Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book Seven, from Seven Books of Love: Alex Caldiero

I continue to work on my essay about Brian Evenson's "dark property," so thoroughly inhabited by his characters and their stories that at times it's difficult to even imagine a world outside the covers of his books. 

Brian's creations face, or at least live in worlds without the comforts of seduction, without stories that find their narrative ways out of dilemmas.

As a result, they are brutally and/or absurdly honest. That honesty, in the context of the political and religious and even fictional rhetoric that envelopes me, is refreshing. It is, however, brutal and/or absurd, which makes for vivid dreams after reading.

For Christmas, Alex Caldiero gave me his BOOK SEVEN, from "Seven Books of Love." Like Brian's work, and perhaps like all good work, it too is brutally and/or absurdly honest. For instance:

WE PUT IT in a sack.
Drove out to the open sea.
Took a boat ten miles out.
Dropped the sack into the icy water.
This morning, there it is at the door.
We are more than horrified.
          27 Jan 00


DONT be a mind reader.
Take and accept 
what comes your way
with naturalness,
humility, and yes, grace --
You are part of the food chain.
          23 June 00

Thank you Alex. Thank you Brian. And goddamn you.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Dark Property: The Work of Brian Evenson

In an earlier post, I wrote about the blood-marked cover of Brian Evenson's Baby Leg as constituting a fetishization of the book.

Tonight, wrestling with more ideas, and more complicated ideas than I can find sentences for, fighting for a form that can hold an essay with the title "Dark Property,"I resort finally to photographing the books themselves.

As if the photo could convey the ideas. 

It conveys the book covers. And perhaps the weight of the work, the height and heft of the books themselves. For tonight, that will have to suffice.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Zarko Radakovoc's ERA

First the package: visually fragrant with roses and carnations between the doves and angels bearing "good wishes" from Germany. Inside, a copy of Zarko's newest book. On the title page he has written a note: "For my friend Scott, words from the times that possibly were just a dream. your, Zarko   27.11.2010, Cologne."

The book's cover shows ERA, legs wound so tightly with string or rubber bands that he's lucky not to have lost them to gangrene.

The book's subtitle promises "The History of the Tortoise," tortoise being the name of a performance Zarko was involved in in Belgrade in 1973.

"One evening I was in the apartment of Slobodan Milivojevica," the book begins. Its last sentence is "Or is this the same as the history and story of the turtle?"

In between is a narrative that documents and plays with the performance and the people and ideas so potent in Belgrade at the time -- the place and time whose fermentings and fomentings produced, most famously, the "Balkan Erotica" and later work of Marina Abramovic.

How long, my friend, were ERA's legs bound up like that?

Sunday, December 5, 2010


I've been thinking about biography lately, thoughts occasioned by Travis Low's and Torben Bernhard's film about the life and work of my friend Alex Caldiero and by a new biography of Austrian writer Peter Handke written by Malte Herwig. 

They're very different works, and not just because one is a film and one a book. Still, they both purport to present a life. I exchanged e-mails with Malte Herwig and, at his request, sent him a copy of my "A Reasonable Dictionary," the account of traveling up the Drina River with Handke and Zarko Radakovic between the wars in Yugoslavia. And for the DVD of the film, available through Ken Sanders Rare Books, Travis and Torben asked me to write an essay, which begins as follows:

Fixing the Sonosopher
by Scott Abbott

About three years ago I was bathing with a young man whose development at that time had a wonderful grace about it. . . . As it happened we had just seen, in Paris, the youth pulling a thorn out of his foot. . . . Resting his foot on a stool, to dry it, and glancing at himself as he did so in a large mirror, he was reminded of the statue; he smiled and told me what he had seen. . . . He raised his foot a second time, to show me; but the attempt, very predictably, failed. In confusion he raised his foot a third time, a fourth, again and again, a dozen times: in vain. He was incapable of reproducing the movement. . . . From that day, or from that very moment, forth the young man underwent an unbelievable transformation. He began spending days in front of the mirror; and one after the other all his charms deserted him. (From Heinrich von Kleist’s “The Puppet Theatre,” translation by David Constantine)

