ether is the thing we breathe it like regular men a few gasps off maybe we all go a little bit dead sometimes skip a heartbeat skip a breath we go limp in the joints go a bit wasted slide our heads back in mud and damn up our insides so nothing gets in we will death a nice moment to think surely no one misses us if no one else is missed we all get a little undone lay for a minute in the grave before we step out again we are nothing if not resurrected
Platitudes I Mean and Meaningly Offered My Brother, All Before Lunchtime
"Oh no, it was very right."
"It isn’t just about language or schema, it’s about core values. It is neat."
"No, I think they’re jealous and mesmerized by your steadfastness; they might say ‘foolish’ but they are intimidated is all. […] It isn’t much doing, in my opinion, to have these village elders scrambling for a replacement. Shame on their own easy convictions; […] it is theatre to them."
"But I think more so, is this not affirmation of another kind? That life doesn’t have to be a mad jockeying toward greater pay-outs, but can be stages of honest, entirely unprofitable decisions made and owned? I mean, obviously my ‘read’ of the situation is looking out from the bottom of painful dislocation, poverty, and artistic failure—but I am not going to work in an insurance office because insurers are corrupt, etc. We have to live on choices, not money."
"Every Year of Your Twenties, Ranked from Worst to Best" is a not uncommon post for BuzzFeed, for Reddit, for the Huffington Post, for Thought Catalog, or any other site that twenty-somethings regularly read while they’re bored and avoiding filling out job applications. Indeed, these stories/listicles are cobbled with such frequency that they’ve formed a kind of background radiation broadcasting a persistent and I think specious reassurance. To those of us navigating the endgame of our twenties, or just now lifting our heels in a keg stand in a grotty basement in our sophomore year in college, or suffering our third internship while celebrating over a big Two-Five cupcake, these encapsulations (presumably written by women and men in their thirties?) come as quasi-therapeutic reproaches for our accomplishments thus far. (Note, too, that our examples depend on a ludicrously homogenous sample.) The twenties articles disgust me, not for their easy (and, in fact, fantastic) capitulation to visions of emotional and economic vitality—the way they chart a queer failure that morphs, magically, into queer success, often with the help of a cat, perhaps Tardar Sauce, The Grumpy Cat—rather, they disgust me for their promotion of hokum and generic superstition. Even the most psychologically founded trend pieces have about them the supernatural glow of an ultimate harmony that defeats the discord of bad luck, base impulses, sad boyfriends, horrible bosses, and experiments with drugs, all with the impress of time. That time equals righteousness is stupid; that experience equals wisdom is bleak. I am in my twenties, we might say, reading over "The Ten People You Will Date in Your Twenties," and we look to see if we’re inside the article, the way Virgos looks to see if they’re inside that week’s astrology column. Tell me, we might say, who I have yet to date and how will it go? Identification is fun. There is, sure, a desperate satisfaction in the traumas of youth contained under a header or beside a bullet point. Yet these comforting ass pats do little to mobilize a generation beyond identification. They conceal options, flatten individuality, promote the salvific by way of consumption, it’s the old story of quiescence, only now its a kind of awe. Or, Aww, if only I had that cat! Adorno’s study of astrology columns from the ’50s seems like a corrective to this spate, a critical intervention on behalf of the picaresque our lives are promised to become. The bad twenties articles are a new zodiac, the fourteenth sign. Call it Tardar Sauce.
The fair has had its share of made-for-Miami moments. At a morning appearance in 1988, Mr. Kaplan recalled, Hunter S. Thompson opened an event with a question of his own for the audience: “Does anyone have any Wild Turkey?” Two men in the audience dashed out and then returned to thrust a bottle at him.
Wrapping up the event, Mr. Thompson, by then shirtless, dove into the Cadillac fishtail convertible of the two men who had fetched the bourbon. Mr. Kaplan said his last glimpse of the writer was of legs thrust skyward from the Cadillac’s back seat.
Is the rash of “I cannot tip you because of your lifestyle…” queer server stories a concentrated response to increased visibility and enfranchisement of queer persons, or have bigots since time immemorial not been tipping their queer servers and only now, because of increased visibility and enfranchisement etc., are these stories receiving attention? Is it a social media thing? Are people on both sides receiving instructions to do as such? (If your server is gay, don’t tip; if you are a server who wasn’t tipped because you are gay, snap a pic of it and upload to Reddit.) I’m interested in the economics is all. I would also like to know if there is a kind of Ur-no-tip story. Maybe this is cyclical. I find it vaguely touching and also stupendously ludicrous that persons see a receipt as an appropriate and even necessary space to air their insecurities about the culture, about difference, about sexuality, about desire.
