30 November 2004

Examination of the Artist in a Time of War.

"They are sick of each old romance, returning,
Of each old revolving dance, the music
Like a euphony in a museum
Of euphonies."

Whenever we become self-conscious of our culture, I mean like, paranoid-to-the-point-of obsession self-conscious, we can very well assume that where we've written these thoughts there sits a few pages away an account of an ongoing military conflict. Our ability to look beyond ourselves is difficult in wartime because so much of what we believe - that thought can transcend base humor, violence, and self-destruction, that we're all inherently "good" - is contradicted loudly on page one. No matter what journal we write in or whose cave we scratch at, the war always precedes thought. War is easier to consider, and war requires no analytical ability to comprehend. War's effect on thought is difficult to measure, but the primary influence is that art suffers immediately, not from persecution but from within; self-consciousness in wartime is an unbearable weight on art.

Now I don't believe that war necessarily pollutes thought. I would argue passionately that the self-obscuring desire to create what can be comprehended by the fewest people is questioned first. It's one of the few healthy reactions to war; self indulgence yields a little to appeals to the broadest audience, and a waning of indulgent art is always welcome.

I cannot avoid the topic of the election any longer. I did not sense the outcome of the Presidential election because I live in Manhattan. Although I followed the polls closely, I was not surrounded by the reality of their findings. I live in a county that voted 82% for John Kerry, and though my naivete left me bewildered in the early hours of November 3, I learned one valuable thing that will help me throughout life. You can feel the politics of a place. I will never be convinced otherwise. Fundamentalism, socialism: even in their faintest incarnations one can sense them as the dominant thought of a place.

At a gas station on some highway, the man waiting for a fresh pot of coffee to brew makes a comment about the newspaper's page one. If he comments anywhere near politics - openly, to the stranger behind the counter - he has put faith in an accepted viewpoint and will never express that which invites sharp critique. The reaction of the stranger behind the counter is all you need to confirm the politics of a place.

And in wartime, page one is a politics that does not invite critique. Critique aggravates "truth;" and as much as I'd like to find a way to argue against this, the guy at the gas station will have a viewpoint considerably harder to argue if it concerns the war. War is not truth, but it is easier to argue on the side of a policy than it is to reason with a dead soldier. By inviting less to be comprehended, less to be critiqued, war is an influence over the present like history is an influence over the past.

"It is not an image. It is a feeling.
There is no image of the hero.
There is a feeling as definition.
How could there be an image, an outline,
A design, a marble soiled by pigeons?"

I have thought a lot about the election, and can only muster a single conclusion that satisfies me, that sends me back to my work. Perhaps the war has made my political analyses shortsighted, or maybe I am experiencing an exhaustion from the election season. What I have arrived at is this: We have chosen empire. Gloss it any way you like, fret over the environment, the illegal wire-taps, the decreased immigration quotas, the military proliferation. I've got a bigger abstraction to invoke. This empire is drawing itself into the same sand with the same stick, the same shifting desert on which other kingdoms were built and here we sit, staring at the carvings illegible. As if our own self-destruction was so difficult a thing to read.

If the left wants to influence American politics in the coming years, the left must side with empire. Empire has never been unpopular within an empire, as cancerous as it is to the security of the rest of the world. Hegemony - the control of resources, the accumulation of wealth and land, and the positioning of influence in all corners of the globe - will be more popular in the coming decades. If the interior of the country votes for hegemony, and no strong discordance forms within, then the majority opinion pursuing hegemony will pursue empire as well. Hegemonic stability theory gives us a half dozen hegemons over the last 500 years, each replaced by a rising hegemon as a result of a major conflict. Portugal to Spain to Holland to Britain to France back to Britain, now to us. I'm no socialist, but to be blind to Karl Marx's predictions that capitalism will self-destruct is to be blind to the politics we espouse. That which sustains us will betray us, and I can no longer put faith in a political party in order to delude myself of this fact.

To look for a silver lining, the empire at its height has always been the strongest influence on the world's culture. My consolation from this election is that our role is to represent the empire, befriend it, use it to our advantage. Conspiring is one thing, but to benefit from it does not mean the relationship has to be mutually beneficial. History will judge the atrocities and the failures of the empire, while the artist who has contributed a body of work that communicates something about us generally, reaffirming the human condition, will survive. That is where my sole faith in politics rests today. I cannot put any faith in elections or movements or the sentimentality of peace, because I know politics will not satisfy our lovers.

"The snow hangs heavily on the rocks, brought
By a wind that seeks out shelter from snow. Thus
Each man spoke in winter. Yet each man spoke of
The brightness of arms, said Roma wasted
In its own dirt, said Avignon was
Peace in a time of peace, said Leyden
Was always the other mind. The brightness
Of arms, the will opposed to cold, fate
In its cavern, wings subtler than any mercy,
These were the psalters of their sibyls."

-Wallace Stevens, "Examination of the Hero in a Time of War"

29 November 2004

Sedaris Envy.

Here’s a scenario often played out at bookstores all over Manhattan. I approach the nonfiction / essay section with purpose, all chin-first strides, real smooth. But I’m not searching out a specific title; I’m going through the selection for a new perspective. The essay selection at chain bookstores is always limited: sometimes there’s only literary criticism, sometimes all the good books are in the travel section. I really dig, pick up titles and set them down, read random sentences and weigh the covers in my hands. All this time one writer dominates my browsing. His books represent half the selection, a dozen copies of each title. Each has a catchy name. Each has an appealing cover, color scheme, font. Real nice spread. One author is the American humor essay.

