Thursday, March 30, 2006

Lessons in Survival

She made pain
A high, high window;
She made hope
A long, long fall.

- Joni (2004)

Will someone please explain to me why more people don't listen to Joni Mitchell? Or if they do, why nobody ever got around to telling me about her? Oh, I'd heard of her all right - I even had a couple of recordings of her with Hancock. I just never realised that this nice-ish jazz singer was also the most incredible songwriter ever. It took 24 years of my life before I finally stumbled upon a copy of Blue while browsing a neighbourhood music store, and decided to buy it (how these little things can change your life!) purely out of curiosity.

So there I was. CD duly unwrapped [1], new batteries in discman (this was a point in my life when I was living out of a suitcase on a permanent basis - a discman is all I had - and even that was borrowed from a friend), the grimy glow of a Mumbai dusk all around me. And I press the 'Play' button and that haunting voice comes on singing "I am on a lonely road and I am travelling, travelling, travelling / Looking for something what can it be?" and I know I'm hooked. Something about the sound of that first line - its solitariness, its restlessness, its sense of journeys undertaken not out of hope but driven by a mix of weariness and curiosity - felt genuine, felt honest, felt right. It was like that one starting line could be a summary of my whole life.

As I listened more the song delighted me by being both unpredictable and accurate - I found myself relating to every line, but every time I tried predicting what would come next, I found I'd got it almost, but not quite, right, and the very off-beatness of this enchanted me. What astonished me, as I listened to the album, was the combination of intelligence and sympathy that Mitchell brought to the music - here was music that seemed to understand me, but insisted on being understood in turn. "Truth is beauty, beauty truth" Keats said - in Joni Mitchell's songs I could hear both.

And what songs they were. All I really want was followed by the gentle, strumming poetry of Green ("Call her Green and the winters cannot fade her / Call her Green for the children who've made her / Little Green, be a gypsy dancer); by the lyrical intensity of Blue; by This Flight Tonight, that captures so perfectly the instantaneous nature of regret, of that moment when you suddenly know that you've done the wrong thing, and which, aside from being a wonderful metaphor for the impossibility of turning back time, is so precise a reflection of the anxiety I always feel when my plane is coming in to land, the thought that says 'did I make a mistake by coming here?'; by the amazing Last Time I Saw Richard - a song I've listened to endlessly, especially that bit at the end ("only a dark cocoon before I get my gooooorgeous wings and fly away / Only a phase / These dark cafe days"). [2]

And then, of course, there's River. The faux Jingle Bells starting, the defeated melancholy of a voice that can turn so simple a line as "It don't snow here / It stays pretty green / I'm going to make a lot of money / Then I'm going to quit this crazy scene" into an authentic expression of being trapped in the everyday, in the ordinary. River is one of the most heartbreaking songs I have ever heard, and one of the most achingly perfect.

And at any rate, by the time I'd heard Blue straight through for the third time in a row, it had already taken on the quality of a revelation. Over the next couple of weeks I listened to that one album (and only to that one album) 2-3 times a day every single day, and when I finally decided that this was getting ridiculous, I went out and bought another Joni Mitchell album (For the Roses) just so I could alternate. This is how obsession begins.

If there's one thing I've never been able to make up my mind about when it comes to Mitchell - it's which album I like better - Blue or For the Roses. On the whole, I think Blue is the more overwhelming album, but For the Roses is more consistently brilliant. For the Roses features the glorious surrealism of Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire (don't you just love the way that last line of the refrain shifts from "You can come now or you can come later" to "If you come now or if you come later" to "You're gonna come now or you're gonna come later") and Electricity (which has to be the most amazing conceit in all of modern song); the quirky humour of You turn me on, I'm a radio; the glorious lyrics of For the Roses ("In some office sits a poet / and he trembles as he sings / and he asks some guy / to circulate his soul around") and Woman of Heart and Mind ("After the rush / when you come back down / always disappointed / nothing seems to keep you high"); the dark irony of Blonde in the Bleachers (that awesome drumming coming in at exactly the right moment); and that most passionate of all tributes to Beethoven's music - Judgement of the Moon and Stars ("you've got to shake your fists at lightning now / you've got to roar like forest fire").

You know (or should have figured out) the rest. Ladies of the Canyon followed (with Morning Morgantown, Woodstock, Big Yellow Taxi, the Circle Game and that most underrated of all Joni's songs - Willy). Then Clouds (with Tin Angel, Chelsea Morning, I Don't Know Where I Stand and, most importantly, Both Sides Now). Then Court and Spark (Same Situation, Down to You and the hilarious Twisted). And then, finally, all those years later, Both Sides, Now - the voice so smoky you don't dare inhale while she's singing, the world-weariness of the sound.

Thinking about it, what makes Mitchell so special to me is the way her music connects to something within me, the way her songs seem to speak not to, but for me. Other songwriters may write more beautifully, but my admiration for them is aesthetic, impersonal; not to love Joni Mitchell would be not to love myself. Mitchell's songs feel both essential and familiar precisely because they are superior echoes of that voice in my head that I've been hearing all these years, often without knowing it. Mitchell sings "You could have been more / Than a name on the door / Of the thirty-third floor / In the air" and the shock of recognition is immediate; she sings "Friends and kin / Campers in the kitchen / That's fine, sometimes / But I know my needs / My sweet tumbleweed / I need my quiet times / By the river flowing" and she might as well be talking about me.

Not that these are easy songs, mind - they are songs about failure, songs about loss; they are songs about all the things that I am afraid or ashamed of, all the things the frustrate or defeat me, all the things I am too frightened to acknowledge. If there is comfort in them, it is only in knowing that someone out there understands how you feel, that someone out there feels the same way. Listening to Mitchell is a deeply intimate, deeply emotional experience, in much the way that an evening spent talking to a friend is (Mitchell sings: "He comes for conversation / I comfort him sometimes / Comfort and consultation / He knows that's what he finds" - that's it, exactly).

Eliot writes: "But what have I, what have I, my friend, / to give you? what can you receive from me? / Only the friendship and the sympathy / Of one about to reach her journey's end". That is exactly what Joni Mitchell offers, and it's a lot. Because we all know "how rare and strange it is, to find / in a life composed so much, so much of odds and ends.... to find a friend who has these qualities,/ who has, and gives / those qualities upon which friendship lives".


[1] Is it just me, or does it take everyone else ages to unwrap a CD as well? The little tag on the side saying pull here first almost always never works, and then I spend hours prying away at the plastic wrapping, rather like a monkey trying to figure out how to peel a banana and get at the good stuff inside.

[2] Blue also features, of course, A Case of You, a song whose beauty I only appreciated after I heard the version of it on Both Sides, Now.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Puff the Magic Dragon

Of course, Rock isn't just about poetry. It's also, and often more importantly, about drugs [1]. Obviously, I can't spend a week blogging about Rock and not talk about drugs, so here goes. My top 5 drug songs of all time [2]:

1. The Beatles: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

You just can't beat the Beatles, can you? I mean, how do you go from being a bunch of cheeky but clean-cut lads to writing rock songs about tangerine trees and marmalade skies? At one level, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is a surrealist masterpiece - an exquisite combination of mind-blowing imagery coupled with the lurking sense of a plot ('who is the girl with kaleidoscope eyes?' you catch yourself thinking, knowing full well the question makes no sense). At another level, it's almost an anti-song: the slow drone of that voice (so hypnotic in its languor) erupting into brief moments of visionary high, only to collapse back into flat monotone. You just have to listen to the song once to know that there will be others - songs about the drug experience, songs that bring out the hallucinatory and the surreal, songs that work by distorting reality, songs that shift wildly in tempo to convey the sudden exhileration of the high.

And as usual, the Beatles will have got there first.

2. Jefferson Airplane: White Rabbit

How can you not love a song that works off Alice in Wonderland, bringing out (if it hadn't occured to you before) the more sinister side of "one pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small". This is music straight from the other side of the looking glass, its other-worldliness heightened by Grace Slick's eerie witch-chant of a voice. White Rabbit is also that classic kind of drug song - the one that starts low and builds monotonically to a screaming climax of white noise at the end. Incredible stuff [3].

3. Jimi Hendrix: Purple Haze

If the ability to create and sustain a distinctive sound is the hallmark of a great musician - Hendrix may be just about the greates of them all. Nobody sounds quite like Hendrix - even today the opening chords of Purple Haze (or of Voodoo Child or of Machine Gun) are instantly recognisable as coming from Hendrix' guitar. The lyrics to Purple Haze are irrelevant. The sound captures perfectly that sense of hysterical dementia, of a screaming, helpless transcendence. To listen to Hendrix play is to hear the world being torn apart, sheet by metal sheet. If there is a message in Hendrix, it is that pain - merciless, unbearable pain, is a form of beauty all by itself.

