Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chronos

The boy followed the old man. He had nothing else to do. It was summer, school was out, and his friends were all away on vacation. The boy had been left to his own devices, which this morning consisted of his two hands and a hoop that he wheeled absently along the sidewalk, too bored to run. That's when he saw the old man.

The old man was old. He looked a little like the boy's grandfather, if the boy's grandfather were someone who wore his shirt untucked and whom the boy had never seen. In any case, he was a stranger, which in a town as small as this made him a novelty.

When the boy first saw him he was coming down the road that led to the highway, walking slowly, as though he'd traveled a great distance. Had he walked all the way from the next town? No, that was impossible. For one thing it was too far, and for another, as the boy's mother had repeatedly told him, it wasn't safe to walk on the highway. He'd probably parked his car on the edge of town and was just on his way in. But why? And where was he going?

The boy waited till the old man came up to him. "Hello", he said. The old man made no reply, did not even look up to register the boy's presence, just walked straight past. Perhaps he was deaf. His hoop forgotten, the boy followed, walking companionably along with the old man, waiting to be noticed.

But the old man never looked up. He just kept walking, eyes lowered to the ground, feet trudging along at a steady but listless pace. He seemed to know his way around town, or at least had a clear sense of where he was going, because he never stopped to take his bearings or ask for directions. Was he going to meet someone? But who?

Maybe he had family here, maybe he'd come to stay with them for a few days? But if so, where was his luggage? And why hadn't he driven straight to their house instead of walking in from the edge of town? Maybe he'd lived here once, and was returning after many years. Maybe he was a hero of some sort, maybe he'd been with army and had been locked away in an enemy prison all these years and was returning now to the place he'd been born. Maybe he'd come back to find his sweetheart. The boy had only a vague notion of what a sweetheart was, but he knew from the stories he'd read that heroes were always going back to find them, and the thought that this old man might be one of them was thrilling. He imagined telling his friends all about it: how a genuine war hero had returned to the town, how he, the boy, had been the first to spot him, to befriend him. How it was with his help that the hero had finally found the house he was looking for. Wouldn't they all envy him then!

Meanwhile the old man was marching on through the town. All this time the boy had been silent, following a step or two behind, keeping his distance, but now that he knew what the man was after he felt it was time to take a more active role. As they approached Main Street the boy stepped forward, started to point out the town's various landmarks - the church, the school, the main bus stop - naming each one with proprietorial pride. He showed the old man the bank his father visited every week, the pharmacy his mother bought groceries from, the ice-cream parlor his parents would take the boy to if he had been very good (here he paused significantly, but the old man kept up his relentless gait). Some of the shops and buildings were unfamiliar to him, but he said what he could about them anyway, feeling it his duty as the old man's guide.

To all this information, the old man said nothing. Indeed, it seemed he hadn't noticed the boy at all, and was just walking along past the storefronts, unaware of what was being said. This wasn't true, of course. Obviously the old man was listening, was taking note of everything the boy told him. He was just pretending not to notice because that was what heroes did - they stayed silent till the right moment, seemingly oblivious, then it turned out they'd been paying close attention all along. The boy understood this. Any moment now the old man would stop, would smile at him, would say something incredibly grand and wise and funny that the boy could relate to his friends later as proof of his new friend's ineffable herodom. In the meantime, the boy was happy to skip along by the old man's side, prattling on about the dry cleaner and the gas station and the little park on the corner that the boy was too old for.

After a while, though, the boy quietened down. For one thing he was starting to get tired. For another they had wandered off Main Street, and were now in an unfamiliar part of town, one that the boy was uncomfortably aware his parents had warned him never to go to alone. Still, he wasn't alone, was he, he was with his friend. Yet something told him his parents wouldn't see it that way. They would get mad, say that he shouldn't have gone off with a stranger. Which was silly, of course, because the old man wasn't a stranger, he was a hero, and needed the boy's help, but grown-ups were inflexible that way.

Perhaps he ought to turn back? He considered suggesting this to the old man, maybe even proposing that the old man come back with him, so he could get something to eat at the boy's house, maybe get some directions. (The boy was beginning to suspect that the old man didn't really know where he was going. Perhaps the torture he'd suffered under the enemy had caused him to lose his sense of direction?). But what if the old man thought he was scared or weak? He would be disappointed in the boy then, would think him unworthy. No, he mustn't risk it. Not after they'd come so far. He would just have to see this through to the end.

The boy finally stopped where the houses ran out. He had never come this far before. He didn't dare go any further. For a minute he was afraid he wouldn't be able to find his way back, but he realized they had been walking in a straight line, the old man and he, all the way across town from one end to the other. A long, long walk.

"Goodbye", he said, to the retreating figure on the road in front of him. But the old man gave no sign of having heard. He just kept moving, head down, shoulders a little slumped. The boy stood there and watched him walking away for a while, until the old man disappeared around a bend in the road and the boy, realizing he would have to hurry back to avoid trouble, turned around and started to run.

As he ran back to his house, he wondered what his mother had made for lunch.

[Happy New Year, everyone!]

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009

1. Turned 30
2. Got PhD
3. Got job
4. Moved to new city
5. Read, no, finished reading 122 books
6. Published 1
7. Put up 220 blog posts (or 221 depending on how tomorrow shapes up)
8. Listened to 15 Shostakovich symphonies. Twice.
9. Started 68 poems, completed 52, did not regret 6.
10. Baked one batch of cookies, regretted them all

All in all, not a bad year.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sincerely

"You don't really mean it, do you?"

"What?"

"What you just said. You don't really mean it."

"Why would you say that?"

"Because I can tell. It's okay. You don't have to lie to me."

"Okay, you're right. I was just saying it to make you feel better. I'm sorry."

"Don't be. It did make me feel better."

"Really?"

"Well, until you admitted you didn't mean it."

The Spare Room

Death as a spare room. A space we never enter, rarely even think about. A door kept safely locked.

Unused but necessary, the spare room is a presence that defines us as grown-ups, adults who feel the need to be, who are, prepared. For any eventuality. For the eventuality.

(inspired by Helen Garner's brave and terrifying book)

P.S. Merry Christmas to you too!

The things we do not choose

We do not choose how we die. Which is probably for the best.

Just look at the mess we make choosing how to live. Not the mistakes or the failure, but the ugliness, the lack of imagination.

Art does not imitate life, it enacts it.

But all this is artifice. It is the things we do not choose that make us, if not unique, at least human. Like our dreams. Our death.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Unhappy Research

If you've been surfing the web lately, chances are you've come across some version of this news story about a research study that shows that New York is the unhappiest state in the country while Louisiana is the happiest. A finding that is, prima facie, ridiculous.

Before you start moving your family from Manhattan to New Orleans it's worth considering what's wrong with the story - which strikes me as being the perfect combination of dubious research wedded to journalistic misinterpretation.

As I understand it, Oswald and Wu basically construct a subjective measure of happiness by state by taking survey results on people's stated level of satisfaction and running a regression predicting these satisfaction levels as a function of a range of individual level attributes (such as income, education, employment category, etc.) plus dummies for each state (except Alabama - the omitted category). And therein lies the misinterpretation: the subjective coefficients they report are not telling us how happy people in each state are, they are telling us what the net effect of the state is after all other individual level factors are controlled for. In other words, the negative coefficient of New York means that a person with exactly the same income, education , employment, etc. would be less satisfied in New York than in Alabama.

Now, this would make sense if individual attributes that contributed to happiness were uncorrelated with state of residence, but this is clearly not the case. If states differ substantially in the average levels of happiness-causing attributes (i.e. if people in New York are likely to have higher levels of education, higher income, etc.) then the coefficients for the state dummies by themselves are not meaningful; in particular, we are likely to see a negative bias in the coefficients of states with high levels of positive attributes. What's more, this bias is going to be considerably amplified if the dependent variable of happiness / satisfaction is right-censored, that is to say if the measure of satisfaction used does not adequately capture differences in satisfaction levels at the higher end of the range (which, btw, is the case with the data used in the study - on a 1 to 4 scale the average score is 3.4).

To see this in (exceedingly) simple terms, imagine that we have only two people from two states - Louisiana (L) and New York (N); that we have only one other explanatory variable - Income (I); and that the satisfaction score for both people, on a 1 to 4 scale, is 4, i.e. they both claim to be 'Very Satisfied'. The regression would then try to solve

4=B1.Il + Bl

and

4=B1.In + Bn

where B1 is the coefficient for Income, Bl and Bn are the satisfaction coefficients for the states, and Il and In are the income levels of the person in Louisiana and the person in New York. Now, imagine that the person in New York has twice the income of the person in Louisiana. We then have

4=B1.Il + Bl = B1.In + Bn = B1.2Il + Bn

Now, if B1.Il + Bl = B1.2Il + Bn, and assuming B1>0 (more income means greater happiness), this would mean that Bl>Bn, i.e. the satisfaction coefficient of Louisiana is greater than the satisfaction coefficient of New York. Notice that this doesn't really mean anything about living in New York, it's simply an artifact of the fact that satisfaction measures top out at 4 and that New York has twice the income levels of Louisiana.

