The Old Devils

November 20, 2009 § Leave a comment

Martin Amis, Kingsley Amis

I was just reading a Huffington Post column about The National Book award, which also mentions the scandalous Publisher’s Weekly “best books of 2009” list that includes no women writers. I can’t comment on that, not having read many new books this year, and none of the winners. But the column goes on to revisit past award missteps, including Kingley Amis’s The Old Devils having been chosen over Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Handmaid’s Tale bored me and I never finished it; The Old Devils is a great book. The characters are a bunch of aging Welsh alcoholics getting ready for a visit from an old friend who’s made it big in the literary world—a sort of modern Dylan Thomas, but less self-destructive. The ones left behind are the ones falling apart.

The humor is dark and relentless; the depiction of drinking is enough to make you weep with laughter. The men drink gin and whisky in the pub, while the women drink white wine at home (all day). Everyone smokes. The horrors of aging and the horrors of hangovers blend in a way that makes more sense the older I get; I’ve long suspected hangovers are merely bulletins from the front.

Amis’s characters are right wing cranks with romantic underbellies, and he spares them nothing. You don’t have to think you could spend five minutes with one of these people in real life to adore them on the page. They’re hobbled and half deaf, forgetful and losing their teeth, selfish, resentful, envious, and deeply nostalgic for youth. They still have desire, and will behave foolishly for it, and they tell you more about dystopia—the dystopia of everyday life—than Atwood will ever know.

Kingsley Amis famously couldn’t finish any of his son’s books. I’ve liked some of Martin’s Amis’s stuff, but I have more patience than Kingsely. It’s always seemed to me that what the father couldn’t stomach was Amis fils’ pretentiousness. It’s not a killing pretentiousness—Martin Amis has a lot of virtues as a writer—but you can’t ignore it. And there’s nothing a K. Amis books skewers more viciously than pretentiousness.

Of course, being an alcoholic keeps you on the defensive your whole life, no matter how famous you become. When you’re prone to humiliating yourself any night of the week, only a gargantuan sense of humor and an ingrained resistance to human vanity can keep you going.


You do look a little ill.

But we can do something about that, now.

Can’t we.

The fact is you’re a shocking wreck.

Do you hear me.

You aren’t all alone.

And you could use some help today, packing in the
dark, boarding buses north, putting the seat back and
grinning with terror flowing over your legs through
your fingers and hair . . .

I was always waiting, always here.

Know anyone else who can say that.

My advice to you is think of her for what she is:
one more name cut in the scar of your tongue.

What was it you said, “To rather be harmed than
harm, is not abject.”


Can we be leaving now.

We like bus trips, remember. Together

we could watch these winter fields slip past, and
never care again,

think of it.

I don’t have to be anywhere.

–Franz Wright

Jewelry Daze

November 18, 2009 § 1 Comment

Zebra Jasper , Peruvian Opal and Pink Sponge Coral Necklace

Lost in jewelry making. My sister is having a party for me at her house, and I don’t have enough stock so I am making earrings and bracelets day and night, while the cats climb on the windowsill to watch, and complain at my focus, and I barely get outside, and the rest of the world dissolves like smoke.

A river of beads an inch deep in my cardboard box riverbed (the crutches came in this box; it’s just the right size) with clasps, earring parts and crimp beads lost in the bright clutter; the tools half hidden the cats chewing on string and jewelry wire. I’m feeling alternately stressed at my self-imposed quotas and lost in the endlessness of it, making one thing after another like the junked-out deity we unspooled from those millions of years ago.

These past several days have been like the seasons when I’d spend weeks alone in Wallkill. The whole city is here around me, but I don’t see it. I hear my neighbor in the hall, catch snatches of conversation, nod to the doormen on the way out, watch the flow of people traffic on the streets: it’s all backdrop.  I talk on the phone, feed the cats. I miss the old 12th floor gang.

If it were the old days, I’d wander down to Annie’s when I got lonely. Philip would come over or take me to dinner. Now I’m solitary: my friends are all just a little too far away, emotionally, for me to feel part of anything. I keep thinking of whom to see, dinners, coffee dates, and they’re all good: but they don’t add up. That’s my fault: what I’ve unraveled.

This happened slowly, one thing after another. Charles moving out, then being so wrapped up in Philip, the perpetual drama. Hard to believe that’s coming to an end: at least the particular drama we were part of. What will happen next is unclear.

