R A L P H
The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities
Volume Eight, Number Twelve
Late Summer 2002
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RALPH: The Review of Arts, Literature,
Philosophy, and the Humanities
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Doctors and Discoveries
Lives that Created Today's Medicine
John Galbraith Simmons
So we'll drink we'll drink we'll drink to Lydia Pinkham,
Savior of the human race,
She invented a Vegetable Compound,
Efficacious in every way.
Now Mrs. Jones, she had her problems:
Couldn't hardly take a pee ---
So she drank she drank she drank six bottles of Compound,
Now they pipes her to the sea.
In Doctors and Discoveries, Simmons has come up with 100 or so figures out of the past and present who influenced or are continuing to influence modern medicine. They range in chronology from Hippocrates, Celsus and Galen to Macfarlane Burnet (immune system theory), Raymond Damadian (MRI), Bert Vogelstein (cancer), and Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier (AIDS).
Each of the individuals gets four or five pages --- date and place of birth, names of parents, chronology, and a brief discussion of what they did and how they did it and why it is important for today's medical practice. But, given its dowdy nature, this is not a book you would leave on your bedtable to nibble on each evening unless you wanted something to put you to sleep.
The style is stolid, the facts predictable, those chosen for inclusion --- at least those before the twentieth century --- are, in most cases, to be expected: William Harvey, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, Joseph Lister, Florence Nightingale. Harvey Cushing, the famous WWI brain surgeon appears, along with a rather droll anecdote about one of his lesser operations. In the midst of it, he inadvertently tore open one of the cranial arteries --- always fatal. The patient was still conscious and chanced to ask him how it was going, and Cushing replied, "You must not worry now. In a very few minutes you are going to feel better."
Once we pass 1900, some of those listed seem a bit odd, especially in the world of psychiatry. Freud appears, but not Jung. There's a section devoted to Melanie Klein whose theories about the psychology of children were somewhat strange (she had the audacity to analyze her own son; in later life, she fought bitterly with her daughter, also a psychoanalyst.) There is no mention of the beginnings of group therapy, nor the startling works on family therapy by Jay Haley, Milton Erickson, and Mara Selva Palazzoli.
Even more bizarre is the section --- listed pretentiously as Omnium-Gatherum --- which includes Daniel David Palmer (Chiropractic, "magnetic healer"), Samuel Hahnemann (father of Homeopathy) and Paul de Kruif --- the latter who did nothing more noteworthy in the field than write a maudlin page-turner called The Microbe Hunters one that gripped most of us when we were just entering the age of reason. (Sinclair Lewis might equally well have been listed for his dramatic Arrowsmith: who of us so many years ago were not moved to tears as the honest, self-sacrificing doctor picked up his fatal last cigarette?)
§ § §
Well, nothing lost. This volume has the smell of the first year college science class all over it. We certainly should be complimenting Simmons for the inclusion of Lydia Pinkham (1819 - 1883). Her world-famous Vegetable Compound was a sure cure for "All Weaknesses of the generative organs of either sex...and for all the diseases of the Kidneys it is the Greatest Remedy in the world."
Whatever it contained, it inspired not only many imitators and much prosperity for her heirs, but helped to inspire a lascivious song that, before he gave up strong drink, my now-austere lawyer brother used to sing at family get-togethers:
Now Mrs. Brown, she had her problems,
Couldn't satisfy at all;
So she drank she drank she drank six bottles of Compound ---
Now she takes them...balls and all.
So we'll drink we'll drink we'll drink to Lydia Pinkham
Savior of the human race
She invented a Vegetable Compound
Efficacious in every way.--- L. W. Milam
The Death of Sweet Mister
(Putnam)There's ex-con Red who craves uppers and downers --- what he calls "yellowjackets," "reds," and "punch." He likes beating up on people, too, especially his lady and her plump son. His friend Basil likes uppers, downers, and, like Red, gin and beer.
Red's lady is Glenda --- she's thirty-something, and is nipping on her own booze all day. She maintains the town graveyard, and her son, Shug, is tellling the story of their lives. Shug is thirteen.
Red calls him "fat boy." When Red wants uppers and downers, he drives him around town to sneak into doctor's offices. He also leaves him off at houses where people are sick and dying of cancer and have lots of pills. Shug pretends to be selling "Grit" and once he gets in the door, he fills up the magazine bag with the pills, all the while talking up "Grit."
This takes place in Ozark country, and the dialogue is filled with countryisms. When he's cold, Shug says, "I guess my arms did shiver and pull." About his parentage, he says,
This fella the Baron was a fella of legend Glenda came to know, or so I got told, at some stretch of time when Red did not stand at her side twisting her arm. She never said that man was my actual founding daddy, but pounded it at me that I carried his front name, which I did not care for and was Morris.
When Shug and his mother cuddle together, and they do, often, he says, "But I did see she smiled." When Red goes into a temper-tantrum, he pounds on Shug and Glenda, and after they are lying on the floor of the graveyard house, bruised and bleeding, Shug says, "I hated him solid that night."
Unfortunately, Glenda gets a hankering for a cook by the name of Jimmy Vin and when Jimmy and Red cross paths, there is a battle royal. We don't get to see the fight, but we do see the house afterward as Shug is cleaning it up:
Somebody bleeding had whirled and whirled in the kitchen. Dishes had crashed about and made a mess. The blood had whirled odd spots and streaks onto the stove, the walls, the floor, the ceiling.
§ § §
This is knockabout stuff, and it's expertly played. It's hard to like any of the characters, and yet the story drags us along with it in its gory Tobacco Road/
Sanctuaryfashion. There are the overtones --- the Black Angel in the graveyard; the hints of lust between thirteen-year-old Shug and the woman he sees as most lovely and protective. Woodrell plays them (and the reader) like a mountain dulcimer and after awhile you stop fighting the down-home awfulness of their miserable lives and get caught up in the drama of mother and son finally getting rid of the others, no more distractions, and as we used to say, "Well, perhaps they're right; perhaps incest is best," there in the graveyard, under the dark wings of the Black Angel, where
I stroked her legs all up and down. She did not move. I couldn't see a thing except a total blur of light. She did not move as my hands stroked higher.--- Susan RodebackerThe Compact Peters World Atlas
The Earth in True Proportion
Kümmerly & Bern
(Hammond)Remember the Mercantor Projection? All those softly rounded countries: bulging West Africa, lardlike Brazil, pregnant China, fat California, squat Australia. That was what we grew up with --- countries chubby and cuddly like Santa Claus.
