The Review of Arts, Literature,           
Philosophy and the Humanities

The Best of www.ralphmag.org
Volume Thirty-One
Early Winter, 2007

The Coldest Winter
A Stringer in
Liberated Europe

Paula Fox
(Picador)
Back when I was a kid in New Jersey, one of my father's business partners introduced me to Gene Tunney. In those days, Tunney was quite famous, rich, and, it was said, a gentleman. I remember him as being large, and kindly-looking. My tiny hand disappeared in those enormous paws.

I wasted no time telling my friends. "Guess who I met?" "Who?" "Gene Tunney." "Who?" "You know, the boxer. He shook my hand. He was ... well, huge." My mother happened to hear this dialogue and took me aside and told me that respectable people didn't go around bragging about famous people they knew, much less just met.

Too bad Mum is not around to scold Ms. Fox, author of The Coldest Winter. She could certainly use a bit of a talking-to about this name-drop business. Paul Robeson. Lawrence Olivier. Miles Davis. Winston Churchill. And would you believe Jean-Paul Sartre? She gave him, she would have us believe, a lecture. On California.

And while she was about it, maybe Mum could give Ms. Fox a few pointers on writing. My mother was a high-school English teacher, notoriously tough on people who broke the rules of good grammar, who ignored Strunk and White's rule of short and to-the-point sentences.

Oh if she were just here to read some of Fox's whoppers, and, maybe, read her the riot act:

  • My ravenous interest in those days was aroused by anything.[!]
  • He had a vehemently Polish face.[!!]
  • He opened his door with his usual disbelieving smile.[!!!]
  • Even as I heard it, I was haunted --- and I am still --- by the piercing thorn of Peter Pear's voice and the severe and unfamiliar fourteenth-century English words.

§     §     §

Paula Fox went off to England in 1946 and with some family connections, landed a job as news correspondent for a peer, here identified as "Sir Andrew." He said he wanted to build a news service to compete with Reuters. She spent some time in England, writing and gathering names to drop later in life. Then she went off to Paris, spent some time in Poland during its first post-WWII election, and ended up in Spain.

The Coldest Winter smells like something brewed up to capitalize on an earlier hit, Borrowed Finery, which got raves in all the right places ... (O, NYTBR, Washington Post). However, to judge by this one, the author must have twisted a few famous arms here or there to reap so many complimentary reviews.

Everyone who appears in this book is dirty, or cold, or raggedy, or evil, or insensitive. The bulk of it takes place during the coldest winter of the last century --- 1946 - 1947. The focus of the section is a Mrs. Grassner, a depressed and depressing fellow-journalist who wore "an inappropriate lady's hat." Outside of Grassner's hat, Fox's most profound memory of her visit to Poland is Swidnica, a model Jewish community. She was astonished by the crap. No shit: "The only color on the ground was the snow-dusted piles of frozen horse manure."

--- Michael Saunders


Ambers Aglow:
An Anthology of Contemporary
Polish Women's Poetry

Regina Grol, Editor
(Host, 2717 Wooldridge
Austin TX 78703)
There are twenty-nine poets represented here, over two hundred poems in a well-organized face-en-face edition.

Most readers will recognize the Nobel Prize-winner Wislawa Szymborska, but names of few of the others will ring a bell.

The subjects and passions are not just wondrous, there are many that are unapologetically bitter. The word might be "feminist" but that would be too easy. Better, the works of Benka, Hartwig, and Kapuscinska represent centuries of women being cast down, cast out as inferiors. Between the Germans and the Russians, the lot of most Polish women in the twentieth century was horrific. If the writing is bloody and ferocious, the pain of being brutalized merits such.

This anthology appeared over a decade ago. It was not widely appreciated, nor reviewed. It deserves better.

--- Ruth Stein

§     §     §

Advice for Her
Who Was Named
A Woman

Julia Hartwig
Since that's how he has stipulated you
since that's how all have stipulated you
live up to their expectations
learn to be whimsical and flirtatious
but above all don't attempt to rely on logic and your brains
you won't match his centuries of experience anyway
and even if you were to succeed
no one will listen to you anyway
for they always listen when a man speaks but ignore a speaking woman

that's how it's been for centuries
people let the words of an old woman pass by their ears
but admire an old man and laugh at his stories

So rule the roost while you're still young
win anything you can while there's still time
tease him and be unfaithful
make him pay for your favors
don't give him a moment of peace nor of contemplation
don't allow him a moment of concentration or of privacy
bandy the concept of betrayal and accuse him of infamies
          of all sorts
may there be pell-mell in your imprecations
may there be no shred of truth in your accusations
believe me there's no defense against such behavior

Also don't forget to humiliate him endlessly
otherwise he may feel he's the master of the world
or accomplish something which would fill him with pride or vanity
distancing him from you
Keep him in mediocrity it passed the test of ages with flying colors
may he not risk too much nor expose himself to public judgment
why should you become the wife of a condemned man or a widow
which is the worst fate for a woman

And when age will change your features and your figure
nag and be petty and cunning
Don't ever allow him to delve into matters removed from daily life
that would be your undoing
his religiosity should not go beyond formulas
and his mind should not engage in higher speculations

Woman I tell you be yourself
Females who became reasonable and yielding
paid too high a price for it and their sacrifices were in vain
I advise you then give in to your instincts of
           thoughtless willfulness and sloth

be selfish and dissolute and the sages' expectations will be fulfilled
you'll confirm folk sayings and the hidden fears of your lover or husband
whose mind and ability to see were taken away by
          momentary madness
but conformity with an accepted custom sanctified the betrothal to a devil
in a woman's skirt

--- From Ambers Aglow


Beethoven
The Universal Composer
Edmund Morris
John McDonough, Reader

(Recorded Books)
Beethoven was a strange duck indeed. As he walked the streets of Vienna, he would wave his arms about, mutter, call out, sing. He would go in a café, sit, groaning to himself, forget to order, sit some more, and then ask for the bill. Or he would eat, drink a bottle of wine, then get up and leave without paying ... because he had simply forgotten where he was.

He could be a royal pain, literally: He tried to brain one of his patrons with a chair; he stood in the door of another prince's castle, called him "oaf." It got so bad that the Archduke Rudolph decreed that the usual rules of court etiquette did not apply to Beethoven.

He was probably the first musician to bring to mind the cliché of the potty genius. Certainly Telemann, Bach, Haydn, Vivaldi, Rameau, and Couperin didn't try to brain one of their patrons or accuse the servants of spying on them.

This is not to say that Beethoven was without guile. In his first months in Vienna, he borrowed 500 guilders from Haydn at the same time that he was receiving contributions from his patron in Bonn. Haydn was not pleased. When, later in his life, Beethoven composed the massive "Missa Solemnis," he tried to fob it off on various publishers, succeeded in selling it to more than one, claimed --- falsely --- that he had cut it into three separate Masses. It was a Ponzi scheme made up of cadenzas.

His piano playing --- before he went completely deaf --- was astounding: he was a jazz musician before there were jazz musicians. He would take a theme from Mozart, say, and spend an hour or so weaving it about, entrancing all. When not composing, or performing, he would be fighting with his brothers, or with his nephew Alex, or Alex's mother, or the servants. The legal documents filed in his attempt to get young Alex away from his sister-in-law Johanna are alarmingly misogynistic.

Morris claims that Beethoven was bipolar in his daily life and in his music. He was born swarthy, was called "the bear" and "the Spaniard." He was built more or less along the lines of a fire-hydrant, and sometimes, when spouting music, or ideas, or rage, acted like one. His face was pock-marked, his hair unruly, his humor coarse, but, because of his genius, he was admitted to the highest levels of society in Bonn and Vienna. He learned how to act the gentleman --- when he cared to.

Vienna was his home for most of his life. In his time there, he was prized, pawed over, permitted to be eccentric if not downright boorish. His long-suffering patrons paid exorbitant sums for his sonatas, chamber music, and symphonies. His first major work, composed when he was nineteen, was a cantata on the death of Emperor Josef II of Austria. Most of us are unfamiliar with that work, but Morris claims that it is a startling piece of music, with hints of the startling works to come.

§     §     §

Beethoven was often ill. Colic, arthritis, gout, asthma, jaundice, liver complaints, lung problems, headaches, pneumonia, various diseases of the day, and --- the one that did him in --- lead poisoning. When he wasn't flat on his back --- as he had been during a dry period in much of 1822 --- he was filling notebooks with snatches of this and that, exhortations to himself, bits and pieces of songs, sonatas, and symphonies, insults, bad jokes, mots drawn from the Bible or from Eastern religious works. When he turned deaf, the notebooks were used for questions (or answers) to friends and visitors. Some of these still survive.

When he wasn't composing and fighting with people, he was moving somewhere else in Vienna. At one time he was paying rent on four apartments, leaving one, clearing out his massive collection of notebooks and manuscripts from another, preparing to move into another, renting a summer place in Baden.

As kids we had been told that Beethoven was stone-cold deaf because his father would box his ears when he didn't perform well at the piano. Morris says no: It was probably an infectious disease. They always say that deafness is the cruelest tragedy that could befall a composer yet our biographer states that Beethoven went through "to the other side." There's a wonderful quote from an English visitor from 1820, John Russell. He found the composer "communing with himself at the keyboard:"

    When playing very piano, he often does not bring out a single note. He hears it himself in the "mind's ear." While his eye, and the almost imperceptible motion of his fingers, show that he is following the strain in his own soul through its dying gradations, the instrument is actually as dumb as the musician is deaf.