When I get done with a failed lecture I feel like I’ve gone through a break-up. I can’t move. I have to sit in the dark of the class for a while to get the courage to go out into the world again. I feel over-exposed and also very isolated, invisible but too present. I think about what I could and should have said, how I might have begun, where I might have recovered sooner, what I should do next time, next time, if only the opportunity unfolds! Sometimes the lecture works. Sometimes the class discussion achieves lift-off. Mostly I start with an image or a song, a small video clip, and begin a rapport with that day’s reading, angling towards some comprehension of its merits, its lessons, wading into the tide with a net and pulling, pulling, picnicking, too. After fifteen or so minutes I know if I’ll implode under my own nerves or weather the strange silence of the students. Fifteen minutes, and I will think, this is going to be a fine fling for this fall afternoon, a fine romance; or, and this happens too often to bear, I think, it’s fifteen minutes and I know, nope, I’ve lost them, I’ve lost myself, the notes are wrong, the notes are sour and slow, this is going to be an hour of near-begging the point, slow plodding pleading for the gathered souls to wait out my speech. I have tried no notes lectures, I have done minimal notes, Power Point-guided, all notes, all rehearsed, and even paper presentation. Variations thereof. I have tried Socratic methods. I have tried democracy and autocracy. I have tried very much “being myself,” mostly by not wearing professional attire and investigating work that interests me, that I have questions about; I have addressed work that interests students, that students had questions about, and I wore my suit and tie. I am fundamentally uncomfortable in front of twenty-eight people, especially as eight of them are working on iPhones on desktops in front of me. The savor is enhanced by my own incomprehension of basic rhetoric and composition principles. My description of the relationship between myself and teaching, I think, should not be romantic, should not be a wooing. It must be impersonal and calm and probably brisk, very brisk, because what students should accomplish in my coursework is the capacity to write a decent cover letter.
I wrote a very uneven essay about Norman Rush’s novel Subtle Bodies, a novel I happen to consider very uneven. This long section I find slightly more successful than the rest of my essay, which is more like an anthology or concordance of gleanings, and certainly a collation of intriguing repetitions Rush has deployed, often verbatim, across his three novels and collected stories.
Rush is a teacher. I think this is his most natural and enthusiastic mode of discourse: lecturing. Computing, analyzing, arguing. In Mating and Mortals, the narration is given over to polemics against history and religion. In the former, a strange dinner party offers Denoon the opportunity to express doubts about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays (“By Shakespeare you mean Shaxpur”), and later, boozily, to “perorate” on the “woman question.” To whit:
"[Nelson] drove home two theses. One was that despite apparent differences every society can be analyzed to show that women are in essence being shaped to function as vehicles for male imperatives and the physical reproduction of male power. He didn’t carry this thesis into its most perfected form, in which he shows that in strictly biological terms man is a parasite on woman. This would have been too much for Harold. The second thesis was that because of the history of crushing and molding of women, men have no idea what women are or what they might be if they were left alone."
In Mortals, Ray Finch listens to tapes of Davis Morel, an African-American doctor of holistic medicine, decry the cupidity and danger of the Christian faith. Any matrices of belief, but particularly beliefs in an afterlife, “prevents the host from knowing that it is going to die, to die forever, that the host is a dying animal, that we are merely mortals, and that death is our common fate, the fact of life that should make brothers and sisters of us all.” This chapter, “The Apostle of Reason,” is an anti-catechism, and Morel is attempting to convert citizens of Botswana to a form of benevolent atheism.
I don’t think Rush has a finite amount of wisdom, but he has certain lessons he repeats or revises; his interrogation of organized religion is one such lesson, or peroration, he has refined throughout his life, as related in interviews and profiles at The Paris Review and in the New York Times Magazine. There are smaller, more local examples. In “Instruments of Seduction,” a short story in his collection Whites (1988), the narrator tells us: “I know a girl who’s teaching in the government secondary in Bobonong who tells me what a hard time the matron is having getting the girls to sleep with their heads out of the covers. It seems they’re afraid of bad women who roam around at night, who’ll scratch their faces. These are women called baloi, who go around naked, wearing only a little belt made out of human neckbones.” And in Mating, the narrator asks: “Why did schoolgirls so often try to sleep with their heads under the covers?” The attentive reader of Rush will have already had the answer.
