R A L P H
The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities
Late Fall 2006Writers
Forward by Mark Strand
(Quantuck Lane Press)Nancy Crampton has been stalking writers since, she notes, she found W. H. Auden's name in 1972 in the Manhattan phone book and called him up there in the East Village and ended up taking "my first literary portrait." Since then, she has specialized in head-on, eye-to-eye black-and-white shots of famous writers.
104 turn up here, along with quotes from interviews or their own text. Forty-five of these are from Paris Review interviews, and are as obtuse as you could want. Writers writing about writing come out sounding loutish, mirror-looking-at-the-mirror stuff.From reading what the writers say in Writers, we learn that the rule of thumb is this: second-rate writers talk about themselves, inevitably dropping in the name of one of their titles in case we don't know who they are. The great writers don't because they don't have to waste our time (or theirs). The only one really worth its salt is from S. J. Perelman. A very dry, very funny interview appeared in Paris Review, where, among other things, he said: "In this very large country, where size is all and where Thomas Wolfe outranks Robert Benchley, I am content to stitch away at my embroidery hoop."
And, yes, Roth. Crampton notes: "I make up my mind to shoot Philip Roth on one of the local country roads" in Litchfield County, Connecticut. "After the third or fourth road, Philip says, 'Nancy, the road didn't write the book.'"
The photographs? Revealing; indeed, they say perhaps too much about their subjects. The most angelic is James Baldwin (he's wearing a white djellaba.) The most pained face of them all belongs to William Maxwell.
Most Sly: Kurt VonnegutThe Most Surprising: Truman Capote (quite lively --- although he was to die three months later). And the Most Lively of Them All ... by a league, completely in his own league ... and getting twelve shots as a result: Studs Terkel.
Most Arch: Edna O'Brien
Prettiest (Standard, American): John Irving
Prettiest (Ivy League): Mark Strand
Most Show-Off (With Fedora): Harold Brodkey
Most Vampirish: Margaret Atwood
Most Merry: Stanley Kunitz
Most Hearty: Gabriel García Márquez, Harold Bloom (tie)
Most Hunky: James Jones
Most Arty: Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Sexton (tie)
Worst Teeth: Joseph Heller, Robert Penn Warren (tie)
Most Decadent: W. H. Auden
Most Fatuous: Alice Munro
Most Neurotic: Robert Lowell--- Leslie Wright
Heaven: A Definition--- For Neil Postman (1932-2003)I hope that you will regard Heaven as just another
Bad argument, and carefully avoid Saint Peter
And his crafty, semiotic archangels. Make your way
To the back of Heaven's gates, the servant's entrance
Near the fiery chariot's metaphorical garage. Ask
That disdainful angel smoking a cigarette (the one
That looks like Beckett but isn't) to define Heaven
--- no metaphysical diction allowed --- and supply
Textual authority. As he ponders, takes a drag,
And scratches his left wing, resist the irony
Of asking after Wittgenstein's health and tell the angel
You would appreciate an audience with Death
Because it's always been your favorite abstraction.
Wait until he is bemused, his brow furrowed
Into cuneiform-like folds of luminous skin, then begin
Your descent. Head straight for NYU and nod lovingly
To your secretary. Tell her that classes will resume
Tomorrow and that only the baffled need attend;
Those students who confuse fact with truth can,
Frankly, go to Hell. And for Heaven's sake, don't
Answer the phone or the door. Tell her: "I'll be
In my office, with the door locked, noticing things."--- From Arguments for Stillness
©2006 Curbstone PressThe Practical Guide to AgingWhat Everyone Needs to Know
Christine K. Cassel, Editor
(New York University)My dear old Mother, recently laid in the grave at 96, wouldn't be caught dead reading The Practical Guide to Aging. She didn't like reading about, thinking about, worrying about the problems that were going to come on her down the line. She once told me that she was "tired of hearing about things that are bad for me," and I am beginning to know exactly what she meant, very old age culminating in the Ultimate Head-Churning Heart-Popping Moment-of-Truth.Careful, fact-filled works like this are the despoliation of romanticism, if you ask me. It's that awful echo of what they laughingly call "the Greens." We can't see a cow in the bucolic fields without thinking about the damage they're doing to the Great Plains or the aquifers. We can't see a red-brown sunset without saying "smog." We can't ride on a freeway without wondering "How many pleasant valleys and streams were bulldozed to build this turkey?"We can't see a field filled with corn tassels waving in the wind without trying to count up how many tons of chemicals they sprayed to get row upon row of gorgeous, unblighted plants. We can't go swimming in the ocean without stewing about the bacteria count, and we can't go zipping around in the sand-dunes in our buggies without fretting about the goddamn gophers or gnat-catchers or whatever it is we are supposed to fret about. We're living in a world of spoilers --- and they won't hush their nattering.Ms. Cassel's book is just this sort of downer. It's handily printed in large type for those of us who regularly buy our spectacles at the check-out counter at Rexall, Walgreens, or Sav-On after we misplace (or step on, or inadvertently flush down the toilet) our last pair --- and I don't doubt for a moment that all us geezers need to know what's in The Practical Guide, but it sure is a bummer.Anxiety, Memory Loss, "Behavioral Problems," High Blood Pressure, High Cholesterol, Chest Pains, Sleeplessness, Constipation --- you name it, we've either got it or it's waiting just around the corner to run out and bite us on the ass. We can easily get depressed reading about "Major Depressive Disorders" and "Assisted Suicide." Worse, I read that by age 65 (that's me) the life-expectancy charts give me only 15 more years to screw around, and, when I reach 85 --- I'll be allowed another 6 years above the sod, max.
Do I really need this? I was feeling pretty good when I picked up Aging, but felt like an old helium balloon by the time I had to start skipping over the last pages with chapter headings like "ECHO or Elderly Cottage Housing Opportunities," "Easing the Pain of Dying," and "Illness and Alienation." Why don't one of these fancy-dan ageologists or whatever the hell they call them do a study on the depression that comes about when we simply know too much about the near future. I would be happy to testify.