In later years, he would attend rehearsals of his newest works, would watch the performers, watch their hands, how the violinists were bowing, which keys the oboists were touching, and would know, by sight alone, who was misreading his manuscript.

§     §     §

Morris doesn't seem to miss much, in Beethoven's character, or in his life story, or in the social and political upheavals of the time. But what Morris is best seems to be most difficult for the rest of us: writing about music, what Beethoven accomplished --- what he did that was new in (say) --- his Opus 18 Quartets; how he broke new ground with the Opus 131; how he created a musical revolution that would in later years touch the likes of Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, and Webern.

And then there's the story of the Ninth Symphony. It was put together, in bits and pieces, over fifteen years. As its text, it used Schiller's "Ode to Joy:"

    Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
    Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!
    Brüder, überm Sternenzelt
    Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen!

    (Be embraced, you millions!
    This kiss for the entire world!
    Brothers, above the starry canopy
    Must a loving Father reside.)

Later, Schiller himself considered the poem to be somewhat overcooked but when time came to sell it to patrons, Beethoven was able to drum up more than a few guilders, despite the lurid if not starry lyrics.

§     §     §

John McDonough is a fine reader, and Morris knows how to compose a good sentence. Even better, he knows how to turn the evanescence of music into words, so that one is longing to rehear, for example, the conclusion of the "Emperor Concerto:"

    Even as Beethoven composed the final climax, he allowed it to collapse, as if exhaustion and something very like fear was setting in: a gradual slowing of tempo down to near stasis, over drum taps that grow weaker beat by beat.

Morris may overdo it from time to time, saying, for instance, that the Missa Solemnis is "greater, even, than the B-minor Mass." If we can fault his occasional overstatements, we cannot but admire his care and affection for his subject.

--- A. W. Allworthy


Ticket to Exile
A Memoir
Adam David Miller
(Heyday Books)
He lived in Orangeburg, South Carolina before World War Two. He was an avid reader ... intelligent, searching --- but couldn't afford a university education. He ended up in a shoe repair shop.

In 1942, when he was nineteen, using his new Royal typewriter, he sent a love note to a white girl who worked at the 5&10 just around the corner. "I would like to get to know you better," it said. He sent the note with two matches so she could burn it.

She didn't. Within twenty-four hours, he was in jail, accused of attempted rape.

Miller tells us that his mother, a single black woman with two boys, managed to bring herself from "destitution to poverty" by working seven days a week --- $7/week --- in a county hospital. Even when his stepfather was still around, food was hard to come by. "I remember the smell of roasted rats that my parents used to supplement our diet."

    Rats would be trapped, skinned, and roasted over a skimpy fire. The smell was unique, unlike any I remember since.

During his youth, his mother moved eleven times there in Orangeburg, often because there was no money to pay the landlord. At his high school, he graduated with honors, and he was invited to give the commencement address. When he stood up and said, "I greet you all," he was laughed down by his fellow students. Why? A recent accident had knocked out one of his front teeth, and there was no money for a dentist.

Because the wage-scale was so low, black shop-owners would pay no more than the whites. Even now, seventy years later, Miller wonders at his honesty: "Why I did not steal like the others is beyond me."

Death was a constant in their lives. Miller lost his favorite sister to rheumatic fever when she was twelve. There was an accident near his grandmother's farm: "An older black man had been walking at night along a highway. A group of white boys who had been drinking ran over him. They said it was dark and they didn't see him, 'black as he was.'"

§     §     §

In the introduction to Ticket to Exile, Miller relates that one of his readers said she was "angry about what happened to me and felt that I should have expressed more outrage." But any reader with brains knows that Miller's life was an outrage. The white schools in Orangeburg were well-equipped while his own had no science laboratory, no lawn, and he and other blacks were forced to contribute books from their own collections to build the school library.

One might want to compare this one to Black Boy by Richard Wright (it came out in 1946, was the first book , for many Americans, to demonstrate the implicit and explicit cruelty of segregation). Both books are studied and measured --- at once tragic and exhilarating: life does go on, even in the most oppressive of worlds. Wright took himself north because of his readings; Miller was forced into exile because of writing a single, short note of longing for friendship.

As studies in American racial culture, both books should be read. As works of art, both are astonishing.

--- L. W. Milam


Grass
Not much evidence, on a walk through town,
That the god in whose image we've been created
Is passionate about justice, not when compared
To the evidence of his love for grass.
Just look at the these lawns,
How cared for they are, how cherished,
The meager ones as well as the grand.

Maybe the planet was once all grass,
A grass-bound weekend retreat for a god
Who refreshed himself, after weekday duties,
With leisurely walks over springy greensward,
With mowing, edging, and watering,
Like any grass-lover in the neighborhood.

A planet all for himself at first, though later,
After his schedule at work became so crowded
That he rarely managed to get away,
He thought of adding fauna to keep the blades
From growing so thick they choked themselves.
Hence the drilling and nibbling insects,
Hence the chomping and browsing quadrupeds.

And when the crowds of grass-eaters grew so great
That the fields were overgrazed, the roots endangered,
He had to create some eaters of meat as well.
And when the carnivores threatened to thin the flocks
To nothing, he thought us up, us hunters and herders
With a passion for grass the equal of his.

That was the plan, though he must have been vexed
By the struggles for land that soon followed.
He must have been hurt when the landless clustered in cities
And later when cities gradually muscled outward
With brick and blacktop into glade and meadow.
What a shock for him when he found,
At the edge of the woods, his favorite trail
Blocked by the parking lot of another church
Built in his honor, another mosque or synagogue.

It shouldn't be any surprise that his visits
Ceased long ago, that now when he gives a report
To the gods of other realms met in assembly,
He lists our planet as one of the few
Failed experiments in his dominions.

Your mistake, says one of the other delegates,
Was supposing a god could do his job
Responsibly in a five-day work week.
Your mistake, says another, was thinking yourself
So needed at work that you skimped on the pleasure
Of witnessing how the grass was getting on.

--- From Unknown Friends
Carl Dennis
©2007 Penguin Books
A review of this book can be found at
www.ralphmag.org/EQ/carl-dennis.html


Carl Friedrich Gauss
Meets Immanuel Kant
When he reached Königsberg Gauss was almost out of his mind with exhaustion, back pain, and boredom. He had no money for an inn, so he went straight to the university and got directions from a stupid-looking porter. Like everyone here, the man spoke a peculiar dialect, the streets looked foreign, the shops had signs that were incomprehensible, and the food in the taverns didn't smell like food. He had never been so far from home.

At last he found the address. He knocked; after a long wait a dust-enshrouded old man opened the door and, before Gauss could introduce himself, said the most gracious gentleman was not receiving visitors.

Gauss tried to explain who he was and where he'd come from.

The most gracious gentleman, the servant repeated, was not receiving. He himself had been working here longer than anyone would believe possible and he had never disobeyed an order.

Gauss pulled out letters of recommendation from Zimmerman, Kastner, Lichtenberg, and Pfaff. He insisted, said Gauss again. He could well imagine that there were a lot of visitors and that self-protection was necessary. But, and he must say this unequivocally, he was not just some nobody.

The servant had a think. His lips moved silently, and he didn't seem to know what to do next. Well, he murmured eventually, went inside, and left the door open.

Gauss followed him hesitantly down a short, dark hallway into a little room. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the half-light before he saw an ill-fitting window, a table, an armchair, and in it a motionless little dwarf wrapped in blankets: puffy lips, protruding forehead, thin, sharp nose. The eyes were half-open but didn't look at him. The air was so thick that it was almost impossible to breathe. Hoarsely he enquired if this might be the professor.

Who else, said the servant.

He moved over to the armchair and with trembling hands took out a copy of the Disquisitiones, on the flyleaf of which he had inscribed some words of veneration and thanks. He held out the book to the little man, but no hand lifted to take it. The servant instructed him in a whisper to put the book on the table.

In a hushed voice, he made his request: he had ideas he had never been able to share with anyone. For example, it seemed to him that Euclidean space did not, as per the Critique of Pure Reason, dictate the form of our perceptions and thus of all possible varieties of experience, but was, rather, a fiction, a beautiful dream. The truth was extremely strange: the proposition that two given parallel lines never touched each other had never been provable, not by Euclid, not by anyone else. But it wasn't at all obvious, as everyone had always assumed. He, Gauss, was thinking that the proposition was false. Perhaps there were no such things as parallels. Perhaps space also made it possible, provided one had a line and a point next to it, to draw infinite numbers of different parallels through this one point. Only one thing was certain: space was folded, bent, and extremely strange.

It felt good to utter all this out loud for the first time. The words were already coming faster, and his sentences were forming themselves of their own accord. This wasn't just some intellectual game! He maintained that ... He was moving toward the window but a horrified squeak from the little man brought him to a halt. He maintained that a triangle of sufficient size, stretched between three stars out there, if measured exactly would have a different sum of its angles from the hundred-and-eighty-degree assumed total, and thus would prove itself to be a spherical body. When he looked up, gesticulating, he saw the cobwebs on the ceiling, in layers, all woven together into a kind of mat. One day it would be possible to achieve measurements like that! But that was a long way off, and meanwhile he needed the opinion of the only man who wouldn't think he was mad, and would definitely understand him. The man who had taught the world more about space and time than any other human being. He crouched down, so that his face was level with the little man's. He waited. The little eyes looked at him.