4. Velvet Underground: Heroin

It starts off so softly. The gentle strumming of the guitar, Lou Reed's slow drawl of a voice. And then suddenly, in mid sentence, the song accelerates, the drumming picks up like a heartbeat, the words come spilling out, caught up in a barely controlled frenzy. And then, just as you're beginning to get into the tempo of it, it dies again. Only not quite. A little bit of the momentum survives, the sound of it a subtle addiction - you know what's coming now, you know how fast and high the song can go. You sit there waiting anxiously for the next crescendo. Over and over again, the cycle is repeated, and with each pass the song returns to a slightly quickened heartbeat, with each pass your need to hear the song explode is greater. So that when Reed sings "Heerroooooin / Be the death of me" you can feel the longing, the desperation of the desire. And when the song finally bursts out in an orgasm of noise, the music screeching away in the background, while the lyrics talk about death and destruction in a voice that has to struggle to be heard, it feels right somehow, you feel happy, you feel sated.

5. The Cranberries: Salvation

You know how in the old days they had a rule where you couldn't make a movie where murder went unpunished? Well, just in case you were planning on getting on your high horse and criticising this post for supporting drug use, I thought I would put in a song that manages to combine a more positive social message with some incredible music. Salvation has to rank among my top 5 Cranberries songs (I'm particularly likely to think of it, for some reason, coming into Penn Station on my trips to New York City; I think it has something to do with emerging out of the tunnel and seeing the light filtered down through the skyscrapers) - it's a powerful song, bursting with a nervous but hopeful energy. More than anything else, though, it's an insistent song, one that demands to be listened to, one that requires that you sing along with it at the top of your lungs.

Other favourites anyone?


[1] Actually, there's a fair deal of correlation between the two. With a lot of rock you have to be really, really high to see the poetry. Just listen to Frank Zappa and you'll see what I mean.

[2] heh heh: didn't you put a post like this sometime back, perhaps in an earlier avatar? I was looking for it, but couldn't find it. The only song I remember from it that isn't on this list was Coldplay's Yellow. Please to add to comments section.

[3] Jefferson Airplane's performance of White Rabbit at Woodstock is one of my signature performances from that event - ranking up there with the sound of Joe Cocker howling 'With a little help from my friends', Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner (did you know that apparently three quarters of the people who attended Woodstock had left by the time Hendrix came on - that's a lot of regret), Joan Baez singing Joe Hill, and this amazing song by some woman called Melanie, who I've never managed to find anything by, except the one song.


My poetry was lousy, you said

No, this is not a post about whether rock lyrics can be poetry. That question's already been answered. Convincingly. By the folks over at Minstrels. If you don't believe that rock lyrics can be poetry, I refer you to the works of M/s Simon, Dylan, Mitchell, Cohen and Knopfler as collected on their site. (see, in particular Thomas's commentary to Tambourine Man) There are other artists who've written songs that deserve the title of poetry, but that should do for now.

Nor is this a post about songs that actively reference poetry. Like S&G's Richard Cory [1]. Like Joni Mitchell's Slouching toward Bethlehem. Like the Cranberries singing Yeats' Grave (with its rendition of 'No Second Troy' in Dolores O'Riordan's hypnotic voice). Like Joan Baez quoting Neruda on No Nos Moveran. [2]

No. This is a post about something different. This is a post about songs that have somehow, over the years, come to remind me of particular pieces of writing. Not because the songwriters necessarily saw the connection or were trying to make the link. Not because I happened to be listening to the song and reading the piece at the same time. But because some obscure connection in my head got triggered by the song that made me think of a poem, or a play, or a book. It might have been a turn of phrase. Or the general tone of the song. Or something else entirely. At any rate, every time I listen to this song now, I can't do it without thinking about the piece of writing again. And vice versa. (does this happen to other people, by the way? or is it just me?):

1) Jethro Tull: Broadsword [William Blake: Jerusalem]

Let's start with something simple. Is it possible to hear Jethro Tull singing Broadsword and not think of the lines from Blake: "Bring me my bow of burning gold! / Bring me my arrows of desire! / Bring me my spear! O clouds unfold! / Bring me my chariot of fire!"? [3] Personally, I've never been able to hear the song go "Bring me my broadsword / and clear understanding / Bring me my cross of gold / As a talisman" without making the connection.

2) Led Zeppelin: Gallows Pole (William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure)

To begin with, let me say that I think Gallows Pole is one of Zeppelin's most underrated songs. I love the way it starts off being so slow and plainitive, and then just grows and grows in tempo until it ends up being an explosion of frenzy. And the screaming desperation in Plant's voice is so apt.

What Gallows Pole always reminds me of, for some obscure reason, is Measure for Measure. I think it's the whole "Sister, I implore you, take him by the hand / Take him to shady bower, save me from the wrath of this man" bit, with its echoes of "Sweet sister, let me live:/What sin you do to save a brother's life, /Nature dispenses with the deed so far/That it becomes a virtue". Not of course, that Gallows Pole is the only song to deal with that scenario - Dylan does something similar on Seven Curses, though this time it's a daughter, not a sister who's involved. But I've always felt that the Zeppelin song, with all its talk of gold and soul and bowers has a much more medieval, mystic feel.

3. The Doors: The End (T.S. Eliot The Hollow Men)

Okay, here there actually is a connection. Remember Apocalypse Now? Remember that starting scene where he plays The End? Well, of course, Apocalypse Now is based on Heart of Darkness. Which is where Eliot got the "Mistah Kurtz - he dead" line with which he starts Hollow Men. See. Small world.

More generally, though, that entire "lost in a roman wilderness of pain" bit in the song always conjures up in my head a landscape that comes straight out of Eliot.

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
This hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.

4) Simon and Garfunkel: Scarborough Fair (Christopher Marlowe: The Passionate Sheperd to his Love)

It's the motif of clothes made out of plants mostly (and more generally, the idea of doing all these impossible things for your love). But it's also the tone of the song, the way both song and poem cycle back to that one line, the way "Come live with me and be my love" is echoed in "She once was a true love of mine". In fact, I have to say that I actually like the S&G song a lot better than I like the original Marlowe poem - but then, I've never managed to be enthusiastic about Marlowe anyway.

5) Tracy Chapman: The Promise (John Donne: A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning)

Every time I listen to Tracy Chapman's The Promise, I find the last four stanzas of Donne's poem playing over and over in my head. This is not because the lyrics to Chapman's song are particularly brilliant. It's more, I suspect, because of her voice, because of the depth of feeling that she manages to put into it, elevating the song into realms of emotion that Donne inhabits. What is, in Donne, a consoling conviction becomes, in Chapman's song, a dream of the future that the singer has no real faith in. The effect is devastating.

I could go on and on. There's Dylan's Tangled up in Blue, that always makes me think of Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion. There's R.E.M's Falls to Climb, that always makes me think of Lermontov and Chekhov's Seagull. There's Suzanne Vega's The Queen and the Soldier, which reminds me of Tennyson generally, though I can't say why or what poem exactly (Maud perhaps?) .

The point is that people who ask whether rock lyrics are poetry are looking at it the wrong way. It's not the lyrics alone that make good rock poetic. It's the combination of the the words and the sound, the whole not the parts, that make rock, at its best, as moving a form of expression as good literature. Just as it's not the words to Dove sono or Pace pace mio dolce tesoro or Vissi d'arte that make those songs so moving. R.P.Blackmur famously said that poets are looking to add to "the stock of available reality". Great rock music, I think, just does that, fundamentally enhancing how we imagine ourselves and the world around us.


[1] Which, just in case you haven't figured this out yet, is based on Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem.

[2] Not to mention Zeppelin's infatuation with Tolkien.

[3] The Minstrels version I've linked to has a discussion about a rock version of Blake's poem as well.

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Monday, March 27, 2006

I'm pledging my time

Okay, here's the deal. I'm bored. I need excitement, I need challenge. And that post yesterday (coupled with the Hornby) made me think of all the things about Rock I've always wanted to say but never quite got around to. So.

Here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to declare this Rock and Roll Week. Which means that for the next seven days I'm going to post about Rock. And only about Rock. Not because I have anything particularly important or insightful to say. Not because I claim to be some sort of expert. Just because it's there.

