haley to their bedroom, Bren held Reuben’s hand tight. Reuben was wondering at which of Haley’s courtesan classes dead-friend etiquette had been so calamitously addressed. The three of them took off their clothes next to the bed in the sputtering light of lilac-scented candles, which Bren had set out earlier in the evening, right after she’d prepared the snacks, on the assumption they’d wind up here, doing exactly what they were doing. Haley began to kiss Reuben while Bren stood behind her with her hands on Haley’s waist, but Reuben felt immaterial, like a shadow, or a puppet. No, the shadows they cast on their bedroom wall were the puppets and they were the masters. Watch the black shapes move and intersect: they’d done this a thousand times. Above the stage, the puppet masters worked their puppets with one hand and read the obituaries and sipped coffee with the other. Meanwhile, their audience clapped and gawked below. By this point, Haley was rolling so hard that at times Reuben and Bren seemed only incidentally involved. Still, they tried any number of Modern Standard Porno positions: Reuben behind Bren on top of Haley, Haley on top of Bren while Reuben watched, Reuben on top of Bren while Haley watched, Reuben under Haley and Bren while they did whatever they were doing. Bren’s moans were affectless, almost androidal: Pressure applied and acknowledged, human. Haley pursued her orgasm like a high-value bounty. She finally achieved it squatting over Bren’s face while Reuben played with her breasts. When she was done, Bren crawled out from underneath Haley and went to the bathroom to wash up. Apparently, squirting was a thing Haley was capable of. Haley lay there on the bed next to Reuben, breathing and gorgeous and sweaty and glistening, a dessert he was simply too full to finish. “I feel like you guys aren’t having much fun,” she said. “Oh,” Reuben said with an inflection that promised more words. There were no more words. “We still have two and a half hours. Maybe it would help if you guys told me why you were doing this.” He could hear Bren peeing with the force of a garden hose in the bathroom and wondered how long she’d politely held it while waiting for Haley to climax. It was so like her, to do something like that. “We had a baby last year, and things since haven’t been great, sexually. We thought this might help.” “Spice things up.” “Yeah. That was pretty much the plan.” 103
“I get that a lot from the couples I see.” “I bet.” “Boy or a girl?” “Boy.” “Name?” “Theodore.” “That’s a really nice name.” “We thought so. Classic, but not too common. We didn’t want one of those LA baby names.” Haley breathed. Then: “I have a daughter.” Reuben bipodded onto his elbows to look at her. “Really?” “Yeah. She’s two. As of last week.” “What’s her name?” “Garland.” Bren was coming out of the bathroom and wiping her hands on a towel. “Haley has a daughter,” Reuben said. “Named Garland.” Even in the dim light he could see Bren’s what-the-fuck face. Quickly, he clarified: “I told her about Theo.” “Well,” Bren said, climbing into bed, “I guess that cat’s been debagged.” “I pretty much knew anyway,” Haley said. Bren spooned up against Reuben. “Really? How?” “In the bathroom. Saw baby wipes on the shelf above the toilet.” Bren’s small, appalled laugh was not without mirth. “Fuck. I remember thinking, I have to move those. Then I forgot.” “It’s not a big deal,” Haley said. “Is there anything else you guys want to do?” Around the bed, strewn clothes, end tables, lamps and cords and phones. Beyond their bedroom window, Hollywood streetlights burned as bright as a forest fire. Even in the dark, all their things were illuminated and revealed. Bren rolled over and grabbed her phone from the end table. Then Haley did the same. Each already knew what the other was thinking. “That’s him,” Bren said, handing Haley her phone. “And that’s her,” Haley said, handing Bren her phone. They said other things while Reuben watched one of Bren’s scented candles burn down to the wick. Almost there. Wait for it. And there it was, the flame surging with a final valiant attempt at ignition. Then it went out. Then it waved its farewell banner of smoke. 104
In Medieval Angelology, There Are Nine Orders of Snow twenty-two stories on some lines from ben lerner’s ‘the lichtenberg figures’
ALEXANDER KLUGE a dream of adorno 1 Burning snow 2 Dust from the firmament “like snow” 3 Snow crystals (twenty-seven suborders) 4 Snow slush 5 Cheeks “like snow” 6 Angel hair (in autumn) 7 The snow of DARK ENERGY 8 Unknown 9 Matter’s microstructure
“ r e l i a b l e r e p o r t s o f b u r n i n g s n ow ” The highest hierarchy of the crystalline sky begins just beyond the orbit of the fifty-second Aristotelian planet. This part of the cosmos already belongs to the INVISIBLE HORIZON. Isidore of Seville, who describes it, never saw snow himself. Nor does he claim to know the creatures of flame, the sixwinged, eyeless beings that make up the order of the seraphim. He speaks of his ears and of voices. “The hearsay of his inner voices” is his source. Arabian doctors regarded him as insane. The crystalline structure he calls snow, mingling with the burning glow in which the angels of the First Order gather around God’s throne, is dust, scoured by the hour and the minute, as though with a divine scraper, from the flat plateau of the spiritual body we call the sky, like an animal grooming itself. N. Goncharova asks whether this snow, in its bizarre figurations, is identical with the elaborately formed ice crystals and tiny cold blocks that cover the expanses of Russia. For the events occurring beyond the INVISIBLE HORIZON in the cosmos up above actually mirror the ethereal currents within us plants and animals. This strict ABOVE and BELOW keeps the chill and the fire far enough apart that we can live in the space between. Thirty-seven seraphim were needed in Chemnitz to sustain a little girl who had fallen seven yards from a window, enabling her to wake from the coma unscathed. In their remaining time, they work on an imaginary pyramid that, in truth, is a tree or a tower. It is only because they are so busy, manifesting dispersed throughout the world with their forces, that their fire does not utterly consume us. Burning snow is self-sufficient. It needs no influx of energy or substance. Yet the seraphim themselves have no organs of sight. Rather, they rely on spiritual beings below them in the hierarchy who have eyes on their wings and tell the seraphim the origins of the noises whose transformation into the sound of the heavens gives life to the highest order of angels.
macrotime, microtime One Hubble time is approx. fourteen billion years. It will take ten thousand Hubble times for the physical world’s last lightproducing bodies to burn to ash. 106
The balance wheel, the beat that moves the world, that is, the crystalline sky, is independent of these time scales. The excited state of an atom lasts 10-15 seconds. The beat of the music of the heavens in the first moments of the universe had a frequency of 10-43 seconds.
“ t h e m ov e m e n t o f t h e a n g e l s ov e r a g i v e n e x pa n s e o f s n ow r e l at e s t o a c t ua l i t i e s o t h e r than those of the present” Every winter, three great surges of snowfall level the slopes and valleys between the Ural Mountains and Siberia’s broad expanses to form a flat, ideal plane. On this terrain, where little concerning humans occurs, the spiritualist M. Larionov observed, within a small space, a surprisingly lively traffic of angels. This traffic resembled a conference. The “angels’ feet” leave no traces visible to the eye; rather, the spiritualist can detect them by the minimal distortions they cause in the crystal lattices of the snow stars. What happened here? The habits of these messengers, all of them PRINCIPALITIES of the Seventh Order, that is, the sort of SPIRITUAL DIGNITARIES otherwise found only on battlefields or at the collision of massive continents, have, according to the spiritualist, become uncoupled over the course of the millennia from human affairs and from the nature of the planet. The six-winged beings move approximately two inches above the ground and imbue all that lies below them with a bizarre, fixed structure, “as though a magnet were passed over 107
iron filings.” Larionov claims that these bizarre structures, never seen by human eyes, have great artistic value. But it is impossible to pick up a piece of this snowy expanse from the ground and take it to Sotheby’s in London to convert this value into money.
a h u m a n l i f e , c o m pa r e d w i t h s n ow A human life spans the time in which the starlike snow crystals trodden on by an angel of the Fifth Order turn to slush and melt. It is a misconception that the ARCHAI or RULERS are responsible for guarding human lives. If this is seen as their work, it is due to a confusion with heathen images of Valkyries or divine illuminations from Asia that watch over heroes. However, there are FORCES or STRONGHOLDS, dynameis in Greek, that guard complex entities, such as human children until their ninth year. These forces always manifest themselves in groups, in formations. Conversely, this means that they are lacking in other places and in other perilous moments. A gas chamber is put into operation and no choir of angels blocks the pipeline. To confuse these beings with ELECTRICAL FORCES is equally far-fetched. During the Enlightenment, scholars interpreted spiritual beings in physical terms, just as visitors to a zoo contemplating a monkey cage assume they understand something about these beings by memorizing the textbooks about them and the anatomical atlas.
“a n d t h e m o u n ta i n ’ s h i g h e s t n y m p h s a s w e l l / e n j oy t h e l i g h t s n ow f o r a b r i e f t i m e ” In 1943, rambling on Mount Etna, Lieutenant Schirmacher, teacher, from the Hermann Göring Division, observed fleeting cloudlets of snow, so-called nymphs’ caps, pursued by witch hunters, that is, gusts of wind from the north. Hunted and carved to pieces. With his paratrooper boots, Schirmacher trampled these sanctimonious winds from the north. Nothing from antiquity, not even the nymphs of the mountains, was spared by these cruel Puritans. The officer shivered in the Africa uniform he had worn since the time of the victories in Libya. On this morning, he would have liked to help those patches
of white, which he took for a residue of the ancient world. They had turned to water, and his boot heels were partly to blame. Should he have thrashed away with his belt? Shot harsh gusts of wind with his pistol? His presence up here, a calm contemplative moment amid the chaos of war, struck him as strangely gratuitous. Wherever he set foot, snow turned to a puddle of water.
angels’ lives and ours. between them t h e s n ow l e s s da r k a g e s . In the Dark Ages of our universe, several million years after the earliest segment of time, which was 1-32 seconds long, a TIME OF ITS OWN and an ANGELS’ TIME constituting a separate and autonomous eon (for us such a moment is short, but on its own terms its duration is extraordinary, “subjectively infinite”), there is neither snow nor light. No child with a candle, its light flickering in the draft, crosses a cellar such as that. This was before the unforgettable moment of gloaming, dawn, the first massive stars. Where were the angels then? The WHEELS or THRONES of the Third Order, with their winged pairs of eyes? They surged forward like snakes, like swimmers gone deep underwater, propelled by their lungs. It is said that this adversity gave rise to the spirits of the First and Second Orders. That explains why, according to the accounts, the first fallen angel came from the Third Order. In the time preceding the Dark Ages, that is, within the beat of 1 -32 seconds, the heavenly palaces turned infinitely small. Thus, to this day, the upper Six Orders of the angels are invisible to our eyes, and our ear detects 109
them with difficulty in the rushing of the present. The choirs of the HIGHER SPIRITUALITIES are sopranos so high that our ears mistake them for shrieking. The singing beings are so submicroscopically small that they (or a flock of them) could pass through the head of an American president without him or his guards noticing a thing. If, however (and this is not individually commanded by God but happens spontaneously and ceaselessly), a messenger, in particular one from the Ninth Order, namely the practitioner of salvation, is sent to us, he must inflate himself monstrously like a balloon, an explosion, from his authentic microform to Planck length, almost to the boundaries of his true nature. It is in this attenuation, at the point of bursting, that he delivers his messages. The phantom hands seen on icons at these messengers’ sides, next to their wings, are deceptive. Angels cannot use their hands. They are not workers like bees. When introduced into our dimension, they remain VIBRATIONS or STRINGS, that is, rhythms or metronomes, and the drastic difference between the thousand types of beats at their disposal and the slow motion of our cells and nerves (= we human beings are bromides) engenders these messengers’ tidings and protection.
“numbers leaning against their radicals” The number beasts (numbers “dressed in animal skins”) support themselves with one hand on a torn-down oak. Holding them up against every wind are the roots of this tree. They point to the sky. The roots cannot nourish the tree this way. The number brothers, in turn, lack the strength to move the tree. It is hard work, you see, to bed the roots back in the ground.
fa l l e n s ta r s a r e l i k e fa l l e n a n g e l s Stars that collapse at the end of their lives enter a material state referred to by astrophysicists as “degenerate,” without any reference to racial prejudices. Nothing but neutrons, with no perceptible space in between. Such ALREADY EXTINCT SUNS are usually two stars revolving around each other. This death, extending over eons, takes place in each fraction of a second in which the two heavenly bodies orbit each other as a lingering sound, a distortion of time
and space, like a musical note. This sort of heavenly trumpet costs a minimal amount of substance that then adds to itself endlessly. The late stars, those BIG TWO: falling together in an abundant well we call NOTHINGNESS. As Prof. Dr. Alessandra Buonanno put it, a crystalline sphere of ideal roundness. A massif of 1,889 Himalayas would present barely the irregularity of an ice rink freshly prepared for a skating competition. Underneath, these excessively compact bodies are liquid. Full of disobedience, saturated with congested agitation over the innumerability and indefinition of such a highly condensed mass. Here matter shows its true face. But no submarine can navigate the wild currents of this crystal lake. This predator mauls any stranger on the spot. There is nothing in the cosmos as lonely as these “I”s orbiting each other. But fallen angels (they, too, circling in pairs, but not for reasons of sex) differ utterly from neutron stars in that their compactified vibration swarms in microparticles in us human beings and our evolutionary neighbors (and in Nature as a whole), taking the form, as it were, of stray waves of corpuscles on whose crests adventurers and the daughters of Amazons ride. That is often the reason for tears running down the cheek. A bit of dust from the once-socompact body of one of those angels suffices. On the other hand, all the vivid pictures of angels in human form are based on misconceptions. Evidently all angels are spheres. And bizarre, to the extent that they manifest as snow.
“ s u p p o r t yo u r p o l i s : c h o p t h e a i r ” (You can’t stop breathing)
Nine weeks of downpours. Followed by a heat dome. The high-pressure system over the city shuts in the smog at roof height. Nose shut (you can shut it mentally by denying the stench), I bike the seven miles to my business meeting. Really I don’t want to go. I block this awareness by thinking it away. And so I task INTERNAL ORGANS more with warding off sensory impressions than with processing them. I ride along in a diving suit (imaginary), with an air hose (to all the arts of survival). With a butcher’s knife, I chop through the city air, dense as jungle thickets. I hope (instinctively, preemptively) not to arrive in the place the plan calls me to. 111
“ s q ua n d e r t h e m i n d ’ s u l t i m at e c a n d e l a o n the mimetic” At the barber’s. He’ll make me young again. With short-trimmed hair I look as I did as a child. Came too early, have to wait. No one free yet to give me the wash before the haircut. Harper’s Bazaar. Seven straight pages of advertising. The first piece of editorial content: how a woman ought to wear her jewelry. The lips of the model on page 13 would fit the face of the solemn girl (a model advertising watches) on page 24. None of them can compete with the invisible image of a woman that I carry within me, that presumably I am myself. Again I glance at the lines of the model on page 64. The hair washer is already on her way. With tiny scalpels or magnets, the illustrations have extracted “reason” from me. That which props up the invisible image, like a construction of boards from which the orators speak. The inner image lies in disarray. A lost toy. Magda will find it.