Well --- it was wrong. Arno Peters says it was "the embodiment of Europe's geographical conception of the world in an age of colonialism." Furthermore, Terry Hardaker of the Oxford Cartographers opines that it was "the equivalent of peering at Europe and North America through a magnifying glass and then surveying the rest of the world through the wrong end of a telescope." Thus the new Peters Projection.
In this "compact" Atlas, we are given the world in 43 maps, and a fascinating assemblage of almost 250 thematic maps: Urbanization, World Trade, Religions, Sun and Climate, Fishing, Mineral Resources, Poor Nations/Rich Nations. There is one whole section devoted to Unemployment. If you want a job, you don't want to be in Mongolia, Libya, Algeria, the Ukraine, and the former Yugoslavia. Child Labor? The least "per thousand head of population" are Canada, Australia, the USA, the Ukraine, Libya, Kazakstan.
Prostitution? It's a full house (if not a home) in South Korea, the Philippines, Brazil, Russia, and the central West coast of Africa. Polygamy? Permitted in most of Africa, India, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Burma.
Want to hunt roe deer? Go to Russia, China and Europe. There's jackal in Africa and India and Yugoslavia, and opossum in the U.S.A., South and Central America, Australia, and the Fiji Islands. Have you ever had 'possum stew? Awful.
Where are there more newspapers per 1,000 population? Japan and Norway. Where is the most illiteracy in the world? Nigeria and Angola. Where is the least? Russia, the former USSR countries, Poland, and Australia.
The best teacher/pupil ratio? Russia, Greenland, Libya, and Mauritania. Definitely not New York nor Mississippi. Which language is spoken by more people as mother tongue? #1: Chinese. #2: Spanish. #3: English. #4? I'm not going to tell you.
§ § §
This one is just chock-a-
block full of facts, but I still miss the round soft langorous curves of my beloved Mercantor, that worked so well with the doodlings of my child imagination back there so many score years ago. My mother had the bright idea of wall-papering my bedroom with world maps. As I studied it in the mornings, Norway and Sweden looked to be a wild beast bearing down to eat up Denmark, Italy appeared as if it was going to kick Sicily into Spain's backside, and Florida looked like some obscene thing hanging down, all those keys like drippings. Mexico had an erection, and Japan was a crusty sea creature, hanging off the balloon of China.
The Peters projection has foreshortened these fantasy pictures. South America and Africa and India (and even Florida) are droopy and famished, Russia and Alaska and Greenland so flattened out that they look like a squashed Michelin Man. It's the price we pay for the truth. Language #4, by the way, is Bengali. #5? Hindi. And the most popular religion in the world? It's an obscure one. It's known as "No religion." 43%.--- W. A. Wellington
I get it now --- you're people who've been turned down for grants or been rejected by what you perceive to be mainstream magazines (how can there be mainstream poetry in a country where nobody reads poetry I do not know). But what will you do when one of you does get a grant, or has a poem accepted by The New Yorker (the horror!)?
A certain paranoid grouchiness on the part of your editor leads me to suspect that this is a political/
financial rather than purely aesthetic matter, and so I'd like to inform you that --- partly as a direct result of my own devotion to poetry --- I have spent my entire adult life in a condition of direst and near-dire poverty, in spite of a few awards and grants and numerous publications, and have never been a part of the academic creative writing establishment.
This is why I was puzzled (if somewhat flattered as well) when I was singled out. I think you ought to pick somebody who deserves it, if you can find such a person among published American poets --- I suppose they exist, though I don't think anyone takes them very seriously.
Anyway, best wishes & good luck. Poetry is written in solitude and discovered in solitude --- what else is there?
--- Franz Wright
email@example.comThe original review can be found at
Learning to Fall
The Blessings of
An Imperfect Life
(Bantam)When Philip Simmons was thirty-five years old, he was diagnosed with ALS --- Lou Gehrig's disease. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a tough one, and it doesn't happen all at once. Nerves degenerate over a period of months or years, the power of the muscles in arms and shoulders and legs and torso slowly disappear, and, too, speech begins to go. As Simmons says, "I fear the day when I will be unable to lift a spoonful of lime Jell-O to my lips."
He is also dying: Lou Gehrig's disease is fatal. 50% die within the first three years, 30% more ten years after diagnosis --- some may live as long as thirty years, but it's rare. Simmons reasons, "Life...is a terminal condition. At some point we all confront the fact that each of us, each individual soul is, as the poet William Butler Yeats says, 'fastened to a dying animal.'"
Before ALS came down, Simmons had a rich life. He was thirty-five years old at the time of diagnosis. He played the piano and guitar. He gradually rebuilt his "unfinished house." He climbed the mountains of his beloved New England. He wrote and published fiction and essays. He taught college English, was an editor in the Unitarian Universalist Association.
So --- how does he deal with it? He tells us that he is trying to get good at "doing nothing,"
to spend part of each morning in my wheelchair looking out across the lawn, over the stone wall and across acres of meadow to where Red Hill rises over the forest.
Since Learning to Fall was written over a three-year period, the reader gets to share new losses: the day he falls down walking with his daughter on a path; learning to use a wheelchair; the time when he can no longer use the keyboard on his computer. And sitting, sitting and thinking about what must be done around the house:
I'm thinking about the pile of loam in my yard that somebody has got to do something with; I'm thinking that if so-and-so doesn't show up with his tractor soon and start mowing, that field is going to go entirely to goldenrod; I'm thinking of screens to be put up and windows to be washed; I'm thinking that none of these things am I able to do myself.