Right. Dim lights. Check. Fish out CD of Blonde on Blonde. Check. Turn volume up way, way, high. Check. Go.

Prologue: A time of innocence, a time of confidences

As any self-respecting Reader's Digest regular will tell you, there's nothing like a good dose of confession. Builds character. Whitewashes the soul. Clears the sinuses. So what better way to get started on a project (well, given that marijuana is illegal)?

Here it is then: Growing up, I almost never listened to Rock *takes pause to let gasps die down; sings along to the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face in the meantime*. If there was one motif to my teenage years, it was the idea that the fastest way to acquire an identity when you're a teenager- and can't brag about all the stuff you've read / listened to / seen - is to brag about all the things you haven't read / listened to / seen. Or rather, all the things you absolutely REFUSE to read / listen to / see.

All around me people were discovering Pink Floyd, insisting in their high-pitched voices that Comfortably Numb was poetry. I didn't disagree (though even then I'd read enough to know that Roger Waters was good, but he was no Shelley), but figured there was no way I was going to get anywhere by meekly agreeing with this, so with the kind of brittle contrariness that only the self consciousness of being 15 can bring out, I decided to go the other way.

Classical music was the thing, I proclaimed. There was only one Music, and Mozart was its prophet. My head filled with theories about the primacy of absolute music, I condemned the entire 20th century as being a musical wasteland, saving only Stravinsky from the general wreck (yes, even Bartok was sacrificed). The Beatles were all right, but they were childish and derivative; Simon and Garfunkel were exquisite, but that was about the words, not about the music. Everything else was a waste of time [1].

And so, while others were discovering Jethro Tull, I was scaffolding myself with Bach. While other people listened to Santana and the Grateful Dead; I had Mozart. While Other People found their poetry in Dylan, I found it in Schubert. And as for that overflow of angst that everyone else was trying to outshout with Metallica and Sabbath - well, what did you think Beethoven was for?

(I still remember being really mad at the world one day - because the world is always unfair to adolescents isn't it? - and slamming the door of my room shut and working off my rage by listening to Beethoven's Emperor Concerto as loud as my stereo system and the foundations of my house would allow. On the whole, this is not something I regret - for glorious, untamed aggression, I'd still pick good old Ludwig van over anyone else [2]).

Looking back, wryly, it's clear to me that I was completely insufferable as an adolescent (Mom, Dad, if you're reading this, is it too late to apologise?). It wasn't just with music that I was riding my high horse, either - this was also the year that I decided that reading prose was a waste of time - everyone knew poetry was the superior art form, only people who were too mentally deficient to get verse were reduced to reading fiction. (Oh, the philosophers were all right, and one could forgive Shakespeare his prose passages, but otherwise it was poetry that counted. Unless you were an Ancient Greek.). At any rate, for some two years of my life I listened to nothing but classical music (mostly Western, though some Hindustani crept in as well). And when that monopoly finally got broken, it wasn't Rock that broke it. It was Jazz. Reading Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison back to back sent me running to the record store for Louis Armstrong records, and pretty soon Te Kanawa and Carreras had been joined by Ella, Lady Day and Miles. "Just listen to that", I would tell anyone who was willing to listen, as Armstrong played Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in the background, "how can you not HEAR that that's music, and all this other stuff, all this Rock, is just noise."

*Sound of scratchy old record playing "Hiding in my room / Safe within my womb / I touch no one and no one touches me // I am a rock / I am an aaaiiisland"*

I wasn't always a teenager, of course. Before hormones turned me into an insistent, supercilious snob, I was a nice, regular kid (ya, ya, snort in disbelief if you like - I was) who grew up listening to Penny Lane and feeling a strange sense of kinship to that haunting violin on Eleanor Rigby. Not that my parents have particularly stellar taste in music. Their favourites include such cringe-fest regulars as ABBA, Boney M and Paul Anka. But they're also the reason that I could hum For Emily, when I may find her before I could spell burgundy, the reason that, to this day, I can't ask someone to stop speeding without launching into "Slow down, you're movin' too fast".

And my father's all time favourite record is still Abbey Road - he's heard that damn album so many times that he remembers every word, every riff by heart (it's not like Hey Jude, where, truth be told - sorry Dad - he's still a little confused about the order of the stanzas) and insists on proving this by singing five seconds ahead of the Beatles, as if trying to beat them at their own game. For as far back as I can remember, it's been a ritual in our house that when Ringo finally takes off on The End (you know - that bit that goes: "Are you going to be in my dreams Tonight" dat dat dat dat dat dat dadadada dat dat dat dat dat dat....) the stereo system has to be turned up to full volume so we can all sit in awestruck silence appreciating the majesty of that moment. I used to find this embarassing - now I can't listen to that bit without feeling the urge to reach for the volume knob. [3]

At any rate, it's not as though I didn't have the background to turn into a serious Rock fan (I'm not even mentioning my uncle here, who spent a significant part of his time back from the Institute trying to convince me, his six year old nephew, that Credence Clearwater Revival were Gods, and whose scratchy old tape of Wish You Were Here was where I first heard Shine on you crazy diamond). If I decided I preferred Wagner to Deep Purple, the fault is entirely my own.

What finally broke through this denial of mine, was, fittingly, Dylan. When I first started listening to Dylan, I told myself it was only for the poetry - I was interested in the lyrics, not in the tunes. All that stuff about Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot in the captain's tower. That was what I was in it for. But before I knew it, I was singing along lustily to Tangled up in Blue, and had spent an entire morning playing One too many mornings over and over, without really registering any of the lyrics except "you're right in your way / I'm right in mine". From there it was only a logical step to Baez, and then to Joni Mitchell (Hornby writes: "who with a pair of ears that work doesn't love Blue?"; the first time I heard that voice singing "I wish I had a river / I could skate away on" I cried). And then Cameron Crowe directed Almost Famous, and the minute I heard the opening line to America I knew I was hooked and quickly ascertained that listening to Tommy in the darkness with the sound turned up high really can change your life. Almost a year of being obsessed with Robert Plant's voice followed, and a month of shouting 'Aaaqua-lung' under my breath (ah, the shock of familiarity, hearing Bach in such an unfamiliar setting) and after a long period of diluted denial, of arguing that I was only into Rock because it gave me something to listen to in the background - after all, you can't work with Eine Kleine Nachtmusik playing - I finally had to face the fact that I really, truly, cross my heart and hope to die loved this stuff.

Okay, so I'm not the biggest Rock aficionado around. As heh heh never tires of telling me, I'm hopelessly stuck in a time warp, listening to bands that hit their peak thirty years ago (that's not entirely true, though - the fifth most represented band in my collection is R.E.M - and I own pretty much every album of the Cranberries; hell, the other day I even got around to listening to the White Stripes - there may be hope for me yet). And if you really pushed me to it I would still pick the Unfinished Symphony over Stairway to Heaven, still choose Kind of Blue over Masters of Reality. It's just that I've finally figured out for myself what the intrepid duo of Lennon and McCartney were trying to tell me on my parent's living room couch all those years ago - that categories don't matter, that what counts is only the way the music feels inside you, the connection, the recognition, the transcendence. Strawberry fields are forever. All you need is love. Lucy's in the sky with diamonds and the fool on the hill sees the world spinning round.

And all those years that I missed out on this stuff? Ah, but I was so much older then. I'm younger than that now.


[1] The only other piece of contemporary music I was willing to admit, grudgingly, had some merit was Tracy Chapman's self titled debut album. Even my young arrogance wasn't up to taking on Talkin' Bout a Revolution.

[2] I remember being surprisingly unsurprised when I finally read Clockwork Orange. Didn't everyone see that Beethoven was fundamentally about hostility? Why was this Burgess guy making such a big deal about it?

[3] I maintain to this day that Here Comes the Sun may be the most sublime and joyful song ever written.

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Sympathy for the devil / you get what you need

Ain't it funny how things happen
Just as we think we've got it all straight

Everything seems to be moving forward

But instead we just sit around and wait

Seems things are in a lockdown

Nervous looks all around
Everyone is speaking in whispers

No one wants to make a sound

I'm losing my touch, yeah
Losing my touch
Losing my touch baby, way too much

Baby, get me out of here

- The Rolling Stones, 'Losing my touch'

So this is how the Devil ends up. No explosions, no fire and brimstone, no pitched battles, however dubious; just a wrinkled old man with too tight pants and a wizened monkey face, jumping around on stage, trying to recreate the vibe of a rebellion that ended 25 years ago, the night that other apostle, that Jesus to outfame all other Jesus's, was shot to death. And still the Devil sings on, surrounded by his gnarled old comrades, the spontaneity of their protest now caged and captured by a jungle of sound equipment, emergency medical kits, security personnel. It's a pathetic sight, one that fills you with sadness for the lost glory of the Revolution and all its ingenuous children.

