Gateway to the West
Driving from Dayton to St. Louis under the inimical sun, I see plenty of that countryside which the weekend magazine articles are still trying to unlock—what do they want??? and how do they live???—but I have no keys to it, and just see sun baking cornfields, sun baking long low factories and prisons, giant weather-scarred disused vats and bits of shaded forest that start to evoke familiar Western feelings before sputtering back to flat fields. Marlowe knows more than I do; when he was practicing law he went to see clients in that prison, and he’s glad he doesn’t have to do it any more.
The neighborhoods of St. Louis seem dead when you walk around them: empty cracked sidewalks, huge trees, cicada slur, the occasional lawn sprinkler spitting unattended and gates on side streets to keep the people in the next neighborhood from driving through. After five or six blocks there will be a bar on the corner, air-conditioned with no customers inside. A dozen local beers, all good. Around five o’clock people suddenly start appearing at the door, as if out of the trees. They all know the bartender and each other, sometimes there are actual family relations, and a civic life gets going of the sort I never knew in the college towns and metropolitan corridors where I’ve done my drinking. On my own I’m leery of the social stream, but my friends have the gift of gab and we start meeting the characters. There’s the seventy-year-old woman who buys us shots and tells us in anatomical detail just what she’s going to do for her eighty-nine-year-old husband when she gets home to him. There’s the ecology professor from Puerto Rico who says that from an economic standpoint, pollinators other than honeybees don’t mean jack shit, and starts salsa dancing when the right song comes on the jukebox. There’s his impromptu salsa partner (¡Baile, chica!), a white woman who, hearing that we’re writers, says that she too is writing a book with the help of a coaching service. After completing the last stage (“Prune, polish and publish!”), she’ll have it available for purchase on Amazon, print-on-demand. It’s about communications for nonprofits, which too often, she says, have a “codependent” relationship with their donors. Her pitch is much better than any of us can give for own work.
At a hookah lounge downtown two black men of different generations, strangers to each other, end up at our table. The older has stories of numerous girlfriends, playing the drums in a dozen bands, a past of murder and dope dealing which he claims to have forsworn only when he was at the point of killing his own father for smoking through a mountain of crack. Nowadays he’s a nurse and caretaker for schizophrenic patients and people in hospice; he’s proud of his work and makes a point of buying his own Budweisers. He decides that a Marlowe looks like Robin Williams and gets everyone calling him “Mork” for the rest of the night; he thinks I look like a Monkee and takes it as confirmation when I admit to playing guitar. He wants to talk a lot about the Bible, the only cure for a world where “everything is bull-shit... the white man is the devil. I don’t mean all y’all. But God has no color—He is color-full.” He has no objection to being recorded and in fact seems disappointed that we aren’t recording him. He objects to clandestine taping laws (“Why should I, as a human being, not be able to record my conversation with you? Why, when you all out there on the street recording me everywhere!”) And as much as we try to redirect him, he keeps returning to discrimination, by which he means the incident on our first entering the hookah lounge where the staff tried to steer him away for fear that he’d frighten us off. Our other tablemate holds on to his patience for a while but finally loses it: “My God, can we not ever have any conversation except the race conversation?” The conversation he wants to have is about beer. He comes from Georgia, has worked a while in St. Louis as a liquor distributor and knows his stuff; what he wants to do is move to a different town and open a brewery. It’s a matter of finding the right town; you need a market that isn’t saturated already, and you need good water. Is it reservoir, aquifer, spring water?—that’s what makes the difference, that and finding a yeast culture you like. The rest of it anyone can do. We start throwing names of states at him. “ Wyoming? Sure, maybe it’s the place, except seriously, who the fuck goes to Wyoming?
Every time I visit a new American city it seems more like other American cities and less like the countryside around. You wouldn’t get news out of these neighborhoods—no scary riots, no trendsetting restaurant scene—but as we scuttled from one air-conditioned haunt to another I kept thinking of Delany’s Bellona under its giant sun, and everyone there trying to carry on a decent life alongside everyone else, with more or less awareness of citizenry and self.
Mornings the early cloud layer dims and cools everything on the block except the neighbors’ jacaranda tree and its carpet of petals, which give back the half light in electric violet.
But there was no cloud layer this morning, and Albany Hill’s eucalyptus dome was the first thing to catch the dawn full face. Because I had a rolling suitcase with me it looked like the forest hills in Korea, which is to say, in that light, like a Joseon painting touched up in red and green.
