Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Clock

Here is a film comprised of hundreds, maybe thousands, of other films; a 24 hour loop montage of snippets showing the exact time you are watching it. For movie buffs it is a rare treat watching a brilliantly edited flow of clips from archival footage to current movie fare.

I couldn’t help imagining Christian Marclay going through an enormous library of movies watching intensely for clocks and watches; some were foreground, others flashed by as background barely incidental to the story. The genius of The Clock is the way those scenes are de-contextualized as the timepieces become prominent in the flow of his film. The effect is cumulative and mesmerizing as if all movies are one elongated movie and life itself an infinite reel held together by time.

With time as the subject and by extension, mortality, an unrelenting tension is built up and sustained. We watched a little less than two hours; some friends stayed for six hours and never tired of it.

I came away with my brain a little scrambled and that’s not a bad thing. It’s better than hard-boiled. Most scenes seemed to be under fifteen seconds; some as long as a minute. Somehow the brevity fit the sound bites we’ve grown accustomed to. It felt like a Rauschenberg collage at best or channel surfing at worst. The art was in the way one’s perception is both sharpened and made to accommodate the juxtapositions.
Paradoxically, though the scenes are sequenced and punctuated by the clock there is no beginning or end since the images are shown as a cycle.

The editing was such that a door opens in one movie and a person in another one walks through. In a few instances Marclay returned us again and again to the same film as when a French schoolchild keeps looking at the clock until he is finally called upon and the bell rings.

We see Roy Hobbs in The Natural smash the clock with his home run, Jack Nicholson, as Schmidt, watch the clock strike 5 and walk away into retirement and blind Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark feel the hands of the clock.

There are many scenes at railway stations, alarm clocks and war movies synchronizing watches. Time carries pressure with it. It detonates bombs. It flies and stops for no man. It hangs heavy. We waste it, we kill it and finally it kills us.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Words Fail Me

Of course words always fail because they are words merely. How can I bring the taste of malted milk to the page? I can tell you how Judy R. drove the four of us over twenty miles to a coffee shop which fell to earth north of Franklin on Beachwood Drive in middle of a residential section in the old Hollywood Hills. How we each communed with our forbidden spoon-thick malts. How we were transported back to some childhood moment sitting on a soda fountain stool or maybe our tongue recalled the anticipation of the powder in a Horlick’s jar. If you’ve never been there the malt-flavored barley cannot be imagined.

Words can only circle the wagon firing metaphors. On a poet or writer’s good days the best words in the best order describe or even evoke but they are ultimately incapable of embodying the essence of anything. This is why every poem fails. But what a sweet smell failure has; perhaps better than success. As Robert Louis Stevenson put it, Our purpose in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in the best of spirits.

Bad fiction reeks of completion. It has the odor of wrapped-up characters and resolved situations. Disbelief is rescued from the edge. Simple folk go where you expected them to and complex ones fall off a cliff. Pages are turned, myths reinforced and we sleep well, unpeturbed.

In the past fifty years discerning readers have become a bit more demanding. To be called literature, it must allow for the question about its essence to remain open and the intuition about its whole to be uncertain, as Albert Manguel said. Failure then, as writers understand it, is not just the only possible outcome …., but its goal, its supreme achievement. Distinguishing between the classical narrative, in which the hero reaches his objective like Jason winning the Golden Fleece and the modern one, in which K never reaches the castle.

Words on a page insist on participation by the reader. As Whitman said, Great poetry requires great audiences. The more space in the text with gestures, ambiguities and fits & starts here and there urges the reader in. In a packed movie house there are hundreds of movies being seen; each person coming away with a slightly different experience. I consider a poetry reading successful when I am drawn in sufficiently to ignite my own poems.

Manguel said, The very fact of not attaining the desired objective, of the adventure remaining apparently unfinished, is not a weakness of the author’s imagination but, on the contrary, its strength and purpose… When poets come close to reaching their imagined goal, then articulation of what that ideal form is must fail, and memory of what it was must falter. Every work of art or literature offers an always-receding horizon of comprehension, which allows us to call it great, is in this sense incomplete.

