r o u g h
b e a s t
Rough Beast a journal of new fiction and non-fiction, some photography, and a handful of poems Interests: Linguistic Inventiveness, Cultural Barometers, Personal Archives, Dilettantism Distastes: Irony, Polemics, Complacency, Dogmatism
Editors: Joseph Horan, William Stewart 2013
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Â This magazine and all of the individual works included herein are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercialNoDerivs 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). The reproduction of any of its contents is permissible under the conditions that the work not be altered in any form, no profit be derived from its reproduction, and that credit be given to the appropriate author. Any of these rights may be waived with explicit permission from the creator of the piece. Â rough beast | 2
rough beast: a journal of new fiction and non-fiction, some photography, and a handful of poems • • • W inter 2013: [non-existence] Contributors: I. Fiction 8 Leah Coming Nest 12
Jane W agem an
II. Poetry and Photography 29 Joe W egener Spindle • Santa Fe 32
III. Nonfiction 41 W illiam Stewart
Eugene Walter and the Lost Salon of 2000 Dauphin St.
A King or Something
In Search of the Middle Brow
Dain W illiams
Subm issions, Inquiries, Feedback: email@example.com Parcel Post: Rough Beast c/o Stewart Schivelbeiner Str. 47 5. Stock Vorderhaus D-10439 Berlin, Germany
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c/o Horan 4404 E. Oltorf St. Apt. 16101 Austin, TX 78741
Accom panying Photographs and Captions: PAGE: PH OTOGRAPH SOU RCE ; CAPTION SOU RCE cover, back & front: Dain Williams page 7: unknown ; none page 9: editor, October 2011 ; editor, personal conversation 26 August 2012 page 13: Jutta Auerbach / Hermann-Kurz-Str. 8 / 7 Stuttgart 1 ; ambiguous ( Acts of the Apostles 9:10, 22:12 or Acts of the Apostles 5:all ) page 18: unknown ; Richard Dawkins on Julian Jayne’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind page 25: editor, May 2012 ; editor, personal text message 30 August 2012 page 34-35: Nicholas Gunty, Spring 2011 ; Nicholas Gunty page 42: Vedrana Madzar ; Joan Didion, “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles” page 57: untitled, undated, Folder 13 “Eugene Walter, Photos” in Box 25 “Eugene Walter Materials” from “Caldwell Delaney Papers” housed in the Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama, USA Springhill, Room 0722, Mobile, AL 36688 ; Ezra Pound, marginal comments on original manuscript of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, line 251 page 62: editor, August 2011 ; editor, discarded lyrics October 2011 page 70: unknown ; Emily Shylock Conron, www.facebook.com 1 October 2012 page 73: unknown ; editor, personal correspondence 10 September 2012
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to the Reader: We're happy you found this magazine. You've taken a chance, set aside a few minutes to flip through the pages, and with any luck, you'll be pleased with what you find. The theme of this Rough Beast is [ non-existence ], appropriate because this magazine was born out of [ non-existence ], and it daily threatens to return to the abyss of over-ambitious emails and unrealistic daydreams from which it came. That each piece in this collection engages with the theme of [ non-existence ] in one way or another happened accidentally, but it made us smile when we noticed it. [ Non-existence ] seems like a fitting descriptor for the content of the individual elements as well as a humbling reminder about the potential nature of the whole. Itâ€™s probably fair to say that none of us feel we are where we should be, the editors here perhaps least of all. This project is a rough beast, but its members are all rough beasts too, and the pieces presented here evince each oneâ€™s slouching towards some new birth. If you've gotten this far, we're already grateful. ave atque vale, Joey Horan & William Stewart the Editors
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“This is my favorite voice.” “What?” “This is my favorite voice—the one I use when we talk in your bedroom with all of the lights off as I lay on your floor and you confess things to me.” “Why is that your favorite?” “Because I don’t get to use it that often.” rough beast | 9
LEAH COMING • Obsessive storytelling in six parts • Routine journeys • Arboreal violence • Tales from our aunts • Legends passed down in the rhythm of poetry • Noble lies • Run away to Carthage, to Odessa, to Brussels, Carcas, and Tripoli • The kindness of wagon-drivers • Protected sleep on a pile of hay •
her younger sister. The younger sister asked, “Why do you hum and rub your lip with your finger as we walk to I have told stories that grew from obsession and
fascination, but now I try to tell a story from the deep peace.
the Living Tree? Why do your eyes unlock when you eat of its leaves?” The elder did not give a satisfactory answer. One day, after they both chewed and swallowed a leaf of the Living Tree, there was a ferocious crack.
The Living Tree roared and its trunk ripped open. A purple-red heart beat in the center of the wood, There were once two sisters who daily visited
contracting so hard that the earth shook.
the Living Tree at the center of their village and daily
The older sister hesitated for one moment, and
ate of its leaves. They did this because that is what they
then ran to the gaping rupture in the tree’s body. She
were told to do.
pressed her body against the wood in ecstasy and then
After many years of this, the older sister began undertaking this ritual with a devotion that disturbed
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the tree closed.
The younger sister ran home weeping and
I opened my throat to praise
screaming. “We ate from the living tree and then the
and sing and say
tree ate my sister.” But no one was home, and the village
How Good This Is
was empty. She mourned her dead sister alone.
but then I stopped.
But within an hour the older sister returned. And she lived the rest of her life – married, had
children, and grew old. And I heard my open, burning soul in the center of the earth. It was a beast with an III
eagle’s head and a lion’s body sitting before the Throne of the Center, singing The niece sat on the wood floor and asked about
the past, looking out the corner of her eye.
with its eyes wide open in ecstasy.
Her aunt sat above her, leaning back in a rocking chair, her legs spread open. She smelled of
I lay down, and breathed, and the cells at the
coffee and the bergamot leaves she’d rubbed into the
pit of myself sang “AAAAAAA”
and then my throat sang too.
She said: I stepped forward and the wood molded to me.
The wood grew up around my neck and behind my knees. Then the wood became thick dark air. Gravity was under my feet, and then gravity was
The young girl listened in agitated fascination, eating this grotesque and earthy dream.
under my back. I was lying down and heavy and blind. But before my heavy head I saw a rock of glowing blue. I
But her aunt was calm. She breathed and rocked in her chair.
stretched my weak neck
How could her aunt confess without looking out the corner of her eye? How could she confess without
quaking at the true self? – a flat board with a tiny crumpled mouth and hateful gaze.
As I sucked the rock it became flesh. And I sucked and drank
Her aunt smelled of fragrant herbs from
the burning sweetness
scrubbing the woodworking, and of the morning’s
from the flesh that had been rock.
coffee. She sat peacefully rocking with her knees spread apart.
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The young girl dashed her mind against this
They took pity on her and said
calm again and again, a bird colliding with a glass pane. She couldn’t understand.
“Sleep in the hay in the back and I will take you further on the journey.”
She gathered the calm against her stomach and immolated herself upon it.
Towards Carthage, Odessa Brussels Carcas Tripoli she wandered
and didn’t know the color of the hearth-smoke of home. She left on foot for Carthage
burning To Carthage then she ran, burning red and purple, Carthage burning
I found this lost girl on a bleeding rock, so I carried her into my wagon, which is full of hay and warm. After many hours she woke up, and I asked her
And the flowers she passed she snatched and pressed them into her body to stain
about the bleeding rock and about herself. We did not travel together for long; but since
rubbing, bleeding, all to dye
that time, my monkey mind pressed her face on my eye.
in red and purple
While I rode through the night a phantasm played in my mind: I brought her home. Over and over I brought her
She found a rock and licked it
home. But this will be the last time I let her face stand
head bobbing up and down.
before my mind.
If she licked the stone away –
Perhaps you will understand why.
she licked and licked
We are both enpalmed together within the
warm-black silence, so I need not hold her face before
she licked a thousand strokes
my mind. •r•b•
for a promise of sweetness – the sweetness came! But the girl was a fool in red and purple.
The wagon-drivers found her in red and purple.
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ANANIAS rough beast | 13
JANE WAGEMAN • Anti-phototropic habits of trees • Feminine Insomnia • Childhood and Nature • Go back to bed, Baby • Arboreal knitting • Growth without Movement • Biological reflections of man and of the man-made • Hardened Axe, glowing Coal • Squeal of tires into the unending night • Clouds for Pillows, Soil for a Bed • Loose, Lose •
The trees grew in the darkness.i
The trees grew in the darkness because they could not
They grew when no one was looking; they grew in the
possibly grow in the light. Lia knew this because she
night. And you’d think that the black would suffocate
watched the trees in the day—she watched to see if they
them—you’d think that the heat and the weight of the
grew, but they did not. She swung under the big tree
sky would stifle and choke and push back to the ground
(the one already grown, with his roots laced through the
what was trying to rise. Because that is how it was,
dirt and the patches of grass). She swung and she
always: August every night, that pressing, humid feeling.
looked at the row of small saplings. Her feet picked up
The sky (in winter, distant and thin) came down to greet
the dust and the dirt; they formed a second skin on the
the rest of the world in the night, dark and heavy. The
soles and the toes, but the trees did not grow. They
air was full of the sky, like mud ink, and the fireflies
waited until she was gone, until the sun slipped away,
were sluggish stars that blinked and moved through it.
and they grew in the dark.
Everything present and dense and incredibly thick, and the trees (fragile skeleton little souls) grew to meet it.
The trees grew in the darkness while she was sleeping. She lay under the dark of her bedroom, on top of sticky sheets with the duvet kicked off, but under the heat, and
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the trees grew outside her window in the belly of the
body, and so Lia did not try to look at what she could
shadows. They were somber little soldiers in a line:
not see. But the trees were there, dark and growing.
ghost trees her eyes imagined but did not see. So they grew when no one was looking; they grew in the night.
They grew until they were up to her chin, fat branches
They grew slowly (so slowly) so that Lia couldnâ€™t tell
bristled with green. Branch upon branch upon branch,
most days that anything was different.
they grew. Needle poked into needle, they grew. Lia pushed clothes and blankets into the back of the station
But they did grow. In the darkness, she was sure, they
wagon, and the trees smothered themselves under the
did. She checked when she swung on the swing, and
down-quilt air. Her sister hoisted a box, blew thick
she checked when the wiffle ball sailed into the weedy
bangs off her forehead, tensed her legs under the weight
growth of the vegetable patch. She stooped down to
of it all, and there were the trees, growing. Lia saw them
peer through baby-finger branches, pushed through and
from the rear window of the wagon, barely visible
they became thick, knobby thumbs. She glanced back
through the piles of clothes in the trunk. She watched
through sparse needles, turned to find the ball, and
as the car moved heavily over the edge of the driveway
looked again through obscure cluttered branches. Her
and onto the road, and she watched from the front
brother called her, then her brothers; her sister, then
window as it bounced lightly over the cracks in the
her sisters. She yelled back and threw first a wiffle ball,
driveway, trunk empty, back seats down.
then a baseball, through the trees and then over the trees. They seemed to grow in that moment, but she
The trees knitted together in secret until they were
watched and did not see anything. They grew when she
choking. They grew in the darkness under the
turned her back to run away; they grew after the sky
December stars, and the heat of August was still there in
dropped the sun to the ground, after she was hustled
that moment, trapped in their needles and the rub of
back into the house from the dark.
the branches, braided together. They grew until the night her father cut one down and brought it inside.
The trees grew the night of the moaning, when her
Then the trees breathed in the dark, and they grew,
mother climbed into the truck empty-handed and
except for the one in the living room, with its lights and
stepped out with a baby in arms. They grew in the
its bulbs. It died in the darkness, in the new year, when
shouts of go to sleep, stay asleep, Go Back to Bed! And
they drove outside town to dispose of it: a tree corpse on
Lia lay awake in her bed under a bed under the August
other tree corpses, dying beyond the rear-view mirror of
heat and ran her sweaty hands over her sticky face,
the wagon, after they left and stopped looking.
down the flat of her chest and her stomach, before sliding them off slippery legs and drying them on the
The trees grew up to poke the darkness, to pierce the
wood of the bed frame. The trees grew in the dark
sky and give it pricks of light. They grew beyond the
outside the window blocked by another bed, another
window, beyond an empty bed, but Lia did not pause to take note. She knew what she could not see; she knew it
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better than what she did see. The trees rose up and the
the window crack and rising up to the pointed needle
bed above her sank down, each night closer to her face,
tops jabbing the sky. Lia ran out into the absence of
each night a heavier, darker wood, each night easier to
sound, and the trees stood stiff and electrified. She slept
touch with the tips of her fingers. She brushed the
that night to the flash of light from the window, hands
panels and dropped her hand down to her side. She ran
up her chest and down, up her belly and down:
it up her chest and down to her stomach, rising and
growing, growing, growing, like a small mound in the
falling with emotions and emptiness. And the trees—
straight wooden and unfeeling—grew but did not move. The trees grew to match the reaches of the house; they The trees grew in the darkness—or maybe they grew in
grew to surpass the shingles and the roof. They pushed
the light after all. The row slipped by the side of Lia’s
up, they pushed out, one on the other, inevitably. They
eyes as she bounded out of the sides of cars (first the
grew until the third tree was felled mechanically, with
family’s, then a friend’s, then a boy’s). She stepped out
shrieking saws, in a magnificent collapse. It seemed to
of his car, paused, looked back, and maybe they grew in
grow even then, in the plunge to the ground, in the dig
that single moment.
