Friday, December 31, 2010

Reflections: The Poet's Burden

For the benefit of those who may not be familiar with Italo Calvino’s poetic novel, Invisible Cities, I will state briefly here that it imagines a series of descriptions of cities supposedly visited by Marco Polo in his travels, presented to Kublai Khan as Polo attends the Great Khan’s court. It is a bit like A Thousand and One Nights, but without the overhanging threat, or the narrative content. Invisible Cities is not comprised of tales, but rather of concepts strung together, giving shape and scope to these imagined cities. For a fuller description, click here.

In a recent discussion of poetry and the arts on Facebook, I posited an assertion that the poet, or artist, once he has proclaimed his vocation, and made public the product of his artistic visions, has ipso facto taken on a responsibility to the world at large. This thought was inspired by contemplating these words of the poet, Robert Lax:

It is funny that in most all societies, even though poets may not be well-treated, the idea of a poet is honored. I think it has something to do with vision; that without vision, the people perish. I think the people sense that poets are or should be carriers of vision, and should be those who express it. And people sense that that is needed; that vision is always needed.

If it is e-ffective, one’s art will a-ffect one’s audience, either positively, or negatively. This certainty is what entails the artist’s responsibility; it becomes a moral obligation, reminiscent of charity.

In this light, consider the following excerpt from Invisible Cities. Calvino has Marco Polo describe a city called Laudomia. Laudomia, he says, is not only a double city, allowing equal space for both the living and the dead; but a triple city, in that the unborn are also allowed equal space:

… Rightly, Laudomia assigns an equally vast residence to those who are still to be born. Naturally the space is not in proportion to their number, which is presumably infinite, but since the area is empty, surrounded by an architecture all niches and bays and grooves, and since the unborn can be imagined of any size, big as mice or silkworms or ants or ants’ eggs, there is nothing against imagining them erect or crouching on every object or bracket that juts from the walls, on every capital or plinth, lined up or dispersed, intent on the concerns of their future life, and so you can contemplate in a marble vein all Laudomia of a hundred or a thousand years hence, crowded with multitudes in clothing never seen before, all in eggplant-colored barracans, for example, or with turkey feathers on their turbans, and you can recognize your own descendents and those of other families, friendly or hostile, of debtors and creditors, continuing their affairs, revenges, marrying for love or for money. The living of Laudomia frequent the house of the unborn to interrogate them: footsteps echo beneath the hollow domes; the questions are asked in silence; and it is always about themselves that the living ask, not about those who are to come. One man is concerned with leaving behind him an illustrious reputation, another wants his shame to be forgotten; all would like to follow the thread of their own actions’ consequences; but the more they sharpen their eyes, the less they can discern a continuous line; the future inhabitants of Laudomia seem like dots, grains of dust, detached from any before or after.
The Laudomia of the unborn does not transmit, like the city of the dead, any sense of security to the inhabitants of the living Laudomia: only alarm. In the end, the visitors’ thoughts find two paths open before them, and there is no telling which harbors more anguish: either you must think that the number of the unborn is far greater than the total of all the living and all the dead, and then in every pore of the stone there are invisible hordes, jammed on the funnel-sides as in the stands of a stadium, and since with each generation Laudomia’s descendants are multiplied, every funnel contains hundreds of other funnels each with millions of persons who are to be born, thrusting their necks out and opening their mouths to escape suffocation. Or else you think that Laudomia, too, will disappear, no telling when, and all its citizens with it; in other words the generations will follow one another until they reach a certain number and will then go no further. Then the Laudomia of the dead and that of the unborn are like the two bulbs of an hourglass which is not turned over; each passage between birth and death is a grain of sand that passes the neck, and there will be a last inhabitant of Laudomia born, a last grain to fall, which is now at the top of the pile, waiting.

Imagine if you will the radically different take on these passages as read by a devoutly religious Catholic, whose moral life is dominated by daily contemplation of the abortion and birth-control controversies; or by an artist who is continuously driven onward in quest of recognition and the apparent immortality offered by fame, or even infamy. In creating and publishing his works, the poet, the artist, is obligated to make a good-faith attempt to present a true vision and an inspired prophecy, rather than just one more cynically contrived and self-referential example of onanistic drivel. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Readings: Why Is a Poem a Poem?

Included in the anthology The ABCs of Robert Lax, is an interesting essay by R.C. Kenedy, (yes, Virginia, that’s how he spells his name) entitled (surprisingly enough) “Robert Lax”. Here is an excerpt from that essay, which I found to be instructive, on the subject of poetry:

Poetry begins where objects renounce their own identity in order to become other than merely-themselves. But this is not the whole story. They go through a stage of becoming in order to assert their existence. The question ‘when is a table not a table’ is only a starting point – and the answer (which may declare that, when burnt, it becomes firewood) is not poetry’s chief concern. Between the question and the answer there is a circular path, which runs through the points of the inspiration, to give a framework – which is meant to define a complete and allusive world. In the arbitrary example of the burnt table, the image is capable of referring the potential reader to poverty and its connotations, or to the axiomatic obsolescence of all matter, whether flesh, word or stone. This possibility is the domain of poetry and the dramatically cited instance, which is vouched for by the poet’s passion, confronts actual existence and observes its changes. The vulnerable is-ness of the object need not pass through the stages of becoming to attest the vast confraternity of everything which has a place in time.

Please take careful notes: this will be on the final!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Rodak's Writings: A New Way of Walkin'

I have never had much patience for minimalist or ultra-abstract art. Such things as so-called “concrete poetry” have left me cold. But my new-found interest in the work of Robert Lax, and the understanding that I’ve gleaned from reading a couple of interviews with him—as well as his poetry—have brought me around to a new understanding:

I certainly don’t think that you can tell people how they should take your poems, but I think you should feel responsible for any reverberation that a word you’ve chosen may have. I think that if you say ‘red’, you have to realize that some people will see red! But you also have to hope that the context of the poem itself will establish and clarify what you’re saying. ~ R. Lax; interview with Nicholas Zurbrugg, Patmos – 13th January, 1985

This morning I tried to clear my mind of all “busy,” pragmatic thought, and to simply record the “is-ness” of the moment(s). I found this technique—if it can be called that—to be reminiscent of the spirit of haiku, in that it seeks to distill immediate experience down to its essence. In so doing, I wrote the following poem:


dead timexxxxxxxxxx blue wall xxxxxxxxxxwritten word
dead time xxxxxxxxxxcold room xxxxxxxxxwritten word
dead time xxxxxxxxxxdead time xxxxxxxxxwritten word
dead time xxxxxxxxxxblank page xxxxxxxxwritten word

blank pagexxxxxxxxxblue wall xxxxxxxxx cold room
blank page xxxxxxxx blue wall xxxxxxxxx blue wall
dead time xxxxxxxxxcold room xxxxxxxx written word
blue wall xxxxxxxxxxblank page xxxxxxx written word

dead timexxxxxxxxx written wordxxxxxxxwritten word
dead timexxxxxxxxx cold roomxxxxxxxxx blue wall
blank pagexxxxxxxxxblue wallxxxxxxxxxxcold room
blue wallxxxxxxxxxx written wordxxxxxxxdead time

I think that timelessness is a real value to art, and that timelessness is also always accessible to a serious artist, just as it’s fairly accessible to a serious mathematician or a serious scientist. Timelessness is something that you can hope to work with. Though how you can talk about timelessness and progress at the same time, I’m not sure. ~ R. Lax; [ibid.]