David Sedaris is the rock star of nonfiction sections. If life size cardboard cut-outs populated bookstores, one of Sedaris, with a bowl of cereal in his hand, would greet you on your way in. A neon blinking arrow flickering above. “Here!” it would say. “Think no further.”

If Sedaris was funny I’d have picked up a book by now. If recommendations translated into laughs, I would have nothing else to read. I would have a book of his in every room, signed by every single reader who ever recommended it, with a yearbookish quote, “This is absolutely hilarious! Oh my God, you, YOU! will love THIS!”

What you are reading smacks of sour grapes. And although I’ve never read a single page from a Sedaris book, I’ve considered buying one nearly a dozen times. But I stress: I do read him in other places. GQ, The New Yorker, Esquire; he appears frequently in magazines to which I subscribe, and every time he does I make a conscious effort to give him a looksy. I figure if I like it, well, something to read on the train this week. I don’t read to criticize. I honestly give it a chance. I will go so far as to say, while I read, "this man is important." For most readers, he is American nonfiction. All those Gopnik, Menand, and Franzen essays are charming, but they’re not hilarious! The problem is, Sedaris is not superior to most American nonfiction writers. In fact, he’s not very funny.

He’s gay, but that’s a sexual preference not a schtick. He’s neurotic, but neurotic like a sitcom actor playing a neurotic friend, not the guy picking at a knee scab for the duration of a 25-minute ride on the D. He ponders the strange circumstances of life; relationships, tourist traps, foreign places, the … wait, he’s just nitpicking. He’s complaining. He’s changing subjects every paragraph, ending each with a predictably snide remark. A witty clunker. A… catchphrase.

Perhaps I will pick up Naked and read it in an hour, loving every minute of it. But most likely I’ll nod along at a sleepy-eyed pace, the only thing keeping me awake being the possibility of stumbling across something resembling Twain or Vonnegut, Irving or Salinger. Reading a Sedaris book is like owning an iPod, driving a Jetta, carrying a Bloomingdales shopping bag or a pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks. And although these products are as popular as they are useful/functional/delicious, they falsify the extent of a genre instead of hinting at where it can go. Sedaris is a dead end. I see the sign, the yellow diamond with black letters. And I pass by.

22 November 2004

Montreal Notebook, 07.2003.

In July of 2003, I made a weeklong visit to an apartment my father had rented in the Plateau, Montreal. I haven’t missed a Jazz Festival in five years, but this was my first solo trip anywhere outside New York in almost 2 years.

I found these notes yesterday and discovered much to admire in the solo traveler who revels in anonymity’s intoxication. They are “notes,” and do not follow a clear narrative path. They begin at Else’s Bar on Rue Roy Est, a block from where I was staying and one of my favorite bars in Montreal, and end abruptly when I was too drunk to continue them. They resume again at a café the following afternoon. These two settings I’ve struggled to capture in my writing, as characters never quite reveal themselves nor feel the need. I guess that’s why I like them; I don’t have to reveal much either.



Concerning Else’s Bar, Rue Roy, 7.03.03

I’d love to say one day I’m quitting bars, much in the same dramatic fashion Arthur Rimbaud declared in A Season In Hell, “I’m quitting Europe.” Places like Else’s reveal truths and ambiguities in equal measures. I don’t have to coax them, I can just write them down.

When I go to bars in New York I go for the drinks. This may influence my perceptions no doubt, but in foreign cities more is apparent to the eye that is universal, and can be applied to the bars back home.

All cities should be foreign to me. That’s why I don’t live in Cincinatti or Pittsburgh, Little Rock or Tallahassee. These are cities I’ve seen somewhere before, as welcoming to the imagination as those snowbanks choking the sidewalks after the first snowfall of the year. The inevitable is not what I search for, yet when I walk into a bar in New York, it’s inevitably for the drinks.

And why not the bartender? A bartender can establish the hierarchy or let it build on its own. For the bartender who exerts the most influence over the place, his greatest weapon is the order in which he serves. Casual allegiances form between him and the people who assume his personal space. To a bartender this space is his greatest tool, better than the drinks he pours. Offering too much of it, its not his bar; too little, its not your's.

The trick is one of those assets that defines a bartender. Example:

He pierces the lime with the blue plastic swizzle, then spins it to tickle the tonic into a bubbly giggle; the lime up nearly to the rim of the glass filters the fizz and holds back even the crudest gin from surfacing on the first sip. Every bartender has a trick. My bartender’s got this one, and it gets him laid two nights out of a year. A better trick would double those odds.

Tonight the bartender is holding his own, its not busy and even if you’d drank yourself to tunnel vision you wouldn't go four lethargic heartbeats without seeing his face. My feet on the barstool next to me don’t bother him too much, but he’s quick to brush off any one liners slurred his way.

One liners. Bar talk. Semantics betray the bar partron, and there are few settings where everyday speech adopts as tragic a tone. One of the few consistent settings in nearly every society, in pubs the English language has brewed it's sorrowful edge. A thousand years running.

The bartender can establish the hierarchy but its the bar talk that lets the hierarchy play itself out. Sometimes the bar patron doesn’t feel they belong, and will pay a little extra to make themselves comfortable. There is the bartender’s inadequacy over his position in the presence of a woman whose companion occupies a far better one; in this case the bartender hopes the tips will be low enough not to have to pay the psychological cost of swiping them up.

