Monday, February 21, 2011

Conflicting Thoughts/Feelings

It has been an almost unbearably beautiful evening.

The light, of course, has a lot to do with it. Coming now from well north of the desolate southern regress of the dark winter solstice, the sun's late-afternoon light on Loafer Mountain (see photo) reminded me that the sun had appeared from behind the mountain this morning at 8:30, rather than the 9:00 appearance of just a week ago.

More light! Goethe's last words. And my constant hope.

A thirty-minute bike ride this afternoon up Woodland Hills' steep geography landed me just in front of a snowboarder as he failed to land a jump he and his friends had created at the top of the highest road in the town. Nice jump, I told him as I rode past in my bike shorts.

Much of the day was spent productively. I'm working on a paper for the conference of the International Kleist Association called "Andere Umstaende: Erection as Self Assertion in Heinrich von Kleist's "Die Marquise von O. . ." The day's scholarly highlight came when I found this passage in Schopenhauer's "The World as Will and Representation," published just a few years after Kleist's story of a woman raped while unconscious who finds her way to a decent new life when she decides to stand up (the metaphor abounds) and abandon the society and family constructed according to a system that has no room for her:

 "As an extensionless point," Schopenhauer argues, the present "cuts time which extends infinitely in both directions, and stands firm and immovable" (vol. 1, 280).  He identifies this standing present (a manifestation of the essential in things, of will) with the "nunc stans of the scholastics" (vol. 1, 279). A person who wills to live in that present, desirous of an eternal recurrence of both joy and sorrow, "would stand," Schopenhauer writes, quoting Goethe's "Grenzen der Menschheit," "with firm, strong bones on the well-grounded, enduring earth" (vol. 1, 284).    Schopenhauer says that such a standpoint (and he repeats the word "standpoint" [Standpunkt] four times), a living in the nunc stans, would arise if one were "clearly and distinctly oneself" (vol. 1, 285, 1818/19), that is, if one completely affirmed what he calls the "will-to-live."

Light is good. Scholarly productivity is good. Lyn's potato and leek soup is good for dinner. And then, reading Mathias Enard's novel Zone while listening to my son Tom's new recordings with his Big Bang Big Band (tight, swung, thoughtful, and surprising -- like the Strayhorn and Ellington models), I'm struck by the creative process as essentially human, as necessary for humanity, as secular salvation in the face of a chaotic and often dangerous world.

Enard's protagonist, a conflicted product and producer of espionage and torture and war, is on a train from Paris to Rome. He spends the night passage thinking about his brutal, alcoholic life, about the bitter knowledge he carries in his briefcase, about family and lovers and comrades in war. He's no sweetheart, for sure. He reminds me, tonight, of aspects of myself, of traits and habits I wish weren't there. And -- surprisingly -- he represents aspects to which I aspire. What attracts me to this man, I think, is his honesty, his admitted frailty, the depth of his self awareness. And the beautiful bleakness:

“. . . nothing returns from what has been destroyed, nothing is reborn, neither dead men, nor burned libraries, nor submerged lighthouses, nor extinct species, despite the museums commemorations statues books speeches good will, of things that have gone only a vague memory remains. . . .”

He quotes Ezra Pound, what feels like holy scripture from a poet who was no saint:

To confess wrong without losing rightness: Charity
   have I had sometimes, I cannot make it flow thru.
A little light, like a rushlight
To lead back to splendour.

Light. Even a little light. Exercise. Philosophy. Soup. Jazz. Introspection. Cynicism. The honesty to confess wrong without losing rightness.

Unbearably beautiful.

Friday, February 4, 2011

NOX / Immortal For Quite Some Time

I've just finishing reading/seeing Anne Carson's boxbook NOX.
"When my brother died I made an epitaph for him in the form of a book. This is a replica of it, as close as we could get," she notes on the back cover.

Nox. Night.

A poem by Catullus forms the backbone of the book -- Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus / advento has miseras, frater . . . -- each Latin word awarded, over the course of the book, a Latin/English dictionary entry so the reader can slowly translate the poem the way Carson translates the photos and remembered events and salvaged sentences of and from her brother. Almost every dictionary entry, a patient reader will discover, contains some reference to night:  multa -- multa nox: late in the night, perhaps too late; per -- per noctem in nihilo vehi: to vanish by night into nothing; etc. Do all words come back to nox? Is night the ground of our being? In an elegy, yes.