            About three weeks ago I had lunch with a man of my age whose performances as a “Sonosopher” have a wonderful, if sometimes terrible, grace about them. We spoke about a film he had recently collaborated on. After seeing himself through the camera’s eye, Alex said, he has been unable to reproduce the movements, the gestures, the sounds the camera recorded. At least he can no longer do so naturally. His charms, he fears, have deserted him.
            I mentioned the young man in Kleist’s essay.
            Exactly, he said. I’ve been robbed of the grace of un-self-conscious movement. I’ve been pinned to a specimen board for observation.
            You feel like you’ve been fixed? I asked.
Yes, he answered. The film has fixed me, neutered me. How do I continue? My work is process, my media are temporal, sonorous, fleeting.
To what extent is that true? I wondered later. Has this film, in fact, fixed the Sonosopher?
As with all works of art, from one version to the next there’s a sense of panic brought on by the knowledge that the composer or writer or painter or filmmaker will have to settle on the final, fixed version, knowing all the time that it is just one of an infinite number of versions. Documentary films of a certain kind work to make their audiences forget that fact, constructing a seamless and supposedly truthful narrative. This, I take it, is what Alex most feared.
Because theirs too is a documentary film, Travis Low and Torben Bernhard are generically bound to reach for a truthful or even Platonic portrayal of their subject. But because the person casting most of the shadows is Alex Caldiero, a self-described “recovering Platonist,” and because Low and Bernard have made their film after Nietzsche’s assertion that “truth is a mobile army of metaphors,” this film approaches fixed forms with trepidation. Like Caldiero’s lifework, the film longs for the transcendental signifier while anchoring itself in epistemological humility.
The film begins with a blurred image of a belltower seen from below; indistinct lights flicker to the wavering tone of a guitar; the sound of breathing precedes the poet’s voice: “I want to go where the sound goes after the bell stops ringing.” “I’ve always been blessed with visions,” Alex asserts later. And yet the most revealing statement of what the silent sound is or what the vision reveals is the performance for Park City television of “This is not it.” As long as the transcendent remains articulate, the words must insist that “this is not it.” And when the words break under the load of meaning, when they reach beyond themselves, they cannot articulately state what “it” is and must eventually return to “this is not it.”
The film performs this double dance as exquisitely as does Caldiero. . . .
The essay continues with examples of scenes that call themselves into question and thus reinforce their truthfulness; and it ends with these thoughts:
In the context of the entire documentary film, the set of black-and-white discussions Alex has with the camera, the last of which shows Alex shutting his eyes tight and then saying “I close my eyes. Please, now close yours,” introduces a self-consciousness about the whole idea of film that asserts and questions simultaneously. These brilliant scenes, shot by the filmmakers but constructed by the Sonosopher himself, make clear that this is not Low’s and Bernhard’s film about Caldiero. This is performance from beginning to end, joint performance, collaborative performance, the work of a trio of artists working in various media.

Finally, for this essay too must come to an inevitable end, I’ll end with the scene in which Alex stands in Salt Lake’s Gilgal Sculpture Garden and explains the “Joseph Smith Sphinx.” “Joseph Smith,” Alex, says “was a seer and a revelator. A prophet and a charlatan of God. He was a coyote figure, you know, the dark/light figure, that told the greatest truths in the greatest lies. . . . What a sweetheart.” A sweetheart, of course, just like Alex himself.
And, it turns out, just like the makers of this sonosphistic film. A fantastic marriage of filmart and sonosophy raises the film from documentary to performance, exhibiting charms that will desert neither the Sonosopher nor the filmmakers because they are temporal charms, fluid charms, seriously ironic charms.

In contrast, Malte Herwig's biography of Peter Handke, called "Master of Twilight," is a study in frustration. 
I should state here that although the book frustrates me, it also held my attention from beginning to end. After reading I have a fuller sense for parts of Handke's life I had seen only peripherally. At best the book lays out a basic chronological set of events, tying together events of Handke's life in an interesting account. It emphasizes throughout the almost autistic nature of Handke's response to the world (although this grows old quickly). I realize that no biography can bring the whole life, choices have to be made, and there are many possible biographies. Still, the book seems to have missed something critical for any life of Peter Handke.
 The tension begins already in the foreword: "Thus the biographer cannot be led by what might be pleasant, advantageous, or desirable for the story. Rather he must read and research without prejudice. As a result, what follows is nothing but the truth." 
How can a Harvard-trained Germanist let slip such a sentence? As Gadamer argued in his "Truth and Method," our only hope to understand difficult things begins with our pre-judgments. The Enlightenment's prejudice against prejudice was itself a prejudice. Prejudices must be used and lifted off simultaneously, Gadamer wrote. More importantly, Peter Handke's life work has undermined so-called truth in favor of story and myth and the poetic creation of "truth." How, then, can a reader of Handke's works claim that what follows is nothing but the truth? How can this biographer write his supposed truth while completely ignoring the supple dialectic Handke's sentences might have taught him?
For example, these sentences from Handke's "A Journey to the Rivers," his attempt to give admittedly personal words to the land of the Serbs in the face of almost unanimous media distortion (and this too is a kind of biography):
But I was also drawn simply to see the country that of all the countries of Yugoslavia was least known to me and that, perhaps because of the news reports and opinions about it, had come to attract me most strongly, the so-to-speak most interesting (along with the alienating rumors about it).  Nearly all the photographs and reports of the last four years . . . seemed to me, over time even more so, to be simple mirrorings of the usual coordinated perspectives. . . .  I felt the need to go behind the mirror; I felt the need to travel into the Serbia that became, with every article, every commentary, every analysis, less recognizable and more worthy of study, more worthy simply of being seen.
 Handke wants to see well, he wants to describe without ideological distortion, he wants "justice for Serbia" in the media; but he never claims truth outside the conflicts of dialectic. We make our truths, some better than others, and the better ones come, at least for my taste, when we're aware of their constructed nature.
Herwig finds his biographical truth in letters and notebooks and interviews, many of which haven't been available before. These are the highlights of the book. Michael Roloff, Handke's first American translator, wrote recently that a 1000-page biography of Handke consisting of nothing but such documents would be the best of all biographies (see his wonderfully wild and wooly take on Herwig's biography at his Handke-Discussion blog). There are pages in the biography that are themselves worth the entire price of the book. The end papers, for instance, reproduce two pages from one of Handke's notebooks, complete with the leaves he has tucked into the notebook. Reproductions from another notebook show three drawings Handke did of his friend Nicolas Born while Born was dying. They are agonizing approximations, three brutal because loving perspectives.
In addition to these archival gems, Herwig also gathers his "truth" from Handke's works of fiction, reading the novel Long Letter, Short Farewell, for example, as an accurate description of the trip Handke and Kolleritsch and Libgart Schwarz took in America. Handke's novels are rich with his own experiences; but surely a biographer must take into account the fact that those experiences are subsequently shaped by the contexts of the fiction. In a biography, bald-faced quotations from novels raise more questions than they answer. At least for this reader, they can't be trusted
Handke once claimed in an  interview with André Müller that “No one will find anything really personal about me, and what I have published is a total disguise.” Herwig ignores this, except when he is contradicting it. Describing an exchange of letters between Handke and his high-school German teacher Reinhard Musar, Herwig writes that Musar felt bad about a depiction of the main character's German teacher in the novel Repetition. Handke reassured his mentor, Herwig claims, "with the oldest excuse of literary history, with reference to poetic freedom: 'That is not your portrait in the book, the teacher from Villach has become independent and is a recurring friendly figure in the narrative frieze.'" Handke states the obvious. Herwig dismisses it as an excuse. And for me, there's no excuse for that.
I could say more about the book, about the unfortunate design that squeezes tiny photos into awkward inner margins, about awkward and even naive psychologizing; but it's really the idea of the possibility of biography that I'm interested in. 