“ p o l i t i c a l ly s p e a k i n g , i ’ m k i n d o f a n a n i m a l” Trotsky is speaking. Cooped up in trousers, jacket, the neatness of the suit, that’s how he meant to slip scot-free through Turkish customs. He is speaking to a group of eight people who have come to receive him. I keep calm. That’s what he’d say if he had to discuss his state of mind rather than the political situation. Calm does not suit my temperament. The animals within me— calm, snappish, patient, tempestuous—are inclined to mutiny. 112
Intoxication flows in my veins. My neurons still hold the thrill of the years that fled so swiftly. And so I leave the steamship, pass through customs, walk through the throng of journalists, not saying a word to them. The faithful eight, off to the side now, are chewing on my words. I am led to a launch that takes me to one of the Princes Islands, in the evening Sea of Marmara. Here, where the Flood once surged, will be my abode, whatever that means, for nowhere do I abide, I am always “struggling.” All this Trotsky said to himself, now in Russian, now in German, now in the etymological singsong of old Odessa. Great Russia, ill-advised, had chased him out of the country he had conquered from that sovereign. He was not a fox. Perhaps a centaur. Possibly a constellation of different animals. When an animal is joined with a scholar, a child, a mechanic, a collector, a prophet (who speaks in tongues, six-winged), the result is a being of relative rarity. A “political language beast.”
“ f r o m e v e r y s i n g l e w o r d w h i c h , w r o n g f u l ly b u r n e d, awa i t s i t s a r r i va l” On New Year’s Eve, the papyri that had burned in the Library of Alexandria fifteen hundred years before, ghosts, that is, migrated northward at an unknown but astonishing speed and turned west outside Hildesheim. The knowledge contained within them, like the money that central banks drop over countries from helicopters to stimulate their commercial spirit, lay about in northwestern Europe for several days, absorbed by no one, and scattered in one last, energetic surge over the vast Atlantic. But no water can douse what burned long ago. Just as cisterns exist, so too there are hidden collecting tanks meant for such rare rains. What was misleading was not the report of the papyri’s migration, which according to skeptics was physically impossible, but rather the supposition that the papyri had vanished for good. Did these, the resurrected, migrate all the way to Europe deep below the earth? Or did they fly vast distances in the upper wind? In the days after New Year’s Eve 1799, a flood of unexpected ideas (mostly music) reached people’s minds. 113
The “engraphs” quickly faded. Nowhere, after all, were they shored up with spiritual soil, watered as a planted garden should be. Did they wither? Did that indicate the “weak nature” of those aliens? Can RESURRECTED WRITINGS be compared with premature babies that were admitted to a clinic lacking the proper expertise (this one, for instance, specializes in ear complaints) and thus could not last in this world? The pious scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher, who knew a thing or two about it, even declared the “shepherds of souls” (that is, burned letters of the alphabet) to be ESPECIALLY ROBUST. And so it is conceivable that some of what fell from the sky on New Year’s Eve 1799 (unlike meteors, which vaporize) has survived to this day and need only be gathered and harvested. Where? Using sections of the skin, the intestines, the liver, the inside of the heart (in cooperation with selected neurons) we must create a NEW HEAD amid the corridors of the OLD BRAIN and—like a two-headed eagle—set it next to the traditional head of reason, so that they may grind each other down to a sensitive dust, still engaged in the search for the lost letter, for the plants from Alexandria, which in the future, too, shall survive every fire, because they have always been burning. To absorb something of them is a function of the “author as producer” that is innate to every human being and that does not live from bread alone but from every single word which, wrongfully burned, awaits the end of its journey.
“ h i s t o r y pau s e s f o r e m p h a s i s ” How to relate a circumstance of which you know nothing
How do I speak to the question of how, on the evening of December 31, 1799, “the twilight descended”? Is it poetically correct, faced with this moment of which I know nothing, for me to write what I imagine? Is it good for me to invent such a thing? — Have you inquired whether there might be some diary entry, some contemporary remarks on the subject? Knowing, in any case, that during those twilight minutes Friedrich Schiller was proceeding in the direction of Goethe’s town house. — Nothing positive could be ascertained. Various details of that New Year’s Day are documented. The hues of the heavens’ light toward evening: not at all. Then one should not invent anything. One should 114
make a point of not knowing it. Wilhelm Voßkamp was known for his rigor. Following his advice, I arrived at the following phrasing: It was due to collective impatience that the majority of the acute minds produced by the advancing eighteenth century moved forward the turn of the century, which by the calendar was not expected until the following year, to the night of December 31, 1799. They celebrated unprompted. Whether it rained toward evening or whether the sky was clear, so that our sister planet appeared in the west, I do not know. I phoned with Dr. Combrink, who looked around on the Internet. But I knew from previous research that no
one, nowhere, knows what specifically met the eyes from five to seven in the evening on December 31, 1799. The excitement of that day may be one reason for the lack of observation. Nothing but generalities have come down to us about that hour. Sensory substance, which after all, far below the rational level, must have occupied the eyes and the feeling skin, was lost for good. So many senses—so little information. I could have told now of the Alpine ridge and the road from Zurich to Chur, down which the army of the Russian general Suvorov marched. A few safe hypotheses would have sufficed, for the route, as far as cold, heights, and abysses are concerned, has gone nearly unchanged to this day; indeed, due to recent road construction, the old paths and Swiss-style roads off to the side have remained better preserved than if they were in permanent use. But for the emotions, the feelings of the Zurichers, the celebration held by Masséna’s victorious soldiers, the mood of the Asiatic horsemen who rode 115
in Suvorov’s company, the sweat of the elite Russian gunners as they heaved their cannons up the road—there is no contemporary attention, no source. Only what I have thought up. That was not significantly different in the seconds as the twentieth century passed into the twenty-first. Even as the media brought early reports of the fireworks in Sydney, speeches, news, news tickers were already flooding the monitors. It was not worth looking out the window yet because the local fireworks could not be expected until later. The main things, that was all. But whenever some lonely cyclist rode across the landscape to his house, no doubt noting the features of his surroundings, this impression was not
reported, it remained private, a piece of news that would have been turned away by the doorman of the TV or radio studio. And so, not wanting to fall short of the precision of the early film pioneers, I noted that in the two centuries following December 31, 1799, the LACK OF SENSORY ATTENTION AT CRUCIAL MOMENTS, namely the lack of surface perception that we call superficiality, had not diminished. The reason for this, it seemed to me, was not that no one wrote anything down and that there was no archive; rather, it was an inherent weakness in our perception of the moment, a flaw in humanity that would be foreign to a live film camera. But it happened with one such camera, precisely on New Year’s Day 2000, that it (intended to film only the tumult of light at midnight) was turned on prematurely and then packed in its case, where it registered darkness all evening, and when it was required at midnight, its batteries were used up. Certain gray tones, however, filtered 116
through the cracks of its protective case, conveyed the motion of the walking cameraman, the transportation. The incompletely shut, low-information container was documented exactly. The cameraman, a reality hunter, did not know what to do but deliver the exposed tape; it ended up in the archive of the television company, from which (along with all the filmmaker’s other materials) it was transferred to the Federal Archives as a cultural legacy, where to this day it provides inexact testimony as to the qualities of the leather of a twenty-first-century carrying case and the precise sensitivity to light and dark demonstrated by a twenty-first-century recording medium. Back to the shifting hues in Weimar on the evening of December 31, 1799. The difference between the color of the sky in Alexandria, where with only two hours’ time difference the officers of the French expeditionary force celebrated the accentuated day, and the scattering of clouds far to the south of the Harz Mountains—such differences can be assumed and conceived for all imaginable weather conditions: as a prism, as a plethora of different possibilities that all the same can be pictured as precise in their difference. Such impressions link events that are scattered across the planet, independent of concrete knowledge; indeed, the less they are hampered by direct sensory impressions, the more opulently the kaleidoscope unfolds. This is worth conveying, and so I need not begin the first paragraph of my planned story about December 31, 1799 (I am still uncertain whether to set it in Weimar, Schwanebeck, or Halberstadt), the way I like to read it: “On a rainy day, Countess F. proceeded along the rue Saint-Honoré, swathed in thick clothing, toward a shop where, just the day before, in the sunshine, she had seen a thin, elegant gown . . . ” Rather, it is worth relating the fact that while Goethe and Schiller were looking forward to their evening together, preoccupied by countless plans for the new year, one hurrying, one waiting impatiently, Indios in the Andes are sure to have gazed up at a sky that was alien to Goethe and Schiller, and various Japanese who did not adhere to the Gregorian calendar ascribed no special significance whatsoever to that day. As a child, my father had the habit of spitting on the presents and the cake set out in the morning for his birthday before he went to school so that his older sisters and his brother would not tamper with his property. Thus did the young doctor and archaeologist Dubois conceive of selectively claiming Africa for France by distributing attributes of civilization among the caravans that he thought would cross the continent. 117
“These are pieces of us.” For undertakings of this sort, small French troops of seven men with little equipment sufficed. There was generosity in this plan. No differently had the Franks, barbarians that they were, occupied Gaul, and by turning up the dregs of society to the top as when plowing a field (i.e., making slaves their tender mistresses), transformed it into a garden of God; indeed, the garden itself transformed into this state for a lengthy time. This is one of the tales of New Year’s 1799.
a n a dv e n t u r e s o m e b a n d o n n e w y e a r ’ s 1 7 9 9 As twilight descended, the sixteen cuirassiers rode into the town of Timbuktu, led by their Arab guides. The animals were given a rubdown. How to seek quarters in an oasis town? Nothing could be done in these foreign parts without the help of locals. The sixteen gathered in a caravansary and immediately went about celebrating. A banquet was envisioned, its ceremony soon adapted to the ritual of a French dinner party. All to be developed NEW-OLD on the basis of elements in situ. Soon the SIXTEEN MEN IN ARMS, sufficiently sequestered from the locals, formed a rhapsodic, loquacious company. Revived from their exhaustion after the long ride. Revolutionaries, years ago. A few love songs from the Loire. The sky outside the clay walls and the roof. A vague plan. Having advanced so far into the west of Africa, beyond the boundary of the Roman provinces, the idea of occupation lodged itself in their minds: revolutionizing Africa, that is, continuing on fresh terrain the revolt that had failed in Paris, terrain which, isolated in this building by the oasis and mindful of their unhelmeted heads, they pictured as “unpopulated.” We shall see. Half drunk already. Two guards outside, who ought to be changed at midnight. But who will still be willing and able to stand guard then? They set their hopes on the tolerance of the locals. Not to be cheated and not attacked. What good would their weapons, uniforms, and horses do them? Here they are merely scouts. In the new century, the New Year’s night of their intoxication, they woke unscathed, with throbbing heads. Rode the next day further west to the sea. They did this because their officer had told them of the cry of “Thálatta” reported by Xenophon. Absurdly 118
underestimating the distances, they rode the stretch that can be covered in a day when one sits hungover in the saddle.
r e s u l t s o f a r at i o n a l i z at i o n g a i n i n t h e r u s s i a n r e vo l u t i o n o f 1 9 1 7 In the course of one of the reforms that so rapidly stumbled over one another, ultimately bringing general literacy to Russia, the fact that here, in the Third Rome, letters of the alphabet had been used to designate numbers led to a certain confusion, indeed a loss with long ramifications. This “literacy campaign of impatience” cost great quantities of “aim,” of “soul.” Utopia, which had waited like a curious animal since the Middle Ages, was lost. But the worst of it was not the loss and the mix-up of the numbers. Letters that were hard to write and had no equivalents in the alphabets of Europe and the United States were dropped. Because these letters were rationalized away during the literacy campaign, in the end the number seven was missing, and nine ended up coming before five. The rationalization gain came at a devastating cost, wrote Bukharin. Economically as well. Inflation got out of control. It profited from the inconsistency in number sequence and the fact that one of the numbers was missing. Sly peasants and small traders skipped the missing, unnamable number. And so the price rose from four to nine rubles, then from forty thousand to ninety thousand, then into the hundred thousands on tokens, postage stamps, and ration coupons. The accelerating factor that governed the precipitous advance of literacy had leapt over to a completely different area: value and countervalue.
t h e s c a p e g oat p r i n c i p l e When the metropolises of the Orient were founded (Uruk, Babylon), people were crowded so closely together that aggression built up between them. Only the priests know how to achieve the proper balance in dealing with this “social fever”: from time to time a scapegoat, an innocent human being, must be publicly sacrificed. Afterward, the victim is canonized, preserving, for a brief time, the common good. Following the curtailment of the religions,
according to the French thinker René Girard, this has become the subject of opera. When one rationally questions the magical means by which the priests (and their operatic echoes) even out the balances and memorize them anew, these means lose their power. For this reason, Jürgen Habermas insists that a certain stock of religiosity—like a supply train—must be taken along on every march of the Enlightenment.
a crucial character (among persons none of whom are who they think they are): rachel in ‘la juive’* One day, the costumes and the scenery burn up (towers, equipment for the cauldron of boiling oil into which Rachel is plunged). And so for several years the audience cannot watch La Juive. But the scenes have been burned indelibly into the eyes of the young Proust. The tale concerns the biological daughter of a powerful Christian in Rome. He believes his daughter is dead. Neapolitan troops have started a fire. But a Jew rescues the child from the burning house. He calls her Rachel and raises her. Rachel is proud to be a Jew. In the finale of La Juive, she goes to her death. She would rather be pushed into the inferno than betray the faith of the man she trusts and takes for her father. “Let the skin peel from my bones.”
t h e a dva n ta g e o f a r e l at i o n s h i p b e t w e e n t w o w o m e n ( o r b e t w e e n l oya l m e n ) a s o p p o s e d t o t h e c a r i c at u r e o f m a n a n d w o m a n . a n o b s e r vat i o n o f p r o u s t ’ s . Léopold, the high tenor in La Juive, is one of the emperor’s generals. He is married to Princess Eudoxie. And so he is committing adultery when he disguises himself as the Jew Samuel to “work” in Rachel’s father’s workshop
Grand opera from 1835 by Jacques-François-Fromental-Élie Halévy.
and seduce her. In the end, he vanishes from the scene. A coward. The two rivals who love him, his wife and Rachel, join forces in solidarity to save the high tenor.
the opera with two roles for high tenors. e x p l a n at i o n o f t h e fa n at i c i s m o f é l é a z a r , w h o sacrifices rachel, on the basis of his high vo c a l r a n g e . Éléazar, Rachel’s foster father, could easily save her in the fifth act. He need only tell Rachel’s biological father, the cardinal, that she is his daughter. There is nothing the cardinal, this SUPREME JUDGE OF THE COUNCIL OF CONSTANCE, longs for more than the return of the daughter he believes is lost forever.