". . . what a distant mood of parents / handed down as the sad gift for burials -- / accept! soaked with tears of a brother / and into forever, brother, farewell and farewell."

New Directions has reproduced the handmade book beautifully, each page complete with almost real staples and indentations and all the things brought together or made by Anne Carson.
On the two pages pictured here she combines the entry for "belonging to a brother" and slices of her translation of the heartwrenching Catullus poem.

I too have been working on an epitaph for my brother John, an elegy worthy of his life. And I too am reduced to scraps, to things. Reduced? Rather confronted by the fact that that's all we ever have, that pretending to have the whole story is a lie. I'm grateful to have some of John's things, as I noted soon after his death:

1 August 1991, Orem
I still have John’s things, but what sense does it make to keep them? I make a list under the rubric "Personal Effects" that feels like a pre-cut dress for a paper doll until I look up the origin of "effect": ex + facere, to make. The things John accomplished. The things he made. His things, however ephemeral, however cheap, however predictable. 

John's Personal Effects

A large black plastic clock with red hands. The face displays a stylized eagle and the words Miller Genuine Draft Light, Cold Filtered. The second hand lurches in quartz-driven, one-second segments around a brass post.
Greasy running shoes, the soles cracked through.
A pair of stiff, resoled, black-leather lace-up shoes.
One small khaki-colored can: “Emergency Drinking Water.”
A black-painted cardboard African mask.
A life-sized bas-relief plaster bust of a Roman soldier. He wears a gold-plumed helmet and a black breastplate decorated with a lion’s head.
Ash trays: 1) stamped metal, round; 2) white-and-black porcelain shaped like the collar of a formal dress shirt with black tie; 3) heavy glass square with a line drawing of a grotesquely earnest smoker and the text: Smoking is Very Glamorous, Idaho Interagency Committee on Smoking and Health.
Two unwashed pots.
A frying pan.
Two forks.
Three spoons.
Three wooden-handled cooking knives.
A stainless-steel butter knife with a red-brown substance burnt onto both sides of the blade.
A metal box stuffed with yellowed recipe cards.
Kitchen Consultations, Favorite Recipes of the University of California Doctors’ Wives Association.
One set of car keys.
A heavy ten-speed bicycle, both tires flat.
An aluminum bicycle pump.
A dirty green backpack holding several bicycle parts.
A black-and-white TV, encased in white plastic, and a separate rabbit-ears antenna.
A small GE radio, missing its battery cover.
A Dylan Thomas poem, typed out and taped to a cupboard: Do not go gentle into that good night.
A framed quotation from Ayn Rand: If I had one desire in this world, it would be to desire something.
One condom, still sealed in plastic; PRIME, Lubricated with SK-70.
Handwritten IOU’s for the Cactus Bar. $5, $10, and $20 denominations.
1990 Pocket Pal – handwritten addresses and telephone numbers.
Newspaper and magazine clippings in an imitation leather briefcase.
A manila envelope containing legal papers.
PUPPIES, a 1990 Calendar marked with several hand-written notes.
3 ballpoint pens and a blue plastic pencil sharpener.