Having completed the first experiment—again following Lax—I translated the same poem from the language of ‘noun’ to the language of color. I plan next to get out the colored pencils and translate the piece from word to image:

xxxxxxxxxxxxOr, Again

light grayxxxxxxxdark bluexxxxxxxxxbright red
light grayxxxxxxxlight bluexxxxxxxxxbright red
light grayxxxxxxxlight grayxxxxxxxxxbright red
light grayxxxxxxxbright whitexxxxxxxbright red

bright whitexxxxxdark bluexxxxxxxxxlight blue
bright whitexxxxxdark bluexxxxxxxxxdark blue
light grayxxxxxxxlight bluexxxxxxxxx bright red
dark bluexxxxxxxbright whitexxxxxxxbright red

light grayxxxxxx bright redxxxxxxxxxbright red
light gray xxxxxxlight blue xxxxxxxxx dark blue
bright white xxxxdark blue xxxxxxxxx light blue
dark blue xxxxxxbright red xxxxxxxxxlight gray

Everybody’s talkin’ ‘bout a new way of walkin’. Do you want to lose your mind?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Reflections: Don't F**k It Up

I invite you to consider first the words of poet, Robert Lax, concerning the role of the poet in the human project; as expressed in a 1985 interview with William Packard:

I think the question that keeps occurring to me whenever we talk about poetry, literature and the rest, is: why are we doing it? Why are we writing it, why do we talk about it, and why do societies in general, at a certain stage of their development anyway, seem to take it seriously as a thing to do. Why are we writing poetry. It is funny that in most all societies, even though poets may not be well-treated, the idea of a poet is honored. I think it has something to do with vision; that without vision, the people perish. I think the people sense that poets are or should be carriers of vision, and should be those who express it. And people sense that that is needed; that vision is always needed. So there’s always or often a place for the poet in a society, and a person who’s writing poetry probably senses too that he’s doing something that matters. And that he should be left to do it, encouraged to do it. At least not unnecessarily hampered in his pursuit.

Okay. Keeping Lax’s vision of the role of the poet in mind, please consider also, in the same light, this wonderful poem by Anna Swir; translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan:


I’m curled into a ball
like a dog
that is cold.

Who will tell me
why I was born,
why this monstrosity
called life.

The telephone rings. I have to give
a poetry reading.

I enter.
A hundred people, a hundred pairs of eyes.
They look, they wait.
I know for what.

I am supposed to tell them
why they were born,
why there is
this monstrosity called life.

Ouch. Yet, consider again Lax, from a bit further on in the same interview:

We are related to all beings on this planet and particularly are human beings: we are all parts of each other. We contribute to each other’s lives in spiritual or psychological ways. We share each other’s dreams and we exchange dreams, and visions. And as we share, the general vision we have becomes larger and sharper, becomes clearer in showing us who we are, and what we are – not only individually, but who we are as one being, as a whole person, one humanity. It all becomes clearer through this exchange of dreams and visions. And one of the regular places for this exchange is in what we call literature – in poetry, drama, in novels – in literature and the fine arts.

If you call yourself “poet” then, or “artist,” you assume a major responsibility. Don’t fuck it up.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Quote du Jour: Where It's At

…I agree that the conquest of naturalism has been a good thing. The struggle for man to adapt himself to an anthropocentric universe is tragic; yet if he had ever really become Christian man would see and understand his present position much better. It is because men never really understood or believed in Christ that we have reached the present position. This is not a cliché, and certainly it is not meant in the sense that “men never became devout Christians.” On the contrary, there have always been devout Christians, but frankly they solve no problems for anyone, least of all the world. Christ did not die on the cross merely so that there might be devout Christians. ~ Thomas Merton; letter to Czeslaw Milosz, 16 September 1961

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Readings: The Man From Nazareth

It might have been the name of the author—Harry Emerson Fosdick—on the spine of the book that caught my eye. There, in a cardboard box labeled “Religion,” amidst a jumble of others, was a thin, black covered, hardback book, and I remember thinking something like “Why would an F.B.I. Director write a book about Jesus? Doesn’t that name (which was vaguely familiar to me for reasons that I still find obscure) suggest a high government official, rather than a man of God? Yet, a man of God was the Rev. Fosdick—a Baptist preacher, to be exact—and a man whose biography is worth taking a glance at.

As I collect books about Jesus Christ, and as the risk of picking up a book at the public library’s used book sale is all of thirty-cents, I brought this one—the full title of which is The Man From Nazareth as his Contemporaries Saw Him—home with me.

I have now started reading it and have to admit that I’m enjoying it. It is nice to have a sensible Protestant voice in my head, once in awhile. It is also nice to read a book on the “historical Jesus” written by a believer (rather than a stone-souled scientist) once in awhile.

As a “writer,” I particularly liked and concurred with this concept of Fosdick’s:

One hesitates to use the word “artist” about Jesus, because he was so much more, but one does not understand him and his impact on his contemporaries, if one fails to see him as that too. In his thinking about God, the soul and the profound concerns of religion with which he dealt, he was never a speculative theologian, working out a formal religious philosophy, but an artist, seeing truth with visual vividness and embodying it in similes, metaphors, parables, which mankind has never been able to forget. If the common folk who heard him were to understand serious teaching at all, they would best understand that.

If you ever come across this book in a cardboard box, looking for shelf in a friendly home, pick up; it will repay your loving attention.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Readings: Merton and Milosz - a Correspondence

Last night, when I was already starting to think about going to bed, I went upstairs to see if I could find a certain book on the shelves in the family room. What I found instead was a forgotten treasure—a book that I had purchased from a catalog along with several others, put aside, and forgot about until I found it last night—Striving Towards Being: the Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz. I don’t even remember what book it was that I originally went up there to find.

I brought the book downstairs and thought I’d just leaf through it a bit before bed, to see if I really wanted to add it to the stack of books I’m already reading. I ended up reading for well over an hour in my chair, and then bringing the book to bed with me—something I almost never do—to read a little more.

I have thus far read about a third of this little (178 pages) book, which begins with a letter sent cold by Merton to Milosz in December 1958 and ends with Merton’s untimely death a decade later; the last letter being a brief note sent to Milosz by Merton from Darjeeling, dated November 21, 1968. Merton was accidentally electrocuted while stepping out of a bath and touching an electric fan, on December 10, 1968, while traveling in Asia.

Thomas Merton, although a well-known writer, a priest, and a Trappist monk, does not seem to be a man that Catholics tend to brag about. He is, however, one of my favorite Catholic writers; probably for all the same reasons that he is out of favor in his Church: Merton was a mensch.

In my reading last night, I found Merton’s letter of May 21, 1959 to contain some thinking that strikes a responsive chord in me. Here, for instance, he is talking about the place of the Christian in the contemporary world; about how one tends to become a bystander—standing around doing nothing while crimes are being committed:

I am more and more convinced every day that it is a religious as well as a civil obligation to be discontented with ready-made answers—no matter where they may come from. How much longer can the world subsist on institutional slogans?

Later in the same letter, Merton discusses his concept of Providence:

Insofar as we are Christ, we are our own Providence. The thing is then not to struggle to work out the “laws” of a mysterious force alien to us and utterly outside us, but to come to terms with what is inmost in our own selves, the very depth of our own being… (and this inner Providence is not really so directly concerned with the surface of life) what is within, inaccessible to the evil will of others, is always good unless we ourselves deliberately cut ourselves off from it.

He follows this observation up immediately with one that I particularly like:

As for those who are too shattered to do anything about it one way or the other, they are lifted, in pieces, into heaven and find themselves together there with no sense of how it might have been possible.

A bit further on, Merton states:

Even as a Catholic I am a complete lone wolf…I represent my own life… But that is not the kind of thing that is likely to be viewed with favor. …But as far as solidarity with other people goes, I am committed to nothing except a very simple and elemental kind of solidarity, which is perhaps without significance politically, but which is I feel the only kind which works at all. That is to pick out the people whom I recognize in a crowd and hail them and rejoice with them for a moment that we speak the same language. [italics added by me]

Speaking to the Pole, Milosz, on the general topic of the Cold War and East-West relations, Merton makes the following prophetic assessment:

There is, in formation, a whole body of potential “new men” in American universities and even in business circles: men without heads and without imagination, with three or four eyes and iron teeth, who are secretly in love with the concept of a vast managerial society. One day we are going to wake up and find America and Russia in bed together (forgive the unmonastic image) and realize that they were happily married all along. It is then that the rest of us are going to have to sort ourselves out and find out if there remains, for us, a little fresh air somewhere in the universe.