When the cardinal meets Rachel, now condemned to death, in act 4, he seems to sense that he should protect her. Just as children at a puppet show warn the hero when the crocodile is sneaking up on him, the spectators at the grand opera want to call out to the characters and tell them their mistakes. Doom, a very thin garment. Salvation, nearly naked on the stage. In the following scene (the cardinal washes the Jew’s feet, humbling himself ), Éléazar comes within an inch of telling the truth. Only the unwavering stance of the Parisian audience, holding that an opera can be regarded as serious only if 121
no solution opens up in the fourth act, prevents the singers from embracing one another, from being friends and Enlightenment philosophers. Another strict demand of the medium prohibits a duet between two basses (Éléazar and the cardinal). Thus Éléazar must be sung by a tenor. Singing in such a high range, the Jew lacks all sense of generosity. During the intermission, Proust spent a long time discussing this external constraint, which operates on the assumption that in the opera house it is not production but consumption—i.e., the spectators’ passive enjoyment—that is the “overarching element”: the finding of happiness.
t h e h e r o i n e o f t h e t h i r d vo l u m e o f ‘à la recherche du temps perdu’ After the death of her husband Georges Bizet, Geneviève Halévy married the banker Straus from the Rothschild clan. The Jewish beauty kept a grand household in her domicile on the Champs-Élysées, built to resemble a noble palace. Her guest and childhood friend Marcel Proust turned her into the Duchess of Guermantes (with all the attributes of old French nobility). And so all the suffering inflicted upon the scapegoat Rachel in the opera La Juive
(composed by Geneviève’s father) was compensated for by an illustrious identity for the daughter. A sovereign gesture, that is poetry.
t h e s k y s t o p s pa i n t i n g a n d t u r n s t o c r i t i c i s m Up above the mountains, where usually the sun would emerge from morning mists: now a row of silvery, glittering dots. Around them—as on so many other days in that same season—the sky turned color, according to witnesses, but always a little bit differently: gooseberry, virtuoso blue, flannel yellow, shimmering red, angel colored, hysteria white, rose mélange. And always an echo on the opposite, western horizon. Still in darkness, it replied to the splashes of light in the east. The glut of color pierced the artifacts, as yet still tiny, the engine noise rushing on ahead of the apparition on high. As yet they were still dots. And already their noise (“the trumpet”), namely the expectation in advance, drew all the observers’ attention. Twenty minutes later, the city was destroyed. Though it takes six or eight such raids to actually eradicate it—and even then nests of human spirit are still stirring, seeking to save themselves and establish themselves anew. The raid by the airplanes, this action by ARMED INDUSTRY, ENGINEERCENTERED HEAVENLY POWER, contains a strong VEIN OF CRITICISM. Question in the air-raid cellar: Where was the last junction for me and my children at which we could have escaped the doom that descends upon us from two miles in the air? Twenty years ago? Could I have escaped even yesterday? Where to run to? The knowledge of safe places is the beginning of philosophy. A bomber squadron early in the morning in a sky of any color whatsoever creates a new foundation for thought. With which senses? To detect the enemy in the corner of the eye, from a tiny movement on the horizon, is too little. Neither the squadron above me nor the pounding heart within that tells me to jump up and run out of the cellar, which at this moment would mean certain death but a little later could mean salvation, is an “enemy on the horizon.” If I am lying on the cellar floor in 2016, the horizon, that is, the home of the enemy, in the year 1921 would presumably be in London and Paris, not in a Syrian town south of Aleppo. 123
If my body were made of steel and pliant as a young poplar, I could absorb the blow of the shrapnel that seeks to hit me. Thus do the CHANGING HEAVENS ABOVE criticize the body, the senses and the spirit, urgently demanding the novus homo, as last envisioned, in 1917, by the Biocosmists of the Russian Revolution. Where, brothers, are you now, in my hour of need? There was time enough to take up contact with you, but I was busy. I was trying to count the crystalline colors of the heavens. In our climes, the sky is a gifted painter in the morning and in the evening twilight. Several seconds before my end (and that of my loved ones)—and if it is my neighbor who is hit, then evermore into the future—I will be a critic crying to high heaven. I will suck at the teats of the she-wolf to fill myself with this panacea, if time is left me. —Translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole
Timothy Donnelly AFTER CALLIMACHUS These Telchines are called by some writers charmers and enchanters, who besprinkle animals and plants, with a view to destroy them, with the water of the Styx, mingled with sulphur. Others on the contrary say, that they were persons who excelled in certain mechanical arts . . . —The Geography of Strabo
Tartarus’s footless offspring who spray fans of glyphosate mixed with Styx water over farmland regularly, technicians of os agrotóxicos for cash, I am weaponless against you, plus preoccupied by a to-do list longer than an epic—what you’ve done to my popcorn, my popcorn does to me, bowl after bowl of it as I take the documentary about you in in fits between dark washes and a trip to the True Value for drywall mud to repair the divot the doorknob to the bathroom door put in the drywall. Be that as it may, I will think ill of you with every other step and curse the way you worm even into the baguette, which in Paris you can buy from vendors on the Pont Neuf ridiculous with butter and the ham on it sliced thin but piled up thick— I’m halfway there, I hesitate, I click on the petition aimed against you as I reach out inwardly for France’s national sandwich, with somewhere over a billion managed every year although it keeps losing ground 125
to the hamburger annually. Maybe when you’re done devising ways to make me sick, neurodegenerative disorders and the like, but before Zeus’s thunderbolts lock in, you can shed some light on that, if not the following: At what point do you suspect a versified address to you begins to take the place of legitimate action? Stevens says poetry is escapism in “a non-pejorative sense,” a break from the swelter of the real such that when we return to it we’ll be the better equipped to suffer its ongoing indignity, poke back a little, tinker with the motor till it doesn’t rattle so displeasingly on the long drive out to the “open countryside” Nietzsche says we enjoy so much because it pays us no attention, by which I think he means it has no designs on us, i.e., since the landscape lacks what we identify as sense, we don’t feel ourselves falling under the spell of its perception— we aren’t objectified by it but instead exist within it purely as perceiving subject. Here the wolf-god Apollo says don’t take his word for it, go outside and see for yourself how the landscape relates or doesn’t relate to you. Let what happens in the poem be what the poem makes happen, or at least
what wouldn’t have happened if the poem had not been. Let it then be a record not only of its own becoming but of another change it brought about. In this way it can be said the poem wasn’t merely an escape from reality but a portal back into it. * One night I will walk out under a sky so clear I’ll forget you are everywhere. The stars will baffle me with numbers as they arc in all directions down to the horizon as they must have when Callimachus wrote that he preferred the “delicate wings” of the cicada and their music to the crasser braying of “the long-eared ass,” reference not only to his well-known disavowal of the epic form in favor of brevity but also to Tithonus, carried off, Sappho says, “to the earth’s end” by his consort Eos, or rose-armed Dawn, who asked Zeus to grant her lover immortality, forgetting to request eternal youth. In time, Tithonus withered down into the first cicada, which in fact produces its distinctive sound 127
not by rubbing delicate wings together, as Callimachus appears to have thought, but by rapidly buckling a ribbed complex of membranes in its exoskeleton called timbals, homonymic with the tall, single-headed drums of Brazil, redoubtable exporter of sugar, coffee, orange juice, beef, poultry, and soybeans manipulated to withstand the complete havoc glyphosate inflicts on every other plant alive that isn’t likewise genetically modified and patented, including corn, but also canola, alfalfa, and cotton—even glyphosate-resistant wheat has somehow found its way into a field in Oregon—crops no longer the inheritance of all but the property of the titanic corporation you now serve, an empire blowing everywhere the wind you make carries it. * For a purpose I hope to grow clearer in the future tomorrow I’ll consume a Fritos Taco Grande BeltBuster at the Dairy Queen down the road from where I am. It’s been revealed to me all week on a sign. I’ve photographed this sign on my phone but still can’t find any description of what it might mean on the Internet tonight, but my guess is it’s a sandwich, likely a burger. I’ll undertake this plan maybe midafternoon, and with whatever nonchalance I can
muster on what’s shaping up to be another Texas scorcher. But no matter what it is, this sandwich, this burger, I know you’ll have a hand in it, especially if corn is present, and there’s cause to believe it must be. I think I must feel one way to contend with the demonic, and that’s what you are, is to invite it in, take its properties on in order to know how better to defeat it. I think I’ve been here before. I can just feel it. I can just taste the waste you will lay to me bite after bite in the hot vinyl booth of right where you want me, calling you by name: Spell Caster. Fingers. The Great One. Rodeo. Touchdown. Wolf. * The way the darkness makes the stars stand out more intensely, appear more precisely themselves, likewise the many canisters of Pringles, this entire supermarket aisle of them, make me more humanly aware of my human than I know what to do with. Nietzsche says that in order to make life bearable step-by-step the Greeks had to dream up an array of new gods, shiningly exemplified by Apollo, who through ongoing battle lays order to chaos and puts an end to the Titans’ “divine reign of terror.”
Most sources say your misuse of technology for destructive ends compels Zeus to deploy his weapon of choice against you; others say Poseidon, your own foster child, rises from the sea like architecture to impale you with the seismic trident you forge for him; while Servius’s gloss on Virgil’s epic attributes the honor to none other than Apollo himself taking the shape of the wolf in part to beautify it from within, “as roses burst forth from the thorn-bush,” to quote Nietzsche again in a context different but not unrelated, like tropical milkweed to the native variety, whose scent the Times describes as “sweet, spicy and ripe with an overtone of honey.” Well-meaning gardeners keep planting tropical milkweed in droves in their borders to provide habitats and food for the monarch butterfly— who affixes her eggs to the undersides of the milkweed’s leaves and whose larvae eat nothing but—in hopes of offsetting all the native plants you continue to destroy along the fringes of corn and soy fields throughout the Midwest, but unlike the plainer native species, the tropical doesn’t die back in winter, a fact agreeable to monarch-infecting parasites but flummoxing to the monarchs themselves, many of whom, taken in by the luxury of a year-round milkweed supply,
end up forsaking their famous migratory flight to Mexico, an exercise which has come to ensure the overall strength of the swarm. Enthusiasts like to call a swarm of butterflies a “kaleidoscope,” another practice that to my mind means well, but fails to do justice to the monarch, in effect diminishing colonies that curtain fir trees in the tens of millions per hectare into a single handheld toy meant to enchant the eye away from the truth in front of it—deforestation, extreme weather, dozens of species lost every week. * From your maternal grandparents, Darkness and Night, you inherit the knack of existing largely in the figurative, but with tangible impact. Not as entities with distinct shapes one might doodle in the margins of an almanac, like Cheney’s face on the body of Cthulhu, but as a human tendency to destroy a thing as way of controlling it and with no regard for what effects this might have on things nearby, things over time, or things not immediately
apparent, e.g., our groundwater supply— which glyphosate snakes its way into, here and abroad, despite biotech’s reassurance that the compound’s slow soil mobility in effect prevents groundwater contamination—and then there’s our gut flora. * Looking back, I remember the BeltBuster, and fondly, as comprising two meat patties, two cheese slices, seasoned taco meat, Fritos, and possibly more cheese in a more liquid form, like a queso sauce or its approximation, served on a fairly straightforward bun that fell apart halfway through— not a problem, because by that point my belt had, as advertised, been busted, again in the figurative, and I ate with my hands what remained of its meat, which by that point had grown inseparable from the cheese, because, as a rule of thumb, if a higher life-form dies for my meal, I do what I can. On the way home, I tried for twenty minutes to photograph streak lightning on my phone but failed every time, all I could capture was a gravel road, dead and living trees, cacti, and the purple clouds
where all the lightning had been happening and which, for Callimachus, might call to mind the fury of Zeus, but I thought of the comedy The Clouds by Aristophanes, whose heretical windbag depiction of Socrates—who in act 1 calls clouds “the only true gods”— is believed to have played a role in the philosopher’s trial and execution just shy of a quarter century later. In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche says Athens, mindful of the eyes of posterity, would only have gone so far as to punish its self-described “gadfly” with exile, and supposes it was Socrates himself, so tyrannically opposed to instinct, including even the instinct to live, who proposed his own death as the answer to the charges of impiety against the city-state’s gods and corruption of its youth. What’s more, Nietzsche also says Socrates, now a daemonic force via Euripides, was responsible for the death of Greek tragedy, which was once “the most magnificent temple” and then just another pile of rubble when what Nietzsche calls the “murderous principle” of aesthetic Socratism, i.e., “In order to be beautiful, everything must be intelligible,” sank anchor in a harbor far deeper than sense, pointed skiffs like viruses to shore
to infect dull reason into the amphitheater where the individual, once valiant as a golden pheasant among porcupine, had come to face the abyss with pleasure because it meant constructing an illusion over it in front of everybody, a new bridge leading not to the conclusion the abyss wasn’t there, or wasn’t real, but that it’s all that’s ever either, and the truth of this infuses the illusion with necessity. Regarding his assessment of Socrates’s asceticism, Nietzsche may have gone a bit overboard. It is known that Socrates exhibited robustness here and there, having served in three battles as a hoplite and excelled at masonry in his youth. He wed Xanthippe late in life, and together they brought three sons into a world we might be wrong to imagine him too eager to escape from. After hemlock, they made him walk around until his legs went heavy-numb. After lying down, and as the toxin eelily found his heart, he told his companion Crito to remember the cock owed to Asclepius, god of medicine. Nietzsche interprets this as a tribute to be paid to the god for curing him of the long sickness of existence. More recently, Asclepius was remembered in the plant name Asclepias syriaca, our native milkweed.
* Here the grasshopper Apollo says bid a hardy welcome to the emptiness already inside you. Sit down together on the verandah of coming to know it and what it will do. It will do what it will regardless. It is in your interest. Also in your interest— offer me beet greens on a nonreactive platter at my temple at Delphi as has been customary for several millennia. Just make sure that they’re harvested at least six miles away from the nearest sugar beet, as all the sugar beets in America, which account for roughly half your country’s sugar production, are genetically modified to be glyphosate resistant, and at a distance less than that, transgenic contamination with plants in the same family, e.g., table beets and Swiss chard, isn’t just likely, it’s inevitable. As for the emptiness, you can depend on it the way strings depend on the hollow body of the guitar. I know you don’t ordinarily trust rhetoric like that, but I see you have already taken my word for it. * One night I will walk out under a sky so clear I’ll forget I am anywhere. The landscape won’t regard 135
me any differently than itself—I’ll be the portion of a somewhat greater density than beeswax, lesser when inhaling at maximum capacity. A movement through lashes of wind-bent Junegrass; counter to the wind, but only in velocity. That figure of the human as loge towards which Earth’s orchestra exists to tend its point will sit quaint then, or irrelevant, like an excavated pull-tab harvester ants paraded out the mouth of their habitat in order to make life bearable. I took their photograph on my phone but it looks for all the world like the surface of the moon. Then I took another of a lone jackrabbit I thought might be the jackrabbit I saw earlier today— when I turned I saw maybe a dozen jackrabbits ricochet into the scrub and vanish. In a way they were all the same jackrabbit, just as I’m the same human they’ll always run from. But we have lived too long in the actual to let ourselves cave into the thought we should now try living in the abstract. There’s a knot in the wood floor where I am I keep mistaking for a scorpion. It keeps mistaking me for Socrates, pacing the room as we lose the feeling. But what I’m really doing is trying to get it back, weaving to and fro if not to sweat the toxin out, then to stage a demonstration to myself I am alive. In the prologue to his long poem on the many
causes of what is, Callimachus says he feels mortality sliding off him like “the three-cornered mass of Sicily.” I don’t feel that. I feel malevolent forms of rationality at play. I feel the Arctic flounder’s gene sequence allowing it to withstand frigid temperatures patched into the DNA of flavorless tomatoes in 1991. I feel trembling in the milk of today’s goats in Utah, tinkered with to produce a highgrade spider silk for military jumpsuits. I feel the pull of Earth’s newfound moon on the aquifer beneath me and a panic rustle wings awake on hot hexagons in Mexico, and then I don’t. But I still feel hands around my throat. I still feel Stevens when he says: “a violence from within . . . protects us from a violence without.” I feel ribbed undersides of milkweed’s leaves and a silkiness to its parachutes split from pods in airborne childhood. I feel at odds with what I feel but not enough to stop. My finger in the dark aligns the divot in the drywall with the last gasp of GMO-fed catfish. I feel the sickness of existence and its portal back in. I feel the times I walk across dissolve but I still walk. I feel the only way to make life bearable is to make it.
