Wednesday, November 30, 2011


 The organizers of the Vanderbilt Kleist Conference (April 2011) sent photos from the event as they try to pry the last manuscripts from delinquent scholars for the proceedings of the conference.

Images of myself often make me wonder about identity; and these were no exception.

Who am I in the context of painted koi, listening to a paper on Kleist? Who am I while reading a paper I have written? Who am I in an unaccustomed suit and tie?

Am I, in other words, who I appear to be? Am I the sum of what I'm thinking at the moment? Am I what I look like? Am I what I produce?

And if the latter is the case, then I'm as much the woodpile I stacked yesterday morning as I am the paper on "Erection as Assertion" that will be published next year.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Three Pages from Bento's Sketchbook

Just finished reading John Berger's latest book, "Bento's Sketchbook: How does the impulse to draw something begin?"

As so often with Berger, this is a series of short meditations, loosely drawn together by Berger's reading of Spinoza (Bento short for Benedict) and his sketches in a book dedicated to Spinoza.

Tyranny is the subject of two of the pages I scanned, a topic I've been thinking about while working on Handke's "Voyage by Dugout" and while reading an advance copy of Brian Evenson's novel "Immobility." "You know what word I never want to hear again," a character says in Handke's play: "neighbor. Fuck the neighbor. Death to the neighbor." Evenson's book is about forced community, a post-catastrophe world in which the authorities artificially lame an especially talented person to get him to do their bidding.

Berger writes about today's global tyranny in which differences between rich and poor are institutionalized. Handke writes about Marscorporations that use international events to forge soi disant community by vilifying some group, in this case the Serbs. All three texts echo messages of the Occupy Movement.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


It has been a long trip, but the end is in sight. As you can see by the condition of the book in the photo, it and I have done a lot of work together.

Here's a snippet from the beginning of the trip:

1:30 a.m., 1 June 1998
            I’m sitting in my room in the Hotel Višegrad, looking out onto the Drina and the Turkish bridge, still lit by floodlamps. The bridge’s eleven arches are reflected in the silky black river. A nightingale calls from across the river. I’ve never heard a nightingale; but it can be nothing else. Unmistakable. It calls again, and then again. It’s indescribably romantic. I’m alone in my room.
            From the terrace below there is an occasional burst of laughter from Peter, Zlatko, Thomas, and Žarko, who are still talking with the two women from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the younger one from Spain, the older from France. We argued for hours about the role of organizations like theirs in Yugoslavia.
            How long have you been in Yugoslavia? Peter asked the French woman.
For a year-and-a-half, she answered.
Do you speak Serbo-Croatian? Peter asked.
No, she answered. I’ve been too busy to learn. The first town I was in was under attack for nine months. I worked through an interpreter.
You are here to tell the people how to run their country and you don’t understand their language! Peter exclaimed. You can’t bother to learn their language?
Who are you? the woman asked. What are you doing here? What gives you the moral right to judge what I’m doing?
Go home, Peter said.
Fuck you, the woman said.
Go home.
Fuck you.
The night air had chilled, and the French woman was shivering. Peter took his coat from the back of his chair and draped it around her shoulders. There, he said, that will help.
Fuck you, she said, and pulled the coat around herself.

A year later the trip continued:

6 June 1999, Vienna

           In the city center, I stumble onto a Sunday-evening demonstration against NATO and for Yugoslavia. “NATO – fascistik, NATO – fascistik!” the crowd of maybe 2000 chants.
Back in my room, unable to sleep, I turn back to my translation of Peter’s new play. I wish Žarko were here to compare notes. How did he translate “Fertigsatzpisse”? Pissing your finished, your modular sentences? Sentential piss?
At 10:30 I watch a report on Peter done for Austrian TV (ÖRF2). Peter’s crime, the reporter and his commentators agree, is that he is a “Serbenfreund,” a friend of the Serbs. Not good to be a friend of the enemy. Peter should have known better, it’s an old story: Jap lover, Kraut lover, Jew lover, Nigger lover, Serb lover.
I turn off the sentential piss and return to Peter’s play. Before midnight I’m out of paper. I write across the face of my travel itinerary. I fill margins. By one a.m., having exhausted all possibilities, I look through the cupboards and drawers in my room. The drawer of the night table opens to a Gideon Bible, in the back of which are ten blank pages. I decide the hand of God has provided and rip them out and continue translating till first light. 

9 June 1999, before midnight, Žarko's birthday, Vienna

I ought to go to bed, but I'm still reeling from the events of the day.
Several hours ago NATO and the Yugoslav Parliament came to some kind of agreement ending the bombing after 78 days.
And, I'm just back from the world premiere of Peter's “The Play of the Film of the War,” directed by Claus Peymann. I’ve seldom been this moved, this challenged, by a work of art.
The really bad guys of the play, three “Internationals” who know all the answers, who dictate all the terms, who can think only in absolutes, appear on the stage as follows: “Three mountainbike riders, preceded by the sound of squealing brakes, burst through the swinging door, covered with mud clear up to their helmets. They race through the hall, between tables and chairs, perilously close to the people sitting there.” American and European moralists, functionaries with no hint of self-irony or humor, absolutists who run the world because of their economic power – these sorry excuses for human beings were depicted this evening as mountainbike riders.
           “Žarko,” I said, “Don’t you ever tell Peter I ride a mountainbike.”
           “No, my friend,” he whispered, “I’d never do that.”
           The play drew on several incidents from our trip, including when Peter put his coat around the shoulders of the OSCE woman in Visegrad. After the play, flushed with enthusiasm and insight, I told Peter how well he had integrated a real event into an imaginative play. “Brilliant to put her and her friends on mountainbikes!”
          “Doktor Scott,” he chided, “Doktor Scott. Always on duty.” 