of the ax into its side. Wrapped in licks of fire, it glowed and grew and rose to the sky as smoke. Lia sat, clothes
anonymously that Lia could not remember when she
washed in burnt pine. She sat and watched the last flick of the coals, dimming, hardening.
first noticed the gap in the line. Perhaps she noticed on the day it was cut, or perhaps she noticed repeatedly,
The tree grew in the darkness, in the light, alone. Or
each time forgetting what she had seen before. She
maybe it didn’t. Lia wrapped her arms around it: left
came out one night to cry in the dark, glancing over to
hand on a low-slung branch, right hand on a hardened
branches intertwined again, over the absent spot of the
knot. Each month harder to span the distance, each
dead tree. The broken rope of the old swing hung over
month harder to believe in the growth of the tree. It
her head like an unfinished noose, and she cried salt
grew to the push of the bed away from the window, to
into the ground, wondering if she might kill the trees
the sweaty construction of wooden bars and legs, to the
with the bitterness. She came out again (another night)
careful spread of pastel sheets, to Lia’s heavy rise and
to laugh, to lift the branches up with her happiness, to
sink to the floor. It grew, finally, to the squeal of tires
save them with the small lift of her voice.
leaving in the night, to their steady return, to her slow removal from the car and the cries from the crook of her
The trees grew in the silent summer storm, lightning
arm. The tree sat outside of the lit window where she sat
mutely charging the air, leaving the needles dumb,
all hours of the night, arms folded on the edge of the
struck, shocked on the edge of the branches. Static hair
crib, eyes drooping but watching, determined to see
erect on the branches, growing. They grew to the heated
what grew in the dark.
shouts from the kitchen, voices falling out from under
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The tree grew in the darkness, sinking into the soil and lolling its head back against the clouds, nodding in the wind. It grabbed after the ground with its roots, pushed up, and grew. It grew until it was done growing, until each time Lia looked, there it was, the same. It remained, so much the same while time stretched and wound its way around the trunk, over and away and back again, so much the same that Lia let her mind roam and plant itself back in the tree. Her thoughts sat there, inside the trunk, where it grew intangibly. Shoes hitting the driveway, the tree remained. Tires rolling away, it remained. It remained so much that she imagined it there for the press of further generations, shedding its symbolism into the loose dirt below the solid trunk. â€˘râ€˘bâ€˘
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IT IS ONE OF THOSE BOOKS THAT IS EITHER COMPLETE RUBBISH OR A WORK OF CONSUMMATE GENIUS, NOTHING IN BETWEEN! PROBABLY THE FORMER, BUT I’M HEDGING MY BETS.
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REGGIE HENKE • Forbidden inter-company relationships • Proustian effects of Cruisin’ USA • Kia Sephia and the low-wage boss • Speculative drug-use of a work crush • “Bravido” and cranberry juice • the Zen potential of an arcade •Janglin’ spurs • heyyyyyyyyyyy XOXOX <3 <3 XO • Carnitas and Fish Tacos •
She was pretty much perfect.
teams I desperately wanted to take a shower with.
Heidi worked there with me. I stood around in the
actively tried to avoid drawing comparisons between
arcade and she waited tables. We weren’t yet friendly,
angelic Heidi and my other, mortal, female coworkers,
but that was okay since I knew we were fated to be
but I concede I did it before at Mark’s prodding. Mark
was a grizzled company veteran who’d served one too Company
many tours up to his elbows in the muck of a skee-ball
between employees but I appreciated the adversity. In
machine. He had drafted me early as his weird little
truth, it was the dawn of our beautiful intimacy that
brotégé. Sometimes it felt like I was auditing his
started me thinking about quitting, loudly and proudly,
introductory course to workplace canoodling. Mark’s
for her—the noblest cause there was. She was real tall
boning stories snuck up on him like combat flashbacks.
and skinny and she had the weirdest arch to her
The clang of an errant Pop-A-Shot or the robo-lisped
eyebrows, the kind of attractive that’s super up my
“Final-Lap!” of Cruisin’ USA was enough to open the
personal alley but not necessarily anywhere near lots of
floodgates. His stories invariably collapsed in self-pity
other people’s alleys. She’d be my consensus number
when the remembrance of sex-past triggered the
one if I ranked women like that, like college football
realization that he wasn’t having any sex-present. And
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this upset Mark. He was constantly tweaking his
been incorporating the idea of a pre/mid/post-work
algorithms, yet the weekly shuffling of the WBS (Work-
smoke sesh into a lot of my Heidi fantasies. Better intel
Babe Standings) never made any room for Heidi. He
could have told me for sure whether or not Heidi
even sort of snorted and frowned confused the one time
blazed, but if evidence did in fact lead me to the
I meekly proffered her name as an example of a “work-
contrary, my daydreams would feel super inauthentic.
babe” who made me feel reproductive. He shaved his
So I didn’t pry too hard.
knuckles and called condoms “jimmies.” I was glad he
As we handed in our yellow samples (mine was
would not be trying to do to her what I wanted to do to
clear—too dilute for veritable results, company couldn’t
afford to retest me) Heidi looked super pretty and nice Beyond Heidi, there was nothing real redeeming
and kissable. Really damn inspiring, you know?
about that place. From day one I hated it. I had to drop
contemplated taking a huge stand against the injustice
a bunch of money not only on four aquamarine uniform
and bailing, quitting right there in the middle of the
polos but also shiny new shoes and gray (not black)
drug test, grabbing Heidi’s hand and storming through
This was because Kenneth, the floor manager
the glass front doors as Kenneth stared slack-jawed at
who re-authored the official policy handbook three
my pure display of bravido (bravado/libido, one of
times in as many months, said we had to, per whatever
Mark’s favorite self-descriptors). Instead, I crossed my
fucking rule Kenneth made up the night before. When I
fingers for fear I hadn’t drank enough cranberry juice.
first started, those were our only physical demands— that and a smile. But when Kenneth made me cut my
hair, which had been dope long, it pushed me over the edge. And so began my covert resistance as the arcade’s
I fucking loved smoking and fucking hated that job. I
was being victimized so hard.
No more smiling-on-the-clock, no
Reggae songs about
more showing up on time, and no more getting “just a
oppression started making a lot more sense.
little, no, seriously guys, one hit” high before work.
corporate idiots were holding me and Heidi down, but
Simple subversive stuff, intended to grind the gears of
we would eventually break free together and laugh
Kenneth’s 2001 Kia Sephia, formed the bulk of my
nostalgically about our times in America’s #1 Family
Entertainment Center as we intercoursed in our marital
Quarterly drug tests had me burning less for
love-nest. In the meantime, as I waited for Kenneth to
some spells, but I always compensated during these
give up his futile war of attrition against my smokeable
grueling times with subliminal psychological resistance.
joy, the arcade’s spacey sound-effects and cheap light
My preferred tactic: pathological eye-rolling to the point
shows took on a certain Zen character for me. My face
of popping blood vessels during staff meetings.
got really good at doing ‘utter contempt’ for hours
pain, no gain, that was sort of my mentality during those
without reprieve. If we’re talking seven dwarves I went
from Dopey to Grumpy. But soldiers got to soldier on
I duly watched Heidi for signals
come piss-test time to see if she smoked pot too. I had
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and I was fighting for love.
Then, some weeks later, Kenneth broke all the tacit
It took me two weeks to cool down enough to go back in
there, uniform balled up under my arm because fuck
workers and their bosses that protect them from MAD.
them they can enjoy these wrinkles, that’s what you get
In other words, he went absolutely thermo-nuclear on
when you fire me. I figured Heidi’d be near the host
me. “Can you step into my office?” he asked at the end
of a long shift. I was supposed to be watching the game
strollin’ in, casually gnawin’ on a toothpick, spurs
floor but I’d mostly been blankly staring at a blank space
janglin’ on the heels of my brand new boots.
She’d glance up as I approached,
on the wall as the surprisingly soulful Time Crisis III
“Oh, hey, didn’t see you there babe. Yeah, just
houseband exhausted its inflexible set-list four times
droppin’ off these old rags. Yeah, fired. No, it’s cool,
over. Good, I thought, the perfect time to ask him for a
I’m cool. Ring me sometime and I’ll tell you why.”
raise. It was nearing the three-month anniversary of my
Then she’d take down my phone number and
hire and I half-remembered something about a ninety-
key in “BADASS.” She’d text me five minutes later the
day evaluation process.
word ‘hey’ but with like an insane amount of y’s
Unfortunately, he fired me before I was able to bring it up.
followed by a sprinkle of XO’s and a dash of less than 3’s. She’d end up coming over later that night and we’d
I kind of wanted him to say something catchy
sit down together in the chair I built with my strong but
and scathing to me like “Kick rocks, kid!” but he seemed
It would hold our
sort of morose about the whole thing. He gave me some
collective weight magnificently.
parting advice about responsibility and I think he
without even banging our front teeth together but I
gestured out to his Sephia in the parking lot at one
would have to stop her hand from wandering and say,
“Hold on, let’s slow down.” I’d turn the TV to HBO,
We would make out
As I exited Kenneth’s wicked lair, already
yeah I have HBO, but probably not for much longer
texting my dealer, I didn’t bask in my new freedom or
unless she’d know of anybody hiring and of course she
even dwell on the sadness of the whole situation.
would, and then we’d just talk and talk and talk about
Instead, my thoughts went to Heidi. I knew my chances
everything and we’d find out so much about each
with her were just dealt a devastating blow. I would have
another. The conversation would be riveting and Oh My
to figure out how to feel about this pathetic and
God Can You Believe it turns out we both have weird
unexpected life turn later, ideally with some help from a
middle names and Oh My God she loves dogs too!! I’d
bong-mate and a healthy serving of carne asada fries. I
teach her a really sweet secret handshake, one I’ve been
managed to have one moment of clarity as I undid the
saving, slowly perfecting over the years. Next, I’d escort
top bottom of my polo for the last time: if I was going to
her to my queen-size bed and utterly disappoint her in
save what Heidi and I had, I would have to ask her out.
every physical way but guess what, it doesn’t even
In a few days, though.
matter one bit because she knows how much I’ll slowly
Probably like sometime next
week, no hurry.
improve with practice. •
We’d go get tacos the next
morning and she’d be a sweetheart and pay because she
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understands my delicate financial situation and I’d get both a carnitas and a chicken and still valiantly help her finish her last fish one because I’ll be her amazing boyfriend/lover/taco-finisher. As it turned out, she wasn’t around. I was sort of just in and out. •
I got a text from Mark a couple of weeks later. “Brotége,” he wrote.
Said that things were quieter
around the ball pit with me gone. I said thanks and asked how Heidi was. Who? Heidi…the blonde who waits tables. ?? Oh haha u mean helen. right yea haven’t banged helen since that time a couple of months ago in the walk-in freezer.. weird shit haha got to keep your work interesting yo brotege u looking for some fire? I’m dealing these days. •r•b•
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the other day, I thought how strange it would be to have a Hopper in your house. say hanging over your dining room table. because the reaction of your family and your guests would always be the same: placid daydreams about america suddenly replaced—and not without a twinge of horror—by the realization that, christ, is it all just about sex?
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Night Watchman h JOEY HORAN
• Existential alarm clock • Lists as a form of self-centering • The Waning Star Café • Mystic encounters with Chango’s cards • Amazon Feminism • Nightswimming / Nightfighting / Swimfighting • Urgent night sprints through the neighborhood • Clothes end and the body begins •
There’s a man who blows his whistle
Now that I haven’t slept in a great deal of time,
beneath my window every night at a frequency of once
the whistle-blower plays a more prominent role in my
per hour. I used to contemplate the quirkiness of this
better-lit hours. I spend my days thinking about the
practice—an individual fighting hooliganism and petty
night. I ponder my role in keeping the darkness safe, a
crime with the audible assertion of his presence, a
role that has moved from tertiary to secondary to
manipulation of air that boldly states: “You think you’re
primary with alarming quickness.
in that dark alley alone, doing whatever it is you’re
then re-conclude that it is my restless duty to assure that
doing, but here I am, a vigilante, a witness with a
the night watchman whistles on and protects the
whistle, dignified and brave”—but now I blankly pass
neighborhood from the vagrant criminals beneath the
the hours of the night thinking of nothing. Despite—or
moon. Does he sense my secret accomplice? Should I
I conclude, deny,
worry about him and prepare for the worst? If the hour
masturbation, and the marijuana cigarettes, my mind
comes to pass when his cry does not ring me from
and body, sadistically expectant of the whistle, half-live
desperate half-sleep, must I descend and save him? If
through the darkness.
he is dead—surely only death could prevent the sounding—do I yank the red rope from the heap of his
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heavily clothed body (where do the clothes end and the
Christmas: Reading Year in Review articles while a
body begin? My gosh the whistler looks like a vagrant
dog houndishly licks between my toes
himself, his whistle is copper, girthy, and of the
Childhood: Too happy or too uneventful?
nineteenth century.), disentangle his limbs from the
Sandwich: Too much avocado spread
gears of a road bike, and assume the duty?
Copper: Fuck a P.O., fuck a piss test
These scenarios occupy my day.
occupy me. I do not think of them at night because
Nausea/dizziness: Too much avocado spread Ring: Flying horses
seeking rest for me has become an exercise, it demands a clear mind, whiteness behind the eyes, and focused breathing. This whiteness, of which I have less and less
“Have you ever seen the whistle-blower?”
control each day, makes me think the whistle functions
“No, I’m always in bed.”
as something of a dream-catcher, far more mystical than
“Are you at all curious what he looks like?”