It doesn’t bring us any closer to the tactile, olfactory and tasteful experience of a malted milk to know that it is the addition of soaked and toasted barley to a frothy saccharine lacteal secretion of a graminivorous quadruped.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


This past weekend my daughter, Shari, found her partner-for-life in Jim. There is nothing so wondrous as the intersection of two people. Tarzan meets Jane in this jungle. Given all the contingencies, the swerves, detours, pot-holes and off-ramps of intersecting paths the marriage of true minds is a miraculous event. Shakespeare said to admit no impediments. But they will come summoned or not and how they are met will be a measure of the union

The ceremony took place in the garden of the Columbia Gorge (short for gorgeous) Hotel against a backdrop of waterfall, boulders and river in a forest of evergreen. Their joining seems to me like the wedding of everything; water and dry land, families and friends, and even a coming together within each of us.

In a broad sense a marriage is a reconciliation between faith and doubt, the forces that push us outward and those that turn us inward, all the conflicting elements that make us whole. Finding a kindred soul is a willingness to yield and make room for the other with an intuitive knowing that you will be nurtured even as you extend yourself in new ways. It’s a trust in the unknown; that it will be made safe, the harboring in as well as the voyaging out.

Particularly in these times with public life polarized and wide chasms driven between people marriage as a binding force is so welcomed. When minds close around a belief system so do hearts. A certain heated vocabulary with daggers embedded generally goes with it. Enter a ceremony of love to open the petals in our greenhouse and urge tendrils across walls.

Peggy and I found a beautiful human connection with Jim’s parents though we were told they hold opposing political views. They drove five days from Buffalo. He has his road map on the table planning his return trip. Our conversation navigates the blue highways avoiding certain heavily traveled roads. Over four days we had what can be seen as our own wedding of hearts and minds with them completing the marriage weekend.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Back Then

…we took it slow. Trolley car, transfer
and three subways ending with the GG local
got me to the double-header for a nickel
where I planned my life between pitches
but it slipped away in extra innings.
Beat me daddy, eight to the bar,
wasn’t about child abuse as I first thought.
One of us was always a slow-poke
so we came in anytime and caught up
to what we already knew.
It was all wallpaper anyway; the double feature,
cartoon, Sing-a-Long and March of Dimes collection.
Bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover, just you wait and see.
The Audubon bird on the wall barely moved.
Tea steeped, oatmeal simmered while they tried
to run a mile in under four minutes. Please rise for our
Happy little wash-day song. Oxydol’s own, Ma Perkins.
In September grandpa said he’d best fetch some wood for the stove.
What with his lumbago and all, he brought the wood
up from the cellar by late November.
The robber asked Benny, Your money or your Life?,
(Magazine just arrived with last week’s news),
and we got 10 seconds of silence while he thought it over.
Everything in Fibber McGee’s hall closet tumbled,
Chamberlain bumbled, Europe crumbled. Just wait
ten years for the $18.75 war bond to mature to $25.
We learned about haste making waste and waste not
to prevent famine in China.
Not so fast, Buster, come out with your hands up.
Crime-fighters on every station warned us it didn’t pay
considering the long stretch up the river or worse, The Chair.
We waited for the bus, for Johnny to come marching home.
The troop ship inched its way home.
Soles and heels, You come back next Thursday, he said,
with nails in his mouth, glue on his breath.
Where you running, Sammy?
Only The Shadow knew and maybe The Answer Man.
The second-hand clock made its rounds.
The fast lane wasn’t open yet. Memory Lane is a slow stroll.
Is it our eyes that still had wonder in them
or the slo-mo in looking back?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

News As Theater

Whether it’s the shenanigans in Washington or the drama unfolding with my beloved Dodgers, the stories read more and more like theatre of the absurd. Much of the sports section as well as the national news could easily be moved to the Entertainment pages.

The participants are players in every sense. Insiders in the Capital know the game and play it for keeps. Athletes play their sport as if it really matters but, consciously or not, they are players re-enacting again and again an ancient ritual sublimating their aggression for us. Without them we might have even more wars. At least they leave it on the field.