Sausage, said Kant.

Pardon?

Buy sausage, said Kant to the servant. And stars. Buy stars too. Gauss stood up.

I have not lost all my manners, said Kant. Gentlemen! A drop of spittle ran down his cheek.

The gracious gentleman was tired, said the servant.

Gauss nodded. The servant stroked Kant's cheek with the back of his hand. The little man smiled weakly. They went out, the servant said goodbye with a silent bow. Gauss would gladly have given him some money, but he had none. At a distance he heard dark voices singing. The prison choir, said the servant. They'd always mightily disturbed the gracious gentleman.

--- From Measuring the World
Daniel Kehlmann
Carol Brown Janeway, Translator
©2006 Pantheon Books
A review of the book can be found at
www.ralphmag.org/EQ/humboldt.html


Debussy
The Quiet Revolutionary
Victor Lederer
(Amadeus Press)
This Debussy was hardly, as Lederer dubs him, "a revolutionary." He certainly wasn't quiet. In his critical comments in Le Revue Blanche, Debussy called Wagner's music "a beautiful sunset that has been mistaken for a sunrise." And he wrote that the music of Frederick Delius was

    very sweet, very pale --- music to soothe convalescents in well-to-do neighborhoods.
As for Debussy's music, those of us who have had to spend endless hours listening to endless background classical music stations trotting out the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn or that laconic iconic soft-soap La Mer have learned from simple overexposure that this is music beyond the pale: perfect for the well-to-do convalescents that throng the Philharmonic Tuesday evening concerts.

Lederer tells us that Debussy was a good cook, interesting to women, bad with money and a lousy tennis player. He also tells us that when Debussy first heard Javanese gamelan music at the Exposition Universalle in 1889, it "blew his conceptual doors and windows wide open." 'Allo?

The writer also tells us that Claude Debussy was not only a "major composer," but, that, perhaps "he ranks with the greatest." If he is offering up Bach, Schubert, Monteverdi, Handel, Haydn, Vivaldi and Scarlatti as "the greatest," and somehow wants to include Debussy, you can let me off the bus right here. In the company of Chopin, Mahler, Fauré, Ravel and that big boor Jacques Ibert ... well, maybe. Do you know that one of my friends calls Ibert "Jackie Bear?"

In these boredom sweepstakes, I am reminded of Ravel's Bolero. I had a friend who did French horn with the late, lamented and very wet New Orleans Symphony before it got puddled. My friend said that Bolero would drive him and his buddies in the French Horn business mad. Imagine tooting one note for twenty minutes before a full house of elite bourgeoisie. (He also told me that Dennis Brain had a pact with the devil ... which is why he died so young. Remember Brain doing Leopold Mozart's Horn Concerto on a garden hose at the 1956 Hoffenung Festival?)

We can't fault Lederer too much. In "Listening to Debussy," he has to give us thirty-three pages of the usual copy about a man who was a better critic than composer. He also has to pretend that Pelléas et Mélisande is right up there with La Boèhme, Tosca, and Rigoletto, which it ain't.

Debussy was crazy about the writings of Edgar Allen Poe which may tell you about his mental limitations. According to Lederer, two of Debussy's operas (which, thank god, never saw the light of day) were based on Poe's short stories. Le Diable dans le Beffroi --- "The Devil in the Belfry" --- was supposed to consist mostly of the devil whistling. Make of that what you will.

There is a CD that accompanies this volume. It contains sixteen selections. I noticed that as I was listening to it I had to keep adjusting the volume control. Debussy's music does not lend itself to subtlety ... it is either too wispy or too fortississimo. The Hommage à Rameau makes you wish he had spent more time listening to the master. The two movements of the 'Cello Sonata are execrable. The song Beau Soir with the baritone Gerard Souzay is beautiful beyond belief.

--- Richard Saturday


[Letter]
RALPH:

I was reading your review of Debussy: The Quiet Revolutionary. I came across this passage:

    Debussy was crazy about the writings of Edgar Allen Poe which may tell you about his mental limitations.

Being a Poe fan myself, I wonder what the mental limitations are of someone who enjoys his work. Keep in mind that I am public school educated, and received my BFA from a private art school ... did I just answer my own question?

--- guttermth8@aol.com

§     §     §

Our reviewer responds:

Some people find Edgar Allen Poe to be a treat. Others find him more like a treatment. Of castor oil.

For instance, let us take his poem "Annabel Lee" which begins:

    It was many and many a year ago,
              In a kingdom by the sea,
    That a maiden there lived whom you may know
              By the name of Annabel Lee;
    And this maiden she lived with no other thought
               Than to love and be loved by me.

    I was a child and she was a child,
              In this kingdom by the sea;
    But we loved with a love that was more than love ---
              I and my Annabel Lee...

Three questions:

  • What is the difference between "many a year ago" and "many and many a year ago?"
  • What is a love that is "more than love?"
  • And how could you (and I) possibly know Annabel Lee?

It is said that the French adore the poetry of Poe. We are not sure if it is a love that is more than love, but it certainly causes us to question the sanity of a people who gave us the wit of Molière, the wisdom of Diderot, and the tragic vision of Camus.

Notwithstanding your education, good taste and various accomplishments, we fear that you have been, as my beloved old Mammy would have it, "gulled."

--- R. Saturday


[Great Reviews of the Past]
Diego Rivera
Pete Hamill
(Abrams)
Well, he sure was a big feller. Over 300 pounds, over six feet tall. A regular Gargantua. Is that why he painted all those huge, multi-wall frescos in Mexico and the United States? Possibly, possibly. Pete Hamill, the renowned (and noisy) veteran of various New York City press wars --- and author of this tome --- sure can't figure out exactly where they came from. Nor can the rest of us.

Be that as it may, Rivera started out as your typical art student, first in Mexico City, then, in the early years of the century, in Paris. He was one of the few Mexicans on that rich art scene before, during, and after WWI (one of the others was Siqueiros).

He counted Seurat, Modigliani, Gris and Lipchitz as friends, roomed with Mondrian, spent months fighting with Picasso. He tried pointillism; he tried cubism, but something made him decide to tackle giant frescoes --- the didactic kind that sooner or later would piss off most people, especially the exotically rich, and the gentlemen of the cloth.

Hamill speculates that Rivera's love of murals may well have come from the two years he stayed in Italy, studying the works of Botticelli, Giotto, della Francesca, and especially Paolo Uccelo --- but others have said that it was the influence of José Guadalupe Posada, the engraver of calaveras (portraits for the Day of the Dead) for the popular Mexico City press.

One of Hamill's theses is that Rivera had to be as much an opportunist politician as painter. His choice of mural over canvas was brought about when José Vasconcelos, Minister of Education, hired him on to decorate the walls of the Court of the Fiestas in the Ministry of Education building. Over the years he put together 128 different panels that told the history of Mexico, before and after the conquistadores. Rivera, clearly a man of excess, fell on the job with vengeance --- working on it for years, working fourteen hours a day, even, they say, sometimes falling off the scaffold with fatigue.

Someone as big and rowdy as this had to attract attention from all the right folks, and soon enough Rivera was off to the United States, invited by the likes of the Fords and the Rockefellers. His first job in the U. S. was at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he put together a wonderful mural of the making of a mural, a Chinese box in which Diego Rivera painted in (among others) Diego Rivera --- planted firmly in the middle (with his fat bottom mooning us). The same year, 1931, he had a showing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and in 1932, did the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts with pictures of great machines and mechanical pumps and blowers and assembly lines and chain belts and tubes and workers struggling and punching holes and pulling and pushing and sweating, and in the background the great fires of productivity --- all the paraphernalia of manufacturing. It's all very 30's machine-love stuff, and it's a bit surprising that this revolutionary loved the mindlessness of it all, even as the workers were being turned into automatons. Perhaps that's one of the messages, which would compare these machine-people with the great sex goddesses that lighten the upper portions of the mural.

In 1933, Rivera was hired to do the entry at Rockefeller Center, but, being the anti-capitalist wag that he was, he decided beard his patrons by decorating the walls with monied villains pitted against revolutionary heroes --- like Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The Rockefellers had a snit when they got a gander, and saw red. They covered it up and quickly hammered it to powder. No biggie, says Hamill. It was a lousy fresco anyway: "the propagandist overwhelmed the artist...Cool Diego defeated Warm Diego." That is a bit pollyanna --- for it was a fine, very large chiste --- Rivera twitting the rich in one of their richest mansions. What better practical joke than to plaster the largest walls of the right with leftist cartoons?

§     §     §

Rivera was a member of the Mexico Communist Party --- when they'd let him --- but, even so, he helped to bring Trotsky to Mexico in 1937. He quickly grew tired of the old man's political rants, and had to get out of town when Trotsky was murdered in 1939. (The second of the three great 20th Century Mexican muralists, David Alfaro Siqueiros, had attempted to murder Trotsky on his own; Rivera was quickly accused of the same crime; these artists took their politics seriously). Since Rivera had been an informant for the U. S. State Department, he was hurried out of Mexico, and spent a year painting a mural at Treasure Island and jawing with visitors.

