Saturday, February 26, 2011

Quote(s) du Jour: Poetry Is...

The poet sits before a blank piece of paper with a need to say many things in the small space of a poem. The world is huge, the poet is alone, and the poem is just a bit of language, a few scratchings of a pen surrounded by the silence of the night.


The task of poetry, perhaps, is to salvage a trace of the authentic from the wreckage of religious, philosophical, and political systems.

~ Charles Simic, "The Flute Player in the Pit"; The Unemployed Fotune-Teller

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Riffs: Quiz du Jour

The Quiz:

What is the correlation between the following four years?


Clue: It migrated north from the Delta.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Rodak's Writings: A Very Short Story

This was my response to a "picture challenge" proposed this morning at my Facebook writers' group. The challenge being simply to write a piece inspired by the picture posted here:

Billi-Jo Tells a Joke

She finally decided on just the plain bra and white cotton panties. She wasn’t sure yet about the black heels. With the shoes, would it be too obvious that she was wearing an outfit identical to the one worn by Nooki Knightly in “Donkeys, Deirdre and Little Doggies”?

Billi-Jo pondered these things as she reached up to open shutters on the one window in her little room. The room she had been asked to leave. She could almost feel the dark eyes of Nooki, the star; Nooki the desired; Nooki the money pit, drilling through the ample flesh of her back from the poster on the wall above her single bed, setting the fine hairs on the back of her neck on fire. XXX. Well, she would be leaving the room, alright. But it wouldn’t be by the door. No.

She wasn’t at all sure that the shoes would stay on her feet, anyway. She could sort of picture them in her mind, sailing in slo-mo just behind her, as her big body—the one that never had sold—rolled and billowed like a plump, pink cloud against the backdrop of a broad, blue sky. She imagined the scene as shot from an angle where the building couldn’t be seen. There were always windows in these scenes, but Billi-Jo didn’t want that. She did not want to imagine the faces of strangers, their arms folded across their chests, their mouths like the black slashes of straight razors, watching her leaving the scene from their dark, disapproving windows.

Or should she say that the shoes would be sailing above her—like a pair of black carrion birds—crows—or whatchamacallit?—turkey buzzards. They had those back home in West Virginia. Almost heaven. Ha! As if. Ugly things, those buzzards. Sitting by the roadside, sticking their ugly, red heads right up inside of the road kill. The stink that lingered inside your car, for miles and miles afterwards.

Billi-Jo decided that she would definitely wear the shoes. The idea of being escorted to the Dance by a pair of big black buzzards appealed to her. It was a thing that would never occur to a shallow bitch like Nooki Knightly. All Nooki ever thought about was money. And Nooki.

Well, we would just see who made the bigger splash in the tabloids tonight! Splash! Ha! Stop it, Billi-Jo, she chuckled to herself. Just stop it! Yer killin’ me!

Monday, February 21, 2011

R.I.P. - Ollie Matson

Upon the Death of Ollie Matson

The heroes
of my boyhood
are dying

Each day
seems to bring
a new obit
in the NY Times
some sports star
of my youth
passed on.

Players are young
when they play –
that’s the nature
of the Game.

So I can estimate
my remaining days
by the average
player’s age

(...less about ten.)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Reflections: Charming the Savage Breast


H/T: Darwin Catholic via Kyle Cupp


Readings: A "MacGuffin" - What Is It?

In a recent post, I noted that I was reading Stanley Elkin’s novel, The MacGuffin, and shared an excerpt from it, along with a few words of my own concerning pervasive fear, or paranoia. I’m still reading the book and have a bit more to say about it as I approach its final pages.

I have a fairly good vocabulary, including slang, but I was not familiar with the term “MacGuffin.” Curiosity about the word was one of the factors prompting me to pick up this particular Elkin novel when it caught my eye at a used book sale. On page 183 (of 283) of the novel, I have identified what I believe to be Elkins’ working premise of what a MacGuffin consists of, as examined in the mind of his protagonist, City Commissioner of Streets, Robert Druff. I will provide that quote below; but first I will share some of the fruits of my investigation of the term, undertken before starting to read the novel. Here is a short explanation of “MacGuffin” from the relevant Wikipedia article:

A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is "a plot element that catches the viewers' attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction.” The defining aspect of a MacGuffin is that the major players in the story are (at least initially) willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is. In fact, the specific nature of the MacGuffin may be ambiguous, undefined, generic, left open to interpretation or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot. Common examples are money, victory, glory, survival, a source of power, or a potential threat, or it may simply be something entirely unexplained.