In both cases there seems to be a tacit acceptance of an agreed-upon lie. In the political realm we are meant to assume that the two parties answer to polar opposite constituencies. In fact both are funded largely by corporate America and as such are committed to no systemic changes. From FDR to Obama, with all stops in between, the script calls for the preservation of our system and expansion of power. The dance between the actors seems at times comic and other times tragic and it keeps cable stations humming. But greed and muscle prevail over the general welfare with just enough spillover to keep the lid on the working poor and unemployed.

The spectrum has moved so far to the right that the paleo-conservatives have ceded their place to a screaming horde of evangelical / racist / anarchists while the Democrats are indistinguishable from Richard Nixon in his foreign adventures and domestic social programs.

The current debate over raising the debt ceiling feels like a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta or Shakespearean comedy. Nothing receives much ado. What loomed large and unsolvable in the first act disappears in the next act. Deceit, bluster and buffoonery carry the day.

The Supreme Court, bending interpretation as they do, bears a strong resemblance to the judge in Trial By Jury. When our president correctly called for a removal of troops from Afghanistan I couldn’t help think of the song in The Gondoliers:

In enterprise of martial kind
when there was any fighting
he led his regiment from behind
he found it less exciting
but when, away, his regiment ran
his place was in the fore, O
that celebrated, cultivated, underrated nobleman
the Duke of Plaza-Toro

The cast and scenario of the day’s headlines make our own imagination seem impoverished. Who could have imagined the demise of the Dodgers, over a marital squabble? Bankruptcy with seven homes? An empty stadium?

The actual far exceeds the fiction of our most fertile minds. Rush Limbaugh is a comic book character in appearance and deed along with Joe the Plumber. Spitzer and Weiner (who fumbled their balls on the one-yard line), Barry Bonds (he of the enlarged head), Clarence Thomas (who carries Scalia’s briefcase), Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman (dangerous fools), and Rupert (with his feral foxes) are all larger than life and more laughable than anything Dickens might have penned. Is there a novelist who could have conjured the scenario of a Court appointed George W. Bush followed by 9-11? The emergence of Barack Obama seems like a reject from Frank Capra. Is there a better paradigm for the avarice of Capitalism and the pyramidal structure of Wall St. than Bernie Madoff?

This is a line-up beyond any casting director’s wildest dream; a satire that writes itself. A tragedy of an empire’s decline and fall. Add a score and we’ve got a musical with an unlimited run. We are both in the chorus and watching from sixth row center.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


The beep from the garbage truck roused me
out of the trash bin in Reseda. They’d taken everything;
fake I.D., decoder watch, quarters
for laundering cash; even my sense of direction.
All I had was a note saying to be on the 12:08
out of Bucharest.
They call me Otto, spelled backwards.
I'm listed in the Yellow Pages under Double Agents.
Don’t turn around; that man behind the newspaper
may or may not be one of us.
Eagles have stopped landing. The jigs up,
hands down. I’m reading the sky-writing on the wall
Everything I forgot to forget may be held against me.
I moled in so deep into the enemy
I’ve been following myself for 11 years.
Listen to me; you’re not listening.
WW II radios buried in parachutes
are throbbing with underground static,
liberating colonies of ants.
I’m fluent in subtitles which disappear
into sheets, snow and tablecloths.
I’ve been rotated and photo-shopped
so often my face is perfect for radio.
I'm that hill of beans already spilled.
My plastic is maxed, I-phone tapped,
passwords hacked, GPS tracked
and my facts have been Wiki-leaked;
only my fiction is true.
I’m hanging by my thumb drive;
an open and closed case sensitive.
They’ve cleaned my cookies
in an undisclosed location,
Now I’m no longer important to you,
just one of the high-call volume
you are experiencing away from your desk.
I've outed myself under the big light, confessed
that I hate feta cheese and dumped Humpty.
I’m too old to die young.
When the heat’s off I’ll come in from the cold.
The agency told me to meet them on the 405
this weekend under the Mulholland Bridge.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

He Ain't Other, He's My Brother

Otherness has been with us since the first of our species stepped outside the fire circle or was banished. What greater punishment than exile! Happiness was thinking, eating, living inside the box or tent. It conferred the security that conformity offers. Survival was iffy enough. Any dissent or deviation threatened the coherence of the tribe.

