Monday, October 17, 2016

Where the Light Enters You

“Love” by Clarice Lispector

There are times, when one has dropped one’s guard, that the world slips in through the cracks. Staggered suddenly, we are overwhelmed by the pain and suffering about us. We see it as if for the first time—gaudy, garish, profane. It incriminates us; it makes us feel angry and helpless; it shakes our convictions, our certainties; it fills us with longing, with dread. The triggers vary—a song, an illness, a blind man chewing gum. Even everyday exhaustion does the trick. Yet for most of us such occasions, such flashes of insight, are woefully rare. By the time we are adults we’ve become so adept at keeping the world and its agonies at bay that we are hardly aware we are doing it—and with such vigilance, such energy, reflexively numbing (with video, with drugs and alcohol, with the daily violence of routine), if not blocking altogether, those precious sensors in our brains that allow us to sympathize, even to empathize, with the people around us, to feel this life truly, to see and sense it as it is.  

W. H. Auden, in his famous poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” writes,

About human suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…

These lines might very well have been the prompt, the inspiration, for Brazilian author Clarice Lispector’s astonishingly trenchant short story, “Love”. While not an Old Master, she was certainly a Modern One, a writer with an exquisitely refined sense of the pain and anguish of others. The premise of the story is simple: a relatively happy, self-satisfied housewife is on her way home from buying groceries when she spots a blind man from the window of the tram, a grim, if normally prosaic detail that somehow penetrates her defenses and shakes her to her core. Suddenly the safe, cozy bubble she has made of her life is burst. She puzzles,

But what else was there about him that made Anna sit up in distrust? Something disquieting was happening. Then she discovered what it was: the blind man was chewing gum…a blind man chewing gum. Anna still had time to reflect for a second that her brothers were coming to dinner—her heart pounding at regular intervals. Leaning forward, she studied the blind man intently, as one observes something incapable of returning our gaze. Relaxed, and with open eyes, he was chewing gum in the failing light. The facial movements of his chewing made him appear to smile then suddenly stop smiling, to smile and stop smiling. Anna stared at him as if he had insulted her. And anyone watching would have received the impression  of a woman filled with hatred… A second signal from the conductor and the tram moved off with another jerk… The tram was rattling on the rails and the blind man chewing gum had remained behind for ever. But the damage had been done.

The story itself is like the blind man chewing gum; it is a perfect example of what art does best, interrupting the expected narrative of our daily lives, giving us pause, even stopping us dead in our tracks. Rumi once said that “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” Of course the ‘wound’ he speaks of is what all great literature is about—making us vulnerable to others, keeping us susceptible to the world in which we live.

“Love” is one of the many remarkable stories included in the collection, Clarice Lispector: Complete Stories, published by New Directions.

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, October 9, 2016


The House on Boulevard St. (New and Selected Poems), David Kirby

Some Jazz a While (Collected Poems), Miller Williams

The Year They Outlawed Baseball

The year they outlawed baseball
nobody played.
The next year people said
how it used to be,
the center fielder leaping up the wall.
The next year a few men tossed a few
in backyards and basements
without the gloves.
The ball gives off a sound
hitting the leather
anyone around could recognize.
Still people talked
and that was the end of that.
For years the widows kept scarred and lopsided balls
on the top shelves of closets in back rooms
and thought of showing them to trusted friends.

--Miller Williams

Wit, in English, was an invention of the 16th century. The Romans had it too, but these days only a classicist gets their jokes. Englishmen read Horace, made a few translations, then struck out on their own. Smart people are witty, or can be; less smart people are funny; the unsmart tend to mistake vulgarity for humor. And so on down the line until you get to sit-coms that only machines find amusing.

We know that Ben Jonson had wit; Shakespeare did too, in spades, and all of those great metaphysical poets you may have read in college and forgotten. Remember John Donne's "The Flea"?  Or those double entendres that fill Shakespeare's woodsy comedies?

All of the definitions, as well as the etymology of the word, link wit to both humor and intelligence, "a pleasing aptitude for using language in such a way as to make both intelligent and humorous commentary on the human condition" is my own formulation, based on half-a-dozen respectable sources. I note, without surprise, that the use of the word "wit" has declined precipitously over the past century--soon, I imagine, "wit" will join "civility," "dapper," (a word I love), "urbane," and "sophisticated" on the scrap heap of linguistic history. After all, though we are quite comfortable using words that no longer have any meaning--"truth" for example--at a certain point the jig is up: no referent, no word. And where, I wonder, do we look for wit nowadays? In our poets and hardcore troubadours, where else? Those anachronistic beings who labor to keep the language rich in the face of its diminution.

"In the days after my first marriage collapsed, I thought
              Virtue is gone, in the words of old Sir John Mandeville,
the Clergie is in error, the Devil reigneth, Simonie beareth away,
                                          Suicide carrieth off many, and Drink taketh the rest,
one of whom was me--I was sleeping single
            and drinking doubles, oh year, for I didn't have a clue about love,

not one, only the youthful example of my parents
              and my pre-teen foray into the world of beefcake magazines,
of Grecian Pictorial, MANual, and Trim
                                   with their smiling sailors face down on beachtowels,
their Italian teenagers in posing pouches leaning against
          fake Roman walls, their latter day Houdinis in baby oil and chains....