This slightly more colorful and poetic explanation is provided further on in the same article:

Interviewed in 1966 by François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock illustrated the term "MacGuffin" with this story:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?", and the other answers "Oh, that's a McGuffin". The first one asks "What's a McGuffin?". "Well", the other man says, "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands". The first man says "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands", and the other one answers "Well, then that's no McGuffin!". So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.

Elkin’s novel takes place within what seems to be one 24-hour period in the life of Druff: the day upon which (in his paranoia) he comes to believe that he “has a MacGuffin.” As indicated in the Wiki article, the MacGuffin comes to drive the plot:

Here it ain’t been but a day, he thought, since he’d first surmised the MacGuffin and just look where it had taken him. His first tentative suspicion confirmed, connected to his second tentative suspicion, that one to a third and that to a fourth and so on. By God, he might have been hooking a rug! Because everything was linked, everything. If he had a sidekick (just about all that was missing here) he would tell him so. Begin with an initial observation. Make an observation, would tell him, any observation, any observation at all. Like one guy leading another through a card trick. Everything inevitable and conjoined in the vast, limitless network of things, merged in the world’s absolute ecology. There was, it seemed, no such thing as a loose end. Not in this life, there wasn’t. The universal synergy. In the end, thought our City Commissioner of Streets, all roads led.

The message: all roads lead. It is the leading, not the destination, that governs a man’s fate. The fault is in our selves and in the stars: the distinction is moot. The life of Everyman is a work of fiction, the author of which is unknown and probably unknowable. (Or so Elkin—the author—would have it.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Rodak's Writings: Sparring With the Political Right

I don't know what prompted me, but this morning I made a brief visit to a right-wing, online publication which several years back was among my daily web-surfing stops. This visit resulted in my sending off the following note to a writer whom I first met in that venue:

Hiya, D____:

Being in a puckish mood this a.m., I made one of my extremely rare visits to The Corner @NRO. I came across a post by J_____ in which he discussed the confusion caused by having to differentiate between two George Bushes (I can see how this would confuse many typical individuals of the conservative persuasion.) He also discusses the virtues of Ayn Rand. I was prompted to send J_____ the following note:

Dear J_____:

Not complicated: “Dubya” worked just fine.

p.s. I strongly feel that Atlas Shrugged should be required reading for the youth of America. It depicts, in dumbed-down terms, precisely the evil that is bringing Western civilization to its knees. The fact that “Shrugged” advocates, rather than warning against, this evil is a thing that needs to be flagged, of course, when putting the book into the hands of the young. But, with that caveat made clear, I would have all young people read the novel at high school age, before they fall prey to the Limbaughs, the Becks, the Hannitys, the O’Reillys and the rest of Evil’s somnambulant minions.

Perhaps you, D_____, would like to lend your considerable prestige to my nascent campaign to make Miss Rand required reading in our nation's public schools? (It might be good to beta-test the thing in charter schools, where the danger of youth being irretrievably corrupted by irrational fear of a New World Caliphate delivered by Black Communist Choppers is undoubtedly the greatest.) Can I count on your support?

As always,

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Reflections: A Different Right-to-Life Issue

A couple of days ago, I came across a post on the Catholic blog, Vox Nova, that interested me. The issue was whether the last strains of the smallpox virus, kept alive today only in laboratories, should be destroyed in order to protect against it somehow being “returned to the wild” to again become the deadly scourge that it once was; or whether even this deadly pathogen must be preserved as a part of God’s creation? I think that the author’s gist is contained in the following except from that post, but here is the link, if you would prefer to see it in context and make your own call on it:

[I]f the world is God’s, then our decisions must show deference to God’s own plan. We are stewards, and presumably (like all stewards) have a great deal of autonomy and authority, but in the end we are constrained by the plan of the actual Master of creation.

And what does this tell us about smallpox? I am not sure, but despite the very compelling arguments of those who argue for the destruction of smallpox, some part of me hesitates to willingly destroy any part of God’s creation.

After reading the post and the comments it gave rise to, I posted the following comment of my own, using artificial birth control as an analogy:

If it is God’s plan that every act of human sexuality potentially result in a pregnancy, making artificial birth control a violation of “natural law,” then how is it not also a violation of natural law to prevent the smallpox—or any other—virus from doing what God designed it to do–which is to invade a host and multiply in the environment for which it was designed? In fact, is not all of medicine a human effort to thwart the designs upon our mortality made by natural law? What gives man the right to cherry-pick those natural processes which will be allowed to perform the teleological functions for which they were designed by the Creator? If one answers this question by saying that God also designed man with the intellect to develop vaccines and other means of fighting disease, one can counter by saying that the same God-given intellect should therefore be licitly used to keep human populations from growing too large for the resources available to them. That is stewardship.

