2xl: 2016-02-04

It begins with the bald cypress bursting from the moss and water.

Somewhere invisible the tentacles of root become a single rough trunk.

Its knees are supplicants, wading to or away from their barked deity I cannot say.

The water still laps at the rocks, slowly smoothing them, the wake of some dark thing that passed unseen.

The darkness is the immortal, the thing that’s always been.

It came before and will long outlast even the stars falling into the water.

So let’s say you capture all of this.

Let’s say you become known as the painter of dark, each canvas more inscrutable and desirable than the last.

And someone buys and loses your final masterpiece, the one you finish just before you close your eyes for the last time, just before you struggle and fail to find some profound final words.

And then it’s found, decades later, at a rummage sale.

Someone buys it for the frame but decides to keep the painting rolled up in the spare room that never brightened into a nursery.

And more time passes (it doesn’t really matter how much).

And then a fat, florid estate-sale bargain hunter buys it for the proverbial song and makes a big splash on Antiques Roadshow, which she wasn’t even gonna bother with but she just had a feeling.

And the linen-suited expert says he’d insure the piece, conservatively, at somewhere between the wholesale value of Daisy’s voice full of money and the chance to see your long-dead father one more time.

And you wonder, from somewhere without walls, where it never gets dark, how you can get one of these visiting gigs because among the many things you haven’t heard since you watched your body shrink and disappear into its own spark is how to get out of this photonic loam, for even a little bit.

You’d like to spend one more night on the bank next to the tree.

This time you wouldn’t fall asleep or even close your eyes.

This time you’d catch the dark that moves through the dark.

Blinking at the spectrum-stuffing lights in the convention center the bargain hunter tries to look like she’s not planning to sell the painting as soon as she can.

And the sky wheels on the water, touching everything everywhere.

16×16 Progress Update 1

Over a month into the not-so-new year means it’s time for an update on my 16×16 annual project.

  • Publishing: No progress. I probably should get on that. In the meantime, I’ve kept concīs and Katexic on schedule.
  • Reading: 16/64 books completed and reviewed (see Reading Challenges page for details).
  • Writing: 0/12 education blog entries; 0/12 poetry submissions made; 14/48 dedicated creative writing sessions (including 1 of 2 10-day streaks of 2xl entries).
  • Katannuta Journal: 6/48 gratitude entries; 4/24 kindness entries.
  • Simplifying: I have not yet begun to purge.
  • Health: 2/100 walks or gym visits. Finally got back on that horse just this week. No 10K yet identified.
  • Cooking: crumpet tins procured. No other progress.

I’m feeling reasonably pleased with my progress!

Reading Log: Drop City (T.C. Boyle)

I’ve been on such a reading high lately that Drop City is, despite its many and various strengths, a bit of a letdown. I’ve only read a smattering T.C. Boyle’s many novels and scads of short stories, but I still came to this novel expecting a combination of verbal fireworks and dark snark. In that, I wasn’t disappointed. But I turned the last page with some disappointment at the lack of substance and wistful musings of a different reality in which the story could amount to so much more…

Boyle presents us with two worlds that share deep similarities and profound differences: an idealistic hippie commune in California (the latest in a series of “Drop Cities”) and a mostly-off-the-grid group of people living out their subsistence—and sometimes survivalist—lives in Interior Alaska (the fictional Boynton, situated 160 miles from where I live). The parallel stories of these two groups is the proverbial gun hanging on the wall in the first act that is fired when the hippies decamp from California to pursue their communal dream on some land owned, and abandoned, by one of their members’ relatives.

Star (formerly Paulette) and Marco are the main representatives of Drop City, paralleled by Sess and Pamela in Boynton. Pan (Ronnie) was Star’s traveling partner until they arrived in the Californian Drop City and he acts as a foil for the hippie community in the same way Joe Bosky, a one-dimensional survivalist bad guy, plays one for the Boynton clan. The equivalence between the characters in each community is made too explicit, too often. Star, like Pamela, is both happy at dropping out of conventional life but also wonders if she’s doing the right thing. Pan, in his soft, stoned way, plays the Boskyan villain, Marco, like Sess, is committed to the life they’ve chosen despite his misgivings…

Except for Boyle’s exceptional facility with language and laugh-out-loud humor—which is no small thing—there’s nothing really surprising about Drop City: the plot unfolds as you’d expect, there are predictable survivors and casualties and the novel ends softly without any real commitment to the characters or the meandering exploration of the philosophy that drives them.