Indeed. As I read on in this slender volume, I find myself much more impressed by Merton than I am by Milosz, who seems to me to be a more conventionally political man. I say this despite the fact that Milosz has cited my ultimate mentor, Simone Weil, in nearly every letter (about which I plan to write at another time.)

Near the end of the letter, Merton writes:

Finally, I think it is eminently good that you [Milosz], especially as a Pole, are not listed as a Catholic writer pure and simple. You can do much more good that way. Categories are of very little use, and often to be clearly labeled is equivalent to being silenced. [italics added by me]

Oh my—what I wouldn’t give to find a letter like this one in my box.
MERRY CHRISTMAS to all my visitors, new and old!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Rodak's Writings: Sola Fides

Sola Fides

A priest,
be he Aztec,
Sadducee, or Franciscan,
is one whose livelihood
depends on being believed
when he asserts
the absolute necessity
of his station: a salesman—

a fisher of those willing to believe
there exists a sure thing
in a world designed by the Creator
with probability
as the sole binding agent.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Readings: Another Gass Attack

One of the attractive features of writing one’s own blog is that one is free to state an opinion without spending a lot of time substantiating it with extraneous material. One can simply say “I think such-and-such” and then go ahead and say such-and-such. If somebody wants to contest what you’ve said, they can do so in the comments. At that point you can either defend your opinion, or not, depending on whether you find your reader’s objections to be interesting, or not.

In the following consideration of Cartesian Sonata and other Novellas by the amazing William H. Gass, I am going to cite a few passages that I particularly liked from the last of the four novellas contained in the volume. The title of the work is “The Master of Secret Revenges.”

The first three novellas are all excellent as well. Each is slightly different in form from the others, but also similar in that each is a character study. Here comes my first unsupported opinion: “The Master of Secret Revenges” is a study of ressentiment as exemplified by the title character, Luther Penner. Both the first and the last name of the protagonist (or anti-hero) are significant clues to the character’s significance (that would be unsupported opinion #2, if you’re going to number my transgressions.) He is a clever weakling who spends his life perpetrating increasingly grandiose acts of revenge against those whom he feels to be putting him down. Finally he is martyred in the production of his greatest of all revenges: that of founding a new religion, of which he is the prophet.

As a child, the precocious perpetual victim of schoolyard bullies, Luther Penner temporarily develops the ability to see the souls of his tormentors, from which he gleans the following insight:

We are born morally pure, Luther Penner realized, but life dirties us, and we darken over time, so a self that might have been once radiant within, lightening our skin and shining through our eyes, becomes besmirched by anger, fright, and pride, by pettiness and mean designs. Over time our inner sun will dim, we shall be less and less morally alive, and one day night will pull down its blind, and we shall do a Dirty which leaves us at last with no more guilt or remorse than a squirrel feels for stealing the birds’ seed, and we shall find ourselves finally without humor or indignation or passion or desire or any inner heat whatever. It was what was meant by “the dark night of the soul.” We shall be zombies of the spirit. Like politicians too cynical to bother feeling the cynic’s superiority or even showing the cynic’s sneer.

Luther Penner is projecting like a bandit there (#3), but we note also that he is employing the second person in expounding his nascent philosophy. The next excerpt, although expressing rank bigotry, is presented here because I find it to be, nonetheless, funny (#4). In addition to being funny, it beautifully demonstrates Penner’s understanding of pervasive ressentiment:

He didn’t like fairies much. But he did believe every homosexual was getting even with a parent or two. The gay guy has got his father’s balls in a basket and is carrying them to grandmother’s house to wait for the wolf, he said.

The final excerpt is taken from the book’s closing pages. It is spoken by the novella’s fictional narrator; a man who befriended Luther Penner while both were students at a junior college, and who later researches Penner’s life by collecting his writings and by obtaining an oral history from his family and associates:

…I believe Luther Penner presented us with a mordant yet magnificent metaphysics: life perceived not simply as if it were lived amid a maelstrom of conflicting and competing myths, but as if it were dressed up in illusions deliberately designed by those who have been previously misguided, and who are now getting even as only secret enemies secretly can. How many in one’s own home or neighborhood—to examine a small sample—have been betrayed by isms and ologies of one sort or other, have given money to nutcase causes, and squandered much of the precious time of their lives in vain spiritual pursuits?

It is difficult to argue with that. But, by all means, have at it if you can show evidence to the contrary.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Quote du Jour / R.I.P. - Capt. Beefheart

The world touches too hard. ~ Don Van Vliet


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Quote du Jour: Just For the Hell of It

"The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."
— Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Readings: Gettin' Holy Wid It

I don’t do book reviews, as such. What I do on this site is note what I happen to be reading at any given time, and post excerpts from that reading which strike me as interesting, relevant to my own state of being, particularly insightful, or illuminating. I’m reading a book now that is chock full of ideas falling into all of those categories. The book is The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. The author is Judith Shulevitz.

I discovered this book in the course of giving the New York Times book review’s list of 100 notable books of 2010 a desultory look-see. If you click the link and look at the list, you will see that this title is nowhere near the top. Yet it reached out and grabbed me. Inexplicably, the Times list’s little blurb held such appeal for me that I went onto OhioLink—the state of Ohio’s university resource sharing network—to borrow a copy from the University of Cincinnati libraries. I haven’t been disappointed by having made that little effort.

Simply stated, this is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I recommend it without reservation. At this time, I’ve read a little bit more than half of its 217 pages of text (and xxxi pages of introduction). The first excerpts I selected to share were found in the introduction. The final one that I will post was found on page 88. I could have chosen many more.

I should not give the impression that this is a totally uncharacteristic type of book for me to read. I read on religion frequently and broadly. All religions and many schools of secular philosophy interest me deeply. Religion has, in fact, informed my attitudes to the extent that I often don’t react to things as many people expect, or prefer, that I would react. This does not enhance my popularity. I have, therefore, experienced a bit of what this excerpt speaks of:

... Seen from the outside, the quest for religious solace looks preposterous. Søren Kierkegaard said that religion has a truth so purely interior that it approaches madness. ...Insofar as it is untranslatable, the holy, not to mention the search for it, has the powerful potential to be lonely.

But this book is about the Sabbath, as the title would imply:

Why associate the Sabbath with solitude? ... [A]t the core of the Sabbath lies an unassuageable longing. The Sabbath grasps at that which is out of reach. Qadosh, the Hebrew word for "holy," comes from a root that means "apart, separate, withdrawn." In Judaism, that which is holy is that which has been fenced off. The Sabbath rituals create this boundary, and the boundary creates the experience of otherness that we call the holy. But the inverse of this process is a yearning for an impossible ideal, a utopia that is by definition unattainable. The Law, the legal theorist Robert Cover says, is a bridge between our imperfect world and the vision of its perfection. Religious laws and rituals remind us that we live in exile, not in perfect harmony, neither with one another nor with God.

This next excerpt speaks for itself. I can relate to its every element:

We all know what it feels like to give short shrift to ourselves, our families, and our children, not to mention the stranger in our midst. It feels disgusting. Our bodies, our houses, and our relationships spiral toward disorder and decay. Our nails lengthen because we forget to cut them. Our eyesight blurs because we can’t be bothered to visit the eye doctor. Slime accumulates on pantry shelves. The tone in our spouses’ voices hardens. Children mutiny at times seemingly calculated to be inconvenient. Too busy to attend to our own needs, we lack sympathy for the needs of people who seem less busy than we are. That, too, has consequences. Before long, the underemployed become the unemployable, then the menacing mob.

