An Ambition To Squint At My Verses In Print
Crow picking at a dead starling, the live starlings wheel and screech. It’s all right. “Everything is just as it is. You don’t have to like it, but you have to see it.”
The “purple ghost” maple is most vivid when the leaves are just budding, those curled skeleton fingers, minuscule. Magenta more than purple. That same magenta in the two-winged seed pods hanging below.
J. says she’s been far from home, that writing is home. (I know where my home is—not unlike a shit-hawk in the snow...) She says my writing always puts forth an indifferent, take-it-or-leave-it stance, which might be why it so often strikes the world without impact.
In the midst of this muddle I quite forgot to mention that my book has a publisher now! It will be out in January, we think. I need to orient some things around it.
J. went to Canada again, came back again. Before that we all went to Washington state together. Chorus of ravens, chorus of loons. In the café of sleep I order a macchiato and the barista asks me for a favorite phrase.
“I’ve always been partial to, ineluctable modality of the visible.”
“I am not going to call that out when your macchiato is ready.”
“Clever boy!” breaks in a second, obviously hostile barista; “learned your ABCs a long time before everyone else, didn’t you? Why don’t you learn some new ABCs, that no one’s ever seen before, and fuck up Unicode for good?”
I stand my ground, inwardly writhing, till the macchiato is brewed.
The end of Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau moves from tides to texts, bringing together three in particular: Tlingit folklore of scarcity and contingent misfortune; the last stanzas of Cowper’s Castaway; and the Marcus Aurelius prized by his deceased father. “You cannot hope to be a scholar. But what you can do is curb arrogance....”
The priest who officiates Monday nights at the zendo asks (in contrast to usual custom) that tonight’s service be dedicated in mind to her sister, who is at the crux of a long illness. The server asks if a different text should be substituted for the usual Heart Sutra. “No, no,” with a melancholy smile, “everything’s in the Heart Sutra, really.”
There’s a koto at the front of the church; the performer can slide the stops around to get different scales. She presses her left hand to the stops and produces a thunk, like palm muting a guitar. The professor of piano is still obliged (a hundred years on!) to give a few minutes’ explanation of and apologetics for Schoenberg before commencing to play Op. 23 and Op. 25, wonderfully well. Two violins alongside each other, one violin alongside a huge bass koto. The program notes (the composer’s own?) read, “The materials used are very limited, and there is no development of these materials.”
I’m in a pew with a borrowed copy of The New American Poetry, ed. Donald M. Allen (1960), transposed into a vision of what the future used to look like: Allen Ginsberg sitting outside Dwinelle watching boys go in and out, the turtlenecked academic dereferentializers having to sit next to the sweaty guys on peyote because no one had completely worked out who was who.
Once the show is over we clap as well as we can, but there aren’t many of us in the pews and we keep awkwardly starting and stopping as the roses are handed out.
As everyone knows in this port town of idiotic, profitable machines, the entrepreneur’s task is to work out what the market wants, that anyone could have done, and be the first to do it. In the arts this is an awful strategy; not only because the field is so barren of money, but because works conceived in such a vein will only embarrass you later. They can hold no brief for their existence except that it was you and not another who made them: as if the melting self were a peg to hang anything on. To pick at a form and find nothing underneath but mewling ego.
The other works, the ones that would never have occurred to anyone else, are no proof against embarrassment either. For one thing, they’re likely to be technically weaker, having fewer models to draw on. But you are at least justified in doing them, insofar as without you they would not have been done; and this lends them a stability separate from their flaws. They can exist without being looked at. Which matters, since few will want to look at them, now or later (the idea of posterity being the entrepreneur’s complex all over again, displaced in time).
I walked under all the windows of San Francisco and nothing saw me. I didn’t even get in the way of the wind.
Our newest ambition
For the past year, unable to get traction on a book of my own, I’ve been collaborating on one with R. Really it’s her book: my role is editorial, and to supply leading questions if things are running too fast or too slow. She’ll type a few sentences at a time, asking how to spell things; then it all gets too exciting and she starts leaping around the room and vaulting over furniture while continuing to dictate to me. The centaurs, dragons, sphinxes, disguised princesses, portals to other universes are all her own.
Once we got to twelve chapters plus a Note from the Author (“I am six years old. This is my first book.”), she drew a cover and we laid it out in InDesign, using the same font as The Drowned Library. We used pure reason to work out which pages to print on the backs of other pages so the whole thing could be stapled into a forty-page booklet. Getting staples through a forty-page booklet requires spearing the starting holes with a sewing needle. At one point my hand slipped and I now have a stigma on my left palm.
We’ve printed five or six copies so far, gifts for friends and family. The longtime favorite babysitter got a copy as her wedding gift. R.’s first-grade teacher got one too, and in my opinion did not properly acknowledge the significance of the gesture.