Elsewhere, in that zestfully described party at the USAID mission director’s manse, “The feeling of being under guard was enhanced by the presence of lots of actual guards, Waygards in specially cleaned maroon uniforms, spaced like caryatids around the edges of the incipient riot we were becoming.” In Mortals, Ray has cause to reflect on that word “caryatid” again: “There were twelve people, men and women, no children, lined up pressed to the wall like caryatids. He thought, Hey that’s how useful I am, able to supply the right term for these poor bastards at a single bound, caryatids.” In this second use, the hero is at another mansion, the Ngami Bird Lodge, although the caryatids are more like hostages than guards, and everyone is otherwise in shambles. Art criticism vocabulary crops up in Rush. The heart of a squatter’s community, in Mating, ”looks like a painting of bedlam in the sfumato style, where there are no real edges or outlines to things,” and in Mortals, Ray describes a face as a “subtle orchestration of … chiaroscuro.” In “Instruments of Seduction,” “chiaroscuro” is a guiding practicality for the seducer, along with “no giant clocks in evidence and no wristwatches either, music or its absence, what they can assume about privacy and le futur.” These modifiers do not provide relief, as it were, for the poor or harried, for the searching and lost, for the oppressed or anxious; the words do not soften or shade. Rather, this lofty terminology torques into high-contrast the haves and have-nots, yet makes of everyone dark figures in surrealist paintings. Western-educated white people act like arc-lamps in developing nations; they illuminate themselves as beneficiaries of full healthcare and baccalaureates, and this brightness of possibility, of adventure, in the unending dark desert of world poverty, it drives them slightly mad.
About Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, Che Guevara, Johnny Appleseed, Ötzi the Iceman, and Complicite’s Mnemonic. Some questions:
Either Johnny Appleseed is buried on the east side of the St. Joseph River that bisects Fort Wayne, Indiana, near the home of Richard Worth wherein he died, or he is entombed on the west side of the river, on a hill in the Archer family cemetery. The body laid to rest in sunset, if, on a Sunday drive, the Brothers Worth could finesse an exchange of the corpse; they lived on the river’s separate shores. “Richard and David Worth undoubtedly would have been able to yell or communicate across the river,” speculates Kevin Kilbane, in a 2003 article on placing Chapman’s remains. “Their families probably also had a way to visit back and forth—possibly by boat, by riding horses through the stream or by some other means.” One brother espies another of an evening in late winter, his hailing hands are just visible through a curtain of sleet. “The old man John Chapman is dead!” David makes his hands a megaphone around his mouth, and calls back, “What?” Richard yells, “I said, Chapman! Perished!”
Either he succumbed to testicular cancer on 10 March, or he died of the “winter plague,” that is pneumonia, on 18 March of 1845. Either he “sauntered through town eating dry crust and cold meat” or he was vegetarian. We like a story of either/or. In the space of disputation is a whole order of felicity, of new life, the vacuum of knowledge invites miracles inside to knock like moths in an empty room. A persistent myth about the man tells us that Johnny Appleseed refused an open fire on account of bugs dipping into its flames, smote by the light they sought for guidance, but he had tremendous vanity regards his own threshold for pain, a grandiloquence for courting danger.
A mole inside one of the online game’s alliances set up an ambush that caused thousands in real-world losses.
I keep revisiting Miles Klee’s articles at dailydot.com. First, because his officious tone has all the deadpan elasticity of his Hate the Future posts (sorely missed), and second, because he mines a particular nexus of sci-fi and sociology with tremendous curiosity and warmth. He is a moralist, an aesthete, a gadfly, and has a wide and daring sympathy for the newsmakers he covers. The internet is strange and dangerous and beautiful, a place of alien cruelty; I think of Miles Klee and Annie Dillard seeing the natural and unnatural worlds in about the same way, oddly: a life lived too near the mandibles of a mantis. The destruction of a Revenant ship several months ago in EVE is as good an example as any to test the compassion of audiences unfamiliar with the hidden obsessions and economics buried under a handful of soil on the World Wide Web. Watching video of the incident—and understanding that what has been captured matters and means in such specific, intense ways to a segment of people—is eerily moving to me. I don’t understand the significance, necessarily, of what I see (intricate statistics flashing against a black wall of infinite outer-space, with a vibrating swarm of interstellar combat vessels and stations), but to read a description of it—per Klee, or per the writers in the Wall Street Journal and other venues that covered the catastrophe—humanizes the event, makes of it a kind of dazzling landmark wreck in the sunk reef of the internet’s topos.
