Thursday, September 30, 2010

Remembrances: Once Again, Boxing Backwards

Back in my bedroom closet, once again boxing backwards, I pulled out of my files an early collection of poems which I had given the title Grassfires. I've been posting some of the poems from this collection on Facebook and elsewhere, but for some reason, I felt it appropriate to also post this one here. I probably should wait a few years, until it would be an even four decades old. But who knows if I'll make it to that juncture? So I post it now:

Song for Rimbaud (on my 29th birthday)

Rimbaud! you exiled your art, your world a crystal
phrase which you banished to a coolie’s share of
blood-sweat, bland rice, a hermitage of dark women,
strange money – a slave trader’s greed – your Abyssinian
revenge knew no charity but the charity of death, a
pitiless bourgeois vengeance: cancerous malediction.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx*** ***
Rimbaud! you were righteous – I drank your words
and my fingers hemorrhaged, coiling into claws of
silver, clutching the olive sprig, grasping white
lightning – and my pen froze, searing a runic brand
onto my retinal affectations: my wooden chair became
Merlin’s tower of stone.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx*** ***
Rimbaud! I mouthed your incantations of desire, and
there came hopping, one-legged, a hairy demon, howling
into the corners of my dark cell evil abuses in a dozen
foreign tongues, words that fell on my soul like the
firebrands of an inquisitional Pentecost: writing in the
mercy of the flames I found a tender courage.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx*** ***
Rimbaud! I have reached my thirtieth year and have
fouled myself with imagined sufferings – yet in my
vision I saw you aflame and dying into an age that I
have yet to imagine – consumed, almost human, grinning
with the dogs that wait amongst lepers, beyond the
gates of the steel-bound metropolis: impatient already.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx*** ***
Rimbaud! the years behind me are a single day, all
memories one – dozens of women with but one flavor –
the colors are with me now, not yet more brilliant –
history but a dog-eared tome studied in preparation for
examination to gain entrance to a monstrous bureaucracy:
all true souls fail, condemned to springtime visions.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx*** ***
Rimbaud! conquerors glare in two-dimensional facsimile
of plaster, marble, bronze – only the sainted dead spring
moist from the pits to dance your deadly dance of dream –
the portrait you drew of Christ: sneering hipster, blue
eyes of pure acid guarded behind Italian shades, double-
sexed, against the temple pillars slouched: triumphant!

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx*** ***
Rimbaud! have peace: the Rose will open – She will conceive
and bear prodigies into the future – I see your new incarnation,
a generation that lifts Her gaudy skirts - the apocalyptic underbelly –
but the stars in Her pupils, the pulsing planets
of Her estrous tears are singing harmonies
known to Pythagoras: genies are sewing the banners!

Readings: The Paris Review Interviews #2

I chose, for some reason, to next read the interview with Evelyn Waugh. I suppose the fact that Waugh is so often cited by Catholics on blogs as being among their favorite "Catholic" novelists, was the impetus. The Waugh interview is extremely short. It is, in fact, so short that the interviewer, a person improbably named "Julian Jebb," is rather apologetic about it in his introduction.

Unfortunately, Waugh does not get into his Catholicism very much. Nor does he get very deeply into much of anything else. This being the case, I've decided upon the following quote, which is a response to the question, "Do you think it just to describe you as a reactionary?":

An artist must be a reactionary. He has to stand out against the tenor of the age and not go flopping along; he must offer some little opposition. Even the great Victorian artists were all anti-Victorian, despite the pressures to conform.

Of Americans Waugh had earlier opined, "I don't think what they have to say is of much interest, do you?" Just a bit after the central quote above, when asked why his novels contain so very few working class characters, Waugh replied, "I don't know them, and I'm not interested in them." Evelyn Waugh: Catholic to the bone.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Readings: The Paris Review Interviews

The other day, Big Brown delivered a package to me containing a priceless gift from my good friend, Jim, in Arizona. There was no occasion; that’s just the kind of guy Jim is. The gift was a boxed set of the four-volume The Paris Review Interviews. It includes interviews with 99.9% of the twentieth century literati with whom I wish I’d had a chance to have a beer and a conversation.

Given the magnificence of this gift, I was inspired to launch a new feature here at Rodak Riffs: Readings: the Paris Review Interviews. The premise is this: as I read these interviews over time, I will make an attempt to isolate and share here a quotation from each one. These quotations will not necessarily be ones most likely to show up on a googled list of author so-and-so’s quotes. It will, rather, be something they said which struck a responsive chord in me—a belief, attitude, predisposition, taste, opinion, or (perhaps) defect, that I find myself sharing with that writer.