One man’s conversation is inevitably less skillful and less captivating than the stranger sitting next to him. He will forever chase his words like a weary boxer chasing flesh, will traipse around his point a little nervously, then try to pummel it over the head with misdirected emphasis. He will be ridiculously excited about even the smallest coincidence that otherwise would garner only a simple nod. “Next time I see you I will sit with you, my friend.” While the other man half smiles and barely lifts his glass in any other direction save his mouth. The conversation may begin imperceptibly tilted in the favor of one gentleman, but the other will, by extension of his drink, his tip, his opinion, and his station in life, inherit the upper hand. If he doesn’t have the upper hand of the conversation on drink one, its not worth a damn to chase drink five in the hopes that his latent intellect lies there.

Balanced conversations do exist, where each participant maintains a mutual respect for the other opinion, but a pub is no place to sustain this kind of talk. Because here its two parts eloquence, two parts whiskey, and a twist of lime. Even the glass in your hand agrees to disagree.

There are strong ambiguities in what people say about themselves in bars, Anywhere else it becomes so easy to fiddle with physical descriptions, massage the sore neck of each disposition. The setting is not what comes out of their mouths, yet it influences what we as an audience hear. Describing the woman behind me, who is “as much the shadows cast by streetlamps coloring her a wearier shade of black, as she is the only detail I know about her - the drink in her hand.” Physical descriptions can't be my crutch here. The initial impulse driving all description should just be people and their drinks. Simple as that.

-To my far right, in the corner, a Tom Collins: “The paper gives me an English-speaking angle to everything. American wire services fill in the gap. Hey, if you want to be generous, you can throw a few ice cubes in the glass, unless you’re running low.”

-A well gin and tonic at the table behind me: “Turquoise is a color I enjoy very much in the springtime, but now, I’m tired of it. This heat wears on me.”

-Whiskey Sour to the pint of cider in the corner: "There’s nothing to do other than sex here. Read about it, think about it, plan it out. And the bars and the cafes… Really? I really don’t, I think it’s my t-shirt. It isn’t yours."

-My left, a house red in a carafe: “I should have had better luck, staying in Toronto. I’m being impatient is what it is. I’ve been here three months, and I’ve gotten a few gigs. I mean, who am I? I’m fucking nobody. It matters to have patience. 3 months, that says a lot about Montreal doesn’t it? Says a lot about me actually.”

-Pint of Guinness talking to the house red, two stools to my left: “Have you tried Buona Notte?”

(The bartender squeezing limes, and the juice is so lightly splashing my wrist and forearm, the wedge spitting citrus all directions)

-The house red: “They play jazz don’t they? But do they like my shit? I don’t drink in those places, I don’t eat in em either. I refuse to play in a place where I can’t do what I do. You want to get by without getting a part time job. It takes time. A lot has happened for some people, I don’t know who, but it has.”

The urge to put physical descriptions around him, even for memory’s sake, is so strong. Age 50, diabetic, severely overweight, grey on grey with shorts, draining a carafe of red with ice cubes… stop. Something else. What female character does he have wrapped inside all this tediously arranged flesh? Where did his regrets go, if what I see is sitting here, sucking down a watery, 55 degree Merlot?

Would he recognize a hastily arranged woman from what I assume is his past, if I brought her in here? If I motioned the bartender to do his little swizzle trick, garnishing her Sea Breeze? I could have her look at him for the first time in a decade and say, “The bartender and I agree on more than you and I do; we no longer need to respond to you, and this I like much more than I thought I would. You sense me listening to what you’re saying always, but I’m not. My eyes gaze along the windows of the train but never out them, and the fluorescent in the tunnel dark massages them. I hear every word as mine, the words my own voice is composed of, that’s what your language has become. These lights mumble along you, and pause to catch their breath, and I listen. To the lights though, not you. All I know is your face was so long ago stripped of its mysterious crevices, all that comes from them is just sound.”

There. He could be a dog, he could be a saint. But I’d like to compose him of better stuff than the ice cubes in his carafe.

The trick might be to invoke her subtly.

Between sips he stares into a newspaper with folded back pages, like clipped wings willingly forgotten. The newsprint will make his fingers confess to his brow in dusty brushstrokes, like too many footprints fanned by the doorway could never have been a single pair of feet. His grey smudge fingerprints across his forehead. It has been years along her face, his fingers say.

Hmm… cheap.

The problem is I like her, not him. She’s a better character, but she doesn’t drink here. So why do I?

Concerning Brulerie St. Denis, Rue St. Denis, 07.04.03

Morning coffee, the waitress hovering politely out of sight (with whom I am indulging in the last vestige of my French - I will be able to order capuccinos in French til the day I die). I may have spoken a little French to Well Gin and Tonic last night, my notes stop, but our French was no good. But that’s why people go to Else’s in the first place.

In cafes however, nearly nothing can be spoken in your voice very long; it is constantly distracted by the periphery noises, by the street, by the reflection of your solitude in other eyes. It gets to be very difficult to think of anything beyond women, especially since my waitress, a serious face that begs me to make it smile, a thin frame and a red apron carved as precisely as nature has carved the hips beneath it, is hovering just out of reach.