I was drawn to this beer by the jaunty bulldog on the package, and perhaps the typeface and inksplash of the lettering/illustration. Very Ralph Steadman—the British cartoonist perhaps best known for the iconic splatter work used for the Criterion edition of the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. So the packaging insinuates some connection to Hunter S. Thompson, his oeuvre, and the milieu of risk and anarchy and experimentation attendant to his writing and lifestyle, as well as a kind of European or at least British eminence regards good taste and genteel breeding. This graphic appeal is perhaps meant to masculinize and aestheticize what could be, when first considering a “Premium Blueberry Lager,” a drink better matched to the much-stereotyped sensibilities of truant teenagers and sorority-types.
A “blueberry” lager necessarily seems “young,” although whether juvenile or nubile I’m not quite sure. “Blueberry” is first a Sno-Cone flavor, and then maybe an additive to granola, and then perhaps a wonder-berry bringing with it the stats on healthful eating and beneficial antioxidants and cancer risk management. So Wild Blue, in its packaging and name, wields an array of youthful, rewarding, and still transgressive connotations, each intensifying its allure.
I was also drawn to this beer because I enjoy other fruity, summery products: I like Blue Moon and Oberon, I like strawberry-tinged beer and citrus notes and Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy, and really any seasonally-themed drink. I’m a sucker for nostalgia, for imbibing harvest palates, for sitting with a beer while reading and enjoying the way the fruit flavors change as the beverage warms, going from tart to spice to caramel.
Wild Blue, it must be said, is not in the same order as Oberon or Blue Moon, or even Sam Adams, or ciders, or perhaps any “beer” at all.
As a fruit infused lager, why does it taste more like a Fanta or perhaps Faygo grape-flavored soda that has had Keystone (though somehow not much Keystone) added? To be sure, the alcohol content is high, and the flavor of alcohol comes out when the drink warms, but even after an hour the dominant sensory impression of the drink (excepting its silly Cran-Apple hue) is that of corn syrup and grape Kool-Aid, teeth-staining, powder-thick, cloying, with maybe a thimble of McCormick’s jug vodka added for a light, red-peppery hint, and then animal musk, urine, say.
I am surprised and somehow delighted by the mysteries of Wild Blue Premium Blueberry Lager. Ontologically suspect—as many reviewers have pointed out, the beer seems to be manufactured under the generic although hardly-hidden auspices of an Anheuser-Busch “micro-brewery”—Wild Blue engaged my senses like a work of conceptual art. What is the definition of a “lager”? A “beer”? How does Wild Blue conform and then expand on those definitions?
I am equally interested in the range of reviews this product has received. Some users swear by it, others have gleefully savaged it. Plenty have drained their bottles in the sink. Is this carbonated MD? is it jailhouse hooch? Is it companionable and serviceable and perfect for wedding receptions? Is it smoke and mirrors? What is Wild Blue but something wild, something the might make you feel blue?
My suggestion is: Bring a six-pack of Wild Blue to a housewarming party. Bring it chilled, of course, because it is gag-taxing-unbearable at any temperature above “cold”—like sharp-salty grapefruit and Dimetapp, and shoeshine. Your hosts will be delighted by its strange deficiencies. You’ll have something to talk about.
I don’t do it enough. I call in the evening and talk to Mom. “You sound down in the dumps,” she says, and it’s soothing. “Do I?” I ask. “Yeah, just the way you—just the way you sound.”
I was down in the dumps! I sold my soul in this poetry lecture; I tried to misrepresent my feelings on the topic; I lied; I came down too hard the other way, the bad way, music. Poetry. All around us. “Our lives are not narrated; we are not bound up in prose. We adhere to rhythms, repetitions. Our lives are not stories. Born, live, die. We are born and live and die, and multiply—The world must be peopled—the whole of the world’s peoples are on the same trajectory, those horse heads face eternity, not in a line but a fractal.” I told Mom I was recovering. I told her I made poetry seem foreign and gross and the work of either doctors with too much time on their hands or highschoolers with too many feelings, as a way of overstating the specialist/amateur dyad that too many of us go into poetry looking for. The treehouse mafia. One of my best students, who also, incidentally, is the most combative, said poetry is about “mystery, mystique, secrets.” I said, “It’s about hiding something?” And other students agreed. I said, “Are you guys describing a villain?” We listened to Celan reading “Todesfugue.” “He sounds pissed!” someone said. I made them listen again. “So angry! Why!” Well, we’re in the realm of villains, mad scientists, mutants, sore losers, terrorists, why the fuck not?