This idea did not come to me until I was half-way through the reading of the interview with a less-than-cooperative, drunk, and surly Jack Kerouac. I had begun with Marilynne Robinson’s interview, followed by that of Haruki Murakami, and then Kerouac. So this first installment will contain three quotes, as follow:

Marilynne Robinson, speaking about her propensity for a “puritanical hedonism”:

…I’m kind of a solitary. This would not satisfy everyone’s hopes, but for me it’s a lovely thing. I recognize the satisfactions of a more socially enmeshed existence than I cultivate, but I go days without hearing another human voice and never notice it. I never fear it. The only thing I fear is the intensity of my attachment to it. …I grew up with the confidence that the greatest privilege was to be alone and have all the time you wanted. That was the cream of existence. I owe everything that I have done to the fact that I am very much at ease being alone. It’s a good predisposition in a writer. And books are good company. Nothing is more human than a book.

Haruki Murakami speaking of what his works tell his readers about “how strange the world is”:

xxxI don’t want to persuade the reader that it’s a real thing; I want to show it as it is. In a sense, I’m telling those readers that it’s just a story—it’s fake. But when you experience the fake as real it can be real. It’s not easy to explain.
xxxIn the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, writers offered the real thing; that was their task. In War and Peace Tolstoy describes the battleground so closely that the readers believe it’s the real thing. But I don’t. I’m not pretending it’s the real thing. We are living in a fake world; we are watching fake evening news. We are fighting a fake war. Our government is fake. But we find reality in this fake world. So our stories are the same; we are walking through fake scenes, but ourselves, as we walk through these scenes, are real. The situation is real, in the sense that it’s a commitment, it’s a true relationship. That’s what I write about.

Jack Kerouac speaking of his role (and technique) as a writer:

I really hate to write. I get no fun out of it because I can’t get up and say I’m working, close my door, have coffee brought to me, and sit there camping like a “man of letters” doing his eight hour day of work and thereby incidentally filling the printing world with a lot of dreary self-imposed cant and bombast, bombast being Scottish for pillow stuffing. Haven’t you heard a politician use fifteen hundred words to say something he could have said in exactly three words? So I get out of the way so as not to bore myself either.

I am a closet solitary, living in an unreal world, wishing that it would make more of an effort to cater to my jones for java and recognition of my genius. Nailed again. What can I say?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Quote du Jour: Indirect Objects

The following is a short excerpt from a much longer, and excellent poem by Sandra Agricola, entitled, "Nocturnes: The Gift of Suicide":


Indirect objects -- all of us -- of someone else's
misguided actions.

It would be pointless and tiresome to go into my personality,
my childhood, my body language. Sometimes things transpire for
no particular reason. Dams burst and engineers stand around
scratching the seats of their courduroy britches. People fall
in love with victims everyday for no apparent reason. Falling
away from someone can be understood in the same way.


"Indirect objects--all of us." Aye, and there's the rub.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Reflections: A Hot Tip

Do you want to make a day sometime in your hopefully not-too-distant future really worthwhile? Okay, then, here's the agenda: first, do whatever it takes to get your hands on a book entitled White Mercedes by a poet named Sandra Agricola. It won't be that easy to find the book. But the effort of finding it is part of your reward. It will be seen at the end of the day as your gift to yourself.

Okay, you have the book. So now you need to open it to the poem, "Mae West: A Masterpiece." If you have the hardback, it's on page 27.

Read it. Carefully. Thoughtfully. You'll probably want to read it again. You may then want to go into your room and shut the door and read it out loud. As you do so, you might want to imagine that you're reading it to an audience, and that the audience is as blown away by the beauty and wisdom of the poem as you were, back when you read it for the second, or third, time.

That's it. That's all there is. It's just that simple.

Now wasn't your day worthwhile? And hasn't your humanity been enhanced by the acquisition of an objective good commensurate with the vast scope of that poem's gift? You know that it has. X

For that, be grateful.

Monday, September 13, 2010

R.I.P. - Ron Kramer


When I was a young boy of 8 or 10 years of age, just coming into an awareness of the greater world outside of the bosom of my family, one of those things of which I began to become aware was sports. And living in Ann Arbor, priority in that area went to college football and the mighty University of Michigan Wolverines—the Victors Valiant, the Champions of the West.

Michigan had an all-American football star in those days; his name was Ron Kramer. When I wrote a series of posts on my early heroes at this blog’s inception three years ago, Ron Kramer really should have been numero uno on my list.

