<= 2014.01.16

Quandary, that suffering plots itself in time,
old rut where the eyes roll the sun.
Father of all, we can’t do without it,

the burning snarl that binds our gods,
live and gasping, to the loom.
And love is the heddle. Remember L.,

who heaped his unlived hours in glaciers
and slew his children lest the craving touch them;
forgive him though Dante and the sea cannot.

Teju Cole, Open City

Whatever blogs once were, they are now places to conduct online arguments, which is a problem for me because, hand on heart, I don’t write to argue or persuade, even if the writing sometimes takes that form. It makes me hesitant even to take up a blog-present writer like Cole, because it will look as if I’m stepping into the fray to make pronouncements. As if I were to come out and say: Cole may be one of the best minds of his generation, and when such a mind turns its attention to a novel and it ends up like this, it shows what a time we’re in for novels.

The book is one damn thing after another. It’s hardly fiction; not because it’s autobiographical, not because it’s “essayistic,” but because it’s journalistic. The first person is a peg to hang sentences on, a bit of binding agent to stick the facts together. Its discussions of Deleuze on interstices, or Native Americans in New York, or Euro-Arab opinions on Palestine, or bedbugs, or what have you, are all pithy and informative, just like a New Yorker article. And as in a New Yorker article, there is always a reliable twinge of pathos which never distracts from the next slideshow. I won’t say that an intelligent person’s brain dump is valueless, but by God, isn’t the Internet now full of intelligent people’s brain dumps? I have to think that the author’s talent as a journalist, his fluency on Twitter—for that matter, his comfort with academic shoptalk—all collude.

A writer makes a careful, conscious determination that present spiritual conditions require a hollowed-out speaker with no significant history, no individuating traits and no opportunity to make consequential decisions. (His status as immigrant American, medical man, etc., is not individuating; it’s representative.) He has a job, he talks to people, he considers cultural history, he has sex, he gets mugged. Boxes are checked. There is a curious, atypical scene near the end where another character may actually call him out on his hollowness, and so indict the book’s entire form. I’d like to take it that way, since it does make the book more interesting. But it doesn’t give any more retroactive pleasure in having read it.

I’ve had my cake. But I don’t have a comment thread. Never more than one foot in the water. And this book has had a happy enough career that it doesn’t need me on either side.

R: (loudly, at restaurant) We are not supposed to eat dog poop!
Mater: (laughing) Oh God, it’s her maxims.
Pater: Her what?
Mater: Maxims. Like La Rochefoucauld.
Pater: Oh! “Il faut ne pas manger de la merde du chien.”
Mater: (as critic) “It combines the very worst qualities of the French: sententiousness, and an obsession with filth.”

For kidchamp, a wildlife rehabilitation story, starring Klondike prospectors “Pinky” and “Bear Grease.”

Their camp was selected as home base by a particularly larcenous camp robber. This bird is a member of the jay family, sometimes called a whiskey jack in the north. It is at any time an audacious and highly vocal bird. It knows little fear and will seize any food left lying around, a trait Bear Grease and Pinky did nothing to discourage, as the presence of a whiskey jack was supposed to bring good luck, and they were superstitious. Like other miners who worked hard but, lacking luck, did not find gold, they had to have some excuse outside themselves to explain failure.

The camp robber or whiskey jack, treated in such a friendly manner, became bolder and bolder. He took to swooping down on the table and grabbing food that was left there. One day when supplies were getting short, the camp robber made a particularly bold swoop and grabbed a pancake from the table. Bear Grease in his anger hurled a rock at the bird and by chance struck it. He called to Pinky in alarm. He had killed the camp robber. Together, the partners picked up the bird. Seeing its eyes were not glazed with the film of death, they fanned it with their hats and forced water into its beak. The camp robber soon recovered, and as they released it, flew away. It had learned its lesson and did not come back.

Pinky and Bear Grease had been working the claim for some time without success. They were getting discouraged, and when a passing miner told them of good colors farther down, they decided that the departure of the whiskey jack had brought them bad luck, that the place was cursed, and they should move. So the two partners packed their gear and once again moved to a new location. A year later another miner took over the abandoned claim and made one of the rich strikes of the area two feet below where Pinky and Bear Grease had left off. The whiskey jack cost the two partners about $200,000 apiece.

David B. Wharton, The Alaska Gold Rush (Indiana University Press, 1972), 241.

nth Act

Two Beckett tramps fallen on good times, frail but well dressed, take halting steps down the sunny pavement.