--David Kirby, from the title poem of his New and Selected Poems

There's no "typical" David Kirby poem, except in his use of saw-toothed margins, moments of seeming gravity ("my first marriage collapsed") followed at once by wry forays into tangential scholarship ("old Sir John Mandeville"...old indeed!), utterly arcane cultural citations (when was the last time you saw the word "beefcake" in a poem?), self-mockery (a consistent feature, varying only in degrees of savagery and affection). I wish I had the patience to type out this or any other Kirby poem in its entirety--they're all a hundred or more lines long, meandering through the inner world of the author as he confronts life's little oddities, like attending the funeral of someone he didn't know ("At the Grave of Harold Goldstein") or noticing a dog with a lampshade around its neck while eating--that is while Kirby eats--a patelito ("Winter Dance Party"). The opening lines of many Kirby poems are like the opening quips of one of the older generation of great stand-up comics--a Bob Newhart, a Shelly Berman, or a Milton Berle rather than like one of those contemporary vulgarians know who they are.

[Aside: I can't help it: though he is certainly much better read (without flaunting it) and is much younger, Kirby's self-doubting inner voice constantly reminds me of Newhart, my favorite neurotic funny man. Those old comics did neurosis well--Rodney Dangerfield and Phyllis Diller, or, going back a little, Jack Benny on radio. And if not neurosis, then harmless craziness as with Jonathan Winters and his star pupil, Robin "Mork" Williams].

Here's Kirby--almost an opening monologue:

 "'Enchantee!' says Mrs. Huntington, extending her hand,
                              which I take, my jaw dropping onto my chest
and my brain going into gridlock
                as I tell myself, Think, Kirby, say something,
anything, but I'm just standing there like an idiot...."

Kirby's poems are loosely constructed, but structured; that is, they have a clearly recognizable form that is disguised by their shifts in tone and swings from formal to informal diction, as in this one, "The Ghost of Henry James," a wry meditation on Henry James and especially on Portrait of a Lady, quite a feat, given the high solemnity of almost all of James's work. Should poems make you laugh? Kirby's do, and in this as well as in the erudition, mingling of high and low diction, the rattling lines and off-beat subjects one can see the debt he has to Albert Goldbarth, perhaps our foremost poetic satirist. (See The Kitchen Sink, New and Selected Poems).

Kirby also writes prose books that amaze with their combination of deep reading, cultural savvy, total coolness and approachability. I recommend Ultra-Talk, with a very long subtitle that includes the names of Johnny Cash and Theresa of Avila. Who wouldn't want to have Kirby for a teacher?

Miller Williams mines slightly different poetic terrain. Where Kirby explores the idiosyncrasies of a Kirby-persona in a highly personal way, with a style that is perfectly suited to his off-beat subjects, Miller Williams is running around in the same world that you and I occupy. The style is quotidian, even bland--William Stafford with a rather more jaded view of the human comedy. Williams has the patient, avuncular tone of someone who has seen it all and decided that wry humor is a better deflector of stupidity than bitterness or cynicism.

One of Those Rare Occurrences on a City Bus

For exactly sixty seconds riding to work
approaching a traffic light going to green
he understands everything. I mean from the outer
curling edge of the universe to quarks,
the white geometries of time, of language,
death and God, the potted plants of love.
He sits there and looks at the truth. He laughs.
What could we want, except for him to laugh?
Understanding all, he understands
he has only sixty seconds, then he returns
to live with us in ignorance again,
and little enough to laugh at. "Do you have a pen,"
he says to the man beside him,
"that I could use?" The man pats his pockets
and shakes his head and shows his open palms
to say that he is sorry. Fifty-three. Fifty-four.

Not a perfect poem--he might have stopped at line 12--but a good one, and typical of Williams's style and voice and world-view. Over and over he takes a look around and sees what we all see--violence and friendship and love and dying--and turns them over in his mind's eye, scrutinizes them, then offers them back to us clarified, intelligently parsed and wittily presented.  There's a searching, spiritual side to Williams, the sort of questioning attitude that reminds me of the metaphysicals. The wit of poems that say something like "Hell, I can't make sense of anything, but here it is, as I see it, and just to make sure I'm seeing aright, here are half-a-dozen things I've also seen that are sort of like this, but not quite." One of the reasons why the poems of Williams and Kirby are so chock-a-block with references and ideas is that making sense of things requires a mighty big tool kit. Any old problem can be torn to shreds with reason alone, but the witty poet understands that the point isn't to analyze the world, or to change it, but to grease it up enough so that it will fit into some sort of order that we have concocted for ourselves. Borges did this with his fictions, perhaps better than anyone else, and I can't think of any writer who matches Borges for wit in the classical sense--but that's the idea: not compiling irrelevant information but recognizing that you have to sort through a great deal of debris to find a way to fit the new fact into the world you inhabit.

Let's add this to our definition of wit: the willingness to directly address our failure to come up with a story that will convince anyone that we know what we're talking about. After all, what's funnier than ambiguity?

Hu's on first?

George Ovitt (10/9/16)

David Kirby is published by Louisiana State University Press; Miller Williams by University of Illinois Press

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador
                                                          by Horacio Castellanos Moya

For many readers (and writers) like me, the novelist Thomas Bernhard stands, now some twenty years after his death, as a literary prophet, a destroyer of idols, a seer-priest of the secular-humanist world. Relentless in his criticism of his native Austria, of the hypocrisy, dogmatism, jingoism, racism, and philistinism he found in such abundance there, he revered the loner, the scholar (what he called Geistesmenschen 0r ‘spirit-people’), the eccentrically, brilliantly, mad. 