On the whole then, it's unclear that the coefficients of the state dummies actually mean anything. But even in the best case, all they mean is that moving from New York to Louisiana will increase your satisfaction, provided you can find the identical job and continue to make the same amount of money. Good luck with that.

Finally, let's think for a moment about the researcher's claim that their study shows a surprisingly strong correlation between subjective and objective measures of satisfaction. Again, let's think about what the subjective state coefficient really is. It's the average difference between the satisfaction of a person with a certain level of income (uncorrected for cost of living), education, etc. living in the focal state (New York) vs. a person with the same level of income, education, etc. living in Alabama. Now what might cause a person making the same dollar amount to be less satisfied in New York than in Alabama? Obviously, cost of living. And what is a major component of the 'objective' measure the study uses to rank states? Why, it's cost of living. Is it really surprising then that the two measures turn out to be highly correlated? I don't think so.

What would be interesting, of course, would be to see a version of the study that a) controlled for the location choices of individuals through some kind of simultaneous equation model and b) included income levels adjusted for cost of living in the regression equation to predict satisfaction levels. Then we might actually learn something.

Ironically, this is one instance where a naive application of the satisfaction scores - a simple table of the mean satisfaction scores by state - may actually be more accurate and representative than the subjective coefficients calculated by the authors. I'm not sure how the mean satisfaction score for New York compares to the mean satisfaction score for Louisiana, but I'd be amazed if New York scored lower than Louisiana, let alone if New York was the lowest of all states. Now that would be surprising.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Just add insult

I linked to this on Twitter earlier today, but Tehelka's second fiction issue is now online. I have to say it's a decidedly mixed bag: a couple of stories that are tone-deaf and frankly unreadable, and quite a few that while not bad, exactly, are fairly meh (see here, here and here).

Interestingly, the two translated stories - Charu Nivedita's Morgue Keeper and Gaurav Solanki's Beyond Fear - struck me as being among the best of the bunch, demonstrating both an inventiveness and an emotional depth largely missing from their English counterparts. Whether that says something about the gap between regional literature and Indian writing in English, or is just coincidence, I'll leave up to you.

My own favorite though (aside from this, obviously) was Kuzhali Manickavel's punchy, quick-witted and exhilarating Anarch. Now there's a voice I want to read more of.

Upper Class Twitter of the Year

So I finally decided to try out this Twitter thing.

Not that I have any intention of joining in any conversations or anything - I just figured it was the most efficient way to share poems I find on the web and other such bric-a-brac. We'll see how it goes.

Obviously it's going to take me a while to figure out a) how this thing works and b) what I want to do with it, but in the meantime suggestions are welcome.


P.S. The title of this post is, of course, a reference to this.

Atropos Nothing

We are puppets of our arteries. The blood not circulation but dance.

Cut the strings and the body falls. Clear. Free.

Remember Marsyas.

Better to be a liberated heap than an upright slave. Or is it?

The freedom of the severed kite.

A cut above. The rest.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Liu Xiaobo

Via the Pen American Center, a petition demanding the release of Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo.

Certainties

You say I have too many certainties. That I only need one.

I'm not so sure.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

He collects poems

like a magpie lining the
bare nest of his heart.

The fear of dying...

...is just a special case of stage fright.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Eden

I had to let them go.

It was the right thing to do. I didn't want to hold them back, after all. And things between us had been so awkward lately - it was clear they needed their own space.

Still, it's hard. I'd got used to having them around.

What I need is a hobby. Something to take my mind off it.

Maybe gardening.

Never judge a book by its lover

via Book Bench, this handy list of authorial stereotypes

Apparently I'm a confirmed 90's literati with good taste in music, wine and bondage who didn't fit in as a kid, as a result of which I now avoid cream cheese with tenacity and thinks John Cusack movies are dubious, but who Lauren Leto would like to sleep with anyway (and who can blame her).

I'm also a high-school professor with either an undergraduate degree in English or a master's degree in French (I can't remember which because I spent most of college making out with other girls and writing it all down in a journal), but we'll let that pass.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Acclimatization

You know you've been living in Minneapolis too long when you check the temperature outside and it's 10 F (that's -12 C, btw) and you think "Ah! A warm day."

***

In other news, don't miss this wonderful live chat with Lydia Davis over at the Book Bench blog. The woman writes short short fiction, loves Bach, Beckett and the piano, says most of what she writes is finished quickly and used and spends time arranging her stories but is then happy for people to jump back and forth through them. Sound like anyone we know?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A moment's happiness

"Are you happy?"

"You mean now, in this moment? Or generally, in life?"

"Either. Both."

"Well, I'm happy right now."

"And in life?"

"I guess. On average."

"Why are you happy?"

"Because I'm with you."

"No, seriously."

"I don't know. I just am. Aren't you?"

"Happy?"

"Yes."

"Right now? Or in life?"

"Right now."

"I don't know."

"How can you not know?"

"Do you always know when you're happy?"

"I know when I'm not."

"Well, I know that I'm not not happy. I just don't know if I am."

"Don't you like being with me?"

"Of course I do. Being with you makes me really happy."

"So?"

"I guess I'm happy that you're you, but I'm not happy that I'm me."

"You'd be happier I were with someone else?"

"No. I'd be happier if you were with me and I was someone else."

"Who?"

"Someone different."

"Different how?"

"I don't know. More alive. More capable of happiness. Someone who wouldn't sit here with you feeling sad."

"So you're sitting here feeling sad because you're not someone who wouldn't sit here feeling sad."

"I guess."

"You're crazy, you know."

"I know. Does it make you less happy to be with me, knowing that."

"On the contrary, it makes me happier."

"How come?"

"I like being with a crazy person."

"Why?"

"It's exciting."

"Why?"

"I don't know. Because there's always the chance of something new. Unexpected."

"And you like that?"

"Yes?"

"But I thought you were perfectly happy just the way we are."

"I didn't say I was perfectly happy. There's no such thing as perfect happiness."

"But you're happy?"

"Yes."

"Yet you'd like for something new and unexpected to happen? You'd like for things to change?"

"No. I'd hate for things to change. I just like knowing that there's the possibility that they might."

"You're pretty crazy yourself you know."

"I'm not. I'm just philosophical."

"There's a difference?"

"Of course there is."

"What?"

"I don't know. I just know there is."

"How can you know something when you don't know it?"

"Okay, fine, I dream there is."

"Any moment now you're going to quote Hamlet at me, aren't you?"

"I was thinking about it."

"I could tell."

"You can always tell."

"I know. It's great isn't it?"

"It's special."

"It's why being with you makes me feel..."

"...happy?"

"...philosophical."

"I feel philosophical being with you too."

"I know. Crazy, isn't it?"

In Store

The footage from the security cam shows that girl caught shoplifting had been eyeing you with interest for some time. Was she hoping you'd notice her, or making sure you didn't? There's no way to tell now, which is why you take her number, promise to call. After all, she has nimble fingers, bad judgment and indifferent taste. What more could you ask for? You consider that this might be love but discount the possibility, there being too many left over from last year. With every chance you buy you get a second one free, is how you put it to the young couple looking shy and lost and happy by the sporting Good, before directing them to Aisle 15, which is where the weddings are. "Did you take this modem to boost your illegally stolen wi-fi?" you ask the girl, and she says she did, so by the power of your company vest you take it away from her, show her to door, where she proceeds to inform you that you may now kiss her ass, but you don't take it personally because you're still thinking about what a great story this would make to tell the grandchildren the two of you are never going to have.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

On Meaning

A spotlight means. The sun is.

A fool

is just someone the angels are jealous of.

Curiosity did not kill the cat. The cat died because it was mortal. Which is also why it was curious.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Disturbing the peace

A new beginning. A sky scraped clean.

A man in a tie and shirtsleeves is sitting on the steps of a brownstone on 74th street, a briefcase between his knees, his head thrown back.

At first I think he's having trouble breathing. An asthma attack? Then I realize he's laughing, laughing silently, uncontrollably. Laughter like a nosebleed. The kind that just won't stop.

Somewhere far off I hear the sirens approaching. Someone must have called the cops.

I'd better get out of here before things turn beautiful.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Falstaff Culture Tip # 308

Never, ever sit in the front row at a Taiko performance.

Watching the drummers from five feet away is an incredible experience, but your ribs ache for hours afterwards from the pounding they take.

Disaster 'Poetry'

Remember The Tay Bridge Disaster?

Well, McGonagall's poem now has a desi equivalent, in the shape of this piece of doggerel posted on the I'm a Bhopali site. Ms. Zaidi's poem is like an object lesson in the writing of juvenile verse - uninteresting rhymes[1], trite images, uncertain tone, lines that don't scan and the overwhelming impression that any sense the verse may once have had has been subordinated to the rhyme scheme. Old William would have been proud.