It is also a lie. Because all you have to do is shut your eyes, and it's still there, they've still got it - the music as fresh, as insidious as it's always been, the same insistent rhythm, the same mesmerising guitar. The joy in the sound is still as addictive, still as corrupting, if by corruption we mean the liberation of the soul from all complexities, a species of clarity that can be experienced but never analysed. This then is the final seduction - the idea that rock might be dying, might need to be rescued, when the truth is that rock will last as long as human beings have blood in their veins and beat in their hearts. Nostalgia is only the last temptation of Rock and Roll. The Devil is still a Street Fightin' Man.

It's been more than 40 years since the Stones' first album came out. 40 years since Out of Our Heads. In the years in between, the Cold War has ended, drugs have become a cliche, sex has turned safe, and the State is too busy playing Cops and Robbers on the international stage to care about student dissent. We live in a world that is both more pragmatic and less innocent than the one the Stones grew up in - they believed in truth, we believe in consequences. And yet, for all that has changed, one thing remains the same. We still can't get no satisfaction.

P.S. For those of you who are wondering where THAT came from, three sources:

a) Reading Nick Hornby's 31 songs (B.: thanks for the tip) and listening to obsessive amounts of music as a consequence.
b) Watching Godard's Sympathy for the Devil
c) A comment to the last post saying I was too young to be quoting Lennon (hah!)

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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Portraits of Absence

Andrew Wyeth at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

"The landlady says he lived here
for years. There's enough missing
for me to know him. On the empty shelves,
absent books gather dust"

- Agha Shahid Ali, 'The Previous Occupant'

A pair of boots lying stranded in the sand, a scratched door, a place laid at the table, the track of a heron at the water's edge, an empty hanger. Life, in Andrew Wyeth's paintings, exists at a remove, visible not so much in itself as in the impression it leaves on things around it. There are no people in these paintings, there is only the lingering aura of their presence - the canvas is still warm with it [1] . Life, it seems, was here a minute ago, has just stepped out for a minute, may or may not be back. It's Wyeth's ability to paint landscapes that are not so much empty as vacated, deserted, that is, in my view, his true gift.

But objects, in Wyeth are not simply clues to an absence. They are also stand-ins for people, metaphors for the states of mind of that inhabit these paintings like nostalgic ghosts. Thus the dominating presence of a father becomes a hill that blots out almost all the horizon, shrinking to a sepulcharal rock only after his death; an exquisite pairing of doors (and buckets) becomes the memory of beloved couple; a drowned girl is transformed into a web of nets trailing in the wind; a pair of coats hanging by a window become symbols of a man's beliefs; a locked, stifling window is isolation, a window thrown open with the breeze blowing into it is new hope. Again and again, with an imagination and accuracy that Ovid would have been proud of, Wyeth transforms everyday scenes and objects into metaphors of our deepest, most fragile feelings, so that to spend an hour staring at his paintings is to come away with a profound belief in the sympathy of the inanimate, in the way that shapes and objects share in the turmoil and suffering of our hearts.

What is notable about these paintings is the way the present has almost entirely leached out of them. It's as though Wyeth, with his painstaking use of tempera, is trying to stick the layers of time back on. These paintings date from the last half century, yet there is hardly any mention of the modern world in them (cars appear twice, an aeroplane once). In an age when most of his contemporaries were experimenting with a multitude of new forms, colours and styles in an attempt to give expression to the changing world, Wyeth's hermetic, pristine work seems part timeless, part anachronistic. Seeing Wyeth's paintings is like reading Frost, a feeling of intense beauty, with just the sense, at the back of your mind, of being out of tune with the age. This then is the greatest of all Wyeth's absences - he hasn't just painted the people out of his landscapes, he has left out the Present, the World - he has left out Time itself.

It is, of course, dangerous to stereotype. If there is one thing that astonishes about Wyeth, it is the range that his work covers - from watercolours reminiscent of Winslow Homer; to thick nature paintings that bare traces of Gauguin; to Hopper like buildings; to a series of interiors that remind one, in their use of light, of Vermeer; to some intense, unforgettable portraits.

There is also Wyeth the surrealist, who appears in such paintings as Embers (a dying fire, the place of the embers taken up by lobster shells), Dr Syn (a skeleton in pirate costume seated at a window, a cannon placed behind him, looking out to sea), Christmas Morning (a stunning painting of a dying man sitting up in bed, staring down a moonlit path that meanders to where a ghostly new star gleams in the sky) and a painting of two hands rising out of the snow whose title I can't remember now. And there is Wyeth the master of perspective, seen most vividly, perhaps, in Soaring.

And finally, of course, there are the off-beat little gems: a gloriously dark portrait of a black man sitting by himself in an armchair (Monologue); a painting of a young girl and her dog lying in the grass (Distant Thunder), a brutal, almost Munch like vision of Wolf Hill.

Make no mistake - Wyeth is not one of the great artistic innovators of the century - his vision is nostalgic, almost retrogressive - the real action is elsewhere. But it is precisely the absence of action, the contingent beauty of the natural world just before art happens to it, that Wyeth captures perfectly. He is not one of the immortals (he is, in fact, acutely aware of his own mortality) but he is sad and sublime and timeless. If there is always something missing in his work, it is because he has chosen to leave it out.

[1] This incidentally is something the exhibition showcases - one gallery traces the development of two of Wyeth's paintings, showing you how Wyeth, in his initial studies, includes people in the paintings, only leaving them out when it comes to the final work.


Friday, March 24, 2006

Random memory # 328

Calcutta Airport. S, Heh heh and I are on our way back to campus after three days of extreme inebriation (masquerading as NBSM 2001 [1] - an inter b-school event held at IIM C, whose latest avatar can be seen here). As we sit there, waiting for our flight to board, the afternoon has the jaundiced haze of hangover.

S is reading the newspaper. This means, S being S, that he is skimming the newspaper for images of skimpily clad women (I can't say I blame him. It's the ToI. The half naked women are the most intelligent thing about it). He points to a half page picture of some swimsuit contest in New Zealand and says, "Don't these women feel cold, wearing nothing but their bikinis. I mean, it is January, you know". He tries to sound genuinely concerned.

Heh: "Ya, but it's New Zealand right."

S: "So?"

Heh: "So it's the Southern Hemisphere. It won't be cold there now."

S: "Ya right. Like just because they're the Southern Hemisphere they've going to have winter at a different time of the year."

Shocked silence. This man went to an IIT. This man just won a hard fought trivia quiz against a bunch of quizzers from the top business schools in the country (well, actually, we won it, but whatever). And no one's ever told him about the Southern Hemisphere?

S looks at us quizzically, wondering what he's said that's so wrong.

After we've got over our amazement, we try breaking it to him gently that yes, seasons do in fact reverse in the Southern Hemisphere. We explain about the tilt in the Earth's axis, it's revolution around the Sun, etc. S insists we're having him on. We point to the damning evidence of birds flying South in Winter (what does he think they're going there for? Skiiing?). But S has a counter to this. He knows that seasons down South are the same as everywhere else. You see, he's from Chennai, and they have winter in January. So there.[2]

[1] I'll say this for the folks at IIM Cal. They certainly know how to party. Any brief moments of sobriety I may have had in the three days I was there were my own fault entirely. Plus, as I've mentioned elsewhere, you had the luxury of being able to choose your drink, instead of having to rely on your local bootlegger and ending up with that finest of all gravels - Contessa Rum.

[2] In case you're wondering, S is now a successful executive - devoted husband, proud father, s(t)olid citizen. Whether he's figured out about the Earth going around the Sun yet is anyone's guess. We're hoping his children will break it to him gently.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A case of you

You know you buy too many books when even your bookshelves start to give up on you. That's what happened to me a couple of weeks back. There I was, curled up in my quilt, reading my own book, minding my own business (the fact that this was at two in the afternoon on a weekday need not be dwelled on, thank you) when suddenly something went (to quote Joyce):


and there were all my gorgeous, gorgeous volumes of poetry strewn all over the floor.