Nothing can’t be a Joseon painting in this old panoramic theater of the world. I’m alive and going to Dayton.
I’ve been reading through Montale's Ossi di seppia, out in the sun whenever possible as must be done with Italian poetry (except Leopardi; you can read Leopardi at night). Italy of the blackshirts, D’Annunzio the going rhetorical mode: small wonder that you turn with a shudder from the works of man to a nature that suits only because it’s so provisional, so scarce:
Son vostre queste piante
scarse che si rinnovano
all’alito d’Aprile, umide e liete.
Per me che vi contemplo da quest’ombra,
alto cespo riverdica, e voi siete.
They are yours, these meager plants renewed by the breath of April, damp and glad; for me, contemplating you from this shadow, another bush turns green, and you are. The “you” is plural and not to be pinned down, but whatever forces are acting from without, the essential bit of magic is to draw the boundary of the self wide enough to bring that meager land within, and give it life.
It’s a method I can remember from long ago, one of the creeds I used to have and now worry about forgetting.
In the evening I have John McPhee, Annals of the Former World. I remember often seeing reed-and-cottonwood stretches of the Humboldt River from Interstate 80, but hadn’t grasped that the interstate takes the route it does because the river valley was the way people got across Nevada before the railroads. The path was called the emigrant trail; the pass into California is called Emigrant Gap. They were going out, not in; who knows where they’d get to. The Humboldt never reaches the sea, just flows west into ever lower desert, growing undrinkably alkaline, until it disappears into the sink that used to be Lake Lahontan.
Llir entre cards—
If something is caught or penned in, you draw a square around it. A person in a square 囚 is a prisoner. Tree/wood in a square 困 is a siege. Ancient/past/old in a square 固 is hardness, firmness, strength; it’s also used to write Japanese katai, “stubborn.”
This little light of mine, I’m gonna hide it under a bushel every day.
The bathroom doorknob finally gave out this morning and trapped me inside for some minutes while my family, laughing, took it apart from the outside with a screwdriver; but when I say that I know I’m stuck, I mean something else.
BOY TRAPPED IN REFRIGERATOR EATS OWN FOOT
Denis Johnson died of liver cancer at age 67 on the Mendocino coast. J. and I agree that seems like a good place from which to go. One of the obituaries, needing to be Fair and Balanced, noted that B.R. Myers had panned Tree of Smoke in the Atlantic; the pan starts with Myers admitting that this is the only Johnson he’s read and he doesn’t get it. Tree of Smoke isn’t my favorite novel either and I don’t think Myers is generally wrong about the faults he calls out, but what a wasted opportunity, to have just trotted him out for another installment of his check-the-naked-emperor routine (which makes me laugh when directed at Jonathan Franzen) instead of giving the job to someone who knew Johnson’s early work and might have been able to tease out how, in this case, the formal demands of the Latterday American Novel defeated one of the best writers we had.
I have Angels, Fiskadoro, The Stars at Noon and Jesus’ Son still on the shelf. I remember reading The Stars at Noon for the first time, discovering those sentences from “The Sprawl” that I thought Kim Gordon had made up herself and getting the secret handshake... but Fiskadoro is the one I’d like to reread now. I met Johnson in person twice and both times came away with an impression of sentiment and humility. (The first was in October 2001; someone asked him what is the duty of the writer in these times; he said he had no clue.) If there had to be some unavoidable name while learning to write in the oughts, we could have done far worse.
Sixteen years later and I’m still sending out queries on the weekends; at least everyone takes email now. Hot and cool weather is incompletely mixed in the yard. The literary agency websites explain that their agents are committed to working closely with authors over the course of their careers. A liking for historical fiction is characterized as a “soft spot.” The agent may have recently moved to the suburbs in order to cook in a full-size kitchen. An entity that cooks in a full-size kitchen is no bean-counting algorithm: no, something warmer.
My public-sector job is in part founded on the promise of a pension, which is as likely still to be there when I need it as any other common good in this country. Living with an eventual pension in mind injects an element of providential thinking into one’s life that I don’t like. Charity is a virtue, faith is sometimes a virtue, hope is pernicious. If one dies of liver cancer at 67, the pension has not much mattered, unless there’s someone who depends on you. Of course people depend on you. I’d like to start another project but it’s too soon, the last project too distracting as it flickers in and out of reality with every new email.