Sitting in his wheelchair, thinking this-must-
be-done. With the heart-breaking corollary: This is something I will never be able to do again. A way of thinking that can easily turn to brooding, to grief, to self-pity. § § §
Learning to Fall is an intriguing book. It is an exact anatomy of loss: a good man who loses not only his body, but his previous --- and rich --- way of life. Because he manages to find hope in his situation, the book turns into a spiritual treatise, riding on the duel questions: why would God create such a trauma; and how one man can deal with such a trauma without going under?
Despair is hinted at --- but never allowed to get the upper hand. Simmons says it is all a matter of "learning to fall."
It is born out of a paradox: that we deal most fruitfully with loss by accepting the fact that we will one day lose everything. When we learn to fall, we learn that only by letting go our grip on all that we ordinarily find most precious --- our achievements, our plans, our loved ones, our very selves --- can we find, ultimately, the most profound freedom. In the act of letting go of our lives, we return more fully to them.
Author Simmons is obviously someone we'd want to know --- smart, writerly, and open-minded. He's also someone who got a terrible draw of the cards. Still, as I read and re-read his words, I kept feeling that there was something awry. It may have something to do with the implied premise that there is a God in Heaven and that he sends down bad things to teach us to be good. The plague, boils, ALS, terrible sickness, decay, aging --- all these serve a higher purpose: to bring us closer to the divine.
Simmons denies this, says, "Rhyme and reason, after all, are human values, not divine ones." But then, "Thank God for the sunset pink clouds over Red Hill," he says, "but also for the mosquitoes I must fan from my face while watching the clouds. To thank God for broken bones and broken hearts, for everything that opens us to the mystery of our humanness."
Now I'm never one to fault another man's divine. We have to cling to whatever life raft they leave behind in the icy waters when the boat goes down. But this old Testament stuff does try one's patience. Largely, I believe, because it has the faintest aroma of pollyanna.
I think the fault of all this lies not with the divine, but with the syllogism. Simply stated, Simmons' premise is,
- I have [a disease, a woe, a travail].
- Thus I am suffering.
- We are all going to suffer sometime.
- This suffering has a purpose, because
- Suffering is part of the handiwork of the divine to teach us grace, or, better --- how to fall with grace.
I should like to put forth what might be a more user-
- I have [a disease, a woe, a travail].
- I am suffering but this suffering probably doesn't mean squat.
- It will not make me wiser or nicer or more humane or more wonderful.
- Nor does it have to make me more bitter, wrathful, depressed, or suicidal.
- Also, we can't blame all this on the divine: the divine don't work that way.
- He (or she or it) may have set the whole merry-go-round in motion, but he (or she or it) is not involved in our day-to-day.
- Especially with questions of pain, misery, suffering, and death. (As John Cage said, they're there "merely to thicken the broth.")
§ § §
Despite his training in Eastern religion, Simmon's concept of the divine comes across as traditional. One of his later chapters treats, at length, the historical as well as the spiritual Jesus; and his conclusions lead one to believe that he has a great deal invested in the western version of the harsh-
but- just God.
The contrary view is, to many of us, more satisfying. The divine isn't circling around out there trying to figure out how to get you and me to mind our p's and q's. Zoroaster, Confucius, Joseph Smith, Mohammed, and Jesus Christ were not appointed by God to come down here to get us to better tend the earthly potato-patch. Above all, the divine did not send down his only begotten son just so you and I would be forced to put up with the likes of the Mormon Elders, Pat Robertson, John Ashcroft, Benny Hinn (if not Benny Hill), Jerry Falwell, and Rod Parsley and his bunch. (And, despite the oft-repeated popular song, God has, as of yet, showed little interest in blessing America.)
§ § §
There are strong hints that we're constructed out of the same leavings as the divine; still humans will continue to do foolish and hurtful things (robbing, raping, bedevilling the very old, starting wars --- in the name of God --- so we can trash the very young). Too, despite explicit messages in the Bible, Alcoran, the Vedas, the Dhammapada, the Bhagavad Gita and the Adigranth, people will continue to make wars and DDT and ICBMs and AK-47s and landmines, at the same time as they are making love and babies and acts of supreme goodness and openhearted charity.
Good people will go poor and starve; good people will also get rich and be generous with those who don't have. Bad people will get super rich and continue to rob the have-nots. Bad people will also get cancer or TB or AIDs and suffer and die horribly.
Beautiful sweet children will grow up to live through war, rapine, starvation and injustice; beautiful sweet children will also grow up happy and inherit great fortunes (of kindness, of money). Ugly brutish children will grow up and be fabulously wealthy and develop cluster bombs; ugly brutish children will also contract palsy, end up in the gutter, die horrible deaths in fires, explosions, flaming wrecks, and earthquakes.
It's all part of the dance. Great joy and great suffering will fall a will-o'-the-
wisp on all without warning, probably without meaning. To try to pin this stuff on the divine is false advertising. In truth, the divine has other fish to fry, certainly hasn't the time to mete out painful lessons to you or me or bad people or terrorists or world corporate greedyheads or eco-destructives or pious millionaires.
He and/or she and/or it set the whole business in motion but then they've moved on, leaving behind a little talisman: a snippet of the godhead. If we choose to access it, fine. If not, it's our problem --- not theirs.
For no matter what we do --- whether we ignore it or fight it or worship it or run roughshod over it --- that little wisp of holiness is going to keep on bobbing around inside of us. It has different names in different parts in the world and even among members of the same tribe, clan, cult, or culture. Some call it soul, some call the divine within, some the holy spirit, some the spark, some the fire. Whatever name you put on it, it's just the same: a sage and subtle presence inside all of us, deep in the hearts of you and me and the saints and the good folk, as well as the con-men, rapists, murderers, politicians, and fundamentalist preachers.
If we choose to tune in on its particular frequency (a quiet series of almost inaudible, staggeringly beautiful chords) it will tell us all that we need to know. No Bibles, Torahs, Korans, or buried golden tablets need apply.
