Monday, December 24, 2007


Again on the highway with tears in my eyes, cadenced by rhythm of concrete and steel, music of cloud vapour, music of signs - Blue Flame Clown Rental/Color Wheel Fencing - again overcome, again fever-driven, transported among the pylons and skid marks of the inevitable, sirens and call-boxes of a life I have laid claim to with a ticket found by chance in the pocket of a secondhand overcoat. And if it should come to that, if my fate is to be splayed on an altar of steel, heart held forth on an Aztec dagger of chrome, if this, then still I say it was beautiful, the freedom and speed with which you conveyed me, the way and the will, and I won't renounce the reek of acrid rubber or deny the need that sent me there, and I will not regret the purpose, the vehicle, the white line, the choice, and I will not mistake the message for the voice.
- Campbell McGrath, 'The Wreck', from Road Atlas (Ecco Press 1999)

That's it for 2007, folks. I'm off on vacation early tomorrow a.m. (going to catch me some of this here famed California sunshine) and won't be back till the first weekend in Jan. Till then, have a Happy Christmas and a Merry New Year, work as little as possible, drink as much as you can and try not to make any resolutions you might be tempted to keep.

See you in 2008.

The Bag


"Yes, dear?"

"Have you seen my bag?"

"Your bag, dear?"

"You know, my rucksack - the one I carry all the toys in."

"Oh, that bag. It's outside on the washing line, dear."

"What's it doing there?"

"I washed it, dear. It was all grungy with soot. We can't have you going around with a bag like that."

"Yes, yes, but it's Winter. It'll take AGES to dry. It's probably frozen solid out there right now."

"Very likely, dear."

"But I need it tonight! How am I going to carry all the presents around with me without my bag?"

"Don't worry, dear. We have plenty of bags."

"No we don't. None that are big enough. I don't understand why you had to wash my bag just when I was going to need it."

"Now, now. Don't fuss, dear. Of course we have bags big enough. Why, you can take the laundry bag."

"The laundry bag? That ugly, shapeless red monstrosity?"

"Yes, dear. It's very spacious. I'm sure all the toys will fit."

"I can't take the laundry bag!"

"Why not, dear?"

"Because, I'll look stupid walking around with it."

"Come, come dear, I'm sure no one will notice."

"Of course they will! Me, with a stupid lump of a red bag instead of my usual state of the art rucksack. Of course they'll notice."

"But dear, I thought you were the one who said appearances didn't matter in your work."

"What? When did I say that?"

"When we were discussing that new diet plan."

"Oh, that. But look, this isn't about other people. It's about my personal work ethic. I'm a professional. I can't just show up for work with any old bag."

"But it's just this once dear. By next year your usual bag will be dry and you can go back to using that."

"No, no, it won't do. It won't do at all. Just think of the contrast. Me in by all black costume carrying a red bag. A RED bag. Surely even you can see how ridiculous that'll look."

"Yes, well, that reminds me. About your costume, dear. I've been thinking..."

[Okay, okay, so I lied when I said I couldn't come up with any other Christmas stories]

Sunday, December 23, 2007


You died four days before Christmas - the Winter Solstice - both the day and the life a falling short.

Your going not tragedy but disappointment, as though the shadow you lived with had survived to see you buried, then drunk itself to death.

The words you had lived with slipped back into the language, but were never the same. Every time your book is opened they return for a reunion, their nostalgia staining the pages white.

And we learned to trade in the pure ghosts of jazz, our longings trapped forever between achievement and possibility, destiny and desire.

Sixty seven years later, and two days too late, I mourn your death. And it seems to me that this too is justified - as though melancholy were half-precision and half-dream; as though a promise didn't have to be made, to be broken.

[F. Scott Fitzgerald died on Dec 21st, 1940. He was 44.]


Slowly, as though explaining things to a small child, Gabriel repeated himself. Not quick on the uptake, this broad. Downright slow, in fact. What did He see in her anyway? She wasn't smart, wasn't particularly good looking. Pretty, yes, in a kind of washed-out, docile way, but not stunning, not a knock-out. You'd think if you were a God and were going to have sex with a women just once in all Time you could do better. Maybe He was nervous. After all, it was His first time. Yes, that must be it. It would explain the obsession with finding a virgin.

That was the problem with this new God. He was too abstract, too theoretical. With him everything was about 'spirit' and 'soul', never appetite. Not like Jove. Ah, Jove. Now there was a God who knew how to pick women. Generous and kind-hearted too. Willing to listen. A little quick-tempered with those Thunderbolts sometimes, not always fair, but well, to err is divine and all that. Plus he was always ashamed if he'd done something hot-headed, always trying to set things right afterwards. Not cold and merciless like this new one. Just look what he did to poor Lucifer.

Gabriel sighed. The truth was, he missed the old times. Oh, he'd been happy enough to get the new position. After all, he'd pretty much got as far as he was going to go in the old system. And a lifetime of playing second fiddle to that jerk Mercury didn't appeal to him. So he'd been delighted when this new God showed up and set up shop. It was a good position too. Archangel - such a lovely designation. So much better than 'messenger', even if the latter was more accurate. Plus the hours were better. And it was an up and coming faith, so there was plenty of room to grow. The uniform was a bit of a pain, though: these wings, for example, impossible to starch and heavy as a mother-fucker, so much worse than those neat little heel-attachments in the old place. And this stupid harp, as though speeding through the ether at speeds faster than light were the right time to be playing toccatas. Still, on the whole it was a definite improvement.

It's just that he missed the style of the old place. Take this Son of God business right here. In the old days, sons of gods were heroes - Hercules, Achilles, Aeneas - fierce warriors and brave adventurers all. And what does this new Guy come up with - some carpenter on a donkey. It just wasn't right.

Gabriel sighed again. At least the woman seemed to be getting it at last. She was smiling. Saying how it was a great blessing. Hah! Some blessing. God has one-night stand with you, knocks you up, then leaves you without child support. Gabriel wondered if he should tell her what it really meant to have the Son of God. How it would all turn out - the aimless wandering, the betrayal, the torture, the crucifixion. No, better not. Let her be happy for now. She'd find out soon enough.

[Okay, okay, I know this isn't really a Christmas story, but it's the best you're going to get this year. For previous Christmas stories - sort of - see here and here]

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Civil Parenthood Revisited

Okay, so I realize we're heading into Dead Horse county here, but I started to reply to some of the comments on my last post and figured I might as well get another post out of it.

Specifically, I wanted to address the 'I agree that it would be better to leave children at home, but it isn't always possible' argument, which, in one or the other avatar, keeps coming up. It seems like an unassailable argument - reasonable, self-evident, particularly effective when made to someone who isn't a parent and therefore doesn't understand the 'reality' of the situation.

Not quite. Reluctant as I am to seem insensitive to the very real difficulties of parenthood, I think it's important to recognize that that kind of stick in the mud attitude is precisely the problem. Unquestioning acceptance of the current situation married to a taking for granted of your 'right' to inflict your problems on other people is not an acceptable response to a social issue. After all, helpless, hand-wringing appeals to the status quo are a staple of all forms of social oppression. We'd love to leave our children at home, but you can't always find a babysitter. We'd love to see more women in top management, but you just can't find a candidate qualified or high performing enough. We'd love to see more students from the backward classes in our top colleges, but there just aren't enough good applicants. Each one of those statements may be factually true, but it obscures the fact that the 'reality' it's based on is itself socially constructed, and could change with a little effort from those making the statement. The solution to a problem mired in the current reality is not simply to accept that reality (and tell other people to accept it) and let the problem persist, but to ask why that reality exists and what we can do to change it.

So, let's accept for the moment that it isn't always (or even often) possible to leave your child at home. And let's then ask - why is that? Is it because the basic infrastructure / resources necessary are lacking? Is it because parents are irrationally protective and unwilling to accept what are, in fact, perfectly reasonable solutions? Is it because parents have so blindly accepted the truth of their own victimisation that they're both unable and unwilling to look for new solutions to the problem, to be, in a word, entrepreneurial? Is it because parents (and in particular mothers) are made to feel guilty about the perfectly sensible act of leaving their kids at home and going out to reconnect with the rest of the world?

Why can't we find babysitters? Is it because we live in a country with acute labor shortages, where everyone is gainfully employed and hired help is hard to come by? Surely not. Can it really be that hard to find a trustworthy person who will, for a reasonable fee, watch over your child for a few hours? Consider the parallels to hospitals, and the whole system of personal attendants (okay, okay, I know that's changing - and a good thing too - but it used to be true that you could always get a personal attendant to look after a patient if you wanted one, and I'm not sure it isn't still true). If we can find attendants to look after sick people, why can't we find them to look after babies? Fine, so maybe there's some amount of organization required. Perhaps a website that serves as a clearing house for babysitter services. Perhaps agencies that will certify babysitters. But given genuine, clearly signaled demand, none of that should be hard to do.