I would also suggest that we do a bit of book-burning --- starting with this creepy tome.--- Leslie J. Freedman
[PARADOX OF THE MONTH]When I first saw him read, I was never so surprised in my life, as when I saw the book talk to my master, for I thought it did, as I observed him to look upon it, and move his lips. I followed him to the place where he put the book, being mightily delighted with it, and when nobody saw me, I opened it, and put my ear close down to it, in great hopes that it would say something to me, but I was very sorry, and greatly disappointed, when I found that it would not speak. This thought immediately presented itself to me, that every body and every thing despised me because I was black.--- Henry Louis Gates Jr.
The Trope of the Talking Book,
As quoted in Sex Objects
(University of Minnesota Press)
[READING]Godbole's Song"Good-bye, Professor Godbole," she continued, suddenly agitated. "It's a shame we never heard you sing."
"I may sing now," he replied, and did.
His thin voice rose, and gave out one sound after another. At times there seemed rhythm, at times there was the illusion of a Western melody. But the ear, baffled repeatedly, soon lost any clue, and wandered in a maze of noises, none harsh or unpleasant, none intelligible. It was the song of an unknown bird. Only the servants understood it. They began to whisper to one another. The man who was gathering water chestnut came naked out of the tank, his lips parted with delight, disclosing his scarlet tongue. The sounds continued and ceased after a few moments as casually as they had begun --- apparently half through a bar, and upon the sub-dominant. "Thanks so much: what was that?" asked Fielding."I will explain in detail. It was a religious song. I placed myself in the position of a milkmaiden. I say to Shri Krishna, 'Come! come to me only.' The god refuses to come. I grow humble and say: 'Do not come to me only. Multiply yourself into a hundred Krishnas, and let one go to each of my hundred companions, but one, 0 Lord of the Universe, come to me.' He refuses to come. This is repeated several times. The song is composed in a raga appropriate to the present hour, which is the evening."
"But He comes in some other song, I hope?" said Mrs. Moore gently.
"Oh no, he refuses to come," repeated Godbole, perhaps not understanding her question. "I say to Him, Come, come, come, come, come, come. He neglects to come."
Ronny's steps had died away, and there was a moment of absolute silence. No ripple disturbed the water, no leaf stirred.--- From A Passage to India
E. M. Forster
©1924 Harcourt, BraceThe Nature-Friendly Garden
Creating a Backyard Haven for
Plants, Wildlife, and People
Marlene A. Condon
(Stackpole)Some of us have the Brown Thumb when it comes to gardens. We plant petunias and get crab's eyes and creeping bugleweed. We dig a hole to stuff in the lilies, and what appears: stinking camomile and the ugly white bladder-flower.A tree? Let's put a beech or sumac over here. And what rises in its stead? Bloodflower, bastard ipecac and the common mugwort.Mebbe it is our attitude. Ms. Condon loves all creatures (and plants) great and small, sees all living in splendid good-will towards each other. The White-tailed Deer, she tells us, the one that eats all our syringa (but not the bladder-wort), can be kept out with a fence. But it will have to be an eight-foot fence, "because they are good jumpers." (She doesn't like electric fences because "it may cause discomfort to the animal.")
She likes groundhogs because their digging aerates the soil. Mice, she assures us, are very important to the food chain, although, presumably, not ours. Voles can be controlled by snakes. Right: bring on the boas.
After you get through the chapters on Bagworms and Blowflies, you may decide to hell with it and settle on a Japanese Rock Garden. Photographs of bats, black widows and efts, plentifully sprinkled around the text, may confirm this decision.--- Richard Saturday
[LETTER]Subject: goodness gracious!
I just read the review of my book, The Nature-friendly Garden. I wrote this book to help folks to understand our natural world. If they could grasp what is going on "out there," they could stop trying to garden in a manner that can't possibly work and which therefore brings them much unhappiness. In addition to becoming happier gardeners, people would also become better environmental caregivers.
I am taken aback by your sarcasm. This book comes from my heart. I would hope that you did not really want to be so mean-spirited. It appears that your own unsuccessful gardening efforts have made you bitter, in which case your review rather makes a case for everything the book points out! Perhaps you should reread it.
I wish you well.--- Marlene A. Condon
Don't Kidney Now
Or, Life in a Urinary Tract
Vacation HomeOnce upon a time, about fifteen years ago, I started to piss blood, which, as you can imagine, bummed me out.
Like you, like most of us who have lived ten or twenty (or fifty) years with a body that is out-to-lunch, I tried to take it in stride. Other things, possibly worse, were going on in this shipwreck I call home: arthritis, diabetes, glaucoma, arrhythmia of the heart, dropsy, housemaid's knee, the Yaws, etc etc blah blah.
I was able to spot my new curse because my best (and sometimes only) nighttime companion is a Clamato bottle, 32 oz., which I use to relieve myself around midnight, and again at 2 am, and at 4 am, and at 6 am, etc etc blah blah.
After a few weeks of pretending it was the fault of the beets I love too much (they do produce a red flow), I dug around in the local medical directory to find a urologist who would accept my second-class medical insurance and who wouldn't leave me waiting for six months to get an appointment. Dr. Ghoul worked in the randier part of town so I suspected that outside of cystitis, bladder-stones and Liddle's Syndrome he was probably a part-time what we used to call "dope doctor."
His office had several plastic roses in plastic pots with plastic dust, years-old copies of The American Legion magazine, and on the wall a diploma which, as best I could make out, said that he had graduated with honors from the Transylvania School of Medicine.
After I explained my dilemma, he left me in the hands of his assistant, or nurse (or wife, or lover), who without so much as a by-your-leave, shoved a sizable hose up my what Casanova --- see the Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt --- primly called the "organ of generation." Within scarcely an hour, the good doctor returned, looked briefly into the depths of me, washed his hands, sniffed, and told me not to worry. "Not to worry," he said.