To add one more thing to the list of Things I Don't Know About Montreal, I can’t predict what the women will wear when I walk out the door, what they’ll say or do. All of thi is lovely of course, that I can't know what is in their cupboards, their hearts, who they invite into their beds and who begs to sleep there. What their sisters used to wear, whether they prefer the cobblestones around Rue Prince-Arthur or the sidewalks of Laurier. Do they sleep with Quebecois men or with Canadians, do their grandmothers wave fleur-de-lis from the balcony in the rain or sing Oh Canada? What do their mother’s sing? Do they fall asleep during soccer matches when they visit their Scottish uncles or their Portuguese aunts?

The only thing I really know about Montreal women as displayed by my waitress is where exactly on the table she misses with her careless mopping rag, cleaning off an abandoned, tipless table with an elbow’s sexless wiggle. In a second the table will be dry, the cloth so light across the surface one thinks of impersonal kisses misplaced, and so we paid them with a lip laid so light on the face it was as if time, so imperceptible, was a passing thought, and not the murderer of us both.

She is done sweeping off the table. I'll leave. By the time I make it to the street my table will be dry. In my memory there will be only the way she wipes the table, nothing else that's mine. No perfectly delicate dance; she is not a dancer or one who dances, but a piece of long red ribbon tied succinctly around her back. If that is her back. I'm never quite sure where a woman's back ends and the other half begins.

17 November 2004

Tuesday, November 16.

I start the day off at the gym, bright and a little too early. After a workout and a sauna I check my email to find a most bizarre correspondence, one beyond my imaginative capabilities. I’ll spare you the details, but I will add that my rant on the pseudo-art of postcard writing could easily be applied to the art of writing emails. Emails are not restricted by space constraints like their index-cardish cousin, but they are incapable of conveying the complex nuances of intelligent writing. I don’t know why. Something to do with the Gossip headline sidebars or the Instant Home Loan banner ads with motion graphics accompanying the text, perhaps.

Anyway, an afternoon split between classes and a visit to a student’s house, when something catches my eye. I’m in Richmond Hill, a depressing immigrant-and-apparition-filled neighborhood on the fringes of Queens. I’ve been up since 6, it’s three, and as I’m passing another in a series of nondescript storefronts on Atlantic Ave at the corner of Lefferts Blvd. I look up at what appears to be a mirage. I see “SALOON” in block letters down the façade. Below I see “Lenigan’s,” I think possibly an Irish pub, possibly a check-cashing place. And I think to myself, “If the sign in the window says 10 CENT WINGS I’m fucked. I’m fucked.”

Two scotches and thirty wings later (I feel like I haven’t eaten chicken wings since the 70s), I’m engulfed in the orangey sunset-ishness descending over this 3rd world neighborhood, with a feeling of false immortality only the drunk find profound. I’m peeing off the elevated J-train tracks at 120th St and Jamaica Ave, my urine the sky’s glow, arching boldly into the street from 3 stories above. Below my feet is a costume/formal wear/hardware shop with the word “Allah” on the awning. Next door is a diner with a handwritten sign so large I can read it from directly above. “1/4 Burgers, $1.50.” The weather is agreeable and as the sun disappears my day feels complete. Only it’s five o’clock.

I transfer to the E train and meet a man from Port au Prince. We talk as a tall, thin Chinese man in his forties sketches a Mexican man seated across from us. Then he points his pen toward us, and as the man sketches us, the Haitian and I talk about Creole music. This is what he recommends:

Emeline Michel
Mario Canonge
Beethova Obas
Tabou Combo (he plays with them)

He claims that’s the best Haitian Creole to be had. He is a big fan of Senegalese pop (I have to dig to find common musical ground), and we ride til we’ve struck up a third conversation about the Cameroonian musican Richard Bona, who has a fan seated on the other side of me. Soon there is three of us in the Chinaman’s sketch (he’s smiling at us, losing concentration, I’m still smiling about the wings), and our trio is talking away. And I miss my stop, and the next one, but I’m fine with it. You can get coffee anywhere, even in Queens.

Exit 42nd Street, dungeon Port Authority, with everyone else.

What I Don't Know About Barthes, Part 1 of 1063.

In Roland Barthes criticism, we begin to see the sensual side of literature and how the whole of it can be critiqued as a living thing, as an extension of the artist and his motives. What this inevitably produces is a criticism I have difficulty with, because so much of what I read is perceived to be more psychological and factual than how I perceive it. My role in conversation with other critics is that of the apprentice when the critic is honing in on ways of reading I have not considered. Interpretation is not a one-way street but its route can be predicted, as most city streets have a predictable direction. Barthes is one of the few critics who consistently show me not more of what I have read but how I should have read them in the first place. Most general readers get their criticism from Introductions, Prefaces, and Cliff Notes. When a work is described in these terms, it is obvious where the critic is headed.

My problem with language, beyond the fact that it is my chosen means of communication, is that to trust the extent of semantics is to have equal faith in the ability to communicate. That faith is key; introducing more words into the dialogue continues the paradox. Do we pressure an audience to follow a sequence of words less and less familiar to the eye with every page-turn, in hopes we have conquered the simplicity of our language with an arsenal of vocabulary words? Or do we keep with the simplest terms possible? If I were in better command of my vocabulary, would I take for granted what distinguishes a college student and a high schooler? A casual reader and a scholar? Audience is never final in the writer’s mind, never.