Enter Edgardo Vega, expatriate professor, returning from exile in Canada to war-torn El Salvador for his mother’s funeral. When the novel opens we find him sitting with an old friend of his, following his mother’s wake, in a bar called La Lumbre, where he has been biding his time before returning for good to Montreal. The conversation, a single long paragraph, is charged with urgency, bitterness, and fury. “…I have to chat with you before I leave,” explains Vega to his friend, “I have to tell you what I think about all this nastiness, there’s no one else I can relate my impressions to, the horrible thoughts I’ve had here…” What follows is a dazzling tirade against his native land and its cultural self-destruction as the result of its recent civil war, a virtual apocalypse of greed and violence that laid waste to nearly everything he held dear. Writes Castellanos Moya, “With the relish of the resentful getting even, I wanted to demolish the culture and politics of San Salvador, same as Bernhard had done with Salzburg, with the pleasure of diatribe and mimicry.”

Surely he had plenty against which to rail, against which to vent his ardent spleen. The twelve year Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992), a struggle for power between the military-led government of General Carlos Humberto Romero and the FMLN (Farabundo Marti Liberation Front), was one of the most violent chapters in the history of Central America, claiming the lives of more than 75,ooo people. Wrote Reinaldo Figueredo, in his summary of the conflict for the U.N. Truth Commission, “In examining the staggering breadth of the violence that occurred in El Salvador, the Commission was moved by the senselessness of the killings, the brutality with which they were committed, the terror that they created in the people, in other words the madness, or locura, of war.”

Robert Walser once said, “You can’t confront your own country with impunity.” In the case of Castellanos Moya, he was right about that, for shortly after the novel’s publication his mother, still living in San Salvador, received a death threat from an anonymous caller. The author himself was warned never to return, as Salvadorans at large were incensed by the novel, by his unforgiving portrait of them and their country. Even friends and family were enraged by this brief, acerbic tale in which he spared nothing and no one, excoriating them for their papusas and their politics, and lambasting their language itself with his sharp and fulsome ire: “…not in vain is cerote the most repeated word in their language, they don’t have any other words in their mouths; their vocabulary is limited to this word cerote and its derivatives: ceretísimo, cerotear, cerotada.” Cerote—as you might have guessed by now—means ‘shit’.
In what was perhaps a gesture of consolation to his disgruntled compatriots, Castellanos Moya explained “…that some countries would require many more pages to complete their Revulsion…”! I guess even a back-handed compliment is better than none at all. 

Peter Adam Nash 

Sunday, September 11, 2016


My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante

"My Brilliant Friend is a large, captivating, amiably peopled bildungsroman." James Wood, writing in The New Yorker

I must confess that I didn't share Mr. Wood's enthusiasm for My Brilliant Friend--I found the novel neither large nor captivating--and as for "amiably peopled," I wonder if Mr. Wood means that Ms. Ferrante felt amiable as she drew her characters or that he found the characters to be amiable as literary creatures--impossible to say. For my part, I found the scores of individuals who adorn what is essentially the pas de deux of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo to be neither amiable nor fully conceptualized: they act only as foils for what really interests Ms. Ferrante, which is the complex friendship (hateship, loveship) of two girls who grow up in a rough and tumble working class neighborhood of Naples. Elena tells the story. It is her version of her life with Lila; we have no information about Lila's inner life, nor do we know much about Elena's. If this is a bildungsroman, it is one with an astonishing lack of psychological depth or even authorial curiosity. It's a made-for-Masterpiece Theater sort of novel, one that could be filmed without loss of motivational depth or character analysis; what you see happening is what happens, the world of Naples in 1950 nicely fits with the liberal view that everyplace is anyplace when it comes to entertainment--really, it's all the same, Upstairs and Down. If Universal Studios picks up the Ferrante franchise there will be gondolas and knife fights, handmade shoes and widows in black dresses. The Godfather, told from the children's perspective. A Catholic neighborhood without priests; lust without sex; learning without knowledge. The novel is like a watercolor, a miniature on an enormous canvas.

My favorite bildungsromans are these, in no particular order: To Kill A Mockingbird; Look Homeward, Angel (Thomas Wolfe); Stoptime (Frank Conroy); Great Expectations and David Copperfield; Portrait of the Artist; and Of Human Bondage (Somerset Maugham). Is Huckleberry Finn a bildungsroman? Invisible Man? Harry Potter? Some would say yes, but I wonder if the key to the sub-genre isn't an epiphany of some sort--not merely "growing up," since a child narrator, over time, will inevitably do that, but a coming-into-consciousness, a seeing more clearly, a revelation of some deep truth. Most biographical novels will have elements of the bildungsroman, but my sense of the thing is that the focus will be on a romantic encounter with the soul or the self--a real insight into something universal about being human--Joyce's Portrait, I suppose, fits my sense of the bildungsroman best of all.  I'm not persuaded that just any book about growing up makes the cut--Henry Roth's sociological narrative Call It Sleep, or James Farrell journalistic Studs Lonigan trilogy feel like artful documentaries, but their insights are social, material, and impersonal. Though I dearly love picaresque novels like Tom Jones, Tristram Shady and The Adventures of Augie March, stories of growing up, and, perforce, of acquiring experience and a degree of self-knowledge, I'm not sure they intend to offer the kind of universal insight into the human predicament that figures like Scout Finch, Eugene Gant, or David Copperfield offer.