I previously imagined, a nighttime inhibitor of daytime
Now I live terrified of the quiet. The true alarm will sound silently.
When there is silence, I will
descend. Yes, when there is silence, I must descend. Am I ready? Will there be any sort of apprenticeship? Why have I been chosen and how has the whistler made this so clear?
difference is.” “The difference between what?” “Between the imagined whistle-blower and the real whistle-blower.”
Sometimes I worry (worrying, in this case, is a certain knowledge) I’m becoming obsessive.
“Because I’ve constructed a pretty detailed image of him in my head and I don’t see what the
therapist has his theories too. “Clinically speaking, you’re an insomniac.” Clinically speaking, my therapist probably has
“So reality isn’t that important to you?” “Of course it’s important to me, but a little lessso from 1 am to 7 am on weekdays and 3 am to 7 am on weekends.” “This is the whistle-blower’s schedule?”
an M.A. and is under-qualified for situations of this
import. But this is just crankiness talking, or is it
“Do you chart his schedule?”
delusion? Maybe he has a PhD.
I apologize. I’m multiplying. He’s asking me to associate things freely. This is what I’ve caught so far:
“Do you wait for the whistle to blow on schedule?” “I expect the whistle to blow on schedule, I wouldn’t say I wait.”
“Why wouldn’t you say that?”
Silence: End of the world
“Because it seems a little dependent.”
End of the world: Not a virgin
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“Maybe I meant to say desperate. I don’t know.”
and I no longer depend on the sounding of
“What about self-perpetuating?”
his whistle to feel safe;
“The whistle will blow whether I hear it or not.”
‘delusion’ will end.
“What was that?” “What was what?”
In reality, of which I have total authority over
“I just answered a question and you said ‘mm’ in response.”
and can almost predict, my waiting on the stoop opens up the following possibilities.
“I was thinking on your answer.” “Are you suggesting that I’m conflating reality
me feel extremely vulnerable and fallible. I
with fantasy?” “I’m
The humanity of the whistle-blower makes
take ownership of my safety by doing one of
conversing. Do you think you’re conflating reality with
I ride along with the whistle blower
“I doubt it.”
and learn his ways.
“Have you ever heard or seen a whistle-blowing
tandem for the rest of our days;
night watchman anywhere else?”
“Have you?” “No.”
We work in
I kill the whistle blower and become the whistle blower;
“Then you’re probably not as safe as you should
The whistle blower will not pass and I will have to find him.
be. You owe it to your family to ramp up the security.” “I live alone and I have a trusty alarm system to alert me of any intrusions.”
I balance the banalities and predictability of Western therapy with a visit to the Waning Star Café.
“And this makes you feel safe?”
My friend, Chango, reads cards there. He sits Indian-
“I sleep well through the night.”
style at a booth with his belongings scattered before him
on a two-person table: a cigarette holder that looks like a
“I’m sorry, our time is up. Maybe spend some
cassette tape (why do things that aren’t other things
time on the stoop tonight, look for the whistling man.” “What will that do?” “I’m not sure, just give it a shot.” By pushing me in this direction, my therapist thinks he is guaranteeing one of two things:
have to look like other things?), a candle, and his cards. We begin to chat about things: sharks, subways, Mayans. “The calendar doesn’t, like, predict the end of the world. It mostly predicts a major change in the world. You know?”
I recognize the humanity of the whistleblower, his own vulnerability and fallibility,
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“What do you think the change will be, Chango?”
Women will finally come to
power. It will be the rise of Amazon Feminism.”
I was not certain of at the time, I was certain that the title would function better as an opening sentence), I
“What is Amazon Feminism?”
decided to try to kill Chango beneath the glowing
“I dunno, man. But it will be hot.”
skyline. I would replace all of the air in his lungs with
Chango’s an idiot.
The last time Chango and I met, I was in the
underwater briefly, knowing his next move would up the
Following his initial dunk, I pushed him
middle of a different episode, more crippling than my
current. After listening to an album on repeat for two
and quickly relinquished my hold when I put him under
I feigned weakness squirming beneath his grip
months, I learned the tracks were in the wrong order.
next. This childish exchange lasted a couple minutes,
As a lover of truth, intention, and craft, I reordered the
Chango having fun with it, me still serious about
tracks. (Plus, I used to believe in the refreshing twist a
randomized group of familiar songs can bring to a life
He began to dunk me for ten seconds at a time
that lacks certain things). The problem with this was I
and I would dunk him for twenty. He would hold me
had forgotten how to live my life without the originally
under until my headward veins bulged and I held him
This mostly manifested itself
under until his lips turned purple. He would pinch the
physically—the rhythms of my body were off, I was a
sensitive skin between my armpit and chest when he
poorly put together machine made to break. I felt like I
really needed air and I would twist his balls. Finally,
was brushing my teeth with my left hand, chewing with
exhausted but determined, I held Chango’s head
underwater for thirty something seconds before he
found my nipple with his teeth, bit, and rose from the
When Chango and I met that day it was to go
springs gasping—my blood running watery from his
through some edits I had offered him on his essay, “The
lips. He punched me in the face and I spat in his. We
World is Ending, That Much is Clear.” I tried to explain
were both crying.
to him that the title would read better as an opening
He said something like, “What the fuck, man?”
sentence, but he wouldn’t budge. That’s as far as we
“Sorry. I thought we were having fun.”
Now the Waning Star Café is closing and we are When the café closed, I suggested we go for a
significantly buzzed but know to avoid the springs. It’s
night swim. We drove down to the springs just below
late and he drives me home silently. When I get out he
the skyline and splashed around slipping on the earth’s
asks me how I am.
about the springs, “It’s nerves. I haven’t been sleeping
Chango was convinced that eels were
sucking on his foot calluses.
He shoved my head
I apologize, mostly still thinking
underwater teasing that the eels would swim up my nostrils and suck out my brain. The shove whipped my
neck more than my already out-of-rhythm body would have liked. Still angry from before (out of all the things
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In my bed I’m convinced that tonight, drunk and
That can happen.
cathartic (nothing calms like the memory of near-
watchman loves alleys for their visual discreetness but
murder by drowning), I will fall asleep. In fact, I am
auditory clarification. My heartbeat has re-quickened,
falling asleep. I am closer than I have been in weeks. I
my lungs currently expanding.
am half dreaming. There is whiteness and a distance in my head from which I can hear slight snoring.
I know that happens.
I take off at a jog and move to a sprint.
Zigzagging through the neighborhood, I try to cover
whistle is not sounding and the whistle is not sounding
much space in little time. My unconfirmed assumptions
and my dreams are getting more vivid and less
of the night watchman are that his rear tire is a bit flat
controlled and the whistle is not sounding.
and he is old. In his old age he has adopted a leisurely
And then the 1am whistle sounds. I am reminded of my thankless duty.
I don’t need to be
thanked. My breathing quickens and my mind sharpens
pace, at least physically—mentally, there is no leisure, safety has no leisure—and rides through each block thoroughly and slowly.
and I descend to the stoop as the next hour approaches.
If our paths don’t collide I will still hear his
In five minutes I ascend and descend five times. I’ve
whistle and then I will run to the sound and our paths
lost track of time. It’s an easy thing to do this late at
night, this tired.
I settle on the stoop and rest my head against the rusting handrail.
I don’t see the things I see
everyday but I know they are there.
I will pledge my support and begin my I will assume my duties that very
minute, alone or by his side. In this hour, it seems the night watchman can no longer defend the neighborhood
A water tower
as he once could. Given back to its natural state, the
across the street (how am I to know there’s water in the
darkness will sharpen its teeth and silence will reign.
tower?). A freeway-bound ramp a few blocks down, in
The vagrants will quickly shed their weariness of the
the middle of the street, where things always get faster.
A Japanese convenient store to my left with delicious
I arrive back at the stoop breathing quickly
ham sandwiches (things were once delicious, when I
through my nose.
toward the Japanese convenient store. It splatters about
And a pharmacy kitty-corner with a
Blood, pooling at the curb, flows
my ankles, warm and not my own. It must be the blood I
of one hundred men. It flows purposefully through the
don’t know if the hour has passed or what an hour feels
I think I’ve dozed off against the handrail.
street, from the alley, as water from a heavy and sudden
like but I haven’t heard the whistle.
rain. Has the night watchman fought the darkness in
watchman will pass if I stay put, the simplicity of a
his last stand? Surely I will find him, sucking in his last
known route tells me as much. But I don’t know the
breaths, bodies scattered radially about him, snaggle-
route, do I? I just know the frequency and sound of its
toothed vagrants dipping out the rear of the alley tales
rider. Does he pass my stoop? Or does he whistle from
between their legs. He will hand me the whistle and
the alley across my stoop? Its thin passage could narrow
whisper nothing in my ear.
the sound and propel it into collision with my ears.
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At the mouth of the alley I wade through kneehigh blood, then high step through it as I approach what looks like a heap of clothes.
I think about the
indignity of drowning in one’s blood and I begin to cry and my tears meet the ever-thinning red stream. The blood ends and begins all at once at the heap lumped by the road bike. I prod and pull away layers of clothes. Where do the clothes end and the body begin?
goodness, the night watchman looks like a vagrant himself. Bearded, toothless, leathered skin from wind and sunburn. Around his neck I find a worn red rope, tied to a whistle, girthy, copper, and of the nineteenth century. •r•b•
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J O E
W E G E N E R
• V E R S E •|||||| Spindle We watched all three Lord of the Rings movies. In succession. We turned the volume down, got high, and started playing music. This is how we composed our first album. Call it folk, call it baroque, call it indie-folk-baroque. Whatever. We call it mind poison. The title track is pretty interesting. It’s about a teenage boy that is half human, half bicycle. He falls in love with a quiet, book-wormish girl named Gracie. Sadly, Gracie’s parents don’t approve of boys that are half bicycle. Gracie, of course, is devastated. She desperately tries to defend her half bicycle lover. People don’t choose to be half bicycle, she explains between sobs. But it’s useless, Gracie’s parents just don’t understand. In the third verse, the song really hits its crescendo. Gracie’s father, home early from work, catches the two having unprotected sex in the family’s hot tub. Enraged, he runs into the house to get his shotgun. The half bicycle boy, still naked and dripping wet, makes a hurried escape through the backyard. We’re not the sum of our parts, We’re not the sum of our parts, the chorus sings.
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W E G E N E R J O E rough beast | 32
Santa Fe Smooth jazz music is small in my laptop speakers. I take your face, fold it into an origami frog, and watch it hop into bed. I’m not stupid; our meeting is something like a lunar eclipse. A similar distance – I feel all spoony inside. You reach across the table to shake my hand. I decide to buy a new pair of shoes. But you’re still sitting there, undoing my conception of time. Crinkling, hopping, you move across the mattress. You hop into my outstretched arms, my opened palms. What color do you want to be? I ask. Seven cans of spray paint sit silently beside my bed. We’ve tried them all – save for one. A few hours later, we walk out of my bedroom in single file. I hold your rifle above my head, a soldier traipsing through the swamps of Vietnam.
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Nicholas Gunty Rooftops Morocco 2011
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Some of the ancients believed that Helen never went to Troy. The gods fooled the Trojans and the Greeks into thinking she was there, but she never was. Helen was in Egypt all along, and men fought a war over An absence. Did I ever tell you that before, love? I asked you. I’m pretty sure you have. I guess, I’ve told you everything already. Yep, you said. We don’t need To speak anymore. And we laughed because
H I L A R Y
R A S C H
Being generous made us happy and easy. But now that I’ve flown away from you I have unshared knowledge, like Helen never went to Russia either.
Nails and Bolts I sit on the dusty floor in my dorm in St. Petersburg, And turn the wispy clouds in the sky into the kind That pour water. It leaks into the room Through the corners of you not being here. You are in the ever temperate climate Of Hakodate bike riding to school Where you study Japanese language. You tell me over the phone— Your voice breaking in and out like sad waves Or heartbeats— That there is a Russian school nearby And Japan’s oldest Russian Orthodox church. Just how is it that your Russian landscape seems wider than mine? Mine is ungrateful rust and mud. The rain waters it, Growing it day by day, while my generosity Is stunted by space. I can’t give you everything From such a distance. When I tell you that Some Russian Orthodox churches forbid visitors From wearing shorts inside, I don’t say This repression feels violent. To flee, I force my running mind To read about ancient Egypt: How the tombs there Were carved to look like date-palms Because of the sacredness of these trees.
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My gestures here Are mostly unproductive. For example, I stab nails into the wall for each day I don’t see you and some days I have to stab in bolts. Long distance was a bad idea.
H I L A R Y
Time Travel Sometimes the ancient gods bend down to earth And give us gifts to remind us of their existence. And so, they made time Dissolve, my St. Petersburg days Dissolve like sugar stirred into vodka. I dove into the Neva, tunneled down and down until I finally dropped into Narita airport Where I saw you waiting at baggage claim.
Time Zone Adjustment
When I imagine Helen, she is holding A boat in one hand and a train In the other because desire
Now that I am with you again I don’t count my days with nails, but feel Days being plucked away like flowers From a vase. I try to imagine
R A S C H
When Helen came, the men Gifted all their dates to her. When will I Be capable of such an offering?