Anticipating a possible response to my first comment, I attempted to head it off at the pass by posting this:

To suggest that the answer to the question I posed above is “abstinence,” is to suggest that we should abandon immunization programs and go back to relying on quarantining the ill to prevent the spread of epidemics. Clearly, the most effective methods which human ingenuity can contrive are the methods which should be employed to resolve any problem of stewardship facing the human race.

Whether one gives credence to the concept of “natural law,” or not; and whether one believes that we are living in “God’s creation,” or not; the question is still an interesting on, the answer to which I don’t find to be patent.

After more than 24 hours of waiting without result for some intellectually confident Catholic blogger to respond to my comments, I decided to bring my reflections home to Rodak Riffs. It has often been my experience that Catholics, when they have no response to some contra-doctrinal idea encountered in the world-at-large, simply ignore it. In this they show themselves to be closet disciples of Wittgenstein (“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.") and, ergo, crypto-Positivists.

Be that as it may, however, I find the issue of the deliberate annihilation of a living species—pro or con—to be an interesting one; so I pose it here.

R.I.P. - George Shearing


Here is the NY Times obituary of jazz pianist, George Shearing, and a recording of his most famous and enduring composition:


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Readings: Timeless Wisdom

I have recently begun reading The Philokalia in this edition. As its introduction states: "The Philokalia is a collection of texts written between the fourth and the fifteenth centuries by spiritual masters of the Orthodox Christian tradition. It was compiled in the eighteenth century by two Greek monks, St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain of Athos (1749-1809) and St Makarios of Corinth (1731-1805), and was first published in Venice in 1782."

The first section of Volume 1 of this three-volume edition is attributed to St. Isaiah the Solitary, who lived in Egypt in the late fourth or fifth century, A.D. His writings are said by the editor to “[reflect] the authentic spirituality of the Desert Fathers of Egypt and Palestine…”

As I frequently visit and comment at several Roman Catholic sites, I was interested, in planning this post, to see what the Catholic take on The Philokalia, and the Desert Fathers might be. As is my wont, in order to do this, I visited the New Advent online Catholic Encyclopedia. I was surprised to find that there was no article there on The Philokalia. I next tried “Desert Fathers” and again came up empty. Finally, I looked in New Advent for an article on “hesychasm,” a word related to the practices of a life of contemplation and inner work – “the cleansing of ‘the inside of the cup and plate so that their outside may also be clean’ (Matt. 23:26).” This time I scored a hit. It seems that hesychasm, having been condemned because

“Latin theology on the whole was too deeply impregnated with the Aristotelean Scholastic system to tolerate a theory that opposed its very foundation.”

warranted a mention so that the devout might be warned against its wickedness. Well, I don’t think so. (Aristotle! P-tui!) On the contrary, it seems to me that the teachings of the solitaries and monks to be found in The Philokalia conform to the wisdom practiced by saints of all cultures since time immemorial. Here, for example, is a brief excerpt from that first section, which I mentioned above:

St. Isaiah the Solitary:

So long as the contest continues, a man is full of fear and trembling, wondering whether he will win today or be defeated, whether he will win tomorrow or be defeated: the struggle and stress constrict his heart. But when he has attained dispassion, the contest comes to an end; he receives the prize of victory and has no further anxiety about the three that were divided, for now through God they have made peace with one another. These three are the soul, the body and the spirit. When they become one through the energy of the Holy Spirit, they cannot again be separated. Do not think, then, that you have died to sin, so long as you suffer violence, whether waking or sleeping, at the hands of your opponents, For while a man is still competing in the arena, he cannot be sure of victory.

If you’re channeling Vince Lombardi, you’re in for a world of grief. What they don’t want you to know is that all the players are losers. Complexity is the enemy of enlightenment. The devil is in the details. Don’t lose your-self through fruitless interaction with the ten-thousand things (cf. Tao Te Ching).

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Quote du Jour: The Hazards of Poesy

one of my friends has razor scars running all along his left arm. the other jams pills by the bucketloads into a mass of black beard. they both write poetry. there is something about writing poetry that brings a man close to the cliff’s edge.
xxxxx~ Charles Bukowski, Notes of a Dirty Old Man

Monday, February 7, 2011

Quote du Jour: Eat Me!

from The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander:

I knew once the primmest old invalid lady who could well have offered her helplessness to God but had a grievance with Him because He had not permitted her to be eaten by a cannibal for the Faith; she could not accept herself as a sick woman but she would have achieved heroic virtue as a cutlet!

Seems quite clear to me...