Now as a general rule I have a pretty tolerant view towards things being strewn over my floor (and not just books either - but polythene packets and clothes and shoes and even the odd serving of pasta) but only if the strewing is done by a sensitive, artistic soul (that would be me, of course), not by some mindless contraption. When it comes to creating a mess I'm all for handicraft [1]. So the sight of all my beloved books lying in disarray on the floor horrified me. It was like one of those pictures of the Blitz. You know, the teary-eyed woman, her face caked with ash and blood, looking at her ruined home (which has suddenly turned black and white, in addition to falling down) and a small wide-eyed child, staring straight into the camera, entirely uncomprehending of the fate that has overtaken him. That's pretty much how I felt.

Not of course, that this collapse of the bookshelf was entirely a surprise. For months now, well-wishers had been warning me that I was putting too much strain on the poor shelf. For weeks a sag had been clearly visible in the centre of the shelf, the edges were starting to crack, the whole thing had the appearance of one of those bridges you see in adventure flicks which give way progressively until it's the last person's turn to cross and escape the evil ogre / dinosaur / axe-murder / insurance salesman, and then the whole thing gives way and you're left with two figures flailing their arms towards each other across the chasm, the one on the safe side shouting 'GIVE ME YOUR HAND!' in his loudest possible voice (because with the bridge gone, sound can't travel across, of course - that's just elementary physics people!) while the Balrog looms closer.

Still I couldn't help feeling miffed. Mostly because the book I was reading was one I'd taken from that overloaded shelf itself. I mean if the shelf collapsed when I put more weight on it, fair enough, it was my fault for pushing it too far, I would take my punishment like a man (which means I would drown my sorrrows in swift manly gulps of vodka after I'd cried my eyes out) but it was ridiculous for it to fall apart just when I was making things easier for it. I mean who ever heard of the camel's back getting broken because you took off the saddle. These shelves I tell you. Make the slightest concession to them and they'll immediately want more. Strictest discipline. That's the only way.

Still, as everyone knows, it's no use crying over spilt books, so I gathered my poor injured darlings together, lined them neatly up against the wall (where they promptly turned their spines to me, despite my humblest apologies) and went online and ordered myself a spanking new, mission something or the other, xyz-wood, four shelf book case.

The arrival of which this merry morn, is, of course, the point of this post. Not that I went and picked it up in the morning, of course. No, no, a busy man like me can't just go running off whenever he pleases. Like the diligent worker I am I spent the day carefully and meticulously deciding how I would arrange my books in this new bookcase [2] and only when the hour of five pm had struck did I close my books, take off my glasses and polish them, and having wished the Head Clerk a very pleasant evening set off on my way across the river to Nevsky Prospect to see if Olga had...oh, wait, wrong narrative. Hmmm...where was I? Ah yes, so it's only at five that I showed up at the package room of my building to collect this fabled book case, this glorious new coop for my featherless wonders.

Picking up the book case proved a trifle more difficult than I'd expected. Literally. The package it came in turned out to be the sort of thing you get if you let heavy oak doors mate with surfboards, and the label on the top helpfully informed me that the whole thing was meant to be 'Team Lift' and should therefore only be lifted by multiple people, preferably the entire cast of the Philadelphia Eagles (or some similar collection of muscle-bound proto-simians) or Captain Ahab's crew. There are times, though, when I don't know my own strength (an ignorance that I never cease to be grateful for, especially when I'm letting little old ladies help me carry my luggage at airports) and through the dint of brute force, sheer willpower and the temporary loan of a convenient luggage cart I managed to wrestle the brute through the door of the package room and up to my room, esconcing it firmly against my side wall, where it sat leering like some malevolent god (think of that hideously evil mummy in Tintin and the Seven Crystal Balls and you'll get the picture).

So far so good. It was at this point that the truly menacing proportions of my predicament were brought home to me (pun intended). It wasn't just that the bookcase seemed unbelievably huge, so that the question of whether, once assembled, it would not be more prudent to fit my apartment into it rather than trying to fit it into my apartment seemed a pertinent one. The real rub was right there, three lines back (well, three and a half lines now, I mean four, oh, dammit!) - the thing would have to be assembled. By me. Me, the recipient of the 1998 Tom-was-that-your Thumb award from clumsiest handyman ever. Me, the craftsman so inept with his tools that the bravest nails have been known to turn crooked at the sound of my approach. Me the DIY god who put the AARGHH! back in flimsy and couldn't get it out again. The irony of this was not lost on me. I was going to trust my precious books to a book case that I had assembled, because I felt that putting them on shelves that had been carefully constructed by skilled and experienced workmen was too risky.

I decided I might as well get on with it. I thought I'd read the assembly instructions. These it turned out, were actually inside the package, and the folks over at Target had neglected to provide instructions on how to open said package. Fifteen minutes of cutting edge work (pun intended again) with a scissor, a knife, my housekeys, my teeth and that sharp edge of the table I'm always bumping into later, I finally had the package open. I took a deep breath and reached for the assembly manual. Which turned out to be all of one page long! Half of which was instructions on how to care for your product after you'd assembled it! Were these folks kidding me? Who did they think I was, Stradivarius? Geppetto? With a sigh of utter hopelessness, I read through the few desultory instructions they'd cared to provide. "Place book case on oblique surface" it said. Were you allowed to you use words like oblique on a first book case? "Then open side panels and let shelves fall into place. Your folding book case is now ready for use". Okay, that's it, that's way to complicated for me, I give...huh? What? FOLDING bookcase? You mean, you mean I don't have to assemble it? Really? It'll just open up and be ready to use? God, how smart of me to order that. Though I don't know. It would have been fun to assemble it from scratch. I was almost looking forward to it. Ah, well.

So there it was. One liberated, pristine bookshelf. It's light wood finish gleaming in the late winter neon lighting. Hallelujah!

The trouble I've always had with bookcases is that no sooner have I acquired them than I seem to fill them up. Completely. You know how gas expands to fill all the available space? Well, so do books. It's like there's a whole underground of my books that's been lurking in the shadows waiting for this day, like the meek waiting to inherit the earth. It's one of those sights that would make the Pilgrim Fathers proud. One minute you're Captain Smith, wending your way through a leafy New England countryside in search of Pocahontas. The next minute you're stuck in traffic on a Los Angeles expressway, gritting your teeth because that idiot in a red SUV just cut in in front of you. It's like watching ants strip a carcass in one of those speeded up nature videos, or that poem about the groundhog.

So, of course, my new book case is already beginning to take on the aspect of a Bombay chawl. Books crammed together any old how, one upon the other. Still at least they all have a proper space of their own now. Their place of pride. And I'm the owner of a shiny new bookcase. The kind you have to dust with a clean and soft cloth, and spray furniture polish on, and touch up with a furniture touch-up stick every now and then (or so the instruction manual informs me). Ya right.


[1] Doesn't your heart just bleed, thinking of all those poor village artisans in pre-British India, making a mess of their lives in such beautiful, original ways; and then the British came along and next thing you know calamity was general and efficient and mass-produced. How tragic.

[2] This is a an exceedingly delicate and complex procedure. Excel spreadsheets are involved, and the occasional exhibit that has to be formatted in Powerpoint. At one stage, I sat around for fifteen minutes dreaming of set squares and cursing myself for not taking Technical Drawing at school when I had the chance.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Last Thoughts on the Blank Noise Project

okay, time to do my serious post for the week:

Remember the Blank Noise Project Blog-a-thon?

Much has been said / written about the project on the blogosphere (or at least in the small sub-section of it that I read) in the past two weeks. People have talked about how wonderful it is that so many women found the courage to share their stories, about how shocking it was to hear some of the stories, about how great it is that we're finally starting to discuss the issue. All of which I wholeheartedly agree with.

The thing I'm more interested in, though, is all the women who didn't write in. The way I think about it is this. Let's start with the total number of Indian bloggers. I have no idea what that number is (anyone?) - I did a quick google search on 'Indian Blogs' and the highest number I could find was this site called Blogstreet India that lists 2270 blogs. That may be low balling it (hell, they don't list ME!) but let's assume, conservatively, that that's an accurate number. Assume further that the gender ratio among bloggers is about even, so we're talking something like 1150 Indian women bloggers. [1] [2]

Next, let's think about what proportion of these 1150 women bloggers are likely to have heard of the Blank Noise Project. I would think it would be a pretty high fraction - I know I spent two whole weeks where I couldn't check blogs every morning without hitting upon one or the other link to the project site, and almost every Indian blog with high levels of traffic that I know of had some mention or the other of the initiative. Still, let's say that only about 75-80% of women bloggers found out about the Project. So that's about 900 women who knew about the project and had the opportunity to put up a post about sexual harassment.