Kramer was the BMOC in the mid-1950s in Ann Arbor. He loomed large on the gridiron, as well. They still played both ways in those days, and Kramer was as devastating to the opposition on defense as he was as an offensive end. After a stellar career at Michigan – where great pains were taken to keep him academically eligible, as I remember – Kramer went on to the NFL. He was an All-Pro tight end for the emergent, Bart Starr-led, Green Bay Packers.

I remember well watching the traditional Detroit Lion-Green Bay Packer Thanksgiving Day match-up, and Ron Kramer lumbering toward the Detroit goal line, cradling the pigskin in his great arms, with a hapless Lions defensive back draped around his neck like Superman’s cape.

Rest in peace, Ron Kramer – gridiron hero and Wolverine great.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Rodak Remembers: A Memoir

In June, 1969, I was married to my high school sweetheart. About a month later she departed for New London, CT, where she was enrolled in a summer dance program at Connecticut College. Accompanied by a friend, I flew out of Detroit to New York City, and then on by train to New London to visit her. It was the summer of the first moon landing. I watched that momentous event on a television in a common room of the college dormitory in which she was housed.

While in New London, I had occasion to watch a group of dancers studying Graham technique performing floor exercises. In this group of dozens of flawless male and female bodies my eye was caught and arrested by an Asian woman sitting way to the back. Just in doing these exercises, this woman’s mastery of her body and of her body’s movement, was not only apparent, but utterly amazing. Her floor ex- became a masterful performance. I became not so much a fan, as a devotee.

Yuriko was in the Martha Graham Company by the time we had moved to New York City. My wife worked her way up through Graham class into Pearl Lang’s company, and was finally hired to dance for Martha Graham in 1974 or 1975. Often accompanying the Company on tour, I was able, over the next several years, to see Yuriko perform on stage many times. She particularly blew me away performing the ballet, Errand into the Maze. It was this piece that I had in mind while writing the first stanza of the following poem. As the poem indicates, I was also able to socialize with Yuriko on several occasions. Each of these occasions was, for me, a peak experience:

for Kimura-san

when Yuriko dances,
my soul in its dark seat
is able to dance along.
Briefly I transcend
my natural grasp
to comprehend that
which I shall never feel:

xxxKimi ya chō
ware ya Sōshi no
xxxxxxxxxx~ Bashō

Last spring, in Europe,
I sat with Yuriko over dinner.
We conversed politely,
as strangers might,
and with each moment
I felt more like Icarus:

xxxIwa hana ya
Koko nimo hitori
xxxTsuki no kyaku
xxxxxxxxxx~ Kyorai

Yuriko gave me a box
of Japanese cards,
a poetry game whose beauty
I can comprehend,
but which I shall never
be able to play: such
an appropriate gift:

xxxSukaski mite
Hoshi ni sabishiki
xxxYanagi kana
xxxxxxxxxx~ Chora

Translation of the haiku in order of citation:

xxxYou are the butterfly
And I the dreaming heart
xxxof Sōshi?
xxxxxxxxxx-- Bashō

xxxOn the edge of this rock
Here is one more
xxxxxxxxxx-- Kyorai

xxxPeeping through
The willow, lonely
xxxWith stars
xxxxxxxxxx-- Chora


Rodak's Writings: Welcome to the Multiplex

Unless we are saints, on the one hand, or simpletons, on the other, we tend to be poorly integrated, manifold human entities; not one personality, but a complexity of personae. We can conceive of pantheons, or of a Triune God, precisely because we are much the same: E pluribus unum. What we do or say at any given time depends largely on which one of us has seized the wheel. Our language reflects this: we say, "I wonder which Rodak will show up today?" The Rodak who showed up a couple of days ago wrote the following. It is the work of that Rodak alone and does not necessarily have the endorsement, or reflect the views and opinions of this Rodak, this Rodak's intellectual or emotional sponsors, or any of Rodak's affiliate Robbies:

No Redcap Potential

To the first one I pled
(with unstinting devotion)
that I just couldn’t focus.
To the second I swore
that I could.
When number three
raised the issue,
I told her the truth, but
she demurred and insisted.
I was right.
She was wrong.
I am left lonely
and chilled to the bone;
she has been cheated
by the infernal logic
of her own disbelief.

My heart is bright red
but don’t ask me to wear it
as a laborer’s cap.
I need to roll loosely,
emotions free-swinging,
and to tote no one’s baggage –
not even my own:
I’m no heavy-lifter,
I just want a friend.