Most people would have demanded a second opinion but I've seen enough doctors in my lifetime to last a lifetime, so I wasn't about to question such a heartening opinion. I continued to live with this ancient exhaust pipe and its multicolored voidings for the better part of a decade-and-a-half even though, I suspect, its outflow would not have been acceptable under the Federal Emission Control Standards Act of 1968.
Last fall, however, perhaps due to the falling Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the declining stability in Iraq, or my having reached 72 years of age --- whichever came first --- my ruddy flow turned into a veritable Niagara. It was as if I was, each night, putting used Clamato, unfiltered, back into the jar. After 36 hours of this, it began to get on my nerves as these terrorist attacks (from within and without) often do.
This time, I sought out a real urologist with real Antherium lilies in his reception room, a real medical degree on his wall (Columbia) and a heady collection of back-issues of the "New Yorker" magazine that I would have given my eye-teeth to own. Although his offices were high-class, he did share one thing with Dr. Ghoul. It was the old garden hose which was larger than life but it did have one virtue. There was a camera attached at the business end with which the Doctor and I and his various assistants and secretaries and hangers-on could enjoy projected on the screen a journey, in full color, through my own personal Amazon Basin.
At first I thought the pale blurry object we were seeing was something stolen from PBS --- The Living Desert, perhaps --- but Dr. Feelgood assured me that it was all mine. At the same time, he complimented me on my bladder. "Smooth, not wrinkled at all," he said. Since I had developed a fair number of wrinkles in other areas outside the box, I viewed this as a compliment.
But Feelgood still was puzzled about my bloody period. To track it down, he resorted to another procedure, the exact nature of which I will not bore you with, but it concerns an area of the body where, as the old song goes, the sun don't shine.
§ § §
There is something ... a certain sensitivity training, perhaps ... that I would hope they would offer to third-year students at our great medical schools. It would be, specifically, that there are things you don't say when you are poking about in the most sensitive, vulnerable, private areas of your patients.
One would be, "Wow!"
Another would be, "Oh God!"
Feelgood, I can guarantee you, had not taken such training. Nor was he in a position to see my face when he added, "I've never seen one this big before!" I assure you, he wasn't talking about what the producers of Debbie Does Dallas would call my endowment.
When I finally got out of there, past the Antherium lilies, out into the street ... back into my own life over the next few weeks, I found that this bladder-pump doctor had given me three presents.
The first was a prescription for pills that may well have been minted of gold, silver and ground diamond. At ten dollars a pop, I was to take them twice a day, for the next thirty days. If I didn't mind going on relief in the interim.
The second was his thought that I and my prostate stones should consider an operation, a fairly complex operation, that, barring my winning a poker hand at Binyon's, would force me to move down to Broadway to take up with my peers, the many bagmen and bagladies who live down there, even as we speak.
The third gift --- one that did not turn up until I retreated to my $50/month winter rent-a-trailer three thousand miles south of the border --- was a UTI, also known as a "Urinary Tract Infection." A gift, I do believe, of Dr. Feelgood's old and much-abused garden hose.
Miles and miles from home, and here I am with one of those home-grown infections of which Americans are getting to be so fond, one that cannot be treated with any of the old-school antibiotics like penicillin or ampicillin or tetracycline; one of those new infections, one that could not be easily defeated ... as my wintertime vacation-home doctor, Don Feliz Verga, carefully explained to me.
Thus, shortly after arriving in paradise, I was faced with the intractable question: should I abort my long-anticipated stay at my pacific winter pied-ā-terre? Or should I tough it out, using native cure-alls, praying to the gods not to send in any additional problems in the form of kidney infarction or out-and-out thrombosis, any or all of which would terminate my visit (not to say my life).
§ § §
You and I learn, early on, that there are some things that will merely scare us to death while there are others that will kill us. Part of our self-education over the years ("pay attention to your body") is that the sooner we learn the difference, the easier our lives will be. Dr. Feliz Verga assured me, perhaps wrongly, that I could live with whatever it was I had as long as I didn't develop blistering fevers or convulsions.
Meanwhile, he would stand by. He prescribed that old faithful cure-all --- Zithromax: 500 mg the first day, 250 mg for the next four days --- and an herbal tea.
The tea had to be boiled up daily and sipped morning and evening for three weeks. It consisted of
Cola de caballo
Pelo de Elote
Hojas de Guayaba
The first three I was able to figure out with the help of my Cassell's. Horse-tail. Corn-silk. Leaves of the guayaba tree.
The last had me stumped. Dried penguin? I knew I was living in Paradise, but had they been raising an off-brand version of the birds of the Antarctic in a nearby animal park?
No, no, the good doctor assured me. Penguica was a local tree. The seeds were to be boiled up with the leaves of guayaba, the silk of corn and the hairs of tail. Real horse tail? Real horse tail, he assured me.
I had Juana my part-time maid pick up these ingredients at our local herb store and boil them up for an hour or so with two liters of spring water. She delivered the concoction to me in the beer-mug I normally use for my daily margarita treatment.
The dark liquid turned out to be, and here I am trying to be discreet, industrial-strength spawn of frog-wort.
Of all the miserable, rat-drop concoctions one could come up with, this so-called "tea" took the cake. No sooner was it down than it wanted to come right back up again.
But I closed my eyes (and held my nose, and shut my mouth), and hung on ... and damned if it didn't do the trick. Within a day, my UTI went into remission. Within a week I was feeling fit as a fiddle.
Oh the infection is still there, sort of. And I know that if I start to show any of the symptoms that Dr. Feliz Verga told me to watch out for, I am out of here on the next crop-duster. But for the three months since I started drinking this heady brew, I have stayed on here in paradise, occasionally topping off my day with another cup of noxious herbs.
Between margaritas, of course.--- L. W. MilamThis article also appeared in
New Mobility Magazine
All the Signs Are HereIt's not all that mysterious
really, the new crop of brown spots
on both forearms.
Three fingers on my left hand
gone dead white from old nerve damage,
and my dog coming out
from under the covers
seven-times-ten or seventy years
old with breath to kill.
So, all the signs are here,
we're leaving. Happy days.
Good-bye to receding gums,
the waste of despair,
old loves chewed on
way too long.