Notes for Citizen. “It’s not about telling the story, it’s about creating the feeling of knowing the story through the accumulation of the recurring moment.”
The Art of Poetry No. 102 CLAUDIA RANKINE
laudia Rankine was born in 1963, in Jamaica, and immigrated to the United States as a child. She attended Williams College and received an M.F.A. in poetry from Columbia University. Since early in her career, she has crossed the lines of genre, creating books as unified projects rather than loose collections, peeling back the surface of the moment to get at the complexities underneath. She is the author of five books—Nothing in Nature Is Private (1995), The End of the Alphabet (1998), Plot (2001), Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), and Citizen (2014)—and has collaborated on a series of videos with her husband, the filmmaker John Lucas, some of which infiltrate her writing in the form of transcriptions and images. I met Rankine over three Fridays in July at her home in Claremont, California. It was a tumultuous period: our first conversation took place the 139
week of the police shootings in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and in the suburbs of Saint Paul, Minnesota, and the ambush killing of five police officers during a rally in Dallas, Texas; the third, the afternoon after Donald Trump’s speech accepting the Republican nomination for president. These public topics wove through our discussions, explicitly and implicitly, as they often do in Rankine’s work. Long a professor at Pomona College, Rankine was preparing to move across the country for a new job, at Yale University; in her dining room, the sideboard was covered with piles of books on race and whiteness, for a course she was developing. Rankine has won numerous prizes, including a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Citizen, which was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Just a few months after we spoke, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, which she plans to use to found the Racial Imaginary Institute. (The name comes from a book of essays she coedited last year.) In conversation, she is thoughtful and focused, speaking softly, with an edge of urgency. “How do you get the work to hold the resonance of its history?” she wonders. It’s a question that occupies the heart of all her books. That the history to which she refers is both personal and collective is, of course, the point. —David L. Ulin
You’ve spent the past two years on an extended speaking tour for Citizen. The book came out in 2014, during the protests in Ferguson. Recently, we’ve seen police shootings of African American men in Baton Rouge and suburban Saint Paul and five police officers killed during a rally in Dallas. What’s your sense of where we are? RANKINE
If we go back to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, there was a feeling, at least for white people, that suddenly they were seeing into black lives and how these lives played out in encounters with the police and the justice system. People were shocked. Then we saw the lack of indictment. In a number of other deaths, we saw that videotaping doesn’t affect the course of justice, which we knew from the beating of Rodney King. Then we saw 140
what happened in Baton Rouge, we saw what happened in Minnesota. Now you get to Dallas, and we have created somebody like a Timothy McVeigh, a veteran who is clearly triggered by what he’s been seeing in the news. In McVeigh’s case, it was Waco, Texas, and with Micah Johnson, it was the killings of African Americans, the videos of these deaths. He’s not interested in Black Lives Matter protests. He’s interested in retaliation. INTERVIEWER
Citizen addresses these issues directly. It is literature as an act of public engagement. And yet, poetry—all writing—begins as a private act between the writer and her material. What is the relationship, for you, between these two modes? RANKINE
The relationship between public engagement and private thought are inseparable for me. I worked on Citizen on and off for almost ten years. I wrote the first piece in response to Hurricane Katrina. I was profoundly moved by the events in New Orleans as they unfolded. John and I taped the CNN coverage of the storm without any real sense of what we intended to do with the material. I didn’t think, obviously, that I was working on Citizen. But for me, there is no push and pull. There’s no private world that doesn’t include the dynamics of my political and social world. When I am working privately, my process includes a sense of what is happening in the world. Today, for example, I feel incredibly drained. And probably you do, too. INTERVIEWER
You make work in private, but once it goes public, readers make it their own. They define the work—and, by extension, you—in terms of who they are, what they want or believe. RANKINE
In the case of Citizen, I willingly moved toward that engagement. It felt like the first time I could actively be involved in a public discussion about race, in a discussion that, to me, is essential to our well-being as a country. It wasn’t simply about publicizing the book, it was about having a conversation. It was also an opportunity for me to learn what others really thought and felt. The 141
responses were various. One man said he was moved by a reading I gave and wanted to do something to help me. I said I personally had a privileged life, which I do, and that I didn’t need his help. What I needed was for him—this was a white gentleman—to understand the urgency of the situation for him and to help himself in an America that was so racially divided. It wasn’t about him coming from his own position of privilege—of white privilege—to take black people on as a burden, but rather to understand that we are all part of the same broken structures. He said, I can take what you’re saying, but you’re going to shut down everybody else in this audience. And all of a sudden I was like, What? I thought you wanted to help me! To remove him from the role of “white savior” was to attack him in his own imagination. A white woman, a professor, told me that what I was calling racism was really bias against overweight black women. You might think they were just a defensive man and a crazy professor, but again and again I was coming up against what was being framed as understanding and realizing that it was not that. INTERVIEWER
And yet, both of those people would likely describe themselves as wellintentioned, even allies of yours. RANKINE
They came and they engaged. I have a lot more patience and curiosity than I used to for following those arguments, for seeing where they will go. Often somebody will be interrupted by another member of the audience, who will jump in to shut that person down. This either comes out of an intent to protect me or else they’re just impatient with a line of thinking they don’t agree with. I don’t know. But one of the things I do know is that you’re not going to change anybody’s mind by shutting them down. INTERVIEWER
You talked about some of this in your keynote speech at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, especially the expectation that poetry should be relatable to a white audience. That’s a fallacy, and it starts with the audience, not with the poets or the poetry. It renders our relationship with language defensive—“I’m putting up a shield of language as a way of protecting you from all the things I don’t want to engage with.” 142
That’s what makes writing challenging and interesting. How do you get the work to arrive at readers in a way that allows them to stay with it and not immediately dismiss it? It’s something I think about, because I know I’m also writing for people who don’t always hold my positions. It’s not that I think white people are my only audience. It’s that I think of America as my audience, and inside that space are white people as well as people of color. Some white people still believe that white privilege and white mobility are the universal position. If a writer has a different experience of the world, the work is no longer seen as transcendent or universal. So as I’m moving around in a piece, I am hearing all those voices in opposition. INTERVIEWER
The voices of the audience? RANKINE
Voices I have encountered, yes. For me, working on a piece is like playing chess. You’re moving the language around to say to somebody, Yes, I know you’re possibly thinking this, I know this is a possible move for you. I’m going to include it here so you don’t think that I haven’t been listening. An example would be the Serena Williams essay in Citizen. That essay was dependent on the fact that a reader could go to YouTube and look up the moments I referred to in her life. I didn’t want anyone who disagreed with my take on events or remembered them differently not to have a chance to access the moments for themselves. It happened, in an interview in Boston, that a gentleman said to me, I am a real tennis fan and I don’t remember any of these things happening. The actual footage was easily obtainable by searching YouTube. I could have talked about the stress of racism on a body differently, but I needed examples that were available to the reader as raw data. I didn’t want anyone to take my word for anything. INTERVIEWER
“If you don’t believe me, look it up.”
Getting a marriage license at City Hall, New York, 1996.
Thatâ€™s not a bad way to work, or to be in the work. I spend a lot of time looking things up, doing research. I am always curious what I missed because I was looking right when I should have been looking left. I think itâ€™s important for Citizen that many of the moments in it are researchable. Without that, its credibility as a mirroring text would be lost. It took longer to collect incidents of microaggressions from friends and colleagues than it would have to simply use my own experiences, but it was essential to me that it be a collective and researchable document. INTERVIEWER
You call the Williams piece an essay. How did it develop? RANKINE
In Citizen, there are episodic pieces structured around microaggressions, which are set in conversation with more scandalous and murderous accounts, such as the pieces addressing Hurricane Katrina, Trayvon Martin, or stopand-frisk in New York. But my challenge as a writer in the Williams essay
was, How do you show the effect of all this injustice on a human body? On an actual somebody? And how is that somebody read by the public? I didn’t want it to be a traditional lyric because I wasn’t trying to create an internalized consciousness for Serena Williams. I was talking about an invisible accumulation of stress in the body, so I had to show how it worked over time. I needed a form that would allow me to do that, and so I ended up with the essay. That said, it’s a lyric essay, not an essay essay, because it was written to fit into Citizen. INTERVIEWER
A lyric essay in the sense that it can abandon the strict logic of argument for something more intuitive or emotional? RANKINE
Yes, and it utilizes many of the techniques of poetry—repetition, metaphor, elision, for example. I love finding the lyric in nontraditional spaces. Often when I teach my poetry workshop, I will take essays or passages from fiction or a scene from a film and list them among the poems to study. The “time passes” section in the middle of To the Lighthouse is an example of a lyric impulse. Others might be a passage from James Baldwin or Homi Bhabha or an image by Glenn Ligon or a song by Coltrane. INTERVIEWER
Let’s talk about how this works in Citizen. On the one hand, we’ve got Serena in a lyric essay. Then there are the passages at the beginning, those short pieces written in the second person—the girl who doesn’t want to sit next to the woman on the plane because she’s African American, the coworker who mistakes her for someone else and then refers to it as “our mistake.” Those, too, are lyric moments. Traditionally, we associate the lyric with autobiography, but here the second person opens up the writing so that it becomes a collective experience. RANKINE
When I first sit down to write, these movements are all intuitive. Just this morning, for example, I was listening to the recording of the shooting of 145
Philando Castile in Minnesota, and the little girl, the four-year-old in the backseat of the car, says, “It’s okay, Mommy, I’m right here with you.” I wrote it down. That will be the beginning of something. Every time I watch that video, my eyes tear up, my throat closes. I hear that little girl, and I am transported to a place beyond my intellect. I’m no longer thinking about the policemen—I’m experiencing that child and her utterance. When a moment enters me that profoundly, I know I can wait to write because I’ll forever be in dialogue with the moment. That part of the process I don’t interfere with. I will be surprised and ready to begin when her voice makes its way into a piece. INTERVIEWER
And you might sit on that line for . . . RANKINE
Months. Or a week. Or a day more. Or years. Once it’s on the page, I feel like that’s when the writer shows up. Right now her voice just accompanies me. In terms of Citizen, the initial drafts were in the first person. But I didn’t think it was effective, nor did I think it was structurally honest, because many of the accounts were not actually my experiences. Even though I employed the first person in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely to weave together disparate situations, in this book I wanted the opposite. I wanted the disparate moments in Citizen to open out to everyone rather than narrowing inside a single point of view. Only when I employed the second person did the text become a field activated by the reader, whoever that reader is. That’s what you want—for the text to be as alive and mutable as possible. INTERVIEWER
Much of Citizen is about the black body. This is part of what Serena represents, and something similar plays out across the other narratives. There’s the man, for instance, who knows he is going to be pulled over, so he opens his briefcase on the passenger seat. That anxiety builds up in the body. RANKINE
The key is that the anxiety, the stress, isn’t a narrative. It’s what interrupts the narrative, what stalls mobility. It’s an invisible sensation that requires adjustment by the body, beyond the space of words. As a poet, I want to use 146
language to enter that space of feeling. I’m less interested in stories. That’s one reason I write poetry. Often when people are speaking with me, I feel what they are saying is the journey to how they are feeling. I mean, it’s not that I’m not interested in what they’re saying, but I feel like what they’re saying is a performance. In many conversations I realize that the thing that’s being said is really not the point at all, there’s this subterranean exchange of contexts, emotions, and unspoken signals. I think a lot about how white dominance is part of this invisible and unmarked dynamic. INTERVIEWER
Sometimes, what is being said is at a perpendicular angle to what is really going on. RANKINE
Exactly. The question is, How do you get to an authentic emotional place? I’m often listening not for what is being told to me but for what resides behind the narrative. What is the feeling for the thing that’s being told to me? One of the reasons I work in book-length projects, instead of individual poems, is because I don’t trust the authenticity of any given moment by itself. INTERVIEWER
The individual poem falls prey to the same narrative contrivance— RANKINE
Of the novel, yes. Its trajectory is on an arc of time. Instead, I feel that what happens formally in Citizen, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, and Plot is an obsessive circling of the subject. Many positions are inhabited relative to a line of inquiry. It’s like one of those mirrored rooms where the spectator sees the same thing repeated in different variations and from different angles. INTERVIEWER
So in Citizen, those second-person vignettes form a series of slightly different but similar interactions. And part of the effect is that we feel it in the body.