There are relatively few books set in Alaska, and very few that even tangentially involve the Interior where I reside. That was one of the reasons I chose to read Drop City. I was frustrated by the myriad small details that Boyle gets wrong (I suspect people from areas that are more often featured in fiction feel this way routinely), but more frustrated that an author with Boyle’s gifts didn’t do more. Still, Boyle at (what I’m guessing is) his average is still hitting a double—maybe a triple—compared to most writers who are lucky to get on base at all.

Reading Log: The Blue Guitar (John Banville)

The Blue Guitar isn’t John Banville’s best work, but it’s the one that practically requires me to proclaim Banville one of the best writers of our time. His quiet prose is nonpareil, an adjective I employ not to be snobbish, but because a borrowing from French is most apropos when describing Banville’s book, which is filled with prose poetry. Here’s a quantitative measure: from this 272-page book I highlighted 149 different passages (thanks, http://clippings.io/) that were remarkable for their beauty and insight.

Readers of Banville’s earlier works will find themselves in familiar territory: a not-wholly-unsympathetic, first-person, male narrator who, having made a mess of his life, finds himself retreating to home and the memories of his younger years. As is so often the case with Banville’s narrators—in this case, a renowned, but now lapsed, painter who suffering the consequences of an extremely ill-advised affair—Oliver Orme is bright, even brilliant, and loathsome, predator and prey, adult and child. It’s this familiarity that makes this, in at least one sense, not Banville’s best work. Unlike, say, Victor Maskell, in The Untouchable , whose life often surprised me and who was almost alien in his cold brilliance, Orme is the architect of his own fate and while he has the masterful eye of a painter—or a Nabokov—in seeing his situation, and the soul of a poet in conveying it to the reader, he is ever-so-human in his weaknesses.

And yet…and yet…perhaps that is the point. Perhaps Banville is playing a deeper game, pushing a more subtle project or simply engaging in a longer fictional con (of the best sort) here. Because: the titular blue guitar. Banville makes just one reference to Wallace Stevens, in the book’s epigraph that is taken from Stevens’ poem of the same name, but Orme is obsessed, as Stevens was, with the divide between art and things and how we are caught on the horns between either the futility of realism, the most delightful and accurate poses of which can never penetrate to the core of what is real, and the equally futile task of trying to capture the wild unreality of the essence of those things. As Orme puts it:

“I think the loss of my capacity to paint, let’s call it that, was the result, in large part, of a burgeoning and irresistible and ultimately fatal regard for that world, I mean the objective day-to-day world of mere things. Before, I had always looked past things in an effort to get at the essence I knew was there, deeply hidden but not beyond access to one determined and clear-sighted enough to penetrate down to it. I was like a man come to meet a loved one at a railway station who hurries through the alighting crowd, bobbing and dodging, willing to see no face save the one he longs to see.”

But the crux is that it isn’t just the “fatal regard” that is at issue, but the manner in which we make the very things we see…and how unreliable that making is. Orme notes, “there was always the old dilemma, that is, the tyranny of things, of the unavoidable actual. But what, after all, did I know of actual things, wherever they rose up to confront me? It was precisely actuality I took no interest in.” But how can he trust what he does take an interest in when he astutely observes that, “For all I know, the things that go on inside other people may bear no resemblance whatever to what goes on in me. That is a vertiginous prospect, and I perched up there all alone in front of it.”

And with this deracination of his artistic powers and his vision Orme, the predator painter, becomes reality’s prey:

“What I find frightening nowadays is not the general malevolence of things, though Heaven knows—and Hell knows even better—I certainly should, but rather their cunning plausibility. The sea at morning, a gorgeous sunset, watches of nightingales, even a mother’s love, all these conspire to assure me that life is flawless good and death no more than a rumour. How persuasive it all can be, but I am not persuaded, and never was. In earliest years, in my father’s shop, among those worthless prints he sold, I could spot in even the most tranquil scene of summer and trees and dappled cows the tittering imp peering out at me from the harmless-seeming greenery.”