***

By contrast, the regular press actually managed to turn out a couple of good articles for the occasion, including a surprisingly decent NY Times Op-ed piece by Suketu Mehta and Indra Sinha's article for the Guardian. It's almost enough to restore one's faith in the MSM.

[1] For a contemporary example of what interesting rhymes might look (and sound) like, see here.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Injustice

In Memoriam Dec 3, 1984.

Because it goes
too easily unnoticed

is toxic but invisible,
impossible to touch, taste, smell or hear

impossible not to feel.

Because it pricks at our eyes,
corrupts our blood,

fills our lungs
until they refuse to balance,

weighs down our hearts.

Because it is passed down
from generation to generation

until death becomes
a byproduct

irrelevant yet necessary.

Because it's in the air
we continue to breathe,

the excuses we swallow,
the tears

we do not cry.


[Part of this (1)]


[1] Sort of. I'm not sure I entirely approve of the whole 'I'm a Bhopali' shtick - it strikes me as trivializing the suffering of the real victims. Which doesn't mean, of course, that the anniversary should go unmarked. Hence the post.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Mental Ears

"The discourses of modernism in Western poetics make steeper descents into sub-intelligibility; and in my own case I am frequently accused of having more or less altogether taken leave of discernible sense. In fact I believe this accusation to be more or less true, and not to me alarmingly so, because what for so long has seemed the arduous royal road into the domain of poetry ("what does it mean?") seems less and less and unavoidably necessary precondition for successful reading. The task, however, is not to subside into distracted ingenious playfulness with the lexicon and cross-inflectional idiomatics, but to write and read with maximum focused intelligence and passion, each of these two aspects bearing so strongly into the other as to fuse them into the enhanced state once in an old-fashioned way termed the province of the imagination. "Mental ears" do not relegate us to the domain of performative sonority, nor do they elevate us into the paramount abstraction of inferred ideas and beliefs: they are an intense hybrid and I treat them as the essential equipment for reading poetry in today's post-traditional world space"

***

"I should not wish to claim that this selection was in any sense deliberate or conscious; if the underlying textual features exist it is because poets are tuned into their language structures to an unusual degree of linguistic susceptibility. Such features are neither invented nor discovered, they are disclosed."

- J.H. Prynne 'Mental Ears and Poetic Work', Chicago Review 55:1 2010

And because Prynne's essay references them, and because it made me go back and rediscover these exquisite lines:

"That day I oft remember, when from sleep
I first awaked, and found myself reposed,
Under a shade, on flowers, much wondering where
And what I was, whence thither brought, and how.
Not distant far from thence a murmuring sound
Of waters issued from a cave, and spread,
Into a liquid plain; then stood unmoved,
Pure as the expanse of Heaven. I thither went
With unexperienced thought, and laid me down
On the green bank, to look into the clear
Smooth lake, that to me seemed another sky.
As I bent down to look, just opposite
A Shape within the watery gleam appeared,
Bending to look on me. I started back,
It started back; but pleased as I soon returned,
Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love."

- Milton, Paradise Lost, Book IV

Irre-verses

n. A line or set of lines that really don't fit in the poem but are so beautiful otherwise that you can't bring yourself to take them out.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Leftover Emotions

Some say they won't keep. Others that they're better the next day.

Sharp and mild, bitter and sweet. Sometimes I store them up all week, bring them all out on Sunday. A real family meal.

Left too long in the fridge happiness curdles to nostalgia, turns green with envy.

Leave space in your heart. I've saved us some regrets for afterwards.

Nothing special, you understand. Just a little something I had put by.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Contraband

Illegal lonelinesses. Substanceless despair.

These are the songs you smuggle through customs, carrying them in your gut, taking care not to let them touch you.

These are the poems they shall cut with raw grief.

This is the language they will sell on the streets, your words whispered in the ears of unsuspecting strangers, or offered at parties to careful friends, every line an invitation.

These are the phrases they cannot get enough off, an addiction to meanings, mouths writhing at the end of every hook.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Dream Interpretation

I blame the New Yorker. It's all their fault for printing articles about nightmares and screwing around with impressionable minds like mine.

So, last night I have this dream. The details are a little hazy now, but it's a sort of Alistair Maclean meets Lost scenario involving a scuttled ship that may or may not have been carrying nuclear weapons and a handful of survivors who find themselves trapped on a remote tropical island without either communication devices or firearms but a fairly impressive collection of medieval swords. There are a whole bunch of subplots (none of them erotic, in case you were wondering) but the main story revolves around four people, who I shall call Good Guy, Bad Guy, Scientist Lady and Mystery Girl. After a whole set of clues and at least three dead bodies (that I can remember) Scientist Lady figures out that the ship was wrecked deliberately, for reasons that are never explained but that are immediately clear to everyone involved once the discovery is made. Suspicion falls on Bad Guy and Mystery Girl, who are nowhere to be found, mostly because Bad Guy has lured Mystery Girl into the jungle to poison her so he can have all the prize (whatever that might be) to himself. His greed and treachery prove to be his undoing, however, because when he returns to the group his is confronted by Good Guy, and, not having Mystery Girl by his side, is killed after a protracted and fast-action sword fight. Needless to say, all this happens in full-blown Hollywood action flick mode.

But that's not the disturbing part.

Apparently dissatisfied with the way the dream plays out, my subconsciousness decides to run the whole scenario again. Again the ship runs aground, again the crew starts to die mysteriously, again Scientist Lady does her thing and figures it out. Only this time when Good Guy confronts Bad Guy, Bad Guy gets the jump on him and wounds him badly. Things are looking pretty bleak for Good Guy, until Mystery Girl suddenly appears and proceeds to defeat Bad Guy in hand-to-hand combat (again with the Hollywood action flick effects), before handing herself over to Good Guy and Scientist Lady. Has she had a change of heart? Was she secretly on the side of the righteous? No, it turns out that she learnt about Bad Guy's plan to betray her because she dreamed about it, and decided it was more important to her to get even with him, even if it meant her own undoing.

And no, that isn't the disturbing part either.

The really disturbing part is that the next dream I have involves me lecturing on the underlying themes and motifs in the last two dreams - the central thesis being that the trinity of the Good Guy, the Bad Guy and the Mystery Girl is really a reference to the Holy Trinity (or is it Peter Paul and Mary, with the ship as Puff the Magic Dragon?), or that the whole thing is really a political allegory, with the ship being the ship of State, the Good Guy being capitalism (because of his 'invisible' hands), the Bad Guy being socialism (look, his sword is really a sickle) and the Mystery Girl being fascism. (I swear, my dream self was actually trying to explain this to other people.)

I need help.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Portrait

I could never be an artist. I think I always knew that. Or at least suspected. It wasn't that I didn't have talent. Though there were days...no, it wasn't that. I just wasn't brave enough, tormented enough. Not enough to be great. And if you're not great as an artist what are you? A craftsman, an entertainer. The silhouette of an artist, all shape and no substance. What Dylan Thomas would call his sullen art. Sullen art. Such a beautiful phrase, that. The kind of phrase I could never...No, I was never meant to be an artist.

They used to tell me all I needed was to have faith. In my talent. In myself. As though faith were ever anything more than a lack of imagination. As if I didn't already have something more important - doubt, and the need to disprove that doubt, the endless circle of frenzy and disillusion, like a dog chasing its tail. And what a tale it was, this unwritten story, the life I once imagined but could never bring to life. All over now, of course, all impossible.

But wasn't it always impossible? Wasn't this the way I always knew it would be? Not a failure of fiction but a fiction of failure? And wasn't that what drew me to it in the first place, the romance of not being good enough? To believe in the impossible. Not to pretend to believe, you understand, but to believe truly, irrevocably, and in the certain knowledge that what you believed could not be true. The passion and the certainty locked together, feeding on each other, like darkness and light. Oh, how foolish the young are, and how heroic. And could it be there is an art to this? To falling short beautifully? But no, I was never an artist. Look at me. If I were an artist would I be sitting here like this, whining and whinging, when really, what has happened to me? Nothing.

No, nothing has happened to me. Nothing has ever happened to me.

Damaged Goods

Afterwards, God sat under the tree, weeping. Mourning the damage to his most precious fruit.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Identity without ideology

"But, if feminism becomes a politics of identity, it can safely be drained of ideology. Identity politics isn’t much concerned with abstract ideals, like justice. It’s a version of the old spoils system: align yourself with other members of a group—Irish, Italian, women, or whatever—and try to get a bigger slice of the resources that are being allocated. If a demand for revolution is tamed into a simple insistence on representation, then one woman is as good as another. You could have, in a sense, feminism without feminists."

- Ariel Levy, Lift and Separate, New Yorker Nov 16 2009.


Exactly.

Identification without ideology means power without purpose; you end up with a louder voice, but with less to say.