I feel churlish about My Brilliant Friend. Everyone loves it. I  have volume two on my desk and plan to read it (later). MBF was entertaining (in places), and I understand that it is the sort of novel that is a million times better than the average Times bestseller. But there are things about the book that were puzzling to me, even off-putting. Take, for example, this scene, late in the novel.  Lila, who was skinny, ugly, and slightly unhinged as a child, metamorphoses--seemingly overnight--into Gina Lolabridiga--a real looker, the kind of Italian woman who drives (as the story goes) Italian men to murder.  Here she is on the beach--the scene is narrated by Elena:

"One of those times [on the beach] I looked up for a second and saw a tall, slender, graceful girl in a stunning red bikini. It was Lila. By now she was used to having men's gaze on her, she moved as if there were no one in that crowded place, not even the young attendant who went ahead of her, leading her to the umbrella. She didn't see me and I didn't know whether to call her. she was wearing sunglasses, she carried a purse of bright colored fabric...."

Sorry, this is Danielle Steele, not "one of the great novelists of our time" (The New York Times). There is no discernible reason why Elena (or the reader) would know that "[Lila] was used to having men's gaze on her," nor is the most interesting question raised by Lila's transformation from a cranky bag of bones into a world-class beauty even addressed in the book, namely, how does Lila see herself? She is, after all, the "brilliant friend," but she has no reality for the reader beyond Elena's confusing caricatures (bright student, driven worker, dutiful yet rebellious daughter, diffident friend). And this would be fine if we could parse Elena's perceptions of the world in any sort of interesting way, if we knew where we were to stand as we moved through the streets of Naples with her as our guide, with Elena as the lone voice and judge of the world we have allowed ourselves to be plunged into. But Elena is as much a blank as Lila--smart yet unintellectual; vain but asexual; dutiful but detached; the center of the universe, but maddeningly oblique on most subjects. Elena changes her mind about Lila and about the boys who like Lila and about her parents and teachers and schooling--she's not so much a cipher as a cloud of words, where, I kept wondering, should I rest my attention? 

Why is this book so beloved? My cynical view is that books like this one satisfy our urge to read "foreign literature," books in translation--to have "multi-cultural experiences" without leaving the comfortable precincts of home. Elena Ferrante offers up a nice story about young women who might as well be from Naples, Florida as Naples, Italy. It's a "good read," not very long, not at all strenuous, not deep, completely (incredibly) apolitical--didn't the poor of Naples have any political thoughts right after World War II? Pasquale Peluso is a communist, but that appears to hold no interest for anyone. The word "Bildung" means "education." A novel of education can be many things, from The Sorrow of Young Werther to Portnoy's Complaint. But what is wanted in an education above all is great depth and perspicacity, engagement with ideas, insight and revelation. For this, I'm afraid, one will have to look elsewhere than My Brilliant Friend.

George Ovitt (9/11/16)

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Golden Age

The Contemporary American Poets: American Poetry Since 1940, edited by Mark Strand (1969)

The original Golden Age was pastoral--zephyrs and barks plying languid lakes, high clouds reminiscence of Orientalist cities, sun (but not too much), distant peaks and the sorts of views a city-dweller might enjoy from the comfort of her carriage. High summer, one imagines, on Martha's Vineyard, a nice Sauvignon Blanc on the portico, oysters, cucumber sandwiches.

Not that one. The golden age of American poetry was urban, gritty and unshaven, fueled by whiskey and cheese sandwiches, adjunct jobs that never quite panned out at small Midwestern colleges --booze, or the temptations offered by frisky undergraduates--manual typewriters, manila envelopes, trips to the post-office for stamps, polite phone calls from editors who knew a thing or two about poetry, readings in bookstores--bookstores!--crowds languid with smoke and wine and an unquenchable thirst for words.

The Golden Age. Not, of course, for everyone. Not for Negros (as they said back then), or for women, or for the poor, or for almost everybody else. But still--if you were young and male and white and got to college on the GI Bill, and had been bitten by the unforgettable verses of the King James Bible, or King Lear and had managed to get over T.S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats, and saw the charms of Auden but didn't have the epic impulse--if you were an American romantic, footloose and lyrical, if you'd grown up in a small town but left at once for New York or Chicago, if you didn't give a shit about money--then you just might join the illustrious American post-modernist pantheon of poets.  [See Saul Bellow, Humbolt's Gift for this version of the pastoral].

Post-modernist? That's Strand's view, not my own. No, these poets were somewhere in between the high modernists and what came after, the waves of language poetry unmoored from meaning, the lines that scuttle down the pages of Poetry and The American Poetry Review and the Paris Review like fishing lines atwitch with carp, poems workshopped to suit the tastes of poets workshopped, which is to say poems produced and not written, formed and not felt. The Golden Age was golden for having been produced by men and women who simply had the urge, loved the language, and were confounded by the world around them. That, after all, is the alchemy of art: talent and opportunity come together at a moment when someone--a patron, William Shawn, Harriet Monroe--cares enough about the art to take a chance, when the publisher has taste and not a rabid yearning for profits and fashion.