In this book Shulevitz explores the idea that the ills described above might possibly to mitigated by returning to a dedicated observance of the Sabbath; whether as Jews, or in some Christian version. But most of us are trapped in attitudes which make such a return unlikely:

To those of us who live in a disenchanted, Euclidean world, the category of the holy feels like a superfluity, a drawer into which you might toss odds and ends. Sacred things are relics. Sacred words are abracadabra (the word is a parody of an Aramaic sentence describing God’s act of creation: avra ke’davra, “I create as I speak”). Holy days, once meant to open up the heavens for a glimpse of time on a cosmic scale, are now “holidays,” meant for skiing trips or preschool parties.

In order to enjoy the existential benefits of observing the Sabbath and keeping it holy, we would need to make a personal commitment:

Holy time, then, is time that we ourselves make holy—time that we sanctify by means of ourselves. We have to commit ourselves to holy time before it will oblige us by turning holy. […]
From this perspective, Sabbath rules can be seen as formal exercises in sanctification. Don’t do on that day whatever it is that you do on all the other days. What could be less enchanting than that? By divvying up the world into this kind of activity and that kind of activity, we fabricate holiness. The atheist would say that this proves that religion is a charade. The rabbis would say that this is how we become like God. After all, God ushered his world into being by dividing one thing from another: light from darkness, the heavens from the earth, and so on. Much of Jewish law flows from the Durkheimian notion that drawing distinctions is a holy act.

As a writer, I particularly related to the concept of distinction as an act of creation, and therefore holy. The making of art, whether with words, with colors, or with shapes (or any combination of the three), is always done by making distinctions between the infinite supply of these things available to the artist, so that certain carefully chosen elements are offered to the world as the Chosen ones.

If we could do these things, Shulevitz reasons, new possibilities might open up to us:

I could relinquish the overwhelming burden of being me and take up the lesser burden of being a member of a holy community.

These excepts do not even make a good start at presenting a selection of the fascinating historical facts and comparisons, the glimpses of personal history, and the religious and philosophical contemplation—particularly with regard to time—that has gone into the writing of this brief but richly erudite book. I again recommend it without reservation to any person who is not perfectly happy with his or her relationship to the world that they encounter on a daily basis. X

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Reflections: Liquor & the 2nd Amendment Solution

There's nothing missing from that sign but JESUS:
God bless America!

Friday, December 10, 2010

R.I.P. - James Moody

He was one of the best, one of my favorites; the jazz world has lost a true great.

Here is a contemporary rendition of Moody's signature tune.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Remembrances: Working Class Hero

The is nothing I can write now, 30 years after the fact, that could even begin to measure the scope of our loss. So I am not even going to try.
I will, instead, let John Lennon have a say:

I didn’t hear about it until the next morning. On my way to the subway on E. 198th Street in the Bronx, I stopped in at the candy store on the corner to buy a pack of cigarettes. And there I saw the headlines on the tabloids.

In the job I had at the time, at a medical college on the upper eastside of Manhattan, I had occasion to be in contact with Dr. Stephen Lynn, the E.R. physician who tried, but was not able, to resuscitate John Lennon after he was shot and killed. This brought the whole thing closer to me than it might have been otherwise.

In addition to this connection was the circumstance that in the late summer or autumn of that year, as I was walking up Central Park West to meet my wife at the theater in the Park, I walked right by John and Yoko, who were standing in the street, hailing a cab. New York City is the biggest small town in the universe.

Rest in peace, John Lennon.


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Readings: Jane Hirshfield Strikes Again

Lion and Angel Dividing the Maple Between Them

Easy to see
that the lion and angel
are one visitation,
but how do you come
to offer your throat to either?
In autumn, the trees
learn to drop off
both their disguises,
what finally fills them is simple.
The heart's deepest
affections will equally be devoured.
And still we go ankle deep
into that carnage, lifting first one,
then another part up to the light.
As if we were looking for something simple.
As if what we wanted
were not the thing that falls. ~ Jane Hirshfield, The Lives of the Heart

And so we learn over and over again, in pain, that human relationships can be domesticated only by a steady diet of benign lies. One nourishes the beast on truth only to give it strength enough to leap up and tear out one's throat. I ain't lyin'.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Readings: a Whole Fragment

These are the last five lines of a poem entitled "A Room" by Jane Hirshfield. There are seventeen lines preceding these five; but they stand quite well alone:

And so I instruct my ribs each morning,
pointing to hinge and plaster and wood --

xxxYou are matter, as they are.
xxxSee how perfectly it can be done.
xxxHold, one day more, what is asked.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Revelations: It's Just a Shot Away

Check out this revelatory isolation, found via this site:

HT/Amy McCann


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Readings: a Poem by Jane Hirshfield...

...from her collection The Lives of the Heart:

Late Prayer

Tenderness does not choose its own uses.
It goes out to everything equally,
circling rabbit and hawk.
Look: in the iron bucket,
a single nail, a single ruby --
all the heavens and hells.
They rattle in the heart and make one sound.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Rodak's Writings: Not Quite Dead Yet


The excitement surrounding Facebook friend Keith Kevinson’s announcement that the newest edition of his edgy Every Reason ‘zine (#3) is now in distribution (including among its selections a piece by your humble host), has jarred my rapidly deteriorating memory and sent me off into the depths of the closet for another dusty session of boxing backwards.

This time around, the quest has been aimed at finding copies of the last ‘zine in which my work appeared—a Xerox ‘zine named Redrum after the famous mirror image from Stephen King’s classic gothic novel, The Shining—particularly as seen in the flick of the same name. Not only was Redrum the last ‘zine in which my work appeared, but it is virtually the only publication in which my work has previously appeared.

Redrum was a publication dedicated to the dissemination of the pornography of sex, violence, violent sex, murder, mayhem, dismemberment, crude humor and feelthy peectures. At that time (circa 1984), I enjoyed a very local reputation as a “writer.” Because of this largely unearned rep, Redrum’s editor-in-chief, a medical center laboratory bottle-washer, underground filmmaker, rock guitarist, and Lower Eastside minor celeb, improbably named Tommy Turner, called on me to submit some literary porn of my own composition to help launch his publishing empire.

Largely because I was aching to fuck the socks off his girlfriend, the even more improbably named blonde nymphet-on-smack, Amy Turner (no relation), I obliged. I wrote the piece and turned it over to Tommy in an East 70th Street eatery/saloon called Nimrod—a dive in which a motley crew of artists, drug addicts, show biz aspirants, sexual outlaws of all conceivable genders, local neighborhood resident retirees, high-class call girls, and medical center personnel, boozed, hooked up, and in various often unseemly ways amused each other until the wee hours of nearly every morning the calendar had to offer.

Tommy, as it turns out, happened to show my story, “Undead in Gotham,” to downtown legend, Lydia Lunch. Tommy came and told me that Ms. Lunch wanted the piece for an anthology of outrageous writing that she was compiling. But loyalty prevailed and I foolishly insisted that Tommy keep the piece for Redrum, since for Redrum it had been written. The rest is history. Or not.

As my story is both pornographic and obscene, I will not publish it here. Having provided fair warning, I will provide a link which will take you there, if you really want to go. I will, however, be so bold as to publish here the poem, along with the accompanying graphic that I provided to Tommy as a component of the piece. You can get some idea from the ugliness of the drawing, just how hideous is the text:

Here then, for those of you with a stomach for such things, is a link to “Undead in Gotham.”

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Remembrances: A Prophetic Dream?

Awhile back I dug the journal I kept in 1991 out of its corrugated slumber and posted an excerpt from it somewhere on Facebook. Today being Thanksgiving, and I having some time on my hands, I thought I’d see what it was that I had written on this date, nineteen years ago. I found that I had made only one entry on November 25, 1991, and that it had recorded a dream. This dream turned out to have almost uncanny relevance to what’s going on in our world today—as though the echo caused the sound:

[Notes: “CUMC” is Cornell University Medical College, where I was employed prior to moving to Ohio in the spring of 1991. As for “the Sheraton” reference—I worked in a Sheraton hotel restaurant in Ann Arbor in 1968-1969. There was an employee locker room there.]