§ § §
I suspect that Simmons hasn't quite figured this out yet. He's on the right path --- he does manage to squeeze Rumi and the Buddha and the transcendentalists into Learning to Fall. But he also seems to be hung up on the mythical Jesus and a "God" and all those English Major prophets: Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Edmund Burke, Thomas Merton.
The doctors have told him that his time is nigh, but I am hoping that he will be around for a whole lot longer. Not only because he is a good guy (and all of us hate seeing good guys being shut down forever) but also because if he does stay with us for awhile, there is a good chance that he will get it ... That suffering isn't sent around like some ill-tempered 5th grade school marm to make us miserable so we'll behave and believe.
Suffering is all about us --- always has been, always will be. What you and I do with it is certainly important to us and those around us --- but, in the long run, it makes no difference. Because suffering (no matter how ghastly) is just another part of the dance.
And if we don't pick up on this specific message that they're sending us from over there, from the far dark valley --- if we don't get it this time, I promise you --- after they salt us away, we'll have to come back again , rising up over the hill yet again --- forced to work it out for ourselves. All over again. And again. And again.--- R. J. Risley
The Desert Smells Like Rain
A Naturalist in
Gary Paul Nabhan
(University of Arizona)The O'odham --- also known as the Papago Indians --- live in the Sonoran Desert, in a large area that straddles the United States - Mexico border. They have lived there since time immemorial, and show a profound knowledge of soil and weather and survival, and an affection for the creatures who share the world with them.
What interests Gary Nabhan is how humans who live in one of the most blighted corners of the earth could sustain themselves, now as well as before the arrival of the Spaniards. The Desert Smells like Rain is his study of the O'odham --- using scientific tools and, most importantly of all, living with them, learning their language, studying their legends, eating with them, going to their fiestas, passing time with the young and old alike. For instance his chapter on the coyote --- "Plants Which Coyote Steals, Spoils, and Shits On" --- treats of the many legends about Coyote (as opposed to the generic coyote):
I had a whole notebook full of stories....The old stories. How, after the Flood, Elder Brother let Coyote help him make a new batch of people to start the world over again. Coyote fooled around and made a bunch of misshapen creatures, with eyes on their knees, with only one leg, or with their sexual organs in the wrong places. Elder Brother just had to throw them away, far across the ocean.
He says that he also collected the more lurid tales, too:
Like the time he [Coyote] volunteered to carry a pretty girl across a river, but told her to throw her skirts up over her eyes so that they wouldn't get wet. Pretending to help her across, he helped her get pregnant instead.
He describes the different words used for "coyote." The original one is ban, so there is banma --- one who is greedy --- and banmakam, a glutton. Nicknames: ban'i kuad --- "Coyote peeked in." S-banow --- one who "stinks like a coyote."
Nabhan reports that his notebook with all these stories once disappeared, but then, walking near the village Ban Dak --- "Where Coyote Sat Down" --- he spied, in a ditch filled with floodwater
floating in a pond, was a notebook that looked familiar to me, except it had pawprints smudging the pages, and whole sections ripped out by the teeth.
"You have to watch what you say about this one they call Coyote," he concludes.
It is obvious that Nabhan --- note the spelling of the last part of his name --- has great respect and affection for the O'odham and their desert. He knows how to write about them with felicity, blending scientific studies with examinations of the agricultural techniques of the Papago. He reports with sorrow the tragic loss of one of the great oasis of the Southwest deserts, the "A'al Waipa" at the hands of the United States Park Service. It was decimated by the forcible eviction of the Indians:
Without the soil disturbance associated with plowing and flood irrigation, the natural foods for birds and rodents no longer germinate.
Thus, a unilateral decision by the Park Service to bring an oases back to its "primitive, unspoiled" state was what, ironically, ruined it, and drove away the wildlife that once populated it.--- A. J. Dangerfield
The Little Girl Who Was
Too Fond of Matches
(Arcade)The Soissons family lives outside of town in a run-down farm house. The father does not allow his two boys to visit the village, but then one day he up and dies. The two decide that they need a coffin, so the one they call "Brother" --- the narrator --- takes the horse into town to haul one back.
But trouble --- Brother has never met with or spoken to people anywhere outside of the family, and his language is a bit off-the-
wall. In addition, on this particular day, the people in the town are gathered together in the church for a funeral --- another funeral. Brother, not knowing any better, goes in, marches right down the aisle with horse behind him, thinking of stealing --- or buying --- the coffin for father.
The local police-chief takes him to his office, and Brother says this about his late father, "We found him hanging this morning at the end of a rope that he was clinging to like one man without a by-your-
"You said, 'We found him.' Who is we?"
"Papa has two sons," I said. "Me and my brother."
They drew back their necks in stupefaction the way pigeons do when they walk, they gazed at me as if I'd said something outrageous, just to try to understand them, my contemporaries and friends. The officer moved his hand as if to say, we'll come back to that later, and he asked me:
"What about your mama? Isn't there a mother living with you?"
"There have never been any sluts in our house," I said.
§ § §
It's hard to convey the strangeness of The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches. I started it, almost dropped it around page 25 --- but something in the weirdness of it kept me going on, so I got into it, got into it too much, got into it so much that I didn't want to stop --- and once I reached the end, I turned around and read it again.
Soucy is able to plant clues, drop hints, lay the webs and traps in place so that at one point, I am saying (you will be saying) --- "Oh, no..." and then, later --- "Don't let it happen..." and then, finally, "Ah so --- now I get it."
It's a Kaspar Hauser book --- we meet a child out of the wilderness, dealt, during her brief life, a strange set of cards. Her father, her only contact with the world, never did explain the difference between boys and girls, so she thinks that she is one of two boys, except, lacking something down there (she figured she had been castrated). She explains all this using her father's neo-Biblical vocabulary.
By using his words, we get a wonderfully distorted picture, through her, of a very strange man. All women are "sluts" or "blessed virgins." Breasts are called "inflations." Male private parts are referred to as "attributions." Time is counted in "moons," and the house is "our earthly abode." She thinks with her "bonnet," and when she and her brother are to be punished, they are "given whacks." She is a "secretarious," a writer.
