Thursday, June 29, 2017

Death and Rebirth

Everyone’s talking about death and dying these days. Well maybe not everybody but there’s Frank, our Greek drama teacher, in a discussion about Euripides’ revenge play, Hekabe.  And my friend, Fred, in our phone conversation about.. I forget what. And, of course, when I think of Mitch Mc…and his lot it feels like a death of the soul. And then there’s our book group reading Lincoln in the Bardo set in a cemetery. At this age I suppose mortality is never far from one’s mind. In the meantime the banana in the fruit bowl moves toward a speckled blackness and rot.

Add to this the inexhaustible supply of murder mysteries from Netflix. Every time I see a victim I think of the poor soul who got his/her start in theater as a walk-on dead body. How do they manage to stay still during those fake autopsies… with a tag on their big toe? I’m imagining a lot of giggles after the final take.

In the introduction to her translation of the Greek play Anne Carson references Beckett who regards the great human tragedy as having been born in the first place, astride the grave. As long as we’re all doomed we might as well make the best of it so have a piece of fruit. Rousseau said something about the most miserable people are not those who have endured the most pain but those who experience the least pleasure.

The latest David Grossman novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar, is nearly 200 pages of a stand-up comedian’s monologue described by one reviewer as a meeting of Lenny Bruce and Franz Kafka. On top of that the guy is emotionally naked. To identify with him is to attend one’s funeral. Peggy and I are reading it aloud. Tough going. He has us in his brilliant clutches and we're squirming.

Life is cyclic. Consider the vibrancy of the new counter-culture if one is willing to allow that this oligarchy/monarchy of Donald the First is a culture at all. The seeds of coming attractions make their way into the moribund body politic.

Think of Arts, Science and geo-politics as one organism, a single stretched membrane. Touch it at any point and the whole web trembles. A medical breakthrough which enhances well-being is no less important than some draconian measure in Trumpdom to destroy it. The charged words of a poet can cause fingers on keyboards around the world to pause and suddenly see the world from a new angle.

So let me end this litany of morbidity with some words by Theodore Roethke whose greenhouse poetry traces his childhood experience in the family nursery.

The urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks / Cut stems struggling to put down feet / What saint strained so much / Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?

Roethke’s potent lines could describe our country today rising against the Republican miasma. In the poet’s language it is a place of scum, dank with malevolent forces in a congress of stinks. Yet also fecund as it lays down rhizomes and roots from out of the mulch and slime.     

If we look hard we can see a new radicalism; not necessarily on the horizontal political spectrum but down in the vertical, reclaiming the old meaning of radical as root, the way one acts out of his core values rather than some old slogans and prescribed behavior. It may find resonance with an unarticulated sound aligned with our bones. Or it may involve wonderment as if seeing things for the first time.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

My Trump Moment

The fall of 1946 would be my last term in elementary school. I had spent nine years at P.S. 99. There was no middle school. We thirteen-year-olds were in the same building as those five-year-olds. I can still smell wood shavings from pencil sharpeners and chalk dust, metal stairs with saw dust where someone got sick and the tiny chairs where kindergarten kids wet their pants. I can see the ink wells and white paste and those long hooks which opened the high windows.

I look upon it now with affection but in Sept. of that year I was somewhere between a street urchin and man-child. It was my time to rebel. A moment of iconoclasm. A group of us decided to overthrow the order. Too many rules, like bricks upon bricks. The march to assembly. The words to be delivered. The ceremony. There was a sense of expectation to follow tradition which must have felt oppressive. Graduation was at hand and we were to elect our class president to preside and speechify.

My group of rebels nominated Robert Haimowitz in defiance. Something had gone awry with Robert’s double helix. There were no words for it then. He was a smiley young man, probably three or four years older than the rest of us. I say this because he was the only one among us who shaved. His was a benign retardation, unlike today’s elected winner. It was a cruel act on our part. I can’t recall if Robert was elected but our mischief was resoundingly denounced and nullified by Henrietta Oliver, the principal. Where are you now, Ms. Oliver?