Nov. 25.

I awoke this morning from a dream in which I was about to leave a building that looked like CUMC. I was stopped in the hallway by a short, fat security guard who asked me where I was coming from. I said I was coming from the employee’s locker room (the Sheraton). He gave me a look that indicated that this was the wrong response for some reason. He told me to turn around and spread against the wall. I feel shame, but no guilt. I haven’t done anything. Having tried to comply with his demand, I find that I can’t position my feet properly – they get tangled up and I can’t seem to get them into the proper position.

The message of this dream would seem to be that compliance with fascist coercion leaves a man without a leg to stand on. You might want to keep that in mind, if you’re ‘flying the happy the skies’ over the holidays.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Readings: Bearing It All

I really like this poem by Jane Hirshfield from her book Of Gravity & Angels:


It is not this world, then, to blame, with its red
and blue stars, yellow pears, green apples
that carry a scent which can move you to tears.
The others are not unlike this—
the women stand over sinks with their sleeves pushed back,
thin oxen lean into their yokes,
snow falls with impossible lightness in spring.
How do we bear it, then, to guess sometimes
at their lives across the dark?
How they sing as they run cotton towels across porcelain plates?
How they are innocent?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Readings: The Paris Review Interviews #6

Scrolling down the index of posts, I see that it has been more than a month since I last posted a pithy quote from one of The Paris Review Interviews. As fate would have it, my benefactor in the acquisition of this set of amazing volumes (and lifelong friend) Jim, called me yesterday morning just to pose a general wtf? Happily, I was able to report to him, during the course of our brief conversation, that I was three-quarters of the way through the interview with Kurt Vonnegut and would have a quote up on Rodak Riffs in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. I elaborated on that proud pronouncement by declaring that the quote had already been chosen. It would, I declared, be only slightly more wordy than “Jesus wept,” consisting of a single sentence.

But, predictably, the final quarter of the interview has since laid a quote on me that I just cannot leave lying there in good conscience. I will therefore use them both. Rules are made to be broken. Here is the first:

My relatives say that they are glad I’m rich, but that they simply cannot read me.

To the extent that I can call myself a writer, I’ve certainly been there (except, of course, that I’m not rich.)

The final quote was generated within the context of Vonnegut discussing himself as a humorist. His novels, he said, were constructed by stringing together series of jokes. The interviewer asks Vonnegut if it’s true that he prefers Laurel and Hardy to Charlie Chaplin. In response, Vonnegut provides my second chosen pithy quote:

I’m crazy about Chaplin, but there’s too much distance between him and his audience. He is too obviously a genius. In this own way, he’s as brilliant as Picasso, and this is intimidating to me.

That is a new idea to me, and strikes me as precisely spot-on.

Consider also this timely UPDATE

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Readings: A Natural Gass

Some backstory: When I was growing up in Ann Arbor, I knew this kid named Johnny Jones. I knew him first as a member of my little league baseball team, when I was eleven years old. Then I lost sight of him for a few years, because he attended different schools that I did. I attended the public high school, but Johnny Jones went to the University of Michigan’s 12-grade laboratory school, known as “U High.” He was a star guard on their basketball team, and I saw him play a couple of times, because I had a friend from the neighborhood who was a student at U High.

Like me, Johnny Jones attended the University of Michigan, as an English major. In my freshman year at Michigan, I met the kid who had played center on the U High basketball team , and through him got back in touch with Johnny Jones. It turned out that Jones could play guitar. He did a better finger-pickin’, bottle-neckin’ version of “Panama Limited” than did Tom Rush, according to some. Jones was also wildly enthusiastic about the writings of a guy named William H. Gass. He was particularly enthralled by the novel Omensetter’s Luck. And then there was the story collection, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. Going on the assumption that anybody who could drain a jumpshot and play guitar the way Johnny Jones could must also have superior judgment concerning matters of contemporary fiction, I eventually acquired and attempted to read both of those books. And I was disappointed. I didn’t get it. My estimation of Jones plunged below the radar.

Jump now to the present. Forty-five years have passed under the bridge. In the course of investigating the fiction of Stanley Elkin, I borrow from the library a short-story anthology entitled “Stories from the Sixties” edited by Elkin. The fourth story in the collection is “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” by William H. Gass. Having developed an admiration for Elkin, I shrug and decide to give it a shot.

And it blows me away, folks. How could I have ever doubted a renaissance man like Johnny Jones? What was I thinking? This isn’t prose—it’s poetry; deep, insightful, poetic narrative. The set-up is this: the piece is narrated by man, presumably a poet, who is deep in contemplation of his hometown, described as “B… a small town fastened to a field in Indiana.” The story is divided into sections, titled “A Place” or “Weather” or “My House” or “A Person” etc. The one I have chosen to excerpt, I have chosen because, although it was first published in 1967, it still so well fits what might be called “the American condition." Replace the reference to the John Birch Society, with a reference to the Tea Party, and you could publish this in next week’s edition of Time Magazine:


Sports, politics, and religion are the three passions of the badly educated. They are the Midwest’s open sores. Ugly to see, a source of constant discontent, they sap the body’s strength. Appalling quantities of money, time, and energy are wasted on them. The rural mind is narrow, passionate, and reckless on these matters. Greed, however shortsighted and direct, will not alone account for it. I have known men, for instance, who for years have voted squarely against their interests. Nor have I ever noticed that their surly Christian views prevented them from urging forward the smithereening, say, of Russia, China, Cuba, or Korea. And they tend to back their country like they back their local team: they have a fanatical desire to win; yelling is their forte; and if things go badly, they are inclined to sack the coach. All in all, then, Birch is good name. It stands for the bigot’s stick, the wild-child-tamer’s cane.

This is not the most poetic section of the story. But I don't want to spoil those for you. Surely, you won't want to waste 45 years as I did; and based on the recommendation of Johnny Jones, you will want to read those for yourself.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Reflections: Facing Reality

thoughtless actions . squandered trust . selfish motives . depleted courage . deflected smiles . pitiful postures . lying eyes . pejorative projections . strategic strikings . cynical statements . shattered vows . pre-emptive put-downs . defensive withdrawals . reflexive reactions . attitudinal dysfunction . pathological intent . casual betrayal . empty words . duplicitous agendas . broken promises . missed appointments . bad faith . lost trust . weak commitment . failed drugs :

xxxxxxxxxxi shall not try.

xxxxxxxxxxi shall not share.

xxxxxxxxxxi shall not hope.

xxxxxxxxxxi shall only lurk.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Readings: Just Beautiful

I have taken great pleasure over the past week in reading Patti Smith’s memoir of her early days in New York City, Just Kids. Much of my enjoyment in reading this book has been the discovery of many parallels between Patti Smith’s experience of those years in the late 1960s and the 1970s and my own. She listened to much of the same music, read many of the same books, and visited many of the same places that defined my experience of that era. I will use excerpts from her book to provide examples of just a few of the many such correspondences which so affected me as I read.

Patti Smith is just a few months older than I am. She left her home in south Jersey to move to New York City in 1967, a few years before I left Ann Arbor for Brooklyn. Patti Smith also charted her first course for Brooklyn, and the neighborhood of the Pratt Institute; the very neighborhood in which is to be found my first Brooklyn address, 109 Greene Avenue. Here, she describes the same subway route that I would be taking to travel from my job in Manhattan to my Brooklyn apartment:

xxxAt twenty years old, I boarded the bus. I wore my dungarees, black turtleneck, and the old gray raincoat I had bought in Camden. My small suitcase, yellow-and-red plaid, held some drawing pencils, a notebook, Illuminations, a few pieces of clothing, and pictures of my siblings. I was superstitious. Today was a Monday; I was born on Monday. It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me.
xxxI immediately took the subway from Port Authority to Jay Street and Borough Hall, then to Hoyt-Schermerhorn and DeKalb Avenue.