His final work of wall art --- at least one that Hamill considers as important as those at the Ministry of Education and the Museo Quaunahuac in Cuernavaca --- was at the Hotel del Prado in Mexico City 1947. It was the usual crowded riot, making it not unlike nightmares some of us have of being jam-packed in an area with people we don't necessarily like, or want to be with. At the same time, Rivera was busy scaring up pesos by doing contract canvases for the Mexican rich --- confirming that it is impossible to saddle him with any other label than "anarchist." Most of his canvases included here show the powerful influence not of Picasso, nor of Giotto, but of Cezanne. However, except for the bizarre Cezannesque imbalances and force fields, they are pretty silly, making the rich look either bored or miserable. His paintings of the indiginos, done at the same time, are blocky, colorful, and give a feeling of pure potential (not kinetic) energy.

§     §     §

Hamill doesn't do badly guiding us through the life and times of Diego Rivera, but several times, he seems to miss the point entirely. He wonders, for instance, why Rivera chose to stay away from Mexico during the Revolution --- 1910 - 1919 --- but from our read of that totally anarchistic eruption, you and I (and Hamill) would probably have stayed the hell out of there too unless we wanted to get offed.

Hamill also wonders why, during Rivera's trip to Russia in 1927, the artist didn't figure out that Stalin was murdering people right and left (to coin a phrase) --- but Hamill forgets, or doesn't know, that the astonishingly murderous nature of Stalin was not easily observable to outsiders; was, indeed, unbelievable to most of the world until long after the brutal collectivization of the kulaks (and for some, only after the Hitler-Stalin pact.) Many from within and without the Soviet Union didn't catch on --- including the Moscow Bureau Chief for the New York Times.

Despite a few failings of the text, Diego Rivera is an excellent way to learn about the master muralists. The descriptions of technique for wall-painting could be a guide book for all would-be frescoistos. For $49.50, you get 50 color illustrations and 50 black and white drawings and photographs. Some of the latter are gratuitous --- for instance, classic photographs of revolutionary Mexico, like the famous shot of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata struggling with knives and forks at lunch, in 1914, at the Palacio Nacional --- or the gorgeous shot of a young soldier girded for battle [below]. Be that as it may, for those who are interested in the eccentric, show-off grandiosity that was and is Rivera, Diego Rivera is well worth it.

--- Eward Munster

Who Beats
Your Heart?
You know you have a problem in the Emergency Room when you are lying there on the gurney, hooked up to machines, the dials behind you, on the wall, and the doctor, about fifteen years old, looks at your vital signs and turns away and says I'll be right back and he's not to be seen for a half-an-hour or so.

In my case, the doctor who came back was a cardiologist. She looked at my vitals and said, "You need a pacemaker."

"I can't hear you," I said. "On top of everything else I'm hard of hearing." She said it again, "You need a pacemaker."

"Give me a couple of days to think about it," I said.

"If you want to leave you know you can't drive," she said. "It would be very dangerous."

"It might be temporary," I said. "Can't you give me some pills?"

"There is no medication for it," she said. She unwound the seismic paper from a roll and showed me that there was something missing. Like every other beat of my heart. Sometimes more.

I call my brother. They gave him a pacemaker in 1988. "Piece-of-cake," he says. He tells me that if he hadn't done it, he wouldn't be here now. "I just had my battery replaced," he says. "Piece-of-cake."

§     §     §

The operation, like most, is quick, and they try to get you out of there within twenty-four hours. Before you go under, you can have anything you want. I say to the anesthesiologist, "Give me the best you got." He did. For a while there, I was on the sunny beaches to the south: gentle winds, seas, waves, palms.

The next day, my cardiologist came in with a computer, part of which she klunked on my chest. For fifteen minutes, she tweaked up my new heart-part, offered to give me a bit more oomph for a bit less battery time. The pacemaker manual she gave me had the expected rosy pix of rosy geezers on the cover: Wrinkles --- but not too many. Hearty smiles --- enough. Dentures --- but not too many.

The Medtronic manual she gave me told me I must avoid arc welders, advised me not to be working on automobile engines or around radio or television transmitters. Watch out for iPods, whatever they may be. No lifting of heavy objects and, for a month or so, no golf at all. A 240-yard drive might pull the stakes that had just been driven into my heart.

As I read this, a song kept running through my head, the one sung by Marilyn Monroe,

    While tearing off a game of golf
    I may make a play for the caddy;
    But if I do, I don't follow through,
    Because my heart belongs to Daddy.

§     §     §

On Google, I read at length about several pacemaker recalls. I remember thinking that it's not like recalling a lawnmower or even a car: It goes deeper than that.

I also find that I am one of three million people in this country with a pacemaker --- me and Dick Cheney (he does have heart) --- and that the concept was invented in 1948. The early models weighed in at a pound or so and operated outside the body, with glowing vacuum tubes and cables.

I also find that the rock star Martin Bullock just got his replaced. His band, Mogwai, has been influenced, so his home-page tells me, by My Bloody Valentine, The Dirty Three, and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Their style is a mix of something known as "shoegaze" and "math rock." Their latest hit is "Mr. Beast."

He --- Mr. Bullock, not Mr. Beast --- is planning to auction off his old pacemaker on eBay, proceeds to go to the Heart Association. This tells me that, in five or seven years or whenever time before my current pacemaker dries up, and if I survive so long, and if my fame somehow gets into the stratosphere alongside Mogwai, I will be able to turn this new body-part into a bonanza for the charity of my choice.

At another site there was some discussion of whether, despite this new battery-operated device I carry about with me, my heart would keep on pounding when I abandon this vale of tears. The answer is no, apparently, because the original pacemaker, the one that I was born with --- the sinoatrial node --- will, with my departure, go out of business, shut down, take a walk. This new unit only follows the leader, doesn't take up the rhythm when there is no band, Mogwai or no.

One site went on at length about "Twiddler's Syndrome." I thought was yet another rock band but that's not it. Some people, when they have this new toy in their chest, just won't leave well enough alone. They keep twisting it, twiddling, twiddling, as if it were a radio dial, a TV remote, a stereo system. I have been warned.

"Who beats your heart," asked Alan Watts in one of his last talks, in 1965, just before he died (of heart-failure). I used to not know, didn't much care. Now I know. Medtronic does. It does so as we speak, will be doing so tomorrow, the day after: for the rest of my born days. At least will be doing so ... until I auction it off.

--- L. W. Milam


[Paradox-of-the-Month]
The Pain of
Original Sin
Among patients, theoreticians, and therapists alike, there seems to be great concern with the idea of some original mistake which causes later suffering --- a kind of punishment for that mistake. One finds that a sense of guilt or being wounded is quite pervasive. Whether or not such people actually believe in the idea of original sin, or in God for that matter, they seem to feel that they have done something wrong in the past and are now being punished for it. The problem with this notion of original sin or mistake is that it acts very much as a hindrance to people. At some point, it is of course necessary to realize one's shortcomings. But if one goes too far with that, it kills any inspiration and can destroy one's vision as well. So in that way, it really is not helpful, and in fact it seems unnecessary. As I mentioned, in Buddhism we do not have any comparable ideas of sin and guilt. Obviously there is the idea that one should avoid mistakes. But there is not anything comparable to the heaviness and inescapability of original sin.
--- From The Sanity We Are Born With
Chögyam Trungpa
© 2005 Shambhala


Horse Latitudes
Paul Muldoon
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The horse latitudes are those places in the various oceans where sailors push horses and cows and possibly even people overboard to lighten the load in long-becalmed sailing vessels. It is also one of the songs by The Doors, from their album "Strange Days." It is also Muldoon's tenth book of verse.

His subjects here include the Nashville skyline ("hem and haw") along with "contractual mire and murk." There is "hip-hirple / white horse against purple" and a woman named Carlotta who is "proud-fleshed," which, according to my OED, means she's well-scarred.

There is some mulling (or Muldooning) over the "price of gasoline" and "crude oil Bush" and there are "90 Instant Messages to Tom Moore," including #I:

    Jim-jams and whim-whams
    where the whalers still heave to
    for a gammy-gam.

LXXVII offers up

    Guess what Easter meant
    to horse-mad May and Myrtle.
    A three-day event.

XXX reveals that

    The Arabian
    constantly raising the bar.
    It's penis-paean.

There are a fair number of phrases sprinkled around that --- dumb me --- I don't get. Like "mummer stones" and "shoulders in a moult" and "Gormley's cuff" and "Seigneur Cymbal."

Muldoon has won the Pulitzer Prize and teaches at Princeton and has encomiums aplenty from the likes of the NYRB and the New York Times but I'm thinking most of this stuff is pure jim-jammery, gammy-gamery, or, at best, flim-flammery.

--- Lolita Lark


Mark O'Brien and
Self-Publishing
To: poo@cts.com

Subject: Mark O'Brien and me

I have read Mark O'Brien's "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate" three times.

I could relate to some of Mark's comments, but not others.

I have cerebral palsy but my sexual development was damaged by a pituitary tumour. It was not until I was 60 years of age that I consulted a doctor on the matter. Then Viagra changed my life.

