Friday, September 29, 2017

The Death of Hef

It is probably a bridge too far to make the leap from Ahab’s harpoon to Hugh Hefner phallus but that’s the sort of elongated stretch one does as a lapsed poet. They say he died of natural causes and that only extends the metaphor. At age 91 one might say he achieved longevity in every sense.

The Jungians would describe him as a Puer Aeternus (eternal child), enjoying his years in the pleasure dome of an adolescent fantasy on a rotating circular bed with a mirrored ceiling in a forty-eight room mansion.  He later moved from Chicago to a six acre compound with a staff of seventy near Beverly Hills.

He seemed to live the life promised to suicide bombers upon their combustion, though I understand those seventy-two virgins were a mistranslation of seventy-two raisins. In any case Hefner is to be buried next to Marilyn Monroe which he declared was an offer, too sweet to pass up. In his mind a sort of Playboy immortality.

One wonders whether he was prodigiously and indefatigably endowed. Is it true that large penises are like large banks…….too big to fail? 

The images I have of enhancement or augmentation make me wince. I suppose that means both length and breadth. God help those with shortness of breadth. I would hope those penile doctors are heavily insured with no more than a one inch deductible. Try getting your H.M.O. to cover this.

Whether woman were subjects or objects is no longer a matter for debate. He pedaled forbidden fruit with a preference for melons, particularly unblemished and air-brushed. An unrepentant Libertine he was both exploiter and emancipator. Gloria Steinem called him pathetic. Yet if the alternative is the sort of repression Mike Pence lives with I’ll go with Hef.

Yet to give him his due it needs to be said Hugh Hefner was a counter-culture voice arising out of the Eisenhower fifties when conformity was a given and gender politics as yet unarticulated. America then and now are two different paradigms unrecognizable to each other. His personal revolution against the strictures of sexual hypocrisy and Puritanical values became aligned with the Zeitgeist which he rode into the new social order of the sixties and seventies.

He made his point yet at the same time his life-style seems somehow an American phenomena already distant, ready for the archival room of a history museum.

It's safe to say nobody enjoyed his prolonged parental rebellion as much as Hefner. He turned porn and hedonism into a pseudo-feminist-sophisticated fine art and gave it a socio-political agenda….and all the time still in his pajamas. Ahab’s harpoon would have wilted.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Ahab in Vietnam

I’m writing under the Influence, having just finished reading Moby Dick. After 487 pages one is fully immersed. When all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. So with Ahab at the helm of my ship, harpoon in hand, I started watching the PBS documentary on the Vietnam War. Herman Melville meet Ken Burns.

Like most viewers, I suspect, I’d long ago made up my mind about that tragic folly of a war. I had no appetite to witness a replay of the carnage. However there were many antecedents to our full entry and Burns gives the cast of distant voices a human face and context.

Ahab, as a force of Nature, is the great American allegory. There is no hissing the villain or cheering the hero in the book. Melville (call him Ishmael) presents the white whale as demonic and ferocious on one page and noble on the next. In one chapter on Whiteness we are reminded that his is the absence of color which sums up the ambiguity of both the pursuer and pursued. Add to this our contemporary understanding of the oceanic ecosystem and we grow indignant as Melville maligns our cuddly behemoth. Of course the journey of the Pequod is not to be read literally. The author is after far greater game.

Were the architects of our misadventure in Southeast Asia testosterone-driven men? Yes, of course, many were. But I’m not willing to paint all of the combatants with such a broad brush any more than can Ahab be captioned as a crazed monomaniac…though he was. Five presidents along with the so-called best and brightest they could assemble schemed and stumbled and abdicated their good sense and lied their way for nearly three decades with wanton disregard for human life. We met the enemy and they were us. Yet…

Yet their acts were committed in the Cold War context premised on the belief that this Leviathan called Communism would gobble up one country after another and doom would descend upon civilized life. Instead they created their own doom. They mistook a small country’s determination to shake off colonial rule for the Communist dragon. As it turned out that dreaded apparition is now the same form of government which buys our treasury notes and supplies our shelves in Costco and Walmart.