A black nylon wallet. Inside, a photo of a woman in her sixties, a water-damaged photo of a red-faced infant, a Social Security card (585-46-4127), a Boise Public Library Card, and $203 in bills.
$7.12 in coins.
             A blue sport bag.
Masking tape. Written on the fat roll with a black marker: J. Abbott 1132 S. 4th #3.
Liquid Ivory soap.
A small bottle of Wella Balsam Conditioning Shampoo for Dry Hair.
Suave Shampoo Plus Conditioner for Normal to Dry Hair.
A small bottle of Listerine Antiseptic.
2 bars of Lux, The Pure Beauty Soap.
A large-toothed red plastic comb with handle and a matching red-handled brush with black nylon bristles.
A bottle of aspirin.
MAX FOR MEN hair drier.
A yellow toothbrush.
Curity, wet-pruf adhesive tape.
Four TELFA sterile pads and one band-aid.
Plastic sunglasses.
A one-edged razor blade.
A 100-tablet bottle of Advanced Formula Centrum, High Potency Multivitamin-Multimineral Formula. From A to Zinc. Expiration Date Oct. 93. There are 115 tablets.
26 grey, green, red, or white matchbooks advertising The Interlude Bar & Grill in Boise. A stylized young woman kneels to consider her putt. Her left hand holds her putter, her right hand a martini.
A green matchbook advertises Free Cash Grants: Call 1-900-USA-RICH. Valuable Money Making Information and the ABC’s of Receiving FREE Money from the Government. Now the one dollar per minute two dollar first minute charge is the first step to RICHES.
Nine Kent III Ultra Light Cigarettes.
A burlap-covered corkboard. Glued to the top of the burlap is a black paper cross. A hand points upward toward the cross. A pair of lightning bolts. At the bottom bold letters spell ONE WAY. Four magazine photos have been thumbtacked over the Christian display. Two of them feature similarly posed electric-haired women, one white, one black, both coyly shirtless. The other two photos show the shaved, blindfolded heads of two black women against a chain-link fence.
Two posters from the Monterey Jazz Festival, 1982 and 1983: trumpets standing on chairs.
A poster of a fantasy landscape: castle and dragon and hero and princess.
A 10” x 14” pencil drawing of a hooked trout.
A framed magazine photo of camels dark against fire-lit clouds.
A magazine photo of an eagle perched in front of a brilliant sunset.
A framed painting of a demure little girl with long red hair.
A spool of navy-blue thread.
A needle with a loop of purple thread.
An old pair of Levis; five patches sewn with meticulous stitches.
A worn satin comforter, rust-colored on one side, tan on the other.
A blue quilt tied with red yarn. Splotches of white paint, cigarette burns, and grease spots.
Three pair of black-and-white-checked restaurant uniform pants.
Two heavily starched white chef’s hats.
Two collarless chef’s jackets. Starched, with tightly woven cloth buttons.
Eleven pastel-colored knit shirts advertising the 25th Interlude Open. A young woman kneels with putter and martini.
A pair of grey sweat pants and a grey sweat shirt.
T-shirt: FALLIN’ ANGELLS SPORTING CLUB, Angell’s Bar & Grill, Boise, Idaho.
T & A CAFÉ T-shirt – Where the “ELITE” meet to “EAT.”
A wheeled brown vinyl bag with strap handles.
Three sweaters, colors faded, one unraveling at the left cuff.
A worn leather-and-canvas coat.
Two limp bed sheets.
Cassette Tapes: The Best of Judas Priest; Guns and Roses – Appetite for Destruction; Anthrax – State of Euphoria; Foghat Live.
A plastic ruler with geometric formulas and the admonition: Stay in School, Upon Graduation . . . Join the Aerospace Team, U.S. Air Force.
Twenty-six paperback novels, most of them missing the front cover. Eric v. Lustbader dominates the pile, but there are others as well:
Neon Mirage, by Max Allan Collins: Mob Justice . . . Another shotgun blast ate into the side of Ragen’s once-proud Lincoln.
Vision of the Hunter, by John Tempest: In his hands, his people’s future. In her eyes, the promise of a love stronger than time.
Burt Hirshfeld's Moment of Power: The savage new shocker. . . .
Superconscious Meditation, by Panda Arya, Ph.D.
Self Hypnosis: The Creative Use of Your Mind for Successful Living, by Charles Tebbetts.
Louis L’Amour’s Education of a Wandering Man.
The Magnificent Century, by Thomas B. Costain.
Home as Found, by J. Fenimore Cooper.
Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness: Banned in the U.S. . . . Forward by Havelock Ellis.
Hoyle's Rules of Games, Second Revised Edition.
Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.
Readers Digest: Secrets of Better Cooking.
Basic Documents Supplement to International Law: Cases and Materials.
ETCETERA: The Unpublished Poems of E.E. Cummings.
The dust jacket of a Modern Library edition: The Philosophy of Kant. The book itself is missing.
            Five spiral notebooks: two of them green-and-tan; one blue-and-tan; one yellow; one blue. Notes and drawings in John’s hand throughout.