Usually I’m in the car, so negotiating Miami traffic, effectuating an exit. “Fuck, geez, fuck,” repeating the second fuck sotto voce, groping for some plausible emergency, before admitting, “I’m trying to merge.” My mother says, “Oh—oh. Anyway,” and picks up where we left off: “Did you ask them to write their own poems?” There are three swears my mother will abide without embarrassment. They are damn, shit and ass, and any variants thereof. I also use holy swears without much censure, especially Christ-killing. “These Christ-killing assbags on the highway, stalled out, in their shit-rides on god damn flat tires!” Still, I chuff my way through bitch and fuck. “No—I didn’t have them write any poems today, I wanted them to connect with, um, mmm”—I’m tracking some cocksucker in a Monroe County dump truck emitting windshield-shattering pea gravel on the toll road—”it was a lecture day.” A microburst of pea gravel because some redneck is in such a hurry to get back to the Keys that he can’t be bothered to hose the bed, or properly latch it. “Did you break for reflection?” My mom knows how serious I am about reflection. “I was too anxious, you know, to stop the classroom momentum.” Everything subsides. It just—it just—uh—it just—uh—the traffic comes to a complete stop. To honor some mystery up ahead. To perform some roadside mystery play.
"If it is about hiding something—what, what on earth does a poet hide?"
My mother’s friend lost her son, what, three years ago? The end presaged a year or two before that, Jeremy and A.J. are in the car, and we pass her by, we pass by the old friend in the night, she is shaking her head, she has driven into a fence post on Stone Road and looks sick in the flashlight beam of a deputy. I know even in the passenger side it would be impossible to see dilated pupils let alone glistening pores, but for whatever reason she is magnified in memory, her hair disheveled, her mouth turned down, blanched. A friend my mother had in high school. The way some adults in some small towns still think of friendships they maintained intensely thirty years ago as operative and true and answerable, contingent, in a sense; an obeisance to present loyalty. I don’t know. My mother’s old friend’s son, convicted for check fraud, for theft, for whatever, he and his wife addicted to what everyone in small towns is addicted to nowadays, his mother finally ratted on him. She sold him out. A kind of sting. Rock bottom. In a fugue state, on behalf of her own son’s crimes, speeding down Stone Road and landing in a ditch. “The burning fucking Lord,” I say, “what is this about?” We drive by her so slowly, the whole panorama of pain and bewilderment, as she shakes her head to a sheriff’s deputy, and only shakes her head, dazed. We talk about her son and his wife. “They cooked meth?” says Jeremy and A.J. says, “Well, this is a sad business,” and we forget to ask Dad about it later.
You can hear them cogitating. There really isn’t much privacy anymore. Etc. You can practically hear the eyes open and close. “Like, what is there to even hide?” The membranes peel back, thickly rejoin, Ren and Stempy-like caricatures of blink-blink, blink. I’m plaintive though I don’t mean to be: “And, like, why, guys, why would the poet hide it?”
Then he died: a freak accident after he’d cleaned himself up. Maybe a freak accident—his truck into oncoming traffic—my mother returned from the funeral, searching, finally saying, “It was awful. Nobody can make sense of it. Devastated.” I met her in town at Pizza King with Dad, in his uniform. My mom with red eyes but otherwise expert coiffure and sober attire. Onto another subject. Nothing fills the past quite like swearing it off. Casting now, waiting for food, my mother said apropos nothing, “Fucking slut.”
I said, "What villains?"
In my twenty-five years of listening has Mom ever said this? So my thinking: Is this a plausible emergency? What has been breached?