Roethke and Bishop, Ammons and Justice and Bly, Corso and Creeley, Dugan and Dickey and the great Richard Hugo and sublime Howard Nemerov and Louise Gluck (still going strong), and diminutive Diane Wakoski, and sad sad Anne Sexton, and the gentlemen James Tate, and May Swenson who always surprises, and little knowns now like Reed Whittemore and David Ignatow, and tragic ones like Randall Jarrell and John Berryman, and the saintly James Wright, and craftsmen like Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht: Donald Hall and John Ashbery (both of whom still appear to write a poem a day), Ginsberg of course, and Le Roi Jones (remember?), and did I mention Philip Levine, Carolyn Kizer, and Charles Wright (three of my all-time favorite poets), X.J. Kennedy whose writing text remains unrivaled, and William Meredith, the discovery of whose work reignited my love of poetry thirty years ago. And many others, ninety-six in all, comfortably residing in the 350 or so pages of this classic collection edited by our finest anthologist Mark Strand (who, modestly, includes only one of his own poems, the haunting "Keeping Things Whole").

I adore all of these writers, each one of whom has a voice and style and concerns that overlap but never duplicate those of his or her peers. America after the war, America during another and longer war. The place of poetry in a philistine society. The aches and pains of America's emergent greatness (written about with irony, anger, awe, and disbelief, depending on the poet). City streets. Restless searching for meaning, or despair over the lack of meaning--or wondering what "meaning" means. There were no limits on subject matter, no forms that went untried, no lexical shyness--crazy diction by modernist standards, a rejection of academic norms--these poets were often found in the academy, but with few exceptions were not of the academy. They wore their learning lightly--no pretentious Greek and Latin quotations, though lots of them knew the classics (Charles Olson was an exception, and, sure enough, he's here with "The Lordly and Isolate Satyrs" sounding for all the world like that Satyr Ezra.)

Here's one of my favorites, from 1968:

You might come here Sunday on a whim.   
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss   
you had was years ago. You walk these streets   
laid out by the insane, past hotels   
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try   
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.   
Only churches are kept up. The jail   
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner   
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

The principal supporting business now   
is rage. Hatred of the various grays   
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,   
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls   
who leave each year for Butte. One good   
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.   
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,   
a dance floor built on springs—
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat   
or two stacks high above the town,   
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse   
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.

Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?   
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium   
and scorn sufficient to support a town,   
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze   
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty   
when the jail was built, still laughs   
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,   
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.   
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.   
The car that brought you here still runs.   
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it’s mined, is silver   
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.

I like to imagine Richard Hugo trying to place this poem with any of today's on-line publishers. Or imagine the response to this poem, by Stanley Moss:

I have not used my darkness well,
nor the Baroque arm that hangs from my shoulder,
nor the Baroque arm of my chair.
The rain moves out in a dark schedule.
Let the wind marry. I know the creation
continues through love. The rain’s a wife.
I cannot sleep or lie awake. Looking
at the dead I turn back, fling
my hat into their grandstands for relief.
How goes a life? Something like the ocean
building dead coral. 
How goes a life? There's a nice line, and its resolution must have taken Moss weeks to come to..."dead coral."
This is a wonderful book to own, to keep handy, to consult frequently. Thanks to commerce, you can buy it, here, for only one cent. 
George Ovitt, (8/26/16) 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

This Twilight of Innocence

The Château by William Maxwell

…wherever one looks twice there is some mystery.

                                            Elizabeth Bowen

In speaking of Italy as the setting for his novel The Marble Faun (1860), Nathaniel Hawthorne (referring to himself in the third-person) wrote, “Italy [he might have said Europe], as the site of his romance was chiefly valuable to him as affording a sort of poetic or fairy precinct, where actualities would not be so terribly insisted upon as they are, and must needs be, in America. No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case in my dear native land.” Overlooking, for the moment, the glaring innocence (read: ignorance) of this observation (think of slavery, think of the forced removal and genocide of native peoples), Hawthorne nevertheless captures a sentiment that has resounded powerfully throughout the history of this still-young nation he called home. From Hawthorne’s own The Marble Faun, Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, Henry James’s Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady, and Edith Wharton’s “Roman Holiday’ and The Buccaneers to Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky, Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, and Darryl Pickney’s Black Deutschland, the story of the innocent American abroad is a theme that has figured prominently in our literature since the nation’s bold if uncertain founding. 

The Château by William Maxwell, first published in 1961, is a brilliant variation on this beguiling, seemingly inexhaustible theme. Set in war-torn France, in the years immediately following the Nazi Occupation, Harold and Barbara Rhodes are among the first tourists to venture there, eager to absorb and bear witness to the sort of history they, as Americans, have never known. Once in  France it beckons them from everywhere; it throbs for them like a missing limb, as they tour the ruined villages of Normandy, as they take in the fabled Mont-Saint-Michel, and finally as they accustom themselves to the quirks and austerities of Château Beaumesnil, where—innocent of everything but their desire to see (a desire colored mostly by novels and films)—they have reserved a room for a proper two-week stay. 

Almost at once the disappointment and confusion set in: “Was something not here that used to be here and everywhere in France? Had they come too late?” Harold wonders, early on in the story. Of course, as most travelers know, one seeks an adventure in part for exactly that feeling, for the mystery of it, the bumbling, the sometimes fearful confusion of signals and signs. One seeks such experiences for the way they unravel one, distort one’s reflection, for the way they humble and bewilder one. Each time one travels one is forced to learn the world again, to see it freshly; one can take little for granted. One is forced to entrust oneself to others, in whom even the simplest gestures and expressions must be reckoned anew.