Clouds that make themselves up
over and over
as if change is all that's permanent.
There's nothing sad here.
Think of that little red double-ender,
its paint chipped, fading,
going out and coming in.--- From Wu Wei
©2006 Milkweed Editions
M. J. Costa, Translator
(New Directions)If James Joyce was out of doors during a storm, he would "wring his hands, scream, and run." Nabokov loathed Dostoyevsky, considering him "vulgar." He also hated "jazz, bullfighting, primitive masks, canned music,"
swimming pools, trucks, transistor radios, bidets, insecticides, yachts, the circus, hooligans, nightclubs, and the roar of motorbikes.
In his essay on Rimbaud, Marías says that posterity "has the advantage of enjoying the work of writers without having the bother of putting up with the writers themselves."
Rimbaud never changed his clothes and therefore smelled disgusting, left any bed he slept in full of lice, drank constantly (preferably absinthe), and rewarded his acquaintances with nothing but impertinence and insults.Henry James thought of death as "the Distinguished Thing." Robert Louis Stevenson was a great friend of James. Marías lets us know that he was also a master of literary theory. "Nowadays, almost no one takes the trouble to read Stevenson's essays, which are among the liveliest and most perceptive of the past century." He quotes with approval the poem on Stevenson's tomb in Samoa,
Here he lies, where he longed to be
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
§ § §
We have spoken with wonder and (indeed) approbation of Marías before [see www.ralphmag.org/when-mortalZN.html] but it is only with Written Lives that we find he is a top-drawer critic as well, much in the mold of Bradley, Virginia Woolf, Kenneth Rexroth, D. H. Lawrence, and Umberto Eco. His loves are bountiful; his loathings deep. The writers he most disdains are Joyce, Mann, and Mishima. "The death of Yukio Mishima was so spectacular that it has almost succeeded in obliterating the many other stupid things he did in his life."
Unlike so much literary criticism, Marías is a treat to read. His observations are sharp and astute; his phrasing can border on the wonderful. Bosie, Oscar Wilde's lover, was "long on ringlets and short on intelligence."
Ostensibly he is giving digressions on twenty-six writers here, but dozens of others slip in and out of the essays. Wilde turns up (as a bit of a fool) in an essay on Henry James. On the other hand de Maupassant struck James "as the height of refinement" because he met the writer for lunch "in the society of a lady who was not only naked, but wearing a mask."
Marías offers these short pieces as an antidote to those biographies of our time which are "exhaustive and frequently [of] futile erudition." In charming fashion, ignoring the fact that Marías himself is an author, he tells us in his prologue that
the one thing that leaps out when you read about these authors is that they were all fairly disastrous individuals, and although they were probably no more so than anyone else whose life we know about, their example is hardly likely to lure one along the path of letters.--- Marta Ortega
Timothy; Or, Notes of
An Abject Reptile
Josephine Bailey, Reader
(Tantor --- 5 CDs)
The flowers appear on the earth:
the time of the singing of birds is come,
and the voice of the turtle
is heard in our land.
--- Song of Solomon 2:12, King James VersionTimothy got trapped in 1740 in Silesia and transshipped to England. He ends up in the hands of Gilbert White, the author of The Natural History of Selborne, an exhaustive study of plants, animals, reptiles and birds of a small town in Southern England.
White was one of the first naturalists, a man who observed, and observed obsessively, the birds and bugs and beasts that lived and died around him. The turtle, Timothy, was excellent grist for his mill, for he took up abode in White's garden.
We can never be sure how old he is, for, as Timothy reminds us not a few times --- turtles are the longest-lived creatures, some able to survive for 150 years. Throughout his life-span, Timothy does find humans to be very peculiar indeed:
For a time I flinched whenever a human approached, especially Mr. Henry Snook, who carried such a stoop of belly before him. The feet would stop, but the top might timber on to me. I still doubt the stability of the species. All that brain bulk merely to prop them up? Or are they less top-heavy than they appear?
He notes the strange world-view of humans: "The louse under the shirt of the Sunday parishioner leaves St. Mary's unblessed. No matter how its host prays. Eyes screwed shut. Hands folded. Beseeching hard. A next life, please, with no biting and sucking insects."
Timothy's most intense study is White.
Late on summer nights he comes into the garden. To see if the bat still flies. To observe by candle-light what moths and earwigs do in the dark. He appears without false hair. Candle held to one side. Pale natural skull like a half moon under his stubble. He clasps together the waist of a coat thrown over his open shirt. Hiding the animal within. Bare calves beneath, spindles of flesh. He does not look very wise, tossing stones into the hedge to make the sedge-bird sing its night song.
"I have seen these humans in their disarray. Far more common than any finery. Hair wrung into knots. Stockings fallen. Skirts clotted with mud and manure. Eyes, noses red from fist-rubbings, coarsening wind."
Eruptions on rough hands from hop-picking. Itching tumors from harvest-bugs. Jaws tied up with the tooth-ache, the head-ache. Faces choked with drink, sweat, sleep, stupidity, confusions of the rut. Such a bulk of being to regulate. Disorder stalks them day and night. They stalk it back.
" Great soft tottering beasts" he concludes.
Books, as one of my friends says, are there to be eaten --- but it is rare that I gorge on one before breakfast. I certainly did with Timothy. My advantage was having it read to me by Josephine Bailey. She's the consummate commute companion, the best one could ask for. She speaks an elegant, impeccable English, reading to us as if she were a bit tired by life (as Timothy certainly was), a bittersweet elegance in her voice. I was puzzled to find Timothy being voiced by an older woman until Timothy reveals to us that he is really an older woman ... an older woman-with-shell, that is. And Mr. Gilbert White never figured out that his Timothy is a she.
He also can't figure out why she would want to run away from her comfortable garden. He can't comprehend that she just wants to get away from humans. Her half-amused scorn for Mr. Gilbert White comes from her scorn for the rationalist's "system:"
The naturalist begins to understand after years of study. He records the when, and where, and which, of the birds of passage and beasts of the field. Those are the very questions that system is poised to answer. But why will never by solved by system. No number of small corpses dissected, tagged, and preserved will ever begin to answer why. How the nightingale sings, pitch of the notes, melody of the song, structure of the voice box. But never fully the nightingale's why.