Besides, we may not even need to go that far, or turn to a system that 'professional'. I'd think the easier solution would be simply to 'baby pool'. After all, there are thousands of these new parents out there, yes? You can find them in every area, every apartment complex. What's more, they tend to know each other anyway, even, on occasion, identify as a community. Why is it so difficult to work out a simple arrangement where A looks after B's child while B goes out, and later B returns the favor (you could do this with more than one person of course)? If parents simply collaborated among themselves they wouldn't need to inflict their children on the rest of us.

You're going to tell me it's not that easy. Of course it isn't - social change never is. But that's no reason for not working towards it. You're going to tell me that I don't understand the difficulties involved. And perhaps I don't. But spell them out for me (and, I suspect, for yourself) and we'll see how they hold up or how we can solve them. You're going to tell me that as an individual parent you can't change the way things are. And you can't. But that, again, is true for every social problem. Solving any social issue requires collective action. You can't cop out by claiming helplessness. Besides, it seems to me that parents have no difficulty reaching out to each other when they want to. Take the 'momblogs'. So you have this great community of people who interact, share war stories, agree on how hard parenting is. Why doesn't that community help its own members out? Why don't readers of these blogs offer to babysit for each other's children, so we can all have a life?

In her comment to earlier post, MM talks about how she'd hate to see public space getting more fragmented and exclusionary. I agree entirely. I'd hate to see that too. The point is that that kind of exclusion is the only solution to the baby problem available to non-parents. If parents won't cooperate between themselves, won't put effort and ingenuity into finding collective solutions to the problem of how to take care of their children, but will instead persist in taking the easy but ill-mannered route of thrusting their children upon us, what can we do but shut them out entirely? That kind of divisiveness hurts everyone, but it's unfair to expect non-parents to bear all the pain of maintaining social contact with parents, and frankly, it's not worth it. If we want to protect the inclusiveness of adult public space, we need to create means to protect that space itself, and that means parents finding ways to keep their children out of it.

Of course, it will still be true that there will be times when parents will not be able to leave their children home. No solution is ever complete. But frankly, that doesn't matter. What I object to, primarily, is not so much the presence of children as the attitude that goes with it. If I were convinced that a parent who brought a child to a party / concert had, in fact, made a genuine effort to find a way to avoid having the child there, and that said parent was conscious of the disruption the child represented, was making every effort to minimize that disruption and was sensitive to the harm he / she was inflicting on other people by having the child there; if, moreover, I knew that I could complain when the child's behavior proved annoying, and that my displeasure would be treated with respect, I wouldn't mind so much if occasionally someone did bring a child along. But that isn't what I see. Nine times out of ten what I see is a parent who feels he / she has a right to have the child there, who is totally oblivious to the annoyance the child represents and who would be indignant rather than apologetic if this were pointed out to him / her or if he / she were asked to leave or curb the child in anyway.

Finally, let me say that this whole 'but you can't expect someone to just sit at home while their child is growing up' argument is a total red herring. As a thought experiment, imagine a world where bringing a baby into a public space not specifically identified as 'Baby' were an offense, much like smoking outside a designated smoking area (again, this is a thought experiment, I'm not suggesting we create a world like this - I wouldn't want that to happen). Do we seriously believe that parents would simply sit at home and stop going to theaters, movies, restaurants and parties? Isn't it more likely that with the ban on babies a fait accompli they would find ways to leave their babies at home (insert obvious quip about necessity being the mother of invention. heh)? Sure, every now and then they wouldn't be able to find anyone to care for the baby and would have to give up on a social event. But I can't imagine they would let it happen often. It's the old, old story - if you're bearing the full cost of a problem you find ways to solve it, but as long as you can pass on the cost to someone else, you don't bother. With the way society is today, parents receive a subsidy of unwilling tolerance of the disruption their babies represent from non-parents, and it's convenient for them to depend on that, even take it for granted. I'm not saying we should withdraw that subsidy or turn intolerant. I'm saying that parents need to recognize the existence of that subsidy and use it responsibly and sparingly. That the civil thing to do would be to act as though this hypothetical ban really were in place, and try to work around it, with a combination of personal sacrifice (by parents) and public indulgence (from non-parents) taking up what can't be worked around.

P.S. As reparation for saying all these things about parents, here's a poem from the new issue of Crazyhorse, which arrived in my mailbox yesterday (and which includes a glorious prose piece by Amber Dermont called 'Assembling the Troops' which you simply must read if you can get your hands on it):

The Baby Years

went unrecorded, eclipsed
by sleep in winks, the swiftest
showers, three-minute eggs.

Nothing before had escaped
examination. Then night and day
married and collapsed;

reflection came only in mirrors.
As if she'd meant at first to go
somewhere else, she seems in pictures

benignly surprised, a speaker
cut off mid-sentence and conquered
by accidental joy - as if an old

standby had broken and a better version
been repaired. One afternoon
the doubt disappears, the dogged

proving, the stream of questions...
Nestled in pillows, exhaustion,
laundry, books without words,

she comprehends the centuries
of silence, the vocabulary
never learned from flash cards

or study abroad. It's there
in cookbooks, in how her mother
makes a bed, in the melody

that stops the crying. And she'd nearly
missed it, so buried she'd been
in definitions. She can almost give in.
- Adrienne Su

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Civil Parenthood

[Warning: long and pontificating post. So much for my new emphasis on brevity]

Reading Sridala's post over at Ultraviolet this morning made me think about the whole vexed question of parents in society - the conflict between a parent's natural enthusiasm for his / her child and the desire of those of us who aren't interested in children not to have the little tykes inflicted on us. [1]

Because let's face it - new parents are annoying. They prattle, they gush. Not only do they have a seemingly infinite store of stories about their little brats, they are usually incapable of recognizing that other people have little or no interest in these stories (or in the babies themselves) and are quick to take offense at the first sign of disinterest. Worse, they often insist on bringing their baby along with them, so that it can disrupt all civilized proceedings in the general vicinity. We've all seen them - parents who bring their babies to parties, restaurants, concerts, flights, movies, offices, etc. - and then, instead of being suitably ashamed when junior disturbs everyone around, seem to think it's their right to inflict their baby on us, and are surprised when we turn away.

The trouble, I think, is that society inflates the importance of babies to the point where they come to seem almost sacred. It's natural for parents to be excited about their children, but when that excitement comes at the cost of self-reflection it becomes a problem. Because the cult of the Baby is sacrosanct, new parents seldom feel the need to make conversation about their babies interesting - they presume that everyone will share their enthusiasm anyway. Worse, being a parent becomes a means of self-definition - an easy route to approval and status that tempts people (especially those who have little else to say for themselves) into projecting themselves primarily as parents at the cost of everything else they are or could be.

The fall-out of all this is a negative reaction from those of us who don't much care for babies / children. If we tend to treat new parents with scorn, it's simply in reaction to the privileges they seem to be arrogating to themselves. If we act as though a new parent is no longer the person he / she used to be, and must be incapable of intelligent conversation, it's because bitter experience has taught us that this is often the case, and the risk of finding ourselves trapped in a 'baby' conversation with no polite way out makes us prefer the stereotype to honest inquiry. If we refuse to have anything to do with a person who has a baby on his / her arm, it's because we resent having the mewling and puking little monster inflicted on us.

Of course, the downside to this is that a lot of bathwater gets thrown out with the baby (sorry, couldn't resist). Even parents who may actually want to talk about things other than their children find themselves cut off from all other conversation - trapped in the counter-presumption of their role as parents. Sridala describes this as new parents becoming "a ghetto unto themselves" but I think it's more like the formation of two opposing camps. After all, being a non-parent can be a fairly ghetto-ising experience as well.

The solution, I think, is what I will call civil parenting. Parents need to stop assuming that we're all interested in their children, or are willing to tolerate / make sacrifices for them. They need to stop taking it for granted that people will be overjoyed to hear about their baby or to be in the presence of said baby (I won't even start on the whole practice of thrusting infants into one's face - as though one were judging a contest for bonny babies). They need to accept that people have the right to say that they don't want to hear their baby stories or that they don't want their baby around. Having a baby is kind of like smoking - you're welcome to do it if you want to, but you shouldn't force other people into passive parenting.

Does this mean that parents must necessarily give up on having a social life for the time their children are too young to be left alone? Certainly not. First, there are always baby-sitters, there's always the option of one person staying at home while the other goes out (and I really mean one person - I DO NOT mean the mother stays at home while the father goes out).