I was also carrying a copy of Rimbaud’s Illuminations when I arrived in Brooklyn. Patti was almost certainly carrying the same paperback edition that I still have on my shelf to this day:

The next correspondence is not historical in nature. Keeping in mind that the greater context in each instance was a consideration of the nature of art, I was struck by this insight of Patti Smith’s as it parallels the ideas in my poem, “Adam,” which was written in the 1970s:

In the war of magic and religion, is magic ultimately the victor? Perhaps priest and magician were once one, but the priest, learning humility in the face of God, discarded the spell for prayer.

The next correspondence, as recalled by Patti Smith, is another historical one:

Gregory [Corso] took me to the St. Mark’s Poetry project, which was a poet’s collective at the historic church on East Tenth Street. When we went to listen to the poets read, Gregory would heckle them, punctuating the mundane with cries of Shit! No blood! Get a transfusion!

I, too, was taken to St. Mark’s to hear a poet read. My guide was the woman to whom I refer in this poem as “Leah.” The poet reading that night was Robert Lowell. And, yes, Gregory Corso was in attendance. And he heckled the great Lowell throughout the reading.

Compare Patti’s dream of Arthur Rimbaud as she depicts it here to my poem “Song for Rimbaud (on my 29th Birthday)”, written in 1976:

xxxOne afternoon I fell asleep on the floor amid my piles of books and papers, reentering the familiar terrain of a recurring apocalyptic dream. Tanks were draped in spangled cloth and hung with camel bells. Muslim and Christian angels were at one another’s throats, their feathers littering the surface of the shifting dunes. I plowed through revolution and despair and found, rooted in the treachery of the withered trees, a rolled leather case. And in that deteriorating case, in his own hand, the great lost work of Arthur Rimbaud.
xxxOne could imagine him strolling the banana gardens, ruminating in the language of science. In the hellhole of Harar, he manned the coffee fields and scaled the high Abyssinian plateau on horseback. In the deep night he lay beneath a moon perfectly ringed, like a majestic eye that saw him and presided over his sleep.

After Robert Mapplethorpe had acquired a male patron/lover and Patti had moved on to other men, they visited again:

On the surface, Robert [Mapplethorpe] seemed to have everything he had wished for. One after noon we sat in his loft, surrounded by the proofs of his burgeoning success. …He was now a man; yet in his presence I still felt like a girl. He gave me a length of Indian linen, a notebook, and a papier-mâché crow. The small things he had gathered during our long separation. We tried to fill in the spaces: “I played Tim Hardin songs for my lovers and told them of you. I took photographs for a translation of Season in Hell for you.”

I purchased that very edition of Season in Hell, on a whim, from a mail order house, some years ago. It now represents for me something like the completion of a circle.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Remembrances & Writings: 19 years ago today...

Although I have since filled whole notebooks with extensive excerpts gleaned from readings, the last time I kept a daily journal of my thoughts was during the year following my move from New York City to Ohio, 1991. I was not working that year, but was serving as a house-husband and as a caretaker for my two daughters—toddlers at the time. I was able to read a lot, play my guitar a lot, write a lot, and think a lot.
Here, for what it’s worth, are my thoughts as handwritten in a spiral notebook, nineteen years ago today:

November 9-10, 1991

We are made into objects by peer pressure, commercial advertising, social trends, and prevailing ideas (such as political correctness) – all of which, however, we feel ourselves to be immune to because no direct confrontation with other people is involved. An honest self-assessment will show that there are many gaps in our “immunity.” All of these things conspire to contribute to our sense of alienation, and tend therefore to make us schizoid.


Envy is the ultimate form of bad faith. It causes us to hate our whole world without recourse even to conformity for relief.


Our free will is always in conflict with our situation.


When a man announces that he’s going to be “completely objective” about something, he’s either lying (he’s really about to be completely subjective), or he’s acting in bad faith (he’s about to tell you what he thinks you want to hear.)

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx ***

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Remembrances & Writings: Again Boxing Backwards


It is an indication, I guess, that I’ve never thought much about my own posterity that I’ve almost never bothered to date any of my poems or other writings—much less try to get them published. On the other hand, though, I have kept them all; in boxes, in folders, one of which I unearthed the other day.
Within, I found a clutch of poems from long ago. Several of these have pleased me more now than they did back then. I have, therefore, been posting them at a couple of writers’ groups that I’ve joined on Facebook, or as notes on my FB profile page.

But this one I’ve decided to post here instead. It is almost unique in being dated. Adding to this distinction is the fact that the source of its inspiration is documented. Its writing was provoked by an article in Time magazine about a German actress and chanteuse named Hildegard Knef (or, in America, sometimes, “Neff.”)
Being neither much of a cinema buff, nor a fan of European saloon tunes, sung in languages I can’t understand, I’m sure that I’d never heard of her, although she was apparently quite a phenom in Europe. A quick googling of her name just now, disclosed that she was in the United States around the time of the Time magazine article, promoting a movie and/or a book. But I was not able to uncover anything that really clued me in on the nature of her celebrity, such that it gave rise to the kind of frenzy indicated by the excerpt from Time that serves as the poem’s epigram.

This poem is finally distinguished from all others in being adorned by two photographs (as shown above)—the one on the left being the portrait of Kneff from the Time article. The one on the right was meant, I’m quite sure, to illustrate the poem’s line “among the undertaken clowns.” So, the poem:

For Hildegard Knef

In a crazed crowd a young man opened his trench coat and implored: “Please touch it just once. It’s my birthday. ~ Time Magazine, Vol.98, No.1; July 5, 1971

gathered in light
that roars along
cinematic-circus strobe
rocking on the subway walls
among the undertaken clowns
behold the one vague, pale face
that locks the frame
in space and time
by lifting four reflected eyes
passing to the mirror’s plane
(…there once were some passed through the glass.)

and yet they come
through time and space
electric flesh of mirrored light
to say that lust
is the only gender
to crawl the past
down gasping halls
up darkened stairs
whose final step seems always near
ending now before a window or a door
(…she lost her strength, it filled her mouthing ass.)

across the aisle
a gate of thighs
silver stare of mirrored
one-way shades
every window hides a lie
and all these doors
are subtle violations of
the virgin future’s willing past
beneath the red-fringed fright-wig glare
a static greasepaint line
(…despite the sweat and spume, dawn laughed through the pane.)

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx-- 4 August '71

Monday, November 1, 2010

Readings: The Uses of Logic

This brief excerpt is from one of the short stories in The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. The title of the piece is "BEG, SL TOG, INC, CONT, REP"--which refers to knitting, and has absolutely nothing to do with the quotation which follows:

Dr. Diamond told a story about the young daughter of a friend. The little girl had found a frog in the yard. The frog appeared to be dead, so her parents let her prepare a burial site--a little hole surrounded by pebbles. But at the moment of the lowering, the frog, which had only been stunned, kicked its legs and came to.
XX"Kill him!" the girl had shrieked.

Doesn't the conspicuous problem of a live frog at its own funeral demand of the rational faculties a common sense solution? And isn't the little girl's quick calculation analogous, for instance, to those we have recently seen made by our political leaders in their conduct of foreign policy? Since the black holes that are our foreign wars have been dug, don't we need to continue to fill them with more shattered corpses in order to justify the initial digging? It's all quite logical, if you think about it.

Well, isn't it?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Rodak's Writings: Worse Chorus Worst

Verse Chorus Verse

My last set had been played,
My strings were shot;
they could no longer be tuned,
would no longer hold their notes.

Whatever crowd there had been
was face down dead, snoring bubbles
into what had been spilled,
or had long since taken to the door,
having ignored my heartfelt keening
while talking smack to some bottle blonde
with a hearing problem.

Fuck it. To extend this salty conceit, the act was a bust.
The proprietor was not amused.
The tip cup wouldn’t fund a hand job.
And anyway I no longer cared.