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Reflections: The Banality of Fear

Yesterday I posted some thoughts of the religious writer, Caryll Houselander, on the subject of existential fear. Today I am going to share some words, from his novel The MacGuffin, by contemporary writer of fiction, Stanley Elkin. I found these passages—upon reading them this morning—to be expressive of the kind of pervasive, low-volume, fear with which most of us live our day-to-day lives. Hannah Arendt, an acolyte of the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger, famously coined the term “the banality of evil.” I have found Stanley Elkin to be a master at writing about the banality of fear. I was struck by the coincidence of Houselander’s use of the medical reception room as a locus of our fear in the excerpt from The Reed of God which I posted yesterday, and Elkin’s portrayal of the tailor shop dressing room in which his character, Druff, finds himself as “vaguely medical.” Druff is suffused with a kind of underlying fear, or paranoia, which flavors his every thought, as we follow him through his day in this novel:

xxx“Better try it on, “ the salesman said, “before my tailor goes to lunch.”
xxxDruff following him to the tiny, flimsily contained dressing room with its hard little bench, shallow as a bookshelf, where the man handed over Druffs purchase and left him, the venue suddenly, subtly shifted, vaguely medical now, as though Druff had been called in for devastating examinations, something unforeseen popped up in the blood, the stool. (And this, well, aura, too, like a stall in the gents’ in a restaurant. Something he couldn’t think of as private property, yet understood—from his jacket on the hook on the wall there, like some flag slammed into enemy terrain in a battle—to be his as surely as if blood had been spilled for it, the front lines of the personal here, hallowed ground for sure, if only because of the men who’d occupied it before him, but not so hallowed he didn’t resent them, their collective spoor and lingering flatulence.)

Amazing how closely Elkin’s words echo Houselander’s there.

Druff’s fears are summed up as follows:

xxxDruff’s suit, as his heart had known in advance, did not look good on him. It didn’t. (Druff humiliated by his hologram in the three-way mirror, the comings and goings of his balding, frailing self like a body knocked down on an auction block, going going gone. His image there telling as a CAT scan—of shabby old mortality and downscale being.

Again, the parallels with the passages from Houselander are striking. This is the human condition. And it is the universal human project—the vocation of each individual human lifetime—to learn how to overcome the banality of this existence, as endured in somnambulant passivity.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Readings: Such Ills as the Flesh is Heir To

I find that these words of Caryll Houselander cover it all, from soup to nuts:

xxxWe are afraid of birth, of the pain, the crudity, the fierceness of birth, of the responsibility of the new life.
xxxWe are afraid of life, of its continual demand on us, of its continual challenge to us: we are afraid of pain, of sickness, and of the pains and sickness of others.
xxxWho does not know the hard anguish of waiting in the specialist’s reception room for the verdict on someone dear to us, the dreadful certainty of the verdicts of modern science, the blood-test and the X-ray?
xxxAnd the fevers of little children: the bright blackness of the eyes, the mouths burning suddenly like malignant dark flowers, and the dreaded six-o’clock, when we must look at the thermometer and we dare not look!
xxxWho has not known fear of the death that comes slowly to old people, old people who are dear to us and who die, or seem to die, in little bits.
xxxAnd who does not know the fear of loneliness and poverty in old age?

What’s that? This is not you, you say? Right. Okay. Whatever you say. And you never lie; and you never masturbate, either – do you, Sparky? Wait. There's more:

xxxThen there is the daily, petty fear; fear of losing a hated job--a job that cramps and constricts the heart but which means the four walls of home, the food and warmth for the little family--fear that moves in a vicious circle, making us hate because we cringe and cringe because we hate.

Is that a little closer to home? If not, hey--I've got some water I'd like you to walk on. We can put it YouTube and go viral together.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Reflections: The Weather Outside is Frightful

I note that it's been almost a week since I've updated this blog. The primary reason for this, I guess, is that I've been doing very little reading in the past few days. I've been distracted by trying to follow the uprising in Egypt via the internet and television. I've been distracted also by keeping an eye on the succession of winter storms which have been rolling across the map. Some of these have been record-breaking; but, thankfully, not right here.

The final reason that I haven't been posting is that I've been writing an unusually large number of poems lately, which composition has taken up most of the early-morning time that I routinely consign to blogging. A couple of these poems can be read as posts below. A couple more of them are available by clicking their links on the "Rodak's Writings" sidebar to the left of this page. But to read the bulk of them, you would need to become my "friend" on Facebook. (Please, send me a request.)

The latest of these new poems, entitled "Sounds Like..." was inspired by my readings in the poetry collection, Giant Night, by Anne Waldman. She was in her early 20s when she wrote the poems in this collection. It was the late 1960s. She was married to her art and living in, or near, Greenwich Village, had just travelled to Europe, and was digging the Rolling Stones.

Giant Night reminds me--for all of those reasons--of Patti Smith's recent memoir, Just Kids; except that Giant Night is current reportage, while Just Kids is pure recollection. I was there, too, for most of it. Both women get it right.

Pray for spring.