More importantly, though, there's nothing that stops new parents from sharing their enthusiasm over their kids with those who are genuinely interested. Sridala writes that she found herself "vowing to never inflict my private and necessary absorption with motherhood on anyone else." Nothing so extreme is called for. All you need is to vow never to share your p. and n. absorption with anyone who's likely to see to as an infliction. Sridala's post talks about the whole phenomenon of 'mombloggers'. As the popularity of these bloggers bears testament, there is a whole world of people out there who are interested in babies and enjoy talking about them. Hell, they may even be a majority. So finding people to share your newfound fascination with shouldn't be hard.

I think a good parallel is with poetry. Many of us feel what I can only describe as a 'private and necessary' absorption with poetry (remember Yeats: "I have no child / I have nothing but a book"). Yet we don't automatically assume that everyone we speak to will share our enthusiasm. And we certainly don't expect that it will be okay for us to start reading our poems aloud at any and all social gatherings and expect other people to shut up and listen. And if people tell us they don't care for poetry we don't take it personally. In short, we don't experience a sense of entitlement from being poetry lovers. Instead, we seek out people who are interested in poetry and share that part of ourselves with them. We organize / attend poetry readings. We start blogs that talk about poetry or join online discussions about it. And we don't give up on friends of ours who don't care about poetry. We respect their disinterest and talk to them about other things. What we need is a similar maturity when it comes to children.

The 'momblogs' (a term I dislike, btw, it's both reductive and sexist) are a good example of civil parenting, actually. I rarely read any of them, but I think it's great that they're out there. Not just because they serve as a community for people who are interested in discussing children, but because as a clearly demarcated and identified space, they have the courtesy to signal to those of us who may not be interested that we should stay away. They aren't a ghetto - they're simply a suburb - one where I personally wouldn't want to live, though I'm happy to visit and glad to know people who do.

The usual crib one hears from parents when they're asked not to inflict their children on society at large and limit their parenting activities to select company, runs along the lines of "but why should we have to pay the cost / suffer for being parents" [2]. Three things:

First, parents should 'pay the cost' of being parents because it's their decision to become parents in the first place. Presumably, if you've chosen to be a parent, it's because you see some benefit in having the little tykes around (though what this might be I confess I couldn't say) so it seems little to ask that you make some sacrifices for what is, to you, a privilege. (I realize, of course, that for many people parenthood is more a reflex undertaking than a considered choice, but I don't see why I should suffer for their poor foresight). If anything, the question should be the other way around - why should those of us who don't have children have to pay for other people's decision to have some.

Second, and more importantly, as Sridala's post points out, the costs of not being a civil parent can be high as well. In a society where parents are seen as Parents and little else, new parents can end up missing out on many other aspects of life. The greater the parents' ability to behave cooperatively and respect the preferences of non-parents, the less the scorn and resistance they're likely to face, and the greater their access to a life outside of the parental role. Building a society where being a parent isn't the focus of a new parent's life is good for everyone. The 'cost' of being a civil parent may well be that you get to keep the friends who would avoid you otherwise.

Third, this is an argument for defining boundaries, not for allocating costs. Remember Coase? To the extent that the presence of children in the public space represents a situation akin to the tragedy of the commons, who bears the cost will depend on how society allocates 'rights' over that space. And given the numerical majority of parents and the overall superstructure of parenting as a good, the chances are that those rights will go to parents, not to non-parents. All I'm suggesting here is that we make the allocation of those rights explicit, so that those of us who want to avoid children can do so. I'm perfectly willing to pay, say, 15-20% more on an air-ticket for the comfort of knowing that there won't be any children under 12 on the flight. I'd be happy if there were restaurants that kept children out, even if eating there meant I paid a premium. And I don't mind in the slightest if parties I'm invited to are overflowing with children and babies, as long as I know this in advance so I can simply not go. The trouble with the way our society is right now is simply that it's considered unacceptable to not like babies - most parents would be offended if I told them I wasn't going to come to their party because their children would be there. And that's just silly.

Bottomline: If you show up at a party with a few month old baby in tow, you should expect to have people treat you as nothing more than a baby-producer, and have people who don't like babies avoid you. This doesn't mean that people are judging you, simply that they're refusing to allow you to inflict your parenthood on them. It's not you who is being victimized, it's they who are refusing to be. And if you want to keep their friendship you need to respect that.


[1] Of course, Sridala's post isn't only, or even primarily, about parental roles. But as I said in my comment to that post, her points about gender stereotypes around parenting I entirely agree with. It's ridiculous and unfair how mothers get saddled with a disproportionate amount of the scorn, guilt, career pressure and social isolation that comes with being a parent.

[2] The other old chestnut is, of course, the categorical imperative argument - someone has to have children so that humanity can go on, etc. etc. If you're thinking of trying that one here are my views on arguments like that

[3] Finally, if you want my real views on proud parents, see here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Notes towards a definition of poetry

Poetry is its own definition. The poem means every word it contains.

The definition, like the poem, is chosen from among a million meanings, all true.

The definition, like the poem, is arbitrary, but will have to do.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Sometimes, at night, if he's not watching TV or listening to the radio, he can hear the woman in the next apartment on the phone. She has a distinctive voice, loud and high-pitched, and the walls are thin. He can't make out what she's saying, or whether it's in English, but he can hear the timbre of her voice, the lilt and flow of it, its occasional ascents that could be either urgency or excitement.

At times like these, he puts down the book he's reading, switches off the lights, and sits very still, listening to the muffled sound of his neighbor's conversation, this music of connection that only he can hear.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Machine

There are days when I am a machine, churning out words.

Not the mind's manifestos, but the heart's need to imprint.

There are days when the ink is oil, smeared on my fingers.

The shame of pages I have snatched at too quickly.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

YATTL : 2007

It's that time of the year again. Here it is - my made once, checked six times list of favorite reads from 2007:

1. What Was Lost

It's practically a given. The best book in the Booker longlist will not make the shortlist. The best book on the shortlist (which this year was Animal's People) will not win. This year's prize 'the judges must be blind' prize for most deserving book of the year goes to Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost (my review here) - a hilarious and scathing critique of consumerist society, combined with the bittersweet story of an incredible little girl, with an unsolved mystery thrown in for good measure and the most compelling evocation of a child's perspective I've read in years. What more can you ask for?

2. The House on Boulevard Street

Another 'should have won but didn't' book (it was nominated for the National Book Award but lost to Robert Hass's Time and Materials). Kirby's poems can seem rambling and whimsical (see an example here), but concealed behind their conversational charm is a level of mastery few of us can aspire to. Kirby may be one of the few poets living who can tell a joke in a poem and make it work. To read The House on Boulevard Street is to become acquainted with one of the most hypnotic voices writing today - an experience not to be missed, if only for the laughs.

3. The Biplane Houses

Ah, Murray. Anytime that man comes out with a new collection it's almost certain to find a place on my list of top reads, and Biplane Houses is no exception. To see why, go here.

4. Exit Ghost

You knew this one was coming, didn't you? Okay, so it's not the best book Roth has ever written. It's not even the best thing he's written this decade. But it's a new Zuckerman novel, and almost certainly (though you never know with Roth) the last, and Nathan Zuckerman is to me what Harry Potter is to most people. Besides excruciating as the He / She bits of the novel are, the rest of the book is intriguing, meditative, ferocious and wildly over the top. In other words, classic Roth. (my review here)

5. The Savage Detectives

And speaking of bravura performances, the find of the year for me is Roberto Bolano. I'm only about two-thirds of the way through The Savage Detectives as I write this, but I knew it was going to make this list after the first twenty pages. Bolano combines Latin American flamboyance with the bummed-out coolness of the Beats, creating a prose style that reads like Llosa meets Burroughs and a world where Rimbaud and Valery and Parra come mixed with blood and drugs and alcohol, all described in a dozen different (and distinct) narrative voices. It's like reading marijuana.

6. Cheating at Canasta

Reading William Trevor is like listening to chamber music - some exquisite sonata in A minor, a world of depth and longing rendered in sombre, pitch-perfect tones. The stories in Cheating at Canasta (many of which will be familiar to regular readers of the New Yorker) showcase, in their graceful melancholy, the consummate craftsmanship of a modern master. If you love short fiction, this is one book you can't afford to miss.

7. Modern Life

2007 also provided me the opportunity to renew what is fast becoming an obsessive love affair with the work of Matthea Harvey. Whether they're describing the travails of Robo-Boy (a heartbreakingly human android), exploring futuristic dystopias or just riffing on the everyday world, Harvey's poems are, in a word, electrifying (literally so - in 'Free Electricity' she tells the story of a girl who finds sockets growing all over her body and ends up becoming a source of free power for the world). Set in landscapes surrealistic and science fictional, her poems are ecstatic celebrations of the both language and imagination, fragments that capture the anxiety and wonder of the everyday world even as they push the boundaries of what poetry is capable of.