Birthed transport Because there was something Somewhere else Needed. Well, I left What I needed. And isn’t that A betrayal? I take it back
That the vase is infinitely full of days and nights— That we somehow are Outside of the waters of time, that we are Not powerless before the gods.
Sometimes it’s true. When I dance before you we become
And try to dream of Tokyo (Hot weather, the short dresses I’m going to wear When I’m there) because it is the city Where I will see you again.
Suspended. When we pull Our shirts off together and raise them up Above our heads, they become the night sky, and we Are almighty.
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On the road to our hotel we glimpse her:
A red, neon lip-shaped arch marks the entrance of Kabukicho, Or the Sleepless Town, as it is sometimes called By the Japanese.
A woman, profile view, with black hair, red lips, in dark blue Silk with shining sequins, her back arched to express
Around midnight we turn a corner and are in the belly of its
Her curves. She looks as though she wears the night. It’s just a billboard, you tell me, And I weigh this fact. True. I think We should name her anyway. Name her? I smirk and say, She’s Helen of Egypt. After we dive tired into bed, She plays on my mind, like an unfamiliar Game—Helen of Egypt: How unlike I imagined her to be! Much darker
H I L A R Y
R A S C H
Body on Body
In appearance. I move my right leg Over your left thigh, and you press Your body over me. What is desire? Did I come Here for Helen or for you?
(Our guide book tells us) 3,000 night clubs, Bars, and love hotels. We smile devilishly Into its lights, and blowing signs. I count the slickly dressed men, and you try to guess Which of them are yakuza as our bodies loosen Into the humid night air, and the district’s colors— An electric rainbow—pour out on us, Like a metaphor for ejaculation. I point and you take photos Until two Nigerian men beckon us In English and make our language sound beautiful, Come inside. They are handing out flyers, but tonight We cannot ignore them. Come see The goddess dance. Once inside, With others jamming in behind us, we’re pressed against A sweaty wall of people, But on my tiptoes I can see Her move as though she were touching me, And I lay my eyes over you Like want. You look Good, you tell me, Raising your voice over the crowd’s Noise. Come here.
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And as we move over each other Our rhythms Are like the rhythms of the monks’ drums Gonging on Mount Koya, where pilgrims
After we stretch the sun into the sky, You tell me, I love you. I watch the earth awake
Bring melons and pineapples to give To small, grey Buddhas. Those gods Wear pink and green bibs For the feast. But I—being pagan and Strange here—see only you and Helen On the mountain. Do I worship her? Maybe, I did once. Bearing down on me, She looms, still and sharp as a stone idol: Harsh, cruel. I realize she is scared
H I L A R Y
R A S C H
The mountain of Us
Of being usurped. What happens to desire now That I have everything I want? I hand her back her ships and planes, but I give you All my fruit and trinkets of my body. As we stand against The grey night, grey mountain, gleaming, The moon plates us in silver. She watches us Like a mad step-mother.
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Outside my hotel window, and hear Its neonatal cries Shooting forth From the cars already roaming, And it’s strange—I feel We made this world. Raised above the traffic, Helen floats, wavering in herself— She is becoming us. What is it like To be desire itself? I press against you, and time and space dissolve, Dissolve completely Into us, and we are transformed Forever into the moment when I am coming To meet you at Narita airport.
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It is this instinct which drove America to the Pacific, all through the 19th century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one’s own rules.
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Eugene Walter and the Lost Salon of 2000 Dauphin Street h WILLIAM STEWART
• Christmas whiskeys at the solstice • the geography of fundamentalist thinking• North Haiti • 1970s urban sprawl • cryptography in Alaska • The Willoughby Institute, Bienville Square, and The Haunted Bookshop • the SIP Sisters of Termite Hall • agri-culture spells the end of the bluebloods • the sirens of mildew •
The images I keep of Termite Hall
are always in the time around the solstices. It’s late in
Victorian at 2000 Dauphin St., listed in the National
the night, early morning hours even, and gas lamps are
Register of Historic Places as the Greene-Marston
burning. That’s probably anachronistic. At the summer
House, sits five minutes by foot from the home I grew
solstice, guests sit out on the porch, quiet laughter and
up in. For a while, Termite Hall ca. 1940 embodied for
near-empty gin & tonics.
Some lean over the railing
me the high point of culture in Mobile, AL, some kind
and hope to catch a rare breeze against the heavy, still
of gravitational center (socially and geographically) for
heat. Full of crickets, the yard is deafening. In winter,
the intellectuals and poets that I supposed the city once
the porch is full too, 50 degrees a respite against the
superfluous wood fire next to the Christmas tree. String
Passing by on Dauphin, it can be hard to get a
lights run between the eaves, and whiskeys mix again
good view of the place because of the unkempt hedges
with quiet laughter, this time because token children
and brambles in front, just a mossy pair of columns at
somewhere in the neighborhood are already asleep.
the foot of the driveway and a manor of arches and
I don’t exactly know what all this means, but it seems like something.
gables half-hidden behind a grove of oaks. There could be anything back there. Maybe those first few snippets
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of lore about Termite Hall, odd tales about enormous
and categorical (i.e., the name given to the trend of
parties thrown there, extended families and guests who
contradictions that seems to abound in Mobile and from
never moved out, even the fact that it had a name—
which spring inordinately exaggerated, deep-seated, and
Termite Hall—had a similar effect. They obscured my
honestly-held beliefs about life there). Water culture, as
perspective on the house, allowed me to envision things
I understand it, is elusive, insubstantial, and, worst of
about it, kept me from seeing the place up close.
all, thoroughly inconsequential. But whether or not its
This obscured perspective means that my obsession with Termite Hall is a tangled knot of:
products are mirages or realities, water culture most certainly exists.
distorted childhood memories of Mobile (wrought iron things—benches, fountains, gates), old assumptions
about the kind of events that occur on a regular basis in the city, the mythology I have of my birth place, Eugene
I first heard the term ‘water culture’ from my father. As
Walter and roads with names like ‘Grand Boulevard
in, the city of Mobile’s complex social structures and
Street,’ a history of Termite Hall far richer in the
hierarchies reflect the water culture of ship captains,
retelling than in the actual occurrence, Adelaide
trade routes, ports, and longshoremen that have been
Marston Trigg, a tendency to believe in golden ages, a
present since the earliest days of the colony. I didn’t
wish that things of cultural significance have been
really grasp the deeper and more nuanced economic
hidden under my nose all along, etc etc.
commentary on sea-centered capitalism that my father
The task of untangling this knot around Termite
probably meant in this example, but ‘water culture’ felt
Hall means untangling my understanding of culture in
hefty and mysterious on the tongue. I filed it away as
the Azalea City.
something that might sound intellectual in certain social
And explaining culture in Mobile— 1
well, talking about it abstractly at least —means
explaining first the city’s inexplicable sense of self-
The first time I pull it out, it’s late October a few
importance and resultant (and unfortunate) small-
years ago, and Ben sits beside me on the bus to Chicago.
mindedness. Second, however, it also means attempting
I make a remark about Fall in the Midwest: It’s different
to put into words what I have often heard in
from home, where we barely have any Autumn at all,
conversation but never had explained to me to any
where the leaves all give up the ghost on account of the
degree of satisfaction: the concept of a water culture.
never-ending heat of the late- and then, later, indian-
What follows will demonstrate the impossibility of this
summer, which occasionally extends even into the first
task. I now believe that what is called Mobile’s water
weeks of December.
culture functions as a sort of mysterious and ubiquitous
Ben asks what it’s like down there.
force which pushes all fantasies and fictions about the
here, I shrug. It’s America. But I reconsider. That’s
city toward a degree of reality. I believe in water culture
not really true.
not as something of content (i.e., some concrete and
because I grew up there, but Mobile’s something
demonstrable set of traits), but rather something formal
different. Then I remember my father’s words: it’s got a
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Maybe I engage with it differently
water culture, I explain, having no idea what that
But that’s nonsense.
San Francisco sits on a
actually means, but thinking it sounds impressive
bay, too; Chicago has a lake shore; NYC is built upon
enough and complex enough to mean something.
bridges; and those cities certainly don’t project the
What’s a water culture? he asks honestly, inadvertently calling my bluff.
proclivity toward conservative or objective ideologies that one may want to pin on Mobile.
It means we have boats, I answer dumbly. He
geographically speaking, the water topography in the
grunts and turns back to the fields streaking past the
Azalea City is in actuality far more convoluted and
ambiguous than a water’s edge.
Unsure if my inability to expound on the
concept indicates an irresponsible use of the term or its
Mobile is no beach town; there is no simple
inherent vapidity and lack of content, I decide to let the
coastline. The bay is formed by the collision of the Gulf
conversation die and avoid any more embarrassment.
pushing up from the south and the Spanish, Tensaw, Mobile, Blakely, and Apalachee rivers all flowing in a
complex tangle of branches and fingers from the north. The Mobile-Tensaw Delta and its brackish domain,
Well, the city does have boats. The conversation with
neither fresh nor seawater, is the second largest in the
Ben returns to my mind some time later. The docks are
nation. Marshland, swampland, neither terra firma nor
the city’s most important industry. Yet the very idea of
a sand bar. Dog, Fish, and Fowl rivers slice into the
a water culture or water society suggests more than a
walls of the bay like some early draft of Yeats, and the
mere economic dependence on the water. It suggests a
Mobile river flows so close to the western shore that
even long-time residents of the city pause and silently
subliminal) of every part of life in the port city by the
question themselves upon exiting the old Bankhead
phenomenon of water.
Tunnel: what body of water did I just drive beneath?
I try tackling the concept abstractly. water
objectivity—a clear differentiation between land and
even more so when taking into consideration that the
sea, a line, an example from nature of a binary world-
“city,” the one in which people live and have society,
view, either you are in the water or you are on land. In
only indirectly links to the water, at least geographically
addition, the city has a clearly identifiable source:
speaking: downtown lacks true access to the bay, and
what riverfront it does have on the Mobile is largely
To speak of Mobile’s water society, attempts to get at something far more complex, far more involved,
obstructed by industry and docks.
overarching, clear-cut construction integral to nature. A
culture paradoxically requires a search inland, on dry
cartographic explanation for the Mobilian’s disposition
toward fundamentalist thinking, perhaps, black and white moralities, black and white in general.
A drive down Dauphin Street beneath the canopy formed by the century-old live oaks, or an evening stroll around Washington Square to the noise
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of the fountain and the shuffleboard shouts from the
represents a departure (in whatever respect, aggressive,
open doors of Callaghan’s might give evidence of it. Try
relaxed, intentional, accidental) from the true water
standing under the pergola of string lights at the
culture of the old city, this is not without certain
Blacklawn block party in late Fall or passing by Georgia
advantages. Travel, for instance. Water culture is slow;
Street porches overflowing with flowers on Easter
travel by boat requires time. Commercial jet lines began
Monday. Maybe it has to do with the curious feeling
operating out of the abandoned Bates Field sometime in
the late 70s. I’d much rather fly to Tampa than take the
Government and Broad Streets, the one with a historical marker bolted to its stucco façade that attests to the
origin of its nickname, the Beehive, on account of its one-time status as the religious and social center in the
Part of the difficulty in writing about the Azalea City is
that it forces one to compress the aura of the place—the These are the vestiges of old Mobile—those
incessant self-inflation of the city’s ego, the cultural
parts of the city that pre-existed World War II.
richness lacking relevance, the old Mobile water culture
Fearnway, Ashland Place, Monterey, Houston Street,
je ne sais quoi—into an intelligible sentence.
The wrought-iron porches on
more difficult, writing about Mobile forgoes the
Congress and Joachim or the odd rituals that take place
canonical benefit of the novels, essays, poems, dialects
in the Church St. Cemetery in late February. The fish
that accompany and instruct the writer of New Orleans,
and oyster markets down Old Water Street or the 19th-
Atlanta, Savannah, or myriad other Southern cities.
century artifact cottages out behind Tuthill.
Even Yoknapatawpha had a Faulkner. Writing about
Yet whatever key these parts of old Mobile
Mobile is an isolated and isolating experience.
provide to the question of water culture, whatever aura
Ignoring whatever brief references to the city
or sense of authority these sections of town hold on
appear in Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a literary tradition
account of their age or former status, it only shimmers
of any serious and non-incestuous character for the city
on the periphery; turn a focus on it, try to look more
can claim something like two works: “My Dream of
closely, and it flakes away, instantly disappearing into
Mobile,” an essay in the 1945 travelogue The Air-
the flatness of the present. The streets of old Mobile are
Conditioned Nightmare by surrealist Henry Miller, and
all too short.
The Untidy Pilgrim, a 1954 novel set in the port city by
They quickly empty out into a much
newer city, a six-lane, a self car-wash, a string of fast-
native son Eugene Walter.
food huts, and the old mystery suddenly seems like a
Miller’s stream-of-consciousness sketch reads
mirage or rainbow-end, surpassed without ever having
like the account of a near broke, strung out, exiled, and
quickly unraveling writer who stumbles upon a copy of
That’s not necessarily intended as a lament or
The Travels of Marco Polo in a public library and
critique of the new against the old. If the new Mobile
fancies himself cobbling together a similar account of
rough beast | 46
contemporary exotic locales, mostly because that’s what
At any rate, Miller’s Mobile never actually
it is. The former French colony of Mobile (among other
appears. Instead, the essay snags on the author’s free
places in America that he has never visited, Miller
association and tangential discourse until the entire
admits early on in the essay) strikes the author as a
piece founders on a line of moon-soaked French
suitable place to begin on account of the same aura that
nonsense somewhere out in Mobile Bay, never having
I mentioned above, the one that evades expression so
actually reached the shore. I’ll let Miller be, content and
alone on his cot, still floating with a bottle of absinthe
But Miller doesn’t even try to wrestle with it,
simply characterizes the city as hazy, fuzzy, amorphous,
out in the shallow water.