Without a calling to hand, there’s only labor and pleasure, and the endless rebalancing of one’s portfolio between the two. We should do better.
1: I saw a hawk today. I don’t know what kind it was. It was small like a falcon, with a striped tail, brown everywhere else.
2: A sharp-shinned hawk?
1: Probably a sharp-shinned hawk. Why was it named for a feature that’s impossible to make out from a distance?
2: It might have been named in an era when people shot birds to identify them.
Child: I don’t want people to shoot birds.
2: Oh, people don’t shoot birds so much these days—unless you’re Dick Cheney.
Child: What’s Dick Cheney?
[Explanation of Dick Cheney shooting birds and shooting people in the face.]
Child: I hope he shot a parrot.
1 [alarmed]: Why do you hope he shot a parrot?
Child: Because he would say, “I’m going to shoot you, parrot!” and then the parrot would say, “I’m going to shoot you, parrot!”
1 [laughing]: That’s a sick joke!
Child: What’s a sick joke?
[Explanation of what is a sick joke.]
Child: And that’s how he would learn, some animals are annoying.
Meng’s [Meng Yujian, (active ca. 1325-53)] paintings were popular during his lifetime but critical opinion was not entirely favorable; the T’u-hui pao-chien says of him: “His works are very delicate and pretty, but he cannot avoid an air of skillfulness.” To accuse an artist of being skillful was, of course, to relegate him to a lower rank.
—James Cahill, Hills Beyond a River: Chinese Painting of the Yuan Dynasty
Last summer the Berkeley Art Museum uncharacteristically rotated the Cahill collection out of its set of by-appointment-only cabinets, and I only managed to go see it once. More recently I found myself in a beautiful reading room of the campus Asian studies library, facing thousands of books I couldn’t read; so I went looking for volumes with pictures and got lost in Cahill’s account of the Yuan.
Su Shi, in the Song era, is tagged as the first to have said that “anyone judging painting on the criterion of likeness is the next thing to a child.” He would have been already exiled from court when he said it, without others around to take up the provocation. So he kept going on his own, painting weird rocks and trees:
instead of comprehensible academy landscapes in the Guo Xi manner:
It wasn’t until after the Mongol conquest that Su’s aesthetics were more broadly taken up, because all at once the country’s entire educated class found itself in Su’s position. They couldn’t get jobs at court (and if a job was offered, tended to reject it out of principle); centuries of prejudice against artisans barred them from painting for money. They gathered far from Kublai Khan’s capital, around the lakes of Suzhou, and with Su as a model began to elaborate an intellectually demanding coterie art, aggressively amateurish in technique and defying court and marketplace alike. Looking back from the Ming, the painter-writer Gu Ningyuan wrote that they “were all men of great virtue and succeeded in concealing their technical skill. They were afraid of becoming famous through their painting and of not being able to avoid the entanglements of the world. Only Zhao Mengfu stood out brilliantly and competed with the famous masters of the Tang and Song periods. He was very bold, but when he became a high official, he must nevertheless have found his great skill in art an embarrassment.”
Their works are often compared to primitivist and expressionist movements in Western art, but in this social context they remind me of nothing so much as underground rock—any of those indie or art-punk modes that deploy bluntness and naivete as a code, because only the right people are supposed to get that it’s smarter, and is working much harder, than it seems.
The scholarly class was trained in calligraphy rather than painting, and not only are these new paintings suddenly covered in writing, the forms themselves are written with the calligrapher’s brush. Each leaf and petal of Zheng Sixiao’s orchids records a single stroke, and is thus subject to the performative demands of calligraphy. Every nuance of the hand’s motion is recorded, and can’t be erased or revised once it’s laid down, making for a record of performance as intimate and unsparing as two-track tape. The concept of qiyun (氣韻) had been a touchstone of art criticism for centuries, and had seen many redefinitions; for the Yuan, it meant the signature expression of the artist’s temperament, as opposed to technical skill or verisimilitude. Art books render the term as “spirit resonance” or “spirit consonance,” but surely what we’d call it over here is “soul.” The Yuan take on qiyun is whatever makes two chords on Lou Reed’s guitar Lou Reed chords and nobody else’s; whatever makes a line into a Lou Reed line as soon as he opens his mouth.