It’s strange when all of a sudden a packet of years closes off and you realize: that’s the past now. What was the present for a long time—changing, moving forward, but still somehow all the same present—is gone: there was a bridge, a bend in the road, a jump, a cut-off.

So here I am in the new time, and solitude feels okay. I’ve gotten used to it.  I have a lot of  work. I have to make necklaces, bracelets and earrings. And edit a man’s book. And then, soon, I hope, my own again.

Passion for Solitude

by Cesare Pavese

I’m eating a little supper by the bright window.
The room’s already dark, the sky’s starting to turn.
Outside my door, the quiet roads lead,
after a short walk, to open fields.
I’m eating, watching the sky—who knows
how many women are eating now. My body is calm:
labor dulls all the senses, and dulls women too.
Outside, after supper, the stars will come out to touch
the wide plain of the earth. The stars are alive,
but not worth these cherries, which I’m eating alone.
I look at the sky, know that lights already are shining
among rust-red roofs, noises of people beneath them.
A gulp of my drink, and my body can taste the life
of plants and of rivers. It feels detached from things.
A small dose of silence suffices, and everything’s still,
in its true place, just like my body is still.
All things become islands before my senses,
which accept them as a matter of course: a murmur of silence.
All things in this darkness—I can know all of them,
just as I know that blood flows in my veins.
The plain is a great flowing of water through plants,
a supper of all things. Each plant, and each stone,
lives motionlessly. I hear my food feeding my veins
with each living thing that this plain provides.
The night doesn’t matter. The square patch of sky
whispers all the loud noises to me, and a small star
struggles in emptiness, far from all foods,
from all houses, alien. It isn’t enough for itself,
it needs too many companions. Here in the dark, alone,
my body is calm, it feels it’s in charge.

Translated by Geoffrey Brock

The Cat Psychiatrist

November 11, 2009 § 1 Comment

Hope in a Prison of Despair

Hope in a Prison of Despair, by Evelyn De Morgan (30 August 1855-2 May 1919), British

As I have told you before, and probably will again next week and the week after until we both expire of collegial boredom, my cat refuses to let me sink into gloom. I use that phrase because merely being depressed—but still active—seems to go by him; and lying in bed reading is okay, too (though he prefers active). But lying in bed sunk in gloom is not permitted. He meows, bites, sticks his wet nose in my face.

Is this what I should have done with my father all those years ago? Not tiptoed around his bad moods…not believed adult inner life was sacrosanct, demanding of awe and dread? Should I have just nudged him with my wet nose?

Oh yeah, he wouldn’t have reacted by saying (fondly) “….okay, okay, ya dumb cat, for chrissakes, I’ll get up.” He would have snarled and said something hurtful. I only do that when Fitzroy is being Felix Ungerish neurotic. When I’m sunk in gloom, I’m touched by his distress. And who can say it’s better to sink in gloom than write this blog post, which is fairly useless but doesn’t upset the cat?

I always want to explore the gloom for reasons that once made sense. The metaphors of ‘shining light on’ or ‘cleaning out’ are timeless and seemingly experience-tested, at least until you try them 8 million times. Now it’s all about keeping busy, but the obvious things—doing the work I’m paid for, calling friends—are impossibly distant from the state of gloom. This isn’t. This is the coffee bar in the mental hospital, the one that exists nowhere but in my mind.

My Ideal Mental Hospital: on one side are sunny gardens, mountain views, hot springs, and a library of great poetic and comic works: books, movies and TV shows. Masseurs, yoga teachers and therapists are on call, and at the end of the session, they pay you. Grandmothers (certified grandmothers, older, wider and shorter than all the patients) prepare simple meals with lots of fresh vegetables, meat raised with kindness, home-baked bread and pie. All the bedrooms have big windows and the breeze is warm or cool, scented with the Pacific Ocean, eucalyptus, mountain laurel, autumn leaves or just-mown grass.