Zarko Radakovic and I once thought about a possible biography of Peter Handke, and wrote about our travels from southern Austria into what is now Slovenia in the footsteps of Repetition's main character. Ultimately, however, it came to seem a ridiculous undertaking. We weren't competent to write about the life of another person (is anyone?). Rather, we loved the work Peter Handke has produced; and we were fascinated by how that work might help us as we constructed our own lives.
Here a few lines from Zarko's and my book Repetitions: Travel into the Landscape of a Novel

In the opening scene of William Golding’s The Paper Men, an aging, alchoholic writer nearly shoots a young would-be biographer who is rooting through his rubbish.  The novel ends as the would-be biographer, repeatedly frustrated by the uncooperative novelist, shoots him. . . .

The Stift, a former monastery, is in disrepair.  Crumbling bricks disfigure what was once a smooth plaster coat.  Beer and sausage booths, part of Griffen’s pentacostal celebration, are being dismantled by workmen in the rain.  By some of the workmen.  The others lift glasses in the pub that now occupies the southeast corner of the huge building.
Surrounded by a high, crumbling, brick-and-wood wall, the graveyard lies on the west side of the building.  With little trouble we locate Maria Handke’s well-tended grave.  No longer an outsider.
“Maria Handke / 8.10.1920 - 20.11.1971” it says on the smooth front of the otherwise uncut stone.  A wooden cross fronts the stone: “Bruno Handke, died 21.3.88.”  I photograph Zarko as he stands in front of the grave, umbrella at a slant, his hands busy with pen and notebook.  He photographs me in a similar stance.  Assiduous scholars.  Pious pilgrims.
Over the church’s massive front door hangs a statue of Mary, her foot balanced delicately on the neck of a fine green dragon.  We swing open the heavy worm-eaten door and enter a working church housed in a partial ruin.  Rich altar rugs lie on platforms of unpainted pine.  Oak pews shine with woodwax and use.  The scent of mildew.  Pyramidal piles of drifted plaster gather at the base of disintegrating walls.
Inside the entrance, German and Slovenian signs give directions to the confessional.  German-language pamphlets are stacked in ragged piles on a table to the left and a table to the right displays similar pamphlets in Slovenian.  The naive paintings of fourteen naive stations of the cross circling the church have Slovenian captions: “1. Statio  Jesus je k’smerti obsojen.”
Fat little red prayer and song books (Gotteslob).  Woven from red, gold, and purple threads, three attached bookmarks dangle from each volume.  Leafing through one I find the stations of the cross.  The book’s subtitle is “Eigentum der Kirche” (Property of the Church).  I decide that is a misnomer and slip the book into my pocket (actually, Zarko’s pocket; he has loaned me a good wool jacket for the trip).
“Monastery Church Maria Ascension (Haslach): The church has its origins in the 13th century, but was much altered in the following centuries.  It received its west facade (Baroque) in the 18th century.  Inside romanesque style dominates.  The stone Madonna from 1520 is late gothic.  Left and right from her, next to the high altar from the eighteenth century, are Saint Augustinus and Saint Norbert.  In addition numerous gravestones and coats-of-arms from the 15th through the 18th century deserve attention. . . . notable stuccos . . . scholars, however, do not agree whether these stuccos can be attributed to the artist Kilian Pittner (1700).”
Is this the kind of thing I will be doing to Handke?  “Peter Handke has his origins in the decade of the Third Reich, was, however, much altered in the following decades. . . .  Within, postmodern style dominates.  The book published in 1986, however, is postpostmodern. . . .  Also deserving attention . . . scholars, however, do not agree, whether. . . .”
However, however, however.  It makes me want to throw up.
[A longer version of this part of Repetitions can be found HERE.]