There is a special bonus in Timothy that comes for the reader or listener. It is one of envy, for this is a rich and lovely account of life of late eighteenth century rural England ... why it makes one jealous. To reflect on the swarming life of the countryside, the astonishing variety of plants, the growing and the flying and the crawling things, and to contemplate the music of their names: plants known as toadflax, borecole, "Traveler's joy," twayblade, eye-bright cow-wheat, go-to-bed-at-noon, Knee-holly or butcher's broom. The birds: the sit-ye-down, ring ousel, Land rail, European bee-eater, jackdaw, missel-thrush, pettichaps, flycatcher, wryneck, butcher-bird, coal-mouse, honey-buzzard, and the nightjar.
The singers: the redbreast, mistle thrush, nightingale, black-cap, titlark, stone curlew, chiffchaff, bullfinch, snipe; the echo of their song, the hills and valleys filled with music the live-long day and much of the night. All this rustic melody of countryside haunts the reader, makes us wish to teletransport ourselves back 250 years --- no jets, no jack-hammers, no car-alarms, no stereos, no freeways, no horns, no sirens, no screeching of brakes, no banging of dump-trucks, no whining of tractors, no jarring of our days. Only a rural harmony, with its words that come to us from so far back in our heritage --- the ha-ha (a type of fence), huckaback (fabric), Marvel of Peru, pinchbeck (fake gold) smock-frock, stickleback, straddle-bob (Orion), lop and top (timber), dimity, flitch (bacon).
§ § §
Usually, in my novelling, I prefer the written to the spoken word. But here I am going to give the diadem to Ms. Bailey. Her pronunciation is blameless, her diction impeccable. When she starts in to reading the Glossary at the very end we realize that she is not the old woman playing the part of a very old turtle: She was just being old for the listener for the sake of a great (and proper) reading. The only thing she is not given to do is to hiss like her Timothy.--- Wendy FirestoneContemplating
HellContemplating Hell, as I once heard it,
My brother Shelley found it to be a place
Much like the city of London. I,
Who do not live in London, but in Los Angeles,
Find, contemplating Hell, that it
Must be even more like Los Angeles.
Also in Hell,
I do not doubt it, there exist these opulent gardens
With flowers as large as trees, wilting, of course,
Very quickly, if they are not watered with very expensive water. And fruit markets
With great leaps of fruit, which nonetheless
Possess neither scent nor taste. And endless trains of autos,
Lighter than their own shadows, swifter than
Foolish thoughts, shimmering vehicles, in which
Rosy people, coming from nowhere, go nowhere.
And houses, designed for happiness, standing empty,
Even when inhabited.
Even the houses in Hell are not all ugly.
But concern about being thrown into the street
Consumes the inhabitants of the villas no less
Than the inhabitants of the barracks.--- Bertolt Brecht
Publish and Perish:
Three Tales of Tenure and Terror
(Picador, USA)James Cook, the great navigator and explorer, was born in Yorkshire in 1728 and killed by natives of Hawaii in 1779. Two of these interconnected novellas involve a modern academic conference about Captain Cook's death. There are dazzling promo papers such as "Cooking the Captain: the Colonialist as Yorkshire Pudding," but the conference nonetheless dissolves into a near riot over issues of political correctness and scholarly territory, made worse by academic rivalries.
The resulting acrimony disgraces its organizer, Gregory Eyck, an anthropologist at a fictional midwestern university. Hitherto, Professor Eyck had been a fair-haired boy in his field, author of epigrams like this: " 'The proper study of mankind is man' is the worst kind of enlightenment arrogance. We must adhere to a more rigorous, more honest standard: the proper study of anthropology is anthropologists."
Nursing his wounds over the conference fiasco, Eyck goes on sabbatical in Britain. There, he visits a megalithic site rather less well known than Stonehenge, and finds hints that the villagers are enacting some sort of ancient cult at the standing stones. This, of course, is exactly what a cultural anthropologist looking to restore his reputation cannot resist investigating further --- but it doesn't end well for the visiting American.
In another story, we have an ambitious but low-ranking English professor whose wife, a more successful English professor, teaches elsewhere during the week and commutes home on weekends. This gives hubby the weekdays to keep an affair going with a grad student and to mistreat his wife's cat. Until, that is, the cat seems to develop extraordinary powers---and it doesn't end well for the double-dealing professor.
Finally, we have professor Karswell, an over-the-hill European history specialist who learns how to cast runes on those, among his many enemies, whom he decides to destroy physically. His newest victim is a rather sympathetic young woman instructor, just coming up for tenure review, whose manuscript the older scholar plans to steal. However, during the course of the aforementioned Captain Cook conference, the young woman is able to turn the tables on Karswell and, suffice to say, it doesn't end well at all for this professor either.
§ § §
The supernatural element in these farcical tales gives them a pleasingly old-fashioned quality, but the academic satire is as up-to-date as the latest issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, and it is razor sharp. Imagine an amalgam of John Collier and David Lodge.--- Dr. Phage
Brooklyn IsSoutheast of the Island:
(Fordham University Press)The Denizens of Manhattan like to think of themselves as island-dwellers: people and places beyond the Hudson or the East River are on another planet. Thus James Agee was commissioned in 1939 by Fortune Magazine to come up with a Think Piece: to cross the fearful reaches of the Brooklyn Bridge, make notes, and thus pass judgment on what he found there ... as if he were traveling to Bulgaria, Turkministan, or Zamboanga.
"Students in careful suits, hard ties, toxic books..." he reports. "The fumed and whining factories, the pitiless birds, the animals, and
that Bridge which stands up like God and makes music to himself by night and by day: all in the lordly idiot light...