Didn’t feel it the first time? Here it is again. We don’t get there by saying it once. It’s not about telling the story, it’s about creating the feeling of knowing the story through the accumulation of the recurring moment. INTERVIEWER
Immersion as opposed to narrative. RANKINE
That’s why, in this case, narrative is irrelevant in a certain sense. It could be these ten stories or it could be ten other stories. I tried to pick situations and moments that many people share, as opposed to some idiosyncratic occurrence that might have happened only to me. For example, many black people have been in a situation where they’ve been called by the name of the other black person—at the office, at the party, in the room. The stories are many and the emotion is one. INTERVIEWER
The one that sticks with me is when the second-person narrator is jokingly called a “nappy-headed ho” by a friend, because it’s a failed attempt at intimacy. The speaker is reaching for connection in some way. RANKINE
When I heard that story, I found it fascinating. It’s a matter of perception, of course, but as my friend was speaking, I thought that person wished to belittle her because they felt ignored. It could be because she was late, simply that. Some people go ballistic about being kept waiting. I also thought the “nappy-headed” utterance could be an attempt to say, I was anxious to see you. Why were you not anxious to see me? But because whiteness sees itself in a place of dominance, suddenly the racial dynamic comes into play. One benefit of white privilege is that whiteness has an arsenal of racialized insults at the ready. Like, I was anxious to see you and I’m white so I will put you in your black place. I didn’t say any of this when my friend was telling me the story, but it struck me that maybe this woman liked her. You know, liked her. When I listen to people, I’m constantly thinking, Why do you remember this moment over everything else? And what exactly was the moment trying to 148
say to you? As people of color, we can hear, we can feel, when the language is weaponized against us. INTERVIEWER
These small moments, they stick with you. RANKINE
They’re what stabilize and destabilize us. As a writer, I’m trying to draw those small moments into the larger moments. For the Hurricane Katrina piece, I was interested in what got said around the abandonment of all those people. We know the storms came, that people were abandoned, some of them drowned, they were left in the stadium without food or water. But when you have somebody like Barbara Bush touring a Houston relocation site for Katrina victims and saying, “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them,” those are the moments I find gut-wrenching. You have a woman saying, “You know, I didn’t want to turn on the lights, everything was so black, I didn’t want to shine a light on that.” I mean, somebody actually said that. Or Wolf Blitzer said, “These people . . . are so poor and they are so black.” He actually said that. I can’t forget this. I made a structure to hold the utterance because I couldn’t forget. In these moments, black people are not seen as people. The same way you do not shoot somebody with a four-year-old child in the backseat unless you don’t see people. Darren Wilson—the officer who shot Michael Brown—volunteered that when he saw Brown what he saw was a “demon.” He also said, “When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” I don’t think he could have been any plainer in expressing what was in his imagination. Projections of his imagination were being laid upon the body of this eighteen-year-old. But nobody investigates that. Nobody says, Hey, let’s take Michael Brown out of this situation. Nobody asks, Why are you a policeman, if stereotypes, bias, and projections are informing you when you go into situations with people of color? Not long ago I was at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. Eighty percent of the inmates were white. Where and when do we see that reality represented? These women do not exist. Whiteness cannot support evidence against its own privilege, so these women are invisible. 149
How much of your thinking about these questions goes back to the theorist Judith Butler? You’ve long been interested in her work. RANKINE
Years ago, I went to hear Butler give a lecture. I’d always read her work, and I was very excited to see her speak in person. Her talk reiterated much of what I had read in her books, but then someone in the audience asked, Why are words so hurtful? The entire audience was ripped into attention. Everybody wanted to hear that answer. The response was something like, Because we are addressable. And the way we demonstrate our addressability is by being open to the person in front of us. So we arrive, we are available to them, we expose ourselves, and we give them the space to address us. And in that moment of vulnerability and exposure, we are not defended against whatever comes. This has informed so much of my thinking, in life and in writing. I’m working on a theatrical staging of Citizen right now and I’ve been exploring that vulnerability of address whenever the characters interact. INTERVIEWER
So although I’ve never met Serena Williams, I have an opinion about her, she is addressable to me. RANKINE
There’s an illusion—and I think it is an illusion—that we have access to her body, that we are free to say what we want about her, as if it will never reach her, or other black women. All the racism around black women’s bodies has landed in the person of Serena Williams, even though, on a certain level, it has nothing to do with her. INTERVIEWER
Does that ever give you pause? You had not met her when you wrote Citizen. RANKINE
I had not met her when I wrote Citizen. But in a certain way, I could say I didn’t write about Serena Williams. What I wrote about was the public’s 150
response to Serena Williams, the things that have been said about Serena Williams, and the way she has been treated unfairly inside the sport of tennis. In that sense, I don’t think I’ve ever actually written about her. INTERVIEWER
How addressable are you? RANKINE
I was in London doing a taped program for the BBC. During the Q and A, there was a white gentleman, apparently quite well-known across the water, who raised his hand and said to me, I really liked your book, but I liked you better in your book than I like you here. It wasn’t a question. I said to him, Well, I think the real question is, What did you want me to perform for you? What performance were you expecting that you’re not receiving right now? He didn’t answer. I would have liked for him to answer. You can never quite access the image in people’s minds that you are being compared with. People often say to me, I expected you to be angry. Why aren’t you angry? Or they’ve read the book and feel the book isn’t angry, but it says what they feel, so they’re curious how one can say exactly what they feel without saying it in a way that’s angry. This is coming from African Americans as well as white readers. I think people forget that white people are just people, and that we’re all together inside a system that scripts and constructs not just behavior but the imagination. INTERVIEWER
The imagination first, don’t you think? The imagination dictates the behavior. RANKINE
Right. Ours is a structural and institutional problem. It’s complicated because of the vast amount of privilege white people are allotted inside the system, but nonetheless we are a society, and if people are walking around feeling fearful based on the imagination, an imagination put in place by a white-supremacist understanding of the world, that’s a problem for everyone.
The End of the Alphabet deals with many of these issues. This is a book about someone going through or having gone through trauma, deep pain, or dislocation. We never know exactly what the dislocation is, but the source isn’t important, what’s important is the experience. It highlights the tension between narrative and moment as overtly as any of your books. RANKINE
When I set out to write that book, I specifically wanted to address the question, How do you write about the feeling of devastation that we all share? You meet people and you know they’ve had some kind of traumatic loss, something destructive in their lives. You intuit that without knowing their story. You don’t have to know anything about them, you just know. I thought, Why can’t I write a book that is less concerned with narrative but centralizes this feeling beyond it? The narrative could have been twenty years ago, it could have been the Holocaust, it could have been anything, but the feeling of past trauma is communicated by whoever is standing in front of you—that’s what stays real. INTERVIEWER
It’s like muscle memory. RANKINE
It’s like a muscle memory that is not private. That’s the other thing that’s interesting to me—it’s not private, it’s shared. INTERVIEWER
How do you mean? RANKINE
In the sense that I can feel it. I know that sounds kind of out-there, but I feel, when I meet somebody and they have had a kind of trauma—I don’t have words for it, but I feel like I know that person in the room. When you arrive at the moment where they tell you what they’ve experienced, it’s just the words being put to the feeling. But you already knew—you knew it by their eyes, you knew it by something. I wanted to write a book that was beyond what usually gets communicated in language. 152
So the title refers to these limitations of language? RANKINE
Yes. Beyond the narrative, beyond the storytelling, beyond the anecdotes is another world of feeling so buried and dark and crippling that it needs its own genre. Poetry! We have Robert Lowell’s attempt to do that in “For the Union Dead,” but that is what you might call a psychoanalytic reading. Then you have somebody like César Vallejo, who will write a poem that says, I feel miserable today as César Vallejo, and nothing can account for the misery of César Vallejo. I am paraphrasing. It’s that unmarked and unnamable place I was interested in entering in The End of the Alphabet. The book doesn’t have an arc, it just is. How many ways can you articulate the sense of nothing? INTERVIEWER
As we were saying earlier, your work often moves between voices and tenses—first person, third person, present, past—as if to blur the specifics of the self. RANKINE
I think this is because from the beginning, even in Nothing in Nature Is Private, as a black person in the United States, I was always myself and a black person in the United States, you know? I was simultaneously myself personally and also myself historically— INTERVIEWER
Your interior self. RANKINE
My interior self, but also myself as Claudia, who moved from Jamaica, grew up with my parents, the little dramas in my life. And then, I was also the Claudia who understood that part of the way in which she lives in this country is determined by the color of her skin. What is possible for me, what is open to me, what gets said to me, what doors close when I’m approaching—all of that.
Does the fact that you were born in Jamaica, that you came to the United States as an immigrant, complicate those things? RANKINE
It brings in other layers to consider. When you come to this country as an immigrant with your parents—you know, that’s also crucial, because you’re seeing the world through their lens initially—it affects everything. I remember my mother telling me, You can’t trust these white people, I don’t care if so-and-so invited you over to their house, you’re not going. She had spent her entire life in Jamaica. This was her first time out of the country, and she was very suspicious of the motives of white people. We lived on Harper Avenue in the Bronx. I went to Cardinal Spellman High School, which at the time required uniforms. When I started, they had scoop-neck frocks, but there were these older, cooler uniforms that had bands that connected to the skirt. There was a family at the end of the block whose daughter had gone there, so her mother said to my mother, Your daughter is going to Spellman, my daughter graduated and I have some uniforms. Would you like them? I did want them, because they were the old ones, but my mother said, No, thanks. Later, I asked, Why didn’t you take them? And she said, Why didn’t she come to my house and knock on the door and give them to me? Why is she taking them out of the back of her car and acting like we don’t live two doors down? For her, that was a form of insult—polite people would have said hello and had a conversation before handing over the uniforms. I always regretted not getting those uniforms. They seemed so much chicer. INTERVIEWER
Your parents came to New York for economic opportunity? RANKINE
Yes. They worked in hospitals. He was an orderly and she was a nurse’s aide initially. It’s a cliché, but he worked two jobs, so he was doing nine a.m. to five p.m. and then, I think, ten p.m. to six a.m. or some such. I don’t know how, but he ended up buying buildings in the Bronx and becoming a landlord. By the time I started high school, we owned our own home at the very 154
Rankine in 2005. “You can never quite access the image in people’s minds that you are being compared with.”
northern end of the Bronx. When he bought the house, it was like A Raisin in the Sun. Within two years, it went from a completely white neighborhood to a completely black neighborhood. You could see it happen—every day I came home from school, there would be another white family moving out. I don’t think that, as a child, I knew the language around white flight, but certainly I knew the transition was happening. I could see it.
How much do you think this contributed to your sensibility, your way of thinking about the world? RANKINE
I’ve always been interested in justice, but this might have had something to do with the dynamic inside our household, because my father—he was a piece of work. I think my sense of injustice started then. INTERVIEWER
He’s no longer living? RANKINE
No, he passed away. But he was frustrated. Who wouldn’t be if you were working two jobs, if you were a black man in the United States? It was the 1970s, and, as I think is often the case, a lot of his stress got taken out once he got home. INTERVIEWER
Is this when you began to think as a writer? RANKINE
In the sense of being interested in the dynamics of charged situations, of trying to figure out how language—because in his case it really was language, if you stayed silent you were usually okay—became a trigger. I think I never lost that. But it is also tied to having come here as an immigrant and a young child and being put in a situation where you have to pay attention—vigilance, that’s how I would describe it. You have to have a sense of vigilance even in your private spaces. I didn’t start writing until I got to college, but from the beginning I was trying to see how I could write in ways that were . . . not greater than me, but that were not autobiographical, let’s put it that way. You have to remember that I was in graduate school during the Language poetry movement, but that I also came out of an orientation that was based on autobiography, so these two modes started to come into conversation during that period.
You were at Williams as an undergraduate and Columbia as a graduate student. RANKINE
Yes. I studied as an undergraduate with the phenomenal Louise Glück. Louise could probably trace her roots as a poet back to Lowell and Berryman. Much of what I was reading in college was part of that tradition, but Louise was also trying to push the mythological up against the autobiographical. She complicated the confessional impulse. She was not interested in excess. That was useful for me. In graduate school, I read Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, and Gertrude Stein. I thought about the limits of autobiography. As a black person, it’s difficult not to understand that you are part of a larger political and social dynamic, but those writers made me pay closer attention to the materiality of the language itself. For white people, part of their privilege is that their positionality is never under threat, so the language appears to have more mobility, if you don’t care about its investments. My question was, How do you keep the intimacy of the language that is afforded the first person in the meditative, introspective lyric, and yet make it democratic and aware of its political investments? That’s why, in The End of the Alphabet, I put aside narrative, and it’s one of the reasons I wrote the book as a book rather than as individual poems. I was no longer interested in writing poems that built toward a story or that accounted for time in any linear way. I was seeing how far I could get simply with the ordering of words. INTERVIEWER
What about the expectation of confession? You write, in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, “Because Oprah has trained Americans to say anything anywhere . . . no longer does my editor see confession as intimate and full of silences.” RANKINE
The autobiographical impulse grew out of a push against the modernist universalizing of the “I”—no one wanted to be Auden or Eliot anymore. Lowell, James Wright, Amiri Baraka, and Adrienne Rich—they all rejected their 157
early work for a more authentic and accountable use of the first person. For Lowell, just saying “I” was enough. For Baraka, saying “I” as a black man meant even more. These poets were saying, I don’t want to be the universal “I.” I want to stand in the truth of my particular positioning. The same is true of Adrienne Rich. One of the things for me about reading Rich as a college student was that she was overtly and clearly addressing the female body, female identity, and female possibility, and I remember thinking, This is very close to what I would say about these things—but not exactly. And that was it. The next semester I signed up for writing classes. INTERVIEWER
So your decision to write began with a connection to Rich, but also a disconnection, or distinction? RANKINE
Right. In order to have it say what I needed, I was going to have to do it myself. Now it seems full of hubris, but it wasn’t like that at all. It was pragmatic. You know, black women are nothing if not pragmatic, because their whole existence in this country has been about negotiating a life without the fantasy of external support. It was Malcolm X who said, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” If anyone had taught Audre Lorde, Sonia Sanchez, or Nikki Giovanni in my college literature classes, I might have begun in a different place. In any case, it felt as if Rich had opened up a line of inquiry I needed for my own development as a person, beginning with feminism. She and James Baldwin together—because I was reading Baldwin at the time—began to give me language to speak. INTERVIEWER
So Baldwin had a similar impact, as an essayist? RANKINE
I think so, because inside the African American writing community, the same kind of drama was going on. You had Du Bois’s notion of what should be 158
presented to the white world and how you should do that, and on the other hand, you had people like Langston Hughes who were not writing for any one gaze, who could write across class lines. INTERVIEWER
And could appropriate so-called low forms, such as the blues. RANKINE
Exactly. Baldwin comes out of that tradition as well. We see the same thing with Jean Toomer. He’s somebody who refused to perform blackness and because of that couldn’t write after Cane, which is a masterpiece. The implications of who was going to read his work, and who he’d have to be for that audience, crippled his production. I think it’s something all those writers had to think about. INTERVIEWER
This brings to mind Rich’s notion that silence is poison. RANKINE
That is probably the most important aspect of Rich’s work for me, the idea of silence as a poison. I think that’s where I started with Citizen, with the sense that you should speak out because if you don’t, it’s going to harm you. INTERVIEWER
And yet, we now live in a culture that has embraced confession uncritically, for its own sake—as a first-person gloss on everything. RANKINE
A first-person accounting. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat—all of it is about, I am here, I’m eating this, I’m standing in front of this, I’m seeing this, I’m with this person. It’s all right if that’s how someone finds their way to a public voice and a sense of community. The question for me is how to retain the intimacy of autobiography and still speak to the generalities of existence. In my books, there isn’t one answer. For Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, the use of the first person was very necessary.
Although it’s a mistake to assume that this first-person narrator is you. RANKINE
Some people had trouble with that idea, that the first person could be a structural position unconnected to any particular self. INTERVIEWER
And then they felt it as a kind of— RANKINE
Because you had deceived them? RANKINE
In their opinion. The text does say that the “I” is a construct. At no point does it say, This is nonfiction. In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, because it contains so many disparate narratives and travels across such a range, I needed an engine that pulled everything together while still allowing things to shift like a gear shift, and that was how the first person was intended to function. INTERVIEWER
Like Citizen, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely takes on a wide array of narratives. There’s the political narrative, there are several overlapping personal narratives, there’s the question of loneliness, there’s an extended meditation on death. RANKINE
There were stories told to me by friends that I wanted to include. I had a friend whose sister had lost her children. There were stories of people dying that I heard twice removed. I was in their company but as the partner or
Rakine, 2016. “In Citizen, I tried to pick situations and moments that many people share, as opposed to some idiosyncratic occurrence that might only happen to me.”
friend of somebody else who was visiting. The first person let me maneuver seamlessly through these different lives. INTERVIEWER
Throughout the book, you appropriate images or bits of information, such as a list of pharmaceutical companies or the Google search bar. That device seems to have its roots in Plot, where you use language to describe what might otherwise be images—the paintings the protagonist makes, for one. RANKINE
I’ve always been very interested in the visual. The visual is capable of doing things text can’t do. It never occurred to me in Plot to use actual images, although as I was working, I wondered, What does she do, this character I’ve created? And I thought, She’s a painter! So I decided I could put the space for her work in the book. I’m not sure if that idea made it to the final version of the text. Looking back, it does feel like with each book I wrote, I was taking baby steps toward an inevitable relationship on the page with the visual, but each time it felt risky. By that, I mean unconventional. INTERVIEWER
What caused the shift, the decision to integrate actual images—and not only images but also screen grabs, bits of data—into the body of the text? RANKINE
You begin to see things as possible by reading other peoples’ work. A big influence on me was Charles Bernstein. I remember reading works of his that were just lists, and I had this fantasy that if I had a house with a foyer, where you walked in and had to move through it to get to the main rooms, I would have a recording of Bernstein reading his poem “In Particular” playing on a loop. I carried that desire, that image, around in my head for a long time, and I’m sure it allowed for the use of images, because as Bernstein was listing these people—“An Indian fellow gliding on three-wheeled bike / An Armenian rowing to Amenia / An Irish lad with scythe” and so on—I was seeing them.