Bay, as Miller wants to imagine, wouldn’t take you to the
Miller fixates on the image of the Union Navy’s
Besides, steaming into the
city. You need to navigate the River for that.
Admiral David Farragut steaming up to the city during
Eugene Walter, on the other hand, took
the Battle of Mobile Bay. Though he can’t verify that
advantage of his native status and approached a
Farragut ever did steam into Mobile Bay (he did; August
description of the city from within.
15, 1864), Miller likes to imagine that his own entrance
literary patron saint, used the city as the backdrop for
to the city would unfold in a similar fashion.
his first novel, The Untidy Pilgrim, which follows a
essence of Farragut’s importance to Miller is unclear, as
presumably autobiographical young man in late forties-
his writing quickly veers to claims about
Mobile as he spins in and through the city’s many social circles. With the true bravado of Southern-Lit, the
• the etymology of the city’s name [“Mobile is a
novel pits the cultural trappings of the Azalea City
against the only other metropolis in the country that
It sounds quick and yet it suggests
Walter believes could rival it (New York) and not
• the musical persona of the city [“Guitarish. Perhaps
without a southerner’s heavy skepticism about the place.
When three of the novel’s central characters flee to
• and the general atmosphere of lethargy that hangs
Manhattan for a year, the events are boiled down and
over downtown [“I have never once though of work in
glossed over in about 35 of the books 250 pages before
connection with the word Mobile.
the Big Apple becomes boring and the action returns to
the southern port. The rest of the chapters move lazily through southern living rooms, dockside warehouses,
Concerning water culture, about the best we get out of
and cabaret brothels, slow-cooking the city into a
Miller is a reassurance that, yes, there is water
caricature of its pre-war aspirations.
somewhere on the edge of the city, a bay in fact. But
Mobile that is sultry like Savannah and fetid like New
beyond that, for all Miller’s piece provides, the Bay
Orleans, overgrown with enormous oaks and Spanish
could just as easily link Mobile to Perpignan, Ponce De
moss, populated by eccentric old maids and tangled
Leon Springs, or Maine as it could (and actually does) to
Pilgrim paints a
Bon Secour and Fort Morgan Point.
rough beast | 47
The novel’s opening pages make clear Walter’s
claim for the city, it doesn’t help articulate what the
conceit that Mobile represents something different
characteristics of the phenomenon actually are. Second,
merely by merit of its location: when heading south
a closer look at the life and work of this author reveals
toward the city, one notices, beginning about forty miles
that Walter, native son though he may be, spent so
or so north of the coast, a distinct change in the
much of his life away from Mobile that a good deal of
landscape, the plant life, and the sanity of the
homesick nostalgia must be first distilled out of his
inhabitants. The Salt Line, he (and no one else) calls it,
comments for them to be of any use.
referring to the infiltration of the salt water and all its cultural effects up from the coast. other words.
Water culture, in
Having grown up with it, Walter
understands the oceanographic nuances of the city far
In the late 1970s, about the same time my father was
better than Miller. The significance of the River (which,
returning to Mobile after a few years working in
in a very pragmatic sense, Miller failed to note) figures
Birmingham, Eugene Walter was returning to the Azalea
explicitly into the novel’s treatment of this water culture,
City, too. Walter’s pilgrimage home, however, involved
a treatment that is uncanny if not also tongue-in-cheek.
a slightly longer route than my father’s and far more
One character, looking out over the River, explains that
the water has a strange way of hiding things: after long
Shipped out to Alaska as a cryptographer during
rainstorms like this, skeletons have been known to wash
World War II, Walter lived briefly in New York after V-
up on the banks of the River.
J Day before heading onto Paris and Rome for the next
three and a half decades of his life. Digging through the
description of the city’s society is as figurative as it is
box of letters exchanged between Walter and his first
ambiguous. “Down in Mobile they're all crazy, because
cousin and lifetime Mobile resident Caldwell Delaney—
the Gulf Coast is the kingdom of monkeys, the land of
now housed in the McCall Library Archives [1504
clowns, ghosts and musicians, and Mobile is sweet
lunacy's county seat.”
remarkable as it is geographically diverse. He addresses
A separate land, he writes,
Mobile doesn’t belong to North America so much as it does
Delaney as ‘Fust Cuzzin,’ scratching out notes to him
observations of the positivist Bertrand Russell in his
• first on military letterhead [“Afterwards, Lt. H— (the
essay “Homogenous America”: the Old South is the only
handwriting expert) analyzed our scribbles. Mine was
part of the nation that can actually claim to be different
judged ‘impulsive, nervous, unusual,’ though anyone
than the rest of America, so different that “one feels as if
could have judged that.”],
one had arrived in a different country.”
• then later on self-made stationery [8, Rue Garanciére,
All well and good save two major issues. First,
Paris.IV; 18 Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Rome],
if Walter’s novel of north Haitian monkey kingdoms
• or crammed into blue- and red-bordered envelopes
indeed points to the powerful water culture I want to
from the Paris Review [“I hope the people who
rough beast | 48
destroyed the Russell house will ROT in the deepest
against his continued and mostly voluntary absence
pits of HELL for eternity.”].
His letters are filled with unelaborated
references to addresses in the city [156 St. Anthony, Indeed, Walter’s adventures are noteworthy, if
1511 Government, 1115 Palmetto, 2000 Dauphin, 109 N.
only for the cast of characters he managed to connect
demands to be kept abreast of events and gossip in
After Walter left childhood friend and
Mobile: “Please write me, write me. A long letter. I’m
Bankhead in Greenwich Village, Paris found him in the
hungry for Mobiliana, especially Caldwelleán Mobiliana,
company of Richard Wright, T. S. Eliot, Gore Vidal, and
with lewd surmises and dirty digs. • I’m excited, there
George Plimpton, the last whom he helped with the
have been earth-shaking things happening in Mobile
founding of The Paris Review. In Rome, translation work
and me not there. Alas, I’m nearly died at missing the
for Federico Felini landed him a part in 8 ½ (in addition
Trigg-Marston, & am now molargnashing over missing
to a series of Italian television soaps), and his friendship
the forthcoming Plum-Young. • How’s Mobile’s sex life?
with Ingeborg Bachmann and Hans Werner Henze
Vernal, tolerable vernal, I’spose. • Tell me WHAT ARE
resulted in the two creating for Walter the central
MOBILIANS SAYING ABOUT ‘STRANGE FRUIT’
(silent) role in the opera Il Giovane Lord.
AND MISS LILIAN SMITH.??????? I can just imagine,
If you want to read the incredibly bizarre story
but tell me anyway.”
of Walter’s life, you can, and in his own words even—
To read these letters and hear Walter caw on
Milking the Moon, the memoirs he dictated just before his
about the city suggests a social scene as squalid as it is
But the Walter that I’m interested in is the
vibrant, but alive and virile regardless. And yet, these
Walter that all his biographies and autobiographies take
comments come from Walter’s pen while he charts a
for granted: the Eugene Walter who, despite spending
course from Alaska to New York, from New York to
the prime of his life outside of Mobile—in no less than
Paris, from Paris to Rome, farther and farther and
the three most culturally elite cities in the world—with a
farther from his beloved Azalea City.
clique of literary, film, and music gurus to rival nearly
Delaney for more than thirty years with his homecoming
any artistic circle, still returns to spend the last two
before it actually takes place in 1979.
decades of his life in the Azalea City.
In fact, the
periods in Mobile that bookend Walter’s life reveal more
about the origins and effects of the city’s ineffable water culture than anything he wrote in The Untidy Pilgrim. Walter’s correspondences with Delaney are perhaps most telling of all.
Walter died of liver cancer when I was young, but while he was still alive, following the return to Mobile, he
From his first reports in
lived with his cats three blocks west of us in a bungalow
Alaska to his complaints about having to pack up his life
renovated by the city’s historical commission. He would
in Rome, an odd juxtaposition underlies them all,
turn up on Mr. Boyd Miller’s front porch, drunk as a
namely an ever-intensifying rhetoric of homesickness
skunk at 1 in the morning, reporting to have been
rough beast | 49
locked out of his house and asking if Miller by chance
and one would think that Walter would have needed
had a key to let him in, my father laughs. Pat Conroy
something more than a 10-minute weekly radio spot to
describes Walter’s cooking as incomparable, even if the
keep him occupied for those last two decades. He would
table was coated with a layer of cat hair, and the former
have searched in more places than on Bienville Square
ex-pat made his presence known in the city by devoting
and down Broad Street, and he must have found it
his last years to a weekly ten-minute radio program on
somewhere, in someone.
the local college station, “Eugene At Large.”
Well, he was all the time hanging out at Termite
Practically speaking, Walter’s homecoming may
Hall, my mother explains casually—common midtown
have resulted from the road simply running out on him.
gossip from earlier days in Mobile. That is, at the family
Despite the general fanfare and falderal surrounding his
house of the née-Marston sisters, 1940s friends Eleanor
arrival, he returned to Mobile nearly penniless. Worst
Marston Benz and Adelaide Marston Trigg, at 2000
of all for Walter, though, was the port city’s cultural
poverty that stood in stark contrast to the vibrant scenes
I don’t know when Walter and the Marston
he participated in (or at least waxed nostalgic about in
sisters first became friends. Perhaps Mobile’s Catholic
his letters to Delaney) during his youth. “What’s really
society, of which they were all a part, brought them
got to me since I’ve been back is that Bienville Square,
together from a young age. Maybe it was an adoption of
which had formerly been like a street salon, with
sorts, sympathy from the Marston family toward
everybody downtown on Saturday, was absolutely
Walter’s lack of one. Raised first by his grandparents,
I remember one Saturday when I came back
Eugene was taken into the care of local department
taking a walk in Bienville Square. There was nobody
store owner Hammond Gayfer after their death. From
there. And I thought, Oh my Lord, what’s happened?”
all accounts, Gayfer and Walter fit well together, as
To Walter’s dismay, the culture he remembered so
Gayfer’s house often found itself hosting local southern
fondly had been eroded by the complex socio-economic
writers and artists, in whose presence young Walter was
forces that redrew the city in the twenty-five years
all-too-eager to be. Yet despite the support he received
during and following World War II. This compounds,
from Gayfer, Walter’s adolescence in Mobile had
of course, with the nostalgic scaling-up and buffing
something of an orphan quality to it, a point that reveals
done to Mobile-ca.-1940 by Walter’s own memory. But I
a darker irony in being called a son of the city. Perhaps
have a hard time believing that a man who had spent the
it was pity that encouraged the Marston sisters to extend
previous thirty years running with the cultural elite of
hospitality to him.
Paris and Rome could then return to the spiritual damps
Nothing, however, suggests that the friendship
and Alabama anoxia of Mobile ("Twenty four hours in
that grew between Walter and the members of Termite
Mobile and you have the feeling a plastic bag is tied
Hall was contrived; in fact, just the opposite. Odds are
around your head and you're breathing your own air,"
that Walter and the Marston sisters found a common
notes Walker Percy.) and be satisfied living on Grand
love of books.
Boulevard Street [sic].
librarian of the city’s Catholic high school for nearly
rough beast | 50
He had no family save his cats,
Eleanor Marston Benz worked as the
fifty years, a library whose front face now bears her
More interesting, though, are the pieces of
name in enormous black letters. Her sister, Adelaide
memorabilia from Termite Hall.
Marston Trigg, gained an even more prominent bookish
programs from meetings of the so-called “Willoughby
reputation in 1941 when she opened on Bienville
Institute:” 1941-42, 156 St. Anthony St. and 2000
Square what, at the time, was Mobile’s only existing
Dauphin St., members (among others) Francis Kinney,
bookstore, The Haunted Bookshop.
Willie Mae Smutz, Caldwell Delaney, Adelaide Marston,
Although the shop managed to develop a respectable
Eugene Walter (pres.).
The program (blue cardboard
with fountain pen-inscribed parchment leaves) lists roll
signings with writers as diverse as Thomas Mann,
call, recitation of minutes, then contributions from each
Harper Lee, and native-Mobilian William March, a look
member—lectures on fashion or etiquette from some,
through the old guest registers reveals the impact
poetry readings from others, and a play from Eugene.
Walter had on the bookstore. The signatures and dates
(2) A log for the meetings of the SIP Sisters, a women’s
quickly give way to full-page doodles and cartoons
group led by Adelaide.
signed “EW” or “Willoughby” with an accompanying
four-circle dog paw print, the latter being from Walter’s
themselves to the discussion of local society and
After opening their meetings
occasionally took up a new piece of literature or
I think he started coming around here because
contemporary moral argument.