This strange vocabulary is of a piece, and it matches their strange circumstances: a boy and a girl raised by one so savaged by the world that he would never let them have contact with it. In addition, down in a nearby vault, he keeps something referred to as the "Fair Punishment." Or rather two somethings --- one dead, one alive and... and... no... I'm not going to tell you what gives. You have to go out and get this one, find out for yourself.
Soucy has created a hothouse world which gradually, exquisitely unveils itself to us. The narrator is a modern day Ishi: an otherworldly, untaught girl, talking to us (to her diary) in the first person. We soon enough accept Alice's language (we find on the last page that her name is Alice) for in the rightness of it, and the poetry of it. This is Alice visiting a decayed ballroom on the upper floors of the decayed mansion:
The aforementioned murmur began to rise, and it was a murmur of murmuring, of scraps of remote laughter, of rustling silk, of fans that opened with a twitch of the wrist, of the dreams of birds as they rub their wings against the prison bars.
Our narrator, this unlettered Emily Dickinson, is pregnant with her brother's baby (he "topped" her), and she tells us, near the end, the circumstances of the death of the one person who could have rescued her from this nightmare,
I had lost my innocence about all things. I had understood definitively that our dreams come down to earth just long enough to thumb their nose at us, leaving a taste on our tongues like blood-clot jam, and I picked up my book of spells just like that, in the middle of the field, and my pencil followed like the day the night, because a secretarious, a real one, never shrinks from the duty of giving a name to things, that's his role, and I thought I'd already been disarmed enough by life that I didn't wish to deprive myself further, in the manner of franciscans and soft-eyed mules, and to go so far as to divest myself of my dolls of ash. I mean words, so true is it that we are bereft of everything we know not how to name, as the Fair Punishment would put it, if she knew how to speak.--- Lolita Lark
The Voice of the Poet:
J. D. McClatchy
(Random House Audio)Wallace Stevens was one of those poets we English Majors always heard about but never got around to reading. In the moil of 20th Century American/English poetry, what with T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence and e. e. cummings and Ezra Pound there just didn't seem to be enough time. So it was with pleasure that I took this disk that Random House Audio sent and put it on the car stereo so I could drive home from work with the windows up and the air-conditioning going and Stevens and his quasi-neo English-accented voice (poets and announcers and English teachers all talked like that sixty years ago) reading his works.
After a little bit I came to stop-light and as Stevens and I were dreaming along about happy people in an unhappy world and unhappy people in a happy world and, perhaps in bliss, my foot slipped off the brake and I did a little collateral damage to the truck in front of me. Leaving "the metaphysical treats of the physical" and the motor running, I met nervously with a burly fellow in the Black Darth Vadermobile in front and I must say he was quite good about it all, quite understanding when I told him about the happy people in a happy world, and thus, instead of one of those dreadful insurance company claims what with the police and everything he agreed to take a few loose twenty-dollar bills off my hands that I wasn't using anyway.
So I got back in the car and drove off and bless me --- it was a half-an-hour or so before I discovered that Wallace was still there muttering on about "Danes in Denmark" and "trumpets of the morning" and "the music summoned by birth."
§ § §
I am reluctant to tell you, as you will think I am some kind of what we used to call a "prole," but I have to confess to you that in listening to Stevens perhaps I am listening to one of the great unsung masters of American verse --- but maybe I am listening to nonsense.
Am I dense or is he putting us on? --- this well-dressed man who spent all his life head of the claims department for Hartford Accident and Indemnity. I can see him now, in his Brooks Brothers suit, striding up the streets of Hartford --- or was it New Haven? --- full up in his brown study, thinking, mouthing the words so when he gets to his neat office on the 19th Floor he can hitch up, sit down, and dictate his poems to his secretary (swearing her to secrecy, they don't care much for iambs there at Hartford A & I) --- and then after a few months, he has Miss Potts (that's her name) collect them together and he labels them and sends them out to his publisher. He did this patiently, regularly --- for twenty-five years.
There may be always a time of innocence.
There is never a place. Or if there is not time,
If it is not a thing of time, nor of place,
Existing in the idea of it, alone,
In the sense against calamity, it is not
he writes, and I think, "What?" or, "Huh?" --- or maybe, "Say who?"
What is going on here? His voice is regular, a pleasing baritone --- but what in god's name is he trying to tell us? After the fifth or sixth "the grandiose gesture of her thoughts" or "the form gulping after formlessness," the words turn what's left of my brain into a regular peach cobbler.
The poem of pure reality, untouched
By trope or deviation, straight to the word,
Straight to the transfixing object, to the object
At the exactest point at which it is itself,
Transfixing by being purely what it is,
A view of New Haven, say...
A view of New Haven, you say? How about Trenton? Or Dallas, or Burbank? Mama mia!
The best we can figure is that Stevens, up to his ears in claims for the Hartford (and you know how warm the people who work in claims) would take a few moments away from the letters pouring in ("I-was-robbed" ... "I-was-beaten" ... "I-am-dying") a little respite from the rub-a-dub worries --- and while doing so, let these words gambol from his lips. Miss Potts would dutifully scribble them down and he would chop them into bite-sized lines and voila! --- there was another swatch he could stick titles on: "Fabliau of Florida," "Bantams in Pine-Woods," "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour" --- and all the grobians out there would say, "Aha! Another book by Wallace Stevens," and they would snap it up so they could take it home and set it up there on the bookshelf and visitors would come and say, "Quite interesting collection of poetry books you have there," and they would say, "Oh yes --- look, there's Wallace Steven's new book, and I do love Stevens, don't you?"
§ § §
In the excellent introduction to this volume (probably the best part), J. D. McClatchy tells us that once Stevens got into a drunken brawl with Ernest Hemingway in a bar, in Key West, breaking a few bones in his hand --- poets were so much more snippish, more fighterly back then --- and at another time there was this bit of sniping that went on between Stevens and Robert Frost:
Stevens: The trouble with you is that you write about things.