Then, out of nowhere, this girl singer
stalks in like T-Rex on her high heels
with tinted hair, looking for a gig.
Hot damn, fire up the amps!
Cue the spot for an encore performance!

Verse chorus verse,
(so ran the score unfurling in my mind)
then the bridge.
Right after the break
she comes in, swingin’ it hard,
torchin’ it like a banshee!


Yeah, right—
here I am, alone again,
me and my brown-bag bottle,
yodeling in the alley…

But I did help
launch her new solo career
and world tour…

Do you think maybe I could get a tee-shirt, bitch?


Monday, October 25, 2010

Readings: of The Ghost in the Machine

from the fourth essay, “Thinking Again,”of Marilyn Robinson’s book, Absence of Mind – the Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self:

As Bertrand Russell pointed out decades before Gilbert Ryle coined this potent phrase [i.e “the Ghost in the Machine”], the old, confident distinction between materiality and nonmateriality is not a thing modern science can endorse. Physicists say a change in a split photon occurs simultaneously in its severed half, at any theoretical distance. As if there were no time or space, this information of change passes instantly from one to the other. Is an event that defies any understanding we have of causality a physical event? Yes. Can the seeming timelessness and spacelessness that mediate this change also be called physical? Presumably, since they have unambiguous physical consequences. Then perhaps we cannot claim to know the nature of the physical, and perhaps we ought not to be so confident in opposing it to a real or imagined nonphysical. These terms, as conventionally used, are not identical with the terms “real” and “unreal,” though the belief that they are is the oldest tenet of positivism. The old notion of dualism should be put aside, now that we know a little about the uncanny properties of the finer textures of the physical.

This consideration, which has long lingered on the periphery of my knowledge base—as an uninvited squatter of sorts—has indeed (now that Ms. Robinson has so forcefully rubbed my nose in it) caused me, of necessity, to put aside my old notion of dualism.

I have not been a positivist. But I have been a dualist of the type: Spirit Good / Matter Bad. As such distinctions become ambiguous, however, so must that species of dualistic assumption. The only sort of dualism left standing would be that of the Good as opposed to the Evil. But if, as we are sometimes told, the Evil has no real existence, but is only an absence of the Good, then what? It’s all Good?

You tell me. I’m stumped…

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Rodak's Writings: Keep Those Home Fires Burning



xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxKeep Those Home Fires Burning
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxa dramatic thingy, in one whatchamacallit

Dramatis personae:

She, the frail, inappropriately garbed victim

He, the unseen voice offstage

[As our thingy opens SHE is seen lying on a thin throw rug on the floor. She is dressed in a bizarre white jacket, which looks as though it might have been constructed of the severed tails of thousands of immature white bunnies, stitched together with eight-pound nylon fishing line. She is propped up on one arm (her right), wearing severely pointed dark shoes which will cause her misery later in life, staring fearfully in the direction of two six-foot tall candles, each of which projects from one of the eye sockets of a human skull, also “resting” on the floor. While the comely woman has only a thin piece of rug to cushion the tender flesh of her vulnerable young hips from what we understand to be the stony unyielding chill of the floor in this dark, dungeon-like chamber, the skull rests comfortably on a soft cushion, which may account for its mocking grin. The dark wall behind the young woman is evidently coated with a black, glossy paint, for it reflects a large circle of light having nothing to do with the tiny flames atop the huge candles and can only be the artificial light of the spot set to enable a visual record to be made of this scene, using primitive photographic equipment.]

She: (fearfully)
Honey? Honey, are you there?

He: (angrily, from the black shadows of the wings, stage left)
What is it now, goddamn it?

I…I think it’s going out!

What’s going out? What the fuck is going out?

The candle! It’s about to go out!

Yeah? Well, there was two goddamn candles the last time I counted, and both of ‘em was lit just fine. Je-sus Christ! Can’t you fuckin’ do anything right?

I…I’m sorry, honey. I guess I got distracted. So, what should I do?

Okay, let’s review: there’s two fuckin’ candles. And you say “it’s” goin’ out. So maybe, if I’m real nice ‘n shit, you will be kind enough to tell me which “it’s” it is that’s fuckin’ going out? Think you can handle that, precious?

Gosh, you don’t need to be so mean about it. It’s only a candle…

Are you gonna tell me which candle it is? Or am I gonna have to come in there and look for myself—and maybe kick your ass while I’m doin’ it.

It’s the one on the right.

Well that’s real good! We’re finally getting somewhere. But—pay attention now—because I’m gonna need to ask you another question—and this one might be just a little bit harder... You say “it’s the one on the right.” That’s good. Now, think hard, sweetheart—is it on your fuckin’ right. Or is it on my fuckin’ right?

Well, gee… I don’t know. I mean, which way are you pointed right now?

Oh, my God! What did I do? Why do I deserve this shit? Yo, genius…I’m not fuckin’ pointed. I’m fuckin’ seated. On the fuckin’ pot. Takin’ a fuckin’ dump. Okay?

Oh. Then it’s the one on your left. ...Honey?

What now, goddamn it? Can’t a man take a shit in peace?

Honey, it’s cold in here! I’m cold!

What you’re cold? Didn’t I light both goddamn candles for you? So how the fuck are you cold? Whaddya want? Another freakin’ skull and two more goddamn candles? What am I? Fuckin’ John Gotrocks, maybe? I work hard to provide your lazy ass with two fuckin’ six-foot tall premium fuckin’ candles and all I get is your freakin’ whining and complaining. You’re fuckin’ cold? Put on your fuckin’ coat— which also cost me a freakin’ bundle by the way!

I already have my coat on!

Oh. You do. Well then—shut the fuck up!


Lord-have-mercy! This better be good!

Why can’t we get a couch?

A couch she says! A fuckin’ couch she wants! The princess wants a fuckin’ couch to rest her pretty little gettin’-fat-already fuckin’ ass on while I’m workin’ my fuckin’ skinny ass off to make a living so I can provide her useless self with not one but two fuckin’ six-foot tall premium candles! A couch! Let me ask you somethin’, princess…


Does my mother have a fuckin’ couch?

Well, no. But—

“Well, no” That’s exactly fuckin’ right. She does not. She does not have a fuckin’ couch. But you think that you should have a fuckin’ couch, while my fuckin’ mother, on whose fuckin’ ass you wouldn’t make a bloody patch, sits on the fuckin’ floor knitting fuckin’ booties for my fuckin’ son, which you better produce pretty fuckin’ soon or I’ll find some other bitch that will. Do you fuckin’ hear me? Do you?

Well gosh, it’s just fuck me then, I guess. (she bursts into tears)

[from stage left we hear the sound of a toilet being flushed]

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxFade to black


Friday, October 22, 2010

Readings: Are You Positive About That?

I am currently about one-third of the way through Marilynne Robinson’s interesting book of essays, Absence of Mind: the Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. Specifically, I am on the second essay, entitled “The Strange History of Altruism.” In this chapter, Robinson briefly recalls the history and cultural influence of positivism, and offers her thoughts on the pernicious effects positivism has had on the concept of the self, in science as well as in art and literature.

Since Darwin, Comte, Freud, et al. and the advent of what she labels “parascientific thought,” the notion of persons acting to benefit others at a real cost to themselves has been discredited, she argues, at a huge cost to the idea of an essential human nature.

I shall post an excerpt from this chapter below, and ask that my readers—particularly the writers and poets among you—to contemplate the significance of this kind of parascientific thought on your creative life project:

…[evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey] Miller states, ‘Evolution cannot favor altruistic information-sharing any more than it can favor altruistic food-sharing. Therefore, most animals’ signals must have evolved to manipulate the behavior of another animal for the signaler’s own benefit.’ And other animals have evolved to ignore them, because it didn’t pay to listen to manipulators. Ergo, it seems, we, alone among the animals, have language. Why the complexity of language and our adeptness in the use of it? Gazzaniga says, “Considering this conundrum, Miller proposes that language’s complexities evolved for verbal courtship. This solves the altruism problem by providing a sexual payoff for eloquent speaking by the male and female.”