8. Missing Kissinger

If you are interested in short fiction (see no. 6 above) then the other person you should read (if you haven't already) is Etgar Keret - whose punchy, weird, violent and delightful stories are like nothing else. Missing Kissinger recycles a number of stories from his earlier collections, but it's still a phenomenal read, and a great place to start if you've never read Keret before.

9. Brother, I'm Dying!

Another National Book Award nominee. Edwidge Danticat's non-fiction account of the life and deaths of her father and his brother is a moving memoir that combines the personal and the political, juxtaposing the growing violence in her Haitian homeland and the betrayed promise of a new life in the United States against a delicately told story of family and relationships, all-delivered in clear-eyed, confident prose.

10. After Dark

Finally, I can't end this list without including the inevitable nod to Haruki Murakami - whose new novel After Dark (my review here) is a welcome edition to his oeuvre, and one of the most engaging explorations in perspective in fiction that I've ever read.

Honorary Mention: Half of a Yellow Sun

There's only one reason Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's breathtaking novel about the Biafran war isn't on this list - it was published in 2006. It's an engrossing and poignant book, however, full of rich characters, vivid descriptions and some truly marvelous writing.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Death of the Blues

"Hell no!", said the Devil, "I got souls enough already. But that's a mighty fine guitar you got there."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Most depressing news of the week

here. I suppose it had to happen eventually, but one always imagined the man would just keep going, a bit like Cohen the Barbarian.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Old Flame

She always got that way when she'd been drinking. Mean. Ugly. Like the world owed her an explanation. I'd taken to hiding the bottle when I wasn't at home but maybe I forgot that day or maybe she managed to find it somehow but the minute I walked in through the door and saw her sitting there with that expression in her eyes I knew she'd been at it. It was a hot day, the peak of summer, I remember because it was the day they buried my friend Ramon and the heat was so bad that the paint on his coffin had started to warp before they lowered him into the ground. Poor Ramon. He was just twenty three, too. Anyway, there I was, all sweaty and upset, and she starts in on me with her where were yous and her why don't you ever take me anywheres. It made me mad. So I told her she'd been right all along and I was having an affair with Angelica, in fact, I'd just got back from being with her, we were in a hotel room all afternoon, fucking. This was a lie. I hadn't even seen Angelica in two weeks and anyway there was nothing like that between us. Besides, as I just told you, I was at this funeral.

So I told her this and she started to cry. Said she didn't know why I treated her that way, how I was ruining her life, how she could have been a great artist but gave it all up just for me. Nothing I hadn't heard a dozen times before. I told her if she wanted to be a great artist what was stopping her? What did she do all day anyway, sitting at home? It's not like she ever did any housework. Then she got mad and said she would too, she'd show me. And I said fine. Then she started to throw things at me, at which point I ducked into the bathroom and took that shower I'd been wanting, what with the heat and the dust from the cemetery and the grit of death on my skin.

I figured it was just one of her tantrums, that she'd sleep it off and be properly apologetic the next day. But when I got home the next night (having spent the evening drinking with my friends, in Ramon's memory) I found she'd actually gone out and bought herself a second-hand violin. Where she got the money for it, don't ask - she must have been stealing from me on the sly all along. Anywhere there it was, and now she needed to practice. At least that's what she called it. What it really amounted to was a lot of god-awful sawing and squealing, way into the early hours of the morning. The neighbors complained, the people from across the street complained, at one point the police showed up at our door. But she stuck with it. Said even Yehudi Menuhin had to practice. I told her yes, but Yehudi Menuhin can play, only then she got that mean look in her eyes, like maybe she'd been secretly drinking again, so I gave it up.

Two weeks of this, of me getting no sleep at night, and dozing off in office during the day, and I decided I'd had enough. Told her I was leaving. I may even have suggested that I was moving in with Angelica, though naturally nothing like that was happening. I just figured I'd move out for a week or two, give her a bit of a scare. Hopefully by then the whole thing would blow over, she'd come to her senses, give up on this violin thing and we could go back to the way things used to be.

It was fifteen years before I saw her again.

Oh, I guess you all know what happened in between. To her, that is. The success of that first album, the concert in the stadium, the radio broadcasts during the war. I wasn't doing too badly either. By the time I met her again I was vice-president of my firm, and only a year or two away from making director. It was in Mexico City, of all places. I was there for a conference. I saw a poster for a performance she was giving. One of those intimate little ballroom things. I figured I might as well go see her play - I'd always meant to, but somehow, back home, I'd never got around to it. Besides it isn't really my kind of music, the stuff she plays. All this jazzy folk stuff. Give me Mozart any day.

Anyway, so I saw this poster and I had a free night, so I figured I might as well catch the recital. I planned to sit at the back, unnoticed, and slip away when it was over, but she must have spotted me in the first half because during intermission one of the organizers came and gave me a note from her. Could we meet up after the show? For dinner? I'll admit I felt flattered. Yes, I said in my note back, of course.

She didn't look bad for her age. Not quite the figure she used to have when I first met her, but you have to expect that. I told her her performance was superb, though I hadn't really enjoyed it. I said I never realized back then that she had gypsy blood in her. She said she didn't. Oh, I said, I thought you did, I mean, given the kind of music you play. No, she said. We were quiet for a bit then.

Are you married, she asked, after a while. No, I said, never got around to it. Work, you know (I didn't want her to think I'd been pining away for her or something - she's just silly enough to believe something like that), it's a pretty crazy world, business, takes a lot to be a success, you have no idea. She nodded. What about Angelica? she asked. What about her? I said. Didn't you leave me to be with her, she said. Oh, that, I laughed, there was nothing to that. I was just having you on. I left you because you were driving me crazy with your drinking and your violin practice. Nothing ever happened between Angelica and me. Oh, I see, she said. Then we were quiet again.

After a while I asked her if she was in Mexico City long. No, she said, I leave tomorrow morning. Me too, I said. What a coincidence running into you here, of all places. Yes, she said, I'm glad you came for the concert. I'm glad I did too, I said. In fact, she said, it's great seeing you again after all these years. We should go out and get a drink to celebrate. I was going to say yes to that, then I remembered how she got when she was drinking and said, no, better not.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Why me?

Seriously, what is it with psychos sitting next to me in concerts?

First on Friday, at the performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra, I end up sitting next to the two people in the entire auditorium (and this is the Verizon hall we're talking about - this thing seats some gazillion people) who decide that they simply have to leave in the middle of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. So they come in, listen to the performance for all of the 20 minutes or so it takes to get through the first movement and then decide to leave. And of course they're sitting in the center of the row so they have to pass a dozen people to get out. And naturally it takes them all of the fifteen second pause between movements to decide that they're leaving so that they're start walking only after the second (slow) movement has started. And obviously they have bulky coats and jingly purses and clicking heels so that they make the maximum possible noise leaving. Aarggh!!

And then yesterday, at a recital by mezzo-soprano Monica Groop I have to be the one sitting behind the guy who's either stoned or drunk or both. The concert starts. Ms. Groop gets to the third quatrain of Schubert's Suleika I, and this guy's already snoring. And he has a snore like a poorly oiled buzz saw. Fortunately he also has a companion with sharp elbows, so he doesn't snore for long, but every five minutes or so he'll nod off and start snoring again.

Finally, today I'm at a performance by the Guarneri Quartet. This time the people sitting next to me are this nice old couple - the kind who look like they're season subscribers. At last, I think, fellow music lovers. Any lingering doubts I might have had are dispelled in the first half, where they behave beautifully. Intermission passes. The Quartet comes out and starts playing Beethoven's String Quartet in B-flat Major Op 130. And the woman next to me - this little old lady who looks like she couldn't hurt a fly, but, it turns out is really the devil in disguise - starts tearing up her program. I'm not kidding. There she is, going shrrrrkkk! shrrrkkkk!, ripping out the pages right in the middle of that glorious Adagio ma non troppo opening.

I can't wait to see what the seating charts will throw up for the Philadelphia Orchestra concert I'm attending day after tomorrow. Probably a prestidigitator, or a guy with pockets full of fireworks.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Importance of Being Ugly

Ah Monday. Time to argue.

Today's pontification comes to your courtesy of this post over at Ultraviolet, that covers a lot of ground but achieves very little depth. I'd ignore it, except the issue is important, and deserves something more analytical than a garbled regurgitation of half-chewed ideas.

So. It seems to me that underlying all this talk about stereotypes of female beauty there are really two distinct issues: a) the significance we attach to female beauty and b) the way in which that beauty is defined. Think of them as the weight a subject has on your overall grade and the way that you're marked on that subject. It's my opinion that the real problem, indeed from a gender perspective the only problem, is the former, not the latter.