Frost: The trouble with you is that you write about bric-a-brac.
Amen.--- A. W. Allworthy
[PARADOX OF THE MONTH]
There was once a great Chinese man of Zen named Chao-chou. When Chao-chou was fifty years old, his master, Nan-ch'uan, died. After three years of mourning, Chao-chou, at age sixty, set out on a twenty-one-year-long pilgrimage that took him throughout China. At the age of eighty, the extraordinary Zen master Chao-chou settled in a temple called Kuan-yin-yuan, where he guided monks and lay persons in the Dharma until his death at one hundred and twenty years of age. One day a monk in training came to Chao-chou's temple and inquired, "What is the most solid, most unbreakable thing in this world?"
Chao-chou replied, "If you feel like insulting me, go right ahead and insult me as you please. If your initial insults do not suffice, pour on still more abuse. if you want to spit on me, go right ahead and spit to your heart's content. If spitting isn't enough, go and dip up some muddy water and slosh that on me as well."--- From Novice to Master
©2002, Wisdom Publications
Raw Meat Speed BumpsThere is a new Mexican national pastime, almost as popular as bullfighting and soccer. It is sitting in a motionless car on the Mexican City freeway with the motor running, breathing in great quantities of life-giving smog and wishing you were in someplace nice. Like Los Angeles. Or Donora, Pennsylvania.
The population of Mexico City they tell us is in excess of 20,000,000 give or take a few million. The auto population of Mexico City is probably the same because every family has a car, a wreck, or at least a few car parts parked out on the street in front of the house.
Because of the population boom, the state of the roads, and my record with trailers --- getting lost with them, running off the road with them, losing them and my temper simultaneously --- I thought it better not to drive through the city with my new antique 1960 trailer in tow. But then I reasoned that if I got on the road early on a Sunday morning, I could avoid most of the traffic.
So on Saturday night, we stayed in a near-by garbage-bag of a city called Toluca, a few miles to the west of the capital. At five AM, we were up and on our way into the city. At six, we hit the Mexico City limits. At 6:05 I had taken a wrong exit off the freeway, and me, the car, my trailer and my companion Jesús were lost in a maze of scenic, tiny streets left over from the days of Cuauhtémoc.
After consulting a map --- and the entrails of a cat I had mushed while it was sleeping peacefully on a side street --- we had made it back to the Perferico, the main freeway around the city, by seven-thirty. We drove along for a half an hour or so, and then I saw a sign I thought said "Acapulco" so I turned off and we ended up in one of the serpentine dead-end streets that make up the bulk of the Campus of the Autonomous University of Mexico.
I stopped the car and did the weeping-head-
on-the- steering- wheel routine and told Jesús that I was too old to be driving anymore, much less through the wastelands of the Autonomous University of Mexico City, and that I should have been buried alive on the day I got my first driving license. I told him I was now resigning, and that if he didn't want to take over, he could just shoot me --- a horse no longer fit for pasture, much less able to find his way home.
Fortunately Jesús has seen this shoot-me-
if-you- must routine before, so he got out and promptly found a taxi-driver who told us how to escape. He assured us that we were right next to the Periferico: Take that street over there, go left then go right. You'll then be on your way to Acapulco.
As usual, I didn't see the second right until we were well past it. Jesús told me I had missed it. I said no problem. I put the car in reverse and backed the trailer into a fireplug. Fortunately the water was shut off that day, and after a bit of pounding with a wrench, Jesus was able to get the trailer back more or less unbent and, sweet mother of god, we promptly ended up on the Perferico at its final turn-off to Acapulco.
Unfortunately, in my brief tête-à-tête with the fire hydrant, I had fucked up what is scientifically called the doohickey that's fitted to the bottom of the trailer to keep water out of it during rainstorms or in crossing the Missouri River. Jesús had tried to tie this splash-plate back in place, but was unable to cinch it down tightly because I had also warped the mainframe which had, in turn, swallowed the rototiller.
Thus every hour or so, the plate began to drag up against the back tire, generating vast amounts of smoke, so we had to stop the car and Jesús would go back and tighten it up and say some prayers to the Virgin of Guadalupe asking that, at the end of this particular journey, he would never have to travel with this lunchhead ever again.
In the Mexico countryside they don't have enough policemen to patrol the highways and take bribes at the same time so they put in "topes" --- speed bumps (also known as Silent Policemen). They are set up so that if you hit them at any speed in excess of five mph, they jerk the car upwards, destroying the suspension and permanently damaging the driver's brain/motor function. Over the last few years, they have installed 200 such topes between Acapulco and Puerto Perdido.
The trailer was an antique when we started, and it aged considerably --- as did the chauffeur --- over the next few hours. The bent frame and droopy splash plate made considerable noise in any event and when we crossed over a tope, it got raucous enough to bring the gentry running. It got so bad when we reached the village of Manialtepec that I sent Jesus back yet again to see what was wrong.
"Era pesado," he said when he returned. It was weighted down. "Por eso, hacía mucho ruido." That was why it was making so much noise.
What do you mean, weighted down?
He explained that when we went through the town of Las Puchas there was a dead dog on the highway, so the splash-plate, facing forward, worked as a scoop and picked up a dogsbody. As we dragged our load down the highway, our impromptu scoop got so hot that it fried up our little hitchhiker. By the time that Jesús was able to dump it, it had developed a considerable bouquet; it was, he said, "bien cocido" --- well-done.
Strangely enough, the hot dog was the last disaster except for a near head-on with a Mexican bus near Chila and practically being overrun by an army of gringo-eating pigs just outside of San Sebastián. We made it home around midnight, at which time I vowed, letting Jesús I and Jesús II be my witnesses, that I would never travel through Mexico hauling a goddamn trailer ever again.
The next day, I told the story of our adventures to a Mexican friend of mine, Raúl. As I told my story he began to shake, and had to kept turning away to hide the tears flooding from his eyes. After he had recovered, he told me that in Oaxaca there is a special name for the dogs that sleep in the middle of the roadway and never move fast enough to get out of your way when you zoom into town.