When squabbles broke out imagine learning alien rituals and grunts as one people wiped out another. Woe was the lot for the few survivors who became slaves or got dumped on for their otherness. In this respect little has changed.

Today we are witness to great population shifts; former colonies emigrating to their colonizers, ancient religions persecuted for their refusal to give it up, indigenous people wanting a piece of the rock. The dominant group always has a ready other to account for all their ills; the old story seems to still have resonance. Poor whites in the South vent their discontent on even poorer Blacks, incited by the landowners. Europeans always had Jews to blame, the English had their Irish, even some light-skin Blacks look down on darker skins.

As if skin color or apparel weren’t sufficient signifiers to proclaim the man, we’ve developed other means to sniff out who is not one of us. This one is too short or too tall; that one has a lisp or stutters. My deaf daughter has been shunned in her deaf community because she dared to learn how to lip-read and speak.

Tribalism lives in spite of our unique place among nations having been founded as a land of immigrants. Doors close in hard times especially when demagogues engender fear.

Identifying who they aren’t helps some people define who they are. Religions divide and then sub-divide us and do it so well I wonder if that is its only function. We spend a lifetime looking for identity as if it is inherited and immutable rather than a work-in-progress subject to free-will. What we call identity is largely an illusion; an easy and lazy label whose terms we may not have re-visited for a long time. How we live our days, within and without, eludes naming.

We speak of our first Black President ignoring the fact that he is half Caucasian and raised and educated as such. Unlike most African-Americans he has no roots in slavery. Yet many have relegated him to outsider status when we say he’s not one of us.

Bring a third person into a two-some and the dynamic is changed. Maybe exclusivity is hard-wired or maybe it isn’t. Even as tribalism hangs on as a vestige of ancient times we are also in the midst of universalism. The International Space Station brought together 16 nations. Europe is erasing its borders with a common currency. There is no other when we confront global warming.

Artists live in another precinct outside the circle. They need the space apart, as oxygen to breathe. They need the distance to see and hear what we may not, so that eventually the unseen is revealed to all of us.

In his book, Memoir of an Anti-Semite, Gregor von Rezzori traces the slow, nearly imperceptible and seemingly benign acceptance of anti-Semitic untruths. The inaction of one individual after another, in the face of monstrous lies, gets multiplied into the horrific acts of the Holocaust. The offenders are victims as well; they survive with damaged psyches and unlived lives, cut off from their fellow men.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Domestic Terrorism

Al Qaeda could learn something from the Republican Party: how to hold a country hostage. To the extent that the 9-11 terrorists failed to bring down our institutions, the far right seems intent to finish the job. It smells like subversion to me. Is their goal not to de-fund the government and shut it down? Any utterance of that obscene word, “taxes” warrants duct tape over one’s mouth. Over 200Congressmen have signed the blood oath.

Tea Party Libertarians led by Bachman and Palin, Tweedledum and Tweedledummer, are marching the country down the sinkhole. If Michelle Bachman gets on the Republican ticket a village in Minnesota will be missing an idiot.

The Democrats have almost given away the keys to the store. As David Brooks put it, “The Republicans already have the deal of the century.”…..and yet it isn’t enough. There is no enough until the clock is re-set to 1880. Welcome to the Gilded Age.

They have set the agenda or as we now say, the narrative. Even though polls show that job creation is the number one concern of Americans, this mindless minority of corporate puppets have created a scenario in which long-term deficit reduction takes precedent. The best prescription is just the opposite: a massive investment in infrastructure projects.The country would be better served if the Liberal media would get off Obama’s back and re-write an alternative narrative instead; one which reveals how our fiscal woes are a function of the Bush era abuses and can be reversed with public/private infusion of capital.