At heart The Château is a novel about just that, about the human need to periodically disrupt one’s own life, to quicken one’s senses, to challenge one’s complacency—one’s opinions, one’s values, one’s routines. Good traveling—like good fiction—shakes one; it muddies the water in which one’s truths and certainties swim. Merely the anticipation of arriving somewhere strange is sometimes enough. In fact Harold’s perspective, his perception, is altered even before he steps foot on French soil, setting the tone for all that is to come. Looking out the porthole of their ship on the morning of their arrival, he considers the city of Cherbourg rising dreamlike beyond the breakwater:
The light splintered and the hills and houses were rainbow-edged, as though a prism had been placed in front of his eyes. The prism was tears. Some anonymous ancestor, preserved in his bloodstream or assigned to cramped quarters somewhere in the accumulation of inherited identities that went by his name, had suddenly taken over; somebody looking out of the porthole of a ship on a July morning and recognizing certain characteristic features of his homeland, of a place that is Europe and not America, wept at all he did not know he remembered.

Read this novel, then go to France, go to Europe, and see.

Peter Adam Nash

Thursday, August 11, 2016


The Age of Atheists, Peter Watson

Ostend, Volker Weidermann

I and Thou, Martin Buber

The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis

The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer

"What Binds Us," Jane Hirshfield

Music by Igor Stravinsky and Steve Reich

"In the day to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship."

--David Foster Wallace

I'm listening to Steve Reich's "Tehillim" on vinyl as I write, a recording I bought in 1981 at a record shop in Providence (!), a possession as valuable to me as my copies of Plato's Dialogues or Shakespeare's plays. "Tehillim" is of course the Hebrew word for Psalm; Reich chose the well-known lines from Psalm 19 that begin "The heavens declare the glory of G-d,/the sky tells of his handiwork," and the lovely lines from Psalm 34, "Who is the man that desires life, /and loves days to see good?/
Guard your tongue from evil, / and your lips from speaking deceit. / Turn from evil, and do good. / Seek peace and pursue it." The B-side covers Psalms 18 and 150. The music is incantatory, hypnotic, like the plainsong one hears during the recitation of the Hours in a monastery.  The voices intone each Hebrew syllable with equal stress, as though reaching through the words toward the divine: "Ha-sha-my-im, meh-sa-peh-peh-rim ka-vohd-Kail." Reich was among the remarkable collection of artists gathered by Manfred Eicher at ECM in the 70's and 80's--I own dozens of records from this era by musicians like Ralph Towner, Jan Garbarek, Gary Burton, and Pat Metheny. Eicher allowed Reich and the rest to experiment with long, loosely structured compositional forms, non-traditional arrangements, and unexpected concatenations of instruments. The sublime series of Keith Jarrett improvisational piano works is part of the ECM catalogue; these performances stir in me a sense of awe at the beauty of the (sonic) world. Like Reich's "Tehillim", like the sublime poetry of the Psalms themselves, they evoke a feeling that must be akin to worship.

 Don't be alarmed. This won't be a Christian apologetic--or an apology for any other religious persuasion. Like sex, religion is private, or should be. Public sex is pornographic; so are public ravings that purport to describe one's private conversations with the deity (de rigueur for any American aspiring to public office). We really do need to revive the idea of reticence, of a divide between our public and performative selves (high drama!) and our silent, solitary, authentic selves; but that's another topic, for another time.

The impetus for this post was some reading I've done this past week in Buber and Schweitzer, in Peter Watson and in the short historical essay Ostend by Volker Werdermann.  I often read in themes. This week's theme was cultural despair, informed in part, I admit, by the American presidential election. Werdermann's little book on Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig in the resort city of Ostend in the middle 1930's is a deft and affecting lament for Europe's second collective suicide of the twentieth century. Roth, a more cynical and worldly figure than his romantic and somewhat naive friend Zweig, understood what would transpire with the Nazi seizure of power; Zweig came to see the future as well, and perhaps, in his sobriety, rather more clearly than Roth, though not before he'd convinced himself that Europe's humanistic traditions would prevail over fascism. By 1936 such a belief in "humanistic traditions" was farcical, suicidal, and Zweig decamped to Brazil (a story brilliantly told in Peter Nash's new novel).

After Ostend I ventured into the dense intellectual history of Peter Watson's The Age of Atheists. Watson is a breezy and readable intellectual historian--his encyclopedic The German Genius (2010) pays homage to a remarkable tradition of artistic and philosophical achievement, while at the same time lamenting the rapturous mass destruction of those very traditions--and of much else besides. 

 Watson's thesis isn't original, though he examines it with care: with the "death of God" proclaimed by Nietzsche, Western persons yearned to fill a spiritual void in their lives--without the promise of transcendence, without the rich symbolism of religion, without the moral guidance of Scripture, Western life devolved into violence and chaos, the chowder-headed philosophy of Being and Time, the facile narcissism of Sartre's existentialism, into nihilism, preening aestheticism, war and genocide, greed and consumerism, mad science and bad science, and then, of course, right back into the arms of wacko fundamentalists. Watson isn't put off by the emptiness of most of the failed sources of meaning he describes--on the contrary, the age of atheists is mostly depicted as level-headed, devoid of delusions, married to progress. In other words, as liberal, the secular city upon a hill.