Is it true? Are the astonishing sonnets of Shakespeare and the elegant word-play of a Dylan Thomas or a Sandra Agricola (plug!), nothing more than grand elaborations on such classic pickup lines as “Fuck me if I’m wrong, but isn’t your name Martha?”

Is a poet essentially of a kind with the short-lived and behaviorally hard-wired moth on its herky-jerky flight towards an artificial light?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Readings: Talk Radio, Back in the Day

I am currently deep into reading a remarkable novel by Stanley Elkin: The Dick Gibson Show. I don’t like to look ahead while I’m reading, but I can report at this point that the novel is comprised of at least two parts. The first gives us a bit of the boyhood and familial background of ‘Dick Gibson,’ as well as depicting his self-designed apprenticeship in the world of radio, pre-WWII. Part I ends with ‘Dick Gibson’s’ stint, during WWII, as a d.j. on Armed Forces Radio, and a mind-bending hunt for a magical dodo bird on the island of Mauritius.

As Part II opens, ‘Dick Gibson’ (a nom de mic, btw) has established a radio talk show at an AM station in Hartford, CT. Now, this novel is copyrighted in 1970, so it had to have been written by Elkin largely in the sixties. The long excerpt which I’m going to share below is an index of the kind of Special Guests that Dick Gibson has had on his show. What is remarkable about this list is that although it was imagined by Elkin in the 1960s, it could have been imagined by anyone creating a similar character in 2010. Here is Dick Gibson, contemplating the nature of his guests, after having contemplated his audience:

No, he knew little about his listeners. They were not even mysterious; they were there, but distant as the Sioux. He knew more about the passionate extremists who used his microphones…-- the wild visionaries, opponents of fluoride, palmists, astrologers, the far right and far left and far center, the dianeticians, scientologists, beatniks, homosexuals from the Mattachine Society, the handwriting analysts, addicts, nudists, psychic phenomenologists, all those who believed in the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman and the Communist Conspiracy; men beyond the beyond, black separatists who would take over Idaho and thrive by cornering the potato, pretenders to a half-dozen thrones, Krebiozonists, people from MENSA, health-food people, eaters of weed and soups of bark, cholesterolists, poly-unsaturationalists, treasure hunters, a woman who believed she held a valid Spanish land grant to all of downtown San Francisco, the Cassandras warning of poison in the white bread and cola and barbecued potato chip, conservationists jittery about the disappearing forests and the diminishing water table (and one man who claimed that the tides were a strain on the moon), would-be reformers of a dozen industries and institutions and a woman so fastidious about the separation of church and state that she would take the vote away from nuns and clergymen, capital punishers, atheists, people who wanted the abortion laws changed and a man who thought all surgery with a knife was a sin and ought to carry the same sentence as any other assault with a knife, housewives spooked by lax Food and Drug regulations, Maoists, Esperantoists, American Nazis, neo-Jaegerists, Reichians, juvenile delinquents, crionics buffs, anti-vivisectionists, witches, wizards, chief rabbis of no less than three of the twelve lost tribes of Israel, and a fellow who claimed that he died the same year Columbus discovered America.

And to imagine that this list is not even close to exhaustive!

The best laugh I got from Part I, btw, was this passage relating the point in the post-adolescence of ‘Dick Gibson’ when he is leaving home to begin his career:

His mother…called Dick aside and before his eyes transformed herself into a sacrificing mother in a sentimental fable who covertly slips all her life’s savings and most trusted talismans into her boy’s pockets to tide him on his way. She managed to make him feel like someone off to medical school in Edinburgh, say, fleeing the coal mines in which his father and his father’s father before him had worked for years, ruining their healths and blunting their spirits. When he looked in the envelope later he saw that she had given him her recipe for meat loaf.

This book is one hell of a good read.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Readings: The Paris Review Interviews #5

The interview that I chose to read next was that of Brit novelist, Graham Greene. I have enjoyed several of his novels immensely; most notably The Power and the Glory, Brighton Beach, and The Heart of the Matter. The interview, unfortunately, proved to be a disappointment. Perhaps Greene simply dislikes being questioned. Perhaps he was in a shitty mood. Or perhaps the great man is simply a bore. In any event, his responses to the interviewers' questions did not provide me with that one pithy quote for which I was looking, in order to stay true to the ground rules I established to guide this enterprise.

The best Graham Greene quotes to be had in this interview were some of the ones embedded in the questions put to Greene by the interviewers in the expectation, I'm sure, that they would evoke something comparably memorable to submit to The Paris Review.

Well, the best laid plans of mice and men...right? An example of these would be: "You made Scobie say in The Heart of the Matter: 'Point me out the happy man and I will show you either egotism, selfishness, evil or else an absolute ignorance.'" Now, that one could have been the centerpiece of this post. But, alas...

In the same question, the interviewer quotes from The Power and the Glory: "The world is all much of a piece: it is engaged everwhere in the same subterranean struggle...there is no peace anywhere there is life; but there are quiet and active sectors of the line." Yeah. That's why I love the novels.

The one "live" quote in this interview which I found mildly amusing was Greene's response to the question "Do you see much of your fellow authors?" Greene replies:

Not much, they are not one's material. A few of them are very dear friends of mine, but for a writer to spend much of his time in the company of authors is, you know, a form of masturbation.

That's about as good as it gets. Granted, the question wasn't very interesting in the first place...

Probably the quote that best describes the way the whole interview went (and perhaps best characterizes the man as well) is the one with which the piece ends:

[The telephone rang. Mr. Greene smiled in a faint deprecatory way as if to signify he'd said all he wished to say, picked up the instrument, and spoke into it.]

Hello? Hello Peter! How is Andrea? Oh, it's the other Peter. How is Maria? No, I can't do it this evening. I've got Mario Soldati on my hands--we're doing a film in Italy this summer. I'm coproducing. How about Sunday? Battersea? Oh, they're not open? Well, then, we'll go to my pleasant little Negro night club round the corner...

One can see why the piece abruptly cuts off right there.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Readings: The Current List

For much of my life I did most of my reading in bed. But I never read in bed any longer. I now do all my reading in my recliner, deep in the basement of my chilly house, often in the company of a cat or two.

People sometimes ask me what I'm reading. This is irksome because I'm never reading just one thing. And when they ask, the full list evades my tongue. And as I mentally grope to run down the full inventory, I see their faces begin to go out of focus after the third title anyway. What I am providing is too much information.

To accommodate this tall stack of titles, I have a small end table of blonde wood next to my recliner. Because this long since proved insufficient to hold a sufficient quantity of volumes, as well as the couple of notebooks I find it necessary to have at hand, I added a snack table, also of blonde wood, next to the end table. It is about an inch higher than the end table. But that's alright. It does the trick. The fact that it is also of blonde wood is just a happy coincidence.

So, in the event that you are one of those people with some curiosity as to what I'm reading, I'm going to provide you with the full list. Read it all, or read it not. Read some of it now and come back later to finish it. Or don't. That's the beauty of it: you choose.

So here we go:

The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami (stories)
The Book of Folly by Anne Sexton (poetry)
The Dick Gibson Show by Stanley Elkin (novel)
The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, ed. J.D. McClatchy (1990)
The Ohio Review - Number Fifty-five, ed. Wayne Dodd (1996)
I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita (novel)
Anne Sexton - a Self-Portrait in Letters, ed. Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames
Stories from the Sixties, ed. Stanley Elkin
And a Voice to Sing With by Joan Baez (autobiography)
The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. II

That's the complete list. You see what I'm up against when people ask. I've already posted notes on readings from some of these books, either here or on Facebook. And I'll be posting more. I recommend them all, by the way. That pisses you off some, doesn't it?
Addenda: I should mention that I'm also reading The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, but I left that at work. I have Anne Sexton's The Awful Rowing Towards God at work, too. Sorry.