Ahab’s mission was revenge for the loss of a limb which Freud regarded as castration but more importantly to pierce the mask of Moby Dick, to destroy that which lies behind the face of so-called evil. His zeal was messianic but the imagined outcome was unattainable just as religious fanatics, with colossal wrongheadedness, obsess over an aspect of human nature which they project on to others.

Maybe it’s a stretch too far to grant the reckless Pentagon and blind Dulles, McNamara, Rusk, et al a similar status as Ahab. But I’d like to grant them, or at least the soldiers, the benefit of being knights-errant chasing an illusory dragon.

Aside from the war crimes of napalm, defoliants, stacks of body bags and a nation torn asunder the tragedy of Vietnam was our excruciating refusal to come to terms with our role as replacement for European colonialism. When you think you are menaced by this whale called Communism you see whales everywhere and end up supporting every corrupt tyrant on the map who declares himself anti-whale.

It was a dark time in American history lit by some bright songs and burning draft cards and the emergence of a counter-culture. Yet just as Ishmael survived the wreckage on a floating coffin we are carried away in our leaking ship of state, still wounded, still haunted. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Anniversary, How It Came to be and How it is

Anniversary, How It Came To Be and How It Is

In my favorite French film, And Now My Love (1975), directed by Claude Lelouch, the man and the woman almost meet for 150 minutes and finally do, via their two suitcases, in the last scene. Their baggage seen touching on the airport conveyor belt has brought them together.

It was finally our baggage that also brought Peggy and me together twenty-three years after our first meeting. In 1957, U.C.L.A. sponsored a poetry extension course which Peggy hosted in her Reseda home. I attended for the ten sessions in her living room but she has no memory of me. Color me nascent.

Claude Lelouch would have rendered me a rather forgettable guy…which I was. But I remembered her when, in November, 1980, she introduced herself after a Robert Bly reading. Aren’t you Norm Levine, she said. I checked my wallet and sure enough I was. Peggy had been at a poetry reading I gave earlier that summer. Our separate travels had somehow deposited us at that same time and place.

We connected that night, soulfully. Two people fully met. At Christmas time we even gave each other the same book (Wendell Berry’s, A Place on Earth). For the next three years four months we had memorable trysts and assignations. While I agonized over my crumbling marriage singing spirituals on the back forty she read me the Emancipation Proclamation and waited and waited.

In the hands of Claude Lelouch it wouldn’t have taken so long. But I’m no Andre Dussollier. My vacillation would have been compressed to no more than twenty minutes. In the French rendition we would have run off for weekends in Carlsbad, Montecito or Ojai which is just what we did.

At last in March, 1984, I called and told Peggy I had good news and bad news. The bad news had something to do with Reagan supporting the Contras in Nicaragua; the good news was that I was packing my toothbrush and moving in with her the following Saturday.

The 25th of March is our real anniversary but we made it official with benefit of clergy two and half years later on Sept. 20th. Peggy was a very young sixty-five and still in her prime now at 96; I was a reinvented fifty-three. Life, Part Two, had begun. It is still beginning every morning. As a French film we would need no subtitles. We are fluent in the language of intimacy which knows when to allow silences. A murmuration of two, unsayable and unmapped.

All passion as yet unspent. Whether it be for poetry, art or even the Dodgers Peggy is nothing if not capacious (a word I use sparingly) in her wide embrace of life. Her enthusiasm is irrepressible beyond the scope of any French actress who might be cast. Yet at the same time she is contemplative with access to her vast inscape.

We now have thirty-three and a half more years of shared memories. Bless this life, this cherished baggage.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Of, By and For the People

I’ve long had a fickle romance with the People, aka the masses, the working class, the common man, hard-hats, them, etc…  I loved Them when they were the poor dispossessed farmers, the striking rank and file union workers during the depression, those whom Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger sung to, the exploited miners with black lung disease.

I fell out of love with those same workers when they supported the Vietnam War, then elected Reagan, and went on to elect Dubya and now clamor to get their jobs back in the coal mines. Trump like Hitler before him was brought to power by an aroused, ill-informed and gullible underclass the way a lynch mob strings up their strange fruit in misplaced rage orchestrated from above.