That was my Donald Trump moment. I was part of the mindless mob; maybe even a ring-leader with a need to topple the establishment, to bring down Dick and Jane. I was mad as hell and I wasn’t going to take it anymore. Mad? At what? There was a big world out there and I was lost, ill-equipped. Robert Haimowitz was a short-hand for, anything but business as usual. He was our message of repudiation to the adult world.

Much has been written about Donald’s constituency from scathing condescension to puzzlement. Are they misogynists? Gullible? Legitimately aggrieved?  Can their grievances be addressed and remedied? It has been suggested by Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of Atlantic, that their loathing of the opposition renders them impervious to any of Trumps malice. We are dealing with a far more dangerous version of Robert Haimowitz. The divide is so great it may not be bridgeable by rational thought.

And yet……….put us and them in a room and we can agree on more than Mom and apple pie. I, too, enjoy church choirs…as long as I don’t understand the words. I even had a water pistol once. Shucks, we might both like Kentucky Fried chicken and listen to John Prine songs. Maybe student debt is what they deserve and it’s good losing healthcare. I’m willing to hear the argument. I’m even open to knowing how voter-suppression and gerrymandering is good for democracy. I could learn to love Friday night football if they could learn to handle wind farms and build solar panels. We may even have smelled the same smells in P.S. 99 and been party to the attempted coup of 1946.  Some of us got over it.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Existential Baseball

Fred and I have lived 170 years between us. Ample time to put aside childish things like baseball. The hope is we never will. 1941 was our first year of immersion into that arcane realm. He had recently arrived from Nazi Germany. The game was his entre into American life and its idioms. He lived in the Bronx and was therefore a Yankee fan. I had Dodger Blue in my bloodstream. It was also a watershed year for baseball. Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio achieved heights that summer which have never been approached ever since.

I hear you sneer. Don’t go away. This could get interesting … though I make no guarantees.

This season both our teams have young ballplayers (Bellinger and Judge) who have captured our attention. Here is an email conversation between us which demonstrates how sports can be a metaphor for life itself…..though if this were about NASCAR racing or bowling I’d have stopped reading by now.

Me- Both our guys are phenomenal. I see Williams and DiMag.

Fred- They’re good but it’s waaaaaaay too early to call them phenoms.

Me- If we die tomorrow we’ll always remember then both as phenoms.

Fred- If we die tomorrow we’ll miss our lunch date.

Me- We can die after lunch.

Fred- I don’t know. I hate dying on a full stomach.

Me- It’s OK to die on a full stomach as long as we don’t go swimming.

Baseball makes my case for a parallel universe. In this new Dark Age of Trumpdom one needs an alternative reality. Why else would I sleep better when Cody Bellinger hits a game-winning home run? All’s right with the world. Not here, but there.

We desperately need our phenomenal individuals. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio / Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Phenoms in sports suggest how it is possible to go beyond the givens.

Beckett was waiting for Godot. We can no longer wait. I’ll take my heroes where I find them to lift me out of the morass. If we can’t change the world at least we can make changes in the country of our imagination. That prepares me for an idealized place. When Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947 it confirmed my sense of social justice. When the team followed me to L.A. I felt the hand of Providence intervening. Yet I also had to reconcile the move with the displacement of many families in Chavez Ravine. The imaginative mind lives with contradictions.

Not every inside-baseball conversation reaches an existential level. I expect my five or six baseball friends have assigned the game to a corner in their brains to revisit lost youth or for its geometric and statistical elegance in the midst of life’s incoherence.

Dear Zeus – There is no joy here in Mudville. Enough malicious mischief please. Can you spare one of your famous bolts to wake us? Thanks for sending these two home run heroes but we ask you to lift this curse and return us to the Golden Age before the innings end us.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Year of Infamy

There are midnight lamps burning in the Hollywood Hills. Likewise in Greenwich Village, Park Slope in Brooklyn and ateliers throughout Europe. Screenplays are being written, epic poems, thousand page novels and operas. Act one was a poisoned populist campaign. Followed by the ludicrous loser-takes-all election. Now this incipient dictatorship with the silent chorus of duct-taped senators.