Only three words:
“I want this” – she wrote them,
I saw them,
but not under my sign.
Three more words –
“I see now.”
I write them in secret.
“I see now” – I’m saying,
“Neither your place, nor mine.”
If I show this, I’ll know then –
I’m no redcap flunky;
I’m no heavy-lifter:
I just need a friend.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

R.I.P. - Irwin Silber

This man played a major role in charting the trajectory of my life and loves. May he enjoy an eternal reward commensurate with his portion of the credit for pinpointing me in the place where I'm at today.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Rodak's Writings: Sonny Gets Blue


If you could chart

your dreams
you’d see

that it’s you
not me doing the slow

fade to black.

It’s not that the sun really

sets –

the world just turns
its lovely back.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Readings: Flannery's Hard Sayings

As I was finishing my reading of Ralph C. Wood’s very interesting study of the theological basis of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, three passages caught my attention as being worthy of preserving and passing on. Each of these shed some light, in my opinion, on why the church is in decline and on why soi-disant Christians tend to be so lacking in that which is required for true discipleship. Here is the first:

“Baptism is for Christians what circumcision is for Jews: a public sign that the universal God of Israel and Christ and the church has claimed believers for life in a particular community that lives by its outward and visible practices. Baptism is thus a political act through and through: it is a radical transfer of allegiance and citizenship from one regime to another, from a polity that is corrupt and perishing to the only one that is being redeemed and shall stand forever. Not even the gates of hell will be able to prevail against its onrushing power. Baptism is a sacramental and regenerative rite precisely because it is not a merely human choice; it is God’s own adoption of his people into his community.” [emphasis added]

Tell that to the average neoconservative, nativist, money-hungry Tea Party evangelical and see how far it gets you.

Here is the second:

“Mason Tarwater is too orthodox a Christian to grant evil any sort of dualistic equality with good. He has not schooled the younger Tarwater in the full ancestry of the world’s evildoers but rather in the strong roll call of biblical figures who have been radically summoned by God: “Abel and Enoch and Noah and Job, Abraham and Moses, King David and Solomon, and all the prophets, from Elijah who escaped death, to John whose severed head struck terror from a dish.” That this list does not consist of the morally pure, but of a drunk and a doubter and a deceiver, a whiner and an adulterer and a schemer, reveals Mason Tarwater’s profoundly biblical understanding of vocation. To be called a Christian is not to become an ethically untainted person, much less the well-adjusted anthropoid that Rayber regards as a true human being. It is to become a person who lives coram Deo, constantly before God, in repentance and conversion.” [emphasis added]

Mason Tarwater is the “crazy” self-proclaimed Christian prophet who is one of the three central characters in O’Connor’s novel, The Violent Bear It Away. Rayber is his secularized nephew—an intellectual—and Tarwater’s life-long antagonist. According to Wood, Mason Tarwater, for all the extremism of his character, embodies what O’Connor believed. Rayber may be taken as the epitome of the contemporary atheistic sophisticate who is the typical middle-class American, whether secular or nominally Christian.

And the last:

“For all his ranting, the old prophet goes to the heart of Christian vocation as Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it in his most celebrated single statement: “Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death.” Rarely does the Christian life constitute a call to physical death by way of the world’s obloquy and persecution; but it is always a summons to die to one’s own arrogant presumptions.”

No extra emphasis needed there. It is the failure to recognize this fundamental truth of the Christian religion that has made the institution of the church the sham that it mostly is today. Any person claiming for himself the moral high ground, based on his Christian vocation, should consider the truths central to Flannery O’Connor’s body of work prior to plotting out how he plans to greet St. Peter when showing up at those Pearly Gates to claim his halo and wings.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Quote du Jour: Don't Leave 'em Laughin'

What is funny about us is precisely that we take ourselves too seriously. We are rather insignificant little bundles of energy and vitality in a vast organization of life. But we pretend that we are the very center of this organization. This pretension is ludicrous; and its absurdity increases with our lack of awarness of it. The less we are able to laugh at ourselves the more it becomes necessary for others to laugh at us. ~ Reinhold Niebuhr

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Rodak's Writings


Her Gentleman Callers

This one wags his words
Like a puppy dog watching
Its bowl fill up with kibble.

That one has himself photographed
Trying to look like Snoop Dog
From the cab of a redneck pickup.

Over there another one
Is signing autographs through the window
Of the car he’s living in.

Here comes the one whose sister
Is a crack whore living in his garage
On table scraps and insect protein.

That youthful wanker there has
“The wogs begin at Calais”
Inked across his Dover-white arse.

And then there’s me
Throwing elbows in the crush:
We all love ya, lady, don’t we guys?