In the end, it's not fair to judge Herwig's book against the experimental film and in light of the more personal work I did with Zarko. They are different forms; and Herwig has chosen the form that fits his own abilities and interests. It's a matter of taste. Even though Herwig has dished up a meal I would never have ordered, there are still plenty of tasty bits.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dreamland, A Collaboration between an Author, an Artist, and a Book Designer

Drawing by Alice Leora Briggs

[This essay appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of The Bloomsbury Review]

DREAMLAND: The Way Out of Juarez
Text by Charles Bowden
Drawings by Alice Leora Briggs
Book Design by Kelly Leslie
University of Texas Press, 2010

by Scott Abbott

DREAMLAND’s final D has been turned in on itself, leaving REAMLAN crowded between the fat bellies of the D and its reverse image. And with that marriage of word and image a major theme is set: truth and its mirror, the mirror this book attempts to be, a book made like no other book because all other books about contemporary Juarez are simply not up to the task.
Dreamland tells a sordid story:
In June, a DEA informant called Lalo was caught with about a hundred pounds of marijuana. . . . Juanita Fielding of the U.S. Attorney’s office had the charges squashed because of an ongoing cigarette smuggling case by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) that employed Lalo as an informant. On August 5, Lalo tortured, killed, and buried a man in a condominium in the city on the other side of the river. By January 14 the next year eleven more people went into the backyard of the condo, and at least one of them was an American resident alien. U.S. agencies knew Lalo was killing and did nothing lest they jeopardize the cigarette smuggling case. Or they knew of the killings and did nothing because they were trying to penetrate a cartel. The explanations varied as the dead came out of the ground. (9)
Lalo was once a cop. He worked for a local cartel. He hired state policemen for the cartel. He worked for the DEA and ICE. One day he got a call. He arrived at a meeting with his cell phone still on. He bought supplies for the murder. He and two state policemen went to the death house. A lawyer named Fernando arrived, hoping to arrange for a shipment of marijuana to cross the border. He was slowly smothered, hit on the back of the neck with a shovel, dumped in a hole behind the house and covered with lime. ICE recorded everything they heard through the phone, wrote parts of it into a memo. Not all the parts. After two DEA agents were almost killed, the DEA began an investigation of the house. What they found didn’t jibe with the ICE memo. Trouble brewed. The silence that inevitably ensued ended the trouble, especially after the twelve bodies were exhumed and a plaque was erected and justice was done.
As gruesome as the tortures and murders were, this is no aberration from a lawful norm, Dreamland tells us. The death house and its successors are the straightforward solution to the problem of how to enforce order in the drug business. And death, of course, is not enough. Dying slowly by torture in the death house is the sufficient deterrent. That has become the new order of things. Even where plaques are erected and justice done.
Charles Bowden has been writing about Juarez and the U.S./Mexican border for several decades, and each successive book has revealed his ongoing obsession with finding adequate forms though which to think about the border city. Juarez, A Laboratory for the Future (1998), for instance, combines essays by Bowden, Noam Chomsky, and Eduardo Galeano with full-page photos by Julian Cardona and other Juarez photographers. Down by the River continues to explore narrative possibilities (“This book is the archeology of a nightmare”; 2002), as do A Shadow in the City (“That is what this book is about. Getting to that place”; 2005) and Murder City (“She understands. And soon I think I will if I am given enough time on the killing ground,” again with photos by Julian Cardona; 2010).
Like Bowden, Alice Leora Briggs has a history of experimentation with form, especially forms related to torture, death, and suffering, aspects of the Western artistic tradition visible in any Italian cathedral, she notes. Her drawings depict scenes as conflicted and complex as the story Bowden tells: a vicious medieval flaying being filmed by one man while another mows his grass behind, or a classic pieta besieged by a photographers, or iconic phallic Breugel wedding guests dancing above a man in a hairnet cooking menudo for the inevitable hangovers.
            Bowden has written what amount to a series of short essays on the theme of contemporary Juarez and the death house at its center, essays that wrench apart our usual sense for how the border city is ordered and disordered. His fragmented narrative works much like Briggs’ drawings that are related by themes of violence rather than by a through story line. And the third contributor to the book, its designer Kelly Leslie, has woven Bowden’s essays and Briggs’ drawings into a bookish textile so textured, so graphic, so thoughtful, that a reader forgets the usual neat divide between words and images and can no longer imagine why a writer would not work with pictures or an artist with words.
What kind of book is this experiment in form? It is not a graphic novel, nor is it an illuminated manuscript. It’s not an exhibition catalogue with accompanying essay. It can’t be Blake’s Jerusalem, because this is twenty-first-century Juarez. And although images and words are related by a sort of dream logic, it is not Jung’s Red Book either. Leaving the question of classification aside, there is still the question of how to read the book.
At some point, I realized I was responding to Dreamland as I do to jazz. This book requires attention, simultaneous attention, to the complex interactions of several voices improvising on the basis of a given set of chords or themes.
Given his preternaturally deep voice, his belligerent insistence on the world as he sees it, and his remarkable ability to create new forms, we’ll assign Bowden the Mingus bass. Briggs is the Monkish piano player, knifing through the black India ink to the white ceramic clay of her scratchboard-on-panel sgraffito drawings, improvising thematically on Renaissance tunes. The designer Kelly Leslie is the drummer Billy Higgins, establishing crazy-like-a-fox rhythms over which Bowden’s text and Brigg’s images trade twos and fours throughout the book. Finally, the informant identified as Lalo is the singer, having played previous gigs with drug cartels and ICE alike, singing turncoat testimony here like the mirrored canaries with which Leslie backs his words.
A Rilke epigraph establishes the chord changes these book musicians will play, a tune from the Seventh Duino Elegy (in A. Poulin, Jr.’s translation): “Each slow turn of the world carries such disinherited ones. . . . This shouldn’t confuse us; no, it should commit us to preserve the form we still can recognize. This stood among men, once, stood in the middle of fate, the annihilator, stood in the middle of Not-Knowing-Where-To, as if it existed, and it pulled down stars from the safe heaven toward it.” On the same page as the Rilke quotation, a drawing pronounces an eternal round: the archetypal Ouroboros devouring its own tail, its body curved around the words “La Cadena Que No Se Corta THE UNBROKEN CHAIN.” Like Bowden, Briggs is a hopeful cynic, a believer in order with a keen eye for lies about order; and her serpent in this case is a dead rat.
            The musicians insist, as does the book’s title, Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez, that should someone find the true order of the chaos of the border city (and that order may be structured like a dream), the discovery might enable a truthful search for a way out of the current state of affairs. Otherwise, the way out of Juarez is through the house of death in which an ICE informant and Juarez policemen kill for the drug cartel that pays them. This is serious music.
Briggs configures. Bowden describes. Leslie lays down the rhythms. Lalo squeals. “Strange Fruit,” they sing, “Fables of Faubus.”
The problem, they tell us, is NAFTA and the subsequent job losses in Mexico. The problem is that people have no way to make a living. The problem is that working in the narcotics industry is the answer to the problem. The problem is that narcotics are illegal, which makes them the answer to the problem of a local economy foreclosed by the US (corn) and China (manufacturing jobs). And, fundamentally, Bowden writes, the problem is language:
One city is called El Paso, the other Juarez. One state is called Texas, the other Chihuahua. One nation is called the United States, the other Mexico. I find it harder and harder to use these names because they imply order and boundaries, and both are breaking down. So I stumble and try not to say these names even though they have meaning, at least some meaning, left, and they are right there on the maps and road signs. But they have the feel of the past, of dust and ruin and dead dreams. And so I say them at times, but often I struggle to find a way around these words because uttering them or writing them down contributes to a big lie and helps trap people in a dying world. (6)
            But I always stall at this point, my tongue gets thick, words are difficult to utter. My mind races and yet speech ceases. . . . I try to form a single word that captures what I am seeing and feeling and thinking. Finally, it comes out, to be sure it comes almost as a whisper. But still it comes. Dreams. (10)
            I must find a new language, one that avoids empty words like justice and crime and punishment and problems and solutions. (12)
            With wine, I do not hear the babble about humane borders, about worker permits, the screams of the murdered in the drug houses. . . . I must watch that temper. And keep my hands off guns. . . . And all I seem to hear are words and then, thank God again for drink, my senses open and the words disappear into the dictionaries where they lead safe and pointless lives. (64)
            This is the new geography, one based less on names and places and lines and national boundaries and more on forces and appetites and torrents of people. . . . . We have learned to live with the problem by lying about the problem. (139-140)
If the problem is language, the solution, if there is a solution, and there may be no solution, is language. The language of Bowden’s text. The language of Brigg’s drawings. The language of their complicated and horrific interleavings as Leslie works the drumheads of the pages with her designer sticks and brushes and mallets, with her digital mirrors and witchy magic. This book, in ways no book has ever done, probes the problem of Juarez and thus of the world’s future with an unlikely faith: “Two things stun me: how much I once believed and how much, despite the storm in the skies and the blood on the ground, that I still continue to believe” (1).
What does Bowden believe in? And Briggs? And Lalo? We’re left to find answers in the syntax Leslie creates with their images and words.
Listen to Bowden and Briggs improvising on the Rilke tune about preserving the form of the disinherited, and on one eternal ratround. Listen to their traded fours, to the one voice “comping” in that thoughtful form of jazz accompanying while the other voice solos, and then to the voices as they reverse the roles. And through it all, Lalo’s song.
Bowden takes the first solo.
Bowden: “There is a way out of here and it is called levanton, the lift or the pickup. You are going about your business and suddenly men with guns come and you go with them. Sometimes you return as a corpse, and this, of course, is a blessing.”
Briggs: A drawing of a seated man (it looks like Bowden) wearing a jean jacket, a large glass in his left hand, his hair wild and an even wilder look in his eyes. At his elbow a postage stamp, 1st CLASS, with Poseidon, perhaps, holding a triton while seahorses pull his chariot. “There is a way our of here,” the stamp proclaims, “it is called LEVANTON.” (2-3)