The really treacherous part of this is that the impulse towards identity politics is generally well-meaning. It's tempting to be inclusive; after all, there's strength in numbers. But that strength can only be used to achieve the lowest common agenda, and every new constituency you include diminishes the scope of that agenda further, so that in the end you're left with a mass that is all gravity, and no force. In a sense, identity politics is a local optimum - any movement from the status quo comes with an immediate cost and an uncertain (though potentially significant) benefit.

United we stand for nothing, and very still.

Grazing

Little by little, he takes possession of language. His lines like barbed wire stretched tight across the page.

The mind, blown, passes to where dreams graze like cattle on greener grass.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Strongest Link

The way sometimes the poem turns
on a single verb.

My entire happiness comes
from seeing you

smile.

The Malignant and the Maligned

In other news, you may have seen this story about how couples are substantially more likely to get a divorce if the wife gets cancer than if the husband does, which has been doing the rounds.

What I find interesting about most of the discussion surrounding the story is how there's an implicit assumption that the 'proper' state of things would be for the partner to stick around. Personally, I'm a lot more shocked that more women don't leave, and can't help wondering if the difference isn't so much that men are that much more evil or selfish, but that women are that much more likely to be financially dependent on their spouses and therefore less able to walk away, or just that much more socialized into seeing themselves as doormats. In a truly gender equal world, would more men stay, or more women leave?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Transcendence precedes comparison...and other arguments to watch out for

It's been a heady week for reading here in Falstaff-land, what with me feverishly alternating between the new Amartya Sen and Alison Bechdel's glorious, glorious Essential Dykes to Watch Out For [1].

Anyway, I'm only a third of the way through the Sen, but I figure if I wait till the end before I blog about it, then I'll end up needing to write a 5,000 word essay and given that I no longer do long posts (or hadn't you noticed) I may as well jot down my thoughts as I go along. What follows may seem a little cryptic if you haven't read the book. Then again, if you're a regular reader of this blog, you probably like cryptic.

So at one point in the book Sen is making a comparison between what he calls the transcendental view of justice (what is a just system?) and the comparative view of justice (which of two given systems is more just?), his agenda being to champion the comparative view over the more well-established transcendental view. Sen argues that the two views have little to do with each other, and that, consequently, the general preoccupation with transcendental theories is not particularly useful to solving real world problems of justice. In particular, that a description of what constitutes a truly just society (the transcendental question) is neither necessary nor sufficient to enable a comparison between two available alternative societies (the comparative question).

In making this argument, Sen spends a lot of time showing why a description of an ideally just society is not sufficient to make a comparison between two alternate societies - a point on which I'm in total agreement. The problem being, of course, that comparing two less-than-perfect options requires us to make a judgment on which option is more imperfect (or less perfect, but I don't dislike double negatives), and knowledge of what perfection looks like alone does not tell us how to make that judgment.

When it comes to arguing that an answer to the transcendental question is not necessary for an answer to the comparative question, however, Sen essentially hand-waves his way through, arguing that there's no reason why we need to discuss what a third best alternative might be in order to compare the two alternatives in hand. It seems to me, though, that this is only partly true. While we may not, strictly speaking, require a clear description of the best possible alternative to undertake a comparison between two less-than-ideal alternatives, we do need some agreed upon dimensions or criteria on which we shall evaluate these alternatives, and it's not clear to me how we would arrive at these criteria without first attempting to answer the transcendental question. Every comparison involves some kind of measurement, however imprecise; and every measurement involves some kind of theory, however imperfect. Of course, defining the dimensions or criteria of justice is not, strictly speaking, the same thing as describing what a perfectly just society would look like, but the distinction strikes me as trivial, and it could be argued that with something as inherently complex as justice visualizing a perfectly just society may, in fact, be the best way to isolate and identify the relevant dimensions. In short, while a complete answer to the transcendental question may not be essential to an evaluation of the relative justice of two available alternatives, the process of asking and trying to answer the transcendental question would seem to be a necessary prerequisite of any meaningful comparative exercise. In that sense, then, transcendentalism does seem to be necessary for comparison.

It's possible, of course, that Sen has an answer to this problem and I just haven't got to it yet (as I said, I'm only on Chapter 6). Still, it'll be interesting to see where he comes out on it. Stay tuned.

[1] It's not just that I like being eclectic. It's also that spending two hours chuckling my way through a book called Dykes to Watch Out For while my students sat and dutifully worked their way though their finals seemed a little too outrageous. After all, it's a business school. We're supposed to be dyed-in-the-Brooks-Brothers suits conformists, not same-sex loving subversives.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A life together

I know that closure is not death, and death not closure.

But is it so wrong if your ghost and I get along?

Monday, November 09, 2009

Bread and circuses

What does a king do
in the republic of pain? Give them
bread and circuses like any king,
the bread of memory and the circuses of forgetting,
bread and nostalgia.

- Yehuda Amichai (translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld), from Open Closed Open


***

Bread and circuses. Memory and forgetting. What makes life possible and what makes it worthwhile.

I too would believe in the trapeze of oblivion, if I could only forget the dry taste in my mouth.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Humpty Dumpty Revisited

In memory of Nov 9, 1989

All the king's horses and all the king's men
Brought down the wall in a show of their strength
And when they were done breaking and hauling
They paid their respects to those who had fallen
Each one secretly wondering whether
What was broken could ever be put back together.

See also

Desdemona

A light put out for putting out too lightly.

Doubt's output proves heavy when it comes to light.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Indulgence

A little selfishness is a guilty thing.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Alien Exchange

Gravity as greed. The Earth holds on to us as though we were money. Intelligent life the most precious commodity in the Universe.

A giant leap for Mankind, a tiny loan to the Moon.

Somewhere out there is a planet with a currency all its own. The challenge, if they ever make contact, will be figuring out the exchange rate.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Eurydice

I should have looked back more often.

I don't know where I lost her. She was there five minutes ago. And now she's gone.

Did she get stuck at a light, maybe miss a turn? I told her to follow me. It should have been easy. There isn't even any traffic going this way. Maybe I should have gone slower? I don't know.

What do I do now? Wait? Go back? But where to? Better to keep going. She'll make her own way, I guess. Maybe ask someone for directions. Though it's late, and there's no one on the streets.

It can't be helped, I suppose. I keep glancing in the rear view, hoping to see her headlights, hoping it's all a mistake and she's still coming up behind.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Built or driven

Not a pilgrimage, but a migration. Grief you revisit but may not return to. The desire more instinct than constancy, more intuition than belief.

Suffering like a nest you line with fresh memories. The weight of the unspoken set down on every branch.


Note: Title taken from here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A series of small deceptions

"I'd always thought art
was a series of small deceptions
performed in the service of the truth."

- Jude Nutter, 'The Last Supper', from The Curator of Silence (University of Notre Dame Press 2007)

All these performances. The way we turn possibility into consolation, imagining what might be.

The truth, but not the whole truth. Anything but the whole truth.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The mindlessness of strangers

You know, the more time I spend in the company of strangers, the more I despair for the future of the species. There's just no getting away from it - people are weird.

Take the woman sitting next to me at the concert on Friday, who sat through Anthony Ross' encore with a scissor in hand, trimming her nails. Yes, actually trimming her nails while the cellist was playing [1]!

Or the woman at the ballet yesterday [2] who decided that since her ticket said Row 20 Seat 4, she was obviously in the first seat in row 24 (because 20+4=24, see!).

Or the person sitting behind me in the bus this afternoon, saying this to an acquaintance she ran into on the bus (and speaking, needless to say, really, really loud):

"I have to confess I keep going back there just for him. I can't help it. I really want him. He's so delicious. I know it's silly. I know I have to stop. But, I mean, I'm not doing any harm am I? I mean, it's not like I'm stalking him or anything. I just keep showing up there to see him. To be honest, I've known for some time that he's into boys. You know. And that just makes me sad. I keep thinking maybe he'll get over it and notice me. I know it's silly. I really have to stop, don't I?"
[acquaintance, who has been maintaining an embarrassed silence through this outpouring, says something noncommittal]

"Yes, I know. I will. It's just that I've never felt the kind of passion I feel for him for anyone else. But then, passion can turn bad too, you know. But I don't think that's happening to me. I just need to stop myself from going there. But he's so attractive..."

I'm NOT exaggerating. Promise.

[1] Okay, said encore consisted of a fairly uninspired rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow [3], so it wasn't exactly the highpoint of the evening, but still.

[2] The Royal Winnipeg Ballet premiering their new ballet - Moulin Rouge. All in all, an exquisite performance. The fact that it kept slipping into bathos probably has more to do with the fact that I'm not a big fan of traditional ballet than anything else.

[3] Which is a nice enough song, but playing it after Schumann is like serving Hershey bars after a wine tasting.

Signifying nothing

The stillness of man amid the dance of his distractions. Like the beam of the spotlight that, falling on nothing, holds the stage together.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Neu Roses

Taming the lion was easy. Getting the mirror to disobey him impossible.

Hercules lifts the orchestra on his shoulders. The air expands to let the music through.