The hull, the engine, the locket. “Equally difficult to dramatise was the descent of the Holy Ghost,” remarks Rosemary Woolf in The English Mystery Plays. ”The experience of the apostles, recorded in the Acts, that tongues of flames descended upon them, was impossible to reproduce on the stage.” A different truck, a beater as bad as they get in southern Florida, smokes under the hood while a trio of tan mothers stand twenty feet away, fanning themselves with clutch purses while inscrutably, of course, seventy feet behind them, someone has parked a late model white Escalade and its flashers pulse in time. Palm fronds above the barrier lash at about the same tempo. Hot gusts of freakish wind. The counter-tempo governing foot taps on break pads. “Only Chester has a stage-direction specifying ignem, which was presumably represented by red ribbons.” You pass by very slowly, re-merging to clear from the close, smoking truck, neither pitying nor condemning the women, who suggest, with their lightly waving clutches in one hand, their phones in the other, their reticence (they do not speak to one another, and are presumably waiting for emergency assistance), that they have resigned themselves to their roles as stranded motorists, practiced this posture, even. Meanwhile flames—flames like another two hands, reaching, curious, from without the engine block, search for tires. “In all the plays singing again indicates the mysterious solemnity of the event, either the famous hymn ‘Veni creator spiritus’ or other liturgical pieces appropriate to the occasion, such as ‘Accipite spiritus sanctum’ (the latter sung by angels in Chester).” A tentative conflagration? The women eyeball the fire and wander toward the Escalade. “Strangely none of the English plays used the simple device—sanctioned by iconography—of using a dove as the symbol of the Holy Ghost.” I say tentative because the traffic stops, the women stop, the fire falls upon a tire salaciously but expires, buffeted by the toll road’s dusty current, and confines itself again beneath the hood. “It was also difficult to provide a solid foundation of dialogue which could contain the moment of marvel.”
“The truth is, their critical writings are imaginative literature. Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Susan Sontag have produced some of the most thrilling prose I’ve ever read. Just before Christmas in 1967, McCarthy wrote to Arendt from Paris about Susan Sontag, “When I watched her with you at the Lowells’, it was clear that she was going to seek to conquer you. Or that she had fallen in love with you—the same thing. Anyway, did she?” Nothing was casual. Too much was at stake. Years later, Susan would mention, almost as an aside, in her essay, “Under the Sign of Saturn,” that Benjamin despised Heidegger. Because they were women, they knew how to wait.”—"The Ethics of Admiration: Arendt, McCarthy, Hardwick, Sontag" by Darryl Pickney
I would attempt an unstudied air, but then I think, the unstudied one is worse, somehow. So my schtick this October has been rhetorical assignments dealing with homesickness: the loss of homeland, the loss of Indiana fields, the farm, the fall weather; the loss of beloved pets, uncrowded motorways, distances recovered painlessly. Distance recovered by merely walking toward a destination. Indiana has dew, dew in the mornings, and if you happen to write in the morning at the big kitchen table, the landscape looks smeared—fuzzy, lush, juiced and cold. Cold! How I love thee! I love that dew, too. If I wanted to, say, walk to the orchard of a morning, I would need a hooded sweatshirt, I would need extra thick socks and boots, and when I padded down the grassy lane between soy fields, there after would trail my prints, darker green and crushed, glistening, among the lighter green of the unperturbed lawn. There after would follow my blind dog, my deaf dog, the parade of savage cats kept fat on my father’s patience. My father’s secret love of cats.
The season on the island is unchanging and—though I’ve been told this is a remarkable climate, that the fruits of this climate manifest in actual fruits (mangoes, avocados, tomatoes, starfruit, oranges)—the monotony blurs the passage of time. It is hard to locate one’s life in the tropics; the usual metric for our passage depends on landscape, when things die, when things are mown down. The smells in the air. Precipitation. Maybe this is only true in the midwest, or any temperate region. It is hard to take seriously the prospect of a year following this year especially as summer will not have fallen off until December. Unending summer. There might be more rain, more wind, in October, but none of my students have indicated any appreciable change. It’s hard to take Halloween decorations seriously down here. Also hard to take seriously: pumpkin spice lattes, cinnamon brooms, tart apple cider, and pies. I bought a jack-o-lantern bucket and a strand of orange lights at a Walgreen’s down the block, and while rigging this little festive lantern I was overcome by the strange belief that my efforts would make of this cheap smelling plastic a real beacon, a real harbinger of a real fall, all of October funneled into this globe with wires tucked inside.