Strange how Conservatives didn’t give a hoot during the Dubya years when they ran up the numbers with un-funded wars, unregulated banks and unconscionable tax breaks for their clients.

If they succeed we shall be witness to a coup d’etat. Osama bin Laden’s work will have been done. Our credit will dry up, seniors and the disabled will be left to fend for themselves and interest rates and inflation will soar. Let it be.

My wish is for Obama to hold fast and let them play out their doomsday script. It would be a lesson in the essential role of government. Our president, whose instincts compel him toward reconciliation, needs to see that his opposition is all bluster and bloated rhetoric. When the Republicans bring their heavyweights into the ring Obama must not enter as a referee.

This is one of those teachable moments he talks about. In the poker game of Washington he must call their bluff, save Medicare and Social Security and insist on meaningful tax reform along with some budget trimming measures already in place. The surest way out of the deficit is the restoration of the economy. It is good politics, good governance and good sense.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Old Letters New

I’m going to sit right down and write myself a letter
And make believe it came from you.

Remember those years before junk mail when there were two, even three, mail deliveries a day and every envelope was a belle lettre. No, I don’t either.

Novels were often epistolary. Epistles, everywhere, entre-nous. Ordinary people actually set aside some time to sit down at their desk and find the precise word to convey their feelings. The effort, alone, was valued as much as the content. Henry James is said to have had a thousand correspondents. It seems like Abigail and John Adams wrote to each other more than they spoke. Perhaps in a previous incarnation I was a scrivener, like Bartleby. Unlike him I preferred my lot. I dreamed only of quill and vellum and writing all the letters in a big round hand… I copied all those letters in a hand so free that now I am the ruler of the Queen’s navee.

Before mail was solicitations and ads I remember the joy of opening V-mail from my uncle during WWII or scrawled notes from friends away at summer camp written on yellow paper; even picture post cards could be keepers.

Hallmark-type cards may be the last of such. I do cherish those occasional cards I get from my daughters which always contain heart-felt sentiment to which I can only aspire. Peggy and I exchange poems on birthdays, anniversary and Valentine day but these are hand-delivered over white tablecloth and candle.

There is something about a letter…..the physicality of the ink and paper, the stamp, the care of penmanship and composition from salutation to complimentary signing off. It all lends itself to a level of formalism and civility. Up until recently it could be said that we have two languages; spoken and written. The penned letter embodied those times just as its absence signifies ours.

About 40 years ago I lost, my hand-writing….literally. The small muscles in my right hand went amok and I require my left one to hold down my right. I then went to electric typewriter, to word processor to computer. The world will have to go on without my scroll which looks like I’m breaking in a new pen .

New technology always displaces the old or renders it into an art form. Nowadays a simple hand-written Thank You note takes on greater meaning than ever before. Why doesn’t email suffice, I hear you say? Because it is too easy, too quickly dashed off and is lacking our special signature.

E-mail has devolved the written word into memo and rants, chain nonsense (which, if not passed along will bring warts and locusts), jokes that refuse to die, cautions of hazard in your pantry, and a repository of mendacious and scurrilous attacks. Of course with Twitter, texting and Facebook, E-mail has been consigned to old folks who have no need to announce to a thousand close friends they've never met what they ate for breakfast. If the old fashioned letter was a form of intimacy, the new social networking is more of a shout.

We can re-claim it by weighing our words a bit more and dialing down the rhetoric.There is still a place for deliberative, personal expression, even as the literary voice is being replaced by the conservational. As a society we don’t suffer pretence gladly. But civil discourse is no less authentic than street language which can either degrade our mother tongue or enrich it.

As a final note I was thinking about those pink, high-bounce balls we called Spaldings the other day when what should appear at my front door but a small, near-weightless box, courtesy of my daughter, Lauren. Yes, she sent me a Spalding. Now if I only had a wall…….something Robert Frost said there is, that isn’t loved. It occurs to me that when I was smashing my ball against the ledge it was like writing a letter, waiting for the return, hoping for an unexpected reply that had me stretching beyond myself.