Everybody worships--but what exactly? Watson aside, if you subtract God (or Truth, or Meaning--all metaphysics, all general nouns) then--be honest--there isn't much left to provide us with hope and comfort. History is a blood-bath; philosophy, which abandoned the project of meaning with Nietzsche, has devolved into technical arguments whose arcane vocabulary has closed the discipline to all but specialists; politics has surrendered the common good for dramas of self-aggrandizement and therefore accepted the "pragmatic" necessity of pandering to the basest instincts of an increasingly ill-informed electorate; and theology, particularly Catholic theology, persists in repeating ancient fairy tales and demanding "faith" in place of understanding. A sorry spectacle, and one whose discontents have not been eased by the alternative beliefs outlined by Watson.  I adore Joyce and Proust and Joseph Roth and Zweig, but their effect on my "soul," my inner life, is fleeting, narcotic, comforting, but no substitute for belief in...what? I love literature, but can I worship it?

I find the "new atheists"--unlike the intellectually astute "old atheists" like Bertrand Russell--to be a sorry lot. Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett mistake what can be said about believing in God for the actual experience of believing in God. Their mockery of the tall tales that fill the Bible and other religious books feels cheap, rather like laughing at the sentimental banalities of a greeting card or mocking someone who really enjoys Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee"--as if a heartfelt wish for joy or an expression of love is diminished by words that can't live up to the feeling. As if the feeling doesn't come first.

The truth is simple: all deep feeling, every profound conviction, any belief that isn't merely a passing fancy, dammit, everything that matters lives in us in a place that language cannot penetrate, does not even belong. Who came up with the idea that language defines the limits of truth?

Martin Buber is among the theologians I still read. I cannot endure Catholic theology, though I have browsed the admirable Pope Francis's little book The Name of God Is Mercy (sorry Il Papa, I'm not seeing it), as modest and lovely a Q and A on faith as you will ever find--and as ecumenical a book as I have ever read, touching in its sincerity. However, Francis is unique. With rare exceptions, his parish priests and conservative bishops have never outgrown Augustine's self-loathing or Paul's horror of the body. Jewish and Protestant theologians are another matter. Especially German theologians, a point that Watson makes in The Age of Atheists. With great finesse and astonishing erudition--they all read Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and Latin as well as all the modern languages--men like Buber, Hershel (a Pole), Schweitzer, Tillich, Niebuhr (American born, of German descent), Oscar Cullmann, Karl Barth (Swiss) and many others, revitalized theology as a legitimate intellectual pursuit.   

I and Thou was the first serious work of theology I ever read. Buber theologizes Kant's profound ethical idea of the categorical imperative (there are several versions, but they all stem from the same insight). The greatest moral imperative we have is to treat others as ends in themselves, never as means to an end, never as objects, never in a way that we couldn't imagine conceptualizing as a universal moral law, binding on everyone, always. Concise and intuitively appealing, central to any ethics, the entire point, one would hope, of Judaism and Christianity. The lonely, alienated "I" of Being and Nothingness become an I-Thou relationship in Buber's theology. Rather than focus exclusively on human perception, as most philosophy since Comte has done, Buber privileged relationships--to things, to the world, to other people, and, through other people, to God. Buber's theology appears to have been deeply influenced by Husserl, by the phenomenological insight that perception and experience are relational, and that consciousness is inherently creative. Human beings desire "to possess God," desire "a continuity in space and time" that comes with possession of God. Communal life and the desire for "salvation," that is, for deep relationships, constitute the core of Buber's I-Thou relationship. There's a gentleness and humanity in Buber that appeals to me, a sense I also get in reading Spinoza that I am witness to a profound intellect yearning for truth. I don't understand everything, or even much, but reading Buber is not unlike a walk in the woods: you may not be able to name all the trees and plants, but you feel refreshed by the exercise.

I won't attempt to summarize Schweitzer's classic Quest, or his life, which was extraordinary in every respect. Had he only written this volume of historical theology, or his magisterial book on the life and music of J.S. Bach, or done nothing but found a hospital in what is today Gabon (French Equatorial Africa), his life would have been remarkable, even saintly. When I think that Schweitzer shares the honor of a Nobel Peace Prize (1952) with the likes of Henry Kissinger and Barak Obama I have to laugh to keep from weeping. Schweitzer used his prize money to found a hospital for lepers.

The "historical Jesus" is a mode of dealing with one of the fundamental problems of Christianity, namely the fact that the founder and his contemporary disciples saw their faith as apocalyptic, that is, they believed time was coming to an end, and that the events prophesied in Daniel and Isiah were close at hand (Mark 13). Schweitzer took up the challenge of historicity through a brilliant critical survey of Protestant theology, and a reconceptualizing of Jesus's message. Specifically, Schweitzer focuses on the paradoxes, contradictions, and indecipherability of Jesus's words. And the greatest of these paradoxes, plain to anyone who reads the Gospel of Mark (the source of the other three) is the idea of predestination. In Mark, chapter 4, verses 10-12 Jesus explicitly says that his teaching in parables is done to keep the message of salvation closed to those who are not among the chosen. If the message weren't esoteric, "they might be converted and forgiven," clearly not a desirable outcome. Nor did the Parousia, the Second Coming of the Son of Man, occur as prophesied, so that the fundamental beliefs touted by Christians have at their core what is at least a paradox, if not an outright contradiction. A religion of ending, St. Paul had to reinvent the faith as a religion of waiting--this was a tall order, and if one reads Paul objectively, it is easy enough to see that he failed. Modern theology, Schweitzer observes, with its emphasis on what is universal in Christianity, distorts the historical facts and the nature of world-negating message of the founder. There is much to admire in Jesus, but there is much to be confounded by as well. Schweitzer as musicologist, physician, and humanitarian was committed to seeing clearly and to telling the truth as he saw it.