Your books, taken together, trace their own sort of movement. In Nothing in Nature Is Private, you’re feeling out the territory, with a variety of poetic forms and subjects. Despair or dislocation becomes a theme in The End of the Alphabet, although we don’t know exactly what the crisis point is. In Plot, the crisis sharpens, revolving around life and birth—the narrative center is a woman reluctant to give birth to a child who is already growing inside her. Then, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely pushes that internal despair to some kind of political engagement, and Citizen traces the desolation of public life. RANKINE
That’s accurate, I think, although this shouldn’t suggest I knew what I was doing. I think that Plot is the most autobiographical because it’s a book I wrote before I was pregnant, almost as a way to think about what it means to be an artist and to be a mother. We see that in To the Lighthouse, and I was also interested in Bergman’s films, which sometimes show a reluctance toward parenting on the part of the male characters, based on a reluctance to replicate their own childhoods. So all those things were floating around. INTERVIEWER
Perhaps the most surprising turn in Plot comes at the end, which is written from the point of view of the child. It becomes a reconciliation, or conciliation in any case. “One has to be born,” the child says. You shift persons here, not just grammatically—the actual protagonist becomes someone else. RANKINE
My favorite part of Plot is all the definitions of plot, the idea that the thing that buries you is also the narrative of your life. It is important that the story include the product of the story. So let’s say I was talking about my mother and myself, which I wasn’t or maybe I was, who knows, but let’s say I was, then the child’s voice functions as a recuperative gesture to the struggle that preceded it, which is not to say the child won’t have the same struggle— INTERVIEWER
Or that the mother will be redeemed.
Right, just that the life is not the thing to be refused. INTERVIEWER
All of that is only seen in retrospect, anyway, at which point the details appear inevitable. We read it in terms of cause and effect, whereas we all know this is not the condition of being alive. RANKINE
Yes. There have been devastating moments, and there will be more devastating moments, but there will also be a life. I gave a reading in New York not long ago and somebody, a young black man, said, I read Citizen and I want to know why there aren’t any hopeful moments in the book. And I said, The book is full of people living their lives, and even if it focuses on the interruptions to those lives, around the interruptions there are still lives. That, I think, is important to remember. So that’s why bringing in the voice of the child represents a restorative moment. That was the intent of the afterword. INTERVIEWER
The End of the Alphabet is your densest book. Then there’s a real shift toward transparency between Plot and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. How conscious were you of that? RANKINE
One of the things I wanted in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely was for the language to be transparent. I didn’t want people to have to stop to think, I don’t know what she means by that. I wanted it to feel simple, accessible, even conversational. As a writer, this was the challenge—How do you get the ideas of, say, Butler or Lauren Berlant or Derrida or all the reading you’ve done, all the thinking you’ve done, inside seven sentences that say, I saw this thing and it made me sad? And how do you do it in a way that the research material is not effaced, that trace elements are still present? That seems always to be the challenge—to create transparency and access without losing complexity.
What about the shift, or expansion, of poetic form to include, or even become, prose? RANKINE
When I was working on Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, I started working in paragraphs. I was still utilizing repetition, metaphor, all of the poetic techniques and devices available to me. They were just applied to the sentence, not the line, the paragraph, not the stanza. But when I handed the book in, my then publisher said, This is not a poetry book. And it wasn’t just them. I remember a male poet who came to my house—I was living at that time on 116th Street—we went for a walk in Riverside Park and he said to me, As your friend, I want you to know that Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is garbage. It’s not good. I’m telling you this as your friend. INTERVIEWER
This was based purely on the form? RANKINE
The form. It’s not poetry, I don’t know what this is, but it’s not very good. I had to get a new publisher. This turned out to be a good thing because it forced me to say, You know, you could be right, but if it’s going down, I’m going with it because it’s what I mean. In those moments you just say, Whatever. Thank you very much for reading. That is what I’ve got. And not only is it what I’ve got, it’s what I mean. I also got a letter from an editor who had been a fan of Plot and asked to see new work. I sent the new work and he replied, I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but I can’t publish this. Again, I thought, Okay then—I didn’t send it to you, you asked for it. So that’s how Don’t Let Me Be Lonely began its public life. After Graywolf took it, many of those people who criticized it came around. The editor who had rejected the pieces for his journal sent me a nice letter saying something to the effect of, I was cleaning out my office before classes started, and I came across your poems. I read them again, and boy was I wrong. Which was very kind of him to have done.
The moment of thinking, This is what I’ve got, and not only that, but this is what I want, this is what I mean—it seems essential, transformative. RANKINE
People often ask the question, When do you know that you’re finished? And I think that’s when I know, when I’ve said what I mean. It might have taken me ten years or five years or two weeks, but that’s what I mean. For now.
Two Poems by Cyrus Console T H E WA Y F A R E R
I was the father of two Young children when I started Plans for a long walk that became Shelter in my mind where I Arranged my things or chose Among unlimited potential routes Land and sky parting like Content in a trance I could Move west through I had been made so Any given morning brought Regret I should be unable To reverse my progress out of sleep Though both hands were asleep Fastened around the black Coffee that made me want to put It all into writing but why You know the taste The thought of sleeping Under bridges and drinking Coffee there appealed to me Autumn would have been perfect I had a hat with a brim Sandals that lasted forever A knife and a steel bottle I kept near the intercom That relayed snores
The brain had certain templates Representing not experience So much as extinction of all Alternative lines of descent All futures not threading beige Paths through wood and meadow Not red fruit punctuating foliage Not glittering sound of cool water In which I thought lay one secret Of beauty though it required Talent sometimes to make sensible Weird visual might of genitals Outlines of predators and vermin One kindred face upturned amid Rent limbs and carnage Thunderhead beneath whose mass Crickets and owls give out Hesitant noise For a long time I whispered After my son as I covered him Asked what a word was Wanting to try to explain The part of the secret that Held there can be no first Sight of such things But my heart said only Time to buy gold During his first ice-cream Headache a look of understanding Came over him I thought Now one day maybe he can Conceive a phrase like justice System in the referral of pain 168
But it never kept me from working The music I liked best was Muted so you could think At summerâ€™s end big white Mushrooms rose above the living Mesh they were fruiting bodies of And I had turned thirty-nine Before I realized their names Did not belong here In the template of night Is my water bottle a word Is my pillow a word One morning we passed under Thirteen feet of chain sewn into The hem of a hanging flag On our way to meet a cartoon Character who claimed to see The same stars we could And in the blue dark of Union Planetarium he called us friends And led us in a real song
C AT C H M E N T C AT C H M E N T
That the children slept In their beds through the night And much else had not changed But the vehicles and toys that made Flight possible or the quaint Metal slaves whose joints would whistle As they extended and abducted Five or so fingers in dutiful greeting Were all of them dreams No the present was a great Listener and made many useful Suggestions without ever seeming To move from its place under the stairs And I rode a bicycle to work It was a mature technology But I received looks now Of what felt like contempt Our employer required us to sit As did our leisure Childrenâ€™s literature carried on Bravely the legacy of animals Of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras
The nearest archaeological category Would be the destruction layer I refused a medicine that made Crying difficult but reconsidered The refusal daily for a period of years From my pocket personal effects Had begun communicating Parts of what they overheard To something with ontological status That modified their content I had not intended to say that Move your finger please stop Dad can you show me pictures Of what people look like When they are not living Can we watch the bad guy Who talks like a garbage truck Did this dispense fresh water For a price Did this blow cold air Was it mimicry Is this the day we die What is an anvil The years permitted a surprising
Quantity of search space collapse Later algorithms sort of laughed And with a noise of pages sped Onward into the vast content overhang Where any twelve consecutive words Identified a unique human speaker War was other people it was going To be sunny with a high of 114ยบ
Moses and Gaspar AMPARO DÁVILA
he train arrived at about six o’clock on a cold, wet November morning. The fog was so thick it was almost impossible to see. I was wearing my coat collar up and my hat shoved down around my ears, but still the fog penetrated all the way to my bones. The apartment where Leonidas lived was in a neighborhood far from the center of town, on the sixth floor of a modest building. Everything—the staircase, the hallways, the rooms—was invaded by the fog. As I climbed the stairs, I thought I was approaching eternity, an eternity of mist and silence. Leonidas, my brother, when I reached your door, I thought I would die of grief ! I had come to visit you the year before, during my Christmas break. “We’ll have turkey stuffed with olives and chestnuts, an Italian Spumante, and dried fruit,” you said, radiant with happiness. “Moses, Gaspar, let’s celebrate!” Those days were always so festive. We drank a lot and 173
talked about our parents, about the apple pasteles, the evenings by the fire, the old man’s pipe and that absent, downcast gaze of his that we couldn’t forget, the winter sweaters that Mama knitted for us, that aunt on our mother’s side who buried all of her money and died of hunger, the professor of mathematics with his starched collars and bow ties, the girls from the drugstore we took to the movies on Sundays, those films we never watched, the handkerchiefs covered in lipstick that we had to throw away . . . In my grief, I had forgotten to ask the concierge to unlock the apartment. I had to wake her; she climbed the stairs half asleep, dragging her feet. There were Moses and Gaspar, but when they saw me they fled in terror. The woman said she’d been feeding them twice a day; and yet, to me, they looked all skin and bones. “It was horrible, Señor Kraus. I saw him with my own eyes, here in this chair, slumped over the table. Moses and Gaspar were lying at his feet. At first I thought they were all asleep—they were so quiet! But it was already late and Señor Leonidas would always wake up early and go out to buy food for Moses and Gaspar. He ate downtown, but he always fed them first; I suddenly realized that . . . ” I made some coffee and tried to pull myself together so I could go to the funeral parlor. Leonidas, Leonidas, how could it be? Leonidas, so full of life, how could you be lying stiff in a cold refrigerator drawer . . . ? The funeral was at four in the afternoon. It was raining and the cold was intense. Everything was gray, with only black hats and umbrellas interrupting the monotony; raincoats and faces blurred into the fog and drizzle. There were a fair number of people at the funeral: coworkers, perhaps, and a few friends. I navigated within the bitterest of dreams. I wanted this day to be over, to wake up without that knot in my throat, without the mind-numbing sense of being torn apart. An old priest said a prayer and blessed the grave. Afterward, someone I didn’t recognize offered me a cigarette and took me by the arm in a familiar way, offering his condolences. We left the cemetery; Leonidas stayed behind, forever. I walked alone, aimless, beneath the persistent, monotonous rain. Hopeless, crippled in my soul. My only happiness, the one great affection that tied me to this earth, had died with Leonidas. We had been inseparable since we were children, but for years the war kept us apart. Finding each other again, after the fighting and the solitude, was the greatest joy of our lives. We were the only two left in the family: nevertheless, we soon 174
realized that we ought to live separate lives, and that’s what we did. During those years, each of us had acquired his own customs, habits, and absolute independence. Leonidas found a job as a bank teller; I went to work for an insurance company as an accountant. During the week, each of us dedicated himself to his work or his solitude; but Sundays we always spent together. How happy we were then! I assure you, we both looked forward to that day of the week. Sometime later they moved Leonidas to another city. He could have quit and looked for another position. His way, though, was always to accept things with exemplary serenity. “It is useless to resist; we could circle around a thousand times, and always end up where we began . . . ” “We’ve been so happy, there had to be a catch; happiness comes at a price . . . ” This was his philosophy and he bore it calmly and without defiance. “There are some things you can’t fight against, my dear José . . . ” Leonidas went away. For a time, his absence was more than I could bear; then slowly we began to organize our solitary lives. We wrote to each other once or twice a month. I spent my vacations with him and he came to see me during his. And so our lives went by . . . Night had fallen by the time I returned to his apartment. The cold was more intense and it was still raining. I had a bottle of rum under my arm, bought in a store I’d found open. The apartment was utterly dark and freezing. I stumbled my way in, switched on the light, and connected the heater. I uncorked the bottle nervously, with clumsy, trembling hands. There, at the table, in the last spot that Leonidas had occupied, I sat down to drink, to vent my sorrow. At least I was alone and didn’t have to hold back or hide my pain from anyone; I could weep and cry and . . . Suddenly I felt eyes behind me. I jumped out of the chair and spun around: there were Moses and Gaspar. I had forgotten all about them, but there they were, staring at me—with hostility? with mistrust? I couldn’t tell. But their gaze was terrible. In the moment, I couldn’t think what to tell them. I felt hollowed out and absent, as though I were outside myself and had lost the power to think. Besides, I didn’t know how much they understood . . . I went on drinking . . . Then I realized that they were both silently weeping. The tears dripped from their eyes and fell to the floor; they wept with no expression and without a sound. Around midnight, I made coffee and prepared them a bit of food. They wouldn’t touch it, only went on crying disconsolately . . . 175
Leonidas had arranged all of his affairs. Perhaps he had burned his files, because I didn’t find a single one in the apartment. As far as I knew, he had sold his furniture on the pretext that he was going away; it was all going to be picked up the next day. His clothes and other personal effects were carefully packed in two trunks labeled with my name. His savings and the money from the furniture had been deposited in the bank, also in my name. Everything was in order. The only things he left me in charge of were his burial and the care of Moses and Gaspar. we departed for the train station: our train left at five fifteen. Moses and Gaspar had to travel, to their obvious disgust, in the baggage car; they weren’t allowed to ride with the passengers at any price. What a grueling trip! I was physically and morally spent. I had gone four days and four nights without sleeping or resting, ever since the telegram had arrived with the news that Leonidas was dead. I tried to sleep during the trip but only managed to doze. In the stations where the train made longer stops, I went to check on Moses and Gaspar and see if they wanted something to eat. The sight of them wounded me. They seemed to be recriminating me for their situation. “You know it’s not my fault,” I repeated each time, but they couldn’t, or didn’t want to, understand. It was going to be very difficult for me to live with them: they had never taken to me, and I felt uncomfortable in their presence, as though I were being watched. How unpleasant it had been to find them in his house that past summer! Leonidas evaded my questions and begged me in the warmest terms to love them and put up with them. “The poor things deserve to be loved,” he told me. That vacation was exhausting and violent, even though the mere fact of seeing Leonidas filled me with happiness. He had stopped coming to visit me, since he couldn’t leave Moses and Gaspar alone. The next year, the last time I saw Leonidas, everything went more normally. I didn’t like Moses and Gaspar and I never would, but they no longer made me so uneasy. I never found out how they came to live with Leonidas . . . Now they were with me, a legacy, an inheritance from my unforgettable brother. It was after eleven at night when we arrived at my house. The train had been delayed more than four hours. The three of us were completely worn out. All that I had to offer Moses and Gaspar was some fruit and a little bit of cheese. They ate without enthusiasm, watching me suspiciously. I threw AROUND FOUR IN THE MORNING
some blankets down in the living room so they could sleep, then shut myself in my room and took a sleeping pill. The next day was Sunday, which meant I was spared from having to go to work. Not that I could have gone. I had planned to sleep late, but I began to hear noises at the first light of dawn. It was Moses and Gaspar: they had already woken up and were pacing from one side of the apartment to the other. They came up to my bedroom and stood there, pressed against the door, as if they were trying to see through the keyhole, or maybe just listening for the sound of my breathing to see whether I was still asleep. Then I remembered that Leonidas fed them every morning at seven. I had to get up and go find them something to eat. What hard and arduous days those were after Moses and Gaspar came to live in my house! I was used to waking up a little before eight, making coffee, and leaving for the office at eight thirty, since the bus took half an hour and my job started at nine. With Moses and Gaspar there, my whole life was thrown into chaos. I had to wake up at six to buy milk and other groceries, then make the breakfast they ate punctually at seven, according to their habit. If I was late, they grew furious, which frightened me because I didn’t know just how far their anger might go. I had to clean up the apartment every day, because with them there, I always found everything out of place. But what tortured me the most was their hopeless grief. The way they searched for Leonidas and stood waiting for him at the door. Sometimes, when I came home from work, they ran jubilantly to greet me, but as soon as they saw it was me, they put on such disappointed, suffering faces that I broke down and wept along with them. This was the only thing we shared. There were days when they hardly got up; they spent all day lying there, listless, taking no interest in anything. I would have liked to know what they were thinking then. The fact was that I hadn’t explained anything to them when I went to pick them up. I don’t know if Leonidas had said something to them, or if they knew . . . with me for almost a month when I realized the serious problem they were going to create in my life. For several years I’d had a romantic relationship with the cashier at a restaurant where I often ate. Our friendship began in a straightforward way, because I’ve never been the courting kind. I simply needed a woman, and Susy solved that problem. At M O S E S A N D G A S PA R H A D L I V E D
first, we only saw each other now and then. Sometimes a month or two would pass in which we did nothing more than greet each other at the restaurant with a nod of the head, like mere acquaintances. I would go on living calmly for a while, without thinking about her, then all at once I’d feel old and familiar symptoms of anxiety, sudden rages, and melancholy. Then I’d look up Susy and everything would return to normal. After a while, almost habitually, Susy came to visit once a week. When I went to pay the check for dinner, I’d say, “Tonight, Susy.” If she was free—since she did have other engagements—she’d answer, “I’ll see you tonight,” otherwise it was, “Not tonight, but tomorrow if you like.” Susy’s other engagements didn’t bother me; we owed each other nothing and didn’t belong to each other. Advanced in years and abundant in flesh, she was far from being a beauty; but she smelled good and always wore silk underwear with lace trim, which had a notable influence on my desire. I’ve never managed to recall even one of her dresses, but her intimate combinations I remember well. We never spoke while making love; instead, the two of us both seemed lost inside ourselves. When we said good-bye, I always gave her some money. “You’re very generous,” she would say in satisfaction; but beyond this customary gift, she never asked me for anything. The death of Leonidas interrupted our routine relations. More than a month passed before I went looking for Susy. I had spent the whole month in the most hopeless grief, which I shared with no one but Moses and Gaspar, who were just as much strangers to me as I was to them. Finally one night I waited for Susy at the corner outside the restaurant, as usual, and we went up to my apartment. Everything happened so quickly that I only pieced it together afterward. When Susy entered the bedroom, she saw Moses and Gaspar there, cornered in fright under the sofa. She turned so pale that I thought she was going to faint, then screamed like a lunatic and dashed down the stairs. I ran after her and had a hard time calming her down. After that unfortunate accident, Susy never came back to my apartment. When I wanted to see her, I had to rent a hotel room, which threw off my budget and annoyed me. was only the first in a series of calamities. “Señor Kraus,” the concierge said to me one day, “all of the tenants have come to complain about the unbearable noise that comes from your apartment as soon as you leave for the office. Please do something about it, because there are people like Señorita X or Señor A who work at night and need to sleep during the day.”
