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?