“I want to be a writer when I grow up,” R. says, “but I’ll also need another job.” Scary to me, how closely she’s been watching, and how fast she’s caught on.
Surprised by joy
Looking east from 16th and Noe at four in the afternoon, foreground to background, shaded street, shaded near buildings, sunlit far buildings, sunlit bay, sunlit docks, sunlit hills, blue heaven. A narrow angle on the water sets the towers and hills more than usual into one design on opposite shores.
It’s an embarrassing emotion, and always out of place: there’s never a proper time for it, you’re always flouting some nearer sorrow that deserves your attention, you’ll be paying it back with interest. That kind of accounting has been second nature for so long.
People and pigeons gathered at the library steps, waiting for the opening... five till ten, white mist, everyone’s cold. “Jade mist,” Li He would call it. I read those poems for years thinking jade meant green, not white.
Back home in the untended garden, we left R.’s slackline wrapped in the fork of a poplar for a year or so, and scales of bark grew right around the weave. I had to dig it out with shears. Nothing wants to live as much as a poplar.
The door opens, I pass into the bright lemon-walled reading room with all the other bad characters. There’s my friend’s novel on the display shelf with its circular “100 Notable Books of the Year” sticker... someone picks it up, reads the back, sets it down. A lot of the text in this library is in Russian; there’s a flyer for a reading group:
СТИХИ И ПРОЗА
POEMS & VERSES
That’s not right, is it?
“Ian used to spot the riffs,” says Peter Hook. “We’d jam; he’d stop us and say, That was good, play it again. We didn’t have a tape recorder then: imagine! He spotted ‘Twenty four hours’, ‘Insight’, ‘She’s lost control’—all of them. If it hadn’t been for his ear, we might have played it once and then never again. You didn’t know you’d played it half the time. It’s unconscious, but he was conscious.”
—Jon Savage, “good evening, we’re joy division,” liner notes to the Heart and Soul compilation
The generative process and the curatorial process: you need both, and it’s hard to fit them in the same skull. All that inspired writing that, once you dig into the drafts, turns out to have come from an inspired editorial pairing; all those singers and guitarists that could never do it apart as well as they had done it together. The only means that I’ve found to replicate it solo is time: wait long enough and your work becomes a stranger’s, and will accept the hatchet. But it’s vexing in music especially to know that things go so much quicker with multiple people involved, and to never be able, at this age, in this regional economy, to get multiple people detached enough from the rest of their lives to practice on schedule.
I’ve been playing with the algorithmic drummers in Logic, and not having kept up in recent years, I have to say they’ve gotten pretty good. There’s a decent aleatory component to the pattern generation, which I assume means that they trained a neural network on a lot of real drummers playing MIDI kits. The product does behave like a real drummer, albeit a fairly inattentive real drummer that doesn’t pay much attention to its surroundings and perhaps hasn’t had the best songs on its playlist that week; but the great advantage is that it frees the human involved to be wholly curatorial. You tweak the sliders and the mechanism generates, generates, generates till it blindly hits something that works, not necessarily at all what you had in mind; and you grab a snapshot before it washes away. What matters is that the generative process come from outside. Which means, I guess, that desktop-sized AI has gotten good enough to work around a certain kind of loneliness.
Looking back on the waning year, and several years before, it’s all “achieve your dreams... Burger King... achieve your dreams... Burger King...”
The narcotic of work. The narcotic of doing well in a sphere where the criteria for success are so clear and so readily given in advance; there’s nothing like it for putting ambition to sleep for a day, a week. But it wakes up in a bad mood.
Fifteen years ago, when the web was an alley, we put on weeknight shows in bad lighting, with no sound system, and a few had talent, luck and hustle to get out of the alley before it was condemned. God above, stars were born! (It was that story; I didn’t see it coming.) The stars will object: a red dwarf is not Betelgeuse. We answer: such differences of degree mean nothing as against all those smaller lumps of hydrogen that never caught fire, and please the gods with no light.
The idea of being vindicated has to go. Nothing can prove to Baudelaire that he is not inferior to those he despises.
Montale again: La vita che sembrava / vasta è più breve del tuo fazzoletto. The life that seemed vast is briefer than your handkerchief. In Italian a handkerchief can be brief.
On the other hand we got a huge black radish delivered to the house, so I sautéed it with sesame oil and garlic and it tasted basically like a turnip with more bite, fuck yeah, black radish.
As if you’d outlived yourself, and your own fruitless remains were the badge of shame you were given to carry in public. All those years practicing attitudes in the mirror, playing chess into the night against hooded skeletons; and when you finally reached across the board, you found your opponent spattered with glow paint and held up with piano wire. Well, of course! It was always you making the moves on both sides. Outside it’s been raining for years.