We call them "topes de carne," he said. Raw meat speed-bumps.--- Carlos Amantea
[E-mailed to one of our faithful correspondents]Dear Dr. Phage,
Hello my name is Chris, I've been told that your university buys testicals from willing parties from a price range of 30,000 to 40,000 dollars. Some other students have told me this, and I would like to confirm these statements with you or by someone else.
This only comes to mind as I sure could use the money to pay for my own school as well as help research seeing how I have two and could live with one.
If you could drop a quick letter if this is so and who I would talk to for this procedure.
Thank you for your time,--- Yours faithfully,
Would-be Willy One-Nut
The Instinct Guide to Oral Sex
Ben R. Rogers, Joel Perry
(Alyson)In the publicity sheet that came along with Going Down, under "Advance Praise" from book reviewers, the authors say that
Unfortunately no one would return our phone calls.
(or the books...)
We can understand why. It's no-holds barred disgusting, and impossible to stop reading. We suspect that fellatio itself --- about which, of course, we know nothing --- would be a no brainer. You just do it, right?
According to the authors, no. They go into intimate detail ... stuff you don't want to know about and stuff I'm not going to tell you about position and angle and size and lubricants and, gleek, genital piercings (which can be found on 2% of gay men, they tell us --- and we want to know how they know).
The real interest in Going Down is that amidst all this foreplay and the ridiculous puns --- "Foreskin and Seven Years Age," "The Head of the Class," "Blow His Mind," and "Location, Location, Location" (ten years ago under a table in a crowded T.G.I. Friday's in Charlotte, North Carolina?) --- are the facts. There is for example a short essay (with a repulsive drawing) of how the gag reflex works when you are doing something called "deepthroating" which we always associated with the Nixon White House:
The epiglottis is a flap of cartilage at the very back of your throat in the pharynx that normally rests in a somewhat upright position so air can go from your mouth or nose into your windpipe (trachea) and to your lungs. Or lung, if you've lost one to smoking. Ew. Anyway, when you swallow --- and deep-throating counts as that --- the epiglottis is pushed down to cover the trachea so food (or whatever) is directed toward your esophagus and stomachward. That's why you can't breathe when you're deep throating. Duh.
Then there are the minifacts sprinkled around on every page:
Largest penis in the animal kingdom Blue whale Length of blue whale penis 11 feet An 11-foot stack of pennies is equal to $22.44 Average number of erections per day for a man 11 Average number of erections while sleeping 9 Largest functional human penis recorded 11 inches An 11-inch stack of pennies is equal to $1.87 Average number of sperm per ejaculate 280 million Population of the United States Approximately 280 million Average total lifetime ejaculate Approximately 14 gallons Average speed of ejaculation 23 - 28 mph Estimated number of times a man will ejaculate in his life 7,200
And then there is the list of contents of semen :
Ascorbic acid, blood-group antigens, calcium, cholesterol, choline, citric acid, creatine, DNA, fructose glutathione, hyaluronidase, lactic acid, magnesium, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, purine, pyrimidine, pyruvic acid, sidiom, sorbitol, spermidine, spermine, urea, uric acid, vitamin B-12, and zinc.
which sounds suspiciously like the contents listed on the back of our One-A-Day vitamin pill bottle.
This beastly book, all 133 pages of it, includes a list of where you should "Take the Plunge:"
- Every room in the house.
- Including the basement.
- Including the attic (watch out for that insulation!)
- Someone else's house.
- In the department store dressing room.
- Behind a billboard.
- While he's trying to talk on the phone.
- At the drive-through.
- Inside a tank.
- In the police station.
- In the House.
- In the Senate.
- In the Oval Office.
- Under a Supreme Court justice's robe.
What Rogers and Perry don't bring up (they should be studying their Genet) is that fellation constitutes an act of naked courage. One is placing what most men think of as their most prized possession into an orifice that Gray's Anatomy refers to as the "Temporo-mandibular Region."
At the back of the lower jaw are found some of the most powerful muscles in the human body --- the Masseterm --- which are joined to a bone that holds hard, sharp, and durable incisors. Thus, one is entrusting a highly sensitive instrument of pleasure to what is, in effect, a mandibular guillotine.
To say that this insertion is an act of faith is an understatement. It's passionate, blind, unequivocal faith. A man's most private and prized possession, the membrum vitale, could be quickly severed by a sudden and vicious snap of the teeth. Perhaps this is the source of what the authors claim is the supreme pleasure of it all.
If the authors are looking for a plug for their next press release, the best we can offer is the phrase that, in our mind, applies most succinctly to this thin but flagitious volume.
It's very spunky.
They can quote us on that.--- Patricia Hill, M. D.Ceramic Water Closets
(Shire)The first English language water closet --- that's the fancy word for toilet --- was the Ajax, and was installed in Queen Elizabeth's palace at Richmond. Samuel Pepys had one too, but he called it a privy. It dumped its contents into a cesspool in his basement. Early ones were made of metal, and sometimes responded to the name of "valve closets."Pottery bowls began to be manufactured in the 18th century complete with a stink-trap to trap you-know-
what. In the 19th Century, in England, almost 80,000 people lost their lives to cholera. The Public Health Act of 1848 required every house to have a "Water closet, Privy, or Ashpit." Potters such as Wedgewood, Enoch Wood and Twyford began to make free-standing plumbed-in pottery WCs.
George Jennings got the monopoly on toilets at the Great Exhibition's Crystal Palace, and he charged a penny to use the facilities which meant he cleaned up £1,000 a year. It is said that Queen Victoria used a Unitas WC in 1886 at the Angel Hotel in Doncaster --- but how do they know? In any event, she may not have been amused, but she was pleased: T. W. Twyford was granted a "Royal Warrant of Appointment as Bathroom and Washroom Manufacturer to Her Majesty Queen Victoria's Government." There'll always be an England.
The author tells us that Britain soon became the gold standard for toilets:
Exported around the world, British WCs were acclaimed for their efficiency and quality, with patterns designed to suit local customs and religious needs.