There is in Roland Barthes a romantic appeal for all things “classical.” He considers the ancient writers so far beyond death that they have transcended our meager critique, and have created a perfect language in a place where our dictionaries go to die. But at the same time, to regurgitate what I took away from Barthes this afternoon is nearly impossible, even only a few hours hence. And it must be me who fails Barthes and you, or me who fails you through Barthes, because when I look at the passage I furiously excerpted from my notes I arrive at two options. One: Buy the book. Or two: Reread it in the hope I will actually understand it.

I will leave it for you. Enjoy, and remember: no matter what I chose, the man is fucking unquotable:

“… for contemporary poets who use the same uniform and indecisive poetic mode of writing, because for them poetry is a climate which means, essentially, a linguistic convention. But when poetic language radically questions Nature by virtue of its very structure, without any resort to the content of the discourse and without falling back on some ideology, there is no mode of writing left, there are only styles, thanks to which man turns his back on society and confronts the world of objects without going through any of the forms of history or of social life.”

-Roland Barthes, from “Is There Any Poetic Writing.”

16 November 2004

A Perpetual Autumn Of The Brow.

Fitzgerald says in The Crack Up, “All life is a process of breaking down.” Whenever I confront the aging process in literature, in photography, in those poignant scenes in dramas, I realize that with no one close to me ever having died, it is not death but decay that most frightens me. King Lear's decline is tragic, his death a relief. Perhaps we fear decay in ourselves because it is the reciprocal of our beauty. Decay never relents. My cell phone scratches, the cuffs of my pants fray, the coats and the shirts lose their lustre, the toothbrush flattens, the carpet sags. But these are the concerns of ordinary consumers. Strange for us to say in normal conversations at restaurants, in pharmacy lines, or during movies, “These are inevitable extensions of ourselves, a little piece of us dying.” But that is precisely the process occurring on the small stretch of forehead just above my eyelashes. Graceful exits, stage left.

I don’t lament the loss of it, because to be honest I never really had it. I feel compelled to say I had hair for 25 years, and I might do fine spending the next 25 without it. To know that when I look in the mirror five years from now I will have nothing above my arched eyebrows to contemplate is awkwardly amusing. Like having less of a face to shave every morning. But its an amusement tinged with the shock that such a thing can even happen. That part of your body fails to function the way it was designed, and how that part seems to care so little either way, is not the way my youthful mind has been conditioned to think.

Or has it? In New York, and Harlem especially, one sees decay every day. Decay is never contained in the general. An older man is in a state of decay; but the odd hunch of the back, the facial expressions he exerts mounting stairs, the heaviness one inhales near his sweat, these are the effects of a life breaking down in the specific, and they contribute to the whole man we perceive at a glance.

20% of men experience some hair loss by the age of 20. These statistics increase ten percent with each decade of aging. It is difficult to be among these men and at the same time wonder where the fuck they are. Nothing in this world was more apparent to me than a full head of hair from the second I began losing mine.

When you start to lose it, the first thing that comes to mind is how much you study the people who don’t. The hairline is one more thing you revere in the physical attributes of men. I’ve never before considered the strength of the dreadlock, the taughtness of the cornrow, the infinity of the Afro. For me a hairline has becomes something intensely fragile. Wind demolishes, rain obliterates; fluorescent lights betray it, sleep exaggerates it.

As for the rest of my body, I couldn’t be more pleased with the fact that after four years in New York, sleep deprived seven nights a week, stuffed full of espresso, scotch, Vietnamese food, bus exhaust, more espresso, occassional cigarettes, and too many long runs through Riverside Park, the body is as invincible as ever. I guess that’s what makes the mind dwell on the smallest details of aging, because they contradict what I know about New York. The rest of me seems to have continued to grow at a constant rate. Here, I pursue an education that reminds me daily that it can never be complete. I pursue the extent of a full day as if the hour was something flexible, and see the constantly scaffolded and renovated city block as a true extension of my being. Whether I can hold on to my brow in the process will serve vanity someday, but vanity is no place to rest one's faith. A city on the other hand, is just about as close to religion as I can offer; if the city demands I sacrifice thin strands of dirty blonde, Irish, potato-famined hair, then I guess I'm willing to offer it as much as it demands.

15 November 2004

Harlem Improv #2.

And still we wear our uniforms, follow
The cracked cry of the bugles, comb and brush
Our pride and prejudice, doctor the sallow
Initial ardor, wish to keep it fresh
Still we applaud the President’s voice and face
Still we remark on patriotism, sing,
Salute the flag, thrill heavily, rejoice
For death of men who too saluted, sang.
But inward grows a soberness, an awe,
A fear, a deepening hollow through the cold.
For even if we come out standing up
How shall we smile, congratulate: and how
Settle in chairs? Listen, listen. The step
Of iron feet again. And again wild.

-Gwendolyn Brooks.

1. “If”

I read the Dharma Bums last night for the first time in years and it was pure trash. I felt genuinely embarassed for Mr. Kerouac, dreaming big dreams that were half his age. He should be praised for his insight, but he should also be expected to answer for the years that accumulated before it. His prose lacked the perspective you hope to command by the time you’ve reached forty. There was no reflection on time wasted. I bought it a half-decade ago, but I felt proud not to have missed on a second read the fact that it was mostly lies. Idealism tinged with middle-class Buddhism is for the closet.