Disappointment, I explained to my students, is something unsuitable for the itinerant, especially as the itinerant asks for change, a kind of change that operates around a lack. Locating that lack makes it less of a foe and more of a companion, and companions have presence. The traveler never goes alone, etc., because etc. They fill in the holes. So the rhetorical exercises for my students have dealt with Halloween—that’s what I mean by homesickness—I merely mean ghosts. The ghosts that clang around at night and eat children. EX. 1, I wrote, Fix the comma splice in this sentence using a coordinating conjunction: Ghosts clang around at night, eat children.
46 miles apart,
at the very same moment,
all the arguments
So there was this bridge
of silence spanning New Jersey.
from Hal's parents,
no debating, no voice.
No one's voice at all.
That year's National Debate
topic was farming subsidies.
And if you don't know
how farming subsidies
could inspire all this commotion,
then you don't know life
and there's nothing
that can be said about it.
Suitcases end marriages and
farming subsidies launch cataclysms.
Can a voice travel
from one person to another,
like yawning or mono?
Sure it can.
That's our position:
That the will to speak
traveled that night
across the dark
New Jersey highways
until it arrived
on this very block,
where it would
take up residence,
or try to,
in someone new.
What they find out about you by and by. Boyfriend, vegetarian, brothers, anti-war. The broad strokes, generalities, most offered impersonally, even clinically, as rhetorical embellishment in classroom discussion. “We understand ‘The Things They Carried’ is a representation of the soldiering life; the disappointment of the soldier is transformed into prose, transferred, negotiated,” etc., “an imbalance is implied between the material heft of gear—tinned peaches, M-16s, bandoliers, the PRC-25 radio; very weighty objects—and the weight of all the living circumscribed by warfare, and that which bled into it, and will bleed outwards, the whole confluence of action and inaction in the soldiering life and civilian living: love affairs, regrets, honor, saturated in impossible, indefensible horrors, in unknowing and an impossible state of indescribable almost indivisible shame. The homecoming makes things harder, because the meaning for home changes, it’s tainted.”
Imagine a bridge built. “Imagine a bridge built.” Imagine the steel girders. “There are the steel girders.” The wires—it is a. “There are wires because it is a suspension bridge. And the soldier humps, the soldiers carries the bridge and the gorge and the river and the high plains and the cars, the journey is a passageway of weight you understand, is almost entirely figuration.” What. “It’s funny reading this again because my perceptions have entirely changed since reading it in high school as a sophomore, and again as a high school senior, and then again in college, it never ends, I never—probably not unlike you—read it for keeps, because I wasn’t getting paid to do so. In a way. Um.” Imagine a bridge built—”I’d imagined a bridge connecting First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross to his dream girl, you know, a kind of dream bridge, some route to convey his experiences. We see this in the very first sentence of the story, “First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. He’s a mail currier. In his mind. Transporting himself from the jungles of Than Khe to the Jersey shore almost every moment, crossing distances like light.” He thinks he killed Ted Lavender because he wasn’t there, etc. He had gone across his bridge. He grew too heavy too huge too distended by grief and shame and a newfound purpose that he broke the bridge above the gorge and stayed put and rested there long enough to become a bridge. “In its place.”
Where are my notes! is my emergency exclamation, with the panic, the too-long pause, dissimulation, tremolo, Where are my notes! “In the novel—I quite like the novel—Kiowa is, by necessity—I mean in terms of figuration—sucked breathless into a centuries old shit-pit; a black hole opens up, a black hole of shit, and kills him. He had the bad fortune of staggering across and then stumbling into the meaning of the war. The meaning opened wide and to make sure we saw it, felt its presence, knew we were in the territory of this hungry shark-toothed anus, meaning, beloved Kiowa is eaten up.” Special notice should be made for O’Brien’s childlike simplification of soldiering’s basic aims (at least in the Vietnam War): move from one town to the next and destroy, as a child runs up the beachfront squashing sandcastles; consume supplies, then drop them, like apples eaten around the core and thrown at birds. This is easily adumbrated in the text. What else. Representations of carrying grief, abiding injustice. Cowardice.