Beauty is never predictable.

Narcissus in a cage trying not to maul himself.

***

Ever since I've moved to Minneapolis, I've been trying to wean myself off my beloved Philadelphians and bring myself to the Minnesota Orchestra, a task made particularly arduous by the latter's insistence on playing inordinate amounts of Tchaikovsky [1].

Tonight, however, the Orchestra made up for it all, with a concert that featured a splendid rendition of Schumann's Cello Concerto followed by an almost note-perfect performance of Shostakovich's Fifth under the baton of Stefan Sanderling. Glorious stuff.


[1] One does not like being made to listen to Tchaikovsky. It's like listening to a wimpier version of Brahms. Plus I can no longer listen to the first Piano Concerto without thinking of this.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ladder

A ladder left leaning against a wall, as though someone had eloped with the window.

White rungs like the moonlight practicing scales.

An uneasy bridge between the vertical and the horizontal.

The way the lack of an object turns ascent into transcendence, something to aspire to, a grasp exceeded only by its own reach.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Beforewards

I long to see you in an old light. In your first rain. In the dance you wore to monsoon communions. In a time before the taking of photographs or the invention of tears. See you as you were before the flashbulbs of beauty, in an age of crooked teeth and stringy hair. You standing there, in the shadow of who you would become, like a girl beneath a billboard, trying to light a match.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

A short short (love) story

Overheard on the bus:

"You mean he didn't tell her he slept over with you on his birthday?"

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Beyond an uncertain point

It's not that you wish to die. On the contrary, you no longer feel the need for a reason to live.

Somewhere there is a world where everything you no longer believe has proven true. What remains is both less probable and more necessary. The way a sealed window is an invitation to look down at the city, to look up at the sky.

It's not that you wish to die. It's just that above a certain height you have to consider the possibility.

Monday, October 05, 2009

But a whimper

"Dissipation is actually much worse than cataclysm."

-Tracy Letts August: Osage County


People are always saying how when one door closes another opens. Which is bullshit. When a door closes you look for a fucking window and if you're lucky enough to find one you jump straight out of it without bothering to look.

And you hope you aren't too high.

Yes and No

Fastidiousness or indecision? In either case an unwillingness to commit. A refusal to take sides is a sign of judgment, until its a sign of cowardice. The difference between reaching across a fence and sitting on it. "The best lack all conviction", Yeats says. No, the best just take their time to be convinced. Yet how do we tell a diplomat from a politician? Is there a difference?

Does that answer your question?

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Hanumanhattan

Scenes we'd like to see dept.

A version of the Ramayan with Hanuman as King Kong.

Hanuman grabs Sita (Scarlett Johansson) and climbs to the top of the Empire State building. Ravan (Javier Bardem) comes after them in his Curtiss Helldiver named Pushpak, and proceeds to set Hanuman / Kong's ass on fire, at which point Hanuman / Kong threatens to incinerate most of mid-town sparing only the brief stretch of Lexington with his favorite desi places. Things look pretty dire for Manhattan until Ram (Woody Allen) arrives and proceeds to read Kierkegaard to Hanuman / Kong until the big ape can't take it any more and commits suicide by ripping his chest open and tearing out his heart. Sita (Johansson) throws herself at Ram (Allen) because nothing makes a girl hornier than being saved from Javier Bardem by a short man in glasses old enough to be her grandfather, but Ram has just realized that being the sixth incarnation of god makes him an existential schizophrenic, and ignores her.

The End.

First Movement

A music of madmen rearranging furniture in rooms of sound.

The rhythm of things lifted, let down. Muscles tensed and released.

Pause. Are you pleased?

Let's try it differently. But quick, quick, before silence gets home.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Offering

Buckets of silver
light poured into the river
to summon the moon.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Largo

There are days when my happiness depresses me.

***

There is an ugliness to perfection - it is too obvious, too ostentatious. To be beautiful is to be damaged, in subtle and irreparable ways.

Like the wings of the butterfly crushed to pure color. Or the mournful call of the cello that knows itself alone.

Double jeopardy

You can't be thrown into the same river twice.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Water Walking

"to walk
on water as water, demonstrating
that we hardly know under what terms
we perform our sitting in air, our miraculous,
perilous stepping out in the flesh
over the everyday void."

- Tess Gallagher, 'Water Walking' from Dear Ghosts, (Graywolf 2006)

***

Impression follows impression. Nothing sinks in.

An escapist vision: the Resurrection as the first film. The sea a dark negative the light touches and moves on.

Or, as the three wise critics said, a star is born.

A house with everything you've ever dreamt of...

...would be an extremely scary place.

Think of the monsters under the bed, the snakes in the shower, the staircases you couldn't help falling down.

Think of how the floor would constantly trip you, so you'd stumble yourself awake.

***

Have you ever had a fall where it felt like you were dreaming until your face hit the ground?

***

The plane explodes mid-sentence, at the height of a blue morning. I look up and the sky is filled with cogs. A propeller comes spinning down, like a lethal tumbleweed, bounces off the road, smashes into the house.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Unsleeping Ghost

You return to loss the way one returns to a bed one has slept in, long ago, as a child.

Amazed that your body still fits within its dimensions. Tempted to pretend you never left.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Meditation

I quiet the voices inside my head, listen to the silence around me.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Puddle

Toss the moon in a puddle and it becomes a coin.

Someone has run the puddle over. It lies by the roadside, eyes wide open, ripples opening and closing like a mouth that has something to say.

Evaporating confessions.

Tomorrow it will be impossible to tell a damp spot from your shadow, your forgetting from my past.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Intelligent design

The fact that we can find pattern in the Universe is proof that existence is man-made.

Would a supremely intelligent being be satisfied with anything less than true randomness?

Monday, September 07, 2009

Not here forever

"If you were to enter the room now and say: 'I am leaving for a long time, forever' - or: 'I don't think I love you any more' - I would not, I believe, feel anything new: each time you leave, each hour that you are not here - you are not here forever and you do not love me."

- Marina Tsvetaeva, Earthly Signs

***

It finally happened. You left. Just as I always feared you would. All those business trips when I was so sure you weren't coming back.

So why is it that now that you've finally left I keep expecting you to walk through that door?

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Promenades of Euclid


Rene Magritte


Aspiration

Inspiration

What it reaches

Where it leads

A mirror held up to

A glass through which we see

Geometry

Transcendence

Above

Beyond

More evidence that I'm a sociopath

"At one point, Jackson showed Gregory Exhibit No. 60—a photograph of an Iron Maiden poster that had hung in Willingham’s house—and asked the psychologist to interpret it. “This one is a picture of a skull, with a fist being punched through the skull,” Gregory said; the image displayed “violence” and “death.” Gregory looked at photographs of other music posters owned by Willingham. “There’s a hooded skull, with wings and a hatchet,” Gregory continued. “And all of these are in fire, depicting—it reminds me of something like Hell. And there’s a picture—a Led Zeppelin picture of a falling angel. . . . I see there’s an association many times with cultive-type of activities. A focus on death, dying. Many times individuals that have a lot of this type of art have interest in satanic-type activities.”

from David Grann's incredible must-read piece in this week's New Yorker.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Walking on the beach

"The complete concurrence of souls requires the concurrence of the breath...for people to understand one another, they must walk or lie side by side."

- Marina Tsvetaeva, from Earthly Signs (translation: Jamey Gambrell)

***

You set your pace by the ocean, I matched my step to yours.

We talked of ice cream and sunsets, and how to tell a castle from a mound of sand.

Meanwhile the tide withdrew to a distance, and the waves snickered among themselves.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Cerro Blanco

Because it is there.

An emptiness surrounded by space. A silence from which the lines radiate.

Neither source nor center, it is a surrender of coordinates, the held breath of a horizon between feeling and music, dark earth and air.

Things come together. Anarchy cannot hold.

Passing time is noise, eternity merely volume; after the end and before the beginning there is only this - a balance that is destroyed in being established.

Like the difference between white and blank, invisible and transparent,

long ago and far away.

Of the night for the morrow

Love: to recognize something as necessary and know you can never have it.

If our ideas about death are romantic, it is because we are mortal.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Affirmation

"I have never clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures. No. One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes--I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless i know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life. It is more important to affirm the least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and even they continue to pass. Do they know what they're missing? Uh huh."

- Frank O'Hara, 'Meditations in an Emergency'


P.S. To the owners of the Kalahari Resort Convention Center and Kosmix shawls. Dudes, get a clue. Seriously.

The Source

Afterwards, the experts would study the blast pattern, sift through the rubble. Eventually, they would trace the explosion back to its source, here, by this vegetable stall in the crowded market.

The thought made him smile. He'd always wanted to be the center of attention.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Your own end

All night you sit in the dark, the gun ticking at your temple.

Every goodbye is a compromise. If you could explain how you were feeling you would not need to do this. And yet your suffering is as ordinary as newsprint, and you want to pretend you are not in love with death, that you are just using her.