THE INCIDENT WITH SUSY
I was taken aback and didn’t know what to think. Overwhelmed as they were by the loss of their owner, Moses and Gaspar lived in silence. At least that’s how they were when I was in the apartment. Seeing them so downcast and diminished, I said nothing; it seemed cruel. Besides, I had no evidence against them . . . “I’m sorry to bother you again, but this can’t go on,” the concierge told me a few days later. “As soon as you leave, they start dumping all the stuff in the kitchen on the floor, they throw the chairs around, they move the beds and all the furniture. And the screams, the screams, Señor Kraus, are horrible; we can’t take it anymore, and it lasts all day until you come home.” I decided to investigate. I asked permission at the office to take a few hours off. I came home at noon. The concierge and all the tenants were right. The building seemed about to collapse with the unbearable racket that was coming from my apartment. I opened the door. Moses was on top of the stove, bombarding Gaspar from above with pots and pans, while Gaspar ran around dodging the projectiles, screaming and laughing like a maniac. They were so enthusiastic in their game that they didn’t notice me there. The chairs were overturned, the pillows flung onto the table, onto the floor . . . When they saw me, they froze. “I can’t believe what I’m seeing!” I shouted in rage. “I’ve gotten complaints from all the neighbors, and I refused to believe them. How ungrateful! This is how you repay my hospitality and honor your master’s memory? His death is ancient history to you, it happened so long ago you don’t even feel it; all you care about are your games. You little demons, you ingrates!” When I finished, I realized they were lying on the floor in tears. I left them there and returned to the office. I felt bad all the rest of the day. When I came home in the afternoon, the house had been cleaned up and they were hiding in the closet. I felt terrible pangs of remorse; I felt that I’d been too hard on those poor creatures. Maybe, I thought, they don’t know that Leonidas is never coming back, maybe they think he’s only gone on a trip and that one day he’ll return, and the more they hope, the less it hurts. I’ve destroyed the only thing that makes them happy . . . But my remorse ended soon enough; the next day I learned that they had been at it again: the noise, the screams . . . Not long after this, I was evicted by court order, and so we began moving from place to place. One month here, another there, another there . . . One night, I was feeling worn down and depressed by the series of disasters that 179
had befallen me. We had a small apartment consisting of a tiny living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and one bedroom. I decided to turn in for the night. When I went into the bedroom, I saw that they were asleep on my bed. Then I remembered: the last time I’d visited Leonidas, on the night I arrived, I noticed that my brother was improvising two beds in the living room. “Moses and Gaspar sleep in the bedroom, we’ll have to make ourselves comfortable out here,” he said, rather self-consciously. At the time, I couldn’t understand how Leonidas could possibly bend to the will of those two miserable creatures. Now I understood . . . From that day on, they occupied my bed and there was nothing I could do about it. I had never been intimate with my neighbors, because I found the idea exhausting. I preferred my solitude, my independence. Still, we greeted each other on the stairs, in the hallways, in the street . . . With the arrival of Moses and Gaspar, all of that changed. In every apartment we stayed in, never for long, the neighbors developed a fierce hatred for me. There always came a point when I became afraid to enter the building or to leave my apartment. Returning home late at night, after having been with Susy, I thought I might be assaulted. I heard doors opening as I went by, or footsteps behind me, furtive, silent, someone’s breath . . . When I finally entered my apartment, I would be bathed in cold sweat and trembling from head to toe. Soon I had to give up my job; I was afraid that if I left them alone, they might be killed. There was such hatred in everyone’s eyes! It would have been easy to break in through the apartment door; or the concierge might even have opened it himself, because he hated them, too. I left my job, and my only source of income was the bookkeeping I could do at home, small accounts that weren’t enough to live on. I left early in the morning, when it was still dark, to buy the food I cooked myself. I didn’t go out again except to turn in or pick up the ledgers, and I did this as fast as I could, almost running, so that I wouldn’t be out long. I stopped seeing Susy; I no longer had the time or the money. I couldn’t leave them alone, either by day or by night, and she refused ever to come back to my apartment. Bit by bit I began to run through my savings, and then through the money Leonidas had left me. I was earning a pittance, not even enough for food, much less the constant moving from place to place. So I decided to go away. With the money I had left, I bought a small old farm I found outside the city and a few essential pieces of furniture. It was an isolated house, 180
half in ruins. There the three of us will live, far from everything but safe from ambush and assault, tightly joined by an invisible bond, by a stark, cold hatred and an indecipherable design. Everything is ready for our departure—everything, or rather, the little there is to bring with us. Moses and Gaspar are also awaiting the moment when we set off. I can tell by their air of anxiety. I think they’re satisfied. Their eyes shine. If only I could know what they’re thinking! But no, I would be afraid to plumb the shadowy mystery of their being. Silently they approach me, as if they want to sniff out my mood or, perhaps, to find out what I’m thinking. But I know they can sense it, they must, for it shows in their joy, in the air of triumph that fills them whenever I feel a longing to destroy them. And they know I can’t, they know I’ll never fulfill my most ardent desire. They enjoy it . . . How many times would I have killed them if it had been up to me! Leonidas, Leonidas, I can’t even judge your decision! You loved me, no doubt, as I loved you, but your death and your legacy have destroyed my life. I don’t want to think or believe that you coldly condemned me or planned my ruin. No, I know it is something stronger than we are. I don’t blame you, Leonidas: even if this is your doing, it was meant to be; “we could have circled around a thousand times, and always ended up where we began.” —Translated from the Spanish by Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson
Tony Hoagland E N TA N G L E
Sometimes I prefer not to untangle it. I prefer it to remain disorganized, because it is richer that way, like a certain shrubbery I pass each day on Reba Street in an unimpressive yard, in front of a home that seems unoccupied: a chest-high, spreading shrub with large white waxy blossomsâ€” whose stalks are climbed and woven through simultaneously by a different kind of vine with small magenta flowers that appear and disappear inside the maze of leaves like tiny purple stitches. The white and purple combination of these species, one seeming to possibly be strangling the other, one possibly lifting the other upâ€”it would take both a botanist and a psychologist to figure it all out â€”but I prefer not to disentangle it, because it is more accurate. My ferocious love, and how it repeatedly is trapped inside the fear of being sentimental; my need to control even the kindness of the world, rejecting gifts for which I am not prepared;
my inextinguishable conviction that I am scheduled for some kind of destination. I could probably untangle it, yet I prefer to walk down Reba Street instead, in the sunlight and the wind, with no mastery of my feelings or my thoughts, purple and ivory and green not understanding what I am and yet in certain moments remembering, and bursting into tears, somewhat confused as the vines run through me and flower unexpectedly.
Albert Murray, 1970s. “Anybody who tries to talk me out of courage and out of strength and out of resilience and out of skill is not my friend.”
Art and Propaganda ALBERT MURRAY
merican culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite . . . The so-called black people and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.” So Albert Murray declared in his first book, The OmniAmericans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture (1970), an outspoken attack on the ideologies of both white supremacy and black separatism. Writing at the height of the Black Power movement, Murray insisted on the centrality of a black sensibility to American life as a whole. He saw American modernism embodied in the great jazz innovators of midcentury and in works of literature like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which Murray called “mainstream American writing in the same sense that U.S. Negro music is mainstream.” In another critical study, Stomping the Blues (1976), 185
Murray placed jazz and the blues in the same ritual tradition that gave rise to lyric poetry, tragedy, and farce. Murray was born in 1916 in Nokomis, Alabama, and was raised by adoptive parents in a poor, black suburb of Mobile. He attended the Tuskegee Institute, where he majored in education and studied modern literature. In 1941, he married Mozelle Menefee. He spent the last two and a half years of World War II in the U.S. Army Air Corps, mostly as a training officer for the Tuskegee Airmen. After attending graduate school at New York University on the GI Bill, Murray returned to Tuskegee, where he taught geopolitics in the Air Force ROTC program, then did several years of active duty in Morocco and California. It was only after he retired from the military, as a major, and moved back to New York, in 1962, that Murray began to publish the critical essays that made him famous. He would also write a memoir, South to a Very Old Place (1971), and several novels, most notably Train Whistle Guitar (1974). Murray died in 2013, survived by his wife of seventy-two years and by their daughter, Michele Murray. In 2016, the Library of America published the first volume of his collected works. Murray’s views on literature, music, and culture had a profound influence on many younger writers and thinkers, including Stanley Crouch, Elizabeth Alexander, James Alan McPherson, Wynton Marsalis, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (In a 1996 New Yorker profile, Gates wrote, “This is Albert Murray’s century; we just live in it.”) The following conversation is taken from the newly discovered transcript of an interview that Gates and Robert G. O’Meally conducted at Murray’s apartment, in Harlem, in 1978. For his help in preparing this excerpt, we wish to thank Paul Devlin, the editor of Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues (2016) and, with Gates, of the Library of America volumes. —The Editors
In 1953, when the runaway scene from Train Whistle Guitar was first published in New World Writing as “The Luzana Cholly Kick,” you were asked about your intentions as a writer. You responded, “We all learn from Mann, Joyce, Hemingway, Eliot, and the rest, but I’m also trying to learn to write 186
in terms of the tradition I grew up in, the Negro tradition of blues, stomps, ragtime, jumps, and swing. After all, very few writers have done as much with American experience as Jelly Roll Morton, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington.” Is that still a fundamental guideline for you? MURRAY
It does represent a fundamental orientation toward craft and content. When I spoke of Jelly Roll Morton, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington, I meant that not many writers have been more successful than these musicians in stylizing American experience. This immediately leads us into a problem that confronts me personally—that not very much of my immediate experience has been processed into literature to my satisfaction. I can’t think of many examples that bear too favorable a comparison to what I’ve experienced of the literature of other cultures. INTERVIEWER
You’ve warned in your critical writings and implicitly in your fiction against what you call the pastoral fallacy. What is that? MURRAY
Ordinarily, a pastoral is a story or poem about shepherds. But I’m borrowing and extending the term from the English critic and poet William Empson. For him, the pastoral is a literary device that involves a curious reversal of human values, a reversal between the upper class and the common man. In a traditional pastoral work, the shepherds are the truly wise people and the people from the castle are not so wise. But if you are talking in terms of class struggle, you can start romanticizing the intrinsic human values found in primitive people. By contrast, people who come from highly industrialized civilizations may be represented as having ennui or being washed out. This is fallacious thinking, it seems to me. Life is just too complex to be seen in these black-and-white terms, and yet, the pastoral is a very appealing literary form, because people do enjoy vacations in the country. It seems to be a good place to live year-round, at least to people who come from the steel mills or from the canyons of Wall Street, from regions of complexities from which everybody would like to escape.