The famous story about Zheng’s orchids is that someone asked him why the orchids were rooted in empty space. Where was the earth? “The earth has been stolen by the barbarians,” said Zheng. The painting’s space used to be emptier than it is now—the seals and much of the writing were added by later admirers—but one passage on the left is in Zheng’s own hand. “If you ask me for it, you won’t get it,” he says; “if you don’t ask for it, I might give it to you.” That’s as arch toward its audience as any liner notes I can think of, and quite a familiar gambit of the dispossessed.
Whether or not one eventually succeeds in selling a book, the failures to sell it always come first. It’s a very long process that demands virtually no active participation, to the point that one can easily forget it entirely. Where, you wonder, are these punches to the ego coming from; why am I walking around like one of Dante’s sullen in the sun and sweet air; am I really too much a failure and a fraud to show my face in the street? I’m drawing a paycheck. I didn’t feed the national monsters. Then you notice and tug at the odd thread in your mind, and out comes everything that was attached, decaying and dark green like anything that’s been too long down the drain.
There’s some relation here to John Scalzi’s Brain Eater, though my line went horizontal rather earlier and faith in an indifferent, unpurposive universe is a good guard against conspiracy-mongering.
I’d like to distinguish legitimate grief from the needless flailings of bruised ego. “... should very likely have labored damnably over the Buddhists and the Stoics,” wrote Henry Adams, trying to describe the corner he’d been driven into. He hardly had any Buddhists in decent translation to choose from.
Next time, paintings of bamboo plants.
At Home With the Moirai
We got R. an Easter sewing set with twenty-odd colored spools and at dusk she portioned them out for me: “This [dark gray] is darkness—that’s a challenge for you—this [light gray] is dimness—you will have to go through dimness—this [light green] is the leaves of the tree and this [dark green] is the trunk...” Then I followed her through color-coded quests in the yard, clutching one spool at a time. “How old are you? Thirty-eight... you have to go around these bricks thirty times, or eight times.” She pulled herself up to the fence in her nightgown, left wrist still in a cast, and spied on the neighbors’ flowers. “The flower of love... no, the flower of the truth.”
I’ve been trying to nail down words for a few songs and came across Nadezhda Mandelstam’s extraordinary account of the process (in Hope Against Hope):
A poem begins with a musical phrase ringing insistently in the ears; at first inchoate, it later takes on a precise form, though still without words. I sometimes saw M. trying to get rid of this kind of “hum,” to brush off and escape from it. He would toss his head as though it could be shaken out like a drop of water that gets into your ear while bathing. But it was always louder than any noise, radio or conversation in the same room.
Akhmatova told me that when “Poem Without a Hero” came to her, she was ready to try anything just to get rid of it, even rushing to do her washing. But nothing helped. At some point words formed behind the musical phrase and then the lips began to move. The work of a poet has probably something in common with that of a composer, and the appearance of words is the crucial factor that distinguishes it from musical composition. The “hum” sometimes came to M. in his sleep, but he could never remember it on waking. I have a feeling that verse exists before it is composed (M. never talked of “writing” verse, only of “composing” it and then copying it out). The whole process of composition is one of straining to catch and record something compounded of harmony and sense as it is relayed from an unknown source and gradually forms itself into words. The last stage of the work consists in ridding the poem of all the words foreign to the harmonious whole which existed before the poem arose. Such words slip in by chance, being used to fill gaps during the emergence of the whole. They become lodged in the body of the poem, and removing them is hard work. This final stage is a painful process of listening in to oneself in a search for the objective and absolutely precise unity called a “poem.” In his poem “Save My Speech,” the last adjective to come was “painstaking” (in “the painstaking tar of hard work”). M. complained that he needed something more precise and spare here, in the manner of Akhmatova: “She knows how to do it.” He seemed to be waiting for her help.
I noticed that in his work on a poem there were two points at which he would sigh with relief—when the first words in a line or stanza came to him, and when the last of the foreign bodies was driven out by the right word. Only then is there an end to the process of listening in on oneself—the same process that can prepare the way for a disturbance of the inner hearing and loss of sanity. The poem now seems to fall away from the author and no longer torments him with its resonance. He is released from the thing that obsesses him. Io, the poor cow, escapes from the gadfly.
If the poem won’t “go away,” M. said, it means that there is something wrong with it, or something “still hidden in it”—a last fruitful bud from which a new shoot might sprout.