The evenings usually
he was bored and looking for company and would just
closed with a communal supper, except when the
end up spending the whole day nosing around the shop,
women were too hungry to wait (often), in which case
explains Angela Trigg, Adelaide’s granddaughter and
they began with the cooking, whose planning and
owner of Bienville Books, a resurrected, relocated, and
grocery gathering, as Adelaide notes in the log, usually
renamed offshoot of the no-longer-extant Haunted
dominated so much time that afterwards, there was very
Bookshop. I visit to ask Angela what she knows about
little energy left to stir up interest in a debate on women
the history of Termite Hall. Well, I live there now, she
in the workforce.
explains flatly. She lets me look through what boxes of
If the SIP Sisters represented the intellectual
Adelaide’s keepsakes she can find in her attic apropos to
and progressive feminine avant-garde of the city, they
the bookshop and Walter. I get the feeling he got on my
still carried out their agenda within the boundaries of
grandmother’s nerves, she notes.
I spend an hour
Mobile’s conservative and religiously oriented social
flipping first through diaries and registers from the early
system. Adelaide is quick to remark in the introductory
days of the Haunted Bookshop.
The entries turn
notes to the SIP Sisters’ logbook that the acronym SIP
quickly from lists of books read and thought-provoking
should by no means suggest that the meetings involved
quotations to costs of plumbing repairs and logs of
the consumption of alcohol. Whether this was a product
hours spent working overtime.
of naïveté or deep-seated conviction is unclear (there are rumors that in the later years of the Haunted Bookshop,
rough beast | 51
those who regularly hung out in the store knew that the
selection of a few choice books from the shelves would
intellectual endeavors (Willoughby, SIP, etc) as well
would have been a bit out of place and swimming
paraphernalia from the Willoughby Institute rings with
upstream in the city. If the Termite Hall of Walter and
a note a bit more raucous and a bit less disciplined—to
Marston was ever the cultural high point that I want to
be expected with young Walter at the helm. Stationery,
imagine it was, it was an aberrant spike and not a
pamphlets, and small volumes of poetry from later in his
life appear under the name, too, paired with locations
Interestingly, Termite Hall’s role as a meeting
equal part European capitals and Mobile neighborhoods
place for Eugene, Adelaide, & co. is hardly the house’s
(again, the conceit of the Southern writer): The
first time in a role as a joining point.
monikers Termite Hall or Greene-Marston House, 2000
RIVER•PARIS. These locations, I realize, refer not to
Dauphin St. once was called the Half-Way House, as it
offices or contacts, but rather to the locations that bore
Walter’s self-created and ever-expanding aura.
downtown and the wooded escapes (as well as escapes
from yellow fever epidemics in town) surrounding the •
Jesuit university up Spring Hill. In the age of Eugene Walter,
“The Hall has always been a place where people came
transcended a mere geographical midpoint and became
for a week’s visit and stayed a year, where everybody
an intellectual and cultural meeting point, too. Most of
read and ate, ate and read, and listened to music and
all, as a symbol of the societal shift between old and
danced and painted pictures and climbed trees and ate
new, pre- and post-War Mobile, the 2000 Dauphin St. of
and gardened and read and ate. Naturally, it’s haunted,
Adelaide Marston and Eugene Walter should be seen,
figuratively speaking, as a temporal Half-Way House,
The Termite Hall so described by
Walter in 1982 is a salon of the highest intellectual and
cultural variety, most of all, one where Walter, even with
Most important for Walter upon his return to
his cultural caliber and artistic status, comes off as just
the Azalea City in 1979, however, was the house’s
one more guest, hardly the center of attention.
perceived resistance to the post-War societal and urban
wonder no one wanted to leave.
shifts that concerned him so much about new Mobile,
But I get carried away. Angela Trigg points me
now a city of malls, poorly planned six-lanes, and the
to a passage in her grandmother’s diary: Adelaide’s
unapologetic suburban sprawl of the 70s. For Walter,
worries that the Bookshop will never survive in Mobile,
the chief detrimental consequence of these shifts wasn’t
warnings from friends and relatives—no one in Mobile
the white flight, which in fact placed the most
wants a bookstore, because no one in Mobile wants to
noticeable blight on the old city and his boyhood
buy books. If that is a fair barometer for the cultural
climate of late 30s and early 40s Mobile, then not only
linking (and, in his mind, subsequent bastardization) of
rough beast | 52
Rather, Walter seems most upset by the
the old city French colony culture with the rural agri-
imported to work at Brookley Field, and which ushered
culture of the western part of the county. For Walter,
a wave of modern expansion and development into the
the creation of the suburbs in the west part of the city
city following the fighting’s end.
and the infiltration of the old high society with the
formerly separate rural customs would have been doubly
Adelaide, in her capacity as a female entrepreneur of
The shift was a microcosm and an
literature and philosophy, represents a strong and
aftereffect of Mobile’s linkage to and integration with (or
important counter-cultural figure in early-40s Mobile,
contamination by, from Walter’s perspective) the rest of
the social platform of Termite Hall’s golden age was one
the state in the period around 1945.
“Then in the
rooted (even if indirectly) in segregation and a static
Second World War,” recalls Walter in his memoirs, “all
socio-economic structure. The flowering social scene of
those peasants from the fields came to work in the
Walter’s youth in Mobile, the one he shoots through
shipyards. Forbes magazine said that Mobile was one of
such glossy and nostalgic filters in The Untidy Pilgrim,
the towns that grew the fastest during World War II.
is a southern city whose structure is inherently linked,
And those peasants did not go back to the fields when
whether intentionally or unintentionally, with pre-Civil
the war was over. They stayed in town and built Baptist
Rights segregation and Southern hierarchies of wealth.
churches on every corner.” An erasure of the old Salt
No discussion of that time can completely avoid an
Line, in other words. A desiccation of the water culture.
association with those integrated injustices, even though
But it would be irresponsible not to note, too,
I can imagine neither the flamboyant Walter nor the
the larger questions of social justice at play in the
progressive Adelaide as segregationalists or bluebloods.
background of Walter’s grief. Although he directs the
In Walter’s mind, the disappearance of the Willoughby
lament toward what he saw as the end of Mobile’s real
Institute, the SIP Sisters, and the other salons of
golden age (symbolized in places like Termite Hall), his
Termite Hall represent a decline of the city’s true water
complaints are admittedly hypocritical.
culture and coincide with the appearance of a nouveau
return to the Azalea City after his service in Alaska,
riche—people whose wealth was made independent of
Walter escaped the post-war changes for brighter stages
docks capitalism, people who had no interest in
and bigger parties.
Meanwhile, the salons of 2000
spending Saturday evening on Bienville Square, and
Dauphin St fell prey to more abstract termites, namely
people who could not claim to be native Mobilians. As
1) chauvinistic or (more accurately) pre-feminist social
tragic a blow as this was to Walter, and as much as this
archstructures of the city ca. 1940, pressuring the SIP
nouvea riche undermines my own mythologizing of
Sisters one by one all to fulfill the southern expectation
water culture in Mobile, it represents a democratization
of marriage and children, and sacrifice Ophelia’s
of wealth in what was formerly a static aristocratic
soliloquies for more domestic duties; and 2) the war,
system, a change that I cannot help but be in favor of.
which shipped men like Walter off to the Aleutian
Finally, I suppose that any student of Walter
Islands, which forced the Hall to partition off its living
would begin to doubt the legitimacy of his depictions of
rooms to create housing for the non-Mobilian workers
the city, at least generally, when considering the
rough beast | 53
questionable literary ethos presented by his curriculum
claims with delight in the cookbook’s introduction, it is
vitae. Despite the fact that his Untidy Pilgrim won a
so only with the inventions of his own memory.
Lippincott Fiction Prize for Young Novelists in 1952,
Ultimately, it is Walter’s very ability to craft
that he picked up an O’Henry citation for the short “I
such a vivid picture of Mobiliana that makes me call into
Love You Batty Sisters” in 1957, and that he helped
question entirely his claims about the city’s water
George Plimpton found The Paris Review and Botteghe
Obscure with Marguerite Caetani, Mobile’s one true
slowly crumbling and rotting away, with no help from
literary golden boy nevertheless presents an oeuvre
the man who could do nothing more than steal its name
whose large majority is cookbooks: American Cooking:
to promote a cookbook that Mobilians don’t use. I can’t
Southern Style, Hints and Pinches; The Happy Table of
help but become cynical when an old Eugene Walter
Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink;
remarks. “Eventually, all Southerners return home, not
Delectable Dishes of Termite Hall. Appropriately enough,
to die, but to eat gumbo.”
Termite Hall exists today as an old house
it is in the last title that one finds his description of the Hall cited above. But even there, it comes to reader in a
one page introduction, misplaced, unexplained, and frankly, unrelated to his recipes. It feels like a line from
I suppose Walter’s description of Mobile—this kingdom
an aborted novel, as if Walter had ideas for a piece
of monkeys, north Haiti—is a kind of wishful thinking
focusing on the power of the old manor at 2000
and another manifestation of the city’s perpetual
Dauphin St., but was forced to abandon it when he
insistence that it is relevant.
realized that even his talents for creation and invention
Mobile has never once competed with the cultural
out of near-nothing (Walter explains in his memoirs
oddity of New Orleans nor with the ambitious economic
gunnings of Atlanta. It didn’t witness civil rights like
constructing costumes and scenery from construction
Montgomery or Birmingham, and, despite being home
paper for use in the one-acts he wrote and directed in
to a few of The J.B.s, it never had enough of the artistic
his foster home; elsewhere: “As a child of the hurricane,
consciousness of a place like Memphis. Its very name
I always have the basics. And colored paper to cut out
suggests transience and instability. It’s hot, stuffy, and
for games.”) wouldn’t be enough to keep afloat the
massive nostalgic weight of yearning located in that
appears from nowhere and overgrows an entire front
Perhaps the most powerful termites of 2000
The climate is oppressive, people say.
Dauphin St were the very thoughts and idealism that
Perhaps that’s the best depiction of water
allowed Walter to create it—he could only find a salon
culture—like humid air so saturated with water that an
of such grandeur and magnitude at a great distance, in
invisible mildew spore can grow to consume a house,
the powerful deceptions of homesickness that he
water culture is that tendency for societal value to
continued to feed, even cultivate from New York to Paris
appear and bloom out of nothing and for no apparent or
to Rome. If Termite Hall is indeed haunted, as Walter
discernable reason. Mildew’s tendency to drive Mobile’s
rough beast | 54
mythology says, are fated to live only so long as the
After all, Walter names the city sweet
mortals who hear their songs do not pass the singers by.
lunacy’s seat, and for all I know, the hallucinating and intoxicated Miller is still drifting in the Bay.
authors’ indifference to—even embrace of—the insanity might be the only true way to approach the Azalea City. Maybe my dream of Termite Hall is like Walter’s view on the course of civilization or like Miller’s admission that his knowledge of the city is a total fiction, illuminating something essential about the obsessive and lunatic Mobilian culturalist, namely our tendency to imagine things out of thin air and pass them off as the way things really were:
“I don’t know one tiny bit of history. I mean History. For me, Columbus discovers America, then the War between the States takes place, then Tallulah and the Sterling girls are born, and then we’re now.”
“The Mobile I knew was thoroughly imaginary and I wanted to enjoy it all by myself.”
Oddly, what Miller leaves out about Farragut is the historically bizarre note that, not only did the admiral steam into Mobile Bay, he did so lashed in Odysseus fashion to the mast of the flagship Hartford. I’d venture to say that Farragut had it right, that the city indeed has a Siren quality about it, smashing fools like me and Walter and Miller (and anyone else who wants to sail into port and capture the city) on the rocks of our own fantasies. Perhaps that’s where all the skeletons in the river come from in The Untidy Pilgrim.
rough beast | 55
Footnotes, various and sundry: 1
i.e., avoiding laundry lists of who’s-who and scales of petty social hierarchies, avoiding scrutinizing to which sorority the girls in the family belong or to which Carnival societies standing dues are paid, which is a serious part of Mobile society at one level and in other discussions could under no circumstances be omitted.
Adelaide’s granddaughter seems to miss the irony of the statement. On both afternoons that I stop by Bienville Books to speak with her, a young male shuffles around awkwardly, pulling a few books from the shelf without actually shopping, never entering our conversation about Adelaide, but later working Angela’s ear about his plans to write a screenplay for the Iliad (Didn’t they already do that? asks Angela) or his analysis of the plot flaws in the latest George R. R. Martin novel. He’s no Walter, but it’s amusing to see the dynamics of Marston-Trigg bookshops in Mobile maintained across the generations.
rough beast | 56
make up yr mind you Tiresias if you know know damn well or else you don’t. rough beast | 57
A King or Something THOMAS ROWELL • French formalities • DJ Dou’s stacks • The only toubab in sight • Tunics of unnaturally bright colors / pocket tee and work shorts • Crawling, staring • Trays of couscous and fish • The man with the shaved head and light sunglasses • An offering of cheap perfume • At home, anonymous •
to maintain. It was hard to hear the man over the chanting
-Oui ça va bien, et vous?
tent. The man seemed quite drunk.
-Bien bien merci, et la journée?
-Are you just here to watch? the drunk asked in French.
-Ça va, ça va—
-Yeah, what’s going on exactly?
-Et la famille ça va?
-Le Grand Marabout is in town, the drunk said craning his neck towards the tent.