I remember conversations with Matt Spence and Kyle Hubert in the last months of high school, thinking about the way we were going to confront the unread literature of our culture, and how we intended to create myth out of practically nothing. Whether or not we succeed or even try is not the point; our misguided idealism had a greater purpose. What I admired most about those two men was their ability to participate in the rituals of conversation. They were unafraid to learn about themselves and about others, and they were passionate about, if nothing else, the conversations that were possible. I have always admired those friends. If the common, the cliché, and the typical are purposefully avoided, no time is wasted. I am only now considering the literature and the music of the “Harlem Renaissance” from the perspective that I may have bought into a vision, like that of The Dharma Bums, idealized in its own era. Today, that vision of Harlem is crippling. No one can possibly comment, standing on 129th Street as a construction crew tears down a four-story church that never opened, “If the Harlem Renaissance describes Harlem, I must be in Harlem.”

2. “When”

Nothing pains me more than seeing an older, middle-aged woman of some dignity and self-respect lower herself in the interest of meeting a man. It is not that I think it improper that she approaches one, but there is in this gesture a window into loneliness that is too much for the eye to bear. When we are truly alone we accommodate ourselves with the shape of our own loneliness; this room with a television is enough. These towels and toothbrushes and these cassettes scattered across the passenger side are enough. It is that moment when we ask of ourselves, “What have I got to offer in a casual glance, a small smile, an open hand to a passing face?” This reveals loneliness like nothing else.

When the women in a neighborhood are unhappy, when they are burdened by their own exhaustion, or their position, when their station in life is evident to them at every swipe of a Metrocard or every can of soup in a grocery basket, the society is looking at its own sagging face in the mirror and sternly opposing the tears that will come.

When gentrification happens, the favorite pastime of the gentry is to settle the imaginary borders of the neighborhood. I’ve been to the most depressing rungs of Bushwick, Ridgewood, Greenpoint, and the Marcy Projects, only to find I’m in someone else’s Williamsburg.

When rainbow trout come crawling out of the East River and take the Bx15 to the Hudson, Harlem will be one neighborhood, united by strange looking lakefish commuting in their sun-speckled scales effortlessly through one united neighborhood . For now though, I advise them to swim to the tip of the Battery and fight the force of water back up the east side. If I was going from Riverside and 125 to Second and 55th on the subway, I'd do the exact same thing.

3. “So”

So, sex is something Harlem can offer the rest of the city. You will get sex in Harlem. But don’t believe too strongly in the sex you discover there, it's not sex as an expression of love or sex as a universally accepted need. It's fucking. Harlem offers the culture what men think of sex. Women can raise the kids, pay the rent, go to work, but never are they consulted about sex. Let me explain.

Harlem women can offer sexuality or renounce it. Its easier to offer sex than give it up, but in Harlem you can’t hold out forever. You leave your apartment with loneliness and the disorientations of the mind, and you get ‘holla’d at by six guys in two blocks. You walk by two other women and they’re walking in the opposite direction. You walk by sixteen men who are going nowhere, and six solicit you. Your sexuality cannot be defended, the odds are against you. So you renounce it, and hope, four stops on the train later, that you can have it back. To be a woman in Harlem is to possess all of the symptoms of a terminal illness, the only cure for which rests just beyond the turn of the key in an apartment door.

A woman will never exert her sexuality in Harlem without a man telling her she’s exerting it. Men may perceive her expressions of sexuality – her clothing, her conversation, her physical posturing – but they don’t want their perception of women to be influenced by it. So, whatever Harlem has to say about us, we have to examine it through a man’s perspective first. Like jazz, Harlem is another of our culture’s experiments in wayward masculinity.

4. “Well”

Well, after masculinity’s shortcomings have settled in, we are confronted by the image of what Harlem thinks it is. T-shirts and bumper stickers and frame shops and the shells of old jazz clubs and hotels. It amazes me that a dead lifestyle can be a tourist attraction. If we are travelling to Europe, to some distant land that took the concrete and the stone and all the remnants of dirt that were everywhere and made a plot of land a monument to its past, then we have the cathedrals standing to greet us. In Harlem, that which defined the past has been converted into shitty sneaker stores and steel-gated storefronts that used to sell sneakers.

Because the jazz of yesterday is not the jazz of today. The jazz band at The Cotton Club on Thursday or the Lenox Lounge on Monday is the Jazz band on Saturday in Cleveland, Miami, Oklahoma City, or The Seattle International Airport. The setting is Harlem, unmistakeable as the boarded hotel across Lenox, or the new 8-story rehabilitation center across the street from Showman’s. The Dominos across the street. The three KFCs and the Popeyes and the five McDonalds. The Burger King, the 3 Subways, the White Castle.

I don’t own a single jazz recording that features a woman on any instrument other than her own voice. I couldn’t name one good female trumpeter. I don’t know a single woman who has ever told me her favorite genre of music is jazz. I live with four women and not one can give me a decent reason for living in Harlem.

13 November 2004

Camille Pissarro And The House That Rocky Built.

Avenue L'Opera.jpg

Taking the Rocky Balboa-carved steps to the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum fills you with infinity. I know its tacky, I do, but the long boulevard leading up to steep steps, and the sun-splashed limestone facade that greets me, have the qualities of an Aztec temple on the Mid-Atlantic coast. In Manhattan, there is no palace where the boulevards begin or end, no focal point for the avenues. Its nice to spend time in a city that still puts emphasis on one structure over another. For this reason, my imagination takes hold of the works in ways it does not in New York. The Louvre in Paris and The National Gallery in Washington impress me with the monumental before I view the art. The Philadelphia Museum greets me with Rocky’s sweatpant-clad climb toward the title, and the celebration of art within its walls is no lesser pageant.