The trouble is that we live in a world governed by the assumption (shared by men and women alike) that women are supposed to be beautiful. Years of systematic social conditioning, liberally aided by propaganda from clothing and cosmetic companies makes us attach undue importance to female beauty, making it a critical if not defining part of a woman's identity. And that is just silly.

The comparison with male beauty (or handsomeness, or good looks, or whatever) is instructive. It's not that standards for male attractiveness are any less stringent or outlandish. Take a look at your standard underwear model with his rock-hard abs and / or his pretty boy good looks (ooh! yum...errr...sorry, got distracted there for a minute) and you have a template of male beauty every bit as unachievable for the ordinary guy as any that applies to women. The crucial difference is that with men, society makes the eminently more sensible assumption that most men aren't going to come close to that standard. Oh, I'm sure there are men out there who care a great deal about their looks. But this vanity is not (or to a much lesser extent) socially imposed - nobody seriously cares that you're not good looking. Or rather, it's a small part of who you are - along with intelligence, professional success, personality, sense of humor, etc. - and not something to get too fussed about. Nobody, for instance, would call me handsome (except perhaps a short-sighted aunt or two), but I can't say that I've ever been anxious about this, or felt the need to invest time, money or effort into doing something about it. And based on my (admittedly unscientific) observation of people I'm friends with, I think that's an attitude generally shared - on average, female beauty is a much bigger deal (to men and women both) than male beauty.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not for a moment suggesting that the more sensible attitude to male beauty is in any way a reflection of the relative smartness (or not) of men; notice it's the attitude to male beauty, not the male attitude to beauty. You might just as well argue that the fact the male beauty is less critical is a tribute to the greater maturity of women when it comes to looking for a mate (though I don't seriously believe this). No, on the whole I think we're all products of an inherited set of social norms that unfairly emphasize the physical attractiveness of women. As Germaine Greer puts it:

"clothes are expected or altered to fit the man; women have somehow to try to fit the clothes. There are a few male fashion victims; all women are victims of fashion. Men will not buy cosmetics; in the United States women spend more than $ 10 billion a year on make-up and beauty aids" (The Whole Woman, Anchor Books 1999, pp 150)

All of this is patently ridiculous. And mouthing platitudes about how "all women are beautiful" or "every woman is beautiful in her own way", while expressing a pretty sentiment, does more to devalue beauty than to help women. Let's face it - most women are not beautiful. They are at best vaguely nice looking, frequently plain, occasionally ugly. Pretty much the same distribution, in fact, as you find with men. And the point is that this doesn't and shouldn't matter. Physical attractiveness shouldn't be the defining characteristic of any individual, it should be a valued but minor trait, like good driving skills, or the ability to juggle or remember phone numbers.

What we need to fight then, is not a particular definition of beauty but the conspiracy of beauty itself. And yes, this means ensuring that we weed out the role of beauty as a selection mechanism in the workplace; it means that we ask ourselves tough questions about media reports that place undue emphasis on a woman's looks or manner, that, for instance accuse Hillary Clinton of "having a grating voice and bad taste in clothes"[1]; it means that we work to change masculine attitudes that evaluate women purely or primarily on the basis of their looks. It also means that women need to make a conscious effort to deny the feminine privileging of beauty, to keep themselves from being manipulated into an emphasis on their looks that is, frankly, unnecessary. It's easy to say "oh, but looks do matter" (just as it's easy for men to say "oh, but it's women themselves who are obsessed with looking beautiful") but real progress will only get made if we attack the perverse selection mechanism from both sides.

Of course, none of this is new, and all of it is easier said than done. But I think it's a critical first step to recognize that it's not really about how we define beauty - whether it relates to skin color, or to a particular shape or body type. The simple fact is that beauty must, by definition be exclusionary. A world where everyone is beautiful is a world where no one is. We can certainly replace one stereotype with another (as an aside, would someone care to explain to me how a currently common definition of beauty can be an 'ancient' stereotype?) but all that achieves is some minor reclassification of who gets to be beautiful - it's a bit like (forgive me, I can't resist) rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

But surely, you're going to say, judging people on the basis of the color of their skin is a form of discrimination? It is if we use beauty to judge people (especially women), if we make our assessments of their physical attractiveness a basis of providing access to opportunities or selecting for jobs. But if we were to get over our obsession with female beauty and relegate physical attractiveness to the position it deserves, then the whole question of fairness' relationship to beauty would become largely irrelevant. I personally have never understood the obsession with lighter skin, but there are certainly things I find attractive in a woman (though I'm obviously not going to be stupid enough to list them here) and, by extension, women who I think are beautiful. But I don't (or at least I think I don't) base my friendships or my relationships with women at work, or even my romantic relationships (few and far between as they are) on how the women in question look, simply because in the big picture that hardly matters. And that, I'd argue, is where we want society to be headed. The more time we spend debating what makes a woman beautiful rather than why this matters, the longer we stay trapped in a reductive emphasis on beauty that serves little purpose except to bolster patriarchal power.

see also: Fair, though hardly lovely


[1] Is it just me, or do other people find the media coverage of Hillary Clinton annoying? I'm not really a supporter of Ms. Clinton, but just reading all these articles about how she dresses and whether she's "too hardened" to be a leader (because how can a tough woman who never cries possibly be 'inspirational' tchah!) I'm rapidly getting to the point where I'd vote for her (if I had a vote in this country, which I don't) just to spite the people who write these stories.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


It's a good turn out today. The Christmas rush kicking in. People scrambling to find their loved ones that special gift. She ought to be flattered. But she can't shake the feeling that it's not her work they value but the fact of her, here in the flesh, the possibility she represents of taking back a book signed by its author. Any author would do.

Here they come, the supplicant, the names of their loved ones on their lips. Ordinary names - John, Harry, Sue - made special through an alchemy of prerogative, the authority of the author. As though all her work had been just for them.

Is this how God feels? she wonders. Then thinks, no, it is not like that. It is not she who is making these names special. She is an obedient scribe, a clerk legitimizing what already exists. It is the people standing in line, those who have waited for hours just to see the beloved name scribbled on the page, who have done this knowing the delight it will bring John or Harry or Sue to possess her trivial autograph, who are the moment's true heroes. As she sits there, mechanically signing her name to what was once her book but is now part of someone else's story, she wonders how it feels to be so loved, so cherished.

Wonders also if she could use this in her next book.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


Nothing assuages guilt better than the knowledge that it was worth it.

Leaving work at noon to attend a concert is fairly conscience-troubling, even for me, but the Philadelphia Orchestra's performance yesterday totally made it worthwhile. Just hearing the orchestra perform the Emperor Concerto (with Helene Grimaud at the piano) would have been justified being there, but the surprising highlight of the concert (surprising because really, since when has the highlight of any performance featuring Beethoven being anything but the Beethoven?) was Ameriques - Edgard Varese's riotous evocation of the urban jungle, which sounds like the love child of an unholy but gleeful union between Stravinsky and Lorca. How can you not love a piece that's scored for: "bass drum, chimes, cymbals, gong, lion's roar, low rattle, orchestra bell, fire siren, sleighbells, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, whip, and xylophone" (italics mine), not to mention heckelphone, contrabass trombone, celeste and two timpani?

Friday, December 07, 2007


In the end, murder is the simplest equation.

Blood cancels blood. Suffering is constant. Death multiplies.

What remains is guilt.

It solves nothing.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

First Snow

You barely notice when it begins. The moment not epiphany, but intuition. You look up and the light is sifted, sieved. Swirling thumbprints of white blur the air. The snow touches you absent-mindedly, her attention on something else, her affection real.

Walking back to your apartment, you take a shortcut over the hidden grass, delight in the squelch of your feet in all that unmarked clarity, the stamp of your footprint making the winter official. As though to have walked where no one else had ventured in the few short hours since morning were claim enough, and glory. As though it were sufficient that this day existed, unmarred by your petty insolence, a splendor too vivid for your passing feet to profane.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


It's hard, but it can't be helped. The boy has to learn to swim. And this is the only way she knows to teach him - the way her father taught her, the way his father taught him.

She walks him over to the deep side, promising him all the while that he doesn't need to go in if he doesn't want to, that they're just going to take a look. Then, when he's standing at the edge of the pool, she pushes him in.

He makes a surprisingly loud splash for someone so small. She can see him struggling in the water, trying to come to grips with it. Off to the side someone screams. She pays no attention. She's intent on watching her son. Any moment now he'll get the knack of it, any moment now he'll make that first accidental stroke, then the next, then the one after that. But it's not happening. He's starting to sink deeper. She can sense the panic of the people around her, hear the bare feet drawing near. She mustn't let them hurry her. She must be patient, must give him his chance.