No, certainly not the underclass alone but they are a big chunk of the narrative. Trump said or at least implied three words during the campaign, I hear you. And that was enough. Enough to mesmerize, at least, the White population, from the displaced to the highly placed.

It’s small comfort to know that he really lost the popular vote by a landslide. Such avalanches don’t count in our archaic and rigged system. It makes me question our version of the democratic process.

Democracy. How sweet the sound. Wars were fought to make the world safe for it. Americans have died for it. Jefferson proclaimed it. Lincoln bequeathed us those words to live by. 

Who could argue against participatory democracy? And yet….
Our founders hedged their ideal with multiple asterisks. More people, by far, were excluded than included. Women, slaves, indigenous people and the unpropertied were all deemed unfit. Now Republicans are busy suppressing the vote after first carving out districts with no straight lines.

The People, Yes wrote Carl Sandburg but are they really some undifferentiated, amorphous mass who listen with half an ear and a smaller fraction of brain? In 1937 Archibald MacLeish wrote a radio play, The Fall of the City, in which he depicts the common man cowering at the sight of a would-be master and all too willingly transfering his autonomy to him, even if the dictator is an empty shell. It may have been true, at first, in Nazi Germany and to some extent replicated here today.

I would argue, after much wrestling with myself, that such a point of view deposits one in a place of dangerous cynicism. H.L. Mencken, our most quotable of cynics said, Democracy is the pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. I would say to H.L. that you are on a path to Fascism.

Besides it being too easy, to be contemptuous of the people leads to inaction and despair. The only alternative to democracy is some sort of monarch and however beneficent he may be, abuse of power is always an imminent threat.

As Winston Churchill put it, Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.  It is noisy, messy and can be infuriating. Sometimes it commits suicide through apathy and shrugs. Attention must be paid. In fits and starts it rises again from the parched earth. The garden requires watering. My romance with the common folk is more conditional now but estrangement only reinforces the great divide. The differences are not irreconcilable. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017


Like Robert Frost, I never met one I could love. Humpty-Dumpty, I think, would agree. Edgar Allen Poe hid bodies behind them. Walls are where people wail. They divide and isolate us. The Berlin Wall did nobody any good except to spawn John Le Carre novels. The Dodgers, after four months of great baseball, have hit a wall. The Old Testament had them tumble in Jericho with a riff from Miles Davis or Wynton Marsalis. The Vietnam Wall testifies to our tragic folly. Walls are where kids who run with scissors in school, had to face for long minutes in shame. Maybe that’s where Donald Trump first went off the rails.

My brother drove his car into a mountain wall fifty-five years ago. He loved jazz and was returning from a night in Santa Barbara at a jazz bar, filled with scat singing and whiskey. Maybe he thought there was a portal in that mountain face on the San Marcos Pass. I’d like to believe he heard some hot bluesy sax to accompany him out of this world.

Melville’s Bartleby preferred walls to all else. And look what happened to him. He stared at a dead brick one in a Wall St. office which, now that I think of it, is well named. Later the poor guy ended up in a courtyard with high walls. We have come to this point of erecting walls behind which, the one percent can live in the illusion of safety from the invading hordes, real or imaginary.

As a function of the punitive American mind-set our obscene prisons are bulging beyond what those walls were meant to entomb. While outside, Kafka saw the labyrinth high with partitions where workers toiled with no exit. Mindlessly they even bought into the hokum of fear and rage against otherness; an agenda of hatred which walls them in deaf to all reason.

I take it back; there is one wall I look back upon with endearment. It was the wall against which my pink Spauldeen was thrown hundreds of times. How many times I smashed my ball dreaming I was in games of my own invention in which I played pitcher, batter and fielder? That wall was the outside of my father’s drug store; the external skin of the twelve-stool fountain. On the other side my father concocted elixirs with earthy smells and vapors. One day I would walk through that wall and become my Dad.

Across the street from my wall was Donald Trump, (literally) sealed within his private school called, Kew Forest. What witches and demons did he see to erect walls on his interior landscape and what tunnels and bridges were never built?