§ § §
Mr. Blair has come up with the ultimate on source book for those who have to know everything there is to know about Water Closets, with a run-down on the history, manufacture, and style --- complete with a Glossary:
Continuous action syphonic: the double-trap pattern, which pulls the bowl's contents throughout the flush.
The glory of this short pamphlet are the pictures. I especially call your attention to the Twyford Twycliffe WC with hand-enamelled raised exterior decoration --- blue and white and rust patterns on the outside; the Shanks Citizen WC with hand-painted exterior --- green and yellow leafy patterns; and the Shanks Junction --- blue and white lilies, fired lotus and grass within.
The 1898 Doulton salt-glaze stoneware wash-out WC looks like a African tribal pygmy worship fetish in the kneeling position. The line drawings are a gas.--- T. W. Thwarp
(Eastern Washington University Press)Joseph Millar is a man who obviously writes out of the stuff of his days, and it ain't the lights reflecting off the gondolas of Venice. It's alimony and child-support and his kid riding over to Safeway "in his death's head earring and mismatched socks," the kid whom he obviously loves and hates, but, he tells us, "We're bound together like sailors, swaying across a dark ocean...a ship with a foreign name..."
There are social workers harassing him, wanting to know why the kid "was alone on New Year's Eve/when the cops came through the door." He frets about losing his job as a lineman and he realizes from the crick in his knees that he is getting old. It's tiresome to put up with his drunken father, a show-off old English Major,
announcing his exile from the common man
in a strange quaint language, silvered with alcohol,
calling the waitress "Charming lass"
like some toss-pot Elizabethan roué...
Millar has even the ability to pull poetry out of the old man poo-pooing his poetry:
He'd insulted my poems as usual
eaten his pork chops and eggs, leering
at the waitress when she brought the Bloody Marys.
Before he got out of the car he'd stuffed two fifties
into the ashtray...
Or there's another, an artful tribute to Keats --- elegantly mixing past and present. The author is driving through Oregon, and he's thinking about his son, and his ex-wife's death, and young Keats in Hampsted --- all while taking in the surroundings:
Its fourteen-year-old grieving his mother's death
has crept behind the teacher's desk to hide
and I can see a blue heron standing, hunched
and solitary near the blackberry canes, keeping watch.
the blossoms that come riding out
once the sap starts to rise in the tree.
He knew how the tall grass darkens and bends,
how the heron croaks through the April rain
and nobody tells what things mean.
§ § §
We ask that poetry grab us and shake us around some. We want to know about love and death and hurt and pain and woe and wonder. We want writers to use all those poetic tricks --- rhythm and endstop and symbols and repetition --- use them to present us with the nuts of life, the anguish and woe and pity and delight of trying to make do in life, in real life ... without a Guggenheim or a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Try to imagine the NEA getting an application from some weirdo out of Brooklyn: "You say you work as a volunteer in military hospitals, reading to the boys. But what is your background --- where were you born, what's your income, you know, how does all this qualify you for a grant from the government.
"You say you have no social security number? Sorry. That is an absolute requirement for a National Endowment grant. And, of course there's our sixteen page application (with Exhibits).
"Here, you can just take it along to you, Mister...what did you say your name was...Whittier? Oh, Whitman. You go ahead and fill it out and send it back and we'll look at it. But you should know we are backed up to here with applications for grants in the poetry division. You understand, I'm sure."--- Lolita Lark
MidlifeShe's slim and seems distracted, the social worker
who visits my apartment, who wants to know
why my ten-year-old was alone New Year's Eve
when the cops came through the door.
His mother was drunk, I say, and I was up north
with my girlfriend who doesn't want any more kids.
Would she like a cup of tea?
We do have some problems here, I know ---
as I forcefeed old newspapers into the trash ---
but hopefully nothing too unseemly,
no disarray that can't be explained.
I want to say I've tried
to find another way to live,
away from the electric metal wires
that whisper to me in the afternoons,
the snake dreams that follow after,
uncoiling slowly in my sleep
and the supermarkets where I go unconscious,
humming to myself and staring, minutes at a time,
at the olives and loaves of bread.
There's not much to show for all this:
four rooms, a dented Olds, tattered pictures
of Che Guevara and Muhammed Ali,
the Sixties with their fire and music
scattered like highway cinders. Does the State
offer therapy for aging single fathers? Is it all right to smoke?
Would she like to step into the back where it's dark
and fuck, standing up amid the laundry?
She smiles vaguely, hands me her card,
says she won't need to return.
Later I think this must be what it is
to get older. My knee hurts getting up
from the couch. Can't work like I used to,
and my chest hairs are turning gray.
I'm angry with my son, now quietly asleep,
for needing help with everything: homework,
breakfast, rinsing the shampoo from his hair;
and sad, as I gather his small raincoat,
the baseball hat saying Surfs Up,
hang them over a chair, and start washing the pot
of day-old spaghetti we ate for dinner.
I listen to Miles with the lights off,
knowing the phone won't ring any more
and too tired to shower. I listen to my breath
leave and return, rain falling
into the cold trackless night,
and the wind in the trees outside
like someone passing.--- From Overtime
© 2001, Eastern Washington University Press
How fitting your email is poo.
Read The Fountainhead some time. You are like that.
I could not believe that review of the Mount Rushmore sculptor.
What's wrong with you?--- Steven E. Romer
firstname.lastname@example.orgThe review in question can be found at
§ § §The Folio is published by The Reginald A Fessenden Educational Fund, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Monies in excess of subscription rates are contributed to various good works, such as the Prison-Ashram Project, the Prison Library Project, and a rehabilitation center for the disabled in Southern Mexico. We also give direct assistance to several Mexican families in the Tijuana area who have been pushed to the edge of financial disaster by recent partial closings of the border. All contributions are tax-deductible by determination of the IRS and the State of California.
We try to put out eight or nine issues of "The Folio" every a year --- but current subscriptions are only paying for half of what it costs to print it and mail it out.
We will thus be cutting back to four or five issues a year unless we get a burst of new contributions.
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