In effect, Orme’s whole life has become an extended moment like that which occurs when one thinks too much about what they are doing, say walking a narrow path, and at once loses their habitual grace…we are never more in the world than in that awkward moment of total awareness, nor will we ever find ourselves more separated from our ability to make beautiful things—and be beautiful—in that very world.

This is Orme’s plight. And it is ours. As another of our finest word artists put it, it is the blight man was born for, and Orme mourns himself as we do ourselves while reading his story. This will be the despair of Banville’s project, in the end, but I can’t wait for the next piece of beautiful wreckage to emerge.

Reading Log: A Separate Peace (John Knowles)

It wasn’t the cider which made me surpass myself, it was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace.

I read A Separate Peace at least a dozen times, probably much more, between the ages of 14 and 16. I don’t remember how the old, coverless paperback came into my hands. It just seemed like it was suddenly, then always, there. Then, for reasons similarly lost to time, I put it away (threw it away? simply lost it?) and didn’t return to it for nearly thirty years. Until now.

Reading A Separate Peace now, in my late-middle-age but not yet my dotage, I am struck by how well the book holds up (keep in mind, though, that I also think A Catcher in the Rye holds up…and feel sorry for those who’ve been lost from it). I can’t claim to have any objectivity, but then what good reader can? The crux of a response to a book, good or bad, is that very subjectivity. It’s only the books we have no connection to that we can claim to understand somehow apart from our affections, biases and limitations. And, particularly with fiction and poetry, who cares to do that?

I am also struck by how deeply I’ve internalized Knowles’ quiet masterpiece, how many ways the threads of thought I’ve called my own all these years are, in significant ways, the thoughts of Gene, who narrates the book from a New England boarding school that is seemingly the last small place of peace in 1943 in America, which is otherwise being subsumed by the physically distant, but omnipresent, war. My attachment to—my dwelling on—the strange insubstantial substance of memory and how it attaches itself to the very materials of the physical world, my otherness from my peers even as I was in some ways easily accepted by them, even at times a leader, my early onset nostalgia (as Ben Folds sings, “they get nostalgic about the last ten years before the last ten years have passed”)…these are things many adolescents feel, of course, but as I read A Separate Peace I kept coming across small details that were planted in my own world like false memories made real by repetition.

Most of all, my own life has been characterized by the strange stew of longing, love, resentment and jealousy that Gene feels not just for Phineas (I was blithely unaware of any of the homoerotic subtext many have found in their relationship and, assuming it’s there, it’s almost beside the point) but for what Phineas represents: the easy, effortless inhabitation of a position of rightness in the world, of fitting in a world to which I’ve always felt I didn’t belong and survived only by happenstance.

Even knowing what was going to happen with the kind of detailed recall I almost never have for even my favorite books, I found myself crying at the same two obvious spots I always used to. And I found myself, again, yearning for the kind of peace Gene had lost and yet unsure how much of that loss was (is) Gene’s (and my own) fault and how much of it was (is) an inevitable part of growing up and learning that perhaps that peace was only ever an illusion, an ideal thing to be desired but never held, after all.

2xl: 2016-01-31

I’m reading Gottfried Benn for the first time while dark seeps into the last day of January.

The sun lights up the clouds from below the horizon.

From Benn’s Icarus I learn a new word: decerebrated.

My head is a heavy drum played by the pulse in my ears.

(I could have invoked my sphygmic ossicles).

Benn was the house doctor in a brothel and then a pathologist.

He wrote what he knew:

venereal scars bearing the faces of Cerberus,

paying a dancer with the gold from a dead whore’s molar,

drowning a nest of rats evicted from the chest of a young girl’s body, too long in the rushes,

living each beast day hour by water hour.

And his Icarus, the bloodied one, who lit up and alighted upon the earth like the flare and toss of a match.

I’ve knelt, chin to chest, and begged for benediction.

I’ve waved off the angels.

Now he’s saying that what’s bad is the surf that beats the shore the same way, holiday or not.

Now he’s saying that what’s bad is not to die on a long summer day when the earth yields easily to the spade.

Now he’s planting an aster in a corpse.

Was it night or the sun that just fell around me?

The dark smells of blue oil and iron and frozen rose petals exhumed by the wind.

I’m folding a paper flower from this final note.