Toxic books. The idiot light. God coming at us in the form of the twanging of cables on the Brooklyn Bridge.Agee created great art in Now Let Us Praise Famous Men [See www.ralphmag.org/AU/famous-men.html] where he and photographer Walker Evans went into Hobe's Hill in the hot summer of 1936 to paint the piteous life of the hill country farmers of Alabama in the depths of depression. But, apparently, all he was able to find when he crossed the East River were "the negroid breath of a molasses factory" and about 200 colons. Yes the:which, for some reason, here replaces the comma, the period, and the paragraph: a mark: I guess: for those of us: who want a change: of pace: in our drab lives.--- Bruce ClevelandThe Russian Anarchists
(AK Press)Some of us have never been able to keep our anarchists straight. Especially when it came to the Russians. Hell, they weren't even able to keep their anarchists straight.There was M. A. Bakunin and P. A. Kropotkin and A. A. Karelin and N. I. Makhno and G. P. Maksimov ("The Maximum Maksimov") who went off to Chicago and Bill Shatov ("Just Plain Bill") and V. M. Volin and R. I. Babushkabab whose name I just made up and thousands of others although we'll never know how many because anarchists didn't like the state and certainly didn't like the state counting them, right? They were anarchists, remember?
The Russian Anarchists is a user-friendly manual on the forming, founding, feeding and decline of Russian anarchists. Take Bakunin, for example. He was a real Billy Goat Gruff. He saw Stalinism before it became Stalinism. He said that there was an "authoritarianism inherent in a so-called dictatorship of the proletariat."
The citizens of the new people's state would be rudely awakened from their self-delusion to discover that they had become "the slaves, the playthings, and the victims of a new group of ambitious men."
Unfortunately, he let it be known that his own "secret society" would be subjected to the "strictest discipline and subordinated to a small revolutionary directorate."
Kropotkin was more of a Granny Goose, according to Avrich. He was "singularly mild and benevolent. He lacked completely Bakunin's violent temperament, titanic urge to destroy, and irresistible will to dominate."
Nor did he possess Bakunin's anti-Semitic streak or display the hints of derangement that sometimes appeared in Bakunin's words and actions.
He was, says the writer, a man of "courtly manner and high qualities of character and intellect ... the very picture of reasonableness." A friend once wrote me about him:
Kropotkin was indeed the most appealing of our anarchist gurus. He was an academic of sorts, a student of geography, geology, and ethnology, not to mention having a white beard and twinkling eyes behind his thick glasses.
§ § §
Those of us who saw ourselves as political Romantics always had a warm spot in our hearts for the Anarcho-Syndicalists who ran Barcelona before the Stalinists came to town and murdered them all. For the first time, we have found out the how of the Anarcho-Syndicalists --- how they differed from all those ill-tempered Bakunin types.
As Avrich explains it, Anarcho-Syndicalists (hereinafter referred to as A/S to preserve my sanity as I type) came out of the syndicalists of 1890 Paris. They "condemned the terrorists for dissipating their forces in hit-and-run raids on the privileged classes." They also "considered organized labor a powerful engine of revolt."
They not only loathed the centralized state and had "a sharp distrust of politicians," they saw unions, with their experience of worker control as "a basis of the future libertarian society." In France of those years, the majority of unions
had come to regard the state with hostile eyes and to reject the conquest of political power --- whether by revolutionary or parliamentary methods --- as inimical to their true interests.
Instead, they looked forward to a social revolution which would destroy the capitalist system and inaugurate a stateless society in which the economy would be managed by a general confederation of labor unions.
Wow! What a dream, eh?
And so it happened in Spain, starting in 1936. After Franco began the civil war, the anarchists --- specifically the Federación Anarquista Ibérica, FAI, and the big anarchist-dominated labor union, the CNT --- joined the Catalan local government and collaborated with the popular front central government. At the same time, there was irregular action by workers taking over many different factories and shops, particularly in Catalonia, and farms in Andalusia. However, this whole development was suppressed by the Republican government itself within a year and a half. By 1937, the FAI was in fact outlawed in Republican Spain. And so, so quickly, the chance for an anarchist to join other anarchists to help govern a country faded, and so it died.
§ § §
If I were teaching a course in Russian history, or labor history, or just history history, I would include this book. Avrich is a good enough writer to take the raggle-taggle world of anarchism and make it make sense.
And he has the art to include the dramatic relics of the past, for example, ending the chapter on "The Downfall of Russian Anarchism" --- dealt death blows by both Lenin and Trotsky, by means of the Cheka --- by quoting Alexander Berkman, "profoundly disheartened by the turn the revolution had taken." He wrote dramatically in his diary,
Grey are the passing days. One by one the embers of hope have died out. Terror and despotism have crushed the life born in October. The slogans of the Revolution are forsworn, its ideals stifled in the blood of the people. The breath of yesterday is dooming millions to death; the shadow of today hangs like a black pall over the country. Dictatorship is trampling the masses underfoot. The Revolution is dead; its spirit cries in the wilderness.
"I have," he concluded, "decided to leave Russia."--- Jennifer Lopez-Whaley[LETTER]Subject: RALPH
Dear Ms Lark,
I just received volume 27, late summer 2006, edition of RALPH. If I am reading the address label correctly my subscription goes to Oct, 2010.
I wonder if it is possible for you to reveal to me to whom it is I am indebted for receiving your publication. I would be much appreciative. I would like to know whom to thank for this very generous gift.--- Sincerely,
§ § §Dear Ms. Wallis:
Thank you for your puzzled letter.
There are five possible ways that this may have come about:
- If you sent us a check, you would have gotten a subscription to the printed version of RALPH, the Folio.
- If someone else sent a check for you, you would have gotten a subscription to the Folio.
- If there were an error in our mail room, you may have gotten a subscription to the Folio.
- If you were an Important Person, especially an Important Kindly Person, you might have gotten a free subscription to the Folio.
- If there was Divine Intervention, you might, as a result, depending on the agent or agents involved, have gotten a subscription to the Folio.
We assume you would know if you subscribed yourself. If someone subscribed on your behalf, we would have informed you and presumably the donor would have informed you too.