Not judgment after death, but a death that does not judge.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Night Show

Sooner or later, someone is bound to shout fire.

Your desire a theater, crowded with images, larger than life. You never see the one next to you, never even try. You're in a hurry to leave the moment it's over, not even stopping to learn the names.

You say you're not looking for credit, you're looking for blame.

One night sleep is projector you cannot break, seeing in through to the end, your technicolor nightmare, waking to find you're still in the dark.

The old black and whites are watching you.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

From time to time I hear

There's really nothing like the thrill of discovery, is there?

Consider:

"But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;"

-Andrew Marvell, To his Coy Mistress


Now, as everyone knows, that's a line Eliot riffs on in The Waste Land. What I didn't know, and only realized a few days ago, re-reading Virgil (while thinking about the whole stud / stallion / wild horses as a metaphor for sexual desire - but that's a whole other story), that those lines themselves probably come from this [1]:


"You've seen - surely you've seen - how in a race, right from the off,
the chariots will gobble ground to take the lead,
and the charioteers, their hopes sky high and hearts in mouth,
lean forward as they ply their whips
and strain to give the horses their head, pushing them on.
The wheels are turning so quickly they burn.
Now up, now down, as if they're poised for take-off.
And no let up, and no let off, they're kicking up such a storm.
On their backs they feel the clammy breath of their pursuers."

- Virgil, Georgics III. 103-111 (translation by Peter Fallon)


The more things change, etc.

[1] I say probably because this is pure conjecture on my part. On the one hand, I feel fairly certain that Marvell would have been familiar with the Virgil, which makes the connection likely. On the other hand, it's possible that Fallon, in translating Virgil, is (consciously or unconsciously) channeling Marvell (for an alternate translation, see here). Or the whole thing could be just coincidence. I suppose there are people out there who study / research this sort of thing and would know for sure. But frankly, I'm uninterested in whether I'm right or not. The speculation's the point.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Woke up this morning...

...and dreamed it was still night.

***

Singers have multiplied more than traffic lights.

I met one at the crossroads. He said, "Are you the Devil?"
Such hope in his eyes I had to say yes.

He said, "I'll pay no mind to your reputation."
I said, "I wouldn't sell it for less."

He said, "I've got no soul, but I've got a guitar"
I said, "I've got no money, but I've got the blues."
He said, "I've got something to offer."
I said, "I've got nothing to lose."

***

I met the devil at the crossroads and he said, "All I ever wanted was to play the blues."

He said, "I'll make a deal with you. I'll give you the wings of my back if you'll give me the song in your heart."

I said, "I know where this will end, but I don't know where to start."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Burning the oiled midnight

I lent the fire my nightmare and it ate up the house.

Afterwards, I oiled the burnt midnight, so the darkness would open silently, and let me pass through.

The couple two tables away

are breaking up. You can see it in her eyes: that half anxious, half indignant look as she talks and talks and waits for him to react. And in the way he adds sugar to his coffee, eyes focused on the task, the air of deliberation as he opens each packet and pours it in, taking care to let nothing spill. Empty packets clutter the table. This must be his sixth, maybe even his seventh. Soon he will have to stop adding sugar, will have to bring the cup to his lips. But the coffee will taste too sweet to him now, it will sicken him, disgust him. He will abandon it with something almost like relief, letting it sit there, growing cold on the table, until someone comes and clears it away.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Unsung

It's not that he's on his own. He's been on his own before, has lived alone for most of his adult life. It's that moving to this new place has meant entering a new circle of loneliness, a purer, more profound solitude. There are days now when he doesn't speak to another human being, not even to say hello or thank you, so that the sound of his own voice, as he reads a poem aloud, say, or a passage from a book, startles him, seems an imposition. He has taken to mouthing the words instead, appropriating the shapes of the phrases even as he maintains his own privacy.

Words are not all he appropriates. When he listens to music now he pretends to play along - guitar, piano, saxophone, cello - he has many imaginary talents, though the applause at the end is always the same. He has trouble reconciling his popularity in these daydreams with the reality of his social life. Could he really handle being in the spotlight all the time? He imagines himself as a enigmatic, hermit-like figure, refusing to grant interviews, offering no comment to the endless speculation about him in the press.

Or perhaps, (since the cost to his privacy seems hardly worth it), he could be one of those greats who are only discovered after their deaths? No, that would mean they would dig up all these details about him afterwards, come up with all sorts of salacious gossip, misinterpret who he was entirely.

So maybe it'd be better if he remained undiscovered, his talents obscured by some combination of natural reticence and missed opportunity. Maybe that was the kind of artist he was meant to be, an unsung genius, one of the thousands playing their music in suburban garages and empty nightclubs, just waiting for someone to notice them.

Yes, that seemed about right.

Loneliness is underrated

I've probably said this before, but there's really nothing like watching a movie when you're the ONLY ONE in the entire theater. It's like having a living room with a 20-foot high screen and impeccable surround sound. Plus, someone else makes the popcorn. What more could one ask for?

P.S. The movie, if you must know, was (500) Days of Summer, and is the source of the title of this post.

Friday, August 14, 2009

On Facebook

"Do we want to return to the womb? Not at all.
No one really desires the impossible:
That is only the image out of our past
We practical people use when we cast
Our eyes on the future, to whom freedom is
The absence of all dualities.
Since there never can be much of that for us
In the universe of Copernicus,
Any heaven we think it decent to enter
Must be Ptolomaic with ourselves at the centre."

- W. H. Auden


And there, in a nutshell, is the rationale for Facebook.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bookstore neurosis

Stock home syndrome: The urge to buy a book in order to 'rescue' it. Like finding a copy of Catcher in the Rye tucked away on a shelf of Harry Potter and Twilight books, and taking it home out of pure sympathy.

Deweydecimania: The need to rearrange books in a bookstore to restore them to proper alphabetical order. May be accompanied by indistinct muttering about people who put Marquez after Maugham.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

It's a woman's life, they said

You know what I don't get? Is the use of 'persuasion' to mean gender. You know, how people will say so-and-so is of the female persuasion. I mean, are we really to believe that so-and-so was going to be a man until someone came along and changed her mind? Is there some sort of special purgatory up there where large numbers of gender salesmen roam the mountain passes, trying to recruit people into their gender?

"You there, have you considered becoming a woman? It's really great, you know. Sure, you get treated like a second-class citizen pretty much anywhere you go, but on the flip side, you get to wear make-up and have lots more fashion choices and can always find someone to have sex with you, though there is the chance this may result in you ending up all bloated and gross and then having to undergo unimaginable pain, but it's all in the interest of propagating the species, and what's more, if you sign up for a lifetime subscription we give you this neat biological clock absolutely free! So what do you say? Yes, you'll join? Great! just sign here please. What's that? You'd rather be a man? Are you sure? Well, okay, but can I at least interest you in a fine set of encyclopedias?"

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Paranoia

To be convinced you're paranoid is a paranoia in itself.

Unless, that is, you really are paranoid.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Mistakes

After a while, you run out of mistakes to make.

Then you start to wonder - would it be a mistake to make the same mistake again? Isn't it better, since mistakes are inevitable, to pick one you already know how to survive?

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Virga

"the presence of his widow in my office caused my months of dogged rationalization to evaporate like virga."

- Stephen White (New York Times, Aug 1, 2009)

Okay, quick show of hands: how many of you knew that virga are wisps of precipitation that evaporate before they reach the ground?

Should I be depressed that pulpy crime thriller writers have a better vocabulary than I do?

Aida

Aida: the vulgarity of triumph and an extreme case of the Stockholm syndrome. Not to mention (in the case of Radames) really, really bad work-life balance.

***

The production of Aida I'd like to see would be one set on an early slave plantation (maybe around Memphis?) with Aida as the young girl sold into slavery, Amneris as the plantation owner's daughter, Radames as (initially) her beau and Amonasro as the leader of a slave revolt [1]. The whole thing preferably directed by Julie Taymor. If you think about it, it's actually fascinating how well that would work.

***

Isn't we've-been-buried-alive sex the best sex ever?

***

Just got back from a performance of Aida by the Minnesota Orchestra. A fine performance on the whole, though I think an opera loses something in being performed in concert rather than being fully staged, and that's particularly true of Aida with its rousing crowd scenes [2]. The soloists in general did a good job, though Carl Tanner did manage to show me a whole range of comic possibilities in the role of Ramades that I'd never seen before. But the star of the show was indisputably Latonia Moore, whose Aida was perfection itself.

Notes

[1] Actually, come to think of it, you could combine Aida with Gone With the Wind, with Scarlett = Amneris, Ashley = Ramades and Melanie = Aida. Can't you just see Olivia de Havilland singing O Patria Mia?