He's not going to make it. Realization and acceptance come together, like a jolt of electricity. As quick as she can she reaches down, grabs him by the heel, pulls him out of the water, the suppressed urgency of the moment giving her more strength than she knew she had. For a moment she is gripped by terror - did she leave it too late? But no, it's all right, he's gasping, coughing. He's starting to cry. He's going to be okay.

She looks up. All around the pool people have stopped talking, are staring at her in horror. She stares back, defiant. It's for his own good, she wants to tell them, he needs to be toughened up, needs to be strong enough to get through life.

After the first betrayal, there is no other.

By any other name

He picks up the latest issue of Poetry, reads it on the subway:

in his mother's garden, magnolia, hibiscus,
azalea, peony, pear, tulip, iris;

The words are meaningless to him, because he's never learned the names of flowers, can't identify them at all. Oh, he knows the rose of course, and he can identify sunflowers thanks to Van Gogh, and bloody daffodils, but beyond that he draws a blank. He has no idea, for instance, what a white hawthorn is, or an eglantine. And as for telling an azalea from a peony, forget it. (Is it possible to be flower blind? he wonders).

Not that this is his only failing. He's no good at telling trees apart, either, can't identify a single bird by its call. He's not even particularly good at naming colors.

For most people, of course, these would be minor failings, barely worth remarking. For a poet they are a serious handicap. Coming out of the station, he passes the flower shop on 72nd and Amsterdam. The rich variety of form and color, the myriad species of flowers that he cannot begin to name. It makes him miserable just looking at them.

He wonders if there's a course he can take to learn this stuff.

P.S. For those of you who may be tempted not to click the link, it turns out that Poetry is now available online - not just extracts, the whole thing - free (and right after I mailed in my check with the subscription too! Ah, well). So go, read and enjoy.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Bookmark

Years later, the book still opens to the page where he left it. The stain of the bookmark permanent now, a column of darkened paper, like a shadow, or a second margin. As if to say - this is where he stopped, this is how far he got before they took him away. Herodotus, VII.40. Pythius's son split in two.

Not that anyone cares about the specific page, or the book, or even the man who was reading it. No, it's the bookmark that matters, the letter from the famous writer that his friend thrust hastily among these pages when the knock came on the door. One more piece of a jigsaw that the great man's biographers have been putting together bit by bit. That is what they have come for, that is what they are excited to find. They will take it away, shutting the book carelessly behind them, causing the vanished reader to lose his place.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Unkindest Cut of All

Over on his blog, John Tierney points to a debate about the practice of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) - whether it is a barbaric, repressive practice that deserves to be outlawed, or a valid cultural rite that outside commentators do not understand and therefore should not judge. Speaking in support of the practice, Dr. Ahmadu (whom the American Anthropological Association describes as a representative of "the critical 'third wave' or multicultural feminist perspective") is quoted by Tierney as saying:

"It is difficult for me — considering the number of ceremonies I have observed, including my own — to accept that what appears to be expressions of joy and ecstatic celebrations of womanhood in actuality disguise hidden experiences of coercion and subjugation. Indeed, I offer that the bulk of Kono women who uphold these rituals do so because they want to — they relish the supernatural powers of their ritual leaders over against men in society, and they embrace the legitimacy of female authority and particularly the authority of their mothers and grandmothers."

Personally, I find the idea of FGC horrifying, and find it hard to believe that anyone would want to undergo it voluntarily. I also find it hard to understand how mutilating each other can be a way for women to legitimate their authority and "relish the supernatural powers of their ritual leaders over against men in society" (the phrase 'cutting of your nose to spite your face' comes to mind – only these aren't noses). But that, of course, is precisely Dr. Ahmadu's point – I don't understand it because I come from an outside culture, and therefore I shouldn't judge.

The question we need to ask, I think, is who gets to decide and define what 'culture' is. If we really believe that the local culture is representative of the desires and aspirations of all its subjects, then the supporters of FGC have a point, no matter how noxious this may seem to us as outsiders. But we know (or at least have strong reason to suspect) that culture is nowhere near so representative. Instead, it is invariably a way of legitimizing existing hierarchies of power and privilege – defined by those in power and designed to serve their interests. Arguments for cultural legitimacy are therefore inseparable, in the feminist context, from arguments for patriarchy, precisely because traditional cultures are almost universally patriarchal. You have only to think of the people who style themselves champions / guardians of culture in India to see the truth of this.

Put another way, the problem is one of selection. If we are concerned about the way society, or a set of social practices, systematically oppresses a section of its members, we cannot rely on society's own representation of these practices, because it is precisely those we don't hear from - those who have no voice in society's self-definition - who we are most concerned about. It's not surprising, in some ways, that women anthropologists who have undergone FGC turn out to be in favor of it and underwent it voluntarily. Women who weren't in favor of it and were forced into it anyway are hardly likely to end up as anthropologists. The AAA quote describes FGC supporters as the 'muted group', but I think there's a constituency here with even less say in the debate – those who are being forced into FGC against their will – and it's their concerns, and only their concerns, that should matter. Ahmadu's own statement hardly inspires much confidence: she offers "that the bulk of Kono women who uphold this ritual do so because they want to" based on no evidence greater than what she's seen at the ceremonies she's personally attended. That's hardly conclusive research.

Does this mean that cultural imperialism is inevitable? Not quite. Notice that it's only 'imperialism' if we attack cultural standards in some parts of the world while not questioning those in others. Those who criticize the Western practices of vaginal rejuvenation and cosmetic surgery have a point, and we should certainly recognize that these practices represent attitudes as backward as those that lead women to consider FGC empowering.

But why, you may ask, should women not have the right to undergo FGC if they want to? After all, it's their body, so it should be their choice. To argue that their desire to have the procedure is false or misguided in some way - that they have been somehow 'brainwashed' into believing that it's what they want - is to fall into the very trap of cultural imperialism that Ahmadu and others are pointing to. So why not leave it up to the women in question?

What it comes down to, I think, is informed consent. To the extent that the person undergoing the procedure is genuinely doing so of her own free will, having understood the implications of that decision, then Ahmadu and others are right – she should have the right to do so. Notice, however, that this rules out all cases of FGC in children – since the inability of children to make responsible and informed decisions is a central tenet of any and all legal systems. So FGC in girls under 18 should clearly be outlawed.

That leaves the issue of FGC in adult women. There the question of whether or not FGC should be outlawed comes down to a judgment on the extent to which women 'choosing' to undergo FGC truly have the economic / social freedom to accept or reject the procedure, as well as the extent to which information about the procedure is available to them (both in terms of the medical consequences, as well as the true legitimacy of the practice – its not being enshrined in the Koran, for instance). If we believe that a significant number of women are subject to misinformation and coercion then we must balance the need to protect them against the possible dilution of traditional 'culture'.

For me, personally, the possibility of such cruel victimization supersedes any and all concerns about preservation of 'culture', but admittedly, that's a value judgment. What's important to recognize however, is that arguments in favor of FGC as a 'cultural phenomena' achieve cultural preservation at the cost of preserving patriarchal power and leaving a potentially large but silent population of women exposed to continued victimization. That's the trade-off supporters of FGC are arguing for.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Rattle and Rattle

Okay, it's official. Journals are ruining my life. I'm sitting in the Kimmel Center, listening to Simon Rattle conduct a performance of Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri and all I can think about is journal submissions. Because cut out the overblown romanticism and the 'mystical East' trappings, and that's basically what's happening. You want to get into Paradise (a journal). You offer them the blood of a slain hero. They send back a polite note thanking your for your submission but regretting that it doesn't meet their current needs. You offer them the sighs of true love. Still they reject you. Finally, in despair, you offer them the tears of the true penitent and they relent. You're in! Hurrah! Break out the trumpets, bring on the choir!

And speaking of journals, the new issue of Rattle arrived today, including, among others, this delightful little sonnet by Joseph Bathanti:

Jesus Meets the Women

They bump into Him shopping in Bloomfield.
It's how many years? He's skin and bone.
The hair. The beard. Some kind of radical.
But still He shows respect, kisses each one,
inquires about their health, tells them to pray,
ask anything in His name and it's theirs.
They laugh. He's probably on drugs, they say.
His poor widowed mother. Thirty-three years
old, a grown man, and still can't settle down.
The little bit He makes He gives away,
while poor Mary sits in one room downtown,
practically on welfare, day after day.
They don't mention the thorns or bloody cross.
He's not a bad kid, just a little lost.

- Joseph Bathanti

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Poor Nietzsche

"Poor Nietzsche in Turin, eating sausage his mother
Mails to him from Basel."

- Robert Hass, 'A Supple Wreath of Myrtle'

Yes, poor Nietzsche. First his own life let him down, then history. A being betrayed by existence.