Now, the Blank Noise Project got a little over 200 posts, of which I would estimate about 20% were by men. So let's say we're talking about 160 women bloggers out of a potential population of 900 who actually put up posts on sexual harassment. That's a response rate of less than 20%.
What do we think happened to the other 80 - 85% who knew about the Blank Noise Project but didn't post about it? Offhand, I can think of several possibilities:

a) Maybe they've never experienced sexual harassment and therefore don't see it as an issue

First, not experiencing sexual harassment is no reason not to have an opinion about it (a good number of the posts that I read weren't necessarily about first person experiences anyway).

More importantly, what's the probability that that's true? Notice that a large number of the women who did write in spoke of experiencing multiple episodes of harassment. So in order to believe that the statement above is true, you'd have to believe that out of a general population of women living in the same cities, going to the same colleges, traveling by the same modes of transport, ~ 20% were harassed multiple times while the other 80% were never harassed at all. That's theoretically possible, of course, but somehow I don't believe it.

b) Maybe the women who didn't write in have experienced sexual harassment but just don't have a strong opinion enough opinion about it. [3]

Is that even possible? First, almost by definition, harassment is something you're opposed to. And second, I just don't believe that someone can go through an experience like that and not have strong (negative) feelings about it.

Still, I suppose you could be against sexual harassment, having experienced it yourself, but not care enough to take time out to blog about it. I doubt that's 75% of all women bloggers, though. And if it is, isn't that terrible?

c) The women who didn't write in have strong views about sexual harassment but don't see what the point of the Blank Noise Project is - they think it's just a lot of empty talk [3]

That's possible, I guess (though it's not a view I personally would subscribe to). I mean you could argue that it's not clear what the project eventually achieved. After all, it's not like 200 or so bloggers constitute anything close to a credible lobby. And as for raising awareness - do we really believe that people weren't aware that sexual harassment was a problem? What mound of sand did you have your head buried in all these years?

Still, I find it hard to believe that some 75% of women would have that point of view. Specially after they've seen so many other bloggers speaking out about their own experiences. Specially once they've seen the kind of reactions that project was getting.

d) The women who didn't write in felt embarassed / uncomfortable talking about it

That's the one I keep coming back to, and that's the one I worry about / depresses me. At some level, it's the fact that it takes courage to talk about these things that's the problem here. That's what makes it possible for all these bullshit arguments about how it's 'the woman's fault' to get made. From embarassment to guilt is, after all, a very small step.

To see this, try a thought-experiment. Suppose we were to do the same initiative against pick-pockets: asking people who'd ever had their pocket picked to write in and talk about their experiences. Would it take nerve for you to admit that you'd had your wallet stolen? Would people feel uncomfortable talking about it? If you believe, as I do, that sexual harassment is ultimately about power, and that street harassment is just a desperate attempt by insecure men to reassert their social primacy, then the most lasting solution to it is to simply do away with the stigma that makes that assertion possible. Ultimately, most harassment is in the mind. It's like bullying - if the abuser finds that his actions are not making the 'victim' uncomfortable / fearful, but are simply increasing her contempt for him, then the act of harassment is no longer an affirmation of male dominance.

Getting to that point is a long journey, of course. Socio-cultural priors are not so easily done away with, and it's hard to imagine a world where being subjected to the behaviour that constitutes sexual harassment would not be a source of emotional trauma, but making it okay to talk about it is certainly a big step in the right direction. Which is why I think the Blank Noise Project is such an interesting initiative - not because of the awareness it creates or because of the 'solutions' that might come out of it, but because the closer we get to recognising that sexual harassment is something we can talk about openly, the more progress we make towards lessening its impact. Joan Didion argues somewhere that feminism is just a special case of the class struggle - if that's true, then developing a class consciousness is the first step towards fighting oppression.

Which is why the thought that 80% of all women bloggers might be either too apathetic or too uncomfortable to speak out against harassment is such a depressing one. It's like calling for a strike and having only 20% of the workers participate. It's especially depressing when you consider that we're talking about bloggers here - hardly a representative sample of the general population. If only 20% of women bloggers are willing to talk about this, what does that proportion look like among women in general? That's what I think is shocking - not how much harassment goes on, but how few women will talk about it. Until we can fix that, we have no hope of fixing the larger harassment issue.

Understand that I'm not for a moment suggesting that it's somehow women's fault for not speaking out enough. Obviously that percentage is a symptom of a social environment that makes it hugely uncomfortable for women to speak out against sexual harassment. I'm only suggesting that the question of why more women didn't participate is a question well worth asking. Because it's by understanding the reasons they didn't participate that we'll get the best handle on the true pathology of sexual harassment.

Finally, just for the record, let me reiterate that I'm not for a moment criticising the Blank Noise Project or trying to belittle / trivialise the women who did write in. On the contrary, the point is precisely that the Project did a great job and those who did participate have my whole-hearted support. So much so that it's the ones I didn't hear from that I want to hear speaking out. If we could somehow get 80% of the potential population to post instead of just 20% - that, I think, would be true progress.

P.S. I wonder if it would have been useful to have a way by which people could talk about their experiences anonymously? I realise that takes away from the point of talking about this in the open, but I wonder if this way the project isn't driving away people for whom talking about their experiences at all may be a big first step, even if it's done anonymously.


[1] I'm leaving men out of this analysis for the moment. Just to make the discussion manageable.

[2] Throughout this post I'm going to pretty much make up and use numbers that I think are reasonable. This means two things. First, if you actually have factual information that could help make these numbers more exact, please do let me know. I'm more than happy to admit that I've got the numbers completely wrong, and would love to know what the correct numbers are. Second, you're free to come up with your own assumptions about what some of these probabilities / numbers look like. With very different assumptions on numbers, my central hypothesis - that there are large numbers of potential bloggers who did not participate in the BNP may not hold, so you may end up disagreeing with most of what I say in the post. And that's fine.

[3] In practise, of course, points b and c are almost impossible to distinguish from point d. People may claim they don't see the point of the project when in truth it just makes them uncomfortable. Theoretically, though, it's entirely possible to genuinely not care.

Bishop's Fiddlesticks

And speaking of dead geniuses, what's the deal with all these new poems by Elizabeth Bishop? First there were three of them in the Jan 23 / 30th issue of the New Yorker. Then another one in the Mar 6 issue. And I just discovered two more in the NYRB. What's going on?[1]

Look, I have as much admiration for Bishop's work as anyone else (even though these new poems are, in my opinion, a far cry from her best work [2]). But the woman's been dead for over a quarter of a century now - isn't it time she stopped publishing her work in periodicals and gave some younger poets a chance? I mean it's supposed to be the undiscovered country from whose bourne no man returns. They're not supposed to have e-mail.

I think there should be a law that says after you've been dead, say, five to ten years, you have to stop sending your poems to magazines. It sounds harsh on dead people, I know, but trust me, it's for their own good.


[1] Okay, so the reason is apparently that there's a new book called 'Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected poems, Drafts, and Fragments' coming out in March. Great. Now she's getting book deals too.

[2] Though I have to say some of them read very unlike the Bishop I remember. Consider this sample:

In a cheap hotel
in a cheap city
Love held his prisoners or my love
brought the pitcher of ice -
dropped the quarter in the spidery old electric fan -
Love the Night Clerk, the Negro bell-boy
I remember the horrible carpet
& its smell, & the dog-eared telephone book

with its ominous look,
full full of the names
of strangers close to my head,
my head with one name in it
or a nameless embarrassment -
the bed, the motor-court below us

Five yrs. ago still
Almost every night - frequently
he drags me
back to that bed.
The ice clinks, the fan whirs.
He chains me & berates me -
He chains me to that bed & he berates me.

- Elizabeth Bishop


Monday, March 20, 2006

And I don't even have any dates to miss

"Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;"

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Rot. Utter unadulterated rot. [1]

Any footprints I'm leaving behind are more likely to be on the carpets of time, and chances are I'll catch hell for not wiping my feet when I came in and will have to go haul out the vacuum and clean up the mess. So much for making my life sublime.

Are there really people out there who find the lives of great men [2] inspiring? How does that work exactly? Do you really find it comforting to think: Yes, that's right, I could be just like him, if only I'd been born in the right century, had half his talent / intelligence / hair, and then got really, really lucky?