Reading Mark's piece encouraged me to call a 'sex worker' and I have lost my virginity at last.

The point is that I have written a great deal about my unusual life and also some highly-praised structured poetry. How can I get this published?

Please help.

--- Lance G.
London, England


Hi, Lance:

Thanks for your question about how to get your poetry and autobiography published.

Our best suggestion is that you follow the lead of some of the mauvens of the past: William Blake, Walt Whitman ... and Mark O'Brien himself. It's known as self-publishing. (Some wrongly call it "vanity publishing." I prefer to think of it as giving the world a chance to know and love our works.)

Here's what you do. Put together a chapbook of your best --- twenty, fifty, a hundred poems. Design a cover or, if you prefer, have an artistically inclined friend do it for you.

Include (always include) ordering information and price. Have some friends write blurbs for the back cover. If no one will do so, write some for yourself. (That's what Whitman did; he also wrote up some choice reviews of Leaves of Grass which he included in later editions.)

Call around and find the cheapest printer in town. Ask him how much he would charge to print and bind ... say ... a hundred copies of your book.

When you take delivery, send out ten or twenty copies to local and national magazines, newspapers, or online book reviews. Send a few to local and national CP organizations.

And then start selling copies. Get space at fairs, meetings ... or go out on the streets to sell them yourself. Remember that the magazine that first published Mark's poetry was The Sun of North Carolina. Sy Safransky started it by printing, folding, stapling it himself, selling copies on the streets of Chapel Hill.

If you exhaust the first printing, make the necessary corrections and changes and put out a second edition.

You don't need to have a miracle, but doing all this yourself can teach you more than you would ever believe about your ability as a writer, as, indeed, a believer in your own worth in the world.

--- Ed


Sex Texts from the Bible
Selections Annotated and Explained

Teresa J. Hornsby

(SkyLight Paths)
Many years ago, I ran into a book called The Black Bible. It pulled the most fearsome, salacious and violent passages from the Bible, held them up for the reader --- those who hadn't made their way through the Holy Book before --- so they could see that those who believe that it is the inspired book of God find some fairly ungodly doctrines.

Like the stoning to death of adulterers. Like the fact that a man may have many wives, and even more slaves. That women had to be "submissive" to their husbands. That to be naked was a "curse." That men who had "lost their stones" (their testicles) could not be admitted to a place of worship.

It was an interesting work, but it had one flaw. That is, the author was an atheist. And his laughing at and loathing of the Bible was so hard-hearted that it made tough going for those of us who had grown up on the King James version, and who --- despite its flaws and its constant misuse by angry fundmentalist Christians --- had some affection for it.

Comes now Teresa Hornsby, of Drury University, in Springfield, Missouri. To her, the Bible is an old friend. And she has written Sex Texts from the Bible neither as a lampoon nor as a bomb. Her worst fear, she says in the "Acknowledgments," is that her academic colleagues "will dismiss this book because of its simplicity." She also fears that her "Ozark neighbors" will see her book as disrespectful. "I love the Bible," she says, simply: "its history, its stories, and the hope it gives."

    I am also aware of the damage it can bring. It's like a knife: in the hands of a killer it's a weapon; in the hands of a surgeon it's a lifesaver.

Having said that, Ms. Hornsby plunges into the most controversial passages of the Bible, those that your friendly local preacher blocks from his mind, the ones that Pat Robertson blocks out of all of his sermons. Like Genesis 47: 29: When the time of Israel's death drew near, he called his son Joseph and said to him, "If I have found favor with you, put your hand under my thigh and promise to deal loyally and truly with me. Do not bury me in Egypt."

As Hornsby explains, calmly, "There are several examples in the Bible of having someone make an oath by placing his hand under a man's genitals."

    This makes sense if you consider the power and respect that the most powerful man's penis and testicles must generate. This is the source of all his power: the future generations, the progeny of his worth. A person swears on his or her most powerful and sacred object.

We are impressed by three things here. First is the author's respect for the Bible as written, not as we want it written. Second, the grace and calm of her writing: "For us today, this would be one of the most awkward father-son moments imaginable." Finally, she knows her Bible, and we have the knowledge that the writer is not being pulled this way or that by a translation filled -- as so many are nowadays --- with euphemisms. Ms. Hornsby has done her homework, has provided her own renderings.

§     §     §

From 2 Samuel 1:26: "I am distraught for you, my brother Jonathan; I loved you so much, your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women." The notes on this passage tell us:

    Homoeroticism in the ancient world, particularly after Hellenism, was not something that only "certain" men did exclusively. An aristocratic man would most likely have a wife, a mistress, and a younger male lover.

Yet at the same time, the author quotes the far more famous passage --- much adored by the fundamentalists --- of Leviticus, 20:1, that a male who "lies with a male as a woman ... shall be put to death." Understand, she tells us in her notes, the death sentence seems "harsh" even by today's standards, but "this sexual act was a death sentence for the whole community." Leviticus is

    making sure that things stay in their proper category.

Not only does the author have a sincere affection for the Bible, she knows its history, the realities of the times during which it was written. This is a reasonable commentary, by an honorable religionist. Yet we assume that this book will not be appearing in your local Christian book store. More's the pity.

--- Les Watterson


[Great Poems from the Past]
Hurricane Fred
A guy came along on a horse
Shouting into a bullhorn that the turtles were coming
We said so what
He told us they'd eat the furniture
Drink the gas from the cars
Run up the phone bill and keep the lights on in the daytime
Well we battened down the hatches
And sure enough they came millions of them
Moving in off the freeway
Eating doorknobs and drinking fuel
Wanting only to be loved
We gave them love took them into our homes
Let them eat and drink what they wanted
Let them sleep with our daughters
And at last they went back into the swamp
Everyone pitched in to clean up the mess
We scrubbed the turtle poop off of everything
Until the town looked the same as before
Now there's just the children with shells on their backs
To remind us of Hurricane Fred.
--- Pete Winslow


Fire in the City
Savonarola and the Struggle for
The Soul of Renaissance Florence

Lauro Martines
(Oxford)
Girolamo Savonarola was born in a Ferrari in 1452. He studied to be a Dominican priest at the University of Bologna where he developed, as his Master's thesis, the Bologna sandwich.

A young man of feeling, he showed his theological gifts at age twenty by composing a religious cantata, De Ruina Mundi ("It's a Ruinous, Ruinous World"). This masterpiece became an instant hit as performed on Italian television by the rock group, Las Portas ("The Doors.")

Savonarola studied Latin, Greek, ethical and oyster culture at Santa Maria degli Angeli in Los Angeles and then traveled to Florence where he enrolled in the prestigious Gnocchi School of Cooking. There, he had several visitations from God. God told him that the people of Florence were idle, vain, lascivious, sinful and were overcooking their pasta e fagioli.

To save the people's souls, not to mention their fagioli, Savonarola organized a mass cook-in at the Piazza della Signoria ("Our Lady's Pizza Hut.") People brought all the vain and frivolous kitchen appliances associated with moral laxity. Soon, the square was piled high with electric cheese-graters, cuisinarts, mouli-juliennes, and Mr. Coffees. When the friar plugged in all the gadgets, he blew out the Italian power grid from Viaréggio through Strómboli all the way out to Jersey City. After this celebrated "Blackout of the Vanities," Fr. Savonarola became virtual dictator in Florence. He banned painting, music, theater, and biscotti, and introduced the prayer breakfast, later taken up enthusiastically by American politicians.

The eccentric Pope Alexander VI, affectionately known to his followers as "The Odd Father," came to resent Savonarola's private audiences with God, and didn't care for his gnocchi francese either. The pontiff lost patience altogether when Savonarola sent his fanciulli onto the streets of Florence to warn people against the Roman "peccatos moreles" and "peccatos graves," not to mention "peccatos frittos." The Holy Father arranged a Roast by the Florentine Friar's Club to determine who was the most holy.

Since Il Pappa was too busy appointing this or that son or cousin to the College of Cardinals, he sent Rudi Giuliani Rondinelli (represented by Francesco da Puglia, "The Fighting Franciscan") to take up cudgels for the Holy Father. The Ordeal was set for April 7, 1497. A platform in front of the Pizza Hut was fueled with firewood, gunpowder, cherry bombs, bottle rockets, pinwheels and Roman candles. Rondinelli and Savonarola were told to jump into the fire. The first not to be completely charbroiled would be declared a saint.

Fortunately, after the crowds had gathered in the Plaza, the two contestants commenced to dicker over the costumes, ornaments, and holy artifacts to be allowed in the competition. The judges from the city's Ministry --- officially, the "Minestrone" --- permitted no decorations, so the two were forced to divest themselves of crucifixes, jewelry, rosary beads, tattoos, divine hosts, and even their nappies. Aghast, the judges declared the Ordeal at an end.

One of Savonarola's problems was that he was not very good at math. In those days, Florence was ruled by several numbers gangs: The Twenty Electors, The Twelve Good Men, The Eight Priors, and The Seven Dwarfs. Savonarola tended to lose count, and kept directing homilies meant for the Twenty to the Eight, and vice-versa. To make matters worse, sometimes he absent-mindedly sent them hominy instead of a homily.

In the end, Savonarola got to be such a pesta that the Pope ordered him to star in a rack festival with Las Portas at the Piazza della Signoria. Savonarola quickly signed a full confession, together with his colleague Domenico da Pescia (who accepted responsibility for the fish course).