-Oui, merci, ça va. I This repetitive and automatic series of greetings
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Marabout was but I nodded as if understanding.
was always tiresome, the false smile and rapidity of the exchanges often belying the honesty they tried so hard
-So it’s a party then?
It was. A spectacle even. The entire street had been
First, there were women present. In fact, the crowd seemed to be mostly women. All dressed in their
tarp covered the night sky for an entire block, and
mismatched bits of turf and multicolored plastic carpets
and combinations with elaborate embroidery around the
covered the sandy concrete.
Some three hundred
necks and hems, sheen and glitter, gold and pounds of
people filled the space, standing or sitting in plastic
makeup to make their skin look lighter. Fabric
chairs and talking very little over the loud religious
that hung stiff like it was thickly starched. The men
chants. Drummers, off to one side. One man stood in
were just as fancy. Some in bright colors, some in
the center, warbling praise to Allah through two large
patchwork but all in the traditional matching pants
stacks of speakers with “DJ Dou” hand painted on the
and long tunic of West Africa. This the drunk wore
as well, a tunic of unnaturally bright colors and brand
Yet something was very different about this event. Twice before I had seen and heard late night
new white leather sandals. I wore a pocket tee shirt, my cut off work shorts and a pair of ten year old sandals.
gatherings like this one. Each time it had been the same: sitting in the courtyard I could hear the distant call of
-So it’s a party? I asked again because the drunk
crackling voice screaming
incoherent melody in a language somewhere between
double bombardment of alcohol and loudspeakers.
the native African tongue and Arabic. Standing in the doorway, I could make out the general direction of the
-Oui oui, you want to—?
sound. All I had to do was follow. For the last two nights in a row, “following” had
The drunk’s inflection signaled that it was a
led to a group of men gathered in a tight circle under a
question, but I couldn’t make out what the end of the
single bright spotlight, chanting, gently swaying to
phrase had been. I responded with a knee jerk Oui.
the beating of the drums and the hypnotic call and
Just saying yes usually worked in these situations, and
response prayers. One man held the mic and called to
for a moment the drunk seemed satisfied by my answer
Allah. The members of the circle looked at him or at
and had gestured towards the tent, grabbing my hand.
the floor, listening for their chance to respond.
The drunk turned away and paused, as though looking
For the last two nights in a row, I had stood among
or so, the
for a friend, and then began leading toward the edge of the crowd.
only toubab in sight (typical), but unchallenged. Once a
I followed, trying to take my hand back. We
young man had even handed me a cup and offered
were at the far end of the tent now. Separated from the
tea. It was the only entertainment this late at night, and
large crowd outside, those inside the tent were
it seemed normal for people to all join in watching the
seated, obviously important.
chants. A social event. A chance to sit together without
amidst the crowd at the canopy’s threshold and looked
the obligation of talking. But tonight was different.
from side to side. A thin path sliced through the mass
The drunk and I stood
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of colorful garments and led straight to the far end.
Straight to the Big Marabout. With a sharp intake of
platform, the drunk the drunk fell to his knees Â
breath I realized what the man had asked and before I
genuflected in reverence and I followed his lead without
could say anything against it the drunk, who had never
let go of my hand, began pushing through the crowd,
Marabout and took the Big Maraboutâ€™s outstretched
his bloodshot eyes fixed on the far end of the tent.
hand. The drunk kissed the back of the hand, and then
The chanting continued and the drumming
never stopped as we broke through the wall of people,
Marabout bent forward, prayed for a moment, and then
touched the drunk on the shoulder, a dismissal. Still
a tangible silence to the air. Heavy women on either side
kneeling, the drunk backed away in a sort of unsteady
looked at us and only us from their plastic thrones. The
stares followed us like a wave as we continued forward,
clothes with a shaved head and light sunglasses helped
past the drummers, then stepping carefully beside the
the drunk to his feet. The man with the shaved head
man with the microphone. Always more stares. I did
and light sunglasses pushed the drunk back towards
not belong, that was clear, but an escape was not.
where they had entered. The man with the shaved head
and light sunglasses knew the drunk was drunk
pretended I knew exactly where I was going and why.
and handled the drunk in a way appropriate for
The music surged louder, the drums beat faster and the
handling a drunk.
entire room was watching as I inched toward the
Left alone now in the middle of the crowd and
platform at the far end. In front of me the drunk
before the Big Marabout, I turned away from the drunk
man marched in his Sunday best and short flat
and back toward the throne. I crawled, clumsy, with my
dreadlocks, bumping into waiters passing by with trays
heart pounding, sans lacking any dignity, towards the
of rice and fish. We walked through the crowd on
sandaled feet of the Big Marabout. My bare knees felt
the long thin pathway for what felt like a year or a split
the rough carpet, and I thought quickly that maybe I
second and then, as if the stage and throne emerged
should have taken my sandals off. Carpets were
from the foaming crowd, like Poseidon surfacing from
respected here, I knew that but had forgotten in all the
the blue, there he was.
commotion. Glancing up, I saw the outstretched hands
and the sun stressed eyes of the Big Marabout before
Dignitaries and well dressed men with sunglasses
me. I took the outstretched hands into mine and
surrounded the throne. The Big Maraboutâ€™s elbows
touched them to my forehead like I had seen the drunk
rested on the arms of the big brown leather armchair,
do before. The hands of the Big Marabout were dry and
cool. Calm, resolved, the feeling swept through me like
Marabout was thinly
bespectacled and the only person dressed in all white.
a cool breeze. My eyes lifted and met those of the Big Marabout as I murmured an inaudible and automatic
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Merci. The Big Marabout nodded, and with his right
ear and filled with an energy they could not control.
palm open, gestured for me to have a seat, there at the
Waiters passed with trays filled with couscous and
onion sauce and fish and the people were happy. More
mattered anyway, we were so close to the stack of
men joined the singers and soon the people rose on
screaming speakers. It was clear what was meant, and I
turned as I sat, meeting the stares from the crowd,
in celebration. A sea of color and light and sound
which watched the exchange with disbelief and open
danced before me, and I watched calmly and at peace,
like the Big Marabou in all white behind me, separated
The music droned on but now I felt separate from it. Like I was behind glass, observing something
from the mass at the center of the tent. I did not belong and yet I was right at home. No one knew my name.
bizarre I could never understand. Slowly, as though I’d
The air was warm and dry as it entered and
become part of the scenery, the stares left me and
exited my body. It was time to leave. That moment
turned back towards the singers and other guests. A
came clearly and truly, and I turned back towards the
young man approached and took one of the Big
Big Marabout. We took each other’s hands once again
Marabout’s feet and began giving a massage. The
and nodded in respect. I rose and exited through the
Marabout slowly sank back into the deep embrace of the
passage off to the side of the platform. I pushed
leather armchair and resumed the wise and patient
through the crowd of dancing colors and into the street,
position with the fingers falling now to form a cage over
just behind the wall at the far end of the tent. It was
his chest. A man approached me and sprayed my neck
dark and the street had no lights except for the stars
with a perfume bottle. It was a cheap perfume that
which shone bright and clear. I was alone. The street
smelled unnatural, and I said Merci to the man with the
perfume bottle as he passed on to the others on the
was muffled by the tent walls. The street was sand and
rubble and trash and the stars shed a silent light on my
Now two men stood in the center chanting into the microphone, singing in reverence to their leader,
walk back home.•r•b•
directing their hands and voices just over my head. Minutes, maybe several years passed in a wash of
shuffled slightly sideways to make room for other humble followers to pay respect. Each passed and brushed my side without looking or speaking to me, intent
approached on hands and knees, heads bent. They mouthed thanks through tight smiles. Each came and went, passing off to the side, grinning from ear to
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we rode bikes in the dark / brought a crate of beer through the park we sat out down by the bay / and the wind blew fear in our hearts
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The Problem of Value, or In Search of the Middle Brow h NICHOLAS GUNTY
• Solitary confinement in Charleston, IL • an off-the-cuff catalogue of the contents of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing • Money dirties the old Renaissance masters • Warhol does Marx • the Capitalistic irony of the avant-garde • Middlecla$$ voting block • Thomas Kinkade’s $30 million • the Complacency of Kitsch •
My “Happy Graduation” gift from the universe
Yet one element of this collegiate afterthought
came in the form of a rain check for another graduation
stands in stark contrast to the previous track: as a
at a later date. Perhaps I wasn’t enthusiastic enough at
graduate student, I teach one course. The prospect of
the first one, or I jinxed myself by forgetting a few lines
having students put me on edge initially, and my anxiety
to the alma mater. Maybe my cap decoration was so
heightened when I discovered I had to design the lab
lacking in craft as to be offensive to the great graduation
portion of “Introduction to Art,” a gen-ed course for
spirits, dooming me to thirty weeks’ punishment of
non-art majors. In other words, the unfamiliar and the
(near) solitary confinement in Charleston, Illinois, where
uninterested. I was nervous about putting my art-
I derive a trivial, ironic comfort from the fact that the
knowledge to the test. For the last four years, when I
city is so small I can ride my bike anywhere but the train
was wrong about something, my professors corrected
station. I find myself once again among small town
me. What if a student asked me one of my own
campus life, but this time as a ghost, reliving a kind of
questions, one I still hadn’t answered? It took about
2.0 of my college experience, hanging in graduate-limbo
three weeks for that to happen.
until the University gods redeem my voucher.
Though the details are fuzzy, the question itself, delivered in equivalent measures of truculent teenager
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spunk and genuine rational hunger, I can recall
become limp and futile, so we look to an institution—
some structure embedded in its history—to help inform
“How do we know what’s valuable?”
prevalent artistic considerations in more concrete,
I had just shown them the infamous “Fountain”
We might begin by searching for an institution
Duchamp’s piece—an upturned urinal,
in a very concrete sense, a museum perhaps. Last time I
conspicuously signed under the alias “R. Mutt” and
stepped into the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of
originally mounted on a pedestal—had just validated the
Chicago, I found: an enormous replica of a fallen tree
student’s assumption that what is valuable in the art
trunk made of wood from another tree; a painting whose
world is, on the surface, defined simply by whether it
frame was as deep as the picture was wide so that the
garners the acclaim of influential people—this nod of
tall form popped out from the wall like a brilliant red-
approval often as arbitrary as it is insular. Yet this
on-gray architectural polyp; a mass of industrial felt
question is highly consequential to any artist seeking to
nailed droopily to the wall; a wooden cabinet laden with
sell her work.
As professionals, artists deal not only
photographs, news clippings, and other seemingly
with the values of their clients (dealers, gallery owners,
random objects splattered with waxy white paint; a
collectors, etc.) but if they wish to be considered avant-
simple but deceptively realistic oil painting of a lit
garde—that semi-hackneyed accolade mostly indicative
candle; a thin, colorfully striped wooden dowel propped
of culture’s helpless preoccupation with the new—they
against the corner of a room by itself like a forgotten
must address the institutional values of art practice
broomstick; and a pile of hard candy.
itself. It seems that this has never been a more daunting
To distill from this sample a semblance of
task than it is today. Studies indicate that the
internal logic that informs a rigorous system of value is
increasingly pluralistic art world is losing the ability it
next to impossible. The educated visitor to the Institute
once had to “determine the artistic value of emerging
might answer that a working knowledge of art history
work.”1 Why would this be? What are the ramifications
would unlock this collection as a rich, eclectic, cleverly
on the structure of the art world? Is institutional value
insightful, playfully referential, and even touching body
true value, or is it just the mirage of centrality and
of work. Yet even an extensive knowledge of art history
can only teach us so much about inherent value until it
When I asked my own painting professor the
begins to explain instead how value is constructed, in part
question of value three years ago, he didn’t seem to be
because “history” itself is arbitrary and vulnerable to
too concerned with mirages or institutions. He told me,
power structures. Its content is framed by subjective
plainly, that we are free to value anything we like, as
curators with self-interested (or present-interested)
long as we have sufficient reason.
biases. Just as a shrinking globe forces competing
This is common
advice in academia these days, and I think he’s
ultimately right, but at the time I took issue with such a
confrontation, it also elucidates the inherent pluralism
response. Art in a self-indulgent vacuum threatens to
and subjectivity of history’s narrative. The assumption
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that our museums, because they are institutions of “high
art critics sympathetic with postmodern relativism who
art”, are collections of the most valuable, advanced, and
have flooded the discipline from the bottom-up,
resulting in a “flight from judgment” among other
things (see Elkins, “What Happened to Art Criticism?”).
institution’s decisions to place a piece in its collection.