Personally, I find that lives of great men always end up depressing me, only serving to bring home my own inadequacy. What we need, I think, is more lives of little men. Yes, that's right, biographies of confirmed losers - the guys who stand in line for tickets to the Star Wars opening night, the guys who take five attempts to parallel park and then end up getting a ticket, the guys who are still delivering pizzas for a living at 56. Those are the men I want to be comparing myself to. Not Wolfgang bloody Mozart. [3]

Take this new life of William Empson by John Haffenden. Or rather the article about it in the last issue of the New York Review of Books (okay, okay, so I'm a little behind on my NYRB reading; it's all these outlet malls) [4]. Apparently one evening Empson is casually hanging about with Eliot's friend John Hayward (groan!) and ends up getting horribly drunk. So what does he do to apologise? He rummages about in his papers, pulls out a poem at random and sends it over. This poem:

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
Of young dog blood gave but a month's desires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills
Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

GAH! Such an incredible poem - one of the finest villanelles of the century and the man just dashes it off to make up for one evening when he had too many! The way normal people like you and I [5] would send a crappy Hallmark card. That's it! That is absolutely it! I'm ending it now! Elisa, where the devil is my razor?


[1] I am NOT a big fan of Longfellow. He's a nice enough sort but I've just never taken a fancy to him. I think the trouble is that the poor man never managed to outlive his own name. I mean call a chap Longfellow and what choice does he have but to ramble on incoherently for stanza upon stanza? Plus there's that awful middle name - is it Wordsworth (of all people!) or isn't it? The poor guy probably woke up in the middle of the night with an inexplicable urge to write poems about a girl named Lucie (or, equivalently, stuff like this). No wonder he had to come up with all this Gitchie Gummee stuff to keep sane.

[2] Yes, yes, alright and great women too.

[3] Tom Lehrer says: "It's people like that who make you realize how little you've accomplished. It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for two years."

[4] I love the reviews of biographies in the NYRB, btw. My logic is, with a well written review, you'll pretty much get all the important themes and interesting anecdotes about the person's life anyway. That way you don't actually have to read the book.

[5] Notice a) the magnanimity with which I include you in this category; b) I effortlessly slip in the word 'normal' as a description of me, hoping you won't notice.

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Sunday, March 19, 2006


Don't you just love the flavour of fine Darjeeling? That lilting, fragile taste, that exquisite fragrance. Like sipping sunlight. A flavour that demands the compliment of delicate old china, the luxury of long, tranquil afternoons spent dreaming in your chair, the accompaniment of some witty but light-weight conversation.

One of the things I hate about my office is the tea. I still remember the first day I landed up, all bright-eyed and eager (those of you who know me: I know this is hard to imagine, but try. No? Try again. You there at the back. Yes, you. Shut your eyes and try goddammit!), firmly resolved on drinking less coffee, staring at the dozens of different flavours of tea that I had seen arranged in the pantry. Raspberry Royale, I read. And Vanilla Caramel. And Lemon Lift. And Cinammon Apple. And Orange Spice. And Mint Medley. You're kidding me, right? Whatever happened to normal tea - to good old Assam and reliable Nilgiri? If you hate the taste of tea so much that you have to drown it out with peppermint or caramel why the hell do you drink it at all? Memories of being made to drink Rasna as a kid came back to me. I searched around till I found the last remaining tea bag of Earl Grey (apparently overlooked since the times of Ben Franklin) and stumbled out of the pantry a broken man.

Since then, of course, I always carry a couple of tea bags of Darjeeling with me. The way other people carry condoms. After all, you never know when you may need one [1].

My hands down worst tea experience, though, belongs to an earlier US trip. I was visiting a friend at OSU and got dragged out for a dinner she'd been invited to. Our host that evening was a young christian missionary [2] who'd spent the previous summer working in a school / orphanage somewhere in Tamil Nadu and returned with that precise mix of enthusiasm and cluelessness about India that makes you appreciate the unintended benefits of travel advisories. As she rambled on about temples and elephants and devaa-da-sis (who, according to her, were EXACTLY like nuns. No comment), one tried, out of mere politeness, to pay as little attention as possible, but when she mentioned bringing back large quantities of what she redundantly called Nil-gee-ree Chai Tea my ears pricked up. Did she still have some of it left? I wanted to know, blatant desperation in my voice. Of course, she said, why didn't I think of that earlier (yes, why didn't you?), I'll make some now, shall I?

So enthusiastic was she about this idea, that my offers to help / make it myself were summarily brushed aside (for once they were entirely in earnest, btw - the control freak in me wanted to make sure she didn't screw this up) - she had her own special way of making it - with cardamom (wow! was this woman single?) - it was no trouble; she'd been saving it for precisely this sort of thing, hoping that someone would come along who would know and love tea enough to appreciate it. She vanished into the kitchen. I sat back and savoured both the the gentle irony of having flown half way across the world to drink Niligiri chai in Columbus, Ohio and the eventual aroma of the tea itself, wafting through the room.

When the tea finally arrived though, it consisted of a thick dark liquid at the bottom of a small cup, into which our host poured liberal doses of milk. I was puzzled. But where's the tea, I wanted to ask. Then realised that this was it. What had she done to it? It took me two sips of the vile, bitter tasting liquid in my cup to figure it out. (Warning: If you are a tea-lover or generally sensitive to violence against beverages, stop reading now). She had taken the perfectly good Nilgiri tea she had (it was the kind that comes in packets too, none of this random tea bag shit), ground the leaves in a coffee grinder (along with the cardamom), then put the resulting powder into her espresso machine!! AARGGHHHH!!!! Only the presence of her 6'4'' football jock boyfriend kept me from feeding her, very slowly, into the garbage disposal. As it is, I simply sat there, entirely dumbstruck, mechanically assuring her that no, I had never, ever tasted tea quite like this before. Really. I wasn't just saying that.

As for the tears in my eyes, she probably imagined they were from homesickness.


[1] And please, no 'dip, dip, dip' jokes. As it is I have this very disturbing vision of a condom ad that involves the lines "Wah, Ustad! Wah!" "Arre huzoor, wah Taj boliye".

[2] a. Well technically, a young christian missionary and her flatmate, who informed me very seriously, when asked, that she was looking to pursue a career in hair-styling, because cutting hair was what stimulated and excited her. This statement was met with an ambivalent 'ah', followed by a long, long pause.

[2] b. Note to self: Never, ever make jokes about the missionary position to an actual honest-to-god missionary. Also, avoid the phrase honest-to-god anything. Or jokes about God in general. ESPECIALLY that one about the monkey, the python and the flying nun.


Braving the elements

36 degrees.

This is the kind of weather that makes optimists of us, that sends us out into the cold in our T-shirts and spring jackets, woefully underdressed, and proud of it. As though the Winter were nothing more than a failure of our collective will. As though the day's coldness was the result of our lack of imagination.

There is something heroic about this, even though, like all heroic acts, it is also naive. It is, after all, this instinct for resistance, for defiance, for risking ourselves without concern for the odds or thought for consequences that, above all, makes us human. The instinct for self-preservation may help us survive, but it is this innate willingness to test the limits that makes us live.

Ah, the vanity of complaining about the weather. As though the Universe would ever consent to such dialogue, as though the wind truly cared whether or not we were comfortable. It is ridiculous, if you think about it, that we still believe in fairness, when the truth is that justice is nothing more than a thought experiment, a dramatic contrivance run amok, a conspiracy that Nature will take no part in. We cannot fight Nature with non-violence, with the purity of our suffering in protest, because she does not care. 'She' is not even a person, not even a mind.

This is an idea that we cannot stand for long. Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind cannot bear very much reality. John Donne writes: "Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?" and four centuries later we still share in his sense of outrage. Better that we should suffer more and the suffering have meaning, than that we keep ourselves safe, but to no purpose. This is why we need to believe in the gods - not to trust in, but to defy.

Coming in from the coffee shop, my hands are raw with the cold. I should have worn gloves, I know. I should have worn a scarf and a hat and woolen socks and a sweater. But a part of me is proud that I resisted. A part of me feels that I have struck a blow for the coming season, that in some small, unnoticed way I have helped bring the world closer to Spring. That when the warmth finally comes, I shall somehow have deserved it.

I stare at my reddened hands. What was it Faiz said? "Yehi daag the jo saja ke hum, sar-e-bazm-e-yaar chale gaye"[1]


[1] Translation: These are the stains that I wore proudly, all the way to my beloved's house.

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Friday, March 17, 2006

The smell of smoke

The cigarettes were the last thing of his she had left.