An error in the mailroom? Ah, and alas --- these are very frequent. Our subscription lady is not only dilatory, she has been known to give out free subscriptions to friends, lovers, relations, or whomsoever in the world she thinks might learn from the magazine, people she sees as morally, emotionally, or mystically challenged.
You may have gotten a free subscription as an Important Person: We do occasionally send short-term subscriptions to such, hoping that they will read us make us an Important Person too.
In regards to Divine Intervention: We have been looking into that one, and should inform you that as a result of our research, we have found that direct action by the gods on your (or anyone else's) behalf seems to be exceedingly rare. Bolts from The Blue --- as my Mum would say --- are as scarce as hen's teeth.--- Lolita Lark
§ § §Dear Lolita:
Yes, I would know if I had sent in a check to subscribe. If you consider me an important or interesting person HOW did you get my mailing address?
I hope I will not be offending any individual who may have anonymously sent in an odd-number of years subscription but since it seems impossible to learn who this individual is kindly remove me from your mailing list (I hope you have not already sold my name and address to anyone else) and kindly discontinue sending me your publication.
Thank you for attention to this matter.--- Susan Wallis
§ § §
Dear Ms Wallis:
No sooner said than done, although we must demur: we have yet to find anyone silly enough to want to buy our subscription list, made up, as it is, of misfits, misanthropes, and myriads of would-be mystics.--- Yours in Truth,
An Episode in the Life
Of a Landscape Painter
Chris Andrews, Translator
(New Directions)Johan Moritz Rugendas traveled across the Andes in the summer of 1837 - 1838 with his friend and fellow artist Robert Krause. They were "genre" painters under the tutelage of Alexander von Humboldt. As such, they were expected to represent the "physiognomy" of the landscape, where --- as in holographic photography --- each part of the whole represents the whole.
Just outside the town of San Luis, they were caught in a storm. A bolt of lightning passed overhead:
a zig-zag clear across the sky. It came so close that Rugenda's upturned face, frozen in an expression of idiotic stupor, was completely bathed in white light. He thought he could feel its sinister heat on his skin and his pupils contracted to pin-points.
A second bolt of lightning strikes, one of such violence that Rugendas is thrown from his horse, but with a foot caught in a stirrup, he is dragged face-down across the plain.
He could feel himself being pulled, stretching (the electricity had made him elastic), almost levitating, like a satellite in thrall to a dangerous star.
His face is "seriously damaged." In addition, because of the destruction of nerves, after his accident, he is subject to convulsive fits, migraines, and periods of unstoppable pain.
§ § §
There. I've done it. I've given you the plot. Now that I have done that, forget it. This man who paints studies of nature: forget him, too. This artist, one who suffers a violent accident that was to make it a torture for him to live, and to make it a torture for others to look at him: don't bother yourself.
For the plot of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter isn't the point. It's not the painter nor the scenery. Hell, maybe it's not even me. Nor you.
As I am read this supposed history of Rugendas, carefully taking notes on the inside back cover (as I am wont to do, so I can remember what has happened, very important for the many impuissant books that pass through my hands) I get to the point where I know there is something strange going on here, certainly something too much for me to be able to convey in words.
It may be the screwiness in the setting --- setting being a key element in the paintings and drawings, of Rugendas and Krause. There is a pliancy of words that turns the reader (and the characters) upside-down (one even being dragged through the plains in such an awkward state).
Is it the symbols? There are symbols, good ones too: "the enormous grilles shut behind them with a clang to which the birds replied;" salmon "as big as sheep;" gusts of wind rearranging the "stars and mountains."
Is it the rare flash of the comic? Rugendas, face hidden in a mantilla, (since he can't see his face he isn't worried about hiding it; but light, the bright light of the Argentine highlands, hurts his eyes). Thus half-blind, mounting his horse backwards,
when he came to look for the reins of course he could not find them. The horse was headless!
The faceless man on the headless horse, charging off (backwards) to find an Indian raid, so he can get it down on paper, always at the edge of the action, finally stumbling, late at night, into the encampment of the rebels, where Rugendas continues to draw faces as peculiar as his own,
big mouths with lips like squashed sausages, Chinese eyes, figure-eight noses, locks matted with grease, bull necks ... His face expressed things he did not mean to express, but no one realized, not even Rugendas, because he could not see himself. He could only see the faces of the Indians, which to him were horrible too, but all in the same way.
§ § §
Maybe I'll never figure out why this story of a faceless painter from a century-and-a-half ago told in a mere ninety pages has such power ... the power to turn the reader inside-out, or upside-down. Is it the expert interweaving of landscape and history and a skewed, painterly vision which robs one of the chance to see things straight? What kind of diabolical art is this? Where have we found such power before?
Gaétan Soucy in The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches, could saddle us with a family so strange that its madness becomes our own. Jean Genet, with his inversions --- "thievery, treachery, sodomy" --- turned the world of the reader equally upside-down. Nabokov, in Ada, carries us into a mysterious parallel universe, running side-by-side with our own ... but so comically peaceful and logically illogical that even the cars ride past us on soundless tracks.
It's sheer word-power: It's the ability to take words and push us (sometimes ignorant; sometimes unwilling) into other worlds. 1838. The pampa. Argentina. Most of all, "the mysterious emptiness to be found on the endless plains at a point equidistant from the horizons."
There is something screwy that comes about in this volume (and, before, perhaps long before, in the author's head). It is incomprehensible, inchoately wonderful, something you have every reason to want to experience ... and no reason at all to miss.--- Carlos Amantea
The Coming of Age in Palo AltoIn the wind, my hair was like fire or cotton candy.
I lay stoned in a field of stars.
Deer came out of the forest and destroyed our gold tomatoes.
Dinner was never on time.
I lay stoned in a field of stars.
I crashed the car.
Dinner was never on time.
Sex was painful but obligatory.
I crashed the car.
My mother read about murder and smiled.
Sex was painful but obligatory.
My father screamed.
My mother read about murder and smiled.
Nothing good ever happened with the lights on.
My father screamed.
We cruised all night in Jeff's red mustang.