All that survives of him now is what survives of any mind - trivia - pieces of evidence the clerks have kept not because they are conclusive, but because they are shiny. The package of sausages, the beaten horse.

Beyond the human, beyond tragedy, beyond good and evil, what remains is anecdote. Like the story of the man who stood at the base of a great mountain, laughing at the shapes of the fallen stones.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Time and Materials

Feeling a little tired today (7.45 am breakfast meetings are just plain inhuman) so will content myself with posting a poem from Robert Hass' National Book Award winning collection Time and Materials. Not perhaps the best poem in the collection, but probably the most political.

A Poem

"You would think God would relent," the American poet Richard
Eberhardt wrote during World War II, "listening to the fury of
aerial bombardment." Of course, God is not the cause of aerial
bombardment. During the Vietnam War, the United States hired the
Rand Corporation to conduct a study of the effects in the peasant
villages of Vietnam of their policy of saturation bombing of the
countryside. The policy had at least two purposes: to defoliate the
tropical forests as a way of locating the enemy and to kill the enemy if
he happened to be in the way of the concussion bombs or the napalm
or the firebombs. The RAND Corporation sent a young scholar
named Leon Goure to Vietnam. His study was rushed by the air force
which was impatient for results, but he was able to conduct interviews
through interpreters with farmers in the Mekong Delta and the
mountainous hillside farm regions around Hue. He concluded that
the incidental damage to civilian lives was very considerable and that
the villagers were angry and afraid, but he also found that they blamed
the Viet Cong - the insurrectionist army the U.S. was fighting - and
not the United States for their troubles, because they thought of the
Viet Cong as their legitimate government and felt it wasn't protecting
them. Seeing that the bombing was alienating the peasantry from
the enemy Vietnamese, Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense,
General William Westmoreland, the commander in charge of
prosecuting the war, and Lyndon Johnson, the president of the
United States, ordered an intensification of the bombing. In the end,
there were more bombs dropped on the villages and forests of South
Vietnam than were dropped in all of World War II. The estimated
Vietnamese casualties during the war is two million. It was a war whose
principle strategy was terror. More Iraqi civilians have now been
incidental casualties of the conduct of war in Iraq than were killed
by Arab terrorists in the destruction of the World Trade Center.
In the first twenty years of the twentieth century 90 percent of war
deaths were the deaths of combatants. In the last twenty years of the
twentieth century 90 percent of war deaths were deaths of civilians.
There are imaginable responses to these facts. The nations of the
world could stop setting an example for suicide bombers. They could
abolish the use of land mines. They could abolish the use of aerial
bombardment in warfare. You would think men would relent.

- Robert Hass
You can see Dan Chiasson's review of Hass' new book over at the New Yorker. I tend to agree with Chiasson's view that "Hass’s work of the past twenty years, culminating in “Time and Materials,” is his best, and its strengths derive entirely from that impulse to ransack his own lyric gift", except that I found Time and Materials fairly uneven, and can't help feeling it's more a weakening than a culmination. There are some glorious poems here - 'Then Time', which Chiasson mentions, is lovely; 'Bush's War' (with it's almost Neruda like opening) is powerful; 'I am your waiter tonight and my name is Dmitri' is hilarious; and I really like 'The Problem of Describing Color', 'Envy of Other People's Poems' and 'Art and Life'. But some of his more experimental poems get a little too clever for me (see, for instance, the title poem of the collection here) while some of the later poems (such as 'State of the Planet') feel a little too preachy, as if Hass hadn't quite recovered from being Poet Laureate.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Cheaper by the dozen

Todd Haynes' I'm Not There

Vite! est-il d'autres vies?

- Arthur Rimbaud

Becoming an artist, we're told, is about finding your voice. But what if you have not one voice, but many? What if you grope about in the darkness of the creative psyche and come up with not one persona but half a dozen? This, Todd Haynes would have us believe, is the secret of the enigma that is Dylan, and his new movie I'm Not There attempts to unmask this persona by placing not one but six mirrors around the great man, in the hope that at least one of them will catch his true face. So we get a guitar-toting, blues-singing African-American boy on the run from a correction home who calls himself Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin); a folk singer turned preacher named Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), complete with a mock documentary of his life, hilarious mock covers of Dylan albums and Julianne Moore as a Joan Baez stand-in; a philandering actor called Robbie (Heath Ledger); a folk-musician turned rocker named Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett) in England for a concert at the Albert Hall (yup, that one); the interrogation of a poet named Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw); and, well, Richard Gere.

Bewildered yet?

It's an intriguing and courageous idea, but the end result of all this triangulation is not so much a composite portrait of the artist, as a trip through a series of distorted and grotesque images, a carnival house of mirrors that leaves you entertained and weirded out, but no nearer a sense of what you're supposed to be seeing than when you first went in.

What Haynes does get right is the impossibility of pinning Dylan down. Because it's not just, as the BBC reporter played by Bruce Greenwood says in a mock telecast in the movie, that Dylan's sneering, trademark sound conveys a certain sincerity, a certain attitude to life. The truth is that Dylan's songs are a kind of peripheral poetry - profound and meaningful when seen from the corner of the eye, but rarely able to survive being looked at straight on. You can stare at a Dylan song as hard as you like, and (unless you're seriously stoned) you'll find yourself wondering what the hell you ever saw in it, but you won't be able to shake the feeling that something very beautiful just went down here; and you won't be wrong. It's this will-of-the-wisp-ness, this sense of (forgive me) blowin' in the wind, that makes Dylan, well, necessary, if only because life is like that too. The fleeting poetry of Dylan's best songs evokes the rhythms of travel and heartbeat, a nostalgia for the ephemeral, a heightened sense of the self that connects us to the imagination of a generation, makes the everyday seem somehow timeless. That's why we love the man's music.

It's a free-wheeling quality that Haynes film shares. There are moments in this film where you think you detect a hint of Godard [1], but then it vanishes; moments when you think you get what Haynes is trying to say, only then you don't. I'm Not There says very little, but what it almost but doesn't say is a lot.

Which is not to say it's a good movie. Oh, there's a wealth of Dylan trivia in there, dozens of clever little in-jokes, reams of dialog that quotes Dylan lyrics, and dream-like sequences inspired by (among others) Visions of Johannah and Desolation Row. Plus there's that unforgettable moment when the voice from the audience shouts "Judas!" and Dylan (here Quinn) responds "I don't believe you / You're a liar". And of course there's the music, and plenty of it.

But all of that isn't really enough to evoke Dylan. As Haynes switches back and forth between his six stories, what you sense is not vision, but desperation. The Heath Ledger story seems to come straight out of a standard-issue Hollywood romantic drama, the Richard Gere 'western' number, meant to be a homage to Dylan's Billy the Kid phase, comes across as a B-grade period western that has about the same amount of relevance to the rest of the movie as that scene with the naked Japanese girl had to Babel, both the 'Woody' and 'Arthur' sequences seem arbitrarily tacked on, despite a lovely performance by Marcus Carl Franklin, and a guest appearance by Richie Havens. The Jack Rollins spoof is fun for a bit, and Christian Bale certainly looks the part, but then Haynes goes and makes him a preacher, in what must be the worst decision in the whole film. Overall, the problem with much of the film is precisely that Dylan's Not There - there isn't a glimpse of him to be seen, and you sit there wondering why you're being put through this.

What saves this movie, what makes it worth the watch (and yes, it IS worth watching [2]) is Cate Blanchett. Her performance as Jude Quinn, and the Quinn sequences in general, are the dynamo that power this film, give it all its true momentum. It's 1966, legendary folk singer Jude Quinn has shocked all his fans by suddenly going electric, he's in London for a concert and has an extended, part-hallucinogenic face-off with a BBC correspondent about the 'meaning' of his work. What we see, in hypnotic black and white, is a soul in torment, a tortured genius wrestling with the twin demons of self-definition and public perception, an artist spent, exhausted, insecure, mindblown on drugs and cigarettes, trying desperately to break free of the definitions society is imposing on him and find his creative way forward. It's exquisite to watch, particularly because it's also my favorite phase of Dylan's career. This part of the film has the snappiest dialog, the clearest insight and the most cleverly conceived sequences, and Cate Blanchett does an incredible job of bringing it all to life. It's as though Haynes knew that in her he had his most talented, most hard working actor, and he deliberately gives her all the real meat of the film. It's movie making at its finest, and if only Haynes had had the courage to cut out everything else, this would have been one hell of a biopic.