And now, thirteen years later, after trying 20 or 25 potential publishers, one of which backed out at the last minute out of fear of what Susan Sontag might think, I've just sent off the translation to PAJ, the Performing Arts Journal published by MIT Press. It will appear in May. Makes me happy, even as I and the book have seen better days.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Mrs. Robinson, Jesus Loves You

1966, Farmington, New Mexico
            Late-afternoon light diffuse in the old Mormon chapel. The sacrament meeting is already an hour gone. The man standing at the pulpit intones the word of God. Sixteen-year-old boys and girls sit thigh to thigh in the back row, pass notes, play games on paper, brush hands.

July 1967, Farmington
            DR. GENE SMITH, ORTHOPEDIC SURGEON. I have swept his parking lot, watered his shrubs, cleaned his office, transcribed his tapes, and once almost fainted while I held a basin of warm water into which he squirted fatty yellow fluid drawn from deep inside a man’s knee through an enormous needle.
            Today, I’m working in the red glow of the darkroom, developing a set of x-rays. I pull the film from the chemical bath and hang the sheets to drip dry. I turn on the fluorescent screen behind them.
Gistening reproductions of Claudia Colter’s spine.
The bones curve ever so slightly from the delicate vertebrae of her neck down to the right and then back to the left before disappearing between the bright wings of her hips.
The bright wings of her hips.
            Again I trace the scoliostic curve, ghostly against the black film, deviating so beautifully from the strictly vertical. I study the dim arcs of ribs that frame her spine, the cunningly articulated vertebrae snaking down between the ribs. I picture Claudia in the next room, naked under the examination gown.
The thoughts arouse me, confuse me. I’m feeling what I’ve learned, in church, to distinguish as the fire of the Holy Ghost. I worship these pale images.
The door opens. It’s Dr. Smith: So what have we got?

January 1968, Provo, Utah

And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson,
Jesus loves you more than you will know . . .

The Graduate and his girlfriend flee her seductive and wrathful mother to an upbeat soundtrack, and I leave the theater happy for them, free with them, disgusted by "plastics" and convention. But the "Jesus loves you" unsettles me. I wish Jesus and the seduction that had my full attention (Mrs. Robinson’s parting knees!) weren't so snugly intertwined.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Through a Glass Darkly

In class today we talked about Brian Evenson's "Contagion," about the long page detailing dozens of kinds of barbed wire. It felt, despite its tight focus, like a window onto a whole world. I thought of Bolano's 2666 and of the hundreds of pages that catalogue the deaths of women in Juarez. Again, the accumulation adds up finally, patiently, to a whole world. And then my thoughts turned, as they so often do, to the list of my brother's possessions at his death. For the second time (the repetition doubles the accumulation) I post the list:

31 July 1991, Orem   
            In the afternoon sunshine, John’s death certificate glows bright green on my desk.
            Never married.
            Sex: Male.
            Not a veteran.
            Autopsy, yes.
The sun transforms the books on the north wall into an ordered riot of colors.
The coroner told us John had never tested positive for AIDS. Otherwise his name would have been in a national database.
On the radio this afternoon there was an interview with a Utah AIDS patient. We all, he said, feel immortal for quite some time.

1 August 1991, Orem
I still have John’s things, but what sense does it make to keep them? I make a list under a rubric that feels like a pre-cut dress for a paper doll:

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.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Memories from Childhood

Just finished reading Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table, a beautiful, quiet, and sometimes unsettling evocation of childhood memories from a three-week sea journey from Sri Lanka to London, the events of which still weigh heavy in the narrator's mind.

Made me think of my own childhood.

March 1950, Farmington, New Mexico
In what eventually will become our hometown, for three days running, good citizens report seeing flying saucers. Between eleven and noon each day, hundreds of the alien craft thrill builders and teachers, cooks and civil servants, farmers and trading-post operators.
I was born seven months before the aliens were reported in Farmington. John was born fourteen months after their coming.
I have never seen a flying saucer. Nor, to my knowledge, did John.

September 1954, Paonia, Colorado
            The little engine keeps leaving the tracks to frolic in meadows. Flowers snagged in his wheels betray him. Pedagogical engineers hide in a meadow and jump up with red flags when he turns their way. He gives up frolicking, stays on the tracks, and grows into a good puller-of-trains.
            I put down my Golden Book to watch flatcars stacked with fruit boxes rattle past our log house. My mother leads me across the street to a warehouse. She knocks at a side door. It slides open. She passes her warm bread and a pot of steaming pinto beans through the opening to a dark-eyed woman holding a brown-skinned baby at her breast.

1956, Montpelier, Idaho
            My friend Bernie shows me the litter of birth-wet puppies under his front porch. Their father, he says . . . my dad said their father was a dead daddy horse.

1957, Montpelier, Lincoln Elementary School
            Pots, rings, or chase. We lay out our games of marbles on the playground. I drop my winnings into a blue-and-white-striped bag Mom made from a leg of a pair of overalls. It grows fat and heavy. I knot the drawstring carefully.
            When I’m not playing marbles, I watch a girl with patent-leather shoes swing so high the chains go slack. Her shoes flash in the sun. Her black hair flies in the wind. She knows I watch her.

1958, Montpelier
            Mrs. Sharp has enrolled us in a reading contest. We write titles and authors’ names on lined paper. I speed through dozens of little paperbacks. My list grows and grows. Mrs. Sharp awards me a round steel medal engraved with my name and the number of books I have read: 129.
1960, Farmington, New Mexico
            If it weren’t for our fierce soccer games on Ladera del Norte’s dirt field, I would gladly skip lunch to sit in class where our teacher reads another chapter of Little Britches. He’s tough. Determined. Good with horses. Ingenious. Saves his wages.