On the other side, it’s like a college or boarding school common room, with a stained carpet, ridiculous chairs, and people in pajamas day and night. The coffee is not bad but slopped into ugly gray plastic cups. Sunk in Gloom plays her greatest hits on the jukebox, which eats quarters and often skips or stops in the middle of the song. There’s only one phone and when it rings, it’s always a guy with a sexy voice asking for some girl named Marcy.
On The Meeting Of García Lorca And Hart Crane

Brooklyn, 1929. Of course Crane’s
been drinking and has no idea who
this curious Andalusian is, unable
even to speak the language of poetry.
The young man who brought them
together knows both Spanish and English,
but he has a headache from jumping
back and forth from one language
to another. For a moment’s relief
he goes to the window to look
down on the East River, darkening
below as the early light comes on.
Something flashes across his sight,
a double vision of such horror
he has to slap both his hands across
his mouth to keep from screaming.
Let’s not be frivolous, let’s
not pretend the two poets gave
each other wisdom or love or
even a good time, let’s not
invent a dialogue of such eloquence
that even the ants in your own
house won’t forget it. The two
greatest poetic geniuses alive
meet, and what happens? A vision
comes to an ordinary man staring
at a filthy river. Have you ever
had a vision? Have you ever shaken
your head to pieces and jerked back
at the image of your young son
falling through open space, not
from the stern of a ship bound
from Vera Cruz to New York but from
the roof of the building he works on?
Have you risen from bed to pace
until dawn to beg a merciless God
to take these pictures away? Oh, yes,
let’s bless the imagination. It gives
us the myths we live by. Let’s bless
the visionary power of the human—
the only animal that’s got it—,
bless the exact image of your father
dead and mine dead, bless the images
that stalk the corners of our sight
and will not let go. The young man
was my cousin, Arthur Lieberman,
then a language student at Columbia,
who told me all this before he died
quietly in his sleep in 1983
in a hotel in Perugia. A good man,
Arthur, he survived graduate school,
later came home to Detroit and sold
pianos right through the Depression.
He loaned my brother a used one
to compose his hideous songs on,
which Arthur thought were genius.
What an imagination Arthur had!

–Philip Levine

Do You Believe in Evil?

November 10, 2009 § 1 Comment

GoyaFrancisco Goya, The Disasters of War

David Brooks wrote an editorial today deploring what he calls the “rush to therapy” in the case of Nidal Hasan—the fear, by commentators, of inciting anti-Muslim passions and so focusing on the personal aspects of Hasan’s story rather than the ideological ones.

Brooks begins his editorial by talking about the importance of choosing a story to explain life or one’s life, the ferocious need humans have to make sense of the world, and the great power these stories have.

I watched the earliest coverage of the shootings—on Chris Matthews—and this desire not to emphasize the “Muslim connection” was obvious. It did feel like denial, political correctness, etc. And yet, what to do? Brooks writes, “If public commentary wasn’t carefully policed, the assumption seemed to be, then the great mass of unwashed yahoos in Middle America would go off on a racist rampage.”

I don’t know how unwashed they are, or where they reside, but the existence of a great many angry and bigoted people in our country is very real. Hasan’s rage and bitterness led him to take 13 lives. Most of those inflamed by the ideological/religious/ethnic basis of his action will settle for beating a teenager into a coma, or destroying the business of a hardworking older couple.

There’s nothing wrong with TV commentators, who wield so much power over the shaping of stories, being  cautious. What harm is done? Will Hasan be freed with a referral to a psychiatrist?  Will Obama immediately conclude the war in order not to upset potential Hasans?

Or—horrors—will we stop believing in evil? Welcome Satan into our living rooms and tell the kids murder is a lifestyle choice?

None of this is going to happen. Hasan will be in prison the rest of his life. It may be a very short life. The army will pay more attention to the psychic toll of the war, which as Bob Herbert wrote the other day, is affecting thousands of people who will never kill anyone, whose violence will be against themselves and their families, and probably never reach the status of “criminal violence,” though causing no less suffering for that.

The army will not pay enough attention. The loneliness and unhappiness of soldiers who may or may not become a serious danger to others will never be adequately addressed. And my—and others’—sorrow about this, honestly, is not because we think suicide bombers or suicide shooters are lost lambs. It’s not because we care more about not offending people than we do about protecting people.

It’s about what works. It’s about living in a country of people who were born, or whose parents were born, in every nation on earth, people whose religious beliefs cover the spectrum; and at the same time waging and funding wars which inevitably rouse national and religious passions.

It doesn’t matter whether you are for or against our current military policy. For now and the foreseeable future, America will be an aggressive armed presence in the world. Frankly, we have to watch our back, and our back is at home. It made up of people like Hasan and it’s made up of people like the ones who’d like to lynch him—or, if he’s not available, someone with a similar name.

The reason, David Brooks, that we don’t have to go on and on about how evil it is to gun down 13 people at an army base, is that, really, everybody already knows that.

A Divine Image

Cruelty has a human heart,
And Jealousy a human face;
Terror the human form divine,
And Secrecy the human dress.