Nothing good ever happened with the lights on.
I put a star under my tongue.
We cruised all night in Jeff's red mustang.
The streets ended too soon and we had to turn back.
I put a star under my tongue.
I lay stoned in a field of swords.
A unicorn came out of the forest and destroyed our gold.
In the wind, his hair was like fire.--- From The Salt Daughter
Little Poem Press
PO Box 185
Subject: The Dead Cat
I would have read your review of "The Dead Cat: Schrödinger's Experiment" if I had not read it.--- Rachel Suarez
firstname.lastname@example.orgThe review referred to can be found at
Subject: Jesus Christ Blaspheme.
i have seen the blaspheme you put of Jesus on the cross. 3 Lam. 20:1 says "those that I have swaddled and brought hath mine enemy consumed." You are putting OUR LORED JESUS to be like that sinner. The brimstone will come 1 Hab 5:13 "I will discover thy skirts upon thy face."
There wiil not be rest until you are torn asunder (2 Sam. 5:4) If you continue to DEFAME the Body of Our Lord, comes the Righteous Anger of the GOD ALMIGHTY. 1 Dan. 5:12--- email@example.comThe drawing referred to can be found at
http://www.ralphmag.org/jesus-woman-cross426x542.gifThe Cloud-Spotters Guide
The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds
(Perigee)Pretor-Pinney is founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society and we do too: appreciate them, that is. Who is not to be moved by these strange beasts that come and go across the sky, turning somersaults, turning into monkeys dancing, whales rising up, old men with no teeth, babies outstretched, donkeys galloping, roosters crowing, tall men bent over, flattened out dogs, and fat-faced women smiling, all before our very eyes, the very first moving-picture shows, ever? Clouds are the clearest shape of our imaginings, the gestalt of our souls.
So we moved right into this one, preparing to learn the difference between the humble cumulus Cumulus humilis, the mediocre cumulus Cumulus mediocris, the congested cumulus Cumulus congestus, the radiating mediocre cumulus Cumulus mediocris radiatus and their second half-cousin, the Cumulonimbus.
Our author is wildly enthusiastic about his subject, and they say this book is near the top in snails at the New York Times, etc., but the author seems to us to be writing for the Small Set:
It is somewhat alarming to learn that eighty elephants weigh about as much as the water droplets in a medium-sized Cumulus --- a Cumulus mediocris --- would if you added them all together. For though the droplets in a Cumulus cloud are extremely small, there are one hell of a lot of them.
Still, each of us has our schtick, and his is Altostratus, Stratocumulus, Cirrus, Cirrostratus, and even contrails, those wisps of trash left behind by the military, keeping the skies safe for democracy. But, when Pretor-Pinney tells us how to tell Altostratus from Altocumulus and both from Nimbostratus, we can't be too sure. He calls them layers of bread rolls in the sky, and assures us that Altocumulus lenticularis is not a UFO. Why not? we ask. Since it is all in our imagination anyway, if we choose to see it as a visitor from the Dog Star, let us have our fun. And for pity's sake, don't call a lenticularis a "lennie." Please.--- J. J. Whaley
Viruses vs. Superbugs
A Solution to the Antibiotics Crisis?
(Macmillan)When you go to the hospital, you don't just go in to get operated on, to be sick, or to die. You get infected with superbugs. According to Häusler, "Between 5 and 10 per cent of all patients treated in a hospital are infected there, often with resistant bugs."
In the US, an estimated 2 million people are affected per year, 90,000 of whom die.
These are, he tells us, figures from twenty years ago. It is worse now.
And it just isn't hospital infection. Hygiene in hospitals is so bad that --- in a study of 25 hospitals conducted by the University Munich --- a high percentage of endoscopes were found to be contaminated by bacteria. (Endoscopes are those ugly black hoses they use to check out your digestive system).
Even after participants were made aware of this, a second check revealed a contamination rate of 40 per cent.
We are victims of bacteria that reproduce like rabbits and are constantly building defenses against the new antibiotics coming off the assembly line. In fact, the assembly line is drying up: the author reports that the profit margins on antibiotics are going down, so that a very small percentage of R&D dollars are being spent on new anti-bacterials.
Where do we go from here? Evidently the place to be is Georgia. No, not the Georgia of peaches and pecan pie, but the other one, the part of the old Soviet Union. In Tbilisi, doctors have been conducting "phage therapy" for over a half a century. Viruses are being trained like dogs in a hunting school to sniff out offending bacteria and eat them up. Häusler tells of people whose feet or arms or legs are being eaten away, people who cannot be cured by the old-line antibacterials, and these people get themselves somehow to deepest Georgia, making contact with this shabby phage institute (funding no longer available from the Soviet government, surviving on the good-will of the doctors and researchers) and getting cured in short order.
It is an interesting story, but for this reader, the most compelling (and the one we liked the least) was the tale of how you and I may regret, forever, going into your local hospital for a simple procedure, and ending up with, urk, one of these bacteria that just will not go away, that starts munching away at your very body parts, won't disappear, like a virus should, but instead begins to consume the innocent and the unsuspecting.--- Francis Benjamin[ANOTHER PARADOX-OF-THE MONTH]Nick Mooney, the Parks and Wildlife biologist who is regarded as a foremost authority on Tasmanian Devils and Thylacines, once listed the unusual items he had found in devil scat:
Part of a woolen sock; a wallaby foot complete with snare; part of a dog or cat collar; 27 whole echidna quills; stock car lags and rubber lamb "docking" rings; head of a tiger snake; aluminium foil; plastic and Styrofoam; ring off a bird's leg; half a pencil; leather jacket (fish) spine; boobook owl foot; cigarette butt; part of a "steelo" pot scraper.--- From Review of The Tasmanian Devil
Published by the Natural History Museum
Quoted in the TLS 28 July 2006[WHERE WE'RE AT]This hard-copy version of RALPH comes out two or five (or a dozen or so) times a year --- mostly in the late spring, summer, and early fall --- depending on contributions from our readers and the whereabouts of our peripatetic editors.
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