For the black writer, the fallacy is in making rural characters seem too simplistic. Are there warnings you would give to the black writer who decides he wants to use folklore or the church? MURRAY
In the U.S. today, among the so-called black writers, you have a romanticism about folk values that is unrealistic—and not unconnected with the Marxist romanticism about the common man. It’s unrealistic because it doesn’t represent a true picture of what folk actually means. If you talk about folklore, you’re talking about hand-me-down ways. Folklore, folkways, folk customs, folk arts, folkcrafts, and such represent what the peasant or the relatively unsophisticated person is able to come by, from what is available, what is filtered down from the highest level of technological or philosophical or scientific development in a given time. It’s the popular lore. It is characterized by imprecision, which is not to say that it does not contain values, or that they are not enduring values, but one thing that it specifically lacks is precision. Whether it’s music or medicine—I mean, folk medicine is not very specific medicine. INTERVIEWER
Given the way you define the pastoral fallacy, what do you think of the Black Arts movement and its conception of Africa? MURRAY
My general impression is that they conceived of Africa as a paradise lost, a paradise to be regained, which does not accord at all with my conception of the history of Africa during the slave trade or during the European colonization period or the decolonization period, or of present-day Africa. I think they were romanticizing the past. In this instance, the romanticism was based on very little documentation. I’m constantly amazed at people— writers, spokesmen—who profess to love something but don’t love it enough to find out about it. They don’t love their people well enough to give them accurate information or to do some solid research. I’m amazed at that and exasperated by it. I wish it would go away. But the main thing to be said here is that it’s impossible for the American artist to become idiomatically African. And I think it is the processing of 188
the idiomatic—that is, the extension and elaboration and refinement of the idiomatic—that adds up to fine art. INTERVIEWER
But you have used literary models as foreign to American experience as Dostoyevsky, Thomas Mann, and James Joyce. MURRAY
But here we’re talking about the tradition of human expression, a pervasive tradition that has achieved a universality. If I’m writing a novel, I certainly wouldn’t go to Alaska to find a model, and I wouldn’t go to the left-handed side of the Congo. The same thing would be true if I were leading an orchestra that had a certain type of instrumentation. I would go to such models as exist. In other words, I don’t see the necessity of inventing a new form other than the novel. I might revolutionize it, I might want to paint it various shades of brown, but I would not want to change it. I would want a story to have a hero, for example. You know that about me, that I think a goodlooking, brown-skinned guy could be okay—for me that would be the most satisfactory hero of all, and if I could make him compelling enough, he could be as interesting to other people as Ulysses, an ancient Greek, has always been to me. I think that’s the nature of fine art—when it goes beyond the provincial, it becomes universal, and the elements are accessible to mankind at large. But as much as I like Mann, a native German would get more out of him. I have no illusions about being idiomatically Greek in the sense that Homer was. I mean, I’m not too sure that I could be idiomatically Frederick Douglass, although through my grandparents, I’m a bit more idiomatically Frederick Douglass than I am idiomatically Thoreau. INTERVIEWER
How do you see the modern black writer’s relationship to his “past”? And how does Africa figure into that, legitimately or illegitimately? MURRAY
I think a writer’s individuality, his originality, and his achievement of selfhood are all determined by what he accepts of what he inherits, as well as by that which he rejects. Do you follow me? If the black writer looks at his 189
past, he’s going to find much that he can, and will have to, reject. At the same time, he’ll find certain things he can accept, that are orienting for him. They give him a sense of direction, a sense of development. Unfortunately, I think that a number of black writers are so determined to look too much to the past, to set up a pantheon and to move into that pantheon. I keep thinking that if they are serious students of literature and of black experience, they’re going to find very few people to put in a literary pantheon. That’s the problem—the refusal, or not necessarily the refusal but the inability to look clearly at the nature of the so-called black literary heritage in the United States. It’s obscured for various reasons. One is that very few of these guys, although they opt to be writers, care very much for literature. Another reason is a sort of unfortunate self-righteousness that develops among people who regard themselves as oppressed—they can always make excuses for their shortcomings and say, Such and such writers were great but have not received their just deserts because the establishment was prejudiced and would not recognize them. I believe, after my good friend Kenneth Burke, that literature is equipment for living. How do you look at the world? Who helps you most to see the world as it is? Now, if I’ve got a bunch of ancestors who simply tell me that the whole problem of life is injustice, then they have not told me enough about what life is. The black literary tradition has let me down in this sense, because it didn’t do the job as well as the fireside tradition or the barbershop tradition in the old days. INTERVIEWER
Do you see black literature as being essentially propagandistic? MURRAY
Yes, I do. INTERVIEWER
Should we back up and say what you mean by propaganda, as opposed to art? MURRAY
When the basic purpose of the literary statement is to promote some immediate value, some virtue, to counterstate some vice, to sell some 190
program, then I think of it as propaganda. There’s no pure definition of propaganda because every statement has to do with values, but when the complexities of human motive, of human behavior, of human aspiration are oversimplified in the interest of a specific social or political remedy, then we’d call it propaganda. Do you see? Whereas, take a very complex story, let’s say Hamlet. Certainly it’s against corruption, but the way it is presented tells us so much more about life than simply the news that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” INTERVIEWER
You’ve compared the kind of heroism that is implicit in blues music to the kind of heroism in Hamlet or the heroism in the Odyssey. You obviously would recommend that a black writer read Hamlet. But would you also want the black writer to begin at home, so to speak? MURRAY
Yes, for the very same reason that I don’t want him to begin in Africa, because he doesn’t know a damned thing about Africa. He doesn’t know any of the nuances. He knows everybody, loves everybody. People can’t stand each other living twenty-five miles apart—but he goes over there and he loves them all. We have enough trouble with our own do-gooders and social workers, who come into the so-called black community and put you together with people you don’t want to be with because they do not understand the nuances that define our lives. INTERVIEWER
What implications does the kind of heroism implicit in the blues have for the black writer? MURRAY
There is so much for me to say about this. That’s why I have to write about it. We need a form that is geared to change, geared to the unexpected. You have to have some type of frame, because the rest is a void. Void is the true nature, void and entropy, the inherent randomness or tendency toward randomness of all existence. You get an idea about how life works, and the next thing you know, things are falling apart. This is what my work is concerned 191
with. I’m trying to live as a human being. Whatever other kind of career is there? You can’t just run around dealing with a lynching when nature itself is lynching you. INTERVIEWER
What do you mean? MURRAY
I think I was smart enough to take care of a few redneck sheriffs. But when I looked at the ritual that was taking place in a blues performance, what was being reenacted there, I thought I saw a pattern that could be extended in all directions of human life. And since art comes out of life, I figured it was trying to tell us something about accepting disjuncture. INTERVIEWER
Let’s say you hear the kind of good-time music that brings people together, as you’ve said, in “a ritual of purification or fertility.” How can the writer who is familiar with the idiom, who grew up with it, use it in his writing? MURRAY
It’s not a matter of simply recording the idiom. It’s not a matter of ripping it off. It’s a matter of realizing the attitudes toward experience that the music expresses. It has a certain way of organizing experience. It creates an incomparable intensity, an unflagging interest. It expresses life in its complexity. It makes all these statements using devices—techniques, conventions, even instruments—that are not necessarily original to the blues idiom but function in a particular way in the blues idiom. The voicing is familiar, is equivalent to the voicings of people—the people we know, the voices that are most familiar to us, so that a jazz band sounds like our equivalent of a symphony orchestra. So the jazz composition is a blues-idiom sonata, but a sonata that has its own elements—it has its vamp, it has its own peculiar ensembles, its solo, statement, and response, its use of leapfrogging statements from one soloist to the other, its use of conversation or even colloquy. You might have three soloists come out and talk to each other or you might have them spliced with responses and the responses may be statements that are very, very familiar. They’re just like the preacher getting answers from the amen 192
corner. The more you study them, the more you realize that they’re based on something solid in the experience peculiar to the idiom. And they’re used as a basic organizing principle for artistic statement, which means there is some basic thing around which the experience is organized. Do you realize that the cathedral is a stylization of the cross? And the cross worn by Catholics is a
In his apartment in Harlem, 1970s.
stylization of the instrument of torture and destruction. It’s a symbol people respond to. They already have a great emotional investment in it. So when the writer looks into modes of expression that are most intimate to his experience, that’s equivalent to what the jazz musician or the jazz composer does. INTERVIEWER
Jelly Roll Morton, if I remember correctly, defines jazz in terms of its use of breaks. How might the writer use the break in jazz as the cross with which to make his cathedral? 193
The break is the time when you do your thing. It’s the moment of creativity or the moment of heroism—when the disjunctive, destructive element enters and you become creative. Structurally, the break heightens the flow of the music, adds dramatic intensity, and provides for a parenthetical insertion, which might be an aside or any number of other things. INTERVIEWER
So you see the break as an opportunity for the soloist in the same way that, in literature, the chaotic situation is the opportunity for the hero to be heroic. MURRAY
Look, any situation or confrontation described in Viennese mythology is trauma producing. That’s essentially an antidramatic mythology. You say, Boo, get the dragon away. Whereas I say, The hell with that, get ready to fight the dragon. Is your sword ready? Are your lamps trimmed and burning? That’s preparation. That’s the epic mode. In Attitudes Toward History, Kenneth Burke talks about frames of acceptance and frames of rejection. The big frame of acceptance is the epic frame—accepting the facts of life as the basis of life. You accept that life is a struggle and you accept, therefore, the responsibility of being prepared for the struggle. He goes on to extend the theory that in certain stages of development, civilizations featured epic literature because the harsh demands of nature were a basic fact of life. If someone wanted to make a sociological interpretation, they could say, Well, Murray has seen fit to say that the struggle of black citizens is such that in this stage of their civilization they should use the epic. But I was raised in the context of epic heroism, and all the expectations of my childhood that were put on me by my elders were those of the epic hero. Fortunately, since I was reading about epic heroes, fairy tales, and things like that, it all made sense to me. And no goddamned sociologist has ever been able to talk me out of it. I would have my sword and have it sharpened and have my resilience and have my courage. Anybody who tries to talk me out of courage and out of strength and out of resilience and out of skill is not my friend. I don’t care if he’s got a million dollars. Those who have played down courage in the interest of welfare programs have been awfully misguided, I think, to the extent that their literature reflects this. 194
The way you define the imperative of idiom sounds at times awfully like how the Black Nationalist artists in the sixties defined the relationship that the black artist should bear to his past, yet your writing seems diametrically opposed to the Black Arts movement. How do you account for the difference? MURRAY
One of the main elements of the Black Arts movement, as I understood it, was alienation, a sort of racist-inspired alienation, and I think it led to a shrill insistence on a sort of me-tooism—they seemed to want everything that other people wanted, but they wanted to paint it black. The difference would be to take charge of everything. Instead of somebody saying we once had that but the white folks wouldn’t recognize it, I want to say that what you formally look for in Proust and Joyce and Mann and Hemingway and Faulkner, you have to find in Murray and his followers. I’m playing, but there’s a serious element in there. I grew up in a school system in which we studied black literature. Negro History Week was always celebrated. We had pictures of Negro builders and heroes. I knew about Benjamin Brawley and Carter G. Woodson before I knew about Charles A. Beard. I used Alain Locke’s The New Negro when I was in the eleventh grade to get material for my oratorical-contest essay. In that essay, I recited Langston Hughes’s poem “Youth.” I first learned of the scholarly necessity of bibliography from Monroe N. Work, who was at Tuskegee. These things have never been foreign to me. But I have never been able to tolerate the type of black-ism that is only a sort of me-tooism. I find nothing inadequate about what I was taught in grade school and in high school about being a contemporary man, about being an American, about being a man of the twentieth century. But I could never tolerate the braggadocio of people who were not prepared to evaluate the things they were making great claims for. Now, I’m not claiming a freedom from chauvinism. I’m not interested in being free of chauvinism. Who was more chauvinistic than I was about Jack Johnson? But I always had to have something solid to be chauvinistic about. And I thought Jack Johnson’s credentials were impeccable. I didn’t want to be put in the position of being proud of something that was not worthy of pride. 195
Sarah Manguso THE BEAR
It’s too neat in here. Everything dangerous has been picked up, just some grit left underfoot. The shelves are ugly and next to them is a garbage chute leading God knows where. Entire pallet loads get dumped in there: 2 years, 3 years, 4 years, as boxes wind up on the charity van, back in the world. Some of it is shredded; some is crisp—laundered once, folded, never worn. I need to tidy up before the next of it surges in and needs to be sorted. The room is round, white, shadowless. I don’t try to make it beautiful anymore; the things that occupy it are already too beautiful. Tiny sand dollars, red leaves, fat green seedpods picked up from the path home from school—I put them on the highest shelf, where they will turn to dust. And then I see the shadow of a bear. Is the bear real or fake, I say, picking it up and holding it over the wormhole, taking a moment to stare at its eyes before deciding if it’s real or fake or simply imagined . . . and in it goes! The bear is too beautiful to be considered. Better just to remember an animal disappearing into the wildwood. Try not to think about what the child will remember. Boxes of books go down the chute. A few others go on a shelf. I wipe my hand across the grime, leave streaks. 196
Already Iâ€™m trying to think of a serviceable ending, a way to leave everyone comfortable, neither bored nor weeping with the ordinary and unbelievable death of it. Thirty percent a question and seventy percent an answer, I remind myself, for I have become an expert in the art of gentleness. No answer, never an answer! quavers the old version of me. Do it like opening a trapdoor the size of the world! No, I should end this thing as if Iâ€™ve just been folding laundry, I think, folding laundry, trying not to look at anything too hard.
H I LT O N A L S is the author of The Women and White Girls. A theater critic at The New Yorker, he is an advisory editor of The Paris Review. T O M B I S S E L L ’s ninth and most recent book is Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the
Twelve. I S A B E L F A R G O C O L E is a Berlin-based writer and translator of works such as “I” and
The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig and Among the Bieresch by Klaus Hoffer. C Y R U S C O N S O L E ’s Romanian Notebook will be published this spring. T A D E U S Z D A˛B R O W S K I is the author of seven volumes of poetry in Polish. Black
Square, a selection of his verse in English translation, was published in 2011. A M P A R O D Á V I L A , born in 1928, was recently described in Letras Libres as “one of the strangest, most original, and most interesting Mexican short story writers of the twentieth century.” T I M O T H Y D O N N E L LY is the author of Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit and The Cloud Corporation. He is the poetry editor of Boston Review. S T E P H E N D U N N ’s newest collection of poems, Whereas, will be published in February. H E N R Y L O U I S G A T E S J R . is director of the Hutchins Center for African & African
American Research at Harvard University. M A T T H E W G L E E S O N is a writer, editor, and translator currently based in Oaxaca,
Mexico. A U D R E Y H A R R I S teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles. T O N Y H O A G L A N D ’s fifth book of poetry, Application for Release from the Dream, was
published last year. His second book of essays, Twenty Poems That Could Save America, appeared in 2014. F A N N Y H O W E ’s most recent collection is Second Childhood, which was a finalist, in 2014, for a National Book Award. A L E X A N D E R K L U G E has received the Kleist Prize, the Schiller Memorial Prize, and other awards, for literature and film, in his native Germany and abroad. C H R I S T I N E L I N C O L N is the author of the collection Sap Rising and poet laureate emeritus of York, Pennsylvania.
A N T O N I A L L O Y D - J O N E S translates poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books
from Polish. Twice winner of the Found in Translation Award, she is currently cochair of the UK Translators Association. S A R A H M A N G U S O is the author of seven books, most recently 300 Arguments. R O B E R T G . O ’ M E A L LY is Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English at Columbia
University. F R E D E R I C K S E I D E L ’s most recent collection is Widening Income Inequality. V A L E R I E S T I V E R S is a writer living in Brooklyn. She blogs about her reading list at www.anthologyofclouds.com. D A V I D L . U L I N is the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, which
was shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.
Cover: © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / CREAIMAGEN, Santiago de Chile. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London. Page 18: Courtesy University of Glasgow, Special Collections. Pages 60, 64–85: © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London. Page 67: Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Westheimer Family Collection. Photograph: Joseph Mills. Page 161: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Pages 184, 193: Courtesy of the Albert Murray Trust.
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