The two were taken to the Cape Sante al Basilico where Savonarola composed his last religious work, the meditation Tristitia obsedit me ("I'm sad that I am fat.") Deeply moved by this tribute, Il Papa directed that Savonarola be fried in what subsequently came to be known as the "auto-da-fé alla griglia." With this, Savonarola moved into Italian culinary history, where he remains remarkably well-done to this very day.


--- Salvador Cuspidore,
Dottore Fagioli


Afghanistan
Paul Clammer
(Lonely Planet)
A couple of years ago, we received a travel book on Molvanîa [to be found at www.ralphmag.org/DC/molvania.html]. We wrote, "For those who want to get off the well-beaten track, here is the answer of your dreams: the scarcely-known, rarely-visited country of Molvanîa:"

    It is one of those mysterious places in East Central Europe which might be just a blank for many.

Under a photograph of a sizable cactus was this caption: "The fzipdat of serrated thistle is the floral emblem of Molvanîa, a sharply thorned cactus, traditionally thrown at Molvanîan brides."

    Its leaves have an astringent, bitter taste, making it a popular ingredient in local dishes.

And one of the country's historical figures, Antonin Vllatvja, "studied here from 1491 to 1495."

    A keen astronomer, has been widely acknowledged as the first scientists to hypothesize that, rather than the sun revolving around the earth, the earth in fact revolved around Neptune ... [Later] he was called before a Papal inquiry in Rome where charges of heresy were dropped. He was, however, condemned to death as an idiot.

Molvanîa did give us a few uneasy moments, especially the photographs: Blurred out shots of rocky flatlands of stubble are, it is noted, "The Great Plains, recently granted UNESCO World Heritage status as a site of significant monotony."

§     §     §

We confess to a similar dis-ease when we received Lonely Planet's travel guide to Afghanistan. Who? The cover shows cheerful bearded guy lounging back, talking with a kid. There are thirty-three color photographs --- girl's playing, a bird market in Kabul, the colorful Shrine of Hazrat Ali, five hearty Afghans lighting a fire under their truck on the Salang Pass "to thaw their vehicle's frozen engine." Editor Clammer says the best time to visit Afghanistan is late summer, and he speaks of the fruits of the market, sweet grapes from Shomali and "fat Kandahari pomegranates and melons everywhere."

We have to love this one because of the editor's affection for a loony country ... made even more loony by armed interventions from abroad. We also have to applaud his willingness to overlook a few problems that some of might class as scary, if not downright dangerous. Kabul, he says, "is generally a calm city, with the greatest risk to personal safety being the insane traffic," although if you drive, it is suggested that you keep "all doors locked."

    We don't recommend walking in Kabul after dark because of the broken pavements present a genuine accident risk.

There is also the problem of the air, "thick with pollution from the traffic, thousands of generators and the endless dust." It results in "Kabul cough," and one is advised ultimately to seek "fresh air outside the city."

One of the reasons Molvanîa came to mind was this item that was boxed under Kabul's "Festival & Events:"

    The first snowfall of winter is called Barf-e-Awal. Many Kabuls play surprise games (barfi) on their friends at this time, sending them riddles in an Afghan variant of trick-or-treat.

One of the trick or treats they offer visitors to Afghanistan is booze. Or maybe not. Who knows? The author doesn't. "Changing domestic politics could quickly lead to the bars and restaurants we've listed here running very dry."

Get out of town? Travel on the road even to the Kabul airport can be "tiresome due to the large number of concrete roadblocks outside embassies that turn roads into obstacle courses." Fine, let's go to Herat. Well, outside the hazards of war, there's the climate: "Hot and dry ... dominated by Bad-e Sad o Bist (Wind of 120 Days).

    Summer temperatures can reach 38° C, dropping to just below freezing from December to February.

How about Mazar-e Sharif off to the northeast? The summers there can reach 43° C and the winters, minus ten. The locals call it paka o posteen --- "fan or furcoat." In the fairly extensive language section the word for war ... jang ... seems to be the same in Dari/Farsi and in Pashto. "Shame on you" is listed only in the former; "Are there landmines?" appears in both, but is phrased slightly differently.

The author is obviously brave, and obviously in love with Afghanistan. We think he and Lonely Planet deserve a joint prize for putting this one out: one of the Pulitzers they reserved, in the old days, for the likes of Ernie Pyle, Bill Maudlin, or Ernest Hemingway.

Jim Wilke


Inventing Los Alamos
The Growth of
An Atomic Community

Jon Hunner

(Oklahoma)
The best kept secret of WWII was not the development of the atomic bomb (even the Russians knew about that), but the place it was put together, Los Alamos. It the brain-child of General Leslie R. Groves of the U. S. Army and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director.

Los Alamos was a strange joining of scientists and military and other service personnel. It was located in the Pajarito Plateau, in North Central New Mexico, and did not even exist at the beginning of 1943. By the summer of 1945, it had houses, trailers, shops, and laboratories and over 6,000 people.

The bomb was never called the "bomb," only the "gadget." Los Alamos did not appear on maps. At a meeting of the military personnel there, Groves reported, "At great expense we have gathered on this mesa the largest collection of crackpots ever seen." The day the explosion at Hiroshima, the people who lived at "Site Y" celebrated by forming a conga line at the local community center, dancing and chanting. "This is the Atomic Age --- this is the Atomic Age," they chanted while they danced.

200,000 people died at Hiroshima, 130,000 within four months, another 70,000 between 1945 and 1950. These figures are from the official U. S. government report, called "The Effect of the Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki." It was released to the public in 1973, twenty-eight years after the fact.

According to Groves, one of the biggest problems at Los Alamos was the production of the scientists. And their wives. Not of bombs, but of babies. "Groves protested to Oppenheimer about the birthrate" and asked Oppenheimer if he could "influence his colleagues." He replied that "this hardly seems to be the responsibility of a scientific director." A limerick appeared,

    The General's in a stew
    He trusted you and you
    He thought you'd be scientific
    instead you're just prolific
    And what is he to do...

Most of the people at Los Alamos didn't care for the military (the U. S. Army had been in charge of the entire operation). A questionnaire was sent out to laboratory workers in 1946 asking about the future of the town. 99% of the 287 respondents said that "the army should not run the lab; 98% wanted the project to be a civilian operation."

Hunner observes, "The federal government financed Los Alamos, creating a community devoid of private property, and serviced by one company that provided a complete range of services for all the residents without charge."

    To some residents, Los Alamos ironically resembled a socialist town more than a scientific one.

Inventing Los Alamos is interesting reading and even provides a few surprises. Most Americans saw it as the ideal city. Publicity came immediately after the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The, the world was given an snow-job on the danger (or lack of it) of radiation.

Two weeks after the end of the war, a Lt. Colonel Rea of Oak Ridge Hospital told General Groves that the Japanese had only gotten "a good thermal burn." He said: "Those Jap scientists over there aren't so dumb either and are making a play on this." Even Oppenheimer reported,

    There is every reason to believe that there was no appreciable radioactivity on the ground at Hiroshima and what little was decayed very rapidly.

--- Richard Saturday


The Touch and the Taste
Urszula M. Benka
Heavy, ripe are the fruit: Jupiter,
Saturn, the Earth, Mars.
They spill their moons,
squirt drops of asteroids.

So says the gloomy stranger
touching my breasts.

I'm sitting in his house in front of a fire;
flames and fruit are reflected
in the dampness of my sex,
cut-up pomegranates, huge apples.

An oak library glistens
in the dampness of my sex.
I'm thinking about an oak and about centuries,
about rituals.

The stranger leans his face
toward my sex.

In its concave-convex dampness
the old face reflects in red.

On the library's massive oak
there's a configuration of planets
and a gold patera with fruit.

--- From Ambers Aglow:
An Anthology of Contemporary
Polish Women's Poetry


True Grit
Charles Portis
Donna Tartt, Reader
(Recorded Books)
True Grit charmed the pants off us when we read it back in 1968. It's late 19th Century Americana, a novel about Mattie Ross who journeys into the Choctaw Nation to find, capture, and bring to justice Tom Chaney, the man who shot her father.

Part of the joy of True Grit is the funny, upright, tart, and stilted language from turn-of-the-century Arkansas. The other is the characters: straight-talking, canny Mattie herself; then Mattie seeking out Rooster Cogburn --- she calls him a "one-eyed jasper" --- to find the murderer; and her elaborate, extended, and funny negotiations with those who she needs for her pursuit.

When she visits Rooster's living-quarters, she notes the dust and dirt and unmade bed: "Men will live like billy goats if they are let alone."

Mattie lets no one put her off or put her down. When she is with the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, he says,

    "I think your mother would not approve of your getting mixed up in this kind of enterprise. She thinks you are seeing about a horse. Criminal investigation is sordid and dangerous and is best left in the hands of men who know the work."

    "I suppose that is you. Well, if in four months I could not find Tom Chaney with a mark on his face like a banished Cain I would not undertake to advise others how to do it."

    "A saucy manner does not go down with me."

    "I will not be bullied."

    He stood up and said, "Earlier tonight I gave some thought to stealing a kiss from you, though you are very young, and sick and unattractive to boot, but now I am of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt."