Bowden: “There is an order to things. At the crime scene, yellow tape defines the killing ground. . . There is an order to things. Everything works. The city lives two lives. One looks like order. One feels like decay. Both are the same place.”
Briggs: Firemen aim a hose at flames shooting out of a window. Below them a man reads a newspaper and another plays an accordion. Below them two men are drinking. To the left, a woman in Renaissance dress adjusts a machine in a laboratory. A postage stamp featuring a machine gun partially covers doubly mirrored hands holding spent shell casings. A second line of the hands and casings runs across the top of the page. (28-29)

Bowden: “The screams of the murdered are muffled by giant gags of duct tape. Giant hoses constantly wash the floor of the lab and tiny dreams and hopes wash down into grates and are carried off.”
Briggs: A naked Renaissance woman hoses off a carcass hanging in a row of carcasses. (30-31)

Bowden: “You make a list of absolutes, of touchstones. . . I know some things for certain. Nothing will stop people from coming north. Nothing will ease their pain. Nothing will stop the violence of the line. . . . I can’t decide if I am hearing the cries of a hard birth, or something more like a death rattle.”
Briggs: The naked legs and torsos of two people entwined.
Lalo’s song (and Leslie has pictured the words like redacted text in a government document, backed by a singing canary): “On another occasion Santillan mentioned to me that they killed a person who was one of his workers and who was called El Gordo, the Fat Man, and whose body appeared without a head.”
Bowden: “I hear a zim bam boddle-oo song in my head Li’l David was small, but oh my! He fought Big Goliath.”
Briggs: A postage stamp with a left hand crossing a right one over a piano keyboard. (40-42)