What should we make of these arcane arguments, these attempts by theologians to create a form of meaning that doesn't mock history or human reality? I am persuaded by Schweitzer's earnestness, his willingness to debunk a century and a half of theological preconceptions, but his Jesus is no more appealing to me as an object of worship than the "Lord" invoked by Rev. Falwell. In the end I return to Watson's thesis: we're trying to fill a void left by the death of God. Some fill it with art and some with a rereading of ancient religious texts; in either case the effort falls short, the crude hand print of wishful thinking is everywhere evident.


By this point I have moved on from Steve Reich and am listening to Stravinsky conducting his "Symphony of Psalms," composed in 1930 for Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The text of the first movement is from Psalm 38: Quoniam advena ego sum apud te et peregrinus sicut omnes patres mei,  "Like my fathers, I am a stranger to You, and a wanderer," or perhaps better--"You are a stranger to me, just as You were to all my fathers--and I am a seeker." Which pretty much sums up the case.

Why so coy, so hidden, so cruel, at least within the ethical terms human beings are permitted to understand? Why, contra the good Pope, is there so little justice and virtually no mercy? Couldn't it be, shouldn't it be, otherwise? Imagine an invisible and unknowable lover leaving opaque notes lying about a vast desert and then enjoining us, on no evidence whatsoever, to love her unconditionally. Absurd. Beyond even a "leap of faith," a catapult into the void.

So, if David Foster Wallace is correct, and I believe that he is, what do we choose to worship? Or, since it's none of my business what you do, what should I worship?

I have no idea. My prayers these days--what I call the words cast into the Great Void like bars of Bach's Goldberg's set adrift on NASA's probes for intelligent life--are full of thanks for family and friends, for mountains and the Gulf of Mexico, for great books and stirring music. As a kid I asked for stuff: "Lord, please can I have new ice skates?" Older, I merely wish to record my gratitude for this lucky chance, for a shot at being human (as the Buddhists put it).  As for worship, let's say I'm open to suggestions.

I'm going to give the redoubtable Jane Hirshfield the last word in this long post; Jane H., a modern mystic--it's "What Binds Us," and is from the early collection Of Gravity & Angels. Try to find a Hirshfield that isn't as deep as scripture:

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they've been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There's a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—

And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.

George Ovitt (8/11/2016)

Monday, August 8, 2016

Two Poets Never Met

Alejandra Pizarnik and Samih Al-Qasim

I like to imagine certain writers meeting, the stranger, the more unlikely the pairing, the better. Surely an encounter between the late Jewish Argentinian poet, Alejandra Pizarnik, and the late Druze Israeli poet, “the Palestinian Lorca’, Samih Al-Qasim, would fit the bill. Indeed their visions as poets could hardly be more distinct: while Al-Qasim’s poetry is ever directed outward, toward others, born as it was of his life-long struggle for social justice in Israel and Palestine, Pizarnik’s is decidedly reclusive, reflexive, every bit the product of the ‘brawling’ inside her head. Her poems echo with loneliness, abandonment, despair:


your voice
in this inability to escape                                         
my gaze
things rid themselves of me
if it isn’t your voice
turn me into a boat on a river of stones
a rain isolated in my fevered silence
you undo my eyes
and I ask
you please
to speak to me


Someone goes into the silence and abandons me.
Now solitude is not alone.
You speak like the night.
You announce yourself like thirst.


The hour when the grass grows
in the memory of a horse.
The wind issues innocent speeches
in honor of the lilacs,
and someone enters into death
with open eyes,
like Alice in the land of the seen before.

I Am Forbidden To Look At The Grass

   A naked mannequin in the wreckage. They set fire to the store window and left you posing like a frozen angel. I’m not making this up: what I’m saying is an imitation of nature, a still life. I am speaking of myself, naturally.


                            For Octavio Paz

    And it's always the lilac garden on the other side of the river. If the soul should ask you if that is far from here, you should say, On the other side of the river, not this one, but the one over there.

By contrast, Al-Qasim’s poetry, while also personal, moves immediately outward, toward the lives, the conditions, of others, fusing his condition, his fate, with that of his people’s:

End of A Talk With A Jailer
From the narrow window of my small cell,
I see trees that are smiling at me
and rooftops crowded with my family.
And windows weeping and praying for me.
From the narrow window of my small cell—
I can see your big cell!


The day I’m killed
my killer will find
tickets on my pockets:
One to peace,
one to fields and the rain,
and one
to humanity’s conscience.

I beg you—please don’t waste them,
I beg you, you who kill me: Go. 

In his poetry there is also, and not surprisingly, a deep and tragic connection to place:

Sadder Than Water

Sadder than water,
in death’s wonder
you’ve distanced yourself from this land.
Sadder than water
and stronger by far than the wind,
longing for a moment to drowse,
alone. And crowded by millions
behind their darkened windows.

You distanced yourself from yourself.
So that you might remain
on the land.
You will remain.
(People were useless… the land was useless
but you’ll dwell on.)
And in the land there is nothing,
nothing but you…

There, now that I have set them talking—amidst the olive trees in Al-Qasim’s garden in Rama, in Pizarnik’s cluttered apartment in Buenos Aires—just pull up a chair and listen.

Recommended Reading:

Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972 by Alejandra Pizarnik, New Directions
Sadder Than Water: New & Selected Poems by Samih Al-Qasim, Ibis Edtions

Peter Adam Nash