[2] It didn't help that for some reason they decided to have the chorus come and go in the middle of the performance. I assume this was supposed to make the concert more exciting, but on the whole it was more of a distraction. It's a lot harder to take Amneris' final protests over Ramades' fate seriously when you're watching three dozen men in tuxedos scrambling awkwardly to get into position behind her.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Hunt and Picks

He's late. She leans back in her chair, stares into the fire, watching the quiet dance of its flames. The book at her knee is forgotten. Her mind wanders, imagining what it would be like to live like this, winter evenings spent at home, the soft certainty of domestic peace.

Lost in the daydream, her face is beautiful, the guilelessness of its repose belying her jewels and her dress. The glow of the fire fills the room with a kind of contentment. It is a lovely scene, made even more lovely by the knowledge that any moment now he will arrive and the trance will be broken, the illusion dissolved.

The painting is William Holman Hunt's Il Dolce Far Niente from an exhibition of Hunt's work at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Now, personally, I've never been big on the Pre-Raphaelites. They're nice enough, I suppose, but their work always strikes me as a little stodgy and well, Victorian, lacking the weight of the old Masters, the passion of the Impressionists and the wit and inventiveness of modern art. Still, there's something charming about an exhibition that includes scenes from Keats (The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro) and Shakespeare (Claudio and Isabella) instead of the usual biblical fare [1]. And Hunt is an exquisite draftsman, with an eye for telling detail, and an ability to capture emotion, even if his pallette strikes me as a little garish [2].

These qualities are perhaps best seen in Hunt's Finding of the Savior at the Temple (above). The group of Elders at the left is done in a way that would make the Old Masters proud - combining near photographic realism with a richness of variety and detail - and the figure of Mary clasping her son perfectly conveys both relief and solicitude. The boy Christ is hypnotic: burning with self-confidence and inner strength he stands free of all around him, effortlessly dominating the scene; yet for all that he is an unidealised figure, a portrait of an innocent and beautiful, vaguely middle-eastern twelve year old. But what makes the painting for me is the figure of the beggar sitting just outside the door, the perfect counterpoint to the lavish interior of the temple and a depiction (along with the figures in the right background, putting together what looks like a white coffin) of the distance between the reality of human suffering and the power-hungriness of organized religion. Mary's gesture of drawing her son away is thus two-fold, both the act of a mother concerned for her son, and a reminder, perhaps, that the true savior's place is not among the priests, disputing matters of metaphysics, but among the suffering and the needy.

Glorious as this painting is, however, it is easily outshone by Hunt's Lady of Shalott (below), easily the finest work on display at the MIA exhibition. I've always associated Tennyson's poem with another painting of the Lady, one by Waterhouse [3], but having seen Hunt's version I'm tempted to transfer my loyalties.

What makes this painting so vivid is the sheer violence of the scene, the sense, so perfectly conveyed, of a room, no, a world being shattered. The mirror cracks, the doves take off in panic, the flowers fall to the floor and the Lady's hair explode into a torch of raging fire, as if her senses had been set aflame. The Lady herself is tangled in thread from the weaving, thread that she is tugging off her, so that the painting becomes, literally, the portrait of a woman coming undone. And when you get past the first impact there are other, subtler touches. Like the depiction of Hercules picking the golden apples, with its echo of the fate of Atalanta, another occasion when a moment's break in concentration led to a permanent fall. Or the figure of Lancelot, so distant, so perfectly unaware, riding away in the sunshine of his freedom, seen in a mirror that is at once a porthole and a crystal ball. And is it just me, or does the pallette here look forward to Klimt, and don't those electric squiggles of yarn remind you of Pollock? The Lady of Shalott is an explosive, visionary work, one that makes a strong case for Hunt as a painter [4], and that, by itself, makes the MIA exhibition worth a visit.



[1] I'm particularly fond of the latter painting, because of the way Hunt sets up the contrast between Claudio's flashiness and Isabella's sobriety, a contrast echoed in reverse by the lyre hanging behind her shoulder and the chains lying at his feet.

[2] One result of this is that in many cases I find that I prefer the etchings that reproduce Hunt's paintings - some of which are included in the exhibition - to the paintings themselves.

[3] I'm told that Waterhouse's connection to the Pre-Raphaelites is a somewhat tenuous one, but to me he's very much part of the genre, and arguably my favorite of the lot.

[4] The exhibition focuses mostly on Hunt's work, though a few paintings by others are included: a couple of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's (notable only for the fact that it's not everyday you find a painting accompanied by two technically perfect sonnets describing it) and Arthur Hughes' Long Engagement, which is like a portrait of how the Arnolfinis would have turned out if they'd been too poor to marry.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

So I'm not the only one

"I'm pretty sure I stopped growing up in my teens and have been faking ever since."

Randall Munroe nails it. Again.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Gift

Sometimes he wonders whether the gift is worth it.

Nights alone in his apartment, three thousand miles and three time zones away from home, staring at a blank computer screen, waiting for the words to come.

Once upon a time...

Once upon a time there was a story, a plot, an outline for a novel. Once upon a time there was a purpose to all this, the loneliness, the booze, the long hours spent in a daze in front of the computer turning out paragraph after paragraph to be torn apart the next day. Once upon a time he was still capable of putting word after word, the way a workman puts brick against brick, building something solid, something with a shape.

That was long ago.

Nowadays the best he can do is string phrases together, stray arrangements of words that drift across the page like clouds in a colorless sky. They mean nothing, these sentences of his, connect to nothing. They are unpublishable. They are a way of filling up the page.

But they are beautiful.

Sometimes he wonders whether it's a gift at all.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Transubstantiation

Neither bread to flesh nor wine to blood. But pain to forgiveness, agony as redemption. The seductive idea that suffering may have a point.

A miracle we all wish we could believe in.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mirror

Mirror

The mirror is broken, broken, broken.
Look at your face this once,
See how it's changed.
Do your eyes still blaze with color?
Or are they timid, afraid?

I saw such beauty in this mirror once,
It seems hard to believe;
And asked, proudly,
Could anyone be fairer?

It wasn't the magic of the mirror.
You were beautiful, and it showed.
And so the world discovered you
Before you found yourself.

And when you found yourself:
Why did you break the mirror?
More (for this alone was no loss)
Why did you lose sight of yourself?

Look at your face this once,
See how it's changed.

- Kaifi Azmi (translation mine)

Cross-posted from Lost and Found, the new translation wiki in response to this (thanks to Binu for setting it all up). You can see alternate translations and the transliterated original, as well as my comments on the wikipage.

P.S. Bonus Azmi translation (plus audio) here.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Public Investigation

(or: keeping your wits about you)

The case is everything that is the world.

If only you could be sure a crime has been committed. That your suspects really exist. You stand by the window, dusting the rain for fingerprints. Your partner insists on the facts, the facts, but you have your own suspicions. An old man in a white beard tells you the grass is evidence, though he dare not say of what. You arrest him on the spot and hand him to the executioners. They singe his body electric. Later, it turns out that History had an alibi. When you wake up in the morning the sky has been cleared.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Why 'Indian' poetry?

Just wanted to add my two-bits to Vivek Narayanan's piece on Indian Poetry in English and its quest for an audience (hat tip: Space Bar).

Overall, I agree with almost everything Vivek says in his piece, including his criticism of anthologies [1]. The one thing Vivek doesn't say, though, is that a "thriving, vigorous poetry community" needs not only a deep awareness of its own poetic history but also, and (I would argue) more importantly, a stronger engagement with contemporary poetry elsewhere in the world.

I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that the Indian poetry community at large is fairly limited in its reading, with a fairly sketchy awareness of what poets in the US or the UK are doing. Certainly the work I read in the few Indian journals I know of seems extremely narrow in its influences. Much of that is availability, of course; I'm keenly aware of how difficult it is to get access to contemporary poetry in Indian book stores (or, for that matter, in book stores anywhere). Still, I can't help thinking that the Indian poetry scene would be richer if a lot of the enthusiasm people seem to put into writing poetry (and trying to find an audience for it) were spent in reading more [2].

Greater engagement with *other* contemporary poetry communities is important for three reasons. First, it would help broaden the ideas and influences Indian poets bring to their writing, setting the stage for greater debate and conflict. If Indian poetry in English lacks "ferocious, voracious arguments, unending discussions, even intellectual fist fights or several rival aesthetic camps" (and I agree that it does, and I agree that this is a lack) I have to think that's in part because there aren't enough rival aesthetics to go around. Second, more links with the outside world would mean that the Indian poetry community would be less cloistered and less incestuous, and that would help set the stage for more frank and open criticism. And third, greater engagement with the international poetry scene would help keep Indian poetry more honest, because it would bring a set of external standards by which the poetry we produce would be judged, rather than just the standards we choose to establish for ourselves.