Bring in the Founding Fathers from Hip-Hop Hamilton. Let Burr duel this trumped-up version of Richard the Third slash Citizen Kane slash Strangelove slash Don Corleone. Let the noblest of minds teach the ignoble one. Just as Washington created the office of presidency and invested it with dignity so has the current occupant besmirched it with self-aggrandizement. Remind Donald that George gained his power by his readiness to give it up, as Garry Wills put it.

Get me de Niro fresh from doing Madoff. Or can we get Trump to play Trump? No one impersonates Trump like Trump. Who will play Comey? Jimmy Stewart gulp, gulp. He’s got the height; he’s got the creds.

Take two: Or is this a Frank Capra zany mad-cap romp we are living? Is he part con-man Chico part Groucho as Rufus T. Firefly. Hooray for Captain Donald, the Washington Exploder. It has the pace, quick cuts and improbables. Give us an aria from Margaret Dumont.

Or should we wake Gilbert to consort for one last encore with Sullivan? Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Else, is in the White House. We need to re-write the very model of a modern major calamity who rules with a paucity of civility and a capacity for rapacity, given to pugnacity and duplicity.

Get Mary Shelley on line two. Was it a dark and stormy night when Trumpinstein rose from the slate of candidates to roam the countryside with slurs and smears, barbs and blurts, malice and mendacity?

The great experiment in Democracy has yielded to this dreadful chapter of tyranny. Have we really chosen monarchy? A man who soars in his tower and promises to dribble crumbs and coins for the needy. Who fouls the air, says no to Arts and Science, tells the poor, Go play golf, tells the sick, Get a grip.

Trump then struts singing, Anything Vlad did bad I can do badder. I can do anything badder than Vlad.

The curtain stays up. Every morning another regal decree tweets beyond even the Bard’s tragic villainies. And all this time, stage right, the chorus of senators remains in loud silence.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Order and Disorder

We live in an avalanche of information, disinformation, opinion, alternative facts and spin which has created a chaos of the brain. They call it Breaking News because it has fractured this country into coastal America of diversity, compassion and culture against flyover America, punitive, pious and militia minded. Athens and Sparta.

Artists make order out of chaos, as the cliché goes or at least the illusion of order. And that includes poets. You’d never know it based on some of the conceptual and quite confounding work hanging in galleries and between the covers of poetry books such as John Ashbery’s. It gives us pause but worth the effort.

The task of wrestling the disarray of life into a coherent canvas or page demands that the painter/writer plunge into the disorder first. As Stanley Kunitz, poet and essayist, put it, Order is greatest which holds in suspension the most disorder, holds it in such precarious balance that each instant threatens its overthrow.

If the poet, for instance, stays within the conventions handed down, he/she risks the integrity of her art for a wider audience. Of course creators want to be accessible but only after some effort is made by the reader to get at least a glimpse of something new, a shift in perception or a consideration of Language itself as a construct. So, what’s it about? Language poetry may not be ABOUT anything……except to call attention to the way words are freighted and often used to obscure truth or reinforce mediocrity and conventional values of commodification.

As Cubists abandoned the single POV so were scientists regarding space / time as Einstein did with the observed and observer in motion. A leap into the unknown which took decades to find a general audience. Each age heralds its new ways of seeing and hearing. Not necessarily with a clarion call but possibly a discord of trumpets.

When confronted with a poem that makes us squirm, that doesn’t compute in familiar ways, we ought to welcome it presuming the lines are more than wallpaper. It could be a serious poet stumbling home from a journey inside the watermelon, his own found-wilderness in the recesses of Imagination. Maybe it isn’t really red in there until exposed to air or maybe it’s a red sky with pits as black holes. The news of her universe may carry a touch of folly within the order, Dionysus and Apollo in a ferocious tango.         

The idea of order is not fixed. Kunitz again, Consider how lunatic the flow of traffic would seem to our ancestors. We can handle just a small measure of chaos. Then we reorganize the muddle and make of it a kind of order. Same with art. Yesterday’s blur is today’s garden at Giverny.