Bowden: “It’s a war with no generals and many privates. There is a new order in the wind and it looks like chaos but it is not. There is a new order in the wind and it sidesteps government, or, if pressed, steps on government. There is a new order in the wind and it cannot be discussed because any discussion might threaten the older order now rolling in the dirt.”
Briggs: “Birthday Greetings” says the postage stamp. A fat little Renaissance cupid sits atop skulls and plays with another. (60)

Bowden: “And it does not matter if the issue at hand is a truckload of dope, a death house winked at in Juarez by a U.S. agency, or a flood of poor people bumbling toward some promised land, still the response is the same, that the problem has a rational solution. I think otherwise. I think I am looking at the solution and it is agony under the sun, a body in a fetal position precisely five feet and seven inches below the surface of a backyard in a nice neighborhood.”
Briggs: A skeleton in fetal position.
Lalo’s song: “If they order to you, do this, you do it, and you’d better do it; and if you don’t do it, you get killed. . . . This first time, when I saw the killing, yeah, it – what can I do? Call the police? The police was already there.” (98-99)

Lalo keeps singing, Briggs takes the solo, Bowden comps.
Lalo’s song: “What was the Parsioneros house like? Didn’t it smell like crazy? No. . . . With bodies being drug underneath the staircase, blood – No, you prepare everything.”
Briggs: Two bodies on two cots in a morgue.
Bowden: “There is a belief by some that things are breaking down. This is false. There is a belief by others that things are getting better. This is false. Order depends on things staying the same. . . . There is no chaos permitted. There is only order, and order shackles all efforts at any other kind of life.” (102-103)

Briggs: A cropped version of the drawing of Bowden in a chair in a jean jacket holding a large glass in his left hand. Now there is only the hand and the glass. Where black ink formed utter darkness above Bowden’s torso in the first drawing, now hang a row of animal carcasses like the ones being sprayed by the naked Renaissance women in the earlier drawing.
Bowden: “He owes for a load and so they come and take him. He sits in a chair at a ranch. They are outside, drinking scotch, doing lines of cocaine. His partner is to come with the money. . . . For two days, the time passes this way. They sit outside. In front of him, a guy takes a sharp knife. A hog is strung up in front of him as he sits in his chair. First, the throat is slit. Then the belly is cut open and the guts spill out. It goes that way, hour after hour. Later, he says, you know, I thought I could wind up like that hog.” (114-115)

Briggs: A man (Bowden) stares into the distance, smoking, while a hanging carcass is butchered to the side and to the rear a naked man tied to a post is whipped by men dressed in Renaissance clothing.
Bowden: “And the point is this: we are creating poverty that exceeds the ability of the State to alter, we are creating violence that exceeds the violence of the State itself, we are creating lawlessness faster and over more territory than we are creating law. We must ask ourselves this simple question: Is the house of death the problem or the actual solution? Is this the freak show or the future? Are these men monsters or the coming human beings?”
And Lalo sings: How close did you get to Vicente Carrillo Fuentes? How close were you? No, not – not close. I never seen him. I didn’t know him. I never got close to him.” (116-117)

Briggs: A drawing shows a serious-faced man (Julian Cardona) sitting in front of a coffin on wheels, framed top and bottom with mirrored hands holding shell cartridges.
Bowden: “Small improvements could be made in this system. Decent wages paid by American companies in Juarez would lessen the violence and slow or end illegal immigration in that area, but this is impossible because the companies must compete with business in Asia. Legalizing drugs would destroy the cartel and end the cash flow into their hands of tens of billions of dollars a year, but this is impossible because American citizens would consume drugs without guilt. . . . Everything is impossible except the status quo.” (130-131)

Briggs: A version of Mantegna’s foreshortened “Dead Christ” lies stuffed under a steel-girded bridge and atop a set of pipes and vats that collect his blood.
Bowden: “Phrases will be altered and new words will be used for old pains. Still, it rolls on, the entire theater of dust and blood. . . . Most likely the body will show burn marks. The problem will be solved. Justice will be done. Business will not be bothered in an American city for a spell.”
Lalo’s song: “They will kill me or they will torture me and then will kill me. Who will? Yeah, the police, the cartel, the government, it’s all the same people.” (148-150)

After all the variations (thematic and chordal, Renaissance and contemporary, musical and visual, Mexican and American), the jazz quartet returns to the head, to the Rilke elegy whose persona pulls down order from the stars in the face of the annihilator.
Bowden: “The stars rise over Juarez and finally someone notices and feels the grace and peril of the night sky. That is what I think must have happened in these holes in the patio as the tortured men finally found the space in their hectic lives for the magic of the heavens.”
Briggs: Between doubled and redoubled rows of Friedr. Bayer & Co. Heroin bottles, an empty cab of a car, a starry night burning outside, and on the previous page slumps a bullet-riddled van. Then a short-haired man wearing a t-shirt and dark glasses steers his car through a starry night. The constellation Orion burns through his window. Is he whistling? (140-141 and 145)

Bowden, Briggs, and Leslie have stood, in the pages of this book, “in the middle of fate, the annihilator, stood in the middle of Not-Knowing-Where-To, as if it existed.” If it exists, that way out of Juarez, if it exists any way other than through the death house, it exists in these pages whose images and words may still be inadequate mirrors but don’t lie.
            As a final note, as a resigned yet resolute response to a book that questions many of my certainties and unsettles my very being, I’ll add my translation of another stanza by Rilke, this time from the eighth of the Duino Elegies: “We order it. It falls apart. We order it again. And fall apart ourselves.”