The human dress is forged iron,
The human form a fiery forge,
The human face a furnace sealed,
The human heart a hungry gorge.

—William Blake

Glorious Bird

November 6, 2009 § 3 Comments


Last night I went to a reading at The Cathedral of St John the Divine celebrating Tennessee Williams’ induction into The Cathedral’s Poets Corner. I had a sick headache and my companion was in a foul mood. No matter. Tennessee’s words made our hearts shine.

In the 40’s, Gore Vidal dubbed Williams “The Glorious Bird.” Last night John Patrick Shanley, in a passionate homage, referred to him as a “A gorgeous beast.” He’s always seemed to me the most human of writers, drunk on words, sex, gossip, praise. There’s nothing unknowable about Tennessee except his genius, and the genius of genius is to make us think we know.

Vanessa Redgrave read from Not About Nightingales. Eli Wallach did a scene from Mister Paradise with his daughter, Katherine Wallach. Sherry Boone did a brilliant rendition of a poem called Gold Tooth Blues, a very funny work that I’d include except that you kind of had to be there. Williams’ comic poems, especially, beg to be read or sung by someone who knows how.

The performers were mostly wonderful (and there were lots of them, and none went on too long, which greatly impressed me), but being steered to read the poems was the greatest gift. I’ve read a few over the years but the plays were the thing. And they still are; they contain his most brilliant lines. But if the poems seem thin, it’s only by comparison to something as great as The Glass Menagerie. Put side by side with the work of other 20th century poets, Williams’ verse holds its own. Not the best, but not far off.

The poet William Jay Smith recalled his early friendship with Tennessee, back when he was still Tom and lived at home. One night when his parents were out, Tom had a few guys over, and one started cutting up, making obscene phone calls to strangers. (In the early 1930’s this must felt more transgressive than it did when I was growing up, when it had become the province of 9-year-olds.) In the midst of their shenanigans, Rose appeared on the stairs, in a frothy white dress, furious, threatening to tell the parents. And she did tell.

I like that: not-always-fragile Rose.

The person I missed last night was Gore Vidal, who has the best first-person accounts of Williams. This is from an essay of his in The New York Review of Books in 1985.

...The Bird had never heard of Kennedy that day in 1958 when we drove from Miami to Palm Beach for lunch with the golden couple, who had told me that they lusted to meet the Bird. He, in turn, was charmed by them. “Now tell me again,” he would ask Jack, repeatedly, “what you are. A governor or a senator?” Each time, Jack, dutifully, gave name, rank, and party. Then the Bird would sternly quiz him on America’s China policy; and Jack would look a bit glum. Finally, he proposed that we shoot at a target in the patio.

While Jackie flitted about, taking Polaroid shots of us, the Bird banged away at the target; and proved to be a better shot than our host. At one point, while Jack was shooting, the Bird muttered in my ear, “Get that ass!” I said, “Bird, you can’t cruise our next president.” The Bird chuckled ominously: “They’ll never elect those two. They are much too attractive for the American people.” Later, I told Jack that the Bird had commented favourably on his ass. He beamed. “Now, that’s very exciting,” he said.

The line The Cathedral has inscribed on Tennessee’s stone is, “Time is the longest distance between two places.” Time is also the most ravishing intoxicant in any literary cocktail. Last night, it was there in spades: the dead poet, the frail and white-haired actors, the memories—including mine of reading Tennessee when he was still alive, but, as John Patrick Shanley noted, impossible for a young admirer to imagine approaching. “Tennessee was like the ocean,” Shanley said.

I think of him more as a river. The ocean spends too much time in its own company.

The Eyes

for Oliver

The eyes are last to go out.
They remain long after the face has disappeared
into the tissue it is made of.
The tongue says good-by when the eyes have lingering
For they are the searchers last to abandon the search,
the ones that remain where the drowned have been washed
after the lanterns staying, not saying good-by…

The eyes have no faith in that too accessible language.
For them no occasion is simple enough for a word to justify it.
Existence in time, not only their own but ancestral,
encloses all moments in four walls of mirrors.

Closed they are waiting. Open, they are also waiting.
They are acquainted, but they have forgotten the name
of their acquaintance.

Youth is their uneasy bird, and shadows clearer than light
pass through them at times,
for waters are not more changeable under skies
nor stones under rapids.

The eyes may be steady with that Athenian look
that answers terror with stillness, or they may be quick
with a pure infatuate being. Almost always
the eyes hold onto an image
of someone recently departed or gone a long time ago
or only expected…

The eyes are not lucky.
They seem hopelessly inclined to linger.