    "One would be as unpleasant as the other," I replied. "Put a hand on me and you will answer for it. You are from Texas and ignorant of our ways but the good people of Arkansas do not go easy on men who abuse women and children."

    "The youth of Texas are brought up to be polite and to show respect for their elders."

    "I notice people of that state also gouge their horses with great brutal spurs."

    "You will push that saucy line too far."

    "I have no regard for you."

    He was angered and thus he left me, clanking away in all his Texas trappings.

It is a great adventure tale, even though it manages to go over the hill towards the end. Mattie finds herself thrown down a deep hole, with a broken arm and a nest of rattlesnakes nipping at her fingers and bats brushing against her legs. It's of The Perils of Pauline at its worst.

Ms. Tartt, the reader, lives up to her name and manages to sound like a fourteen-year-old girl from Dardanelle, Arkansas with "a tart tongue." At the end, however, we find that the story is being told by the "cranky old maid" that the girl has become after a half-or-century or so. Recorded Books might just as well have chosen an older scold, rather than this Tartt one.

--- Eileen Contreras

§     §     §

Blue-John and Bust-Head
Lee went up front to his icebox and brought back a jar of milk. The cream had been skimmed from it.

I said, "This tastes like blue-John to me."

Rooster took my cup and put it on the floor and a fat brindle cat appeared out of the darkness where the bunks were and came over to lap up the milk. Rooster said, "The General is not so hard to please." The cat's name was General Sterling Price. Lee served some honey cakes for dessert and Rooster spread butter and preserves all over his like a small child. He had a "sweet tooth."

I offered to clean things up and they took me at my word. The pump and the washstand were outside. The cat followed me out for the scraps. I did the best I could on the enamelware plates with a rag and yellow soap and cold water. When I got back inside Rooster and Lee were playing cards on the table.
Rooster said, "Let me have my cup." I gave it to him and he poured some whiskey in it from a demijohn. Lee smoked a long pipe.
I said, "What about my proposition?"

Rooster said, "I am thinking on it."

"What is that you are playing?"

"Seven-up. Do you want a hand?"

"I don't know how to play it. I know how to play bid whist."

"We don't play bid whist."

I said, "It sounds like a mighty easy way to make fifty dollars to me. You would just be doing your job anyway, and getting extra pay besides."

"Don't crowd me," said he, "I am thinking about expenses."

I watched them and kept quiet except for blowing my nose now and again. After a time I said, "I don't see how you can play cards and drink whiskey and think about this detective business all at the same time."

He said, "If I'm going up against Ned Pepper I will need a hundred dollars. I have figured out that much. I will want fifty dollars in advance."

"You are trying to take advantage of me."

"I am giving you my children's rate," he said. "It will not be a easy job of work, smoking Ned out. He will be holed up down there in the hills in the Choctaw Nation. There will be expenses."

"I hope you don't think I am going to keep you in whiskey."

"I don't have to buy that, I confiscate it. You might try a little touch of it for your cold."

"No, thank you."

"This is the real article. It is double-rectified bust-head from Madison County, aged in the keg. A little spoonful would do you a power of good."

"I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains."

"Oh, you wouldn't, would you?"

"No, I wouldn't."

"Well, a hundred dollars is my price, sis. There it is."

"For that kind of money I would want a guarantee. I would want to be pretty sure of what I was getting."

"I have not yet seen the color of your money."

"I will have the money in a day or two. I will think about your proposition and talk to you again. Now I want to go to the Monarch boardinghouse. You had better walk over there with me."

"Are you scared of the dark?"

"I never was scared of the dark."

"If I had a big horse pistol like yours I would not be scared of any booger-man."

"I am not scared of the booger-man. I don't know the way over there."

"You are a lot of trouble. Wait until I finish this hand. You cannot tell what a Chinaman is thinking. That is how they beat you at cards."

They were betting money on the play and Rooster was not winning. I kept after him but he would only say, "One more hand," and pretty soon I was asleep with my head on the table.

--- From True Grit
Charles Portis
©1968 Simon & Schuster


Thoreau's Laundry
Ann Harleman
(Southern Methodist University Press)
How do you shape a short story? The same way that porcupines make love. Very carefully. In the craft one has to drop the reader in a strange new world; make one feel not so strange, quickly; and then get on with it.

There are twelve stories here: brief, well-written, well-shaped. Take the title story, "Thoreau's Laundry." Celia is a maxillofacial prosthetist. She makes people-parts for people who have lost ears or eyes or noses.

That's her job and that's the frame of the story --- but below this implied agony is yet another agony. She helps people who have lost part of themselves ... but she has lost something too. Her husband Simon has come down with multiple sclerosis and she is caring for him. The two of them have lost part of his body and part of their life from before: He is not the same man she married twenty years ago.
She is tired: not from her job, but from last night's emergency. She and Simon had spent most of last night in the ER. "His catheter had gone AWOL at one in the morning," she explains. He's in pain and she can't fix it, and she spent much of the early hours "repeating her husband's history over and over, to a succession of twelve-year-olds in lab coats and stethoscopes."

§     §     §

In 2003 we reviewed Tumbling Afterby Susan Parker (Crown). It told, for the first time, at least in our memory, a refreshingly direct account of one who cares for a disabled family member, in this case, Susan's husband. He was not a quadriplegic when she married him but after the bicycle accident and for the rest of his life he is just that, a man with no use of arms nor legs (nor bowel nor bladder).

Susan has apparently, over the years, cared for him lovingly and well; what she tells us of her new life is funny, tender and heart-rending. When we lose something (a part of the body; a part of our history) things can go strange. The one you married yesterday may be someone else tomorrow. To care for Ralph (or Simon, or whoever it is over there in the wheelchair) turns into a full-time job, and certainly changes your day-to-day.

Some choose to take it on with patience and affection and humor. Others disappear or call in the martyr chip (or the nursing home manager). Those who choose to stay with it are part of Susan's story ... and, in this book, Ann Harleman's.

In "Thoreau's Laundry" and "Meanwhile" we encounter a husband with CPMS, chronic progressive multiple sclerosis. What's a good woman to do? According to Dr. Jacques, Simon's urologist,

    Zere are two kind of woman. Zee kind which divorce zee 'andicapped and zee kind which marree zem.

Only two? No. There are others. There are those who choose to stay on with Ralph and Simon and Dan and take care of them, no matter what. And, too, there are those who choose to stay on with the Ralphs and Simons and Dans and, while ministering to them, take on another man. A lover? Yes. With guilt? Sure. With shame? Maybe. With love? Why not?

In "Meanwhile," we learn of the outside affair through e-mails that break in through the story here and there. There is Celia who cares for Dan and there is Celia who is also "lioness@earthlink.net." Her new lover is "graywolf@hotmail.com."

Graywolf advises her that there is "some sense of amputation with the minus of you." For their upcoming visit, he asks her to

    wear something that shows your beautiful arms and under it nothing.

Is it wrong for Celia the "lioness" (or anyone else for that matter) to be involved in such an affair as she is caring for a very drastically different husband? Who are we to say? And what are we to say?

You have been elected (by me; by you; by chance) as my caretaker. From time to time, we will remember the times from before (before lifts, in-dwelling catheters, the injections, the occasional trips to the ER). But what am I to do if you visit this graywolf who wonders why "ididn't take away some of yur beautiful flesh in my predatory mouth?" Should I know about him? Should I want to know? If I do, should I be angry? Hurt? Devastated?

What is a good man (or a good woman) to do?

--- L. W. Milam


The Book that Changed My Life
71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate
The Books that Matter Most to Them

Roxanne J. Coady, Joy Johannessen, Editors

(Bantam)
Wally Lamb reveals that he did not want to be a writer at all, until he got "kidnapped" by To Kill a Mockingbird. He even admits --- bravely we think --- his reading habits and that he made it through Sister Carrie and My Ántonia without passing out.

Improbably, Billy Collins manages to yoke together --- as the two novels that "changed my life" --- The Yearling and Lolita: "The plight of the deer and the fate of Lo arouse pity; but the doomed attempts to capture and control two essentially wild creatures elicit sympathy."

    No fence, however high, will contain the growing deer; and no amount of scheming and cajoling will keep the girl from growing into a woman.

As far as change goes, Collins reflects wisely, reminding us of our catechisms, that "to be bored is to be changed." Let us refer you back to Cather and Dreiser, above.

Michael Stern chooses The Sears Catalogue as his life-changer, and Linda Greenlaw says that she first considered nominating The Perricone Weight-Loss Diet, which "had a staggering effect on my consumption." (She finally settles on The Perfect Storm.)

Claire Cook calls up the Nancy Drew mysteries: "Nancy's world was fair and predictable. Though she had lost her own mother, she seemed to be doing just fine. She even had a boyfriend. And a roadster." Edward Sorel's favorite was Stendal's The Red and the Black, and the protagonist, his namesake, Julien Sorel. "Like me, Julien hated his father, distrusted all authority, and thought religion was for the mentally handicapped." The elder Sorel was also, unlike himself, like "catnip to women."

Maureen Corrigan, while extolling David Copperfield, admits, without shame, that her earliest literary experience was "writing an anthem to my parochial school, St. Raphael's ... to the tune of Petula Clark's 'Downtown.'"