"I was in an anti-war demonstration carrying a dead soldier’s face on a poster around Indianapolis; a mediation, a statistic, and still a life, and it made people very angry with me, very disgusted even, in the streets I was called the usual things, though surprisingly the most loaded epithet, the most whistled through with hate, was hippie. I needn’t say I am no hippie. In a bookstore with my poster tied around my neck, people shook my hand and other people called me a ‘fucking hippie.’ I had reanimated a corpse which is, I mean, this is very taboo. I don’t remember the soldier’s name anymore. He was from Franklin County but the name eludes me and I don’t think I’ll recover the solider I wore around. I guess I’m embarrassed by that fact. Sometimes I go to my Facebook page to try to look for photos of the event, to see what casualty I represented, but I can’t get a photograph with high enough resolution to zoom in all FBI-style, I can’t click-click RESOLVE, click-click RESOLVE, are you familiar with this? Anyway, class, I was getting at the salient features of this short story, and I wanted to say,” etc. One thing that has not come out in class is that I don’t like horse racing.
“Sicha successfully renders, like nobody else I’ve ever read, the suffocating psychic effects of debt, pervasive in the way a chronic disease or a guilty conscious or a terrible secret is pervasive: thought-infecting, decision-changing, life-defining—as society-altering as conscription.”—
I follow Alice Gregory’s byline. She’s great. On Monday I was in Barnes and Noble in South Miami (not particularly well-stocked), reading the first chapter of Very Recent History. It didn’t take in the store, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I remember the re-description of insurance Alice quotes in her review: “an idea where, if you had something that you valued a lot, like an expensive painting or a child, you could pay a relatively small amount of money to a company, and if the painting was stolen or the child died, the company would pay you the agreed-upon value of the missing, or dead, object or person.” I have not had insurance of any sort for 80% of my life. I had insurance in graduate school and also while studying abroad, I think. I am uninsured now. I am two months behind on a student loan payment. One of the things Nico does when he thinks he’s being cute is to raise one of my lips with his finger and inspect my gingiva—it incenses me no end. If I had dental insurance I would go to the dentist. I brush my teeth after every meal. Vigilance is not enough when out of fear and loneliness I binge on Diet Pepsi and Cheez-Its. This started as a joke about insurance, on his end, but now he’s genuinely afraid my lack of proper health coverage will leave me toothless and diabetic by the age of 35.
I read this harrowing exchange about wealth, about failing, about arriving, and then I left the bookstore assured, again, that living in New York City would be a great boon to my unhappiness. I walked through the sun-flooded mall, past palm trees, over a skybridge, down an escalator, to Aldo, where I bought a pair of work shoes. I want to be presentable at job interviews. They’re an investment.
A lady in the shop demonstrated water-proofing a pair of suede shoes for me, to shill a bottle of the spray protectant. It was luscious. She wrested the small white cap from the spray tube and shook it gently, knocking air above the counter with small rocks of her slender wrists.
"You walk through parking lots, you walk through the park," she proposed, "you think you’re going to a safe club where you won’t slip on spilled drinks, and you don’t protect your suede?" She clucked. "Makes for green suede."
My shoes are gray and I said, “But the green might be nice, like how copper turns—”
"No. Happened to me. Looks bad.”
She coated the toe of a pink suede pump using small circular motions. I gasped theatricality when she poured some water from a bottle, and I nodded, impressed, as the water beaded to the floor, leaving the shoe unblemished.
I bought the spray protectant.
On the Metro platform a potbellied young man in a greasy gray wifebeater asked me for a dollar for lunch. I said, “No.” Then I thought, “Eat yourself!” I hugged my shoebox close. He turned to the woman next to me and asked in Spanish the same thing. And then, smiling, he asked in French Creole, and the woman gave him a dollar. It was incredible. I’ll never buy a second language, or a third. When I got home I went a little crazy with the spray protectant. It smelled up the condo for an hour even though I spritzed them on the balcony.
The next day I spent so much time walking around lost on a campus that my new shoes ate into the backs of my feet, and the quantity of blood stained through the cuffs of my rolled up khakis. The blood ran off the shoes into the pants. My heels felt wet. I hung out in a library bathroom wiping blood out of the shoe, wet-toweling blood off my heel, picking the raggedy, chewed up skin away, then shoving paper towels down the backs of my socks and wincing like an idiot. It was as though I had survived my scenes in a horror movie, with my Achilles tendons only half-slit by the serial killer. I hobbled like a robot to meet my appointment.
In the Melville biography last night, I read this great sentence: “For Melville it was as if Chronos, the god he introduced in Pierre late in his work on it, had metamorphosized into an American dry-goods importer and back again into Chronos.” It makes you wonder what abstraction consolidated in the darkness to form you and when you can continue on your way as an abstraction, and if there’s a census category for exactly that formlessness. I get fingerprinted on Monday and it will cost $60.