I suppose it makes sense that a movie about a public figure as impossible to define or label as Dylan should be prove to be unsatisfactory. Haynes could certainly have made this a better film, but no matter what he did it's unlikely that he would have been able to capture the essence of Dylan on film. In the end, perhaps the best comment on I'm Not There comes in the film itself, in what is, for me, the high point of the movie, a surreal rendition of Ballad of a Thin Man where Blanchett (playing Quinn / Dylan) looks straight into the camera and says "You know something is happening here, but you don't what it is. Do you, Mr Jones?". Dylan, as always, has the last word.

[1] I'm convinced that at least one scene - the bit where Quinn follows Coco along a wooded path is inspired by a scene in JLG's Sympathy for the Devil.

[2] See, see, I can do random switches back and forth too.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

If I had a war of my own

If I had a war of my own I would decorate it in purple salvos, red poppies of bullet holes in the mud of uniforms, skulls white like planters, awaiting earth. I would paper the walls with maps so you'd never know where you were and instead of windows I would have anthems and instead of faucets I would have a stove. And I would fill these rooms with foldable people, the kind you can slip under the bed when you don't have company, the kind you can leave behind when it's time to go, because taking them with you would be too easy.

If I had a war of my own I would keep it in the doghouse and take away its bones, let it howl at the lucid moon till it realized she was a friend. I would teach it to lick the hand of thirst, and raise one paw like the statue of Liberty, growling at the beggars who came to our door.

If I had a war of my own I would keep something in it, like bread, or marbles; or maybe the buttons from the shirt that I lost, just in case it comes back. I would pluck grenades from the trees and leave them out to ripen. I would stick a label on it just to tell you what it meant.

If I had a war of my own I would keep it in good repair, cut the flag into little pieces to patch up the tears, sitting all night at my machine gun, stitching, till my big sister Dawn came and cut the thread.

If I had a war of my own I would keep it all to myself. I wouldn't share it with anyone, or only with you, my beloved, only with you.

On Anthologies

Courtesy Don Share (via Equivocal), here's Randall Jarrell on anthologies:

"...the average reader knows poetry mainly from anthologies, just as he knows philosophy mainly from histories of philosophy or textbooks: the Complete Someone--hundreds or thousands of small-type, double-column pages of poetry, without one informing repentant sentence of ordinary prose--evokes from him a start of that savage and unreasoning timidity, the horror vacui, with which he stares at the lemmas and corollaries of Spinoza's Ethics. Those cultural entrepreneurs, the anthologists, have become figures of melancholy and deciding importance for the average reader of poetry, a man of great scope and little grasp, who still knows what he likes--in the anthologies."
Personally, I think anthologies are to poetry what radio is to music. They're a good way of checking out what's out there, and catching the new voice or two that you haven't heard before, but if they're all you read then you're not really interested in poetry.

Of course, there are anthologies and there are anthologies, and it's useful to distinguish between them. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three reasonably distinct types (though admittedly the line between them can get blurred): anthologies of 'new' poetry (Best American Poetry), anthologies of poetry from a particular region / language (The Book of Japanese Verse), and 'theme anthologies' (100 poems about horses) or anthologies that recycle the canon in cutesy ways (100 best-loved poems of all time). The last one of these I dislike as well, but the first two can be useful.

Where Jarrell's wrong, I think, is in his assumption that the anthology is a way of coping with massive volumes of poetry by a single author. For me personally (I probably read about three or four anthologies every year), the anthology is more a way of coping with the endless volume of new poetry that gets published every year, as well as the almost infinite wealth of poetry that exists in languages other than English. Obviously, the filter of an anthology means that this work loses much of its flavor, so that reading anthologies is an imperfect way of becoming acquainted with it, but it's better than not getting to know it at all, and probably better than whatever haphazard sampling of it I could manage on my own. Without Paterson and Simic's New British Poetry, for instance, it would probably have taken me a lot longer to discover Sean O'Brien and Gwyneth Lewis - not because I wouldn't have heard of them, but because the chance that I would have gone to the library and issued out their books without having read (and enjoyed) half a dozen of their poems first is incredibly low.

Not, of course, that anthologies are the only way of expanding your poetic horizons. Literary journals are another way of getting to know new work, but there's such a bewildering variety of those, that you've got almost the same problem there that you do with books themselves. Blogs and poetry websites are useful as well, and I can see the argument for them eventually substituting for the anthology role, but that doesn't mean anthologies aren't valuable in their own right.

In the meantime, the problem is not so much with anthologies per se, but with the potential decision of a reader to restrict himself / herself only to anthologies. If the only poetry you read is in anthologies, or if you stop your exploration of a particular set of poets with their anthologized work, you're missing out on a lot. But there's no reason why, as readers, we have to stop there. The fault, then, is not in our books - it lies with us.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

If Hemingway can do it, why can't I?

Once, long ago, I wanted to be a writer. Now all I want to do is write.


Thoughts like fish that I catch and release. The faint trace of their escape in the water lasting only as long as my raised heartbeat, a splash rippling the silence that no one else hears.

Many years from now, perhaps, someone else will catch this fish, someone more skilled, more sincere, a true fisherman, who will know what to do. (It won't really be the same fish by then - it'll be older, plumper - but never mind). He will gut it, clean it, do all that is necessary, and hang it among the other trophies above his mantelpiece, memories with gills, a bookshelf of ideas no longer in swim. It is his right; he is entitled to his kill. It takes nothing from his merit that I got there first.

Sometimes it troubles me to think that no one will ever know this, no one will remember my catch, because a fish set free does not count.

Sometimes I look at other people's fish - the dead eyes, the gasping mouth - and think they look familiar.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Proof that the Universe is conspiring against me

"Although I never became a teetotaler, I knew - especially when I woke up the next morning with a hangover - that I would cast my lot with caffeine, not with alcohol. Why would I wish my senses to be dulled when they could be sharpened? Why would I wish to forget when I could remember? Why would I wish to mumble when I could scintillate? Of course, since even in those days I was a loquacious workaholic who liked to stay up late, you might think I'd pick a drug that would nudge me closer to the center of the bell curve instead of pushing me farther out on the edge - but of course I didn't. Who does? Don't we all just keep doing the things that make us even more like ourselves?"
Not even two weeks since I gave up coffee and the Guardian has to go and publish this essay from Anne Fadiman's latest book. What was it Dante said: "There is no greater sorrow / than to recall our time of joy / in wretchedness".

Thursday, November 22, 2007

His Master's Voice

When the soldiers left, he moved in. The house was a ruin, gutted by shelling, rubble everywhere. Still, a few of the rooms were more or less intact and three walls are better than none. There was food left over in the pantry and potatoes in the garden behind the house. There was even a well in the backyard - a little brackish, but it would do. There was no electricity, of course. He used the furniture for firewood, breaking it up with an axe he found in the basement, and when that ran out he hacked down the doors. He would have gone to the forest but he wasn't sure he had the strength. Besides, there were wolves out there - he heard them howling in the night, had even seen their dark shapes moving on the edge of the wood. It was a long, bitter winter, and they were hungry.

When fuel for the fire ran out they came for him, as he had known they would. He took all that he needed - water, blankets, some food - and shut himself up in a room upstairs, one that still had a door. They came at night. He could hear their claws clattering up the staircase, the snuffling of their breath under the door. They knew he was in there. It was only a matter of time before they attacked, before they broke through to him. It was a flimsy door, it would give way easily enough. He would have pushed some furniture against it, but he had already burnt it all. For three days they came and went, while he cowered in his room. They seemed afraid of the day. They would come a little after dusk and head back to the forest at dawn.

On the third night, overcome with despair, he decided to play the gramophone. It was an old wind-up set, and there was a fine collection of recordings to go with it. Whoever lived here before had clearly been a music enthusiast. He had avoided using it till now - afraid that someone might hear, afraid of drawing attention to the house. But it hardly mattered now and besides, it had been weeks since the front moved on. There probably wasn't another human being for miles.

So, on the third night, using a few minutes of his precious candlelight, he put a record on the gramophone. Dvorak's Cello Concerto. The 1937 Casals recording. The music both heroic and ruined, flooding the night with its savage cry. Half way through the second movement he realized he could no longer hear the wolves. He went over to the door, pressed his ear against it. No sound. Carefully, summoning all his strength, he pulled himself up to the ventilator, looked down. No sign of them. What had happened? Where had they gone? Then he realized. It was the music. It must be. It was scaring them off. Listening to the opening strains of the third movement he felt a lightness starting to sing in his heart.

After that, he sat up every night, playing records. All the masters of his youth. Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak, Sibelius, Brahms. Even some Wagner - why not? The Germans would approve. He played symphonies mostly, some of the grander concertos, keeping Chopin for the daytime, afraid it may be too tender to keep the wolves at bay. Sleepless and starving, he listened to these masterpieces over and over, the tears running down his eyes, while outside the wind raged and, far away, a wolf howled.