Art museums hold an incredible sway over the imagination, moreso than film. Their design is always the same and similar to a cinema; giant, faceless walls isolate art in high-ceilinged rooms without variation. But because the setting confirms the past for us, confirms the history of arising at this point, at this interior sidewalk surrounded by pretty cartoons and carved shapes, we cannot help but be overcome by our imaginations. Rocky running up those steps...

I fear the day when the details of my life stand on the bare walls of my memory, and can only be comprehended as isolated examples of a life lived. When my life possesses images to consider as representative of entire eras, it will be too late to consider other moments, and the endless process of adding adjoining galleries will be the pursuit of a man whose memory has not betrayed him, but has decided itself in its precisely-proportioned past. The act of curating should combat this, this delicate balancing between years and the whole of time.

Our civilization’s memory is incomplete in museums, and has to be. By memorializing the parts of our lives we can only communicate through art, we are represented in brief examples. We are only the most aesthetically pleasing look in the bathroom mirror. In a museum, our culture is 7pm on the way to dinner and not 6:30am waiting for train. The human memory arranges itself the same way. Our lives are a curation.

When I look back on important moments in my life, some chosen memory represents the whole. To me, my first girlfriend was walking around an amusment park, awkwardly holding a small, warm hand. All the long distance running I did in high school can be boiled down to a cold October afternoon, the wind just cutting the face and seizing the lungs. These are works that stand in a museum I am forever curating. What I leave out is as essential to my character as what I emphasize. But the more one leaves out the less we have in all. It is impossible to visit a museum the size of The Philadelphia Museum and do it justice. But it begs the question: if the museum possesses an extraordinary range of human accomplishment, do I too have a living museum that is as broadly representative as I would demand of an art museum? Would my museum fit in my apartment? In the back of a station wagon?

The back of a station wagon reminds me of my second girlfriend, but that’s a far more enjoyable posting for museum members only...

The work that held my attention longest was a painting by Camille Pissaro. In Pissarro’s "Avenue L'Opera" we have a human city, something I’d never considered. To me a city is as naturally occuring as a bridge or a canal. I think of these man-made objects as “corrections” against the flaws of nature. In correcting nature they transcend human achievement; a bridge becomes part of our natural world. I mean I know a bridge is built to accommodate us and not nature, but since all progress is a transformation of resources into something useful, nature has become a thing brimming with potential instead of something beautiful on its own. Cities to me correct the unending landscape. Pissarro, as T.S. Eliot did a few years ago for me in The Waste Land, reminds me that cities are as mortal as we are.

His city paintings are studies in the temporary; the viewer can distinguish all subjects in equal composition. He allows us to ask, what will be more permanent, the people crossing or the bridge they’re crossing over? The sky and the earth are composed in similar blurs (and the consistency in all subjects is soothing), but their perminence exerts an influence over the city and the human characters below, We accept a vague fate under those vague parts of nature; water, air, earth, and light. How can our greatest accomplishments – our cities, our love affairs, our art – appear under these blurred faces of nature a stern expression? In Pissarro, our running to and fro from street to street is not a blur on a canvas, but a blur on a blur. Our mortality itself is never concrete, nor is anything that frames it for our eyes.

We trust certain artists because they consistently deliver accurate representations of ourselves. The museum as a whole can only gloss over these representations. The memory should be as vast and as intricately curated, and we should trust the artist to do us justice in paint when it is deserved, and to betray us just as easily when we betray ourselves.

04 November 2004

Harlem Improv #1.

1. Max’s SoHa

Harlem asks me several questions but never waits for a proper response. There is a similar forgetfulness to progress, to “gentrification,” that confuses how you’d think Harlem responds to you.

This all starts with a brunette teenager at the table next to mine, a café on Amsterdam Ave at the corner of 122nd. “Excuse me. Sugar. Can I have it?” as if the sugar’s my problem. The cab outside, the music a repetitive 4-4, and not even the most vague theory can claw its way out of the repetitions. The light changes, cabs go by. A fire hydrant.

“I’m not your waiter, he is.” Me pointing toward the direction of the music. Duh neht, duh neht, annt annt….

Headlights of a Dodge minivan. A hooded man with a plastic bag strapped over the back wheel of his bicycle, riding the wrong way down a one-way street. Its cold. Cars parked next to a recollection of last year’s snow banks.

“No one” serves me coffee. “No one” sits next to me and recalls the Harlem of their childhood. I'm not implying that my coffee must have served itself. It didn’t, a very handsome man brought it over, after it was manufactured by a slightly less handsome man. But the server and the woman sitting next to me (who has yet to consider the sugar I passed to her), have nothing to do with Harlem. We are all sitting here, obviously, but only in the abstract.

2. USA #3 Delicatessen

I am not Harlem, I am not a community, I am an individual with my own interests; I am considerate of a community that doesn’t exist, a family without goals, needs, or a connection to my past. If Harlem could provide for these things the atmosphere of community would be so indisputable I would know, a little more, what Harlem projects and what Harlem absorbs.

There are places where I could conceive an essay about the way Harlem looks, about how Harlem functions, and how the process of its decline is unique. But I don’t go to those places. What I see, the people, the cars, the garbage and the scaffolding, do not further my perception of the community. They don’t invite me and I don’t go asking. This deli is not Harlem. Now we have two things that aren’t.