What makes this interesting and relevant is that the spread of online journals and an increase in paperless submissions provides Indian poets with an opportunity they never really had before. Ten years ago, the logistics of trying to publish in US or UK poetry journals (especially if you were just starting out) seemed staggering. Postage costs of mailing paper submissions to US journals were prohibitive, and access to leading journals was often hard to come by. Today there are dozens of exciting online journals publishing cutting edge work that are freely available to anyone with an Internet connection (some of them bookmarked in the sidebar of this blog) and most journals (even those that still print paper versions) have moved to some form of electronic submission. Which means that there's really no reason why poets living in India can't actively participate in a larger poetry community, reading the work of their peers across the world and trying to publish in a wide array of international journals. Yet somehow, I don't see very much of that happening. And I have to wonder why. If poets in India feel they don't have enough of an audience domestically, what's stopping them from reaching out to a wider audience across the globe [3]?

In his article, Vivek says that "there is no question at all that today, it is far easier to make your way in the world as an emerging poet than it was for figures like Jussawalla and Mehrotra in the 1960s and 1970s." I agree, but I can't help wondering if this is entirely a good thing. Obviously more opportunities for high quality work are always welcome, but if the greater ease of publication comes at the cost of lower standards, then the net effect is negative.

Look, publishing poetry is hard. But to an extent, the fact that it's hard is a good thing, because a) it winnows out those who are genuinely interested in poetry from those who just want to be 'poets' and b) it means that poets are constantly challenged, and therefore constantly growing. In the last 2-3 years I've collected dozens upon dozens of rejection slips. It's been brutal, depressing and frustrating. But it's also meant that I've been forced to revisit and question my own writing, and I have to believe that's made me a better poet than I was three years ago. And it's meant that when I've finally managed to get a poem accepted at a journal I value and care about, it's been a source of real satisfaction and pride.

None of which is to say that we should look exclusively elsewhere in our quest for a community. On the contrary, my point is that it's only by engaging more aggressively with contemporary poetry elsewhere that we'll be able to develop a vibrant community of our own. By focusing too much on 'Indian' poetry, we risk creating a community that is insulated, complacent and nepotistic.

As for the problem of readership - I think the problem is less the lack of an audience for Indian poetry but the lack of an audience for poetry in India. The real victims of poor readership are not, to my mind, the poets who can't get people to come to their book readings [4], but the potential readers who are missing out on all that poetry, as an art form, has to offer. But that's a whole other problem, and one that Indian poetry is a long way away from taking on. Our more immediate priority, as Vivek suggests, should be to make a more productive community available to our poets, and reaching out to a wider international audience for poetry is, I would argue, the way to get there.


[1] In general, I'm for anthologies - I think they serve a useful purpose, problems of unrepresentative selection notwithstanding, by making one aware of poets one may not otherwise know of. That said, I agree entirely that anthologies should not be the primary repository of poetry. Anthologies are good complements to individual collections, but poor substitutes for them. And the situation that Vivek describes - where anthologies become the only available source of a poet's work - is a troubling one. It's a bit like living in a world where cinema theaters show only trailers and no actual movies.

[2] Interestingly, my sense is that this was actually true for the generation of poets from the 1970's that Vivek discusses in his piece.

[3] Not that there's a massive audience for poetry anywhere else, but an audience of a few hundred, even a few thousand is better than an audience of a few dozen.

[4] Ironically, I suspect that if Indian readers did have a better understanding of poetry and were capable of closer reading, that would work against a subset of Indian poets.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Watching you read

The way you tilt your head to let the light over your shoulder. As though inviting the lamp to read with you.

Still reading, the book balanced on your thighs, you reach both hands behind your head to do up your hair.

A single strand stays free, resting against your nape like the line of a poem you read over and over, savoring the sound of the words until it no longer matters what they mean.

Apotheosis

Two days after he moves into his new apartment, before the furniture arrives, he sets up the screen by the west wall, plugs his laptop into an LCD projector, plays his favorite DVD.

At first he just sits there, squatting on the floor, watching. His computer is set to mute, so there is no sound, only the repetition of the familiar gestures, life-sized and a little blurred.

After a while he rises, walks closer to the screen, and then, on an impulse, steps into the cone of light from the projector. Behind him, his shadow blacks out half the screen, but he doesn't care, doesn't want to care. He feels transcended, absorbed. The images flicker across his skin, and the light blinds him.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Withered Flowers

There is a man riding the rush hour bus with a satchel full of withered flowers.

Are they a symbol? Of failing romance, promises betrayed? Is he carrying them to someone as a message? Will she understand? Has he been sent?

Is he rescuing them perhaps? Does he feel for these creatures, once so loved, and now cast aside? Does he relate?

Are they a treat for a pet?

Are they ingredients for some secret potion, some special drug? Preparations for some satanic rite?

Is he just bad at judging flowers? Has someone sold them to him, pretending they're fresh? Is he on his way to present them to someone, imagining how thrilled they will be, not realizing?

Were they fresh when he bought them? Has he been carrying them around for days, trying to build up his courage?

Does he plan to sell them, maybe make a little cash? Not really sell them, of course, but use them to ask for alms - a reason, an excuse.

There's fennel for you, and columbines; there's rue for you; and here's some for me

And so I come back to you, Ophelia, trapped in the flow of the traffic and the smell of dying flowers.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

You know you've hit writer's block when...

...you consume a pint of Guinness and six Barthelme short stories for lunch, and you still can't find the inspiration to write.

In other news, can I just say that I feel personally betrayed by Capitalism. What's the point of free enterprise if you can't get proper service even if you're willing to pay for it? Thrice in the last week I've ordered things on 'expedited' delivery, only to receive apologies and a refund when they didn't arrive by the agreed deadline (NOTE to vendors: I don't want a @#%&!ng refund, I want my shipment!!).

I don't understand why Capitalism is doing this to me, after all that we've been through the years. Can it be she finally found out about by affair with Marxism in college? Is this her way of taking revenge?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Joblessness redefined

Ron
is gone
but the con
goes on

- placard at Anti-Scientology demonstration outside the Church of Scientology, Minneapolis.

Personally, I have no use for scientology (or any other organized system of faith), but I can't help thinking that organizing a demonstration against it, complete with placards and masks and loudspeaker and soap bubbles (don't ask!) is overkill. One protests evil, not silliness.

Oh, and as the more lynx-eyed among you have already noticed, I've bid farewell to Philadelphia and moved to Minneapolis, where I'm currently busy assembling furniture (correction: trying to assemble furniture) and stocking my kitchen and generally being depressingly domestic. Will return to blogging once I've managed to wrestle myself back to civilization.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Betrayal

He would have been dismayed by the betrayal if he hadn't suspected it all along. Which is not to say it didn't surprise him, but only in the way that one is surprised by the inevitable arrival of a long-lost brother bearing an unexpected gift. Not that the traitor in this instance was his brother, or indeed, a relation of any sort, which is what made the betrayal so puzzling, because why pretend allegiance to someone whom you owe nothing? So perhaps there was something the traitor owed, or thought he owed. Had he helped the traitor in some way, done him some unconscious kindness, the burden of which had now caused him to snap? It was possible. And should he then forgive him, or choose reprisal, even vengeance, as a way of balancing things out? Would it be more of a penalty to betray him in turn, or to ensure his guilt by refusing to betray him? And wasn't this calculation itself a betrayal? What were the ethics of mirrors? Was it possible to observe oneself in a moral stance?

Eisoptrophobia

The fear that cannot face itself.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Amazon

...now has copies of etudes for sale.

Just so you know.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Something

Measure the magnitude of an injustice by the smallness of what counts as a triumph.

Not a victory, then, but an achievement, a giving way.

How obscene to have to celebrate this; to have to celebrate the fact that having sex with someone you love no longer makes you a criminal.

And for that reason alone, how necessary to celebrate it.

It's good to know that India has finally arrived in the 20th century. Here's hoping it doesn't take till 2109 to get to the 21st.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

That's Dr. Falstaff to you

5 years

= STATA + JSTOR + rewrites + conference presentations + the annual caffeine output of a medium-sized Colombian plantation

= 49,000 words + 300 references + 24 tables

= 15 slides + 1 hour defense

= 1 dissertation, signed and delivered.

And it's barely lunchtime.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Four years

Depressing thought # 1461: This blog has now lasted longer than any relationship I've been in.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Booklamite

After he stopped sleeping, he moved into the library, staying hidden when the doors closed in the evening so he could spend all night wandering the shelves, picking out books at random, reading straight through till dawn.

He estimated it would take him twenty five years to read every book the library had. In fact, it took him twenty seven.

By the time he finished, he could no longer speak with anyone. A long habit of absolute silence made that impossible. Instead he spent three days sitting quietly in his carrel, thinking back over all he had read. On the fourth day he made a decision, found the book that he wanted, began to re-read.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Abandon

"Maybe all people are abandoned children. Perhaps birth is like being abandoned on earth by God."

- Yasunari Kawabata The Old Capital [1]

Or like running away. Here we are then, delinquents in search of adventure, impatient of safety, a galaxy of shooting stars. The self an assertion of independence. Mortality a coming of age.

At what point does escape turn into exile?

Robert Frost defines home as "something you somehow haven't to deserve". Who can blame us then, if death feels like home?

[1] translated from the Japanese by J. Martin Holman