They make additions that come to no final sum.
It is really hard to say if their dark is worse than their light,
Their discoveries better or worse than not knowing,

but they are the last to go out
and their going out is always when they are lifted.

The Dog Physician

November 3, 2009 § 4 Comments

momdavisbertdogsMy mother (middle, seated) at her house in N.H. many years ago. My sister stands behind her, demonstrating her mastery over her dogs. My cousin Roberta smiles charmingly.

In an article in today’s New York Times, “Good Dog, Smart Dog,” The reporter writes about scientists’ growing certainty that dogs are smarter than scientists thought they were. (The rest of us already knew this.) Dogs can learn hundreds of words, differentiate photographs with dogs in them from photographs without, and sniff out nascent lung cancers and oncoming epileptic seizures.

So far, so good. I’m waiting for the day when yearly checkups consist of lying naked on a soft carpet while a gentle (and gentlemanly) dog sniffs me all over, then presses a paw onto something like a giant cellphone where a couple of dozen diseases and conditions are indicated by various mysterious symbols. Then the doctor will rise from his stool in the corner and say, “According to Harry, you do not have heart disease, cancer, lupus, typhus, Lyme disease or diabetes. He thinks you need a dog.”

I’ll remind the doctor that I keep up with the research; I know he made up that last bit.

“You’re wrong,” the doctor says quietly. “Look at him. He’s in love with you.”

“No,” I’ll say. “It’s not me. I was cleaning the kitty litter right before I left and a turd fell down my blouse. I got it out of course but didn’t have time to shower.”

“Oh, that’s why he spent so much time at your breasts. I almost scheduled a biopsy.”

The Times writes,  “Clive D. L. Wynne, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida, who specializes in canine cognition and has himself said he met a border collie who knew 1,500 words, takes issue with efforts to compare human and canine brains.

He argues that it is dogs’ deep sensitivity to the humans around them, their obedience under rigorous training, and their desire to please that can explain most of these capabilities. They may be deft at reading human cues — and teachable — but that doesn’t mean they are thinking like people, he says. A dog’s entire world revolves around its primary owner, and it will respond to that person to get what it wants, usually food, treats or affection.”

You know, there are a lot of people like that. They’re kids. They’re married to someone who has all the money or can beat them with impunity. They’re low or mid level replaceables in the corporate world of 2009. They comprise a very large percentage of our population, because humans, like dogs, are wired to survive.

The point is dogs’ intelligence, not what they choose to use it for. Perhaps my mother’s poodle would do better learning to bake bread rather than perfecting his I’m-so-innocent act after stealing a baguette. I’m sure if he cooked for her, she’d give him tastier dinners. But, you know, there’s the thumb problem. The walking on four legs issue. It’s tough being alive, even when you’re smart. Getting the dazzling ones to take care of you in their warm and splendid houses, and not butcher you at young adulthood the way they do so many others…that’s smart.

“If only they’d understand that letting us eat cat turds would benefit everyone,” mourns Harry. (Harry is my Labradoodle Imaginary Friend. He’s young and handsome, with sensitive poetic eyes and loves walks, naps and scrabble.)

Homer’s Seeing Eye Dog

Most of the time he worked, a sort of sleep
with a purpose, so far as I could tell.
How he got from the dark of sleep
to the dark of waking up I’ll never know;
the lax sprawl sleep allowed him
began to set from the edges in,
like a custard, and then he was awake,
me too, of course, wriggling my ears
while he unlocked his bladder and stream
of dopey wake-up jokes. The one
about the wine-dark pee I hated instantly.
I stood at the ready, like a god
in an epic, but there was never much
to do. Oh now and then I’d make a sure
intervention, save a life, whatever.
But my exploits don’t interest you
and of his life all I can say is that
when he’d poured out his work
the best of it was gone and then he died.
He was a great man and I loved him.
Not a whimper about his sex life —
how I detest your prurience —
but here’s a farewell literary tip:
I myself am the model for Penelope.
Don’t snicker, you hairless moron,
I know so well what faithful means
there’s not even a word for it in Dog,
I just embody it. I think you bipeds
have a catchphrase for it: “To thine own self
be true, . . .” though like a blind man’s shadow,
the second half is only there for those who know
it’s missing. Merely a dog, I’ll tell you
what it is: “… as if you had a choice.”

–William Matthews

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