3. Metro North Station, “Harlem-125th Street”

A third: Harlem is not nature. Whatever you say about it, do not believe that any trait of Harlem reinforces nature. It is nature’s response. Beyond the heavy hand of race, Harlem is a reaction to nature. No white man can believe wholly in rivers, no black man can do anything but stare at the shape of the desert in his imagination. You can speak of nature or Harlem, but not both.

I began to assess my life here without ever having walked into the grocery store across the street to speak the language of the women who works the counter. My culture is submissive to my skin. Refuge is the last real function of living. But the grocery clerk too must feel that Harlem has nothing to do with the Spanish language. Behind the straw and gloss of her words I can be a simple function of other words. But at this supermarket, we are as disparate as label-less cans sharing the top shelf.

If Harlem is a reaction to nature, than I live here to deny nature, and I do so perpetuating a myth that we deeply long for what is denied the surface of our experience. I do not want meadows and trees; I want the desire to want them. The first thing you think about when you stand on the corner of Park Avenue and 125th, calling your lover underneath elevated tracks, as the Metro North grinds your ideal of the cloudless sky into incomprehensible phrases muttered through plastic, is meadows and trees.

5. Max SoHa (Revisited)

When I take myself out of this brief encounter, when I leave the café, the sugar on the table, the cushioned velvet couch, I look at life as far from my current vantage as I am capable. One thought persists; “If the two of us were to die in Harlem, no trace of Harlem could be found on our skin.” Harlem can be washed away with a cab ride. No one can tell Harlem from Washington Heights, except those who live their lives with the sentiment that there is a Harlem, and they found it. Eloquence has its peculiar root in all of us, and Harlem challenges a culture to find its eloquence and profess itself proud. I am listening.

03 November 2004

6 Train to Pelham Bay, Day After Election Day.

For reasons I can’t adequately explain, I could never bear to bring a Bible on the train. The erudite thinkers always seem to come along with me on the train, even though its practically impossible to hold a difficult concept in your head without being reminded that “This is a Bronx-bound 6 train. The next stop is…” And as this entry is proving to me, its difficult to type a logical sequence of observations crammed into the corner handicap seat, laptop out, next to a giant parka that seems to have half-swallowed a small Mexican man.

One thing that unites me with this man and his Bible: we are both peeking over each other’s shoulders. And when the 6 train emerges at Whitlock Avenue, into the sun-stained industrial wasteland of the South Bronx, we both pull out our cell phones to check our messages.

I can’t speak for him, but I know that if my phone flashed “Salvation” on its caller ID, I would probably take the call.

02 November 2004

On Ezra Pound.

…from "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly"

For three years, out of key with his time,
He strove to resuscitate the dead art
Of poetry; to maintain "the sublime"
In the old scene. Wrong from the start--

No, hardly, but seeing he had been born
In a half-savage country, out of date;
Bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn;
Capaneus; trout for factitious bait;

[idmen gar toi pant, hos eni Troiei]
Caught in the unstopped ear;
Giving the rocks small lee-way
The chopped seas held him, therefore, that year.

His true Penelope was Flaubert,
He fished by obstinate isles;
Observed the elegance of Circe's hair
Rather than the mottoes on sun-dials.

Unaffected by "the march of events,"
He passed from men's memory in l'an trentuniesme
De son eage; the case presents
No adjunct to the Muses' diadem.

I do not believe Pound’s poetry is ineffectual because it believes in its own greatness. That being said, Pound offers a poetry so conscious of its own construction that nowhere do I wander into a space inside it and feel myself beyond the confines of “a poem.” When a man begins to translate the physical world into poetry, he starts an irreversible process of marginalizing his thoughts into the periphery of discourse. This is hardly a fault, as all art originates from the mind’s impulse to communicate, and the form of that communication is dictated and never forced. But this impulse must never be addressed to the reader; it must find the reader dwelling in its art. To know the language of a work as a reader is to open ourselves to the poet’s peculiar dialect. The impulse to be an artist apart, a poet among poets, is restrictive: detriment to poets, readers, and art itself.

No one speaks a more obscure dialect than poets. Walk with Pound toward his allegories: his lillies, Flaubert, “sublime,” and death. Speaketh his speech. He will not reach out to hold your hand; your factitious palms filled with women’s underwear. Pound has his priorities, and we have ours. Our emotions speak in hoarse voices. They are encased in his ever-obscuring verse.

01 November 2004

On Shakespeare.

Shakespeare has haunted us with our own humanity for over four centuries and for the English language, a comparison to even his finest contemporaries (Jonson, Marlow) or descendants (Milton, Donne), is laughable. As my Metaphysics class wears on, I feel less and less controlled by the weight of criticism that propels Plato and Aristotle to the forefront of philosophic writing. Shakespeare haunts our ideals. The greatest of Greek thinkers can shed light on only what drives them. As literature there is no comparison. But I’m beginning to question whether Shakespeare would be the lesser philosopher at Socrates’ poker table.

Shakespeare too has given us the speech we never spoke, but he has also given us the sex, lust, emotion, tragedy, and death that comes to us as a poses in the harsh light of existence. The only quality of tragedy we possess over his Macbeth, Lear, and Othello, is that he is not in the capacity to describe our misfortunes. So until someone else can draw these emotions out of us and onto a page, we are doomed to live in a trivial time, crudely told.