Value judgments that were once of “goods” and “bads”
Attempting to abstract from the museum’s contents a set
have been tempered into the more Facebook Age
of ideal axioms that could effectively and consistently
friendly “likes” and “dislikes.” Academia has been under
gauge the value of the works inside the museum
fire for entrenching art rhetoric in alienating jargon and
involves a completely circular logic.
exclusionary, “objective,” principles. And although not
It begs the
question, to use that phrase correctly.
all critics believe the academy is entirely responsible
Our search for a stable institution is not made
(some even believe it offers critical solutions), this
any easier by the general motto of rejection by modern
deepening insularity of the art world has “greased the
and post-modern art against any entity claiming to
slippery slope to irrelevancy,” echoing our earlier
represent an establishment.
recognition of the difficulties the art world faces in
In “Radicalism as Ego
Ideal”, Diedrich Diederichsen terms this a “fetish for
assigning artistic value to emerging work.
radicalism”— its Oedipal complex that critical acclaim
Art criticism’s largest problem has to do with
comes from imitating, and then dethroning the reigning
the fact that money is often times more persuasive than
ideological presumptions of the season. Modernism (in
cohesive critical logic. Benjamin Buchloh succinctly
states that “you don’t need criticism for investment
expressionism, fauvism, cubism, suprematism, futurism,
structure, you need experts.” When he says experts, he
constructivism, and so on) had a certain hand in
means value-arbiters, a role which once belonged to
hatching this splintering of the institution precisely on
these critics and which now has been outsourced to
account of the ironclad assurance with which each of its
gallery owners, collectors, and other “insiders” who
constituents presented their often-oppositional value
define value behind closed doors rather than through
schemes. The result is a self-created lack of institutional
published essays and magazine columns. They assert
cohesion within art. This complex is deeply tied to
(not discern) the “value” of emerging works of art on
modernity’s premise of a linear historical narrative, so
private terms of economy and investment without even
the weathering and eventual exhaustion of this fetish—
the façade of public critical discourse. When the
yesterday’s institution—may indeed be the reason we
investment value of a work of art outstrips its critical-
are now asking ourselves the question of value in the
rhetorical esteem, cultural evaluation becomes wholly
inseparable from the economic architecture underneath
More recently, another dimension of the pesky
it; Chelsea begins to look a lot like Wall Street. Could
value question has become visible in contemporary art
we say that the language of modern value systems is in
criticism. The discipline has been approaching a
“crisis,” one that stems in part from a new generation of
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Yes, except that it’s important to note the arts market operates simultaneously in two different versions
She must market herself to death. Then she will be the most successful artist in the world.
of economic spheres: there’s the high niche market,
This answer unsettles us. On the one hand, a
open to a relatively small circle of billionaires whose
market- and money-based system of value offers little
private collections account for a good portion of the
beyond a barometer of gullibility (“Art is whatever you
works currently cycling through museums around the
can get away with” –Andy Warhol) and the rapacity of
globe; and then there’s the mainstream commercial
capitalism (“ M-C-Mʹ′ ” –Marx). But on the other hand,
market of concert halls, record stores, museum gift
tracing a “tradition” of art does coincide rather
shops, theatres, etc., tailored to middle-class consumers
strikingly to tracing a history of money.
of cultural artifacts that may be highly valued but are, as
In the pre-industrial centuries, tradition evolved
artifacts, too common or reproducible to sell for a very
in units of monarchical generations, progress was slow,
high price. Thus, at each node, value hierarchy is
ostensibly linear, and determined by a very, very narrow
represented differently; the high market operates on
conversation. But as industrialization allowed the
valuation, or an individual work’s price tag, while the
Western world to expand and connect to farther and
farther flung lands, it forced this tradition to fracture
become a tacit indication of the cultural value of that
object or artifact—one that can be used as a point of
reference to which we may compare all other objects in
conventions of artistic evolution received a coup de
grâce of melancholic inspiration during World War I,
So now we’ve reduced what’s “valuable” to
refracting aesthetics taste towards a colorful, if not also
either a) it’s incredibly popular or b) someone bought it
incoherent schizophrenia of style, concept, and form.
for a very large amount of money. Now I can tell my
On the positive side, the development of the last three
student that in order to be a successful artist, she must
centuries finally removed economic patronage (projects
commissioned by an aristocratic family in exchange for
astronomical figures. She must hype her work as much
money and general being-taken-care niceties) from the
as possible while also appearing personally impervious
list of prerequisites for being an artist
to fame and popularity in order to avoid accusations of
Clement Greenberg’s 1939 “Avant-Garde and
egoism. She must either mystify us with her seeming
Kitsch” notes this connection particularly well, in part
insider authority, cast herself as a cult hero to generate
because Greenberg understands the original intention
intrigue and buzz, or, to appeal also to those who aren’t
of the avant-garde as an attempt to subvert precisely this
yet insiders, appear as if she is brilliantly radical,
link between money and “classical” art. The essay
original, and ultramodern. She may even hedge her
pinpoints the arrival of the avant-garde in high-art’s
success by creating alter egos who produce artwork in a
departure from (and confusion of) the socio-economic
multiplicity of styles and media so that, no matter the
ruling class, whose patronage had formerly comprised
season, at least one of them always finds the spotlight.
the lifeblood of high art:
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The avant-garde’s specialization of itself, the fact
commentary of the avant-garde—the art “industry” of
that its best artists are artists’ artists, its best
kitsch served its processed and easily-palatable results.
poets, poets’ poets, has estranged a great many
Except now those being served weren’t so much patrons
of those who were capable formerly of enjoying
as they were consumers.
and appreciating ambitious art and literature,
Greenberg’s charitable but nevertheless critical
but who are now unwilling or unable to acquire
treatment of kitsch argues that the new middle class’s
an initiation into their craft secrets.
Greenberg follows the claim, however, by noting (and
articulated, mere potential for control of art through
not with a little irony) that the avant-garde of his day
buying power—could not serve “to distinguish an
still belongs to this ruling class: no social culture, no
individual’s cultural inclinations, since it was no longer
matter how militantly bohemian, can exist without a
the exclusive concomitant of refined tastes.”3
dependable and stable income. The “ambition” of
Greenberg’s own presentation of art’s relationship to
Greenberg’s avant-garde paradoxically thwarted itself
money (namely, tradition) does not allow for such an
when it threatened its own economic base. Accordingly,
easy dismissal of the artistic value reflected in kitsch.
avant-garde high-art burned itself from both ends, first
While Greenberg may have been correct in identifying
by ostracizing itself from its economic patronage but
the gap between what populous masses are capable of
second through its self-contradictory dependence on the
understanding and the avant-garde’s advancements in
art practice, work that earns the popular vote of the
And of course kitsch, Greenberg’s antithesis to
middle class’s wallet still deserves some kind of
the avant-garde, i.e., whatever brings up the rear of the
consideration as having gained establishment within the
avant-garde’s advance, also exemplifies in the most
tradition. Despite the middle class’s “uninitiated” status
extreme and often vilified way the relationship between
inside the tradition of high art (i.e., historically
unconnected to the aristocratic patronage system where
fragments of high culture, kitsch concerns itself only
style and taste exclusively lived), when the money
with the question, will it sell? At the same time that the
shifted, so did this tradition and whatever system of
avant-garde worked diligently to confuse the historical
value it espoused. And so the taste of the middle class
patrons of the aristocracy, a new patron-base immerged
from 19th/20th-century industrialized nations in the shape of
This isn’t intended to suggest that the tastes of
the middle class suddenly became refined; whether or
individually, the members of this group were less
not a work’s popularity bodes poorly for innovative,
monetarily powerful and less ideologically homogenous
challenging, or even interesting practice is a separate
but, together, they represented an equal-if-not-stronger
buying block. And to this new group of patrons—less
seeks to point out that even the works of a kitsch mogul
familiar with the “tradition” of the old families and thus
such as Thomas Kinkade cannot be dismissed as value-
uneducated in the specialization and complicated
Rather, this line of reasoning
If, for example, Renaissance patronage helps
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explain why Raphael or Titian are masters, then this
dissatisfied with the social order…does [it] begin to
middle class voting ($) block deserves to have a say in
criticize their culture,” concludes Greenberg about the
the artists in which tradition finds value. For the 5% of
American households (primarily middle class, one
Whether or not the work of “masters” belongs
would assume) owning a work by Kinkade, his paintings
to a cohesive and continuous tradition, and whether or
do indeed have value, first and foremost the dollar value
not the tradition corresponds to any real ideal of good
paid by the “collector” via QVC. And the attribution of
or bad art, all “masters” have had one thing in common:
value, monetary or otherwise, establishes the piece
a desire to challenge and a desire to move.
within tradition. But that shouldn’t be worrisome: “all
humblest terms, the litmus test of valuable art becomes:
values,” Greenberg reminds us, “are human values,
is it personally moving? The middle class über-patronge
relative values, in art as well as everywhere else.” If you
of someone like Thomas Kinkade may deserve a serious
didn’t give up reading when this essay asserted the
place in the discussion of late 20th-century art tradition,
relativity of history, this last claim shouldn’t be too
but a reflection of complacency is by definition
much to bear.
The truly worrying extension of this line of
This doesn’t leave us with much to stand on.
thought, however, is not the impossibility of a linear art
History, it seems, is problematic for structuring value
tradition that exclusively purges out those works failing
because it’s based in a hierarchy as relative, pluralistic,
to correspond to some unnamed ideal (invisible
and money-driven as the present. This helps to explain
PERFECT ART in the heavens). The real problem with
why contemporary art criticism has a hard time gaining
a whole-hearted vote from the middle class wallet for a
authority when it isn’t backed by a price tag—or is it the
kitsch artist like Kinkade (named by some as the most
very fact that we presume a connection between the two
successful artist of his generation, his profits were
that destroys the authority? Sell-out is not a friendly
somewhere in the 30 million USD-range) is kitsch’s
word among artists.
utter complacency with the cultural status quo and the
market as a gauge of value isn’t a sign of an artwork’s
perpetuation of such complacency by the monetary
thorough whoring, trust in a comparison of nominal
values leaves us to praise the Kinkade who can hang a
Greenberg’s statement holds true—that artwork gains
light-effusing cabin in every living room in America.
attention when the reality it generates corresponds most
Even then it’s hard to say whether that value is real and
closely to the reality recognized by the audience—then
pertinent, or if it’s just another arbitrary substitute
the value (monetary, popularity, otherwise) of a Kinkade
necessitated by the economic infrastructure of society.
reflects a generally satisfied reality, that of the economic
Value is an elusive concept.
And even if the reliance on the
security idealized by the middle class. This tendency
So what would the correct value structure look
realizes the biggest fear of those crabby intellectuals
like? returning to my poor freshman in “Intro”. That
discussed above: it encourages and protects an art that
society has such trouble reliably delineating value leads
utterly lacks a critical element. “Only when [it] becomes
to one final question; what is the role of our own
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personal value systems in evaluating art, and how does that relate to these? It’s here where I must conclude that my former painting professor may have actually had the most sensible contribution to this conversation after all. Perhaps, by valuing whatever we want, we are creating the most organic vision of value possible, one that
McCarthy, Kevin F., Elizabeth H. Ondaatje, Arthur Brooks, and András Szántó. "A Portrait of the Visual Arts: Meeting the Challenges of a New Era." Rand.org. RAND Corporation, 2005. Web. 26 Sept. 2012. Summary xv.
parallels another development within the art world indicated in recent studies: the increased importance of niche
communities to patronage roles. For a discipline that
Greenberg, Clement. "Avant-garde Partisan Review 6.5 (1939): 34-49.
has found its richest, deepest rewards in a medium that transcends verbal logic, perhaps it’s appropriate, and maybe even beautiful, that the answer isn’t so simple. •r•b•
Greenberg actually applies this quote to literacy, but uses the example as a direct analogue to kitsch sensibilities. This would suggest (problematically) that, at one time, such access indeed was concomitant of fine tastes—a claim that becomes difficult to accept at face value in light of this essay’s position.
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I'm stranded in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, praying that Depot Auto Service down the road just happens to have a belt for a 2007 Scion sitting on their shelf so I can drive back to South Bend in time to be on call tomorrow night. But because I'm taking a class on Hinduism right now, I'm wise enough to figure that witnessing a Packer victory at Lambeau field today used up all of my available karma and I'm screwed. More frustrating at the moment is that I can't connect my sister's laptop to the shitty wifi at the Sheboygan La Quinta, so my Peace Corps application is three hours late and counting.
rough beast | 70
Leah Com ing lives and works at the Peter Claver Catholic Worker in South Bend, Indiana. Reggie H enke lives near a basketball court in Austin, Texas. He makes rugs out of cowhide. Joey H oran lives in Austin, Texas, also near a basketball court. He works for a study abroad company and as a delivery driver for Java Noodles. N ick Gunty lives in Charleston, IL, where he pursues a graduate degree in studio arts in new media. H ilary Rasch is an AmeriCorps member at the non-profit College Forward in Houston, Texas. Thom as Rowell currently lives in St. Louis, Sénégal where he studies traditional African dance and builds masks with a local sculptor and bicycle repairman. W illiam Stewart lives in Berlin, Germany. He is studying for a Master’s in German Philology. Dain W illiam s lives in Cleveland, Ohio. He washes beer glasses at a bar, does marketing for a cultural center, and draws pictures on the side. Jane W agem an lives in South Bend, Indiana where she student-teaches high school English and works on her creative writing thesis. Joe W egener lives in South Bend, Indiana. He studies English and works at Waddick's Café.
rough beast | 72
Why? Why life so short and thin? Why the pain? Why the circles of young and old and…the damn shortness?! Why so little time to wake up and stretch and breathe? Well, because: honey bees. Did you know that a single tablespoon’s worth of honey is the life’s work of twelve honey bees? And so it goes. We’re all just bees buzzing our hearts out to make something, be something in this little hive of world. And we do. Little by little. Mystery. Whispers. Hums. Golden lights. Twelve bees.
a journal of new fiction and non-fiction, some photographs, and a handfull of poems. winter 2013 [ non-existence ]
leah coming reggie henke joey horan nicholas gunty hilary rasch
thomas rowell william stewart jane wageman joe wegener dain williams
R O U G H
Rough Beast Magazine, Winter 2013, [ non-existence ]