It hadn’t been easy for her, this past week, getting rid of his stuff. She hadn’t realized there was so much of it. The clothes were the first to go – she piled them into cardboard boxes the very evening she came home and found his note, took them down to the Salvation Army counter on her way to work the next morning. There was something very attractive in the idea that if he did come back (not that she allowed herself to think about this, not even for a moment) he would find his wardrobe empty. As though he were that disposable, that easy to get rid off. She dwelt on this image as she shoved his sweaters, his shirts, his socks and underwear into their separate cartons, so that the act of giving away his clothes became, for her, an exorcism of his very shape from her life.

The toiletries were easy – she simply threw them away in the trash – and she gave his shoes (all seven pairs of them) to a grateful but bewildered bum she met on a street corner, telling him, cryptically, that he was the right man to fill her husband’s shoes. She kept the books of his that she wanted, carefully cutting out the title pages with his name on them, and gave all the others to the local library. The CDs were mostly ones they had bought together, so she let them be as they were and trained herself to think of them as her own.

The papers took a long time though. She sat up all of Saturday night going through them, finishing just a little before dawn. The love letters and other personal stuff she put aside without a second glance, but the financial papers had to be gone through carefully, and all the other official looking documents that he’d always be the one to keep track of. Women aren’t methodical enough, he used to say, you can't trust them with important papers. She put all the papers that she thought she might need in a single file, and tossed all the others into a big plastic garbage bag. By the time she finished she was exhausted, but when she woke up late in the afternoon on Sunday there was the bag waiting for her in the living room, and she drove with it out the nearest camping site and started a bonfire and cast all the papers onto it, feeling the warmth spread through her skin as she watched them burn, taking his handwriting with them. And that, she thought, was that.

Then, first thing the next morning, she found them. Three cigarettes. Three cartridges waiting to be fired. Laid out on the table in the shape of a fan, the last claw mark of a flown bird. She sat at the kitchen table in her nightdress and stared at them. Finding them had been a surprise. She had run out of coffee and had reached back into the kitchen cupboard and her hand had come away clutching a half-empty carton of cigarettes. She had had no idea that he kept cigarettes in her kitchen, even now she couldn't understand why. She had never even thought to look in the kitchen when she was trying to weed out his stuff – it was the one room in the house he had never shown any interest in. And yet there they were, the cigarettes. Undeniably his, of course; agents of a presence that she thought she had finally rid herself of, spies planted in the sanctity of her kitchen to betray her on this Monday morning. In a fit of rage she had taken them out of their packet and placed them, naked and exposed, on the dining table. The act was an accusation, and lying there before her, the three thin cylinders seemed to accept their guilt. But what was she to do with them now?

Trying to decide, she fingered them absently, picking one up and holding it between her fingers, testing the weight of it, its surprising lightness. Thinking to herself how thin, how hollow, a few moment’s pleasure could be. How slow a death.

On an impulse, she went over to the stove and brought back a box of matches. Clumsily she struck one, and bringing it gingerly up to the cigarette she held in her hand, she proceeded to light it. The tip of it winked at her at first, then glowed red, like a warning. She stared at the lighted cigarette in her hand, amazed at how easily it seemed to fit between her fingers, how naturally she held it, with a poise that felt remembered, almost practiced, but could not be because she’d never smoked in her life. She noticed that her hand was trembling slightly.

Why had she done this? Why had she lighted the hideous thing? Why was she still holding it? Surely she didn’t intend to smoke it. That was ridiculous. She’d always been against smoking – all her life – she didn’t even like the smell of cigarette smoke. It was one of the things they’d always argued about. And now here she was lighting a cigarette herself when he wasn’t even here. She was losing it. She had to stop.

Very cautiously, she brought the cigarette up to her lips and breathed in. Instantly the smoke suffocated her, stung her. It felt like she had swallowed a spoonful of ash. She had expected the burning sensation, but was unprepared for the thickness of it, the roughness of its texture – she had always thought of smoke as something ethereal, waif-like – yet here it was filling her mouth with a presence as grainy as sawdust. She felt her throat constricting with it, she was choking, she coughed and coughed until her eyes filled with tears, and still she could not get its presence out of her system. She gulped down great mouthfuls of air, hoping to drive the smell out, but breathing only seemed to drive the malice deeper into her, so that the burnt flavour of it became a part of her being, as though her lungs themselves had turned to smoke and floated inside her like a stagnant spume. She felt a queasiness take hold of her, float to the surface. She felt sick.

By the time she stopped coughing and her eyes finally cleared, the cigarette in her hand was more than half burned through, and a trail of ash lay on her tabletop, like the spoor of some malignant animal. She went over to the sink (careful not to drop any ashes on the floor) stubbed the cigarette out and flushed it away in the garbage disposal. Then she rummaged in the back of a drawer till she found the ashtray that she had shoved in there a week ago (figuring there would be no need for it anymore) and carefully dusted the ash from the table top into it. She fetched a damp cloth and wiped the table clean. Then she opened a new packet of coffee and set it to brew.

By the time she had done all this, she was starting to feel better. Well enough, in fact, to turn her attention to the two remaining cigarettes. Her jaw tightened as she looked at them. Sitting there on the table they seemed to leer at her, their presence condescending, almost macho. She pulled the ashtray towards her, took up the matchbox again, lit the second cigarette. There was no way she was going to let this beat her. Not after all that she’d been through.

The second cigarette proved easier than the first. It still tasted terrible, of course, and the choking sensation returned and she couldn’t keep from coughing. But there was something familiar about the flavour now, like an argument she had already had, and the fact that the vileness of it was no longer unexpected meant that she could recover more quickly. She managed to get about five puffs out of this one, the gaps between them growing smaller as her reaction to the smoke grew milder. The nausea was there again, but it felt more manageable. By the time she stubbed this one out (having smoked it all the way through) she had abandoned any thoughts of breakfast, but couldn’t keep herself from feeling a little proud.

It was only when she got up to fix herself a cup of coffee that she realized that the tears filling her eyes was no longer just a reaction to the smoke. She was crying. The realization appalled her. (It was Monday morning. She was due at work in two hours. She had sworn she would not do this). She tried to resist it at first, tried to blink her way out of it. Desperate for distraction, she searched the room for something to focus on. That's when it struck her. This was not just the smell of cigarette smoke, it was his smell, the smell of his clothes when she buried her face in his chest, the taste of his mouth when he kissed her, the very fragrance of his words as they whispered together in bed. A wave of nostalgia swept through her. It was useless to resist the burnt sweetness of this feeling, its lingering presence like a film of ash in her heart. She let herself cry.

When the worst of it was over, she consoled herself with slow sips of coffee, easing herself back into the clarity of this kitchen, to the rows of spoons, so neatly arranged, gleaming in the October sun. She went to the bathroom and washed her face, then stared at her eyes in the mirror. They were bloodshot, but steady. Good.

One cigarette left now. She lingered over it for a while, not because she was afraid she would not be able to handle it (she was feeling better now, it felt as though the tears had washed the evil out of her body) but because it was, after all, the last one, and it looked so forlorn lying there., After this, there would be nothing left. She sat for five minutes just staring at it, then remembered what time it was, and lit it and put it to her mouth.

Again the familiar evil flooding her, again her gorge rising to fight it. This time she did not give in, though. She forced herself not to cough, forced herself to go on breathing as if the smoke did not exist. She felt a thin trickle of water in her eyes and she blinked it back. For a second she thought she would not be able to hold out, that she would simply have to cough, but then the worst was over and a strange emptiness settled into her lungs, a sense of comfort sinking into her, the relief like an aftertaste. She smiled. It would be okay now.

She took another puff, a longer one this time, testing herself to see if she could keep this up. Yes, there it was again, that sense of crossing the top and coming down on the other side, the feeling as the constriction in her throat slowly unknotted, the strings of the smoke pulled open by some invisible hand. She took one last puff to savour this triumph of hers, then, with precise determination, stubbed the last cigarette out. It was over.

She emptied the contents of the ashtray into the garbage, rinsed it clean in the kitchen sink and left it on the slab to dry. She put the matchbox back in its place, tore the cigarette carton into two and threw that into the trash as well. Then, satisfied that everything was back in its proper place, she ran to the bathroom to get ready, reminding herself to use extra mouthwash.

On her way out to work she left the kitchen window open. By the time she got back in the evening, she hoped, the smell of smoke would be gone.

Note: Remember the Oxford Book Store contest I was writing for. Well, this was one of the three stories I wrote for it, and since I only needed to send two, this is the one I left out (can't share the other ones yet - sorry - will put them on the blog once the Oxford guys reject them).