‟…and as it happened, we were at a restaurant that didn't have French onion soup.”

‟Oh my goodness.”

‟So he, sort of, expressed his disappointment and dismay….”

Wordsworth, “That in this moment there is life and food / For future years…”

It was in Berlin, Barcelona, Athens, Rome that I felt most strongly we were filling our granary for the future, and not just because we went droning like bees between every bookstore in town, picking up as many foreign-language books as would fit in an extra duffel bag or three. (“No se necesita ropa interior,” said the charming woman running the bookstore in front of the Palau de la Música Catalana, “siempre que quepan los libros.”) Now and then we dreamed of permanent expatriation, but our wiser selves knew it was an exceptional time and would have to end. So when I saw a pair of hoopoes burst out of the scrub on the back of Tibidabo, or magpies go bouncing at dawn over the grounds of the Freie Universität as if mounted on springs, I said to myself, “Keep this.” I choose birds as examples since birds don’t stay where you put them.

By almost any measure I would have used back then, these have been lean years, nibbling at memory. I know also, by R.’s hair cinematically haloed in the afternoon, that they are laying up treasure of another sort.

Wordsworth always sounds so damnably satisfied with his own mind. These days we feel closer to Proust, alike as he is, probably because he can novelistically bracket his character and make clear that we’re following a vulnerable child. The easiest way for us to live with Wordsworth now is to novelize him, to bring out the fear. As I live with myself.

I want to sweep out the house I have not been living in. This means lifting the shutters, never mind who’s looking inside, but not too high, not to blot out the eucalyptus grove at whisky light, when the bats come.

Spirit of spring, will you open this door that has been closed for months or years; and by the new light that hits the sundial an hour shy of last week, will you make this room a new room, this road a new road, and this threshold a ladder and skylight into a windy night of the old form. Schwärmerei and soledad—not the soledad of going home to a dark living room, but the ostinato soledad of looking at the Pleiades, that we’re going to die and not learn anything, not unless I get back, right now, and write it down. Which means: there is still some wine left at the bottom of my soul.

A cold current, but it’s not like they didn’t mark the exits. I have always done best calling out from behind a curtain. I hope I’m not hurting anyone.


Rain after months of drought feels just like moving back to Portland, especially in this tidy, piny suburb of the Bay. I can’t count the number of times I’ve turned east to go up the hill and thought I was back on Mount Tabor. Skyline of trees, traffic light on a single-lane road bright against the clouds, a film of water running clean on the paving.

Dayadhvam and all that. My teenage heart can’t let go of rainfall and dry land, any more than it can let go of nineties guitars. It so happens there have been a lot of nineties guitars around the house this week, and the weather has made us wonder if the Northwest is holding on to its legacy of nineties guitars, or if it’s all mandolins and beards on the one hand and Teh Electro on the other. By way of research J. found this, which we couldn’t watch for long. “It’s like he decided to become the Frank Zappa of Portland.”

Rain, rain, rain....

Rime is to some poets a stiff and grudging but to others an officious servant, over-active in offering suggestions to the mind; and no poet is rightly a master until he has learnt how to sift those suggestions, rejecting many and accepting only the fittest. Keats in Endymion has not reached nor come near reaching this mastery: in the flush and eagerness of composition he is content to catch at almost any and every suggestion of the rime, no matter how far-fetched and irrelevant. He had a great fore-runner in this fault in Chapman, who constantly, especially in the Iliad, wrenches into his text for the rime's sake ideas that have no kind of business there. Take the passage justly criticised by Bailey at the beginning of the third Book:--

There are who lord it o'er their fellow-men
With most prevailing tinsel: who unpen
Their baaing vanities, to browse away
The comfortable green and juicy hay
From human pastures; or, O torturing fact!
Who, through an idiot blink, will see unpack'd
Fire-branded foxes to sear up and singe
Our gold and ripe-ear'd hopes. With not one tinge
Of sanctuary splendour, not a sight
Able to face an owl's, they still are dight
By the blear-ey'd nations in empurpled vests,
And crowns, and turbans.

Here it is obviously the need of a rime to 'men' that has suggested the word 'unpen' and the clumsy imagery of the 'baaing sheep' which follows, while the inappropriate and almost meaningless 'tinge of sanctuary splendour' lower down has been imported for the sake of the foxes with fire-brands tied to their tails which 'singe' the metaphorical corn-sheaves (they come from the story of Samson in the Book of Judges).

Sidney Colvin, John Keats: His Life and Poetry

<= 2014.01.16

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