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Shape of the Shapeless, The Shapelessness of Shape

I think I've always been fascinated by numbers. Not in the ways mathematicians are fascinated by numbers, but by the shapes of numbers.

This week, the odometer in my car approached and then passed 100,000. As it did so, as numbers lined up in striking patterns, there were several almost magical moments for me:


Why magical? Because of the shapes, I think. Because out of the visually unremarkable sequences that lead to 097392 or earlier to 079124, suddenly there are repetitions of such order and weight that they seem noteworthy.

Perhaps they even seem meaningful.

Not, of course, when I ponder what they mean: they don't mean anything. They won't reveal the philosopher's stone. They won't help me with my cooking. They don't tell me anything more than do the numbers 100152 or 098563, which are both indications of how many miles the car has put behind it since I drove it off the lot.

But they seem, they feel profound, profoundly different from the less well ordered numbers.

Slot machines have a similar fascination for me, doubled up by the fact that when the three red sevens appear in a row along the line the machine makes sounds and flashes and quarters or nickels come cascading out of the machine.

Along with casino owners who take advantage of my need for shapely sets of numbers, poets, novelists, and musicians all capture my imagination with orderly and repetitive sequences.

David Mitchell, for instance, whose novel Cloud Atlas I'm currently reading, has my attention immediately when I realize that the first and last chapters of the novel, "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing," are the historically earliest of the accounts. Just inside those chapters nestle two more recent chapters called "Letters from Zedelghem," inside of which are two even more recent chapters titled "Half-Lives," inside of which are the science-fiction twin "Orisons of Sonmi-451" which cradle the single chapter "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After."


in effect.

It's a splendid novel so far; and the pleasures I'm getting from reading are heightened by the form. Does the form have meaning outside the story or only in the story? It seems laden with meaning in either case, at least for me.

What kind of meaning?

What if the poet or artist is giving me nothing more than the odometer offers, but is hiding that fact behind my assumption that there is content in the form?

I published an article a few years ago that focused on the metaphor of standing in Rilke's "Duino Elegies." You can read the whole thing HERE, if you're so inclined. What fascinated me was the fact that the "Elegies" are about the making of art, about the satisfying but oh so fleeting standing towers acrobats make of their own bodies, about the establishment of meaning, however constructed and arbitrary, through the tracing and naming of constellations of stars, about the creation of stanzas. Here a couple of paragraphs from that article, along with the center pages of the "Elegies" with my markings and workings:

In the tenth stanza of the Fifth Elegy, we find a most remarkable point of transition:

Und ploetzlich in diesem muehsamen Nirgends, ploetzlich
die unsaegliche Stelle, wo sich das reine Zuwenig
unbegreiflich verwandelt- , umspringt
in jenes leere Zuviel.
Wo die vielstellige Rechnung
zahlenlos aufgeht. (V: 81-86)

 (And suddenly in this arduous nowhere, suddenly
the unsayable [standing] place, where the pure too little
unfathomably transforms-, jumps over
into that empty too much.
Where the many digited account
dissolves into numberlessness.)

The Stelle between the two states serves as a locus of being, and the stanza has an interesting place in both a broad structure and a specific context. It is no accident that the still point of transition between "the pure too little" and "that empty too much" is "the unsayable [standing] place/Stelle," for as seen above, related "sta- words act in precisely this transitional sense. The poet states that the Stelle is ineffable ("unsaeglich"), and then does everything in his power to depict it, to create it, to say it. In his poetry he creates figures. And in this language "beyond" language, in "this arduous nowhere," the "unsayable [standing] place" suddenly appears out of "the pure too little," disappearing just as suddenly into "that empty too much." The word "Stelle" not only describes a place, but in describing, is that place. Being is achieved as the  word is written. And once written, it must fade. For a moment however, a structural device intensifies the Stelle created in these six lines. 423 lines precede the tenth stanza and 423 lines follow, leaving this six-line stanza which describes a moment and a place of sudden, unfathomable transformation as the exact center of the combined ten Elegies. The dash near the center of this central stanza is "the unsayable [standing] place," the very point of transition between "das reine Zuwenig" and "jenes leere Zuviel." The dash (itself a sign of ineffability) is a balance point, and the tenth stanza is the point around which the other 846 lines balance.

Okay, that's enough of the article.

Who but a odometer and slot-machine worshiper would have counted 846 lines and found the dash at the center of the center? 

And what does it mean that Rilke worked so hard to surround that transitional and most arduously achieved centerpiece of creation with equal numbers of lines?

It means, I think, that the meaning we create as artists and poets and philosophers is fundamentally formal. And as profound as the meaning may be, the profundity is at best that ephemeral construction between too little and too much.

It is, precisely that "ultrathin" place/moment between 099999 and 100000.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

New Books by Zarko Radakovic and Alex Caldiero

My dear friend Zarko Radakovic just sent me a copy of his newest book. It's title means something like "Fear of Emigrations." I'm quoted on the back, something like this: "I don't know anyone who works or plays with such fresh ideas." Something like . . . something like this . . . because I don't read Serbo Croatian. I've got only scraps of the language.