Sometimes the painter or poet brings to life, not so much a product as his process, the angst, erasures and vacillations. Everything is a work in progress. It’s as if the reader or viewer is being asked to enter the labor and experience the birth.

In these days of Trumpdom, there is a movement to smooth our rough edges, to ethnically cleanse our demography, to dumb-down and reject the urbane in favor of a simplistic model of an America long gone; a picture to hang over the couch which matches the throw pillows.

A case could be made that the Arts are to be defunded because artists are regarded as both unnecessary and faintly subversive. They are our advance eyes. They see around corners and speak a truth the Deplorables are deaf to.

Peggy’s poetry creates an order in which disparate images are joined with threads of connective tissue. As the world dissolves in rude pollution…an email of tigers painted in half-light at ease among the stones….men labor, swallowed in the clutch of mines, night and day reversed….the bliss of song, strummed guitars no longer blue…lifting shadows, possession, as bright wings flash their temporary blaze.

If the sort of order created in words or paint is not easily decipherable that’s because we are not yet fluent in their terms. Our senses are slow to move; too comfortable in rhyme and reason. Poetry gave it up long ago. The world of unreason is a Wonderland full of delights as Alice discovered.  

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Done and Not Done

I‘m at the age now when I can safely say there are certain experiences I shall never have. Included among these are sky diving, leaping high enough to slam dunk and spending time in a shark tank at an aquarium. 

All are life-altering adventures I’m sure I can happily live without. I don’t regret being deprived of having lunch with a suicide bomber or knowing the thrill of severe tire damage but I wouldn’t mind having a pie thrown in my face. Almost any but coconut would be fine; lemon meringue would be my preference. Make a note of that.

I have never carved my initials in a tree. I don’t suppose trees enjoy being carved. Someday I might be part of one. About 30 years ago Peggy and I traveled to the Cascine Woods outside of Florence. We were told that Percy Shelley wrote Ode to the West Wind in these woods and carved his name and date on one of them. We couldn’t find evidence of that but we did leave our camera on the rear seat of the bus when we were left off. Fortunately two stops later was the end of the line and the bus turned around and came back. We reclaimed it so the day was a sort of success in the way wins and losses in life are recorded.

Among the things I have accomplished which not everyone can claim is climbing 366 steps of a narrow, steep spiral staircase in the Belfry of Bruges to reach the bell tower. And then there’s the coming down. When I think of those close walls I get claustrophobic. When I think of why I did it my mind goes blank.   

I also never caught a foul ball watching a Dodger game. Of course, it’s even harder from the couch at home with my hands holding a sandwich.

I never did any white-water rafting unless you count the Popsicle sticks I launched down the gutter into a sewer. I did climb trees and have no memory of getting down but I suppose I did.

I did pick the wrong man in a police line-up. I think he was the desk sergeant. The bad guy who had shoved me to the floor with a gun at my head, had shaved his head. I didn’t count on that. He was convicted anyway and died in Atascadero prison.

I have no aptitude for tying knots which is one reason I never got past the rank of Tenderfoot in the Boy Scouts. There were probably other reasons as well. I couldn’t bring myself to tie a hangman’s noose. I hope never to learn.

One of my humblest achievements, which demonstrates an abnormal lack of business acumen, is to have lived here for the past 63 years, owned six properties, and not made a nickel on real estate. It takes a special skill. The art of buying and selling eludes me. Anyone who might have followed me around all that time and done exactly the opposite would be a multi-millionaire today. In compensation I feel I should be allowed to win the lottery but that would mean buying a ticket and that’s out of the question.

I have voted for losing presidents ten times – eleven if you count the one in 5th grade but actually I voted for my opponent and lost by a single vote. I thought it was the polite thing to do. That ended my aspiration for public office.

As for singing acapella, playing the piano by ear, dancing the tango or doing magic tricks – I’ll catch up with these in my next incarnation. There’s still time for me with the pie.