About the most fetching mini-essay here is by Da Chen. We've praised him, and praised him lavishly, for his wonderful Colors of the Mountain. He is, apparently, unafraid to admit to The Count of Monte Cristo as his all-time fave, but we forgive him because he concludes, winningly, "I write because my heart demands so ... waiting for words to pour from the tips of my fingers and compose the melody of life from the faded tapestry of my past."

There is a touch of Wolkenkukusheim in The Book that Changed My Life. The editors have, by some divine fiat we cannot comprehend, decided that Joe Lieberman (of Connecticut), John McCain (of Arizona), and Liz Smith (of the awful New York Post) are all "remarkable writers." James Atlas, founding editor of the Penguin Lives Series (Penguin owns Bantam --- publishers of this volume), turns up as another auteur remarquable. Who knows why.

--- Lolita Lark


East Hampton Airport
East Hampton Airport is my shepherd.
It was smaller when I took lessons.
The shepherd's crook has high-tech runway lights now.
The shack became a terminal.
The private jets drop by to sleep.
I stand in the afternoon in the open field across the road.
The light planes come in low.
The dog doesn't even look up.
Their wings wave around frantically
Through the valley of the shadow of death.
They touch down calmly and taxi to a stop.

East Hampton Airport is my harbor.
I shall not want.
The harbormaster maketh me to lie down
In green pastures he has paved over.
He leadeth me beside the runway's still waters.
He keeps me in the air so I can land.
I stand in the open field on the far side of Wainscott Road
And watch the summer, autumn, winter sky.
It was my idea to take up flying,
To die doing something safer than motorcycling.
I went up with my instructor not to learn, just to fly.
I stand in the field opposite the airport.
I watch the planes flying in and the planes flying out.
My proud Irish terrier takes pills for his cardiomyopathy.
Before we bark our last,
Our hearts enlarge and burst.
George Plimpton went to bed
And woke up dead.
I write this poem thinking of the painter David Salle
Who wants to make a movie
About the poet Frank O'Hara.
A beach taxi on Fire Island hit Frank and he burst, roll credits.

I remember flying back from Montauk.
I was flying the plane.
The instructor asked me, "Notice anything?"
Yes. The plane was absolutely stuck ---
Speechless --- ecstatically still.
The headwinds were holding us in place in space.
We were flying, but not moving, visibility forever.
The ocean was down there waving.
The engine purred contentment.
I am flying, but not moving.
I stand in a field and stare at the air.

--- From Ooga-Booga
Frederick Seidel
©2007 Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
A review of this book can be found at
www.ralphmag.org/EP/briefs.html


Filming in Africa
A film company in Lagos controls 200 subsidiaries that make popular films which never make it to the movie theaters but are instead distributed across Africa on DVD. 600 new productions every week. Is this a new flowering of cinema? The subject matter is certainly tough enough.

--- What sort of things do they tackle?

--- One film, for example, is about three women who go to Europe as sex workers. Before setting off, they go to their tribal medicine man to acquire some "good luck." But they don't have any good luck in Europe. The medicine man who sold them the charms has moved to New York. It turns out that a new baby needs to be sacrificed for the promised miraculous luck to become a reality.

--- The women travel to New York.

--- Yes, that's exactly what happens in the movie. They force the magician to marry one of them and to sacrifice the child who is born soon afterward. And from then on they expect their second expedition into the heart of Europe to bring them the required good luck.

--- Is there any censorship?

--- The DVDs are beyond the reach of censorship.

--- Do critics help to disseminate the products?

--- There are no critics.

--- Is there any feedback to suggest how the products are received by the customers?

--- The feedback of cash.

--- Which suggests that this type of product is satisfying a real demand.

--- Exactly.

--- From Cinema Stories
Alexander Kluge
Martin Brady, Helen Hughes, Translators
©2007 New Directions Books


[Article]
The Dew-Line Bears
The Spotted Owl was the vaunted "indicator species" of the white-buck-shod, trust-fund East Coast Environmental Elites. The Goofies: the Rachael Carson people. A Bellwether. The Canary in the Coal Mine thing. The Cascading Disaster Omen. Just the Beginning of Der Untergang des Westens.

Funny about the way they put all those honest wood-workers and cutters and drivers out of business in Oregon and elsewhere and prevented the 75 % of usable post-fire timber from being extracted in a timely way. "Mold and Decay are Nature's Way." No salvaging a burned area.

Are the West's woods workers and mill operators still on welfare rolls and thronging to AA? I understand the Billy Goat Gruff Underbridge Trolls Brigades pay no attention to the families of loggers who've now moved in with them under the bridges. Pity about the gaunt women and kids though. Particularly amusing because the Mexican Burrowing Owl and the Barred Owl are genetically identical to Spotted Owl. Just more strong-minded, tougher at kick-boxing.

Possibly true that the forest industry did use the Owl as an excuse to efficient-ize, close the marginal, smaller, less profitable operations. Thank God for the Senate that represents area concerns so the greens can't close the entire west down for viewing. At their leisure. From the air.

I recall that Polar Bears were disappearing back in around '62. My fellow laborers at the Conservation Foundation in Washington, D. C. were terribly moved by the bears' plight. Deeply concerned about the shooting of bears, hastening their decline to one or two zoo specimens.

And the bears didn't harm people either. Just like wolves didn't. Just patted them down. Gently tasted them or something. "No Proven Person Deaths By Wolf" was the headline before a New Scientist letter came in, from a Siberian Ranger. Said he could document about 500 people deaths from bear and wolf in the Siberian area, where he was just after War II.

Not deaths of people hurled from fleeing horse-drawn troikas to slow down pursuing howling packs. Stalking deaths. Deaths by creatures stalking folks who'd forgot their .50 caliber rifles, their buffalo Sharps rifles. Hunting deaths.

Then there were the squads of moldy damp dowagers (and me) sitting around tut-tutting the various wilderness declines. The Tabbard Inn in D.C. was stylish, crawled with English chic, English accents, post-menopausal dowagers with tea stains and cups, pinky up. All visitors and guests of the Conservation Foundation stayed there at the Tabbard Inn.

It was festooned with damp hangings and damp rugs. The Fedders air conditioners squeaked and squealed as I drank myself into a stupor each night after work, spooned myself to sleep with jellied gin. A wholesome treat that. I understand the Tabbard has been rebuilt and is now modern and trendy. Nevertheless I shudder at the memory and continue to loath D.C. with all my heart.

Meantimes, the wildlife scientists and bear aficionados discovered a few tens of thousands of [surprise!] polar bears in various arctic attic closets. They'd failed to unpack them for the stories they did to terrify National Geographic readers. Bears were everywhere. This was kept secret as you might suspect, even when ... after the recent pitiful pictures of bearsontheinexorablymeltingicefloes looking hungry ... a tranche of 13,000 bears were discovered elsewhere in the Arctic. Found 'em with Google satellite photos.

I live for the day when Google sat photos will uncover other startling Arctic memorabilia. Viz a Dew-Line Installation with a large ground legend, spelled out with empty 55 gal fuel drums. A living legend. This bored Dewey went bush one winter, acted out by cranking up one of the leftover D-12 Caterpillar tractors and, on his off time, spelled out his feelings. Readable by shocked matrons peering out of Boeing 747 portholes at 30,000 feet. Big letters. By an Airman 3rd Class disgruntled Dogie who'd had it and wrote out his feelings there in the cold dark twenty-three-hour nights horsing that big roaring diesel Dew-Line Cat. Wasting future generations worth of discarded fuel. The Winter of his Discontent?

From 30,000 feet, just discernible from the Over-the-Pole flights his agonized Fuck you and fuck the mule you rode in on!

There are stories --- probably apocryphal --- that Questions were asked, in Ottawa, in Parliament ... shocked citizens protested. Air Canada redrew air routes, diverted flights away from our Dogie's heartfelt protest. Section eighted him out of A.F. as unstable "D."

Naturally it drew B-52 American pilots and early warning equipment from thousands of miles away. Diverted due to skipper's gut feeling ... "just a hunch ... but a big one ... I wonder if....?" USAF skippers with a hunch that the Big Bear Russian Bear bomber aircraft were making overflights near the cairn's legend. USAF skippers had a hunch The Bear's big, big ... big fuckin' bear Bombers ... practicing their English. Learning English by lurking a mysterious Arctic English Lesson site. What the...?

The real puzzle though wasn't the English Slang and Lit for Russian Air Crews lesson. Swarms of smaller F14s and other US craft drifting up for a look-see because they'd heard... Yes. Bears lived there. Some investigating 14s ran out of JP-4 fuel and had to ditch and parachute down to ruin prime polar bear habitat. Rare. Putatively extinct polar bears. Better safe than sorry, eh?

--- Paul Nickel


[Writing]
The writer must plod his way through many days when writing is impossible altogether --- days of doldrums, of dead centers, of utter mental collapse. These days have a happy habit of coming precisely when they are most inconvenient --- when a book has been promised and the publisher is getting out of patience.

They are days of utter horror. The writer labors like a galley-slave, and accomplishes absolutely nothing. A week of such effort and he is a wreck. It is in the last ghastly hours of such weeks that writers throw their children out of sixth-story window and cut off the heads of their wives.

--- Mencken, The American Iconoclast
Marion E. Rodgers
©Oxford University Press


[WHERE WE'RE AT]

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