Beer is "pivo." I learned that on a barge on the Danube river near Zarko's hometown Zemun. White wine is "belo vino." Belgrade is "Beograd." "Pisac" is "writer." "Textom" is a declined version of "text." Scotto Abbotto a declined name that can become the slightly embarrassing Scottom Abbottom. "Skot" means "vermin." "Mustikla" means cigarette holder. "Thank you" is "hvala." "Zrno vino" means "red wine." "Jebi ga" means "fuck it." "Serbi su dobri ljudi," a phrase Zarko's mother taught me, means "Serbs are good people." And that's about it for me.

But I want to read the book.

One of the book's sections is titled "Urlik nad Balkanom" -- Roar of the Balkans, according to google's translation service. Another is called "Smatram (Jugosloveni, Turci, Nemci, belo vino, novine)" which may mean "I think (Jugoslavs, Turks, Germans, white wine, newspapers).

Makes me want more.

But basically I can't read my friend's book about his early work as a performance artist in Belgrade. What kind of friend can't read a friend's book? 


Last week my dear friend Alex Caldiero's new book was published by Dream Garden Press: Poetry Is Wanted Here. It's a powerful set of poems gathered around the title poem which is in the form of a letter written to Alex's despairing friend Bob Heman shortly after the World Trade Center towers came crashing down.

It's a beautiful as well as powerful book, with five drawings and plenty of space fore and aft as well as on each page.

Because Zarko and Alex know each other, if only through my translation of each's work for the other, I've put them side by side above. And to  further emphasize the connection, here's a copy of Alex's poem about language and translation dedicated to Zarko and me.

And finally, news today that Stubovi kulture has published another book by Zarko, this one called "Era." Here's a very grainy image of the cover:

Friday, September 24, 2010

Language Crisis and Autumn Equinox

This is a difficult time for me. And a time of exquisite beauty.

The huge harvest moon has been hanging over the mountain.

There have been long warm evenings on the deck overlooking the deer that come at dusk to drink: a three-point buck the largest of them, two four-point bucks his companions, and then two does, each with a pair of fawns growing quickly toward the coming winter.

And there's the problem for me: this equinox is a marker for the coming winter.

Louis Menand, reviewing a new anthology of literary parodies in this week's "New Yorker," quotes Ezra Pound's depressive parody of the thirteenth-century round "Sumer Is Icumin In': "Winter is icummen in, / Lhude sing Goddamm."


The fading light, the Indian Summer, the harvest moon, the coming winter -- I take off my shirt and sit on the deck in the last light soaking up vitamin D, knowing it won't be enough in the months to come.

But there's another problem related to the fading light and to the coming depression, and, perhaps, related to broader issues in my body and mind as well, and that's a falling out of language and into experiences beyond or below or outside of language.

For Alex's and my seminar on "Language, most dangerous of possessions" (Hölderlin), I've just read Hugo von Hofmannsthal's heartwrenching Lord Chandos' "A Letter." Lord Chandos writes Francis Bacon that he's got a problem, that he's fallen silent in the face of physical/mystical experiences: "It is something completely unnamed and also unnameable that announces itself to me in such moments, a random revelation of my mundame environment filling me like a containter with an overflowing flood of higher life. . . . A watering can, a harrow left on the field, a dog in the sun, a poor churchyard, a cripple, a small farmhouse, any of these can become the container of my revelation." And in the face of these "revelations," Lord Chandos can't write a word.

I've been trying to finish an essay on Travis Low's and Torben Bernhard's film "The Sonosopher," and for a full month have been unable to write more than a phrase at any one time. Nonetheless, I've been alive with experiences like the ones Hofmannsthal has Lord Chandos report. A couple of mornings ago, for instance, well after dawn but just as the sun was finally clearing the mountains to the east, I walked our dog Blue along the hill by the house, dropping below the direct sunlight at times, rising into it at others. I stood at one point below the sunlight while Blue stood above me, arching his back and raising his tail to pee directly into the sun. The stream of urine flowed strong and burned a brilliant yellow-gold, shimmered with color so pure and bright that I quit breathing.

Tonight I sat on the deck short minutes after the sun had disappeared behind the mountains to the west and watched Blue, his light and dark yellow highlights still lit by Alpenglow, alert to sounds in the dry leaves below us, and found myself alive with sensation, alert to a thrill that overtook my body. It was how I feel when I wake out of a pleasant dream in the morning and lay in bed with first sun reaching my skin. It was like the satisfaction of oncoming sleep that blots out depression. It was like the spreading pleasure of gin-and-tonic as I watch Blue's alert yellows in the fading light. It's like the aftermath of sex. It's like the electric pleasure people with early MS report.

But focus on the essay? Not a chance.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sunday Bike Ride

This morning, my son-in-law Brandon and I rode our bikes from an elevation of 5000 feet to the microwave tower at 9000 feet. The tower overlooks the south part of Utah Valley, including the town of Woodland Hills just below. We had to scramble up a steep slope visible to the left of the one photo (the one of the mountain from our house), to the road that slants across from that left side up the canyon to the ride. The Dream Mine or Relief Mine people have the regular road gated off at the bottom, hence the need for the steep initial climb.

We rode for about 5 hours up and down, including a leisurely lunch near the helicopter landing pad next to the microwave tower.

In the one photo, I'm looking north-east over Spanish Fork Canyon to the Uintah Mountains. In the other, Brandon is trying out the landing-pad hammock that has him hanging above the whole world.